Monday, June 28, 2004

Good News
Obviously, I was born with a dominant bitch-and-moan gene (although "nurture" played a role as well). And blogging is basically a license to whine, which, let's admit, is not really much of a challenge. But why focus on the negative, when good news is all around us? For instance, when President Reagan died, I learned that the 80s weren't dominated by a mentally ill president looking the other way while his team led the nation into despair and unemployment and rampant militarism and covert operations and hundreds of thousands of people suffering and dying from HIV/AIDS (now tens of millions worldwide and, gee, what if we'd gotten a jump on it back in the early days?) and trickle-down fuckonomics and an explosion of homelessness and an outbreak of the "moral majority" and really, really bad music and fashion. I had no idea.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here's some more good news:

A McNugget of wisdom. The kids and I went to see "Super Size Me," the hilarious documentary in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock gives the McToxic's restaurant chain the ass-kicking it so richly deserves. OK, OK, there's not much news in this movie (fast food is unhealthy; there's an obesity epidemic; that clown is seriously disturbing; blah, blah, blah) and I never go to McDonald's unless it's for an emergency pee, but one part of the movie really did surprise me: Spurlock took his cameras to Appleton Central Alternative School in Wisconsin, a school for troubled kids. Many schools (including some in Kentucky) have recently outlawed unhealthy snacks and soft drinks but this school yanked ALL its unhealthy food. Gone are the French fries and sloppy Joes and Pepsi and tater tots and Twinkies and pizza and mystery meat. In their place are whole grains, fresh vegetables and baked entrees. Overnight, there was a noticeable change in behavior. The kids became less aggressive, less hyper, and less likely to jam a fork in a classmate's eyeball. The school's administrators believe the change in diet had a profound impact on the children's behavior. So the benefits of healthy eating can be as significant to human behavior as to human health. What does this say about our culture of war and imprisonment and detention and road rage and workplace violence and highway snipers and "compassionate conservatives" and professional wrestling and Fox and the National Hockey League and Grand Theft Auto and reality television and paintball and Jerry Springer and e-mail viruses and that guy in the next cubicle with that look in his eye that says "If I don't get a McGriddle in the next five minutes, I'm going to come over there and staple your ass cheeks together?" So good news: all we have to do is get six billion people to overcome their addiction to unhealthy food. No problem. (Besides, Super Size Me is really funny and charming and worth seeing. I just really dug that Morgan Spurlock dude and wanted to hang out with him.)

The Immoral Minority. Here's more good news: By 2050, whites are going to be in the minority in this country. That's gonna require some serious changes in the vocabulary, eh?

Brotherly love. The city of Philadelphia joins Bravo and Massachusetts in recognizing
that not only are gay people perfectly fine human beings but they also have money to spend. Good news.

White bread under attack. Just when you thought white bread couldn't possibly wreak more havoc on the universe, comes news that it can. Not only does eating it make you whiter and more boring and more likely to shop at Wal-Mart and drive a Ford Explorer and visit Hooters and decorate your house with Dale Earnhardt paraphernalia and smoke Winston Lights and interpret the bible literally, but it also apparently turns people into itself. Researchers at Tufts University claim that the calories from refined grains tend to gather at the waist, which eventually turns people into loaves of bread: flat on one side, round and soft and fluffy and spongy and buttery and flaky on the other. The good news is you can avoid this problem by eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables (although the Tufts research was mum on what those foods might turn you into).

Are you ready for some eco-football? The New York Jets recently announced plans to build an environmentally-friendly stadium in Manhattan. Taking advantage of the massive amount of hot air in the surrounding area, the stadium will sport 40-foot-tall wind turbines and 25,000 solar collector tubes, which will generate most of the electricity and hot water the stadium will need for football games. The Jets did not announce the equally promising outlook that if Americans keep evolving, we just might eventually get to the point where we don't feel the need to watch oversized, overpaid men put on pads and knock the living shit out of each other on Sundays.

We're Number One! Lost in the din of election-year education blather – No Child Left Behind, Read to Achieve, blah, blah, blah – was some really incredible news about Kentucky's schools: According to a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Kentucky ranks FIRST in the nation in school integration for African American students. The study credited Jefferson County's decades-long desegregation policy, which has stayed in place while other school districts around the country have abandoned theirs. But behind that desegregation policy stand some pretty incredible people right here in our home town. Think about the brave African American students and parents suffering three decades of slings and arrows from redneck cracker racist muscle-necked jackoffs. Think of the brave white parents standing up to their cracker-ass neighbors and saying, "This is the right thing to do, so no, I'm not moving to Bullitt County or Shelby County and training my kids to be racist by avoiding Jefferson County's rules." Think of the brave students of both races reaching into their hearts and saying, "Yo, maybe you CAN be my friend even though your skin's not the same color as mine." Think of the teachers and administrators and PTA members and librarians and janitors and lunch ladies who have all helped make this happen, even if maybe they weren't in the mood to make the world a better place on that particular day. Think of the civil rights leaders who got the ball rolling and kept it rolling. Think of the politicians and principals and school board members who didn't back down when the going got tough. I wish I could buy 'em all a piece of pie and shake their hands and say, "Way to go!" Sure, there are still a lot of problems. There's still an achievement gap and there's still tension in some places and schools are still plagued by wannabe gangsta rappers with bad manners and violent streaks and foul mouths, but that's just the way some white adolescents behave, so whatcha gonna do? And we've got a long way to go before we can get our cops as morally up to speed as our schoolkids, but isn't school EXACTLY where to start? Kentucky, take a bow. What education statistic could it possibly be better to be number one in?

And the good news just keeps coming. Michael Moore, a true American hero, is back. Oh, and my tomatoes are almost ripe!

Next week: The Bitch is Back

Monday, June 21, 2004

This Oh, For God's Sake, posted by frontier physician Dr. Eustis Welp, originally appeared on Monday, June 21, 1810.

George Rogers Clark Owes Me 3 & a Half Cents
It pains me to state publicly that George Rogers Clark, a Man I until recently admired as a great American Patriot, is in fact a Scalawag who refuses to pay the 3 & a Half Cents he owes me for amputating his Leg.

Precisely because of his stature as "Friend of Thomas" and one of the West's Pre-eminent Butchers of the Red Man, I am reluctant to take up the quill. Nary a civilized man would walk the banks of the Ohio if not for his Courage and Valor. Yet I can no longer hold my tongue, for what good is the United States of America if a man of such renown does not suffer the need to pay his Physician who so mercifully toiled to saw through his flesh and bone to remove that appendage that so afflicted him? Why, I daresay such a man is no more forthright than the King! Amputation without compensation? I think not!

It happened that the gentleman regrettably fell into his fire, the burns therefrom resulting in the need for the amputation of his right Leg and, while this procedure is decidedly less favorable for the Patient than for his Physician, I can assure you it is no tea-by-the-Seine for the Doctor, either. I shall not belabor here the blisters, the resonance of saw-through-bone, the Stench.

Courage was present, it is true. With nothing to deaden the Pain save two fifers and two drummers (one wonders if these valiant performers received full and just recompense, but they shall state their grievances as they see fit), one must admit that the man was more stout-hearted than a Quaker at a Shawnee hair-acquiring caucus. And yet the witnessing of such pluck does not buy a sup of pone or a whore's comfort, if you know whereof I speak.

It is not my intention to place myself up amongst the most benevolent of our local citizenry. I am the first to admit that I am no Granville Wedgewood. That gentleman makes John Chapman look like Tenskwatawa. And yet it is of significance to note here that I had already made Clark a bargain of Half Off the usual Low Fee of One Dollar for an Amputation, charging only Fifty Cents in deference to his intrepidness. (It is reported that in some parts of the West, amputations go for upwards of One Dollar & Fifty Cents!) While I will once more deny my own munificence, I must also state emphatically that I did not enter into this vocation merely to exercise my severing muscles.

Further, it cannot be disputed that the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States Congress (I daresay even Jefferson himself) have played Clark like a fife and drum, respectively. Nevertheless, it was not I who advised the man to visit Vincennes, let alone Kaskaskia. (To the contrary, my advice is and shall always be to keep oneself always in the vicinity of one's pone and one's whore; one does not enter my profession without learning a thing or two about health!) The misconduct of his Government benefactors combined with the depreciation of the paper currency has no doubt left Clark's own Personal Financial situation in a Dismal State. I understand this.

I also understand that one cannot extract blood from a turnip. And yet, in Installments, Clark has paid all of his Fifty-Cent debt, save Three & a Half Cents. Is this an insult to my skill as a surgeon? Three & a Half Cents! Would that Mark's gospel had said, "If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, but should thee hire the work done, most assuredly pay thine Physician in full!"

But it does not and so I hereby post this message on the Publick Square among the broad list of grievances -- or B.L.O.G. -- and I pledge to Everyone that I shall forthwith bury the hatchet. (Out back, next to the leg.) Nevertheless, it would set bad precedent to retire the debt, so this I shall not do. Therefore, while I hereby pledge that there shall be no more hard feelings, it shall remain that George Rogers Clark owes me 3 & a Half Cents.

Monday, June 14, 2004

A Win Win Win Situation
Having gone awhile without suffering abject humiliation, Mary and I recently decided to buy some new consumer electronics. Nowadays, all consumer electronics come with a wireless Internet connection, more ports than the eastern seaboard, and accessories suitable for deep-frying a turkey, so I'm not sure exactly what it is we bought. But its name is Hewlett Packard. To make sure we got the best deal (and perhaps, unconsciously, to keep us out of the consumer electronics super store until the last possible moment) I compulsively researched this purchase for months.

You would think the Internet would make it easy to do this research. There are tons of buying guides and product-comparison tools and reviews out there. But comparing prices and features on consumer electronics is not easy because manufacturers constantly change model numbers on their products. Try it: Use one of those 'net guides to find the right model at the right price and then try to buy it. The salesperson will say, "Oh, you want the HP-J3940293839291? I'm sorry, that model has been discontinued. We do have the HP-J3940293839291.5. And look! It's only $150 more and comes with a baster!" Suddenly it dawns on you that you are dealing with the 2004 equivalent of Mr. Haney, that peddler on Green Acres.

You would also think you could get a better deal buying consumer electronics directly from the manufacturer, but once again, no. Despite my research, we were unable to find a better deal than the one advertised by the local Circuit City. So we stowed our souls in a special velvet-lined cedar box, hid it on a shelf in the basement, and headed out to Circuit City.

Circuit City is one of capitalism's many little disappointments. When you go to Circuit City, you'll probably find what you want but you'll have to navigate a maze of unpleasantries. Typically, the pimpled salesperson will try to sell you a more expensive item than the one advertised, along with a wildly expensive warranty that adds 40% to the price of the item you're buying, just to guarantee it will work. In order to keep you confused, your salesperson will spew an unending stream of techno-jargon, consisting entirely of words made up on the spot. "Yes," she'll reassure herself knowingly, "this model comes with a series-S prastulatron but you can upgrade to the XDG hypertronic mijplew for only $360."

Disorienting you further is the Circuit City environment. It is the most hostile, techno, sterile, pop-culture creepy place this side of the mall. Plus, it's huge. You could park a couple of jumbo jets inside and still have room left over for Regis Philbin's ego. The place has acres of TVs, all showing the latest Disney cartoon in high definition. (This is a trick TV manufacturers use to sell fancy TVs. Unless you watch a lot of cartoons, don't fall for this trick; turn to any other channel and you'll see that it's only Shrek and Nemo that look cool in high definition. Do you really want to see Tom Brokaw in high definition? OK, maybe if they can figure out a way to show Kelly O'Donnell in HDTV but keep Brokaw analog, then I might be interested.)

All products at Circuit City are arranged on shelves by price in descending order. They keep the fanciest products with the latest features on one end. These you cannot afford unless you sell all of your belongings and your children, plus take out a 30-year mortgage. On the other end you'll find the inexpensive, advertised items that lured you into the store. These will not be in stock. In the middle are the items that are affordable but do not include the latest features you've just seen and now desperately must have. Also, these items might not work unless you purchase the extended warranty, which bumps them up to the sell-your-children price range. Further complicating your purchase is the fact that yesterday's high-end product is today's middlin' product. Electronics manufacturers add features and discount products so quickly that today's $4000 XJ10 is tomorrow's $500 XJ5. I can't prove it, but I am convinced those shelves are actually conveyor belts moving imperceptibly slowly, conveying the fancy models to the cheap end of the spectrum to make way for tomorrow's new XJ15 with wireless microwave HDTV and automatic faucet.

So we sniff around a bit and are quickly accosted by a charming, young, overeducated-for-Circuit-City, handsome, young salesman named Ronnie. Ronnie and I are immediately adversarial. Somehow I admire him while also wanting to choke him. He makes charming sales-dude banter and lets us know he has a college degree, in a manner that is supposed to be self-deprecating but also prickles with hostility. He uses humor to express his resentment over spending four years in college "for this." His shtick is to test his customers' gullibility, which at Circuit City is easy pickins. We are all quite purposefully in the dark when it comes to product features, so we are walking, breathing gullibility. Ronnie says something amazing, we reply "Wow! Really?" and Ronnie laughs, shrugs, and shakes his head no, as if to say, "gotcha!" This somehow works for Ronnie, probably because it makes customers want to hurry up and buy something in order to quickly get out of his presence.

Since we have done our homework, we know exactly which model we want. I have even conveniently brought in the Circuit City ad showing the HP model and discount price and we listen patiently while Ronnie explains that that model is out of stock and won't be available for three weeks. He then steers us to another HP with a model number that is exactly the same as the model we want except it's off by one digit. It looks exactly like the picture in the ad. It costs $150 more.

Mary and I step aside to hold a private confab and give Ronnie a moment to work up some more bits for his trick-the-gullible-customer comedy routine. Exhausted from the research and resigned to the fact that all stores and all manufacturers are going to be out of stock on the advertised item, we agree to just throw in the towel and pay the higher price. Ronnie seems thrilled, which surprises me. "Wow! Really?" I think, and Ronnie smiles, shrugs, and shakes his head no, as if to say, "gotcha!"

Feeling lucky despite all the evidence, we decline the extended warranty, which really upsets Ronnie. Clearly, the sales commission on the extended warranty is where Ronnie's latte is frothed. He becomes almost surly as he rings up the purchase and tries repeatedly to get us to reconsider. What Ronnie does not realize is that we have no way to bludgeon the board of directors of the Hewlett-Packard or Circuit City corporations, so the only weapon we have at our disposal to fight off the indignities we've suffered is to refuse the warranty. We almost feel sorry for Ronnie as his lower lip juts out in disgruntlement.

But HP, Circuit City and Ronnie fight back with yet another trick: Ronnie informs us that the price quoted is AFTER the manufacturer's rebate. We read the fine print and learn that we must pay $100 extra now, and mail in to HP a rebate form to get our $100 back. Why doesn't HP just sell the model for $100 less? It must be because a certain percentage of consumers will fail to request it and HP can bank the difference. Either that or HP and Circuit City just hate their customers and enjoy watching them jump through hoops. Ronnie hands me the rebate form and the receipt and I am tempted to give him some shit about this new wrinkle but I am overwhelmed by this thought: If Circuit City and Hewlett-Packard can make me feel this humiliated in one visit, think what they must do to Ronnie every single day. So instead, I look Ronnie in the eye, thank him, and think, "Dude, you are SO blogged!"

When we get home, we immediately rip into our new HP, and to my relief it seems not to know that we didn't buy the warranty; it works fine. We toss the cardboard box in the garbage and surf the Internet while the deep fryer warms up.

The next day, I get out the rebate form. Despite the fact that we already gave Ronnie enough personal information that he can probably vote for us and access our ATM account, we now have to provide HP with all of that same information. In addition, I learn to my great dismay that I must include the barcodes from the product packaging. These, I have thrown away. So I go out to the garage and dig out the box with the barcodes. I feel a little better about the fact that they smell vaguely like garbage after it dawns on me that somebody at HP is going to get to smell them too. The rebate form advises me to go to HP's Web site for quicker processing of the rebate, so I go online. But when I get there I learn that I still must mail in the series of bar codes, which appear to store enough information on them to decode al-Qaeda chatter and calculate pi but cannot alone convey "send Jim Welp $100." Moreover, now that the deal has been sealed, HP is MUCH less friendly than they were when they were courting us with their festive advertisements. Suddenly there is no please, no thank you. In their places are a lot of "musts" and "not responsibles." By this time I am so worn down that I am just thankful I'm not being forced to participate in a nude human pyramid.

At long last, I've gathered all the info I need to get our $100 back and I get out an envelope to mail it in. HP has one last nugget of shame for me: The mailing address is a post-office box under the name Win, Win, Win. I actually have to write that on the envelope -- Win, Win, Win. Somehow this all does not feel like a win-win-win situation. I toy with the idea of looking into why they call the rebate scam Win, Win, Win, but instead I choose to presume it means that we get to enjoy a model of HP similar to and more expensive than the one we wanted; we will eventually get our own $100 back via US Mail; and, when a couple of mega corporations and a smartass salesperson really piss you off, if you can't flog em, at least you can blog em.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Reader Poll: Essential Jams
Normally those hipper-than-thou music-magazine articles and radio-station countdowns that list the Top However Many Whatever Of Whenever make my eyes glaze over faster than watching Riverdance on Placidyl. And I would have guessed that if I ever surveyed OFGS readers for their favorite music in list form, it would have been something like "Best anti-war folk songs that promote sex as a remedy," "Best butt-obsessed rap artists," or "Best platinum-selling songs that rage against capitalism."

But this is serious business: Benjamin, my beloved first-born, is going off to college this fall. The kid has warmed my heart in the past year by taking exponential leaps in his musical tastes and I thought as a special treat I would send him to Lexington with some essential jams. Of course, being a teenager, he's totally tapped into the new music scene and does not need his father for help there (although I do take credit for turning him onto My Morning Jacket and, more recently, Maktub). But I thought I might stash in his suitcase some essential old-school jams.

This is not all that easy for me. I loathe "classic rock" radio. I just can't listen to the same songs from high school over and over and over again. Never hearing another Styx song would not interfere with my dying a happy man. Same goes for Boston, Bob Seger, Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner, Rush, and Bad Company. Don't even get me started on Kiss. None of those names should appear in the same sentence with the word "classic," unless the sentence also includes the word "not."

But the thing is, by 1985 I was also sick of most music that probably DOES qualify as classic, such as Zappa, the Stones, the Doors, and Zeppelin. Maybe it's just the bustle in my hedgerow, but after a few thousand listens, it was time to give the May Queen a spring clean, ya know? I often have to say "fare thee well" to even Bob Dylan, whom I regard as the greatest artist ever. ('Cause, you know, goodbye is too good a word, babe.)

Still, this stuff happened and Ben should know about it, no matter how frightening it was. I wouldn't shield him from studying the Trail of Tears or the Nixon administration; why would I hide Black Sabbath?

So I figured I should use this opportunity to encourage his recent experimentation with some older music. This got me wondering: What albums are essential for a youngster to own as he dips a toe into musical history? And what would OFGS readers say?

Of course, even the very notion of "album" is anachronistic these days, as both the album format and our children's attention spans are shrinking faster than an RIAA lawyer's argument's plausibility. Still, I find myself unable to think outside the framework of the album when it comes to old-school jams. Not only is it important to listen to the songs together on an album, but it's critical to listen to them IN ORDER. You wouldn't fire up Waiting for Columbus, listen to Fat Man in the Bathtub and then skip all the way to Dixie Chicken, would you? Of course you wouldn't. You must listen to the album all the way through. (And if you can't start humming the next song as the current one's winding down, that album doesn't belong on a Best Ever list.)

OK, so here are your ground rules: First, I'm not willing to set aside my all-time Beatles ban, even though I know he needs to know those songs. He will simply have to acquire them on the street. Call me selfish, but that's just the way it is. Don't get me wrong -- I loved the Beatles. But when John Lennon died, I heard every Beatles song enough to last several lifetimes and I don't ever need to hear another one as long as I live. I don't care how brilliant it is, once I heard "I Saw Her Standing There" for the 987,394,377,843rd time, it was... well, it was time to dance with another. I also ruled out country music because Ben just won't have it. (And it's hard to blame him when you hear the soulless rock-lite crap they call country today.) Rest assured, once he is open to Hank and Johnny, I will be ready. Finally, the music must predate Ben's birth, which seems like only yesterday but occurred in 1986.

If it helps, here are Ben's contemporary faves: He loves neo-hippie stuff like Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. He likes My Morning Jacket, Dashboard Confessional, Something Corporate, and White Stripes. He's got a strong punk/glam vein running through him and has lately been experimenting with old Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Other than that, his familiarity with the geezer milieu is mostly limited to The Who, Zeppelin, and Hendrix -- and, OK, he went through (I'm not proud to admit it, but honesty is important in these times) an AC/DC phase back when Beavis and Butthead wore their T-shirts. To his credit, he loves John Lee Hooker.

If you're looking for further inspiration, here's what we came up with around the e-water cooler. The first pal I surveyed came up with these gems:

The Best of the Velvet Underground
The Grateful Dead - Working Man's Dead
The Allman Brothers Live at Filmore East
Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde
The Band - Music from Big Pink

When I put the challenge to a friend who is not only younger than the first guy, but also less old, she suggested these albums:

Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
CSNY - Deja Vu
Queen - A Night at the Opera
Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
The Stones - Exile on Main Street
Black Sabbath - Paranoid
The Allman Brothers - Eat a Peach

My sister, who has impeccable taste in everything, suggested

The Clash - London Calling
Eurythmics - Greatest Hits
The English Beat -I Just Can't Stop It
Patti Labelle - The Best of Patti Labelle
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
Al Green - Let's Stay Together
Neil Young - Comes a Time

After searching my own soul, I came up with these albums:

Led Zeppelin IV
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark
David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust
Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bullocks
The Who - Quadrophenia
Van Morrison - Moondance
Neil Young - After the Gold Rush
Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited

I've already decided Blonde on Blonde is going to be on my final list. Not only are most of the songs on this album masterpieces, but even lesser-celebrated tunes like the delicious blues/pop Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat are Dylan at his smartass finest. No doubt Dark Side of the Moon will make the cut as well, partly out of nostalgia for how it sounds when you crank it up with headphones on, even if you're not stoned. London Calling is also a must. I'm not the anglophile my sister is, but how can you not love the piss-off sneer of The Clash? Plus, without this album, punk as we know it today wouldn't exist. Moondance and After the Gold Rush are my top choices from my own list because I am a sucker for Van Morrison's goofball mysticism and Neil Young's stellar writing and haunting voice (plus that piano by the 17-year-old Nils Lofgren on After the Gold Rush!).

What do you say, Oh, For God's Sakesers? How often do you get a chance to impact a young man's life in such a timewasting way? Here is your chance. Even now, my head is rocking with artists I've left off the list: James Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Zevon, Parliament/Funkadelic, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, Joan Armatrading, Little Feat, Bobby Sherman (just making sure you're still paying attention), Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads, John Prine...

(If you really want to waste some serious time thinking about this, check out Music Plasma or

Let me hear from you. Please e-mail me at with your list of Five Essential Pre-1986 Non Beatles, Non Country Albums Ben Should Own. (If you know music fiends you think would like to weigh in on this survey, please send 'em the link to this page.) Let me know if you prefer to remain anonymous, if it's OK to use your name, or if you'd like me to make one up for you, such as StyxFan or Shania4ever. (Don't worry - I promise not to publish your e-mail address.) I'll blog the results in a future OFGS and let you know what Ben's taking to UK with him.