Friday, June 27, 2008

Celebrate the Fourth!

Next weekend, my hometown of Dundalk will kick off their annual Fourth of July festivities with a parade from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Friday, July 4. Here's a quick glimpse of what that looks like:

After the parade, you can head over to the Dundalk Heritage Fair which runs July 4, 5, and 6. There's food, rides, and two stages of continuous entertainment. You can find out more about the activities at the fair here. Here's a sample of what you can expect:


Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Dead at 71

I'm at the age where all my childhood influences are beginning to die off. I hate to sound morbid, but after losing Kurt Vonnegut and Matt Helm author Donald Hamilton last year, I'm bracing myself for the days when the cast of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible start dropping off (Leonard Nimoy will count for both shows, and Martin Landau will count for M:I and Space: 1999, two best uses of the colon ever). Anyway, hearing about George Carlin's death this morning on the radio gave me that same twinge in my gut whenever I hear of the passing of someone who meant a lot to me. I felt it just last week when I learned that my Aunt Mildred died. She was 95 and went peacefully, so it was not a heart-wrenching experience, but I still flashed on all those happy Christmas evenings we spent at her house after the orgy of present opening and food gorging was over. I still stuffed my face with her delicious Chex Mix, which was way better than anything found in a box.

George Carlin seemed to be on every variety and talk show around back in the late 60s and early 70s. He appeared to me as this hip hybrid of old-style stand-up comic and hippie. He had long hair and a beard, but also wore a suit and performed tightly constructed comedy bits. In the summer of '72, my brother brought home his comedy album FM & AM, and I could see a transition taking place. He appeared on the cover in a funky knit shirt, blue jeans, and boots, looking every bit like the hippies I saw downtown. The content on the album was a 50/50 split between straight, five-minute routines and more observational humor sprinkled with four-letter-words. Fortunately, my parents were open-minded enough to allow me to hear this material at 7 years old because I think it gave me an insight at a young age into the hypocrisy and complexity of the world I would soon be an adult in.

I had an easier time understanding bits like the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman than the material about sex in commercials or the birth control pill, but it felt like an education. I was too young to appreciate the humor, but I felt like I was being introduced to a world I hadn't yet experienced. I even tried to educate my friends by reciting these routines verbatim; a practice that got my friends and me in hot water with some of the parents in the neighborhood.

Not much later, my brother brought home Class Clown, and it was obvious that George Carlin's transition away from traditional stand-up was complete. Instead of creating abstract premises with improbable characters, he was talking purely about himself, exploring every detail from his Irish-Catholic background to making swallowing sounds into the microphone. Of course, this album also contained the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which caused such a furor and got Carlin arrested because he performed the bit in front of an audience that included children. I thought this was hilarious at the time because I was listening to this material with my family and I was not horribly warped by the experience. In fact, Carlin never seemed dirty to me. The dirty jokes my friends told at school seemed far worse because those jokes only existed for the sheer shock value of saying something sexual or scatological. Carlin's routines used four-letter words to shed some light on our own human condition and how up-tight we are about ourselves as a species.

Someone said this morning that Carlin was a "gateway" comedian for him, and I have to agree with that. Carlin certainly changed the way many comedians crafted their acts, and he in turn opened people up to seeking out comedians that had more to offer than lame jokes about "these kids today" and impersonations of James Cagney ordering at the McDonald's. My brother and father starting bringing home albums by Redd Foxx, Cheech & Chong, and Richard Pryor. The Pryor albums were so rough, my Mom had to draw the line at allowing them to be played in the house. My Dad would buy them on 8-track tape, and we would listen to them in his Mazda RX-3. Huddling in that car during a cold, winter night laughing our heads off at Richard Pryor is one of my fondest memories. Yes, the language was harsh, but the language was not the joke. The language simply amplified the power of the joke, which often dealt with racism or relationships or politics. It was real and human and dead on.

By the time Carlin released Toledo Window Box, my interest in his comedy began to wane. He would later admit that drug abuse was beginning to control his life at this point, and I think it shows on this album. It's less focused and feels like he's treading over ground he touched on before. In fact, I didn't pay much attention to George Carlin until the 90s when he seemed to re-invent himself once again. Moving past the observational humor that had become passe by that point, he became almost an other-worldly person who commented on the oddities of our world from arm's length. The commentary was even more biting because he had given up on trying to appeal to a particular audience or align himself with a political position. He just blasted from all angles with no concern about how he was perceived. It was truly ballsy material performed at a time in his life when he could have coasted on his old routines. Always pushing the boundaries right to the end.

If any younger folks wonder why us middle-aged cranks think people like Adam Sandler or Dane Cook are lame, they should give a listen to the old material of Carlin or Pryor. When you're lucky enough to grow up listening to geniuses like that, you get spoiled.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Pause That Opresses

No one knows when or how the giant Coca-Cola machine arrived in Hallowood. It just appeared one sunny spring morning behind Earl's Filling Station outside of town. Although it drew quite the crowd of gawkers for the first few days, most people round here just came to accept it as a conversation piece. Something to put on the sightseeing brochures and postcards at the post office. We didn't see much point in making a fuss, what with us being rather tolerant folk in these parts. In fact, Earl kinda liked the shade it provided against the afternoon sun and how it prevented cars from rolling out of his lot and down the steep cliff just beyond his service bays.

The first sign of trouble occurred when some of the boys from the high school decided to pull an end-of-the-school-year prank and climb the soda pop machine. That would've been innocent enough, but then they got bold and tried to get a Coke out by shoving a hubcap from Mr. Granger's Buick in the coin slot and pulling on the lever. Wellsir, a green bottle about the size of the Gas & Electric Building downtown tumbled out of that red box and rolled right on down that steep cliff. Damn near took out the overpass on Route 12 and didn't stop rolling 'til it hit Bessie McCoy's barn. All that churned up soda blasted the cap clean off and through the trunk of a 200-year-old maple tree. The barn was completely covered in sticky liquid that's been drawing flies ever since. The cows still won't give milk.

Then the elf-head came. Seems this elf whatchamawhoozits was trapped in the bottle for a hundred years and now threatens to drown us in Coca-Cola if we don't obey his every command. A few of us tried to escape, but the cars and buses were cut off by the green ooze which crept in and sealed off the town. Now we must dance and sing and tell the elf how much we like his hair or he'll drop his giant bottle of Coke on us.

If anyone out there can hear me, dear God, send help!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Big Daddy Syndrome

I caught a little bit of that cherubic nincompoop Glenn Beck last night as I was flipping around the channels. He was chastising President Bush for making such a wimpy energy speech, imploring Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling. Mr. Beck felt that, instead of asking Congress, Mr. Bush should simply make an executive order which allowed the drilling and send out some oil men pronto to start bringing up the crude. He couldn't understand why the President wouldn't do such a thing. I don't know. Maybe because we don't live in a dictatorship?!!

Mr. Beck feels that the President has to act quickly to preserve our way of life. And what way of life is that? Fat-assed scoccer moms carting their fat-assed rug rats around in gas-guzzling SUVs to soccer practice or ballet lessons and then hauling them over to KFC or Burger King for fat-filled crap because "they don't have time" to cook a proper, nutritious meal? Perhaps instead the children could stay home and learn to play on their own and the parents could learn to cook a healthful meal and everyone then could sit down for dinner and engage in that lost activity called "conversation." You remember conversation, dontcha Glenn? It's what people used to do before jackasses like you decided that it was better just to shout over people instead of listening to them.

Our way of life is not about crass consumerism and wastefulness. We are a country of laws. America is The Constitution. It's a system of checks and balances where all three branches of the federal government struggle together to set the law of the land. Our forefathers purposely made our system slow and cumbersome so that no rash decisions were rushed into law or that no one person or group would gain too much power.

I'm so sick of people who get nervous during hard times and want some big daddy to swoop in and quickly fix everything. We got nervous after 9/11 and allowed George Bush broad latitude to address the terrorist issue. What we ended up with was a quagmire in Iraq. Whenever people cave in to fear during difficult times and allow one person broad powers to fix their problems, you give rise to people like Adolf Hitler.

Personally, I believe that offshore drilling is a necessary evil in the short term to address our oil needs (even though the oil won't hit the market for years). The use of shale is also something I can't understand why Congress has chosen to block. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) I have some issues with because of the risks of spills transporting so much oil over such a broad expanse of treacherous territory. One major spill could seriously damage that whole region for many years to come.

Of course, Mr. Beck's answer to the ANWR issue? "Sorry polar bears, sucks to be you!" Well Mr. Beck, we're still not so sure about how this vast eco-system fits together. The demise of polar bears could be a signal that our own demise is not far behind. Of course, Mr. Beck is one of those conservatives who scoffs at global warming without offering any counter evidence to discredit the theory. I think he's so fixated on believing that his current lifestyle cannot be disrupted that he is compelled to dismiss any evidence to the contrary. As the commercial says, Mr. Beck, life comes at you fast.

But getting back to my point, I don't disagree with his point that more domestic drilling must take place. My beef is with this notion that the president should be given expansive powers whenever there is a pressing issue. Mr. Beck's reasoning is that Congress is in the back pockets of special interest groups and don't answer to the will of the people. And a spoiled rich guy from Texas does? And what exactly is the will of all the people in the U.S.? Apparently, whatever Mr. Beck believes it is, because after all, he speaks for the American people and everyone who disagrees with him is from some "special interest group."

When did the state of conservative commentary go from George Will to Glenn Beck? I guess during the same time that the state of cooking shows went from Julia Child to Rachael Ray. Getting the same uninformed opinion from a TV commentator that I can get from a drunk at the local bar is not good television people!

So if no one can tell Glenn Beck why President Bush gave the speech he gave rather than issuing an executive order, I will try to explain it to him in simple terms that he can understand (hopefully). First, Congress creates the laws, not the president. Second, as a former governor, Mr. Bush understands the concept of state's rights. He would not want to impose offshore drilling on Mr. Schwarzenegger anymore than he would've wanted it imposed on him when he was governor of Texas. So instead of mobilizing drilling crews and charging into the ocean, he made a measured and thoughtful speech about his views on new energy policy which I'm sure he hopes will sway not only Congress, but the governments of the states involved, and maybe even the majority of the American public. It's the way the American system of government works, Mr. Beck.

God, I can't believe I'm defending George Bush.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


In still more bad news from U.S. automakers, General Motors announced that they were shutting down four plans that primarily produced trucks and SUVs. It would be nice if these carmakers would do their employees and shareholders a favor and start operating with some long-term vision rather than chasing short-term profits. For those of you under 35 years old, don't think this is anything new. We've had this rodeo before.

Even after the oil embargo of 1973-74, when people had to sit in lines for hours to fill their tanks and maybe even get turned away once they finally reached the pump for lack of gas, the American "Big Three" automakers continued to build gigantic, gas-guzzler, V-8 powered cars for the masses. Meanwhile, German and Japanese companies like Volkswagon, Honda, Toyota, and Datsun (now Nissan) quietly introduced small, economical, and dependable compacts to a very grateful market. My father traded in his Ford Comet for a Mazda RX-3 in 1974, causing a bit of a stir in the neighborhood. His olive green coupe with the barrel-shaped rotary engine was quite the novelty sitting next to the Impalas, Bonnevilles, and Torinos on the block. While it wasn't as fuel efficient as some of the other imports, having a car that still got over 20 miles to the gallon highway was a revelation, and the smooth-running rotary engine produced far more horsepower than your typical four-cylinder putt-putt motor of the day.

There were lots of innovations being bandied about at the time from solar to electric to bio-fuels (sound familiar). Still, most Americans were leery of giving up their cushy land yachts and, once OPEC started getting the price they wanted, the oil started flowing again and the furor died down for a few years. But in 1980 when gas jumped from around 60 cents a gallon to one dollar a gallon, that's when most Americans had had enough and raced to the foreign car dealerships for the latest Tercel or Corolla. The shockwave was permanent and caused The Big Three to shut down auto plants across the country, particularly in Detroit, and lay off thousands of workers. As a teenager growing up in Dundalk, Maryland, where we had a once thriving GM plant, the lay-offs were devastating. The laid-off workers survived, re-trained, and moved on, but the psychological damage to the once proud community was permanent. And as I saw those little, efficient sub-compacts zip around the streets of Dundalk, I couldn't help but think this could've been avoided if they had only heeded the market change five or six years earlier.

And it wasn't only the blue-collar autoworkers who were affected. The shareholders also had to suffer the impact of this boom-and-bust business approach. Chrysler was nearly driven out of business altogether in 1979, saved only by a federal government bail out. They quickly shifted to building smaller cars (the much-maligned K-Cars being their first foray into front-wheel-drive efficiency), and eventually stabilized. Ford and GM also scrambled to jump on the front-wheel-drive bandwagon in the early 80s, and they too started to see a turnaround.

By the mid-80s, virtually all new cars were front-wheel-drive and the vast majority carried four- or six-cylinder engines under their hoods. The once standard V-8 was relegated to a handful of sports cars and trucks. Little wonder gas prices started to drift back down below the dollar mark by the mid-80s. It seemed we had learned our lesson and adjusted. I even recall reading an article by veteran auto journalist Brock Yates in 1991 where he chastised Chevrolet for having the nerve to build Caprices since it was not socially responsible to encourage people to drive gas guzzling cars.

By the mid-90s, while I was working for a large investment firm, I started to see more and more trucks and SUVs popping up on the parking lot. I was bewildered as to why young, white-collar suburbanites would need such big ugly vehicles as their everyday transportation. The response was that they were so roomy and good for carting their rugrats around in. I didn't see why a Taurus wouldn't fit the bill just as well (and burn less fuel), but I knew there was something else at work here. They bought them because it made them feel rugged. It was manly to drive a Yukon. It was wimpy to drive a Caravan. SUVs made them feel like masters over all those turds in their Honda Civics. They were truly Kings of the Road.

Of course, the American automakers would not disagree with them. This was easy profit since they already had the truck chassis designed and rolling off the assembly lines. All they had to do was slap on a cushier interior and a flashier body shell and their target market was sold. Who cared if they drank gas like water? Gasoline was cheaper than bottled water in the 90s. Still, all I could think was "We thought the same way in the 70s and it bit us in the ass." Didn't we learn anything from that horrible decade? Oh, that's right, we Americans don't bother to look at the past. History is for pussies! Each generation is smarter than the last and will always do everything better, right?

About 10 years after I read that commentary by Brock Yates on how Chevy was committing a sin by building Caprices, I read a commentary where he defended all those soccer moms who loved their SUVs and chided those tree huggers who thought they should give them up because of their poor gas mileage. He cited the same excuses that my co-workers cited a few years earlier: they are some roomy, so versatile, so...utilitarian. I guess wasting fuel was no longer a sin, eh Brock? Great writing on Cannonball Run, btw.

So here we are with gas near $4 a gallon and those magical SUVs have suddenly lost their charm. Once again, the new big automakers of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan foresaw the end of the SUV boom five or six years ago and started introducing cute, affordable sub-compacts like the Scion and the Yaris. Honda even brought out the popular hybrid Prius long before GM or Ford ever thought of one. Now Ford is scrambling for survival and GM is closing plants. Chrysler is practically irrelevant in the auto industry. Maybe its not enough to pander to the market in search of the next quarter's profits. Perhaps it's better to anticipate the future, show that future to your target market, and convince them that its a future they need. Of course, when you choose to ignore your past, you have no skills for forecasting the future.

Monday, June 2, 2008


It looks like the Democratic primary season will come to its long and tortured end tomorrow with elections in Montana and South Dakota. Presumably, Barack Obama will finally get the required delegates needed for the Democratic nomination, but Hillary Clinton claims she can win the popular vote for her party's nomination. The fiasco with the Michigan and Florida primaries has put the whole process in question, since these two states are deciders in any national election. All of this chaos leaves a divided Democratic party that is uncertain whether or not it can win against a solid veteran like John McCain.

The only logical way for the Democratic party to launch a successful campaign this fall is to have both candidates on the Democratic ticket. Given Obama's lead in delegates, he is the logical Presidential nominee, and with Clinton as Vice-President, the voters will get more or less what they wanted. I'm not so sure that's what the candidates want, however. Two big egos with significantly different approaches and constituencies, I'm sure neither feels that one can chart his/her own individual destiny with the other in tow. But that's the only way the Democrats can haul in the votes needed to win. Just as John Kennedy had to swallow his contempt for Lyndon Johnson and put him on the ticket to bring in the (then) solidly Democratic South, Obama desperately needs Clinton's strong showing with blue collar workers and Hispanics. With Clinton as the presidential nominee, she could bring along some moderate Republicans as well, but I believe she's too divisive a figure to win the whole shooting match, even with Obama as VP.

After the debacle that has been George W. Bush's presidency, a vast majority of Americans are screaming for change. What kind of change, no one really knows. At least there's no clear consensus. Everyone's idea of change is different, and with a candidate as ambiguous as Obama, he can represent everyone's concept of change at the same time. People can impose whatever hopes and dreams they have on him because he hasn't been around long enough to stand for anything specific. Clinton, on the other hand, has a long track record and, to most people, she's neither fish nor fowl. Too liberal for many Republicans; too conservative for many Democrats. Even women are divided about her, as many young woman prefer the youthful exurberance of Obama over someone they associate with their mother's generation. Overall, I think Obama has the slight edge.

But I'm still uncertain about Obama. He has a tinge of Jimmy Carter about him. I'm afraid he might sweep into the Oval Office believing that he has a mandate and piously assume that he will be able to push through whatever legislation he wishes without resistance. As history has taught us, Congress never responds well to that approach, usually dragging their feet and stonewalling just to prove a point. It's especially bad when presidents attempt to push too many bills at once. I'm concerned that the old-timers in Congress will laugh at Obama's inexperience and turn him into a lame duck before his first term is even over. After a couple years of no change, the public will turn against him.

This is particularly bad with regard to Iraq. When Richard Nixon tinkered around with the Vietnam War and didn't move quickly to bring the troops home, the war was no longer the Democrats mistake but his own, and history has branded him with that legacy. Not that I necessarily advocate a quick withdraw from Iraq, but I believe that if a future President Obama cannot make some effective changes in the situation in Iraq within his first year in office, it will be as much his war as it has been President Bush's.

And what about McCain. I still think the Democrats can pull themselves together and convince enough Republicans to go along with them on the Change Train. I see John McCain as Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or Bob Dole in 1996: honorable public servants who have done a great deal for their country, but simply ran at the wrong time. Because there's really something bigger in play right now, and that is the generational change occurring in the country. After more than two centuries of old white men running the country, there's an underlying yearning for a woman or an minority to take the reins. It didn't seem likely that a woman and an African-American male, both offering remarkable credentials, would become viable candidates in the same year, thus making the choice for the Democrats all the more difficult. A Democratic ticket offering both could resolve that conflict, and make one heck of a statement to the world that we have truly moved on.