in which much that is wrong with American culture is revealed by a hotel soda machine

Mrs. Geek and I spent the last three days out of town, owing to a death in Mrs. Geek’s family. The deceased was 86 years old and had been in poor health during the last few months. She was much beloved by many in the family, and will be missed. Mrs. Geek and I are doing fine.

During the course of our visit, I paid a visit to the hotel soda machine. Upon using it, I discovered that $1.00 can buys you:

  1. a 12 oz. can of Coca Cola, or
  2. a 10.5 plastic bottle of Dasani tap water

I can’t see how anything about this choice is good. Either A) the makers of Coca Cola feel that they can charge more for plain water than water with carbonation and sugar added because that is what the market will bear (despite the cost of shipping tap water in plastic bottles with completely unregulated safety standards), or B) U.S. government farm subsidies for corn and corn sweeteners are so ubiquitous that its somehow cheaper to ship Coca Cola in bulk than plain water (thus contributing to American problems with obesity). I suppose it could be both. Neither choice bodes particularly well for the average consumer.


the constructive uses of denial

This week was a bit of a rollercoaster. I won’t get into exactly why — suffice to say there was the potential for some news that was life-changing. Mrs. Geek and I knew that this news was probably coming sooner or later, but it kept me awake nearly all Tuesday night.

This episode reminded me that I often practice a certain level of emotional compartmentalization. I often don’t feel things until I absolutely have to — when it suddenly floods over me and I get 2-3 hours of sleep the following night. It was like that when I happened to tell Mrs. Geek’s Dad and Step-mom that I was going to propose marriage. It also happened when we bought the house.

Now you can call this denial… but I think of it as a constructive form of denial. Since I seem to have a reputation for being “steady steady steady”, I find that getting all the worrying over in one night is rather efficient. The rest of my time can be devoted to more soberly attempting to make decisions.

At least that’s my story, and I am sticking to it.

our telephone is possessed

The weather warmed somewhat over the weekend, inspiring me to take on a project that had been lingering on the “to do” list for a couple months now. Mrs. Geek has an antique phone table (from a time when a phone was so exotic that it deserved its own piece of furniture) and purchased a reproduction vintage phone to go with it for our living room. Problem was, our house had a decided lack of exposed phone jacks when we moved in; the one in the bedroom was the only one we could find. I discovered wires for several extensions under the house during my two-day marathon speaker wire installation project just after Turkey Day, but the jacks once connected to those wires have probably been buried by a kitchen remodel and wall-to-wall carpet.

So, the plan was to run a new extension through the crawlspace under our house when I ran those speaker wires. I did this, but sore muscles and bruises across my abdomen from over a dozen trips under the house made me loathe the idea of one more trip under the house to connect the phone wire to the “Ma Bell” terminal on the side of the house. I ended up leaving a spool of phone wire under the house wrapped up in a plastic bag with the idea of getting back to it “eventually”.

Well, “eventually” turned out to be yesterday. It was all very easily done, really. I had the phone wire run to the appropriate point on the house and connected in about an hour. About the only thing resembling a problem was that “Ma Bell” wire terminal — decrepit pretty well describes the mess I found in there… but it was sorted out after a few minutes.

No, the problem finally occurred when I plugged in the phone, and heard Sunday afternoon sports talk radio about Jim Fassel, the Washington Redskins, and the Dallas Cowboys as well as a dial tone. I called my Dad who gave me one piece of the puzzle — he couldn’t hear the talk radio; only I could. I next called up my father-in-law, a man familiar with intricacies of many kinds of older technology. He ultimately gave me the key the problem; he had me try a different phone. I dug out a $25 Radio Shack phone I had buried in some boxes still left from the move, and it worked fine.

In the end, we had to get another phone. The Crosely Kettle Classic Desk Phone is cheaper, looks good, and doesn’t pick up sports radio. We’re still stuck with this other classic phone, though. Anyone want a possessed phone?

that dark dead of night

I happened to catch the History Channel Show MonsterQuest this week. A film crew and a couple scientists were at Snelgrove Lake up in wilds of northwest Ontario to investigate the possibility that a Sasquatch-like creature inhabits the area during the summer. A fishing cabin on the lake has been ransacked, and a few fishermen reported that something in the woods was throwing rocks at them. The owner of the cabin put out a “screw board” (sort of a small bed of nails on plywood, only with screws) to keep bears out of the cabin, and something with a large foot stepped on it, leaving a good sized puddle of blood. On the crew’s last night there, something threw two rocks and a large piece of wood at the cabin.

Now, I don’t know whether all of this really means that Sasquatch or Bigfoot exists in the forests of North America. The “scientists” along for the ride claimed to get DNA evidence from the screw board, but at least one of them (according to Google) is a pretty big celebrity in the Bigfoot believer community. He has real academic bonafides, but his status as a legitimate scientist is under scrutiny for his work on Bigfoot… and so I think any data they obtain must meet a high critical standard.

All that aside, I know that this episode of MonsterQuest would have kept me from sleeping for a week as a child. I was afraid of the dark, and I was always worried that something might be lurking outside my bedroom window… even though I had a second floor bedroom. I was even afraid of Bigfoot for a while, after seeing The Mysterious Monsters. The dark of night can be an emotional siege of sorts, in the same way that light fades to shadow and then to dark. And the idea of a creature out there in the dark, beyond the edge of the light, and beyond the edge of reason is out there ready to throw stones and sticks… well, that would terrify me as a child.

Yet I have to look at the flip side: there is also the possibility for magic lurking out there in the darkness. So maybe there’s a large human-like ape creature lurking out there in woods… or maybe our search for that creature is just some greater manifestation of our greater collective unconscious. But light is reason, and there’s no rational reason to think that Sasquatch is out there, until a skeleton shows up. I want to be it is out there… as long as the fear doesn’t get me into a panic too often.

before the music dies

I know I’ve written here before about my loathing for the music industry (try here, here, here, and here for starters). Many of my views about the modern music industry and the media establishment crystallized over the weekend when I saw the Andrew Shapter documentary Before The Music Dies on TV. Featuring interviews with several prominent music critics, industry insiders, and artists like Erykah Badu, Eric Clapton, Branford Marsalis, Les Paul, Michael Penn, and Bonnie Raitt, the film says an awful lot that I agree with.

Rather than attempt to summarize what the film said, I thought I would just a few key quotes that informed me about how the business of making music has changed over the last 50 years:

“Companies were going public. They were beholden to the bottom line of this [fiscal] quarter… That’s completely different than the record company that I signed with. Warner’s was a little family label and their big sellers, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, would pay for Ry Cooder and Randy Newman and me and Little Feat.”
– Bonnie Raitt on how corporate purchase and consolidation has affected the record industry.

“I got my foot in the door in 1971 when I made my first album… The times were different; you could be a modest-selling artist without aspirations of being a star and still get a record deal.”
– Bonnie Raitt on how fiscal needs have affected career development in the record industry.

“The twenty million people that buy a Britney Spears record are not music fans. They are popular culture fans. If your vision is more about reaching people that really respond to music, that’s a completely different business than the “majors” are in now. The majors used to be in that business, but they weren’t majors then — they were just record companies. And there were hundreds of them. But now there are four of them.”
– Michael Penn, on how radio ownership and record company consolidation have changed the marketing targets of the music industry.

“Today, Ray Charles would not get a shot. Today, Stevie Wonder would not get a shot. They’re blind.”
– Branford Marsalis, on how the popularity of MTV and music videos have changed the expectations for appearance and level of performance (e.g. dance) for new music artists.

I particularly like that the film ends with a cautiously optimistic message. New systems of production and distribution are evolving, the film seems to say. You have to be careful about navigating these uncharted waters, but it is still possible (with hard work) to have a successful and rewarding career as a musician. It just doesn’t work the way it used to.

(I also took a lot of comfort in the fact that I either own music by or had heard of a majority of the music artists who appeared in the movie — including many of the relatively obscure ones.)

As the perfect complement to all this talk of music marketing and focus groups and play lists, I happened to catch Austin City Limits presents: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This was the absolute antithesis of the modern, packaged, pop music event. No one danced or lip sync-ed. No cleavage, sex organs, or bare midriffs were shown. No single target market segments were exclusively represented. It was just some damn fine “pickin’ and a singin'” with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Charlie Louvin, Dave Grisman, Bela Fleck, and Jorma Koukonen. When I heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby break into “Dreaded Spoon”, or the Del McCoury Band break into Bluegrass Breakdown, my foot could not help but start tapping. That, to me, is what real music is all about.

decisions, decisions

I live in a Super Tuesday state, and I got to vote today. I’m also a registered Democrat, and I had the choice of voting for two very good candidates. On the one hand, there is Barak Obama — the charismatic Senator from Illinois, a uniter, a social activist, a “black Kennedy” as Gary Trudeau puts it. On the other, there is Hillary Clinton, the intelligent, capable Senator from New York: former First Lady, policy wonk, Yale grad, establishment operator extraordinaire. I think between these two candidates, the Democratic party really has an embarrassment of riches. I would not hesitate to vote for either of these people come November… but who do I choose to vote for now?

My main problem with Hillary is that she’s a horribly known quantity for a lot of people in the Republican Party and elsewhere on the far Right who absolutely, rabidly, ape-shit hate her. As Stanley Fish noted in a New York Times op-ed piece earlier this week:

Back in November, I wrote a column on Clinton’s response to a question about giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. My reward was to pick up an e-mail pal who has to date sent me 24 lengthy documents culled from what he calls his “Hillary File.” If you take that file on faith, Hillary Clinton is a murderer, a burglar, a destroyer of property, a blackmailer, a psychological rapist, a white-collar criminal, an adulteress, a blasphemer, a liar, the proprietor of a secret police, a predatory lender, a misogynist, a witness tamperer, a street criminal, a criminal intimidator, a harasser and a sociopath. These accusations are “supported” by innuendo, tortured logic, strained conclusions and photographs that are declared to tell their own story, but don’t.

The last thing I want is to encourage those people to turn out at the polls this Fall. I was reminded of this earlier this week in a newspaper article about a rural, conservative farming community about 200 miles from where I currently sit. This is a town with a dying downtown, whose local economy has suffered heavily from nearly eight years of Republican neglect, and yet the chief political sentiment in town is “ANYONE but Hillary”.

If Hillary suffers in my mind because people know her too well, Barak Obama suffers in my mind because I don’t know if he knows national politics well enough. He hasn’t even served out a full term in the Senate yet. For almost 30 years, I’ve watched people want to elect presidents who are not Washington “insiders”. This year’s variant involves finding “the candidate for change”. After finding a Texas village idiot with a famous name in 2000 to run for President on the theme of “change” and “changing the tone in Washington”, I’m a little done with “change” candidates. How about “experienced, capable” candidates anyone? Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson were all seasoned political and diplomatic operatives. They, for the most part, did pretty well by this country.

I know that Barak Obama is an intelligent, thoughtful man. I know that he’s got a great touch with people, and that he’s got a great eye for symbolism. He’s got that sense of glamor and political theater in spades that we’d all LOVE a President to have. I’m just not sure what will happen when he arrives in Washington and he faces an absolutely recalcitrant Republican opposition, and has to start dealing with the Right Wing muckrakers who will start appearing on the Internet and the Sunday talk shows. How will he deal with it when he’s criticized for how staffers in his White House are auditing office expenses? How long does it take for him to become a “flip-flopper” and then become a “liar”, and then have people saying “anyone but Obama”? Will he be able to do anything about the war in Iraq? Will he be able to pass Universal Healthcare Insurance? What about regulating greed on the stock market? He just seems like a bit of an unknown quantity to me.

All this said, I like both of these candidates. Hillary can come off as someone who is always “on” as a politician; everything she does is designed if not to engage you, then at least to not annoy you. The so-called “slip” that Hillary made immediately before the New Hampshire primary convinced me that there is someone interesting under that calculating image. To my mind, I need to see her make more “mistakes” like that one. As for Barak Obama, I’d like to hear more about what he has to offer in terms of concrete proposals besides “hope”. All that said, I believe that these two candidates are light years ahead of what we’ve had for the last 7+ years.

more Mullet Man and Beehive Boy

Seeing as how it’s been almost five years since I provided any updates in the continuing story of Mullet Man and Beehive Boy (and honestly, how many of you were even reading this blog five years ago?), its time to provide another installment:

The Adventures of Mullet Man and Beehive Boy

The story of a mild-mannered feed distributor who, when the need calls, removes his trusty CAT cap to reveal himself to be Mullet Man, the “business in the front, party in the back” super hero. Together with his sexually ambiguous and gender-confused youthful ward and sidekick, Beehive Boy, they fight to stamp out imported evil and maintain Federal farm feed subsidies.

Our current issue finds Mullet Man and Beehive Boy following the abductors of one John Starkey to an after hours rendez-vous at a dark local Agway warehouse in Southern Indiana. There, they find the unfortunate Mr. Starkey tied to a chair, at the mercy of Mullet Man’s arch-nemesis, the nefarious Dr. Unibrow. Dr. Unibrow rips a chain from around Starkey’s neck and sees Mullet Man and Behive boy entering the warehouse.

MM: Untie that honest citizen, you Foul Fiend!

DU: Ah, Mullet Man! I knew you would be around here somewhere!

MM: I say again, Unibrow: abandon whatever scheme that is on your mind, and let John Starkey go!

DU: Now, why would I want to do that? *nods* Poor Mullet Man! You don’t even know why we’re all here, do you?

MM: If that’s the case, perhaps you could enlighten me…

DU: *waves, causing several henchmen with guns to appear from the shadows* Seeing as how you will shortly die, why not?

DU: The name John Starkey by itself is of little consequence to me, but a little research on the Internet reveals that John Starkey is also the well known online Communist memorabilia collector known as RedScare.

MM: John, how could you? I knew your father; he’d be spinning in his grave if he knew you’d have truck with that Commie trash…

DU: And RedScare has an item, a piece of Stalin’s Mustache encased in Lucite, that I need for my Bio-Mechanical Collectivizer in order to complete Khandropolev’s Process.

MM: Kandropolev’s Process? Wait!!! No!!! You can’t!!! He’s dead!!! He should stay that way!!!

BB: What’s wrong, Mullet Man? What’s Dr. Unibrow trying to do?

MM: He’s going to clone The Supreme Soviet!

BB: The Stalinist Super-Soldier?!?!

DU: *laughing evilly* Ah, your androgynous little friend begins to see the true evil of my plans!

MM: What could you want with The Supreme Soviet, Dr. Unibrow? You are many awful things, but I never thought a Communist Fellow Traveler was one of them…

DU: You have no reason to know my complete intentions… but let us just say that unleashing The Supreme Soviet on the American Heartland will bring about murder and mayhem… and I always love murder and mayhem!

MM: Again, I say: don’t do this! It took an unholy alliance between The Buzzcut, Sargent Psycho, and Atomic Annie, the Nuclear Nightingale to destroy him the last time!

DU: Too late, Mullet Man! My plans are laid and the trap is ready to be sprung! If nothing else, The Supreme Soviet may put an end to the decadent materialism, social deviance, and degenerate art of the modern age… but I must be off. *waving to his henchmen* KILL THEM ALL!

Will Dr. Unibrow succeed in his diabolical plans to revive The Supreme Soviet? Will Mullet Man and Beehive boy survive a barrage of bullets from Dr. Unibrow’s woefully misguided thugs? Will John Starkey (aka RedScare) learn the error of his ways for shopping for Iron Curtain tchotchkes online?

Tune in next time!!!