Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer reflections

Tomorrow is August 1st, which means that summer, as I know it, is coming to an end. For me, this was a very different summer away from teaching. Normally, I teach a summer course to students in our master's program. The course didn't run this year due to lack of enrollment, something I would normally take personally if not for the fact that six or seven other courses were also cancelled for the same reason. Waddaya gonna do? So, with some extra time on my hands, I made an executive decision . . .

For the first time in 19 years of teaching, I would take a summer vacation, and do as little as possible that was connected to my normal academic responsibilities. I've been to my office once, to retrieve a couple of manuscripts I needed to read and to have my laptop, which literally went blank two days ago, checked out by our information systems guru. Turns out the one manuscript I needed to read is pretty good, another not-so-much, and my laptop is kaput! One for three nets you about $12 million a year in major league baseball. The sum total of my 1 for 3 day in the office will turn out to have a net profit of about $150, after taxes.
I should have stuck to baseball. But that would have required me to be much better than I was during my prime years, which were so long ago that I can't even remember my high school's nickname or who caught me during my junior and senior years.
Time. Like the weather, we talk about it a lot. But, unlike the weather, you can have some control over how you use your time (assuming, of course, you have one kid at sleepaway camp and another in day camp until 4 p.m). Academic life does give you the luxury of time, particularly at this point in my career, so that you can think about the things you want to do with your professional life. You also have time, very, very precious time, to spend with your family and the other interests that make up a complete life. So, for my last post of the summer, I thought I would share some of my thoughts over the summer on work, family, politics, Washington and some of the other life forces that run through my mind.
Work
The fall semester at American starts on August 25th, and on that day I will begin my 20th year of teaching at this university, the only one I have ever known in my professional career. I can say, without hesitation, that I have watched the university only get better over time. Everything about the campus is nicer; the resources for faculty and students are much, much better; the number of full-time faculty teaching undergraduates has increased, and the university has made a genuine effort to improve its public profile by recruiting better faculty and better students.
On the other hand -- and there is always an "other hand," no matter where you are or what you do -- I do not believe that our best students now are any better than they were when I started teaching at American. Our students, on average, might be somewhat better. But whatever superior academic credentials are students have now that they didn't have, say, 7, 10 or 15 years ago, have been offset by the institutionalization of a culture of whining that has created, in my view, a more difficult environment for professors to do what they are supposed to do, which is to teach and challenge their students. The competition for good students and the desire to retain them has played right into a corporate culture that believes the customer is always right, even when the customer is clueless, lazy, disrespectful, stupid, arrogant and dishonest. If Nordstrom is willing to take back a suit with cigarette burns because the customer said it "came that way," let it. Universities that believe accommodating every student's absurd request, perceived inujustice and minor grievance involving their professors does neither the student or the professor any good. It tells students that complaining and negotiating to get what they want is the way to send them out into the world, and it reduces the incentives of professors, especially those not tenured, to require students to meet rigorous standards that we believe will benefit them in the short and long-run. I grew up in a small retail family. When a customer came in my father's store attempting to return something by claiming that the shirt or suit came with a cigarette burn, he had a very different answer: "Get the hell out of my store and don't come back." That made sense to me then; it makes sense to me now.
Even more bizarre are the parents who encourage their children to go down this path or, worse, are willing to do it for them. If my daughter came home from her piano lesson complaining that her accomplished and knowledegable teacher was being "unfair" by making her learn and play scales before learning how to play, oh, I don't know, "Black, Brown and Beige," by Duke Ellington, I wouldn't have any sympathy whatsoever. But, as I sometimes hear from students and parents who view college as little more than a credentialing service with room and board, since they're "paying through the nose" for their education they're entitled to get what they want.
Not so. Perhaps Elliot Spitzer was entitled to get what he wanted for his $5000 per hour. Students are paying to have scholars versed in a particular subject matter teach them what they know. If the professor is indifferent or incompetent, then by all means press the matter. But if one simply doesn't want to do the work, then save it for the Nordstrom customer service department. Don't come to me. I'll tell you to get the hell out.
* * * * * * * * * *
Speaking of work . . . I did a lot of reading this summer and began some preliminary research into what I hope will be my next book, which has a working title (just to keep me on track) of, "Jazz and the American South." During a gig one evening, I got into a discussion with a couple of people sitting at the bar watching us. We talked for a bit, and some of what we talked about involved the ability of music to tear down walls that artificially divide people -- whether on the basis of culture, race, ethnicity, gender . . . whatever. An African-America woman asked me how I got interested in jazz since it was primarily a "black" music. Although I tend to see jazz as much more than "black" music (although, if pressed, I would agree with her), I answered that I had grown up in the South during the 1960s and 70s, and had watched how music was both a form of political expression and a means to bring people together. She said she had never thought about it like that before but, thinking about it a little now, it made sense. Driving home on North Capitol Street around midnight, it hit me: you should write a book about jazz, civil rights and the South. I mean, why not? Here I was, driving from one the poorest areas in the city to one of its most affluent suburbs, separated by all of 9.2 miles, and we were all listening to and talking about the same music.
I mentioned this idea to several friends, none of whom work in academia. To a person, they thought it was a great idea. "You'll have fun with that!" said one. "Wow! Get some money to travel, and talk to musicians who played the South during segregation and ask them what they think," said another. Yes, yes, yes . . . said one after another. Feeling pretty good, I broached the idea with an academic press with whom I work as a consulting editor. "Interested in doing something like this?" I asked. The response, "Absolutely!"
So far, so good. I then mentioned it, in passing, to an academic colleague I bumped into at a mall. My colleague laughed and said, "How do you plan to operationalize 'jazz?'" I started laughing back until I realized that my colleague was serious. I could have responded like Duke Ellington would have, "If you to ask, you'll never know." But instead, I laughed . . . again . . . and said I would just have to figure that out. My colleague began reciting all the very important and timeless "research" in which s/he was engaged -- without my prompting, of course -- and wondered when I would do something "serious" again.
"I guess never," I said.
S/he started laughing. I didn't.
* * * * * * * * * *
Going into year 20, I can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that I have taught my students well, even if they didn't always realize it at the time; I have written, edited, co-written or co-edited six books, all of which have received favorable reviews, even if they didn't sell very well; written articles and chapters for scholarly publications; have been promoted to full professor; served as a department chair; served on university committees charged with recruiting presidents, provosts and athletic directors; given a hundred million talks and lectures to prospective students, on-campus groups and community organizations; have never been sued successfully; have done nothing to interfere in the professional or personal lives of any of my colleagues; and many other things that, as sports commentators like to say, don't show up on the scoresheet but contribute to the victory.
And yet . . . yet . . . I have to explain why I don't want to do the same thing over and over and over again . . . that I view the "intellectual" life that academia affords as something different from the "careerism" that pervades political science (and every other academic discipline, for that matter) . . . that somehow I'm not a "serious academic" because I no longer want to research or write about the things I did when I came out of graduate school 19 years ago. Since 1989, the world of information -- how we gather it, manipulate it, communicate it, publish it -- has changed to the point where the old ways are no longer recognizable. My feeling is this: if a colleague wants to spend a lifetime thinking about one or two topics and research those topics in a way that he or she finds interesting, go right ahead. And in return all that I ask is that you recognize that not everyone is built the same way. Odds are that when we're all dead and gone, we'll be remembered a lot more for what we taught our students and how treated those around us than whether we precisely measured the ideological distance between two members of the Montana Supreme Court.
Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and John Lennon have written compositions that deserve a lifetime of explorations. The rest of us are simply doing what we can. And a profession that gives you the ability to think and say what you want (as long as your tenured . . . but that's a different story), your only constituency is your brain and your conscience. So I might never be the president of the American Political Science Association. I'll live.
Politics
I keep hearing a lot about how Barack Obama has to "tread lightly" on race . . . that he "transcends" race; and that he needs to reassure this election cycle's constituency de jour, the white working-class, that he . . . he . . . he . . . what? Won't turn the White House into the East Coast's most coveted destination vacation sight for West Coast rappers?
Hmmm . . . haven't seen an article yet on John McCain's ability to "transcend" race or reassure African-Americans that he has no plans to return them to the Jim Crow era.
Why is that? Why are minority candidates required to "transcend" race and/or ethnicity, yet the same is not required for white candidates?
* * * * * * * * * *
I thought last year's Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary plans to desegregate public schools was its most intellectually dishonest in ages. But this term's opinion striking down the D.C. gun ban might well give that one a run for its money. When, oh when, will this nonsense about "Framer's intent" go the way of the Dodo? Or least New Coke? I just cannot understand how anyone can seriously argue that the Framers intended this or that in 2008, or 1838, for that matter. The Framers, however we choose to define them, didn't believe the country would last more than 30 or 40 years, before the problem they refused to resolve, slavery, would tear the country apart. The first fall I moved here I went to a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute devoted to the following topic: Why Blacks, Women and Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution." The consensus of the deep thinkers assembled for lunch that day, which included Robert Bork, was that the Framers wanted to keep open the advancement of equality and purposely left the Constitution blank so that blacks, women and Jews would be able to take their rightful place among their white, male and Christian co-citizens.
That seemed odd to me, even at 27 going on 28 years old. "Mr. Ivers, I'm pleased to report that we are not including you in the new Constitution so that one day a future generation, more enlightened than our own, will include you. And let your sister and mother know that one day their day will come, although it won't be for over 150 years. And the black neighbor that you play ball with and share laughs? Tell him it's going to take a bloody war on American soil and a hundred more years of agitation and activism to achieve legal equality. But in the meantime, it's all good."
Back then, I thought maybe I was just a bit too skeptical. Looking back, I realized this was my introduction to the world of Washington conventional wisdom, where the truth is in the hands of those with an interest in protecting the status quo. The "quote" that more than one person wrote in my annual from my senior year in high school came from Steely Dan: "The busy world was not for me, so I went and found my own." That was certainly how I felt at 17; in many ways, I still feel like an outsider in my professional life. Funny enough, the only place I've ever felt at home is behind a drum set, a baseball field or sitting around a table with my family and friends. Twenty years ago, I imagined, for a brief moment, entering the world of Washington politics and policy, going to important meetings, giving important speeches and mingling with the city's elite at fashionable cocktail parties and dinner receptions. We'd compare our children's private schools, whether the Vineyard was getting too crowded, the majestic views of Jackson Hole and whether solar panels were the way to go when remodeling our house.
That life never materialized. It's almost worth believing in God so I can have someone to thank for the life I have lived -- a life of music, family, great friends, coaching kids and, as surprising as this might sound, the wedding and baby announcements I continue to get from the students I've taught over the past twenty years. All those friendships are genuine, and have nothing to do with proximity to power or the obssession with the "star-fucking" that pervades how so many people seem to choose their "friends" in Washington.
* * * * * * * * * *
George Bush in the worst president in American history, worse than James Buchanan. What's even worse than the havoc this man has wreaked at home and abroad is the American public's indifference to him. Okay, as I'm reminded by the corporate media, he's tremendously unpopular at home, with an approval rate hovering slightly under 30%. But has that unpopularity really affected his ability to promote his agenda? Is there one major piece of legislation or foreign policy decision where Bush has not gotten his way? Can you imagine the hell we would face if his popularity was where Bill Clinton's was when he left office? And Clinton really didn't accomplish anything after the Monica-Paula Jones-Ken Starr escapades. Just to know: I don't think Bill Clinton was a great or even good president. Fortunate to have a nation at peace and fairly prosperous, he squandered his opportunities to promote a more progressive society because of his immaturity and Willy Loman-like need to be liked rather than respected.
* * * * * * * * * *
I have a lot of friends who work in politics, and respect them all, even the misguided ones working for Republicans. To a person, they genuinely believe that working for a particular candidate or issue-group will make the country better. I don't have a lot of patience for opportunists, regardless of their profession, so I wouldn't remain friends with any of them if I didn't believe that had good motives. But, I gotta tell ya, I just don't see how they have the patience for what, to me, is a high school-level environment . . . hearing the constant stream of soundbites that say and mean nothing . . . the insistence that ideological purity indemnifies a candidate or elected official against criticism . . . watching how friendships appear dependent on following the leader . . . the incredible level of self-importance that the Washington political-media complex attaches to itself.
Earlier this summer, I was at the Union Station metro station buying a farecard to head back home. As I fiddled with my wrinkled dollar bill, I heard a voice behind me say, "Excuse me, I really need to get through." I didn't turn around because I didn't think this person was talking to me. But apparently he was, as he put his hand on my right shoulder, cleared his throat and said, again, that he really needed to get through.
"And that has what to do with me?" I asked.
"I need to go ahead of you because I've got somewhere to be," he said.
"So do I."
And then came the ultimate Washington bomb: "Do you have any idea who I am?" he asked.
I looked at him, dressed in a blue suit, white button-down shirt, red rep tie and slicked back hair. The outfit didn't exactly narrow it down."
"I have two answers for you," I said. "The first, yes, I know who you are, but I don't give a shit. The second is that, no, I don't know who you are, nor do I give a shit. Which one do you want?"
He took his hand off my shoulder, stepped back and waited his turn. I bought my fare card, turned around and asked, "Do you have any idea who I am? Because if you take a minute to think about it, I think you'll apologize to me."
This drone from Sector 7G looked me up and down, then said, "Oh, I'm sorry."
"You should be."
Like I'm somebody. Asshole.
* * * * * * * * * *
Priced Out
I can't say I feel all that outraged about the cost of gas. We are the number 1 consumer of oil in the world, yet expect to pay less than almost any other people because . . . well, because we don't want to pay more. I don't drive very much, so the increase in fuel prices is marginal to me. You think about the people lined up to buy iPhones, or "upgrade" their personal sound systems, or the teenagers walking through malls carrying multiple shopping bags from stores that I could have not shopped in -- had I cared about "shopping" at that age -- when I was that age (assuming they even existed), the affluent class stopping in for daily, at minimum, $4 cup of coffee, yapping on their cellphones while scrolling through their Blackberries . . . and those are the ones without jobs . . . spending, spending and spending . . . and spending, spending and spending . . . and that whole gas-is-expensive whine is hard to take. Rising costs on essential commodities are always regressive. Dealing with fuel costs and consumption will require a complete rethinking on the part of the public and private sectors, and any new "strategy" to deal with fuel prices will require changes to public and private behavior that very few people are willing to make.
A friend of mine I had not seen in 25 years came to visit for a long weekend earlier this summer. We had to run an errand to the Apple store at my local mall. My friend, who grew up in Atlanta with me, now lives in rural North Carolina and could not be further removed from the relentless materialism of modern America. As we were waiting for an Apple "genius" to tell me what was wrong with a feature on my iPod (turned out he was wrong; my friend, who doesn't have an iPod, pointed out the "problem" to me, which turned out to be an oversight on my part), my friend said to me, "What do people need with all this shit? I forgot how much I hated these places." I've slowly come to that conclusion myself over the years, especially when I watch the public arguments between parents and children, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, couples . . . everyone . . . about stuff that could not be more unnecessary to a meaningful existence.
I have yet to attend a Washington Nationals game in the new stadium. I didn't go to a game last year at RFK either. I never thought I would live to say this, but I just find major league baseball, in person, too expensive, too distracting and too geared towards people who have no interest in the game to go myself. For me to take my son or daughter to a game, sit in a decent seat and get something to eat is a quick $150, and that's a conservative estimate. Plus, there's the schlepping on the metro, the walk, the hassles, the drunk, obnoxious people on the metro ride home . . . all that just diminishes the fun of the game. I watch live baseball all the time, at the youth and college level, right around the corner from my house. For $5, I sit a few feet away from the field and watch good baseball played by college players home for the summer (Big Train, up at Cabin John). No blaring music, no commercial timeouts, no mascots, no Jumbotron, no endless adjustments on the part of pitchers and batters to delay the game. Just the game, pure and simple.
Plus, the Nationals absolutely suck. And they are not going to get better anytime soon. That's a good thing, as the Nats are the only thing that will keep the Braves from holding down last place for the next 5 years or so.
* * * * * * * * * *
Pretty boring, eh? That's all right. Sometimes, that's what summers are for.
See you in September.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap take issue with the media's "love fest" for Barack Obama, and wonder why Obama won't visit injured soldiers.

You can also hear samples from the Red State Update CD, featuring the hit single, "How Freedom Sounds."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

Wednesday, July 30th, we'll be at Pap and Peteys for our regular Wednesday night show. This week we'll be starting a little later and playing a little later, 8.30-11.30 p.m. Duff Davis, a wonderful young guitarist from D.C., will be filling in for Mark Caruso, who is enjoying some vacation time.

We'll be off for a couple of weeks in August, then back towards the end of the month. Look for new venues and new dates. We will also be preparing to record our first CD, which we hope to have ready sometime in October.

Thanks, as always, for your support.

Friday, July 25, 2008

John McCain's press envy

I don't have enough command of the English language to describe the reaction of the McCain campaign to press coverage of Barack Obama's recent trip abroad to Europe and the Middle East. Unhappy with what he described as the "breathless coverage" of his fellow sitting senator and Democratic opponent in the November presidential election, John McCain had this to say:

"With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to 'the people of the world,' I'm starting to feel a little left out. Maybe you are, too."

"This is a clear choice that the American people have. I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Sen. Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."

The first comment is just standard political rhetoric. The second comment . . . I don't know . . . sort of ventures into Hillary territory . . . "los[ing] a war in order to win a political campaign" is right up there with "a Christian . . . as far as I know," "white working-class voters" and the RFK comment. There is one key difference, though. Hillary Clinton is much smarter than John McCain, and knew exactly what she was saying. McCain isn't that smart, doesn't think well or quickly on his feet, and has trouble summoning the words to describe his thoughts and feelings on any one of a number of topics. So to accuse his opponent of traitorous behavior is, on the one hand, simply a reflection of McCain's most visible weaknesses: his steeped-in-conventionalism approach to politics and policy that lacks any originality, buttressed by a staggering inability to speak fluently about the "serious" issues that he claims he understands so well. If this is the approach McCain plans on taking into the general election campaign, he should quit now. I don't think he has much of a chance in November anyway. Going down a road of resentment isn't going to help him with voters on the bubble.

How, though, to describe John McCain whining about the "fawning" press coverage of Barack Obama? As I said, my vocabulary ain't that good. Here are a few suggestions:

a) surrealism
b) irony
c) WTF?
d) Dude!?!

If there is any one politician of national reputation that has enjoyed almost complete immunity from the petty press coverage that follows most other candidates competing nationally, it is John McCain. How else do you explain how a career right-wing congressman and now senator has enjoyed a reputation as a "moderate" or "maverick" politician? Take a look at McCain's record and you'll find nothing moderate or maverick about him. On just one topic, "the surge," McCain has benefited from the corporate news media's indifference to investigative journalism or, at minimum, any willingness to state categorically the failure of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to achieve anything meaningful in that nation. McCain's support for the surge reinforces what opponents have long known: that the"need to keep a large fighting force in Iraq demonstrate the fragility of the country's current political regime. How getting violence down to 2004 levels, which McCain said was "unacceptable," is a sign of success is something I don't quite understand.

When John McCain starts to complain that his opponent is getting kid-gloves treatment from the press, you know the world has turned upside down.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Summer camp

My first thought, as we pulled off the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the heart of the Pocono Mountains in search of my son's summer sleepaway camp this morning, was this:

"What the hell is a Jewish camp doing in a town where every other building is a gun shop, gun repair shop, gun museum, "wholesale" fireworks stand, bait and tackle shop or German Shepard-guarded car impoundment lot?" I thought about the Paul Simon song, "America," and the lyric that goes, "Counting the cars/On the New Jersey Turnpike/They've all come/To look for/America," . . . and considered modifying it to go, "Counting the abandoned cars/Off the Pennsylvania Turnpike/Why didn't I cover my Obama '08 sticker/With a NASCAR magnet?"

But the meter was too awkward. And there was the issue of copyright infringement. So I decided it was best if I let my moment of inspiration pass . . .

After making the turn into Kunkeltown (no, I am not making this up), we made our way past the Sunset Diner, past a house that once doubled as a barber shop but now appeared to be abandoned or perhaps just seriously neglected, past another impoundment lot, past a private "gun and road club" (which got me thinking: exactly what kind of club is this? Do they drive around in vintage cars, tractors, trucks and shoot animals, people, bottles, milk jugs? Since the sign said, in big, bold letters, "Members Only," I decided to honor that stipulation and keep driving), past the houses (all with red-white and blue bunting) that sit a good acre off the main road until . . . finally . . . we found the turn into our son's summer camp.

Max Ivers being Max Ivers, he was comfortably strewn across the backseat, feet perched across his sister's legs, taking in the scenery in his boxers and lost inside the world that rested between his headphones. He and his nine and a half year-old teenage sister, Claire, had managed to hold it together for most of the trip, taking a brief respite from their ongoing battles for sibling supremacy, tendered by the realization that they might miss each other for the month that Max will be away. For once, they had united against their common enemy, their parents, so that all "reminders" about their behavior began with "You both," rather than just, "Max!/Claire!" I would never say this to them out loud, but I hoped like hell that their solidarity wouldn't last. We are simply no match for the two of them, when they combine forces.

The first table upon entering the "welcome area" was for lice inspection. No problem there. We then got directions to where Max's cabin would be, which turned out to be in a more secluded part of the camp, away from the "little kids" and closer to the woods, which, I'm guessing, are visited more than occasionally by campers in search of summer romance, and their counselors, also in search of summer romance and perhaps a little herbal recreation to help them bring the day's events into better focus. My hunch on the counselors was confirmed when we were greeted by the sounds of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers , NRBQ and, in a nod to the last 15 years, Phish -- standard Jewish hippie music. This could have been my cabin at sleepaway camp 35 years ago -- minus Phish. Weirdest of all was hearing "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," by the Allman Brothers, my all-time favorite rock instrumental, as I made the trips back and forth to the car to unload Max's stuff. My camp counselor my first year away was Doug Reed, my dentist's teenage son, who had an older sister named Elizabeth, who was a little older and very, very cool . . . and very, very pretty. Doug told me that the Allmans named the tune after Elizabeth after they met her at a Piedmont Park concert the year before (around 1970). I believed that until about 10 years ago, when I was corrected after telling someone I knew the origin of the song's name. Turns out that Dickey Betts took the name off the tombstone, where he had decided to stop and party after sneaking into a graveyard one summer night. I kinda liked my version better.

* * * * * * * * * *

Drop-offs in front of your child's peers during the early teen years are tricky. You want to show that you care, that you'll miss your son or daughter, to remind them to brush their teeth and exhibit some sort of fidelity to hygiene, to press upon them the importance of good behavior, that it is possible to be "cool" without dipping into drugs or alcohol or behaving badly towards girls/boys and to remind them that you are just a phone call away if anything comes up. On the other hand, you don't want to leave a cabin full of your child's teenage peers with the impression that you are one of "those" parents who can't let their kid go to the bathroom by themselves without a staff of 10 monitoring his or her every move. Granted, at a Jewish camp, there is the understood expectation that each kid comes with a lawyer, psychiatrist, certified financial planner, allergist, decorator, personal trainer and chiropractor. From what I could tell, when you show up with only your kid and their camp-issued checklist of stuff, you establish instant goodwill with the counselors. Plus, you spare your child having to go through the embarrassing in-public conversation with the counselors, such as the one we heard while getting Max unpacked.

"Noah needs to sleep on the bottom bunk because he's afraid of heights . . ."

"MOM! What are you doing?"

"They need to know, sweetie. Ever since he had a panic attack on the escalator at the mall when he was a toddler. Imagine that! A boy who doesn't want to sleep on the top bunk . . ."

"I'm going outside!"

"Careful. You know how your allergies get when your near trees . . ."

Near trees? Why the hell send the kid to camp? . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

After we met the counselors and got Max settled into his bunk -- the one that wasn't ready because the staff had undercounted the number of campers in his cabin, which turned out to be my fault, according to my wife and son, because we left "late" for camp. My apologies, dear family, for getting up at 5.30 a.m. to drive 4 1/2 hours while you slept, for not getting their fifteen minutes earlier so could have faced the same problem -- we got "the look" from him that it was time for us to go. His group was meeting outside in the gazebo that appeared to serve as the informal gathering spot for the older campers. To one side was a tetherball pole; to another, a rock pit with the remnants of the previous night's bonfire; to another, there was some sort of sandy box that did not, as far as I could tell, have a clearly defined function. I told Max that I wanted to make one more trip to the car to make sure that we had unloaded everything, although my wife had (correctly) assured me that we had, while my daughter seemed hellbent on joining the 13 and 14 year-old girls who had come to check out the new boys. I noticed one gave Max an up-and-down look while he was working with a counselor to get his bunk mounted and elbowed her friend to take notice, their heads nodding in unspoken agreement that a new cutie had arrived. "Damn right," I thought, before reaching the more appropriate conclusion of "Oh, shit."

I walked outside into a soft, late morning breeze, the sun coming through the pine trees that scattered kaleidescope light across the grounds. I opened my car door, sat down and turned around towards the backseat. I didn't see anything that belonged to my son, so it turned out that, yes, he was all set. Looking again, I did see something else that once belonged to me: a little boy sitting in his car seat, half-eaten Charms Pop in one hand, a small Tonka truck in the other, fast asleep after a morning at the park, with a little belly full of chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and carrot sticks. In a few minutes, I told myself, we'd be home, and I'd carry him inside and put him down for his afternoon nap. A few hours later, he'd wake up, come bounding into kitchen with a big, "Hi, Dad" greeting, and we'd get ready for our next adventure, be it Thomas the Tank, an episode of "Arthur," or just a little couch time listening to The Beatles.

Then I looked again and realized that all that was left in the backseat were a couple of pillows, a blanket and my daughter's Webkinz collection. My little boy was gone, and a young man had replaced him -- smart, gorgeous, inventive and utterly himself. "I know, I know," I told myself. "This is the day you've prepared him for. The yelling, the correcting, the rules . . . everything . . . were all about sending him off by himself." After patting myself on the back for a couple of moments, I did the only thing I could do at that point.

I turned around, looked in the rear view mirror one more time, and cried.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap discuss the New Yorker cover featuring Michelle and Barack Obama and John McCain's difficulties using the Internet.

Live Zeebop this week

Zeebop this week . . .

We'll be at Pap and Petey's this Wednesday night from 8-11 p.m. No cover. Relaxed bar with light food. 5th and H Sts., NE.

We'll be there next week, July 30th, and then off for a few weeks.

Upcoming dates in late August: Monday, August 18th, LaFerme, 6.30-9.30 p.m.; Thursday, August 21st, Maggianos, 6.30-9.30 p.m.

To learn more about Zeebop, click here. You can also check out our new MySpace site by clicking here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bud Selig whiffs again

In 2003, Major League Baseball decided to make its annual mid-summer All-Star game "matter" by awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the winner. Of all the "innovations" that MLB has come up with 1969, when it split the American and National Leagues into two divisions (good), this decision is easily the dumbest of the lot. As much as I dislike the designated hitter, which does something no other sport does (football excepted) by making a "specialist" out of an offensive player who is not required to do anything else other than run out a batted ball, awarding home field advantage to the winner of the All-Star game is stupid for multiple reasons. Let's just start with a handful:

1. The fans determine, by their vote, who starts at each position (pitchers excepted). Right off the bat, this means that each team will not field the statistically best players. This year's mysterious candidate: Jason Veritek.
2. Each team is required to have one representative named to the team. Again, better players will be passed over so that each team can claim, for marketing and television interests, a player in the game. Let's be honest: Did the Washington Nationals deserve to have an All-Star on the National League team this year, voted on or named by manager?
3. Pitchers are chosen by managers. No room for bias there, eh? And is there ever the slight possibility that pitchers are selected to start and relieve based on where the game is played?
4. The best players on each team will not play the whole game. That's a given. Each manager does the best he can to get as many players on the field as possible. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. To put pressure on a manager to "win" a game that is now played largely for the corporate interests supporting the game through advertisements and endorsements is simply ridiculous.
5. Managers understand that they are not supposed to jeopardize a player's health by playing him. For pitchers, the stakes are higher. If you are a starting pitcher named to the All-Star game and you throw 110 pitches within three days of the game, no manager in their right is going to send that pitcher to the mound to "win" the game. Thinking about it, I wonder if players have clauses in their contracts that limit how much they can play in any exhibition event during the regular season, the All-Star game included.

As I said, these are a handful of reasons to return the game to its pre-"it matters" status. There are more, but they aren't necessary to make my case.

Bud Selig's decision to attach a significance to the All-Star game came largely, in my view, because of his ill-considered decision the year before to stop the game after each team ran out of pitchers after the 11th inning, even though the score was tied, 7-7. Selig was booed by his hometown fans in Milwaukee, and vowed to correct his error by making the game "matter" the following year.

So how does it help the cause by continuing a game into the 15th inning, which the American League mercifully won, when, again, there were no more pitchers available. Had the game continued into the 16th inning, the home field advantage would have been decided by two position players who volunteered to pitch.

Dumb, dumb and dumber. My life-long opposition to the DH not withstanding, I am not opposed to change in the game. I like inter-league play. I like the new fan-friendly parks, although not the prices nor the taxpayer funds used to build them. But making the All-Star game "matter" is just stupid. Sometimes it's okay to play games or do whatever just because it's fun. Our society seems to have a hard enough time allowing kids to do things because they're fun. The adults who run professional sports ought to know better.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out of it

Maybe . . . just maybe, it was returning home from a weekend in New York City two weeks ago to find an unsolicited invitation from the AARP addressed not to my 247 year-old father-in-law, the man who came for a weekend three months ago, then started having his mail forwarded to my house, then unpacked the four trash bags of clothes he brought for the "a few extra days," then scheduled an elbow-replacement procedure, refused to share his Vicodin and turned the house into a museum of discontinued grooming products, which he alternately used and snorted as part of his "physical therapy."

. . . no, not to the old man, but to me . . . to join the ranks of America's largest advocacy group for the "50+ generation," the "baby-boomers" who have raised their children and begun to turn their attention to their financial, health and leisure "concerns and interests." To make matters worse, the AARP was kind enough to include a membership card that, upon my official decision to join the Gray Panthers of the world, it would activate so that I could enjoy all the benefits that come with -- and there is really no other way to put this -- being old.

"Congress overrides Medicare veto," the AARP website tells me in its "Breaking News" section. Medicare? Now? For me? In the abstract, I was all about Medicare and any health care program that provided coverage to seniors or anyone else for that matter. Then my father-in-law came to town, trash bags of clothing, Sanka, Brylcream and his portable Torah in tow. So I have since changed my mind. Medicare ruined my spring and summer. Yes, thanks to Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, my house smelled like mothballs for three months and my bathrooms are unsafe for human use.

But that's not the real issue. No, no, no. Rather, how did the AARP find me, and how does it know that I am, well, completely out of it, a feeling I've had for sometime now, that its fortuitously timed letter only confirmed?

* * * * * * * * * *

This morning, I did something I rarely ever do: flipped through the "Style" section of the Washington Post to check the TV listings. I wanted to see if anyone was re-broadcasting last night's Major League Baseball All-Star game so that I could watch the parts of the game I missed. No such luck. But I did learn that some show called "Project Runway" is beginning its fifth season, or something like that, today or tomorrow or later this week or at some point. I also learned that some show called "Nip & Tuck" was coming to a "dignified" end after three seasons but that some other show that I have never heard of featuring actors I don't even recognize from "Us Weekly" or "Life & Style" at the grocery check-out line was . . . phew! . . . being renewed.

True confession: I've never heard of "Project Runway," "Nip & Tuck" or the other show that was being renewed. In fact, I've never heard of pretty much any of these shows that seemed to have "captivated" so many viewers. "Captivation," you should understand, is really a polite way of saying that "viewers" have made these fictional characters and the worlds they inhabit real. I refer to this malady as "Cheers Syndrome," named after the popular television show of the 1980s and early 1990s, which was set in a fictional bar in Boston. I was astonished at the number of people who actually believed Cheers existed, and that Sam, Diane, Frasier, Coach, Woody, Carla, Norm and Cliff were all real. Yessiree, I knew people, who were not at all stupid, who would return from a trip to Boston pissed off that Cheers didn't really exist, that they just superimposed a name over a small corner bar in Boston and made it Cheers. Many of these same people later returned from New York pissed off that they had been unable to locate a really cool apartment overlooking Central Park on a coffee shop worker's salary or just hang around all day with impossibly personable and attractive people with no discernible employment or means of income. Sadly, they discovered, fictional places and people are just that . . . fictional.

Outside of a few shows I've watched over the past 10 or 15 years or so, like "The Simpsons," "The Sopranos," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and now, "Madmen," I don't have a clue of what's on television. Occasionally, I'll meet someone who'll say, "You're kidding, you mean you've never seen __________?!?" as if somehow I missed the nuclear alert that went off while I was shaving or waiting for my daughter to emerge from the dressing room at Old Navy. I can say I am familiar with "iCarly," "Hannah Montana," "The Suite Life of Zach and Cody," and much of the other fare from the Disney Channel. I am somewhat familiar with the programming on the channels featuring "Dirty Jobs," "How Things Work," and shows about gangsters going to etiquette school. These are shows my children watch, too often for my taste. I've learned what they're called so I can be a more effective parent. So, rather, than say, "Turn that crap off and come upstairs," or "Turn that crap off NOW! and set the goddamn table," I can yell, "Goddamn it! Unless Hannah Montana is joining us for dinner, turn that thing OFF . . . NOW!" Funny enough, I only have to yell at my almost 14 year-old son, who I catch more often than not sneaking a peek at Hannah and the other adolescent girls because he thinks their hot in the same way I thought Marcia Brady and Lori Partridge were hot.

* * * * * * * * * *

Music is worse. I've begun viewing every Tuesday, when I get my "iTunes Store" update, as sort of a pop culture multiple choice test for AARP candidates like myself. This week was a pretty good week. I know who Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp are because they are older than me, and I spent more time than I care to remember in college defending myself against irate New Jersey-ites, like my sophomore year roommate, who considered my disinterest in "The Boss" as heretical and deserving of a violent mob-connected death. I don't have anything against Springsteen. Quite honestly, I don't understand the fuss and the iconic status accorded to him, but by no stretch do I consider Springsteen untalented and undeserving of his commercial success.

But who the hell are Shwayze, Linkin Park, Manic Street Preachers or any of these people, places, periodic table symbols or whatever on my son's iPod? Why can't contemporary pop/rock bands have normal names, like The Mamas and The Papas, Three Dog Night, Mahogany Rush or Procol Harum? Who decided that every teen-girl Disney Channel star should make an album? What is with all these horrible "boy" bands? Didn't anyone learn from Donny Osmond, Bobby Sherman or Danny Bonaduce's character on "The Partridge Family" that teen-boy stardom, like teen-girl stardom, is a one-way ticket to rehab?

Concert tickets for Hannah Montana? $80 a pop, and that's not even for the good seats. A good seat for Coldplay? That's your first year in college at a private university. Compare that with this: in 1977, I saw Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (twice), Yes, Genesis, Rush, Jethro Tull and the Allman Brothers. The worst seat I had for any of those shows was about 25 rows back and off to the side, around mid-court (or the redline in hockey). And the most expensive ticket?

$9.50 -- the mysterious "fees," whatever they might have been then, included.

What happened?

* * * * * * * * * *

In those days, you went to record stores to buy records. There might have been a band or concert T-shirt or two. But record stores were for records. Even the big ones, like Turtles, Peaches and, later, Tower, seemed like they were operated by people who loved records. You could always tell who worked in what "department" by their looks and dress. The nerdy looking guy with black frame glasses and a white two-tone short sleeve shirt with a fat collar? Classical. A black guy or white guy with a beard and a moth-eaten sweater was the jazz specialist. And the white guys who wore Dingo boots, wide belts with bell bottom jeans and a flannel shirt no matter what the weather was outside were the rock guys. By the end of the 70's, when electronic music was in its infancy, the skinny white guys who looked like they had been locked in a basement for the better part of their adolescence, usually with long, greasy hair with a part slightly off center, were the guys who knew all about Kraftwerk and all that other crazy German shit. In those days, I thought I wanted to work at a record store. Really, what could be better? You spent all day or night listening to music over a great sound system while posing as an expert on this or that recording. I imagined myself saying things like, "That's a great record from Bill Evans's trio with Eddie Gomez, but you really need to start with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. Here, I'll get them for you." And off I'd go, leading some grateful, impressed person to the bin with the words, "BILL EVANS" in black magic marker on a white hardboard. My customer would be appreciative and promise to send his or her friends to see me. I'd be cool -- working in a record store, getting discounts, impressing people and cultivating an image as someone knowledgeable about jazz without being snobby. "Hey, are you the jazz guy," a new customer might ask, having come to the store on the recommendation of a friend. "Can you suggest a Coltrane album to start off with . . . I'm kind of new to jazz." That would be me, dressed casually in jeans and a V-neck sweater with T-shirt underneath, with no need to play any other part than me. "Absolutely," I'd say. "Let's get you started with "Blue Train," and "My Favorite Things," then come back in a week and we'll move up." Within a month, I'd have them listening to post-1965 Trane and loving it.

Now, there are no more record stores. Wal-Mart is the nation's largest retailer of recorded music. Who in their right mind wants to wear that blue vest and spend their days saying, "Yes, the new Justin Timberlake CD is available for $8.99, right next to the $4.99 folding lawn chairs, one aisle over from the automobile accessories, where you can also find NASCAR decals." Not me. Besides, on my one career trip to Wal-Mart, made necessary when I was traveling from Buffalo to Niagra-on-the-Lake three years ago, I browsed through their "music" section (force of habit). Not only did the store not carry a single band or musician that I had in my own collection -- the Beatles excepted -- I'd never heard of most of these bands. I'd never heard of any of what seemed to me the pre-pubescent boys and girls whose cardboard images dominate the Big Box stores I shop in from time to time. "Who the hell are these people?" I ask myself. Am I that out of it?

Yes. Detour here . . . my kids wanted to watch the VH1 Tribute to The Who tonight. Great! What better way to celebrate shabbat. My son told me that The Who would be starting the proceedings and that I "wouldn't want to miss it." So there we were, waiting for one of the 3 or 4 most influential bands in rock history to hit the stage, minus, of course, their original bass player and drummer . . . all the while seeing product placement ads for shampoo and cell phones.

And who did we get? The Who? Not quite . . . we got Incubus, The Flaming Lips, some horrible band that didn't get formally introduced but played to self-parody that made Spinal Tap look like the London Philharmonic and some other clowns whose versions of some of the greatest songs ever were so God-awful bad that I felt embarrassed for them. But not my kids? "Incubus is awesome," insists my son. "Dad, these bands are good," says my nine year-old teen-age daughter. "You're just so out of it you don't know any better."

Out of it. I hear that a lot these days.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I learned, courtesy of People magazine while standing in the checkout line at Giant that Hulk Hogan's once-perfect family is falling apart. I thought about this for a minute and asked myself, "Didn't Hulk Hogan have a couple of glory moments in the 1980s and make a few cutesy children's movies as sort of the big gruff guy who wouldn't hurt a fly . . . or a child?" Then I thought some more. What was his schtick before he became an actor? Was he a celebrity bodyguard or something? I honestly didn't know. I must have been talking out loud and the teen-age cashier must have heard me.

"Are you serious? You don't know who Hulk Hogan is? Even my dad does," he counseled.

"While kind of," I responded. "I just don't know what made him famous."

The cashier gave me one of those exaggerated looks that actors do in movies when they hear piece of shocking news -- eyes pushed out, mouth slightly open, one eyebrow a little bit higher than another.

"Wow," he said, half in awe, half in disbelief. "You're really out of it."

If not knowing Hulk Hogan's biography means I slowly floating out to sea from the rest of society, then I'd better learn to fish and start fires. Just because I am old enough to remember when Andre the Giant was wrestling on local television in Atlanta, and the thousands of times my friends and I stayed up late to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling on Saturday nights until our station "signed off" at 1 a.m., and that I can remember when the local stations would play the Star-Spangled Banner with an American flag flapping in the background before they went dark . . . does not mean I am out of it or old.

Or does it?

* * * * * * * * * *

Is it possible to go anywhere without being made to feel like an idiot for not wanting to save 20% on whatever purchase I make from whatever store that is selling something I need or want. I don't think so.

I was at Target earlier today, my fifth such trip there this week, attempting, with only sporadic success, to get my son ready for sleepaway camp next week. Since he's going to a "Jewish" camp, the list of necessities -- and duplicates and triplicates of those necessities -- is endless. God forbid a Jewish child might encounter something hostile in the outdoors like, say, some tree bark or, worse, dirt. I was returning items deemed unacceptable by the Fresh Prince of Bethesda. After a surprisingly quick return transaction, I decided to buy some mints on the way out. I don't think I've ever gotten out of Target for less than $50, but this time it was to happen. All I wanted was one little, tinsy box of Tic-Tacs.

"That will be 94 cents please," said the bubbly cashier. "Would you like to save 20% by opening an account with us?"

"No," I said. "I'd much rather pay as much as I can as often as I can. I don't want to save 20%. Is there anyway that I can pay 20% more by using my Costco card?"

"You'd be surprised how many people do want to pay more! I believe you!," she said. "But it's your choice and your 20%."

"Let me ask you a question, and answer me honestly," I responded. "Do you really think it makes sense to open a charge account at Target so I can save 20% on an 89 cent box of mints?"

"Well, you could go buy something else and save money that way!"

"How am I going to save money by going and buying stuff I don't need? Isn't not spending any money at all better than saving 20% on a higher amount."

"But what if your 20% saves you so much money that what you bought is free?"

Enough. By this point, I thought I was being set up. Even I know that 20% off any amount will not get you to zero.

"I guess you have a point there." It was time to concede. "But the real issue is that people like me get tired of being asked whether we want to save money and then be treated like the village idiots for not wanting another credit card, or being asked for my zip code when that has absolutely nothing to do with buying a phone recharger, or having a grocery store insist of giving it my phone number so I can get the "Bonus Card" price on items that, in the old days, were on sale that week anyway. It's just really annoying not to be able to buy anything without having to face a door-to-door salesman at the check out line."

She seemed sympathetic. "I can totally understand where you're coming from," she said. "They make us do it." Do they? Who knew? But then came the finisher. "There's no way I would let a door-to-door salesman in my house, even if he was selling cheap mints." She said this very-matter-of-factly, making it clear that no one, least of all some guy selling Tic-Tacs, was getting past her front door.

This lovely young girl could have only one thought while talking to me: are you senile, stupid or just out of it?

Hmmm? I really thought I had a point.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Is it always this loud in here," I asked the 16 year-old "associate" at some mall store the other day, when I was returning items deemed unacceptable by Bethesda's most discerning and demanding nine year-old fashionista.

"Oh, I don't know," he said, smiling. "I guess you kind of get used to it."

"I don't think I could. I mean, this is really loud and distracting. Besides, this band sucks."

"You sound like my dad," he said, laughing. "Every time he comes in here he tells me I'm going to go deaf working here. And I always tell him that I've got a few years to go before I'm old and deaf like him."

"Your dad can't be much older than me," I said. "I doubt he's deaf. He probably just finds it annoying like me."

"Yeah, you're right. But all the stores play music like this. Don't you go to any of the other stores in the mall," he asked.

You know what, I thought. I really don't. I usually sit on a bench while everyone else takes care of their business. Sometimes I'll get coffee. Beyond that, I stay the hell away from mall stores, especially since Brookstone stopped letting people kill time in the massage chairs.

"No, I really don't."

"It's been going on for years," he said. "You sound like my dad. He has no idea what's going on around here either."

"Waddaya gonna do?" I offered, throwing up my hands. "I remember when small, medium and large meant 8, 12 and 16 ounces. Now, most soft drinks start at 16 ounces. In the old days, you could not order a 12 or 16 ounce cup of coffee anywhere, much less in every other storefront in the United States. I guess I'm just out of it."

The kid laughed again. "That's exactly what I tell my dad."

Huh. He must have stolen that line from someone in my house.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back in those days. In the old days. How many times I have caught myself prefacing some stupid story with those words, as if they mean the same thing as when my relatives used them to tell me their tales of woe while I was growing up.

In modern American Jewish folklore, using the phrase, "In those days" denotes some hardship that they endured in the formative years, only to overcome it and become the tremendous success they are today. "In those days," I'd hear, "we didn't have a toilet in our apartment. We'd have to go down the hall to the communal shitter and do our business there. That's just how it was. Now, no one's happy unless there's a toilet in every room, and at least one has to have that little spritzer that tickles your tuchus. Different time."

Yes, it was. We had a minimum of two and sometimes three full bathrooms growing up, so I never got to experience those Brady Bunch moments when the kids start fighting ("How come Marcia gets to go before me? How come Marcia can stay in the bathroom and come her hair and I can't even take a shower before my biggest date ever?" You know the answer to that question, Jan. Marcia was hot and you didn't blossom until the show had jumped the shark with the arrival of that bizarre-looking lost nephew whose name escapes me. That's why Marcia ruled.) over who gets the bathroom next. But I notice I'm using the phrase to describe everything from the hardships of TV watching "back in those days" -- you had to get up to turn the channels, unless you were at a rich friend's house who had a remote, which looked like and weighed as much as a brick -- to the cost of entertainment "in the old days." And I notice now I'm starting to get looks from people, even people I know well, when I use these phrases to explain something about how the world worked in 1978 or 1986 or even 1990. One story I tell that younger people have a hard time believing is how bars, "back in those days," used to keep plastic cups by the doors so that patrons could use as "travelers" for the ride home. Yes, bars used to encourage their customers to drink and drive. True. Can you imagine anything more stupid than that, other than archaic drug laws that can put dope smokers and dime-bag peddlers away for years while turning drunk drivers back on the roads year after year? Proof again that the good old days weren't always so good.

* * * * * * * * * *

Did I ever think it would reach this point, where the music is too loud, the food too spicy, the channels of communication too complicated to keep up with (Got the "you don't have an iPhone!" lecture the other day from my children after hearing a similar one the day before from a neighbor), where I was nostalgic for TV shows I can remember watching, when I can remember going to concerts (and professional sporting events) for less than $10, when not everything for children and their parents was hyper-organized, where you weren't expected to return an email in less than 5 minutes before being brand as rude and inconsiderate, where students actually consulted with you before they decided not to take an exam or turn in assignment, where the news wasn't on 24 hours a day, when you were the one being threatened with haircuts and military school rather than doing the threatening.

As I watch society "move forward" and "progress," I can't help but wonder if being out of it isn't all that bad.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap contemplate life for Obama if Jesse Jackson had had his way, President Bush's decision to attend the opening ceremonies for the Olympics and more details on how to win Jackie's truck.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

We play this Monday night, July 14th, at La Ferme, the country French restaurant in Chevy Chase, Maryland, 7101 Brookville Rd., from 6.30-9.30 p.m. No need to order dinner to enjoy the atmosphere. You can enjoy wine, coffee and/or dessert. This is the last of our six consecutive Mondays there. We'll return on August 18th and then Mondays from September 15th to August 27th.

We play this Wednesday night, July 16th, at Pap and Peteys, located in D.C. at 5th and H Sts., NE, just a few blocks away from the Union Station metro. We'll play from 8-11 p.m. No cover, no minimum. Great place, cool atmosphere, diverse and friendly crowd. Join us.

We'll be there every Wednesday night in July.

Thanks to all of you who have come out to see us play. We appreciate the support. Thanks to our friend, Duke Cross, for making us the Wednesday night house band at Pap and Peteys.

I will also play with Bemsha Swing this Friday night at Clare and Dons, located next to the State Theatre in Falls Church. Show is from 7-10 p.m.

Finally, please mark your calendar for Thursday, August 21st, at Maggianos in Chevy Chase on Wisconsin Ave., between Western Ave. and Jenifer Sts. We play from 6.30-9.30 p.m.

Learn more about Zeebop by going to our website here. For our new site on MySpace, click here.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My life in 37.2 gigibytes

All done.

My life is now officially inventoried and compressed, for the digital age, into 37.2 gigibytes. Every piece of recorded music I own is now on my iPod. Like some people and unlike most others, I don't see and hear music as just something that pleases the senses, sooths the soul, unleashes the erotic, communicates aural beauty through sound and makes me wanna holler.

Or cry. Or laugh. Or remember. Or wonder.

For me, my music collection is the running narrative of my life. The iPod revolution has only made that narrative more present and vivid than ever. As a kid, I couldn't take music anywhere. In a car, you were dependent on the good will of the driver to find a good spot on the dial and stay there. At the pool, what you heard depended on what the phase the lifeguards were in at any given moment, or who liked whom and wanted to make an impression by picking the radio station. Then, almost overnight it seemed, everyone owned a Sony Walkman, the way now that everyone owns an iPod. You could record music onto cassettes and take your music anywhere you wanted to go. After the CD emerged in the early 1980s, the portable CD player arrived along with it to allow us to take commercial and homemade CDs wherever we went, including work (well, not me; school, the library, somewhere other than an office) and pop them in our computers and listen to our own music throughout the day. Yes, the CD was even more revolutionary than the long-playing album (33 rpm) medium. But you were still limited in what you could take with you on your Walkman or Discman.

Then came the iPod. All of sudden, you could put your entire musical life on a tiny hard drive and take it with you even more places than the previous generation of portable music players. At first, this had a tremendous upside. Say I was in the mood to listen to Led Zeppelin while riding my bike to work, or to put together some outrageous mix of cheesy singles that you could buy from iTunes without anyone ever knowing and listen to it in the gym or while washing my car. I could put together a playlist of music in two minutes! Late in the evening, I could enjoy an entire homemade, handpicked Bill Evans playlist while I got caught up on paperwork, emails or decided to write something for my blog or surfed the Web looking for articles on foreign reaction to the Supreme Court's most recent term. What could be better than that?

On the other hand, suppose the shuffle feature selects, "Spirit in the Sky," by Norman Greenbaum. I bought that song about a year ago after I heard it at Giant, and it reminded me of the roller skating parties that were all the rage when I was in sixth grade. Cute, at first. Then I remembered why that song, which isn't the least bit musically memorable, registered with me: that was the song that was playing on the roller skating rink P.A. when Peggy Miller, my girlfriend and the most coveted girl at Kittredge Elementary School, withdrew her hand from mine during couples skate and told me that we were no longer going steady.

Great girl that she was and probably still is, she did say she wanted to be friends, which we ultimately did become about 15 years later, when I played on the same fastpitch softball team as her husband when I was in graduate school. But Peggy was the last girl I could honestly call a girlfriend for the next 11 years. I had many girl/friends in high school and college, and many of them did not bother taking the time to date me before they decided I was better suited to be their good friend. They skipped right over the awkward part, as if a brief glance and a forced conversation was all it took to know that I was not cut out to accompany them in any romantic context.

My iPod tells me that I have 6,732 songs recorded and performed by 864 primary artists. My artist list starts with a-ha, a band or whatever I couldn't place until I clicked the tab and heard, "Take on Me," which I remember as the first sketch-animated music video I ever saw in a movie theater. I guess I bought it after my wife and I heard it on the radio, and she reminded me of the video that we saw together at the movies shortly after we started dating. Wow! I thought. She's right. We were at the movies with some friends of ours at Lenox Square in Atlanta, way, way, way back when, a good memory of a fun night out in a much less complicated time in our lives. Then it hit me. Was that really 23 years ago? Am I that damn old? What happened? How did I end up here? Can I have some do-overs and get whatever or whoever it was I screwed up or pissed off right this time? How come I don't have as much drive or energy as I did just five years ago? What happens if universities abolish tenure? What will I do? Where will I go? Will I have to get a job doing something I really don't like because someone needs me to do something they don't want to do and have enough money to pay me to do it for them?

Perhaps you heard the song differently.

My iPod ends with with "Cheap Sunglasses," by ZZ Top, a band I never really liked during their heyday in the late 70s but pretended to because they were pretty popular in my high school. I had enough of a rep as a "weird music" guy to understand that I had to make the occasional concession to what was popular at the moment or risk complete social isolation, as opposed to the much more manageable incomplete social isolation. "No, no," I'd say, "ZZ Top is completely different than Ted Nugent or KISS. The guitar playing is much better and the rhythms considerably more complex." Now, I don't remember if that was true or not, but it got the necessary nods of approval from the wrestlers and football players I'd cross paths with when they needed an introduction to a friend of mine who knew someone who knew someone who could tell them where to get a dime bag of local ditchweed -- but not from him, of course.

Spinning the wheel, my iPod stops on Oliver Nelson, the great jazz composer and arranger from the early 1960s. After him, it's Omar Hakim, Ornette Coleman, Out of the Blue, a great post-bop band from the mid-1980s that didn't last much past an album or two, Papa Grow Funk, a New Orleans-style modern funk band, Pat Metheny, Paul McCartney (that would make for an interesting musical pairing, now that I think about it), Phil Woods, Phish, Pilot (no clue; I'll investigate), Pink Floyd and The Police. Try this sometime when you stop on an artist. Look at the five musicians/bands above the artist and the five musicians/bands below the artist. Now ask yourself why you have what will undoubtedly appear to be these very different artists within ten alphabetical places of each other. What is the common link that binds these artists and what is it that appeals about them to you? Go ahead, try it. Beats reading three-month old versions of People magazine while you're waiting to have your car serviced or killing time in a waiting room somewhere. Nothing will impress a complete stranger more than explaining why Edgar Winter, Earth, Wind and Fire, Foghat and Gary Burton belong in the same music collection.

Is it only fitting that my iPod has just given me, "Isn't it Romantic," by Bill Evans (played with Chuck Israels on bass and Larry Bunker on drums, as I prepare to finish this quirky little post that makes little sense to most sane people? Bill leads all musicians on my iPod with 627 songs under his name, so I guess that odds favor him in any random selection (assuming the selection is random and not based on listening patterns, which I'm fairly convinced it is -- based on listening patterns, that is). And how about this gem, which will be my final song during this exercise: "Penny Lane," my favorite Beatles' song and my favorite Paul McCartney composition. It should be enough to get these two personal favorites back-to-back and leave it there. But I can't help wondering whatever happened to "Peanut" Lovinger, who broke up with me at a between-fifth-and-sixth grade summer backyard party while "Penny Lane" was playing through the speaker that had been perched up against a bedroom window facing the pool. Normally, this might send me down the same road as the Peggy Miller incident. Not this time. "Isn't it Romantic?" was the song that I requested the band play when my wife and I entered our wedding reception. They did, and it was good.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap discuss the significance of the Supreme Court's decision banning handgun restrictions, Obama's Iraq flip-flop and more preacher problems for the presidential candidates.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Live Zeebop this week


We play this Monday night, July 7th, at La Ferme, the country French restaurant in Chevy Chase, Maryland, 7101 Brookville Rd., from 6.30-9.30 p.m. No need to order dinner to enjoy the atmosphere. You can enjoy wine, coffee and/or dessert.

We'll be there every Monday night through July 14th, and then again on August 18th, and then again from September 15th through October 27th.

We play this Wednesday night, July 9nd, at Pap and Peteys, located in D.C. at 5th and H Sts., NE, just a few blocks away from the Union Station metro. We'll play from 8-11 p.m. No cover, no minimum. Great place, cool atmosphere, diverse and friendly crowd. Join us.

We'll be there every Wednesday night in July.

Thanks to all of you who have come out to see us play. We appreciate the support. Thanks to our friend, Duke Cross, for making us the Wednesday night house band at Pap and Peteys.

Finally, please mark your calendar for Thursday, August 21st, at Maggianos in Chevy Chase on Wisconsin Ave., between Western Ave. and Jenifer Sts. We play from 6.30-9.30 p.m.

I will also play with the Pablo Grabiel Trio this Friday night at Clare and Dons, located next to the State Theatre in Falls Church. Show is from 7-10 p.m.

Learn more about Zeebop by going to our website here. For our new site on MySpace, click here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Duke Ellington

In May 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, which, despite America's self-advertised image as the land of openness, individual freedom and democratic institutions, was as rigidly racially segregated as any town or city in the country. Ellington was drawn to music at an early age, and by seven he was taking formal piano lessons. Never one for excess or confrontation, Ellington, even at an early age, exhibited what his family and friends called a "regal bearing" in his manners and relationship, yet never demonstrated pomposity or a sense of superiority to others. His parents insisted that he dress well and eschew the street life that served to reinforce the white world's perception of the "American Negro." Ellington loved sports and considered baseball a worthy competitor for his time and attention. But music would always be his "mistress," as he later described his life-long devotion to his chosen work. For the respect he showed himself, his music and to those around him, he accepted the nickname "Duke" while still a child. Such a nickname might suggest that Ellington was limited in his exposure to music, unaware of the vibrant experiments that were taking place in the pool halls and night clubs in his neighborhood. Quite the contrary. Ellington had no trouble hearing the life that came dancing from the hands of the ragtime pianists and other musicians who were experimenting with the idea of improvisation over the formal chord changes in popular songs. Drawn to structure and freedom within form, Ellington became fascinated by composition, individual voices and storytelling through the extended song form. Classical music had always been composed and played in suite form. Duke Ellington, as a young composer and pianist, saw no reason why jazz could not be written and played with the same level of dignity.

From the late 1920s until the mid 1960s, Ellington distinguished himself as America's greatest composer, regardless of category. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Ellington's music was a constant presence in my house, my father having been a devotee of Ellington from the moment he first heard his music. I remember my father telling me about Ellington's precision and sense of time and space, and how he was the first composer in jazz -- and perhaps all of American music -- to write solos and arrangements not just for a specific instrument or group, but for a particular player. Johnny Hodges, of course, is frequently identified as the primary beneficiary of Ellington's compositional senses. But there were many, many more, including drummers like Sonny Greer and Louis Bellson (who, for better or worse, introduced double-bass drumming into American popular music), both of whom were great showmen as well as virtuoso instrumentalists. For jazz aficionados who came of age during the 1930s and 40s, Ellington's music retains a place in their heart unlike any other musician or group of the pre-bebop revolution. My father and many of his friends, black and white, were enamored of Ellington's longer suites and compositions, including "Black, Brown and Beige," a piece intended to tell the story of the African-American experience in the United States. Through Ellington's music, my father tried to tell me about the difference between "black" and "white" music, noting that you could hear black voices in Ellington's music that were never a presence in the music of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller, both of whom hired black musicians before any other white bandleaders and were, by any measure of that period, progressive on matters of race. And while I believe that musicians, critics and anyone else interested in American music need to be careful when describing music and musicians as limited or advantaged by their ethnicity, race or religion, there is no doubt in my mind that American music, jazz, blues and rock in particular reflects the mosaic of the African-American experience, whether as a voice in the civil rights struggle or simply as a reflection of different cultural norms. Ellington was a diplomat to the core and never embraced the confrontational politics of composer/instrumentalists like Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Archie Schepp and Cecil Taylor. Nonetheless, he considered the "Negro experience," as he called it, as joined at the hip with America's founding and subsequent development.

By the time Duke Ellington passed away in 1974, he had secured his place as one of the most important figures in the history of American music. He never accepted the second-tier status that many "serious" music critics assigned to jazz, claiming that he composed "American music" that was not limited to any particular style; rather it was "beyond category." To Ellington, music was either good or bad, and efforts to lump complex forms into a single box were more reflective of record company executives eager to "market" music to particular audiences. Ellington understood where he came from, acknowledging everyone from classical composers to road house pianists who shook the gin mills during the 1920s. His modesty carried over to many of the rock 'n roll revolutionaries of the 1960s, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, all of whom credited rhythm and blues, small group vocal harmonies and the sexual edginess pioneered by black popular musicians such as Little Richard, James Brown, and the house bands at Motown and Stax studios in their own work.

On the Fourth of July, a tradition for many families and individuals is to watch fireworks, read the Declaration of Independence or take part in street parties that bring together the neighborhood (we do 1 and 3). One of my own is to listen to "Black, Brown and Beige" while preparing my ribs and pork shoulder for the neighbors and, later in the afternoon, listen to the 1958 Newport Concert, with "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" capping it off -- that brought Duke back on the public stage after some lean years in the early and mid-1950s. America, more so than anything else, is an idea that means many things to many people. To me, it means remembering the men and women who shook the rafters of American society through their words, music and courage outside the mainstream of our formal institutions. Seen through this light, no one is more "American" than Duke Ellington and no music represents our national aspirations more so than the musical legacy he bequeathed the country that grew to love him as much as he loved it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sweet land of liberty

A few things to keep in mind this weekend as America prepares to celebrate its 232nd birthday as a nation . . .

For the second straight month, more Americans died in Afghanistan -- the other war . . . the one we launched in October 2001 to drive the ruling Taliban from that country and replace it with a democratic government friendly to the United States -- than in Iraq, the nation we invaded in March 2003 to unearth and destroy their stockpile of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and replace it with a democratic government friendly to the United States. As in Iraq, Americans and soldiers from the countries still with a troop presence in Afghanistan are being killed by insurgents using tactics outside the formal rules of warfare -- improvised explosive devices, vehicle bombs, suicide bombs and ad hoc attacks that offer no pattern or predictability. Almost seven years after the United States led an invasion with near world-wide support, the situation in Afghanistan is only marginally better than it was on September 10th, 2001, the day before the nineteen Taliban-protected al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and sent them into civilian targets in New York, Washington and the Pennsylvania countryside.

The Iraq disaster speaks for itself. Having accomplished absolutely nothing by invading a Third World nation that had been isolated and contained by the world's most powerful countries, supporters of the Iraq war cling to the "success" of "the Surge," which has managed to restore violence in Iraq to 2004 levels, which was then deemed "unacceptable" by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain.

Not much to get excited about.

* * * * * * * * * *

The New York Times reports this morning that military trainers dispatched to Guantanamo Bay in December 2002 to begin the formal process of "enhanced interrogation" techniques -- in other words, torture -- on suspected terrorists taken from Afghanistan and, later, Iraq were literally taking a page from the methods used by Communist China during the Korean War to obtain confessions from American prisoners, confessions that were, as it turns out, almost always false. In 1957, an Air Force sociologist did a study on the experience of American soldiers in Chinese prison camps and concluded that the techniques used by their captors were "torture."

And yet . . . and yet . . . those were the same techniques adopted by the United States military and the Central Intelligence Agency to elicit "intelligence" from captives at Guantanamo and elsewhere. On just how many occasions has President Bush and his apparachiks said that the United States does not engage in torture? Too many to count?

So here is today's SAT question: If the President of the United States claims that our nation does not engage in torture, but its military and intelligence services use interrogation methods taken verbatim from a former enemy that the American military has described as torture, how has the United States not engaged in torture of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the other "black box" facilities that are not made public but certainly exist?

That was a hard question to write. I can't imagine answering it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Before anyone gets too excited about the Supreme Court's opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, the 5-4 decision announced two weeks ago holding that the United States government cannot suspend the right of habeas corpus for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, remember that the right to challenge an unlawful detention is perhaps the oldest human right in post-Enlightenment Western societies. So fundamental was the right to habeas corpus that it was guaranteed in the original Constitution . . . yep, right there in Article I, Section 9. No need to gloss over that one and then make it up in the Bill of Rights.

That four justices on the United States Supreme Court rejected this ancient right is absolutely stunning. Over the weekend, a relative I hadn't seen in a while insisted that I "must be happy about this one." I thought about it a minute, then responded like Daisy Bates did when a reporter said to her after the Little Rock Nine were admitted into Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1958 after months of political gamesmanship between Governor Orval Faubus, President Eisenhower and the Supreme Court that she "must be thrilled with the outcome." Daisy responded that anytime it took 1200 American soldiers to escort nine black children into a high school and protect them she couldn't be happy. Relieved, yes. Happy, no.

And so it is now. Habeas corpus, access to legal abortion, freedom from state-sponsored religion, restrictions on an omnipotent executive branch, fair and equitable voting rights (despite a terrible decision this term on mandatory I.D.s to register to vote, environmental protections and the right of Congress to promote the general welfare through the Commerce Clause all hang by a delicate balance of one vote.

You're right, Daisy. Relieved, yes. Happy, no.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gilbert Arenas, better known as Agent Zero to his ever-dwindling fan base in Washington, D.C., has just signed a six-year, $111 million dollar contract. Rumors that he had received offers from other teams as high as $127 for the same number of years were apparently true. But Zero wants to stay a Washington Wizard, help his team by freeing up money to sign other good players and, one presumes, play in more than the 16 games he managed to get in last season. Good natured, unselfish guy that he is, Zero said this about his contract: "What can I do for my family with $127 million that I can't do with $111 million?"

Good question, Zero. But I have no fucking clue, as I've never had to negotiate a $16 million difference in any contract I've ever wanted versus one that I was offered. I can't even imagine what that would be like . . .

University president: "Professor Ivers, we're willing to offer you $127 million over the next six years. Can we get this deal done?"

Me: "I have a better idea. Let's settle for $111. Take the extra $16 million and go beef up our sociology department. And while you're at it, buy some chalk for the classrooms and subsidize every student's meal plan so that their average daily costs to eat on campus does not exceed $15.

University president: "Can we name a building after you?"

Me: "No, but you can buy me my own vacuum so I can clean my office more than once a year."

University president: "Done. What an unselfish man you are!"

Ha! Short, still somewhat thin and non-descript, yes. Unselfish? Not on your life.

Sacrifices like these can do nothing but inspire a nation in a time of war. Granted, most Americans don't know what wars our nation has committed to fight, much less anyone who is risking their lives for goals that remain undefined and missions that have been unsuccessful. Perhaps they'll read an article or two about what's going on the world and get angry enough to demand an end to this nonsense.

That is, if they make it past the coupons in Friday's newspapers encouraging us to spend more money on more stuff at the craziest, blowout prices ever.

Meanwhile, we'll always have selfless citizens like Gilbert Arenas to light the way for the rest of us.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.