One small pat on the back…that’s it

Sometimes we’re so busy patting ourselves on the back that we fail to grasp the simplest truths.

When we elected Barack Obama in November 2008, we thought we had finally entered the world of nations—a world in which a minority could ascend to the highest office in the land. We trumpeted the end of racism, the beginning of a new era of equal rights.


In the thirty-five years since Ronald Reagan took office, the rich have become astoundingly wealthy,  the poor have languished in a society that renders their situation worse every year, and the middle class has struggled to remain an entity at all. The election of one man has not reversed anything. I’d like to think it’s made a dent, but if it has, the dent is pretty hard to discern–and it has come with continuous Republican obstructions. All those pats on the back we gave ourselves seven years ago were probably premature. And if we ever elect a woman president, try to remember that, while it may mean something symbolically, it means nothing to the vast number of Americans trying to make a living.

Fast forward to 2015 and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again we’re congratulating ourselves for an act which, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing. I get that seeing that flag was an affront to many people black and white, and that flying it on public grounds gave it undeserved credibility. But it’s a piece of cloth on a pole. If it’s a symbol, and it is, can we agree that a symbol can, by definition, mean different things to different people? In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter the letter A may signify adultery, but may just as easily symbolize able, or angel, or even ambiguity. And perhaps people whose ancestors were brutalized by Christianity look upon the cross as a symbol of abhorrence and hatred while others view it as the focal point of their lives. So who’s right? And who gets to decide which symbols endure and which ones don’t?

I don’t care if I ever see the Confederate flag again—I’m a white northerner born eighty years after the Civil War and I feel no personal revulsion or admiration for the thing. But that’s me. Others feel differently and, as I said, I get that. But the mania to remove every vestige of it (Walmart won’t sell it? Walmart?) is the result of the same kind of panic that afflicted us after 9/11—the panic that gave us Homeland Security and authorized torture and sent close to 9,000 US and Coalition troops to their deaths between 2003 and today. Impoverished and downtrodden Americans, black and white, southern and northern, face many more dire problems than a flag waving atop some pole or a smaller one held by a racist murderer in a photo. When we can address the real problems of prejudice and poverty in some meaningful way, then we can give ourselves maybe one pat…a small one…and then get back to work.


It’s in the water.

My wife and I have been trying very hard to enjoy Grace and Frankie, the new Netflix (I guess you call it a) series about two older men who leave their wives for each other. It’s an interesting premise with a good cast, and it raises many interesting issues about sexual orientation and marriage. The two gay men bickering and the two abandoned wives (presumably they’re straight) are funny…once. After that, it’s just acting and I don’t believe a word of it anymore. If the the script were dangling in front of them, it couldn’t be more obvious that these are not four characters facing a crisis—they’re four actors playing four characters facing a crisis. Comedy requires truth, and if you maintain that this not a comedy but an observation of modern life, then that requires truth also.

I mention this now because Philip Austin died a few days ago. You may not know the name, but to those of us who latched on to the Firesign Theater in the 70’s and never let go, we know Phil Austin. He was a comic genius in a troupe of four of them, producing memorable characters on phonograph records(!) in performances that mimicked everything from old radio broadcasts to on-the-spot news coverage.

Everyone has a different story about “discovering Firesign.” For me it came in 1970. I had just begun teaching high school English—I wasn’t that much older than my students and therefore very hip. One day a student asked me if I listened to Firesign Theater. I was suddenly unhip—I had no idea what he was talking about. He brought in the record and let me take it home where I heard a game show called “Beat the Reaper” and a history of America called “Temporarily Humboldt County” in which Native Americans come out on the short end of the stick and end up as extras in a Hollywood movie providing “Indian” sound effects. Everything was rapid-fire—there was no time for them to revel in their own jokes: another one was right there waiting.

This morning I read the tributes to Mr. Austin on the Firesign website

and laughed almost as hard at them as I did at many of those wondrous skits—Nick Danger,: Third Eye, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, Porgie and Mudhead at More Science High. I first heard the word clone on a Firesign Album and listened intently as daredevil Rebus Knebus (whose last name resembled the popular smoking product in the 70’s) tried to jump his motorcycle into the center of the earth. Firesign poked fun at education, at jingoism, at Madison Avenue, at television, and of course themselves.

In that tribute list are many listeners in their twenties, in a sense a third generation of fans already planning to share Firesign with their own offspring. As for me, forty-five years past that vinyl on my turntable,I have one friend who understands any of my references, but knowing there is such a legion of them makes me feel better. As one of the tributes reads: “We are like members of a secret society without the evil intentions or onerous dues.” When I tell this friend that the Antelope Freeway is only 1/128 mile from here, he actually knows what I’m talking about. As Nick Danger would say, odd but strange.

So rest in peace Phil Austin, and thanks for creating such memorable characters, so many quotable lines, and mostly for the truth you gave us. You and your three partners were, in fact, four guys with scripts in front of you, but we listeners never thought of you that way. To us you were Uh, Clem, and Rocky Rococo, and Audrey Farber (though everyone knew her as Nancy). This afternoon I’ll hoist a Bear Whiz Beer in your honor. It’s the least I can do.

Besides, it’s in the water.

Next time, don’t apologize

A recent statement by Connecticut House minority leader Themis Klarides compared the state’s democrats distancing themselves from the Governor to a “battered spouse support group.” The analogy probably drew an uneasy laugh from a few people, but one who didn’t laugh was Karen Jarmoc, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She decried Klarides’s comment as insulting, citing the number of women facing the threat on a daily basis, adding that some even face the threat of homicide.

So far this is pretty much de rigueur, right?—politician says something questionable, gets called on it, apologizes. End of story.

But sometimes the apology is even better than (worse than?) the original gaffe. In this case, Representative Klarides said she absolutely did not intend to be insensitive, adding, in what has to be the worst clarification on record, “I certainly didn’t intend to diminish domestic violence.”

Well Ms. Klarides, I think we all know what you meant—that you didn’t want to diminish the seriousness or the danger of domestic violence. And I don’t represent the PC police with some sort of gotcha based on an obvious or presumed insult. But politicians—people who make decisions for us—shouldn’t get a pass on something like this. They shouldn’t be able to simply say well you know what I meant.

I’m going to assume that Representative Klarides would in fact prefer to diminish domestic violence, especially since I don’t know of any political party platforms that support it. So I don’t require another apology—none of us does. (Come on though, folks, aren’t you curious about what the next one would be?) But maybe a better alternative to unclear and inaccurate apologies would be diminishing the number of insensitive and thoughtless comments in the first place. I do realize that for many elected officials such a stricture would leave them with nothing to say, but that’s the kind of “diminishment” I’d be willing to support.

Look who’s shooting to improve mental health

Just a note to gun enthusiasts: thank you for your sudden and deep concern for mental health issues in our country. No really. Thank you so much.

It seems that every time someone uses firearms to murder people  (nine in Charleston, twenty-six in Sandy Hook, twelve in Aurora, thirteen in Littleton, etc.) gun enthusiasts express their outrage at the state of mental health in America. I’m pretty sure they don’t do this on a daily basis or implore some big lobbying group like the NRA to fight for better psychiatric care, but whenever someone picks up a gun and goes “crazy” with it, then it’s time once again to deal with “craziness.”

It’s not easy. With over 300 million firearms in civilian ownership in the U.S. and over fifty million guns manufactured or imported and sold in the U.S over the past seven years, it’s impossible to keep anyone, sane or insane, from simply stumbling over one. (see HBO’s Requiem for the Dead for the depressing proof.)

But what if…what if we instituted some sort of prohibitive tax on guns and ammunition, a tax so high that no sane person would pay it. For instance, a pack of cigarettes costs roughly thirty times what it did back in the sixties and now fewer people smoke. Economic hardship can be an effective deterrent. But a gun that cost about $100 in 1970 now costs $500—only five times as much. If it had gone up commensurately with the “dangerous and deadly” cigarettes, one might be paying $3,000 for a handgun, or $21,000 for an AK-47. If you’re willing to spend $21,000 on a gun (and you don’t work for the Defense Department, you’d have to be crazy. If you’re crazy, you can’t have a gun. That would probably mean some rudimentary background checks, but hey, if you’re upset at the “craziness,” that’s a small price to pay.

As for the recent terrorist act in Charleston: I did read the assertion that anyone with a bomb could have done just as much damage. Maybe, but when I look in the vacant eyes of Dylann Roof, I don’t see someone who could have constructed a bomb without blowing himself up, or even found a way to obtain a bomb…without blowing himself up. I do however see someone whose birthday money would have been insufficient to buy a thousand-dollar weapon, and to whom the gun dealer would have said (and should have said) “you’re crazy if you think I’m selling you a gun.”

Some cynics might claim that gun enthusiasts are keeping the mental health of Americans in the forefront to ensure that the real problem keeps getting buried. But you’d have to be crazy to believe that…and if so, sorry—you can’t have a gun either.




Break out the asterisks

The cry among Patriot fans these days, faced with the very real probability that their team cheated their way to the NFL Championship, is that they didn’t need special footballs to beat the hapless Colts.

45-7, they claim. They could have used beachballs!

There may be an element of truth to that boast—New England was a heavy favorite going into that AFC championship game, and the Colts seemed to lag behind their opponents in every statistical category. Fans may have been surprised at the lopsidedness of the score, but nobody was terribly surprised that the Patriots won. I doubt if the Colts themselves were that shocked.

If that’s true, why would a team that seemed destined to win cheat to do so?

The answer is obvious: because they thought they could get away with it.

And why did the NFL postpone any investigation for two weeks until after Super Bowl had passed? That’s just as obvious: same answer.

Let’s face it, 2014-15 was not a stellar season for the National Football League. From Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to Ray McDonald to the admission that maybe being smacked in the head over and over for ten years might just possibly destroy the brain—last year’s NFL season seemed a constant struggle between the actuality of the league and the public image it tried to convey. What better end to the contentious season than to have Tom Brady, football’s golden boy, lead his team to victory and put a stop to all the extraneous minutiae clogging up the sports pages? (I use the term “golden boy” intentionally—it was once used to describe Paul Hornung a few generations ago. Look up his fall from grace if you’d like.)

As for the fact that the game was a “blowout,” , let’s not forget that football, like basketball and hockey is timed—a team falling behind 17-7 at the half (as the Colts did) knows it has thirty minutes of football to recover. For contrast, a player could lose the first two sets of a five-set tennis match, maybe even the first five games of the third set, yet still win the match. Time doesn’t run out. Three times a baseball team has scored nine runs in its last at bat to win a game. Nobody kept an eye on the clock. But falling behind in football determines the pace and strategy of the second occurred.

Will this be a soon-forgotten blemish on the reputations of Brady and Belichick (already accused of previous chicanery) or will it be an ongoing stigma with which their names will always be associated? From what I’ve seen of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Lance Armstrong, I would hold with the latter. And though football is not so statistics driven as possible, it may be time to open up a big bag of asterisks for Brady and the Pats.

A week ago the partisans of Fenway took Alex Rodriguez to task for sullying baseball’s good name, sending a deafening chorus of boos his way when he came to bat. I hope these strict moralists will greet Tom Brady with the same disapprobation and disdain when he takes the field this fall.


Missing persons

Last weekend Dean Smith, one of our greatest basketball coaches and educators, died at the age of 83. Tributes came from everywhere, many of them ending like this: he will be missed.

I wonder by whom. If it’s the maker of the statement, wouldn’t it be a lot more personal to say “I’ll miss him”? Doesn’t this sound more heartfelt? Simply saying that someone will be missed is to say nothing at all about the emotional state of the speaker, only that he’s betting on someone somewhere probably wishing that the deceased were not quite so deceased. That’s a pretty safe bet. I’m sure if you go through a catalog of the worst people in history, you will find someone who lamented their passing. Of course you will find many more who didn’t—maybe more still who celebrated it. “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” comes to mind. There’s something genuine and personal about that song, something lost in a statement like “the witch will not be missed.”

We should feel bad when someone dies, not lay the responsibility on others.

Then again, if we’re so married to the passive voice, then let’s have some Valentine’s Day cards to match. How about: “Be my Valentine—you are loved“? Let’s see how that works out. And if that relationship progresses all the way to “Will you allow yourself to be married by me?” and the answer is yes, then I’ll admit that I was wrong. But until then “he will not be missed” will not be missed.

Human Error, Part II

I like Brian Williams. I’ve always found him entertaining. As far as delivering the news, I don’t think he’s better or worse than anyone else. How could he be? It’s the news—you either tell it or you don’t.

But that’s the problem. We don’t really want the news. We prefer the feel-good stories that substitute as news—the items that come after that first commercial break. If we really wanted the news we’d watch PBS.

Still Brian Williams made a mistake—he took liberties with the part of the news after the first commercial. He turned a feel-good story into a feel-too-good story by adding fictitious details. It was so unnecessary: we’d have been happy with the feel-good story alone. Didn’t he know we’re not that choosy anymore?

So now Brian Williams is taking some time off to weigh the possibilities and become the butt of jokes. Many people want him gone for good. They accuse him of stealing valor, of turning a soldier’s heroic act into his own. I don’t think Mr. Williams said to himself beforehand, “Mmmh, let’s see, tonight I’ll steal some valor.” In fact with what we’ve learned about memory the past few days since Mr. Williams conflated those events in the Middle East, it’s entirely possible that he made an honest mistake. I’ll let the experts figure that out.

Let’s not, however, fall for this shibboleth that news anchors need to be held to a higher standard. Really? Higher than who? Higher than politicians who control the operation of this country?

Texas republican governor Rick Perry currently faces two felony charges.

Before he became Florida’s republican governor, Rick Scott was the CEO of Columbia/HCA which was fined a total of $1.7 billion for Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

So as not to slight the democrats, Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough faces 23 state and 11 federal charges over misuse of campaign funds.

They say Brian Williams has done this kind of thing before—enhanced stories to make them more compelling. I hope that’s not true, but if it is, well, I can’t lament that I put him on a pedestal and he let me down. I don’t own a pedestal. And if he doesn’t “give it to us straight” the way Walter Cronkite did, it’s because we don’t want it straight anymore. Seriously does it really matter who tells us a story involving pandas or kittens, or William Kate and Prince George arriving home after their Caribbean vacation?

Maybe stories like that become so mind-numbing after a time, that making stuff up is the only way to say sane.