It Never Ends

Our Peace President seems to be creating more veterans for us to remember on this holiday.

In 1971, a young naval officer named John Kerry testified about his experiences in Vietnam before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was long-winded, pompous and obviously starting his political career, but his words are fitting, poignant and sad:

… thirty years from now, [when] our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, without a face, and small boys ask ‘why?’ we will be able to say “Vietnam,’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy, obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.

Nobody listened to him in 1971. Thirty years have come and gone, and nobody can hear those words today. We are the finest nation in the world, and we stand ready to kill anyone who disagrees.

May our troops, and all the troops of the earth, come home soon, safe and forever.

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You can listen to Kerry’s short speech (19:48) by clicking the blue button.

Disclaimer

In my previous post I didn’t mean to suggest that I have more important or more difficult problems than anyone else in the world.

My goals and my secret travails seem crucial to me, but I am aware that I have it pretty good compared to billions other people in the world. I’m not starving. My basic needs are met — shelter, clothing, high-speed internet. I have a job, even if I don’t like it very much. By an accident of birth I am a citizen of the richest and most privileged nation the world has ever seen, and I participate thoughtlessly in the feast.

But this, of course, is what happens once a human gets past those basic wants: We want more. Over the years I have reduced my expectations a hundred times, and today I think I would be happy with just the tiniest improvement in my condition. Probably the only way to keep those expectations that way, though, would be never to move ahead, never to achieve that minimal next level of happiness or success, or whatever it is that I think I am looking for.

Sometimes I have to laugh — or cry — at my foolishness and selfishness. To all those Americans who have been thrown out of their jobs, who can’t see a doctor when they or their children are sick; who can no longer afford their mortgage payments; who must choose between food and medicine; whose hope and optimism drain away while our government fiddles in endless debate and parliamentary maneuvering; to you all — I am sorry. To the rest of the world — the poor, the sick, the homeless, the hungry — I can’t even begin to express my sadness at your plight.

It’s hard for me to take all that in. The horrors of the real world are like being hit by a bullet, or a truck: You go into shock, and your mind conspires with your body not to feel the pain. When it becomes too awful even for that mechanism to work, you go to sleep.

And so, to my shame, I am sleeping. I’m just a guy, more comfortable but just as helpless as the most dispossessed of us. I used to believe that I could have some effect on the world, but now I think I was kidding myself.

This is no excuse. It’s just that all I have to work with is me. I can’t fix the world, and worrying about it drives me crazy. I’m afraid I don’t have the strength to venture much outside my own playpen these days. Once I might have had a chance to make the world a better place, but I missed it. Time is short now, and my reach is not very long.

I hope I can be forgiven my shallowness.

Living In Fear

I feel as if I’m headed for some kind of breakdown, or blowup.

First, heartfelt thanks to you who noticed my low morale in the previous post, and wrote to help me out. You did help me. Here’s where I’m at these days.

The past few months have been difficult. I’ve lost a couple of old friends. I’ve been living under threat of unemployment for about a year now. These things knocked my usual bubbly personality down a couple of notches, but probably the most intense downer was the sickness.

We had a medical emergency here at revision99, complete with ambulances, paramedics, a near death experience and a week-long hospital stay. For two weeks I had to look hard at the possibility that I was going to spend the rest of my life without Mrs. Jones. The exact medical problem is something that will never go away, and its precise nature is not really important to tell here, but strangely, I wasn’t panicked or overcome. I was sort of numb, waiting to see what would happen. I didn’t have any power to fix the problem, and I was a stranger in the land of hospitals and medicine, so all I could do was wait. I waited for test results, I waited for doctors to show up and tell me what was going on, I waited for a nurse to bring me a tuna sandwich, I waited for prescriptions to be filled, for medicine to take effect.

My wife is fine now. It’s almost as if nothing ever happened. Oh, I still bump into an occasional neighbor who hasn’t yet heard the story of why the ambulance was here (and the fire truck. Why do they always send a fire truck?), and telling the story again makes me revisit the whole thing. Of course, the most insistent reminder comes almost every day in the mailbox. We get bills from eight or nine entities: our gateway doctor, a couple of specialists, a surgeon, the hospital, the emergency room staff, the labs, the fire department, and of course the insurance company, who has already threatened not to cover any of it, pending the submission of various documents, affidavits and appeals.

While this was going on, I was feeling a lot of new pressure at work. I’ve written here before about what I call My Crummy Job and I won’t go again into the awful details. Let’s just say that corporate life is not for me. My mind, heart and soul are opposed to the behavior of my company — and that of all big corporations — and I am tortured to know that I enable their money-grubbing. In recent months, however, they have found new and obnoxious ways to ratchet up the crumminess, and the strain is wearing me out. I have kept this job for a long time, despite mediocre pay and the damage it does to my soul, because it’s been pretty easy, the paydays are regular and I have medical insurance.

But this is the first time it has been made so brutally clear to me that I have to have medical insurance. The six-day hospital stay cost $7,000 a night, and there are also bills from just about everyone we saw during those six days. Seriously, I expect an invoice any day from the janitorial service. So just when I have been feeling totally fed up with the job and ready to blow it off, just at the moment when a younger me would have told his employer to take this job and stick it, I realize that I am trapped in it more than I could have ever anticipated.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I don’t have a solution. I have some slender hope that the government will pass some kind of medical reform pretty soon, and maybe that will give me a little breathing room, but that’s just a technical matter. The real issue for me is what have I done with my life? Or maybe I should ask what has become of my life, because it seems to have slipped away, and I don’t know where it went. The compromises I’ve made have become who I am, and they weren’t supposed to do that. Those compromises were just supposed be temporary adjustments to fleeting situations. They weren’t supposed to encircle me and alter the way the world sees me.

Now I’m trying to figure out who I really am, in the context of this new sense of imminent mortality. The last time I felt this way was when I was in my thirties. Maybe I was being over dramatic then (and maybe now, too), but I had several extremely bad, dangerous habits that I “couldn’t” kick, and I didn’t think I’d live to see forty. I didn’t take any direct action to correct my course. For that, I just needed to grow up, which I finally — and belatedly — did. But I did live each day as if it were my last, because I really thought it might be.

I was a full time musician, record producer and recording engineer in those days. A lot of people didn’t think I was particularly good at any of those jobs, and certainly I didn’t make much money at my endeavors, but at least I was doing what I thought I wanted to do. I felt like an artist, and I was an artist. Things might have been better if I had not been completely out of control, but at least the mess I was making was my own chaos and flames.

Once I got involved in working for a living, I left myself behind, and wore costumes and masks to hide who I really was, the person I felt myself to be. This is surprisingly easy to do, katz and kittenz, because at first you are conscious of doing it, and you tell yourself that it is outward only, a compromise you are making for practical purposes. But if you keep at it the days become weeks, the weeks months, then years, then one day you can’t remember why you are doing anything, why you are getting up every morning, why you are living at all.

So before I have a breakdown, or a blowup, I have to figure out the answer. Why am I living? It’s certainly not to shuffle papers in my corporate office. Really, is anybody living for that? But let me just say it out loud for once: The bush around which I’m beating here is that I want to get back to making music. I mean writing and recording my own songs, and maybe even finding some place to perform them live. I’m a grownup now and I don’t have the luxury of living in a hovel, eating only potatoes and split peas and driving a dilapidated VW bus to my gigs, my only health insurance a box of bandaids. (Funny how that life looks like a luxury to me now.) Of course, I play part time in a cover band, sort of a living juke box, but that is another compromise, and I no longer have time to burn on such projects.

Writing this has made me feel a little better, probably because it’s a start toward admitting the embarrassing reality that I just want to rock, a foolish and extravagant dream for a man of my age. But even in making this admission I feel myself hiding stuff. I’ve pushed a lot of things to the back of the emotional closet over the years, and I guess it’s time for a housecleaning.

Hit Radio

I have been — God help me — listening to Top 40 radio.50's Radio

Top 40 radio. That’s what it used to be called. I’m not sure what they call it today, although I am pretty sure they don’t have 40 songs on the playlist.

See, I was reading the other morning in the Los Angeles Times about the competition between hit radio stations in LA — it seems the upstart Amp Radio (KAMP-FM) is giving the reigning champion (KIIS-FM) a run for the ratings money. Who cares, really, but the story made me start wondering just what it is the kids are dancing to these days, so in the car on the way to work I turned on KAMP-FM.

Apparently everything’s hip hop now. I heard a bunch of commercials, a DJ yelling really loud and really fast and really loud, and then a song called “Hotel Room,” by Pitbull. Ginormous beat, speaker-rippin’ bass, cheesy synth line, misogynist lyrics:

“…after party in the hotel lobby,
then we off to the room like vroom! put them fingers in your mouth uh open up your blouse and pull that g-string down south oooo!”

And the chorus, repeated 5,000 times:

“Forget about your boyfriend and meet me at the hotel room, you can bring your girlfriends and meet me at the hotel room.
Forget about your boyfriend and meet me at the hotel room, you can bring your girlfriends and meet me at the hotel room.
We at the hotel, motel, holiday inn.
We at the hotel, motel, holiday inn.
We at the hotel, motel, holiday inn.
We at the hotel, motel, holiday inn.”

It’s actually quite infectious in a brain dead, purely physical sort of way. I turned the bass all the way up in my car, but I have a feeling the stock Honda sound system wasn’t designed for that kind of thing, and I didn’t get the full effect. Still, infectious.

I only listened to KAMP-FM for ten minutes, and that’s what I heard. Then on the way home from work, I turned it on again, and guess what was playing? That’s right, say it with me — “We at the hotel, motel, holiday inn…” True, it was nine hours later, but I’ll bet it was more than a coincidence. I’ll bet they play that song and about eight others every hour, all day, every day.

I am a musician, and I perform in public, but I have to tell you that I will not make myself ridiculous by trying to sing this song, or any of the stuff they are playing on the hit stations. I take seriously the obligation to be entertaining, but there have to be boundaries for a man of my age. I’m just exploring, like an explorer, the Indiana Jones of intergenerational musicology. You know, taking notes.

Then the other night I’m flipping through a range of seldom-viewed channels up in the four hundreds on my Verizon FIOS fiberoptic entertainment pipe and I come across a show called “Talk Asia,” or something like that, which has one gorgeous non-asian woman interviewing another gorgeous non-asian woman. I love women, I really do, I don’t care if they’re asian or not, they are all gorgeous to me, and so I watch for a few minutes and it turns out the interviewee is Lady Gaga, who looks like she is going to be the next Madonna. Researching this later I find this video on YouTube (WARNING: Banned in Australia!), and the very next time I turn on Amp Radio there she is! I have been listening to hit radio only a couple of days and already I know one of the big hit artists! I’m feeling so inside!

Anyway, if you’ve listened to “Hotel Room” you know pretty much what’s going on with the Top 40 these days. Gaga sings melodies and uses instruments and background singers, but 85 percent of the progamming sounds just like “Hotel Room.” To me.

One thing they are all doing, even Gaga, that they need to stop right away is using Auto-Tune on their voices. Auto-Tune is a digital technology that you can apply to audio. It detects the nearest “in tune” note to the one the singer is singing, and alters the singer’s pitch to match the “correct” pitch. If you think about it for a minute, you will see that while this could be a boon to a lot of vocalists, it also has the potential to take away all the nuance and character from a performance. Singers through the decades, from Billie Holliday to Mick Jagger to Bono do not necessarily nail all the notes, and in fact it is the “wrong” notes they sing that often give their performances their warmth, humanity, style, soul — whatever you choose to call it.

Auto-Tune could take that magic away, and that’s if you use it sparingly. That would be bad enough, but if you turn it up to extreme settings, it changes your voice to this. This seems to have started in 1998 with Cher’s huge hit “Believe.” OK, fine, it was a cool effect, but enough! Naturally, everybody on Amp Radio (and probably KIIS-FM, too) is overusing Auto-Tune, and the result is that all the singers kind of sound like the same singer. Also, the robot-voice thing gets old and irritating pretty quick, so knock it off. No, really.

I’m definitely going to try it the next time I get near a microphone, though.

Chasing Bubbles

Hooray, the recession is over!roulette-wheel

Bankers on Wall Street have come up with a plan to save us all. Er, save the economy. Or maybe they are just trying to save themselves, but hey, the important thing is that at least they trying to help. According to this New York Times article dated September 5, 2009, here’s what they’re doing:

They are going to buy life insurance policies for pennies on the dollar from old people who have fallen on hard times and need some cash. Then they are going to bundle a whole bunch of these policies together and sell them on the market as sure-fire securities. What could possibly go wrong?

Does this sound familiar? Remember securitized mortgages? We all know how well that went. Everything was triple-A rated, of course, and yet somehow only a few bankers and brokers survived, while everybody else lost their shirts.

Of course there is no regulation of this proposed market at this time, and by the time the SEC or whoever gets around to that, the market will be — say it with me — too big to fail, and we’ll just have to live with it, and then later bail it out. And can anyone guess how long it will be before armies of salesmen start calling grandpa to let him know what a great deal they have for him on his silly old life insurance policy? I’ll guess: five minutes.

But there might be room here for some regulatory action. After all, once Grandpa sells his life insurance, the investors have to start hoping he will die sooner rather than later, because as long as Gramps is still kicking they have to keep paying the premiums on the policy, and they don’t get to collect the payout. Naturally they’ll want the old guy to sign a promise to die as soon as possible. This is where the government could step in and insist on end-of-life counseling first. These would be Death Panels Republicans could believe in.

So there you have it. The next brilliant idea, brought to you by the folks who gave you credit default swaps, structured investment vehicles and collateralized debt obligations.

Step right up, katz and kittenz, and place your bets.

Hello, World

It’s Sunday morning in my town, and I am doing the weekly grocery shopping —

Plumeria

— the farner’s market down by the marina, Whole Foods just across the street. I have to drop that stuff off at the house and then go to Trader Joe’s for the things it seems you can only get there, like gluten-free, wheat-free tortillas, and then Costco, for the 55-gallon drum of dish soap and the freight car full of toilet paper.

I am filled with wonder and awe and sadness and joy at this beautiful and fearsome universe, at the fires in the Angeles National Forest that thoughtlessly kill and destroy; at the woman sitting on the curb with her dog and her sign “Homeless Veteran, Any Help Appreciated”; at the half hour of Beatles in mono they just played on Breakfast With the Beatles; at the young man working at Whole Foods who spontaneously sang along in perfect falsetto with Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”; at the red Ferrari I followed on the freeway all the way home from the store, suddenly realizing, after all these many years — “Hey! I want one of those!” — and thinking it’s OK to desire, to covet; at the way we are sliding from summer into fall, and the sun is washing the world in gold; at the friends I have known and lost, and the ones I haven’t yet met; at the brave and beautiful plumeria in the back yard, who brings forth a flower every now and then, in spite of our neglect most of the time; at my little cat Tigger, who stays in the house even when the door is open and unguarded, because he knows it’s what I want him to do — what love, to tame your own instincts to please another!

I’m not who I want to be, and my life hasn’t turned out as I expected, but some days, days like this, I am happy to be here, to be able to go outside and just…Â see what’s there, feel the breeze, and sweat in this heat wave we’re having. I’m happy to have an extra day off my crummy job this week, happy to have my Telecaster and my Blackjack and my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe and the chance to play them in my band a few times a month.

Yes, katz and kittenz, I am Pollyanna, thanks.