Friday, August 29, 2008

Thanks John!

Last night, as we watched Barack Obama's phenomenal nomination acceptance speech at work, we all expressed the hope that he and Biden can squeak out a victory in November. With this morning's news that "Maverick" McCain had chosen first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, he's made it much more likely that Obama and Biden can win. First, in choosing an militantly anti-choicer, he is sending all the women who threatened to vote for McCain because Clinton didn't get the nomination running back to the Democratic Party. And secondly, in choosing a woman, he's alienating the sexist male neanderathals who are, lets face it, at the core of the Party of Old White Guys. Thanks John!

Blogaversary Friday Random Ten

Today's the second anniversary of my starting this blog! Looking back to my first post, I realized that I got off to a great start when the first person to comment on my brand new blog was Dale. This blog has helped me make some new friends, like Dale and Bubs, and to reconnect with old friends like Lulu and Kringle. It's helped me deal with the horrible death of a beloved friend and deal with a bunch of huge changes in my life, particularly leaving the teaching profession and becoming, in my late forties, a college student again. All in all, I'm really glad I decided to start this blog.

1. Yesterday's Not Here No More- Pete Shelley
2. Help Me- Joni Mitchell
3. Change of the Guard- Steely Dan
4. Rabbit Fur Coat- Jennifer Lewis
5. Bonzo Goes To Bitburg- The Ramones
6. Dancing In Heaven- Q-Feel
7. Then Came You- Dionne Warwick with the Spinners
8. Michael Smith and Jamie O'Reilly
9. King of Love- Dave Edmunds
10. Snappy Khaki- ZZ Top

1. From the 1981 solo album from Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley. Watch the double negatives, Pete!
2. I recently read a review of a book about rock women and discovered that Joni Mitchell's song "Coyote" was about playwright Sam Shepard. I wonder who this one's about.
3. From Steely Dan's marvelous debut album.
4. I read an article about Ms. Lewis in the New York Times and had to seek out some of her music. I'm glad I did.
5. This song is about Ronald Reagan's nortorious visit in the eighties to the graves of Nazi SS soldiers. It's put to good use in the movie "School of Rock."
6. This is from the Rhino Records' marvelous "Just Can't Get Enough" series of new wave collections.
7. Two of my favorites together here.
8. From "Pasiones," a record about the Lincoln Brigade.
9. From the Dave Edmunds box set, another Rhino Records labor of love.
10. From Tejas, one of my favorite records of all time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I Can See Frankie From Here!

About a year ago, I posted about a field trip with my alternative school students to the Sears Tower, one of the last things I did as a teacher. I had some shots from the top, and Skyler's Dad, one of my favorite bloggers, made the comment "Hey! I can see your house!" I replied that he had no idea how funny that comment was to me, and promised to post about it. Well, finally, a year later, I'm making good on my promise.

I've mentioned before that the summer of 1982 was, for various reasons, one of the worst in my life. I won't go into that, but at the end of the summer, I was getting ready to go back to school and my brother, a year younger than me, had just returned from grueling Marine basic training. I was dead broke, but he had a bunch of cash from back pay burning a hole in his pocket, so we hatched a plan.

In the late seventies and early eighties, before Chicago's Navy Pier was renovated, the City of Chicago used to have a huge festival that they called, very cleverly, Chicagofest. It was actually really amazing. They had a main stage, where they'd have a variety of acts during the afternoon and early evening, and then a big act at night. They had a variety of themed stages who actually performed on stages that were on barges moored to the pier. On a windy night, it was funny to see the stages bobbing up and down with the waves with the performers gamely swaying to the waves to maintain their balance. There was a rock stage, a blues stage, a country stage and a folk music stage. For some reason, the folkies got to play on a stationary stage inside the main building of the pier.

All up and down the pier there were a variety of activities, all included in the price of admission, which was something like 5 bucks, ridiculously cheap even in 1982. There were movies-- "Rock and Roll High School" and "Quadraphenia" were showing. The then-unknown The Flying Karamozov Brothers performed their quirky, hilarious blend of juggling, comedy and performance art daily. There was food and drink. I remember smelling three things all the time-- coconut oil from the suntan lotion, stale beer and a certain herb burning.

In any event, my brother and I decided that we were going to walk down to Navy Pier from my parents' Lincoln Park apartment and see Frank Sinatra. We were realistic, though; we knew that there were probably thousands of others with the same plan, so we had a back-up. We looked in the newspaper and saw that there was an incredible line-up at the blues stage, which was sponsored by local progressive-rock station WXRT. Mighty Joe Young was performing, as well as Texas bluesman Albert Collins, a big favorite of my brother and I.

Sure enough, when we arrived, we discovered that the line to get into the Frank Sinatra show was huge. We went to Plan B.

We sat through a couple of great blues show. Mighty Joe Young brought the house down with "Sweet Home Chicago." About a year later, the recording of that performance was on a record that WXRT, teamed with Chicago blues label Alligator Records put out of live blues performances. Once in a blue moon, WXRT plays that record, and I'm fond of noting that my brother and I are on that record, in the crowd cheering.

As the evening wore on, we had a great time. I'd just turned 21 and he had a bunch of money (and was only 20) so we did the "I'll fly if you buy" thing. And there were a number of flights. We alternated between plastic cups of beer and wine, which was oddly served in those plastic pitchers you get in the hospital. We were, apparently, pretty entertaining, cutting up the crowd around us, who bought us a couple of rounds.

One of the people sitting next to us told us that Sinatra had a deal with the Chicagofest people that nobody else would be performing while he was. And sure enough, all the other stages quieted down, and to our amazement, we could see (and hear) Sinatra, probably nearly a half mile away from us on the other side of the long pier.

Now, you know that old joke where Jesus is on the cross and keeps calling to Peter, and Peter fights his way up Calvary Hill, past the Romans, to Jesus, at great risk and cost in physical abuse, only to have Jesus tell him "Peter, Peter-- I can see your house from here!"? Well, this was one of my brother's and my favorite jokes, which you have to know for this to make sense.

All of a sudden, as the audience quietly chatted and looked at Sinatra, who was a tiny crooning figure in a bright spotlight a couple of thousand feet away, my brother suddenly stood up, threw his arms up so that they were straight out and yelled "Johnny, Johnny-- I can see Frankie from here!"

I was, of course, laughing so hard I couldn't breath, as were the handful of people around us who actually got the joke. We should probably have been ashamed. But we weren't. We were pretty hung over the next day, though.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who's The Out-Of-Touch Elitist?

For someone who's got a Master's Degree in Political Science, I've said very little about this election. It's time to pipe in.

Six months ago, my feelings were that even if McCain won in November, it wouldn't be a complete disaster. For example, unlike many of his fellow conservatives, he actually believes in modern science, and that the scientific consensus that fossil fuel use is hurtling us toward a global warming disaster is true.

I don't feel that way anymore. If McCain won, it would be a disaster. This is going to be the most important US election since 1860.

Let me clarify. Most who know me and those who read my blog regularly certainly know that I was always going to vote for the Democrat who won the nomination, whether it was Obama, Clinton, Kucinich or any other of the pack. My concern is that there's no guarantee that the Democrat will win in November. And in fact, the Republican did win in the last two elections. This has led to a disasterous slide in this country at every level-- economically, politically, internationally, energy-wise. I sometimes wondered if Bush and Cheney had a crack team up late at night trying to figure out new ways to screw up.

The fact of the matter is that we are in trouble. We are trapped in a war in Iraq that we never should have been in. We are losing a war in Afghanistan that could have been won by now had we not diverted resources to Iraq. The dollar has plummetted in value, and oil prices have skyrocketed. We've got seventies style "stagflation" going on-- inflation combined with economic slowdown. And thousands and thousands of Americans are losing their homes. I read in the New York Times today about Merced, California, where three out of every four housing sales are foreclosures.

In the midst of this, the soon-to-be Republican candidate for President, in what is, in my opinion, the most important election in over a century, did not know, when asked, how many houses he owns.

Let me state, right off, that the issue is not that he is rich. Obama, Biden and most other Senators are rich. The issue is that he did not have the sense not to say something that stupid and insensitive. He's been trying to paint Barack Obama as someone who is elitist and out of touch with the issues that concerns Americans. Americans are scared to death about the economy. It's been frightening to go from the nineties, when everybody seemed to be getting in on the economic boom that happened then. Welfare mothers were going to work and buying homes. I have no doubt that the flush times were largely responsible for the plummet in the crime rate. And that the current economic problems have been part of the uptick in crime, including violent crime, in recent years. As most of you know, this has personally affected me.

So McCain's strategy has been to paint Barack Obama as an elitist who is out of touch with the concerns of the common folk. Two recent things have really troubled me, beyond the fact that McCain seems to be completely out of it in understanding global politics and economics. A few weeks ago he revealed that he is unable to use a PC, something my kids have done since they were babies. How in the hell can a guy who can't use a friggin' computer do a job that is probably the most demanding job in history?

The other is, of course, his response about the houses. I'm not just appalled that a guy trying to portray his opponent as an out-of-touch elitist is so rich and, well, out of it, that he doesn't know how many houses he has-- though I do find that pretty appalling. The thing I find disturbing is that it never occurred to him that the answer he gave would be appalling to many, many people. He should have kept his goddamned mouth shut. If he doesn't have the sense to do that in that situation, I cannot imagine how he would have the sense to run the country.

Go Barack and Biden!

Friday, August 22, 2008

End Of Summer Break Friday Random Ten

I went to sign up for my fall classes a couple of days ago. I was able to sign up for Chemistry 203, which I need before I can take Organic Chemistry, but the Anatomy class I wanted was full. I talked to the professor and he was certain that people would drop the first couple of days, and I'll be able to register for it. Just in case, I'm going to try to sign up for a Writing class that I need.

1. Waiting For A Train- Johnny Cash
2. Sweet Lelani- Don Ho
3. I'm Not Down- The Clash
4. I Can't Stand It- Velvet Underground
5. Esther Be The One- ZZ Top
6. The Wino and I Know- Jimmy Buffett
7. Animals- Talking Heads
8. Comin' Back To Me- Jefferson Airplane
9. I and I- Bob Dylan
10. Getting Better- The Beatles

1. I'm still sad that Johnny Cash is gone. He was a national treasure.
2. Some friends of mine in the early nineties had a band called The Primary Colors and did a good cover of this.
3. This song has one of the greatest lines ever in a rock song:

If it's true that a rich man leads a sad life
N' that's what they from day to day
Then what do all the poor do with their lives?

4. One of my favorite Velvet Underground songs.
5. From the great Deguello album.
6. I never knew what the "Cafe Du Monde," which is mentioned in this song, until I read about it after Hurricane Katrina. It's in New Orleans.
7. From "Fear of Music," my favorite Talking Heads record.
8. Surrealistic Pillow is one of my desert island albums.
9. From 1983's "Infidels," a big come-back album for Dylan.
10. From Sgt. Pepper.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ready To Rock and Roll!

This is my stepdaughter and two of her best friends at lacrosse practice yesterday.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

He Was A Baaaaaaad Mutha...

I was saddened the other day to hear the news of the death of musician Issac Hayes.

He's best known for his huge hit, "The Theme From Shaft," which won him an Oscar. What's less known is that before that, he was a very successful R and B session player, songwriter and producer with the famed Stax Records. He wrote a number of Sam and Dave's hits, including "Soul Man," (later covered by the Blues Brothers), and "Hold On, I'm Coming," one of my personal favorites.

One of my favorite memories of Hayes was as a kid, when I was watching a Jack Benny special. Hayes perfomed "The Theme From Shaft," complete with a platoon of scantily clad dancing girls. He himself was dressed in his characteristic outfit, with only a huge gold chain for a top. As he finished, Jack Benny approached him, lifted the chain a little and deadpanned "Nice shirt, Isaac."

As music tastes changed, and R and B sales plummetted, Hayes' fortunes followed. Stax went out of business. He and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 1976. He lost most of what he owned, and even worse, the rights to future royalties on much of the music he's written, published and performed.

Hayes began a comeback that included a number of television and film roles. He had a recurring role in "The Rockford Files," and of course later in "South Park" as the voice of The Chef. Perhaps his greatest and most memorable role was as "The Duke" in the cult classic "Escape From New York," where he lampooned blaxploitation movie characters.

Some people have dissed on Hayes for his involvement in the Scientology cult. I don't have much to say about that, but I will add that when times were good, both before and after his bankruptcy, Hayes was a generous guy, giving lots of time and money to charitable organizations.

My favorite memory about Issac Hayes involves the Gingerman Tavern, here in Chicago, where I spent some good times in my illustrious youth. They had one of the greatest jukeboxes ever, with a nice mix of music that ran the range from punk to old R and B and everything in between. The most popular song, by far, on the jukebox, was "The Theme From Shaft." By popular, I mean that the song was played, some nights, every third or fourth song. The bartenders came to really, really hate the song.

Not the patrons, though. Every time, without failure, that the song played, when the part came up where Hayes sang "That cat Shaft is a baaaaad mutha-," the entire bar (and I include myself here) would shout "Shut yo mouth!" It never, ever stopped being funny.

RIP, Isaac. Thanks for the great music and memories.

Monday, August 18, 2008


On my refrigerator, there's a "project." It was from when Adam was in preschool at the New City YMCA in Chicago, in December of 1998.

I was working as a seventh grade Social Studies teacher at a public school in a tough neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. I was wearing a suit that day-- all the male faculty members wore them that day as an example for the students. At Adam's school, it was "Family Night." The school's gym was filled with stations where kids and parents could make all kinds of projects. At one station, they took a Poloroid picture that they put in a frame that your kid had decorated, then attached magnets to the back.

It's funny to look back at the picture as a time capsule. Adam was in the first year of his education. I was twenty five pounds heavier and ten years younger. He was 4 and i was 37. I had just settled a bruising custody fight Adam's mother. Suddenly, after only sporadic visits, he was on a regular schedule of seeing me on weekends and holidays. You look at the picture and make your decision about how he felt about it.

This past weekend was one of his weekends with me. This one was a little different from most; when the weekend ended, he would return to his mother's house, and then on Monday, today, begin high school.

I made sure to schedule a bunch of things I knew he liked. We did Chinese buffet on Friday, and watched "School of Rock," one of his favorite movies, on Friday night. On Saturday, we went to Uncle Fun's, the greatest store in the world. We played putt-putt golf at Novelty Golf (Chicagoans usually call it "The Bunny Hutch," which is actually the name of the small restaurant that is part of it.)

Saturday night, one our good friends had a birthday party-- his 37th, ironically. Since I had to work, Kim brought the kids there, and I was able to call in a favor and got off of work early and joined at a reasonable hour.

Watching the kids play happily together-- the electric "shocking" pen that Adam got at Uncle Fun's was a big hit-- I felt a sense of relief. I realized that a series of decisions I'd made over the years had paid off. Adam is a happy and well-adjusted young guy.

On Sunday, when I dropped Adam off with his mother, we met at an Office Max store near her home so that I could give her a coupon I had, and some money, my share of the cost of a graphing calculator we were purchasing for him. He was carrying the new backpack and clothes that I bought him this weekend.

As they got in her car and got ready to go, I sensed that she was struggling to hold it together. "You ready for this?" I asked her. I knew the answer already. "No," she replied.

I, on the other hand, was doing much better. I'm sure the tightness in my chest was just from middle age and the humidity.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Today's Strange and Amusing Things

Had a busy day running up to Evanston to work, picking up my son, going out to dinner with him and meeting Kim, Mel and some friends of ours for a movie. I was glad that I had my digital camera with me, because there were strange and amusing things around me all day.

First off, I stopped to put gas in my new used Toyota, and to make sure the tires had the proper pressure. As I was filling up at the combination air pump/vacuum cleaner, a guy in a van full of antiques pulled up. He walked up and put money in the vaccum cleaner half of the machine. I wondered how he was going to vaccum his van-- with my car in front of the machine, his van was parked too far to vacuum the inside of his van.

As I filled the tires of my car, I realized the he was vacuuming himself.

I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what that was about.

As I drove to pick Adam up, I realized that I was near a grocery store that carries a product I love-- a gluten-free pizza dough mix. I have celiac disease and can't have anything with wheat in it. I'm due for a pizza soon. As I walked back to my car, I noticed this sign on another car.


Okay, I've got some problem-- a missing cat, I want to find a long-lost old friend, find my lost car keys or whatever, and what do I do? Call a psychic whose car I saw in a parking lot.

I also stopped to buy a new winter coat and get some new wiper blades, I noticed a store in the parking lot that I'd been in many times before, but had never noticed-- Napolean's Tailor. Apparently, it's a clothing store for short guys. Then I noticed this sign by the door:

Did you see anything that amused you today?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mid August Friday Random Ten

It's halfway through August, and I've got to remember to sign up for next semester's classes-- Anatomy and Chemistry-- sometime this weekend. Happily, I got my "Economic Stimulus" tax refund money today, so I'll be able to pay for the classes.

1. Digging Your Scene- The Blow Monkeys
2. Whenever You're On My Mind- Marshall Crenshaw
3. That's The Way Of The World- Earth, Wind and Fire
4. It Ain't Easy- David Bowie
5. CIA Man- The Fugs
6. My Cherie Amor- Stevie Wonder
7. Deadbeat Club- The B-52's
8. Unsatisfied- Hole
9. Someone Take The Wheel- The Replacements
10. The Night I Stole Old Sammy Morgan's Gin- Hank Snow

1. A nice piece of pop fluff from the eighties.
2. I almost did this one as my "Random Forgotten Video" this week.
3. My second-favorite EW & F song. My favorite is "September."
4. From "Ziggy Stardust," an album that still sounds great after 36 years.
5. Sixties counterculture heroes The Fugs spoofing "Secret Agent Man."
6. One of the songs I wish I had written.
7. From "Cosmic Thing," the B-52's 1989 comeback album. Whenever I hear it, I think of my friend Deadspot. I bought the cassette of this album for my drive to his wedding in 1990.
8. Kurt Cobain's widow Courtney Love and her band doing a cover of a Replacements song.
9. The Replacements doing a Replacements song.
10. I have no idea how this song got on my ipod.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

And Then They Opened Up An Antique Store Together...

My stepdaughter was looking up an old Slinky commercial on Youtube today and something popped in my head-- a toy advertisement that I thought I remembered from childhood, but wondered if it was a figment of my imagination. It wasn't. I was, of course, able to find commercials for the Big Jim Action Figure on Youtube.

This is the gayest toy ever. It makes Barbie's "Ken" look butch by comparison.

Here are a couple of other commercials for "Big Jim."

Occasional Forgotten Video: Dave Edmunds- "Slipping Away"

The summer of 1983, which I've mentioned was the best summer of my life, had great music and great videos. Dave Edmunds' "Slipping Away" was one of those.

Welshman Dave Edmunds had been around a while already. He'd first scored a hit in the late sixties in his band Love Sculpture with a rock version of the Sabre Dance. In 1970, Edmunds had an international hit with "I Hear You Knocking." He and his pal Nick Lowe played in various bands in the British "Pub Rock" scene, with Gram Parker, Brinsley Schwartz and others. He finally formed Rockpile with Nick Lowe in the late seventies. They only produced one album, but it's a must-have.

I saw Dave Edmunds at Chicago's Park West in the summer of 1982. Though that was the worst summer of my life, the show was a stand-out. It was one of the best live shows I've ever seen.

1983's "Slipping Away" was produced by ELO frontman Jeff Lynne. It was Edmunds' only entry, beside "I Hear You Knocking" to make it into the US Top 40, and just barely; it made it to #39 for a week. However, it got lots of play on the then-new MTV, where it found a place in my heart as a reminder of an awesome summer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Brand Names

I had to make a quick trip to the store to buy a frozen pizza for my stepdaughter and her friends to have for lunch. I noticed that the new restaurant that opened up near my house had added a new sign and sidewalk tables. It didn't seem to make a difference-- it's nearly always empty.

Truth be told, I haven't checked the place out. The fact of the matter-- and I suspect I'm not alone in this in my neighborhood-- is that I can't get past the unfathomably idiotic name: "Paddy O'Splaine's." Sometimes, presentation is everything. And the name is a big part of the presentation.

I was reminded of a story that I've heard many times, and did a little research on it. Supposedly, when GM sold the Chevy Nova in Latin America, they had trouble-- that "Nova" sounds like "no va," which means "doesn't go" in Spanish. It's cited in textbooks and in marketing books as an example of cultural insensitivity and stupidity by marketers.

Unfortunately, like many things in life, the story is better than the truth here. I checked Snopes and discovered that the story is an Urban Legend.

But I'm still not going to Paddy O'Splaine's.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Greenest House On The Block

Yesterday, I got another bike, a clunky old Schwinn five-speed.

About a month and a half ago, I bought an inexpensive, but reliable new Schwinn. It's been okay, but I had a couple of concerns. First, my college is in a high-crime area of Chicago, Uptown. I fear that a shiny new bike is too much of a temptation for thieves. The second was a matter of personal preference-- I liked the bike overall, but didn't like the wide "beach bike" handlebars of the new bike. I'll probably sell it.

It was the most recent of changes toward a greener (and more frugal) life. Recently, I sold my old gas guzzling Chevy Blazer and bought a gas-sipping 1993 Toyota Corrolla that gets more than double the gas mileage of my old car. With gasoline over four bucks a gallon in Chicago, even after prices have eased up a bit, it made sense.

About a year-and-a-half ago, the City of Chicago tried out a "blue bin" program in two neighborhoods, mine (North Center) and Austin, a neighborhood on the west side. The program was apparently a success; it's been expanded citywide.

In our home, it's been a big success; our neighbors and us were regularly filling the one big blue recycling bin the city gave us. We had to either put the overflow in a neighbor's bin or put it in the trash. My landlady took action-- she called the alderman. Within days, we had a second recycling bin. Most weeks we fill both bins.

Recently, the New York Times had an article on the city of Houston-- specifically how abysmally low the recycling rate is in Houston. Apparently, people in Houston look at it as some moronic sign of "independence" that they don't recycle.

The rates of recycling in major cities varies wildly, according to the statistics cited in the New York Times. Houston, with a 2.6% recycling rate (yes, that's 2.6%, not a typo) is the lowest, and San Francisco is the highest, with 69%. Chicago is high, but not the highest, with a 55.4% recycling rate.

A few years back, I read a great article in National Geographic about the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York. For decades it was the primary garbage disposal facility for New York City. For a half century, 20 barges a day, each containing 65 tons of garbage, brought refuse to the site. For comparison, that's about the weight of an M-1 Abrams, the main battle tank of the US Army. Imagine 20 of those dumped in the same site every day for a half century. Fresh Kills was closed in March of 2001, but reopened temporarily later that year to process debris from the World Trade Center.

In the National Geographic article, archeologists drilled cores and examined garbage from decades past. Old wrappers, newspapers and toys painted a picture of a different age.

One of the things that most people don't realize about landfills is that things do not decompose in them-- even things like paper and food, that normally decompose rapidly in nature. In the anaerobic environment of a landfill, they don't. Newspapers from the 1950's that the archeologists dug up were still readable. In a landfill, it doesn't matter whether it's durable plastic or aluminum or biodegradable paper or food-- It'll still be there in 1000 years. Landfill seems, then, to be a best a temporary solution and at worst, idiotic. In a thousand years, citizens, hopefully more enlightened than our current society, will look back on us and say "What the hell were those fools thinking?"

I've read that some scientists speculate that one of the reasons for the downfall of Roman Empire was the use of lead pipes for drinking water, and lead-based glazing in their dishes. Even tiny amounts of lead causes brain (and cardiovascular and renal) damage. The Romans had no idea that they were poisoning themselves; they even added a lead salt to their wine to sweeten it. We have no such claim to ignorance. A future historian, looking back at this age, will be amazed that at great cost and labor, our society extracted petroleum, which took millions and millions of years to form, and used it to make gasoline so that a yuppie could drive his SUV to the gym and work out, or to make a plastic package that will hold a piece of candy for a couple of weeks-- all the while either adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or creating a non-biodegradeable piece of garbage that will be available for some future anthropologist to marvel at in 2000 years.

As I put the recycling out this morning, noticing that both bins are over half full-- we would have been overflowing by now if we hadn't gotten the second bin-- I wondered about my neighbors. I don't think that we produce any more garbage than other homes on the block. I think we're just a little more concientious about recycling.

There have been lots of changes in this household in the last year that eased our impact on the planet: much better insulation and windows, along with modern new furnaces and water heaters have drastically reduced the amount of natural gas we use in winter months. This has had an economic benefit; even though heating gas prices have more than doubled in the last few years, our monthly heating bills have gone down, sometimes by a factor of half. I wonder how in the hell I was able to pay $400 peak monthly heating bills back when it was just Adam and I.

A few years ago, I changed all the lightbulbs in the house. When I was throwing out the evil roommate, I knew I was going to batten down the hatches finanacially. I was at Costco, reading the package of some compact florescent bulbs (CFB's), and was astounded to see how much I would save; the claim was that I'd save over 50 bucks per bulb in energy costs over the life of the bulb. Another bonus-- the bulbs last much, much longer. I have a couple of light fixtures that are in hard-to-get places, particularly the bulb over my sink. I did not wait for the old bulbs to go out-- I replaced every bulb in the house. The savings in my electric bill were dramatic-- about a $25 a month savings-- that's about $300 a year!

Reading the package of the set of CFB's I bought at Costco a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that each bulb installed keeps an amazing 720 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere over the life of the bulb. The bulbs use less than a quarter of the electricity to provide the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb.

One thing to remember with these bulbs, though, is not to throw them in the garbage. They contain mercury, which is about as toxic as lead. Home Depot, True Value Hardware and other retailers will take these in for recycling.

After replacing the bulbs, I found that I could still not get my electric bill under $75-$80 a month, even when I was careful about shutting down the lights. Over time, I began to realize that the old refrigerator in my apartment ran pretty much nonstop. It was old and inefficient. As a family Christmas gift a couple of Christmases ago, I bought a new, much more efficient refrigerator. It cut another $25 a month off our electric bills. Most months, when we aren't running air conditioning, the electric bill is $50-$55 a month, even with massive increases in the cost of electricity in the Chicago area.

Big bonus-- it has an icemaker!

With the new/old car, the bike and the second bin, along with the beautiful greenery in our backyard pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we're doing pretty well here. We're not saving the planet all by ourselves, but as Chinese leader Mao said, "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step."

Hey, anybody want to take a step? I've got a nice new Schwinn I'll sell for a good price.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The "Is It Really August Already" Random Ten

When my son was little, I told him how as you get older, each year seems to go faster. A couple of years ago, he told me that he finally understood-- that his school year had zoomed by.

For me this year it's been summer. It seemed like it was never going to get here-- I'll post soon about how cold it was at one of Adam's baseball games. Now that it's finally here, it seems like it's almost gone.

1. Pretty Paper- Roy Orbison
2. Pinhead- The Ramones
3. The Trip- Kim Fowley
4. Memorial Song- Patti Smith
5. Why PIck On Me?- The Standells
6. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald- Gordon Lightfoot
7. Fountain of Sorrow- Jackson Browne
8. Moving In Stereo/All Mixed Up- The Cars
9. Corrina, Corrina- Bob Wills
10. Giving It All Away- Roger Daltrey

1. I discovered Roy Orbison in college, when I borrowed my friend Matt's album "The Very Best of Roy Orbison" in all its vinyl glory. Thankfully, it's on cd now and I purchased it in Seattle a couple of years ago.
2. What would a Friday Random Ten be without the Ramones?
3. Kim Fowley is a legendary producer who also had one hit of his own, which is on the great "Nuggets" collection. He also has a weekend show on Little Steven's Underground Garage on Sirius (now Sirius/XM) radio.
4. This little gem, about Smith's friend and old lover Robert Mapplethorpe, is on the great "No Alternative" cd.
5. The Standell's were a band from L.A. who were best know for a song about Boston, "Dirty Water." This is another one from the "Nuggets" collection.
6. A great song about the sinking of an iron ore freighter on Lake Superior in 1975 in which all 29 hands were lost. The wreck has been found, but the cause of the sinking has never been solved.
7. The king of the California singer/songwriters.
8. The great two-song medley ends the Cars' fabulous first album, which came out in 1978, 30 years ago!
9. Dylan did a nice cover of this. This is the best-known version of it.
10. Half of a medley-- the first song is "It's a Hard Life."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Answer, My Friend-- Or At Least Part Of It-- Is Blowing In The Wind

Back in the late seventies, I started reading up on "Alternative Energy." I'd lived through the so-called "energy crisis" of the early seventies, which had been spurred by the embargo of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or "OPEC" upon any country that supported Israel. This included, of course, the United States.

Those of you who were around at the time remember the lines at the gasoline stations. Gasoline leapt up in price because it was suddenly relatively scarce. People panicked and lined up to fuel up their cars. I remember the outrage that gasoline had increased to 43 or 44 cents a gallon.

There was suddenly an awareness that yes, there was a finite amount of fossil fuel on the planet, and that we would have to start dealing with that reality. Suddenly, all kinds of things were done. The government started funding research into so-called "alternative energy"-- perhaps better called "sustainable energy." Generous tax breaks were given for individuals using solar technologies in their home, or insulating those homes better. Research was funded. Groups like the New Alchemy Institute on the east coast and the Farallones Institute on the west coast thrived. Sustainable architecture advocate Sim Van der Ryn became California's state architect.

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President here in the United States. The tax breaks for solar energy and insulation were allowed to lapse. Generous tax breaks and low-cost leases on federal lands were given to oil and coal companies. For thirty years, we've been living in a fool's paradise of cheap endless energy. We began providing massive subsidies to oil companies in the form of very generous depreciation schedules and having our navy provide round-the-clock protection to oil routes. Not to mention getting in bed with some unwholesome regimes like Saudi Arabia.

Suddenly, one ill-advised war and probably some petroleum speculation later, fuel prices have skyrocketed, giving those of us who remember it an uncomfortable deja vu and those that don't a scary sticker shock.

The fact of the matter is that we may be looking at the end of most of our petroleum within my lifetime. I'm 47 years old. There's talk of 30 years left at the rate we're using it, and we're looking at a massive increase in use as China, India and other countries industrialize. 30 years may then become optimistic. Think back thirty years ago-- 1978. Not too long ago for me. I was in high school.

And that point may be moot, with global warming.

I've been reading George Monbiot's "Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning," lately. It's a pretty good book about not only global warming, but some prescriptions. I haven't finished it yet, but since I've been reading up on energy and sustainable living for about thirty years, I've got some thoughts.

First off, I think that economics will be part of the change. It's already personally affected me; I bought a gas-sipping 1993 Toyota Corolla last week, and sold my gas-guzzling 1994 Chevy Blazer yesterday. At 12 miles to a gallon in the city-- and I live in the city-- it was ludicrous. One day I realized that it cost me about six bucks to drive to my ex's house and pick up my son. In the bigger picture, many folks have done the same, and gasoline sales have plummetted. There's a rush on among car companies to drop their bigger models (specifically SUV's) and to develop better electric cars.

There's also a rush on to provide non-fossil fuel means of providing the electricity for those cars, and for home and industrial use.

Quick: tell me which state is the biggest producer of wind power (no Chicago politician jokes, please). Did you guess California? Nope. It's Texas, though California also produces plenty.

Recently, former oilman billionaire T. Boone Pickens came out advocating a massive investment in wind power. The New York Times recently had an article about a new wind farm in Nebraska that produces enough energy to power 19,000 homes with just 36 turbines.

Around the world, industrialized nations are plugging wind power into their grids. Industrial giant Germany is providing 7% of their electrical energy consumption with wind power. Spain has had a massive build-up of wind power and are providing 10% of their electricity needs with the wind. Denmark produces an amazing 20% of their electricity with wind.

Wind power is, however, definitely not a panacea. Not every part of the world is well-suited to it. A sustainable future is going to entail a lot of solutions, and some lifestyle changes.

If a sustainable future is going to work, we will need a lot of things-- industry, for one. We will have to find a way to use technology to our advantage, rather than eschewing technology. Nobody wants to live in the 1800's.

When you start to read about it all, and learn about it all, it can seem pretty intimidating. Clearly, technologies that don't exist yet will be needed in order to make it all work. But I have confidence that it can happen.

A few months ago, while my son and I were visiting my parents in Tennessee, my father and I had a conversation about his career working with computers. When he started working with computers, for IBM in 1967, he worked on the IBM 360's. These big computers, as big as a refrigerator, had a nearly-as-big disc storage drive that used large discs with a capacity of less than 7 megabytes in order to store the information it processed and produced. I remember as a kid my dad taking my brothers and I to an IBM office in downtown Chicago, where we saw these machines.

He and I laughed on my recent visit about the changes in technology and cost; the five pound laptop, a used Ibook that I'm writing this post on, has many times the computing capacity of that computer that weighed maybe a half ton. The 2 Gigabyte flash drive that I carry around in my pocket, that weighs less than a key, has nearly 300 times the storage capacity of the discs that stored the information. 2 Gigabytes of storage, in 1967, would have cost millions. I paid ten bucks for the 2 GB flash drive in the picture. Today I got a coupon from Microcenter for a free 2 GB flash drive.

If this kind of change can happen in computers, imagine what can happen with solar panels, heat-efficient housing, electric cars, mass transit, etc.

One of the regular features I'm going to include from now on in this blog is about sustainable living in general. There are a lot of aspects about it-- energy production, housing design, sustainable agriculture and other things. Some of the themes I hope that emerge are that a change to a sustainable future can mean an improvement in our quality of life, not a return to the stone age, and working with economics, rather than against it. I hope you will find it interesting, hopeful and maybe even enlightening.

Taking Care of a Tag By Skyler's Dad

Okay, it's been an embarassingly long time since Uberdad Skyler's Dad conferred upon me an Arte y Pico Award.

First, the rules:

The rules:

1. You have to pick 5 blogs that you consider deserve this award through creativity, design, interesting material, and also contributes to the blogger community, no matter of language.

2. Each award should have the name of the author with a link to their blog.

3. Award winners have to post the award with the name and link to the blog of the person who gave them the award (done at the end of Paragraph 1).

4. Please include a link to the “Arte Y Pico” blog so that everyone will know where the award came from.

5. Show these rules.

Okay, my awards:

Erik's Choice
The breadth and depth of Erik's blogging is amazing. Whether it's Iggy Pop, Diane Arbus, the White Stripes or Albert Camus, his posts are illuminating, interesting and entertaining.

Tripping Toward Lucidity
Despite having a pretty massive collection of books and one of Chicago's biggest and best-stocked libraries near my home, I don't read enough. And the reading I do is usually non-fiction. I am woefully neglectful in reading literature. My saving grace is Estella's Revenge. Not only does she keep me informed about literature, but the site is beautiful.

Dear Bastards
Like reading literature, I don't watch enough movies. Fortunately, there's this blog to keep me informed about all kinds of movies and television shows. He's also got a good dose of snark and sarcasm, which I appreciate.

Blue Conversations
Tocatta's blog is a nice mix of day to day life and exquisitely beautiful photography.

Samurai Frog
I know this is like the fourth award I've given Samurai Frog, but he deserves them. His knowledge of movies, music and pop culture are encyclopediac and his insights are always interesting and enlightening.

Who Completed The Trifecta?

A couple of weeks ago at work, we were talking about baseball- the All-Star game, the upcoming Hall of Fame inductions, etc., and some fond baseball memories came back to me.

I've alluded to one before-- when some old friends and I were attending a Chicago Cubs/St. Louis Cardinals game in St. Louis, when Chicago Cub pitcher Goose Gossage came out to warm up. I yelled to him that he should stay in St. Louis. He turned around with a grin, apparently thinking that we were St. Louis fans complimenting him. When I figured this out, I yelled "I'm from Chicago!" He gave me a gesture that is internationally known.

I recalled, also, the only All-Star game I've attended, the 1990 All-Star game that was played at Wrigley Field. My old friend Purple Larry had scored bleacher tickets to the game.

The night turned rainy and cold. I was, of course, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, since it was the middle of July (as I've said, only in Chicago). But the night did have its great moment. Failed baseball player, failed boxer, snitch and steroid user Jose Canseco, then on the Oakland A's with fellow future juicer Mark McGwire, who was also there that night, was playing center field for the American League team. In following a long Wrigley Field tradition, the folks in the bleachers were heckling Jose Canseco. He was used to it, apparently, and ignored it-- until I started up in Spanish, which I had just learned. I yelled to him "Tu hermana era buena, pero tu mama era la mejora" I'll let you translate that. It did finally get Canseco to flip me off.

When I told these tales to my co-workers, bartender Angie asked: who will complete your flip-off trifecta? I thought I had more of my life's work ahead of me and then I remembered: old friend The Elk and I had completed it decades ago.

We were at one of the many Cubs games he and I attended at Wrigley Field in the late eighties. This particular game was in 1987, against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Elk had a way of getting the whole crowd going in heckling ballplayers (his heckling of Dwight Gooden actually made the papers here in Chicago-- that'll be another post). At this particular game, Dan and I got the crowd heckling swaggering Philllies outfield Lenny Dykstra, swaying their arms and bodies back and forth, chanting "Lennnnnnny, Lennnnny!" Then suddenly, in the pause in between the chants yelled "You suck!" To our delight, we got him to flip the bird.

My trifecta is completed; my life feels whole.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Only In Chicago

This picture was taken today. Yes, those are huge piles of snow.

Okay, I lie. It's actually from the ice rink at McFetridge Park, a few blocks from my home. It has an indoor ice rink, which they close in August every year for a big clean-up. Those are piles of ice from the rink.

A Quarter Century Ago: Grenada and Beirut

25 years ago this month, I was living the good life. After a rough junior year at Eastern Illinois University, I was taking summer school with a new major and a new attitude. After struggling with my Biology major, I'd discovered Political Science after taking a required class in the subject. The teacher, with the improbable name of Dr. John Faust, had captured my imagination. I was hooked, and would go on to get my Bachelor's and then Master's in Political Science.

This had entailed a major change in my plans. When I was 19, I'd had it all planned out; I'd go to Eastern for a year, get some basic classes out of the way, and transfer to the University of Illinois to study Biology.

In the military, they say that the plan ends with the first shot. This was the case with my first year at Eastern. I discovered a lot of things. First, I was way more interested in Political Science than Biology, at least at that point in my life. Second, I'd met the best friends I'd ever meet in my life-- Jim, Larry, Andreas, Carolyn, Tim, Mark, Ron and maybe two dozen others, and had no desire to transfer to the University of Illinois.

The summer of 1983 was a turning point. I'd realized that I had a passion for Political Science and History. As I began my senior year, I jumped into it, taking two Political Science classes-- the "Politics and Ideology of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe", and "Party Politics." The latter was taught by my advisor, the late Joe Connelly, who, I did not realize until fairly recently was the advisor for two of my oldest and closest friends, Andreas and Ron.

That summer was a turning point in my life more than academically. After playing guitar since I was 15, I was, for the first time, able, to my surprise and delight, to sit down and figure a song out on the guitar by ear. I remember playing a lot of guitar that summer.

I was rooming that summer with a friend from the dorms, Kenny. We lived in a huge old frat house off-campus. We were not in the frat; they took in "independents" in the summer in order to cover costs. Years later, the well-insured house burned to the ground while vacant during Christmas break.

The summer was idyllic. I was taking summer school classes I loved. I'd come home from class, eat lunch and lay out in the sun wearing just my cut-offs studying. Sometimes I'd throw one of the albums I listened to a lot that summer onto the turntable: The Beach Boys' "Endless Summer" best-of collection, Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and "Born To Run" albums, Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."

Around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I'd head over to Taylor Hall, where I worked in the food service. I made a bunch of friends there, too. At night, I'd study a little more, chat with Kenny, sometimes watch the Cubs games with my housemates and call it a night. Since we didn't have class on Fridays, on Thursdays, we'd head up to Mother's, a bar in the square, for $1.75 pitchers and good music.

One night, I was hanging out in the room Kenny and I shared, taking a break from studying, watching a show I'd come to enjoy. It was a talk show that came out of Detroit, hosted by Dennis Wholey, a guy I'd never heard of.

I came to really like the show and Dennis Wholey himself. He was intelligent and interesting, and had guests that nobody else would have. I respected the way he dealt bluntly with his alcoholism.

That July night, he had a guy I'd never heard of, who was the leader of a country I'd never heard of. The guy was Maurice Bishop, who was the Prime Minister of Grenada, a tiny island nation of about 100,000 people in the Caribbean.

As the interview unfolded, I became fascinated with what was going on. Bishop had taken power in March of 1979 while Prime Minister Eric Gairy was out of the country. Only 33 years old, he headed up the "New Jewel Movement," a group that held a spectrum of leftist beliefs. The New Jewel Movement instituted ties with the government of another leftist Caribbean island nation, Cuba.

1979 seemed to be the year of the young man throughout the developing world. In Ghana, 31-year-old Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings had deposed the corrupt government of Ghana and instituted a reform government. In the Central American nation of Nicaragua, 31-year-old Daniel Ortega, leading the FSLN, a coalition of leftist revolutionaries, assumed power.

A major topic of conversation that night between Wholey and Bishop was an airport runway that was being built in Grenada. It had become a political football between Grenada and the United States. The mile-long runway was wrought with controversy. Grenada needed it, Bishop said, to bring in jumbo jets full of tourists to tiny Grenada, and bring its 110,000 residents out of poverty. The Reagan Administration was claiming that the secret agenda of building the runway was to land Soviet jet fighters and help bring Grenada into the Eastern sphere of influence.

I made a mental note to try to find more information about Grenada, Bishop and the runway and continued about my summer,

My brother, who is a year younger than I, had joined the Marines about a year earlier. At the age of 20, he was sent to the American peacekeeping force in Beirut, Lebanon in the spring of 1983 for what was expected to be a six month deployment. They had been sent there to help cover the withdrawl of Israel's troops, who had invaded Lebanon the year before.

As the situation in Beirut intensified-- the Marines were caught in the crossfire of the complicated and vicious factionalization of Lebanese political and military life-- I began to worry about my brother.

My new school year started. I was rooming with three great friends, studying what I loved studying, and now that I was working part-time, I could put some financial worries behind me. Then, the rug got pulled from under my feet.

On Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, I was sleeping in. My roommate Jim ran into my room to tell me what he'd heard on the news that morning: there had been an enormous explosion at the Marine barracks in Beirut. There were already known to be many dead and wounded.

For four agonizing days, my family and I waited for news. Finally, on Thursday, October 27, I got a phone call from my parents-- they had just gotten a call from his girlfriend, who had just gotten a call from him. He was all right, but had been busy furiously digging through the rubble with hundreds of other Marines, trying to save the lives of those trapped underneath.

In the meantime, things were also heating up in Grenada. It turns out that both Bishop and Reagan were right, in a manner. While Bishop was a moderate, who actually did see the runway, which was being built by Western contractors, with aid from countries like Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands, as crucial to Grenada's economic development through tourism, there was a faction within the New Jewel Movement that wanted Grenada to ally with the East bloc and wanted to allow the East bloc to use the runway once it was built. A power stuggle quickly turned bloody. On October 19, 1983, Bishop and seven of his closest supporters were taken into custody by Bishops's childhood friend Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. There were island-wide protests over the action-- the charismatic Bishop was very popular in Grenada. They were briefly released, but quickly recaptured and summarily executed. General Hudson Austin, a member of the Grenadan military, took power.

On October 25th, 1983, the United States launched "Operation Urgent Fury." The ostensible rationale for the operation was to protect the lives of American citizens living in Grenada, particularly students at the St. George Medical School. The operation, though, was not without controversy. The British government, then headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was unhappy with the invasion; Grenada was still, technically, a member of the British commonwealth. Technically, the United States had invaded Britain. However, since the United States had supported Britain in the Falklands war the year before, she did not make much of it.

The medical school was another story.

In a Frontline program that aired in 1987, respected investigative journalist Seymour Hersch interviewed the head of the St. John's Medical School and discovered that through the invasion, the people running the medical school were able to get through on telephone lines to the United States offices of the medical school, in New York. It turned out that the Cuban troops, who had been ordered to stay out of the factional fighting within the Grenadan government, had also been ordered to assure the safety of US, English and other citizens who might be caught in the fighting. In fact, representatives of both factions had met with personnel from the medical school and assured their safety. The only danger, the medical school administrators felt, was a US invasion. The medical school representatives revealed that they were trying to contact the White House and inform them of this fact-- but that the White House refused to take their calls.

A more cynical person might say that the White House refused the calls because it might give them evidence contrary to the conclusion and outcome that they wanted to reach-- a US invasion. A more cynical person might also say that the Reagan administration was trying to cover their asses after having allowed hundreds of US soldiers to be killed by leaving them dangerously exposed in Beirut-- the commanding officers had begged high-ups to provide more security, but had been told they couldn't because it would appear like a siege. They were of course thrown under the bus afterward and blamed for failing to provide the defenses they had themselves requested to provide, and relieved of duty. But I'll let history be the judge of the Reagan Administration's actions in Beirut.

What is known is that the Grenada invasion was a fiasco. The soldiers that were landed there did not have current maps of Grenada; they had to rely on tourist maps provided at the last minute. In the Frontline episode, I remember one young soldier describing the difficulty of calling in artillery fire using these maps-- something like "Fire it a hundred-fifty meters west of "Point of Interest #3." There were a lot of unnecessary deaths on both sides, particularly when US forces bombed a mental hospital, killing dozens of civilians. In the end, when the smoke had cleared, the US suffered 19 deaths, the Grenadans 45 military and 24 civilian deaths, and the Cubans 24 dead. The invasion revealed serious problems in the military-- Reagan had been spending enormous amounts of money on carriers and other big-ticket items, and neglecting things like communication. The different US military services had radios and walkie-talkies that used different frequencies and were unable to communicate with one another, and in a famous incident, a US officer had to call in an airstrike using a pay phone and a credit card.

When news came of the US invasion of Grenada, most people had the same reaction: where's Grenada. I knew-- I'd read a few days before of Bishop's murder. Hearing about Bishop's death that week saddened me. I'd been impressed with him on Wholey's show-- he struck me as a decent man, a Grenadan patriot who genuinely cared about his people.

I've long thought it was ironic that just as I was settling on my major and minor-- Political Science and History, respectively, the politics and history of the world were affecting me personally.

The toll at the Marine barracks in Beirut as much higher than that of Grenada: 241 dead. And at least on person seriously, and perhaps irreparably psychologically scarred.

For many years, my brother did not speak of Beirut. The only mention of it to any member of my family, until he went into treatment in the mid-nineties for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was a letter he wrote me about a year later. It was clear to me then that the event had shaken him to the core. He'd never seen a dead body before that day-- I don't think he'd ever even attended an open-casket funeral. Those four days he saw hundreds, some of them guys he'd known. In the letter he told me how awful it was to have held smashed, terrified, dying guys in his arms, lying to them to, telling them they were going to be all right in order to make the last few minutes of their lives better. He wrote of how awful it was having to pick up someone who'd been dead for a couple of days, and having to break their arms and legs to get them into body bags.

Not all the casualties of the barracks bombing were guys who died that week. He's gone through two divorces, a bunch of jobs and lots of therapy. His wife moved his children to another state, which didn't help matters. My folks told me recently that he got a good, well-paying job repairing helicopters, something he'd done in the Marines. We haven't spoken since an ugly Thanksgiving dinner nearly seven years ago, but I've thought about calling him and trying to mend fences.

And what of Grenada? Eventually, civilian rule returned to Grenada. Bernard Coard was tried, convicted and sentenced to death, but that death sentence was commuted to life. He resides in Grenada's Richmond Hill prison, where he works as a teacher for other inmates.

The runway was built, and opened a year after the invasion, October, 1984 by Grenada's reinstated Prime Minister Paul Scoon. To this day, it brings planeloads of tourists to Grenada. No Soviet fighter jets are known to have landed on it.