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Joel Speaks


A writer's online journal of

opinion, observation and musings.
(for other essays visit my Folk Alliance column archives)

Click on the date that corresponds to the topic, 
or scroll down past the index for recent entries.  
Earlier entries are archived on linked pages -- click on the date to read the entry.

[Click here to go straight to the latest entry]



Most recent entries:

09/09/09    Socialist Agenda
   Too Big To Fail
    The Spirit of Aloha
    Utah Phillips
    Pennsylvania Press Pass
    Jingle Smells
   It Isn't Easy Being Green
    Exquisite Corpse
   Decembrist Idyll
    Pluto -- And Other Dogs That Won't Hunt
   The Last of June
    Cartoon Violence
   Christmas Eve Eve
    Mother Nature – Father God
    Tally of the Willing
    War Is “Hell Of A Hoot”


January through December 2004
12/27/04    Gripesgiving
    To A Louse
    Swing State
    Shock & Awe / Shocking & Awful
    The Great White Whale
    The Boob Tube
    Ironic, Isn't It?
    Citizen, Comrade, Patriot

June through December 2003 in archive
12/08/03    Old Saint Nick
    The Year Of The Turkey
    Ich Bin Ein Kalifornian

January through June 2003 in archive
06/17/03    Corked Bats
    Lies and Damned Lies
    Domino Theory
    Drunk or Sober
    March Madness
    How Can I Keep From Singing?
    What Would Satan Drive?
01/02/03    Old Long Since

July through December 2002 in archive 
12/14/02    Facelights & Footpowder
    Opposition, Where Art Thou?
   Teleprompter War
09/09/02    Fate's Pharmacy
08/13/02    Me And Elvis
    The All Star Give-Me-A-Break

January through June 2002 in archive
06/29/02    Under God
05/21/02    Remembering Brownie
04/15/02    Across The Pond
03/03/02    Access Of Evil
02/20/02    Carter Family Words
01/31/02    Yeah, right.
01/08/02    Happier New Year

July through December, 2001 in archive:
    White Christmas
11/27/01    In the Book Store Today
    NO NO November
    HO HO Halloween
    The Color Of Nothing
    Uncle Dave's Blessing
    This Machine Kills Fear
09/13/01    911
    Higher Education -- What A Riot!
    A Plum By Any Other Name
    Flight From Hell
    The Strangest Dream (On A Micro Soft Pillow)

January through June, 2001 in archive:
06/14/01    Flag Day -- A Pleasant Evening
   John Hartford
   Thank You, Ladies and Germs
05/01/01    MAYDAY! Capitalist Pigs In Space!
04/16/01    A Taxing Issue
  Spring Peepers
02/14/01    Be Mine, Valentine
02/02/01    Ground Hog
    Duct Tape Blues 2001
01/20/01    Bush, The Sequel
01/14/01    O Brother
   What's In A Name
01/01/01    TA-DUM


Most Recent Entries:

09/09/09    Socialist Agenda

So yesterday, Barak Obama -- the president of the United States, and arguably the most successful up-by-your-bootstraps African American in our history -- was set to give a pep talk to American school kids.  Live at a school rally in the 'burbs of DC, televised to all the schools in US.

Well, not quite all.

It seems from the day this talk was announced, the demagogues of red-meat radio started a cry and rally against it.  Rush Limbaugh took a break from his day job of doctor-shopping to lead the pack on his mid-day show.  Glen Beck (Rush's "mini-me") took up the cudgel in the evening drive time. 

They urged all their "tea-party" followers to pull their kids out of those government schools, at least for the day, so the precious little baby-cons wouldn't be brainwashed with the socialist spoutings of the president.  (Well, according to Rush, Obama is a communist and a Nazi -- at the same time!)

Within days, a number of school superintendents across the country pulled the plug on the president's speech. They didn't want to offend the red-meat crowd -- or maybe they just agreed with the Rushmeister.  Others allowed parents to pull their kids out of the classroom so as not to hear the voice of the president. 

So for about 15 minutes yesterday, the rabid right held fingers in their ears and shouted "la-la-la-la-la" so as not to hear the wicked siren-speech of the president.

Well, I watched the rally on C-span.  You can read the speech on-line for yourself. Obama basically said: buckle down, do your homework & listen to your teachers.  Work hard -- nobody gives a drop-out a job.  If at first you don't succeed, try try again.  Wash your hands & pay attention.  He even gave the "when I was your age" speech.  He got up at 4:30 every morning for extra tutoring from his mom. 

It was more Bob Dole than it was Mister Rogers. The only thing missing from his straighten-up-and-fly-right speech was "pull up your pants and get a haircut!"

So it appears that this "socialist agenda" we are to fear and despise turns out to be the familiar message of "work hard and don't be afraid to do the right thing." 

What the Rush Limbaughs & Glen Becks want you to do is this -- be lazy, don't think for yourself, don't listen to anybody but us and do what the voices on the radio tell you.  And be afraid -- be very afraid -- of anyone but us!

That, my friends, is the neo-con agenda. 



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06/11/09        Too Big To Fail

My friend Tom Paxton wrote a song back in the Lee Iacocca era called "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler" which spoofed the government bailout the last time around. 

Well, I must say the recent bankruptcy was quite the neat trick.  Run up billions in debt, declare yourself bankrupt and blow off all your creditors. Then emerge a few days later bright and shiny as a new penny with no debts at all.  

I guess there must be more to it than that. But how does Fiat get twenty percent of the new Chrysler, without putting in any real dough, and get controlling interest, no less? While 55% of the company is owned by the auto workers health care trust.  What do the workers get?  Longer hours, less pay and fewer benefits!  Grazie! 

(Hate to break it to my fellow shareholders, but the American taxpayers only get 8% of the new Chrysler Group LLC. Canadians get 2%.)

I never owned a Chrysler vehicle myself, but I've driven a few. I'm looking forward to taking a Fiat out for a spin someday.  Fiat -- the Chrysler of Europe.

But GM is in the midst of the same "rabbit out of the hat" trick that Chrysler just pulled. Maybe China will buy Hummer, but Pontiac is toast.  My wife drives a Pontiac Vibe, which IMHO is the best car GM has ever sold. Of course, it is the same as a Toyota Matrix.  In fact my Toyota Corolla and her Pontiac Vibe were built at the same union factory in California. Same engines, same transmission, same new car smell.  Which one is the foreign car, I wonder?

But here's a little true story which demonstrates why General Motors is screwed. 

Back in 1996 I was looking for a decent used car I could buy with the cash I had saved for that purpose.  I had milked 115K and five years out of a used Nissan Sentra and was still on the original clutch, original battery, original radiator, original timing belt.  And it was all set to expire at once, though it still got 35 miles to the gallon.   I found a Chevy dealership in Lansing Michigan that had a one-year-old Cavalier with 15K miles for 10 grand.  I talked them down to 9, after I had my own mechanic check it out.  It was loaded, or as loaded as a Chevy Cavalier could get. It had a roomy trunk, and got decent mileage. And it was to be the first car I ever owned with air conditioning and cruise control.  I was psyched.

At the closing, I asked who the previous owner had been. After some hemming, hawing and back room consults, the salesman told me that -- guess what -- it was owned by the dealership. It had been a "loaner" for the repair shop.  Well, I thought, at least it got regular oil changes. 

It still had 15K miles of warranty left, so I felt fairly confident. But after I drove it home I noticed two problems: one a minor inconvenience and the other a barely noticeable scar.   The inconvenience was that in one of the air vents, the louvers  that directed air was missing the little tab that controlled the direction. I had to jiggle a  popsicle stick in there to point the flow of air.  The cosmetic flaw was just above the vent.   There was a faint little circle melted into the dash that exactly matched the circumference of the cigarette lighter.   Looked like some customer who had the car on loan was bored one day. 

Well, the missing lever on the louver got to be a pain, so I called and asked if that was under warranty. I was assured it was. "Bring 'er in."  Then I was told the incredible verdict:  to replace the louvers on the vent, the ENTIRE dash board needed to be replaced.  I said REALLY? The ENTIRE dash?  Yes.  The entire dash. But not to worry, it was covered by my warranty. GM would pick up the entire tab. It would take a day. They would give me a loaner. 

Well, I thought as I drove my loaner car around town, it is a big waste, but at least I'll get the air vent fixed, and also lose the little melted circle on the dash, to boot.

Well, the car got fixed.  I had a new little nub on the louvers to direct my air.  And Shaheen Chevrolet had billed the full cost of a new dashboard to GM, along with the labor to replace it.  Trouble is, my new dashboard had the same cigarette lighter burn on it as my old one. Hmmmm.  And I was not offered my old parts. Hmmmm. 

Bottom line: this little fiddle by which the dealership screwed the mothership to the tune of hundreds if not thousands of dollars was probably replicated week after week at this dealership and at nearly every other Mr. Goodwrench shop across the country.  It is likely the reason they could shave a grand off the asking price on my car.  Next thing you know, GM is down another billion.

So I am not crying tears for the dealers going out of business, nor for the fat cats down in Detroit.  They will all be bankrupt one day and back in business the next. But it is the workers who are left holding the bag of faulty parts.  My next door neighbor is a GM retiree, and this week he and his wife just lost their dental and vision benefits. 

So I am changing my name to GM, declaring myself too big to fail, and waiting for my stimulus package.  Hey guys -- all my songs are shovel-ready!



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01/26/09    The Spirit of Aloha

Tardy me.   Since my last entry here, my website was locked up for about a month with a new server and a clumsy webmaster (me). Then came the elections, the holidays, lots of gigs and so on and so on.

Last week was the inauguration of the new president.  I needn't go into detail here about that.  It will be in history books and archived on websites for as long as this country survives. 

I will note one observation, though.  In the midst of all the emotion over the first black man to be president of the USA, there was another "first" that I thought was maybe more telling. It was noted at a CSPAN interview at one of the inaugural balls.

(By the way, here is a direct quote from the Associated Press concerning the history of lavish inaugurations: "President Clinton had the most official balls.")

At the ball for the "Home States" of the new president, both Illinois and Hawaii were celebrating. At that ball, CSPAN interviewed Senator Akaka from Hawaii, who was grinning from ear to ear over the day's events. He said that Barack Obama has "the spirit of Aloha." And he said that is what makes him different from all other presidents -- it is what will make him great. 

He went on to explain "the spirit of Aloha."  Aloha is not only a greeting and farewell. The word means "love."  It means treating other people with respect and affection due to all other humans. 

What I took this to mean is that a smart child with loving caregivers who is raised in the harmonious environs of a place like Hawaii, might just have a different world view ingrained in him.  Maybe a childhood in Hawaii is what all world leaders need.  

HOW you are raised is, of course, of prime importance in your outcome.  Loving caregivers and tender kisses goodnight can happen anywhere. But WHERE you grow up might have a big effect on bending the twig as well. 

A child whose first years are spent in mild weather, sunshine and beaches with lots of fresh fruit and fish, might just be a little more cool-headed and even-tempered and a whole lot  more optimistic than the same kid raised in a place like inner-city Chicago, where people can and do die of the heat in the summer and of the bitter cold in the winter, and where a day at the beach means a ride on the "L" through rotting neighborhoods to the one short stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline open to the public, packed (and smelling) like old sardines on a hot summer day.

I remember the singer & Hawaiian icon Don Ho's signature phrase: "Ain't no big thing." Just maybe "No Drama Obama" owes more than a little to this "spirit of Aloha."  It is the old "nurture vs. nature" debate. It is hard to say how the many elements of a person's make-up will shape his character.  But a good start in a warm place might just trump certain genes.

And that is precisely what I celebrated last week with the inauguration of Obama.  Yes, we elected our first black president. Sure, that's very cool. Yes, his middle name is Hussein, and he plays basketball, and is a constitutional law professor. Yes, all that's very interesting. 

But most important, this nation elected a person by judging him on the content of his excellent character, and not the color of his skin. 

A dream come true.



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10/06/08    Battleground

My, how the time flies.  I wrote an especially cynical installment for this blog back during the presidential primaries, but I held my tongue -- or held my "send button" as the better part of valor. 

But here we are in the last month of the campaign.  I don't think it would surprise many people who know me, or who have read these entries here, that I will be voting for Obama.

Yes he will be a first.  The first president born in Hawaii.  The first president of the Generation X.  And the first time I will vote for a presidential candidate younger than me. (That last one is the biggie.)

But here in Michigan, we are in a unique position as voters.  

Sometimes called "ground zero of the economic disaster," Michigan is broke, busted and out of work.  The auto industry leads the way, but housing, light manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, etc are right behind in the marching parade over the bridge to nowhere. 

But we have 17 electoral votes, and until this past week have been called a tossup "battleground" state.  That is, until John "high-roller" McCain declared us a lost cause and announced he is pulling out of Michigan.  (Funny, his sleazy lying attack ads are still running on local TV.)

So ABC news, which had announced they would do the "World News Report with Charles Gibson" live from Kalamazoo this week, decided to pull out too.  No sense in talking from Michigan since we are just toast, after all.  Sorry, Charlie.

Turn back the calendar to January.  Some of you might recall that Michigan politicians put us ahead on the primary calendar, breaking both DNC and GOP rules.  As a result, there was a Democrat ballot with only Clinton in essentially a beauty contest. But on the Republican side there was the full slate of contenders. 

Now, a lot of progressive voters like myself were in a weird situation.  Michigan has an open primary -- one doesn't declare party allegiance, but gets to pick either a Dem. or Rep. ballot in the primary.   As the Democrat race was a non-starter this time, I picked up a Republican ballot.  I found all the names scary.  Romney had the juggernaut rolling into the election here, as his dear old dad was once governor of Michigan.  But I found him abhorrent.  No need to beat a dead horse here, but that fake smile and slicker-than-thou demeanor gave me the shivering fits.

So I voted for McCain in the primary.  The least of the GOP evils, I saw it. And I would do it over again, given the same situation.  But, as we know now, Mitt Romney took Michigan in the primary.  But the campaign trail was not kind to the Mittster.  He lost out to McCain for prez, and then lost out to Perky Sally Palin as the veep choice. 

The sad saga of Michigan ballots plodded along all the way to the party conventions. First we had no votes, then half-votes, then full-but-who-cares votes.  And now comes the big showdown. We finally count! Maybe.

We've been ground zero on attack ads here (just so you know, if you happen to live in New York or Texas where no one runs presidential ads anymore).   McCain's attack ads ramped up in early August, and haven't stopped yet.  

Sarah Palin has had a couple of Michigan stops.  She bragged to the crowd in Grand Rapids that her son, Track, went to a Michigan high school his senior year "just outside of Kalamazoo."  

Yes, indeed.  She sent her son to Portage Central -- the high school for which I pay property tax -- ON MY DIME, thank you very much!  He wanted to play amateur hockey here in the area, so she and the "first dude" sent their son to live with strangers here in Portage during his senior year.  The State of Michigan and the City of Portage paid for his public education that year.  The principal of our high school told me that this is legal only if the parents give up guardianship or power of attorney for their child.  

Shucks, gotta love them gosh darn tootin' family values of our great United States of America.  Golly, we can see Canada from here in Michigan!

Bottom  line:  I'll be voting against McCain after I voted for him.  Actually, I am actually voting for Obama.  I think team Obama will be a cool and collected hand on the helm.  I've had enough of cowboys and mavericks shooting from the hip and shooting craps with our future. 




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06/05/08    Utah Phillips

I don't usually re-print things here in this blog, but I break that rule today.  A couple weeks back, just before Memorial Day, an old compadre of mine passed away.  Bruce Phillips, known to most by his stage name, U Utah Phillips (his tip o' the hat to T Texas Tyler) died in his sleep a few days after his 73rd birthday.  Utah had been in failing health.  It was his heart that was failing, and he refused to have a transplant, about the only hope the doctors could offer. 

A colorful character on stage and off, and a performer dearly loved by all in the folk world (an icon, truly), he flew just below the radar of the industrial media.  He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and knew all the Wobblie's labor songs -- he wrote a bunch of them. 

Don't look for an obituary in your local paper, unless maybe you live in San Francisco or Salt Lake City.  NPR took no notice.  But on the internet, remembrances and tributes have been flying all over. 

On the email list run by The Folk Alliance, there have been a number of memories of Utah Phillips posted since his passing.  I have been reading them all and decided to write a few lines on that list too. 

Here's what I posted the other day about the man:


Like a lot of us, I've been thinking lately about Utah Phillips -- his life and legacy. It is a joy to read the many stories and remembrances.  

I have a lot of memories on, off, and behind the stage with Utah .  If one were to ever write the history of this thing we call folk music in the 20th century, Bruce would weigh heavy in the chapter on the 1970's -- an often overlooked decade in folk.  As the Joni's and Bob's and JT's were marketed as flavors of  rock by the major labels, and the downtown commercial folk clubs closed up or re-invented themselves, the folk movement took a left turn towards community.  

In the era when "Midnight Special" came to mean glam-rock on Friday night TV, small rural folk festivals started up, run by cabals of shanty-singers, banjoists and dulcimer players. Unitarian basements opened up. Rounders rolled, Philos flipped sides and  Fish Flew in Chicago . And small, democratically-run folk societies sprung up in college towns all over America from the ashes and detritus of the folk boom.  This is the soil where Utah Phillips rooted and grew strong.  It is also where I started a career, along with many of my compadres of a certain age, plowing along where Uncle Utah and a few others busted sod.  

The folk circuit I have worked these past 35 years is not the world of   Newport , Carnegie Hall and Columbia Records. The mighty wind had long blown out to sea before I got onstage.  Utah was good about reminding us that one could make a living -- not a killing -- in folk music if you kept your powder dry, your boots laced up and fixed your own breakfast most days.

But for all the quips, quotes, songs and stories I have been recalling these past weeks, I have one enduring image of U Utah Phillips:

A serious labor organizer, heavy-weight thinker, first-rate story-teller, damn-straight songwriter, and pretty good singer. A man of dignity who walked tall and always carried a red rubber clown nose in his vest pocket --  and wasn't afraid to use it.


Aloha, my friend.




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04/23/08    Pennsylvania Press Pass

It has been way too long since my last entry here - and I have been chided. I actually did write a longish & churlish piece about politics several weeks ago, but bit my figurative tongue and decided not to post it.

As I write today, it is the day after the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton won by ten points, which is either a big deal or no big deal, depending on if you are for Clinton or Obama. Here in Michigan our votes still don't count. Yes, I am bitter and clinging to my guitar.

As I look at the politics page at ABC News, I see that Obama is still ahead in delegates, but Clinton ahead in actual popular vote. Reminds me of November, 2000. Actually, I did a little math - if all the Democratic primaries were counted like the general election - "winner take all" instead of proportional math - Hilary would have had the magic number long before Pennsylvania (if you counted Michigan & Florida) and sewn up the race. Obama has won more states, albeit they include many solid Republican bastions where the tiny Democrat faction is wild for the "O" man. The Democrats' primary system, in trying to make sure all representation is "fair and balanced" has come up with a formula for stalemate.

Personally I am extremely tired of the whole thing and would happily back either candidate. I guess that, in essence, is the problem. Two pretty good candidates, each with a core of passionate backers, pretty similar in policies, trying to win over the Democratic rank and file, who largely says "whichever."

The press does seem to give Hilary the harder time. It is easy to see why. The right wing press hates her since forever, while they merely dislike (and slightly fear) Obama. The left wing press is clearly pro-Obama as the fresh face of liberalism, and would rather the old moderate-wing Clintons just go away and build a library. The vast majority of the press is mostly apolitical, but follows the pack and so beats up on the one the others seem to beat up on. Right now that means faulting the loud post-menopausal pantsuit lady and falling for the cool tall young basketball player.

At my core I am cynical about politicians and the press alike. Anybody who wants the office badly enough to campaign for it is suspect in my book. That is true for class president, dogcatcher, mayor, state rep -- all the way up the rest of the political food chain. By the time you are talking presidential politics, you have massive egos with grand delusions and dark secrets. Still, we the people have to pick one. That doesn't mean we have to like it.

My problem with the press is that they combine laziness with pomposity - they pretend to know things they have no clue about. One only needs to look at the national elections in 2000  to see their certain projections gone wrong, or the way they carried water for the neo-con war on Saddam and his "known stockpiles of WMD." But it isn't just the large gaffs -- it is a systemic problem from local news all the way up to the networks and national papers.

I have distrusted the TV news since I was 14. I turned on the local St. Louis NBC news one April day to hear the deep-voiced anchor announce "This just in, it seems Martin Luther King's son has been shot in Memphis." He said it with a tone of puzzlement, and I, just a teenager, said "what?" Obviously he (or his news writer) got it off the wire that Martin Luther King JUNIOR had been shot, and since the all-white news staff only recognized the first three words in that name, they jumped to their stupid conclusion. Yes, in a technical sense the Reverend King was the son of another MLK, but that's not what channel 5 was saying.

Cut to right here at home last month. Two blocks from my house, an elderly man rented a panel truck from Penske's and managed to turn into the path of an oncoming train. The driver was ok, but it made a huge mess and closed down the traffic for days while they repaired the crossing lights. I saw the wreckage myself. The local TV anchor showed footage, accurately enough, but said "It may be as long as 3 days before the intersection is opened due to the crash of the eighteen-wheeler." I said "Eighteen-wheeler?!? I'm looking right at it - it is panel truck!" The young newswoman obviously thought "eighteen-wheeler" was just a more colorful way to say "big truck." And so disinformation is generated.

My rule of thumb is this - and I have never been proven wrong: anytime the press does an article about something that I personally have direct knowledge of, they always get something wrong. It might be a wrong name, a small detail mislabeled, a significant aspect ignored, or the whole idea ass-backwards, but they always get something wrong that I from personal experience know to be right. Thus I can only extrapolate that every story I hear or read has some flaw, significant or otherwise. When I see a weatherman point to Michigan and say Minnesota, when I hear a reporter talk about bluegrass music and call the mandolin a banjo, when I see morning news shows misreading a science report, citing a preliminary finding as proven fact, I say "there they go again." Laziness and arrogance hand in hand.

And when I see a TV debate, such as the one last week where the wearing of a flag pin on one's lapel and the level of security at a Bosnian airport a decade ago are deemed the top questions from the ABC anchor, and see the candidates actually flummoxed by those non-issues, I say, "there they all go again."




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12/19/07    Jingle Smells

The news today from science is that monkeys can do math in their heads. And at least as well as most humans. This comes on the heels of the lab tests that showed chimps beating college students at short term number memory.

It makes us re-think that whole "dumb animal" theory, doesn't it? Cheeta think Tarzan not so smart?

I have never lived with apes in my household (well, except for that junior year of college off-campus) but have been a keen observer of domestic cats and dogs my whole life. I have always held to the belief that they are much smarter than science gives them credit. It is just that they have different sensory perceptions than us, and hence, a different agenda.

Take my dog for example. At 13, she is beginning to slow down a little, and sleeps a lot more these days. But at the mention of "walk" she perks up, and if there is any putting on of jackets or shoes, she begins her own preparation for what she understands a "walk" to be.

Scout will start with a stretch or two, then a happy dance that will include exiting and re-entering the room a half dozen times. As we near final preparations, she will start expelling air from her nostrils in explosive blasts. It is not a sneeze, but rather a blowing of her nose. Because what she is getting ready for is not a stretching of limbs, but rather a smelling expedition. She will be reading the changes in the neighborhood, comparing today's smells with yesterday's: reading the "pee-mail" from other dogs, and judging the freshness of bunny tracks, deer poop, and human footprints. If there happens to be some disgusting snackable thing on the ground - and there usually is - so much more the fun.

She is tethered to one of her human friends - hand-to-leash-to-hand - and she seems to like that sense of bonding and security. We both negotiate the fine points of the walk - which route to take, how long to linger, what puddles to avoid, and how to approach another dog on another leash. She gets her way some of the time. She lets me make the big decisions - I let her decide the details.

As we walk, I am left to ponder the bigger mysteries as Scout investigates the minor ones. I think about the mighty nose of the canine, and wonder what proverbs dogs might pass on to all dog-kind:

    "A scent is worth a thousand words."

    "Smelling is believing!"

    "There is a lid for every pot, and a nose for every butt."

And if dogs were to celebrate Christmas, what sort of carols would they sing? They see in shades of gray, so colors of red and green would mean nothing to them, but oh the smells of the season! Consider these lines from dog carols:

    "It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…"

    "Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, 'Do you smell what I smell?'"

    "Jingle smells, jingle smells, jingle all the way…"

    "Go smell it on the mountain…"

Merry Christmas, and God Bless Us, Every One.



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07/20/07    Rosebud

A few weeks ago on TV there was a show that listed the top 100 American films of all time. I saw parts of it, between duties of grocery shopping and walking the dog. At first I was dismayed that so many of my favorite films were not included. Then I looked at the title and realized that it was American films only. That would explain "The Seven Samurai" not included in the top 10.

They did the same routine 10 years ago, with the same choosing process - 400 films nominated, and Hollywood directors, critics, actors, etc. doing the voting. A few big changes, but only a few: Silent films made a big leap forward, with "Intolerance" scoring big, and Chaplin's "City Lights" moving from 76 to 11. Buster Keaton's "The General" made it this time, but not last.

Partly it may be a change in the mood of America that has transpired in the past ten years. For example, D.W. Griffith's 1915, "Birth of a Nation" was in the top 50 ten years ago, replete with it's KKK as white-knight heroes of reconstruction. It was gone this time, but his 1916 mea culpa, "Intolerance" was there this time. Funny that the Watergate tale, "All the President's Men" should make the list in 2007, but not in 1998. Musicals? Big romances, "An American in Paris" and "My Fair Lady" are out. The much edgier and political "Cabaret" and "Nashville" are in.

But I think much of this film list business must reflect the teaching of the film schools. One tends to revere those icons one has been taught to revere. A revival of interest in schools and film festivals of silent movies and the films of the 70's might be the biggest reason for their big showing among a new generation of voters.

"Sullivan's Travels" made the list this time. Considered maverick filmmaker, Preston Sturges's best film, it is an icon for young indy filmmakers. Maybe in ten years, its namesake, "O Brother, Where Art Thou" will make the list - it would get my vote if I hade one.

The number one film in both decades was no surprise - Citizen Kane. Hands down a great film and one that stands up over the years. Only a blockbuster philistine or snobby naysayer would begrudge its number one slot. Kane is one of my all time favorites, and as one commentator said on the show as they aired clips, you can watch it 100 times and still see something new and meaningful in every scene.

And so it was for me this time. As everyone knows, the name "Rosebud" opens and closes the film: First, as the dying breath of old man Kane as he drops his snow globe. And last, as his boyhood sled is tossed in the furnace along with the detritus of the great man's life. But I noticed this time, as the famous sled-burning scene was played, that just before the sled is tossed on the flaming heap the last item thrown on the fire is a banjo case! Was this an early banjo joke from Orson Wells?

Makes me think this movie could have been a whole different film if Charles Foster Kane had said "May Belle" as he died, and the search was for his beloved tenor banjo.




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06/10/07    It Isn't Easy Being Green

Another Earth Day has come and gone - can it be another year already? An interesting demi-holiday, isn't it? A day not so much of celebration (though there is a bit of that) as a day of recriminations and finger-pointing. For some it is a day of positive activism, and for others a day of reproach. For some of the little kids it is a day to learn about whales, tigers, and compost. For some of us older kids, it is a sort of new-age Arbor Day. All in all, it's a worthwhile dot on the calendar, I suppose.

On the first Earth Day way back when, I was a young hippy, out to change the world. Now I'm an old fart, and I see how my generation has mostly failed in its cycle of stewardship. (Remember the promise of the baby boomer's personal computer ushering in a "paperless society?" My PC has me going through more reams of paper than I ever did in my carbon paper days.)

It is just that easy answers aren't so easy anymore. The easy slogans are sometimes laughable. When I hear "save the environment" I have to ask "whose environment?" I mean, the bilious atmosphere enshrouding Los Angeles is, ipso facto, the environment - is that what we are to preserve? The environment conducive to one opportunistic species may be the death-knell to another - which one do we save? No, the "environment" is what it is, and is ever-changing. And "save the earth?" Well, the earth will be fine once it gets rid of humans. It may be, as I paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, WE are the toxin and the environment is doing what it takes to spit us out.

But we are encouraged to "go green." And that is a laudable goal (though having spent too many years on the campus of Big 10 Michigan State University, "going green" has a whole 'nuther connotation - like living a "Spartan" lifestyle). But what are the "green solutions" to modern life?

Nothing's easy. Three recent items come to mind.

Let's look at ethanol. That is the new name for "corn likker" - ethyl alcohol (a.k.a. grain alcohol, neutral spirits, vodka). This last month congress has been looking at new mandates for the addition of ethanol to all gas supplies. There is a gas station around the corner from me that sells E-85 (that's an 85% alcohol blend --170 proof) though I haven't seen any flex-fuel cars in town yet.

Now here in the Midwest, the corn promise is big. Very big. Many local farmers are looking at planting all-corn this year in hopes of record prices. Trouble is, when you pour your entire food crop into your gas tank, what is left to eat? Chinese wheat gluten laced with melamine? The other dirty little secret about corn is that it requires massive amounts of petroleum-based fertilizer, and uses up massive amounts of fresh water - not to mention all the energy it takes to harvest, distill, and distribute the ethanol. Well, maybe in the future we'll use wood chips or grasses to make our car liquor.

But an even bigger trouble is, burning ethanol in our cars still mucks up the atmosphere, and the pollution from flex-fuel is actually worse than that of gasoline. That study came out about a month ago, but seems to be ignored by adherents of the new bills before congress. They are touting air pollution as one of the reasons to use ethanol. Well, energy independence, maybe, and political posturing certainly, but as far as ethanol goes - it will lead to more smog, more low-level ozone, and more asthma related deaths. Now, that is an inconvenient truth, too.

But corn is not our only problem. My whole life I have been told that the healthiest thing I could eat is brown rice. I know some of my friends who swear that it is the only pure food for spiritual well-being. More will tell me that 60% of the human diet should be rice - the rest beans and vegetables.

Well, red beans and rice is one of my favorite dishes, and we eat it here at the Mabus ranch at least once a week. But according to the International Rice Research Institute, rice growing in the fields is a major contributor to global warming. It seems rice paddies, when flooded, emit massive amounts of methane gas - a greenhouse gas. It seems the rice crop is unique this way. Unless rice production is modernized, the traditional Asian way of copying nature - growing rice in water - could help do us in as surely as a fleet of SUVs or a Brazilian cattle ranch.

There goes the last guilt-free food. What's a greenie to do?

Finally, a ray of light! In California there is a legislator who is trying to ban the incandescent light bulb and replace them all with compact fluorescent lights (CFL). It is a noble cause, and a no-brainer on the face of it. Where an Edison bulb burns 60 watts, a CFL does the same job for 13 watts. Less electricity used, less coal burned, less pollution, less carbon dioxide. The higher-priced CFL bulbs pay for themselves over time in lower electric bills. A win-win says the zealot. Let's make it a law - force the ignorant masses to do it!

Well, not so fast with the stocks and pillory, please. I have been using CFLs for years, and still do. But there is a downside, and the little coiled cuties are not the answer to every lighting situation. First, the dirty little secret of CFLs is that there is poisonous mercury in each of those little tubes. There is a horror story making the rounds of the internet of a woman in New Hampshire who broke a CFL bulb in her little girl's room. She called the manufacturer to see about cleaning up the mercury. She was advised to go to the state's toxic spill experts. Long story short, she spent $2000 to clean up her daughter's bedroom.

Now, that might have been overkill - sounds like it to me. But I myself have a dead CFL that has been sitting on my kitchen shelf for months. I can't put it in the trash, because that would be putting mercury in the local landfill. I can't shove it away somewhere in the back of a closet for fear of breakage. My city has one day each month that it arranges for the county to take hazardous waste. That is a 30 mile round trip, which even in my miserly Toyota Corolla would burn about a gallon of gas - for one light bulb! I'm waiting for that perfect storm - that one day that one month that I need to drive to that side of the county for other purposes. Meanwhile the little coiled rat sits on a shelf where it is safe from breakage, laughing at me.

Once average American Joes and Janes have their first crop of dead CFLs, what will be the result? Imagine millions of mercury-laced bulbs across America, each one a small toxic hand grenade, most of them headed to the landfill, tossed out with the cat litter and little Johnny's worn-out Chinese Nikes.

The inconvenient rub now is that the same high-minded eco-activists out to ban mercury thermometers and thermostats are put in the position of defending mercury-laced CFLs. The best argument is the "lesser of two evils" which is an uncomfortable position for many puritanical environmentalists to espouse. (I also doubt the altruism of retailers like Wal-Mart leading the charge to switch to CFLs. Filling every light bulb socket in America with a brand-new, higher-priced bulb will make somebody very rich. How many greedy capitalists does it take to change a light bulb?)

The other problem with a CFL is the quality of the light. I know from long personal experience that CFLs are great for lights that go on and stay on - like a living room lamp. But when short-cycled (turned on for a minute or less and then off) they deteriorate much more quickly. And as the CFL dies a lingering death - it becomes dimmer and dimmer - it gets so dim that it is replaced long before it actually quits working. At some point the CFL becomes more like a nightlight than a light bulb. Think about the bulb at the top of the stairs, or the one in the entranceway to your garage. You flip on an incandescent, brighten the corners where you are, see the possible dangers that were in the dark, proceed safely, and then turn off the light. With the CFL, you would flip it on, peer very dimly into the shadows until the bulb warms up for a minute or two, then go your way, shutting off the bulb in a short cycle that makes it all the dimmer next time you need a quick light.

There are promises of lower-mercury CFLs, but how low is safe? And there is talk of "the next technology" that will solve all the problems of current CFLs. I have read on the internet of new ones that can work in recessed canisters, or on dimmer switches, but I am still waiting to see them in the stores. The usual CFL can't take the heat of a contained space, or work on a dimmer switch. Those die an extra-early death.

I think the problem with the legislator in California is that he is a recent convert. Like many a novitiate, he is aglow with the promise of wonder. He may have swapped out all the bulbs at his house. But get back to me a year from now when you switch on the closet light - or the light in your basement laundry room - and wait for five minutes for your aging light bulb to cast enough light on your task to proceed. Or get back to me when you have a couple of dead CFL bulbs that need to be taken to a special toxic waste site - or you broke one and you ARE a toxic waste site.

I have a mix of bulbs at my house. The places where I need a quick, bright light for a short time get a good old-fashioned incandescent bulb. General lighting gets CFLs if they are likely to be on for any length of time, or if they don't need to be bright right away. Where security or rugged conditions warrant, a rugged bulb is needed. Got new technology? Bring it on. But let's use our heads, too. Remember those water saving toilets that used half the water of a regular john - but took three flushes to clear the job?

I get accused of being a tree-hugger by those to the right of me, and being an energy hog by those on the left of me. (I drive a 39 mpg Corolla instead of a Prius.) But let's all pitch in and do our part, and use a little common sense when forging public policy.

It isn't easy being green.



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03/06/07    Exquisite Corpse

Maybe it is a reaction to the daily death toll in the war, or maybe it is just media saturation combined with a fixation on celebrity. Or maybe it is just circumstance. But in the past three months or so I have seen an inordinate number of famous corpses in the public eye.

I guess it started with the death of James Brown last December. His body was mourned and displayed in a number of cities. Then came the quibbling and fighting over his remains. Even as I write three months later, his corpse is unburied and DNA samples taken from it to settle paternity claims as yet un-filed. It's a man's world, I guess.

Then came Gerald Ford. Maybe I got more of an eyeful of this presidential interment than most because Ford's final resting place in Grand Rapids, MI is just an hour north of my house. But I can tell you that here, at least, the coverage was a non-stop 24/7 of every funeral the guy had, which was three or five, depending how you count them. Thankfully, the coffin was closed, because channel 8 in Grand Rapids had a camera trained on it for 3 weeks. A ribbon of words under the funereal image - or under whatever other NBC show that tore them away from the obsequies - told exactly the itinerary of the corpse down to the exact expressway exit and stoplight. The news? Gerald Ford is still dead.

The best things said about Jerry Ford - and the limited commentary was regurgitated over and over as the second week turned into the third - was that he was never elected president and that he didn't screw things up too much in his 2 year term. Grand Rapids adored him. Curiously, Ford had chosen not to reside in Michigan for more than 50 years. When he was elected to congress in the 1950's he moved to DC and raised his family there. After his famous promotions to VEEP, and then POTUS, he retired to Colorado and then southern California, with only rare brief visits to Grand Rapids. The video clip run over and over and over here in West Michigan was Ford at the podium on the occasion of his 90th birthday saying, with no apparent irony intended, "Whenever I can't sleep, I just think of Grand Rapids." Well, yes, many would agree that a visit to Grand Rapids does indeed compare to counting sheep.

But he sleeps forever now in the shadow of his museum on the banks of the Grand River. I'll confess I didn't care much for his administration while it happened. Swine Flu scare and WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons come to mind, along with plaid leisure suits and the backdrop of dreadful pop music. But in hindsight, he wasn't half bad as president, I guess, and a decent guy, I am told. I still think the Nixon pardon was a fixed deal, and his posthumous criticisms of current events were a gutless way to influence public policy. But he was, after all, a moderate Republican. That is an endangered species nowadays. For all the love showered on him at his funerals here in Michigan, anybody with his platform could never win a Republican congressional primary today in his old district. Yeah, he could win as an independent maybe, but you have to drink the Republican-Red Kool-Aid these days to get the GOP slot in the general election.

And while we extolled our dead president here in the US, we watched a foreign president die on TV in the form of Saddam Hussein. What did we do for kicks before cell phone cameras and you-tube? I wonder if George W got out his war trophy that he reputedly keeps in his desk - Saddam's pistol taken from the spider hole - and fingered it while watching the hanging? Seems like if he were to make any "mission accomplished" pronouncement it could be then - at the dictator's burial. WMD - nix. Regime change - done. Dictator captured - yep. Dictator dead - oh, yeah. Seems like all the reasons for war are gone except one - inertia. Bodies at war tend to stay at war. But that is another blog entry.

Then these past few weeks we have had the distraction of Anna Nicole Smith. A Marilyn Monroe wannabe who lived fast, died young and left a semi-beautiful corpse. Perhaps hers is the distaff of the James Brown saga, except that the Godfather of Soul had real talent and a long career of actual achievements. But poor Anna Nicole was only famous for being a slut, sleeping with old men for money, drugging out and displaying her body - whether slim, fat, naked or clad - for the cameras.

Well, after three weeks of court-TV her corpse has finally been laid to rest in the Bahamas, if the reports are to be believed. I am still thinking about that "old hermit named Dave" who may have her in his cave. The pathetic array of men who claim paternity to her poor unfortunate child make for a side-show of unbelievable audacity.

What is most troubling though - aside from the doom of her little baby girl, probably drug-adled in the womb and now in the clutches of vultures - is America's fascination with her and her corpse. While we wage a war a world away - where hundreds of innocents die every day as we bomb the next "hide-out" - where our own troops are blown apart in flimsy-armored SUVs - where our self-satisfied ambassadors play ducks-and-drakes with possible nuclear showdown - we would rather choose a morbid fascination with pathetic girls-gone-wild. It is either Anna Nicole Smith's body or Britney's shaved head, or Paris Hilton's latest peccadillo.

I have read accounts of the French revolution. Just after the end of the reign of terror, there was a wave of sexual abandon laced with morbid humor that ran through French society. As though there could be no rational understanding of the madness, there was a visceral acting-out of promiscuity and morbid gallows-humor. Similarly, witness Berlin after WWI. I wonder if something like that is happening to us now, in America. This madness of Neocon pseudo-morality, unfettered war-profiteering and this house-of-cards economy that Cheney & company have forged these past seven years - this pressure on society has to find release some way. Maybe this is it.

Whom I feel truly bad for are the numbers of mourners of everyday heroes, hometown martyrs, and sacrificial lambs in these times. A flag might fly half-staff for a day. An article or two in the hometown paper. A smiling picture from happier days flashed on the nightly news. To have your loved one torn from your private life while on the public's single-mind is an obsession of one exquisite corpse on some endless and ghoulish circus parade: that is the real tragedy.



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12/08/06    Decembrist Idyll

It is year’s end once again, and has been a long while since visiting my “blog.”  Blog is such an ugly little word to have crept into the common vocabulary.  Short for “web log” of course.  I think of this more as journal than a log.  Bjournal perhaps.  Sounds vaguely Scandinavian.  Fits with this winter season.

As I write, there is a thick white coating of snow on my world. The lake ( Michigan ) had its effect last night. When the cold wind blows hard over the warm lake, the humidity arrives by the shovel-full in my yard. Though it is scheduled to melt away within a few days, it is a scene in keeping with Advent, which is the centerpiece of our “Happy Holidays” here in Dutch Reformed West Michigan.

As I have opined before, there are many holidays in December and January – some Christian ones celebrated in parts of our immigrated world, such as Saints Nicholas, Lucia, and Stephen. Also of course, there is Hanukah, Yule, New Year’s, and International Flashlight Day for the Jews, Pagans, Julian Calendarists, and torch bearers.

This past October I was presented with the Lantern Bearer’s Award – speaking of torches – from the Folk Alliance Region Midwest.  I guess to honor my career, or at least my bearing, in folk music in the Midwest , I was flattered to be so honored. In my remarks at the meeting, I reflected upon another more famous lantern-bearer, Diogenes.    (A famous Greek philosopher, but not quite so famous, it seems, as to be included in my Microsoft spellchecker. It suggests “dinginess.”)

No, Diogenes was a card-carrying skeptic, and is remembered for two things:  sleeping in a tub outside the local temple, and carrying a torch in broad daylight looking for one honest man.  It seems like he would fit in with the folk music crowd I know.  This year I think I would have traded the YMCA bunk beds I have slept on at some music camps – hard boards with a thin plastic mattress, exactly six feet from headrail to footboard (three inches shorter than my frame) – for the coziness of a staw-lined tub.  And I have learned from hard experience to pack a small flashlight in my guitar gig-bag.  Handy for dark backstage trips to the stage, late-night festival wanderings, and hotel power failures. I keep my torch handy.

There is one thing I have recently learned about Diogenes that I do respect greatly.  Known as a cranky old fellow, he was no respecter of persons and was not afraid to speak truth to power. Again – great qualities for a folksinger.  When the world’s most powerful man in his day, Alexander the Great, came to call upon Diogenes, the conqueror asked the philosopher, “What advice would you have for a man like me?”  Diogenes told the great man, “You should move a little to your left – you are blocking my sunshine.”

It seems the electorate in America recently said the same thing to the most powerful man in the world today.  George Bush has a little moving to do, and hopefully his policies will get a little disinfecting sunshine in the way of congressional oversight – oversight that has been sorely overlooked these past six years of one-party rule.  This is a nice quiet time for a progressive.  The republicans are in disgrace, but the democrats haven’t yet assumed power and are poised in the wings, waiting until next year to show us how they can screw things up, too.  Happy Holidays, boys and girls!

At the end of this year, my musings, as usual, are a mix of good and bad memories.  I said goodbye for the last time to some wonderful people whose time on this planet seemed all too short.  The aches and pains of aging are no less insistent this year than the year before. But there were some great travels for me this year, and both old and new acquaintances shall not be forgot.  I had the good fortune to make music with some great players this year – Bryan Bowers, James Bryan, Mike Compton, Mike Dowling, Pat Donahue, Don Stiernberg, Peter Knupfer, and so many more I could list them on and on.  Also I treasure my chances to play with old friends, like fiddlin' Brian Bishop, Mike & Sue Fahey visiting from Galway, The Premo Family in the UP, and old bandmates, Laura Stein and Ray Kamalay.  Plus there were wonderful voices I heard “live” for the first time this year – Jason Wilbur, Rhiannon Giddens, Chuck Suchy, Drew Nelson, and many more.

I hesitate to list my musical blessings here – or the friends I spent time with this year – for the fear of omitting the finest.  I stayed in folks’ houses, shared bunk-rooms and stages, did sound checks and sales tables, shoveled snow and shot the breeze over breakfast with a lot of wonderful people this year.  And more than a few email exchanges have kept me in touch with colleagues and loved ones in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago.

So let’s tak’ a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne.  Yes, 2006 was a very tough year in so many ways. But we’re still standing in December, and have a lot of good memories to stoke the hearth fires.




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08/30/06    Pluto -- And Other Dogs That Won't Hunt

Pluto's not a planet anymore.  Several years ago I led a weekend songwriting seminar in Wisconsin and one of the class, a clever science-teacher/songwriter, wrote a funny song with that title -- "Pluto's Not a Planet Anymore."  He was way ahead of the curve, as this past week it became official.  It might be called a pluton, but Pluto is not a planet.  Astronomers held a ball and the umpires took a vote: "Yer out!"  

It seems Pluto is just too small and odd-shaped to hang with the other godly bodies.  It doesn't change the fact that it is still out there in the backyard doing its thing like it has for billions of years.  But 60-some years after humans inferred its existence via radio telemetry (or some other wizardry -- nobody has really "seen" it have they?) it is officially "dissed" for being inferior.  Let it into the planet club and there goes the neighborhood -- can't let any old iceball party with the homies.  Being a planet has its privileges, after all.  Dates at the symphony and hanging out with Hollywood astrologers -- rubbing elbows with the stars. 

So stripped of its noble rank and status, Pluto heads back to the doghouse.  And I am left wondering if changing the title of something really matters. Isn't it just a marketing decision?  Maybe it's that we DO judge books by their covers, despite the old adage, that makes titles and categories so critical.

Take the war in Iraq.


Just as "The Liberation" was not an occupation, the Bush administration is adamant in maintaining "The Insurgency" is not a civil war. The soldiers fighting there say it is a civil war, the civilians whose families are killed say it is a civil war, all of the retired generals (therefore free to speak their minds) say it is a civil war.  Even the freaking President of Iraq says it is a civil war!  But being a civil war would spoil the illusion of "freedom fighters" and the idyll of "fledgling democracy," that has been the sales job of Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their little friend, "the decider." 

No, the decision has been made to call a spade a "soil disruptor."

And a year after Katrina demolished New Orleans, Biloxi and other Gulf Coast cities, the insurance companies that should pony up the dough to repair & restore are weaseling out of the deal by calling the hurricane damage a "flood" instead of "wind damage." State Farm Insurance officials ("like a good neighbor...") have been caught red-handed, erasing the words "wind damage" from their own adjusters' assessments and replacing the words with "flood damage" -- then stamping the policy "CLAIM DENIED."   Because flood damage is expressly not covered in their policies they tend to see everything as, well, flood damage.  Sort of like the lazy workman whose only tool is a hammer, who sees all his problems as screws.

No, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, let's call it a "loon."

It brings us back to Pluto. What's in a name?  I don't think anyone would really lament the demotion of the "little rock that couldn't" -- except that it shares the name of a cartoon dog.  A Disney character.  It does no good to remind the culturally illiterate that Pluto is the ruler of Hades, king of the dead.  You're up against the Disney juggernaut here.  And disgruntled children lead the parade.

I think the astronomers should learn something from this episode.  They should revisit old number seven in the planetary system.  Uranus.  Hands down, the most poorly named of the planets.  Scatological either way you pronounce it, it is the number-one source of science class snickers and literally the "butt" of sophomoric jokes everywhere.  Why not score a public relations coup, and rename Uranus for another cartoon dog?

Imagine the list:





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06/30/06    The Last of June

Here it is the last of June (yes, I wrote a banjo tune with that title, on my Golden Willow Tree CD) and I haven't been to "Joel Speaks" in over 4 months!  Not that I haven't been observing and opining. It has just been that life has a way of sneaking up behind you and laying a blackjack upside the head.  Without going into the details of health, misery, travel and mundane chores, let's just visit a few topics:

English as the American language. Several republican politicians this election cycle are making a big thing of English-only. On both the state and local level, too. My state rep, Mr. Jack Hoogendyke (yes that is his real name) wants to make Michigan all-English. What exactly is the English word for "Kalamazoo," Hoogie?  And you big wigs down in DC -- take a look at the Great Seal of the United States. What part of E Pluribus Unum don't you understand?

This last week it was the flag-burning amendment dragged once again through the halls of the Senate.  One puffed-up pencil-necked geek senator called the flag "a national monument."  How's that?  I can sit in a restaurant, take a paper napkin and a couple of magic markers and make a passable flag in about ten minutes. Do I need to give the napkin an honor-guard funeral at the end of the meal?  Wal-mart sells  Old Glory by the truckload, ink-stamped polyester crap, glued to little sticks that go in your truck window.  It apparently is not desecration to paste a flag to your bumper sticker and drive it through mud and horse-shit at a NASCAR rally, but use a flag to make a political point contrary to the party in power -- that deserves prison time!  How about if we allow the burning of cartoon flags -- how would that sit with our republican taliban?  Personally, I think if we need to constitutionally protect our ephemeral icons, then lets make it illegal to play "Stars & Stripes Forever" with an out-of-tune piccolo obbligato.   Now that's a national disgrace!

Al Gore is a movie star.  And Washington DC is getting a first-hand taste of global-warming deluge.  FEMA offices are flooded, and no-one knows who to call. Hairy knuckled minutemen are building a barb-wire fence along the Texas border, while wealthy Bush-votin' ranchers are putting out ladders for their Mexican workers to cross over without tearing their  britches. Returning from his boy-pal getaway weekend in the Dominican Republic, Rush "What-a-Rush" Limbaugh is detained at the airport because he has some doctor-shopped Viagra in his suitcase. Each irony is more delicious than the last. 

Watching the reactionary Republicans eat each other's young is very entertaining.  On the issue of "illegal aliens" vs. "guest worker program" we really see the claws come out.  It is hard to get the GOP troops to stay on message, when you don't know which message sells. The goons are trying to get re-elected by hyping the fear of the dreadful illegals sucking up our wealth, but at the same time raising funds on the song of welcoming under-class migrants here to do the jobs "American's won't do." Of course these are the low-pay, no-benefit, highly dangerous jobs that this president has made a career of protecting.  The unions are being busted and gutted at every turn and the multi-billionaire CEOS -- the kind that invite the Bush cabinet out on hunting trips -- have visions of a new manufacturing model. These money men see that it is cheaper to bring in "guest workers" to replace laid-off union workers, than to build a new plant oversees.  Why take the factory to the slaves, when you can bring the slaves to the factory?  If it weren't for that pesky problem of persuading poor ignorant voters to re-elect the Republican elite.

Here's a quote from a famous Republican:  "You can't fool all of the people all of the time!"



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02/22/06    Cartoon Violence

Except for all the death and misery, the news has been very funny lately.  Funniest is Deadeye Dick Cheney shooting his rich lawyer buddy in the face and chest.  If it were anybody else it wouldn't be humorous at all, but Ol' Scrooge McGrinch himself was caught in a blunderbuss blunder and then spent the better part of a week trying to spin it in the right direction, with the aide of the whining ice princess herself, Mary Matelin. He called her in to control the story before the White House press secretary was told or the local police was interviewed!

Fans of oldtime music are probably familiar with the old fiddle-tune, "Booth Shot Lincoln."  Here are some substitute lyrics, appropriate if only because the coverup started on Honest Abe's birthday. Because you can fool all of the people some of the time...

Dick shot Harry, shot him in the head
Shootin' at a bird but he got a pal instead

Dick shot Harry, shootin' at a quail
Dick shot Harry, but'll never go to jail

Meanwhile, all over the world, angry Muslims are rioting because a newspaper in Denmark published, several months ago now, a handful of cartoons that depict the prophet in various forms.  Some sects don't care for the likeness. Others say any depiction of the divine Mr. M. is blasphemy. Some are simply ready to kill first and pray later. In Nigeria the cartoons have sparked deadly riots started on alternate days by Muslims and Christians, a very old grudge match there. 

Fundamentalists -- gotta love 'em. I'm reminded of what Voltaire wrote: 
The man who says, "Believe as I do, or God will damn you," will presently say, "Believe as I do or I shall kill you."

It is reported that now in Iran, the pastry formerly know as a "Danish" is now a "flower of Muhammad."  Is our own Senate cafeteria still serving "freedom fries" I wonder?

To my knowledge, no one in the LOTFATHOTB (that's Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave in an IM shorthand I just now coined) has published the full run of the cartoons in question. I've only seen the one with a Semitic-looking guy with a full beard and a bomb in his turban. And that was just a passing glimpse on TV news long before the rioting got ugly.  It is hard to think that our vaunted free press in the LOTFATHOTB is withholding the publication because of seemly good taste and brotherly compassion. They are just  covering their corporate asses.  Seems to me though, that since none of us knows what the prophet looked like, that any cartoon with the wrong caption could conceivably be a potential powderkeg.  Some illiterate firebrand in Dubai (75% of the UAE population are illiterate and poor -- and two thirds are young men, according to almanac data) could be shown a bad Xerox of Beetle Baily or Dagwood Bumstead and told it is an American  blasphemy and off we go to the races.

I bring up Dubai and the UAE (United Arab Emirates, whose stats are very interesting), since Dubai is the city-state that is part of UAE whose government owns the company that is buying the firm that holds the contract to manage six of the major shipping ports in the LOTFATHOTB. (All in the house that Jack Abramoff built.) George "W" Bush gives it his big-oil "Okie Dokie" while everybody else in their right mind is saying, "WHAT!?!?!?!"

The Prez sez, "Trust me. Have I ever let you down before?"  I mean, what could go wrong?  Sure, the Palestinians just elected a terrorist society to run their country, but that could never happen in Dubai, right?  Wealthy monarchies are stable & trustworthy in that part of the world, right?   We outsource our jobs and our manufacturing, right? So why not outsource the management of our harbors in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia?  What possibly could go wrong?

It's not like we'd publish a cartoon or something to piss somebody off.



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12/23/05        Christmas Eve Eve

What is there new to say about Christmas? Not much. But in these past few weeks there has been a lot of new falderal about "Christmas" Vs. "Holiday." Apparently there has been a popular new right-wing book written about how the godless atheists are out to destroy Christmas by promoting the "Happy Holiday" slogan.

Now, "keep Christ in Christmas" has been a perennial cause my entire life. And I suspect for about 1000 years before me.  But for some reason, there are a lot of folks writing to the newspapers as though this is a new thought. Many of them reason that nobody ever had a holiday at the end of December before the baby Jesus was born on the 25th in the year 1. 

Hate to bring up Yule, Saturnalia, and Mithras' Birthday, but they all claimed late December holidays long before Christians.  Complete with holly, mistletoe, evergreen trees indoors, and eggnog or spiced apple punch, this "holiday" started way before the manger story.

What tickles me about this year's screed, is that the two primary targets of the righteous Christian soldiers are: Wal-mart and George Bush.  Apparently Wal-mart used to wish Merry Christmas and this year the official word is "Happy Holidays."   My guess is that Wal-mart is likely trying to market their new Garth Brooks monopoly and his new CD, "Home For The Holidays" -- more than they are trying to assuage Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and atheists.  Bush, on the other hand has all those religious "others" to consider when the white house issues "season's greetings" on their holiday cards.  But President Godly has made his bed with the Falwell's and Robertson's, and now there is a pillow fight over little Baby Jesus -- make that the "Holiday Infant."

Ho Ho Ho

For me, "Happy Holidays" seems right. Especially when the Christmas displays go up the day after Halloween and the "season" continues until the Super Bowl.  There's a whole lot of holidays in there.  Let's hope that most of them are happy and let one of them be merry -- chalk one up for Santa.



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09/28/05     Mother Nature – Father God

Some random thoughts on Katrina & Rita:

“Brownie, you’re doin’ a heckuva job!”  Let’s not forget this assessment of failed Arabian-Horse-Accountant cum FEMA chief by our failed oil-businessman cum commander-in-chief in the first days of Katrina.  By insider accounts, Bush – who famously doesn’t watch TV news nor reads newspapers – was getting all his news about the hurricane from “Brownie” in daily briefings. Is it any wonder Bush thinks the war in Iraq is going well, too?  

And it was Mike “Brownie” Brown who was the first political appointee to take a trip on the “streetcar named Retire.” Let’s hope he is not the last.  

Many are shaking their heads over the wisdom of building – and now rebuilding – a city below sea level so close to the shores of:  a – a huge river, b – a huge lake, and c – an ocean.  It is important to note that the French Quarter never flooded. The “old-town” was built in a wisely chosen place – it is the 20th century add-ons that went under.  Sprawl kills.  

An observation from elsewhere: I heard an African American preacher on the radio the other day delivering his sermon. He got to talking about the hurricane and said: "How come our government can use their satellites to listen to 'Hoo-day' and 'Too-day' whispering in a bunker in the middle of the desert, but can't find 30,000 Negroes in the Superdome!"

And once again the Army Corps of Engineers are the culprits and saviors in the Mississippi River Valley . The levees failed just this once after years of keeping the water out. But by keeping Old Man River in a concrete channel all this time, the natural seasonal silting that kept the marsh land built up has washed out into the Gulf, leaving the city to sink inches and feet as the buffers eroded.  It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Ah, yes, Mother Nature.  How many times in the past 3 weeks have I heard “Mother Nature” blamed:  her wrath, her fury, her destruction. Then the prayers go out to God the Father to spare us, deliver us, heal us.  Seems like this country is a lot more pagan than we like to admit. Is there just the one god or not?  If the goddess of hurricanes comes to destroy and the god of Abraham puts down his hand to protect, then don’t preach to me about monotheism.  Unless, that is, you agree with the “Simpson’s” episode where the sign at the church taking in flood survivors reads: “God welcomes his victims.”

Monotheists a world away are thanking Allah for sending destruction to those states where the armies of their enemy breed.  And more than a few southern Baptists preach that Jehovah is out to destroy the homosexuals, drunkards and gamblers of Sodom & Gomorrah ( New Orleans and Biloxi ).  It must be a comfort to be so certain of things.  

And finally the irony of Houston : Oil City .  The SUVs, pickup trucks and Hummers that ran out of gas this week in the traffic jam on I-45 headed northwest – they were offered only $5 worth of emergency gas each.  At today’s prices $5 just about gets my lawn mowed once. A typical suburban assault vehicle will go about 15 miles on a gallon and a half – or a half hour idle, whichever comes first.  Hungry? Eat your SUV.

Back in the Reagan era, a whole lot of Michigan folks moved to Texas to follow the easy money. “Last one out of Michigan , turn off the light,” was the popular bumper sticker.  “Rust Belt moves to Sun Belt” was the typical headline. Well, you can move back now, folks – we left the light on for you. 

Bring your Honda.



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08/20/05    Tally of the Willing

It has been a busy summer for me, and most of my "journal" has been in my head as I run about doing festivals, recording a cd, and replacing my basement windows, and so forth.

But this past 2 weeks, while our ever-fearless president takes his vacation (3 more weeks to go!) a group of war protesters -- many of them family of killed soldiers -- are camped out in Crawford, Texas, at the gates of power. Bush can take the time to race bicycles with Lance Armstrong, but won't walk down the path to meet with the mothers of his dead soldiers.  Maybe he agrees with Rush Limbaugh, who said of Sandy Sheehan: "So she lost a son; we all lose things." Or maybe he sides with some of his neighbors: the one who ran down the white crosses by the roadside with his pickup truck -- or the one who fired his shotgun during prayer services, saying he was just getting ready "to hunt some doves."

I offer a little research I culled from the Associated Press considering the dead soldiers from W's "coalition of the willing" -- that vast international consortium of invaders who waged a "preemptive war" with the cause of ridding Iraq of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Considering that nearly half of the American troops in Iraq are National Guard and Guard Reserves, which are supposedly under joint control of state governors, I am listing the coalition dead by governmental authority. Those not part of the United States are bold and in italics (you'll have to scroll way down to find most of them). These are the demographics of sacrifice:

Coalition of the Willing as of  8/20/2005 by government:

California         199 dead
Texas               162 dead
Great Britain    93 dead
New York          84 dead
Pennsylvania      84 dead
Ohio                 81 dead
Florida              74 dead
Illinois              71 dead
Virginia            54 dead
Michigan           53 dead
Arizona             46 dead
Georgia            45 dead
Louisiana          44 dead
Wisconsin         42 dead
Indiana             38 dead
Tennessee        37 dead
New Jersey      36 dead
Washington      36 dead
N. Carolina       35 dead
Oregon            34 dead
Alabama          33 dead
Oklahoma        30 dead
Mississippi        30 dead
S. Carolina       29 dead
Massachusetts   28 dead
Missouri           28 dead
Arkansas          27 dead
Kentucky         26 dead
Italy               26 dead
Iowa               25 dead
Colorado         24 dead
Minnesota        22 dead
Maryland         22 dead
Nebraska         19 dead
Ukraine           18 dead
Kansas             17 dead
Connecticut     17 dead
Poland            17 dead
Idaho              15 dead
Puerto Rico     15 dead
W. Virginia     14 dead
Bulgaria         13 dead
Nevada           12 dead
Vermont          11 dead
Spain             11 dead
Utah               10 dead
New Mexico     10 dead
Maine               9 dead
N. Dakota         9 dead
S. Dakota          9 dead
Rhode Island      8 dead
New Hampshire  7 dead
Delaware           7 dead
Montana             6 dead
Wyoming           6 dead
Hawaii               6 dead
Amer. Samoa      5 dead
D.C.                  4 dead
Slovakia            3 dead
El Salvador       2
Estonia             2
Thailand           2
Netherlands      2
Alaska                1 dead
Denmark           1 dead
Hungary            1
Kazakhstan       1
Latvia               1



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04/15/05    Moritat

As I write it is tax day. It has been many weeks since my last entry here in blogland. Life has intervened and kept me busy -- or at least occupied. The news has been a swirl of tubes -- feeding tubes, air tubes, I.V. tubes -- surrounding the life and death of Popes, Supreme Court Justices, and unfortunate individuals postered on our front pages. The war has gone to the middle pages. Eighteen dead here, 21 dead there -- not news anymore, just tally-keeping. That Turks have engaged and killed Kurds on the Iraqi border, ending their truce that began when we invaded the same, is hardly whispered this week. Michael Jackson's peccadilloes with little boys is much more newsworthy than another new/old war which we will surely be dragged into.

But this is an auspicious day in history, lest we forget. On this day the Titanic sank. On this day Lincoln died. On this day in 1813 American ships invaded the Spanish town of Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico and made it ours for sweet home Alabama. Ah, beware the Ides of April!

But enough of dreadful world events past and present. My good pal, Bob Franke, has just written me telling me of his new blog about songwriting: <http://www.songjournal.blogspot.com>. And it occurs to me that I have not gone down that road in this journal for a long time. So let's go there.

This week I wrote, for a student of mine, an arrangement in fingerstyle guitar of the classic Kurt Weill tune, Mack The Knife (or as it is known in the native Deutsche, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer). From the Threepenny Opera, it is the opening tune that tells of the dreadful exploits of MacHeath, or "Mackie" and his knife (messer). A "moritat" is a death song or a sort of "murder ballad" that was once a popular feature of morality plays in Europe in the middle ages. 

The tune makes a great fingerpicking exercise on the guitar. An incessant ostinato from the thumb in the bass lays down a circle pattern of chords, while a simple melody is played on the high strings in a recurring rhythmic pattern. But there is real genius at work here. Simple as the melody is, it is not at all dull. The melody notes define sixths, ninths, and major seventh chords in the first half; and the suspended (and suspenseful) sounds of elevenths and minor sevenths elevate the second half just before it ends -- but without resolution -- on a major sixth chord. A lot to happen in just 8 bars.

That's why it is fun to play. But a lot of tunes that guitar-involved musicians find fun are rather obtuse to the general public. Not so here. Weill made a tune that practically anyone with half a voice could sing. Often the melodic line is repeated while the chords change beneath it -- easy for the singer while the musicians have the job of making it tuneful. (When you are writing for actors in the musical theater, this becomes a practical matter too often disregarded by modern "artistes" writing for the stage.) Mack the Knife, as a melody, is not just fun to play, but also fun to hear. That is no mean feat. (I am reminded of a story my brother told me of an old fellow on his carpentry crew in Maine. Some of the younger guys had heavy-metal rock pounding out of their boomboxes as they worked. They old guy shouted, "That music must be hard to play -- it sure is hard to listen to!")

But at yet another level of songwriting, I am also impressed. With the tune never resolving to the keynote, the listener is propelled when the song repeats -- it is indeed a song that has no end. The original has many verses, and the rebounding melody keeps the story going nicely, even without a bridge or chorus -- common devices in balladry, traditional or popular. And the melody is so cheerful.  Maybe cheerful isn't the best word. It is not a blithe "happy tune" per se, but is a resignedly  optimistic one. Which is all the more ironic when considering its dark lyric by Bertolt Brecht, telling the story of Mackie, who has killed countless children, raped women, committed arson, and stabbed men for the fun of it.  

Then consider the year -- 1928 -- in Berlin.  A jaunty little tune that putts right along, ever so pleasant, while a man who is insanely cruel cruises through society like a shark swims the sea. It is one thing to view the nazi era with detached irony through a backward lens, as in the American musical, Cabaret. But to see it coming, and nail it so precisely, while crafting a song for all time and not just a topical ballad -- now that is something indeed.

That the song was a hit for Bobby Darin in the late 50's is still a wonderment. His arrangement is pretty much a note-for-note rip off of Louis Armstrong's, who recorded it five years earlier. The truncated English translation from Marc Blitzstein is a bit tamer than the original. And Satchmo goosed up the arrangement by modulating keys -- up a half step -- with every verse or two. (Armstrong was also the one who insinuated the name of Lotte Lenya into the song. She was married to Weill, and the star of both the original play and Blitzstein's American revival. She was there in the studio when Louis Armstrong was recording. He stuck her name in the list of Mackie's girlfriends as an ad lib and it has stayed there ever since.) In both Satchmo's and Bobby D's recordings the jazz band propels the song and makes the lyrics seem almost absurd. I'm sure the great majority of bobby-soxers who bought the Darin 45 had no idea of what it meant that "Mackie's back in town."

I've been thinking a lot lately about Germany in the 1920's and early 1930's. What must it have felt like for the average law-abiding German to endure the economic depression while an evil political party took control by inches and yards. How the evil must not have shown itself as evil, but had the face of patriotism, optimistic national pride and youthful energy. How the front pages of the papers would have read, and how the news of true import would have been buried in the middle pages -- or cut from the news entirely. 

And then I think of the dissident artists of that place & time, and how they struggled to be heard.  How messages were encoded in their texts and images, or else be banned. Books burned. Radio censored. 

And all the while, I think of today, in this place and time.

Here's the final verse, sung at the end of the play, but not heard in the popular versions of the song 

In German:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht

In literal English:

There are ones who live in darkness
While the others live in light
You see those who live in the light
Those in darkness, you cannot see



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02/04/05    War Is “Hell Of A Hoot”

Well, finally a bit of candor from our front line. A commanding general in the US Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, a decorated and lauded leader in both Afghanistan and Iraq wars had this to say about his latest triumphs (as reported by Associated Press 2/4/05):

"Actually it's quite fun to fight 'em, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front with you, I like brawling," Mattis said.

"You go into Afghanistan , you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis said during a panel discussion. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

So, the rough tough Gyrene allows that it’s fun to shoot men who “ain’t got no manhood.”  That’s good to know.  I’d hate to think it was all drudge work, fighting a war.  Up to now, it seemed only the prison guards and interrogators got any fun duty – like piling up naked guys for pictures and making them masturbate.  Last week we found out that some of the  female interrogators at Gitmo were dressing in miniskirts and thong underwear and rubbing themselves “down there” while grilling the devout Muslim detainees.  So the gals get in on the fun, too.  It’s nice to know that patriotism has its own rewards.

But shooting a guy in a turban, ‘cause he ain’t got no manhood, anyway – now, that’s real sport, by golly.  And the kids here at home can get in on the game too.  A group of students at Marquette University in Milwaukee that calls itself “College Republicans” has been raising money for their compatriots overseas by selling bracelets in an “adopt a sniper” program. The motto on the $20 bracelet is “1 shot - 1 kill - no remorse - I decide”. (AP 2/4/05)

The school, a Jesuit institution, has asked the kids to stop selling those at the student union – the Pope might not like it, after all. They were only following the lead of a Texas group called “American Sniper” which raises money for our Oswalds overseas, who apparently aren’t getting enough of that 200 billion dollars Bush has spent on this “hoot” already.

As for General Mattis, he is to be lauded and not reprimanded, says his superior, General Peter Pace of the joint chiefs.  And Don “godfather” Rumsfeld, as usual, claims to be ignorant of any knowledge of any statements written down anywhere, or captured on videotape – “I don’t know what he said precisely,” or in other words – “I know nothing! Nothing!”

In an upcoming movie about our heroic siege of Fallujah, the role of General James Mattis will be played by Harrison Ford, according to Hollywood sources.  I suppose Harrison will take out his diamond earring to “butch it up” for the role of Mattis – can’t go popping off girlymen Arabs wearing jewelry.  

 Maybe I’m the only one with a problem with this: According to the AP – and this is what is truly disturbing – after the general’s comments quoted above, the audience in San Diego (The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association) responded with laughter and applause. 

 And we wonder why they hate us?



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January through June, 2002

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copyright   2001 - 2008 Joel Mabus
Last revised: April 30, 2017 .