Songs of Freedom

Last evening, I attended an outdoor concert and fireworks show in honor of Independence Day in the United States of America. During intermission of the concert, popular music was played through the loudspeakers, and among the songs played were John Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses” (with its refrain Ain’t that America, for you and me, ain’t that America, home of the free), the Lenny Kravitz cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony:

  • Mellancamp’s song is a bitter satire of the American dream, and implies that the reward for hard work in this country is little more than a little pink house with a freeway running through its front yard
  • Guess Who is a Canadian band, and their 1970 song is a protest against America’s military action in Vietnam (I don’t need your war machines)
  • Born down in a dead man’s town… The opening to Springstreen’s song is dark, and the lyrics get progressively bleaker, ending with Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.

While I wasn’t offended by the choice of these songs for the event, I did think it showed astonishingly poor judgement. At first, anyway. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m actually believing the playlist was brilliant.

There is a long history of dissent and protest in our country. The Constitution gives legal protection to citizens redressing their grievances. As the recent Broadway musical Hamilton demonstrates, Americans were arguing with each other, often violently, years before declaring its independence.

Internal conflict is part of our country. We argue in times of war, and peace. After engaging in a devastating civil war, we acted with haste to return the rebellious states to the union, all but guaranteeing they’d find some other way to disobey.

So as we celebrate America’s independence, it does seem right and good for us to think how our old crazy dreams just kinda came and went, to let our northern cousins tell us they don’t wanna see our face no more, to remember that many of our citizens have become long gone daddies. The freedom to give voice to our dissent is one of the aspects I admire most about my country.


Information Infestation

The twentieth anniversary of the Columbine school shooting will occur in a few days, and today I stumbled across an interesting series of essays on the incident’s aftermath from Denver-based 5280 magazine. Among those essays were two pieces of information I have known for years about the killers:

  • They were members of a brooding clique of social outcasts at the school known as the Trench Coat Mafia
  • They had created levels in the game Doom
  • What I didn’t know until today was that both of these items are pure bullshit. In the days after the massacre, these were among the many rumors that journalists scavanged from the ruins of the community’s shattered psyche, and they did as they were trained — run with the story, and get the scoop on your rivals.
  • Then ask questions.
  • And if the answers you get suggest your scoop may have relied on a falsehood… the falsehood you reported becomes urban legend despite numerous updates and corrections… your emphasis on the sensational and salacious inspires copy-cat atrocities…
  • Well, you were just doing your job.
  • Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about two trivial details of this horrific event. And yes, shame on me for not conducting the five minutes of Internet research that would have disproven these myths. But I can’t help thinking that information has become a disease, an infestation of deception that has crippled our ability to think critically. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but the way out of our predicament is not through more learning, but better discerning — sorting fact from rumor, no matter how appealing the fiction may be.
  • Don’t be a fool

    The following post should be entirely unnecessary, as its message is obvious, the equivalent of statements such as Look both ways before crossing a street, or Diversify your retirement portfolio, or Twitter sucks.

    But a friend of mine, whose intellect I respect, today went on Facebook (which also sucks) and posted a quote that can be proven, with less than five minutes of Internet research, to be false.

    I guess even the most basic lessons need reiteration.

    Nope — he didn’t say it

    Let’s start with a different quote, one that I have to refute about twice a year. I’m no fan of The Fraud, and I’m more than a little disgusted with the GOP’s response to his regime, but I’ll never be satisfied with the tease of dishonesty, no matter how much it may flatter. This quote needs to go away, forever, although I’m pretty certain it will continue showing up in my Facebook feed from time to time, like a recurring outbreak of a dormant virus.

    She didn’t say this either

    Time to move on to today’s subject, a less egregious distortion but still a deliberate lie. For those who don’t know her, Brooke Baldwin is a journalist for the American news network CNN. In 2015, during a live interview on the subject of police training, she made the following statement:

    A lot of young people — and I love our nation’s veterans, but some of them are coming back from war, they don’t know the communities, and they’re ready to do battle.

    Baldwin was criticized for this remark about veterans, and the following day she apologized, on air as well as online. To summarize: she made an error, acknowledged her mistake, and issued an apology. Sorry folks — nothing more to see here.

    But then, three years later… “Don’t hire veterans!” And five minutes of my life lost to research, and another hour writing this post.

    It’s not that I’m against paraphrasing, but enclosing a misleading paraphrase in quotes is inexcusable. Let me walk through an example, using a famous aphorism that’s entirely appropriate for today’s subject:

    Now THIS, he actually said

    “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

    Abraham Lincoln

    Let’s paraphrase the quote as follows:


    Not entirely accurate, but close enough

    Abraham Lincoln believed Americans were gullible.

    You could argue this strays from Lincoln’s intended meaning (for one thing, he doesn’t specifically address his countrymen), but there’s still a close enough connection to his original words to justify the paraphrase. And by not using quotation marks, the paraphraser acknowledges going beyond Lincoln’s words to make a related, but not identical, comment.

    Now let’s take it to the extreme that’s become the norm these days, and the place my friend went today by forwarding the Brooke Baldwin fake quote — distort the original words beyond recognition, and give the fabrication an unwarranted air of authenticity by using quotation marks:

    I’m going to hell for this, aren’t I?

    “Americans are a bunch of fucking idiots.”

    Abraham Lincoln

    I didn’t enjoy calling out my friend today, but I also believed I wouldn’t be doing her any favor by letting her foolish mistake (five minutes of research! really!) go unchallenged. Truth matters, and by playing loose with accuracy for the sake of bolstering our arguments — and by forwarding quotes that can be easily proven to be fake — we only serve to embarrass ourselves.

    Trust Imagination

    It was some time in November 1990 — I don’t know the actual date, or even the day of the week — when I walked into an office on the northwest side of Chicago and worked my first day in a “real” job. I had just finished the coursework for my doctorate in literature, and my attempts to earn enough money to feed myself through teaching and grants were proving to be frustrating and futile. When the offer of a steady paycheck came up, I was too desperate to say no. My idea at the time was to test the waters for a few months, and if I seemed to be swimming all right, I’d stick with it until I finished my dissertation. Six years later, diploma in hand, I finally left that job — and immediately took on another, which eventually lead to another, and another, until eventually I had close to three decades of experience working with many wonderful and some truly awful people, in addition to a heavy dose of corporate systemic incompetence.

    Yesterday, that ended.

    After turning in my laptop and identification badge to my manager, I walked out of my most recent office building for the last time. Twenty-seven years and eight months of steady employment, interrupted by a few brief voluntary transition periods, has been left behind in order to pursue making a living as a writer. It’s an ambitious goal, one I had considered as far back as 1990 when it became apparent my academic career was going nowhere. I had known many professional writers during my university years, and they spoke regularly of the occupation’s difficulty, going so far as to actively discourage students like myself from its pursuit. I was easily persuaded (a fault that carries with me to this day), and took the advice to pursue a more practical career.

    Yet the desire to write, not as a hobby but as a career — to write as if my life (or at least its creature comforts) depended on it — never left. During those brief periods of unemployment, as well as those times when the mundanity of working life seemed unendurable, I was tempted to finally act on my ambition, only to have those dire warnings from the past urge me to play it safe once more.

    So why make the move now? Years of good financial planning, and (let’s be honest) incredibly good fortune, have put my wife and I in a good position. We’re not independently wealthy, but we can afford to take on a little risk in both our careers. My wife runs a cake decorating business out of our home — check it out. We’ll need to earn a living for at least another decade, but if I need to be working, I want to finally do the job, the only job, I’ve always wanted to do.

    When I walked out that door yesterday, I started on a new path. journey ahead is full of more uncertainty than I can ever recall. But I’ve never been so certain that I’m on the right path.

    On occasion, I use this blog to comment on music. After turning in my notice at work a few weeks back, I was listening to random songs on my phone when a gem from Peter Gabriel started playing. He wrote the song immediately after leaving Genesis, and the decision to pursue his own career left him feeling anxiously excited. I’ve enjoyed the frenetic energy of this song, with its unusual yet uplifting rhythm, for decades, but hearing it now, as I felt my own heart going boom-boom-boom in response to my career move, made me appreciate its power in a way I couldn’t comprehend before. To get what you want, you have to let go of what you have; to stop playing it safe, you have to trust imagination.

    A Thought on the Way to the Cineplex

    As I prepare to see the latest Star Wars film with my family, I’m wondering how much longer this phenomenon from my childhood can sustain its popularity. After one more film in a couple years, to complete the third trilogy — more spinoff movies? A fourth trilogy? Or will the appeal of this space opera (please don’t call it science fiction) finally expire?

    Writing on Cinematic Slant, Chris Thilk doesn’t see an end to the series of sequels and reboots coming out of Hollywood, and laments the lack of attention to fresher stories. So long as the upteenth episodes of these old standbys continue to generate profits, I don’t see the major studios changing their strategy. At some point the well will run dry, but until tat happens it’s best to enjoy what we have.

    Which I am fully intent on doing.

    4 – 8 – 15 – 16 – 23 – 42

    After a three-month hiatus, Ana Spoke has resumed posting to her blog today. Explaining she “was too busy getting married and starting my new job” to blog, Ana never did lose her literary ambition, although she struggled mightily to get back into her writing.

    The difficulty Ana faced in re-starting speaks powerfully to a dilemma that’s been coming for some time. About five years ago, I was writing sporadically in this blog, and wasn’t happy with what I was posting. I had read from several bloggers that the key was to make a committment of some fashion — number of posts per week, word count, completing a story each month, whatever — and stick to it. Many suggested that posting each day was the key, and for whatever reason that committment was the most appealing to me. Not sure of the exact date, although I do know it was the day after my younger son’s bar mitzvah (I could look it up, as if that mattered) — I told myself I was going to post something, every day, in this blog, starting that day until… whenever.

    I’m now wondering if whenever’s day has finally come.

    At times, the show’s title perfectly described its audience

    It’s not that the thrill is gone; I still love writing, and blogging, as much as ever. But this daily obligation has me feeling like Desmond Hume from the television show “Lost”, tasked with entering six numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) into a computer terminal every 108 minutes (I’ll save you the work — the six numbers add up to 108). Desmond was told this sequence of numbers had a supernatural power, and entering those numbers was the only way to prevent a catastrophic event. “Lost” was a cult phenomenon in its day, and its fans spent a good deal of time and energy speculating on some of the show’s recurring motifs, particularly those six numbers (hey guys, astrology has 12 houses and 9 planets — guess what number you get when they’re multiplied!). Posting on online message boards, speaking at conventions, and giving interviews to fawning entertainment writers, the show’s writers would frequently drop hints at the numbers’ significance, but after the show ended in 2010, they admitted most of show’s motifs had no hidden meaning. Those numbers had been chosen pretty much at random, and served as nothing more than a useful plot device, what the detective novelists would call a red herring. In other words, Desmond had been entering those numbers for absolutely no reason.

    The decision to post every day was the right call five years ago, as I don’t think I could have produced as much as I have if I didn’t have that disciplined motivation. But there’s been too many obligatory posts the past several weeks, and I don’t see the value in keeping the streak going any longer. My Christian readers will likely say that I’ve made an idol out of my daily obligation — and they’re likely to be correct.

    But as I contemplate stepping away, I think of Ana’s struggle to resume writing. Let’s say tomorrow, Wednesday, I decide not to post. What’s going to motivate me to post on Thursday? Or any other day this week? Next week? The rest of the month?

    If you’ve managed to wade through the preceding 500+ words, I’m now asking a favor. What advice do you have for blogging consistently, but not daily? What tactics do you employ to keep posting regularly? I don’t want to be like poor Desmond any longer, but right now I’m at a loss in my search for a different way of being diligent.

    Super Boor

    Super Bowl LI will be played this evening; kickoff should occur some time after the singing of the third or fourth patriotic anthem, the broadcast of a couple dozen overproduced commercials, and the 30 men and 20 minutes required to flip the damn coin. The game represents America at its boorish best — even our most sports-adverse citizens cannot ignore the event, while the rest of the world tolerates our obsession like a kindly yet overbearing relative visiting for the holidays.

    I wanted to begin today by reblogging a post about the game that makes no actual mention of American football. Agnes Wright is ready for the halftime show, and shares some recipes for what has become an American tradition.

    Ignorance is strength

    George Orwell

    [Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Devastation]

    Over this past weekend, a dystopian novel first published in 1948 entered the bestseller list on Amazon. The “alternative facts” promoted by President Trump’s leading spokesperson has evoked comparisons to doublethink and newspeak, concepts introduced in George Orwell’s 1984.

    I’m glad to see Orwell re-enter the public conversation. My doctoral dissertation in the 1990s relied heavily on the writings of Eric Blair, but as I studied and wrote I wondered if Orwell would remain intellectually and culturally viable in the 21st century. He had a lot going against him — deceased for almost half a century, the title of his most famous work evoking a year sinking further into the past, ridiculed by academics as a lightweight (“let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about” was a frequent punching bag for postmodern philosophers, who argued that meanings didn’t exist outside of language), castigated for his role as a government informer in his later years. Orwell seemed headed for the dustbin of history; I’d been fascinated by his work since high school and was still moved by his call for simple human decency in defiance of political oppression, and I regretted what I saw as his coming demise.

    Well, perhaps that’s changing. Trump’s America is certainly no Oceania, but in less than a week we’ve seen this administration intimidate the press and attempt to control how information is communicated. The Conways and Bannons in the regime seem to realize that while any third-rate despot with enough guns can temporarily control a population by force, a tyrant who controls people’s thoughts can remain in power much longer — and what better way to control people’s thoughts, than to bring devastation to their language?

    So welcome back, George Orwell. You felt out of time in your own age, and for all the wondrous technological advances since your passing, I’m sorry to say we’re no less fearful and brutal than what you remember. Maybe it’s that sense of alienation, your feeling of not belonging in an age like this, that gives you an insight that, for all your faults, make your voice still so valuable at this time.

    Stumping for Pumpkin

    In response to this fall’s backlash against premature pumpkin spicing (which threatens to morph into a br0ader attack against the cloying flavoring), I propose the following rule when ordering overpriced coffee drinks or baked goods: if you’re not wearing a jacket or sweater, stick with the caramel and cinammon.