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Essay Archives


Previous Entries

Return of Cool Black
The True Life Case of the Haunted Derivative...
Vomiting in Ketchikan
The Nature of People
Guitars on Stands
Serious Doubts In the Ranks of the Color Guard
Give Willie His Pot Back!
The Secret Life of Hyperlinks

What's So Great About History?

The Soul of the Simpler Machine
Published October 31, 2008

Do sagging black dudes, with their jeans clinging to their hip bones with about half of their boxer shorts exposed, realize that they are advertising that they are available for anal intercourse?

These and many other questions about today's black youth culture leave me perplexed, though that allusion above to prison culture ranks at the highest reaches of the list. That kids would imitate the behaviors of the worst role models society has to offer is ass-backwards to begin with. That a black culture that is famously homophobic would adopt as street fashion a display of such a supplicant - and homoerotic - nature is just a head scratcher. That the imitators of this fashion may be too unsophisticated to even know what they are portraying is downright disheartening.

But did you see Lil Wayne on Saturday Night Live this season? With his pants down to his knees?

Lil Wayne must know all about this weird affectation and its origins, so what explains him? Pandering to his audiences? He has several, a true crossover on the streets of Rock R&B and hip-hop. Or has prison survival technique morphed on the street to become just another passé rebel pose. I guess I suspect the latter.

On the brink of an Obama presidency, I find myself thinking back to 1970, when I can last remember when being "black" was really cool. There was a time, as an 18 year old kid roaming the campus of the University of Kansas, when I looked around myself and thought it was impossible for me to be cool, because what was cool was being black, and I was about as far from "black" as a guy could get. Even the cool white guys I knew were having their hair permed to affect white boy afros. (I would admit that I once tried this, with horrible results.) They looked right for the times, with Army surplus outfitted Yippies roaming the hillsides along with their more blissed-out Hippie brethren, many of whom were equally enamored with the "natural" look - natural, that is, to a black dude.

White guys were useless in the early '70s, at least as far as youth culture was concerned. The times were getting grittier, as the Viet Nam War dragged on, and the post-Beatles generation of white musicians were weirdly transfixed with warm and fuzzy folk and country-rock. Why, it was disgusting, as if white people were naturally gravitating back toward the milky folk era, with all its blandness.

The sizzle of the black male music stars of the '60s, including Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Otis Redding, and the Motown acts, was largely gone. On the other hand, the blues was reborn as a white man's fascination, and older black musicians were, for a short time in the late '60s and early '70s, in vogue. This gave the rise to prominence, in terms of crossover recognition, of such bluesmen as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and others. Young guitarists were studying up on newly available blues roots tracks recorded by Robert Johnson decades earlier.

The United States of America has for some time been becoming a wholly different place than the country I grew up in, far more divergent in its cultural mix. My Uncle "Gene the Plumber" was the first, in my personal realm, to really notice and acknowledge this. One might have expected a "Kansas redneck" to express qualms about "changing America," but that wasn't him. He was a big Nat King Cole fan, as big a fan of Nat's as his sister, my mother, was of Harry Belafonte. They both enjoyed Sammy Davis, Jr., too. They weren't really progressives, just had ears.

I think what people may not fully appreciate about the civil rights movement of the 1960s was the extent to which it was supported by creative black dudes who were making extraordinary contributions to society as a whole. I would argue that the music produced at Stax Records and Motown represented real advances in giving voice to our - blacks and whites - shared experiences. While we haven't all experienced despair and disregard in equal measure, we have all experienced love and pain and joy and the other attributes of being human. I would argue that the "race music" of the '60s helped a gap be bridged between whites and blacks that was critical to the advancement of American society. If you can "feel" with someone, you can probably also eat and go to the bathroom with him. A level of trust was established through those mainstream tunes. And its worth noting that everyone in the 1960s heard the same stuff, America not being nearly the fractured experiential thing then that it is now (i.e., we don't share media experiences universally anymore).

Ironically, the black dudes I knew as a young man never had any respect at all for white dudes like me. I mean that on an intellectual level. Me and the guys I knew - the whitish guys, except possibly for the Jews - were not sophisticated enough for the black dudes, all of whom seemed to have roots on the east coast and backgrounds in elite formal educations. My sampling may not have been typical, probably having to do with the creative community with which I was associated, but I knew a bunch of really bright black guys. And for the most part they looked right down their noses at me. And in retrospect, I respect that.

I recall playing guitar one day with a black sax player, whose name can never be spoken since it was no doubt a phony to begin with, and native Congolese percussionist Titos Sompa. I was stumbling through a standard jazz tune, trying to find some common ground there with "Ornette Coleman," which wasn't easy, and trying not to sound too white for Titos. And when it was finally over the sax player looked at me and says - "So why don't you like that tune?"

It was that way once, with the black dudes owning "expression," from the way we sang to the way we cooked. (I say that because that awful sax player also taught me to make ham hocks and beans in a way for which I am mildly famous to this day.)

Then, as the 1970s wore on, something changed - something specific.

Manufacturing died and the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" became really noticeable.


The 1965 Watts Riots in L.A. had shown that, whatever positive strides were being made by the civil rights movement, a deep well of resentment and dissatisfaction underlay the changing American society. And as the Peace and Love era of the late '60s wound down a "gang" called the "Crips" was founded in southern Los Angeles by a couple 16-year olds - Raymond Washington and Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Though ostensibly a further extension of the '60s ideology that had created the Black Panthers and the radical Weather Underground, young Washington and Williams were not a part of the intellectual elite and they never developed a political agenda.

What the Crips offered was identity to a bunch of kids whose parents lost their jobs as local manufacturing concerns disappeared, leaving large tracks of L.A. without an economic base. The Crips gave a generation of hopeless kids a way to get something out of life, primarily through involvements with criminal pursuits. Gangsters without purpose, they festered into competing subset neighborhood groups, with the Piru Street Boys rechristening themselves "The Bloods," thereby launching the most notorious feud in street gang history.

As America became less and less a manufacturing society, and jobs for unskilled workers became fewer and fewer, "black musical expression" morphed further and further away from the pop-oriented sounds that had made their music so popular with crossover audiences going way back to the early part of the 20th Century. Rap and Hip-Hop became the dominant sound starting in the late 1970s, gained ground in the 1980s, and went mainstream in the early 1990s with entrees that were a real jolt to the "system." "Gangsta rap" spoke for a generation of primarily young people who were dispensing with pleasantries, in favor of straight talk and, all too often, vulgar display of pride and vanity.

Gangsta rap has proven to be a fad that passed, but it has left an edge on the music that is now called "R&B" - a blend of hip-hop, rap and '70 era soul, now including disco.

Speaking as a guy with a couple kids in middle school (what used to be "Junior High," in my experience) in a highly diverse community, kids these days won't listen to anything else. The "ghetto" music starts about 7 o'clock each morning at our house, rides with us to and from school, and starts again at home after school hours.

The reasons my kids and their friends like it is the same reason those kids on American Bandstand rated songs high back in the '50s and '60s - it's got a beat and it's easy to dance to.

One other thing, too. It is easy to "do" together. The kids I haul around sing all the R&B tunes together, like a weird comic chant. They seem to find it funny.

There are young black dudes at our house all the time, which bothers me to the extent that a father gets bothered by young dudes hanging around his daughter. It is interesting, though. They are bright, clever, inquisitive, and put me to mind of those black dudes I used to hang out with all those years ago. They are courteous, too, which goes a long way with me whatever color you happen to be. You notice, these days, the people who take the time for civility. At least I do.

The kids all love Obama, which I find reassuring. I'm not an Obama man myself, but I recognize decency in him, and it makes me feel at ease that my kids do, too. Young people need role models.

There is so much talent out there to be tapped.  - RAR









COOL BLACK: Photographs (roughly clockwise) include Cab Calloway, Ike Turner, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Sidney Poitier, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Samuel L. Jackson, Clarence Williams III, Richard Roundtree, Buddy Guy, Lil Wayne, Prince, Sammy Davis Jr., John Coltrane, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Johnson.

BLACK DUDES: Clarence Williams III and Richard Roundtree are both included on this panel on the strength of their era-defining looks. That aside, the amount of artistic genius represented in this panel is awe inspiring. That's sort of what I am hoping of the likely election of Barack Obama: a new golden period of black creative contribution. I rather like Lil Wayne as a starting point, in our new niche-defined world.

Published September 24, 2008


Imagine this happening on your block, in your life.

You make a big decision, take a chance. You gamble your future on your optimistic assessment of your own prospects. It is a big and important place you find yourself in, and you feel that you are on the top of the world.

You must know that light begets darkness, an immutable fact of your pursuits.

But you can't be prepared.

Without warning, everything changes. You are knocked off balance, disoriented by a feeling of doubt.

Suddenly no one will have anything to do with you because it has gotten out that you put all your eggs in a basket that has turned out to be haunted. You look again at what you have and wonder how you didn't see it yourself. You want to disentangle, but you can't break away. You can't dump the thing, because the place is just scary, and you have borrowed more to finance your twisted scheme than what you actually own is worth. That is the talk, which you hear as a bad street buzz.

Worse yet, the neighbors are starting rumors about your mental...stability. Your stock on the block is falling like a rock. People shun you, avert their eyes as you pass, pretend like you aren't there.

It isn't long before you can't arrange a job, let alone a deal.

As your cash flow dries, you start selling off your assets, your own desperation driving your acceptable returns lower and lower. All of the respect anyone had for you is gone now, and it is known that whatever you have can be gotten on the cheap.

It is as if you have been left to be picked clean by the ghouls you thought you knew - your friends and associates.

Then just as quickly as the darkness enveloped you, a protecting angel appears. An Uncle with whom you have always had a special relationship. Let's call him "Sam," as you always have. He sweeps in like a huge tri-colored bird, with stern, watchful eyes, and a decisive way. He covers your losses and takes the creepy place off your hands.

You know it wasn't really magic, as it seemed. You know Sam really coerced resources from your frail Aunt Samantha, who doesn't put up much of a fight these days, whipped as she is from Uncle Sam's philanthropies.

But what do you care! Old Aunt Samantha hasn't got much life left in her anyway, and doesn't need the liquidity, and besides, you have been exorcised of your awful stewardship. Hands washed clean, you are back on the streets, looking for the next better transaction, back in the good graces of your friends and vampires, who tend to gravitate toward people in just your situation. It has all changed again, you are a player.

If you are good and your intentions are pure, you really can survive this hairy, scary world of weird finance.

It is sad for the rest, though; for those who don't have someone like your Sam. You just wish that luck and good fortune would be with them, too. Or at least that they will refinance with God's speed. - RAR

Published September 11, 2008

Vomiting in Ketchikan

Probably the best way to get to Alaska is by the ocean-going ferries that traverse the inner island straits up past Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and the rest. That is how the tourists go, and by all reports it is a wonderful experience. My parents and my brother's family did this recently and thought it was a great experience.

The second best way is probably to fly non-stop into Anchorage, which you can do from U.S. airports as distant as Newark, New Jersey and Boston, Massachusetts, each seven and a half hour flights.

The most scenic and adventurous option is to drive up through British Columbia until you finally reach the Alaskan Highway, known as the "ALCAN" for "Alaska-Canada," which winds from Dawson Creek up through the Yukon Territory and to Delta Junction, Alaska, 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. I took this arduous route myself to Alaska in 1983, driving through the wilderness all by myself in possibly the stupidest and most terrifying solo journey I have ever made. It is a great trip but go prepared. You will see bears and all manner of wildlife. I met a 7-foot tall mountain man at a gas station in the Yukon - gas stations are few and far between so watch your gauge - who seemed to want to make me his girlfriend. I have never driven away from a gas station so fast in all my life; in fact, drove the next hundred miles watching the road behind me in my rearview mirror.

The ALCAN Highway is known as Highway 1 in the Yukon Territory, which just about says it all if you think about it for a second. Not a lot of pavement in the Yukon, though in 1983 Highway 1 was like a super highway compared to Highway 97, which is what the ALCAN stretch out of Dawson Creek is called. I drove up from Boulder, Colorado, which took days, and recall stopping at a gas station in Dawson Creek and stupidly asking the guy at the cash register if I was anywhere near Alaska. I know this sounds like a stupid question, but it says something about how utterly unprepared I was for this trip. I was driving a Ford Pinto, about as ill-equipped to handle this terrain as any vehicle imaginable. Roads, often unpaved, were so rough that at one point I sheared the pins attaching my car's generator to the engine block right in two, just from the force of the buffeting ride. I wired it back on with a coat hanger and limped into the next berg to buy a bolt to affix the generator back in a functioning position.

The cash register guy at the station in Dawson Creek thought it was a stupid question, too. "You are two thousand miles from Alaska," he said condescendingly. It wasn't accurate information - I was only a little over half that far from my intended destination - but it gives you some idea of the distances we are talking about when we talk about driving to Alaska, a really remote place.

At one point, after driving for what seemed like hours without even spotting another car, I hit a stretch of "highway" that was nothing more than a rutted dirt road. Then out of nowhere came a guy on a grader who ran me right off the roadway as he leveled the surface, never even acknowledging my presence, as if I had stupidly driven onto a construction site and deserved rough treatment.

There is a crossover from the ALCAN that brings you into Skagway, Alaska. This, too, was just dirt road when I took the trip, 96 miles long, called Highway 2 until you get into the United States, where it becomes Klondike Highway. The 96 miles seems a great deal longer when you are traveling at 45 miles per hour, bouncing along like a bobble-head doll.

I recall feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, signage being non-existent at the time, really wondering if I had taken some wrong turn into a wilderness I would never return from. As night fell I drove on, gaining elevation as I fought my way up the White Pass, and snow began to fall. This was in August.

The temperature dipped precariously as darkness enveloped me. I drove past a bear in a ditch on the side of the road at one point, barely visible in flaky, confettied darkness. Then eventually I found myself coming into Skagway, a tiny former gold mining town that like all the Southeastern Alaska towns is nestled into the steep terrain along the inner island strait. Exhausted, I slept that frozen night in my car in the parking lot of the ferry terminal, waiting for an opportunity the next day to drive aboard the car ferry that would deliver me to Juneau.

The ALCAN way of travel to Alaska is the most wonderfully horrifying adventure you will likely find anywhere in North America if your thing is doing wild road trips.

Without a doubt, however, the wildest way to go to Juneau, Alaska is to go by air. Sounds impossible, right? Wrong.

Riding the low altitude flights that hop and skip up through Ketchikan, Wrangel and Sitka is like riding a roller coaster, the rugged terrain creating high and low pressure areas that toss even a commercial jet around like a toy boat bobbing on the ocean.

When I was in Juneau I would hear stories of a commercial jet that actually did a complete barrel roll coming into land at Juneau International Airport, where pilots are forced to take a wild turn at the last moment upon approach to fit in between the mountains rising on either side of the runway. This barrel rolling commercial jet story may have been apocryphal - I don't even know if a commercial passenger airliner is capable of such a thing - but the story seems feasible when you are bouncing along on that death flight into the wilderness.

The touchdown in Ketchikan was particularly awful.

I flew in once on a plane that had only a handful of passengers on it; I couldn't even see anyone else on the flight from where I was seated, but knew they were there by the sounds they were making. Unpleasant sounds.

When we landed, after a good air beating, we were informed that we would all need to disembark temporarily so the crew could clean the plane before boarding the few passengers getting on at Ketchikan.

The plane was a mess. Most everyone aboard had vomited. - RAR


The Nature of People - 90/10 Rule

California is spending a huge amount of money to incarcerate people, and recently Aunode da Gubernator signed a bill to spend $7.4 billion to add 40,000 prison beds and 13,000 county jail beds to the system. When this expansion is complete, the Golden State will be the only state in the union to spend more on incarcerating people than it spends on educating them. That's pretty grim because in shear numbers we are incarcerating a great number of people who are no danger to society. They are rule breakers, jay walkers on the avenue of strict enforcement. Somehow we want to have room in lockups for them, along with the murderers and those violent offenders who will be back among us soon enough. This prison-building exercise doesn't change any laws, it just provides more cells.

All of this is wrong in a hundred ways, but I am always taken by how much worse it could be. This is my Pollyanna side showing, but as I traverse the cross section of the citizenry it consistently occurs to me that at least 9 out of 10 people you meet, probably more, are basically fine. I, personally, have never been attacked by anyone, rarely been assaulted, infrequently been harassed or intimidated, and only occasionally been taunted. An astonishing number of people are either not trained in etiquette or just don't care, but what astonishes me might not faze another person. I tend to detest rudeness, so if 20 percent of my encounters are with the impolite I tend to think of it as epidemic. Actually, though, that's pretty good, isn't it? The majority of people just let you be, and a special few are even courteous.

The other thing I am taken by is that this 90/10 thing seems to me to hold true across the racial divides. I find that young people misbehave at a proportionately higher rate, but sort of expect that; their brains aren't even fully formed until they are 25, so I deal with the ignorant young (and that is a minority, in my experience) as "retards." They might get better, but maybe not. I do not find that Blacks are any more rude than Latinos, or Chinese any more rude than Pilipinos. 

Quite honestly, given the pressures of life, the injustice in the distribution of its rewards and hardships, and the natural inclination toward suspicious feelings toward unfamiliar types, it amazes me that we aren't constantly in a state of civil war. But we aren't. In fact, even when we were in the American Civil War only a minority of Americans, many of them conscripts recently off the boat from Europe, were involved in that.

I have always believed that the energy we living beings create is an entirely neutral thing, as malleable a force for good as it is for bad. Maybe how it gets directed is a function of the dual nature of man, but that makes it all the more amazing to me that it is generally channeled so positively. Clearly we learn of places like Darfur where unspeakable violations of humanity are commonplace and see that the balance of mankind can be undone, and we get these events throughout the world throughout human history. We have sectarian violence in Iraq right now,  given reign by an impenetrable will to impose order on an imposed chaos. People in power can make decisions that make you wonder about humankind, but look around. The vast majority of us are just fine.

So why do I feel like such a misanthrope? - RAR (May 2007)




Guitars On Stands

I recall many years ago being in the home of a really well known guitarist, there to interview him for a publication I was with at the time. We sat in his living room, me on a sofa, arranged like a stick along the wall, and he on a high-backed chair positioned more or less at the head of the living space. The whole throne-room setup was made more pronounced by the two electric guitars he had on stands, one positioned on either side of his chair, angled respectfully, forward and in. One was a gorgeous Les Paul, the other an archtop, and both were polished to a fine sheen. I love guitars almost more than any other object I can think of, and I found his Gibsons distracting. I was envious of him owning such marvelous instruments. But I recall, at the same time, that I felt sort of uncomfortable for my host. He had created a little tableau that represented the way he thought about himself. And I recall that it made me feel a little sad. As much as I wanted his stuff, it somehow seemed as weight to him.

This odd memory flooded back to me yesterday because of something my wife said. She has a budding business in interior re-design, real estate staging, and color consultation, all of which has been taking her into the homes of a lot of strangers of late. She has noticed a pattern. Her clients, primarily wives of middle-aged and older men, never mention anything about it, and certainly don't imagine incorporating it in any meaningful way into their design concepts, but their husbands all play guitars. Or, at least, they did. They don't really have any time to play anymore, and lack of involvement has developed into lack of interest. And yet they have all these artifacts of their youth: Gibson SGs and Mosrites, Flying Vs, knock-off Epiphones and Ibanez, Teles and Strats and tube amps, Fender and Vox and Marshall; Martin Dreadnoughts and 12-strings and Ovations, Guilds and Yamahas; the Resonator they had to have; if they're well to do, The Beatles' suite from Gretsch, Rickenbacker and Hofner; Taylors; Silvertones; Takamine; the occasional PRS. They have mixing boards and microphones and stomp boxes and music stands; compressors and reverb units and old analog delays; 4-track recorders and tuners.

The wives are embarrassed by it, but the husbands won't let it go. Some people have built large cabinets to hold and hide it all, this crafted detritus - spruce, maple, mahogagy and rosewood that absorbs string vibrations and oil from hands and grows richer with age, provided it is touched, though most is not, not anymore. Mostly they, the guitars, stand like silent tombstones, haunting the corners to which they've been shunted, signifying the past and maybe holding out some hope of some golden future, when it will all come back: the way it used to feel to set motion to those cables, the way their sound landed on the ear with a clarity that lives in rarely accessed memory, sometimes to be bestirred by a song on the radio, or a blasphemous commercial soundtrack on TV (Nike and "Revolution").

We all ran off and bought our axes and formed our bands then in different measures melded into adult lives; fighting for a time to hold on to our romance and infatuation with beauty as we knew it. There were girls who saw light in our fascination and admired our pilgrim souls, until united we redefined "us" in a way that didn't include who "we" had been, until finally that part of us was dead. And there are our markers, 22 frets in 24 3/4" scale, 1 5/16" at the nut.

My wife had thought it was just her, but it's a whole generation of wives slightly embarrassed by a whole generation of husbands; all the same, all slightly diminished now by the mockery of time and an aesthetic association that hadn't the staying power of its vessel, the guitar. - RAR (4-21-07)



Serious Doubts in the Ranks of the Color Guard

A year ago my family bought a home in a community new to us, a little upscale from where we had lived, and a little "outside," in some ways, our previous life experience. We've lived in upscale communities before - Pacific Heights in Frisco, San Anselmo in Marin - but now we are in Benicia, California, a historic town of 28,000 population spread along the Carquinez Strait off San Pablo Bay. We are up in the north end of San Francisco Bay less than an hour's drive from "the City," as area residents call San Francisco.

One could hardly imagine a sweeter berg than little Benicia, a community that does the rare trick of being quaint and pricey while also being undisputedly characterized by the creativity of its citizens. (My own experience is that "artists" usually live among the poor, though I am revealed by my range.)

What makes our experience in Benicia different from previous is that we have kids now, and kids "of a certain age." Parents know that kids don't just change your life (co-opting or blessing it, depending upon your point of view), they keep putting it through a blender roughly synched to their maturation as human beings. Our current family dynamic is hugely influenced by the needs, wants and desires of our 12-year old daughter. Even she would admit that these days these are rarely reasonable and logical, her cover being that she is in the grip of being "an 11-year old girl!" She's 12 now, but apparently, in her mind, the 11-year argument is stronger, which must say something about where her "head" is at. We're all going through changes together.

She is a "good" kid, high-achiever in school, trained and talented dancer, wonderful writer, Internet ace, and...I could go on all day. She is highly sociable and extremely energetic.

She has transferred seamlessly into the fabric of her new community and numbers her friends - I mean the classmates with whom she routinely exchanges communications - in the thirties, which is amazing to me. Playing a pivotal role in this successful melding has been her participation in the Benicia Middle School Color Guard. Say it loud, say it proud, Benicia Middle School Color Guard is "legend" in the halls of the guard, which are many and varied. You get Color Guard programs in the military, of course, but also in high schools, colleges, and in independent associations, and sometimes in middle schools, though more rarely in the latter. Benicia Middle School Color Guard is notable because the unit has a history of competing impressively against high school guards, most notably at the annual Winter Guard International (WGI) Regional Competition in Las Vegas, Nevada.

For those of you who don't know Color Guard beyond a reference to a half-dozen military types in their dress uniforms parading about in a ceremonial way...well, you're like me, or at least the me that used to be before a deeper understanding changed me. Color Guard, as practiced by the Benicia Middle School, is a marching, flag waving accompaniment to the middle school band, though the involvement is almost incidental, a wave of the cap to a school-sponsored program that the guard otherwise has nothing to do with. There is no football team at Benicia Middle School, and having no stadium halftime programs at which to perform practically obviates the need for a marching band, which further obviates the need for accompanying flag wavers. Never mind, the main thing about Color Guard is that, after the band baloney is dispensed with, it morphs into "Winter Guard." Sounds like something from Narnia, doesn't it?

Some - "namely" whomever wrote the most helpful Wikipedia definition of Winter Guard - view it as "both an athletic competition and an art." My daughter participates on a team of 26 dancers and saber, rifle and flag spinners, who perform in gymnasiums, doing choreographed routines atop a painted tarp. Judges sit and review their performances based on their choreographed movements and object spinning. They perform to the rhythms of a pop soundtrack, often culled from the current top sellers but also from lush neo-classical orchestrations. The choreography hints at narrative. There is usually a story being told in these movements, though to me this is where Winter Guard goes weird. There aren't that many stories that naturally incorporate the tossing of swords, flags and rifles, which renders these accoutrement as just props, in which case why "swords, flags and rifles?" Winter Guard is taxed by its own nonsense, its force fit of a gymnastic dance version of whatever "competitive cheerleading" is. I wonder if it isn't revealing of the current state of humanity that our young people don't notice that these group enthusiasms have no point beyond being judged? We now have color guards flying colors representing no institution beyond their own, and cheerleading teams that don't cheer at all but rather dance, kind've.

Winter Guard, at its "best," is a Will Farrell comedy. It is almost entirely a female preoccupation along with a scattering of effeminate young men. (This is not a slur of any kind, just an observation.) Because the male performers number so few, one tends to notice them among the happy, bouncing nymphets. A surprising percentage of them are on the heavy side and they don't look that great in the stretch fabrics the guards typically wear. This, of course, heightens the "Will Farrell-ness" of it all as these beefy sensitives act out their yearnings and angst to the thumping rhythms of Alanis Morrisette, Pink and other Guard favorites.

In California the King of Guard is a dandy in his mid-20s named David somebody, who performs with an independent "World Guard," comprised of dancy types who are out of school and thus disconnected from a natural sponsor; though it should be noted, that many of these programs are not school sponsored to begin with. Anyway, David has rock star status and is held as the exemplar of Winter Guard perfection. "Be more David..." is a common instruction to my daughter's Winter Guard team, and they all know what that means. David is over the top at emoting. His routines often begin with he and a girl in lip-lock - which puts the audience all a-titter, because everyone recognizes that David is gay - before becoming a showcase for his prancing, growling leg extension and balancing feats, and his lip-synching, played large and directly to the audience. David becomes surrounded by his young admirers following his performance and befriends all of them on MySpace. There is a rumor that he will retire after this season, but everyone hopes it isn't true. David is Winter Guard in California, a superstar of the "sport." Most of Winter Guard season is over now, but David and his team will still be competing in the World Guard Championships in Los Angeles this month.

So where's the discontent, you might ask?

Discontent #1 is the cost. My wife is convinced that Winter Guard in Benicia, however well it has worked out for our daughter's matriculation into the new community, is really an elitist organization, a past-time for "the haves" and a tool for separating them from the "have nots." It cost us $1,000 just to get our daughter started in the program - money we had to borrow from my mother-in-law, to our great shame. We naively said yes to our daughter's request to join and then were shocked when the initial invoice came in.

Discontent #2 is the venue. Fully half of the $1,000 initial fee is to cover the cost of a trip to perform in Las Vegas at the WGI Regional Competition. The kids got to see a Cirque de Soleil show while they were there, which is nice, but in my home we were asking "Why are they even there?" Benicia is the only middle school that sends a team to this competition, where they compete against high school kids. This has made their legend - their chutzpah at throwing themselves up against more "seasoned" performers - but they don't really compete to win. This year they finished 14th out of 40, pretty good given their ages, but not inspirational. So why are they in Las Vegas, a city that doesn't really represent the aspirations the wife and I would hope to encourage.

Discontent #3 is the military connection. My wife, a teacher, believes rightly or wrongly that Color Guard, with its rifles and swords, wormed its way into the fabric of the school system through on-campus Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs. I don't know if its true, but it makes sense. It is the only way I can imagine how swords and rifles became part of a "school program," though again Color Guard is not a school-sponsored offering, but instead a private enterprise. I doubt anyone actually thinks of the rifles and swords as in some way encouraging militarism, and certainly they appear less insidious when reduced to juggling tools, but still...what have they to do with dance programs offered through the school? Or with anything, for that matter? Why superficialize weaponry?

Discontent #4 is that Winter Guard is a hard pursuit for a parent to support through attendance at events. The performance only lasts the length of an extended pop song, about four to five minutes, but the event goes on all day and well into the night. The dedicated Color Guard parents, and there are a number of them, spend as much as 10 hours at these events, not including the travel time, which often adds another two or more hours to the day. They stay for the all-important award ceremonies, which often take place later in the night, often past 9 p.m. Only the most committed (or only those who maybe should be committed) will give up an entire day to support their kids' 4-minute performance. And here's the kicker: in the meat of the Winter Guard season, there are sometimes a couple shows over a weekend! Bless their hearts, these dedicated parents and grandparents put their lives on hold, or cancel them altogether, to support this weird semi-dance, neo-militaristic mish-mosh of fabricated "art form."

Discontent #5 is the home-wrecking effect of involvement in the Guard. Our daughter has guard practice after school on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday until 5:30 p.m. - about 8 hours of routine weekly practice, plus frequent all-day sessions on Saturdays (prior to the start of weekend competitions) and sometimes on Sundays, too. Some weeks she will dedicate 24 hours to Guard rehearsals, and then the season starts. On several Saturdays and Sundays during the season, we are up at 4:30 a.m. to get her ready and to school by 6 a.m. It's not necessarily that they are leaving for the competition that early. Often they will do a two-hour rehearsal at Benicia Middle before going on to the show, where they will do another two-hour rehearsal prior to performing. I have returned to school to pick her up after midnight on several occasions, making for a long day for everybody involved. As the season wears on, my girl becomes physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. She falls behind on homework and on her home chores, and she becomes irritable and sharp. Worse, conflicts arise at home over me and my wife's perceived lack of support for her efforts; a conflict that is aggravated by the more committed parents of other Color Guard participants who seem constantly to challenge our daughter on why her parents aren't attending all of the events.


The Winter Guard season is mercifully over now. Color Guard is back in session, with the dancers back to marching alongside the band. There shouldn't be many more out-of-town trips. My daughter is thrilled because she's been advanced to a new position. She won't just carry a flag as she did in the fall Color Guard. This spring she'll get the privilege of spinning it. - RAR



Give Willie His Pot Back!

The photo on the left (lifted from the Rolling Stone site) is of the pound-and-a-half of pot Louisiana law enforcement officers confiscated from Willie Nelson and members of his band. 

I'd be curious to know who was keeping their stash in the little heart-shaped box. But more than that, I'd be curious to know when we are going to come to our senses in this country and stop preventing people from partaking in the one substance that never does anyone anything other than good. 

I mean for Christ sakes! Here's someone, probably a long-time "abuser" of fine herb, who is using a little heart-shaped box for their weed! And given that this is Willie's band, and the perp is probably a hundred years old, any potential this practice has to become a "gateway" to a life of harder drugs was surely opened, crossed, closed, re-opened, crossed and closed over and over again a long time ago, and still this person is around to keep their pot in a little heart-shaped box!

And besides, if this heart-shaped box isn't evidence enough of a gentle spirit, this is Willie Nelson's shit! Willie Nelson has contributed more to the well-being of our society during my 54 years on the planet than virtually any other human being I can think of. He was in his bio-diesel powered bus, demonstrating for the environment, when this bust took place. Willie's a pot head and he's a saint! What kind of character reference must this naturally occurring substance - well okay, Willie looks like he's smoking some greenhouse stuff - have before the knuckle draggers that make and enforce laws this stupid finally see pot for what it is: a gift from Earth to its unfortunate inhabitants; something to make the unwell feel well, to help a man cope with his heavy load. Something to put a grin on our faces so we can see how wonderful it is to be alive, because people forget, especially when they are persecuted for something like what was going on here with the heart-shaped box. - RAR

The Secret Life of Hyperlinks

In the infancy of the Internet, links were the only pram available. If you wanted to go to a site on the web you pretty much had to find the hyperlink(s) that would take you there, which was a clumsy process. That's why guidepost sites that weren't anything but links were popping up all over the place. Search engines weren't developed yet that could handle a query and return a number of pathways and possibilities. Navigating the Internet was pretty dumb in those days, reliant on lightweight bridges - links - to span the virtual voids between sites.

The modern Internet search engines - Google, Yahoo, etc. - that are now the main source of web traffic are still using that same network of links, not only to navigate to sites but to understand why people want to go to the places they go.

The competition for users (market share) among the search engine people is waged on the playing field of artificial intelligence. That's what they are selling - how well they understand you as represented by the rank order of results they deliver.

How do they understand you? They - the ranking algorithms - "perceive links as a proxy for a human judgement, or a user's positive endorsement of a page. The idea is as follows: a user discovers a page, likes its content, links to the page, and the page gets higher ranking. This is the so-called 'natural way' of acquiring links."1 - RAR

1 Entire Web Newsletter, October 26, 2006

What's So Great About History?

When I look back at the Viet Nam War my first thought is How could we have been so stupid? But then my second thought explains that it was an extension of the not unjustified fear of the spread of the "red menace."* Then my third thought goes to this morning's Meet the Press, where familiar pundits were debating the struggle within the Democratic party over whether to take the "longer view" toward the Iraq situation, or just stay stuck on a focus on Republican mistakes made in the past regarding the war's conduct.

And yada-yada-yada.

Half of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Viet Nam War were killed after Walter Cronkite's 1968 statement "There is no way this war can be justified any longer." It was 1973 before we got "peace with honor." Three hundred U.S. soldiers were dying each week while politicians argued over how to save America's prestige in the world community. To Senators and Congressmen, America's prestige is always at stake.

You wonder whom this international community is who is teetering on the edge between opposition and support for U.S. Iraq policy. It seems to me that virtually no government other than Tony Blair's -- or maybe it was just Tony by himself -- ever thought the Iraq invasion was anything but daft. American prestige was lost years ago, but certainly the Iraq War cemented world governments' views on America's honor.

Given the Viet Nam experience, which has had a lasting sobering effect on America, at least outside of the circle of chicken hawks in the Bush administration, you wonder how we can continue to justify this mistake.

The American people are telling the world that we know that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al are idiots. I don't think the international community is vague on that. America's prestige is intact as long as we find a way to get rid of these entrenched, deluded bums.

The debate regarding Iraq is now all about when we pull back (not really out, because we will always have an emergency response force in the Persian Gulf region). The Right somehow believes that America's prestige will be lost if we pull out too early, before the international community sees that they were correct all along and before Iraq has a stable, supported, well-run modern western-style government. They believe that if we do what Democrats like Kerry and Feingold want to do in issuing a "date certain" for American withdrawal "they will just wait us out."

"Wait us out? Of course they are going to wait us out! 
We are in their country! They are home! And we aren't!"

Wait us out? Of course they are going to wait us out! We are in their country! They are home! And we aren't! They are going to wait us out whether we say in advance when we will withdraw or just stay there in perpetuity being targets for IED development.

Remember, Americans and, yes, some terrorists are dying every week that we continue to pretend that we are protecting America's honor. Mostly, though, it is Iraqis. Civilians. Iraq's morgues issued a statement this week that at least 50,000 Iraqis have been in morgues since the War began, but the number is really far higher because in a war not every victim gets processed through the system. Some are disposed of where they fall. America won't begin to regain credibility in the world until we stop being a part of this carnage.

All of these same idiotic debates about the value of the war and the danger of a pullout took place back in the '60s and '70s, and all of these knuckleheads who are going around in circles on Iraq were around for Viet Nam. 

Don't we ever learn? Is history anything more than interesting?  - RAR (6/25/06)

*Our dialogue has gotten a lot tougher, hasn't it? Now we fight "Terror" and "Evil" and other less nuanced foes. By contrast, "The Red Menace" sounds like someone in pajamas.


The Soul of the Simpler Machine  

I have always loved to write. One of my earlier memories of this fascination involved my being an awful playmate to my backdoor neighbor Mike Miller, whose father had a basement office in their home where I used to go to steal time on his old manual Royal typewriter. While Mike and the other neighborhood kids were playing in age appropriate ways, I would be hurriedly typing out stories, trying to finish before I would finally be asked to vacate the premises. So began my love affair with the typewriter, which eventually led to my being one of only two boys in my typing class in high school, the other being a fey young man who blended more easily than I into the surrounding tapestry of skirts and blouses. I took some heat from my peers on that, but it never bothered me in the least. I was in command of those keys.

My first newspaper jobs were as a reporter working away on old manual typewriters, handing my copy off to typesetters who prepared galleys for mechanical paste-up. I long ago moved on, with the rest of the world, into the computer age, in which I have thrived, but I have never really loved modern word processing the way I did the manual typewriter. The old ways were limited, compared to what we do now, when everyone is a typesetter and a page layout designer, but I have never felt much soul in a computer keyboard the way I could feel it in those old carriage throw manuals. They had something else the modern equipment doesn’t have: enforced discipline. Ask anybody who came up in the years I did. The typewriter forced you to be a better writer. You didn’t have to use too much white-out or correction tape, or go through many sheets of carbon paper, before you caught on to the merits of getting it down on paper right the first time, especially if there were deadline pressures. I would argue that computers have made us less efficient as writers, if only because computers have democratized the process. Any marginally literate person can construct a sentence nowadays, given spell and grammar check and time enough to test out a variety of alternate approaches. Does anyone really consider the quality of writing in commercial publications and corporate documentation today and conclude that computers have made us better? Or faster? - RAR (6/1/06)


A Simpler Machine - 1978
As you can see, I was already very serious about myself.

My wife just looked at these pictures and said:
"If you would have looked like that when I met you, I would've thrown you a quarter and kept on walking."

I probably could've used the money.



©Rick Alan Rice (RAR), March, 2012