Monday, February 17, 2014

Presidents Day: A Human Perspective

On Presidents Day, historians like to engage in one of the more annoying Discussions of Futility, an activity that defines too much of academia and the Internet. But Hell's bells, DoFs generate hits and clicks and God knows civilization now revolves around hits and clicks. 

This particular DoF focuses on who was the greatest and who was the worst President. Now, if your understanding of humanity is no more evolved than "him good, him bad," this DoF makes perfect sense.

But if you think about it and if you read even a CliffsNotes version of history, how many of us can be summed up as "him/her good, him/her bad"? In fact, how many of us want our lives to be summed up that way? Especially since I can point to some past deeds of mine that were good and some that were bad and many that were debatable. In essence, I'm neither good nor bad. I'm human. That's all. Simply human.

So take our Presidents. Unless you're Ron Paul, you probably hold Abraham Lincoln in high esteem. In most of our minds, Lincoln falls into the "him-good" column. But Lincoln did much that was debatable at best, including major violations of Constitutional law that make both Bush and Obama look like pansies in the "Shredding-the-Constitution-to-Pieces" department.

Then, there's Richard Nixon, who is Lincoln's polar opposite and universally hailed as "him bad." Yet Nixon's crimes were rather tame in comparison with some of the shenanigans going on today (and in comparison to some of the actions of his nemesis, JFK, another universally hailed "him good"). Suffice it to say, the NSA has violated more personal space than Nixon ever did. And lived to lie about it longer than Nixon ever did.

But "him-bad" Nixon was also a pioneer in environmental protection and other legislative measures that most of us would throw into the "this-good" column.

Washington, another "him good," had a major tyrannical streak in him. There's a reason why the WashPA area holds a Whiskey Rebellion festival every year, since "him-good" Washington decided to forgo the Constitution when the ink was barely dry to trample all over citizens' rights because their protest against the newly enacted Whiskey Tax didn't suit the ambitions of the federal government (or his private business interests). Washington, though, also did many incredibly impressive deeds that warrant our esteem and the title, "The Father of His Country."

We could also talk about FDR and his Japanese internment program that was being conducted even as he steadfastly and bravely guided this country through a horrible war. We could talk about Bush's misdeeds in Iraq, even as we talk about the incredible work his policies have done to curtail the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Go down the list of our 44 presidents and you can play this game of "that good, that bad" with every single one of them and their actions in office.

So, what am I getting at? This DoF of which president is good and which president is bad is dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It reduces our presidential history to pre-K levels of human understanding.

I submit instead: There were (and are) no good or bad presidents. There simply were (and are) human presidents.

When you look at our presidents as human beings, the discussion becomes not so much about great and least great but about understanding ourselves and learning how power can cloud and clear our judgment and lead us to deeds that are good, bad, but more often than not in the gray, misty ethical middle... 

tl;dr: Debating who are the greatest and worst presidents is one of our more futile lines of discussion, since all presidents have done good and all have done bad. Instead, we should focus on the humanity of our leaders and learn from their mistakes and their successes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Few 5:49 a.m. Musings

 We have become a supremely refined culture in our means of communication. But as mankind makes one or two or five significant steps forward technologically, he tends to take at least nine or 10 steps backward intellectually.

Perhaps this is the way the universe keeps us in our place: cosmic pawns unable to realize our full potential, intently focused on taking out the other pawns who aren't externally the same as us, but are nonetheless exactly like us within their hearts and souls.

Therefore, a guy shoots another guy over texting in a theater while waiting for a movie to start that celebrates the heroics of a Navy Seal who was the only one on his team not killed in a stupidly designed mission that was part of an idiotically conceived war. The movie itself misdirects our attention from the delusions and dishonesty behind that idiotically conceived war as it lays at our feet a true-blue, modern-day laudable hero. 

After all, what would mankind do without something/someone to worship, honor, and adore? 

("Thinking for themselves" does not qualify as an answer because to arrive at that answer you'd have to actually think for yourself and that would require you to stop marching in lockstep with everyone else, ruining the intricate timing of the parade of humanity.)

When a true-blue, modern-day journalist takes note of the senselessness behind the very war that killed these men, the true-blue, modern-day hero--without hesitation and dare I say, the aforementioned thought--redefines the word senseless to mean "my friends died for nothing," which, of course, it does not mean.

In New Jersey, a prominent politician has been found to have corruption in his administration. Listening to the airbrushed, prettified hacks who read and report the news (as opposed to that increasingly rare species of true-blue, modern-day journalist), a novice might conclude corruption and political paybacks from public servants is unusual business as opposed to business as usual.

These airbrushed, prettified hacks--ever the inquisitive ones--naturally focus their collective attention on the most important facet of this story: how this scandal affects the prominent politician's chances in the 2016 presidential election.

And to make themselves feel clever, they conceive headlines that employ fat puns. Because the prominent politician is morbidly obese, you see. And being morbidly obese is funny, dontcha know. And fat jokes are funny, too, because Hell's bells, we're all still vying to be King of the Schoolyard Playground.

Thanks to the technological advancements of the human species, we now have access to this vast pantheon of original thought for every second of our lame-brain existence.

And the more access we have, the lamer our brains seem to become. 

Did I mention the Golden Globes had its highest ratings in seven or so years?

Is this the future, kids? 

Someone should warn Captain Picard...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Did It End or Did It Begin and Who Really Gives a Flying &%$*?!

Where does this all end? When does this all end? How does this all end? Will this all end? Will it actually be the end or the beginning of the end? Has it already ended, but we don't know it? Does it really matter if it's ended or that it will end or that it may never end? Why do we care if it's ended? Could the end be any worse than the beginning, which was guaranteed to end? Why does it have to end? Why did it have to begin? What's the point to the end? What was the point to the beginning? When the end comes, will I like it better than the beginning and everything in-between? Who really cares if it began or ended or never was or never will be or never is indefinitely into time and space? Why end when it never had to begin?

These were all questions that went through my head as I wasted the 15th hour of my life watching the season finale of Hostages...

...and my muddy-headed questions were more clearly defined than the plot of this befuddling, ill-conceived series ever was!

I'd write more, but honestly, why waste more of my time thinking about it?

At least it had a (kinda) cool title card...

Monday, January 6, 2014

For This Post, I'm Keeping My Mouth Shut, My Tongue Tied, and My Lips Sealed...

I have nothing to add to this columnist's response. Well, nothing that would be constructive if verbalized...

It's a Duke Kind of Morning...

With polar bears rapidly migrating to the Ohio Valley and other parts of the Great American Northeast, I was trying to find some music appropriate for what some say is the most depressing day of the year, yet also appropriate for entering the Ice Age and for warming our chilly souls.

Duke Ellington. Jeep's Blues. 1956.

I hear this piece plays an important role (pun possibly intended) in this movie starring Batman, Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, and Katniss Everdeen...

...a movie I was eager to see even before I learned about the soundtrack.

And honestly, doesn't Christian Bale look like he's dressed in a Matches Malone-type disguise?

Well, close enough, anyway.

American Hustle is also not the first time Batman and Lois Lane have been in cahoots...

I trust you all have a good start to your week. I would like to record here for posterity that in my neck of the woods we are in the midst of a 55-degree temperature drop. To frame it another way, from midnight last night until midnight tonight, the temperature will fall from 50 degrees (a record warm for our area at this time of year) to -5 degrees (a record cold for our area at this time of year). There are many unclean words to use to describe this. Let's use a clean one, though: crazy. 

I'm assuming it's worse in other sections of the world, of course. I mean, -5 is practically a heat wave in some parts of Russia.

In any event, stay warm and try to keep rational thought thawed out even as the temperature plummets...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"Pennies, Nickels, Quarters, Dimes..."

As promised in this post, I'm busily working on a review/analysis of  "Secret Resolutions." I'll probably finish it within the next few days and let it percolate overnight just so I can look at it with fresh eyes.

In the meantime, though:

Last night I was returning from my birthday outing and I happened to have the following rhyme pop into my head:
Pennies, nickels, quarters, dimes!
Come to us while there's still time!
Golden Ducky ever bold,
Look into our eyes of gold!

This I muttered as we climbed into the car. Considering that I was stone-cold sober at the time, my wife looked at me with the most quizzical of "WTF!" glances and said, "What was that?"

And I said, "Ummm, well, you see. There was this DuckTales episode called 'Home Sweet Homer' that I saw about a billion and one times when I was a kid* and for some reason, those lines have always stuck with me. I don't know why. They just have."

(Whispered Aside: *Actually, I probably only saw it a million and one times as a kid. The other zeroes were added  later...)

Now, it's important to understand that I am horrible with names. Sometimes, I have to meet a person three or four times before I remember their names. I've used all sorts of mnemonic devices to help me out with names.

Nothing works. If your name is Bill and you've told me your name is Bill on various separate occasions, the next time I see you I'll have a blank look on my face and call you buddy, man, or Rob. Guaranteed.

This cranial deficiency isn't limited to names, however. I struggle to remember directions, what I've done five minutes ago, whether or not I hung my keys on the rack in the kitchen or placed them in the white bowl on the dining-room table or sequestered them in my pocket from the previous night or left them hanging in the keyhole in the door. I set my smartphone down and instantly leave my smarts with it, because I usually have to grab our landline and call the phone to find where I last placed it. (Even now, as I typed this, I started looking around the room for my phone. It was laying right in front of me...) 

You'd think they'd invent an app to help you find your phone without having to call it. Technology is so slow...

Yet. I remember this...

Pennies, nickels, quarters, dimes!
Come to us while there's still time!
Golden Ducky ever bold,
Look into our eyes of gold!

...from an episode of a TV series that I saw when I was first six or seven. 

It's amusing, yes. But it's equal parts baffling, especially since I consider myself smart and fit enough to at least survive extinction.

Naturally, I find reasons why I forget. Perhaps it's a sign, I tell myself. A sign that I am smarter than the average Joe. A sign that my mind is so occupied with matters of a higher nature, higher intellect, higher purpose, higher level of creativity, that I just forget the unimportant stuff in life.

Like your name. My keys. My phone. What I have to do. And other pertinent matters necessary for me to survive extinction. 

Perhaps I'm the offspring of this guy...

Yes, that's it! I'm absent-minded. I'm easily distracted. I'm...I'm...

What was I talking about again?

(Sorry. Some bits you just have to bite.)

But then my brain takes a darker turn. What if this frequent forgetfulness is a sign of something more serious? What if the fact that I can't remember the name of that guy with the nose, the hair, the face, and the feet whom I've met six times now is a sign of developing deterioration in my mental faculties? 

I mean, what could be worse than forgetting not just names, keys, phones, and thoughts, but wholesale memories, events, milestones, and the fourth item in this-here list I was writing a second ago?

What could possibly be worse than that?

Never mind.

Nonetheless, I continue to figure out ways to keep my brain sharp. Reading. Writing. Not arithmetic. Arithmetic only shows me how dullheaded I really am.

But still. No matter what I do. The names, the keys, and the phone. Oh, and the pens. The pens. I don't buy nice pens. If you ever buy me pens, don't buy me nice pens. Just buy me Bic pens. And not even fancy Bic pens, should they ever make them. Just the cheap dollar plastic pens you can get at any old convenience store.

See, I lose pens, too. All the time. Everywhere. My pens are scattered across the fruited plain. Wherever I've been, I've left behind a pen. 

"George Washington slept there. Pete Fernbaugh left a pen here."

Sometimes my pens disappear so rapidly, I think they were raptured or spontaneously combusted. 
Regardless, whatever happens to my brain; wherever my memories end up: remembered, forgotten, or reburbished; whenever my mental faculties deteriorate beyond keys and pens and names, I can be certain of one thing.

I'll always remember...

Pennies, nickels, quarters, dimes!
Come to us while there's still time!
Golden Ducky ever bold,
Look into our eyes of gold!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bread and Milk! Milk and Bread!! Bread and Milk!!! Milk and Bread!!!! (Oh, and maybe some eggs, too.)

We're in the midst of a snowstorm of sorts here in the Ohio Valley, although from what I've heard, nowhere near the impending blizzard that's hurtling for places along the northern East Coast, including New York City where the new mayor used his first day in office to shut the joint down.

What an adrenaline rush that must be. "Look, Ma! I speak. It closes!"

Although if I were him, I'd be furtively wondering if Michael Bloomberg wasn't trying to sabotage my first day...

The Ohio Valley is an interesting place to live when it comes to weather. I've heard longtime natives describe the recurring meteorological cycles as "heat in the morning, AC in the afternoon," or something to that effect. One can never be sure which front we'll find ourselves under, over, or behind. 

Right now, it's snow and bone-chilling temperatures. By Sunday, it's rain and above-freezing temps. By Tuesday, we'll be in the midst of a second Ice Age as the nighttime highs drop below 0 and the daytime highs fight to get above zero. 

Unfortunately, the highs that would really send you soaring are still illegal in these parts. 

By this time next week, who knows? We might be mowing our lawns and nursing martinis by the poolside. Or building an ark and collecting deer and squirrels two by two.

Even though this is 2013 and snowstorms still happen, I'm often struck by the emotional reaction people have to these kinds of weather events. You would think at this point in humankind's development, we would have mastered, if not the weather, then at least our reaction to the weather. 

But with the kind of redundancy that would bore an obsessive compulsive, people respond to such expected weather events as snowstorms by snapping up all of the bread and milk at local stores as soon as rumors of flakes waft across the airwaves and trigger Old Man Cyrus' trick knee.

Invariably, those are the two items that disappear before all else. And like the prototype drones they are, the media report the disappearance of Bread and Milk with an urgency that would make one believe there's no way Bread and Milk will be returnin' to these parts before mid-July or the Second Coming, whichever comes first.

(To be fair, local newscasts can make a sunny day sound like a radiation anomaly.)

Leading me to wonder: if snowed in for more than 24 hours, presumably with your electricity intact, how much of that bread and milk are you really going to consume, especially if your cupboards are filled with delicacies that present gourmet options beside toast and cereal?

And if your electricity goes out for more than 24 hours and you're snowed in, won't you need something beyond bread and milk to sustain you? After all, the milk will go bad and the bread will mold eventually, especially if you stockpiled 5,000 loaves and 200 gallons. Why place all of your hopes for survival on those two foodstuffs? Why not stock up on canned foods, bottled water, dry goods, etc.? Why not purchase a sled and sled-dogs so you can mush your way to McDonald's?

I mean, there's a reason why the military arms its soldiers with MREs and not loaves of bread and bottles of milk.

Which leads me to conclude: tradition. Somewhere along the line, we got the impression from our forefathers that, in the event of an emergency, the very basic needs in life could be met with the very basic of food items: bread and milk. And like most ideas passed down through the generations, we cling to this tradition in spite of changing technology, changing times, changing science, changing knowledge, and changing prices.

It doesn't make sense, but hey, since when has the human race acted logically?

Which is why, today, right before our relatively benign snowstorm intensified, my wife and I felt compelled to make a mad dash to Walmart. Well, I was working. My wife did the mad dashing.

We dashed even though we had plenty of food in our cupboard. Even though we had bread in our box. Even though the snow would only keep us indoors for this evening. Even though there's a grocery store at the bottom of our hill and another one a few blocks over that we could have easily walked to should our craving for bread and milk have gotten the better of us and our very survival was dependent on consuming those two items before we consumed each other.

As a wise man once said, "Man shall not live by bread and milk alone, but if a snowstorm is a-comin', you best be hurryin' out and gettin' yourself some."

So, if you're in the path of this storm, I hope you have all of the pasteurized and processed basics needed for your short-term, if not your long-term survival...