Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cover Countdown #1

This one blew me away the first time I heard it, and still blows me away almost two decades later. The original suffered a bit because the band that performed it got a reputation for being clowns that really didn't do their body of work justice. I always liked the song, but this cover--by a band I have never heard of before or since--was like a completely different song. It's a little faster, a little harder, and emphasis in different places. It's a sort of one-hit wonder of cover versions.

1. Girl U Want
Original Version: Devo
Cover Version: Superchunk


Year's End

Today is the final day of 2011, a year where, for better or worse, much happened. For myself personally, it ended up being a decent year. I managed to stay employed, for one, without any real concerns or problems. Part of it is growing in the job and learning the limits of what can and can't be done. Part of it is that some changes took place that were beneficial. We've done and continue to do a good job.
On other levels, too, although it was a year of peaks and valleys, I came out of the year in good shape, probably the best I've ever been. I got into three major hassles this year, two with people in recovery and one in the community. The community one was the only one I truly regret; a guy trying his best was hurt by some things I wrote that were not motivated by the best of intentions, and there was fallout to be paid. I learned from it, and I think that I've been more careful about expressing myself and how I do so since then, because I realize that people do pay attention and the ripples go far enough to affect a lot more people than I ever thought. The two in recovery I feel ambivalent about. The long-standing rancor with one has kind of receded into quiescence; our paths don't cross much, and some of the feedback that does reach me indicates that after a dozen years, maybe a little is changing on his end, too. I kind of hope so; it seems impossible to recall most of the time, but we actually got along once, when we were newcomers.  The other guy is what he is, and nothing's changing, as was demonstrated as recently as last night, but it's background noise at best--I don't regret what I did and said, and I hadn't even thought about him for months until yesterday.
But on a bigger level, I settled into more manageability and responsibility. Finding another home group was key; not only has it allowed me to remain a part of the candlelight in better humor, but it has simply revitalized the entire recovery process--for a decade, I have done much better with two meetings a week than only one. It opened the door to a number of good people-- Nick, Amanda, Dan, Kristen-- entering my life on a regular basis, and you can never have too many of those in your life. It also opened the door to the step study group, which has really gotten my stalled process moving again. I can feel the difference, and the results, too. I take input a lot better than I did even six months ago, and I am also much more aware of my deficiencies than I have been in a long time--and yes, it softens attitudes towards others. Last night, I had conversations with--and was genuinely glad to have had those conversations with--Eric and Darryl, two guys who have been around for a long time without being able to stay and whose sharing has gotten to me in the past. A year ago, I would have dismissed them as "OMG, wasting our time again?". But they are just guys are trying, who (God bless them) are still coming back for more after repeated stumbles, who want to get well more than anything else in the world. They deserve to be encouraged and supported for the perseverance and willingness they are showing, not quarantined because they haven't made it work for themselves up to this point.
In the last three-four months, I think I've become less judgmental than I have been in a long time, and I have no doubt that repeated, extensive exposure to others who take their recovery seriously in the step study group has been the reason why. We all need points of accountability, and for a few years now, I hadn't, in the recovery process, really had one. I don't think I was so arrogant as to believe that I was a finished product, but there was an arrogance that no one around me had enough to offer me for me to learn from. That particular delusion has, I am certain, passed. I've written about this before, but the great thing about the group is that with five guys with functional programs and extensive recovery experience in one place, it serves as a point of accountability that serves as an effective sort of sponsorship. I am sure that there are book-thumpers that would decry this idea as wrongheaded, but the proof is that it is working. We've all been going through things since the group started that we've managed to keep our equilibrium during, and the group has had a great deal to do with that. And my own sense of serenity and spiritual fitness has increased markedly; I feel like that trend of getting angry more quickly and staying angry longer that had been becoming increasingly apparent since about 2008 has been definitely been reversed.
There are still some things I would like to see change. I've not been in a serious relationship for a long time, and I didn't even hardly date this year. I'm not putting any real effort into it, either, and I'm still not willing to sacrifice manageability to be in a relationship. But as my kids get older, I'm increasingly unwilling to accept that this is going to be how it is from here on out. I'm not sure what's going to happen this coming year, but I do know I would prefer that the status quo change. And it isn't like I can wave a magic wand and have it happen; some positive action is required. Like losing weight and actually keeping it off, for starters; the New Year's diet is going to be adhered to until a target weight is reached, and I don't care if I have to eat grass to do it. I've also made a decision to finally get my feet operated on; I'm waiting on a call back to schedule it. And maybe, just maybe, this general acceptance of people and their weaknesses as well as strengths so apparent in the rooms lately can carry over to other areas, too--like this one.
All three of my children remain remarkable young people. I am so glad that, at least for the present, I am not beset by the worries and problems that I see in parents of children. It is an affirmation, too, that whatever the flaws I might have exhibited over the last few years, I've done a lot of things right, too. This is tweaking, a tune-up, not an overhaul or a complete rebuilding. And in an increasingly difficult world, my three have been given a better chance than most in their generation to not only materially succeed, but also have been given less baggage than most, and have a good chance at being happy and fulfilled, as well.
Some others did not have as good a year as I did, through no fault of their own. I looked back a few weeks ago at the twenty people I was grateful for a year ago, and several of them have gone through trials and tribulations. My turn may well be coming, I know, but for now I'm glad to have gotten a chance to grow without having to go through too much pain.
And that's a fitting epitaph for the year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Cover Countdown #2

This is another beauty from "Unplugged." The original was a B-side that I always thought was a great song in its own right, but no one--and I mean no one--else that I knew had even heard of this song before Nirvana played it on the MTV show. This is a little more sparse--necessarily--than the original, but I think Cobain's voice is a better fit for the song than David Bowie's was.

2. The Man Who Sold The World
Original Version: David Bowie
Cover Version: Nirvana


The Two Days of Christmas

A friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday about how many people seemed to be done with Christmas already, and how he was still in the spirit of the holiday. I chimed right in supporting his view. For me, Christmas season goes well beyond the 25th of December, and that so many of us feel as though it ought to be dispensed with as soon as the dinner is over on that date bothers me immensely. When I was driving home from my mother's house on Sunday afternoon, I saw two trees out on curbs already--while it was still daylight on Christmas day. I heard a television ad, at one in the afternoon, stating "Christmas is over" and telling people to get ready to open their wallets for yet another Shopping Event. I'm not religious, but even I felt like there's something sacrilegious and wrong about those kind of things.
I've beaten the hucksterism surrounding Christmas to a bloody pulp the last couple of years, and I'm not going to go into another rant about it, but to me, this overwhelming focus on commerce that has thoroughly soaked the season is having a very corrosive effect on most of us. The real "war on Christmas" isn't coming from secular atheists, it's coming from the commercial sector that views a holiday that is supposed to a celebration of peace and goodwill as an opportunity to play on the public's inclination to show their appreciation for those that matter to them by trying to get them to empty their wallets. The man whose birthday Christmas is a celebration of ended up, as an adult, overturning the money-changers tables in the Temple as a protest over the commercial bonanza that his own religion's most sacred holiday had become. I don't think his reaction to what Christmas has become in the United States would be a whole different if he does in fact actually return... there's something wrong when I went to take my daughter to the mall late Wednesday afternoon so she could use a gift card she got--and had to come home because the nearest open parking spot was in another county. The "after-Christmas" sales are in full swing.
Except it's not after Christmas. Christmas, for centuries, was a twelve-day event--hence the famous song--and even if the theological myth is taken at face value, the visit from the Magi--the three wise men or the three kings, or whatever version of the story you've heard--took place twelve days after the birth of Jesus; the Christian feast day of the Epiphany, the formal name of that event in Roman Catholic and Protestant liturgical calendars, is twelve days after Christmas...I find it somewhat amusing that some of the same people who posted the "put the Christ back in Christmas" blurbs on their Facebook profiles during December proudly posted about having their trees down and all the decorations put away by the 27th. If you're very concerned about the "loss of Christ" in Christmas, at least celebrate the entire "Christian" holiday.
I have a special sensitivity to this issue because I was married to an Orthodox Christian woman, and celebrated Christmas by the Orthodox calendar for over a decade of my life exclusively, and still mark the occasion because of my children. Orthodox Christmas is January 7 (not for any good reason, I should add; it was the refusal of various Churches to accept the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582 because it was coming from the Pope), and as I have aged, I have come to appreciate the difference. Christmas on the 7th was more reflective, more family-centered, and more spiritually-based than it was on the 25th, and the gap is growing every year. But the Orthodox in me gets very ticked at the cultural indifference, that most of us do not know or care that for some of us, Christmas hasn't even arrived yet and yet the dominant culture is putting it on the curb. And you can't even blame this one on the "other", the non-believers in Christmas. Orthodox are Christians, too; as a matter of fact, Orthodox are the closest we have to the original Christians still existing in the modern world, as their rites and calendars have been nearly unchanged for over 1600 years, and some parts of the actual service quite plausibly date back to the time of the Apostles. It would be nice if the rhetoric matched the actions.
But then, that's going to be the epitaph on America at large: "The Walk Never Matched the Talk." Americans certainly don't have a monopoly on hypocrisy, but few if any people around the world are more aggressive about it. Don't get me wrong; all things considered, I'd still rather live here than anywhere else. But there are sure are a lot of things I wish were different here, and a closing of the gap between what is said and what is practiced would be very welcome.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cover Countdown #3

This is going to be an exception to the general rule of no live performances, because I'm not sure a studio cut exists on this one. However, the live version, featured on "Unplugged" on MTV in the 1990's, provided renewed interest in the careers of three artists: the guy who wrote the song, the artist who recorded it and had her most mainstream hit with it in the late 1970's, and the band who covered it in this version, whose lead singer was about to embark on a prolific solo career herself.

3. Because the Night
Original Version: Patti Smith (a song Bruce Springsteen wrote for her)
Cover Version: 10,000 Maniacs



American Dreamers is subtitled "How the Left Changed a Nation," and veteran academic Michael Kazin makes a rather compelling case that the liberal/progressive element of the nation's political spectrum is in fact responsible for most of what we now regard as the good parts of American society. Some noteworthy evolutions that were directly the result of political activity by left-wing types include the abolition of slavery, the organization of labor during the Gilded Age, the New Deal achievements such as Social Security, civil rights for blacks, and women being able to vote and participate in society.
I think it is important to review this list, and think about what it means. In every one of these cases, neither party of the time and place was particularly interested in implementing changes on these issues. In every one of these cases, the financially secure had firm control of the government and media, and wasted considerable resources defending the privileges of the few. In every one of these cases, it took a long time (decades in some cases) for the moral force of the "leftists" to take hold in the society at large and bring about what should have been the case to begin with, to hold American society and its governing classes to their stated ideals, to purge to even a small degree the rampant hypocrisy that has dominated American political life since the republic was instituted over 220 years ago.
This is what frustrates me to no end when I deal with "ordinary" people who think and vote conservative, even though in most cases as individuals they are decent and caring people; collectively they allow themselves to become parts of a power structure that not only defends the indefensible with the energy of a mother defending their brood, but also does not serve their own best interests. As George Carlin said so memorably, the wealthy and powerful are a "big club, and you ain't in it." So why do people willingly support the those who ensure that their own caste status won't change? There is usually a healthy dose of fear involved, and elements of misuse of religious texts that serve to change the terms of debate, but the fact remains that the majority of people instinctively shy away from anything that might actually cause changes. For a nation that has "rugged individualism" as its national mythology, we are anything but; this is the biggest nation of followers and lemmings that has ever existed. We not only tend to do what we are told we ought to, but we actively deny the obvious--that this is as class-defined a society as there is on earth, only we continue to believe the myth that it is not. And by buying the bullshit, we ensure that it will always remain so.
I repeat: without leftists and their efforts, this country would still have slavery, ten and twelve hour working days every day of the week, no minimum wage, no minimal safety standards in our food and water, child labor, no right to organize unions, no workers compensation, no unemployment insurance. We would have no income tax at all, and still would have gold and silver money. There would be no Social Security, no college loans or grants, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and only men could vote. I emphasize that this is a partial list. The American left is responsible for every single one of these things that we not only take for granted, but support in overwhelming numbers.
And yet "liberal" is a pejorative term, and our supposed "leftist" major party is about as left-wing as Calvin Coolidge was.
The book itself is pretty readable; some forgotten pioneers from long ago are given a few pages to discuss their impact, and the chapter on the disproportionate impact of the American Communist Party in the twentieth century, even if I don't necessarily agree with all that is presented. But this book's major positive effect is stating the obvious: that without the leftist element in our society, this would be just another place where society was divided into lords and serfs. If it seems increasingly that way at present, it's because there hasn't been a viable and functional leftist element in American society, much less politics, for some time. That's changing, but even a cursory look at the history of this country shows that it takes decades of work to bring about any serious changes, and the realization that there is a lot of work to do to combat the iron grip of the financial elite has just been born in many. There are going to be a lot of setbacks along the way, and any real change is going to happen probably too late for my generation to enjoy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cover Countdown #4

This is another one from the early punk era. I'm not a huge fan of this band, nor of songs that are covered at thrash speed just to be different. But one can make a very good case that this song needs to be sped up, and that this version is a whole lot better than the original.

4. Nights in White Satin
Original Version: The Moody Blues
Cover Version: The Incredible Shrinking Dickies


Cover Countdown #5

When you fall asleep in the recliner at 8:30 PM, this is what happens; you post a day late. Today's selection is an oldie but goodie. I didn't know that there were bands named The Trashmen in 1963, and this was one of the few Ramones songs that people not into punk could stand when I was in high school.

5. Surfin' Bird
Original Version: The Trashmen
Cover Version: The Ramones


Sears/K-Mart Closing Stores

Yesterday, Sears Holdings, which operates Sears and K-Mart stores, announced that over 100 stores will be closing soon after a "terrible" holiday season. I would be shocked if the Endicott K-Mart, which has been closed since the flood in September, reopens, and I also would not be surprised if the K-Mart in Binghamton closes, too, simply because it's become a horrible store. The Sears in the Mall in Johnson City, for all I know, might be in danger, too; for eleven months out of the year, the Mall is not a crowded place, especially up at that end of it.
I'm no economist, and I can't go into any expert detail about the underlying problems of the corporation. I can tell you what's wrong with the ones here. I really tried my best with K-Mart here, because I haven't spent my own money in a Wal-Mart in a decade, but the last couple of years, they've sure made it hard to shop there. They were terribly undermanned all over the store--checkouts most prominently, but you were also pretty much out of luck if you needed help in the store somewhere, too. Much of the help they did have were surly teens and high-school dropouts, from all outside appearances, who were counting the minutes until their next break. K-Mart was great for clothes for little kids, but much less so for teens and adults. The electronics department has been shrinking in both quantity and quality for years. The store itself badly needs a renovation; it's dingy and hasn't been rearranged in years, and the parking lot is crumbling almost daily, to the point where it is hard to drive through at even ten miles an hour. The prices generally remained lower than other places, even Wally World, but it wasn't like you enjoyed the shopping experience, at all.
I very rarely go to the Mall, and even less often to Sears. While they seem to have decent stuff there, it is more expensive than I want to pay, in almost every case. I don't even know if they still have the automotive stuff they used to have, but if they do, they were notorious for trying to sell people things they didn't need when doing annual inspections and installing tires; they were probably the single biggest reason my father's business took off thirty-five years ago.
But even more than the convenience factor, I fear that this area is going to sustain the loss of even more jobs, a hit we certainly do not need. From what I've seen, few at the Binghamton K-Mart are capable of getting hired elsewhere, and whatever its faults, it anchors what's left of the Northside Plaza there. There are no obvious candidates to replace it, either--there are no obvious candidates to replace anything in Binghamton these days. So even though it's a crappy store, even though it really doesn't deserve to continue to operate on its merits, I am sincerely hoping that it escapes closure. And then I hope that a manager with some gumption takes over and starts to make the store something better than it is. They can't anything about the area's general decline, but they sure don't have to actively add to it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's Wrong With Ovechkin?

I realize that not everyone is as into hockey as I am, but something has to keep me interested in the wintertime. Football is over for me; the Bills are not going to make the playoffs (the starting quarterback in their last playoff game was Doug Flutie, for God's sake), and I am resolute about my commitment to forget about the team I wasted four decades of my life rooting for--and they're even worse than the Bills. Try as I might, I really don't care about the NBA, and while in ordinary circumstances I would be ecstatic about the Syracuse Orangemen being the top-ranked team in the country, 1) they haven't played anybody good yet, and 2) the entire Bernie Fine mess has cast a very long shadow, if not yet a pall, over this season. It's tough to get excited when you're half-afraid that the next day's news is going to bring revelations that will prove everyone a big fat liar, just like at Penn State. I'm not saying it's likely, but it is a fear that won't be totally disposed of until the civil suits are dispensed with, probably years down the road.
I have posted a few times about the Rangers, who are sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings this evening and sure as hell look like the real deal this year. But that's not what I am going to write about today. The Rangers are in the Winter Classic next week, and on Christmas Day, I watched a replay of last year's Classic between Washington and Pittsburgh. The game was hyped incessantly in the media last year as "Sid [Crosby] vs. Alex [Ovechkin]," who had been the two biggest stars in the game for a few years going into last season. Crosby remains a big star, but has not been on the ice much in the intervening year, as he suffered a concussion in last year's Classic and has only been able to play in a handful of games since. Ovechkin was going through a bit of an off-season a year ago going into the game, which was remarked upon but in a way that chalked it up to bad luck or something that was going to reverse.
Well, this year has been a lot worse. The Capitals have had a lot of talent over the past few years and have come up woefully short in the playoffs, and there were some questions heading into this season whether this was the year they could put the demons behind them. Now the question has become, "Are they going to make the playoffs?;" after a 7-0 start to the season., they have won only 10 of 27 games since and currently sit in 11th place in the conference (the top eight make the playoffs). And while inconsistent goaltending and a major injury to star defenseman Mike Green have hurt (Green is the best offensive defenseman in the league, and those guys are the rarest and most valuable animal in the game, fodder for another post sometime), the most obvious problem is that their alleged superstar, all-world player is stinking it up more nights than not. Ovechkin scored his twelfth--that's 12--goal of the season last night as the Capitals lost to another huge disappointment, Buffalo; among the other players in the league with 12 goals right now are Ray Whitney (who is 39 years old), Olie Jokinen (a player who has become the definition of "talented loser" in his years in the league), and Milan Lucic (who was suspended for a couple of games and who plays five minutes less per game than Ovechkin does).  This is a guy who scored 50 goals or more four times in his first five years in the league, and even last year he had 32. He is not getting old; he is 26, a year away from the age that players in all sports most often have their best season at. And a lot of people are starting to wonder if this is the new normal, if Ovie is going to be just another player now.
I suggested in this space last year that the downturn in Ovechkin's career might be because of an issue that there is no way of confirming. It is incontestable that 1) Ovechkin is Russian, 2) Russia is the most alcoholic nation on earth, and 3) there have been a number of high-profile Russian players who did not have the careers they should have, and in a few of them alcoholism turned out to be a huge factor. This is not proof or even a real strong clue that this is the problem with Ovechkin, I hasten to add; I only bring it up because he would not be the first player that this happened to; there have been others who had substance abuse issues whose production falloffs were fairly similar to what Ovechkin has endured the last two years--Kevin Stevens and Theo Fleury come to mind.
But still-- twelve goals? 
I am not suggesting that all Russians are drunks, and that every Russian player who has an off-season or sees his production dip has a drinking problem. But I decided to do something I used to do a lot--I decided to check out and see if my gut feeling had any merit. Ovechkin is not the only high-profile Russian-born player struggling recently; Ilya Kovalchuk has seen roughly the same career trajectory from a similar perch at the same time (although he is a few years older), and hugely talented but also hugely disappointing players Nikolai Filatov and Nikolai Zherdev couldn't even find jobs this fall. I decided to check out all Russian players that entered the league since 1990 (roughly the time the Russian hockey powers let players come to North America as youths or in their prime rather than in the twilight of their careers) and see if there were many that have showed the trend Ovechkin and Kovalchuk have without something obvious--like the knee injuries of Pavel Bure, to take one example--to explain the decline.
First of all, I limited the cases to players who had careers of 8 years or longer; this rules out  players like Filatov and Zherdev, who never lived up to potential even for a short time. And I would, looking at the results, say that I was not imagining the phenomenon; I found 44 Russian-born  players whose careers started in 1990 or later that met the career length standard, and of those, 20--nearly half--had either noticeable declines that turned out to be permanent in mid-career, including some that were truly precipitous, or were so inconsistent as to be moving around the league far more often than their talent would indicate they ought to be. The list is Maxim Afinogenev, Nic Antropov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Sergei Federov, Alexander Frolov, Valeri Kamensky, Nikolai Khabibulin, Kovalchuk, Andrei Kovalenko, Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Krisakrasov, Oleg Kassia, Alexander Mogilny, Ovechkin, Sergei Samsonov, Alexander Semin, German Titov, Anton Volenchenko, and Alexei Yashin. Some of these guys were enigmas from the day of arrival in the NHL--Samsonov, Yashin, and Semin most prominent; others like Kovalev, Bryzgalov, and Afinogenev have been so inconsistent--Bryzgalov was one of the best goalies in the league the last couple of years for Phoenix, but he got to Phoenix because Anaheim waived him because he couldn't stop a beachball for two years--as to defy logical explanation. Mogilny was the Ovechkin of his time, and ended up playing for four teams and didn't come close to scoring the 76 goals he scored for the Sabres as a 23YO ever again. Federov, too, was the best player in the league for a time, and ended up falling far and fast without injuries and played out the string all over the league. Frolov was a Ranger last year, and simply looked like he had forgotten how to play the game.
There have been consistently good Russian players, too--one of my favorite players for fifteen years was ex-Ranger Sergei Zubov, and Pavel Datsyuk on the Red Wings has been one of the best players in the league for a decade. But the evidence suggests that once Russian guys start to lose it, they're not going to get it back. It does not have to be caused by alcoholism, either; maybe it is just a cumulative effect of all those plane flights halfway around the world, or annoyance with our culture, or cigarettes (I have read that a lot players born in Eastern Europe smoke even as NHL players). But the effect is real, and I would be very surprised if Ovechkin ever scores more than 40 goals in a season again. And the Capitals' window as contenders has closed--especially since Semin, another of their key players, is on this list, too.

Book Review: HOLY WAR

One of the few serious subjects guaranteed to get the attention of publishing houses these days is any historical project exploring the roots of Christian/Muslim conflict. Nigel Cliff (is there a more quintessentially British name in the world) has written one of the best volumes I've seen on the subject in the last few years. Holy War thoroughly explores, to the point where it reads like a daily newspaper in spots, the events surrounding the most immediately successful enterprise at the dawn of the Age of Exploration: the voyages of Vasco de Gama to India.
De Gama was an exact contemporary of Columbus, and his exploits were the direct cause of Columbus even getting sent to the West. There are reasons we in the United States don't hear a lot about de Gama. He was Portuguese, and Portugal, except for Brazil, did very little in the New World. The Portuguese focused their overseas efforts on breaking the Muslim monopoly on the spice trade, and de Gama was the first to reach India, which largely accomplished that goal. But the exploration age also, as the book documents, the last and most successful campaign in the four hundred year conflict we call the Crusades, and the first part of this book is a pretty fair summation of just how widespread and continuous the fighting was. Cliff's purpose in the book is to show that one of the goals of the Age of Exploration failed; the Portuguese wanted to use their gains in India as a base to retake Jerusalem from the east.
Of course, this did not happen, and within a few decades, all thoughts of Crusading more or less vanished as the nations of Europe got caught up in both their new continents to colonize and their own fratricidal conflicts of the Reformation era. From an American perspective, Portugal is the forgotten colonial power, and it is easy to forget that this very small nation--about the size of the state of Maine-- had a very substantial presence in Africa, and toeholds in India and China, into my generation's lifetime, all as the results of the efforts made that culminated in de Gama's historic voyage. De Gama was the first European to round Africa, a feat that was much more significant and harder to achieve than anything Columbus ever did, and the results of his voyages allowed Portugal to maintain an outsize role in world affairs for centuries.
One also cannot help but notice that Christianity has by and large been the most intolerant religion for most of history. The list of atrocities, the regular enslavement of non-Christians, the militant evangelism--the same themes are repeated over and over again through the centuries. While there is a fair amount of bloodshed associated with Islam, a honest and sober accounting has to conclude "not as much." One can argue that the Age of Exploration was 500 years ago, and that much has changed, and no doubt it has. But one can also argue that the Age of Exploration was only another manifestation of a trend that existed since the days of Constantine, and that the list of unpalatable things about the spread of Christianity certainly did not end in the 1500's. While I do not condone the acts of a small minority of militant extremist Muslims, not by a long shot, in the modern age, one cannot reasonably state that they do not have a legitimate set of grievances.
And so, while the Crusades might be over, the struggle is not.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cover Countdown #6

This is another one in which the covering band has certainly taken a song and made it something very different than the original. In this case, the original is over ten minutes long; the way this band plays, if they had tried to cover the entire song, they'd have a stroke every time they played it. I'm still coming to grips with this version, as the song is one of my all-time favorites, but ultimately, I am all for anything that introduces Bob Dylan to yet another generation.

6. Desolation Row
Original Version: Bob Dylan
Cover Version: My Chemical Romance


Yuletide Serving of Random Notes

1) Although it doesn't happen very often--once every five or six years, depending on how many leap years there are in a given five-year period--it is a bit disconcerting when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. Much of the non-retail working world has been given today off, and yet this is also a day when every store in the world, it seems, will be open. I remember when I still went to church when I was a kid that we were supposed to go to church twice on those days, once for the Sunday and once for Christmas, but I highly doubt that is asked of American Catholics anymore. And it gets to happen again next week, of course, with New Year's Day.
2) Although it was not a white Christmas, it was, thankfully, a cold one. At least in upstate New York, it remains a decidedly winter holiday celebration. Christmas 1998 was the least edifying holiday of my life for a number of reasons, but even more than being in a halfway house a long way from home, dressing in shorts and going to the beach was pretty damn strange. I went down to the beach that day with three other northern guys, and after we all told each other for two hours how great it was, I finally blurted out, "This really sucked!"... and Rocco, Tyrone, and John all instantly agreed. I'm sure if you're a native and you've never experienced it any other way, it doesn't suck, but for me, it isn't Christmas if you're hanging around outside in shorts and t-shirt and amidst people applying sunblock.
3) One thing about the proliferation of gift cards and hand-held devices: Christmas time should be easier on trees than ever. I bought actual gifts for over a dozen people, and I don't think I used a quarter roll of wrapping paper all told. And with Sabrina being too old and cool for Santa, the laying of gifts under the tree required no subterfuge and finesse at all. Kind of miss that.
4) I saw a commercial on television yesterday shortly after one o'clock in the afternoon, on a national television station--meaning it was around ten AM on the west coast when it was seen--, that actually said "Christmas is over" and started hawking some after-Christmas sale. Can't we at least wait until it actually is Christmas night before our commercial suzerains resume their assault on our wallets?
5) Is there a sadder, more forlorn sight than a Christmas tree on the curb at 4:30 PM on Christmas Day? I'm not passing judgement; for all I know, it had been up for weeks and was shedding needles like a Siberian husky shedding fur in May. But still--getting it out of the house on Christmas afternoon? Seems a little extreme.
5a) There is one divide in American society that seems to transcend race, economic status, political affiliation, and any other normally-easy-to-discern category of difference among us. That difference is between those who prefer real trees and those who prefer artificial. To me, it is no contest--I have had an artificial tree every year but one since I moved out of my parents' house in the late 1980's. There are no needle issues, no fire hazards, no disposal problems, no worrying about the house pet or children being allergic, no sap issues, and no having to water something that's dead every few days. You get a more or less uniform symmetry, making tree decoration easier, and the branches don't occasionally break. I've had the same 6 foot tree for a decade now, and it's still as good as the day it came out of the box for the first time. I'm not a big fan of the ones that come with lights on and in them that are available now, but I can see the appeal for some people. When you add in the environmental impact of probably several million trees nationwide being sacrificed every year--well, to me, I can't understand why people still use real ones. We don't use actual ice boxes anymore, or typewriters, or beat our clothes clean in creeks. To me, it is a custom that should be relegated to the past. But there is a substantial group--probably an actual majority--of Christmas celebrants who feel differently. And there is really no middle ground; the two groups are less capable of compromise than Michelle Bachmann and Bernie Sanders would be.
And 6) I'm not a huge fan of pro basketball, but I have to say that basketball is probably the sport best suited to being played on Christmas. Even a pro game rarely takes more than 2 1/2  hours to play, from coming on the air before the game to the post-game, and so it is the one best suited to the limited attention span most of us can give sporting events on the day, given that there are two distinct time-consuming parts to the holiday--the gift-opening and the dinner. A basketball game almost always fits easily between the two.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cover Countdown #7

Tonight's offering is something I had never heard before several weeks ago. It meets the general criteria of inclusion in this collection, in that it is undoubtedly very different than the original version. I don't know a lot about the covering band, except that I like this song and will certainly be alert to other things they may do.

7. Along Comes Mary
Original Version: The Association
Cover Version: Bloodhound Gang

So This is Christmas

And as John Lennon famously asked, and what I have done? Last night was one of the most subdued, peaceful Christmas Eves in family history. I'm not going to analyze why in any detail, but I know I did my part: I laid low, was courteous and helpful throughout the day, and remembered all day long how grateful I was that I was not having to deal with the work situation that I thought was going to be dealing with on this day up until yesterday. I did not have any of my kids yesterday, either, which was all right; they have mothers and families on that side of the divide, too. I will have Sabrina most of the day today, and Rachel and Jessica were here Thursday for gift exchange and a little celebrating, so it isn't like I missed anything with them.
I feel better about my contributions to the world this year than almost any other year, especially in the last four months or so. I do not lead a completely altruistic life, but I can say that I am not causing any conflict or drama with anyone, and those few that have occurred since about June have been because of my standing up for a principle or for someone who for some reason couldn't stand up effectively for themselves. And yes, I am aware the latter is a slippery slope, but I think I have managed it all right. I don't believe in a Last Judgment, but I'm not worried about the possibility that I am wrong; if our deeds on earth are the determining factor in our comfort level in the afterlife, I am growing more serene with the passage of time that the ledger shows much more good than not, and those items on the "not" side have been rectified or that the amends process continues in regard to them.
There is room for growth, of course, and I have no intentions of resting on my laurels or feeling complacent. But this year, on a day that is a celebration of the man whose message of "peace on earth and goodwill toward men" is one that is both more urgently needed and more commonly ignored with each passing year, I feel less anxious and more at peace in a personal sense than perhaps I ever have before. And the more comfortable I am with myself, the better I can serve as God's instrument to help other people.
I really believe that God's purpose for all of us is that we should be helping each other to the best of our ability. That's God's dream, God's hope for us. And I am doing what I can do to make that a reality in my own life much more than I ever have before. It truly is better to give than to receive, and having something of value to give  to a spirit in need is perhaps the most satisfying feeling and emotion there is to have. And at this point in my life, I have that.
Merry Christmas, everyone.

Book Review: END OF DAYS

End of Days is a vivid novel depicting the end of the world in a thermonuclear holocaust by first-time author Robert Gleason. It is Gleason's first published effort, and I don't like to be negative about first novels in reviews, and I am also mindful that I am writing this on Christmas morning. So I will brief and relatively kind. The characters in this book are not very realistic, their motivations are simplistic and shallow, and the actions engaged in beyond the pale of realism--not the bombing, but the survival of tortures with no apparent long-term effects, to take one example, simply tax credibility beyond belief. The device of having inanimate devices such as the bombs themselves and mute animals speak is an innovative idea, but lost its value early in the book as they are used as a vehicle to express the author's views on the decadence of man--which are amply conveyed through the characters as well. And I am beyond sick of the painting of Islamic villains as bozos obsessed with either virgins in heaven or wiping out infidels in American popular literature--and its even more jarring when a prison full of gangbangers are depicted as renouncing lifetimes of racism and violence after one 15-minute speech when freedom beckons.
The author got the Christmas present of a lifetime by seeing this book get published.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cover Countdown #8

Considering what night of the year this is, this selection is the only possible choice.

8. Run Run Rudolph
Original Version: Chuck Berry
Cover Version: Lynyrd Skynyrd


In a Comfortable Place

It is Christmas Eve today, and so many jumbled pieces of what has been a chaotic month suddenly arranged themselves in some sort of order yesterday. I thought I was a bit of a slacker because I had not gotten my wrapping done until yesterday afternoon--then I met three people last night and saw a couple more notices on Facebook from people who did not start shopping until yesterday. Not for the first time, I was grateful that procrastination is not among my legions of character defects. Of course, one reason why is that there is never any lack of things to do. Today is Christmas Eve, but it is also a Saturday and I have my usual Saturday chores to do: laundry, cleaning the guinea pig's quarters, cleaning up the kitchen, shopping at Wegman's. I also ordered tires for my car two weeks ago, and am going down this morning to get them down. I will stop at the office and finish yesterday's progress notes. I have to go to the Mall and get one last gift for Sabrina that I forgot about and that she really wants. This will take me well into the afternoon, and then I will eat dinner and open presents, per the practice of most of my life, at my mother's house.
My name got drawn out of the box at the candlelight meeting last night to be the speaker, and I chose to share about coming to believe in a concept of God that works for me. Some people are not comfortable talking about that subject in meetings, but my feeling is that without the coming to belief, there is no recovery process. I've been around long enough and spoken enough in my life to know when I have a room's attention, and I did have people's attention as I talked. And it was from the heart; my belief in God--not in a particular sect or religion, not in any particular theological view of Him, but God-- is the axis my life revolves around, the fuel that makes the engine go. I was very careful to present what I shared as my experience, not the way anyone else should proceed--but I also know that many, many people come into recovery with no idea or negative ideas about God, as I did, and are struggling with ways to make the concept relevant in their lives. I don't know how many might have been helped, but at least they have heard one person talk about, in detail, how he came to believe. And it's not a subject that people in early recovery hear a lot of talk about; most of the time speakers will either share largely their war story or focus on the happy ending, but tend to be rather skimpy on the journey. I consciously was trying to give some recounting of the walk along the way to where I am now.
And as Christmas approaches, coming to believe in something of a spiritual nature is really what I hope happens for everyone. Far more people profess to believe in something than actually do in their heart of hearts,  and those people are more adrift and unhappy than the openly non-believers . I know, because for many years I was one of them, and the lip service belief that was not truly felt was the root cause of a very deep unhappiness, a state of mind that it took hitting the depths of total despair to begin to heal from. It doesn't have to be that way, and when that belief comes and is firmly and honestly held, one becomes truly capable of miracles. I am useful to many others now, as was proved again yesterday. I am tolerant of others who are not exactly like me or who think differently than I do. I am not a prisoner of impulse. I am capable of truly caring about others. I am capable of feeling satisfied, and find pleasure and fulfillment in what I am able to achieve and obtain. I am not wracked with doubts or fearful of the journey of life. And it is all the result of becoming truly comfortable with an idea of God that makes sense to me and allows me to feel as though the place I occupy in this world, in the larger scheme of things, is a worthy and significant one.
And that is my Christmas wish for everyone, that they may come to share in that basic serenity, that they feel that they are worthy and significant, that their place in the world is secure and important, and that they take pleasure in their life and the way it is being lived.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cover Countdown #9

This song is another that the covering band made a signature song of their own. It is very different than the original version, and yet has become a respected anthem in its own right, especially considering the rest of the body of work of this band. It also, the way it is performed, gives an entirely new dimension to the commonly accepted idea of what the song refers to.

9. Dear Prudence
Original Version: The Beatles
Cover Version: Siouxsie and the Banshees


Approaching Holiday

It just doesn't feel a lot like Christmas this year. When Christmas falls on a weekend, it somehow, at least for me, tends to cheapen it, to make it less of a holiday; it's just a perception of mine, but it seems almost like a letdown, like just another day.
Without a small child in the house, the magic is gone, especially if one is not a devout Christian. What we have allowed Christmas to turn into is a celebration of consumerism unparalleled in modern experience, and like all shamelessly commercial endevours, it has gotten to the point where you almost feel the need to take a shower when all is said and done. There is no way in the world that I will enter any retail establishment, even in this depressed economy, any time after eleven in the morning during the week before Christmas; it is like being in a zoo, I don't care where you go. I don't watch much television, but the little that I do watch is inundated with ads. I do spend a lot of time online and there is just as much hucksterism there. Without a Santa Claus, without that little bit of magic that a child's belief that gifts really do just appear from a benevolent source brings, Christmas as celebrated here degenerates into just a bigger birthday party, and somehow I don't really find that spiritually nourishing. At all.
The spiritual void is doubled by the noise and cry of those who want to use the fact that Christmas exists as a way to force their beliefs onto others; I've already addressed that in these pages a few weeks ago, and it hasn't changed any in the meantime. The most effective Christmas message of all would be if these armband Christians would actually practice what Jesus preached in the way they live their lives, instead of devoting themselves to becoming the modern equivalent of those he spent his entire ministry decrying the influence of--the Scribes and Pharisees.
I'm getting tired of getting hammered with the message that the proper way to celebrate the birth of the alleged savior of mankind is by 1) celebrating the event on a day that it most certainly did not occur on, by 2) embracing a philosophy of life--materialism and consumerism--that he explicitly condemned as the surest way to separate one's self from God, also 3) insisting that we indoctrinate our children and most of our society that the only legitimate cause for celebration this time of year is this festival, denigrating those who celebrate the holidays of other cultures, by 4) ostentatious displays of symbols--Christmas trees and lights--that Christianity took from other cultures, and also 5) public displays commemorating an event--the visit of the Magi--that almost certainly did not occur. The purposes of God are not served by the propagation of falsehoods. Period.
Whatever one's concept of God is, it is highly unlikely that the way to mark His presence in our lives is by celebrating values firmly rooted in nonspiritual ideas like avarice and materialism, and by incorporating so many untruths and deceptions into the alleged celebration of His human incarnation. And I'm not even referring to the Santa Claus tradition; that at least is based on a legitimate tradition, that of St. Nicholas, and there is a good chance that St. Nicholas actually existed and gave gifts to the less fortunate in celebration of Jesus' birth. If Jesus actually was the incarnation of God, I find it hard to believe that he himself would be comfortable with the orgiastic obsession with material goods, with the primary symbol of the season being lifted from the pagans of Germania, and with such a fantastic made-up legend like the visit of the Magi (and its accompanying Massacre of the Innocents) being such a strong part of the story.
I can get with a celebration of family and friends and goodwill toward men at this time of year. I can't get with showing my gratitude for these things by emptying my wallet to enrich the un-Christian even further and by using the occasion to marginalize and exclude those who don't believe what I do. And every year, it sits less and less well with me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cover Countdown #10

All that really needs to be said about this one is this little fact: after this cover became a hit a few years after the original recording, the guy who wrote and first recorded the song has said, publicly, many times, "This is as good as this song can be done" and has played it this way, not the way it was recorded, ever since, for a span of time now at 40 years and counting.

10. All Along the Watchtower
Original Version: Bob Dylan
Cover Version: Jimi Hendrix


Character Assets and Defects

I am holding (barely, because it has been dominating my existence for a week) onto my determination to not discuss work matters in this space. But what has gone on in the last week has led to some very basic notes on how people are and how, even if you are not religious and don't consciously think about spirituality at all, what and how you feed your soul is the determining factor in the quality of your character.
That sounds kind of pompous and dense, so I'll skip right to the point. In the Twelve-Step process, there is a point where the recovering person has to address their "character defects" and how to rectify them. I will very briefly summarize my experiences in this area (Steps Six and Seven) in a way non-recovering people, hopefully, can understand. Part of the recovery experience is coming to believe in, and learning to rely on, a loving and caring Higher Power, which may or may not come to men a religious or non-religious God. I eventually came to believe, and still strongly believe, in a loving and caring God. While I cannot in good conscience accept some of the basic tenets of Christianity--the Trinity, the actual fact of the Resurrection, and most importantly the theology surrounding the need for the rise from the dead. To me, "original sin" and the need for essentially human sacrifice to "redeem" us is rather barbaric and a contradiction. If you believe that God created us--and I actually do, at least our souls, because I really can't come up with a better reason for existence and consciousness, and you believe that God is loving and caring--an idea that almost everybody pays lip service to, even if they don't necessarily act like they believe it--then it follows, logically, that God created us as we are--with imperfections, with flaws. I do not think that God holds us responsible for having those flaws, and that any sort of redemption or sacrifice is necessary on our behalf to expiate those flaws; they were there at the very beginning, they were part of the deal. I cannot believe that a loving and caring God would hold us responsible and accountable, essentially, for something He did.
I actually take this concept further than most people, in that I have really come to believe that our flaws are the essential difference between God and man. If we had no flaws, no defects of character, we would be indistinguishable from God, and I really don't think that's possible or even desirable. Nor do I really think God's ultimate aim is for us to become clones of God. The problem, when it comes time for the recovering person to address their "character defects," is assuming that an essential character change is either necessary or desirable. I have come to believe that our character just is; what makes it our traits "defects" or "assets" is our motivations in employing those traits. To take the most obvious character trait of mine, I have been blessed with an rather sharp mind and a prodigious capacity for memory. Now, I can use those characteristics either in a positive manner or a negative manner. For much of the first 35 years of my life, I chose to regard my intelligence as a sign of superiority to my fellow travelers on this planet, and used those traits as a means to take advantage of people, to cause others distress, and to indulge myself in hedonism to a degree others could not because I could manipulate other people and events so that, for a long time, I did not have to pay negative consequences for doing so. Even after getting clean in 1998, it took a few more years before I began to essentially change my views on why I was given my intelligence and abilities--essentially, I had to come to believe not only in a loving and caring God, but that that God did not give me the traits I undoubtedly have to take advantage of everybody else around me. God wants me, I came to and still believe, to use those abilities to make life on earth here better, to not cause pain and distress, but to alleviate it, not only for myself and those that I love, but as many as I can.
The proof that this is more or less, however simplified, an accurate belief is that when I started to do so and started to employ myself in such a manner, not only did other people's lives improve, mine did. I feel better about myself; I am much happier much more of the time than I ever was before, say, 2001. I've learned to enjoy what I have rather than burn with desire for what I don't have. I have found the capacity to accept other people for what they are, and it has opened the door to some truly meaningful friendships and relationships, many more than I have ever had before. I have found the sense of purpose and direction that I had been seeking all of my life. It is possible--and believe me, it happens regularly--to slip back, to lose the more benign motivation and to indulge my more selfish and self-centered tendencies. I still get frustrated and angry at times; I do not remind others of an angelic being on a regular basis. But I can honestly and truly say that I do not spend most of my time manipulating people and situations trying to arrange my life so that I get what I think I want and to make other people miserable because they are, essentially, irritating me. I have learned to act on principle and let the results occur as they may; when I do that, the long-term results almost always are beneficial to me, and to those that matter to me. My life is so much better today than it was in the 1990's, even though my material circumstances aren't quite as good.
I am talking about all this because the last couple of weeks have been really tough in some areas. I deal with a manipulative, immature parent on a regular basis  that is incapable of seeing that what she does does not inspire affection or trust in her children--and isn't exactly leading to material success, either. I have been butting heads with alleged professionals whose egos and whose need to defend their privileges have caused them to completely ignore what is supposed to be their reason for existence--protecting children and making sure that the best possible outcome occurs. It would be difficult to deal with all this in August, but it is even more difficult to digest this and deal with this during the week before Christmas, during the time of year where almost all of us are ostensibly more aware of our obligations to spread "good will among men."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cover Countdown #11

This cover was made within a couple of years of the original. It works for a couple of reasons--one, it is very much different than the original, and two, the guy covering it is someone you would never expect to cover a song by Prince. Two decades on after it first came out, the original is starting to get some play on classic-themed stations, but you hardly ever hear this anymore. That's too bad; it deserves better.

11. Kiss

Original Version: Prince
Cover Version: Tom Jones with Art of Noise


Cover Countdown #12

Another classic from the punk era. It is a bit unusual in that the guy who wrote the song wrote it for someone else; the artist who entered it into popular consciousness did not write it. But this version symbolized the contempt for the mainstream that early punk bands honestly felt; this was explicitly designed to mock almost every element of "decent" society. And everyone under the age of 20 who heard it in the late 1970's thought it was fantastic. (note: for some reason, this did not publish when I hit publish on 12?20. It is appearing the morning of 12/21). Note: this video cuts off the intro, but every other one on You Tube was from "Sid and Nancy," which meant the video was of Gary Oldham playing Sid. I chose this one instead.

12. My Way

Original Version: Frank Sinatra 
Cover Version: Sid Vicious


Ranger Report Card

One bright spot, in a fall where virtually every other rooting interest of mine has either proven hopelessly inept or has some sort of tarnish on it, has been the dawning realization that the New York Rangers apparently are going to be one of the better teams in the league. They started the season stuck in neutral for about ten games, then ripped off seven wins in a row and really have not looked back; they have lost no more than two games in a row. After finally meeting the Devils for the first time last night, and running their record to eleven games over .500 for the second time this year, I'm finally starting to believe that they really just might be this good, and it is possible to dream as winter sets in.
And before any analysis of what has happened on the ice can be undertaken, it is important to realize that the team had three all-stars last year, and one of them, Marc Staal, has not played a game yet this season. They have also lost another quality defenseman, Mike Sauer, for two long stretches, and a third defenseman who has played regularly and well, Steve Eminger, is also currently out. The depth of the defense was seen as the team's strength (well, other than the goalie) heading into the season, but no one dreamed that it could withstand multiple hits and still function as effectively as it has. As I hoped, Michael Del Zotto has really blossomed and become a major force. Players who can play in the NHL at 19 years old, as he did two years ago, are rare, and even though he had a rough time last year, he is still years away from his prime, and his growth has really helped the team. Ryan McDonagh, too, has blossomed in his first full season, and Dan Girardi has responded with the season of his life in Staal's absence. Eminger also is playing the best hockey of his career, and Sauer is another young quality player when he is in there. The replacements, most notably Jeff Woywitka, have not hurt the team any. The Rangers simply are not going to get beat in their end of the ice much.
The goalies have been tremendous. Lundquist has been his usual stellar self, and unlike last year, has been very consistent. Martin Biron has, if anything, had a better year than Lundquist in his spot duties; he's had one bad game out of ten. You have to score legitimate goals when you play the Rangers, and that cannot be underestimated as a positive force (ask Flyers fans about that).
But it's the forwards who have really stepped it up, for the most part. There has been one crushing disappointment--Brandon Dubinsky has gone from all-star to fourth-liner, although in retrospect 1) before last year, he was considered a bit of a disappointment, and 2) Ryan Callahan, who most assuredly is not a disappointment this year, had a season like this a few years ago, when he had one or two goals at the All-Star break. He may snap out of it, but the good news is that he is not killing the team. I identified Derek Stepan as one of the keys to the season, and he has been really good, for the most part. Artem Anisimov, too, after a slowish start, has turned it on the last month and has become a truly dangerous offensive player. There have been some disappointments besides Dubinsky--Brian Boyle most notably, although he remains a defensive stalwart. But call-up Carl Hagelin has been a huge pleasant surprise, and Sean Avery, in limited time, has been helpful, even if the coach will not hand him a larger role.
But the keys to the season so far have been the two big stars up front. Brad Richards has been as good as he was supposed to be. He has a dozen goals, but more importantly than the number has been how and when they have been scored--he already has three game-winners in the last four minutes of games, including last Saturday's classic in Phoenix with .1 seconds left. And virtually every one of his goals has been a demonstration of skill that has not been seen in New York since Pavel Bure and Brian Leetch were on the team--fakes, moves, regular placement in the corners. He is the real deal I remember from his days in Tampa. And Marian Gaborik has returned to the top of the scoring lists with a vengeance; he has been present all season, but he has been on fire the last couple of weeks and is now just one goal off the league lead, and will reach his output for the entire season a year ago with three more tallies. You cannot win in any league without stars, and the more of them you have, the better your chances are. The Rangers have been kidding themselves for years trying to hand major roles to players like Scott Gomez and Chris Drury and Wade Redden who, although quality players, were never the biggest stars on some the good teams they played for prior to the Rangers. Gaborik and Richards were the best players on their previous teams, and Lundquist always has been the best player on this one. There are now players--Callahan, Girardi--who are second-tier stars, and a lot of young players who are already good and still getting better.
This could turn very interesting in the weeks and months to come. They could still slide back, too--none of the important forwards has gotten hurt, and with this many young players on the team, a prolonged bad stretch is possible. But honestly, I don't think it's likely. They should be in the hunt all year. The problem is going to be that it appears that the four best teams in the conference are the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, and Bruins, and whoever does not win the division are going to have to play each other in round one of the playoffs. But at least the team should not be going into the playoffs thinking "Well, we might win one round if Lundquist is fantastic."
There is one litmus test left: they have not played the Bruins yet this year. It will be interesting to see how they stack up against the undisputed best, at least at this point. But as a dreary football season ends, and as everyone in this area waits for the other shoe to drop with the Syracuse basketball program, this is an unreservedly positive development in the sporting scene. Let's go, Blueshirts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Good Side of Medical Care

The health care system in the United States has rightly been characterized as need of severe reform. The insurance/payment side of it has become the most obviously broken part of it and changes have been made (I refuse to call the health care bill that was passed a couple of summers ago "reform" because I honestly think it's going to turn out to be another money-extraction scheme that will relieve many Americans of even more of their money than they are getting relieved of now), but the quality of care, despite all the wonderful new technology available, has dropped to a shockingly poor level in many cases. I documented one such case last winter, when my daughter, who obviously had a chest cold, was "diagnosed" with asthma by a quack in a walk-in who had been run out of Brooklyn for insurance-billing fraud (over unnecessary procedures and prescriptions) and given unnecessary treatments and prescribed unnecessary medicines.
So when the middle school called me yesterday afternoon around two o'clock, and told me that my daughter was in the nurse's office talking about chest pain when she breathed deep, as inconvenient as it was, I knew that she was going to have to go to a doctor, and, her pediatrician's office being what it is, she was likely going to have to go a walk-in. I was not unaware that she had been having some chest congestion; I had been giving her Robitussin the last two days she was here last week.
Well, there's no way to avoid going here. I've been getting more and more irritated, again, about what is happening in the other house. Every week when she comes back here Sunday afternoon, Sabrina smells like I used to when I went to Happy Hour and stayed until closing time; her mother has to be smoking packs of cigarettes a day. It was so bad Sunday, in fact, that I made her shower when she got here, put the clothes she was wearing in plastic bags, and hung up her coat outside and left it there until yesterday morning. Sabrina has been mildly allergic to cigarette smoke her entire life, and also to pet dander her entire life. There has been at least three doctor's notes over the years stating this and asking MOTY to please stop smoking in the house and car, and to keep the animals (if she must have them) well-groomed. These suggestions--orders, really--from medical professionals have been ignored and flaunted for eleven years, and I've given up saying anything about it to MOTY because it only leads to defensive bullshit that makes me even angrier. But what really set me off was the fact that the Albuterol inhaler, the one I was saddled with from the quack last winter that I ended up getting anyway because, honestly, it doesn't hurt to have around (but which also cost $25), and that Sabrina has used on occasion to help deal with the (literal) atmosphere in the MOTY house (let's not forget there's been three of them since this time last year), was "lost," that Sabrina had not seen it since it went over to her mother's house at the end of softball season (the last time she used it was during the softball tournament when she was catching in hot, dusty weather).
The next thing that was "lost" was my temper. I made Sabrina call her mother, who of course had no idea where it was. She then proceeded to say audibly that it was "outdated" anyway, which set me off; there's always an excuse why her irresponsibility is justified or doesn't really matter. This is only about the 80th thing over the years that has disappeared or been broken in her house, and it continues to happen regularly even though Sabrina is only there now a day-and-a-half, instead of half the time, a week. But what does Shannon care? I pay for her clothes, I pay for her supplies, I pay for her leisure activity things, I pay for her medications. And that's been her attitude regarding her entire life: you don't have to take care of things because someone else will pay for it, someone else will replace it. It's old, and it's maddening to deal with, and I may end up filing a report just because I am so, so tired of dealing with it.
I called Dr. Mullen's office, and he couldn't see her until today, and upon further reflection they recommended, if she was reporting chest pain, to go to a walk-in. I just could not bring myself to go the Lourdes walk-in again, and so I made the trek to Endicott to use the UHS walk-in across the street from Union-Endicott High School. And was given a glimpse into how medical care should be. Check-in took about forty seconds. We waited about ten minutes to be called back, the nurse did the rundown immediately, and then the doctor came in immediately as the nurse was finishing. He checked her out, thinks it's just a chest cold, wrote a scrip for Robitussin with codeine to aid in sleeping, and sent us on our way. We were not in the building more than 35 minutes.
And then to add to the wonderful experience, we stopped at Wegman's to get the prescription filled--and paid $5.35 for it. Without insurance. I have no idea of how much money I spent in CVS over the years needlessly on medications, but since I switched to Wegman's about two years ago, I have spent probably less than $200 on meds, not using insurance at all. Several have been no cost at all. I know American health care is a nightmare for many people, and my experiences have not all been wonderful--but yesterday's was. It is an example of how this should work, and why American medical care was once the envy of the rest of the world.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cover Countdown #13

Some bands made their living doing cover songs, but none more so, I believe, than Manfred Mann's Earth Band. They first made a name for themselves in the late 1960's covering Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo" (doing a better job on it), and graduated to making covers of another Big Deal's songs during a period when the Big Deal was idle. This version, it must be said, is a lot better than the original, and coming of age when I did, I confess that it was even better through headphones with a huge buzz on. This has become a staple of classic rock stations, and is much better known than the original by the Boss.

13. Blinded By The Light
Original Version: Bruce Springsteen
Cover Version: Manfred Mann's Earth Band


Important Week

Today is the last week before Christmas. So for me, it is going to be a pretty important and hectic week, and I'm not really sure whether I am ready for it. It's not really seeming real festive this year. There's just a sense of loss when all your kids are past the Santa Claus stage that is like a concrete block dropped onto your soul. While there will be plenty of good will and holiday cheer, the magic that was part of having a child experiencing children is no longer present. It's a bit of a bummer, and given the commercialized bacchanalia that the holiday is now, it's easy to get very humbug about it all. I wouldn't say I've gone that far; gratitude is so embedded in me as a result of being in recovery that I can't all the way down the path. But there is a part of me that thinks, increasingly more every year, that I'd sure like to spend less and expend less effort this time of year.
Or maybe it's just because I don't get two to three weeks off at Christmas time anymore. It was a lot easier to deal with the hubbub and mess when I could shop at leisure, wrap during the day with no kids around, and spend some time just taking in the sights of the area and letting the good aspects of the scene wash over me. There doesn't really seem to be a chance for that to happen any more. I'm about done with shopping; I haven't spent any real money but my credit cards have been hit pretty hard, and I still have all the wrapping to do. I was thinking about making a bunch of sausage breads later in the week; I will make a few for friends and let it be--after all, those that make cookies don't get paid for them.
Anyway, it's a full week--we're taking the 26th off as an agency for the holiday, and school goes through the 22d--and there is plenty to do, so it isn't like the week is going to drag. I'm not slipping into depression or anything, far from it--but I do wish the season felt a little more magical this year. I was seeing a friend's post on Facebook last night about getting all her stuff bought and wrapped and how different it was going to be this year because her nightmare years are behind her and her kids are all young and believe in Santa--and I swear I teared up, because it will never be that way again around here. But it is what it is, and what it is is still good.


I am developing quite the fondness for Linwood Barclay. The Accident is the third novel of his I have read in the last year, and it has become clear to me that he is in the top shelf of suspense/thriller writers, in the same rarified air as Michael Connelly, only his protagonists are ordinary people dropped into extraordinary circumstances. Barclay's novels are worlds where little as it seems, and as a thriller fan, I pride myself on seeing twists hundreds of pages ahead. In this particular case, I thought I had figured out who the ultimate villain was, and I thought I was right--and then there was one last twist in the final chapter that both was perfectly consistent with the plot and totally out of left field. As always, well-done, Mr. Barclay, well-done. I am glad I started this book at 11 AM today; it took me 8 hours, but I did not put it down except to make dinner after I started it, nearly 400 pages in one sitting. And I'm not sorry to have wasted a December Sunday doing so.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cover Countdown #14

This one is another one of my favorite songs, by a band not too many people are familiar with. It's very different than the original, and not everyone likes the techno sound that the Sisters of Mercy were one of the pioneers of. But they did put their own stamp on this staple of "classic rock," and to my mind, a band can't do better than radically rework a song in a way that makes a signature song of their own.

14. Gimme Shelter
Original Version: The Rolling Stones
Cover Version: Sisters of Mercy


Happy Christmas (War is Over)

I can finally release my breath. At least one of our disastrous foreign adventures has finally drawn to a close; the last American troops in the unhappy nation of Iraq have returned home. The entire episode was based on massive deception and didn't improve any in a moral sense after it was undertaken. For the political leaders of this country, it was and is a moral blot, a stain of colossal proportions, that no amount of dissembling, excuse-making, or justification can erase. Even the current occupant of the White House took nearly three years to end a war he claimed to be against from the beginning of his national political career.
But there will be time for more of that kind of talk in the future, especially since the Primates Flinging Poo menagerie seem to be having a collective stroke over the fact that all active duty troops are now removed. I really hope that whoever Obama's opponent ends up being makes the withdrawal a major campaign issue; I really don't even hear a lot of flag-wavers talking anymore about anything left for us to achieve in Iraq.
This is the first time in a decade that I can now hear John Lennon's Christmas song without a plaintive silent wish that it were only so. The song, incidentally, had its genesis in another conflict of dubious paternity that turned into another atrocity-laden rendering of the national soul that went on for years too long because few political leaders in this country have ever had enough courage to realize that discretion often is the greater part of valor.
One of the few American political leaders who did possess courage in outsize quantities once wrote:
 "Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether."
I do not believe that this kind of retributive justice and judgment is something that the God I believe in dispenses. And many of those who disagree with me really should hope that I am right. Because if I'm not--well, we have some serious trials and penances ahead. I do not find a lot of fault with the troops that actually served in Iraq; although they chose to join the military, they are not responsible for their leaders' having the vision of earthworms, and the environment of any war situation will always eventually lead to brutality and atrocity. But I find enormous fault with those who started a conflict by lying about why they wanted to start it, had no idea of what the hell they were doing or even what they wanted once they got their war, and proved to be more venal and morally repugnant once in control then the alleged despot they deposed and the terrorists they were allegedly trying to contain.
Oh, and by the way, they bankrupted the country while doing so, too.
And the most reprehensible of all are those who allowed it to happen--those who blindly believed bullshit in 2002-3 can be partially excused, because the natural tendency to believe that those in power are not baldly and knowingly lying to us is strong, but those who voted for Bush in 2004 have no valid pardon, and those who still support armed intervention at this juncture, who are decrying the withdrawal and the end of active conflict as it happens, simply are atavistic immoral souls beyond redemption. "So this is Christmas/and what have you done?" indeed.

Book Review: JERUSALEM

This is the second book of historian Simon Sebag Montefiore that I've read. Like that effort about the rule of Stalin, Jerusalem: The Biography is exhaustively researched, rich with concisely drawn character portraits of major players, and vastly informative on a subject that the reader probably already thought they knew quite a bit about. Jerusalem has been inhabited for well over three thousand years, and from the Canaanite pre-Israelite days to its modern role as lightning rod for sectarian conflict, it is all on paper now. The writing skills of the author are more in evidence in the beginning of the book, when historical evidence is more sparse, but even at the end, the major personalities are very vivid and the chronicling of events flows reasonably well--there is just a lot to report, and especially in the centuries of Turkish rule, almost none of the names are familiar to the American reader and there is a fair amount of "Who is this guy again? Let's go back and look" that occurs--or at least it did with me.
Still, for a serious history buff, this is an excellent read. It took me a week to finish because I've been very  busy, not because it was tedious reading. Partisans of particular religion's claims to "rights" to the city will be disappointed; the author resolutely stays away from any controversial opinions in that area, even though members of the author's family, prominent British Jews, become fairly significant players in the narrative in the nineteenth century as the Zionist movement took wings. But the record speaks for itself; there have been zealots and bigots of all three major faiths who have left their bloodstained mark on the history of the "Holy City," but it is pretty clear that the Christians, when in control, have been less tolerant and more bigoted than the others when in control of Jerusalem. The single most divisive and un-Godly sect of the many with presences in the city has undoubtedly been the Greek Orthodox contingent, who time and again have started disturbances and riots. I'm not surprised; I'm not a fan of Greeks in general, and while the time I was part of an Orthodox church was one of the few times I felt even remotely comfortable as part of a particular religion, one reason I eventually left the church community was the amazing xenophobia and hostility toward others that is a minority but nonetheless prominent undercurrent of the church community and hierarchy.
Even at well over 500 pages, this is a good read.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cover Countdown #15

This one was a real classic from my youth. Although the original version has it fans, this was off the debut album of the band who covered it, and it helped to define the quality that was to come for the next twenty years, so much so that most of this band's fans under the age of 40 don't even know this is a cover.

15. You Really Got Me
Original Version: The Kinks
Cover Version: Van Halen


Keeping Focus

One of the most dangerous aspects of addictive thinking, I found as I was working my recovery process, was projecting, thinking ahead too far and too deeply and then making what I thought (and feared, in most cases) would or might happen the basis for whatever decisions I was making, rather than trying to use any principle or what seemed to be actually true in a given situation. I've had quite a few instances just in the last couple of weeks or so that have reminded me 1) how grateful I am to have been shown a better way to live, and 2) how vigilant I need to remain not to fall back into those patterns of thinking.
Last night, one of my friends was telling us, and then shared in the meeting as well, that the agency he works for is in serious financial distress, and as a result his pay (already not all that great; he makes 60% of what I do, and he works with a population--traumatic brain injury adults--that is at least as challenging and time consuming as the one I work with) is going to be cut $4K, his health insurance benefits are going to be cut, and other benefits he has enjoyed up until present that made up for the relatively low salary eliminated. He has already had serious problems this fall with his vehicles--one finally died after years on life support, and then the new one he bought burned to a crisp, and then the new one after that got hit by a deer--and he is not a healthy man, and he's now getting garnished for some past medical debts, and so his tenuous hold on lower middle-class living is slipping out of his grasp. Oh, and he's a few years older than me, too, so it isn't like he can go back to school, and retirement years are that much closer...This is on top of Aldo's financial struggles to find his ailing mother an assisted living situation that he could pay for, and Kathie's ongoing issues with her mother's Alzheimer's complications, and Nick's struggles to maintain his position as a nontenured college instructor and to maintain affordable housing, and Kate's having to dispense with a car, and a colleague telling me that she can't continue forever at the salary she's getting where she works. These are people who are still working and still have some advantages; there are people like Jeff (unemployed two years now; burned through his IRA and no cushion left, at 56 years old) and MOTY (unemployed now since late summer, no real job prospects out there, and no cushion) and a young person I know's boyfriend (20 years old, canned from Wal Mart just before the point where he could collect unemployment; just a high school education and no real skills) who don't have it that good... It would be easy to be discouraged and just give up, to say "it's all going to shit, so why try at all?"
 I have three children who are growing up quickly; before work intervened and I had to cut the visit short, I was with Rachel and Jessica yesterday and was told Rachel has now been accepted by a couple of (expensive but quality) colleges, with more surely to come. Do I just bag it because I'm afraid of what happen in the future, and make her road to come even harder than it's already going to be? Sabrina is in the midst of adolescence now, and has no other real strong adult presence; what kind of example would I be setting for her about problem-solving and perseverance in the face of adversity if I started giving up because of what might happen down the road?
Then there the people in early recovery that I see every week. They already get a fair dose of crap and nonsense; there's a particular addict, admittedly with mental health problems but nonetheless allegedly with 24 years clean, who shares at every goddamn meeting he attends that life in recovery has been one long tale of woe and his life was better when he was using--nice message of hope there. We that have been there for some time have a responsibility, a mandate that is the culmination of the entire recovery process, to share what we have gained, to provide a measure of hope to those that are experiencing hopelessness. Life is getting increasingly difficult for all of us, but the solution is not to give up, not curl into a defensive ball or throw in the towel and engage in self-destructive behavior. If we do the right things, it may not get better in a material sense--but if we stop trying, it certainly will not improve. No one is going to wave a magic wand and make it all better for us.
So my focus now is on doing the right thing for what is in front of me today and in the next few days. I've done a lot of my Christmas shopping, but I still have a few others to buy for and most of my daughter's Christmas stuff to buy; I deliberately bought for who I did in the order I did so that I would not be tempted, when money gets short close to Christmas, to just say "Ah, they don't deserve anything anyway" and not get everyone on the list a present. And I have cushion; it isn't like I couldn't dip into it and replenish it in the weeks to come. It will get done.
I'm very aggravated at the outfit my sponsee and good friend works for; even though he is out on medical leave, some of the discussions I've been having with him have gotten under my skin, as I feel some of his views are leading me dangerously close to "hey, I just realized: you're part of the problem over there." It's not true; it would be a thousand times worse over there if he was not in the position he's in. But my frustration level is so high, and my ability to influence and punish those who need to be punished for their incompetence, stupidity, and/or laziness is so null, that I'm taking it out on him--and it only incidentally crosses my mind that he had major surgery less than three weeks ago, and it might not be healthy for him if I am jumping down his throat for stuff at present he can do nothing about.
I remember hearing often in early recovery that life happens whether you accept it or not, and so accepting it on its terms is the only way to really deal with it. I can only change what I do, and what I need to do right at the moment is the next right thing and trust that it will work out all right, even if I can't see how, if I do. It's worked for over thirteen years... the topic at the meeting last night was complacency. I actually think it would be nice to get complacent in my faith, instead of taking recovery and the things I should be grateful for for granted. But that doesn't seem to happen often, so the task ahead is to keep working on the basis of the faith that I do have from my experience.
Some days, one day at a time is more than a cliche.