Monday, May 8, 2017

Book Review: THE DAILY SHOW: AN ORAL HISTORY

I discovered The Daily Show late in the game, during the 2012 election campaign, by which time Jon Stewart was a national icon. And I usually watched the monologues and some of the highlights that next morning until Stewart left the show two years ago, and I have to say that his take on matters I almost always agreed with. This book is a running, more or less chronological commentary from almost anyone associated with the show about its history and future, and it is fascinating, especially when their memories don't jibe. There are also references to many classic moments and skits, and reinforce the central premise of what made the show tick: politics matters because political decisions affect all of us, and if it takes public pointing out and exposure to ridicule of the hypocrisy in some of the decision-making in order to effect changes and to push office-holders to adhere to a moral compass, than that's what it takes. Stewart never backed off, and became the most trusted voice in the nation. He even managed to get his most usual targets on board with some of his causes before he was done. And he is missed.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: HIS FINAL BATTLE

Joseph Lelyveld's His Final Battle is about our greatest modern President--FDR--and his struggle to stay alive and healthy enough to win a fourth term in 1944 and his attempts to secure a lasting framework for peace as World War II was closing. FDR knew he was not well, and much of the book is devoted to the question of how much his doctors knew about how serious his illnesses were. But it was also clear that FDR believed he could not let go of the wheel, not in 1944, and that it was also clear that he knew not making it to 1948 was likely, hence his efforts to get Henry Wallace out of the Vice-President's office. The details of the Tehran and Yalta conferences are important but ultimately a little dull, but underscore that FDR understood that massaging and trying to keep Stalin in the alliance till war's end was the most important key to a manageable post-war world. The details of his personal life seemed incidental, but I suppose had a bearing on his end and how it came about, too.
FDR is, Republican/wealthy revisionism notwithstanding, either the greatest or second-greatest President we ever had. And this book clearly demonstrates why. Roosevelt on two cylinders was better than most men on six, and even now, his vision and ability stand in stark contrast to the smallminded, petty, vindictive, and selfish motivations of those that opposed him. And in today's fever-driven, ideologically dominated world, what stands out about Roosevelt, even when he was clearly failing, was his pragmatism and lack of rigidity; he had core beliefs, but he never let his ideology skew his views of reality, but would adjust his views and actions to what he actually saw, heard, and felt. And while he had a substantial ego--anyone who was ever anyone has to--and was extremely manipulative, he also did so in such a way that it was hard to see his hand at work, and often the results were so that what was necessary got done, not for the benefit or revenge or personal agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR remains our only physically disabled President that came into office that way. And the author makes a convincing case that his having to deal with polio and its effects softened him, made him humble in a way few politicians are, made him sensitive to the needs and desires of others in a way he never would have understood if he had not been dependent on others for even the most basic, taken-for-granted things like standing up and moving from place to place. I've thought often about that in the last few days, watching the Washington circus unfold and the pettiness of local politics draw inexorably nearer to me. And it makes me wonder, not for the first time, how fortunate this country really was to have had him available at the time he was needed most, with his specific skill set and a powerful identification with the great majority of the people he led. And how unfortunate we are now, in an age where the cult of the individual, of blame, of omerta, of materialism, and of callous regard for others is embedded like a tumor. Trump is the anti-FDR even more than Bush was; there is nothing but self-interest involved in Trump's politics, nothing at all, and the contrast to the man who brought us the New Deal could not be more stark. Or more poignant at this time.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Odds And Ends, Early May 2017

1) So the House Republicans delivered on their Obamacare repeal. And almost anybody that has anything to do with actually treating sick people, including the insurance industry, says it is an awful piece of legislation, going to doom lots of people to sickness and (no hyperbole) death, and provide a windfall tax break for the few thousand of megawealthy people in this country that don't need the money.
This country is now closer to the Zimbabwe of Mugabe than it is to an actual democracy. In just one generation, dating from the election of 1980, we have turned from a flawed society that was still genuinely devoted to providing the best possible outcomes to most of its citizens to one that is governed almost exclusively for the benefit of the wealthy, and designed to both repress and marginalize most of the other people in the country. And I have been convinced, and only become more so with every passing week, that the only way true change will happen is by revolution, violent revolution. And since functional democracies almost never result from revolutions, the Great American Experiment is in its death throes.
2) And so I find small pleasures in large passions, to keep from driving myself to impotent rage. And one of my passions is the Rangers, who won easily again last night to tie their series against Ottawa at two apiece. There's a nagging voice inside my head that tells me the series should be over already, and that it is not a good thing that Tanner Glass has more points in the playoffs than Kreider, Hayes, Miller, and Vesey, all forwards on the first and second lines that have played all ten games, do. On the other hand, the path forward is there; Ottawa certainly can be beaten, the Penguins await sans Crosby and playing Fleury (who for some reason has problems with the Rangers in the playoffs) in goal, and there's nobody left in the West that's scary. But there's a part of me that doesn't want to win the Cup, too; it would make it next to impossible to cashier Alain Vigneault, whose decision-making grows more incomprehensible by the week.
There are some parallels here to my favorite Ranger team of all-time: the 1978-79 overachievers that lost in the finals, then imploded shockingly fast for such a young team. The two biggest ones are that there is no one on this team that is consistently offensively effective (yet somehow they get the pucks in the net anyway), and the expansion draft looms over this team like an sword hanging from the ceiling. They're not going to lose four players, and they're unlikely to move five more for one player, which more than anything killed the 1979-80 and beyond teams; half the team was gone by the next November. But changes are coming, and it's hard to imagine that Vigneault and nominal GM Jeff Gorton are going to get this right. So enjoy it while you can.
3) I've discovered the joys of aux cords and playing music from my phone in the car. It didn't make the final cut of my favorite songs I counted down a few years ago, but there is one song out there that gets covered by more or less everybody, including the guy who wrote it and first performed it, and with rare exceptions, everybody does it really well. The song is All Along The Watchtower, and there have to be a hundred, if not more, different versions by almost as many performers, on You Tube, including a bunch by Bob Dylan himself. One of the many things that I have loved about Dylan over the years is his ability to rework and reinvent his own songs into something completely different as time passes, and another is that he will absolutely give credit when it is due. Both of these traits come into play with this song. Dylan's original version, released in 1967, was acoustic and haunting, effective in its own way, even spooky. But then Jimi Hendrix covered it and made it an absolute rock anthem, and much of what is out there is inspired by Hendrix' cover.
Including Dylan's. Dylan has been quoted as saying that Hendrix "got it right" with Watchtower, and most of his own versions over the years that have made their way into his concerts are closer to Hendrix' versions than his own. But he continues to tinker with it, and the buffet of cover versions on You Tube begins with the variety of Dylan performances. The three I am very enamored of are the House of Blues performance from 1996, the live "rare" performance put up by someone named Elston Gunn, and the joint performance with Bruce Springsteen. The Gunn video, in particular, really shows off Dylan's creativity at reworking it, the performance is driven by a drumbeat so heavy that it sounds like a relic of the Studio 54 era. But it works.
Neil Young has made the song a staple of live performances of his own for years, and there are at least four out there are completely golden. No one but no one enjoys playing guitar like Neil Young, and he lets it fly on this song without exception. Many of the usual suspects have covers on You Tube, and there are some that you wouldn't expect. Dave Matthews Band has one, and while I really don't like it, it is a different take and if you are a DMB, it might work for you. And the most surprising great cover out there is John flipping Mayer, of all people. Mayer's cover version is essentially a cover of Hendrix' version, and Mayer is good enough with a guitar that he pulls it off, repeatedly. Simply amazing for someone whose original work I really don't care for.
4) Project Keep Busy continues this weekend. I am taking my neighbor to work in a few minutes, and meeting with a sponsee at 10, going to see my brother and going to a celebration. Tomorrow I having breakfast with Right Said Fred, a good friend I haven't sat down with in a long time, and going to a different type of celebration tomorrow night. I have to shop, I have to clean, I have yardwork to do if the weather permits, and before you know it, it will be Sunday and I will be complaining about going to work again  after a too-short weekend. But it beats sitting around thinking too much, and it beats a whole other bunch of alternatives I can think of.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Elephant In The Room

I've become a lot more responsible in recent years about what I write about. And even though I do write about my personal life in this space more often than many are comfortable with, I have been really striving to keep what I disclose about me and my feelings and effects on me. I have become acutely aware that 1) my audience is bigger than I want to believe it is, and 2) there is another person involved, and what I write and say may have a substantial effect on the course of her life, too. So as matters have fallen apart in the last six weeks or so, I've tried to stay as positive as I can about the entire situation, and have stayed away from details, especially if they might be perceived as damning or finger-pointing. I have not met this lofty standard a hundred percent of the time, but I have tried to, and for the most part succeeded.
And it has become clear in the last week or two that much, much more is in play than the state of my household or my heart. It is literally a matter of life and death, a struggle that has almost been lost twice in recent weeks. It is a battle that ultimately I am irrelevant to--I cannot restore anyone to sanity, and the fight ahead is not so much to keep it down as it is to find something that will fill a soul that is mostly empty (and what is there is filled with pain and values that are not healthy). I have had to let go, and I have realized that my part in this was not what I believed what it was. I have accepted that, and I have also moved from being upset and angry over specific details to the ability to pray for and be genuinely concerned for the long-term well-being for someone who is, whatever the outside may look like, a lost soul.
You would have to be a real dick to want to add to the misery of a lost soul because you didn't like how your part of the story ended. I'm not a dick.
She is in a safe place now, and still at liberty, and hopefully the process of healing and recovery is beginning. The last thing I said to her, right before she entered, was that after being spared jail and having survived several brushes with death in the last couple of years, I hoped that she was coming to believe that God, whom she has a lot trouble believing in, has other plans for her than an early death, and that perhaps she would be able to stop what she's doing--all of it, not just the using--and find a way closer to what He has in mind. And I meant that. It's not going to involve me; in fact, my personal belief is that she would have a better chance of the seed of recovery taking root if she goes to a rehab center away from here, and in any event, it isn't like we're even really talking. I've maintained a distance for my own sanity and well-being, and I have closed a door that was open for three years to get healthy for myself.
And it is closed. I am not going to tell you that I never think about her, or what has happened, but I can tell you that it is in the past as surely as my high school graduation. And with every passing day, especially when there is no way that she and what she is doing can force itself back into my consciousness, it gets a little easier to completely accept, to move further in my own journey, and to start to see the world through different lenses than I have been wearing for years. And honestly, I like the view, and I'm, if not deliriously happy, at least pleasant most of the time, and able to focus on and take care everything going on in a busy life without looking back. That is a gift I am grateful for, and one that I am taking more and more to heart every day.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Jails, Institutions, Death

"We are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions, and death."
We lost one to death over the weekend. She was a woman who had been here for many years before moving to Rochester, seemingly finding recovery at times, at other times not. I knew her as an addict, and then I got to know her better as the perplexed mother of a youth that crossed my path professionally. She spoke often of a deep faith in Jesus as her Lord and savior, and I hope for her sake, wherever her soul may be, she is finding solace and comfort in that faith now.
There was another that nearly lost their life last night, and will likely be experiencing jails again before the day is out. I cannot write dispassionately about this at this time. I found out just how deep the disease of addiction in some people can go. I am not only coming to terms with the near-loss, but the reality of just what was over the last couple of years versus what I wished it was. I am not going to tell you that I feel nothing. I need to to really get with my own Higher Power today and try to find compassion for someone I'm not really feeling much of it for at the moment.