Wednesday, June 25, 2008

To: God, Re: George Carlin

Dear Lord,
Please look after the soul of one George Carlin, who probably passed customs and should be coming your way about now. I know he vehemently denied Your existence, going so far as to say, "There is no God, none, never was," but I know these folks are your favorite kind. Besides, any one soul who brought so much laughter and cheer to so many others is deserving of favor, and he was merely railing against the God he was taught about in Catholic school, rather than the God he talked about in his act; "The Big Electron," The Sun, Joe Pesci. His indignation was about organized religion's version of God; the vengeful, white bearded, invisible man in the sky who's spying on you all the time and who decides the outcome of athletic events. But anyone as observant and perceptive as George Carlin saw the larger frame surrounding the smaller picture, so he never claimed to be an atheist, just a pragmatist. And anyway Lord, he's already been in front of one Supreme Court.

My friends and I who grew up in the sixties thought George Carlin was the funniest man alive. After his first album release, teenagers were quoting from his routines, like "The Wild Willy West Show on Radio WINO, (Wonderful WINO, in Western Walla Walla)," or "Al Sleet, your Hippie Dippy Weatherman, (Today's high? Whenever I get up)." When the times grew turbulent, we were delighted to see Carlin take off the coat and tie and grow his hair long. He was one of us, and he was still funnier than hell, deconstructing language and pointing out oxymorons like Jumbo Shrimp, and Military Intelligence, so that you can't hear some absurd phrase without thinking of him. How many times has someone thought, "That would be a good one for George Carlin?"

And the older he got, the more outrageous he became, and we loved him for it. No subject was beyond examination; Cats and Dogs, Baseball and Football, Religion, Advertising, and a lot of humor that was just plain crude. But God, could he make you hold-your-sides laugh. After he became famous for his "Seven Words" routine, he updated the list on his next HBO special, unrolling a long scroll and naming in rapid fire diction every slang term ever used for any known body part or bodily function, and I was left, doubled over in the chair, gasping for breath. But he was also a deep thinker, and agree or not, he could provoke you to consider another point of view. He claimed he didn't do political humor, but his comedy was deeply political and often radical. Lenny Bruce may have opened the door, but it was Carlin who came through.

I heard Jerry Seinfeld say that Carlin recently spoke of being relieved that this season's current death wave seemed to have passed him by, but he ended as part of a troika with Bo Diddley and Tim Russert anyway. I think he might have liked the company because, although the three men excelled in vastly different arenas, they all shared a singular defining passion about what they did. But Carlin's sudden death was similar to when Johnny Carson died; there was no time in advance to consider a life without him. You could prepare for Richard Pryor, but Carlin? And in the middle of this political season so rich with humor? He didn't "pass away," or "expire, like a magazine subscription." He up and died.

If I said that I feel like I lost an old friend yesterday, George Carlin would have thoroughly mocked that, since we were never in the same area code, so far as I know. In the 1984 HBO show, "Carlin on Campus," George said, "I believe in live and let live, and if anybody doesn't believe that, we'll take him outside and shoot the motherfucker." (Excuse me Lord, that was one of the seven). On this occasion he might say, "Go ahead back to your blog (and he would make exaggerated belching noises since the word is funny), and if it makes you feel any better to write a little something about me, have at it." So I did. And I will remember George Carlin with gales of laughter, and hope he is now in the process of being pleasantly surprised. In the name of Joe Pesci, we all say....


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Air Sickness

Can the airlines possibly make it any more unpleasant to fly? I understand how nineteen guys with boxcutters altered our way of life, but the airline industry's reaction to the first multiple hijacking, in lock step with the government, is insane. Some fool tries to set his shoes on fire over the Atlantic and before you know it, we're all tiptoeing barefoot through a gauntlet of idiots who can prevent you from flying if you look at them cross-eyed. A rumor runs rampant that terrorists are individually smuggling various chemicals on a plane that will explode when mixed up together in the air-toilet, and suddenly a high school drop-out in a uniform is confiscating my Mother's hand lotion. And have you ever been in an airline toilet, much less consider mixing volatile salves in there? Soon enough, we'll all be required to wear pocketless, translucent leotards to board, making air travel not merely annoying, but disgusting too.

Because you have somewhere to go, you stand and silently accept their abuse as you are herded into a metal tube reeking of jet fuel, gaseous emissions, and body odors. Your cramped seat hasn't been wiped down in five years and there's an oil slick on the headrest, but you can't sit down until the aisle clears of passengers trying to stuff their oversized suitcases into the overhead bins to avoid the extra charge for luggage. You wish you had some water, but they took that away at the gate and the two dollar cokes won't be served until the plane is airborne. If your plane backs away from the gate quickly, there is no assurance that you will take-off anytime soon. In fact, if there is a long delay, the airline will not inform you in advance, but hold you hostage on the tarmac and not permit you to leave the plane for as long as it takes, even eight hours or more. I believe if an airline held me against my will that long, I would be either getting arrested, subdued, or faking a seizure.

My Uncle Gene's example is typical. He had accumulated enough points to qualify for a discounted ticket from Dallas to Memphis. In the past, that ticket would have cost $300-$400, but had my Uncle needed to walk up and buy a ticket, yesterday's price was $945 for coach on American Airlines. His early flight from Dallas was cancelled for unknown reasons and delayed Uncle Gene by four hours. There's a saying in Texas; "Fool me once...," so he called American in advance for his return trip and was assured the flight was on time. But when he got to the Memphis airport, it had been cancelled again, delaying him an additional four hours. Who needs this aggravation anymore? They treat you like cattle but charge you like kings. Ticket prices fluctuate wildly from day to day in unusual symmetry within the industry, so you're forced online to "phish" for a fare like a bidder at auction, but there is still the chance that the plane has been "oversold" and you'll be left at the gate, e-ticket in hand.

I understand that oil and oil products are at record highs, but the airlines have been in decline for thirty years, coinciding with their virtual monopoly on public travel. It was not an accident that the airlines soared while the railroads decayed and died. Harry Nilsson sang, "Nobody Cares About the Railroad Anymore," mainly because they lacked good Washington lobbyists. A collusion between the airline industry and the oil companies sounded the death knell for rail travel, and putting Amtrak under the government's supervision was a fool's errand. We became wholly dependent on the airlines while countries like Japan and France were developing light rail travel and bullet trains that arrived into the heart of the city without polluting the air.

The airlines were deregulated in 1978 to promote regional competition, but when Reagan took office in 1980 and fired striking air traffic controllers and busted their union, it was a clear sign that regulations were for sissies. Before 1980, the airlines provided student and military discounts, and there were enough vacant seats to fly "stand-by," and still get on the plane. Ticket prices did lower for a while, and personal service was acceptable, if spotty. But the establishment of monopolistic airline "hubs" and the popularity of regional airlines caused the giants to fall and, one by one: Braniff, Trans World Airways, Eastern, Pan American, the industry's pioneering companies, began to disappear. As in any unregulated business arena, corporate Darwinism then took affect and the big fish began to devour the little fish. What happened to the airlines is the same thing that happened to the music business, the entertainment industry, the printed press and broadcast media, the news networks, and the Mafia. It all got shrunken down and divided into the control of around five families.

So now, flying is a test of will and endurance, and worse, it's the only game around. Every time an airline decides to charge passengers by the pound and forces families on vacation to choose between packing the souvenirs or the shoes, they further alienate their customers. Can it get better? Yes. Barack Obama gave a speech in Flint, Michigan last Tuesday that was ignored by the mainstream media because it lasted an hour and went into great detail regarding his economic vision for the future. Thank goodness for the C-Span, because the only reason I saw it was that it was broadcast at 3 AM, and I was being diligent for my readers. Obama spoke for the first time as a candidate in 40 years of linking our major cities with light rail that will rival the speeds of an airplane while providing an alternative to air travel, minus the fuel costs. He spoke of creating these "green" jobs in cities like Flint, or Gary, or Allentown, that have suffered the worst from corporate abuse by being used up, discarded, and abandoned. Offer some competition to the airlines for the travellers' dollar and watch their services improve.

Still, the talking heads repeat that the populace doesn't know Obama. If any network, other than C-Span, would present the candidates in a forum undominated by the need for soundbites, perhaps we could know the candidates better. At 3 AM, however, Obama's vision for the future of this country was rich with possibility and delved deeply into the serious problems we face. His willingness to invest in clean rail travel in an age of airline dominance is reason enough to examine his other ideas, but you'd never know it reading or watching the news. Unless he peppered his speech with pander, it would not be considered newsworthy. Meanwhile, Melody and I will be spending our "staycation" in the backyard this year, watching the airlines overhead revert back to their original state, as purveyors of aristocratic travel. Welcome the return of the "Jet Set."

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Why Hillary Lost

When Hillary Clinton entered the Senate, had she voted her conscience, rather than her ambition, she would be the nominee of her party today and the next President of the United States. At the end of her non-concession speech on Tuesday night, after she reiterated her long-held determination to end the war, Hillary spoke with genuine passion about representing the voiceless, the disenfranchised, and the "invisible." This is who I have believed Hillary Clinton is all along, and my criticism about her campaign, as well as her Senate career, is that she ran away from her self. Like her husband, her votes and opinions were often motivated by personal political positioning planned to make herself palatable to the greater populace for a presidential power play. Only, the old politics didn't work this time.

Living in the adjoining state to where Mrs. Clinton served as First Lady, I don't recall a single negative story written or spoken about her during the entire tenure of the Clinton governancy, as opposed to the Fordice soap opera in Mississippi, which was weekly news fodder. Mrs. Clinton was regarded in Arkansas, and the South, as a champion of education and a spokesperson for children in need. As a 45 year old college senior completing a journalism degree begun some thirty years previous, I covered Hillary's visit to the U of M campus for the school paper in 1992, when she was campaigning for her husband. At the time, I said that although she lacked great public speaking skills, there could be no faulting what she was saying. She was a "New" Democrat, and her concerns for early education and health care were as passionate as her valedictory speech was at Wellesley. My disappointment over the route she chose to take while in the Senate was obviously not an isolated emotion.

Rather than risk being labeled a "liberal" in the Senate, she co-sponsored anti-flag burning amendments and took a decidedly militaristic tone. The politically expedient move after the attacks of 9/11 was to grant Bush his war powers request for pre-emptive strikes at perceived enemies at his discretion. The conscientious thing would be to realize that the guiding foreign policy imperative of the United States throughout its history is that, we don't start wars. Hillary backed Bush and defended the war until her run for the presidency, when she became solidly anti-war, although she could never bring herself to apologize for enabling Bush like John Edwards eventually did. Recalling her earlier activist years, how can you be against the Vietnam War and in favor of the one in Iraq? That's maturity in reverse.

At the beginning of the primary season, Hillary refused to even acknowledge the possibility that she would not be the nominee, and was certain the whole thing would be wrapped up on Super Tuesday. When it wasn't, she began a slash and burn, negative campaign that bordered on race baiting and nearly destroyed the years of goodwill between black America and the Clintons. Obama wasn't a Muslim, "as far as I know," and "working, hard working, white Americans are voting for me." Bill's rhetoric was worse and controversial enough that he ended this political season, and possibly his career, travelling the hustings of small town South Dakota. Labelling Bill Richardson as a traitor while having surrogates rummage through Obama's kindergarten essays wasn't such a good idea either. And the 18 million votes Hillary claims come along with the inclusion of two primaries that didn't count, and one where Obama's name wasn't on the ballot. How many more voters might have turned out in Florida and Michigan if they knew their votes were really going to matter for something?

Finally, these news footage scenes of menopausal "Women Gone Wild," are baffling to me. I had previously written that one day, I would like to see a Jewish president, but you won't catch me voting for Joe Lieberman anytime soon. The comparison works for Hillary as well. The claims that she was "disrespected" come directly from the criticisms about her message and the way she conducted her campaign, and as far as Obama is concerned, I have never seen a politician so genteel toward his rival. I have no doubt, as evidenced by Hillary's gracious gesture toward Obama at the AIPAC conference yesterday, that she will fully support his candidacy. I can't say the same for the mostly white women who claim they will be voting for McCain in the fall. Only Hillary can facilitate that, and it is past time for her to shed her Maggie Thatcher, chain-mail image and begin to follow her truest self; a lesson learned, if at all, too late.