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My 2014 List of Things I Hope Go Extinct

My 2014 List of Things I Hope Go Extinct

I know that at some point around New Year’s, it’s customary to write up a list of the greatest triumphs of the past year. I, however, am a contrarian prick, and so I’m going to do the opposite and present this list of things I hate that I would like to see die off in the next year.

The University of Buffalo Chemistry Department
It’s bad enough that the textbooks and equipment alone cost a truckload of money for anyone to be able to take this course. After getting all them, you have to purchase a damned computer code in order to have any access to the homework assignments, and you have to turn in all your work by a certain date. Yes, that’s important in schooling, but after a certain date, they cut off the acceptance of any and all assignments, leaving people who weren’t able to get their book on time with no options to get them in. It’s nice that the lab equipment doesn’t cost much to replace if it gets lost or broken – I lost a burner lighter which only cost me $.26 (yes, that’s cents) to replace – but no other college course on Earth apparently places its students at every possible financial disadvantage only to fail them so they have to go through it again the following semester. This isn’t education, it’s class warfare.

The Olympics
Ohhh…. So we have a corporate-sponsored series of sporting events based on an ancient Greek sporting tradition which mangle and maul the originals so much that the ancient Greeks would never recognize them. They’re known to cause host cities to shut down small businesses, destroy large chunks of poor neighborhoods, cause nationwide debts, and hold cities under martial law, and it’s only NOW, with Russia’s new set of anti-gay laws, that people are finally waking up to the fact that the International Olympic Committee is basically a corporate terrorist organization. The presentation is beamed in over tape, and many of the sports that get shown are flash events anyway. Yet, despite all this, we continue to pick and choose heroes who will be forgotten after two weeks, and hold them up to some torchlight of sporting purity under the assumption that god and country are the only things on the mind of a bunch of young, hormonal kids whose training in many cases left them depraved of a real life. You wonder why Michael Phelps smoked marijuana. I’m angrier at the fact that he believed he had to apologize.

Architectural Rules
Freedom Tower in New York City is now officially the tallest building in the country, even though Chicago’s Sears Tower has more accessible floors. A panel of architects gave the designation to Freedom Tower because of a ridiculous technicality with which Freedom Tower’s antennae – which is exactly what it is – was counted as part of the building. If it looks like an antennae and functions like an antennae, it doesn’t take a jump to a conclusion so much as a small step. All the architects on that panel would have to be New Yorkers, because New Yorkers never miss an opportunity to whip out their dick substitutes whenever they can to show everyone else why their city is the most overprivileged, self-absorbed, elitist city on Earth.

McDonald’s
According the the Mickey D’s bigwhigs, it’s easy to live on their salary if you just hold down a second job and give up on a few essential payments. Apparently, heat payments max out at $50, health insurance is only $20, and $100 will cover all sorts of luxuries like groceries. They also took the time to tell their employees that it’s always nice to tip the nanny, and presumably the limo driver which poor people can apparently afford. According to Forbes Magazine, an authority on money, has this to say about Mickey’s lack of reality:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2013/07/23/mcdonalds-minimum-wage-budget-ignores-tax-credits-food-stamps-and-reality/

Religious Inspirational Stories About Disabled People
It’s bad enough that our society insists on turning people with very real day-to-day physical challenges into inspirational tokens for other people who use these stories to feel better able themselves. Bringing some sort of god into it, though, is one of the most despicable things that can be done. If this god is brought into it in a negative way, that means the disabled person is being punished. If it’s in a positive way, then it’s often a portrayal of a person receiving sort sort of extra heavenly reward, which trivializes what some of these people have to face. I have a very deeply held suspicion that the people who buy into this tripe are doing it out of less sympathy than reassurance; after all, if someone sees a disabled person doing something you wouldn’t ordinarily think a disabled person was capable of doing, it gets him off the guilt hook about the fact that there are a lot of ways we make the everyday lives of the disabled more difficult.

Bottled Water
The United States has the best tap water available on the planet, and this is how elitist we are: We bitch about it endlessly to the point that even the biggest tree-huggers in the country advocate buying it with huge extra expenses in wasteful plastic bottles. Then we trick ourselves into thinking the corporations who provide them are personally sitting at a spring brook, trying to coax the water into those bottles instead of doing what they really do, which is simply running the plain tap water through a few extra filters. Of course, fluoride gets brought into the discussion as being the silent killer despite the fact that there’s plenty of it in our toothpaste and tea, and its presence has dramatically reduced recorded instances of tooth decay. I study nutrition, and my prof – who, by the way, works in the official capacity as a scientist for my school, with a lab and everything, and who has run the tests – was blunt about the fact that everyone’s fluoride paranoia doesn’t hold water. No matter how many idiot students she gets who try to argue with her about it.

United States Congress
This is the thing that probably goes without saying. Congress voted quite repeatedly to get the Affordable Healthcare Act repealed, let the government shut down because they wanted to piss all over each other’s territories, and took good long vacations in the middle of a financial crisis. It continually amazes me that there are people who want to grant these thieves more power. We all want the ability to see Congress as a united body with the best interests of the American people at heart, but that has never, ever been the case. Congress has never been anything more than a group of individuals, all representing their corporate overlords, whose purposes upon election are to settle their own petty squabbles.

Yahoo Mail
It’s pretty bad that Yahoo had to ASK the majority of its employees to switch to its own email service. It’s even worse that only about 25 percent of their employees decided to actually make the switch. Yahoo was my first email, and I’m in the process of making the full switch. Yahoo is slow, half the time it doesn’t want to delete the emails you want deleted or even take you to your emails at all, and when it made its last switch months ago, it still feels the need to let you know about the differences by taking its users to a screen trumping the switches after you log in. It’s also slamming spam emails into the top of your mailbox nowadays which advertisers are obviously paying them to do, since they can’t be deleted.

Facebook Video Game Requests
My god, Facebook has more video games than are buried in a New Mexico landfill, and it wants you to know about and play every last one of them. When one of your friends gets addicted to a game – hell, IF they’re actually playing them at all, and knowing Facebook, it’s a strong possibility they’re not – you’ll inevitably start getting the invitations to play right along with them. There’s no way to completely turn them all off at the same time, so they’ll all be there to clog his feed. And the right to play the video game comes from you conceding all your Facebook information to some outside source, so, people, no, I’m not interested in joining your game.

The Fashion Media
The absurdity of this doesn’t strike you until you really think about it. Author John Steinbeck once said that the reason socialism never caught on in the United States is because everyone thinks they’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and nothing is a better testament to that than the fact that there’s an entire wing of the media dedicated to what kinds of clothes people are wearing. When you tune in to the fashion reports, they always seem to revolve around the latest works in one particular show with supermodels in an exotic location. When it gets beamed through to you, the models are always dressed up in weird space designs that never seem to actually show up on a market where they’re accessible to us lowly knaves. They tend to get made up for one particular model – or at least a single body type – for one show before being thrown aside and never seen again. If they do get onto the market, they’ll be so expensive that you could afford to not just buy a whole wardrobe for the price, but get it tailored to your personal specifications. The media takes it upon itself to then stand off to the side throwing thumbs up or thumbs down along with snarky comments about what they would have done with the outfit to make it more palatable. Somehow, this is thought to be important, even though everyone knows all these outfits are either single-wear outfits or too expensive for anyone to ever buy them. There’s no way to justify the existence of fashion reporting, since high-end fashion is something no one will ever have to worry about.

Skinning House Hunters International

Skinning House Hunters International

Recently I overheard a woman on a reality TV show who was trying to buy a house complain that an ideal pad she was looking at didn’t have enough of that Spanish charm. Ordinarily I try to stay away from the realm of reality TV, unless it involves upstate New York and/or food, the latter preferably involving Guy Fieri in some way. There was something about this woman that really irked me, though, as I caught several snippets of her in full-on talking head mode making a big deal over Spanish charm. I don’t know; I’m thinking it maybe had something to do with the fact that she was buying a house in Valencia. As the narrator took great care to keep reminding the viewers, this is the third-largest city in Spain, coming in just behind Madrid and Barcelona. According to Wikipedia, there are well over 800,000 residents of Valencia. It’s easy for me to conclude that a fair number of those residents are Spanish, but I’ve never been to Europe, so what do I know?

Welcome to House Hunters International, a show that drives me nuts. This show has a veneer of spoiled mockery and a ring of extreme haughtiness from the One Percent. Ever since this show came to my attention, I’ve always seen it as the television equivalent of Gwenyth Paltrow – the heiress who reminds us lowly knaves that we are, in fact, nothing more than lowly knaves by offering her opinions on living life to its fullest. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. The problem steps in when it appears that the way to live is by spending money. Then spending more money; perhaps on a nice blouse which costs more than my entire wardrobe.

The times I’ve suffered through this show, I’ve frequently wondered why all the episodes have commons themes, no matter where they’re taking place. One is that the buyers always seem to have budgets which could afford the entirety of South Buffalo. Another is that the cities are all glamor centers. I’ve never seen House Hunters International make a play at a couple relocating in the other direction – wherever they go, it’s always from wherever to your Kyoto, or your Aukland, your Vienna, your Rio de Janeiro, or if the episode is about a non-American expat headed in our direction, it will be New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. None of these are people from the creative class arriving with idealistic visions of turning the place onto its head. You’re not going to see anyone trying to move to whatever the non-American version of the Rust Belt is. (Spare me the diatribe about how Europe’s decimated economy means the entire continent is basically the Rust Belt now. You know what I’m talking about.) Well, okay, there were one or two episodes revolving around around Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland. Also, the show seems to have a weird bias against single people, families with kids, seniors, gays, and minorities. Are you anything other than a 30-ish straight person in a relationship? House Hunters International will ignore you.

This show is basically selling to people who are viewing the rest of the world through the quaintness lens. I have very little doubt that nearly everyone who appears on it is seeing their new home mostly as tourists who are expecting to makes their purchases with the expectations of finding nothing but an extended vacation. It occurs to very few of them that they’re really going to uplift and re-pot themselves in an entirely different culture in which the language is different. Even if they manage to learn the language, they’ll also have to learn a somewhat bastardized form of it because whatever language they’re learning has slang expressions of its very own. Trickier still will be the unspoken cues which people use from day to day to communicate. There will be things natives will try to convey through between-lines spoken expressions and plenty of gestures they’re not going to get.

Another thing I’ve started wondering in light of that idiot in Valencia up there is, just what do they plan on doing while living in this country? If you’re living in Spain, Spanish charm shouldn’t be a qualifier for deciding your living quarters unless you’re going to go hobnobbing exclusively with your midwestern-accented buddies. I suspect the realtors on House Hunters International are little more than tokens. Afterward, the newly-nationalized residents are going to hang out with other expats or have a cultural pressure breakdown. I’ve read about non-American cities having America-towns, the same way this country has Greektowns, Little Italys, and Chinatowns.

Basically, this show is a travelogue for rich people planning extended vacations or long excursions for the occasional tax purpose. It’s not informing us or giving us windows into the lives of anyone. It’s mocking us, and that’s all.

A Tribute to Local Independent Musicians and My Most Unexpected Chicago Reunion

I’ve never met Robert Plant. Never shared a room or a building with him. I know we’ve been in the same country at a few points in our lives, and we might have intersected cities once or twice. On a personal level, though, Robert Plant is still a massive, thundering deity living over the hills and far away. He is to be heard and worshipped as he sits on his golden marble throne somewhere on the top of Mount Olympus, never to be touched by us lowly knaves.

This is actually just fine with me for the most part. I like Robert Plant a lot, and love his work whether he’s there playing it himself or with Jimmy Page, Alison Krauss, Strange Sensation, or the immortal band that put him on the map, Led Zeppelin. I own many of his albums, including the maligned Dreamland; the classic Principle of Moments; the severely underrated Mighty Rearranger; and the anthemic Walking into Clarksdale, which he created with his old bandmate Page. Beyond the incredible music, though, what would a guy like Robert Plant have to offer a humble dayworker such as myself? I have no doubt that Plant loves each and every one of his fans, but for a trendsetting bigshot of a musician like him, it probably gets tiring to hear from millions of people – some whom are truly nuts – how they own all your work and are obsessed with House of Cards as if those millions of other fans didn’t exist. If we were to end up sitting next to each other on the Amtrak, I’m fair sure I would struggle to find any kind of common ground on which to base any casual conversation. (Although I would be sure to ask “Dude, you’re Robert Plant! Why are you riding the Amtrak? In business class, no less?”) Don’t get me wrong; if I was ever offered an opportunity to meet Robert Plant one-on-one, I would take it. Then afterward, we would both return to our agreed-upon roles: Me as the starry-eyed fan looking up from a ground level containing thousands of others just like me and him as Thor moonlighting as a musician. I pay ticket money, he plays In the Mood, and we go on with our lives.

I started following local bands when I was in my mid-teens, after cursory reads of the local entertainment section of the newspaper revealed a world of hidden music I wasn’t aware of. At local festivals, I started becoming more attentive of the bands I was watching. McCarthyism was an early favorite of mine, and I later learned of the music of Kilbrannan and moe. Upon my return, one of the first things my best friend did was take me out for St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo, where we spent the night jamming to the unique musical stylings of Penny Whiskey, a band that rose from the ashes of Kilbrannan after their breakup a few years ago. During the St. Patrick’s season in South Buffalo, in the Goin’ South Irish Feis, Jackdaw is a hot ticket. In my last few years before I moved out of Buffalo, going down to the Buffalo Irish Center to hear live music became a way for me to socialize; albeit only to an extent, because at that point I had alienated myself beyond most human contact and didn’t know quite how to socialize with people.

It wasn’t until Chicago that I began to really appreciate the small-time, independent local acts and the color they brought to the neighborhood. Moving there, I was clueless about the local culture, and knew that I was going to have to learn about it if I was to be anything more than a hermit. After living in the city for a few months, I joined a political group which happened to be renting space in the NNWAC building in Bucktown. Our meetings happened to overlap with music nights on Mondays, when one of the local bands would play in the front of the building while my group sweated in the back. Leaving the group after some seven months freed up my schedule to finally visit the NNWAC building on a Monday to listen to the music and take in the show. I quickly came to like the crowd there; I also loved the fact that the bands were always up for a chat with the audiences, and willing to play with us; I would shout the occasional mock request immediately after a set closed for a Rush song. (Usually it was By-Tor and the Snow Dog. One band cleverly responded by teasing me about their second act being nothing but a Rush medley.)

As I took in more of the local sights and music, I got to better know what the performance venues looked like, and I became a regular at a weekly talent night in what a friend described to me as an underground art gallery. The place was called Quennect4, and it was so rebellious that it wasn’t even registered, meaning it didn’t exist to the powers that be. It was housed in the ruins of a business which didn’t exist anymore, which all meant the Police could (and a couple of times, did) raid it. They were so secretive, they encouraged people to stay inside to smoke in a designated smoking area. The up and coming bands around Chicago got to know me there. One band once asked me to go onstage and play bass with them, but I had to say no on the entirely reasonable ground of “I don’t play bass. Or anything else, for that matter.”

The connections between musicians and audiences in small indie venues are always more personal. Starting out playing in a small place, I imagine it’s hard for musicians to think of themselves as Robert Plant or Bono. There’s no security row to block the people at the show from the stage, and those small shows – especially when they feature bands that haven’t yet made names for themselves – have much more of an anything goes atmosphere. The invitation to play bass at Q4 made me love the place, and I loved it all the more a few minutes later when a random audience member audibly said “Fuck it, I’m gonna go up there and play some bass,” and then did just that. Playing a show in the middle of 60,000-seat Soldier Field, standing some seven feet above the front row where you can’t see anything but tops of peoples’ heads, might have a disconnecting feeling. Everything is carefully organized and choreographed, and the highly alert security forces are all prepared to throw you out for moshing when you should have been waving a lighter. For the indie bands, it’s just between them and complete trust in an audience so close, you can feel the afterburn of their Jack Daniel’s shots.

After my little scotch ordeal concluded on Monday, I thought it was time to reacquaint myself with Chicago’s musical underground. It had been awhile, after all. The quest to do that took me to a small pub called Schubas, which coincidentally took me right back to Southport. Schubas was holding a singer/songwriter showcase featuring the locals: MER, Johnny Perona, Scott Burdsall, Meagan Hickman, and Tim Stop as a featured artist. Although I tried to keep up with the Chicago indies, that group of names still didn’t mean very much to me. The one person onstage whose work I knew – who I knew – was a woman there to lend her vocals to Perona: Leslie Beukelman. I knew Leslie from back in those early music nights. Along with Nanette and the music night organizer, Rob Clearfield, Leslie was among the first people outside of work or politics I spent time around. While I met a lot of the musicians Rob brought into the sets, Leslie always stood out by virtue of her radiant smile and otherworldly singing voice.

After paying the cover, I quietly stepped into the Schubas showroom in the back and took a quick look around. The show hadn’t started yet, and the audience had apparently decided late arrival was fashionable. I returned to the front of the bar and ordered a beer; being a beer snob, I went with one of the local delicacies: Green Line, a brand of 312, named for the city’s area code. Taking my time sipping the frothy liquified hops, I returned to the still-sporadically-populated showroom and quietly looked around. There wasn’t anything unique or charming about it; it came off like the proverbial smoky room Journey probably had in mind when they penned Don’t Stop Believin’: Dark, standing room only, warmed largely through body heat. No smoke, though, because Chicago law forbade it. No wine or cheap perfume either, although the night was young. Its charm was in its charmless, no-frills, practical approach. I approached the deejay box along the right-side wall and leaned against it, hoping to appear inconspicuous. That effort was mooted because I was dressed like a giant white glo-stick. As far as going unnoticed went, I might as well have grown a pair of angel wings, because even that couldn’t possibly have made me more visible.

All of the musicians sounded excellent. I took a particular liking to Hickman and Stop (whose band was the second set), and in fact I was going to put my name on Hickman’s mail list but I got occupied doing other things. I talked with one of the other patrons, a friend of Hickman’s who was there to lend her his support. The crowd trickled in during the set, and by the time the songwriters were finished, there were enough people in the room for me to lose the musicians as they mingled and charmed while working the room. This was ultimately why I chose to start supporting the local indies, no matter where I lived. Off the stage, whatever divine aura that maybe existed was gone, and the musicians went right back to being the regular people from their neighborhoods. People who loved their music enough to want to create and share it with others, possibly over beer or coffee. There was a genuine affection between these artists and the people in the audience who had ponied up the money to see them.

Leslie sounded incredible, as she always did. She was allowed to sing one of her own songs, with which she killed the room. At some point, I stepped out to retrieve a scotch on rocks to calm my nerves a little bit. I wanted to jaunt out of the crowd and say hello, but I’m shy, very introverted, and not a big fan of self-embarrassment and I wasn’t sure if Leslie remembered me. Although Nanette and Rob both became valued and trusted friends, I hadn’t seen Leslie very often. Although we had spent a lot of time around each other way back when, it had been so long that I figured worst case scenario, she misses me and I don’t push it. Best case, she remembers my image vaguely and I have to jog her memory a little. I knew there was no threat of her snapping at me, because she had always exuded a naturally warm and sunny personality which could put a seasoned Marine drill Sergeant at ease. Yet, people losing patience with me and breaking keeps lingering as a fear, no matter who, and no matter how unreasonable. I’ve had this fear of Nanette, the last person on Earth who would verbally attack me. I was badly overthinking this whole scene, but a lifetime of being the outcast tends to do that. My head was still going at warp speed when Leslie reached the back of the room and we made eye contact.

She smiled. “Hey! Do you remember me? Leslie!”

Did I remember? How could I forget?

“You don’t make yourself an easy person to forget,” I said.

I meant every word of that. Leslie was still her cheerful, outgoing self for the next 20 minutes while we caught up. I chose to give her the nutshell version of the turn my life had taken rather than the full one. She came up with an endless number of questions to ask, and we talked about things from the sorry living state of Buffalo to our mutual friends to our own pasts in Chicago. I got comfortable enough to confess that I was a little surprised she remembered me so well. Musicians have to have good memories if you think about it. Leslie’s was at least as photographic as my own. She also appeared happy that I had come from a place all the way over in Lincoln Park just to see this show. I actually didn’t think of it as some major distance. What was it, four stops on the nearby Brown Line? Maybe five? It didn’t seem all that significant to me. Showing up didn’t exactly make me Marco Polo going to China.

Leslie had to go – she said she would be sticking around for a quick beer before heading out the door. I turned my immediate attention back to the stage, where Tim Stop came out and rocked his set. I left after awhile myself because I was busy the next day. Still, the night had been a good one. It had exhibited everything I loved about independent musicians and given me a reconnection with someone I had known from way back in the beginning, when everything in my life (and apparently hers too) was going right.