Strange scenes in the alley 2

A couple of nights ago, there was a car parked in front of my garage containing a young couple engaged in amorous relations.  My garage doors open almost directly into the alley, leaving not so much a driveway, but a small, car-width sliver of space between the garage and the alley.  Of all the thousands of discreet places in the city, it was in this space that the pair of youngsters, overcome by passion and desire, decided to dock their mid-size sedan to permit the male occupant the opportunity to dock something else.  

Inside the house, I was totally oblivious to the strange vehicle and the illicit love making going on outside.  That is until my wife came home and asked who was parked back by the garage.  Needing to take out the trash anyway, I decided to walk back there and investigate.  As I drew closer to the garage, I could tell that the car was running.  Although it was dark, I figured the driver would see me approaching and tear off into the night.  I rattled the trash cans a bit, hoping to get the driver’s attention, but still there was no discernible activity coming from the car.  In retrospect, if the car had been rockin, I might not have bothered knockin.  But I couldn’t see anyone sitting in the front seat, so I moved in closer to take a look.  It was dark, but I could just make out a figure laying down in the backseat.  I wondered if perhaps this was some homeless person who had pulled into this spot to take a nap.  Almost every conceivable explanation flashed through my brain as I knocked on the window. But it never occurred to me that the car’s occupants were making the beast with two backs until two figures popped up, startled at my tap, tap, tapping on their Chevy Malibu door.  The young man hurriedly hopped out the door on the opposite side of the car, struggling to pull up his pants.  

For my part, I was a little shocked at the scene I had stumbled upon and immediately began to flip out.  “What the fuck are you doing!?  This is private fucking parking!  You can’t do that shit here!  We run a clean damn family neighborhood around here!”  My wife later told me that from inside the house she could hear every word I shouted, which means my daughter and most of the neighbors could probably hear me as well.  Listening to myself cursing at this young man, I paused, collected my thoughts and began to calm down.  “Listen, son,” I said.  “We’ve all been in your situation before, but parking in someone’s drive is a real amateur move.  Any homeowner that sees a strange vehicle parked on their property is going to investigate.  You’re lucky it’s me and that I’m cool.  My wife wanted to call the cops.  Just go find a deserted parking lot, or park behind one of the bars downtown.  Nobody down there will give a second glance to a couple of lovebirds copulating in the backseat of a car.  Probably happens every night.  Now scram, you horny devil.”

As I stood there, proud of myself for reining in my irritation and using the situation as a teachable moment to impart some of my accumulated wisdom on the younger generation, the impassioned couple tore off down the alley and into the night, flipping me the bird and yelling “Fuck you old man” as their taillights disappeared into the darkness.  I just shook my head and smiled.  They may not realize it yet, but one day when they’re coupling in solitude, they’ll appreciate the wise advice that grouchy old man gave them.

Sam Harris can’t stop talking about his ex

Sam Harris devoted his latest podcast to airing some unresolved feelings toward his old flame, Twitter.  Remarking that leaving Twitter is like leaving a bad relationship, Harris again rehashed the issues and circumstances that led to their break up, and also added some thoughts about his ex’s recent behavior.  For a man who claims his personal well-being has benefited from cutting ties with the social media platform, he still seems to spend a fair amount of time thinking about it.

That said, there was little to disagree with for the first ten minutes of his rant.  Everything he said about Trump’s behavior as president, Republican capture by the cult of Trump and the Democrat’s bewildering devotion to identitarianism seems pretty spot on.  However, he can’t resist picking up a stick and beating that old dead horse that was at least partially responsible for his Twitter break up.  Once again he defends Twitter’s suppression of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story, even going so far as to point out how much Twitter executives agonized over censoring the story.  Golly, we should all thank our lucky stars we’re never confronted with making such a difficult decision.

Sam Harris claims to care about free speech.  He also claims to care about the integrity of this country’s institutions.  No one’s saying we should just let Twitter become 4-chan.  But social media companies censoring mainstream media institutions is an attack on those institutions and an attack on free speech.  Whatever you think about the New York Post, it’s been around doing journalism for a long time.  Twitter executives and content moderators in the Philippines have no business second guessing the work of a mainstream media outlet.  This should not be controversial.  This isn’t a matter of hindsight.  The New York Post did its homework on the story and any other media outlet could have as well.  Let the Post live or die by its reporting.  Twitter and Facebook should be under no obligation to censor mainstream reporting.  They should, in fact, have an obligation to let it circulate, if they respect our country’s journalistic institutions and care at all about free speech or public debate.

Moreover, suppressing or censoring the contributions of Stanford and Harvard professors to the public debate over health policy is hugely scandalous and constitutes an attack on their profession and the institutions they represent.  When did content moderators become the ultimate arbiters of what is acceptable public discourse in health policy debate?  What expertise do they possess over doctors who represent America’s leading educational institutions?  How are social media companies not undermining these institutions by pursuing censorship policies?  Let these doctors face the criticism of their peers, but the Twitter execs should stay out of it.

It is bewildering that Sam Harris, who claims to be a man of rationality and reason, would defend these censorship policies on his “Making Sense” podcast.  In both of the previously cited examples, the suppressed and censored turned out to be largely correct in their assertions.  Additionally, they were making these assertions from a position of knowledge and expertise, not in an environment where nothing was known.  By not respecting experts, their professions and their institutions, Twitter, Facebook  and defenders of their reckless decisions, like Sam Harris, do harm to our institutions and undermine their own credibility in the process.

Congress passes $817 billion relief package for struggling Pentagon

Fresh off the Defense Department’s fifth failed audit, Congress came to the rescue Friday authorizing $817 billion to be pumped into the gaping black hole that is the Pentagon’s gargantuan budget.  Congressional leaders hope the massive appropriation is enough to temporarily satiate the Pentagon beast and satisfy its ravenous appetite.  Citing inflation concerns, officials say this year’s budget represents a nearly ten percent increase over the previous year.  

“Inflation being what it is, we expect our capability and readiness to mismanage a shit ton of funding to increase as well,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.  “Projections indicate losses due to waste, fraud, abuse and criminality to grow dramatically in fiscal year 2023.”

Austin’s comments appear to align with the results of the most recent defense department audit where 1,600 auditors failed to account for 61 percent of the Pentagon’s assets.  Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord described the failed audit as a “teachable moment.”

“I would not say that we flunked. The process is important for us to do, and it is making us get better. It is not making us get better as fast as we want,” McCord said. 

Despite the waste, fraud and abuse, lawmakers cite the need to outpace foreign rivals as the driving force behind the increased funding. 

“Month after month, year after year, competitors such as China are methodically pouring money and planning into upgrading and modernizing their own militaries,” croaked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “They are constantly probing new ways to expand their military, intelligence, economic, and political reach — indirectly or directly threatening American forces and our allies’ and partners’ forces.”

Indeed, China spent a whopping $230 billion last year on its defense.  The figure marked a seven percent increase in probing new ways to threaten the United States over the previous year.  

Additionally, the mainstream media’s favorite bogeyman and number one threat to American democracy Russia has announced it will spend $84 billion on defense in 2023, a 40 percent increase over its previously allocated amount.  At its present pace, Russia could overtake what the United States spends on Ukrainian defense as early as 2024.

To be sure, with all the perceived threats looming out there, Congress can’t shovel money fast enough into the bottomless abyss that is the United States Defense budget.  Additionally, members of both parties and the media are having none of this talk of budget oversight or negotiated solutions to ongoing conflicts.  “Don’t speak of diplomacy and things that don’t explode, you Russian stooge,” warn the paid experts and former intelligence officials on MSNBC and at the Washington Post.

Cash strapped dad tells daughter no American Girl Doll this Christmas. Suggests Hoosier Sally Doll instead.

This Christmas season, inflationary pressures have forced dads like me to have difficult conversations with their offspring.  A recent comment from my daughter asserting that one could buy almost anything for a hundred dollars prompted an overdue conversation about the value of money.  Putting on my wise old dad hat, I informed her that there are actually a lot of things you can’t buy for a hundred dollars.  She promptly came back at me with the American Girl Doll.  At this suggestion, I confidently assured her that a hundred dollars could easily cover the cost of a silly little doll, only to start hyperventilating when I discovered that American Girl Dolls start at around $119 retail. 

Immediately I pivoted to other options, hoping to get her interested in something a little less expensive.  “Hey, how about we check out some of these other dolls?” I suggested, frantically scrolling as American Girl Doll prices escalated to levels rivaling the price of an ounce of gold.  After a while, I came across some more reasonably priced knockoffs that, while cheaper, were also a bit strange and disconcerting.  I quickly moved past the Downtown Lisa doll, trying to momentarily divert my daughter’s attention until we found something a little more wholesome.  

Next we stumbled upon Patriot Girl Doll.  “Look at this one, sweetie.  Patriot Girl comes with a cute red, white and blue camouflage outfit, an adorable little tactical vest and an AR-15.  Okay, maybe that one’s not for us.  Hey, check out Moscow Maria.  She’s a hard bitten Muscovite who dreams of marrying an oligarch when she grows up.”  Neither of these options seemed to deliver quite the same magic and fascination as the American Girl Doll.  

Sensing a vibe of rapidly growing disappointment coming from my daughter, I hurriedly searched until I came across a doll that I hoped would be the clincher.  “Look, sweetie, here’s one that’s right up our alley.  This little darling goes by the name Hoosier Sally.  She lives in a late model luxury trailer home just like we do!  Sally lives there with her mother, her brother and 14 cats.  Oh, and here’s the best part, Hoosier Sally Dolls retail for a very reasonable $39.99.” 

Once again, dad’s pragmatism failed to glide in for a successful landing and a hint of disappointment began to reveal itself on my daughter’s face.  To her credit, she shook it off and sauntered away to watch some cartoons.  Looks like Santa’s going to save the day again and come through with that American Girl Doll this Christmas.

Slow explosions

I’m standing in my backyard while a torrent of orange and yellow leaves drift down all around me and pile up at my feet.  The scene is reminiscent of that moment at the end of a political convention when the nominee accepts their party’s nomination and a gusher of confetti and balloons is loosed from the hall’s rafters while the crowd goes nuts and Fleetwood Mac sings “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”  Only no one’s cheering and I’m not pretending to point at people in the crowd and act surprised to see them.  Actually, I do point at a squirrel and give him a thumbs up.  

A wise man named Tomberg once described an acorn as a “constructive atomic bomb.”  The oak itself is “the result of the slow explosion or the blossoming out of this ‘bomb.’”  If that’s the case, then I’m standing beneath a mushroom cloud.  This particular explosion came not from an acorn, but one of those helicopter seedlings that flew its mission generations ago, and detonated in this spot where the “slow explosion” of this mighty maple tree has been ongoing for, most likely, in excess of a century.  

The fallout continues.  Orange and yellow splotches combine with red from another explosion nearby to overwhelm the gray sky.  These are creative explosions.  Through the years, the maple I’m standing beneath has been home to quite a number of squirrels and a few woodpeckers.  It’s like a multi-family high rise.  Earlier this year, I discovered dozens of small bundles of twigs and leaves scattered about beneath the tree.  These were not dead parts that had broken away and fallen to the ground.  Some creature, undoubtedly engaged in a major renovation project, had cut away these leafy twigs to make room high in the canopy for its expanding living space.

Despite the hours of work ahead of me, for which at this moment Fleetwood Mac should be erupting in song and my family should be rhythmically clapping along in appreciation, it’s hard not to become disoriented in the brilliant twisting colors and the gentle murmuring of the wind.  When the moment pulls you away from yourself and surrounds you with its grace and beauty, everything’s ecstatic.  In this instant, I am a slow, silent explosion, imperceptibly unfolding. 

And then the mournful wail of a distant leaf blower breaks in and obliterates the moment.  Cursed leaf blower!  Then it’s just me, my rake, my tarp and quite a mess to clean up.

New glasses, new problems

Lately, I’ve been receiving signals that I ought to do something about my eyesight.  The menu board at an unfamiliar takeout restaurant can be confusing enough, but if you can’t read the selections, then you’re pretty screwed.  I tried just making up menu items for a while.  I would say, “Just give me a club sandwich, or something.”  Then the order taker would politely inform me of their choices that most closely resemble a club sandwich, which often just included the addition of avocado, and I’d say, “That would be fine,” and we’d go from there.  But, lately, they’ve begun to treat me like I’m illiterate or something, speaking to me slowly and patiently like I’m a child.  Even my own daughter began to shoot me looks that seemed to doubt my literacy.

So, at the urging of my better half, I decided to get new glasses.  Several hundred dollars later, these cheap plastic spectacles seem to have brought about an entirely new set of challenges.  Don’t get me wrong, they’ve also opened up a whole new world of possibilities.  Before, I mostly stuck to driving familiar routes because I had difficulty reading signs and recognizing landmarks.  But now that I can read highway signs, I’m exploring entirely new realms and unfamiliar territory.  Also, it came as a pleasant surprise to see that the speed limit on most highways has been raised from 55 to 70.  This explains why I’d been the recipient of so much hostility from other drivers in recent years.

The challenges invariably arise when I’m indoors.  I seem to have difficulty and lack confidence knowing where to place my feet.  This has caused me to stumble around and bump into doorways at work.  My boss has been looking askance at me like I’m intoxicated or something.  But I assured her I haven’t been drunk or stoned at work for pretty close to ten years now.  Also, going down stairs is like descending into a murky abyss.  Sometimes I just close my eyes and hope for the best.

However, an incident this morning might be the final straw as far as these new glasses are concerned.  I had just gotten a cup of coffee at Starbucks from the friendliest group of young people you’d ever want to meet, when I merrily strode out to the parking lot to get in my car and head to work.  For some reason, however, I had a difficult time unlocking the car door.  The key fob didn’t seem to work and when I tried to manually unlock the door, the key wouldn’t fit in the lock.  After a few moments, a woman came running out of the Starbucks with one of the larger male employees shouting at me to get away from her car and that she’s calling the cops.  Mortified, I noticed that my car was in the next space over, so I hurriedly jumped in it and sped out of there like Vin Diesel.  I made it to work without incident, not knowing whether an a.p.b. had been issued for my capture.  At any rate, I’m probably going to ditch these glasses, but I may wear them for another week as an aid to eluding authorities, or at least until the heat has died down.

Elevated elsewhere

Last Sunday our church congregation honored two of its recent high school graduates as they prepared to embark this fall on their college careers.  As the worship service opened, one of the college-bound duo, along with her younger sister, performed a selection on piano.  Although I am by no means a connoisseur of classical music, I recognized the piece to be a Chopin composition.  The young woman performed it expertly.  The piece itself is quite beautiful and moving just to sit and listen to a recorded version, but I have to admit to being even more transported by the music upon hearing it performed live in the church sanctuary.  In addition to the undeniable beauty of the piece, something about the proximity of hearing the notes and chords struck and feeling the vibrations emanating from that wooden box elevated the experience considerably.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that as the notes filled the sanctuary, I could feel some part of myself lifted upward, taking its place among the sounds reverberating in the space.

I can’t speak for others in the congregation.  Their experience may have been quite different from mine.  However, the round of applause that followed the performance, a rarity at these gatherings, indicated that others were quite taken by the music as well. For much of the pandemic, these services were conducted via Zoom.  Trying to simulate a church service over the internet imposes a number of limitations.  People gather together to worship, pray, fellowship, make music and sing.  Much of that cannot be accomplished via a video/audio link with each person or family stuck inside their box, set apart from the whole.  The whole is important.  It is vital that individuals gather together to create the body that is offering worship, song and praise.  Anyone who has ever been to a large sporting event, and given their attention to cheering and supporting their team, has felt the energy or spirit that is generated by being among the body of supporters.  As fun as it is to watch a game on tv or gather with a group of people on the internet, none of it can approximate the experience of gathering together in the same physical location with the collective attention focused on a singular goal or purpose.       

Which is why It strikes me as something of a fool’s errand that these tech developers are working so earnestly at creating virtual spaces to simulate physical reality or provide a “better” alternative to it.  In the process of duplication, some part of what is being copied is always lost.  In the music example, a digital recording is always going to fail to capture the fullness and completeness of the sound.  No doubt they will try to simulate a concert experience where you or your avatar can be present at the performance of a famous band or a symphony orchestra.  Duplicating the immense complexity of that kind of live performance would be impossible.  Both the physics and the previously mentioned nonphysical qualities would preclude it.  But, of course, that is not the intention of the techsters.  Their aim is to get users to expect less, to be satisfied with a dumbed-down version of reality.  They reduce people to an avatar with a flag or a couple of symbols next to their name and then corral them into a virtual space lacking in richness and complexity, a realm they control where the outcomes are predictable.  Far from embracing human potential and possibility, the technobrats are engaged in a kind of reductionism.  I’ll stick with being elevated elsewhere.

The Death Kiss

Sometimes a kiss can kill.  Murder and suspense rock a Hollywood movie set as leading man Miles Brent is shot dead by a real bullet while filming the final scene for The Death Kiss.  As news spreads about the tragedy that has just unfolded, the producers and studio executives of Tonart Studios appear more worried about their investment and how to complete the picture than the death of one of their colleagues.   

Studio screenwriter Franklyn Drew puts his mystery crafting skills to work, first discovering that the shooting wasn’t an accident and eventually cracking the case.  During his investigation, he continually butts heads with the real detective assigned to the case. 

Between the jaded studio execs, the audacious screenwriter, a clownish security guard, a temperamental director and a flustered detective who always seems to be a step or two behind in the investigation, the film is full of humor and works satirically as an early send up of the Hollywood movie industry.

Bela Lugosi stars as a cool-headed studio manager assigned to resolve the complicated situation to everyone’s satisfaction.  It’s interesting to see him play a character other than a creepy ghoul, and he does so skillfully, even as the role doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with.  

Filmed in 1932 and clocking in at a little over an hour long, this pre-code mystery provides plenty of entertainment.  Something to love about these early pictures are the occasional strange shots and conspicuous cuts.  These movies were made at a time before filmmakers had developed what would come to be known as Hollywood’s ‘invisible style.’  

In the movies closing scenes, Drew attempts to discreetly explain to the detective how the murder went down.  But, in a somewhat awkward shot, a hot mic picks up their conversation and tips off the killer, spurring him to take drastic action.  Even if the sequence is initially a bit confusing, it’s quickly apparent what’s happening, and the meandering camerawork delivers a clever plot twist.  These seemingly strange shots call attention to the fact that you are watching a film, which in this instance adds yet another layer to the film about a murder that’s about a film about a murder.

Neighborhood man cool with kids walking across his lawn

It was one of those delightful summer Saturdays with cloudless blue skies, buckets of sunshine and comfortable warm temperatures.  Due to recent severe weather activity with accompanying high winds, many in the neighborhood were out gathering fallen branches and debris and stacking it out by the curb for the street department to pick up.  Traffic was scarce with the locals opting to walk or ride bikes.  Children played on the sidewalk and groups of aimless teenagers slunked around the neighborhood.  

As I worked in the yard, one such group of foot-draggers emerged from the alley next to my house.  Unused to performing ninety degree right turns, this cohort opted instead for a softer forty-five degree angle across my front lawn.  From my vantage point in the bushes where I was pulling weeds and gathering debris, I could have barked at them to “Get off my lawn!” and scared the living daylights out of them.  However, as tempting as that was, it’s just not my style and it just wasn’t one of those days.  

It was a day for taking it slow, for hearing laughter in the wind, for observing streaks of sunlight flickering through the trees, for unexpectedly intercepting the aroma of a distant backyard grill.  There is truly something surreal about days like these.  Time slows.  Space is deep-focused and static.  Noticeably absent is the relentless barrage of stimuli that mark most afternoons.  Even the temperamental teens had pocketed their phones and were just enjoying each other’s company.  It could have been 25 years ago.  It could have been 50 years ago.  Hell, if there weren’t a bunch of shiny metal boxes sitting in the street, it could have been over a hundred years ago.

However, somewhere beyond the tranquil scene lay an unseen realm.  If at that moment I could observe it, I’d probably notice unremitting algorithms passing over my head, demanding care and attention.  I would hear sniping voices, users getting ‘owned’ and people presuming the worst and often getting it from one another.  An illusory world casting a dark shadow over our psyches, while increasingly vomiting its madness into the real world.

Thankfully, I was far away from that chaotic place, and all I could think about was how remarkable and strange it is to be alive and standing beneath the sun and these trees in this perfect moment of stillness and peace, while a group of foot-dragging teenagers walked across my lawn.

Local man’s Summer of Rock dealt crushing blow

A local man is reeling today after discovering that several acts on his Summer of Rock itinerary have unexpectedly canceled their shows.

After kicking things off with a GBV show in May, Bill Stevens was all set to continue riding a tasty wave of nineties era rock into June with Helmet and Meat Puppets shows on his schedule.  However, after discovering Thursday morning that both bands had canceled their June dates with no advanced warning, Stevens was left scrambling to fill holes in his 2022 Summer of Rock calendar.  

“This really puts me in a bind,” said Stevens.  “The perfect rock and roll summer was just beginning to round into form.  Right now, I don’t know if I can recover from this.  I made a few calls, trying to see if the bands would reconsider.  But I guess one man’s dream of a perfect rock summer doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this world anymore.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Stevens had managed to pencil in a date with The Breeders for August, and he still has tentative plans for two dates of alt rock bliss in July, but salvaging June at this late date is going to be challenging.

“I’m looking into pursuing legal action,” Stevens said.  “I mean, I passed up Built to Spill because I thought I was going to be able to see these other bands and now they flake out on me.  It’s going to be difficult to find something last minute.  I think some compensation is in order for damaging what was otherwise going to be a totally righteous Summer of Rock.”