Monday, March 22, 2010

the end of the beginning

In the midst World War II, on the heels of an important victory for the Allies forces against the Axis, Winston Churchill took a moment to reflect.  It was later said that before the Second Battle of El Alamein the Allies had no victories and afterwards they had no defeats.  But at this critical juncture of history, among the shouts of glory and vitriol, Churchill cautiously reminded his people, "Now this is not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

The health care overhaul approved by Congress last night hardly matches the magnitude of that great war though its effects may linger with my generation much as the World War II lingered with the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

No, our great war is not against an Axis of Evil or a piece of legislation or a political party or a philosophy.  Our struggle is against ignorance and apathy.  It is against the manipulation of politicians bent on controlling not only our deeds but our thoughts as well.  Our weapons in this battle are information to diffuse the malaise of too many arguments and technology to free us from the quagmire of rigid ideological dogma.

You need to know how this health care overhaul will affect you.

You need to educate yourself.  A good place to start is with this article in the New York Times and another in the Wall Street Journal.  But don't stop there.  Keep researching and asking questions and learning.  Don't just trust me or the talking heads on television or the blaring voices on talk radio.  But decide for yourself what you want for yourself, your family, your friends, and the rest of this country.  I know not everyone cares about politics and most of it feels like it doesn't affect your daily life.  I promise you that won't be the case here.

You need to know that health care didn't become free yesterday because Congress said so.  Congress is a powerful force in American life but they are not omnipotent.  Doctors and nurses still must be paid; prescription drugs still cost money; medical research still requires the financial resources that underwrite every great discovery.  That's the way the world works.

That means that insurance companies now forced to cover individuals they normally would not choose to cover without being paid to do so will be forced to raise premiums on those who already have insurance.  The vast majority of you reading this article probably have health insurance through your employer and may not even know month to month what you are paying for that coverage.  You will soon as you see more and more money drained from your paycheck to cover the cost of other people's medical care.  Insurance companies aren't going to make less money because Congress is mad at them.  That's not the way the world works.

See, Congress chose the worst possible way to keep costs down by asking government to control them.  Don't believe me?  Just do a little research on the development of Medicare and Medicaid since their inception.  You'll find that costs have skyrocketed out of control on a constant trajectory since the inception of those programs.  Working in state government, I have seen up close and personal how North Carolina like almost every other state across the country is nearly going bankrupt paying its medical bills because of Medicare and Medicaid.  Government is not an organization that find efficiencies and pinches pennies.  It spends money like a 12 year old boy at an arcade.  Until it's all gone.  When you print your own money, those numbers can really add up.

But people shouldn't have to be without health insurance.  It's not a privilege, it's a right.  Putting aside the odd paradox of newly discovered human rights for a moment, if it is a right to have health insurance then surely it must be a right to choose not to have it.  However, under this legislation come 2014 you won't have that right anymore.  If the time comes between you deciding between owning a car, or buying a home, or paying tuition and purchasing health insurance, the government has already made that choice for you.  I'm all for charity.  But charity hasn't traditionally been something that government has forced us to buy for ourselves.

As Ronald Reagan once said, "We have long since committed ourselves, as a people, to help those among us who cannot take care of themselves."  That is a promise we ought to keep, a dignity that ought to be held in high honor in this country.  But at what cost?  Will we really allow the federal government to take over every aspect of health care and its delivery to ensure that no goes without?  There are only two ways to make health care "cheaper" under government control.  Tax more to make up the difference between what people can afford to pay and what it truly costs or offer less care and poorer quality so that no one has to foot a bill we cannot afford to pay. 

That's no way to run a health care system.

As a country, as a people, we have abolished slavery, invented the automobile, survived two World Wars, put a man on the moon.  We made snowboarding an Olympic sport.  You're telling me that we cannot figure out a way to make health care affordable and accessible to all who want it?  I don't believe it for a second. 

We can do better than what we did with this bill.  And I hope you'll help us do it.

Now, to my Republican friends, a couple reminders are in order.  This is not the end.  It's not the end of liberty or freedom or capitalism or our constitutional republic.  It is not the end of American exceptionalism or the American dream.  If the history of this country has taught us anything, it is that the idea that is America may be tarnished but it is never broken.  Our flag may tatter but it is never.  Just as our government cannot declare something, it cannot long enslave those who would be free.  We as a people are stronger and smarter and better than our representives and every two years we get to remind them of that.

There are no final victories and no final defeats.  There is only here and now and the fight that has been and the fight that is to come.  America is an idea perpetually in the pains of birth crying out, demanding both liberty and unity.  There is only perserverance and courage and idealism and strength and hope to come.  We will not survive.  We will not endure.  But we will prosper.  Freedom always does.

This not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

bees, liz, and the low anthem

Every person in Cat's Cradle was surprised by the first notes of music emanating from the stage as the opening act snuck onto stage with nary a word and began their set.

The band was Annie and the Beekeepers.  Annie Lynch is Lisa Loeb as a boxy-figured blonde wrapped in plaid, full of post-teen angst and folk music.  Hers is a band that could comfortably cover "Home on the Range."  And probably kill it.

As she grabbed a banjo and began tuning and picking at it three songs in, Lynch announced that the band had a rather unique brand of merch: beeswax lip balm and, of course, honey.   Her sales pitch included the name of the maker of the honey whom she thanked but I missed.  It was no matter because she was quickly greeted by a catcall from the tall guy playing an upright bass at the back of the stage, "Actually, the bees made the honey..."  Part of the beauty of listening to live americana is that vaguely anti-social people have to tell you jokes while they tune their instruments.  There is an unwritten rule of rock and roll that lead singers must be able to talk and find a G at the same time.  Awkward laughter is the sound of enjoying folk music.

The closest thing we came to a transcendent moment in a 30 minute set that covered the ground of what sounded like one EP was "Like a Dog" in which Lynch expresses the paradoxical loneliness of the artist up front entertaining while missing out on the life she's singing about only in songs.  "Someone Else" was also a standout simply for the opening lines of, "When it takes too long to look away/You might catch me staring at the sun with thoughts I entertain/Not supposed to look that way/But it tickles at my senses/Puts the pleasure in the pain."  As Annie and the Beekeepers exited the stage with the generic, perfunctory nod to the next bands, they gave kind of show that makes you look over at the people you came with and say, "They were better than I thought they would be."  And I did just that as Lissie prepared to take the stage.

As Lissie Maurus belted out an appropriately gender-tweaked version of Hank Williams' "Wedding Bells" to open her band's set, she reminded me of a post-Southern rock incarnation of Cherie Currie.  (But Dakota Fanning wouldn't be my first choice to portray her in a movie.)  Everything about Maurus, from the jeans and tank combo she was sporting on stage to her stringy unkempt blonde hair to the way she guzzled PBR out of a 12 ounce can between songs, alerted the audience to the fact that she spent an inordinate amount of time in her adolescence playing guitar in the greasy garages of guys who didn't shower much.  In a world of "Good girls rarely make history" and The Purity Myth, the new feminists have underestimated the power of the kind of equality that comes from sitting behind an electric guitar and wailing on it.  Maurus has not.  Mystique that, Betty Friedan.

Maurus' band was just as impressive as the frontwoman herself.  Eric Sullivan looks like he belongs in a Rage Against the Machine cover band but he's just too talented for it.  The hidden gem of this group, the moment he shined through the brightest was on Lissie's cover of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."  I couldn't tell if hearing a woman sing the song made me believe that James Hetfield was really the pre-eminent momma's boy of metal but Sullivan sounded better than Kirk Hammett on that guitar solo.  Sullivan strikes me as a kid who could have went to space camp and actually become an astronaut or been the only stock broker on Wall Street to survive the financial collapse but instead he was gifted with the kind of skills you channel into a guitar.  There's probably thousands of guys like him on nameless tours across the country not getting their due but he got it that night before dozens of people whose respect for his artistry was tangibly present in the room as that song ended.

Yet the true baller of the group might be Lewis Kellar who plays bass, kick-drum and hi-hat... at the same time.  If this dude has an off night, it's going to be bad news.  As soon as Lissie finished their set, I looked over at a friend and said, "I hope he's getting paid double for this gig."  I'm destined to be an unimportant talent agent breaking up fledgling bands over frivolous contract issues.

I realized nearly as soon as the headliners took the stage that The Low Anthem is awesome not because they are maybe the most talented group of people to ever perform in the same room as me (though they are).  They are awesome because they wrote an album about Charles Darwin and when they play, they make you want to believe in God.  They opened their set with "Ticket Taker," and never has the life of a carnie sounded simultaneously so dull yet metaphysically important.  Everything sounds more important when Ben Knox Miller sings it.

The band began when a folk musician/painter from the Hudson Valley, Miller, met a jazz bassist/baseball scholar from Jersey, Jeff Prystowsky, when they were both on-air personalities for Brown University's college radio station.  (Prystowsky actually ended up being a slight, excitable man of unknown ethnicity with a funny hat and an excellent mustache who stood in front of me for the first two band's sets.  This is the kind of band The Low Anthem is.  Easy to miss but with an uncommon energy.)  Now they record music in an abandoned pasta sauce factory once owned by the nefarious mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.  The story of the group's genesis proved to be just as unpredictable as their set, which Miller at one point graciously described as "bipolar."  Multiple personality disorder would likely be the more clinically appropriate diagnosis.  I'm certain that every member of the band switched instruments between each song.  Which is quite possible because they use for instrumentation: voice, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, upright bass, electric bass, banjo, clarinet, violin, mandolin, harmonica, keyboard, piano, fun machine, casio, horn, trumpet, trombone, drum kit, tongue drum, cell phones, music box, zither, pump organ, Tibetan singing bowl, broom, shakers, tambourine, wood block, cowbell, filing cabinet, crotales and oil drum.

Using cell phones as accompaniment was one of the truly unique aspects of any live show I've ever been a part of.  I say "been a part of" because Miller actually implored the audience to participate in making the music by waiting until after the second chorus on a song from their 2007 album, What the Crow Brings, to call a friend they came with, set both phones and speaker, and let the feedback wail.  This is music to The Low Anthem.  I think anything is.  I only wish I could use words with the kind of versatility this band treats every object on earth when it comes to music.  The result was this incredible participatory experience between band and audience.  After all, it takes a certain humility to leave the sound of your concert up to the people listening.  But it also results in an experience no one in the room is likely to ever forget.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

hater nation

hater (n.) - A person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person.  (UrbanDictionary definition)

We are a nation of haters.

You want evidence for this claim?  Just look at the last week in the life of American pop culture.  How many stories have you heard about the downfall of Tiger Woods and the ugly details of his travails with toothless Perkins waitresses across the country?  All because we love to see the previously flawless superstar to fall from grace.  TMZ is a website entirely devoted to hating.  American Idol hosted their first voter elimination of the season last week.  The tweeny-bopper vote likely skews heavily female and immediately dispersed with the two most attractive young ladies on the show.  This comes as no surprise as we all know that the collective cattiness of American teen girls is channeled in making sure that none of their friends are ever hotter than them.  Hating is the new bra-burning for a 21st century revolution in feminist anti-solidarity.  Finally, though I would sooner endure countless hours of waterboarding that watch even one episode of The Bachelor, I couldn't help but be subjected to a torrent of statuses, tweets and buzzes about Jake picking Vienna over some other person I couldn't care less about.  All of them dripping with the pooled resentment of textbook haterdom.

Hate actually... is all around.

And here comes your objection: "But what about you Mr. Hatier-Than-Thou?  You're the one who spent half your weekend torturing poor, defenseless Canadians about a hockey game you didn't even really care about.  You hate Canada."

First, I don't hate Canada.  Saying I hate Canada is like saying I hate candy circus peanuts.  They're unpleasant.  I don't understand why any sane, rational person would enjoy them and it somewhat baffles me that we even allow them to exist on the Earth.  But I don't really think about them that much.  Canada is just circus peanuts to me.

As Bomani Jones of ESPN's Page 2 and HardcoreSportsRadio helped make clear to me the other day.  Many other countries in the world hate us.  But we don't hate other countries.  We just don't think about them that much.  Take, for example, a story he recounted about some friends from Canada who live in Toronto and were constantly being asked if they were going to be seeing any of the Olympics in Vancouver.  Now, Canada is fairly sizable land mass, third largest country in the world to be exact.  Vancouver and Toronto are not exactly close.  It would take about a five day trek to drive through the Canadian wilderness to traverse the distance from one city to the other.  Point is, even if 90% of Canadians live within 10 miles of our border secretly hoping to become Americans by breathing the same air we do, they are working with a pretty serious amount of land up there (mostly inhabited by caribou, beavers, and guys with odd facial hair).  Quick.  Name 5 Canadian provinces.  Are there five?  Who knows?  Did you know Michael J. Fox was from Canada?  No, why would I?  But I am rather disturbed that we have all these secret Canadians living among us.  I used to be one of the few people in the world who found Ryan Reynolds funny.  No more.  (Plus, Canada gave us Nickelback.  For that, we can never truly forgive them.)

As Americans, we just don't think about other countries that much.  But think of how weird it would sound if someone from another country just told you they were going to visit America.  Can I get a city, a state, area code, zip code, something?  Visiting Los Angeles and visiting Montana are two different experiences.  You can't just visit America.  Everything is different here.

A few years back, I had a friend who spent a few months in India (and rather impressively still maintained the roster of his fantasy football team).  Now wherever he went obviously had computer access but I still don't know what city or province he visited.  If it's not in America, it's all India to us.  Is that narrow-minded, jingoistic, uber-patriotism?  Maybe.  But it's also our God-given, American birthright not to think about other countries too much.  Let them think about us.

So hate is a worldwide phenomenon.  Americans hate other Americans and the whole world hates us.  It's the circle of hate. 

So what can we do to stop the hate?

Ironically, though it is probably our generation of Millennials more at fault than any other for the continued foment of Hater Nation, I think we are the world's last, best hope to end it once and for all. 

Recently released research from the Pew Research Center shows that Millennials are more like than other generations to list "helping others in need" as one of the most important things in our lives.  Also, for all the talk of Millennials shedding the ethics and mores of our parents' generation, 72 percent claim being a good parent and/or having a successful marriage as a top priority.  Our generation is also less likely to feel like it has the strongest work ethics or most righteous moral values of any generation.  That is not to say we aren't competitive.  We'll likely be the most highly educated generation in history.  But we are humble about who we are and what we mean in the world.  We don't look to cast judgment on our elders or on our peers.  But we're also not trying to live in our parents' world.  We're trying to create one for ourselves.

Our generation is the most open to change of any other and we are also the most optimistic.  In a country whose politicians most often define themselves by what they are against instead of who they are for, we were swept up by a campaign banking on "hope" and "change."  And although we may have been a bit naive and now have been somewhat disillusioned, it is important to remember that our faith is not in politicians or businessmen or leaders but in ourselves to make the world around us a better place, to recreate the American landscape in our image.  The economic, political, and social movements who begin to understand that will capture the hearts and minds of this generation for decades.

But please, just stop the hating.  We can all just get along.