Category Archives: Uncategorized

Working the pole

Today, I go from issues of national finance and social injustice to a simple neighborhood complaint.

This has existed around the corner from my house for several months now.

poleAt some point last winter, they put up a new pole, but for some reason, they didn’t completely transfer everything over. So they strapped the old pole — with utilities attached — to the new pole, but existing mostly in the street. Because it is in the street, the workers painted that very helpful “X” on both sides, as if say, “Hey Jag Off! Chawt fur da pole. We’ll be back in cupple tree months or so to take cara dis, n’at. Dabby cool if yinz didn’t hit it in da meantime. Fer cryin’ in da sink, how’s abaht dos Pens?” The lonely orange cone is particularly authoritative.

And there she’s stayed since the winter. Foster Street is a frequently used street by those in Lawrenceville who want access to 40th St. I’ve got to tip my hat to the fact that no inebriated yinzer has plowed into that X. At least not yet. I drive by it every morning and find myself giving it extra attention when cars and trucks are coming the other way.

So, I know we have a lame duck mayor and everything, but if yinz in public works could git aht to Larryville with your tool kit, that would be cheese and crackers! You know, before we have to strap a third pole to that configuration.

Okay, thanks, bye.

The House always wins

riskRemember derivatives? Nah, who wants to? They are those nasty things that nearly blew up the U.S. economy (and thus the world economy) a few years back.

What’s a derivative, you say? Good question. According to Wikipedia, a derivative is “a financial instrument that derives its value from the value of underlying entities such as an asset, index, or interest rate—it has no intrinsic value in itself. Derivative transactions include a variety of financial contracts, including structured debt obligations and deposits, swaps, futures, options, caps, floors, collars, forwards, and various combinations of these.”

Another way of describing derivatives is that they are legal bets (contracts) that derive their value from other assets, such as the future or current value of oil, government bonds, or anything else (a.k.a., mortgages). A derivative buys you the option (but not obligation) to buy oil in 6 months for today’s price, or any agreed price, hoping that oil will cost more in future. Derivatives can also be used as insurance, betting that a loan will or won’t default before a given date. So it’s a big betting system, like a casino, but instead of betting on cards and roulette, you bet on future values and performance of practically anything that holds value. The system is not regulated, whatsoever. Hey, you can even buy a derivative on an existing derivative. Even bank presidents don’t fully understand derivatives, except for the fact that they make obscene amounts of money for banks.

If your eyes are rolling to the back of your head, that’s what Wall Street intends. Derivatives are far too complicated for us mere mortals to comprehend. So, they say, “don’t worry your pretty little heads about them. Leave ‘em to the experts.” It’s like trying to understand quarks and quantum physics. You can’t. So why think about it?

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Of course, the last time we left derivatives to the “experts,” they tanked our banking system, obliterated 1/3 of our economy, and we had to pay them a king’s ransom in bonuses so that they would stop it and go play with their yachts in the Hamptons, instead. But if you think that the biggest banks in the world learned their lesson and have cut messing with that stuff, you’ve got another thing coming.

Since the financial crisis and bailouts, the “too big to fail” banks have only grown bigger, mainly due to an explosion in derivatives. How big? Wrap your head around this…

roulette-wheelJust five banks—Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo—control more than 90 percent of the $700 trillion derivatives market. In case you were wondering, $700 trillion is 10 times the GDP of the entire world. It breaks down to $100,000 for each of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants. This is speculation we are talking about. Wall Street casino bets. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?

That, my friends, is one gigantic bubble. And we all know what bubbles eventually do, right? There are very few economists in the world who know exactly how the derivative money flows or how the system works. They are traded in microseconds by computers, and as we’ve seen in the past, they can trigger the kind of crash that cascades so fast that it can’t be averted. And if that happens again, it will be catastrophic for the world financial system since no government in world has anywhere near the kind of money that would be needed for this bailout.

bank regsAnd to top it all off, these same banksters are being given ready access to the Tea-Publican Congress to write their own legislation, which will undermine the already weak Dodd-Frank Act financial reforms and return to “business as usual” before the 2008 financial collapse, as if nothing occurred.

I’m not suggesting that they gave money to politicians to write favorable legislation. I’m saying that they–the banks–wrote the freakin’ bill. The New York Times reports that recommendations from Citigroup made up 70 of the bill’s 85 lines, with two important paragraphs copied almost verbatim — save for two words that were changed to make them plural. Basically the legislators just copied and pasted from Citibank recommendations to write the bill.

I’m borrowing a bit from Mother Jones here, but the bill, called the Swaps Regulatory Improvement Act, was approved by the House financial services committee in May and is headed for a vote on the House floor soon. It would gut a section of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act called the “push-out rule.” Banks hate the push-out rule, which won’t even go into effect until July 13, because it will forbid them from trading certain derivatives. Under this rule, banks will have to move these risky trades into separate non-bank affiliates that aren’t insured by the FDIC, and are less likely to receive government bailouts. The bill would smother the push-out rule in its crib by permitting banks to use government-insured deposits to bet on a wider range of these risky derivatives. That way, they can continue to print money with derivatives, knowing that the taxpayer stands to foot the bill if things go south.

And don’t think that this is a partisan rant. The resulting bill passed out of committee with votes from Democrats and Republicans, many of whom have been publicly wined and dined by Wall Street royalty.

For example, according to the Times:

Corporate executives and lobbyists paid up to $2,500 to dine in a private room of a Greek restaurant just blocks from the Capitol with Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, a co-sponsor of the bill championed by Citigroup.

Jim Himes is a third-term Democrat from Connecticut who supported the bill. He also leads the party’s fund-raising effort in the House. He said,

I won’t dispute for one second the problems of a system that demands immense amount of fund-raisers by its legislators. It’s appalling; it’s disgusting; it’s wasteful and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption. It’s unfortunately the world we live in.

money-handshake1Oh, did I fail to mention that Jim is a member of the Financial Services Committee and a former banker at Goldman Sachs? And one of the top recipients in Congress of Wall Street donations? Details, details…

Despite the disappearance of bipartisanship in Congress in recent years, it appears that both Democrats and Republicans are more than open to Wall Street’s money. As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) once said of Congress, banks “frankly own the place.”

“Democrats can’t be trusted to control Wall Street,” Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Clinton, said at Salon. “If there were ever an issue ripe for a third party, the Street would be it.”

Look, I am just a humble blogger. Despite my ranting, the truth is, no laws have been broken. No money is being passed in plain brown envelopes at midnight in a Georgetown parking garage. It’s all being done in broad daylight. They know that it’s all too hard for us to understand while we are trying to concentrate on live tornado coverage, the Jodi Arias trial, and Game of Thrones.

All I know is three things:

1.) The Wall Street banks are making more money than ever before.

2.) They are blowing the biggest bubble the world has ever seen.

3.) They are writing legislation to take down all the burdensome regulations that were put in place after the last crash.

It’s just the world we live in. What could possibly go wrong?

Is it just me or, suddenly, don’t all those kooks from Zuccotti Park in Occupy Wall Street look like the sanest ones in the room?

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A tip for worker dignity

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but wasn’t sure how to write it in a way that didn’t make me look like a penny-pinching tightwad. Anyway, here we go.

I pride myself in being a good tipper. At restaurants, unless the server is completely rude, unresponsive, or incompetent, I never tip less than 20 percent. I waited tables and tended bars during the decade of the 1980s. I know how hard it is to live off of the fluctuating income that comes from working in a service industry. I also know that the minimum wage for a tipped employee is half to one-third the minimum wage of a non-tipped employee, and that it hasn’t been raised in years.

tipping-lido-blogIn 1991, a loaf of bread was 70 cents, the average U.S. salary was $29,000, the minimum wage for a non-tipped employee was $4.25, and the minimum wage for a tipped employee was $2.13 an hour. Today, 22 years later, a loaf of bread is $2.89, the average U.S. salary is $40,000, the minimum wage for a non-tipped employee is $7.25, but the minimum wage for a tipped employee is still $2.13. (This is the Federal minimum. Some states mandate a somewhat higher rate.) Maybe this is why food service workers have 3 times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.

Personally, I don’t get tipping. It seems like a way of pressuring me to pay part of the wages of someone else’s employees. And it seems haphazard. I have to tip the guy who gets me my drip coffee each morning but not the person who gives me popcorn and candy at the movie theater. I have to tip the bartender who pours me a draft beer but not the poor sap at the dry cleaners who gets me my shirts while breathing in all those chemicals and suffering in the 100+ degree heat. I tip the cab driver who barely acknowledges my presence but not the bus driver who knowingly nods my way as I board. I tip the maids who clean my room at the hotel but not the person at the front desk who checked me in. I tip the wait staff, who then must share their tips with the bussers, but not the cooking staff.

tip jarPlus, I see dollars in the tip jar at the Caribou Coffee I frequent.  I assume the workers put dollars in there to make change, but it still makes me feel guilty for dropping in a couple of quarters. But that’s 20 percent! Am I supposed to tip a dollar for my $2.34 drip coffee? That’s almost 50 percent. Even if you are getting a fancy-shmancy espresso drink that is in the four-dollar-range, that’s 25 percent. I only give 20 percent to the waiter who busts ass for an hour while serving the needs of a table of four who are eating a complete meal. Oh-oh, I’m roaming into cheap-ass bastard territory. Reign it in.

Tipping used to be an incentive for premium service, but it has become an expected surcharge onto services rendered so that the worker doesn’t starve. This just seems wrong. Other countries have tipping, but most don’t expect nearly as much — generally around 10 percent. They give their workers the dignity of a decent salary, with tips being the frosting on the cake.

DickensI say that it’s this weird tip system that makes some customers look down their noses at service workers. It’s like a Dickensian novel in which a lord or lady flips a farthing to a lowly serf, expecting their grateful subservience in return. I find it undignified.

I’d much rather see restaurant prices rise and tipping eliminated so that these workers could be paid a living wage that doesn’t fluctuate from week to week due to slow business or lack of customer generosity. I know this probably wouldn’t work because the restaurant business is rough and they would be afraid of losing customers if they raised their prices by 20 percent. So, the workers suffer. They must get by on meager salaries, fluctuating tips (is it their fault if business is slow?), and no paid sick leave, meaning that, to survive, they must go to work when they are sick so that their germ-filled hands can bring you your fettuccine Alfredo. That, I guess, is where karma comes in.

Bon appetite!

Oh SNAP! The food stamp president’s badge of honor

“Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”

– Proverbs 28:27

snapOf all the insults that the Right likes to throw at Obama, it seems as though their favorite is calling him “The Food Stamp President.” They don’t really go for “The Unemployment President.” And you don’t hear “The Welfare President.” No, I believe it started with Newt Gingrich and has been repeated by them all, but “The Food Stamp President” represents about the worst slur they can muster, other than the incredibly racist ones.

And indeed, the number of Americans on food stamps has sharply risen during Obama’s watch. It would really be a stretch, however, for anyone to point to a particular policy that made it so. Most level-headed folks would realize that the country was hemorrhaging 700,000 jobs per month when Obama was inaugurated. The dramatic increase in SNAP participation and costs is a result of the recession, not categorical eligibility. Our nation has seen the highest unemployment rates in nearly 30 years. As the number of unemployed people increased by 94% from 2007 to 2011, SNAP mirrored that growth with a 70% increase in participation over the same period, responding quickly and effectively to growing need in the recession.

Foreclosures due to the housing crisis were kicking people out of their homes (and their kitchens) at a record pace. And then of course, there was the video I posted last week on the rise in income inequality in this country. (Did you do your homework and watch it? If not, go here.) It showed how more and more income is being gobbled up by the richest 1 percent of this nation, leaving the lower 60 percent getting poorer and poorer. That’s less and less money each month for rent, medicine, and food. Thus, more people on food stamps.

But I’m not here to quibble about why folks need assistance. I’m here to shine a light of truth onto the SNAP (food stamp) program, which not only feeds the neediest among us, but does so with an incredible amount of efficiency for a government program, and without hardly any graft or corruption.

The Least of These

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” –Matthew 25:40

15 percent of the U.S. population is on food stamps. Not 47 percent; 15 percent. The 15 percent poorest Americans. 47 million of them.

Half the recipients are children.

76 percent of food stamp households have a child, a disabled person, or the elderly.

83 percent of SNAP households are below the poverty line of $19,000 per year for a household of three. 61 percent of SNAP households make less than $14,000 per year.

46% of client households served reported having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food.

The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744, and a net monthly income of $338.

A hand up, not a hand out

The average length of time a new participant stays on the program is 8 to 10 months. This is not a lifetime of entitlement.

Integrity and efficiency

SNAP error rates declined by 61 percent from 1999 to 2010, from 9.86 percent to a record low of 3.81 percent.

foodstamps1The national rate of food stamp trafficking declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits redeemed in 1993 to about 1.0 cent per dollar during the years 2006 to 2008.

Federal administrative expenditures for SNAP equal less than 4.5% of overall federal SNAP costs. About 94% of that is the federal share of state administrative costs for operating the program. SNAP caseloads have risen by more than 75% since FY2007 due to historic unemployment, but federal spending on state administrative costs has only risen by 17% over the same period. I’d like to see the private sector achieve that level of efficiency.

The modest $48 million annual investment in SNAP performance bonuses has helped improve states’ performance, maximizing the federal investment in SNAP and ensuring that benefits are distributed in the correct amount and reach those who need them. The bonuses have incentivized states to improve performance, share best practices, and work to improve SNAP in way that was rare prior to 2002.

Nobody wants to stay on SNAP

SNAP benefits don’t last most participants the whole month. 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58% of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year. The last week of the month is always the busiest at food banks.

The average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $133.85, or less than $1.50 per person, per meal. Living like kings, aren’t we?

One in seven American households struggles to put enough food on the table. Unemployment is stuck above 9 percent nationally, and the need for food assistance will remain high for some time. In the meantime, families are being hit with soaring food inflation. Grocery prices increased 6 percent in the last 12 months, more than twice the average annual rate.

Food stamps don’t go to illegal immigrants

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for SNAP. Additionally, there is already a strict waiting period for documented immigrants. Documented adult immigrants (those with a greencard) are subject to a five-year waiting period before they are eligible for SNAP.

Noncitizens make up a very small portion of SNAP participants – only 4% of participants are noncitizens (documented immigrants or refugees).

Work requirements

homelessfamilySNAP already has strict time-limits for unemployed workers. Able bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) may only receive 3 months of SNAP benefits during any 3 year period, unless they are working in a qualifying job training program.

The SNAP benefit formula is structured to provide a strong work incentive – for every additional dollar a SNAP participant earns, their benefits decline by only about 24 to 36 cents, not a full dollar, so participants have a strong incentive to find work, work longer hours, or seek better-paying employment.

But what about that woman my cousin saw?

And then there is always the story about the woman who used food stamps to buy Twinkies and Snicker bars. Lots of people claim to have a “friend” who saw this woman. Are there some who try to game the system? Sure. Just as there are millionaires trying to game the system. But I find it strange that we are angry about a woman buying a Twinkie with food stamps while turning a blind eye to Exxon’s $2.4 billion in tax subsidies. Hey, what are you gonna do?

Get government out of it

It is abundantly clear that the food stamp program is not only efficient, effective, and free of corruption, but that it also meets that basic faith requirement, be you Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian… that we will take care of the least of those amongst us. Some will say that government should stay out of it and leave it to the institutions of faith. Okay, every house of faith would need to raise $150,000 dollars every year to pay for the food stamp program. I figure that means less for the smaller churches and  more for the larger ones. The average church in the U.S. has 90 people, so you do the math. And that’s just for food stamps. That doesn’t cover welfare, unemployment benefits, child and disabled adult care, or health care. For that, houses of faith will have to dig deeper. Yeah, or they can expand their parking lots.

To call Barack Obama the Food Stamp President is actually quite a compliment. It is a badge of honor he should wear proudly. It’s saying that he feeds the poorest of his constituents with a program that is effective, efficient, and moral. Yes, the government built that.

Our oasis in the desert

We’ve taken our carpetbags out of town this weekend. Yes, the Carpetbaggers are in the Velley of the Sun, Phoenix… well, Scottsdale, officially. Just a long weekend, but short enough to let the 3-hour time change really mess with us.

Today was Spring Training baseball. Not ever sure who played. I think it was the Diamondbacks and Athletics. But does it really matter? Plus, it ended in a tie. I’d kiss my sister, if I had one. The ninth inning closed out with the score 2-2 and both teams just said, “Yeah, we’re good. See ya, next time.”

photo-43

Which begs the question: If a Spring Training baseball game ends in a tie and you are there to see it, did anything just happen? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. But it was great to sit out in 88 degree heat and watch baseball. Even meaningless baseball.

Sunsets are probably our favorite part of going to Arizona. Mrs. Carpetbagger would add sunrises, but homey don’t get up at 5:30 when he’s on vacation. Tonight’s was just another spectacular show on the Salt River Indian Rervation. If you don’t tell we tresspassed, I won’t tell.

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All the while, we are wanding around the desert taking pictures of anything not moving like a couple of tourists.

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But then, Jean’s new camera/phone takes way better photos than anything I have. And she knows it. And she’s rubbing it in. Here’s one of her shots.

CAM00221

Damn, that’s good.

Until, darkness took over… along with the coyotes and javalinas. And I had time for this last one.

photo-45

Of course, it’s not a competition. (But if it had been, I would have won.) Okay, maybe not.

Goodnight  all. I’m bushed. It’s like 1 AM Pittsburgh time.

Things that make me smile

wonderfulWe all need things that remind us to smile this week.

Tonight, we’re going to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the Regent Square Theater. That makes me smile. Why watch it again on TV with all those commercials? I’m looking forward to seeing it the way it was meant to be seen — on the big screen. Any Pittsburgh peeps who want to go, it’s at 8:00 p.m. and is free if you bring a non-perishable food item to donate. Actually, it’s playing there through Saturday but all the cool people are going tonight. So, be there or be Regent Square.

Here are some more smiles for me. Some are merely  light-hearted amusement, while others signal some meaningful progress.

This awesome moment was all over the Internet on Wednesday, but I thought it merited inclusion, just in case you didn’t catch it.

OBAMA-SPIDERMAN-570

The child belongs to a White House staffer and this was just outside of the Oval Office. But how awesome must it be to be able to go into the White House in a Spiderman outfit? And to have the President go along with it.

Next, just another thing that made me smile. For some reason, radical preacher Terry Jones (the guy who tried to burn the Qur’an in Florida, not the Monty Python actor) thought his message would go over well in Times Square. What I find amazing is that he wasn’t beaten up by some Guido; he was simply drowned out with another message.

How ’bout that? The Beatles are sometimes more biblical than certain radical interpretations of the Bible. (Checking for lightning.)

And from that, we go to a fun parody. This can only be properly enjoyed by that segment of the population who watches both Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad. That’s probably a pretty small cross-section, but for those few people, I give you (pardon the ads and the set-up) Breaking Abbey. Sorry I couldn’t imbed it. Viacom doesn’t like the You Tube, so you’ll just have to go to the link and then come back. But how awesome are the actors from Downton for doing this, by the way?

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/422221/december-13-2012/uncensored—breaking-abbey

And how about a movie suggestion for all you Mayans on Friday. Last week, a movie popped to the top of my Netflix list that I had put on there and promptly forgot. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is strange casting, but it works. It was a rather surprising treat.

kinopoisk.ru

It’s a quirky little movie that isn’t awesome, but had me laughing out loud several times. It’s definitely worth a rental or live stream, especially on Friday.

And now for a serious smile inducer. For whatever you thought of Occupy Wall Street, I would argue that they are having a greater impact (with less publicity) now than when they were camped out in Zuccoti Park. Don’t get me wrong, Zuccoti was necessary for the movement, but now they are really making a difference.

occupy-sandy

First, was their response to Hurricane Sandy. Many Long Island and Brooklyn residents will tell you that when the Red Cross and Allstate were hard to find in the storm’s aftermath, Occupy Sandy was there with blankets, flash lights, batteries, food, and medical supplies… all the items that affected New Yorkers needed. They used social media to set up donation centers, recruit and deploy volunteers, and distribute goods in a way that was, and continues to be, truly impressive. You can read about their efforts here. The are still raising money here.

Another of the many subgroups that emerged from Occupy has started a project called The Rolling Jubilee. Jubilee is actually a term from the Old Testament (Leviticus 25) in which the people of Israel were to have all of their debts forgiven every fifty years. In the Bible, it mainly had to do with property rights and indentured servitude, i.e., you’d get your land back and the slaves would be freed to return to their clans. As far as Bible scholars can tell, this Bible concept never actually put into practice. Until now.

As you probably know, banks that can’t collect on debt have two options of getting the bad loans off of their books. 1.) They write it off. But more often they choose 2.) sell the debt to a collection companty for pennies on the dollar. Then, the collection company aggressively pursues the debtor to get back anything they can. For instance, if they buy the debt from the bank at 4 cents on the dollar, they may try to collect 8 cents on the dollar to make their profit. Well, Occupy is now using this system to bid against collection companies to buy back debt as these discount rates. Only, instead of going after the debtor, they simply forgive the debt. Genius, right? They are specifically concentrating on medical debt, the idea being that no one should have to go into a lifetime of debt due to an appendectomy.

In November, they had a telethon to raise money for the purpose of buying the debts. They hoped to raise around $50,000 but took in $500,000! With that money, they bought and forgave $10 million of medical debt. To get involved, check them out at www.rollingjubilee.org.

Rolling_Jubilee

And I was truly inspired by the life of Sen. Daniel Inouye, who passed away this week. As long as Hawaii has been a state, Inouye has been their Senator.

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As a young teen and U.S. citizen, he was labeled an “enemy alien” after Pearl Harbor. Still, his dream was to fight for the United States, so he petitioned the government to remove the label and allow him to fight for his country, and he prevailed. He not only fought for his county, but he stormed three Nazi machine gun bunkers in Italy, despite losing an arm and being shot in the stomach. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. In Congress, he was one of vanishing breed — a moderate politician. He got along with everybody and never did a whiff of scandal come his way. At the time of his death, he was 88, he had served his state in Washington, D.C., for 53 years, and he was fourth in line of succession to the Presidency. This was a man whose life was dedicated to public service. It is said that his last words were, “Aloha.”

Death at the Dakota

I remember this day, 32 years ago… December 8, 1980. I was a fuzzy-faced freshman at TCU. We were all studying hard for the next week of finals. It was a Monday night. Around 9 p.m., word began to spread: John Lennon was dead. It didn’t seem real. It felt more like a prank, like that “Paul is dead” rumor that went around several years before about how there were clues if you played a song backward or looked at McCartney on the Abbey Road album cover . Ironically, Paul McCartney would be the only Beatle to still be singing for his supper and packing arenas well into his sixties.

Since there were no 24-hour news channels at that time, most of the nation found out about it from none other than Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.

When reality began to set in, it just seemed so surreal. The guy who sang about peace? The guy who made love and not war? He was gunned down on the streets of New York City? Right across from Central Park. Right in front of his building. What was this world coming to?

Beyond the tragedy of a husband and father being gunned down came the stone-cold reality that the Beatles now were really over. There would be no reunion. They were a part of history. If John hadn’t have been killed, there’s no telling whether or not the band would have ever reunited. Who knows if their egos would have ever been able to coexist. I sort of suspect that at some point, nostalgia and a huge pile of money would have brought them together again. It’s sort of weird that the most iconic rock group of all time only made music together for ten years. Especially when groups like the Rolling Stones and  The Who are still packing concert halls 50 years later.

That freshman year would see more gun play, even though the calendar would flip to 1981. The next Spring, both Ronald Regan and Pope John Paul would be wounded in assassination attempts. It was a crazy year.

But me being a pretty huge Beatles fan, Lennon’s death haunted me. Years later, I would date a girl who remembered once having met the assassin, Mark David Chapman, in a Glen Ellyn, IL, basement party. So that was sort of bizarre.

Lennon 70th BirthdayYears later, Jean and I stopped by the Dakota during a trip to New York. Across the street in Central Park, there is a permanent memorial to Lennon called Strawberry Fields. No doubt, there will be people there tonight singing “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” by candlelight.

One thing I hadn’t remembered from that time is that Lennon stopped performing in public 5 years prior to his death. Oh, he still wrote songs and put out albums, but were no public performances after 1975. In fact, his last public performance was at a really cheesy TV tribute to some old British producer. He was backed by a group with BOFM on their drum. It stood for Brothers of Mother F*#ckers. Later, they changed their name to Dog Soldier, taking the name from a Lennon song. The band had two-faced masks on because of the dual feelings that Lennon had for the Lew Grade, the honoree. It’s just such a weird and typical mid-70s production. And so unlike everything that John Lennon stood for. How ironic that this was his last public performance.

Like a car accident, it’s horrible but you can’t take your eyes away from it. But I’m also struck by what a good performer John Lennon still was.

Here’s a better tribute from the same year of 1975, and John’s cover of “Stand by Me.”

Hot Memorial Day action

Monday was Memorial Day, of course, but it was also Mrs. Carpetbagger’s birthday. A rather awkward and confusing mix. I told her that, after a great deal of effort on my part, I had arranged for Lawrenceville to throw a parade in honor of the day. I told her that the theme was going to be rather solemn, but it was a parade, none the less. She wasn’t having it.

It was near 90 degrees with plenty of humidity, and we were ready to take on the day. Truth was, Pittsburgh was focusing most of its attention on Lawrenceville this Memorial Day. As home to the Allegheny Cemetery and the Arsenal property, it makes sense. L’ville has done a parade every year on Memorial Day. Usually, it’s a 5-minute-long affair. This year, they did it up right. We even had a major dignitary like State Auditor General Jack Wagner. That’s right, haters, we got the general of all auditors. The one with all the stars on his shoulder whom all other auditors salute and march into audits for. Okay, that part’s not actually true, but when it comes to auditors, Jack is the Bomb!

So, the parade was much longer this year. Aaaaand, it was still kind of lame. Okay, a few points of parade etiquette here:

1.) Love the firefighter bagpipes leading the way. No problem here. This is a strong lead, with military color guard behind. And, may I say, Mrs. Bagger is “besmitten” by the pipes. To her, it is like Bono and Sting and Paul McCartney and Justin Bieber are all walking down the street at the same time. She’s such a bagpipe geek that she turned to me during the parade and whimsically exclaimed, “They’re playing ‘Ho Ro My Nut Brown Maiden’!!” She was positively giddy. She’s been watching this old Scottish movie, I Know Where I’m Going, over and over and over again. We now own it. They sing that song in the movie. I know where I’m going… probably to Scotland some time in the next calendar year. But here’s the thing: the pressure was now completely off of Yours Truly. This is now her best birthday ever. (side bar: Really, “Ho Ro My Nut Brown Maiden”? Is everybody drunk in Scotland?)

2.) Just because Steely McBeam is willing and available does NOT mean you have to put him in your parade. Notice the parade onlookers, who only moments prior were clapping enthusiastically at the troops and bands and military vehicles going by. Then, along comes Mr. Buzzkill. And you don’t have to team him up with members of the Pittsburgh Power, our arena football team, who were eagerly shaking hands with everybody they could reach. Turns out, they’ve never been before such a large crowd. Ba-da boom!

Which brings me to parade etiquette 3 and 4. 3) Nobody puts cement mixers in their parade. This is not something unusual or festive. It’s just a cement mixer. Why do people not put them in their parade? 4.) They are huge and block everything behind them. In this case, that would be the parade’s chief dignitary, Pennsylvania’s distinguished 5-star Major Auditor General Jack Wagner and a cadre of Marines. I’m just sayin’, it would have been nice to have seen the Marines, this being Memorial Day and all, and not Wet Cement Day. And I’m pretty sure that Wagner and the Marines were thinking how much better the parade might have been had they not had to spend all of it LOOKING INTO THE ASS-END OF A CEMENT MIXER!! Just FYI. You know, for next year.

The parade went right into Allegheny Cemetery. Have I ever gushed appropriately about Allegheny Cemetery before? It is one of my favorite places in all of Lawrenceville. It is freakin’ huge! It is built on 300 acres of hillside, featuring some of the most beautiful vistas in Pittsburgh.

It is beautifully maintained and home to huge herd of deer who are unfazed by human visitors — probably because dogs are prohibited and they have no natural predators within the gates. Walking through it, you instantly lose the sense that you are in a city. Like the cemeteries of Paris, the tomb stones range from a faded piece of limestone in the ground to incredibly artistic and ornate sculptures. The names on the stones include most of the names on the city’s street signs, buildings, and organizations. History just flows throughout. Some have been there since the early 1800s, and others were just interred last week. It is home to 16 former mayors, negro league star Josh Gibson, and to 1 percent of all deceased U.S. veterans. That’s right, 10,000 vets are buried there, from every war since and including the Civil War.

By this time, the heat was getting up there. Kids and dogs had brazenly wandered into the cemetery’s huge fountain. It looked pretty good to me, too, but I resisted.

They had a nice little ceremony with a fly-over by a big four-prop plane, probably from the Pittsburgh-based air wing base. I tried to snap a pic, but missed it on both fly-overs.

Cue the 21-gun salute by the Civil War reenactors. Then, a moving “Taps” by a marine bugler. And then, of course…

“Amazing Grace” by the pipers. By this time, Mrs. Bagger was getting kind of “stalky” — she needed to go home. And so did I. I swear, a couple of hours out in that heat and the ol’ brain starts to boil.

After watching the Pirates win their fourth game of the weekend, we enjoyed a restorative –  and air-conditioned — nap. By evening, I grilled an amazing hunk of salmon with THE best marinade I have ever accidentally concocted. All I know is that it included soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, brown mustard, olive oil, and Parisienne spice. Not brain science, but it was heaven. There were presents and candles in puffy custard-filled pastry (a no cake decree had been issued).

All in all, it was a good day, and a perfect cap to the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Well, we thought so.

Rock and Roll Days; Boogie Nights

The deaths of Donna Summer and Robin Gibb this past week got me thinking about my youth, and the role that music played in it.

My father never played an instrument and is fairly tone-deaf — i.e. he has a hard time humming the note you play for him on the piano. My mother, on the other hand, could (and probably still can) play piano in the dark. She taught lessons. (Not to me. She wisely refused and sent me to another teacher.) Still, our generations were very different. My parents did not have a soundtrack to their lives. This is probably due to technology as much as anything else. Music was not portable to them. When they were teenagers in the early 50s, music was limited to static-filled radios, jukeboxes, and gigantic phonographs.  My mother told me stories of working as a lifeguard one summer and listening to Bill Haley and the Comets sing “Rock around the Clock” over and over. But as far back as I remember, their music was only for special occasions, like candlelight, pearls, and cologne. They’d break out Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand, and the Ray Connif Singers for dinner parties, but not for everyday enjoyment. Even in the car, they usually listened to talk radio. By the time I discovered pop music, they put up with loud sounds coming from the basement, but I wouldn’t say that they were fans.

My generation was different. We grew up with music, took it with us, and played it whenever we could. Now, as adults, we share musical tastes with our kids. We may not like all the same music, but there is definite overlap, and we share the same need of having music as a background to the events of our lives.

Watching coverage of the passings of Summer and Gibb, I couldn’t help but reflect on my high school years, specifically 1978-1980. I was a bit young to have been a participant in the disco era. We suburban high schoolers were not sneaking into places like Studio 54. Plus, as the oldest child in my family, I had no older siblings to provide a musical education, or to cue me in as to what was hip and happening. I had to figure it all out without a roadmap. My earliest memories of music happened in the homes of some of my friends in grade school, where I discovered the Jackson 5, Credence, and Alice Cooper. Later, it was sneaking an AM transistor radio under my pillow and listening to Wolfman Jack do a countdown of the hits on WLS. I wondered what these strange people looked like, these singers of songs like “Kung Fu Fighting,” “The Best of My Love,”  “Philadelphia Freedom,” and “Lady Marmalade.”

By high school, I mainly hung out with three different groups, each with their own musical roots.

The jocks, strangely, were a music-free zone. Walkmen and iPods did not exist. Portable radios were fragile and had these low fidelity ear phones, and usually only for one ear. Thus, workouts and practices were silent and music-less. The only sounds were squeaking tennis shoes, crunching pads, and the clanging of weights. There were no tunes playing in the locker room, the weight room, or on the track. Bus trips to away games were silent affairs. We were like Amish athletes training for the music-free Olympics.

Then there were the guys I hung out with. They were rock and rollers. This was pre-punk or alternative. They were mostly into crunching guitar bands like Zeppelin, Kiss, Nugent, and Cheap Trick. We started a little garage band. We only did covers. We called ourselves Midnight. Lame, I know. I hadn’t yet entered into the creative phase of my life. I played an electric piano that made these rather “bloopy”-sounding tones. Very little of what we played called for piano. They were nice to let me in. We actually played some gigs wearing these hideous, polyester jump suits made by the mother of one of our friends. We were like a forerunner of Devo, without the hats.

The third group was the theater kids. I had gotten into theater at some point because I had hurt my back weight lifting and was ordered to desist activity for a while. The theater director was a former football player himself who had also worked in the Houston Musical Theater. He sort of made theater “cool.” To us, he was like Roy Scheider in All That Jazz. He was in his twenties, but looked older — cigarette smoking, gruff temperament, and much more visionary than most high school drama teachers. It was at the theater cast parties that I was introduced to disco music. I didn’t love it, but as it played and played during our Old Milwaukee/Meister Brau drinking parties, it became a part of the soundtrack of my youth. I never owned a Bee Gees album, including the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but I knew it front to back. In fact, to this day, I have never seen the movie all the way through.

Having sung in choir, and played the piano and french horn, I think I was drawn to a wider variety of music than the 3-chord guitar bands of my buddies. I got into Elton John and Rush and Fleetwood Mac and Chicago and Stevie Wonder and Genesis and Steely Dan and Boston and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen. The closest thing I owned to disco were the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire. Sorry, but I don’t consider either “Brick House” or “September” to be disco.

(Side note: At the time, I don’t think it ever occurred to us that Elton John or Freddie Mercury were gay. And would it have mattered? I’m not sure we even knew what “gay” was. They were just flamboyant like Alice Cooper and Roger Daltry and David Bowie and Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger. Remember, unless you went to a concert, you only ever saw them in still photos, if that.)

Then, a funny thing happened in the seventies. One genre of music went to war with another. Rock and Roll decided that Disco Sucked. I don’t think this has ever happened since. I can’t imagine Indie Rock or R&B declaring war on Country & Western. But back then, there were limited radio stations for teens and some of the rock and roll stations were suddenly becoming disco stations, which didn’t sit well with the Rock and Rollers. Steve Dahl was a popular radio personality in Chicago. He led all his listeners in an avid anti-disco campaign. We all went along because he kept us entertained at our crappy summer job all through the sweltering summer of 1979. It culminated at a White Sox game that summer where you could get in for 98 cents (WLUP 98.5) with a disco record. They were going to collect them all and blow them up between games of a doubleheader. The Sox were only drawing about 6,000 fans a night that year, but that night, they packed it out. The Sox were not prepared and the event was not well thought out. Let’s just say that they weren’t there to see a baseball game. The LPs became dangerous projectiles. After the records were blown up,  kids began to run onto the field. They began to tear up the grass. They took over the rolling batting cage and began to push it around the field. There weren’t enough cops. The White Sox had to forfeit the second game. Here’s some footage from a documentary.

I was not there, but that day is burned into my memory. We listened to Dahl’s show at our crappy job leading up to the event, and especially the day after. It was also at that job that we listened to the Beatles White Album all the way through about forty times. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine….

I know this is a jumble of memories, but this is what has been running through my mind this past week. Soon, the era would be over. By the time I was old enough to go to clubs, disco had given way to Dire Straits, the Eurythmics, U2, Laura Branigan, the Police, R.E.M., Hall & Oates, and Spandau Ballet. Kiss and Ted Nugent gave way to ZZ Top and Van Halen. And the clubs seemed to run a continuous loop of “Ride the White Horse.”

But I do find myself sort of nostalgic now and then for a Bee Gees fix. Hey, no other band other than the Beatles had three songs in the top 5 at the same time. But I prefer the pre-Saturday Night Fever stuff. And never has a band’s voices and faces been so strangely mixed.

And here’s a golden oldie from 1975. Extra credit: try counting all the keyboards.

I was NEVER really in to Donna Summer, but this song was always the last one played at ever dance. If you hadn’t worked up to ask that girl yet, now was the time.

Willie AamesIt’s funny how music brings back a flood of memories. In this case, it’s a bunch of kids with blow-dried hair driving around town in a large gas-guzzling Suburban, just looking for party. The girls either had the Dorothy Hamill wedge cut or the Farrah Fawcett flip. The guys all tried to look like Willie Aames or Bruce Jenner. Me, I went with more of the Gabe Kaplan look, without the mustache. Nice, I know. Those were nights of cheap beer, grabbing a burger at Yankee Doodle (the local fast food joint), and cruising around Glen Ellyn, Illinois, without finding much else going on. The Farrah flipDespite our stupidity, we were fairly harmless. I don’t remember anyone passing out or throwing up. We really didn’t overdo it. Drugs were not big, or if they were, I wasn’t invited. There were some bongs here or there, but I remember being scared to death of drugs in general. To me, one taste and you were instantly addicted and on your way to becoming a junkie. I was pretty sheltered.

I’m pretty sure that all these memories have been fit with rounded edges and soft focus in my memory. But I have a much warmer spot in my heart for the 70s than I do the 80s. The 80s were filled with drama and more stupidity and pain and struggle. I really didn’t get my act together until the 90s. But I don’t think I’m alone in that. And that’s a story for another day. In the meantime…

Summer reading list

I need a list of book this summer or else I am apt to start one book, see another I like and start reading it, and then, come August, I’ll have six unfinished books piling up on my bed stand. I am a scattered and cluttered soul in need of order and discipline. A book list is a fine place to start.

Going to keep things attainable. Going to plan for four books, one each month. If I finish in July, I’ll start a fifth. How ’bout that?

MAY

I’ve already started In the Garden of Beasts on the recommendation of my friend and fellow blogger, Emma. As a history buff, especially WWII history, this is perfect. It’s about the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Germany in 1933. Boy, is he going to be busy. I’m hoping this spurs me to start rehabbing my Dietrich Bonhoeffer screenplay. It’s a bit of a mess and I haven’t touched it in probably eight years. Perhaps reading of brown shirts, goose stepping, and the Bundestag will be just the push I need.

Besides, Tom Hanks is already on board to star in the film, so why not read the book first before all the hype begins.

JUNE

Summer is also a great time for a good old-fashioned crime novel. In the past, I’ve been a great fan of fun reads by writers like James Ellroy (American Tabloid!!), Martin Cruz Smith (Gorky Park), and the godfather of American crime novel dialog, Elmore Leonard (who once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”).

The newest name on my radar, although he’s been around for quite a while, is George Pelecanos. He is probably best known for writing some of the best episodes of The Wire. Basically, whenever they needed to bump off a major character, they brought in George. But he’s also been pumping out some well-regarded crime novels set in the non-political streets of Washington D.C. Who wouldn’t love a novel with a gritty title like Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go?

But he has a series of novels called the D.C. Quartet. Each is in D.C. but in a different decade. The Big Blowdown takes place in the forties and fifties. King Suckerman is like a blacksploitation novel of the 1970s. The Sweet Forever plays against a backdrop of cocaine and the NCAA tournament during the 1980s. (Yes, Len Bias makes an appearance.) And Shame the Devil takes us into the mid-1990s. As I understand them, they are not sequels but merely a series of books. So, I plan to start with The Sweet Forever, which I’m told is one of his best.

In the future, I’d like to dip into some of the real historic crime novelists like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Since so many of their books were made into such iconic Humphrey Bogart movies, I guess I didn’t want to approach them. I think it may be time.

JULY

I’m not proud of this. But I started reading this book last winter and got sidetracked. It certainly wasn’t due to the quality of the book. On the contrary, I think it is so good that it just blew my mind for a while and I had to walk away to think about it. I need to man up and finish it.

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times is by journalist Eval Press. It is a beautifully written book about whistleblowers. Why do some people go along with evil or morally questionable activity while others stand up and face the consequences of saying NO? It starts with German soldiers ordered to massacre Poles in a forest. It studies a Swiss police captain during WWII who refused to enforce a law barring Jews from entering his country. Then, it continues to tell the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who felt the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations. Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. It ends with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. What better time to examine the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with our loyalties and the responsibilities we are expected to carry out.

Like I said, this book messes with you. You spend most of your time asking yourself, What would I have done? Would I have had the courage to refuse? Would I have stood up? You might not always like the answer.

AUGUST

This is wild card time. I’m open for suggestions. Here are some books up for consideration:

A Pirate for Life by Steve Blass. Baseball people tell the best stories in all of sports. And isn’t summer meant for baseball books? Blass had a remarkable career, beginning with a complete-game victory over Don Drysdale in 1964 to being the winning pitcher of the final game of the ’69 World Series to suddenly losing the ability to control his pitches and having to retire. But I’m sure the best parts are found in the many stories of a decade spent in the Pirate locker room.

Calico Joe by John Grisham. “A surprising and moving novel of fathers and sons, forgiveness and redemption, set in the world of Major League Baseball.” Come on, I’m tearing up already. Wanna have a catch?

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. “The inside story of the world’s most exclusive fraternity; how presidents from Hoover through Obama worked with — and sometimes, against — each other when they were in and out of power.” I’m fascinated about the behind-the-scenes life of a being The President. What is family life like? How do you go Christmas shopping? Does the Secret Service follow you to the bathroom in the middle of the night? What’s it like to not drive a car for 4-8 years? I want to know more!

These are the August candidates, but it’s early and I can be bought persuaded to go in a different direction.

What’s on your list this summer?

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