Archive for November, 2012


To me, it seems that nothing brings out the best and the worst in us like going home for the holidays.  Particularly Thanksgiving.   I suppose that’s due to my purely southern American experience.  In my memory bank are so many pictures, like this Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.  It’s a lovely, comforting time when, once a year, we Americans do the same things at the same time.  For instance, after Thanksgiving dinner, before we commence with the Annual Balderdash Tournament,  my sister and I always  indulge in the same  ritual – floating homemade whipped cream on top of our elegant china coffee cups and then sipping the coffee through the cream.  (Sometimes we even add a little Kahlua.)  We end up with little white mustaches, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s the only time we ever do it.

I have one memory that returns to me each year as I lose myself in the solitude of my holiday preparations.  The picture is so clear in my mind,  it could have been yesterday.  I even recognize the clothes I wore.  It was a time when I was quite young, a bit naive and living in the UK, feeling so alone and far away from  familiar roots.  November is dark, gray and damp in rural Scotland.  We had just moved into our new home  and I was a madwoman searching through stacks of cartons from the forty-foot shipping container that had finally arrived from the US.  It was imperative that I find the china and the correct “Thanksgiving” tablecloth.  I would have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, or die trying.

We were in a somewhat rural area – no popping down to the local market for a fifteen pound Butterball turkey.  Cranberries, hummm, had to revert to the canned variety.   Potatoes, brussel sprouts and broccoli?  Delivered fresh from Quentin, the egg mans’ garden.  Sour cream?  Never heard of it. Pumpkin pie? Check.   Whipped cream?  Just skim off the top of the 8-oz bottle from the milkman and get out the hand mixer, but be careful not to turn it into butter!  Quentin also knew a local farmer who raised turkeys.  Our name was attached to a string that was hung around Tom’s neck and at the appointed time, said Tom lost his head and I was delivered of a big bird that still needed some feathers plucked!

I was so determined that everything would be beautiful on that fourth Thursday in November, it didn’t dawn on me that the rest of our little community was merely having a normal day.  Being youthfully myopic, it had never occurred to me that the whole world didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  Yes, I know – America’s story – those pious Pilgrims (one of them was a relative,) the unsuspecting native Americans, so innocent and generous to the white foreigners – Thanksgiving is America’s very own holiday, complete with all its tragic underpinnings.   I get all that now, and I recognize the harshness of conquering nations, but let’s leave that for another post at another time.

Today I’ll stick with the nostalgic “home for the holidays”  of my youth.  It’s what I call the Norman Rockwell syndrome, twinged with sadness and loneliness, and unexpected bursts of deeply rooted sibling rivalries, perhaps because our culture has taken us so very far away from family – emotionally or physically.   It’s the most highly traveled day of the year; everyone fighting an uphill battle to make it “home” for that one day where we gather ’round the table, eating exactly the same menu (with minor adjustments) and tiptoeing through the emotional minefields of the family shortcomings.

May I digress for one second and say that the airlines certainly use the holiday to give their own brand of thanks by jacking up their prices on those who are so desperately trying to make it home for the holiday – shame on them!

So, whatever the reason, for me Thanksgiving is a holiday where I work at making it work.  Most of our family is on the East Coast and this day reminds me of how much I miss seeing them.  Knowing there are many others who must feel the same way, I make sure that our day is filled with friends whom we consider our extended family.  I also focus on all the good things in my life.  While I honestly try to be mindful of those things more than once a year, it never hurts to have a day where we actually focus on all the richness that fills our lives – so here’s my list:

I am thankful that I am married to someone who is  kind, fun and smart, but most of all who has infinite patience, and who makes every day a safe and happy one.

I am  thankful for fresh coffee and lemon poppy seed muffins and for the breathtakingly quiet sunrise that steals over the vast and majestic desert landscape, every morning of my life.  Also for that beautiful little humming bird who flits so closely around my head when I am quietly reading  on the patio.  The sound of its tiny wings is remarkable.  I wonder if it’s attracted to my red hair?

I’m thankful for our blended families – all unique individuals who daily fill our lives with light, love and thoughtfulness; two culturally diverse families who respect one another and who are always there when it counts.  I am thankful that I will never tire of the first fresh lemons of the season; for peanut butter balls; for Gino Vannelli’s Dea Speranza and Mozart’s Requiem.

I’m thankful for the life we have; for our freedoms; for myriad choices to have and do pretty much whatever our heart desires – a life that is filled with uplifting music, exquisite art, thought-provoking books, entertaining theater, and lively conversation with loving friends.  I am thankful for the fresh air market; for the sweet, shy farmers who sell me their local eggs and peppery arugula and for the flower man who always has my favorite lilies.

I am thankful that there is still beauty and grace to be found even in the simple things, and even in the midst of rancor and disagreement.  I am thankful that I can still absorb new ideas and be open enough to consider different opinions from friends that I like and respect.  I am thankful for Masterpiece Theater, author Pat Conroy and anything said by Samuel Clemens, Dennis Miller and George Carlin.  We do know the sound of truth when we hear it.

I am particularly thankful that I live in a country where hope springs eternal; where I can be a voice of dissent and that I am free to make my voice heard.  I am grateful that I am free to grasp any opportunity that comes my way and that I can rise to greater heights of success simply by working harder and smarter than the next person, and that my origins or my parents don’t matter.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.   Melody Beattie

 

The Internet is probably the most significant invention since fire, the wheel, or the printing press.   (Gee, thanks Al, what a guy!  If you really, really want to know who invented it, read more.)

Up front, let me say that regulating anything – but particularly regulating the internet, is a difficult subject to wrap your head around.   But to say that it’s EXTREMELY SIGNIFICANT (yes, I’m shouting) wouldn’t be putting too fine of a point on it.  Sad that it probably insures that a significant segment of our population will dismiss the conversation entirely, lamenting  “Eweeeeu, it’s too hard to understand.”  We currently live in a culture that seems unwilling –  or is it too lazy – to address the BIG IDEAS of the day – ones that require some hard thinking and intelligent conversation.  Or are they just trusting that a good outcome will materialize without vigorous debate?  That’s not something I trust anymore.

I could not do 95% of my work without the Internet.  I use it constantly for research,  instant information and, yes, amusement – for everything from what time the movie starts, to how to spell or define paradigm shift, to in-depth research on autoimmune diseases, to printing a turn-of-the-century map of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire for my genealogy project.  Just this week I –

  • bought a perfectly good ‘used’ copy of my book club selection and replenished my moisturizer, all on Amazon.com;
  • found the actual immigration documentation for a relative on Ancestry.com;
  • pulled up four recipes for Beef Stroganoff;
  • made a reservation for dinner on the fabulous Open Table website;
  • researched a quick trip up the PCH including Google maps (it’s about 500 miles) and directions, plus locations of well regarded B&B’s and horse ranches along the way;
  • booked flights to Boston, rented the car,  made three separate dinner reservations and purchased Boston Pops tickets for our grandchildren;
  • sent perfectly lovely, personalized Thanksgiving cards to everyone I care about, from my electronic address book; and
  • done the research for this blog post.

In the olden days, it would take weeks and miles to slog through the same to-do list.

The Internet brings the world to our fingertips and our computer screens.  It connects grandparents with grandchildren through video sites like Skype.  It has significantly changed the way we shop or travel.  It’s diminished some industries or made others obsolete (phone-book doorstops anyone?)  and created new ones like E-Bay, Epicurious, Amazon, Travelocity, or Zappos: household names that would have gone unrecognized a decade ago.  It’s safe to say the Internet has  revolutionized everything we do and we trust that will continue.

There are several aspects to this new frontier that warrant the intense discussions that are influencing current events.  Google, which dominates the search market by a whopping 70% (hence the term “Google-it“)  is under great pressure and scrutiny, accused of abusing its search power.  I agree.  According to a recent Time magazine article:

“Specifically, the group argues that Google has been using its dominance to ‘foreclose competitors from the search marketplace — particularly in high-traffic specialty segments, like travel, jobs, health, real estate, media and local search.’  In other words, the companies charge that Google unfairly demotes rivals  — i.e., them — in its search-engine results in order to steer users toward Google’s own competing products.”  Read more. 

Well..I’m downright shocked, aren’t you? To think that a company would do such a thing.  Since Google changed its algorithmic process, I can promise you, the searches are NOT THE SAME and the sources/sites that should have higher ranking, suddenly do not.

To add insult to misery, the UN is getting in the game, hoping to expand their authority over the Internet with the IUT Treaty – creating new rules to govern the Internet globally, and, oh by the way, adding a tax for content providers.   Hummm.  Anyone who doesn’t recognize that this is a very big thing is comatose.   Is there anyone out there who believes that the UN has the capability, capacity, or integrity to monitor, regulate or govern anything?  I keep envisioning those inter-galactic Senate scenes from Star Wars.    

Playing right into the messy debate to regulate the Internet is the insidious desire of some to viciously muck about with the technical aspects of this incredible tool that we now take for granted.  These brilliant, brazen miscreants spend their waking hours designing and launching Trojan Horses, Worms, Viruses and other insidious hacking routines guaranteed to wreak havoc with your computer operating system.  I consider myself a relatively savvy computer user, but I’m a babe in the woods compared to that lovely geek I live with.  In other words, I know just enough to be dangerous, so I’m very careful not to make things worse when I discover something is amiss.  What my concrete sequential brain is good at, is following the logic and diagnosing “what” the computer is doing and in what sequence, because that’s usually the diagnostic starting point.  Then my sweetheart graciously takes over without a word of complaint and spends literally HOURS running Spybot, Adaware, Malware, AVG, etc., deleting, re-installing,  rebooting, to get things working again.  That is until now.

For the past several months I’ve noticed an increasing amount of unsolicited ad traffic when I’m doing  research.  I use two separate search engines.  Why, you ask?  Because a while back I became aware that certain websites “play” better with Chrome than they do with Internet Explorer.  And why, you ask again?  My own theory is that they are in direct competition and are doing nasty, annoying things in “background” mode that will piss me off enough to drive me to use the other engine.  WORKING.

For instance,  playing scrabble on Face Book with IE is painfully slow when dragging the tiles into place.  Chrome “plays more nicely” with that game – and I swear – it’s the only game I play ’cause it keeps my brain a little sharper.  Also, if I’m using IE,  scores of ads pop up or hover in the middle of what I’m doing, while with Chrome not so much.  But, on the other hand, when using Chrome, in the initial search step I experience some serious hijacking that is downright scary.  To date, we’ve not figured out how to remedy it – other than rebuilding the whole computer. AAARRRRRGGGGG. Do you have any idea how much TIME that takes?  I could take the box into an “expert” and let him burn a couple of days trying to figure out the problem but I’ve got little trust that they can do any better.  They’ll just tell me to buy a new box.  Good old built in obsolescence.

Do I think some of the problems are being deliberately ignored so that we’ll all shout in frustration that “someone has to take control of these frustrating problems and regulate?”  YES I DO.  That way the UN (and Congress) can surreptitiously slip those regulations in there without much outcry from the masses.  “They” are trusting that “we’re” not paying attention!

Currently, what happens with my computer is this:  I put in the “search words” to find a site – could be as simple as “movies Palm Desert.”  I click the result I want and the Chrome hijacks me to unrelated “ad driven” sites such as Infomash, Bees, Nixxie,  Deal Cabby, or the most insidious one of all, MerchantCircle.  If I arrow back to the search results page and select the same result again, only then does it connect me to the site I want.  Hijacked the first time, successful result the second time except with MerchantCircle which, like a snapping turtle, won’t let go at all!   Annoying!  And creepy!!  Some little demented Geek-elf is somewhere in Croatia laughing his ass off because he’s got power over my computer.  While this may seem minor,  it’s not.  The virus or whatever it is will simply continue to infect other areas of the computer’s operating system until it finally crashes.  There are some who are silly enough to think that if we “regulate” the Internet, someone can stop these pirates.  NOT!  Yeah, right.  And gun control will keep guns out of the hands of criminals, too.

In this last example, we’ve traced the hijacking back to advertising pages connected with Face Book .  Oh horrors – would Face Book  do something like that?  Be forewarned:  if you have experienced any similar problems, think about it.  It appears that the gargantuan Face Book site is completely vulnerable to all sorts of hackers, not to mention all the data mining that is going on in background mode, to which most of us are completely oblivious.   As much as I enjoy Face Book and keeping up with my friends, I’m pretty close to shutting down my page.

The Internet has meant “freedom”  –  freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom from control or regulation, freedom from cost.  But as with most freedoms, there comes Responsibility – of the users to do the right thing, and Trust – that those governing those freedoms, will make the right decisions.

Right now there seems to be a scarcity of both.  Geesh – guess we’ve been look’in for love in all the wrong places.

Crede sed proba!

Here is a tongue-in-cheek- obituary which reportedly appeared recently in the London Times.  It certainly resonated with me; made me laugh a little in a dark sort of way, and in light of current events, I thought it was rather apropos.

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who as been with us for many years.  No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape.  He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:

  • knowing when to come in out of the rain
  • why the early bird gets the worm
  • life isn’t always fair
  • maybe it was my fault

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don’t spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).  His heath began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place.

Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened Common Senses condition.  He lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that the parents themselves failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.  It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as religious institutions became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims, or the elderly.  It also took a beating when citizens couldn’t defend themselves from a burglar in their own home but the burglar could sue for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot.  After spilling it in her lap, she was rewarded by a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust, by his wife; Discretion; by his daughter, Responsibility; and by his son, Reason.

He is survived by his four step brothers:

  • I know my rights
  • I want it now
  • It’s not my fault
  • I’m a victim

Only a few attended the funeral of Common Sense, because so few realized he was gone.  If you still remember him, please pass this on to others who would like to know.

Is there anyone out there who thinks things in our world have gotten just a little too silly?

 

Reader warning: I don’t know what happened to me this morning –  I just can’t seem to retract my claws.

What does it say about a culture that routinely places form over substance?  We do it in journalism, we do it in politics, we do it in publishing, but nowhere do we do it like we do in the entertainment world.

It may be what popular televised talent competitions have become, but you have to wonder, whose fault is that?  The producers who bow to audience demographics?  Marketers who pander to immature, crass consumers who have no point of reference to distinguish between talent and glitzy packaging?  As viewers have we become too lazy to think?  We’re fed the lowest common denominator of programming – the vulgar appeal of cannibalistic voyeurism.  And yet we’re glued to the television, tweeting and whining “OMG this is awful” as we stuff our mouths with Cheetos,  Fritos and Pepsi-Xfactor.   Charming, aren’t we?

From the first American Idol, I was no fan of Simon Cowell.   As a musician and a writer, I know painfully well the power of so-called critics who trod on the tender seedlings of talent with their harsh words and hobnailed boots.  The damage is seldom repairable.  I think particularly of judges whose egos drive their cruel commentary – they’re competing with the poor desperate souls who stand  before them, praying for any crumb of encouragement.

Begrudgingly, I have come to adore and respect Simon.  In his current role on The X-Factor, Simon is the one person who tells it like it is.  When contestants dreams are bigger than their talent, he says so and I echo his sentiments as I shout at the television: “OMG, you need to go home.”   However, the cynic in me knows that these shows select some contestants for the promise of just how bad of a train wreck they will bring to the millions of viewers.  Someone has figured out that watching emotionally unstable contestants  spiral out of control with paralyzing stage fright accompanied by a gut-wrenching gush of tears, is great television.  Why?  Because the measure is how many teens and tweens with obscene purchasing power are watching, and they don’t know the difference between tragedy and comedy.  Talent is incidental to the spectacle.

Case in point: this week in the Teen Group, one very young female contestant, Diamond White, demonstrated remarkable confidence, talent and resilience.  But ultimately she was tossed out in favor of a slightly older male teen, Arin Ray, who has no vocals but he knows just how to bite his bottom lip and grind his groin for the throngs of screaming young girls.  That’s all it takes, as Elvis well knew – but his talent always came first.

Judge/mentor of the Teen Group, Brittany Spears, is an amazing surprise and an amazingly serious judge who amazingly takes her amazing job very seriously and does her amazing best, with an amazingly limited vocabulary.  But despite Brittany’s lack of eloquence  she made a shrewd and calculated decision when she selected Arin to go forward.  No doubt her decision was based on anticipated audience voting which begins next week.  Her little teen heart-throb will likely garner far more votes — because that screaming female audience votes – big time – for the boys, not for the talent – and Brittany wants to win.  That audience isn’t old enough or sophisticated enough to recognize little Diamond’s serious potential. The producers don’t care.  It’s not about talent, it’s about ratings, and votes, and controversy.  A vampiric formula that sucks out every ounce of human drama.

Does this behavior do anything to elevate society and cultivate the best in any of us? Nope, but we’re gonna watch anyway.  I appreciate talent – in all its forms, even the unsuspecting hoards of star wannabes who risk everything, including the ultimate humiliation, to have an audition with anyone – even someone who’s own interests trump the contestant’s.  Guess I’m rooting for the deserving underdog who might just beat them at their own game.

Disturbingly, today’s contestants have their cart before their horse.  They display an alarming arrogance that suggests winging it will do.  Why not?  If all the players on their first grade soccer team got a trophy for coming in dead last, shouldn’t they expect a similar result from a perfect storm of misaligned values and unrealistic expectations.

I could go on and on about what is patently wrong with The X-Factor.  Demi Lovato comments to every contestant about what she sees behind their eyes.  Canned critique de jour, anyone?  L.A. Reid, in an unbelievable display of BAD FORM, shamefully dissed his team on day one, telling them he didn’t want them.  Now on every episode he savagely ridicules any contestant mentored by Simon. There are the over-the-top musical arrangements meant to camouflage, not enhance a performance; three mega-screen-backdrops, sure to distract from any flawed performance.

Do I need to mention the current “hosts?”  One doesn’t hesitate to read his question twice, even though it was just answered.  Oh, sorry, is paying attention a host requirement?  The other host can barely read the teleprompter so don’t be  expecting her to articulate that string of words with anything resembling conversational phrasing.  I think it might be above her pay grade.  OMG, hosting is like,  soooooooooo totally hard.  Well, actually it is if you do it right, and you need to be good at it to not look pathetically ridiculous – but then, isn’t being pathetically ridiculous what she’s traded on for the entirety of her twenty-minute career as a celebrity?  Meoooow.

Ah, the producers definitely have our number, don’t they?  The American audience:  attention span on a very short leash,  reduced to a mindless Roman Colosseum mob, screaming for the lions to be thrown to the Christians. Er,  is it the other way round?  No matter, it’s not a pretty sight either way, and speaks volumes about the lack of substance in our culture, never mind our willingness to keep watching even when it’s bad bad bad.

However,  do allow me to offer an alternative to the train wreck above.  The Voice, is another show I had little hope for in it’s first two seasons. But surprise!  In this season, the talent is dazzling in its range.  Where have all these wonderful people been hiding?   No doubt, wishing the entertainment industry would go against the grain and create an a venue like The Voice that actually elevates and rewards substance.

Judges Adam Levine, CeeLo Greene, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton, actually get it right. They have honed their craft with years of struggle, and each one is a skilled vocalist – not just a pop star.  They have much to give and that’s the core of the show, that and how the contestants apply that sage advice to their performances.  Theirs is an esprit de corps that’s fun, bringing levity to the high drama of what’s at stake.  But always the contestants come first and that shines through.

Carson Daly, one of the Desert’s own, does a smooth, credible job as the host and gracefully keeps things moving, doing his best to avoid awkward moments.   Of course the  coaches want to win the competition, but they’re going about it by making their contestants the very best they can be.  That’s not hard when you have incredible raw talent with which to work. No need to shove contestants into ill advised costuming and strange hair arrangements, or plunge them into wild productions that obscure the performance.

So, I’ll go out on a limb here and tell you that there is so much potential on The Voice, any one of my favorites could win:  Terry McDermott, Amanda Brown, Dez Duron, Loren Allred, Casadee Pope – they all have extraordinary talent and something else in common…they’ve been working on their craft for a very long time.  It shows.

Bravo The Voice…but don’t worry –  the producers/networks/or whomever the powers-that-be are –  someone will undoubtedly find a way to screw it up.  They always do.  Enjoy it while you can.  Just remember my old saying: Talent isn’t rare…talent with discipline is rare.

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