While You Were Sleepwalking

As I was driving through the parking lot at a local shopping center recently, I was stopped by some pedestrians leaving a shop. Courteous and watchful motorists should be on the lookout for people on foot always. This is especially true in crowded commercial districts that allow a mix of vehicular and foot traffic. What’s more, seasoned city dwellers will tell you that, essentially, pedestrians and cyclists alike are invisible to the average driver, and it is known among the non-motorists that extra vigilance is in order. On behalf of the casual urban ambler, it is the duty of every driver to be extra watchful, because for the occasional walker, we are their eyes and ears.

Back to my recent encounter. Various shoppers were crossing traffic to get to their cars, where, it is hoped, they would assume a commensurate position of vigilance while behind the wheel. A mother and her daughter were walking across my path, both captivated by tiny screens. I expected the pre-teen holding her mobile device would not be paying attention to the world around her. People born in the 21st century are not afforded any skills beyond those required for them to interact with the virtual world through technology. Human interaction is as foreign a concept to them as using technology would have been to my grandparents. This is not a judgement but an observation. A sobering, devastating observation.

The youth, engrossed by her smartphone, walking into the path of moving cars would be disturbing enough without the image of her mother, 4 meters ahead of the girl totally engaged with her own tablet and oblivious to me, also not looking up to make visual contact with, well, anything in her immediate vicinity, apart from the small screen, and especially not paying attention to her child. Now, the fact that this scene alarms me is testament to the rarity of such extent, and most parents probably do watch their children with eyes in the backs of their heads, like mine apparently had. So it is a bit of a relief that it is uncommon to witness such neglect, but imagine how much goes on without anyone watching.

Ever since the Palm Pilot came onto the scene, followed by the Blackberry, humans have been bowing their heads in adoration of the silicon god, the mobile device that connects us not to the person seated across from us, but to the technophile at the other end. Worse things can happen than simply missing out on human contact, I suppose, but we may be approaching the apogee of stupidity while glued to our screens. Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to be leading that charge.

I believe the blind leading the blind will never really understand the peril they are putting themselves – and their children – in by blundering through life playing Pokemon. I don’t mean to say I disapprove of video games. I enjoy a few on my phone. But sometimes it’s good for us – maybe necessary – to put it away, if only until we make it across the street. I’ll just continue to be their eyes and ears. Oh, and next time, I’ll drive through a nearby puddle just to make it interesting.

 

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com

 

Big Band Sounds Abound in Cowtown

If you live in or around Fort Worth, Texas (or in my case, within 120 km), and you like swing music and dance, you will enjoy the First Friday Dance at Southside Preservation Hall in the hospital district just south of Downtown. This historic location, maintained by the Southside Preservation Association, was originally a Methodist church, then a boxing gym, and now hosts weekly Tuesday night swing lessons and the monthly dance event. Buddy’s Big Band covers many of the classics, including “Moonlight Serenade”, “In the Mood”, and “Nice Work if You Can Get it,” to name a few. They feature guest singers from time to time. And their sound is phenomenal.

The dance hall is expansive, with tables lining the outer edge. The event starts at 8:00 PM, and it’s clear that people are in it for the duration, with some veterans staking claim to a table early in the evening. The night we visited, we saw many young people, teenagers and early 20-somethings. There were some in their autumn years but with lots of energy. A collection of ringers swarmed the center of the floor for the most part. It was obvious these folks had practised for a while, and they gave the appearance of gearing up for some dance competition in the near future, and they needed to test their skills. Whatever the case, it was a blast.

Swing dance has been in a slow-cooker comeback since the 90’s, with groups like Cherry Poppin Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and movies like “Blast from the Past.” The Dallas Swing Dance Society keeps a calendar of local dance events, workshops, classes, and more on their site. However, they do not include the First Friday event listing, furthering the chasm between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Buddy’s Big Band is the real deal, and the lead trumpet and tenor sax players were quite good, belting out solos all night. We ducked out for a little while to grab a bite, but on our return, the party was still in full swing (no pun intended). I recommend a high-protein meal. Swing dance requires a lot of energy.

This is a neat little secret in the area, and it surprised me that the dining crowds a few blocks up didn’t even know about what was happening. Dancers were dressed in various levels of formality, some with a t-shirt and a jacket, others wearing a tie and vest combo, and ladies in 1940’s era dresses. One young woman wore a pink poodle skirt. It was fun just being part of the scene.

Early in the evening, the band played a charleston rhythm, and those in the know took to the floor. My wife and I attempted to join in, but clearly, this was a rehearsed number. In any case, we all had a lot of fun.

Four hours of sanding is enough for anyone, and my legs are still sore. It’s obvious I need to get into better shape. I applaud the real dancers. They were really impressive, and the band seemed to take that as some sort of a challenge, playing yet faster tunes. The mirrored ball threw disorienting patterns around the room, but that didn’t seem to have deleterious effects on the dancers. And the band played on…

The next event is scheduled for March 4. We will probably skip it, but only because there is a dance workshop in Dallas that Saturday, and we need pointers.

Allons-y!

Behold, the Truth

There is a lot out there that is far from the truth. I mean truth in a more universal sense, as well as factual, accurate knowledge. Truth is not limited to information that can be verified and certified. The person making your sandwich is delivering truth. But the fast food industry is built on lies. How can there be truth in a burger? The truth, in fact, is in the delivery. You paid what you felt was fair for that sandwich. Did you pay too much? If so, did you complain? Perhaps you complain a lot. I pay for a sandwich or a package of Ramen noodles or a six-pack of beer – willingly, I add – because I accept the value. Is it worth my $8 for six bottles of beer? Not if they’re filled with Bud Lite. But if I can get Sam Adams for that price, then yes. Truth.

Economics is not a good subject on a discussion about universal truths. In fact, I don’t believe in them. Yes, gravity is a constant. But what about justice? Or freedom? Not everyone on this planet agrees on these concepts because there are cultural perspectives, unique to each group. What appears just and fair to the Maasai people may seem very different, even alien, to Canadians. When we talk about truth, we usually mean honesty and integrity. Not everyone is completely honest. In fact, no one is. I dare say that we all lie to each other, and to ourselves. Why? Maybe we are trying to spare one another’s feelings. “What do you think?” we are often asked; and are we expected to deliver an honest evaluation?

Truth is in short supply in “reality” television. I’m sure you’ve watched one of these so-called unscripted programs. The fact is that all these are only staged presentations, like everything else on TV. It’s the same with the news, although not as clever. A local TV station in my Dallas was notorious for baiting viewers with deceptive teasers. “Find out how this diet trick can send you to an early grave!” they would exclaim, “Later in this broadcast.”  Naturally, it would turn out to be based on findings from a study; but, the TV station is not interested in delivering truth. They want ratings. Advertisers pay based on ratings. Money is their truth.

Essentially, money corrupts everything eventually, whether it’s government, entertainment, mega-churches, or big business. Nothing is safe. People are greedy. That’s as much a truth as anything. We mean well, but then we let greed and envy and ambition get out of control. Watch kids playing a game, and you will understand what I mean. But what happens when adults get involved. Parents at football or hockey matches for their kids can be the worst kind of people. Their actions and words can and will have harmful effects on their kids and any child in their vicinity. It’s ugly, but it reveals our basic nature.

Money is not in and of itself evil. It is often said that money is at the root of evil, but I don’t believe this to be true. Money is a thing. Humans have assigned meaning to it. We value it. Why is gold precious? It is not practical as a metal for much other than electronics. And there are better synthetic materials now. Pure gold has a dull luster, not as shiny as when mixed with harder metals. It is soft and extremely dense, so it is not useful in making weapons or tools. And it melts at lower temperatures, so it is not practical for making pots to cook with. Yet gold is a very expensive material. It probably was not worth much in neolithic times, when humans were preoccupied with finding food and shelter.

The truth is: food is worth more than gold, or it would be if the economy collapsed. Also, clean water would be worth more than diamonds. And soap would be like pearls. Well, you see that truth is relative. A bar of soap right now is worth about $1. That’s pretty cheap. But for people in another place, it might be worth a week’s wages. I can turn on the tap and have all the water I need. But there are about 1 billion people who have no access to safe drinking water. In truth, water for them is precious.

What looks like truth to us might be far from it for someone else. I look at TV differently, having helped create programs. Someone watching might never know what happens behind the camera. As you read this, you may perceive a different truth about me as the author than one based on other facts hidden from the general public. And there are truths obscured form my view. This is why it is the goal of the philosopher to pursue truth in all its forms. Will he find it? We may never know.

Geoguessr

Geoguessr.com is a geography puzzle using Google Streetview. Each game consists of 5 rounds. At the beginning of each round, you are met with a view of someplace, anyplace on the planet, in any country, any town or city or countryside. Your goal is to guess, with as much accuracy as you can muster, where in the world you are. You are able to pan from side-to-side, zoom in, zoom out, pan up and down, and move in any direction allowed by that particular round. Some avenues will be cut off, for instance, and there is a limitation of movement, but you might not encounter the artificial wall. I have many times, however.

geoguessr
Where in the world are you?

I am a geography nerd, so I really get this game. I mean, I find it compelling. I don’t expect everyone to love it, but I’m sure there are many fans of this diversion. And there are several blogs and articles offering tips and tricks, some of which I was able to figure out, some I didn’t think about before.

Since the classic “worldwide” game will drop you essentially anywhere Google Street View has documented, you are in for a surprise nearly every time. Did you catch that? Anywhere Google Street View has gone before. That excludes large areas of Africa and South America, unfortunately. Argentina is adding new photos, as are a number of other countries, but there is nothing recorded in Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela and Bolivia. Africa is largely left out. This is just as well: I am still unfamiliar enough with Australia and Finland to keep it interesting.

Here are a few tips:

1. May attention to traffic patterns. In the North and South America and most of Europe, they drive on the right side of the street, but in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Japan, they drive on the left.

2. Only USA has speed limit signs in MPH. If you see any sign displaying kilometers, you’re not in the States.

3. Australia is huge. Good luck.

4. Canada is also huge, but the Rocky Mountains along the Alberta-BC boundary are kind of unmistakable.

5. Portuguese signs are almost a dead giveaway for Brazil, especially in the tropics. Portugal has pine forests and really old architecture.

6. Chile and Mexico are both Spanish-speaking countries, but Chile has some of the most striking desert features. Mexico has rain forests in the south.

7. Get familiar with Fin place names.

This game will really challenge your geography skills, or lack thereof. It doesn’t hurt to know a bit about the world you inhabit. Just think of it this way: when extraterrestrials visit and ask you where they can find the world leaders, you can point to Sydney or Geneva or London or New York on a map. Or you can screw with them and point to Tulsa.

Well, I’ve got a game to finish. By the rolling hills and the reddish soil, I can tell I’m in the South, but where?

Who Wrote That Song?

I like watching “X Factor” and “[Insert Country]’s Got Talent” clips on Youtube. Some of my favorite performances come from the stage of auditions before the likes of Sharon Osbourne, David Hasselhoff, , Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell, to name a few. If you haven’t seen the show, honestly, you have not missed much. The rare performer who really makes it (Michael Grimm in 2010 won “America’s Got Talent”) is usually a singer. Dancers, magicians, stand-up comics, and other talents are less likely to achieve stardom from the springboard of being on one of these programs. Nevertheless, they are very entertaining.

The most delicious component of these shows, the auditions, feature would-be entertainers processing one by one across the stage. When the auditioner is a singer, more often than not, he or she, when asked what they will be singing, responds with the name of the song followed by the name of the person who recorded the song. This is a common occurrence, where the song-writer is often forgotten. Of course, artists like Adele write their own songs (with a little help). But many recording artists, myself included, tend to record other people’s work (covers). But I like to acknowledge who actually composed the work. And I kind of wish those people auditioning would do the same.

Over and over, the contestants approached the mic, and Howie Mandel or Simon Cowell would ask them what they were going to sing, and the answer is usually the name of the song followed by the person who sang it for the version they were familiar with. For example, one contestant, when asked what she was going to sing, said, “‘Your Song’ by Elton John.” The fact is that  Bernie Taupin wrote that song, not Elton John.

Below is a list of popular songs, the prominent artists, and their composers. You might be surprised:

“Woodstock” performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, written by Joni Mitchell

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” performed by Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, et al., written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine

“Rolling in the Deep” performed by Adele, written by Adele and Paul Epworth

“Faithfully” performed by Journey, written by Jonathan Cain

“Live to Tell” performed by Madonna, written by Patrick Leonard

“Forever” performed by KISS, written by Paul Stanley and … Michael Bolton?!

“The Way You Look Tonight” performed by Frank Sinatra, written by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern

“First Love” performed by Jennifer Lopez, written by Savan Kotecha, Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh

“I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” performed by George Michael and Aretha Franklin, written by Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan

“If I Were a Boy” performed by Beyoncé, written by Toby Gad and BC Jean

“Hold On ‘Til the Night” performed by Greyson Chance, written by Lady Gaga

“Ring of Fire” performed by Johnny Cash, written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” performed by The Shirelles, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin

“Under the Boardwalk” performed by the Drifters, written by Arthur Resnick and Kenny Young

“Hit the Road Jack” performed by Ray Charles, written by Percy Mayfield

This is by no means a comprehensive list. I was surprised myself when I was doing the research. John Tesh came up a couple times, but he mostly writes Christian songs, which are not exactly mainstream. Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” was prominently featured during NBC’s reign over NBA televised games in the 1990’s. Bob Dylan wrote many songs that went mainstream after pop artists covered them. And Carole King composed quite a few hits in the 60’s and 70’s, along with Roy Orbison and many others.

But none of this knowledge, which was pretty easy to find by the way, will influence the next generation of contestants on America’s Got Talent and X Factor for recognizing the songwriters. My point is that knowledge is undervalued. People tend to bask happily in ignorance, either pretending that truth can’t matter to them, or they think they are right in the first place. If knowledge is power, then what is the blatant refusal of it? I realize this kind of knowledge – who wrote a pop song that may mean nothing – will not end hunger or prevent wars. Yeah, I get that. Still, it’s important to have the right information.

Why I Hate Christmas – I Actually Don’t, but Bear With Me

Okay. I actually do not hate the Christian holy day of the nativity of Jesus. What I hate is what Christmas or Xmas or “the holiday season” or Noel or the “most wonderful time of the year” has morphed into in this country and across the pond, and what it does to people.

When I was a kid I loved Christmas. I loved the lights and decorations, and of course, the presents. I loved seeing Charlie Brown and listening to Mel Torme. We would buy a moribund tree that had been cut down in October and shipped from Michigan and erect it in our living room in keeping with a tradition that was started in England as a fad patterned after a German custom imported by Prince Albert, husband to HM Queen Victoria. In Texas, the sad excuses for pine trees are just, well, Charlie Brown-ish. (About an hour drive east of Dallas, you can peruse acres of parched evergreens and saw down the tree of your choice for less than $75. But late November in Texas offers two types of weather: too cold to have fun, and too warm to get into the spirit of Christmas tree-hunting.)  I can’t deny that I don’t have good memories of yuletide, but much of this can be chalked up to the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia. There are for me some genuinely good memories of the holidays rolling around up there, and practically everyone has a their own Rosebud, even if they had never seen snow.

09_JAN2011_Finch_Park
@2011 Chris Zuniga Photography

But the sacred traditions of our youth evolve, and the deeper meanings to cultural rituals can be lost over generations, centuries (I won’t get into the ugly truth about the pagan rituals that Christmas was originally based on). Do a little research, and you will find that the Santa we all recognize here in the States was based on a Coca Cola ad from 1931. Before then, Santa or Father Christmas or Père Noël or Saint Nick or – the list goes on – was just an old dude in a coat. His beard was usually gray or gray-white, and his trappings resembled something a 14th century monk would find inappropriately flashy. Then in the early 19th century, a poem titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published which would radically change our image of Santa and Christmas. Suddenly, there was a jolly elf delivering presents, dropping down the chimney. Never mind that not everyone has a fireplace, that wouldn’t stop this juggernaut of imagery from establishing a foothold in American tradition. Many people can recite at least part of the poem from memory, even naming the fabled reindeer in order. And it has become a favorite tradition in this country for the head of the house to read the poem on Christmas Eve.

All this still does not bother me, even though many of our traditional themes came to us from advertising. But in the 20th century, things got really shitty. Even Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, was keenly aware of commercialism’s effects on the holiday. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Peanuts gang try putting on a Christmas play, with Charlie Brown as its director. He starts out – and continues through the program – being depressed about Christmas and how commercialized it has become, and can’t get into the holiday spirit. He eventually gets some help from his friend, Linus, and the rest of the gang.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, Christmas had become the main vehicle supporting commerce in the otherwise midwinter slump. Businesses began bringing in shoppers right after Thanksgiving, starting another bleak holiday tradition, Black Friday. The consumerist ritual of bringing out shoppers a mere hours after the yearly gluttonous act of devouring a turkey dinner while watching multimillionaires playing football is the starting bell of the shopping season. Market analysts will watch closely while shoppers go completely insane trying to beat the crowds so they can be among the first to get their hands on the latest PlayStation, just to keep up with the Joneses. God bless us, everyone!

This brings me to my point of why I hate Christmas. Somewhere along the way, capitalism creeped into what had been a precious and cherished holiday. Even if you are not very religious, the Christmas season can represent all that is good in the universe. It had been a time when people would come together, setting aside differences and celebrating, at least for a moment, a season of brotherhood, togetherness, hope, and joy. Add to that the idea of Jesus being born that night – which he wasn’t, but that hardly mattered to early church leaders – and you have yourself a beautiful celebration. Light the candles, sing some songs, and enjoy one-another’s company over a glass of whatever you choose. Perfect just the way it is. I’d like to leave consumerism out of it for once. If your idea of a perfect Christmas is to build a fire on some beach and gather your friends to sing Beach Boys songs, make that your tradition. If Christmas is a big dinner with your family (as it is with mine), or a midnight mass or Laser Tag, it still adheres to I believe to be in the spirit of the holiday. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to get stressed out going all over town to find that “perfect” gift? Wouldn’t Christmas be better if we didn’t have midnight madness sales, last-minute blow-outs and Truck-a-thons?

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Charles Schulz

Okay, so I really don’t hate Christmas. I fully intend to make my own traditions, and people and retailers who don’t agree can still go on doing whatever they want, and it won’t affect me. Like Charlie Brown, I have found meaning in Christmas, what it means to me. Sure, the Church™ can try and tell me what I should get out of this. And Target and Wal-Mart can pitch their ideas. But my holidays are not for sale.

Have yourself a merry…