Friday, April 25, 2008

The Lion, Again

Well I guess I'm going AWOL
Disconnect my telephone
Just Like Greta Garbo
I just want to be alone

If you've been wondering why this blog has been so quiet the past few weeks, the above lyrics put it in a nutshell. They're from Van Morrison's "Just Like Greta Garbo", from his magnificent 2005 release Magic Time. The title to this post comes from the same record, from the strange and wonderful "The Lion This Time".

Speaking of Van Morrison, I'm listening to his just released Keep It Simple as I write. Van's music over the past twenty or so years has been a bit up and down, alternating between the pedestrian and the brilliant. A consummate musician, even Van's ordinary music is worth listening to, but he is the only one of rock and roll's early titans, other than Dylan, who can still on occasion make music that compares favorably to that of his heyday. Now into his fifth decade of making music, what separates Van's best music from the rest is, as always, the matter of his muse: when it eludes him he makes good, solid, enjoyable music; when he finds it, when he grabs hold of it, when he loses himself in it, he makes music for the ages. At those times he is capable of going further in his music that anyone.

While not up to Magic Time's standard, Keep It Simple a good, satisfying record. My favorite cut is "That's Entrainment," which catches a pure, easy, groove from it's opening chords, and is one of the sexiest songs Van has ever produced - "You make me holler when you come around, you make me holler when you shake it on down". Indeed. I'd never heard the word "entrainment" before now: I thought it was just something he'd made up, which would have been fine, and wouldn't have been the first time. But a quick check of the dictionary tells me it's a meteorological term meaning to trap, or carry along, a liquid or bubbles. Which is perfect, because the song, and the feelings the singer describes, carries you along effervescently: it floats on air. It's a great sing-a-long and make-up-your-own-words song. I'm also partial to "Lover Come Back," whose opening chords and verse reminds me of Emmylou Harris' rendition of "Evangeline" from The Last Waltz; and "The End of the Land", which, while excellent, could have been better: it comes up a bit short lyrically and, as such, doesn't take full advantage of the old, ancient cadences of its melody. If he'd been "going down to the end of the land" to commune with his God, if he'd be waiting on his true love to join him, if "the end of the land" was the place where salvation was found, it could have been a haunting song for the ages. Aah, but what do I know? He's Van Morrison, and I'm me, and he's the finest musician the rock era has ever produced.

I understand that is quite a statement. Better than Elvis, you may ask? Than The Beatles? Or Dylan, or the Stones? I admit that at a certain point musical preferences comes down to the subjective, to whoever else seems to speak to your own individual situation and temperament - to your own muse. So I'm not saying Van Morrison has produced a greater body of work than The Beatles, or Dylan, though I won't say he hasn't. To explain what I mean let me quote extensively from Greil Marcus's entry on Van in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll:

"When I was very young," the late Ralph J. Gleason wrote in a review of Moondance, "I saw a film version of the life of John McCormack, the Irish tenor, playing himself. In it he explained to his accompanist that the element necessary to mark the important voice from the other good ones was very specific. 'You have to have,' he said, 'the yarrrrragh in your voice.'"

Van Morrison has the yarrrrragh. His career, especially since Astral Weeks, can be seen as an attempt to deal with the yarrrrragh: to find music appropriate to it; to bury it: to dig it out; to draw from that sound, that aesthetic (for it is an aesthetic more than it is merely a sound), new tales to tell, or old tales to tell in new ways. The yarrrrragh is Van Morrison's version of Leadbelly, of jazz, of blues, of poetry. It is a mythic incantation, and he will get it, or get close to it, suggest it, with horns (no white man working in music can arrange horns with the precision and grace of Van Morrison), strings, in melody, in repetition (railing the same word, or syllable, 10, 20, 30 times until he has taken the song where he wants it to go). To Morrison the yarrrrragh is the gift of the muse and the muse itself. He has even written a song about it: "Listen to the Lion." Across 11 minutes he sings, chants, moans, cries, pleads, shouts, hollers, whispers, until finally he breaks away from language and speaks in Irish tongues, breaking away from ordinary meaning until he has loosed the lion inside himself. He begins to roar: he has that sound, that yarrrrragh, as he has never had it before. He is not singing it, it is singing him.

And there you have it, what I mean by the statement that Van Morrison goes further than anyone else. When he loses himself in his music, when he goes outside himself, he takes us outside our own selves, to places we didn't know existed. This ability to take us further, both emotionally and spiritually, is the raison d'etre of rock and roll. It's why we listen. All the great ones can have this effect on us, and, on occasion, even the not-so-great. But Van Morrison takes us on that journey, to that place outside ourselves, more consistently, more thoroughly, than anyone else.

I remember years ago reading a review of one of Van's records in which the writer stated "I haven't understood a Van Morrison lyric since Brown Eyed Girl" and I immediately thought, well, you miss the point. If you're looking for literalism go elsewhere. The best of Van's music is non-literal (at times, as Marcus' quote reveals, it is very nearly sub-literal). It's not about words, it's about sounds, and the images conjured up by those sounds. Astral Weeks, released in 1969, is, as Marcus mentions in the above quote, the place where we can mark the beginning of Van's journey with his muse. He had done some extraordinary music previously - "Gloria", "Baby, Please Don't Go", "Brown Eyed Girl", etc. But Astral Weeks marks an abrupt shift, away from his blazing blues-based rock, wherein he leaves the Mississippi Delta for a trip back to his Dublin roots. It is a strange and beautiful record, one which many still find puzzling but which for many of us still seems like nearly a miracle; as unique and personal musical statement as has ever been recorded, and one of the most satisfying. These are the opening lyrics to the title track:

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop

What exactly, in a literal sense, do these words mean? Not much. But who would claim they are not perfectly suited to the music? Astral Weeks continues on for ten songs and forty minutes and there is little hereafter that should be, or can be, taken literally. If you're looking to "understand" the lyrics, you'll come away frustrated.

And you know you've gotta go
On that train from Dublin up the sandy road
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame George

The words alone can't convey the wistful regret contained in that passage from "Madame George." What it means exactly is not important; rather, it's the feelings the image invokes that matter: that sense of loss, of leaving off, however reluctantly, from home, or family, or friends, or a lover. We've all felt these feelings at some time or place in our own lives; we recognize it here immediately, and it's what gives the song its resonance. Later, on "Cyprus Avenue," we get this:

Yonder comes my lady
Rainbow ribbons in her hair.
Yonder comes my lady
Rainbow ribbons in her hair.
Six white horses and a carriage
Just returning from the fair.

Now, I'm willing to bet that no one reading this blog has ever stood watching as his lady arrives from a fair in a carriage behind six white horses. It's not exactly a normal situation in this day and age. But by this point in the song, we know that the young girl is not really his lady; it's already been established that she is unreachable, and untouchable, and that the singer is watching her from afar, suffering. The song is about, in Lester Bangs' marvelous phrase, "rapture, and despair". The lines above are the culmination of the rapture. Then we get this:

Baby, baby, baby, baby,
baby, baby, baby, baby...
Well, I'm caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue.
Caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue.
And I'm conquered in a car seat
And I'm looking straight at you.

The rapture from the previous verse turns into despair during the drawn out "baby, baby"'s. By the time we get to the long, achingly beautiful, "Welllllllll, I'm caught...." the despair has taken over. Again, what matters for us is not the singer's particular situation, unless you're the type who pines for fourteen-year-old girls. What matters is, if we've ever been dumbstruck with love unrequited, we know what the singer knows; we've felt what the singer feels. Rapture, and despair.

An exploration of a record as rich and vibrant with emotion as Astral Weeks could go on for much longer than this but I'll leave off it by saying it is the obvious point in Van's career where he began to realize the possibilities open to him in his music. And he'd continue to push further. A master musician at twenty-four, schooled in rock and roll, the blues, jazz, folk music, Irish music, and American standards, he'd take that knowledge, combined with a young man's energy and an imagination fired by the romantic poets, and fashion from it as prolific a period of excellence as we've ever seen in rock and roll, save perhaps The Beatles circa 1962-1966. From early 1970 until 1974, he'd release five classic albums - Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic's Preview, and Veedon Fleece. This is the primary period we should focus on when analyzing Van's music because it's where he'd reach the pinnacle of his powers; he'd get there just one more time, on 1979's sublime Into The Music.

This post is long already but as it is my tribute to Van Morrison, who's music has meant more to me, clearly, and since I was a teenager, than anyone else's, it is right and proper than I should devote more space to here than any other post I've yet penned. So on we go.

What I'd like to focus on now, in regard to the period of music I've just referenced, is that particular aesthetic at work in Van's music when he was at his peak. Marcus' quote reveals it as the "yarrrrragh", that search to lose himself in his music. I like to think of it as his search for ecstasy, those moments during songs where he's surprise you, and probably himself, with bursts of musical joy; those moments when he goes over the edge, and you go with him.

A brief catalog of my favorite of these moments follows:

- To return briefly to Astral Weeks, which is replete with these moments, the climax of "Ballerina", with the repeated 'just-a-like-a-just-alike-a-just-a-like-a-just-alike-a-just-a-like-a-just-alike-a ballerina....steppin' lightly'; or, on "Sweet Thing", when he sings the lines '..and I will raise my hands up into the nighttime sky/And count the stars shining in your eyes' - no one else in rock and roll could get away with those lines - from others they'd either seem slickly sweet, or phony.

- There aren't many of these moments on His Band and Street Choir, which Van returns to some hard-edged rhythm and blues, though he gets close on the final verse"Virgo Clowns", when he sings 'Let us lift you up on high/See the twinkle in your eye/Raise you up to the sky/And say it's easy..Hey let the trumpets ring it/Let the angels sing it/Let your pretty feet go dancing/Let your worn out mind go prancing...and Sit down funny face/Let your laughter fill the room'.

- On the title song from Tupelo Honey, during the entire 'she's alright with me' section; later, on "Wild Night", when he sings 'And the wind catches your feet and sends you flying, crying/Oooh wee! - The wild night is calling'; on the close of "You're My Woman", during which he gets lost in the beat, leading to the final, rhythmic, pizzicato, 'and it's really, really, really, really, really, really real.'

- On Saint Dominic's Preview, virtually the whole of "Jackie Wilson Said", and especially the rush towards the ending; the whole of "Listen to the Lion", which the Marcus quote above explains beautifully; on the exquisite "Almost Independence Day", that moment of pure joy and release when he calls out 'and the boats go by'.

- Veedon Fleece, where Van has travelled back to Ireland to get in touch with his roots once again, is brimming with these moments. The opening "Fair Play", a song whose words on paper add up to lovely nonsense, is in music utterly irresistible - it may be the epitome of my claim earlier that Van's music is about sounds, not words. 'And there's only one/Meadows way to go/And you say Geronimo....Hi Ho Silver/Tit for tat/And I love you for that'. Again, trying to get to the bottom of this song literally, like so many of Van's songs, is a fool's errand; you can't approach it that way. The neglected masterpiece, "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River," whose very title announces it as a song of this type, takes this aesthetic even further, nine minutes of the "yarrrrragh", of 'bloomin' wonder,' of 'William Blake and the eternals/Standing with the sisters of mercy/Looking for the veedon fleece'; nine minutes out on the edge, searching for ecstasy, finding it six minutes in when he cries out, 'goin' as much with the river as not!/With the river as not!/with the river as not!", for me one of the most thrilling moments in his entire oeuvre. Later, on "Cul De Sac", he goes off into the vapors again, culminating in one of the greatest screams in rock and roll. The record ends with "Country Fair", perhaps Van's most beautiful song, an aching lament for times gone by, to an older, more peaceful world, one never to be recovered: "We laid out in the long green grass/And never thought that it would pass/In the country fair....We counted pebbles in the sand/Sand like time slippin' through our hand/In the country fair." The song is quiet, peaceful, and heartbreaking, ending in a flute accompaniment that is beautiful beyond words. The older I get, the more I love this record.

- As I mentioned earlier, Van's period of sustained greatness would end with Veedon Fleece but he would roar back once again five years later with Into The Music. Irish-influenced again, it would also mark the spot when his Christian faith begins to show up more prominently in his music, where the joy that was once inspired through his music, or his woman, now comes from his Lord. Previously in his music there were hints of his beliefs, as in "If I Ever Needed Someone", where you weren't sure if he was talking about his woman or his God; or on "Brand New Day" - 'it's shines so bright/and it gives so much light/and it comes from the sky above', where it seems that the light was his faith, though one couldn't be sure. On Into The Music, all doubt is erased, as in "Full Force Gale": 'Like a full force gale/I was lifted up again/I was lifted up again/By the Lord'. When he calls out before entering the final chorus "Like a full force!", he's enters that realm once again, only this time it's the spirit of The Lord who's taken him there. On "Rolling Hills", he'll 'live my life in Him', and 'read my bible still.' Less obviously, Van would take Dan Penn and Chips Morman's 1967 scabrous soul masterpiece about adultery, "The Dark End of the Street," and turn it into a celebration of fidelity in "The Bright Side of the Road." Returning to the secular, on "Angelou," the finest song about Paris I know, Van's repetitive plea of "will you be my baby?" marks another high point. Finally, there is the masterpiece, "And The Healing Has Begun", which may be the one song I'd take with me to a desert island, and which, during the violin solo, reaches a level of musical ecstasy that I'm not sure exists elsewhere - it's pure release.

And now I'm done. I was going to add a postscript to talk about another aspect of Van's music: Van the romantic. Not as in the romantic poetry, which is certainly there, but as in writing romantic songs about love. But it's getting late and my whole morning is shot, and I have things to do, and I'm not even going to proof-read this before publishing so hopefully it all makes sense. Instead I'll just tell you to listen to "Moondance," or "Have I Told You Lately," or "Someone Like You," or "Tupelo Honey," or "Come Here My Love", or all of them and a dozen more of Van's love songs, and you'll get a sense of another not to be ignored aspect of this greatest of all musicians.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Obama, man of the left

Barack Obama apparently had a miserable time at Wednesday's debate against Hillary Clinton. I say apparently because I didn't watch it - I'm taking the word of dozens of others who did watch it and came to that conclusion. I don't watch these Democratic debates on the grounds that life is too short; I am too easily irritated by both Obama and Clinton and I wind up yelling idiotically at the television. So I let others do the dirty work for me and then read up on their gibberish afterwards.

I did subsequently watch some clips of the most talked about episodes. The left had a fit because the media folks who are supposed to be running interference for Obama actually asked him questions about Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, and his 'cling to guns and religion' statement. I'm not sure why these issues are considered off limits by the left, except as relating to their opinion that we should all just kneel and bow before Obama, at least until he's been elected. To criticize him in any way apparently marks those of us who do as racists. But it's important that we get to know as much as possible about the man because he is basically a blank slate, a national figure for only a few years, and one who's accomplishments are, to put it mildly, slim. So it's telling that, after having refused to throw the racist, America-hating Reverend under the bus, and after refusing to apologize for his condescension to the hillbilly rubes who embrace guns and religion, Obama refuses to condemn even so despicable a character as Bill Ayers. Ayers was a terrorist whose actions led to people's deaths. He is unrepentant and in fact only sorry that he did not cause more destruction. But Obama actually came close to defending Ayers the other night, claiming that Ayers was an 'English professor' - as if being a member of academia excuses his past actions. Obama then explained away his association with Ayers by claiming he was only eight years old when Ayers was setting bombs - again, like that matters. So, as I said, this is telling because is shows Obama to be so saturated with leftist academic thinking that he sees no need to apologize, or even explain himself. As with Wright, Obama doesn't really see what the big deal is - after all, in the circles Obama has always travelled in, Ayers is a respected figure. This is another episode that makes it clear that Obama simply has no understanding of ordinary citizens.

And so the left had a fit, as it was clear that Obama handled all these questions about his associations badly. But how about the way he handled the policy questions? His answers on taxes were incoherent. To begin with, both he and Hillary claim they will raise taxes on the rich (.i.e. those making above $200,000) - this, as we head into recession. Now, if an university student taking his freshman economics class recommended raising taxes in an economic environment like we are currently in, he'd receive an 'F' and be told by the professor to consider another line of work. But it gets better. At first Obama claimed he had pledged not to raise taxes on those making less than somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000. Then he said he would raise the payroll tax. When it was pointed out to him that this went against the pledge of a few minutes before, he said he'd raise the payroll tax anyway. But his answers on the capital gains tax was the one that really took the cake. After conceding Charlie Gibson's point that lowering the capital gains rate led to increased government revenues, and increasing it led to lower government revenues, he still claimed that it must be done in the interest of 'fairness'. So Obama believes that taxation is a good in and of itself - that sticking it to the rich, regardless of the negative consequences, is not only 'fair', but a positive good. The man is a socialist, through and through.

His answers on guns were no better. Claiming to support a constitutional right to own a gun, he twisted himself into knots trying to explain away his support of the D.C. gun ban, saying that local communities could somehow limit that constitutional right. He now claims that the 1995 questionnaire he filed before running for his first political office, the questionnaire that says he supports a ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns, was filled out by someone on his campaign, not himself, even though his handwriting appears on it.

That Obama is a man of the far left can no longer be denied; there is simply too much evidence supporting that conclusion, and none to refute it. Given his pathetic performance the other night, that he is an empty suit when it comes to public policy would also be a fair conclusion; that he is dishonest when it comes to explaining his past actions (his above answer regarding the questionnaire, the claim that he wasn't aware of some of Reverend Wright's more objectionable statements, etc.) would be hard to argue with. That he would be the most radically left-wing person ever nominated to run for president by one of the major parties, of that there is no doubt.

Despite the media's aid and abettance, the general public will come to these same conclusions over the next few months and, in November, Obama will lose in a landslide.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Tax week

I heard on Larry Kudlow's show the other night that John McCain has joined the mortgage bailout team, at least to a limited extent. I'll have to look into it more but it sounds right. That's how it goes in Washington: Democrats propose something outrageously idiotic, the Republicans take a strong stand against, then capitulate a few weeks later with something a little less idiotic. The idea that I may have to give up some more of my money to bail out irresponsible lenders and borrowers makes my blood boil. According to the geniuses on Capitol Hill, if you live by the rules, pay your bills in full and on time, work hard, and prosper, you are simply not worthy of consideration. In fact, you have to pay for those who violate the rules. I've just finished doing my taxes (hence the grumpiness) and once again I am appalled: I cannot take out a Roth IRA, some of my deductions get chiseled away, my capital gains are not indexed for inflation, interest on my savings is taxed as income. These are all outrages and a true free-market politician would do something about them. But are there any true free-marketers left? The tax code as we know it is not only baroque and filled with disincentives that defy common sense, it is immoral. It is immoral to tax one person a different rate that another, immoral to take money out of one person's pocket and place it in another's. It is also, in my view, unconstitutional, a violation of the 14th amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law, i,e, Congress shall not make laws that treat one person different from another.

If I were king for a day it would all end. I would institute a flat tax in which the first $20,000 or $30,000 dollars of income earned would be tax-free. After that, income would be taxed at a flat rate, somewhere between 15-20%. I would abolish all deductions except two: mortgage interest, since property, i.e. home ownership, is perhaps the most important element of a free-people in a free-society and should be encouraged; and charity, the goal being to encourage more private charity to ultimately replace government bureaucracies. Capital gains and dividends would not be taxable. Interest on savings would not be taxable. I would abolish business taxation, since those costs are simply passed on to consumer.

Further, I would get rid of Social Security and replace it with something akin to the current federal 401k TSP plan, where, rather than being forced by the government to put their money into some black hole at minimal return, people could invest a portion of their incomes in the market for retirement purposes, if they so choose. This would be entirely voluntary. Anyone would be free to opt out, with the proviso that they are entirely on their own - don't come begging to the government in your old age if your alternative plan doesn't work out.

But, of course, this is just a dream. There is zero chance that even part of my plan could be implemented in the current atmosphere. Washington is filled with buffoons, charlatans, and other sundry dishonorable characters. They constitute an elected elite which operates for the benefit of itself and quite often the detriment of those whom they've been elected to serve. Their primary goal is to stay in power for as long as possible; their secondary goal is to expand their power in whatever area possible. The idea that we are living under true republican government in such an atmosphere is simply silly; we have in Washington now a non-hereditary semi-monarchy, an elite establishment whose every action is motivated to ensure its own survival.

Thus ends my annual mid-April lament.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Masters

I have loved The Masters since I was a little boy; I watched my first one in 1969 when I was eleven years old. It holds an allure, a charm, unlike no other sporting event, always slightly edging out the World Series in my mental rankings. It's not that The Masters is always better than the World Series, or other sporting events - there have been duds here and there, last year included. I simply look forward to it more. The only other events that possibly rivalled it in anticipation were the heavyweight championship bouts of years gone by - Ali, Frazier, Foreman, etc. But boxing is now not only a dead sport but a farce, and championship bouts are won and lost these days without my even taking notice.

Alas, The Masters too is no longer what it once was. The course changes at Augusta may have made it a better course but they've made the tournament less fun. The extra length, the rough, the added trees, the lightning-fast greens that were never meant to be that fast, have combined to make Augusta a beast - and that's the problem. Augusta was always difficult, owing mostly to the slope and speed of its greens - the greens were always Augusta's last (some said only) line of defense. But its wide-open fairways allowed players to put themselves in position to score, if they executed. If they didn't, the trouble on and around the greens could mean disaster. It was the greatest risk/reward golf course ever set up and the drama it created year-in and year-out was riveting. Back-nine 30s would set the place abuzz; back-nine 40s would break golfers - and their fans - hearts. It was exciting - it was simply SO MUCH FUN!

No more. The course won't allow hot streaks like it used to. The tournament has become a grind rather than a shootout with consequences. Risk-taking on so demanding a course is suicidal in most cases. So the golfers play it safe, calculating their way around the course like it was a U.S. Open set up. They pick their spots. This is not The Masters I grew up with and came to love. Zack Johnson's win last year - at +1 - bordered on the boring. He played excellent golf, no doubt, but there were no charges, no heartbreaks, and little excitement.

Don't get me wrong. I'll still watch every minute of the broadcast, including Wednesday's first ever showing of the par-3 tournament. I'll be online during the non-televised portions of the event, checking out the scores. It's still a great tournament played on an outstanding course by the best in the world. It's just not as fun. My ardor leading into this year's Masters is a bit muted from past years. I hope I can come back next Sunday evening and tell you I was a complete idiot for posting this and that the 2008 Masters was the most exciting ever.

Well, except for Jack's win in 1986. Nothing ever has or ever will top that.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Obama's questionnaire - and the questions it raises

The publication by of the questionnaire Barack Obama filled out in 1995 before running for his first elective office should be big news in the mainstream media, for it tells us much about the candidate and his beliefs. But it's clear that the MSM is now back in the bag for Obama, after a few weeks respite where it had no choice but to cover the Reverend Wright episode. The questionnaire story is nowhere to be found. Certainly Hillary, who had an opening, is partly to blame for this herself, with her idiotic sniper stories. It gave the press the opportunity to drop the Wright story in favor of Snipergate, after which they were free to return to schmoozing their one true love, Senator Obama. When it comes to the mainstream media, Hillary is now the woman scorned.

But the questionnaire is important. Read through it and try to find a single instance where Obama does not toe the liberal line. Remember while doing this that this is a man who promises to bring us all together in harmony, a man who promises a new politics, one in which we go beyond old divisions and come to new understandings. Remember too that Obama is a political neophyte about whom little is known - and the press obviously means to keep it that way. Rather than do there due diligence and report to the American people news that may help explode the myths Obama is selling, the media ignores anything that may intrude on the storyline they want to deliver.

So I, and probably a few others, would like to know if Obama still believes the following:

My top priority is ensuring that our young people are nurtured and supported through fully-funded public schools, and that a coherent job creation strategy is instituted at the state level to create more jobs at livable wages.

There are so many things troubling about this citation that I am bound to miss some of them. Let me acknowledge that I realize Obama was then running for the Illinois state senate while he is now running for president, so his 'top priority' is obviously going to have changed. But I want to know if Obama still believes this is the job of a state senator - to 'nurture' young people? I would also like him to explain what he means by 'fully-funded' public schools. Is the $10,000 a year or more per pupil that inner city schools regularly spend on public schools not considered 'fully-funded'? How much more should we spend? Who is it that will decide when we are finally 'fully-funded'? And what does he expect this extra funding to achieve that the vast amounts already expended have not?

Furthermore, is it the job of government to 'create more jobs at livable wages'? What is a livable wage? Again, who decides? How much money must be spent by the government in order to achieve these livable wage jobs and where will the money come from? How will the program work? After all, job programs have been a hardy perennial of local, state, and national budgets since the Great Depression, and few of them can claim success. How will Obama's be any different?

Also, there's this:

I am a strong supporter of affirmative action programs.

Well, yes, of course he was. But I want to know, is he still? To what extent? Will he seek to expand affirmative actions programs as president? If so, how will he bring along those, like myself, who are implacably opposed to such government-sponsored favoritism?

In the 'Finance' section of the questionnaire, Obama says he favors a graduated income tax; increasing the $1000 personal exemption as part of a shift to higher income tax; increasing income taxes to relieve or replace local property taxes; increasing state funding to at least 50% of public education costs; and public financing of election campaigns. He opposes school vouchers. Later, in the 'Labor' section, he says he favors 'comparable worth' for state employees and an increase in the minimum wage; his solution to improving the present mental health program is '[i]ncreased funding'; he supports medicare funding for abortion; insurance coverage for abortion for state employees; he may support parental notification of abortion but only for extremely young teens, i.e. 12 or 13 years old (I suppose a fourteen year old is, in Obama's opinion, capable of making this decision on her own); he supports no other restrictions on abortion. He supports state legislation that would ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns. What I want to know, and what the mainstream media seems disinterested in, is whether his positions on these issues have changed at all in the past thirteen years? And, whether they have or not, how will he bring us together on them?

I have only touched on it; read the whole document. In every area, Obama supports increased taxes and more government control. Could he have changed his opinion on these issues? Certainly, though his voting record since reaching the U.S. Senate would indicate not. We may never know - at least until it's too late- due to the media's irresponsibility.

Let's get something straight about Obama and his so-called ability to bridge the gap between right and left - it's nonsense. No politician can, no matter how much high-falutin rhetoric he throws around or how many gauzy, gassy platitudes he invokes. Political parties exist because there are fundamental differences in people's philosophies regarding government's roles and responsibilities. Some want more government involvement, some less. Obama wants more than most, I want less than most. To be frank, I have no interest in coming to some sort of rapprochement with the person who filled out this questionnaire. On the contrary, I am happy to be on the other side, doing my best to ensure that people with beliefs such as Barack Obama's are kept away from public office. I'll be here until the election.

Talking To Myself

There are few things in life that get me more excited than the discovery of a new writer. Now, I read lots of writers, mostly good ones, because I do my research beforehand. But I am not referring here to just your general excellent writer. Here I reference the kind of writer who comes along - or whom one discovers - only once every few years. The kind of writer who, within the first ten pages, you realize is something special. Who, ten pages later, has you wondering how many other books they've written. Who, after still another ten, has filled you with delight.

I have discovered Joseph Epstein. If you are familiar with his work you may be thinking, "well, what took you so long?", for Epstein is now in his seventies and has been publishing since the 1960s. Certainly I had heard of him, and his reputation. But when you are like me, and always have a list of twenty of more books you are dying to read (most of which you secretly know you'll never have time to get to), some books and writers are bound to get lost in the shuffle. Epstein's Friendship: An Expose has been on a list in my wallet for a few years now but I never took the bait. Earlier this week, after having reread Terry Teachout's review of Epstein's latest book In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, and brandishing a Borders Books gift card I received for my birthday, I bit. I'll never regret it.

Epstein, as the title of his latest makes clear, is an essayist - an essayist supreme. I love the format of the short personal essay - ten or twenty pages about a particular subject from the author's unique point of view. I'm not sure anyone does it better than Epstein. You make think the opinion premature when I announce I've read only the introduction plus five of the essays from In a Cardboard Belt!. But those entries are of such high quality and so entertaining - so much fun! - that I can't imagine the rest will be of diminished quality. As I alluded to above, with some writers it is immediately clear that they are perfect at what they do, and Epstein is one of them.

So far I've read Epstein's personal takes on turning seventy, his father, eating out, his career as a teacher, travelling, and his more than thirty years of keeping a journal. The last piece's title is "Talking to Oneself", from which I appropriated this blog post's title. Now, I don't mean to compare myself with Epstein in any way, shape, or form - he is a writer and thinker of genuis, while I am a poor scribbler who has rarely, if ever, had an original thought. It just occurred to me while reading the piece that I myself am keeping a journal of sorts here in my blog so what Epstein has to say about his own daily journal entries has some resonance with me. After speaking of his journal's origination, his goals for it, how it has changed over the years, others who have kept journals and their own opinions about them, he turns to the subject of the reader of these supposedly private thoughts:

But who is the ideal reader of a journal or diary? Harold Nicolson laid it down that "the purely private diary becomes too self-centered and morbid. One should have a remote, but not too remote, audience." Nicolson thought this would be one's (still unborn) great-grandson. Chips Cannon, the Chicago-born English politician, was one of the great snobs of the past century. He adored royalty, and once, overstimulated by having two actual queens in his house, got so drunk he had no memory of the event. "I sometimes wonder why I keep a diary at all," he wrote. "Is it to relieve my feelings? Console my old age? Or to dazzle my descendants?" Dawn Powell, who had no descendants beyond her retarded son, wrote, "The reason I write is because there is no one to talk to and I might as well build up a completely private life."

In the ideal journal or diary, one is talking to oneself but with the understanding that others are welcome to eavesdrop, after one is dead. Eavesdropping would normally be the last thing one would think one would want, given the ostensibly private nature of journals and diaries. In melodramas, it used always to be a serious violation to read, without their awareness, young women's diaries. Nowadays they try to publish them and as soon as possible.

That last line made me laugh, but then, there are a couple of laughs per page when reading Mr. Epstein. He ends the essay thusly:

Keeping a journal or diary, once begun in earnest, becomes more an addiction than a habit. I cannot now imagine abandoning mine. I continue to scribble each morning, living my life at a second remove, with nothing in it quite real until it has been scrawled out in my increasingly poor handwriting. "When all is said and done," Siegfried Sassoon wrote, "a good life is better than a good diary." No doubt, but please note that Sassoon makes this observation in his diary. You may think this essay has at last come to its conclusion, but it will really only be done tomorrow morning, when, in my journal, I write, "Finished essay on journals and diaries. Am, as usual, uncertain of its quality."

While I understand the uncertainty completely myself, I can assure you that Mr. Epstein has no need to worry about the quality of his own work. He is the genuine article. In have read that Mr. Epstein has nineteen books to his credit, ten of which are collections of essays. I have a lot to look forward to.