Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why not vote?

The purpose of this posting is to convince everybody reading it to vote in the August 5th election. This goal seems reasonable enough, but given the attitudes of some, it is a goal that will be impossible to achieve.

There are several approaches I could take. For example, I could use the 'guilt trip' approach by reminding voters that a lot of people have fought and died just so we can have free elections.

This freedom is one of our most fundamental rights. We all know that many people in the world do not have this right. Some can not vote at all, and others often have to endure government interference that makes their secret vote not so secret.

Freedom and democracy have many privileges, but there is also a lot of responsibility. To make a country like ours work, it is necessary for those who enjoy the benefits to also involve themselves in the process that makes it work. Frankly, there are many people who have let this slide, and the bitter fruit we have seen lately in our country is partly because of that.

I could use the 'we get the government we deserve' approach. After all, if we do not take advantage of our right to vote, it gives much more room to those who sneak around and exploit the system for their benefit.

Voters are supposed to be like security guards. We should be keeping a close eye on the work of our government to protect the sacredness of our country. If we do not, our country becomes that much more vulnerable to those who do not have our country's best interests at heart.

Many people appear to believe that our country can survive no matter what happens. After all, we are a super power, right? Sorry, but all nations or empires crumble at some point. When I was a boy, the Soviet Union was a super power that seemed unstoppable.

Within 15 years, it was gone. Like many countries that crumble, it crumbled from within. And, in a chilling coincidence, part of the reason it crumbled was because of a long and costly war in Afghanistan (sound familiar?).

If it can happen to them, it can happen to us.

I could use the 'when we do not vote, we really are voting' approach. Though people get discouraged and feel their vote does not make a difference, it actually carries a lot of weight. If a person does not vote, it allows political candidates with a different ideology than theirs to get that much stronger.

This is because if a person does not vote, then the power of a voter who supports a different candidate enlarges and takes the space vacated by a non-voter. Voting is not passive. If a person does not participate, there are plenty of people waiting to exploit that person's inactivity.

The bottom line is there is no good excuse for not voting. In Thursday's election, there are races on the local, state, and federal level. There is a little bit for everybody.

Locally, there are races for Circuit Court Judge, Alderman, and the County Commission among others. Given the financial state of Coffee County, it is inconceivable that there are people who do not care how the County Commission races will turn out.

On the state level, there are Democratic and Republican primaries for Governor. On the federal level, there are Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives.

This election has a full plate of candidates. If you do not vote, do not complain to me if you are not happy with the results.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

'The Last Waltz' is likely rock and roll's best concert album

In general, I am not a big fan of live albums. Many times they are quickly slapped together to either take advantage of an artist's sudden popularity or to help an artist kill time while slipping out of the public eye for a while.

Plus, live albums are not always live. Usually, post-concert tinkering is done to clean up a performance and present somebody in the best possible light. We live in a day where it is common place for people to lip sync while performing. If the performance is not real, how can we expect their live album to be so?

The Last Waltz is a really good live album. It is not entirely a live album because six cuts were done in the studio. However, the rest of it is live and nearly fills up two CDs. It is filled with first-rate music.

The Last Waltz was billed as The Band's final performance. They were saying good bye and invited a list of artists that they enjoyed to perform with them. Their guests made the concert unusual to say the least. How often did Neil Diamond and Muddy Waters share the same billing at a concert? My guess is not often.

They started from the beginning. They brought in Ronnie Hawkins who sang 'Who Do You Love.' Of course, The Band played with Hawkins when they were known as The Hawks. The rest is a Who's Who in popular music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Neil Young sang 'Helpless.' Dr. John sang 'Down South in New Orleans.' Van Morrison sang 'Caravan.' Eric Clapton sang 'Further On Up The Road.' There were others as well, but I think you get the picture. There was a lot of good music with a lot of big names. The show culminated with Bob Dylan who The Band had collaborated with several times.

Despite all that music, The Band is the unquestioned star of the show. The five members of the group made up the most versatile band in rock history. Their level of musicianship has been rarely seen in popular music.

Organist Garth Hudson's intro to 'Chest Fever' is unquestionably one of the most unique solos ever recorded. Bassist Rick Danko's vocal on 'It Makes No Difference' defines heartbreak. Guitarist Robbie Robertson's solo on 'Stagefright' is so sharp it almost draws blood. Pianist Richard Manuel's vocal on 'Shape I'm In' communicates the despair of the impoverished. Drummer Levon Helm's singing on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' evokes dignity and pride in the same breath.

The Last Waltz is not only a great live album, but a great album, period. It captures lots of musicians at their peak in one album. It is essential for any collection.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Facebook is watching

We live in a remarkable age when it comes to the technological breakthroughs we have seen. We can see how it impacts us every day if we will only take the time to stop and notice.

One of the most highly visible examples of this is the Internet and its ability to provide us with easy access to information and other people. This ability is breathtaking. E-mail, chat rooms, Twitter, and other forms of communication have revolutionized how we think, talk, and write.

Every couple of years a new breakthrough will appear and take the world by storm. An example of this a few years ago was Facebook. In general terms, Facebook is a social networking and information service that can allow a person to present a summary of their life on-line to anybody who is interested.

Recently, I joined the Facebook trend and signed up. I hope this is not bad news because I have a tendency to latch on to trends just as its popularity begins to decline. What does this mean? It means I hope it does not become obsolete by the time I finish writing this posting.

In the short time I have used Facebook, I have really enjoyed it. Perhaps the most surprising, if not shocking, aspect of it is how easily it can connect a person with other people on the site.

For example, after I finished signing up, one of the first things it presented me was a list of people I could reach out to and become their 'friend.' The list was vast and included hundreds of people I knew in my childhood and other segments of my life.

Initially, this excited me, but the extent to which Facebook knew my past began to unnerve me somewhat. When I signed up, I provided it with information about my life and agreed to certain terms and conditions. However, I never dreamed it could connect me so quickly with that many people.

I am not referring to people I have not talked to in a year or so. I am talking about people I have not seen or talked to in 25 years. Do not get me wrong; I have enjoyed learning about their lives, but access to this much information so fast made me a little paranoid.

How could Facebook know all this? After all, it linked me with people at my present employer, but I did not present it with any information about my current job. I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, but I am not a technical whiz so I can only wonder. It probably has something to do with my e-mail habits, but I am only guessing.

My generation grew up having to read the book Nineteen Eighty-four and fantasies about 'big brother' watching me filled my head as I reviewed the information Facebook provided. Still, after getting through my initial concerns, I have gotten more comfortable with the service.

The bottom line is that any service that allows people to reach out to each other can not be that bad. Technology is like any creation; it can be used for good or bad. However, I think this is a good example of how technology can help fill the gaps between us.

Some would argue that this type of technology is actually a cold way of keeping in contact. They would say that it lacks the warmth of hearing another person's voice.

Maybe. However, I believe that the written word often carries a lot more weight than the spoken word. After all, once a conversation ends, it is over. E-mails and on-line messages can be kept forever.

Friday, July 23, 2010

'Inception' a first-rate thriller that succeeds on all levels

There was a lot of hype about Inception leading up to its release, especially about its plot and special effects. The film lived up to my expectations of it, and seeing it was a very satisfying movie-going experience.

The plot primarily deals with the manipulation of dreams and how people can exploit them. I will not give away too many of the details because I do not want to spoil it for anybody thinking about seeing it (click here for a deeper review of the film). However, the subject matter is quite interesting, and it was delivered in an entertaining way.

There has been some buzz about the plot being too complicated. I did not see it that way at all. Because of the nature of the subject matter, it required several plot lines to be unfolded at the same time and in some cases, it happened fast. Still, I did not find the story difficult to follow though I would recommend that people pay close attention to information provided at the beginning of the film. It was refreshing to watch a film that challenged the audience to use its brain.

Leonardo DiCaprio continues to be reliable when it comes to delivering a good performance. He was excellent, and he has blossomed into much more than a heartthrob in the last 10 years. He continues to align himself with excellent directors. Christopher Nolan, who directed The Dark Knight, wrote and directed Inception. Of course, DiCaprio has also made four films with Martin Scorsese.

The film is worth seeing. To get the full impact of it, I recommend seeing it in a theater instead of waiting for it to come out on DVD. It is a visual film that deserves to be seen on a big canvas.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Quote of the day: Groucho knows....

"I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book." Groucho Marx

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Taking stock...

The one event that often serves as a catalyst that makes people take stock of their lives is when somebody they know dies.

Though we all know we will physically die someday, there is nothing that completely prepares us for the moment someone dies. Sudden deaths do shock us, but it also impacts us when people with long illnesses finally die. Their long illness allows us to prepare somewhat, but the moment it happens we feel helpless. One minute they are alive, and the next minute their soul has gone.

The interesting aspect of this is that the deaths that cause us to take stock are not always people we know closely.

For example, I recently returned from vacation, and the evening I returned I was sitting on my couch reading The Saturday Independent. As I skimmed the pages, I read the obituary of somebody I knew as a youth.

It always causes us to feel a strange vibe when somebody we went to school with dies. I have not experienced too much of that, but now I am 45, so I guess I better get used to it in the coming years.

Additionally, before I went on my vacation, there was a co-worker of mine who had to miss a few days of work because of an illness. When I returned, I read a notice on our company bulletin board that said she had passed away. First, she was sick, then she was hospitalized and she was gone within days.

When events like this happen, it causes us to look long and hard at where we are in life. When I was a boy, I remember thinking that I would be 35 in the year 2000, and that year seemed like some far off and remote time. Of course, I have now steamrolled by that point and am deep into middle age.

It is fascinating that the deaths of these people have caused such deep personal reflection within me. Both were blips on my personal radar when they were alive. My classmate who died was somebody I probably had not talked to since we left school. However, my memories of her are that she was a warm and good person.

As for the co-worker, I was an acquaintance of hers, and I had worked with her on projects. Still, I can not say that I considered her a friend even though she was a very nice person.

Perhaps this says a lot about the impact people have on our lives without our really knowing it. As we zoom through each day, we interact with lots of people. However, by the end of the day, we often forget what we said or did not say to the people we encountered.

Still, these people we meet must impact us on a subconscious level. How else can I explain what I have been feeling during the last couple of weeks?

If nothing else, this fact should empower us with a deep sense of personal responsibility. Since we do impact people as we meet them, we must make a decision whether we will impact them in a positive or negative way.

This is part of the legacy we will leave when we die. Too often, people get depressed and feel there is no way for them to make a difference in a world so big. The content of this column screams that this is not true. Maybe the events of the last couple of weeks mean I need to commit to making the most of my opportunities.

In closing, thank you Susie and Glenda. Thank you for impacting my life.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer music makes the day go faster

This time of year is great when it comes to driving down the highway with the wind blowing through your hair (well, you know what I mean).

Here is a sample of what I am enjoying these days.

'For You' by Bruce Springsteen
'Jungleland' by Bruce Springsteen
'Hit the Road, Jack' by Ray Charles
'Good Day Sunshine' by The Beatles
'Would You Take Another Chance on Me' by Jerry Lee Lewis
'Evangeline' by The Band with Emmylou Harris
'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys
'Oh Boy!' by Buddy Holly and The Crickets
'Hurt' by Johnny Cash
'She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye' by Jerry Kennedy and Friends
'Paradise' by John Fogerty and The Blue Ridge Rangers
'Rocks Off' by The Rolling Stones
'Loving Cup' by The Rolling Stones
'Charlie Brown' by The Rude Awakening
'Winterlong' by Neil Young
'Lazy Days' by The Byrds
'Two Hearts Beat as One' by U2
'Still Crazy After All These Years' by Paul Simon
'Superstition' by Stevie Wonder
'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet' by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
'Chicken on the Ground' by Billy Joe Shaver

Monday, July 12, 2010

Atlanta Braves emerging as the team to beat in the National League East

Back on May 27, I wrote that I was starting to like the Atlanta Braves chances in the National League Eastern Division (click here to read that). Since then, the Braves have played the best ball in the division and hold a four-game lead at the All-Star break.

The Braves had five players selected for the All-Star game. Second baseman Martin Prado was picked and has hit above .320 for most of the year. He ranks near the top of many hitting categories in the National League. Catcher Brian McCann was picked again, proving that he remains one of the best receivers in the game. Pitcher Tim Hudson has had an ERA below 2.50 for most of the year. Rookie right fielder Jason Heyward was selected despite spending time on the disabled list in June and July. However, he will miss the game because of his thumb injury.

The most controversial selection was outfielder/utility man Omar Infante. Many people were up in arms because Infante is not a regular starter on the team. Personally, I do not believe he should have been selected, but he is hardly the stiff many media folks (mostly from New York) are saying he is. He is hitting above .300 and is an excellent defensive player who can play five positions. The guy can play regardless of what his shortcomings are.

Heading into the second half of the season, the Braves are in good shape to remain a divisional contender. With the return of pitcher Jair Jurjens from injury a couple of weeks ago, the starting rotation is now set in place. The bullpen should remain an asset as long as closer Billy Wagner remains healthy.

The key, as always, with the Braves is the offense. Will the team continue to produce as it has? When the team struggled in April, it was because the offense simply could not come up with a clutch hit when needed. The result was a lousy month that featured a nine game losing streak.

If Heyward returns and the offense can avoid injuries, the Braves should be fine. The Phillies are struggling because of a balky offense and erratic starting pitching (with the exception of Roy Halladay and maybe Cole Hamels). The Mets played well in June and could be a threat. Playing in a pitcher's park, starters like UT product R.A. Dickey have done well.

The remainder of the summer should be fascinating. As always, if the Braves do not win the division, let's hope the Mets do not.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The heat and Carlos Zambrano goin' loco

There is something about the summer that makes people impatient. A common cliché used this time of year is that 'people are reaching their boiling point' when describing conflict.

It makes sense, I guess. Our outward environment definitely can impact us. If the temperature is hot and the humidity is high on the outside, then our internal thermostat can easily explode if we are not careful.

We see this in sports a lot. Carlos Zambrano, who is a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, went off the deep end a couple of weeks ago after giving up four runs in one inning against the rival White Sox.

It was a sunny day, and when he returned to the dugout at the end of the inning, he verbally attacked just about everybody within hearing range. He did not feel some of his fielders hustled when tracking down hits he gave up, and he was not happy about it.

I wonder if he also pointed the finger at himself because he gave up a home run in that inning. It is kind of tough for a fielder to go up into the seats and catch one of those.

Much to Zambrano's chagrin I am sure, his meltdown was done in front of thousands of people and a television audience. Of course, it was repeatedly shown throughout the day on various sports broadcasts.

He came off looking silly because he has struggled all season. Reporters almost reported with glee that he continues to fall short of the expectations the Cubs had for him when they signed him to a $91 million contract a few years ago. The team's response to his tirade was to suspend him.

Still, it is difficult not to feel some compassion. Even if his tantrum was unfair to the people he attacked, we all know what it is like to blow our stack and lash out at people who do not deserve it. We are just fortunate that our mistakes have not occurred in public and been broadcast nationwide.

Of course, we now live in a YouTube world where even the most innocent of mistakes can make it to the Internet if somebody is videoing it. So, I guess the lesson we must all learn is to keep control of ourselves to avoid the possibility of becoming a punch line for people around the world.

As for the impact the heat can have on us, it is important that we remember that it will be gone in a few months. Temperatures will begin to cool soon even if it feels like that time is far away.

Then again, I am assuming that everybody reading this dislikes the heat as much as me. I know this is not true. For every person who hates the heat, there is somebody who feels like the summer is liberating.

To those people I say: Keep away from me.

A common coping technique I use to get through this season of misery is to surf the Internet and look for cities where the temperature is cool.

In the United States, a common town I check out is Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is the northernmost permanent settlement in our country. Even this time of year, we can visit and see that their forecast is for temperatures in the 50s.

That sounds pretty good right now. I would never want to live there because of the brutal winters, but just knowing there are people in our country enjoying cool weather right now is good enough for me.

Relief is on the way. Relief that will help us all rest a little easier.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Five things to know about Virginia

Having just completed my first visit to the state of Virginia, here are five pieces of information a person may find useful when traveling there.

1. I traveled to Virginia by car, and most of my trip was along I-81 through the Blue Ridge Parkway. If the area looks that beautiful in July, I can only imagine how good it looks in October when the leaves change color. There are numerous byways off the interstate that drivers can take to investigate the hills more deeply. Unfortunately, I did not get to do as much of that as I would have liked, but I really enjoyed what I saw. Long car drives can be a drag, but meandering through the hills of western Virginia is a nice way to spend time.

2. As I feared, I had to spend part of my time there antiquing. However, if a person finds themselves backed into that corner, the Old City portion of Fredericksburg is not a bad way to spend an afternoon. The city, as well as the state, uses local history as a way to attract tourists. The folks there in Fredericksburg did a good job of doing that. Though this has nothing to do with its local history, I did find shops that sold old albums and singles. I was able to score an original issue of The Beatles' single 'Let It Be' b/w 'You Know My Name (Look Up My Number).' It was a good day.

3. Speaking of local history, it was unsettling how 'confederate' the culture was up there. I know Virginia is considered part of the South, but I expected to see less of that as I traveled north. At times, it was almost like being in Alabama (notice I wrote almost). I understand that the Civil War was a pivotal moment in American history, but sometimes folks cling too tightly to the old culture. It is tough to describe when that line is crossed, but I know it when I see it. I am not referring to places like battlefields and cemeteries. Those locations are fine examples of history, but it seems like I spent half my time there riding on roads named for Jefferson Davis (or 'Jeff Davis' as he is referred to up there). Historical locations are one thing, but naming a highway after somebody comes across as an endorsement to me. I wonder how black people feel about driving on those roads every day. Is it a subtle form of racism? Or maybe not so subtle?

4. I know rain has caused folks in Middle Tennessee a lot of problems this year, but at least we have had some. Even without the flood in Nashville, our area has received good rainfall this year. I can not say that about Virginia. The landscape there was brown and dry. Their growing season likely starts later because they are further north than us, but their corn crop looked withered and was a good two to three feet shorter than here. The soil there appeared sandier than in Tennessee. In some respects, the terrain reminded me of how our land here looked during the 2008 drought.

5. The Cracker Barrels in Virginia are exactly the same as in Tennessee.