Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gas prices choking us all and hurting President Obama

Back on the January 8, I wrote about how experts were predicting that the price of gas would spike upward in 2011. Almost from the moment of my posting, gas prices have steadily increased.

Locally, we can consider ourselves somewhat lucky as the cost of gas remains around 20 cents below the national average. Still, the prices here hover around the $3.65 level, and we are all experiencing the impact of these prices.

When studying media reports about the cause for the increase, most of the reporting focuses on instability in the Middle East. After all, our nation does get a big chunk of its oil from there. Therefore, it stands to reason that we would be impacted if there were problems there.

However, the big problem regarding this excuse is that the original predictions about price increases occurred before the recent Middle East problems.

The predictions came before the Egyptian revolution. They came before the civil war in Libya. Several other countries in that region have also experienced unrest, but this was all after the predictions of price increases. So, this can't be the reason why this is happening.

I really feel the media has dropped the ball. All too often, they are content to simply rely on the 'Middle East excuse' regarding this situation. This means very little reporting of substance is being done.

As a nation, we like to complain about this problem, but a lot of the blame for it lies with us. Back in 2008 when prices soared above $4 a gallon, there was plenty of rhetoric about change, but our nation's driving habits have not changed that much.

True, the recession caused all of us to cut back a little, but when I travel the interstates (and I do that a lot), I still see plenty of large vehicles with drivers pushing the gas pedal to the floor.

We can talk all we want about alternative technology to decrease our dependence on gas and oil, but if we all drove less, it would go a long way toward improving this problem.

The high prices in 2008 set the bar when it comes to what Americans will pay for gas. Now, the oil speculators and oil companies are trying to nudge that bar a little higher. It is up to us to stand our ground.

Will we do that? I do not know, but based on our past behavior, I am not optimistic.

The political fallout from this situation has begun. President Barack Obama recently directed the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the situation. While this seems noble, I really do not know what the president is trying to accomplish.

He says he wants those who are possibly breaking the law or exploiting the situation to be punished. The president really is not going out on a limb here, but he may be realizing that he stands to lose a lot if this persists.

More than ever, people cast votes based on issues that impact their wallets and pocketbooks. High prices at the gas pump are one of the few economic issues that hurt everybody. Nobody gets out alive on this issue.

Some experts are now saying gas prices could reach $6 a gallon by the end of the year. If this really happens, Obama will have to do some serious damage control.

President George Bush was vilified when prices skyrocketed in 2008. Will the same happen to Obama?

Generally, Obama gets the easy treatment from the media. However, this could begin to change very soon.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is 'Revolver' The Beatles best album?

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of the Beatles entire body of work is how rapidly they grew as artists in a relatively short amount of time. From when they began recording in 1962 through early 1965, almost all their songs dealt with love. Boy and girl meet. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Boy wishes he had a different girl. All the songs were simple variations of the same theme.

By early 1965, subtle influences began changing the band. Lyrically, John Lennon, George Harrison, and to a lesser extent Paul McCartney, each began following Bob Dylan's lead and started exploring deeper subject matter. Songs that followed like "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Nowhere Man," and "In My Life" still dealt with relationships. However, their lyrics now probed the subject matter in ways that more accurately reflected the complexity of those relationships. Simple love songs were now gone for good. Those three songs appeared on their late 1965 album Rubber Soul, which acted as the vessel that delivered the Beatles into the most creative phase of their career.

In 1966, the Beatles remained the unquestioned leaders of rock and roll. With their album Revolver, they decided to use that power to break the conventional boundaries of the current musical scene. As the subject matter of the album's songs reveals, band members sometime had different ideas about what it meant to break boundaries.

For Lennon, his excursion to new places led him into citizenship in Alice's Wonderland. Surrealism saturated his songs in such a complete way that the songs retain their original freshness and vitality more than 40 years later. Whether it was his boredom with making albums or his tendency to sometimes incorporate drugs into the creative process, Lennon's work on this album repeatedly travels into the cosmos in ways that are often bewildering. To the casual listener, a common response to these songs might be, "What the heck is this?"

Nowhere is this more obvious than on "Tomorrow Never Knows." With lyrics taken almost directly from the book The Psychedelic Experience, the song's musical arrangement mostly features guitars that were recorded and then played backward, accompanied by thumping that sounds like tribal drum beats. The result sounds like waves of electronic sound pounding a beach, while accompanied by Lennon's vocals that resemble a spiritual chant.

"I'm Only Sleeping" is an ode to dreaming the day away in bed, and "Dr. Robert" is a tribute of sorts to various Dr. Feelgoods who fulfilled the special needs of cultural icons. Though neither song is drenched in psychedelics like "Tomorrow Never Knows," they both represent a clear departure from Lennon's early songwriting. In both songs, it is like the listener can pull back his skull and peer deeply into his subconscious and ego. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is less successful than the other songs, but the surrealistic lyrics are a direct nod to the work of Dylan in the mid-1960s.

For McCartney, breaking boundaries did not necessarily include experimental studio wizardry. At that time, rock and roll still maintained second class status in the musical establishment's eyes. The establishment often maintained an attitude of unbridled condescension toward rock and roll. Cleverly, McCartney began integrating elements of the 'old world' and showed they could be used in a rock and roll context.

The previous year, McCartney began this musical migration when his song "Yesterday" included only him on acoustic guitar and a stringed quartet. No other Beatle played on it, and in a sense, it was the first Beatles solo recording. The song is one of the most recorded and commercially successful songs of all time. However, the song's big breakthrough was that McCartney showed how to use a classical musical approach in a rock and roll context.

On Revolver, he did it again. On "Eleanor Rigby" he was again accompanied by a classical group, which spun a somber musical arrangement around lyrics bemoaning the growing isolation of people. The result is chilling. Forty years after the fact, this may seem like a minor achievement, but this type of musical fusion was highly unusual for that time.

Other songs of his on the album are less adventurous but no less successful. "Good Day Sunshine" embraces the pleasure of spending a beautiful day sitting under a tree with your woman. The title of "Got To Get You Into My Life" is pretty self explanatory, but the chewy horn section that propels the song is outstanding. "Here, There and Everywhere" may be the prettiest ballad McCartney has ever written.

Though George Harrison often stood in the shadows of his two more heralded band mates, he continued to mold the band's sound on this album. The previous year he introduced the sitar to his band members, and it was included on the song "Norwegian Wood." Primarily associated with Indian music, the instrument was largely unknown to American and European audiences when the Beatles used it. The instrument made another appearance on this album on Harrison’s "Love You To."

Harrison's "Taxman" became one of his most well-known songs in which he lamented the impact that England's severe tax code had on his bank account. Ah, the problems of wealth. "I Want To Tell You" is a steady and straightforward rocker that delves into relationship problems.

The only top 10 hit from the album was the Lennon/McCartney composition "Yellow Submarine" with Ringo Starr on lead vocals. The song would be the springboard for an animated film three years later. The song is pretty silly in some respects, but it has the charm of a nursery rhyme.

The Beatles body of work is eclectic, and its impact on the world can not be overstated. Whatever musical limitations each member had, the four of them made up for it by perfectly complementing each other. Plus, they had the good sense to break up before they had a chance to fail. The audience was spared seeing them decline over time like the Rolling Stones and the Who did. This was one of the few times when the sum of all the parts added up to a whole.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Considering Easter's importance

Tomorrow, Christians worldwide will observe the Easter holiday, and it is impossible to overstate the importance of this day.

Easter commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus that Christians believe took place following His crucifixion. As a society, we do not put as much emphasis on this holiday when compared to others, and that is a big mistake.

After all, without the Resurrection, Christianity would simply be another false religion. I know that seems like harsh language, but it is the truth. Jesus said He would rise, and if that had not happened, He would have been just another false prophet who did not deliver on what was promised.

Of course, Christians believe the Resurrection took place, and billions of people will commemorate this event Sunday.

It is a shame that Easter does not get the build up that Christmas does. I know the tone of the two days is totally different, but in general, there appears to be more anticipation for Christmas by our society.

As soon as Thanksgiving ends, all eyes turn toward Christmas, and the mood of our nation changes. Admittedly, Christmas has been exploited in ways that has nothing to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus. Still, there always seems to be more buzz about that day than Easter.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is how Christians approach Easter. After all, not all people calling themselves Christians agree on how the Resurrection took place. While most would agree that Jesus physically rose from the dead, there are others who believe that it was only a spiritual event.

The Bible clearly supports that Jesus physically rose, but others still disagree. If Christians cannot agree on a point as fundamental as this, should we be surprised the holiday does not get the treatment it deserves?

Still, it is important that the Resurrection be focused upon tomorrow. It is the pivotal event of Christianity. Without it, there would be nothing.

Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that supports the Resurrection took place was the behavior of those closest to Jesus. Despite claims that they would never leave His side, the disciples ran when the Roman authorities arrested Him.

Peter went as far as to deny Him three times. This was a tremendous personal failure for Peter, but we should not be too hard on him. After all, we have all made big mistakes, but we are lucky that they were not recorded in the best selling book of all time. So, think twice before criticizing him too harshly.

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples were at rock bottom. They were hiding from the Roman authorities and the religious establishment. Because of their association with Jesus, they were afraid for their lives. Life looked bleak for them.

However, compare their behavior at this point to what it was only a few days later. Instead of staying in hiding, they began to boldly go into the public and proclaim the Gospel.

What could have caused such a stunning turnaround in only a few days? Christians believe it was their encounter with the resurrected Jesus.

When they encountered Jesus, all His teachings were cemented in their hearts. The hurt, pain, and fear that had been there only a few days earlier had been replaced by hope.

When the disciples went out to spread the Gospel, they understood they would face hardship and persecution. The reason they were able to do this is because they knew what they were preaching was true.

Remember, people won't willingly go out and risk their lives for something they know to be a lie (unless they are mentally disturbed).

Jesus had transformed them. And He can do the same for all of us.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The most important eight days of the year for Christians

Many people recognize today as Palm Sunday, and it is meant to commemorate Jesus' final return to Jerusalem before His crucifixion and Resurrection. This kicks off a series of important observances this week that culminate with Good Friday and Easter, which is next Sunday. Obviously, these events are detailed in the Bible, but here is a list of events that chronicle Jesus' last week and the days on which they occurred. Sometimes these events feel more real when we can apply them to the day of the week on which they took place. This information comes courtesy of Love in Action: The Gospel of Mark by the David C. Cook Ministries.

Sunday (today): Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem and surveys the temple (Mark 11: 1-11).

Monday: Jesus clears the temple and curses a fig tree (Mark 11:12-19).

Tuesday: Jesus teaches about faith, replies to His opponents in the temple, and teaches His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:20—13:37).

Wednesday: Nothing is recorded.

Thursday: Jesus celebrates Passover with His disciples. He goes to Gethsemane where He is arrested. (Mark 14:12-52)

Friday: Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin and is denied by Peter. He is handed over for crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. He dies and is buried. (Mark 14:53—15:47)

Sunday: He is risen.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

GOP must think long term

The events of the last few weeks in Washington infuriated the public as both Republicans and Democrats appeared silly to many while negotiating budget cuts.

Actually, these events were not silly. We have been witnessing a classic example of two parties banging heads about the path the federal government should take.

Led by President Barack Obama, Democrats have an approach that believes government can genuinely fix the problems our nation faces. While the government can help, it cannot truly solve the biggest challenges of our time. This is because our nation's biggest problems deal with its morality and no government program can heal that.

Still, I think the Democrats' hearts are in the right place though they are often misguided.

On the other hand, Republicans have been approaching our federal budget with an ax as they try to come to terms with our nation's debt. After all, the nation's debt now exceeds $14 trillion. Call me crazy, but I think that is excessive.

In 2010, voters gave control of the House of Representatives back to the Republicans primarily as a reaction to the spending of the Democrats and the Obama administration.

Republicans have been trying to use that mandate to make aggressive inroads on spending. However, make no mistake: Republicans also embrace the idea of a large federal government. Though it does not seem that way when analyzing the rhetoric they use, the Democrats were not the only party at the wheel as we drove toward the massive federal government we have now.

If Republicans in the House of Representatives are genuinely serious about reducing the size of the federal government, then the party has to change its strategy. The party must stop focusing on issues and legislation that will not be passed by the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate or signed into law by the president.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee recently said that Republicans should abandon their crusades against organizations like Planned Parenthood and focus on budget proposals that will gain traction with the public.

"As much as I want to see Planned Parenthood defunded...the reality is the president and the Senate are never going to go along with that so win the deal you can win and live to fight another day," Huckabee said.

If the economy continues to falter, financial matters will resonate with voters in 2012 far more than funding for Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio.

When it comes to the economy, our leaders have really set the bar low when defining what is considered progress. Last month, when it was announced that unemployment had dropped below nine percent, it was presented to us as if it was a milestone that should produce cheers.

Ironically, the blueprint for a Republican victory in 2012 was unveiled 20 years ago by then-Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

As the 1992 race approached, he faced incumbent George Bush who was struggling because of a sputtering economy. His campaign memorably gained momentum by stating: "It's the economy, stupid."

The more the economy struggled, the more the Clinton campaign successfully criticized Bush as a president out of touch with the struggles of the average American. Clinton won the election.

Still, this may all be a moot point. As I wrote several weeks ago, I believe President Obama will be re-elected. The economy was bad when he took over, and the public will likely give him another term to figure it out.

Additionally, if voters keep a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives, it will increase Obama's likelihood of re-election. Despite how much voters say they hate gridlock, they are also uneasy about giving one party control of both the White House and Congress.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quote of the day: The perils of writing

"Not everybody can write, but everybody thinks they can be an editor." -- Anonymous

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Baseball is a glorious rite of spring

Some people like the winter, but do not count me among that group. I used to like the winter a lot when I was a boy, but as time passed, I grew to resent it more and more.

The recent winter was like putting a cherry on top of a very bad hot fudge sundae. Normal winters are bad enough, but the cold and snow we experienced until mid-February made me anticipate spring like a prisoner yearns for freedom.

The bottom line is that is gone, and that is fine with me.

Springtime brings many joys with it. The most obvious one is the rebirth of nature as life replaces death. However, this is not the focus of this column.

I want to talk about Major League Baseball. Roll your eyes if you must, but spring does not start for me until the first pitch is thrown on opening day as it was on March 31.

Many people do not like baseball. They say the games are too long and meander at a pace guaranteed to cure insomnia. Living in the instant gratification society that we do, I can understand why many feel that way.

After all, if our dinners are not microwaved to a sizzle in five minutes or the problems of the day are not solved in a tidy 30-minute television program, we think something is terribly wrong.

If that is truly the mindset of the day, then three-hour baseball games must seem like trying to read War and Peace to some people.

Additionally, the Major League Baseball season covers 162 games and that is way too long for many. For many sports fans, they would prefer to have 162 pro football games and only 16 baseball games. Of course, this is impossible because there would be dead football players from Miami to Seattle if that season was significantly lengthened.

Sometimes baseball players do not do themselves any favors when it comes to how people perceive their sport. We still live in the shadows of the steroids' era, and we are currently dealing with court cases involving two of baseball's greatest players.

Slugger Barry Bonds has been in court recently because of alleged perjury the federal government says he committed when testifying before a grand jury. Pitching great Roger Clemens faces a similar trial later this summer.

It will be a major stain on the game if one or both of these men go to prison.

However, there is a lot to love about the game. My favorite part is the day-to-day nature of it. From now until October, there will be games almost every day. If it is possible to build a relationship with a sport, then baseball is the one.

It is impossible to do this with football. Football happens once a week for three hours then it is gone. Unless somebody counts the endless hot air spoken on networks like ESPN, football comes and goes like a movie.

Baseball is not that way. It gently unfolds before us and continues through the summer until it reaches its completion in early autumn. Some writers have compared the baseball season to the unfolding of a summer romance. I like that analogy because like romance the baseball season has many unexpected thrills and detours that are surprising.

I also reject the idea that the sport is boring. The most accurate adjective to describe it is 'deliberate.' Great care is undertaken when approaching the strategy of the game, and if it has the audacity to require us to be patient sometimes, then so be it.

Not everything was meant to be decided within a few minutes. This goes for sports and life.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Manchester thriving and Tullahoma dying?

The recent release of U.S. census figures for Manchester and Tullahoma show one town is growing and the other is barely treading water.

Manchester's population grew to 10,102 in 2010, which is a 22 percent increase compared to its population in 2000. Tullahoma's population was fairly stagnant, growing only 3.7 percent to 18,655 people.

What does it mean? It means Manchester is enjoying the benefits of a better geographical location when compared to Tullahoma. Manchester is the county seat of Coffee County and is located along Interstate 24. This is important because Manchester is only a 30-minute drive from Murfreesboro, which has been a boomtown over the last decade.

Murfreesboro's population has now topped 100,000 and Manchester appears to be a logical choice for those not wanting to live in larger cities. Add the exposure the town gets from such events as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and Manchester appears to be at the right place at the right time.

While Tullahoma is a nice city, it appears adrift geographically from the areas of central Tennessee that have shown substantial growth, and I do not know what can be done about that.

If given the choice of which city to live, Manchester is the obvious place to be right now.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

'The Distance' is vintage Bob Seger

Bob Seger has a fascinating catalogue of albums. Ranging from the 1960s until the present, he has produced memorable ballads as well as some great rock and roll.
Even though he began recording in the '60s, he did not break through commercially until the mid-70s with the live record 'Live' Bullet. The live album concept is not a favorite of mine, but that was one that really worked. Because of the long time between the start of his career and his breakthrough, the public missed a lot of really good music that is never heard on the radio. Of those early albums, seek out Smokin' O.P.'s and Mongrel. They are fascinating examples of a gifted artist finding his voice.
The Distance was released in 1982 and came on the heels of a lot of commercial success. After breaking through with 'Live' Bullet, Seger followed it up with Night Moves and Stranger in Town. Both are filled with big hits and are among the best albums of the '70s. However, after those two he released Against the Wind. Though another commercial success, the quality dipped. The songs sounded forced (like 'The Horizontal Bop'), and there was a malaise to the record that was undeniable.
Seger's career was at an interesting crossroad at this point. After tasting success after all those years of struggle, was he beginning to lose his edge and motivation? The Distance provided a convincing answer to that question and stands as one of the best albums of his career.
The album explodes from the start with 'Even Now' much in the same way as 'Hollywood Nights' did on Stranger in Town. Seger pays homage to his home in Detroit with 'Makin’ Thunderbirds' and questions the pitfalls of fame in 'Boomtown Blues.'
The big hit from the album was his version of Rodney Crowell's 'Shame on the Moon.' However, the strongest track on this set is 'Roll Me Away.' The song begins with Seger questioning who he was and what he was doing. It ended with him vowing to do his best until he gets things right. Propelled by the piano of the E Street Band's Roy Bittan, it is one of Seger's greatest.
This album is rock and roll at its best.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I'm very, very sick

As I write this, I am not feeling well. I get sick every six months or so and that is the case right now.

My head is pounding, and I don't want anything to eat. How is it possible to feel so cold but still be sweating? I guess anything is possible in the mysterious universe of our bodies.

My big concern is that when I get sick, I have a tendency to whine. So, my goal for this posting is to not come across as a whiner. Therefore, I need to focus on topics that put life into perspective.

But, where to begin? An obvious place is Japan. If there is one situation that should make us feel humble, it is what is happening in Japan. As of now, the official death toll is more than 10,000, but it is expected to climb to between 25,000 and 30,000.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear radiation have dominated the lives of the Japanese. I keep trying to put this into some kind of perspective as it relates to Tennessee, but I have not been successful.

I know the flood that hit Nashville last May was bad, but imagine if that flood had been accompanied by an earthquake that caused toxic radiation of some sort to be released. Perhaps that analogy comes close, but I am not sure.

Experts now believe the tsunami wave was likely as high as 77 feet tall. I can't imagine what it must have felt like to see a wall of water that big engulf the land. The bottom line is the people of northern Japan have a lot of work ahead of them, and we should all be looking for ways to help them.

There are no simple solutions for the hardships they are enduring.

The military action in Libya is also dominating a large portion of the international landscape, but I must confess that I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I have no compassion for Muammar Gaddafi, and the sooner he is driven from power the better. He has had it too good for too long.

Gaddafi has promised a long battle and to hold out to the bitter end. Of course, what he forgot to say is that he will be doing this hiding in one of his palaces, kneeling under his desk. His idea of fighting to the bitter end is for others to die on his behalf. My guess is that he will agree to go into exile in another country if the going gets too tough.

However, what guarantees do we have that the rebels fighting Gaddafi in Libya will be any better than him? They have offered no concrete guarantees that they are interested in democracy. Could we replacing one poison with another? Maybe.

Also, I have not heard the term "war" used a lot to describe America's effort in this action. I have heard it described more as a "humanitarian" effort to help the people of Libya.

This may be so, but why didn't we intervene in all the misery going on in Sudan in recent years? If ever there was a place that needed humanitarian help along these lines, it was Sudan. Maybe that country did not have a crazy dictator that everybody could rally around to dislike.

I could go on and on when it comes to world events that should sharpen our perspective.

There will always be troubles in the world, and every once in a while, they will come our way. As the old saying goes, there is a season for everything (both good and bad).

If nothing else, I am not feeling quite so sick any more.