Friday, January 25, 2008

Embrace the Chaos

My father, despite being a successful businessman and owner of the complete set of Clint Eastwood movies, is not the first person I look to for political insight.

Maybe I'm not giving him enough credit. His latest zany scheme would save the state umpteen millions of dollars with no more chaos than would result from a herd of paranoid elk stampeding through an MPBN membership drive:

Invert school vacation. Shut down classes for three months in the winter, and keep them going through the summer.

As heating oil prices soar to $19 a gallon by 2012, this unlikely idea will look more and more appealing. Still, the powerful summer camp/Little League baseball lobby will never let it happen.

But conventional wisdom has the Maine taxpayer reaching his or her breaking point relatively soon. Actual relief will probably require radical changes:

“... in other news, the legislature has passed an emergency supplemental heating bill that requires all cremation to occur in the state house lobby...”

Is Baldacci the man to turn things upside down? True, he's not afraid to be just a teeny bit unpopular. According to a recent poll of likely voters in my area (my area is the living room), the governor's approval rating is close to 50%, but his annoying little pipsqueak rating has skyrocketed to almost 90%.

In short, it's hard to imagine him with a menacing grimace, pointing his .44 magnum at the legislature, and asking, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

He's more likely to do things the general population finds moderately irritating (SAT initiative, Sunday hunting, consolidation, telling that restaurant story again), but not bothersome enough to divert attention and resources.

Switching school vacation to the wintertime is a move too gutsy for the likes of our current governor. It would cause severe problems for huge numbers of Mainers, the most obvious of which is that summer jobs would have to become winter jobs.

Teenagers who save up for college (“college” is a popular euphemism for “first car”) by landscaping or by serving ice cream would have to start doing apprenticeships or job shadowing for the actual careers they might have some day.

The many teachers who earn second incomes by prostituting their dignity to the tourism industry would be especially put out. The would have to (ouch) get paid more from their regular jobs.

And it's hard to motivate students as they bake in the 90-degree heat, staring wistfully out the window at the beckoning sunshine, wishing they could burst outside and run home to their air-conditioned rooms to play video games.

Meanwhile, families who like to spend their summers “up to camp” would instead have to vacation “down to Florida,” or maybe even (gasp!) “over to Europe.”

Obviously, these circumstances are intolerable. Therefore, the $44 zillion it costs to keep our drafty old schools open while our end of the Earth tilts away from the sun is clearly well spent.

Never mind that the CEO of the second largest oil company in the world (Shell) has now admitted that in seven years, global oil supply will no longer be able to meet demand.

No big deal. We'll just install wood stoves in all our classrooms.

See, regardless about what the environmentalists say or what happens to your tax bill, we can keep our society running pretty much exactly the way it is forever and ever.

Or at least until the next election.

Message to Gov. Baldacci:

Go ahead. Make my day.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Poor Example

Congratulations to the Bangor Daily News for showing us the human face of poverty.

Sure, it may have been a cartoon caricature face, but at least it was a face.

Reporter Diana Bowley described one family's courageous struggle to afford heating oil along with medical expenses, food, home repairs, pet food, cigarettes, lottery tickets, exotic dancers, and fine imported ales.

The article, titled “Milo Family Struggles to Keep Warm,” appeared on the BDN website January 15.

“When Darlene Cook and her daughter, Renee Baillargeon, are not busy working to support their pornography addictions,” Bowley writes, “they roam the neighborhood looking for swarthy men to have sex with so they can get wealthy off the state by having as many children as possible.”

Okay, actually, the article did not say any of those things. I made them up.

The folks at the BDN would have no problem with this. Their “reader comments” section on this article is filled with malicious, unverified information.

“Give up the cigarettes!” writes one “Be from Milo,” even though the article does not mention if anyone in the house smokes. “Renee, stop having children, the state doesn't assist people so they can get rich!”

This informed citizen apparently “knows the family,” which could mean anything from:

1)“is in the family,” to

2)“saw them once at the grocery store, I think, on the same day I noticed the Virgin Mary's face on an Alpo label.”

A photo of the family's house showed a shingle that had fallen from the roof. “Be” suggested picking it up because “God helps those who help themselves.”

Cool beans! I had no idea that if I only neatened up my yard, God would send me 100 free gallons of heating oil! Thanks for the tip!

I wish I could say this was one isolated lunatic, but many of the “reader comments” featured similar themes.

“Get a wood stove, cut some wood,” said another person who is apparently lucky enough to own both a chainsaw and a forested lot. “How in the world has mankind survived for thousands of years without LIHEAP?”

Well, I wouldn't be surprised if, over the vast expanse of human history, some members of mankind did, in fact, freeze to death. Some may have shivered like wet chihuahuas for weeks at a time before the advent of federal heating assistance.

“George of Lagrange” advises the young lady featured in the article to “close her legs.” She has two children.

All of you out there with more than one child who are having trouble paying your heating bills should be ashamed of yourselves.

This is why most newspapers don't print anonymous letters to the editor. Why the same standard does not apply on the Web is beyond me.

BDN Managing Editor Mike Dowd says the paper screens comments for profanity and libel. “Basically, we eliminate those that accuse someone of illegal activity.”

But they don't edit the comments or try to ascertain how much truth is in them.

So I can use their site to call someone a promiscuous, midget-wrestling transvestite, even if it's not true.

Dowd points out that lots of other newspapers around the world and in Maine provide this type of forum.

In other words, it's legal, and all the other sleazeballs are doing it, too, so it must be okay.

And why not? Jerry Springer-style spewing probably generates more reader traffic and more ad revenue.

Newspapers were once considered gatekeepers who would publish only reliable information.

Now, the gate is a revolving door, and the press is doing its best to transform itself into an overpaid bellhop.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sad, But Not Sad Enough

If I were to insinuate that women can get what they want by crying, people would consider me a shallow, sexist piece of bacteria who is just trying to be controversial to help sell newspapers.

And yet, here we have Hillary Clinton, who got misty eyed in public right before the New Hampshire primary. The media went nuts, and she somehow came from behind in the polls to eek out a win over Barack Obama.

But Mitt Romney has been noticeably teary-eyed for weeks now. He chokes up during stump speeches, interviews, even Toyotathon commercials. The newspapers have barely paid any attention, and he still trails in the polls behind McCain, Huckabee, Guiliani, and Chewbacca the Wookie.

What kind of lesson is this for our young people? Clearly, if a man cries, it's no big deal.

The average man bawls regularly. It's usually a function of some hormonal imbalance connected with the cycle of his favorite team's inexplicably awful draft choice.

But if a woman sheds her chilled composure for just a few seconds, it's some big deal. Suddenly, her tough, stoic persona develops depth and compassion, proving she can show just enough vulnerability to seem human.

These tiresome gender stereotypes are irritating, but what bothers me more is the fact that this is what passes for drama in our political landscape.

No wonder people aren't interested.

We need to start paying attention to third party candidates. We know how entertaining they are because we've watched them try to articulate their views in 45-second yelling matches often featured on cable “news” shows.

You don't have to limit yourself to the “major” parties. Here's a quick guide to the three alternative parties who have managed to prop up some Presidential candidates:

Green Independent Party: Traditionally identified with environmentalism, the Green Party also stands for social justice, fair trade, peace, fair access to health care, and a variety of other Anti-American ideals.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has been the most viable third option in recent elections, but he is no longer an official candidate, possibly because he has died.

The Greens are now looking to hip-hop artist and freelance journalist Jared Ball, former Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKenney, and a team of zombie research scientists desperately attempting to resurrect Nader.

Libertarian Party: Ardent advocates of “small government,” each of the dozen Libertarian candidates for President are less than three feet tall.

The official party platform calls for the capitol building to be torn down and re-built out of a used coffee can. With legislators and bureaucrats reduced to near microscopic size, any of their excessive intrusions on our personal freedom can be conquered with a simple course of antibiotics.

Constitution Party: If you favor a common-sense, literal interpretation of the Constitution that dates from 1823, and if you are a Christian who thinks everyone else should be a Christian, too, then this particular group of nut-jobs may be for you.

The letters in “Constitution Party” can be rearranged to spell “Pointy Trout Antics.”

Check out the official web sites of these alternative parties

Each of these three parties claims to be the third-largest political party in America. The only other thing they have in common is that they insist the two-party system isn't truly democratic because voters don't actually have much of a choice.

But until they start crying about it, nobody will care.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Toddler TV Trauma

Hi, today, I'm Emily Elizabeth, and this is my two-year-old daughter, Clifford. If I slip up and call her by her real name, she will patiently correct me.

“No, I'm Clifford!”

“Right, sorry. Clifford, would you please hold still for your diaper change?”

This scenario results from reading Clifford the Big Red Dog books, and then watching Clifford shows on Youtube.

Our daughter pretends to be every fictional character she encounters, and my wife and I must play along – all day, every day -- or face dire consequences.

It's wearing a little thin.

Thankfully, she's not yet making me wear a short skirt and knee-high striped socks like Emily Elizabeth.

But even if she did, it would still be a huge improvement over her “Little Einsteins” phase.

The child characters in “Little Einsteins” obsess over classical music and famous paintings so that yuppie parents will think the show is somehow making their children smarter.

In truth, the show is causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, because the characters constantly holler about some impending crisis, such as the fact that the Mona Lisa is floating toward a giant waterfall, with dramatic, doom-connoting classical music playing in the background.

Not surprisingly, this hyped-up behavior rubbed off on our daughter, who spent a couple of weeks saying everything at maximum volume.

“NO, I'M JUNE!!!!”

Of all the Little Einsteins, June is my least favorite, because she wears make-up and earrings, and her eyes are shaped a little seductively, like she's about to wink. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Often our daughter combines themes, taking on Little Einsteins personalities while engaged in a crucial animal rescue mission inspired by the children's TV series “Go Diego, Go!”

Diego is the masculine spin-off of Dora the Explorer. They are actually the same character, with the same voices, speech patterns, thirst for exotic adventure, enormous mechanical eyeballs, and annoying habit of asking you questions and then staring cryptically at you for ten full seconds, waiting for your answer, whether you've already finished giving it or not.

At the end of every show, Dora asks, “What was your favorite part?”

My daughter's answer: “My favorite part was giving water to the thirsty flower.”

My answer: “I liked not pretending to be a vaguely sexualized two-dimensional six-year-old for 20 minutes so I could sit and read the sports page.”

Diego does not have time for such pleasantries. He is busy rescuing exotic animals from waterfalls (of course).

As a direct result, our couch is now a waterfall, and anyone who sits on it is in dire peril and must be rescued immediately.

(Not much of a change, come to think of it).

It all makes me long for the days of Barney, when our anthem was “I love you, you love me” and the biggest thing we had to worry about was how long it would take that tall kid to realize puberty had set in and it was time for him to scramble out of there.

I also reminisce about The Wiggles, when the world was full of frenetic, coked-up Australian guys dancing around like... like... frenetic, coked-up Australians, singing about mashed potatoes and pirates and everything else that is pure and decent in this world.

But at least we still have Clifford, that wholesome, good-natured, and laid-back dog who--

Hold on, I'll finish as soon as I get this skirt on.