Sunday, March 20, 2011

Random Thoughts, Part 6

1. I've become convinced that the federal government's energy policy -- to the extent it has a coherent policy -- has as its sole purpose to drive up energy prices and inflict pain on the citizenry.  Given that our government is supposed to be "for the people," that's a remarkable conclusion to draw.  We're seeing unabated assaults on the internal combustion engine, which is still the key to affordable private-vehicle ownership.  And the greatest freedom an American citizen has is the ability to get in his car and go anywhere his time and resources allow.  However, the Obama administration's stated goal, which cannot be for the purpose of increasing mobility or driving down transportation costs, is to create access -- unprofitable, costly access -- to high-speed rail for 80% of the population.  I regard it as fair to infer from that goal that the government means to restrict mobility by limiting transportation options, essentially so that it can ultimately tell most of us where we can go and when.  The interstate highway system, which greatly increased mobility and drastically reduced the costs of transporting freight by truck, is generally viewed as one of the crowning achievements of the Dwight Eisenhower administration (1953-1961); however, I suspect strongly that if these highways didn't already exist, the Democrats would do all they could now to prevent their being constructed, favoring localized rail lines instead.  Recall this exchange between Sam Neill and Sean Connery, playing Soviet naval officers in the film The Hunt for Red October (1990) and discussing what it will be like to live in America after defecting:
Borodin [Neill]:  [A]nd I will have a pickup truck, or possibly even a...recreational vehicle...and drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?
Ramius [Connery]:  Yes.
Borodin [Neill]:  No papers?
Ramius [Connery]:  No papers. State to state.
I reiterate: Mobility, and the liberty it represents, is a hallmark of an even moderately free society.  High fuel costs, which are largely a function of supply, or rather perceived supply -- which in turn is affected by Middle-East unrest, curtailed domestic drilling, vindictive and politically opportunistic litigation, and overblown (even trumped-up) environmental concerns -- have already begun to erode that freedom in the United States. The government is way too involved in it all for me to believe it isn't by design.

2. I recently watched most of ESPN Films' "30 for 30" documentary The Fab Five, which I found fascinating.  I've always regarded the "Fab Five" phenomenon -- which resulted from the University of Michigan's 1991 signing of what is widely considered the greatest men's collegiate basketball recruiting class ever, consisting of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson -- as having triggered an acceleration in the coarsening of American culture.  Yes, Michigan was a good team, reaching the national championship game in the "Fab Five's" freshman and sophomore years (although investigations into NCAA rules violations later caused the university to forfeit games and vacate tournament results from those years).  However, the fallout from their smack-talkin', baggy short-wearin', tattoo-barin', arrogance-laden influence -- which seemingly has made it impossible for most basketball teams, regardless of the level of competition, to compete with sportsmanship, lose with class, or win with grace -- has been something of a national debacle.  Jalen Rose, currently an ESPN commentator, sparked controversy recently by stating that, at least when he was young, he regarded African American players who signed with Duke University to be "Uncle Toms," or traitors to their race.  The reason?  Simply, that Duke wouldn't recruit him or other black players from the 'hood.  It took a white ESPN Radio commentator to point out what should have been obvious to Rose -- and to all the African Americans who seemed to use the "Fab Five" in their college heyday as surrogates for sticking it in "White America's" face -- namely, that it was always more an issue of social class (never mind academics) than one of race, and that negative responses to the "Fab Five's" antics (probably even the most blatantly racist examples) were more in reaction to a perceived lack of class than to the players' blackness per se.  (I remember cheering when North Carolina won the 1993 national championship game, which it did in large part because Chris Webber called a timeout with seconds left in the game -- when Michigan didn't have any timeouts left -- which in turn resulted in a technical foul and a change of possession.  On the other hand, I was supremely disappointed when the heavily favored [and mostly black] UNLV lost to Duke in the 1991 Final Four.)  The overweening tendency of some people to see a racist behind every rock says much more about their skewed point of view than about their environment.  In any case, I'm no Duke fan, either, but I'd say that time has vindicated coach Mike Krzyzewski's recruiting strategies: the Michigan program has only barely started to recover from what the "Fab Five" did to it, whereas Duke has won multiple NCAA championships in the intervening years. 

[Update 3/21/11: Michigan nearly caused me to have to eat my words yesterday when it almost beat Duke in this year's NCAA tournament; I definitely sensed some added motivation on Michigan's part, related to the timing of the release of The Fab Five, to pull off the upset.]

[Update 3/24/11: I feel like I must add, in fairness, that men's volleyball -- traditionally played in the United States by more-affluent Caucasians -- has always been full of trash-talking and arrogance.  In fact, male volleyball players are significantly more sportsmanlike now than they were in 1978, when my brother Robin took me to El Paso, TX to watch the USVBA national tournament; during the course of that weekend long ago, I saw more on-the-court yapping (even between teammates) than I had seen in my entire life to that point.  Of course, it's a lot "safer" to mouth off to an opponent across a net than in closer quarters; those rich white guys would have been missing some teeth had they acted that way on a basketball court in those days.  However, in a larger sense I think it serves to illustrate why animosity to the "Fab Five" was primarily based on notions of class rather than race. I mean, how much difference is there, really, between wealthy Caucasians behaving badly because they think they're better than everyone else, and poor African Americans behaving badly to compensate for being told they're not as good as everyone else?  It's the bad behavior that middle-class white Americans tend to find obnoxious, not the skin color.]

3. I've been re-reading Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac, the autobiography of drummer Mick Fleetwood that was first published in 1992.  In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the Fleetwood Mac story was the band's navel-gazing and unspeakable self-indulgence in its glory days of 1976-1982.  The popular-music scene is so different now that one can say with confidence that no rock band will ever reach those depths again; and that fact, combined with the vibrancy and creativity of today's indie-rock sector, tells me the changes have generally been for the better.  Today, it would require only three or four weeks, and a mere few thousand dollars, to record an album of comparable quality to Fleetwood Mac's 1977 album Rumours, which took an obscene eighteen months, and untold millions of dollars, to produce back in the day.  The fact that today's technology enables almost any band to produce high-quality recordings -- in turn rendering expensive recording studios, and all-powerful record companies, virtually obsolete -- constitutes cosmic justice in my mind.  I'm sure that dinosaur bands like Fleetwood Mac can still make a decent living on the "classic rock" concert circuit, but the days of their cocaine-fueled studio excesses are long gone.  Good riddance, I say.

4. I've been experimenting recently with growing the nails out on my right hand for playing the guitar.  It's amazing how much easier finger-picking is when you have fingernails with which to "grab" the strings.  Inasmuch as I mostly play electric guitar nowadays, I generally play with a flat pick, held between my thumb and index finger; however, at the same time I do a lot of upstroked finger-picking with my middle, ring, and little fingers, and the nails definitely help me get a consistent "attack" and tone out of the strings.  The drawback is that having long fingernails is about like having facial hair: it drives me crazy!

5. On Monday, March 14, Kiley, Dorine and I ate lunch at the JB's restaurant adjacent to the Plaza Inn on South Temple Street in downtown Salt Lake City.  It dawned on me as we ate there that the Plaza Inn, then a Howard Johnson's hotel, was where Dorine and I spent our wedding night (and several more nights, which cumulatively made up our "honeymoon").  It was strange to contemplate the passage of 26+ years since our wedding day, which could almost have happened yesterday.  It was even more strange to realize that when Kiley is married this summer, and then when Darren goes back to school in the fall, Dorine and I will be living on our own for the very first time in our marriage.

5. I was reminded recently of Sweetwater Rescue, a documentary of the misadventure of the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856 (and the heroic rescue effort that was mobilized to save the survivors), which documentary was written by Heidi Swinton and then filmed by Lee Groberg in 2006.  (I own the DVD, having bought it for a Sunday School lesson a couple of years ago.)  It's a very informative, well-done film that tells the story of the handcart companies -- and the extremities they endured -- from a fairly objective point of view.  That is, the text and commentary are objective -- I defy anyone with even a dollop of heart and human compassion, however, not to be moved by the combination of the written text, the commentary, the visual images, and, especially, the music.  I fell in love with one very plaintive, mournful theme for harp and recorder that provides the audio backdrop for the Martin Company's crossing of the Sweetwater River at Devil's Gate, Wyoming, as depicted in the following segment embedded from Youtube; in fact, I literally cannot listen to it without weeping.  The music director for the film, Sam Cardon, is a nephew of my Aunt Helen S______ (who died in 2004); Cardon really surpassed himself with this project, although I haven't been able to ascertain whether he composed, or merely arranged, the theme mentioned above.  (By the way, he and I aren't related, although we have a set of first cousins in common.)