Friday, February 29, 2008

Wounding with Words and John Donne's Bell

I had email from an acquaintance earlier today. He's a person I don't so much work with, as in parallel to for the most part. Since we're in different physical locations and do very different tasks (actually I don't do very much of anything), we can go for weeks or in this case, months, without seeing one another or having reason to interact at all.

Having received a brief, two-line, note from him, I responded with the type of remark for which I am, sadly, well-known in certain circles and learned that he is currently hospitalized, requiring surgery that he may not survive. I don't really have a clever quip for that situation. The mail-order course in counterpoint and snarky repartee I'm enrolled in hasn't gotten to that yet, and I fear it may not ever.

As I said, this is someone with whom I have, at best, infrequent contact. I think the term 'casual stranger' best describes this arrangement and we all have them. There are people in our lives we see, more than know, that if we were to encounter them at a rail stop in Beijing, we'd talk for hours as if we were the oldest of friends, but in the familiar surroundings of a shared and common environment they are part of the scenery (or we are, I guess, depending on the perspective and who's having it).

As I said, I wasn't able to offer a pithy observation that would bring a grin, or even a grimace, and offered one of those pious platitudes about hoping 'things turn out for the best' yada, yada which precipitated a remarkably eloquent and sadly sincere very long note in return that suggested he's been in a bad way for quite some time and has little hope left. He has turned his concerns and energies to how he leaves the planet and I realized I have little to offer someone whose focus is there. Except....It doesn't and shouldn't matter how you die.

It should matter not only HOW you lived, but that you lived at all. Each of us is the sum total of experiences and encounters with everyone we've ever known. The last original left, so to speak, is original sin (you can take the boy out of Holy Mother Church, but you can't take the Church out of the boy, I guess). Each of us, by design or accident, carries a piece of everyone else's experiences and beliefs which should be why death, especially an untimely one (though, to be honest, I'm not sure what a 'timely' death is), is a loss to all of us in the community of humanity. All I can offer is the solace, if that's what it is, of Leonard Cohens' Dress Rehearsal Rag:

Why don't you join the Rosicrucians?
They can give you back your hope.
You can find your love with diagrams
On a plain brown envelope."
-bill kenny

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Winter of Our Discontent

I'm not sure what, exactly, would be considered times to try a man's soul (or a woman's soul, for that matter), or when we may be in them. I'd concede that, perusing newspapers or channel surfing, it seems at this moment we're sort of up against it. Inflation, stagflation, economic hard times, a malaise of the spirit that, especially for Americans, always seems so shocking.

I've had the good fortune to be able to live a lot of my life in other people's countries and cultures (I admit to not always regarding it as good fortune while I was doing it but hindsight, in addition to NOT being 20/20 also adds a rosy hue to remembrance, and that's not such a bad thing). I want to tread carefully and NOT introduce stereotypes as prototypes and models so let me just say, with apologies, to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Americans are not like anyone else." and if Zelda has a problem with that, tell her and her entire generation to Get Lost (oh, wait! They did, didn't they?)

I used to tease German friends (okay, I have no friends, so they were acquaintances) that, as Cyndi Lauper sang about Girls in the late 70's, Americans just want to have fun. Even as we were telling George III, King of Great Britain to walk East until his crown floated by declaring our Independence, we couldn't resist insisting that we had been endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights, to include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Elvis Costello would be so proud and the other Elvis might have a fried banana and peanut butter sandwich in our honor.

In recent days, I've found myself humming an old Paul Simon song, "American Tune",
'I don't know a soul who's not been battered/
I don't have a friend who feels at ease/
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered/
Or driven to its knees.'

Simon, at the time he wrote those lines, like the rest of us was living in a pre 09/11/01 America, actually a USA of the Last Century when we were outspending 'The Communists' on weaponry and won because we went broke second-but they went bankrupt first.

As the Presidential election campaigns warm up and you hear the engines rave, we're going to be bombarded with unending litany of lament about how horrible so much is for so many in our country and how, by voting for, insert your candidate's name here, we can take back America.
That's as may be and all the other cliches, but here's another: it's always darkest before the dawn. And as Francis Scott Key noted, there are some amazing things to see by the dawn's early light.
-bill kenny

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor

There was a reasonable amount of press interest this time last week in a meeting that most of the Norwich City Council held to discuss developing a philosophy on how they wish to have their new employee, the City Manager, and his employees, the city's various department heads, develop a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. I'm sure, if you read a local newspaper, you can recall the coverage. The outcome wasn't hard and fast and yet I think everyone at the table and in the room had a feeling that a link to the Consumer Price Index, CPI, was a desirable goal (the CPI was, as of end of January 2008 running at about 3.9%).

I mention this because last night, the Norwich Board of Education by a seven to one vote, approved a tentative budget of 69.4 million dollars that would mean an 8% increase over this year's spending levels. In what I suspect will be prove to be regarded as one of the poorer, if more honest, choices of words uttered aloud in this region in recent memory, the Superintendent of the Norwich Public Schools, described her requested budget to her bosses, the Board of Education as “not the best, not the Cadillac series,” but (a budget that) would provide a level of “adequate” services the district needs.

Both the Superintendent and the Board, in an ideal world, are looking out for their constituency, the school-age children of the City of Norwich. As a parent who had two children in the Norwich Public Schools system, I can attest to the quality of their ability to accomplish the mission of educating my children, and I shall always be grateful for that. I joked the other day in this space about how you feel as a taxpayer about paying for a municipal service has a lot to do with how much you need, or may ever need, a particular service.

What should happen next, as the City Manager, interfaces with all the departments within his purview, will be some give and take, some horsetrading, some quids, a few quos, (perhaps even an occasional quo vadis) before the City Council gets to look at the City Manager's proposed budget.

I would hope, as was the case in the not-too-distant past in Norwich that should bottom-line concerns force an adjustment to the various proposed department budgets, I won't be treated to the Board of Education holding parents hostage across the city as programs for their children are cut or curtailed instead of reductions in support personnel. If the Board does that, what's to stop the police department from suggesting it will just to have to get bicycles instead of cruisers, or the fire department from responding to your call for help by suggesting you borrow a hose from a neighbor.

For too many years, Norwich, and towns across the state and the country have talked about exercising fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers. The time for talking the talk has long passed. Now we need to walk the walk. And, while Cadillacs are fine automobiles, there's a lot to be said for a Mercury.
-bill kenny

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Too many homefires burning and not enough trees

I was only mildly dismayed the other day in talking about America's ongoing confusion between meaning well and doing well. I'm a bit more crestfallen today to discover life imitates art instead of the other way around.

One of the local dailies has a relatively short. but intense, letter to the editor this morning from someone about whom I know nothing, except that he cares deeply in this case, about the environment. Sometimes All I Need is the Air that I Breathe and sometimes that just doesn't cut it. The letter, "Earth in Need of a Break After Fours Years of GOP" is a triumph of misspelling (I hope) and bad math, but, and I know this is the important part, the writer means well.

In fairness, it's possible the misspelling in the letter is the fault of the newspaper, "The League of Conversation Voters" should be (I believe) Conservation voters, though the image conjured up by the former is infinitely more amusing and truer to form than the latter. I'm more perplexed by the four years math statement. If Earth is, indeed, in the balance, which is where the letter-writer's homage to former Vice President Al Gore's book seems to be heading, it would appear the first four years of the George W. Bush presidency get a pass and the meter only started in the Doomsday Taxi after he was re-elected.

That should come as welcome news to Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority of 104th Congress which, after being seated and sworn in in January 1995 was then sworn at for a number of years by every environmental protection group in the hemisphere, to include a few created for the express purpose of yelling at them. But it's just the last four years, the writer is concerned about. Color me relieved.

The actual point of the letter is to urge people to not vote for the presumptive Republican Party nominee, but rather 'Vote Environmental.' I have no idea what that notion actually means in terms of daily application. (Should I mention it was a Republican President (Richard M. Nixon, no less) who created a cabinet-level Department of Environmental Protection?)
I suspect I'm not alone in my ignorance but, and again, the cause for dismay (for me) is it makes almost no difference if there is any reality behind a call to arms like "vote environmental" as long as we feel good while making such a grand gesture. In a culture where many of us make a different gesture, involving a single, middle, digit on one hand, we could, I suppose, be grateful for what we can get. That we've allowed our basic spelling and math skills to erode so much that some dweeb on a blog can make a meal out of it is no more than pathetic.
And fortunately, like all criticism right-minded people ignore because of the absence of the old school tie, it's biodegradable. Just like us, a carbon-based lifeform with delusions of immortality.
-bill kenny

Monday, February 25, 2008

There's a Skeleton Choking on a Crust of Bread

A pointless parable to begin:
I was in line the other day at a discount store waiting to pay for a large bag of dry dog food; the line was not moving as quickly as I'd have liked (but what can you do?). The lady behind me, with a small handful of items, like a brush and a small bowl, probably to fill up the time, leaned forward to ask me if I had a dog.
"What gave it away?" I asked, and she tilted her head to point at the large bag of dog food on the floor to my left.
"Oh that," I noted, "actually that's part of my Purina diet."
Her face brightened in curiosity-a Purina diet, she asked. What was a Purina diet?

I told her I bought a large bag of dry dog food every week which I kept in the kitchen. When I was going out somewhere, I'd put a couple of handfuls of dry dog food in every pocket, jacket or trousers, and, in the course of the day, when I got hungry, I'd just reach into my pocket and snack on a handful of the dry dog food.
Did it work she wanted to know-could you lose really weight on the Purina diet?
Yes, I said, I lost over forty pounds in one month.
The line moved forward, and I had to adjust myself on my crutches, before grabbing my bag of dog food and inching forward. Forty pounds in a month, she excitedly whispered, is truly remarkable.
I agreed but pointed out there were side effects, using my arms to gesture to the casts on both legs and my crutches. She was momentarily non-plussed--how she demanded to know, how had the Purina Diet caused me to have two broken legs?
Well, I said, I was out here shopping a couple of weeks ago, and on my way back to the car, I had the uncontrollable urge to lick my privates and was run over by a pick-up truck.


However, in a world with 6.5 billion people with more than 60% going to sleep on an empty stomach every night until they die of starvation, when you enter into Goggle search the phrase, "over the counter diet aids sold in USA" (or just click on the link as I did it for you) in point 24 (0.24) seconds, faster than you can swallow a teaspoon of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, you have 149,000 listings. If every person in the US who wishes to lose twenty pounds, lost just ten, we'd have shed enough excess weight to populate a medium sized state (and sadly, one or more of the people running for President would be campaining there, even as I type).

As a nation we spend more on Slim-Fast and Jenny Craig than we donate to relief agencies that are trying to mitigate 'third world' hunger (a term I find quaintly inaccurate as there are millions of our own citizens going to bed hungry every night to include some in every town in Connecticut, the wealthiest state of all fifty of these united, and I sure don't think of myself as living in the Third World or in the Land of Second Chances, for that matter).

We've all gone to a fast food restaurant and heard someone order a cholesterol-bomb burger with cheese and bacon, large dipped in boiling fat french fried potatoes and, wait for it....a Diet Coke. No ice, please, I'm on a diet and the water from the ice makes me fat. Explains the size of the butts on those penguins and polar bears, right? Please. We fret that so many of the problems in our world are beyond our attempts at solution and demand to know why the 'government doesn't do something?' and for something like world hunger and malnutrition, all we have to do for one another is spend the same to relieve world hunger as we might spend at the drive-through, talking into the clown's head, getting those triple thick shakes and yogurt smoothies. Crisis averted.

It's Monday-so try this: track how much money you spend on food purchased or eaten outside of your house for the week. That doughnut with coffee this morning; that bag of chips this afternoon for the snack...count the pizzas, the pretzels, the chili hot dogs and the take-out sushi and the burgers and fries and ALL of it. Keep a running tab and look at the total next Sunday before you swing by that little joint you go to after Mass. Nothing like a triple stack of pancakes and a side of over easy eggs after Holy Communion, is there? Mmm, mmm, mmm. And all that syrup and butter. Hurray for the First World! To hell with the United Nations! Let's hear it for the International House of Pancakes...Willkommen, Bienvenue, welcome...There's a butterfly trapped in a spider's web.
-bill kenny

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Starless and Bible Black

I have regular interactions with a person whose sense of fair play has been set, seemingly (I fear) on outraged. He is able to develop a dark sense of unfairness and inequity from almost anything. For him, that it rains on the just and the unjust unlike isn't so much a truth/truism or cliché, but a scathing indictment of the rain wear industry. His is the type of passion that eventually wears the disinterested observer, me, completely out. I admire his energy in seeking out the next wrong to be righted but that's not what happens.

We came into one another's lives some time back and with any luck within the next few months, we'll both return to our normal places in the universe where we co-existed without having to acknowledge one another. I'll be happy when that happens-him, I'm not so sure about. To my way of thinking, I have a finite (and unknown (a critical part of the concept)) amount of time on this orb and must choose where to invest my time and talents. For me, my wife and children, in that order, are not only my first priority, but my first five to eight priorities. After that, I look at the piece of the planet I and they are standing on, and extend outward slightly, and do what I can, with the time I have at my disposal, to help in my neighborhood (definition somewhat fluid).

When I was a lot younger and had a lot more patience, I could more easily accommodate those who felt every waking moment should be spent signing petitions or organizing discussion groups on the great issues of our time. As I aged, not matured, I failed to see how any of that activity, frantic and frenetic as it is/was, helped anyone do anything. None of these folks seemed to help any of the objects of their concern because they were trapped in meetings on setting up a steering committee to draft a petition demanding assistance of agencies who, so far, and despite millions and billions of dollars, had accomplished nothing. Meaning well was substituted for doing well and at the ripe old age of almost fifty-six, I will have no more truck with that philosophy.

The America of the 21st Century seems, everyday, to grow more and more desperate for someone, somewhere, to rescue it....from a war in Southwest Asia whose beginnings we failed to fully appreciate ...from a health care system that provides the finest care known on the planet in the history of the planet (if you can afford it and close to fifty million people cannot)...for an employment environment where high schoolers head to either MIT or McDonald's with nothing in between not a debt, both national and personal, so crushing that our children's children's children will be impoverished by it.

And to all of this, we respond with a growing number of sincere people who feel being deeply concerned about an issue is the same thing as working to fix it. To take up arms against a sea of troubles and by thus opposing, end them has been elevated to a discussion point on the agenda for the next meeting-show of hands, all in favor? All opposed? The motion carries. And so do voices.

Perhaps we're reaching that point where we need to lower both our voices and our expectations since all we seem to be good at is disappointing one another. Since we've concluded it's too hard to do anything, we will not attempt to do something. And besides, Search For the Guilty certainly seems to be similar to Fix the Problem and there's so little mess to clean up.
And yet, we can't seem to forget (try as we might), when we point fingers, three fingers of the hand point back at ourselves. We want someone to be responsible for who and what we are, and as long as it's not us, movements that perpetuate the myth that personal responsibility is over rated will always be attractive. The fault, dear Brutus, lies NOT in the stars, but in ourselves.
-bill kenny

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Now how much would you pay?

You live in a house made of concrete blocks, surrounded by a moat. There is no chance of fire at your address. How much of your taxes should go to pay for firemen?
Perhaps you are an android, with attitude and a permit to carry a concealed weapon. How much of your taxes do you think should go to law enforcement?
Your children were born with membership cards to Mensa, instead of belly buttons. Your six old year is a part-time lecturer for an online university and would be a department chairperson at Harvard but his mom says he's not old enough to cross the street. How many of your tax dollars should go to pay for public education?

None of this is as far-fetched as it reads (okay, actually ALL of this is exactly as far-fetched as it reads, but that's not my point). We form governments to do for us collectively what is difficult to impossible to do for ourselves. I am grateful we have a US military even if I'm disquieted by the way it is currently being used in southwest Asia, as an instance of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

I could never be a fireman as I'd never resist my urge to run from a blaze despite all the others who would run towards it. I could stay behind and pet the Dalmatian, I suppose, but when everyone else got back to the firehouse, there'd be words. I was always supportive of my children's teachers as they made their way through the Norwich (CT) Public School system and through Norwich Free (though not anymore) Academy, but I never had any illusions that every penny of the requested and/or actual budgets for the education system benefited, directly or indirectly, the children themselves. I still smile when I think of what we pay, combined with benefits, for a school superintendent in a system basically without a high school (sorry, Thames Academy, you can call yourself whatever you want, but fifteen years ago your function was inside the walls of NFA until an NPS Superintendent got into a swordfish fight with an NFA Superintendent and about 8% more was added to the school budget to pay for a semi-private high school.)

My point, and thanks for thinking I have one, is that as we approach budget formulation time we need to turn down, or off, that radio station we all listen to, WII-FM (What's In It For Me?) because, as I mentioned earlier, we banded together to create an entity, government, to attempt to take care of the 'many' by balancing those needs against the 'one at a time.' We made a start on this the other night in Norwich, and one of the local newspapers today has an editorial based on its reporter's account of the meeting (where he missed the first twenty-eight minutes. I watched him show up and sit down in the back) that suggests some of us still like "Heroes and Villains" (and it's one of my favorite Beach Boys albums, too) over addressing the problem.

Being an elected official in a small-town is a hard job made a bit more difficult when unelected editorialists, with less than complete information, offer drive-by analysis of a situation they didn't observe. A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
And that is always their answer to my question.
-bill kenny

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Two Men Say They're Jesus/One of Them Must be Wrong"

How do you disagree and not be disagreeable? In my house, my wife and I rarely go to bed angry at each other. We're both insomniacs. Actually, as I've been forced to concede in the course of thirty years of marriage, she knows everything and she knows everything better. ;-)
The only thing I know is not to argue with her since I always wind up in the deep end of the pool without a swim vest. Kidding aside, the two of us, as is so often the case for people in a partnership, have so much more in common than what separates us, agreement is easier to achieve and happens almost without thinking (which, she has suggested, is right up my alley. Yes, dear). Actually this is usually how situations are, regardless of the nature, or size, of the partnership when the relationship is healthy.

I mention this because I attended a meeting of most, though not all, members of the Norwich City Council last night as they attempted, within what they see as the limitations of the Freedom of Information Act, to develop a coherent strategy and operating philosophy to share with their sole employee, the City Manager, on how he should develop the next Norwich City Budget. "They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beast." Don't know how things are where you live, but during the 'go-go' years of the late Nineties, when everyone was making and taking money home in wheelbarrows, it was a bit slower here in The Rose of New England. As one person phrased it, in another context, 'the rising tide of prosperity has not lifted all boats.' We have a marina and people say God has no sense of irony.....

As a matter of fact, the marina could soon have an eighteen-story Hilton hotel as well (as Paris learned Every Picture Tells a Story and eighteen would sure be a bunch, huh?), because as the lady running the Norwich Semiseptennial explained last month while outlining a proposed 750K budget for the event, "Norwich and the two casinos (Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods) are three major regional tourist attractions." Yeah. You know how everyone is suddenly so 'green'? Good news as many hotel guests will get a bird's eye view of how metal oxidizes while staring at the junkyard. They’ll come like moths to a flame drawn by another magnet-like regional attraction. Poor choice of descriptives, perhaps? Does the Sierra Club offer a Michelin Guide? I smell two stars.....

Back at the not-quite-a-council meeting, it opened with six of the seven members present but with one explaining, angrily (I thought), that he was only here because he wasn't feeling well and would've otherwise been out of town while adding, though no one had asked, that another absent council member had a previously scheduled family event (I think he meant the event was previously scheduled and not necessarily the family but you can get just about anything on line these days). He complained about a letter that he didn't support and accused unnamed members on the City Council, in drafting it, of a lack of teamwork, which he found especially galling he noted, because 'that's what everybody talked about during the election.' Then, having expressed his opinion to everyone, he left, before they could reciprocate.

Actually I recall discussions last election about defining powers and responsibilities, about ethical behavior and the need for open communications, about a desire to examine the city's charter and restoring faith in local government, as well as about teamwork (which sounded last night when first raised as a call for 'groupthink' which is partially responsible for how we all got here, imho). I'm not sure seeking a better way to do the people's business ISN'T an example of teamwork, but I'm wrong so often, why not now?

I appreciated the attempt at a consensus, which I saw as the meeting's primary goal and result. For too long, too many have seen city government as something done to us and not for us. If the purpose of all attendees last night (to include the audience) was to frame the context and criteria for the next budget, regardless of the number of signatures on a letter, the meeting was a success.
Someone in Norwich should speak and act for those who live here-that's why I voted for the members of the City Council I did. I thank them, together with the City Manager and his staff, for beginning a difficult discussion whose repercussions and impact will touch every resident.
The work force is disgusted, downs tools and walks. Innocence is injured, experience just talks."
-bill kenny

Thursday, February 21, 2008

He who controls the past, controls the future

Do you remember English Lit in high school with the assigned readings? Yeah, the summer school list as well as the books during the year we were all supposed to discuss. That's where I first came across George Orwell's 1984 (since I am a child of the sixties, born in '52, the impact of the book was/is different on me than it was for my children who may or may not have had to read it when they went to high school.)

I'd encountered Orwell through Animal Farm and 1984 was, to my way of thinking, a companion to Huxley's Brave New World, both filmed, we used to joke, in 'horror vision'. I loved and will always love Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and was surprised years later struggling, and failing, to fit in the US Air Force to realize Heller hadn't written a work of fiction at all. Probably not the first time I suspected I was part of God's punch line, but close to it.

The bleak, grey, joylessness of both 1984 and Brave New World, more so than the specifics of the narrative is what I can recall to this day. Community, Identity, Stability, the point of the State in Huxley's narrative could be the yearnings we have here in the 21st Century. In my middle Fifties now, I have a growing sense of unease as I watch those on the national political scene engage in zero-sum demolition derbies as the country I grew up in becomes another place where I don't fit in.

Not sure when I first flashed on it, but the United States has become Airstrip One as we have descended into Endless War. I saw a bumper sticker, 'we are making enemies faster than we can kill them.' When you have as much newspeak as we have, to stave off the dangers of thoughtcrime, a bumper sticker like that can eat at you. "Ignorance is Strength" suggested 1984 and we are the strongest nation, not only on earth, but in the history of civilization. Can't claim to feel a swell of pride about that as it seems to be happening despite anything any of us can do or are doing.

Our 2008 presidential campaign (which started (when?) about ten minutes after the results of 2004 were known) has at times resembled 'the two minute Hate' and we have months of this yet to go. Lots of slogans, lots of posturing--not very many solutions and even fewer possibilities. I keep looking for our version of Animal Farm's Snowball, fearful I may end up becoming her/him myself, but all I encounter are Nests of Napoleons.

The world we Americans know changed forever on 11 September 2001. We caught up with the rest of the world (pick a continent, any continent) in that increased suspicion, unease in looking at the future and 'shoot first, ask questions later' seemed to take priority over 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Within our version and vision of newsspeak, the Patriot Act became the antithesis of what a patriot, as the founders used the word, could ever be. There are moments I can see Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson being fitted for orange jumpsuits and wonder how long Nathan Hale might have regretted having but one life to give if the last moments of it had been spent on a waterboard. Today is the 'real' commemoration of George Washington's birth and who thinks of it that way anymore?

Misgivings are no longer encouraged. Second thoughts can betray us. We follow the flag, even as we're swallowing our concerns as to what the flag stands for. Love me, love my dog. We all hope for the best, but plan for the worst and never speak of it because we know we never can. We hope, vaguely, for a better future and have no idea how to achieve it but convince ourselves that a particular candidate can deliver us from evil, Amen. Perhaps that's why more and more of our children only know of Kennedy as former talking head on MTV, not that there's anything wrong with that, or that we have always been at war with Eastasia. He who controls the past, controls the future.

Is that better than being 1984's Julia who explains to Winston the only way to save yourself from something you simply cannot endure is to make another person suffer? Perhaps. And as long as no one wonders about other choices, or why there don't seem to be any, we can always hope for Community, Identity and Stability until Kingdom Come.
-bill kenny

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Waking and Dreaming

I had a dream last night/this morning so vivid that the clock radio, when it went off, ended up being part of the soundtrack of the dream. And none of it, or almost none of it, made sense. I had forgotten about the dream until I was driving to work and saw the full moon (or close to it, I defer to astronomers) while listening to Joni Mitchell's most recent album, Shine, released late last year on the Starbucks label (they also had Sir Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full disc earlier in the year). And before you ask, no, the full moon I drove towards this morning did NOT have semi-nude dancers floating towards it. We here in CT ("Land of steady Habits") have enough distracted drivers without that, thank you.

I had been thinking about her the other day, most probably because of the Grammy Herbie Hancock received at this year's awards for an effort that was inspired/incited/dedicated to her and loaded into the CD player in the car. She's as caustic as ever and the gift of language, combined with her talent for quiet observation produces lines like this, from a song, can you taste the irony?, called Bad Dreams:

You cannot be trusted/Do you even know you're lying?
It's dangerous to kid yourself/You go deaf and dumb and blind.
You take with such entitlement./You give bad attitude.
You have no grace/No empathyNo gratitude.

What do Moms say about a guilty conscience needs no accuser? Thanks, Mom.

And those lines led me to recall my dream though it creeps me out to recount it. In the dream, I was having a drink with a neighbor who passed away a couple or three years ago around Christmas. We were I have no idea where and he thought it would be nice to stop someplace. We were traveling with someone I did not know, a woman with a thin face and long black hair. I had the impression in the dream she knew my neighbor and yet he seemed to think that I knew her and he was putting up with her to be polite. I don't remember anyone else being in the dream, except the woman bartender/saloon keeper who was annoyed that we were her first customers of the day (I don't know why I 'know' we were doing this in the morning, I just do).

It was a very small bar-tiny; literally no more floor space than a phone booth (are there still phone booths? I'm trying to remember the last time I saw a pay phone and where it was. Another artifact of America from the Last Century gone forever, I guess.) And the three of us, my neighbor, and this woman and me are standing at a little, tall table and the bartender is taking the drinks order. My neighbor is having Dewar's-I have no idea if, in life, he even drank and if he did, what he did, but in my dream, he was a Dewar's man. I knew my neighbor for a score of years or more and exchanged, in total, maybe five hundred words with him, so I'm not sure why he and I were juking last night. I kept trying to order a scotch and water and everytime I did, the dark-haired woman would tell the bartender I didn't drink so there was no need to put the liquor in the same glass as the water. And the bartender kept demanding of me 'are you a comedian or an asshole?' and I kept explaining that I didn't do well on multiple choice but was much better at true or false.

I was aware, in the dream, that my neighbor was dead, though I think I was too cool to mention it (I have a habit of blurting out things and hope, in light of the tight spaces last night, this didn't happen, even if it was a dream) and, as I said, I never figured out who the lady was or what she was to him (Hecuba, perhaps?) or to me. I am a creature of habit and set an alarm every night though I tend to wake up at the same time every day, three minutes after four, every day of the week, not just on work days and lay in bed until the alarm is supposed to go off and then shut it off just before it does. This morning I was aware of music but couldn't see a radio in the bar in my dream and looked around until I saw the clock radio on my night stand which is when I realized I was in a dream and woke up. Not sure if I ever got my drink which made the drive to work more than a little awkward as I worried about what I'd tell a policeman. Sometimes, it's neat and other times it can be just black ice.
-bill kenny

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

As empty as the sky overhead

Around my house as dusk approaches, swarms of crows gather in the still-empty tree branches a block over from our street. It's something out of Hitchcock's The Birds as they caw and cluster louder and closer as darkness approaches, entirely filling the branches on a huge number of trees, like some kind of sinister leaves.

I have no idea where they are all day. I've never seen them in the malls and I can't imagine they go to the library (they have no pockets in which to put their library cards and are unable to carry away books they might check out, such as Erica Jong's Fear of Flying).

I'm fascinated with how they all 'know' to gather for the evening and where they'll be doing this. There's a reasonable amount of tumult as they jockey for empty and unoccupied branches at first, like we might do, and then as stragglers arrive, there's some shifting of contents as previous arrivals make a hole so that the latecomers have someplace to spend the night. Slowly, and sometimes it's more slowly than others, they quiet down (I don't understand if they're talking or what it is the cawing is supposed to signal-much like I'm never sure how much of what I say is necessary speech and how much is just placeholding in the queue of humanity) just as the night falls.

I'm usually gone before they get up so Saturday, when I was home and between projects, I heard them long before I realized what it was I listening to. All too slowly, but raucously, the tree branches started to show daylight as crows awakened either by dawn or a neighbor took wing though not before adding to the cacophony. Added a whole new meaning to the idea of an 'Early Bird' special for breakfast though with the ground as hard as it still is (and this has been a mild winter, imho) and the air temperatures turning standing water to ice, I'm not sure how they survive (but they do).

Over three decades ago, while in the USAF, I spent a year at Sondrestrom AB, Greenland which is ninety miles north of Arctic Circle and with more foxes and ravens (crows, actually, with a wing span you measured in feet) than people. The birds figured out where the chow hall was and hung out on the power lines across the street. It was a rite of passage, of sorts, that the new guys huddled together at tables in the chow hall wearing our parkas (hoods down indoors, of course) would be targeted by the old hands for a bit of fun. The latter would break up pieces of bread and drop the chunks into the parka hoods. As the new guys left the chow hall, if they forgot for even a moment to put up their hoods, the ravens would swoop down and land on your shoulder to eat the bread out of your hood. What a hoot, though not so much for the new guys, at least not until other new guys showed up and we could do it to them.

Someone came up with the brilliant idea of hitting the Class VI store, the liquor store, and buying a bottle of gin and then convincing the Danish cooks who made some of the most fantastic chow we would ever eat to give them a couple of unsliced loaves of fresh-baked bread and remove the crust from all sides of the bread and soak the loaf in the gin. Then you broke up the 'super-charged' loaves and threw the pieces on the snow in front of the chow hall and watched the ravens land, eat their fill, and fly back back up to the wires where the alcohol would work its way through their blood streams within minutes.

You'd watch as the ravens started to rock and wobble, almost imperceptibly as they got their drunk on, until they were so loaded they literally couldn't stand and would fall from the wires. They'd land, more often than not, headfirst in the snowbanks and you'd see these two bird legs sticking up from the drifts. After time had passed and they started to sober up, you'd see their feet start to twitch, and they'd struggle to get out of the snowbanks and fly back up onto the wires where they'd wait for the next shift of USAF zoomies to leave the chow hall. And round went the gossip. Had AA had a chapter, both Heckyl and Jekyll could have been in it.
On the other hand, when I think about the gin I didn't use on the bread, it's amazing I didn't see an elephant fly.
-bill kenny

Monday, February 18, 2008

Is that for here or to go?

Do you wonder, as you read your daily newspaper, why nations don’t seem to be able to get along better than they do? Perhaps because all of them are filled with millions, and ten and hundreds of millions of us, who can spend what seems like eternity NOT getting along with one another for amazingly bizarre reasons.

Not far from Norwich (when you live, as I do in the naval of the universe, you compute all locations and distances from your own hearth and home. Don’t laugh-how else do you suppose we reckoned GMT from a small village in the United Kingdom at a moment in time when the sun never set on the British Empire, or did you think that was accidental?) there was an incident yesterday at a fast-food restaurant that helps me place the Kosovan declaration of Independence, and Russia’s unhappiness about it, in a better context.

According to the published police report, someone had stopped a car in the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant (no reason for the stop was given. Police blotters are models of laconic language-don’t the cops know we love speculation?) and had blocked the car behind it from leaving. Words were exchanged and, says the newspaper, a passenger in the second car, punched the driver of the first car, ‘a couple of times in the face’ and then the passenger left the restaurant. I am assuming he was walking/running as mythically the car in which he was a passenger was still blocked in, right?
The punchee, says the account, refused medical treatment (and is finding out, even as I type this, from a lawyer, what a poor decision that was) and the puncher was arrested. No mention was made of what anyone ordered or what became of the food. If one of these involved had been Britney or Lindsay (or had even known them), we’d have this kind of detail and pictures. As it is, the fast-food chain, who insists on using the kicker “I’m Loving It” in all their commercials should immediately switch to “Fast Food Worth Fighting For”.

And then we have the Governor of CT, not the one who had the hot tub, the next one, suggesting the DMV equivalent of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter for sex offenders and their driver’s license. Some states already mark the licenses—I’m surprised more don’t also mark the license plates. If we’re going to do this right, how about a mark on the person-not like Hester Prynne’s marking but a brand or a tattoo? Of course, if the offenders looked more like Demi Moore than Dinty Moore, I could be persuaded to reconsider.

It’s news stories like these that make me nervous as I imagine visitors from another planet coming here, drawn by the lights of the world’s two largest casinos and the Parade of the Ten Tall Ships at the Norwich Semiseptennial Celebration, wondering where the Starbucks is and why we in New England treat each other in such a manner.
And all I can think to ask is ‘did you want fries with that?’
-bill kenny

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Seduced by language

Watching television last night and the bearded guy who is a spokesman for so many products (actually, he's more of a shoutperson since all he does is yell at me while he's on screen. I guess he doesn't really believe in the power of microphones and wants to make sure I can hear him) was on for some cleaner that was, he proudly (and loudly) exclaimed 'new and improved.'

That caught my ear. I can understand one OR the other, but both? How can something, someone, some idea that is "new" also, at the same time, be "improved"?
In order to make something better, don't you have to have used it for awhile? What kind of a factory, in this case, a cleaning compound factory, has an assembly line that makes stuff, and, just as we're going to put it into the boxes and load it into the trucks and ship it to the stores, BAM!, another assembly line grabs the newly-manufactured product and improves it. What is keeping a third assembly line from grabbing the now new AND improved product and doing one or the other to it again?

It's possible this factory actually never ships anything anywhere as its processes are trapped in an unending 'do loop' that is really a 'do-over loop'.The folks working there don't really care-they get paid and that they keep making the same product that goes nowhere is of little consequence to them. The management like it as well because there's no actual place on the reports to the corporate HQ and stockholders' groups to describe who is buying the product, just how many units of it are getting made. And once Skippy, down in accounting, came up with that new spreadsheet that allows them to count new AND improved as two separate products, output has actually increased. Stockholders love this whole concept since they are getting true value for their money. When they came on board and purchased the IPO, the factory was only making "Y" amount of the product and now, it's up to "Y + Z and 2/3 of A". Not too shabby on an original investment of three dollars a share.

Sound far-fetched? It shouldn't. We do it everyday of our lives and many of us rely on this process to feed our families. When, in the depths of the Vietnam War, forty years ago, we invented a 'Great Society" it came with an initiative known as the War on Poverty. We didn't actually shoot people with no money, though I suspect there's always been a sentiment of support for that notion, but rather we created elaborate and far-reaching programs and processes to do .....
Well, that was part of the dilemma, we never actually figured out what they were supposed to do in terms of reducing poverty, but we set about to do something with gusto. Forty years on we may have proven the road to a very warm place is paved with good intentions.

I would not hazard a guess as to the trillions (unless there is a word to describe the money BIGGER than trillions) we've spent to eliminate poverty, and yet, those pesky not-too-well-off people are still around. We have offices, buildings, and divisions of local and state government not to mention federal agencies dedicated to eliminating poverty, which have been at it for decades, and yet we haven't been able to do it.

Same for the War on Drugs. Untold amounts of money have been invested in education and interdiction and practically the same amount of money is expended every year by people to purchase and use illegal drugs. Sort of a wash, isn't it?
Do we have to talk about the Department of Defense and the Department of State's mutually exclusive and simultaneously complementary objectives in relation to this Brave New World? Just me, or did we do better when we used old school names, like the 'Department of War'? No doubts then, were there?

Having spent 8 years on active duty in the USAF I get confused by this entity known as the Department of Homeland Security (fearing it's about as successful as enforcing its name as those agencies handling the battles against poverty and narcotics are) since I can remember taking an oath to 'defend and protect the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic' which would seem to obviate the need for a Department of Homeland Security.

Unless, of course, that bearded TV guy is around to explain that my oath for foreign AND domestic wasn't new OR improved.-bill kenny

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sandlot Truths

You do know I'm a Yankees' fan, right? However, being a Yankees' fan, or a member of Red Sox Nation, or rooting for any particular baseball team means that, as a subset, I am a fan of baseball-period.
I'm counting the days until the Double-A franchise of the San Francisco Giants in the Eastern League, the CT Defenders, open their 2008 season in Norwich's Senator Thomas Dodd Stadium and intend to enjoy as much baseball as they can offer, as often as I can.

Treating all of the above as 'read', instead of being happy that pitchers and catchers reported for spring training this past Thursday, I'm watching baseball implode as Roger Clemens, Andy Petitte and others, testify before a House Investigative Sub-Committee (lemme get this straight, we have right now: war in Iraq; economy heading into the abyss; almost a million more uninsured being added to the rolls every month and Congress is holding hearings on steroids in baseball? What next? A special prosecutor to find out why Diet Dr. Pepper tastes more like original Dr. Pepper?).

Do I think all the allegations of 'juicing' are true? No. Do I think any of them are true? Yes. Do I fear we may be engaged in a Vietnam-like 'we had to destroy the village to save it' situation when it comes to 'getting to the bottom' of this morass? Sadly, that's what I see happening and when it does, what will we want to pretend the point was.
Thanks to my wife's parenting, my children, who are actually adults themselves, Patrick Michael, at 25, and Michelle Alison, at 20, know the difference between right and wrong and understand the futility and inherent risks to destructive behavior.

Congress isn't protecting my children, or yours, from the evils of steroids or human growth hormones--that is our job as parents and if we can't pull that off, it may be time to cash in our belly-buttons and leave this orb to others.

From what I saw the other day, perhaps because this is a presidential election year, we've injected (oh dear, such a word to use in this context! I hope St. George of Mitchell and the Archangel Bud of Selig can forgive me) partisan politics into this mess. So we have, I think I read where the Mitchell Report listed 83 names, close to 100 major league baseball players who are only accused of, but already convicted in the court of public opinion, of illegal and unlawful substance abuse--simply put, they cheated and got caught. The hero of this Through the Looking Glass tale is shaping up to be Jose Canseco-proving that God does have a sense of humor and no longer follows baseball.

So instead of reading about Joba Chamberlin's first pitches, I'm watching Roger Clemens' last moments as a public figure. So much for the presumption of innocence. He must've done something; there are TV cameras here so let's watch. That we continue Slouching Toward Bethlehem is no longer important. Here's Johnny to tell you what today's contestants will receive.
-bill kenny

Friday, February 15, 2008

This town is a sealed tuna fish sandwich

Zappa meets Mellencamp when it comes to the virtues of living in a small town. I went to prep school in New York City-John Lindsay was the Mayor. I knew his name, but I didn't know him and he had no idea who I was. That was, and is, his loss, ;-)

My name is Bill Kenny and I live in Norwich, 'Hi, Bill' (I thought I'd evoke AA and make you smile, or grimace, perhaps). In Norwich, I know the names of all the members of the City Council, have met them and they know me. Abstraction is nice-but putting a name and a face to 'them' in City Hall is really nice. If you live in a Norwich, wherever it is you live, and don't know the people who run your government, ask for your money back; after you find a mirror and tell your reflection just how disappointed you are in yourself.

If nothing else, you get a good sense of how the world works at the macro level when you see how the world works at the micro (municipal) level. As Tip O'Neill purportedly said, 'all politics is local.' I suspect this is true, and a truth, because, ultimately where we live and how we live is of greater importance to us than abstractions like the balance of payments, strategic nuclear balance or human rights halfway across the globe. No need to apologize. When times are good, humanitarian organizations report, we are more generous with donations of time, talent and money. When we feel the pinch of Hard Times in the Land of Plenty, we're more parsimonious because we truly have less to give to others.

Do you have volunteer firefighters where you live, too? We have them here in Norwich and they are, by all accounts, courageous, competent and stretched way too thin. As Life in the Land of (low fat, actually 2%) Milk and Honey (product) has gotten harder more of us spend more of our lives working to maintain the standard of living we inherited from our parents and that we want to improve as we pass it to our children. There's a problem in this country, where, for the first time in our history our children will be less well-off than we are.We did not fail them-the game has changed.

And because the game has changed, there are billions of fewer donated hours for any and all civic activities. like Scouts, like volunteer fire fighting, like coaching youth sports, so when you can make a difference by organizing an outing for three or four youngsters and take them fishing, or some other activity they might not ever get to do otherwise, you are by definition, exceptional. And your neighborhood, and our city, regardless of size improves.

When a million people make a million efforts to help one other person, the level is elevated and more people are inspired to help even more. And our county, our state and our nation incrementally improve. Because of one person.
Am I talking about fish because it's a Friday in Lent? I don't know, what kind of bait do you use for tuna, tarter sauce?
-bill kenny

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Kick out the Smiles, Bring back the Jams

What brought you to the polls last November? If, like me, you live in Norwich, perhaps it was a desire for something close to tabla rasa in terms of starting over with the membership of the Norwich City Council. The people seeking re-election were all good people, but even good people can disagree about the way ahead and for some of them, and ALL of me, how they had read the City Charter in terms of the division of responsibilities between a Mayor and a City Manager became a critical issue.

I had a bit of an insight into the City Charter having been on the last Charter Revision Commission with some very bright and well-intentioned residents (I often thought I was on as some kind of a practical joke that no one else got, except sometimes I think they did) and a lot of good things came out of months of hearings, reviews and research. I don't think anyone on the Commission had any illusion that we were to be the 'final' commission or that our suggestions would be the last word for all time on the City Charter. Events since the adoption of most of those recommendations, at a special election in March 2001, have shown the truth of that belief.

All of that gets us to this past Monday night where three of our current City Council members went on record to ask their colleagues to consider the hire of a professional consultant to review the entire city charter and make recommendations for changes. Thank you, Messrs Bettencourt, Coutu and Zarnetske for following through on a promise and premise advanced during the election campaign.

I'm hoping there will be unanimous support by the entire Norwich City Council for this idea and I am confident that there will be. I have no pre-conceived notions on what a consultant may suggest, or NOT suggest. I've discovered that I don't know what I don't know and suspect sometimes those (at all levels of government and society) who yell the loudest, know the least. I feel chastened if you thought of me as you read that sentence, and will strive to not only be better but to do better.

Meanwhile, government, if it's to effectively and fairly serve the people for whose benefit it was created, should, on a regular basis, be evaluated for how it does business and where/how/if improvements can, and should, be made. Remember: the Constitution was designed to be amended, not the Ten Commandments. The City Charter is, in effect, the operating manual for the city of Norwich, and as conditions evolve and change occurs, the manual may need to be examined and refined and revised.

We, or at least I, in Norwich insisted on change when we (I) chose those whom we (I) elected to City Council this past November. Those seeking office promised us (me) during that campaign to reach across party lines and old habits and customs and work together for the benefit of all. I left the voting booth in November with more hope than I'd had very possibly since the birth of my children (deal with God and promise of a better tomorrow and all that New Dad stuff).
I've watched this City Council carefully since they were seated in early December and my optimism, thanks to initiatives like this one, continues to grow.
Accomplishing an impartial analysis of the City Charter is a critical first step in accelerating and speeding the changes and improvements we (I) supported in November.
Now if we could just do something about these pesky parentheses, (), see?-life would be a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom.
-bill kenny

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Truth is stranger than fiction and Ruth is stranger than Bridget

Opening the book of Zevon, and turning to the chapter, Excitable Boy, let us quote together from his homage to Norway's greatest son, and altogether now, "Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland's Thompson Gun and bought it." Released in the middle of January 1978, thirty years and almost a month on, wherever in the cosmos Warren Zevon is, you know the results of Monday's night Westminster Kennel Club Show at NYC's Madison Square Garden would have made him smile. Hell, it made me break out in a little bit of doggerel (pun intended, William Randolph) in terms of 'How much is that Tania in the window? The girl with the beret and the gun. She joined with Field Marshall Cinque, cos she thought revolution was fun."

The SLA gets toasted to a crisp, literally, while the police, wary of stored ammo in their hideout watched it cook off and explode as the bodies burned. Poor Patty, confused and abused, is found guilty of participating in a bank robbery and might well still be some bad, bad woman's girlfriend in prison if Jimmy Carter, who buried John "Scooter" Herring (one lousy sentence?) because no one liked the idea of Greg Allman going to jail, hadn't stepped in. Thank heavens for compassionate Georgians. It didn't do Steven Weed any good, did it? I think we still owe Steve some time on the Andy Warhol Fifteen Minutes of Fame meter.

And with our inability to distinguish between notoriety and fame, we have a universe filled with stars who aren't. Patty's just the latest reminder that everything's backdated. On the night her French bulldog, Diva, was awarded a first place finish, over two dozen other owners and dogs received awards. Good luck finding out about them (okay, you don't need luck). Certainly none of them can hold a candle to, or near, our Tania. Welcome to The Revenge of Attention Deficit Disorder amazing is all of this? Where are the Snowdens of yesterday?

Here's a chance to make a statement and do something good for everyone, even those of us most dependent on celebrity news to fill up our empty lives. I'm impressed that, with all the effort to 'go green', nobody's thought about all the tabloids printed on pulp product, a renewable resource if but only we would, we could do rededicate to more worthwhile purposes if we but gave in secretly to our baser instincts.

The culture of self-aggrandizement in which we live, where it's not enough that I celebrate myself but NOW insist you celebrate me as well has given birth to a new breed of self-absorbed obliviot, the panda bear celebrity. A panda bear celebrity, as you can probably tell by the name, is famous for no special reason; they just are. Folks go to zoos and pay good money to stare through glass and bars at what looks like a large raccoon with a thyroid problem eating bamboo. Panda bears don't do anything and the celebrities named for them are the same.

How about this: We round up all the panda bear celebrities and jam them into a min-van (considering the number of folks who will end up in the van, a stretch mini-van, thus defeating the prefix 'mini', will be needed.) There's the usual suspects and low hanging fruit: Paris, Lindsay, Brit and the preggers sister and, what the heck, why not the parents of The Swamp Thangs. Speaking of parents, and I love the hotels, but Paris' folks have some 'splaining to do so they get window seats in the van.

Did someone nominate Brit's former husband? Just me, or now that they're divorced he doesn't seem to pop up in the Yellow Journals so often. I concede he has no more talent now than he did when he was blissfully wed, if ever that was, but I can sense you're not buying that argument so into the van he goes. However! However. However: if he goes into the van, than on the basis of one appearance in an infomercial I stumbled across a while back, so, too, does the woman he left for Britney, Shar Something-or-other, who has one or more of his children. She showed up identified as "celebrity" on some skin care product sales pitch I caught one insomniac evening. If she's a celebrity, I'm Ahab. Point me at the whale, and be of good hope, but still plan on hitting the Long John Silver drive thru.

Some will want to add Angeline and Brad and Tom and Katie and quite frankly, my eyes glaze over tying to read about them in what my wife calls 'the scandal magazines' at the register checkouts. No one wants to admit they read them, much less buy them. I will, because I do. I not only read them, I luxuriate in them-even if close to 60% of the people I'm reading about are unknown to me. My wife cringes when I slide one out at the dinner table because she knows I'll be pop-quizzing her for twenty minutes on the identities of the folks whose conduct is so intricately detailed within. Sorry, honey.

There are others who need to go into the min-van just because we can ill-afford to let them wander the planet. My most recent nominee is Noah Shachtman who blurted out on the Web a couple of days ago, how the Navy (ours, I'm assuming, though he doesn't actually say that, hmmm) has a plan to deploy man-made floods and droughts to disrupt the economy (just me, or are they experimenting in this neck of the woods instead of Over Yonder Somewhere?). More gunmen on the grassy knoll, another believer in the Elvis will be right back after a trip to the Burger King, JFK and Marilyn are secretly alive on a desert island (near Kate and Jack?) and, of course, the notion that you can, truly, get something for nothing.

Don't believe me? Take a good look at this mini-van, brother! Guess the monthly payment, c'mon! Leather seats, navigation, satellite radio, DVD player, chocolate fountain between the second and third row of seats, power how much would you pay? And, look!, it's so big, there's room for Patty and Diva! Thank goodness the dog had the brains to call shotgun. For obvious reasons, Patty wouldn't.....
-bill kenny

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Today's the Birthday of the President Named for the Car?

Yeah, that's the spirit and that's who we named the guy after, that big, long barge of a car. Or maybe not. This used to be the day we honored the man who was President when a still young country had such a determined difference of opinion on something as fundamental as to whom the blessing of liberty was extended that the only way to settle is was by a conflict of arms.
Long before we rolled his birthday and that of George Washington into ONE holiday and renamed it, President's Day (to honor, among others, Millard Fillmore, the first US President to have a bath tub installed in he White House-considering Alexander Graham Bell was years away from inventing the telephone, how long do you suppose Fillmore could have settled in for a soak before the phone rang?) Lincoln was celebrated as a person who had made a difference in his time and whose shadow was cast through our own lives. Now, he's part of a three day weekend and we're having a White Sale (gotta love the irony!), c'mon down!

Don't get me wrong-based on what I've read of that time, early Industrial Revolution, we had "the North" cashing in on the new technologies and "the South" mostly agrarian. As such, slavery wasn't just human rights, it was economics. Few growers could remain solvent or (phrase from another generation, 'economically viable') if they had to pay people to work as manual labor (not that the Northern industrialists were setting benchmarks for humane working conditions and remuneration in their factories. If you're looking for the beginnings of the world labor movement, look to the earliest days of the industrial revolution. Sowing the seeds of love, indeed. Nothing happens in a vacuum, unless your name is Dyson and then everything does, I suppose.).

Yes, there were a huge number of issues bound up in something as simple and stark as 'slavery' but that's the headline, the casus bellum. Dispassionate historians and anthropologists agree, slavery wasn't an invention of the New World, but an extension of a practice stretching back thousand of years across the entire world. I don't think you see it among any other species on this Earth, but we homo sapiens, given the opportunity to lord it over one another, do so in as brutal a manner as possible. Scrape off that thin veneer of civilization and there we are: our own worst nightmare. Perhaps we in the USA still have not yet fully faced up to what was done by some to others and so instead of confronting and resolving, we continue to equivocate and rationalize. How's that working out where you live? The days of life needing nothing more than a mule and forty acres are long gone (if they ever were), but for some of us, those days never got here.

And in 1860, after decades of compromise and accommodation over a dozen issues that always came back to the idea of freedom vs. slavery, Abraham Lincoln, failed Congressman, failed candidate in 1858 for US Senate from Illinois, look up the Lincoln-Douglas debates if you despair about our democracy and be of good hope, campaigned as the candidate of the fledgling Republican Party and was elected to the office of the Presidency of the United States. And, practically as he was inaugurated, the United States of America already philosophically and economically divided, took up arms against itself and disintegrated.

It's curious, to me, that we would call the War Between the States (its official name, btw) the "Civil War" since, historians agree it was often anything but. With other nations picking sides to advance their own agenda, the two sides, bloodied and bedraggled, fought one another from 1861 through the spring of 1865, when the Confederate States of America, prostrate and exhausted, surrendered and, say some, Modern America began. What we are now is what we were then. Provided an opportunity to begin again with 'malice towards none and charity to all' as outlined by the soon to be murdered reelected Lincoln, instead, as a nation, we veered from that path and continued to settle old scores and create new wounds through the latter half of the 19th, all of the 20th and, now, into the 21st century.

One hundred and forty eight years on, we are on the eve of another Presidential election but from the rhetoric that's floated for the last few months, and will continue to and through November's actual vote, you have to wonder if we've forgotten where we came from and how we got here.
Members of one political party hurl epithets and invective at their opponents, some of whom may be in the same political party. "The Big Tent" and inclusiveness be damned-it's the triumph of the 'Love me and love my dog' mindset. We cannot disagree without becoming disagreeable and when the day ends no one, wins. It's the death of dialogue and debate and a dearth of civility and kindness. The US Presidential elections have become the Greatest Show on Earth, sorry Ringling Bros., and there's just enough time to clean up after the elephants and the donkeys in the center ring, before we open the tent flaps and let the next crowd in for a show.

Didja find a good parking spot? We got valet service for the high end cars, like the Beemers, Benzs, Caddies, Lexus and (of course!) the Lincolns-lemme get somebody to take your keys. No scratches, I promise.
-bill kenny

Monday, February 11, 2008

We'll always have Capistrano....

Pitchers and catchers report this Thursday for the beginning of spring training which, for me is a surer sign of Spring than any bird migration in California. Nothing against St Joseph, mind you. A great step-father, by all accounts, and a heckuva of a baby aspirin. Couldn't have been easy as a step-dad: 'Jesus Christ! Stop bringing all the dead dogs and cats back to life will ya? I can't feed all these animals--do you think I'm made out of money?' 'You can't tell me what to do--you're not my REAL father, is he, Mom? Go ahead, tell him.' Nope, couldn't have been the easiest job in the world. Didn't see him pop up too often in the New Testament after he decided to not have Mary stoned for adultery, as I recall the Bible. Still, it's nice that the swallows observe his day with a fly-by though Saint Patrick, two days earlier, tends to get a lot more ink, albeit green in color.

I knew two people who shared birthdays on the Feast of Saint Joseph, who ended up working for the same employer (they have both since passed, one, many years ago and the other, quite some time but not as long as the first one, ago), the American Forces Radio (and television) Network, Germany. They were both WWII alumni, though on different sides and actually more walk-ons than those with speaking parts. He had been in the Army Band, a clarinet player who had traveled with the US Army as it headed east after Normandy. After the armistice, he had ignored Eisenhower's no-fraternization rule and had met and married a young German woman, Erika.

For a number of years, post war, he had worked for an american advertiser with an office in downtown Frankfurt am main and had incredible stories about landing the Kellogg's cereal account only to discover that Germans and Americans ate breakfast fundamentally differently. Germans, he told me, put the orange juice on the cereal rather than in a glass to be drunk separately. He shook his head in disbelief every time he told me that story.
Bob and Erika never had children and when they passed away, she years before he did, aside from memories such as mine there's no trace of them which is sad, because he loved her beyond all reason. She was, he once told me 'the light of his life' and when she died, something inside of Bob did as well. He was the nicest human being I have ever or will ever know and a gentleman to and through the marrow of his bones.

That he was a radio production genius and had incredible copy-writing ideas and audio production tricks which made him that much more amazing to me as a late twenties radio stud who (upon reflection of three decades later) knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. I could have learned so much more from him, not just about radio but how to get along with others in life without surrendering who you are, if I could have but listened closer and more carefully. Learning as I did years ago that he had died years earlier while shoveling snow during a freak storm in Las Vegas made me smile as that's how he would've wanted to go. Wearing that goofy and shop-worn black beret like Maynard G. Kreb's dad, while snowflakes danced around him. Bob was a St Louis Cardinal baseball fan, and knew every statistic on every player to ever wear their uniform. The Cardinals weren't a force to be reckoned with in the National League when I knew him in the mid-seventies through early eighties, but that didn't stop him from following their every move and as many games as he could stay awake to listen to on shortwave.

Gisela was the record librarian for the 2nd largest recording archive in the world at the time and through part of the nineties when, history and heritage be damned, the entire operation relocated to another building in another city and engaged in a variation of Horse Latitudes in packing up and heading out. She had been a young girl in a suburb of Frankfurt, Germany, when World War II ended. I never asked about what happened to young women her age as the US forces advanced. I've read about the atrocities the Red Army inflicted on the civilian population in retaliation for the horrors perpetrated on Russians by the Waffen SS and einsatzkommando of the Wehrmacht, and assumed similar situations had developed in Frankfurt am Main as had on Frankfurt on der Oder.

She came to work for the Americans at their radio station (which had started in London on 4 July 1943 in the basement of the BBC and had traveled across the Channel and into Central Europe as Patton and crew pressed forward), and as FFM became more geographically the center of (West) Germany as the Red Army made good on Goebbels' prophecy of an Iron Curtain, the radio station set up shop in Hoechst, a suburb of a Frankfurt where IG Farben, the folks who invented Zyklon-B used in extermination camps, had been (they changed their name after the war and altered some of their product line). I remember her telling me there were a few other places she could have worked but chose the Americans because they offered a warm meal at midday at no cost, which was a significant factor for consideration in a country where most major cities had few stones left upon other stones.

I once speculated in the course of her career with the Americans at the radio station, Gisela had interacted with probably close to 10,000 Americans of all ranks and talents connected in some way to the station. She was there when I arrived and was still there when I left under cover of darkness and flawed ambition years later. She, unlike Bob, was not a St Louis Cardinals' fan. She lost her husband many years before passing herself after they had returned from two weeks of camping in Bayern, irgendwo, and she was unpacking their suitcases at their home while he returned the pop-up trailer to the dealer and died of a heart attack while in their parking lot. She too, was never quite the same again.

There's a reason why pitchers and catchers report together at the same time for spring training and if you're married, ever have been married, contemplate getting married or know someone in one of those situations, the reasons are self-evident.

You may be skeptical, but you'll have to swallow your incredulity and take one for the team.
-bill kenny

Sunday, February 10, 2008

No Spitting on the Track

We see signs, banners and billboards every day that become part of the background of our movie. And because we see the signs so often, sometimes we don't see the signs at all. Sometimes the signs make sense, as if they were omens and sometimes a sign is just a sign. I drove by a volunteer fire department Saturday that is advertising for its 'Mardi Gras Dinner' Sunday evening, for ten dollars, in the fire house. Almost all aspects of that sign bothered me. If I'm gonna give you ten dollars to have dinner at your house, it'd be nice to know what we're eating and I'd like to NOT be eating it in your garage, brother, with the dark oil stain from where we normally park the heavy-duty rescue truck (damn transfer case leaks, doesn't it? Yeah, we got one, and maybe more than one, in Norwich like that, too).

"We scrubbed for hours and got a lot of it, heck most of it, out of the concrete but once those stains start, it's hard to get 'em out of cement as it's porous, doncha know?" says the Chief and you know he feels bad that he has to keep apololgizing for it and all I'm wondering is what happens if RIGHT AFTER the food is served, there's a fire emergency? Do the firemen all dash away and leave their mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberries and meat (I don't know what kind of meat so I just improvised there, thanks for not making a big deal about it) to fight the blaze, and do we all go along and help them, and hope nobody eats the food while we're gone?

By the way, fire department, ASH WEDNESDAY was this past Wednesday, this is the FIRST SUNDAY of Lent--how can you seriously be thinking about anything to do with Mardi Gras AFTER Lent has started? There's a special place in a very warm place for people who cannot keep track of stuff like this (and considering you're firepersons, it should be a good fit).

It's like Bobby F, with whom I grew up, thinking Christmas was Santa Claus' birthday (!) Oh yeah, we both went to Catholic grammar school-a great investment by Bobby's parents. It wasn't bad enough his sister got pregnant by the time she was sixteen, C'mon Virginia don't make me wait-and she didn't obviously, and his parents waited until she was like 34 months pregnant before shipping out to her aunt in Missouri or someplace none of us had ever been to (obviously to have the baby. She came home without it and none of us ever asked and she went back to school and that was, what?, about forty years ago, a whole other lifetime, and I have NO Idea what has become of Bobby or his sister or her baby.) I can tell you that when you tell Sister Thomas Anne, who must be long dead by now, in fifth grade that Christmas is Santa's birthday, her face turns some amazing colors and today she'd go to jail for child abuse probably, but today isn't then and then she hit Bobby so hard across the mouth for being fresh I may have seen drops of spit from his mouth fly halfway across the classroom.

Until I lived in Germany, I believed folks who told me that Mardi Gras was French for carnival. Life Is a Carnival, believe it or not. Except in Germany, it's called Fasching and its satirical potential is so explosive that it was the FIRST thing the Nazis banned after the gleichshaltung (seizure of power). Couldn't have any of that, now could we? It's bad enough Charlie Chaplin ridiculed Hitler in The Great Dictator, but Fasching parades and parties traditionally take aim at politicians and government leaders and the bier hall putsch crowd certainly had no sense of humor-just ask the gypsies, the Jews, the homosexuals and (insert your guess for victim here).
Jetzt bliebt mir den spuk weg. Their list of proscribed activities was longer than the permitted ones--a bit reminiscent of the Patriot Act (which the NY Giants repealed last Sunday in Arizona).

I asked one of the people in the gym about the sign on the door leading to the oval over the gym floor and he hadn't realized it was there but it made sense, he suggested. Very probably at some time, folks did spit on the track and, we both guessed, the sign took care of that. I was gonna ask if it was okay to spit on the folks on the gym floor from the overhead track but I don't want to break the budget on signs so early in the year. I have Mardi Gras dinners to get to, even if Harry Connick, Jr. is trapped behind the wheel of that Lincoln SUV with a big pot of crawfish. If we can just get FEMA to approve a dump truck full of tarter sauce we could arrange ourselves a delicious accident. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it-how about you?
Careful there! Don't get any on the track.
-bill kenny

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sometimes the dot isn't short for Dorothy

Those maps of the stores in the malls that every mall has (okay, not the Norwichtown Mall which has three times the number of mall walkers as it does shops and it has less than a half dozen mall walkers.) always have a red pin stuck on them with a note, 'you are here.' I often wonder why the floor that the map display is constructed on doesn't have red or orange color tiles right there so when I look down, after reading that part of the mall map, I'm reassured.

Like those who have fallen in love with the camera part of our cell phone (and none of the cameras I've owned in my life could call anyone, anywhere. I could throw some of them at somebody to get his attention but they had to be pretty close unless Brian McNamee was doing rounds), there's a compulsion to photo-document every moment of our lives. Here's a shot of me at the mall, looking at the directory. And here's a picture of me showing you a picture of me looking at the mall directory and OH! Here's one of you and me looking at a picture of us looking at a picture. As Walter explained to Ray, people take pictures of each other just to prove that they really existed.

And when our time for coming and going has come and gone, who will know we were here. Will there be a little dot on the front sidewalk at your house? When you look at how long we, as a species, have trodden this planet, what names of all those who've gone before us, do we know? My family and yours and his, over there, all helped build this country and are part of the history of the USA that has gotten us from 1776 until 2008, but where are the names. We've preserved Mount Vernon and Monticello-no one has contacted me about efforts to save 33 Bloomfield Avenue in Franklin Township, NJ where three of my brothers and sisters were born and where my mother and father worked as hard as they could to make a life for us. There's no marker at the corner, with Easton Avenue, that says 'this where Evan Delores Kenny waited for the school bus to take her to Saint Peter School in New Brunswick, every school day for eight years' (Evan NEVER missed a day of school as a kid. How's that for dedication?).

And the same is true for you and yours. And yet here we are, so many people in the same device. Famous faces and famous places mixed in equal parts with ordinary lives doing extraordinary things. You, I, he and she--we are here.
-bill kenny