Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Cosmic Christmas Conundrum

It started as a comment during a recent conversation I was having with my Dad. I was describing the process and materials that were used in the construction of my wife’s latest ‘alternative Christmas tree’, a yearly tradition with the crazy artist I married.

Me: “It’s built with bamboo skewers and gift wrap and tissue paper and hot glue. We didn’t want it to look like a Christmas tree, but still have that feeling.”

Him: “You know, you can’t really call it a Christmas tree.”

Me: “Why not?”

Him: “Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with the letters C-H-R-I-S-T in ‘Christmas’, does it?”

Me: “You’re kidding me, right?”

I wanted to ask him WTF a newly-dead tree, covered with ornaments and standing in the living room, awaiting a spark to catch on fire and immolate everything, has to do with C-H-R-I-S-T-mas. I wanted to, but was momentarily dumbstruck over the magnitude of his statement, at what he was inferring. He’s pretty conservative in most ways, being 75-years-old and all, but it was the matter-of-fact tone of his comment that stopped me cold.

It happens every year nowadays, this whole argument about what the Christmas holidays actually mean, what it stands for, what we should be celebrating. It rages on the teevee and in the newspapers, on the blogosphere and around dinner tables. It’s one of the singular hallmarks of our modern American discourse, meant to divide believers from everyone else, a litmus test to see how devoutly American you are.

I have my own opinions about how and why so many people have accepted the lyrical allegory of The Bible (or The Qu’ran or The Talmud or whatever) as their dogma of choice, their marching orders for access into the afterlife. I get it, really I do. We humans fear death more than anything else, so it’s natural to accept the promise of ‘life everlasting’ in exchange for emotional and spiritual servitude on this mortal coil.

As for the meaning of Christmas, an invented holiday which was nicked from the Pagan Winter Solstice bacchanal in the first place, the most vocal adherents to the biblical interpretation are clear: it’s all about the birth of Jesus, their Lord and Savior. The Immaculate Conception, the Star of Bethlehem, the Three Wise Men, the sheep and cattle in the manger, the whole star-spangled glory of it all. The Bible is the be-all end-all Book of Answers… nothing else need be considered, because it is the WORD OF GOD and, after all, God is infallible, as is The Bible. Case closed, move along, nothing more to see here as you try to salvage your dirty soul in this life while preparing for the next.

(Side note: the stop-motion animated Comedy Central series 'Robot Chicken' has the most outrageously hilarious segment regarding the whole 'Away in the Manger' story. Deeply disturbing, fall-down funny stuff.)

It got me to wondering about the basis for the myth, the legend, the lowdown on the birth of Jesus. Now, I like to think of myself as an informed person with an expanded consciousness about our existence. Why not use some of what I think I ‘know’ and extrapolate that into an understanding of how this notion of a child born to save the world could be so all-consuming and important to so many followers. It’s a subject that has been bouncing around in my head for some time now, but Dad’s comment started the cogs turning and the synapses firing and gave me the inspiration for this little exercise.

To begin: although not a concept accepted by many (if any) Christians, I hold dear to the notion that our Earth is but a microcosmic speck of dust in the vastness of our spectral universe, which plays host to billions of other stars far greater and more important than our own little Sol. My life as a supporter of all things scientific has taught me to accept that amongst those billions of stars are also hundreds of billions of planets circling them. The likelihood of other life forms holding sway over the surface of many of those planets is an easy concept to grasp, at least for me.

That’s right… other life beyond ours exists in the universe. Deal with it. It could be a single-cell protozoic society of flagellates, or it could be horrific blobs of acid-spewing multi-faced time-warping octopodi, or maybe even bi- or tri-pedal upright skin bags like us. Not important what they are, but they are… out there. I like the idea of that, first and foremost, because it makes me feel like we have neighbors. And some of them are also very likely to be WAY MORE ADVANCED than we can ever hope to be.

Anyways, here’s my point: assuming there are other far more superior life forms out there in the Cosmos, how far-fetched would it be to consider that the story of Jesus’ birth was the retelling of an actual event that occurred when his Mom was ‘visited’ by an off-worlder? I mean, wouldn’t that give new meaning to all those ‘NOTW’ stickers being proudly displayed on the back windows of SUVs? Think about it – an immaculate conception is one that could have occurred when she was unconscious and inseminated by one of them sneaky aliens, for whatever purpose. The Star of Bethlehem? Yup, a hovering spacecraft. The ‘angels on high’? Right again… more of those guys. It would also explain a lot of the stories about Jesus… healing the blind and disabled, water into wine, walking on water, rising from the grave… all of it.

Does this mess with your sensibilities a bit? Dunno why it should… from my perspective, the assertion that alien visitors were behind the story of Jesus makes a whole lot more sense than the purported acts of magic he performed as the ‘Son of God’. Now, I will agree that it would mean those visitors were pretty awesomely talented to perform such acts, but assuming they were able to traverse the distance from their rock to ours must also allocate them some majorly strong juju. The more I think of the Jesus story within this framework, it only seems more plausible, not less. MORE PLAUSIBLE… NOT LESS.

A point of fact: I am NOT an adherent to the idea that there ever was a Joseph or Mary or baby Jesus or any of the stuff that believers believe. I think the Bible was a very craftily-written morality fable, an allegory to be used on a vast uneducated mass of people who did not have anything better to believe, so… why not the Bible? Like the earliest man, we have always sought to understand who we are, why we’re here and for what purpose. Naturally, those cagy early religious leaders knew the way to get the unwashed masses on their side, to control and manipulate and oversee them, to convince them of the gravitas of their story, a story that I believe was created out of whole, unwashed cloth. However, taken in the context that the story was a legend passed down verbally for generations before it was set to papyrus, the only semi-plausible explanation would be… VISITORS.

Are you howling at me with anger and hostility right now? Are you incredulous at the insanity of my supposition? Are you falling to your knees, praying hard to delete this concept from your conscious thoughts and for me to be damned to hell? Or… are you quietly thinking a bit more about the stars, the universe, the vastness of space and all that it contains? Knowing far more now than anyone knew when the Bible was written, can you envision a series of events as I described? Honestly… doesn’t it make more sense than the talking snake-burning bush-begat begat poetry? It does for me.

As I’ve written before, I do not fear dying or death, the great nothingness that awaits every last one of us. I do not believe there is a conscious afterlife that can be seen or tasted or touched. I believe that we have only one conscious life, and that everything before and after is unknowable. When my bell is ready to be rung, I know that my life’s force and energy will be absorbed into the natural machine that powers our Earth, just like the billions of lives that have been here and gone before me. Our cumulative energies are what makes this mysterious planet work and survive, and it may also be to our peril if we keep ruining it. It has less than nothing to do with a magical being who supposedly died on the cross so that we could continue to live and worship him.

BUT… if I were to ascribe to the notion that the story of Jesus was based upon ancient fact, I would find it far more logical to buy the astral connection rather than the magical mystical one. It just makes sense. In fact, a few years ago we built a 'tree' that celebrated alien visitation, the kidnapping and 'probing' of a certain ex-President, and the spawn of a new generation of little Green men. It was COOL.

In a sweeping circular motion, I come back to the idea of the Christmas tree and what it represents. For my wife and I, the alternative trees are a way to tweak the notion of the holidays to our satisfaction, for our enjoyment. Yes, we’ve had real trees too, but only a couple, and we’ve not used any traditional holiday decorations in years, save perhaps for the weird Pink and Black and Red fluorescent aluminum mini-trees that we prop up around the house. We celebrate the idea of loving compassion, the importance of family and friends, the message that we are all more united by common cause than divided by fear and uncertainty. That's what Christmas means to us.

None of these things are secular or sectarian… they are human. If you believe that Jesus was a real person and take comfort and solace in the poetry of the Bible, you have what you need to revel in the Glory of Christmas. If you have questions or even none at all, then keep seeking the truth, your truth, from the world around us. Celebrate Christmas in any way that suits you, or not at all. The most important thing to keep in mind is that we have free will to believe what we choose, or not to believe.

A friend posited this question to me: If, upon my death, I learn that there is indeed a God and Heaven and Hell, what will I say to God as my defense for not believing? My answer would be: "Hey God, many thanks for the free will and open mind you gave me. It has served me well, has allowed me to forge my own path, and live the life of my choosing. GO FOR IT."

I am not afraid of what I don't understand, but I am the first person to admit that what I don't know... is a lot. I'm OK with that, and it helps me live every day with joy and purpose and happiness, as if it is my last day... or even Christmas Day.

To see the alternative Christmas trees mentioned in this post, please log onto, then click on MD Xmas Trees. To catch a whiff of my metaphysical leanings, read Arthur C. Clark’s novella ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ and then watch the film immediately afterwards. Alien Crucifixion image courtesy

Monday, December 6, 2010

American Exceptionalism?

An excerpt from Howard Zinn’s excellent book, ‘A People’s History of The United States’. This unvarnished look at the plight of Indians, women, blacks, poor whites and immigrants during the formation of our country should be required reading for every high school Junior. Except in Texas, where The Bible is seemingly the only educational document accepted by that learned populace:

Under (President) Andrew Jackson, and the man he chose to succeed, him, Martin Van Buren, seventy thousand Indians east of the Mississippi were forced westward. In the North, there weren’t that many, and the Iroquois Confederation in New York stayed. But the Sac and Fox Indians of Illinois were removed, after the Black Hawk War (in which Abraham Lincoln was an officer, although he was not in combat). When Chief Black Hawk was defeated and captured in 1832, he made a surrender speech:

“I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me… The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at night it sunk in a dark cloud, and looked like a ball of fire. That was the last sun that shown on Black Hawk… He is now prisoner to the white men… He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies. Indians do not steal.”

“An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eaten up by wolves. The white men are bad schoolmasters; they carry false books, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and to ruin our wives. We told them to leave us alone, and keep away from us; they followed on, and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us, like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterous lazy drones, all talkers and no workers…”

“The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse – they poison the heart… Farewell, my nation!... Farewell to Black Hawk.”

Image of Chief Black Hawk courtesy of

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Let's Do The Time Warp Again!

Advance notice: this is a very long post, but seeing as how it’s my first at Gort Nation on the subject of music, one of the single most important influences in my life… well, it just turned into something more sizeable than I had originally intended. I hope you’ll find a way to read until the end, then let me know if you thought the time you invested was worth it or not. Don’t worry… I have no ego in this regard, I’m a big boy. If it's crap, so be it.

So here goes...

I am always amazed to find out that there are humanoids around me that are not music-centric. They tell me “I listen to music, but I don’t really pay attention to it.” After I pick myself up off the floor, I begin to start questioning about how that can be? How can a person not have an affinity for music… OF ANY KIND? How is it possible to be nonchalant at best, uninterested at worst, about music and singing and all the pleasing arrangements of lyrical sound? HOW CAN THAT BE?!?!?!

Mebbe I need to think about this, wrap my head around what it is that makes me crave the sounds of musical talent, of the ability to manipulate an instrument, flex dem vocal chords, assemble notes on a page that can be re-interpreted by another for countless mediums. It starts me to thinking about my own musical history… no, not the horrific guitar playing or the junior high school choir. I’m talking about my sonic muse, the thing that drives me off the cliff when I hear a certain song, a type of voice, a harmonic convergence of instruments and sounds. Why me?

I blame my Father. Yep… it's all his fault, and he cannot deny culpability for his part in my musical addiction. In my mind’s eye, I can see his massive dark wood stereo cabinet in my childhood home, all ten horizontal feet of it. It held a turntable and radio tuner hidden in the center and several feet of shiny black vinyl records on either end, stashed inside cardboard sleeves covered with all manner of artwork. Some were innocuous, some were so suggestive that I would hold the sleeve in my hands, staring at it while the music played. Was I the only one who did this? The cover of the Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass 'Whipped Cream & Other Delights' LP displayed a lovely young Latina, sitting there, covered with (apparently) nothing but whipped cream, her hand held up to her smiling mouth, tasting. Oh boy, that was a good one.

Herb Alpert… Wes Montgomery… Dave Brubeck… The Baja Marimba Band… Antonio Carlos Jobim… Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66… June Christy… Getz & Gilberto… The Ramsey Lewis Trio… Eydie Gorme y Trio Los Panchos. I know there are more, but these are the artists I remember most, the ones I would pull from Dad’s collection, spin and listen to, rapt with a newfound awe and inspiration. The long version of Brubeck’s ‘Take 5’ with its extended drum solo, cool and precise yet free and wild. The jazzy live version of ‘The In Crowd’ with clinking glasses and female laughter and scattered applause while Ramsey Lewis' hands danced over the keyboard. Eydie Gorme… I think that maybe her version of ‘Sabor a Mi’ is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard, hands down, with its classical Spanish guitar and simple percussion and spare production value. Stunning. This stuff affected me, all thanks to my Dad’s love of music... it stained and varnished my soul.

My earliest fanboy recollections always go to The Beatles, first and foremost. They are the signature start of my musical odyssey, the touchstone that drives my insatiable need for tuneage. I recall how I was completely taken over when I heard ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’ on my transistor radio… does that tell you how freaking old I am? I can recall my best friend Billy Burger and I sitting on his front lawn on Conlon Avenue in La Puente with both our radios tuned to KHJ-AM, blasting as loud as those batteries and tiny speakers could handle. WE LOVED THE BEATLES. I think there was a Beatles song on the radio every half-hour, all day, every day, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

But of course, that was just the beginning. My very first vinyl records were the ubiquitous 45’s… ’96 Tears’ by ? and The Mysterians, ‘Wooly Bully’ by Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs, and ‘Psychotic Reaction’ by The Count V. I’d stack those babies up on my cheesy little portable record player, play them one after the other, then re-set and play them again. I’m sure it drove my Dad crazy, but so what? A series of full-length LPs followed... The Ventures, The Challengers, The Beach Boys, more Beatles. I built my record collection all through grade school, junior high and into high school and college, but still my quest kept me seeking and searching, looking for new sounds and expressions of musical talent and genius.

Certain songs and lyrics are time-travelling vehicles, and I think it must be the same for anyone who claims to be a true music fan. There are songs that send me to another place within seconds of hearing the first few bars or notes or intro, it never takes longer than that. I always thought it was a bizarre reaction, my instant mental journey to another time, another place, like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, becoming unstuck in time and whip-sawing back and forth. I can’t control it. It just happens. I love it.

‘Knockin On Heaven’s Door’ – Bob Dylan
In 1973, I was a Junior in high school, and my girlfriend (a Sophomore, for cryin’ out loud!) and I were in her room, on her bed (oh yes, but fully clothed), locking lips and hanging onto each other for all we were worth. Her Mom: gone bowling, her sister… somewhere else for hours. The room was dark except for (I swear!) a red lava lamp glowing on her dresser, and this song was drifting over us, all spacey and dreamy and far away. The words to the song weren’t relevant, but the melody and the production were from another world, and we were the only two people in that world. I hear this song, I close my eyes, I’m RIGHT THERE AGAIN, every damned time. Did I really unhook her bra so deftly with one hand, or did she plan it all along? I’ll never know, I dinna care. Excellent. The Mazzy Star tune ‘Fade Into You’ is a scary-close clone to the Dylan song, and there are echoes of that magic moment when I hear it, but that’s as far as it goes.

‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ – Soundtrack to ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Summer of 1970, before the start of high school and all that followed. Consider a series of ill-fated junior-high schooler decisions, another fine lassie, a fall and resulting huge gash on the back of my head, many stitches and going AWOL from a Boy Scout troop meeting. As the result, I found myself and my Dad at the Eastland Theater in West Covina, watching the theatrical release of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’. Little did I know that a film, a movie, a director's vision would shake me to my foundation. When ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ began to play, those images of a sleek transport craft and rotating space station, circling the Blue Earth, a ballet of metal and science in the gorgeous black vacuum… it changed me. I sat in that darkened theater, big-eyed, transforming completely without Dad even noticing. I would never be the same, because I had just read the Arthur C. Clark novella and now, with those mental images come to life in front of me, big screen stylie, my personal path was forever altered. Within days I would go to church as a believer for the last time. Dad still says it was the worst movie he’s ever seen.

‘Only The Lonely’ – The Motels
During the summer of 1982, the newfound relationship with my better-half had begun and, although still in the early stages, we found a deeply nuanced simpatico that was almost scary. One night after work, we drove through a warm, stormy night to The Wherehouse record store and bought the new Motels LP, then drove back to the house where I was renting a room. The boys were all out so we mixed up some wine coolers, fired up the stereo, popped on the LP and when this song came on, we got up and began to slow dance in the living room. Very few lights on, a steady rain and some thunder outside, and Martha Davis crooning words that mattered... it created a very intoxicating brew. We had no idea, dancing there, that we'd still be together 28 years later... that moment was a fevered grasp for something real, something honest, something with substance. Guess what? We succeeded. We RULE.

‘Love On A Two-Way Street’ – The Moments
WOW... this one was really tough! As a very emotional 8th grader circa 1969, I was madly in puppy love with a 7th grade knockout (?!?!) who I was hoping would agree to 'go around' with me... does that make sense? I'd walk her home from school most afternoons, hoping to get a kiss goodbye, but it rarely happened. Imagine my glee when she invited me to a party at her house... at night! Well, once I got there I discovered that she'd also invited several other guys that were sweet on her, and we were all gathered in her enclosed back porch, with colored lights and munchies and punch and a record player stacked with 45's. She danced with all the guys, but only once with me. For some reason, I was the odd-geek out, and she barely acknowledged my presence. When this song started to play, with it's words of heartache and longing and lost love, I was crushed, watching her dance with the other guys all evening. I remember walking home that night weeping, knowing that I'd been humiliated, hearing those very relevant lyrics in my head over and over and over and over. OUCH.

Special note: OK, I'm sensing a pattern here... are you? Not surprisingly, there are serious emotional touchstones in every case where a piece of music is burned into my psyche. I had never thought about it until now, but it makes perfect sense. You can't plan out how things happen in your life... no one can. You can only make choices and react the best way you know how.

‘Take 5’ – Dave Brubeck Quartet
My Dad's love of jazz was truly inspiring, and once I found the LP with this cut sometime in (I think) 1967-68, I came up with a secret plan. I'd wait until I was home alone (a pretty rare occasion) so I could drop the needle on this instrumental classic. I'd turn the volume up as high as I dared and sat directly in front of the huge stereo cabinet with my eyes closed, hearing each instrument separately, but all playing at once. The piano, the sax, the bass, the drums, the echo of studio blackness. Oh my gosh... those drums, with a cool syncopation that had me air-drumming like a crazy person. Sitting there in our living room, with the glossy black ceramic crouching panther statue and the green 7-piece sectional sofa and the flowered wallpaper... I was actually sitting on-stage, smack in the middle of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, jamming, floating.

‘I Can’t Tell You Why’ – The Eagles
Sometimes, a song has lyrics that are so relevant, so perfectly attuned to an individual's plight, it almost seems mystic. Pain and pleasure can be extreme opposites, and in this case, pain was all I could draw on. In 1980, my (then) wife and I were having a terrible time of it, with nothing in common except a toddler and much negative angst between us. This song was in constant rotation on the radio, with THOSE WORDS mocking every person whose relationship was on the downward slide. Natch, we'd had yet another horrible, emotionally disfiguring argument... she demanded that I get the hell out, so I grabbed a suitcase, threw in some clothes and began to walk (since we only had HER car) the 2 miles to my friend's house and beg for a place to stay. All during that walk, I could hear the words to this song hammering the inside of my skull. At one point I became so angry that I pulled off my wedding band and tossed it into an empty field. The next day I went back and, lucky for me, found it so that I could try to salvage whatever was left of our marriage, but it was doomed. Even now, this song fills me with the same terrible feeling of failure and wretchedness, but it is fleeting and I'm left with the knowledge that the past is past.

I don't know if these time-warps are the same for others, but I have to believe that in some way, each of us has our moments of personal reflection that are spurred by music, sounds, words or some combination of the three. Of course, there are many other songs that cause me to time-slip, but for some reason I don't have more recent examples of music that does the same thing, dunno why. Lack of emotional torment, perhaps? There's no question that although the last 28 years have had some ups and downs, the constant and loving presence of my wife has brought a serene happiness and giddy love of life that overcomes the trying times in every way. I'm a Lucky Monkey.

What music makes you stop in your tracks? Does it allow you to loosen the ties to reality and drift across time and space? Does it have relevance and meaning, or is it simply a soundtrack? Writing this post has brought clarity to my musical muse, perhaps for the first time, and I'm glad that for all the important (and non-important) times in my life, there was music to help plant a mental anchor there. Mebbe you too have a song or piece of music that spirits you away... I'd love to hear your story of time-travel, so don't be afraid to share your comments. We're all adults here, for the most part... heh heh heh.

This much I can say: my life would be much less full and complete without the music that stirs my soul and fills me with happiness and excitement and pleasure and pain, all examples of the human condition. Art is what it's all about, and artistic expression is the best example of how the creative spirit can be shared with the rest of us. We are better for it, and must never take it for granted.

As always, Muchismas Gracias to YouTube.

Now... where's my i-pod?!?!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Long Pink Tube

While ruminating on the Republican surge in the House of Representatives earlier this month, I am reminded that for many voters, history seems to have started on January 20, 2009. You know, the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated to be the first socialist communist marxist fascist illegal alien arrogant usurper President of the United States. Kenyan, also. Too.

The House of Representatives will soon be controlled by esteemed politicians who (for the most part) deny the phenomenon of climate change, deny the scientific facts of evolution and natural selection, and deny that our gay brothers and sisters are, you know, equal to everyone else.

I mention these facts as preface to a commentary I wrote in 2005 regarding the sad tale of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who languished in a nursing home for 15 years in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband Michael tried for 7 years to fulfill her wishes to prevent 'heroic measures' to be used in order to keep her alive.

Naturally, the Republicans in power at the time screeched and pitched and foamed over the issue. They condemned Michael for his choices, questioned his morality and intent and even convinced then-President Bush to cut short one of his numerous extended vacations to sign a bill that sought to interfere with the rights of private citizens Terri and Michael Schiavo.

I wrote this commentary to try and emote how I was feeling at the time, because I was also deeply involved in a similar situation, albeit without all the publicity. I submit this now because I want people to remember that the Republicans all boast about being the party of individual freedoms, but will jump in your shit and screw you (us) over if your personal individual choices don't match with their narrow viewpoint. The more things change, the more they stay the same... how sad and pathetic a realization that is for me now, looking to January 2011 and the resurgance of the Right-wing 'moral authority'.

As Terri Schiavo lies in her Florida hospice bed, slowly winding down a life filled with tragedy and loss, I am left pondering the reality that soon enough I, too will have to make decisions about life and death, tube or no tube, to be or not to be…. not for me, of course, but for my Mother, who lies in a Santa Ana nursing home with a feeding tube stuck into her belly.

I feel horrible for Michael Schiavo, and not just because his wife has become the central figure in the latest battle over whose morals will emerge victorious in our Red vs. Blue Nation. Michael has made a commitment to do for Terri what he knows in his heart is right, what Terri asked him to do, no matter how many people call him a murderer or a lousy husband or an evil person. The law is apparently (supposedly) on his side, but that doesn’t matter to the ‘Let Terri Live’ zealots who have decided they know better than he does, regardless of how little they really understand his situation and what it means to him emotionally, philosophically and spiritually.

I know what Michael Schiavo is feeling, albeit to a lesser extent. Over the last two years, my Mom’s declining health has seen her go from living independently in a small duplex apartment and into a series of hospitals, assisted-care and nursing homes. My role as her eldest son (and the only family member she hasn’t yet burned) has mutated into sole guardianship for her, or ‘representative payee’ as the Social Security Administration now officially lists me on their computerized records. For good or ill, I am now a specialist when it comes to government entitlements and benefits, MediCal issues, nursing home administrators and the relative costs of adult diapers.

Mom’s life story has been run, and five decades of alcoholism and cigarettes and multiple strokes and falls and broken bones have left her debilitated and frail, reduced to a bed-ridden 75-lb. shadow of her former self. Her litany of aliments reads like a search result from – hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, failed kidneys, failed liver, anemia, aspiration, stroke-related loss of her arms and legs, inability to swallow food or fluids – a real witches brew of maladies.

On top of everything else, her new wheelchair has arrived just in time to roll her down the Alzheimer’s Highway. Her journey includes reverting to her native Mexican language, loss of recognition for her remaining family and the blank stare darkness that we should all dread while we can. The Long Pink Tube continues to flow nourishment into her stomach and, for the time being, she is still mostly awake and alert enough to smile at me when I visit her twice a week, although she doesn’t remember the last time I visited and it takes her a while to remember who I am and why I'm sitting at her bedside.

I think of Michael and Terri Schiavo a lot these days, especially after my visits to Mom when she has been crying and flailing and calling out to her older brother who died five years ago, or just gives me ‘the look’ and moves her mouth with no sounds coming out. How long will her body survive when her mind has totally gone away and left her as an empty shell, her stomach sucking on that Long Pink Tube and giving her another day/week/month/year of empty existence?

I think to myself, “Self, how will you deal with the decision on whether Mom should continue to live a lost life or to die with dignity? When is too much life enough? Isn’t she really already gone, save for the final series of days filled with tears and anguish and heartache?” The decisions to come are MINE ALONE… I am by-default the person who will have the buck in hand when it stops. Neither George Bush or Tom DeLay or Randall Terry or Jeb Bush or the United States Congress has a say in the matter, and I have the official paperwork to prove it.

Only those who are forced to experience the sorrows that end-of-life decisions can bring will know how deep the burn can be… just look into Michael Schiavo’s eyes during yet another television interview and see the sadness this whole insane saga has burrowed into his soul. I see him looking at me from the TV screen and I can see myself in his eyes, grappling with the same choices he’s had to fight to make. Only difference is, my decisions will go totally unnoticed and will be made without the glare of notoriety… at least I have that to look forward to.

I love my Mother more than I can say, and will do what I feel is right for her when the time comes, especially with the knowledge that her ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ form is already signed and on file at Nurse’s Station #1 in Santa Ana, California. I also know that as she slides into the cerebral ether, she can trust my judgment as her #1 Son. Right now, for both her and me, that’s all that matters... everyone else can just bugger off.

Mom passed away quietly in the night a few weeks after I wrote this commentary, but earlier that day my wife, myself and my Aunt (Mom's former sister-in-law and best friend) spent several hours at her bedside, talking and crying and laughing and reminiscing about Mom's life and struggles. Apparently she'd had another stroke the night before and was unconscious for the entire time we were there, but that fact is that WE WERE THERE, whether she knew it or not. I didn't have to make 'the decision', but clearing out her belongings the morning after she died was an exercise in bemused sorrow and guilty relief.

I shudder to think that once again we'll see a revitalized Republican Party inserting their skewed vision of morality into our lives, telling us who we can or cannot marry, who is or is not a 'patriot' or an 'American', or what private and personal medical decisions can or cannot be freely exercised. They are the same people who were screaming last summer about death panels and unplugging Grandma and branding universal healthcare as socialism. They are the ones who decided they knew best for Terri Schiavo over the legal, ethical and moral perogatives of Michael Schiavo.

I think of Mom every day, and I miss her terribly... her nasty but funny sense of humor, how she used to flip me off as I was leaving her bedside, how she would laugh and gag as we'd watch her telenovelas with the sound off while I made up my own insane dialog. Those were the times when I knew that she knew that I would make things OK for her when she was no longer able to.

R.I.P. Alicia Teresa Macias

(Image courtesy of

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On The Importance Of Refried Beans

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming first honest-to-goodness book, titled (for now) 'The Official Manny's Chile Bowl Cookbook'. Dunno when it will be published, but I'm shooting for sometime next year if I can maintain discipline and keep writing cooking writing cooking writing. Also, the Manny I refer to (my Dad) has yet to actually, you know, READ this stuff, so I expect him to have a few specific issues when he gets the first draft. Oh boy.

'Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit...'

Make no mistake about it: Mexican food is what it is because of beans and rice, those two staples of starchy wonderfulness, those foundational pillars of every Mexican food lover’s cravings. The smell of them cooking can send me into a time-warp, right back into my Grandma Silva’s kitchen, back to when I was just a kid and helped her clean and rinse the whole beans, then watch them slowly bubble away on the stove for hours, turning brown and beautiful.

I’ve told this to many people who scoff, but if you drive on the I-5 Santa Ana/Golden State Freeway though East Los Angeles on a Sunday morning, the overwhelming aroma of refried beans whacks you in the head, makes you sit up and salivate, makes you want to careen off the freeway and find the first tortilleria that is open and beg them for a plate of fresh beans and tortillas to scarf down in an instant. I know that sounds extreme, and maybe it is… maybe.

When Grandma Silva was gone from our lives, we’d get a fresh pot of whole beans from my Aunt Peggy every week, along with a huge stack of hand-made flour tortillas… que bueno! When Dad made fresh beans himself, he would cook the beans exactly the way those two amazing women did, and the aroma would make me think of Grandma Silva and Aunt Peggy all over again.

Naturally, we would eat the fresh beans for dinner that night, but the next night Dad would ladle a mass of them into a frying pan, mash them up, add some oil and cook them again. ARRIBA… refried beans!!! What didn’t get eaten would stay in the pan to be covered and stashed in the fridge until the next night. He’d add some more beans and mash and cook them again… RE-refried beans!

By the end of the week, the older refrieds and the newer refrieds were all mixed together deliciously, and (I know this sounds gross) a fantastic crust of refried beans would form around the inner edges of the pan, only to be scraped off and mixed in with the mass and cooked again. This… this is the stuff that makes me crazy for Mexican food, that allows me the ability to measure the quality of refried beans that are served up in restaurants against the best ones I ever ate, the ones I ate as a kid at home. I figure, if a restaurant can do really good frijoles refritos (refried beans), then the rest of their menu must be great as well.

As I’ve covered elsewhere in ‘The Beans and Rice Story’, there are two ways to make refried beans: old skool from scratch (crazy labor and time-intensive) or, as I do these days at home, using the modern savior of Mexican cooking, CANNED REFRIED BEANS. Yes, I know… how could CANNED REFRIED BEANS be in any way as tasty and/or delicious as scratch-made beans? Well, unless you are possessed of the world’s most delicate palate, I dinna think you’ll honestly be able to tell the diff, especially with a few tricks to turn the canned beans into really great ones. Besides, one of the reasons I'm writing this cook book is to de-mystify the art of cooking honest Mexican food and make it something that you’ll look forward to with anticipation rather than dread, if at all.

So, here’s the simple, fast-and-tasty method to whip up La Puente-style refried beans. Place a small saucepan on the stovetop, burner set to medium. Open a can of refried beans of your choice (mine is Rosarita Traditional, avoid those other poseurs) and pop them into the sauce pan. Add a big handful of freshly-shredded Longhorn-style cheddar cheese (Aunt Peggy’s fave) and a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil. Stir to incorporate and bring the congealed mass to a slow bubble, then lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides every few minutes. The aroma will be heavenly, and I guarantee you will stir the mass and lick the spoon every time, tho I NEVER do this when cooking for guests… HONEST!

That’s it! You will have a gorgeous pot o’ refried beans to use for making tostadas, burritos, nachos and as a side dish for a faboo breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, beans and tortillas, simply the best brekkie there is. If you make a big batch of beans, save the leftovers for another meal, and be sure to scrape that crusty loveliness from around the edge the pot and mix it into the rest, then be prepared to enjoy real Mexican soul food. Cooking like this allows me to follow my bliss, honor the memories of Aunt Peggy, Grandma Silva, and especially the efforts of my Dad to feed us right when we were kids and offer some of the finest ‘home-cooked’ Mexican food in Northern California to his customers for over two decades.

R.I.P. Manny’s Chile Bowl!!!
(Image courtesy of

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Black Gold... Texas Tea... Wide-Open Throttle

Recently I read a blog posting at a site I really enjoy, and said blogger raised an issue in my mind that has left me in a conundrum of sorts.

Now, anyone who knows me also knows that I am a hard-core motor racing fan... have been since I was a small boy following my Dad around in the pits at the Irwindale (CA) Raceway drag strip back in the 60's. I follow most forms of four-wheeled racing which includes Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, ALMS, Grand-Am, SCCA, SCRA, WRC, NHRA, Australian SuperCar, DTS and almost every other racing acronym. I am entranced by the discipline required to race at any level, especially for the pros. Having been lucky enough to attend several racing driver schools, perform shakedowns of formula cars on-track and autocross like a mofo, I have been called a pretty damned good driver by some pretty damned good drivers.

Which gets me to the blog posting in question, where the point was made about Memorial Day being celebrated in certain sectors by hundreds of thousands of racing fans driving gas-guzzling cars to watch two classic races: The IndyCar Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600. The point was made that we as a nation are fighting oil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers are dying for that oil and we race fans memorialize their sacrifice by watching race cars burn fuel to race around in a circle. With the image of foot soldiers in Middle Eastern deserts juxtaposed against the seemingly wasteful entertainment sport of motor racing, how can anyone enjoy racing at all, knowing the blood that was/is being spilled to fill those fan's fuel tanks?

Like I said, a legitimate question, albeit a false comparison.

It has been endlessly documented that this country, the good old U.S. of A., is the richest, fattest, oil-usingest collection of states currently residing on Planet Earth. We want what we want, when we want it (NOW, dammit!), and we seek to gain those treasures by any means necessary so as to salve our need to consume and ensure that we are never without exactly what we want. New President hasn't solved every single domestic and foreign nightmare he inherited, so he is an automatic failure and must be hung like we used to do back in the day. Really, truly... we are a pathetic bunch of WATB's when we don't get our binky.

So to the question of oil and liberalism and my progressive ethic and the horrific fact that we are slaves to that same oil. How can I condone so much wasteful fuel consumption AND be against the use of oil AND be such an avid fan of a sport that (currently) requires the use of combusted fossil fuel to propel earthbound sleds around a racetrack, held on the ground only by gravity and aerodynamics and physics and luck? Am I a raging hypocrite? Stupid? Blinded by the Green Flag?

Of course not.

I am no more a hypocrite for supporting motorsports while being against the use of oil than a PETA member protesting against the use of fur while wearing leather shoes and a belt. I use oil, gasoline and all manner of oil-derived products because that is what we have used as a basis for our national consumption... petrochemicals. Should I also deny myself the use of my plastic fantastic wireless keyboard, the chair I'm sitting in, the table this keyboard is sitting on, the printer on this same table, the fan housing now bathing my sweaty body in cool breezes, the myriad items that are necessary for my day-to-day living?

Well, I could, but then I would be unable to perform my job, get to work, drive home, store my lunch, use the bathroom or anything else that could be classified as a human existence in this modern era. We are surrounded by the products that have been made possible by the luxurious black gold, the same type that was spewing from a volcano in the Gulf of Mexico. The hard truth is that we have addicted ourselves to that ancient dinosaur goo, and we are FINALLY starting to THINK about MAYBE trying EVENTUALLY to wean ourselves off of our mainline jones for de oil.

Now, as for the racing thing: like many other sports, it is beholden to the usage of oil, specifically the fuel, motor oil, tire compounds, greases, lubricants, solvents... lots of stuff, but I'll focus on the cars themselves. Many of the production-based racing series feature cars that run on gasoline, but more and more of the exotic formulae are now using corn-based ethanol, a renewable resource fuel that emits almost no toxins into the atmosphere. That's a good start, but not enough for me.

I want racing to become a foundation for the development of alternative forms of energy used to hurtle the cars around the track. Electricity? Hydrogen? Fuel cell? Kinetic? Hybrids? I dinna care... I just want racing to do for auto fuels what it has already done for auto, electronics, tire and safety technology... to be the springboard testing lab for eventual mass consumption. I want the Indianapolis 500 to have a wide-open technical specification like they used to have in the old days... basically, it was 'run what ya brung' as long as it was deemed safe enough so as not to endanger other drivers. In fact, there was some recent talk of that very thing being implemented at the track, but it was quashed under the guise of being 'too expensive' for the teams and owners. BAH. The only thing keeping it from happening in all major racing series, as well as for the general public is... oil is just too damned cheap!

That's right... I said it, and I meant it! Yes, we may be paying close to $80 per barrel of oil right now, but a 55-gallon drum of oil means that each gallon of sweet crude costs only about $1.50 per gallon in its unrefined state (based on and including the cost to actually access the stuff), from which the oil companies refine or 'crack' the goo into myriad compounds, fluids and fuels and charge a handsome price for each and every one. Suppose the oil cost them ten times that amount, $11.50 per gallon, in its pristine condition... would it still be profitable? I think not.

OK that's an obtuse exercise, so let's try one by the numbers since I'm talking about the 'evil' racing thing. I'll use NASCAR as an example from a fan participation perspective, because those race cars still use fossil fuel to motorvate and it is currently the most popular form of racing in this country. There are 36 races during the regular season, with an average of 100,000 fans attending each race, which equates to a total of 3,600,000 fans that attend the entire year's worth of races. Assuming they all carpool four to a car (yeah, right), that works out to 900,000 cars being used to drive to and from the races for the whole season. WOW... seems like a lot, eh?

Compare that to the NFL -- there are 32 teams, playing a total of 16 games each and every weekend during the regular season, and assuming a paltry 75,000 fans attend each game equates to 1,200,000 fans EACH WEEKEND who also carpool four to a vehicle (ha!), which means that there are around 300,000 cars being driven to and from NFL games EVERY WEEKEND. Multiply that by a standard 17-week season and you get a whopping 5,100,000 cars being driven to watch football games, almost five times as many cars than for the NASCAR season. How's that for an equivalency?

OK, enough of that wonky stuff. Suffice it to say that the false equivalency in this case is stunning, but that's how the game is played... there are many ways to demonize something that you don't like or understand. For me, the thought of race cars powered by all manner of drive systems and energies is something to salivate over, as well as a potential major headache for a sanctioning body to formulate some type of technical specification towards an even playing field, but HEY... this is indeed rocket science, and as Roger Penske famously once said, 'Racing ain't for little boys in short pants'.

If racing mystifies you... if you just don't get it, take my advice: ATTEND A REAL RACE. Doesn't matter if it's a regional SCCA mashup, a local circle-track or a big-time sports or stock car brouhaha. Crawl the pits and witness the frenzy of preparation and battle-field engineering, where team members will pitch in to help another car make the show, just to be able to beat them on the track. Watch as the combatants drive over the limit during qualifying. Stare in wonder at the display of physics in action as the drivers race around on-track at speeds that would land you in jail or otherwise kill your untrained self.

OK, now I'm staring to sound like a racing zealot, but you catch my drift. Oil is our finite manna, and we must figure out a way to use less and less of it as we move further into the 21st century. We ignore the fact at our own peril. We can all do our part every day by keeping our cars clean, tires aired-up, the engine tuned-up, and by NOT mashing the throttle every time the light turns Green. By the way, a traffic school instructer once taught me that the Green light does not mean 'GO' on the street. Rather, it means 'you may proceed when it is safe to do so'. Funny how that little nugget has stayed with me.

One last thing: earlier this year I was headed to work at 5AM one morning, enjoying the empty neighborhood streets when WHAM, nailed by a motorcycle cop for traveling 60mph in a 45mph zone. I was livid because there was no one around, but John Law just smiled and wrote me up. Between traffic school and the ticket, I paid out $375 of hard-earned loot, but guess what? I have become much more conscious of my speed, never exceeding the limit by more than 5mph, but the side benefit is that my weekly fuel mileage has incresed by almost 10 percent!

So, motor racing... oil... alternative fuels... NASCAR... traffic school... PETA... did I miss anything? I reckon not, but it just goes to show that we ratioanlize the costs of everything we buy, use and toss away, and that a gallon of fuel is a far better deal than a gallon of Starbuck's Morning Brew.

Black gold... Texas tea... wide-open throttle towards a new fuel source for race cars. I am SO THERE.

(Image courtesy of thanks!)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

'Nuff Said

This is all I have to say to anyone who opposes the Cordoba House project in New York City.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

I am mystified over the calls to dump Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over the premature firing of USDA staffer Shirley Sherrod, all caused by the horrible edited video released by ACORN-killing Andrew Breitbart. I mean, who among us has never fucked up? Look, the whole escapade was an example of the hair-trigger nature of modern news discourse… everyone in the media wants to be the first one on top of a story, regardless of the facts. No worries, if the whole thing is bogus, the next 24-hour news cycle will either obliterate or confirm the story, and besides, the American populace has the memory of a gnat, so who cares?

Governing is the single most difficult, thankless, cluster-filled job anyone could think of doing, yet we have developed the emotional sensitivity of a 13-year-old girl when it comes to stuff like this. OF COURSE that scumbag Breitbart knew exactly what he was doing, and he succeeded. But you won't hear a peep about him in the MSM, nor any assertion to his major role in the ACORN debacle. He gets a free pass... he needs to be cock-punched, as The Rude Pundit would say.

Yes, this was a stupid thing for the Obama Administration to have done, but firing Vilsack would only admit that the scumbags were successful. Let them work thru this thing, let them all just lick their wounds and keep on going. They'll be sliced up again, no doubt about that, but come on... if anyone else thinks they can do better, than RUN FOR OFFICE. Otherwise, thank your lucky stars that there are people like Tom Vilsack (whom I know next to nothing about) who are willing to put themselves onto the public sacrificial stone, watching that knife hovering, always hovering.

I am 100% convinced that Barry and his gang are running WFO to keep the herd of cats headed in the right direction, while seemingly everyone on the Right and Left is tossing grenades, then laughing and pointing and vilifying them when the cats scatter and shit themselves and the gang has to scoop up the mess while running at the same time. COME ON... have a little empathy and patience. This is HARDER than rocket science.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My Response To A Facebook Friend Who Claims That No Good Can Exist Without The Grace of God And The Bible

Cool... that is why your faith gives you strength and support, and if that works for you, more's the better. If you believe there is no good in your life without reliance on your spiritual master and benefactor, then you have your guidebook. There are billions around the world that might differ on which guidebook is the right one, but that's a quibble, yes?

I am not a wretch, am not lost, am not blind, don't want or need a guidebook, and revel in the wonderful, exasperating insanity that is our waking existence. I live a very good life, thankyouverymuch. It's not perfect, but then if it was, how boring would that be? No rollercoaster means vanilla, every day, all the time. I like chocolate and strawberry, too! And it melts! And sometimes it drips on your new shirt!

I see the beauty of the natural world in all its complexity, and I know in my very center that this is the only life I will live in a conscious state. I breathe in and out with my internal gills, accept the dimensional illusion of light receptors in my eyes as the 'real' world, and wake up every day with the knowledge that the electrical impulses that power my heart and lungs and bloodstream will keep me moving as long as they are able. Once that ability fails, my time will be over and done with. My energy center will be absorbed into the vast power generator that is our small Blue planet, to be re-used in some other way.

We exist in a vacuum, floating in space, protected by a micro-thin layer of atmosphere that is akin to the skin on an apple. We have all the water, all the oxygen, all the CO2 and nitrogen that there ever was or ever will be. We breathe the same cocktail that the dinosaurs did, albeit a bit more, shall we say, chemically enhanced? To me, that is one of the most amazing aspects of life right now... and the new dinosaurs are the birds that fly around us and we burn their ancient remains so we can drive to fetch a double latte' and buy a new shirt because we ruined the other one with melted ice cream.

Honestly, when I consider your worldview, it gives me even more to ponder. It allows me to chew the cud that is thoughtful analysis of why my feet stick to the ground, why the very sight of my wife's smiling face gives me butterflies and the knowledge that someday soon, I will have a track day car with which I will indulge my need to drive as many fast laps as I can, over and over and over again, until my helmet pops off my bald head from pure, unadulterated bliss. And I will have the dinosaurs to thanks for that.

Oh my gosh... our life is a wonderful, mad, horrifying, fantastic rip in the vast time-space continuum. And we each seek out that which helps us to make sense of it. We are so lucky to have the chance to choose how we live it, and I am eternally grateful to have people like you and my wife and all the other humanoids I like to share the ride with. Like some sage once said, 'We are all just Bozos on this bus.'

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sexuality As Perception

Try as I might, I simply cannot understand the childish, ignorant fear of gay people. Who'da thunk that in the year 2010, this country is still mired in the muck of hatred for 'the other'. I try and talk to my anti-gay religious friends about the fact that homosexuality has existed ever since there has been civilization, that de Bible sure hasn't done anything to stop or eradicate it, so when is it time to get off that decrepit stump?

WHY do the gay-haters obsess over individual sexuality, as if it were a choice? Naturally, so many barely-educated haters ignore the fact that when we are but zygotes in the womb, we begin to develop with both sets of sex organs, only to have one set dominate and the other recede when the magic genes begin to assert their authority. Come on... is there any significant difference between sperm and eggs? Between a penis and a clitoris? What is a 'taint' but a sealed-up vagina? The way I see it, dudes are cheated out of a uterus when the gal parts begin to dominate during gestation, so how hard is it to understand that our malleable grey matter could also be imprinted with either trait of gender?

Like Dean Martin once crooned, 'Everybody needs somebody, sometime', and I damn sure can't decide who will fall in love with whom, or how, or even why. I care not what part of your body you decide to use for whatever pleasure you seek... I care only about the REAL love muscle: the one that sits on your shoulders. Use it wisely and you will find the person that makes you head spin, your heart race and your pupils dilate when they are around, and it DOESN'T MATTER if they are the same gender as you or not. It is no more controllable that the weather or the tides.

So... civil rights is human rights, and no one should have the authority to say that person can marry, but not THAT one. Sheesh... it ain't rocket science!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Indy Who?

Why is there so much brouhaha over the Indianapolis 500? 'What', some of my friends ask me, ' is the big deal about a bunch of ugly race cars going around a track in circles? Driving a car isn't a sport, so what's all the fuss about?' What indeed.

My first instinct is to beat the questioning individual repeatedly about the head and shoulders, but that thought passes quickly. After a long sigh, I usually revert to my tried-and-true diatribe about competition, science, sports, death and salvation... sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. If the person to whom I am speaking goes all tharn and gets a glazed, vacant look in their eye, I just smile and say 'Never mind, you wouldn't understand.'

For me, the 500 was an important event that my Dad taught me about, him being an old skool racing fan as well. I reckon that would explain why, when Indy and Formula One ace Jimmy Clark was killed in the late 1960's, I went to grade school wearing a Black armband in tribute for an entire week. My friends thought I was nuts, and they were probably right. The 500 was always broadcast on ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' as long as could remember, although they usually interspersed it with weightlifting from Brussels and a soccer game from Caracas. Whatever... as long as they showed the bulk of the racing, we'd be OK.

But all that is relative, as nowadays the race has become (is still?) one of the great spectacles in sports, not just racing. Although a 1996 rift in the open-wheel racing world hurt the race badly for over a dozen years, The Indy 500 has reclaimed almost all the former glory it once had, but the nagging question remains: Why? Why does this race inspire and madden and possess drivers who yearn to compete and win at the hallowed facility? How does a team find the gumption to return year after year, sometimes qualifying and sometimes not, without hesitation or pause? Why do fans like me get crazy eyes on that Sunday morning, frothing with anticipation and making sure we have plenty of grub and beverages so as not to miss a minute of it? Why? WHY?!?!

Well, the answer is complicated. As a motorsports fanatic, I may not be able to offer an objective opinion, so let me dance around the hard-nuts of the thing to bring it into perspective. Naturally, there's the whole 'amazing science' aspect of driving a car at over 220 miles an hour on a closed course... speed, momentum, friction, aerodynamics, slip angles, traction, weight transfer, physics... everything that makes science fun and intriguing is present and accounted for. But it's more than all that.

A short story: in 1994, I was working as a technical specialist for NGK Spark Plugs while attending a humongous snowmobile race in Northern Wisconsin... in JANUARY. Average temperature in the bright sunlight was 35 degrees below zero. One morning I was sitting in the hotel restaurant with my co-worker, girding ourselves for a long cold day working in the pits, when in walks Stan Fox, one of the great Indy 500 competitors, who promptly sits down to chow down some oatmeal. Turns out he was also there for the snomo races, him being a Wisconsin native and all, and since I recognized him immediately and offered to buy him breakfast, he plopped down at our table and we spent the next hour talking racing.

Stan was one of those classic owner/drivers who spent an entire year getting ready to try and qualify and race in the 500, always short on funds but long on skill. He mentioned that he was struggling to get sponsorship for that year's race, but that come hell or high water, he'd be there. Sure enough, he qualified 13th and finished 13th, although he crashed out right at the end of the race. Not bad, but the following year he suffered a horrific crash on the front stretch, most notable for the outrageous image of his demolished car flying backwards, chest-high, the front end ripped off and his legs dangling in the wind, soon to be badly mangled. That race ended his chances to race at Indy again, but he continued to race road courses and sprint car tracks around the world until he lost his life in a New Zealand highway traffic accident while driving his own race transporter to yet another no-name race. R.I.P., Stan.

Does that make any sense? No? Hmmm...

OK, how about this: that same year, 1994, I was lucky enough to be at the track during practice sessions and snagged an Indy 500 'hard card' sponsor credential, which essentially gave me access to every part of the track, including the on-track 'hot pit' area. That morning, while I waited for my credentials to be approved, I stood in the scrum of humanity at the edge of Gasoline Alley, watching the teams and cars and mechanics and drivers walking in and out of the pits to the track. I met about a dozen guys and girls in that crowd, all talking about their favorite drivers and stuff, and after a while I went back to the offices and got my hard card. Instantly, I was special.... the famed 'Yellow Shirt' track security staffers provided me full access wherever I wanted to go, so the pits were my first stop. After checking out a number of teams, I strolled down that special walkway between the pits and the track, along with all the other race dignitaries, but as I got part way through, I happened to walk past the same group of people that I'd been hanging out with. They spotted me and immediately began shouting my name, laughing and whooping and throwing me devil horns and the whole enchilada. I WAS SOMEBODY, whereas less than an hour before, I was just a regular dude. Indy does that to people.

A side note: the team we were sponsoring failed to qualify that year, the first time Honda had attempted it, much to our disappointment... BUT I KNEW WHY. Turns out they'd been using the wrong type of spark plugs for an engine running on methanol, but the Japanese mechanics were too hard-headed to admit it and let the team down. I had mentioned the fact to the 'gaijin' mechanics who just shrugged because they weren't allowed to tinker with the engines. Lesson learned.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that sometimes, iconic events are hard to understand, their influence on people difficult to grasp, their meaning clouded in weirdness and superstition. For me, that day, walking with the kings of the sport in that place, even though I was just a sponsor and technician, I was a special person in a special place. I was in the clouds for the rest of that trip. It's probably a similar experience for the Super Bowl or the World Series, but those events are never at the same place. If you ever get a chance to visit and tour the track, DO IT. You'll find yourself watching the next race with a certain insider knowledge that is infectious.

This year's 500 will be really, truly special. Four women have qualified and are competing head-to-head with the dudes, a first. Multiple 500 winner Helio Castroneves will attempt to win for the 4th time, raising him to the level of the sport's few legends who have done the same. The field of cars and teams are well-matched and, although there are the inevitable favorites, the race has a habit of confounding the prognosticators and raising mid-pack drivers from relative obscurity to worldwide recognition. That's how it goes at the 500.

A quote once attributed to Ernest Hemingway goes like this: "There are only three true sports - bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and motor racing. Everything else is just a game." In the context of his life, that would likely have been true, perhaps not so much now. What remains as true as ever is that, like Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) said in the great racing movie 'Le Mans', "Racing is important to men who do it well. Racing is life... everything else is just waiting.'

I'll be watching the race on Sunday, hoping for a safe and exciting race, hoping no one gets hurt, and time-travelling back to when I was a kid, watching the race with my Dad on our black and white TV, thinking of grand things like racing and life. Only this time, it will be with fine pastry and mimosas!

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Start... Your... ENGINES!!!"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My (never sent) Response To A Religious Ben Stein Viral E-mail Forwarded To Me By My Dad.

Hi Dad… a word of warning: this is a rant, so please understand that when you send me religious e-mails, you’ll know in advance how I feel about the subject. I don’t mean for you to stop sending them to me, but you should be aware of my opinions. If you choose not to read and understand my point of view, well, that is your right, but please don’t hate me for having a perspective that differs from yours. That said…

Sorry, but I think Ben Stein is full of crap. This country is not atheist, no one wants it to be and he is totally wrong for thinking or saying any such thing. In this country we have freedom OF religion, which also means freedom FROM religion, if we so choose. Our nation was founded as the result of the Church of England forcing their doctrine upon people who chose not to bend to their teachings and decided to leave rather than have someone else’s beliefs foisted upon them. Mr. Stein better read up on his history, as well as The Constitution of the United States of America. I carry a copy of it with me every day.

What Ben Stein is saying MAY relate ONLY to those who choose to agree with his particular brand of religious philosophy… what about Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Rastas, Rosicrucians and all the other faiths that don’t follow the teachings of Christianity? What about the millions and millions (like me) who choose NOT to believe at all? And that baloney about Christians getting pushed around is ludicrous… this country is filled with Christians, and they are getting radicalized by a minority of fundamentalists who want to turn this country into a theocracy.

Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina on godless people and homosexuals infesting the US… Pastor Wiley Drake invokes imprecatory prayer asking God for President Obama to die… domestic terrorist Scott Roeder murdered Dr. Tiller in his CHURCH because he hated the doctor’s practice of performing a legal medical procedure for women in need… dry-drunk and born-again evangelical George Bush lauded the war in Iraq as a holy mission to destroy ‘radical Islamists’… please tell me how these religious people are doing anything but sowing hatred and evil on those who choose not to follow their brand of ideology? Tell me how these Christian warriors are any different than the Taliban in Pakistan or the ones that brought down the World Trade Center.

The American church pays no Federal taxes and is not answerable to the government, yet they are working hard politically to foment a persecution complex on their followers and force those of us who choose not to have their brand of faith to bow down or suffer the consequences. Over the last decade in particular, Christians were told by our previous administration to go ahead, flex your muscles, no one will deter you from your holy task to turn this country into a God-fearing Christian nation. To me, that is the height of hypocrisy from a cabal of people who tortured and killed for a phony cause.

Look around the world and see how many countries are afire because their government and religion have melded into one. I have no desire to live in a country where a religious doctrine determines what I can say, think, do or how to live, but don’t kid yourself – that is EXACTLY what evangelical Christians are all about, and they will freely admit it. Will I leave if their efforts gain traction? HELL NO… I will fight for my right to be free of religious tyranny with the same patriotic fervor that Washington’s armies did against the British during the birth of our nation. I claim my right to be a non-believer and reject any effort to force me to accept religious doctrine, laws or teachings.

I know… this all probably upsets you greatly, but you must know that my goal is not to denigrate your faith – only to inform you that your faith is not my faith, and that we hold different philosophical beliefs about the world. I choose not to follow a dogma that is based upon a book written 1600 years ago about a man that the writers heard about, did not know and never met. And that book has been re-written and edited and redacted and changed and interpreted and re-interpreted and revised, all in an effort to try and keep it relevant. And it is, for those who choose to believe it.

The Bible was written by those in power at the time who sought to establish their authority and control over an ancient uneducated populace who feared the unknown. I believe there are many positive allegories and morals that can be gleaned from The Bible, but taking those written words as fact and manipulating them into a blueprint for living is an abdication of free will.

When people like Ben Stein, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Randall Terry, James Dobson, Ralph Reed and other self-professed Christians try to blame the world’s problems on a lack of God-fearing faith, they are speaking with a narrow-minded perspective that they alone see the way things are. How arrogant! Their proclamations mean nothing to me, have no validity in my life and show them for the charlatans they are. However, when they seek to access the levers of political power to enforce their code of behavior on others who hold a different view, then we are going to have a throwdown.

OK… if you made it all the way to this point, I am both impressed and appreciative of your patience. Normally, I don’t feel the need to respond to your religious e-mails… I just chalk it up to your faith and belief, which is your right and choice. In this case, when someone like Ben Stein says such patently outrageous things and those statements start whipping around the blogosphere and on television, that’s a different kettle of fish, so to speak.

Ben Stein is dead wrong. Our world is in turmoil because humans are fallible creatures who struggle to survive and thrive, and sometimes humans try and control other humans, much to their disaster. Our species is like a fungus, a virulent bacteria that crawls across the face of Mother Earth, trying to force our will upon nature. Ultimately, we will either succeed or fail depending on our ability to love one another and accept that our fates are tied to how well we protect and defend our small Blue planet from ourselves. Our differences are literally only skin-deep, and no matter how high we build, how much cement we pour, how strong our weapons, underneath it all is still dark, sweet soil and clear water. I hope we don’t destroy it before we decide to save it.

You and I are at once different and scarily the same. I reckon that’s the way it will always be with Father and Son… how cool is that?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The More Things Change...

For the 2010 Formula One racing season, we once again have the pleasure to watch ace piloto Michael Schumacher strap in and hold on for all he's worth at the wheel of the Mercedes (formerly Brawn) factory sled. He's taking a lot of flack for his decision to come back after a 3-year 'forced' retirement, and even more because he hasn't yet won a race. To his critics, I say: STFU.

The 7-time World Driver's Champion was pushed out of the Ferrari team to make room for Kimi Raikkonen, who promptly won a single title and then spent the next two years on cruise control, ultimately leaving the sport to go... rallying?!?! And now, the Scuderia has drawn in the brilliant but scummy Fernando Alonso to make things right, with teammate Felipe Massa now on the outs and likely to be pushed out at season's end as well.

But Mikey... he wasn't finished, not yet. Sure, he broke his neck racing a Moto GP bike and learned there ARE limits to adhesion, but he knew, deep down in his Teutonic soul, that F1 still had things that needed to be done by hissownself. Besides, his big-time racing career started with the Mercedes sports car team, so why not make this final effort on behalf of the Silver Arrows that gave him his first real break?

Yes, I'm a major fan of his, have been ever since his first rainy race day at Spa in the lovely Green Jordan. Yes, he spun out and drew his first DNF that day, but his talent was never questioned, and he made things go HUGE at Benetton Renault before his stellar run at Ferrari. He developed a reputation as a brutally calculating driver with sharp racecraft and an eye for the occasional cheap shot, but so what? Results, baby... that's what makes the F1 circus so much fun to watch and enjoy!

His marriage? Questionable at best. His mentoring of the fast-but-erratic teammate Nico Rosberg? Priceless. His ability to make a good-but-not-great car jump thru hoops? Obvious.

Sooo... now we just watch and wait. He might find the cars are just too far removed from his comfort zone... the competition just too tough... the F1 circus no longer to his liking. All may be true, but for me, the situation is just too juicy to ignore, and I look forward to his first podium of the season and (dare I say it?), his first opportunity to take the checkers, spray the bubbly and leap into the air, fist-pumping like the racing animal he has always been.

Or not.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Show me your papers."

Regarding the Arizona anti-immigration bill, my questions to those who support this legislation: how many undocumented workers do you currently employ? Who mows your lawns? Does your dry cleaning? Washes your cars? Picks the produce you buy? Changes the sheets in your hotel room? Performs the millions of jobs that American business owners illegally fill with those undocumented workers, the same jobs that lazy Americans are too good to do themselves? Do you know the immigration status of everyone you pay for their services? If you don’t know or don’t care, then you are part of the problem.

Is it really that hard to figger out?

“When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything – you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”

... from the 1940 novella ‘If This Goes On…’ by Robert A. Heinlein