Saturday, October 7, 2017

Trumpeting the Call for Firearms Regulation Reform

I’m not a professional trumpet player. I am an enthusiastic hobbyist. That is true of more than 95% of musicians. Even if you do gigs and get paid for them, unless you rely on it for sustenance income, then like me, you’re not a professional. However, I do have professional equipment.

Likewise, more than 95% of firearms owners are not professionals. They are enthusiastic hobbyists. They are neither soldiers nor instructors. They are refreshed by the escape they find at the shooting range and are personally bettered by the process of improving themselves in a measureable skill. They enjoy it. And they too are often equipped with professional gear. 

Were it the case that thousands of people were killed by professional-quality trumpets every year, and if there were a government directive that required me to trade in my XO Roger Ingram trumpet for a Yamaha YTR-4335, I would, without drama or protest, comply. Or if in order to keep it, I would be required to take a series of lessons at my own expense with a professional trumpet player, I would also comply. Likewise if I needed to submit a detailed application that included a background check, I would comply. 

However, the suggestion that hobbyist owners of military-grade weaponry make a similar adjustment, trading their AR-15 for a rifle with a lower-capacity magazine and stopping power that falls short of charging elephant herds, undergoing intensive training in order to qualify for purchase, or enduring waiting periods and background checks, any suggestion of reform whatsoever is met with howls of indignation invoking tyrannical government run amok, essential elements of the Constitution defiled, and even claims of blaspheming the intentions of the divine. 

Enthusiasts claim their weapons caches are a bulwark against a government they fear may kick down their doors and hustle them off to labor camps. It’s not a viable argument. First, there isn’t enough agreement in any administration for such pogroms to be initiated. I’m not afraid of it under Trump and people who worried about it through eight years of Obama were proven wrong. And second, were that to occur, an AR-15 is no match for a tank or a remotely piloted drone loaded with Hellfire missiles.

Shooting powerful weapons is fun. Playing a $2500 trumpet is fun. There is nothing like dropping an AK-47 with a fifteen-round magazine to your hip and dumping the full clip into a car seat, pile of watermelons, row of frozen bowling pins or whatever the target might be. There is nothing like getting a lower lungful of air and ripping a monster jazz lick at triple forte on a great trumpet. I understand both thrills, and I could live without either if it proved beneficial to society. I believe that many of the arguments being fashioned to support the continued legality of military-style weapons are being made disingenuously. 

The argument of, “I enjoy it,” doesn’t carry with it the gravitas of the other ones, so you don’t hear it. But it’s true. It’s the beginning and the end of the real motivation, and the handwringing over essential freedoms violated and tyrannical governments held at bay are either misguided or mendacious. Powerful guns are fun. But that’s not a good enough argument given the state of affairs in America right now, so all of this false melodrama get presented instead. And it's a great big lie.

It’s time to begin the discussion. It's time for sensible reform, and it's time to talk to rather than at one another. Gun restriction advocates have to stop seeing any gun owner as an instant enemy, and responsible gun owners have to understand that their best strategy is to participate in a reform process that will preserve their most essential freedoms while providing sensible controls over licensure and equipment. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A punchline and the truth: some thoughts on political comedy

It is a common view that the chief unifying element of all comedy is truth. Conduct an experiment: think of a comedian’s particular routine that you appreciate, or even any single joke that is in your own quiver of available party tricks, and consider it in terms of its function as a courier of truth. Quite nearly every comedy category, and indeed very nearly every joke you will be able to think of serves in at least partial support of this notion, right down to humor that trades on racial, ethnic and heritage stereotypes.

The underlying “truth” of Polish jokes is that Poles are stupid, the underlying “truth” of Hispanic jokes is that Latinos are lazy, and the underlying “truth” of black jokes is that they are, well, you name it. Flip that ugly coin over and you can instead illuminate a righteous and difficult truth: when Robin Williams was asked on a German radio show by a German radio host why there were no great German comedians, Williams answered, “Because you killed them all.” The underlying truths here are that a disproportionate percentage of Jews are comedians and that Hitler’s Germany perpetrated a Jewish genocide. From its ugliest ascriptions of what is truthful to courageous examples of plainly speaking the truths of history’s greatest crimes, comedy that reaffirms an existing truth in the listener’s mind can for good or ill deliver a powerful strike to the funny bone.

I was having this discussion with a friend, and he offered the hardly debatable observation that the left has always been better at using comedy to promote their view of the truth than the right. And why is that? Is it because more of the truth is on their side? Or, is it merely that progressivism by its very nature is required to illuminate the folly of the status quo? Some elements of both of these explanations are perhaps present, but the larger factor I see is a preference of most audiences for folly to be pointed out on those who aren’t already suffering. Cruel comedy can work, but only if the joke’s butt is perceived as being able to survive the treatment. This is why comedy roasts work. The person in the hot seat is typically a successful celebrity, and whatever public gaffe is going to be rubbed in their face has already been there before and can be processed anew without it appearing to be a gratuitous swipe.

Pretend for a moment to appreciate slapstick and think that a man slipping on a banana peel is funny. Now, which scenario makes it just a bit funnier: if the man slipping on the banana peel is wearing a silk suit and a cravat, or if the man slipping on the banana peel has a seeing-eye dog? The answer is obvious. We much prefer the injury coming to a fellow who has other deep advantages in life.

We don’t take particular delight in the further degradation of the already downtrodden. The right contains industrialists, bankers and men in silk suits and cravats, and the truths that a corporatist comedy orientation would have to take would be against its antagonists: environmental advocates, university professors, scientists, intellectuals, the myriad poor and various legions of the hapless. Not a lot of laughs there. For most people, none of those categories provide quite the satisfaction of our friend in the silk suit making that three-point landing. Now if the seeing-eye dog could slip on the banana peel, you'd have some irony, but with the average person's preference that the recipients of their schadenfreude be able to withstand the storm, along with dogs in general being off limits as a joke's ultimate victim, we will always prefer the pratfalls of the rich and famous.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Your Dog Died and I Liked It.

Popular usage often overturns testing that has occurred over the long history of English prosody's development. It lays to waste with a simple sweep of populism an agreed upon usage, spelling, pronunciation, grammatical convention or even the very definition of what a word means.
On Facebook, it is common to read a tragic account of the death of a soldier, or of the senseless passing of a young relative, or the demise of a beloved family pet, and then to see that many readers have “liked” it. Well, they don’t like it in the conventional way of liking things.

Given the new options, including "love," "angry" and "shocked," the "like" remains the preferred non-comment reaction to Facebook-shared tragedy. My current struggle is a debilitating bout of neck and back pain that has cost me two days of work, canceled playing engagements on the trumpet, and has made for a very lost weekend. I am likely not to work tomorrow, and you would not believe how many people "like" that fact.

We like sushi, we like fireworks, we like puppies. And of course, Facebook “likers” don’t actually like car accidents, dead dogs and backaches. They don’t like them at all. So as far as my fellow language change resistors are concerned, we need to realize that above all else, that this is what they mean; they are hurting for a friend, and that you can’t be mean about it by making the obvious sneering remark. It is a new breed of literalism, and one that I, stodgy grammar nerd that I am, have come to accept and even appreciate.

These are sad times for your supposed friend (another word whose meaning has been poached), and this friend has a friend who is in pain, and he or she loves him or her. What this person actually likes is the poster, and so wishes to express love and support. It can be done with a “like.” If they are clear with their own feelings and in a frame of mind to do so, perhaps they will brace themselves up and post a comment, describing the details of how sorry they are for the agony their friend is bearing. So we seem to have changed the meaning of the word, ‘like.’ Or rather, we have expanded its meaning. We have put a new fork in the road to its definition, one that means “I support you in every way.” And why not? That is what is meant when someone “likes” a friend’s terrible story.

I am usually a stickler for correctness in editorial, and I love the old ways, the ancient tones of grammar, spelling, usage, and nomenclature, and it might surprise you, as it does me, that I accept this change in the word, "like." I do not split infinitives, even though it's now acceptable, and I make every effort absent conspicuous syntactical contortions to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, even though that too has become permissible by contemporary editorial standards. I bucked and writhed as the word ‘enormity’ ceased solely to mean heinous and grew to accommodate size, as ‘nuclear’ became ‘nukyuler’ by repeated accident during the second Bush administration, and as the African-American community with unabashed intent switched the order of the ‘s’ and the ‘k’ in pronouncing the word ‘ask.’ But for whatever reason, I think “liking” something horrific on Facebook is fine.

Most people don’t like to write out their feelings to the world at the end of any post, and if they don’t leave a comment after a sad story, then they just feel bad when they leave. Not healthy, not satisfying, not good. Wholly apart from the fact that a lot of people don’t like to write at all, you have to think that even fewer feel up to the challenge of offering words that would be of any worth to someone deep in grief or pain.

The understandable feeling is that they don’t have words for something so terrible. It is probably the case that any words received will be loved and appreciated. Still, the hesitance to write is understood and not in the least amount begrudged. In such instances, I do not see the harm and I do see the good in adding this new meaning that is contingent upon context precipitated by environment, to the acceptable usage of the word “like.” So it's fine if you "like" my backache. In fact, I really appreciate it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Accidental Pied Piper of Olive Street at the Women's March in LA.

The original idea was to get one of those pink plastic trumpets to bring to the Women’s March in Los Angeles and blow little “Ta-Daa” riffs as merrily we strolled along, but the vendor I get a good deal from discontinued the pink model a while ago, so that idea was shot. I scratched my chin over whether to bring a horn and ultimately decided to, which turned out to have been a good idea.

The scene was way more than I anticipated. The Del Mar station in Pasadena had a 100-yard line to buy tickets at 7:45 AM, so we queued up until the first train came by. It was mostly full already, and maybe another few dozen were able to board. Some people peeled off the back of the line and boarded a train going the other way so as to board the inbound line before it got so full. Pasadena being forty minutes outside of Pershing Square, the epicenter of the event, it was obviously shaping up to be a massive influx into the city, so we decided to try to catch an Uber instead.

Our driver got us to where the traffic really started to clog, and when it came to a full stop, we bailed out, climbed up a set of concrete stairs where we were met by a six-foot tall chain link fence. Fit young gents were on the other side, receiving person after person who was streaming up those concrete stairs and up an adjacent embankment. A fellow of about 300 pounds was helped up and over, and soon enough came my and Debra’s turn (there is photographic evidence of Debra’s crossing!), and we made it over and began the trek to Pershing Square.

Word came quickly that Pershing Square was completely jammed and packed solid all the way out to city hall, so we eventually maneuvered over to Olive Street between 6th and 7th. It was wall to wall peaceful, loving humanity, with just the rainbow of ethnicities, orientations, ages and eccentricities I have come to love about my adoptive city. Out came the horn for a quick run through what I could figure out on short notice of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.”

So this being LA, a woman films the last bit of it and introduces herself as a dear friend of Helen Reddy’s. She said she’d send it to her. That stuff happens all the time out here, by the way. After that, many people began tugging at my sleeve and soon enough I was standing on top of a roof rack on a white panel van, looking at a thousand people to my left, a thousand people in front of me, and a thousand people to my right. I started shaking like a leaf and wishing I had practiced more last week. I played “America the Beautiful” with the Ray Charles timing and it was about as good as I could have hoped for. Pretty free of errors and a nice sound on the horn. Many hundreds of people screaming their brains out.

I tried to step off but was not permitted to, cajoled for one more, so I played the Star Spangled Banner with all the gravity I could muster. I am not really much subject to stage fright, but I had it then. It’s a hard song to sing or play, and I got it all the way through, pooched the high note, but EVERYBODY was singing it, and it was actually better to lunch the E flat (not only for humility's sake), because I could finally hear how loud everyone was singing, and the word “free” being sung by thousands of people filled my head instead of the loud sound off the bell. It will go down as one of the most moving experiences my friendship with the trumpet has ever taken me to.

We made our way through other areas of the march, with “This Land is Your Land,” "When the Saint Go Marching In," “Down By the Riverside,” and “We Shall Overcome” in the mix along with “Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as a means in part at least of underlining the fact the right’s attempted appropriation of all that music isn’t working at all. We finally stopped for lunch in Chinatown and had a lovely meal, where we met and ate with Katie Tur’s Mom. Yes, of course we did, because as was mentioned previously in this essay, that kind of thing happens all the time in Los Angeles.

We’re back home now. Debra is napping and I am writing. One thing Debra has said in this house is, “Don’t mess with Chris when he’s writing.” I will also add, don’t mess with Debra when she’s well rested. So, we’re both in this up to our necks, and we are ready to do what we can in what we anticipate to be a waterfall of conflicts large and small that we are likely to have with the new administration. It was an indescribably energizing and uplifting experience to march with many hundreds of thousands of people who are committed to true gender equality in this city and across the country. What a beautiful morning.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

My memories of U2's Joshua Tree tour.

With U2 touring the Joshua Tree album this year, I thought I’d share a memory of the original tour. The phone rang at the music store I was working at in San Francisco and the manager picked it up. He said into the receiver, “Yup. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Sure.” He then called across the intercom for everyone to meet up at the counter.

Once we were all assembled, he said, “U2 is setting up for an unannounced concert in Justin Herman Plaza. We’re closing the store and heading down there.” There were very few customers in the store, so we sold them what they needed and exited the store, locking it in the middle of the retail day. Gutsy stuff, store manager. Anyone who works in retail knows what kind of stones it takes to close the store in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

We all went to the square and indeed, U2 was setting up. By that I mean their roadies weren’t setting up, the band was. The Edge was dragging a vocal monitor across the stage and plugging it in. Adam Clayton was hoisting his bass head onto his cab. The band got started and played a wild set of Beatles songs, Bob Dylan songs, and a few signature U2 numbers. The Kodak moment was when Bono climbed onto the gigantic stone art installation in Justin Herman Plaza and spray painted the words “Rock and Roll, stop the traffic” onto the sculpture.

The then mayor Diane Feinstein flipped out and harshly criticized U2 in The San Francisco Chronicle the next day for defacing the sculpture. We all went to the Joshua Tree concert at the Oakland Coliseum a few days later, which had given Bono time to fly the artist, Armand Vaillancourt, whose sculpture he had vandalized, down from Canada to the concert. Bono supplied him with a large bucket of white paint and a massive roller brush on a long handle. There was a glorious banner displaying the Joshua Tree logo graphic in white against a black background, and Bono invited him to deface it, a request he obliged. It was a great show.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Meryl Streep's Double-Leg Takedown on Trump Shouldn't Have Included the MMA

Meryl Streep has become the latest to take a swing at Donald Trump and has done so effectively and to my great admiration, but in my opinion she unnecessarily marred her presentation. Her gratuitous swipe at the NFL and the MMA were uncalled for and served to cause the nodding heads of those already sold on the Trump agenda, and also to turn off people who aren’t but who happen to love the NFL or MMA.

Streep stressed that these two entities were “NOT THE ARTS,” when in many people’s view, the elite achievers in both of these leagues indeed reflect artistic expression. They are certainly expressions of passion, of a maximizing of human potential born of talent, drive and the moment, which is not a bad definition of the arts, and however you look at it there is hardly a need for a fissure between aesthetics and athletics. In part due to what seemed a lingering cold, the talk in general was imbued with a gossamer overlay of a somewhat imperious tone.

Apart from slapping the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands and swatting my man Conor McGregor in the corned beef and cabbage, I think she did fine. Jimmy Fallon is I suppose understandably reluctant to stir up his good thing to be of much value in terms of social commentary, so Streep had to be the one to address the 800-pound partially deflated basketball in middle of the room.

From the vast available trove of ignominy she picked a few of Trump’s most vile campaign moments and described them fairly for their emptiness and cruelty, and expanded further to encourage reflection on just how degraded a person’s humanity has to be in order to stand as author to such turpitude.

Reliably, Trump took to Twitter and impugned Streep’s acting as overrated when even the most deluded Trump water-carriers must understand at some intrinsic level that his opinion of people is solely incumbent on their most recent criticism or endorsement of him.  Were she to have urged "coming together as a nation" and "giving the president-elect a fair trial" and "respecting the office first and giving the will of the people a chance to be heard," his assessment of her would instead be that she is our greatest living actress and a national treasure.

She believes, as I do, that he is a dreadful human being and a dangerous US president, and I am glad she said so. I just wish she hadn’t run the end-around on the NFL and dropped a double-leg takedown on the MMA to do it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Should Critics Give Trump a "Fair Trial"?

Criticism of Donald Trump has roared from the blocks like Usain Bolt and those who voted for him and even traditional Republicans hopeful for conservative policies to be implemented at whosever behest have taken umbrage en masse to what they perceive as contempt prior to investigation. They urge detractors lay off, take a breath or as is most said and written in my anecdotal experience of observing this backlash, to give Trump a “fair trial.”

What does that mean though? With the stakes as high as they are in the case of any presidency, is it wise to abandon any of the checks and balances that are in place? Whether they are rules of governance or simply the benefits of living in a free and functioning democracy, shouldn’t citizens feel at liberty to exercise every available means of exchange without its validity being challenged over some imagined buffer the president-elect is supposedly entitled to?

Presidential assessment and treatment by the public, the press and colleagues develops as a result of sequential events, each of which are stamped with a decision that reflects a presidential tendency, and that in turn will play its part in the full measure of a president's time in office. The case can be made that this early in the process, those tendencies are still taking shape. One could also very credibly say that the office itself has a way of making the president. But let’s not be na├»ve. These cabinet picks are with a few exceptions conspicuously antagonistic and craven, and there is no starry-eyed circumspection going on in the Trump camp. It is game on. The opposition can’t afford to rest and it shouldn’t be expected to.

What is a “fair trial,” then? Is it kind of like a Mulligan in golf? And how many does Trump hypothetically get? If it’s three gaffes and then he has to start behaving, I am going to say number one was impugning the credibility of the CIA and the FBI, number two was kicking off a possible trade war with China, and number three was kicking off a possible Russian nuclear arms race. Is the “fair trial” a matter of degree rather than quantity? Or is it a use-by date? Perhaps the request is that the opposition to Trump defer for the most part until January 20th.  All this, of course, is absurd.

There should be no limiting spigot on the criticism that will and ought to come Trump’s way.  It’s fair and it’s how we do things here. Of course one should ideally debate from an informed and calm perspective (physician, heal thyself), but there is no reason to silence objections with regard to Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump supporters who still insist that the squawking from the left is uncalled for and that Trump deserves a “fair trial” can take heart in the very real possibility that he may indeed have one at his impeachment.