Archive for August, 2011

Styx: The Wooden Nickel Era

Between 1972 and 1974 a struggling Chicago rock band named Styx released four albums on an RCA subsidiary named Wooden Nickel Records.   Wooden Nickel was a creation of Bill Traut and the now famous Jerry Weintraub, focusing on Chicago area bands.   Even before Styx was a hit, it was their biggest act, a popular Chicago band that they hoped could break through to the big time.  After Styx went to A&M records in 1975 Wooden Nickel disbanded in 1977.   The only other “names” they had were Exile (before it became a country band) and Jaggerz (after its one hit “The Rapper.”)

None of these four albums was a success upon release; only Styx II went Gold, and that was after a late break of the hit Lady, which reached number 6 on the charts after Styx had already released two other albums.  That Dennis De Young standard launched their career and after a line up change and two moderately successful albums with minor hits the band broke big with their seventh album, The Grand Illusion.

I am not a music critic, but for much of the summer I’ve been listening to the first four albums over and over, recorded to CD from my album collection.   I’ve come to really enjoy them, and realize that even before the classic Styx era, the band had real talent and enjoyable music.   So as a change of pace, I’ll critique/review these four albums.

The lineup:   Styx at that time included the original three that went way back to a band called Tradewinds:  Chuck Panozzo on bass, his fraternal brother John Panozzo on drums, and Dennis De Young on keyboards.  After changing their name to TW4 (since another group named Tradewinds had a hit) they added John Curulewski on guitar and finally guitarist James Young, who came to the band via a hard rock act named Monterey Hand.   Young added a hard rock edge to what had been a popular cover band focusing on pop (the Beatles, etc.), and soon it was one of the most popular bands in the Chicago area.   Wooden Nickel’s President Bill Traut signed the band, impressed by the three part harmonies of DeYoung, Young and Curulewski.

The Wooden Nickel albums represent a fusion of those three styles.  De Young was pop oriented, focusing on melodies and showing off his distinctive powerful tenor.  Young was a fabulous guitarist who preferred harder rock, while Curulewski hoped the band would take a progressive ‘art rock’ direction.   At its peak (after Curulewski left) the tension between different styles (Tommy Shaw would bring a blue grass/acoustic style) lead to awesome music; during the Wooden Nickel days it led to some fantastic music, but a confused identity.

Styx (1972) Debut album.

The debut albums includes cool cover art, quotes on the back from Dante’s Inferno (about the river Styx) and from Mayor Richard Daley, and is a decent first effort.    Styx opened with a 13 minute “Movement for the Comman Man,” including Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.”   The first song, “Children of the Land” was penned by James Young, and demonstrates the kind of straight forward rock n’ roll that had given the band its reputation.  Young and De Young would also team up to write “Best Thing,” which peaked at number 82 on the Billboard charts, a song that fuses Young and DeYoung’s influneces in a manner that holds its own to this day.   The two also wrote “Mother Nature’s Matinee,” the close of the four part ‘Movement.’  It introduced listeners to DeYoung’s famous voice, with hints of what was to come.   The other very strong song is “What Has Come Between Us” by Mark Gaddis.   It has the quintessential Styx sound to it, with DeYoung’s melodic vocals making it one of my favorites on the album — even thought it was not written by DeYoung.

In all the album sounds good — one can imagine rocking to it in Chicago in 1972.   Although Bill Traut picked songs he thought fit the band — they show off James Young’s guitar work, the harmonies, and rocking style — the band sounds like its covering songs written by others.     Still it was a solid debut and gained them recognition outside the Chicago scene.

Styx II (1973)

The cover art was less impressive (though the back side depicts the river Styx), but this album that broke late and ultimately went gold is the best of the Wooden Nickel era.   Dennis DeYoung wrote five of the seven songs, the other two came from John Curulewski.   Side one is near perfection.  It opens with James Young singing the DeYoung penned “All You Really Need is Love,” a catchy early seventies nod to the vibe of the Beatles with a rock edge.   That gives way to “Lady,” the standard that launched Styx’ big time career.   From there it shifts to “A Day,” a beautiful, progressive sometimes haunting eight minute song by John Curulewski.   It’s Curulewski at his best, shifting styles and adding something that Styx lost when he left.   He followed that with a humorous tune “You Better Ask.”

Side two starts with a classic moment – DeYoung performing Bach’s “Little Fugue in C,” on the Cathedral at St. James Pipe Organ, morphing into a powerful progressive rock tune “Father O.S.A.”   This hinted at DeYoung’s later work as well.   “Earl of Roseland” is a solid tune about the band’s Chicago roots — DeYoung looking back at their earlier days even before they hit the big time.  The concluding song, DeYoung’s “I’m Gonna Make you Feel it” (sung by James Young) is perhaps the weakest song, but still catchy and has the sound of what could be a good live tune.   The band also worked in virtuoso individual bits of musicianship creating an album I think stands alongside even their multi-platinum work for worthwhile listening.

The Serpent is Rising (1973)

When Lady originally failed to chart and Styx II appeared a failure, the band decided to shift gears, with John Curulewski taking a creative lead.   This album — a concept album about sex (the serpent is rising means what you might imagine it to mean) is more progressive, stranger and less accessible than the other three.   It begins with “Witch Wolf,” a James Young song that sounds more like his later Styx work.   Dennis DeYoung’s solos are missing, save the solid “The Grove of Eglantine,” supposedly about a woman’s vagina.  It’s a decent song, though DeYoung later said he was pushing himself to write in styles that didn’t feel natural, thinking that the failure of Styx II was a rejection of his song writing.   DeYoung also wrote “Jonas Psalter” and “Winner Take All,” though James Young sang them.  About a pirate, Jonas hints at DeYoung’s later theme of success not bringing satisfaction.

The album really showcased Curulewski’s avante garde sensibilities.  My kids love the “coda” to “As Bad as This” (the weakest song on the album), which is a delightful tune called “Plexiglass toilet.”   With lines like “mama says don’t belch and fart” and “wipe the butt clean with the paper, make it nice for everyone,” it was a hit with my eight and five year old sons.  It’s got a fun and humorous edge, a bit Zappa like, and apparently was often requested on Dr. Dimento.   Strange, but Curulewski’s humor added something the band needed at the time.   Curulewski’s “22 Years” is a solid rocker, and the sound effects on the spoken “Krakatoa” are interesting if not exactly commercial.  The album ends with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” symbolizing a sexual climax and interestingly being the second album in a row with a nod to classical music.

My take is that while interesting, humorous at times, and experimental, Curulewski’s vision didn’t fit the strengths of the other band members.   They needed commercial success and this flopped.  They weren’t good enough as a progressive band to live off experimental work — only Curulewski had his soul in that, it seemed.    The cover art was cool though!  The quickly put out another album.

Man of Miracles (1974)

Man of Miracles marked a significant improvement over The Serpent is Rising, and the band clearly started to mature as song writers and studio artists.   I enjoy this album almost as much as Styx II, and in terms of style and performance I think it actually is their best Wooden Nickel album.   Dennis DeYoung is back, though the original album rejected one of his best tunes, “Unfinished Song” in favor of “Lies,” a cover.  “Lies” flopped and “Best Thing” (from Styx I) later replaced it.  In a 1980 re-release “Unfinished Song” finally made it — it might have been a hit if put on the album!  DeYoung’s “Song for Suzanne” is haunting and shows stylistic growth, while “Golden Lark” really shows off what would become ‘the voice of Styx.’   He also added “Evil Eyes,” a strong, haunting rock ballad, and “Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” one of my favorites.  It’s lyrically compelling, based on the story of St. Christopher, his apparent lowered status in the 60s, and a look at the role of faith in the life of an average woman.  Curulewski and Young teamed up on some good rockers, “Rock & Roll Feeling,” and “Havin’ a Ball.”  Curulewski’s humor and progressive influences waned, and Young and DeYoung’s title song showed the kind of dramatic edge that would give the band later success.

The album flopped, despite some strong moments, and it appeared Styx was going to be another one of those bands that “got close,” but couldn’t quite find the right song or chemistry to break through.   They had made quality albums, but hadn’t found their identity.   Or so they thought.

When Lady broke after the release of “Man of Miracles,” the album Styx II suddenly went gold and hit # 20 on the billboard album chart.   DeYoung and the band had thought that his style of song writing had been rejected, but in reality it hadn’t really been noticed.   “Lady” was a number one hit, though it’s late break out meant it peaked in different markets at different times, topping out at # 6 on the charts nationally.   Styx left Wooden Nickel (causing a law suit) and signed up with A&M.   Although there would be two other albums before they broke out big time, Equinox and Crystal Ball would show a more polished and focused Styx, a band that knew who it was.

Curulewski would leave after Equinox, the band was drifting away from his vision and his substance abuse was a problem.  Tommy Shaw would replace Curulewski’s humor and avant garde with ‘good ol’ boy’ blue grass and acoustic influences.  He also was attractive and charming, a missing element from the original lineup.

Still, as I listen to the Wooden Nickel recordings over and over, enjoy the cover art, and appreciate what that struggling band created, I find I enjoy their blockbusters that much more.  The band worked hard, paid its dues, struggled to find its identity.   It also reinforces the fact that Dennis DeYoung is the soul of Styx, while James Young is the body.  Young’s guitar and drive, DeYoung’s voice and lyrics were a dominant force from the start.   More than anything else, Styx was a marriage of James Young and Dennis DeYoung’s styles and attitudes.   Two Chicago rockers creating a legend.

It’s too bad that marriage ended in divorce.   I still hope for reconciliation.

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Obama a Sure Thing?

In Thirteen Keys to the Presidency historian Allan Lichtman teamed up with Russian Vladimir Kailis Borok (a mathematic modeler) to lay out 13 keys to victory — if the incumbent or his party has at least 8 of 13, he is predicted to win the Presidency.   The model was first proposed in the 80s, predicting the re-election of President Reagan.    It predicted President Bush the Elder’s election even while many people favored Dukakis, and Lichtman fielded a phone call from Governor Clinton’s office in 1991 wanting to know if a Democrat really had a chance against Bush.   Bush was still flying high from Desert Storm, but Lichtman’s “keys” said he was vulnerable.

Even in 2000, as Gore won the popular vote and had 8 keys, the third party challenge of Ralph Nader, while not reaching the 5% level to flip the sixth key against Gore, was enough to flip Florida.   So the model can be said to have correctly predicted a close election with Gore winning the popular vote, but the one key close to flipping was enough to turn Florida against Gore.   As early as 2003 the keys showed Bush winning re-election, and in 2008 predicted McCain’s defeat.   When used retrospectively the “keys” are accurate all the way back to 1860.

While on its face this appears very robust — the model has never been wrong in 150 years, and has been right counter-intuitively early on (like in 1991), the “N” is not large.   There have been 38 elections since (and including) 1860.  Even a robust social science model resists 100% accuracy, and the idea that it’s infallible is laughable.   Still, it does appear smart money should be on Obama (especially if you can get a partisan Republican to give you odds):

Here are the keys (Yes means the key favors Obama, No means it does not):

1.  Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.

No – Obama loses this key.

2.  Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.

Yes – Obama has no challenger at this time, and this late in the game it’s unlikely a serious contest could be mounted.

3.  Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.

Yes –  Obama has the power of incumbency on his side.

4.  Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.

Yes – It’s hard to imagine a serious third party challenge getting started this late.

5.  Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

No –  It’s possible that by next July the economy will be growing again, but for now it appears the recession will persist.

6.  Long term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

No – The economy has been in recession since Obama took office, though the fact he took office at the height of the recession may limit some of the impact (people still understand he didn’t cause it.)

7.  Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

Yes –  The health care reform act, repeal of DADT, and the activity of the first two years created some major policy changes.

8.  Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

Yes – There is no social unrest.   The tea party fizzled after the 2010 election and while people are upset about the economy we’re not seeing riots and anger.

9.  Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

Yes –  Baring an unexpected development the Obama administration has been remarkably scandal free.   There haven’t even been minor scandals; that is unlikely to change in the next year.

10.  Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

Yes – While some wanted to paint Libya as a failure when the rebels didn’t get a quick victory but that’s turned around.  Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down without disaster.  Some experts criticize aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, but there has been no major failure.

11.  Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

Yes –  Killing Osama Bin Laden, continuing the draw down in Iraq, having the rebels win in Libya…only the Bin Laden death is “major,” but overall Obama’s foreign policy has been generally successful.

12.  Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

Yes – He still is the first black President, he has far higher personal ratings than job approval, and his speeches are very well received.

13.   Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Tenative Yes –  No Republican really seems especially charismatic.   Romney is likable, but struggles with his personal reputation.   Perry might end up showing real charisma, but at this point he seems to have benefited mostly from being the “new guy” in a weak field.   Most likely, the GOP candidate will be “average” as far as candidates go.   But this is a key that could be turned around.

Add it up, recognizing that Obama needs 8 yes and no more than 5 no marks, and things look good for the President.   He has 10 yes and 3 no’s.  If the GOP does find a charismatic challenger that still leaves him with 9 yes and 4 no, predicting victory.

The Republicans also seem to be so focused on continuing the more partisan 2010 rhetoric that they might end up misjudging the electorate in 2012 and allow Obama to paint himself as the tested and safe alternative in difficult times.

However, as the 2000 race showed, the one hole in this theory is that it’s a macro theory concerning 50 micro contests.  Al Gore won the macro contest in 2000 — he bested George W. Bush in popular votes by a considerable amount; even the Kennedy-Nixon fight was closer.   Gore lost the election because the result of state votes determine the winner.    If one looks at the electoral map, there are many states one could imagine a Republican winning, especially if he or she ran a competent campaign, perhaps with charisma.

But even if Obama lost Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, he’d still have enough to win if he kept the others (he could even lose a couple small states like Nevada).   Losing Florida would force him to keep at least one of those, so one can imagine a shifting map.  Still to risk losing all those states one would have to see macro trends in play — trends the “keys” suggest won’t emerge.

One can imagine scenarios that alter the current landscape tremendously.   If job growth continues and quickens, and it turns out that the recession fears of the last few weeks were fits of panic, Obama could look very good by mid-2012.  If we do dip into recession again, then the keys may not be enough — no President since Roosevelt has governed in four years of economic recession.

Still, the Republicans are ready to rip each other in the primaries, Obama has no competition from rival democrats for fund raising, and the tested and successful Obama campaign machine is ready to rumble.    Things look far better for the President than one might think reading the headlines and the pundits.

Of course, a model that’s basically 38 for 38 is overdue to be wrong, and if any factor weighs high enough that it would make the “keys” irrelevant, that’s the economy.   Is Obama a sure thing?   No way.   Is he a ‘failed President’ destined to join Carter and Bush the Elder as “one termers” — perhaps, but it’s way to early to make that call!

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My Marxist Pizza Moment

Another in my series about my adventures with pizza, including Pizza and Me, (8-17-11), Steak Film and Back to Pizza (8-21-11), and Pizza Success (8-23-11):

In general my time working with pizza from Village Inn Pizza to Rocky Rococo’s is an example of learning the business side of the restaurant business as well as the operations.  I was in “management” nearly the whole time, did nightly, weekly and monthly books, was proud of keeping my labor and food costs below the goal, and consistently had the best record for low labor cost percentage.  Yet it was there that I had what I have to call a “Marxist moment” – a time I got so pissed at the corporate capitalist structure that I struck a blow for the workers by allowing free pizza and even beer after close.   I then backtracked and decided that wasn’t the thing to do.   Looking back, I think my basic instincts on politics, ethics and economics can be seen in a microcosm in that experience.

I was still 18, had not started college yet, and in my first months as supervisor.   We were told that the big boss (I forgot his name) was coming from Spokane, Washington, for an inspection of whether Warren had fixed the problems the store had been suffering.   We had to clean the store spotless.     As we worked I started to hear Warren and the assistant manager talking about hiring a prostitute.   They needed to find someone attractive, sexy and not sleazy or scuzzy.   “Hard to do in Sioux Falls,” was one comment.   I just kept working; generally I’m not judgmental so it didn’t seem a big deal.

I also noticed that it was being paid for from the till, and that somehow it seemed the books were being manipulated to cover what the expense was for (“corporate will cover this,” I heard Warren say).   I wasn’t quite sure — I was trying to be observant, but obviously this was done with office whispers, glances and signals.   “What’s going on,” one worker asked.   I shrugged.  “Getting ready for the big boss.”

Finally, the “big boss” arrived.  He was quiet, sneered at the workers, and was fat and ugly.   After being introduced (he muttered something to me, not shaking my hand) I recall walking through the door.   “What’s the big boss like,” someone asked?   I made a face of general disgust.   The guy was gross.   We made little jokes about him (eating the profits, keep him out of sight of the customers or it’ll drive business away, etc.) as he walked around the store, muttering things now and then, but generally seeming to be sort of a dick.

Finally Warren came up to me and said “we’re leaving, the store is yours.”   As they left I heard the big boss asking Warren about “the girl” and assuring him that the money would be “taken care of.”   Warren didn’t seem especially comfortable with all this, but clearly had no choice.   Finally they were out the door.    I waited a few minutes and then took some trash to the dumpster.   The cars were gone.

“God, what a pathetically horrible excuse for a human,” I said loudly as I walked back in.   Everyone laughed, though I was the only one who knew about “the girl.”    We made jokes about his girth and poor social skills as we worked, and I bit my tongue, so tempted to spill the beans about the prostitute.  The next week the assistant manager told everyone the story; my silence had been unnecessary.

I was getting angry thinking about the guy.   He was ugly, gross, and buying a prostitute with Village Inn money, getting wealthy on our work, while we sweat and get paid minimum wage or slightly above.   What’s fair about that?   Who gives that wretched excuse of a human the right to come in, force us to scurry around, please him, and then let him get rich off our work?

“You know what,” I said at about 10:30, “we’re eating on the house tonight, make up a couple large pizzas.”

“Really?”  I think it was a guy named Steve I was working with.   “Cool!”  Steve started making pizzas.   “Why?”

“I’m pissed off at the big boss (I’m sure I used his no forgotten name at the time).”   He’s disgusting, I want to take away some of his profits.”   This was before I had studied anything about political philosophy so I wasn’t really using Marx or any one to justify this, it was an emotional reaction.

“All right!”  The crew was enthused.   We made the pizzas and all of us (about five people at that time) chowed down free of charge (usually food was half price).   After close we even had a few beers.  I realized at that time I was on a dangerous path.  If Warren found out I’d be in big trouble.   “OK,” I said, “this is a one time thing.   Just to spite the big boss.”   There was disappointment at that pronouncement, and others tried to get me to do it again.   I was surprised Warren never found out — or perhaps he did and decided to ignore it that one time.

As I reflect on it, I think the emotion of disgust combined with the realization that a$$holes like the big boss were living pathetic yet wealthy lives on the work of lower paid folk, is the moment I realized that structural force exists in the system.

Yet, the knee jerk reaction to just try to take back value — in this case pizza — to compensate for the exploitation is misguided.   “Workers of the world unite, revolt against the oppressors, take back the means of production” — it was the reaction of 19th Century socialism, a revolt against the system — at least in its logic.   Yet I realized quickly that this was a path that made no sense.   It just wasn’t right.

Maybe the system is unfair, but it’s what it is.   And while the big boss may have been disgusting, he isn’t the whole corporation or system.    There may be exploitation going on, but there is also opportunity.   My ability to get hired and quickly promoted — and reasonably well paid for a high school senior — was testament to what the system could offer.  Compared to other parts of the world, that’s pretty good!    Some might say I stole those pizzas — but I had worked off the clock to avoid overtime enough that I’d contributed free labor to more than pay what they cost.

I determined that my ethics as a manager would be to always respect and treat workers well, and not act like the grotesque blob I thankfully never saw again.    I still think there is a lot of exploitation, and the wealthy use their status to manipulate the system in their favor.   That’s why despite my belief in markets, liberty and individual initiative, I still am not a free market capitalist.  I don’t trust capitalism any more than socialism or any “ism” – human behavior is too complex to be captured by an ideology.

The disgust I felt at the time to me symbolizes the legitimate disgust hard working Americans have about the fat cats — the financial bankers who gamed and rigged the system, the ponzi schemers who manipulated the real estate market, manufactured AAA rated crap derivatives, and pushed us into a global recession.    Yet like most workers, I don’t trust government to come in and equalize things, or to steal from the rich to give to the poor.  Rather, the system needs to provide equal opportunity and block the wealthy from using their status to enhance their opportunities at the expense of others.

Nothing is perfect, and what we have is pretty good.   Rather than destroy it in the quest for some ideal, it’s better to work with it, and try to improve it over time.

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Candy Cigarettes

I have never smoked in life, save one time in college when I smoked a menthol cigarette after breaking up with my girlfriend.    My parents both smoked, as did my two sisters, so it’s a bit surprising I never got the habit — it’s probably because I hung out with non-smokers in school.

One thing I did enjoy were candy cigarettes.  They came in two basic kinds.  The ones shown above were stiffer, thinner and a bit ‘crispy’, with flame “printed” at the end.   The others were smoother, thicker, and harder to bite.  I preferred the thinner ones.   I would buy stacks of candy cigarettes to enjoy, not really thinking or caring about the fact they looked like cigarettes.   And, of course, there were also the colorful bubble gum cigars:

Last year in South Dakota, and this Saturday in Old Orchard Beach, Maine I found my old favorites, along with candies like Zotz and the green box of Jaw Breakers.    Of course, my kids took an interest in the candy cigarettes, soon pretending to be smoking them.   I didn’t mind, figuring that both by my words and my behavior I’m doing everything I can to assure my kids don’t smoke.   The idea that having candy cigarettes will make them more likely to smoke seems a bit silly.

Saturday at another candy store (we hit candy stores this weekend) in Portland, ME, they again found candy cigarettes.  I heard a father berate his son for wanting to buy them, and then muttering something about how they should not be on display in a place where kids frequent.   To be sure, the word ‘cigarette’ is no where to be found, and they no longer use real brand names.

However in the stores we visited there were “death mints” (mints in a casket), and other kinds of candy that were based on violent or ghoulish themes (including poison).   It seems to me that most kids are smart enough to distinguish between a candy and real smoking.   Eating a candy labeled poison, for instance, does not make one more likely to go down a bottle of real poison.   In general I think adults under estimate the ability of kids to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, which is probably why I’m a lot less protective of ‘bad influences’ (e.g., gun toys, movies, etc.) than many of my peers.

Yet I see the counter argument.   Cigarettes have been embraced by our culture and we’re trying to turn that around.   The other day when I got pizza at a local market and saw a woman buy two cartons of cigarettes for $196.   Yikes, the vending machine at the pizza parlor I worked at back in the late 70s sold them for 65 cents a pack!   By making them more expensive the goal is clearly to stop people from smoking.   The woman at the market did not look like she could afford to pay that kind of money.   It’s a regressive tax, to be sure, but probably worth it.

The negative health affects associated with smoking are well documented, and while I don’t mind second hand smoke (I mean, I grew up with it!) it is better not to have smokers everywhere — and I appreciate that my kids are going to grow up in a culture more hostile to smoking — and that includes not having candy modeled after cigarettes as a common snack.

The university where I work is going tobacco free this year, something that will be very difficult for staff and students who until now had to go to designated areas outside for their smoke.    When I got here in 1995 professors were complaining about not being able to smoke in their offices, a new policy back then.   Now there has been a generational change and few if any professors smoke.   Staff and students are sometimes shivering in mid-winter outside to smoke; now they’ll have to go off campus completely.

Over all, I think this is good, and the cultural message shaped by these policies has been effective – people generally find smoking to be dirty and disgusting.   Last night I was watching one of my favorite old TV shows — I bought the DVD set of the old Banacek series from the early seventies (alas only 16 episodes were made).  Banacek (played by George Peppard) routinely smoked the little cigars popular at the time — sort of a cross between cigar and cigarette — the same kind my dad smoked.  One sees in that show the difference in how smoking was accepted (in restaurants, planes, etc.) and widespread.

My dad died at age 60 due to pancreas cancer, eight years before my oldest son was born.   The smoking culture took him early — he started at 17 because only smokers could take ‘smoking breaks’ where he worked, so to get a break he smoked — and got addicted.   For all the talk about personal responsibility, once the culture lures you into an addiction it is very difficult to break.   Overall, I’m glad the culture has changed thanks to public policy, taxes and even university policies.

This is an example of laws and policy being used for the public good.   Cigarette companies addicted people purposefully and then had life time customers for a product that led to early death, poor health, and increased costs to the public in terms of missed work and higher shared expenses.    I am glad we do not live in the Banacek era of ubiquitous cigarettes!    While I sympathize with those who now cannot smoke on campus, hopefully this will help push them away from an expensive and unhealthy habit.

I also think it’s good that candy cigarettes aren’t everywhere.   I am glad I can still find them in specialty shops, and I do think my kids can have them now and then without increasing the risk they’ll really smoke.    The culture now works against smoking, thanks in part to candy cigarettes having become rare!    Still, when I bit off a piece of one (as I just did), it brings back a bit of my childhood.    Now if I could only find “Pillsbury’s Space food sticks…”

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Rain!

Here is a great tune for our East coast weather, written and performed by Dennis DeYoung (inspired in part by Katrina), this video matches the song Rain with images from those past hurricanes, as well as other disasters, which I found on Youtube.  It looks like it was made by someone named “scarlet envelope” a couple weeks after Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008:

It’s from the album One Hundred Years from Now which you can find at dennisdeyoung.com.   It is a superb album from one of rock’s all time greats.  The song’s been running through my head all day as I’ve watched coverage of Irene.   (By the way, my first ever post on this blog was about hurricanes – Katrina vs. Nargis).

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On Religion and Reason

I believe that existing organized religions are all culture products, expressions of a deep spiritual truth.

All religious faiths emerged in specific cultural and geographic contexts.   While many espouse universality, belief in them is usually an accident of birth.   Islam and Christianity spread farther because they emerged from more violent cultures.   The Christian West colonized the world and used its religion as a rationale for destroying indigenous religions and exploiting colonies for resources.    Muslim leaders and later the Ottoman Empire used Islam as a rationale for conquering northern Africa, the Arab world and parts of Europe.   Each might point to their growth as a sign that they are favored by God, but that’s a little obscene: God favors violent conquerors?

Buddhism and Hinduism claim universality with a kind of caveat.   Hinduism seeks to understand the laws of the universe and claims that all of reality is ultimately indistinct from the Brahman, or supreme spirit.   Life is about ethics, livelihood, pleasure and freedom.    They lack a concept of heresy and thus are open to other expressions of belief.  There is only one God or ultimate spirit, but since we cannot fathom it, they express God in multiple forms.  This makes it appear polytheistic, but there is only one Brahman.   Buddhism sees desire and addiction to the material world as the source of misery, and tries to plot a path for liberation.

The fact of the matter is there is absolutely no objective reason to take any religion literally, and a plethora of reasons not to.  The only way one can hold on to a faith — especially the fundamentally exclusivist ones of Islam and Christianity — is to defy reason in favor of faith.   An example:  Christian fundamentalists who think Jesus is the only way to heaven and God will punish those who reject Jesus are in direct contradiction with the core values of their belief system.  A God of love and forgiveness would never act is such a cruel, arbitrary manner.

Yet religious belief remains powerful.     Deeply shared cultural beliefs are taken as “natural” and “normal” by people, and thus things contrary to those beliefs seem strange and wrong.   In the past it was women in the work place or blacks as equal to whites, now gay marraige is the classic case.  There is no reason-based rationale for opposing it, but culturally it seems to many to be weird and unnatural.

Religion is like that, people grow up with it permeating their culture and being taken as natural — it is a powerful psychological force.  There are also social reasons for people to stick with it — when ones’ family, community and life has been defined by religion, breaking from it could mean immense personal costs.  Often when people get doubts their response is to double down and dive deeper into the faith.

Beyond that, religious beliefs can be profoundly powerful for people who face crises or otherwise feel as if they are drifting in life.    Consider the conversion experience.  It is almost always a purely emotional affair — a sense of fulfillment and joy at accepting a power outside oneself, realizing that life has purpose and there is a plan that one can be part of.    Conversion unleashes joy at letting go of the pain of feeling tied down by the limits of human frailty and material reality.    For many, it is a vehicle for embracing a positive view of reality.

These are powerful because there is an element of truth in that experience.   Letting go of worries, fear, and feelings of inadequacy is necessary for happiness.   That’s the core message of Hinduism and Buddhism as well.   It’s hard for individuals to do that, it’s easy to get swept up by self-doubt, comparisons to others, wondering ‘what’s the point,” and thinking that others have it better.  One glimpses the insignificance of an individual existence in the grand scheme of things and feels down.   One looks to relationships, work, children for meaning and is disappointed.   Life becomes a series of distractions and a sense of dissatisfaction.

The only way out of that is to break away from the weight of material conditions and live each moment as it is.   One has to accept reality and not fret about what is outside ones’ control (which includes past mistakes and bad luck).   To do that requires reflection, self-honesty and confidence.  One also has to overcome the most profound fear of all — the fear of meaninglessness.  That fear drives modern humans to depression, addictions and sociopathic behaviors.   Letting go of fear is not easy in a world where magazines tell you how your life should be — where we’re told to live according to the fantasies of marketers.

Religion can be a short cut to that point.     If you use a God concept to create an entity that brushes that aside, it’s easier.  People then equate faith and connection to God with the removal of meaninglessness and as a vehicle to overcome fear.    At it’s best, it can create joyful lives, devout folk of various religious beliefs who take life as it comes with a sense of joy and understanding.  At its worst it can torment.   If one believes but is not able to translate that into a removal of fear, material discontent or even self-loathing, it can create powerful contradictions that do more harm than good.   Hence the religious life is a ‘fight of faith’ for Christians, the “higher jihad” for Muslims, and a difficult path requiring teachers for Hindus and Buddhists.

Reason can destroy religious teachings and dogmas but cannot destroy the core truths and values that underlie all great religions.   Therein lies the paradox.   Reason cannot prove or disprove statements about values, ethics and morality, but it can show particular stories about how the world operates to be non-sensical, contrary to reality, or extremely unlikely.   When a candidate for President says the world is only about 6000 years old, we realize he’s believing a myth, out of touch with science and reason.

But reason cannot give us what religion provides — a way to overcome fear, to see through the illusion of material worry and despair, and grasp higher values and a sense of meaning.    We need that.   Yet reason ultimately destroys religious belief.

Or does it?   What reason and evidence destroy is belief in a particular story or individual as the key to faith.   It can make it seem ridiculous to believe only Jesus is the path to heaven, or that Islam is the one true faith.  It can poke holes in Buddhist teachings and philosophy.   But reason doesn’t destroy the core power of religious faith – the power of the spirit to transcend the material.

In the debate between atheists and theists, both are right — atheists are right that religious dogmas are not credible or worthy of belief;  theists are right that reason cannot disprove religion and is itself an empty vessel:  a tool, not an answer.   While Hindus and Buddhists may claim their approach merges reason and religion (and in many ways it does), it is part of a culture that doesn’t translate well into western thought.

So where does that leave us?  Despite my rejection of organized religion, realizing the power they grant to individuals in overcoming the immense burden of life in the material world, especially in these times, I must respect those of sincere religious faith, those who don’t try to force others to live by their beliefs.    They often live with more meaning, ethics and value than atheists and materialists.

Ultimately, though, that isn’t going to be enough for society to deal with the dilemmas of the modern and post-modern world.   Reason is powerful.   It is a tool that humans underestimate.   We believe it liberates us, but it also can imprison us as we use it to justify and rationalize inhumane actions, or to dissect life and find it empty and meaningless.    Many embrace ideologies that they think reason provides, using them as ersatz religions to give their life meaning.   Devout Marxists or followers of Ayn Rand believe ultimately absurd ideologies in order to find a way out of the jungle of meaningless that reason provides.

My answer, pragmatic and for one wanting demonstrable truth unsatisfying, is to look at the values behind the great religions, and reflect on ones own emotional and spiritual self.   That can provide the capacity to break out of the chains of meaningless that materialism and reason can build, to overcome fear and find joy.   But this path also requires letting go.   To the reason-bound, it still requires a leap of faith, that there is something outside the material world — a spiritual essence — that we need for valuable lives.   To the religion-bound it would mean giving up a story and the existence of an authoritative set of teachings one simply believes in.  Religion still works for some, but is becoming increasing un-credible in the modern world.

One needs both:  mind and soul, reason and sentiment, rational thought and spirituality.

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Pizza Success

(Another in my series about pizza and my youth)

I'm "saucing" a pizza (spreading the sauce by moving around the pan), the co-worker on the left is running the oven, on the right the roll out machine. This is from 1978.

My first night back at Village Inn Pizza was memorable.  It was a long 5 to close shift, and I quickly became reacquainted with a store that I worked at briefly in April of 1976, nearly two years earlier.   I was told to learn busing and dish washing, being trained by a guy named Mike.   Mike explained the basics, and having been busing and dish-washing at my last job I caught on quickly.

At one point Warren (the manager) asked me to go sweep up the front kitchen as the workers there were too busy.  I ran to the back and grabbed the broom and swept.   “That’s what I like,” Warren said, “did you see that, he ran to get the broom!”   I got a couple snide looks from workers in the kitchen.   Later one confided with me that they were in quiet revolt.  The last manager had been very popular, but the store wasn’t performing well.    The company decided to fire him and Warren came barking orders and demanding people do everything by the book.

My friend Dan (who suggested I apply) pulled me aside.  “Warren’s sharp, these guys are dead wood, don’t get pulled into their games.”   I had no intention of doing so.  When the “old guard” told me to slow down and not be a brown nose, I just shrugged, “he’s the boss, I’m new, come on, I need this job.”     Over the next two weeks I found myself learning more details about how the restaurant operated.   I made pizza dough, learned how to operate the roll out machine (no tossing the dough in the air!), run the ovens, run the cash register, etc.  I caught on quickly, in part because I had done a short stint there earlier.   I kept up my speed, and got in the habit of sweeping and cleaning up before Warren would ask — something I knew he noticed.

I was not making friends with the old guard, but by that time so many of them had quit and so many new folk had been hired that it didn’t matter.   Just two weeks into the job Warren called me into his office.   “Scott,” he said, “you’ve been very impressive, you clean without being told to clean, and in two weeks have learned all the basics of the operation.”

“Thanks,” I said, noting that the comment about cleaning would shock my mom who complained I never did any cleaning around the house (which was, alas, true).

“How would you like to learn how to do the nightly books?”   He asked.   I replied sure.   “The only people who do the books are supervisors, the assistant manager and myself,” he continued.   “In two weeks I want you trained to be a supervisor.   That means you’ll run night shifts — Kevin (the assistant manager) or I usually leave by 7:00 — and sometimes the day shifts on weekends.   You’ll get a raise — I can’t have my supervisors earning less than the other help.   Right now you’re at $2.40, the highest paid non-superviser is at $3.40, so you’ll be bumped to $3.50 an hour.”

At that point I was feeling really good — my pay was going to go up by almost 50%!   “I would like to ask you to come in some nights and watch as I or Kevin do books.   You and Dan can come in together if you want, he’s going to be a Supervisor as well.   I can’t pay you for that, but I think it’ll be worth while.”   I agreed.   “One more thing,” he added.   “This is going to be really difficult for you.   There are still people here who have been here two years or more and they will resent you being promoted ahead of them.   Most will probably quit — that’s what I hope.  I’ve got enough people trained that I don’t need them around.   Others may ignore you or disregard you.   If you have any problems, let me know.”

I said I would, but added that I thought I could handle it.  “Don’t feel you have to prove anything, if anyone’s a jerk come tell me, this isn’t about your pride, I’m the boss, I should know everything. ”   I nodded.   “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this yet.  I’m going to announce my changes soon.”    I went back out and continued working.    One of the old guard asked me what Warren wanted to talk to me about.   Before I could answer Warren piped up, “It’s none of your business,” he told the guy.   “I gave him a raise.  He’s proven he’s a hard worker.”     I shrugged my shoulders and the guy looked at me and shook his head.    When Warren was out of range he continued “this is just a part time low paying job, you really shouldn’t jump every time he says jump, the guy’s over the top.”   I ignored that comment.

The next night Dan and I came in to watch Warren do books.   Warren looked surprised, but we reminded him it was his idea.   “OK,” he said, “but now everyone knows you’ll be supervisors.”   Within two weeks I ran my first shift.   I positioned the employees where I wanted them, determined when to send people home, made sure the restaurant was clean, and of course worked.   On slow nights I would run the kitchen with one or two people helping with busing and dishwashing.    On busy nights we might have a crew of 12, meaning I’d have to figure out break schedules and focus more on dealing with customers and making sure everything was running smoothly.

The old guard complained, most did quit, but none of them gave me any trouble.   One time I sent one guy to help the dishwasher catch up and he complained that he always worked in the kitchen and that I should send someone else.   “You’re the fastest,” I said, “show Mike” (the guy who trained me my first night was still only busing and dishwashing) “how to speed it up.”   He didn’t protest.   For the first time in my life I had a job I really loved and I was in charge of the store, not just a busboy like at the First Edition.

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