Monday, April 10, 2017

Alternative Facts


A few weeks ago, MB and I flew down to Florida for a wedding on her side of the family. It turned into a raucously good time, winding up as a family reunion of sorts with about 25 people attending from all over the country.

'Murica
The festivities took place in central Florida, a town called Crescent City, that is reachable by driving 40 – 50 miles from one of 3 different airports. We got the best price from JetBlue to Orlando and so our drive was through the most rural part of the state including Pierson, the Fern Capital of the World. (I had no idea this existed; there were miles of covered fields, all housing ferns from the sun.)

This ride is mainly on 2 lane blacktop, going through small towns and communities. It’s the heart of Trump country, with many of his
Coming soon!
signature signs still up in celebration. There were even some billboards congratulating him.

I turned the satellite radio to Radio Margaritaville and played it loud while MB knitted.

Cheap Motels

We had made reservations at one of the places to stay in Crescent City, the Lake View Motel. It had been a number of years since I stayed in a “motel” (a word coined mid-20th century for Motor Hotel, in other words along the road) and I had a pretty low bar set for what we would find. At $70 a night, you need to set your sights a little lower. This place was your basic cinder block construction, painted bright white with a very well kept outside appearance.
King of the Road...

To our surprise, the hotel while dating from the 1950s, was very well kept inside, clean and bright, and the proprietors (a Middle eastern family) very friendly. They’ve evidently run the place for almost 10 years and clearly take pride in it; the place was full for the weekend with all 18 rooms in use.

Our room had an issue with a toilet that wouldn’t flush very well. We reported it the first morning and they attempted to fix it while we were out. Unable to do so properly, the owner went and purchased a new one and he and his handyman installed it the next morning while we went out for breakfast. The only thing missing in the motel was any kind of internet but we got around that by going to McDonalds to use their wifi one morning, allowing us to keep up with the rest of the world.

Wedding and After Party

Let's party!
The wedding took place on the beach, reachable by a 45 minute drive through a magnificent park. Afterwards, we all headed back to Crescent City to a local restaurant where the bride and groom had first met 3 years before. The restaurant was called “Three Bananas” and every sign we saw for it, although not the one on the building, had a misplaced apostrophe that just drove MB crazy the entire weekend. The current “apostrophe catastrophe” in our country is very real in her mind and she never misses a chance to bemoan the complete downfall of English grammar. (This from a guy who drinks coffee from a cup that says “I am silently correcting your grammar.”)

There were lots of pictures taken, lots of food was consumed (nearly all of it was fried, much to the disgust of MB who is not a fan of bar food anyway) and plenty of drinks were drunk. A large time was shaping up to be had by all!

About 6:30, the musical provider began setting up. I thought it was a DJ at first; he was setting up a portable PA system (Fender Passport – a real nice, small system) a computer with lots of music loaded up, and a microphone system. Hmm. Was this karaoke?

He carried in a guitar gig bag containing a Fender Strat knockoff, and a keyboard and stand, and set those up, too. Apparently, he was a musician! By then, he had a helper who stationed himself at the computer. They talked back and forth for a few minutes and then started the show.

The singer stepped up to the keyboard, pulled the mic up to his mouth and introduced himself. (I didn’t catch the name.) He said to be prepared to dance and have some fun! The music started and he began singing a KC and the Sunshine Band number.

Tables were pulled back to clear a space for a dance floor and the bride and groom got their first dance in as the singer switched to something slow. All the other traditional dances (father and bride, mom and groom, etc) took place and there was great picture taking going on throughout all of it.

After the bridal party finished all the planned bits, the singer began performing a string of dance numbers and up tempo songs to get folks out on the dance floor. Up to this point, I’d been off to the side taking pictures and singing along. I caught MB’s eye and we headed out to dance.

And then, it got kind of weird….

Somewhere along about the fourth or fifth song, I found myself directly in front of the singer. I forget what song he was doing but a guitar solo was about to come up on it (at least that’s what the original had) and I turned to watch him play it.
(Full disclosure: I play the guitar although I don’t consider myself a guitar player. I play rhythm guitar, almost never any lead stuff because I’m just not that good, and I’m always watching other players to see how they do it. That was my motivation for watching closely.)
Caution:

I watched the singer’s left hand and realized he was playing in the wrong position on the fretboard, playing the wrong notes. When I looked at his right hand, he wasn’t playing the correct string, either. He was singing the song, and very well, too, but he was totally faking the guitar work! Just to be sure, I looked at the guitar cable and noticed that it wasn’t plugged into the amp or a mixing board either. In fact, it seemed to just disappear under a mat that he was standing on.

I stared in absolute fascination. I have never seen anything like this before and just couldn’t imagine that I was the only one who noticed. A hundred things passed through my mind, like did he think he was fooling people? Was I the only guitar player to see him in action? Does he think he’s actually playing?

The guy had a decent voice and was quite a showman with all the stage moves that one sees in house bands. Maybe it was just this song, and I was mistaken.

At the end of the number, he put the guitar back in the stand, took a sip of water, and moved over to the keyboard. I watched him hit a couple of buttons as if he was selecting a particular instrument or tone. Then he counted in and his assistant hit play on the computer for the next song. Almost immediately, he began pounding on the keys and while he was in the correct rhythm he wasn’t playing anything remotely like the music coming out of the speakers.

I followed the connector cable coming out of the back of the keyboard and it went under the same mat as the guitar and no other cables were coming out. Another fake instrument!

I suppose it’s a good thing the microphone was plugged in or he could have billed himself as Marcel Marceau plays and sings the hits! (Google it)

I went back to dancing and smiling and laughing with all the other family members and guests.

Spilled beans

I went back to a table to sit a couple of songs out and one of my wife’s cousins came over to me. She said, “What do you think of the singer?”

“I think he’s a really good karaoke performer.” Was my reply.

“What do you mean?” she responded.

“He’s singing but he’s not playing anything. Neither of his instruments are plugged into anything and he’s not even playing the correct notes. Watch him right now and tell me if you can see him playing the piano like the music sounds.” She listened intently for a minute while watching his hands on the keys.

“Oh my god! You’re right!” She wandered off to tell her husband and soon, just about everyone in the wedding party knew and was talking about it. There were lots of knowing looks and giggles passed around during the next couple of hours. By the time MB and I headed back to the hotel, it was no longer an item for discussion.

It was, however, a topic for conversation at our gathering the next couple of days.

It's important to note that knowing this guy was faking it didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the evening. Truth is, the guy did a fine job of picking a good blend of music, was a solid vocal talent, and acted like someone in a live band should act when entertaining people. We danced, sang along, and had a great time. (I’ve since learned that he’s a regular at this place and is very well liked for the parties that he hosts at the place.)

Summing Up

So, a guy who doesn’t actually play any instruments (although he fervently pretends to do so) has a following of adoring regulars, who come out to celebrate his faking it (perhaps they don’t know it) and they dance and sing while he spins the tunes and appears to be doing something they really like, leading a big party every weekend.


Now I understand all of the Trump signs scattered all over the area!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What’s great about America - That's a statement, not a question!


I’m a cynic, I admit it. If there’s a cynical comment to be made, you can count on it coming out of my mouth. It’s probably one of the reasons I describe myself as a “flailing Buddhist.” I just can’t let stupid stuff go by without some kind of observation.

There is a belief in organizational development circles that a weakness is actually a strength taken to the extreme.

For example, flexibility is considered by itself to be a strength. But if one is too flexible they run the risk of being thought of as unable to take a stand, wishy-washy. And that’s not a good thing in business.

If that theory holds true, then a cynic is simply an idealist who has been disappointed one time too many. Or constantly.

I recite this preamble because an acquaintance of mine asked for a post on What’s Great about America! (This came about after reading my post about bias. I wonder if they’re related?) Here’s my shot. For your reading convenience, my cynical take is included after each section, parenthetically and in red italics so you can skip it if you’d rather focus on nothing but the positive. (It’s just one more service I provide!)

What’s great about America
America the Beautiful!

Land: America encompasses 3,794,083 square miles including water (lakes, ponds, rivers) and the beautiful views, abundant resources, vast plains, sturdy mountain ranges, and verdant valleys make it a wonderland that is the envy of much of the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that Americans dream big; our homeland almost commands us to do so!

(As I write this, our new President has signed an executive order reinstating the XL and Dakota pipeline access projects to completion. So, some of that pristine stuff is now at risk but no sense worrying about that now. He’s also chosen, for head of the EPA, a person who has filed suit dozens of times against the organization he’ll head. How convenient. Nothing to see here, folks!)

Freedom: Our 241-year-old experiment in democracy continues on its journey, with the taste of freedom in every citizen’s mouth. The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees each of us that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Word!

Never was this more in evidence than on January 21, 2017 when enormous crowds of peaceful protesters (majority of females) gathered in cities across the land to stand up for the rights of everyone: women, LGBTQ, poor, Black, Latino, immigrants all were called out and told they would be taken care of. In solidarity, marches took place in over 500 cities and countries around the world with the same message.

(Our new President, has taken to Twitter to explain to everyone that his Inauguration crowd was bigger and, besides, didn’t we just have an election? Why didn’t these people vote? He later stated that demonstrations were the backbone of democracy, or something like that.  My feeling is, if you’re going to have an argument with women about size, you better bring the goods and the numbers show he didn’t. He’s also been in a running battle, and these are his words, with “mainstream media” because he says they are purveyors of fake news. Really? I guess that’s just because he ran for President and no one likes him or something. Perhaps he’s confusing the editorial pages with the news pages. The administration has shut down various government agency’s ability to tweet, announce, or otherwise communicate with the outside as they “develop their policies to match the new administrations goals.” Some people are saying, first step to autocracy. I prefer, “first step to a brave new world.” Pun intended!)

Wealth: The American economy has been the largest on earth for decades, only recently being challenged for the top spot by China in the last few years. Our capitalist system has allowed average people to become millionaires and billionaires starting businesses, developing real estate. Some became millionaires by working their way up the corporate ladder from the mail room to the board room! A recent example of entrepreneurism at its best is shown in the film The Founder, a story about Ray Kroc who discovered and improved a small burger joint, turning it
Cabinet members will see you now!
into a conglomerate and becoming the CEO of McDonalds; but only after failing in business several times right into middle age before finally becoming successful.

(How wealthy are some people? Well, according to sources, the wealthiest 80 Americans have more wealth than the bottom half of the population combined. Some very wealthy people are being tapped for Cabinet positions. I’m hoping the new Administration’s main goal will be to teach everyone else how they did it, themselves. As opposed to continuing to make it easier for them and their ilk to gain more wealth. Right?)

Equality: Our Constitution guarantees every American many rights, including equality in the eyes of the law. This is the cornerstone of democracy.

(Of course, that’s taken a bunch of amendments to get here, and the Equal Rights Amendment – guaranteeing the rights of women – never was passed. Some say, what’s the big deal? But women still only earn 80% of men, on average, in the same position; blacks earn 74.6% of whites in the same position. Some of my female friends tell me they have to work twice as hard and have twice the performance to be considered the same as men. Fortunately, they say, that’s not that hard.)

Healthcare: Everyone in America has access to healthcare in this country. Truly. State laws require hospitals to provide healthcare to anyone that comes into their emergency rooms, even those who are unable to pay. So, everyone has healthcare available to them. The Affordable Care Act was passed in an effort to provide the opportunity for more people to have health insurance so that they wouldn’t go to an emergency unit for care and, thus, reduce the overall cost of healthcare. According to a nonpartisan research team study, that has occurred and the cost curve has been bent down. In other words, the act was at least partly successful in it’s goal.

(And still, as I write this, our new President has taken the time to sign an executive order to begin to repeal, not tweak, repeal this law. Because this law has “killed jobs” (sorry, it hasn’t) because it’s not providing coverage (sorry, that’s false) that you couldn’t “keep your doctor” (that’s true in some instances). What is particularly bothersome to me is that no one is pointing out that healthcare costs continue to rise and are at the point of being unsustainable – 19% of the US GDP. The ACA was an attempt to slow that down and was only marginally effective. What we really need is a complete overhaul of our system – kind a moonshot project – and I don’t see this Administration and Congress having the skills/desire/motivation to pull it off; at least not as long as lobbyists keep filling their pockets. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong!)

Education: Our public education system is designed to provide an education to all kids. A number of acts over the years have worked to make the system better and better. No Child Left Behind, passed under President Bush (43) was designed to provide quality education to those who might otherwise be unable to get one due to being in the poorest part of the population. Our colleges and universities are outstanding and many are among the finest in the world.

Psst. Her pockets are Yuge!
(No Child Left Behind, while being noble in its goal, has turned out to promote mediocrity thus reducing the quality of education. It seems to me that many states, in their efforts to improve public education, have done the opposite by working to standardize so many things that good students are slowed down. They’ve also focused almost entirely on the notion that education is an expense rather than an investment and that has eroded the motivation for people to go into public school teaching as salaries remain stagnant and teachers are made to teach to tests instead of helping people learn. But I’m sure our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, will fix all this. During her confirmation hearing she failed to answer a number of questions correctly, some that are taught in first year teaching courses. Hell, I know the answers and I’m a trainer! She was confirmed on a historic tie-breaking vote by VP Mike Pence on the strength of: She had donated over $200 million to GOP legislators. I’m sure this will all work out, just fine!)

Opportunity: In America, every child that is born in this country can grow up and become President, one day!

(And now that we’ve proven this aphorism to be true, can we never do this again?!?!?!?!?!?!?)

In closing, I can say that America is already great. Now, can we agree as a people not to eff it up from here? Please?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Bias

Bias


Dictionary.com defines bias as:

a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.

I’ve started a new blog post about a half dozen times in the past two months. I’ve been struggling with deciding what to write about since the election; it’s been one of the main sources of conversation for so many that I felt like I had to jump in. But I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. I’ve finally decided to talk about bias because I think it’s what caused the election to turn out as it did. I also think it tends to drive most of what we think and do. I’m concerned that if we, as a society, don’t get a handle on us, it may lead to our ultimate destruction.

During conversations with some of my friends over the past few weeks, I’ve been attempting to understand how people that I would normally describe as intelligent are losing their minds, spewing “news stories” that are anything but, and trashing the constitutional tenets that guide our republic. All in an effort to get me to agree that their selection for President (Trump) was the correct one. Or to get me to agree that Clinton was the correct choice and the election had been stolen from her.

The act of being in these conversations has led me to begin forming opinions about personal bias. (Forgive me if this covers ground you already know, yourself. I’m just becoming aware of these things. At least this election accomplished something!)

Race

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he thought that President Obama had done more to increase racism in this country than any individual in history. His statement was, “Obama said that he doesn’t believe that police are doing their jobs, that they’re targeting black men, and that he doesn’t support their behavior.”

We did a quick google search on our phones (my bride calls smart phones “pocket BS detectors”) and were unable to come up with a quote that was anywhere close to what my friend had just said. Most quotes were around how difficult the job of a police officer is and we can’t undermine that by painting them all with a broad brush.

The fact that we couldn’t find the quote my friend claimed to have heard was disturbing to him. I pointed out that it was possible that the liberal media had removed the story in order to keep Obama’s legacy intact. When he vehemently agreed, I pointed out that I’d been kidding. (Hmmmm. Bias.)

I suggested something else.

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that instead of Obama saying that, it was George W. Bush when he was president. So, President Bush at a press conference says, ‘I believe that there is a group of police officers who are not doing their jobs, that are targeting black males and I want this to stop because I don’t support that kind of behavior.’ How does that change it for you?”

My friend couldn’t really come up with an answer.

So I said, “Wouldn’t you think that President Bush was trying to ensure that police were doing their jobs properly?” He replied in the affirmative.

“Would you say that he was reaching out to the black community in an effort to get them to see that he was trying to help them?” Again, he agreed with that.

“So when a white president says it, he’s doing the right thing. But when a black president says it, he’s what? Getting uppity? Not knowing his place? Rabble rousing?”

My friend, who I truly don’t believe is a racist, couldn’t answer the question.

I suggest that his “personal bias” made him look at the words, hear the words, even understand the words, differently. Perhaps even make up new words to match his bias.

Religion

I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist church. I consider myself to be agnostic only because I can’t imagine an actual god but I also can’t imagine there not being a higher power. In other words, I need some proof. The closest thing I can align to is Buddhism and, quite frankly, I describe myself as a “flailing Buddhist” as I’m not very good at living in the moment or at accepting things.

My church describes itself as a liberal church and welcomes all who choose to worship with us. UUism doesn’t have a dogma but, instead, draws on many different faiths and teachings for inspiration. We are a welcoming congregation, meaning that we want all who come to join us to feel welcome.

In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been a member, we’ve done all sort of things that could be considered welcoming. At one point, we had a group of Amadiyah Muslims meeting in our church building before they were able to build their own mosque. This offshoot of Islam is among the most peaceful and focus their entire worth on love. The members that I met were incredibly kind and compassionate. (At the same time, women in their group were not given a seat in leadership; they were subservient to the men at all times. Interesting bias.)

A couple of years ago, we had a person come to our church for a period of time. Several people reached out to learn more about him and his family. They began to take an active role in the church and then, one day, they stopped coming. Why? Turned out that he was a Republican and was taken aback with so much anti-GOP talk that he heard among the members and from the pulpit.

I guess, to some degree, we are welcoming but especially to those who think as we do. Once again, bias comes into play.

Conservative vs Liberal

This one plays out every day, on every channel that broadcasts news stories (or what passes for news) by anyone who watches. Same with newspapers, news magazines, and even news websites.

The New York Times is a very old newspaper that prides itself on reporting the news as accurately and fairly as it can. It has won many awards for doing just that, including multiple Pulitzer prizes.

Here’s a test for you. What’s your opinion of the New York Times? Before you continue reading, take a moment and decide your answer. I’ll wait.

Okay, you may continue.

Some people think that the NYT is a “liberal rag” and not worth the paper it’s printed on. Others think it’s the last bastion of good reporting in the nation. Still others, think it’s a puppet of the right wingers.

How could all of those opinions differ so widely? Bias, pure and simple. (Your answer above is, of course, based on your personal bias.)

(Side note: The Richmond Times-Dispatch, my local newspaper, has a long history of being conservative, having endorsed the GOP candidate almost exclusively for decades. When they endorsed Gary Johnson this past October, a large number of people lost their minds. The letters to the editors almost never fail to elicit a chuckle from me. They’re almost better than the comics! Bias examples abound just about daily.)

So what?

Here’s the deal. I remember a time when most of us were taught to listen politely to what someone else had to say about a topic. I remember it as a time that was more thoughtful, respectful, and when we were able to accomplish more. (Remember when Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon? It took 9 years. Think that could happen today? Not a chance. Too many people arguing about it.)

Want to think more clearly about things and help break the cycle? Do this.

Take the time to consider the other person’s point of view, even if it directly opposes what you believe. (The operative word is consider here. Don’t discard what they say out of hand. Just consider it. What if they were right? What if you were wrong? What if both of you were wrong?)

If asked, give your own opinion, politely, about the same topic. Provide the other person with your reasons for the opinion. (Bear in mind, facts should have more value than opinions or feelings.) Ask the other person to consider your point of view, too.

Above all else, listen to understand don’t listen to reply! Life isn’t a debate. We’re all in this together and, in the final analysis, we all want what’s best for the country, our lives, our families, and ourselves.

In the end, if your opinions haven’t changed, agree to disagree and thank the other person for sharing their thoughts with you. Both parties will be changed by this, whether or not they believe that.

Final thoughts

I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m not sure I even have half of the questions! I only know that we, as a society, are at a very strange place in our journey. We have the capability to end it ourselves and, frankly, I’m worried that’s going to happen if we don’t change the ways we interact.

We also have the wherewithal to be better than we are, as a country, and as a world. I intend to do my share.


I hope you intend to do yours.