Wednesday, November 26, 2008

TLA's way cool guide to better holiday shopping

Ah, it's that season again: the crisp smell of snow and smoke from chimneys is in the air, relatives are swarming to households both excited and stressed to see them, turkeys are stuffed with ducks and chickens, and retailers are praying to the consumer gods that their various sales and promotions will help stave off the economic gloom, at least until the new year.

For holidays that are supposed to be about giving thanks for the things we are grateful to have in our lives and sharing gifts with those we love, this time of year can be awfully superficial. For some, the act of gift buying can become almost automatic. We're driven to stress out about getting our hands on the newest hot toy, battling with hordes of other crazed parents to get through the shop doors at midnight. We're told, whether straight-up or subliminally, that our worth as people is only as much as our worth as consumers.

Well, I call bullshit.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about the holidays. I grew up in a house that took them very seriously, with a mother who festooned every available surface with pine garlands, Santa Claus figures, miniature snow villages, and baked goods a mile high. I have very fond associations with this time of year, but then, that's something to be thankful for in itself.

Not everyone is so fortunate. And that's why, especially at this time of year, I think it's important to really do some personal reevaluation and public outreach. Giving gifts to the people we care about is great fun, but I'd argue that it's even better when those gifts benefit others as well. So in the interest of making it a little easier for everyone to find that special something and support local businesses and/or organizations that really help others, I've put together the Lost Albatross' Way Cool Guide to Better Holiday Shopping.

Wait, what? I thought we were talking about shopping ideas! Well, it's also important to show the world that we're not just mindless consumers, and a good way of doing that en masse is to join the efforts of Buy Nothing Day. Instead of frantically hitting the sales on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, and traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year), why not just kick back and relax? Put away the credit cards, stay away from the crowded stores, and make a statement by not busting out your wallet. Don't worry, there's plenty of time for thoughtful shopping later--it's just one day, after all! But it makes a statement.

Now I bet I know what you're thinking: craft fairs? Boooring. Not so! Madison is blessed with an abundance of very talented, very inventive crafty types who make everything from really slick screen printed ties to bottle cap jewelry to paper arts, stuffed animals, clothing, and more. So whether you're shopping for mom or your best bud, I'm willing to bet that you'll be able to find something cool at one of these fairs.

I specifically recommend Glitter Workshop's Holiday Craftacular, held this year on Saturday, Dec. 6 from 10AM - 6PM at the Masonic Center (301 Wisconsin Ave.) downtown. I went to their event last year and walked away with some fabulous ties, a few coasters with scenes from Curious George and Where the Wild Things Are on them, and saw a ton of other really cool stuff, too. Basically, you'll see a whole array of local vendors, people who've made all of the unique items on offer. Plus, it's a way less stressful environment than the mall.

Another great opportunity to buy gifts you can feel good about is happening that very same day, from 9AM - 4PM at the Monona Terrace's Exhibition Hall - the Fair Trade Holiday Fest. Here's a good, one-stop-shopping opportunity to support artisans from around the world while making sure they're being paid fairly for their work.

Spend your bucks at locally owned businesses, bolstering the economy the old-fashioned way. Again, Madison doesn't exactly suffer from a lack of them, so you really have no excuse to head to the outskirts of town for the malls and big chain stores.

Check out the upcoming issue of Footlights Magazine for an article I penned about this very subject. I included some specific recomendations, like Anthology (crafty gifts on State St.), Bad Dog Frida (toys for pets and people on Atwood Ave.), the Soap Opera (good smellin' things on State St.), and more. Seriously, just wander up and down streets like State, Williamson/Atwood, and Monroe, and you're garaunteed to bump into some great local places.

You can also give the gift of giving a much-needed gift to complete strangers. This is especially great for people who "have everything" (see: are difficult to shop for) and/or are socially conscious.

Organizations like Heifer International and Kiva are good places to start.

At Heifer, you can purchase various livestock (chickens, rabbits, cows, and even llamas) to be given to various people in need around the globe. The animals help folks to become more self-sufficient, oftentimes provided a long-term means of making money or providing food. So instead of just throwing a few bucks at a short-term bandage, this is helping to provide real, long-lasting change for many families all over the world.

Kiva provides what are called microloans to aspiring small business owners all across the planet. You can give as little as $25 to help someone get their business off the ground in a struggling country, and since these are loans, the idea is that you're eventually paid back. Since it's not a handout, the person on the receiving end can feel good about being more self-reliant and responsible. Plus, you then have the option of putting that paid back money toward yet another microloan (I'm thinking of putting together a loan "team" this Christmas, so check back if you're interested in helping out).

Seriously, the internet is a great resource of finding and researching various local, fair trade, and charitable means of gift giving. It is, I believe, a much better way to celebrate the holidays, more true to their original intent. And in this quickly changing world, it's more important than ever to support those people and businesses that are working hard to do the right thing, to improve life for everyone, and to be responsible stewards of the earth.

There's plenty to worry and get scared about - but it's crucial to maintain a sense of optimism. We all have the capacity for great love and great acts, and we can at least be thankful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Responsibility in the age of uncertainty

"The economy's likely to get worse before it gets better. Full recovery will not happen immediately." - President-elect Barack Obama

Today I'm attending a meeting about starting my own 401k--something I've wanted to do for awhile, but could never really afford (and still just barely can)--and I have to admit, current news is not filling me with a whole lot of confidence about it.

If I start contributing to a 401k now, do I just immediately start to lose money? Or will this be like getting in on the ground floor, just in time for the economy to begin some sort of recovery?

Word out of Washington and Wall Street is not encouraging.

Unless you're the CEO of one of the big, federally bailed-out corporations like AIG or Citibank, times are tough for all of us. Regular folks are not going to receive generous, no-strings-attached, don't-even-have-to-really-have-a-recovery-plan bailouts from the government. Instead, we're going to watch our jobs and wages cut, our retirement savings shrink, and, if this downward slide really gets chugging, a cut in our standard of living.

So why on Earth should I start paying into a 401k now? Frankly, I don't feel like I have any other particularly good options, and simply not attempting to save for retirement feels like a supremely bad idea.

Still, this has to be one of the worst times in a very, very long while to be jumping into adulthood and an attempt at financial prudence.

I worry, too, that the economic downturn will be used by moneyed interests as an excuse to forgo real efforts at developing viable alternative energies, cracking down on pollution, and generally trying to clean up our act before things really go to shit. The argument will be something along these lines: "We simply cannot afford to put money into those things that are unproven and/or prohibitively expensive when people are in such dire need of services right now!"

But people are in dire need of a healthy planet on which to continue living right now, too. And for all the billions (if not trillions) of dollars that are being pumped into the creaking, bloated, poorly-run corporations, we could instead be spending that on things like creating a whole slew of new jobs in alternative energy, green technologies, infrastructure improvement, education, and health care. Those are the things that are most crucial to creating and maintaining a viable economy and populace in the future. Not just investment banks. Not just car companies that actively block legislation that would have made them improve their games and perhaps even avoid their current dire straits.

I can only hope that we get enough of the right people into enough of the right positions to steer our country in a better direction. I am optimistic about an Obama administration, but even if they do manage to live up to their lofty rhetoric, they alone cannot make the difference that's needed. It takes a village, and all that.

In the meantime, I'm going to attempt to get my financial ducks in a row, and muster up the patience to see all of this through, despite any market or personal hiccups that are likely to come along the way.

Monday, November 24, 2008


We had ourselves a very merry Wis-Kino 48-hour film Kabaret this weekend, wherein I got together with a group of good friends and helped to produce this bit of somewhat topical political commentary mixed with a serious dose of the absurd. Enjoy!

For more on Wis-Kino, check our new blog.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Short film shenanigans!

As co-director of local microcinema group Wis-Kino, it is my duty to engage in this bit of shameless promotion and let you all know about our Fall Kabaret, which kicks off tonight at Sundance Cinema right here in Madison. If you like movies (especially really short ones), then please come check it out!
It's a really cool opportunity to either make a film and have it shown on ye olde Big Screen, or simply to come out and see the fruits of various other of your fellow citizen's efforts. Always a good time, and cheap to boot! Tonight's kick-off screening is just $3, and the final screening on Sunday is only $5. That goes for filmmakers, too - no extra fees for entering a film.

Our "secret ingredient" for this Kabaret (a word or theme that all films must incorporate in some capacity) will be announced by none other than the young curmudgeon himself: Lee Rayburn, of 92.1 FM The Mic.

For more in-depth information about the Kabaret and/or Wis-Kino in general, check out our website at or our brand-new, usually more up-to-date blog:

¡Viva kino!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

San Francisco: Hellish City of Doom and Pot!

That is, according to Bill O'Reilly. I don't normally watch the guy's show (it's better for my blood pressure not to), but I came across this clip today, which purports to find a link between San Francisco's "secular progressive" city government and what they spin to be it's overly permissive, dirty, drugged up streets.

Because apparently no other city in the country has a homeless population. And because apparently, at least to O'Reilly and his ilk, marijuana is still the stuff of nightmares, hyper piano playing, and death.

This is propaganda of the most blatant and ridiculous stripe, but it's not surprising. Many ultra-conservative talk show hosts and even politicians have long since used the phrase "San Francisco values" as a none-too subtle way of saying "evil homosexual and liberal values." So to see O'Reilly and his crew putting together a sort of modern day cross between Birth of a Nation and Cruising does not come as much of a shock. It is still, however, deeply disappointing to know that there are people in this country who hold such antiquated, uninformed views of their fellow citizens--and that some of them are given widely disseminated public platforms.

Yes, San Francisco has major problems--just like every other city. But not only does the segment insinuate that SF is somehow unique in this (and that this is a result of a more liberal government), it also makes out legalized marijuana, homelessness itself, and homosexuality to be part of those problems. I'm amazed garbage like this ever makes it to the air, but more saddened that this is the chosen tactic of those on the far right who still feel so threatened by things they don't understand.

In this day and age, though, they have less and less excuse to continue in their ignorance. Marijuana is not the "demon weed" it was made out to be by a government and industries interested in eliminating all competition for the cotton industry. Homelessness is a problem we as a society must work to eradicate, but the people themselves are not inherently bad and are deserving of the same rights as the rest of us. Homosexuality...well, hot-button as it still (amazingly) is, medical science, history, and the attitudes of younger generations are all on the side of acceptance and respect. The tide has already well and thoroughly turned.

O'Reilly and his ilk? They should perhaps be readying themselves to walk with those dinosaurs they claim their ancestors once rode.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A surprise victory

Good news!
In a surprise move, a city committee Monday night reversed course and decided to recommend not selling the land under the former Lincoln School to generate an estimated $600,000 or more that could then be used to improve James Madison Park.
I've written about my opinion on this matter before, and it's good to see that serious thought and consideration was given to the issue by the committee in charge of recommendations. Their reasoning:
...supporters of the decision in the 4-1 vote said it would be wiser to wait until the real estate market improves before making any decisions. They noted the city's current lease of the land to building owner Urban Land Interests expires in 2034, at which point the building, now being used for apartment rentals, could revert back to the city.
Ald. Brenda Konkel apparently even surprised herself by voting not to sell the land:
I was also kicking myself for not thinking of the rental housing as an asset to the neighborhood as it is one of the few places you can rent that is not trashed over-rented housing.

And, we had heard that many of the people in the rentals would not be able to live in the new condos because they could not afford them.
For once, it would seem, testimony from the people most directly affected by a potential land sale made enough of a difference to change some minds.

Solving the budget shortfall is a serious and important issue, and one without any easy fixes. But pawning off our public lands wasn't and isn't going to do more than provide a very small and very temporary boost to that effort. I'm happy to see that cooler heads prevailed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dinosaurs in Detroit

Much talk in the national media lately has focused on the so-called Big Three automakers and their plea to be given a part of the $700 billion bail-out to help them dig out of their current dire financial straits.

The Bush administration and many Republicans oppose the idea, while several key Democrats and president-elect Obama support the notion.

Me? I think it's a mixed bag, but I am somewhat surprised to find myself leaning more closely to the Republican opinion on this one.

Don't pass out just yet.

I believe that the Republican-dominated government of the past 8 years (and the Republican dominance of policy for much of the last couple of decades) were huge faciliatators of the rampant deregulation that helped foster the current economic meltdown. Now that the automakers are failing, too, it's not hard to see why so many of them would be opposed to helping them out: most of these companies are based in Detroit--not exactly a Republican base--and, well, unions.

Still, I find myself agreeing with them that maybe throwing a bunch of money at floundering car companies isn't such a hot idea.

The New York Times recently published an interesting article dealing with the issue, wherein it was proposed that part of the reason so many Americans are opposed to bailing out Detroit automakers is that the industry has been so resistant to higher fuel efficiency standards at a time when oil prices are through the roof and climate change is more severe than ever.

I think there's something to that. The Big Three spent millions of dollars to lobby Washington not to pass higher fuel efficiency standards, complaining that they simply didn't have the technology to make these modest changes. All the while their bottom line was suffering dramatically, factories were shutting down, and workers were being laid off. Oh, but they still had/have enough money to pay out huge sums for CEO bonuses.

You'll forgive folks if they're not terribly sympathetic to their plight.

What makes the situation so complex, though, is that Detroit's automakers have their fingers sunk so deeply into the American business landscape. Everything from the factories to the parts suppliers to the dealerships would be negatively impacted by one or more of the big companies going belly up. It would result in job losses on an epic scale, and no one relishes that possibility.

But it may have to happen. After all, I suspect that, in addition to the financial burden the $700 billion bail-out puts on taxpayers, another big reason for public resistance to such ideas is that we're supposed to have an economy based on merit. Companies that don't run themselves efficiently, aren't innovative and creative, fail. Companies that do all of those things succeed, and rightfully so. It's economic survival-of-the-fittest, (in theory) insuring that only the best business practices survive to serve the people.

Instead, here we are with companies that were allowed to grow huge and all-encompassing despite poor business practices, cronyism, and book-cooking (a lot of this thanks to the enabling acts of Republicans--and some Democrats--who were so gung-ho to deregulate everything). And now they're paying the piper and teetering on the brink of oblivion--only, the Vested Interests That Be are trying to use taxpayer money to save them. This flies in the face of everything we as Americans were taught about what capitalism ought to be.

Detroit could have learned a thing or two from the foreign automakers that moved their factories into the southern United States. Companies like Honda and Toyota make much more fuel-efficient vehicles and take very decent care of their workers, right here in America (side note: I find it ironic that the "American" car makers have most of their factories located offshore now, and a lot of the foreign car makers build them right here in the country).

Instead, they chose to plow ahead with their giant, gas-guzzling fleets, outsourced assembly, and big fat CEO bonuses. In their wake lies a devastated Detroit, where large swaths of once-glorious industrial buildings now sit abandoned in a post-apocalyptic-like landscape. Good jobs are hard to come by. Crime rates are high. Corruption infects the local government. Certainly, not all of that can be blamed solely on the automakers, but a large chunk can: after all, when a city comes to rely on one primary industry, and that industry then conducts itself selfishly to the point of negligence, it leads to massive layoffs and outsourcing and sucks much of the life right out of the city it once supported.

We're now looking at this sort of thing happening on a national scale.

In the NYT article, it's noted that Susan Tompor, a columnist with the Detroit Free Press, was moved by all this recent criticism of the Big Three to write "I never knew Detroit was a dirty word."

I would argue that "Detroit" isn't a dirty word, but "Detroit Automakers?" Not really winning any new fans at the moment.

Painful as it's likely to be, perhaps it's time to let these companies fail. It could be done with forethought--a plan to help layed off workers retrain and/or move into different lines of work (and shift their health plans over to a new universal Medicade program). There are still relatively successful car companies operating in the country; some could go to work there, building the more efficient vehicle models of the future. Because the thing is, we're always going to need car-like transport. As big an advocate as I am for biking and public transit, I recognize that cars and trucks have become an integral and important part of our world. There is a way to build them to have less negative impact on the climate, and to design cities to be less car-centric. That's what we should be focusing on, and those businesses that work toward those ends should be given our full support.

If the Big Three make an honest effort to get in on that, great, help 'em out. If not? I'm tempted to say let 'em fall.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tighten laws on getting tight

The New York Times recently published an article dealing with the culture of drinking in Wisconsin, one that has already sparked some debate in newspapers and blogs across the state. It's an issue that was already on the minds of many folks 'round these parts, and rightfully so.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of binge drinking in the nation - a dubious honor, at best. We also have some of the most lax drunk driving laws, giving motorists four strikes before hitting them with a felony charge on their fifth offense.

And while I am not but any means an advocate of teetotalism, I also see a huge difference between government telling adults when they can or cannot drink, and government telling people that they will be severely punished for drinking and driving, or other alcohol-related offenses.

This won't make me popular with quite a few of my fellow Wisconsinites, but there simply is no excuse for drinking and driving. Period.

Oh but you know your limits! You can have four beers and then get into a car and drive just fine! Or my personal favorite: "I drive better when I've had a few!"

Screw. You.

My sober ass is out there on the road with you, and I really don't feel like taking you at your word on that. There are also children, and mothers, and fathers and friends sharing asphalt with your drunk-ass. Remember that next time you think about knocking a few back and then crawling into your car, will you?

But as much of a fan of personal responsibility as I am, I also firmly believe that our drunk driving laws need to be much, much more strict. Get caught doing it once? Misdemeanor (second chances are important). Twice? Take away their license and send 'em to counseling. Third and beyond? Felony, no question. Get these people off the roads.

Back to the article, though, there were a couple of quotes that really got my dander up:

“We’re not ashamed of it,” Mr. Madland said. He said anti-alcohol campaigns were efforts to “demonize” people who simply liked to kick back and relax with some drinks.

“It’s gotten to the point where people are afraid to have a couple of beers after work and drive home, for fear they’ll be labeled a criminal,” he said. “At lunch, people are afraid if they order a beer someone will think they have a drinking problem.”
Most anti-alcohol campaigns are not out to demonize people for relaxing with a few drinks - they're out to lessen the amount of binge drinking that goes on, and to stop people from having a few drinks and then hopping into their cars. And that fear that you'll be labeled a criminal for doing so? Well, then maybe it should make you think twice about doing it, shouldn't it. Have a glass of water afterward, and wait out the buzz before driving (or, y'know, don't get totally trashed). It's not that hard.

And then there's this:
“On game days, a buddy of mine will come to the bar with his 2-year-old, his 8-year-old and his 10-year-old,” Mr. Whaley said. “He might get a little drunk. But his wife just has a few cocktails. It’s no big deal. Everybody has a good time.”
I'm going to echo the sentiments expressed over at Caffeinated Politics and say, then who the hell is driving those kids home?

These are the types of attitudes that need to be combated. There's nothing inherently wrong with drinking, but our prevailing ideas about what levels are acceptable, how we approach transportation afterward, and how we teach our children to understand the issue, are more than a little messed up.

(the Madison Beer Review has a pretty good/interesting take on this issue, here)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Distracted by history

The City Council last night approved a $238 million budget (a day ahead of schedule), wherein they approved the mayor's request to increase bus fares by fifty cents (boo!), declined to cut funding for the Madison Arts Initiative (yay!), and added money for some community services (yay!).

There's a ton to go over in the new budget--plenty to both laud and whine about--but at the moment I'm too distracted by the fact that there are currently two men alive on this Earth who fought in the trenches of World War I.

I mean, holy crap! That's completely amazing.

If you've been reading this here blog for any length of time, you'll know that I'm a bit of a giant history dork, so you won't be surprised that this fact caught my attention. I was reading Kate Beaton's Rememberence Day post (and if you haven't checked out her history comics yet, do yourself a favor), and she briefly mentioned a Canadian movie about the battle of Passchendaele, and not knowing anything about it, I naturally waltzed over to Wikipedia to get myself some knowledge.

It was on that page that I stumbled across a quote from a fellow by the name of Harry Patch, who had been involved in that terrible, muddy battle. And these quotes were from 2007! Curious as all get out, I followed the Wiki-click-capade over to his page and discovered, much to my amazement, that not only is Mr. Patch still alive and kicking, but there is another man, a one Fernand Goux of France, who also served in the trenches and is also still with us today.

Seriously, this is incredible. Patch is 110 now, and Goux a spry 108. The things these guys must have seen, most especially in the war but just in general--I can't even imagine it. Born near the turn of the last century, they've seen everything from wars, the proliferation of automobiles and the internet, and men landing on the friggen moon.

There are currently only 10 veterans of WWI who are still alive (including Patch and Goux). Frankly, I'm amazed that there are any.

But this brings up an important point, relevent especially near the time of Veterans Day, that we lose veterans of various wars every day (estimates put it around 900-odd for WWII vets). It is important to both recognize and honor them for their extraordinary service, and to make sure their stories are told and remembered for long after they've passed on.

It is equally important to make sure we take good care of those veterans that are still with us. Push your legislators to support bills that would provide the appropriate levels of funding for VA services, physical and mental health care, and education for those who've served. We've had too many instances in this country of short-changing vets, and this is simply unacceptable. Instead of merely slapping a yellow ribbon magnet on a car, we must work to ensure real care and respect are paid to our troops. That includes listening to them, before it's too late.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

To be fair

Momentum is on our side, but that doesn't mean the fight will be any less difficult.

Bundle up and join your fellow Wisconsinites (or check for rallies in a state near you) this Saturday at 12:30pm down on Library Mall as part of a national day of protest against the passing of Proposition 8 in California, and in support of gay marriage in general.

I'll let Mr. Olbermann explain why.

See you there?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A study in editorial contrasts - bus edition

The Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times have long been held to be opposing voices when it comes to their editorials. The WSJ tends to hang a little to the right, and the Cap Times tends to hang a little to the left. And when the issues aren't necessarily of the partisan kind, they still do a good job of staying as far away from the others' opinion as possible.

Case-in-point: In the debate over whether or not to raise bus fares in the city of Madison to $2, the WSJ argues that yes, absolutely they should go up. The Cap Times, of course, argues the opposite. The language used in both editorials could not be more different. Whereas the WSJ uses words like "reasonable" and "modest" to describe the proposed rate hike, the Cap Times turns to descriptions like "dramatically" and "massive".

Personally, I think both editorials have a few worthwhile points. I also think they both fall flat in other areas.

In addressing a proposed amendment that would add a slight increase to property taxes to help avoid a rate hike, the WSJ complains that "It's time for those who actually ride the buses to contribute a bit more to maintain routes and improve service." While I certainly understand the concern of property taxpayers, I've got two issues with this. 1) Property taxpayers do ride the bus, too (shock! I know!). I know a few personally. 2) I don't think shifting the burden entirely onto the shoulders of frequent bus riders is the right thing to do. It is, in fact, quite insensitive to the facts about a lot of regular riders.

While it's true that a wide range of people from all different income brackets and walks of life use the bus, those who most rely on the service tend to be working class, or handicapped, or students (or any combination thereof). As a society, it behooves us to care for those most at risk. This must be balanced with personal accountability and responsibility on the part of those being helped, absolutely, but we cannot place the full financial burden of something as essential as the bus system on them and not expect it and them to crumble under the weight.

We should be encouraging more people to use mass transit, not vice versa. That means keeping it affordable, and finding other ways to fund it. Alders Brian Solomon and Satya Rhodes-Conway have proposed an amendment to the Mayor's budget that would do a lot (not all) to address this issue.

It would "delete the fare increase and save money in other ways. For example, Metro could bring in $40,000 in extra revenue by eliminating free rides on Clean Air Action days" (not sure how I feel about that, but if it helps keep fares low, it's worth considering). They also propose reallocating $100,000 in fuel savings, as apparently fuel costs were not as great as anticipated this year. The amendment also calls for an expansion of service, better marketing, and the implementation of new security programs at transfer points (which apparently involves a $25,000 cut, so that warrants further scrutiny).

While these measures may not be the end-all-be-all of the problem, they are a good example of the kind of creative and innovative efforts to reorganize so that the burden is not on the riders themselves.

Back over at the Cap Times editorial, while I generally agree with their ultimate point, their doom and gloom language does feel a little over the top. While I, and others, strongly suspect that a rate increase would have adverse effects on riders and ridership, until actual studies on the subject are done, no concrete conclusions can really be reached. Still, rather alarmist-ly, they ask:
Did right-wing critics of mass transportation take charge, in coalition with global warming deniers? Are the fantasists who would have us believe that our bus system is underutilized and unnecessary pulling a silent coup? Has a once progressive city suddenly forgotten that mass transit decisions go to the very heart of questions about equity and access for all to employment, education and culture?
I really don't get the impression that this all stems from some vast right-wing conspiracy. Rather, it strikes me as an honest debate over how to best address the severe budget shortfalls the city is facing. While there are some on the pro-hike side of the argument who seem to think that bus riders are all lazy liberal professors, the majority, I believe, are really trying to do the right thing. It's a complex issue, and one without an easy answer.

Ultimately, I do believe that it's in the best interests of the city to make sure public transportation is as affordable and convenient as possible. People rely on it to get to work, school, and other commitments. An employed, educated citizenry benefits everyone.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Don't be That Guy (or Girl)

I went to see My Brightest Diamond perform this weekend at the Orpheum Stage Door Theatre here in town. I was there both because I really enjoy their music and because I was reviewing it for 77 Square. And while I generally had a good time and thought the musicians did an excellent job, there was one exception.

You know the one. That ridiculously drunk and/or high individual in the crowd who decides that the show should be about them, and not the band on stage.

Oh yes, there's one at every show. Somehow, too, I have the unfortunate ability to always end up right next to them. It was a girl this time, about three people to my left, and she was rip-roaring drunk from the beginning of their set to the end, when someone finally, mercifully, pulled her out.

Experiencing That Person at a show is an interesting study in sociology, both for how that individual acts and why, and also for how the people around them respond. Most of the time, especially at quieter shows like this one, the prevailing attitude seems to be one of passive aggressive annoyance. If she'd been at a metal show, she'd have been drowned out by the music. A person causing trouble at a punk show would have been rewarded with an elbow to the stomach or a boot to the junk.

In our case, though, passive aggressive annoyance reigned. During any break between songs, or just a particularly quiet section of music, she'd blurt out things like "Thank you for coming to the Orpheum Stage Door Theatre! Wisconsin loves you!" and "You are the best singer of 2008!" as though she had been hired to provide running (if painfully dull) commentary. And through all of this, there were two people who I was pretty sure were friendly with her, and they too failed to do anything to get her to stop.

It wasn't until the final song of the night--a particularly mellow and heartfelt piece--that the crowd began to actively shush her. And her reply? "They want me to shut the fuck up!" shouted really loudly.

I guess I just don't understand the mindset that leads to this kind of attention whoring. Even at my drunkest (which, admittedly, doesn't happen very often) I don't feel compelled to yell out inanities in the middle of shows. There are plenty of drunken fools who can keep quiet and/or be relatively inoffensive in public. So what leads that select few to show up and attempt to fuck things up for everyone else? And why must there be at least one at every g'damn concert I go to?

I'm tempted to start treating all of these situations as though they're punk rock shows.

But I end with this: Please, please, for the love of all that is good in this world, don't be That Guy/Girl. No one is there to see or hear you. At best, you tick off a whole crowd of people who will secretly hate you forever. At worst, you get kicked in the junk. Why risk it?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunday Brunch: Stand By Me

I'm in such a good mood about the election, so I feel like this video is appropriate for our brunch today. If only things were as simple and beautiful as sharing a song. And the idealist in me asks, why can't they be?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Our common destiny

Canadian journalist Barbara Kay doesn't have a very high opinion of the gays. In fact, she argues in her latest opus in the National Post, people arguing that gay rights are a civil right and therefore akin to the struggles of racial minorities are all wrong and likely in need of a good spankin'.

This comes from several recent editorials (and the opinions of many, I'm sure) concerning the high percentage of African Americans who voted in favor of Proposition 8 in California, the proposition aimed at amending the state constitution to strip gays of their right to marry.

Most of the editorials are dumbfounded that a group that has suffered so much at the hands of discriminatory laws and attitudes would turn around and vote to do something similar to another minority group.

However, Kay (who is white) claims, " people just can't get too worked up about the "discrimination" of gays who haven't had any rights taken from them, can have legal sex together, live together, buy homes wherever they want, socialize wherever and with whomever they choose, and flip back through their family albums for any number of generations without finding a single slave."

Where to begin? First of all: Kay has apparently decided to conveniently deny the fact that plenty of homosexuals are also people of color. I'm sure some of them could "flip back through their family albums" and find a few ancestors who were enslaved. She is, like many others like her, marginalizing the experiences of some of the most marginalized people in our society. Way to go, Kay! That's very charitable of you.

Secondly: gay people haven't always been able to "have legal sex together" - they had to fight to overturn several draconian state-level laws that forbade this very personal and intimate act, even as recently as 2003, when the Supreme Court finally struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law. The ruling had a broader effect, too: it wasn't just Texas that still had the complete ridiculousness on the books, but 12 other states as well.

Sometimes, when it comes to the basic human and civil rights of people, you simply cannot leave it up to the states. Our Constitution is supposed to grant all of these rights and protections for everyone already, but still we have to fight for further clarification, for people who can't quite seem to grasp its full meaning.

Thirdly: It's so kind of Kay to allow that homosexuals can "live together" and "buy homes wherever they want." Though I have a sneaking suspicion that she'd rather that weren't so, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and simply point out that again, this wasn't always so (and still isn't so in some places). Throughout history, homosexuals have had to hide their true selves else risk being ostracized, abused, and even killed simply for loving differently. And unlike what Kay surreptitiously claims, this isn't all the result of a "mere sexual preference" (a convoluted way of saying "choice") - we're talking inborn traits that are as much a part of people as their need to breathe.

There are so many points with which to take issue in this article (she calls the push for gay marriage rights "political entitlement that has been fabricated from whole ideological cloth" for instance), but I'll end on this one:
African-Americans, Jews, aboriginals, the Roma people and other historically disadvantaged ethnic or racial groups experience their collective memory through the narratives they inherit from their parents and grandparents and ancestors. Indeed, they are a true identity group because they have a collective history and common memories. The sufferings they endured are directly related to who they are historically, to characteristics and events they cannot change, to their skin colour and bloodlines, to the deeds of their ancestors. Where is their commonality with individuals disconnected from the great chain of human history, whose "identity" isn't a culture, an ethnicity, a race or a civilization - just a mere sexual preference that rules out both a collective past and a collective future, the sine qua nons of a true identity group.
What a load of bull. All of these groups have unique histories and cultures. There are some shared qualities where rampant discrimination and the struggle for fair treatment comes in, but ultimately this is all a comparison of apples and oranges. I think few gay rights advocates are arguing that African Americans and homosexuals are just the same, and that the former should support the latter because of that. The incredulity stems, I think, from the idea of one traditionally oppressed minority group turning around and oppressing another. This isn't to say that all African Americans (or Latinos, or Christians, or Mormons, etc.) are against gay marriage, because they aren't. But I think it's fair to wonder why such a large percentage of them voted for Prop 8, and what we can do to change perceptions and attitudes so that everyone can get on board with the crazy notion that everyone deserves equal rights under the law.

That's not political entitlement. We're not asking for anything more than what everyone else already has. I really, really don't understand what's so hard to understand about that.

It's time, I think, we all started being honest with one another. What really scares and/or puts off those who so vehemently oppose gay rights? So many of them couch their feelings by claiming not to have any problems with gay people, just gay people getting to take part in the "institution of marriage." Well I'll tell you what: you're so keen on that "traditional institution," why don't you bring back arranged marriages, dowries, and the utter male domination of women (no divorce rights, no parental rights, no financial rights, etc.)? Because that's your "traditional institution of marriage" right there.

The great thing about history is that we can learn from it and improve upon ourselves and our society. We keep around what worked, and throw out what didn't. Discrimination, oppression--that doesn't work. Equal rights, freedom to be who you really are--that works.

I'm going to end with the words of Mormon church spokeswoman Kim Farah, who issued a statement in response to the recent uproar by anti-Prop 8 activists against the church for so heavily supporting the proposition. She probably wouldn't like me using her statement in this way, because it's clear her intent was fraught with hypocrisy, but the sentiment is still good: "No one on either side of the question should be vilified, harassed or subject to erroneous information." [emphasis mine]

Amen, sister. Barbara Kay? You'd do well to take that to heart.

Who you gonna call?

I am losing patience with County Executive Kathleen Falk and with the boards that manage our 911 center. It seems as though no matter how many expensive studies resulting in admonitions to immediately add more staff are conducted, proper measures just are not taken. Or they are, but only after protracted foot dragging.

And more mistakes--mistakes with terrible consequences--are made.

Case-in-point: the recent failure of a 911 operator to dispatch police to the scene of not one, but two noise complaints. Just over an hour later, a man was found beaten to death in the area from where the complaints originated.

Not to play too much of a game of "if only," but it strikes me (and many others, I'm sure) that this death could have been avoided, and perhaps the perpetrator in the Zimmermann case apprehended, if the county had simply followed the recommendations of the intial report from back in 2004. Instead, it's 2008 and the center still hasn't implemented the necessary policy changes and increased staffing levels necessary to properly handle calls.

It's difficult to expect the public to have complete trust in the system with results like these.

The resignation of former 911 center director Joe Norwick was all well-and-good, but we need additions, not subtractions: more staff, better training, clearer procedural policies. And we need Falk to face the issues honestly, without sugarcoating. None of this "Falk said the report confirmed that the county is on the right track by adding the staff she included in her budget to address overtime" crap.

I understand the need to make yourself and the county look good to the public, but seriously, own up. We may be on the "right track" but we still haven't done everything we could have and should have. Is it a matter of not having enough money for all of the needed positions? Then say so! We can better address problems if we know what they actually are. Don't dance around the issue by boasting about adding only half of the recommended positions. Asking for upgraded software is good, but it's not enough.

And don't just continue to ask for more studies. We've already been given several similar recommendations. We know what to do. Now it's just a matter of actually, y'know, doing it.

For the resortation of trust in the dispatch system, and for the safety of the community.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hail Mary full of gaffes

Whew, talk about dodging a bullet.

It's hard to tell how much of this is the GOP trying to find a single scapegoat for their massive failure in this election, and how much of it is the honest-to-goodness truth (or a bit of both). But it's also hard to figure why Fox News, of all places, would report these stories at all. They were, after all, some of the biggest Palin cheerleaders on cable news. If we want to get really cynical, I suppose you could chalk it up to spite, or maybe they're just being played by McCain staffers in order to further that whole scapegoat thing.

Whatever the case, I still think it's pretty damn clear that almost no vetting was done for the Palin VP pick, and that she was a pretty big weight around the campaign's neck. That said, Palin was not the sole reason for the failures of the Republican party on Nov. 4 - rather, it was a complex and many layered cake that had been baked over the last 8 years of GOP dominance in Washington (it probably goes back even further, honestly). They let cronyism and hard line ideology take control, and the results are being crushingly played out on the American people's pocketbooks and lives.

Still, the not knowing that Africa was a continent thing is, if baffling, pretty damn funny. Oh Alaska, I don't envy you right now.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A torn heart

I watched the returns roll in with a festive and like-minded crowd last night at the High Noon Saloon, and admit that I found myself getting misty-eyed on several occasions.

When the camera coverage on CNN cut to images of the Rev. Jesse Jackson with tears in his eyes, I almost lost my composure completely. I haven't agreed with everything he's done and said over the years, but still I have a great deal of respect for the greater fight he's been fighting. And here is a man who walked beside Martin Luther King Jr., and now he gets to see the election of this country's first African American president. Amazing.

Too, it's very nice to be on the winning side of a national election for the first time in my voting career.

We all deserve to feel really good, to revel in this massively historic accomplishment. But still, not to rain on any parades, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. Obama said it himself in his victory speech last night. It's going to be an uphill battle. We have far better tools and leadership with which to see that battle through now, but it's still not going to be easy.

With the new-found Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature here in Wisconsin, and a strengthening of those majorities at the national level, Democrats must now kick into high gear and get things done. And we, their constituents, must hold them accountable and push them to do the right thing. It's often very tempting for the majority party to just run roughshod, more focused on assuaging their own egoes and selfish desires than on actually working for a better country for all of us. Let's make sure that doesn't happen again.

And while we're at it, let's do something at the national level to actually fulfill the promise of equal rights for all under the law. Last night saw one giant step forward for equality, and several state-level steps back.

In California, for instance, Proposition 8 looks to have passed by a slim margin, stripping the rights of LGBT people across the state and (hopefully only temporarily) extinguishing the light of one of the great beacons of fairness in this country. It also throws into limbo around 18,000 same-sex marriages that have been conducted over the past 4 1/2 months.

I want you to imagine, if you can, waking up one morning to find that your fellow citizens have voted to revoke your marriage license, simply because your idea of love differed from theirs. I cannot even begin to understand how heart-rending this must be for all those couples who thought finally, finally, they were able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else. To know that so many people still have such a fundamental misunderstanding and fear of something as simple as the love you have for your partner. To realize that, after so much gained ground, you've once again been pushed back into the muck.

It's time to up our game, then--to launch a nationwide campaign to garauntee equal rights for all just as we did to rid ourselves of things like anti-miscegenation laws.

Just as important, though, is the continued and more quiet rise in visibility for LGBT people. The more gay folks people get to know on a personal level, the more they tend to support gay rights. It's about education and familiarity. The false spectre of the evil, degenerate, family-destroying gay falls pretty quickly to the wayside once people really meet and interact with members of the LGBT community. So despite these crushing blows to the cause--or perhaps because of them--it is crucial that we continue to fight the good fight, never stopping, because as Americans we have to believe that equality and fairness will eventually win out over ignorance and oppression.

We saw the potential for positive results yesterday, when Obama claimed victory. Take heart in that, and keep movin' forward.

TO ADD: I don't agree with the "fascist" part, but the rest seems about right:

This whole thing makes me doubly angry, because 1) it's super lame, and 2) it's making it difficult for me to be as happy as I ought to be about Obama winning. Blargh.

MORE TO ADD: Andrew Sullivan has a really good take on this here.

YET MORE TO ADD: OK, I'll buy this and dare to hope. The proposition alone may not actually be enough to amend the CA constitution.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I am exhausted, but so immensely happy.

(Now I'm just hoping that California doesn't harsh my mellow)

Election Day '08

Haven't had your fill of election day prattling from all corners of the blogosphere? Then read on!

Boy am I sleepy. It has already been an interesting day, and it's not even lunchtime yet.

I rolled out of bed at 6:15 this morning and, because of the unseasonably gorgeous weather, hopped on my bike to head to my polling place. This year, I got to cast my ballot at the lovely Olbrich Gardens - and by the time I got out of there an hour and a half later, was glad to have had the pleasant vistas to keep me mildly entertained.

When I rolled up at 6:55, there was already a long line snaking down across the parking lot. Everyone seemed upbeat, though, and once the doors opened the line moved at a relatively good pace. Unfortunately, at around 7:20 word came that the one and only tabulation machine on the premises had jammed. They were instead bundling all of the ballots into a clear, sealed and signed plastic bag until such time as "someone from the city" came out to fix the machine. We were assured that, once that happened, all of our ballots would be fed into the counting machine for us, so I can only hope and assume that that happened.

For what it's worth, I was voter #280 at around 7:55/8ish.

I'm following a couple of live blogs that are attempting to track the goings on at various polling places in the area, and so far no major mishaps have popped up (just something about misinformed poll workers in Sun Prairie).

Tonight, I'll be doing some live blogging of my own, covering the election results viewing party being thrown at the High Noon Saloon by the Daily Page. The link is already active, even if the live blogging won't commence until 8pm. So if you're looking for oh-so witty and snarky commentary on the elections and the singing abilities of Madison's political junkies, please come on by and have a read.

In the meantime, if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by the anxiety and excitement of the day, may I recommend a cleansing dose of puppies? I find it's good for the stress levels.

So, how's everyone's election day going?

UPDATE: This is cool. Granted it's on the honor system, but Facebook is tracking how many of its users have voted today. Provided that even most of the folks who've said "yes" are telling the truth, the numbers are encouraging, I think. As of 11:39AM, it's at 1,765,887 and climbing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Chosen by God

A brief anecdote:

There's a rather conservative church that I pass on a regular basis here in Madison (I know, gasp!) that sports a sign on its front lawn that is often updated with phrases that range from regular ol' churchy stuff to fundamentalist proclamations. Tonight I drove by and noticed that it had been changed to something about "the powers that be" having been "ordained by God."

Was this church implying that our government had been "ordained by God" or was I misreading it? They'd also helpfully supplied the relevant Bible verse, so I went ahead and looked it up when I got home.

Romans 13:1 - "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God."

That Paul, always good for a laugh. But yes, it would appear that the person who decided what to put on the sign (at least) believes that we should all submit fully to government because those in it have been handpicked by God his ownself.

I wonder, then, if this conservative church will feel the same way if Obama wins the election. Or will they suddenly decry the teachings of Paul in favor of the somewhat more anti establishment leanings of the big JC?

Which leads me to wonder - if Obama wins the election, will all those far-right-wing fanatics start sporting "Impeach Now!" bumperstickers and the like? If so, I'd be mighty tempted to start telling them to "Love it or leave it." Be good for shits and giggles, anyway.

But that's not what I believe, and I certainly as hell don't believe that any of our leaders have been ordained or chosen by God. I'm not certain why anyone, especially those as into the deep rooted fallibility of humanity as conservative Christians, could believe that.

Then again, it's just a sign, right?
The Lost Albatross