Film Review: First Man

This film is a dramatic account of the first landing of men on the surface of the moon. It was written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land). Singer has experience writing stories based on actual events, including the excellent film about the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, “Spotlight”. He makes some interesting choices in First Man, most notable being his juxtaposition, about three-quarters of the way through, of the NASA story against the backdrop of social turbulence in the late 1960’s. The rest of the screenplay is tightly focused on the people involved in the space program, especially astronaut Neil Armstrong.

There seems to be an intentional effort at realism, both in the the writing and directing. That means there is a lot of technical jargon and details that sailed over my head, with scant effort made at exposition. This is not a criticism of the film makers. If they’d tried that they would’ve ended up with something more akin to “The Martian.” It’s just a built-in problem with the subject matter. Where they succeeded is in immersing the audience in the terrifying, death-defying experiences of the astronauts, starting with a harrowing sequence at the beginning of the film that has Armstrong bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere during a test flight. For me, the takeaway is that these early space pioneers were more than a bit crazy. In all of the launch and flight sequences, the vessels they inhabit appear like they’re about to come apart at the seams. The truth is, several astronauts died getting the program up and running. And a central point of the film is that the success of the moon landing, given all of the problems and deadly sacrifices that proceeded it, was more than a minor miracle.

The effort at realism also intruded into the direction of the film’s star, Ryan Gosling, in the role of Neil Armstrong. While I’m sure that Chazelle and Gosling did their level best to portray Armstrong accurately, the result is a repressed performance lacking in opportunities for emotion most of the time, with the exception of a key scene near the beginning involving a personal tragedy, and a beautiful, poignant coda near the end. Thank goodness for the performance of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, who steals the show in many respects, including the emotional pivot-point of the film, during which she chides Armstrong for his reluctance to address his possible demise with his children as he prepares to head for launch.

I thought this was a powerful film and a must see for anyone young enough to have not been born, or to have no recollection of, the first moon landing. It works slightly less well as pure entertainment. One more thing: some people have made a big deal of the fact that the film doesn’t include the planting of the American flag on the moon. Speaking only for myself, that would not have occurred to me as a problem if others had not brought it up. The film is about people; about pioneers; about sacrifices, and that what they did back in the day transcends boundaries and, in so doing, speaks to humanity.

Kava-gnaw

Like many people, I spent a fair amount of time the past few weeks watching the Senate confirmation hearings regarding the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It was a bizarre political psycho-drama the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and hope to never see again.

The hearings started out in a normal manner, with the Judge answering the usual questions about Supreme Court cases, legal precedent, etc. After the hearings had concluded, a Palo Alto-based professor of psychology was outed in the press as someone who alleged that the Judge had sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school. More allegations surfaced after that, including an allegation that the Judge facilitated gang rapes of high school girls by drugging them. This all culminated in an extraordinary hearing in which the accuser and the accused testified before the Senate.

I thought the accuser’s testimony was credible, except that her memory lapse on key details prevented the possibility of corroboration or any sort of forensic investigation, which would have been a tall order anyway given that the alleged assault occurred 36 years ago. We never got to hear from the person with the gang rape allegation, which to me seemed like an acknowledgement that the allegation was just too fantastical for the Senate to consider seriously, even in the current environment of heightened awareness around sexual misconduct, otherwise known as the #MeToo movement. Yet another accuser claimed that the Judge exposed himself to her at a Yale frat party. We didn’t hear from her, either. I’m not sure why, since that allegation seemed at least plausible, if, again, lacking in corroboration or any evidence beyond the mere allegation.

The most interesting part of the hearing was the testimony of the Judge. To me, it seemed like he had already, in his mind, concluded that he was not going to be confirmed, and decided that he was going to use his time unburdening himself. His opening statement was angry, emphatic, and emotional. Perhaps the accused can be understood to feel that way, given the very public humiliation he was going through, but it went way over the top, in my opinion. After all, the accuser, who, if she is to be believed, was the one assaulted, traumatized, etc., managed to keep it together pretty well. Now we’ve got the guy who is being considered for a spot on the Supreme Court and he had to pause several times to collect himself. As I watched, I thought to myself that this person is someone who has never had anything bad happen to them, until now. If that seems uncharitable, well, I’m someone who has had plenty of hard knocks in my life, so I’m probably not as sympathetic as some might be.

The Senators seemed to be taken aback by the raw emotionality of the opening statement. On that count, you could see that the gambit, if it was a gambit, paid off. The Judge was going to have his say, even if that meant throwing the confirmation process in the crapper. It seemed like his mission was to get confirmed, or go down in flames. Oddly, he managed to achieve both.

But, to me, the max level of weirdness revolved around the Judge peeling back the curtain on the breeding lair of the elites who run this country. As someone who has lived in California my whole life, it was a revelation to learn that ground zero for the elites who run the US government is Chevy Chase, Maryland. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not! The disconnect between that world and the one inhabited by the average American is profound. I read an article that I perceived was intended to make the accuser seem like a sympathetic figure. It said, among other things, something to the effect that her mom was the type of person who would not just glide by her daughter’s friends reclining of chaise lounge at the country club, but would stop and make time for conversation. Really? They lost me at the country club.

Same goes for the Judge. We learned more than surely any of us wanted to know about the life of a teenage boy being groomed for the highest ranks of public service. Most of it was rather pedestrian, like the drinking. Some of it was just flat-out bizarre, like the Judge’s habit of maintaining detailed calendars of his teenage life. I thought: girls keep diaries; boys keep…calendars? The worst part of the Judge’s testimony was when he kinda sorta refused to answer the question from Senator Klobuchar as to whether he had ever “blacked out” (i.e., had a memory lapse as to events that occurred while drunk). He turned the question back on the Senator, who, it turns out, had an alcoholic father. The Judge later apologized. Too late. Look, I don’t know whether this guy sexually assaulted anyone, but I’m calling BS on the black out thing. While there is no corroboration about the sexual assault, there is plenty of corroboration as to his penchant for drinking to the point of slurred, stumbling oblivion. Lots of former classmates, including at Yale, described the Judge as being a belligerent, aggressive drunk at times. I’ve seen that type of guy in action; the jock who doesn’t know when he’s had enough and starts acting like a real jerk. In the hearing, the Judge managed to achieve that look when he wasn’t drinking! I shudder to think what he must have been like back in the day.

No matter. He was confirmed by a narrow margin, mostly along party lines. So now we’ve got a guy on the Supreme Court who, by my estimation, is at least a jerk. There needs to be another track for people who aspire to government service, other than the deep state breeding lair run out of Chevy Chase, Maryland.

 

Stu Allen and Mars Hotel

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Like I said in my previous post, about two years ago I discovered what I consider to be the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band: Stu Allen and Mars Hotel. Stu Allen is the guy on the right side of the frame.

I’ve seen a few Grateful Dead tribute bands, of which there are dozens all around the United States. Strictly speaking, I can’t attest that Stu is the best because I haven’t seen all of the other tribute bands. But I know a lot of other Dead Heads who have seen many of the other tribute bands, and there is general agreement that Stu is head and shoulders better than any of them.

“Mars Hotel” is the name of a Grateful Dead studio album. Stu adopted that name in reference to his back-up band because there is no set lineup for the back-up band. Instead, Stu invites different musicians that rotate through the line-up, so when you go to see him he’ll have a different set of musicians playing with him each time. Thus: Mars Hotel. Get it? The back-up musicians check in and out of Mars Hotel, but no one is a permanent resident, except for Stu. I’ve seen Stu many times and have become familiar with most of the back-up musicians. Me and my Stu Allen buddies all have our favorite line-ups. My dream line-up is Ezra Lipp on drums, Alex Jordan on rhythm guitar and vocals (i.e., the Bob Weir role), Danny Eisenberg on keyboards, and Steve Adams on bass. I’ve only seen this configuration a couple of times.

So, how good is he? Well, I know a woman who moved from the Bay Area to Hawaii. After six months she moved back to the Bay Area because she needed her Stu Allen fix. My close friend, who is also a Dead Head and saw many Dead shows with me back in the day, lives in Tennessee and he came out to the Bay Area for a visit. My friend works concert security, so he’s seen just about every major act that tours. During his visit, I suggested going to see Stu. He said something along the lines of, “Dude, you know how many concerts I see? And this guy is a cover band? Not interested.” After some prodding he agreed to go and was totally blown away. I’ve also seen most of the post-Dead iterations featuring some of the original band members, sans Jerry Garcia. The current iteration, Dead & Company, featuring John Mayer in the Jerry role, is the best one so far, in my opinion. Stu is so good that I actually enjoy seeing him as much as I enjoy seeing Dead & Company. But the best way to convey the quality is to admit that I have resisted writing about Stu on my blog because I am concerned that if Bay Area Dead Heads knew how good he is the shows would become overcrowded. In other words, I’ve avoided writing about him for selfish reasons.

Stu lives in the Bay Area and the vast majority of the shows he plays are in San Rafael (at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads) and in Berkeley at the Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center. I live near Berkeley, so I see most of my Stu shows at Ashkenaz. I could write a whole separate post about Ashkenaz, which is a medium-sized dance hall housed in a barn-like structure on San Pablo Avenue. It is the perfect place to see Stu Allen because it’s perfect for dancing and, being located in Berkeley, it’s a sort of Mecca for hippies, and, by extension, Dead Heads. I see many of the same people each time I go to see Stu at Ashkenaz and have befriended many of them. It’s the Dead Head community in miniature.

So, you may ask, if Stu is so good why isn’t he out touring the country? I’ve heard various reasons. He used to tour the country with the post-Garcia version of the Jerry Garcia Band, led by keyboardist Melvin Seals, but that ended several years ago. For the uninitiated, Jerry had his own side project outside the Grateful Dead. He would play covers spanning the range of American popular music, along with some of his original material. Funny story: I read an article after Jerry passed by a guy who saw the Jerry Garcia Band play in Rodeo, California. After the show he asked Jerry why he never takes a vacation. Garcia replied, simply, “From what?” Frankly, the reason Stu is more or less a homebody these days is none of my business and I’d rather not look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m just thankful that I get to see him on a regular basis right near home.

Stu usually plays at Ashkenaz the first Friday of the month, then every Wednesday for the rest of the month. In fact, he’s playing at Ashkenaz tonight and I’m going. All the October shows will be Jerry Garcia Band shows, so if you want to see him do a Grateful Dead show you’ll have to wait until November.

I’m letting others know about Stu because I felt guilty keeping this to myself. Since he usually plays on Wednesdays that will be a limiting factor for a lot of people. Hopefully it won’t get too crowded. If you’re a Dead Head and you live in the Bay Area, you should check it out. If you’re not a Dead Head and you want to see what it’s like via a live concert, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic experience.

Grateful Dead

Books have been written on this topic, but since many will never read a whole book about the Grateful Dead, here’s my short article for the uninitiated.

The Grateful Dead (hereinafter referred to simply as ‘the Dead”) is a band that formed in 1965 and is associated with the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s. The great and recently deceased author Tom Wolfe wrote about that connection in his 1968 work, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

The band was originally called The Warlocks, but after discovering that another band also used that name, they had to find another one. According to the great book “Skeleton Key” by Blair Jackson, the band was together at the house of their bass player, Phil Lesh, when they randomly opened a dictionary and the first thing that stood out were the words: “Grateful Dead,” which refers to a story in which a traveler comes upon a crowd of people abusing a corpse because the deceased could not pay for his own funeral. The traveler gives the last money he has so that the crowd will stop abusing the corpse, and subsequently meets another traveler who turns out to be deceased, who then helps the traveler perform a monumental task.

Later, the band discovered this reference in the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void,
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night,
the ship of the sun,
is drawn by the grateful dead.

Pretty cool/creepy, huh? There’s a mysticism about the Dead that has always been part of their appeal.

I saw the Dead play live in concert dozens of times prior to the death of their leader, Jerry Garcia, in 1995. The first Dead show I attended was on July 17, 1982 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, in Ventura, CA. I know the date because there is a reference book called DeadBase that not only lists all of the Dead’s shows, but also the songs they played at each show. DeadBase also has statistical information, such as the number of times they played particular songs, the number of shows between the performance of particular songs, etc. Unlike most bands, the Dead would alter the song list each time they played, which explains why someone (like me) would go to see them so many times. The Dead were also notoriously uneven in their live performances, in part due to the different set lists, but primarily due to their reliance on ensemble improvisation. So, you could go see them a dozen times and maybe two or three of those shows would be mediocre, one or two would be flat-out disappointing, but the remainder would showcase not just the best live band at that moment, but arguably the best live band ever. If you happened to see one of those great shows, chances are you were hooked and would see them again and again in hopes of seeing another great show.

I had almost zero familiarity with the Dead’s material when I went to that first show, which I attended at the urging of my roommate at the time. My perception was that they played country music, of which I am not a big fan. What I discovered is that the Dead’s material spans every genre of American music, including rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, funk, reggae, orchestral, you name it. The stylistic breadth of their original material exceeds any other band I am aware of. They were also famous for playing covers of other people’s material, but whatever covers they played ended up sounding like the Dead. At that first show in Ventura, they played the following covers: 1) Big River (Johnny Cash), 2) Little Red Rooster (Rolling Stones), 3) Around and Around (Rolling Stones),  and 4), It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan). It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in retrospect the covers made the whole show more accessible to a neophyte like me, because there were at least a few songs they played with which I was already familiar. The good news is that I liked all of the original songs they played, even though I was hearing most of them for the first time.

Part of the reason I am writing this for the uninitiated is that the Dead tend to be somewhat polarizing in the sense that most people either love them or have no use for them at all. But there is another category of people who may have never considered whether they could be a fan or not, simply because they’ve never heard their original material except for the few songs that get played on FM radio (and those infrequently). In other words, there’s a good chance you could be a fan of the Grateful Dead (or, in Dead parlance, a “Deadhead”) without knowing it because you’ve never been exposed. So, as part of this post I’m going to make it easier for those who might like to find out if they’re a Deadhead by curating a list of seven original songs by the Dead, including the song title, genre, songwriter, lyricist (most of the Dead’s lyrics were not written by the band, but by their long-time lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow), including a snippet of the lyrics for each particular song.

  1. Scarlet Begonias; loping hippy rock; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; As I picked up my matches, and was closing the door; I had one of those flashes, I’d been there before
  2. Estimated Prophet; weird anthem about California in 7/4 time signature; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; California, a prophet on the burning shore; California, I’ll be knocking on the golden doorLike an angel, standing in a shaft of light; Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.
  3. Dupree’s Diamond Blues; Blues/Honky Tonk; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; And down to this jewelry store packin’ a gun; Says, “Wrap it up. I think I’ll take this one.”; “A thousand dollars, please,” the jewelry man said; Dupree said, “I’ll pay this one off to you in lead.”
  4. The Music Never Stopped; Funky Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; There’s a band out on the highway, they’re high-steppin’ into town; It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns.
  5. Black Peter; Bluesy Dirge; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Fever roll up, to a, hundred and five; Roll on up, gonna roll back down; One more day, I find myself alive; Tomorrow, maybe go, beneath the ground.
  6. I Need a Miracle; Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; I need a woman ’bout twice my height; Statuesque, raven-dressed, a goddess of the night; Her secret incantations, a candle burning blue; We’ll consult the spirits, maybe they’ll know what to do.
  7. Crazy Fingers; Reggae; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Gone are the days, we stopped to decide; where we should go, we just ride.

All Deadheads have their favorite Dead songs, and others they like less. If you listen to these seven and find three or four that you like, it would be worth your while to explore their catalogue further. Because their material is so diverse, chances are there are many songs you’ll discover that will quickly become favorites.

Many people reading this who are not familiar with the Dead may wonder why I’m writing this so many years after Garcia’s death. Two reasons: 1) the Dead subculture is still there and, in many ways, has only become more vibrant since Garcia’s death. There are many people who were not old enough to ever see the Dead in concert, but have become Deadheads; 2) About two years ago I discovered the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band, which I go to see on a regular basis. This post was the predicate for a post I’m going to write about that band, which I’ll publish tomorrow.

 

Rideshare

I drive a couple of days per week for a rideshare service. It’s an interesting way to make money, though I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, if you have an aversion to driving this is definitely not the gig for you. That said, there are definite advantages. Enough advantages that I’ve decided to continue doing the rideshare gig for awhile instead of getting a regular job.

For me, the biggest advantage is flexibility. Rideshare drivers do not actually work for Uber or Lyft. They are independent and as such are free to drive as much or as little as they want, during days and times of their choosing. I only drive when I feel like it, which fosters a positive attitude. If my mood changes for the worse while I’m driving I just turn off the driver app and head home. So I never have a “bad day” like people with regular jobs do from time to time. My experience in this regard is not shared by all drivers, though. I have a separate source of income, so I’m not reliant on driving as my primary source of income. For drivers who need the income to support themselves I imagine the experience is quite different. For me, the extra money goes toward savings or things like vacations and entertainment. If I had to rely on it for my primary source of income then rideshare driving would be a compulsory, full-time job.

Another cool thing about rideshare driving is that I encounter places and neighborhoods that I would never come across if I weren’t driving around randomly. The randomness happens because the driver doesn’t know the destination of the ride until after they pick up the passengers. The driver can control the randomness by cancelling the ride, but that is an inconvenience to the passengers and is discouraged by the rideshare service platforms. It also lowers what is referred to as the driver’s “acceptance rate,” which can make the driver ineligible for number-of-ride bonuses. I choose to accept every ride request and never cancel a ride based on the destination. Thus, the randomness. I roll around the region at the behest of strangers, surrendering to the randomness. Each time is like a little adventure. I also see plenty of cool sunsets, rainbows, and weather events. I drive in the San Francisco bay area, so there’s great scenery, too. Some of my favorite rides are ones that cross the Golden Gate Bridge, especially when fog is rolling in through the Golden Gate. The fog is wispy and ethereal when it wraps the towers; beautiful.

The most interesting thing about rideshare driving is experiencing the passengers. There are three basic experiences: 1) the passenger(s) are quiet and don’t interact with the driver; 2) the passengers (e.g., two in the back seat) talk to each other but not to the driver; 3) the passenger(s) engage the driver in conversation. I usually sort out these categories by observing for the first minute or two. If the passenger(s) are in the back interacting with their smartphone I might provide an opening by asking them how their day is going so far. You can tell by the brevity of their response if they want to talk. If they engage by talking about their day instead of just saying, “Good,” then they usually are open to small talk. Sometimes a passenger will ask how I like rideshare driving, and that’s a sure sign they want to talk. This happens most often when I pick people up at an airport (don’t know why).

The trickier situation is when the passengers are talking with each other. In these cases you can hear what they are talking about, even if you’re not focused on listening to them. You can’t not hear them. But the passengers often converse as though they are alone. In these situations it is difficult for me to know if and when to break into a conversation. For example, one passenger says to the other: “What’s the name of that actor? You know, the guy in the Doogie Howser TV show? Oh, man. Now this is going to bug me.” And you know that the actor’s name is Neil Patrick Harris. But if I say, “Neil Patrick Harris,” the passengers know that I’ve been hearing their conversation. In those situations I usually keep quiet.

As a writer, rideshare driving has a side benefit. While I would never write about a particular passenger or situation that comes up in a conversation, it is interesting to note speech patterns and how they differ between, say, two women talking to each other as opposed to two men, or a man and a woman. It’s also helpful in the sense that I have more confidence when writing dialogue. Sometimes a writer thinks, “people don’t talk like that,” or, “no one would ever say that.” Not true! I know from my experience that a writer can formulate dialogue without fear, because every time I think I’ve heard it all, a passenger will surprise me.

I also came up with a cool story idea that involves rideshare driving. Once I was in an Uber car and the driver was a clean cut, clean shaven young man who spoke perfect English, but was playing what sounded like middle eastern music on the car stereo. It turns out he is from Afghanistan and was an interpreter for the U.S. Government. He speaks six languages, other than English. The story idea is that one day such a rideshare driver hears his passengers talking in foreign languages, plotting a terror attack. The driver was granted legal residency in the U.S. because the Taliban found out he was helping the U.S. Government and were going to kill him. Having just arrived to safety in the U.S. he wants to avoid being targeted by a sleeper cell here, so the conflict is what he should do with the information. He contacts a member of the military unit he was embedded with and they advise him to contact the CIA and offer to become a confidential informant. That way he doesn’t have the burden of not sharing the important information while also not having to testify against the suspects and be exposed. I think this is a pretty good story idea, but it’s on the back burner until I complete my second novel, which should be in the middle of next year. The working title of this story is Ubercia.

Burlington, Vermont

My daughter and I spent five days in Burlington, Vermont, during our July 2018 vacation.  We’d been to Vermont before a couple of years ago, but this was our first time in Burlington. It’s a great place to visit and I’d consider moving there except for the Vermont winters.

Burlington is unique because although it’s the largest city in Vermont, it has a population of only 43,000 people. This makes it the smallest, largest city in any state. As a result, the city’s culture is condensed and concentrated. The downtown area is centered around Church Street, with several blocks closed to vehicular traffic, creating a pedestrian thoroughfare. Church Street is full of restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops, with many of the service establishments offering outdoor seating. Lights are strung across the street and provide a inviting atmosphere in the evening. Here’s a photo I took.

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You can walk down the street and hear music from bands and DJ’s. One spot I liked is called Red Square. Everyone was dancing to the DJ’s mix and drinking up a storm. Walk down a few doors and there’s a band playing. On Friday nights there might be a stage set up in the pedestrian thoroughfare with a band playing, as there was the Friday night I was there. You don’t have to get in a car and drive anywhere; everything is concentrated into this one, vibrant area, and it’s a lot of fun. It reminded me a little bit of Bourbon Street and Magazine Street in New Orleans, except neat and tidy. There’s also a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop that shows outdoor movies for the kids. The eating establishments are varied and the food was pretty good wherever we ate. In particular, there’s a very good ramen operation. My daughter is a ramen fan and she rated the ramen there as the best she’s had.

Another cool thing about Burlington is that it sits on Lake Champlain and there is a very beautiful beach, called North Beach, right there in town. North Beach is staffed with lifeguards, has bath/changing rooms, a snack bar, and a concession that rents out stuff like canoes and stand-up paddle boards. During the summertime the water temperature is doable for swimming; about 72 degrees. So, not warm, but doable. Definitely warmer than summertime in Lake Tahoe, if you know what that’s like. Here’s a photo looking across Lake Champlain from North Beach.

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As you can see, there’s a boat there on the right, which probably docks at the marina a mile or so down the coast, a few blocks below Church Street. I was surprised that many of the people I heard talking at North Beach were speaking French, which added a somewhat exotic, European flavor to the experience. The Canadian province of Quebec shares a border with Vermont, and the people there speak French, so that explains it.

The people I met in Burlington were, for the most part, service/wait staff, and were very friendly. I asked if they were Vermont natives and found that many were not. It seems that some of them stumbled across Burlington during travel and decided to stay. One guy in particular said he was working with a traveling carnival and when the carnival hit Burlington he quit and has been living there ever since. So, Burlington has sort of an “island of misfit toys” feel to it, as regards the residents.

There is also a unique museum close by in the town of Shelburne, Vermont, which also sits on Lake Champlain. The Shelburne Museum is about a fifteen minute drive from Burlington and is a must-do activity if you’re visiting the area. It’s unique because it houses a wide variety of Americana art and artifacts in several buildings that were mostly relocated from other parts of Vermont. For example, one building houses a collection of circus artifacts, including a miniature circus. Here’s a photo I took.

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Another building houses what must be the world’s largest collection of decoy ducks. OK, so maybe decoy ducks aren’t your thing. You might like this steamboat, which is parked there on the museum property.

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Another building houses my favorite collection: an authentic general store from the period just after the American Civil War. Every item in the store is genuine and period-specific, so when you walk in it’s like being transported back in time. Here’s a photo.

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There are collections of glassware, fabric, fine art (including a beautiful painting by Andrew Wyeth), and even cigar-store Indians. Almost everyone will find something that will be of interest. You might be wondering where they got this odd collection of so much different stuff. Well, it turns out that most of the stuff was collected by a lady named Electra Havemeyer Webb. This lady was a wealthy New York socialite and world-class pack-rat, er, collector. There was always the question of what would become of all her stuff when she passed away. The answer is the Shelburne Museum.

Another recommendation is to visit the Inn at Shelburne Farm for dinner. It’s a working farm so all the food served at the restaurant is raised or grown right there. Truly “farm to table.” The Inn and restaurant are housed in a mansion that served as a summer home for the Vanderbilt family. It’s situated in a beautiful location on the shore of the lake. Here’s a photo from the lawn at sunset.

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I highly recommend a visit to Burlington and the surrounding area. Hopefully this post will pique the interest of people who never would have considered it as a destination. The next time I go will be during the fall so I can see the trees in autumn.

 

Holy Human

Holy Human is a band from Daytona Beach, Florida. About a month ago they were far away from home, in Burlington, Vermont, having driven there to start a mini-tour celebrating their new album, titled “Epiphany.”

Our paths crossed briefly because I was in Burlington on vacation (great town; more on that in a separate post). A friend of mine who grew up near Burlington told me to check out this bar called Radio Bean. When I got there, Holy Human was just about to start their set. Seeing them was a complete fluke; pure serendipity.

Have you ever gone to a show and there’s an opening band you’ve never heard of, and you’re unfamiliar with their material? The experience of seeing Holy Human was kind of like that, because they write and perform their own songs (except, in this instance, for one cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under my Thumb.”) The cool thing was that they were quite entertaining, even though I was hearing all of their stuff for the first time. I stayed for the whole set. Radio Bean is an intimate setting and I was thus able to interact with the band members afterward. I even bought their CD.

So now I’ve been listening to the CD for a couple of weeks. It sounds better in my car than in the house, especially if I’m in the car with someone else and we’re talking, with the CD playing in the background. I’ve thought a bit about how to describe Holy Human’s style of music, and I came up with psychedelic surf rock, although the songs on the CD are somewhat eclectic. One thing I appreciate about this band and that sets them apart is that four of the five members sing, and they have worked out cool harmonies for most of the songs. The harmonies are somewhat evocative of The Byrds, or the Beach Boys, or the Mama’s and Papa’s; even, at times, The Monkees, though less pop-oriented and more psychedelic. I guess that’s part of why they sound like surf rock, to me.

The first song is “Scary Girl,” which is a heavy tune about a stalker-like acquaintance. Holy Human started their set with that song, and I have a good memory of it. It’s good live material. Other songs that stand out for me are “Tower Hour,” “God Damaged,” and, especially, “The Sunshine Conspiracy.” But I enjoy all the songs, actually. I’ve taken to leaving the CD in the car and playing it as an alternative to the crappy Bay Area rock radio stations.

I don’t know if Holy Human will get out to the west coast, but I’d go see them again if they did. I don’t have any plans to visit Florida in the near future, either, but I would seek them out if I was anywhere near Daytona Beach.

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Here’s a photo of the band in front of Radio Bean. From left to right: Matthew Wall, Woody Moore, Mark Murray, Matthew Aubertin, and Anthony Santisi.

Bump Stock Paddock

There’s a lot to talk about since the Sunday when a 64 year old man with no prior criminal record or apparent axe to grind killed 58 people and injured over 500 more by shooting at a large crowd attending a country music festival. Let me start by again offering my condolences to all those affected. This incident becomes more visceral for me each time I am acquainted with the victims, their families and friends.

In my first post on this topic I said I was interested in the shooter’s motive. As of today none has been discovered, or if one has been discovered, it has not yet been reported. I will not be surprised if it turns out that this nut, a guy named Stephen Paddock, turns out to be a terrorist of some stripe. In other words, that his motivation to kill was to further some political goal. That’s the difference, at least in Federal law, between an act of terrorism and other violent acts not associated with a political goal.

The reason I think that the shooter was motivated by politics is that there doesn’t seem to be any other motive, and the extreme nature of his actions are inconsistent with his background. For example, he had no criminal record and according to news reports he is somewhat wealthy. Add to that his age at the time of the shooting and the whole thing doesn’t add up. I mean, who, at the age of 64, just up and decides one day to murder and injure a bunch of random people?

I used to assess workplace violence threats as part of my job and the way you do the assessment is to use a matrix of indicia. Does the employee have a grievance against the employer? Does the employee have a history of violent behavior? Are they in the middle of a personal crisis involving, for example, finances or relationships? Have they verbalized threats to co-workers or others? This list of indicia is not comprehensive but you get the idea. The only indicia in this guy’s case is that he had access to weapons. Other than that you get a giant goose egg.

Now let’s talk about gun control. And no, it’s not “too early” to talk about that, because gun control is an overarching issue that doesn’t relate to this mass shooting in particular, but to the arc of increase in mass shootings in the United States generally. One encouraging sign that has emerged in the aftermath of this shooting is that, for once, the National Rifle Association and both major political parties seem to be in agreement that so-called “bump stocks” should be outlawed. For those who haven’t been following the news reports, a “bump stock” is a device that modifies a semi-automatic weapon such that it acts like a fully automatic weapon, or machine gun. The Vegas shooter had modified several semi-automatic weapons using the bump stock device, such that he had several fully automatic weapons at his disposal for use during the massacre.

Beyond agreement on that one measure, the parties have backed into their usual corners, with Democrats in using the opportunity to advocate in favor of stricter gun control and Republicans (and the NRA) trotting out the usual talking points about how this particular shooting would not have been prevented by, for example, universal background checks. It’s true that the Vegas shooter passed all of the required background checks for purchasing the weapons used in the massacre. But the problem with that argument is that it is anecdotal and, moreover, doesn’t hold up from a common sense perspective. I mean, background checks are already required for most gun purchases, so presumably the government thinks they are a good idea. Common sense tells you background checks are a good idea. So then why would it make sense to have loopholes for gun shows?

Another measure that, at least to me, makes sense is to question why a gun purchaser needs to have several of the same type of weapon. The Vegas shooter had several high powered rifles that he had purchased in the months leading up to the massacre. Some might argue that gun enthusiasts (e.g., collectors) should have a right to own as many weapons as they want, but it doesn’t make sense that a collector would, for example, buy several weapons of the same make and model. At the very least authorities should be able to know when such purchases are occurring and have an opportunity to question the purchaser as to the reason why they want multiples of the same type of gun. In the case of the Vegas shooter, he apparently wanted multiple high powered rifles with the bump stock modification because if he only had one of them the gun barrel would melt down at a certain point due to the heat generated. With multiples of the same gun he could simply swap out for a new one and continue the massacre.

Of course, one way to know if someone is purchasing multiples of the same type of weapon is through a national gun registry, which would be a very controversial move, at least from the perspective of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates. Why would that be so controversial? In my opinion, it has to do with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which conveys the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Now read that carefully. The stated reason for the right to bear arms is because it is “necessary to the security of a free State.” This is consistent with something that occurred to me when I was on vacation in New England and took a tour that went from Boston to Concord, or what is referred to as the revolutionary “battle trail.” Many Americans know the famous story of Paul Revere alerting the colonists in the middle of the night that the British army was coming. What many don’t know is why they were coming.

In short, the colonial leaders, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and the colonists in general, were angry because the British (i.e., the King) had instituted taxes on various imported goods, including tea, in order to fund England’s war with France. That anger came to a head when the colonists dumped tea into Boston harbor, in what is known as the Boston tea party. The King was worried that the anger would lead to insurrection and ordered that the colonists’ guns be confiscated. Word of the King’s intentions leaked to the colonists, who then gathered up all the guns in Boston and hid them in Concord. Then, word leaked to the British army that the colonists had hid the guns in Concord, and the footrace was on. The colonists (or Minutemen) and the British army regulars confronted each other about half way between Boston and Concord, at the town of Lexington, and a battle ensued in which several combatants were killed, and thus began the Revolutionary War that ultimately led to the creation of the United States.

Given this history, you can imagine why the drafters of the Constitution wanted an amendment that guaranteed the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.” But the right to keep and bear arms wasn’t so that people would have those weapons for personal protection. As stated in the Second Amendment, it was “necessary to the security of a free State.” In other words, having lived through the experience of having a government (the King of England) try to confiscate their weapons, they saw it necessary to prevent a government (of the United States) from doing so at some later time. To summarize, the right to bear arms is not so that you can use those arms for your personal protection; it is so that you aren’t living in a tyranny. So, you might forgive those who are suspicious of a national gun registry, it being the Federal government and all. Confiscation could be possible (however unlikely) if the Feds knew who had what.

Personally, I think that’s a paranoid reaction that should not inform public policy. But that’s just me, and I respect those who hold a different view. I think it’s important for all of us to be respectful of each other’s views in order for this discussion to bear fruit.

 

Mandalay Massacre

My condolences to all the victims of the horrific shooting incident in Las Vegas last night. In a time when people are so divided, at least we can all come together in our sadness.

I’ve attended outdoor concerts at a venue similar to, but much smaller than, the venue where the shooting took place. There is an outdoor concert facility in South Lake Tahoe next to a hotel tower. Sometimes people book rooms at that hotel so they can watch the show from their hotel room. In fact, the rock band Weezer is playing there on October 5th. I’ll be interested to see what, if any, changes are made to the security arrangements in light of what just happened, or whether the show might even be cancelled.

I wonder how the shooter came into possession of a machine gun, which you can hear clearly on the many videos they are showing on TV. That’s one of many questions that need to be answered in the coming days and weeks.

The main question I have is the shooter’s motivation.

That’s Entertainment?

I enjoy watching professional sports on television, except for hockey and soccer. But I definitely watch a fair amount of baseball, American football, and basketball. It is the primary reason I have not dropped my cable TV service in favor of streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix.

Of course, professional sports are not the only thing I watch on television. I watch a fair amount of cable news coverage, and I watch a lot of shows like Antiques Road Show, Ice Road Truckers, as well as the History Channel, cooking shows and stuff like that. But live action sports are, for me, the main attraction of cable TV service, because it is live television that let’s you get away from the day to day rumble tumble. I mean, really, the only other live television these days is hurricane coverage, which is not a get away from anything; it’s an immersion into something very bad. Even Saturday Night Live isn’t “live” if you’re watching from the west coast (though supposedly their going to try a live coast to coast broadcast this season; it’ll be interesting to see how many people stay home in prime time on a Saturday night to see that).

Which is why I am dismayed that in the past several months, professional sporting events have began to cross-pollinate with the sort of news coverage that I watch live sports to get away from. It started last season when a certain quarterback decided to sit during the singing of the National Anthem as a protest. Of course, said quarterback has a right under the First Amendment of the Constitution to engage in free speech, even in the context of his employment, because the matter he was protesting is a matter of broad public interest. Even I have written about it previously. So, I have no problem with him (or any other professional athlete) exercising their right to free speech. But you know what? When they engage in that free speech attendant to a professional sporting event, I don’t find that entertaining.

In fact, quite the opposite. It makes we want to change the channel, or turn off the TV. Which is not to say that I think the issues they are protesting are unimportant. I watch a lot of news coverage about those issues and follow the discussions with keen interest. It’s just that maybe I already spent a few hours during the week watching that coverage. Maybe I’ve also watched coverage about street protests in my region about those issues; perhaps I’ve even attended a protest or two. So when I try to watch a live sporting event, the last thing I want to think about at that particular time is protests or the underlying issues. I’m trying to take a break from that for a few dear hours. And it’s now to the point where I can’t listen to sports talk radio without 20% of the content being a meta-level discussion of the protests and the underlying issues.

Some might say that’s selfish on my part; that the protests are so much more important than the live sporting events. That’s true, of course. But then why should I watch the live sporting events at all? I could just watch the cable news coverage about the protests or read about them in articles online without sandwiching in a lot of sweaty guys engaged in various activities involving balls of different shapes and sizes.

I spent some time thinking about this and it occurred to me that the National Anthem is not played or sung at other events, like golf tournaments, for example (I’ve been to several tournaments, so I know first hand). Also, the National Anthem is not played prior to the beginning of most live music event, or when you go to a comedy club or some other type of live entertainment.

Why do the major professional sports leagues in this country play the National Anthem before the games? It isn’t required by law; it’s something the leagues have decided to do at some point and have done for a long time. Frankly, I don’t presume to know why they do it, exactly. If you take them at their word, via the stadium announcer, it is to “honor America.” The stadium announcer always says, “To honor America, please stand and remove your cap during the singing of our National Anthem.” So let’s assume there is no other reason than the stated one: to honor America. Except that some subset of the players have decided to not follow the request of the stadium announcer, which is their right. Well, it seems to me at that point it does not honor America. My suggestion would be to stop playing the National Anthem at professional sporting events until this entire issue is resolved.

In the meantime, I’m going to stop watching live action sports on television, not as a protest or boycott, but because I am not entertained.