Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Grab Your Shotgun, Then Go Shopping

I originally posted the following blog last Thanksgiving on myspace. It has been updated slightly, and since it is always relevant at this time of year, I thought I would post it again here.

Well, it's Thanksgiving Day, and most of us have had a yummy, gut-busting dinner, spent time with family, watched football, or at least enjoyed the day off from work. But lurking in the backs of many minds is the start of the insane pandemonium that is the holiday shopping season. While you were eating your turkey, stuffing, and mom's mashed potatoes, were you also planning your assault on whichever department store you plan to rush at 4:00 am? Have you studied the store’s blueprints so you’ll know the exact locations of the gifts for which you are willing to bite, kick, and elbow other shoppers? Is this considered the "thrill of the hunt?" Black Friday is such a circus of vicious, blood-thirsty gift-grabbers that it turns the idea of "peace on earth" into a joke (or "peace everywhere except a mall parking lot or store with holiday sales”). Suddenly, in the pursuit of a great deal on the year’s must-have merchandise, people lose all sense of kindness, patience, and holiday spirit, needing to sport a shotgun and a helmet for protection against other shoppers. The parking lots outside shopping centers seemingly find the magical ability to shrink down to three spaces, so that every shopper must be conniving, sneaky, and prepared to kill in order to obtain a coveted space.

It might just be me, but fighting - sometimes literally - for a parking space, just to gain entry to an overcrowded combat zone of a store (that for some reason is always approximately 150 degrees) doesn't sound like a very gratifying experience. Personally, I feel that my time and sanity are worth paying regular price and sleeping past 3:00 am. But hey, if you're willing to get up in the dark, early hours of the morning and go through the torturous melee just to save a few bucks on a DVD player, then all I can say is good luck to you. I hope you saved enough money on your gifts to cover your hospital bill. As for me, I'll save myself the trouble and the headache. I'll be sleeping.


Friday, November 21, 2008

100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Rolling Stone has concocted another "all time greatest" list. Yes, another one. As a magazine, Rolling Stone clearly believes that all things music-related must be neatly tucked into groups, and that debating over the "greatest" of everything is not only a worthwhile endeavor, but a noble one. If there was a contest for magazines that have generated an absurd number of "all time" lists, Rolling Stone would totally take home that trophy. I imagine it would be magnificently displayed at the RS offices, and a small plaque with elegant engraving would title it: #1 Greatest Trophy of All Time.

The most recent list is RS's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. I think it’s fun to look through these lists, but it always ends the same way, with me shaking my head in disbelief because so-and-so was left off or someone was placed way too high or low in the ranking. The thing is, you can't really take these lists too seriously. One reason is because of the way they title them. I know, it's Rolling Stone, so you should expect subject matter from a particular range of pop culture (say, the last 50 years or so). It’s just that they can't resist calling these lists the greatest of all time. And "all time" covers, well, a whole lot of time, not just the last 50 years.

Another reason these lists don’t hold much water with me is because the term “greatest” is much too general; a good percentage of the Greatest Singers list would instantly be out of contention if technical terms were specified. Truly great singers aren’t always the most popular, and often the popular singers really aren’t that great at all. They are talented entertainers, dancers, etc. But people don’t consider them “great” because of their excellent pitch, tone, or timbre. Anyone with some formal music training would be quick to make that distinction. The people on the list aren’t terrible singers, and there’s a reason so many people love them. (How many people can honestly say they think Bob Dylan is a fantastic singer? Honestly. Think about it.) Maybe they sing with such conviction or passion that they can bring us to tears. A valuable skill, but it shouldn’t be confused with technical ability.

While I may sound like a stickler for accurate list-labeling here, I do understand the intent of the list. For most people, a great singer is someone who makes you feel what they are singing about. You feel it so far down in your gut you don't know whether to scream, smile, or cry. Or maybe a certain singer represents something to people, is a symbol of a movement, a time in history, or a time in one's life. I'll never forget the first time I heard a recording of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit." Her gritty, gravelly voice quietly demanded my attention, and the lyrics saddened me to tears.

How does a magazine decide who makes the cut? Basically, by sending out ballots to a bunch of people (musicians, producers, journalists, and music execs, mostly). Here’s how RS explains how the list was created: “Each voter was asked to list his or her 20 favorite vocalists from the rock era, in order of their importance. Those ballots were recorded and weighted according to methodology developed by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, which then tabulated and verified the results for Rolling Stone.”

I am not typically a reader of Rolling Stone, actually. I am writing this in response to a request from my good friend Bob, who said I should write a blog that would share my thoughts about the list. (Thanks, Bob, for caring about my opinion in the first place.) My favorite thing about Rolling Stone? The covers. I think RS has had some of the most timeless and striking cover art (you can browse the covers online). It was fun to look at the covers from when I was in middle school and high school. It made me feel nostalgic. And old. But it was still fun.

Anyway, about the list. There is very little about the list that surprises me. All the usual suspects are there. Aretha Franklin at number one is no shock. She's a talented singer who is highly regarded in the industry and by fans. Directly behind Aretha is Ray Charles, who is followed by Elvis Presley. Again, I figured they'd be there, lurking somewhere near the top. It was great to see an artist like Jeff Buckley in the top fifty. Christina Aguilera is No. 58, and while I can't stand the way she chooses to sing (I think she and Mariah Carey are under the impression that great singing = the length and frequency of vocal runs crammed into a given song), and I'm not a fan of the type of music she sings, she absolutely has one of the strongest voices on the list. She has a tendency to sing through her nose quite a bit, which gets on my nerves, but she has a talent that is undeniable. Really.

There are a number of singers I think should have been listed, but were omitted from the list altogether; at first, I was shocked that Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson weren't included, but I'm pretty sure that's because they were pre-rock-era artists. But here are a few of the singers I think should have been listed: Bruce Dickinson, Pat Benatar, Maynard James Keenan (yes, I’m serious), Tori Amos…and…(gasp!) Celine Dion. I don't even like Celine Dion, but as far as singing talent goes, she has tons. Considering the high praise she has received in the past from fans and peers, I’m quite surprised she didn’t make an appearance anywhere on the list. There are other singers I love who were not selected for the list. But until Rolling Stone decides that I'm the best barometer for great talent, I guess I'll have to suck it up. The list is what it is, for whatever it's worth. I leave you with this: Celine Dion isn’t listed, but Roy Orbison is number 13?

A few other "All Time" lists:

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (winner: "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan)

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (winner: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles, who by the way had 4 of the top 10 albums)

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time (winner: "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry)

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time (winner: Jimi Hendrix)


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Need of Anger Management

Yesterday I was driving back to work after running some errands on my lunch break, and I needed to stop and get a decongestant for my throbbing head. My sinuses were killing me, and I was already feeling worse than I had that morning. I pulled into the parking lot of a CVS pharmacy, and saw that an elderly woman in a wheelchair had just come out of the store. She was coming down the small ramp to the parking lot when one of the wheels on her wheelchair slipped over the edge. She was stuck; she couldn't move forward or backward, and she was leaning at a dangerous angle. (I know this sounds like a pre-arranged hidden-camera test for a boy scout, like a cat getting stuck in a tree or a pregnant woman struggling to carry a heavy package. Will the boy scout climb the tree and save the cat? How quickly will he assist the pregnant woman?) I parked as quickly as I could so that I could go and help her. By the time I got out of my car, her chair had tipped over and she was lying on her side on the pavement. As I got within 20 feet of her, a man came walking out of the pharmacy. I was relieved, since I wasn't sure how well I would be able to lift her up; I didn't know if she would be able to support some of her own weight while I righted her wheelchair, and I didn't know if she had been hurt when her chair fell over. The man was walking with a purposeful stride, as if he was running a bit late, so when he walked past the woman I thought maybe he was so preoccupied that he hadn't seen her. I shouted, "Hey!" and before I could request that he give me a hand, he responded in explanation, "Sorry, I'm in a hurry." What? He didn't even break his arrogant stride when he spoke to me, nor did he look me in the eye, which I can only hope means he felt at least some small amount of shame for not stopping. What human being could walk past this woman without stopping to help her? How can that possibly be justifiable? I'm in a hurry. What a lame excuse.

I felt such an immediate surge of anger that I was at odds with myself over whether to chase him down and hurt him physically (and perhaps permanently) or stay and help the woman who was lying on the ground. Of course I stayed and helped the woman, but I admit I wanted nothing more than to give that man a verbal and physical lashing. Anyone who has seen me get angry knows that I don't hold back. It takes a lot to make me angry; most things aren't worth the trouble. But I was feeling unmistakable rage toward the guy. If it had been his mother lying there, wouldn't he have wanted someone to help? Was it pure arrogance? I'm so important that whatever is going on in my life today (probably a stupid sales meeting) is much more pressing than helping some old lady I don't even know.

I've never had all that much faith in humanity. In fact, I'm much more of a cynic than anything else. I strongly believe in helping other people, which is why I have pursued a degree in social work, and why I have volunteered my efforts in so many capacities. But I am far from naive. I have learned how selfish and hurtful people can be. I understand how easy it is for some people to hurt others, whether by violence or simply neglect. I had an experience that taught me how fragile our lives and our bodies are, and how easily they can be taken away. And yet I was surprised when this man just kept walking.

I helped the woman back into her wheelchair. She had hit her head on the pavement and scraped it. Her hand was scraped and already bruising, and she said her shoulder hurt. A moment later a woman came out of the CVS and rushed over to us. It was the elderly woman's daughter, who took her mother back inside to be looked at by a security guard and a pharmacy technician. They would decide whether to call an ambulance. I walked back to my car, shaking with anger, feeling like I could burst from the amount of animosity I was holding in. I didn't even go in to get the medicine I had stopped for. I just went back to work, shaking my head, trying to convince myself that 9 people out of 10 would have stopped to help. I often have to remind myself that there are many good people in the world, that not everyone is a self-centered jackass. But on days like yesterday, it sure isn't easy.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gut Check

I was online the other day and I noticed this advertisement at the top of my computer screen. All I could think was, Really? and How did they know my age?

Do either of these women look overweight to you? Is that supposed to be a woman pinching fat? I see skin, but I damn sure don't see any fat! Am I missing something, or is this as ridiculous as it looks?

***Follow-Up Post***

OK, I have another theory on the advertisement above. Is the woman on the left hiding her stomach with her hands because she feels she is overweight, and is the woman on the right pinching her skin to show off the fact that she has no fat (presumably because she used whatever magic beans the ad is promoting)? Is it one of those "flab to fab" ads? This still totally bothers me, because clearly the woman on the left is not overweight.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Election Reflection

I was so ready for the election to be over. The campaign coverage, and all the speculation that goes along with it, was getting old, and I was ready for votes to be cast and a winner declared. I guess I should be used to political campaigns that seem to last years (and maybe they do), but for some reason I don't have much patience for it (actually the reason is that I don't have much patience for anything in general; it's one of my more endearing traits). I want to know where the candidates stand, and I'm interested in relevant information about their background and history, but I don't particularly care whether they prefer Splenda to Sweet'N Low, nor do I want to see a hundred different mud-slinging campaign commercials.

I realize that this campaign was different from past presidential elections. There was the possibility of electing the first non-white American president. Then there's the fact that so many people have been, well, "displeased" with our current Republican president for eight years and were ready for a big change. It was a doozy. I think it was fantastic to see that there were record numbers of voters.

Side story: Based on past experience at my polling place, I decided not to even attempt to vote before work. I left work a tad early for lunch and drove home to Catonsville, hoping I might be fortunate enough to catch a break on the wait. This did not happen. The elementary school where I vote is located in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and because the parking lot at the school was full, people were parking on both sides of the streets, making the actual driving space roughly ten inches wide. I was about a mile away from the school before I found a spot to park. As I started hoofing it to the school, the weather changed from a light drizzle to actual rain. Why did I leave my umbrella in the car? Anyway, when I got to the school, the line was long. Really, really long. And it stretched outside the building, down the sidewalk, and around the parking lot. But I waited. For over an hour. In the rain. And I was only halfway to the front doors of the school. I needed to get back to work, so I gave up, walked the mile or so back to my car, and drove back to work hungry and damp. I did vote after work, and it wasn't busy at all. Note to self: always, ALWAYS, go after work. Got it.

It would be nice if so many people were always as passionate and interested in who is elected to make decisions for the country. I don't understand why people aren't more concerned with who their congresspeople are, since congress is responsible for so much of the decision-making. But I digress. It's still a powerful thing that so many Americans took advantage of the privilege to vote and made their voices heard. People seemed desperate to have a new leader, yet seemed optimistic. I have never seen so many smiles on a Wednesday morning; I went to work and people were almost giddy with excitement. People were talking about how they had stayed up late watching election coverage until they couldn't keep their eyes open. About how they had cried during Obama's acceptance speech. There was such hope in their voices, and it was incredibly refreshing.

Of course, not everyone was happy with the outcome of the election. It has been especially irritating to me, though, to hear so many negative and broad statements from them. I completely understand people being disappointed that the candidate they supported didn't win the election, but it is beyond ridiculous that people - perfectly intelligent people - are convinced that the world is going to end on Inauguration Day (maybe they have it confused with the movie Independence Day?). Really? The country will stop in its tracks, the sky will fall, and we'll all no longer exist? Because one dude gets elected? Did I miss something?

Here's the deal: regardless of who lives at the White House, stuff is going to happen that you don't like. Decisions you don't agree with will be made. Some of them might even actually affect you directly. But hasn't this happened before?

I believe that the country will still exist four years from now. I believe that our country will be attacked on our own soil again in the next four years, but I believe that would happen regardless of who won the election. I believe that as Americans we take pride in having freedom of speech and being able to share our opinions, as I am doing here. But I don't believe the sky will fall. And if the president-elect turns out to be a complete and total nightmare, I believe we are resilient and determined enough not to crumble. Everybody just take a deep breath.

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