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Sunday, January 30, 2005

What has Happened in Iraq?

I have been cruising the news sites. I have read many blogs written by Iraqis. It sounds like participation in the election has exceeded expectations. I have seen the photos of long lines at the polls. I have read messages of joy and pride from Iraqis. I am amazed at this turn of events. The deep yearning of people makes them courageous.

My expectations for this election were very low. I have grown very weary and jaded abut America's adventure in this sad country. The death and destruction, reported breathlessly by the media, has had its effect. I have found myself falling into step with the press and my fellow Kerry-voters, expecting this to be a mess, a joke, full of carnage and low voter turnout. It appears that my expectations were too negative. I will be delighted if I am wrong about this election.

Now there is a reason to hope. I am going to sleep on that thought.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Brotherhood of the Slide

All of us geeks that currently play the trombone, or have played the trombone in the past, are irrevocable members of the Brotherhood of the Slide. The trombone is an uncooperative musical instrument. It requires a ridiculous amount of embouchure control - which means training your lips to do stuff that human lips are not designed to do. An accomplished trombonist can crack walnuts with his lips alone. The slide is moved to alter the length of tubing that the player blows through. This changes the pitch of the note. The speed of lip vibration generated by the embouchure combined with the movement of the slide provides the player with a broad range of notes. Serious trombonists talk about "ripping" or "playing against the grain," which means that the embouchure tightens and the lip vibration speed increases while the tubing lengthens via slide extensions. Developing speed and expertise in altering the frequency of lip vibrations and the position of the slide is the key to becoming a real 'bone man (or woman). So - you got to get your chops together, your slide technique together, and - oh, yeah - you still have to master the art of reading music, developing improvisation skills, etc. etc. Being an accomplished musician is a challenge no matter what instrument you play, but becoming an accomplished trombonist is harder than most other instruments. As a former T-Bone guy, I might have a bias about this.

The Brotherhood of the Slide celebrates all things trombone. Its members also moan about their dilemmas. Bone men fret about the difficulties of mastering the slip horn. They fret about the obscurity in which virtually all trombonists labor (quick - name a world famous trombonist! What? Can't think of any? You are trombone-ignorant, along with 99.9999% of the human race).

So for those of you who are dying to know about a top-notch contemporary trombonist, I submit the name of Joe Bowie. He blows up a storm; he takes the T-Bone to a different place, he is a Master of Outsider Funk, and he can sing, too. His band is Defunkt, a New York outfit that has been performing since 1978. Joe is a member of the mighty Bowie family, best known for the internationally famous trumpeter, Lester Bowie. But Joe is my man. He is J.J. Johnson on acid. Also, check out Ray Anderson,a good ol' Chicago boy who has made the trombone cool again. Looking back in time, I highly recommend Frank Rosolino - a fabulous player and a tragic, troubled man who killed his own son prior to committing suicide.

Yes, the t-bone can drive a man crazy.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Willfully Unaware

Here is a good quote – “The world we live in – its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence – is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize that by the painful events we try to forget.” (Adam Hoschild, “King Leopold’s Ghost.”) Yes, we willfully choose to be unaware and to forget the painful past – I know I do. It is important to remember the colonial era, what it was at its worst (the Belgian Congo) what it was at its best (British Malaya). King Leopold II ruled over mass murder in the Congo - a calamity of Holocaust proportions. The Brits exploited Malaya, but also invested. When the Union Jack was finally lowered in 1957, the people of Malaysia and Singapore had infrastructure and a system to build upon. The legacy of King Leopold II was also followed carefully when the nation gained independence in 1960. Joseph Desire Mobutu took over after Patrice Lumumba was brutally tortured, then murdered. Mobutu followed the Leopold II blueprint of exploitation and brutality (although he didn't murder anywhere near as many people).

Most Americans know nothing about the Congo. Perhaps they have a slight memory of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" that they were forced to read in their high school literature class. If you want to find out about those "painful events we try to forget," you are basically on your own - especially when those painful events occurred in Africa.

So, what kind of colonists will we Americans be in Iraq? The answer to this won't be known for many years. The best we can hope for is the British Malaya outcome. George Bush isn't King Leopold II, but the pile of Iraqi bodies is growing every day.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Great Northern Porter

It is Sunday afternoon. I attended Quaker meeting for worship this morning. The grocery shopping is complete. My beautiful wife and I have planned the menu for the little dinner party we are hosting tonight. The temperature is hovering in the single digits. It is time for a hearty winter beer.

I picked up a six-pack of Summit Brewing Co.'s Great Northern Porter yesterday, chilled it overnight and popped one open a few minutes ago. Summit is a microbrewery in St. Paul, MN. They do lots of winter brews at Summit because there is a lot of winter in St. Paul. Porter is a great, hearty British brew - it was once the most popular beer in England. Great Northern Porter is very dark - it looks like expresso. Its aroma is redolent with roasted grain; it tastes very nutty and has a tangy aftertaste. My friend Byron at Schaefers Wine and Spirits calls this porter "a chewy beer," and that captures the experience nicely. This is a beer that is made to go with meat and potatoes. This is not a "lite" product; it is a "beefy" brew.

A fine beer alters one's attitude and creates contentment.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Is American Meritocracy Dying?

Since I was vacationing and unplugged from the media during the first week of January, I missed the first issue of The Economist for 2005. There is a special report in this edition regarding the erosion and possible demise of meritocracy in the United States. The expected evidence is trotted out - the Bush political dynasty, the widening gap between rich and poor, the "dumbing down" of public schools and the flight of elites to private schools, and the prevalence of "legacy" admissions at America's top universities. The more disturbing allegation is that social mobility is decreasing - a study carried out by Thomas Hertz, an economist at American University in Washington D.C., is cited as evidence.

Surveys in Europe indicate that most citizens believe that forces beyond their personal control determine their success. In the U.S., only 32% of respondents agree with this fatalistic view. Over two-thirds of Americans believe in their ability to succeed, and believe that the U.S. offers the opportunity to do so. I certainly have signed on to that belief, and I am not dropping my faith after reading the Economist article. But it is clear that we are falling out of balance and developing more rigid classes of people.

If you are ever in Chicago, take a field trip to Kennilworth. It is the third suburb north of the city, and one of the wealthiest places in the region (and on the planet). Walk around. Observe the lovely homes. Look at the people. Try to find a black face - or a Mexican face - or an Asian face (not likely). If you have the time and the chutzpah, chat with some of these folks. Find out if they grew up poor (most did not). This is an enclave of homogeneous, moneyed aristocracy. You can find such places all over the U.S., and it isn't a new development. But is it a growing part of our national scene? The Economist thinks so.

My family is all about social mobility. My mom was a school teacher; my dad an office clerk. I made it through grad school - with loans, scholarships and part-time work. My wife is a first-generation American of Mexican descent, the first person in the history of her family to graduate from college - she paid her own way. I am a big fan of folks that start with nothing and make great progress due to their hard work and talent. Enabling this individual striving is the best part of the American experiment. We have to preserve it, and fight the forces that are pushing our country toward the tyranny of a class system.

Friday, January 14, 2005

At The Beginning

I had the opportunity to meet a young fellow last night who is at the beginning of his race. I connected with this guy through the "pro bono" entreprenuer assistance program sponsored by the Kellogg Alumni Club of Chicago. Brad Wilson is 24 years old and is in the middle of an internet adventure. He had a "hobby" web site that aggregated all the good deals on various products (big screen TV's, MP3 players etc.) that he found on the web. Many people began to visit the site, and he discovered that merchants would pay commissions for sales that came through his site. Brad thought, "Score - this will be a great part-time activity while I soldier through the University of North Carolina" and took a semester off to build a proper web site. This was about four years ago, and he hasn't returned to school yet. His web site,, is getting traction and is generating about $1 million of revenues. is one of the larger marketing affiliate web sites. Brad's little company got a big boost recently - he was profiled in the Wall Street Journal.

Brad finally hired a couple of part-time employees a couple of months ago - he is getting too swamped, wearing too many hats. He works out of a small office in the Technology Innovation Center in Evanston IL. He is a pretty low key guy, and very together (at least when compared to the other early-20's folks that I know). He showed up for our meeting in a suit and tie! (I was in a sweater and khakis). Brad speaks well, but fast - and in spurts. He is deeply engaged in what he is doing and sees a long open road stretching in front of his little business. This is a young fellow who has been learning fast on the fly. He is truly at the beginning - he has a lifetime of wins and losses ahead of him.

I am supposed to advise him, but I suspect I will learn more from him than he will learn from me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

John Birks Gillespie - Music is the Best

I have Dizzy Gillespie on my mind this morning. As a mediocre high school trombonist, I had the incredible opportunity to play in a youth jazz band that backed up Dizzy at an afternoon concert during the Monterey Jazz Festival many years ago. We were a bunch of slack-jawed, awe-struck teenagers; he was beyond cool. His playing caused our hair to stand up on our heads. He was fast, his ideas exploded in every direction, he was chromatic, he burned on those Latin tunes, he sang goofy be-bop ditties, he had us playing way over our heads. Dizzy was generous and kind to us - no Miles Davis attitude at all. (He was no cream puff, however - he once had an argument with Cab Calloway and pulled a knife. Cab turned and ran, so Dizzy cut him in the ass - it took 20 stiches to close Cab's wound). After the concert, many of the swaggering high school jazz stars wept like baby girls.

We lost Dizzy in early January, eleven years ago. I listen to his music regularly. When I do, I think of Frank Zappa's classic "prose poem:"

"Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is not music
Music is the best."
Frank Zappa (1940-1993)

Monday, January 10, 2005

To Duck Key and Back Again

I have been incommunicado, hiding out with my family on Duck Key in Florida. We got warm, missed 7 inches on snow in Chicago, and saw alligators, key deer, and many, many birds generally not seen in the midwest (pelicans, cormorants, white ibises, snowy egrets, and on and on). That is all that I will say about this trip because I do not want this to be a tedious on-line version of "slides from my great vacation."

Coming back to Chicago involved a 50 degree reduction in temperatures and 45 minutes of shoveling snow (well, slush might be a better description). The one-eyed cat with FIP has deteriorated and we are struggling with the euthanasia decision. Bills and mail have piled up. There are several hundred messages in my four e-mail accounts. Vacation has definitely ended and stress has kicked in. I must sleep now to shake off the numbness that comes from realizing that I am facing an insane number of tasks that should have been done yesterday.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

oh five

The clock ticked and we broke out the new calendar that I received from my insurance man. My dear, beautiful wife took me to a New Year's Eve party last night hosted by her friend, Audrey Niffenegger. Many of the folks at the party were artists or writers - my wife plunged in and connected with these people immediately. I tried and I tried, but I could not fit in. I leaned against the kitchen wall and drank my beer. My sweet wife finally took pity on me after I grumbled a bit. We left before midnight. We saw oh five in with our two girlies, watching the lakefront fireworks from the second floor of our old house. I crashed right after that. I was yanked from my sleep at 3:00 a.m. with a wicked sore throat. I am facing the New Year with a lousy cold.

We prepared the "New Year Good Luck" meal - Hoppin' John, which is based on black eyed peas. Humanity needs good luck. We lived through a pretty challenging year in 2004. On the local level, our next door neighbor died unexpectantly in September. On a global scale - this is one of the worst years in our lifetimes. There was lots of human violence in many locations, topped by the tsunami. Oh five ought to be better.