Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My favorite things: Christmas gift ideas for people who love music, traveling, and reading

This may seem like a random post, I realize, but after a couple of people asked me about a few of these things, I decided it might be a good topic.

Here's my rule of thumb: When it comes to prescription meds, buy generic. The extra money for name brands is a rip-off. But when it comes to travel and music, the extra money spent on quality can be a huge difference. Many of the things listed here are recommended because I've tried the cheap Walmart knockoffs first and then looked for something better. Normally I am always looking for the cheaper option, whether it is generic or used, but here, with this list, I've found things that are worth their price and more.

This list can work for anyone that is into travel, reading, music, or the outdoors.


Bose Mini SoundLink
A friend of mine went to a dinner party and heard this speaker, and he immediately bought it when he got home. I went to his house and heard the speaker and I came home and also immediately bought it.....and so it goes, on and on.  There isn't a better sales pitch than that. The sound is that impressive and I haven't talked to anyone who said it isn't completely worth the $200 price tag. It is completely wireless with a built-in rechargeable battery and Bluetooth capability.

Beats Wireless Headphones
I predict this will be one of the "it" things this year, especially with rumors swirling about the possibility of Apple dropping the headphone jack for the iPhone 7. I seriously doubt this particular rumor is true, but as with all things, there will be a time when headphones will be predominately wireless.  And you might not think that losing that tiny wire between the headphones and the device in your pocket is a big deal, but after trying them for a few minutes in the Apple store, I can say that it actually is.
Dead and Company CDs
If you have a Deadhead in the family and have more time than money, you can download the recent Dead and Company shows and put them onto blank CDs.  The steps are easy:  Download the VBR MP3 files from each show here:
Unzip the folders
"Add to iTunes library" and select the unzipped files
Burn the shows onto individual discs.

I haven't seen Deadheads this excited about a lineup in the last 20 years.

Travel and the Outdoors:

Stanley vacuum-sealed travel mug
I've used my fair share of cheap Walmart $9 travel mugs through the years, and can say this one is worth every single penny. It's completely leak proof and will keep your coffee hot through the majority of the day. The inside is metal and therefore BPA free.

Another option that is slightly smaller with more appealing colors (I bought this one for Amanda and she uses every single day) is the Camelbak travel mug. It's also vacuum sealed and will keep coffee hot for the majority of the day.

Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX Hiking boots
I bought these boots a few years ago, and halfway through my first hike I decided I would not buy anything else ever again (as long as they're available). And if my opinion isn't enough, the Navy Seal who wrote No Easy Day, about the mission to get bin Laden, mentioned these exact boots as his go-to choice for operations in the Middle East--so there's that.

Hydro Flask Water Bottle
I've used almost every water bottle you can get your hands on, and nothing beats this one for daily use. The only time it might not be optimal is for long-distance thru-hikes where every ounce is considered--it is heavier than most. Otherwise, it works exactly like the vacuum-sealed coffee mugs above. You can fill it up with water, put 3-4 ice cubes in it, and your water will be cold for days. You'll be asking yourself "What black magic is being used here?!" These are also stainless steel and BPA free. Hydro Flask also makes a travel coffee mug and now has an insulated pint glass.

Born boots -- Allen style
If you're the type of person that can't stand the idea of having "dress shoes" that aren't able to stomp around in a wet, muddy field, check these out.  They are more "dress" than "boot" though, so don't expect to step in ankle-deep water and stay dry-- tried that one a couple weeks ago.

Kershaw Pocket Knives
Kershaw makes great, affordable knives of all types, colors, and sizes. If you buy one of these for your guy and he doesn't love it, then just leave. Yes, it's that simple.

Reading--for the nerds of the family:

I think subscriptions to high-quality media publications are a great gift idea if chosen correctly. Of course, you run the risk of unread magazines piling up on a coffee table all year, but I think we are all craving perspective and a deeper knowledge of what's going on in the country and the world. Social media can be nothing but empty calories of knowledge--we see it daily. But to break free of the "addiction of distraction", as Tony Schwartz wrote about for the NYT last week, and read something that took effort, research, travel, interviews, knowledge, and deep perspective becomes very enjoyable--like a home-cooked meal after living off the McDonalds dollar menu for 3 straight weeks.
I recommend the following:

Rolling Stone--Yes, you have to wade through the occasional profile of Britney Spears, but the long-form journalism of Matt Taibbi blowing the lid off the collusion of the Wall Street banks and the federal government is well worth it. It's also how I keep up with the various parts of the music industry without having to actually listen to the music.

Outside Magazine-- I first subscribed to this one years ago for tips on trails, gear, and biking, and then I found that it holds some of the best, most captivating writing I've found anywhere....period. It's no secret that great writers seek adventure first. It's a perfect match.

The Atavist Magazine-- This is a digital-only publication featuring the best long-form journalism in the world. The stories are both true and fascinating and read like great short stories. The cost is $24/year, and from what I can tell, it's well worth it.

The Atlantic-- No one is doing current events better than The Atlantic.

I can't believe I just spent two hours making a list of my favorite things...but there you have it. There are many types of "great gifts," but finding something that a person will use on a daily or weekly basis for years is a home run in my book. I hope this helps.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Success of John Mayer with Dead and Company

Fare you well, Fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
--Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia

As we stood in the upper half of Madison Square Garden last Saturday and listened to Bob Weir and pop-star-turned-deadhead, John Mayer, sing those words in the newly formed Dead and Company, a realization came over me about the power of the Grateful Dead’s music. The initial attraction, staying-power, and cult-like following of the Grateful Dead comes from Jerry Garcia’s ability to transcend both personal and musical ego and allow the music to grow out of genuine emotional sentiment. In those special moments of “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” or a dozen others, Garcia’s voice becomes so plaintively raw and pleading that you feel as though you’re not only seeing through the public mask that adorns us all, but into the heart of a man yearning to find freedom and redemption through public musical confession. So much of today’s popular American music comes not from real people, but from the carefully crafted characters they play on and off stage; yet Garcia and the Grateful Dead became one of the most successful bands in the world by peeling away those false layers year after year in front of thousands of fans, until there was little left other than the song...and maybe a drug addiction or two.    

There used to be a time when art, literature, and music could be openly based around sentiment. A person’s raw emotion had the power and legitimacy to drive a song or a story. Now, with our every waking minute being consumed by the hyper-industrialized process of profit driven media commercialism, sentiment has fallen out of favor, replaced by the protective mental armor of Irony and Cynicism. The Millennial-driven multimedia world thrives on an outward display of attitude and hipness. Any notion of inwardness or sentiment is seen as weakness by naivete. Author David Foster Wallace wrote, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

Photo by Katie Friesema

The Dead and Company consists of original members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, along with Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge, pianist Jeff Chimenti, and pop-star John Mayer on guitar--essentially playing the sacred parts of Jerry Garcia. The genuine confusion as to why three of the remaining members would tour with John Mayer has suddenly been replaced with questioning why is this the most successful incarnation of the remaining members in the last 20 years. To attempt to answer this “why,” you have to be willing to dig deep into our complicated and mysterious relationships with music, art, popular culture, expectations, and biases. It is almost the perfect storm for music lovers to confront why and how we love music and how much power it has in our identities.

When Bob Weir announced they would be doing a major tour with Mayer on guitar, there wasn’t any of the emotional backlash that occurred with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio playing the final Chicago shows in July. (Those were the final shows that included all four living members of the GD; original bassist Phil Lesh has bowed out of any further tours.) Instead of the passionate and heated online debates, fans seemed to react to the announcement with a mix of shock, disappointment, and a collective eye roll. The band and music they had dedicated so much of their lives to was going to tour with a guy who had spent years as celebrity tabloid fodder. But when the first shows happened and people listened to the recordings, everything changed. There was a passion and buoyancy in the music that had not been heard since the 70s and 80s.

After attending one show and listening to a half dozen others, I believe that Mayer’s success is based around his natural inclination to find and share the deep emotional content that Garcia brought to the music. His ability to soulfully connect to the music of the GD is also, ironically, the same quality that made him famous in the female pre-teen pop world by writing songs such as “Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” “Daughters,” and “I Don’t Trust Myself with Loving You.” The only sin greater than expressing sentiment is doing it for pop-culture fame. Our mental armor of cynicism creates a distrust of anything that is both popular and sentimental. It can be one, but it can’t be both--or so we tell ourselves.  

Photo by Tim Johnson
In the 20 years since Garcia’s death, the remaining members have formed many incarnations with the who’s who of rock guitarists: Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Kadlecik, Trey Anastasio, and Derek Trucks. I will argue, however, that Mayer is the most successful by a long shot. There is something within Mayer that allows him to wear the heavy cloak of the legacy of the GD while not losing his own personality. It’s the unique mix of tradition and youthful energy that makes the spirit of the music sound more alive than any other time in the last two decades. He plays with the technicality of Trey and Jimmy, the soul of Warren, and the creativity of Trucks. Most importantly, he also plays with the same deep musical sentiment that made us all fall in love with Jerry Garcia in the first place.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

We tell ourselves "Love Wins" after the Paris attacks. I wish it would.

26 state governors are refusing to help the refugees. Their excuse is the Paris attacks, but that's bullshit. They were determined to hate those refugees no matter what happened.

Those refugees are guilty of the three worst sins in the eyes of many:

1. Poor
2. Need Help
3. Have Dark Skin

As a nation that worships wealth we confuse money for virtue.

It's why a poor hispanic kid will do more jail time for a bag of weed than any Wall St exec will do for defrauding their customers and crashing the world economy.

It's why if a poor black kid is killed by a cop we say "He must have done something wrong"

It's why we vote for tax breaks for the rich before pay raises for our teachers.

If you're poor, no misdeed should go unpunished. No racist fear should go unchecked. The God Of Wealth has not shown you blessing therefore you're devoid of virtue, and we are content with our Christian (in name only) judgment upon you.

If you're rich, you've been blessed by the God of Wealth, will be bestowed with the obvious holy name of job "creator" and any transgressions in the name of wealth accumulation will be instantly forgiven.

We're a nation of immigrants that claims to worship a poor middle eastern family with a newborn child that needed help one Dec night. But 26 elected state governors would turn that family away saying "Well, they were poor and probably terrorists"

The terrorists hate those refugees as much as they hate the western world. If every nation closes its borders and lets them starve and suffer then we're doing exactly what the terrorists want--just becoming pawns in their strategy and letting barbarians outsmart us.

Moments after an attack we tell ourselves love will overcome, but we only need a couple days to realize that fear, nationalism, and callousness are our defining traits--ironically, the same traits that make the terrorists evil in our eyes. Let that sink in.

The fact of the matter is that we are not worried about American deaths, we have mass shootings on a daily basis with no desire to change it. But we are worried about angering our God of Wealth by allowing poor, dark skinned people to have something they "didn't earn and don't deserve." Be it food, shelter, or even a tiny sense of safety after they've left their entire lives behind as their country burns to the ground.

We tell ourselves "love wins." I wish it would.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A 67 year old woman defends herself from a man with a cigarette

The story below comes from Jim Wright's page. Wright is a freelance writer that lives in Alaska, and writes about contemporary issues and politics with a unique combination of intellectual prowess and bravado.
This story is a perfect example of where my long-standing belief in gun rights starts shading into common sense and practicality.
When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was questioned on his gun-rights voting record, which seemed more in line with the GOP than the Dems, he explained that he was from a rural state where guns were a way of life, used safely, and did not require the same solutions as urban areas with high crime rates.

Most all of us who grew up in Sparta, NC can empathize with his feelings on the matter. You were much more likely to be hurt or killed in a car or tractor accident than with a gun, even though nearly every house had one. The idea of gun restrictions didn't make sense and aroused the hyper-active fears of totalitarianism.

But that doesn't do anything to solve the problem of our outrageously high rate of daily gun deaths. Or the fact that a gun in the house has a higher probability of killing someone in the house than an intruder.

I've always been pro-gun because of my hometown experience, and I've always tried to be pro-common sense and pro-keep-people-alive. It's becoming harder and harder to simultaneously hold those views lately.

Without further ado, here's the story of a 67 year old lady defending herself with her gun and guy who almost died over a cigarette.


Today's Good Gal With A Gun moment

A man bought a pack of cigarettes in a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Walmart. He was walking through the crowded parking lot and realized he didn't have a light, so he asked a convenient person - you know, like you do.

That person, 67-year old Sherry McLain, pulled out her gun and threatened to shoot the man dead on the spot.

The man, as you might expect, was somewhat taken aback. In fact, he was terrified, he turned and ran back towards the store. McLain tracked him with her revolver, sweeping numerous other patrons with her muzzle including a 7-year old boy, his mother, and his grandmother who were nearby.

The man ran inside the store and called police.

The police arrived, took the man's statement, looked at the security video which corroborated his story and showed he'd approached the woman no closer than ten feet, talked to witnesses including the woman and her son who'd been swept by McLain's weapon, and arrested Sherry McLain for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

McLain is outraged.

"It scared me absolutely to death," said Sherry McLain. "I have never been so afraid of anything in my whole life I don't think. This guy is the bad guy and I'm the one in handcuffs walking away."

I have never been so afraid of anything in my life.

A man asked her a question and she's never been so afraid in her life.

This guy is the bad guy, see? Because that's the world these ammosexuals live in, the one where it's the BAD guy who calls the police, and GOOD guys are the ones who menace others with a deadly weapon in a public parking lot.

"What are we supposed to do if we can't protect ourselves. I'm 67 years old," said McLain.

What has America come to when you can't defend yourself with deadly force from an unarmed, non-threatening guy who asks you for a light? My God, people! What has America come to when you can't just brandish a loaded weapon and endanger others in a public place? Oh the oppression! Oh the tyranny!

I know the Surgeon General says smoking is bad for your health but being executed over it might be taking things a bit too far.

Ask yourself this: What if there were no security cameras to back up this guy's story? Or the cameras weren't good enough to see what was happening? What if there were no witnesses? What if she was all respectable looking and he was disruptable in appearance. What if she was white and he was black? Latino? Some immigrant with a funny accent and a turban? What if this was Florida?

And what if she'd shot this poor bastard down, since she'd never been so afraid in her life?

Without witnesses, without the cameras, without the victim's word, she'd very likely get away with murder.

She would, in point of fact, have been a hero.

Yes indeed, she would have been a big damned hero.

She would have BELIEVED herself a hero, a shining example of the Second Amendment, a good gal with a gun defending truth, justice, and the American way.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Case for Supporting the Candidacy of Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s candidacy is shaking the foundations of American plutocracy-- why we should cheer him on.

Most of us think Donald Trump’s campaign is the low point for both American politics and American society. And sure, the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and narcissistic reality show attention tactics do, in many ways, show Americans at our worst. But if you step back, place it in a historical context, and disassociate yourself from Trump representing the worst of us to the world, you can begin to see his candidacy as what we both need and deserve at this moment in time. From there, you can almost begin rooting for Trump, not because you agree with anything he says or think he’ll be a good president, but because watching him shake the plutocratic foundations of our ineffectual government is worth the risk.   

From Watergate to the impeachment of Clinton, and from George “Dubya” to Obama, we’ve slowly lost any idea of what a functioning government should do: move money around to solve societal problems and protect us from foreign invaders. The slow involution of American politics has left us with extremists and demagogues, who, by mandate of their equally extremist constituents, are sent to Washington to hijack the political process through any means necessary. By blocking any effectiveness of the federal government, groups such as the 40 member House Freedom Caucus thereby affirm their worldview that federal government is, in fact, ineffective.   

From the paralyzation of the federal government to the facade of the never-ending campaign spectacle that gives the illusion of choice and issues, Donald Trump’s political sledgehammer is breaking down walls and allowing a new light to enter. At this point, breaking through the carefully crafted political “reality” that is presented to us by the establishment of Republicans and Democrats will not be painless. This political facade was created not just for overall public control, but to allow us to remain ignorantly blissful of the dirty, corrupt, and, if we’re to be honest, racist motivations of institutional power.

Exposing inherent racism and nationalism is not a novel concept. But creating a space for it to be gregariously expressed, as Trump has, has not happened since the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns of segregationist George Wallace (respects paid to Pat Buchanan, of course). While remnants of Wallace-style outward racism remained steadfast throughout the southern United States, the country, as a whole, told itself it had moved into a “post-racial” reality. Through the 80s and 90s, we believed our inherent goodness transformed outward racism into the anodyne process of fiddling with government diversity statistics in the name of “affirmative action.” Or that we somehow grew into dealing with broader issues such as the drug and crime epidemic. We even reaffirmed our post-racial status with popular entertainment such as The Cosby Show--if African-Americans didn’t want to work their way up to upper-middle class comfort, then it was their own fault.    

What seemed to be enlightened growth on the outside was anything but that on the inside. After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the southern segregationists, who were mostly Democratic, dissociated themselves from the party. In one of the smarter political moves of the century, Nixon made a backroom deal with Strom Thurmond at the Miami GOP convention in 1968 to fold them into the Republican party, thereby guaranteeing him the presidency. “It took two election cycles to convert the ‘Solid South,’” wrote William Greider on the event,” but Nixon and GOP apparatchiks made it clear with private assurances that Republicans would discreetly retire their historic commitment to civil rights.”

While as a nation we were celebrating mass-marketing campaigns of the 1980s that felt hip and inclusive, the southern segregationists moved to the back rooms of government and focused not on simply repealing the Civil Rights Act, but on slowly dismantling it piece by piece under the euphemism of “states’ rights.” Community law enforcement practices aside, the federally mandated mandatory minimums under Clinton, our so-called “first black president,” (further affirmation of “post-racial”) produced the blatantly racist mass-incarceration epidemic. And one only has to look back a few months to the sustained GOP-lead attacks on the Planned Parenthood funding to find current whittlings of any type of assistance to the poor, predominately black communities. It is no secret that Planned Parenthood is directly responsible for abortion rates being so low today--free birth control works! But the real ire of today’s white nationalists is the idea that poor black women might be getting taxpayer-funded medical assistance they “did not earn.” The false notion that PP is “selling baby parts” is the perfect bait and switch to further reduce funding for people in our poorest communities.

Trump has done much more than root out the remaining segregationists, now referred to as “nationalists,” with his anti-immigration rhetoric. He’s also been the wedge to crack open the growing schism between the rural Southern conservatives and the corporate elites who’ve always controlled the Republican party and solely benefited from their anti-tax, anti-regulation platform. This populist disillusionment and anger, which started slowly with the tea-party libertarians from the Bush Wall Street bailout years and quickly gained momentum with the election of Obama, has now taken hold as the socially conservative faithful have realized they’ve been sold up the river, so to speak, by Republican candidates who promised social conservatism but instead delivered corporate plutocracy. The answer to the decades old question of “Why do poor, rural whites consistently vote against their predominant and obvious financial interests?” is not only being exposed but is starting to unravel. Again, Greider writes about speaking with Democrat and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, Scott Lilly: “‘The problem,’ Lilly said, ‘is that this latter group has almost nothing in common with the country club wing.… The country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion and immigration.’ On the other hand, common folks don’t worry over marginal tax rates, capital formation, or subsidies for major corporations. ‘If they ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for those policies, they would be in open rebellion,’ said Lilly”

It’s hard to imagine Trump not being conscious of the implications of every move he makes. But one has to wonder if he fully grasps the electoral outcomes if he continues to split these social conservatives from their country-clubbing bedmates. At the worst, these disenfranchised voters will primary moderate republicans with candidates willing to bring the federal government to its knees, such as the suddenly infamous House Freedom Caucus. But with an admittedly unfounded sense of optimism, we can hope that many in the Republican base will start voting for their own middle-class economic interests. As we’ve seen in this rather fascinating race for 2016, populism works both ways, as does freedom of speech, and by rooting out the hidden racist motivations of the backroom Republican establishment, Trump’s candidacy is showing us who we really are. If we have any chance of growing out of this corporate plutocracy, a little self-reflecting catharsis won’t hurt a bit.  

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How science denial is turning the GOP into the world's pariah

If you think Donald Trump leading the GOP primary race is the worst thing happening in American politics at this point, you’re wrong. There is something much broader, more subversive, and much more damaging to our country that is being left unchecked by the mass media.

On September, 16th, CNN hosted a marathon 3-hour Republican primary debate that broke records for viewership primarily for the reality-show-appeal of Trump’s campaign pugilism. What stuck out to me, and what should have made the headlines, were the two medical doctors that stood on a stage in front of 23 million people and denied the very science they’ve dedicated their professional lives to.

Maybe we can accept people like Trump, Christie, and Huckabee denying science and obfuscating national realities for their own personal agenda. But, as a nation (as an advanced nation!) we should not give this irrational leeway for Rand Paul and Ben Carson to pander to the anti-science/anti-intellectual crowd that forms the GOP primary base.

Both Paul and Carson have had extremely successful careers as surgeons for the tenderest of organs, eyes and brain respectively. Surgical career success such as theirs does not happen if someone is sloppy or careless, either physically or mentally. It happens by someone immersing themselves into the scientific world of medicine and trusting the process and evidence presented to them. These are affluent men of science, yet they have the audacity to stand on stage in front of millions and try to convince us they “aren’t sure” about climate change, or if vaccines cause autism? A belief in conservative/libertarian models of economics and social constructs is one thing, but denying the processes of your life’s work for primary votes exposes both your dishonesty, and your willingness to pander for votes at any cost.

If we dig deeper to understand why, we’ll find that the GOP is the only conservative party in the advanced democratic world to continuously deny the realities of modern climate science. The only one.

“A new paper by Sondre Båtstrand studies the climate-change positions of electoral manifestos for the conservative parties in nine democracies, and finds the GOP truly stands apart,” writes Jonathan Chait for New York Magazine. “Opposition to any mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions, he finds, ‘is only the case with the U.S. Republican Party, and hence not representative of conservative parties as a party family.’ For instance, the Swedish conservative party ‘stresses the necessity of international cooperation and binding treaties to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, with the European Union and emissions trading as essentials.’”

You’ll find that throughout the world of democratic nations, conservatism lives up to its name within their ecological sphere of influence.

Chait continues, “Germany’s conservative platform declares, ‘[C]limate change threatens the very foundations of our existence and the chances of development of the next generations.’ Canada’s, writes Båtstrand, ‘presents both past and future measures on climate change. The past measures are regulations on electricity production, research and development on clean energy (including carbon capture and storage), and international cooperation and agreements including support for adaptation in developing countries.’ Even coal-rich Australia has a conservative party that endorses action to limit climate change.”

There will always be conservatives and progressives. In fact, our country was setup to both function and thrive on these opposing pressures. But the right-wing extremism pervading our current political reality is forcing us outside the realm of a functioning, world-class democracy. Donald Trump may be a symptom, but the anti-science extremism that has infected even the smartest is, ultimately, the sickness.  

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Stephen Colbert's debut for The Late Show wasn't perfect, but it was great!

If you want to understand someone’s personality, you could do worse than ask who their favorite late night TV host is. The landscape of late night talk shows has always been a better reflection of America than anything else on TV. In very recent memory, the conservative Leno was balanced by Letterman’s subversiveness, and Conan came to be our quirky wild-child. Then came Jon Stewart’s brand that allowed us to be both entertained and also engaged with meaningful, spot-on commentary of real-world events as they unfolded. Stewart’s brand of comedy and the Colbert spin-off eventually became a personality litmus test for people, much like asking “Letterman or Leno?” Stewart was substance with comedy as the rich dessert, Colbert was comedy with substance as the rich dessert.

Last night, Stephen Colbert introduced himself to the country for the first time...or maybe it was the second time: therein lies the ultimate question we’ve been waiting 9 months to answer. There’s the Stephen Colbert that we all know, a character so deep and complex in his conservative simplicity that we never got tired of the schtick even after 10 years, and then there’s the Stephen Colbert that we barely know--a kid that grew up in a very large, Catholic family in SC, loved his mother dearly, and got the Daily Show gig early in his career and hasn’t looked back. Can the Stephen we barely know carry The Late Show? A show that exists because of the sheer force of an entertainment legend, David Letterman. And, can the Stephen we barely know compete with a soon-to-be entertainment legend, Jimmy Fallon?

But ultimately the real question became can the Stephen we barely know exist beyond the Stephen we know so well? In other words, can he operate without the comfortable mask of his character?   

The debut of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than good and I’ll dare say it was great. He showed us that he has the chops to stand up to the Letterman legacy and also to compete with Fallon. But most importantly, he showed us that we’ve been watching the real Stephen Colbert this entire time and didn’t know it. All those years of watching what we thought was a carefully crafted character turned out to be a joke on us, the audience. The conservative, blowhard, “Bill O’Reilly” riffing was just that, riffing. But they were riffs delivered through a real, compassionate, and smart human being--the real Stephen Colbert. Otherwise, the character would have become a pale, stiff caricature of itself and wouldn’t have lasted for 10 years and won 8 Emmys. Last night was our “a-ha!” moment when we could finally see The Colbert Report for what it truly was--a great man and a great entertainer gently distilling the worst parts of conservatism for our comedic pleasure.    

Colbert gagging himself with Oreo's during Trump clips
Not since Johnny Carson has late night talk been able to cruise each week. Today’s multi-media landscape demands instant entertainment delight minute-by-minute, and Jimmy Fallon, with his creative carnival-like contests, has all but mastered this. I’ve spent this summer wondering how I would compete with him if I were Colbert, which is obviously a losing proposition. You can’t out-Fallon Fallon. But, where Fallon has taken the approach to stay clear of current and political events, other than a few monologue one-liners, Colbert showed us last night that he’s going to embrace our crazy political world. In one of the funnier bits last night, Colbert took on the comedic goldmine of Donald Trump and did not appear to soften the blows for network television, and boy did that feel good. In the absence of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report we desperately need someone to step up and take a stand against the absurdities being passed to us for political consumption, and last night Colbert showed us that he’s still on our side.

The choosing of Jeb Bush for the debut show drove home the fact that this show will tackle the current American reality head on. In between clever impromptu jokes, Colbert talked to Jeb Bush about his campaign, about the reality of the Bush Dynasty, about education, and about the systematic failure of partisan politics. It was a good interview that walked a fine balance of substance and joking around--the vibe of two smart guys having a beer in the backyard. Cloony’s interview was not one of the stronger parts of the night, but it did foreshadow the use of creative pre-filmed bits that will spice up interviews.
Jon Batiste leads "Everyday People"
The show ended with a blow-out musical jam featuring Mavis Staples, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Buddy Guy, Paul Janeway (St. Paul and the Broken Bones), Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes), Ben Folds, and the great band of New Orleans' Jon Batiste--all taking part in the classic song "Everyday People." You can watch it here:

Overall, I don't think he could have had a better debut show. Colbert gave respect where he needed to, placed jokes where he needed to, and the populist vibe throughout the show was driven home with the funky big-band jam at the end. American television is dripping with talent at this particular point and Stephen Colbert just showed us that he's ready to take the step up to become one of the greats.
--Brian Paul Swenk

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Friday, August 7, 2015

What the hell happened to True Detective?

True Detective has one extended 90-minute episode left to wrap up a mess of a season. Even with the last two episodes, "Church in Ruins" and "Black Maps and Hotel Rooms," catching a spark reminiscent of the first season, the finale would need to be a hail Mary miracle shot to keep this season from being remembered as anything but disappointing.

Nobody needed or even expected season 2 to top season 1. The first season rightfully sits on top of the throne of this second golden age of television. Creator Nic Pizzolatto's introduction into television was like a pinch-hitter hitting a grand-slam to win game 7 of the World Series. We tuned into it because of the star power of McConaughey, Harrelson, and HBO and stayed because Pizzolatto's writing took all three to new, unexpected heights.

"Who is this guy and how did he just make one of the greatest shows in history?"

If Season 1 was a 10 (and it was!), Season 2 could have come in at a 7 and we would have been satisfied. But instead, we are stuck with a mess of a story that most of us are only keeping up with on good faith.

The most obvious pot-shot to take at this season is the confusing amount of characters who may or may not be integral to the story line. Three weeks ago, Buzzfeed put out an article titled
This Is For Everyone Who Is Totally Confused By Season 2 Of “True Detective.”  I'll wager most of us were provided some clarity by this simple recap of characters and events, which intertwine, at this point, with the grace and direction of pixie pickup sticks.

"Maybe you even thought the city of Vinci was a character, too," writes Buzzfeed author Kirsten King.

Velcoro, Vera, Caspere, Bezzerides, Osip Agronov, Delvayo, Chessani, Amerilla--all beautiful names no doubt, but when you combine them with hushed mobster-like whispers, Colin Farrell talking with marbles in his mouth, and random shuffled mentions in deeply insinuated dialogue, it gets confusing quickly. I'm pretty sure I thought "Vinci" was a character at some point, too.

A multitude of characters and complex, interwoven storylines are far from narrative sin. In the right hands that combo has the power to change the course of television, e.g. Game of Thrones or The Wire. The sin that is yet to be atoned for is not giving the audience something to care about--which is, most surprisingly, the complete opposite experience of the first season.

The first season's magic was that, in some form or other, we cared for, empathized with, or at least felt pity for nearly every character that came across the screen. We tenuously held onto a sense of reality with Rust Cohle. We felt the guilt of Marty Hart as he tried, and failed, to be the moral man he wanted to be. We even understood the pain and helplessness of people like Charlie Lange.
Charlie Lange
There is one episode left in this season, and we are still trying to find something to attach ourselves to. The relationships between the three investigators have been distant at best and robotic at worst-- other than the most recent scene of Bezzerides and Velcoro finally giving into some natural human urges other than violence. The secondary familial relationships seem to keep the over-arching show themes of dysfunctional detachment and loneliness alive, but otherwise they just eat up time. The murder victim is shady and corrupt, so who cares if we find his killer? Frank Semyon, played by a much-too-dry Vince Vaughn, should be one of the characters we're rooting for but has mostly stayed one-dimensional.  And somehow we're supposed to be interested in the motives behind land and parcel transfers, highway development, and guaranteed overages?

Season 2 is working so hard to establish its own unique identity, in many ways succeeding in that. But that success of identity separation only comes at the price of losing the spark of the intrepid, existential banter that drove season one. It's an interesting paradox, that to truly understand its failings we have to refer back to what it is running from in the first place. 

A writer I highly admire, Erik Adams, reviewed the first episode of the second season for AV Club with the following: 

"'The Western Book Of The Dead' feels like a kid starting classes at a school where an older sibling’s reputation precedes them. Big brother was popular with the brains and the jocks alike, an effortless charmer who also had a bit of philosophical mystique to him. He left cryptic scribblings in his notebook margins and gave a stoned pronouncement about the human condition as his yearbook quote, yet he was still crowned prom king." 

History will probably treat this season better than our first impressions, and it could fall into the "Oh, now I get it" category, as happened with The Wire, Deadwood, and Freaks and Geeks.  Maybe upon second viewing we'll see the vision and intent with more clarity. Maybe we will start to appreciate the power of the inescapable demons lurking in these characters' pasts as they push them forward or hold them back in every moment.

Pizzolatto set out to create a whole new identity with season 2, not just with stylistic adjustments as most artists do, but a Garth Brooks-to-Chris Gaines complete identity swap. From an artistic standpoint, that takes guts--major guts! From a success standpoint, you are either going to hit another grand slam or go down swinging. Maybe not a lose-the-game strikeout, but a put-your-team-behind strikeout. Whatever happens this Sunday night, we should remember that the second season of HBO's The Wire was its weakest as well, and that show changed television. I'm already looking forward to seeing where the demons of season 2 will inspire season 3.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Right Wing Extremism, fed by fear and hate, is our biggest threat.

“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” -- Dylann Roof, suspected Charleston shooter.  

"When Mexico sends its people they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."  --Donald Trump in his candidacy speech two days ago.

"We have to TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK!"  Nearly every GOP candidate within their election cycle, echoing the constant mantra of Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, and most at Fox News.

Just a few days ago, the NY Times published an op-ed about the threat of right-wing extremism. In The Other Terror Threat, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer write: "The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police."

"In a survey we conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum last year of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction; 39 percent listed extremism connected with Al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations. And only 3 percent identified the threat from Muslim extremists as severe, compared with 7 percent for anti-government and other forms of extremism.

"Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.

"In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012."

The days of fooling ourselves into thinking that all of these are just "lone-wolf" attacks by disturbed people are coming to an end. The trends have been apparent for a long time, but a potent mixture of self-denial, racism, jingoism, and a passionate love affair with guns have conveniently allowed us to ignore the forces that help create such hate.

Sometimes understanding and perspective have to sneak into the backdoor before they can be recognized as reality. The higher the cognitive dissonance within a group of people, the less likely they will accept anything other than their chosen beliefs, no matter what evidence is presented.  (That's why comedians are such powerful agents for social change. If you can make people laugh they will drop their ideological shields for a brief moment.)  We've been forced to confront an uncomfortable truth of ideological causation brought about from the hypocrisy of blaming groups, and their ideological underpinnings, such as the "black community" or the "Muslim community" for acts of terror.

Right-wing extremism and hate groups have exploded since President Obama took office, and the currency that fuels this growth is hate and fear. Both of these are strong political tools for spreading individual interests and specific power-structures to benefit a small minority of very rich people. You don't have to go far within media to find national broadcasters talk about how we've lost "our" country to "them." You don't have to go far to find overt racist remarks about our President. You don't have to go far to find people preaching that this country is on the verge of collapse, that it will soon be overrun by people of color, and that the good-ole white-folk will be put in concentration camps. To the rational, this sounds crazy. To people who are naturally paranoid and full of fear, this sounds increasingly reasonable.

Right-wing extremism and the violence acted out is a by-product of gaining power through the spread of fear and hate. Glen Beck, Alex Jones, Limbaugh, Coulter, Ted Nugent and Fox News have built empires preying on the ignorant and fearful. It is classic cult-building phenomenon that has been studied for centuries:

1) Create the "in-group."
2) Show them the world is "out to get you."
3) Claim insider information that only you have and everyone outside the group will deny.
4) Consistently ratchet up the fear to grow in numbers and strength.

Most in the media do this only for ratings, and I'm sure none of the aforementioned would ever want acts of violence to come from their fear-mongering.  But when fear-mongering is mixed with mental illness, isolation, and boiling anger, the unfortunate resulting reaction is often violence.

Roof's statement, "You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go," (emphasis mine) is all too familiar within the right-wing extremist communities.

The national voices that endlessly loop these fears every single day need to be put in check--not by silencing them, but by publicly shaming them. We need to mock the absurd notions that Obama is going to come take all our guns, that Obama is going to take over Texas with a secret military drill called "Jade Helm," or whatever other paranoid conspiracy theory of the day is going around. They have a right to say them. We have a right and duty to publicly shame them.  Fear-mongering for profit needs to go out of style. Rational thought needs to come back in.

If the nation's law enforcement agencies are more worried about right-wing extremism than Muslim terrorists, then we need to confront reality and, as a national community, help ratchet the fear-mongering back down. It has been done before with the KKK and is currently happening with the anti-vaxxer movement, and there's no reason we can't do it again. As fractured as this country feels, we still have the power to spread awareness and combat ignorance and hate.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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