Goodbye, Davy.

Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, and I’m afraid it’s time for a goodbye again. – Billy Joel, Say Goodbye to Hollywood

In this life, no sooner do you finish saying goodbye to one person when another leaves too.

As I was writing my thoughts about Olympia Snow’s departure from the US Senate, I heard the news that former Monkee, Davy Jones, had passed. He was most famous, of course, in that way, as a Monkee, the heart-throb member of a TV-network-built poppy rock band that occupied its very own weekly show.

He’d also appeared on Broadway and on the English stage and the BBC.  Irony of ironies, because the Monkees were a deliberate attempt to cash in on the Beatles’ American success, Jones appeared with the Oliver cast on the Ed Sullivan show the same night the Beatles appeared.

Here is a short video of the Monkees playing one of their many hits, Daydream Believer. After the end of the Monkees experiment (1971), Jones went back to stage and tried film, coming to rest in nostalgic 1960s musical revues.

To his legion of devoted fans, Jones will forever be the adorable British mop-top boy who played with Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz, not the middle aged man who did Florida dinner theater.

Rest in peace, Davy.

Adio, Olympia. Goodbye, Civility.

Why does someone leave a safe Senate seat? If you’re Maine’s Olympia Snow, it might be because you’re good and sick of the direction American government is moving, or, more precisely, the way our elected officials increasingly behave while they conduct the public’s business.

She had first assumed elective office in 1973, a turbulent (think Watergate) yet more civil time in American politics. Officeholders from both parties talked and worked with each other, even in public, to get things done for the broad public benefit. There was general agreement about the necessity of a functioning government. And few, if any, candidates or officials called political opponents agents of Satan, or anything.

By the time Snow was first elected to the US Senate, in 1994, there had been some erosion of civility but, in general, senators behaved like the members of the ultra-exclusive club they were. The Clinton impeachment was a turning point, by all accounts. Things got nasty, got personal, went nuclear. It wasn’t enough to get your bills through, wasn’t enough to stop the other sides bills. You had to diminish your opponent.

Washington politics became fighting to the death.

These days, politicians aren’t only uncooperative, they’re openly hostile to each other. They insist their opponents’ evil with religious fervor. Yesterday, Olympia Snow, the senior senator from Maine, declared she’d finally had enough.

She will leave her seat in America’s highest deliberative legislative body, and leave the verbal bomb-throwing to others. I’ll miss her intelligence, rationality and civility. Her departure is a sign that our country is surrendering to its worst impulses.

Things I Miss: Playland-at-the-Beach

At Playland, on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, you could be a king for a dollar. You could hear the latest music. You could play ancient arcade games. You could ride a rotting old wooden roller coaster, take a ride in a diving bell, visit a creepy-wild fun house. You could eat things you couldn’t find anywhere else – It’s Its, for example, two oatmeal cookies pressed on either side of a slab of vanilla ice cream and dipped in chocolate (the ones you get these days in stores simply don’t compare). Or Mexican food at The Hot House. Later, after Playland fell, The Hot House moved to Balboa Street. Never the same.

All kinds of people went there. All kinds. Every time I went to Playland, every single time, and I must have gone there a thousand times, mind you, my mom told me to watch out for myself.

In the summer, my dad used to come home from work when it was still light out. He’d grab my brother and me, and a cigar or two, and out we’d go to Playland, just ten blocks west of our house. We’d always run into guys he’d known growing up. They’d be cops now, or bus drivers, or short-order cooks, but in the old days, they would’ve been my pop’s running buddies. Learned a lot about the old days in the city (and about who my dad had been as a kid) from listening to their stories.

In the really old days, way before I was even born, Playland had a wild nightlife, including a place called Topsy’s Roost, a sort of mash-up of chicken coop and big band club. Think you could find something like that these days? Don’t bother trying. You can’t.

People would go out to Playland as a quick escape, a hit of fresh sea air, a few laughs, a little fun, maybe forget their troubles for a little while. During the Great Depression, not the little-assed depression we’re having now, I’ve heard Playland kept a lot of people going when they were down at their lowest; I believe it.

It closed forever in 1972 to make room for condos, because that’s what our city needed, alright, was more condos. Here’s the plaque, beloved and irreplaceable Playland’s headstone.

There aren’t places like it anymore. I wish there were; we’d all be happier and better off. Damn condos are ugly as hell, by the way.

My Funny Valentine, Many Ways

Some popular songs explode into our consciousness then disappear just as quickly. Big hits that are ubiquitous, then forgotten: a one-hit-wonder’s signature tune, theme to a hit movie, dance club favorite.

Others are more lasting. They’re seemingly born fully grown, fully realized, already familiar. Many artists might record it, seeking to explore the deep truth within the song.

Such is My Funny Valentine, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Below, some examples from among the 600 artists known to have recorded versions of the song. I’ve included two by Chet Baker (one early in his career, one near the end) because he had such an obvious connection to it.

Enjoy and appreciate the song’s own genius, as interpreted by great artists.

Chet Baker, Torino, Italy (1959)

Etta James (date unknown)

Frank Sinatra, Capital Recordings (1953)

Miles Davis, Milan, Italy (1964)

Tony Bennett (date unknown) 

Chet Baker, Tokyo (1987)

Credit, Where It’s Due

Here’s a great story out of the world of major college athletics.

Matthew Dellavedova, who plays basketball for St. Mary’s (CA), was named a first-team Academic All-American this week.

In addition to carrying a 3.6 GPA and progressing toward completion of his college degree, he averages over 15 points and nearly 7 assists per game. He’s also an acknowledged leader on a Gael team that plays at a national level and currently leads its conference.

A while back, I wrote a piece about the disaster of big-time college athletics; it’s only fair to point out the positive side too.

Congratulations to Dellavedova, his coach Randy Bennett, and St. Mary’s.

Worth a Tear or Two

Do you know who this is? Her name was Marie Colvin. The eyepatch is no Halloween get-up; she lost the eye while covering a war. She was a journalist and she died this week trying to tell the world what’s happening right now in Syria.

She was a journalist, like Murrow, Cronkite, Sevareid, some others. She didn’t just go to government press briefings. She went out and got the story. Then she told it.

She was a journalist who put her life in peril to do her job the way it ought to be done, the way all serious journalists used to do it, the way some (very few) do it still. She thought the people of the world ought to know what’s happening. She believed, perhaps naively, that once knowing, we would care enough to do something.

These days, many of those appropriating the title “journalist” for themselves are either bald-assed propagandists…

trivia-seeking entertainers…

or do-nothing armchair pundits.

But that wasn’t Marie Colvin. She was a journalist. She died bringing us the story.

And her death, if not her story, might have gotten more attention but, hey, there are so many other things demanding our attention at this critical moment in history. For starters, it’s Oscar week and there are red-carpet looks to be presented and discussed.

Pitchers and catchers reported to Major League Baseball’s Spring Training.

And a newly adopted cat saved its new owner’s life.

No time now for serious stories about death and revolution.

But sometime down the road, if we’re at war with, say, Iran and the men and women in our armed forces are dying, don’t you dare bitch that the government lied to you, or that some conspiracy withheld information, or that you weren’t told. You were told, alright. You just couldn’t be bothered to pay attention – even when the person telling you died to bring you the story.

Gas Prices – The Big Secret

In California, pump prices of gasoline have gone up over 20 cents per gallon in just the past week. Analysts say a price of $5 per gallon, once unimaginable, is in clear sight by Memorial Day, the start of the traditional summer vacation driving season.

There’s a lot of useless and baseless presidential campaign rhetoric about the link between the administration’s energy policies and gas prices. Many people also hold very naive assumptions about the key determinants of gas prices: distance between the pump and the refinery, accidents and natural disasters, global terrorism, military conflicts, environmental regulations.

Of course, all of those factors do matter in determining gas prices, because they affect the cost of production. But even in sum, they’re almost marginal when compared with the most significant determinant of price.

Here’s the “secret” about the prices energy companies charge: there’s a demand curve for gasoline and it is very inelastic. No matter the price, within certain boundaries, Americans will consume a lot of gas. Profit-maximizing enterprises, like energy companies, will price at a level determined by consumer demand and willingness to pay. Rising gas prices indicate that enough consumers will buy enough gasoline at higher prices to ensure historic company profits.

And if that bothers you, don’t waste time complaining or, worse, pretending the answer lies in drilling more or easing environmental regulation.

The answer – the only answer – is to just stop buying.

PR Disasters – How Not To

Crises happen and communicating through them successfully is hard work. Here are some examples of crisis communication done the wrong way. Read. Learn. Avoid.

Netflix

Netflix has often had troubles communicating with its customers. This year, the CEO’s announcement that he was going to split the company in two puzzled everyone – there was no clear plan or even the slightest hint at a reasonable rationale for the move. Share value plunged, and the announcement was rescinded a mere 23 days later. Analysts wonder if Netflix will regain its previous status as the dominant market player.

News International

The worldwide reputation of News International and CEO Rupert Murdoch took an enormous hit when its newspapers in England were accused of bribing police and illegally wiretapping celebrities, politicians and crime victims. Early denials had to be retracted as more and more evidence proving long-standing patterns of truly horrible behavior made its way to the public.

Lowes

If you’re a home improvement retail chain, here’s something you would pretty much likely want to avoid – having your company name invoked again and again in a political controversy  over Islam in the month before the Christmas shopping season. Lowes pulled ads from a TLC reality show called “All-American Muslim” after receiving Florida Family Association (FFA) demands that it do so.  The FFA asserted the show was really undercover “propaganda that riskily [SIC] hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Lowes denied the FFA demands had anything to do with its decision, but could not and did not offer a clear explanation as to why it stopped advertising.

Sony 
Over 77 million PlayStation Network accounts were shut down by Sony after the company learned it had been seriously hacked. After many initial refusals to be open about the breaches, Sony contacted customers with mild recommendations for improved Internet safety and a promise the problem would be corrected within 2 weeks. New security problems and breaches pushed that date back again and again. Customers were left to wonder about whether, and to what extent, their own data had been compromised. Cost to the company was estimated at $24 billion in expenses and lost revenue.

Penn State

[My personal thoughts about Penn State and Joe Paterno are here.]

Sexual abuse cases are pure poison for educational institutions. The case involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (photo, above) not only brought down his former boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and the university’s president, it significantly damaged the reputation of Penn State. The university tried to cover up allegations and evidence of abuse by Sandusky for years before finally admitting wrongdoing and its complicit silence.

Congressman Anthony Weiner 

Weiner sent a college student a photo of his erect penis via Twitter. When the photos quickly circulated the Internet, as Twitter photos are known to do, and landed in the hands of mainstream news organizations, Weiner denied vehemently they were of his member.

When a second person came forward with photos Weiner had sent her, the congressman was forced to call a press conference and admit he’d engaged in the behavior. Soon after, he resigned his seat in Congress.

Durex South Africa

More Twitter stupidity.

Posted on the official DurexSA (condom maker) Twitter account: “Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up.”

Really funny, huh? Especially in a country that has a serious problem with sexual assault and rape. The company might have issued an apology and the story might have died there. But to lengthen the story and compound the problem the same account posted a defensive whine: “We have posted many jokes, see our timeline… And they not violent against woman! Re-read it!!!!!”

The company eventually apologized, but not before ruining its reputation.

MF Global

In October, after MF Global declared bankruptcy $1.2 billion in customers’ funds were discovered missing.

MF Global CEO Jim Corzine resigned but refused to disclose the disposition of his former customers’ accounts. In sworn congressional testimony, Corzine, the former New Jersey governor, insisted he had no idea what happened to the money and wasn’t aware of the missing funds until MF Global filed for bankruptcy.

Republican Presidential Candidates 

Politics and party aside, these public figures were in a class by themselves. One wonders about the level of campaign staff professionalism.

  • Herman Cain – Cain self-destructed with a lethal combination of ignorance and confidence. He was hit with multiple allegations of extra-marital affairs, always difficult for a “values” candidate, but it was really his poor staff work that finished him off. This interview at a major newspaper’s editorial board revealed his complete lack of preparation for both in the meeting and the job of president.
  • Michele Bachmann – Bachmann has been prone to gaffes throughout her career, so her presidential campaign proved to be an apt moment for opponents to find and disseminate her “greatest hits.” Rather than claiming many were taken out of context, or that she’d evolved her positions as she grew on the job as a member of Congress, Bachmann most frequently chose to either reiterate her indefensible positions or make even more confusing and ignorant ones.
  • Rick Perry – Perry’s entry was much anticipated; he achieved almost instantaneous front-runner status. Almost immediately, however, Perry displayed a complete lack of focus and preparation. Rumors, supported by viral videos, swirled that he’d made campaign appearances drunk or high. His inability at a nationally-televised campaign debate, to name the three federal agencies he wanted to close sealed his political fate.

George, my man

Even though our country celebrated it – to the extent we did – on Monday, today is George Washington’s actual birthday.

He was highly respected, held in the highest esteem and practically venerated by his contemporaries, he is wildly underappreciated today. I’ve just finished a biography by Richard Brookhiser; in Founding Father, Brookhiser digs into the man with the universally recognized name and ubiquitous face we modern Americans actually know very little about.

Turns out, the stuffy looking guy on the $1 bill was actually a pretty tough cat, a great politician, an erudite and eloquent philosopher, an amazing guerilla general who was among the world’s first to understand the concept of long war, and a brilliantly modern spymaster. Oh, he also, apparently, had a nasty temper he had to work hard to control.

Because of this sad mismatch between Washington’s modern image and his living reality, it’s completely fitting his country celebrates him on a day that isn’t even his real birthday.

Happy birthday, George.

Bibleland? No, thank you.

I am a believer, a person of faith. I grew up closely within the context of a particular religious tradition. I still attend and take part in services when I’m able. My moral principles are heavily dependent on my personal history within this tradition. I studied religious history in school, working under several well-known and respected scholars. For several years, I served a religious institution professionally in a leadership position, and continue to consult with others. I have had the great good fortune to meet and come to know many religious leaders, thinkers and scholars.

I am no enemy of faith, or even organized religion.

All that said, I’m appalled at what I’m hearing this campaign season. We have entered a frightening place in which candidates are literally tripping over each other in a race to be more radically Christian than their competitors – outlining ways we might more closely align civil law and public behavior with their narrow-minded interpretations of the Christian Bible.

Here, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum offers but one example. And what’s so galling about this is the self-righteous presupposition shared by so many candidates that, of course, American law OUGHT to be based on the Christian Bible. In this brief clip, Santorum, again, argues about the “moral” basis of American law – but his “moral” compass clearly points toward a very particular direction, and this direction is never questioned by his competitors, the moderator, or anyone else involved with the campaign.

This is not American.

Look at the photograph (below) of people coming to this country, sometime in the early 20th century. Are they Christian? Who either knows or cares? They came, on shoestrings and guts, with faith in and admiration for our American experiment. With their muscles and talent and ambition and freedom, they built the country we know today. Their descendants, myself included, continue to build and thrive, and enjoy the blessings of liberty afforded us by living in this country.

Let’s get one thing straight: America is not a Christian nation, if by Christian nation we mean a country with social structures, laws and government based solely on Christian principles, especially as interpreted by a narrow-thinking band of Christians. America is also home to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and those of many other religious traditions. And atheists, agnostics, Druids, Wiccans, and so on.

They have their social relationships, laws, and sacred texts too. I happen to live by mine, they by theirs. As an American, I’m in no position to say mine is better, greater or more important when it comes to how we live in the public sphere.

Want a country based on one particular interpretation of one particular religious text? America is not for you. (And, thank God, it never has been.)