Monday, April 18, 2011

Oklahoma vs. Oregon

No, this isn't a preview of a Sooners-Ducks football game.

I refer instead to the relative rankings of these states on the United States Peace Index published this month. Created by an international think tank, the Peace Index is the first-ever project to analyze and compare every state using a range of metrics associated with violence.

Oklahoma ranked 43rd, which, translated, means ours is the eighth least peaceful state in the Union.

So let's give that ranking some context. Let's choose another state almost identical to Oklahoma in population and see how it fared. Perhaps the exercise will illuminate something specific that factors into Oklahoma's plight.

At 3.75 million residents, we're the nation's 28th most populated state. Oregon is number 27 at 3.83 million. That's a difference of 80,000 people, about the size of Edmond.

Oregon's Peace Index ranking is 13th, a whole 30 slots higher than ours. Perhaps even more troubling, when numbers from 1991 are compared by the same methods, Oregon gained four positions while Oklahoma lost ten. Only two other states (Arkansas and Tennessee) dropped by double digits in the same period.

What explains such a drastic divergence? Before we jump to unsubstantiated conclusions, let's see what the numbers say.

In the full report on the Index, the Institute for Economics and Peace identifies the metrics most strongly correlating to peacefulness. The top three are education-related: high school graduation rate, percentage of population with a diploma or better, and overall educational opportunity for all ages. Oregon surpasses Oklahoma, but only on two of the three, and not by as much as you might suppose. Our high school graduation rate is actually greater than Oregon's. Therefore, differences in education must not tell the full story of why our two states contrast so deeply.

Health-related correlators come next, and this is where Oklahoma's failures really come to light. Our infant mortality rate is 46th; Oregon's is 11th. We're 47th in teenage pregnancy; Oregon is 20th. Surprisingly, however, there's little diversion in the percentage of residents with health insurance: Oklahoma is ranked 43rd and Oregon is 40th.

Continue down the list of the major correlators, and the differences are marked but not huge. Poverty, for example, is almost as prevalent in Oregon (29th) as Oklahoma (36th).

This leads us to the statistics most directly associated with violence. For homicides (number per 100,000 population), we're 40th, and Oregon is 10th. We're also 40th for violent crimes; Oregon is 13th. And for incarceration, the proportion of our jailed population per 100,000 residents, Oklahoma is 48th. Oregon is 23rd. Only Louisiana and Mississippi incarcerate their residents at a higher rate than Oklahoma.

The analysis? As the report says, a state's peacefulness is directly related to the level of opportunity available to its residents. The data makes clear that "access to basic services, having an education, good health, and ultimately the opportunity to succeed, are key pre-requisites to a more peaceful society."

I'll write more soon using this comparison as a jumping-off point.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stop Getting This Stupid Haircut

This haircut must be stopped. It's gone on long enough.

You know what I'm talking about. The chopped-up white-girl thing with the streaks. The horrible clipped-up back of the head that's left dark. Longer on the sides, shorter on top. Looks like something a mental patient would do to herself.

I don't know shit about styling hair, but I know ugly. Speaking for guys everywhere, let me inform you that we do notice you. We like it when you look good. We want to steal glances at you and say to ourselves, "Wow." It's not flirting, it's just admiring. But if your hair is shitty, we won't stay interested long, unless you have the world's best ass or something. Is that sexist? Fine, but it's honest.

I've only seen a few women who can pull off a style like this. They were all famous and could afford to hire someone talented. And even they would have looked way better with some other cut.

Seriously? In 1998, this style may have said, "I'm a wildcat; you can't pin me down." Today all it says is, "How many copies of that do you need?"


Monday, March 7, 2011

The Dreadful Hoax, Success

I was turned on to this 2:20 video clip today, almost by accident. Watch it, slave!

How I went through so many years of "intellectual" adulthood without a proper introduction to Alan Watts, I'll never know. I have a lot more digging to do.

Oh, and kudos to Parker and Stone (best known for South Park) for lending their talents to this worthy but relatively obscure, little project. Their insolence, DIY aesthetic and talent for inventing characters have had an enormous and lasting influence on American culture.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Photo courtesy of Anthony Easton
I was about 15, and my mother was watching a black-and-white movie on American Movie Classics. I took one look at Jane Russell and froze.

She was stunning. I literally could not move my eyes away from the screen. She ridiculed the men around her, lips curled, confident, gorgeous. In the scenes or shots where she did not appear, I instantly missed her, like a puppy alone in the dark. Eventually a scene arrived where she was taking a shower, and there were her bare shoulders in the steam. I almost hyperventilated.

(I don't remember the movie title, and it's probably a good thing -- when you replicate your memories, inevitably some of them get ruined).

That experience set a new standard for sexy, as far as I was concerned. I wanted that girl. I wanted her to rebuke and try to dominate me and then submit to ecstatic discipline. My mind filled with thrilling, new, animal possibilities. And the girls in my little town suddenly seemed hopelessly conventional and plain in contrast.

I had a major crush on Jane Russell, but I was uneasy about it. I knew the movie was several decades old (late '40s or early '50s) and that Russell must be, too. Did I lust for her or the hottie she used to be? And whichever it was, did it make me a freak? Other boys talked openly about the sex-symbol celebrities of our own time, but except for fleeting references to Marilyn Monroe, there was an unspoken consensus that old was old and therefore gross.

Jane Russell died yesterday at the age of 89. This is a photo of her in 2009.

Photo by Getty Images
Okay, so the sweater was a poor choice. Arguably, she did not retain her physical beauty her whole life. You'd probably never guess the woman used to look like this.

Photo courtesy of John Irving
The first photo is a meditation on elderly women and their sense of fashion. The second one is all neck, shoulders and tits (um, wow). But together, if these two images don't force you to think about aging, nothing will. Is time cruel? To everyone? Is it madness to put such a social premium on beauty and youth, especially for women? Is that obsession a cultural quirk or universal human nature? Does it cripple us psychologically as we age, or can it be overcome?

Images, we'd all agree, are valuable and pervasive cultural currency. Technology allows us to vivify old photos and artificially age new ones. Youth and beauty fade, but images don't necessarily. Now that all of our cultural records are in high-definition, I'm curious -- will this immortality of image change us in any fundamental way? Will it alter the way we perceive time?

Will teenage boys in 2050 fantasize about Megan Fox, Jessica Alba or Rihanna, and seek out video clips filmed 40 years earlier? Will the celebrity bombshells of 2050 release virtual-reality, total-sense experiences of themselves that render the "video" of today obsolete (like the penny arcade of yesteryear)? For now, one can only speculate, but it's great fun.

And you, Miss Jane -- you were a goddess and will always be so. Your image gave this Oklahoma boy indelible memories, superb fantasies and -- to hell with modesty -- many, many erections. The year any particular image was created hardly matters. The fact remains that it belongs to you and can never belong to anyone else. May you live forever on film.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Conservative Legislator's Playbook

Photo by Petras Gagilas
Congratulations! You’re a Conservative who’s just been elected to some lawmaking body!

As if you needed reminding, your mission now is to size up all government programs and eliminate the ones that are abhorrent to your ideology. Some ideas to get you started: regulatory agencies that won’t let highly profitable companies pollute their nearest rivers; services that help the shiftless poor and unemployed; public schools that turn our kids into elitist, overeducated liberals – with practice, you’ll identify a new target every minute.

Legislatively, there are two major strategies available to you. The first is to attack the offending government programs head-on by introducing bills to eliminate them. This requires an ideological battle over each individual program. If the bill fails one session, rename and reintroduce it the following year. You’ll win a few battles but probably lose most of them. Worn out and frustrated, you’ll look back after three or four terms and find, to your disgust, that very little in government has changed.

An alternate strategy is to pinch the tube that gives oxygen to the government. You’ll join a kind of secret society with members drifting in and out of various influential positions, elected or otherwise, and who vow to carry out the objective no matter how long it takes.

The asphyxiation is accomplished slowly, almost imperceptibly, by capitalizing on people’s selfishness.

Remind working people they earn their money the hard way and ought not to be forced by the mean old government to hand so much of it over. Continue supporting the propaganda campaign convincing folks that the government is too large, inherently inefficient, a runaway train full of money it’s too ignorant to manage wisely.

Take advantage of economic times, good or bad (it doesn’t matter which), to cut taxes and cut them again. People see a few extra dollars in their paychecks and greater refunds at tax time, and they begin to celebrate you. The idea of raising taxes, even to previous levels, even temporarily? Well, that becomes outright heresy.

How do you tighten your grip on that oxygen tube without anyone noticing? Every now and then, create a distraction by way of legislation. One popular gesture is to feign shock at an art exhibit, upon which you propose the elimination of some tiny government program that helps fund art exhibits. Another is to introduce Constitutional amendments that seem especially patriotic, heterosexual or pro-family. Efforts like this, while they are certain to fizzle and fail, keep you in the news and make you a hero among your base. You can rest assured that your constituents are, on the whole, poorly informed and incapable of perceiving any context or nuance in the operations of government.

After a generation or so, public revenues will be too low to support the government any longer. The patient is, to your private delight, in terrible trouble. A global economic downturn provides a perfect opportunity. “Crisis!” you shout. Wail and gnash your teeth on television. Claim “forces beyond our control” now require that government programs be cut back drastically or eliminated. Make a statement like, “Woe be upon us! As your faithful, elected servant, I don’t want to deny medication to the mentally disabled, but we must, or else our government will perish. O, if only we had foreseen this catastrophe!”

Other legislators (and perhaps a President) will fight to keep this or that program, but you can aggressively paint them as irresponsible spendthrifts, blind to reality. Bring on the bulldozers! After a short while you'll sip Champagne and watch the destruction of perfectly functional, exemplary public infrastructure and government programs. The fruits of a hundred years are ground to pulp in a matter of months. Good work, Patriot!

The simplest truth about Americans is that they all want something for nothing. Embrace that denominator, and you can go as far as you want.

Now, get out there and lead!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Toward a New American Marching Band, Part One

Photo by Bonnie Natko
This past college bowl season was a sharp reminder of how impotent the marching band has become in our culture.

Halftime of a bowl broadcast once prominently featured the competing schools’ bands. It was the only national spotlight they received all year, but it was at least something.

For big games, bands don their wool straightjackets and bucket hats and trot out a program desperate to please the crowd – a Black Sabbath medley, for example – but the effect is always predictably grotesque, like a squadron of full-dress Marines synchronized swimming to a Celine Dion recording. It isn’t nostalgic, inspiring or artful – it’s just schmaltz. Even the performers don’t care, as evidenced by their disengaged facial expressions.

(I’m not alone in my disapproval of the typical halftime show. Read “Pageantry Sucks,” a fellow blogger’s post I find accurate and howlingly funny.)

With each passing bowl season, the networks devote less time, the announcers’ enthusiasm gets more patronizing, and nobody can figure out how to mic the show. Bowl games last December and January barely if at all featured the bands. Can you really blame the networks?

Let’s face it: the wind ensemble (whether marching or sitting) is a relic of an America that hasn’t existed for about a hundred years. It’s contemporary with barbershop quartets, the town square gazebo, petticoats and seersucker suits. Electricity and the First World War blew that America off the map for good. Since then, college football, once a pastoral amusement, has flourished mightily into a major preoccupation for millions. The band simply went along for the ride. Through the years, the game and the fans have evolved, while bands largely have not.

Instrumental music programs in schools today cling to this anachronism as if it’s holy writ. Elsewhere is the ubiquitous music kids love, powered by electronics, guitars, drums, digital effects, singing and rapping. But bizarrely, most schools give kids no entry into the music that excites them, instead offering instruction in instruments unfamiliar to them (Outside of Mexican Norteno music, how often do you see clarinets or trombones in music videos?). These instruments are artifacts of a vaguely “higher” culture to which, presumably, students may now aspire.

Bored and disenchanted, even musically inclined kids turn away from the school band and never look back. Their experience feeds the misconception, poisonous to our culture, that the arts are esoteric by nature, accessible only to an elite, alien few with innate skills incomprehensible by the masses.

A handful of schools across the country have thriving music programs of the traditional kind, laudably fostered by zealous and charismatic band directors, a cadre of parent volunteers and supportive administrators. Another few have reformed their programs to include classes in guitar, keyboard, songwriting and digital music. But these opportunities are the exception; they elude the vast majority of kids.

Most school band programs are barely afloat and sinking fast. Not only are these bands social poison for the brave students who join up, they are an embarrassment to their communities and an affront to lovers of good music.

What to do about it? Look for Part Two, coming soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Martin Savidge, the Highlander Anchorman

Martin Savidge, I'm on to you.

I see your reports on CNN and NBC. I warm my toes with your old-school, buttery baritone voice and unflinching professionalism.

And yet, I am distracted. As you speak, a memory calls me -- a recollection of a film I watched a thousand times as a child. It's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, that 1971 jewel whose songs and images are permanently etched into the brains of the best of my generation.

In the movie, Wonka has announced he's hidden golden tickets inside five of his irresistible confections, tickets which admit their holders to an unprecedented tour of the Wonka factory. The entire world goes into a trance -- people do nothing but buy and consume Wonka chocolates and gather around TVs and radios for news of the latest winner.

A familiar face and voice fill the screen.

Photo: Wolper Pictures / Flickr / Courtesy Pikturz

That's supposedly actor Stephen Dunne as the contemplative newsman. Ha! Right.

Okay, Savidge, so either you're Dunne or he's you. What are you: a vampire? Highlander? Wizard? Android? You just couldn't stay away from the spotlight, could you? Thought you'd risk it? Now that I've exposed your charade, what will you do?

Hmm. And one more question: what's Kiran Chetry like? I have such a nerd crush on her.