I’m All About Soil Moisture (2015Jan31)


Last day of January–the Winter won’t last forever, after all….

Well, they finally launched the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory today.
In honor of which, I have two improvs and a song of Mendelssohn…

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Thoughts on President B.H. Obama’s 2nd Inaugural


worth a second look…

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Google chose to celebrate the MLK Day aspect of today, rather than the 2nd Inaugural Ceremony Google chose to celebrate the MLK Day aspect of today, rather than the 2nd Inaugural Ceremony

What a beautiful and galvanizing celebration of the most idealistic aspect of our nation’s character, the peaceful appointment to power, either for the first time, or, as today, for another four years. For all the acrimony and rabble-rousing of politicos and their viewers, we all nevertheless accept, on both sides, that we are one nation and that we all accept our chosen leader (whether—as individuals—we chose him or not).

The musicians, James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson, and Beyoncé, all made our hearts swell and our eyes tear up. The poet laureate’s Inaugural Poem was layered with iconic imagery of small points and grand visions, candid moments and desperate struggles—a beautifully, evocative work that could not have been more apt to the occasion. Even the meteorology cooperated, with a brisk breeze that furled our Stars and…

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Strangling Big Government (2015Jan30)


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Friday, January 30, 2015                                            11:39 AM

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The Times says Mitt Romney’s decision today not to run for President in 2016 frees up contributors and volunteers for other center-right Republicans, such as Jeb Bush. MSNBC says those on the far-right are hoping that Senator Elizabeth Warren will challenge Hillary Clinton. I’m always struck by how the strategy and the spin become issues unto themselves—let’s not waste any time on the actual issues. Just another example of mass media digging for excitement rather than information.

But is it exciting? Not to me. The damned election is in November 2016. I’ll tell you what would be exciting—mass involvement. If politics became as popular as the Super Bowl, I’d sure sit up straight and pay attention. It is so paradoxical to live in a nation whose greatest fame is democracy, but less than a quarter of our citizens participate in the vote. It doesn’t even take money or effort, like a college degree or a long vacation—but voting is becoming less popular than going to prison.

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Protests have seen a recent resurgence in America—that seems like a lot more effort than an annual trip to the voting booth. How do we explain the preference for protests for change over actual change? How can the media justify its focus on the infighting, the corruption, and the personalities of our legislators over their legislation (the only thing that affects the rest of us)? Only media reporting about the media goes as far into the land of self-absorption.

The government shut-downs of the recent past are another example—how do legislators get confused enough to consider refusing-to-do-their-jobs as part of their jobs? By running on a ‘government is bad’ ticket—and being elected by people who don’t like government, that’s how. The Republicans claim to be against ‘Big Government’—but that’s BS—how could our federal government be small?

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Being against ‘Big Government’ can really only be interpreted as being against America—we can’t expect fifty separate states to function properly without some unification of purpose. These ‘anti-government’ GOP creeps still manage to pass laws—they even pass spending bills. So it would seem they aren’t entirely against Government, they’re just against ‘Government by the people, for the people’. They claim that Freedom is our only goal—that Social Justice is some interloper that drains our coffers and interferes with business.

But Social Justice is little different from legal justice. If someone punches you in the face, the Republicans are all for throwing the bastard in jail—legal justice—but if you don’t have enough health care to get your face stitched back together, the Republicans don’t see any reason for government to get involved. So where do they draw the line? Perhaps they see punishment of a criminal as important, but redress for a victim (especially a victim of circumstance) they see as too soft-hearted for real ’Muricans. When the GOP thinks of Justice, they imagine a hammer, not a cradle.

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The conservatives operate by the Philosophy of the Strong. If you’re poor, toughen up and make more money. If you’re sick, toughen up and walk it off. If you’re unemployed, you must be lazy. If you are disadvantaged, just do whatever you have to do to keep up with the rest of us. It’s a wonderful philosophy, as long as you’re rich, well-educated, and healthy. It’s also serviceable if you’re a misanthropic red-neck with resentment oozing from every pore.

But the rest of us have feelings. We recognize the dangers of runaway government, but we’re still willing to risk a portion of our budget on helping the helpless and protecting the young and the disenfranchised. Anyway, lots of studies indicate that the economics-of-charity are more profitable than the economics-of-austerity—so the ‘waste of money’ argument is a false premise to begin with.

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And then there’s always the issue of complexity—our modern lives involve air-traffic control, satellite weather-forecasting, financial derivatives, gene-splicing, tidal generators, and rush-hour traffic-flow, to name just a few strands of our very tangled web. Anyone who tells you it’s time for ‘small government’ is trying to sell you a bridge to Brooklyn. Besides, government is already ‘big’ in many troublesome ways—Corporate lobbying, PAC funds, the IRS, the DEA, Homeland Security, the CIA—it doesn’t make sense to avoid Big Government on positive issues, when it’s already a runaway train in terms of negative issues.

Once again, I find myself writing about things everyone already knows—but no one does anything about.

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Improv – Snow Blind (2015Jan29)


Thursday, January 29, 2015                                      3:09 PM

‘Snow-blind’ is probably the wrong term–today I’m more struck by the brilliance of our indoor sunlight, doubled by its reflection off of all the snow outside.

And that happens in Summer, as well–I’m reminded of this fragment from the first of T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, “Burnt Norton”:

 

“So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,

Along the empty alley, into the box circle,

To look down into the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,

The surface glittered out of heart of light,

And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.”

 

Or, if we consider sunlight as reality, Eliot also wrote: “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality”….

 

The Refining Fire (2015Jan28)


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Sunday, January 25, 2015                       11:51 PM

I just played a few of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”, then I played ad lib, in D major, mostly. It all seemed quite impressive to me—I’ve spent a lot of time over the years on Mendelssohn—and he is a pianist’s composer, as far as I’m concerned—his pieces seem to fit the hand more elegantly than your average piano music. He manages to make me (or anybody) sound more accomplished than they are, without breaking your wrists to do it.

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And my improvisation has matured something awful—the simple chords I once pounded incessantly are no longer sufficient to satisfy. And that has been the case for some time now, so my searching and scratching for new harmonies, figures, turns, and fillips—and, more importantly, my recent focus on the attempt to make melodic lines a part of my improvs—has, in these most recent years, transformed my freestyle playing into something I’m almost proud of.

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Much of my improvement, and my enjoyment of it, is due to the seeming resurgence in my CNS. Ever since I took the HCV ‘cure’, the inflammations and other upsets to my insides–including my mind, my focus, my hand-to-eye, etc., have stopped, leaving me more clear-minded, more present, better coordinated, and better able to remember short-term, continuity-related memories.

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I don’t have time to think in terms of being proud of my music, though—the only reason I’ve come this far is by working as hard as you would expect someone who doesn’t believe they’ll ever get anywhere would work. When I lost my strength and my intelligence—during the worst, most death-defying periods of my liver disease—the idea of ‘making progress’ became laughably out-of-place. Playing the piano was simply primal enough to be included in the list of things I could still do—as long as I accepted that my playing went from bad to worse.

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So, I never stop to ask myself if I’m pleased with the result. I spent far too many years being quite sure of an answer in the negative, without even asking the question—it’s only now that the subject has even arisen. And still, it seems clear, I’ll never get anywhere near ‘flashy’ with a piano—I’m only excitable about the fact that I play almost all the correct notes when I play a Mendelssohn piece, nowadays— I’m still chained to sight-reading and I still can’t trust my left hand. Virtuosi are still safe from competition—even more so than before my long illness.

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But I pity everyone who is not me, nonetheless. No one else will ever hear how I play when I’m alone—and judging from what I can tell, it’s not half bad. Of course, I don’t compare myself to others’ music—I compare myself with what I’ve done before. Hearing myself play better than I’ve ever played can trick me into thinking it sounds great, when I’m making a relative judgment, instead of an esthetic judgment.

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It’s certainly better than what I get when the camera is capturing it—or when someone is in the room with me. I have a policy to always turn on the camera and take whatever comes, good or bad. That way, I thought, I’d get used to the camera. But I don’t. I just play like there’s a camera on. So, since my policy doesn’t work, I sometimes give myself a treat and play without a camera—it’s so freeing. Then afterwards, like now, all I can think of is “Was that good? Should I have had the camera on for this sitting?” It’s hopeless. All my acceptance of my limitations does nothing to quell my desire to be ‘good at’ the piano. And, yes, I know that great pianists have the same bottomless demands on their efforts—but they have better reason to push it; and they have far finer results to show for it.

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In many ways, my journey to the brink of death and back has enhanced whatever musicality I started with—maybe it’s that old ‘suffering artist’ hogwash. But I think it’s more specific than that. I think my struggles with my fading mental powers, the trembling and fatigue, the almost total loss of short-term memory—followed by my long recovery from my liver transplant and my more-recent return to something approaching my old self—was a learning experience that took place at the very source-code of my esthetic perspective. I learned not to take anything for granted—not even something so basic as remembering what I’m trying to say long enough to finish a sentence.

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At age fifty-nine, I’m also faced with the confusion between my recovery from illness and the losses due my natural aging. In a sense, I’m getting better and worse at the same time—my disability is lifting but I’m not getting any younger. Having been penalty-boxed for the last twenty years is just an emotional problem—starting over when I’m twenty years older is a baldly practical problem. In my case, ‘becoming healthy’ is a relative concept, with multiple perspectives to view it from.

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I faced death due to illness and was saved at the eleventh hour by my transplant surgeon and her team—but now, close to sixty, and not expecting to survive far into my senior-citizenship, I’m facing a more leisurely death due to natural causes. Once you start losing, it’s hard to stop, mentally. And modern life makes old age very confusing. In our time, a sixty-year-old, for example, faces the possibility of living for another forty years—but someone with my health issues can still see sixty as a kind of ‘two-minute warning’. Someone who takes care of themselves can become a centenarian—but even with my illness, I never learned to take care of myself. Hey—life is for living—that’s how it always seemed to me. I still smoke tobacco, among other things—and a smoker in his sixties is dead meat. Inhaling a house-fire is a young man’s game.

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I find myself ready to begin my life again—but I’m old, I have no degree, I’m just a step above bed-ridden, my driver license lapsed two years ago, I’m addicted to nicotine, I go to the bathroom more often than a normal person—it’s just demoralizing. And to complicate issues, the many years my failing health went undiagnosed, when my symptoms were mistaken for dissolution and irresponsibility, led to many stressful situations in the old office.

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I worked for my parents and family businesses are always stressful to begin with. I was a systems manager, coder, and PC specialist in those early times of business computing, when there was resentment against the geeky, entitled, self-taught computer-maven. Plus, the fragility of those earlier hardware systems brought its own freight of stress—young people who now toss around their I-phones have no idea!

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Just as my symptoms began to manifest—loss of focus, loss of memory, confusion, fatigue—my parents retired, sold the business to a VC-company that tried to bankrupt the business for personal gain (filing chapter eleven, or is it chapter thirteen?—whatever) which the family was in the process of buying back, out of receivership, when my father died suddenly, crashing his private Cessna. The business then became the responsibility of me and my siblings, which turned out to be a recipe for disaster—but I was slowly dying from liver disease without knowing it and trying to do my job—and failing.

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At the same time, there were a few bad employees, embezzling money through some kind of sales-commission scam—and the one managing the accounting department pointed fingers at me and my systems when there was confusion about unbalanced bookkeeping. My family chose to trust her, rather than the careless reprobate I appeared to have become. In the end, I was fired by my own brother.

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I spent the next ten years supporting my family in relative poverty, working jobs that were way below my usual skill-set, but just doable with the brain-power I had left—I did computer graphics for IBM for a year, then transferred outside-data to in-house field-formats at Telemarketing Concepts for a few years. Then I did Y2K-corrective coding as an independent contractor in NYC. After ten years, my brother called to re-hire me as Systems Manager. It turned out he had hired an entire systems department, four full-timers and an intern, to replace me and there was still some programs of mine that they couldn’t figure out how to de-bug. It also turned out that my brother lied—he hired someone else to run the systems department and made me a Special Projects Manager—which was his way of admitting he needed me, without actually being a decent human being about it. (His new ‘manager’ turned out to be a nut-case with control issues, fired within the year. Sadly, MDA went out of business after I left, as did Telemarketing Concepts, Inc.—and the old man I did the Y2K coding for died, ending his company, too—so time has brushed away virtually everything I’ve ever done in the business world. It makes for a sense of futility.)

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But I was barely there for a year myself before my illness overwhelmed me and I could no longer make the commute to work every morning, much less do any complicated programming. I would spend the next four years doing Interferon treatments and degenerating in mind and body until the liver cancer showed up. That was when the doctor told me I only had a few weeks left. I was barely conscious by then, tenuously lucid, and barely able to walk to the bathroom by myself. Claire helped me walk from the parking lot into the hospital on the night of my transplant.

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Transplant rehab takes at least a year—it was a few years before my abdomen fully healed (what was left of it—some control nerves were cut during the operation and a few muscles are now vestigial—which developed into a vertical hernia—I look pretty messed up without a shirt on). Post-op, though, was by-and-large, all positive progress—with my blood finally being cleaned by my liver once again, my body and my central nervous system began to rebound—though some nerve damage is permanent and my brain has atrophied. Then, a few years ago, my health started to tilt back into degeneration—the Hepatitis C virus had made a comeback and it was doing a number on my ten-year-old replacement liver. Recently, I took the new three-month treatment that eradicates HCV permanently.

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This time, the upward swing of my health and mental function has been a wonderful experience—my piano-playing is better; my writing is better; I’m more active, walking every day; and I’m getting restless enough to give serious thought to reclaiming my place in the rat race, nine to five, living for the weekends—with the attendant paychecks and feelings of self-worth. But my petit-PTSD burn-out from that rollercoaster ride during the final ten years of my professional office-work career has left me emotionally damaged—I’m markedly anti-social in close quarters. Like Lucy Van Pelt, ‘I love humanity—it’s people I can’t stand’. And I’m neurotically averse to authority—especially the petty dictates of middle-management.

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Thus, office work, my strong suit, is also the worst environment I can imagine. And I’m no good at anything else—as far as I know. Plus, I’m pretty old—the fire in my belly is a distant memory. I want to be useful. I want to be productive. I’m just not sure I want a job—or if I could handle a job. Jobs involve so much more than being useful and productive—and that’s my problem with them. It’s a tight spot—and I know tight spots. I also can’t help feeling a little resentment towards my peers—as I daydream about coming ‘back to life’, most of them are eyeing retirement, if they haven’t already retired. And they have adulthoods full of accomplishment to look back on.

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But enough background autobiography—back to my original point—esthetics enhanced by the purifying fires of mental dysfunction. For one thing, the connection between me and my piano is so much deeper now—it was there through all of it, when people, as a group, had their own lives to live. Time I might have spent socializing was spent communing with my keyboard, contemplating the intricacies of acoustic artistry. A PBS documentary on Thomas Edison claims that his hearing loss encouraged him to use the power of his inner mind, to separate himself from the bustle of the everyday and retreat to his inner workplace of invention. Van Gogh’s mental illness seems to have a direct link with his painting style. Otherwise normal people have been known to become artists as a result of head trauma.

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The brain is a mysterious thing. Creative expression is one of the few things that are even more mysterious. Sometimes I actually despair of having had no great tragedy or trauma, of not being raised in dire poverty or sociopathic dysfunction, of not being in a minority, not a woman, or a Jew. How can I compete as an artist when my whole life has been a core sample from the ‘average white guy’ milieu? Where’s the mighty engine of struggle supposed to come from? If a fairly happy, fairly comfortable life prevents one from any chance at greatness, it becomes hard to define what ‘happy’ really means.

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And it raises some weird questions. Children who endure hardships grow up to be tougher, more resilient, more capable—does that mean being nice to my kids was a mistake? Greatness never comes without struggle—should I envy the struggling, when I know darn well that I wouldn’t wish to suffer as they do? Perhaps, as Jack Nicholson said in “A Few Good Men”, I should stop questioning the ways of ‘the Arts’ and just say ‘thank you’ to those whom fate has decided to make artists. God, I hate that idea.

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Blizzard Fail   (2015Jan27)


Tuesday, January 27, 2015                                        3:37 PM

The weatherman predicted the worst Winter storm in history for last night and the majority of today. The mayor of NYC made emergency announcements at 7 PM last night. I expected to be snowed in, without power, and who knows what else might happen.

Being a coastal storm, and heading northward, it trashed Long Island, Boston, and Maine, as predicted—sorry about that, Down-Easters—but here in Somers, where the initial forecast was one-to-two feet of snow, then just one foot—I’d be surprised if the official measurement reached six inches. It looks more like four or so.

Which means I was allowed to shoot, edit, and post four videos today—I shot the whole room in hopes that the weather outside would appear frightful, but all the video shows is a white glow where the windows should be windows. Unluckily, that left me with very dark videos, which I have tried my best to brighten with my video-editing controls, but it’s still a pretty lackluster show—just a dark room with my head peaking up from behind the piano.

I took some stills for the Titles and Credits graphics, too—in the “Mendelssohn – Songs Without Words No. 25”, you see where Claire couldn’t catch the cardinal  outside our window (you can just see a bit of red). In the “Mendelssohn – Songs Without Words No. 24”, you can see a wren at the same window (it’s a very popular sill). The improvs just show pics of our yard covered in snow.

The two Mendelssohn pieces, as usual, are posted more as proof that I can sight-read/stumble my way through with minimal mistakes than as any competition for the real pianists out there—but that’s where I’m at—what else can I do? I’ll let you judge for yourself what sort of voice I’m in with today’s two improvisations….

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here are some of today’s stills, on their own…

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Thank Goodness They’re That Bad (2015Jan26)


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Monday, January 26, 2015 10:07 AM

They’ve gone too far this time—and that’s a good thing. In their towering passion to oppose Obama, the Republican all-stars that made their bones sniping at him now find themselves objecting to and opposing everything, even each other. The same convoluted mind-set that found flaws in every action or aspect of our current President has gotten them into the habit of attacking anyone, even themselves, in the same way. After years of oblique responses, left-field criticisms, and denial, they can’t help but turn these awful weapons of unreason against each other.

 
Now that it is within their power to recreate the Dark Ages in the 21st-century, their well-sharpened debate reflexes have them arguing amongst themselves just how Dark the New Dark Ages should be. That’s good news. We have stood aghast as these new tricks learned by the powerful and the ignorant have stymied many of our government’s efforts to improve the lot of its citizens, and to promote peace and understanding throughout the world.

 

They oppose health care, particularly a women’s right to choose her own health-care options. They oppose homosexuality—statistically one in ten people, which seems to me enough people that ostracizing them becomes a threat against all our freedoms. They wish to establish the primacy of Christianity in a nation that prides itself on religious freedom. It seems pretty clear that they wish to retain their racism while debating racism’s existence. In a nation of immigrants they see new immigrants as our greatest threat. And in the wake of our nation’s greatest financial meltdown, their first priority is to undo the regulations that would prevent any future predatory banking and investment.

 

I’ll never understand how they got so many people to vote against their own interests in the last election. I knew that we, as a nation, pay more attention to TV commercials than we do to our teachers, but I never realized that such superficiality went ‘to the bone’, all the way to our decision-making process. The fact that many of their stratagems relied upon the success of bare-faced lying left me with a sense of overwhelming futility—not just that they would tell lies, but that we would be ignorant enough to be taken in by them. The changes wrought by the Citizens United ruling on our democratic process have brought me close to despair.

 

Our democracy, once a marketplace of ideas, has been downgraded to a mere marketplace. Money bought the offices won in the last election, not honest appraisal. It seems the voters have forgotten to look at their own lives as an indicator of whom they should vote for. Today, they are urged, and very convincingly, to vote based on the fictitious bugaboos of the GOP media machine. Dirt-poor voters were persuaded to vote for candidates that oppose financial regulation and government subsidies of the poor. Ignorant voters were persuaded to vote for candidates that prefer funding our military to funding our educational system. The unemployed were persuaded to vote for the super-wealthy’s candidates, who were unanimous in denying the income-inequality gap.

 

It was an election of madness. We chose our own self-destruction, and walked out of the polling booths proud of ourselves. And the only thing saving us now is the Republicans’ inability to switch gears from obstructionism to actual governing. Having opposed our government for so long, they seem at a loss as to how to become our new government—as if it were a crime to do the job they were elected for.

 

I know that people, as a group, are incapable of intelligent decision-making. I wasn’t born yesterday. But I’m so tired of Stupid. Aren’t we all pretty exhausted with Stupid? I’d like to kick those bastards out of congress, but Stupid is so damn popular. It must be all that money—even an ugly idiot is popular, when he’s filthy rich. Is it self-loathing? Why else would we millions with so little money be attracted to those few who have too much? Even that I find incomprehensible—what do we think, that the rich are going to share? Sorry, but Sharing is not in the Rich Guy’s Handbook. Wake up to yourself already.

 

I’m a fairly well-educated guy—but I don’t know everything there is to know about politics. Maybe, in the end, the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans. I know that Obama is special—even if the rank and file of the Democratic Party are no better than the their GOP counterparts, Obama is the best they have to offer—and his own party chose, at various times, to support him or not support him, based on the passing whims of the poll-takers. Perhaps Obama’s bare-faced progressivism has given me a false sense that the Democrats can save us from the Republicans. It’s entirely possible that they are just as bad, as a group.

 

But if we look at the two parties’ platforms, we see a decided left-leaning in the Democrats, and a definite right-wing flavor to Republican goals. And the characteristics of progressivism and conservatism, while they may have represented nothing more than a difference in opinion in days past, have real-world consequences in the present. Conservatives are somehow against literal conservation. Progressives are concerned that an individual can make too much progress, to the detriment of others. It’s a hall of mirrors. Just add arguments over syntax, stir, and Voila!—perpetual chaos. I’m too old for this shit.

 

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