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Progressive Politics in Minnesota, the Nation, and the World

Road Trip

Category: Society
Posted: 03/19/15 00:42

by Dave Mindeman

I just got back from a road trip. I always kind of regretted not embarking on a "see America" type car driving road trip right after college. Back then, I did the "proper" thing and went right to work. So, I guess I can now officially check this off my bucket list.

11 states, 8 days, 4200 miles.

Its different to be on the road, chalking off each mile...in a car, listening to CDs of your favorite groups, and eating road food. Flying is much more efficient, quicker, and frankly, less expensive. But it is the kind of different that really sees "America" up close.

I headed straight south - zipped through Iowa. A brief stop in Missouri. A boring drive through southern Kansas (I hit a toll road which led me on 100 miles of no exits, no gas, and no food)...and ended up in Oklahoma City to wind down the first day.

Just in time to hear about the racist frat video catch all the attention. Oklahoma is a different sort of place. You see oil pumps right close to the road. No fencing and no supervision. This is real conservative, independent country. And although the University cracked down hard on the frat house and the individuals, you still get the sense that the average Oklahoman thought the punishment was a little over the top. Race relations have a different context in Okie. They don't like the idea of being described as racist, but the underlying general temperament is not very far from the definition of the term. Nobody questioned the university action at first, but as the controversy grew, defenders for the frat house began to surface.

Outside of Oklahoma City, you can drive for miles without so much as a small town. Ranches are big and cattle is king.

Soon I was in the Land of Enchantment - New Mexico. Lots of desert, lots of Native Americans, and lots of open space. I found Albuquerque to be a heavy population center. Very modern and some interesting museums about the history of atomic fission. Santa Fe is the capital city, but has a very old feel to it. Lots of adobe type houses and a number of museums regarding the Navajo Indian tribe and Indian culture as well as tributes to the Old West and the Pecos Trail.

There were a number of mentions of how Navajo Indians were recruited to work the uranium mines during the atomic bomb development. As you might expect, the cancer rates among the Navajo increased exponentially and the Navajo leaders finally got a bill through Congress that banned uranium mining on Navajo property forever.

After more driving, I got to Arizona where I got to one of the main reasons for the trip - Cactus League spring training for baseball. A lot of the teams center their operations in Phoenix and its suburbs. And the local city governments have accommodated with a number of good size ball parks.

The major league clubs get to dictate most of the terms. They get extended facilities and training areas, and even the workers are senior citizen volunteers - who work for free in return for free entrance to the games. (Which they never have time to actually watch).

Phoenix is a nightmare to navigate during this time. Traffic jams are common and last hours. Streets are difficult to figure out and left turns are prohibited during morning and afternoon rush hours.

It so happened that President Obama was in town while I was there. He was making a return trip to the troubled VA facility here. The times of events weren't published, but I went down to the area to see if anything was going on. I came across some protesters on the corner (only about 8 people) with signs that said "Support Veterans, not Illegals"....you know, the usual Arizona stuff.

Across the street from the VA is a strip club. The owner had his sign say, "Welcome Obama - Have a Beer - And a Dance". Quite the advertising campaign.

Moved back up to Northern Arizona and went through the Petrified Forest and a scenic drive that included a forest of Joshua Trees. Beautiful scenery but somewhat desolate country - few towns along the way.

Had to take a quick swing down the Las Vegas strip - went early on a Sunday morning - while most of the visitors and residents are sleeping off the night before. Casinos run the city - (and all the bathrooms outside of the casinos require a key).... But the city has a lot of union workers, so it has been reliably Democrat in recent years.

Next I went back to the Arizona - Nevada border to see Hoover Dam. That is a marvel to see. It is hard to imagine this magnificent structure was built in the 1930's - and wages were 60 cents an hour (although that was a living wage at the time). It is classified as one of the top 20 engineering feats of the 20th Century. It required hard and dangerous labor, but it also provided jobs for thousands of workers. And it provided a method of making the Colorado River a productive source of water and energy. It took some skilled negotiations by Herbert Hoover (thus the name) to get the involved states to sign on to the project. (Arizona actually held out until 1944 - always the trouble maker).

The rest of my day was sitting in traffic for 5 hours to get through a mountain pass. A semi-trailer had a horrible accident that allowed only one lane of traffic, on the shoulder, to get around the carnage. After I got past that, I saw another semi that rammed a median near Flagstaff. I suspect overly tired drivers were involved. Trucks are a constant on these Interstate highways and the lifeblood of commerce in the Southwest.

Moving on to Colorado and those beautiful mountains. While watching the news, I caught a public service announcement about marijuana. It said that driving was a risk (no kidding) and the animated segment told me that marijuana should be kept hidden and out of the reach of children. The cartoon father hid a bag behind a book on an upper shelf. Now if that was me, my kid would probably find it about 20 years later, because I wouldn't remember where I put it. But anyway, it was interesting to see that type of commercial.

Heading home through I-80 in Nebraska has to be one of the worst driving experiences around. Straight across the state - flat as a pancake - with few towns of any size. Kind of quirky too - I stopped at a Subway for a snack and they were "out" of roast beef. Really? After about an hour, I decided that Nebraska must be the safest place on earth - because if you are there, who the hell is going to want to look for you?

I hit the Interstates for the most part, but occasionally I would stop off at some of the old Route 66 sites. Route 66 is probably lost on the current generation, but it is iconic to the older crowd. The Burma Shave signs, the pink flamingos, the Harleys are all still out there and the states tourism agencies are trying to ramp it up. Great nostalgia.

Well, anyway, I had my road trip. I met some nice people, some rude people, and some very independent people. But there is definitely a difference between that America and the America that the political pundits what us to think is out there.

Life, there, is not extraordinary but it is real. They prefer the simple opinion rather than a complex one. They want things to work and not get complicated.

That's what you see on a road trip.
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2015 Oscar Nominated Movies - My Take On Seeing Them All

Category: Society
Posted: 02/20/15 23:32

by Dave Mindeman

OK - I'm going to do a little change of pace here just for fun. One of the nice advantages of retiring is that you have time to really do what you want. This year I decided to make a point of watching all of the Academy Award Nominated Films for 2015. It took some planning, time, and at todays theatre prices a bit of an investment.

Not being an expert on movie production, you can take all this with a grain of salt, but maybe something might pique your interest to see one of these. Anyway here is a brief review of ths year's nominated films.... in no particular order.

1. Boyhood - The interesting thing about this movie is the way it was made. It literally took over 15 years to make because the director took a boy actor and used him as the lead character throughout his period of growing up. The story revolved around a blended family with all the possible ups and downs that divorced parents and their new spouses bring to the table. There were no big life changing moments but focused on the day to day happenings that do the real shaping of our lives. It was fun to watch this kid grow up - but the story seemed a bit disjointed at times. Still if you want reality in your movie, this would meet your needs.

2. American Sniper -Bradley Cooper was spectacular in this movie. I know there has been a lot of controversy about the portrayal of the Iraq War, but I took it as a character study of a complicated soldier, who believed in what he was doing but paid a deep psychological price from all those tours of combat. Although the movie refused to go into the reasons we were there, it did give a clearer picture of the pressure we put on our soldiers during this long decade (and more) war. I don't doubt that this door to door warfare changed people and the movie tried to center on what Chris Kyle did to cope with it. It also gave a vivid portrayal of what his family back home had to deal with as well. I thought it was very good.

3. Birdman - This was a very unique film and I doubt very many could pull off a complicated lead character like Michael Keaton does here. The artistic moves in this film are worth noting. It is mostly set in a Broadway theatre and we spend a lot of time in the winding corridors in its lower level. The lighting in the film actually plays a part. Sometimes the conversations are in near darkness with shafts of light that add to the intensity of the dialogue. The "Birdman" character (a reference to when the character played a superhero of that name in blockbuster movies) is a demon from Keaton's past and also his only real claim to fame. He desperately wants to be recognized for being an artist and it consumes him and everyone around him. Sometimes it is hard to know if they are in actual reality or following his fantasy. The movie keeps you guessing and the dialogue is intense. It might get Keaton that Oscar nod.

4. Grand Budapest Hotel - This is the only pure comedy in the nominated group and it was very funny. Ralph Fiennes makes this work, showing some great comedic talent. The European scenery is a pleasure and the story is a complete, but delightful farce. The film makes you suspend belief in the entire story line as you wait for the next pitfall to develop. Ed Norton and Jeff Goldblum have small parts in which they blend in without overplaying the role. Wes Anderson was nominated for director and adapted screenplay in this movie. I do expect he will win the screenplay Oscar.

5. Selma - This movie got snubbed in all the other categories and I think that was a shame. Martin Luther King was played by a British born actor, but when he spoke, it was like you were hearing a recording. There has been some flak about the way LBJ was portrayed, but there isn't much question that the Johnson administration had been dragging its feet on voting rights in the South. I think he was more sympathetic to the cause than the movie might suggest, but the overall tone was clear about how difficult it was to get the nation's attention on the subject. The graphic portrayal of the beatings that occurred on the Edmund Pettys Bridge struck a nerve even as it did when it happened in 1965. It was a powerful movie and even with some creative license, it still resonates today almost as much as it did then.

6. The Imitation Game - Another character study. This time a real person in Alan Turing. The man who broke the German Enigma Code in WWII. Although he might be the biggest reason the Allies won the war, he ended up in prison after the war. His crime? He was gay. His life was also affected by his ability to fit in and many believe that he had Asperger's syndrome, although that is still a bit controversial. His inability to accept someone else's authority got him into trouble in a military situation, and he had little time for people who did not understand his long range plan. It led to a very complicated life and a very lonely, tragic one in the end because he lived in England....a country that believed the person he was, was illegal to be. Outstanding movie and Benedict Cumberbatch is becoming one of the elite actors of our time.

7. Theory Of Everything - This movie portrays the life of Dr. Stephen Hawking. Eddie Redmayne was incredible (and if Keaton doesn't win the Oscar, he should). It was hard to believe that he actually does not have the disease. The movie didn't dwell much on his academic career, but rather the struggles his wife and family endured in, essentially, keeping him alive. They all paid a heavy price, but their gift was giving us the life of Stephen Hawking and all the knowledge that he could still impart by sheer force of will. The movie had an interesting sound track that kept moving in the background, yet didn't overplay its hand. Might give it an Oscar in one of the sound categories. I thought Felicity Jones should get the Actress award, but everyone says Julianne Moore was just too good in "Still Alice", which I have not seen..

8. Whiplash - This movie was the only disappointment in the group to me. It was good, but very painful to watch. A talented musician (drummer) gets into the music conservatory he dreams of with an instructor that has won all the awards. But soon learns that his teaching method is to bully and abuse his students into "greatness" (as he puts it). The student has his own flaws because he is so obsessed with being the greatest drummer since Buddy Rich that he destroys all of his other relationships and is left with attempting to please a person who is incapable of giving a compliment or satisfaction. It was painful to watch two people self destructing in such an abusive fashion. The teacher, J.K. Simmons is expected to win the supporting actor category (although he was the lead actor as far as I'm concerned), and I would think he will. He made me hate him so much.


Best Picture - Birdman
Best Actor - Eddie Redmayne
Best Actress - Julianne Moore (the buzz is too high)
Best Supporting Actress - Keira Knightley
Best Supporting Actor - J.K. Simmons

All great movies worth seeing.
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The Myth Of America - Part I - The Dream Of Success

Category: Society
Posted: 02/15/15 19:14

by Dave Mindeman

It is a political mantra that is meant to inspire followers and repeated in every political cycle - If you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed in America.

However, if you equate success with a comfortable living or wealth, then you would be wrong in your assumption.

Yes, on occasion, people who work hard will find a path to success, but the vast majority of people who, indeed, work very, very hard barely make ends meet.

The 1%, the bastions of wealth in America, didn't work hard to accumulate their wealth. The Walton family, the richest people in the world, inherited their wealth from Sam Walton, the founder of WalMart - a man who did work hard and took all the risks. His descendants did not.

The Koch Brothers have certainly built an empire that started with a large inheritance, but working hard to achieve it? Hardly.

And a more recent, local example is young Stewart Mills III, heir to the Mills Fleet Farm fortune. He tried to make a case of his own struggle of working hard, from the ground up, in his family's business. But it is not the same thing to struggle in a low level job with your future already guaranteed and your financial status secure.

America may be a land of promise - but the actual fulfillment of hard work to a lasting reward is a myth...a fantasy.

Over the years, the deck has been stacked against Americans who want to build a successful life. Yes, they have a better chance if they work hard - but it is far from some kind of guarantee. Their best hope is to get slightly ahead- enough that they can give their children a chance to get slightly ahead as well.

The 1% of this country have used their wealth to protect themselves. And hinder the rest of us. They fight taxes. They give the advantage to inheritance. They handicap their competition. They specify laws to their advantage. And they buy the political process.

America is more like the Russian oligarchy. We are ruled by the wealthy class.

Politicians perpetuate this myth, because they need support from the other 99% to get elected. That is the only difference in America from countries run by the wealthy class. In America, we still have the vote. The means to make real change. To place a check on the power of the few.

But that is also in danger as well. Those that seek power understand the danger of the vote. And they have worked to put obstacles in the path that threatens that hold on power. That is the next discussion.
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