OREGON ADVENTURE–A Photographic Travelogue of The Best Vacation Ever

October 21, 2011

Tami and I set off on a two-week Pacific Northwest Extravaganza this September.  It was a trip that we had planned for over a year and we couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.  Many of our friends and family were surprised that we chose Oregon as our destination.  Perhaps that state doesn’t immediately pop into people’s head when they think of summer vacations, but I can most assuredly tell you, there’s was no shortage of beautiful sights, interesting people, fascinating history and unique environments for one to explore.

Our Oregon adventure would take us to Portland, the Willamette Valley for wine tasting, Crater Lake National Park, Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge and up the side of Mt. Hood.  It was most certainly a whirlwind two weeks and my energy for sight-seeing may have worn my wife out, but every place we stayed and everything we saw was so spectacular that it would’ve been a shame to have chosen to cross any of those locations off the list.

The main impetus behind the decision to vacation in Oregon was based on reuniting with my good friend and current Portland resident, James.  James and I (seen above at The Pittock Mansion overlooking Portland) are friends from our days at MSU.  It’s been many years since we’ve seen each other and much has changed since that time.  The last time we spent any significant time together, both of us were single and still in our twenties.  Today we’re both married and James has a lovely two-year-old daughter.  It was important for both of us to become reacquainted and discover how each of our lives had changed.

I’ve got a terrific wife that understands the value of friendship so she was interested in making this reunion possible.  But instead of just merely making a short visit, we decided we should take advantage of having friends in far away places and thought we should make it a grand Pacific Northwest vacation and see what Oregon had to offer.

Our first destination was Portland.  As you can see from the photo above, Portland is a city that prides itself on its spirit of individuality.  It’s a city where environmentalism and liberal thought is embraced and where the conformity of traditional society is rejected.  Tami and I very much looked forward to exploring Portland.  We believed that it could be a place that we felt like we might fit in.  Bike-friendly streets, restaurants promoting local eating and a culture of inclusion were some of the things we found attractive.  However, as we got to explore Portland, we found that it wasn’t necessarily the urban utopia we had imagined.

It was bigger than we expected and because of its size, Portland experiences many of the same problems that all big cities face.  Traffic, garbage and homelessness do not disappear from sight just because a city is trendy and hip.  Although Portland fell short of our unrealistic expectations, it did still have many attractive features.  We ate and drank at numerous unique and delicious restaurants.  We appreciated the free public transportation downtown.  We thoroughly enjoyed the Portland Saturday Market, featuring local artists and vendors selling their wares.  We stayed at two very modern and affordable downtown hotels.  And we were able to take in the sights and attractions of a city that truly did have a lot to offer.

One of those attractions was Portland’s International Rose Test Garden.  It is the oldest official, continuously operated rose test garden in the United States.  Portland is known as “The City of Roses” so how could we not check it out?  The garden itself was nothing more complicated than what the name implies.  It was just row after colorful row of some of the most exquisite and unique roses we’ve ever seen.  I personally have a strong affinity for photos of flowers, so the Rose Test Garden was a perfect destination for me.

After a couple of days in Portland, checking out the city and catching up with old friends, the next stop on our trip was Oregon Wine Country in the Willamette Valley.  We stayed two nights at a Bed & Breakfast in Newberg, OR.  We’ve been wine tasting at just about every winery in Michigan and we’ve also gone wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley in California two years ago.  We go for the scenery, the slow pace, the interesting people, the great food and of course, the wine.  The Willamette is well-known for its incredible Pinot Noir, and wouldn’t you know it…that just happens to be our favorite.

Our Bed & Breakfast was incredible.  It sat at the top of a ridge that looked out at the vineyards and small town of Newberg below.  The photo above is Tami looking out on the valley beneath while out on the deck just outside our room.  We weren’t sure if we were going to do a lot of wine tasting while in Newberg or if we were just going to do some relaxing.  Our accommodations would’ve certainly been right for that, but we ended up doing plenty of tasting nonetheless.  Our wine bounty was made up of some truly excellent selections and we shipped 14 bottles back home to Michigan.  Those bottles will now be reserved for some special occasions when a simple bottle from the grocery just won’t do.

After our second night in wine country, we awoke early in the morning to depart for Crater Lake National Park.  This was what we expected and hoped would be the crown jewel of our entire trip.  Upon arrival, it was easy to assess that Crater Lake would not fall short of those expectations.

Crater Lake National Park is the most spectacularly overwhelming sight I have ever encountered.  The photos you see here can’t begin to convey its scale and my words will most definitely fall short of appropriately describing its beauty.

Crater Lake is actually the remnants of Mt. Mazama, a volcano in the Cascade Range that erupted some 7,700 years ago.  The eruption was so large the mountain collapsed in on itself creating the giant pit we now see today.  Since that event, melting snow and rain have collected to form what is the deepest and arguably clearest lake in the United States.  With a maximum depth of 1,994 feet, Crater Lake is also the seventh deepest lake in the world.  The walls of the caldera (the cliffs along its rim) range from 1000 to 2000 feet above the water level.  So when you stand at the edge of a cliff, it takes your breath away to realize how far down it is to the shore.

There is only one location at Crater Lake where you’re allowed to get down to the water’s edge.  When I learned prior to our trip that this location also had a 20′ cliff that people jumped off into the water, accomplishing this task became my biggest goal of the whole vacation.  Since we went in September, I was worried that the water would be much to cold to take the plunge.  But on our first day at Crater Lake, the sun was shining brightly and temperatures were near 80 degrees.  I was hopeful as we made the long trek down to the water’s edge, but when I saw others already swimming when we got there, I knew my dream would be realized.

The water wasn’t nearly as cold as I expected.  It was a bearable 60 degrees at the surface.  That’s warm enough for me to swim in Lake Michigan, so it was definitely warm enough to take the plunge here.  The gorgeous blue water was absolutely crystal clear and totally invigorating.  I made the jump four times and would’ve done it four more if time hadn’t been a factor.  While swimming back to shore I took the time to peer around with my eyes open under water and was stunned at how steep the lake bed was beneath me and just how far into the depths I could look.  I’ll never forget the jump and I’ll never forget the sensation I had gazing down into the deep below.

Unfortunately, our time at Crater Lake National Park was limited.  Seen above is the Crater Lake Lodge, located right on the south rim of the lake.  It is without question, the prime location to stay when visiting the park.  But since the next closest accommodations are seven miles away, it is also extremely popular.  As a consequence we were only able to book one night instead of the two we desired.  We were only able to be at the park from around 1pm on Wednesday til we left at about 3pm the next day.

The lodge itself was incredible.  The view is absolutely unrivaled and the room was very nice.  The best feature was the deck on the front of the hotel overlooking the lake.  Our dinner reservations weren’t until 8:45 that night, but we were able to pop open a bottle of wine we had just purchased the day before and drink it at our leisure as we watched the sun set over one of the most stunning attractions in the world.

Despite our short stay, we made sure to see as much of the lake and surrounding sights as we could.  The hikes at Crater Lake are mostly trails that lead from lower parts of the rim to higher elevations for more sweeping vistas.  We took one of these on the first day to Watchman’s Overlook.  The second day, our bike hike was to the top of Garfield Peak.  This hike took us from our Lodge at about 7000′ elevation to the top of the peak at just over 8000′ elevation.

The hikes were steep and cut along the edges of some rather precarious slopes.  I was very proud of Tami and how well she did.  I’m a very “go-go-go” person when on vacation and I have a tendency to push her pretty hard.  But she responded with more vigor and tenacity than what I could’ve ever hoped.  The hikes may have been tiring and arduous, but I’m sure she would admit that the end result was most certainly worth the work.

I took hundreds of pictures while at Crater Lake National Park and I feel like I’m doing a disservice by not posting more here today.  I really can’t say quite enough about how inspiring I found the place to be.  I have learned that when our country has chosen to make a place a National Park, there’s usually a pretty obvious reason why.  I haven’t been to many of them, but each one finds new ways to top the one I visited before.  We live in a world filled with amazing natural beauty and I feel it is our responsibility to see as much of it as we can.

At the Crater Lake Visitor’s Center there was a quote by author Jack London that I feel summed up my feelings pretty accurately.  He wrote, “”I thought I had gazed upon everything beautiful in nature as I have spent my years traveling thousands of miles to visit the beauty spots of the earth, but I have reached the climax. Never again can I gaze upon the beauty spots of the earth and enjoy them as being the finest thing I have ever seen. Crater Lake is above them all.”

We left Crater Lake feeling remorseful we couldn’t stay longer, but satisfied that we had seen as much as we had in the short time that was available.  Plus, it was only the sixth day of our 14 day trip so there was much that still lay ahead.

We drove back to Portland for another stay in the city.  While there we were able to explore even more and spend more time with my friend, James.

But one of the main purposes for our return to Portland was for the easy access to the Columbia River Gorge.  This National Scenic Area is just a short half hour drive from our downtown hotel.  And that mere half hour is enough to transport you from a bustling urban cityscape to a lush, scenic, moss-covered paradise that at times seems miles from anywhere.

The Columbia River Gorge is a large canyon carved over millions of years by the rushing waters of the Columbia River.  The banks of the river are overlooked by towering cliffs and impressive rock facades.

Cascading off of those cliffs and running down to the river are countless absolutely gorgeous waterfalls of all sizes and varieties.  These waterfalls bring hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to the gorge and we were surely going to join them.  An interstate runs through the Gorge right next to the river, but tucked away just off of that interstate is the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway.  This is a road built in the early 1900’s and snakes its way through the Gorge with easy, convenient stops along the way to take the in the beauty of various waterfalls.

This is the first one we encountered…Latourell Falls.

But most spectacular, and most visited, of all the falls is Multnomah Falls, towering 620′ above the river below.

The highlight of our two days exploring the area was our venture into the Oneonta Gorge.  Nestled in the Oneonta Gorge is Lower Oneonta Falls.  The falls can only be reached by trekking up the creek through a very narrow gorge with towering, moss-covered walls of rock looming over you.  While researching our trip to the Columbia River Gorge, I was searching for some unique and extraordinary hikes.  I stumbled across the tales of the Oneonta Gorge and was immediately convinced that this would be a good adventure for Tami and I.

It’s only about a half mile hike, but according to the guides on the internet, we needed to prepare to get wet.  We purchased water-sock shoes for easier walking in the stony creek, and even though it was a rainy 60 degree day that day, we were ready.

Our first obstacle was this very imposing log jam.  There was no way around, the only way through was to go over it.  It was raining that day, so these giant logs were slippery and the pile was over twenty feet hit with some rather daunting cavities awaiting if you made a false step.

Once past the log jam, it was just a walk through creek waters of various depths.  Had it not been for the advice of some friendly hikers who were leaving as we were just beginning, we would’ve certainly been in water up to chests.  The creek water was extremely cold and my adventurous wife had strong urges to turn back, but we pressed on nonetheless.  With the aid of some very crafty maneuvering on some rock edges, we were able to make it to the falls without getting wet beyond our thighs.

And finally, we reached our destination.

After our adventure in the Columbia River Gorge, we were both ready for some relaxation.  Good thing for us our next destination was the beach.  We had two nights booked at Cannon Beach, a small, tourist community on the Pacific Ocean about an hour and a half away from Portland.  I was concerned that our time at the beach would be marred by some poor weather, but we couldn’t have had it any better.  When we arrived we were greeted by a bright sunny sky, warm temperatures and some fantastic scenery.

The centerpiece and main attraction at Cannon Beach is Haystack Rock, a 235 ft. monolithic rock towering over the beach-goers who congregate around it.  Coming from someone who for most of his life has only known the beaches of Lake Michigan, a visit to the Pacific Ocean is always quite an impressive event.  The giant rock formations, the colorful creatures, the intimidating waves and the water levels that shift from high to low in a matter of seconds all create a new and completely engaging environment.

But as impressive as Haystack Rock was during the day, nothing could touch the fireworks we got that evening with a picture-perfect sunset.

On our second day at Cannon Beach we visited Ecola State Park, a mere five miles north of town.  While at the park we headed down to Indian Beach to climb on the rocks, explore the tide pools and hunt for various sea-critters, like starfish.  The waves were much calmer on the second day, so I even had the opportunity to jump in for my first swim in the Pacific.  I had a chance when I visited California two years ago, but missed out, so I was not going to let it pass me by this time as well.

While we were at Ecola State Park, we climbed to the top of a peak that gave some outstanding views of the surf below.  Also visible off in the distance was Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, seen in the photo below.  Our time at the ocean proved to be both relaxing and in its own way, a great adventure.  We saw things we hadn’t seen before, partook of some great food and had the chance to spend even more time with my friend and his wife and daughter who came out and stayed with us.

After we left the coast, it was now time for the final leg of our journey.  We would head back east through Portland on our way to Mt. Hood.  We had reservations to stay at The Resort At The Mountain, a golf and spa resort right at the foot of Oregon’s tallest peak.  Mt. Hood is an 11,000 ft. volcano in the Cascade Range.  It’s an omnipresent fixture in the Portland area on clear days.  Coming from Michigan, a place with no mountains, I get particularly excited anytime that I get to be around them.  I think its part of human nature to have the desire to be in the mountains, to feel some isolation, to explore new terrains and to be able to stand on the edge of incredible elevated vistas.

I had picked a whole handful of hikes we could take in the Mt. Hood National Forest, so our first step was to stop at the ranger station and get some advice on which hikes to choose.  Time was limited our first day, so the ranger recommended that we head to Trillium Lake.  This was a small, beautiful lake at the southern edge of Mt. Hood with amazing scenic views of the mountain.  We did the two mile hike around the lake, but the best part was the photographs.

The lake and mountain were unbelievably picturesque, but it got even better when the hike was completed.  The water of Trillium Lake smoothed to a glassy sheen near the end of the day to produce a reflection of the mountain that I only hoped I would have the chance to capture when the trip was originally planned.

We stayed until daytime faded into dusk and then headed back to our hotel.  On the way, we stopped in the small ski village of Government Camp right at the base of the mountain for some dinner.  The place was dead, but it was easy to imagine what a great location it would be during the peak of ski season.  The resort we stayed at couldn’t have been nicer.  We were given a free upgrade on our room, so we were now staying in some luxury accommodations.  Our room had a balcony, a living room, a huge fireplace and more space than the two of us could ever need.  We both felt so comfortable that it made us question our plans for the next day.  We had been going at such a breakneck pace that the idea of relaxing at a spa and resort and maybe playing some golf sounded really appealing.  But we knew that nature awaited and we needed to take advantage of our surroundings while we had the chance.

The next day we had big plans.  We were headed up the mountain.  Our main destination was the Timberline Lodge.  This is an immaculate wood and stone ski lodge 6000 ft. up the side of the mountain.  It was built by the WPA during the depression and completed in 1937.  Some of you might recognize the outside of the lodge from the movie “The Shining”.  It was a fascinating place.  A complete original that caused us to wonder at the craftsmanship and think of a time when our country made it a priority to take on projects like this.

The inside was even more impressive.

But our day had loftier goals.  We would be embarking from the Lodge on a six mile hike to Zigzag Canyon.  This hike was basically a horizontal trek along the side of the mountain, so there wasn’t a huge elevation gain.  Our trail coincided with part of the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, so it was exciting to be a part of that.  It was a terrific hike.  It stayed right at the timberline, so we wove in and out of pine forest with almost constant views of the summit looming over us.

It really didn’t take long for us to arrive at Zigzag Canyon, and what a view when we did.  The Canyon is a 1000ft. deep gash cut in the side of the mountain.  It provided wonderful views of the summit and the hills and Mt. Jefferson that spread out to the south.

On our way back to the lodge from the Canyon, we had the chance to take a trail straight up the mountain to the Silcox Hut, located near the top of the chairlift.  The Silcox Hut is an old warming station for skiers that has been converted into a kind of rustic banquet hall.  I really wanted to head further up the mountain, both for the better views and for the chance to do something that I don’t get the opportunity to do where I live.  The Hut was a mile away and 1000 vertical feet up the mountain.  It sounds easy, but after just completing a six mile hike, it definitely proved to be harder than what we expected.  I definitely put Tami to work on this trip, and she handled it all beautifully.  This was the one point where I maybe asked her to do a bit too much.  In my mind, the payoff was worth the work, but I think she might have preferred a cold drink at the lodge instead.

After two weeks of hiking and exploring, this day definitely wore us out.  We had planned of tackling more hikes the next day, but we were satisfied with what we had seen and quite frankly, we were tired.  The next day was Friday, our last day before flying back to Michigan on Saturday.  We headed back to Portland and stayed one more night downtown for easy access to the airport the next day.  We had one last evening to say goodbye to my friend and his family.

Vacations often make me feel like I just don’t have enough time.  I feel like I’ve got to go too fast in order to see and do all that I want, and the end of the trip is always looming close.  This vacation wasn’t like that at all.  It had been a long time since I’ve taken a two week trip and I don’t know how I could’ve possibly enjoyed this one any more than I did.  We saw amazing sights, caught up with old friends, found time to relax and enjoy life, and had the opportunity to explore several new and unique places.  But when departure day arrived, we were ready to go.  This trip didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them out of the water.  I had the most wonderful time with world’s best traveling partner and wouldn’t change a single thing.

If you’re looking for an interesting trip, I would absolutely recommend Oregon and all of it’s surrounding highlights.  We got a little bit of everything.  It’s a beautiful world, and we feel completely blessed that we have the opportunity to get out and explore it.


IN DEFENSE OF TELEVISION—-If It’s Making You Dumber…You’ve Only Yourself To Blame

March 31, 2011

Whatever your problem...it's not the TV's fault.

Got a problem?  Surely, there’s someone you can blame.  Americans love to point their fingers at anything that will help explain, rationalize or otherwise dismiss any of their own faults and shortcomings.  Unfortunately, most seem to forget that old playground proverb that says, “whenever you point a finger, there’s always three pointed right back at you”.  Nonetheless, everyone still seems to have an excuse for everything.  Too fat?  It’s genetics.  Your kids do poorly in school?  It’s ADHD.  Fed up with politics?  It’s the Republicans.  No matter what ails you or what predicament you face, there’s someone other than yourself to blame.  And nothing shoulders more of that unwarranted blame than Television.

Pick a problem plaguing our world today and you’ll surely find someone saying that TV is at fault.  Violence, laziness, ignorance, corruption and moral decay all have their bony fingers pointed directly at the glowing black box that sets innocently in every one of our homes.  But just as with all of our other problems, affixing blame onto television is ensuring that the blame is misplaced.  Viewers shoulder the blame.  We shoulder it not only for our viewing decisions, but also because of the ways that we relate to the content of the programming choices we make.  Television will give back exactly what we seek to get out of it.  The way in which we engage with television will determine the results.  So if your TV is making you dumber, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before.  Many have already made the argument that if we would just pick up our remotes and change the channel from MTV to C-SPAN, the world would be a better place.  If only we could just see fit to watch “Masterpiece Theater” rather than “Jersey Shore” our culture could arise from its cesspool of iniquity and once again thrive.  This is not my argument.  Television doesn’t need to be ‘high-minded’ to have a positive influence.  What matters is how we respond.  Even the simplest or tawdriest of programs can be meaningful depending on if and how we seek to derive meaning from them.  My argument deals more with the way we process information and less with the substance of the information that is provided.  TV programming of all varieties can prove to be enlightening if we as viewers make the choice to put our minds to work.  As soon as we make the choice to allow TV to merely serve as a mindless daily sedative, then that is exactly what it will become.

For instance, ABC’s “The Bachelor” is one of the most inane shows ever conceived.  It is a show that promotes narcissism, materialism and shallow relationships and stars a group of irrational, young bubbleheads who share the word “amazing” as the only adjective in their collective vocabulary.  At first glance, this show possesses no redeeming qualities and quite possibly makes anyone who watches it not only stupider, but also a little more cynical and shallow as well.  But is that really true?  We all watch TV from a subjective vantage point, so depending on the viewer’s attitude and disposition, perhaps even this monstrosity could reap positive results.  For those who watch analytically and make sure their brain remains working even while the TV is on, doesn’t “The Bachelor” have plenty to say about the flaws of modern relationships?  Personally, when I watch, I’m often wondering to myself what makes it possible for a young woman to honestly believe she’s in love with a man who is simultaneously sharing intimate moments with other potential suitors.  “The Bachelor” may not be an accurate reflection of relationships in 2011, but that doesn’t mean that when its layers are peeled away there isn’t still something valuable to learn about human nature.  By resisting the temptation to get caught up by the choreographed drama and emotion that the show’s producers try to create, you’re left with the chance to ponder the motivations and desires of good-looking, seemingly successful young people and how they approach finding a mate.  As shallow as “The Bachelor” is, it still allows you the chance to think deeper, if you’re so inclined.

When we put our brains to work, lose our passivity and become actively engaged in our programming, almost any show can escape its seemingly narrow confines and provide us with something worthwhile.  Take MTV’s “Teen Mom” for instance.  On its surface, and similarly to a whole host of other ‘reality’ shows, “Teen Mom” is nothing more than basic voyeurism.  It is providing the viewer a simple opportunity to gawk in amazement at the sorry state of those who are less fortunate than themselves.  But this is a show that, if viewed with a curious rather than judgmental mind, can provide an immense amount of information and insight into a phenomenon that affects countless people across the country.  “Teen Mom” is not just about the poor parenting techniques of 16 year-olds, it’s about incredibly important issues such as abortion, adoption, domestic violence, the value of education and the role that healthy families play in sustaining a productive society.  If it is viewed merely as a shocking spectacle, it loses its potential to teach.  But if we go beyond just ‘watching’ and seek to understand how it reflects the world around us, following a show like this can be an enlightening experience.

The same is true for a whole host of shows.  We watch “Hoarders” and “Biggest Loser” and “American Idol”.  It can be entertaining and emotionally engaging, but at the same time, can’t it also be educational?  We’re fascinated by their situations, their addictions and their ambitions, but can’t we also be stimulated by the lessons they provide about materialism, consumption and our quest for fame?  “The Biggest Loser” should not be seen as a show about weigh-ins and silly competitions.  It’s a show about our culture’s relationship to food, our declining active lifestyles and our search for fulfillment in all the wrong places.  But in order for those lessons to sink in, we have to actively seek them out.  It’s analogous to going to the zoo or a museum.  We can walk through and be fascinated by the animals and the displays and be on our way, or we can stop and examine the details, read the presentations and absorb their broader purpose.  If we want television to be more than just an attraction, then the responsibility is ours to make that happen.

However, that responsibility also includes a caveat.  Active thinking is not the only requirement necessary to make watching television educational or meaningful.  Unfortunately, it also matters “what” we’re thinking about.  If you watch a national cable news broadcast and through its false presentations it compels you to ponder whether or not our President was actually born in America, then you’re probably not accomplishing anything positive.  If you watch endless hours of sports commentary and it leads you to waste your mind contemplating which team should win Friday’s big game, then you’re also on a fool’s errand.  Following the nightly parade of police blotter details on your local news may get your mind whirling, but chances are all that thinking won’t bring about many worthwhile results.  It’s great for a viewer to be captivated by a show, but if all the show is doing is causing them to reflect on a certain celebrity’s dancing ability, then perhaps it’s not the most effective use of their mind.  We should all be able to recognize for ourselves if the programs we’re watching have the capability to provoke constructive thought.  In all of the previously mentioned examples, constructive thought is indeed a possibility.  Making our television watching meaningful requires the viewer to not only make wise choices, but to also then be conscious of the reaction those choices will most likely to draw out.

If what I’ve just described seems to require too much effort, don’t worry.  There is an unprecedented amount of television programming out there that by its very nature is enlightening and doesn’t require any mental discipline to achieve its beneficial results.  Grab your remote and everywhere you turn you’ll find a show about remodeling your kitchen, the lifestyles of ancient Mayan civilizations or how to cook delicious bbq brisket.  You can learn about swordfishing and wilderness survival in the afternoon and catch up on genetic science and American history later that evening.  Anyone who wants to bemoan the value and educational capabilities of television is certainly not paying close enough attention.  Stimulating, thought-provoking television is available for even the most discerning of tastes.  And the networks that broadcast these shows are not just relegated to the periphery.  Channels like HGTV, Discovery and The Food Network are some of the most-watched cable channels on the air.  Whatever topic interests you, whatever subject stimulates your brain, you’re sure to find a presentation of it somewhere on your television dial.  If a viewer was so-inclined, they could focus their viewing exclusively on educational programming and still never run out of options.

But how many of us are quite that dedicated about their TV viewing habits?  Even though we may aspire to make television-watching a worthwhile endeavor, the intelligent, high-minded programming often loses out.  We watch TV because we want to laugh, because we want to be entertained and because we want to root for our favorite teams.  Television serves as an escape, so naturally people are going to be quick to choose shows like “The Office” instead of a new episode of “Frontline”.  There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon.  But as with almost every option we encounter in our consumer culture, moderation is the key to achieve positive results.  It’s okay if you like to eat donuts, just try not to have one for breakfast every single day.  The same is true for television.  You may like to watch “Family Guy”, but you probably shouldn’t make that your choice every night.  As I’ve already explained, something of value can still be taken away, regardless of which show you choose.  Perhaps you missed out on a captivating recount of the 2008 financial crash when you chose “The Office” instead of “Frontline”, but who’s to say that some biting satire of corporate culture, mixed in with a few laughs, can’t be just as enlightening?

Those looking to place the blame on television for whatever social ill they have in mind will probably not be swayed by my arguments.  Many just reflexively view TV as a sub-standard format that will always be playing catch-up with the “more intellectual” entertainment options like cinema, live-theater and books.  I can still remember the desperate pleas of my English Teachers imploring us, for the sake of our own cognitive futures, to turn off the TV and pick up a book.  I will always be someone that defends the value of literature , but I never understood why TV received such a bad rap.  Reading can be a wonderfully enriching enterprise, but there are aspects of our lives and our culture that can be much more accurately reflected and conveyed through a television screen.  And let’s not pretend that the breadth of idiotic TV programming isn’t matched by an equally wide breadth of idiotic books.  I recently went on vacation and paid particular attention to the reading choices the people around me had made for their flight and for their time on the beach.  Everywhere I looked, my fellow vacationers had their noses buried deep in celebrity biographies, factually-challenged political screeds, dime-a-dozen mysteries and dull religious hot air.  I saw no one reading the classics, no how-to books, no research-driven non-fiction and and nothing that rose above what’s innocently known as “light reading”.  Books are great, but there’s no way that reading Sarah Palin’s latest offering is anymore enlightening than watching an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”.  They’re both fluff and both should only take an hour to get through.

The biggest problem with everything I’ve just laid out is that ultimately, the quality and depth of each individual’s television-watching experience is completely up to them.  It’s this unfortunate circumstance that gives the ‘blame TV’ crowd its most compelling argument.  TV can actually be dumb.  It can be violent, it can be lazy and can be apt to reflect a shallow understanding of our world.  But that’s not TV’s fault.  On the whole, TV responds to what the market demands.  If vast majorities of our society wanted smarter programming, then it would most likely be so.  But our society instead demands hours of cop shows about dead hookers, over-dramatized ‘reality’ programs, dishonest newscasts and exploitative spectacles of those who are downtrodden or different.  TV gives that to us because apparently that’s what we want.  But TV did not create those desires.  Our flawed inclination to watch awful TV is caused by a whole host of factors strung throughout every fabric of our culture.  Blaming television is merely making it a scapegoat for broader problems.  Television is not so much the cause as it is a reflection.  The opportunity exists for all of us to allow television, even in its current state, to have a positive affect on our lives.  So sit down, tune-in and bask in its enchanting warm glow.  TV is your friend and it doesn’t deserve your scorn, because if watching TV is making you dumber…you’ve only yourself to blame.


THE G.O.P.–The New Heavyweight Champion of The World!

November 16, 2010

Two foes stepped once again into the grand electoral ring of death for an early November cage match to the finish.  The pair of heavyweights exchanged vicious blows, but with a mighty swing of the steel folding chair, the Republicans have heroically put the Democrats down for the count with a bleeding gash over their eye.

But weep not for our Democratic warriors, they’ll be back.  Weep instead for our nation and it’s future.  Because with this most recent election, our politics have plummeted to absurd depths of shallowness and asininity.  Elections are no longer a solemn referendum on the state of our union, they are merely a sideshow, another mindless form of vacuous entertainment for a populace that is already overwhelmed with similar frivolous retreats.  Our National Elections have taken their rightful place next to America’s other favorite exposition of inanity, professional wrestling.  Wrestling is a superficial spectacle meant to entertain the masses, and unfortunately, our elections and our political discourse has devolved in a similar manner.  Parallels between the two can be found with ease.

HEROES vs. VILLAINS

The world of professional wrestling is famous for casting its characters in roles of good guys and bad guys, and those roles are constantly evolving.  One week, you might find your favorite wrestler cast as a man of the people, fighting his battle against incredible odds.  But tune in the next week, and you’ll witness that same wrestler flipping the bird to the fans while he leg-drops his lifelong friend.  This sudden transformation of a hero into a villain is a defining feature of American politics.  Just two short years ago, the Democrats were the party of the people, the saviors of our broken system.  They were swept into power by a citizenry that had had enough of the malfeasance of the Republicans.  It was going to be a new, brighter day with Barack Obama in charge.  Now only two years have past, and in just that short time, those same citizens are once again searching for a hero.  And even though the country was body-slammed over and over again by the Republicans for eight straight years, they are now recast as saviors.  And don’t be fooled, this transition between good and evil will happen again in the near future.  Americans will grow tired of Republicans, label them the bad guys, and once more call out to Democrats for redemption.  Acts of betrayal followed by reparation is the main plot driver for the theater of wrestling.  It is also the main driver that keeps us engaged in a political system that neglects our most basic needs.  Everyone loves a winner.  No matter what side you’re on, just wait four years (or in this case, two) and you’ll be back on top again.

EMPTY WORDS

Every wrestler that has ever lived has at some point or another claimed to be the “Greatest of All Time”.  In the wrestling world, proclamations are made, promises are tendered and guarantees are wildly thrown about all without any requirements for backing them up or repercussions for falling short.  For anyone who follows politics, does any of that sound at all familiar?  Wrestlers may say some shameless things, but their biggest rival in that department is the members of our political class.  When it comes to elections and campaigns, empty promises and insincere rhetoric have become the official language.  How many candidates did you hear make the promise “I know how to create jobs” this election season?  Regardless who made that claim, at no point was that phrase ever followed up by a concrete example of exactly how they might accomplish it.  Candidates always claim to “share your values” and want “to clean up Washington”, but those words are never bolstered by any details or specific plans.  And just like with wrestling, there is no accountability or follow-through.  When I was in high school, I saw a “retirement match” between Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair live in Detroit.  Whoever lost, would be forced to retire.  There was most certainly a winner and a loser, but you better believe that both men continued to wrestle for another ten years.  Our politicians are allowed to promise the world without ever being held to account.  Voters would actually be wise to think that whenever a promise is made, you can almost expect to see the opposite result.

XENOPHOBIC PATRIOTISM

Long before the Tea Partiers made rampant racism and blind patriotism vogue, the world of professional wrestling placed these ideas front and center.  When I first starting watching wrestling in the early 1980’s, the cast was filled with characters like Nikolai Volkov and The Iron Sheik.  These characitures were designed to prey upon people’s deep animosities and insecurities of all things foreign.  Ethnic wrestlers are always locked into a narrow-minded stereotype and are almost always cast as the villain.  In the 1980’s it was Russians and Communists, today it’s Muslims with supposedly strong sympathies for Al-Qaeda.  And these silly wrestling cartoons are always pitted against tanned, blonde-haired “American-looking” heroes who whip the crowd into a patriotic frenzy with chants of “USA, USA!”  We don’t have to look hard or long at our modern political discourse to find similar strains of xenophobia.  One could even make the argument that the entire Republican party embraces it to its extreme.  Their platform consists of bombing middle-eastern countries, hunting down illegal immigrants, marginalizing the economic plight of minorities and screaming “terrorist-lover” to anyone who doesn’t comport with their myopic vision.  But both sides of the spectrum include a built-in tendency to only embrace ideas that fall within the confines of their narrow-minded agenda.  And both sides attempt to use patriotism to whip up support for any variety of causes.  Appealing to people’s tribal instincts is to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and both wrestlers and politicians use it effectively.

“IMPARTIAL” COMMENTATORS

Just as important as the action that goes on inside the wrestling ring is the action and commentary that exists on the sidelines.  Wrestling announcers, hosts and interviewers play an integral role in the show.  They provide an open mic for the wrestlers to advance their agenda and they provide the general framing of the storyline to help fans choose their sides.  And they do all of this without the slightest concern for fairness or objectivity.  The fans allegiances are influenced and formed by the instruction of the commentators.  If one wrestler performs an illegal move during a match, that move can either be classified as ‘dirty’ or as ‘strategic’ based on the preordained script pushed forward by the announcers.  If the wrestler is meant to be a villain, he will be the recipient of scorn and disdain from the sidelines.  If he is meant to be a hero, the move will either be ignored or praised as ‘resourcefulness’.  These commentators and announcers can find their equals in the political world in the form of the media.  Our political media during times of elections believes it is not their job to call-out the objective truth.  They believe their job is to amplify the conflicts, provide a sounding board for the participants and to stick to the preordained storylines at all costs.  The confines of debates are framed ahead of time and are viewed by the media and then disseminated to the public only through the preexisting rubrics of thought.  Our most recent election was predetermined to be a referendum on democrats and on incumbency in general.  Regardless of whatever other notions may have been put forth, the media stuck to that narrative and pushed it relentlessly.  Our political media does not advocate for truth, nor do they require that their interview guests be at all beholden to it.  The empty claims that were described in the second item of this essay can exist only because the media allows them to happen.  Our politicians are enabled to spread lies and propaganda because we have a media culture that seeks to be a part of the process instead of a countervailing force pressing against it.  They are merely part of the show.

DON’T LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN

We all know that wrestling is fake.  From beginning to end, the entire spectacle is staged.  But that doesn’t stop millions of Americans from being totally engrossed and shelling out hundreds of dollars for tickets, merchandise and viewing rights for pay-per-view events.  Everyone who attends a professional wrestling match (except for the youngest of kids) knows they are watching an artificial conflict, but that knowledge never compels them to recognize, call-out or rebel against that artificiality.  The show can’t be fully enjoyed unless its inherent fictitiousness is embraced to the full.  The fans choose to ignore the lies that exist right in front of their face.  Our elections are driven by a similar willfully ignorant ideology.  Our media and our candidates prompt the voters to believe that the current election is of momentous importance.  They want us to think that our vote will carry all the weight and significance of a heavyweight title bout, but while they do this, they neglect to pull back the curtain to allow us to witness the elaborate charade that  lies behind.  Voters are not educated to learn that the differences between candidates are relatively small.  We are not shown the true records of those who seek reelection.  We are led astray from the real issues that have tangible affects on our lives and we are forced to focus on sideshow spectacles dominated by name-calling and rank demagoguery.  Just like wrestling, our elections are an illusion; a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  The problem is that the voters know this.  People in our country have real problems that they know are going unaddressed.  But every two years, instead of unified action from all of us, voters fall victim to this illusion and start to believe that the fault simply lies with those from the other party.  Wrestling fans know that the match is fake, but they still get whipped into a frenzy when the action begins.  Similarly, voters know that our elections are fake, but they still insist on embracing the notion that a vote for a Republican instead of Democrat will somehow make a difference.  In both examples, its nothing more than willful ignorance from those looking to be entertained.

So the 2010 mid-term elections have come and gone, and the Republicans have triumphed in the steel cage against the Democrats.  We witness conservative voters who stand and cheer at the victory while liberal voters look for consolation and start plotting their strategy for the next match.  While all of this cheering and mourning continues, the grand electoral illusion, with all of its fireworks and engrossing plot lines, endures unabated.  Our elected leaders brandish their shiny new heavyweight belts, while their media enablers begin studying how to increase ratings for the next event.  And if the illusion is continuing, so too is the misery felt by the millions who’s needs will continue to go unanswered.  Our elections are nothing more than a state-sponsored form of entertainment, a competitive spectacle meant to distract voters from engaging in the kind of actions that could actually better their lives.  We need to drop our affiliations to political parties as if they were our favorite wrestlers or favorite football teams.  We need to require more from our leaders and our media than just mindless political gratification.  Wrestling is shallow and fake and violent and awful, but it has no affect on our shared welfare.  Politics and elections, on the other hand, have widespread consequences for us all.  The ramifications of treating the dealings of our Republic like a heavyweight bout are serious and will continue to worsen if they go uncorrected.  We can either choose to demand more, or we can be left behind, watching as two parties take turns knocking each other out with punches that don’t even connect.