Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union: Not so Bad

President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union speech tonight and since it seems everybody's commenting on it, I thought I'd add a word: "Whew."

That's a sigh of relief, because the President didn't propose any major new expenditures; in fact, he talked about trimming government.  He began with a conciliatory message and even congratulated the new Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner.

He used plenty of sweeping platitudes, to be sure, but they were warm in tone and affirmed basic values, just as expected, and the expected was reassuring.

He even said some things that were downright conservative--like consolidating government offices, and simplifying the tax code.  And our not-so-jocular President even made a joke, decrying separate agencies "handling" salmon depending on whether the fish were in fresh or salt water: "I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked," he quipped, offering an added chuckle given his own smoking issue.

Of course, he had to defend his signature project, the health care bill, framing it as consumer protection. "That's why we passed reform that finally prevents the health insurance industry from exploiting patients," he intoned, before insisting "I'm not willing to go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition." But he didn't address how these dastardly insurance companies, the mean exploiters, were to absorb the costs of these conditions.

Also amusing was how he later tied his health care bill to lowering the deficit, saying "Repeal of the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit."  But everyone knew he'd protect his "baby."

More surprising was his proposal to lower corporate taxes, though he did rib "the wealthiest 2%" of individual taxpayers, who he said should "give up their tax break."  Why? "It's not a matter of punishing their success," Obama spun, "It's about promoting America's success."  In other words, individuals with money cannot be trusted to spend it on goods and services (that fuel the economy directly); better they should send their money to the government, a wiser source of national "success."

Still, it wasn't a liberal thing to suggest support for ROTC and military recruiters on college campuses.  Or to repeat twice that he'd veto any bill presented to him that contained earmarks for pet projects.  Or to credit entrepreneurs and business with national financial health, urging a doubling of exports by 2014.

He even included building roads in his plan to improve the infrastructure, and while he offered a goal "to give 80% of Americans access to high speed rail," the implication was that this would be a national transportation system (as opposed to ineffectual local light rail) that would be an alternative to air travel, "without the pat down."

And he packaged it all in language that was occasionally downright noble.  And Presidential, even. He mentioned the Tucson shooting and Gabby Gifford at the top, in just the right measure, and concluded with optimism and the classic plea for God's blessing.  Not so bad; he rose to the occasion.  He proposed unity and transparency; now I just hope he follows through.

Tattoos: In your face (and everywhere else)

While in Hawaii recently, I noticed far more tattoos than just a year earlier, and most were the unavoidably visible sort that cover entire shoulders and arms, whole legs and calves and often large swaths of the body. And many were in indelibly brilliant hues, greens, reds and yellows so vibrant they caught my eye--though I preferred not to look.

Then, I returned to the Northwest as it hosted the second annual Jet City Tattoo Expo, a convention aptly located, as it seems nearly every local barista is well pierced and often tattooed.  The Pew Research Center reported this month that 36% of all "millenials" aged 18-25 have a tattoo, while 40% of those aged 26-40 sport at least one.

I respect each person's decision to "decorate" his or her body as desired, but this new popularity has me puzzled.  Even as tattoo parlors proliferate, publicity about "tattoo regret" abounds, and new techniques for removing them are profitably burgeoning.

A 2006 study in the American Academy of Dermatology journal, found that a quarter of those who did go under the needle want its evidence removed.  But most people don't have the money or tolerance to attempt the arduous process of lasering or otherwise erasing the injected ink, with little chance of obliterating the original tattoo anyway.  It takes several treatments to remove a tattoo--as many as 20 with colored ink, just to annul the original art, but it's impossible to completely restore skin.

While in Hawaii this time, I saw lots of scapulae sprouting drawn-on wings of varying sizes.  I saw enough complex swirls and detailed designs swooping from neck to elbow to consider this a real trend.  Of course, when the temperature never dips below 70 degrees, people remain in a state of partial undress that allows observation.  That's how I was able to note  the change from just a year before.

Given that everyone knows tattoos are basically permanent, and that humans tend to change their minds and their bodies over time, what fuels this recent surge in tattooing?  It's been popular with an edgy segment of the population for a long time, definitely, but the number seems to have swelled.  Please explain.

I'll admit that even with so much exposure, I haven't gotten used to seeing anyone's body--especially young women--marked with dark or colored ink. I sincerely try to ignore people's externals and focus on their words and deeds.  But even though I don't want to dwell on another's tatoos (or piercings), just forcing myself to not look or not think about them when they're right in front of me distracts from the content of the moment.

That's why tattos are in your face, no matter where they're visibly located.  Could that be part of the reason to get one (or more)?

 I understand a desire to express oneself, but for me, what I want to express changes with my moods, location, situation and people surrounding me.  Expression with fashion or non-permanent adornments like nail polish, hair style or jewelry makes sense because these can represent a moment, a whimsy, or even a philosophy, and wearers can vary it or not.  But your skin?  I just can't understand why skin is a canvas rather than a protective organ of the body that should be preserved and respected for its health-sustaining and life-enabling qualities.  Isn't the body in its God-designed natural, healthy form beautiful?

I've heard arguments that a tattoo was a personal remembrance of a significant event, person, anniversary or accomplishment.  That doesn't explain to me why trusting someone else to permanently etch the skin should be that remembrance.  Why not plant a tree? Why not wear a special necklace?  How about making a donation to a charity that will help others?

I appreciate the artistry of people who can draw. But to dig one's "pen" into another person's skin?  Wouldn't those artistic talents affect the world more if used in a medium that could be displayed, and appreciated by many?

So I have three questions: Why would people want to be tattooed--and why is this phenomenon becoming more prevalent?  And, aren't today's tattoos likely to be viewed differently by their owners and society in another 50 years?

I have to look at them. So I'd like to understand them.  Thanks for any insight you can provide.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why Homeless "Voice" Ted Williams Got a House, a Job,and Millions of Fans

By now you've heard of 53-year-old Ted Williams, the Columbus, Ohio homeless man seeking voice-over jobs by standing with a cardboard sign on a highway exit ramp near several media studios.

If not, watch the original YouTube video, which contains an interview captured on a whim by Columbus Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth, III. The piece, which instantly went viral, has now led to Williams' receiving a plum announcer job for the Cleveland Caveliers, with the added bonus of a house.

It wasn't the mellow voice emanating from a most disheveled, wild-haired, unconventional-looking face that brought the positive response.  It was instead the guy's attitude, his gentleness, his humility. Those were the unexpected features that captured listeners' hearts, rather than merely Williams' clearly competent "demo" intoning, "When you're listening to nothing but the best of oldies, you're listening to Magic 98.9."

Since Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have made Williams famous, agents are clamoring to represent him and scores of job offers have arrived.  Talk shows have competed to have him on; in one touching interview on CBS' The Early Show, a cleaned-up Williams breaks down when describing his prayers that his now 92-year-old mother could see him rebound from years of drugs and hardship.

I have a hunch that Williams' story is much more complicated than what we've heard: a guy with a criminal drug and alcohol history finds God, stays sober two years, and uses his latent talent to find permanent success. He's got nine children--two boys and seven girls; grandchildren, too.  He had no form of identification and had to scramble to get one so he could fly to New York to do the Today Show.  Apparently, in the recent past he's turned down offers of housing in shelters (he used a couple as addresses to establish his residence, though), preferring a homeless encampment "behind an abandoned Hudson Street gas station," according to Ken Andrews, volunteer for Columbus' Mt. Carmel Outreach, who The Dispatch describes as "a 15-year veteran of local homeless-assistance work."

I'm among the throngs enamored by Williams, and I root for him. But when I mentioned to a friend Williams' refusals to accept help when it was offered--something that does bother me, since he might have begun his career and had a home at least a couple years earlier, rather than, frankly, bothering people begging--my friend had an interesting response.

He said, "who knows what kind of 'help' was offered; maybe it came with strings attached, and Williams wanted to do it his own way." Another friend said, "maybe he wasn't ready to get help; you have to reach a certain point to accept it."

I have a problem when someone's 'way' means living on the street when help is there. Or the idea that all the folk "not ready" for a home should just squat with their piles of stuff on public or private land. And while I certainly want government to cut expenses, providing mental health treatment or social services to panhandlers is a worthy use of funds; it helps cities attract tourism, businesses attract customers, drivers avoid distraction, and certainly the homeless themselves.  My friend even noted Williams might have gone to live with or near his mom (or at least one of his nine kids).

When I posted my surprise at the number of homeless with tarp-covered mounds of stuff in Waikiki parks, many lying on the sidewalks of touristy Kalakaua Avenue, I got some nasty comments about how heartless I am.  I don't want to abandon these people--I want charities or, failing that, even government to help them.

I think the ire comes from my underlying assumption that living on the streets is unacceptable.  Should the desires of a few (often) mentally ill or substance-addicted "free spirits" trump the needs of the vast majority to walk on streets unmolested, without insecurity about safety?  How comfortable are you about your teen daughter, say, walking down a street at night--one lined with fine stores at that--with less-than-clean people approaching her for money, or lying in her path?  Should she be the one to give way for the homeless, or should keepers of public safety step in to insist the out-of-the-boxers find more suitable sleeping space?

Tolerance for panhandling as a lifestyle is relatively new, even among people who don't want to conform, themselves. Remember the old Roger Miller song, "King of the Road?"  It was about a petty thief, drifter, loner who feels he's "king" not fitting into normal society.  He's not above bumming a ride on trains to accept "every handout in every town" and brags he knows "every lock that ain't locked when no one's around." A low-life for sure. But even he doesn't sleep on the street--and is willing to "push broom" for two hours to afford his "four-bit room."  A night's lodging may not be 50 cents anymore, but day laborers who want it still get work.  Every city has its sites where work-seekers congregate in the morning, waiting for someone to drive by and offer a day's wage to get a job done. It's not easy; working hard for low wages is tough and doesn't yield much. But I admire those who labor to get money rather than begging to get it.

Lately, though, not only is off-ramp soliciting accepted, but today it's glorified as a path to career success.

But not for everyone--only for a guy who is irresistibly polite, good-humored and sweet--and has talent. A guy who flaps his arms in excitement when contemplating his newfound opportunities. A guy who calls his interviewer "ma'am" and says his mama taught him to live by the Golden Rule. A guy who's articulate and on the Today Show urges viewers not to judge the homeless "by their cover" and to "give from the heart."  It's Williams' child-like thrill with the situation that makes us all feel glad he was plucked from the off-ramp and thrust into the headlines.

It was strange that Today chose to dress Williams in the same camouflage-patterned jacket he wore for his first, now-viral interview.  Was this a reminder that he's really still a homeless guy--rather than a new media sensation?  He was asked by Meredith Vieira why he thinks he can make it this time, given his past failures.  His answer: he's gotten a new spirituality; that now he thanks God for each day.  I would add that a major factor was that he'd decided to take action to market his skills, though perhaps not in the usual way.

Williams' humility is not only reassuring, but inspirational.  People who might have given up are rejuvenated; those continuing in established paths give thanks. His charming, giddy delight with his Phoenix-like rebirth has endeared him to us all and with his talent is the key to his success. There are enough people invested in his story now that he likely will come through, and every time we hear him, his voice will represent the sweet song of hope, the perfect melody for the new year.