ASB Part II

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Carrying the toilet out of the house

Carrying the toilet out of the house

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

Here’s my long-awaited second post about the ASB trip I took last spring break.

The day after we destroyed the house, we got up early again, as usual. One of the worst parts about the trip was using the bathroom in the church we stayed in. Only the girls bathroom had showers, three of them. The bathroom floor flooded whenever we used them, so after a day the tile floor was a mess of fallen hairs, wet towels, and loose clothing. The showers were so small a guy my size couldn’t turn his body around without hitting the walls. The dividers between the showers were so short that when the guys used them they could see each other’s heads. The conversations the guys had in the showers became one of the running jokes in the trip. I didn’t participate in the conversations though – everyone on the trip took their showers at night, but I can’t stand that, so I got up ten minutes earlier than everyone else to shower in the morning.

We drove an hour to get to our site. It’s too bad we had to stay an hour away from where we worked. We debated a few times whether or not the trip had a net positive environment impact, considering all the driving we did.

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Jeray put us to work trimming some palm trees growing outside a museum in the national park. I took a lopper and cut down branches that were too low or went out too far. Some of the girls took the cut branches and put them in piles. Then a ranger brought a pickup truck and we threw the branches into the back. It got full fast, so I climbed on top and compressed the pile of branches by stepping on them. It was fun.

The next day we finally got to do what we came to do – real environmental work. We drove to the ocean, where we got onto a boat that took us to a little island. The floor of the island was comprised of crushed sea shells in many places. Jeray told us the island was once inhabited by natives, then by a wealthy family who built a house there, the stone foundations of which were still standing near where we docked. We walked through some wilderness to a barren area. It was very hot every day we were there (I forget if it was two or three days). There was little breeze at the center of the island, and the white sea shell fragments seemed to reflect heat. We made sure to drink a lot of water.

On the boat

On the boat

Our job on the island was to remove an invasive species, the Agave plant. Actually, there were native Agave plants on the islands that were distinguishable because they had ridges on the edges of their leaves. Let me tell you, there are few non-poisonous plants you want to stay away from more than Agave plants. There are painful spikes at the tip of each leaf that hurt like hell if you ran into them, which you inevitably did. Actually I’m not sure whether they should be called leaves. They were more parts of a cactus: firm, with a watery inside. Their firmness made the spikes hurt even more. It was important to cover as much skin as possible, and we all wore sunglasses so our eyes wouldn’t be poked.

Some people spent the entire day going ahead of the group and cutting off all the spikes was loppers, and the rest of us would tear the plants out of the ground. The roots often went deep and were tangled with other roots, making this difficult. When we finally uprooted the plant, we either threw it into a big pile, rested it on a branch, or threw it onto an area of ground that was so salty there was no threat of the plant taking root there and growing again.

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

You can see the chopped-off tips

You can see the chopped-off tips

On the last day on the island, another girl on the trip and I walked around with a woman who was working for the park. She had just graduated from college and was eager to be around people her own age, because usually she worked alone. She had a plastic canister of some sort of plant killing solution on her back, and our job was to clear the way so she could spray it on the center of an invasive tree species. Her backpack started leaking and the toxic orange liquid got all over her shirt.

At the end of the last day, all the guys got together to work on the biggest Agave plant we could find. It looked like something out of Land of the Lost. It had grown to the height of a tall tree, with the center branch turning into a trunk about six inches thick. We rocked it back and forth until it finally fell. Jeray told us it was already dead, but we were proud anyway.

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

We only worked three hours or so a day, due to our long drive, the heat, and frankly the lack of much work to be done. The work could be hard sometimes, but it was fun. Honestly, it seemed more like a vacation than a service trip for me, and I think most students treat ASB that way.

Observing the alligators

Observing the alligators

Most nights, we drove to an area of the park with a boardwalk that allowed us to view alligators and other species common to the everglades. We got pretty close to the alligators. We must have seen dozens, but they almost never moved, even blinked. One girl shone a flashlight into the open eye of one of them at night for at least a few minutes, and it did nothing. Seeing one actually glide through the water was rare, and I never saw one walk on land. There was a dead alligator in the water that turned a disgusting white and smelled horrible. Perhaps the most exciting alligator moment happened when another alligator came up and bit the body.

At the end of the week, we packed our possessions into the vans and started the drive back. There was a little dispute over what to do with the half-day or so we had for recreation. About half of us, including me, wanted to lounge around on the beach in Miami. The others were obsessed with seeing a manatee and wanted to go to the manatee park. We took a vote, and the beach option won.

On the beach in Miami

On the beach in Miami

We ate lunch at a bar in Miami with a surly Australian waitress, then we spent some time at the beach. The people who wanted to see the manatee were making it clear they weren’t enjoying themselves, sitting on benches near the entrance of the beach and watching us lay there. Finally, the site leader who led the manatee faction pressured us into leaving the beach to see the manatees, and we did. We drove an hour or so to a manatee park, but there were no manatees to be seen. We left and drove north.

I don’t remember where we slept that night. The next day, we drove through a big storm in Georgia. We ate at a Waffle House because one of the guys on the trip was curious what it was like. I think I was the only one who had been to a Waffle House before. Since Waffle House is predominantly a southern chain, and Columbus has Waffle Houses, they joked that this made Columbus part of the south.

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

We were so eager to get home that we ignored ASB rules and drove through the night, arriving in Evanston around one or two in the morning. We slept on the floor of the apartment of one of the site leaders. When we woke up the next morning, there was snow on the ground.

The Best American Band: The Beach Boys

When we first discussed the issue of the best American band, Russell’s immediate thought was that The Beach Boys must be considered. Good point! In terms of measurable data, The Beach Boys present a very strong case. The Beach Boys has had 36 Top 40 hits, more than any other American group, and according to Wikipedia Billboard has identified The Beach Boys as the best-selling American band of all time.

The Beach Boys is one of handful of groups with an immediately identifiable sound — one that has spawned countless imitators and an entire sub-genre. Although their music is on the lighter side and I like a harder edge, it is impossible not to like the characteristic harmonies, the catchy tunes, and the simple lyrics about girls, and cars, and summer days. The Beach Boys also can make a claim that few American bands can make: like Elvis and Dylan, they influenced the Beatles. Indeed, Paul McCartney has stated that he was so impressed by The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds that he set out to make an even better album, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the result. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see the influential nature of The Beach Boys’ music. Having been immensely successful with songs like Surfin’ USA and Fun, Fun, Fun, The Beach Boys easily could have continued to record and sell similar songs. Instead, they broke new ground and released unexpected, inventive songs like Wouldn’t It Be Nice and, of course, Good Vibrations.

So, I agree with Russell that The Beach Boys must be viewed as a contender. The Ipod includes songs like All Summer Long, Fun, Fun, Fun, California Girls, Good Vibrations, I Get Around, Help Me Rhonda, Surfer Girl, Surfin’ USA, Barbara Ann, and Sloop John B. Can any American band boast of ten better songs to enjoy on a bright summer day?

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Best American Bands: the Talking Heads?

The Talking Heads

The Talking Heads

I don’t know if I would call the Talking Heads the best American band. What makes a band the best? Is it influence, creativity, skill, record sales, or some sort of combination? It’s hard to decide what American band is best without being biased towards whatever bands you happen to like. Whether or not they’re the absolute best, the Talking Heads deserve to be considered.

I would argue that, of all the bands mentioned so far, the Talking Heads are the most unique. Their sound can’t be placed into a genre of rock music as easily as the Doors’, the Cars’, or Aerosmith’s. It seems to be a combination of the genres of music that were popular during their heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They are clearly influenced by punk, especially in their messy-sounding first album, but a quick look at their expressions and attire in the picture above makes it clear they aren’t a punk band. Many of their songs, such as “Found a Job”, have the beats and erratic basslines of disco. After their first album they recruited the legendary Brian Eno as producer and their sound became more New Wave. You can hear this in the classic “Once in the Lifetime.”

The Talking Heads’ songs are often about strange topics, and have strange lyrics. Their 1979 album Fear of Music, for example, includes the songs “Air”, “Heaven”, “Animals”, “Drugs”, “Paper”, and “Mind”. They rarely sing about love, the favorite topic of most bands. Their songs aren’t obviously political, but usually offer some commentary on modern American life. Their second album, for example, is titled Songs About Buildings and Food, and their song “Once in a Lifetime” includes the lyrics:

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
Wife
And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?

Their performances and music videos are as quirky as you would expect, and I would argue that they are one of the band’s most important legacies. The indie music of today owes some of its defining qualities – quirky lyrics, eccentric frontmen, world music influences, prominent basslines – to the Talking Heads, especially the lead singer, David Byrne.

One of the things that makes the Talking Heads great is that they never went into a serious decline, unlike lots of bands out there. I think this is one of the reasons you could never call Aerosmith the greatest band. I don’t think the greatest American band is allowed to have put a song on the Armageddon soundtrack, and to lend their name to a roller coaster at Disney World.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

The Driver’s Seat

The government’s continuing decision to pour money into GM is looking more and more like a horrible disaster for taxpayers and consumers. Billions of dollars are being poured into an uncompetitive entity that is unable to build cars that people want to buy at prices that people want to pay. As this article points out, the terms of the bailout deal leave the United Auto Workers in the driver’s seat, with a labor agreement that does not require any reductions in base pay, pension benefits, or health care for active workers — and, not incidentally, an agreement that must be renegotiated on the eve of the next presidential election, when demagoguery about the need to avoid job losses will have maximum impact. It is absurd that workers in a bankrupt commercial entity get to keep their jobs, at taxpayer expense, at the same pay levels and benefit levels that helped to drive the company into bankruptcy in the first place. (Let’s hope, incidentally, that the Administration drives a harder bargain in its negotiations with other countries, like North Korea and Iran, than it did with the UAW.)

I don’t know whether, as some are predicting, the federal government will now try to dictate what kinds of cars the “New GM” builds. I’m not sure, frankly, that even a bunch of bureaucrats could do a worse job on that score than the corporate oficers who managed to run GM into the ground. What I do know is that the federal government cannot continue to bail out every failing enterprise in the name of saving jobs. Eventually our federal debt will become too great, and foreign investors will stop buying American debt instruments or will insist on ruinously high interest rates. If that were to happen it would be an economic disaster beyond anything our country has experienced. Weathering the economic dislocation and job losses that would be caused by just letting GM fail are a small price to pay to avoid that eventuality.

More On The Golden State

I’ve posted before on California’s terrible financial problems, and here’s an interesting article on the reaction to those problems. The article states what seems to be to be a fair proposition: if governmental entities want to raise taxes, they should be able to articulate why and how those increased taxes will result in better services. If California can’t provide any examples of how its decades of increased spending have made life better for Californians, it will never convince voters to approve increased taxes. On the other hand, arguing that voters are just greedy idiots, or that the state will dissolve into chaos if new taxes aren’t imposed, doesn’t seem like an approach that is likely to be successful in changing voters’ minds.