“I Believe…”

4917998Parsing the various ways that “establishment” Republicans support their presumptive presidential candidate is a wonderful exercise in linguistics. You can tell that most of them are using talking points that have been honed to within a micron of their rhetorical content. Even the simple word “support” is subject to a range of definitions that have come into play only in the last several months. To some, it means voting for, endorsing, campaigning for. Some say their support means voting for only. Some have yet to tell us what their support means.

A regular feature, though, of all of these tortured pronouncements is a phrase along the lines of, “I believe that Donald Trump believes that…” I’ve seen it used to justify supporting him because of vacancies on the Supreme Court, on gun rights, on abortion, on supporting the family values and religious freedom concerns of the evangelical voters, on immigration, on trade, on foreign policy. Check out Tom Cotton’s use of the phrase in The Atlantic to explain how a classic conservative hawk – someone who believes in a muscular, robust, outward-looking foreign policy – could support a man who has advocated pulling out of NATO, reneging on bilateral treaty commitments in every corner of the world, supporting the spread of nuclear weapons and wants to turn our foreign policy into a series of one-time financial transactions.

These people are deluding themselves. No one, not even Donald Trump, knows what he believes. No one, especially not Donald Trump, considers the candidate bound by anything that comes out of his mouth. Like his approach to foreign policy, Mr. Trump treats every utterance as a one-time transaction in which he will say literally anything to close whatever deal he thinks is in front of him at that very instant.

Honest to God, I think if you could book Donald Trump into back-to-back conventions – say, for example, the White People’s Party annual convention and the National Black Republicans Association – he wouldn’t skip a beat:

“Thank you…thank you…what a great crowd…wow, it’s packed in here and I hear there is a huge line trying to get in. Thank you. What a great bunch of Americans, people who want to take their country back, who want to make America Great Again. And we are going to do that, don’t you worry. You’re going to get so tired of winning, you’ll beg me to stop. We’re going to win on trade, on the military, on our police – aren’t they great? – on immigration. And that includes winning on your issues. There will never be – I guarantee you – a president who’s going to more for your people and the issues you care about than Donald Trump. I will be so good to you. Because I’ll bring back the jobs. I’ve created so many great jobs – including hiring thousands of your people – and built such a great company with the best properties that it’ll be easy. So easy.”

Of course, I am – thankfully  – not in Donald Trump’s head so I can’t say for sure that his calcified brain is wired this way, but I would submit that his entire career and his entire candidacy is built on this mindset: Donald Trump will say whatever he needs to say to get the deal, the loan, the government approval, the wire transfer, the contract, the work done, the item placed on Page Six, the interview, the caucus win, the primary votes and then – when the deal is closed – he’ll do whatever he wants.

Repeat over and over and over for more than 40 years. End up as the Republicans’ nominee.


– Austin







A Rose by Any Other Name…

I’m going to start a collection of Donald Trump descriptions and invite you to play along at home. I’ll update this post whenever I stumble across a new one.

The rules are simple: Any description is eligible as long as you can cite a link to an article or video somewhere on the web. Descriptions can be positive or negative, as short as a single word or up to a sentence in length.

At the end of the election, we’ll hold a vote to pick our favorites.

Here’s a couple to get us started:


“The best sex I ever had.” Marla Maples, Access Hollywood (h/t to Ellen Mrja)


“…dangerous buffoon…” Frances Wilkinson, Bloomberg View

“…a small, insecure money-grubber…” Elizabeth Warren, Huffington Post

“…a thin-skinned, racist, sexist bully…” Elizabeth Warren, Huffington Post

“He is a man-baby.” John Stewart, CNN (h/t to Mike Keliher and Jeremy Powers)

“…a megalomaniac…” Trump: What’s the Deal (h/t to Gary Gilson)

“…a pathological liar…” Carl Bernstein, CNN

“…a strong man who doesn’t believe in democratic institutions.” Carl Bernstein, CNN

“…a grifter always dancing one step ahead of bankruptcy court and concocting one failed scheme after another to separate people from their money.” Paul Waldman, Washington Post

“…a shallow, ignorant, incurious, emotionally immature narcissist.” Jon Austin, The Same Rowdy Crowd

I look forward to your entries.

– Austin



“The Suspense is Terrible…I Hope It Will Last”

Maybe this is what it’s like to get old.

My theory of aging is that you start getting old the moment when you stop keeping up. By that I meet keeping up with what’s going on in society, how technology is evolving, how to use it. Understanding the big flows in the global economy, how the pieces fit together and affect one another. Keeping up with your family and how they in turn participate in their communities.

For my parents, this process started happening when my father retired. Bit by bit over the next couple of decades they went from participants to observers to finally patients. They went from the people who I would call first for help and advice to the people I hid bad news from to a couple of fearful, confused people who didn’t understand the world around them.

Maybe that’s what’s happening to me. Without realizing it maybe I crossed that first threshold sometime in the recent past and didn’t realize it.

I’m thinking along these lines as part of my effort to understand the panicky feeling that’s been my constant companion ever since it became clear that Donald J. Trump would be the Republican nominee. His enduring success suggests I no longer understand the world and what moves it. The notion that he’s got a 45-55 chance to become the next president of the United States – and thus the most powerful person in the world – makes me anxious in a way I’ve rarely felt.

When I try to disassemble my anxiety, I end up sorting it into several buckets:

  1. The top line. A Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster for the United States, its citizens, our allies and world. I believe this with every fiber of being. Donald Trump lacks the experience, temperament, education, judgement, emotional maturity and almost every other quality I think is important in a president.
  2. The subtext. Do 39 percent of Americans REALLY believe Donald Trump should be president? According to the latest Fox News poll they do. If this number is even remotely correct then I feel a lot like Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or Kevin McCarthy if you prefer the 1958 version).
  3. The counter-narrative. What if I’m wrong? What if I’ve missed something so fundamental about the state of our country that those 39 percenters are right to want to elect Donald Trump? If they are, then what else am I wrong about?

For reassurance on all three levels I find myself compulsively reading the news, watching CNN, etc. I feel mildly encouraged by reports that suggest the Democrats are getting their act together or that the Republicans and the Trump campaign are in disarray. I find myself watching Trump’s rallies and speeches hoping for – at last – something that will irrevocably take him from legitimate threat to our democracy to universal joke.

In other words, when I step back and look at my behavior, I have to wonder,

“When did I get so fucking old?”






I know, wrong?

i_know_right_-_Google_SearchEvery generation has its annoying catch phrases.  The valley girls and their wannabes famously sprinkled every sentence with “like.”  More recently,  “not so much” has been used ad nauseum to express disapproval or disagreement.

“Whatever!”  It’s not “all good.” Admittedly, often it’s “my bad,” “yada yada.”

I have a house full of teens and young adults these days, so I’m particularly aware of a prevalent catch phrase.  When I assert something that meets with the youngsters’ agreement, a rare event, they invariably respond with “I know, right?”

The main problem with this, or any catch phrase, is that I know it’s only a matter of time before I hear those words coming out of my mouth.  Catch phrases are contagious that way.

I desperately don’t want to let this phrase into my lexicon, because it particularly irritates me.  It makes no sense to respond to an assertion with a question about whether the assertion is correct.

My mama taught me that it is polite to respond to direct questions.  So, it strikes me that the “right?” part of the response requires a response, which leads to mind-numbing exchanges such as this:

Me:  “The Twins starting pitching is crappy.”

Youngster:  “I know, right?”

Me:  “Right.  That’s why I just said it.”

Youngster:  “I know, right?”

Me:  (stink eye)

I know, it’s not really a question.  But then, why include the “right?” part.

I guess this is the “everyone gets a ribbon” generation that we raised.  Even when they are agreeing with us, they need still more affirmation that agreement is acceptable.


– Loveland


News flash:  Minneapolis is a snobby city.  This from Travel and Leisure:

In the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, we asked readers to rank 35 major metropolitan areas for features such as trendy food trucks or good-looking locals.

To determine which city has the biggest nose in the air, we factored in some traditional staples of snobbery: a reputation for aloof and smarty-pants residents, along with high-end shopping and highbrow cultural offerings like classical music and theater.

But we also considered 21st-century definitions of elitism: tech-savviness, artisanal coffeehouses, and a conspicuous eco-consciousness (say, the kind of city where you get a dirty look for throwing your coffee cup in the wrong bin).

Minneapolis ranked 4th, trailing San Francisco, New York City and Boston, but edging out Seattle, Santa Fe and Chicago.  The Travelers’ and Leisurers’ take on us:

Perhaps readers felt intimidated by these bookish, indie-music-loving, craft-beer-drinking hipsters, who also ranked highly for being exceptionally tidy. If these Minnesotans feel self-satisfied, is it any wonder? They also scored well for being fit and outdoorsy; you can join them at the Chain of Lakes, where, depending on the season, folks are hiking, paddling, or even ice-surfing.

Snobby?  Really?  Isn’t having interesting stuff in your community a desirable thing?

Of course it is.  Having the option of experiencing something new and different that isn’t available just anywhere is a huge advantage of living in a great city like Minneapolis.

But T and L got it right.  Minneapolis is a snobby city, because having new and different things is not enough for many Minneapolitans.  They feel obliged to look down  from their lofts and rooftop cafes judging people who don’t worship at the altar of all that is new and different.


For instance, God help you if you express dislike for Surly Furious beer inside the Minneapolis city limits.  It’s perfectly reasonable that some people would enjoy the bitter taste of the hop-heavy brew, and some would not.  Preferences are preferences.  But to hipster Minneapolitans, a distaste for the hops in IPAs is a clear sign that one is not sufficiently evolved.

The same thing applies to food and wine.  If my God-given tastebuds just can’t distinguish between a ten buck meal and a fifty buck meal, does that really mean that I’m a closed-minded rube?  Maybe it just means that I’d rather hold onto the extra forty bucks to buy four extra ten buck meals.  Saffron and truffle oil?  Can’t taste it dude.  Hints of oak barrel?  Even if I could taste it, why would I necessarily desire it?

I also plead guilty to wearing khakis and not possessing a single pair of skinny jeans.  Why?  One, BECAUSE I’M NOT SKINNY.  (Neither, by the way, are many of you.)  Two, because I still have khakis in my closet from the 90s that have some more miles on them.

And then there are bicyclists.  Minneapolis is thick with them these days, and I’m all for them.  I support more bike lanes, bike racks, and people out of cars, if that’s what works well for them.   But just because I prefer not to arrive at meetings drenched in sweat and expect bicyclists to obey traffic laws doesn’t make me a Neanderthal bike hater who doesn’t understand the profound awesomeness of Amsterdam.

The fact that many Minneapolitan hipsters equate rejection of a trend with inferiority is what makes them snobby. Trends are fine.  Enforcement of trends is snobby.

It’s a little more difficult for me to understand when snobbery happens in a city of folks who are largely transplants from small towns, suburbs and rural areas.  Even most of the free spirits in Uptown and downtown lofts did not grow up in Soho or Greenwich Village.  They are only a few short years removed from enjoying Folgers, Mogen David, Buckhorn and IHOP.  If those folks find that  Peets, Pétrus, Surly, and Café Lurcat brings them more joy, enjoy already.  But really, there is no need to evangelize and snigger.   We hayseeds are perfectly comfortable, in all our glorious frumpyness.

– Loveland

What I Didn’t Miss During a Long Walk in the Woods

NEW SLAUGHTERHere’s a list of things I didn’t miss during a week hiking down Isle Royale.

1:  Senate Republicans failing to come up with the 70 votes supposedly needed to give Speaker John Boehner “cover” to support immigration reform without the support of the majority of his neanderthal caucus. This was the presumption as we boated away from Grand Portage 12 days ago and nothing much changed, so what’s to miss?

There are only so many times I … you … paid pundits … the drunk on the next stool … can belabor the head-slapping destructive/self-destructiveness of this current crop of Republicans. And as much as road-blocking immigration reform is perhaps the single most damaging thing they could do to their election chances (in 2016, but very likely in 2014 as well) it just isn’t news anymore that these characters really are so … well, stupid is perfectly adequate word … that they will drive a stake through the heart of the one piece of legislation that might give them standing with the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. A group big enough to turn … Texas for crissake … blue in another couple of election cycles.

It also isn’t worth mincing words about “why”. This isn’t another exercise in the hyper right-wing’s phony pursuit of Constitutional purity. It’s racism, pure and simple. The hillbilly sensibility of the Republican base has no time or sympathy for intruder factions unconnected by origin to new conservatives’ cockamamie mash-up of Hollywood westerns/xenophobia/Ronald Reagan hagiographies and snake oil punditry.

The fog that rolled up and over the Greenstone Ridge had the effect of blotting out a lot of toxic buffoonery.

2:  Even though I predicted it, I did not miss the minute-by-minute updates on where Edward Snowden was and might be going. Commercial media are incapable of engendering and sustaining a national conversation about anything of genuine importance … unless there’s a celebrity sex angle. The fact they’re treating Snowden the fugitive as “the story” and not the still-emerging details of the US’s multi-multi billion dollar cyber systems is too dismaying to “miss”. A hot shower after 50 miles of sweat, DEET and black flies, yes. A cold beer, yes. CNN, no.

3; Speaking of … I hadn’t been giving George Zimmerman a lot of thought, frankly. Although news of his trial start did make the crawl on a screen in the bar at the casino where we stayed the night before leaving. But upon return … I mean, WTF? Zimmerman is a bigger story than a military coup in Egypt? Even MSNBC has gone monomaniacal.

The Zimmerman trial is several rungs of significance up the ladder from the latest Jodi Arias/Casey Anthony sluts-who-slaughter convulsion, but round-the-clock?

Yes, I understand it’s far, far cheaper than sending crews to Cairo. And yes, I understand that certain key demographic groups will devote obsessional amounts of time watching a murder trial. But are we really at the point where we don’t even pretend “our viewers” have an interest in the meltdown of democracy in the anchor nation of the Middle East?

Don’t answer that question.

I get that CNN’s new boss, Mr. Early-Morning-TV-Works-in-All-Dayparts, Jeff Zucker sees an audience of attention-span deprived emotional adolescents, people who need a cooking segment and celebrity hype-chat to break the monotony of revolutions, car-bombings, cyber-warfare and legislative gridlock … but … passing mention? Imagine if another Carnival cruise ship flipped over in Miami harbor? You’d never hear of John Boehner again.

4:  Finally, I didn’t miss the story and intense local discussion about old Carl Pohlad’s tax troubles with the IRS … because they weren’t reported in the local press. Forbes magazine put out the story of the old man’s serious Mitt Romney-like gaming of the tax code … to the advantage of his heirs, a couple of whom at least have done some commendable things with the loot … they didn’t turn over to the common coffers.

Now that I’m back, after trying to cook my fabulous tuna schmeckler under a raggedy pine tree in a steady rain, would it be okay for someone in this town to get impertinent with one of the Pohlad boys and ask how exactly they justify the fantastical level of accounting magic that took their family off the hook for their “fair share” of taxes?

I understand every media outlet wants to be the Pohlads’ BFF. But now that this is “out there”, perhaps some tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoner reporter could “request” a first person comment from one of the boys.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have the reader interest of a list of “10 Great Places for Patriotic Dining”, but it is kind of like … news.

BTW … The beach at Siskiwit Bay was … idyllic. I’m already missing it.

The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?

GoogleGlass_15Let’s start with the obvious.  I am a hopeless technophile and I need help.  I’m not a role model, I’m a cautionary tale.  I’m the people your parents would have warned you about if they had any idea how the future turned out.

The most recent proof of these truths is my – successful – application to be a “Glass Explorer” in Google’s project – Glass – to develop a wearable device that resembles a pair of glasses without lenses that projects a tiny image into the user’s right eyeball.  Think of it as computer that can be controlled with voice, gestures and taps with a display that sits in your field of vision. This project has been talked about for years and Google has offered various glimpses of the technology as it has developed.

Continue reading “The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?”

Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?

colllegeNote to readers:  What can I say?  A lot, apparently.  This started off as a simple post back in January, but it was a slow day on the work front and it was too damned cold to go outside if I could help it.  As a result, I found several hours later that I had run on for better than 3,600 words about how I was a lousy student in college and lived to tell the tale…and I hadn’t even gotten around to getting kicked out the second time or how it came to pass that I did get a college degree.  The first draft was such a hot mess that I let it sit for nearly a month before mustering the courage to come back to it. After looking at it again, I decided that the first part – 2,900 words – was not so much about how I screwed off in college (though there’s plenty of that) as they were a general recounting of how I’ve been “different” from way back. I could – probably should – have simply pitched the whole thing over the side, but since I’d wasted so long writing so much I decided to at least post the somewhat intelligible part as Chapter I of what may – or may not – be a series of posts about my youthful indiscretions (the ones I can cop to anyway).

Readers of a certain age may enjoy the result as a trip back to the 1970s and any parent of any child can now console him or herself with the words, “At least I’m not Austin’s parent.”  No matter what, that’s true.

I mostly look for ways to differentiate myself from David Brauer (and, I suspect, he from me), but I found a kindred spirit in his confessional about his failure to graduate college on schedule back in the 1970s.  In my case, it took 7 years, three institutions and the assistance of an entire village of friends, mentors and family to get one under-achieving slacker his undergraduate degree.  But for that assistance I suspect that I, too, would have been a long time going back to finish.  I’ve bored my family and friends many times by recounting my college career so why not you too.

Continue reading “Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?”

I Didn’t Much Feel Like Working Today, So…

…band mashups I’d like to see/hear. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, so I purposely didn’t do a search. I prefer to be an ignorant pioneer than an informed follower. There seems an infinite number of these, so a free copy of Joe Loveland’s new book titled Wry Not: a collection of blog posts in printed form requiring no additional work to anyone that adds to this list. As always, no rules.

Young MC5



Barry White Stripes

Young MC5

De La Soul Asylum

Three Dog Night Ranger

Average White Band of Skulls

Luscious Jackson Browne

QuietDrive by Truckers

Sammy HaGarbage

LuLucinda Williams

Duran DuRancid

Rolling Stones Temple Pilots

Color Me Baddfinger

The English Beatles

The Big Wu Tang Clan

No Doubtlaws

The Blind Boys of Alabama Shakes

Electric Light Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (ELOMD)

Lil Bow Wow Wow

Mary Chapin Carpenters

James Taylor Swift

Buddy Guy Lombardo

Fleetwood Mac Davis

Megadeth Cab for Cutie

Buddy Hollies

Megadeth Cab for Cutie

Steely Danzig

Grateful Dead Kennedys

Dead MilkMen at Work

Minnie Pearl Jam

Flaming Lipps Inc

LL Cool J Geils Band

The YardByrds

Kenny G. Love & Special Sauce

Grant Lee Buffalo Springfield

Kings of Leon Russell

Frank Black Sabbath

Lloyd Cole Porter

The James Gang of Four

Tower of Power Station


John MellenCamper Van Beethoven

The Dirty Three Dog NightRanger (a triple)

Prince and the New Power Generation X

Bing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

A Confederacy of Dicks.

Several years ago I had lunch with novelist-travel writer Paul Theroux. In the midst of talking up his latest book the conversation turned to work he had done earlier in his career for The New York Times. While obviously a superb platform for any writer, the job had its frustrations. Like the piece Theroux was asked to write on the city/subway environment, circa mid-70s.

As you know the Times, (aka “The Grey Lady”), has a rather precious policy towards slang, informality and matters of basic human function. The paper that will invariably refer to “Mr. Hitler”, “Mr. Stalin” and “Mr. Manson” also has a hard and fast rule against vulgarisms such as the word … “shit” … which Theroux noticed in appalling amounts all over the streets of Manhattan and in the subways. (The town is cleaner now, thanks to nanny state regulations.)

But in attempting to offer a full, complete and immediately recognizable portrait of the environment he was asked to report on Theroux was required by his Times editors to imbue the stuff he saw fouling the surface everywhere with florid synonyms that were more, well, refined … like “defecation”, “scat” and “droppings”, the latter of which might lead less alert readers to think the city was cursed with a plague of discarded handkerchiefs.

As we enter the stretch run of a truly appalling siege of electioneering, and look at the roots of the disease that has infected today’s Republican party I’m convinced it would be useful to take Theroux’ advice and “describe what you see on the ground in front of you”. “Useful” at least if your intention is to communicate directly, immediately and without possibility of misunderstanding.

Hence, the indisputably appropriate and valuable use of the word “dick” to describe so much of what has gone in the past few years in conservative media and politics. Karl Rove. “Dick”. Dick Cheney. “Dick”. FoxNews. “Dick”. Michael Savage. “Dick”. Tom DeLay. “Dick”. Dick Armey, “Dick”. Frank Luntz. “Dick”. Michelle Malkin. “Dick”. Eric Cantor. “Dick”. Steve King. “Dick”. Louie Gohmert. “Dick”. Todd Akin. “Dick”.

While respectable, proper dictionaries avoid defining “dick” as 100% of Americans undoubtably understand it, (I think “private dick” has a whole new understanding in 2012), various urban dictionaries get it right, offering “jerk” and “asshole” as common, accepted synonyms.

Test it out. Ask the next half-dozen people you meet to define “dick”, in the context of a person or type of behavior. You and I both know what you’ll get: “A completely self-absorbed asshole.” “Someone who doesn’t give a damn what happens to anyone else as long as he gets his.” “One of those jerks who is constantly fucking over you and everyone he deals with.” “A guy (or gal) for whom the truth is some kind of hostile, alien concept to be routinely ignored and polluted at will.”

Others might just say, “Rush Limbaugh”.

My point is that in the era of Tea Party/talk radio conservatism, when garden variety political bullshit has devolved to shameless “dick-ishness”, the culture as a whole would be healthier if professional observers and reporters described it as precisely what they and their audience both know it to be. If you truly have respect for civility and reasonableness it seems to me you have an obligation to call out the dicks who are polluting those virtues.

For example: If NBC’s Chuck Todd were to come on one night and say, “GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, already well established as a self-glorifying, onanistic dick for lying about his marathon prowess, claiming to have ‘climbed’ dozens of 14,000 foot mountains and inexplicably bragging about his body fat ratio being less than most Olympic athletes doubled down on his thoroughly dickish plan to gut Medicare and fatten the fortunes of his corporate cronies by accusing the Obama administration of destroying Medicare as we know it”, people everywhere would take notice – because they’d immediately and fully understand what he was talking about.

I’ve long believed the new “dick” conservative has consciously strategized their dick-ish policies and behavior knowing they can rely on the quaint prissiness of the mainstream media to put a “Grey Lady” gauze over their most vulgar distortions, flagrant lies and transparent duplicity. The likes of Michele Bachmann (a Queen of Dicks), Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can operate as baldly as they do because their essential dickishness will be given an inappropriate, misleading, respectful makeover by a responsible, respectful, civil press uncomfortable describing — precisely, in a language most familiar to their readers —  what is right there in front of them.

A couple of days ago, while out in the Aspen area,  I made a pilgrimage to Hunter Thompson’s favorite bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, where you do reflect on how rare, wonderful and valuable it is to have someone describing the game of politics so vividly and precisely. When Thompson described Hubert Humphrey as campaigning “like a rat in heat” you knew exactly what he was talking about. Likewise, his description of the soul of Richard Nixon as emblematic the “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”, was a completely apt description that made an indelible imprint on the mind of the reader.

There are only a few practitioners of Thompson’s “call-a-dick-a-dick” art on today’s mass media scene. There is of course Charles Pierce at Esquire, who so accurately describes Paul Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny-starver” and ” … a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live.” (I’m also quite fond of his description of Scott Walker as, “… the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to run their midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin”.)

Likewise, Thompson’s far less chemically-infused heir at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, fully exploits his license to describe a dick as a dick.

But notice how infrequently either appears in the allegedly in the-tank liberal press.

Too much vividness and precision is a liability when you have to be concerned with upsetting a handful of customers who prefer the look, sound and feel of Dick World.

Murder on Sundays

“The Killing,” AMC’s brilliant and stylish whodunnit, wraps up its second season on Sunday with an answer to the question that has animated the most absorbing plot line on TV for two years: Who killed Rosie Larsen?

Inspired by a popular Danish series, “The Killing” is set in Seattle and is actually less a conventional police procedural than it is a group psychological study played out in a gray-on-gray world in which the main character…and it’s not even close…is the rain that falls ceaselessly, leaving the urban landscape streaked and glistening, and everyone it looking cold and slightly smeared. If this sounds like a visual dead zone, it isn’t. “The Killing” might be the handsomest television show ever, from the stunning aerial tracking shots that make Seattle achingly beautiful to the quiet closeups that linger on the faces of a sensational cast.

As with David Lynch’s seminal “Twin Peaks,” to which “The Killing” has been compared, the story opens with the gruesome discovery of a dead teenager. And just as it was with Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks,” no corpse ever looked deader than Rosie Larsen’s when she was found lying on her side in a fetal position under a foot of water in the trunk of a car recovered from the bottom of a lake

That scene…it was at night and it was raining…signaled that “The Killing” was going to be special, and apart from the vague and perplexing cliffhanger ending that concluded Season One, it has been every step of the way. Unlike the disturbing “Twin Peaks,” which veered between unsettling and wacky, “The Killing” has hit its mark week in and week out, pulling you deeper inside as the complexities of the story multiply.

Detectives Holder and Linden

At the center of the case is an unlikely crime-fighting duo, two damaged Seattle police detectives who, combined, form a single functioning person. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is the lead investigator. Perpetually bundled in a huge sweater and carrying a gun that looks about five times too big for her hand, Linden looks bruised and blue, a post-hypothermic case with an attitude who never smiles and never takes shit from anybody. Her partner, meanwhile, is the best thing about the show…and maybe the most intriguing character ever created for television. Detective Steven Holder (Joel Kinnaman), a sketchy, streetwise former narc and recovering addict, entered the story as a problem child and quickly became its moral center. For Holder, the case is everything…and the rules of proper investigation are, at best, mere suggestions.

Holder and Linden are good together because they have to be…everyone either hates them or is out to destroy their careers while steering the investigation off course. The hardest friction to bear is the one between the detectives and Rosie’s grieving parents, Mitch and Stan Larsen. Mitch (Michelle Forbes), at first paralyzed by her daughter’s murder and then unhinged by it, wants answers from the police. Stan (the terrific Brent Sexton), is a masssive and intimidating former enforcer for the mob who just wants the police out of his ruined life. Somehow, the Larsens and the detectives have to deal with one another: They’re just about the only people in this large ensemble who aren’t potential suspects.

The story behind the investigation…which unfolds over the course of only a few weeks…is a Seattle mayoral election in which routine political intrigues deepen when one of the candidates is implicated in Rosie’s murder. This corner of “The Killing” could easily fall into a conventional quicksand of dirty tricks and alliances for hire, but the heated election is repeatedly carved up in a way that keeps you happily off-balance.

Like everybody, I’ve enjoyed the beautiful people and the mansions and manicured lawns of “Downton Abbey,” and the sleek, alcohol-infused environs of midtown Manhattan on the fading “Mad Men.” But “The Killing” has been my main destination on Sunday television from its first chilly, sodden moments. Much as I look forward to finally learning who killed Rosie Larsen this weekend, this is one case I wish never had to be closed.

Peeling Back Minnesota’s Media Layers

Compared to other Americans, are Minnesotans more intellectual in their media choices? More conservative? Liberal? Business minded? Worldly?

Or  are they sophmoric wise asses?

It appears the latter.  A recent Forbes analysis says that stereotypically stoic, humorless Minnesotans are disproportionately likely to be readers and sharers of, drumroll please:

The Onion.

Yes, The Onion, the self-styled “America’s Finest News Source.”  For those of you who aren’t real Minnesotans who are familiar with The Onion, it is a satirical news publication that currently features such fine journalism as:

Court Orders Amazon.com To Adopt Bankrupt Bookstores’ Cats

Tiger Woods’ Reputation Takes Another Hit After He Is Caught Operating A Coal Mine With Flagrant Disregard For OSHA Regulations

General Mills Gives Honey Nut Cheerios Bee Intense Backstory Of Childhood Foster Home Abuse In Bizarre Rebranding Effort

Forgive me for getting verklempt, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of my adopted state.

– Loveland

Silver Parachutes and Super Pacs

In the blockbuster dystopian movie and novel The Hunger Games, when contestants are near death, wealthty sponsors are allowed to intervene by sending a silver parachute containing the life-giving substance they need to survive long enough to kill others. These powerful sponsors watch the bloody show stealthily from the sidelines until they are moved to use their wealth and power to save or waste lives. They play God.

In politics, we now have a remarkably similar system. The contemporary silver parachutes contain hundreds of millions of dollars in messaging for candidates near death. The sponsors are stealthy puppeteers possessing the power of political life and death. We call them Super PACs and 527 groups.

In Minnesota, gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer had a 527 group funded by Target, Best Buy and other corporations spending millions to fund his anti-gay crusade.

Nationally, Newt Gingrich has been near death countless times during the Republican primaries. But timely life-giving silver parachutes keep arriving from a billionaire Super PAC pupetteer, allowing Newt to continue to bloody his opponents.

Now, Mitt Romney, staggering from wounds inflicted largely by fellow conservatives and himself, has a D-Dayesque number of Super PAC silver parachutes lofting into his lap. This morning’s news advises that as much as $200 million in Super PAC money will be arriving to heal what ails him. The size of that number had me choking on my Cheerios. The money, a consultant cooly explains, will be used to “dislodge voters” from Barrack Obama.

President Obama will also have his own silver parachutes arriving to do his own “dislodging.”

A handful of powerful sponsors playing God in a game where lives are saved and lost. There are many problems here. The lack of limits. The lack of disclosure. The granting of individual rights to corporations.

Lord Acton warned, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The silver parachutes possessed by a relatively small club of powerful sponsors are drowning out the voices of those who are supposed to have an equal voice in a democracy. Are the silver parachutes corrupting? Absolutely.

– Loveland

With Independent Voters, Crategate Bites

What do independent voters make of the odd story of Governor Mitt Romney scaring the crap out of his dog by strapping him in a crate to the top of his car at highway speeds? Clark Griswold benign? Cruel and unusual?

According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted last week:

• By more than a 5-to-1 margin, independent/other voters thought Romney’s treatment of the family dog was “inhumane” (66% said “inhumane”, 12% said it was “humane”).

• By a 12-to-1 margin, independent/other voters said the incident makes them less likely to choose Romney (36% said “less likely”, 3% said “more likely”).

• 55% of independent/other voters had no opinion of Romney on the subject of dog treatment, indicating the story is familiar to about half of Americans at this stage of the campaign.

This issue is not as prominent as “Obamneycare” style flip-floppery. But with the swing voters who will decide the election, Crategate elicits more bite than lick.

– Loveland

Taking Out The “White Trash”

We talk a lot about language at the Same Rowdy Crowd, and in a week when we’re talking about dehumanizing language, I’d like to nominate a dehumanizing term that we all agree to avoid.

“White trash.”

If you peruse the 13 million hits you get when you Google “white trash,” you will see that this term is very normalized and accepted in popular culture, as is it’s cousin “trailer trash” (7 million hits). This is highly mainstreamed dehumanizing.

If you doubt that “white trash” is a dehumanizing term, try retrofitting it by replacing the word “white” with “black,” “Mexican,” “Asian,” or “female.” Make you squirm? If a talk radio jock started calling people in North Minneapolis “black trash,” would that be okay?

I don’t intend to be all self-righteous about this, because I’ve used the term, and laughed many times when others used it. But when I associated human beings – parents, kids, and grandparents, people who love and are loved– with the filthy decomposing crap we all thoughtlessly discard while holding our noses, I was messed up. Not my finest hour.

I’m not a big PC guy. But language is powerful, and the problem with dehumanizing language is that once we start labeling people as inferior Others, it becomes too easy to abuse them through personal, economic or policy-related actions. Even genocide. After all, they’re just trash.

I’m not suggesting anything approaching censorship here. I’m mostly just talking about avoiding the term. But if you’re particularly brave, maybe you could give the same kind of treatment most of us give someone when they use the “n” word: A gentle shake of the head and a “no, that’s not right,” the way Republican Senator John McCain gently did when the Minnesota woman asserted that Barrack Obama was not an American because of the sound of his name. Quietly, McCain did a noble and courageous thing by taking on the crowd that day, and we could do the same by quietly doing our part to take the social acceptability and hilarity out of “white trash” labeling.

Will avoiding the term “white trash” save the world? Nope. We’ll only be a barely better world. But hey, that’s not a bad day’s work.

– Loveland

Ron Paul: The Black Eyed Pea of Politics

Where's the love y'all?
Yesterday GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul drew 1,800 mall walkers to his Mall of America (MOA) speech.  It’s tempting to characterize this public outpouring as a sign of political viability.  But drawing 1,800 drive-by gawkers at MOA is not especially difficult, as the agent of many a fading boy band star could tell you.  Moreover, Paul’s winless performance in the first several GOP contests would have driven any reality-based candidates from the race by now. 

But still, it’s kind of amazing that the libertarian leprechaun is still drawing anybody, much less twenty-something hipsters.  But he is.

Robert California, James Spader’s character on the NBC TV comedy The Office, said this about another celebrity popular with Generation Whatever We’re Calling This One:

I’m so tired of the Black Eyed Peas.  It’s rock and roll for people who don’t like rock and roll.  It’s rap for people who don’t like rap.  It’s pop for people who don’t like pop.

That, my friends, is Ronald Ernest Paul. 

To the Black Eyed Peas (BEP) generation, Ron Paul is a conservative for people who don’t like conservatives.  Like a good conservative, he promises to strip your obligation to help pay for Grandma’s meds. BUT he doesn’t want to criminalize sex and drugs, as other conservatives do. 

And he’s a liberal for people who don’t like liberals.  Like a good liberal, Ron Paul promises to end America’s costly wars on drugs and phantom WMD. BUT he doesn’t want spend the savings on rebuilding our infrastructure, as other liberals do.

The Paul platform leaves less in taxes for us to pay, and consequently more money in our pockets to spend on newly legalized sex and drugs. Nice.

In this manner, Ron Paul wins the support of Snoop Dogg.  And Barry Goldwater, Jr.  Can the fergalicious lead singer of BEP be far behind?

– Loveland

Anoka Anti-Bullying Effort is Economic Development?

The War on Differentness
Today’s news reminds us that many parents, kids, and teachers in the Anoka County schools continue to oppose policies designed to prevent bullying of LGBT kids, and others. To them, such policies represent “politically correct (PC)” frivolity, or “promoting the gay agenda.”

But this isn’t just about politics or PC gotchas. There are a lot of other pretty solid reasons for supporting such initiatives. Common decency. Constitutional equality. The Golden Rule.

But since those arguments haven’t swayed opponents of anti-gay bullying initiatives yet, here’s another reason that might resonate on the right.

Jobs, jobs, jobs.

In the book “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” author Alexandra Robbins makes the case for Quirk Theory.

Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.

Quirk theory suggests that popularity in school is not a key to success and satisfaction in adulthood. Conventional notions of popularity are wrong. What if popularity is not the same thing as social success? What if students who are considered outsiders aren’t really socially inadequate at all? Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of social failing. We do not view a tuba player as musically challenged if he cannot play the violin. He’s just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still considered an athlete even if she can’t play basketball. She’s a different kind of athlete. Rather than view the cafeteria fringe as less socially successful than the popular crowd, we could simply accept that they are a different kind of social.

To support her theory, Robbins cites many examples of people who were “cafeteria fringe” in high school – “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, weirdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities” — but later were a resounding success in the adult world. J.K. Rowling. Bruce Springsteen. Steve Jobs. Tim Gunn. Bill Gates.

How many jobs and exports do you suppose those marginalized cafeteria fringers have created for the cafeteria core dwellers?

As for LGBT students, George Mason University Professor George Florida employs a “Bohemian-Gay Index” to find that the more “gay friendly” a city is, the more economically successful it tends to be.

So, maybe this anti-bullying business is about more than just fluffy PC-ness?

Schools can’t eliminate bullying, but they can do more. Robbins finds that teachers and administratrators aren’t nearly as neutral as they claim to be in the War on Differentness. They enforce social hierarchies by creating institutional mechanisms for celebrating athletics, cheerleading and a few select activities over all others. Teachers and administrators set the social cues by who they choose to befriend, praise or spend time with. And they too often turn blind eyes toward subtle and not-so-subtle cruelty.

So, Anoka anti-bullying champions, keep fighting the good fight. It’s the right thing to do. Besides, the jocks could use some more jobs right now.

– Loveland

Thanksgiving Chant: “We. Are. The 1%!”

I like Thanksgiving. It’s a day when I’m briefly thankful for what I have, instead of obsessing about what I lack.

One of my Happy Places on Thanksgiving is globalrichlist.com. I started a Thanksgiving tradition a few years back of annually visiting this site to remind myself of how I stack up against other humans on the planet, as opposed to other humans on the cul de sac.

It’s an eye opener. For instance, globalrichlist.com will tell an American who earns $50,000 per year that he is in the top 0.98% richest people in the world.

In other words, if we were thinking globally, some of us should realize: “We. Are. The 1%.” “We. Are. The 1%.”

Occupy that thought for a while. Continue reading “Thanksgiving Chant: “We. Are. The 1%!””

Reporters Discover Herman Cain

News flash: Sex sells.
Candidate proposes to ban public service based on religion. The news media yawns.

Candidate proposes to electrocute Mexicans. The news media mutters.

Candidate proposes to raise taxes on 84% of the least wealthy Americans during difficult economic times. The news media mumbles.

Candidate is accused of sexual harassment. The news media ROARS!

I wonder about the proportionality here. The first three issues are very substantive. The latest issue may be, but we don’t really know yet. As far as reporters currently know, Herman Cain’s sexual harassment settlement a dozen years ago could have been about anything from a serious abuse of power to a misunderstanding. We just don’t have enough evidence at this stage.

But the harassment issue is getting much more coverage than the other substantive stumbles primarily because there are, well you know, privates involved, potentially

Yes, the issue is also being hyped because Cain is now showing better in the horse race than he was a few months ago. It is also being hyped because the political neophyte is handling the questioning like a political neophyte. However, it should be noted that Cain was a front runner during the release of 9-9-9 tax increase analyses. And if you go back to look at Cain’s responses on the Muslim and electric fence stories, he bungled those responses just as badly as yesterday’s responses.

No, the primary reason this issue is wall-to-wall on the news is pretty clear. It is because it is about s-e-x. And in America, s-e-x means r-a-t-i-n-g-s.

– Loveland

Five Reasons To HATE State Fair TV News Coverage

I loathe State Fair TV news coverage. And just to preempt the question, yes, I’m not “from here.”

The State Fair begins tomorrow, but State Fair TV news coverage started in roughly February. I’ve already been through a lot, so allow me my primal scream.

Reasons to hate on State Fair TV news coverage:

Reason #1: Because it crowds out all other news coverage. If in the next ten days Kurt Zellers comes out for a 75% tax on all Tea Party members’ Medicare benefits, the Vikings trade a 73-year old groundskeeper for Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson, and space aliens colonize a Mahtomedi strip mall, this much I promise you: You will not hear about it. No chance. Why? Because during the last 10 days of August there is sameness happening in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. And there is an unwritten rule in Twin Cities TV newsrooms: All that is the same in Falcon Heights must crowd out all that is new in the rest of the state. (Though to be fair, the crop art turns over every year.)

“It could be that his head wasn’t screwed on quite right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

Reason #2: Because skinny people repeatedly fabricating overeating stories is never that funny. One of the many recurring gags we will suffer through during State Fair TV news coverage involves willowy anchors and svelte reporters exchanging witty repartee about how grotesquely bloated and obese they are from going all Joey Chestnut on Commoner Food all day long. Oh, the humanity! Their image consultants tell them that pretending to be like the binging masses will help their Nielsens. But make no mistake, they are mocking us, as they spit and rinse their Sweet Martha’s at station breaks, and nibble the sensible sack lunches packed by their personal nutritionists.

“And they’d feast! And they’d feast! And they’d FEAST! FEAST! FEAST!”

Reason #3: Because even hilarious jokes lose their charm when repeated the 653,776th time. “On a stick.” “Jokes” using those three hideous words will be repeated hundreds of times over the next 10 days on TV news. Though even Ed McMahon wouldn’t laugh the 653,776th time, you can count on our TV news friends to guffaw uproariously at every “on a stick” utterance, as if they just heard it for the first time. To make things worse, every PR person in town will put their client’s product or service on-a- stick – long term care insurance on-a-stick, get it?! — because it is the one guaranteed way to get coverage for your otherwise non-newsworthy client.

“They’d stand hand in hand and they’d start singing.”

Reason #4. Because Def Leppard hasn’t been remotely newsworthy for at least twenty years. …yet we can be certain that there will be a full length news story about them by every station. Why? Because for the last ten days or August, anything within earshot of the broadast booth is automatically deemed newsworthy. Plus, it’s so adorable when Frank tosses “Pour Some Sugar On Me” segues to Amelia.

“They’d sing! And they’d sing! AND they’d SING! SING! SING! SING!”

Reason #5. Because the 3.5 million Minnesotans who avoid the Fair every year are people too. One of the most fascinating parts of State Fair news coverage – and it’s quite a competition — is regular attendance updates. Spolier alert: The number will astound the reporters. Last year, it was 1.77 million. Though I’ve always suspected that’s probably the same 177,000 mini-donut addicts coming back each of the ten days, for the sake of argument, I’ll accept the number. Even using that number, that leaves something like 3.56 million of us — about two-thirds of all Minnesotans, I’ll have you know — who have chosen NOT to attend the State Fair. And maybe, just maybe, those of us who chose to stay away from the Great Minnesota SweatTogether would rather the news broadcast contain a little actual NEWS.

“Why for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I MUST stop it from coming! …But HOW?”

There. I’m better now. Nothing like a good rant. On a stick.

– Loveland

Ron Schiller, Tellin’ It Like It Is.

Good stuff that punk’d interview with (former) NPR fund-raising exec, Ron Schiller. As an admitted fan of guerrilla tactics that flood light on otherwise discreet activities — like lobbying, government-to-business palm-greasing and anything else relevant to impoverishing the common culture and the pocketbooks of the unwitting — I can not criticize this latest “attack” on a vaunted liberal institution. Other than to say I wish the institution, NPR, was actually as dangerous an advocate for liberal causes as the punksters believe, or that what Schiller said over that two-hour lunch wasn’t all but completely defensible. (His worst moment is not saying anything when the two fake Muslims go off on a Jewish/Zionist/media control bender. But come on, Schiller’s a professional fund-raiser who I’m sure has trained himself to listen to all sorts of crackpot things from potential donors.)

The heavily-edited 11-minute video making the YouTube rounds emphasizes the familiar, primary arguments of public broadcasting’s detractors. The full two-hour video provides a bit more context, but since NPR and Schiller have already folded on this one, (with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller — no relation — announcing her resignation this morning), there’s no point getting into a heavily finessed argument over what Schiller was really saying. He said what he said, and I agree with practically all of it.

The crown jewel of the punk is Schiller asserting that NPR, and by extension, public broadcasting, would be better off without federal money. He’s absolutely right. The relative pittance in taxpayer money that goes to all public broadcasting, equivalent last time I looked to about $1.21 for every man, woman and child in America, reaps a blowback in constant, raging, irrational, uninformed invective far beyond that modest number. (You have to wonder how much CPB/NPR/PBS staff time is taken up every year schmoozing gutless politicians to retain that staggering windfall of socialized loot.)

On the video Schiller points out, correctly, that big market public stations — like MPR here in Minnesota — would get along pretty much fine, but that smaller stations, like those in northern Wisconsin and other rural areas could possibly go dark. (More likely those smaller stations would get folded in to large regional networks … like MPR … and become less local.) But his underlying point is that NPR’s service has a unique value. Namely, in bringing a much greater diversity and depth of story selection (science, arts, etc.) and reporting to markets where 90 seconds to three minutes of headlines at the top of the hour, before returning to Classic Rock, Hot Country and 30 minutes of commercials is pretty much the norm. (Good God, try picking up any useful information from Sioux Falls to Denver sometime if you can’t find a public radio station. You’d be convinced that Charlie Sheen and the NFL draft really were  the lead stories of the day.)

Schiller, who again was NPR’s exec for fund-raising and had been invited to a lunch by two men offering a $5 million contribution, (NPR declined), agrees that weaning NPR completely from the public teat would give it more independence when reporting on federal government issues, (not something I’d call NPR’s greatest weakness), and would lessen confusion in the minds of some “philanthropists” who mistakenly think the network gets most of its funding from the Feds, not just 10% . I’m skeptical that any savvy philanthropist is all that confused about the percentages involved. Schiller’s better argument is that committed philanthropists, of which public radio at least has many, would probably give more if NPR said adieu to taxpayer cash.

The punksters are of course the same crowd that concocted the notorious, heavily-edited, fundamentally dishonest but in the end politically effective hit on ACORN, every gormless Teabagger’s spoon-fed idea of a radical, transformative force in American politics. But when it comes to punking, ethics are never really the critical question. Again, I only complain that more of this sort of thing isn’t aimed at defense contractors sucking literally hundreds of billions out of taxpayer coffers, or self-righteous, religion-wrapped politicians exchanging hot intern phone numbers over prayer breakfasts. But, whatever.

Where Schiller of course has it exactly right is when he gets into describing the current state of the Republican party and its association with anti-intellectualism. I eagerly wait a convincing argument that the Tea Party, which the Republicans and Republicans only pander to and enable in the most preposterous misconceptions, is anything other than anti-intellectual. Or for that matter that the Tea Party is not primarily white, rife with weirdly obsessed “gun-toters” and seriously racist — which includes a hysterical suspicion of  Muslims and not just tough-looking black dudes in sagging jeans. (What I’ll get instead are the usual trolls outraged over “liberal elitism”, which is another way of saying, “How dare you call stupid people stupid!”)

The implicit connection between Schiller’s view of modern Republicans and NPR is that the latter provides a vital counter-balance to anti-science, anti-teacher, anti-liberal arts, anti-intellectualism. Which it clearly does … without question.

What he doesn’t get in to is that rejecting taxpayer cash might mean more inflow from philanthropists, but it would also have Schiller’s replacement out whoring for more corporate cash, which is a problem for public broadcasting far beyond taking government money.  There are all sorts of inside-government stories I’d like to see NPR do, or do better, but the far more suspicious omissions of coverage invariably involve major business organizations.

Point being that Republican anti-intellectualism is not only threatened by the deeper, broader reporting of NPR, but it wants NPR driven down to the thoroughly bought-off, professionally-compromised and irrelevant levels of your average FoxNews Newsbreak.

Try getting all intellectual-ly and elite-y with a straight diet of that.


Idol Thoughts

Back when I started this a few months ago I promised a spirited and intelligent discussion of our collective life and times. So I know you’ve all been waiting for this. That’s right. It’s time to talk about the current season of American Idol. start up business loans

Let me start by confessing that I was late to this party. I didn’t start watching until Season Six, by which time Idol was a thoroughly established fixture of the culture. I pretty much loved it right away…it’s a weekly real-life drama set in the decidedly unreal world of the pop-music industry. small business payroll software Everything about the show draws out our emotional connection with that part of the American dream that is about succeeding against long odds. We all want to believe that we live in a land of opportunity, and that the talented among us are just waiting to be discovered. small business management

Pia Toscano
By now you’ve probably heard that Season 10  is one of the best, despite the departure of Simon Cowell, Idol’s resident hardass judge, and the seemingly weird addition to the cast of new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. It’s true…Idol has barely lost a step and is in some ways improved. Tyler and Lopez have been solid, and because they both live in the place all the contestants want to go–Superstardom–they’ve approached their assignment with equal measures of professional discernment and compassion. If neither of them likes to be too critical…well, that’s okay. Randy Jackson, the only remaining original judge and now Idol’s institutional conscience, has picked up the Cowell mantle and does his best to keep it real, as he might put it. Randy too often resorts to his own worn-out descriptives–Dude, it was pitchy–but there’s comfort in knowing what he means even if he can’t find an original way to say it anymore. About all that’s gone missing this year are those transcendent moments when Simon, the judge who hated everything, would tell a contestant he or she had done well. It always brought the house down and I miss that.

It has helped, too, that the talent this year has been noticeably deeper than in recent seasons. This year, everybody can really sing, so maybe for the first time in a long time, Idol will find a winner who can go on to a successful career. That mostly hasn’t happened in the past…Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood being the exceptions.

So we are here again, with Idol solidly atop the ratings, still pulling in viewers by the millions and setting off a mass discussion about this year’s hopefuls. After winnowing the field through the pre-recorded preliminarys in January and February, this week finally brought us the first live shows. Following last-night’s elimination of eleven of the twenty-four finalists, we’re down to a manageable group of thirteen. Let’s take a look at the chances for a few of them who, in my estimation, are likely contenders for the title:

1. Twenty-three year-old emotional wreck Jacob Lusk. He knocks you over every time with his big voice and huge heart, but mostly with his willingness to leave it ALL on the stage. He’s been singing R&B, but he’s really more gospel by nature. I don’t know how far he goes…he’s probably too old-fashioned…but it’s going to be an amazing ride. Expect him to be around for awhile but not to the finish.

2. Laren Alaina, the sassy and slightly chubby just-turned-sixteen year-old prodigee from Georgia. I’m not sure she’s going to be there at the end. Alaina got an unfair headstart on everyone else  after she did well in her initial audition and a smitten Tyler declared her “The One” before he’d even seen half of this year’s contestants.  She’s good, but her handicap may be that she seems to believe Tyler got it right. It’s one thing to want to win…they all do and we love it that it matters so much to them. But act like you think you have it in the bag and you’re dead. Watch out for a meltdown if she has a bad performance. I predict an exit in a couple of weeks.

3. Casey Abrams. He’s nineteen but seems much more mature. Randy has already called him the most talented musician to ever be on the show, and it helps that he’s also funny and quirky and inventive and willing to take huge chances. In other words, he’s an original and that could take him a long way in the competition. During Hollywood week, Abrams did a crucial solo accompanying himself on the upright bass. Hard to put him in a genre but for pure entertainment value he’s really strong. If he makes smart choices about songs and staging, he could end up in the top three or four.

4. Scotty McCreery, at sixteen a pure country singer with a low, low, low voice that’s always on the money. McCreery is a natural whose confidence at such a young age is remarkable. He’s a beautiful singer and, just as important, knows exactly what he is. Don’t look to him for Underwood-like crossover country/pop…if he goes there it won’t work. But if he “stays in his lane” as Lopez put it this week, I think he has a chance. Of all this year’s contestants, he’s the one I think could most easily record a hit RIGHT NOW. Don’t know if the audience will back a country guy all the way, but he’s going to force y’all to think about it.

5. James Durbin. If the twenty-one year-old Tourette’s sufferer doesn’t go all the way…or close to it…I’ll eat my hat. His backstory is incredible…but not as incredible as his voice, which is somewhere between Adam Lambert and Billy Idol, with a little Steve Perry in the mix. He’s got a high end that can shatter glass and get the dog barking at the TV. He’s the only hard rocker left in the competition and I think that means he’ll have the most song options going forward. It’s always about picking the right songs, and if he does, look out. Get the theater audience rocking out and you win a lot of votes. It won’t hurt him that when he sings, his tics vanish and you realize you’re literally seeing the transformative power of music. He’d be a very cool winner.

6. Pia Toscano. A twenty-one year-old songbird from Queens, she’s right now the odds-on favorite to win it all. Toscano’s show-stopping “I’ll Stand by You” the other night brought the judges to their feet and I don’t think it’s going to be the last time that happens for her. She’s probably more diva than rock star, but that should be all right…she’s also what the judges like to call the “total package.” She’s got a terrific voice, is smart about song choices, is in a rare comfort zone on stage, and is also drop-dead gorgeous. If you can stand still in the spotlight without waving your arms or dancing around and just SING while looking beautiful, the audience loves it. Toscano is the only contestant who doesn’t seem to have anything awkward or unsure about her. I think we’ll be seeing her all the way.

Of course, there are many weeks ahead and the landscape always shifts. Favorites will fall and underdogs will triumph and in the end it doesn’t always come out the way it should. In the years I’ve watched Idol the two best perfomers have been Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox, and best pure singer was David Archuleta.

All three of them came in second.