“your racist friend” – they might be giants (1990)

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Unless you’re off the grid and have completely disconnected from any Internet or telecommunications signals, then you have seen the images and video coming from Texas where immigrant children are ripped away from their parents and kept in centers that resemble prisons.  The news media have diligently covered this and the topic has been all over social media.  It is a deeply troubling human rights issue that has unified and motivated people to take action by protesting in the streets and contacting their representation in Congress.

The country has been through so much over the last few years, but I believe we are officially at the turning point in the existential crisis we are currently experiencing as a nation and a democracy.  The systemic practice of tearing families apart, detaining children, and even losing hundreds of immigrant children whose fates will range from being trafficked or murdered seemed so unreal in the past.  I know those things have happened before the Trump presidency, but the recent efforts of this administration to put his racist agenda in full gear is disturbing and could signal the end of our country’s moral standing as we have traditionally known.

My heart has been breaking over this.  I get a visceral feeling deep in my gut every time I see photographs or videos from these detainment centers.  Very young children are separated from their parents and are essentially imprisoned.  And the fate of these children is uncertain.  Some have been sent to foster families around the country.  Many continue to stay in these centers with no knowledge of their parents’ well-being. And, worst of all, many have just disappeared.  I know the pain I feel cannot match the pain experienced by these immigrant families.

I am happy to see that this issue has sparked such unrest in the nation and that people are demanding action in justice.  This past weekend, a nationwide protest called March for Families was conducted in communities across the country.  I was unable to participate, but I loved seeing the photos of people in my own community stand up against this human rights abuse.  Politicians are vocalizing sentiments from their constituents denouncing ICE and Trump’s racist immigrant agenda.  It is powerful and I am proud of what people can accomplish.

However, these positive efforts haven’t been met without resistance.  Trump and his administration have made hypocritical policy statements regarding their actions.  They continue to cite the reasoning behind their agenda being a law passed by the Democrats in the 1990s.  In reality, no such law exists.  And when met with that, Trump’s administrations continues to deflect by saying it is the Democrats fault why immigration reform hasn’t passed despite the fact that it is the GOP that currently serves as the majority in both the House and Senate.  Recently, Trump has made his true intentions known by saying he’ll quit separating families if he can get funding for the border wall along Mexico.  None of these actions separating immigrant families were random.  It is a carefully crafted and strategic policy designed to manipulate the country into furthering Trump’s authoritarian visions.

This is an ongoing issue and it continues to get worse.  In a move that shocked many, First Lady Melania Trump was seen wearing a jacket with the phrase “I DON’T REALLY CARE, DO U?” painted on her back as she boarded a plane to visit one of the detainment centers.  The spin team in the White House has rationalized this by saying the First Lady didn’t wear the jacket when visiting the children and that we shouldn’t be focusing on her wardrobe because it is sexist to do so.  They have also said the writing on the jacket didn’t hide any veiled messaging about the Trump administration’s policy.  They are right in that it wasn’t veiled because it spelled out exactly what their policy is.

As I mentioned, we are experiencing a very troubling existential crisis.  One that could change America into an authoritarian nation.  The current immigrant issue is the turning point.  How this turns out will determine the nation’s trajectory.  And the people have a choice in the role they play.  Do they want to live in a democracy or do they want to live under an authoritarian regime?

This is the time to speak up and speak out against those while justify the separation and detainment of immigrant children.  This is not the time to compromise.  I don’t really believe most people in this country want to see children ripped away from their families and essentially imprisoned.  Most of the people in this country have good hearts.  Sure, there is a minority that does enjoy those images, but I’m not speaking to them.  I’m speaking to the people who stuck on the wrong side of this issue because they are committed to party platforms.  I’m speaking to the people who, in response to any questioning about the detainment of these children, will say things like “Obama did the same thing” or “I don’t want completely open borders.”  Those are misguided and misinformed pieces of rhetoric amplified by the Trump administration to get his support base to back his immigration policy.  I don’t believe these people want to see children treated this way, but this goes back to the heart of the issue; separating immigrant families and detaining children is immoral.  That is what we must speak to and we cannot compromise on that message.

Since this is a blog where I connect songs with whatever social, political, or personal topic is on my mind, I sometimes have to really think and do some research on what song to spotlight that supplements my messages.  In some pieces, I start with a song and write a piece around it.  In other pieces, I write a piece and find a song to fit the narrative.  This is an example of the latter and I am quite pleased with what I found.

I don’t know many songs by They Might Be Giants.  I can honestly only count on one hand how many songs of theirs that I do know.  So, as a result, I was unaware of their song “Your Racist Friend” until very recently.

Appearing on They Might Be Giants’ 1990 studio album Flood, “Your Racist Friend” perfectly represents that kind of attitude we should have when encountering someone spewing racism and bigotry.  In the song, the singer is at a party with his friend.  His friend’s friend is there and saying some racist things.  The singer is fed up with being there and let’s his friend know that he feels like a hypocrite just standing there and being polite.  The singer’s friend is bored by politics, but he’s still complicit in the issue.  The singer let’s his friend know that he can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.  His friend cannot stand on the sidelines and has to choose what path he is going to take.  Does he support the singer and denounce his racist friend or does continue to be complicit or even echo his friend’s racism.  There is no room for compromise in the song just as there is no compromise in real life on this issue.

I strongly believe things will get better.  In fact, I know thing will get better.  I also know that things will get a lot worse before they get better, but they will get better.  Standing up and speaking out against an issue doesn’t have to be some grand thing.  Not everyone can do everything all the time.  Some can do more than others, but they are started from somewhere.  It all started with just by saying something and then everything else comes after that.  If we all just say something about this immigrant children, we can make things better.

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“two tribes” – frankie goes to hollywood (1984)

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Donald Trump is positioning himself to become a wartime president.  In his ongoing mission to delegitimize American democracy and establish an authoritarian regime, the ultimate endgame Trump is achieving to secure his position is create global instability so severe that it results in multi-national armed conflict.  His recent actions have made this abundantly clear and an eventuality we all should consider should things continue.

Consider his recent summit in Singapore where Trump met with Kim Jong Un.  His administration is positioning this as a historic summit that signifies peace between two adversarial nations.  Part of that messaging includes blaming the previous presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat, for failing to create a peaceful relationship.  Trump has had his photos taken with Kim and they are both smiling so, as the official position of the administration, this means Trump was able to “make a deal” and “win big” at something he claims that the previous presidents were to weak or inexperienced to accomplish.

Seeing images of the summit made me so angry.  When I saw the North Korean flag displayed in a way to suggest it was equal to the American flag, it was such a slap to the face to everyone who desires freedom for all and condemns regimes that starves and murder millions of their own people.  Trump didn’t make it a secret how much he loved Kim.  Trump viewed him as an effective leader and praised him repeatedly.

This summit served as a mean to legitimize Kim on a global scale.  Trump can claim all he wants about how he made a great deal with the North Korean leader, but he was played.  Kim doesn’t have to get ride of his nuclear programs, Trump has ceased military exercises in South Korea, and Kim is seeking to strike a deal to build a Trump Tower in his country.  If this wasn’t enough to convince even Trump’s most ardent supporters that he values his own fortune over national interests, I don’t know what would.

If only this summit was the only thing Trump was actively doing to disgrace this nation.  Trump, whether by his own will or the will of others, is playing this game on multiple levels.  At the same time he is manipulated by and kissing Kim’s ring, Trump does this at the same time he is destabilizing our relationships with this country’s most loyal allies.

Trump recently issues high tariffs against Canada.  Under the guise of “national security,” Trump declares that his next move to keep America first is to renegotiate or eliminate deals he believes are unfair to the United States.  There is no reason for such a move to take place against Canada.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not taking this lightly.  He is retaliating with his own tariff that go into effect in July.

These tariffs mean more than just higher prices for dairy or beer.  A major economic shift is coming and these tariffs only exacerbate the situation.  According to the latest quarterly outlook from the National Association for Business Economists, two-thirds of economists believe that a recession is coming 2020 with an economic decline that could begin as early as 2019.  The increased tariffs and trade wars Trump is initiating, in addition to his corporate tax cuts, make it likely that this recession will come even sooner than that.  This recession is believed to be as bad or worse than the last one in 2008.

A few weeks ago, the G7 summit was held in Canada.  These summits are designed so the seven leading (formerly eight before Russia was removed) economic nations to discuss various issues covering topics such as the economy, global security, and other related matters.  Prior to the summit, Trump made public statements in the media that Russia should be allowed to participate in the summit.  Our allies and neighbors already had a fractured image of the United States, but these statements by Trump only continued to deteriorate our relationships with the other six nations.  One image released by Angela Merkel’s staff signified the mood of the summit.  In the photo, Merkel is leaning on her hands over a desk surrounded by allies as she stares down at Trump who is sitting like a petulant child with his arms crossed and a smug smile on his face.  You could feel Merkel’s ire radiating from the image and served as the perfect symbol of this nation’s place in the world right now.

Thins are scary on an international level, but they are even worse at home.  For several decades, the GOP has been quite successful at branding themselves as the party of the common man.  As part of their anti-rational and anti-intellectual mission, anyone who doesn’t fit in their box is deemed as an elitist who is out of touch with the American people.

Since the 1980s, the Republicans and the extremists wing within it have been consistently on point with their message.  I have always seen politicians or the media denounced as being tools of the liberal agenda, but things are getting scary.  This messaging has now influenced public perception of federal institutions and basic tenets of democracy.  Whole political institutions such as the FBI and Department of Justice have now been labeled as tools of a rigged system that only Trump and his supporters have the power to save the American people from.

Trump ran during the 2016 presidential election because wouldn’t have been able to win before.  However, a rift in America has been growing since the 1980s and 2016 was the prime time to exploit it.  Trump and his administration’s message isn’t random or chaotic.  It is well-thought out and intricately planned.  Their mission is to create a civil discourse so irreversible that we could be on the verge of another Civil War.

So, how does this all relate to my belief that Trump is seeking to become a wartime president?  By creating mass instability at home and abroad, it becomes a platform by which he can rally his base and execute executive powers that are available, or even made up, during times of crisis.  Recent polls show that over half of Republicans support Trump postponing the 2020 election.  Now, these Republicans hold that position as a means to combat the non-existent problem of voter fraud, but we have seen examples where elections favor leaders currently sitting in office during times of war.  Franklin Roosevelt was a third term in 1940 and a fourth term 1944.  To be fair, presidential term limits weren’t in place yet and those elections weren’t postponed due to World War II.  However, FDR won with over 400 electoral votes each time.  Even if the 2020 election wasn’t postponed, who is to say that Trump wouldn’t experience similar results if a conflict were to arise that kept people from the polls or even seeking a change at a time when it becomes so important to maintain the status quo?

Yesterday, I read that Russia may have modernized a nuclear weapons storage bunker in Kaliningrad.  Allegedly, these major renovations have been ongoing since 2016 and likely to resume operational status soon.  Positioned between Poland and the Baltic, the site in Kaliningrad “could potentially serve Russian Air Force or Navy dual-capable forces.  But it could also be a joint site, potentially servicing nuclear warheads for both Air Force, Navy, Army, air-defense, and coastal defense forces in the region, according to Hans Kristensen, the director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Such a renovation project could signify Russia preparing for an escalation in tension with Eastern Europe; a tension that has been steadily increasing since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Given Russia’s role in undermining the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its removal from the G8 (thus becoming the G7), and the decline of America’s relationship with its allies, it is likely that Russia is looking to secure itself as the world’s dominant superpower.  Thus possibly leading to further land expansion, armed conflicts, and infiltration in foreign governments to disrupt national security and stability.  Welcome to the Cold War repackaged and rebranded for the Millennial generation and Donald Trump is at the helm and ready to get rich off of everyone at the expense of this country’s most valued traditions and institutions.

One of my favorite anti-war songs from the Cold War era is “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.  Released in 1984 on their album Welcome to the Pleasuredome, it is a nihilistic but enthusiastic statement about nuclear war.  Comparing the conflict of a nuclear war to something as trivial, but emotionally significant to some, as a soccer match, Frankie Goes to Hollywood believes that there is nothing more to gain from war than just a score.

Trump wants to be a wartime president because he is scared.  As each day passes in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, Trump can feel the noose tightening.  Staff members are leaving and some people close to the campaign are facing serious jail time.  I don’t know if this goes all the way to Donald Trump or what his fate will be (he has openly discussed his ability to pardon himself), but he is a man who is being cornered.  And like a scared animal, he will lash out any way he can.  And if he could look like a powerful leader in the process, then all the better.  That is why I believe Trump wants a war and he doesn’t care how he gets it.

“long slow goodbye” – queens of the stone age (2005)

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On Friday morning, I awoke to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide.  Like many people around the world, I was gutted.  This wasn’t just because this was a famous person who passed away.  Bourdain was a kind, loving, and generous person who represented the very best in humanity.  His honest and curious approach to life was endearing and inspired me to find and focus on the elements that connect all human beings together.  He exemplified a humanist belief that despite our cultural and social differences, people are driven and connected by similar needs and desires that are blind to our prejudices and societal norms.

Bourdain worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens until his 40s.  He published Kitchen Confidential, a behind-the-scenes memoir of the culinary industry, and became a successful author.  By the next year, he was making a television show and published A Cook’s Tour, a memoir of him searching for the perfect meal and the template that would define the rest of his career.

There was a lot to admire about Bourdain.  Most people, and this includes me, were envious of his life style.  Watching episodes of his programs No Reservations and Part Unknown, it was easy to be caught up in the excitement of traveling around the world in order to meet exciting people, see interesting places, eat amazing food, and drink remarkable spirits.  Who wouldn’t want a career like that?  It looked like one of those jobs where the work didn’t seem like work.  Of course, television has the power to filter out the mundane and only show us the glamour.  However, I didn’t care.  Based on what I was seeing on television, Bourdain was living the life.

I envied Bourdain’s life.  I was vocal about this on social media numerous times.  IT was easy to be enamored by that because, by comparison, my life isn’t as exciting.  I have good and exciting things in my life, but the absolute freedom I projected onto Bourdain’s life was alluring and I would think about how wonderful it would be to step into his shoes.

Bourdain’s suicide was a shock to the system in a few ways.  We lost a truly remarkable media personality.  However, it reinforced a few life lessons I would conveniently forget when I watched his shows.  Two days before his death, I tweeted “.@Bourdain is living my ideal life.”  I know that tweet was superficial and only spoke to my own personal desire to not work and travel the world.  When I heard about Bourdain’s suicide, I had to think about what that comment really signified.

I thought about that comment and similar ones I had made before.  With that kind of statement of desire, I realized that it was based on an assumption.  I assume that I could be happy with travelling the world and eating amazing foods, so Bourdain should have been happy travelling the world and eating amazing foods.  That lifestyle, for me, signified that Bourdain was a happy and completely free spirit.  When you make an assumption like that, you tend to forget about he invisible scars people have.

Bourdain has experienced substance abuse issues throughout his life.  Before he became a media personality, he habitually abused hard drugs and alcohol as a result of his depression.  Bourdain was always open and honest about his struggle with addiction and his pursuit to filling a hole he felt compelled to fill with heroin and booze.  Even in his books and on his television programs, he would open up and address these things when temptation hit him during a particularly difficult scene.  That struggle was always there.  Whether it was front and center or hidden in the background, that fight never goes away.  And Bourdain addressed it in a way that was honest, bold, and could help people struggling with the same issues.

Bourdain was not only known for his love food, but he was a huge music enthusiast.  Musicians would appear on his show to eat some tasty food and philosophize on life.  There’s an episode of Part Unknown where Bourdain is dining with Iggy Pop.  Bourdain jokes about them eating a healthy meal when they both have reputations of hard drugs and hard living when they were younger.  Bourdain asks Iggy about is important to him after all he’s been through and Iggy replies that he enjoys the love he gets and wants to spend more time with the people who give it.

Bourdain dined with many musicians he admired.  There are episodes of Parts Unknown and No Reservations where Bourdain is joined by his musical heroes such as Alice Cooper, Serj Tankian, and Questlove.  However, no musical encounter on any of his shows were as intimate or heartfelt as the episode with Josh Homme.

Homme appeared on a 2011 episode of No Reservations where Bourdain visited Homme’s Rancho De La Luna.  Together, Homme and Bourdain travel around the California desert.  They visit a strange swap meet, drive around in old cars, and even record a song together at a studio in Joshua Tree called “Lonely T-Bird.”  This was an inside look into their intimate friendship and really illustrated the love Bourdain had for good food and good people.

Homme was gutted when he heard about Bourdain’s suicide.  His band, Queens of the Stone Age, had a performance scheduled at Denmark’s NorthSide Festival. During the set, Homme dedicated a performance of “Long Slow Goodbye,” the closing track of their 2005 studio album Lullabies to Paralyze, to Bourdain (At 46:00 here).

My life is good and I have plenty to be thankful for.  It can be easy to become distracted and focus on how green you think someone else’s grass is.  However, there are things you and your assumptions cannot see.  Someone who may seem content and living their best life could be fighting internal demons that you may or may not be strong enough to deal with, but they feel compelled to project a sense of normalcy they can appear to fit in.  That’s the danger of making assumptions about people.

If you or anyone you know is suffering and thinking about suicide, please talk to someone.  It only takes five minutes of talking to a friend, a loved one, or a counselor for those thoughts to start to recede.  For many, suicide is a spontaneous and permanent reaction to a temporary solution.

“phantom of aleppoville” – benjamin clementine (2017)

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On Sunday, I saw David Byrne perform live at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.  The tour was to support his latest studio album American Utopia which was his first solo studio release since 2004’s Grown Backwards.  Being a Talking Heads fan, I was eager to see Byrne perform.  Though I wasn’t that familiar with his work outside of Talking Heads, I knew there would be enough of his old band’s material to justify me going.  Plus, he promised an innovative performance so that piqued my interest.

However, this week’s blog post isn’t about Byrne or his concert or his latest album.  As part of my structure for the blog, I don’t repeat an artist once I write an entry with them at the center.  Also, it varies how I approach these things.  It could be an event I saw, a general feeling I’m experiencing, profiling an artist I enjoy, or a commentary on what is happening in the news.  It all depends on how I feel.  Before going to the show, it would’ve been likely I would end up writing about Byrne.  However, I’ll save him for another day because I want to talk about his opening act.

When I bought the tickets, I had no idea Byrne would have a tour opener.  I generally forget about tickets for things several months away because I have other life things to focus on.  This also helps in keeping me away from spoilers.  I don’t like spoilers or knowing too much about a show or performance.  So, I’ll typically avoid setlists or reviews or anything that provides context and information on the show.  That’s why I didn’t know Benjamin Clementine was the opening act.

I was not familiar with Benjamin Clementine nor did I recognize his name.  I happened to walk into a store the day of the David Byrne concert and see his name.  He appeared on it wearing a dapper suit and stood against a solid gray background.  The text on the poster read that Clementine was touring for his new album with David Byrne.  What was funny was that the text read “Benjamin Clementine with David Byrne” and that Byrne’s name was smaller and popped less than Clementine’s name.  I found the humor in such boldness to position yourself as top-billed for a tour where you’re the supporting act.  I enjoyed it.

That poster still didn’t tell me anything about Clementine and I was too busy to look him up. I had things to do before meeting with my friend at the show.  Plus, I was more focused on Byrne anyway.  That was who I shelled out hard earned cash to see anyway.

I met my friend and we took our seats that were way up in the gallery of the Auditorium Theatre.  The balcony area below us was quite a drop and the makeshift railing held by pipes and vice grips didn’t seem too sturdy as patrons grabbed and shook it to keep steady until they found their seats.  Also, the ambient rain and thunder noises playing in the theatre (probably curated by Byrne for pre-show ambience) didn’t help with my awareness of our position in the theatre.

On the stage was a piano, some guitars with pedals, amps, and some child-sized mannequins laying at the feet of an adult-sized mannequin draped with an American flag.  Based on what I knew about Byrne’s album, I thought those props were for him.  It didn’t cross my mind that they were meant for the opener.

The lights dimmer and two spotlights shone down on the piano and amps.  Clementine appeared on stage wearing an open jacket and white cowboy hat.  He was barefoot.  He walked slowly around the stage.  As he passed the instruments and mannequins, he would ring a bell at varying intervals.  This went on for several minutes as droning music played in the background.  This was part of the show and I intended to concentrate all my attention on it.  However, my fellow peanuts in the gallery didn’t seem to care.  They were there for Byrne and there was a lot of a noise and talking as they made cynical comments about the opener walking around in circles.  It was funny for them, but I felt their behavior was disrespectful.  So, I tried to focus on the show.

I didn’t know Clementine or his music (any mention of his songs in this post come from post-show research).  He opened with a song called “Condolence” and I was immediately engaged by it.  He skillfully played his piano while his bandmate played a droning guitar and activated a control board that played electronic rhythms.

Prior to the show starting, my friend told me that Clementine won the Mercury Prize for his first studio album At Least for Now which was released in 2015.  Upon hearing that first song, I could hear why.  Already, I could tell that Clementine was a masterful piano player.  And I found that impressive.  However, what I found thrilling was his voice and the delivery of his lyrics.  Clementine has such a deep and soulful voice with a cadence and delivery that is reminiscent of Nina Simone.  In fact, I’ll take that back.  He sounded exactly what I would imagine Nina Simone would sound like if she were a tall, androgynous Englishman.

After performing “Condolence,” Clementine returned to waking circles around the set.  His pace changed and he rang his bell at quicker intervals.  When he returned to the piano, he played “Phantom of Aleppoville” from his 2017 studio album I Tell a Fly.  This song sold me on Clementine as an artist.  It opens quietly with Clementine scat singing.  He goes on and he increases the dynamics of the performance until he is pounding on the piano screaming “leave me alone” to the point where your can hear the distortion and know that the soundboard was working on overtime trying to handle the various changes Clementine would go through.

Clementine only performed six songs for his opening set and he did so masterfully.  I was amazed by how adventurous he was in his musicianship.  He has a solid gold voice and plays the piano beautifully.  He could churn out a typical pop album like Adele and become a commercial smash.  However, he throws his heart in experimentalism and avant garde pop devoid of melody and combining elements of free jazz and contemporary classical.  I haven’t been this impressed with an up-and-coming artist in a long time.

It was very disappointing that people were talking throughout his set.  I know he wasn’t the artist they paid to see, but he was deserving of their attention because he is so talented.  They found the walking around stage funny as well as Clementine kicking around a baby mannequin on stage.  Granted, I didn’t know what all of it meant.  But, I was still focused on what was happening because I recognized I was seeing something truly special.

In my research today, I have seen that Benjamin Clementine is making his way through music.  He appeared on the Gorillaz’s 2017 album Humanz.  I never listened to the whole album, so I missed him entirely.  But, I’ve been listening to his second studio album I Tell a Fly non-stop.  I have yet to hear his first album, but I have read I Tell a Fly is a richer departure that focuses on Clementine’s growth and continuing experimentalism.  I’ll get to it eventually, but I want to be absorbed by what I heard in concert.

“Phantom of Aleppoville” was the highlight for me from his set.  I’ve listened to the studio cut dozens of times.  It is an amazing track for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the live performance.  That live performance was a treasure and I feel bad for the people around me who didn’t listen.

Narratively, “Phantom of Aleppoville” is about children being bullied which is a serious problem that lads to suicides and violence at home and in schools.  The United States has seen a rise in school shootings and some of the shooters who live cite bullying as one of their motivations.

The song also addresses the violence children face with war-torn countries at the hands of murderous dictators.  They know a unique kind of horror that isn’t known to many in our schools in America.  However, the song isn’t about the differences in those experiences.  It is about the similarities.  The trauma they experience have different causes, but the effect is still the same.

The message really speaks to me.  Whenever I am trying to get through a personal struggle or pain, one part of my healing process is to just dismiss it because other people around the world have it harder.  I think Why am I complaining about something so insignificant when people are starving or being murdered by their government?  It took me a long time to realize that I cannot think that way.  Sure, it is great to have that kind of perspective, so I don’t become an entitled dick.  However, I can’t live my life comparing myself to other people even if I am trying to focus on what is good in my life.  Everyone has problems that we must work through, but it is detrimental to one’s own mental health to compare themselves to other people.

I know I am going to listen to Benjamin Clementine nonstop all week.  And I am eager to see how his career evolves.  I would love to see him in concert where he is the highlight people paid to see.  Perhaps he’ll get the attention he deserves.