Friday, June 15, 2018

The American Way of Dying


                                             "Vehicle" -- The Ides of March

My Nissan sitting in the parking lot of Fairview Care Home in my hometown of Jett, Kan. (pop. 4,000 in the '70s). I'm parked beside my buddy Don's restored 1970 Dodge Charger, the veteran tag on the back. The same car Don bought when he came home from the Air Force 45 years ago. Sometimes when I'm with my kids on Saturday mornings at McDonald's, I run into Jim and his lady friend. I guess she provides him a lot of comfort these days. I remember when his wife, Karen, had to be admitted to the dementia-Alzheimer's unit five years ago, and his daughter, Kari, posted on Facebook, "I've never seen my dad cry before. Now he's cried to the point of exhaustion."

Feeding
He always greets me with a smile and a "How's the job going?" It's around lunch time. When I go inside, he'll be feeding Karen, the woman he's been married to for 43 years. She used to walk all over the place and touch your face when she saw you. Back when she had her mental faculties, she was a social worker, always connecting with people. Now she's in a wheelchair, hooked to an oxygen tank and cared for by Hospice nurses.

I sit motionless behind the still wheel. Got a bag of off-brand Ensure in the backseat with my daughter, Gabby. I was buying off-brand Depends for her until the home got me hooked up with a program in which we could receive incontinent supplies for free. Jesus, the first time Mom told me, "I pooped my pants" I cried like a damn baby. My son, Max, riding shotgun, fidgets nervously.

"What's up, son?" I ask.

"Dad, is it okay if I don't go in? It's depressing."

"Sure son. That's fine. I understand," I say, knowing my daughter Gabby's like-mind. I tilt my head to the backseat and say, "You can wait here too, Gab. I'll only be in there about five, 10 minutes."

"Okay, Dad."

Inside the home, Mom, who once had a rubenesque shape, looks gaunt, emaciated.

"Vickie, you wanna sit down and eat?" the nurses and CNAs say, trying to coax her away from her aimless meandering and to a table in the dining room where they'll feed her.

"Hi Mom," I say. "Remember me?"

There may be faint recognition. I can't be sure.

"Yeah Mom, we've known each other for a damn long time."

Two weeks later, I take her to the Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital emergency room due to the fact that she had been less than herself all day. Endless naps, one after the other, and an over-reaching lethargic haze. They keep her for observation before sending her home two days later, having never found out specifically what the problem was.

"I guess this is the new normal," I tell Margaret, the executive director of Fairview.

"I guess so," she says.

An hour later, she calls me at home and asks if I'd like to start Hospice treatments for Mom. "Yeah, I had a feeling things were winding down," I say. Within an hour, I'm talking to the hospice nurse, also named Vicki (her name spelled differently). She assesses Mom and deems her eligible for Hospice treatment. That night, the chaplain, a man named Charles calls me.

"I've known your mother for the past few years," he says. "I've talked to her in between ministering to my clients."

"So you've seen her decline," I say.

"Yeah."

A day later my brother Jimmy calls me and tells me he's talked with the funeral home. Mom could have three weeks, three months, six months -- hell, we don't know, but at least arrangements are set. "I'll go to her church Sunday and talk to the minister," I say. "It'll be cool, hangin' with the Nazarenes."

Bar blast--death disc shocker

June, 1991. I leave the newsroom at the Jett Dispatch where I have my summer job, and walk across the street to have lunch with Mom at her place of work. For a while after my girlfriend left me, I had no appetite. Fell into a dark depression. Now I'm getting my bearings back somehow and I'm entering the death house.

It stands to this day, one of the oldest damn houses in Jett. Still fresh gleaming white as the day the old man -- well, he was a young man then, just out of mortuary school in Pennsylvania -- moved in with his new bride. Black and white photos of the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Deurksford, now long dead, at various stages of life --  young adulthood, middle age and such. Mortuary owners David and Arletta Deurksen in various pictures of their lives, by themselves and with their three boys -- just blended with the retro wallpaper of the parlor like the vanishing years and days of drinking to the end, gospel singing and eulogies gone by. Such pieces of time are said to be ghosts, but according to the stories, there are images much more phantasmagorical shifting through the spaces and walls of this darling abode.

Mr. Farris lies in an expensive casket by the east wall of that room. He's wearing a tan suit with a gold clasp on his tie. People say "they made him up well." I get a good look and why the hell not? Long-time local businessman, civic leader, served on the Board of Education, City Council and two terms as county clerk. "They sewed his eyes down nicely," I say softly. For God's sake, why the hell did I ever read that book, The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford?

I walk into the the homey kitchen where Mom, the Deurksen's oldest son, Dwight, now semi-retired, and his daughter, Myla, now the funeral director at the family business, are having lunch. Sitting around the mint-colored 1950s table. The cushions of the metal-legged chairs have been sewn back together a few times ...like dead peoples' eyelids. They were still smoking cigarettes inside in those days. Well, not Mom. She gave up smoking back in the '70s. Her lungs will be cleared, not to be found tarry and black when the time comes in some dark, distant future, not foreseen at this moment when adulthood is a novelty and Mom's a nice forty-something middle age.

Music pipes in from the speakers. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers with a death disc shocker from 1964 -- the kind of hit of rock n' roll Stephen King likes.

Oh where oh where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me. She's gone to Heaven so I got to be good so I can see my baby when I leave this world.

A few months later, the singer at the age I am now, will be dead of alcoholism. The end doesn't mean a damn thing, really. J. Frank Wilson. Still a legend in Lufkin, Texas.

"How you doin', sonny boy?" Mom says, barely looking up from her egg noodles and bottled Coke. "Written any good stories today?"

"No, just a bunch of crap about the Neighborhood Watch program," I say. "Kind of cheesy."

Maybe some day I'll be an investigative reporter at a metro daily, writing about CIA agents selling crack in black ghettos. Then again, maybe the onrushing technological advances will render print obsolete. What the hell will I do then? I'll think of something. Mom was in her 40s a few years ago when she found her calling in the funeral business.

She talks to the corpses as if something is still there. Opening in the morning, she'll say, "Good morning, Mr. Pilsen." "Good morning, Mrs. Mallory." She tells them "Good night" when she closes.A month earlier she'd sold a guy pre-need funeral insurance to a guy from inside a bar. He arranged the meeting at Taft's Uptown Saloon on downtown State Street. Later, when the old guy entered assisted living, Mom would still visit. Make social calls. "Just for shits and giggles," she'd say.

"That was a pretty good story you wrote about Harry," Dwight saya, referring the that feature article I'd written about the new school superintendent, Harry Chapain that had appeared in the previous Saturday's "Neighbors" section of the paper. (Ol' Harry'd been in town for a while. Previously served as high school principal, then director of curriculum, then assistant superintendent -- the role he he had when I was in high school.)

"He was a damn good interview," I say.

Dr. Chapain talked about his more famous name sake (with a minor spelling change) and said that while "Cats in the Cradle" is a good song, he was partial to Harry Chapin's lesser known 1971 hit, "Taxi." But the song to which he felt connected -- as if it went with his life as a "greaser kid" from Tulsa, Okla., flying Huey helicopters in Vietnam, speaking out against the war after coming home, becoming a renegade educator and ultimately becoming a member of The Establishment as an administrator, albeit an unorthodox one -- was Sinatra's "My Way." You'd think it would've been the Doors, Hendrix or Ten Years After, but no, it was Sinatra.

"My Way" -- that's the song they started playing at closing time at Taft's bar shortly after it opened in 1970. It's still there, this little town pub, still using a front bar that goes back to the '40s and still playing "My Way" at closing time, although now it could be the Elvis or, better, Sid Vicious version as well as Sinatra's.

There was a self-activated turn table coming from the chambers of the antique looking funeral parlor, piping another record over the kitchen speaker. One of Dwight's favorites. "Sentimental Journey," the version from Sinatra's 1957 Come Fly With Me album. I'd finished eating my lunch, as much as I was going to eat, and grabbed a Marlboro Light from the hard pack in my front pocket. "Sinatra -- I'll have a cigarette for this," I said.

"That shit'll kill you," Mom said, the same thing she said when I played punk rock on my car stereo.

"I promise I'll quit as soon as the stress of college is over," I told her, not for the first time.

"Or when your ass dies," she says.

"Actually Mom, these cigarettes are keeping me alive. I'm gonna live forever."

"Who the hell would want that?" she said. I understand now. Nobody wants to live out long past their warranty. We assume we'll go to Heaven, I guess, but the anticipation of that singular moment is scary and uncertain.

Around this time, Myla softly reaches into her silver cigarette case and takes out a Newport. Lips protrude like luscious rhubarb jam over a volcano, the long thin cigarette between them as she torches the tobacco -- a flick of her finger on the button of her Cricket lighter. Myla is in her early 40s, divorced, wordly -- has a passport and been to Spain and Argentina -- and educated. I mean, hell, I can talk to her about Chaucer or Shakespeare or about how her dad, Dwight, was in the European Theatre nearly 50 years earlier before he returned home and went to mortuary school. Love her dark, straight hair and almond eyes. Myla -- Jesus loves you more than you will know.

She jokes about the late preacher's wife they conducted services for the previous month -- Mrs. Avett. Mom joins in. She has a friend who works as a nurse at Fairview Care Home where the nonagenarian lady spent her final few years in the dementia/Alzheimer's unit.

"My mom used to say she was a glamorous lady," Mom says, bringing up my beloved departed grandmother. "You couldn't find a more fitting preacher's wife. She was always so prim and proper, never stopped wearing hats and gloves to church. She would've been mortified to know what she'd become. They'd change her and she'd say, 'You like digging in my pussy.' If she knew what she was saying, she would've died a million deaths."

The humor in the funeral home is as dark as my depressive spells, but not as black as death, itself. "People are dying to get into this place," she says, not the first or last time she'll make that joke, but hey some things never grow stale or platitudinous. They just keep regenerating like flowers in a field where you lay down with a girl. Okay, hell, the joke did get old. Things do, you know.

                                            "Going Down" -- Freddie King

Melancholiac

I hear the noise in my coat pocket. It's a Freddie King ring. Means it can only be one person. All other calls arrive to the tune of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom." I glance down at the
contact name on my screen. "Shit, what now?"

My brother, Jimmy and I talk about the cost of putting her in a home. The paperwork. Rigmarole. Spendown to Medicaid. We're not at that point yet, but the future's bearing down on us.

"Christ, there's only a god for rich people." I rant on, walking past the Walmart Pharmacy and aisles of Pepto Bismo and stool softeners, iPhone to my ear. It's a winter's day, 2012. Outside a man in gloves, coveralls and a stocking cap rings a bell for the Salvation Army. Christmas time and we're all doing what we can. "Poor bastards like us -- I'm not saying God fucked us, just that he doesn't give a shit."

"Man, why you gotta dis on God about it?" he says of my blasphemy.

"Why not? Where the hell is he?"

Earlier that day at around 7:15 a.m. I call Mom, while stopped at the intersection of rural 70th Street and Hopkins Switch Road. A detour. One of many I've taken in this life.

"Mom."

The one person in this world who understands me (with the exception of my wife) who restore my calm, allay my fears. Hopefully enough of her will still be there to revive me one more time. She doesn't make calls anymore, but still answers her phone.

Hello (is anyone there)?

Sobbing incessantly. Something about her voice, I guess. Awash in tears.

I don't wanna go to work today

"Oh honey, what's wrong?"

"I'm lost." Barely able to release the words. "My whole life is for nothing."

"Oh, I'm so sorry."

"Remember that cult back in Texas? The Army of Yahweh?"

"Oh, I haven't thought of them in forever. I'll have to visit and see how they're doing.

She's cognitively unable to comprehend. We almost get there. We're within reach. We don't make it."

"I wanna die," I say between sobs. "There's nothing for me here. I'm nothing but a drain on my family."

"Why don't you come over? Tell me everything."

But I know it's no use. She will have forgotten our conversation if I visit. Throughout this phone conversation, she hasn't once called me by name. Has she forgotten it? Does she remember I'm her son? Sometimes she gets confused and thinks I'm her cousin. She'll never be able to calm me down again. There's so many things I finally realize about life and just at the moment I want to tell her, it's too late. She's fading away, and I feel guilty for thinking only of myself while dementia festers in her mind. I think about how this is the beginning of The End and I'll cry about it every day for two weeks.

"I have to go to work. I have to let you go."

"Okay, sweetie, but you call me back later."

Late that night I get out of bed, unable to sleep, sit at the foot of the stairs and feel sorry about the things I said earlier in the day to my brother. Sorry about a lot of things.

A couple of weeks later, my friend, Valerie, posts on Facebook about her mother. She's posted several times in recent weeks about her mother, who was suffering from Parkinson's and dementia, had been hospitalized and was eventually given Hospice care. Years ago, when Val and I worked together as reporters at the Ash Valley American in northeastern Oklahoma. Back then here mother was a Norwegian language instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- Val's alma mater.

"My point of light has flamed out," she wrote on Facebook. "Mom has become with the earth, sea and sky. I love you, Mom."

I replied to her comment, said I was sorry about her mother.

I felt a little bit of selfishness when I private messaged her. "Do you think there's a Heaven where people go when they die?"

"Don't know -- hard to say. You?" she messaged me back. "Seems like it matters less as I get older. My mother just seemed exhausted. Not like she wanted eternal life."

Good place?

Friday afternoon, I take off work an hour early to talk to Myla at Deurksen Funeral Home. Her hair is now dyed a rasp concrete blonde with a few purple streaks. Her dad died around 20 years ago.

"I haven't talked to your mom in years," she says as we sit in her office. "She always had such a good sense of humor. You think I could visit her at the home?"

"You can, but she wouldn't know you anymore," I say. "She's not what you remember. She's rail thin. She'll talk in almost a whisper and none of it makes sense. A lot of her personal animation is gone."

"Bless her heart."

"We don't know how long Mom'll be around, but she is doing good now for what it all is."

"Well it's never too early to start making plans," she says.

As I get up to leave, I mention that Mom liked the country singer Alan Jackson so we could play his version of "How Great Thou Art" when the time comes."

"That's so your mom," Myla says. "She could cuss like hell, but she loved gospel music. You were at Dad's service, weren't you? They played 'Sentimental Journey.'"

"No, I was living in Oklahoma at that time. Was it the Sinatra version?"

"It was the Andrews Sisters. Of course, Dad saw them perform at a USO show when he was in the service. (Pause) "Now they did play Sinatra at Harry Chapain's funeral a couple of years ago."

"I was there. They played 'My Way.' He had Alzheimer's, the same damn disease Mom has."

Myla walks me to the door, past the old school funeral parlor, caskets, made-up corpses and "No smoking" sign.

"Smoking is so 1995," I say.

"Yeah, it was a bitch-and-a-half to quit, but I did it," she says, laughing. "Long before they had vaping."

"I quit sinning a while back. A little before my first kid was born."

"Oh, how old are your kids now?"

"My son is 16, my daughter is 13."

"Oh my! They keep getting older. Max and Gabby, right?"

"Yep, that'd be their names."

"My oldest granddaughter graduated from high school this year."

"Oh shit," I say and we both laugh.

                                        **************************************

Around 8:30 a.m., a Saturday. Sitting at a booth in McDonald's with Max and Gabby. We finished eating a while ago. Now we're just sitting there, each of us on our phones -- the kids playing games, me writing a few lines for my blog.

"Well Jeff, how 'ya doing?" the familiar voice says.

I turn around and there's Don wearing a cap, his lady friend to his side. We shake hands. It's the first time I've seen him since that day a few weeks ago when the kids didn't want to go into the nursing home. It had been around lunch time and Don dutifully fed his wife, Karen. Since then, she passed away.

"Really sorry to hear about Karen," I say.

"Well thank you," he says. "I miss the old girl. I really lost her years ago."

I nod, knowingly.

"But she's better off now, he says, still a little sadly. "She wouldn't have wanted to live that way."

We switch gears, exchange some more happy talk about the breezy, sunny weather and what we'll do over the weekend, the smile back on Don's face, his characteristic affability shining through. He introduces me to his girlfriend, something he hasn't done the several other times we ran into each other at Mickey Dees. "This is Joyce," he says. She gracefully takes my hand.

After they leave, I suggest to the kids that we get dessert. "Their strawberry cream pies are to die for."

"I don't like pie," Gabby says.

"Little girl, you're missing one of the true joys of life."

                                                 ****************************

Riverside Area
Reese lays down the black card and reads the white lettering. "White people like ________.

He shuffles the three white cards, then one by one, he turns them over. "A PowerPoint presentation." "Crying into the pages of Sylvia Plath." "Mufasa's death scene."

Reese, his girlfriend, Janie, and I are playing Cards Against Humanity at their dining room table in their home in the Riverside section of Wichita. For shits and giggles, we added an imaginary player, Rando, a sort of phantom presence.

"I have to go with this one," Reese says, laying down the card with The Lion King reference.

"Oh come on," I protest. "A PowerPoint presentation -- white people love that shit."

"It's a fucking turd," Reese says, giving our ghostly player his fourth black card. One more and Rando (like random withouty the m) wins the game.

"But PowerPoints are so white, I mean, like megachurches and gentrification," I continue.

"Mufasa's death scene trumps all that," Reese says. "It's an insipid Disney movie with an insipid Elton John song, all white bred and lachrymose. It's contrived to make the privileged look like they have a heart."

Well I couldn't argue with that.

It's the second time I've been at Reese and Janie's house for dinner. This time I brought my kids, whom I have for the weekend. While we play cards, they're entertaining Carson, Janie's 7-year-old son from a previous relationship. Carson looks up to my kids, especially Max, whom he worships -- because they're teenagers. The kids are in Carson's room, playing Nintendo Wii, which "doesn't have violence and cussing" Gabby told me, so it's okay for a kid.

Earlier when we arrived at the house, Reese and I slapped high fives, feeling victory over the spot I recorded for Kansas Characters, a locally produced show on Wichita's public TV station, KPTS, where Reese is a producer. We usually celebrate such things over a beer or a meal at Maggie O'Malley's pub in the Delano district. The piece I filmed was about a group of small town boosters in Jericho, Kansas who raised money over several years and restored the town Opera House, which opened in 1885 and had sat vacant, collecting cobwebs, since 1953.

"This has been a community wide effort to reconnect and bring back to life an integral, vital part of our town heritage," the chief volunteer said on camera. Then her face took on a playful look as she leaned forward and said, sotto voce, "It's said to be haunted."

"Heaven is" reads the black card I pull, back at the dining room table.

"Gotta pick this one," I say, singling out the white card reading "pooping back and forth. Forever."

It's Rando's card. The ghostly man wins.

"Your mind's still in the shitter," Reese says, then adds that it's time to watch "the damn movie." We're always picking apart movies -- Cool Hand Luke, Blood Simple, Raging Bull...or TV shows of the past 20 years -- The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Pushing Dasies, Dexter, Mad Men...Reese is a hard ass critic. If he doesn't like your movie or music, he'll tear your ass up.

Pink moon-like standing lamps create mood in the room. Red oak floor that trails down the hall, connecting the lavatory and bedrooms and goes the other way into the square, prayerful-like, but secularized beer-bong-and-baulderdash-skewn dining room. Reese and Janie's living room is a paean to kitsch. Off white walls. So 1950s Reader's Digest, but with a domicilic swag that could be Costello-ishly cruel if you punked it just a little. The sofa is burgandy-colored and warm. The coasters on the end tables are abstract in colors.

The 50-inch flat screen with the blue ray/DVD player hooked on are the most auspicious links with modernity in the room. Reese and I are both fans of the movie I brought over -- The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's breakout film of 50 years ago. I checked it out the DVD from the Jett Public Library. Max comes out and joins us while Carson listens to Gabby play her ukulele. My boy took a Cinema Appreciation at the high school last semester and I like introducing him to classic films.

"Son, why do you think the camera is zoomed in on the character's head with a fish tank behind him?"

"Cuz he likes fish?"

"I think it's indicative of how overwhelmed he feels , all these people there for him. He feels isolated, like a fish in a tank."

Later Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) enters the room, ostensibly to ask where the bathroom is, but with an ulterior motive. She throws the car keys to Ben (Hoffman) and they land in the fish tank.

"That's gotta mean something," Max says.

"What do you think it means, son," I ask.

He ponders for a moment. "I think it means she's gonna enter his tank, his life."

"Wow!" I exclaim proudly. "You learned a few things in that class. Good catch, sonnyboy, you're getting pretty damn good at this."

After the movie, Reese and I talk about it for 30 minutes. Janie checks on Carson and does her own thing. Max rejoins Gabby and Carson.

"I know Anne Bancroft was the first sex fantasy for a generation of young men and I can see why," I say. "But the movie is about a lot more than Mrs. Robinson taking the young guy's innocence. It's about being in a funk and wanting to go somewhere, to do something, but what? What the hell happens next?"

"It's like you go through a crisis at different transition points in your life -- from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to young adulthood to middle aged and finally to elderly," Reese says, with a little excitement. He always digs relating art to life.

"Yeah, I usually have a nervous breakdown about once every 13 years," I say.

"But you're feelin' all right now. Like, you were a wreck after you got divorced, but now you seem to be in a good place. You're breathing easier."

"Yeah, but a good place is tenuous," I say. "Everything's temporary."

"Hell, depression is temporary," he said. "It's fucked up to off yourself, but I can't say I've never thought about it. I was in this black void after I left seminary school. I lost all my spiritual resources, but now I'm at peace, not really believing or disbelieving."

"The religious cult back in Texas, they fucked up my mind," I say. "But I had to leave town, couldn't become one with them, getting dunked in water, handling snakes or whatever the shit they do. I couldn't dig that image of God as The Enforcer who's going to rain down fire and fury and create genocide."

"It's strange you're still a believer," Reese says, as if impressed. "You've got stick-to-it-ive-ness."

"Well in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote about the once born who live in a state of religious euphoria and can't fathom tragedy and the twice born who've been through hell and purgatory, suffered a crisis of faith, then come back with a deeper faith, but the melancholia never really leaves."

"I would take you to be the latter," Reese says.

"I'd say that'd be accurate," I answer.

"So what do you believe now exactly?"

"I finally just concluded God is love. I mean if there's a Higher Power in the Heavens who embodies the universal laws of love and justice, he's gotta have a heart, right? If I could love my kids even if they were gay, how could God do any less? I believe Christians are going to be in Heaven alongside Muslims -- assuming there is a Heaven."

"So you believe in universal salvation?"

"No, I think that's bullshit. I don't believe in some traditional conception of a fiery hell, but there's gotta be some darkness or absence somewhere. Some people, I just don't see coming back from the dark side. I mean, Adolph Hitler -- there's no way he could live in some godly paradise."

Reese laughs. "Yeah, Hitler was pretty incorrigible."

Then he gets up, heads to the kitchen. "Want another beer?"

"No," I say, laughing a little. "I'm good. We'll have to be headed home soon."

Alone, I look at the lamp light reflected on the hardwood floor. I envision Mom again in that funeral house, said to be haunted. She appears as if a few decades have been returned to her. So youthful looking as she closes up shop for the night. "Good night Mr. Farris," she says, turning out the light.


                                 "Children of the Grave" -- Black Sabbath














Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham's mixed legacy


                   Billy Graham on Meet the Press.

Around 6 a.m. this morning. I was exchanging texts with my ex-wife on such logistics as which one of us would drop the kids off at school for the rest of the week. Then she texted a message that wasn't too surprising, given his advanced age of 99.

"Billy Graham is dead."

Maria and I used to have a tasteless game we'd played since we were married in which each of us would try to be the first to tell the other when a celebrity died. "David Bowie's dead." "Prince is dead." The texts from her had come in. "That's one more point for me," she'd say. "I'd already seen on Facebook that he died." "Well you didn't say anything so it doesn't count."

We've gradually dispensed with the contest element and now one of us tells the other when a famous person dies. No game. No points. It seemed more fitting to be somewhat reverential when talking about America's Pastor.

My earliest memories of Billy Graham date back to the '70s, seeing him on TV at my grandparents' house -- actually at both sets of grandparents. He preached epic sermons before enormous crowds packed into stadiums. I remember my grandma Mac saying "preach it," happy that the evangelist was bringing the good word to the masses. The man, who'd given his life to Jesus Christ at age 16, was a paragon of preachers. My grandma and grandpa Guy would always forgo watching Happy Days or whatever was on the other channel if a Billy Graham crusade (I'm a bit uneasy about that word) was on television.


Billy Graham
Along with hymnals, Bible study manuals and various religious books, gems like World Aflame and Billy Graham Answers Your Questions were on the bookshelf of my paternal grandparents' house in Marshallville, Kan. (pop. 700) From an early age, I must have been searching for answers because I would devour those books. I was amazed that this man had all this inside knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and knew how to respond to people's problems. The woman praying that her son wouldn't be drafted into Vietnam. Why didn't she pray instead that he'd be a good soldier? Graham advised. The person who felt the Bible to be boring. "If you find the Bible to be boring, you are at fault," Graham responded, somewhat unfairly, I now think. Don't tell me the book of Leviticus or the tedious begats aren't boring.

Years later, (1995) after the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead, I watched the memorial service on TV and agreed with Pres. Clinton, who upon introducing Graham, described the preacher as the one man who could bring comfort to the grieving at such a time.

In his final years, I would still respect Billy Graham -- much more than I would, his virulent-right son. But I also realized he had flaws and his legacy was mixed.

I always feel ill at ease when I hear preachers pray to God for our country. "Why not the whole dang world?" I'll think to myself. I think it's a myth that the United States is more blessed and holy than any other nation on Earth. This notion that we're a Christian Nation and have to be the Biggest and Best, to me, smacks of Constantine-like jingoism. It's a view Graham promoted in his early youthful days as a fire-breathing, communist denouncing revivalist.

The United States is "the key nation in the world" and "truly the last bulwark of Christian civilization," Graham said in 1956. Young Billy Graham favored the McCarthy hearings. Soviet-style Communism was an evil godless religion straight from Satan.

Our sex-obsessed culture, "dirty movies" and legalized pornography were taking our country straight to hell. In his 1965 book World Aflame, Graham wrote: "One of the world's great historians told me: The moral deterioration in the West will destroy us by the year 2000 A.D. even if the Communists don't."

Graham was critical of the social gospel, just as he was of intellectual theologians. He didn't appear to be a fan of taking protests to the streets, writing of a "seething political cauldron" of "riots, demonstrations and revolution" occurring somewhere in the world every day.

"Even in Britain and America the people have become addicted to sitting, squatting, demonstrating and striking for what they want."

Graham's friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. was strained when Graham suggested a cooling off period during the Birmingham sit-ins of 1963, calling for "a period of quietness in which moderation prevails."

King criticized "white moderates" in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", later published in his book, Why We Can't Wait. No doubt, King was thinking of Graham along with others. (On the good side, Graham had insisted that audiences for his crusades be integrated since 1953.)

Their friendship was further split by the things corrupt FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was telling Graham about King -- things which Graham would later say poisoned his mind. Their opposite stances on the Vietnam War drove the men further apart. King spoke out against the war; Graham was hawkish

Damning communications between Graham and Pres. Nixon have since been released. In a 1969 memo, the evangelist advised the Commander-in-Chief to step up the war in Vietnam and bomb dikes, which "could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam. A transcript of a 1972 phone call between Graham and Nixon revealed them both making antisemitic remarks. Graham said Jews' "stranglehold" (on the media and entertainment industries) had to be broken "or the country's going down the drain."

But Graham, like other Americans, would later question America's involvement in Vietnam. After the Watergate scandal, he talked of getting burned by Nixon. While he continued to be a spiritual adviser to Presidents, he vowed never to get too close to power again. He hung back from joining the Religious Right and was criticized for being tolerant of Islam.

In his later years, Graham regretted not joining MLK and the others in the march to Selma. He felt he could have done more. Decades earlier, after Graham invited King to join him on stage in 1957, King wrote to Graham, "You have courageously brought the Christian gospel to bear on the question of race."

Upon Graham's death today, the King Center tweeted, "Pray for his family as they mourn, while celebrating his transition into eternity bolstered by his message of hope and work on behalf of the community."

Suffice it to say, Graham was a good, but flawed man. I'm going to leave it right here with a video from a Woody Allen TV special in 1969 in which he chats with Graham. I love this. While the two men acknowledged they didn't agree with each other on everything, they nevertheless had an engaging civil exchange. You'd never see anything like this in today's media.

                            Woody Allen and Billy Graham

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Light in the world


Hi readers, I hope you all had a wonderful holiday. I didn't get around to it this year, but when Walmart has sales after Christmas Day, I'll buy a small tree and ornaments to place in my apartment next year. I'll also buy the Christmas cards I'll mail next year. I have my kids with me right now, which is the best Christmas present I could ever get.

Last week I rang the bell for Salvation Army -- a Christmas tradition for me that started when my ex-wife took our son out to do it when he was 5. He's 16 now. Our daughter is 13. I was assigned to stand outside a Dillons store from 4 to 7 p.m., but the preacher relieved me at 6:30 p.m., for which I was grateful. I was freezing ass cold -- actually my feet were freezing. God bless you, Commander Johnson.

On Christmas Eve night, I went to the candle light service at church. My belief is that the birth of the Christ child was like light breaking through a world of darkness.The pastor, Neal and his wife, Jayme, are good friends of mine. They've supported this blog and encouraged me in all my writing endeavors. I never thought I'd be buddies with a pastor. Thought I was too much of a rebel, but Neal and I -- we get each other. Lately, we've taken to trading theology books with each other. Oh, and Jayme gave me a bunch of crockpot recipes after my dad and step-mom gave me a crockpot last Christmas. They knew I was without some essential things and gave me a special present this Christmas, said I didn't need to give them anything, but I'd already gotten them a Christmas card. Neal lost his mom to cancer this year. (His dad died around 12 years ago.) Several of my friends lost parents this year.

Among other supporters of this blog, there's my friend, Stan, who serves on the Wichita Board of Education and ran for a state legislative seat, but unfortunately for Kansas, he lost. I wrote some PR material for Stan, much like 19th century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, House of Seven Gables..) wrote a campaign biography of his college friend Franklin "Handsome Frank" Pierce -- one of the worst presidents ever. He was an anti-abolitionist. Anyhow, Stan is a super guy. I can bounce writing ideas off him and he always listens and offers advice and encouragement. Unlike Franklin Pierce, Stan is all for good causes like racial, gender and socio-economic equality.

Then there's my friend, Alana, whom I've known since junior high, but we were more acquaintances than friends in school. More recently, through the blog and sharing stories about our kids, she's become a friend. Her husband, Craig, also went to school with us. He's been serving the country for years in the military, which I respect. Alana was a PTO (Parent Teachers Organization) dynamo, raising money for her kids' public schools. Her daughter is now a realtor. Son is a rock guitarist who can play Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

Among people I've known since I was a kid, but only recently became friends with, probably none is more surprising than my friendship with Dawn. In junior high, we hated each other. Don't know why. That's just the way it was. We were cruel to each other. One day I said (this is so juvenile), "Dawn, is that mayonnaise on your lip or are you back in business?" In junior high, I projected a certain stupid no-holds-barred vulgarity like I've never exhibited before or since. I'm glad the profanity gene missed my kids. Anyhow, Dawn is now a stalwart reader of this blog, which makes her a friend. She's worked for years, making airplane parts and has a daughter who got a degree in marine biology from some university in Oregon. I think she has a son who's a high school wrestler.

My friend, Jeannie, in Michigan, is another faithful reader of the blog. She's a good hearted person who takes care of people in her home. She lost her brother this year in an accident, which sucks. Her father died in 1969. But I'm happy to say her mom, who's in her 90s, is still alive and doing well.

Then there's Denyse in New Mexico aka Inciting a Riot. She has regularly read the blog for years. Life has been up and down for her, but I hope and pray her fortunes soon take a turn for the better. Denyse is, like, 10 years older than me. I saw a picture of her, taken in the '70s, and all I can say is "Foxy lady."

Yeah, most of my friends are chicks. Sorry, they make up most of the audience for my blog. Maybe they're more in agreement with my somewhat liberal views, I don't know. (Well, not Alana.) It seems like if I say something liberal on Facebook, Stan and maybe one other guy will "like" it and I get eight or 10 "likes" from women. I don't know, I guess if you have a cock and balls, you gotta be a big tough conservative.

A new year is fast approaching and I plan to do all I can to make it a good one. I've had my share of being depressed the past couple of years. Who needs it? Things will always get better and no matter how far I may be into darkness, I'll never stop striving to be happy.

I'm reminded of Winston Churchill, whom Gary Oldman portrays in the now playing biopic, Darkest Hour. Churchill had terrible depression (he called it "the black dog") and he was an alcoholic, but he was exactly the right man to lead Great Britain when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis threatened Europe and virtually the whole world. Churchill lived to be 90-years-old. Anyhow, despite all his problems, he said, "I am an optimist. There does not seem to be too much use being anything else."

One of my favorite writers, J.D. Salinger, who participated in the D-Day invasion and came back from World War II with PTSD, battled depression. He wrote about people having nervous breakdowns and captured what in the '50s was called "middle class neurosis." Salinger's weltschmerz has influenced my own writing, but I don't think I have to be in misery to write well. Ideas can spring up any time, any place, in all kinds of weather. Some people may think I can't be happy and creative at the same time.

Well, watch me.

                            "December" -- Teenage Fanclub


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas parody letter 2017


Dear _______,

My good friends Davey and Goliath

Greetings to all friends, kith and kin & Christmas fans throughout the world. It's that time of year again for watching reruns of Santa Claus & Kakeman (those of you who grew up in the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area in the 1970s know what I'm talking about), drinking egg nog shakes from McDonald's, eating tacos and gazing at the rich people's Christmas lights when you're out cruising through the fancy neighborhoods with your girl. Imbibing an English porter with cheery friends while taking in the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Christmas 1977
Sir Paul McCartney
So what's happened in the big wide J. Guy world this year? It's been an interesting year to say the least as I severed ties with the Underground Writing Society I had been afiliated with for several years, I had a bout of homelessness (well not literally homeless, I lived in my car, but it was all right) and saw...can we get a big Ringo Starr drumroll here? Sir Paul McCartney! Yeah, I saw a Beatle live in the flesh. The man is still a force  for rock n' roll and all music, love and peace the world over and has lost nothing to age. I brought my son, Max, with me so he could see history. Would've brought my daughter, Gabby, but she doesn't like noise. "Oh shit!" I exclaimed as the arena went orange with the booming explosion accompanying "Live and Let Die." But it was all right. And no, I'm not going to play "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time."

When I hear music like the Beatles, I think of how we need to get back to good old fashioned basics. Didn't America (well, actually Alabama) have the chance to do this by electing a good Christian man to the U.S. Senate? How Christian is he? As a judge, he posted The Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall. Sure, he got in trouble because they said he violated the separation of Church and State, but isn't that just like a lot of godless liberals to pretend such a separation exists? We all know our Founding Fathers built this country on good ol' white male evangelicalism. Some said the good judge preyed upon teenage girls 40 years ago. But hey, as his Good Christian supporters said, he was a "man's man." Furthermore, didn't the Gospels say Mary was a teenager and Joseph was 35 when they got together? I'm sure it must have. Our glorious President (take it easy on him, he's a new Christian) campaigned for the good Alabama Republican. After all, the senate candidate shares the president's goal to Make America Great Again. Yes, he did say the last time America was great happened to be during the era of slavery. You know when people, due to their skin pigmentation, were beaten, tortured, murdered, separated forever from their families and women were raped by slave masters and their sons? But hey a few white people had it good so it's all right.

I'll have to admit in some ways, things are improving. Men can no longer get away with being dirtbags. Those rich, powerful men who sent x-rated videos to female co-workers and subordinates, locked them in rooms and flashed their dicks at them -- they're being held accountable. Karma has got 'em by the balls. All the bad guys are being held to account. For example, if you walk in on young ladies undressing because you own the Miss USA pageant or brag about how you're a celebrity who can "grab em by the ____" --- you -- uh, well -- shouldn't you be nailed to a cross by the media? -- uh, well I guess if you're loved by Jerry Fallwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham, you're all right.

But if you sleep with the Russians in order to win a Presidential election, well then...Oh, not then either? Never mind, he's a good Christian. A good pussy grabbing Christian who might be into golden showers.

Best kids in the world. Right here.
Boy, I sure wouldn't want to go to the Jingle Bell Ball with that guy. Speaking of which, my teenage son, Max, went to such an event at the high school. Max is a good boy in every sense of the word -- recognized for citizenship at school, a respecter of all races, genders and creeds who loves Minecraft, Star Wars and playing Cards Against Humanity with his buddies at lunch. My boy would never light a joint in the school cafeteria like that dumb ass from his shop class did. (I mean, hell, if you're gonna light a joint, you don't do it out in the open.) Kid got kicked off the football team for the dumb stunt. Max, of course, is smart. He's even into smart human tricks. For example, there's this 300-pound kid named Kian who's on the wrestling team with my son. Max, like the other boys has experimented with getting on all fours and seeing how long they can last with Kian sitting on their backs.

Then there's my daughter, Gabby. She's into decals, making cartoons on the computer and anything Harry Potter. In another sign of the shifting times, my baby, my princess -- the little girl who wanted to grow up to live in a "magic castle" -- turned 13 just this month. My baby girl is a teenager now. (I guess I'm getting to be an old man.) She got a ukulele and a guitar this year. She's as bad ass as Patti Smith Carrie Fisher Erin Fitzpatrick and as sensitive as Stevie Nicks singing "Landslide." If any guy tried that sexual harassment shit with Gabby, she would, like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, go medieval on his ass.

Along with the other changes in my life, I entered a relationship this year. My girlfriend, Kayla, writes me love notes and sends me sweet text messages like this one: "Come over if you feel like it, but you can't do what you want, I'm on my period."

Kayla's brother, Townes, had a bout of anal fissures this year. Anal fissures, in case you don't know, are splits or cracks in the lining of the anal opening. This can result in the passage of very hard or watery stools. Townes had the hard kind. He told us all about it during a high fiber lunch at one of Wichita's trendy health food restaurants. Guess the plumbing was a-clogged-up at the sewer down Townes. (Ha ha chortle chortle). But I want everyone to know that Townes and his anus and bowel movements are now doing A-okay.

Well that's about all my news. And remember, Christmas has done good things for me and it can for you as well. Think about that as you feast upon the cooked goose and potatoes at your family dinner table. I mean, think hard about those things that truly matter in life. The Screw You Party is giving the tax system and internet to the oligarchs and maybe President Grinch has no respect for women as he all but admitted once to Howard Stern, but by God, he'll make us all say "Merry Christmas" and isn't that what this special time of year is all about? No Ebenezer Scrooge, that guy.

As I alluded to before, I better get my white ass 'outa here. But, let's keep the joy that is Christmas in our hearts all year. Oh I'm as happy as an angel, merry as a school boy and giddy as a drunken man just thinking about it. To my friends, I say I get high with a little help from you. To my kids, you're the reason I exist. You complete me. And remember, no matter what your faith, God is. So have a good year and, with regard to your personal plumbing, may you pass no hard stools. And if you start feeling too high, straying past yourself and thinking you're all about something, get back to where you once belonged.

God bless us everyone,

Jeff

P.S. I have long labored over writing at my local hamburger establishment, McDonald's, from which I've talked to my friend Joel who keeps the dining area crisp and clean. Joel is a retired guy, a Navy veteran with a tattoo and a white mustache that sets his smile aglow. Here's to Joel and that lovely yuletide poem he wrote many years ago, ending it on a sensitive note: "Shove that Christmas tree up your ass."



           The Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- "All I Want For Christmas"


Friday, December 15, 2017

The Big Garage



"We got Bo Didley playing & Leslie the announcer at the cash machine. The garage is rock'n and NO PARKING IN THE DAMN YARD!"

So she said on Facebook that Saturday morning. The day was bittersweet for her, but she'd face it with the courage of someone laughing so much, it would almost drive away all today's tears. She'd escaped to the back porch for coffee and a cigarette, and that's where I caught her. Slyly sitting back in her chair around the patio table. Her face, rosy in the gray morning, was cool as Kentucky Derby Days. Her kid sister, Amy, a younger forty-something, provided sweet comic relief.

Then they saw me.

She jumped up. We hugged. People tell me I give good hugs and I guess I do. Can anyone underestimate the power of a warm, tight hug in these days when we're just trying to get along?

 "Oh Jeff, thanks for coming to the freaky damn backyard," Suzanne said.

She was wearing faded blue jeans with the pocket ripped on the left cheek of her ass. Purple K-State T-shirt (her alma mater), sleeves pulled up to the elbows, revealing the fiery serpentine tattoo on her left arm. (Some 50 years ago, her dad, a young ensign, got a tattoo, while in the Navy. Anchors aweigh.) Blonde hair tied back in a pony tail and jet dark glasses that made her look like a nerd even though back in school I always considered her one of the "cool kids." That was the pedestal people put her on, but you always caught the sense of resistance in every way she walked. In every damn thing she said. There's a photo (circa 1994) of her in khakis in some train, revealing a window to mountains in Germany. Mischief in the black pipe hanging from a corner of her mouth. Fun emanating from the beer stein in her hand.

Somewhere in the middle of life, I would discover that Suzanne was in many ways, a product of her parents' coolness.

When she'd posted to Facebook about the garage sale at her parents' house, she said it all with such fun, I knew I had to come. For as long as I'd known Suzanne -- since third grade, actually -- her parents had lived at 409 Akron, a red brick house in Jett, Kan. (pop. 4,000 in the 1970s).

But they didn't live there anymore.

Suzanne's mother, Madelyn, went for a walk as she did every morning around 5 a.m. in their suburban neighborhood, and had a heart attack. She died right there on the sidewalk. An unexpected death.

With Madelyn gone, there was no one in the house to take of Keith anymore. For the past year and a half, her husband had become increasingly more forgetful and disoriented. The love notes, the drawings he was always making for his wife -- had become a thing of the past. He could no longer drive. For years, through the decades actually, he'd restored old cars. Suzanne and her sisters placed him in a home with a memory care unit. Her dad had Alzheimer's, my mom has it. Suzanne and I relate to each other.

Car show. Movie show
Restored (or in the process of being restored) Thunderbirds, Corvettes, Impalas and my personal favorite, the sleek, black GTO. All of them for years parked in that driveway, in that garage. Paraded in the Classic Car Club show on State Street on sticky, summer days. It's good to live. And to bring disparate parts from the car graveyards, piece them together with precision like the supernatural and there they are -- touching, rubbing together, glistening as if rolling straight from the factory floor. Just resurrecting that baby.

"Come on inside," Suzanne said, motioning to the house. "It's kind of freaky and surreal right now."

I followed her in, past the now stark living room, into the kitchen, loaded with boxes. She introduced me to a woman -- I think it was an aunt from Colorado -- there were so many relatives at the house that day, it's hard to keep them straight.

Then she poured me a cup of coffee. It was a black hole sun-colored mug with a crude white cartoon drawing of a hot rod on it. "Cream or sugar?," she said. "Are you kidding?" I answered. "Black, no riff raff." I also chose a black doughnut from the box she offered me. Chocolate glazed. Coffee and doughnuts. Couldn't refuse.

I so wanted to come over and take for my treasures a piece of her family and heritage. At the same time I felt like an intruder. A vandal. I said as much, expressing my ambivalence.

"It's okay, Jeff," she said. "It's only stuff. I'd like to see you have some of it."

"That black jacket hanging up there looks about your size," the aunt from Colorado said. It was Keith's leather jacket.

"You can just have it," Suzanne told me. "You don't have to pay me anything."

But that didn't seem right to me. "I'll tell you what. You're asking $10 (which was a steal) for it. I'll give you five." So I handed her a five from my wallet and she placed it in the cash box.

Of course I had to go through the boxes of books. Most of them were stuff like How to Draw Cars. I didn't buy those. Felt I should leave them for some aspiring artist who might saunter in. Let that person connect with Keith's artistic genius. And the old Rodder's Journal mags. Let those go to a true car enthusiast. I'd just seize on some of the rock n' roll.

Everything we have here is on loan and we just pass through it, make it a part of ourselves until we check out and pass the cool vibes on to others, which will always include people we never knew in this life.

"I know it's weird, all these strangers going through your family's stuff," I said. "We had the estate sale at my grandpa's place when he was still alive. It paid for him to live in the nursing home."

"It's hard, but it's gotta be done," she said. (My God, it sounded like something I would say.) "Last night I was going through these old drawings my dad made. Some were for my mom. She had this big piece of his heart."

"I hope you're hanging on to those," I said.

"Oh absolutely, I'm going to have them framed."

"And I saw these detailed diagrams of ships in one of the boxes," I said.

"Oh my God, those gotta go to Jax," she said, referring to her son. After graduating from high school, he followed his granddad's lead, joining the Navy. He's currently stationed in Yokosuka, Japan and deployed on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. Eerily, his first station is where the old man was stationed when he was young.

"He vacillated back and forth on whether to join the Army or Navy," Suzanne said of her son. Her ex-husband had been in the Army. She was an Army wife stationed in Germany when the picture on the train was taken years ago.

Outside the window, I saw Suzanne's teenage daughter, Karah. (Like me, Suzanne has one boy, one girl.) She smiled at me, just as she had as she walked down the aisle with her family and noticed me sitting there at her grandmother's funeral.She was a wearing KU T-shirt and shorts -- flaunting sweet rebellion at her mom. Actually, I think Karah's going to turn out tougher than Suzanne. Like my daughter, who also has a sensitive older brother, she's a take-no-shit kind of girl, the type who mentally drop-kicked teenage boys at the high school with their indecent proposals involving camera phones. "Fuck you" -- and they were brought down. But she had a sweet smile. I told Suzanne so.

"She knows who you are," Suzanne said. "You 'oughta say hi. Maybe she knows your son from school."

Outside, along the splendid driveway, I caught the young woman's attention.

"Hi Karah, I'm Jeff, a friend of your mom's.

She shook my hand, smiled that smile. "It's nice to meet you."

"Would you happen to know my son, Max Guy? I know he's a couple of classes behind you."

"I don't really know him, but I've heard the name. I know he was Student of the Week last week?"

"Yes, thank you for mentioning that. I was quite proud. His mother and I have always tried to instill good citizenship in our kids as I'm sure your parents have with you and your brother."

A few feet away, the garage started rocking again. The early Rolling Stones' cover of Chuck Berry's "Carol." Cash box shakin' like a money maker should. A group of men, young and old, some smoking, some not, were rolling it up. Leslie -- 5"1" and 118 pound of dynamite -- was like a maestro. In his dementia, Keith had forgotten his oldest daughter's name and took to calling her "The Announcer." The gray garage looked for a second like something from Grease.

When Suzanne and Amy came out and saw me in the leather jacket, it was all real. There was a red pin on the jacket that read, "Rod and Custom magazine." I'm keeping that. Suzanne had another Marlboro Light. Three months earlier, she'd been on Facebook, talking about how she'd gone 21 days without a cigarette. With all the stress, she's taken it up again.

"This is just temporary," she said. "I'm gonna quit again."

"I hope so," I answered. "We'd like to have you around for a while."

The Bridge

"Thank you so much for coming," she said, helping allay the guilty outsider feeling inside me. Then I realized my being there, whether I'd meant it that way or not, was really about two old friends facing the end of those lives that anchored us, our innocence long diminished, the fragility of our own mortality.

"Dad's not eating anymore," she said.

"I'm sorry. I wish it didn't have to be this way."

"He's turning off the lights and he's gonna do it his way."

In the garage, they were wrapping things up like a life. Impact wrench, air compressor, creeper, paint stripper, grinder, tin cutters...all the tools of auto mechanics and restoration. Being sold away (to live some more). The Announcer maintaining cool authority. She was back in town, having boarded a Boeing Jet plane from Philadelphia, PA.

They'd all be there to meet him. Just as they had for Madelyn. A caravan of classic cars lined the parking spaces outside the Methodist Church at her funeral. Keith was a founding member and past president of the Jett Classic Car Club. He wouldn't be forgotten. Some of his contemporaries are still around; some, yeah, they aren't living.

Three weeks later, Suzanne would be on Facebook again, summoning the ghost of her little brother Justin who died in a car accident when he was 21.

"Hey Justin, we know you can hear us. Get that Big Garage in the sky ready for Keith/Dad."

At last, the lights went out. The Big Garage in the Sky was open for business. The grease, soul, the rock n' roll, a revival. (Don't we all need some kind of revival today?) I think the old man's got a hold a' the keys. And he'll never have to clean the place or worry about door dings again.


                               "Road Runner" -- Bo Didley



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Live from Liberty Apartments


7:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Alone in the laundry room of Liberty Apartments at the east end of town in an undisclosed convention-defying Kansas community. I'm drinking Maxwell Piss coffee and and speaking to you over wheat fields and over Facebookland and Twitter through an apparatus in a medium that might be felt by you. And isn't that what we're all looking for these days? Some feeling?

We occupied tables at The Galveston, an upscale restaurant off Douglas in Wichita's Old Town District that sometimes featured jazz combos with weekend brunches.  It was the kind of event I attended more for professional reasons than any desire to bullshit with people even though that's what I always end up doing. The Big Names from the Wichita Media and Communications industry were there.

At every such meeting, attendees have to stand and introduce ourselves. I stood up from the oval table and my honey garlic chicken with potatoes and wine glass and talked for 30 seconds. I can BS, I can speak extemporaneously. Shoot from the hip as they used to say. It reminds me of high school speech class when Mrs. H assigned us to give an improvisational speech. What she didn't know was all my speeches had been improvisational. Today I'm a member of a Wichita branch of Toastmasters, from which I've won four blue ribbons for public speaking. We have yet to become a chartered organization.

"I have an online presence," I said. "Some of you are aware, there's a small cult of readers. I'm not like Big Time Viral Bloggers -- Hyperbole and a Half and Nadia Bolz-Weber's Sarcastic Lutheran. My presence is unconventional -- or to use my friend, Shannon's word, 'edgy.' In my day job I work for an underground writing society where I write in a more conservative fashion, but I'm not at liberty to divulge details about that at this juncture."

I was told me I might want to meet the Date Goddess. "She's unconventional too," Shannon said as she poured herself a glass of water. "I'm aware of her," I said.

Janna Hauff is the self-proclaimed Date Goddess. She's a local relationship expert and matchmaker who primarily works with professionals because they're the only ones who can afford her services. Her website is topnotch professional. She's a hell of a marketer.

I introduced myself after the meeting as people were networking. Told her I was a big fan. She had purple streaks of dye in her almond-colored hair. Jewelry around her wrists. A psychedelic mini-skirt dress with pink Go-Go boots, sundial necklace and Etsy bracelets bearing hemp and a longing for the beach. She talked about the "art of relational existence," of connecting people who share a congruence and setting them free to share space together.

"So you're the guy with the blog?" she said.

We shared our Linkedin pages. Connected there. Exchanged business cards. Mine features the caricature that my cartoonist friend Bryan Clark drew for me.

Threshold

Two days later I sat in the lobby of the clinic, reading a book, when Jennifer poked her head out.

"Jeff," she said.

I sat my marker in place, closed the book, grabbed my fedora hat and walked in front of her, back to her office.

"How's Mr. Jeff?" she asked.

"Well, I'm alive."

"That's a victory," she said. "Every time you go out, you're winning."

Skin protectorate
I took a seat on the couch in her office and applied Chap Stick (skin protectorate) to my lips.

"I like Butter Cake," she said.

That's Jennifer. She has several flavors of coffee for the keurig stationed by her bookcase, from which I once noted she had a copy of Jung's Man and His Symbols.

"I just use Classic Chap Stick," I responded. Original style.

"You're a basics kind of guy, aren't you?"

"Perhaps."

"You must have a lot to talk about. That's a long list," she said, referring to the list of topics I'd jotted down on the Sticky Note affixed to my book cover. It was my old copy of Ken Keasey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? "We had to read it in high school English, Jennifer told me. "This book depresses me," I said. "The writing is brilliant. Next to this guy, I suck."

"Who says you can't write something and accidentally create something as good as 'Blowin' in the Wind?' You project your own insecurity on the world, into your relationships." Other books her shelf -- Rollo May's The Courage to Create and Robert A. Johnson's Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection.

Then I told her how I get jealous of married couples with cute little kids. "That used to be my life," I said.

"That's normal," she said, tying her dark hair back in a pony tail. "It's like a couple struggling with infertility. They see another couple having babies and they're happy for them. But at the same time, yeah, they're jealous."

"You're one of those people I'm jealous of," I said. She has two kids of her own. The oldest is 5.

"I know."

Then she added how she's just a normal person and has problems in life like everyone else and it's not all idyllic. I knew she'd say that. My envy? "That's silly," she said.

"Yeah, Maria always said how I looked at the past with 'rose colored glasses' and wanted what I didn't have."

"We've talked about that."

 Oh God, I miss having someone to do my laundry with, someone to throw ingredients in the crock pot with, but I just can't see myself stepping out in that world, I told her.

"When you're ready, you'll know it," Jennifer told me.

Now she thinks I've crossed a threshold.

"You were a basket case in the beginning," she told me, while simultaneously spraying a fragrance on her wrists and rubbing them together like writhing bodies. Pressed together and rubbed like so many emotional rhythms.

Night moves

Friday night. Got a text from my friend Sawyer. "In town, you wanna go grab a beer?"

Back when he lived in town, we both wrote for the Industrial Media Complex. Now, he's news director of a radio station in Kansas City, Missouri, but says his days there may be numbered.

Back in those wild days, he lived on the third floor of a kick ass apartment building -- Empire Apartments -- down the block from the office on the left side of the street and the stately Barron Theatre, built in the 1930s in Blushing, Kan. (oops, looks like I revealed the name of the town). The apartment building also dated back back to the 1930s and had recently been restored to its original grandeur. (I guess people wanted glamorous movie stars and opulence to take their minds off the Depression.) There was a spacious lobby with an ivory colored sculpture of a gown-wearing goddess leading to stairs. Elevators with neon buttons and gold framing the door. There was a sleek wooden floor in his apartment and room for a washer and drier. Back at Liberty Apartments, (a rundown building also built eighty-some years ago) I didn't even have a dishwasher.

On a few occasions, we jammed together in the industrial building where we worked. Why not? We had the fucking keys. We plugged into the amps. Just played stuff I could handle. Old, moldy versions of uncomplicated stuff. "Smokin' in the Boys' Room." "Summertime Blues." "Louie Louie."

Sawyer and I met at The Cave, a rathskeller off Main and Sycamore streets. There were Miller Lite and Budweiser bottles everywhere, but Sawyer and I are what my Apple Ale drinking pastor at the Church of All Saints and Sinners calls "beer snobs." We both ordered Irish Red. Waitress said we were a couple of smart guys. We were joined at our booth by my gardening gurvi friend Jessie and her husband, Shane, looking like they'd emerged from an ashram. They were also drinking craft beers, but would you expect anything less from a couple of lovers of earth-grown farmer's food from the local free land?

At the back of the bar, drunk girls sang karaoke. "A lot of sexual tension here," Sawyer said.

A guy and two girls, on the high road to oblivion, sang the country weeper, "Don't Take the Girl."

"Johnny's daddy was takin' him fishing when he was 8-years-old," they sang almost off-key, but kinda cool and buzzed.

As it eventually always happens, later in the evening a drunk blonde chick would be holding a mic, singing "Like a Virgin." Lyrics sliding down the screen.

A woman, I surmised to be about 35, sauntered over to our booth. She had a mildly attractive face, and thirtyish crows' feet, signaling she'd been around in life. There was nothing remarkable about her except the black yoga pants. When a woman wears yoga pants, I don't care what she looks like, how big or little she is, I'm gonna look at her ass.

She said something about how her kids were with their dad that weekend.

"Macy (we'll just call her Macy), this is Sawyer and Jeff," Jessie said as she motioned to each of us. They used to work together at the ______. Jeff did that special on us for channel 8."

"Oh yeah," Macy said & turned to me. "That was brilliant."

Jessie and Shane sat on Sawyer's side of the table. "I'm sitting by Jeff," Macy said, as if she wanted to and not because there were no other choices.

"You write that blog," she said.

"You've actually read that thing?" I said.

"Dude, we follow each other on Twitter," she said, taking a sip of her drink.

"We do?"

"Yeah, I follow your personal Twitter handle and your blog's handle."

Suddenly, I remembered. She looked more chill, less reserved than she did in her Twitter profile.

"Oh yeah!," I said. "Now I remember. You tweet about stuff like chauffeuring your kids to soccer games and being in PTO."

"That's my life," she said. "Now, it's the kids' dad's weekend and I get to indulge in a little me time."

She was having a Dark n' Stormy, a highball cocktail made with dark rum and ginger beer over ice with lemon lime.

We all laughed characteristically for a bar. Talked over the noise of the crowd and the karaoke singers. Did shots -- Irish Car Bomb and the Mind Eraser. I ordered more beer, told stories about living in Liberty Apartments -- "There's this stoner kid there, thinks he can do levitation and have out of body experiences. Some old hippie-ish woman whose into sock puppets and Jesus freakery. This other woman, fortyish -- she's into bourbon and body art."

"Liberty Apartments," she said. "Back in The Village where the writers, artists, musicians and drug addicts live."

I told her I'd written on my blog, while sitting right inside that bar when it was as crowded and noisy as it was that night. I just tuned everybody out. Sometimes listened to Davis or Monk with my ear buds.

"Writing is just the greatest goddamn thing," I said. "I publish something good and feel like freakin' Elvis. It's like cocaine, sex."

"Probably better," she said, looking straight at me. Wide-eyed and with intent. We both looked at each other right then with that look you give someone when you know it's going to happen.

One-thirty a.m. Last call. Jessie, Shane and Sawyer were talking more low key with stupid laughter, finishing drinks. A week later, Jessie would tell me she knew something had gone on with Macy and me before Macy told her about it.

We were legitimately buzzed. Not fucked up, but over the legal limit. She used the Lyft app on her phone to get us a ride.

She had her legs wrapped around me as I turned my key into the hole, getting into my apartment. We hurried inside 'till we were standing by the bed, taking each others' clothes off. I was expecting drunk, sloppy sex but a few seconds after I got on top of her, she rolled me off, got on top of me and rocked her body, it was mind blowing.

"Oh fuck," I said, caught up in momentary passion. "Oh my fucking god."

She rocked back and forth. Wild.

"Do that again. Can you squeeze your vagina?"

"I'm trying" she said.

Near the end, she said, "I'm gonna ride you like a horse."

years ago when Maria and I were living together before we got married, i had a dream that she was riding a mechanical horse outside some small town '60s looking Dillons Grocery. as she tilted back in forth with the horse's motion, she spoke those same words in my dream

i'm gonna ride you like a horse

I looked up at Macy -- "yes, yes, yes," she said -- and I exploded inside her.

Snoopy
***************

I woke up alone at 6:30 a.m., but I knew she was still there because I smelled fresh brewing coffee. I rose, put on my boxer shorts and a T-shirt, went to the adjoining bathroom for a needed morning piss. When I walked into the living room, she was sitting naked on my couch, reading my journal and drinking from my Snoopy coffee cup.

"That's private," I said, a little pissed. "Those are my own personal thoughts."

I grabbed my a mug (It had a seal and contained the words, "State of Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation." I collect coffee cups) from a cabinet in the adjoining kitchen and poured myself a cup.

"You already reveal a lot on your blog."

"Maybe so. But that's all for publication. This is not. It's the principle of the thing."

She ignored what I said.

"But this goes beyond your blog," she said. "Why don't you just go there?"

"My audience ain't ready for that shit."

"It takes two people. You don't have to live in a house of regret."

"Okay, but you wouldn't know about all that if you'd respected some boundaries and hadn't gone where you weren't supposed to. That journal is my own, you know."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I was wrong, but I wanna see you happy. Wherever you land."

"I have a therapist. Her name is Jennifer. Actually, I wouldn't mind sleeping with her too. Of course she has this thing about not wanting to breach her professional ethics and I don't want to do anything to destroy our professional relationship of counselor and client."

No need to explain why to her why I looked the way I did. She'd read the damn thing. It's my place, I should be able to lay that damn notebook anywhere I wanted. I lightened up a little, told her a little history. "My high school English teacher, Mrs. Hanzlicek, had us keep journals. I just kept mine going."

She looked penetratingly at me, the cartoon-covered notebook resting on her naked thigh. "I wouldn't have let you pick me up if you weren't something."

It was dawn outside the window curtains and I stared, for no reason, really, at her nude body. So blessedly real in the emerging morning light. All its imperfections.

"Set that bird free," she said.

I took a wooden chair from the attached kitchen, sat across from her. "Before I had this longing to live kind of artsy," I said. "Maria said the grass is always greener with me."

The Club

A recent Saturday afternoon. I went to the Kansas Authors event at Wichita Public Library. I had a limited amount of time before I had to shoot a small town drag racing event down a farm town main street. A thing my producer, Reese, had suggested. It would probably be a minute-and-a-half story for KPTS's Kansas Personalities. There were children's authors, mystery authors, Christian writers. (I remember there was a Christian sex therapist displaying her book, Like a Soul Virgin.) Hindu stuff. Buddhist. Fiction. Romance. Self-help.

I ran into Janna Hauff, the Date goddess. Wearing a tight mini-shirt, sleaveless black shirt, loopy ear rings and high heels. She displayed the three books she'd written. They were  all about about relationships, dating, sexuality. I hadn't read any of them yet even though I was a fan of her website, which contained a short blog. Her latest book was called, Perpetual Emotion: Being Attune to Your Emotional Rhythms (and Your Partners).

"Remember me?" I said.   

"You look familiar," she said, inquisitively. "Tell me where we met."

I reminded her of the social function a couple of months back. It came back to her, how we'd connected on Linkedin.

"Oh yes," she said. "Sorry I haven't gotten around to reading your blog yet, but I will. I've been very busy."

I admitted that while I've read her blog and was a fan, I had yet to read any of her books and didn't have the money to buy one that particular day. "That's okay," she said. "You're here."

"I am what my friend Jennifer would call 'being present.' Hope I'm mindful too. She talks a lot about being mindful."

Hopefully, I would be at the author's event next year, I said. "The pastor's wife at my church told me emphatically that I had to write a book. I thought she was gonna take me to task for all the cussing and sinning in my blog. My ex-wife likes to remind me, 'You're no saint, Jeff.' But the pastor's wife -- her name is Emily -- she was pretty cool."

"Well I hope to see you next year with our group of authors. It's a diverse club. There's definitely a place for you here."

"We all need to fill space," I said. "I'm still figuring out where I belong, being divorced, losing my identity as a Family Man. And I severed my ties with the underworld writing organization. It felt like the ground fell underneath me, but perhaps I'm finding my footing again."

"Welcome to life," she said.

"Yes, I'm finding it to be quite transitory," I said. "And I've moved back to the Wichita Metropolitan Area."

"You have to stay activated to your social network. Stay engaged."

"Well I'm meeting my friend Reese for a beer tonight at Maggie O'Malley's pub. We meet there for a book club."

"Super. We all need a buddy even if it's a drinking buddy."

"Yep. Then I have a date. A new gal. Meeting her at IHOP. We'll see how it goes."

 
           "Don't Do Me Like That" -- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

















I

Saturday, November 4, 2017

30 years of Faith


                                                 
                                           "Faith" -- George Michael

I saw a Facebook item about the 30th anniversary of George Michael's Faith album. I wish I would've read it. Can't find it now.

When George Michael died last year, my mind drifted back to what a groundbreaking accomplishment Faith was. It was artistry. True pop craftsmanship. I wouldn't call it a sense of Heaven or sublime pop infinity. That's a definition I reserve for works like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque, but Faith moved me.

I was primarily a hard rock and metal fan (even though I'd mostly been metaled out by the time I turned 16). Around the same time Michael's album came out, I was listening to Metallica's Master of Puppets. The first sign that this was a great album was the funky, in-your-face "I Want Your Sex." I knew the title was indicative of all the hell my mother said society was sliding into (even though she had a youthful record collection that entailed the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit."

But although it was outside my essence, I liked the song.

My friend Alana remembers me working at Western Sizzlin' steakhouse where I stacked a bunch of plates off tables and pushed a cart around. I was naive, green, but an older guy at the restaurant -- Brett, a 21-year-old attending Emporia State University -- was a man of the world. He explained to me how "I Want Your Sex" was an "anti-Aids song." The lyrics, "sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best when it's one-on-one" celebrated monogamy. It was socially interesting in an era when the President's response to the AIDS crisis was no response -- ignoring. After all, it was a gay men's disease and who cared about them.

George Michael


This was year's before Michael would come out rather infamously, getting busted for soliciting gay sex at a public restroom only a few blocks from his house. He'd abandoned the effeminate Big Hair look he'd had as part of the pop duo, Wham. ("I thought he looked like a fag." Yes, I actually made this unpalatable quote and said that ugly word to a friend 30 years ago. I've sinned in my life.) In the video for the song, "Faith," he'd adopted an early Brando-Elvisish retro look -- the leather jacket and boots and all -- that looked surprisingly contemporary and new again.

The song lived up to its title with a cathedral organ, followed by an up-tempo Bo Didley signature chugga-chugga guitar sound, acoustic, neo-rockabilly and pleasantly pop. It was catchy. Around 10 years later, I would love Limp Bizkit's rocking cover of the song. That version had a sense of humor about it.

The superior pop vibe of Faith came across most acutely in songs like "One More Time" and "Father Figure" -- my favorite cuts from the album. I hadn't had any sex or love affairs yet so I didn't know what the hell it was all about, but I sensed from these songs that there were things dark and psychologically troubling in the universe of love.

I worked with another guy, the editor of the campus newspaper, The Lighthouse, at Grossmont Community College in nearby Beaulah, Kan. Along with being a waiter, he moonlighted as a dee jay and he told me the kids went crazy at middle school dances when he played "Father Figure." I wondered why and was compelled to speculate. It was obvious even to my young mind the song was about psychological projection and dysfunctional love. A father figure? The high-tech pop-soul-gospel-harmony of the song. What was it that drew in these kids?

The album wasn't cock-oriented hard rock, but I could more freely admit I liked it after reading a Rolling Stone profile of Guns n' Roses that Axl Rose listened to George Michael. But he also listened to things like Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime, an album Rose described as "the best screenplay I've ever heard." The one album that affected me more than Faith 30 years ago -- a favorite to this day -- was GnR's classic debut Appetite for Destruction. The pop crossover of the jangly, rough "Sweet Child O' Mine" largely signaled the enveloping of a musical landscape I would explore, if not as a musician, than as a writer.

In 1987, Michael Jackson recorded his Bad album, which I've always believed exceeded Thriller. Prince recorded his most critically acclaimed work, Sign o' the Times. A year later, my mind would be opened more by such albums as the Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Sessions, Midnight Oil's Diesel and Dust and the Sugarcubes' Life's Too Good.

But largely, the '80s were a suck decade. Bland. Insipid. Uninspired. Mirroring the empty materialism perpetuated in the decade. At least in the confined Top 40. Disasters like Foreigner, Loverboy, Nightranger, Warrant were tragic jokes. Synthesizers and plastic-pop pretensions were vapid and lacking anything resembling punch. I consider The Smiths to be the antidote to such wasted pop contrivances.

Alex Chilton
But it was all going to open up for me. In 1987, I also discovered Minneapolis, Minnesota's The Replacement's Pleased to Meet Me album -- its cut, "Alex Chilton" getting play on the local AOR (album oriented rock) station. This would lead me down the rabbit hole of Hootenanny and Let it Be -- introducing me to Memphis cult figure Chilton and his ground breaking early 70s band, Big Star, just as the Stones would turn me on to black music -- everything from Marvin Gaye to Solomon Burke to Howlin' Wolf to Muddy Waters, back to Robert Johnson -- as George Michael's "Kissing a Fool," with its retro pre-rock pop sound would turn me on to Sinatra, Dean Martin and that whole cocktail era.

Thirty years later I'm still opening doors -- in music, film, television, literature. Still going down rabbit holes. (Have you read John Updike's 1960 novel Rabbit, Run?)

Before I sign off, let's look at some other groundbreaking music from the '87-89 period.


                                "Smooth Criminal" -- Michael Jackson

                                 
                                              "Teenage Riot" -- Sonic Youth
                               

The American Way of Dying

                                              "Vehicle" -- The Ides of March My Nissan sitting in the parking lot of Fairview...