Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kenzie ringing bell for Salvation Army

Sam ringing bell for Salvation Army

Sacrifice, not entitlement

I was never more proud of my wife and kids than I was this week when we all stood outside a local Dillon’s supermarket and rang bells for the Salvation Army. It was cold outside and there was a possibility of rain and snow in the forecast for later in the day, but they pressed on with me and were happy to do it. Full disclosure: the store does have an outside awning, which we were able to stand under, and we were bundled up in gloves, stocking caps, heavy coats and thermal underwear. It’s not like we were in some Minnesota blizzard, risking Hypothermia, but we weren’t sitting cozy either.

I’m not relaying this information to give myself some pat on the back. All my praise and any pride I feel is for my beautiful wife, Liana, and our precious kids, Sam and Kenzie. I was a little worried about whether we could pull this off as a family.

Sam, at 9-years-old, is a little less idealistic about the world than he was at 4 or 5-years-old. A few years ago I could ask him, “Sam, do you want to go out for T-ball?” “Do you want to take a karate class?” “Do you want to go out for a walk with Ol’ Dad?” He always answered, “Yeah” and was aglow with the child-like spirit of adventure. He’s more selective now, not so game for anything and sometimes it’s a struggle to get him away from Nintendo Wii. Yet, there he was, blithely ringing his bell and smiling. He was having fun, enjoying himself. The innocence was still there.

Kenzie is a 6-year-old spitfire. She has a short fuse and when she gets mad, she goes scorched earth, but her smile is angelic and when she extends her arms to hug her old dad, as she often does, it’s heaven. This girl -- who revels in her markers, scissors and drawing paper – has the dramatic temperament of a Hollywood superdiva. She was in a bad mood as we drove to the store, prompting Liana to look at me and say, “I don’t know if she’ll be able to do this.” I kept my thinking in positive mode, though, and it paid off. I was so proud as my daughter stood there stoically, yet adorable in her Salvation Army apron, ringing her bell.

I was surprised by the number of people who dropped money in the red bucket. Perhaps if the Salvation Army had cute kid bell ringers out there every day, they would make a killing in donations. Then again, maybe there are more good people in the world than we have come to expect.

For me, this was the highlight of this Christmas season. The holiday innocence I knew as a child subsided a long time ago. Nowadays, it seems like materialism, corporate greed and the incivility of stressed out shoppers has tainted Christmas. Even our treasured story of the Christ child’s birth is cheapened by commercial exploitation.

There is a higher, universal principal that I don’t want to see lost. It’s an ideal so in need of illumination today. I am reminded of the Gospel accounts of a humble Jesus extending his hand to the poor, the sick and grieving – of making Himself servant to the lowly and scorned of society. For those cast aside and unseen by a pious, materialistic world, He offered hope and light.

Christmas should inspire hope and sacrifice, and not perpetuate a sense of entitlement. I want my kids to grow up knowing that if anybody in their community is hurt, disenfranchised or isolated, it’s their problem too. We all have a responsibility to each other. If we become lost in our possessions and self-absorption, we disconnect ourselves from humanity.

We only stood out there for an hour. Liana and I could’ve gone for longer, but that’s a lot to ask of young children. We can never just sit back and say we’ve done our part because unfortunately, more is always needed: buying a child a gift from a store Angel Tree, sponsoring a needy family, helping to feed the homeless. I just hoped our small contribution helped somebody and I thank God every day for my wife, my son and my daughter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

the mr.hankey song!

Christmas Parody Letter 2010

Seasons greetings & a howdy ho! It’s that time of year again as a cluster full of shoppers congregate in Wal-Marts, Best Buys & TJ Max stores around the country to share in the joy that can only come through giving at Christmas.

Liana gave me an early Christmas present, deer whistles. Unfortunately, I did not have deer whistles on my car when I slammed into the doe darting across Greenwich Road that fateful night. My car was totaled, but I was all right. Can’t say as much for the deer. LMAO. I inadvertently killed a deer much like Santa’s reindeer & I’m sorry about that. But w/ my deer whistles, it shouldn’t happen again. I am now driving a 2009 Suzuki SX4 and I’m loving it like a kid playing with his favorite Christmas toy. Liana, the bargain queen, helped me find a spectacular car at a greatly reduced price.

She’s also playing the role of domestic goddess, baking pies for all the wonderful family we will see again this Christmas. We truly cannot see them enough as I know it is with you & yours at this special time. Liana, Sam, Kenzie & I felt the joy as we stood outside the Dillon’s store, ringing bells for the Salvation Army. The children were all smiles. So was I even if Liana said I had a creepy serial killer look on my face.

We attended a Christmas program at the kids’ school. It was quite enjoyable even if they did have them singing a bunch of hippie, liberal crap about being good to our planet and loving people of all shapes & colors. Have a merry New Age Christmas everybody. Guess it’s goodbye Santa & Baby Jesus in a manger. Hello Mother Earth and wiccan chants. It’s breaking my silver balls, just thinking about it. Saw a Christmas wreath at the front door of the middle school the other day. Oh, I have the Christian holiday cooties. Someone call the ACLU.

But it’s been a wonderful year. Last spring I took the kids to sunny California & we all went to Disneyland so little Kenzie could dress like a princess & get her hair styled at the Bibbity Bobbity Botique. Also, we walked along Hollywood Boulevard and saw a lot of medicinal shops with a lot of water filtration pipes and cylindrical tubes. There were brownies inside. Kind of reminds me of that episode of “That 70s’ Show” where Kitty told Hyde she knew what his secret brownie recipe was: love. It was like a great waft of love. I felt a mellowing sensation just being in California except for the feeling of insane paranoia that crept into my life as I stood eyeball to eyeball with a man near the seedy, gray McDonald’s by Arsenio Hall’s Walk of Fame star.

Hey who needs Hollywood? Or Las Vegas? Or “Music City” Nashville? I stepped it up this summer when I took the family to that entertainment mecca Branson, Missouri. There’s nothing like the Shanghai Circus & Tony Roi’s “Elvis experience” with a Yakoff Smirnoff show in the land of God & Country. Yes, there are lots of billboards in Branson, bearing the words, “God & Country.” You’ll find them near the Confederate flags and “No farting zone” signs.

Later, we visited Liana’s cousin Pam in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She and her husband, Jim, were having a Christening for their baby girl, CC. And in other news, Liana’s brother Delbert had a surgery regarding the digestive issues in his gastric system and inflammations of his upper & lower intestines. Good thing he had the intestinal fortitude to withstand it. LMAO.

In closing, I want to remind us all to reflect on the true meaning of this season as we roast chestnuts with our families and light a Yule log for Jesus’ birthday. There is a burgeoning tourist industry in Bethlehem & from what I’ve read the Inns are all full. (How’s that for a marketing slogan?) But isn’t that what Christmas is all about? The joining of our capitalist values with Christian love as we reflect on that night many years ago when three astrologers followed a comet to that glorious stable. It hasn’t been the best of years – what with our socialist president trying to cheat billionaires out of their tax breaks and allowing fairies into the military, but for just one day, we can all share in the peace & goodwill that is Christmas.
God bless us everyone,


P.S. I watched some old Christmas shows on TV that I originally saw as a child during the 1970s. “The Search for the Baby New Year.” “Rudolf & Frosty the Snowman in July.” Those people must’ve been dropping some serious acid.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Glee - Bridge Over Troubled Water

Bridging spiritual waters

Faith and spirituality are subjects TV shows most often will not touch. Public schools, sensitive to the line between church and state, which is not always clear, tend to be fearful of the subject. That is why last week’s episode of “Glee” was profound. Here was a TV series that explored those very subjects and did so in a meaningful, intelligent way, which for television is uncharacteristic and astonishing.

In the recent episode, Burt Hummel, the father of openly gay high school glee club member, Kurt, suffers a heart attack. As he lies unconscious in a hospital bed, Kurt’s friends try to solace him, saying they will pray for his father. Kurt doesn’t want any of it, however, saying he doesn’t believe in God. Some of his friends in glee club, namely church going Mercedes, find this to be unsettling. Meanwhile, fellow glee club member, Finn, whose mother has been dating Kurt’s father, has something of a spiritual moment of truth that could only happen to the dim witted Finn. Thinking he sees an image of Jesus burnt into a grilled cheese sandwich he made, Finn saves the sandwich and starts praying to “grilled cheesus.” However, after Finn expresses his new found devotion to Jesus (in Glee style, through song), it raises tension with his Jewish girlfriend, Rachel, and Jewish best friend, Puck. Known for singing songs by Jewish pop stars, Puck performs a rousing version of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” with its rebellious lyrics, “They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait. Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t. I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”

The conflict between Christianity and the political football of homosexuality sour Kurt on the idea of God. In the best line of the show, he says, “God makes me gay and then makes His followers go around saying it's a choice, as if I'd choose to be mocked every day of my life.” It is an issue worthy of examining. Actress Kristin Chenoweth,who won an Emmy for her role in the short-lived series, “Pushing Daisies” and played a guest role on a “Glee: episode, has been vocal about being a Christian and supporting gay rights. I heard her talk in a radio interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" about her conflicted feelings. She said,“I know what the Bible says,” but also acknowledged that she does not know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a gay person. I could identify as this is an issue I haven’t reconciled within myself. I am a Christian, but I’ve always minded my own business and never cared how others lived their lives as long as they didn’t hurt anybody else. Well, my church says I should care. I know what the Bible says, but I also know about scientific studies that show gay men had a lack of the hormone androgen in the womb, while lesbians had an overabundance of the hormone in utero.

Then there is the question of why God allows bad things to happen. Sue Sylvester, "Glee's" deliciously wicked and hillarious coach of the “cheerios” can’t believe in a God who would let her sister, who has Down Syndrome, be tormented by cruel people. Yet, in a poignant exchange, her sister, Jean, asks if she can pray for her, and Sue answers "will you?" The scene reminded me of people who don’t believe in God, but wish they could, of how people who have no faith derive comfort, being around those who do. Again, I’m reminded of a “Fresh Air” episode. In this show, Teri Gross interviewed Rick Rubin, the famed music producer who resurrected Johnny Cash’s recording career in his final years with the classic “American recordings.” Rubin recalled having a meal at Cash’s home, in which the man in black had everyone join hands as he said a humble, reverential prayer and read a few passages from the Bible. There were people there who were atheists, yet everyone was moved by Cash’s sense of innocent, child-like sense of faith.

I don’t have all the answers. That was one of several themes in this “Glee” episode – the question of relying on faith when answers to deep questions elude us and whether believing in God or something bigger than ourselves brings comfort. Early in the show, I thought I had the ending figured out. Finn was going to pray to grilled cheesus to save Burt's life. Burt would come out of his coma and Kurt would start to believe maybe there was something to this God thing after all. But this show didn’t conclude with the predictable cheesy ending. I’m glad I wasn’t able to accurately predict the ending, as I would be with so many shows of a lesser caliber. “Glee” is smartly written television. Religion, unfortunately, tends to divide people through all parts of the world, but “Glee” managed to touch on this sensitive area in a manner consistent with the show’s overriding themes of inclusiveness and harmony.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Lennon and the lost art of conversation

A certain amount of media attention has been
focusing on how today would be John Lennon’s 70th birthday. Actually, Ringo was the first Beatle to reach the three score and 10 milestone last July, but that’s okay. The Beatles practically invented youth culture and exerted more influence over a generation than any musical act had before or likely ever will again. Lennon was the most outspoken of the four musicians in both his years with the group and in his post-Beatle life so this anniversary is noteworthy.

Following his murder 30 years ago, Lennon was martyred as this man of peace brought down by an assassin’s bullet. In reality, Lennon was more complex. He was a man of contradictions – a peace activist, but also someone with a violent temper; an amiable, fun-loving person capable of showing great generosity toward friends and strangers, but also known for being caustic and abusive with the people closest to him. When looking at Lennon from the balanced perspective of both his flaws and strengths, he comes across as a much more interesting human being.

He was a man who wrestled with demons, most internal, but a few external as well – namely J. Edgar Hoover and Tricky Dick Nixon. A true artist, Lennon confronted those demons through his work. He brought a brutal, honest sense of introspection to rock that was unheard of before. Imagine was a work of genius on a level with Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, but it was only one side of Lennon, the sanitized pop version of his politics. Much of his early ‘70s solo work was angry, punk and abrasive as he took on subjects like feminism and political prisoners in songs like John Sinclair and Woman is the Nigger of the World. Yet, his compositions could also be tender and naked: Love, Grow Old With Me and How.

Today we sorely lack the kind of cultural criticism and inspired voices that emerged in the ‘60s. There is no John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Hunter S. Thompson, Bobby Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Studs Terkel, Shirley Chisholm, Allen Ginsberg, George McGovern…All we get today is ubiquitous talking and shouting, yet we are starving for substance. Everyone’s online, everyone’s a celebrity, but there is no strong voice for reform or social consciousness penetrating the mainstream. The important voices saying the things we need to hear are relegated to the fringes of our fragmented society. We are diverted by an overabundance of newer technological gadgets, the internet and people humiliating themselves over 500 television channels. In his classic, Working Class Hero, Lennon sang, “They keep you doped up with religion, sex and TV.” It’s all the more true today.

That’s why I was amazed when I came across a YouTube clip of John Lennon with Yoko Ono on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970. They were talking about things like overpopulation, the rights of Native Americans and the Black Panthers. Nobody talks like that today. Lennon and Cavett sounded articulate and well read. Today, if people discuss politics in the commercial media, it always erupts into shouting and interrupting. I am shocked to find that there was a time when issues could be discussed intelligently before a mass, mainstream audience. The level of discourse has definitely deteriorated in the past 40 years. That is evident from this clip. I have since watched more clips of The Dick Cavett Show and become a fan. In today’s broadcast world, the art of ratiocination is only kept alive by public TV and radio. Lennon’s 70th birthday is an opportunity to re-examine our cultural landscape and try to elevate it.

My favorite John Lennon song:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Exhuming McCarthy: wackos re-write history

Last spring, I taught a social studies lesson to third graders on Cesar Chavez. It was something I felt passionate about. Chavez, like Martin Luther King, empowered and gave voice to a class of people (Mexican-American migrant workers) that, for generations, had been kept down.

There is an extraordinary civics lesson in Chavez’s story, but if a faction of right-wing extremists in Texas have their way, kids won’t get to hear it. The Texas Association of School Boards recently approved revisions to social studies textbooks that: downplays the role of minorities in American history; inflates the role of conservatives like Newt Gingrich (who like that godless, carousing, liberal Bill Clinton, was also on the receiving end of an extramarital blowjob) and Phyllis Schlafly (she stopped supporting Richard Nixon in 1960 because she felt he was too liberal, supporting integration and all); casts anti-Communist witch hunter Joe McCarthy in a favorable light; casts the Civil Rights Movement and government programs like Social Security, Medicare and Head Start in a critical light; gives Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address to the Confederate States the same weight as Lincoln’s address to the union; promotes the erroneous premise that the founding fathers created the United States as a “Christian nation” based on “Biblical principles”; and questions whether the founders really meant to have a “separation of church and state” --- you know, that idea expressed by Thomas Jefferson?

Hey, students are lucky he even gets a mention. Initially, board members wanted to leave Jefferson out of the textbooks because they thought the author of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t relevant to American history – not as relevant as John Calvin or St. Thomas Aquinas. I guess Ol’ Tom Jefferson doesn’t warrant the attention of Jeff Davis and the Confederacy.

They also wanted to leave out Thurgood Marshall. He only argued the most important case ever decided by the Supreme Court, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which declared segregation based on race to be unconstitutional. Marshall later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice, serving on the bench for nearly 30 years. Now, why do you suppose they would want to leave him out?

I own an old high school history book from the 1920s. This book actually refers to “ignorant blacks” and “pitiless savages” (Native Americans). If I were a minority, I wouldn’t want to be in a classroom, using a book that denigrates my entire race and culture. I also would not want to be one of the 4.8 million in Texas whom this school board is pledged to represent -- kids of different colors, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and national origins. Diversity is one of the great hallmarks of our country; it helped make the United States a world leader in the evolution of democracy, industry, science, the arts and culture. In pedagogic circles, the concept of teaching to the learner is a standard. Helping children discover how people of their cultures have contributed to society embodies that egalitarian philosophy so why would this board want to omit a name like Hector P. Garcia? A Hispanic physician and Civil Rights advocate, Garcia was the Medal of Freedom by Pres. Reagan in 1984.

To be fair, a member of the board’s “expert panel” on revising history standards, David Barton, does have a link to black heroes on his website. So maybe he was honest when he said he didn’t know that the “Christian Identity” group he addressed in Colorado in 1991 was made up of neo-Nazis.

So let’s give Barton the benefit of doubt and say he didn’t know. Let’s say the overly conservative board members are truthful when they claim that they are only trying to balance the liberal bias that has infiltrated textbooks over the past 30 or some years.
Perhaps that is why they make Joe McCarthy out to be a hero. After all, it has been confirmed in a report that some people in the U.S. government actually were communists (although several historians are dubious about the report’s credibility). Next, maybe they will point out that some of those girls drowned by Puritan tribunals in 17th century Salem actually were witches.

Right-wing cultural pride
 Textbook changes link MLK and the Civil Rights Movement to the more militant Black Panthers, while the pious Confederate Stonewall Jackson is singled out as a paragon of American virtue. What other American heroes will this board extol? How about Nathan Bedford Forest? Also, since we have only been exposed to the liberal slant on that organization Forest founded --the Klu Klux Klan -- why not get the other side?

We don’t need to focus on lynchings, cross burnings and church bombings committed by the KKK. That happened a long time ago and hell, it’s only a textbook. Why not shine a light on the civic functions performed by the Klan: giving money to churches that preached the superiority of the white race and acting as an extra arm for law enforcement through vigilante activities.

Board members want to eliminate mention of Ted Kennedy, a man who certainly had flaws. Still, he served nine terms in the U.S. Senate. Perhaps, they want to expound on the role of the longest serving senator in U.S. history, Strom Thurmond. Textbook references to the 1948 presidential race between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey could give equal consideration to Thurmond’s third-party run on the Dixiecrat ticket.

Students could ponder the merit of his party’s platform -- opposition to integration, interracial marriage, anti-poll taxes and anti-lynching laws. The history books could ignore Thurmond’s interracial gene pool (from his tryst with an underage black maid) and explore his concerns over the black male’s threat to white Southern womanhood.

Initially, board members didn’t think Barack Obama warranted any mention. They did not think the election of the first African-American president of the United States was historically significant. Board members did concede to including Obama, but wanted him to be identified as Barack Husein Obama. No ulterior motive there. They compromised by identifying him as Barack H. Obama. Most presidents who had middle names or initials have been identified by them (FDR, JFK, LBJ, James Knox Polk, James A. Garfield, Warren G. Harding), but not all. Will the changes include references to Herbert C. Hoover or Ronald W. Reagan?

Let’s call it for what it is. They want to imply that Obama is Muslim because that is considered a bad thing in their circles. Of course, most Muslims are moderates, as are most Christians. Unfortunately, the rational Christians in America are being overwhelmed by loud mouths in the fundamentalist ranks that have a lot in common with Islamic fascists.
I am working toward getting my teaching certification. As a teacher, I want to connect with every one of my students – kids of all colors, religions, ethnicities.

I share the view of board member Mary Helen Berlanga , that America is not just a white country. Berlanga was one of the dissenting voices in a 9-5 vote that was split along party lines. I would like to think that the nine conservatives who approved these changes do not represent the average Republican. Could you imagine the Weather Underground taking over the Democratic party? Come on Republicans, stop letting far-right crazies dictate your platform.

I’m from Kansas, which used to have the looniest state school board in America. Hopefully the half-baked actions of some rogue element in Texas would not affect the classroom materials I receive, but Texas has a lot of influence on textbooks other states purchase. If these changes actually make their way into textbooks, however, I think other states, in the best interests of their young people, should refuse them.

Surely, the Texas board would understand that. After all, they so value the concept of states’ rights, which the South valiantly fought for in the War for Southern Independence. They, of all people, would understand why folks in Nebraska, Ohio, Rhode Island, Kansas or Nevada would not want nine government officials from another state dictating what their children learn in their schools. That would be so despotic, so carpet-bagger-like.

Shouldn't we represent all children? And all cultures that have made the United States a uniquely free nation?

Cultural pride celebration -- Gladewater, Texas

Friday, June 4, 2010

Every rose has its thorn

I mentioned Alice Cooper in the last post so I should also mention Brett Michaels. It was the highlight of the show -- a show I normally don't like, but it was great to see this guy. I caught a few minutes of him recently on "The Apprentice." Then I heard he was at death's door & his Wichita Riverfest show was cancelled. But, lo & behold, there he was on live TV, singing a song that harkens me back to my youth.

Brett Michaels is a cool guy & a class act. Let's hope he's around for a long time to come. Seeing the old guys, the tried & true classics like Brett, Alice, Chicago & the Bee Gees was the only good thing about watching that cheesy show.

Casey James and Bret Michaels on American Idol

Alice Cooper - Under My Wheels (Old Grey Whistle Test)

18 and we like it

I saw Alice Cooper on “American Idol” last week. A blonde chick in a Catholic girl skirt tore into the E minor-A-E minor chords opening “School’s Out.” A chorus of kids pranced around the stage in some bizzarro combination of Roald Dahl surrealism, zombies and playground brats, sounding hokey as they sang lyrics evocative of Dickensian melodrama, flag burning and truant-inspired anarchy – all of it signaling Alice’s emergence on stage.

He’s part of the cannon now, an acknowledged pop rock elder statesman. You can’t get more mainstream than “American Idol,” but had the show existed 40 years ago, the name Alice Cooper would have been anathema, unutterable in such a legit Hollywood arena. Alice was the prince of darkness, an androgynous figure with a female name, the front man of a band projecting full-tilt, testosterone driven, balls-out rock. He was a nude figure draped within a boa constrictor, a demented, alcoholic unleashed from the psych ward, throwing decapitated dolls all about the place, staging mock executions and singing about graveyards and blowing school to pieces.

He’s tame by today’s standards. The shock factor is passé; it’s the rock n’ roll that endures.

I love the irony of the early 70s rock era. The kids in their sailor jeans and long, gnarled hair, drinking Jack Daniels and smoking weed -- lost in the night to Alice Cooper, Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad pummeling like howitzers from the speakers of their Plymouth Barracudas and Olds 442’s --were just getting born around the time rock n’ roll first chipped at the wheel of white bred America. At that time, middle aged squares were in a panic over a sideburn-wearing hoodlum thrusting his pelvic region and singing raunchy negro music. Likely, he was the product of a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the country by sending its youth into a paroxysm of juvenile delinquency.

Yet by the time Alice Cooper came along to corrupt the morals of a more desensitized America, Elvis Presley was standard, respectable entertainment. He was family friendly, giving concerts that 65-year-old grandmothers could enjoy.

Alice courted the mainstream about as quickly as Elvis did. If “American Idol” had been on television 35 years ago, his horror show act would have been a nice novelty to showcase. By that time, he was doing “Hollywood Squares” and singing a sappy duet with Miss Piggy on “The Muppet Show.” Kiss, with their blood and pyrotechnics, were the new bad boys on the block. Alice Cooper was really the alter ego of Vincent Furnier, a preacher’s son, but Kiss – they were devil worshipers.

In the ‘80s when Alice Cooper was forgotten and Kiss temporarily dropped from the klieg light, parents, politicians and church leaders were aghast over a rocker who truly was the devil incarnate. I was in junior high when kids were playing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Blizzard of Oz” tape on their Sony walkmans, indifferent to parental concerns that he was driving teens to commit suicide. The other guys may have been putting on a show (or maybe they were just forgotten), but Ozzy, with his upside down crucifixes and eyes, the color of demonic possession, had to be worshipping at the altar of the netherworld.

Who would have foreseen that, not 20 years later, his family would star in a reality show with Pat Boone --- Mr. Wholesome White Christian -- singing a big band-backed, loungy cover of “Crazy Train” over the opening credits? That his wife would become a respected celebrity mother figure? Or that Ozzy would parody his own image in TV commercials? When former Pres. George W. Bush acknowledged the Oz-man among audience members at a public event, everything became clear. It just happened. Ozzy never had to sing Engelbert Humperdinck songs or go on a game show. He simply hung around a long time and the mainstream came to him.

Ozzy’s public life prompts one to ponder how today’s controversial figures will be perceived in 20, 30 or 40 years. How can a cretin who names himself after a murderer and simulates oral sex with a midget ever be welcomed in the mainstream? Who knows? Perhaps his appearance in “Bowling for Columbine” a few years back was the first step toward normalizing this person.

Will Marilyn Manson one day be singled out with a friendly, jocular nod from a conservative, born again president of the United States? Will the extra-terrestrial, asexual, evil looking one someday serve up TV comedy with his wife and kids? Will the Jonas Brothers sing a sanitized version of “Anti-Christ Superstar”?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kickin' it old school

Well I’m kickin’ it here with a little help from my friend, Budweiser. It’s fitting, I guess. Years ago, as a young college student I declared a major in journalism, reasoning that it was the kind of job where I could do two things I loved to do – write and drink beer at the same time. I had an almost virginal idealism and naiveté’, --- a righteous vision of the press comprised of soldiers defending the Church of the First Amendment. This was right before the Media Industrial Complex started consuming news agencies like a rampaging Grendel and whoring itself out like nymphs at an orgy.

To hell with all that, I’m here to talk about good things – writing, drinking, kickin’ it old school with my original rat pack of friends. I mentioned that I’m imbibing and writing, fully cognizant of Hemingway’s quote: “After a life of writing and straightening rummies, I’ve learned to keep the two separate. The truth is nobody ever wrote as well even after only one drink.” Funny, I should mention Hemingway.

Along with my wife, Liana, I celebrated New Year’s Eve at my good friend Adam’s house. Our old friend Russ was there. Interestingly, I remember being at a New Year’s gathering with these guys 20 years earlier as 1989 gave way to 1990. I had read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” the previous summer and gotten into the beat poets. I said something to the guys and gals I was partying with about how I’d been writing poems. “Let’s hear ‘em,” somebody said. I said that wouldn’t be right because poetry and language were sacred and reciting creations to a group of drinking cretins would devalue the literary process.

“What about Hemingway?” Adam said. “He was an alcoholic. Don’t you think his friends would cheer him on? ‘Ernest! Ernest! Ernest!”

He was right of course. I guess only time can give you the discerning faculties to know when not to take yourself too seriously and when to grind your shoulder to the wheel. Time had yet to enlarge my critical thinking processes. In those days, the frivolity and beautiful self-delusion of bullet-proof invulnerability innate and incidental to youth and hormones just getting their legs clashed with the darkness, the incessant self-doubt and fears of the future that encroached upon and penetrated my concentration.

I went to Adam’s house this New Year’s Eve, feeling a lot more at ease with my place in the world, proudly introducing him to my wife, Liana. He, in turn, introduced his wife Dea. A DVD “Hangover” was on Adam’s TV. It was one of those drunk-suspended adolescence-let’s get loaded and go to Vegas -- road trip movies. I took note of a character in the movie that was terribly sunburned, yet gets married the next day with the expectation that he will perform wedding night coitus like nothing had happened. “That’s bullshit,” I said. “I’ve been sunburned before, had to see a doctor. I still had a tan in October.”

Sitting on Adam’s couch, laughing at the movie and making loud comments at the TV, was my old friend Russ, whom I introduced to Liana. Russ, me and another guy were roommates for a short time.

“Is he the one who always left turds in the toilet?” she asked.

“Nah, that was our other roommate Dickey,” I said, referring to the guy by his last name.

It was a small attic apartment above a house. You walked around the back of the house and climbed a narrow hill of wooden steps to reach the door to our living space. This tiny abode was ideally suited for one person, but for a month, three guys lived there. Russ would be the first to leave, Dickey the second and I was the last.

I mentioned Dickey, the bastard who never flushed. He was a foul man, a guy who would shit in the open and initiate conversation with you, LBJ style, while wiping his buttocks – a man who could have diarrhea and not wash his hands afterwards.

We’re older now and slumming would not hold the same allure for us. I would surmise that we all value a decent bathroom more than we would have 20 years ago. In between playing auction and watching people take shots at Adam’s kitchen table, I mentioned to Dea that her bathroom looked meticulous – a trait I value in lavatories. (I have an aversion to germs, especially the kind that fester in rooms where people relieve their bladders and move their bowels.) Of course, I had to tell her about the closet-sized hole in our old place. The ceiling slanted inward and there was barely enough room for a bathtub and toilet.

“There wasn’t even a door, just a curtain over the doorway” I told Dea, who responded with repulsion in her face. “When we first got the place, Ol’ Russ said, ‘We’ll have to do something about this ‘cuz nobody’s gonna wanna take a shit in there.’ A month later after he’s moved out, he comes over, pulls the curtain and starts dropping logs like a horse. Jesus, I thought Mr. Ed was in our crapper.”

Going to somebody else’s house to take a crap? What a bum. But as a mutual acquaintance once said of Russ, “He’s a funny bum.” So he was, so he is.

Russ and I attended the same community college in the same hick town. However we became acquainted, not through college, but from working together in the same restaurant – a hot steakhouse with a rancid grease pit and a locker full of enough frozen patties to impel a hurling contest. The district managers who acted like the place was some spiritual Shangri-la were a coterie of slave-driving fascists.

“I’m glad the damn place is torn down,” I told Russ, in between sips of my first beer that night.

“I loved that place,” he shot back.

So he did. One more reason for me not to like the guy when I first met him, I thought he was an ass kisser. Unlike me, Russ would get comfortable working at the hell hole, easing into the kind of comfort that turns food service workers lazy and leads to lapses of hygienic etiquette. I didn’t cotton to him at first. I thought he was egotistical. And maybe he was, but there was something about Russ that you couldn’t help but like. It was always a good time had by all when Russ was around.

One night as I was spraying dishes over the kitchen sink, cleaning up after the filthy cretins who packed their fat torsos into the tables and booths of the meat house, Russ asked how I’d like to go with him on a spring break road trip to South Padre Island in the border town of Corpus Christi, Texas.

“Sure, what the hell,” I said.

I hope my kids never go to one of those wild-on tourist traps with enough lures to trap a Youth for Christ convention into debauchery. At least we were going a couple of years before MTV would turn spring break into media bread and circuses. The CSI: Miami episode where a kid dies, smoking a bowl, and his friends toss him out the hotel window and into the swimming pool to make it look like suicide so they won’t get in trouble for smoking pot – that seems more realistic now than the true life experience we had where there was maybe one wet T-shirt contest in the vicinity. We just never caught wind of one.

Oh, but we were going to go prepared. We would blend into beach country having caught a few rays while sprawled on towels laid over the low level shingle area of the house Dickey and I were living above. We only got around to that once. We were going to bulk up on weights. That was also a one-time deal, working with barbells, dumbbells and other home exercise crap while he played some cheesy big hair “workout rock” in the background. One night we went jogging and never did it again. Of course we would be meeting up chicks and telling them all kinds of stories. Hell yeah, we’d be getting laid.

All I got was a damn sunburn.

I was a lot more vagabond and capricious in those days. When Russ and I took the road, it wasn’t like those family vacations I take now with the wife and kids. Liana is an intricate planner, securing the best hotels at the cheapest prices from the internet and printing out itineraries. Russ and I just bummed around during the day, hanging out at the beach, crossed the Mexican border at night, drank a few Coronas, then walked back and sleept in the car. I remember shivering, shriveled parts of my body flopping around as I scrubbed clean beneath a single strand of water in a community shower.

He and I recalled those days at Adam’s house this past New Year’s Eve, while warming ourselves around a pit fire on his patio, the snow blanketing his pine tree-filled back lawn. Russ brought up the fateful day I went to sleep in the sun. Back at the beach, I fell into a reverie and came to, saying how we had been there a long time.

“So then we go down to Mexico, hit the bars. We’d done it the night before and I said, ‘Man, you got boils all over your face’” Russ recalled, wiggling his fingers in front of his face with wild gesticulations, boisterousness and exaggeration in his inebriated voice. “And he said, ‘I don’t feel so good.’”

Russ wasn’t remembering it with exact accuracy. What happened was I started feeling weak and squatted down, holding myself up against the wooden pole. I only learned later that some bar goers -- lost to base bacchanalian abandon – had wanted to push me off the wooden sidewalk and into the dirt, but Russ stopped them, saying, “He’s my friend.”

So the guy was a douche bag? He was all right. Loyalty runs thick with me. Not just anybody gets a spot in the J. Guy circle. Prior to this past New Year’s Eve, I hadn’t seen Russ in around 18 years. The last time I had run into him, he was waiting tables at some stupid restaurant chain. I guess a person could be cynical and say, “If you hadn’t stayed in contact all these years, you weren’t that good of friends.” All I know is he was a damn good friend to hang out with all those years back and he’s a good friend now that we’re back in contact and have careers and families. That’s good enough for me.

Ironically, I’ve been in better contact over the years with Adam, whom I got to know through Russ. “I knew who you were when I was in high school,” Adam told me. “You were legendary.” I knew him as a football player and wrestler, a name that was swarming around my circle, but somehow not quite on the other side of the periphery.

However, I have reminded him on several occasions that I remember us being in the same Sunday school class of the First Baptist Church when we around the first, second grade and third grade. I recall finding it interesting that he shared a name with the first man created, that dude who ran around naked with a woman named Eve in a place called Eden. Adam attended elementary school in a working class section of town and I remember once asking him, “Are there any black kids in your school?” – a concept I would have found intriguing in our whitebred with mayo town. “One,” I remember him saying. I fell out of the habit of attending church after the third grade and I didn’t know Adam during the next several years. It’s all cool. A guy can’t be expected to remember much from first or second grade.

We had gone to high schools in different towns -- roughly six miles apart from each other -- and there was spillover from our respective circle of friends when many of us attended the same community college together. In college, at around ages 19 and 20, I got pretty tight with Russ. He had played football with Adam at their backwater high school to the east of my stomping ground, a Podunk town that looked a bit cosmopolitan next to their hooterville of a hamlet.

Like me, Adam went into the newspaper business although he went a lot further with it than me. For several years, he worked on the sports desk with the Wichita Eagle, covering high school sports, small college sports and later following the Wichita State Shocker baseball and basketball teams on the road. His latest venture is a newspaper website, in which he has enlisted me to write stories. He’s also getting help from other old friends. Adam, like Russ, is a super human being, and while he probably feels that I’m doing him a favor writing for his news site, I see it as him giving me a gift. I revel in the thrill of meeting new people, finding new roads and constructing them into stories. Adam has played a role in jolting me out of the complacency that crept into my life during these past few years. He’s saving me from becoming an old man and his having me out to a party with our old friend Russ made me feel – in the words of the always relevant Bob Dylan – “forever young.”

It’s a cool place with these clowns in my circle of friends. Calls to my mind one spring day when Russ and I were cruising and playing the radio in his metallic blue ’75 Fiat. He had it on an oldies station blaring 1950s music. We were stopped at a light on the corner of Summit and Central, the main drag in that redneck town, when a song came on -- “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Awesomely, we sat, transfixed by the forbidden sounds emanating from the soul of this wild young man ensorcelled by the duende of the black man’s rhythm and blues. We were gyrating to the sulfuric plunking of Jerry Lee’s pumping piano, rolling with Pentecostal fervor. In the next lane over, a girl in a car shook her head, possibly dismissing us to be a couple of guys caught in a time warp. But what did we care? Son, this was killer speaking.

And I knew for that moment, everything in the world was perfect, nothing but F-I-N-E -- so fine.

A couple of weeks before I met up with Russ again at Adam’s house, I was driving on a cold night, the dark lake road winding with turns as I made my way home. I momentarily turned the public radio station I primarily listen to and flipping through the dial, came upon the song, “Kokomo.” Russ decided way back that this novelty tune about the Florida Keys – a temporary career resurgence for the Beach Boys – would be our road trip song. I never had the heart to tell him I always hated that song. But driving along the road that night… I loved every damn minute of it.

The American Way of Dying

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