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
                               

Saturday, October 14, 2017

And I feel fine


5:26 a.m. (drinking coffee) It was all a dream. The type I haven't had much since Hot Fisher, Texas nearly 20 years ago, but they still appear in my sleep sometimes. When I wake up, I'm not unsettled as I was circa 1998. I take it for what it was -- just a dumb dream. Although I have a friend who may not be so dismissive. She has books on Jungian symbolism and I just know she has Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. And she talks a lot about the struggle between the id and superego, cooled by that distillation method, the ego.

Anyhow, I dreamt I had two choices. It was a night when I could enter one of two houses as the end of the world drew near. "Right down to the wire," an old man told me. ("My family expects me to be a famous writer, but that won't happen?" I asked another old man who got a few fingers blown off by the Germans in World War II. "I'm afraid not," he said.) I was younger in the dream, not a teenager, but perhaps a twenty-something around the quarter of life. I could enter the safety of the house with the old men and perhaps be spared the death and destruction that would plague the world in ways never seen before, nor ever to be seen again.

The house would be immaculately clean and sterile -- sterile as the blanks this middle-aged, post-operation version of me is shooting. They would be meticulous pacifists, punishing unrepentant sinners only by psychological means. No men touching women as this was a sexless society. Purity and such. The most beautiful religious songs in the world, they would sing backed by a lush Tchaikovskyian orchestra (although such pagan, Christmasy relations would be overlooked as the focus was on the serene paintings on the dining room walls of green meadows, streams and sidewalks to an exclusive paradise.

Then, there was the other house. They would be drinking beer, cranking up loud rock music. A few people would be smoking cigarettes and if I wanted to get laid that night, I could get it. House was enticing. "Won't be a party till you show up," the guy with the '70s hair told me. We might get drunk, fight and throw our arms around one another's soldiers. "C'mon, I'll buy you a beer."

She was Jake and Cal's favorite aunt -- and everybody's
cool favorite aunt, for that matter. As music would play from the karaoke machine, she would sing every lyric without missing a word, mic loose in her hand -- "That's right it starts with an earthquake, Birds and snakes and aeroplanes and Lenny Bruce is not afraid." She would trudge on effortlessly as the lyrics got tougher:
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs, Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom, you symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck, right, right."

"What the fuck," I said. "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints."

the sinners are much more fun

And entered Animal House.

Death of me.

Apocalypse.

While I was partying.

Next morning I awoke at my old childhood home, which isn't there anymore. Only, it was there in my dream. The side streets outside my house were flooded with muddy water and I saw, floating on the water, the dead bodies of people I'd known all my life. Old men. Teenagers. Like refuse. And I knew I'd done it, this one for the last time. My doom awaited me. There might be a few storefronts downtown selling fake religion, but the temporary nature of it all in the cloudy air only underscored the realization that this world was finished.

It's after 6 a.m. now. Coffee ain't as warm. I'll take pills with a glass of milk. Walk around the lake before the sun emerges in the clouds. Dawn breaking through and the world, the living thing going on years from today. Long after I die of old age.

                                  "Kiss Me Deadly" -- Lita Ford

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Meeting Mr. Pitts


Me and Leonard Pitts, Jr. at a book signing.

Lately I've been writing freelance stories for a publication in Newton, Kan. called Newton Now. It's an upstart paper that started two years ago as an alternative to the official city paper, the Newton Kansan -- a former employer of mine.

When I heard Pulitzer Prize winning Miami Herald columnist and author Leonard Pitts, Jr. was coming to the area, I excitedly volunteered to cover the event. The editor, Adam Strunk, wanted to be there, but had to cover a City Commission meeting. "Looks like you're gonna get your wish," he told me.

If you don't know of Pitts, you would do well to familiarize yourself with his writing. He's an African American writer who says things that need said about things like race, politics and culture.

I didn't get to see him when he came to Wichita a few months back, but I was not going to miss him in North Newton, a small town of around 1,700 people to the immediate north of Newton. Pitts was scheduled to speak at the town's Bethel College, and I would've attended his speech even if I wasn't covering it for the paper. His presentation was entitled "What Now? America in the Age of Trump."

Pitts called Trump and the toxic political climate he has stoked "a new and existential threat."

While not everyone who voted for Trump could be called a racist and misogynist, they (63 million Americans) supported somebody who was, he said.

He talked about the Republican politicians who referred to Pres. Obama as "boy," "uppity," "Chicago thug," referred to the Affordable Care Act as "reparations" for slavery, perpetuated the birther controversy and called his wife, Michelle, an "ape."

"Did this not represent a new low that we haven't seen in modern American history?" Pitts said. "You've heard the phrase 'barbarians at the gate.' Well the barbarians are through the gate, and they have their feet up on the couch."

Pitts' speech was peppered with such quips. He wasn't what I expected. Raised in Los Angeles, Pitts entered college at the University of Southern California at age 15 and graduated with a degree in English at 19. He has taught at schools like Hampton University, the University of Virginia Commonwealth and George Washington University. Hence, I thought his demeanor would be more scholarly, but Pitts was accessible and down to earth.

At the end of his speech, he took questions from the audience for 30 minutes. There was no way I was going to miss my chance to talk to the man.

I took to the microphone and mentioned how the man who introduced him, Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita -- had referred to James Baldwin -- the late writer who has had a resurgence lately through the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

"In his book, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin said if we don't have an honest, painful discussion about race, it's going to be a conflagration, Armageddon. But every time an issue about race is brought up, there are white people who cry about 'the race card' or they use Martin Luther King's quote about judging men 'not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character' to shut down any meaningful dialogue about race. How do we get past what seems like an impregnable mountain?"

Pitts talked about how Germany has confronted its Nazi past and South Africa's Truth Commission. If America doesn't get honest about race, he said, "there's gonna be someone standing up here 50 years from now" saying the same things he was about racism.

With all the Confederate memorials, it's like the South won the Civil War, Pitts said -- a subject James W. Loewen dedicated a whole chapter to in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. I've been a fan of Pitts' writing for over 20 years, but some things, probably as a white male, didn't come easy for me at first.

Pitts was talking about the racist legacy of Confederate statues back in the '90s, and he was taking on all the nonsense about a noble Southern heritage -- the Lost Cause mythology. He wrote in a column that these Confederate "heroes" might actually be called "traitors" and ended his piece, saying, "Hate is their heritage."

What? "Weren't these just people defending their homeland?" I thought. (I was more moderate than liberal then.) "Wasn't that extreme to say their heritage was steeped in hate?" No, I would say today. Racism was almost universal in America in the 19th century in the North and South. The entire Southern Confederate ideology was predicated on the disgusting premise that black people were inferior and slavery was a Christian God ordained arrangement.

Today, I see where Pitts is coming from. I get him.

Beyond his enlightened views, I'm influenced by Pitts by the fact that he's shown a certain prolific quality, branched out and evolved as a writer. McCormick said his favorite Pitts' book is the non-fiction Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood. I'm interested in how he became a novelist.

I bought his novel, Freeman, because I was interested in the historical research Pitts did about African Americans' lives in the early days after slavery was abolished. This was the book I would have Pitts autograph for me. Later, I want to read his novel, Grant Park, about white supremacists who kidnap a black columnist and plan to bomb Barack Obama's Presidential inauguration. I understand it's based on horrifyingly true events.

While standing in line waiting for an autograph, I got into a conversation with a woman named Lori who had driven from Wichita to see Pitts. She took part in the Women's March in Topeka and regularly takes part in demonstrations.

When I got to the desk where Pitts was sitting, I opened the book for him to sign. "Would you like me to personalize it?," he asked. "Yeah, please personalize it," I said and gave him my name.

"I'm a writer too," I said. "I have a blog. A few years ago, I sent you a piece I wrote about Trayvon Martin. You didn't respond, but I know you get thousands of emails."

"I do."

He signed the book and told me, "Good luck with the writing."


                   Leonard J. Pitts, Jr. speaking at Bethel College.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Saturday morning videos -- 5

To Richard Crowson

Here I am sitting in a booth at Freddy's Frozen Custard on a Saturday night in Salina. I had business to take care of. That's what brought me here. Nothing illegal. Just stuff. I can't believe a Journalism King -- Dan Rather -- stopped through here earlier this summer on a road trip with his grandson. Years ago, my conservative, non-press understanding Dad (God love him) thought, held the weakened thinking that Rather was too tough on George H.W. Bush in that interview on TV. I took the view that a journalist -- and Rather, dark and hard ass, was a Journalist -- could ask a guy running for president damn near anything he wanted.  In his hillarious, piss-in-a-beer-can book on press coverage '72 campaign, The Boys on the Bus, the young writer Timothy Crouse mentioned a then young hot shot Dan Rather getting awed at by all the nearby women and how he turned around and pointed his finger "reminiscent of Elvis Presley." I knew an old guy in East Texas who saw Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys at the Lousiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana (circa 1954). "That kid," the man said. "When he left, the stage was still vibratin.'" 

The old man in East Texas had his basic training for the Air Force in Salina, Kansas.


                                "September Gurls" -- Big Star

They originated in Memphis. Southern, but untraditional. Not rockabilly, southern rock or soul. Just jangling power pop that evoked seeing you at the pool with life where rock n' roll will never die, a thinking man's band bordering on nihilism. They emulated the harmonic and songwriting style of the Beatles, the rhytym mode of the Rolling Stones. They were Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel. Lead singer Chilton was only 6-years-old when his older brother brought home a Coasters record "but by 1959, Elvis was syrup and Jerry Lee was over." The next wave, a tide from across the pond, would signal the picking up of guitars. At 16, Chilton sang lead on The Box Tops' hit, "The Letter." A few years later. 1971. Big Star was born in Memphis's Ardent Studio. Their album, Number 1 Record sold fewer copies than The Velvet Underground's debut, but was just as influential. Without Big Star, there would be no REM or Replacements. But that was years into the future. Unforseen. Circa 1972, it was fist fights, betrayal, break-ups with girlfriends, depression and hospital psych wards.

My musician and cartoonist friend, Richard Crowson, himself from Memphis, is a Big Star fan and it's only one of the reasons to love Crowson. He highly recommended seeing the documentary about the band -- Nothing Can Hurt Me.

Of the four original band members, only Stephens survives. Big Star. They will break your heart. Beautiful.


                                       "On My Way" -- Split Lip Rayfield

1996. It was September. I was in the Pecan Grove with my reporter's notebook and pen in my back pocket and I was kind of drunk. A new band, built by members of Scroatbelly -- a Wichita band I'd loved -- were on the renegade Stage 5 at the Walnut Valley Flatpicking ("bluegrass") festival. A young lady at a table told me her boyfriend played in the band. They were thrashing rock accoustical bluegrass. Dark outside and they were outstanding. The Wichita band was Kirk Rundstrom-guitar, Eric Mardis-banjo, Wayne Gottstiner, Mandolin & Jeff Eaton, bass. Eaton played a one-string bass called "Stitchgiver," built from the gas tank of a 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis, a piece of hickory and strung with one piece of weedwhacker line.

In 2007, Rundstrom died of esophogeal cancer. The documentary, Never Make it Home, directed by Echternkamp, portrayed the founding group member's illness. Every show the band performs now is dedicated to Rundstrom. Split Lip Rayfield played the town festival in Burden, Kansas last night, but as I was in Salina, I was unable to attend. I'm sure they rocked it. And Burden is Gottstiner's hometown, which is cool. Glad to call these guys friends of mine. The above track is from their most recent album, On My Way.

                   "Blue Monk" -- Thelonious Monk

I'm just getting into jazz iconoclast Thelonious Monk. Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau lists Monk, as one of his favorite artists of all time, along with the Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the New York Dolls. When my wife was pregnant with our first born, a baby book I was reading suggested the music you play for your child in the womb should be melodic -- which Monk's didn't. His sound was of dissonance and abrupt percussive piano. One reason I like Monk is because he battled mental illness and was prescribed drugs like Lithium. It's too bad the quality of help we have today wasn't around in Monk's time. Check out the documentary film, Straight No Chaser, which attributed his quirky behavior to mental illness.



              
 "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" -- Johnny Cash

Forget any other versions. When Johnny Cash covered your song, it wasn't your song anymore. This love ballad, of course, is beautiful on its own, but interpreted by Cash's weathered end of life voice, it's lyrical and layered with vulnerability. A man wrote this song for his lover, while married to another woman. Don't misunderstand me, I believe fidelity is everything in a relationship, but there's something dark and intriguing about something so beautiful being born out of illicit origins. British folksinger, communist and labor activist Ewan MacColl wrote it for American folk singer Peggy Seeger (sister of Mike and Pete) a woman 20 years younger than he was. They later married.

Cash took the song back to its folk origins on his American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around album, my favorite of the Rick Rubin recordings. Truly a desert isle pick. I wrote a review of this album on a napkin one Saturday afternoon, while sitting at a table by the window with my then wife, Maria, and two, then, small children. What I wrote must have been beautiful because Maria read it and started crying. I like making people cry. Like breaking hearts.


The Pusher -- Hoyt Axton

The late Hoyt Axton is underrated as a songwriter, but he wrote many songs that became hits for other artists: "Greenback Dollar" -- The Kingston Trio and "Joy To the World" and "Never Been to Spain," which were huge hits for Three Dog Nite. "The Pusher" is mostly known for Steppenwolf's version from the film, Easy Rider. But it's Hoyt's version that I love. He wrote the song in 1963 when he'd become addicted to cocaine and recorded it in 1970. Listening to his voice, you hear an angry, addicted man. His growls are mean and bring to mind the agony of jonesin'. You know this guy's been there. And the lyrics are somethin' mean.

You know I've smoked a lot of grass
O'Lord, I've popped a lot of pills
But I mever touched nothin'
That my spirit could kill
You know, I've seen a lot of people walkin' 'round
With tombstones in their eyes
But the pusher don't care
Ah, if you live or if you die
God damn, the pusher
God damn, I say the pusher
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man 
You know the dealer, the dealer is a man
With the love grass in his hand
Oh but the pusher is a monster
Good God, he's not a natural man
The dealer for a nickel
Lord, will sell you lots of sweet dreams
Ah, but the pusher ruin your body
Lord, he'll leave your, he'll leave your mind to scream
God damn, the pusher
God damn, I say the pusher
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man
Well, now if I were president of this land
You know, I'd declare total war on the pusher man
I'd cut if he stands,
And I'd shoot him if he'd run
Yes, I'd kill him with my Bible
And my razor and my gun
God damn, the pusher
God damn, the pusher
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man
Written by Hoyt Wayne Axton • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group




Coltohatta" (I think that's the name of the song) -- The Voluptuals

Chicago's own Voluptuals. Saw 'em playin' a favorite dive bar in Wichita. I'm not sure if they're signed, but man, they rocked. After the show, they had a few beers, went outside for cigarettes, mingled with the crowd. I talked to the lead singer, Matt. Nice guy. They hadn't booked a hotel yet. There was this tall blond girl, the same girl I overheard saying, "There's that picture of me sitting on the toilet smoking a joint." She was pretty cool. She was calling her roomate, asking if the band could crash at their place for the night. "You'll like 'em," she said. I think they're all right. And may they continue to benefit fro the kindness of strangers as they play bars across America.


                     "My Old Man" -- Joni Mitchell

Back in 1994, I was at Kirby's, a dive bar behind WSU. There was a box of record albums on the counter. $10 for the box. I bought it. There was great stuff like Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely and Blue by Joni Mitchell. A recent NPR list of what experts considered to be the 100 best albums by women put Blue at #1. My Old Man is a fun song. It's about the joy of domestic life, yet a reservation about marriage. It may have been about her relationship with live-in lover Graham Nash. I love that line, "We don't need a paper from the City Hall." It's a fun little Joni California-esque 1970 song.




"A Nice Girl Doesn't Stay for Breakfast" -- Julie London

You never hear about Julie London anymore. You'll hear tracks from her if you buy some of the Cocktail Lounge series albums, but you don't hear about her the way you might hear about the Doors. Possibly because her music was pre-rock pop and jazz. But she was huge in the '50s and '60s. Her signature song was the 1955 hit "Cry Me a River." I like the above selection because listening to it, you knew the husky-voiced sensual Julie London was saying she wasn't that nice girl and she didn't care. If she stayed for breakfast after a one night stand, by God that's what she did. The song is sex and London was around 42 when she recorded it, which is a damn sexy age for a woman.

                   "Oklahoma Sunshine" -- Waylon Jennings

In his final years after his popularity had waned, I kept waiting for Waylon Jennings to be re-discovered and enjoy an end of life career resurgance like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Glen Campbell did. But it wasn't to be. You'll just have to search out the old Waylon stuff on your own. In this song from his 1974 Ramblin' Man album, Jennings is singing about how he needs to get away from New York and this woman he's been laying down with -- a  woman who's holding him down and return home to Oklahoma country, to folks, family, a blue-eyed girl for whom he'll dry her tears.

Also I picked this song because Oklahoma sunshine may play a role in one of my upcoming blog posts.

                       "Amanda" -- Don Williams

Saturday 6:40 a.m. September 10. I read the news on Facebook that country music's gentle giant had died. RIP, the messages read. I don't usually place videos of people who'd recently died on these kind of posts because there's so many of them, but I was planning on posting a Don Williams video anyway. He had a beautiful voice and it made you feel he was a beautiful man. You couldn't help but love him. My ex-mother-in-law was a big fan. She, her husband and kids, including my future ex-wife, saw Williams perform at a club in Wichita years after his 1970s and early '80s popularity had waned. They got to talk to him and he was a pure gentleman. In the early 2000s, I was in Branson, Missouri at the old Hillbilly Inn with my mother, infant son and then wife, Maria. There was an old guy in the diner, playing country music on his electric guitar and taking requests. Maria asked him if he knew any Don Williams. He did. The song, was of course, Amanda.

How many parents named their daughters Amanda after this beautiful song? A lot.

                      "Promised Land" -- Chuck Berry

Probably my favorite song by the Father of Rock n' Roll -- Chuck Berry. About a poor boy leaving Norfolk, Virginia with Los Angeles, California on his mind. He wrote it while in a Midwestern prison on a railroaded charge of violating the Mann Act. He used a map from the prison library to mark cities he would write about on the cross country journey of his rock n' roll story -- and Chuck Berry was a story teller. In the song, he hints at the travails of a black man traveling through the deep south in the early 60s. Boarding a Greyhound bus past Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, bypassing Rock Hill, South Carolina and heading into Atlanta by sundown till the bus gets stranded in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. He then takes a train across "Mississippi Clean" and "smokin' in the New Orleans", into Houston where the folks care a little about him and "won't let the poor boy down." They buy him a suit and tie and plane ticket to the Promised Land. Los Angeles was, in Berry-esque mythology, an American Eden. Highways, sky scrapers, fast food diners, cool cars -- it'll never be like that again.

Of course the song was derivative of Homer's The Odyssey and the Biblical pilgrimages of Abraham and Moses. The words "Promised Land," like Berry's reference to the Gospel song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," evoked the Bible, Exodus, freedom, the original Civil Rights movement. And the Promised Land is where Berry's journey has finally taken him. The end of the road.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia
Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'
And the poor boy's on the line




            "Wake Me Up When September Ends" -- Green Day

Green Day exploded in 1994 as a post-punk group. They still create abrasive rock in songs like "Brain-Jaded Stew," but, under Billie Joe Armstrong's songwriting craft, the band has also created melodic radio friendly, mainstream songs like "Time of Your Life" and this one -- "Wake Me Up When September Ends." The song is about the painful transition from youth and loss of innocence. It's pop, but not in a sweet way, and it's beautiful.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Life in television hell


We sit at a rustic black wooden table at Maggie O'Malley's Irish bar in the Delano district just to the west of downtown Wichita. I drink from a tall, frosty-chilled glass of Guinness, hanging with my buddy and TV producer, Reese, and sipping the beer made me think of my friend Suzanne whom I've known since childhood as a world-beating kicker of ass. Nowadays, Suzanne is into California-style spirituality and tells me I should take up yoga to re-center my energy and tell myself positive mantras to shake off all the doubt, fear and hyperventilating panic attacks. She reads a lot of the same ribald authors I'm into -- Kesey, Sedaris, Burroughs -- and ostensibly Reese and I are there as part of a two-man book club, but neither of us read much of the damn book so we just retreat into our thick beers and barroom bullshit under the glare of Neon, electric panties and a huge screen TV tuned to ESPN.

"Lately, I've been watching Californication on Netflix. Catching up on all those seasons I missed," I say.

"A dysfunctional writer who's creatively blocked and still in love with his ex," Reese says. "Yeah, I can see why you'd be into that show."

"I may love the girl, I may not, but fuck her," I said harshly into my beer. "I ain't in love with her. That's the past."

I can tell by his body language Reese isn't buying it, but screw him. Just let it go. "And I don't have writer's block. I just posted on my blog a few days ago," I say, then go back to talking about the original glass teat.

"Anyhow," I say, "They show some girl's tits in every episode. It's not like Mad Men where there was sex all over the place, but the act was left to your imagination. I mean, it's an all right show, Californication, but it will never be up there with the modern classics -- The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. 

"Well I guess the idea of showing a sexaholic's life in graphic form has its function,"Reese responds, pensively. "You see the excess and emptiness."

"I think it's a technique directors sometimes use," I say. "It's like Oliver Stone's movie about the Doors. There was gratuity, but at the end when you were sick of it all, I think the film did its job."

"Like the pagan scene in the movie -- the witch wedding ceremony with the high coven priestess and Jim Morrison cutting themselves?"

"Oh fuck yeah," I say, assuredly. "You're supposed to flinch at that."

Story life

The earliest TV show I can remember? Sesame StreetMr. Rogers' Neighborhood. That kind of thing. At 4 and 5 years of age, I acted out little dramas I imagined in my head. Stuff where the people in my family who didn't get along in real life were all friends and they were all cowboys or lived on a farm.

At 8-years-old, I'd figured out the shows I watched on TV had stories with problems that always got resolved in the end and people said clever things. Why couldn't life be like that? I'm still trying to arrange life into a plot, a narrative.

In those years before DVR, Netflix, Facebook and texting -- I was hooked on TV (the plug-in drug) the way other kids were Kool-aid addicts. And like any addict who plays the self-destructive game long enough, I got my ass in trouble.

It was around 7:30 a.m. A Friday morning in May, 1980. I was trying to get my shit together to make it to Hattie O'Mattfield Elementary School by 8. I was 11-years-old, in fifth grade. Had just found my shoes. That was always a battle. "Why don't you put your shoes by the door at night?" Mom would say. I was trying to gather my homework into my backpack where I should have placed everything the day before after completing the class work like a normal organized person would do.

"Sonofabitch," I exclaimed in a moment of early life stress. "I lost my goddamn spelling book."

"If you find my spelling book, can you bring it to school?" I asked Mom as she drove me and my siblings to school.

"I can't come in and save you every time," she said. "It's your responsibility to have your stuff ready. Besides, I have to go to work." She was wearing her Wal-Mart vest.

This particular day, completing the work in my spelling book was especially important -- a point of pride. Thursday, the day before at school, my teacher, Mrs. Sauers had seen the spelling book on my desk, picked it up and flipped through the pages of this week's unit and saw that I hadn't done anything in it all week.

"This is really interesting, Jeff," she said. "You haven't gotten any of this done."

I usually put off doing my homework until around bedtime, but that day I made damn sure I completed all the assigned sections in my spelling book as soon as I got home. (Of course I did it, while watching Batman.) The next day, I was going to present it to Mrs. Sauers as if to say, "Take that, bitch."

But it wouldn't happen. She'd never believe I finished my homework. I'd lost my goddamn spelling book.

I sat there, feeling small and stressed as Mrs. Sauers prepared to read the answers to students grading their spelling books. "I don't have it," I said, nervously.

Her face turned an angry, sweaty shade of color. "I should've known," she said. "Till he's 105, he'll never change."

The next thing I knew she had me standing uncomfortably before her at the classroom door as every one of my classmates watched uneasily. Thankful to God it wasn't them.

"What did you do when you got home from school?," she asked me, hotly. The beginning of what seemed an eternal grilling.

I told her I did my spelling. I didn't tell her I did it while watching Batman.

"Do you expect me to believe that?" she said. "You aren't prepared with your spelling book today."

"But I finished it yesterday," I said in desperate self-defense. "Only I lost my book."

i lost my goddamn spelling book

"I looked through your spelling book yesterday and you didn't have anything done."

Christ, I knew she'd bring that up. Sadistic bitch.

"But I finished it all at home yesterday, I swear."

"You're not supposed to be swearing. Ever!" She got calmly quiet. "So what did you do after you, uh, 'finished' your spelling? You didn't have your math assignment ready today either."

"I watched Bonanza."

"It never occurred to you to finish all your classroom work first."

"I was going to, but I couldn't stop watching Bonanza. There was this gunslinger in a saloon who challenged Little Joe to a duel and Ben and Hoss Cartwright were worried and I had to see if Little Joe would get killed."

"Did you actually think they were going to kill a main character?" she asked me as if she thought I were the stupidest sonofabitch in the world.

"No, but the thing was I didn't know."

I loved watching the plot thicken. I had to see how the story would resolve itself. Why didn't I say that?

Then, what did I watch? She probed further.

I told her everything in the evening around dinner time was a blur, but that at 7 p.m., I watched Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

"Then I watched Different Strokes."

"You just had to watch Different Strokes," she said, derisively.

"Yeah, I think it's funny when Arnold says, 'whatchoo talkin' bout?"

"And then what did you watch?"

I got really nervous. Scared. There I was, exposed before the entire shitting class.

Softly, looking at the floor, I confessed that I watched Johnny Carson. It wasn't like it was the late night version. This was a prime time special -- the 18th anniversary show.

"You had no business watching Johnny Carson," she lectured, then addressed the entire class. "You children should be in bed before any of his shows come on."

That's all I remember of being in Mrs. Sauers's star chamber. It seemed like a hell that would never end.

In no way, was I ever going to tell Sauers how my family had recently got cable TV -- HBO -- rated R movies -- and I'd sneaked up during the night when everyone was in bed, turned the TV on and volume down, hoping to catch boobs.

                                 "Green Acres" theme song

Pulled into Nazareth

You drive on North Broadway in Wichita past the hot colors in the windows of Mexican shops and restaurants. Make a left turn on 21st Street. Cop cars pass with authority in the summer heat index. A shitty-assed dollar store across the street and you pull into the parking lot of the local Public TV Station.

Reese is behind his cubicle wall, doing producer stuff. Arranging for media passes and the like. As a young man, following his graduation from the University of South Dakota and a couple of years as a reporter at a Rapid City TV station, he went to a theological seminary, the famous Union Theological Seminary in New York. The seminary is affiliated with Columbia University.

Then he left. Found out he didn't have the calling.

Saturday morning. Driving westbound on U.S. 54. Southward onto U.S. 183 as the great Western Kansas sky swallowed me and my car into the yearning dream it was having. The road growing barren. Clouds bigger, whiter over the empty spaces that are supposed to fill in for my life. I make it into my first town -- Little Feat, Kan. (pop. 800) I've been listening to the Stones' Exile on Main Street for the past 2 1/2 hours. We're in the country. Let's find an AM country station. Then. Country classics station. Hank Snow singing about a little orphan.

I'm nobody's child, nobody's child
I'm like a flower just growing wild
No mommy's kisses and no daddy's smiles
Nobody wants me, I'm nobody's child

Up around a green bend, I drive straight into Principle, Kan. (pop. 350) There's a cafe, a rinky dink post office and a white door with the paint peeling off that leads to the City Library. It's next door to City Hall/Cop Shop on the Main Drag in town. Wide. A single traffic light hanging by wires, blowing in the late spring breeze. I had a vanilla shake, burgers and fries at a place called Don's Cafe. This young lady named Casey served me. She was really nice.

Me and Casey
GPS don't fail me. It leads me down the southern way, by way of the big road out of town. Water tower and train tracks lead to a mixed up swath of back roads and dirt in the country. When I see the green fields and hear the electronic voice on my iPhone, I feel my destination nearing as if I'm returning to a home I've never been to. Then the sign --

Higley Farm (Big letters)

Big dogs greet me on the front porch. I like big dogs. I meet Mrs. Higley first. "Call me Alicia," she says. She and Mr. Higley met, while attending K-State. She was a school teacher in the early years of their marriage. Now she stays home and helps out the business as the face and voice of the farm. Safe within the harmony of the Higley Family for the past 130 years. Their two girls come out. Pet the dogs. And the pater familias. "Lyle Higley," he says and gives me a firm handshake.

Mr. Higley takes us down the road apiece. A ride safe within the family binding and scriptural underpinning of his pickup truck. I set up my iPhone on the tripod and record the cattle. They're grass fed from birth 'till death. Makes for healthy beef. So country tasty. A few restaurants about the way buy beef from Higley Farm.

Back at the Higley house, we go into his shed from which meat is stored in the locker and business is conducted via Alicia's sweet voice over the phone. I wanted to film the interview here instead of out in the field. I tell them I wanted to spread the story around. Like seed. I reach into the pocket of my jean shorts for the TV microphone to attach from my phone to the collar of Mr. Higley's rough shirt. Microphone's not there. I thought for sure I had it with me back in the truck. I excuse myself to go get it out of my car.

I search frantically. Not in the glove box where I faithfully store it. Not under the seats. I search the back seat through paperback novels and clothes I've taken off. i lost my       spelling book  I don't want to look like a fuck-up to Reese, but these are desperate times in the country. So I text him, tell him my dilemma, ask him if he has another TV microphone I can borrow (i can't come to your rescue every time) and he's nice as can be about it. Texts me back. "Just come by my apartment tomorrow. I'll have one you can use." I go back to the Higleys and they say, sure, it's just fine if I come back tomorrow, that it would probably be better anyway.

Sunday morning. I'm getting a late start. I leave funky Liberty Apartments in a section called The Village at the low end of this freaky town I'm living in. Painters, musicians, many of them, druggies, pass along the steps outside my door. It will be close to noon before I get to Wichita. Head east, Man. I hope you find a microphone and peace in your life.

Nearly two hours of driving. I ring the bell at the apartment in the Riverside section of Wichita. Reese's girlfriend, Janie, answers the door. She's holding a black bag with the microphone in it. Tells me Reese is out playing golf. Reese and Janie have been living together for the past couple of years. Her 7-year-old son from a previous relationship lives there with them. And I think they have a dog.

Reese and Janie got together about a year after he got fired from the local CBS affiliate. The anchors had just signed off on the 10 p.m. news. "Let's get the fuck out of here," Reese said, unaware that his mic was still on. The video went viral. Reese's guffaw became nationally known. Jay Leno showed the clip with a bleep inserted on The Tonight Show. The job offer Reese had been offered in St. Louis was rescinded.

But recently the Wichita PBS affiliate gave Reese and his talents a new birth. And Reese is pretty damn talented. I saw his special story on the 10th anniversary of the Greensburg tornado and wished I could produce something that good. Janie also gave Reese a new handle on life and isn't that the kind of thing we all need?

The morning's coffee was working hard on me. I didn't know Janie well enough to ask to urinate in her house. I could've stopped in a gas station, but it was just past noon on Sunday and the Barnes and Noble bookstore at 21st and Rock Road had just opened. I rushed in the store doors and was soon standing at the urinal, pissing the Missouri River. It was a damn excuse to go inside the bookstore. Time was moving on, but I couldn't pass through without looking at a few books.

There was a graphic novel version of Kafka's The Trial that was killer. And Rhinehard Kleist's graphic novel about the life of Johnny Cash, I See a Darkness. It was a story about addiction, regret and spiritual struggle, named for Cash's winter of life recording of the same name, originally recorded by Will Oldham, who sang back-up vocals behind Johnny for the Man in Black's cover.

Then I made my way to the theology and philosophy sections. I was looking at Sarte's Being and Nothingness when some kid about 20 came up to me. He had scarlet-colored hair. Wore a black shirt and lip ring. "Excuse me, Sir, do you know much about philosophy?" he asked me. "I'm just getting into it."

"I know a little bit," I answered. Then I pulled out T.Z. Lavine's book, From Socrates to Sarte. "This is a good beginner's book." Told him I had it for a textbook when I took philosophy at Grossmont Community College. I looked for Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy, but didn't see it. I did find Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy.

"Oh this is a must," I said, taking Albert Camu's The Myth of Sisyphus from the shelf. "This gets into my favorite school of philosophy -- existentialism. Existentialism's a big tent. You got a theologian -- Kirkegaard, an atheist -- Nietzsche, a novelist, Dostoevsky. Rollo May was an existential psychologist. His book, The Courage to Create -- the title was inspired by Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be."

Tillich -- he fled Nazi Germany in the '30s. Settled in the states and taught at Union Theological Seminary where Reese briefly matriculated.

In another life.

"I'll take this one," the kid said, grabbing Kirkegaard's Fear and Trembling.

"Great choice," I said. "That's where existentialism started. As a companion, you gotta read the Genesis account of Abraham when he was gonna sacrifice Isaac."

"Thanks mister," he said, shaking my hand. Told me I'd been a big help. "Do you work here?"

"No, I guess I just get evangelical about the written word. It gets to where I have a bookgasm & I'm a whore about it all," I said.

Following that exchange, I knew it was best that I split. Make the big drive back to western Kansas and Higley's farm.

The route out of Wichita led me down different roads than I'd been on the day before. Passed county lines on the southern back roads. Little Kansas towns like Pretty Village, Banjo Crossing, Delbert...

It was Sunday afternoon. I turned to the AM country station again and listened to a Pentecostal preacher. "What I wanna ask is, 'Have you found Jesus?'" he said in a sweet Mississippi drawl. Then he played a gospel record -- "Precious Memories" as sung by the Stanley Brothers.

In the stillness of the midnight, precious, sacred scenes unfold

This was the version I heard on the fourth season premiere of The Walking Dead.

Along the last lap, the GPS on my iPhone failed me. Had to text the Higleys for directions. In the end, I found my way and ultimately, I was squatting on the family porch, video recording with my phone atop the tripod and interviewing Lyle and Alicia about the soil health and prairie grass as they sat in the porch swing.

"There is a big growth with people who want to know where their food comes from," the family patriarch said.

"Thank you very much," I said after clicking off the record button.

"That's it?" Lyle said.

"That should suffice. We'll edit it, use the best soundbites. We might only end up using 10 seconds."

Driving all over hell's half acre for 10 seconds. Ah hell, it was worth it.

It would be a high caliber story. I'd also filmed vendors at a farmer's market in Wichita's Old Town on a brisk Saturday morning. Talked to an area organic farmer about the connection between her Christian faith and working the land.

And I'd recorded my new friend, Jessie, who was instrumental in reviving the local food market in her little town of Blushing, Kan. (pop. 5,000) She walked down the verdant path in her backyard, wearing a white straw gardener's hat, gloves, holding a spading fork in her right hand, the left hand pulling the handle of the red wooden wagon her three small children sat in. They would help her dig in the garden. Bountiful, high yielding rows of radishes, tomatoes, squash...stood high and healthy.

Back at the TV station, I worked with Reese on writing a script and gathering still shots for the piece. Reese added snippets of the Green Acres theme song. The story would lead the next week's episode of Kansas Personalities.

The Weight

"You outdid yourself, friend," Reese says early in the evening and tapped his glass of Guinness beer to mine as we sat at Maggie O' Malley's Pub. "Since neither of us finished reading the book, we'll just make this about you. What made you go after that story so hard anyway?

"I don't know, part of it is that I want to keep topping myself. Part of it was -- well, there's something spiritual about mother earth and sustenance, the whole regeneration process."

Talking about the earth makes me think of my childhood friend so I say, "The next time we go out like this, I'd like to invite Suzanne to tag along."

"That's the fifth time you've mentioned her."

"Really? I thought it was only the second."

"You got a hard-on for her or something?"

"Nah. She and her husband split up three or four years ago, but I'm only attracted to her intellect. Maybe her glasses. Possibly her tattoo."

"I guess we could bring her on board, teach her some new tricks, Reese says, the mischief in his face lifting his mustache.

There's stubble on Reese's face that has yet to form into a full beard, and above his lip, he has this dark jumbo mustache. No lie, the thing is a submarine. He and Janie plan on getting married soon. The mustache could walk her down the aisle.

"Oh yeah, almost forgot," I say as I take Reese's microphone out of my pocket and hand it to him. "The Higleys texted me a couple days after I'd been there. Said they found my microphone on the floor of their truck. I gave them my address and they mailed it back to me."

"See, you worried for nothing," Reese says.

We talk about that documentary our friend Adam is making about the old Wichita Wings. About Postman and McLuhan. About loathsome 45 tweets (how I mistakenly call them twats) taking us down a dystopian "shitterverse." How I often watch TV on my iPhone, while in bed at night.

"Been watching Shameless," I say, adding that Suzanne turned me on to the show -- the American version. "It's something, the mother is bi-polar, attempted suicide and abandoned her kids. Father's a no-count drunk, cheating the government. Fiona had a downfall, went to jail after her little brother ingested the cocaine. It's like a train wreck and you don't want to watch it, but you can't help yourself."

Reese weighs in on Shameless. "Whenever she (Fiona) gets close to pulling it all together, something inside her wants to fuck it up because a normal or routine life to her is foreign so she goes out and fucks things up because that's all she knows...things being fucked up."

After a while, he stands up. "Well, I'm gonna go out and have a smoke."

He starts to go outside, then turns around, still tapping a Marlboro Light on the lid of its flip top box and asks what we should read for our next book club meeting.

I suggest we take on a graphic novel or a comic book. I mean, hell, who says we can't? Is it our club, our solo and duo identities bearing down or what? I mention how that show, Preacher, on AMC is based on a comic book from the '90s. Reese says he hasn't seen it.

"He's a two-fisted Texas preacher," I say. "Teams up with his ass kicking ex-girlfriend and an Irish agnostic vampire. They battle evil supernatural forces in their quest to find God.

"It's pretty existential."

             
                           Television -- "I'm Gonna Find you"

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reckless words


You're not supposed to joke about assassinating the President.

I realize it's been two days since Johnny Depp made his distasteful joke and in the ever changing news and political cycles, that makes it old news. But over eight years, I called out the hatred hurled at Pres. Obama. The cruel, racist caricatures – I remember a Facebook image of Obama with a noose around his neck. And there were people who called for his assassination, as well. The severed head mentality aimed at Trump isn't cool either.

I could see wanting to kill someone like Adolph Hitler. But Trump, no matter how bad he is or how much people dislike him (and I don't like him one bit) is not Hitler.

Do I think Trump is a threat to a free press and civil liberties – basically democracy? Do I think he does unconstitutional things every day of his life? Yes. Do I think he colluded with Russia in rigging the election? Probably, but so far that hasn't been proven.

No, I don't think he's a good person and like anybody in America, I can criticize him all night long because criticism and threats aren't the same thing. One is “political speech,” which I learned in communication law class at WSU, is the most Constitutionally protected speech. The other, the courts recognize as “fighting words” – words that are threatening or likely to incite violence.

I don't think Depp meant his words to be threatening. I think it was stupid and reckless. But saying those words against Trump is just as bad as when people said that kind of thing against Obama. And anytime somebody says something like that, it has to be looked into by the Secret Service. In today's world, we don't know if words like that will drive someone to do something terrible. Words are powerful.

It's a thin line between Constitutionally protected hate speech and fighting words. I think when people let emotions overrule reason, lose their filter, don't put on the brakes, there's that danger of their words being a bridge to violence.

But we never learn. After the shooting that put GOP Congressman Steve Scalise in critical condition, there was talk of the two sides, Democrat and Republican, toning down the hostility and “coming together as Americans.” That lasted about two days.

Last week, you had Nebraska Democratic official Phil Montag saying, “I'm fucking glad he was shot...I wish he was fucking dead.” He was rightfully fired. Sure, he apologized. The whole “that's not me thing.” But it's just like when Republican congressional candidate (now Montana Congressman) Greg Gianforte apologized for beating up the reporter. Insisted he's not really like that. BS. I think that's exactly who they are.

I knew all the togetherness wouldn't last. I remember all the talk of Americans uniting after 9-11. That didn't last. And if 9-11 couldn't change people, I don't think anything will.

That doesn't mean we should stop trying.