Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Low We Have Sunk

Here is a scenario to imagine: You’re a 12-year old girl. Your parents are sleeping, or are not at home, or are not monitoring you. You are online, in a chat room, playing silly chat room games. Someone, an anonymous name in the chat room, compliments you, and dares you to flash your boobs at your web cam. You do. Ha ha. That was funny. Next he says that unless you give a more explicit “show,” your boobs will be all over the internet. You refuse. Within weeks, there is a Facebook page started by a stranger. His profile picture? Your boobs. And the page contains other, more disturbing things like your name, address, phone number and other personal information. The police come to your home at four in the morning to tell you about this disturbing turn of events. Your parents freak. The situation gets worse, so your parents decide to move away, back to where you once lived. A boy you knew back then asks you to come over to hang out, and when you arrive, he expects sex. You comply, thinking he really likes you. You are, after all, a na├»ve twelve year old. A couple of weeks later the guy’s girlfriend and others accost you at school, hitting and kicking you, calling you a lot of really nasty names. You literally crawl into a ditch, wanting to die. You turn to drugs and alcohol, which only make life more miserable. You begin cutting yourself. Then to end it all, you drink bleach, but the hospital saves your life. Finally, things start to calm down. A year passes. Suddenly, the cyber bully re-appears and your hell starts all over again. Your topless photo, from when you were twelve, is all over the internet once again, and emails, calls, messages threatening you, naming you, drive you to near madness. The above scenario, sadly, was a real one. On September 7th of this year, a pretty and articulate fifteen year old girl named Amanda Todd, from British Columbia, Canada, went online and posted a nine minute video. In it, via a clever technique utilizing small flashcards that she had painstakingly filled out , she described some mistakes she had made in her short life… mistakes that literally thousands of kids make around the world every day. And she described the hell that her life had become because of those mistakes. And she expressed remorse and sadness for her mistakes. The comments by people who watched the video were revelatory: “You should die!” “SLUT” “Piece of garbage” read some of the milder ones. A little over a month later, on October 10, 2012, Amanda Todd took an apparent overdose of something. And her sad life ended. This is what the new bullying…call it “cyberbullying” hath wrought. In the wake of Amanda’s suicide, one would expect that the tone of comments to her video would have softened. But alas, the vitriol worsened. “I’m glad you’re dead! Slut!” was just one. It is enough to make you ashamed to be a human being. My point? I’m not sure I have one, I’m too numb. Just another story from the new America.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Kendra Coleman Has Come Home

May 11, 2010 wasn’t a particularly memorable day for most of us. I have no clue what I was doing on that day, but Kendra Pieper Coleman knows exactly where she was. And sadly, she remembers it very well because she was awake for all of it. She was in Afghanistan. Kendra was a soldier. An MP for the 173rd Airborne Unit of the United States Army, she was born in Boulder, Colorado, raised in Jackson, Georgia, and grew up for good in Afghanistan, on May 11, 2010, when an improvised explosive device, (the full term for that particularly evil contraption more commonly known as an IED) exploded on her as she, with other soldiers was helping to clear an Afghan village. She remembers the events that lead to the conclusion of her duty in Afghanistan: villagers told her there was a bomb planted in a wall in a building. It was a trap, and as she went to locate the bomb, the IED went off. She remembers the noise. She remembers thinking that one of her comrades might have been hurt. She remembers falling, amid, and please pardon this, “chunks of flesh and tissue,” only to realize that it was her own left leg that she was seeing, and through which she was unpleasantly falling. She never lost consciousness. War is hell. We know that. Someone has described it as the “lowest form of human behavior, ” and looking at Kendra Coleman now, with a face that recalls Britney Spears’s prettier sister , with a piston-bearing prosthetic left leg that recalls Robo-Cop, it is hard to argue that description. We despise the fiend that tramples the pretty flower. We despise the vandals who would deface the Mona Lisa. And we despise that institution that takes life and limb from earnest young men and women like Kendra Coleman. She has come this week from Houston, Texas, to visit our mutual friend, Amy Haines. I got a call from Amy asking if I would take some photos of Kendra at the new Memorial Park, which I was surprised to learn bears a plaque with Kendra’s name and status. I agreed, and was already waiting when they arrived. I watched them pull up in Kendra’s monster truck, which looks flashy but is in reality at least partly functional. Since she now wears a prosthetic, the only vehicle she can get in and out of without major difficulty is something high off the ground and with a lot of room. Hence, the truck. As requested, I snapped away as Kendra located the plaque with her name. I wondered what was going through her mind as she first just looked at it and everything sunk in, and then as she slowly ran her fingers over the engraved letters, I could feel the pride. I asked her if she was pissed off. She looked at me for explanation, and I nodded towards her leg. She said that she had been, at first, but that she realized that if she stayed angry, if she let it run her life, then the enemy had won, and she wasn’t going to let that happen. I pointed to her head as I asked, “Are you okay there?” “I still have some wicked nightmares, but basically I am okay.” I snapped a few more photos of Kendra, with Amy, her best friend since childhood. The love is obvious. The nightmares…aren’t. I am sure they will go away soon. The enemy has already been defeated.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Photoshopping old slides...

I’ve recently found myself in the middle of an undertaking that has far exceeded any expectations I may have had going in. I am retrieving my family from the cheap film and lousy emulsions of the past. Let it be said that my dad was a great dad, but also let it be known that his idea of taking a photograph was to point a cheap camera, loaded with generally cheap film, at his subjects—usually my mother, sister and myself, or some combination thereof, and click away. That was it. Oh, and he generally used slide film, which was supposed to give better colors and so on but was a pain in the neck to view. When he died thirteen years ago, into my possession came a case that contained almost two thousand slides. It took me several years and many, many yard sales to finally find a slide projector with which to view them, and about eight years ago, when my sister, Carmen, was diagnosed with cancer, and was given only about six months to live, I brought her, and her husband to a camp that our family had owned when we were kids, on a beautiful Adirondack Mountain lake. The current owner of the camp was kind enough to allow us to use it for a few days, to give Carmen some good energy and to remind us both of a time when our lives were happy ones, since shortly after our last time at the camp, when we were eleven and nine, our family fell apart, and the slides, as well as our good memories, all were shoved into a dusty closet somewhere. We looked at all two thousand slides that weekend. While viewable, they were the victims of bad technology, bad photography and of forty plus years of neglect. Many were impossible to make out, and some were just rubbish as far as we could see. But with the seriousness of my sister’s illness, and the short time we had at the camp, we made the best of a bad situation. Carmen died a few months later, but at least she had gotten a chance to relive her childhood again. Last year I finally got around to buying a slide scanner with which to digitize all of those slides. All it did was remind me how bad they looked, though. One of the first things that photography teachers used to tell their students was that old, bad photos should be discarded, because they will never get any better. It made sense to me, but I still held on to those old slides. And I am glad I did. This year I was fortunate to acquire the world’s most popular photo editing program, and it has been revelatory. I have taught myself how to crop, brighten, increase and decrease the intensity of colors, and even how to sharpen blurry images. With a click of a mouse I can make a black square live again, sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white, which actually gives many photos a new and more interesting look. I am now halfway through restoring all of those slides. I am amazed at what I am seeing---images of my parents that I never had seen, my little self in silly costumes, and literally hundreds of pictures of a little red headed girl who never got a chance to grow old. Those old teachers were wrong. Bad pictures can get better, with the right amount of TLC.

Monday, April 9, 2012

It sucks to be Ronnie

Ronnie can’t catch a break. He is a 59 year old Vietnam war veteran who, at seventeen, had to have his grandmother sign papers so that he could enlist in the military. He wanted to go fight a war against the so-called Communist menace who would, according to the Army recruiters who came to Jackson High School in 1969, “be sitting right there in your chairs, ” very shortly unless brave young men signed up to fight them. So Ronnie, who says he is very disappointed in a government who did, and still does, rush this country into wars that, as he says, “ We got no business bein’ in,” enlisted. He joined the 101st Airborne, and served a tour of duty, from 1970 to 1972, in a godforsaken country that was never a threat to us or our way of life. He saw his friends die in terrible ways, and worse. He saw things that he would not describe to me, saying, “Ain’t nobody should ever see what I saw.” It was that disenchantment with the war that led to Ronnie going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) from the military upon his return from southeast Asia, where, it should be noted, he was shot in the legs and arms, and for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. He was picked up, court-martialed and served four months in Leavenworth, Kansas, all after being shot for his trouble. He was nineteen years old. Now, as he hobbled with his cane, a constant companion, around the Butts County Memorial Park one night recently, he paused at many of the engraved names, a look of recognition on his face. He knew many of the names there, both the living and the dead. He asked me, a stranger, where he could get a ride to Atlanta. He doesn’t have a car, and Butts County does not have bus service, sadly. It was too late to take him that night but I told him that I could the following day. When I picked him up at his mother’s house in Jackson, he was chomping at the bit to leave. I asked him why, and during the long ride to the Smyrna area, he told me a little about his life. After he got out of Leavenworth, he drifted back to Atlanta and opened up an auto repair shop, specializing in foreign cars. He was fairly successful there for over twenty-five years. Then, about twelve years ago, a cylinder broke in a new hydraulic jack while he was working on a car. It fell on his back, breaking it in two places, and leaving him in a permanent state of pain. A lawsuit against the manufacturer netted him over half a million dollars but like many people who have never had a windfall, he did not invest wisely and it has mostly disappeared. He had come from Atlanta to visit his 82 year old mom. His sister and her boyfriend were also staying in the big house that she lives in here in town. Then Ronnie caught them taking the hinges off of his door to get to his pain medication, and in the aftermath, the boyfriend destroyed all of Ronnie’s clothing, he decided that he had had enough. He needed a ride back to the motel he lives in up north. It was the least I could do for a guy who got shot for his country. He deserves better.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rolling...Action !

I was walking through a fishing village, many years in the future. The earth had used up all of its energy and now, mankind had returned to being an agrarian society. My lady was at my side as we passed a fishmonger and a fellow cleaning the hull of his boat, which was drydocked for cleaning and repairs. In the distance I could see a horse, pulling a carriage of some sort. A lot of folks were out and about on a sunny morning. We crossed in front of the horse, nearly stepping on two guys who were wrestling around on the ground, fighting over something. Reaching a bin, in front of a building that was not there, I reached inside and pulled out a fishing net/trap combo, while my companion, whose name I did not know, grabbed a pair or oars. We turned back to the street with our items and began walking. The director yelled, “Cut!” Welcome to a peek into my newest adventure. I have become a background actor. It all started when I read a notice in an online version of the newspaper in Atlanta. “Extras wanted for TV show filming in Atlanta,” it said. I read the notice, noted the details, and responded per the instructions, never expecting a response. But, as fate would have it, I got one. It is an interesting process. The casting companies who are hired by the producers of movie and TV shows will post notices in public places, like newspapers, and in more visible places like Facebook. Here is an example of a current request: Politicians for Wednesday! We are looking for some politician-looking types to work Wednesday on (Name of show). Looking for both males and females, all ethnicities. Ages 20-60s. SUPER clean cut. 3 pictures, height, weight, age and contact number to (email address@gmail.com. Subject: Politician Since I began doing this, I have worked more than a half dozen days, including the scene described above, from an upcoming full length feature film by one of the biggest producers in the business. We even signed confidentiality agreements to not reveal the name of the movie or specific details of the plot. I’m not going to say that this is for everybody, but I am enjoying the experience immensely. I thought it would be a one-time thing but I am hooked. The days are long, the money isn’t great and at times it can be monotonous, waiting in the holding area for extras, surrounded by a lot of younger people who think that a college degree in theater arts is their ticket to a role opposite (insert big name star here), until your scene is ready to shoot. Then you go out, like the cattle that Alfred Hitchcock said that actors are, and you do the scene, as they tell you, over and over until you hear the words, “Print it!” or “That’s a wrap!” When you hear that, then you know your job is done. If anyone is interested in trying their hand at being an extra, there are many places to sign up online. It is a chance to see a little of how the make-believe world of TV and cinema is created.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

When Irish Ears Were Smiling

It was quite a sight to see. The anointed had come out for a night of Irish songs, and they were dressed to the nines in their furs and elegant gowns, even a tux or two was spotted among the 1500 patrons of the arts who crowded in to the Ulster Performing Arts Center, in Kingston, New York. It was St.Patrick’s Day, and local radio station WKNY was sponsoring the evening. Ads had been running for weeks prior to the actual event, promoting it as an evening of traditional Irish music, sung by Ireland’s finest singer, Mary Black. The only problem was that it became apparent that maybe no one at the radio station had ever heard Mary Black. Nor had the audience. I first heard Mary Black at a small club called the Pursuit of Happiness, in Liberty, New York. Oh, she wasn’t performing there, but the club was playing a mix tape before the scheduled performer was to go on. A ballad, the likes of which I had never heard before, silenced the chatter and pretty much everyone listened until the song was over, at which time they resumed their chatter. I was so taken with the tune that I inquired of the manager as to who was that incredible singer, and what was that song. I was told that I had just heard Mary Black perform a song called Anachie Gordon, an ancient and sad ballad about a young woman who is forced, by her parents, to marry a sultan, as a means to wealth, when in truth she only has eyes for a sailor named Anachie. And like Romeo and Juliet before them, they suffer the tragic end, together. It was not “Danny Boy” or “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and nothing that Mary Black has ever recorded is either. Apparently, eager to book an Irish singer for St. Paddy’s Day, no one at the radio station ever bothered to listen to any of her music. They just assumed that Irish singers all sound alike and sing the same old songs, which were actually mainly written in the US. The words to "Danny Boy," for instance, were written by English lawyer and lyricist Frederic Weatherly in 1910. The tune was an old Irish aire called the Londonderry Air, but that is as far as it goes where the origins of the song are concerned. The ad promos for the concert all featured the canned Tin Pan Alley versions of “Irish” songs like those mentioned above, and nary a Mary Black song was even played on the radio. So, come the night. Mary Black took the stage to thunderous applause, and began to sing real traditional Irish songs like Anachie Gordon, but also modern classics like Farewell Farewell and Schooldays Over (written by Richard Thompson and Ewan MacColl respectively) and the crowd was confused. I kept hearing murmuring from around me, wondering when she was going to sing Danny Boy. She never did, of course. What she did do was to open up some folks ears to the true beauty of Ireland and its culture, and she put on one hell of a show. Later, the murmuring hordes bought CDs and cassettes by the handful at the concession table in the lobby. T’was a joyous evening spent.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monkey See, Monkey Do


When I first started writing columns for the Progress-Argus,  I wrote about things that were political in nature. Not because I like politics and am obsessed with the subject, because I do not,  and I am not.  In fact, it seems that politics have that less than laudatory ability to bring out the very worst in people.  I wrote about politics because balance was needed to counter a columnist whose viewpoint was  very hardcore conservative, and the paper was trying to change their image, an effort that has paid off in a better balance of thoughts, ideas and opinions.  When that columnist left, I was urged to write about more general topics, things that I found interesting.  For example, last year’s walk across the United States, where I met so many people of all ideologies and backgrounds that I have a memory storehouse full of some wild and wacky tales, as well as some ugly stuff.
But nothing I saw on the road, the devastation  in Joplin included, was as ugly as what is going in this country right now.  A parade of suits are all marching down the electoral runway in hopes of getting chosen as the nominee for the upcoming presidential election. Each suit, with one notable exception, has a hopeful candidate who is willing to stoop almost as low as a human being can stoop to dig up dirt on the others. Or, they pay their hired guns to run ads that are just repulsive in nature. It is ugly, and it is making this country look like the laughing stock of the world at a time when our image is already in a state of flux.
I’m not here to debate anyone about whether I think the president is doing a good job (I do, given what he has had to work with) or whether his likely opponent would do a good job if he is elected ( I have no idea) but I will say that the entire process is reaching critical mass and if the vile rhetoric does not stop soon, or calm down, there may well be a meltdown.  You can’t parade clowns around and call them dramatic actors.  Apparently the human ego is so overwhelmingly strong that it also adds blinders, which prevent those who are acting so foolishly in their pursuit of the highest office in the land that they cannot see how foolish they look.
Whether it is trying to legislate things like women’s reproductive rights, or contraception (who in their logical mind would have thought that contraception would be a political hot topic in the year 2012? What’s next—repealing the Emancipation Proclamation?) or still insisting that we have a president who was born on another continent, it is all too much.  We are supposed to move forward, not backward.
Josh Joffen, a songwriter I know, once wrote a song about politics, but instead of his characters wearing suits, they lived in the trees and ate bananas.  Here are a couple of lines…
“Off in the distance, what’s that I hear? Could it be this is an election year? There’s fussing and fighting, scratching and biting, all around the country the fur is flying. Monkey see, monkey do. I am a better monkey than you.  Let's have us an election and when we're through,  we'll see who gets the biggest banana.”
Sound familiar?