Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Last Bow for the Clown?

I must have not been paying attention, or had been sidetracked by work, so I missed the news that Jerry Lewis had been ousted as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, held each Labor Day weekend. He has hosted the event since 1966, and has raised countless millions of dollars for that very worthy cause. It seems wrong that he has basically received the television version of a pink slip.
As a child, probably starting with the very first telethon, I watched that thing. I know I was the one in our family who always insisted that we call and make the donation each year. I would dial the number on the phone while we were watching, wait for the operator to take our information, and then I would proudly say the amount of our donation, which was always ten dollars (hey, it was a different time) and wait for the operator to say thank you.
I would stay up all weekend watching that thing. I’d delight when an obscure performer would play something great at three AM, and I’d feel like it was played just for me. I was thrilled when Dean Martin and Jerry resolved their differences and had their big reunion on the telethon. I wouldn’t understand until many years later the rather sleazy undercurrents that ran in the Vegas entertainment world back then, the Rat Pack mentality and all that grown up stuff. I was a kid, and I got to watch a lot of top-notch (I thought) entertainment and all I had to do, or wanted to do, was make a little donation and sit back with my popcorn and snacks and enjoy it.
Then I started to get older, and my family fell apart. I still watched the telethon, even videotaped some of it, or rigged audio cassette players to record people I liked. Then gradually my interest faded away completely until I no longer watched at all. By the time I was 25, I was done.
Not so Jerry Lewis. Like a bunny on a battery commercial, every Labor Day Jerry would be out there, hustling, working it, getting those donations, making practically every year better than the one before. He seemed ageless. I’d see the news clips sometimes, when he would be singing his song, tears running down his face. I’d hear the jokes about how he was a national treasure in France, but a joke here. I’d hear the awful quips that some comedians made about “Jerry’s Kids” and I would never find them funny. How could I? I was too involved emotionally. A respect and a love for a guy who puts it all out there for the good of others doesn’t fade easily, if at all.
So now, it seems, the clown has made his last bow. In a world where athletes get to do a farewell tour of sorts after they announce they are retiring, after reaping the millions of dollars that fans pay them to hit a ball or something similar, it seems patently unfair and unjust to just dump a guy who has done so much for this world. Say what you will about his movies, or the era that spawned him. Hell, say what you will about France. The only thing I want to hear about Jerry is that he will be coming back for one last song. If he does, you know where I will be this Labor Day weekend.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

KM Column for the Jackson Progress-Argus

I recently walked across the country, a trek that took me the better part of 5 months. Upon my return, I learned the sad news that a friend of mine here in Butts County has decided to end her life, back in April, when I was still in the early days of my walk. Needless to say, this was terribly disturbing news, since I had sent her, and her co-workers a funny postcard back in June, and was visiting their workplace to see if they had liked it. I had seen no indications of any kind of depression when I last saw her in March. She was recently divorced, has just moved into her own place, and all seemed well.
What I found to be more disturbing, though, was the attitude of one of her co-workers. When I visited the place where they worked, this particular worker (someone that my friend never liked, and she told me so privately) took great and obvious delight in telling me the sad news. She also went out of her way to tell me that after my friend killed herself, the place where they work called in a counselor, who recommended a book called, (and this is telling) The Sociopath Next Door. This person then went so far as to put on a great big grin and tell me how much the book helped her get through it once she knew what the signs of sociopathic behavior are. She added tha5t my friend did indeed show all the signs.
I’ve known true sociopaths. My friend was not one of them. My friend had a lot of problems, including alcoholism, which was, as I understand it, directly involved in her demise , so any diagnosis of anything else must be filtered through that fact. For a counselor, who did not know my friend and who obviously did not talk to her, to make a summary judgment that she was a sociopath is unconscionable and unprofessional. And for this co-worker to go out of her way to slam the memory of a good and kind woman of wit and knowledge and humor and compassion is even worse, on a human level.
I just walked the better part of three thousand miles. I saw sights many people will never see. I met people, in places so wide ranging and wonderful that I will never forget. I talked with them, shared experiences with them, got to know them. With one exception (a rent-a-cop with an attitude in a gas station in Walnut Grove, Alabama), they were all truly wonderful people and I didn’t get a bad vibe or feeling from any of them. Then I return to my home city, and hear vicious words spoken about a friend of mine who took a drastic action one night in April, and put an end to a tortured life…a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Life is too short for this kind of bitterness. I wonder if the coworker saw signs of herself in that book….because speaking ill of the dead….just is not right…and not what human beings do.
Rest in peace, my friend.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Kathy M checks out....

I want to cry.
Back in Georgia, after five long months walking across the country. I want to cry.
I want to cry, not because my knee is hurting, or because my heart is not here, but in another place. Not for any of those reasons.
I want to shed a tear for Kathy.
She was my librarian, and my friend.
This is the story of Kathy M, and is also the story of how people can be so…callous, so unfeeling, that they generate an aura of pure pettiness.
Before I left on my walk, I walked to the library, back in mid March. My purpose: to meet Kathy there, for there were clandestine activities afoot. She was going to “fix” my library card.
A couple of years ago my car caught on fire, just like in the movies. It burned completely, leaving a frame and a Hershey’s Kiss shaped piece of aluminum sitting in the dirt. With a swipe of a rubber boot from a firefighter, it went sailing into the woods. Also gone, via inferno: my four new library books, just checked out that morning. Total fees due: 137 bucks. I couldn’t see paying that much for something that was not my fault, so I let it go. And with it my right to take books out of the library.
That didn’t stop me from going to the library, though, and browsing, chatting with the librarians there, and buying a zillion used books. While they were all professional, there were two, Billye and Kathy , who were really friendly, and who you really wanted to deal with at the counter when checking out books. They were both in their early 60’s, both very liberal in their politics, and very willing to spend a few minutes chatting away. Kathy was especially so, and we formed a kind of bond. She told me that she was going through a rough divorce from an abusive husband, and she needed to move. She told me she was an alcoholic, trying hard to stay sober, and for the most part I think she did, because I never once felt like she was inebriated to even the smallest degree.
When I was getting ready to leave on my walk, I asked for her address so I could send her a postcard from the road. She insisted I send it to all five librarians, and even went to the trouble of writing all their names down. She even included the name of one librarian, Diane, that she could not stand because she was always trying to get people in trouble.
She asked me why I never checked out any books, and I told her the story of the fire and the lost books. She told me to come back on a certain day, at a certain time, and she would fix my situation. The head librarian might not exactly approve, but he would be gone later. I promised to return. And, as promised, she did fix up my card so it would work again, no questions asked. A lovely gesture from a very nice woman.
So today, just back from the long adventure, I went to the library. I found a used book to purchase, and approached the desk. A young librarian, recognizing me, welcomed me back, and in hushed tones, asked me if I had heard what had happened to Kathy. I replied that I had not, and she was almost crying when she told me that Kathy had passed away. When I asked how, she told me that Kathy had gotten very drunk, back in April. She had then taken a bunch of pills, and had then put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. I was stunned and very upset at this news, and paid for my book while in the spinning thoughts haze of bad news that enveloped me. The librarian was very very sorry she told me so much detail but felt that since Kathy and I were friends, I ought to know.
I walked around. I saw another book that piqued my interest—a library book this time---and decided to test out my new card, courtesy of Kathy. I approached the desk, and instead of the young and friendly gal it was…the dreaded Diane who stepped forward.
We spoke of Kathy, and her decision. Diane completely blew my mind when she told me that the library had brought in a counselor to talk to everyone. She added that the counselor had recommended a book for the rest of them to read, called, and I could not believe my ears, “The Sociopath Next Door.” She smiled and said it really helped her to understand the nature of sociopaths. I replied that Kathy was not a sociopath at all, just an alcoholic. She stood firm in her belief that Kathy, who had gone out of her way to help me, and who had made sure I sent a postcard to ALL of them so as not to hurt feelings, was an uncaring and devious lunatic. And she made it a point to be as jolly as she could be whe reiterating how much the book had helped her. And she made me see exactly why Kathy couldnt stand her.
Rather than debate the psychological aspects of a woman who had obviously had a lot of problems, and who had applied a drastic, permanent solution to them, with a cold and spiteful human being, I thanked her and walked out of the library, my checked out book in hand. Checked out thanks to a friend who took a few minutes to help me.
So, Kathy M, you ought not to have done that. But you did, and I’m sorry for your pain, and that the new apartment you took across the street from the library, did not bring you the peace you so longed for. And I am sorry you had to work with someone so unfeeling and so cold. She must have recognised herself in a book recently……

Monday, August 15, 2011

The last summer of Joey Martin...

To the locals it was a big deal. To friends it was a puzzling, and bigger deal. To the family, it was a heartbreak, and to make it worse, it was unsolved. Biggest deal of all: find out what happened to Joey. As someone posted on Facebook today, a blurb from a television show about the case:
"In 1996, teenaged Joey Martin sneaks out of his bedroom window to watch a comet from a cabin in the woods-and disappears. Despite multiple leads, there is no sign of Joey until 2008 when a young detective uncovers the shocking story of Joey's fate."
And so it was, back in 1996, that Joseph Patrick Martin, fifteen years old then, and I guess one could say still fifteen years old, left the planet and entered into the collective consciousness of thousands of people who never met him in the flesh.
I lived in Joey’s town, then. I was just beginning a teaching career, working in the Hudson Valley’s Rondout Valley School system, the very district that Joey (and myself had, years earlier) attended. A small, farming and industrial community in the beginnings of its own death throes as big employers closed their doors and fled town. A small town with not a lot to do if you were a teenager with a wild hair.
Several comets had passed over in the years prior to Joey’s disappearance: Kohoutek, Halley’s, and, in 1996, Hale-Bopp, were all very interesting and visible, and when Joey left his house on that cold evening to go look at the comet with “friends” it would have not been an unusual event, given the dearth of entertainment available in Kerhonkson, New York.
So he left. Originally the people he was supposed to meet said that he never arrived, and the search began. For over a decade the search continued on some level, but family, friends and the law were stymied, and other than a few posters, annual vigils and other more or less symbolic acts, the trail went cold.
Then, in 2008, a cop revisits the case and talks to one of the two people that Joey was supposed to meet that night. An adult, this guy now lived in Brooklyn. He unexpectedly opened up the cold dead organ he called his heart and spilled his conscience all over the table. A few court appearances and trials later and the case was solved. Two scumbags, supposed “friends” who murdered a kid as revenge for a small weed rip-off, or something trivial. It doesn’t seem like the punishment fit the crime for Joey. But it did for the miscreants who killed him, and then shared a table and prayers with his family in the days and months after his “disappearance” and who got to live lives of their own for a while. They got to laugh, date, work at a job, make money, go fishing, get laid, all the things that young men do, while Joey’s bones lay crammed under a big rock in the woods, and later scattered in trash bins all over New York City. Their punishment is apt: prison sentences---loooong ones, and a life sentence with the label of “murderer” in front of their names. They will never be free of that, and every day that they look at their situation, they know how and why they are there.
When I was teaching I often got to substitute for an 8th grade English teacher named Buddy Clark. On his desk, neatly and forever tucked in a corner, was a vocabulary textbook, with the plain paper bag book cover still on it from the last student to use it. Written on that cover was a small note: To Mr. Clark: Have a good summer! Your friend, Joey Martin.”
Im guessing that Mr Clark still has that book somewhere, and that it still has that cover with its message.
We still have our memories of a nice kid, forever fifteen, as well. Rest in Peace , Joey, if you can.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hungry and outta luck in Tampa....

Put on your boots…it is going to get messy.
In typical fashion, with the big Republican National Convention scheduled for Tampa Bay next year, the basic rights of American citizens have been shoved aside in an attempt to make the picture as rosy as can be.
Im talking about a story that appeared in the paper this week, here in Tampa. It would seem that a permit is now required to feed homeless and hungry people. Can you imagine? After six years of doing good work, a married couple, Dennis and Nancy Holt, along with a loosely organized church group, have been feeding the homeless in a city owned parking lot, at 7 AM, daily, giving out bagels, OJ, coffee, and more. Now, the city says they have to secure a permit to feed human beings in need of food. The police actually moved in last weekend and shut down the Holts’ impromptu breakfast buffet. They were told they needed a permit to feed the homeless. Only one problem to that: there are no permits available to feed the homeless. Apparently it is a gray area, according to another volunteer “feeder” who was ordered to stop several years ago, and who took the issue up with the then-mayor. That mayor took it upon herself to order the police to leave the feeders alone. Now, however, it is a different mayor and a different time.
One excuse that has been put forward is that the city of Tampa has not enacted the same tough anti-panhandling laws that others have put into place, and as a result the homeless population here has swelled to large proportions. That may well be, but it does not address the simple fact that people have to eat. Not allowing volunteers to feed hungry people isn’t going to make them go away. It is just going to make them hungrier and more likely to commit crimes, or even more likely to get sick or die. The early hour that they are being fed should not have much effect on traffic, and since they are basically being handed food and beverages, and then leave, the amount of time spent on the site is minimal. PLUS it has been going on for six years with no problems. If it was anything more than bureaucratic nonsense that was getting in the way, there is a good chance that no one would even be aware of this story.
It happens all the time. A bunch of suits and big money fat cats come to a city. The city wants to put on the best face possible for the national media that follows those fat cats. Thus, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill are scooped up, swept under the rugs, so to speak, and everything appears to be shiny and new. Except for the fact that they are still there, and out of sight, which means out of mind as well. It doesn’t matter if it is a Republican Convention, a Democratic Convention, a Shriners Convention, or any other large deal.
It is possible that someone privately will allow the Holts to carry on, on private property, but who wants the publicity or the hassles from the city?
I wonder if the city will adapt some of the signs that are all around the zoos and Busch Gardens. “Do Not Feed the Homeless”.
These are human beings. People. Hungry people down on their luck.
Shame on you, Tampa.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Gift from MItt

A lesson for Republicans: don’t try to fight a battle of wits when you are unarmed.
Case in point: Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, and he of the perfect hair and magic underpants. At the Iowa State Fair, where it can be inferred that tens of thousands of regular folks go for good times and cheap entertainment, old Mitt shows up on his campaign trail and immediately sticks his foot in his mouth, alongside the sno-cones and fried dough. He also ably demonstrated the ever-widening chasm and the disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in this country.
“Corporations are people!” he exclaimed.
Ummmm, no, they are not. People are people. Corporations are large entities established for many reasons, including as a way to shelter “people” from liabilities. The other ways they differ from human beings are many and well known.
Suffice it to say that a statement like Romney’s only goes to further show the disdain that the right has for the common man and is part of the reason that the middle class has almost disappeared in this country.
They have allowed corporate greed to replace common decency. For some inexplicable reason, they choose to lionize the criminals who run these corporations, and whose every word seems to be covered in greasy slime as they lie, twist and spin and basically run roughshod over the laws of this country. They have managed to turn this country into their personal Monopoly game, and the bank is just about empty for the majority of us less skilled or devious players. Suits and haircuts like Romney, Newt Gingrich, that moral hypocrite, and others, bring nothing to the table that will help feed the average American.
What is sadder still: despite the obvious scorn for the common man, the right will still convince millions of voters that they are the good guys. If people actually thought about what was being said, and questioned it, as a brave spectator did in Iowa when he heard the drivel coming out of the former governor’s mouth, then there would be no contest. Still, if Romney is the front runner for the Republicans, then he may well have just handed the President his second term in office. On a golden platter.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Laugh til it Hurts!

Well, when you're down in the dumps, nothing beats a night at a comedy club.
I wasn't in the dumps, but if I had been, Id be declaring myself cured at this moment. All because of a very cool and relaxing night out at the Improv, in Ybor City, a cool retro-Cuban section of Tampa, Florida. Now, I AM aware that most people have been to a comedy club at some point, including myself, and sometimes the humor is run of the mill, sometimes transcendant, and sometimes you will see something you have not seen before, as I did this night.
Tonight, I experienced the strange and over the top world of Pretty Paul Parsons.
I've seen them all in one way or another---George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and so on, but never have I spent a night saying, "Oh, no, he didn't" as many times as I did this evening. Following stellar sets by Jim Choquette and Susan Saiger, the sixty something Parsons, clad in a navy blue jumpsuit ambled onstage. He then began to rattle off jokes like this one:
Oh, hell, this is a family blog, and I cant repeat that one. Well, the one about the bald headed....crap, I cant tell you that one either. In fact, about the only one I can repeat here has more to do with racist attitudes than hilariously perverted shots at every group from Catholic priests to farmers and goats. And I wont repeat it here either. His act went on and on, each joke more vile and hilarious than the one before, with a few clunkers thrown in for good measure, almost a relief from the sidesplitting laughter of the ones previously told.
This isn't intended as an advert for Paul Parsons. It's not even an advert for the Improv. The full house this evening tells me that they dont need my help, and neither does Pretty Paul Parsons, or Susan Saiger or Jim Choquette, for that matter.
What it is, though, is an advert for comedy, that incredible gift to us all. In a world where every damned thing seems to be involving war, violence, poverty, and all of the other sorry situations we hear about every day, we need all the laughs we can get.
Next time you are tired of the world as it is, head out for an evening at a comedy club. You dont have to see a Pretty Paul Parsons, or any other established stars. The MC for the show tonight,a local guy whose name I did not get, sadly, was almost as funny on his own level as Parsons was. Funny is funny, no matter who is preaching it.
Laugh like hell, groan just as loudly, and enjoy life. Its a gift.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sir.

Today is the president’s birthday. Marilyn Monroe will not be singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to him, but we all should be.
He has done a remarkable job of moving the country forward when so many are trying to hold it back.
Putting party politics aside, when someone is elected to the highest and most important office in the land, maybe in the world, for that matter, he should be given the respect and cooperation due him, or her. Almost since day one the party that was defeated has been resisting his efforts to fix the huge mess that was here. They scream that he is spending the country into oblivion, and yet, in the corporate world that backs that party, it is common practice and knowledge that you have to spend money to make money. They scream that he is soft on illegal immigration. They scream when he tried to reform health care, even though he left their beloved insurance companies involved in the mix. They trot out the same old candidates and their old and backward ideas for the next election. The only time you heard a good word about the president uttered by that party is when he did something that they could relate to: he authorized the use of deadly force against Osama Bin Ladin. After Bin Ladin was killed, then all of a sudden old Barry O wasn’t so bad. Then, that memory faded pretty quickly and it was back to the same old same old.
No president is perfect, and no president is going to please everybody, but this man is doing a fine job of fixing a lot of broken stuff and should be given credit where it is due. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t loved by everyone, even after pulling us out of the Depression and creating a New Deal that restored confidence in the US and made us a super-power once again. We elected him four times. Need I say more?
So, today, as the president celebrates half a century on this planet, lets give him a break from the ridiculous name calling and rhetoric and just wish him a happy day, allow him to enjoy it with his lovely family, and as a gift, cut him the slack he needs to do the job we elected him to do. Its always easier to do good things when you have the backing of the people.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Agony of the feet.....

It is still a form of culture shock sometimes, for me, living the life of a poor American. That is to say, a typical American. The haves and the have-nots all live here, and to many the difference is hard to tell.
I never feel the divide as strongly as when I try to get that most basic and fundamental right of all---health care.
Yesterday, while visiting friends in Mammoth Lakes, California, an outwardly upscale but basically typical American town, I had the need for a doctor. Because after finishing a 2800 mile walk, my foot was very badly swollen and I began to worry that a severe infection was going to possibly cost me the foot if left untreated. My hostess took me to the local clinic, where it was announced by the receptionist that just to get in to see the doctor would be anywhere from two hundred to almost four hundred dollars. Of course the dreaded question was asked, “Who is your insurance provider?” and they received the same dreaded answer, ” I have no insurance.” It was also announced for the second time that payment was expected at the time of service. We couldn’t justify that kind of money, nor did we have that kind of money and I opted for the old standby—the Emergency Room at Mammoth Hospital. There, I received a brief checkup that consisted of a blood pressure check, a temperature check (where a gizmo was swiped across my forehead and I was told that I had no fever) and that was it. After a few minutes an X-ray tech took me in and three x-rays were taken of the foot. A doctor then came to see me, asked me a few questions, looked at the X-rays, and after a short while told me that I had a stress fracture, would need no antibiotics and basically if I just took ibuprofen and didn’t do too much walking it would heal. And that was it.
This all happened before any mention of payment, or insurance. When I told them that I had no insurance, there was no big gasp, or exaggerated reaction. A woman from the billing office came in and ran down some options for me, and I will try to make payments as I can, in installments. Where I have a problem is that no one could tell me how much the bill was. A cursory checkup, three e-rays, and a non-prescription should only run me a hundred bucks or less.
Back to that divide that I mentioned. It has happened many times in the past as well. It is almost as if the insurance companies have managed to make their “product” so desirable and such a symbol of status that those of us who can’t afford it are mere peasants. I actually feel ashamed and embarrassed to tell the receptionist that I have no health insurance. In reality, I am very angry that insurance companies have all of the power that they do, because insurance at its most basic level is just you, the consumer, paying money on speculation that something is going to happen. You pay your money, and nothing happens. You keep paying money, and nothing happens. Then, when something DOES happen, the insurance companies dont want to cover it because it means they dont get to keep all of your money. It is so fundamentally screwed up that it is almost criminal.
So we go through life hoping we don’t get sick, or hurt. Yesterday I went to the medical office with nothing more than a broken foot, a slightly broken foot at that. I will undoubtedly receive a bill for 4 or 5 hundred dollars for a medic, albeit a very pleasant and kindly medic, to tell me what I basically already knew. In all of the avenues of American life, the medical arena seems to be the one where we get the very least value for our money. Let me re-phrase that: we do not get our money’s worth.
And its one aspect of daily living that makes me ashamed of this country, My friends from other countries who are here now still lament what they left, and I cant say I blame them. Do we need to make that tradeoff? I think not. Health care should not bring a feeling of shame.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Overeaters Anonymous: the meeting

So tonight Jim, formerly large fellow, attended an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
I was visiting the local library in a small town near where I am staying on the west coast. The meeting was being held there and I was invited to attend. I accepted. I had envisioned that the meetings were a big group of people , or a group of big people, all there to cry on each other’s shoulders. Maybe that is the case in some places, but this is a small town and there were only a couple of people there, and I made three.
There is a format to the meetings, which open, and close. with the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the power to change what I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” It is the standard prayer used at all so called twelve step programs, from the original Alcoholics Anonymous to Narcotics Anonymous and so on. A list of the tenets of the group is read, and focus is given on one or more of them, almost as a reminder. Small donations are voluntarily offered up for expenses and then, after the formal part of the meeting is taken care of, it is open floor time. This is where the attendees introduce themselves, tell what their problem is, i.e. “I’m a compulsive overeater” and go on to relate things that happened to them over the time since their last meeting. This evening, a lovely, not overly large woman told about how she has been waking in the middle of the night and has been making peanut butter on toasted bread. It is a habit she has been visiting for a while, and I can relate. I used to wake at odd hours in the night and eat a bowl of cereal, and I would also, at times make a peanut butter sandwich. I related this at the meeting and a dialogue of sorts opened up.
While I have heard that some of these type meetings can turn overtly religious, with a “higher power” being recognized in all of us, and before which we are all powerless, I did not feel it was brought up too much or too strongly this night. Granted, there were only three of us there, but what did happen was that a nice, and I feel productive three-way discussion opened up.
The meetings are a way to find that shoulder if one is needed. They are a place to commiserate with others in the same boat, and to find solutions through talking about what is going on. For a species of animal that can express ourselves through speech, we waste our voices on so much crap sometimes that we don’t hear the things we need to hear. We speak but do not listen. Here, people do listen, even small groups of three.
That can’t be a bad thing. It could come off too “churchy” for some people, but it does put everyone in the same frame of reference. Higher power? To me it is my brain, and the nature that created me. To others, it is God, or another deity. No matter. The problem to be solved is still the same—an addiction. And this approach is at least an attempt to work with it, and any step in the right direction is a good step.
Im glad I went. And I even get it that there were no coffee and donuts. That is for the “Cops Anonymous” meeting.