Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On Life, Death, Baseball and Lynn Samuels

End of the year stories often end up as lists of the "best of this", and the "worst of that", and so on. In fact, though it is common practice for most newspapers and magazines to run their own big fat editions with bloated versions of the ten best, and worst lists, these editions are usually just boring retreads, and barely readable.
It wasn’t any list that had a lasting effect on me this year. It was, sadly, two deaths,of two completely different types of people that really gave me pause to think about the very nature of both life and death.
Life: it's not just the physical actions of breathing, eating, walking, loving, and sleeping. Life is best defined as the maximizing of each waking moment, doing things that are fun, and that make you, and other people happy. For some people, myself included, in my childhood and early adulthood,the game of baseball WAS life itself. I lived it, breathed it, even once rode my bicycle 22 miles to play in a Babe Ruth League baseball game, having forgone a trip to Las Vegas with my dad, just to get my turns at bat. Later, I tried out, unsuccessfully, for the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. A blown out shoulder and less than stellar running speed were my undoing, but my passion for the game was as strong as ever. This was evidenced by the dozens of Yankee and Mets games I drove hundreds of miles to attend. I almost always brought a glove with the hope of catching a foul ball hit into the stands. After all, catching a foul ball was akin to winning the lottery to a kid. At the very first baseball game my dad took me to, in 1971, the New York Yankees were playing the Washington Senators. My dad and I had seats in the upper reserve section behind home plate in the old Yankee Stadium. A foul ball was hit right at my dad, who had his hands held in the basket position ready for that as-precious-as-gold bit of horsehide and yarn to settle itself into them. I still remember how my pulse raced and how all sound seemed to hush as the ball arced its way up, and then down…smack into the single, meaty hand of some hotshot who stuck his arm up right in front of my dad’s waiting grasp. For the rest of the game all I could think of was that baseball and all my dad could do was keep asking the guy to give up the ball so I could have it for a souvenir. I think he even offered him 20 bucks, but it was not to be. Ironically, it wasn’t until many years later that I finally got a foul ball, hit by Bobby Murcer, that bounced into the stands and pinballed around the floor under the seats until it bumped up against my foot, where I skillfully bent over and picked it up. No pulse racing, no hand reaching over to grab it—just me and a baseball. And the thrill of a lifetime.
It was with that thrill still somewhere in my memory that I read the sad story of Shannon Stone, a good and kind man, a fireman, and father, who had taken his young son, Cooper, to a Texas Rangers baseball game this past July. At the game, another good and kind man, a ballplayer named Josh Hamilton, tossed a foul ball to Shannon Stone, for his son. His throw was a bit off and when Shannon Stone reached to catch it, he toppled over a railing and fell many feet to the concrete floor below. As he was being carried out on a stretcher, still conscious, he was asking that people take care of his son, who was now alone a deck above. Sadly, Shannon died from his injuries, leaving what should have been a beautiful memory for his son, Cooper, as a nightmare instead.
What struck me so about this incident was the reaction of Shannon’s mother, SuZann Stone. Recalling the joy that her own son had once felt when her husband, Al, caught a foul ball for Shannon himself many years earlier, she was intuitive enough to realize that there was another victim of the tragedy---Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, understandably, had stopped tossing balls to fans. SuZann related to a reporter what she had written in a note to Josh Hamilton. She said, “Shortly after the accident, there was some discussion about whether foul balls should be thrown into the stands to the fans. I wrote to Josh Hamilton, and I said: ‘Please, don't stop throwing those balls. Because that's so important. That's why daddies bring their little boys to the ballgame... for memories like that. Please don't stop.’"
Her grandson was dead. Josh Hamilton was traumatised. But SuZann Stone knew that life is more than flesh and blood. Hopefully she got the message clear to the heart and mind of Josh Hamilton. She sure got through to me. Life is so much more than the physical actions that make it work.
Death: There were a lot of celebrity deaths this year, Amy Winehouse being the most egregious case of a life wasted, pun inferred but not intended. It wasn’t Winehouse whose passing really bothered me, though. It was the Christmas Eve heart attack death of Lynn Samuels. If you lived in New York anytime in the last 40 years, you knew who Lynn Samuels was. Her New Yawk Jewish accent sounded like exaggerations of both aspects but it was her real voice, a one of a kind sound that was immediately recognizable and definitely NOT for radio, which is, in this ironic world, exactly where it would be heard for decades.
She was crude and crass. She leaned politically left but opined the other way at times. She loved alt-rock but her last theme song was ABBA’s poppy little ditty "Nina Ballerina". She lived alone, comparing herself to a bag lady at times, but it all seemed to be an act to the casual listener. To real fans, as I was, she was the real deal. We knew. Of course, radio isn’t the largest medium, and save for Howard Stern and a few others, it is more of a pleasant distraction, even for real fans. And so when Lynn Samuels lost her regular weekday gig and was moved to weekends several months ago, I didn’t make the effort to listen to her as much, and I am sorry for that. When her co-worker, Alex Bennett, made the announcement, via Facebook on Sunday that Lynn had passed away sometime early Saturday, it came as a huge shock. As details hit the press, about Lynn not responding to a cue for her show, broadcast from her home on an ISDN line, and how Sirius radio sent someone to check on her, only to find her dead of an apparent heart attack, all alone, I became even more pensive.
She used to talk of retirement. She loved and yet hated the city, or what it has become, and had travelled a lot in search of a place to retire in comfort. The list seemed to be down to either Scottsdale, Arizona or Charleston, South Carolina. Callers were encouraging her to move, to get out of New York and do her show from her new digs where she would be comfortable, but she always had an excuse. I figured that the move to weekends would probably be the last straw before she left for her golden years in a sunny clime. Instead, she breathed her last in a cramped apartment in Queens, in a neighborhood that she called little Ecuador. I’m not sure that she knew what life was all about anymore. Maybe I don’t have it exactly right, but dying alone in a cramped apartment isn’t life. It isn’t even death. It’s just sad.
There is no big conclusion to be drawn from these deaths. People die all the time. But it is how they died that makes the lives they lived more or less meaningful in our minds, or at least gives us a little insight into their world. Shannon Stone died while trying to make his son happy. Lynn Samuels died alone in a place she despised. She made the choice, of course, but that doesn't change the sad ending to her story.
So as the year ends, there are no lists. Instead, I leave you with a quote from Bob Dylan, who said in his Academy Award acceptance speech: "...bless you all with peace tranquility and good will."
And to that I add life---heavy on the life, to us all in the new year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Freedom of Speech: Ours to Lose

Is it “Freedom of Speech” or “Freedom of Speech…as long as you don’t say too much?”
The Internet has sure changed the game, hasn’t it? Where once responsible writing and journalism were the expected behavioral norm, now, it appears that with the increased exposure and freedom, and by extension greater power, come greater irresponsibility.
It may have been intended to be funny. Someone with too much time on his or her hands thought that declaring that musician/philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi was dead at age 49, a few days before Christmas, was somehow a good idea. On its face it was shocking and terrible news—a man who, by all accounts is a good man, a generous public figure and a husband and father with a fine reputation both in his community and in the world community---was dead of mysterious causes. Deeper thought about it only makes the fraud worse---he has a wife and children who might have been browsing the web—what would their reaction be if they had, for whatever reasons, not seen him all day? Imagine the panic that would have set in. The man also has literally millions of fans and admirers, including a lot of very young teenaged girls, especially, who might have reacted badly, and who might have injured themselves, or worse.
It’s not the first time that something like this has happened on the internet---it’s just the most recent. A recent court ruling states that so called “bloggers” (“blog” is short for “web log”) are NOT subject to the protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution where journalists are concerned. In short, just because you go online and write a regular posting (your humble columnist is among this group) does NOT make you a journalist. When you work for a newspaper, or magazine, or radio and TV, and some internet sites, you are protected (your humble columnist was also a newspaper reporter in New York for years, and as such was subject to those very same rights) as long as you are careful to check your facts and be able to back them up. As a reporter, it was my job to tell the story of whatever I was assigned to cover, from local town board meetings to criminal activity. As a columnist here, (writer of opinion pieces that incorporate facts with my own thoughts) I still must adhere to the rules of journalism. I am free, as everyone is, to voice my opinions, but the facts that inform them must be valid and true, or I, and more importantly, the newspaper, could be subject to lawsuits for libel.
Bloggers on the internet have no such restriction, excepting themselves. Oh, it is possible to sue someone for libel, but after the fact it is akin to prosecuting someone for stealing your car and wrecking it. You make them accountable eventually, but the damage is done. A car is a car, but a reputation is altogether different, and if someone ruins it by writing blatant untruths, it can ruin a life, or lives.
Our freedom of speech is maybe our greatest freedom. To exploit it in such stupid ways is the real crime because too much abuse might make it go away, and if that happens, we are no better than those we deride for their more restrictive societies.
So, happily, may Jon Bon Jovi live forever, and the same wish to our First Amendment rights.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kramden on Kristmas

It was a much bigger deal when I was a kid. Early on, I remember big trees with a truckload of presents for my sister and myself, all crammed under the lights and ornaments and fake snow, which smelled awful and tasted worse. Then, after tearing through the gifts, wrapping paper covering every square inch of the living room, we would run out into the real snow of the Adirondack mountains and make snow angels and forts and we could see the smoke rising from every chimney in Brainardsville, New York. It was pretty special.
Then life happened and as we got older our family fell apart, so Christmas was kind of awkward, and became something to be endured rather than celebrated. One part of the day was spent at my dad’s, where I lived, and the other at my mother’s, where my sister lived. Those Christmases were not fun, and I would have rather just not bothered. But that was a long time ago, and a million miles away. These days, I don’t really celebrate the day, but a strange thing has happened. I really appreciate the day. Not for religious reasons—I’m not religious—but for the outpouring of infectious goodwill and joy that I see it brings to other people. I like the music—Christmas songs have the most beautiful melodies—Do You Hear What I Hear?, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, Oh Holy Night, those tunes are timeless and achingly beautiful, and modern Christmas songs like Happy Christmas(War is Over) by John and Yoko Lennon, and I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake are also big favorites.
I also used to like to watch the classic Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer on television. The man who wrote it lived near my house in upstate New York. His name was Romeo Muller, and he looked exactly like the Santa character on the show. In the summers he would drove around in a big convertible car and it always seemed like High Falls, New York was Santa’s summer home because we would see Mr. Muller in his car.
Maybe my favorite Christmas memory, though, is a small part of another old television show. I was an avid fan of the Honeymooners, and watching Ralph and Alice and the Nortons was a nightly event for years. Though there were only thirty nine shows made, and one of them was a Christmas show, called The Night Before Christmas. In that show, as usual, Ralph does something stupid, and has to do a mea culpa at the end, while pacing the floor, nervous at what Alice is going to say. This time though, the story line ends with a happy note, and Ralph gets to wax philosophical rather than apologetic. To this day it remains my favorite meditation on the season, and I can repeat it from memory. And thanks to Youtube, I can now watch it anytime I want to, which is often.
Ralph: "You know something, sweetheart? Christmas is -- well, it's about the best time of the whole year. You walk down the streets, even for weeks before Christmas comes, and there's lights hanging up, green ones and red ones. Sometimes there's snow. And everybody's hustling some place. But they don't hustle around Christmastime like they usually do. You know, they're a little more friendlier -- if they bump into you, they laugh, and they say 'Pardon me' and 'Merry Christmas.' Especially when it gets real close to Christmas night. Everybody's walking home; you can hardly hear a sound. Bells are ringing; kids are singing; snow is coming down. And boy, what a pleasure it is to think that you've got someplace to go to. And the place that you're going to has somebody in it that you really love. Someone you're nuts about. Merry Christmas."
My sentiments exactly. Merry Christmas, everyone.

My Friends Steve

I want to tell you about my friend Steve.
But first, I must mention that I have never met him.
This summer, while walking across the country, I received a friend request on Facebook. From my friend, Steve. I did not recognize his name, but a quick scan of his profile told me than he was a young man from right here in Jackson, Georgia. I accepted his request and we began a brief correspondence. He told me how he had been inspired by the story of my walking across the country, and how I was directly responsible for him joining the same gym of which I am a member. We had a brief dialogue about how to lose weight, and he told me how he had lost a certain amount of poundage. I encouraged him to keep it up, and gave him some tips about dietary changes he needed to make. And then we gradually lost contact, and by the end of my walk I had all but forgotten him.
Back in Jackson, life continued. Across the street from my place of business, a nondescript triangle of grass and dirt in the middle of an intersection began to change, transformed by hardworking men into something quite different. The early word I had heard was that it was to be a memorial park to fallen soldiers. I didn’t pay it much attention until it was close to completed, and the black marble slabs that would eventually contain the names of soldiers were in place. To be honest, I had thought that the world didn’t need yet another tribute to dead soldiers. But I admired how pretty the thing was becoming.
When it was almost complete, I noticed that each day, a man with a cane would linger around the park, watching the men who would eventually sandblast the names into the marble. It is a very intricate process, with rubber stencils with the names and information already on the stencils, computer generated, I suppose, and then adhered to the stone with something sticky. I was fascinated, and dismayed at the number of soldiers whose names were on those slabs of marble. I approached the man with the cane and asked him if he had lost someone on the wall. He informed me that he was actually waiting to see his own name engraved. He showed me where his name was on the stencils, and it was then that I realized that the park wasn’t for the dead as much as it was for the living, and that it was a beautiful tribute not to martyrs, but to the brave men and women still with us, and able to appreciate the deserved tribute.
I looked at his name. It was the same name as my young friend Steve. I asked about the coincidence, and the older man told me that my friend Steve was his son, Steve Junior. I related our brief correspondence of the summer and he stopped me in my tracks and proceeded to tell me some very nice things that his son had told him about me. It was good to hear that I truly had had a positive impact on a young man.
So Steve the elder now has his name proudly displayed, honoring his service to our nation. And I still have not met young Steve, but yesterday I did receive the following message from him on Facebook:
“Hey Mr. Jim, my Dad was diagnosed yesterday with stomach cancer...we were supposed to go to the Atlanta VA tomorrow but they don’t have any beds available.”
It is Christmas time, folks. Please, in addition to the flatscreens and expensive toys that are going to be gifted this year, please remember to send out some prayers and good thoughts for my friends, Steve. Both of them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Day John Fogerty Spoke to the Vietnam veterans

We call them by the generic and overused but righteous name of “hero” now. They fight for us, keeping us free and safe from evildoers. They put it all on the line, and sometimes, sadly, they lose it all. As a Veterans Memorial Park across the street from where I write this says, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All”. In 2011 , soldiers are somewhere on the pedestal next to Jesus and Mom and Pop. It wasn’t always that way though, not by a long shot. I’m talking about soldiers---the men and women who fight for this country and do not question their orders.
They used to be called “babykillers”, “thugs”, “murderers”, and more. They were spat upon in airports, attacked, and castigated, and after their particular war, the conflict in Viet Nam, often had a hard time returning to a society that treated them like outcasts. And many of them had been drafted into service, against their will, where they did honorable jobs doing very dishonorable acts. And some gave the title of soldier a bad name: witness the My Lai Massacre, and other atrocities. War itself is an atrocity, though, and it was a time where the divide between the young , anti-war and politically left leaning students and the older, pro-war factions fromtheir parents’ generation were at greater odds than ever before. The summer of love, Woodstock, and several political assassinations, along with the daily body counts from the war had rocked the world like never before.
And speaking of rock, it was rock and roll music that was the soundtrack for the era, and the war, and groups like the Doors, and Crosby, Stills and Nash provided the music that will forever be associated with that time and place. Certainly hindsight helps—Apocalypse Now, for instance—Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the Doors still resonates, as did Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon, with the line, “we passed the hash pipe, and played our Doors tapes…”
There was one act, though, whose songs really burned themselves into a nation’s soul, no matter which side you were on: Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty, he of the odd hair and flannel shirts---wrote songs as tuneful and smart as anyone, and the general appeal of his music meant that he had fans on both sides of the aisle, much as Bruce Springsteen would have a few years later. I’ve known many the diehard rich Republican who loves the song called Fortunate Son, even though it is directly and pointedly about his party, and not in a good way at all.

And so it came to be that more than a decade after the Vietnam war had ended, the soldiers, now veterans, were still being called baby-killers. Slowly, though, as information gradually came to light---information about some of the sinister misdeeds that the powers that lead had conjured up, information about the use of chemicals like Agent Orange and other health damaging substances, and conditions at home, the collective consciousness of the country began to change, and the plight of Vietnam vets, many of them homeless and unable to help themselves, became more and more clear to the general public. Someone came up with the idea of holding a concert, as a way to welcome home the Vietnam vets in rousing fashion, and as a way to say, “Mea culpa” and try to at least begin a healing process.

It was to take place in Landover, Maryland, on the perfect date: the 4th of July, 1987. The Vietnam War had been over for some 13 years, but the veterans who had fought in it, and who had been so publicly demonized for their part in a war that the United States had no right even being involved in, were still carrying a lot of baggage. Emotionally, it was still a very rough time. Physically it was even worse for many, with crutches, canes and wheelchairs all in abundance, as the vets walked, rolled and hobbled into the Capital Center for a benefit concert to honor them, and to raise to help homeless vets.
The lineup for the concert was impressive. Among those who were scheduled to perform were Lou Gossett Jr., Peter Fonda, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, James Ingram, Anita Baker, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Richie Havens, , and John Fogerty.
Fogerty especially was a surprise because he had rarely played in public for many years, being held almost prisoner of a draconian contract that would not allow him to play any of his own songs, classics which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). He had recently released an album, Centerfield, containing all new material, his first in ten years, and he was just beginning to make public appearances in support of it. He even had early legal problems with the new album because of one song, called Zanz Kant Danz, a less than thinly veiled jab at record company honcho, and the source of Fogerty’s misery, Saul Zaentz. Zaentz, who owned Fantasy Records, CCR’s label, sued Fogerty for plagiarizing himself, a novel concept, claiming that The Old Man Down the Road, one of the new songs, shared a chorus with Run Through the Jungle, a classic CCR song that, while written by Fogerty, was copyrighted by Fantasy Records. Lawsuits went back and forth, with Fogerty winning reimbursement for his attorneys fees, and Zaentz getting a bit of redemption for his defamation of character suits due to Zanz Kant Danz (Zanz kant danz but he’ll steal your money,” the lyrics read) and another song called Mr. Greed.
The concert, called the Welcome Home Concert, was meant to be a feel good event. Veterans were admitted free. It was broadcast on HBO, who opened their signal to all for free. Various speakers like Lou Gossett Jr, who had played a Vietnam pilot in a film, and who came of age in the 60’s, addressed the crowd, as did many artists, writers, poets and others.
It was John Fogerty, though, who took things up a notch. After a slightly strange introduction by Peter Fonda, “Here is a guy who believes in his music…I believe in his music…and that belief has cost him over the years…but he’s refused to sell out…..so for some of the most KICKASS (nods head) ROCK AND ROLL ANYWHERE… here’s JOHN FOGERTY!”
Shortly after this, you could hear a sound man say loud and clear: “This is gonna blow your mind!”

Fogerty and band hit the stage, and broke into the opening notes to the new song Old Man Down the Road, playing them over and over until it almost seemed that he had forgotten the words. It was widely becoming known that he would not play any CCR songs due to his legal troubles with Fantasy, and Saul Zaentz. But then the band slowed down and gradually just stopped playing, leaving a feedback drone in the air which suddenly and skillfully turned into the introduction to Born on the Bayou, a Creedence standby. The audience, who had been sitting on their hands for the most part, went nuts. The song finished without a word, and was immediately followed by Down on the Corner, another instantly recognizable classic from the CCR oeuvre, and then, after huge applause, Fogerty spoke.
“I just want to tell you something real short…and sweet. I’m talking to the vets here….I myself have gone through about twenty years of pain…and I finally faced that pain. I looked it in the face and said well… You got a choice…you can do it for twenty more years or you can say, well, that’s what happened. You can’t change it that’s just what happened. So I’m telling you guys, it’s what happened…you got the shaft. You know it, we know it. It’s reality. So drop it. In fact, send me a letter…Berkeley, California…but you promise me something…you send the letter--- you drop it in the box and then you drop all that shit you been carrying around. Is that a deal? And get on with it buddy.
The applause that followed this impromptu little sermon wasn’t as vigorous or as loud as it had been for the music. I recall sitting and thinking that he was somewhat off base, comparing his legal contractual problems to those very real and very onerous issues that the vets were facing, and that it was not going to make him look like anything more than a spoiled musician who had lost touch with reality. But the music…the music that he played, both before and after his little speech was so profound in its power and beauty that all was forgotten and tacitly forgiven. As I listened to my recording of that day many times over the years, though, I still always felt a little embarrassed for Fogerty every time the speech part played. I wondered if anyone else ever thought about it, or felt the same way as had, or was everyone just caught up in the moment, and had disregarded it completely?
Then I discovered several posts on Youtube of the segment, and the commentary following them is divinded and telling. I was not alone in feeling both the power of the music and the doubt as to whther Fogerty shold have said what he said.
Samples: Richmullinax said: I was there for this, 7/4/87 and it was one of the best rock-n-roll experiences of my life. He had a strict policy of NOT playing CCR tunes, except for the induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the previous year and one other guest appearance a few years previous. We had NO IDEA he was going to pull this stuff out! NO ONE expected CCR material! The sound guy in the back ground was right. it DID blow our minds!
A newspaper reviewer added the following in the days after the concert: That blunt advice (Fogerty telling the vets to drop it and to get on with life) marked the only time that the participants in the concert…didn't coddle the veterans, and it came as a bracing tonic amid the prevailing blandness.

From some veterans themselves came bitterness:
“I guess it’s easy for someone who was not even there to casually say ‘Hey, just forget it’ I doubt it is that simple John.” said one, using the name blackbeltpatriotism, as a comment to a blog entry in 2010.

Said another, treehot16: “I always liked CCR until I saw this clip. Still like the others in the group, but Fogerty has no idea what he is talking about. Been forty years, but the pain is still there. Thank God for the VA. I’m still alive.
Randymemphis said: Yes, I reckon he could have held back his thoughts on this one. Never tell someone how or what they should feel, If you have never walked in THEIR shoes.
So, opinions were divided. Some felt Fogerty, who had joined the reserves back in the 60’s as a way to avoid getting drafted, should have kept his mouth shut. Some people resent being told how to feel about an issue, especially when they are knee deep in it. Others feel, as I do, that once a certain amount of time has passed, that it is time to move on. We mourn our dead, adjust, and move on. That is exactly what I think John Fogerty was saying on that day almost 25 years ago. Then too, the Vietnam war was the most recent conflict. Now, in 2011, we have several wars of more recent vintage to ponder, and we have thousands more dead, and it still goes on and on. It may never stop.
But as long as wars are fought, and powerful music is made, I hope that common sense thinkers like John Fogerty will still be around to keep it real. And as long as soldiers continue to fight for the right to speak freely, the circle will remain unbroken.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The murder should NOT be televised...

Recent world events have gotten me to pondering the responsibility of the very institution of which I am a part. I am referring to the media, and in particular those outlets that report the news of the world.
I was appalled this week to hear of the killing of Moammar Gaddafi. For a country who are interested in democracy, summarily torturing and executing someone is not a very good first step, but it is what happened. What was more appalling to me was the media, who felt the need to broadcast various videos that were shot with what appear to be camera phones. They did not just show photographs of a deposed dictator’s dead body, but live action of Gaddafi being punched, dragged to the ground by the hair, kicked and stomped, and most revoltingly, sodomized with a long knife, as he shrieks and falls to his knees in agony. At times the camera is so close to his bloody head and face that I’m surprised his blood didn’t smear the lens. It is also possible that his murder was filmed as well, but the video is very jerky and there is a constant rat-a-tat of gunshots all along so it is impossible to tell exactly which shots might have been the fatal ones. It was so brutal, this video, that I can’t imagine that the last thoughts of Gaddafi were not bprayers for it to be over. I know that was what I was thinking as I watched this nonsense.
I was also appalled last week to see a similar lack of scruples from a couple of so-called media outlets. With the trial of Cr. Conrad Murray going on in Los Angeles, a picture of a dead, post autopsied, and nude Michael Jackson was shown to the courtroom, and a photograph of that image was broadcast around the world. Apparently the concept of human dignity has escaped some of these entities, whose goal now seems to be to shock, instead of inform. One was an internet website, but the other, sadly was a major TV network, who I thought would take the high road, but didn’t.
I, and the world, do not need to see this. It serves no useful purpose to show Michael Jackson, who brought so much joy to the world, deprived of his last bit of dignity. For many the image of his lifeless and naked corpse, sprawled on a table, will be the image that comes to mind. I certainly hope that his children did not see it.
As for Colonel Gaddafi, he was an evil man, but that is why there are procedures in place to deal with crimes against humanity. They, at least in theory, keep the world from taking a backward step as we supposedly become more civilized.
There was a time when media was more responsible, and more selective and thoughtful in what they presented. There is the famous story that reporters knew that President Kennedy was bedding down starlets left and right, but that out of respect for the first lady, they did not use that information to hurt him. Those days of restraint are sadly gone, and it is a free for all. Paparazzi line up for big money shots of celebrities, and when they get them it is all over the internet and airwaves. The former King of Pop dies of a drug overdose and we get to see him stripped, literally, of all dignity. And a dictator is violently tortured and killed on video.
Just tell me want happened. I don’t need to see it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cobb Redeemed

Call it redemption…sort of.
When I was a boy, I had two heroes. Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp was one of them. I loved the stories of the old frontier, and how the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday had tamed Dodge City and made life there as safe as your grandmother’s kitchen. But the Wild West was another world for me, and seemed out of reach and reality. What was closer to my heart was baseball, and my first real hero was Ty Cobb, from Royston, Georgia.
Cobb was a legendary baseball name, and I often heard my grandfather, who had played minor league baseball in the early years of the century, and who had seen Cobb play, talk about his exploits. Later I read as much as I could about the man, and a dog-eared copy of a 1952 biography by a man named Gene Schoor was my prized possession for a long time. Schoor’s book, though, was written for younger readers, and therefore was sugarcoated. It was another book, by a writer named Al Stump, that drove it all home, and told the story of the man’s life in more vivid detail and first introduced to me the reality that Cobb was possibly psychotic, was definitely racist, and had allegedly even killed a man. and made me lose all respect for my boyhood hero.
Stump had spent time with Cobb in the last year of Cobb’s life, 1961. He had access to Cobb that few had had before, and painted a vivid and extreme picture of a man prone to violence, a paranoid and sick individual who told Stump, on the record, that he had killed a man by slashing his face with the barrel of a pistol, until the man had no face left. Stump also related how police in Detroit had found an unidentified body in an alley a few days later, a crime that was never solved.
It was all too much, and my interest in Cobb, the baseball player, was destroyed by the information that Al Stump had given me in his 1994 book. I never thought about Ty Cobb again in the same way.
Until last summer, when I visited the Cobb family crypt in Royston, Georgia. It was a belated pilgrimage for me, to be sure, but when I realized that I only lived about 90 minutes way, I felt it was time. I went, driving past the hospital that Cobb had built for the people of Royston, past the signs proclaiming Royston the home of the world’s greatest baseball player, to the crypt, in a quiet little cemetery just down the street from the hospital, and where Cobb is interred with the remains of his beloved mother and father. And the thoughts of all of the evil things that Al Stump had told us in his book ran through my head. I peered through the smudged glass of the crypt door at the very spot where my hero’s bones lay, about 5 feet from me, and just sighed a sad sigh. My hero, the murdering racist paranoid villain.
Then, last month, Smithsonian Magazine published an article, entitled “The Knife in Cobb’s Back.” Years of research, painstakingly vetted, proved to the world one fact: Al Stump was a liar and a thief. It turns out that not only did Stump make up most of the vile stories about Cobb’s evil ways, (the police in Detroit have no record of a body or even an injury from the night that Stump says Cobb killed a man) but that he also stole hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Cobb’s possessions after his death, to sell for his own enrichment. He also forged many letters from Cobb, and tried to pass off as genuine, fake Cobb owned items like dentures, duck decoys and corncob pipes.
The real damage, though, and the one that Cobb likely would have been most upset about, was the damage to his reputation, which was something that Cobb had worried about in life. He was a proud man by all accounts, and to have history blinded to his real achievements, by a liar and a thief, is a crime that needs correcting here.
The Georgia Peach may not have been anyone’s idea of a model citizen, but he was one helluva ballplayer, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A letter from a fan....but not of mine!

I just got the following email as a response to my column in the Jackson Progress Argus. I’ll leave out the name of the sender to protect the ignorant.
Don't like death penalty in Jackson? Take your happy butt back to New York. How would you feel if it were one of your family members? Or are yankees in New York so use to violence they accept it ? What is your business in Jackson so I can be sure not to frequent? We forgive and forget, just don't offer up another chance.
Something about this letter really ticked me off. It is certainly indicative of the backwards mentality that pervades the area. I thought about this for a few minutes and then fired off the following response. Was I too harsh?
You obviously dont forget, since you call me a Yankee,a reference to a time when your lovely state of Georgia, and others, committed the ultimate act of treason by seceding from the United states of America. And yet, y'all still fly that ugly confederate flag as if a symbol of something good, instead of the vile rag that it is.
As for the death penalty, Ill allow that the family of the slain security guard (that is what he was doing that night, moonlighting at a Burger King) might want the death penalty. As bible thumping, so called "Christians" (read: hypocrites), you should be of the opinion that all life is sacred, even that of Mr Davis, a man whose very guilt is in question. By the way, you are terribly behind the times. The violence here in Georgia is far worse than in New York--much more violent and senseless. Id tell you what my business is but you might want to drive by and shoot out my windows, or set it on fire. That IS how y'all do it down here, isnt it?

Life in the south. That is what Troy Davis should have gotten, if anything. This shoot/kill first ask questions later attitude that is all over this state, and this part of the country, is so sickening and repulsive that I don’t know how a lot of these people don’t make themselves sick. Just last year the sheriff of Butts County, a “man” named Gene Pope, tried to kill a fellow who had stolen a truck, and which was surrounded by state troopers. He blew out the windshield of the truck but somehow missed the man driving it. He, or his deputies, did manage to shoot a trooper in the chest and arm, though. The repercussions: none. He was lauded as a hero for trying to blow the guy’s head off. Pope himself was interviewed by reporters and lamented the fact that he had missed the guy. In more civilized parts of the country he would immediately have been removed from office pending an investigation. Not here, where, among white folks, he is a hero. Among black folks, though, the perception is different, and most of them steer clear of commenting, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at the ridiculousness of this kind of thing happening in the year 2011. I have to agree.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Murder by Any Other Name

So now little Jackson, Georgia is on the national map, with CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS and NBC and many more news organizations all converged, just 7 miles from where I write this. They have converged on Jackson not because someone here found a cure for cancer or because a huge industrial complex is being built that is going to help thousands of Georgians get jobs and get off of the welfare and unemployment rolls. Not for any positive reason at all. They all converged to cover a murder.
The death penalty---if ever a sentence could be construed as “cruel and unusual” the death penalty qualifies. It’s been said that war is the lowest form of human behavior, and yet in war, which I heartily am against, there is at least a cause, right or wrong, that is being fought for. Thousand, nay, millions have died in wars over the centuries, for a cause they believed in.
There is no cause being fought for in the death penalty. It certainly isn’t “corrective” or “rehabilitative” except in the sense of making sure that the condemned will never do it again. The simple fact that they are in prison already pretty much guarantees that though, doesn’t it?
I never met Troy Davis, nor would I want to, to be honest. It does not sound like he was a very nice guy early in his life. He probably committed a lot of crimes. I don’t know. At the end of his life his public statements sounded very intelligent and thought out. If he was the one to utter them , then I’d say that he made the most of educating himself while in prison and might have been able to contribute something to society.
With all due respect, the murder that he committed, allegedly, had nothing to do with intentionally killing a cop. The officer in question, Mark MacPhail, was not on duty at the time of his killing. He was moonlighting as a security guard at a Burger King restaurant. A fight broke out in a parking lot nearby and Mark MacPhail left his job at Burger King to intervene. Shots were fired, Mark MacPhail was killed, a tragedy to be sure. In the middle of a fight, things happen in the heat of the moment, and I’m sure that was the case on that night.
In court a lot of people testified against Mr. Davis. Later, 7 of them, whose testimony was key in his conviction, recanted their statements, infusing the case with enough doubt that at the very least the death penalty should have been taken off the table, and Mr. Davis should have been left to live out his days in prison. But it wasn’t, and the masses of reporters and media people converged on our little county.
As I said, war at least has a cause, right or wrong. To walk a man or woman into a chamber, strap them down in a chair, or on a gurney, or to a pole, or to let them stand on a scaffold with a rope around their neck, blindfolded, and to then either pull a switch, or drop pellets into a bucket full of acid, or to signal a group of people to all fire bullets into the heart of the condemned, or to give the word to release the trap door so the condemned can fall until their neck snaps, and they die, or to just inject a lethal cocktail of drugs into a shaking arm, all in front of a group of witnesses…is about as barbaric as it gets. We are a supposedly the most sophisticated of creatures. Last night, in a prison in Jackson, Georgia, we were barbarians.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ten Years.....

It was ten years ago this weekend that the unthinkable happened, and the words “New York” and “terrorist attack” became forever and inextricably linked in the minds and hearts of the world.
I remember that Tuesday morning clearly. I was returning from delivering a truckload of corn to some farm stands in Monticello, in upstate New York. The Ellenville Public Library was on my way back to the farm in Accord, where I worked summers for Saunderskill Farm. I stopped in the library to look for new books, as I often did. Everyone in the library was standing around the one computer that had the Internet, and I could see that a live video feed was on the screen of the World Trade Center in flames and I recall the smoke pouring into the sky as the image I saw that day. The second plane had just hit but the reality of the situation was still almost too big to grasp. No one flies jet planes into buildings. It’s just not civilized.
I returned to the main farm stand and it was as silent as a tomb in the place, except for a radio broadcast describing the events, and I listened to a newsfeed telling us that first one building was gone and later, the other. I don’t remember anyone actually working, just people standing and walking around in shock. This was, after all, only about 90 miles away from where we lived and worked and enjoyed the bucolic setting that living in the Hudson River Valley offered.
In the years since that day, a lot has gone on. The mastermind of the attack is in prison, the leader of the group that sponsored the attack is dead, and from the rubble of those two buildings, finally a new building is risen, over a thousand feet now and still growing. Something positive, something to look forward to.
But, sadly, in those years it seems that the amount of hatred and fear in the world has grown too. People are afraid of their own shadows. Politicians squabble and name-call like little children in the schoolyard. Common decency has been replaced by paranoia and at times it feels like we are re-living the Witch Hunt era. Or the McCarthy era. And it stinks.
It stinks because we are better than that. We are a nation of do-ers, not a nation of name-callers, neighbor-haters, or ”shoot first ask-questions later” haters, to use current parlance. We achieve. We lead, by example, in ideas, and in deeds. We endure because the world knows quality when they see it. Why else would so many risk so much to come here, legally or otherwise?
Despite the miserable state of this country right now, due in large part to the negativity mentioned above, I am still proud to be an American. I am proud to stand for our national anthem, lousy song that it is, and I still say the pledge of allegiance on occasion. “One nation indivisible”, the original words by Francis Bellamy read.
Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
It’s time to show Pogo he was wrong. And that Mr. Bellamy was right.
It’s been ten years, enough time to mourn. It’s time now to unite, as people, as neighbors, as human beings, and as a nation, indivisible. I’m on board. You?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kathy M's last day....

A recent entry on my blog dealt with the suicide of a woman, and friend, here in my town. It also dealt with the very unkind things that her co-workers at the Butts County Library had to say, after her death, which was by gun, traditionally a very unusual method of suicide for women.
According to the folks at the library, Kathy Mims was “a sociopath,” said label placed on her forever now, with no chance for her to refute, or confirm that “diagnosis.” It seems to me that she was just a terribly sad and lonely woman, just divorced from her state trooper husband after decades of marital hell. Loneliness plus booze equals bad ending. I wondered if there were other factors, because I had spoken to people who knew her, and they felt that she was going to be okay once the newness of her divorce had worn off.
Without even trying, I managed to find out a little bit of information about her last day alive.
According to the cleaning lady for her landlord, who I encountered on a walk to the library, ironically passing Kathy’s apartment, Kathy spent a lot of time coming and going from her flat, and apparently had been drinking a bit. Not to excess, but enough to make it noticeable. At one point Kathy asked to speak with Judy, the landlady. Judy was not at home, and Kathy told the cleaning lady that she needed to talk to Judy about something not terribly important, either that day, night or the following day. She stressed that it was not any big deal, and that was that. The cleaning lady told me that after Kathy’s suicide, when the police went into Kathy’s place, she had everything neatly arranged and it was very clean and tidy. That in itself means nothing because Kathy was noted for being rather fastidious.
I thanked the cleaning lady for the info and went on. The very next day I was mailing a package at the post office, and was making small talk about my walk with the clerk, whose name was Judy---the very same Judy who was Kathy’s landlady. We talked about Kathy, and that day. Kathy did indeed get in touch with Judy and she told her how much she enjoyed living at her place. She also told Judy (and I assume this was the reason Kathy wanted to talk to her) that she had been fired from the library, which was why she was not working that day. I guess she wanted to let Judy know that the rent was covered and to not worry. She actually seemed to be okay with the firing and told Judy that she was going to try to get a job at Barnes and Noble, a place she had worked previously, and had liked. Judy was not under the impression that Kathy was in a suicidal mood.
Later that night, though, she returned to the house that she had shared with her ex-husband. She aimed a gun at herself and pulled the trigger.
I only write this because I liked Kathy, and her dry and wicked humor. The odd reactions from her co-workers have been unsettling, and I think I know why. It seems that they had to put up with a lot of grief from Kathy, due to drinking problems, last minute sick calls and so on. I can understand that. I can also understand why no one there told me that she had actually been fired. The guilt that the head librarian must feel cannot be understated. I hope he doesn’t let it linger too long. He had to make a tough decision, and he did.
So, Kathy Mims, I bid your ghost goodbye, and hope that if a small part of you still lingers in the ozone of our lives, it is at peace.

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.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trump: The Joke

We have an interesting world right now. Countries long under the rule of cruel dictators in the Mid East are rebelling, with mixed results. Democracy looks good but they are finding that it is a tough job getting there. Once they do, though, they can enjoy all the great entertainment that we have here in the good old United States!
For example: They will get to elect their own leaders. One of their own will run for office against another of their own, and they will choose between them. That person will take office and for most of his or her term will suffer the slings and arrows of abuse and criticism and worse from the losing party, or candidate. And nothing much will get done because of all the squabbling.
My friend Josh Joffen wrote a brilliant song called “Monkey See Monkey Do” about all the silliness that springs forth during this whole process. An example: “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’ll be flying, raising quite a ruckus for miles you can hear the sound. And when they’re finally finished there’ll be nothing left to pass around.”
Well, our monkeys are starting to come out of the trees, and not surprisingly, most of them carry a Republican card in their ape suits. One of them, Donald Trump, is a bit more of a monkey than the rest.
Trump, who, of course, is promoting yet another version of his trainwreck Apprentice television show, has been making the rounds of talk shows and has been making headlines by telling the world that he thinks that President Barack Obama was born not in this country, but in Kenya, and cannot produce a birth certificate proving his American birthrite. Well, Mr. Trump, no one can produce an original birth certificate, only a certified copy. Various statements by people at the hospital in Hawaii where he was born, as well as newspaper announcements of Obama’s birth, have pretty much put the argument to rest. Even Bill OReilly argued with Trump over the issue, to no avail.
And of course, Trump, who is not a stupid man, knows that no publicity is bad publicity, and has actually pulled into second place in polls asking who Republicans would vote for, for President in 2012. Only seasoned politician Mike Huckaby is ahead in the polls. The only trouble is that Trump is not going to run. I’d bet my life on that fact because to run for an office like President of the United States takes a few things: ego (of course, Trump has this times a million), smarts (again, Trump has them ) and credibility. Here is where Trump falls way short. By continuing his “birther” rants on every possible stage he can land on, he has pretty much blown any credibility has had out of the water. And the recent polls showing that 51 percent of the Republican party are also “birthers” means that this country has really fallen down in the IQ levels. It also means that it is going to be a landslide victory in 2012 for Barack Obama. The lineup for the Republican Party is a combination of un-electables like Newt Gingrich, who will probably be busy seducing his 4th wife, or is it third?, or Sarah Palin, who went from mayor of a small Alaska town to a national punch line overnight.
A bigger punchline is Donald Trump. Let’s hope we never have to hear the joke more than once.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Jack Hardy Remembered

Jack Hardy died yesterday. Most of you won’t know Jack Hardy, or his music, but if you were anywhere near the New York City folk music scene in the past 35 years, you sure did. He seemed to be everywhere. He certainly was an influence to a tremendous number of the talented young writers and singers who emerged from that scene. People like Suzanne Vega, David Massengill, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Julian, John Gorka, Nikki Matheson, Rod MacDonald, Josh Joffen, the Roches and many more all learned at his feet, sometimes literally in weekly songwriters’ get-togethers at Jack’s apartment in the village, where ideas and songs were tossed back and forth, and challenges were issued. One time someone, I think Jack, challenged a brilliant young guy named Richard Meyer to write a song about the Teapot Dome Scandal. (Don’t know it? Look it up!) and Meyer came up with an absolutely stunning song called “The January Cold” about not only the scandal, but the humanity of the corrupt presidency of Warren Harding.
Later, Jack was instrumental in starting a combination magazine/record called first The Coop, and then the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, a roughly monthly 12 song vinyl LP combined with a magazine that was the first place that many people would get exposure to the artists listed above, and others like Dan Bern, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Tracy Chapman, and more. Each year Fast Folk concert revues were held at places like the Bottom Line and the home base for the scene for a while, the retro and rather tacky looking Speakeasy. I went to many shows at both and had a blast.
My personal experience with Jack Hardy was somewhat limited to brief “hello”s at his gigs, with one kind of remarkable (to me) exception.
WNEW radio DJ Pete Fornatale, a folk fan who would delve into the Fast Folk library often, played a song by a man named Ray Lambiase, called Free Men, and he mentioned that it was on Great Divide Records. I somehow found a phone number for the record company, and gave it a call one day. Jack Hardy himself answered the phone. I told him who I was and why I was calling. He asked me all kinds of questions, about how a young guy in Kerhonkson, New York, in the Hudson Valley, knew about the record, and how I had heard an FM signal that shouldn’t have reached where I live (I had jerryrigged my cable TV signal to my receiver, before such a thing was really known) and we talked for about a half hour about which musicians I liked and my own experiences. He then told me that he had a copy of the record sitting there and asked me for my address. I gave it to him and asked him how much the record was and where I should send the money, and he told me, in his raspy voice, “My treat.”
Later I got to meet the great man at another Jack-propelled event called “A Gathering of the Bards” at a lake near Monticello, New York, where I played catch with a Nerf football with John Gorka and walked in on another singer in the shower with his girlfriend. Such were the times.
So it was with great sadness that the news of Jack’s passing came to me via an email from some folk music site. Quick flashes of what I related above came back immediately, and then the songs I loved best by the man himself---Tinker’s Coin, Elevator, The Children, Síar ón nDaingean (West of Dingle) and many more. One song, called I Ought to Know, is one of my ten favorite songs of all time, a challenge to us all to learn the really important stuff in history, much like Howard Zinn’s People History of the United States, but without a single fact given, only a laundry list of what the singer ought to know but doesn’t. It certainly made me look up all of its references. I am including the full lyrics here. Hopefully anyone reading this will do as I did. You ought to know about this stuff. And you ought to know about Jack Hardy. I’m glad I did.

I OUGHT TO KNOW by Jack Hardy, RIP
I ought to know more than I know
I ought to know where this road goes
I ought to know great literature by heart
the history of art
this I ought to know

I ought to know more than 1492
I ought to know what the Buffalo Bills do
I ought to know more than the quarterback's wounded knee
what happened at Sand Creek
this I ought to know
but I don't

I ought to know about the sacrifices made
I ought to know ration stamps, air raids
I ought to know more than George C. Scott
and John Wayne get shot
this I ought to know

I ought to know what the drinking gourd means
I ought to know more than "I have a dream"
I ought to know about the back of the bus
and the crack of billy clubs
this I ought to know
but I don't

I don't know nothing about nothing
but I'm proud to stand upright
I don't know nothing about nothing
but my future looks so bright
illumined by the light
laugh-tracks, soundbites
and a replay to get it right
I ought to know

I ought to know the songs of Joe Hill
I ought to know Trotsky, Marx and Hagel
I ought to know about the Haymarket hangings
and the H.U.A.C.
this I ought to know

I ought to know about Oliver Cromwell
I ought to know about the Gnostics and St. Paul
I ought to know what Jesus really said
and who the preacher takes to bed
this I ought to know
but I don't

I ought to know what's buried in the landfill
I ought to know about the clear-cutting bills
I ought to know about pipelines and schemes
what extinction really means
this I ought to know

I ought to know for whom the bell tolls
I ought to know the pride and prejudice of polls
I ought to know if the grapes of wrath are union
picked by Victor Jara's hands
this I ought to know
but I don't