Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD--AND HOW TO SURVIVE THEM

   Forty years ago this week, as I write this, Richard Milhous Nixon resigned the United States Presidency. As best I can recall, that was the last positive thing to happen in this country. 
   In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire again. Today the drinking water in Toledo will make you sick. Here's a nice list of all the contaminants about which the Environmental Protection Agency (authorized into law under Nixon) acknowledges have existed in our collective drinking water: EPA List of Contaminants. 
    In October 1973, Israel and an Arab coalition fought each other in what became known as the Yom Kippur War. Today, in August 2014, we find Israel at war against Palestine in what is being called Operation Protective Edge.
    These days the Israelis bomb the Gaza region with impunity. Isil/Isis has established an Islamic State in the desert, murdering thousands in the name of a nonexistent religion. Protesters march in the rain in Missouri to call attention to yet another suspicious police shooting of a black teenager. Robin Williams killed himself last week. The state of Arizona threatens to elect a new governor so vile that he or she will make Jan Brewer look good by comparison. 
   Two days ago the rain in Phoenix flooded the Skunk River, causing a fat stream of mud to cover the Interstate Highway. 
   People still do not get along. Other people delight in exploiting the ignorance. 
   I don't know why any of these things happen. I do know that I found myself foaming rage at what happened to a journalist named James Foley. 
  I do know that The Who were the greatest rock and roll band of all time. 
  And I also know that I'm looking forward to the original "Batman" TV series being released on DVD this November.
   I liked the way Lawrence O'Donnell brought critical thinking to an analysis he did on air tonight about an article written in The New York Times.
   My favorite stringed instrument is a dulcimer. 
   I can eat pizza at any time of the day or night.
   But when it comes to the species of humans and why we do what we do, I have no answers at all. Sometimes I think we escape into intellectualism as a way of dealing with visceral reactions, just as too often we "go with our guts" rather than use our brains. 
   I often escape into the past, something of a blend of the visceral and the intellectual. That kind of blend is often code for delusional, but it also has its up side. For instance, I can tell you about several hundred movies made before I was born. I can write for years about songs by black singers listened to by white teenagers on pathetic little radios late at night even though it happened a lot of years before I even existed. I am happy to sit down with you and discuss Philip Roth or Adrienne Rich any time you like. In short, I know my share of cultural history. I know how it feels to be an American, walking this land at night, fearing far less than I should, growing fascinated with the sounds coming from inside cars or from behind store windows or within people's houses. I don't know any other country nearly as well as I do this one. The people here remain strange to me much of the time, but that only draws me closer to the ones I love. 
   To help my girlfriend get to sleep, I take her hand and play with her fingers. What I do is I use her thumb and index finger and make them into singers doing a duet or harmony. Tonight the index finger was singing lead and the thumb was handling backing vocals. "I roller skate I ride my bike don't drive no car," sang the finger as the thumb went "Doe dee doe doe dee doo." "Don't go too fast but I go pretty far."
   Clearly, knowing one's history is important. 
   Face it: people are going to disappoint you. There's nothing we can do to stop it. What we can do is to defy them, to ward off the blows, as it were, through being as conscientiously silly as possible. 
   I work like a madman all day long. Phone calls, websites, letters, chores, you name it. Somewhere along the line I picked up the ability, the need, the compulsion to be periodically ridiculous without warning either to others or to myself. Sometimes I will open the front door and shout, "That coffee is poison, you fool!" even though I see no one drinking java, laced or otherwise. When our dogs appear bored, I will stop what I am doing to tell them story jokes. Most mornings I sing Beach Boy songs on my way down the staircase. I have been known to call the local non-emergency police number just to let the people there know that everything here is just fine. I enjoy doing magic tricks for extremely old people who have no idea who I am or why I am there. I have taught one of our parrots the words to "Surfin' Bird." 
   Again, I haven't any answers. 
   But I do know how to annoy the people who think they do. My goal is to comfort the anxious and pester the content. Or as Cesar Cruz said it (better), I try to be like Art in that I "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Before Cruz it was Finley Dunne who said that the purpose of a newspaper was to "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," although everyone from Claire Boothe Luce to Mother Jones claimed to have coined that expression. 
   That remains my advice to you. Keep them laughing. Believe me when I say I hate it that so many great talents are checking out. Eventually no famous people I can respect will be left. They'll have either offed themselves or been gunned down by others and all that will remain is just you and me. Well, hell, I like you just fine, but I might get on your nerves, what with all my foolishness. Let me know. I can try to hold myself back. But the future lies ahead can make even a clown miserable. So have a little sympathy, will ya?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

CRAWLING ALONG THE TWILIGHT

   I was in a good mood when I wrote this. I remain in one. Also, please don't anyone try to make this about them. It's a total fabrication. Honest. Besides, I wrote it in 2009.

   Now and in only an instant no one hides my socks, no one suspects my broken promises and splintered potential and no one walks me to a well of guilt for his aches and toil. 
   Yet I am not alone. My tormentor looks a lot like me, only taller, fatter, and with a laugh like rotting meat. How long I must endure is answered as I watch him glow, his eyes empty as ancient tombs, his heart a mummified fist, and his long, swaying arms free and full of youth: “More,” he sings, and I submit.
   It is cold.
   My grief swaddles me to sleep again while things I don't understand bark out shattered voices and wear raisin faces—They see and hear nothing but my own fleeting footsteps. Only my Tormentor smells my panic. To him it is precious.
   So I return each morning to the sanctified sanity of survival, taking caution to be safe, digging spurs into my potential, and folding my socks into their drawer. All this activity unleashes resilience so that upon my nocturnal return, my Tormentor will face a fit and worthy supplicant. I stay fit so my Tormentor does not tire of me. 
   How can a man long dead write these words? “They are only the squandered hieroglyphics of your soul that has died,” says Mr. T. “Your health and sobriety are a joy to me, that I may help you recall lost moments, fire you along neurotransmitters, and cheer you on to rages that are your due. And when you cry, ‘Enough!’ I will have only started, just as I have not yet begun.” 
   And so as you prepare to draw your blinds and hazard one last scan at your day, remember that is me you hear crawling along the twilight, empty, gawking, and thirsting for anything but what I have earned. This is my fate. (My Tormentor takes me by the hand. If I resist, he drags me by the heels.) Crawling along the twilight among paranoid coyotes and vampire stars blinking themselves to sleep, I forget the cause of my shame, a certain sign of madness. Overhead the Anointed One claps his hands and from his arms fly tattoos, one a vulture and one a bluebird. They defile my path and peck at my sweat in the dust. Pisser.
   I write for the noise of morning, a steady building cacophony, that my Tormentor may retire. But the nights grow long, as does his self-contained shadow. My fear is his appetizer, my nightmare the dessert.
   I crawl along the twilight, dodging demons, boxing with their silhouettes and hiding from their laughter. It is cold.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

MIKEY AND THE TENNIS BALL

   Back in my youth, a kid named Mikey lived just two doors down the street. Everyone said what a cute kid this Mikey was. Little head full of red hair, kind of a button nose, black marble eyes, and the kind of voice all we five-year-olds struggled with in those days. Mikey Burnette--for that was his name--did possess what I suppose you could call a cuteness that went somewhat beyond that of the rest of us. I don't remember anyone being bothered by that. Face it. The kid was a charmer.
   Mikey Burnette didn't talk all that much, so when he did spill out a story, the rest of us shut our holes and listened up because the kid lived what you might be inclined to call a fascinating life. "Fascinating," in the Mr. Spock sense of the word, meaning highly unusual and most intriguing.
   One afternoon Mikey and I were hiding from the world, sitting in a treehouse out in the woods, one several of us nine-year-old hoodlums had built as a kind of fortress of solitude. Anyway, Mikey puts down his Spiderman comic book and says to me, "Mersh, I ever tell you about the time I found a brand new tennis ball right outside your house?"
   He had not told me this and I admitted as much.
   I cannot vouch for the truthfulness of this story. What I can assure you is that in the four years I knew the kid, I never once caught him in a lie. Here is what he told me that day.
   He'd been five and was busying himself the way a five-year-old with working parents and a bit of free time might do: just wandering around the neighborhood with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, his head dropped down so he can discover things in the cracks in sidewalks, or pick up a discarded baseball card, or maybe even find something of real value. On the sidewalk that ran in front of our house on Grant Street, Mikey came upon a brand new, fresh from the vacuum-sealed can Wilson tennis ball. What a ridiculous thing to come across, he said to himself in his interior five-year-old squeaky voice.
   Being the kid he was, Mikey looked around to see if any potential owner was fast approaching, preparing to screech out an adult-style warning like "Hey, kid! You leave that goddamned ball alone, y'hear? I put that ball there this morning and if I had wanted you to steal it, I'd have called your parents on the telephone! Now scram!"
   As no such warning was forthcoming, Mikey secured the neon green tennis ball inside his pants pockets and took it home.
   Mikey had his own bedroom and inside his bedroom sat a dresser and upon the dresser rested a Cincinnati Reds souvenir ashtray. For no particular reason, Mikey sat his new possession into the concave side of the ashtray. He stepped back to take an admiring look. He recognized right away that something was just not quite right. "It needs a face," he said aloud. One Magic Marker and a few strokes of the pen later, the neon green tennis ball bore its new smiley face. This time when Mikey stepped back to look, he offered the ball a smile in return.
   In a few short months, Mikey started first grade. The thrill of discovery never left the kid, however. Each day as he would toddle from his bedroom, down the hall and into the street, he would pause at the bedroom door and say, "See ya later, Mr. Tennis Ball!"
   A couple years go by, as years will do, and every school day Mikey would take a moment at his bedroom door to say goodbye to his friend the tennis ball. He never mentioned whether he said hello upon returning home, but in my own mind, he was just as cordial entering as he was leaving. 
   As he was making his way from his bedroom to begin his very first day of third grade, Mikey resumed his routine with what one might think of as a superstitious habitualization, just as some baseball players will tap their bats on home plate or bless themselves. Mikey told the ball to have a nice day and just as he was closing the door behind him, he heard a voice speak. "You, too, dumbo. Good luck to ya."
   As he was recounting this story, Mikey admitted he had been nervous about going to school. He figured the jitters were just getting the best of him. He also considered the possibility that he was going nuts.
   The first day of third grade turned out to be not so bad as all that and when Mikey came home and threw his books on his bed he had already forgotten all about the strange voice from that morning. As he was removing his shoes and socks, he did not even bother to look around the room. He just tossed the footwear into the usual corner and was getting ready to enjoy a fine afternoon nap when he again heard the voice say, "Hey, dumbo! Those dawgs of yours stink like a dead gorilla. Christ! Ain't ya got no foot powder?"
   Mikey sat bolt upright on the bed. That voice had not come from his mother. She was at work. It wasn't dad. He hadn't come home yet, either. And Mikey didn't have any brothers or sisters. He was pretty sure his folks hadn't taken in any boarders. Deep down, he told me, he knew that had been Mr. Tennis Ball talking to him. 
   He looked over at the dresser. His eyes moved up to the ashtray. He stood and looked across the room at the tennis ball.
   "What?" said the ball. "You think you're the only one with a voice box? You got an adenoids problem, dumbo? Ya talk like a goil."
   "My name is Mikey."
   "Mikey, Schnikey. Who gives a damn? Look, junior, I've been sitting here patiently waiting for you to use your limited imagination and have you come up with something for us to do? Ya ever think what it's like for me all day while you're off staring at the back of your teacher's legs? Naw, wha'd do you care? Freakin pervo."
   "Well, what would you like to do?"
   The tennis ball groaned. "I don't wanna go bowling, that's one thing. Look, dumbo. I'm a tennis ball. I wanna go play tennis. Tell your old man to take us down to the courts and we'll kill a couple hours."
   When Mikey's dad came home from the office, Mikey was dressed in his own tennis shirt and shorts. Mr. Tennis Ball was in his front right pocket. 
   His dad said he was kind of tired but what the hey? They could play a set or two, why not?
   Mikey felt Mr. Tennis Ball vibrate with happiness.
   At the tennis courts, Mikey stood at his own baseline, took Mr. Tennis Ball from his pocket, and gave it a soft swat across the net. His father, knowing the limitations his son had in playing against a much larger and experienced man, gently batted the ball back across the net. Mikey caught the ball in one hand, turned his back to his father and examined the ball.
   In a coarse yet low voice, the tennis ball said, "This is great. I've been waiting my whole life for this. Keep it going, okay?"
   Mikey turned around and swatted the ball back across the net.
   Unfortunately for Mr. Tennis Ball, at that exact moment, two college girls in short tennis shorts giggled their way onto the court next to Mikey and his father. Being the kind of man he was, Mikey's father sucked in his gut, puffed out his chest and whacked the tennis ball back across the net as hard as he could, sticking it firmly into the chain link fence behind Mikey.
   The kid shot his dad a look of alarm, then stepped back to retrieve the ball.
   "What da hell was dat? Who your old man think he is, Roger Federer?"
    "Dad, take it easy, okay?"
   "Just hit the ball, Mikey."
   Mikey gave the ball an easy swat across the net. Mikey's dad returned the play by striking down on the ball, giving it a nasty spin. The ball dropped just on Mikey's side of the net, spun weirdly, and hopped over onto the adjacent court. One of the two girls reached down just as the ball rolled over to her feet. 
   She looked at the smiley face drawn on the ball. "Isn't this just adorable, Cindy? Look!"
   The Cindy person galloped around the net and stared. "That's funny! Lecherous, but funny."
   Mikey ran over to the girls, knowing he needed to get there before his father did.
   "Hi. That's our ball. Can I have it, please?"
   "Aren't you just an adorable little boy?" said the girl not named Cindy, as she handed him the ball. Mikey smiled and looked at the ball. The formerly friendly eyes were pinched into a sneer and the mouth was sticking out its tongue. Mikey dropped the ball into his pocket, but before he walked two steps, the ball flew out and rolled back over to the girls. The one not named Cindy reached down, looked at the ball and said, "Did you draw this?"
   Mikey swallowed hard. "Yeah. Sort of."
   The girl kept turning the ball over and over in her hands.
   Mikey's dad yelled, "Hey, that's okay, ladies. You can keep that one. Mike! We've got other balls. Let's play!"
   "But, dad--"
   "Ready?"
   Mikey turned his back on the women and walked back to the family car. His dad apologized for his son's bad manners and the two guys drove home in silence. 
   Mr friend told me he never saw that ball again, but he did encounter the two girls a few weeks later. He had been out on the court, playing against the wall, when the two young ladies had come walking by. The one not named Cindy said to the one named Cindy, "Cindy! There's that kid! The one with--"
   They ran away as fast as their suntanned ankles would carry them.
   I mention this story because Lisa Ann, the long suffering roommate, has a habit of drawing smiley faces on my big toes. 
   One never knows what the consequences of such a thing may be.

   
   
   

Friday, August 1, 2014

HOW TO KNOW IF THE SCHOOL OF YOUR CHOICE IS LAUGHING AT YOU

     Does your school proclaim itself to be a for-profit Christian learning center, offering the benefits of a private education at the cost of a state university? If so, you have cockroach vomit on your trousers.

Does your post-secondary institution buy up low cost housing to raze said properties into dustbin parking lots to accommodate the artificial growth of its main campus? If so, zombies have visited your family and planted radioactive pods where their brains used to be.

Is something called Sports Management the central thrust of your college or university's educational program? Has it brought in the same people to use as camera shills as those who bought sports facilities with city tax dollars they themselves did not have to pay, not so very long ago? If so, your brain may not be the boss.

Are the members of your school's board of directors all former CEOs and marketing directors of fake kindergarten daycares and pseudo-colleges that merely train students for culinary careers at Burger King and Dairy Queen, while they themselves recline at the Biltmore's finest venues? If so, then you are being punked.

Is purple actually anyone's favorite color? 

Do you truly desire to mix biology with religion?

Ever wonder why those enrollees walk up and down the ghetto streets, knocking on the residents' doors to see if they need anything, when what they're actually doing is softening the blow?

Have you ever attempted to have a meaningful conversation with a graduate of a propaganda mill, a guy or gal who blends their faith of poverty and meekness with self-enrichment at the expense of the majority? Mouth-breathers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your spittle!

Is it true that your university plans to employ its own police department because they anticipate rowdy behavior from the secular members of the population they bring in to buy up tickets to concerts by washed up dinosaur groups like Journey and the Beach Boys? Who stole my Daisy Air Rifle?

This message has been brought to you by an opponent of progress, one who prefers the meme:
The future lies ahead--and what to do about them!