Tuesday, February 20, 2018


I used to think “Layla” was the perfect song. It is, after all, one man’s poem to a woman he adores from afar, complete with ferocious devotion, the sear of unrequited love, the soaring piano coda that evokes endless skies, endless possibilities. 

Then came today.

I went for a walk. A relentless, cold rain. Seemed appropriate — not sad, because that wasn’t the emotion behind my eyes. It is impossible to be sad about news that brings joy to the heart of someone you love. But the rain seemed just right; it was bracing, a slap upside the head.

(I mean, day of Kurt Cobain’s birth, day of Hunter Thompson’s suicide. Feb. 20 is a day I will always remember.)

As I started to walk I slipped in earbuds and hit play on my music, half-expecting the gods or whatever to cue up “Layla” as some sort of cosmic practical joke. But instead I heard piano chords in 12/8 time, jaunty notes from the black-and-white days, and I realized the universe did have something to say.

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” is an odd song, even for Sly & The Family Stone. It clocks in at 2:38 — a slip of a tune, really — and it begins to fade out just as the chorus kicks in for a second time.

The song begins with the words “end of the spring” and the welcoming of a returning love: “hi, hi, hi, hi there.” Everything is true. There is hot fun in the summertime. All Cloud 9, the height of bliss.

But then: melancholy and a sudden end. It is first of the fall and she goes away. From hi to bye — too soon, too soon! — and as the chorus celebrates love in the heat it all fades into memory — but just before it does there is one more message:

Everything is cool.


There were no cell phones. First thing noticed. I reached into my pocket to snap a photo and came up empty. All we could do was watch.

A pillar of white fire, rising to our west, blocking out the setting sun. What had been an orange sky was now bright as midday.

No noise. The tower continued to rise in what looked like slow-motion, the way fire does when it roils and boils and becomes a conflagration. That word kept cadencing in my head. Conflagration. We were witnessing one in real time.

Our eyes met. You didn’t look scared. Not at all. Your face was wild with amazement and in that moment I could not have loved you more.

The white light overwhelmed everything.

In your hands was a book. Hardback, bound in green leather. Gold leaf. You were stretched out on a cream leather sofa, wearing a tank top. The book looked like it had a nightlight inside the pages. It glowed in your hands.

“There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little — perhaps not a word.” You closed the book and closed your eyes and did not speak again.

But I could hear you humming a song. Faint at first, so faint I was not immediately sure if I was imagining the noise. Then a melody began to emerge, and within a few bars I recognized the song. I started to hum along with you, one octave below you, and as the melody floated around us you smiled.

The white light overwhelmed everything.

You were asleep, your back to me, your hair cascading across a pillowcase of yellow. You were having a dream, I thought — you were saying something under your breath and your legs moved as if you were running.

I touched your shoulder. You turned as if you were startled. In your eyes I could see the white fire rise like twin explosions. You looked disconnected from us. You looked disappointed.

You pointed at me and began to spell out words using your finger as a pencil. The letters left tracers in the air between us.

“You promised,” you wrote.

I woke up and sat up in bed.

“I promised,” I said.


The phone rings. Unknown number. 1:18 a.m. Oh no.


“Is this Ron?”


“There’s been a fire. I’m sorry, but they’re all gone.” The voice is unfamiliar, steady.

“They’re gone?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. There’s nothing left.” And then the three beeps as the call disconnects.

I get up and sit on the couch. All gone? How can they be gone? My love. Our home? Our cats. Why wasn’t I there?

I pull on clothes, get in the car, drive to the place where life has ended. The man on the phone was right. There’s nothing left. Just tendrils of smoke coming from the foundation of a house and, in the front yard, the scorched remains of hollyhocks and astilbes. I remember the day we made that garden.

There are people here waiting to talk with me. A priest. My friend Mike. The police. They tell me it was an accident. A crossed wire in the walls, or maybe a surge in the current. It was fast, according to the neighbor who called 911. By the time anyone got there it was too late.

The medical examiner comes over. He offers me a soft handshake and an equally soft pat on the shoulder. “Just a couple questions,” he says. “Do you need help calling anyone? The people who need notifying?” Such an odd phrase. No one needs to be notified of something like this. No one should ever need that kind of wake-up call.

“I’ve got it,” I say. “I’ll start calling now.” I don’t know what I’m going to say. I don’t even know why I wasn’t there when it happened. How did I let this happen? I think about calling your family. I can’t bear the thought of telling them. Not on the phone. I have to drive to them. If I leave now I’ll be there by 3, maybe 4.

I look at my phone. It’s 1:18.

“But that’s not right,” I say. “He called at 1:18. What time did the fire start?”

“One-eighteen,” Mike says. “It’s still happening.” And now I see the house is engulfed in flames, only the scene is in black-and-white and the fire trucks are rolling backwards, away from the home and up the street. The flames start to recede, smoke pulls back into the windows and back inside the roof. The air goes dark. The fire goes out.

A light turns on in the kitchen. Through a gauzy curtain I see you holding Monty.

My phone rings. 1:18.


“Time to wake up, RonDavis,” you say.

I wake up and look at my phone. It’s 1:18 a.m.

There is no more sleep after that.

Friday, January 06, 2017


I never met Stevie Jimerson before he killed two people, so I never got to see the guy his family told me about — a business owner, a responsible husband. All I ever saw was a man approaching middle age with a brain fried from meth.

Our paths crossed in 1995. I was covering courts for the newspaper. Prosecutors in Greene County charged Jimerson with two counts of murder. They said he and another man shot the pair over a drug deal. All true.

Jimerson made bond before his preliminary hearing and I made sure to introduce myself and give him my business card. You do things like that when you're a reporter. Want to know what really happened? Go to the source — in this case, a man from Ozark who somehow wound up in the back seat of a car at a stockyard at Division and Kansas, firing bullets into the men sitting in front of him.

The day of Jimerson's hearing came and the usual suspects settled into their seats. I loved the theater of the system, the rituals played out by educated men and women at opposing tables. A murder prelim always had the possibility of juicy testimony and a chance to bust that story onto Page 1. That was the best-case scenario. At worst he would waive the hearing and the case would move to circuit court. A process story, maybe worth the front of the B section. Maybe.

The scheduled time came and Jimerson's seat at the defense table remained empty. The bailiffs raised their eyebrows. The defense attorney looked grim. This was going to be a great story. Guy charged with murder skips his prelim, cops launch search. My only worry was them finding him past my deadline.

Back at the office. The phone rings.


"Is this Ron?"

"That's me."

"It's Jimerson. Bet I'm in a lot of trouble."


He said he'd freaked out and couldn't come to court and now his parents were going to lose their house and what was he going to do? My only advice was to turn himself in but he wasn't going to do that; he was sure the cops would kill him. He wanted the cops to kill him.

I was sure he was high — his sentences were rat-a-tat fast and he wasn't tracking. I told him I would find out what was going on with the prosecutor and the cops. He told me he would call back.

And he did. A bunch of times. In between his calls I talked to his lawyer (that was fun, to let counsel know his client was on the loose and had access to a phone). I talked to the prosecutor, who told me it was one thing for a reporter to shield information, but as a citizen I had a duty to let police know if I knew where Jimerson was hiding.

I didn't know. He wouldn't tell me. After several calls he remained adamant that he would die in a shootout with police so they better not try to find him. His brain was past sizzle and into full deep-fry. Meth had transformed Jimerson into a guy who tore holes in his walls, looking for bugging devices. He told me he shot the guys at the stockyard because he thought they were undercover cops.


Day slipped into night. Jimerson and I kept talking. Finally, as it got closer to 10 p.m., he wore down. He was done. I told him I would be there and the cops wouldn't shoot him in front of a reporter. He said he was staying at a motel just north of Bolivar. I told him I was calling police to let them know. When I got to Bolivar, I did.

The surrender was anticlimactic. Jimerson looked like hell. So did the woman who was with him. The next year he pleaded guilty to murder and weapons charges and was sent to prison for life. He died there on Friday at the age of 59. Natural causes, said prison officials.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Originally published Dec. 26, 1993

NIGHT PALED INTO daylight over the Ozarks, but there was no sun this winter's morning. The sky stayed gray, the color of rue, and from it fell a meager mist, more annoyance than succor for the soil.

James Foley watched the drizzle from the window of his kitchen and lit another cigarette, tapped it against an ashtray already overflowing with squelched butts. Smoking way too much. Generics at that. But what the hell; life was rough right now, winnowed to spare, singular pleasures. A moment of quiet. A hot cup of coffee. A no-brand cigarette.

James inhaled.

The road had made him this way, he knew. The road and the responsibility. Used to be, he'd think nothing of gunning into nowhere — off to work the mule rides into the Grand Canyon, the lobster boats off upstate Maine.

Or the Navy. God, he loved that life. Four years of hoots and hollers. The most fun had been Australia. James and four buddies got drunk one day and packed two kegs of beer in dry ice on the back of a rented truck. A rolling party, until they passed out on private property and awoke to the sounds of boars and angry Aborigine land owners.

Yeah. Those were times.

But James had been in his 20s then, and now he was 33 and weighted down with duty. He looked older. Could have been the beard, or perhaps the wealth of life's experiences he peddled. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he was in Branson now, a place of uncertainties, and few things age a man faster than a precarious future.

Precarious: Like the floor of the house trailer James inhabited, which canted away from the door and toward the hills below, where other trailers lay plopped down amid the trees at the Oak Hills Campgrounds.

Precarious: Like the place he had just left — Reed City, Mich., between Big Rapids and Cadillac. Not even a 'burg, and certainly no garden spot. The Yoplait factory was the one sweet deal in town — paid well, good job security, but the only way to get hired was to have a parent, sibling, or shirttail kin work there, and James had no nearby relatives. None except for Margie and the kids.

Which is why he'd left Reed City, though "fled" might have been a better word. No work, no future. What was a fella supposed to do, if not flee? James knew that if he had stayed in Reed City he would have died — maybe not literally, but most certainly his will would have succumbed to the lack of hope.

So here sat he and Margie, snug in a 22-foot-long trailer. And here sat Douglas, her son of five years, and Christopher, their son of 18 months, so the trailer stopped being snug and started feeling cramped.

And here they were in Branson, where everyone knew there was big money to be made. Said so on the news up in Michigan. Must be right. "Land of hope," they called it.

James Foley hoped so.

CHRISTOPHER LOVED THAT squeaky oven door, and play with it he did. Open close open close SQUEAK squeak SQUEAK squeak. Inside the trailer it sounded like someone was killing a pig, the confines were so small.

A visitor stepping inside the Foleys' front door at that moment would have found, immediately to the right, two seats facing one another. James sat in the seat farthest from the door. Between the chairs stood a tabletop the size of a Samsonite, and one small step further in were the kitchen sink, stove and refrigerator. A half-dozen plastic red roses were in a bud vase next to the sink.

To the left of the front door was the sitting area — two couch-length benches covered with cushions. Above the benches were cabinets, and on the far end of the benches, a small color TV was on.

The aisle between the benches was exactly the width of a baby's bed. Christopher usually rested there of a day. Except when he was being his nickname, "Hands," and playing the oven door. SQUEAK squeak SQUEAK squeak.

"He's gonna snap that right off," James said. Margie reached over from one of the benches and made Christopher stop. He cried, but it wasn't as loud as the squeaking.

"That's for his vitamins," Margie said, settling a bottle into Christopher's mouth. "Gerber and milk. It's got all the iron and everything for him. They don't eat much table food at that age."

"He eats quite a bit," James said. "He eats more than you think." Then: "Honey, is that water still running?"

"Well, I'm gonna do dishes," Margie replied. She got off the couch and headed for the sink.

"OK," James said. But it wasn't, and his voice betrayed that. He'd forgotten to blow antifreeze through the lines while the trailer was parked at Margie's folks' house earlier in the winter, and the water pipes froze. Turned on the tap first thing when they hooked up at the campground and water spewed out the side of the trailer, soaking the kitchen carpet.

"You got the water running?" James asked again.

"Yeah, is this getting all wet?" Margie tamped the carpet at her feet.

"Because this, it's leaking," James said, pointing to nothing. "I can hear it blowing out the line."

"Then I won't do dishes."

"Go ahead and do the dishes." James lit another cigarette, sat for a spell in silence. Then he mused over the trip to Branson, the one they started Dec. 6.

They'd argued about going the night before. The next morning, James was ready to split.

"He told me I had 20 minutes," Margie said, smiling. "That he was going, and if I wanted to go I had 20 minutes to grab what I wanted and put it in the truck. But we had talked about it for a year-and-a-half, leaving and starting over someplace else. But we just never got to it. Because we had a lot of security there."

"But then again, we got to thinking," James said. "No work. We ended up getting in a lot of arguments because there was no work. And, you know, money got to the situation where, wait a minute, we've got to do something, no matter how drastic it is. We've got to make a decision."

So they did. But before they left, Margie had to see a doctor about her face. She'd gotten into a car wreck in Michigan, smashed her Caddy real bad and smacked her head on the steering wheel.

"Oh, I loved that car," Margie said. She rubbed her left brow. "I swear to God I broke this bone right here. It's still swollen. It's down a lot now. I couldn't even open up one eye. It was black and blue. I got blood in my eye from hemorrhaging."

The coffeepot was percolating. Cory brand. Margie got it at a garage sale for 50 cents.

IT TOOK THEM four days to make the trip from Reed City, Mich., to Branson. Four days, four people on $350. Some may have done more with less, but they probably were not driving a 1981 Chevrolet four-door pickup truck with 153,000 miles on the odometer and a 292 straight-six motor, hauling five tons of trailer, cargo and life.

James drove, of course. He knew motors, knew how to listen to the panting of the Chevy as it struggled up the hills, its speedometer maybe touching 40. Cars would pass noisily, drivers honking furiously and telling the Foleys to get that crap to a junkyard.

They left Monday afternoon, Dec. 6, and stayed that night at a roadside park near Holland, Mich. Along the way they spent $7.08 at McDonald's and filled their stomachs, but already James was starting to worry because the truck wasn't getting much more than five miles to the gallon and gasoline prices on the highway were higher than in Reed City.

The next day James and Margie played a game with the kids — spot the cheapest gas station. There went $1.27. There went $1.08. Forty miles outside of Champaign, Ill., they saw a sign: "AmBest Truck Stop 79.9."

"We're gonna go there," James announced to the family. "We'll drive there even if we've got to get there on fumes."

They got to Champaign, stayed the night and filled up the next morning. James knew they were lucky; they'd found cheap gas, the truck was holding up. Margie felt better sleeping on the truck stop lot than in the roadside park.

On the third day, just outside St. Louis, the Chevy's oil pump gave out, and James was terrified. Nothing he liked better than tearing into an engine, and here was the chance. But an oil pump cost $250, and suddenly they were skin close to being flat broke.

They stayed that night parked near Sullivan, put another $5 in the tank in Springfield and notched the gas gauge halfway to full. Only 40 more miles — but James hadn't reckoned on the hills between Springfield and Branson. He had to keep shifting down into first gear just to get the truck and its load over the next mound.

By the time they got to Branson, the truck had an eighth-tank of gasoline. The Foleys bought juice and smokes and counted out their money: two dollars.

NOT MUCH SURPRISED John Brown. He'd seen it all. Single moms, solitary men, families big and small. People seeking a taste of money in the new Nashville, whatever that meant. All Brown knew is there was a lot more traffic and a lot more people down on their luck.

He tried his best to avoid the former but the latter smacked him right in the face every time he stepped out the door of his house and walked the rows of his campground, the Oak Hills.

In ragged semicircles around Brown's house sat trailers and camper shells — row after row, descending the hill like California canyon homes after the fires. In roughly the middle rested a laundromat, and here the camp's residents gathered to smoke, swap stories.

They were all poor, and one agency even labeled them homeless, which upset the residents. "I've got a roof. I've got clothes and a place to sleep," one woman from Minnesota said at the laundromat. "I don't live in no box."

"No box," another agreed, and they all nodded.

Down at the end of the last row, Brown raked deep and straight lines into the gravel. Trucks had come here, time and again, and dumped loads of chat, so Brown could create flat terrain, could build more campsites for the hopeful.

John Brown knew the tremendousness of this time, and he intended to act on it. People came here, got jobs — but there was no place to put them. Wages too low. Rentals too high. It had been this way for a couple of years, but Brown had never seen it worse than this year.

Turned seven away last week. No room. So he was making more, each to rent for thirtysomething dollars a week, depending on whether the people needed a trailer. Most did.

He looked tough, sounded tough. He introduced himself as "Brown," stuck out for a shake a hand made from rocks and calluses. He looked tough, but showed his tender side every time he took in someone who didn't have money right away.

He only said "no" when he had no campsites to rent, and he hated to turn people away. Like the couple in the trailer with the six kids — three, then triplets age 18 months. The dad hung Sheetrock, but even with steady work there was no way the family could afford the average $525 a month rent in Branson. So it was a campsite and a small trailer Brown rented them.

Brown resumed raking. "People need a place they can afford to live. They working, and they can't afford to live. Somebody's gotta help 'em. Guess that's me." He never took his eyes off the rake. "Time for me to quit pattin' myself on the back. Got work to do."

THE FOLEYS MET John Brown on Thursday, Dec. 10. He had one campsite for them, right by the office. After hearing about their two dollars he pointed them in the direction of several charities, which guaranteed the Foleys' rent and LP gas for two weeks.

First thing Monday, Margie went out looking for a job. First place she applied, she found one. Waitress at Shoney's. Come in tomorrow to train.

On Tuesday, Margie put on her makeup. She was 39. In her younger days she could have passed for Naomi Judd. But she can't sing.

"Can waitress, though," she said. "It'll be instant cash and everything, doing waitressing. I worked as a banquet server at the Hilton. I've worked at the Continental as a cocktail waitress."

"I had to turn down a job this morning," James said. He sounded glum. "Guy in that camper over there asked me if I wanted to hang some Sheetrock. Told him somebody's gotta watch the kids."

"That's gonna be my worst problem," Margie said from behind a mirror. "It'll probably cost a fortune. And then the transportation to get them there. And then I've got to get Douglas in kindergarten." She put down the mirror. "But I can't really do that until I have lunch money."

James said, "Least with you working in a restaurant, you'll make tips daily. That'll help out with gas, you know. And then I figure, shouldn't take more than two months to really get us on our feet. I mean, with both of us working — because I'll be able to get a job making anywhere between seven and 12 bucks an hour, and what you bring in daily will help supplement all the income. We can sock a lot of it away." And here his face lit up and he smiled through his beard until Margie matched his expression.

"Two or three months and just save every dime we can," James said.

"If we choose to stay here," she said, "we don't have utilities to worry about, all we have to do is babysitting and groceries and gas … "

He said, "Come spring, if we really like it here, we'll look into purchasing a house, rent to own, option to buy, you know … "

Margie held up a pair of white shoes, and they both giggled. A new friend, a woman from the camp, had stopped by the night before and heard about Margie's new job. Margie told her about wishing she'd brought her pair of work shoes from Michigan, they might come in handy, and darned if the woman didn't bring a pair this very morning for Margie to wear. 'Course, they were 8s and Margie wore a 10, but it was the thought that counted.

"People are so friendly," Margie said, checking her face once more. "And I got a job! I used to always work, before I got pregnant with Douglas. I was in insurance for years with the military. I had three licenses. Worked right on the bases. And I did real good. I owned my own home. I had seven years left to pay on it. I had my own rental. I had a quarter-horse. A pig."

Margie kissed Jim goodbye, and then she was off into the cold mist to hitch a ride the six miles from the campground to Shoney's.

Inside the trailer, Christopher cried. Douglas was mopey and somewhere outside, playing with a jump rope the charity people had given him.

James fired up another cigarette. In one cramped corner the television played The Vacation Channel, and cheery people talked of the riches of Branson through the green snow of poor reception.




For the past eight years my liberal friends have spent a lot of time being pissed off at conservatives who insisted that Barack Obama was not their president. Not that I disagreed with their anger — I happen to be one of those wonks who believes the president deserves respect regardless of party, and that everyone should listen when the president speaks, even if they don’t agree. Especially if they don’t agree. It’s our duty as citizens.

I know — what a rube, right?

Anyway, the people who said Obama wasn’t their president are not patriots. Neither are the people who now say the president-elect will never be their president. They’ve taken to Twitter and loudly, proudly proclaim they will NEVER call him president, they won’t even use the title because he doesn’t deserve it. They'll just call him by his last name.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

Anger begets anger and there’s a lot of it out there right now — I’m not a mathematician but I believe the specific amount is a metric shit-ton and growing by the day. I mean, it’s darkly hilarious to watch liberals do battle with Nazis (and if you think the N-word is inappropriate then just wander over to Twitter and see how proud they are of their man and how they can’t wait to put people in camps so liberals better shut up or they’ll be sorry). No, seriously. It’s a literal scream.

Like it or not, their candidate is going to occupy the White House. What he does is anybody’s guess — he’s a pro-choice/pro-life gun-grabber/gun-lover liberal/conservative so anything is possible. Anything. I don’t think it will be good and in the quietest moments I am certain it is going to be horrible — he has a keen ability to inspire rage in people and that’s disturbing. His supporters are the angriest winners I’ve ever encountered. His opponents are livid, digital spit flying off their 140-character rants. It feels like we are one, maybe two steps away from boots crushing skulls. But that’s just a gut feeling.

What I do know is that he’s going to be president, and the high-horsers who insist otherwise are being delusional. Besides, they’re falling for his game.

They’re using his name.

They don’t seem to understand. He is in love with his name. He slaps it on hotels, on meat, on vodka. It’s his slogan, it’s his brand, it’s him, all uppercase like a shout.

He believes all publicity is good publicity; before he ran for office his one big thing was having staffers compile every mention of his name in the media. His mood for the day was often based on how thick the report was.

Imagine how thick the daily report is now, and how much he revels in the knowledge that his name is on the lips of countless millions — not just every day, but several times each day! It doesn’t matter if it’s preceded by an epithet; they’re saying his name and that’s all that matters.

One word to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. To my friends who support the next president I say: good luck. To my friends who oppose him I ask: do you wish to have his name on your lips? You don’t? Then don’t say it. Call him the man in the White House, the president, that man … whatever. He will be the president and that’s a fact. We traffic in facts, remember?

His name? He wants you to use it. He wants it in your mouth.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Maybe we should have packed it in back in January when David Bowie decided to check out. The Thin White Duke said it was time to go and we shouldn't have argued — but that is the arrogance of the saddening bores, thinking we knew better than Bowie. Thinking that anything good might follow.

Then: Alan Rickman Harper Lee George Martin Prince Muhammad Ali Garry Shandling Gene Wilder Patty Duke Edward Albee Leonard Cohen Florence Henderson George Michael Carrie Fisher Debbie Reynolds

Paul Kantner Maurice White Glenn Frey Keith Emerson Phife Dawg Merle Haggard Pete Burns Leon Russell Billy Paul Sharon Jones Greg Lake Pete Fountain Ralph Stanley Guy Clark

Fidel Castro Nancy Reagan Janet Reno Antonin Scalia John Glenn Shimon Peres Tom Hayden Morley Safer Rob Ford Elie Wiesel Donald Henderson Gwen Ifill Phyllis Schlafly John McLaughlin Pat Summitt

Abe Vigoda Garry Marshall George Kennedy Doris Roberts Robert Vaughn Zsa Zsa Gabor Alan Thicke Arnold Palmer Henry Heimlich Jon Polito Anna Dewdney W.P. Kinsella Michael Cimino Sydney Schanberg Pat Conroy Jim Harrison Richard Adams

Howard Kenyon Monte Schisler Jeffrey Potts

Childhood idols, vanished. Heroes, vanquished. Friends, slipped away to another room. Free thinkers. Contrarians. Iconoclasts. People who made paths where none existed before. Gone now.

She asks: “Do you think everyone is dying because of him?”

Him. The question startles.

“Not that they’re giving up but they’re stressing about it. I know for me personally it’s weighing on me all the time, every day.”


“Yes. It’s always there.”

Hmm. The specter of him, lingering in the back (or front) of our minds.

Truth: He’s part of the reason this year felt wonky; some of the people who voted for him held their noses (and breath) while doing it, and he has done little since the election to ease our minds. He tweets that the world was “gloomy” before Nov. 8; an argument can be made that it’s still plenty caliginous, maybe even more so because of his imminent occupancy of the White House. There’s crazy talk in the air — a meanness that feels new and menacing — and people are freaked out. It stands to reason that a few people surrendered. They let the weight crush their spirits.

Another truth: There were a few low moments this year when I considered not sticking around to see what happens next. Shit, man, forget about the election — Willy Wonka and Princess Leia died.

But as easy as it is to say “FUCK 2016” there was more to this year than death and despair. Much more.

This was the year of freedom from the factory, the year of taking chances and getting well outside a comfort zone. Doing things I thought I could do but had never done.

This was the year of discovery, of 23andMe. Spitting in a tube and mailing it off to learn about the people who came before me. Turns out I'm half-Japanese (no surprise) with a smidgen of Korean blood (big surprise). I learned about my great-grandfather on my dad's side and his strange and dark history.

This was the year when things broke through, when it felt like tenuous connections became solid and permanent. When the possible became probable, then certain.

This was the year of saying “what the hell" and pulling out the machete to blaze a new trail through unfamiliar woods. A lot of us did it in 2016, by choice and by force, and even as the year spewed its vilest bile we kept our heads down and kept moving forward.

Bowie said it best: Look at those cavemen go. It’s the freakiest show. We're living it; we're the stars of this movie. We may not be writing the script but we know our roles and we're agile enough to riff our way through the uncertainties. We survived 2016. We can do anything.

Thursday, December 08, 2016


"You're sure this is the way to go?" You sound a little frightened, a little mad.

I nod. I'm not sure but the last thing we need right now is uncertainty. There is fire all around us. There is water all around us. We are leaving behind something important but there is no time to waste.

"This way," I say. We are holding hands and I lead you down a hallway, down a flight of stairs, out a front door. There are people on the street. All of them seem panicked.

You see the people who love you. They rush to be with you. Form a circle around you to make sure you're safe. You drift away with them. The look on your face is happy, relieved.

I start to follow you but there are barricades and badges. People from the TV station tell me I have to get to the booth to keep the newscast on time. When I get there I see you in the background of the live shot. You're putting up a Christmas tree. A cat is the star atop the tree.

I cue the reporter doing the live shot. It's me. He goes into the house we were in and up the stairs. There is a light at the top of the landing and what looks like a giant egg in the shape of a valentine's heart, half-buried in a nest of straw. It starts to crack open.

"You think you know what's inside," the reporter says. "But you have no idea."

Sunday, November 06, 2016


My mother was not quite 18 when World War II ended. As a Japanese citizen she knew the war was lost. The announcers on the radio had insisted there were great victories for the Empire but my mother and her family knew better. Young men had left to do battle and never returned. At the National Schools the relentlessly upbeat morning addresses were just words.

Still, she loved her country, where banners proclaimed they were One Hundred Million With One Spirit. Japan was aggressive; in the previous 10 years it had invaded Manchuria, then China, then a part of the Soviet Union. The Shōwa movement stressed nationalism, a strong military, and getting rid of corrupt politicians.

Anger and a thirst for absolute power drove its actions. Left-wing political dissidents were jailed. The military was seen as incorruptible, ruled by the code of bushido — the way of the warrior. Political parties were dissolved. Schools were retooled to produce Children of the Emperor and make Japan ready for the coming clash of civilizations, the one against the devils in a group that went by an acronym — ABCD, for Americans, British, Chinese, Dutch. They were a threat to all Asians, and they had to be defeated for Japan to remain radiant.

The children were taught to sacrifice themselves for the Empire. Their country's continued existence relied on it. Their destiny as warriors demanded it.

Akiko, my mother, knew what she saw. Well before the atomic bombs that ended the war in 1945, she knew there would be no Hakkō Ichiu, no gathering of all eight corners of the world under one roof. Glorious victory was not Japan’s destiny. There were too many families without brothers, husbands, fathers. In the last year more than a million Japanese military men had died (though the radio broadcasts never mentioned that fact, only the glorious victories over the imperialists).

In July 1945 a U.S. Navy task force bombed my mother’s island, destroying the trains and ships that moved coal from Hokkaido to Honshu. The iron works factories were crippled. It was clear to her family that the war was lost, and that soon the enemy would invade her homeland.

But my mother knew the importance of honor to her leader and her country. She was a patriot. She helped her little brothers and father sharpen bamboo spears. In the Civilian Volunteers Corps she had learned how to use grenades and fire hooks, sickles and  swords. Like all others in her city, Akiko was ready to fight the invaders. It was something she did not have to agonize over; it was her duty. The warlords called it Ketsu-Go, and in the summer of 1945 their slogan echoed across the Empire:

The sooner the Americans come, the better. One hundred million die proudly.

Akiko and the other civilians in her city would fight until they were killed or were driven into the sea. There was no evacuation plan. Japan was the center of the world, a nation superior to all others, and if they were to die it would be with honor. No shameful surrender.

All that ended at noon on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito spoke on the radio.

My mother was not familiar with his voice. The emperor did not speak to the common people. What she heard was the soft and uncertain voice of a man who sounded nothing like a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess.

He never used the word “surrender,” saying only that Japan would have to resort to “an extraordinary measure” to change the present situation. A “new and most cruel bomb” had been used by the enemy, he said, and it killed many innocents. Hirohito told his people that the years ahead would mean hard work and noble spirit, “your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future.”

Peace would come, Hirohito said, but only “by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”

The atomic fires had extinguished the fever of nationalism.

Japan stripped itself of its military. By the end of 1945 more than 350,000 U.S. military personnel occupied the four main islands, including Hokkaido, where my mother lived. She had never seen people with blue eyes before.

From a distance I shook my head and wondered how a government and a military had convinced 100 million people to die for their bloodthirsty cause. The Japanese are intelligent people with a rich history. The idea that my mother and her fellow countrymen would follow madness into the abyss seemed impossible.

“You really wouldn’t have picked up a spear,” I said to her one day.

She nodded her head firmly. “Yes.”

Thursday, June 23, 2016


(originally published December 1990)

FUTURE CITY, Ill. -- First and Broadway. It sounds so uptown, so chic, a place for swank boutiques and restaurant. Especially in a place called Future City.

Someone's trash is scattered in the intersection.

Poverty, not posh, reigns in Future City, an encampment of about 100 people on the north edge of Cairo — that's CARE-oh. Most homes are ramshackle. Roads are covered with pea gravel. There are no curbs, no sidewalks. No future.

It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, Future City was 10 times its current size, a boomer with cotton gins, stores and bars. But one by one, the stores closed and the people moved away. Now all that's left are retirees and those too poor to relocate.

"Kids grow up, they leave," says Lillian Thompson, 84. She lives in a decaying mobile home with Aaron Mohn. He's 55. He looks much older. They don't blame anyone for fleeing the squalor of Future City, a place where a white kitten, fur matted with filth, eats garbage next to a rusted sign: "$50 fine for littering."

Future City is where the New Madrid fault begins its serpentine path southward. The ground here is soft, sandy. A strong earthquake would probably turn the sand to soup; one county official says Future City would sink out of sight.

There is a sense that very few people would care. Future City is small, poor. It is also overwhelmingly black, and this is more than an insignificant aside. All along the New Madrid fault, racism is a reality.

When people worry about looting, they talk about "niggers" and "coloreds." In a New Madrid bar, a hand-lettered handbill featuring the face of Buckwheat offers bogus "Buck Beer." Asked about Future City, a sheriff's department dispatcher discourages a reporter from traveling there: "It's nothing but blacks and slums."

Ray Johnson, a resident, says no one cares. "This is the Gateway to the South, you know. I spent a couple of years on the East Coast — New Jersey — and a word I seldom heard was 'nigger.' But I hear it here."

Adds Thompson: "I don't know anyone here who doesn't want it to be better. But who's going to make it better? Not the people in Cairo. No, sir."

The chairman of the county board denies racism is the reason for the despair in Future City. Instead, Louis Maze blames high unemployment. One in every five Alexander County residents is out of work, he says. In Future City, unemployment is almost 100 percent.

"We all know the people in Future City. We get along with them well," Maze says. "And we've got a black treasurer and blacks in the sheriff's department."

Only an infusion of new businesses will save Future City, Maze says. "Factories can come in, they can give them jobs and those people can better themselves." But no one in Future City believes that will happen, and they don't seem willing to make it happen, either. The only solution, they say, is to wait -- wait and hope that attitudes change, that times get better, that white people along the New Madrid fault begin to think twice before automatically assuming an earthquake will create an army of rampaging black looters.

Aaron Mohn turns back to his black-and-white television and fiddles with the antenna wrapped in aluminum foil. Outside the mobile home, waist-high weeds sway in the wind. The kitten turns its attention to a mouldering Kentucky Fried Chicken box.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Falling. Falling. Only instead of down I was falling up — past the treetops and scuttling clouds, above the satellites and around the moon, to a tiny house on the north pole of Mars. The sky was red against the snow.

Inside the house — it was really a rough cabin, cobbled together with rocks and wetted sand — was a chair, a table and a typewriter. A manual model, with a fresh ribbon, and 100 reams of paper were stacked on the floor next to it. On every page there was one handwritten sentence:

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

I knew the quote but didn’t know why it was written on the paper. All I knew is that this was my home now, and my sole task was to sit here and type that sentence over and over and over again, until I ran out of paper.

I began.

The key was typing the words but not typing over what had been written. And no typos. Any mistakes needed to be covered in Wite-Out and struck over. No typos. No mistakes. It was hard at first because I wasn’t used to the keys, but soon enough I was settled and making a clatter than sounded like honest work.

It was the only sound on Mars, save for the wind, which whistled against the cabin.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

No spellcheck. Just the steady sound of keys to paper. Page after page, maybe 25 or 30 typed lines per pages. When I was done with one I would pull it from the roller and give it a brief once-over before squaring it with the other pages. The “a” on the typewriter was slightly offset and sat higher than the other letters, giving a jaunty look to the words “way” and “can."

The sun rose and set on Mars, but its light was feeble. On some nights I could see the small blue twinkle and knew who was there. I called out to them and spoke of my devotion, and the wind would sing their song.

Every time I finished a ream I would make a mark on the wall.

Finally I reached the end. The last page was blank. My test was over. A rocket grew large in the sky. It landed next to the cabin. The doors opened and robot arms disgorged the ship’s contents: 100 fresh reams of paper and a new ribbon. This one was red.

All of the pages were blank.

I watched the rocket take off. It was not there to take me home. This was my home. This planet, this cabin, this typewriter.

I stacked the shipment of 50,000 pages next to the typewriter and threaded the new ribbon into place. I thought about Earth and my stomach growled. Hemingway was right. Memory is hunger. My brain would not allow me to forget anything that had happened, and my hunger would never go away.

I would always remember, and there was only one thing I needed to say.

My fingers began to dance:

I love thee enough for both

I love thee enough for both

I love thee enough for both

Sunday, June 05, 2016


WAIT. The sign is flashing, yellow letters against a black background. WAIT WAIT WAIT and then it becomes

WEIGHT. In red letters. And then back and forth between the two, until the red-yellow becomes an orange blur.

The word pulses in the air. It is my voice saying it, but my lips do not move.

My grandmother Ruth Ellen appears. She has an orange in her hand. She is standing in the back yard of her home in Southern California. Her father — my great-grandfather, Jacob — is smoking a Kent cigarette.

"If you do not wait there will be weight," he says. Or is it the other way around? He shakes his head no, then nods yes. I notice his eyes are blue, like ice.

"If you wait it adds weight," my grandmother says.

It starts to rain and they both melt, like sugar figurines caught in a downpour. They become photographs on the ground.

"You should wait to put those in frames," says a voice. I look up and see a woman standing midcalf in a stream. Her jeans are rolled up and she's wearing a flannel shirt, green and purple and blue.

"They're wet now," she says, gesturing to the photos. "Too much weight. You have to wait."

How long?

"One hundred twenty-eight months. Or is it 128 lifetimes? I can't remember what the book told me," she says. "I would carry it with me for reference but it's too big. There's too much weight."

She starts to sink into the stream. Her face remains serene. Happy.

"Wait," I say, but she goes under. Her hair becomes a floating circle in the water, and then it is gone, too. I jump in and realize the stream is a sea, thousands of feet deep.

Swimming. Sinking. There is no difference. The water goes black.

The signs reappear. WAIT. WEIGHT. They are above a door on the ocean floor. I knock and she answers. Her eyes are searching for something in my face. After several long seconds she nods.

"If there is weight there should be no wait," she finally says. We enter the cavern, which opens into a valley. In the distance I see smoke curling from a chimney of a house by a lake. Between here and there are fields of wildflowers. I know the place where the fire burns is home.

Saturday, June 04, 2016


We grow up and we find heroes, and in their lives we look for motivation, for meaning.

Archie was the son of our next-door neighbors in Los Angeles. The Gutierrez family. Archie was funny, one of those guys that kids instinctively liked. He seemed like one of us, only huge. He was the best part of neighborhood birthday parties 'cause he really got into the spirit of things. Like whacking the piñata. Man, dude could split that sucker open like Willie Davis smacking one into the outfield at Chavez Ravine. All the candy spilling to the ground after a good hit and Archie was always right there, laughing at the bounty.

Then he was gone for a while.

When Archie came back from Vietnam his father let the back part of their back yard grow tall. Some days Archie would go out there wearing his jungle trousers and M1 helmet, a scabbard in one hand, a bottle in the other. On those days my father, a veteran of the conflict in Korea, would tell us to leave Archie alone. One drizzly afternoon I saw Archie's dad — Big Ed — walk into the tall grass and stand next to his son without saying a word. The radio in our kitchen was on KHJ and “Bus Stop” by The Hollies was playing. To this day I cannot hear that song without thinking of father and son, and the agonies that lingered long after Archie came home.

Ali was the boxer who did not go to Vietnam because he thought the war was wrong. In exchange for his principled stand, the government convicted Ali of dodging the draft. The business of boxing stripped him of his heavyweight title and refused to let him compete. They were also angry because Ali had converted to Islam and changed his name. No, really.

For almost four years, Muhammad Ali was not allowed to do his job. He was 25 when he was stripped of his title and his passport. He was almost 29 when he was finally able to climb back into a ring. Prime time for a Young Turk, wasted.

But he came back. He became a champion again. And he never backed down from speaking out against the wrongs of the world. Even after he lost his ability to talk his eyes still had the gleam of the righteous.

It made sense to a lot of people in the '60s to banish and condemn Ali. My father was no fan. To him Muhammad Ali would always be Cassius Clay, the loud-mouthed draft dodger who should have gone to prison. The whole Islam thing made him uneasy, too.

(It got even tougher for him when the UCLA basketball player Lew Alcindor publicly announced his conversion to Islam and became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The only thing that could have made it worse for my dad, the L.A. sports fan, would have been if USC great O.J. Simpson had joined the Nation of Islam. Instead he became a murderer.)

To my father it was simple: Ali was a coward and Archie was a hero. Never mind that Dad thought Vietnam was a mess, a no-win hellhole like Korea had been for him. He thought Ali should have gone ahead with the draft; to his way of thinking The Champ would have landed some cushy stateside post and that would have been fine. Everyone would be appeased. Be a good soldier. Go along, get along. Just keep your mouth shut.

But Archie had been the good soldier — a hero — and now he stood silent in the tall grass. Ali had been taken down in his own way, but he would not stay down. He would not go quietly. He was a hero, too.

They became the story of Vietnam in my childish mind, and as is the case in many childhood stories, this one marked me for life. The soldier. The contrarian. The defeated. The defiant. In Archie I saw how the good can be brought low, for nonsensical reasons. In Ali I saw the essential need to speak truth to power, to stop such nonsense from ever becoming reasonable.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


His last name was Name — no, seriously. I don’t know if it was some kind of mix-up with one of his ancestors, some mistake made in their immigration papers, but that’s the name on his tombstone.

His full name was Jacob Robert Name — born to a farm family in 1855 in Indiana. His father was from Germany. The Names had 11 children. Jacob came fourth.

He was 24 when he married for the first time. Her name was Alice Marie Loy and she was 24, too. They settled down and did farm work, too, and they raised a son to adulthood.

Alice died in May 1904, two weeks before her 49th birthday, and just months short of the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary. Jacob buried his wife in their hometown of Kokomo, where by now he ran a grocery store.

And then Jacob’s life took a series of sharp, strange turns.

Five months after he buried his wife, 49-year-old Jacob Name married Nettie Kelley. She had just turned 17 the week before. Her family also lived in Kokomo.

What the 11,000 people in that Indiana city might have said about the Names is unknown. Maybe not much — Kokomo back then was a booming industrial city, filled with plenty of technological firsts. Jacob Name was a grocer. His behavior probably went unnoticed by most people.

What we do know is that Jacob and Nettie had a son, Robert Jesse. He arrived a year after their marriage, on Halloween Eve 1905.

Less than two months later Nettie would be gone — a second Mrs. Name, dead in as many years. She died on Dec. 21 and was buried the next day at age 18. How she died is a mystery. There is no autopsy report, no police records. Sudden illness? Suicide? Something worse? We don’t know.

We do know another five months passed, and Jacob Name was suddenly married again.

This one was Grace Edith Monroe. She was also 17. Her mother was a Kelley and she and Nettie were cousins. Grace signed the marriage certificate; the notary noted it was “by order of her father and mother."

Jacob and Grace married on May 6, 1906.

That was a Sunday. One week and a day later, on the 14th, Jacob’s son with his second wife died. Robert Jesse Name was seven months old. Another tragedy. Another mystery. Again, no newspaper accounts of the tragedy. No autopsy, no police reports. Only speculation, especially when it comes to what Grace must have thought — newly wed, still a teen, with a husband who had just turned 51 and a dead baby in the house. That she did not turn and run, screaming, says something about her.

Grace would be Jacob’s last wife. They had four children by the time Grace was 22. Jacob was 55 by then and almost used up. Census records from 1910 reveal one more curiosity: Jacob Name could not read or write. How did he run a grocery store?

He died when he was 58. His children with Grace never really got to know him. All that is left are digital copies of marriage certificates, census records, and photos rescued from time’s ravages. In one of them — the photo at the top of this post — Jacob and Grace look into the camera. In his eyes I see traces of his daughter, a strong-willed redhead named Ruth Ellen Name. My grandmother.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


He was the son of a banker, but he felt like a loser. While his friends were buying houses and stepping up in the world, 27-year-old Marty Strange was struggling to stay afloat. It was him, and his wife, Melanie, and their two children — boys, ages 2 and 4 — in an apartment just outside Branson.

On the Fourth of July holiday weekend in 1989, the Strange family went on a boat with Marty's father. On the water, they watched other couples, other families. Marty said something about one day maybe having a boat of their own.

"Some people are luckier in love than others," Melanie said. And Marty's vision started to narrow as the sun set.

That night, back in their apartment, they got ready for bed. Melanie turned to Marty. "I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," he replied in his mild voice. Only he wondered why he had a knife in his hand.

For the next several minutes, Marty Strange's memory was a series of photographs: the knife at Melanie's throat. A bathrobe sash around one son's neck. Marty's hands clenched around the other son's throat.

Then he heard a knife clatter in the sink. The shower was running. He was naked. And cold. Cold.

He put his family in the bed where Melanie died. He turned down the thermostat and drove away.

They caught Marty Strange a few days later, and he eventually went to trial and was convicted of murder. The jury then had to decide whether he should live or die.

In attendance at that trial in Forsyth was a man named Howard Kenyon. His body was in a wheelchair but his mind was too big to be confined. Smart guy. Good guy. We talked trial strategy and personalities and the horror of the crime, and whether Marty was insane when he killed his family.

When it came time for the jury to return with its recommended punishment it was close to deadline. There was one pay phone at the end of the corridor outside the courtroom. Every other reporter would want to use it first.

Howard and I became partners. He would sit in the courtroom and hear the jury's decision. I would stand outside the courtroom, looking through the window in the door. One finger for death, two fingers for life. That was our code.

Howard lifted one finger. I sprinted for the pay phone, snagged it, got the news back to the Factory. Other reporters had to wait. That's the way to do it.

Howard deserved a byline that day.

(Marty Strange never went to death row. The evidence of his lifelong mental illness was strong. The judge found a procedural error in the charges and convinced the prosecution to cut a deal — life in prison, no parole. Marty is still in prison.)

Howard Kenyon left his wheelchair behind today. It is too late to tell him how much I appreciated him — not just the solid on the jury verdict, but his kindnesses in the years since. He could have viewed life as a burden. He lived it with joy.

Thank you, Howie.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


This is what I imagined the future would look like. Sleek and trim and black, with hints of Tron. Just 10 years ago but that's a lifetime these days.

The future is now the present and it is uglier than I'd imagined — it is full of noise masquerading as information. People spouting off and becoming part of the angry pack of the day, because who doesn't want to be part of what's #trending?

So much uproar, and so much of it is nasty, and under it all is a current of cold.

Granted, there is elegance here. It is much easier to text someone "good morning" rather than "46666663*6666766444664" — but maybe the charm was in the clunkiness. It was hard to do it so we got to the point. We didn't text blab. We didn't feel as free to vomit our opinions into the ether. It helped that we couldn't, not unless we wanted to sit at a computer and surf Free Republic.

There was talk radio. Looking back on it I should have seen the hints ... the early symptoms of this current cancer to the collective brain. I co-hosted a show in the early part of the century and remember the gloats and moans from the right and left, respectively. The name-calling. The growing paranoia about Muslims. The Us vs. Them mentality that enveloped both liberals and conservatives. It had grown up in the '90s during the Clinton era, when Rush Limbaugh thought it funny to mock Chelsea Clinton's appearance.

By the '00s the right was back in power and the left flailed in outrage. Stolen election, Bush is a dumbass, Cheney's a crook, blah blah. And then, war. And more war. It seemed like there wasn't as much enmity against Muslims then, probably because we were bringing them democracy and free elections and blah blah.

There was fear, yes — but tamped down enough to elect a guy whose middle name is Hussein. He turned out to be chill, but he never had a chance, really. The mess we made in Iraq gave birth to the Islamic State and now there are people willing to kill and die here for the cause over there.

San Bernardino happens and it's oxygen to the smoldering fear. Whoosh — an orange fireball erupts and thousands leap to their feet in full-throated roar. Tough crowd if you're not like them (code: white). If you're not careful they might stone you to death ... no, that's barbaric and unfair. They would gun you down with their many weapons of mayhem. Because America.

We share these feelings and fears because that's what we do — share. Everything with everyone. We know more people these days than ever in the history of humans. We have friends all over the world, people we will never meet. We like their lives and they like ours and neither one of us knows the absolute truth. It's all surface with a Mayfair filter, overly bright and tinged pink.

Life is a feigned intimacy these days, especially when bad things happen and we act like we're all in it together. We indulge the heated hyperbole because we desperately need to be part of Us, a thread in the social media tapestry. It's right there in our Facebook feed, the one recently awash in profile pics tinted blue, white and red. Got it: you feel for France. Not so much for Mali, but not as many people died there and besides, where exactly is Mali, anyway?

Welcome to the brave future. Alert the authorities if you see Anything Suspicious. That would include people buying dozens of burner phones at Walmart, or men with turbans buying diesel at a gas station, or generally any sort of person who isn't one of Us and might be one of Them. It helps if they're foreigners.

That's the discourse. A friend told me she couldn't believe how many Facebook friends supported Trump.

He'll never become president, I said, hoping I believed it myself.

"I don't know what the answer is," she said. "But I know it isn't Donald Trump."


"This is what it's like to be me," I say with a grand sweep of my left hand. Behold: a spartan apartment as befits a single man. The bed is made and the dishes are clean. I may be many things but I am not a barbarian.

The cats feign interest in the tower of nom. "I know you want me to shut up," I inform them, "but I have to say this first. You guys can keep a secret, right?" Monty, the bigger one, stretches up to claw at my thigh.

"No one ever told me life would be this lonely. My mom and dad, they told me it would be hard. Jesus, they lived it. Factory work in Los Angeles. Then he upended us to Missouri so he could become a cop and she worked in a hospital kitchen. Hard life, yeah. Now they're dead." I think about how big my father's biceps looked as he got dressed to work at the adhesive factory. About how my mother's black hair sprouted filaments of white but never surrendered to the snow.

"A hard life I can handle. Now that it's winter I go to work before the sun rises and leave the office after it sets. Well, the sun doesn't rise or set, it's all an illusion, but you know what I mean. Dark going in, dark coming out. At least I have a job. 'Be grateful you have a job,' my mom used to say, and she was right. So very Asian of her.

"She told me about being alone. After dad left she dated one man a few times but she was done. She was ready to be alone. She lived another 30-some years without sharing space with another and she became ... I don't know. Ennobled, maybe. She had a dignity that came from being alone." I hear a faint echo of the last word and say it again: "Alone."

I walk into the bedroom and lie down. It's been a long day. They're all long days lately. The cats jump up and eye me with what looks like resignation.

"Almost done, I swear. And then we can eat and I'll tell you the story of the Cat Queen." I dispense dual pettings until the purrs are in stereo.

"My mom showed me alone but she never showed me lonely. Or told me about it, at least. She was a mystery. Hard to read her face, but my, she loved cats. She would have gotten the biggest kick out of you two. Especially you, Pierre. You're such a little Pistol Pete." Pierre squeaks affirmation.

"Being alone isn't bad. It's a choice, after all. It's not like I want for company. I'm just an introvert, masquerading as a raconteur. Most of the people who want my company, they're all about the storyteller, not the real story. No need to waste their time or mine on the superficial. I'd rather sleep alone, thanks.

"But when the clock's pushing 1 a.m. the silence starts to scream and it's lonely, Jesus fuck it's lonely." The pillow next to me is cold and I won't let myself think about the warmth of her back against my chest as she sleeps, or the tickle of her hair in my face.

"It's not right, being this lonely. It's like there's something's not square in my soul. Maybe that's the real reason I'm alone. People sense that twist in me and know enough to stay the hell away. Probably doesn't help that I'm a notorious no-show. I'm just ... weary. It sounds like pussy work, making paragraphs, but it's noisy on the factory floor. All those scanners and TVs, blatting out bursts of static and occasional news. All those people. And always always always that precise digit string in my head — 3:58:26 — compelling me to work harder, faster because ... just because, I guess. It's what I'm built to do.

"So tired. And when I come home to hear the echo of my own voice I feel the lonely start to smack me around, and that makes the tired settle in, just one more wave of weary."

Pierre climbs onto my chest. Golden eyes stare. I stare back.

"I guess I'm never lonely with you guys. You're here to remind me why I need to be alone right now. You're here to remind me to chill and not wander too far into the darkness."

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Every saturnalia needs entertainment — loud music, wild dancers, and bawdy humor. For the bacchanal that is the Republican presidential primary the humor comes courtesy of Donald Trump, a developer and reality-television character nicknamed the "short-fingered vulgarian" by the late (great) Spy magazine.

The moniker has never been more appropriate. In his run for the nation's highest office, Trump has shown a breathtaking ability to be vulgar.

Those who oppose him are "losers" and "idiots." Other people are "stupid," while he has "the world's best memory." He sees rapists among immigrants from Mexico; terrorists in the crowd of refugees fleeing Syria; suspicious people in mosques.

He is open to a suggestion that the government put Muslims on a special watchlist.

He says if he would have been at the rock concert in Paris, he wouldn't have been killed.

He thinks it's acceptable behavior to mock a man for a physical disability, and then lie and say he wasn't mocking anyone.

He often muses about his daughter's physical beauty and says that if she wasn't his daughter, he might date her.

He questioned the heroism of a prisoner of war.

He grimaced at an image of Carly Fiorina and sneered: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?"

He told a reporter who asked him pointed questions: "I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be based on the way you have treated me."

A protester at one of his rallies dared to heckle Trump and was pushed, hit and kicked by some of the candidate's devotees. Trump said the man was so loud that "maybe he should have been roughed up."

As performance art it is provocative. As politics it is nasty and corrosive and ugly. Not just for the odious things Trump says but because his words are junk food for the masses who are Pissed Off and Fed Up and looking to Kick Some Ass. They're gobbling the trash Trump is feeding them. It's making them sick — jacked-up heart rates and sky-high blood pressure from the fresh infusion of rage — but it's also making them stronger, bolder.

They think the man with the bluster is "telling it like it is." They don't care that his policy prescriptions are impossible (round up millions of people for deportation, build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, bomb enemies into extinction). They just like it when he stands up and calls people names. He is saying what they are thinking and feeling.

He plays up their fears and brushes off any suggestion that he is wrong — he is never wrong because he has the best memory, he is the best businessman, he is the only one who can bring the rest of the world to its knees and make America great (again). Anyone who suggests he is wrong is, in the stirring words of the candidate, "so dumb."

People think it's funny. They want more insults, more demagoguery, more enemies to hate. They are sick of politicians and tired of this complicated world. They are in Trump's cult of personality, all too happy to be just like their leader: loud and angry. Maybe they're still scared and maybe they will tire of Trump's bombast but for right now he's their superhero and they need more more more. How do you like it?

Trump is the perfect candidate for these twisted times. He is a former pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-tax businessman who is now pro-life, pro-Bible (his favorite book, he claims), pro-evangelical. He is the angry comments troll come to life. You're stupid. You're an idiot. No one should listen to you, you're a joke. You're ugly, too. I know what I'm talking about 'cause I'm the smartest man that ever lived. EVER.

I used to wonder what it would take to knock Trump from the race. That was around the time he demeaned John McCain's captivity in a prisoner of war camp. (Ah, innocence, to believe something like that could disqualify someone from the Oval Office.) Now I worry the unbelievable could happen and Trump could become the Republican Party's chosen candidate. Unlikely, sure, but still possible ... and this is the kind of thought that can set up a dangerous ricochet in the brain — if it happens the blood roar of anger could swamp the country and the Democrats would find a way to screw it up and We The People might just say "fuck it" and elect a megalomaniac to the White House, and from there ... 

Trump is scheduled to meet Monday with 100 black religious leaders "who will endorse" the candidate. That's according to a Trump news release. Many of the pastors say they don't know what Trump is talking about; they're going to the meeting but they have no intention of supporting his candidacy.

A lie like that would capsize any other candidate's campaign. With Trump it's really a minor transgression, given his history of insults and mendacities. He could probably strangle a kitten onstage and his followers would scratch their heads and murmur, "Well, people in Egypt worshipped cats and Egypt is full of Muslims, so."

It is that simple in Trumpland. Never underestimate the power of rage, especially on people who don't have the time, energy or effort to keep up with the news. They just know that Something is Wrong and no one has fixed it and by God, maybe that bigmouth can do it. He says he can and I've seen him on TV and he's rich. Good enough for me.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Nothing weighs the most in the heart, which explains why empty hearts are so heavy. Happy people have hearts packed with hopes and dreams and plans, big plans, the best plans. Happy, airy things, so light they almost float.

In their absence the heart loses buoyancy. Full of nothing, it becomes a weight, and the blood it pumps is a dark sludge. Addicts often try to dilute the foul blood; a speed jolt or heroin wave (or a few deep belts from the bottle, or a pile of food) can mimic the happy feeling of a hopeful heart, at least for a little while.

Those days are dead ways for me now. I remind myself of the fact at the start of the strange season for me, the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's Day stretch of a year's journey. It has become tradition to work on Thanksgiving Day (the factory is largely shut down and there is turkey). I like to work the day because the last time I took it off I got dumped. But that was a long time ago, and over the course of the last four years I have come to love and not loathe this season.

It's not because of any person. It's because of every person in my life right now, and the realization that the only hope is hope — strong, enduring optimism, even when the heart is heavy. Especially when it's heavy.

Right now mine is kinda full and sorta light, so it's easy for me to have hope. But true to its numerical billing, 2015 has been an odd year. More bitter than sweet, for reasons both personal and professional. The Even Year could be more of the same.

But I don't think so. Part of it is playing the odds; after a year like this one a change is inevitable. What was bad will fall away. What was good will stay and grow. Or so I hope, and with that thought I feel myself growing lighter. For this I give thanks.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Trigger warnings? You're not going to get them. Microaggressions? Yeah, I've got plenty of those. Zero tolerance? Precisely the amount of tolerance I have for the current atmosphere of poison masquerading as the best oxygen ever.

If we really lived in that Utopia of rich air we could all join hands and sing Lionel Richie and dance on the ceiling 'cause oh what a feeling. But we don't. So I won't. We live in a great big mess of a world and no amount of mind coddling will change that. If this fact offends you I am not sorry.

I am offended by a different truth: We are softer now for breathing the tainted air. Some people think it's better this way, being soft and everpleasant, but I think they're only doing it because they're smart and they know to keep their heads down. The air is a little fresher down there and it's better to go unnoticed anyway. It's the brash and the stupid who raise up and get their skulls shot off. Before the preceding sentence I guess I should have issued a trigger warning for people traumatized by the Zapruder film, but too late.

I should have a better filter, to keep me from acting out. I think it was shot off a long time ago, when being brash was a requirement for fiercely intelligent discourse. Provocative thoughts and questions were encouraged, and if the debate created uncomfortable moments — good. Being challenged was a good thing. It made you think.

It's easier to be provocative these days because people are easily offended and no one wants to be challenged. No one wants to think. Social media allows us the luxury of instant me-too outrage that we can share with our friends. Pretty soon everyone is pissed off at a hunter they don't know and mourning the death of a lion they never celebrated during its life. Or they're making sure all of their Facebook friends and Twitter followers know they stand for this cause, this person, that plight. Their profile pictures reflect their current fixations.

But dare question why they feel the way they do and the furies are unleashed. People are touchy, so touchy, and it's no use reasoning with them because that might cause them to think and that's not fun. Thinking is scary. It forces people to challenge themselves and others. It's better to click like and move on.

But that requires keeping your head down — figuratively, lest the furies attack, and literally because that's the only way to click like on your phone.

It requires a filter. A thick one with plenty of accordion folds to catch all the nervy things before they fly through my brain and out of my mouth. Otherwise I might find my left thumb and right index finger tapping on the glass, banging out a screed:

Fine, you're offended. By the breast or the councilman. By gay marriage or that county clerk. By the Republicans and/or the Democrats. By liberals or conservatives. By Hillary because you love Bernie. By Islam or Islamophobia. By immigrant haters or Hispanics. By Christians or atheists. By a flag, by a racist, by a joke, by a word. Got it. You. Are. Offended. Pardon me if I don't click like.

Share your status with my friends? Not just no, but hell no. Not unless it's something cool, like super slo-mo vid of cats.

Dat cat video: much cooler than someone's insistence that every cop is a racist pig. You've seen those posts, right? Cop pops caps and another one bites the dust. Because racism.

In the back of my head I think it could be fun to poke, to point out that there are plenty of good cops, that black Americans are disproportionally represented in jails and prisons, and that this doesn't necessarily mean the system is racist, but it's damn well worth talking about. It would be fun, right up to the point when the long guns come out and shoot me in the head for being a racist oppressor who clearly thinks bad things about black people.

It would be equally fun to point out to some friends that their affection for the word "hero" is sweetly stupid because the way they overuse it only dilutes the honorific. Not every cop/fireman/soldier/person in uniform is a hero. Some of them are scoundrels. But saying it only makes people think I'm a cop-hating lawbreaker who needs to be watched by the cops.

It would be enjoyable to leave a comment on a post that insists on rigid lockstep thinking when it comes to gay marriage. You know, something along the lines of okay, you think you're on the side of history and if someone disagrees with you they're bad, they're evil, they can only speak if they're properly muzzled. Please get over yourself. And stop shouting at the people who think you're wrong. They don't deserve your hate. Save your hate for Hitler.

But why bother? The time for caring has slipped past. I'm only interested in surviving this ridiculous era. It will take a cataclysm to end it — some sort of shock to the grid that destroys the 'net and forces us to look inward, and up. Once that happens we can get serious again about recognizing the humanity in other humans, and understanding that they're more than a Facebook profile.

Until then: too late. The virtual battle lines between the warring factions are dug-in, deep. We are not interested in talking with each other, only talking past each other.

We are on a sure slide into madness, where dissenting thoughts and words are seen as weapons in the hands of our enemies, the people who disagree. The swift penalty is death by digital dismemberment. Anything less won't quench the thirst of the outraged. It's mob rule. Welcome to the mob.