Wednesday, December 04, 2019

THE GREAT QUAKE OF 1990


AP Photo/James A. Finley

Hundreds of reporters descended on New Madrid, Mo., in December 1990, after a climatologist claimed a massive earthquake would destroy much of the Midwest. The prediction was a bust. But it made for great stories. Here are five dispatches from five states along the faultline.

Dec. 1, 1990

BLACK OAK, Ark. — The land surrounding Dennis and Sonya Saddler's blue, single-wide mobile home is flat as far as the eye can see.

In the distance, dust devils whirl, whipped to life by incoming storm clouds. Tornadoes have been known to tear across these fields in spring, and when they do, they're vicious because there's nothing to slow them down, just a few houses and a barn. In fact, it was just this past spring that a twister came at 4:30 a.m. and tore away half of the Saddlers' barn.

But Dennis and Sonya Saddler aren't worried about a tornado. Not right now.

"See it?" Dennis asks, pointing to the horizon. "See it?"

He's pointing to a small ridge — it can't be more than a few inches high, and from here, it's almost invisible — that rings the west and north edges of his property. Warning flags used to be on the ridge, courtesy of a surveyor who knew what lay beneath the benign rise.

Dennis plowed the flags under. He's lived here all his 30 years. He doesn't need to be reminded that less than a quarter-mile from his home, the home he shares with his eight-months-pregnant wife, the New Madrid fault slumbers.

"Can't let it worry you, though," he says. "All you can do is get ready."

The Saddlers are experts at getting ready. They've been preparing for an earthquake every since Iben Browning announced a 50-50 chance of a major temblor along the fault this week. And we're not talking about a few jugs of water and a handful of granola bars.

"Got me a thousand-gallon water tank all filled up," Dennis says, proudly. "Got a bunch of chickens, a couple of hogs, some turkeys, a few guineas, some ducks, two deer already in the freezer. A bunch of canned goods in the pantry and a gas grill. Got some copper line in case the propane tank busts loose. Got a bunch of peroxide — I mean, a bunch. That stuff works wonders, you know. Oh yeah, got me some bandages, too, and five cases of Budweiser."

Dennis' face breaks into a broad grin. "I'd say I'm ready. Wouldn't you?"

Part of the planning frenzy is because of the baby — Jonathan Charles Saddler — due this month. Dennis has even installed lightweight ceiling tiles in the baby's room in case the roof falls in.

Of course, if Dennis had his druthers, he'd have waited another year for Jonathan. With all this talk of an earthquake, coming just days before the baby, who can blame Dennis for fretting?

Sonya can't, though she's delighted at the prospect of being a mother. A substitute teacher, Sonya already has Jonathan' clothes lined up neatly in the closet. She's positive he'll enjoy the wallpaper, decorated with blue bunnies and bears. And she's sure happy Dennis is such a worrywart.

Life is pretty good for the Saddlers, save for the New Madrid fault.

"It ain't a'gonna happen," Dennis proclaims, popping open a Bud and handing it to his visitor. His accent is as thick as the clouds building up outside. "Though this fella Browning, he's no dummy, talking about the moon and the tides and all."

Sonya nods. So does Jimmy Cantrell, a family friend who's come from Harrisburg to talk. For the past several weeks, that's all the Saddlers and their friends have talked about — how there won't be an earthquake, but ...

"I'm really not afraid. Really," Sonya says.

Dennis chimes in: "I'm more prepared right now than anyone else around. Come a quake, I'm gonna be sitting pretty. If the freezer conks out, I'll just slaughter a hog. If the tank freezes, I'll just build me a fire underneath it."

If the roads buckle? No problem. Dennis has fitted a Ford Pinto shell onto a Boss 302 Bronco frame and slapped on some monster-truck tires that come to his waist. If the rivers rise? No worry. There's a boat in the barn.

A power outage? C'mon. There's a battery-operated television, a couple of transistor radios and a police scanner with a battery backup.

The Saddlers have stowed enough goods to take care of themselves and their friends for a month. They don't have much cash — Dennis farms, and winter is a slow time for that — but the way they see it, cash won't be worth the paper it's printed on if the fault awakens.

So instead of furrowed brows and worried voices, the Saddlers' mobile home is filled with laughter. Dennis passes around some venison tenderloins coated in cayenne pepper breading and cracks open another beer.

"Yessir, I'm ready," he repeats. Only this time he leans forward to make a point, and his smile becomes a little tighter. Instead of laughter, his voiced is tinged with the determination of a man ready for just about anything thrown his way. He points to a corner of the living room, right next to his pregnant wife. A shotgun.

"I've got that and a buncha boxes of extra shotgun shells. Let them looters come on out. I'll show them what ready really means."

===

Dec. 2, 1990

BRAGGADOCIO, Mo. — "Are you prepared?"

The Rev. Bill Luttrell's question, amplified by the thumb-sized microphone attached to his red silk tie, rolls across the pews inside the Braggadocio Baptist Church. There is a second of silence as 39 men, women and children ponder the three words, let them slide from their minds to their souls.

"Are you prepared?" Luttrell again asks, and one by one, the people begin to nod, begin to smile and say, "Amen."

They begin to understand. Luttrell senses this and presses on.

"I know there is much anxiety going on," he says. "I look out today and notice some people missing. One went to Sedalia. Another went to Branson. Many fear this thing called an earthquake. And by the way, if there is an earthquake during services today, as fast as you possibly can, get under these pews. They are oak and they will save your life."

Someone taps lightly on their pew. Several other people glance at the ceiling, at the glass chandeliers some 20 feet above, and mentally calculate whether they can beat the chandeliers to the green carpet. It would probably be a close race, especially for the elderly, who are the majority of the congregation.

Luttrell throws open wide his arms and gestures to the congregation. "We do need to prepare. The earthquake might happen. Will it? I don't know. But I'm prepared as much as I can be for the thing I KNOW will happen. I'm prepared to meet my God. Are you?"

It is an intensely personal question, one that requires a thorough sounding of the heart. But the people inside this modest brick church have no problem with such soul-searching question. For the past several weeks, the men and women of this farming community, some 30 miles south of New Madrid, have wrestled with an agonizing dilemma, as talk increased of a possible earthquake along the fault beneath their feet.

The possibility of a killer temblor is no longer fodder for coffee-shop jokes. It is palpable now, as real as the dog-eared Bibles they clutch in their hand.

Yes, they have fear. Laverne Waldrop slept in her clothes Saturday night; she didn't want to get caught in her nightgown if an earthquake struck while she slumbered. "I felt a little silly this morning," she says. "But I'm nervous."

Yes, they have prepared physically. Waldrop has a survival kit in her car. Others — including Luttrell — have stockpiled food and water and supplied at home.

Yes, they have prepared spiritually, these faithful few. They have prayed to their God, searched Scripture for guidance and have concluded that flight would be folly — as foolish as trying to bargain with the reaper, in Luttrell's words.

If Iben Browning's much-ballyhooed guess is correct, if there is a major earthquake sometime this week, Luttrell's reaper will most likely visit this community of cotton farmers and retirees.

So be it. The faithful know the earthquake will not be the work of Browning or any other person. The faith have put their trust in divine hands, and in those hands they feel safe.

"I'm depending on the Lord to take care of me," says Noel Dudley, who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "If he doesn't, that means he's called me home."

===

Dec. 3, 1990

FORT PILLOW, Tenn. — The perfume of newness — a blend of choice leather and fresh paint — fills the air inside the West Tennessee High Security Facility.

That smell is especially pungent in the visiting room, a cavern 50 feet wide and twice as long, where dozens of brown contour chairs partially absorb the echo of voices as they ricochet off beige-painted walls.

In the center of the room, Warden Billy Compton stands at attention. An ex-Army man, his posture is always ramrod straight, even when he's trading pleasantries with the guards as they walk past.

Compton accepts a compliment on his prison, a $30 million, state-of-the-art lockup opened in April. It holds 587 of Tennessee's most serious felons. Death row may be at another prison, but Compton's facility contains plenty of murderers and those men branded "troublemakers" by the state.

This room is where the least troublesome prisoners get to visit with family. Its tile floor is waxed religiously, all the better to keep that fresh smell alive.

This is where the dead and dying might be warehoused if an earthquake erupts.

The prison sits about 45 miles northeast of Memphis, on the eastern edge of the New Madrid fault. Compton and his staff have devised a disaster plan that includes using the visiting room and the gymnasium as makeshift hospitals and morgue.

The prison was built to take the fault's best shot. Each wall was sunk into reinforced concrete, three feet deep and three feet wide on either side.Each pre-fab concrete slab was tested for sturdiness. The chain-link fence, fortified with rolls of razors, has two alarms with emergency backups.

If a quake comes, it may level everything else. The prison, in theory, should remain standing. The "in theory" part is what worries Compton. "They say it'll survive a violence quake, but I don't know," Compton says, patting a wall. "I sure hope it does."

On this day — the date of a predicted major quake — thoughts of a temblor come to the fore of Compton's mind. Nary a tremor Monday morning; Compton and several co-workers joke about quake forecaster Iben Browning's words as they walk from building to building, through steel doors that clang shut with a roar when caught by the terrific wind blowing outside.

Even the prisoners seem unconcerned. There are inmates like Joe — prison rules prohibit the use of last names — who say they've put their trust in God. "I think the whole thing was a hoax for some people to make money," says Joe, 46, stroking his gray goatee. "But if it isn't, it' not the work of man. It's God's work."

Then there are those like Charles, a 33-year-old Tennessee native. He's thought hard about Browning's words. There are few other things to do in prison. "I even thought about it until 1 or 2 this morning," Charles says. "But then I dozed off and when I woke up this morning, I wasn't worried anymore."

His relatives are concerned. They talked to Charles on Sunday night and told him to be careful and to not do anything "irrational." Translation: Don't even think about escaping if the walls come crashing down.

"Good idea, Charles," the warden interjects. "Keep that in mind. Don't do anything irrational."

Charles and Joe are in the minority among prisoners. Most of the men couldn't care less whether an earthquake demolished their enforced home. They know all about the hype, through television, newspapers and letters from home. Their relatives talk to them on the telephone and talk about how scary it must be, being locked in cages atop an earthquake fault.

But what are the prisoners supposed to do? Fret themselves into a frenzy, all because one man uttered the date Dec. 3? They have more important things to worry about, like making a good impression before the parole board, or keeping an eye out for enemies on the inside.

An earthquake they can handle, because when it comes, it comes, and no one — not the warden, not the guards, not their dogs — can do anything about it. The same cannot be said of their foes, who may kill them over something as trivial as a blocked shot during a basketball game in the yard.

Outside these walls, earthquake fever is rampant. Inside, no one's even running a temperature. "Sure, man, you have to think about it, just for the question of 'What if?'" says Willie, a 24-year-old from Tennessee. "But I got better things to go with my time."

===

Dec. 4, 1990

OSCAR, Ky. — Pull open the screen door covered with dusty, yellowing plastic and step inside. Emma Mitchell feels like talking a spell.

We're in Oscar today, a wide spot in the road about 25 miles northwest of Paducah. The New Madrid fault lies just southwest of here, at the marriage of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The place: Mitchell's Store, a century-old frame building that looks perilously close to collapse. White paint peels from every outside wall. Tree limbs and winter-dormant vines obscure the sign above the front door. If it weren't for the OPEN placard, it'd be pretty easy to assume the place had long been abandoned.

But way back in the back of the store — past the two refrigerators filled with soft drinks, the glass candy counter, the rack with one bag of pork rinds hanging from a clip — there sits Mitchell, barely illuminated by the glare of a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. She's 88 years old, a frail whisper of a woman bundled in a red-and-white blouse, two red sweaters and a pair of pants covered by a patchwork quilt. A walker is close at hand. Mitchell broke both her hips a few years ago.

"Go on, go on — sit down," she urges. "I'm just trying to keep warm by the fire." Shimmers of heat rise from the stove. A couple of feet away is plenty close for a dose of warmth. But it is chilly outside, and the combination of Mitchell's soft, cracked voice, the darkness of the store and pleasant smell of burning wood makes this a comfortable way to pend a Tuesday morning.

"I've lived around here all my life, and we've had lots of little quakes," Mitchell says. "But I'm sure happy this big one didn't come yesterday. It probably would have knocked down this old building, with me inside."

Little doubt there. The far corners of the ceiling are covered with sheets of cardboard, and whistles of wind leak through cracks in the wood walls. It looks like the leaning wall behind Mitchell is supported only by a 7-foot-tall stack of firewood chopped and stacked by her neighbors.

But some things are built to last, and Mitchell's store appears to be one of them. It's the last remnant of the old Oscar, a place that used to have a few more stores, a few more townsfolk. Today's Oscar is generally known in these parts as a handy stopping point for goose hunters roaming the Ballard County Wildlife Management Area just west of here.

A few hunters have come in since goose season opened in earnest on Saturday. They sit and chat with Mitchell, warm their feet by the fire and buy their essentials — candy bars, cigarettes, a few cans of soda. Mitchell likes the company.

Her daughter wants Mitchell to live with her in nearby Barlow, but the storekeeper likes her independence too much to sell the place. Besides, Mitchell says, anyone who bought the store would level it to make room for something new, something with bright light and neatly stacked shelves. That's enough to keep Emma Mitchell here.

"Unless an earthquake comes," she says. "But there's nothing I can do about that, except hope and pray to God that he lets me stay here for a little while longer."

Time to go. Mitchell waves goodbye. "Now, any old time you're back in these parts, come on back."

A few miles up the road, on Kentucky 473, is a sign too tempting to pass up: "Monkey's Eyebrow Bait House. Good and Duck Processing." The bait house is closed — damn the luck — but Aulton Freeman opens the door to the house beside it. He's wiry, 73 years old, wearing a camouflage shirt, blue jeans and a camo hat bearing the title "The Undertaker." On it is a flying goose.

"You just come from Emma Mitchell's? Yeah, I've known Emma for about as long as I've known anyone," Freeman says, apologizing for his low rumble of a cough. He learned last December that he had lung cancer. Doctors removed a golfball-sized tumor, and so far the cancer hasn't returned.

Freeman is well enough, however, to answer the obvious question. "Well, I was born and raised here, and my dad lived here, and he was 79 when he died," Freeman begins. "He's been dead 20 years, and here's what he told me.

"Two brothers — John Ray and Dodge Ray — lived here. One ran a store, the other, a blacksmith shop. There was a drive between their places. They come out one morning, and one says to the other, 'How are you?' And the other says, 'Well, the monkey has his eyes open this morning.' And from that, they got Monkey's Eyebrow."

Monkey's Eyebrow used to be a booming little place; you could buy anything you could in Paducah. But most people abandoned the curving two-lane highway for the four-lane interstate that cuts through Paducah. Now, the only visitors to Monkey's Eyebrow are the hunters and the curious.

This is a busy time of year for Freeman. He walks out to his processing shop and shows off his wares. For $3 a bird, hunters drop off their geese. Freeman's helpers pluck, singe, gut, wash and freeze the carcasses. Freeman processed 3,468 geese last year. He netted 784 pounds of feathers, which he sold for $5 a pound.

The season runs through Jan. 31, so Freeman expects plenty of cars and trucks to stop by in the next couple of months. Now that Iben Browning's Dec. 3 earthquake projection is history, maybe people will start talking about blinds and decoys instead of tremors.

"Oh, that earthquake stuff, all that crap, it's silly," he says. "I'm not smart, but I'm not so silly to predict an earthquake. Besides, the Bible says at the end of time, no man will know. Not even the angels will know. So why would a little peon like me know when it's going to happen"?

===

Dec. 5, 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 "colored." 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.

Monday, September 23, 2019

BESEECHING THE NEWS GODDESS

Anyone who's ever been in journalism knows the joys and sorrows of the Slow News Day.

It's when the news goddess decides to take the day off. Maybe she's out playing Skee-Ball, like God in Dogma. Or maybe she's just tired of dishing up bad shit and wants every station to run kickers starring Twiggy the water-skiing squirrel. Hey, good enough for Ron Burgundy and the guys at the biker bar, good enough for you, the average news consumer.

But Jesus, try filling an hourlong newscast when the news goddess takes a powder. It's hell, man. Reporters who routinely go over on time are telling you their package is more like a VOSOT. Even Jeanne Moos comes in at under two minutes for her network package, and when that happens it's a sure sign of trouble.

Once the BBC actually took to the wireless and declared it a news-free day. I always envied the sheer balls that took — just key the mic and let everyone know there isn't shit going on. In my fantasy Dr. News would bring out Jerry Jacob, like Colbert summoning Jon Stewart, and after a few minutes of JJ telling it like it is they would introduce funny cat videos.

You'd watch that cast. We all would. We like to watch.

The News Goddess has not taken a break in more than 1,500 days — not since June 2015, when the current president rode down an escalator and announced his candidacy. So many absurdities, so much outrage since then — and nothing is slowing down.

The whole world is acting like it's on a meth binge and we're all carpet sharking for just one more shard, one more bowl to roll. Everyone is pissed off and/or depressed and/or looking to throat punch someone, anyone.

It is evidence that bolsters a pet theory — that the world ended sometime before that escalator ride. Before that June, and earlier than May 2015, when a cat gave birth to kittens in a bird nest. Definitely happened before a Florida man snuck under the tables at a library to smell the feet of patrons.

The world had already ended by then. We just didn't know it. Oblivious to the obvious, all the way down.

I guess the when doesn't matter now — but hey, reporter. Old habits. Knowing the when will help explain the why and how we were plunged into whatever it is we are experiencing — a mass afterlife happening, a shift into a parallel universethe imagination of an autistic child. Maybe we got sucked into a black hole. Perhaps the poles reversed. I don't know. But I have a few theories.

Whatever it was, it was fast. No one even had time to tweet about it (#BaiBae) or post an Instagram story, much less make it their Facebook status: "Watching the end of the world with _____." For this we should be grateful but man, a Snap would have been nice.

So sudden that there is no evidence that it happened. For now the only thing certain is that the end of the world as we know it has already happened and I don't know about you but I feel fine. Relatively speaking, of course, and it's girl fine, which isn't fine at all.

Theory 1: We're dead, Jim. All of us, wiped off the land of the living and swept into a funhouse-mirror version of heaven. Of course it's heaven. And hooray for us, everyone we love is also here! So is every one of our sworn enemies, and that certainly sucks. I really thought they'd be in hell, sharing a little wailing and gnashing of teeth at the lava pits with Hitler and Judas and Eddie Money.

Somehow it doesn't feel like life after death. For a definitive ruling we must turn to the words of the diminutive philosopher Prince. He promised that the Afterworld has never-ending happiness, where you can always see the sun, day (day) or night (night). Moreover, things are much harder here, contradicting the words of the wee prophet, so this can't be the true Afterworld because Prince does not lie.

Theory 2: We didn't die because we're not really alive in the first place — we're just sims in a game from some higher intelligence civilization, only the game is glitching and throwing all kinds of strange shit into the mix.

There are goldfish the size of kittens in the Great Lakes.

A wildfire spawns a tornado of fire, more than three miles high and shrieking like an EF-3 twister.

Navy pilots encounter UFOs, the news breaks in the New York Times, and it's not the story of the century, the decade, the year. It doesn't even make it a week before petering out.

Ned Reynolds is on KOZL. He's off The Jock and on The Cave. Don't sit there and tell me that's normal.

Theory 3: It's the Collider.  All that hot proton-on-proton smashing opened up some window to a parallel universe and we switched places. They are we and we are they and you bet it feels like we're waiting for the van to come.

Everything pretty much looks the same as before. There are no obvious signs of evil Van Dyke beards or opposite Jerrys. But things feel sticky, like the carpet in the worst room at a seedy by-the-hour motel. Stepping around here is at our own peril. You know there's a peephole in the bathroom facing the toilet. In the nightstand are the Book of Revelation and the Book of Stipe. On the TV, Mimi Rogers is having sex with strangers before finding Jesus and David Duchovny.

There's a lot of cheer here. Aggressive, slam-fight insistence that Everything is Great. Exclamation points are! highly!! encouraged!!! SO ARE ALL CAPS. Correct spelling and grammar are optional. Hey you — look to the bright light; aren't you feeling pretty psyched?

No. I'm not. Slow down, world.

LONG AGO SOMEBODY LEFT WITH THE CUP

This is the way a mind works:

I'm listening to music from the late 1990s, a time of great personal and professional inspiration, trying to resurrect an intangible. The band names are dusty — Superdrag, Third Eye Blind, Butthole Surfers. Got some Fatboy Slim for that ass, you betcha. Veruca Salt, Blur (woo hoo!), Cake.

Cake. The growly guitar and 5-6-7 bass line, the deadpan delivery. The trumpet, for god's sake. I remember seeing Rancid at Lollapalooza around that same time and they kicked it with a trombone — plenty cool; that's ska punk for you — but for sheer eclectic weirdness Cake took the cake.

Everyone knows "The Distance." It plays on classic rock stations because it was a big hit two decades ago and it still sounds simple and irreverent. Three minutes on the button with a catchy hook and a car metaphor. I remember listening to it while sitting in front of a Bondi Blue iMac, being all geewhizbang about the rudimentary wireless network we'd set up in the office, grinding my teeth as the ideas and words raced from my fingertips.

Firing on all cylinders, since we're comparing cars to humans, and that's why I've been immersed in the past. Those same cylinders that once roared are quiet. No internal combustion, no pumping pistons. The engine block is cold and there's nothing but a click when I turn the key.

At first I figured it was a battery in need of charging. That's always worked before. Give me a jump and get me revved and I'm good for several thousand miles, minimum. But this time the cables didn't do a goddamned thing. No spark. I've got nothing.

Maybe the alternator is going out. Or the starter's shot. Both possibilities give me the shakes. Those are supposed to be lifetime-guaranteed parts. I mean, I never got the warranties and I don't know what I did with the paperwork but I'm sure the starter wasn't supposed to die this soon.

Too soon. I'm not even 60 and my, but doesn't that sound pitiful? I've been counting on a resurgence in Act 3, a turn to top everything that came before. Figured that this much feet-on-earth time might make for more interesting writing — there is some advantage to experience. Regis didn't become REGIS until he was 57. Worked in TV forever but didn't become a household name until he did that little show with Kathie Lee.

Could he have pulled it off earlier? No. He tried, twice. That Regis Philbin Show lasted four months in 1964. Another attempt — The Regis Philbin Show, with co-host Mary Hart, bowed in 1981 and lasted 18 weeks. He wasn't ready to be Reeg.

Or maybe the world wasn't ready. Timing counts for so much, man. A great idea, launched too soon ... and by the time people could see the curve the idea was already around it and to the next bend, over the guardrail and onto the rocks below.

I must work on my timing.

LUCKY IN LOVE

A bit of fiction for the spooky season.

They had spent the day on his father's pontoon boat, and after hours on the water, hours in the sun, he was sure sleep would come easy.

A good Fourth of July, he said to himself as he washed his face and brushed out his mouth. The kids had enjoyed the boat's saunter across the lake, and even Melissa seemed happy — something he was so sure he'd never see again, not after the way he'd lost his temper, then his job, last winter.

Today, though, she smiled when their eyes met, and maybe it was the dancing light from the water or the several beers he'd sipped, but he believed there was hope, a chance forward. She would not need to cast him into oblivion, even if they both thought that's what he deserved.

Only once today did he feel the fear of being banished. As they got ready to watch the fireworks show near the bridge, he said something to Melissa about the number of really nice boats being steered by shiny, happy families — couples about their age, with preschool kids who looked like potential playmates for the boys. Just a throwaway little line about life and marriage, something so offhand he couldn't remember the exact wording just a few seconds after he said it.

He remembered her answer, though: "I guess some people are just luckier in love than others." Not even a dozen words said in a mild tone, but that's all it took for him to feel his shoulders scrunch up and his balls start to crawl towards his stomach. God, he hated disappointing Melissa. She'd married the son of the town's best-known banker, and while he was a good husband and father — a doting husband and father — there was something about him inside that was weak, a soft spot in the fruit of his personality that kept him from being able to get along with people for very long. So he kept losing job after job, and he had to hit up his father for more and more money, and he always felt the burn of Melissa's disapproval (or was it disgust? he couldn't be sure anymore) when he heard her sigh over the pile of bills and ask him if he would please ask his father for another grand so they could keep the lights on and the landlord off their ass.

But it hadn't been that bad tonight, maybe because his father had already slipped him a check with a little extra something-something in cash so he could buy Melissa a nice thing or two for her birthday next week. Maybe take her to the Landing and make some bath salts in that one place she liked. Nag champa and lavender: that was the combination she picked to mix up in the big steel bowls. It had been months since they'd used the last of the salts but he could still smell that scent every time he thought of her relaxing in the tub, hair up and nose in a book, the woman who made him the luckiest man alive.

"Some people are just luckier in love than others." He knew that was a fair criticism. Instead of joining the Junior League or being a lady who lunched, Melissa worked two part-time jobs. Sometimes 13 hours in a day, zipping from the morning desk job to her afternoon retail gig, barely having enough time to text and remind him to get more milk and generic cereal and pick up the boys from preschool. Thank God she reminded him. Sometimes he'd start thinking about things, about life and love and luck, and by the time he looked up an hour or two (or three or five, or sometimes the whole fucking day, let's be honest) would vanish. The doctors told him not to think or feel so much — just change his behavior and his feelings would follow — and that helped. Just so long as he remembered not to think.

About the bad stuff, that is. Thinking about Melissa was good. She deserved someone so much better, but she stuck with him and the marriage. Maybe it was mostly because of the boys, but he believed she still loved him; she put up with the soft, rotten spot in him and never made him feel inadequate, even when she had every right to. That fact alone made it easy for him to understand what she'd said tonight. And she was right: some people are luckier in love. They don't marry guys like him and they don't get stuck living in a three-bedroom apartment while all their friends are buying houses. They deserved better and they got better because, he realized, they didn't have a husband who blew up at work and pushed his boss into a desk and then muttered / shouted something about maybe bringing a gun in to work one day to take care of all the rest of the sonsabitches there (he told the cops he was kidding, he was sorry, he didn't even own a gun, but that wasn't enough to save his job).

He covered his face with his hands, rubbed the realization into his skin. He decided right then and there that he had to tell her how much he understood her disappointment and how he was going to do the right thing by her and the boys, he was going to dedicate himself to being a good and strong provider — a reliable man to his family, the sort of man she could fully embrace without fear of emotional bruising. He would make her lucky to know him. Lucky in love.

He turned off the bathroom light and climbed into bed beside her. She turned to face him.

"I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," he replied, and only then did he wonder why the knife was in his hand, heading for her throat.

ON THE EVE OF AN ANNIVERSARY

Five years. Has it really been that long? The calendar says so; it even sent an alert to let me know about Sept. 24 (it also let me know that This Is Us returns to NBC the same day, and they better not mess with Randall and Beth).

Mille's was the agreed-upon place — there's a name blast from the past — and the food was okay, I think. Okay, I really don't remember. I had a portabello burger but didn't touch much of it. There was Dr. Pepper.

What I remember is the conversation, and realizing a friendship was being forged over a meal. Didn't expect it, didn't really want it ... but sometimes the universe zags instead of zigging and you wind up colliding with someone who changes your life.

That's the story.

Monday, July 08, 2019

4:23 A.M.

Dreamland.

Your feet are bare and there is a bracelet with a Harry Potter charm around your right ankle. You have a small wand but it's just for show.

A bear looks at us as we walk through the woods. You walk up to him and scratch his ears and he stretches his neck.

A fox is asleep in a tree stump. He wakes up and turns round and round and on his tail are two rings, one for you and one for me.

Two cats are playing a pipe organ, one bass clef, one treble clef. The left-handed cat is named Clarissa but it's a boy.

An asp slithers across our path. It tries to bite me. You wave your hand and it becomes a walking stick. You hand it to me and tell me it's dapper and will go well with my tuxedo.

The sky opens into a mirror. I take your hand. We walk through the mirror into tomorrow.

Monday, November 05, 2018

EPOCHA

"Welcome to the Mean Times," I wrote as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. The presidential election had been called. The world was now different and filled with plenty of unknowns.

It did not seem kinder.

There was no way it could be. Not after the campaign and its unending supply of stupefying moments, each one more outrageous than the last. Even as far back as November 2015 it was clear we were on a collision course with coarseness:
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?
As those words were being written, Donald Trump was just starting to solidify his lead in the GOP contest. Ben Carson had been his closest rival but he couldn't withstand Trump's withering ridicule. The first primary vote was still months away but the contours of the future were starting to come into focus:
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" ...
He did, it did, they did, we did. And here we are now.

Does it entertain us? Sure, with the same mix of awe and horror that greeted our first viewing of Eraserhead. Is it less dangerous? Hardly. But it's not just because of the current president. It's your fault. Mine, too. We have embraced the Mean Times and now we are in a world of shit.

We have chosen to let the fire from on high engulf us; our brains are ablaze with anger — at the president or at his opponents, at the media, at the people who aren't paying attention and are instead vomiting nonsense out of their pie holes and onto social media.

It's the one true bipartisan thing in this era of hostile division. Everyone is pissed off.

You might expect the president's most fervent supporters to be the worst offenders but that's only half true; liberal rage is all the rage, and it is not feigned. It is not helpful, either. Lefty friends who drop an all-caps FUCK YOU on their Facebook post say they have a right to, and that's right. It's also right that they have become the vulgar thing they despise.

I expected better from liberals. They're supposed to be more ...  enlightened? empathetic? They have instead chosen to fall for the trap laid by this president. They react to his outrages with outbursts of their own, revealing hypocrisy ("That asshole wants to kill the First Amendment! Twitter should ban him!") and a general cluelessness. In their fury they have forgotten how to be decent.

In this they are simply matching the worst of the conservatives, the ones who call their political opponents "idiots" and "snowflakes" and think they're being clever. They're not. It's not. It's annoying and devoid of all originality and beneath any polite human. The cons are also hypocrites ("Obama says he'd meet with North Korea! They're evil! He's a traitor!") and they, too, are clueless about their classless ways.

Con: "Stupid."
Lib: "Trumpster."
Con: "Snowflake."
Lib: "Cult 45."
Con: "Fuck you!"
Lib: "Fuck you."

Then the freaks come out and start yammering about pizzas and pedophilia and QAnon and Deza and things really get weird. Antifa this, Nazi that. Godwin is dead.

Back and forth it goes, on Facebook and on Twitter, interrupted too infrequently by photos of cats and gardens. It's all so wearying, this volley of viciousness. Just want to sleep. Sleep and look at cat pics. So much noise, too much news. We are all feeling it.

Seven out of 10 people say they're tired of the news onslaught. Feels like our heads will explode from this information overload so why bother? Come join the weary masses. Tune out and drop in at the news-free zone. Someone will bring snacks.

And that is why we are in deep trouble.

Once we grow tired and shut our ears to the madness, odds are we will stay away. Why bother watching this happen? What's the use? People are just one step away from flinging poop. Christ, they're already doing it in Canada. Tell me that isn't a bad sign. Some straight out of Malachi shit.

Indifference is not an option. Not if you want to see what happens next. Not if you want to live.

Vote.

Monday, June 25, 2018

CLACKETY-CLACK, DON'T COME BACK

I use the Notes app on my phone to do most of my writing. No fancy formatting, no having to think about anything but the words. It's like banging on a typewriter, albeit without the comforting clackety-clack of the keyboard.

The other night I was hacking away on a piece that has vexed me for weeks — something about hate and the way it's changing us, twisting us into ugly versions of who we used to be. I was stumbling through segues and transitions, the scut work, when the window unexpectedly opened between my eyes and I fell into the cauldron where words are born.

And I wrote:

Goddamned brainiacs. They applied algebraic geometry when simple subtraction would have sufficed ...

The gemmination — repeating the phrase so it settles into the brain, a bell rung twice for emphasis. An old mesmerist’s trick ...

It was the bark of a huckster, delivered with a sneer ...

Past a thousand words, closing in on 2,000. It wasn't quite singing but it was more than throat-clearing noises. For the first time in months it actually felt like I was doing more than typing.

At some point I must have fallen asleep — it was past 1 a.m., the best time to go swimming in the word pool. On my phone I type with my left thumb and right index finger, and when I dozed off my finger landed on the key to the right of the M.

Delete.

It couldn't have been longer than a few minutes but when I woke up I looked down at a blank screen. The Notes app does not have an undo feature. There is no autosave. I jotted down the three things I remembered. The rest of it was gone. It's still gone.

Probably just as well. Those salvaged phrases are turgid.

"That's pretty depressing," a friend said when I relayed the story of the lost essay. "I was hoping it'd be something upbeat."

Next post. Promise.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

X MARKS THE SOMETHING

The white, the red, the black, the pale. Say it loud but there’s no music playing; it’s the chant of an angry crowd. Determined bastards, from the sound of their cadence — ba-BAM ba-BAM ba-BAM ba-BAM, they’re coming this way and getting louder by the measure, the WHITE the RED the BLACK the PALE and there’s no way to stop them so get with the beat.

The colors are horses. Four colors, four horses. You need two boats for scaphism but it takes four horses to pull off drawing and quartering, the punishment for treasonous bastards in England in the 1300s. Drag someone today, it’s all for yucks. Drag ‘em back then and it was literally by horse to the gallows, where the condemned was hanged (but not killed), emasculated, then disemboweled. Sometimes the entrails were set on fire in front of the doomed man. This is presumably where the yucks came in. You know, British humor.

Then it was on to the main attraction — four horses, each tied to a separate limb, and giddy-up let’s make a big X. Huge finish. Four horses and you just know the shades were all present: righteous white, gory red, hearts of black, pale faces. Only the depraved could watch something like this without being scarred, and no one wants to believe they would have watched it happen. But talk of treason makes people lose all reason. Extremism in the defense of liberty demands extreme measures. The horses are unleashed. And the crowd goes wild.

The horses are not running wild — not all of them, not yet — but when asked if they’re coming the Magic 8 Ball says “signs point to yes.” The available evidence gives us no reason to throw shade on the answer, even if it does come from an icosahedron.

Already there is a white horse, the one come to save us because Christ, don’t you know your fairy tales, that’s what white horses do. So let it be written, so let it be done. In white world, at least.

It’s here to save us from defeat because Conquest is its name. That’s what they said its name was, anyway. Its rider has a bow and arrows, the whole outdoorsy thing, and he wears a victor’s crown — great big thing, pretty impressive — so maybe we should call the horse Victory, maybe that’s a better name. Easier to sell. Some people get funny when there’s talk of conquest. They think it stinks. But everybody loves the smell of victory. It smells like napalm in the morning.

Only problem is, that sweet smell comes from the blooms of war, and those only flourish in a peaceless earth. A great sword is needed to prepare the soil for seeding.

Behold a red horse, taker of peace and companion to the white. Every Victory needs a War and we need war to keep winning. Not the kind of war that everybody else is worried about, the Korea and Iran ones. Not just those. There are other hills to soak with gasoline, ones that are not halfway around the world. There are traitors among us and whispers of treason. They knew what to do in England.

But only two horses, dammit. Plenty of dragging power but the crowd doesn’t want to see that. Not enough horsepower. No X, no extreme. They like the red horse and want to watch the world burn but they don’t trust it, because maybe the red horse came forth to set their sky on fire.

They swear to keep a suspicious eye and mind and promise not to mainline the red. They will know their limitations. Even in England they did not drawn and quarter women. Modesty insisted on burning them at the stake. Some things are sacred.

The ones in the crowd, they promise not to wish for any more horses. But the chant is incomplete. They need to see what happens next. They see the white, the red. Two horses. Half of the X, but which half?

X is a Janus, marking the spot or spotting the mistake. X is a kiss and crosshairs. X is the first unknown quantity in an algebraic expression and the mark a man makes when he cannot write his own name. 

X can be Gen X, the OG disaffected assholes who thought voting was a waste. X can be the mark on a ballot.

X is the cross and the start of the swastika.

The white, the red. There can be no X without the black and the pale, no four horses to gallop when the time comes to settle scores. We stand at a moment when X remains an unknown. When the seals are broken and the voice tells us to come and see, will we look?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

CALLING CASSANDRA

This week the Denver Post cut 30 jobs. That’s about a third of the newsroom. 

It wasn’t that long ago — around 2005, 2006 — when there were 300 people in that newsroom, some of the best in the business, with nine Pulitzers proving their prowess as journalists. Today the newspaper is owned by a guy with a hedge fund and zero interest in journalism, only an eye to the bottom line.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money. Al Neuharth, the guy who created USA Today and built Gannett into the country’s largest newspaper chain, used to tell people who mispronounced the company’s name that “the emphasis is always on the net.” Snazzy dressed, that Al. But odd guy. Proof:

•Raging ego.
•Staccato writing style and heavy reliance on bullet points.
Pumpkin Center.

But Al Neuharth was a journalist and that mattered. He understood that it costs money to cover news, and he wasn’t afraid to spend it. I was lucky enough to work for Gannett for almost a decade; at its peak, the newsroom in Springfield had about 70 people. When a big story broke the editors insisted on scorched-earth coverage. We didn’t just beat our radio and television competitors, we buried them in copy.

It was like that in every U.S. city. The daily newspaper was The Source — not just for news consumers but for our competition. Every radio and TV newsroom in the country subscribed to the local paper because that’s where you knew you’d find the real stories. The daily paper set the news agenda for the city. TV and radio newsrooms followed the (news) leader.

It was sometimes close-quarters combat, trying to scoop the competition. When I started in Springfield media in 1985, there were four radio stations offering local news, with nearly 20 reporters staffing the shops. Journalism at its high point in the late 20th century. Readers, viewers and listeners were well-informed.

Within a decade there were two local radio station offering local news with half as many reporters. Newspapers started experiencing the same kind of contractions by the late 1990s. Blame it on the internet. Why not? It’s the all-purpose scourge of humanity. It’s certainly the best/worst thing that ever happened to journalists. To hell with the creation of the internal combustion engine, the airplane, radio, television, crush porn ... the internet makes all those things seem about as important and enduring as pet rocks.

The net and its appliances changed every way we live. The alarm clock on my phone wakes me up. Facebook tells me who’s doing who and why I should care. Twitter is the tripwire for news — who needs The Associated Press? A thousand books on my Kindle. I order food online, clothes online, movies online. I can spend all day online and never have to deal face-to-face with another human.

News without papers, video without TVs, porn without the glossy pages, drugs without the back alley — the internet makes it possible to live a rich and solitary life.

You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, according to Dylan, and with the internet you don’t need a journalist to tell you what’s news. The net feeds our lust for information — HuffPo for liberals, InfoWars for conservatives. Straight news? Who needs that mainstream crap? Nobody wants it anymore. We only listen to the things we believe because we believe we know everything.

But it’s a mile wide and an inch deep, this river of information. And it’s full of shit. It’s bad to swim in. It’s the digital equivalent of the frozen burrito and hot fries lunch I used to nosh on from the local Kum & Go (I used to pair it with a large Code Red but after a friend called the drink a Kum Guzzler I went with water).

We are choking in the shallow waters, but first we’re drowning the mainstream media. And we seem happy about it. Places like the Denver Post, they might have a couple decades left. They will continue their digital lives and boast about MILLIONS of page views while not saying much about dwindling revenue. It's nice when the world can read your story. But people in Kyrgyzstan are not buying local ads or subscriptions.

The days of picking up a newspaper and leafing through the broadsheet are close to an end. Ask anyone under the age of 25 when they last picked up a newspaper and read it. While you're at it, ask them the last time they watched a TV newscast. They get their news on Facebook, whatever that means. They are the Cassandras, only we can believe them. The data don't lie.

And that’s a goddamned shame because mainstream journalists are as vital as police, as necessary (and often as heroic) as firefighters. They’re the people who keep government accountable; they’re the ones who ask uncomfortable questions of people in power — not to be dicks but because that’s the job. It’s ugly and uncomfortable. It’s hard work. But it’s not a gig where you’re supposed to be liked. It’s a calling. After 30-plus years of responding to the call — as a reporter, editor and producer in radio, newspapers, magazines and television —  I miss it every day.

Being a journalist does not mean posting "thrifty Thursday" Instagrams of your latest fashion find that you're going to be wearing on tonight's newscast. It is not about the likes and followers on social media. That's being a news personality. An entertainer who thinks they're important because they're on television. Horrifying.

Being a journalist means being belittled, being ignored, being indefatigable. It means busting your ass to be accurate and fair, even knowing that when you show people the work you’ve done the response will often be a shrug, a meh, or a cry of “fake news.” It means shaking that off and going back out the next day to ask questions and get answers, because people have a right to know.

As newspaper newsrooms swirl, and as daily newspapers become digital ghosts of their former glorious selves, too many civilians will see it as self-pitying journalists mourning a dead way of life. At first they will not see the ripple effect, as government officials realize they can do things without the prying eyes of a free press. Only when people are fed up with the secrecy and the corruption will they realize what they've lost, and with a mixture of desperation and anger they will turn to what’s left of the media and ask, “Why the hell didn’t you tell us?”

Monday, March 12, 2018

NO SUCH THING AS A BAD COINCIDENCE

Hand me that bottle, why don’t you. Let’s spin the wheel off the top of that mother. See how much elixir is left and whether we can swallow it all before the next absurd thing happens. Or maybe we should nip down to the store right now and pick up a few more bottles. Maybe some Cheetos and Nutty Bars, too. Lay in a supply like the locals do with bread and milk before a snowstorm. Only no milk for us. Doesn’t go well with tequila. 

We’re going to need a steady stomach if we have any hope of making it out. Even then we might lose an appendage but hopefully it won’t be anything too extreme, maybe just a toe or a pinky. I could even do without a foot or leg, if need be, though I’d rather limit it to digits. Let’s save the limb-loping for something serious like a zombie attack. Have to cut off the limb if a zombie bites you there, you know. And it has to be quick, before the virus gets to your brain and we have to cut off your head. There’s no coming back from that.

We need the tequila and the Cheetos and the zombie lesson right now because wildly unreasonable events call for equally preposterous measures. Maybe the logical part of your brain has rationalized this madness into neat compartments — a place for everything! everything in its place! — but seriously, you need to stop that right now. This is not a drill. Would you like a Nutty Bar? They’re really quite addictive. I’m going to put on some music. Classic one here from 2010 — god, that seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeezy namechecking a reality-show star: “Baldin' Donald Trump, takin' dollars from y'all.” Swizz Beatz bringing the prophecy: Life can be sometimes ridiculous.

We are living in ridiculous times. Not just sometimes but every goddamned day. The alarm goes off, we’re checking to make sure the world didn’t catch fire overnight. It's sometimes scary, checking to see what's trending on Twitter. The only way not to flinch is by waving it off. We are K.C. Green’s dog, surrounded by flames and sipping coffee, insisting “this is fine.” The cartoon’s original title is “The Pills Are Working.” Not well enough, apparently, because if they were then this would feel more like a Japanese game show and less like Eraserhead. All praise to David Lynch — he’s a genius — but his universe is full of horrors, with the worst ones in plain sight for us to gawk at, just before they show their teeth and come for our necks.

It feels like we are inside a Lynch movie. Absurdism abounds. A digital assistant named Alexa scares the bejesus out of people by suddenly bursting into maniacal laughter, often in the middle of the night. SMASH CUT: An angler in Siberia walks along an icy river comes across a bag; inside are 54 hands. The government says no worries, haha, it’s just a goof-up by the forensic lab.

Flashbacks everywhere. Existence on a Möbius strip. Tiger Woods is back in contention on the PGA Tour. A man in his 40s, long relegated to the hall of legends as a former great, resurrects a sport that fell on black days when he fell from grace.

The world has been reset to 1997, when Woods won his first major tournament. It’s the same year Lynch released Lost Highway, his Möbius strip movie featuring a creepy, unblinking Robert Blake and a worldview summed up by a cop: “There is no such thing as a bad coincidence.”

Twenty-one years ago. Woods was 21 years old then. That same year there was a brewing White House sex scandal involving a president and whispers of a cover-up. Today the president is being sued by a porn performer and there is talk of a cover-up. We have come full weird circle. Fittingly, Roseanne is back on TV. Last time seen? In 1997. The same year Mike Tyson bit off that dude's ear, and maybe now we know why we might lose an appendage in the coming skirmishes.

To keep up the retro weirdness we will need some sort of royal family tragedy so Elton John can whip out another version of “Candle In The Wind.' That means it has to be a major royal. Philip won’t be enough. It’s either that or Hanson is coming back, and no one really wants that to happen.

But maybe that's the respite we need, the fate we deserve. Back in ’97 it was “MMMBop” and Friends, Beanie Babies and Tamagotchi. It sounds ridiculously cheesy because it was, ba duba dop. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was about to bust open in all its tawdry glory but we were clueless; that was still in the unknown future. In the meantime there was this new thing called WiFi and once we started messing with it we swore there would never be anything cooler, man, that shit is ridiculous.

By the next year it was all Titanic and Celine, impeachment and Bill debating the meaning of the word “is.”  To find out what he and Monica did with that cigar we used this cool new search engine called Google and once we started messing with it we swore there would never be anything cooler, man, this shit is —

My phone chimes. Twitter alert. Shit. Something maybe could possibly be happening. Or will soon. Either way it's trouble ahead. We've lived it before. To the store, stat, before there's a run on tequila.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

FLOW IT, SHOW IT

She gave me the once-over as I sat in the cafeteria, waved her hand in the general direction of my head. “Do you ever comb that?”

Her friends laughed and I felt my enormous ears getting hot. Good thing my helmet of hair covered them; this was the ‘70s and big hair was required by law.

Big, but not unruly, and she was right — my hair was a mess. Double cowlicks meant my mane twisted off in all sorts of unexpected directions. Along my temples it got wavy and stuck out. I moussed it, brushed it, combed it. Always a rat’s nest. The only good things about my hair were the color — samurai black — and the fact that there was a lot of it. That meant I could cover my ears.

Over the years I’ve grown it down my back and had it cut to a half-inch. The woman who styled my hair in the ‘80s and ‘90s used to add strips of color. Once she braided a small bell into her creation. I somehow managed to work it out while covering a court case. The bell fell to the floor and rolled into the well of the courtroom. The judge stopped testimony and ordered me to step forward and retrieve my jangly hair accessory. I did as instructed.

Today I looked at a photo of me at 30. It's at the top of this post. Thick black beard. Full head of hair. Man, that sucker got hot in summertime. It was like being under the hood of a black car, all the heat from within and without trapped in my skull. Sometimes it felt like my brain was boiling. In that particular photo I’m covering an Elvis Presley impersonators convention. Scores of Elvi in Chicago. The fine line holding back unreality gave way there; by weekend’s end everything seemed like a Hunter Thompson dream.

But man, that hair. I can’t stop looking at it. So what if it looks like it escaped from Dorothy Hamill’s head. It’s the hair of a vital man. A guy with a lot of life yet to live.

I put my hand to my head. Thin up top. So thin. It still tendrils down past my shoulders, but it’s more white than gray now. It feels listless … unlike me, who feels restless. In recent days my brain has started percolating. Tricky bastard, the percolator. Makes a damned fine cup of coffee but keep it plugged in for too long and you get bitter brew. Acid on the tongue; not a good thing. I’d better stop now.

One thing before: Appreciate your hair. Enjoy what you’ve got (or don’t have, for the baldsters in the crowd). Try not to fret too much about the stray gray. There’ll be plenty of time for that. Revel in your moments of glad grace, so when you are full of sleep the dreams will be sweet.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

THE THREE THINGS THAT MATTER

Faith, hope, love. Those are the things that last forever — or so said Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, a book that’s still being sampled after a couple thousand years.

OG Paul knew how to turn a phrase. It’s almost impossible to go to a wedding without someone dropping the “love is patient, love is kind” riff. When the unexpected happens people say it’s “in the twinkling of an eye.” When something is unclear it’s seen “through a glass, darkly” (a great Bergman movie, a decent episode of Outlander).

But it’s Paul’s “faith, hope and love” line that’s the kicker to his best-known words. Strip away everything else in this world and these three things endure — the inference being, I suppose, that without them all is lost.

I don’t think you need to be a Christian to believe Paul’s truth. You only have to believe in the better angels of humanity, and hope for dawn after every darkness and some sunshine through the rain.

It’s that sort of relentless optimism that has animated civilizations for thousands of years. The Minoan and Mycenaean. The Sumerians, the Akkadian, the Assyrian, the Babylonian. The Hittite and Harrapan. The Mauryan and the Gupta. The Romans. Empires all, mighty civilizations that once ruled everything under their suns. They had faith that they would endure, world without end, amen. They probably believed that right up until they collapsed and were swallowed by history.

The known reasons they died are varied, but the cycle of rise-and-decline usually spans a few hundred years. Which puts our American experiment in the sweet spot for a reboot, and maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing right now. Maybe it’s just time.

We have become increasingly comfortable entertaining ourselves with the familiar, the recycled. Believe it or not, someone apparently said cool to a revival of The Greatest American Hero, a TV show from the '80s that sucked so hard we apparently just have to have it back. The top box-office draw in two of the last three years has been a Star Wars movie. Sequels, prequels and connected universe stories have been the top grossing movies in seven of the past eight years. We like our entertainment like we like our food — franchised and fried. That can’t be healthy.

We seem more willing to believe everything — every crackpot meme, every batshit-crazy theory. Thoughtful people are thinking about false flag operations, crisis actors, a fanciful Deep State (presumably ensconced in a Ministry of Truth). They see evil people behind every vaccine, GMO crop and police badge. We’re living in strange times, they say; everything is possible and nothing is real.

We seem more willing to believe nothing. It’s all Fake News. Witness the hollowing-out of the nation’s only constitutionally guaranteed business. Yeah, I’m biased. I’ve known hundreds of reporters over three decades in the business. I’ve never met one who deliberately made up stories. This notion of reporters concocting stories because they’re against the president (or Bernie Sanders, or Jill Stein, or the Republicans in congress, or Hillary Clinton) is simply bullshit. God, give journalists a break. They’re endangered. Media consolidation, shrinking readership and viewership (but they love us on Facebook!), more demands dumped on people who don’t have time to make up news, they’ve got to post an update to social media and forward tease the next newscast. There aren't many of them left but they're heroes.

We lose the mainstream media, the straight shooters, and we lose our only chance at keeping the powerful in check. It’s really that simple and that profound and if we’re not careful we won’t realize it until it’s too late. If we’re not careful we’re going to disbelieve a free press into oblivion and that’s when the real trouble starts.

But no one wants to believe that now. Everything seems sketchy. The midterm elections loom. Imagine a Democratic wave. Isn’t it obvious that the Republican response will be disbelief? Rigged election, voter fraud. Imagine a GOP hold. Won’t the left simply scream foul? Collusion, hackers, Russia.

Sure sure, there’s always been partisanship. Name-calling and petty stupidity. We have witnessed plenty of weird shit on this little jaunt atop our spinning rock. Arguments about the most ludicrous things. Hey Olds, remember when people said “freedom fries” because they didn’t like the French position on the Iraq War? Yeah. Or how about that time when people were all “Obama was born in Kenya or something” and you were like wow, O RLY, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation.

Awkward, yes, and I’m sure some friendships were lost in these baloney battles. But most everyone shrugged them off as useless noise because we knew it was bullshit. Logic and common sense still held sway over much of the populace. Only kooks on the fringes believed the kooky stuff.

But now it all feels mainstream mean. People we thought we knew are acting like they’ve been infected with some kind of rage virus that’s affected their ability to think without snarling. They think vile thoughts and post them on Facebook and god forbid you try to debate them because that means you’re the enemy and you must be destroyed.

This virus respects no obvious boundaries. Men and women, liberal and conservative, young and old, smart and ignorant ... every demographic seems down with the sickness. You would think there might be safe zones within the dispassionate, among the trained observers, but no. A former reporter posts about the Super Bowl halftime show being a satanic celebration. A citizen journalist tells people who disagree to all-caps SIT THE FUCK DOWN. And these are the good people.

For a while I toyed with the idea of engaging them, but then I read the comments on their posts. Reason wasn’t going to work; there were too many of them, all of them pissed off and ready to fight — bring it, fucker, I dare you, I double-dare you. Say another word and I will cut you (and then block you on Facebook and report you on Twitter and that’ll learn your ass). It’s rather disconcerting. They’re ready to throw down if you challenge what they say but if you show them the truth they put their fingers in their ears and run away. There’s a lot of talk about snowflakes. They all seem rather fragile in their rage.

The worst of the lot … I’m afraid they’re gone. I don’t know how you bring them back because they’ve seen some shit, man, they’ve been out in the desert and got their brains fried on some righteous alt-right antifa Nazi communist socialist racist stuff. The real stuff, the real news they’re not showing you on the corporate liberal conservative mainstream media. You gotta look for the truth on YouTube. People are telling it like it is, there’s proof and I’ve seen it — they’re using chemtrails to enslave people and the Las Vegas shooter was an ISIS/MAGA remote assassin, and there are FEMA camps ready for people like you, so you better wake up or get woke or whatever before they come to take your guns and if you don’t have guns they’re gonna take away your right to vote and you won’t see that on the news because you’ll be in a camp with the rest of the sheeple.

It’s funny but it’s true so it’s not funny. Everyone’s coming down with this shit. It makes me want to scream but that’s one of the secrets to not getting sick. The virus doesn’t seem to kick in until the infected person loses it and starts screaming. Gotta stay calm. At least try, dammit. As long as we keep our heads we can make it out of here. We're gonna make it out. We're gonna be fine. Gotta ditch the Facebook and Twitter. Instagram’s not too bad yet except for that one horrible person who keeps posting pics of her skinny ass showing off some great bargain on a size zero dress she’s wearing on the news and God that pisses me off doesn’t anyone have any ethics —

Stop. Calm. Om. Maybe ditch the Instagram, too.

Once all this rage plays itself out we might be able to keep the center together. Keep civilization from spinning out into splinters. Keep the stars from falling to the earth. We may lose some winter fruit from the fig tree; the gales have been ferocious.

It’s not going to be easy but I think we can do it. Stupid Pollyanna thought but it's better than giving up. Everyone who’s still here will have to do some heavy lifting. But if we have faith in that then maybe there’s hope. That’s two out of three. Good enough. Don’t ask me about the love part.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

CLOUD NINE WHEN I WANT TO

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.

DREAM #2

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.

DREAM #1

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

“Hullo?”

“Is this Ron?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Hullo?”

“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

A STAND-UP GUY, FOR A MURDERER

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.

"News-Leader."

"Is this Ron?"

"That's me."

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

Yeah.

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.

Yeah.

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.