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.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

BRANSON AND BUST

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.

PUTTING HIM IN YOUR MOUTH

#NotMyPresident

Please.

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

FOR FEAR TONIGHT IS ALL

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.”

Really?

“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

JUST BEFORE DAWN, A DREAM

"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

FOLLOWING THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR

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

THE FUTURE DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU DO TODAY

(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

DREAM LIFE ON MARS

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