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.

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.