20 February 2017

Recalling the Dark Days Before Smart Phones Saved Us From Ourselves

I recall people going to gyms and working out 20 years ago and indeed much further back than that. As a matter of fact the gym I go to has been in operation for close to 100 years. I find this utterly baffling. How could people risk going to the gym? How could people be away from their phones for so long? What if there was an important message? How could anyone reach them immediately except by going to the gym and giving them the message verbally and then only if they knew said person was at the gym?

Today while on the treadmill I saw two different people text while on nearby machines. One stopped to answer a text and the other slowed down and texted while walking. This is not at all unusual. I see this all the time. I’m sure if someone had asked them why on earth they were texting during their workout they would have said it was important. Thank god you can bring your cellphone with you. I stupidly left my in my locker for the entirety of my hour long workout. There was no way for anyone to reach me. Even if it was important.

I’m sure the people who receive these messages during their exercise period couldn’t have torn themselves away from their phone in the dark ages before mobile phones. One wonders if they could have gone to movies or plays or sports events or to the park or out for a walk or camping or boating or to the circus or to visit friends or to weddings or funerals or whorehouses or cock fights or public executions. It’s like contemplating eternity to imagine a time when we blithely strolled the streets with no way for anyone to reach us. Think of all the important messages we missed?

But — as they say in commercials — that’s not all. People used to leave their homes with no access to what was happening at the very moment all over the world. That’s right. No Twitter, no news apps, no Facebook. Plus, sans Twitter. there was no way of finding out if someone famous or a friend or some stranger you thought was funny or someone connected to a news organization had shared a thought. Similarly there was no way to see the latest photo posted on Instagram (as it didn't exist, nor was there anything of its kind). People were terribly isolated. Sometimes people on an outing would have to resort to talking to one another as there were no cellphones to stare at. People at sports events would actually watch the game and talk to their companions because they not only didn’t have a cellphone, there were no contests, sing-a-longs, kiss cams or other diversions provided by big screens during time outs.

When I was a teenager mucking about with friends, we had to rely on our wits to occupy the times. We would share ideas, relate stories, tell jokes, argue, commiserate, explain, and even tell outlandish lies. How we survived with just that is difficult to imagine.

On buses people read newspapers or books or looked out the window or, if with someone, chatted. Sometimes people on buses would just sit and think. Strange, I know.

One of the horrors of those bygone years was the inability of taking and sharing pictures of your meals. You would have to see someone or talk on the phone and describe the plate of food you were served at a restaurant. Quite often you wouldn’t bother as you realized it wasn’t worth talking about. You also couldn’t take selfies alone or with friends. Duck faces were non existent. On those rare occasions when your photo was taken you would instead smile, or not. It was pure hell to walk around not taking photos of every little thing of interest and sending them immediately to people or posting them on a website. Think of what we missed. If you saw something worth remembering you just had to remember it. You were stuck having to experience life rather than recording it.

Yes the smart phone is an indispensable part of modern life. I’ve been given to understand that you can even use it to make phone calls. Imagine that.

19 February 2017

As a Service to My Readers I Provide this Instructional Video on Dialing Your Telephone

I stumbled across this video earlier today (I find that I stumble across many things on the internet and am thus forever taking spills or stubbing a toe or banging a knee, thankfully rarely do serious injuries occur). Though it was made some years ago, it is as fresh and relevant as the latest on Twitter. I found that it wonderfully capsulized the vagaries of dialing a phone. Oddly it made no mention of call waiting or face time or text messaging, one assumes those are covered in a subsequent video, I will do due diligence to find those for you. I hope this video clears up any confusion or problems you've been having while making telephone calls. Enjoy and learn!

18 February 2017

The Mysterious Visit of Leonard Bertrand

So then I started in on him about existentialism because he’d mentioned Jean-Paul Sartre. I let him have it about how bogus its precepts were. Being drunk like I was, I probably wasn’t very articulate and certainly slurred some words but I got my message across. I thought sure I had him, that I’d made a cogent and compelling argument. But no, he gave me a sly smile, took a drag from his cigarette and in his cultured, superior voice drilled me right between the eyes about how sophomoric my argument was and how it betrayed my obvious ignorance on the topic, adding that I “should perhaps consider reading  at least a little bit of Kierkegaard before spouting such nonsense.”

I tried to respond but the combination of not knowing half as much as he did on the topic and my advanced state of intoxication rendered me incapable of forming a coherent sentence. Damn it.

He was an African American poet, musician, art critic , he was a real dandy and a queer too. I mean he was a twig of a guy. I’m not so big but I could have snapped him in two, which I sometimes felt like doing. Yet he was surrounded by smart, beautiful women who doted on him and clung to his every word. For my part I hated his smug sophistication and his intellectual superiority. He’d read every novel and all the great poets and philosophers and knew art like I knew baseball and was an expert on wines and gourmet foods and had traveled the world. What this aesthete was doing in our little college town was a mystery, but for the two weeks he was in town it was all I could do to stay away from him

His name was Leonard Bertrand and he must have been about 30 years old. He wore nice clothes but nothing fancy and in neutral colors, except for this flimsy scarf he wore around his neck in what I thought was a pretentious manner. He smoked long thin cigarettes one after the other holding them effeminately. Leonard’s drink was a Dubonnet and he swallowed them with the same frequency as he lit a smoke. Yet he  never showed any sign of intoxication.

I only got to know Leonard (he didn’t let anyone call him Len) because he hung out in the bar I frequented, Le Monde. At no point did I actually hate or even dislike him, butI  was forever annoyed and frustrated by the ease with which he provoked me, often by making fun of sports or beer or TV. I think Leonard directed barbs my way because I could and would come right back and I was no dummy like some of the crowd that made the bar their home away from home. Sure when I got drunk I was no match for him, but at least I knew something about it when he mentioned Hesse or Proust or Matisse or Goya or goddamned Lord Byron, all among his favorites. Meanwhile he’d trash Whitman, Melville, Hemingway and especially Norman Rockwell, all among my favorites. Leonard mocked pretty much every American artist of any sort and I think it was just to put the needle in me. What ticked me off the most was when he trashed the Beat writers. Kerouac was my hero and of course Leonard would tear him up one side and down the other finishing by looking me square in the eyes and flashing that “I know best” grin.

Screw the bastard, I thought any number of times. It sometimes seemed to make more sense to stay the hell away from him and avoid the aggravation. But that was easier said than done. For one thing all the interesting women congregated around him. I could only talk sports for so long with the usual crowd before I got tired of hearing half-baked opinions and misquoted stats and endless renditions of previous games. The truth was I got something out of sparring with Leonard Bertrand, even if he did “best” me 99.9% of the time.

Leonard had this irritating way of getting my attention. “Well hello Robert,” he’d say, even though I exclusively went by Bob. Sometimes he even said Robert in French. (He would often sprinkle French words and phrases into his conversation — and with a perfect French accent.) So right away he’d get under my skin and I’d want to head in the other direction. But I was drawn to him like a fly who couldn’t resist a web. Truth be told Leonard was a charming guy and he’d always buy me a drink. “I suppose you’re having a beer,” he’d say, only he’d say the word beer in this low, slow voice to make it sound like something truly disgusting.

“What have you got against beer?” I asked him once.

“Oh nothing, nothing at all,” he replied matter of factly. But then he’d add, “its just not what I would choose to drink, it being so…” 

“Are you gonna say something like ‘vulgar’?”

“Why heavens no,” Leonard answered acting the picture of innocence. “It’s just not to my taste.”

“Oh and you’re taste is superior to mine.”

“If you say so,” he said and take another long drag off his skinny cigarette.

Usually Leonard would be sitting at one of the big tables to accommodate all the women sitting with him. I couldn’t figure out what they saw in him, maybe they thought they could convert him to heterosexuality, but I couldn’t see the point in that what with him not exactly being Sidney Poitier. He had these big bug eyes and a high forehead. His face showed the effects of all the damn smoking he did. I don’t remember seeing him eat, though he knew all about food. Being repelled by exercise, as he said he was, it didn’t seem that Leonard had prospects for a long and healthy life. Leonard usually held forth on literature, art and music but was not above discussing films and made occasional reference to politics but only to lament the sad state of American democracy.

It never got truly heated between Leonard and I though it almost did once. I forget exactly what we were talking about — I think it was related to political science — when I said: “being black you should understand —”  He cut me off right there, which he’d never done before in such an abrupt manner. For the first time his voice was raised. “Dear Robert I do hope that you are not going to assume that you know anything about being black in American or anywhere else for that matter.”

“No ya see I just meant — ”

Holding up his right hand as if to say stop, Leonard continued, “please let me finish. You white people are forever trying to encapsulate the black experience in a few words, usually ill-chosen ones at that. Its especially troubling with you enlightened liberals who revere our Civli Rights Movement and the slain martyr Dr. King. You’ve co-opted Dr. King for your own purposes, primarily to assuage your guilt. You think yourselves superior because you extoll the principles of equality and abhor racism. All this is fine in its way but you continue to patronize and think that because you read Ellison or Baldwin or Soul on Ice and admire Dr. King’s speeches that you are an expert on the black experience and our are brothers. But you’ve no real clue what living in black skin means. The looks, the fear, the harassment and the legacy that we live with. So don’t ever say ‘being black you should understand’ or anything to that effect. Our experience as African Americans is something you cannot begin to understand.”

Leonard had never spoken with such passion before. There was anger but it was controlled, not causing him to lose any of his rhetorical powers. I was stunned, hurt, angry but deep down knew that he was 100% correct.

“I’m sorry Leonard, I — ”

“No, no” he said quickly and dismissively, “you don’t get off with a mere apology. Just never mind, all right?” Then he turned to two of the women sitting to his right and began an animated and laugh-filled conversation. I sat there like an idiot not knowing what I should or could do next. Finally I got up and joined the jocks by the TV where a baseball game was on. I then proceeded to get royally smashed.

When I came in the next evening, there was Leonard holding court as usual, I glanced in his direction not expecting him to so much as exchange a glance with me. But proving that Leonard was nothing if not unpredictable he cheerily greeted me and beckoned me to his table. “Waiter,” he called to a passing server,” please get my friend Robert a beeeeer,” once again demonstrating his contempt for my beverage of choice.

I’d wondered if Leonard would want to talk to me again but of course he did. He’d made his point and perhaps the better question was whether I’d want to talk to him. In fact when I walked into LeMonde I had no intention of approaching him or looking his way.

The truth being that I was flattered by his attention and in a curious way even turned on. Not sexually, of course, but excited that such an erudite man would show an interest in me. There was something exotic about Leonard what with him being an intellectual, African American and gay all wrapped into one. I meant many who fit into one or even two of those categories, but all three? Never.

We enjoyed a particularly pleasant evening. It seemed my adversary was taking pity on me as he indulged my opinions and perspectives. The truth was that I felt it quite a feather in my cap to be entertained and to entertain such a worldly man. I was a reporter on the local independent weekly having only a year before graduated from college. I served as both a sportswriter and a news reporter and my dream was to be a columnist and author. The experience of butting heads with Leonard seemed invaluable.

Our little town was collectively more interested in sports and parties then anything else. African Americans made up less than 10% of the population and most of those were college students and most of those students were here to play football, basketball or run track. There was a small Gay Student Union but it was likely that the vast majority of the town’s gay population was securely in the closet. The intellectual discourse in town mainly took place in classrooms or among faculty or the school’s few graduate students. Thus Leonard Bertrand was an anomaly in our town.

One evening Leonard practically ordered me to his table. I had no sooner sat down then he said, “Robert, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a little bit of reading, specifically of what you generously call your a newspaper and more specifically of your writing.” I did not like the fact that he said “writing” in much the same way he said “beer.”

“I’m all ears,” I said wondering whether I should vigorously defend myself or finally tell him to fuck off.

“Robert my friend, I find myself in an awkward situation.” Here he paused and took a long drag from his cigarette as I waited for the sword of Damocles to dispatch my beer-sotted head.

“It seems I’ve underestimated you, you’re a writer of some merit, clever at times, to the point and even provocative.”

I was stunned and delighted to hear praise from this man with whom I had a love/hate relationship, “Thanks, Leonard I — ”

As he so often did Leonard raised his right hand to silence me. “However,” he intoned dramatically, “there is much room for improvement. You litter your writing with cliches, you can be repetitive and show restraint when you should trust yourself to fully explore your own feelings. It is my opinion that you’d be best served by reading more of the classics and taking on more challenging assignments, these fluff pieces you so often write about don’t stimulate your voice.” And “voice” he said with great passion, drawing the end out sibilance.

Then Leonard turned his attention way from me in casual manner and went back to entertaining his entourage. I knew my time was up and I repaired to the other end of the bar and the TV. But I only had one more beer before I suddenly had the urge to dash home and review my recent writing, I was inspired. On the way out the door I caught a glance from Leonard. I smiled and he nodded. I never saw him again.

A few nights later I returned to Le Monde but Leonard Bertrand was conspicuous by his absence. No one had seen him for two days. I asked around and was told he’d been staying in a room at the Gloucester Hotel the town’s nicest such establishment. The next day I inquired at the Gloucester’s front desk and learned that Leonard had checked out and left no forwarding information.

I investigated the mysterious Leonard Bertrand as if I were doing an article about him and indeed it crossed my mind that, depending on what I learned, there may be an interesting story in Leonard. But I found nothing. There wasn’t much to go on because Leonard had only spoken in generalities. All I knew with any degree of certainty was that he grew up on the East Coast and had lived in Paris for a time, the rest was guesswork. Surely he had had an extensive university education but I’d know idea where, nor did I know for certain what professional opinions he had held.

No one even had any clue why he had visited our fair city. None of the professors I spoke to knew of him nor did anyone at the local daily paper. He was a mystery.

In the years that followed, Leonard Bertrand’s visit was almost completely forgotten. But to a few of us he became something of a legend. There was endless conjecture, speculation and wonder. There were occasional rumors about his whereabouts, but none were credible.

It’s been decades now and I still think about Leonard. He had a lasting influence on me as a writer but more importantly as a person. I still replay some of our discussions — although this time I offer clever ripostes and more profound insights. Yes, he was pretentious, arrogant and dismissive but he had a towering intellect and personal magnetism. I keep wondering if  Leonard Bertrand was really his name and if perhaps he is today — and maybe was back then — a person of some notoriety, perhaps even famous. I wish I knew for sure.

11 February 2017

This is About Right Now, Today, How I've Been, How I Always Have Been

Photo by author

“I planned to suffer
and I cannot.” 
-- Anne Sexton

I ran nine miles this morning. Now I’m just sitting in my room unable to do anything. Oh except write this.

I lost my cellphone on Thursday. Got it back on Friday. Now I’m just sitting in my room unable to do anything. Oh except write this.

I had a satisfying work week during which I very much enjoyed my interactions with students. Now I’m just sitting in my room unable to do anything. Oh except write this.

I started to watch a movie then took a nap then got a glass of water then checked twitter. Now I'm here writing this.

I went to a basketball game last night. Watched a movie after.

I’m almost finished reading a book. When I’m done I’ll start another one. I’m probably going to bring some CDs to Amoeba tomorrow to trade in for store credit so I can get some new CDs. Monday I’ll go to work. On workdays I get up at 5:45 then shower then eat breakfast then dress. My wife checks my tie for me to make sure its on straight and the collar on my shirt is okay. After that I kiss her goodbye and walk to the commuter bus. It’s usually a couple of minutes before the bus comes. I get on and sit in my usual spot. Then I read. I’ll sometimes take in the view while going over the bridge into San Francisco.

Once in SF, I walk to the bus that I take to work. I’m usually one of the first there so I end up turning on lights. Typically I have about 30 minutes before my first class. I like to ease into my teaching day. Once that starts I’m all energy, excitement and enthusiasm.

Before returning home I sometimes go to the gym and work out. Other times I swing by the store to buy a few groceries, as needed. On Wednesday I go see my psychiatrist. I sit in the waiting room either reading or looking at twitter on my cell phone. The doctor comes down the stairs, peaks at me giving me a nod and half smile and I follow him to his office. He holds the door open for me and I bound in. 

I sit down and usually start by telling him if I’ve suffered any depression in the last week. Usually I have. Last week I hadn’t. Next time I’ll have some to report as I’ve been in throes of it since my cellphone went missing. Even its safe return didn’t bring me out of it. Nor did the endorphins from today’s run.

We don’t just talk about depression. There’s usually a number of different topics that come up. Sometimes they’re related to my childhood, specifically my schizophrenic mother. I also talk about my sorted past when I was a practicing addict and alcoholic. I’ve got a lot of good stories. Of course whatever we discuss is meant to get at some deeper truths, to explore my brain and gain access to those things that have tormented me, like panic attacks. Depression, of course, too. I didn’t mention that I’m bipolar. It’s true. I’m fine with it. I’m being treated. Therapy and meds. Therapy and meds. Therapy and meds.

My mind has not always been an easy thing to live with. Anxiety and fear and terror bounce around in my consciousness. I’ve spent most of my life worrying about turning into a lunatic like my mother. Hasn’t happened so far and likely never will.

The good thing is that I’m generally pretty happy. Why shouldn’t I be? Despite my struggles its a treat to be alive. I’ve enjoyed so much. Like my wife and my daughters and many of my work experiences and sex and food and travels and music and films and books and sports and friends.

I just wish friends didn’t die. One died last month and its hurt quite a bit. I miss him. My best ever friend died in 2002 and I’ll never get over that. He was so young too. My parents and my brother and a couple of other friends and grandparents and uncles and aunts have all died. I miss them terribly. They helped make me a better and happier person than I would have been without them. There was a lot of love between them and I. I guess there still is but when a person is dead it takes on a different form. You can’t touch them. You can’t talk to them. Well, you can, but they can’t talk back.

My wife is making burritos tonight. They’re delicious. She makes them without meat. I’m a pescatarian. That means I eat fish but no other animals. I find meat repulsive. Just like some other things I used to indulge in like cigarettes.

People who stand outside smoking look sad. They’re just practicing an addiction. What can be the joy of it? Sure you can stand outside with your fellow addicts puffing away, but that’s still sad. Why not stand outside and eat an orange instead? They’re cheaper and infinitely better for you. Plus if someone walks by, instead of having to hold their breath to avoid cigarette smoke, they can breath in the odor of an orange.

Until last June I drank coffee in the morning. But after a worst ever panic attack that made me wish for death, I was ordered off coffee by my psychiatrist. I’ve never bothered to ask if its okay to start again. I really don’t miss it. Plus I have a cup (actually a mug) of black tea every morning. There have been a few times when I’ve been tired and needed a pick-me-up and in those instances I’ve bought a hot chocolate.

I’ve had to quit lots of things in my life. Its okay. I don’t mind depriving myself of something that I’m better off without, like steaks or cocaine or lattes.

So I’m still in my room and having written this I have a sense of accomplishment and feel that I can build on this and do something else. Like maybe finish that book. But first I’ve got to get something to tide me over until dinner. I’m hungry.

06 February 2017

The Power (Or Lack Thereof) of Prayer and the Folly of Nazi Punching, a Blog Post in Two Parts

“The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love. That's the message we're brought up with, isn't it? Believe or die! Thank you, forgiving Lord, for all those options.” - Bill Hicks

There was a prayer at the end of my friend’s memorial service on Wednesday. I dutifully listened without either bowing my head, closing my eyes or attaching any importance to the words being said. This is my custom when I'm in hearing distance of a prayer. Towards the end of this particular prayer the — I think he was a minister — asked god to please see to it that all of us in attendance got home safely. What a relief.

I had been agonizing over the ride home for days wondering if the missus could safely navigate the roads during our 20 minute ride. Now I knew that the almighty had been awoken from his slumber and alerted to the fact that the three dozen or so of his creation who were at this particular service required safe passage. Alerted to this, I’m sure that the creator would see to it that the streets, lanes, sidewalks, highways and roads would be free of dangerous obstruction and reckless drivers who might imperil us. Also, jehovah would make sure that we drove at a reasonable speed in the proper lanes and applied our brakes in a timely manner as needed. Hallelujah.

But what of the aftermath of our return trip? What of when we returned to our abodes? Were we to be on our own? Would there be no protection from falling chandeliers, bathtub pratfalls or electrical fires? Sure enough when I returned home the vulnerability was palpable. I hesitated at every step, with every move I knew that the lord and master of the universe was no longer keeping an eye out for me.

I guess the short version of the preceding three paragraphs is that — at the very least — some portions of prayer are utterly ridiculous. I realize that prayer is comforting for some people and gives them a sense of empowerment in situations in which they might feel helpless. When a loved one is sick, you’re desperate for a job, or there’s been a national tragedy, people can feel powerless. Prayer at least gives them a sense that they’re “doing something.” That’s nice. But the fact is that prayers do not cure cancer, land you a job or make a devastating earthquake or horrific shooting palatable. Stuff happens. I would never try to dissuade anyone from praying but I would also not encourage it and I will also mock it when it seems so ridiculous and arbitrary as the for the attendees at the service. (Seriously, if you’re going to ask god to get us home safely and you think that’ll work, then why stop there? Why not ask her (or him, whatever) to protect us for the rest of the day, or week, or month, or year? Why stop at the ride home?

I have other — let’s be polite and say — qualms, with the christian religion and pretty much all others for that matter. Jesus loves me but if I don’t accept him as my lord and savior I will spend eternity in hell where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth (if you gnash your teeth for even one century won't they eventually grind down to nothing?). So Jesus’ love is not unconditional. Not a bit. I’m saying that if the son of god really loves us he’ll cut us a break on that going to hell business.

As for god, what an ego maniac. Some people buy into this. You ever heard someone — usually an athlete — say “all the glory goes to god”? What does god need more glory for? He (it must be a male to be so frickin’ arrogant) supposedly created the universe and has all power. More than Superman and all the leaders of the world combined. Yet this deity wants to be “worshipped” at least once a week. Give it up already buddy. I mean, “worshipped”? Worshipped for what? Cancer? Birth defects? Mental illness? Megalomaniacal leaders? War? Genocide? Torture? Murder? Rape? Kidney failure? Fox news? If god wants credit for creating us he’s got to own all of it. You’re telling me he couldn’t have kept us from all the horrors that visit humankind? Many of which are suffered by small children and babies and others who were completely innocent. Here’s another thing: look at how much of this — war in particular — are done in god’s name. Shouldn’t the almighty have shut that shit down? How about a little smiting of some of these fundamentalists and Catholics who are more interested in lining their pockets and protecting their “good names” than serving the poor and disadvantaged or furthering social justice? The vast majority of evangelicals in this country voted for Trump, a man who is so far away from christian values that he couldn’t see them with a telescope. Come on, god, why the hell do you let this happen? And don’t you dare put this on Eve because she disobeyed you and took a bite out of an apple. You’re telling me for that we got Hitler?

When a person dies you’ll often here a religious person say: he’s in a better place now. If its really better why don’t we all drink the arsenic kool aid and go there ourselves? Why are we wasting our time dealing with stomach flu, traffic jams, poison ivy, back pain, heat waves, flash floods and forest fires? Horsehit.

Conservative evangelics are some of the worst scum on Earth.  They are the ultimate in hypocrisy Their world view is in complete conflict with the Jesus depicted in the bible. You think Jesus would support the rights of gun owners? I actually heard some knucklehead christian NRA member on TV say that jesus would be packing heat if he were with us today. The one good thing to come out of christianity has been the teachings of Jesus. (Some historians say he may not have been god’s offspring but he did indeed exist and others doubt that there were ever such a dude and of course some say, exist? hell he walked on water, was born of a virgin and raised the dead.) The Jesus of the bible was closer to being a hippie than a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. He preached love, non violence and he chased the money changers out of the bible.

Speaking of non violence….

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s been a lot of buzz on the internet, especially on twitter, where I log a lot of time, about punching Nazis. You may recall that Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, was socked in the puss while being interviewed on camera last month. A lot of my brothers and sisters on the left took great satisfaction from it. There were many a chortle at Spencer’s expense and quite a few leftists would like to see more Nazi punching. I for one do not.

First of all, if you saw Spencer getting clocked you know it was a sucker punch and only a real bottom feeder hits someone when they’re not looking or expecting it. Secondly, just no. No. This will get us nowhere. Does anyone think that once a few Nazis start getting punched they’ll just say “the hell with it,” and fade away? Is the moral high ground won by stooping to their level? Are we in a position that requires fist fights? No. So yeah I think this is wrong on a million levels.

I have made note on this in response to some tweets and heard back from some morons who strongly advocate an escalation of Nazi punching. The first person to retort gave me some sage advice: “Educate yourself!” How the hell do you respond to that? One could ask the person be more specific but why waste the time.

In my exchanges with Nazi punch supporters I always invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was somewhat of a stickler for non violence having studied the teaching of that Jesus fella I earlier discussed. One person told me that King only opposed violence in certain situations. Wrong. The late great minister was unequivocal in his belief in non violence. Still another idiot said in reference to Dr. King, “hey do you want to hear what he said about you personally, ‘worse than the Klu Klux Klan.’” Ouch. I wasn’t even aware that Dr. King had known me well enough (I was 14 when he died) to develop a strong opinion about me. This mental deficient was alluding to King’s distaste for “white moderates” who thought they knew best when it was time to protest. Well I admit to being white but I’m way, way, way, way far to the left of moderate. Also I was not recommending against marching (I’m all about marches) I’m against hitting some dumb sap when he’s not looking. I kind of doubt Dr. King would have despised me for that. I’m pretty sure that Malcolm X would have sided with me. He believed in self defense, not cowardly attacks.

You want to punch a Nazi? Fine. Look the motherfucker in the eye and do it. Or do it because he’s putting you or someone else at risk. In both the short and long runs this kind of idiotic act is not going to do one whit to advance the causes of justice and equality. It’s like those idiot anarchists who totally hijacked the demonstration against Milo Racist in Berkeley last week. They caused terrible harm to the left by breaking windows and setting fires and making it look like Cal students were responsible.

There may come a point when people are pushed against the wall and need to physically fight back. We’re not there yet and one way to avoid things getting that bad is by using every legal, peaceful, honorable method at our disposal to resist trump’s move toward fascism and further the causes of equality. Power to the people.

03 February 2017

"History, Despite its Wrenching Pain, Cannot be Unlived, but if Faced with Courage, Need not be Lived Again." -- Maya Angelou: A Memory of the Bowling Green Massacre

"I bet, there was very little coverage — I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized — and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don't know that because it didn't get covered.” - Kellyanne Conway, Special Counselor to President Trump, on February 2, 2017

We all remember where we were that day. I had just gotten home from work and was looking forward to relaxing in front of the TV when the first reports flashed across our television of yet another mass shooting. This one was in the sleepy town of Bowling Green, Kentucky. The preliminary reports were sketchy but I do recall that Fox News was adamant from the beginning that the perpetrators were white nationalists. Indeed they went with that narrative long after confirmation that the attack was carried about by Islamic/Muslim/Jihadi/America-Hating/Extremist/Puppy-Killing terrorists who hate our freedoms.

As we watched scenes of the carnage, television coverage was briefly interrupted by a statement from NRA President Wayne LaPierre who boldly pledged that the NRA would not only support, but themselves offer, legislation for “meaningful gun control, including background checks, waiting periods and strict limitations on the sale of assault weapons.” LaPierre continued tearfully, “we haven’t done enough and for that I am deeply sorry. My heart goes out to all victims of gun violence. We've got to do better as an organization and as a nation.”

Meanwhile our TV screens showed the eerie quiet, the placid scenes of a town trying already ready to move forward as if nothing had happened. The empty streets, the busy streets, the sorta busy streets, belied the horrors that had visited Bowling Green that day. The carnage, though unseen was being seared across our national consciousness.

President Obama spoke to a shattered nation ordering all citizens to keep the victims and their families in their thoughts and prayers asserting that that is the most effective method for dealing with tragedy. In a surprising digression from the tragic events in the Bluegrass state, the president speculated about how the ratings would go up if he were a judge on American Idol. He also boasted about “whipping McCain’s ass three years prior.” (It was subsequently reported that he then got on the phone with the ambassador to Liechtenstein and berated him about a perceived slight. Obama’s petulance and pettiness stands in stark contrast to the humility and graciousness of our current Chief Executive.)

At one point we switched to CNN which had a dazzling array of life sized charts and graphs relating to violence and terrorism. None of said charts and graphs made the slightest sense but they made for captivating viewing. The network then showed tweets from ordinary citizens, most of which condemned the attacks or offered sympathy but some railed about the media using social media comments as part of news coverage. The irony was lost on CNN.

Donald Trump, not yet a political figure, called into MSNBC and offered a lengthy and nuanced history of terrorism and its roots saying that an immediate response should always be measured and that tactful diplomacy should always be the first option. Trump further cautioned against stereotyping people of different religions or nationalities. “For instance we should always remember that Islam is a religion of peace and we should embrace our Muslim brothers and remember that terrorists merely appropriate a religion for their own twisted agenda. Let us build a wall," he boldly continued in what was to be a theme in his 2016 landslide victory, "to keep out hatred and bigotry.”

For many of us the saving grace to the Bowling Green Massacre were the live reports from the scene by the respected journalist, Kellyanne Conway. Her eyewitness account was noted for its graphic detail tempered by an eloquence rarely matched in the annals of TV journalism. With words alone Conway pained a picture none of us could see of the horror that visited Bowling Green that day. It was then that the nation learned of Ms. Conway’s courage and commitment to the truth. The Pulitzer Prize she went on to win was well-earned indeed.

Sadly in the aftermath of the horror at Bowling Green most of us in the United States went back to our daily routines and our prurient interest in scandals, celebrity gossip and the latest fads. There were those, such as Ms. Conway, who refused to “just let it go.” The Massacre was briefly back in the spotlight on its anniversary with the release of Conway’s book about that tragic day, “I’ll Never Forget.” Unfortunately the Ron Howard directed film based on the book was a box office dud, many felt the casting of Gabourey Sidibe as Ms. Conway was a critical mistake.

Fortunately through her high level position within the current presidential administration, Ms. Conway shines a light on truth, be it actual or alternative. And she will never let us forget that awful day.

On February 3, Conway admitted she had inaccurately referred to the 2011 arrest of two Iraqi nationals for terrorism in Bowling Green, Kentucky. However, no one was actually injured or killed in any event.The men charged with federal terrorism had attempted to send both money and weapons to Al Qaeda forces in Iraq. The men both pled guilty; one is serving a life sentence while the other is serving 40 years in federal prison. Neither of the two were ever charged with attempting to plot attacks inside the United States.

29 January 2017

The End of a Brilliant Career -- An Alternative History

“I am always saying "Glad to've met you" to somebody I'm not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”  -- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

When I became conscious again I had my hands around the woman’s neck. I was straddling her as she lied on the floor. I noted the fear in her face that seemed mixed with amazement and confusion. I slowly released my grip  and rose. The woman half coughed and half gagged. I looked down at her with pity and disgust. Co-workers hustled me into another room.

I am an ESL teacher at a private language school in San Francisco. There I am well respected by my supervisors and fellow teachers and find popularity and appreciation among my students. I am known for my professionalism and reliability as well as for being courteous and charming.

The woman whose neck I had throttled was a representative of an accrediting agency which was making its quinquennial review of our school. A passing grade from this august body means the school remains in operation while a failing grade, well it’s best not to ponder such things.

In the weeks before the accreditors visited the entire staff of the school was working long days crossing t’s and dotting i’s making sure that the school would pass muster. Teachers bore less of a burden although we were prompted on what to say and what not to say if queried by the evaluators. We also had to provide intricate and detailed lesson plans for all of our classes for both of the days that evaluators would roam our halls. Indeed these lesson plans were supposed to cover each facet of our lesson, goals, purposes, length of time, connection to previous studies, methodologies, materials and procedure. It took us all several hours to get them just right. It was a bureaucratic mess for teachers of all stripes but particularly for one such as myself who sees teaching as an art form in which spontaneity plays an integral part. We were all dumbstruck to learn that, if asked, we were to claim that we prepared such meticulous plans for every lesson of every day. Madness. The lessons were given to the evaluators who, should they pop into our classroom, would expect to see exactly what was on the plan at precisely the prescribed time. Imagine teaching a class as if reading from a script, never deviating from a rigid formula and thus never accommodating a lesson to the needs of the class. A good class is not a straight path to be marched, but an exciting romp, with sudden twists and turns and stops and re-starts. But you’d actually have to teach to realize that.

We were also expected to have an “agenda” on our boards so that students could know exactly what to expect (as if telling them wouldn’t suffice). This is not unusual but it is silly. You may breeze through items #1 and #2 but spend a lot of time on #3 and have to drop #4. Agendas — or lesson plans — are made to be altered with specific points modified or dropped or added. Having an “agenda” listed can cause students to question why we didn’t do #3, will we ever get to 6 and what is this we're doing in lieu of #5? Still the agenda has been trendy in education for awhile so for the accreditors to assume one is not out of the ordinary. What is unusual in my experience (30 years) is to have said agenda items accompanied by “aims.” Logistically speaking, where’s the room? Now you’re taking up a lot of the white board which is space you’re likely to need when you are actually writing on it in furtherance of the lesson you’re teaching. You also like to have said board clear because it is where you project videos which are a staple of the ESL teaching experience. Now we are left with this question: why? What in god’s name would be the purpose of writing on the board the aim of a grammar exercise? Our students tend not to be low grade morons and understand that if we are doing a listening exercise it is so they can improve their listening skills. On the rare occasion when the purpose of a particular — let’s say, agenda item — is not intuitive, a competent teacher will explain the “aim.” Failing that, students will ask — as I encourage them to do — why the hell they are doing something. I, in turn, will answer. No mystery.

It was the second day of the accrediting agency’s visit. Tension had been high before their arrival and intensified while they scrutinized files, paperwork, meeting notes, budgets, calendar items and of course classroom activities. The younger teachers (that is to say everyone but me) were nervous. I was annoyed and disgusted. I don’t doubt the value of accreditors popping by, but the intensity and scrutiny of their visit was beyond the pale. The tension was palpable and it was noted by students.

On the second morning an evaluator came into my classroom. I have decades of experience with outsiders bearing clipboards in my classroom. I’ve learned not to alter what I am doing by one iota. Doing so is dishonest. If what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it is good enough for my students its too good for some pencil pusher.

This dowdy old broad with sagging wrinkles and glasses on chain sat in my room looking like a villain from a Dickens novel. Glumly she watched me, occasionally swerving her head to note the students. At the end of class she ponderously rose, straightened her ruffled dress and tried vainly to produce a smile. She looked right at me and said, “thank you,” as if I’d preformed some favor for her.  I nodded and smiled.

Minutes later I left the room to enjoy my ten minute break. There she stood waiting for me. “I wonder if I might ask you a few questions?” she asked again failing to achieve the smile she so much wanted me to see. “Certainly,” I replied sounding far more amiable than I felt.

“I noticed that your activity there at the end was not in your lesson.”

Oh how I wanted to reply: "Yeah and what of it?" or "Nothing gets past you, does it, grandma?" or "That lesson plan was total bullshit, created to be an approximation of what I would be doing in class because we had to turn in something." But instead I answered, "today was one of those rare instances in which I finished everything on my agenda so I threw in something I hadn't had time for yesterday."

"I see. Did any part of your lesson relate to this week's unit in the text?"

"What the fuck unit in the text are we supposed to be on and why would I care?" I thought. But artfully lied, "oh yes, the vocabulary we did at the beginning and the grammar exercises too."

"One more thing. We're meeting with your staff after school to go over our observations and would very much like it if you, as one of the senior teachers, were there."

"Sorry but I left home at 6:45 this morning and if I leave immediately after my last class won't be home until 5:45. That's 11 hours and I'm loathe to lose anymore of my day."

"But it's really just an informal talk and there'll be treats and wine and you can share your thoughts."

"I'm an hourly employee, I put in a lot of extra and unpaid hours in preparation for your visit and feel that was enough of a sacrifice on my part."

Why didn't I lie, I thought? Say I had a funeral or wedding to go to or had to pick up little Viola from her dance class. No, stupid me had to go with the truth. What had I been thinking?

"Well this is rather disappointing. I should think you'd want to hear our feedback directly an offer your own thoughts."

"I'll pass."

"Well, certainly you can't be compelled to attend but..."

It was that "but" that did it. She wasn't through. The old biddy was going to continue trying to influence me to stay and there was no way in hell I was going to. Plus she was eating up more of my break time. I snapped. I remember that. The feeling that I couldn't take anymore. Not a bit of it. Thirty years of teaching sullied by 30 years of dealing with bureaucratic nonsense dished out by people who had never taught or hadn't in so long that they'd forgotten what it was like. Thirty years of playing by the rules and stupid rules at that. Thirty years of dealing with higher ups trying to squeeze every last bit of life out of me and make me into their own image: zombies with no humor, no spirit, no freedom of thought, no compassion. No. It was too much.

When I came to I smelled sulfur, cigar smoke and damp wood. I was shaking and weak and defeated. My hands, that just moments before had a strangle hold on some poor old woman, were trembling. I had been drained of all my anger and was left an empty vessel wanting only to sleep. I don't exactly remember what happened next. I know I was docile, quiet, head bowed, mind glazed over. My next awareness was here in a holding cell waiting for my family and my attorney. I suppose I'll be held for psychiatric evaluation. I may be put away for a time. Jail time seems unlikely. My future is murky but will likely not include teaching. Just as well, time for me to try my hand at something else. Hand at something else. How ironic considering what both my hands did to that poor old bag.

I feel bad for nearly choking that woman to death. It must have upset my coworkers. They'd believed in me, thought I was amazing. My students will miss me. They enjoyed me and my lessons so much, however unscripted. But now I'm just a bum. No better than a bum.

(In reality not only did I not strangle anyone, none of the evaluators said boo to me. The rest is as it happened.)

26 January 2017

The Bad, The Terrible and the Insulting: More Controversial TV Shows from the 60s and 70s that Didn't Make the Grade

In previous posts I’ve written about a couple of short lived sitcoms from days of yore. I was a cast member in one, Hey, it's Klaus! and I was on the periphery of the other, Jesus in High School. Both were far too controversial for network TV in the 60s and 70s and might not even cut muster today. But those are not the only TV shows that came in went in that era, rejected for being tasteless or tackling taboo subjects and sometimes committing the unpardonable sin of being just plain bad.

I actually watched a few of these shows during their abbreviated runs but barely remember them, as it was so long ago and I was likely stoned at the time. For purposes of this post I have culled information about the shows from contemporary sources such as newspapers and magazines, and also through interviews I conducted with some of the people associated with the production of the shows, all of whom requested anonymity.

Sadly, or thankfully, none of these shows are available on DVD or on streaming services and there are no clips of them on You Tube. I was able to use my contacts in the TV industry to watch entire episodes of each show in secret locations. There are no extant plans to release any of them. As you may infer after reading about them, this is likely for the better.

Howowitz’s Heroes. On the heels of the success of Hogan’s Heroes -- the CBS program about World War II Allied POWs running espionage operations under the noses of bumbling Nazis -- came this monumentally stupid idea. Horowitz's was similar to Hogan's Heroes, only in this case the saboteurs were working out of Auschwitz. Yes, a concentration camp. The premise was that Jewish prisoners from varying European countries were pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting guards by sneaking out from time to time and blowing up nearby bridges and railroad stations and passing on important messages to the allies. Their leader was Saul Horowitz, late of Prague. The "Heroes"  had to perform these feats while themselves avoiding the gas chambers and maintaining their cover by not gorging on food or bathing while away from camp. The sanitization of the death camp experience released a torrent of complaints from Jewish groups (especially survivors) and most anyone with any sensitivity. The Nazis were depicted as blithering idiots and the prisoners were shown to be lovable and intelligent wise guys, It is a miracle that an episode aired before ABC pulled the plug.

Hungry for More? This was another rip off of a successful franchise. As in Gilligan’s Island, a disparate group of cruisers ran into foul weather and make for a deserted tropical isle. The twist here was that the castaways neither brought nor were were able to find any food. Inevitably they resorted to cannibalism. Audiences were not ready for a comedy in which lovable characters feasted on human flesh, especially when it was one another’s. Of course there were practical problems with the show. There were seven featured characters and another seven co-stars. After just three episodes their total number was reduced by half. Unless another boat crashed onto the island’s shore the "food supply" was not going to last for a season’s worth of television. Hungry for More? was macabre while trying be funny. There were endless puns about food and human anatomy, such as "that remark was in pretty bad taste but I bet you don't taste bad" and "I have a bone to pick with you and it's Bob's." and "hey, Linda, what's eating at ya?"

Milltown Millionaires. As the title may suggest this show was an unabashed rip off of the popular Beverly Hillbillies. Producers wrongly believed that a program with the shoes on the other feet would have the same popularity as its inspiration. They were mistaken. While the premise of the Beverly Hillbillies (itself quite dubious) was that a backwoods family that struck it rich had been prodded into moving to Beverly Hills with other nouveau riche. The Milltown Millionaires were the opposite. Here we had an obscenely rich family in Malibu that was swindled out of their last dime. They were encouraged to take the Clampetts place in the Ozarks. What could be funnier, the shows’ creators asked, than former blue bloods used to lives of ease being forced to live hard scrabble existences among white trash? As it turns out, plenty. MM did get a few laughs but the overall tenor of the show was far too depressing. Here was a once happy family now living in virtual squalor and being ridiculed by their new neighbors. The millionaires were unlikable characters who'd had their comeuppance and they were living among people who cruelly and incessantly made fun of their plight. Milltown Millionaires somehow slogged through 13 full episodes before its inevitable death.

Veterans’ Hospital. This was an interesting marriage between the irreverent but highly popular CBS series M*A*S*H (set during and in the Korean War) and more traditional hospital dramas. VH was set during the Vietnam War (which in real life was just winding down) in an unnamed major city’s Veteran’s Hospital. The principal cast was comprised of a few anti-establishment, wise-cracking doctors, some stuffy, reactionary hospital administrators, one irascible by-the-book nurse and a two sexy fun loving nurses and an amalgamation of variously goofy, philosophical, or several depressed patients. Ultimately the show was a confusing mess mixing the horrors of badly maimed soldiers trying to cope with their bleak futures with witty barbs and slapstick humor. The non stop squabbles between doctors and administrators and among nurses bogged down the plot. An early episode centered around two new arrivals at the hospital, one who had been blinded and the other was a paraplegic. There was no squeezing comedy out of such a situation, try as they might.  VH drew the ire of veterans, the military and the medical profession and was canceled after eight episodes.

Mount Pilot. Viewers of the Andy Griffith show may remember that Mayberry was the fictional town that served as the show's base. It was a bucolic setting where family values, church socials and fishing trips ruled the day. Most of the crime was the antics of the town drunk or occasional instances of moonshining. The neighboring community was Mount Pilot. Producer Normal Lear, known for bringing controversy, topical story lines and previously taboo subjects to network sitcoms, decided American was ready for a more realistic version of the American South. After all this was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, during which time much of the south was a roiling cauldron of violence and tension. Mount Pilot was his first foray into producing. Like Andy Griffith’s show, it featured a sheriff and his deputy. But unlike the wise and mild Andy and the bumbling, ineffectual yet lovable, Barney Fife, the two cops in Mount Pilot were more reminiscent of real life Southern lawmen ala Bull Connor and Jim Clark. Mount Pilot's police were forever meeting the challenges of sit-ins, freedom rides and marches. Mount Pilot failed miserably because of two huge flaws. One: the laughs were few and far between and weak at that. The other was that the show’s two protagonists were vicious racists. Three episodes aired, all greeted by howls of protests from both end of the Civil Rights debate, before the plug was mercifully pulled.

Oldsters Say the Darndest Things. "Kids Say the Darndest Things"was a TV segment hosted by Art Linkletter in which he interviewed schoolchildren between the ages of five and ten. Over a 27-year period, Linkletter interviewed an estimated 23,000 children. The success of the show stemmed partially from Linkletter's gentle touch and bemused looks and the fact that small children can in fact quite innocently and sometimes precociously say some pretty funny things. Well, reasoned some TV execs, if the young among us can unintentionally make us laugh then why not the old? The good news was that the elderly did indeed make Americans laugh. The bad news was that elderly did indeed make America laugh and it was wholly unintentional. The shows host was an acerbic comic named Buddy Rico whose act was more suited to sleazy lounges than network television. He was an odd, and is turned out, quite poor choice to interview senior citizens. All the guests were at least octogenarians and all were evidently selected for the senility. Rico smirked and made sarcastic jibes as the aging interviewees mumbled, fumbled and uttered non sequiturs often asking to be taken home. Oldsters managed to stay afloat for ten episodes before the axe fell. Rico's big break on network television was a flop and he was soon back in dimly lit night clubs opening for third rate crooners.

15 January 2017

I Belatedly Offer My Top Ten Films of 2016

1 Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan)
2 Paterson (Jarmusch)
3 Moonlight (Jenkins)
4 The Handmaiden (Park)
5 Hell or High Water (Mackenzie)
6 Nocturnal Animals (Ford)
7 The Lobster (Lanthimos)
8 American Honey (Arnold)
9 Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Waititi)
10 Silence (Scorsese)

Honorable Mention: Elle (Verhoeven) Don’t Think Twice (Birbiglia)  Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Schaffer/Taccone)  Certain Women (Reichardt)  Christine (Campos  Jackie (Larrain) Hail Caesar (Coens)

Best Actor: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)  Runners Up -- Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals), Chris Pine (Hell or High Water) Colin Farrell (The Lobster)
Best Actress: Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals)  Runners Up -- Natalie Portman (Jackie), Rebecca Hall, (Christine) Sally Field (My Name is Doris)
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) Runners Up -- Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences) Runners Up --  Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), Naomie Harris (Moonlight)