31 January 2016

When I Worked in an Office

I used to work in an office. One of those nine to five kind of places where people connived to get corner offices and there was gossip and office politics and the men wore bland suits and the women uninteresting skirts and blouses. It was Coopers & Lybrand, one of the top five or six accounting firms in the country (it has since merged with one of the others) and I was a copyeditor and proofreader. This was in the early/mid ‘80s when my alcohol intake was at its zenith. Drinking heavily seemed to go quite well with working in a daily office grind with a cross bay commute.

There were two other copyeditors and a part timer. We had a supervisor and in an adjacent room were four people called word processors who would type. When I started I was working with two women. We were all in our mid to late twenties. One woman was from New York, very brassy, very loud, an addict who was in recovery but still using so she really wasn't in recovery. Her name was Joanne and she may rank as the single most self absorbed person I’ve ever met. We got along well enough although she could be pretty obnoxious. The other woman couldn’t have been more different. Her name as Melissa. She was a devout Christian, married with a baby at home and a husband who liked to pee sitting down (what, you think I’d make something like that up?). One day right after work hours we were all taken to a bar, it was Melinda’s first time in a saloon. Talk about straight-laced. Joanne dressed like a call girl and Melissa dressed like your grandmother. They both got along well enough with me, but not so much with each other.

The part timer was a very, very cute woman from the South named Julie. The first time she came in after I started she intentionally leaned forward and displayed a great deal of cleavage, actually it was more a view of virtually all of her breasts. She had planned this with Joanne to see if I’d peak (I did) so that they could determine whether I was gay or straight. The two men who worked in the typing department were both gay. One was very open and talked about sex a lot, his name was Michael and he was in an out of AA. The other was much more discreet. There were also two women in that office one was twice our age and the other was also in her 20s and had a massive crush on me. I’d have preferred Julie to have had the crush but such is life.

Our supervisor whose name was also was Julie and she was about the best boss I’ve ever had. She was a sweet middle aged woman married to a much much older man who was a raging bigot. I never got that relationship at all.

We were all pretty close and despite the tedium of our duties and the occasional Melissa-Joanne friction, it was a nice place to work, at least in our office, which was called the Report Department. Of course accountants would forever be sauntering in. Some were fresh faced lads just out of college desperate to make a good impression on higher ups. Others were middle aged middle track men hoping to hang in long enough to get promoted to the top rung or land a bigger job somewhere else. And occasionally we’d see one of the old fossils who’d already made a bundle of money and advanced as far as one could go at the firm. They were variously the mellowest gents, content with life and not needing to ruffle feathers, or they were salty, grumps still bossing people around never satisfied with anyone or anybody.

Mostly the accountants were white men. There were few women and virtually no one of color. It should come as no surprise that all the receptionists, secretaries and office mangers were women. The receptionists were usually just out of high school or college, often cute and wonderfully excited about life, sure that there futures were elsewhere. I dated one of them, but like most people who worked there in any capacity, she was not anywhere near being the type of person I would want to spend time with unless inebriated or well on the way to that condition.

Somehow gossip always made its way to us — usually via a receptionist or friendly secretary. Many of the accountants were cheating on their wives either on a regular basis with a paramour or in one  one night stands. Their partners for such assignations generally came from the secretarial pool. The less satisfying the job the greater the need for gossip, juicy tidbits to fill the day, give titillation. Thus the high premium on gossip.

Most of the accountants were decent enough sorts although some clearly looked at us as "the help" and thus lesser beings. A very few couldn't have been nicer. Two of them took me to lunch and many many drinks on my last day. Besides gossip there was an inordinate amount of time spent talking about personalities. It filled the time but was akin to the sports talk you hear on the radio, really just a lot of noise with no value. I never worked in a job in which clock watching an obsession with countdowns to weekends and holidays and vacations was so pronounced. To think that this is so typical of so many jobs is depressing indeed.

The offices were in a high rise right in the smack of San Francisco’s financial district. We were many floors up and could soak in nice views during lax times. When it wasn’t busy I could be counted on to orchestrate silly shenanigans, especially in the afternoons after I’d drank lunch. There were bars and restaurants aplenty around and I got acquainted with many of them either during lunch or after work. Sometimes there’d be celebrations that the brass would take us too and we’d feast on sumptuous meals and down the best kind of cocktail of all: ones on the house. Most of the accountants were eager drinkers and the younger ones — so we heard — were not above snorting a line or six during off hours or to help them through tax season.

It was while working there that I decided to enter the teaching profession. No doubt a deciding factor was realizing how much I hated so much about working in an office among suits whose profession revolved around the almighty dollar. I knew there had to be one helluva lot more meaningful ways to live. I’d previously been a journalist and a good one at that but dropped the profession as if it was a girlfriend I loved dearly and was well suited for but felt unworthy of. Teaching seemed a profession that had the same nobility as newspaper work so I pursued first a masters in history and then a credential.

There was nothing formative about my time at Coopers & Lybrand, at least so far as the work was concerned. I gained nothing from the job itself except perhaps that it started me on the road to being obsessive about grammar and spelling (except, oddly, my own which I still hate to proof read, edit and correct, as readers of this blog can testify). I made no lasting relationships there either. The two women I initially worked beside eventually moved on and their replacements were too hopelessly banal people who’s name I can’t even recall. I did get some insight into the way people work and the prison of the 9-5 Monday through Friday two to four weeks of vacations existence. It grinds people to dust. So many of the people who work in such places are terribly unhappy and unfulfilled during most of their waking hours. They are, as Thoreau put it, leading “lives of quiet desperation.” They scratch and claw for raises, more vacations, sick leave, better accommodations, promotions. Their professional lives are all about the end product because the process is prosaic and dreary. It is only through their bank accounts and possessions and time away from work that they find joy.

Working there aided and abetted my drinking and using. Indeed it gave fuller meaning to it. I carried on as I went back to school and then started my teaching career, but that was more the function of my addiction than it was a need to counteract the dulling effects of an office job. An office job. My god I had one once. Once for nearly three years was enough, more than.

28 January 2016

JFK and I - The Death and the Assassination


The most exciting things going on in America today are movements to change America.
- Mario Savio

It is impossible to overstate the impact the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had on millions of individuals. Myself included. I was nine years old. I remember Kennedy’s election but I have no clear memory of Eisenhower as president. Kennedy was really my first president. He was not some wrinkled, bespectacled old man who droned on and on like all other political leaders seemed to do. JFK came off as young, handsome, athletic and yet, for us kids, fatherly. He was my ideal of a president and leader. Even as a mere lad I could tell he was articulate and intelligent and suave.

My elementary school was a block and half from my grandmother’s house so I would go there everyday for lunch. I would sit down in the living room, turn on the TV and grandma would bring me a meal. One particular late November Friday afternoon I turned the set on expecting to watch the Donna Reed Show. Instead there were men in suits talking gravely about the president being shot and killed. Grandma and I watched in stunned silence. Then I returned to school and told all my chums that our president had been killed. Not a one of them believed me. It seemed too fantastic.

At the sound of the bell we returned to our classroom. Our teacher, Miss Phillips, was late entering the room. She finally came in fighting back tears. She told us of the events in Dallas and that we were dismissed for the day. Students all about whispered to me that I was right. What an awful vindication.

I was a nine year old boy and no world event, no matter how earth shattering, was going to bring me to tears or even worry me very much. I went home and like most Americans sat in front of the TV, but I also took time go outside and play as was my wont to do in those days. The shattering impact of Kennedy’s murder was slow to sink in, but over time the impact was profound. Not only was my ideal of a president gone, but Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Johnson, just the type of wrinkled, bespectacled old man who to me epitomized the boring politician that predominated American politics. Worse still within a short time Johnson had escalated America’s immoral and costly participation in the Vietnam war. So in addition to not being Kennedy, he was a bad guy. (Whether Kennedy would have pulled troops out any sooner or disillusioned us by staying the course is a topic for another time.)

Of course the main issue was that my fragile trust in the United States was forever shattered. Patriotism seemed sadly passé, especially in light of the culture revolution that was ushered in within months of the Kennedy assassination by the arrival on American shores of The Beatles. Soon I had causes and beliefs and attitudes and hopes and they all centered around the new, the hip, the uber cool and the questioning of authority. The Beatles were just the biggest wave in tsunami of changes to the American psyche. The war became unpopular and protests were not just something guaranteed by the constitution but a veritable right of passage. The Civil Rights Movement, which preceded even Kennedy’s presidency, was still ascendent in the mid ‘60s.  Protest was individual as well as mass symbolized, in mine and many cases, by growing long hair (and thus coming into conflict with Dad).

Now other voices demanded to be heard. Women’s liberation, gay rights, Native American groups, created a wonderful cacophony of demands, questions, and grievances. All of it was in the name of a more equitable society that recognized past wrongs and would promise a fairer future. The raising of group conscienceless was accompanied by desires for individual explorations and expansions of the mind, the spirt and the body. The times were very much changing.

Kennedy was a martyr to an America that seemed no longer to exist, the one in which, as in World War II, Americans were the good guys. But there was hope that a new America in that mold could emerge when in 1968 JFK's dynamic and equally charismatic (to me, anyway) brother Robert, ran for the presidency. There was hope for our government yet if RFK could get elected. If John was a father figure, Robert was the cool uncle and he was in striking contrast to the other stodgy old men who were also seeking the presidency.

Then he was assassinated too. And this on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Now truly there was no hope, no chance, no way we could count our government to lead us. Anyone we could believe in would be killed. The world of politics was hopeless, it was no avenue for change. The government was an impenetrable monolith reserved for the elites and those elites were the old, wealthy and conservative. When instead of RFK, the next president was the impossibly square and inherently evil Richard Nixon, I was resigned. It was time for revolution.

Things only got worse as the war in Vietnam continued through Nixon’s first term and the beginning of his second. Indeed it was expanded into Cambodia and more bombs were dropped on our “enemies” in Southeast Asia than had been dropped by the U.S. in all of World War II. It was all so sad, so ludicrous and so emblematic of a cruel and unjust government. The entire Watergate affair merely confirmed what many of us suspected about the government, the real surprise was that it could be exposed. At least journalism was alive and well.

But any hopes for real change were dashed with the resounding electoral victories of Ronald Reagan. Some of us had had to endure him as California’s governor for eight years and now this conservative old man who unabashedly put the interests of rich, white, straight, men ahead of all else was president. Count me out. From the hope of Kennedy to the bleakness of Reagan was a tremendous fall.

Throughout all this there was another disturbing aspect of the Kennedy assassination that somehow managed to come to light despite efforts to suppress and obscure it. For me it was during those early dark years of the Reagan presidency that I first became aware of the fact that the official government account of the JFK assassination — that a lone kook named Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin — was utter nonsense. I started devouring books about the assassination, many of which were far fetched, but no more so than the pronouncement of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. It was all quite shocking. Not only had my president been struck down in his prime, but there were shadowy figures responsible, at least some of whom were linked to the US government.

Over the years there have been many bizarre theories about the assassin put forth to try to convince people that Oswald was the assassin. The magic bullet is one of those. Another has been aired more recently. A respected documentarian, Errol Morris made a short film explaining away the infamous Umbrella Man. There is irrefutable photographic evidence that during the assassin a man standing within view of Kennedy’s motorcade opened and closed an umbrella at about the time the shots were fired then strolled away. It looked for all the world like he was giving a signal, perhaps that the target had been hit. This was pretty difficult to explain, especially since no one could find the Umbrella Man. Morris’ film claims that someone belatedly came forward, many years after the fact, claiming to be the Umbrella Man. He explained that the opening of the umbrella was meant as a protest against Kennedy’s father’s appeasement policies before World War II while serving as US ambassador to England.

Of course.

Almost 20 years after the war was over people were still protesting against Kennedy’s father’s actions in such an obscure way? Even if JFK saw the umbrella man, is it logical to assume that he'd make the connection? It's perfectly logical to those who are desperate grasping at straws in an effort to prop up the lone assessing theory.  Why the umbrella man calmly walked away as or immediately after bullets were fired in the area he was standing has not been explained.

Even sans umbrella man, everything about the Warren Report was suspicious. Investigators put forth the "magic bullet" theory with a straight face, trying to convince us that this one bullet went one way then another way and yet another, causing multiple wounds to both Kennedy and Governor Connolly, finally coming out in almost pristine condition.

Here's are a few tidbits from a paper by the late Carl Oglesby, written in 1992, called Who Killed JFK, listing some items he felt created serious doubt about the Warren Report:

* Oswald's description was broadcast over police radio within fifteen minutes of the assassination. No one knows how this description was obtained.
* No interrogation records were kept for those arrested at Dealey Plaza, or for Oswald.
* The pictures of Oswald holding a gun appear to be faked.
* JFK's body was removed from Dallas before an autopsy could be performed there.
* JFK's corpse left Dallas wrapped in a sheet inside an ornamental bronze casket. It arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington in a body bag inside a plain casket.
* The autopsy photographs of JFK's wounds differed radically from the descriptions of the doctors at Parkland Hospital.
* A whole tray of evidence, including what was left of the president's brain, remains missing from the National Archives.
* The pristine condition of "the magic bullet" found on JFK's stretcher suggests it was planted. Why? Because it is impossible for this to happen. It is not just suspicious, it is incriminating. This projectile was planted, period. Where and how would anyone get a pristine bullet that had been fired from that very rifle? It takes the work of a ballistics expert and possession of the barrel from the rifle itself, if not the intact rifle.
* Numerous films made by witnesses to the event were confiscated.
* Many more witnesses have died than would normally be expected, many in mysterious circumstances.
* Both the FBI and the CIA concealed important evidence from the Warren Commission.
* Oswald never, ever practiced against a moving target. He never in his life practiced bolt-action rapid fire shooting. The 6.5 mm Carcano is the best possible rifle to use if you want to make it tracable to a fired bullet that is used as evidence.

One of the more bizarre notions put forward by lone gunman kooks is that people -- presumably such as myself -- find more comfort in the idea of conspiracy to kill the president rather than the idea of one twisted individual. Seriously. Yes a still unmasked conspiracy probably involving the CIA is a real comfort. The contortions that supporters of the Warren Commission go through in defense of their contentions beggars belief.

It seems a virtual certainty that the CIA was involved in some level of the assassination, perhaps in cahoots with the Mafia (a group with whom they were having dealings at the time) and perhaps at the behest of the military or right wing extremists. It is impossible over 50 years after the event to say with certainty, so thorough has the cover up been. (By the way, should anyone ask the question you why hasn't anyone talked or confessed, the answer is many have, including the infamous Howard Hunt who made a death bed confession.). My further understanding of the John Kennedy assassination (there exists many questions too about Bobby Kennedy's slaying) has only added to the life long trauma stemming from his death. Once faith is shattered repairing it is virtually impossible.

I cannot pretend to fully understand exactly how the assassination has effected me. It suffices to realize that it both changed the world I lived in and changed me as an individual most deeply. It certainly started me on a life long path of mistrusting and questioning the US government. It also helped inure me to the horrendous sort of public tragedies that seemed to be daily occurrences in the tumultuous Sixties. But I never gave way to cynicism, the Sixties also taught me about the strength of solidarity, the power of the people and that hope springs eternal where there is love and faith and will.
"There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction." - John F. Kennedy




23 January 2016

Confession of a Murderer


I killed a man once. His name was Amon Kissenbee. He always wore an old corduroy jacket, a plain light blue shirt and khakis. Amon always had the sniffles but never blew his nose and that was just one of his irritating habits. He did this thing where he look right at you while he was talking to you, I mean right in the eyes, but when you spoke he’d look away. He’d also scratch behind an ear all the time and scrunch his face up while he did it.

Amon was a terrible athlete, a very bad singer, couldn’t write a decent sentence and had superficial knowledge of but few topics. But he constantly spoke of his athletic prowess, his nice singing voice, his writing talents and his towering intellect. Amon had no friends but always hung around with us. To an outsider it would appear he was part of the group. I suppose he was, but an uninvited one. Whenever we’d go on outings he’d be there, whenever there was a party he’d be there, whenever we were hanging out at the local bar, he’d be there. Amon always seemed to know where we were and when we’d be there. He'd be there talking your ear off and most of what he said was negative or self aggrandizing. Aside from me I don’t think anyone hated Amon. But I can say for sure that, including me, no one liked the bastard.

Somehow Amon always seemed to have a girl. No one could figure this out. After all he had the charm of a wharf rat and was hardly any better looking. Yet girls would go out with him. Once. Maybe a second time. It wouldn’t take long for a woman to suss Amon out for the jerk that he was.

Amon worked at a shipping firm but none of us knew exactly what he did there, not that anyone cared. I’m sure he told us all in great detail what he did and how damn important he was but we got so that we didn’t listen to the bum. All of us had all gone to college together and most of us had been flatmates at one time or another, except of course for Amon who had lived alone. No one could quite recall how Amon leeched onto us but all of us were sure none of us had ever encouraged his friendship or invited him to anything.

But like I said at the beginning I killed the guy. I’m not proud of ending a man’s life but neither am I particularly broken up about it either. It’s not like anyone would miss him. One thing we did gleam from Amon’s ramblings was that he was estranged from his family. Apparently his dad — who was in the money — essentially bought him off, giving him a big chunk of money to stay the hell away from the rest of the family for good and all. Of course when Amon told it he twisted it around in such a way that it seemed like his idea and that his family was all a bunch of kooks especially his dad and that he was well rid of them and that they were jealous of him and what not. That last one was a real scream. Jealous of what? What a crummy guy he was? How poorly he dressed? How talentless he was? How self absorbed he was?

So you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m writing this, confessing to a murder that I’ve gotten away with, a killing that did the world more good than harm and that hasn’t caused me a second of guilt. Well if you’re reading this it means I’m dead myself. I’ve left it as part of my will for this to be opened and read upon my passing. I hope it’s many years in the future and that I’ve had a good life. As I write this things look promising. I’ve embarked on a career in journalism, I’ve met a girl who may be my future wife and my health is excellent (I pause now to knock on wood — no use tempting fate).

It’s been a year since I murdered Amon Kissenbee and life has just been grand for all us. No one gets buttonholed by him anymore. We no longer have to endure his rants or half baked theories. Now when we get together it’s just people who like and respect and get along with one each other. There isn’t this massive ego in the room. There was, of course, an investigation into Amon’s death and his family came out but not for long and they clearly weren’t all that broken up about it. His father had told someone that they never thought they’d been seeing Amon again. The whole thing died down pretty quickly. The only thing that surprised anyone — and I don’t know why it should have — was that his company discovered he’d been skimming money off them, just a bit at a time in such a way that he wouldn’t have been caught for a long time, if ever. This tells you a lot about Amon Kissenbee, embezzling small amounts of dough when he’s already got a plenty in the bank. He was doing it just to do it.

So what happened was this. One Saturday afternoon we went for a  hike. Needless to say Amon found out and was of the seven of us who made the two hour drive to the mountains. We’d been on the trail for several hours enjoying the sights on a cool early spring day. Everyone was ready to head back. There was a bar and restaurant near where we parked and the plan was to have a few drinks and dinner before heading back. But there was a spot I knew of not far off and I wanted to go there before ending the hike. I decided to go it alone and meet everyone a half hour later. Amon had left his binoculars at a spot we’d just been at and went back to get it. So while five of our gang made for the restaurant, and Amon retrieved his binocs, I went for one last view.

It’s a great spot and I had a spectacular view.  I’d just gotten there and was soaking it all in when what should hear but that dumb jerk Amon Kissenbee calling my name. “I’ve come to check out this view you made such a big deal about,” Amon hollered as he approached me.

My heart sank. Of all the dirty rotten things. Here I was alone, lost in the moment, feeling on top of the world when this guy I hate crashes into the scene. It really exemplified his presence in my life. I was crestfallen and steaming mad at the same time.

Now a little background. In my backpack I had a pistol which I only ever used when hiking as protection against rattlesnakes. I’d found this pistol a few years before in an alley outside a bar. I theorized that someone had dumped it there after committing a crime. It still had four bullets in it.

As Amon neared me I thought of the gun and what a simple matter it would be to shoot him right here and now and do the world a big favor. I immediately dismissed the thought though because I’d never so much as punched a guy let alone shot one. But he was in rare form on this day. Yak, yak, yak without a pause between words. He wasn’t even looking at the view just babbling at me and to top it off complaining about the hike and how overrated this area was and on and on and how he’d have picked a better spot. It was too much. Amon had spoiled my afternoon just by showing up and he was making it worse now. Plus I faced the prospect of walking back with him. I simply could not take it.

When Amon started in on his hiking superior knowledge of local geography I’d had enough. I reached into my backpack, pulled out the gun and shot the bastard in the forehead. I had about one second of “oh my god what have I done?” before feeling an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Then I looked around. Not a soul. There’d been someone standing about where I was just before I arrived. His tracks led in the other direction. I tossed the gun (after wiping the prints) in that direction and headed back.

I didn’t tell anyone anything. I acted surprised that Amon hadn’t come back. We waited around and hour after eating then reported to a park ranger that “our friend” was missing. We drove back with no one seeming to be the least bit worried. The next day Amon’s body was discovered. The police never came up with a suspect, let alone a motive. We were all questioned (me especially only because I was the last to leave the area) but it never seemed any of us was under suspicion. To this date the case remains unsolved, a cold case.

So that’s it. My confession. I suppose that to many of you I’m a murderer, in addition to whatever else I can be defined as. Like I said I’ve never felt any regret but I also thought it right to pen this confession. There you have it. Judge me as you will.

Clement Q. Chance
April 12, 1956

Postscript. Clement Chance worked as a journalist for a few years then went into publishing where he became respected and wealthy. He married Doris Ledbetter in August 1958 and they had three children. Doris died in 2002 of complications during heart surgery. In addition to his three children, Mr. Chance is survived by four grandchildren. He died on January 1, 2016 at the age of 85. Unbeknownest to Mr. Chance, he'd been a prime suspect in the death of Amon Kissenbee, but the murder weapon was never found and there was no motive and not enough evidence for an indictment. 

17 January 2016

All We Are Saying, is Give Guns a Chance


"I'm a strong supporter of the second amendment. I have a right to protect my family if someone were to come after us," Rubio said. "In fact, if ISIS were to visit us, or our communities, at any moment, the last line of defense between ISIS and my family is the ability that I have to protect my family from them, or from a criminal, or anyone else who seeks to do us harm. Millions of Americans feel that way.” - Marco Rubio, Republican candidate for president.

I’m intrigued by this comment. Evidently Rubio feels that ISIS might pay a call to his Florida neighborhood. Frankly I didn't think that ISIS was in the habit of visiting anyplace in the United States but I could be wrong about that. If they have been visitors in this country surely they’ve been, if not welcome guests, peaceful ones. Because surely if they’d caused any mayhem the media would have been all over the story.

I wonder if Rubio is similarly worried about others paying a call. Does he imagine Al-Qaeda ringing his doorbell? Hamas? How about Nazis? Or a Mexican drug lord? Could he envision Boko Haram popping over? Does he worry about the Sicilian Mafia dropping by? Just what kind of visitors does the Senator actually get that make him worry so much about who'll be next?

I must say that Rubio is not much of a host. Visitors come, perhaps tourists, and he greets them with guns at the ready? What if they coming bearing gift baskets? Flowers or a nice fruit arrangement? Is he going to open the door with a .45 in his hand? Any paperboy coming to collect the monthly bill better hope he doesn’t bear any resemblance to terrorists or he might be staring at an uzi.

Rubio also said that he purchased a new gun on Christmas Eve. I’ll grant you, the guy knows how to get in the spirit of the season. Nothing says yuletide joy or peace on earth quite like a firearm. Sarah Palin, who you may recall was once the republican candidate for vice president (oh how he laughed!) mentioned in a book she wrote (wait, she really wrote a book? That means she’s written more of the things than she’s read) that in response to the backlash against guns after the Sandy Hook massacre, she bought her hubby a gun for Christmas. “As an act of civil disobedience.” That pretty much explains the term “gun nuts.” Yeah, when you legally buy a Christmas gift for your spouse you are carrying on the great tradition of Henry David Thoreau. When you buy one to show up people who want stricter gun laws in the aftermath of two dozen small children being slaughtered by a lunatic, you’re carrying on the great tradition of…of, uh, well gee its hard to think who the stupidest most insensitive lout in history is. Maybe she was carrying on her own tradition!

Rubio and Palin and other lovers of phallic symbols are convinced that President Obama and other people who abhor wanton gun violence, are trying to “take away” their guns. Personally, I’m of the opinion that there one helluva lot of people who need their guns taken away. And their bullets too.  But I’ve seen no proposals that even suggest taking away anyone’s gun. I have hear tell of suggested laws that would make it a teensy bit more difficult for crazy idiots to buy guns and maybe restricting who gets to buy those rifles that can mow down a roomful of people in less time than it takes to say: second amendment. But god forbid you take away the right to buy a bazooka or impose a 12 hour waiting period before you can purchase a flame thrower.

In Texas you get to carry your guns out in the open. It’s called open carry. Is that so people can show off and compare? Mine’s bigger than yours! Yeah well you should see mine when its erect! Mine is circumcised! Of course there are practical reasons for open carry laws. With your cock, I mean glock, where people can see it, those ISIS people who are visiting will think twice before blowing you up. Plus, if you suddenly have the need or the urge to open fire it’s probably easier to get to your gun. Here’s a tip: leave the safety off! Saves time.

I also understand that many gun owners want to keep their weapons so that they can ward off government agents who try to take those guns away or further infringe on their basic rights as an American. But I don’t think they’re going far enough. After all, the government has tanks, fighter jets, drones and nukes. Let’s make sure our citizenry is similarly armed. You know, a well-regulated militia is just not well-regulated enough with that the very latest in top of the line instruments of death.

I applaud Rubio and all the other mentally defective weapon lovers. Their ever increasing capacity to kill and maim their fellow man is making the country a safer place. Statistics, facts and the truth be damned!

15 January 2016

A Brief Telling of the Life and Times of Aimo Hourula on the 100th Anniversary of his Birth


Last night the television was on the Turner Classics Movie channel. They were airing a brief featurette on a long dead actor, his daughter was doing the narration. They air a lot of these, often with a descendant — usually a child — rhapsodizing about dad or mom.  As I heard this woman go on and on about her father I couldn’t help but think what I always do in such situations: “yeah, well my father was better.” Growing up I always thought I had the best father in the world. I still do.

My Dad would have turned 100 on Saturday and it seems a dirty rotten gyp that he’s not around for it. My Old Man was a tough SOB who fought for life up until his last second. His premature ending came about because, a few months after his 91st birthday, he’d gone on a salmon fishing trip in the Pacific Ocean (he caught the biggest fish of the day on the boat) while getting off the boat he slipped and hit his head on concrete. Dad hung in there for over ten months before succumbing. That fall was a fluke and if it hadn’t happened he’d be here yet.

His name was Aimo Johannes Hourula. He was born in Nivala, Finland, a small town in the north of the country. He was the first of seven children to Otto and Saimi Hourula. Many of my and previous generations grew up hearing from parents about having had to make long treks in the snow to get to school. In my case the speaker was not exaggerating. His was not an easy childhood, particularly in comparison to what he provided his own children, but basic needs were provided and Aimo never went to bed hungry. As a teenager my dad had to leave school and work in the mill, this was interrupted by a brief stint in the Air Force. Meanwhile he dreamed of seeing the world by way of the seas. Those dreams were put on hold when the Soviet Union invaded Finalnd in the winter of 1939. There was no hesitation, Aimo enlisted.

Finland won the hearts of the world with their brave stand against the Russians as their army killed almost five Soviets for ever Finn killed. But the Soviet Union's vast superiority in numbers could not be overcome and after three months of fighting a treaty was signed in which Finland was forced to cede some of their land. My dad never forgave the enemy and never used the word Soviet Union. “It’s Russia,” he would spit out whenever he heard the term USSR or Soviet Union spoken, even if on TV.

A few months after the war my dad stopped dreaming about seeing the world and just went out and saw it. He joined the merchant marines and spent much of World War II in dangerous seas. Twice he was on planes strafed by German planes and he was at the helm of a ship in the Arabian Sea that was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. All hands survived and were soon picked up by a friendly tanker and brought to Iran.

Of course all this was the stuff of legends and is one reason why my father was a genuine hero to my older brother and I. He had stories to tell and he made a point not to embellish. One of my dad’s shipmates, on the ship that was sunk, Emil,  remained friends with my dad for years, but it always bothered my father that Emil would exaggerate the story of the attack claiming the loss of lives. My father’s stories were consistent (a sign of truth) and did not sound rehearsed (another sign).

As I grew older my father told me the adult version of his adventures. The reason he stayed in Buenos Aires for six months? He shacked up with a woman. An extended stay in Australia? Same thing, in that case he hightailed it out of the country when his flame’s parents started making noises about marriage. My father claimed to have bedded women in six continents. If only he'd made it to Antarctica.

My father’s favorite city was New York where he settled and met his future wife, my mother. Mom was born of Finnish parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dad and Gertrude Kurki had a whirlwind romance and married in December of 1945. By this time Aimo was in the US army, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up as it provided him US citizenship, a status he coveted.

Within a year the young couple moved to Berkeley and my father quickly became established as one of many successful Finnish born carpenters in the Bay Area. My dad was a carpenter for over 35 years and a very proud union member. He was also a very proud member of the Democratic party, unshakeable in his belief that a political party should protect the interests of the working man over those of corporations.

My big brother, Robert was born in 1947 and I arrived seven years later. Aimo was living the immigrant’s dream. He had a nuclear family, steady work, two cars, a house, was surrounded by friends and family and enjoyed vacations in Lake Tahoe as well as regular fishing and hunting trips and frequent visits to all manner of sports events. His health was always good and his marriage happy. Then the goddamned bottom fell out.

The single most important lesson I learned from my father was one he taught by example — whatever happens keep going. Do the next thing in front of you and don’t complain. If you’re supposed to get up and go to work you do it. If you have an appointment, go to it. Family obligations? Take care of them. A chore awaits you? Deal with it. Whenever life knocks you on your ass just get the hell up.

When the shitstorm hit, my father was devastated. He couldn’t make sense of it — not at all. But he took care of business just the same.

My mother suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder. She managed to keep her aberrant behavior under wraps — with I the the lone witness — for many years. Then it all came out. The paranoid ramblings, the angry screaming, the disassociation from family and the mad spending sprees. She moved out of the master bedroom and took to drinking which further fueled her madness.  My father’s dream American home was suddenly a nightmare.

But dad had an indefatigable spirit. He loved life and unconditionally loved his sons and — particularly in the case of me as younger and more vulnerable — was very protective. Laziness and irresponsibility were twin bete noires to Aimo Hourula. While unsuccessfully struggling with how to help his wife, his ineluctable spirit did not flag, he continued to be a parent, a worker, a friend, a brother and anything else that was required. This was a man bowed but not broken.

My father would come home from a long day at work and before having a beer or a shower or a bite to eat might shoot some hoops with me or toss the football or take me to the local field and hit me some fly balls. When I started my soccer career he came, not only to all my games, but to all my practices as well. As a player, coach and parent I've seen nothing to rival my Dad's dedication to watching and supporting me play. His love of sports had proved infectious to me and he delighted in taking me to baseball, basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, track and field and boxing. We loved going to games together. Or anyplace else for that matter. He was a respected parent and a good and loyal friend.

We also talked a lot and no subject was taboo. After my mother’s growing insanity was far too obvious a problem to ignore, he consulted with the family doctor and took me along. When the doctor offered that this was perhaps not a topic for my young ears my father waved the suggestion off and said, “that’s okay.” It is difficult to describe how that made me feel and what an influence it has had in my life. I was trusted — at 12 years old, mind you — to hear the truth. There would be no pretending, no matter how ugly reality was, it had to be faced. You trust yourself and your progeny with the truth, to do anything else is wrong. My father wrapped in love and truth.

There’s a moment in the film Bull Durham in which the young phenom pitcher admits to nervousness because his father is in the stands. The wise old catcher tells him, “He's just your father, man - he's as full of shit as anybody.”  It's a line that always makes me think fondly of my father who was as full of crap as the next guy. Indeed Aimo Hourula would eschew idolatry. He was proud but modest and felt a certain discomfort in being praised. As one who knew him so well I can attest to the fact that the man had his share of flaws. He loved life and people and activity but there was a seemingly endless string of little things that bugged the hell out of him and he’d let anyone in hearing distance know it. Dad was a good driver and never got a ticket but to sit in the passenger seat next to him was to hear non stop critiques of seemingly everyone else on the road, often laced with profanity. Watching TV, especially sports, with him was also a trial. Again he made with a stream of vitriol directed in all directions at people, places, things and ideas of which he disapproved. While he was a loyal man he was also a chauvinistic one and the architecture of his brain walled off the notion that any other place to live was better than the Bay Area or any other team was better than the one he supported and viewpoints other than his own on any topic he held dear had no merit. He was not one to yield a point, as I learned during my rebellious teen years. Later in life he was prone to unintentionally hurtful remarks, some of which sting me to this day. Still I cherish his foibles as the recognition of them just adds to the man’s humanity.

Aimo was a man who loved good food and drink and while parsimonious in some areas, spent freely at restaurants leaving bounteous tips that would endear waiters to him. Plus he would talk to people. He made friends easily and was totally democratic in social relations. He considered no one either his superior or inferior nor would he so much as brook such notions. As he grew older my father loved to talk and happily told and re-told stories. But he could not abide idle chatter. Aimo was well mannered gracious and while faithful to both his wives (the caveat here being that once his marriage with Mom was in name only all bets were off and I for one could not blame him) he always admired women. He spoke fondly of sex but was never crass. I learned from my father that while it was perfectly okay to discreetly peak at a comely figure, women were to be treated with respect. The sexism of his generation had no grip on Dad.

When it came to women he made but one error and that was his hasty second marriage. I reckon him to have been happy in it but not to the extent he could have been and should have been had he been more patient before taking the plunge again. The less said about my step mother the better.

Dad was a force of nature and reveled in putting in a hard day's work even while grumbling about his labors. Retirement did not sit well with my father but he was not one to wallow in self pitying dormancy. There was too much to do like gardening, fishing, working for the Democratic party and fawning over his grandchildren (he had six). My father was unabashed in his love for my brother and I and spoke of us (as I was told again and again) with great pride. The only people he loved as much as his children were our children. My father was probably as great a grandfather as he was a father, which is saying a lot. Then again he was a very good big brother to his six siblings one of whom followed Dad to the Bay Area as did a cousin and several others from Finland. Aimo took great pride in having inspired other Finns to take advantage of California's bounty. One thing my father could not abide was those Finns who migrated to the US and didn't learn the language and I mean proficiently. Despite his lack of formal education my father became fluent. His pronunciation of many words was abysmal, though easily understood. I remember well once as a child commenting to my father about his accent. It was one of those rare occasions when he barked at me, "I don't have an accent," he growled. (Ironically today I am an ESL teacher and in addition to general english classes I teach pronunciation.)

My father listened. He was my greatest confidant. I could rattle on about day's events or discuss matters of the heart and he would acknowledge me and offer advise as needed. There were no topics off limits. He was especially helpful during my late teens and early twenties when I shared stories or asked for consul about the women I was dating. I've come to understand that very few children have similarly benefitted from a parent's dating advice.

Aimo was afforded great respect in the Bay Area's surprisingly large Finnish community. At large gatherings it was not unusual for some old Finn to sidle up to me with assurances he had known my father for many years and they were close friends. They were proud to know him as most people were. He was a proud but humble man with energy to burn. He once was asked to give advice at the end of a short film that was made about him. He advocated one thing above all else: kindness. Well that was Dad.

I occasionally have the privilege at family gatherings of regaling the younger generation with stories about my father (my brother shuffled off this mortal coil a few years ago well before his time, something I can't help but think my father would have disapproved of). I never tire of sharing remembrances nor will I ever. As a daily habit I often, and usually unthinkingly, repeat phrases my father would customarily say, often rendering him in his accent. Wife and daughters are well used to these. I'm sure many more will come to mind on Saturday when there will be an assemblage honoring the 100th anniversary of Aimo Hourula's birth. No one who was invited had any hesitation about coming and some in other parts of the globe are sorry indeed not to be able to join us. Here is the testament to a man's life, to still be so loved nearly eight years after passing. To still be quoted, to still be talked about, to still be admired, to still be a presence.

A baby born on a cold Winter day while the Great War rages, a Tsar is in Russia and a Kaiser in Germany
A little boy helping mother look after baby sister
A young man leaping out of the hot sauna into the snow laughing, loving life
A soldier walking through deep snow, wary, knowing the enemy is near, not recognizing his own fear
A sailor marveling at the wide expanse of an ocean, breathing in the salty air, feeling fully free
An immigrant confused but determined, wondrous at the skyscrapers, excited to see more
A father holding one son in his lap listening to the older boy recount his day, content
A carpenter momentarily admiring his work before moving on to the next task, so much to do
A fan leaping to the air celebrating a touchdown reveling in the perfect moment on a perfect Autumn day
A relation, a friend, eating barbecued salmon and quaffing beers, sharing a story, sharing laughs
A heart broken man, fighting tears, bewildered, fearing, incredibly sad
A grandfather surrounded by six grandchildren, his heart swelling with pride and amazement
A dying man not going gently, fighting to sit up, wanting all of life that he can get
A memory swirling and dancing and flitting about as if a living creature warming our hearts nourishing our minds living on and on

12 January 2016

Fun Presidential Fact to Know and Tell 2

Welcome to the second installment of what will no doubt be a sporadic series in which I spread light on the former presidents of this great republic. Part One edified and entertained tens of millions throughout the galaxy. I hope you will enjoy the facts I have unearthed about these presidents, I promise never to unearth the presidents.

Thomas Jefferson was an avid bowler who installed bowling alleys in both the White House and Monticello. Jefferson would often take breaks to bowl while writing the Declaration of Independence, much to the annoyance of the other founding fathers. Jefferson and John Adams may have been famous political rivals, but they were on the same bowling team, and in 1800 won the Tri State Area Bowling Championship. Late in life, when asked what his greatest accomplishment had been, Jefferson did not mention helping found the US or his presidency or the establishment of the University of Virginia. Instead he said: “my prowess as a bowler, in my time I was kick ass at the game and have the trophies to prove it."

James K. Polk was an accomplished ventriloquist. Indeed the 11th president almost eschewed a political career to tour with his dummy who he affectionally called Hick, a tribute to Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. Visitors to the White House were in for a treat when President Polk was talked into performing with Hick (apparently all it required for the president to perform was an audience). Polk had planned to visit the capitals of Europe with Hick upon retiring but died as he was planning the journey and rehearsing. President Polk was buried with his beloved Hick, who, it has been reported, kept talking during the funeral.

Chester Alan Arthur was a transvestite who would often greet foreign dignities in his wife’s frock. Arthur was said to be particularly fond of wearing women’s underwear and could be found prancing around the White House grounds late at night in nothing but Mrs. Arthur’s undies and a large ladies’ hat. On occasion the president could be cajoled into performing a song or two in women’s attire (he could affect a lovely falsetto) but only if plied with laudanum.

William Howard Taft may have been our most corpulent president (weighing in at a robust 335 pounds) but the future Supreme Court judge cut a dashing figure on ice skates. Taft was an enthusiastic figure skater who would hire John Phillips Sousa and his band to play while he performed. Taft was also an ice hockey player whose semi pro team — Taft’s Tubby Titans — once reached the quarter finals of their ten team  league’s playoffs.

Jimmy Carter was at best a mediocre president but he may well be the greatest ex-president in US history. Carter has worked diligently for Habitat for Humanity. He has worked to help eradicate Guinea worm disease an effort so successful that instances of the disease have gone down by 99%. Carter has also worked for various human right’s causes including those centered on economic rights and equality for women. He has also been critical of presidents whose policies have violated human rights (such as the use of torture) and visited war upon innocents. At the age of 91 Carter licked the cancer that had spread from his liver.

George W. Bush was an idiot whose greatest blunder (and there were many) was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on false pretenses. Remarkably he has not been brought to justice for war crimes. The war has cost tens of thousands of lives, destabilized a country and surrounding region and spawned terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Bush also destroyed a robust economy through a tax plan that favored the rich and devastated the middle class, not to mention the poor. His efforts to de-regulate corporation succeeded in leading to the 2008 economic meltdown. His No Child Left Behind Act set the cause of public education in the US backwards. Today Bush spends much of his time painting bad pictures.

11 January 2016

Ziggy Still Plays Guitar Jamming Good With Weird and Gilly



There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds
There's a starman waiting in the sky
He's told us not to blow it
'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile
- From Starman by David Bowie

In junior year of college I came home one night and one of my roommates had all the lights out and was blasting David Bowie on the stereo. He swore by the lyrics saying that they were a path to enlightenment. I agreed and nothing in the intervening years has changed my mind.

I occasionally need breaks from certain kinds of music or performers who I generally love. But I never weary of either the Beatles or Bowie. Anytime, anyplace. In fact Bowie, along with Neil Young, is who I listen to when I need inspiration to write. On many previous occasions I've used lines from Bowie songs to introduce blog posts.

He's meant a lot to me.

Bowie's lyrics are poetic, bombastic, spiritual, biting, prescient, brilliant and evocative. Yes I could use many many more adjectives. There is an angelic magic to his songs and his voice. I feel emotionally uplifted by songs like Ziggy, Life on Mars, Changes, Starman and dozens more. There is a beauty and power and gentle streams of vibrant radiating colors flowing out of music and swirling forever and ever around minds and hearts and souls and wonderful tears of gladness.

He is technically deceased but that music and spirt will live on and continue to inspire and move and rage the delights of a million stars dancing on psychedelic rain drops.

09 January 2016

My Top Ten Films From 2015


1. Carol  (Haynes) TIED
1. The Revenant  (Inarritu) TIED
3. Tangerine  (Baker)
4. The Martian  (Scott)
5. Room  (Abrahamson)
6. Spotlight  (McCarthy)
7. Clouds of Sils Maria  (Assayas)
8. Star Wars: The Force Awaken  (Abrams)
9. Love & Mercy  (Pohlad)
10. Dope  (Famuyiwa)

Honorable Mention: Phoenix (Petzold),  Le Meraviglie (Rohrwacher), Timbuktu (Sissako), The Hateful Eight (Tarantino), The End of the Tour (Ponsoldt),  Brooklyn (Crowly).

Best Actress: Brie Larson (Room). Shout outs to Cate Blanchett (Carol) Rooney Mara (Carol) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant). Shout outs to Steve Carell (The Big Short),  Jason Segel (End of the Tour)  Johnny Depp (Black Mass)
Best Supporting Actress: Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sills Maria). Shout out to Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
Best Supporting Actor: John Cusack (Love & Mercy). Shout out to Thomas Hardy (The Revenant)

07 January 2016

Briles Makes a Phone Call


Tired, alone, sullen, yet oddly hopeful. Briles Rembrandt couldn’t make sense of his feelings, let alone of life. There was the gun on the table but as much as he looked at it he knew he would never use it. Hell, BR (as his friends called him) knew it was even loaded.

Looking across the long table towards the mirror on the wall he watched himself shrug. He also saw that there was a mustard stain on his corduroy jacket. Nothing seemed to be as it should be in BR’s world. Beatrice had left him, ostensibly because of his prolonged bouts of melancholia. But BR suspected that she had met someone else. BR was no great lover and he was no longer glib or charming. His wit remained, he thought, but as likely as not it was used as a dagger to inflict little bits of pain.

No that wouldn't due at all, BR thought. You don’t use a dagger for little bits of pain. He’d have to work on that bit. Before he could think it through the telephone rang. It was within arm’s reach but BR thought it impolite to answer quickly, plus it could smack of desperation. He gave it three rings.

“You all right?” asked a voice.

“No, he barked. Then, “who is this?”

“For god’s sake Briles you don’t recognize my goddamned voice? We only broke up four days ago.” It was Beatrice, she never called him BR.

“We didn’t break up. That implies that it was mutual. You dumped me. Pfft. Over. Your idea. Strictly yours. Not mine.”

“Okay have it your way. So anyway, how are you?”

BR’s head swam. He looked to his left at the calendar. November 1978. Was that right? Seemed like it should be earlier, or later. Suddenly BR wasn’t sure if this was November and if it was 1978. He recited his social security number in his head. That always worked to prove his sanity to himself.

“Briles, you’re not answering. I know you’re still there.”

“What’s today?”

“Today is the 16th.”

“Yeah but what month and year.”

“Okay Briles, now you’re scaring me.”

“Just tell me.”

“November. 1978. The goddamned 16th of the month. What do you want it to be? Have you been drinking? You know you shouldn’t drink.”

“Ahh lay off it for once, willya? No I haven’t been drinking.” That was a lie. BR had been drinking, though not all that much and only to try to offset his melancholia.

“Should I come over?” Beatrice’s voice exuded concern for her ex boyfriend. To BR it sounded like he could fashion a reconciliation out of her visit.

“Yeah, that would be great if you could.”

“Hmmm, all right. I’ll be there in ten minutes. And I better not see that stupid goddamned gun or any booze in the house.” She hung up.

BR finally got out of the stiff wooden chair. His body ached. He hid the gun in the fridge in a salad crisper, under a head of romaine.  Then he brushed his teeth and combed his hair. He dabbed some cold water on the mustard stain.

Beatrice pulled up in the gravely driveway. She came in. “Do you have to keep this house so goddamned cold?” she demanded. BR never got used to how much Beatrice cussed, especially saying ‘goddamned’ all the time. “Hiya Bee,” he said.

“So what’s the matter with you, Briles?” Beatrice frowned as she asked the question, then she sat heavily on his lumpy sofa.

“Ya know how I get, only it’s been worse recently. To be honest some of it I’m sure has to do with you and you’re breaking up with me and I don’t say that to make you feel guilty.” BR paused and looked carefully at his ex. She was staring intently at him, frowning. He continued. “I haven't been drinking. Oh I had a beer when we got the newspaper yesterday but that was all, I swear. I’m just. I’m just struggling is all. I got my story in the last issue and it hardly needed any editing and I’m damn near finished with next week’s piece already. I’m fine in a lot of respects. I just get real sad and kind of mixed up sometimes. Like I had trouble believing the, you know that this is the year and month it is. My mind kind of fuzzes out. I guess, no I know, it happens more, or only when I’m in a mental funk. So that’s kind of that, I guess.”

Beatrice just sat regarding BR for a few seconds, letting silence fill the room. There was a shout from outside and from another direction a car horn honked. Then the silence was back. BR finally sat back down in the wooden chair. He looked at his lap.

“Ya know Briles, I don’t feel guilty. I do think maybe, and I emphasize the word maybe, I was hasty about breaking things off with you. It’s just that we were going nowhere as a couple. And this wasn’t all on you. Sometimes people change. I dunno, maybe I wasn’t patient. Maybe I could….Now see you got my thinking all muddled too.”

There was more silence. BR couldn’t think of what the right thing to say was so he winced, he looked up, he looked back at his lap, he sighed.

“Briles, I don’t want to have to mother you. I can’t be in a position of looking after you, I’ve got my own needs. If I could be sure you’d be mostly okay and you could give me some attention then I’d be happy to get right back together. But the way you are now, I just don’t know. I loved you. I guess I still do in a way and always will. Can you understand all this?”

BR wasn’t understanding much of anything but his instincts took over and he was soon saying the right things. Soothing words that would give Beatrice Chapman some confidence that he would be all right. BR promised to get some counseling, stay off the booze and be sure to always check in on her needs. A promise.

Beatrice believed him. Mostly because she wanted to. For all his faults (and Beatrice more than anyone knew that they were legion) BR was a gentle, sweet guy with a world of talent. He was intelligent and could be fun. All he needed was a little TLC and Beatrice was more than capable of doling it out without turning into a raging codependent like her mother had been for that poor excuse of a husband and father that they had lived with until….Beatrice shook that thought away and got up. She put her hands under BR’s head and lifting that sweet old face up she kissed him long and hard on the lips. A tear fell from BR’s right eye.

*********************************************************************************
Briles Rembrandt was 24 years old and a full time newspaper reporter for a college town’s alternative weekly. Beatrice Chapman was the same age and was the assistant manager of a locally owned bookstore. The two had met two years before and fell in love within a few weeks of their first date. They never moved in together and never discussed marriage but were mostly inseparable during mutual off hours, that is until BR seemed to mentally and emotionally fade away from Beatrice. This happened as he suffered more and longer bouts of wistfulness, what he, perhaps incorrectly, called melancholia. Worse he tried to self medicate with liquor or weed. Beatrice had not, as BR suspected, met anyone else nor was she particularly interested in doing so. She was still emotionally attached to Briles and if they’d stayed apart it would have been weeks if not months before she dated again.

That November night in 1978 Beatrice did not sleep with BR. She wanted to. It always felt safe and comfortable sleeping beside him, despite, or maybe in part because of, his snoring. But they’d only just broken up and quickly gotten back together. She wanted to take things slowly for a bit and make sure that neither was acting impulsively, especially Briles who was emotionally vulnerable. For his part Briles understood completely. He hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in awhile and with him and Beatrice seemingly back together he believed that tonight sleep would come. And it did. Briles slept soundly for nine hours. Nonetheless Briles woke up the next morning in a deep state of depression. He thought about Beatrice, he thought about his work, he thought about his health, he thought about all the things he had to be happy about. Briles thought of all the blessings life had given him and he thought about how bright his future was. But he was depressed all the same. Life seemed awful and meaningless and it felt like there was no chance he would feel good again. Ever.

It occurred to Briles that if he felt this bad when everything was fine, life would be utterly unbearable if there was something to actually be depressed about. This made him feel even worse. Briles had never known such depression. He’d had blue moods, or, as he called them, bouts of melancholia, but nothing like this in which happiness, contentment, satisfaction seemed utterly unknowable. Now he could not eat, he was not interested in showering or shaving, he had not the energy nor will to go to work, he couldn’t even bring himself to call Beatrice or a family member or a friend. Instead he thought about the gun in the salad crisper under the head of romaine lettuce. But there were no bullets, never had been. His father had given him the gun as a going way “gift” before college. The first thing Briles had one with it was take out all the bullets and throw them away. He’d kept the gun as a conversation piece and also to wave at an intruder should one ever appear. He’d never told a sole that it wasn’t loaded. He liked the illusion of having a loaded gun, if not the fact of one.

But his thinking about the gun gave Briles pause. Surely he had to do something. After all he was on the verge of contemplating suicide, which was the first step in actually doing it. Action had to be taken. Briles literally shook his head, then picked up the phone. He held it for awhile before being able to muster the energy and the will to dial.

“Hello."

“Beatrice.”

“Oh hi Briles, you sleep well?”

“Yeah but…”

“But what?”

“I’m feeling kind of…”

“My god Briles you sound awful. What’s the matter?

“I’m so depressed. Worse than ever before, like the inside of my head is black, like…”

“Okay listen Briles, you’ve got to call someone, a professional. I’m not due at the store for another two hours. I’ll come by and help you contact someone. You’ll get through this, I promise. Just hang tight. I’ll be there in a jiffy.”

“Okay…thanks.”

Fifteen minutes later Beatrice arrived. When she walked in the house BR started sobbing uncontrollably. It was a mixture of the depression and a great relief, relief at seeing another human face. Beatrice pulled BR to the sofa and held him until he finished crying. It was then that she realized he loved him, loved him in a deeper more profound way than she’d ever realized. Briles could feel that love too, it didn't relieve his depression but a sense of hope broke through the pain.
When Briles stopped sobbing he felt better, still depressed, but without the sharp edge. It was as if an excruciating pain had been replaced by a dull ache.

Later that day Briles met with a psychiatrist who prescribed him medication and scheduled him for regular visits. Briles knew that he would get better. So did Beatrice. As it turned out they were right although he still had struggles and dark moods he was learning to cope and finally making an effort to be a true partner to Beatrice.

One month later Briles came across the gun in the salad crisper under a badly decayed head of romaine lettuce. He threw the gun and the lettuce away. Then for good measure tossed the crisper. New beginnings.






05 January 2016

Freshman Year When I Lived and Learned


I went off to college at Chico State in the late Summer of 1971. The university is located in the bucolic town of Chico. This small city (about 40,000 at the time) is nestled in the top of the Sacramento Valley. It was a far cry from my hometown of Berkeley, especially the Berkeley of the late 1960s that I grew up in.

In Berkeley I felt like I was living in the center of the universe and that people from anywhere else in the world must be hopelessly backwards. I was, in other words, a 17 year old snob when I came to this hick town (albeit a town I was to fall in love with and call home for most of the next ten years). I’d chosen Chico State because at the time it had one of the four top soccer programs in California. The others on that list were UCLA, USF and San Jose State. I was not interested in going to LA or staying in the Bay Area, so Chico won by default.

There was but little question in my mind that I would take the little berg by storm. I was a soccer superstar (especially by my own estimation) a ladykiller and — again because of where I came from — a sophisticate. My ego was boundless.

My first day in Chico the temperature soared to 107 degrees. Mind you Berkeley never saw heat to match it. There were only occasional instances of the thermometer passing 85. I was young and would get used to the heat. I was in town a few weeks before school started to try out for the soccer team which I had no trouble making. This meant two a day practices and mountain camp and running wind sprints after scrimmaging in the brutal heat. I was soon in excellent physical condition. Though  I made the team, my cockiness made me few friends among teammates and none among the coaches. Somehow I had forgotten the concept of team play and reckoned that as I was me I deserved special treatment. Live and learn.

Finally the dorms opened and I moved in. I shared a room with three other freshmen. One was from LA, another from conservative Orange County and the last from a small valley town. Their last names were Lee, Erickson, and Peterson. Pretty dull stuff and with the exception of the chap from the big city they were pretty dull lads. Those same two dullards were also bigots. Naive me had grown up thinking that all racists lived in the South, at least among young people. Yes there were some bigots among my father’s work friends and our relatives but they were all “old” people. I was shocked to find modern day people my own age hailing from California who harbored prejudices against African Americans. I gamely tried to get along with them but had little in common with either and within a few months we weren’t on speaking terms. I finally got a new room assignment.

My first few months of college were comprised of soccer practice, classes and a hint of studying. I’d gotten by in high school with the barest amount of schoolwork done outside of class so reckoned I could continue skating by. Live and learn. I got to know some people in the dorms and soon had friends. When soccer season ended, my routine radically changed. It was now classes, drinking and parties, with the latter two usually in combination. There was also marijuana and of course girls. I had fun. A lot of fun.

Somehow I managed to pass some classes and headed into my second semester. I continued to pay little attention to my classes and a lot of attention to girls and getting high. I stumbled through off season soccer practices, often too hungover to play very well. The soccer team made a trip to Hawaii for a tournament.  A few days before we arrived the drinking age in the 50th state was lowered to 18, an age I had only just reached. For the first time in our lives many of us were able to drink legally. We took full advantage. Meanwhile on the field we were heavy favorites but struggled to win matches. At one point during the tournament our coach assembled the team and gave us a lecture about drinking to access. He said: "if you can't enjoy Hawaii without getting drunk you're alcoholic." We later repeated the line while laughing over drinks.

Of course I met a girl, a tourist, with whom I had a fling until her boyfriend joined her on the vacation.  C'set la vie. One night I decided to give tequila a try. The consequence was that I woke up next morning on the floor with a lamp as my pillow. I'd stolen a sign from in front of sandwich shop. You'd think I'd have learned from this experience but I had many more such nights to come in the next dozen years. Live and learn...if slowly.

My freshman year was highlighted by Pioneer Week. This was an annual Chico tradition that was capped off by a big parade. It actually spread out over two weeks and amounted to an extended debauch. People came literally from all over the country. The city was overrun with young drunk people walking the streets at all hours (fast food restaurants stayed open 24 hours to take advantage). There were parties from sunup to sundown to supplement the many during the night. Not surprisingly with so many people invading the town and so much drugs and alcohol being consumed there was bound to be trouble. Two years later that happened as a woman was raped and murdered. Over time Pioneer Week was scaled further and further back until eventually it became a very tame Pioneer Day which was literally one day long. By this time its probably down to Pioneer Nano Second.

The most prominent type of festivity, not only during Pioneer Week but throughout the school year, was the kegger. This could be held in a house or in a large field. Fraternity houses were a common site for keggers. Usually most of the carousing took place outdoors. As a result they were easy to "crash" therefore one could drink copiously for free. Even if there as an honest invitee one was usually expected to chip in no more than a dollar or two. As you might imagine a kegger consisted of a keg of beer or in some cases two, three or more. (It has been joked that Chico State grads get hired for jobs because someone will be needed at company picnics to tap the keg.) I was unabashed in my love of keggers. It was a great opportunity to indulge in my two favorite activities: drinking and chasing women. The latter was made easier, of course, by the flow of beer. Also there was often a fair amount of marijuana to be smoked and bottles of hard liquor circulating. One might even find cocaine in use.

I ended my freshman having passed a few classes and not having taken my studies seriously at all. My skills as a soccer player had not improved as they should have. Life was one big party to me. I was young, healthy, happy, handsome and had developed a great fondness for liquor. I went home for the summer -- the last time I would ever do so -- and played a lot of soccer and drank a lot of booze. Freshman year was over.

03 January 2016

Knife in the Back, Reflection in the Mirror

Out of the corner of my eye I caught my reflection in a full length mirror that was propped up against the wall. There was a knife protruding from my back, nearly in the middle. My hands were reaching around in a desperate attempt to extract it and my face was terror stricken. Death seemed imminent and panic had already set in. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Ten years before I (Chester Sculpin) was sitting in my kitchen encouraging my two young sons — Ovid and Virgil — to be the type of men who worked to change the world. Be a captain of industry, I said, or a scientist, or a politician, or an economist or great thinker, but be someone of importance. Strive for greatness and settle for no less. Those were my words exactly and I remember it as if this all took place today.

I recall that I smelled of after shave, having spilled a bit as I applied it shortly before my chat with the boys. I didn’t mind so much, it was a manly smell and it seemed to add gravitas to my manly sentiments. Ovid and Virgil — 11 and 9 respectively at the time, were enthralled by my words. I suppose the keenness of their interest had something to do with the fact that I was so seldom around and when I was it was for such short periods of time. Typically times when I was quite tired. You see I worked for a big company with plants all over the country and was charged with inspections and reports to the home office which was right here in Alexandria, Virginia.

Ovid and Virgil worshipped me, or so I thought, not having always been in tune with the boys I can’t say with any degree of certainty and later events would contradict that claim but I certainly felt at the time and for years before and after that they had placed me on a very high pedestal. I can further assert with confidence that they held their mother, my wife, Eloise, in quite low regard. The poor dear was a heavy drinker and never too bright to begin with. The alcohol further dulled an already dull brain. Frankly, I’d married Eloise for her looks, she’d been a beauty and despite motherhood and excess liquor consumption and approaching middle age, she kept her looks. You had to admire her for that. Eloise was also a wonder between the sheets. You can take that from someone who knows. You see I was not exactly faithful, spending all that time on the road like I was. Oh there was never anything serious, just a lot of one night stands and a few birds I saw fairly regular. Anyway getting around as I did made me able to compare and Eloise was the best in bed. Later I found out that during our marriage I wasn’t the only one who got to enjoy her talents. Yeah she slept around. There was a couple of fellas she had affairs with, sometimes pleasuring them in our bed. Well I guess I can’t be too upset given my own playing around.

So this conversation I had with the boys really has stuck in my mind because both of them reminded me of it from time to time. They were whiz bang students in high school and got excepted to top notch schools. Ovid to Georgia Tech and Virgil to Harvard. Yeah, Harvard. Each of them told me as he went off to college that he aimed to make something special of himself just like I’d advised. Boy was I a proud poppa. When the youngest, that is Virgil, left, it was just me and Eloise at home and to top that off I’d been given new duties which kept me off the road and at home base full time. Which meant seven days a week Eloise and I were together.

At first it was okay. For one thing we got to enjoy bedroom activities on a nightly basis. But after awhile Eloise started getting on my nerves and me on hers. Plus I saw just how much she was drinking and it made me a little sick. Sure enough we started arguing about this or that. There was never anything serious but the arguments got real nasty. Eventually we — almost simultaneously as it worked out — found about each others infidelities.

Less than two years after Virgil left for college, my wife of 23 years and I were splitsville. Eloise let me keep the house and she moved into a swanky apartment near downtown where she could drink and be a tramp in peace. I was pretty lonely rattling around the house by myself, although I didn’t miss Eloise one bit. I start tomcatting around, having fun going out on the town and dating again. The only bad experience was when my date and I saw Eloise and her date at a restaurant. We gave each other the stink eye.

The boys seemed nonplussed by the separation. The oldest, Ovid said he saw it coming and Virgil didn't say anything, I suppose because he was too absorbed in his studies all the time. He was a go-getter that one, just like I’d encouraged him to be.

Eventually the divorce went through and it was all pretty smooth. Eloise had a fair amount of dough she’d inherited from her folks so she didn’t try to take more than her fair share. The only loose end was the house which I was going to put on the market. What did I need with such a big place? She’d get a quarter of the take, as would I and the boys would each get a quarter too.

Anyway the house sold pretty quick and that leads me to today when I was starting to move my things to a small cottage I’d bought a few blocks away. I’d showered and shaved right after getting up and splashed on some aftershave of a type I hadn’t used in awhile, the same brand I’d been wearing when I had that talk with the boys I earlier mentioned. Don’t ask me how I remember but I do, those olfactory senses don’t let you down. So as I was chowing down the breakfast I’d fixed myself (eggs sunny side up and ham) I thought about how I’d sat in this very spot over a decade ago giving my pitch to the boys about making something of themselves, something special. A tear actually worked its way down my cheek at the memory. Odd for me because I’m not prone to the waterworks. Anyway I wiped it off, finished my coffee and had just got up from the table when someone came busting through the kitchen door hopping mad.

“Where are they?” he hollered at me. Of course I was stunned. All at once I was asking who and what he was doing and he’d better get out and that I was calling the cops. Then he punched me in the gut. This was a big guy, a black fella, must have been 6’5” maybe 250 pounds and strong as an ox. The punch in the gut floored me. I had no idea what was going on but figured there had to be a mistake and that he’d realize it soon enough and take off and I’d either forget the whole thing or call the cops.

“I said where are they?” he demanded. When I got my breath back I promised him I didn't know who he meant. “Virgil and Ovid!” he shouted. Well now I was stunned and shocked and scared and I don’t know what else. He was looking for my boys!

“Listen fella those are my sons and sure they grew up here and all but they live in totally different states now. I haven’t seen either in months. Whattaya want with them?” Now I felt curious as much as anything else. What the heck could this man want with my boys?

“The drugs they sold me in Texas weren’t all that they said, not at all. In other words your sons tried to rip me off! And yeah, I know they’re supposed to be at there colleges, but neither one is. At both places I was told they’d come home. Now where are they?”

Okay so the guy somehow thought my boys were drug dealers. There was a big mistake made somewhere. Had to be. Neither of my sons had ever had anything more than a beer or glass of wine. I was sure of that. But the real shock for me was seconds away. The big fella had just given me a kick in the ribs when I heard the front door open. There were the footsteps of two people walking around the house, they eventually came towards the kitchen. The door opened. I looked up and saw my sons.

“Otis! What the hell are you doing here?” Virgil said.

Ovid asked, “Dad what are you doing on the floor?”

Well I got up and sat on a chair while this fella Otis and my sons argued about drugs. I could tell from the conversation that Virgil and Ovid had sold drugs to Otis and it seemed that they were regular drug dealers who’d sold to him and others before and they even spoke of their “reputations.”
Now I really wanted to cry, not just a tear or two but full out balling. They talked like I was even there. My sons. They’d made something of themselves all right. Criminals. Lousy drug dealers at that. It hurt worse that they were so open about it with me sitting right there.

After awhile the argument got pretty heated and Otis started to threaten them. My boys didn’t seem at all scared which is one thing I can credit them for. Then this Otis fella takes a knife out of his pocket and steps toward the boys. “Now Otis,” Virgil said. “You know you’re not going to try to stab us. We outnumber you and both of us are pretty quick.”

So what Otis did was he grabbed me by the color and held me up. “You’re right,” he said. “So here’s the thing. You don’t hand over the money I paid for those weak ass drugs to me and I stab your dear old dad.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Ovid.

“Would, will.”

“He’s bluffing dad, don’t worry,” Virgil assured me. Then Otis let me go. Then he stuck a knife in my back. Then my sons took off running with Otis in hot pursuit.

Now I’m lying on the floor with the life seeping out of me. I keep seeing what I looked like in the mirror struggling to reach out. I keep wondering what happened to my sons, how they became drug dealers, how I was so easily fooled, how my life is ending in disaster. What the hell did I do wrong? Was it might fault or their mothers? Were there signs I missed? Was I away too often? All these questions swirling around my head with no time to get answers.

The pain has lessened in the last few minutes and images are getting fuzzier. My hearing too is not as sharp. I can hear a clock tick and I can hear a bird

01 January 2016

I've Seen a Lot of Films Recently, My Thoughts on Some of Them Follow -- Also My Annual Top Ten will be Delayed One Week



Tis the season to go to movies and with time off from work to watch some in the comfort of one's home. These things I have done. What follows is thoughts (mine only, I have no access to anyone else's thinking) regarding some of these motion pictures. I also must plead for your patience as my annual top ten list of films -- which normally appears on our near the first of the year -- will be appearing one week later. I know this grieves you enormously, but I trust you to be strong.

Just today I joined trillions of other people in the galaxy and went to see the latest installment of the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This may come as something of a surprise to regular readers of this blog (both of us) as I generally eschew movies in the action/adventure/scifi category. However I've always liked the original three films of the franchise and partially to test that fondness the missus and I watched them all (in order of course) on Thanksgiving last. They held up. As I was given to understand that this latest offering is in the spirit of the originals and was being hailed by critics I had no second thoughts about seeing this iteration of the storied saga.

I was pleased. Charming and witty and full of fun and rife with interesting characters. Good vs. evil with the latter being represented by The First Order, a group that only Dick Cheney could love (he probably does, you know). I was particularly taken by Daisy Ridley, a relative newcomer, who I'm sure literally millions if not tens of millions of men are currently in love with. She's not just a beauty but a damn good actress and perfect as the female heroine. Oscar Isaac further established that he is a big time movie star with his appearance and yes it was nice to see some of the originals in the cast as well namely Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and the two robots and the wookiee. I shouldn't forget another newcomer, John Boyega who looks to be destined for stardom. Count me in for the sequel but don't expect me to show up to any of the other garbage that was featured in the previews which was a lot of the action/adventure/scifi  rot that I abhor. Star Wars is the exception that makes the rule for me.

A few days ago I saw Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, and it was sumptuous to behold. A visual feast highlighted by co-stars Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara (another young actress who is easy on the eyes). I'd like to see it again in a theater. While I'm sure I'd enjoy Carol on DVD, its was made for the big screen. The colors, the close ups, the set design the costumes and the magnificent set pieces are breathtaking. Ms. Blanchett is the titular character, a married woman with a small daughter who falls for a shopgirl during the Christmas season. (The story is set in the early Fifties when people didn't even speak of same sex love.)  Love and trouble ensue.

I watched The Furies (1950) for the first time via DVD. Anthony Mann directed and my favorite leading lady Barbara Stanwyck starred and here she was as beautiful a 43 year old as one will ever see. Walter Huston, in his final film, plays her father and Wendell Corey is her on again off again love interest. It's amazing that as much as I know about cinema, the film only recently came to my attention. It is a powerful story of love, family, money and greed set in the New Mexico of the 1870s.
It has to rank among the top 20 or so Westerns I've ever seen. While Carol caused me to put dome Douglas Sirk films (he was an obvious inspiration for Haynes) on my Netflix queue, The Furies had me adding Anthony Mann's work.

It's hard to say much about Tarantino's The Hateful Eight without including spoilers. It is the manner in which the film plays out that is to me the main talking point. As I mentioned in an earlier post I was fortunate enough to see it in the 70mm format and it was gorgeous though later gory to look at. I don't mind violence in films assuming that it's there as party of the story but it wasn't death, blood or gunplay that bothered me. I did feel that after a promising start it seemed that Tarantino ran out of ideas and took the easy way out. It's a shame too because he had a wonderful cast and had created a fascinating world in which a potentially compelling story was taking place.

Love & Mercy and Dope were too films that I'd missed in theaters earlier in the year and just caught up with on DVD. I enjoyed both immensely. The former tells parts of the Brian Wilson story, he having been the driving force behind the Beach Boys and their unique sound. Wilson's story is made for the screen given his mental and emotional struggles and the battle for his soul waged by a greedy man and a loving woman. Paul Dano played the younger Wilson and John Cusack was the older Wilson.

Dope is about three geeky high school seniors -- though one in particular is featured -- two are black one is Indian and one of the trio is a lesbian. They go to an inner city school where a nerd's life is never easy. They have a series of adventures in which they find, drugs, romance, criminals, money, strength and maturity and most of all courage. Rick Famuyiwa directed and Shameik Moore stars. One hopes for even more from them in the future. Zoe Kravitz and Chanel Iman also feature.

Among my Christmas bounty was the Criterion release of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) -- my second favorite Wes Anderson film (Rushmore (1998) is first). Anderson is a storyteller par excellence with a unique visual style. He creates unforgettable characters who take themselves and the mundane quite seriously. Situations are fraught with irony, pathos, wit and subtlety. You never see characters laugh, they just do and do and do and do. No one is terribly competent but everyone is sincere and earnest. It is the consistency of the characters and their methodical approaches to life that let the humor and -- not at all incidentally -- the truth to shine through. My god I love this movie.

Speaking of movies I love, Woody Allen's Radio Days (1987). Here's a film that never gets old. It has become something of a New Year's Eve staple of mine, largely because it ends on a New Year's Eve as 1944 is ushered in. Radio Days is one of the best nostalgia films ever made -- if not the best -- although it is so much more than that. Few films have ever evoked a time as well as this one brings us the early 1940s in America. It is especially good at revealing an era in which radio -- not the TV or internet -- was the technology that ruled the home. Like many timeless films it is rich with great songs that are especially effective in the context in which we see them. Of course Radio Days also boasts a slew of wonderful characters who blend in with the sounds and sights like breathing, talking, laughing parts of the scenery. Sublime.

One other film I wanted to discuss before I let you go (you're still with me aren't you?) is...well I can't decide. Maybe Hitchcock/Truffaut, the wonderful new documentary that ostensibly is about the latter's interviews with the former but is really about the greatness of Hitch but even more so is about film itself. Or I could write about Holiday (1938) the wonderful George Cukor film starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. It's such a strong poke at the pompous upper class and such a great love story. Or I could write about Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977) his Persona (1966) like story of...I believe there are three women highlighted. It might be the best movie in Altman's storied career. I could also say a few words about The Big Short which shows how a very few financial wheeler dealers saw the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 coming and bet against the banks and won big. Or I could write about Polanksi's Chinatown (1974) or I could stop right here and make a cup of tea. Yeah, I think that's what I'll do.