31 July 2016

Free the Head! My New Religion Will Do Just That

I’m forming a new religion and i’m sure you’ll agree with me that it's long overdue. My religion is  based on the idea that people should have total freedom of choice regarding the top of their head. This specifically regards headwear and hair.

Here’s the problem now. Muslim women have to wear headscarves or hi jabs, Jewish men often sport yarmulkes (which neither shade the eyes nor provide nor are particularly stylish), Sikhs have turbans, Catholic clergy wear all manner of hat and skullcap with nothing more ridiculous than the mitre, nuns shave their heads and wear habits, many Buddhists still shave their heads. I could go on. Imagine children of today born into a religions that dictate what they do with their hair or what they must wear on it.

I say enough already. Free the head! My religion takes no position on diet, sexual practices, alcohol consumption or other personal habits. We neither recognize a higher power (or powers) nor do we dismiss the possibility that one or more exist. We set aside no day of the week, times of the day or days in the calendar for religious observations or ceremonies of any sort. We take no stance on the afterlife and boast no holy book. We also refrain from assigning any individuals to preach our religion or perform any type of services. We do not have a house of worship and we do not worship.

Our lone position is that all humans regardless of age, gender, sexual identity or level of education should and must be allowed to choose what to do with their hair and whether they will wear anything on it. If they choose to wear a hat, baseball cap, kepi, propeller hat, bowler, beanie, derby, balmoral, cowboy hat, fedora, panama, beret, coonskin cap, tam, sombrero, bonnet, helmet or bandana or if they choose not to, it’s okay with us. Either way. Do what you want. Have short hair, long hair, no hair, wear product in it, cornrows, get a bouffant, extensions, braids, a perm, dye it, fashion it into a mohawk or tie ribbons to it. We don’t care. We really don’t. Do what you want.

Our religion will be called the Free Heads and we will doubtless by known by the nickname, Freddies. If we ever decide to congregate it will be only to congratulate one another on not having any strictures on what we do with our head. Best of all there is no membership fee, no tithing and no materials to buy. Members can save their money, maybe to use at a hat shop or a hairstylist.

27 July 2016

Is this the Yawning Hellfire of Insanity?



Resting briefly in catatonia. - From Howl by Allen Ginsberg

You look down the street and you just know. It’s not going to happen. You can’t make it. In your mind’s eye the street has widened by a third and the distance to your destination is many times longer. Your palms sweat, you twitch, the fear courses through your intestines. Your feet feel like they are not solidly on the ground. Your central nervous system is sending alarms. You are not in the throes of a panic attack. Not yet. Maybe you’ve brought this on yourself. There was no real danger but you started thinking about it. That’s all it takes sometimes. Buy the fact remains that you’re going to have to turn around, try a different route. If the anxiety accelerates even the slightest bit more you’ll have to take a pill. You hate taking the pill. It’s a surrender. It acknowledges that you are powerless over this awful force that invades your mind. But to delay taking the pill can mean letting the panic take over and that’s the worst. The worst experience imaginable.

Afterwards it’s hard to put it all out of your mind. Sometimes you can. If you’re busy, have something to occupy your mind, then you forget it. But that’s just temporary. At one point or another you think about it. Think about how you couldn’t walk a few blocks one way. Think about how crippled you are. It’s depressing. Well you’re already suffering from depression so now you’ve got even less resistance to that dark prison that surrounds you with sadness.

There are medications aplenty that you’ve been prescribed. Right now there are three different ones. One at night, one in the morning and one for emergencies. One is for panic, one is for depression and one is for both. They haven’t been working. So you’re prescribed more. You can’t talk about it with most people you know because they don’t understand and many have misconceptions some are even dismissive. It’s hard to believe that a person could feel sad for no reason or that you could panic for no reason. It doesn’t make sense. Doctors, they think, are not to be trusted. These people make you feel worse about it. They’re well meaning but ignorant. It’s best to keep quiet about it. Suffer in silence. You’ve got support from your family so that helps but doesn’t stop the pain or the terror.

Is this the yawning hellfire of insanity? It's evil twin is the smothering gentleness and stupefaction of depression. That all encompassing onyx cloud that descends daily into your conscious hours, only held at bay with the distraction of work.

Sitting in a coal mine looking at the pretty flowers and the glistening dew on the the young girl's frock. Tigers growl from above and the sounds are all of anguish and confusion. You slip sadly to the floor and wonder at the proximity of bats. If this were a dream it would be a nightmare but it is you and what you do and where you do it. How do you endure?

Wretched streams of murky water sluice through the teetering tottering ambiguities of your fingerless pronouns. You languish. These are the times that tire men's souls and render them beaten and lush with blood. How querulously cumbersome. There is a weight in your chest, on your chest, of your chest. You can feel it though it's not tangible. The sighs are deep and heavy and necessary. You used to drink. Now you're on your own and its all so overpowering and malignant and persistent and awful and grinding and stultifying and ponderous and menacing and evil and cruel and wearisome and salacious and invasive and brutally truthfully honest about how much pain can be endured and not endured and on and on it goes.

I talk and write about everything and nothing. I ponder the great mysteries of my life and why this and why not that and how can this be and when and where will that be. If ever. It is a wrenching struggle that accompanies these dark days. But these are dark days that are ringed with happiness and fulfillment and art and good food and health and prosperity and optimism and best of all family.

He had white horses
And ladies by the score
All dressed in satin
And waiting by the door
Ooooh, what a lucky man he was
Ooooh, what a lucky man he was
- From Lucky Man by Emerson Lake and Palmer

If only I/he could realize just anything real and produce from that, I swear I'd....

21 July 2016

My Abbreviated Career in Television is Here Discussed



I recently changed my tweeter profile to include the following: "You may remember me as the wacky neighbor, Mortimer in the short lived sit-com, “Hey, it's Klaus!”

I’ve been asked about this because there area a lot of people who didn’t see the show while it was on; also it’s never shown on channels like TV Land and is still unavailable on You Tube.

"Hey, it’s Klaus!" aired on CBS during the 1970-1971 TV season. Well for most of it. We were taken off the air after 16 episodes. The main character was Klaus Muller a 15 year old American boy of German parents who lived in a typical American city. Klaus was forever getting into the type of jams that were a staple of sitcoms in that era. The twist was that Klaus’ father was a former Nazi army officer. He was constantly regaling Klaus with stories about the Third Reich. His far right wing views were out of step with Klaus and the times. There were also a lot of gags centered around his misuse of the English language and sketchy pronunciation. His malapropos provided some of show's few genuine laughs.

Klaus’ mother was usually baking pies or cookies or making huge dinners. She never discussed politics or anything that might be deemed the least bit controversial. Her mangling of the English language was even worse than her husband’s and provided still more fodder for the laugh track. Klaus also had a kid sister, the precocious ten year old Betty who had adopted Marxism, partially to tick off her over bearing father. The former Nazi's face would turn beet red when she'd extoll the virtues of the proletariat and worker ownership of the means of production.

I was Mortimer the wacky wise cracking neighbor, forever popping over during meal times. I was always goading the Muller family members into arguing with each other and, as Klaus’ best friend, coming up with hair-brained schemes that were the bread and butter of sitcoms of the time.

I was a first timer to acting but the rest of the cast were all veterans. Klaus was played by teen heartthrob Troy Mackie (he died a few years after the show from a heroin overdose). In the role of the father was veteran character actor and escapee from Nazi Berlin, Oliver Plink. Playing the mother was another vet, Bea Vance who was cast as a middle American mothers for decades. Here she had to affect a German accent which she did with aplomb. Dana Sparkle (nee Lucretia Vanderwessen) was Betty. She had already done a sitcom and two movies by the time of “Hey it’s Klaus!” She retired from acting in 1980 and became a real estate mogul. Ms. Sparkle is currently on husband number five and lives in Beverly Hills.

The show struggled for ratings from the get go. The laughs were few and far between but of greater concern was that some of the dialogue and situations were off putting to audiences looking for light entertainment. Nazism was not skirted around like it was on the smash hit Hogan’s Heroes. Many of the father’s comments and observations about America and recollections of Nazi Germany were blunt and recalled to many the horrors of the Nazi regime. Also, it was the height of the Cold War so viewers were not keen on a cute little American girl spouting communist doctrine.

The show’s nadir was when Klaus brought home his new girlfriend, Beth, who was Jewish. The scornful remarks from the father were over the top for prime time, even cast members were aghast. Newspapers all over the country railed about the episode, the Washington Post called it “cringe worthy” and the Chicago Tribune said that it was a “uncomfortable and embarrassing.” It turned out to be the penultimate episode. Our last episode was more lighted hearted (a bar fight would have been easier to watch than the ‘Jewish Girlfriend ' episode) as Klaus and I got stuck on a roof, with hilarious consequences.

The odd thing about “Hey, it’s Klaus!” was how it was ahead of its time in some ways with cutting edge dialogue about race and politics, and yet how horribly dated it was in other ways, with contrived plot devices and one dimensional, insipid supporting players.

The writers, producers and directors of the show simply moved on to other work in television (although a young Martin Scorsese, who directed two episodes under an assumed name, went on to bigger and better). Troy appeared in a few made for TV movies and after school specials before spiraling into drug abuse and — supposedly — bizarre sexual practices. Dana was on TV and in movies for nine more years eventually legally changing her name to Dana Sparkle. It was the savings from her 13-year career that helped jump start Dana’s real estate business.

Mr. Plink shied away from TV work for the rest of his career, appearing on stage and several films and garnering several Tony nominations and an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the commandant in the musical remake of Stalag 17. He died in 1999 at the age of 81 from heart failure. Ms. Vance continued to be a staple on television, eventually segueing into grandmother roles. She committed suicide in 1986 after it was revealed by the National Enquirer that she suffered from syphilis.

As for me I gave up acting and went into interior design where I was an even bigger flop. After a few other aborted careers, I finally found my niche working for the Crime Scene Unit of the NYPD.  I’ve joked for years that I never saw anything on that job as bad as some of the scripts we got on “Hey, it’s Klaus!”

It’s been so long since the show was on that I was finally able to stomach re-watching it recently (CBS graciously provided the prints on the condition that  I swear not to share it with another living soul). Good lord it was awful and it turns out that the San Francisco Chronicle was correct about my performances being “wooden and uninspired.” Yet I can’t help but think that the show broke some ground. Norman Lear credited  “Hey, it’s Klaus!” for motivating him to take chances with “All in the Family” and subsequent programs.

I’m hoping that the show becomes available on DVD or via a streaming service. I think people today would find it…well, let’s say interesting. I suppose some of it will seem tame by today’s standards but it does, in a small way, reflect its time. I used to be ashamed of my association with the show but I’ve decided to just own it. It was a part of my life and I still have cherished memories of clowning around with cast and crew. (I'll never forget my brief fling with the Senegalese script girl.) Those were the days.

20 July 2016

I Don't Really Want to Beat Up Anarchists, But I Do Want to Discuss Politics, Police and Political Correctness



Hey, let’s go beat up some anarchists!



I don’t know why I opened with that line, it just came to me and I needed to do something with it. So there it is. It does bring to mind how some anarchists screwed up some demonstrations in these parts a few years ago by breaking windows. When people tried to stop them the anarchists punched them. I can’t imagine it’s too difficult to beat up an anarchist. You seen these jokers? They’re not muscular. I doubt they know any martial arts and most of them look like disaffected white suburban kids who’ve not actually been in any fair fights. They’re similar in this respect to punk rockers who always look like they’re reading to knock heads. But they all look skinny, non athletic and as dangerous as an angry kitten. They derive their power from numbers. Anyone can be tough as part of a group that outnumbers its opponents.

All of this being said I by no means advocate violence. Actually, though, it might be a good idea to surround and give a good beating to anarchists next time they try to ruin a non violent protest. I realize that goes against the principles of non violence but what else do you do with these clowns?

You think the anarchists have ever noticed that their “movement” has never gained much traction? Of course it hasn't. They don’t stand for anything. They are just against. There’s nothing appealing about them. Plus no one can figure out what they want. The anarchist movements of the law 1800s through the middle of the 1900s at least had a plan and actually made a positive impact in Spain before the fascists took over. What they understood was the importance of articulating a message.

Not to change the subject or anything but the current iteration of the conservative movement in the US is, I believe and fervently hope, doomed to failure because their ethos is all about denial, rejection and hate. They deny climate change, they reject proposals that will help the less fortunate (like a minimum wage) and they — deny it as they will — hate so damn many people. Of course what ultimately dooms them — again, I hope and pray they're doomed — is their anti intellectualism. Who the hell -- in the long run -- is going to want to follow a party or a philosophy that rejects science (climate change, for example) and continually minimizes the importance and value of an education? Some of their leaders (Santorum and Perry, for example) are dismissive of such fancy notions as book learning. Add to this their lack of inclusiveness and you can see that conservatism is in desperate need to re-invent itself. As things stand now the conservative movement serves as a safe haven for paranoid, xenophobic, homophobic, gun-worshipping, racists. Good luck with that.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment for me in my lifetime has been the decline of race relations and the entrenchment of institutional racism which has kept a disproportionate number of African Americans in poverty, prison and anger.

The Civil Rights movement was a stunning and long overdue success. In its aftermath, during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was a wave of success stories for Blacks in America. Suddenly,all over the country there were African Americans being elected to public offices. There were prominent roles for Blacks in the media and entertainment. There was a rise in awareness of African American culture and racial slurs had become unacceptable. Black studies courses and majors were being offered in high schools and universities (I was in Berkeley High Schools's first Black Studies class). But then the slow and steady backlash came personified by Ronald Reagan who kicked off his successful presidential campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Mississippi, the same city where three Civil Rights were killed in 1964. He also opposed sanctions against Apartheid South Africa.

We shouldn’t need Black Lives Matters today. But we do. (And every nincompoop in the country has to say that all lives matter. It’s like having prostate cancer awareness week and people saying: we should be aware of all cancer.) The Obama presidency has — sadly — served to illustrate the extent to which racism is alive and well in the USA. The only people who deny its existence — and this is both funny and sad — are privileged white people who make jackasses of themselves spouting balderdash on television — on one network in particular. On a side note it would really help matters if we didn’t have idiots shooting cops. First of all, let’s not shoot anyone, ever, not even anarchists. Secondly there is something particularly nefarious about shooting police officers. Yes many cops are rotten to the core or too quick on the trigger or uneducated thugs, but they serve a particularly important role in maintaining a safe and free society. What we need to do is to reform the way people are selected to become police officers and how they are then trained. While we are dependent on the police the whole deal is made a mess of if said cops are themselves operating outside the law, especially with guns in their hands.

There developed a distrust and even hatred of cops when I was a kid as the counter culture was growing and the police were beating protesters with nightsticks and being footloose and fancy free with tear gas and pepper spray. But there was still a respect for the position and an understanding that violence against the violent wouldn’t, as Dr. King preached, solve anything.

As I write this the Republican National Convention is fouling the airs around Cleveland, Ohio. In my lifetime I’ve seen some pretty fucked up republican presidents. The aforementioned Reagan, the unindicted felon Nixon and the worst of the worse, the blithering idiot GW Bush. There have also been some nut jobs who ran for president under the republican banner. Barry Goldwater being the biggest schmoe, though the half wit McCain and poor little rich kid Romney were no bargains either. But I’ve seen nothing to match Trump. I believe it enough to say that he would be worse for the country then the most recent Bush who I believe did more damage to the country than any other president before (see: war, Iraq). It has been pointed out that Trump is a total narcissist. There’s that. He also has no clue about governance, no diplomatic acumen and no tact, class or grace. He has more hair brained schemes than can be imagined (seriously, a wall? no Muslims?). It is true that stranger things have happened than a Trump election, but those things are on a pretty short list. In a year of so much tragedy a Trump win would be the cherry on top. Frankly though, I’m not worried about it. Any republican presidential candidate would need to take some of the states that Obama won in 2012 and I don’t know of any that are in play with Trump as the republican nominee.

I conclude with another diatribe about politically correct speech. This is the one issue that conservatives are sometimes right about. They argue that at its extreme political correctness sometimes borders on a suppression of free speech. I am forever hearing about yet another word, term, or saying that “you can’t say” or “shouldn’t say” or is “offensive.” Indeed I think there are a fair amount of people who actually look for things to be offended by. (In the future will some words be allowed back into the lexicon? Will there be announcements saying that such and such word is back in play and so and so word now passes muster? Will we get any back?) There is one helluva lot of energy wasted on arguing over what people can or cannot say and demanding apologies and retractions. This all started with the notorious “n word.” Talk about an over reaction. This word has been vested with so much power that no white person dare say it. A word only has power, as George Carlin noted, depending on the context and the user. I should be able to say, for example, that in college I had a roommate who used the word "nigger", because that’s what he said. He didn’t say "n word". The use of the word "nigger" by a white person directed at a black person, particularly when meant as an insult is truly offensive and wrong. There are a lot of other racial epithets that have been used against Black people in this country. Should those too be forbidden? Should derogatory terms about other races and religions and people with different sexual preferences be banned? Why is “fag” not the "f word"? Why is the use of the word “bitch” toward a women ever allowed? I would argue that calling a woman a bitch is just as bad as calling an African American a “nigger.” We either need to do a lot more banning of words or a lot less. If the latter (as I hope) maybe we can just worry about the context in which the word is used. For example directing the word “bitch” at a woman should be scorned but when referencing a female dog it is perfectly okay.
N'est-ce pas?

Lastly I offer this from a recent article in Atlantic Monthly:

A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses. Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

Can you believe this shit? It boggles the mind. How do people come to understand history or literature or current events if mere words can traumatize them? You want a strong emotional response triggered? Go work at a homeless shelter, or with victims of domestic violence or in pediatric cancer ward or in emergency relief or with recovering addicts or in a goddamned leper colony, then talk about emotional responses. If you can't take jokes or read Fitzgerald you should go hide in a bunker the rest of your days. Shocking.

17 July 2016

Dreams, Being a Boy and Depression



I had a dream a few nights ago in which I reluctantly went to see my former psychiatrist, a man who I no longer respect professionally. In the dream his office was re-located to a drafty old building with gaping holes in it and litter strewn about. I sat on a lumpy mattress in the waiting room. I was unhappy about being there but had — for reasons unclear — no alternative. Finally I was summoned by a young lady to the Doctor’s office. I sat down quite far from the doctor as that was the positioning of the chairs in this large room. There was another patient in the room standing talking to the doctor. Another older woman came in who seemed to be the doctor’s assistant. She informed me that there would be two patients in this session. I said I refused to share my session with another person and determined that I would walk out if the other patient was not dismissed. Before that matter was decided the older woman strapped some sort of metal contraption on my head that ran in a circle from chin to top of forehead and back. She produced a drill and said that she would drill into my teeth to test my reaction to pain. She commenced. I protested loudly but the woman carried on. Thus I removed the device from my head — with great effort — and stormed out of the office shouting invectives at one and all. The entire time the psychiatrist had remained silent.

In another dream I had my brother was alive again. He was in excellent health and attributed his recovery to a cat with magical powers that had been formed out of a small object that had recently landed on Earth and bore magical powers. He presented the cat and it said “no” over and over again in a perfect voice. I tried to get it to say something else but it just gave me a bemused look. It was clear the cat did in fact possess special powers.

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Last night I dreamt that I was a kid again and engaging in rock fights. When I was growing up there was always talk of rock fights occurring “somewhere else” involving “other people.” It was presumed that only really bad kids participated in rock fights and injuries of a serious nature were common. We threw rocks “towards” each other a few times but always from a great distance. Depending on how one looks at it we were either too cowardly or too smart to have a real rock fight. Rocks were central to a childhood. They had many uses. Sometimes they were carried for protection should a “gang” approach (gangs never approached). Sometimes they were skipped across lakes. Sometimes they were thrown into the air to measure how far or high one could toss them. Sometimes they were studied and wondered upon as they might be thousands of years old and had been trod upon by famous historical figures. If in a particular shape they might be considered to have been employed as tools or weapons by “Indians.” Rocks could also be collected and piled together to later be knocked about. Part of being a boy was breaking things and that could require making the thing that was to be broken.

Activities engaged in by boys could be pretty damn stupid. This of course included ringing door bells and then running like the wind. When indoors one could always make prank calls. I sometimes called numbers at random and pretended to be a little boy looking for his mommy and asserting that this was the number she left for me and sobbing that I didn’t know what to do. This gambit was only attempted if the phone was answered by a woman. Once Mark Norman and I stuffed a mailbox with dirt clods. We loved dirt clods. They could be smashed on sidewalks or against walls.



I used to do a lot of tree climbing when I was a kid. We had both a walnut tree and redwood tree in our backyard. I could only access the lower branches of the redwood by climbing on the roof of my treehouse. This I did. I would climb to heights that would make me dizzy just to look at today. I never once worried about falling and doubt I ever came close to doing so. Trees and bushes also served as excellent sets for playing “army.” There my friends and I or just me alone could pretend to be doing battle in World War II. Actually I didn’t rely solely on outdoor “sets” to pretend to be a soldier in battle. I could just as easily do it on the living room sofa or even on my bed. I was adept at making the sounds of different weapons. I had noises for machine guns, rifles, pistols and cannons. We had a lot of fun as kids and managed it without a computer screen. We did, however, require and employ fertile imaginations. I hope kids today get to use theirs.

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Imagine having a persistent and awful physical pain. The doctor prescribes some medication and says it may be awhile before it takes effect and we’ll check in two weeks hence. A week and half later the pain is only a little better.

That’s what depression can be like. It’s goddamned awful, though you can sometimes distract yourself from it, sometimes by writing — if you can get started. There are several activities that will distract you from the pain but starting them isn’t always so easy. Work does the trick (at least my line which is teaching) and because I have to do it there’s no question about getting started. But in other cases it’s not so easy. Watching a comedy on TV can help but sometimes you just hold the remote control in your hand and stare glumly into nothing as a family member tries to encourage you to turn the blasted TV on. I'm under the assumption that some day I'll be free of depression although when it's really bad a future without sadness seems an impossibility.


13 July 2016

An Old Geezer Remembers the Time Before All this Fancy Cell Phone, Social Media Stuff and Cable TV (It was actually okay)

Sitting in my room. There’s a doubt buzzing around me. A quandary crawls down my back.  It’s already crowded in here with my books, the bed, drawers, and ideas and concerns. Maybe time to clean.

I reach over for a bottle of wisdom but it’s empty. I’m thirsty for more sagacity and know I’ll have to read about it. By the way, do you ever wish we didn’t have the internet and texting and social media and cable TV? We did fine without it. No one was sitting in a bar saying: “I wish I could make a picture of my dog with a frisbee in his mouth instantly available to the world.” I never heard anyone say: I’d like to read about alligators right now without having to go to the goddamned library.” At least not that I remember.

It’s all too easy now. All the world’s information is at your finger tips. You can talk to virtually (no pun intended) anyone and everyone at any time. You can express your opinion on all matters of the day no matter how ill informed you are. Worse, you can read the utterly worthless often insulting opinions of schmucks from all over the damn planet. Every moron with something rude or offensive or factually incorrect to say seems to need to be read or in some cases heard. It’s hard to avoid them. You ever go to the comments section of most websites? It's the cesspool of humanity with the obnoxious and malicious swimming laps.

Then there’s cable TV. We had five channels when I was a kid. Later a sixth. and by the time I graduated high school, a seventh. Shows, movies and sports events were desperately fighting to be seen on the boob tube. Now there’s too damn much on. I literally and honestly mean it when I say there's just a little bit more of value to watch on TV today compared to 50 years ago. I occasionally make the mistake of channel surfing through all 80 billion channels we get and damned if I have a hard time finding anything worthwhile.

It’s great that I can now see 162 rather than just 20 of my favorite baseball team’s games. It’s marvelous that we can watch movies unedited and without commercial interruption. It’s fantastic that there is access to more educational content. It’s wonderful that we can watch our favorite shows at our leisure rather than only at one time a week (and best of all, fast forward through commercials). But there is so much more garbage on TV now than there used to be. It’s simple enough to avoid but the sad fact is that a lot of people watch that crap. Just one example: reality TV. There is nothing the slightest thing real about it. All these shows purporting to show "real" people in "real" situations are as genuine as professional wrestling.

But what’s worst of all and doing severe damage to the national discourse is the 24 news channels. I refer especially to the ones who show everything through a particular political filter and fill hours of air time with chowderheads screaming their opinions. They also have guest meatheads spewing nonsense. Sometimes the chowderheads and meatheads yell at each other. The bloviating obscures the actual news. Thank goodness we have the likes of John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart to lampoon some of this rot.

The sad fact is that few people make their own mind up anymore, they watch TV and have their opinions handed to them on a silver platter. Of course the internet can feed hungry non discriminating mental palates all the opinions they can handle. You can read blogs and news sites and follow on twitter the folks that provide the news and opinion that you want and go around repeating it as if you had something original to say. Any idiot can blog and tweet (yours truly being a case in point) and can seem to some poor souls to be a modern day Thomas Aquinas.

Another sin of the news channels is that through their desperation to fill air 24 hours they turn much of their time over to speculation and analysis. But they do both to such an extreme degree that it loses all meaning. And please -- for your sake -- don't get me started on sports channels. Endless previews of every sport event that has a  scintilla of an audience ,all accompanied by endless analysis of what just happened. And opinions and arguing and debates. About goddamned games, for crying out loud. We used to get by without all that nonsense and were just as well informed. (Can you believe they not only televise the NFL and NBA drafts but talk about weeks in advance? Why?) Obviously there are people who watch this stuff. Hell there are living organisms that actually watch golf! Is there a channel to watch people paint houses? You can watch people fish. You can watch people cook. You can watch people sell houses. Why not watch people mop floors? Pick apples? Sell insurance? The mind boggles at the nonsense people watch.

In days of yore we managed with a half hour of national news, a half hour of local news and a couple of newspapers and magazines. We were just as well informed as people are today (I'm not exaggerating here) although we lacked the up-to-the-second breaking stories that we can access from our smart phones. This is a mixed blessing. Since the news is forever updating we often feel the obligation to forever be checking to see if anything has happened anywhere in the world in the last five minutes. And if something major does happen we keep checking for updates and more details. It’s only matter of seconds before we get opinions on an event that only just happened. People rarely take the time to process things anymore. Everything is instant. Thoughtfulness and patience have been replaced by speed.

One of the worst things I see is how automatic it is for people to get out their cell phones the second there's nothing to distract them. I walk into a classroom full of people staring at their phones. The second the break starts the cell phones are back out as they are when class ends. If a student finishes an assignment early the cell phone is out. Get in line, wait for a bus, sit down to relax, and the cell phone is in hand. People can't just sit anymore. Their minds can't be at rest. I actually wonder if people interrupt meditation to check their phones. For the love of god there's always something on the damn things. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, email, text messages, there is literally always something new. And really, people hate to have to wait a few seconds to check. I often see students unable to wait for class to end before whipping the things out (the phones, silly) as I am reminding them about homework, wishing them a nice evening and saying goodbye. I think it qualifies as an addiction in many cases. You ever see young people hanging out together and they're all staring at their phones? What's with that? Conversations have been replaced by short text messages with those damn emojis.

I love my flat screen HD TV with cable. I love my laptop. I love my iPhone. I'd be hard pressed to live without them. And you know what, that's kind of sad.

10 July 2016

The Psychiatric Patient Who Was Visited By Ghosts

“Is it true, Dr. Stern, that itchy skin may be the result of stress?”

“Jack, I think it best that we focus on your belief that you are seeing and speaking with ghosts.”


“Okay but it’s not, as you call it, a belief, it's a fact. Look doctor, I know it sounds strange and I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible as recently as last month, but I know with all certainty that I am talking to the ghosts of friends and relatives who have been dead for as long as a dozen years. It’s a fact. Not a belief.”

Jack was exasperated. He didn’t see the point in discussing his recent visitations if his psychiatrist doubted him, just as everyone else did.

For his part Dr. Stern was beginning to have serious doubts as to the sanity of his patient and was pondering, among other things, a change in medications.

Jack looked out the window. The view from the window was totally obscured by a massive tree. This was the first psychiatrist office Jack had been in -- and he’d been in many --  that had a window with any sort of view at all, if one considered the branches of a tree a view. Still Jack looked at the branches. He very much thought that he’d like to climb the tree. As a youth he was forever climbing trees and having a grand time doing it. If it was fun then, well why shouldn’t it be now, Jack wondered.

Dr. Stern noted that Jack’s attention was directed toward the window. The psychiatrist cursed himself for forgetting to draw the curtains before the session (it was his first of the day). It was hardly the type of mistake one would expect from a doctor with his many years experience. Dr. Stern had been treating patients for almost 30 years. In that time he’d had many different types of patients. Some had serious problems. Most were just dealing with anxiety or mild depression or a phobia. He’d lost one patient to a suicide and a few had been institutionalized for short times. The overwhelming majority, however, led normal lives and had benefitted from their time with Dr. Stern. Yet he’d never had a patient quite like Jack,  man who came in for treatment for panic attacks and depression and was now claiming to see and talk to ghosts. Ghosts that looked perfectly human.

“Who has ‘visited’ you since our last session, Jack?”

Jack heard the question as if far from away. He felt like he was in a dream hearing someone who was awake speak to him. The patient finally turned his gaze away from the tree and back to his doctor.

“My brother, Bob came yesterday. As big as life. He looked just like he did in his mid 20s when he really had the world by the tail. Bob was going places and doing things and was quite the cocksman. Yessiree those were Bob’s salad days. It wasn’t until his 30s that Bob really hit the skids. He looked fine when I saw him yesterday. Healthy and sharp too. Really articulate.”

“What was your conversation like?”

“Oh we just talked about life in general. You know the funny way things turn out and how plans never seem to pan out and how people change and you can never predict the future.”

“Did you or Bob do most of the talking?

“Oh it was even Steven. That’s usually the way it was when Bob and I talked before he died, expect towards the end when he wasn’t his old self and wasn’t much for talking. But like I said, Bob yesterday was in his prime.”

“Why do you suppose Bob made this appearance in your life?”

“Just to chat, I think. There was really nothing specific.”

“But surely someone coming from the afterlife to visit a living relative must have a purpose.” Dr. Stern realized that he was essentially humoring his patient but it was in the pursuit of a bigger truth.

“Yeah, I see your point.” Jack started to say more but couldn’t find the words or even the thought. He felt stuck. Like God had hit the pause button on him.

“Previously your father and two of your friends and a cousin have spoken to you. All deceased. Why now? Why are the dead talking to you, do you think?”

“Maybe because I’ve been having trouble. You know the things I’m seeing you for. Maybe they want to help in some way.” Jack was impressed. Dr. Stern had snapped him right out of his momentary frozen state and got him talking and thinking. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it. It’s maybe like I’ve sent some distress vibe to heaven or wherever dead people reside and they’ve picked it up and have come to help.”

Dr. Stern could tell this was beginning to be one of those times when he helped a patient make a breakthrough. He just had to stick with it and guide the conversation. Fortunately this was a forte of his. The psychiatrist was a humble man with no ego to speak of but he took pride in the service he gave his patients. Jack was a particular challenge but he felt confident.

Jack had stopped talking. He looked into his lap trying to sort out his thoughts.

“Go on, Jack, continue. What’s on your mind?”

“I was just thinking….Why me? I mean there are a lot of people with problems and a lot of them are worse off than me. So how do I rate this special sort of service?”

“Well, what do you think? Maybe you deserve something special. Maybe life has been kind of hard for you these past few years, especially with the attacks and the depression. Aren’t you deserving of special attention?”

“I don’t buy it, doc. There are so many people worse off than me. I just don’t — ya know sometimes I think I’ve imagined the ghosts, I know that’s what you and a lot of other people think. I mean I realize that it all sounds so crazy. But they are as real as this chair I’m sitting in. We really are having conversations, I mean they’re talking to me. I know it.”

“Why do you suppose that sometimes you doubt your own experiences and think that perhaps you’ve imagined them?”


“I guess because I’m trying to force logic and the normal, conventional interpretation of reality into something so extraordinary. I’m doubting the miracle because our culture has real strictures about such things. You’re not supposed to see UFOs either. The weird thing is that believers in astrology are accepted. But if you say you’re seeing the ghosts of friends and relatives it’s a real no-no. People don’t wanna hear about it. Oh some do but they’re the minority and tend to be people on the fringe of society like drug users or ex hippies or the psychotic. I actually kind of wish I hadn’t seen and talked to these ghosts. I’m carrying around a truth that is well outside the norm and like I said people don’t wanna hear about. It’s just that simple. I can talk to you about it but even you must have doubts about my story.” Jack slumped in his chair, sighed and took a sip of water. He looked away hoping that Dr. Stern would soon fill the silence. He didn’t.

Dr. Stern knew when to interject a question or a comment. It was an instinct he’d developed after decades of psychiatry. This was not a time to say anything. His patient had in effect challenged him by stating a belief that the doctor did not believe his accounts of speaking to the deceased. The fact was that Dr. Stern had formed no opinion on the matter as a doctor. He wanted to see how it all played out with Jack. It was important, he knew, to let his patient talk about it as much as possible.

Jack hated the silences in therapy. They made him uncomfortable and felt like a waste of time. He always knew that it was on him to continue talking. That was always the message of the silences.

Finally, “I suppose I shouldn’t worry about what others think of my visitors. I mean why the hell should I care? They’re just talking to me anyway and they only ever come around when I’m alone. And it could be that no one else could hear or see them if they were around. Oh you know this is interesting my father visited me on the weekend. He actually told me that — and this is typical dad — he appreciated how I had mourned his death. It was, he said, an appropriate level and amount of time to grieve. Then he said I ought to stop eating so many potato chips, which I thought was kind of weird. But we mostly talked about when I played baseball as a kid and how he used to be so proud of me and the way I hustled and was such a good teammate. It was nice, actually.”

“Did you say anything to him?”

“Not a lot. I didn’t say anything about the grieving stuff, that was too weird. I did defend my chip consumption. I mean, come on, I don’t eat that much. I also told him how much I appreciated him making time to come to all my ball games and encouraging me. We talked a little about our dog Jacey who we had for like 10 years. Then he was gone.”

“It sounds like you had a nice chat. A little reminiscing and some fatherly advice, however unwanted. How did you feel after?”

“Anytime a dead person visits me I’m a little freaked out for awhile. But then I accept the fact of it and go over the conversation we had and then move on with my day. The thing is though that I don't really feel so comforted by their visits. It's just too weird, too out there. I'm already dealing with panic and depression, this seems to be just piling it on. If these ghosts have come to help me I don't know that it's working."

"But earlier you said this was, I believe the words were, 'a special service' and that they were answering a distress signal." Dr. Stern was concerned that Jack was contradicting himself.

"Yeah I see what you mean. Well I guess the thing is that they mean well and I should take heart from their visits. I do enjoy it and I don't enjoy it. It's weird. If it keeps going on maybe I'll just learn to be happy about it."

"But remember you've had no panic attacks since they started visiting."

"But isn't that just the meds working?"

"Perhaps. Is the depression any less severe?"

"Nah, it's pretty much the same. Should we change or up my meds?"

"Let's give them more time to work. We'll see in a week or two."

"Okay, I guess everything just takes time."

"Speaking of time, ours is up. Next week, same time?"

"Yup." Jack stood up to go. He'd never been satisfied with his visits to psychiatrists, although in the long term he saw their benefits. This had been another okay session. Jack was kind of glad that he didn't mention seeing angels. Maybe next session.

08 July 2016

Who was I Dancing With and Why Can't I Go Back in Time?



The same old crowd
Was like a cold dark cloud
That we could never rise above
But here in my heart
I give you the best of my love
Oh, sweet darlin'
You get the best of my love
- From The Best of My Love by The Eagles

I’m listening to The Eagles song, Best of My Love. Powerful memory -- more of visceral feeling -- of dancing to it with young woman at a party while in college. Saturday night. A slow song, we were clinging to one another, maybe a little drunk. I don’t remember who it was, or what she looked like. Long hair though and she was about my height. She smelled sweet but not too. A nice soap and shampoo rather than perfume. Her hair against my cheek tingled.  I liked her a lot. At least that night, at least during that song. What else might have happened between us that night or after I don’t know. I know that I was experiencing perfect happiness. Young, handsome, healthy, a bright future a pretty woman in my arms, an alcohol buzz.

That moment, the time of my life is gone. Forever. Listening to the song brought a whiff of time back but nothing I can hold on to. I’m left staring at a computer screen typing words about it rather than living it. I can’t go back and see who that woman was. I can’t go back and have that dance again. I can’t go back and change anything. It’s all happened. I ache for it. The passage of time is a harsh demon, slapping us with taunts about what we did wrong and about joys we’ll never feel again. We are left in now. This permanent place we are stuck in. There is no escaping it, there’s no alternative.

Goddamn it life hurts like hell sometimes. The bittersweet is almost the worst of it all. No wonder I have panic and depression. So many aches through the course of life, so much gone forever. I’ve got more out of life than maybe I deserve and it's not nearly enough. I want a time machine. I want to be able to replay parts of the past. I want…

So here I sit relentlessly sorry for myself and ungrateful and obtuse and disingenuous and afraid. Afraid to move forward. Looking back, looking in the mirror but lacking vision, soul, a cure for my angst. Reveling in melancholia and surprised when I’m blue but at the same time feeling that I earned it. Yeah I earned the miseries through years of dastardly mistakes and bad behavior and belligerence and egocentricity and malice afore and after thought and abuse of whatever the hell I could get my hands on. Now. Now clean. The family man. The good citizen. The beloved teacher, co-worker. The grumpy neighbor and gym member. The hassled commuter. The runner. The blogger. The instagrammer. The movie watcher. The man and the mission and the mania and the moment and the morbid and the morose and the masterful melancholic moper. I come at you with blue eyes and blonde hair and a blood stream teeming with medications. Yes I’m the medicated riding the bullet train to nowhere. Man. Where to go? Travel. See other places, other people. Think other thoughts. Dance alone. Drink tea. Stream my consciousness right around the globe and up and over and under the madness of this old world. Why stop while I’m in perpetual heat? Why not got on? Still the dreamer the believer in glories to come. Lord what a mess. What a manic mass of myself. Where?

Where?

Where? Seriously, I mean where is that dance? Where is that young chick? What happened to that five minutes? Where? And why the fuck do I have so many questions that go forever unanswered? Can’t someone please tell me where that time went? Did it just vanish into the ether? Is it still out there somewhere? Can I find it? Where do I look? Do I go into a trance? Will meditation suffice? Peyote? Zero gravity? Space travel? Do I look for it in dreams? Can I at least get a map? That would be a start.

Time. Is it just a human concept? Are today and all the yesterdays and maybe even all the tomorrows snaking around each other? Can I jump from one to the next? There must be a way. Is it dangerous? What the hell is deja vu all about, anyway? And what about the supernatural? Is there really anything to any of it? Ghosts for example. Or angels. I really like the idea of angels, especially of the guardian variety. Maybe I’ve been surrounded by angels all my life, watching, envious of the mortal’s life on Earth. Sometimes life doesn’t seem to be all it’s cracked up to be. But I guess it beats the alternative all to hell. So to speak.

Okay so maybe angels, maybe ghosts, I don’t know. What I really want to learn about is time travel. I’d be more than happy to travel as a spectator. I want to see that dance. See that woman’s face. I’d like to watch the whole party unless it was one of those in which I got stinko and made an ass of myself. I get the feeling that that wasn’t one of those nights. Beside the point. Why not time travel? Or just a TV into our past? Sit back and watch the show we created. Otherwise what was it all for if we can't get a replay?

Maybe if there’s something after death it will include a tour of one’s life. Not the flashing before eyes deal but a real good look. I’ve often thought we get to live it over again. Over and over. And we get to do different things like as we repeat our lives we get better at it. If that’s the case then this must be one of my first go-rounds because I’ve done some serious fucking up. Then again with how good it’s turned out in so many ways maybe I’m more toward the middle of my chances. If this is really the case I wonder how many times we do it? If I’ve got a lot more shots at this one I could really make something of it. I’ve had a lot going for me. Sure some obstacles but I’ve done pretty well with those, all considered.

Who the hell was that dance partner? It’s turned into a real poser.

05 July 2016

Do You Dream of Unearned Glory? I Sure Did (Do)



He saw that his brother had sworn on the wall
He hung up his eyelids and ran down the hall
His mother had told him a trip was a fall
- From Broken Arrow by Buffalo Springfield

There was a time in my life when I thought that any day fame and fortune were going to tap me on the shoulder and invite me to revel in them for the rest of my days. I would enjoy the company of beautiful women, many of whom would be my lovers, as I traveled from one exotic locale to another. My opinions on all matters would be sought as the press hounded me constantly, splashing my picture across newspapers and magazines. I would be renowned for my ribald stories, my dances with bacchanalia and the trail of broken hearts left in my wake. But I would also be known for my wisdom and insights into matters of the day. My popularity would be boundless.

Less specific was exactly how I attained such fame. Was it perhaps for my feats on the soccer field? Or had I overcome my total lack of musical talent and become a rock star? Or was I a critically and commercially acclaimed actor? Maybe I had authored several best sellers. Most likely it was some combination of the above. The details of how were not nearly so important as the what of my celebrity. I often pondered such things while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or more likely both. But I could find myself contemplating my future glory while perfectly sober. It was not uncommon for me to fall asleep with such visions cavorting in my head.

I was a dreamer and one with a rich imagination who could conjure amazing fantasies without prompting. What I was not was a goal setter or a worker or a practical man with a plan. That was boring stuff that I couldn’t be bothered with. It would come in due time. I had the cart well before the horse, fully expecting that I could enjoy my world wide notoriety in advance of doing anything to achieve it.

I had no script in progress nor was I taking acting lessons but I rehearsed my Oscar acceptance speech and imagined the post event soiree. Well after my playing days ended I fantasized about scoring the winning goal in a championship match and the humble remarks I’d make to the press afterward. Despite having not the slightest musical talent visions danced in my head in which I stood on stage soaking in the rapturous cheers of an adoring audience.

By my late teens and early 20s my fantasies were fueled by alcohol. The intoxicating effects of alcohol filled me with intoxicating thoughts of glories to come. When alone I even acted some out.

On into middle age and a career in teaching and a family and the fantasies had not yet abated. Now they centered almost exclusively  on the successful publication of and critical and popular acclaim for my novels. I was barely pecking away at one of them. I would spend more time pretending to be interviewed about my book then I did writing the damn thing.

I’ve learned many lessons in life and one of the most important is that there is good news and bad news about success in life. The bad news is that in order to attain success one has to work very had and the good news is that all one has to do to be successful in life is to work very hard. For most of my life I have assiduously avoided hard work. Oh I’ve worked as much as I’ve had to to get by, but not enough to realize my wildest dreams, or even approach them. My wildest dreams have been, admittedly, pretty damn wild but many of the rewards one reaps from the efforts have been denied me. Life being a journey not a destination as the old bromide goes.

Working toward something is rewarding in and of itself. The hours I’ve spent actually working on a novel and not my interview with the New York Times have enriched my soul beyond measure.

Sometimes I clean the kitchen. I empty the dishwasher, fill it up, take out the compost and recycling and wipe the counters. In some regards its a futile task because within 24 hours the whole process needs to be repeated.  There’s no getting away from doing because the alternative is to let the mess stay. Besides I enjoy the process. I’m almost disappointed when it’s over. Is there nothing else that needs to be washed, tossed or buffed? Oh well, it’s done and there’s the clean kitchen. Not really a great achievement but it felt good doing it.

Satisfaction comes from the process. As a teacher I enjoy seeing students improve and take pride in their growth, but the real pleasure comes not from encomiums but from doing it. If the process is done correctly then the results will come. When I was coaching soccer I told my teams not to worry about the score to just keep playing the same for the whole match. If you do that and do it well you'll either win or lose and if the latter only because the other team was superior on that day. I wanted my teams to play at the same level whether the score was tied or we were down or up by several goals. You have to do. When its over you can take pride in your performance and if you win you've got cause for celebration. If you lose there's no shame.

I like the process of writing. If feels good to string words together into sentences and paragraphs to express ideas and tell stories and relate incidents. Motivation is difficult. When you've got no deadlines and there are a million distractions and ideas are not flowing from your fingertips it can be extremely difficult to produce. A lot of people pooh pooh the idea of writer's block. These are people with one thing in common: they've never had writer's block. Its so simple to discredit another person’s problem and so hard to try to understand and sympathize. I’ve heard people dismiss those who suffer from depression. Yeah I guess it sounds stupid for a healthy, successful person to have depression. Nonetheless it is real and it is awful. Yet people do sympathize with someone passing a gall stone or suffering from bronchitis. Imagining someone else's pain is neither pleasant nor easy, particularly when it psychological.

I've covered fantasy, the process and sympathy. That's quite a spread. Maybe a major publication wants to interview me about it. I should prepare.