Saturday, December 30, 2006

I'm Getting the Feel Of Hickory Wind

For some reason I couldn't post any pictures while I was still in Tennessee. Probably the security settings on my parents' computer.

I love the drive down to my parents' place in Eastern Tennessee. They chose to retire there because it was a lot cheaper to live there-- they could live very comfortably on their retirement income there-- and the weather is a little more moderate. I like it for it's abject beauty.

Their home is basically on the side of a mountain up in the Smokeys. Here are some pics.

This is the view from their driveway, with the Smokey Mountains right in your face.

I usually sleep with the blinds open when I'm visiting them so that I am awoken with this view in the morning (sorry for the blurriness).

If I've seen a more beautiful sunrise, I'd be hard-pressed to remember it.

My son and I took off this morning. Here's a picture of the three generations together right before we left.

A few weeks ago, I finally broke down and bought the cd of "David's Album," by Joan Baez. When Joan Baez's now-ex-husband peace activist David Harris refused induction into the military for service in Vietnam, he chose to serve a prison sentence instead, like any good civil disobedient. He had a love of bluegrass and country music, so Baez gathered all the great bluegrass and country musicians in Nashville and recorded an album for him. I grew up listening to my father's vinyl copy of the album. Her version of Graham Parsons' classic "Hickory Wind" was the first I ever heard, and remains my favorite.

As we drove out into the Appalachian morning, I hooked the ipod up to the car stereo and put on that album. As we hit Kentucky, the last track of the album, her version of a bluegrass classic, one of my favorites, came on. It set the world just right.

My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mounains

My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you any more

Gonna leave here Sunday morning
Gonna leave here Sunday morning
Gonna leave here Sunday morning
And I never expect to see you any more

My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you any more

Goodbye my little Nashville darling
Goodbye my little Nashville darling
Goodbye my little Nashville darling
And I never expect to see you any more

My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you any more

How can I keep from crying
How can I keep from crying
How can I keep from crying
If I never expect to see you any more

My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you any more

My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you any more

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Tennessee Ten

Tennessee is one of those Good News/Bad News things. Good things: spending time with my folks; waking up and seeing the Smokey Mountains out the bedroom window (their house is actually in the foothills of the Smokeys). The bad thing is being around some pretty regressive people (not all the people here, though!) and being so far from home.

Here's the Tennessee Ten:

1. Heroin- The Velvet Underground
2. You Are So Beautiful- Joe Cocker
3. In the Jailhouse Now- Johnny Cash
4. Mustang Sally- Wilson Pickett
5. She Sells Sanctuary- The Cult
6. I Want You Back- Graham Parker
7. Safe European Home- The Clash
8. Yeah Baby- The Fondas
9. I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore- Woody Guthrie
10. Highway 40 Blues- Ricky Skaggs

The Graham Parker song is a cover of the Jackson 5 song by the same name.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

It Gets Worse...

I'm down in beautiful Eastern Tennessee with my son visiting my folks. The weather was perfect, my old truck ran well and we've had a pleasant visit.

One of the pleasures of visiting my parents here is reading their local paper, the Knoxville News Sentinal, in the morning. There is inevitably a story about some local rube that makes me feel a whole lot better about my life. Today was no exception.

I don't have a picture yet, but will post one as soon as I have one, of Jason Mark Harms. He is a 29 year old resident of rural Knox County.

The Knoxville, Tennesee fire department was plagued in the last couple of months by a rash of fake 911 calls, involving car crashes, house fires and ficticious injured uncles.

The Knox County Department investigators were easily able to get the phone number that the fake 911 calls were coming from-- apparently the perpetrator wasn't aware that police and fire departments have that gosh-darned Caller ID thingamajig. The calls were coming from a cell phone.

Now I suppose they could have contacted the cell phone company and found out who the customer was, but what they did was much more fun and less time-consuming. Their plan was to call the number, tell the recipient that he had won a gift certificate from a major retailer, and needed to get his address so that they could mail him the gift certificate. They would then get a warrant for his arrest and proceed with it.

Mr. Harms saved them the trouble. He did not want to wait for his gift certificate and instead asked if he could come in to pick it up. After some hasty preperations, they arranged to meet him somewhere, and he of course showed up, allowing the police to arrest him for making the prank calls.

It gets worse.

Mr. Harms showed up with his cell phone bill in his pocket. There was a record of every one of the 15 prank calls he made.

It gets worse.

The television news here is reporting that there was already a warrant out for Mr. Harms' arrest in Lake County, Illinois for arson.

There are some people who I think need to be locked up because they are a danger to society. Then there are others that need to be locked up because they are a danger to themselves.

This guy makes the people who call the police to report that their illegal drugs were stolen look smart by comparison.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I've Seen It All Now...

Drove over ten hours with my son to visit my parents in Eastern Tennessee. I'm exhausted and going to bed, but I have to report that I have now seen everything. My mother and my son are up watching Letterman together.

Maybe there's hope for this world.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Remembering What It's All About

Basking in the post-holiday glow, as a public service I just want to remind everybody, with all the crass and rampant commericalism that the holiday has acquired over the years, what Christmas is all about. Here's a little clip from Full Metal Jacket to remind us-- it's all about the birthday of Jesus Christ.

(to Jesus) "Dude-- you're birthday's on Christmas? That SUCKS!"-- South Park

A Correction

In my post yesterday, I pointed out that the number of US dead in the Iraq war would soon surpass the number of dead in the 9/11 attacks. I was correct, except about the number of US dead and how soon it would happen. I mistakenly used a number that included the terrorists, whom I certainly don't regard as victims. The actual number of 9/11 victims was 2,973, meaning that with the six US soldiers killed yesterday, the number of US soldiers who have died in this travesty has surpassed the number of 9/11 victims

To George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, and all the Senators and Congressmen who let this happen, I say "Nice going-- fucktards!"

James Brown, An American Original

My first memory of James Brown is distinct. I was 6 years old, in 1967. On Saturday mornings, I would go visit my next-door-neighbor, Scott Meineke. His family was one of the few in the neighborhood that had a color television. We'd sit and color and watch the Beatles' cartoon program, the Monkees and whatever else was on Saturday mornings. In the evenings, I'd sometimes go over there to watch the Batman television show.

One morning either we, or his teenaged brother must have had some music program on. Though it was a color television, I remember seeing the clip in black and white-- not all shows had converted to color yet. I was transfixed by this dynamic performer-- it was James Brown doing "I Feel Good." I was hooked for life.

James Brown stands out with a handful of American originals-- Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan are among them-- that really defined twentieth century American music.

This morning's New York Times has a picture of Brown performing in Riga, Latvia in July of this year. Here's James Brown from some time in the sixties.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy Xmas, The War Is Not Over

I hope you will indulge me this Christmas post. It's not a fun one. You may want to read it tomorrow.

This is Staff Sgt. Oscar Medina. He was with the 25th Infantry Division in Iraq.

On May 1 of this year, he was killed, along with Spc. Ramon Candelario Ojeda, who was 22, when their convoy was attacked Al Amarah in southeastern Iraq.

I got an email from my father today. He was watching George Stephanopolous this morning, and they mentioned a 59 year old sergeant who was killed last week in Iraq. My parents have a friend was forced out of retirement from the reserves at the age of 55-- they threatened to cut off his retirement benefits-- and sent. My old friend Garrett Johnson, a guy who was my college roommate in 1982, two years before Sgt. Medina was born, was sent last year at the age of 42. He expects to be sent again next year, by which time he'll be 44.

My father pointed out in his email that by the end of WWII, the Germans were sending old men and young boys into battle.

Today's list of war dead in the New York Times today has two names. Lance Cpl. Ryan J. Burgess of Sanford, Michigan, who was 21, and Lance Cpl. Ryan L. Mayhan, of Hawthorne, California, who was 25.

I am 45. These guys could literally be my kids.

I checked the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count today. There was a death today there. Christmas Day is going to be a sad day from now on for some unfortunate family.

According to the website, as of today, there were 2,972 American dead in Iraq. There were 2,997 victims of 9/11. Remember back when 9/11 was the rationale for this war? Remember Weapons of Mass Destruction? It almost seems quaint.

Soon, though, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield and their lot will soon have done the unbelievable: gotten more Americans killed than Osama Bin Laden did.

Not only have Americans-- and men and women from our "coalition"-- been killed, they've also been wounded. Horrific wounds. With the excellent medical care our military has developed, men and women are surviving wounds they would not have survived even in the last Iraq war in 1991. There is a stream of amputees, and people with grievous body and brain injuries coming out of military hospitals.

This war has been a disaster on many levels. To say it has destabiized Iraq is an understatement. 12,000 Iraqi policemen have been killed, along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Shiiite and Sunni death squads, some composed of renegade policemen and soldiers, are running wild. Ethnic cleansing, Iraqi style, is driving Sunni and Shiite into segregated neighborhoods. The Al Queda, non-existant in Saddam-era Iraq, is all over Iraq now.

Because of the drain of soldiers and resources from Afghanistan, a failed state that was actually a threat to the United States, the Taliban is resurging there.

I had a pretty nice Christmas, and I hope everybody else did too. Just keep in mind that there were 2,972 families here that had a Christmas tinged with sadness. And at least one who had the saddest Christmas of all.

New Year's is coming up. I usually don't do resolutions, but this year I'm going to have at least one-- to do what I can do to keep so many families from having a sad Christmas next year. Let's bring these people home.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Have a Revolutionary Holiday....

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Seasons Greetings, you Lackeys of the Imperialist Running Dogs!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Joe Strummer

Dale was commenting on my Friday Random Ten and pointed out that Barb also had Joe Strummer turn up on her Random Ten today. I went over to check on it, and she had pointed out that it was four years ago today that we lost Joe.

I was devastated when Joe died. He was only 50 years old. The Clash were absolutely my favorite band ever. They hit the United States when I was about 17 and bowled me over. I was awakening politically, and the Clash were singing my song.

I mentioned in a previous post Phil Ochs' quote:

"And if there's any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara."

The Clash were the closest, I think, that we've ever come to that. I remember in an interview in '79 or so, Strummer saying that his intent was to sell as many records as he could. The Clash had a message, and he didn't intend for it to go unheard. He realized that popular music was a medium to pass that message on.

I have a great memory that made that point. In the summer of 1983, my parents bought me a month pass for Greyhound. I was in school in central Illinois and my folks lived in San Jose, California. I took a trip to see them and some friends along the way.

In the course of my trip, I had a stop in San Antonio. We were there for over an hour, so I went out to grab a bite to eat and to walk around downtown San Antonio for a while. I came upon a group of kids-- they had to be high school age-- hanging out in a parking lot on a Sunday afternoon. From a boombox the "Combat Rock" album blared. It really hit me-- here I was, in the middle of Texas, and the Clash were playing. They'd made it. And their message was getting to where it needed to get to.

A few years ago, my friend Viktor Zeitgeist was at a rock festival in Northern California. The line-up was incredible: among them were the Blasters and X with their original line-ups, Reverend Horton Heat-- and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes.

He was walking around the festival with his girlfriend Lynn (now his wife Lynn) and came upon Joe having a beer, chatting with some fans. They joined in. Joe was, he said, just a great guy.

Viktor told him about this friend of his who'd had a really rough time the last couple of years-- a custody fight, financial problems, and was now teaching in a poor neighborhood-- and was a huge Clash fan. It would mean a lot to his friend if he had Joe's autograph. Joe said he'd be delighted. Viktor went and got a poster, and Joe signed it for him.

About six months later, Joe was dead.

If you haven't figured out already, my real name is Brian. And I think you can see why Viktor Zeitgeist is my best friend.

Outed By My Random Ten

It was bound to happen. Statistically, if I did enough Random Tens, it was going to happen. I got outed.

I, Johnny Yen, am a Parrothead. I like Jimmy Buffett. There, it's out.

It all started on a trip in 1980 to Salt Lake City, Utah to see an old friend. One of her roommates was playing the Jimmy Buffett album "Living and Dying in 3/4 Time," and this achingly beautiful song, "The Ballad of Spider John" came on. It quickly became one of my favorite songs. It's a sad, sweet song with a country feel (and y'all knows I loves me the sad, sweet songs with a country feel) about an outlaw who falls in love, and is ready to change for her, but she finds out about his profession and leaves. He spends the rest of his life riding the rails, searching for her.

If you play it backward, she comes back, his dog comes back to life, he gets his trailer back.....

Anyway, I'd pretty much ignored Buffett until that point-- his monster hit "Margaritaville" had registered a "zero" on the Johnny Yen Musical Scale. I had been busy getting into punk rock and the Who. I started working my way back through his music. And came to like most of it. He's funny, he's a good tunester. And for god's sake, the guy's an environmentalist. So sue me. There's nothing wrong with a little stupid fun once in a while.

BTW, my favorite of his songs, "The Ballad of Spider John" was written by Willis Alan Ramsey. A few years ago, the New York Times had an article about him. Apparently, he's a legend in country music, partly because he only put out one album his whole life. Then I found out the ying for the yang-- on that same album was another one of his compositions, "Muskrat Love." I was speechless. I consider the Captain and Tenille's cover of that song a cultural crime along the lines of Rick Dees' "Disco Duck," naughahyde, avocado-colored appliances and Michael Bolton.

I guess we gotta take the good with the bad.

1. I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better When You’re Gone- The Byrds
2. Waitress in the Sky- The Replacements
3. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend- The Ramones
4. Forbidden City- Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes
5. Bent Out of Shape- The Replacements
6. Goody Two-Shoes- Adam Ant
7. Good-Time Charlie’s Got the Blues- Danny O’Keefe
8. Some White People Can Dance- Jimmy Buffett
9. Dancing on the Jetty- INXS
10. Mellow Down Easy- The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

My Hero

This morning I was reading a brilliant post by one of my new favorite bloggers, at Death Wore a Feathered Mullet about Poor Lil' Miss Tara Conner, the recently rehabbing Miss USA. I don't think I've read a better analysis anywhere.

It got me to thinking about another recent celebrity naughtiness story, actor Danny Devito.

If you'll remember, Devito appeared on The View, one of my mother's favorite programs, after a night of tippling with George Clooney. Apparently, Danny was still a little lit that morning. He did what any self-respecting tanked guy would do-- he got silly, hammed it up and bashed our idiot President. In otherwords, pretty much what I do when I've had a few.

Usually the routine is to appear in some public forum, hat in hand, acting contrite, asking forgiveness for your trespasses. What did Danny do?


He didn't apologize for it. He didn't check into Betty Ford. He didn't make a weepy public statement. He basically just said "Yeah, probably should have napped a little longer before I went on the show."

This little routine where celebrities fuck up, and then go on their little penitance tour has become tiresome. When did perfection become obligatory for celebrities? Or anyone else, for that matter? If I, and most every human being on this planet were held accountable for every stupid comment they've made, drunk or sober, nobody would meet the standard.

I have a lot of respect for Danny Devito. He's a gifted comic actor. He is, by all accounts, a great guy. He's got an apparently successful marriage, a rarity in Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter, these days. And by what he said on the television show, I like his politics. He's the kind of guy, in fact, that I'd like to have a drink with. When the scandal rags tried to make a bunch of hay about what he did, he did the right thing-- he ignored them. He is my hero.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Some Old Friends

Since people are posting their favorite Christmas vids, I'll post mine.

In Chicago, there was a kid's show called Garfield Goose. It was hosted by a guy named Frazier Thomas. His puppet friends in the picture are Garfield Goose and Romberg Rabbit.

This show caused me to grow up in confusion. Frazier Thomas would have conversations with Garfield and Romberg. Garfield's sole dialogue was a furious clapping of his beak. I figured that he was talking in some kind of morse code that Thomas could understand. Romberg, on the other hand, would move his little puppet face but wouldn't talk! For the life of me, I could not understand how Thomas was understanding a word that Romberg said.

In any event, during the holiday season, they would play a couple of holiday-themed videos. One was "Susie Snowflake," which I hated like eating rutabaga. "Hardrock, Coco and Joe," on the other hand, were the bomb.

By the way, those Chicago folks (or transplanted Chicago folks like Chris) might be interested in this book:

It's title is pretty self-explanatory-- it's about children's tv shows in Chicago in the sixties-- Ray Rayner, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, etc. This book, which I got as a gift a few years ago, was the source of some relief for me. It confirmed to me that the actually was a bizarre kid's show called "Kiddie-a-go-go" which featured Chicago kids dancing to the hits of local groups, and 10-year-old girls in mini-skirts. I had thought it might have been a figment of my imagination. The book is published by Lake Claremont Press. They've got a ton of cool books on Chicago history. If anybody needs a copy of this as a last-minute holiday gift, they do sell their books at their office, which I think recently moved to 4848 N. Clark St. in Chicago.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's The Chicago Way

Some thoughts on this day, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of long-time Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley.

First comes news that our esteemed "President" has determined that the resounding defeat his party suffered in last month's elections was a mandate for an escalation in the war. Funny, here I was thinking it was a pretty clear mandate to start working on getting the hell out. Silly me.

"W" needs to give me a call-- I am the man with the plan. Here's the guy I think they need to put in charge over there: my fellow Chicagoan Aiham Alsammarae, the former electricity minister for Iraq.

Excerpted from the New York Times:

December 20, 2006
Escaped Minister Says He Fled Iraqi Jail ‘the Chicago Way’

BAGHDAD, Dec. 19 — In a lengthy phone conversation on Tuesday, the former Iraqi electricity minister who escaped from a Baghdad jail on Sunday ridiculed American and Iraqi officials and said he fled because he did not trust the police and had received a tip that he would be assassinated within days.

The official, Aiham Alsammarae, who telephoned this reporter, said, without offering proof, that he was already outside Iraq after finagling his way aboard a flight at the Baghdad International Airport.

Incredulous Iraqi security and justice officials disputed parts of his account, saying that a figure as recognizable as Mr. Alsammarae could not possibly have slipped onto a flight when he was the subject of a manhunt.

Mr. Alsammarae, who holds dual American and Iraqi citizenship, scoffed at those assertions and said they were made by officials who spent too much time inside the protected Green Zone in central Baghdad and did not understand how the country really worked.

“Those suckers who are sitting in the Green Zone, they cannot go out and see the people they are governing?” asked Mr. Alsammarae, whose unmistakable speech patterns in English reflect his Iraqi and American backgrounds. “This is a joke.

“So why I cannot take the airport? It’s not because I am a smart cookie. Any Iraqi can do it, even if they have 10,000 court orders against him. This is Iraq.”

One fact Iraqi officials could not dispute: Mr. Alsammarae, who had been jailed four months ago on corruption charges stemming from deals made when he was the electricity minister from August 2003 to May 2005, was still free.

If correct, Mr. Alsammarae’s tale of escape would mean that he not only worked his way free of the Iraqi police guarding the jail but also eluded the thousands of Western and Iraqi security forces stationed in the dense maze of checkpoints and blast walls in the Green Zone, which is the fortified heart of the American occupation and the Iraqi government.

When asked how he could have pulled off such an escape, Mr. Alsammarae, who moved to Chicago in 1976 but returned to Iraq just after the invasion, laughed uproariously for 20 seconds. Then, recycling a famous line from an exchange about Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” Mr. Alsammarae said with undisguised glee: “The Chicago way.”

Why should Mr. Alsammarae be put in charge? For starters, if he did indeed elude all of those people, he's demonstrated he's smart enough for the job. And he's obviously learned from his residence in Chicago, "the City that Works." For you non-Chicagoans out there, the phrase has a double meaning to us-- for one, the work ethic is alive and well here. We all work-- some of us two jobs. The other meaning is that in the end, things get done here. Yes, a little corruption here and there, but in the end, the garbage gets picked up, the snow gets plowed-- with one notable exception-- proving that Chicagoans are forgiving of corruption, but unforgiving of incompetence. When Alsammararae was in charge, yes, there was probably corruption, but there was actually electrical service in Iraq. There is very little now, as the New York Times reported yesterday.

Think of the implications of having a Chicagoan in charge over there:

Political Stability-- Our own King Richard the Second, Richard M. Daley has just announced he is running again. His victory, pretty much guaranteed, will mean that his reign will surpass even that of his father. His father, Mayor Richard J. Daley was mayor for 21 years. If Mr. Alsammarae has a son, we can look forward to at least 4 decades of political stability in Iraq!

New Holidays-- Whenever we have a big increase in an ethnic group here in Chicago, we honor them with a new holiday. And who doesn't like a day off of work? Nothing would settle those ol' Sunnis down like a brand new holiday honoring one of their dead heroes. I mentioned our beloved Pulaski Day here in Chicago, to honor the esteemed Revolutionary War hero Casamir Pulaski. God bless that man-- he gave up his life in 1779 so that me and other civil servants in Chicago could have a day off in March every year.

Clear Deliniation of Police Duties-- An example-- during the riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention, Mayor Daley the First famously stated: "Gentlemen, get the thing straight-- The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

An Increase in Democratic Participation-- Here in Chicago, everybody votes-- even the dead. And some citizens get to vote more than once!. To quote "hizzoner" Mayor Richard J. Daley's command to his followers: "Vote early and often."

And of course we know that the snow will always get removed in a timely manner in Baghdad if Alsammarae is put in charge.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Christmas Meme

I borrowed this one from Old Lady at Eclectic Tales.

Favorite Seasonal Movie

Bill Murray's "Scrooged." It's a retelling of "A Christmas Carole" that's wrapped around the story of a television production of the same story. I'll probably watch it this weekend.

The script was written by the late Michael O'Donaghue, of "Mr. Mike's Least Loved" bedtime tales, from the old Saturday Night Live. See this movie just to hear Bill Murray deliver the line "The b*tch hit me with a toaster!"

Song You Most Enjoy This Time of Year

Darlene Love's "Winter Wonderland." They're playing it a lot on Steve Van Zandt's Underground Garage, on Sirius Satellite radio (thanks again Kim!). It was produced by Phil Spector-- Darlene Love "was" the Crystals.

Looking her up, I found out that she had an acting career. She played Danny Glover's wife in all four Lethal Weapon movies. The first one was so bad, it remains the only one I ever saw.

Holiday Greeting

Since I have friends of just about every religion, and I'm not religious myself, I just say "Happy Holidays." Generic, but I strive not to offend.

Decorate, inside, outside

A little. I put some of the ornaments on the Christmas tree. I'm not excessive about it.

Oh, I put a Christmas hat on our Halloween skeleton. That was about 4 or 5 years ago. We just leave him up all year.

My son Adam added some snowflakes a couple of years ago.

This year I may add a Champagne glass, so we can add New Year's to the holidays he celebrates.

I haven't figured out anything for Kasamir Pulaski Day yet.

I'm pretty certain this is a Chicago-only holiday.

Do you make a list, if so how many people are on it?

No-- all in my head.

How up to the last minute do you shop?

Not at all. This flummoxes my hyper-organized wife-- that I'm so casual about everything else, but so ahead of the curve on Christmas shoppping. I start shopping in the summer. I am the Deal King-- I watch for deals on stuff I know I will want to get. It goes back to when it was just my son and I, and we had no money. I bought the last of my holiday presents yesterday.

When do you open your gifts?

All over the place. Since both my wife and I share custody of our children with our respective ex's, it varies. We'll open some Christmas Eve morning-- my ex gets my son on Christmas, I get Christmas Eve. Then he and I will go to Tennessee and open some more there on the 27th. Stepdaughter will open some with her stepbrother on Christmas Eve, some at her father's house the same day, some with Mom on Christmas and some with her mom's parents up in Minnesota on the 27th.

Whew-- you never realized that this blended family thing can be so complicated, did you?

Holiday food you most savor?

Big honking helpings of turkey-- mostly dark meat, with smashed potatoes and broccoli.

Favorite Holiday Book?

Polar Express. My old friend Garret, the one who served in Iraq for a year, gave it to my son when he was born, as part of a holiday tradition from his own family. I hope some day he finds the right woman and has his own child to hand that tradition to. He's a stand-up guy.

New Years Resolutions?

Occasionally. And I occasionally try to keep them.

I won't be a tag-nazi. I tag anyone who wants this one.

My Christmas Present?

This morning, as I got my classroom ready, I discovered that one of my missing biology textbooks was quietly returned.

Could this be my Christmas present from some student?

Monday, December 18, 2006

An Open Letter to "President" Bush

Dear Mr. Bush,
First off, I hope you don't mind if you if I address you as "Mr." rather than "President." If you've been reading my blog, I think you can figure out that I don't have a whole lot of respect for you. And besides, your flunky Katherine Harris and the conservative turds on the Supreme Court were responsible for your 2000 "victory." I really don't think of you as President. I view it more like a little girl in her mommy's clothes having a pretend tea party.

But lets leave that aside for now. I want to talk to you about a couple of people.

The first one is Marcell Collins. He was an eighteen year old student in my 6th period Physical Science class. He will not be in my sixth period class today. He was murdered on Friday night. He was playing basketball in the park down the street from the school I teach at, and someone opened fire on him and the other guys he was playing with. He was shot in the head and died instantly. Three other guys were wounded, and it doesn't look good for them.

Marcell had only been here a few weeks, but he'd made an impression on the teachers here. He was quiet, respectful and got his work done. He was a nice kid. He was one of the few kids here who was actually taking advantage of this school for what it's here for-- to help high school drop-outs come back, get their diploma and turn their lives around.

If you'd been reading my blog earlier this year, Mr. Bush, you'd know that this is the second person I've known who was murdered this year. My friend Mark Evans was murdered on June 4 of this year.

In an amazing coincidence, this news story is making the rounds. Violent crime is up 3.7%. This has, obviously, personally affected me this year.

Now, in a not-completely unrelated thing, another of my closest friends, Army Reserve Major Garrett Johnson did come back this summer alive, thank god, from a year tour of duty in Iraq. One of his sergeants, who was a police officer from Massachussetts, did not. He was killed when Iraqi insurgents blew off an IED, trapping his convoy, which they sprayed with assault weapons. Garrett is crushed by this; he felt like his responsibility was to bring his guys home alive. He's pretty certain that he'll get sent back next year. He'll have the same goal.

By the way, hard as he looked, he didn't find any WMD's. Sorry.

Marcell was a poor African-American kid who lived near the school, so I figure you wouldn't have had much chance to meet him. I doubt you bother sitting down with someone unless they can write your party a check for at least a million dollars. Mark was an artsy web-designer, so you were probably never going to meet him either. I'm curious, Mr. Bush-- have you ever known someone who was murdered? I figure that your demographic-- obscenely rich oil millionaires and right-wing whackos and the like, probably don't get killed that often, though they sometimes get wounded if they're hunting with your vice-president.

Now, when Mark, who was my friend for nearly 25 years, was killed, I had to deal with months of numbing grief that I'm just recovering from. I only knew Marcell the couple of weeks he was in the class, but I'm upset, and mostly I'm angry.

When people like me opposed this war, we got shouted down and called unpatriotic. Now that we're bogged down in this war with no end in sight, maybe you wish you'd listened to us.

We've spent about a quarter of a trillion dollars on this war. Is Iraq safer? It appears not. You once claimed Al Queda was in Iraq. Whatever a scumbag Saddam Hussein was, he hated Al Queda and ruthlessly suppressed them. They're all over Iraq now, killing our troops and innocent Iraqis-- does that mean you were right, ahead of time?

Are the streets of Chicago safer? Apparently not. I've known two people in the last year who were killed there. I read that the city of Newark is about to set a record for murders. After years of going down, the rates of murder and other violent crime is spiking up there and all over the country.

How many cops and teachers and job programs and drug rehab programs could a quarter trillion dollars have paid for? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say "a lot."

You can quote me on that one.

Now I don't know if I can for sure blame the war for their deaths, but you can blame it, in a way, for Malachi Ritscher's. I met him years ago when we worked together in a local Amnesty International group here in Chicago, around 1990. Pretty sad-- here was Malachi, quietly plugging away for years for human rights all over the world, including Iraq. And finally, he despaired of making a difference, and poured gasoline all over himself and set himself on fire. And now people are listening.

What were you doing in 1990? Besides a bunch of cocaine, that is?

I know you don't read a lot, but maybe one of your handlers caught my letter to the Chicago Reader about it a couple of weeks ago.

Mark, Malachi and Marcell were all gentle souls, people whom I knew, who all died violent deaths this year. It's getting a little upsetting. If something happens to my friend Garrett when he goes back to Iraq next year, I'm going to be even more upset. What is my point? My point, I guess, is really a question: when do you realize that you fucked up really badly? And when do you start fixing it?

Marcell's funeral is Saturday, by the way. Post to my blog, and I'll give you the information, Mr. Bush in case you want to show up.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday On My Mind

1. Down in the Basement- The Fondas
2. It's Different For Girls- Joe Jackson
3. You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me- Gladys Knight and the Pips
4. When Jimmy Rodgers Said Goodbye- Hank Snow
5. Love to Love You- Donna Summer
6. Blitzkrieg Bop- The Ramones
7. Sunday Morning Coming Down- Johnny Cash
8. In the Summertime- Mungo Jerry
9. Ooby Dooby- Roy Orbison
10. Panorama- The Cars

The Way I Feel...

Chris, over at Some Guy's Blog tagged me a couple of days ago with "five songs that tell how I feel." I had to think about it a little bit.

1. Forever Young- Bob Dylan

When I found out I was going to be a father about 13 years ago, I felt like the world was falling in on me. I was just getting ready to go back to school for my teaching certification, and I had ended the relationship with the mother (we tried reconciling when my son was born). I was scared to death of being a parent. I shouldn't have worried. Parenting has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. It has brought me an immense amount of joy. When I got married last year, I added a stepchild to my family. It has added to the joy. This song, that Dylan wrote about one of his kids, captures how parents feel.

2. Angry Words- Willy Porter

This song has the greatest opening lines ever:

The coffee maker that you gave me
Well, it finally broke down
It up and died this morning
With a groaning sound

All these ghosts I have driven out
Driven them from my house
It’s a simple life I lead
Still got a lot to learn about

"I've finally gotten over the sad part of yesterday."

It's a great song about moving on from break-ups and heartbreaks-- about moving forward.

3. L.A. Goodbye- The Ides of March

The Ides of March were the guys who did the rave-up "Vehicle" in 1970 (Singer Jim Peterik later formed Survivor). This song, a minor hit, is my California song. Whenever I'm coming in to the San Francisco or Oakland airports this song plays in my head.

"And now I feel light years away/From the west side of Chicago"

I've come to think of the Bay area as a second home, and realize that I leave a bit of myself out there when I come back to Chicago.

At George E. Kaye's bar, at 40th and Broadway in Oakland, I found out that some of the regulars thought I lived in Oakland, since I'm there so often.

4. Life Is a Highway- Tom Cochrane

I feel, no matter how tough life gets at times, that it's amazing. My life is (almost) constantly filled with great moments, odd connections and joy. This song somehow sums it all up.

5. Dreams- The Allman Brothers Band

After one of my oldest, closest friends Mark was brutally murdered this summer, I had a really tough time feeling joy, or even comfort for months afterward. I finally found a bit of comfort, at least, in this slow, beautiful melancholy old song.

Just one more mornin'
I had to wake up with the blues
Pulled myself outta bed, yeah
Put on my walkin' shoes,
Went up on the mountain,
To see what I could see,
The whole world was fallin',
right down in front of me

'Cause I'm hung up on dreams I'll never see, yeah Baby.
Ahh help me baby, or this will surely be the end of me, yeah.

Pull myself together, put on a new face,
Climb down off the hilltop, baby,
Get back in the race.

'Cause I'm hung up on dreams I'll never see, yeah Baby.
Ahh help me baby, or this will surely be the end of me, yeah.

His death took something irreplaceable from me. I've moved on because of and for my kids, my wife, and my other friends and family. There's always going to be a hole there, but I realized that I owed it to him to feel joy again. This song has come to me to symbolize him, and every time I hear it, it helps fill the hole his death has left in my life.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

This one comes from my friend Ron, in Urbana. It's the BarneyCam, dedicated to the White House dog.

As Ron pointed out, at least when they're doing this, they're not busy screwing up something important.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Is This For Real?

Okay, a couple of months ago, I blogged about Cynthia Plastercaster, the legendary rock groupie. The gist of it was that my friend Graham Elvis, who was my drinking buddy back in my long-gone barfly days at the Gingerman Tavern, asked her, at a benefit, who the most well-endowed rock star she and the Plastercasters had, um, serviced was. I'll let you read the old entry if you want to find out. It'll bend your sense of reality.

Graham was an interesting guy. His band had developed a huge following at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. A high point was when they'd opened for the Clash in 1983. When his fan base began to graduate and move, largely, back to Chicago, the Elvis Brothers moved there with them, and made a good living playing as almost a nostalgia band for those grads.

The Elvis Brothers never grew beyond being a regional favorite, something Graham would be the first to tell you. Yet, being even a regional rock star is enough to get a guy laid. Graham told me stories of craziness. Girls after every show. Threesomes. Girls of every stripe, color and ethnicity. One time, a girl wanted him to deflower her younger sister, which he did, as the older sister and a friend peeked in to the bedroom giggling.

Graham had, to my surprise, children from some of these liasons. Several of them. He would find out about them sometimes years later, when he'd be back in the town he'd had a tryst in. The girl would show up after the show and tell him about it. Maybe even show him a picture. They never wanted his participation, never wanted child support. Weird.

In trying to track my old buddy down, I came across this. It's a from a blog run by a guy who is, tongue firmly in cheek, celebrating the great Champaign-Urbana rock scene that has turned out bands like REO Shitwagon, er, I mean Speedwagon, and a New Wave band, Combo Audio, that actually had a hit, Romanticide (apparently they are having a reunion, like so many other bands of that era.)

According to this blog, they're having a reunion of all the illegitemate kids sired by Elvis Brothers members. I'd assume that Graham contributed to this group.

With what I know about Graham, I can't figure out if this is a joke or not.

Sometimes You Get What You Wish For...

I remember, when my ex-girlfriend was pregnant with our son, many years ago now, that we talked about sports. She determined that he was going to play soccer. I knew that he was going to be a baseball player. Guess who was right.

It's all about baseball. This is a boy who, when he discovered that his beloved Cubs had had Greg Maddux on their roster and let him go to another team, after a season in which he'd won the Cy Young Award, he was outraged. (this was before the Cubs acquired him again a couple of years ago, and let him go again last season). At a party, he might corner you and launch into a long, serious discussion on the Cubs' curse of the billy goat, and how to end it.

Greg Maddux, by the way, was waived by the Cubs in 1992, 2 years before my son was born.

The picture is the only known picture of he, I and Greg Maddux, who is warming up on the pitcher's mound about 200 feet behind us. You might note the toy goat in Adam's hand, his attempt to at last destroy the curse. It obviously did not work, as the Cubs ended up with the worst record in the National League this season.

Adam can tell you how many home runs Hank Aaron ended his career with. He can tell you his opinions on the Cubs' starting rotation. It's all about baseball. And in the summers, he plays in a league that runs out of the park near my home.

I've done all I can to support his baseball jones, having missed out on little league when I was a kid. There has been only one problem: aluminum baseball bats. I can't stand them.

I grew up playing with neighborhood friends. We'd play nearly every day, weather permitting. If we could play in a field, we'd use a real baseball. If we played in the street or in an alley, depending on where I was living, we'd use a tennis ball or something else more window-friendly that a hardball. But we used wooden bats.

This is not just a matter of nostalgia (although that is a factor). Any ballplayer can tell you that that beautiful *crack* of the bat helps a fielder gauge where a ball is going, how fast and how far. The "ping" of the aluminum is less help.

Also, aluminum bats exxagerate a batter's ability, providing significantly more "oomph," making mediocre hitters look good. And the ball comes off the bat with significantly more speed. This is a danger to pitchers and infielders, and aluminum bats have led to an increase in injuries to those players.

With all that in mind, my son's baseball organization has banned aluminum bats in the upper three leagues, which will include Adam's. I got a letter in the mail yesterday informing me of this.

I look forward to every one of his baseball seasons. I love watching his games. He has such a joy of the game. He's never been on a team that got above 4th place, but he goes into every single game with enthusiasm and drive. I know that when he's tallying up his childhood memories some day, the summers spent on the baseball diamond will be among the really good memories. I'm happy that those memories will now include one that I fondly remember from my own childhood-- the crack of a wooden bat.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tagged: Six Strange Things

Katie Schwartz tagged me with "six strange things about myself."

1. I eat non-breakfast foods for breakfast.

When I was about 14, I was overweight. I started reading up on health. I found out that it was best to eat a big breakfast, and eat progressively lighter meals as the day goes on. I am not wild about breakfast foods, so I began eating dinner leftovers for breakfast. Now I just prepare myself dinner food for breakfast. It's a little more complicated since I found out that I have celiac disease (a genetic allergy to wheat), but I still eat well. Fried rice (made with brown rice), spaghetti (with special non-wheat noodles), chicken with broccoli, chili with cheese and onions, broiled salmon with rice and vegetables, and black beans, brown rice and chicken are some breakfasts I've had recently. Most all of them slathered in various hot sauces.

2. I have trouble getting rid of paperwork.

This is one that my wife just loves. I think it goes back to my custody fight with my ex-girlfriend. I saved everything, including reciepts, because I almost always ended up needing them eventually. I'm working on getting rid of this trait. And my wife is (usually) a patient woman.

3. I am blessed and cursed with the ability to always and forever remember faces.

This can be good-- in my waitering job, for instance. People love being recognized as regulars, particularly if they bring friends in-- they feel like bigshots. It can help your income. On the other hand, I will be walking down the street and see someone and know that I know them, but have no idea where I met them. Even on television-- two people in a couple of commericials. One turned out to be a guy I worked with (I mentioned this before in a previous post) and one is a regular at the restaurant-- he's in that commercial where the couple bring the faucet in and ask the architect to design a house around it. I also saw him in a movie-- "The Girl in the Cafe," looked him up on the Internet Movie Database ( and found that he played Col. Dietrich, the German officer who gets melted at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What's really funny about that is that he's a very nice guy.

4. I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

Oh, wait, that wasn't me. That was Johnny Cash. My mistake.

4. I was a very good archer when I was younger.

I had an archery class when I was in high school, and got pretty damned good at it. I considered taking it up as a hobby. I was also a pretty good shot with a gun. My father took me target shooting once in a while when I was a kid.

5. I pick up languages easily.

I learned German when I was a teenager, and can still speak and read it. My best friend, who is German, told me that when I've had a few drinks, I speak German without an accent. That seems appropriate somehow. I learned Spanish in about six months.

6. I hate grading papers.

In that case, being a teacher was probably not the best profession to go into. I didn't realize it until I became a teacher. And probably part of why I'm changing professions eventually.

Since I have a feeling a lot of people have been tagged already, I'm going to limit it to three: Alasdair, Flannery, and Dale.

Does This Mean That I Can Give Myself the Rest of the Week Off?

Bubs did a tarot thing over at his blog. I tried it. This was me:

You are The Emperor

Stability, power, protection, realization; a great person.

The Emperor is the great authority figure of the Tarot, so it represents
fathers, father-figures and employers. There is a lot of aggression and violence

The Emperor naturally follows the Empress. Like an infant, he is filled with enthuiasm, energy, aggression. He is direct, guileless and all too often irresistible. Unfortunately, like a baby he can also be a tyrant. Impatient, demanding, controlling. In the best of circumstances, he signifies the leader that everyone wants to follow, sitting on a throne that indicates the solid foundation of an Empire he created, loves and rules with intelligence and enthusiasm. But that throne can also be a trap, a responsibility that has the Emperor feeling restless, bored and discontent.

What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.

Don't anybody bother me today: I'm busy getting in touch with my inner petty tyrant.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Chuck Hall, General Pinochet and Me

The recent death of the former Chilean dictator Pinochet made me think of my late friend and hero, Chuck Hall, and a dinner I had with him about seven years ago.

On May 11, 1997, I got a call from a friend telling me that there was an event involving the Lincoln Brigade at Roosevelt University, in downtown Chicago. He knew that I'd had a longtime interest in the Lincoln Brigade. I remember the date, because it was my 36th birthday.

In 1936, the country of Spain elected its first democratic government. For centuries, a handful of rich people, along with the royalty and the military, with the collaboration of the Church, had ruled over Spain. The majority of Spain's people lived in poverty and misery. In the first third of the 20th century, the masses of Spain began to try to wrest power from these people.

A military officer named Franco, with the collaboration of Mussolini's fascist government in Italy and Hitler's Nazis, tried to overthrow the duly elected government. A full-blown civil war erupted. The only country that openly aided Spain was the Soviet Union, but over 40,000 men and women from all over the world poured in to Spain to help in her fight for democracy. About 3,000 of them came from the United States. One of those people was Chuck Hall.

I met Chuck Hall the first time that evening at Roosevelt University. The author Peter Carroll, who wrote "The Odyssey of the Lincoln Brigade," probably the best book about the experiences of the volunteers from the United States, was speaking that evening. Peter spoke, and then introduced about a half-dozen Lincoln vets who'd joined him. Afterward, the vets mingled, and I ended up chatting with Chuck. It was the beginning of an long association and a friendship with him.

I got a call from Chuck's wife a few months after that talk telling me that the surviving Lincoln Brigade veterans were forming an organization, the Chicago Friends of the Lincoln Brigade. I was eventually asked to co-chair the organization with Chuck. We had a number of successful events, including a talk at the opening of an exhibition of photos by Robert Capa at the now-gone Terra Museum (the picture at the top of this post of Chuck and I was taken at that event). Chuck and I got to be friends over time.

Chuck was born in North Dakota and moved to Chicago with his family when he was a teenager in the early thirties. He got involved in radical and labor organizations, and eventually decided to go to Spain to fight the tide of fascism that was sweeping Europe and threatening to spill into the United States. Chuck and many others knew that if they didn't fight fascism in Spain, they'd have to fight it elsewhere. How right they turned out to be. He went through training, and eventually went into battle. By the time he got to Spain in 1938, Spain's Republic was clearly headed for defeat. Nazi Germany was pouring weapons into Spain to help Franco. Chuck was captured on his first day in combat.

Normally, "Internationals" were executed on the spot by the fascist troops. However, since a number of Italian troops had been captured by the Republic, the fascists began sparing International volunteers to trade for the Italian troops. Chuck was one of the ones spared. He spent a year and a half in a concentration camp in Spain. Chuck weighed less than a hundred pounds when he was released.

When Chuck returned, he married his sweetheart Yolanda, who was nicknamed "Bobbie." A couple of days after Pearl Harbor, Chuck enlisted in the Army. He served as an artillery officer in China. He was one of the few Lincoln Brigade veterans who managed to get combat duty: the government, in its wisdom, decided that since many of these guys had been communists, they were somehow risks. The were dubbed, ludicrously, "Premature Antifascists," or "PAF's." Absurdly, it was deemed that it was okay to be against fascism as of December 7, 1941, but not before that. Most of the Lincoln veterans got posted to out-of-the-way places. Ironically, some ended up in special platoons of "security risks" that included men suspected of fascist sympathies.

Chuck served in World War II, and came back and made a life for himself and his family. He raised three children in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. Chuck worked for years as a tool and die maker, and then went to college, got an engineering degree and spent the rest of his working life as a mechanical engineer. He continued to be politically active, fighting for civil rights and other causes.

His wife threw him an 85th birthday party in 1999. I got to meet all three of his children. I was impressed by what a terrific father he was. This guy who'd fought in two wars, who'd spent time in a concentration camp, was a sweet and gentle man. I remember particularly his daughter Toni talking about how Chuck would get up at 4 a.m. so that he could pack lunches for his kids every morning before he went to work. Toni pointed out that he always made sure to include some little treat in each lunch that he knew each of his kids loved.

Some time in 1999, I got a call from Chuck's wife Bobbie. She had to go out of town, and asked if I'd have dinner with Chuck one of the nights she was gone. I was delighted to; I rarely got a chance to just sit and talk to Chuck. I told her I would bring the wine.

When I went to the store to pick out wine, I was going to buy what I usually drank back then-- Concha y Tora, I hesitated-- was it right to buy Chilean wine? My original interest in human rights came from reading an Amnesty International report on the 1973 coup that had brought Pinochet to power. I was literally physically sickened by some of what I read.

I decided, though, that it was okay to drink the Chilean wine. A Spanish judge, Balthasar Garzon, had asked England to detain Pinochet for extradition to Spain for the murder of Spanish citizens during the coup. And in the meantime, Chile had become a democracy.

When we began dinner, I poured the wine, and Chuck and I began talking about Pinochet's situation. He and I were both struck by the irony: Spain was now a democracy, and was trying to indict a fascist dicatator for murder, while Chuck and all other veterans of the International Brigades, had been made honorary Spanish citizens by an act of the Spanish Parliment in 1996. We raised a toast to democracy. I was in the presence of someone who'd never flinched from sacrificing for democracy here and everywhere else. It was a nice moment-- one to remember for a lifetime.

Pinochet was never tried for his crimes, because of severe health problems. But Chile's President now is a socialist woman who was once a political prisoner of Pinochet. Pinochet died in shame, escaping indictment solely because of his age and severe health problems. He'd turned out not only to be a brutal fascist, but a petty third world kleptocrat, stashing tens of millions of dollars of Chile's scarce money in Swiss bank accounts.

Chuck Hall died about two years ago. In his life, he was loved and respected. I feel lucky to have known him. To me, he was a model of manhood-- as a father, as a political activist and as a man. He'll never be as famous as Augosto Pinochet was, but I hope that it will be the Chuck Halls who quietly prevail in the long term in human history. And on a personal level, I hope that I can live up to his example.


Labor Day weekend-- it was the end of a hellacious summer. Those of you who've read this blog before know the details. My wife, stepdaughter and I drove up to Minnesota to visit her family. It was just what the doctor ordered-- her family is great. I'm blessed with wonderful in-laws.

One morning we left my stepdaughter with my wife's brother and sister-in-law, and my wife drove me around showing me Chaska, Minnesota, where she'd grown up.

Chaska, Minnesota was a small town that got swallowed up by the suburbs of Minneapolis. I think it was sometimes a tough place for sensitive and artsy girl to grow up. I think my wife thinks of it like the old song "Tobacco Road"--

"Cause it's home
The only life I've ever known
Oh I despise and disapprove you
But I love ya, 'cause it's home"

One other sensitive, artsy person also grew up there. The gates in the picture are all that are left of Prince's old home in Chaska.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Know Your Random 10-- December 8, 2006

"And if there's any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara."-- Phil Ochs

With that in mind, Phil Ochs did a series of shows in 1970 with a gold lame Elvis suit from Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, where he mixed his protest songs with Americana songs-- Buddy Holly, Merle Haggard and others. He was widely panned. When U2 did nearly the same thing 20 years later (including the suit), they were hailed as genuises. Phil was way before his time.

I think that the Clash were the nearest we ever came to Elvis-meets-Che.

1. Know Your Rights- The Clash
2. Mountains of Burma- Midnight Oil
3. Pre-road Downs- Crosby, Stills and Nash
4. Out in the Street- Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band
5. Knock, Knock—The Humane Society (from the “Nuggets” collection)
6. It Keeps You Running—The Doobie Brothers
7. I’d Run Away—The Jayhawks
8. Here’s to the State of Mississippi- Phil Ochs
9. The Price You Pay—Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band
10. No Deal—Townes Van Zandt

How is it that I have nearly 5,000 songs in my itunes, and inevitably two songs from the same album end up in my Random 10? And how is it that a good third of my tunes are Punk and New Wave, yet they almost never show up on my list? Why are they so shy?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gross Stories, Part 5-- It's All Fun and Games...

The following story is true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. This is the last and possibly both the most awful and funny of my gross stories.

July 4, 1997 is a date that will live in infamy, in my life.

The roots of this story go back to my friend Mike "Couchpotato." I lived near Wrigley Field in the late eighties, with my friends Dan and Mark. We had parties frequently. Mike would always be in our house on party day early-- so early, in fact, I wasn't even home from work yet. Since there were three guys with three separate schedules living there, we always assumed that one of the other roommates had let Mike in.

We discovered, one day, as we caught him crawling in a back window that we had thought to be locked, that he had been letting himself into our apartment by himself the whole time.

Since Mike started early, he'd end early-- by 9 pm, Mike was asleep on the futon in our living room as a crowded, loud party roared around him. It was dubbed the "Mike Couchpotato Memorial Futon."

But this isn't a story about Mike, except that it was Mike who was always sardonically saying, whenever there was horseplay about, "It's all fun and games until someone gets an eye put out." I assume it was a play on the phrase from the Christmas classic "A Christmas Story" "You'll put your eye out."

More on that later.

The first reason that July 4, 1997 is a day that will forever stand out in my life is that it was the day my first wife asked me for a divorce. It was just a few weeks before I was to start student-teaching. This was made worse by the fact that I was also in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out custody fight with an ex-girlfriend over the custody of our son.

I'd had to apply for student-teaching nearly two years earlier. If I was to drop out of it, I'd likely have to wait another two years. There was no question that I had to do it. And there was no question that I had to keep at least joint custody of my son. And I had no idea how I was going to do it all. It was time to call in the big guns; I had to call in Viktor Zeitgeist.

Viktor has been my co-best friend, along with my friend Jim, since college. He is the bomb. He's been involved in much of my mischief for most of my adult life. In college, we published an underground newspaper-- which got him a CIA file (he's foreign-born) and both of us FBI files. On my 24th birthday, he had a Rickenbacker Guitar birthday cake made for me just because he knew I love Rickenbacker guitars. He's Fed-ex'd me checks when I was in trouble and refused repayment. He's helped me out whenever I've needed it in life. When I was out of options, I really wasn't-- there was Viktor Zeitgeist.

And to top it all off, he now had a law degree.

Viktor happened to be visiting his parents, who still lived in our college town. He told me to get my ass down there and we'd talk about it all.

I drove my little 1987 Toyota Tercel 85 miles per hour down I-57 and got there in a couple of hours. And then my day began to improve.

First, I got to spend time with his family, who are the salt of the earth. They raised four children, three of them boys. Shit-- just raising Viktor had to be like raising five problem children.

Viktor's youngest brother, who was a boy genius (he ran his own internet company out of his parents' house-- I'm not making this up-- they had a huge cable running through their roof, into his bedroom) exposed us to the original South Park short, Spirit of Christmas, which was starting to make the rounds of the internet. It was the most funny, f*cked up thing I'd ever seen to that point in my life.

But the real fun started at the Findlay Walleye Festival.

After a nice lunch with Viktor's family, we headed out to the Findlay Walleye Festival. Viktor's brother, who was a "crunchy granola" type, was giving a hackey-sack exhibition with some friends at the festival.

We headed out there and paid our courtesy call to the hackey-sack exhibition. It was a little surreal-- these little hippy-dippy kids in the middle of all these downstate Illinos corn-fed types. As we were to find, it was only the beginning of surreal.

Beginning with warnings about the flying hackey-sacks, we began to dispense Mike Couchpotato's sage advice: "It's all fun and games until someone gets an eye put out." We left the hackey-sack exhibition and headed over to the riding lawnmower pull.

Not a tractor pull-- a riding lawnmower pull. It was one of the funniest and most fun events I'd ever attended. What was really funny was that there was a real sense of excitement about who would win. I'm pretty sure there was gambling going on. My bad mood started showing signs of cracking.

We continued to dispense our admonitions to whatever ears were there to listen: "Remember-- it's all fun and games until someone gets an eye put out." Eventually we started adding-- "And then it's REALLY funny."

We stayed at the Walleye Festival for a couple more hours. The people of Findlay, Illinois are very nice people, and I will be forever grateful for a wonderful afternoon when I really needed one. I will always wear my Findlay Walleye Festival t-shirt with pride.

We headed to Viktor's parents' house, had dinner, and decided that drastic measures needed to be taken: we needed to head out to the Icehouse.

The Icehouse, in Mattoon, Illinois, is a nasty biker bar. It's filled with the vile, wretched refuse of the earth-- the kind you would find on the "Group W" bench in "Alice's Restaurant." In other words, it was our kind of place, filled with our kind of people.

And to top it all off, an AC/DC cover band was playing that night.

We had a rockin' good time. We continued with our mantra, "It's all fun and games until someone gets an eye put out, And then it's really funny," which of course became funnier and funnier the more alcohol we consumed. The band was good and the beers were cheap. As closing time approached, I was finally in a good mood. I was in a much better frame of mind. The next day, Viktor and I could figure out what my next steps in life were going to be.

The band finished, and it came time for an encore. I was up by the stage at this point. I couldn't quite catch what the singer said when he called out to the band for the encore song, but I did hear the drummer say "I can never remember where the drum solo drops in." And then came the unmistakable notes of the beginning of Golden Earring's classic driving song "Radar Love"

That was it. It was over-the-top. I was lit up like a Christmas tree and they were playing one of the greatest songs ever recorded, one of my favorite songs ever.

When the song ended, and I rejoined Viktor at the bar, I must have been glowing. I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay. And then our evening took the most surreal turn of all.

We heard a commotion near the door. We turned to see a guy punching out another guy. I'd seen some barfights in my life, but this was the mother of them all. It was not even a fight-- it was more like a mugging. A guy was punching a guy's head into a videogame, one of the big Pacman-type things, so hard that the machine was rocking back and forth. We were aghast.

One of us-- I can't remember who it was-- said "Holy shit-- we'd better get out of here before the cops get here."

We began running, two guys in their thirties, like Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, our feet scrambling, but not taking hold.

As we got near the door, we could see the prostrate victim of the assault lying on the floor. We were stopped in our tracks by a most disturbing sight, maybe the worst I've ever seen: the guy's eye had been knocked out of its socket, and was hanging by the optic nerve on the side of his face.

I knew then what Viktor was thinking-- it was what I was thinking. This had been our fault! We'd joked about it all day, and now it had happened. We looked at one another in horror and began running to the door again.

When we got out the door, and the cops were already there. We were like NFL running backs, ducking tackles by the cops. To this day, I can't believe we made it out of there.

We got to his car and drove back to Charleston. We were too wound up to go home, so we went to a party we knew of.

We walked in to the party, still vibrating and jabbering wildly about what we'd just witnessed. Of course, every single other person at the party other than us the were Deadheads-- people who were predisposed to mellowness, but now stoned, they sat there on couches and chairs in a heightened state of mellowness.

"Wow, pretty heavy, dudes" was their only reaction.

We found out later that the guy was okay-- once they'd popped his eye back in the socket and let his fractured skull heal. The awful thing was that he was not even the intended victim (as if the intended victim deserved this). It was a case of mistaken identity.

The end of this story actually came just a couple of years ago. I was out in Oakland, California, visiting Viktor. We were having a libation at the Zeitgest, a biker bar down in the Mission District that is my favorite bar in San Francisco. We were recounting the story to someone. At the end of the story, Viktor looked puzzled; "Don't you remember what you said?" he asked. I did not.

When he told me, I remembered. As we were running out the door of the Icehouse, getting ready to dodge the police, we had stopped, of course, to look down in shock at the horrific sight. We stood for a split-second, looked at one another, and then I had pointed down to the stricken guy, looked up at Viktor and said with a straight face "That's funny."

I am sooooo going to hell.

The Spirit of the Holidays

Bubs posted the greatest Christmas photo ever over on his blog. I may have to use it on my Christmas card next year.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

True Liberation

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this story. The city of Minneapolis has had an openly lesbian fire chief, Bonnie Bleskachek, for a few years. Very cool. San Francisco has had a lesbian police chief for some time, and there are openly gay politicians in a lot of places. Also very cool. I hope that within my lifetime, it'll cease to be an issue-- that nobody will give a hoot about someone's sexuality, and that they'll be able to be open about it without fear of damaging themselves professionally.

Apparently, though, Bleskachek has been sexually harassing and discriminating against fire department employees.

Part of me is appalled and part of me is amused. It galls me that someone who probably had to deal with discrimination and unwanted sexual advances would commit the same offenses. Part of me is amused, though, realizing that in the end, she was prey to the same tempations as every other human being. In a weird way, it's liberating: she can fuck up just like everybody else can.