Thursday, August 07, 2014

Karen Thomason was here

My friend Karen died while I was on vacation a couple days ago. She had been in what they call a persistent vegetative state for the last 12 years, stemming from a rapid succession of catastrophic health crises that were not diagnosed until after they had laid her low.

Karen and I worked side by side for some years at the same newspaper, and her ex-husband and I had played together in a band of questionable artistic merit. I had already moved away to another town when I received the news, 12 years ago, that she had been discovered, unresponsive, in her apartment after not showing up to work one day.

Going back, I liked Karen right off. She struck me as kind of sad, and broken inside, but had the kindest eyes I’ve maybe ever seen. They were quiet but burned with a keen intelligence. She had clearly been dragged down a rough, rural road throughout her life, but she still had a lot of heart and was a survivor.

She was my kind of people.

Karen had epically low self-esteem, as a result of a childhood worthy of an E.A. Poe or Stephen King story. Being a hard-luck case myself, I found her immediately compelling, with the weird vibe of self-loathing/love for mankind she exuded. She should have hated the world—not herself—by the time I met her. She had every right to, but she didn’t.

She was a better person than I can ever even imagine myself becoming. It seemed to me she needed and deserved a better friend than she had at the time, so I determined I would be that friend.

I remember times the bosses would light into her for this oversight or that miscommunication—as often as not originating from them, not her—and I would march up to their office and champion her cause. Not because she asked me to, or even because she thought herself worth defending, but because in the absence of anyone else taking her side, I felt it incumbent upon someone to do so.

I remember the night her husband left her. Now, Karen never asked for help, it wasn’t in her nature. But that night, she picked up the phone and called me, in tears. I grabbed my dog, jumped in the car and drove over and picked her up. She spent that first awful night at my house because we both knew, I think, that she shouldn’t be alone.

After that, she was my beard and I was hers. We went to innumerable movies together, only one of which she couldn’t find anything good to say about (“The Postman”). We went to dozens of concerts—the good kind, that we had to drive to LA for.

When I made mix tapes for whatever girl I was dating at the time, I always secretly routed her a copy, and she always talked to me about it afterward in much greater detail and with more enthusiasm than the person for whom I had collected the songs.

She also had my back. One night, in the depths of my depravity, I was loaded on tranquilizers and a box of Franzia ‘chardonnay,’ and was talking to her on the phone when I passed out. She contacted a colleague—neither of them drove—but they drove over to my place anyhow to find me unconscious on my couch and non-reactive, the phone on the floor under my hand where it fell. The other employee wanted to call 911, but Karen talked her out of it, and made sure I was revived enough to survive the night on my own before she left.

She was also a voracious reader and consumer of popular entertainment. When I was writing my magnum opus, she was the person to whom I gave the chapters as I cranked them out, and I still thrill at the memory of her running down the office hallway one early morning before business hours and hugging me after reading the second chapter. She loved it, and she told me why in a way I understood and had frankly been looking for it to be loved.

She became, in a word, indispensable to my life, especially after her divorce. Other than my official Best Friend, she was my best friend, although I didn’t appreciate that fact at the time. In my own way, without even realizing it, I also took her for granted. I suppose at some point, I accepted the fact that I wanted to ‘save’ Karen a lot more than she wanted to be saved, and to some extent just went with that.

The worst part for me is, as much as I meddled in her life and kept her close to me socially, when she slipped into a coma a few months after I moved out of town—I mean, like three months—I was plenty narcissistic enough to believe that if I hadn’t bailed on her too, she might still be alive today and one of my best friends.

And the final arc of her life, spending the last twelve years in a persistent vegetative state, is enough to make one question the whole concept of a loving, forgiving God. Nobody would give me a straight answer about whether she was conscious inside her locked-down body, but I can tell you that when I went to visit her, I would sing softly to her, some of our favorite songs, and tears would begin to roll down her cheeks.

That old line of hooey about, “Oh, they’re in a better place now” usually rings awfully hollow, but in Karen’s case, I cannot imagine a truer statement. I miss her still, acutely as I write this, but am so grateful and relieved that her period of torment has finally come to an end.

What follows was one of her favorite songs, and I’ll close with it. She and Hank Williams and I all vibrated at the same frequency, and like Hank Williams, she did not live long enough to rise above it. We always sang this song at the end of our shows and dedicated it to some worthy who had recently passed—the first time I dedicated it from stage, it was for Julio Gallo. Today, this number goes out to my friend, my confidante, my amiga inseparable, Karen Thomason. Requiescat in pace, good and faithful friend. You have earned it, and you deserve it. Really, you do.

Lost Highway

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost

For a life of sin I have paid the cost

When I pass by all the people say

Just another guy on the lost highway

I was just a lad, nearly 22

Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you

And now I’m lost, too late to pray

Lord I paid the cost, on the lost highway

Now boys don’t start to ramblin’ round

On this road of sin are you sorrow bound

Take my advice or you’ll curse the day

You started rollin’ down that lost highway

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Fun at the walk-in clinic

So the doctor I saw this morning wasn’t my usual person. Today’s doctor was all about drilling the rules and regulations of the place into my head. This is the exact same thing I’ve gone in for a number of times before: Zap-a-mole and take a quick look at a couple of other things while I’m there.

So this doctor—who was crazy, smoking hot, so I was initially inclined to LOVE working with her—starts off by telling me that 2 is the number of things they’re supposed to see a patient about per visit, not 3, so I would have to Sophie’s Choice one of my complaints. Then she looks at my mole and sighs (I could imagine her eyes rolling), “THIS kind of mole is FINE. [pause] It looks just like the kind of mole that is dangerous and has all the same outward appearances, but [dismissively] THIS is not that kind of mole.”

I go, well, what then? Leave it alone?

She: (sigh) No, I’ll remove it for you, but there is a 98... 99% chance that it is nothing.

Then I decide to have my athlete’s foot situation dealt with, because if I talk about my bruised but unbroken ribs, she’s at best just going to try to push drugs on me because that’s all that can be done until they heal. Long story short, in the end she forgot entirely to deal with my foot deal, which I’ll have my regular sawbones take care of when I go to have my stitches removed next week.

Oh, that’s the other thing. She must have mentioned it about 6 or 7 times: APPOINTMENTS ARE PREFERRED. (Especially if you’re just going to waste my time with non-life threatening injuries that I can’t run into the next room and blab about on social media.)

I think we all know who’s to blame here... ME! No wait, I meant to say, "OBAMA!!!" [shakes fist angrily]

Sunday, June 15, 2014

This year's Father's Day photo

[Not pictured: The Troubled Dog, left.]

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


The other day at an event at his school, The Boy called out to me, “Daddy—I mean, Dad...!”

I am officially being transitioned from Daddy to Dad. It has been a sweet ride, as long as it has lasted. I will miss the hell out of hearing ‘Daddy’ whenever he talks to or about me.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sensei, Sunset

[The pic above is from one of The Boy’s first private lessons.]

It’s been almost two years since The Boy started taking private Taekwondo lessons.

When we began, there was this instructor at his school whose sleeves snapped when he punched, even when he was trying to demonstrate an unsatisfactory effort. He seemed like a logical place to start.

This instructor took great pains to not stand out, even more than the rest of the instructor staff at this place. I mean, if they’re running the class, the instructors stand out. But if they’re assisting someone else’s class, it’s their job to be everywhere and nowhere, and only in anyone’s sightline if specifically instructed.

As it turns out, this job description and the young man’s personality were a seamless fit. And that’s part of what intrigued me about him. Despite being a 4th-degree black belt, he was possessed of a very Kwai Chang Caine-like stillness of presence. In the common vernacular, “Thar was somethin’ different about that fella.”

Instructor-wise, I knew hiring this guy would be punching way above The Boy’s belt color, but I did it anyhow. It felt right, and I’ve never had cause to regret it.

The Otherness about this fellow is very much of a piece with The Boy’s Otherness, not to mention my own. At a time when The Boy was actively looking at a future of potential social ostracization because of his own oddness, this picture of him ten years down the road—happy, accomplished and head screwed on straight—walks into our lives.

Two words: Role Model.

And for about 20 months, The Private Instructor performed every part of his job at a black belt level. I give him personal credit for The Boy being able to run and do push-ups. And his name became the Ultimate Nullifier at home. If there was a fracas and we really had to wheel out the Big Guns, we would suggest we take the contested issue up with The Private Instructor and see what he thinks. Long after threatening The Boy with Santa had lost its efficacy, The Private Instructor’s name worked its magic. So well, in fact, that we haven’t had to resort to that old ploy in forever.

Turning our wet noodle white belt into a legitimately competitive red belt has been a team effort at the studio we attend; The Private Instructor’s relative contribution has been growing smaller en toto as his teaching schedule and The Boy’s class schedule diverged over the last year. But the confidence boost of having his very own private black belt—and to be completely honest, a pretty bad-ass one at that—added an immeasurable amount to what we have achieved so far on The Boy’s journey of self-esteem.

The Private Instructor, like The Boy, is no social butterfly and that’s by his choice. The Boy sees this and re-contextualizes his own social isolation. I have explained to him that he will probably never be the BMOC, that he will have to settle for having a few intensely good friendships over time instead of a flood of casual, meaningless ones. That being the Odd Man Out isn’t a curse, but a blessing. I had these talks with him before private lessons began, but with his instructor’s example at hand, my words took on a much deeper resonance.

The Private Instructor even taught me stuff from time to time. Once I was paying attention to the lesson, and I heard one of those things that’s so simple, you say, “Well, duh.” But it was still revelatory to me. He was asking The Boy, “What is a Leader?” And the answer he was fishing for—that he eventually had to supply himself—was “an example.”

Well, duh. But I had never put the two together before. And believe me, that was info I have been able to put to use. When I began to view my actions as examples for The Boy, you know, some of those actions had to change.

Plus, we have discovered an additional bonus: This Taekwondo thing attracts quality kids! Most of The Boy’s peers at the studio, who have stuck with the program as long as he has, are good and decent kids. Smart, focused and respectful. More good role-modeling, this time peer-to-peer, as well as a pool of potential play dates a parent doesn’t have to worry about going horribly sideways.

But The Private Instructor instructs no more. He has moved on as of last week’s lesson. He has allowed The Boy to snatch the pebble from his hand and kicked himself out of the monastery. He’s like a Clint Eastwood character whose work is done and he’s moving on to clean up the next town on the frontier. Or maybe the next young man who needs martial arts instruction and some on-the-DL role modeling.

After almost two years, Friday afternoons are going to have a whole different shape now. I’m glad he timed his departure to coincide with District tournaments and the end of the school year. By the time all that dust has settled, enough water will have gone under the bridge that Friday afternoons won’t feel like Friday afternoons anymore anyhow.

I told him that I hated change, and he pointed out to me the futility of that opposition with the uncomplicated courtesy he would point out that my shoelace was untied.

I will miss this young man, but I feel better about the world knowing that he’s out in it, and the future is in his hands, and his students’, and not mine.

[The photos below are from the last private lesson with The Boy.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


How Idaho does Earth Day:

With thousands of tiny non-biodegradable foam balls given away to schoolchildren paid for with government money. Because irony about our misuse of the environment and tax dollars takes balls!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier raises the bar

We have tickets to go see this tomorrow with friends, but I couldn’t wait.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the movie I wanted to see the first time. The first Cap movie, as well the first Thor film (and to some extent the second Thor film, too), both felt inert to me. They were like amusement park rides with poorly concealed mechanisms—knowing how the trick works sucked some of the joy out of the user experience. They were fun and perfunctory at the same time.

I did not have to work hard, however, to be wow-ed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Like The Dark Knight—its most apropos cinematic antecedent—the new Captain America film is a grown-up movie disguised as a superhero flick. Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) was on Letterman this week and when the host quizzed him about what made this movie’s plot different, Jackson guffawed and said, “This movie’s got one!”

Also like The Dark Knight, it nails the zeitgeist in a way you don’t see coming from a franchise popcorn genre flick. The fact that it is an airy fun ride at the same time is probably a reflection of the popular culture of 2014 as compared to that of 2008 when Dark Knight was released.

Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker was the embodiment of our worst external fears at the time—the lone suicidal terrorist with delusions of grandeur—The Winter Soldier explores the worst internal, or at least domestic, fears we are dealing with today; an over-intrusive government that plays with human lives like they are pieces on a chess board, in the service of a purported greater purpose.

Lately I’ve seen a bunch of movies with this theme, but CA/TWS works it much less hamfistedly than other recent efforts. It is anti-government agitprop with a touch so light as to be almost imperceptible. Or maybe it’s just all the cool shit blowing up everywhere that makes the zeitgeisty elements seem almost subliminal. (This graf has four words spellcheck hates. Must. Fix. Spellcheck.)

Whatever the case, the filmmakers’—co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—political agenda doesn’t interfere with the storytelling, or the sheer thrill of the execution. The hand-to-hand type fisticuffs are convincing throughout, there’s some early martial arts mayhem featuring a little-used Marvel villain that only old farts like me will recognize from their comic book source material, and as previously mentioned, lots of shit gets blowed up real good.

More than ever, Chris Evans as Captain America looks like a life-size Ken doll, but brings real acting chops and charisma to what could easily have been a thankless, stolid Good Guy role like Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent in last year’s Man of Steel. The filmmakers probably did themselves a large favor by opening the movie with Evans as Steve Rogers, cracking wise.  It’s a cute scene, and it sets up the flavor of the film to follow.

Scarlett Johansson is back as the Black Widow, with a lot more to do than in previous appearances as the character. Sam Jackson shines as the beleaguered head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-secret spy agency he heads that originated in the wake of WWII, which provenance turns out to be a mixed bag. Cap’s sidekick The Falcon, as well as his titular adversary are played by newcomers—well, I didn’t recognize them—both of whom acquit themselves ably and with gravity appropriate to their roles.

Upon re-reading this notice, I realize I forgot to mention the plot, other than that Sam Jackson approves of it. I always forget to mention the plot in my first draft.

I didn’t care much for the Winter Soldier storyline in the comic books. Liked the idea, but at the time, the book was into this gritty, neo-noir style of storytelling that I’ve never been a big fan of. Which turns out to be cool, because for a change, there were whole chunks of the movie where I didn’t know what was going on until it was revealed, that I would have had spoiled for me if I had read the comics.

Additionally, in the interlocking ‘Marvel Universe’ movies, throwaway lines referencing random characters like Stephen Strange don’t just feel like name-checks for the fan-boy contingent, they carry the weight of at least the possibility of more Captain America/Avengers-caliber franchises yet to come.

At 2 hours-plus, Captain America: The Winter Soldier flies by like a short 90 minutes. This movie has been cut to a fare-thee-well and not a moment seems forced or unnecessary.

CA/TWS looks to give The Avengers a run for its money; I don’t know if it will do the same box office—you have to respect the contributions of Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon to that previous Marvel megafilm, and its grosses—but like that film and The Dark Knight, it raises the bar for superhero movies to come.

Speaking of: The new trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is terrific. It took me straight from the “looks like fun” of the previous trailers to “I can’t wait!” If the feature plays as well as the preview, it should make a bazillion dollars.

Oh, and in one of the pair of teaser clips at the end of CA/TWS, two long-time comicbook siblings are introduced; characters I would have thought belonged to another studio, with their own Marvel franchise movie out this summer…

Have I mentioned I can’t wait??