Friday, December 31, 2010

Fang’s Book Of The Month: “Where Men Win Glory”

A likely non-recurring feature, as I’m not much of a reader anymore, unless you count comic books, DTV menu screens and the occasional Facebook troll.

But I do watch a lot of TV, and I caught Sean Penn and author Jon Krakauer on an episode of Sundance’s Iconoclasts recently. I was watching it to see Penn, but I came away from it equally impressed with Krakauer.

He wrote the book, Into Thin Air, that Penn’s latest directorial effort was based on.

I wasn’t moved to buy that book (hello, there’s a movie of it now), but when I learned Krakauer had also authored a definitive account of the life and death of Pat Tillman—and the ensuing cover-up of that friendly-fire casualty—I sprang into action and asked the nice people at amazon to please send me a copy of Where Men Win Glory right away.

Turns out it’s ideal holiday reading for people who already find the holidays depressing.

Like most Americans who consume mainstream media, I was vaguely familiar with the broad strokes of the Tillman story. Football star who threw fame and fortune away after 9/11 because he felt the call of duty. Killed in Afghanistan by “friendly” fire, which tragedy the Bush administration successfully spun into P.R. gold until the cover-up was revealed.

Credit where credit is due, I can’t think of a person or institution in my lifetime—other than Fox News and al Qaeda—that has been better than the Bush administration at using tragedy to advance their agenda. If that’s not one of the decision points W writes about in his autobiography, he really missed an opportunity. Perhaps he’s saving it for the sequel, “How To Bring Your Own Empire To Its Knees In Two Terms Or Less.”

Anyhow, at the time the cover-up of the real cause of Tillman’s death was revealed, I remember having a bitter, Saving-Private-Lynch taste in my mouth. We had been pitched this story before and it killed in the ratings, at least till the truth came out. By which point the mainstream media had become predictably disinterested and moved on to the next storyline. This looked likely to repeat the same ignominious pattern.

Like most of the country by then, I had become somewhat inured to the lies puking forth from Washington with such numbing regularity. The Tillman story, as I saw it, was just another sad chapter in the farce that was the Bush administration’s alleged War On Terrorism, which I had already decided was more accurately a War To Settle W’s Daddy’s Old Scores.

But God damn Krakauer, he made Tillman a person for me. Moreover, a person I liked, respected and even admired. Which is quite a feat, given my predisposition against athletes, from the thugs who beat me up in high school all the way to big league, bazillion-dollar-earning professional jocks.

It turns out, Pat Tillman possessed a very sophisticated mind. And I’m not just saying that because many of his beliefs happen to dovetail with mine. In his writing, from his journals, excerpted liberally throughout the book, Tillman emerges as a keen intellect, always willing and prepared to challenge his own belief systems, as well those with whom he conversed. In other words, he not only successfully remembered large chunks of information (this was a guy who read The Odyssey for fun), but was able to see how any single piece of information related to a larger whole. He had a very analytical mind, capable of intuitive leaps equally as impressive as any feats of athleticism he performed at his day job. If someone was going to write him as a hero in their novel, that author would probably have been Ayn Rand. Or Nietzsche.

In addition to being a smart athlete, Tillman was an athlete with real heart, who wasn’t too macho to wear it on his sleeve where appropriate. He was starry-eyed and corny as a Kansas wheatfield when writing to or about his beloved Marie. While never quite rising to the level of poetry, his earnest candor is bracing as it surprising—again, coming from a huge, over-achieving jock as it does.

The actual cause of Tillman’s death is widely known to be negligence on the part of any number of Tillman’s Army higher-ups and peers; from the officer back at the base camp who ill-advisedly split the squadron in two (read the book), to the trigger-happy sap in the other half of Tillman’s squadron who actually shot the big gun that ended his life.

Even after that fratricide, there is still a good fifth of the book left over that deals with the cover-up and the Tillman family’s unceasing efforts to bring the truth to light. In a nutshell, Tillman was killed the same week that the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced and W was behind in the polls to John Kerry, all of this only months before the 2004 election. Having the truth come out then would have effectively ended Bush’s chances at re-election, and that re-election became the mission imperative of everyone from the White House to the forward operating base in Afghanistan that was tasked with burning Tillman’s uniform and notebook (a blatant breach of military protocol) before shipping his body to Dover for an autopsy.

The true villain of the story, it seems to me, has to be then-Brigadier General Stanley McChrystal. Unlike the administration apparatchiks, it was not his job to protect the president from political liabilities; it was his job to win the ground war and be an advocate for the troops under his command. He did neither of the latter but an impressive amount of the former. The same guy who got fired for talking smack about President Obama to Rolling Stone is also where the buck, and plausible deniability, stopped in the Tillman cover-up, at least militarily.

For his good work in covering the president’s ass during a period of peak political vulnerability, he was promoted to lieutenant general.

Krakauer is too good a writer to accuse Bush of personally knowing anything about the cover-up without the evidence to back it up. Myself, I don’t know either. Half of me thinks that if news of the cover-up and subsequent disinformation campaign (emanating from an office created for that specific purpose by the Bush administration) did reach President Bush, he wouldn’t have done anything to derail it. The other half suspects he was shielded from full involvement by lackeys tasked with keeping the president’s plausible deniability beyond reproach.

It’s just as well, because this isn’t a book about Bush, or McChrystal or any of the assorted bad guys who populate its pages. It’s about a good guy. A real-life, Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart character, who thought about stuff and achieved things and never sacrificed his decency or his intellect in his quest to be the best person he could be.

Yes, Where Men Win Glory does take a negative slant on aspects of the Bush administration (cover-ups, historically, will engender that when they eventually get out), but it paints a truly inspirational portrait of Pat Tillman as a man and an American. It really turned my way of thinking around regarding what I have termed “jock douchebags” since Terminator 2 coined the phrase for me. I ended up sitting in the middle of a college basketball team on the flight home from Christmas Island, and instead of seething at being surrounded by a group of loud, muscle-bound empty-heads, I was warmed by their sense of fraternity and heartened that, if the plane did experience trouble, with them (and me!) sitting in the exit row seats, the passengers would at least have a fighting chance.

Another prejudice falls...

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a fitting tribute to Tillman’s character and courage, and ought to be required reading for anyone considering embarking upon a military career.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I'm making this clip an annual tradition. Hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tom Waits no longer

Tom Waits is heading to Cleveland!

Rectifying a long-standing, egregious oversight, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today announced venerable singer/songwriter and idol o’ millions Tom Waits will be inducted into their august body in next year’s class of officially sanctioned rock royalty.

Joining him to be feted are Alice Cooper and Neil Diamond as well as Dr. John and Darlene love. It’s like “Orphan, Brawlers and Boozers” year at the RRHOF. Dr. John? Really? Before KISS? Before Warren Zevon? Before Rush, for God’s sake??

Dr. John at all? Whoever it was behind the scenes who pushed Dr. John into a top slot this year deserves his or her own award as Fan Number One.

But I’ll give it up for Darlene Love. She sounds like she was one of those Motown-era babes, and those gals could sing the shingles off a rooftop. Why isn’t there an R&B Hall of Fame, or is there one and I just haven’t heard about it?

Alice Cooper? His best songs are a couple mid-tempo, Bon Jovi-ish ballads and his stage show, the time I saw him, involved men running around dressed as nuns and flashing the audience. Besides Marylin Manson and his fellow emo-tools from the shock-rock scene, who has he influenced? Which songs of his are part of the American Canon, deserving of enshrining in the hallowed halls of rock? His biggest hit, “I’m Eighteen,” could indeed have been written by 18-year-old. And not an 18-year-old Mozart, an 18-year-old killing some time in lock-up, waiting to be bailed out for stealing change from parked cars.

But I did see Alice in concert once and enjoyed it thoroughly. Plus, of this year’s inductees, he’s the only actual Rock-And-Roller. So come on in, Mr. Cooper, with my blessings. That nun shit really did freak me out as a kid, though...

Neil Diamond. Neil fucking damned Diamond in the Rock Hall of Fame? It’s about time!

Although way more Tin Pan Alley than rock, Diamond has a back catalog that will live forever, that defines a perspective on America that reflected the times he lived in. He helped shape pop and as he did that, he didn’t only reflect the times he lived in, he helped shape them, too. My YouTube clip of him on the Johnny Cash Show, above, will have over 200,000 hits by the end of the day. The blue-hairs still love him and find the 25-year-old version of him sexy as hell.

Although he may not ever have personally rocked particularly hard, he did influence a generation of kids who did. I remember seeing “Live At The Greek” on TV some time in the 70s and being blown away. It may not have been rock per se, but it took me to the same place as a really good rock show did. Show Mr. Diamond to his seat.

Oh, and what can one say about Tom Waits. I’m so happy he’s finally getting some recognition, I’m not even that pissed about Rush being bypassed again this year. I won’t even mention it again!

My beloved Tom is not even an acquired taste. You either like him or you don’t. You REALLY don’t. Most people I know who are not musicians (and a couple who are) or music critics do not care for Tom Waits’ singing voice, which sounds like a burlap bag of geriatric cats being dragged over discarded percussion instruments—admittedly. But that’s exactly what I like about him.

And as a songwriter, he is without equal. Whether barrel-house blues or heart-tugging piano ballads—usually about losers whom the world has turned its back on—the listener believes every word he can make out without having to refer to the lyric sheet. Like Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, Waits is extremely there, in the moment, as a performer; both on record as well as in his rare, eccentric live appearances. (Tom Waits is probably the only guy in the Hall of Fame who has opened for the Dalai Lama!)

So props to the HOF this year for getting a big one right. You know what I’d really like to hear at the ceremony? Diamond and Waits each singing one of the other’s songs. Maybe Diamond doing “Come On Up To The House” and Waits doing “Glory Road?”

Sheer rock and roll bliss!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Elvis sighting on the dining room table

This morning The Boy helped himself to the head, without waking either of us up first, for the first time. It was quite a milestone and I thought it deserved celebrating, so while he was at school, I went out and bought him the coolest thing I could find. In this case, a pantsuit-era Elvis Mr. Potato Head:

Before I gave him his reward, I explained that since it was an award for being cool, I thought of the coolest person I could think of, and that was Elvis. Once I explained to him that Elvis and Cash were friends when they were kids, Elvis’ coolness was cemented in The Boy’s mind. Then I whipped out his Mr. Potato Head and he was thrilled. He immediately began to disassemble it with a respect bordering on awe.

A little while later, The Missus had The Boy draw his own card for the birthday party they were getting set to leave for. After a few minutes, he brought back the piece, below. I thought, “Love the hair, looks like Manga Elvis.” I asked him who it was and he looked at me like I was trying to trick him. “Elvis,” he replied slowly, waiting for me to spring my dull-witted trap.

Is it just me, or does his Elvis look more like Elvis—late-60s, hip, badass Elvis even down to the atypical (for The Boy but period-correct) pastel pattern around the central figure—than the Potato Head version? Where the hell did that come from, based only on the caricature of a different-era Elvis in potato form?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Let’s go to the tape…

One unanticipated problem with giving your 5-year-old your old laptop is the forgotten sound files still on it, like completely inappropriate Monty Python skits that he finds hilarious and can't wait to repeat to Mommy, verbatim. He doesn't get the really dirty joke at all, but we could be in trouble if he goes into school tomorrow and repeats it. One of his peers’ Mommy or Daddy is bound to pick up on it and he’ll be called on the carpet at school for the first time the same way so many other kids have been; because of me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Episode 48: A New Hope

Daddy’s PMSing bad and the holiday blues have him in its annual grip.

It’s so bad the old fart is speaking of himself in the third person, never a good sign.

What’s worse is that it’s not in the closet anymore and my behavior has been diagnosed as emotionally abusive to everyone but The Boy (which I freely admit it is, it’s just not the kind of bomb I want dropped in the middle of my annual melt-down).

But I earned it so I’ll own it. My office is full of worthless crap I own.

The only thing I can offer in my defense—admittedly almost nothing—is that the person I am most emotionally abusive to, by like a factor of 10, is myself. I hate that about me, too.

I just need to stop feeling things for a month or so and power through till it’s next year. I don’t actually expect 2011 to be better or worse than 2010, mind you, I just want December in my rear view mirror. I told The Missus this morning, if I had a fast-forward button I could press that would take me from now till just after the new year, I’d be hitting that thing like Jim Morrison working a morphine drip.

This year The Boy is old enough to sense the disturbance in the Force, and ran the drawing, above, in to my office a few minutes ago.

The Force is stronger in that one than in his master.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Disintegrated Expectations

For the second time in as many weeks, last Thursday The Boy and I got on airplanes and flew to an exotic locale for an exciting event.

Admittedly, referring to the arid hellscape of Barren Vista, Arizona, as an “exotic locale” is a bit of a stretch, but there is an awful lot of money five miles in any direction in the foothills. And there’s a concentric ring of safety in the center of the town at the University. Whenever I meet someone, usually on planes, who likes Barren Vista, I assume they either matriculate or teach at the University in town, and I am almost always right.

Or they’re salespeople, who stay at the five-star resorts in the foothills. My goodness, they don’t have enough superlatives for the place.

Usually when I go back home to the town I grew up in, however, my own personal expectations are not very high.

If I get through the weekend without having a throw-down with my 84-year-old Mom, I consider the trip a huge success. I’m not saying I have Mommy Issues, but… oh wait, I guess I am. Busted!

But I’m sorry, Mommy Issues are boring, so I’m moving on.

Anyhow, the bar is set pretty goddamn low. Safe flight, no internecine squabbles and somebody waiting at the airport when I land: That’s all I require for a low-stress weekend in Barren Vista. The bad memories, the crime and poverty, the overall feeling of despair that blankets the city; I shrug it all off and focus on the one thing I actually like about the place: needling my sister who still lives there.

We had also hoped to check in with my nephew, just back from Afghanistan, but he was required to be back on base out-of-state the same day we arrived. But he’s back on native soil, in one piece and good spirits and that’s mostly what I needed from him anyhow.

Unlike my previous excursion with our son a couple weeks back—which resulted in a migraine, a cold, consecutive sleepless nights and brutal Advil PM hangovers to balance out the fabulousness of the wedding and time spent with family and friends—this time everything went as smoothly as pie. Or I should say, “pah.”

There was a lot of discussion about “pah” with my brother-in-law from Texas, who I realized this trip sounds likes a groggy Elvis. If I shut my eyes, I could imagine The King, waking up confused in The Jungle Room at 3 a.m., rubbing his eyes and asking me run to the kitchen and fetch him some pah. It made it much easier to get along with a fellow about whom I have not formerly been completely crazy.

But of course, we were not there for the pah. It was kind of an impromptu Bastardson family reunion. One sib and his Missus had a free weekend at one of the formerly-mentioned swanky hotels nearby at about the same time as my nephew was due back home from his first tour in Afghanistan. Another sib is already in Barren Vista and the other and her Mister are always ready to drive out at the drop of a hat. Still, because I am an asshole, I had to have my arm twisted, but I eventually relented on the condition I got to bring The Boy.

According to Joseph Campbell, I have to establish the normal world of the story I am going to tell so that the reader may more fully appreciate the dramatic change to come.

And the normal world back there is drama.

Our family isn’t special; I’ve observed almost all families have their own dramas. The difference is, other families’ dramas are just that—entertainments, staged for my enjoyment; one’s own family’s drama is rarely as entertaining.

But last weekend wasn’t dramatic, it was fun, uplifting, even. For instance, I went back with a specific plan to pick a specific fight (just for my own entertainment) and then decided not to, the vibe had turned so unexpectedly positive.

What made it better than the usual such event—imagine your own family get-togethers then times it by crazy—was the arrival of a new family member at the same time as our visit.

It sure sounded like a bad idea on paper. My niece (who also resides in Barren Vista) wanted to help her Jamaican-born husband bring his 7-year-old daughter to the United States to live with them. It might not have sounded so nuts if they weren’t poor as church-mice. Or weren’t planning to bring the girl to America to live in a place at least as and probably more horrible than the one she was leaving. Or about a million other reasons. You always hear the horror stories (my extended family even has one) of U.S. couples adopting former Soviet bloc country kids who turn out to be heartless, manipulative sociopaths straight out of “The Omen” movies.

I have never been so happy to be pretty sure I was wrong. My older sister has been dying to hear me say it, she will have to settle for reading it instead.

Angelina turned out to be a delight. Funny, inquisitive and occasionally blunt, she was also polite as hell, and I really, really like courtesy and am impressed when kids her age demonstrate it. It’s still like pulling teeth to get The Boy to drop a “please” here or a “thank-you” there, but this kid had it down.

Plus, she and The Boy hit it off like a house on fire. If they weren’t on the floor of the spare room with their coloring books and markers, they were running through the house, laughing and playing games they were making up as they went. The Boy was so smitten, he even wanted to go out clothes-shopping with them (apparently Angelina didn’t arrive here with much more than a suitcase), and usually it’s murder getting him out of the house for an errand run. They ran around the little girls’ section of Target for 45 minutes while her clotheshorse father himmed and hawed up an entire wardrobe for her.

The morning we left, they even took to a kind of grappling contest in the front room. For safety’s sake, I set a rule about both contestants having to remain on the latch-hook rug. There’s a lot of unyielding, pointy-edged objects in my Mom’s house, and not a lot of maneuvering room.

The weekend even contained unexpected little victories. My sister who still lives there was driving me to the airport. I opened with a mildly disparaging joke about Obama to make sure I had her Republican attention. Then I asked her if she’s looked at the copy of W’s ‘auto’biography that I bought Mom. She says she hasn’t had time yet. I tell her he talks about the lowest point of his administration and would she care to guess what it is? She guesses 9/11. I agree with her, that was pretty bad. 3,000 people died. But no, that wasn’t it. I asked her if she thought it might be the WMDs that turned out to not be there. She agreed that was probably it, but I said no. Then I said, how about the photos of Abu Ghraib getting out? That was pretty awful, wasn’t it? She thought that must be it, but I said no. Then I told her it was when a pop star was mean to him once on TV and she told me to cut it out, and laughed. I said, no, seriously. In his own words. You don’t even have to read the whole book to see it, it’s right there on the inside flap. She said I must be joking. And so on.

Oh, it was so much fun!

Almost as much fun as sitting around the dinner table after the meal one night and talking the economy with the Barren Vista-dwellers. The Obama-hating, Republican party-liners and me, talking economics. Turns out they’re boiling mad about The Elites getting their tax cuts extended when they, the Barren Vistians, were barely making ends meet, and that on a month-to-month basis. They said for sure rich people ought to pay more so working people like them could stop being poor and work their way up to the middle class. Then we discussed how there was no middle class any more—The Missus and I ought to be middle class, by virtue of her PhD if nothing else and the years of work it represents, but we’re living paycheck to paycheck, too—and how society was separating into the haves and have-nots without leaving anyone in between. And I didn’t even lead the conversation in that direction. I must have looked like I had just been smacked upside the head with a 2x4.

I would have felt even better if I thought their innocently-arrived-at Democratic talking points would cause them to take a pass on the GOP next time, but I already know better. They vote the straight God ticket and the Democrats, they are repeatedly assured by Fox News and Dr. Laura, do not appear anywhere on the God ticket.

The end result being—and you’ll forgive me if my revelations are somewhat me-centric—for possibly the first time in my life, I came back from Barren Vista in better spirits than when I arrived. Do I think everything is going to work out great? Of course not. They live in Arizona, for Christ’s sake. The weekend I was there, the lead local story was how budget cuts were forcing the city to lay off dozens and dozens of police and firemen. Dante’s Desert Inferno just got turned up another couple of notches.

But I am a little less certain that my niece has made the mistake of her life by bringing her husband’s daughter here. Angelina is either a genuinely sweet, precocious, intelligent little girl or future Academy Award bait. I just wish we, as a family, had something better to offer her than Barren Vista, Arizona.

And something my big sister had pointed out to me a while back really stood out this trip, and I think it, as much as the addition of Angelina to our family, is what sent me home with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart.

A lot of we Left Wingers talk a good game, diversity-wise. We pay lip service every chance we get. But for most of us, the truly poor people we know are few. And the Republicans we regularly break bread with are practically non-existent. In spite of our beliefs and inclinations, we find ourselves drawn to like thinkers, and that just doesn’t promote a lot of the diversity we’re supposed to be so hotly in pursuit of. After all, we don’t have the problem with diversity, so why practice it in our daily lives?

But sitting around my Mom’s table—my Mom, the W-loving, Jesus-take-me-now, right-wing-voting born-again Christian—was a veritable United Nations of ethnicity, inclination, income-level and outlook. I have never sat at a table in a left-winger’s house and experienced such a vast panoply of the American Experience and I’d be surprised if I ever do.

In one tiny, tin-covered corner of one of the most desperate cities in America, harmony has broken out. Civility doesn’t reign, but neither does discourtesy; hell, even I shelved my prepared hurtful remarks. It’s crazy, but it’s a hopeful, well-intentioned crazy…

It’s so fucking crazy, this cynical old bastard thinks it just might work.

It turns out grace, like crazy, can flourish under even the harshest circumstances.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Train Kept A-Rollin’…

I hate wading into Big Issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so I’ll only wade into the shallow end.

I caught some of the coverage of the recent hearings in DC about gays in the military, and couldn’t help but notice how former maverick John McCain really went the extra mile in the service of the status quo, vociferously advocating the continuation of the military’s de-facto ban on allowing gays to serve their country openly.

The thing that struck me was the number of times he returned to his “the troops on the ground won’t stand for it!” line of argument. Since when did the armed forces suddenly become a democracy? Since when did every important decision have to be vetted by the troops first?

My nephew is a Marine. I don’t know how he feels about gays in the military, but I know he’s said that, after one full tour under his belt, he has no idea what we’re doing in Afghanistan. If the armed forces have indeed become the democratic utopia that Sen. McCain suggests, why isn’t he listening as closely to what the soldiers on the ground are saying about a much bigger, more pressing issue—their disinterest in our continued presence in Afghanistan, and get them the hell back home, pronto?

I don’t mind that the senator disagrees with me, I just resent him being logically inconsistent in his argument and not getting called on it. He’s disrespecting our intelligence at the same time as he is undercutting his own talking-points; the case he’s trying to build is silly on its face and just plain doesn’t hold water.

Moreover, Harry Goddamn Truman didn’t take a poll of the rank-and-file when he desegregated the U.S. Army or it never would have happened. He said, this is wrong, and went about remedying it. And the McCains of Truman’s era, who no doubt did everything they could to keep change at bay? Only historians remember their names.

There aren’t any bridges or streets or public buildings named after them outside their home districts. Nobody tells grandiose lies about their families being close back in the day. If we remember them at all it’s because Hollywood made a film out of a landmark civil rights victory (or even a loss, as in the case of “Inherit The Wind”), and their character is the villain of the piece.

Shame on you, Senator McCain. You’re being disingenuous and facile and boring. You’re on the Straight Talk Express directly to the ashbin of history.