Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Heroes happen when you need them

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson blew through town a couple nights ago.

They shared the stage for the entire almost-two-hour set, which was a cool surprise. I’ve seen them both before and thought Haggard was okay (he spent too much of his set on anti-Bush rants, in this left-winger’s opinion) and Kristofferson was sublime.

I came away thinking the same thing after this joint appearance. Kristofferson hit the stage first, dressed in black, his head framed by a halo of unkempt white hair and scraggly beard. He floated out to a single spotlight and dedicated the first song to our young men and women in harm’s way overseas. The crowd ate it up of course, but Kristofferson is a vet himself. I give him the benefit of the doubt.

After that, Haggard and his five- or six-piece band strolled out to thunderous ovation. Kristofferson stepped back and Haggard and the band belted out a couple big hits (I really should’ve taken notes) before the place got quiet as a church again, and Kristofferson did another couple of his poignant, incisive, delicate compositions. Repeat for about 100 minutes.

Occasionally Haggard would join in on guitar during one of Kristofferson’s turns, and for a number of songs, Kristofferson was ably backed up by Haggard’s band, which included Haggard’s son Ben on lead guitar.

Kristofferson, on the other hand, was a comic disaster on backup guitar and vocals. Early in the show he turned to face the mic and stabbed himself with the fiddler’s bow instead. During Haggard’s hits, Kristofferson just hung back and tried to not get in the way. A couple of times he was advised during the song what song the band was playing. (The Missus scored us third row orchestra seats, so we heard everything, including stage banter that Kristofferson forgot to do into his microphone.) Most of his attempts at singing harmony, I would swear he was only mouthing the words. It’s probably just as well. Kristofferson sings crazy low and he isn’t always particularly choosy about what note his voice lands on.

Haggard’s fine, smooth baritone was still in evidence, but the man himself seemed incapable of drawing fully upon it. He still sang circles around Kristofferson! But it was sad to see his son looking on worriedly as a coughing fit forced Haggard to turn his back to the audience and get a drink of water. He mentioned being a cancer survivor after stopping a song in progress and insisting they start over. He was great. He was up for anything—doing one fan’s shouted request off-the-cuff—and as spry as I’d probably be if I had to stand basically still on my feet for two hours every other night.

Kristofferson split his parts of the set between big hits he’d written that other people have made famous (Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make It Through The Night, Sunday Morning Coming Down), and tender ballads from his last couple of albums that apparently nobody but The Missus and I had ever heard before. No matter what song he sang, every time he stepped up to the mic, the venue immediately went from being like a rowdy honkeytonk to a hushed house of worship. Which is actually apropos, considering most of Kristofferson’s rich output of recent compositions are poignant ruminations on issues related to faith, family and mortality.

Seriously, This Old Road and Closer To The Bone are a couple of the best CD purchases I’ve made in recent years, and I’ve bought a lot of CDs.

All too soon, the concert was over. I had a bad feeling when Haggard whipped out Oakie From Muskogee, and sure enough, that was it. Afterwards, with a wave of their hands, the two legends left the stage while the band played them out.

On the walk back to the car, The Missus and I agreed that Haggard was still good, but Kristofferson was great. In his case, having a limited vocal instrument works to his advantage. The audience is forced to pay attention to hear him, and when they listen that close, they hear the words.

And then Kristofferson has them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Other

I was a bad worker-drone today. Took the morning off at the last minute to help chaperone The Boy’s class field trip to the summit of Mt. Scary Vertical Dirt Road, where there was some serious bird-watching scheduled to occur.

The trip had been on the books for a while, but since we don’t own a 4-wheel drive vehicle—or a rocket ship—I didn’t think I met the volunteer criteria for the assistance required on this particular trip. Then last night, I’m tucking The Boy in and we’re talking about the upcoming bird-watching trip, and he hits me with, “I wish you could come, too, Daddy.”

And it occurred to me, by moving some things around, I actually could go with him. And the Kindergarten teacher might appreciate another adult chaperone, even one without Thunderbird One at his disposal.

My favorite definition of happiness, ironically from brooding anti-Communist author/philosopher Ayn Rand, popped into my head. “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”

Seriously, top that if you can.

And The Boy is what I value… why the hell wasn’t I going bird-watching with him and his class?

So I ran into my office, after 8 on Sunday night and emailed his teacher. Got up in the morning, disappointed to see I hadn’t heard from her but resigned to staying home and working. Utter chaos followed, trying to eat and get The Boy out the door to school in time. When I finally made it back to my computer, it was 7:30, and I beheld the email from his teacher that had come in at 6:35, that said I was welcome to come along. I flew out of here like a hastily-sunblocked hurricane and made it down to the school with minutes to spare.

One insanely dangerous ride up to the mountaintop later, the adventure began.

The adventure for The Boy involved petting recently-caught birds, hiking, listening to sincere people talk about birds, more hiking, an up close look at some mean-looking clawed birds, and finally getting to launch a bird off his hand back into the wild.

My adventure was getting to watch The Boy interact with his peers.

And it was illuminating. Without going into dreary detail (I save that for the parts of the story that are about me), I came to the conclusion that my son, like both his parents, is an Other. For better and worse.

You know what I mean. The “Other.” The odd man out. The square peg, looking for a round hole…

His teachers love him because he’s polite and uncannily focused. He plays with the other kids willingly and has formed a couple of close bonds with peers over the years (always abruptly severed by a change in circumstance).

But he’s very much, as Pat O’Brien used to describe his friend Jimmy Cagney, a far-away fella.

The other little boys, there was a commonality that ran through them. I don’t mean they were common, but there was a common thread that bound all of their behavior: they acted like the wild, unmanageable little beasts that boys are supposed to be at that age. They were cute as hell. Part of me wished my kid was more like that: a little more rambunctious, a little more of a risk-taker… then the parent thing kicked in and I remembered how grateful we are that he’s not a crazy, risk-taking, perfectly normal little six-year-old boy.

We like that he’s different, and not just because we sleep better at night knowing he isn’t falling asleep thinking up new ways to wreak mayhem in the morning.

He’s also gentler and more contemplative than his peers. Tonight he was on my lap and we were talking about stuff he’ll be able to do when he’s a grown-up, and he asked me, “Daddy, will you be alive when I’m a grown-up?” Taken aback, I told him that I sure expected to be. I told him that I wanted to get to know the man he’d grow up to be, to meet the woman he’d marry, to hold my Grandchilden in my arms.

And damned if I didn’t mean all of it.

Besides being twice as tall and half as coordinated as the average member of his peer-group, The Boy has classic Only-Child Syndrome; he gets along better with our friends than kids his own age. Adults find him precocious and charming, but his contemporaries sometimes don’t know quite what to make of him.

I’m pretty sure he’s the only Kindergartener, boy or girl, whose parents had to talk to him shortly after school started about the inappropriateness of blowing kisses to his teacher (whom he loves) when he leaves for home in the afternoon.

Fortunately he transferred over to his new school with a preschool pal, a little boy his same age, half his size and more agile than our Tall Drink of Water by leaps and bounds. Literally. His friend gets up on the monkey bars and you’d swear they named them after him. Having a friendly face in his new classroom eased the transition considerably, and the fact that his friend is a rough-and-tumble little bugger is a delightful bonus.

Because this world is designed to eat up and leave behind highly-sensitive little men like The Boy. By his age, the world had twisted me up into something even more interesting than our son—and infinitely more dangerous—and I used to dread The Boy going down the same dark path.

I don’t anymore. Especially not after today.

He’s definitely an odd duck, but he has the odd-duck qualities that eventually produce scientists, philosophers and statesmen, not serial killers and members of the lower house of Congress.

He’s not like everybody else and he genuinely doesn’t give a damn.

Maybe he isn’t so different from me, after all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rick Perry’s “Bimbo Eruption*”

This story warmed the cockles of my heart: Palin hits Perry on state-mandated vaccine.

Apparently while he was governor of Texas, Perry decreed that all girls below a certain age were required to get this anti-VD shot. I have no idea how this passed as it seems on the face of it like something with which both the extreme Left and the Right would take issue.

This isn’t just an example of the Daddy State the GOP is proud to be known as, it’s the Daddy Who Takes His Daughters To Chastity Balls-State.

I had been expecting The Stupids to push Perry over the line, into the White House. But now even their leader is calling him on the carpet. If he loses The Stupids, he’s done for. Because nobody but The Stupids want to see another gun-slingin’ Texas bully swagger into the White House.

You may not remember, but W was sold in his first Presidential campaign as being a reconciler, having worked so successfully with the Democratic legislature while governor of Texas. What they didn’t tell us is that a Texas Democrat is like a right-leaning Republican in most other places, and most of the best progressive legislation enacted during his terms was done so over his repeated vetoes.

Now The poor GOP have Rick Perry to contend with. Perry has all of W’s baseless bravado, lack of grasp of the issues and quotable, shoot-from-the-hip malapropisms, but he’s also an imposing enough physical presence that he makes women’s knees weak and men wish they were men. He’s what W might have been if W had been the quarterback in college, instead of a cheerleader.

Then you might get to wondering, what could motivate a rootin’, tootin’ Alpha Male like Rick Perry to suddenly develop an overwhelming, single-minded interest in wiping out a venereal disease prevalent specifically in young females? Usually these crusades have a deeply personal instigating incident; could it be that too many persons-unknown of the Good Ol’ Boys network were coming home to the missus with unwelcome cases of the French Disease?

Or maybe it was just the $28,000 in campaign handouts Perry received from the Merk corporation—the sole maker of the vaccine in question—over the years.

Perry’s been caught looking suspiciously like he was in a pay-to-play relationship with Big Pharma, and by his mandating gub’ment-issued vaccinations (shades of ObamaCare!) to potentially unwilling citizens, he exemplifies the kind of Big-Government candidate the Right usually rallies against, not for.

I won’t say he’s toast, but his battle just got a lot more uphill. When you can’t even pull the wool over Sarah Palin’s eyes…

* This phrase is, of course, well-known to people who have read tell-all tomes of the Clinton administration. It has been deliberately repurposed here. And thanks mucho to whoever did the art at the top of this post. I have repurposed it, too.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Road Goes On Forever

I have this recurring conversation with my Mom that goes something like this. Mom: If you could do just one thing for me, son, it would be to give your heart to the Lord. Me: Come on, Mom. Not again… Mom: [dramatic sigh, right into the receiver] It would just give me so much peace knowing we’ll spend eternity together… Me: Are you kidding? We barely survived 18 years of living together.

Actually, I don’t say that last part. We’ve stopped hurting each other for sport decades ago now.

What I do say is—and it bugs the hell out of her—is that I’m a Believer once-removed. Johnny Cash believed in Jesus, and I believe in Johnny Cash, so I figure I’m about half way there and can we please drop the subject already?

Johnny Cash’s body of work so perfectly reflects the simplicity, depth and spirituality of the man himself that it is impossible to separate the two. In a world full of hypocrites and posers (especially the show-biz part of the world), Cash was simply who he was; a reliably decent man, bent on speaking on behalf of those upon whom society had turned its back, even at the lowest points of his epic battles with drugs and alcohol.

Artistically, he took the kind of fearless, principled risks with his career that wouldn’t be seen again in a major name until Neil Young came along. He invited his Mama and Papa down to the legendary Ryman Auditorium for every episode of his short-lived TV variety show, and played free shows for prisoners as well as internationally-telecast Billy Graham come-to-Jesus rallies.

He embraced both the darkness and the light in equal measure, always looking to strike a livable balance between the two, but never completely forsaking one for the other.

I get that. We’re the products of our impulses as well as our empathies. It’s our choices that dictate our destinies, not our circumstances.

Cash and I made a lot of the same mistakes in our personal lives as young men, including an eventual deliverance from said errors in judgment that never completely chased away the demons.

So when Johnny Cash used to talk about his relationship with the Lord, it was hard not to listen. Out of respect for him, my mind remains officially open on the subject.

And that’s what I mean when I answer questions about my religious affiliation by referring the questioner to the music of Johnny Cash. Because if God can’t be found somewhere in the music of Johnny Cash, maybe the heathen horde is right after all and He doesn’t exist.

Anyway, like anyone with a quasi-religious agenda to promote, I have taken my campaign to YouTube.

As I alluded to a few paragraphs above, back in the late 60s/early 70s, Cash had his own TV variety program for a couple seasons. Back then they were giving variety shows to anyone. They were like the reality shows of the day in that they were cheap to produce and it was easy to control the content because they were usually produced in-house. And the public just couldn’t get enough of them; celebrities, in their front rooms! Imagine.

Dean Martin famously showed up for his own show only once a week, for the taping, and winged it every time. Glen Campbell had a show. Sonny and Cher had a show…

Well, Johnny Cash was smoking hot off the release of his Folsom Prison Blues album and ABC came to him with an offer he couldn’t refuse. He ended getting to shoot his show from the historic Ryman Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, then home of country and western’s venerable Grand ol’ Opry.

The rest is pop culture history.

And unfortunately, currently unavailable commercially on DVD except in a truncated, edited form (which I bought anyway and love for the picture’s crystal-clarity).

Fortunately, the same Interweb that has made a laughingstock of most of my chosen careers in the last few years, has also made it relatively easy to get my hands on a full run of the show, as well as to post highlights occasionally online via the YouTube.

The coolest thing about my Johnny Cash YouTube channel isn’t watching the number of hits grow—although that has become part of it—it’s receiving the emails from YouTube every time anybody leaves a comment on one of my clips. About 90% of the comments happen to be glowing praise for my favorite artist—and frequently gratitude for my having posted the clips—from Cash fans. It’s like a little stream of good will that flows in regularly, through good days and bad.

I mean, how can your outlook not improve when you receive this kind of thing in your email:

[name redacted] left a comment on Johnny Cash recites “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,” below: I was 20 years old when I heard this song, I have been looking for the song for 40 years, every year at Christmas time.. I’d think of it, and wish I could hear it, just one more time. Today, I thought on youtube, dare I look. just one more time ? I knew if it wasn’t there. I would never hear it again !! Thank You for sharing this beautiful poem ~ and for making this womans dream come true. Bless you, and Johnny...Rest in Peace ~with love [redacted].

(Caveat: I’ve decided to leave all comments verbatim, or [sic]. Not only would it take forever to edit them into grammatical precision, but in some cases the form and the content of the communiqué dovetail revealingly well.)

Only a couple of the clips have generated controversy. I have several uploads where Cash talks and sings about the Civil War, and even 150 years later, the subject still enflames passions (which I will get to shortly). I usually don’t moderate comments—newspaperman, First Amendment, you do the math—but have occasionally had to step into conversations about that particular clip, or in a few cases, delete what I considered hate speech.

Mostly though, it’s all sunshine and light. Check out a few examples…

Somebody reacted to Maybelle and Sarah Carter on The Johnny Cash Show (below): Oh my did you ever get ahold of such a gem? Thank you for sharing it with us al1!

Another left a comment on The Everly Brothers on The Johnny Cash Show: thank you for this my Dad and my Uncle used to be entertainers on the road and did these songs all the time Uncle Fred passed a few years ago so this music is very near and dear to me.

Another left a comment on Johnny Cash sings “Man In Black” for the first time (with intro): Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I Love Johnny Cash and this is BY FAR my favorite version of this song!

Another left a comment on Pete Seeger on “The Johnny Cash Show” complete and uncut: Holy hell I feel better about my day. Thank you for sharing this.

Another left a comment on Johnny Cash sings “Bird on a Wire” on Jon Stewart’s old show: Thank you, man, thank you very much for posting this video! It is... like heaven’s speaking to you. Every time I watch it... I look into these great old man’s eyes, and I would have like talked to him so much. So much more than show biz. That is life.

Another left a comment on Johnny Cash and June Carter: I’ll Fly Away: 0:23 holy shit.. i never heard johnny belt out a note like that before! that was awesome!

Then there are the commenters who relate to Cash’s crash-and-burn period of his life…

One such person left a comment on Johnny Cash sings “The Junkie’s Prayer”: Cash was clean when he did this song, but no one knew better than him the total destruction that drugs cause, He was a very brave man to publicly admit his level of addiction. God Bless you Johnny Cash.

Another left a comment on Dennis Hopper reads a poem on The Johnny Cash Show: IF I CAN DIE CLEAN AND SOBER ALL MY IFS WILL HAVE COME TRUE

Only a couple clips have raised a ruckus, one being an extended version of “This Land Is Your Land” that also mixed in elements of “God Bless America.”

Here are a few samples of the comments generated:

One commenter wrote: I like how you all are saying this land is stolen....
The native Americans never “owned” America, they just lived there. This is because they didn’t believe land could be owned, and I think they were right, how can you claim a piece of this earth?
You do not own America, you just live there.

Another said: Agony of it all internation immigrants respect America and the American flag, culture and beliefs but Americans themselves are cursing this nation at a time when it needs it’s people to stick by it’s side, you are disgracing the founding fathers of this great nation they built this country with their own bare hands lived through tough times and you people are living in today’s America where these economic problems can be solved because we have the required resources.

Another wrote: he knew what America was about, the nature, this country is beautiful, the government is fucked up.

Another wrote: Had it not been for the imperialistic policies of the US government, America would have been the most loved country in the world . I still love the American people (not the government ), the ones who have helped my country so much.
Love from Pakistan

Another wrote: If we didn’t take this land, SOMEONE ELSE WOULD HAVE! This country has done so much amazing good, if the Chinese or the Middle Easterns took this land, it would be HORRIBLE. We have modernized and changed the whole WORLD. In a period of 200 years, we made a 5000 year leap. Someone else would have “stolen’ this land, and they would not have NEAR such an audacious idea as freedom. We are wonderful people, who’ve done wonderful things. Stop making us out to be evil.

Another wrote: Great video. If you notice who is shown, there are workingmen, Native Americans, and children. Not a CEO or banker or politician to be seen.

I eventually had to post a rebuttal clip of Cash doing ten minutes of prime-time TV educating America on the plight of the American Indian, even though he had done an entire album on the subject, “Bitter Tears,” less than ten years earlier. As an advocate for Native Americans, Cash got to have his cake and eat it, too.

But the most hotly contested clip is “Johnny Cash sings Civil War songs.” It really brings out the faithful, if you know what I mean.

I lost this guy’s name, but his comments are typical of the of the revisionist wing of 19th-century American history:

“In most class rooms now kids are taught that the civil war was about slavery. People seem to know less and less about the war the more time passes. It irritates me to hear people say it was about slavery, that was only a small part of it. It’s hard for us now to understand the politics involved that started the war. For the most part it was states rights. People associate having southern pride with being racicist, which is not the case at all. Blacks fought for the south as well.”

Then I made the classic mistake, and replied to him in the comments section:

Actually, it’s not that hard at all to understand the politics involved in the Civil War. There are many excellent histories written about the conflict, and the one thing they all agree on, is that every road to secession began and ended with slavery. Most states’ official documents of secession cite slave-owners’ rights and/or the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ (period doublespeak for the slave trade) in the first paragraph, if not the first line. It would be like saying the Revolutionary War wasn’t about taxation without representation.

Well, I haven’t made that mistake again. It didn’t make me a lot of new online friends, as I learned the only side still fighting this particular battle are the historical revisionists, and boy did I hear from them. A random sampling:

One wrote: The war was fought by the South for good reason. To overthrow the the tyrannic government that had formed. They raised taxes and abolished many peoples only means of income. The Declaration of Independence stated we had the right to do this. Nowadays, the US government is becoming the same way. Will the South rise again? The answer is no. But anyone who gives a damn about what this country USED to be about, and has a spine, will march up to the white house and take this country back.

Another wrote: Good reason this, good reason that, either way, the war was going to be fought. No war should be fought, but this one was definitley going to be. As for the POW’s, as a veteran and a former supply worker, I can tell you that NO one prepares for pow’s, thousands of German’s died in US hands at the end of WWII cuz we had no where to put them, and not enough to feed them, and the locals wouldn’t help us. We have the ability to feed the insurgents we get in Iraq and afghanistan but only because only because we only get like a dozen or so of them at a time. We don’t get droves and droves of prisoners like we did in WWII, WWI or the bigger wars. In the civil war, they expected the war to be over in the north in a few weeks. Months at most. They did not expect or set aside the food reserves needed to maintain their armies and the pow’s. Remember, this is nowhere near the amount of food we’re making now. There was no way either side could cope with the numbers they were receiving. • War sucks. People die. Usually its the poor man fighting, and not the rich man telling them what to do who does the dieing. Look at it like this. Yes the Union was a bit oppressive but the Confederate states were also being a little beligirent (they did fire on ft. sumter first) and there is that slavery bit. The war was never truly about slavery, it was about succession. • Either way, both sides were wrong. And for that, thousands upon thousands died. And the financial debt mounted wasn’t paid off fully until near 1918 - if my memory serves correctly. And we still sit here and argue about it like two feuding brothers.

Another wrote: Is that why the CSA, in it’s established constitution, outlawed the slave trade? Yes, that’s right. The Confederate States of America outlawed the slave trade before the United States of America. Historical fact. But please continue spouting the various Yankee lies you’ve been taught.

Another wrote: Slavery would have died out of natural causes if the yankees had`nt showed aggresion agnest its own peoples rights to choose for themselves. To quote General Lee “We should have freed the slaves and than declared secession, but we didnt want to look like we was backing down. A mistake we will pay deerly for.”

Then there are the ones from obscure clips that are just plain interesting for so many different reasons…

For example, one person made a comment on Johnny Cash: Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord): Christ is my Savior, not my religion.

Preach, brother!

Another made a comment on Johnny Cash: Singin’ in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues: My Father served in Vietnam, 4 tours of duty, He is my hero. This song makes me tear up everytime. Thank you Johnny Cash. at least he cared and tried to offer some sort of comfort to the troops. It is also the reason that Hate Hippies and the whole Hippie culture. Hippies and anti-war protesters are death of this country self respect. Have you kicked a hippie today?

And finally there are the 2% who are unpleasant about random non-hot-button issues, like this fellow:

You don’t know who Al Hirt is? Was Johnny Cash the only music you had to listen to under the rock you grew up under?

To which I replied: @[commenter’s name]... you’re welcome?

Even before there was YouTube, I traded non-commercially-available live Cash recordings with like-minded folks. Back in those days we found each other via the nascent internet, but still exchanged CDs by the U.S. Mail.

There yet remains a very old page on my eponymous site, hidden from everything but The Google, where (an outdated) list of my Johnny Cash collection resides. I never took it down because, over the years, I’ve met some of the coolest and most interesting people courtesy of that page.

Last year, another such person contacted me. He said he was from Australia, and his band, the Hawking Brothers, had opened for Cash one night in 1973 and I had a recording of the show but he didn’t. He begged me for a copy. Offered me money, the whole deal. I told him I never take money for anything Cash-related. 

What I do when contacted nowadays—since I already have just about every underground recording extant and therefore the interested party never has anything but dollars to offer me in trade—is I ask petitioners to write me a little essay entitled “What Johnny Cash Means To Me.” Then I send them whatever they ask for.

I have gotten some amazing responses over the years. I wish I had compiled them somewhere. But this one was recent enough that a search of a back-up drive quickly revealed it.

 The fellow from Australia turned in his essay, and one of the anecdotes he shared is as good an example as any of why I still miss the Man In Black, eight years after his death and counting.

The musician from Australia wrote: 

You may be interested to know that this concert was sold off as a fundraiser. It was outdoors, an extremely cold night and therefore poorly attended. Johnny told his manager, Lou Robin, to find out how much money [the event organizers] had lost. When Lou reported back that they had lost $10,000.00, Johnny instructed Lou to “write them a cheque.” It is a moment I will never forget.

And that is just one of the things that Johnny Cash means to me.

Finally, since I’ve posted everybody else’s favorite clip, I figure I’ll close with one of mine. As an added bonus, it also contains the show’s signature opening. If you’ve read this far, you will enjoy!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 security: Mrs. Bush draws the short straw

Monday, September 05, 2011

It Was A Very Good Year

Six years ago today—it was Labor Day that year, too—The Missus and I became parents.

That first year convinced us to put off trying again indefinitely. It wasn’t any one catastrophic thing, rather a cascading series of events and issues that, cumulatively, argued too compellingly that our circumstances did not allow for enlarging the family at that time.

Today, my back is too shot and we’re too poor. And we’re twice as far away from the support of family and friends than we were when we had The Boy.

Did I mention it’s his birthday today?

Man, five was a good year. Five was great.

Five was finally taking command of his language skills, and usually producing at least a howler or two every day. Here’s one from earlier this week: We’re working together at the crafts table. I jump up with a new treasure and tell him I need to scan it right away. As I head for my office, I stop in the kitchen for a swig of chocolate milk. I notice the pastries left over from the weekend and remember they’re either expired or about to expire. I pull off a paper towel and set it down and start to look for a knife. Knowing full well how easily I am blown off track when I’m not concentrating, The Boy asks innocently from the crafts table, “Are you scanning it with a paper towel?”

Five was learning how to swim. Five was me accepting that my little boy would never have to cling to me for dear life in the pool again.

Five was learning to play chess, and catch, and ride a bike; to varying degrees of success.

Five was virtually the end of out-of-control displays of temper, and the beginning of being able to reason with him, and hold him to account for his own actions.

Five was the last year I had the luxury of keeping him home from (pre)school every Thursday, and just hanging out with him. Running errands, going to the pool, watching superhero cartoons, enjoying fast-food lunches that launched my cholesterol numbers into the stratosphere…

I’m having a hard time letting go of five.

He turns six on the fifth, and starts Kindergarten on the sixth. Just like that, in 24 hours, he’s going to be a six-year-old and a Kindergartner. Our five-year-old will be consigned to the realm of digital scrapbooks and fond memories, and the rebellious teenager-to-come will be that much closer to making his debut.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for another year of five-years-old. He’s been home these last three weeks, alone with me and the dog as The Missus’ professoring job started in mid-August. Best three weeks of the year so far, hands-down. I haven’t had a lick of personal time or accomplished a single thing other than random, late night blog posts, and I can’t remember ever having enjoyed a stretch of unproductive time so much.

The last few weeks have been a mitzvah. I explained to him at the onset that when he starts Kindergarten, our Thursdays together were going to be gone. We should try to make the most of this window in time as it was almost completely closed.

And he got it. He didn’t seem to actually care too much, but he also remained stoic through his beloved Great-Grandmother’s recent passing. In some ways he’s very much a six-year-old, and that too is a mitzvah.

So we maximized our time together. I put everything else aside and just concentrated on inculcating myself into his world. I played games with him I’d never played before, did activities, crafts even, went places—that’s how we ended up at the Day-Glo, 3D, indoor miniature golf place around here last Friday.… he was so clear on the closing-of-a-chapter concept that he’s used it a couple times in the last few days to nudge me into agreeing to whatever he was proposing.

He knew I cared, and that was enough for me.

Losing him to six-years-old and Kindergarten in the same week is going to be rough. I’m taking steps, measures, making sure my days stay busy that first week. Introspection will not be my friend.

And I will be tasked with picking him up after school every day, and some days he’ll be home a couple of hours earlier than The Missus, but it won’t be the same. Which it isn’t designed to be, which is the whole point of growing up. But the whole point of growing old seems to be to try to hold onto your own childhood through your kids’.

Well, that’s the instinct I’m fighting, anyhow.

I know I should be looking forward to six—and I am, and all the remarkable advances in coolness yet to come (he’ll be beating me at chess before he’s seven)—but I wish I could capture five in amber.

When I was a kid, my whole family would pile into the station wagon and drive my older sibs to the airport when they had to fly back to college after holidays and school breaks. And my parents would weep and moan and carry on like it was the end of the world and it always seemed ridiculous to me. They’re only going to Champaign, Illinois, not Vietnam, I’d think, and they’d be back in no time to cramp my style all summer. What the hell was with the waterworks?

On a completely unrelated note, man am I going to miss five years old. Man oh man.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

“Compromise” is not a four-letter word

I’ve beefed about Obama recently, about how he has no idea how to deal with as an intransigent an opposition in Congress as the one he faces.

Now I’d like to complain about the opposition.

Proceeding on a hypothesis formed by a casual familiarity with recent Congressional shenanigans, I Googled “GOP + no compromise” and got over 3 million hits.

Here’s the first page:

Always seeking to be fair, I then Googled “democrat + no compromise” and got even more hits, below, mainly because it also includes tons of stories about DEMOCRATS who folded like cheap lawn chairs because of the Republicans’ NO COMPROMISE stand, etc.

Every pundit and pollster agrees: These are times of crisis! Times that call for statesmen, not gamesmanship.

But in addition to his own political baggage, our feckless Commander-in-Chief has a Tea Party-guided GOP to work with; legislators who think that compromise is a dirty word, not one of the words used most often by the founding fathers they claim they adore, but about whose actions and opinions they clearly know nothing.

Because American history is littered with compromises. It was built on them; they are the mortar that has held our society together for more than two centuries.

There’s the Great Compromise of the Constitution, which gave us a deliberately bifurcated Congress to begin with; the Missouri Compromise; the Compromise of 1850; the Compromise of 1877

A Google search doesn’t reveal a trace of any historical Great Intransigences, however.

Compromise is supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to leave egg on everyone’s face. Lincoln famously said, early in his presidency, that he would free either all of the slaves or none of the slaves if either action would put an end to the Civil War.

Compromise has been an essential element from the birth of our experiment in Democracy, through its baptism by fire, a Great Depression and two World Wars.

And now it’s being abandoned by a Boomer generation that’s never had to sacrifice a damned thing to keep the good times rolling. Newly-minted politicos who believe the only way to make their mark on history is to raze the government and rebuild it in their own image, rather than fix the one that already exists.

So on the one hand, we have the former Constitutional scholar, palavering endlessly about compromise to an empty gallery; and on the other hand, we are blessed with the alleged leaders of the GOP, who are in lock-step behind the anarchic Tea Party, and on the record that their number one legislative priority is to block the President from getting anything passed and send him packing in 2012. Unemployment, two wars (three?), financial unrest... every other objective is Number Two or less.

To be fair, that’s always been the tacit political goal, to limit the oppo prez to one term, and I get that. But in the past, this beltway tomfoolery was played out against a background of a functioning central government, a luxury we no longer enjoy.

Serious times call for serious, responsible behavior. Uh oh! 

Due to the myopic, politically dug-in House of Representatives currently sitting, the President is indeed screwed, job-prospects-wise; mission accomplished. But because Congress has been focused exclusively on impeding the President instead of working with him to solve the country’s problems, every other jobless American remains screwed, too.

Except for the Tea Party. They’re sitting pretty. At the moment, the sky’s the limit for Tea Party candidates.

Because every falling empire needs its fiddlers.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Luke learns to swim in 20 minutes:

Thanks to swimming instructor Michelle, who was amazing!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A note to my Dad on his 98th birthday

Hey Dad,

It’s another September first, and I find myself thinking about you.

I came across this really cool picture of you, above, from when you were a rakish young lad with a full head of hair. (FYI, better break out the Brylcreem; this is how Mom expects to find you when she meets up with you, Jesus and Johnny Cash on the other side some day.)

I suppose it’s just as well you’re not here anymore, I don’t think you’d much approve of the state of the country or the changes in the world lately.

For one thing, having a “colored fella” in the White House doesn’t tend to play well with your age group. But there you go; times may change, but the dead are not required to change along with them. Call it one of the perks.

On the other hand, I don’t think you’d like the way America is sticking it to the poor these days, either. I’m sure you didn’t believe in coddling the indolent, but I do remember you standing outside of church every Sunday for a couple years, collecting canned food for Tucson’s hungry.

Funny thing, though, I don’t remember you vetting the people to whom the food was distributed for ethnic origin or ideological solidarity, or having to approve of the particular details of their unfortunate circumstances. Hungry people had to eat, and you could help. Done deal. I like the way you kept it simple.

For an Old School dude down to your three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and a man I don’t ever remember voicing what could be described as a liberal sentiment, your actions spoke much louder than your words.

I wish you could have met The Missus, oh, you would have liked her; young, smart, pretty, even-tempered, accomplished… you definitely would have no idea how I had landed her, any more than I do. And you would have said so, but with a smile and a wink.

God, you were cute as a Little Old Man.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there with you at the very end, but at the same time, I’m glad I wasn’t. That isn’t how I’d like to remember you, and due to an inescapable scheduling conflict at the time, I don’t have to.

I get to still remember the round, bald little tough guy with a heart of gold. All Jimmy Cagney on the outside and Father Flanagan on the inside.

You were a sweet, kind man, but you were also hard as Detroit steel when you had to be. That’s why going to war in the ’40s didn’t destroy you inside, your mettle had already been put to the test, growing up during the Great Depression. Walking up endless flights of tenement stairwells, selling Coca-Cola products to the good citizens of Chicago for what must have been pennies on the dollar, back when Coke was a nickel a bottle.

Pretty sure you wouldn’t be too happy with the way I turned out—a recovering-everything, hippie-artiste type with flagging professional prospects and a lousy attitude about doing anything about it—but from an early age, I did everything I could to lower your expectations. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Still, despite my (previously-documented) total failure as a boy-child in your eyes, I always knew you cared about me; I just knew you cared more about Mom.

With whom, unfortunately, I was at war for the better part of my upbringing. You were occasionally called upon to take sides and could almost always be counted upon to take hers. Which as a husband and parent now, I understand better. If The Missus and I were outnumbered two-to-one by our kids, I’d probably toe the party line more consistently, too.

In spite of which, I have many memories of you secretly ameliorating what damage you could. I remember you repeatedly sneaking me food when I was being punished with skipped meals, always with the promise—well kept—never to tell Mom about it. The same with secretly reinstated TV privileges, returned comic books… wherever you could discreetly correct Mom’s parental missteps you did, but in front of her, you always went with the United Front protocol.

Again, you and Mom were outnumbered two-to-one. Being a former soldier, you appreciated the importance of unit cohesion.

But you couldn’t ignore your innate instinct to be the deliverer of kindness, even in stealth. That’s probably the reason I’m the kind of bleeding-heart liberal you likely would have looked down on in your prime, despite the fact that it was your example that inspired me to walk in the other guy’s shoes, and look for ways to lighten his load.

I think that aspect of your personality, and its appeal to me, is what kept me from growing up to be the complete sociopath into which Mom was trying to mold me. There was always shelter from the storm, even if it was just a lean-to in a hurricane. And there was nobody who understood better than me why you were determined to keep your random acts of kindness on the DL from Mom.

The example of your simple humanity is also, I think, what drove me to aggressively redress the grievances of my own childhood when I became a parent myself. To make sure when I shuffle off this mortal coil, my replacement will be less volatile, less angry, less broken inside and spoiling for a fight with any and all comers.

And as you know, Dad, we have done very well in that regard. The Boy might be too much of an artsy type for you, but as a Granddad, one generation removed from parental responsibility, I really don’t think you would have cared in the face of the kid’s overwhelming sweetness and easy humor.

He’s an awful lot like you.

Your Grandson goes to sleep every night under the watchful eye of your vintage Army induction photo on his wall, have I told you that? Your image has been in his line of sight since the first day we brought him home from the hippie birthing center you assuredly would have advised us against.

Sure wish you guys could have met each other, though…

Well, as you can see, I’m starting to get maudlin, so I guess that’s about it for this year, Dad. Like the song says, I don’t think of you that often; but when I do, you come rushing back all at once. And unlike most flashbacks of my childhood, the tears that accompany the memories of our time spent together are those of loss, not terror or regret.

Hope you’re enjoying your reward for a life well-spent in the great Hereafter. And as always, if you run into Mr. Cash up there, make sure you tell him I said hey, won’t you?