Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Beyond & Back




Once you’ve seen a face melting in anguish, it stays with you -- especially when the face belongs to your friend. And he’s dead.

I witnessed this several years ago, and I can’t say that it was a pleasant reunion. Still, it did shake up whatever earthly, godless concepts I then held. Maybe I was hallucinating, but I’ve experienced some vivid hallucinations, and this was nothing like those.

My wife, kids and I were visiting an old friend of mine, Ginny, a wealthy older woman whose son I’d known in my teens, and who took me in for a time and made me part of her extended family. When he was 19, Ginny’s son Guy was accidentally shot in the pelvis with a .38 revolver. The hollow point bullet exploded and shredded his insides. He survived for a month before dying, and this sent Ginny into an emotional tailspin. Desperate to keep Guy around, she hired mediums, psychics and anyone else who told her they could talk to Guy’s spirit and keep it close by. I felt for Ginny, and tried to understand the pain that inspired her actions. But not for a second did I buy all the haunting stories I was being told, even though some came from Guy’s sister, Tami, who was, like me, extremely skeptical on this front.

Twenty years had passed since Guy’s death when my family entered Ginny’s house. The atmosphere felt strange. My then-two-year-old son was the first to sense this, and it hit him very hard. Giggling and smiling outside the house, he immediately became terrified once inside. My wife and I had never seen him act like this. We kept asking him what was wrong. He merely stared ahead, eyes frozen, lips quivering. He sobbed, and at times was short of breath. This went on for the better part of an hour. As the night went on, fear wore him down. He finally fell asleep in my wife’s arms.

For us, things sped up. The air felt electrified, a sensation I’d never before experienced. A sense of anger or rage was evident. Still, Ginny seemed calm. She was obviously used to this atmosphere, and I suppose it provided her some comfort. But my wife and I were getting antsy, and when Ginny offered us her bedroom for the night, we thanked her and retired, sleeping son in tow.

Upstairs, the sensations continued, but we talked about other matters, trying to keep our minds off what was becoming impossible to ignore. We slipped into Ginny’s large bed, our son tucked between us, turned out the light and fell quickly to sleep. I don’t know how long it was before the images hit me. Savage images. Images of people dying, moaning, crawling through a diseased landscape, flesh hanging on bone. Several faces decayed on the spot, Guy’s among them. The overall feeling was one of despair and severe anguish. It was horrific and stark, unlike anything I’d ever dreamt, assuming I was dreaming. Soon it became so unspeakable that I shot straight up in the dark, sweating, heart pounding. I turned to see my wife awake as well.

"Did you see that?" I asked.

"See what?"

I hurriedly filled her in, and while she hadn’t experienced any ghastly visions, she was suffering from extreme dread. The bedroom was filled with it. As ridiculous as it now seems, I felt no choice but to openly admonish Guy, who I assumed was responsible, and begged him to stop. Within a few minutes, the atmosphere lightened, the tension faded. I stayed awake for another hour, waiting for anything, before succumbing to a dreamless sleep.

Crazy? Tell me about it. If I hadn't witnessed it with my wife, I would've dismissed it as an aggressive fever dream (or try to, anyway). But I stand by it. And given the countless ghost stories I’ve encountered since moving to Michigan, my dead friend’s appearance was well within that spectral tradition.

One local guy I worked with told me of his time living near an Indian burial ground upstate, the area choked with angry spirits and energy. There are the runaway slaves who died in Michigan barns and basements before they could cross into Canada and to freedom, their residual agony left to haunt the living. A whole mythology exists about Michigan’s haunted lakes and lighthouses, the cries of drowning men still heard by those onshore.

I’ve never come across so much paranormal material as I have in this state, and this, added to my past experiences, has intensely piqued my interest in the topic.

The idea that the dead roam the Earth is nothing new. Every culture has its version of this, and in Western culture the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Proust are filled with varied images of the deceased. Paul Bowles wrote of an astral insight he experienced as a child, which so shook his concept of reason that he hurried to bury it. William Burroughs believed in different dimensions and explored various afterlife concepts. In his memoir, Alec Guinness recalled that upon meeting James Dean, a voice in his head told him that Dean would die in a car crash one week later, which he passed on to Dean, who laughed it off. Even non-believers like Stephen King have made creative and profitable use of the supernatural. Then there are all the horror-afterlife films and TV series that have explored every possible paranormal angle.

While I’ve enjoyed many of these ghostly treatments, I never took them seriously. Raised Catholic, I left the Church in my early teens, convinced there was no God, no spiritual realm, nothing save our active, at times overheated imaginations. The idea that life continued in some form after death frightened me. Would it never end? Were we to be conscious forever? Horrifying, I thought, and so I took comfort in atheism. Non-existence once the body failed was my Heaven. How could one be afraid of not being where one is not?

Influenced by sharper minds and merciless personalities, I became smug in my godlessness, and vicious when debating others on the subject. I’ve ripped apart gentle souls who believed in the Other Side, mocking their naiveté, their mental and emotional weakness. I could be quite a prick about it, actually. But, in time, contrary evidence began to emerge, and forced me to reconsider my hostile position.

My most recent paranormal encounter came a few months ago. A former neighbor, Wendy, had been telling me about an ongoing presence in her home. An older woman lived in the house next door to us before Wendy’s family did, and I rarely saw her. Nurses and some medical personnel came and went, so obviously the woman had health problems. To what degree I never knew. Then, over a series of days, her driveway and open garage began filling up with furniture, clothes, and other household items. The nurses stopped visiting. A moving van arrived to haul away the lot. Clearly, the woman had passed on.

Several months later, Wendy, her husband Kevin and their 2-year-old daughter Mikela, moved in. They were friendly and outgoing, and soon we got to know them fairly well. Then one night over wine, I asked them about the woman who lived there before them. Did they know anything about her? How she died? What was the house like when moving in?

Wendy wasn’t sure about the cause of the woman’s death, but she grinned and said, "I don’t think she ever left."

"How do you mean?"

Wendy explained that the first few nights in the new home were very active with spectral activity. None of it seemed hostile or malevolent, but according to Wendy it was consistent and very tangible, a feeling that perhaps several people were moving around them as if to let the new family know that they would not be alone. After this initial greeting, the activity ebbed and flowed but never fully waned. (Wendy and Kevin told me that one night, while watching TV, they both saw a white specter move through their kitchen before disappearing.) In time, Wendy’s daughter Mikela began seeing older women in her bedroom, and would describe their appearance without hesitation, right down to their pill box hats, the name of which Mikela didn’t know, but outlined in perfect detail.

Invisible friends, I thought. A child’s vivid imagination. Still, I recalled how immediately aware my son was of the dark energy in Ginny’s house, and I later read that younger children are more attuned to these vibrations as they have yet to develop a wall of denial and justification. Mikela’s experience wasn’t as harrowing as was my son’s (when I spoke to her about it, she never seemed frightened, taking it all in stride), but what if she did see something, or the traces of someone passed on? I decided to check this out for myself.

While researching a possible article about haunted Michigan sites, I got to know a local "ghost hunter," Charla, who spoke at length about her group's experiences (the majority of suspected "hauntings" they investigate turn out to be Earth-bound and easily explainable -- drafts, faulty wiring, chipmunks in the walls). She showed me the equipment the group uses and what each instrument does. After talking to Wendy, I phoned Charla and asked if I could borrow some of her equipment. She kindly said yes, and when I stopped by her office to pick up her electro-magnetic sensor and temperature gauge, she told me to stay clear of electrical outlets and appliances like a microwave or refrigerator. Any paranormal energy present would be masked by the waves emitted by those and other appliances. Charla advised me to keep an open mind, to be patient, and not to get too anxious should some kind of contact be made.

"Stay loose and have fun," she said.

That night, I arrived at Wendy and Kevin’s around 10:30 PM. I felt excited though very self-conscious, as though I should be wearing Ghostbusters garb. I really didn’t know what to expect, but the thought that I might encounter something from another dimension pushed me past any lingering doubts that remained in my mind.

Kevin, very laid back, smiled, as if he knew what was about to occur. While not as taken with the presence as was Wendy, Kevin had seen too much to deny what had become a given in their home. Wendy, on the other hand, was primed, and she suggested that some activity had already begun before my arrival. I took out the two pieces of equipment, along with a tape recorder with a newly-opened blank tape inside. I would keep the recorder running the entire time I measured for a presence, in the hope that I would capture some type of Electronic Voice Phenomena. Wendy suggested that we start in her bedroom upstairs, as that was the focal point for most of the activity.

I clicked on the temperature gauge; the room was a steady 70 degrees. The electro-magnetic sensor picked up some slight traces of energy, but nothing dramatic, and I assumed that perhaps a lamp or outlet was causing this. I set the tape recorder on the bed and got it running as Wendy talked about some of her experiences in the room. She said that while there were several manifestations of activity, the physical sense that someone was lying in bed next to her being one, the main action was a tapping sound that came out of her bedroom closet. My daughter, who baby-sits Mikela from time to time, told me about this -- that she’s walked through the upstairs hallway and heard loud tapping coming out of that room when only she and Mikela were in the house. I looked out the window next to the closet to see if there might be a tree branch that could be the source of the tapping. But only the narrow end of one branch could reach the house, and the sound it made as the wind pushed it was a high scratching one, not the strong, steady tapping and knocking I was told about.

I grabbed the tape recorder and placed it in front of the closet. Wendy and I left the room to see what the sensor could find in the hallway and down the staircase. As we moved downstairs the sensor’s needle spiked into the red field and stayed like that until we got to the corner of the living room.

"I’m getting something," I said excitedly. "What outlets or appliances are in this area?"

Kevin was sitting nearby. "Nothing really. One outlet, but that’s away from where you are right now."

"Well," I replied, "there’s definitely some energy here. Can you feel it?"

"Oh yeah," said Wendy with a big smile. "It’s all around me."

It was all around me as well. It appeared suddenly, and like the energy I’d felt years ago in Ginny’s house, it was strong and tangible, but there wasn’t any dread or feeling of terror. It felt like fingers were running up and down my arms, and the sensor’s needle was now buried, buzzing loudly.

"Man, this is wild!" I said. "It’s like several people are touching me. I can feel a definite presence. I don’t know what to say."

"Are you still skeptical?" asked Wendy.

"Yeah, maybe a little. I don’t know."

Just then I felt a jab in the back of my neck.

"YOW!" I yelled, spinning around to nothing. "I just got poked by something. I mean, I really felt that!"

The whole scene became very weird. To Wendy and Kevin, this was business as usual. Another haunted evening at home. For me, it rattled my mind and sense of earthly reason. And the electric stroking continued as the sensor buzzed on.

I pulled out the temperature gauge: 71 degrees. I walked toward Wendy with the gauge still on, and the room’s temperature in that short space suddenly dropped four degrees. Just like that.

"There’s a cold patch here," I said.

"Oh yeah," laughed Wendy. "We get those all the time."

All this continued for maybe 20 minutes, maybe more. It all seemed unreal, but at the risk of seeming insane, I swear it happened. I felt fatigued, as though a lot of energy had been drained from me. I sat on the edge of a chair and slumped over. The electric sensations ebbed, then disappeared. I turned on the sensor one last time to see if there was any trace. Nothing. Just five minutes before, that area of the room was alive with electrical activity. Now, quiet.

Wendy, Kevin and I talked about this for a few minutes, with me trying to get my head around it. Then I remembered that I’d left the tape recorder upstairs. I ran up, saw that the tape had run out, grabbed the recorder and went downstairs and said my goodnights.

When I arrived home, my daughter was awake and instantly quizzed me. I told her everything, which didn’t surprise her, knowing what she did about the house. She asked if she could listen to the tape for me.

"Sure," I replied. "Just grab me if you hear anything strange."

She plugged headphones into the tape player, sat on the couch and began to take notes. About five minutes later she ran into my office.

"Dad! You have to hear this!"

She cued up the tape and handed me the headphones.

"Listen real close, just as Wendy is talking."

I hit Play and cranked up the volume. Wendy is telling me a story when a little girl is heard giggling loudly.

"Was Mikela in the room with you guys?" my daughter asked.

"No. She was asleep, across the hall in her room with the door closed. She wasn’t anywhere near us."

"Well, who’s that laughing? It can’t be Wendy, and it definitely isn’t you."

I didn’t know. I rewound and listened to that section of the tape maybe a dozen times, and every time, there was a girl clearly giggling over us.

My daughter reclaimed the player, sat down and listened some more. I went to the fridge for a beer, which I downed quickly as I pondered the girl. That tape had been freshly unwrapped before use, so it couldn’t be an old recording seeping through. The girl’s pitch and tone was younger and much higher than Wendy’s, and besides, Wendy was completing a sentence when the giggling occurred. Again, I searched for some rational explanation, but it eluded me.

My daughter yelled for me again.

"What is it this time? Singing? Yodeling?"

"No," she said, "it’s that knocking I told you about."

By this point in the tape, Wendy and I had gone downstairs. The room was vacant. Crickets could be heard through the window screen when suddenly a THUMP THUMP came through, then another THUMP THUMP. It sounded like someone was pounding a wood floor right in front of the recorder, only the room was entirely carpeted.

"That’s the sound you heard when you were babysitting?"

"Yeah. It was creepy. I never go in that room."

The tape yielded no more sounds or surprises. But what it did capture, in addition to my direct experience earlier that night, further altered my thinking about the paranormal. I’m becoming more convinced that another realm exists, but what it is precisely I don’t think anyone can confidently say, at least without seeming in another dimension themselves.

At bottom, I remain skeptical, as should you. As Woody Allen put in "Hannah And Her Sisters," no one really knows what will happen when the final moment arrives, so we should enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Still, speculating on the mysteries of the beyond is part of the fun. And it’s why so many people will never give up the ghost.

Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Ass Kicked -- Conclusion




On yesterday's "Face The Nation," one of the Sunday shows where the elite talk to each other and hone their propaganda, DNC chairman Howard Dean admitted that even if the Dems take control of Congress next week, don't expect much movement on Iraq. After all, Dean said, Bush will still be in charge of the military, and will doubtless stick to his failed policy in the face of all counter-evidence and/or pressure. All the Dems will be able to do is set timetables and try to nudge Bush toward meeting them.

Hoo-haw.

Man, is there any weaker "opposition" party on the planet? The Dems are laughable, simply laughable -- or would be, if their cowardice and cravenness didn't contribute to more death and destruction. Here's a criminal president, poll numbers in a wet ditch, who's as ripe a candidate for impeachment as you could ask for, but if the Dems take control of the legislative wing of government, don't expect them to do anything hasty, or God forbid, politically just. The Dems are solely interested in power and control; and if this happens to fall into their laps due to the incompetence and venality of the Repubs, rather than from any innovative or courageous policy the Dems might fashion, then that's even better, since the expectations won't be as high. Just having a majority, however slim or inactive, will more than do, especially for those libloggers and radio hosts who will obediently toss the Party-approved confetti.

Bet you can't wait for '08!

As I said last week, I'm laying out my history with and against the Dems to show those of you who believe I'm merely an ideological hit-and-run artist that my frustration and anger have serious roots. We left off at 1992, the dawn of the Clinton era, which most American libs saw as a Second Coming -- of what, I was never really sure. Camelot? The Great Society? Jimmy Carter's support for state terror in Central America, southern Korea and East Timor? Clinton's victory in '92 was a heady time for those who lost their heads and have yet to reclaim them. It marked the moment when American liberalism finally conceded whatever ground it still held to the rightwing, and it has staggered along ever since.

When Clinton was re-elected in '96, it appeared to the credulous that the Dems were truly back after 12 years of Republican White House rule. Unlike Jimmy Carter, Clinton got a second term; but then, unlike Jimmy Carter, Clinton faced a weak Bob Dole rather than a robust Ronald Reagan. And besides, as in '92, it was Clinton who wore Reagan's pompadour, with Dole playing the dual role of Carter/Walter Mondale. The GOP had no shot that year, and they knew it, which is why they offered up Dole for ritual sacrifice. They were looking ahead to 2000, when the presidential field would be wide open, or at least open enough to push an under-educated political scion on a public they despise and fear. If one has any doubt that Repub elites have zero respect for those they seek to con and rule, you need not look any further than George W. Bush.

The same can be said of the Dems who, after the brief Bill Bradley charade, went whole hog with another privileged political son, Al Gore. In Gore, the Dems' move to the right was more or less complete, especially when Gore picked Joe Lieberman to serve a heartbeat away. This was The Ticket, libs and assorted progressives were told, and there would be no deviation. If you were left-of-center, the Democratic Party owned your vote, if not your full allegiance, and any rejection of what Party elites deemed as politically acceptable would not be tolerated.

I heard this a lot during the 2000 campaign, not only from Party hacks online and on TV, but from people I knew who worked for Dems on Capitol Hill. Eight years of Clinton made these wonks even more power-hungry; plus, they were pissed off and defiant after Clinton survived impeachment, and they craved some payback. I got into some pretty petty arguments with a few of my professional liberal friends when discussing the dreadful Dem ticket. But petty was nothing once I decided to support Ralph Nader.

I didn't jump on the Nader wagon overnight. As in '88, '92 and '96, I seriously considered boycotting the presidential circus in favor of watching the inevitable bullshit explosions as election day neared. But the more I read about Nader's run, the more drawn in I became. If the lib wonks were angry with how the Repubs treated their god Bill Clinton, then we who believed that the Dems weren't much better than the GOP, that is, when they weren't openly helping to enact reactionary policies, were insulted that Gore/Lieberman was being shoved down our throats. How much further right were the Dems supposed to slide before they were called on it? This, and the hostile, condescending comments made by those Dems I knew made my decision that much easier.

Besides, I was interested to see if Nader could grab the five percent of the vote needed to award the Greens federal matching funds, which would help to build a small, but potentially effective alternative party. Not that I was crazy about the Greens. Some of the meetings I attended and members I chatted with did little to lift my political spirits. The entire election seemed like a no-win situation, no matter how it went. But I knew a couple of old colleagues who worked directly for Nader, and they kept me inside the loop, which helped somewhat. And of course, there was Nader himself, who during that election gave some of the best and most stirring speeches of his public life. Plus, he told the truth about the fixed political system and the corporations that control it. That alone was inspirational, especially when set against the status quo droning of Gore and Lieberman's friendly patty-cake with Dick Cheney. Finally, there was a clear and unambiguous choice.

As the Nader campaign moved into the fall and attracted huge audiences nationwide, the long Dem knives really came out, and it was clear that Nader's poll numbers would be cut down by election day, through direct personal attacks and 'round the clock fear mongering. Still, I did what I could; and when Nader was booked for "The Late Show with David Letterman," the show's producers told Nader that he could bring on and read his own Top Ten list. A good friend of mine, working with Phil Donahue as a Nader adviser, phoned me and asked if I could come up with two Top Ten lists -- actually, 30 Top Ten jokes overall -- in less than 36 hours. I said yes, then pulled a serious all-nighter with the wife laying on the office couch, snoozing until I woke her to read out the latest batch. I met my deadline, and was told that the Nader camp loved the lists. Thing is, I couldn't stay awake to see if Nader used any of my jokes, as I was exhausted. I never did see his appearance, and was told that at the last minute, Nader wanted to answer the Dems' attacks on his candidacy. So much for my frenzied efforts. But Phil Donahue found it funny (Marlo, too?).

We all know -- shaken-not-stirred Kali do we know -- how that election ended. Not only were enough voters scared off from voting Nader that the Greens failed to get five percent, but Al Gore, who mysteriously found his populist tongue at the last minute, fell largely mute when the Florida ballot mess spilled forth. I lack the time and energy to once again contest the whole "Thanks Ralph" reaction from angry Dems, but I don't recall many sarcastic "Thanks Al" remarks coming from the same mouths. After all, it was Gore who, after timidly poking into Florida's results, handed the whole shebang to Bush, for "the good of nation." If there ever existed a sterling example of political insider conformity, it was Gore's surrender in Florida. He could have and should have fought to the last disputed ballot, but being born into political privilege and knowing the rules of elite engagement, Gore naturally acquiesced. Yet it is Nader who bears all the blame.

Four years, 17,894 "Thanks Ralph"s and one Howard Dean meltdown later, the Dems thought they found The Answer in John Kerry. A Vietnam combat vet who was slightly to the left of Al Gore, Kerry cast a wider, if not the widest, net, bringing in not only the Dem faithful but those who felt guilty about supporting Nader in '00. There were also those, like me and many people I know, who felt no guilt about exercising free political choice, but believed that another four years of Bush would be disastrous for the world, and we, grudgingly, supported Kerry's campaign. Not that we were unaware of Kerry's shortcomings and his own imperial concepts; but it seemed that Bush was unprecedented in his criminality, and replacing him with a lesser crook would help to slow the rancid tide until a broader opposition could be forged.

Pie in the exploding sky? No doubt. But other than abstaining, what choice was there? Nader ran again, only this time as farce, with no semblance of a wider political agenda. If one truly wanted to kick out Bush, Kerry was the only option, no matter how awful he proved to be.

Don't you love democracy!

I took the '04 election so seriously that I actually worked for the Kerry/Edwards campaign. I phonebanked, stuffed envelopes, drove people around, and spent time talking to Kerry operatives in the local office. Once again, I was reminded why I despise the Dems so. Most of these people were youngish white men seeking some kind of political career with the Dem party. All they cared about was winning elections. Talking actual politics, apart from Party-approved bullet points, proved fruitless as many of them had no idea what was going on in the wider world. Nor did they know much about the history of the party they chose to serve. On top of this, some of these guys were incredibly snide and short-tempered with the volunteers, the majority of whom were senior citizens. They set themselves up as political wizards to be blindly obeyed, rather than co-workers looking to oust Bush. I spent less and less time in those offices, though put in a full day on election day, trying to avoid any serious contact with these dweebs as a few came apart at the seams, openly worried that Bush would win.

Wasn't it Harry Truman, a Dem, who said something about heat in kitchens?

So there you have it -- my history working with and against the Dems. Perhaps my anger is all on me. Perhaps I'm being unrealistic about the possibility for serious political change in the US at this point in time. Perhaps the Dems are what we deserve, and deserve to get good and hard. If so, then I willingly concede my shortcomings in this area. But please remember that I spent a chunk of my life taking the same donkey ride as you more enthusiastic boosters. How you can still find something of value in being led around the same enclosed pen, year after year, escapes me. Personally, I find the whole set-up depressing, but a lot of you don't. Well, you're welcome to your fun, but please don't insist that the rest of us must share your enthusiasm. When your hallowed mule ends these wars, stops assaults on civil liberties, expands protection for the poor, and limits if not eliminates corporate influence on public elections and politics, then maybe we can talk. Until then, keep your ass to yourselves.

THE LATEST: Dem darling, Barack Obama, is carefully and critically appraised in the November Harper's by Ken Silverstein. Well worth a read, though you must have the print edition to do so. And, surprise of surprises, Obama's camp didn't take kindly to some of Silverstein's observations, and responded in kind. That, along with Ken's reaction, may be read online here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Inexplicable Origins of Honest Laughter

In addition to the Frugday video twist and shout, there are two additions to your Son's blogroll. Steven Poole I got to know when he did some guest writing at Crooked Timber, and as we exchanged pleasantries, I happened to notice that the Son was on his blogroll. Now, I may not hold some fancy framed degree from one of those elite educational institutions that everyone drones on and on about, nor do I swan about the higher echelons of polite society, monocle in place, martini in hand. But damn it, I do know one thing -- if someone links to you, and you enjoy what it is they do where you are linked, then by God you better return the favor and pronto, or else consider yourself one of those odd little squiggly bits that get lodged in the hip pocket of an old winter coat that you've dusted off in preparation for the change in season. So, I've added Steven's site, and in an effort to be even less squiggly, I've included Lance Mannion, another Son linker, as well.

Like me, Lance loves sketch comedy, so our linking is a natural. Politically, Lance is a bit softer on the Dems than am I, but the power of comedy love can overcome pretty much any ideological difference, even in a midterm year. Plus, Lance and I are among the 12 people who regularly watch both "Studio 60" and "30 Rock," so our affinity on that front practically screams out for mutual linkage.

Of the two mock "SNL" shows, I must say that I like "Studio 60" more than Tina Fey's "That Comedy Girl" effort. While the sketches within the show within the show are amazingly sterile (so much for Mark McKinney of The Kids In The Hall overseeing that part of it), Aaron Sorkin clearly has affection for old comedy, as seen in last week's episode, with references to Abbott and Costello and the World War II-era musical/comedy revue "Tars and Spars," which featured a young Sid Caesar. If the mock sketch comedy is gonna suck tile, then I suppose obscure comedy references will have to suffice. Still, if Sorkin's going retro on that front, how about conversations about Fred Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Pigmeat Markham, John Bunny, Lucille Kallen, Bob Schiller, Nat Hiken, Thelma Todd, and Raymond Griffith? If nothing else, the "Studio 60" staff will be extremely knowledgeable about their comedy ancestors, even if they cannot conceive a decent contemporary sketch.

I sincerely doubt that Tina Fey, or anyone associated with "30 Rock" (with the possible exceptions of Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels), would know anything substantial about the above comics and writers. Fey's show is so lightly written that it merely drifts from scene to scene, unconnected to anything intellectually solid. In fact, for a project that's supposedly Fey's personal showcase, Fey herself is pretty beside the point. Baldwin and Tracy Morgan own "30 Rock" and bring to life whatever life is to be wrung from those weak scripts. I suspect that wasn't the idea going in, but who knows. And apart from me, Lance, and assorted comedy geeks here and there, I don't see what audience "30 Rock" is trying to reach. I did smile at the "parody" of the dorky writer and his sketch where guys in bear suits fight a robot; but this has been parodied before on "The Simpsons," and for Fey to jab at this kind of comedy is a bit disingenuous, given the nearly-identical bits she oversaw as head writer on "SNL." Perhaps she's purging herself of those comedy toxins. Next week: oral sex double entendres?

And speaking of "SNL," tomorrow's edition will be hosted by the first-rate English comic actor Hugh Laurie. This is a first for Laurie's generation, which includes Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmonson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Rowan Atkinson, and of course Laurie's long-time comedy partner, Stephen Fry. None of these talents has appeared on "SNL," which is probably a good thing, overall. The styles of comedy are too disparate, and in most cases, it's the Brits who are funnier and more inventive than the bears-fighting-robots crowd. Given the present sorry state of "SNL," I cannot imagine what shit they've shoveled onto Laurie's lap, but we'll know tomorrow night. I shouldn't watch, but I will, as the potential for extremely bad comedy is too great to pass up. Schadenfreude is one of my weaknesses, as well as my drag queen name.

Here are some non-"SNL" Hugh Laurie bits, the first few with Stephen Fry:







And then Laurie and Fry, along with Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny and Tony Robinson, in the final episode of "Blackadder Goes Forth," which took place in a frontline trench during World War I. Ben Elton's and Richard Curtis's script is savagely funny, absurd, and in the end, quite sad, as the reality of mass slaughter approaches the main characters. One wishes that a new "Blackadder" series set in Iraq would be produced, though it would be tough to keep the laughs coming in that God-forsaken setting. But then, as O'Donoghue put it, making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.







And while we're on the topic of Brit comics on bad American TV shows, here's a little gem I found -- the Monty Python team (minus John Cleese) on "AMerica," ABC's precursor to "Good Morning, America." This aired April 25, 1975, when the Pythons were still unknown to much of the States. They are promoting the American premiere of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which they use as an excuse to overtake the studio. But note the terse expression on news anchor Peter Jennings's face. It's clear that he doesn't find the Pythons terribly amusing, especially given that he's reporting on the North Vietnamese about to enter Saigon, from which the US withdrew only 10 days before. There's an eeriness to those news segments about Southeast Asia, at that moment still reeling from years of US bombing. And of course in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge was just getting started on their rural project, the extent of which could not have been known at the time of this broadcast. But we here in the future know all about it, and it makes the Pythons appear clueless and callous, an unfair judgment given the context of their appearance. After all, what will the YouTubers of 2027 say about "30 Rock" when setting it against the mass killing of its time? Impossible to know, but just the thought that people twenty years from now might actually watch a show that few are currently watching is sad enough. Get a life, future people!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kicking The Ass -- Part I




Whenever I knock liberals in general, and Dems specifically, those among the faithful who respond say that I live in a fantasy world, that I'm a Naderite, that I'm an overgrown campus radical who never got enough Lenin, that I hate democracy, that I don't understand how the Two Party System works. To them, the Star Spangled mule, for all its stumbling about, is the only progressive ride in town. And we who throw rotting fruit at the poor thing are not only being selfish and cruel, we're setting the mule up to be crushed by the rampaging elephant, which humanity can no longer afford.

And yabba yab. You know the narrative.

Still, I won't protest too much about these and other characterizations. It comes with the turf when opining. But with the 11th hour wailing from online & talk radio libs about how the '06 midterms might be -- no, are -- the most important elections in our very lifetimes (be sure to cross yourself before you vote!), perhaps it's time to show you loyal mule riders how I arrived at my present position, such as it is.

As noted here before, I grew up in a largely apolitical home, though my mother, around the time she and my father divorced, got active in Indianapolis Republican campaigns (she worked for Richard Lugar's successful mayoral run and was a big fan of him as Senator, until recently, when she informed me that Lugar is now a "socialist"). When I went to live with my father, his second wife was a dye-in-wool Kennedy liberal, and my exposure to her politics had an effect. In the 1980 presidential campaign, my first, I supported Ted Kennedy's challenge to Jimmy Carter's incumbency. While Kennedy won the New York primary, which seemed huge at the time, he fell way short of toppling Carter from the Dem ticket. Faced with a Carter/Reagan contest, a lot of young disaffected libs like myself ended up in John Anderson's camp, the liberal Repub who thought Reagan was a disaster for the GOP. I worked on Anderson's campaign with plenty of enthusiasm, though no one in our office thought Anderson had a shot (and if I had to do it over, I would've supported Barry Commoner of the Citizens Party). We simply could not work for Carter who, in his drift to the right, reinstated draft registration, which didn't effect me since I was already in the Army. But it was the principle of the thing, and we believed that Carter was caving in too much to Reagan, while at least Anderson put up a fight, however symbolic.

In 1984, I was living on Manhattan's Upper East Side with an older, sexy actress and part-time model who was a Southern Dem through and through. By this point in time, I had witnessed first-hand the Sanctuary Movement, which operated an underground railroad of sorts, getting Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees into Canada, and was increasingly involved in Central American issues, as well as nuclear disarmament activism (I'd done door-to-door canvassing for SANE/Freeze on Long Island and in New Jersey -- and was chased out of more than a few yards). Needless to say, supporting Walter Mondale or Gary Hart was the furthest thing from my mind, though I did have friends who worked on Jesse Jackson's campaign, who at least made some critical mention of Reagan's death squad policy in the Americas (when not sticking his foot in his mouth via "Hymietown"). Being militantly atheist, I couldn't get with a preacher running for president, no matter how much I agreed with Jackson's positions.

Once Mondale locked down the Dem nomination and picked Geraldine Ferraro as his historic running mate, my lib girlfriend went Mondale mad. We had Mondale/Ferraro stickers all over our apartment, and she insisted that I wear a big red, white and blue button promoting the ticket, which I didn't want to do, since the Dems were complicit in mass murder in Central America. This caused considerable tension between us, which affected our, er, "intimate" relationship. This was too much for me to endure, as I was insanely hot for her. And so, I wore the button during the last weeks of Mondale's doomed campaign, and voted, as promised, for the Dem ticket, which lost New York state. It was the first and only time I voted with my dick. It was worth it in the short run, even though she dumped me about five months later.

In 1986, I worked for Mark Green's New York Senate campaign against Al D'Amato, though I wondered at the time how seriously Green took the election. He was stable during the debates, but lacked a killer instinct and allowed D'Amato to walk all over him. Also, in private, Green was pretty unbearable, his egomania and clear careerist ambition overshadowing what many of us felt were more pressing issues, like Central America, South Africa, abortion rights and the drug war. Green made all the right noises, yet never seemed to follow through with any substance. And of course, he was flattened in the general election.

By 1988, I had had it with the American political system, and with the Dems especially, who made no attempt to impeach Reagan over Iran/contra, which I found scandalous and spineless. To make matters worse, the Dems nominated Michael Dukakis, who would not rule out an American invasion of Nicaragua. But then, he wouldn't have the hypothetical killer of his wife, Kitty, executed either, so some "progressive" tendencies were ostensibly present. Nevertheless, Dukakis ran a horrible campaign against a very beatable George Herbert Walker Bush, and this drove those Dems I knew nuts. Still, they remained loyal to the mule, even though the stupid animal kept running into walls and kicking at air. And, in return, Dukakis had his ass stomped by an emaciated pachyderm. One of the sorriest spectacles I've ever witnessed.

In 1992, I was briefly taken with Jerry Brown's campaign. Although I had many problems with him, Brown spoke about the undemocratic nature of major campaigns, and lambasted the role of corporate money in deciding them. He made Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton look like the party hacks and corporate shills they were, and for a moment it appeared as if the Dem primaries might actually mean something, especially after Brown beat Clinton in Connecticut. But Brown's suggestion that if he snagged the nomination he would consider Jesse Jackson as his running mate hurt him in mainstream circles. And just before the New York and Wisconsin primaries, ABC News and "Nightline" reported that drug parties were taking place in one of Brown's residences, even though he wasn't present for the fun. This "story" came and went after Clinton narrowly edged out Brown in both states, and it was suspected that pro-Clinton operatives planted this "news flash" in order to give their candidate the extra help he needed to stave off Brown's strong showing. There was no hard evidence that these parties existed; and naturally Brown, as anti-drug as you could get, angrily denied them. Yet, Clinton got the edge he needed, and went on to win the nomination.

It was then I first saw that Clinton was an amoral hustler who would do anything to grab power, which he shamelessly did. But what really floored me, though it shouldn't have, was how many left-liberals were deeply in love with him. It made no sense to me, especially with Clinton using Reaganite appeals to win votes. As I repeatedly told my lib friends who swooned at the mere mention of the man from Hot Springs, it was Clinton, not Bush, and certainly not Ross Perot, who was Reagan's true political heir. Serious Clintonites didn't run from this assessment, but many fawning libs tried to play this down, no matter how obvious it was. And when cornered, all they could say was that, yes, maybe Big Bill is running a Reagan Lite campaign. But that's where the votes are! Once he gets in, he'll have no need for that cover and will be free to unleash the true progressive within!

Well, we saw how that worked out -- or not, depending on one's level of Clintonphilia. But if Bill Clinton was/is what his lib followers insist he was/is, there would have been no need for Aaron Sorkin's fantasy Clintons played by Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen. Why pretend if the reality was as wonderful as liberals maintain?

That's all I have time to tap out today. I'll conclude this post early next week, just as midterm mania reaches its peak. Besides, there are Friday videos to select. Must keep matters in proper perspective.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Limits Of Denial




More mayhem, chaos and mass murder in Iraq over the weekend, brutality so redundant at this point that even mentioning its redundancy is redundant. Every day we read another headline of 44 killed here, 37 bombed there, 15 US soldiers killed the other day with more dying today and tomorrow. And on and on it goes. Bush, of course, is stubbornly oblivious -- indeed, criminally so, as he pushes his arrogant and stupid policy, to borrow from US State Department official Alberto Fernandez. It appears that Bush is going to grind out this disaster up to the minute when he relinquishes his control, handing his successor a rotting, bloody corpse before he heads out the door and into a lucrative private life.

For us out here, however, there is little it seems we can do, or desire to do, for that matter. I've harped on the general inaction by the majority of Americans in reaction to this daily outrage, as well as the determined effort to remain as oblivious as Bush. Still, I wonder if averted eyes and hands cupped over ears seriously works anymore. A vast number of Americans have no fucking clue about the modern Middle and Near East, much less its recent history, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the endless reports of barbarism and despair aren't seeping into people's unconscious. There seems to me a growing ugliness and unease in Americans, more so than usual, though there are other factors to consider, like the economy, which in my part of the country is in shitty shape. White collar jobs are being eliminated or compressed, and the blue collar world struggles as it usually does. Add a seemingly endless war into this mix and people begin feel the pressure. I see this nearly every day. It breaks your heart when not contributing to a low level of fear and anxiety.

Take the note that the boy brought home from school late last week. I can't go into great detail, but his school and another one nearby have received written threats. Local police are investigating, and the school's administration urges calm, but I'm sorry, this is pretty unsettling. Now, it might well be some young assholes playing "domestic terrorist," like that dipshit kid in Milwaukee who "planned" to detonate dirty bombs in various NFL stadiums. Then again, it might not. The school is essentially locked down during the day, and care is taken when the kids go out for recess. Our son hasn't said anything to us about it, nor we to him, so I don't know how aware he is of any conceivable threat. But after what happened to those Amish girls in Pennsylvania, let's just say that I'm not feeling all that secure at the moment. There are a lot of privately-owned weapons in Michigan, owing to the state's huge deer hunting industry. It wouldn't take much for some lunatic to walk into a local school and start killing kids. Again, I'm probably overreacting, and I hope that's the case. But as I've said before, this is an especially violent, desperate time. And receiving notes about possible threats from the hand of my young boy does little to soothe this old man's nerves.

Unlike Bush, we the average people cannot afford to live in denial, to the extent that denial is even viable anymore. Like so much else in American life, pretending that things are swell is increasingly reserved for those who can buy their way out of the nightmare. The rest of us must experience it with open, bloodshot eyes.

Monday, October 16, 2006

War Games




Crisp spiral pass against intense blue sky. Red, orange and gold leaves flutter and fall as the ball lands in the boy's outstretched hands.

"Touchdown!!" he yells, spiking the ball on the driveway/end zone.

My son doesn't like to watch football on TV, and really doesn't understand its allure. Too violent and war-like for his taste. But he loves playing catch in the front yard; and his long legs and long arms make him a natural wide receiver. Yet, as you know, he lacks the killer instinct required for this game, and prefers the fantasy of scoring last-second TDs to the cheers of invisible fans.

I really enjoy this too, the old QB, barking out signals and audibles, hitting my receiver for six while barely avoiding a sack and ten-yard loss. I'm just as into it as is the boy, probably more so, for this takes me back to his age, when there were two professional football leagues, and I always rooted for the smaller, newer one. Back then, I doubled as both QB and receiver, throwing to myself, making my receiver-side dash and dive for the ball. I played whole games that way, with the AFL always beating the NFL, and always at the last minute. It was John Hadl to Lance Alworth, Daryle Lamonica to Fred Biletnikoff, Len Dawson to Otis Taylor, and of course Joe Namath to Don Maynard and George Sauer, with Matt Snell coming out of the backfield. While I took it far more seriously then than my son does now, I was, like him, fantasizing about a warrior game at a time when a real war was raging overseas.

I knew about Vietnam, but nothing substantive. I'd overhear TV news reports about the latest fighting, the cities Saigon and Hanoi mere buzzwords to my young ears. No one in my family really talked about the war. My mother was very much for it. My earliest political memory is of her putting a pro-Nixon bumpersticker on her car in 1968. My father never gave his opinion about what was happening in Southeast Asia, though he was young enough to have fought there. His having kids and getting married while still a teen saved him from the draft, and I don't think he wanted to dwell on what others his age were facing in the tall grass and mud. (Later, in the mid-70s, when I was in high school, Dad hired a bunch of Vietnam combat vets to work as bouncers at his nightclubs. These guys hung around our house quite a bit, came over for cookouts and pool parties, and it was then I began to really understand what Vietnam was all about, at least from an American perspective.) To me, it was all background noise. What really mattered was my fantasy sports games, which I played without having the slightest idea about those Vietnamese kids my age who were running for their very lives, and in countless cases, not making it.

Now, here we are, some 40 years later, and the same savage shit is going on. Only this time it's much worse, with our awareness of the brutality more immediate. Back then, it didn't take much to ignore the mass killing and torture, as there were more filters, and Americans of that generation weren't used to opposing imperial war from the get-go. Today, it takes a lot more effort to pretend not to know, which doesn't stop a lot of Americans from trying. Still, it can't be escaped, only denied.

My son is aware of Iraq, though not in any graphic or geopolitical sense. He just knows that people are killing and dying every day, and it bothers him. He asks me from time to time why it's happening and what will it take for it to end. I fudge the first part to a degree, since he's got enough to deal with preparing for middle school. I don't lie, but I don't reveal all that I know. As for how to end it, well, there I'm as lost as him. Concepts and scenarios abound, but we who pay attention are aware that this nightmare is nowhere near over; that further aggression is being planned and war-gamed as I type. If there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's blocked by a rising pile of bodies.

"I wish I could tell you how it ends, son," I say, "but I can't. It may still be going by the time you reach college."

He frowns; then says, "Well, at least we can still throw the football!"

Outside we go, immersed in bold, beautiful fall colors.

"Hit me Dad! I'm wide open!"

I sidearm a quick pass to escape the fantasy blitz. The boy reaches for the ball, tips it in the air with his right hand, runs under it as it bounces off his shoulder, onto the ground and back into both hands. He celebrates anyway.

"Touchdown!"

I smile as he dances in the leaves.

HOW IT LOOKED: Here's the first twenty minutes of Super Bowl III's second half. Pretty quaint by today's standards. And note the low-key approach to the game, which back then was seen by most as a post-season exhibition that promoted the NFL-AFL merger starting in the fall of 1970. All that changed with this game (called by the late, great Curt Gowdy, the voice of the AFL), as the New York Jets stunned the football world by beating the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, on January 12, 1969.

Dig the period commercials, as well as Bob Hope, there to promote an NBC special and the incoming Nixon administration. I watched this game alone in my Uncle Jim's basement. The adults were upstairs, playing cards. Nobody cared about this except me, twirling a football in my hands, experiencing what I often fantasized in my backyard.



Monday, October 09, 2006

Reflection




North Korea apparently has The Bomb. Finally. We've been awaiting this day for some time. And now all the bullshit on our end can seriously commence, for who better to denounce the acquisition of nukes than a nation that has actually used them on another country, and threatened to do the same to others years after that? I mean, would you trust the ravings of a no-nuke pussy? Of course not. So sit back and enjoy the rhetoric. It should get loud, crude and quite strange over the next few days and weeks. (Recall that former comedian Dennis Miller called for the US to nuke North Korea's first test. Oh Dennis, will they ever listen?) After all, it's mid-terms time!

Does this mean that the Son takes a nuclear-powered North Korea lightly? Not really. Just another added feature to the daily parade of madness. And anyway, what did you expect? My guess is that the Bush gang is happy for this, for obvious political distraction reasons. Anything to take the heat off a worsening Iraq and the ongoing Foley follies. "Hey! Look over there!" has proven effective in the past, and I trust that Kim riding a missile Slim Pickens-style will provide our rulers hours of self-righteous posing. Not that the Dems will be outdone. This kind of shit works for all.

But enough of that today. There'll be plenty to chew on for weeks. There always is. So allow me to get a bit self-involved myself, as today is my birthday, and I feel oddly pensive and wistful for a variety of reasons, though it doesn't take a cake and candles to stir such emotions. As I'm sure you've noticed of late, this space has become a bit more autobiographical, rather than polemical and analytic. Oh, I have my fire-breathing days, but I can't hide, nor would want to hide, the deeper feelings that consume me. It appears that you out there don't mind this shift, given that my numbers have risen in recent weeks. Maybe you prefer it. Either way, it's what I'm doing, good, ill, shrill, a snooze.

While watching "The West Wing" the other night, I caught the episodes where the Ann Coulterish blonde reactionary is invited to join the White House legal team, and her struggles to be taken seriously by the liberals who staff it, when not weathering their unveiled contempt. Of all of Aaron Sorkin's political fantasies, this one actually rang true for me, though, as usual, it's the über-good liberals of the "Wing" who ultimately embrace their ideological opposite, showing us once again just how unflinchingly loyal they are to their inclusive values. Sorkin can't pass up angelic displays like that. And when the faux-Coulter informs her rightwing friends that her new liberal co-workers are "patriots"? Oohh. The chill, the spinal chill . . . what better or purer endorsement?

All that heavenly imagery and rhetoric aside, I did connect to this storyline, simply because I experienced something like it, though at a more mundane level.

In the Summer of '92, I was hired as the Managing Editor for New York Perspectives, an Upper West Side freebie that featured drowsy pieces about neighborhood concerns and personalities. The owners wanted to shake things up, expand the paper citywide, and take on New York Press and the Village Voice. So they brought in me and a few other younger scribes, and with this new direction in mind, we strove to make Perspectives a must-read, or at least something you couldn't ignore. We stumbled a bit at first, not really having a unified formula. Then the new Editor-in-Chief was fired, for costing the paper money it did not have (at least, this is what I was told), and the owners promoted me to his spot. So now Perspectives was my baby; and with the new Managing Editor, Beth Fertig, we began to cultivate young and untested talent, weaving together energetic columns about politics and pop culture, and trying to make each week's cover something that would stop pedestrians or entice those bored in a laundromat to pick it up and read. Once Beth and I hit on this combo, and had regular writers we could rely on, Perspectives started to increase its circulation, and within a year we were almost citywide.

Many of the newer writers came via Beth, who knew a bunch of freelancers she had worked with at the Michigan Daily. Indeed, the Michigan Mafia proved to be our steadiest source of talent, and among those who wrote for us was Janice Eller, a very funny but emotionally turbulent woman, who sometimes disappeared when a deadline approached, but who could always be counted on for great copy when she felt like producing it (thanks to one of Janice's absences, I met a freelancer who not only quickly became a regular columnist, she later became my wife). Janice went on to write TV pieces for the Sunday New York Times, and celeb profiles for US magazine, a corporate gig she wasn't crazy about, but it paid the bills. Another friend of Beth's who contributed was James Poniewozik, who wrote music reviews for us, and now ponders TV for Time.

Me, I had no college connections, so I'd dig thru the slush pile of unsolicited clips, a la Terry Southern in "The Blood of a Wig." And like Southern, I looked for the craziest, oddest pieces that might serve our editorial vision, though truth be told, most of those people lacked even rudimentary composition skills. But then I came across a neatly stacked submission of pieces from The Dartmouth Review, the infamous rightwing campus paper that gave the world such giants as Laura Ingraham and Dinseh D'Souza. It was the work of Adam Lieberman, whose name I instantly recognized from a Village Voice profile of the Review. And unlike some of his more-lunatic brethren, Adam's stuff, while sufficiently rightist, wasn't completely batshit. I phoned him and asked that he write a piece attacking the Clinton nomination for our election issue. We had plenty of libs bashing Bush I, and I wrote some pretty vicious stuff about Perot (and Bush and Clinton as well), but we had no Perspective from the right.

Adam sounded very suspicious. Why on earth would a tree-hugging, fag-friendly rag like ours pub him? I simply told him that we wanted a New York City rightwing voice, and he was it. So Adam accepted, sent in his piece a few days later, and was amazed that I kept my promise not to edit his opinions. Thus began our friendship, a weird one for both of us.

Through Adam I met various Review alums, including Kevin Pritchett, an African-Republican who wrote editorials for the Wall Street Journal. (When visiting Kevin's office at the WSJ, I noticed two photos over his desk -- Winston Churchill and Malcolm X. "Interesting pair," I told him, though he saw nothing odd about them being together.) These guys were convinced that I represented true evil, especially when I didn't run from the socialist label. I explained all the great and progressive changes that American socialists helped to foster, which made them wince and cackle sarcastically. But when I revealed my knowledge of American conservative history, primarily the period when the National Review debuted, galvanizing the political and intellectual forces that would carry Barry Goldwater and later Ronald Reagan, they stopped making faces and actually listened. In some areas, I knew more than they did, and no one appreciated this more than Adam, who seemed to have a real intellectual hunger, despite his reactionary positions.

I published Adam's pieces a number of times, and there were moments when Beth, as diehard a lib Dem as you could find (and later a brave correspondent for WNYC radio and NPR, who risked her life to cover the Towers falling on 9/11) openly questioned my sanity. She'd copy edit Adam's work while snorting and shaking her head. And occasionally she and Adam would argue over a miniscule point on the phone. At times, Beth got so angry she visibly shook. But I told her that editing Adam was good training. Besides, I really enjoyed watching the Michigan Daily vs. the Dartmouth Review. It almost made me believe that there were major differences between the Dems and the Repubs.

While Adam and I never became buddy-buddy, we were very friendly, even though things like my support for the Nicaraguan revolution would drive him nuts. Knowing him taught me about the contradictions many thinking people carry inside themselves, as Adam clearly struggled with his own conservative soul. He told me that he held many differences with the likes of D'Souza, who he thought played down serious political thinking in favor of pushing cultural hot buttons. I don't think Adam was fully comfortable on the right, though he still feared and distrusted the left. He appeared ideologically adrift, and I like to think that I helped him to sort out some of his confusion, since he came to trust me, and this in turn helped me to sort out and better understand my own inner-conflicts.

Once I got married, I didn't see much of Adam any more. We spoke on the phone a few times, but he was off to find what he truly believed. Years passed. I hadn't heard from him, so I looked him up online. And there was a long, introspective piece by Adam in, of all places, Mother Jones. I read it twice, just to make sure this was the same Adam Lieberman I once knew. But it was him, and his ruminations appeared genuine. This inspired me to look him up, but I soon discovered that Adam died right after the MoJo piece appeared. He couldn't have been more than 30, and like that, he was gone.

I thought of Adam while watching those "West Wing"s, and wondered what he'd make of the modern Repub noise machine, George W. Bush, and all the creeps in between. Would 9/11 and the War on Terror have pushed him back into the reactionary fold? Or would he have continued his search in these very unreflective times? Whatever the case, as I age another year today, I'll hoist a cold beer to Adam's memory, and to his efforts at intellectual honesty. There isn't a lot of that going around these sordid days, my old friend.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Distant Roads




“I am dying to know what kind of insult from a girl 20 years ago could have led to this."

So said a neighbor of Charles C. Roberts, after learning of his murderous assault on an Amish school in Pennsylvania.

I suspect that the neighbor's use of the word "dying" was unintentional. At least I hope so.

According to local police, Roberts was, in his reeling mind, avenging a slight suffered from a girl when he was 12. Why he chose to kill as many Amish girls as he could before he offed himself may never be known, unless he left some kind of written or recorded statement that has yet to be released. (AP now reports that Roberts may have molested younger relatives all those years ago, and that he feared he would do this again.) Suffice it to say that Roberts was seriously fucked in the skull. And God help the families of those murdered and wounded girls, as well as Roberts' own family. I cannot imagine the nightmare they are currently experiencing.

I normally don't dwell on domestic crimes like these, since our violent condition is ingrained and ceaseless, and extensive commentary is largely pointless. But I must confess to having a soft spot for the Amish, near whom I lived for several years in my late-teens. Remembering their quiet, peaceful demeanor makes yesterday's bloodbath even more horrific to me.

Next to Pennsylvania, northern Indiana has the largest Amish and Mennonite population in the States. You see them everywhere, primarily on rural roads, their horse-drawn buggies a daily sight. Driving through Amish areas is as close to a trip to the 19th century as you can get; and while I try not to fetishize them, I've always found their rejection of modern living fascinating. Not that I've ever been tempted to shuck my sweatshop threads and don their humble, home-stitched attire. And anyway, I'd look ridiculous in that hat.

Corrupted and spoiled though I am by advanced technology and graven images, I can still appreciate, in a weird primitive way, how the Amish keep to themselves. Of course, that kind of tribal existence doubtless contains numerous emotional and psychological pitfalls, as is usually the case in such arrangements. And it must be near-impossible to maintain the pastoral bubble in this global instant message age. The young Amish are aware of all the sparkly, glittery toys and enticements that lay just outside of their farms, and while I haven't researched this, my personal experience tells me that more than a few of these kids leave the fold just as soon as they can.

It was common knowledge, back in the day, that Amish teen girls would come into a town like Goshen, go into a gas station's bathroom, and change into t-shirts, halter tops and jeans. No surprise there. That's what cultural repression does to a growing, sexually-aware person. I come from a Catholic family, so I've witnessed my share of kick-out-the-jams apostasy. But I really got a dose of this yearning on a remote country road, on a warm Autumn afternoon.

When I worked the garbage man gig, just a few months out of high school, my favorite day was Amish day. Once a week we had a strictly Amish route, and this was the easiest labor you could ask for. The Amish didn't put their trash out in big metal cans, unlike the modern world inhabitants of trailer parks, who crammed their cans with pretty much anything they could drag or carry to the curb (smashed TV sets, shit-smeared clothes, dead cats). Amish trash was neatly wrapped in brown paper parcels, tied with twine. Either they produced almost no garbage or were among the most creative recyclers alive, but either way, their trash was light and made convenient for us. The truck kept rolling as my co-worker and I jogged down the road, grabbing the parcels and flinging them into the truck's smelly bin. By noon or 1 PM, we were done for the day, as opposed to trailer park routes (we had several), which oftentimes lasted well after dark.

On one of these early days, as we were riding back to Goshen, our driver steered the truck onto the soft shoulder of the road. Why he did this I still don't know. There was no other traffic in sight. My co-worker and I, who were mostly at odds (he'd get offended if I brought a book to read), were actually having a friendly chat while hanging off the back of the truck, enjoying the breeze and the peaceful rural setting when we felt the truck start to tip sideways. Within seconds the whole thing fell over at what must have been 35-40 mph, throwing me and him off the back and into a ditch. Save for a few minor cuts, we were unscathed. We ran to the truck's cab and began yelling for the driver. The windshield was cracked, but we could see into the side window, from which the driver pulled himself, shaken but remarkably unharmed. Once out, he circled the fallen truck, then began kicking it and cursing up a storm. I asked what we were going to do. We were stuck in the sticks in the pre-cell phone era. The driver kept yelling at the truck, ignoring my query. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, several older Amish men, followed by a few kids and teens, walked up and asked if we were okay and if they could help. The driver immediately ceased cursing and said he needed to phone our office. Of course, the Amish didn't have phones, but one of the men offered to take the driver to the nearest gas station, which was about 10 miles away. So the driver walked off with a couple of the elders, who drove him by buggy down the road.

My co-worker and I were told to stay and watch the rig, though why anyone would or could do anything with a downed garbage truck was beyond me. But there we stood, standing guard over that stinking heap. The Amish teens stuck around and, with the elders gone, began asking us all sorts of questions, mostly about beer drinking and rock music. They spoke a stiff, halting English, as if trying to bridge the gap between the way they talked at home, and the way we denizens of Moloch butchered the language. They seemed curious and envious, and kept looking back to see if any elder was approaching. The Amish girls were very flirtatious, giggling and batting their eyes under their bonnets. One girl asked me if I liked the band Heart, which I didn't, but said that I did, just to see where she was going with this. Turned out that the girl was into a lot of contemporary rock, her eyes lighting up just mentioning the music. I felt an immediate attraction to her, but how the hell do you ask out an Amish girl amid her peers, while making sure that chop-shop predators don't strip clean your garbage truck? Not the most alluring scenario. Still, I made genial small talk with her, and she smiled and giggled, which caused the boys to look on with nasty expressions.

All this ended when an elder appeared and brusquely told the kids to get home for supper. He glared at us, said nothing, turned and left. About an hour or so later, a tow truck arrived with our driver, and we all returned to our materialist paradise.

I think about that girl now and then, not so much in sexual terms, but in a pleasant, almost innocent way. I wonder if she remained Amish, got married, had kids and kept the tribe going. There was a clear spark in her that suggested she might find a life of her own. Either way, I hope she's happy, even if that means she still listens to Heart.