Monday, December 24, 2018

Santa Came to Town

I ran in to Santa unexpectedly this week.  He was heading into Opportunity School from the parking lot, clothing bag over his shoulder, dressed in jeans, red flannel shirt, and tennis shoes.  He had his head down, with a scarf wrapped around his neck.  I can’t remember seeing him before without the velvet robes and black boots.
“Santa, is that you?”

He looked up with a start.

“McClure, what are you doing here?
“I was just about to ask you the same thing.  I’m on the board here, came to do a little business.  How you been?  Haven’t seen you in a couple years.”

“I’ve been…oh…fair.”
Santa has this way of looking into your eyes that is piercing.  He can say a lot with a look.  His look troubled me some.

“I’m running late.  On track to meet three classes of little people here at the school today.  Couple more tomorrow.”
“Thanks for coming Santa, it means a lot to us.”

“Walk with me.  Maybe you can help.”

“I’m a little big to be an elf I’m afraid.”

“No such thing.  Come on.”

I’ve been running into Santa for twenty years.  At YSB we used to get fake Santas until we finally got disgusted with them.  We had a Santa come drunk, another with bad body odor, but mostly grumpy Santas.  Their hearts weren't in it. 

I didn’t know the protocol, but decided to reach out to the real deal.  To my surprise, he said yes.  Said his requests for personal appearances had been dwindling for centuries.  He put us on his calendar.  Streator Youth Group, Santa at The Kids’ Place day care, Pizza with Santa in Marseilles at Bobaluks, all over.  Very accommodating guy.
He did draw the line after “Pets with Santa”.  It was a well intentioned but half baked fund raising idea targeting animal lovers.  Let people come in and have pictures taken with their dogs, cats, birds, iguana, what have you, and asked for a donation for the privilege.  Guy came in with two boxers who totally slobbered out Santa’s velvet britches.  His thighs were soaked in dog drool.  That turned out to be a one-time event.

As we were going up the stairs to the library, where he would set up in a wing back chair by the fireplace, he seemed a little slower than usual.
“Something wrong Santa?”

"Knee’s been bothering me a little.  Getting better quickly though.  Good therapy is the key.”
“I didn’t think you had those kind of troubles Santa, being immortal and all.”

“Hey, just because you’re a beloved saint looking at life without end doesn’t mean you don’t feel things.”

Santa had sort of an edge to him I hadn’t seen before.

Santa suited up and the first class came in tentatively.  They were four and five years old.  Most of them had seen Santa before, but that didn’t mean they all wanted to get up close and personal.  At their teachers’ direction they sat on the floor quietly in front of Santa, some at his feet, some against the wall ten feet away, a few as close to their teacher as they could get, and one with his head buried in his teacher's chest, too scared to even look.  Santa can be an imposing figure.  I mean he’s a worldwide myth built up over fourteen hundred years.  In some ways he’s lost control of his persona.

He knows that of course and works immediately to connect and be human.  In addition to being mythical, he is human too you know.  Very human believe me.  He’s been working with kids a long time.  Sort of the ultimate youth worker.  There are some basic things that always work.  Santa starts in by raising his voice just a little and talking to them all at once, getting them to listen as a group. 

He asks if they know how long till Christmas day, how many more times they need to sleep before they wake up on Christmas morning.  He stresses the importance of being asleep on Christmas Eve, so he can come in their house, and puts in a plug  for leaving not only cookies and milk for Santa, but a carrot stick or two for the reindeer (8 of them, not counting Rudolf).  They get hungry too., he explains.  
And if they are paying attention well, which they often are, he points out the joy of not only getting presents but giving presents.  He suggests closely watching the faces of those opening presents you give them, and by doing so seeing firsthand the joy of giving. 

All that calms them down and gets them ready for the Santa moment everyone has come to expect, sitting on Santa’s lap for a picture.  Cameras changed everything for Santa at Christmas.  What used to be a private intimate moment is now caught in pixels somewhere so as to be a lifetime digital memento.  Parents will do damn near anything for that picture, including placing screaming terrorized children on Santa’s lap, regardless of the trauma, just for the picture.  Santa is not into it.  He has his own approach.

As he talked he closely watched the boy with his head buried in his teacher’s lap to see if his curiosity caused him to look up.  When he did Santa did all he could to return his gaze and smile.  Just look and smile, not talk directly to him, not stare him down, just engage him in a kind look and try to hold it for a few seconds, as if to prove that old men with white beards are not categorically scary.  

The session shifted to individual talk.  Santa invited those who wanted to talk to him, sit on his lap or stand beside him, to tell him what they wanted for Christmas.  Some were eager, insisting on being first, and came in with their arms wide wanting to be picked up.  Other’s moved not a muscle, weighing their options, holding fast to the possibility of skipping it once again this year.  He started with the willing.

Santa turned all his attention to whatever child was before him.  Not all of them wanted to look at him, but he looked steadily at them so that if they turned their head, they could look him in the eye.  Eye contact counts for so much.  Sometimes that’s all you get.  Santa has a boy on his lap, they look at each other while Santa asks if he’s been good.  No answer.  He remarks about the Christmas sweater he’s wearing with a reindeer and asks which reindeer he thinks that is.  In return he gets a mute unwavering stare.  Sometimes kids are transfixed and can’t talk.  But they are still having their Santa experience.

Invariably, because it is expected, Santa asks what they want him to bring them for Christmas.  This is the point at which he is most likely to get a response.  Most want one thing only.  They whisper it in the tiniest of voices.  Santa leans in to hear, asking them to say it again.  Sometimes they speak louder and sometimes not.  Sometimes Santa gets it and sometimes he fakes it.  But it’s not about the present, its about connecting. 

And then it’s over.  Santa thanks them for coming to see him.  He gives them whatever they appear to want as a closer-fist bump, high five, hug, or maybe just one more smile.  And as one child slides off his lap Santa looks again to where the shy little boy was.  He is watching closely, now facing forward, sitting not in his teacher’s lap but just in front of her.  Slightly closer to Santa.
It goes on.  The bold, talkative, outgoing kids talk and smile while others, more reserved, are quiet and polite.  Almost all have come to see Santa.  As children leave Santa’s chair and another approaches, he keeps engaging the shy little boy who hangs back.  He thinks he sees the shadow of a smile on his face.

“Has everyone seen Santa?” a teacher asks of the group.
Some of the kids who have seen him act like they haven’t but the teacher doesn’t go for it. 

“How about you?” one of the teachers says to the shy boy still sitting next to his teacher. 
The boy looks at her with a alarm.  The teacher next to him bends down and says something softly in his ear, offering to go with him Santa figured.

“You don’t have to sit on my lap,” Santa says quietly.  “You can just stand beside me.  Lots of kids do that.”
He stands up and takes steps toward Santa.  He had those shoes in which the heels flash blue when he walked.  Santa makes sure not to reach out, just lets him come at his own pace.  Soon he is standing in front of him. 

“Thanks for coming to see me.  How old are you?”

Very slowly he raises his right hand with four fingers.  

“I thought maybe you were five.  You seem five.”

“Have you been good?  I bet you have.”

He nods.  His eyes have not left Santa.  They shine; bright and clear.
“Can I bring you something for Christmas?”

He nods.

“Would you like to get up my lap and tell me what it is?”
He stands motionless and stares at Santa.  Then he lifts his arms.  Santa reaches toward him slowly, picks him up, and puts him on his knee.  He keeps looking at Santa.  Santa bends his ear towards him.  He speaks in a whisper.
“WolVol train.”

“WolVol train?  The elves have a lot of those.  They light up right?  Big item this Christmas, those WolVol trains.”
Not wanting to waste the moment, knowing it could be over any second, Santa said

“How about a picture?”
Santa and the little boy turn their heads to the teacher beside them with her cell phone. 

“Can you smile?”
Santa smiled.  The little boy tried, but it was too much.  Or maybe he did smile just a little.  Judge for yourself. 

As soon as the picture was over he slid off Santa’s knee and stood for just one more moment.

“Thanks again for coming to see Santa.  You were brave.  Have a Merry Christmas.”
And then he was gone.
That’s the way it went the rest of the morning.  Santa saw three groups of kids, used the same basic formula, engaged the shy kids, humored the talkers, cajoled the reluctant, and tried to bring joy to everyone.

After it was over I invited him for a drink at the Lone Buffalo, our local brew pub/restaurant featuring Tangled Roots beer.  He agreed right away.  Santa somehow looked like a guy who needed a drink.
“Where’s your sleigh?”

“I drove the Buick today.  The reindeer needed a break.”

“The Lone Buff is close.  We can walk.”
Soon we were there, Santa incognito, back in his jeans, the two of us at the bar relaxing with a couple of nice dark winter stouts. 

“Santa I can’t help but notice you seem a little down.”
“Yeah, well I’m sorry if it shows.  I’m not supposed to be anything but merry but I’m thinking about my trip Monday night and I’m apprehensive.”

“Apprehensive of what?”
“You Americans kill me sometimes.  So optimistic, so capitalistic.  You forget I live in an international zone at the North Pole.  Instead of being a man without a country, I consider myself a citizen of the world.  Americans tend to think of Christmas in terms of department stores, shopping, the holiday’s importance to the retail sector of your economy.  I think of Christmas in different terms.  I think of it as a spirit around the globe.  I think of it bringing hope and peace.”

He took a big swig of stout and looked a little longingly, I thought, at the bourbon bottles sitting in front of those big copper kettles.

“C’mon Santa.  We think of hope and peace too.  We’re not all jerks here in America.”
“I know that, but do you want to go with me to Yemen on Christmas Eve?  You know what the elves are packing in the bags for Yemen?  Enriched baby formula.  Nutritional supplements for malnutrition.  Cholera medicine.  That war doesn’t have to happen, and your country is part of it, your weapons are  being used.  You forget there are kids there, caught up in some political grudge match.  Starving.  Dying.”

“I didn’t realize you were political Santa.”
“Not wanting kids to starve to death?  Is that politics now?  It used to be decency, and kindness, and love.”

He took another drink.

“How about Honduras?  You want to ride in the sleigh when I visit the homes of the parents who were deported and whose kids are still detained at the border?  How do you think Christmas is going for them?”
I didn’t know what to say.

“Since the 1700’s, hell the 1600’s, when I flew over this part of North America I always felt good.  I thought you led the world in hope for change.  The U.S. was the change.  You stood for things.  The world coveted your freedoms.  A free press, the ability to speak your mind without fear, fair open elections, a political system regular people really owned.  Now I don’t know what to think.  France, Britain, they’re all struggling with you.  What the hell are you doing?”

“Santa.  Did you get a smart phone?  Watching too much cable news?  Don’t go getting morose on us.  We need you pal.  You can’t get down.  If we lose you, and what you stand for, we’ll be in even bigger trouble.  Can I buy you whiskey?”

“Maybe I need one.”I ordered us a couple of Basil Hayden’s on the rocks with a twist.

"Here’s to Christmas.”

We clicked glasses, took a sip, and settled our elbows on the bar, both looking straight ahead.

As if to change the subject Santa asked

"How are things going at The Kids' Place, your old day care operation in LaSalle?"

"They had to close.  Building was wearing out.  Enrollment had dropped."

"That's too bad McClure.  I always liked that place.  But you had a good run.  After all, you provided 30 years of day care."

"You're right.  YSB took it over in 1988.  How'd you know?"

"C'mon McClure.  It's part of my deal.  I know everything.  You know that."

“OK, yeah.  I forgot.  But you forget nothing.  Think back Santa.  Are things really so bad these days?  What was it like to do Christmas Eve in Europe during World War II? 
Santa looked off and paused for a long time.

“It was hell.  Visiting the German Christian families, knowing what was happening to the Jewish families.  Flying the sleigh over Dachau.  I thought I’d never have to do that again.  But now I’m not so sure.”

Santa took a long pull on his bourbon. 
“Come on Santa, get it together.  You can’t go dark on us.  You’re Santa Claus, the spirit of Christmas.  You’re joy and merriment embodied in a real person.  If you lose that feeling I’m afraid we’re lost.”

“You should be afraid.  You take it all for granted.  I’ve seen it go bad in other parts of the world.  It could happen here,  and don’t think it couldn’t.  Instead of getting better it feels like the world is regressing.  And the U.S. is now part of the problem.”
I took a big pull on MY bourbon.  Santa was scaring me.

“You know me what keeps me going?  Now and always?  Maybe it will work for you.  Here’s what it is.  You look closely at the people around you, search for the beauty within them, and do all you can to reflect that beauty.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Who am I around constantly?  Kids.  Children from all over the world.  I spend hours and hours looking into their eyes.  Like that little boy this morning who trusted me enough to get on my lap.  You know what I saw in his eyes?  An endless pool of hope.  Clear shining windows into a soul filled to the brim with hope and possibility.”
I’d never heard Santa talk this way.

“You know what else I see?  Trust.  Unqualified trust that the world will be all right and the adults in their lives will show them the way.  I think we have to let children lead us.  If we look to them to we will find what our role in the world should be.  We have to do better for kids.  And if we concentrate on them, and their future, we will.”
I was blown away.  I sat there not knowing what to say.

“Don’t even think about ordering me another drink McClure.  I’ve got stuff to do.  There’s only so much time before Christmas, and kids are counting on me.”
With that he drained his glass, gave me a big smile and a pat on the shoulder, and walked out the door.

Outside, on LaSalle Street, he paused on the sidewalk and peered back through the window into the Lone Buffalo.  Spotting me he flashed  a thumbs up, put his hands on his belly, leaned back and gave me, and all those around him a very loud HO, HO, HO.  Before he made his way to the Buick he bellowed out, both to me and no one in particular:
“Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night.”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas Music

I just changed out the 5 CD’s I’ve had in my changer since my knee replacement in mid-September.  Actually, they were in there before that.  I listened to them all during the fall, and never grew tired of them.  They were:

               Chet- Chet Baker
               Playboys- Chet Baker and Art Pepper
               Disc 2 of the Modern Jazz Archive-Art Pepper
               Countdown (2 disc set)-John Coltrane

I’m compelled to find out about the lives of these people from whom I only hear notes.  I almost wish I hadn’t read Art Pepper’s story.  He and Chet Baker came to represent the American West Coast Jazz movement.  I love their music because they were wildly inventive and creative, Pepper on Saxophone and Baker on trumpet and vocals.

While both broke away from playing in bands and became their own musical masters, they couldn’t shake the tragedy of heroin addiction.  Art Pepper died of a drug-related cerebral hemorrhage in 1982 at 57.  Chet Baker OD’d in 1988 at age 58 in an Amsterdam hotel.  Both lived in and out of prison.  Their most productive musical years were interrupted by periods of poverty and squalor.  Better to listen to their passion, which was music, than study their very mortal lives.  That’s what they would prefer us to do I think.

John Coltrane’s time on earth proved to be a little better.  Born in 1926 he found success as a sax player while performing in a post World War II all-white U.S. Navy Band as a “guest” (but regular) performer.  Following his term in the service, he plunged into the blossoming bebop scene and never looked back, devoting the rest of his life to jazz.

Coltrane had a spiritual awakening in 1957, finding inspiration in all religions, and credits that discovery with his ability to overcome a heroin and alcohol problem that had plagued him since 1948.  He played with all the jazz greats and is regarded as one himself.

John Coltrane died suddenly at age 40 of liver cancer.  Other biographers attribute his death to chronic hepatitis suffered during his days as a heroin addiction.  He was posthumously awarded a special citation by the Nobel Prize Committee in 2007 for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”

As good as those musicians are, it is winter now and I switched to classical music.  Here’s what is filling the shack starting yesterday.

Brandenburg Concertos 1,2,3,4,5,6 (two discs)        - Johan Sebastian Bach
Symphony No.2/Karelia/Finlandia                            - Jean Sibelius
Clarinet Concertos in A Major                                   -W. Amadeus Mozart
Sheherazade, Russian Easter Overture, y mas         - Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The stories of these musicians is a whole different deal.  They were working earlier in history on a different and kinder model.  They lived in Europe, were valued by their countrymen, subsidized by both church and state, and supported according to their talent with money and privilege.  Their lives did not revolve around record sales or plays on iTunes.

J.S. Bach lived from 1685-1750, lasting 65 years.  Not bad for back then.  He was from a long line of Bachs supported by the church and the town of Eisenach, Germany.  Music was everything to him and his family.  He took up the family business and played the game.  Life was good. 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had the shortest life among this random group of five CD musicians.  He died at 35 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in St. Mark’s cemetery in Vienna, Austria.  Don’t feel too bad for him.  A child prodigy, he grew up to be eccentric, a little crazy, and a musical genius.  He lived hard, drank too much, but wrote over 600 pieces of some of the most haunting and lasting music the world has ever known.  Had he played the game differently, more conservatively, he could have lived comfortably like the other Mozarts.  Wolfgang went his own way.  Most like Art Pepper and Chet Baker methinks.

Nikolai Rimsy-Korsakoff lived in Russia between 1844 and 1908.  Like many classical composers, he was privileged, born into a family of Russian nobility, also supported by church and state.  Who else could afford all those modern instruments, hire all the players, and put them in a hall with large audiences?  It was a rich man’s game, and Nikolai played it well.  Ironically his music hearkened to Russian folk tales.  He took the tunes of poor Russians playing Balalaikas in a shacks and stoked them up with the rich tones that the new musical technology of his day afforded him.

Jean Sibelius lived to be 92, dying in 1957.  He cranked out seven symphonies while living in Finland, and a bunch of other tunes, before going silent during the last 30 years of his life.  It was like he retired.  They figure he was not pleased with the 8th symphony.  Could be he had high standards.  He burned that 8th symphony, along with the rest of his remaining unpublished stuff.  The people of Finland revered him.  He wrote beautiful music.  Be still my soul.

Wait a minute?  Isn’t this blog supposed to be about Christmas music?  Why yes it is.  Let me be brief.  Christmas music is sappy and sentimental.  There’s a reason it only gets played for a month once a year.  It’s not very good.

We do it to ourselves I think.  We romanticize both the Christmas holiday and the music around it.  I guess it is normal to reminisce, to hearken back to our childhoods, to want to recapture a feeling we had years ago.  In an effort to do so we listen to worn out tunes and anachronistic lyrics, sometimes recycled and sung by newer artists, until we can’t stand it.  And then the New Year comes and thankfully it’s over. 

Chestnuts roast, halls are decked, crooners pledge to be home, bells jingle, children laugh, noses glow, and Frosty the snowman’s appearance is described over, and over, and over.  I don’t want to be a Scrooge here, but we could do better.  We could at least improve the mix, and I don’t mean with “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  That’s a song, by the way, that my mother, as a senior citizen and a grandma herself, thought was simply awful.  I’m with you ma.

I’m searching for the modern, the not heard much, the Christmas songs with a twist.  Fact is Christmas is not a magical time for everyone.  Along with dreams of a white Christmas, melancholy and sadness can and does flood in. 

Not everyone wants to go home for Christmas.  Sometimes bad memories reside there, family strife, unresolved conflict.  I think we need to be extra kind and generous at Christmas because many around us are hurting.  Maybe you.  We need kindness.  It can seem as if the whole world is merry and bright but us.  Are there songs that capture that?

Try this one.  But first, check out the lyrics. 


It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

But it don't snow here
It stays pretty green
I'm going to make a lot of money
Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I'm so hard to handle
I'm selfish and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

It was written in 1971 by a young 27-year old Joni Mitchell.

She was probably hunched over a piano late at night in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles where she lived at the time.  She feels bad about herself.  She pushed away a person who loved her, quite possibly a person she loved in return.  And as she tries to reconcile her actions with her feelings, she wants nothing more than to be somewhere else.

Maybe she wants to be a little girl in Saskatoon, Canada where she was born, with high boot white figure skates laced to her feet, a cold wind in her face at Christmas, skinny silver blades gliding across the ice on the Saskatchewan river, with that feeling of freedom you get when you are skating, flying away, and everything is good.  You never imagine then that when you are old it will be so hard to recapture the thrill of such moments.

So there’s that about Christmas, which points to a need for a different kind of Christmas song for many.  Please don’t feel alone if you feel that way.  You’re not alone at all. 

Let’s be kind to one another for a while shall we?

Merry Christmas everybody.

Press CTRL and click below to hear the song or find it and listen another way.  It’s beautiful.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Chattanooga Chugs On

I found myself reading a small southern newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  I thought I ought to somehow.  I equated it with tuning into Fox News now and again.  I want to understand red states, and Trump voters.  There are a lot of them, too many to disregard.  And so I read the paper to see what I could find that was either different or new.  I also wanted to see what kind of news readers on the Lookout were getting.

Almost half of Chattanooga, Tennessee, if you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is in Alabama.  It’s near that Lookout Mountain area, where Tennesee, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina meet.  You might call it sort of a nexus of the South.   All I knew about that town, to be honest, is its distinction of being in the title of a famous jazz standard, Chattanooga Choo Choo, made popular by Glenn Miller.   We Americans can be fairly ignorant of one another without hardly trying.  But heck, it’s a big country.  Let’s not beat ourselves up.

Chattanooga has almost 180,000 people living in it.  Along with Knoxville it’s the biggest town in east Tennessee.  And, as Glenn Miller might have observed, there are lots of trains in Chattanooga and now Interstate highways.  It’s a transit hub.  As an American town it has what all our towns have, babies and old people in geriatric homes, school kids and retirees, working men and women along with the unemployed, the prosperous, the poor, gay, straight, everything.

Racially Chattanooga looks like this: White 58%, Black, 35%, Hispanic and Latino 5.5%, and not much of each of all the other categories.  It’s growing.  It’s still smaller than Knoxville but growing faster.  It had the first Coca-Cola bottling plant in the world.  Chattanooga is home to Little Debbie snack cakes.  It has a lot of distribution centers.

But now, THE NEWS.

I read both the Saturday and Sunday editions, November 17 and 18.  I don’t know newspapers like reporters and editors do but I know newspapers are changing, tasked with surviving by finding new business models and cheap sources of information.  I’m not sure where this paper gets all its content but it is diverse in origin. 

Someone is quite proud of the paper’s history.  They still quote the founder, a guy named Adolph Ochs (1858-1935) as giving them their motto “To give the news impartially, without fear of favor.”  Grand.

The current publisher, Walter Hussman Jr. has a pretty wordy statement on his philosophy of journalism.  There’s a lot of blah, blah, blah in there but he does say a news organization must not just cover the news but uncover it.  He talks a lot about the truth being not always apparent, and the duty of journalists being to present facts and let the reader decide what is true.  He also thinks there must be a clear and sharp distinction between opinion and news.

I read a story written by a woman named Anita Wadhwani from the USA Today Network Tennessee, picked up and printed by the Chattanooga paper, about a new execution date for a local guy named Leroy Hall, who was convicted of setting his girlfriend on fire in her car.  He was one of six men (why always men?) who had just received new dates to die in 2019 and 2020.

These murders have been held up by legal challenges to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.  A federal judge denied a request by another bad actor, David Earl Miller, who was convicted of murdering a Knoxville man in 1981.  He had argued for the right to die by firing squad. He is scheduled to die on Dec. 6,l but not by being shot in the heart by a gang of riflemen.  If he is killed on that day he’ll be the third to die at the hands of the Tennessee legal system this year.  Tennessee previously killed two men this year, one in August by lethal injection and another in November in an electric chair. 

Tennessee is ready to move forward with killing long term prisoners, barring further appeal and stoppage, by killing Donnie Edward Johnson who was convicted of killing his wife in 1985 by stuffing a plastic garbage bag into her mouth; Stephen Michael West convicted of stabbing a mother and daughter to death in 1986; Charles Walton Wright convicted to premeditated first degree murder of two men during a drug transaction in Nashville in 1985; Leroy Hall mentioned above; Nicholas Todd Sutton convicted in 1986 for killing a fellow convict by stabbing him 38 times (Nick was already in prison at the time of that crime, previously convicted of murdering his grandmother).  And last but not least is Abu-Ali Adfur’ Rahman, formerly known as James Lee Jones, for the 1987 murder of a marijuana dealer. 

All of those grisly grimes were alleged to have taken place more than thirty years ago, with death sentences just now being scheduled and presumably carried out.  I hadn’t read a capital punishment article in some time.  Illinois established a moratorium on the death penalty in 1999.  Then Gov. George Ryan said he was tired of having prisoners on death row exonerated, many as a result of a coordinated effort led by Northwestern University, the Innocence project, which applied new DNA technology to old crimes.  He believed, rightly so I think, that the chances of killing a wrongfully convicted prisoner were too great.  Illinois abolished the practice in 2011.  Truthfully I’d forgotten how awful it is to compound such grisly death with more death.  Sixteen states have abolished the death penalty and four more have placed capital punishment on moratorium.  Tennessee isn’t among them.

The Saturday editorial, right under the paper’s banner, was a commentary by S.E. Cupp, writing for some outfit called the Tribune Content Agency.  Her headline was “Reasons Trump May Not Want to Run Again.  I’ll summarize her points.

He’s Running Out of Stooges-Republicans shielded him from investigations, and his aides carried out his imprudent ideas.  But that is all falling apart.

He Trusts No One-He continues to fire people.  The castle is crumbling from the inside and Trump feels like a ruler under siege.

His Base is Shrinking-He lost is constituency in the suburbs, he will not have the turnout he had in 2020 in 2016, nor will he face an equally horrible opponent.

It’s not Ego that Drives Him-It is his irrational, impulsive, insatiable id-the dominant part of his brain that craves immediate gratification and self soothing affirmation at all time.  He wants what he wants when he wants it.  As he gets less of what he wants, and finds fewer people to help him bend the rules, it is quite easy to imagine him deciding in the next year or so he’s had enough.

I didn’t expect that to be the lead editorial in Chattanooga for some reason.  I felt buoyed up somehow.

Another commentary they picked up and chose to run was written by Francis Wilkinson of Bloomberg News.


Paraphrasing again, Francis thinks the NRA took a bruising hit on election day, and then immediately shot itself in the foot by telling ER doctors to stay in their lane.  He observed that the NRA lost all over the place, and was outspent by gun safety groups.  His evidence?

Voters in Washington State approved a ballot initiative imposing expansive regulations on gun purchases and ownership. 

Nevada elected a Democrat for Governor who defeated an NRA backed opponent, and replaced a GOP governor who had consistently stymied gun regulation.

More than two dozen House races flipped from Republican to pro-gun regulation Democrats.  One, Kentucky Democrat John Yarmouth, regularly wears an “F” pin advertising his F rating from the NRA.

In Georgia, an NRA backed Republican incumbent U.S. Representative was defeated by a Democrat,  professional gun-safety advocate Lucky McBath.

In exit polls across the country, voters registered support for “stricter gun control measures by 59 to 37 percent.

And as for the reaction to their admonishment to ER doctors to keep their mouths shut, what ensued was nothing less than a social media avalanche, sharing pictures of blood-soaked scrubs and others consequences of our uniquely lethal gun policies.  Said one doctor, on a tweet that went viral, “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly?  That isn’t just my lane, it’s my f***king highway!”

So read the people who we accuse of thinking of liberals as snowflakes, whom some of us dismiss as deplorable, in the November post mortem of the only poll that really counts-a national election.  I imagine it has them thinking.  As if they weren’t thinking before.  We’re all thinking aren’t we?

Finally I read a news article about Mark Pettiway written by Jay Reeves of the Associated Press.  Its title was “New Black Officials Rethinking Policing.” Mark Pettiway, a veteran law enforcement officer became that city’s first African American Sheriff of Jefferson County, in which lies Birmingham Alabama.  On that same day Jefferson County also elected its first black district attorney.

This is the same Birmingham Alabama, where on  September 15, 1963 members of the KKK planted 15 sticks of dynamite under the east steps of the African American 16th Street Baptist Church.  The dynamite was attached to a timing device set to go off on Sunday morning.  Four young black girls attending Sunday School were killed by the explosion: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.   That was but 55 years ago.

Mark Pettiway ran and won on an alternative message.  He favors decriminalizing marijuana, opposes arming school employees, supports additional jailhouse education programs to reduce recidivism, and plans for deputies to go out and talk to people more often, rather than simply patrolling.  Here is one of his thoughts about the future of Jefferson County.  I remind you, this is Birmingham, Alabama.

“Going forward we need to think about being smarter and not being harder.”

A strong turnout by African American voters, combined with national concern over police shootings of unarmed people of color, helped him defeat longtime Sheriff Mike Hale, a white Republican.

So there you go.  That’s what I read in a newspaper in what you might call the heart of the South.  It’s not for want of balanced news that those states are now red.  Print journalists, at least, are doing their job.

It appears thinking Southerners are beginning to change.  If they don’t change their party affiliation, perhaps the Republican candidates seeking their votes will change their positions to fit voters’ changing views.  Why do we fear our Southern and Western states will never change?  Change happens all the time.  Let’s watch for it, entertain it, and seek to bring it about.  Everywhere that people read and listen new information changes hearts and minds.  And people throughout the United States read, listen, and think.  

But we have to be able to read, listen, and think about their views as well.  It goes both ways.  How about this?  I’ll consider your point of view if you consider mine.  We don’t have to change each others’ minds right away, but I think we have an obligation to read, listen, and think it over.  Try it.  You might be surprised at what you learn.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

Vote with your Heart

I’ve had some medical issues and my older brother called to check on me.  I get tired of talking about it so as soon as I could I changed the subject.  The best way to do that with Darwin is to talk about politics.  He’s a student of current events, a voracious reader of recent books, a news watcher, and an historian of sorts about politics in America.  He’s 80.  He’s seen a lot and I think he remembers it all.  When he becomes discouraged, and he is so often these days, he worries not for himself but for his grandkids.  Lately he worries a lot. 
I was in my recliner with ice on my knee watching CNN when he called. Darwin was talking about the pipe bombs sent from Florida to prominent Democratic politicians and donors.  He often says how unprecedented the times are in which we live.  He likens it to the violence that broke out across the country in 1968, fifty years ago, but thinks the rapid spread of news, rumor, and lies on social media and the 24 hour news cycle today has those days beat all to hell for being incendiary. 

On my TV screen a constant loop of video showed police with automatic weapons dressed in military gear running down the sidewalks of a pretty neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  There was a swarm of emergency vehicles filling up the area.  An announcer repeated the solemn news of death inside a Jewish synagogue; a man believed to be the shooter was in custody, the possibility of the death toll rising higher. 
“Jesus Christ David, these pipe bombs.  Democrats all over the country, and their funders, getting packages from some crazy right wing asshole from Florida.  There’s so much going on nobody is talking about the white guy in Kentucky who walked into a Kroger store and shot two African Americans.  He didn’t even know them.  Shot them because they’re black.  He is supposed to have tried to get into an African American church, and when he couldn’t, went into the Kroger instead.  Somebody is quoted saying they saw him in the parking lot with his gun, was afraid, and he told them ‘It’s OK, don’t worry.  Whites don’t shoot whites.’  I can’t take it.”

“Have you seen this coverage on the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh?”
“Pittsburgh?  No.  What happened there?”

“Guy walked into a Jewish synagogue with an AR 15 during a bris.  Ceremony blessing a newborn baby.  Started shooting.  Eight dead that we know of.  They say it’s likely to go up.”
“I bet he didn’t know them.  They died just because they were Jews.  God help us David.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about it Darwin.”
“I had to take a break. When it gets bad I tune in MY TV and watch old westerns.  Gunsmoke is on right now.  Before that I watched Bonanza.”

I take my breaks in a different way.  I go to the shack where there is no TV, put my smart phone away, and listen to music.  I was drawn back to Bob Dylan’s music by a question my friend Sam posed on Face Book about the longevity and vocal quality of singers as they age.  He started by asking if Paul McCartney had written or sung anything decent since “Band on the Run” in 1973. 
The conversation turned to Dylan. I found myself missing the sound of his young voice.  So I dug into the vinyl out in the shack, starting with John Wesley Harding Dylan’s eighth album recorded in 1968.  I wanted to hear him hold those prolonged notes on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  While I was at it I remembered how much I liked “Down Along the Cove.”  But the best song, not for his voice but the lyrics, was “All Along the Watchtower.”  I felt the same chill I felt when he delivered that last stanza as I did when I was sixteen.

All along the Watchtower, Princes kept the view,
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too,
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

That was back when Dylan’s voice had range and was an asset, when he could sing up and down the scale in several octaves, and wrote songs that filled the musical spectrum.  As he aged, his songs became  musically narrow, to better fit the limits of his aging voice.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re still complex, and intricate songs.  But they’ve changed.  What hasn’t changed is his ability to write hard hitting, emotionally biting lyrics.  He puts his thoughts into words that I feel inside myself.  It’s a gift.

Three years earlier Bob Dylan was 24 and made an album called Highway 61 revisited.  The world, since he made it to New York City from Minnesota six years earlier, has opened up to him.  He may have been the hottest song writer in America, and certainly the hottest folk music performer ever.  Despite his age, consider the wisdom these lyrics reflect from the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Up on Housing Project Hill, its either fortune or fame

You may pick on or the other, though neither of them are to be what they claim

Did you have that perspective about notoriety and money when you were twenty four?  Could you verbalize it, write it, and convey it as Dylan did six years out of high school?  I certainly couldn’t.  But when he sang those lines he brought his ideas to me.  I was fourteen.  He was bringing me, and I’m sure many of us, along with him.  

In the title track “Highway 61 Revisited”, Dylan starts the song with the story of Abraham hearing God’s voice commanding him to sacrifice his own son.  Only Dylan could boil it down so succinctly.

God said to Abraham, kill me a son.

Abe said ‘Man you must be putting me on.’

God say no.  Abe say what?  God say you can do what you wanna

But the next time you see me comin’ you better run.

Abe said ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’

God said ‘Out on Highway 61.’

The real paved Highway 61 runs from the Canadian border through Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth Minnesota, to the Mississippi Delta, and in the song that bears its name comes to represent the place where everything evil happens; filicide, incest, chaos, fraud, the seeds of war (think Vietnam).  In the song with the same name Dylan lays it out in a rolling fast tune, complete with a siren whistle.   It’s a hellishly dark song, but jaunty at the same time.  I didn’t quite know what he was trying to say when I first heard it.  But I kept listening and thinking.  

Dylan’s lyrics had my attention from the start.  The first track on Highway 61 Revisited, “Like a Rolling Stone”, blares out brash and captivating electric guitar chords impossible to ignore.  He’d recently made the switch from acoustic folk to electric rock which infuriated some.  Me?  I was both listening to his lyrics and loving the music, with no bias toward the instruments.  He words were allegorical at times, but in other cases personal and direct.

You used to laugh about

Everybody that was hanging out

Now you don't talk so loud

Now you don't seem so proud

About having to be scrounging your next meal.

“Like a Rolling Stone“ challenged me to consider how I would handle life alone.  I was living on a farm surrounded by a family which kept very close to home.  The small town where we went to church and I went to school was wrapped around me so closely.  Those song lyrics were from someone outside my world, but talking right to me.  Dylan challenged me with the prospect of new scenarios and unknown locales.  He made me ponder answers to direct questions.

How does it feel, ah, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.

I didn’t have answers to Dylan’s questions.  But I desperately wanted to feel that individuality, that aloneness. Who knew how it would feel?  I didn’t tell anyone, but I was determined to one day find out. 

 Dylan is no longer giving me advice.  He’s 77 and has not released an album in some time.  He is designing iron gates and recently lent his name to a whiskey called Heaven’s Door.  He doesn’t owe his listeners anything, but I would love to know what he feels about his country today.  He’s not talking. 

When Darwin can’t take it he dives back into the fictional drama of black and white images of the old west filmed in the 50’s and 60’s.  Kitty and Sheriff Dillon sitting in the Long Branch Saloon solving community problems.  Hoss, Ben, Adam, and Little Joe eating Hop Sing’s cooking and planning to  thwart the rustlers threatening the Ponderosa in a way that Ben Cartwright would approve.
When I can’t take it I go back to when I was young and the songwriters, poets, and novelists were catching me up in their words and testing my beliefs.  The whole world was ahead of me and I had the rest of my life to figure out what they were telling me and what I wanted my life to be. 

But escaping the reality of our collective here and now is a luxury.  We’re challenged by the need to impact and influence the direction of our government and its effect on civil society.  It’s falling apart.  You may want to spend your days putting a record on the turntable from 1965, or finding a re-run of “Gunsmoke” on some obscure cable channel, but there are bigger fish to fry.  You have the ability to make a difference by as a citizen with the right to vote. 
Decide what direction you want the United States to go.  Do you want more of the same hateful rhetoric we’ve heard for the past two years, and corresponding damage to our institutions, or do you want to signal your dissent?  It’s up to you and in the collective sense us.  Look closely at what is going on in the news.  Determine how you can best use your vote to represent your views.  And if you haven’t already done so, go to your polling place and speak directly to power with your vote.  It’s important.  We can watch fluff TV and listen to records later.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Good Luck with That David

Before this last elective surgery I was working on a blog about Dylan, with a little Hemingway mixed in.  As the date for my trip to the hospital neared the list of things to get done before I couldn’t walk loomed large, and I didn’t finish it.  A random FB post had thrown me into a binge of old Dylan music, some of it on vinyl, and I became immersed in lyrics.  Before I knew it I was under the knife. 
The word elective surgery is fairly new, developed I’m sure during my lifetime.  The idea is this- “it's  not necessary to keep you alive, but if you want it done, someone will do it.  Whether they pay for it is another matter.”  

Really?  I can see the farmers I used to work scratching their heads at this idea.  Just for a little while mind you, before rejecting it completely.  The best way to avoid painful medical treatment, their steadfast goal, was to stay away from doctors first, and then hospitals at any cost.  And speaking of cost, those guys didn’t buy health insurance till the government handed it to them in the form of Medicare in the mid 60's.

Dentistry, and I mean the entire field, was seen as  elective for my Dad.  He grudgingly let  Mom take us to the dentist as kids, and even get dentures herself, but he elected to forgo dentists entirely.  He lost his teeth gradually.  Most of them blackened and sort of evaporated, the process hidden from us, until he got down to the molars.  Those he had to work fairly hard at.
I didn’t see my Dad him with pliers or vice grips in his mouth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he secretly used them to persuade the exit of those big teeth from his gums.  I have a couple of his molars, yellow with long white roots.  He saved them in his desk drawer with the paper clips.  You tell me why.

If you wonder why you rarely see chopped sirloin on restaurant menus anymore, it’s because guys like my Dad are largely a thing of the past.  We’re now a country of straight white teeth, except of course for the poor, whom we don’t seem to care about.  Modern dentistry, along with fluoridation, has made those Americans who can afford it a country of proficient chewers. 

I made hay with a number of farmers who had complicated leather and steel trusses designed to hold in hernias.  There we were, trapped in  hay mows on long summer afternoons, hoisting 75 pound bales of hay, and sweating our asses off.  It was hard work, but I was a kid and had no intention of continuing to work that way once I graduated high school.  The men I worked with, both tenant farmers and land owners, had worked that hard their entire lives.  They worked on, burdened by the pain and trouble of hernias among other ailments, without complaining. 
“You can usually push them back in,” our neighbor once told me, after showing me what his truss did, custom made to press on the hernia and do basically the same thing.  “If you can’t get it back up in there you have to worry.  You gotta watch out they don’t get strangulated.  But if you don’t panic it usually takes care of itself.”

Those men were known not to panic.
None of the farmers with hernias elected to get them fixed that I knew of.  Not when you could manage it and avoid the doctor. 

We now consider health a worthy investment.  An improvement I’d say.  Our collective goal is taking care of our bodies so as to manage these much longer lives we’re living.  And with attitudes changing we now find ourselves with a menu of procedures to choose from.
For the purely cosmetic procedures, satisfying vanity more than improved function, you’re on your own dime.  But if you want to say, continue to use your shoulder as you are accustomed, or walk without pain, both Medicare and private insurance are more than willing to accommodate you.  Meet some low threshold criteria and the door is open for a raft of expensive procedures funded routinely every day.  I think the medical folks, and their partners in the drug industry, want the work.  And at the rates paid in the US for those procedures who wouldn’t?

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good thing.  I’m benefitting.  My Mom needed artificial knees in the worst way.  Had she been able to get them, she could have avoided years of pain, and enjoyed increased activity, maybe even living longer than she managed, alone there in our farm house, making it from the recliner, to the kitchen, out once a day to get the newspaper at the end of the walk, talking incessantly on the land line. 
Trouble was no one she knew had gone through that new idea of knee surgery.  No one at church, no women at the beauty parlor.  They took the best anti inflammatory pills and pain relievers the hometown family doctor could find and put up with it, so Mom did too.

I’m not willing to do that.  I want to walk down streets in towns I’ve not yet found.  I want to hike over the next hill.  I’m on this two year program to improve my mobility.  Last year I had my long messed up left ankle straightened and repaired, and this year it’s the knee on the right, maybe damaged by accommodating the weird gait of its partner all those years.  In any case, I’m joining the ranks of those with both bone reshaped, reconfigured, and repositioned to its original purpose and bionic joints, titanium replacing bone, plastic filling in for cartilage.
My legs served me well, and I used them hard.  I hitchhiked with a back pack for years in the 70’s, on four continents.  The longer I traveled the less I carried on my back, but all the same it was a load.  When vehicles stopped past me on the road I made a habit of running to them.  I thought it was bad form for a guy wanting a free ride to walk.  My backpack would bounce as I ran.  I could feel it in my knees but never thought a thing of it.

I wasn’t what you would call cautious about life then, and certainly not about my health.  That left ankle was never the same after a bad ski accident.  It was my second time on skis.  I thought I was ready for the big hill.
While elective surgery is now available, there’s still a calculation.  I’ve decided there really is no gain without pain, hard work in therapy, and recovery time.  When my friends related their new knee experiences, they encouraged me. 

“It will be nothing compared to your ankle I guarantee.”
My ankle, which was done early April of 2017, was long term.  I couldn’t bear weight on it for months.  When I did walking was tentative and gradual.  It took a long time to get to anything that resembled normal.  It’s still getting better now, 19 months later.  The surgeon told me I’d see improvement for up to two years.  I thought he was kidding me.  Funny, how we hear things but don’t believe them.  Some things seem incredible.

Knee replacement is totally different.  When you get out of the hospital there is a fully functioning knee in there.  My ankle procedure required bone to knit together.  My artificial knee was firmly attached to my bones.  Don’t ask me how.  I haven’t yet watched the video.  The physical therapist in the hospital got me up and walked me down the hall, mostly to show me it was possible I think.  Recovery in the case of my knee is getting the muscle, ligaments, and tissue around the knee back to normal after being so rudely pushed aside.
It’s major surgery.  Power tools are involved.  Protractors and stuff I’m sure.  I’ll find out later.  They’re surgeons, the orthopedic people that do this work, but just as heart surgeons take after plumbers, the orthopedic folks embody the hearts of carpenters. 

Let’s go back to my buddies with fresh new knees.  When I ask them how long it takes to fully recover from the surgery they say:
“Well, it keeps getting better for a year I’d say.  But it gets good pretty quickly.”

I’ll be a month past surgery next Friday.  I’m convinced that as humans we lack the ability to remember or appreciate physical pain.  Maybe it’s the opiates.  In any case because it’s my right knee I can’t drive.  Those pain pills became my friends.  I don’t regret doing it, but it hurts more than I anticipated.  Getting back to a decent range of motion takes work.  I think the physical therapists are actually the most important part of the deal.  I’m doing what they tell me.  I think and hope I‘ll have a good result.
Still in all, it’s a calculation.  You sacrifice freedom for increased mobility in the future.  You willingly walk into hospitals, surrender yourself to their system, allow someone you barely know to knock you out and work you over in almost sadistic ways, and then you thank them when it’s over.  It’s counter intuitive when you think about it.

Between loads the guys in the haymow, my neighbors, used to take breaks.  We’d climb down from the heat of the haymow, find some shade, a breeze if there was one, and have a blow till the next rack wagon arrived.   We had great conversation, five or ten minutes at a time.  I’ve imagined trying to explain what I’m doing with those old farmers.  It would probably go like this.
“So David, my wife found out from your Mom that you’re going to get a new knee somehow. Mechanical deal.  Is that so?”

Farm women talked constantly and the men kept their mouths shut.  But if the men listened to their wives they could find out everything there was to know about the people around them.  I mean everything.  It was amazing how little privacy there was.  You think social media is bad.  Consider the party lines given to us by the phone company that we shared with four or five other families..  
“Yeah, that’s right.”

“How’s that work?  I mean just what are they doing to you?”
“Well, they make a slice down your knee, pull away the muscle and stuff to expose the joint, and then saw the top of your knee away from your thigh bone, they do the same thing on the bottom, from your shin bone, and then they put an artificial knee in the center of those bones, line them up good, pound it in to the ends of the bones and glue it.  They got the right sized knee already, from an x ray and a CAT scan.”

I can imagine how wide their eyes would be.  Stubbly beards.  Blue chambray shirts sweated through.  They would all be over a hundred years old today.
“Who’s doing it?”

“Orthopedic surgeon out Bloomington.”
“Young guy?”

 Eyes would roll.

“How many times you figure he’s done this kind of thing?”
“Plenty I think.  It’s about all he does.”

“Who makes that knee they’re putting in you?”
I’m sure they would feel better if the manufacturer was Allis Chalmers, or John Deere.  Craftsman or Snap On would work too.  They would be thinking of the joint as something like the knuckles we used on the speed jacks and power take offs.  I still do sort of.

“I have no idea.”
“I’d find out if I were you.”

There’d be a pause.  Reacting to their suspicion I’d tell them more.
“As I get it with these tests they find out the exact angle of the bones, then a computer gives them real precise measurements, maybe even something of a jig, so they cut the bones exactly right to accept the knee.  Pretty high tech.”

Their eyes would grow wider.
“What kind of saw they use?”

“Probably something like a small hand held power Skilsaw.  I didn’t ask.”
“And when it's all over this artificial knee is going to work like your God given knee?”

That’s what they say.”
“Is that right.”

Those farmers used that particular line "is that right" not as a question. Their voice didn’t rise at the end of the sentence.  They didn’t expect an answer.  You didn’t know exactly what they meant.  That’s what they intended.  They rarely expressed disbelief, giving you the benefit of the doubt.  But they doubted a lot of things without showing it.  
We would hear a tractor down the lane.  When we looked, a rack wagon stacked with bales would be making its way toward the barn.  We would pull on those yellow cotton work gloves and head back towards the haymow.

“Yeah well good luck with that knee deal David.  Let us know how it turns out.”
They would no more have their knee sawed out of their leg and replaced with a mechanical one than they would go to New York City on vacation.  To them it would have sounded crazy, risky, and expensive.  They wouldn’t have asked how much it cost because where I lived it was impolite to talk about money.  But there is no way in hell those men I worked with fifty years ago would have turned their body over to some doctor for anything as drastic as that. 

Times change.  Today we have developed faith in both the skills of our medical folks and the technology they use.  We’ll take outrageous measures to extend the useful life of these bodies we have.  I hope I’m right on this one. I’ll let you know.