What We Now Know


Here we are, three weeks into the Trump administration.  What we now know:

The right-wingers are hypocrites:  Classified information leaks and private servers and botched rescue missions were grounds for countless investigations and imprisonment when Hillary was the alleged perpetrator, but not an issue when Trump invites Putin in to hack the election, or when it’s revealed that several senior members of the Trump admin are using private servers, or when inadequate planning and preparation results in a failed mission in Yemen. There were also the unfounded accusations of pay for play funneling of contributions to the Clinton Foundation while Trump has yet to divest himself from his business interests and is actually funneling tax payer dollars into his family’s empire. The only sound more deafening than the hysterical calls for investigations into “crooked Hillary’s” alleged wrong doing is the silence of the same Republicans as Trump openly and brazenly engages in the same behavior and worse.

Trump is Putin’s puppet:  Trump is quick to criticize the U.S.A. and our allies but still has not said an unkind word about Putin.  Today it was reported that contrary to what he indicated before, that during the transition period, Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had conversations with Russian contacts about the sanctions President Obama was planning on implementing. Earlier this week, the Washington Post and New York Times printed stories that intelligence investigations into the dossier filed by an English intelligence agent about leverage Putin has on Trump  have so far been verified to be true. So far they haven’t checked out the more salacious details in the dossier, and I personally doubt their veracity. What does seem obvious is the fact Putin has something on Trump, and if we ever want to find out, somebody’s going to have to subpoena Trump for his tax returns. But even if we never get to see the tax returns, there’s still plenty of other evidence of Russian ownership of Trump – take this quote from his son in 2008:

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump is to be taken literally: This was one of the stupidest rationalizations for Trump’s insane rhetoric on the campaign trail, that when, for example, he spoke of “banning Muslims” from entering the country he was somehow speaking metaphorically.  We know now what was obvious all along – the man is too much of a moron to master such nuances as subtlety and context, and the reason for all the bat shit crazy things that leave his mouth is that he is in fact bat shit crazy. How bat shit crazy is he?  Crazy enough to think that more than three million illegal immigrants committed voter fraud, and that every one of them voted for Hillary, but not in key Electoral College states.  Crazy enough on the day after the inauguration to send his press secretary to angrily scold the press that the crowd that showed up to Trump’s inauguration was “the biggest crowd to watch an inauguration ever. Period.”  Never mind that this was patently false, it was also completely irrelevant. The ravings of lunatics shouldn’t be taken literally … that is, unless that lunatic is the most powerful man in the world, in charge of a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the world several times over.

Flooding instead of draining the swamp – The aggregate wealth of the twenty four people who serve on Trump’s cabinet is more than that of the bottom 100 million, or about one third, of the American population. And what a bunch: The new Secretary of Education has been the leading advocate of eliminating public school systems; the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency has been the loudest proponent of eliminating the EPA and has several open law suits against the Agency, the Secretary of State, the former CEO of Exxon, has implemented complex business structures in Russian oil that have helped make Vladimir Putin possibly THE wealthiest man on the planet. And in the ultimate “fuck you” to the American people, Trump has put the one man in the country who might be even stupider than himself – Rick Perry – in charge of the Department of Energy. Perry is a knuckle dragging climate change denier who now has responsibility for the safe and effective maintenance of our nuclear arsenal.  Traditionally, the post has been manned by individuals well respected in the scientific community.  Perry would be over his head in your four year old granddaughter’s wading pool let alone the department of energy, a department he once almost suggested shutting down, if only someone in the audience hadn’t waved something shiny in front of him, causing him to forget the name of the department.

The Republican Party has no interest in governing – and they haven’t for the past sixteen years.  They do have an interest in maintaining power.  Why?  So they can complete their fire sale of everything of value in this country to their rich and powerful donors and cronies.  They want to privatize social security and Medicare, not because these institutions are at risk, but because there is money to be made.  They want to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, even at a time when oil spills and sinkholes and tainted drinking water are impacting more and more people. They want to sell off the National Parks to mining interests and real estate developers.  They want to privatize public schools and prisons.  They want to repeal banking legislation that was passed to prevent the predatory practices that nearly destroyed the global economy in 2008.  They want to eliminate all federal funding of the arts, because artists rarely vote for them.  They want to eliminate the minimum wage, paid overtime, even child labor laws.  They want to repeal regulations ensuring workplace safety.

The “evangelicals” are a bunch of narrow minded hypocritical assholes who believe in only one thing – that abortion should be illegal.  Although I am pro-choice, I can understand why someone might be pro-life.  But I can’t understand how that can be the only issue a person might vote on.  Even if access to abortions was wide spread and open (which it is not), only a relatively small percentage of the population would be ever impacted by the issue.  But the evangelicals gave their votes to Trump because he changed from being pro-choice to being pro-life during the campaign, despite all of the unholy vitriol he espoused, from his many disrespectful remarks and misogynistic language about women, to his advocacy of torture and killing innocent family members of terrorists, to his open mocking of disabled people to his open courting of racists and overt espousing of racial sentiments. Any true believer would have trouble reconciling such an amoral narcissist with the values they claim they hold dear.  So if you voted for Trump, you’d do well not mention Jesus to me anytime – no candidate in my lifetime has ever been the antithesis of everything Jesus of Nazareth stood for as Donald Trump.

After three weeks, anyone who voted for Trump and still enthusiastically supports him is an idiot. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but how much more egotism and incompetence will it take to admit you made a mistake?

All of the anti-Trump protesters had better be ready for the long haul, because it’s going to take a lot more than waving a sign for an hour or two to create change.  Right wing nut jobs have taken over all branches of the federal government, they have control of more than 35 state governors and legislatures, and they have all the money.  And the Democratic Party is in shambles.  I have no idea how to best fight this, but I think the first step is to take an accurate and honest inventory of where things are and how much ground needs to be made up.

This is not and never will be normal. We cannot accept what’s going to happen, inevitable as some of it might be, as the way the system works, because our system has been taken over. Where we are now is not a function of American democracy, rather, it’s the result of a slow and eroding occupation of our country by a rich and powerful and radicalized minority, while the majority, fat and lazy, slept.

Don’t look to history for comfort – This has never happened before, at least, not here.  There have been similar Fascist take overs in the past in other countries, but never in the world’s greatest and dominant super power, never with these armed forces and this nuclear arsenal, never in the age of information, of the internet.  We’re heading into unchartered waters.

So, to quote that great political philosopher Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

 

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Hidden Things


Tonight my wife and I went to see the film, Hidden Figures, the true story of three brilliant African American women and how they overcame the institutionalized racism and sexism in their workplace, which happened to be NASA in the days of the pivotal launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a wonderful and inspiring film, straight forwardly and honestly told.  And while it celebrates the triumph of the women over the intolerance of the time, there is one major problem – not with the movie, but with how white audiences will react to it.

That problem is that it is the type of story that a white man like myself can too easily feel comfortable watching.  It pushes the right buttons, the “boy, it had to be rough to be a black woman in the south in the sixties,” which, to borrow from the mathematics that is at the heart of the film, can lead us to the incorrect conclusion of “we sure have come a long ways since then.” This isn‘t the fault of the film – it tells a story that needs to be told in a way that will reach the most people – rather it’s the fault of the audience and the nature of institutionalized racism, that it’s too easy for those of us in the majority to assume we have any idea what racism is, what it must feel like, and oversimplify the incredible complexity that makes racism the tangled web that it is. Ultimately, Hiddem Figures has the unintended effect of making us more comfortable with the deeper prejudices that remain undisturbed and unchallenged deep inside.

Again, this isn’t any fault of the film – to shine a light on these brilliant and hitherto unknown women is inarguably important.   The film does have a couple of incredibly powerful moments which I won’t divulge any details about so as not to spoil anything for those yet to see it. It is a very moving and thought provoking film.

Yet something still gnaws at me. It occurs to me that though I walked out of the theatre moved and touched by the story of the women, I really didn’t learn anything new about myself in the process. This is what great art and great films do to me.  For example, after watching No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, I felt drained and in some unidentified way, changed. Those and other  films I’ve seen burned themselves into my psyche, became a part of my subconscious, and a part of the internal vocabulary  that I’ll use to describe the world from that point on.  That Hidden Figures doesn’t do that isn’t meant as a criticism; few films have that effect on me.  It’s an inspiring and well-made film, but don’t count on it to blaze any new ground or illuminate any new truths about racism.

I guess what it comes down to is that Hidden Figures shows us three exceptional African Americans trying to overcome obstacles and succeed in the white workplace.  And while I don’t for a moment doubt the veracity or accuracy of the film, I can’t help think that too many people who look like me will walk out of the theatre with the wrong reactions: one, that if these women can overcome such obstacles, there’s no reason others can’t roll up their sleeves and make it, too, and two, that white culture is superior to black culture and is a goal that all African Americans should aspire to, should assimilate themselves within, and be measured against.

These are both widely held tenants that are at the heart of our institutionalized racism. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and I am a Green Bay Packers fan.  About thirty five years ago, I found myself watching a packer game on television with a bunch of blue collar white guys. The packers weren’t very good at the time, and their star player was a Stanford educated African American named James Lofton.  One of the guys watching had a second home in the Green Bay area, and knew a lot of residents of the small town and how they frequently interacted with the players. “They all say what a great guy Lofton is,” he said, “and how well spoken and articulate he is.” It was funny to hear, because I’d known this guy for some time, and never once heard him use terms like “well-spoken and articulate” to describe a white man. But here he was, trying to show off how open minded he was by paying what he thought was a compliment to a black man, while instead revealing the depths of his ignorance and intolerance in intimating that most black men didn’t speak well and were inarticulate. You hear the same logic in the stories of other African-American sports stars who overcame incredible adversity growing up in the inner city to make it big in the NFL or NBA, leading to the next logical statement, “if they can overcome that, why can’t the rest of them?” forgetting what rare and exceptional physical talents anyone has to possess to make it to the level of professional sports. It’s the old, “why can’t they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something productive of themselves?”  (By the way – a major clue in identifying whether language is racist or not is the frequency of the words “they” and “them.”)

The second tenant, that white culture is superior to black culture, that the suburbs are superior to the inner city, is a tougher egg to crack. As one who’s lived most of his life in the quiet comfort of suburbia, I recognize that I probably believe this.  But I also recognize that I have no proof to base this belief on, because I simply don’t understand African American culture. What I have to work on is resisting the urge to assume because I understand white culture and don’t understand black culture that white culture is inherently superior.

I am a fifty eight year old white male who’s lived his entire life in the small towns and suburbs of Wisconsin. Growing up, all I knew about black culture was music, Motown and blues, and sports stars. The first books I read were about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, both favorite baseball players of mine, and both men who’d grown up in low income, inner city neighborhoods.  Reading their biographies made me sensitive to their backgrounds, but it didn’t really give me much more than a snapshot into what African American life was really like.  And to this day, I still don’t know.  I don’t understand hip-hop or rap – I’ve tried, I know it is a legitimate art form, but I just don’t get it. It just doesn’t sound like music to the cranky old white man I’ve become. I don’t understand the clothing or the jewelry or the language. But then I realize, how could I understand these things? I’ve never spent a minute in anything except for white skin – and even if I could, that minute spent in black skin would mean nothing without possessing an ancestry of hundreds of years of being black.

When I wonder what it must be like to be black, my best-intended liberal fantasies take hold, and I try to imagine being stopped by police for no reason, or white people reacting with fear upon the site of me, or being discriminated against looking for employment or advancement or whatever.  Of course, there is no way I can know what these things feel like, but when I really think about it, I realize these are the wrong things to try to imagine, that they are clichés and stereotypes that are just as broad and racist as the myths perpetuated by white supremacists.  We need to understand that the heavy baggage of racism is buried deep within each of us, and we have to learn how to best react when this baggage surfaces, when it is exposed.  I know, for example, that the term “inner-city” immediately conjures up images of drug deals and gang shootings in my head, because that is about 90% of what I hear and read about it entails. The truth is that families and hard work are probably just as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as it is in the burbs. In fact, statistics tell me drug use is more prevalent in the burbs – yet still the images of needles in the gutters fill my imagination of inner city life.

This is where art can come in – it can shine a light on unpleasant and unexpected truths and make us react and maybe even change us.  There are two examples I can quickly think of that exposed some small but elemental truths to me – one was the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, particularly the moment when Lee throws that garbage can through the plate glass window, and the second is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides that he will accept going to Hell rather than turning his friend Jim in.

While Hidden Figures doesn’t fundamentally change my perception of things the way those two moments did, it’s still an excellent film that I’d strongly recommend everybody see.

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Ostriches


Today, January 27th, 2017, was International Holocaust Remembrance day. It also happened to be the day that President Trump signed an executive order shutting the door to the United States on all refugees from all countries.

Trump is an incompetent madman, and his die hard supporters are morons.  But as bad as they are, they are not the worst.  The worst are those who accept all of this madness as a new normal, who dismiss the discourse as nothing more than the usual partisan bickering.  Admittedly, often times the dialogue fails to rise above the lowest levels.  But the stakes are so much higher now. There are literally lives at stake.

Trump’s decision today violates the best interests of both American values and American interests. It violates the values of freedom and compassion that we’ve tried to live up to ever since they were written into our constitution, and it goes against our interests in that it will only give rise to the very extremism the order is intended to protect us from.  Of the thousands of people we turn away and condemn, it’s inevitable that hatred for America and Americans will rise. American people, soldiers and tourists, Republicans and Democrats, will become targets of retaliation both at home and abroad.

To those of you out there in Facebook land who are tired of all the political posts, who wish that social media would get back to just being pictures of cute little kitties and the such, to those of you who are sick of all the hate and think you’re above all of the fray, go ahead and stick your head in the sand.  You won’t be the first ones to tune out the cries of innocent people dying.

Today is a reminder that we have to remember the Holocaust because we can no longer hear the crying of six million innocent lives. But if you listen closely, you can hear the same silence that emboldened another small man who become the architect of the perversion of another great nation in 1933.  It grows louder with every order Trump signs, and the shadows of guilt spread over the souls of those who remain silent like a cancer, black and bitter and cold.

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December


(I’ve been stuck on writing the final three chapters of my novel in progress. I’m hoping that last night I broke through – here’s the fist couple of paragraphs that’s got me started again)

The weeks that followed all blended together. Days bled and blurred into nights, and some nights lasted for days and others just for minutes. The daytime skies were a constant and solid cement gray, the sun lighting the landscape despite never being seen, never revealing itself.  Occasional snow flurries would float and fall and tumble from the skies but never amounted to anything, never accumulated, the ground as flat and gray and hard as the impenetrable sky.

The breeze carried with it a foreboding sense of gloom, of death.  Death was in the cold air, in the clouds of breath that’d emerge from breathing mouths and nostrils only to dissolve and fade, consumed by the unrelenting grayness. Days in bed and days outdoors, unending nights awake in the darkness, consumed by fever, joints cold and aching. There was cold death in my bones, I could feel it, I could feel the bones and dirt of an unmarked grave in the sightless dark of the unending nights. Fever dreams became indistinguishable from unreal days, visions of insulated wooden boxes placed on the lawn of a section at the bottom of the hill in Cornish Park, lit up at night by hot lights plugged into extension cords, blended with dreams of burning corn fields and the smooth  coldness of ice-covered lakes.  The mechanized hum of a diesel engine, a giant backhoe ripping into the thawed flesh of the ground, ripping and tearing it apart, a clear plastic sheet with mud and clay caked on it folded around something three dimensional, Angela and Nancy Cornish and Jim Musgrave and Mel Fleming from the television, their faces intermingling with the faces of my mom, and my dad and Frank Cornish and Sam Richter and Death himself, in his long black robe and pale skin, and the sharp unfeeling mechanical teeth of the backhoe and the thawed mud at the bottom of the hill in the grey and lifeless trees of Cornish Park.

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Inside and Outside the Comfort Zone


On Monday, 12-12-2016, I tried to set aside my inherent stage fright and, as an old boss of mine frequently coached me to, step out of my “comfort zone.” It was with his voice in my ear that I took the stage at Kenosha Fusion as a storyteller in the OLIO storytelling collective.

The OLIO storytelling collective is a bunch of people who enjoy storytelling.  Some are writers, some are actors or performers, but all enjoy telling stories. The stories can be about anything, can be old folk tales re-told verbatim or with a twist, can be autobiographical or completely fictional.  The only rule is that you try to conform to a maximum length (which I exceeded in my “performance.” Oh, well.) and adhere to a “theme” if it is a themed show.  The theme for the most recent show was Christmas, so I told a much abbreviated version of “A Greaser Christmas.” (about 17% of the events and people described in my story really happened.)

The setting for the OLIO collective shows is a wonderfully intimate venue known as Kenosha Fusion. It hosts everything from musicians to comedians to puppeteers to actors to art shows to open mics to … well, just about any kind of live performance. It seats about 50 to 75 people, has an excellent sound system and a fully stocked bar. It’s a great showcase for local talent of all kinds.

 

Fusion-Paul2.jpg

I was reluctant to “perform” because of my chronic stage fright and the inconsistent quality of my voice. Thanks to my case of Parkinson’s disease, my voice is often times garbled and soft, and I tend to stutter.  But lately, for some reason, it’s been pretty good, good enough for me not to worry too much about it. As for the stage fright, I wasn’t as confident. I practiced my story for a couple of weeks before, getting it down from twenty three minutes(the unabridged version, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago) to about twelve minutes. I had to cut a lot of the best parts out, which shook my confidence a bit, but finally, in the day or two before the event, I became comfortable with what was left

The night of the event came. I was first on the bill, and I arrived at Kenosha Fusion early to stake out the performance area first. There was a podium I could hide behind (and post a one page outline of my story – it’s supposed to be memorized and not read, but I think the outline was okay, as it was just a list of the sections of my story in case I completely blanked out.) I was comfortable enough with the venue, now all I had to do was wait for my name to be called and do the damn thing.

It was cold out and a Monday night, so there wasn’t exactly a line at the door. They kept the doors open a little bit later than planned, so a few more people straggled in, making it a decent sized crowd. It helped that many of them were friends and family, but I was still a little bit nervous as my name was finally introduced and I walked up to the podium.

I was afraid my voice was too soft, and I nervously got through the first minute or so, when the moment of truth arrived – the first laugh my story was supposed to get. I delivered the “punch line” and got a good, healthy chuckle, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.  Sure, there are a few times where I stuttered and the words got garbled, but I know for a fact that was due to the Parkinson’s and not nerves, as I couldn’t have felt more comfortable.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Whether I’ll do it again will depend largely on how my Parkinson’s develops, how it affects my voice  and balance (believe it or not, having a podium to stand behind and lean upon was big, because I knew I could grab on to something if I felt myself starting to fall! One less thing to worry about!), but for now I can confidently say that for a few moments on a cold December night, I stepped out of my comfort zone and lived to tell about it.

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Those Awful Millennials


Once again, it seems that the generation known as “millennials” is getting bashed and beaten on social media and other forums.  A short video clip featuring some guy named Simon Sinek going on and on about why the millennials are basically fucked up has gone viral.  While he makes one or two somewhat valid points, most of what he is saying is pure nonsense, and it’s only eleven minutes in to his self-important rants and raves that he only superficially touches on a couple of valid points.

Let me summarize my take on the millennial generation:  the primary problem they have is the shithole that their parents, the baby boomers, my generation, have made of the world that they will be asked to save.  It’s the baby boomers (my generation and parents to the millennials), inheritors of the greatest economy in history (post world war two America), who have made such a mess of things.

Let’s look at some of the “problems” that are associated with millennials:

1)  They are lazy.  Parents and grandparents have been attaching this label to every younger generation since the beginning of the industrial revolution. What they are reacting to is progress and automation.  None of us have to work as hard for our basic survival as our ancestors did, while most of us are engaged in some kind of work that they couldn’t even imagine.

2)  They lack patience and have short attention spans. This is true, but not just of millennials, but of pretty much all of us who have been raised in the ages of television and the internet and the dreaded cell phone.

3) “Participation awards” – This is the most often and perhaps most ridiculous reason cited for why the millennials are so awful.  Why is this ridiculous? Because for every municipal co-ed “just for fun” softball and basketball leagues that give these away, there are a half dozen or so “travelling” teams, baseball and basketball teams that travel from tournament to tournament around the country, and operate on  a year round basis. These teams pray upon the fathers out there who have failed at their own unfulfilled impossible dreams of sports stardom and projected them onto their children (mainly their sons), whom they are convinced have a real chance of signing that million dollar NBA or NFL contract one day.  Well, sorry, it’s simply not going to happen – there are currently 450 active players in the NBA and 1,696 in the NFL.  That’s a whopping 2,146 job openings out of a population of 318,900,000 (which is just the USA population and doesn’t factor in the growing international candidates), or .0000067294 of us who make a living as a pro football or basketball player, which is getting into the odds of being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. I’d argue that these organizations and the time demands they place on not just the children but the entire family cause more harm than the rec-leagues that are open about the fact they are more focused on developing social skills than the next Lebron James.

4) Their parents taught them they are “special” when in fact they are not.  I don’t know how to react to this one.  Are they saying that we (the boomers) were the first generation of parents to tell our children they are special (we weren’t), or that they (the millennials) were the first generation to believe it (they didn’t any more than their parents did when they were told the same thing)? But let’s assume for a moment that they really did believe it when they were told they are “special.”  Is that such a bad thing? A little bit of self- confidence?  Maybe they’ll stand up for themselves and not swallow the shit sandwich employers all too often fed their parents.  “Paid overtime? Affordable health insurance? Family friendly policies?  What, do you think you’re special or something?”

This is where the real difference in the millennials and the boomers manifests itself.  The millennials have seen their parents work obscenely long hours only to be replaced by someone or some machine that works cheaper. They’ve grown up in an environment where mom and dad not only both had to work, but more than likely had to change jobs more than once.  So of course they don’t treat the work place with the same respect their parents did – they know all too well that they are commodities, and they’ve seen the lack of respect granted their parents by employers.

The truth is that the work place is changing forever, in fundamental and profound and unpredictable ways.  This transformation will make the industrial revolution seem like child’s play.  All of the current forms of the employer-employee relationship will be affected, from where the employer works to how health care is funded to how the employee is compensated, etc., etc.

The transformation is going to be difficult and painful and unprecedented, but the nature of the conflict between youth and experience will always remain.  We among the experienced laugh at how little the youthful know and their naïve idealism, while they see bitter and jaded cynics who view the world through cynical and narrow lenses.

I’d strongly suggest that Mr. Sinek and Mike Rowe, and all of the other social critics out there who are piling on the Millennials take a moment or two and read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  You’ll find that Willy and Biff  Loman are dealing with the exact same issues parents and young adults have always grappled with:  change, disillusion, shattered and false dreams and expectations.

I’ve seen hundreds of Wily Lomans out there.  I’ve been Willy Loman.  Who is Willy Loman?  He’s every hard working guy who’s put in 50, 60, 70 hours a week to please his managers only to be replaced by a foreigner or a machine that will do the same work for a fraction of the expense. He’s every guy who’s filled his children with their own failed impossible dreams – the same guy who yells at the umpires in little league games or signs his kid up for the year-long travelling baseball or basketball team and spends the rest of the year driving around the country. He’s every guy who’s bought into the false American dream of position and conformity and materialism, who’s worked tirelessly for the corner office and the house in the suburbs and the S.U.V in the driveway, only to end up in the trash can with the rest of the burned out and discarded human waste that the corporate world chews up and spits out every single day.

In Death of a Salesman, Biff Loman is guilty of all the offenses Mr. Sinek charges the Millennials with, but some sixty years prior.  Arthur Miller was a brilliant artist, but he wasn’t Nostradamus. He was writing about what he saw, the truth, and it was just as true in 1949 as it is now – the conflict between fading and emerging generations has always played itself out against a backdrop of change, and has always been the conflict between idealism and cynicism, between youth and experience.

It’s time we the older generation step aside and let the young ‘uns figure things out.  After all, here about three weeks before President Trump takes office, do we really think they could do any worse?

 

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A Greaser Christmas


(This is the unabridged version of the story I told last Monday at the Olio Storytelling event at Kenosha Fusion. I dd the math and about 17% of this really happened.)

In December of 1972, I was a freshman in a high school in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  I was born in 1958, at the height of the post-world war two baby boom. There must have been a whole lot of procreating going on at that time, because fourteen years later the small town high school was bursting at its seams.  The school became so overcrowded that fall that they had to rent out some classrooms in the church across the street.

The school cafeteria was modern and clean, brightly lit by the daylight that streamed in through windows high upon the walls. It had long tables with attached benches. After the last lunch period was over, a custodian would fold the tables up into compartments on the wall, where they’d rest until late morning the following day, when they’d be unfolded in advance of the first lunch hour.  Each table sat about twenty kids, ten on each side, and there were about fourteen tables. As nice as they were, there still weren’t enough of them to seat the expanded student body, so they knocked out a wall on the north end and expanded the cafeteria enough to fit in about six old black tables to handle the overflow.  There weren’t even any chairs, you’d just stand there at the table and lift forks full of Spanish rice or soy casserole to your mouth. This overflow area became home to the misfits and oddballs who didn’t fit in with enough kids to get a seat at one of the nice, fold down tables. Needless to say, that included me.

It’d be difficult to believe looking at me now, but at the time I was small. Ridiculously small. I was the smallest kid in my class, possibly the smallest class in the entire high school. I was short and scrawny. I was five foot two and weighed 95 pounds sopping wet.

There was one part of my anatomy that was disproportionately large, and no, unfortunately, it wasn’t that – rather, it was my mouth.  I had a big mouth that I’d shoot off with little regard for consequence.  I was a smart ass, my big mouth writing checks that my tiny body couldn’t cash, constantly getting me in trouble that I had no business getting into.

So I ended up with three other oddball freshmen who were also exiled to the chair-less tables at the new end of the cafeteria.  There were also about a dozen or so upper class men, juniors and seniors, who also occupied this space. They were what at the time was commonly referred to as “greasers,” the thugs and hoods, the bad asses and tough guys, the bullies who are a part of every public high school.

The leaders of the greasers were three older guys – the Kowalski  brothers, Earl, Butch, and Alfred Lord.  Alfred Lord Kowalski was the sensitive, cultured one of the three – he’d recently mastered the art of using silverware. Nobody knows how many years the Kowalski brothers had been pursuing that elusive high school diploma, but rumor had it that Earl, who was the oldest and the alpha dog of the pack, had recently acquired his AARP card.  To say they were scary looking would be an understatement. They wore black leather jackets and had tattoos on their arms. In 1972, tattoos hadn’t become fashionable yet – unlike now days, when everybody’s little brother and sister has a dozen or so. In 1972, only legitimate bad asses like the Kowalski brohers had tattoos.  They also had scars on their faces and they occasionally walked upright.  They had a una-brow – you know, one uninterrupted eyebrow over both eyes – only in this case, it was one eyebrow shared between the three of them, covering all six of their eyes. It started over Earl’s left eye and then his right and then it would leave Earl’s face and dangle in midair until it connected to Butch’s face and covered his eyes and then suspended in the air it’d connect to Alfred Lord’s face and cover his eyes.

Most of the time, the greasers left us alone, immersed as they’d get in their philosophical conversations, debating, for example, whether fire good or fire bad. I was learning to keep my big mouth shut, and we gave the greasers their space and they gave us ours.

Except for that day in December.  Me and the other three oddball freshmen were standing in a row on the same side of our chair-less table, me on the left end, the other three to my right, eating our lunch when all of the sudden we noticed that our table was surrounded by greasers, standing silently in uncomfortably close proximity. It felt suffocating, claustrophobic. We could feel their warm mouth breathing on the back of our necks.  Then the Kowalski brothers emerged.  Butch stood next to the kid on the far right, Freshman Number One, and Alfred Lord was standing next to me.  I turned and tried to walk away, when Alfred Lord stopped me.  “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

“Me? Oh, I’m sorry, I have to leave.  I have an appointment with my podiatrist.”

“You ain’t going nowhere,” Alfred Lord Kowalksy said.

“Hey, Butch,” Earl said.  “You know what?”

“What?” Butch replied.  Butch was the dimmest of the three, his vocabulary limited to mono syllabic grunts.

“It just don’t feel like Christmas this year, does it.”

“No,” Butch grunted.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why it don’t feel like Christmas, and I think I finally got it, I think I finally figured out why it don’t feel like Christmas,” Earl said.

“Why?” Butch replied.

“It don’t feel like Christmas cause we ain’t had us any of them Christmas songs.  Ain’t nothing get you in the Christmas spirit like some of that there Christmas music.”

“Music good,” Butch stated.

“We’re gonna change that right now.  We’re going to have us some Christmas music so’s we all get into the Christmas spirit.”  With that Earl approached Freshman Number One, standing on the far right of the four of us.  Earl grabbed Freshman Number One by the shoulders and said “kid, get up on the table and sing us a Christmas song.”

“Oh, golly, gee, I don’t think so,” Freshman Number One replied, “I’m kind of shy, kind of …”

“Kid,” Earl scowled, “I don’t think you understand.  I ain’t asking you if you wanna sing us a Christmas song. I’m telling you. Now get up on that table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re going to kick your ass”

Now, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the phrase, “kick your ass.”  If only it were that simple.  Sure, it might involve pointy-toed boots, and if they really got good leg speed into it, a kick in the ass might hurt for three hours, four hours top.  But the expression was never meant to be taken literally.  No, if I intend to “kick your ass,” I intend to beat the humanity out of you, until your last frayed nerve ending is screaming in pain, and you are a mere hollowed out shell of yourself, and then, when there is nothing left of you but a quivering pad of gelatinous goo spilled on the floor, then, maybe then, I might add in a swift and hard kick at your posterior just to serve as an exclamation point, but that’s not really necessary.

So Freshman Number One, his options made clear by Earl, responded the only way he could.  “Oh, golly gee whiz there, Earl, I’m really uncomfortable in such demonstrative displays.  Could you find someone else?  Could you?”

At that point the greasers converged on Freshman Number One and beat the daylights out of him until he was left there in a crumpled heap on the floor, oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and beginning to pool right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number One lay there in a crumpled heap, and he was bruised and battered and broken and bent and bloodied.

Then Earl moved on to Freshman Number Two, and said “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”

To which Freshman Number Two replied, “I wish I could, but I’m afraid that my religion strictly prohibits such enthusiastic displays of enthusiasm as singing Christmas songs, so I just can’t.”

And the greasers converged on Freshman Number Two and beat the living crap out of him until he was left lying there on the floor, just a crusty and lifeless spoonful of unrecognizable goo.  The greasers lifted him off the floor and threw him on top of the crumpled heap that used to be Freshman Number One, and now the crumpled heap was two freshmen deep, causing their bones to lock together in impossible and painful angles, and Freshman Number Two was oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and intermingling with Freshman Number One’s blood and tears and pooling right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number Two was bruised and battered and broken and bent.

At the table, there were only two freshmen left, Freshman Number Three and myself. Earl approached Freshman Number Three and said, “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”

Freshman Number Three, of course, responded with, “I’m sorry, Earl, but I’m getting a scratchy throat and have a hoarse voice, and I think I’ve got a fever, so could we take a rain check?  Maybe sometime next week?  A rain check?”

At which point the greasers descended upon Freshman Number Three and just destroyed him, as he disappeared beneath them and when the savagery was over the greasers backed off to reveal about 150 broken pieces of Freshman Number Three scattered on the floor, and then a greaser emerged from the crowd with a shovel in his hand, where he got a shovel in the middle of the cafeteria, I have no idea, but he scooped up all the pieces of Freshman Number Three and dumped them on top of the crumpled heap, and now the crumped heap was three freshmen deep, and, since I was only five foot two inches tall, the crumpled heap was now nearly as tall as me, making it even more intimidating a sight than it already was. And Freshman Number Three was oozing blood and tears that intermingled with the blood and tears of the other freshmen and drained into a pool right there on the cafeteria floor.  And Freshman Number Three was bruised and battered and broken and bent.

Now there was only one Freshman left standing, all five foot two, ninety five pounds of me.  As Earl approached me, I felt my heart pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap right out of my chest.  Then Earl was there, right next to me, and he started, “Kid, either you get up …”

And he stopped.

In mid sentence, Earl Kowalski stopped.

The reason he stopped, was, when he looked up at me, I wasn’t there.

I was gone.

I was already up on that table, halfway through the first verse of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Now, you have to understand that in December of 1972, the television airwaves were dominated by the cheesiest and schmaltziest of all forms of entertainment, the celebrity Christmas special.  They were these awful variety  shows, and for some reason, the Las Vegas style entertainer was popular at the time, with stars like Dean Martin, Tony Orlando, Wane Newton and Sammy Davis Junior all over emoting and swinging through lip synced renditions of the most horribly clichéd pop standards.  It was all awful, and as I didn’t exactly have an active social calendar at the time, I watched them all and studied their acts.

Now, on the table performing for the greasers, I found all the time I’d invested watching those shows was informing my performance of Rudolph.  I started it out as a slow and soulful ballad and then, halfway through, kicked the tempo up into gear until it was a swinging and rollicking production number, accented by my finger snapping and the random “heys” and “babys” I punctuated each line with.

I looked down at my audience, the dozen or so greasers that had surrounded our table, and they were all silent and still, mouths gaping open, looks of utter confusion and bewilderment on their faces.  Even Earl Kowalski was stunned, and it became clear to me that they had no idea how to react. They knew only one thing, how to kick ass. They had never estimated that any kid would have low enough self-esteem to get up on that table and humiliate himself rather than take his ass-kicking.  This plus the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself really blew their mildly developed minds.

I finished singing Rudolph to no reaction, just stunned greaser silence. I’d done my song, but nobody knew what to do next.  We were in unchartered waters. It occurred to me that as long as I remained up on that table, it meant that the greasers weren’t kicking my ass, so I plowed forward with the rest of the show.  I decided to throw in a little joke next – playing the part of Rudolph, I said, “I just flew in from the north pole, and boy, are my antlers tired!”  Still, no reaction – just stony, or maybe stoner, silence.

I looked at the clock on the wall, and there were still a few minutes left, so I kicked into my second song, “Jingle Bells,” really rocking it, making it swing, baby!  Still only slack-jawed silence from my audience.  So I launched my rendition of “Deck the Halls,” fa-la-lalling with all my heart, when, in the midst of a fa-la –la, the school bell sounded.

The end of lunch hour!  Saved by the bell!

I announced, “Sorry, folks, that’s all the time we have.  Thank you, and good night, ladies and gentlemen.  I’m here all week. Good night, and drive safely.”

The greasers were still standing there, stunned, as I jumped off the table, into the perimeter of the circle of greasers that sill stood unmoving, surrounding the table.  I confidently tapped the one in front of me on the shoulder and boldly said, “Excuse me, please.”

Much to my surprise, the greasers parted as if I were Charlton Heston and they were the Red Sea.  And I walked, no, I strutted out, past the greasers, past the hideous specter and painful moans of the crumpled heap, past the now coagulated and hardened pool on the cafeteria floor, as if I were walking out on a red carpet.  And I exited the cafeteria and walked into the afternoon, intact and unscathed from my encounter with the still discombobulated greasers.

The next day, I entered the cafeteria, feeling good about myself and the performance I’d given the day before. I walked past our table, and there was no sign of either the bloody pool or the crumpled heap or, for that matter, the other three freshmen, who I could only assume were in a hospital somewhere in different degrees of traction.

Then I saw the Kowalski brothers approaching, and for a split second, my heartbeat accelerated, but only for a second. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t afraid of them anymore.  Sure, they could kick my ass, but so what? I had two older brothers, so it wasn’t like I’d never had my ass kicked before. You get over an ass-kicking pretty quick, but one thing I’ll never get over, one thing the greasers could never take away from me was the fact that the day before I’d gotten up on that table and rocked the joint.  I gave it everything I had, and I was swinging, baby!  And no Kowalski or any greaser could ever take that away from me. So at the sight of them approaching, I kept walking.  I will not back down.

Then they were there, right in front of me, when Earl says, “Hey, kid …”

I braced myself for the pending ass-kicking.

“Kid,” Earl continued, “I just wanted to tell you, how much I enjoyed your show yesterday.”

Stunned, I replied, “Thank you, Earl.”

Then Butch added, “Show, good!”

“Thanks, Butch.”

Even Alfred Lord Kowalski, normally the quiet one of the three brothers, chimed in. “Dude,”, he said, “I thought you had a real stage presence, although some of your material lacked a cohesive core.”

“Thanks, I think, Alfred Lord,” I said.  They liked me!  They really liked me!

“Kid,” Earl started, “your show was so good, that I think everybody in this school ought to have a chance to see it.”

“Why, thanks,” I replied.  “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.”  And it really was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me.  The fact that it came from Earl Kowalski of all people made it all the more meaningful. This was turning out better than I could have ever imagined.

I closed my eyes, basking in the moment, feeling the adoration and adulation of the Kowalski brothers wash over me, and I felt my feet leave the ground, and I was floating, and with my eyes shut I could see in a future T.V. Guide, the Bob Hope Christmas Special, the Bing Crosby Christmas Special, and now, the Dave Gourdoux Christmas Special, with guest Star Ricardo Montalban, and …

Suddenly I felt some unidentified force grab my arms and lift them above my head and I opened my eyes only to realize that I wasn’t floating after all, and that Alfred Lord Kowalski had a hold of my legs and Butch had hold of my arms, and they were carrying me, through the cafeteria exit to the hallway beyond, where all the other greasers were waiting for us.  Then they lifted all 95 pounds of me above their heads and they were passing me along, like I was body surfing in a mosh pit, and I could see in front of me, on the other side of the hallway, the big rectangular doors that opened to the gymnasium.  As they passed me closer to the gym door, I could see, high above it, a hook that protruded from the wall.  And they lifted me up as high as they could until my belt loop in the back snagged and caught on that hook, and there they left me, dangling helplessly by my belt loop high above the hallway below.

Earl Kowalski looked up at me and said, “Kid, it looks like you’re gonna be up there for a while, so, if I were you, I’d start singing now.”  The Kowalski brothers and all the greasers had a good laugh at my expense as they entered the cafeteria, leaving me alone in the hallway, dangling up above the gym door.  Then, looking the other way down the hallway, I could see the horde of kids headed for lunch hour, and I knew Earl was right about one thing.  Since you had to pass that gym door in order to get to the cafeteria, every kid in the school would get a chance to see my show.

I decided to open with my brand new arrangement of “Silver Bells” …

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