Once in a Lifetime Movie

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is a novel.   Not long ago, I completed a chapter describing the back story of one of the main characters.  I felt it was important to describe how and why he arrived at the point in time and space where he became involved in the story I want to tell.  The chapter essentially described the history and eventual dissolution of his marriage.  I completed the first draft and put it aside, pleased at how it turned out and the additional, unplanned details it discovered.

Then one day last week I found myself, as I am prone to do, idly flipping thru channels on the television when I chanced upon a deliciously bad Lifetime channel made for TV movie.  Although this was apparently one of the rare handful of such movies that didn’t star either Meredith Baxter Birney or Jaclyn Smith, I found myself blissfully relishing the over emoting of the anonymous, soap opera caliber actors and the cliché ridden dialogue.  The woman was breaking up with the man, and as I smugly marveled at how terrible it was, I was suddenly jarred by something the woman said.  I won’t reveal the offending line, but it was, I kid you not, almost verbatim the same as one of the lines I had written for the ex-wife in my transcript.  Suddenly, I didn’t feel so smug.  Suddenly, I was filled with doubt.  Is my attempt at a “serious” work of fiction in reality no better than a Lifetime movie?

So the rationalizations began.  First, I rethought the Lifetime movie.  Maybe the writing really wasn’t that bad after all.  Maybe it was the delivery of the actors, or the staging by the director, or the lighting, or the theme music that made it bad.  I then thought of perhaps the best screenplay ever written,  by Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch for “Casablanca”, and remembered that instead of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the studio’s first choice for the roles of Rick and Ilsa were Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan.  Without Bogart or Bergman or Claude Rains, such lines as “round up the usual suspects”, “here’s looking at you, kid”, and “we’ll always have Paris” would probably at best be long forgotten, at worst, in the hands of less capable actors, be remembered as cheesy camp. 

Be that as it may, this Lifetime movie was just bad.   Whatever ultimately made it bad, it certainly wasn’t the intentions of anyone involved with the production.  No doubt the writers intended to write a compelling story, while some of the actors were likely convinced they had landed their big break, and that this was the vehicle that would propel them to stardom.  Nobody starts out with the intent of creating a bad film or painting or story. 

I’ve always had a morbid fascination with really bad movies and music.   It started when I was a kid in the late 60s, when on Saturday afternoons they’d show some of the many bad sci-fi movies from the 50s.   I loved the ridiculous and silly plot lines, the cheap and cheesy special effects, and how the actors all looked so serious as they battled with the evil monsters in their incredibly bad costumes.  There were so many, my favorite being “Brain From the Planet Arous”, in which an evil brain from, you guessed it, the planet Arous, inhabits the body of the great bad actor John Agar, the Laurence Olivier of bad sci-fi films and one time husband to Shirley Temple.   Even as a child, as I laughed at what was supposed to be frightening me, it occurred to me that these were real people acting, and that real people had come up with the story, and I wondered, did they realize the result was as bad as it was?  Did they realize that a floating and talking brain was strange enough, but to have a second brain, a good brain, inhabit the body of a dog?  Didn’t this strike anyone making the movie as just plain silly?

I think Tim Burton nailed it in his biography of possibly the worst movie director of all time, “Ed Wood.”    In it, Johnny Depp portrays Wood as someone who has an intense and insatiable appetite to create.   Like so many great artists, he has internal demons and eccentricities that drive him on.   Unfortunately, he has none of their genius or artistic instincts or talent, and his output is laughably bad.  But as told byBurton, that isn’t what matters.  While the film is consistently funny, it is also touching, especially the poignant relationship between Wood and the dying Bela Lugosi (in an incredible performance by Martin Landau) – I dare anyone, after seeing Burton’s film, to watch Lugosi’s scenes again in “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and not think of the human being that Landau brought out.   There is a wonderful scene in “Ed Wood” near the end when Burton imagines a frustrated Wood storming off of the set and walking into a Hollywood bar, where he encounters Orson Welles, and the two have a conversation about their frustrations dealing with the studios.  In the end, Wood’s spirit and enthusiasm triumph over the mediocrity of his output.    

It’s this spirit, the ability to be so moved by art that one is driven to create, that I think is at the core of being human, and it’s too elemental and universal to be restricted to only those who have talent.   Too often the fear of creating something bad suppresses the need to create.  I realize this now, and am spurred on to finish my novel, even if it never gets published, even if it ends up unintentionally riddled with clichés and stranded sub plots and cardboard characters, and even if it ends up being made into a Lifetime movie.   Whatever it ends up being, when I finish it, it will be complete  and it will be mine – and hopefully I’ll be motivated to create another one.

Marvels of Engineering Number 61

When confronted with a problem, the human mind is capable of amazing things.  From the great Pyramids of Egypt to the Great Wall of China to the Hoover Dam to landing men on the moon, engineers of all disciplines have looked humankind’s biggest challenges in the eye and without blinking created solutions that stretch the boundaries of imagination.  These amazing innovations have been the primary reason the human race has advanced from our cave dwelling ancestors to the dominant species of the planet that we are today.  

It is in this spirit that we need to recognize the most recent incredible achievement in engineering, apparently from the engineers at Nabisco.  Thanks to the brilliant work of these brave and tireless pioneers, we are now able to open a package of Oreos by simply peeling back an adhesive on the front of the package.  To contemplate what this means makes the head spin.  No more trying to pry open the plastic ends of the package, no more using a fork to puncture the thin layer of cellophane that separates the cookies from the atmosphere.  Now all you need do is peel back the sticker and there you are, with fresh Oreos waiting to be removed, and once removed, you simply re apply the sticker and on-going freshness is ensured.

Okay, as far as problems that need a solution, this isn’t a cure for cancer, a perpetual motion machine, or a device that would muzzle Donald Trump, but it is an accomplishment none the less.  I imagine the CEO of Nabisco, at a gathering of the company’s engineers, pounding his fist on the table, demanding “Gentlemen, I am tired of Oreos getting stale before I consume the entire bag.  We need a way to preserve freshness longer!”    As a result of this, teams were formed, budgets were approved, and thousands of hours at Nabisco were spent on the reseal-able Oreo package project, with sub-teams dedicated to design, manufacturing, marketing, and advertising.   And who says the free market system isn’t efficient?

I think of the lead engineer of the project (who we shall name “Jeffrey” for our purposes) attending his 10 year engineering school class reunion.  There he meets up with the old gang, and they describe where their careers have landed them.

 “I designed the Venice Tide Barrier, which will be the largest flood prevention project in history”,  Harold opens.

 “I designed the Millau Viaduct in France, the world’s highest bridge”,  offers Toby.

“I designed the reseal-able Oreo package”, Jeffrey proudly adds.

Let’s raise glasses to all the Jeffreys out there, who are working tirelessly to make the trivial slightly less trivial.

DBS – Part One

(I am considering using this exceprt as the revised opening to the memoir I’ve written – the overall gist of which is to describe what life is like for an early onset Parkinson’s disease patient – any feedback would be appreciated)

January 14, 2010:  I wake up and I am half sitting in my hospital bed in a large room.  The heavy metallic frame that was screwed into my head earlier in the morning has been attached and locked into some larger metal base that I can’t see.    I can hear the usual blips and beeps of hospital equipment, plus the low hum of static.  It’s chilly, and there are people in scrubs milling about.  One of them notices I am awake, and the next thing I know my neurosurgeon, Dr. Rosenow, is in front of me.  He tells me the static I hear is in fact my brain talking, the impulses it creates converted to audio, and that they’ll be listening to it and talking to me as they install the first set of electrodes in my brain.  The fact that my brain waves sound like static is somehow not surprising to me.

As I sit there, awake with neurosurgeons literally in my head, listening to the white noise my brain is broadcasting, I look around the room, at least the portion of it I can see through my peripheral vision, as the bracket my head is mounted to prevents me from turning.  I see to my left and right a curtained off area that goes in a half circle around me, there is a man, a neurosurgeon I’ve never met before, sitting to my immediate right, and Dr Rosenow is behind me now, talking to me, apparently on the other side of the curtain.   He explains that they are now to the part of the procedure where, before they install the first electrode, they have to make sure they are in the right spot, and that they’ll be “listening” to my brain.  For the next hour or two, Dr. Rosenow, for the most part unseen because, just like the wizard of Oz, he does most of his work from behind the curtain, explores my brain by doing whatever the heck he is doing back there.  This must involve turning a dial of some sort, because sometimes, I can hear the static gradually getting louder, and then I feel my right leg and foot and then hand start to tremble and shake, slowly and gradually at first, then more and more rapidly and violently, until he turns the dial down and the shaking diminishes.  The other neurosurgeon takes my arm and bends it, and when he feels the Parkinson’s cog-wheel effect, they listen for the resulting quick change in the static to know they are recording the symptom; as they go on, I learn how to listen for these slight changes in the static patterns that indicate whether they are in the right spot in my brain.

This is all part one of the two part procedure known as Deep Brain Stimulation, or DBS.  When part two is complete, two weeks later, I will have two electrodes installed in my brain; they will be connected by wires which run from my brain down my neck to the right side of my chest where a neuro-transmitter will be installed.  Once programmed and turned on, the neuro-transmitter will send signals to my brain that will drown out the noise caused by Parkinson’s disease, the noise that is largely responsible for my symptoms of rigidity and stiffness.   DBS treats the symptoms of those Parkinson’s patients who are in an advanced state of the disease yet still young and healthy enough to lead an active life.  For these patients, it is viewed as a second chance, an opportunity to regain capabilities that the disease had stolen, and to retain a level of independence and freedom required to carry on a normal life.   It is not a cure for the disease, and does not prolong the inevitable outcome; rather, it treats the symptoms for a period of time.  I’d been eagerly anticipating this second chance for the past six months, as various complications delayed its start, and between work and Parkinson’s, life was declining in an increasingly repetitive exercise in fatigue and discomfort.  I felt like I was gradually fading away.

My Good Reads review of “Chronicles”, by Bob Dylan

(I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, and I loved his memoir, “Chronicles”I wrote this review for Good Reads a little over a year ago)

Dylan is a hero of mine, but I never expected this book to be this good.  The parts where he describes his experiences as a young folksinger on the streets of New York City in 1960-61 are amazing.  Here is this “complete unknown” from the wilds of Minnesota landing in the NYC coffee houses, learning his craft as a performer, and then, with no ambitions greater than adding some new material to his act, beginning to write songs.  It’s fascinating as he brings to life Dylan before he was Dylan, before he had ever written a song, before he became the greatest songwriter ever and the most elusive and enigmatic cultural icon, when he was just another anonymous folk singer on the NYC streets at a time when the fuse was being lit for what was to be the greatest cultural explosion in our history, an explosion that would resonate with the echo of his voice.  “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changing” have become the definitive, archetypical protest songs, theme songs for any attempt to promote and preserve humanity.   “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the dissonance, the restlessness, the anger and the chaos of a world in change, while “Mr. Tambourine Man” poetically described where this chronicler of time and space landed after the explosion, bruised, exhausted, and longing for escape (“To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / silhouetted by the sea / circled by the circus sands/ with all memory and fate / driven deep beneath the waves / let me forget about today until tomorrow”).   Before Dylan was Dylan, pop music was Perry Como, folk music was the Kingston Trio, and the Beatles were singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.   Dylan recaptures where he was during this time with an amazing recollection of detail, and with a rhythm and voice of a seasoned novelist. 

Dylan has spent much of the past forty years trying to deconstruct the myth and icon he has become.  It’s fascinating that here, in his autobiography, he traces the origins of that myth, and, in many ways, embraces it, by describing the neon-lit wintry New York nights, the various couches and floors of apartments he slept in and their stuffed bookshelves from which he fed his new found intellectual appetite, and the coffee houses and clubs where the metamorphosis from a young anonymous mid-western misfit to the mysterious and misunderstood genius who would change the course of popular music and culture forever would occur.  In doing do, Dylan seems to be accepting that our need for the myth and underlying mythology is just as important as his need to break free from it.

My Time in the Big Leagues

Reading the news that Former Minnesota Twin hall of famer Harmon Killebrew passed away the other day, I was taken back to my own brief career as a major league baseball player, in the summer of 1971. 

I became a serious fan of the major leagues in 1968, which was smack dab in the middle of that time between the Braves leaving Milwaukee for Atlanta and the Seattle Pilots becoming the Milwaukee Brewers.  Not having a local team to root for, my friends and I had to choose which major league teams we’d swear our allegiances to.  Most of my friends became Cubs fans, because Chicago was the closest city geographically, but not me. I had become a Packers fan the year before and recognized the Bears as our fiercest rival – there was no way I was going to root for any Chicago team in any sport.

So I picked the St. Louis Cardinals, who just happened to be the defending world champions at the time.  I read everything I could, until I knew everything there was to know about Brock, Flood, Cepeda, Gibson, Shannon and the others.  I checked the Milwaukee Journal sports section every day and poured over the box scores.   My second favorite team became the Minnesota Twins, with Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Killebrew.   I still believe the Twins of the late 60s to early 70s is maybe the greatest team to never appear in a world series.

This was years before anything like ESPN, so we had to rely upon daily box scores and the Sporting News for our information.   When we weren’t reading stats or playing Strat-O-Matic, we were outside playing the game, in backyards and in little league.  1971 was my last and best year in little league, playing on a team that played in the league championship series (we lost), and earning a nod as the starting shortstop in the all star game.

There were three baseball fields the Union Grove little league played on, the one on the old Grade School property, the field at the bottom of Boxer’s Hill by the town dump, and the brand new Middle School field.   The middle school field was the best.  Not only was it the newest, but it had a grass infield.  And it had stadium lights. 

The all-star game was played on a Thursday night in early August, and started at about 8:00.  It was just getting dark enough as the game approached that they turned on the lights.  We warmed up in the infield, and returned to our bench.  The bleachers, with a capacity I’d estimate of 50-75, were filling up, and looking back, I could see my Mom and Dad sitting in the top row down the first base line.  Then a disembodied voice over the PA system welcomed the fans to the all-star game and introduced the starting lineups.  The west team was introduced first, each player running out when their name was called, and lined up between 2nd and 3rd base.  Then it was time for the east team, the team I was on.  I had been waiting nervously, wondering how badly the announcer would butcher the name “Gourdoux”, and making sure my shoelaces remained tied so as to avoid an embarrassing trip.  Finally, the moment came, and I heard through the crisp evening air, “Starting at shortstop, David Gore-Dough”.  I ran out on the field under the lights, pleased at the correct annunciation of my name, my shoelaces still tied, and took my place next to my best friend Tom Andersen, the starting catcher.  As I basked in the glow of the stadium lights, with the sound of the announcement of my name over the PA system echoing in my head, I became aware that I was grinning, ear to ear, and that the Union Grove Middle School baseball field had transformed into Busch Field or Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, and that I and my friends had finally made it to the major leagues.

The game began, and I remember being very nervous in the first inning as I fielded a sharply hit ground ball.  I bobbled it for a moment but was able to recover in time to control the ball and toss it to the second baseman and get the force out.  I don’t remember much else about the game except that it was nine innings and everybody played, so I was on the bench after the first three innings. 

Sometime around the sixth or seventh inning, a front moved in and the temperature dropped a few degrees.  A slight but cool breeze blew in from the north.  I didn’t notice it much as I was with my friends, goofing around on the bench.  The glamour and luster of the event had faded into a familiar comfort, and while for that moment of the introductions under the spotlight we may have been major leaguers, by about the second inning we were just kids playing baseball again and that was fine with us.

I think it was in the eighth inning when I looked up to the stands and saw my Mom and Dad, their jackets on now.  They were talking to each other, absent mindedly watching the action on the field and obviously not paying much attention, when it occurred to me that the reason they came, me playing, had ended in the third inning, and two thirds of the game remained.  My Mom, of  course, had been to all the games.   My Dad, on the other hand, had no interest in baseball, and his job driving eighteen wheelers by night had made it impossible for him to see any of my games.

Every year, my Dad had two weeks of vacation, and he always took them at the beginning of August.  We’d spend those two weeks at our trailer up north, near where he grew up and where much of his family still lived.  Vacation was two weeks of swimming, fishing, canoeing and visiting his sisters and their families, the only two weeks out of the year he’d be able to do such things.  In 1971, those two weeks up north were cut short by half a week, so that I, the third child of four, could play in the all-star game.  The image of that moment in the eighth inning, when I looked up from my goofing around at my Mom and Dad sitting in the bleachers remains etched in my memory.  It was one of the too few moments when I realized how blessed and lucky I was.  My Dad had cut four days off of the 16 days he had for vacation to watch me play three innings in a game he wasn’t interested in.  I’m sure that in conversations that will remain forever private, my Mom had told him that this game was important to me.  At that moment in the eighth inning, as he sat in his jacket in the bleachers, I knew he was cold and bored.  I knew what he had sacrificed for me.  I also knew that he’d never complain about it, never throw it up to me that I cut his vacation short.  And I knew that I was more important to him than those four days up north were.

My career as a major league baseball player lasted for about 15 minutes, or however long it took for the starting lineups to be introduced and stand under the lights on that early August night.  I may not have had the talent or the athletic gifts or the determination or drive to ever make it close to the real major leagues.  But thanks to my imagination and the love of my parents, I was able, for those 15 minutes or so, to proudly stand under the lights of an all-star game at the side of the likes of Mays, Brock, Gibson, Clemente, Seaver, Oliva and Killebrew.

Fear and Loathing in the Drive Thru Lane

To me, the concept of drive thru lanes at fast food restaurants is so simple and straight forward that it should be understood by everyone.  Or so you’d think.

 I had timed my departure to the meeting of the Kenosha Writer’s Guild tonight in such a manner as to allot an extra five minutes for me to drive through the KFC on 39th Avenue and get an order of hot wings and a raspberry Brisk iced tea.   Previous experience tells me that this is the correct allotment of time to not only receive my order, but to enjoy it’s consumption as I make my way across to the north side of town, leaving a pile of bones bereft of meat to be disposed of at a later time, and enough of the ice cold Brisk to get me thru the meeting.    

 I left the house at precisely the scheduled time (5:57 PM) and made it without incident to the drive thru lane of the KFC.   As I pulled close to the menu display and its squawk box, I was suddenly gripped with feelings of dread and panic.

There was a car in front of me and behind its steering wheel was an elderly man holding a thick notebook.  I recoiled in horror as I heard him read it.  He was reading his order, apparently having been sent to pick up dinner for the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army, as it went on to a second, and then a third sheet of paper.  His order included buckets, value meals, and a stunning array of side dishes,  many of which the gargled pre-pubescent voice speaking through the tin can speaker tried to explain weren’t offered.  Of course, the man was just elderly enough that his voice was rather weak, and his hearing only slightly above Helen Keller levels.   The 1930s era, tin can sound system of the drive thru lane that was apparently installed by the late Colonel Sanders himself only added to the complexity of the situation.

“Three macaroni and cheese”, the man intoned, as he flipped over to the third page.   I turned my attention to the radio, which had just begun playing the long version of the Iron Butterfly classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”.    As the drum solo went on, and on, and the song finally reached its 18 minute conclusion, I was still in line, and I could hear the old man, confused but amazingly still calm and patient, say “No, that’s cheese macaroni and threes”.  

Finally, with both my patience and my car’s gas tank at dangerously low levels, I had had enough.  I pulled out of line and went inside, and ordered combo meal number seven, or whatever it was.  Within two minutes I had my order, but now I was hopelessly late, and in an attempt to make up for lost time, I grabbed the order and bolted, forgetting and leaving behind my Raspberry Brisk.

As I drove out, the old man was still in the drive thru lane, and I could hear the voice thru the box say, “Sir, we don’t have any deviled eggs”, or at least I think it was deviled eggs, it could have been Neville Chamberlain or beveled legs or Greg Louganis, as the sound system was either shorting out or the kid’s voice was changing or a combination of both.   Whatever, it wasn’t important, as I soon realized that hot wings and a dry as Death Valley biscuit are probably the two foods that most demand a beverage.  

The point to all of this is that drive-thru lanes are built for speed and efficiency.  If you are feeding a Super Bowl party, a family reunion, or the cast of Ben Hur, you might want to consider a caterer, or at least, going inside to order.  Drive-thru lanes are meant for combo-meals or dollar menu items.  Nothing else.

Be that as it may, my other complaint is that drive thru lanes can be too fast.   I drive up, I order my combo meal, and the digital display says “$5.23” – then they tell me to go to the first window.  On my way there, I see a sign that says “Please have your money ready”   My money is in my wallet, and my wallet is in my back pocket, between my ass and the car seat, which, by the way, I am strapped into with a seat belt.  So I pull up to the window and the kid is waiting there with his hand out.  If I unsnap my seat belt, my car beeps violently at me, screaming, and I wonder if it is also sending alarms to the local Police and Fire departments, alerting them there is a broken arrow, a driver without a seatbelt on, sitting in the drive thru lane of the KFC on 39th Avenue.  Then, I lean forward, reach back and attempt to remove my wallet from my pocket.  The kid is still standing with his hand out, waiting for me, while behind me cars are lining up, as local news traffic helicopters hover over head.  I reach in and pull out a ten dollar bill, and, defying the laws of physics, the kid somehow instantly has the exact change of four single dollar bills and 77 cents in his hand, which is still reaching out to me, waiting for me to take it.  I take the four singles and struggle to insert them into my wallet, while he waits with the 77 cents.  Finally I take the 77 cents and as I struggle to put it in my front pocket, the kid now has a bag containing my food thrust into my face, while construction crews start building an emergency second lane to alleviate the logjam behind me that has now crossed the state line.

All of this hassle and headache is, of course, countered by the rich nutritional value and distinctive and memorable flavor and quality of the food.  This plus the wonderful atmosphere of eating in the front seat of your car as you drive through rush hour traffic, with every tap of the brake resulting in French fries (or “potato wedges” or “chicken nuggets” or my favorite disgusting sounding item, “popcorn chicken”) flying to the furthest and deepest dark corners of your car’s floor, where they will remain forever, intermingled with the dust and lint.  Of course, this is all balanced out by the chemicals and preservatives and calories and fat and cholesterol levels.  

If the drive thru lane is slow and heavily populated and you get tired of breathing the carbon dioxide fumes, just roll your windows up.  Of course, now you have to deal with carbon monoxide, but if service is really slow, a nap while you wait might be just what you need.

But hey, it’s fast!   This whole eating thing is overrated, anyway.

Mother’s Day

I think the Bible got it wrong with the whole Adam and Eve thing.  I just can’t believe Adam was created first.  To believe that Adam was able to get along for all that time without a woman is to believe that he stumbled through Eden with mismatched socks and a hangover.    The whole idea of Eve being created from Adam’s rib doesn’t make sense, either.  Burps and farts, that’s what typically comes out of men.   Then there’s the idea that man was created in God’s image.    Have you taken a good look at your typical man?  Do you really believe that is what God looks like? 

 To me, there is evidence of the divine in the female form, the smooth skin, the soft curves, the soulful eyes.   There is grace in the walk, music in the voice.   It is no accident women were created as such exquisite, sensual beings – so that man is motivated to not only perpetuate the species, but has reason to get up off the couch and turn off Sports Center every now and then.

 Anway, tomorrow is Mother’s Day, the day we honor the first person we ever knew.   My Mom is no longer with us, having passed away nearly seventeen years ago.   I miss her terribly, and it hurts me to know that my sons were too young at the time to have any lasting memories of her, and my daughter wasn’t born yet.  

Much of the first five or so years of my life was spent making my Mother’s life miserable.  Easily distracted and hyperactive, I seemed to save my worst behavior for public outings with my Mom, simultaneously embarrassing and exhausting her on a consistent basis.  There were episodes in grocery stores, the one where I went up to a strange old lady, stomped as hard as I could on her foot, taking her pained reaction of “oh, my corn” as my queue to stomp even harder a second time.  There was the time when I was running up and down the frozen food aisle when she was finally able to grab me by my arm, prompting my dramatic plea, “No, no, I’m too young to die!”  There were episodes in Doctor’s waiting rooms, toy stores, anywhere there was a public gathering.  I had a fascination with trains, and I remember one time, she took me to the train depot to watch one come in – looking back on it now, I wonder if she had plans of throwing me in front of it, but lost her nerve at the last moment.  No juror who had ever witnessed my behavior would have convicted her.

Eventually, I largely (but never really completely) outgrew my need to be the center of attention, and for the most part learned to behave myself.  I made up for all the grief and embarrassment I caused when I was little by keeping out of trouble when I was older.  I turned out to be, thanks to her firm patience, a pretty good kid.

 My Mom and Dad were both blessed with wonderful but different senses of humor that blended perfectly, so they were lots of fun to be around.  Their arguments were legendary and better than anything on television, my favorite being the on-going debate around my Dad’s theory that hot water froze faster than cold water and my Mom’s exasperated repudiation of his fractured logic and fabricated science.   My Dad enjoys being the center of attention (explaining much of my behavior as genetically influenced), and has a very broad sense of humor and penchant for mischief.  My Mom’s sense of humor was a bit more subtle and sophisticated.  I always loved making my parents laugh, especially my Mom – she was so damned smart, if she laughed, then you knew it had to be good.

 One of my favorite things was getting my Mom to do stupid things.  When I was 17, I had a Polaroid camera and went through a phase of staging intentionally bad “avant-garde” photos that I would put together in an album as a collection of stupidity.   There was the photo I shot of one of my Mom’s bowling trophies strained through the webbing of a tennis racket (titled, “The Ghostly Bowler”), the photo of our bathroom plunger set on top of the piano bench juxtaposed against the forest tapestry that hung on the living room wall (titled, “Plunger in the  Wilderness”), there were a series of shots of my tennis shoe clad right foot against varying backdrops.   But my favorite was the morning my Mom came out in her yellow bathrobe and her hair in curlers.   In a burst of inspiration, I handed her the vase off of the dining room table, and she held her pose as I went and got the camera and captured the image, a slightly confused but pleasant expression on her face.   With her standing in her robe and holding the vase like a torch, I had no choice but to title the photo, “Mom of Liberty”.  Upon viewing the photo, she sighed her familiar exasperated sigh, and asked again, “Why do I do all these stupid things you ask me to?”

 I remember my Mom’s last Mother’s day, in 1994.  We had gone up to visit her, all of her kids and grand kids were there.  I remember her getting a big kick out of my son Nick, not quite four years old, telling his favorite joke over and over (“what’s yellow, lives in a tree and says “meow”?  A very mixed up banana”), the same way she use to laugh at my big joke when I was that age (“why did the fire engine wear red suspenders?  To keep its pants from falling down”) She was already sick and deteriorating, but she was able to enjoy having everyone there.  It was a beautiful day, and one of the best of her final days.  

 Now, my kids are older, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch them grow up and observe their relationships with their Mother, my wife.   I see many of the same things I experienced, and when I see the joy they clearly experience when they make their Mother laugh, I’m reminded of my own Mom.  The only difference is that now, through my wife’s eyes, I can also see the happiness those same moments bring her,  and looking back on my Mom, I know now that those goofy moments we shared meant as much to her as they did to me.

I take great pleasure and comfort in knowing this.

On the Death of Bin Laden

                The big news this week of course is the death of Osama Bin Laden.   It triggered for me, like I’m sure it did for everyone, the “where I was at the time of the 9/11 attacks” memories.

                My memories of 9/11 and the days that followed are dominated by images of brilliant blue and cloudless skies, the sky the planes flew through as they crashed into the twin towers, and the sky here, near the Wisconsin Illinois border where I live.   Ten years is long enough to test the accuracy of memory, but as I recall it now, the sky here was just as blue and empty, not only the morning of 9/11 but for what seems like the rest of that September.

                It was a Tuesday.  I had just gotten to work in our offices in McGaw Park, near Waukegan, Illinois.   Linda Lo, who at the time worked in the cubicle next to mine, asked me if I had heard anything about a jet crashing into one of the trade centers.   I had not, but soon a buzz was moving across the floor, and internet screens were displaying the first crash.   I can’t remember the exact order of things, but there were reports of the Pentagon being hit, the second tower, there were reports of planes targeting the White House.   It soon became clear that we, the United States, were under attack by some unidentified but very real enemy.

                The day went on, and we were all glued to the internet or the televisions that were set up in the cafeteria.   We saw both towers fall; we saw the horrifying images of people plunging from windows to their death.   We saw the hand held films of dust and debris flying everywhere and coating the Manhattan streets.  We watched incredibly heroic accounts of firefighters sacrificing their own lives attempting to save others.  We watched, we all watched, and we watched together.

                When I got home from work, we all watched some more.   I was 42 years old at the time, my wife 40, my sons Jon and Nick 16 and 12, and my daughter, Hannah, just two weeks away from her 7th birthday.  The footage was graphic and traumatizing, but it was also an undeniably historic moment, the 21st century’s version of Pearl Harbor.  Jon and Nick understood what was going on, we tried to explain very carefully to Hannah what was happening and shield her from some of the more graphic images.  She understood most of it, but didn’t seem too traumatized, at least not any more traumatized than any of us were.   When I tucked her into bed that night, Hannah, with her typical flair for the dramatic, told me to leave the light on in her room.  “That way”, she said, “if something happens, they’ll know there was a little girl in here.”

                Whenever I think of 9/11, there is one specific image that comes to mind.  It was Thursday morning, two days after.  I was driving to work on Delany Road and waiting for a red light to change before I could turn left on Highway 41.  As I sat there, I looked at the car in the lane to the right of me.  Behind the wheel sat a pretty woman, probably in her early thirties, crying, visibly sobbing, a wad of Kleenex in her hand.  I had no idea what specifically she was crying about, I tried to imagine that maybe she had a relative who worked in the towers, maybe something on her radio had moved her, but I doubt that it was anything like that, because I felt like crying, too, and I knew that I and everyone else was dialed in to a collective sadness, a shared mourning and grief.   We were all experiencing different levels of anger and fear, but the sadness was universal.  We all felt it, and the woman crying behind the wheel at the stop light was for me the perfect articulation of that sadness.

                For a short period, in the days immediately after we had been attacked and violated, we were bound by that sadness.   In that short period, there were no Democrats or Republicans, we were all just Americans.   When President Bush stood on the pile of rubble at ground zero, speaking through a megaphone and putting his arm around the shoulder of one of the firefighters, we were all moved.  We were all an American family, and we ached for the loss of our brothers and sisters.

                But now, ten years later, that family, like families do, has fractured and split, and we are divided.  We no longer see ourselves in each others’ eyes.   Instead we see something cynical, something we distrust, something we don’t recognize.  

                The news of Bin Laden’s death was unexpected and jolting.  For ten years, as he eluded us, he drifted further and further from our consciousness.  President Obama’s eloquent announcement was jarring, it was welcome, it was a relief, but it is too soon to determine if it was cathartic.

                At first, when I watched the news reports of the country’s reaction, I had mixed emotions.  On one hand, I felt like being out in the streets with those celebrating, as the SOB got finally got what he deserved.  On the other hand, it felt a little uncomfortable watching Americans celebrate the death of an individual with such fervor.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the US for killing him – this was not murder, it was an act of war, in response to his open attack on our nation, and there is no legitimacy to those who cry he was denied due process.  It’s just that on some level, it made me uncomfortable watching U.S. citizens celebrate the killing of even this asshole – we always, rightfully I think, watched with a critical eye when radical regimes in other parts of the world behaved similarly.

                But before we judge ourselves too harshly, let’s take a look at what this SOB did to us.   The most obvious is the taking of thousands of innocent lives on that infamous day.  If that was all, it’d probably be enough.  But look a little deeper, and see what’s happened to us since then.  Our economy is in tatters, and while all of our economic woes cannot be traced to 9/11 it no doubt had an impact.   The airline industry has never really recovered.  We are fighting two expensive wars, and while you can argue whether the wars were really related to 9/11 or not, at a minimum, 9/11 was the catalyst.   Either way, as is always the case with war, there have been incredible human costs in terms of lives interrupted, damaged, and lost.

                More significant than the economic cost of the terrorist attacks has been the damage to our psyche.   Bin Laden planted seeds of fear and suspicion and distrust in our consciousness, manifested by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the naming of threat levels.  We arrive at airports earlier now and we take off our shoes and have our bodies scanned.   And we have debated whether or not we should torture detainees, as terms like water boarding and enhanced interrogation tactics have become part of our vocabulary.   Whatever your views are on this, the fact that these debates are openly taking place in the highest levels of our government would have been unthinkable prior to 9/11.

                We have also seen that short period after 9/11 where we were all Americans dissolve into increasingly competing and confrontational ideologies.   Debate and respected difference of opinions have dissolved into hatred and intolerance.   We categorize each other into shallow two dimensional labels.    We question the motives, the intelligence and the morality of those with differing views.  There is more vitriol and harsh rhetoric in the air than ever before.  Some of this can definitely be traced to 9/11, and the manipulation of raw emotions by insincere leaders of both sides.

                President Bush once said that the 9/11 attacks were attacks on our freedoms.  I think he was right, but more specifically, I think it was an attack on our core beliefs and our cohesiveness as a nation.  Now Bin Laden has been killed, and I agree with President Obama’s decision not to release the death photos that could be used by martyrs and zealots and opportunists – “that’s not us”, he said, and he’s right.   But at the same time, when you look at what happened to us on 9/11 and in the years since, we are right to celebrate this moment, so long as we celebrate it as Americans, and recognize each other as brothers and sisters, not political stereotypes.   If we can use this moment to bring us a little closer together and bridge some of the gaps that have developed, then this moment becomes the moment when we didn’t just kill Bin Laden, but the moment when we defeated his life’s mission, and emerge stronger in the larger, on-going attack on human dignity that his like will undoubtedly continue to wage.

Welcome to Drivel by Dave!

Greetings and welcome to Drivel by Dave!   I’ll be posting pretty much whatever pops into my damaged brain – feel free to react and comment however you want.  There are just a couple of rules I’d like to observe on this site:

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