End of Season

I stood on the ridge, in the dark and damp grey of the late November afternoon, holding the little folding camouflaged chair I had been sitting on, when it started to rain again.  This time it came down steady and hard and rhythmic, drowning out all other sounds the same way the oppressive grey clouds had muted the few remaining colors that November had been unable to kill.  I stood there, in my blaze orange hunting coat, my rifle in one hand and the chair in the other, as the rain pounded down on me.  Another season was ending, and whether there will be another was uncertain.  

I just stood there, getting wet, unable to process any thought.  I looked down the ridge to the forest floor that lay beneath me, then across the tree tops that stood before me.   I became aware of the rhythm of the falling rain, and that, in its gentle whisper, I was privy to an intimate secret it was sharing with the woods.  For a moment, my conjecture on whether this would be the last hunting season or not was put aside, and I was there, on the ridge top, alone in the woods, in my woods, listening to the secret that the rain was letting me in on.  It’s beautiful, it was saying, the grey rain in the trees and their dark shadows, even in the absence of color, especially in the absence of color, long after the spring blossoms of the wild flowers, long after the deep and lush greens of summer, more than a month after the brilliant oranges and yellows of autumn, and before the hushed pure white blanket of winter snow, here and now, when everyone else has retreated to the warmth and comfort and lamp lit lights of their homes, here in the woods alone with the cold and soft and driving rain it is still and quiet and beautiful. 

I stood there, in my woods, in my moment, drenched in its intimacy, listening to the sound of my rain, feeling it on my face.  It wasn’t the dark and cold rain I had become familiar with.  Instead, it was pure and steady and soothing, and it cleansed my soul.

They Gave Us the Bird

(I recently read, in a list of Thanksgiving trivia, that Benjamin Franklin opposed the selection of the bald eagle as the national bird, feeling strongly that the wild turkey made for a better symbol of America.  Nodding off, I had the following dream – as a dream, I cannot vouch for its historical accuracy  …)

VOICE OVER:   Today on C-Span: Ongoing coverage from the Articles of Confederation on the adoption of the Constitution as introduced by Thomas Jefferson as the frame work for the new government.

JAMES MADISON:  The gentleman from New York yields his time to the gentleman from Pennsylvania.

BEN FRANKKLIN:  Thank you, gentleman from New York.  I’d like to take this opportunity to again voice my displeasure over the selection of the bald eagle as the national bird.

JAMES MADISON:  (banging his gavel) We closed this discussion yesterday.

BEN FRANKLIN:  But I’d like to reopen it.

JAMES MADISON:  But we voted on it

BEN FRANKLIN:  Do I not have the floor?

JAMES MADISON:  (sighing) You do.

BEN FRANKLIN:  Very well, then.   I move that we strike down the measure passed yesterday naming the bald eagle as the national bird and replace it with bill number 387, which I introduced earlier today, which would name the wild turkey as the rightful national bird.

JAMES MADISON:  Bill number 387?

BEN FRANKLIN:  Yes, bill number 387.

JAMES MADISON:  How did you come up with number 387?

BEN FRANKLIN:  Why, that’s the bill number!

JAMES MADISON:  You can’t just arbitrarily assign a number of your own choosing to a bill!

BEN FRANKLIN:  Show me the procedure.

JAMES MADISON:  But 387?  Come on!

ALEXANDER HAMILTION: (interrupting) I move that we rename bill 387 to be measure 43B.

JAMES MADISON:  Never mind the number, Hamilton.  Mr. Franklin, we voted yesterday to name the bald eagle as the national bird.  The matter is closed.

BEN FRANKLIN:  But I fear we are making a terrible mistake!  We need to reopen the matter!

THOMAS JEFFERSON:  Gentlemen, we are trying to establish a new government!  Checks and balances, inalienable rights of men, branches of government!    And we’re still wasting time debating the national bird?

DAVEY CROCKETT (with coonskin cap on head):   Representing the good people of the state of Tennessee, I’d like to go on record in stating my support for bill number 387

JAMES MONROE:  Davey Crockett?  This is 1785 – have you even been born?  Plus, Tennessee isn’t a state yet!

CHARLES BRONSON:   I move that Mr. Crockett’s testimony be stricken from the record on account of historical inaccuracy.

JAMES MONROE:  Charles Bronson?

JAMES MADISON:  (banging his gavel) James Monroe, you are out of order!  Plus you are confusing viewers who can’t remember the difference between James Madison and James Monroe.  Mr. Franklin, you had the floor.

BEN FRANKLIN:  Thank you, James Mason.  Now, the wild turkey is a far more respected and nobler bird than the bald eagle.  Granted, the bald eagle is better looking, I’ll give you that.   But that’s transparent.   I once knew a wild turkey that could do algebra, let’s see pretty boy eagle do that.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON:  I’d like to request a fifteen minute recess so I can duel Raymond Burr.

JAMES MADISON:  You mean Aaron Burr.  Raymond Burr is the actor who played Perry Mason.

ALEXANDER HAMILTION:  Precisely.  Maybe Raymond won’t be as good a shot as Aaron.

GEORGE WASHINGTON:  As the Father of this country, may I make a suggestion.


GEORGE WASHINGTON:  I move we retain the bald eagle as the national bird, and in the spirit of compromise, name Ben Franklin the Uncle of the Country.

BEN FRANKLIN:  I accept!

GEORGE WASHINGTON:  (under his breath) The bat shit crazy, syphilitic uncle ….

JAMES MADISON:  All those in favor, say Eye!

JAMES MONROE:  Isn’t it say “Aye”?

JAMES MADISON:  It’s spelled “aye”, but it’s pronounced “eye”.


JAMES MADISON:  Get him out of here!

(The rest, as they say, is history, and our government remains the same efficient, well oiled machine to this day)

That Would Be Nice

(I’ve been in a fiction writing mood lately, and this scene came to me tonight)

Her breathing had become soft and shallow, and her eyelids heavy.   Rays of the evening sun shone brightly through the picture window.   The little square fan he had positioned in the small windowsill across from her labored steady and inadequate, softly pushing the stale hot air through the room and to her bed, causing a slight but rhythmic waving of the stray strand of iron grey hair that rested on her cheek.  He was sitting in his favorite chair, positioned at her bedside.

“Can I get you anything?”, he asked.

“No, no, don’t bother.”   Her voice was soft and weak.

“It’s no bother”, he insisted.  “How about a glass of lemonade?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Are you sure?  I was just going to fix a glass for myself.”

“Well, if you’re going to fix one for yourself anyway, sure, I’ll have a glass”

“With some ice?”

“That would be nice.”

He smiled and got up and went to the kitchen.  Alone in the living room, she could hear the drone of the fan, steady and soft but strong enough to drown out the ticking of the grandfather clock.  The sunlight was starting to fade and the early evening shadows were lengthening.  It was still hot and humid, but somehow, if only for the moment, between the fan’s hum and the cool darkness of the shadows, a sense of contented comfort overcame her.  In that moment, she looked across the room and saw the familiar bookshelves, the grandfather clock, the lamps and furniture, and the framed photos of children and grandchildren that were hung on the wall or propped up on end tables. In the half light of sunlight and darkening shadows, with the hum of the fan as the soundtrack, she felt a profound sense of beauty and peace, and there was no pain.  She was centered, in the world her lifetime had created, and the quiet familiarity of her surroundings was suddenly extremely satisfying.

He came back into the room with two tall glasses of lemonade, ice cubes jangling as he walked.  He set one on the night stand next to her bed, and leaned over to turn on the lamp.

“Leave it off”, she said.  “It’s nice and cool without the light”

He sat back in his chair and took a long sip from his glass.  She leaned forward and gripping her glass with two unsteady hands, slowly raised it to her lips and took a gentle sip, tilting the glass far enough back to let ice cubes brush her lip.  She held the sip, cold and tart, in her mouth for a moment before swallowing it.  It was just a swallow, but it was wonderful, as she felt its refreshing cold travel deep down inside her.  She couldn’t help it as a broad smile formed upon her face as she returned the glass to the night stand.

He saw her smile and he couldn’t help but smile, too.   He started to say something but he stopped, and they sat there, in the warm shadows of the early evening, silent with fading but contented smiles. 

She looked around the room again, then into his eyes.

“John?”, she said.


“Do you think tomorrow we could go for a ride?”

He leaned forward in his chair.  She hadn’t wanted to get out of the house for weeks and he wasn’t sure she’d be strong enough.  At this point, he didn’t even know if he’d be able to get her into the wheelchair.

“Sure, sure we could. Where would you like to go?”

“I think I’d like to go by 18th Avenue and drive by our first apartment.”

“I’d like that very much,” he said.  “I haven’t been by there for the longest time.”

“We could stop and walk through the park, like we used to.  Then maybe we could stop and have lunch at Buster’s.   They always had such good lunches.  Do you think we could do that, John?” 

She looked tired, but tranquil and content, as the deepening shadows moved across her face.   

 “Of course we could”, he said.  “That would be nice.”

Armistice Day

I’m old.

I’m old enough to remember, when I was in grade school, turning and facing east and observing one minute of silence at 11:00 on November 11.   This was done in observance of Armistice Day, commemorating those who served in World War One, because the armistice that was signed on November 11, 1918, ended the War effective 11:00, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.   Armistice Day was created, as most war memorials are, to ensure that “we never forget”, in this case the courage and bravery of those who served in that horrific and bloody war.

I was in grade school in the late 60s, or about 50 years after the end of World War One, so there were still plenty of living veterans of that war.  Now it is closer to 100 years after the war ended, and the last living survivor died a couple of years ago.

In 1971, Armistice Day was changed to Veteran’s Day, a day to honor the sacrifice of all those who served, not just the World War One veterans.  This makes sense, as that honor has certainly been earned, and no matter how much we claim to “support our troops”, the truth is that those of us who never served ALL take the courage and sacrifice of those who have for granted.   They deserve a day to be honored, and anyone who ever served in any branch of the military should be given that day off.   Anything we can do to acknowledge the sacrifices they made on our behalf should be done, because nothing we do will ever be enough to repay them.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel that Veterans Day should be some other day, and that Armistice Day should still be observed, that we should still face the east and observe a moment of silence at 11:00 on November 11.  Because we don’t observe Armistice Day, we have forgotten about World War 1.  Here is a reminder:  over 15 million soldiers and civilians were killed and another 20 million wounded in World War 1.     That’s more than 35 million.  There was the horror of gas and chemical warfare.   There were weeks and months spent in muddy and cold trenches.   There was brutal hand to hand combat.   

And there is no one left to tell us what that was all like.  One of the original goals of Armistice Day was to never forget.  Yet the vast majority of the country that is younger than me knows nothing of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.   People don’t know about facing east in a moment of silence.   And they don’t know that that moment of silence was intended to remind us all not just of the glory and valor of those who served, but also of the fact that there were more than 35 million casualties.  It is our ability to forget about the real and tragic costs of war that makes it too easy to start new ones.

To all of you who have served, please accept my humble appreciation and sincere gratitude, and I hope Veteran’s Day brings you some comfort.  I’d ask that you join me in facing east for one silent moment at 11:00, out of respect for our grandfathers and great grandfathers, and for our grandchildren.

RIP, Joe Frazier

For most of the 20th century, the Heavyweight Champion of the World was the most honored and revered title in all of individual sports.  Tonight, with the passing of Joe Frazier, one of best to ever wear the crown is gone.

The measure of any champion is the quality of his competition.   If Muhammad Ali really was “the greatest”, it is because of George Foreman and Ken Norton and especially Joe Frazier.

Frazier was a great champion in his own right.  He held the title for five years, from 1968 to 1973, before getting knocked out by Foreman.  His career, however, will forever be defined by his relationship with Ali.   Ali and Frazier formed the greatest individual rivalry in sports history.   Russell and Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Williams and DiMaggio, they all take a back seat to Ali and Frazier.   It is partially because the nature of the sport puts the two against each other in the most basic and direct and pure way; it  is also because both men, inside and outside of the ring, were giants who commanded respect and attention.

In the most eagerly anticipated fight ever, the “fight of the century”, the first match with Ali, Frazier dominated and defended his title, proving to any doubters that he was legitimate.   In the third and final Ali-Frazier fight, the “thriller in Manila”, in 1975, both fighters were well past their prime.   But, like great rivals do, they brought out the best in each other, and turned back time, and fought the hardest and most vicious and best heavyweight championship fight in my lifetime, if not ever.

In the ring, Ali and Frazier were studies in contrast, opposites that when blended together formed perfection and transcended the sport.  Ali was all about grace and speed,  his toes barely touching the canvas as he’d shuffle around the ring and release left jabs with blinding speed, then when the moment was right, he’d unleash a flurry of combinations, a fluid blur of power and fury .  Frazier, on the other hand, was strength and determination, his feet on the ground, he may as well have been wearing combat boots, as he’d bob and weave and bore straight into his opponents, swatting off punches like they were annoying flies, until he was inside his opponent’s reach, where his powerful and famous and inevitable left hook would be launched, with his arm seemingly starting on the floor and picking up momentum and power until it landed on his opponent’s head, launching beads of sweat airborne.    Ali and Frazier in the ring were like a high school geomtry lesson, as Ali would dance perfect circles around the ring, while Frazier would define the radius, starting in the center and boring in on a straight line, circumnavigating and dividing Ali’s circles into sectors and segments.

Outside the ring, they were also contrasting personalities. Ali was self promotion and bombast, Frazier was quiet dignity.   Ali was an artist and extrovert; Frazier was a craftsman and introvert.  Ali was obnoxious and over the top, but he was also funny and witty and charming, and eventually he’d get a laugh or a smile out of even his harshest critics.  Frazier was none of these; he never seemed at ease in the public eye, yet his mere presence commanded respect.  Frazier’s dignity was strong enough to withstand even Ali’s relentless taunting and baiting.

It will always be a subject of debate among fans whether Ali really was “the greatest” or not.  But anybody who ever saw Joe Frazier at his best wouldn’t hesitate to put him up there not only with Ali, but also with Dempsey and Tunney and Louis and Marciano.  It doesn’t seem very likely that the world will ever see men like these again, men who were truly worthy of the title Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Highway Q

(Note:  this is quite a departure for me – a work of pure fiction.   I honestly don’t know what to make of it, I suspect it is quite mediocre.  Any comments would be welcome)

He was walking down County Highway Q, just west of where it intersects with State Highway 15 and bends sharply to the south, where it catches the shoreline of the river and runs west, following the river’s north bank.  He walked along the grassy edge of the road, pleasantly surprised at how warm it was for early November.  He unzipped his light spring jacket and filled his lungs with the brisk fresh air, content to be outside on such a day, enjoying the rolling, picaresque scenery.  Looking up river, he could see a bridge, wide and flat, crossing the river and dominating the landscape.  A half hour later, he came to the point where the highway curved and crossed the bridge.  Leaves curled at his feet, as the midday breeze blew crisp and cool.  The bridge was wide, with a lane for walkers and bicyclists, and slightly longer than a football field.  The river flowed beneath it, slow and blue, reflecting the cloudless late autumn sky.  About halfway down the bridge, he could make out the shape of a woman, sitting in the pedestrian lane with something in her hands.   He started walking across.

As he got closer, he could make out a sketch pad on the woman’s lap, and he could begin to make out her features.  She had long, flowing dark hair and pale skin and dark eyes.  The blue, quilted flannel jacket she wore was loose fitting yet somehow revealed that she was thin and shapely underneath.    The closer he got the more perfect she appeared.   As he approached her, she looked up from her sketch pad and smiled broadly at him.  He looked over the bridge, to the west, to see what she was drawing.   Ahead the river curved to the left, the south, and the trees that lined the shore had already lost most of their leaves.  The few that remained defiantly burned bright and vivid shades of orange and yellow, their colors reflected in the slow water below.

“Hi,“ he said.

“Hi,” she replied, subconsciously covering her open sketchbook with her right arm, while her left hand brushed her hair back out of her face.  He looked out over the side of the bridge to the western horizon.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said

“It sure is”, she agreed, closing the sketchbook.

“You picked a beautiful scene to draw.”

“Thanks”, she said.  “It’s one of my favorite places.  I like to come here at different times of the day and draw the shadows.”

“Mind if I have a look?” he asked, gesturing to the sketchbook.

“Oh, no, no, I couldn’t”, she said, blushing.  “I’m really not very good.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that bad.  Just a quick glance?”

“No, no, seriously, I couldn’t.”  He realized she was genuinely embarrassed and he didn’t push the issue.  He put her to be in her early to mid 20s, and he was in his early 40s.  There was just enough age difference for him to make her feel uncomfortable, to come across as creepy if he pushed things.  He didn’t want that, he just wanted to drink her in, to appreciate her, because she was stunning. 

“Okay, that’s okay, I understand”, he smiled.   “I won’t press the issue.”


“Do you live around here?”, he asked.

“Not anymore”, she replied.   She was looking at the other side of the river, squinting, toward the southern shore, watching intently.  The wind was stronger in the middle of bridge and it blew her hair back. He zipped his jacket up and turned to see what she was looking at.   He could see a man walking down the road, approaching the bridge.

“Who’s that?”, he asked

“That’s my boyfriend”, she answered.  “He’s bringing me some lunch.”

“Oh, how nice”, he replied, his heart silently collapsing.   “I suppose I’d better get going, then.  It was very nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you, too”, she smiled.

He stared intently for only a split second, trying to mentally photograph her face and file it away in his brain.  She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He said goodbye and then he continued crossing the bridge.  He was almost to its end when he passed the boyfriend, short, stocky and muscular, with thick brown hair and dull eyes.   As they passed, they wordlessly nodded in acknowledgement, neither one breaking his stride.

Then he was on the other side, the south side, walking west parallel to the river, down Highway Q.  The wind picked up out of the north and blew colder.  Ahead the trees thickened and formed a canopy of leafless branches that covered the highway.  He walked for about two miles down the road.  The afternoon sky darkened as clouds blew in out of the west, until it was steely shades of November grey.  Dusk was approaching when he came to the driveway leading to a clearing to the left.

He stopped and looked down the gravel driveway and saw that it quickly faded into a lawn that had been cut out of the surrounding trees, long grass that was covered by fallen leaves.  Back a few hundred yards from the road there was a large and plain two storied farm house.  Its white paint had faded and lost its luster, and was peeling in places.  In the dimming light of the late afternoon, its windows were black.  No lights were turned on.  He couldn’t tell if anyone was home or not.  He felt a tightening ache in his thighs and his feet were uncomfortable.  He had been walking for the better part of four hours.  He walked up the driveway to see if there was anybody home.

As he approached the house, the sand and gravel under his feet fading and giving way to weedy grass,   an older woman, probably in her early sixties, stepped out of the front door on to the raised porch to greet him.

“May I help you?”, she asked.

“Yes, I was wondering if I could use your phone.”, he said.

“Sure, no problem.   Something the matter?”

“No, no”, he replied.   He suddenly felt disoriented.   “I just had some car trouble up the road a bit.”

“Well, come on in”, she offered.  He walked up the steps, and she held the door open for him and waited for him to enter.  “Getting dark earlier and earlier”, she said, as she flicked on the switch that powered the overhead light in the living room.  The room was neat and clean, the furniture traditional farm house furniture, just what one would expect from an elderly woman living in the country.  The floors were dark hardwood, with a braided rug under the coffee table that separated a couch from a love seat and a recliner and an end table.   The tables had lace doilies and country themed craft candles, the end table had a lamp with a yellow shade over it.  The walls were decorated with water color farm landscapes and small framed black and white photos of family members.  On the far wall, there was a fireplace and a mantle, above hung a larger framed oil portrait.  He hadn’t processed the image yet when the woman said, “Here’s the phone”, and pointed him to a wall mount.  It was a rotary phone, the kind you dialed by putting your fingers in the holes for the numbers.  He hadn’t seen one like it for as long as he could remember.  He didn’t think, more than a decade into the 21st century, they existed anymore.

She handed him the receiver, and, just before he began dialing, he looked again at the portrait hanging over the fireplace.  He immediately recognized the subject of the painting as the woman on the bridge, the same long black hair and pale skin, the same lovely dark eyes, the same amazing smile. 

“Excuse me”, he asked.

“Yes?” the lady answered.

“Who is that painting of?”

“Why, that’s my daughter, Emily”, she replied.

“I just met her”, he said.  “On the bridge”

“Oh, she must be drawing again.  She loves the view from there.”

“That’s what she said.”  Then he remembered that she said she doesn’t live around here anymore.  “So she must be visiting.”


“Yes, she must be visiting home.”

“I don’t know what you mean.  She lives here.”

He thought, I must have really creeped her out, if she didn’t want to tell me where she lived.  “Well, it’s a lovely painting.  You have a beautiful daughter, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Oh, I don’t mind.  We’re used to it.  She was always the pretty one.   But I’m sorry to tell you – she’s taken.”


“Yes, she’s engaged to be married.”

“Oh, yes, I think I met her fiancé.  He was bringing her lunch”

“That would be Paul”, she nodded.  “Paul Hansen.” He detected a sour expression on her face, however slight, and suspected that the woman did not approve of her daughter’s fiancé.  “You were going to make a phone call?”

“Yes, that’s right.”  He had been standing with the receiver in his hand, absent minded while discussing the girl who he now knew was named Emily.   He turned his attention to the phone, and again he felt confused and disoriented.   He tried to remember the number he was going to dial, but he was drawing a blank.  For some reason, none of the digits were coming to him.  As he tried to clear his mind, he noticed there was no dial tone coming from the phone.  He tapped the on hook button, trying to reset the dial tone, but to no avail.

“It’s dead”, he told the lady.


“The phone.  It appears to be dead.”

“Let me see.”  He handed her the phone, and she tried tapping it on-hook and resetting it, but with no luck.  “That’s odd.”

“Do you have any neighbors that I could try?”

“Only the Johnson’s, the next farm over, but I’m afraid they’ve already left for Florida.  They’re retired, snowbirds, you know how it is.  There is a bar, Schmidt’s, about a mile and a half down the road.   I’m sure they have a phone.”

“That would work.”  He noticed that it had gotten dark outside.

“I’d give you a ride, but I’m afraid my husband has the car.”

“No problem, I can walk”

She offered him something to eat, but he politely declined.   He wanted to get someone out to look at his car before it got too late.   He certainly wasn’t a mechanic, especially on these new Hybrid cars.  He just hoped he could find a Toyota dealership somewhere in the area that might have some expertise on his 2009 Prius.

On the porch, on his way out, he thanked the woman, and stepped out into the night.  It was cold and pitch black out as he found his way back to the road, County Highway Q.  Through the darkness he couldn’t see, he could only sense the river that flowed to his right.  Clouds filled the sky, so there was no moon, and no stars.   He couldn’t even see the canopy of branches that covered the road.  There was only thick and heavy darkness pressing down on him.

Finally, in the distance ahead, he could make out a faint white light.   As he walked on, it slowly got brighter, till he could see it was a solitary street light, and he could make out the silhouettes of parked cars beneath it, then the neon glow of a Budweiser sign, and he knew he was approaching Schmidt’s tavern.

As he got closer, the light grew brighter, and things took shape.  He could make out three or four pickup trucks and an SUV in the parking lot.  Schmidt’s was a typical small northwoods tavern; its lights shone through the windows and radiated welcoming warmth.  As he walked up the steps to the bar’s entrance, he could hear the warm and familiar sounds of country western music and men laughing.  Just as he was about to grab it’s handle, the front door swung open, and two heavy set men walked out.   He stepped aside and let them pass before he stepped in.

Surveying the horseshoe shaped bar, he saw on the right side, four men, sitting together with the bartender, who was leaning into them from behind the bar.  They were in the middle of an animated discussion about something, and none of them looked up as he walked in.  On the left side, at the far end of the bar, sitting and brooding by himself, he recognized the girl’s boyfriend, Paul Hansen.  He looked miserable, like he was already drunk.  Recognizing a familiar face, he took a seat a couple of stools down, just as the jukebox stopped playing.

“Hi, Paul”, he offered.

Hansen looked up, surprised to see the man he had passed on the bridge.

“You!”, he grunted.  “How do you know my name?”

“I talked to Emily’s Mom”

“How do you know her?”, he demanded, loudly.

“I, I just met her.”

“Emily said she’d never seen you before” There was accusation in his voice.

“She hadn’t”.   He looked across the bar to see if he could get the bartender’s attention.  The bartender was still absorbed in the conversation with the other guys.

“Bartender?”  He tried to get his attention.

“You tell me how you know Emily”, Paul was demanding.  Paul was beginning to piss him off.  “Tell me”, Paul loudly insisted.

 “Go fuck yourself”, he told Paul, then, turning his attention back across the bar, he asked even louder, “Bartender?”

He didn’t notice Paul getting off of his stool, he was more interested in what the fuck was so interesting that the bartender couldn’t even acknowledge him.

“He went right off the road, at that big curve on Highway Q, right after you get off of 15”, one of the guys was saying.  “Little shit hybrid Prius”

He felt his heart accelerate and then he felt Paul’s hands, one on each of his shoulder, turn him around and pull him off his stool.  He didn’t fall, he stood there clumsily, face to face with Paul.

“You tell me how you know Emily”, he was screaming.   He pushed one of Paul’s hands off of him, but faster than he could comprehend; Paul had grabbed him again, and now was pulling him to the wall, where in a display case a yellowing newspaper clipping hung.  “Look!  Look!” Paul demanded.

The newspaper clipping was a front page, from March 21, 1977.  “Hansen Convicted of Murder”, the headline read, and he could see the head shot photos of Emily and Paul, side by side.  He quickly read the story about how, on November 8, 1976, Paul had thrown Emily over the County Highway Q Bridge.  Hansen had pleaded the insanity defense, claiming he had seen Emily talking to an unidentified stranger, and lost his mind in a jealous rage.   No one else was able to corroborate the existence of the stranger.  The article went on to say that the prosecutor was going to seek the death penalty. 

Everything was spinning now, Hansen, the newspaper article, the bartender and the other four guys, one of whom was saying, “We got there within 10 minutes.  He was already dead when we found him.   They had to call his wife from down state to identify the body.  She should be up at the morgue by now.”  The spinning accelerated, he was dizzy, and then everything went black.

Sobbing, his wife nodded yes, it was him, and the coroner put the sheet back over his face.

Float Like a Butterfly, Waddle Like a Duck

The film When We Were Kings documents the 1975 heavyweight championship fight between the then defending champion, George Foreman, and the ex-champ, Muhammad Ali.  The fight took place at a time when the Heavyweight Champion of the world was still one of the most revered and glamorous titles on the entire planet.  I was in high school at the time and the prevailing opinion was that Foreman, possibly the most powerful puncher ever, was invincible, and that Ali was past his prime.  No one gave Ali much of a chance.   Ali, of course, did win, in the famous “rope-a-dope” fight, where he spent much of the early rounds on the ropes and let Foreman punch himself out.  Once he had exhausted Foreman, Ali came to life and knocked him out in the 8th round, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history and the greatest moment in his illustrious career.

As the movie points out, simply labeling the fight as the “rope-a-dope” doesn’t give Ali enough credit.  Ali had a strategy that confused and frustrated Foreman from the beginning, as he came out in the first round dancing, “floating like a butterfly”, and throwing more right leads (and landing a surprising number of them) than he had ever thrown before.   Then in the next few rounds, he’d balance his time on the ropes with his famous dancing and left jabs.   As a result of spending so much time on the ropes, he took an incredible beating, as Foreman gave him literally everything he had, repeatedly landing crushing blows to the body as well as occasional solid connections with Ali’s head.

Now, Ali has Parkinson’s disease, likely caused by blows to the head he received in his boxing career.  It has been documented that Ali had been diagnosed even before his last fight, the sad and pitiful bout with Larry Holmes.   When I watch replays of the Ali-Foreman fight now, I can’t help but wonder, each time Foreman lands a shot to his head, if that is the exact moment that triggered Parkinson’s in Ali.  It also makes me wonder when was the precise moment that whatever caused my instance of Parkinson’s occurred.

A major issue driving Parkinson’s research is the lack of known biomarkers for the disease.  Unlike heart disease, which has cholesterol and blood pressure measurements to diagnose pre-disease likelihood, there is nothing to determine if one person is more or less likely than another to get Parkinson’s disease.  Not understanding the causes makes the search for a cure all the more difficult. 

There is evidence to suggest that repeated blows to the head or long-term exposure to certain chemicals or pesticides may cause Parkinson’s disease.  But, other than not getting into the ring with Foreman, or not taking that job in the DDT manufacturing plant, there really isn’t anything anybody can tell you to do or not do to avoid Parkinson’s Disease. 

The most disturbing possibility, currently unproven, is that there may be a genetic link to Parkinson’s.  In my family, only my maternal grandfather had been afflicted with the disease, and he was a farmer in the 1950s and early 60s, when DDT was legal – so I hope, with no proof, that he used large amounts of the pesticide on his farm and that was how he contacted Parkinson’s.  The alternative, that there is some genetic component that was passed down to me, is of course too horrible to consider.  My greatest fear is that I’ll somehow pass this down to my children or their children.

I was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s on March 25, 2005, but when and why I was first afflicted, when I first came down with the disease, remains a mystery.  Looking back, there are a couple of clues that suggest I had already had the disease for at least two years by the time I was diagnosed.

It was Christmas day, 2003, and we were celebrating at my in-laws house, when someone suggested that all the guys play a game of touch football.  I and my sons Jon and Nick went against my brother-in-law, Doug, and his sons Jason and Jordan.  My other brother-in-law, Mike, was neutral and played quarterback for both teams as the epic battle went on to a quickly forgettable and laughable resolution. One of the wives videotaped the proceedings, and when we sat down to watch, my wife asked very pointedly, “why are you running so weird?”

The videotape revealed that the pass patterns that I thought I ran I had actually waddled, as I shuffled along taking very short steps.  I knew I wasn’t going at full speed (full speed for my age, weight and conditioning being pretty slow), but I assumed I was running.  I had no answer for why the short shuffling that I had thought was normal running.  It was one of the most bizarre and unexplainable things I had ever experienced.  I looked like a bald and overweight duck.

The other clue also involved my brothers-in-law and another middle aged attempt at athletics.  In the spring of 2003, Doug had formed an adult, co-ed softball team and asked Deb and I to join.  I readily agreed, with the memories and glory of being the starting shortstop in my little league all-star game at age 12 playing like a highlight reel in my mind.  At some point before the first game, I realized that it had been about 25 years since I had really played (I had coached my sons rec-league teams, but hadn’t played in a while) so I was fairly nervous as I took to my position in left field.  The nervousness quickly faded, though, as I felt the familiarity of being on the field and had a couple of base-hits come my way.   As I made the routine throws from the outfield to second base, I remembered how fun the whole experience was, the feel of the glove on my hand and the smell of the grass, and for a moment, the butterflies faded and the years rolled away and I was a kid again.

This feeling lasted until the bottom of the second, when, with one out and a runner on first, I was due to bat for the first time.  Suddenly the butterflies were back.   I remember thinking, just focus on the ball, look it in until it is on my bat, and, maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll hit the damned thing.  Sure enough, the first underhanded slow pitch came in, high and a little bit short, and I reared back and swung.  Much to my pleasure I heard the aluminum twang of the bat connecting with the ball, and I watched as a sharp grounder headed in the direction of the opposing shortstop.  My thrill at hitting the ball was quickly dampened by the realization it was a custom made double play ball, a double play that would take us out of the inning.  I put my head down and started running as fast as I could to first base, hoping to beat out the relay and keep the inning alive.

Head down and running full speed to first base, I wasn’t even out of the batter’s box when I saw the sand of the infield rushing up to my face.  Before I could put my hands up to brace myself, I had fallen, face first in the dirt.  I tried to get up and run but I couldn’t summon the proper coordination to get my feet, which still thought they were running as they repeatedly scraped the infield sand, on the same page as my legs and my upper body, which were frantically trying to get me upright again.  Finally upright, I started running again, but soon my upper body was in front of my legs, and I stumbled onwards, finally losing my balance again, as it was first base itself that rushed up to greet me this time.  I don’t know what happened to the ball I hit, there had to be a couple of errors along the way, because the result of my long and tortuous journey ended up with me being safe literally by a nose, as I fell once again face first, this time smack in the center of the bag a split second before the ball arrived in the first baseman’s mitt. 

People from both teams came rushing to me to see if I was all right. I tried to laugh it off and make light of it, but it was weird. Again I had no explanation of what had happened.  I focused my attention on preventing a re-occurrence, and by consciously slowing myself down, the rest of the season went on without incident. I remember thinking that this must he what it means to be middle aged, that simple things like running that one in his youth took for granted, now had to be consciously controlled and managed .

Looking back on these events now, several years later, I recognize these as the early manifestation of Parkinson’s symptoms that in the future would become more pronounced and frequent.   The weird shuffling and shortening of strides observed in the football game would become later on how I walk, and the falling face first of the softball game would be a precursor of the balance problems I now deal with all the time, as my upper body is always getting ahead of my legs, which try desperately to keep up, resulting in my stumbling and bumbling throughout the day.

Having Parkinson’s disease is kind of like being sentenced to a punishment without knowing what crime you committed.  It’d be nice to know what I did or didn’t do that resulted in my conviction.  Not that it would make any difference. 

The good thing about having Parkinson’s is that, although I never was able to float like a butterfly,  I now have something in common with Muhammad Ali.   And while he may still be “the greatest”, I’m confident that I make a better duck.

My Favorite Movie

I first saw Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player sometime in the mid 70’s, when channel 11 out of Chicago used to play classic foreign films from the Janus film library in the afternoons.  It was right at the time I was becoming a serious film buff and started buying books and encyclopedias on movie history.  It was lucky coincidence that Channel 11 was airing many of the greatest films of all time at the same time I was reading about them. I remember seeing Fellini’s La Strada, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine and Umberto D, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim.  In short, many of the greatest films ever made.  I also began studying the classic American directors, John Ford (How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath) and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), among others.  As great as many of the American films were, there was something different about Fellini and Bergman and Truffaut.  I think it was their sensibility, their willingness to take chances, the unusual subject matter and characters.  For example, I immediately fell in love with La Strada, though it wouldn’t be until after several viewings that I got a sense for what was really going on.  I knew the three main characters were symbols for something, exactly what I had no idea.  What I was falling in love with was the pure sensory beauty of the film, the poetry of the images.  It was in visual terms what Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were doing to me with language. 

So it was right in the middle of the most passionate time of my love affair with movies that I first saw Shoot the Piano Player.   It was radically different from Fellini or Bergman, and I recognized the American gangster movies of the 30s and 40s it seemed to be paying homage to.   It was goofy and eccentric, with low brow slapstick and sight gags and stupid humor.  But as it went on, a remarkably sophisticated and deceptively complex story was being told, a story that immediately drew me in, and it connected with me on a level that no other film ever has.   Unlike La Strada and The Seventh Seal, I got it right away.

And I wasn’t the only one.  Through the years, I’d watch films like Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction transform the American gangster film, and it was obvious that Arthur Penn and Quentin Tarantino had also seen and been affected by Shoot the Piano Player .  But more on that later.

Shoot the Piano Player is about Charlie (wonderfully played by Charles Aznavour), who we find at the film’s beginning playing piano with a jazz trio in a cheap Parisian bar.    He lives in a small apartment above the bar with his still school-age younger brother, in the apartment across from him lives a hooker who, when not doing business at the bar, helps Charlie out, by baby-sitting his brother and seeing to other needs he might have.  Early on we are introduced to another of Charlie’s brothers, an inept and bungling and crude oaf of a gangster, who is being chased by a couple of other comically inept but dangerous gangsters.   We also learn, early on, that Charlie is secretly in love with the beautiful bar maid Lena, but is too painfully shy to act, to make his feelings known.

Charlie and Lena inadvertently get drawn into the gangster story and are captured by and then escape from the gangsters that are after Charlie’s brother.  They flee to Lena’s apartment.  This is where the story really gets interesting.  In a great shot, as they enter the apartment, the first thing Charlie sees on the wall is a huge poster advertising a concert featuring the famous pianist, Edouard Saroyan, who’s name appears with Charlie’s picture.  Lena has known all along that Charlie isn’t really Charlie, and she is familiar with his tragic past as an acclaimed concert pianist.

The film then, through flashback, tells the story of Saroyan and his first wife, how they married and how he became a star, how he tried unsuccessfully to overcome his timid nature, and how, after his wife revealed a dark secret, he acted too slowly to prevent her suicide.  He retreated from the fame and the trauma, winding up as a dishwasher for the bar with his new identity.  One day he finds a dusty old piano under sheets in the back.  He can’t resist, he plays it, and soon the trio is assembled, and he is the bar’s entertainment, playing silly dance hall numbers.  Then the film returns to the present, with Lena determined to resurrect Saroyan’s career, while the gangsters have kidnapped his little brother, all resulting in more death and tragedy.

The film is actually very short and shot on a shoe string budget, but there is so much going on, and Truffaut moves it about so quickly, packing so much information in each frame while at the same time experimenting with different point of view camera shots and throwing in his cheap sight gags.  In the meantime, while we are being entertained, on a more subtle level we watch Chalie / Saroyan wrestle with questions of identity, while Truffaut explores complex themes related to life versus art.   Charlie / Saroyan is born with a gift for art that he didn’t ask for, and he has no idea how to live.  Much is made of his shyness and timid nature, he drifts through life, uninvolved, while those around him, those moved by his artistic gift, suffer for it, and he bounces from one tragedy to another, always finding a piano somewhere to play.  The film has at its core a tragic melancholy, yet it is vibrant and alive and fun the whole time – it’s how well Truffaut makes this contradiction and dichotomy work that makes it so radical and remarkable.   

I mentioned Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction, two landmarks of American cinema.  Both films are known for their groundbreaking and graphic use of violence, and you won’t find anything of that sort in Shoot the Piano Player.  What you will find is the same contradiction at work, the same sensibility in the treatment of the criminals.  In Bonnie and Clyde, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty and their gang are portrayed as simple and comic everyday people.   We laugh at them and with them, and we see ourselves in them.  The way Arthur Penn establishes this is through the same kind of dumb jokes and friendships that Truffaut used to make his characters so likeable.  And in Pulp Fiction, in the dialogue between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, and in the interaction of the various pimps and drug dealers and  gangster types, Tarantino takes this approach to a new level, making us identify and care about these unsavory types.  In both Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction, the violence is graphic, and it is jarring because of our identification with both its victims and practitioners.   Though both films are unique and bold statements that stand on their own, they both owe a debt of gratitude to Truffaut.

Truffaut is one of the great originals of all cinema, and one of my two or three favorite directors of all time.  The thing I think that sets Truffaut apart from other directors and runs through all of his films is his humanity.   Even when exploring the darkest of subject matters, Truffaut maintained his romanticism and finds the core humanity, whether it is the unabashed love of the three main characters in Jules and Jim, the attempt to preserve humanity in Fahrenheit 451 or find it in The Wild Child, or the hanging on of a romantic ideal against all reason and logic in The Story of Adele H.   It is the value Truffaut places on this humanity, the belief that it is core to being human, that has resonated with me through all these years, and has been evident in the other artists I’ve admired, from Kurt Vonnegut to John Steinbeck to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.

In these dark and cynical times of the early 21st century, it’s a shame Truffaut is no longer with us, but his body of work endures and is more relevant and important than ever.