Best Friends and the Notorious Doctor X.

The first best friend I ever made was in the third grade, a kid named Ryan Michaels. I’d made friends before, playground or at school friends, but never close enough to have them over to my house or to go to their houses. Ryan was a goofy little kid, skinny and pale with thick rimmed glasses that never seemed to sit straight on his nose. In school, he was quiet and reserved.  His clothes were always worn and dirty, with holes worn through the knees of his jeans. Ryan had already been to my house a few times and met most of my family by the time I went to his house for the first time.

dr x

The notorious Doctor X

Ryan lived in an older part of town, in a big, two story house. It was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, with white paint that was peeling under its peaked eaves and window panes. The gravel driveway came in off of the street and turned left into the parking lot of a big church that stood next door. It was an early autumn afternoon, warm and overcast. Ryan invited me in, and he poured me a glass of milk as I surveyed the surroundings. Unlike the house I lived in, which was a new 60s style ranch, built just three years earlier, Ryan’s house was older and bigger, with cracks in the plaster and late afternoon shadows that cast a dim heaviness to the daylight that streamed through the windows.  His dad was home, a big and unshaven man with a big belly that stretched the white t-shirt he was wearing. He walked into the kitchen, crumpling an empty can of Old Milwaukee and throwing it in the trash can before opening the fridge and grabbing another, while Ryan and I stood at the counter, drinking our milk. I remember he looked at us, and didn’t say anything before exiting the kitchen. Then Ryan and I were going outside to play again, only this time we were going  out the backdoor. On the way out, we passed through a small room with a couch and a black and white television that was broadcasting “All Star Wrestling” on the Milwaukee UHF station, channel 18. Ryan’s dad was sitting back on the couch, sipping his Old Milwaukee and watching the same show that my older brothers and I watched from time to time, with wrestlers like Da Crusher and Doctor X. We’d watch and laugh at how fake it was and at the people in the audience, a disproportionate number of whom seemed to be elderly women, who thought it was real.

We went back outside and ended up in the turn-around driveway in front of the big old house, playing with matchbox or hot-wheels cars in the gravel. It must have rained sometime in the days before because puddles filled in the potholes in the driveway.

“Yeah, just a few weeks ago, me and my little sister had to get our stomachs pumped,” Ryan said, matter-of-factly.

“You had to get your stomachs pumped?” I’d never heard of such a thing. It sounded painful.

“Yeah,” he said, “we were playing house, and we drank some puddle water.”

“Why would you drink puddle water?” I asked.

“We were pretending it was beer,” he said.

. . .

Not long after that day, Ryan and I began to drift apart. I guess it’s like that when you’re small and you’re learning how to get along with people, when you don’t know yourself let alone anyone else well enough to know if you have anything in common. It’s pot luck, pure random chance that determines who your friends will be.  More than anything it’s location, as kids from the same neighborhood, the same block, are more likely to discover each other and remain at least geographically close enough to maintain contact. Ryan and I were from different neighborhoods and lived vastly different lives.

That day in his driveway would turn out to be the only time I “went over” to Ryan’s house.  After that day, I am left with only three more vivid memories of Ryan Michaels.

The first was a couple of weeks later, on Halloween. Our teacher, Miss Hoppi, was an elderly substitute who’d been hired for the year to take the place of our assigned teacher, Mrs. Smart, who’d been recently diagnosed with cancer (she would, in fact, die about a year later, after we’d gone on to the fourth grade). Anyway, after our long awaited Halloween party, Ryan and I and a couple of other guys were standing in the hallway talking. I, apparently already the critic, was complaining about the lameness of Miss Hoppi’s party, when Ryan let me have it.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded, his voice getting louder. “It was fun. You just don’t like Miss Hoppi, that’s all.”

. .  .

The second memory occurred about two years later, when we were in the fifth grade.  Ryan and I had already drifted apart, and were in separate classrooms, so we didn’t see each other much.  We’d always say hi when we passed each other in the hallways, so it wasn’t like we were mortal enemies or anything.

One day, while getting ready to go to lunch, my classroom and Ryan’s found ourselves in the hallway at the same time, when I came upon Ryan, who was quite animated in telling a couple of other kids about how he and his dad had gone to an all-star wresting show in Milwaukee the night before. He was showing off the event’s program, which included autographed photos of all the stars, including Ryan’s favorite, the masked Dr. X.

“Ryan,” I said, “don’t you know that’s all fake?”

“It is not!” he said.

“But it is.” I felt embarrassed for my former best friend.

“No, it’s not!  My dad says so. He told me!” he said, getting louder and more animated .

“But it’s fake,” I insisted.

“Shut up!” He was screaming now, and crying.  “Shut up!” he continued, long after I had done so, screaming louder and crying harder each time.

. . .

The final memory I have of Ryan Michaels was in June of 1977, about a year after we graduated from Union Grove High School.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was in town, driving west on Highway 11, about four blocks east of Main Street, Highway 45, when I saw Ryan, alone, dressed in his white Navy uniform, walking,  headed east, soaked through to the bone, with a big grin on his face, raising a Budweiser to his mouth, laughing at something unknown.

I remember thinking to myself that he looked like a ghost.

. . .

Sometime, a year or two later, I can’t remember exactly when or how, I learned that Ryan was dead. I think it was a car accident, but now I’m not sure.  It’s been more than thirty five years and my memory isn’t what is used to be.

But the image of Ryan walking down Highway 11 in the rain in his Navy whites is as vivid as those of the other ghosts that haunt my memories. It’s as if they’d all occurred just yesterday, which, I guess, they really did.

And So This is Christmas

What are we to make of Christmas in the year 2015?

There are those who’d like us to believe that a war of political correctness is being waged against Christmas, with shots being fired every time someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

I’d argue that if anyone is fighting a war against Christmas, it’d be the marketing departments of the businesses that trot out the Christmas displays earlier and earlier (this year I saw it occur as early as mid-August). It’d be the luxury car companies that have those obnoxious year-end sales events, the “December to Remember” commercials featuring $50,000 dollar cars with festive red ribbons tied to their tops.

It’d be any company that perpetuates the “black Friday” nonsense and greed-fest that not only cheapens Christmas but also that other sacred holiday, Thanksgiving.

It’d be the weather, and the climate change deniers.  As I write this, I can hear the wind howling outside. Not the wintry wind you’d expect in Wisconsin in late December, but rather the warm wind that you’d normally associate with a late summer or early autumn thunderstorm. It’s pushing 60 degrees out, and it’s been a warm and wet and muddy December so far, the temperature above freezing all month, with an almost steady soft and warm rain, and not a trace of snow to be found.  It’s not the absence of a snowflake on a Starbuck’s cup that threatens Christmas, it’s the absence of real snowflakes falling from the sky. I know, I know, one month of local weather does not make climate change real, but with melting ice caps and snow-less mountain tops becoming common place, the trends are indisputable.

But that’s okay – who needs the North Pole anyway? By now, Santa Claus has probably taken advantage of the shrinking globe and moved his corporate headquarters to a Grand Caymans tax shelter, and outsourced his manufacturing to a Southeast Asia sweat shop.  By now, Rudolph has traded in his red nose for a couple of right wings, and Santa is packing heat with his very own concealed carry. One can’t be too careful these days.

Any supposed war on Christmas would be carried out by be the radical Islamists who carried out the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, and by the radical Christians of the Planned Parenthood attack.  It’d be waged by any terrorist of any creed or color who uses violence to inspire feelings of fear and hatred, and by any corrupt politician or leader who attempts to exploit fear and hatred for personal gain.

It’d be waged by anyone who blames the victims of economic hardship, racial intolerance or sexual violence for their circumstance.

I don’t, in my lifetime, remember a more cynical time than right now. People have never seemed so divided or afraid.  The world feels like a very dangerous place.

Christmas was always about our shared humanity and the ideals that represent the best part of ourselves. These things were always able to rise above the crass commercialization and even the religious icons the holiday was founded on, because Christmas was able to get inside of us, get past our self-interests, and make us look directly into the eyes of another human being and see our own reflection.

It’s the one day of the year we set aside to celebrate being human.  And when I doubt its ability to survive in times like this, I’m reminded of the true story of the Christmas of 1914, one hundred and one years ago, on the front lines of the bloodiest war in human history, World War One.

That was the day French and German soldiers both laid down their weapons and left their trenches, some of which were only forty yards apart, to celebrate Christmas together.  They played football and exchanged food and tobacco. They told stories about their wives and children and their homes. They talked about what Christmas meant to them, and for a day, the gunfire fell silent.

Christmas was tough enough to survive the horror of those trenches, and when my sons make it home tonight and walk through my front door, we’ll all be together, and Christmas will be Christmas, undefeated and invincible, again.

The Highest Bough

There are few things in this life that are as annoying as Christmas music. It’s difficult not to be a Scrooge when radio stations convert to an all Christmas format as early as October. Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas and Ho, Ho, the Mistletoe are annoying enough the first time you hear them; by the seven hundredth time, a clear alibi for murder would be accepted by any rational court.

Despite the plethora of annoying melodies and jingles and jangles, there have been a handful of great songs inspired by the season.  These songs find real and heartfelt sentiment in the season’s unabashed sentimentality, and walk the tightrope of emotional honesty without a net, never falling to the pit of sappiness most holiday songs never rise above.  So it is I present my (drumroll, please – and please, no Little Drummer Boy) three favorite Christmas songs.

The first is Silver Bells, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1950. Silver Bells was my mom’s favorite Christmas song.  With its lovely melody and phrasing, it paints an incredibly romantic view of “Christmas time in the city.”  Given that my mom was from a very small town in northwestern Wisconsin, it might seem like an odd choice for her favorite, until you remember that when she was in her early twenties, about the time the song first came out, she and a group of close friends lived and worked in Milwaukee.  Every time I hear the song I think about her, and how much I wish I’d asked her what images and memories the song conjured up for  her.

The second is I’ll be Home for Christmas, written in 1943 by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon and recorded first by Bing Crosby. Written as a tribute to servicemen stationed overseas and their families at home, the song touched an emotional nerve and quickly became a Christmas standard in the United States. Despite this, in Great Britain the song was banned from the airwaves, due to fears that the lyric “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” was too depressing and would destroy morale. It’s the evocation of “home,” one of the most powerful words in the English language, and its association with Christmas that makes the song so powerful.

My favorite Christmas song is Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the 1944 film, Meet Me in St, Louis, where it was sung by Judy Garland.  In the film, Garland’s five year old sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, is despondent because their father has just taken a new job in New York City.  It’s Christmas Eve, and Garland sings the song to O’Brien to cheer her up. The lyrics, which are perfection, didn’t start out that way. Garland criticized the song as depressing, and asked Martin to change lines like:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas / it may be your last  / Next year we may all be living in the past


Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York.

Although he initially resisted, Martin re-wrote some of the lyrics, and the song soon became a standard. Like I’ll be Home for Christmas, it resonated with families separated from loved ones by the war.

What chokes me up every time I hear the song is its fatalistic view of the passing of time. Even as it celebrates the years “we all will be together,” it remains conscious of the temporal nature of time and the inevitability of separation with the devastating line, “if the fates allow.”  The optimistic sentiment expressed in the song (“from now on our troubles will be” either “out of sight” or “miles away”) can’t hide the fact that troubles are with us now.

The fatalism expressed in the song could be considered depressing, but I find it real and touching.  Unlike most popular songs, it not only acknowledges the inevitability of trouble and separation, but it serves as a touching and beautiful appreciation for how wonderful friends and family are, and how brief and precious our time with them is.

With a gorgeously heartbreaking melody and poignant lyrics Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is both a work of art and an evocation of the very real emotional pull Christmas exerts on us all.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on
Our troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years
We all will be together
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bough
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas right now


A Night to Remember

There was an extraordinary moment during last night’s Republican debate when the front runner, Donald Trump, advocated the murder of innocent family members of suspected terrorists.  As my jaw hit the floor, I waited for the response from the other candidates and the moderator. Only Jeb Bush responded, saying it was crazy while Trump made silly faces mocking him, and a bit later, Rand Paul spoke up about how such a plan would violate the Geneva Convention, to which Trump responded, “so they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”  Nothing from the moderators, and nothing else from the other candidates in what was an excruciatingly long fear fantasy about how this country is on the verge of collapse due to radicalized Jihadists or Muslim extremism.

In all the talk about terrorism, not a word was mentioned about the radical Christians who killed three people and injured nine more, including five police officers, in the Planned Parenthood attack. Not a word on all the mass shootings we’ve endured over the past few years.  Somehow, people getting shot in elementary schools and movie theatres doesn’t register a blip on the radar screen. The candidates that are owned by the NRA always point to the constitutional rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.  These arguments lose their validity when the same politicians advocate unconstitutional activities like torture or the murder of innocent people.

It’s clear that in the Republican view of things, we are to be fearful of foreigners, whether they are Muslims or Mexicans.  What they seem to miss is that by all the tough guy rhetoric, they are in fact empowering ISIS, that they are making the point that ISIS wants Muslims to believe, that the United States hates them and wants to stamp them out.  How is a law abiding Muslim citizen supposed to react when one of the candidates threatens to kill him with no regard for innocence or guilt?  Radicalization begets radicalization, and Trump’s comments were reckless and insanely extreme.

CNN can go take a flying leap, too. It wasn’t only the moderators who ignored these outrageous remarks, I watched the post-debate coverage in vain waiting for someone to mention them.  But no, they were too busy doing their post-game analysis – and by post game, I’m referring to how the entire night was presented.  It was just like an NFL football game, as the pre-debate show focused on strategies and who was winning or losing, offense and defense, and who had what strengths and weaknesses.  The scene got even more surreal when the debate opened with a woman singing the national anthem. Then the post-game show, with the highlights and lowlights, who had the best sound bites. “Jeb Bush was more aggressive, Ted Cruz was rude, “, etc. etc.  Never mind that the front runner advocated the state sponsored murder of innocent civilians.

I’m also fed up with the Democratic Party, whose strategy seems to be to run and hide. Their next debate is Saturday, the 19th, the Saturday before Christmas, traditionally one of the lowest viewed nights of the year.  There’s been nothing coming out of the Clinton or Sanders camps, while the whole nation tuned in last night to hear all the Re-Pubes relentlessly attack Obama and Clinton.  As usual, they are quiet and unresponsive (“feckless,” as Chris Christie called them), unwilling to engage in the muddy brawl that the Republicans understand modern day politics to be.  As usual, they stand by doing nothing while the right slices them open.  President Trump doesn’t sound as nearly unlikely as it should, and if it becomes a reality, the Democrats need only to blame themselves – again.

When I was growing up, one of the questions was, how did an advanced and powerful country like Germany fall into the hands of Hitler?  It could never happen here, we were assured, we have too many checks and balances.  Yet here we are, less than a year away from our next presidential election, with an unapologetic fascist and indisputable egomaniac who spews outrageous hatred, as the frontrunner of the Republican Party.

We need to wake up while we still can.

The Donald Trumps the Constitution

In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, Donald Trump is calling for a complete ban of all Muslims entering the country. This is an extraordinary proposal that goes against everything the U.S. stands for. It is so blatantly unconstitutional, it so violates the freedom of religion that the constitution grants everyone the right to, that to call it outrageous is an understatement.  Trump’s comments at best reveal an arrogance and stupidity that would render him unfit for the job of most powerful man in the world, at worst they reveal a dangerous fascist who would threaten world stability.

About San Bernardino – another tragic loss of innocent American lives. I find it interesting that at first, the Republican Party was silent, but then, once it was revealed that the shooters were Muslims who’d been radicalized, all Hell broke loose.  Republicans were suddenly outraged that the seeds of radicalization had been sewed right here within our borders, and soon I heard one of them say that this was the second worst act of terrorism, after 9/11, that we’ve been subjected to.

That is simply wrong.  The second worse act or terrorism was the Oklahoma City bombing.   Perpetrated by a white Christian, Timothy McVeigh, it killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others. Yet Oklahoma City is largely forgotten and rarely a part of the terrorism conversation, as is Ted Kaczynsky, a.k.a. the Unabomber, who killed three and wounded twenty three people.  The shooter at Sandy Hook was white, too – yet when terrorism is discussed, his name never comes up. Murder sprees by white Americans don’t mobilize the political base.

In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino incidents, there’s a movement gaining a lot of momentum that we should send ground troops in to eliminate ISIS.  This seems problematic to me and would put our troops at great risk, as ISIS is not a country, and there is no way to go into battle knowing who’s a bad guy and who’s not.

I find the Republican outrage about radical Islam to be inconsistent with their continued silence on mass shootings.  I think it’s time we start naming mass shootings for what they are: acts of terrorism. If we’re at war against terrorists, we need to count the 462 American lives taken by American terrorists in mass shootings so far this year. Donald Trump and his followers have no problem with ignoring the constitutional rights of Muslims, yet they hide behind the constitutional right to bear arms when a white male commits an act of terrorism.

The right’s reaction to mass shootings is insanity – more guns and the elimination of gun-free zones, and a refusal to consider even the slightest legislation calling for gun registration and background checks.  The latest example of this insanity it that the government maintains a “no-fly” list, a list of characters who have been deemed too dangerous to board an airplane.  Yet, thanks to opposition from the NRA, any one of these people can walk into a gun store and buy a gun with no questions asked.

But numbers are just numbers. We can throw them around all we want to make whatever point we want.  It’s important to remember, though, that for each of the numbers of deaths, there is one innocent life taken and countless others impacted.

I hope that someday we can move forward, and look back on the first couple of decades of the twenty first century as a period when we collectively lost our mind.

A Wink and a Nod

This afternoon I made my weekly trip to the local Woodman’s, which is a colossal super market near where my wife and I live. Now that we are older and our kids are grown and it’s just the two of us, my wife maintains a list on a piece of paper on the breakfast bar in our kitchen, and whenever one of us thinks of something we are low on or out of, or something we haven’t had in a while that sounds good, we add it to the list.  Then, once a week, I take the list and go to Woodman’s and pick up whatever’s on the list, and a new list for next week’s session is started.

It’s a system that works well, and shopping is a chore I don’t mind doing.

Today, while I was pushing my shopping cart down the coffee aisle, I crossed paths with another man, who I’d never seen before, who I’d estimate was  in his mid-thirties, average height and build, and comfortably but neatly dressed, clean shaven with a neatly trimmed moustache.  I was pushing my cart one way and he was pushing his the other, and as we passed each other, I looked at him and he at me, when it happened.

He winked at me.

I’ve never had a strange man wink at me before, so I was taken aback, not knowing how to respond. I did the first thing that popped into my brain.

I nodded.

I nodded back at him and continued with my shopping.  Our paths did not cross again. But I’m left wondering, why the Hell did he wink at me?  What does it mean?  And was a nod the appropriate response? Or did I unwittingly insult him? Or even worse, lead him on?

The wink.  How should I take it? Should I be offended?  Flattered? None of the above?

I’m 57 years old and have been married for thirty four years.  I realize that I am blissfully unaware of the scene (“scene” – sounds groovy, doesn’t it?) that single people these days have to navigate.  The wink reminds me that it was always a complex minefield but that now, with more open and tolerant attitudes, it’s got to be so confusing and difficult to read signals and process information.  In my day (yep, sometime in your mid-fifties you are given your own “day” to reminisce about), if I was attracted to a girl – wait, is “girl” sexist? –or should I say “woman?” – you’d just ask her out.  And that by itself was incredibly difficult – how on earth you’d go about asking a (female) out these days is beyond me.

Not only am I at an age where I’ve been out of circulation for so long, but I’m also at that age where you don’t want to get caught leering at beautiful women. Because, frankly, it comes across as creepy. It’s too easy to be assigned the label “dirty old man.”

The winker today probably had no motive other than something perfectly innocent that I was too stupid to pick up on.

But then my long neglected sense of vanity speaks up, and I listen.

I’ve lost some weight, it reminds me, and I’m working out every day, so maybe that has something to do with why Mr. Moustache winked at me today.  Who knows? To be clear, I’d rather it was a gorgeous and young blond female of the opposite sex doing the winking, but when you’re my age, you’ll take whatever winks you can get.