Inside and Outside the Comfort Zone


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

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

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

 

Fusion-Paul2.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Memoirs | 4 Comments

Those Awful Millennials


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Greaser Christmas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Butch grunted.

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

“Why?” Butch replied.

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

“Music good,” Butch stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he stopped.

In mid sentence, Earl Kowalski stopped.

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

I was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of lunch hour!  Saved by the bell!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I braced myself for the pending ass-kicking.

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

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

Then Butch added, “Show, good!”

“Thanks, Butch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Humor, Memoirs, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Hard Rain


So Bob Dylan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s been a lot of controversy about whether a songwriter is really a creator of literature, but I’d argue that there have been maybe three or four artists who have consistently written lyrics that are worthy of being classified as literature, and of those, only Dylan would qualify for consideration of a Nobel Prize.

Dylan has long been a personal hero of mine.  Above all, it’s his songwriting and his performances that I’ve admired so much.  I’ve also admired his eccentricities, his I don’t give a fuck if you think I can’t sing or I’m weird or whatever.  Dylan has always done what Dylan wants to do, and he’s remained relevant and vital and enigmatic for more than fifty years now.

Dylan didn’t attend the Nobel conference, but he did pass along a warmly worded note expressing his respect for the institution and his sense of honor for winning.  Best of all, they got the great Patti Smith to perform “Hard Rain” on his behalf.

It was the perfect selection of singer and song.  “Hard Rain” is even more relevant now than it’s always been before, given Donald Trump and the threatening cloud of nationalism that is advancing across the world.  The horrors of Syria and the atrocities occurring in the Philippines along with tumult in Gambia and the specter of Russian aggression all portend the eruption of those dark clouds into maybe the hardest rain the world has ever seen.  And even when Smith bungled a couple of lines in the middle of the performance and admitted her nervousness, it seemed right, that even a poet and songwriter and singer as great and formidable as Smith could be humbled in the presence of Dylan’s work.  That she recovered and was still able to get to the emotional core of the song is testament to the greatness of both artists.

“Hard Rain” is Dylan as prophet.  In the song, the singer’s “blue-eyed son” has returned from a long journey that can only be interpreted as a trip into the future.  He describes the sights and sounds and the people he encountered there as nothing short of apocalyptic.  In the first verse, he describes the physical landscape in terms that become increasingly horrific, culminating in “dead oceans” and “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.”

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son
And where have you been, my darling young one
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The second verse describes the people and cultures that dominate, and again, the images are so clear and concise and horrific. From a “newborn baby with wild wolves all around it” to “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” there’s a sense of abandonment and isolation. Nearly fifty years before Sandy Hook, Dylan wrote about what at the time would have been unthinkable:  “Guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.” And the “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken” seems accurate, too, as there is so much hysterical and vitriolic and ineffective talk from both sides but no real communication.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son
And what did you see, my darling young one
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Then he describes what he heard.  Note that as the verse goes on, the sounds become quieter and more personal, ranging from the roars of thunder and tidal waves to the cry from an alley.  This apocalypse is more than the death and destruction of the masses, it is also the end of individualism.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The next verse is the most conflicted, as the dark imagery (“a young child beside a dead pony”) is somewhat balanced by shred of hope and beauty (the young girl who gave him a rainbow.) He meets two wounded men, one “wounded in love,” one “wounded with hatred.” This is the line in the song that I have the most trouble interpreting.  It’s also one of my favorite lines.  Is he saying that in the end, love and hate are equal in their ability to inflict hurt?

Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And finally, what is the prophet to do with the knowledge he gained from his journey?  He’s “going back out before the rain starts falling” to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.”  This last verse is incredibly powerful and beautiful.

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

 I don’t know how anybody could deny that “Hard Rain” is literature.  The raw beauty and power and emotion captured in these words are undeniably great.  “Hard Rain” highlights the humanity, the unshakable integrity and profound genius of a true prophet.

Ever since the election in November, I’ve been unable to express the feelings of overwhelming dread and loss that I’ve been experiencing. Believe me, I get no pleasure in being right about things that are so wrong, and if I am proven wrong about how bad I think things are going to get, I’ll be unapologetically glad. I’ve been looking for something to describe what I’m feeling and fearing, and have been unable to articulate it. Then I returned to “Hard Rain,” and realized that it perfectly summed up what was going on in my head and my heart. And this is what great literature has done for me time and time again.  Whether it was “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers or “Big Two Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway or “Two Soldiers” by William Faulkner, it’s shone a light into the darkest recesses of my soul and helped me walk out. More than anything, it’s made me realize I am not alone.

Congratulations, Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize winner.  You know your song well, and thanks to your amazing gift, so do I.

 

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Dirty Jobs: On Mike Rowe, Donald Trump, and the Forgotten


Last night, I did what I rarely do – I went on a rant on Facebook. I know, I know, that is about the biggest waste of time one can experience, but the post I was responding to really hit a nerve with me.

The post was Mike Rowe’s response to a journalist’s response to an article Rowe had written after the election.

Let me begin by saying I’ve been a fan of Rowe’s for some time, ever since I saw the first episode of his television show, “Dirty Jobs.” I’ve always found the subject of work fascinating, in terms of how people do their jobs and how they relate to their jobs and co-workers.  Rowe shares this passion, and I always admired the respect he paid for the subjects of his shows. That he is funny and has a sophisticated wit and self-deprecating sense of humor only add to his appeal.  It also helps that, with his frequent posts on Facebook, it’s obvious that the guy can write.

It’s also become clear that Rowe is politically more conservative than I am. Despite the directions we might lean, I find myself, more often than not, agreeing with what he says, particularly when it comes to work.  Rowe has said (I’m paraphrasing here) that instead of following your passion, let your passion follow you. In other words, rather than wait for your dream job, bring your passion and work ethic to any other job that might be available and get to work. I whole heartedly agree with this sentiment, as work is as vital as air to breathe and water to drink.  There’s a reason they call work “making a living,” as not working is not living. It’s work and our approach to work that gives us a sense of purpose and pride, and a sense of belonging to a community.  Rowe has also railed against the “Work smarter, not harder” sentiment that’s been embraced by guidance counselors for the past twenty years or so, and I couldn’t agree with him more – smarter and harder are not mutually exclusive, we should do both, work harder and smarter. It’s the mentality that one should be frightened of “hard” work, a mentality that has eroded the work ethic. Rowe also supports training efforts to fill skill gaps, like heavy equipment operators, that have persisted and remained unfilled even through the heights of the great recession. I’m with Mike on nearly all of these points.

What made me respond on Facebook last night was the fact that the primary demographic that elected Donald Trump was “uneducated” (hate that term – it refers to not college graduates) whites. I was born into this group and lived there for most of my life (I went to night school and got a Bachelor’s Degree from Columbia College from Missouri, but if I’m honest about it, it’s not a very impressive credential, as the course work was designed for the working adult and not very challenging).  So these are people I know. These are people who are my family.  These are hardworking, good people I’ve admired and looked up to my entire life.

I’ve been tossing and turning ever since the election, wondering how we, the middle to lower class white people, could have elected Donald Trump president and unleashed him to the world.  Forget for just a moment the racist and misogynist sentiment of his over the top rhetoric and consider just what Trump is: an elitist and arrogant snob who has no appreciation for the hard work performed every day by the tradesmen and blue collar and service sector employees who design, build, and work in his luxury hotels and casinos.

Then when you throw in the racist and misogynist rhetoric, it becomes even more baffling how a group that I still believe is not racist, who were as disgusted as I was when Trump made his infamous remarks to Billy Bush on that bus, men who have wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, could get behind Trump.  I understand the need for change, and the perceived crookedness of his opponent, but I personally could never vote for a man who said all of the hateful things Trump said.

So Rowe’s article on the election was countered by a reporter named Gillian Branstetter, (http://www.dailydot.com/upstream/mike-rowe-facebook-post/) followed by Rowe’s reaction to her reaction (https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/posts/1336751243001682?comment_id=1490147844335983&notif_t=like&notif_id=1479379502729421 ), which prompted my reaction (below).  To sum up, while I agree with most of what Rowe says, I have to challenge him or anyone else who tries to speak for this group to account for the racism and sexism that whether representative of a small minority or a larger majority of its members, was a key ingredient in the toxic stew that they all voted for.

. . .

I think that Mr. Rowe’s theory that the election represented a forgotten working class is dead-on – at the same time, one can’t overlook the unprecedented open racism espoused by Trump and embraced by this same class.  Rowe says that “the winner was NOT decided by a racist and craven nation – it was decided by millions of disgusted Americans desperate for real change.”  But far too many of them are willing to embrace racism as a means of affecting that real change. Trump’s campaign openly and cravenly embraced racism and hatred.

And Donald Trump – Donald Trump! – becomes the spokesman for these people?  The same Donald Trump who has refused to pay contractors who built and designed his casinos? The same Donald Trump who has bankrupted so many small businesses? I’d love to see a “Dirty Jobs” episode about the bricklayers or cabinet makers and all the other tradesmen who’ve worked for and been stiffed by Trump. The same Donald Trump who was born into wealth and privilege, who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life, the same Donald Trump who has paid no income taxes for the past twenty years?  And is proud of it, calling himself smart?  What does that make the rest of us who paid our taxes – stupid?  And all the talk about crumbling infrastructure and run down airports, etc. etc, that he complains about – well, Trump contributed to this state by not contributing his fair share of taxes.

So how is it that such a charlatan, such a con man, as Donald Trump became the spokesman for a class large enough to make him President? Rowe is correct that Trump saw a group that had been neglected by both political parties.  His status as an outsider would appeal to this group. He gave voice to them after they’d been ignored so long that they were able to overlook the fact that he wasn’t, never was and never will be, one of them.

But that wasn’t enough, and this is where Trump doubled down on his strategy and decided to go all-in. It was all the fault of the cultural elite who comprised the establishment wings of both the Democratic and the Republican Parties.  Trump’s genius was declaring war on not just the liberals but on the party that nominated him, too.  He was the classic third party candidate, railing against the elitist snobs who controlled both the left and the right, except he’d hijacked the Republican party.  It was a wonderfully subversive strategy, to bore himself into the apple that is the American political system and eat away at it from within.

But even that wasn’t enough. His strategy may have been adequate to get the Republican nomination, but to win the national election by doubling down on this forgotten segment of society would only work if they all showed up at the polls.  He had to inspire them.

And what inspires people into taking action more than fear? And boy, there sure was a lot of fear in this white, working class society.  There was the fear of being left behind, as in 2012 whites became for the first time, at 49% of the population, a minority.  The news was filled with stories about the changing demographics of the country that immigration was causing.  It’s no coincidence that from the moment he announced his candidacy, Trump made immigration the central theme of the election, even though the rate of illegals entering the country was at decades low levels.  It also was no coincidence that at that first campaign appearance he referred to Latinos as rapists and murderers.

From there the rhetoric became even more heated, with Muslims the next target, as he proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country.  He also, during one of the Republican debates, advocated the state sponsored murder of family members of terrorists.  At the end of the campaign, he picked up an endorsement from that grand old American institution, the Ku Klux Klan.

The cynical calculation he made was that by embracing these extremist groups he would motivate a greater number of those at the bottom of the barrel to get out and vote than the number of people who’d be offended enough to stay home.  It may have been a cynical calculation, but in the end, it was an accurate one. Remember when he said “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone on national television and not lose a vote?” That may have been the most perceptive comment made by anyone in the entire campaign.

If Mr. Rowe, or anyone else, for that matter, decides that he wants to be the champion of this class, then he is going to have to be willing to recognize not just the legitimate neglect they’ve suffered from the American political system, but he needs to also address the racism and misogyny that has taken root in Trump’s fertile topsoil of hatred and prejudice. It is undeniable, it is real, it is terrifying, and it is un-American, and if left untended to, will spread and devour everything we once stood for.

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The Final Straw


Last night sucked, but it didn’t occur in a vacuum. History has a way of repeating itself, and we have a way of making the same mistakes that have been made before.

It’s been seventy one years since the end of World War Two. With the war having been fought on another hemisphere, the United States was the only major country involved that didn’t have to rebuild.   As a result, we became the world’s greatest power and the undisputed leader of the free world.  Taking our responsibility seriously, we forged a foreign policy focused on building international alliances and strengthening the bonds amongst our allies. There were three major initiatives and organizations that took shape:  one, the Marshall Plan, which provided U.S. funded aid to countries devastated by the war, two, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a means of protecting the U.S. and its western Europe allies against Soviet Union aggression, and three, the United Nations, organized to promote international cooperation and prevent a reoccurrence of the international conflicts that had led to two World Wars.

The other major development in this time was the creation of nuclear arsenals in the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. The cold war remained cold due to the threat of mutual destruction. The world had shrunk from a geo-political standpoint, and although wars continued (the U.S. in Korea and Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, etc.), the international scope of the world wars was avoided.

Then in the seventies and eighties, as the countries we helped rebuild through the Marshall Plan recovered, the world began to shrink economically, with Japan and later China emerging as economic super powers, competitive with the U.S.  As the 21st century emerged, advances in technology further shrinkened the globe, giving rise to the multi-national corporation and a truly global economy.

As a reaction to the global economy, regional trade agreements and alliances were formed. In the 1990s, with enormous bi-partisan support (in fact, primary opposition came from his own party, the Democrats), Bill Clinton negotiated and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was designed to open economic borders and accelerate and incentivize commerce in the western hemisphere.  At the same time, western Europe was forming the European Union, which went even further than NAFTA, creating a shared economy among its twenty eight members, even going so far as to create a common currency, the Euro. In 2016, the Trans Pacific Partnership was signed by twelve countries, including President Obama. Intended to remove barriers and enhance economic development in the region, it remains unratified by the United States, with strong opposition from both the left and the right.

The result of the globalization of the economy and the great recession has resulted in enormous economic stress and upheaval.  The low cost of labor and loose regulatory climate of third world work forces became attractive alternatives for corporations headquartered in the west. The loss of service and manufacturing jobs enabled by technology, coupled with the banking collapse of 2008, has resulted in an erosion of the middle class in the United States and other western countries.

This is where history begins to repeat itself. Blame has to be affixed somewhere.

History shows us revolution occurs when the middle class becomes stressed to the breaking point, and I believe that is what is happening now.  The results of last night’s election, coupled with the rise of right wing extremism in the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and France, and the growing boldness of Russian aggression, is a direct reaction to the loss of power by the middle class, and is nothing short of a revolution.  The problem is, revolutions are not always well thought out or even rational.  When revolution is combined with Nationalism, the results are downright frightening.

There are those this morning saying that the election of Trump is being met with unfounded hysteria.  But when you look at the scope of what’s happened not just last night but in the past eight years, you begin to realize the extent of the change that has, with a great degree of certainty, already reached a point of no return.

Last night was nothing short of the end of American democracy.

How did we get here?  We got here by watching the multi-national corporations take our jobs and then our democracy away. The extreme right wing fringe of our society took over by buying out first our senate and then, last night, the other two branches of government.  Last night was the final nail in the coffin of American democracy and the completion of the overthrow of our government.  You think I’m exaggerating?  Look no further than congress’s thumbing of its nose at the constitution and refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination. Now, after last night, the far right has control of all three branches of government.  And if you think they’re going to give any of that control up any time soon, well, I’ve got some stock in “entitlement reform” I’d like to sell you.

The election of Donald Trump is a textbook repeat of how the Fascists gained control in Italy and Germany prior to World War Two. Trump appealed to the “silent majority,” the working class white people. He convinced them that the legitimate losses they’ve seen in wages and power were due to illegitimate causes, the minorities and criminal classes that have been exploited even more than they’ve been.  Listening to his acceptance speech last night and how he was going to rebuild our infrastructure was to take a chapter out of Mein Kempf. By rebuilding the crumbling roads and bridges left over from the destruction of World War One, Hitler was able to rally the eroding middle class around him and whip them into a nationalistic fervor.

The distrust in the global economy and associated institutions has been endlessly exploited by Trump. He’s advocated the dissolution of NATO and railed against the unfairness of regional trade agreements (some of which, to be fair, is justified – but there can be no disputing the global nature of today’s economy and the need to be participants). The United Nations has long been a target of derision along the extreme right – it’s only a matter of time before our withdrawal from the institution is proposed. According to Trump, we need to become isolationists, with a wall around our southern border, else we “don’t have a country.”

Ant that is consistent with his racist and xenophobic rhetoric – along with the great Tijuana wall, we must ban all Muslims from entering the country, so we can make America white, I mean, great again. That our first black president will be succeeded by our first president to be openly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, well, I guess that’s just a necessary little tidbit of irony.

Never mind that Trump is a narcissist.   Never mind that he is an unstable maniac.  That he will be the most powerful man in the world, with his finger on the nuclear arsenal, is just a bonus we get when we go down this new path we’ve chosen.

It’s been seventy plus years now since the end of World War Two – apparently, long enough for people to forget about what caused it and the horror it inflicted on the world.  But there can be no mistaking the simple fact that the rise of Donald Trump is the face of the fall of the American Empire.

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Like Fine Wine


Thank you to everyone for the sediments you sent me for my birthday today.  Once I finish dredging my basement, I’ll be able to express my appreciation in greater depth.

I had a wonderful birthday, with lots of presence – my family was present, and although we’re all nervous, it won’t last long, and soon we’ll be finished with this present tense. Although we’ve passed out in the past, it is past the time to present me with more presents, especially in the presence of those who’ve already given me presents.

This is my fifty eighth birthday, which makes me four hundred years old (50 * 8 = 400).  No, that is incorrect – it is actually my second 29th birthday (29 * 2 = 58), although I seem to remember moving a little bit easier on my first 29th birthday.

I was born in 1958, and today I’m 58 – you’ve all heard of “golden birthdays”, when your age matches the day you were born?  Well, I think when your age matches the year you were born, we call that the “rust-colored corrosive” birthday.

And even though I’m 58 now, I’ve actually just finished my 58th year on this planet and am beginning my 59th year. And while 59 may seem like a big number, it is a prime number, meaning that for the next 364 days I’ll be in my prime. So while fifty eight was great, fifty nine will be fine. Look out, world.

Next year, to celebrate, I plan on wearing my birthday suit and, with apologies to Matt Damon, presenting to all the world my born identity.

I know it’s only a small thing, but it seems like a nice gesture.

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