1000 Words: Who We Are

The “we” being the people who live, have lived, and who will live, in the United States of America.

And how should I know who we are?

Well, around about July or August, I don’t know exactly when — because it’s not important, and I’ll reveal why shortly — I started working on an ambitious and somewhat loony personal project: a timeline of American history.

It’s the kind of thing I’ve dreamed about doing for years, when I’d retire. I threw off the chains of wage-slavedom circa the end of April. Earlier that month I’d gotten my third major surgery in a period of two and a half years, and was able to walk again — Huzzah! I felt so damned good that the very idea of going back to work at the bookstore post-physical therapy seemed as attractive to me as whacking myself repeatedly on the head with a cast-iron skillet.

So I retired. Then I took on some hot projects, including writing a Deep Dive piece for the Limestone Post about Lake Monroe’s water. I also took on doing a history of WFHB, the community radio station that carries my weekly Big Talk interview program (Thursdays at 5:30pm on 91.3 FM or anytime online). I squeezed in a fun piece on the cartoon magazine, Funny Times, the editorial office of which has been relocated to Bloomington. And, I decided, it was time to do my dream project.

Funny thing is, I’m busier now than I ever was before retirement. Which I figured’d be the case. Mind, body, and spirit soar when one isn’t laboring under the yoke of…, well, labor. I can’t explain it any better than that.

So, I started drawing up my own American history timeline back in the hot weather months. In doing so, I realized elementary and high schools have been teaching history all wrong for far too many years, something I’ve suspected since I was an elementary-slash-high school student. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try picking up a copy of James Loewen’s 1995 bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Thumb through it and get educated on how brilliantly fascinating real history is compared to the white-washed, PR flack, happy horseshit the likes of Mrs. Bertram, Mrs, Schmidt, Mr. Townsend, and Mr. Thalamer taught me — and their counterparts taught you.

The fact that none of us of a certain age were brought by our teacher to within a country mile of hearing about things like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Helen Keller’s socialism, Woodrow Wilson’s white supremacy, the CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala, or even the US Navy’s secret agreement with Lucky Luciano’s Mob to ensure New York City’s World War II ports’d be safe from Nazi sabotage is indictment enough.

Most kids say history is among their least favorite classes. Only math class is less palatable to most of them. Of course, there are no lies or whitewashing in math class so I have no idea what to do about that.

What we can do about history class is start telling the truth. Unvarnished, uncomfortable, yet riveting and illuminating truth. I know for a fact I’d be rapt, when in school, reading about Stalin’s spies at Los Alamos, Lincoln’s depression, JFK’s love life, or how the other Project Mercury astronauts chafed at John Glenn’s scoldings to keep their pants zipped.

I began my timeline by googling any and all historical timelines. Each of them misses a lot of stuff that happened in and around these shores and plains. I figured the more timelines I could consult, the more stuff I wouldn’t miss. A lot of timelines are subject-specific, like Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum Timeline, the National Park Service’s American Revolution Timeline, or the Watergate Chronology, so they go deeper into their respective events than, say, Wikipedia’s timelines of events in each year, which I used as a skeleton for the project.

All of them, of course, are based on dates and years. Dates and years — those micro-nuggets of data our history teachers stood over us with whips so we’d memorize them as much as our own names. Yeah, I followed that paradigm, indexing each event in American history by year and date. But it really doesn’t matter if the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th of December, 1941. What matters is context. What matters is the why and in what relation to any number of other factors.

What matters, for example, in the Pearl Harbor attack was the US had embargoed Japanese oil imports — an act of war — and that Hitler was thrilled upon learning of the sneak attack because he figured the US then would be too busy in the Pacific to care that he was taking over Europe and killing Jews. Context.

In drawing up my own personal history of the United States, I could see how this nation grew and learned — and didn’t learn — and become a mighty empire and championed freedom and democracy and backed tin-pot dictators and claimed all men are created equal and allowed the buying and selling of human beings and…, and…, and…. As Kurt Vonnegut loved to write, and so it goes.

Of all the empires this Earth has seen, ours is the most contradictory, the most baffling, the most schizophrenic. We’ve been good and bad. We’ve been brilliant and ignorant. We’ve pushed the limits of human achievement and stuck our heads in the sand. We’ve created advancements in medicine, engineering, astrophysics, literature, theater, song, sport, and any and all possible fields of human endeavor. We shoot each other, rape each other, rob from the poor, segregate our neighborhoods, launch missiles, pollute the air, and commit any and all crimes against humanity better than any other country.

Why? Because we’re the most diverse country ever to exist. We represent everything good and everything bad Homo sapiens has ever learned to do or can imagine to do, no matter where that Homo came from.

We are humanity.

Big Talk: Looking for Dad

My weekly radio interview program, Big Talk, airs every Thursday on WFHB, 91.3 FM, or always and forever on the ‘FHB website. The podcast usually posts precisely at 6:00pm, just as the broadcast concludes.

I’ve been doing that gig since 2014. Big Talk started out as an eight-minute feature on the Daily Local News. By 2017 I was chomping at the bit to get my own stand-alone slot on the station’s programming schedule and then-news director Wes Martin helped me jump through the hoops to get it done. I’ve had hundreds of guests on in the nearly ten years the show’s been a thing. It’s basically a one-person operation with me handling booking, research, studio set-up, engineering, hosting, editing, post-production, and, for chrissakes, keeping the Big Production Room as tidy as possible.

My first guest, way back in January ’14 was cartoonist Nate Powell, who’s penned a passel of fabulous graphic novels, includes the three-volume classic, March, with the late civil rights legend and Georgia congressperson John Lewis. Following him, I brought on Bloomington’s grand dame of politics, Charlotte Zietlow. My chat with her inspired me to pitch a book idea to her and, lo and behold, six years later our book Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives hit the bookstores. For a couple of years, I was able to turn Big Talk editions into print profiles on Limestone Post for my regular column, “Big Mike’s B-Town.”

Some of my favorite shows have featured the likes of Dan “Carp” Combs, the homespun philosopher who’s long served as a local township trustee here in Bloomington; Pete Buttigieg, then-mayor of South Bend who came to town to speak to a house party of women voters (and, as I chatted with him in the kitchen that afternoon, I concluded he was a fellow with his eye set on the White House); Debbie Herbenick, the Indiana University sex researcher, Joe Varga, the IU labor historian; Ed Schwartzman, the restaurateur whose young son took his own life; Laura Lane, longtime Herald Times reporter; and Nancy Hiller, author, master woodworker, and all-around good egg, whom I had on several times.

I’ve had CIA spies, New York Times bestselling authors, filmmakers, scientists, cops, magicians (well, alright, illusionists), pizza moguls, comedy club proprietors, singer-songwriters, poets, painters, Hula Hoop-sters, historians, a couple of alumni from the Firesign Theater, and even a cos-player who wrote a book about raising Viking children.

When I’m on my deathbed and I look back on my far-too-short life, I’ll be able to say my greatest talent was getting people to talk about themselves. I’ll reveal the secret of why and how I became adept at that: my dad never really spoke with me. That’s the kind of bird he was. A good friend once tried to ask me, apropos of one thing or another, “When your father talked to you did he….” I put my hand up and said, “Hold it right there. My father never talked to me.” My friend couldn’t believe it, but it was true.

Other than yelling at me or telling me to do something, Daddy-o was mum. I figured he didn’t care much for me. Then I learned he was quite the bon-vivant at times when he was younger. He’d tell stories and jokes and even dance a polka at family gatherings and parties. I was able to conclude it wasn’t me, it was him. I was, in a very profound way, growing up.

Dad, I can only conclude, was terribly depressed for the last quarter century of his life. He’d come of age in an era when seeing a therapist was about as likely for a working class man as owning a tuxedo. So, my diagnosis is pure guesswork. But he exhibited all the classic symptoms, including an inability to connect with others and to demonstrate even the slightest hint of affection.

When I tried to work through my own depression under the care of a string of therapists, social workers, psychologists, and even the odd priest and nun (honestly, I’d gotten to a point where I’d try anything to get out of my emotional morass), all those experts assured me Daddy-o was a textbook case and that my malaise was clearly inherited.

One day, when I was suffering through the loss of a love (my fault; I was a young knucklehead), and the pain I felt was greater than any other human had ever experienced, I collapsed in a heap on my parents’ front porch. I heard Ma, inside, say to Dad, “Joe, go out there and help him. He needs you!”

Dad slowly emerged. He knew himself well enough to realize rescuing a knuckleheaded 23-year old from heart-pain was not one of his fortes. He sat on the stoop next to me. That, in itself, was novel inasmuch as he normally did everything in his power to avoid contact with other humans. “Jeez,” I thought, “they must really think I’m in bad shape.” (They were right: I’d even been ideating suicide.)

My heart felt as though it would burst just because my father had chosen to sit close to me. He asked me what was wrong and I told him about the girl who’d given me the gate. He didn’t respond, because he never did. So — and I have no idea why I did this — I asked him how he knew Ma was the one for him. Mirabile dictu, he opened up. He told me the story of meeting my mother.

As a teenager, he hung out with his pals at Hanson Park on Chicago’s northwest side. One afternoon a traveling girls softball team was playing there. The girl playing short centerfield caught his eye. She had curly hair and belly-caught pop-ups, like an old-time grocer catching a falling can of corn in his apron. Dad was smitten. He said, “I took one look at her and said, ‘I’m gonna marry that gal one day.'”

Ma & Dad, Summer, 1945.

The story itself was beautiful, but the fact that Dad actually shared it with me sent me over the edge. I sobbed, deeply and loudly, for long minutes. Dad was baffled: “What’d I say? What’s goin’ on?” He never would know, coming from the era and background he did.

That was the turning point in my heartbroken summer of 1979. I started healing.

So, let me amend my thesis: Dad did talk to me. Once.

From that minute on, my goal in life became to try to get people to tell me their stories. Who knows? Maybe I was trying to recreate that cathartic emotional release, that flood of endorphins or whatever other body drugs that start splashing around when one experiences deep joy or sadness. Or maybe I concluded that if I could get Dad to talk to me, I could get anybody to do it. I don’t know. I don’t need to know.

I only know it’s what I’ve done all my life, in print, online, and on the radio.

Another amendment: my first Big Talk wasn’t with Nate Powell. It was with my Dad that August night on the stoop in 1979.

Quick Hit: The Scum Card

“You’re just scum.” So says Nikki Haley to Vivek Ramaswamy on last night’s GOP debate stage. I’ve got to admit, I liked it. It was her way of saying fuck you to him.

It’s not something that should be bandied about promiscuously in a so-called civilized political debate but people like forceful, plain-language, from the heart speech from their politicians. It goes a long way to explain Donald Trump’s appeal. He says fuck you constantly to anybody and everybody who gets under his skin. Of course, he goes way, way, way, way overboard with it, but there’s that percentage of people who admire his candor and clear disregard for niceties and soft language. They’re tired of mealy-mouthed, forked-tongue blather.

It’s something I wish the Democrats would learn. Hillary tried it with her “basket of deplorables” line in ’16, and then she immediately walked it back. Dang mang, she should have doubled down on it. It would have done her better than apologizing and recanting.

But, of course, there must be a boundary — how about this: Everybody in every presidential candidate debate gets one “Don’t be an asshole” card that they get to use when a rival candidate acts like…, well, an asshole. Haley could have used hers yesterday. And then, once each party chooses a candidate, she or he gets two “You’re full of shit” cards to use when the other side inevitably says something stupid or outright lies.

For instance, one of Trump’s GOP rivals could have pulled out their “Don’t be an asshole” card when he claimed thousands of Arab-Americans danced in the streets of New Jersey while the Twin Towers were falling. And then, should Trump bring up the 2020 election “steal” when he and Biden debate, Biden should pull out one of his “You’re full of shit” cards.

One more card: every major party candidate gets a “Fuck you” card, to be used only by permission of the debate moderator or the Federal Election commission when, for example, somebody like Trump says something like “Only I can fix it.” Biden would apply for permission to use his card, get it, and then say, “Aw, fuck you, Donald!”

Political discourse would be slightly rawer but still somewhat controlled.

1000 Words: The War Species

I take no side in the latest Middle East dust-up. Of course, “dust-up” is almost an insulting term considered some 4000 people — mostly innocents — have died in the Israeli-Hamas War.

It’s not that I take no side in any war. For instance, I’m four-square in favor of Ukraine kicking the living shit out of the Russian invaders in their war. These two wars are the ones we, in this holy land, pay exclusive attention to. Your neighbors and relatives’ll wring their hands and moan about what a horrible and dangerous world we live in based only on their knowledge of those two conflicts while remaining unaware that some 110 wars, as defined by international law, are raging to one extent or another around the globe.

That’s right: one freaking hundred and ten wars are turning tens of thousands of soldiers into hamburger and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, dear friends, and acquaintances into grieving, juddering wrecks.

These numbers come from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. The postgraduate school in  Switzerland monitors all the shooting wars going on across this mad planet, a hobby that keeps its faculty and students busier than celebrity gossip mongers, if that can be possible. The Geneva Academy finds that the hottest spots in the world are Africa and, natch, the Middle East where, together, some 45 wars are flaring as you read this. The vast majority of us don’t give the slightest damn about bloodshed in Africa, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the continuous flow of oil, precious metals, or other resources that allow us to play incessantly with electronic devices, scoot around in our cars, sink our retirement savings into, or hoard to keep out of Chinese hands. By such means, we can pretend that all is well outside our borders until, as occurred nearly two weeks ago, thugs and hoodlums started whacking the crap out of each other with moms, babies, nurses, doctors, professors, sanitation workers, cabaret singers, poets, and other bystanders suffering a shockingly outsized share of the bodily damage.

Well, maybe not so shockingly. Consider the fact that in World War II, the crème de la crème of organized human slaughter, the estimated number of deaths ranges from 45 to 85 million. Nobody could ever really pin that number down because, well, our technology was so good and the ferocity with which we used it so over the top that entire big cities were wiped off the map. It would have been as if Houston or Chicago were leveled, with countless Louisvilles, Oklahoma Cities, Sacramentos, Newarks, Albuquerques, and more disappearing under clouds of thick, black smoke. Sure, millions of soldiers died but their number was dwarfed by the incineration and butchering of just plain folks. Census and identification records similarly were scorched into ash so who knows how many people ceased to be in Dresden or Nagasaki.

Again, not that I particularly blame the Allies for unleashing their murderous fury. The Axis Powers were vicious, sociopathic mass murderers who had to be stopped and the only hammers we had against them were rifles, cannons, tanks and, ultimately, atomic bombs. But avid homicidal maniacs like Britain’s Air Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the US Army Air Corps’ Gen. Curtis LeMay both acknowledged their side had to win, otherwise each would be strung up as war criminals had the contest turned out differently. The lesson? If you want to win a war, your generals had better be more bloodthirsty than their generals.

As stated in this global communications colossus time and again, it’s my deeply held belief that we humans love the hell out of war. It excites us, moves us, even tumesces many of us in certain anatomical locales. Speaking of world war, the Great War, which necessarily had to be renamed World War I, was America’s first big foray into international mayhem. Being that our non-indigenous populace at the time hadn’t experienced waves of foreign troops sweeping across our soil, ravaging our homes, plundering our goods, and raping a large swath of our citizenry, the song “Over There” became a huge hit, parades for departing troops were held in most big cities, young men longed to enlist, and their moms and lovers urged them on to become heroes. Next thing anybody knew, thousands of American soldiers were being shipped back, armless, legless, paralyzed, poison gassed, filled with shrapnel and bullets, and mentally and emotionally crippled by the blood and guts they’d witnessed.

Who knew?

Well, anybody should have. Only we humans like to forget all the lessons of war just as soon as the latest war is ended. Then we go back to romanticizing it, even cherishing it.

That’s certainly what the young warriors of Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces do — and have done for decades. And it’s what we did when Vietnam was gradually becoming a recognizable term in 1964 and ’65. Both Hamas and the IDF can cite atrocities and provocations by the other side as justification for their martial zeal. Many Palestinians have been trying to destroy Israel and eliminate Jews in the Middle East since before the Hebrew homeland was established in 1947. And Israelis, the Holocaust still fresh in their memories, respond to every insult or attack in a manner that makes the original offense resemble a mosquito bite, Israel’s message being, Don’t fuck with us or we’ll fuck back with you times ten.

All wars are justified by the warring parties. All wars are fought for god and freedom. Yep, even the Nazis and the militarists of Japan told their respective people the blood they were about to shed was a task blessed by god and that liberty would be the reward.

Hitler and Goebbels said so. Tojo said so. Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and every other leader urging his country to take up arms said so. Says so.

What Hamas did was indefensible. What Israel is doing in return is similarly so. Neither side needs me to endorse it.

1000 Words: Why A Thousand?

I’d known from my earliest days that writing was my talent, that words were precious gems, that my pen and typewriter would become as indispensable as my arms and legs. Before I really attended school, I knew writing’d be my forte. I missed most of my kindergarten year with some weird chronic fever. I spent the vast majority of that time off thumbing through my family’s World Book Encyclopedia volumes. Slowly but surely, all those squiggles on the page became scrutable to me. I taught myself to read.

So it was almost predestined that words would become my life.

The World Book Encyclopedia.

Whatever that fever was, by first grade it was gone and so I spent my days from age five through 18 in classrooms. I’d much rather have been anyplace else. Any place. The Prussian-style schoolrooms of my youth were, hands down, the least likely places a person of my temperament, energy, concentration, and discipline (or lack thereof) could thrive in. Sitting still, paying attention, keeping quiet, “applying” myself, obeying, following instructions — I had little capacity for any of those talents and abilities. That is, if they are, indeed, talents and abilities.

All I wanted to do was run, jump, laugh, yell, joke, tease, ride my bike, and hit a ball. And read. I was a voracious reader. I knew that encyclopedia. I knew what the atomic bomb was, who Einstein was, what Ancient Rome was, that Woodrow Wilson was a president, that the keeping of critters on a farm was once know as “animal husbandry,” that Churchill was portly, and the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world. I knew this stuff long before any of my classmates did because I devoured that encyclopedia, as well as the daily newspaper. We got the Chicago Sun-Times Monday through Saturday and the Tribune and American on Sunday. I read them all, skipping the middle sections (the obituaries and business). I knew who Castro was and Willy Brandt and Nikita Khrushchev and Dean Rusk and Alan B. Shepard. I knew trouble was brewing in the Dominican Republic and that Charles de Gaulle was pretty much a jerk.

I Knew Who They Were.

Even my love of baseball was based on reading. I collected baseball cards and memorized every statistical line and all the colorful little stories on the back of them. It fascinated me that a fellow named Cookie Rojas, second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, actually wore glasses while playing big league baseball. How cool! I wore glasses, too. I learned Sandy Koufax was Jewish so I had to run to the J-volume of the encyclopedia to figure out what that meant. Houston built its Astros a domed stadium, so I had to do some digging to understand how such a huge edifice could stay standing.

And then, when I was 14 years old, the book Ball Four came out. It was an uncensored, straightforward look at the life of a big-leaguer. Ballplayers drank, chased women, had arguments with each other, felt they were underpaid, resented authority, divorced, remarried, gambled, went bankrupt, took “greenies” (amphetamines), and worried about what they’d do after their careers were over. The baseball establishment threw fits, saying it was all made up or that the author, pitcher Jim Bouton, had no right to write about such things. Me? I ate it all up. The more I read his book, the more I loved baseball.

Books have been my most treasured possessions all my adult life.

Now, here’s the irony. Because, as mentioned above, I wasn’t any teacher’s favorite student, I was constantly being punished. And the single most frequent punishment teachers threw at me was the dreaded 1000-word essay. I didn’t turn in my homework for the umpteenth time? Write a thousand words on why homework is important (now, nearly six decades later, I can complete that essay in two words: It isn’t.) A kid named Dennis Corso and I got into a fistfight during recess. He called me a dirty Jew. At the time I didn’t know what that meant but I could sense he wasn’t implying I was the coolest kid in class. So we blackened each other’s eye. The principal, who was a Jew, made us write a thousand words on a great Jewish person. I chose Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister a couple of times in the 1800s. I knew of him from reading the encyclopedia, natch. I discovered that his old man had quit the faith when Benjamin was a kid. So, the first thing I ever really learned about Judaism was that people could become not-Jewish if they wanted.

Nevertheless, making me write a thousand words was as daunting as asking me to build a structure taller than the Empire State Building. If I recall correctly, I repeated a number of sentences several times to reach that magic number. I’m surprised the principal didn’t make me write a thousand words on why I shouldn’t cheat on 1000-word essays.

In any case, teachers and principals all did their best to make me hate writing. Writing, they taught me, was punitive and onerous. Writing is what bad kids had to do. It would be impossible to derive pleasure or satisfaction of any sort from the act of writing. And for a while I believed all those things. I learned to hate writing.

But by the time I was 21 or so, I realized writing was the thing I knew how to do best. And what was wrong with that? Hell, Jim Bouton‘s writing brought me huge pleasure. So did Wodehouse‘s and Bellow‘s and Lederman‘s and Allen‘s and Baldwin‘s and Lebowitz‘s and Royko‘s and…, well, the list can go on forever. Or at least a thousand words.

Now that I write for the sheer pleasure of it (and, throughout my adult life, for money) I want to throw a big finger back at all those who did their best to beat the love of writing out of me. Here’s my thousand words.

1000 Words: Watch Your Wallet

I ought to take up residence in a cave in the Himalayas because, as this global communications colossus has revealed lo these many years, I fancy myself a philosopher. A presumption the likes of Bertrand Russell and George Carlin would probably sneer at.

In any case, here’s another of my philosophical nuggets, adding to a list that has been ignored spectacularly by those who run this mad world:

Every single group activity contrived by human beings has been riven, at one point or another, by corruption.

Corruption must be in our blood, or our genes, or our collective psyche. Whatever. The best of us suppress the urge to swipe, palm, pocket, extort, embezzle, armed stickup, or otherwise take that which is not ours. The worst of us make an art and/or a science of thievery. The residents and government of this holy land, for instance, actually stole an entire continent, for chrissakes, from the people who lived here in the year 1491. The Roman Catholic Church, for another instance, established the globe’s most powerful and richest empire, in Europe, one that lasted some 800 years. In neither case did the leaders of those titanic realms ask politely of whomever stood in their way permission to rob them.

At the same time, both institutions did wonderful things like run hospitals, feed the hungry, guarantee rights by law, battle tyranny, fly to the Moon, comfort the sick, create vaccines that wiped out deadly diseases, and preached to its constituents to generally avoid robbing others blind.

I state this for the simple reason that every time one association, government, corporate board, club, or another is upended by a corruption scandal, we gasp and wring our hands as if we’re shocked such a thing can happen. It not only can, it does. Regularly.

As long as you buy into my philosophy, you won’t be aghast next time you hear that a senator, a cleric, a chief executive, a physician, a researcher, a teacher, a Boy Scout, or a poet gets caught with her or his hand in somebody else’s pocket.

Trust me, you’ll live a happier life.

And, by the way, “trust me” is often the first thing somebody says when planning to, or is in the process of, sticking their hand into your pocket.

The legendary actor Emma Thompson is right. That new, all-purpose term for artistic photos, words, melodies, movies, ideas, and anything else concocted in the imagination of human beings — content — stinks to high heaven. Says Thompson, via Variety, “To hear people talk about ‘content’ makes me feel like the stuffing inside a sofa cushion.”

Thompson As Content.

How about another term just as bad as content? Okay, branding.

Content creators brand themselves, acc’d’g to biz school “wisdom.” Kids in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, the scuttlebutt goes, are told to answer the question, “What is your brand?” their first week in class.

Eighteen-year-olds need a brand? Half to three quarters of them don’t even know how to look both ways before crossing the street.

My brand is De Cecco. I love the long-time pasta-maker’s No. 24 rigatoni. It’s big and thick and floppy and filling.

My Brand.

Then again, I don’t think that’s what the biz school dons are rumored to be getting at.

This stuff is here with us to stay, apparently. The BBC reports Southeast Technical University in Carlow, Ireland is now offering a bachelor of arts degree in Content Creation. Not, as Emma Thmpson fears, the manufacture and use of sofa cushion stuffing but, as the BBC story explains,  “Dr (Eleanor) O’Leary said graduates of the course will be equipped to either work for themselves as a self-employed influencer or in creating content for a company or organisation.”

Duh, whut?

Consider me ignorant in this field. Happily, proudly ignorant.

Googling around to dig up dope on this whole influencer racket, I found there are actually numeric formulas that define levels of…, well, influence. They are:

  • 1000-10,000 followers — nano influencer
  • 10,000-50,000 followers — micro influencer
  • 50,000-500,000 followers — mid-tier influencer
  • 500,000-1,000,000 followers — macro influencer
  • 1,000,000-5,000,000 followers — mega influencer
  • +5,000,000 followers — celebrity influencer

Khaby Lame, Tik Tok’s Biggest Influencer in 2023, With 80 Million Followers.

Judging by this global communications colossus’s numbers, I’m so far beneath being a nano-influencer that I’m virtually non-existent. I’m the breeze generated by a butterfly’s wing. Just the way I like it.

My Clay County farmer pal, Eli, and I meet every Friday afternoon to play chess at Hopscotch. We are what I call chess street fighters. We know nothing about established strategies, the philosophies of the Grand Masters, or even basic openings. In fact, we’ve pledged to each other not to read chess books so we can continue our pleasant little weekly competition in blissful chess ignorance.

One day a guy watched Eli paddle me and then asked if he could play. Since Eli’d just won, he took the new guy on. This fellow proceeded to carve Eli up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The new guy, a professor in IU’s African American and African Diaspora Studies, named Quito (he’s since left IU for other opportunities), clearly had been playing for a zillion years and had read all the important books on the game. As I watched him toy with Eli, I was silently thankful for losing the previous game, seeing as how I dodged being humiliated.

Anyway, Eli and I will be taking the next month or so off because it’s harvest season. Eli’ll be ensconced in the cab of his family’s big tractor, scooping up semi-trailers-full of corn and soy beans.

Meanwhile, my conversation with labor historian Joe Varga airs this afternoon on Big Talk at 5:30 on WFHB, 91.3 FM. The podcast posts at 6:00pm on wfhb.org. Joe and I both are union veterans whose daddy-o’s also were union guys. We gabbed so long I had to turn the chat into a two-parter, the second half airing next week, same time, same station

The week after that, I’ll chat with sex researcher Debby Herbenick of the Kinsey Institute. (Note to self: I mispronounced the word clitoris during the recording, so I’ll have to dub in the proper pronunciation before it airs.)

Herbenick (L) & Varga


1000 Words: Not To Be Forgotten

Earlier this week, we celebrated the anniversary of the March on Washington. Its formal name was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Most of us remember it as the time Martin Luther King Jr. uttered the line, “I have a dream.” Those four words were only a tiny part of his 17-minute speech but they’re the ones that ring in our hearts and memories to this day.

King, Speaking at the March on Washington.

An aside: I’m not able to post video of King’s speech here, nor are many people able to do so. Film footage of it is not in the public domain. Members of King’s family own the rights to it, as well as a bunch of other King-related materials. Swear to god, you can get it on Amazon. Acc’d’g to this January 2017 article in the Washington Post, not even the makers of the 2014 film “Selma” could use the footage because it already had been grabbed and paid for by Steven Spielberg for a movie he wanted to make.

I bet a lot of people think the March on Washington was strictly a King rally. A quarter million people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC on that brilliantly sunny, hot August afternoon. People came on buses, by hitchhiking, by carpooling, by train, even by foot from all over the country. Young and old. White people, too, in a town where, a scant 38 years before, 30,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. By the time of the March on Washington, the KKK had been relegated to the American fringe, albeit an awfully powerful, too often deadly fringe. A fringe that held sway with local, state, and national politicians even as King stood on the speaker’s platform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that August Monday. (A fringe that still carries weight today, albeit under different banners.) King at the time was the biggest name in the fight for civil rights in America. King today is pretty much the only name many of us remember in the fight for civil rights in America.

The fact is King was only one of many activists, advocates, celebrities, and swells invited to the event. So, who was sending out those invitations?

The March on Washington was the brainchild, and the result of the hard work, of two people whose names are largely forgotten in 2023 but who, all those years ago, were titans in the effort to bring equality and rights to all American citizens, even — gasp! — those with dark skin.

These two were A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Randolph (L) & Rustin.

There’s not one child in a hundred today who’d be able to tell you who those two fellows were. Hell, there’s not one adult in a hundred. Well, among white people, at least.

Randolph was a labor union leader. He’d formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters back in 1925, the same year that huge crowd of KKK members had marched in Washington I mentioned earlier. Born in Jim Crow Florida in 1889, Randolph remembered seeing his mother sit on the family front porch, a shotgun at the ready in her lap, as her husband, armed with a pistol, set off for the Putnam County jail to confront a white mob trying to lynch a black man being held there.

Randolph felt the crush of institutionalized racism, southern apartheid, northern segregation, and the visceral fear white America felt about Black people, naturally making him feel as though he were not of this holy land. He was pushing 30 years old when the Bolshevik revolution overturned the ruling order of Russia and sent waves of panic around the world. Randolph was inspired by the idea of socialism, as well as the organizing tactics of the socialist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “the Wobblies). He wasn’t the only Black person, alienated by America’s vicious racism, who flirted with — and were courted by — this nation’s sworn philosophical enemies. singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson was another. The novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, too.

The likes of J. Edgar Hoover reacted to these flirtations/courtings by attempting to paint all civil rights activists as dangerous, godless commies.

I’ll attempt to defend Randolph, Robeson, Wright, and Ellison by saying the true horrors of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and the potential for tyranny in highly centralized communism were not realized and/or understood for many years. Marx’s ideas sound good on first reading but, in practice, they’re quite a few steps worse than late-stage American capitalism.

By World War II, Randolph had emerged as America’s top civil rights leader. In 1941, he and Rustin began discussing a mass march of the nation’s capital to protest discrimination and demand jobs. The two were partly inspired by Gandhi’s pacifist protests and resistance against the British Raj. A few federal laws and executive orders over the next few years temporarily satisfied civil rights activists but outright racism had re-stoked the fire by the early 1960s.

Rustin labored under two “handicaps”: not only was he Black, he was queer. He was a brilliant organizer, putting together the famous Freedom Rides and helping form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In addition to co-organizing the March on Washington, he formed numerous support groups for tenants, workers and voters. He kept a low profile because of his homosexuality, otherwise his voice might have become as loud, nationally, as King’s.

Freedom Riders.

Raised in relative affluence by his grandparents in a small town near Philadelphia, Rustin as a child met civil rights giants like W.E.B. Du Bois because his grandmother, Julia, a Quaker, was active in the early NAACP. He began talking — and thinking — about things like systematic racism and Jim Crow laws at a very young age. By World War II, he would be a key actvist in the fight to protect West Coast Japanese-Americans who were being interned and their possessions seized.

It wasn’t until the Reagan Era when Rustin finally began agitating for gay rights. He titled his 1986 speech for gay rights in New York City, “The New Niggers Are Gay.” Those were the days when the strategic and thoughtful use of the N-bomb imparted a heft, an urgency, rather than simply being a dirty word.

The March on Washington wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr.’s baby. It was Randolph’s and Rustin’s.


1000 Words: A Failed Nation?

What does it mean to say a nation has failed?

Is Niger, currently wracked by a military coup d’état, its neighbors girding to invade it, a failed nation?

When the British were nearly bankrupt at the end of World War II and compelled to give up their global empire, was the UK a failed nation?

Speaking of World War II, was Nazi Germany, the self-proclaimed Thousand Year Reich, a failed nation?


Acc’d’g to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a failed nation is:

…a state that is unable to perform the two fundamental functions of the sovereign nation-state in the modern world system: it cannot project authority over its territory and peoples, and it cannot protect its national boundaries.

What about the United States itself? Are we a failed nation?

A huge percentage of our holy land’s population thinks so. A New York Times/Siena College poll reveals 37 percent of American voters think the US is a failed nation.

Us. Niger. The Nazis. Bet you’d never seen that grouping before.

One’s in chaos, another was burned off the face of the Earth, and the third…, is currently the globe’s biggest, most robust economy, its most powerful military force, and the country hundreds of millions — maybe even billions — of people look to as the place to be.

My grandparents, and maybe yours, looked at the United States a century and more ago as the land where the streets were paved with gold. They came here and found out otherwise but, truth be told, they made scads of money, bought comfortable homes, put their kids through college, and counted themselves among the most patriotic of Americans (even though so very many of them were terrorized and persecuted by those who considered themselves even more patriotic).

In any case, this isn’t Busia and Dziadzia‘s USA anymore. Nor Pappou‘s or Yaya‘s. Not even Papaw‘s and Memaw‘s.

I don’t know whose country this is anymore but, apparently, more than a third of us think, “It ain’t mine.”

That’s got to be what people mean when they say the US is a failed nation. Guess who, more than anybody, thinks so — yep, Republicans.

You know what? They’re right. Many, many, many people on the Right grew up thinking this nation was the bastion of white Christians, ruled by men, with women keeping house, LGBTQIs keeping in the closets, Black men carrying bags at the train station, and all other ethnic immigrants either running restaurants or forming criminal syndicates. This ain’t that land anymore.

It was, a long, long time ago.

And that’s likely why so many people think this isn’t their land anymore, that it’s a failed nation.

It has failed them. It changed. Blacks became more than Pullman porters. They became college professors and neurosurgeons and prima ballerinas and, by god in heaven, president! Women started running companies. Lesbians hosted TV talk shows. Italians ran cities and states and even became Speaker of the House. Women became men and men became women. The whole world had gone crazy!

That is if you bought into the faulty reasoning that the world today should still be just like that long gone place where there were white Christian men and… everybody else.

Now white Christian men are — can you believe it? — just a part of everybody else. And for some mysterious reason, scads of people, including those who aren’t white Christian men, wish it were otherwise.

Well, maybe not so mysterious. Maybe they’ve been led down their scary, grievance-filled path by sly politicians, click-hungry internet moguls, ratings-addicted cable execs, formerly peripheral lunatics, Russian bots, and, most loudly, an incurious, unprepared, unread, pandering, borderline personality disordered greed monkey who somehow became president and hopes to become one once again.

Their United States hasn’t existed for at least 40 or 50 years. That nation, thankfully, did fail.

But the nation we live in today, for all its sins and all its warts and malignancies, is not, by definition, failed.

It will one day. Fail, that is. All empires collapse. All nations die. That’s the commonest thread of human history.

Everything ends. So do dreams and — luckily — nightmares.

1000 Words: Enemy of the People

Lucky you, for I’m about to add to the list of things you ought to be scared to death about.

In this year of somebody’s lord, 2023, each of us on this planet has plenty of things that keep our eyes saucer-like as we lie in bed at night. And here I am with more news, as if you needed to be reminded, that we’re living in an era when authoritarianism and neo-fascism are becoming seductive to a growing swath of the American populace.

To wit: armed police busting in on newsrooms. Y’know, the kind of thing they do in Putin‘s Russia, Orban‘s Hungary, or any other locale ruled iron-fisted-ly. It happened again this past week, right here in the Land of the Free, and it wasn’t a one-off. Punishing the press has happened too often of late within this great democratic republic whose Constitution’s very First Amendment calls, unambiguously, for Freedom of the Press.

I stress the word unambiguously because, over the last 50 or so years, an entire major political party on these shores has built a foundation upon the mistaken belief that the Constitution guarantees plainly, obviously, and explicitly that every citizen herein ought to be able to pack as much heat — handguns, shotguns, rifles, automatic firearms, military-grade assault guns; in short everything and anything that can fire metal projectiles either into you or through you — as his/her budget and storeroom can allow. It doesn’t, of course. The Second amendment contains the qualifier “well-regulated,” although the gun fondlers of this nation blink when their eyes pass over that phrase.

Here, we’ve been fighting like cats and dogs for a half century over the existence of that hyphenate. We haven’t needed to fight all that much about the contents of amendment No. 1 because it’s clear. Freedom of the press, along with the other liberties guaranteed by the amendment, is a given.

So sacred is the Freedom of the Press idea that the US government, for chrissakes, even dropped a lawsuit against several publications in 1979 that wanted to print a step-by-step guide to making a thermonuclear weapon. Now, we’re not taking about possessing a thermonuclear weapon, a putative right that, I’d guess, any number of Second Amendment fetishists might say every American was born with. The Progressive magazine and the University of California at Berkeley’s The Daily Californian student newspaper both published the info, both were hauled into court and, ultimately, both were allowed to publish the stuff.

Not that it would make any difference in your or my everyday life inasmuch as building a hydrogen bomb entails the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars to employ countless physicists, metallurgists, chemists, mathematicians and other assorted technicians as well as the building and maintenance of sprawling laboratories, uranium refinement reactors, huge gas centrifuge factories, vast tracts of land on which to test explosives, and all the restrooms, cafeterias, and HVAC facilities needed by the aforementioned employees.

Nevertheless, the US Gov’t got jittery when it found its most cherished secrets were about to be disclosed and then stood on its head to prevent it from happening. The US Supreme Court said, in effect, Well, let us think about this for a bit, until events and the understanding that Freedom of the Press is largely absolute caused the Feds to back off.

But that was all more than 40 years ago. This is a new day and age.

It’s a day and age, though, when the leading Republican candidate for the presidency has already told his followers that the news media is the “enemy of the American people.” Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels and Stalin’s Lavrentiy Beria would have slapped him on the back. And he’d have said, Thanks, guys.

Police in a tiny Kansas town raided the newsroom of the local newspaper this past Friday, seizing computers, cell phones, and other materials, the result of a spat between the paper and a local restaurant owner. The restaurateur carries a lot of sway in the town, especially with its police force. The police chief of the town — Marion, pop. 1922 — says the raid was carried out because the paper had violated the restaurant owner’s privacy. The paper, The Marion County Record, was investigating the politically active restaurant owner’s past drunk driving citation. The paper already had decided against running a story about the incident.

The Record‘s publisher and editor, Eric Meyer — whose home also was raided for materials — said:

This is the type of stuff that, you know, that Vladimar Putin does, that Third World dictators do. This is Gestapo tactics from World War II.

Meyer and his staff of a half dozen are trying to figure out how to publish The Record‘s next edition without their computer files and notes. The raid, by the way, may have contributed to the death of the paper’s co-owner. A story published yesterday on the paper’s website says the co-owner, whose home also was raided, was unable to eat or sleep after the raid. “Stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and [the newspaper’s] office,” the owner collapsed and died Saturday afternoon.

Nothing new here. The publisher of a small weekly newspaper in Concord, New Hampshire was arrested a year ago this month for failing to clearly mark political advertisements as such. The law requires such markings and the publisher was obviously wrong in failing to do so. Cuffing and booking the publisher, though, seems a tad…, well, fascist.

A Clark County (Nevada) official who was being investigated by a Las Vegas newspaper stabbed to death the paper’s reporter assigned to the investigation last September.

In the last half decade, newspapers in Colorado, North Carolina, New Jersey, California, and New York have been financially punished by local governments for what elected officials deemed to be less than fawning coverage. In all of the cases, the papers were denied local announcement ad placements, usually a key element in a newspaper’s yearly revenue. “Such retaliation is not new, but it appears to be occurring more frequently now, when terms like ‘fake news’ have become part of the popular lexicon,” writes New York Times reporter Emily Flitter.

Fake news. One of the former president’s favorite ejaculations.

Enemy of the people indeed.

1000 Words: The Drunken Cat

I’ll be running back and forth among topics today like…, well, the sloshed pussy mentioned above.

My various partners and I have had cats since as far back as 1980 and I still get a kick out of their wholly unpredictable mad dashes to and fro. These crazy sprints are entertaining and often hilarious but, in truth, can be just a tad frightening.

You have to ask yourself as the cat is tearing from one corner of the house to another, Has this creature lost its mind? And is the next act him sinking his claws into my jugular vein?

This gets me to thinking about that book How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You. I had to look it up to find out who the author was and, Google being Google, I got sidetracked to a study released in 2015 by some animal behavior researchers from the University of Edinburgh. Kitty cats, they posited, would murder you if they could.

Yep. The USA Today story I found on the research contained this chilling revelation:

If you ever thought your cat was anxious, insecure, suspicious or aggressive toward you, you aren’t making it up…. If they were bigger they probably would consider killing you.

Your House Pet and You.


Get ready because my big story on the quality of Lake Monroe’s water is coming out next week, Wednesday, August 16th, in Limestone Post magazine. It’s part of the Deep Dive project, a collaboration between the LP and WFHB radio news, funded by the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County. Each month LP runs an in-depth story on one issue of vital local importance or another, to be followed up by several weeks of related coverage during the WFHB Daily News at 5:00pm, weekdays.

Lake Monroe at Sunset. [Image: The Loved One]

Publisher and editor Ron Eid has been doing yeoman work keeping Limestone Post alive and covering local and regional topics. Eid not terribly long ago turned the operation into a non-profit, a move in keeping with what’s going on elsewhere in this holy land. My newspaper alma mater, the Chicago Reader, has gone non-profit, as did one of the major Chicago dailies, the Sun-Times.


Jumping (or sprinting) back to cats. That book I mentioned? How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You? Jeez, I must be getting old and forgetful because it was written by one of my favorite cartoonists. Matthew Inman. His website, The Oatmeal, is one of my regular go-to bookmarks. I hit it at least a couple of times each week.

Is this the first slip in my long slide toward dementia? I’ll keep you up to date — if I remember.

Anyway, Inman’s book, published in 2012 by Andrews McMeel, was a New York Times bestseller (briefly), for pity’s sake.


Truth is, I prefer dogs to cats but over the years I’ve had four times as many felines as canines. There’s a simple reason for that: cats are easier to care for. My old pal, the late Steve the Dog had the unforgivable habit of waking me up every morning before sunrise to go outside. He had big floppy ears — he was a beagle/border collie mix — and upon waking up at that ungodly hour, he’d shake his head, his furry ears whapping loudly, causing my eyes to go saucer-like.

Then he’d sit at a distance of about three feet, just staring at me. No matter how much I wanted to ignore him and fall back to sleep, I could feel those eyes burning a hole in me.

Cats, OTOH, rarely stir from their slumber, save for their occasional aforementioned tears through the house. I loved you, Steve, but I loved my sleep in the dark AM just as much.

Steve the Dog.


Even Disney’s getting into the sports gambling racket. Not terribly long ago, sports gambling was viewed as a vice, even a threat to the moral fiber of our great nation. Now, every major professional sports team is hooking up with a gambling outfit and municipalities all over the country are getting stand-alone bookie joints.

Sports betting blogger Ally Mielnicki writes this month that my new home state of Indiana has an annual online gambling handle of more than $12 billion. Residents of my old home state, Illinois, she writes, have dropped $24 billion on sports betting since legalization in June 2019.

Who’s doing all this betting? Pew Research last September reported one in five adult Americans bet on sports in the past year. In May, ESPN found that 67 percent of young men living on college campuses bet on sports.

ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company. The Evil Empire of American entertainment long had eschewed any connection to gambling, fearing it might taint the company’s wholesome image. Not so anymore. ESPN is tying in with PENN Entertainment, a sports book, in a 10-year, $2 billion deal. The reason Disney’s now okay with this unholy marriage? ESPN hasn’t been holding up its end of the empire’s bottom line.

Back to who’s doing this gambling. As ESPN mentioned, it’s largely young men. Lest we forget, it’s young men on campuses who fill out the rosters of college football and basketball teams, the money trees that U. presidents and trustees shake gleefully. With players likely dropping whatever scratch they have on legalized sports gambling, perhaps even betting on — or against — their own teams, scandal can’t be far behind.

Big scandal. Huge scandal. Scandal that probably will shake college sports to the core.


Walgreen’s, which doesn’t have a location in Bloomington but is in Bedford, Columbus and Martinsville, has come up with a trick to get panhandlers away from its front doors. Locations around the country are broadcasting classical music, including Bach and Rossini, outside the store.

Apparently, panhandlers don’t like it and move on.

The retail pharmacy chain has been doing the classical music thing for more than a year.

I wonder what old Gioachino Rossini would have thought about that, had he been able to see into the future.