Category Archives: Resist

Hot Air: All Clear! Uh, Wait A Minute…

I have never, ever seen both the Paynetown and Cutright accesses to Lake Monroe so packed as they were when I left them a few minutes ago.

The combination of the first really glorious day of the spring — brilliant sunshine, just a few high clouds, and the temp sitting at 78º as of 12:53 pm — with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s announcement yesterday that the state will embark on a five-stage reopening culminating in no restrictions by July Fourth indicated to more people than I could have guessed that the COVID-19 lockdown is dead and gone. It is to be hoped the emphasis will not be on dead.

More. State Road 446 on the way to the lake was jammed to the point where I could imagine I was back on the Kennedy Expressway at 3:00pm on a typical Friday.

And another thing: an unusually large number of boats displayed fluttering American flags on tall poles, some of the craft festooned with two and three big banners. It was reminiscent of the weeks immediate following 9/11 when even non-jingoists like me plastered American flags, decals, and pins on our homes, cars, and — in my case — motorcycles. My conclusion? Scads of Hoosiers see America and freedom a hell of a lot differently than I do.

I hate to be a buzz killer but this morning and afternoon’s revels look to be merely preamble to, perhaps, the mother of all epidemic spikes. We’ll see. I hope I’m wrong.

Not Quite SR 446 [Image: Chicago Tribune]

I’m Innocent, I Tell Ya!

In any case, you may be wondering why I was at the lake. Truth is I’ve been going to the lake pretty much every day since the lockdown began more than six weeks ago. I either drink my coffee and eat my breakfast there, packing my crossword puzzles and whatever book I’m reading at the moment, or I wait until later in the day and go down to watch the sunset. I maintain prudent social distancing, never getting out of the car, and keeping my mask and disinfectant wipes within easy reach all the while. And so it was today: me with my peanut butter (crunchy, natch) and strawberry preserves sandwich and thermos-ful of joe (honey and soy milk added). Today’s book: volume two of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Means of Ascent, covering his time as a Congressguy from Texas’s 10th District. It’s my second run through the tome.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the 1960s gave us three remarkably complex and fascinating characters: LBJ, Richard Nixon, and Bobby Kennedy. The three of them combined enormous strengths with tragi-comic weaknesses. Nobody today even approaches them as compelling characters, not even Li’l Duce, who’s not so much interesting as he is repulsive.

I can’t wait for Caro’s fifth volume, covering the latter years of LBJ’s presidency, to come out. Caro long ago announced he planned to have the book finished and on the street by 2013. The old bird (Caro, that is; he’s 84) is still plugging away on that manuscript. At last report, he was working on Johnson’s shepherding of Medicare and Medicaid through Congress as well as LBJ’s relationship with Bobby Kennedy, a real-life libretto if there ever was one. Shades of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I hate to say it, but I dearly wish Caro…, well, stays alive to complete his opus.

Back to Lake Monroe. I’ve never felt my daily treks there during this COVID crisis were in any way risky, either to myself or others. Nor was today’s jaunt. I remained in the car even as many hundreds around me gathered and gamboled in the sun. Fingers crossed today’s merriment won’t be the Carnival before their dolor.

There. I feel better.

Big Talk

Did you miss Thursday’s Big Talk? No sweat! Here’s the podcast of my interview with Henry Leck, founder of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, world-renowned expert on young people’s voices, and now that he’s retired from the ICC and Butler University, a painter. His work is hanging in the Bloomington Arts Alliance’s ArtBeat gallery in the College Mall, reopening sometime between now and Independence Day.

Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM.

Hot Air: Smart Guys

As I write this, I’m sitting in the waiting area at my auto service place. I won’t be more specific than that.

Out of the couple of dozen people in this building — customer service people, mechanics, customers, and car salespeople — one is wearing a mask. One.

When not selling cars….

In the showroom, through which I have to pass to get to the bathroom (my daily dose of furosemide — generic for Lasix — makes the trek imperative) a group of four guys stands in a circle maintaining prudent social distancing. One of the four is the guy with the mask. They’re talking about — what else? — COVID-19. The three unmasked guys are clearly accomplished and esteemed practitioners of the sciences of immunology, virology, and public health. Each speaks confidently about what’s going on with this pandemic thing.

The numbers show that this is not much of a problem, one says.

Another says the numbers are all wrong; something suspicious is afoot.

A third suggest the numbers may be fudged in order to keep us all in our homes for an unsaid reason, hinted at by the man’s knowing nod. In fact, as preamble to this pronouncement, he begins, “I don’t trust the numbers. Somebody’s cooking them up so they can….” He halts himself. The pregnant pause and looks he bestows on his chat-mates indicates, at least to me, the unspoken coda would be, “sabotage the president.”

As I say, that’s just me, guessing. I’m pretty confident I’ve guessed correctly.

The man with the mask remains silent.

The other three continue, offering advice they’d give to hospital administrators, the mayor, the governor, and frontline health care providers. They really are astute and learned men. Their range of knowledge and expertise is remarkable. And never once do they violate the facility’s social distancing protocols, the rules of which are posted all around the place. As I drove in to the lot, a sign said the people here are providing a safe and respectful destination for those of us who need auto servicing.

Me? I need an oil change. I’ve already put it off to the tune of 800 miles past due. That’s not a terrible abuse of my hot rod’s engine but I need to get up to Indy Sunday for a COVID-19 test. The state has tabbed me for it as part of its efforts to figure out where and how much this virus has infiltrated Indiana. Why me? I’m an at-risk guy on at least three levels. So, yeah, I’ll take the test both for my own peace of mind and to advance the state’s understanding of where we are today and what we ought to do tomorrow.

Or maybe I’ll be wasting my time Sunday. Maybe I should just contact the state and tell them there’s a group of men standing around the showroom here who know this thing inside and out.

Zoom Schmooze

This is Week Two of the great Big Talk experiment using Zoom to record guest appearances on the program. So far, so good. The audio’s been iffy: my guests and I sound like we’re chatting in a giant coffee can but otherwise things are working splendidly.

Last week, author Craig Fehrman talked about his new book, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote. That edition of Big Talk was fab, if I do say so myself. I’m particularly proud of the musical selection I dubbed into the tail end of the show: Frank Sinatra’s 1960 campaign ditty for John F. Kennedy, sung to the tune of “High Hopes.”

“Oops, there goes the opposition ker-plop!” Frank, you may recall, was tight as a drum with JFK, pre-Oval Office. Once Randy Jack attained the White House, he found his association with Sinatra (as well as Sinatra’s pals in the Chicago and New York mobs) a tad — shall we say? — uncomfortable. Next thing Frank knew, his old partying chum wasn’t taking his calls anymore. Frank, to that point a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat, was so insulted he eventually switched parties, going so far as to donate $4 million to Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980.

Anyway, this week my guest on Big Talk is just as compelling as Fehrman was. Henry Leck is the founder of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. He started the project back in 1986 while working on his Master’s degree at Indiana University. Over the decades, Leck has become acclaimed all over the world for his work with kids singing. He’s an acknowledged expert in the field of boys’ changing voices, a particular challenge for teachers and pupils.

If, by chance while channel surfing you happened upon the Super Bowl back in 2012, you’d have seen the ICC back up Kelly Clarkson on the national anthem prior to the start of the game. Leck wrote the score for the performance, a real challenge since Clarkson likes to play around with tempi and phrasing more than most.

All those kids wearing blue shirts behind Clarkson are members of the ICC. Leck describes in loving detail the secretive (the NFL insists, legally) process of writing, rehearsing, recording, and synching that has to be done for big production numbers like this. It’s really fascinating stuff.

[If you’re anything like me, the whole militaristic, jingoist, fetishistic shebang of national anthem performances at the Super Bowl will make your hair stand on end. The USA being No. 1 and flags galore and men in uniform beating drums are stirred together by the NFL for its biggest event of the year as in no other sport, although the other games, too, play it all up to the hilt. Nevertheless, the kids got the thrill of performing in front of 130 million TV watchers. And, jeez, they’re good.]

Henry Leck

Leck’s retired now, both from the ICC and from Butler University where he was an associate professor of music. Since his retirement, he and his wife have relocated to Bloomington and he’s taken up painting. To hear him tell it, he’s painted enough pictures to fill a medium-sized gallery. His work was on display at the Bloomington Arts Alliance new gallery, ArtBeat, at the College Mall when this COVID Fever started. As soon as this lockdown is declared finished, head on over to the gallery and check out Leck’s work as well as loads of stuff by scads of extremely talented and imaginative creators.

Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM. Come back here tomorrow for the podcast link for today’s edition.

Hot Air: Fehrman The Magnificent Sees The Future

I dunno if Craig Fehrman is a medium or a seer or any such spooky-type soul, but more than ten years ago he chose to cite Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (no link, because… do I have to explain?) in his new book, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote.

The Trump presidency was more than six or seven years in the future and about as likely as the prospect of an inhabitant of Uranus coming down to Earth and becoming Commander in Chief. Yet Fehrman included the TV mugger’s ghost-written title in his serious study of presidential tomes. And if you want to find out why and how, you’ll have to listen to yesterday’s Big Talk.

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Here’s the link to the podcast. Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM and each edition is archived online until the Sun explodes into a Red Giant and engulfs the orbit of the Earth. Or some such time before then.

Bleach Boy

Y’know what? We’re all at fault. Somehow we the people of the United States of America elected a man who talks like the falling-down drunk at the end of the bar and we haven’t pitch-forked to son of a bitch out of the Oval Office yet.

Here we are facing the gravest global crisis since AIDS or even since the height of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation seemingly was a pushed button away and this man, this duly elected leader of our holy land, rambles on incoherently about disinfectants and Mexican rapists and grabbing pussies and Rocket Men and Covfefe and “I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!” and…, Jesus H. Christ, somebody wake me up from this bad acid nightmare!

Should we, perchance come November, reelect this pazzo boy-man, this amoral anencephalic, then any horrible, rotten thing that happens to us as a nation will either be our own damned fault or some kind of poetic karmic payback.

Period.

Hot Air: The Write Wing

Which president, noted for being spectacularly close-mouthed, turned out to be a fine and revealing writer? Which president, suspected of being illiterate, became the first Chief Executive to shepherd a bestseller through the thicket of the publishing world?

Did JFK really write two bestselling books, one of which earned him a Pulitzer Prize? I mean really?

Who was the better writer — Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan?

These questions and more can be answered in the pages of Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote. Bloomington’s own Craig Fehrman is the author and he appears on Big Talk today.

That’s right, WFHB news director Kade Young and I have figured out a way to bring new editions of my weekly gabfest (Glabfest?) to the airwaves and the internet. After more than a month of reruns because the WFHB studios are off-limits thanks to COVID Fever, we’ve at last got a new show up and ready to air.

A side note: I used Zoom to interview Craig this week. I was astounded at how easy and intuitive the videotelephony platform is. The sound quality is not quite up to the standard of that produced in a basic radio studio (and, believe me, WFHB’s studios are the very definition of basic — maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable in them) but, hell, tons of people are facing a helluva lot worse problems these days, so why should I moan?

In any case, Fehrman is a journalist, historian, and author who teaches Advanced Sportswriter at Indiana University. About twelve years ago he got hooked on Barack Obama’s books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Both were big sellers and Fehrman got to thinking, What about all the other books written by presidents, both before and after their stints in the Oval Office?

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Penmen

Next thing he knew, Fehrman was embarking on a decade-long project, hunting down the books and the private papers of the 45 presidents (actually, 44; Grover Cleveland, Nos. 22 and 24, gets counted twice) to put together his book. It’s not an encyclopedic listing of all the books ever written by American presidents; that kind of thing would bore Fehrman. Instead, he cherry-picked presidents and books to tell a 231-year tale covering the history of our country’s leaders and changing mores as well as that of the publishing industry and more.

Heck, Craig and I even get into books written by First Ladies and, on that note, I’ll bet you can’t guess which president’s wife wrote the bestselling autobiography/memoir in history.

So, tune in later this afternoon or come back here tomorrow for the link to the podcast. Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM.

Hot Air: Five Steps

The problem is we’ve been waiting for COVID-19 to find us rather than we going out and trying to find it.

Jim Yong Kim

That’s the gist of the strategy urged by a fellow named Jim Yong Kim in an essay he wrote in this week’s edition of The New Yorker. Kim is a decorated veteran of a number of epidemiological wars around the globe. He’s a medical doctor as well as a PhD in anthropology. In the 1990s he co-founded Partners in Health, an international organization formed to halt the spread of disease in underdeveloped countries. Kim has experience in stopping or dramatically slowing the spread of cholera, ebola and tuberculosis in places where the water often runs dirty, when it runs at all. In the ‘Aughts he ran the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS arm. He’s been the chair of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, the president of Dartmouth College, and he even served as the head of the World Bank until last year. The dude has chops.

He’s the kind of person you want to listen to when he pitches a solution to a problem. And COVID-19 is right in his wheelhouse.

Acc’d’g to Kim, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have successfully stemmed the spread of COVID-19 by implementing a rigid and aggressive five-step program. Places like Germany, Australia, and New Zealand also have made remarkable headway against the pandemic by employing that quintet of actions, albeit to a slightly lesser degree of stringency than the aforementioned Asian locales.

I’m going to list the five steps in a bit but first allow me to vent. For pity’s goddamned sake, doing this five-stage thing is so logical, so proven, so necessary, that the fact that this holy land as well as scads of other nations around the world haven’t set it in motion is tantamount to a crime against humanity. Making Kim’s five-step strategy our national strategy would require leadership that’s smart, strong, and compassionate.

I have to concede that the four Asians locations are, to one degree or another, authoritarian, so it was a hell of a lot easier for their leaders to say, Look here, this is what we’re gonna do.

But in war — as President Gag has described the novel coronavirus crisis — even leaders of “free” nations can take extraordinary measures to get the populace and businesses working in concert toward victory. Li’l Duce positions himself as a strong man; here’s his chance to show real strength.

“We’re not going on the offensive,” Kim writes, “taking the fight to the virus and stopping its transmission.” We’re waiting for a miracle, he says. As the pandemic spread across the United States, “it’s seemed like the only thing to do is hunker down, wait, and hope.”

In South Korea, far and away the most successful at containing this virus, “people talk about COVID-19 as if it were a person. Leaders of the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have told me that the virus is sneaky, nasty, and durable — and that it has to be hunted down.”

Finding COVID-19 is just one of the five steps. Here they are:

  1. Social distancing to flatten the curve
  2. Widespread random testing to find who is infected.
  3. Tracking down and testing all those who had contact with infected people.
  4. Isolating all people who test positive and providing full financial support to them, making it more likely they will not violate their quarantine.
  5. Hospitalizing all people whose symptoms require it, utilizing dedicated facilities in hotels, convention centers, warehouses, etc.

In the United States, getting us all aboard on this five-step program would require a president who can wrangle the governors of the 50 states; who can direct certain manufacturers to immediately gear up to produce tens of millions of testing kits and PPE; and who’ll persuade pharmaceutical companies to repurpose their labs to process all those test results. In war, that’s what you do. You get automakers to manufacture Jeeps and tanks.

Now’s Your Chance, Generalissimo.

In this country, we need to give quarantined people the ability to stock the refrigerator, pay the rent, and keep the utilities on. You’ve got to give them the dough to stand them through weeks of isolation and the inability to work. And you’ve got to give them hope.

All this would be a monumental task for any president of a nation, many of whose citizens fetishize self-sufficiency and are fearful to the point of pathology of big government. Nevertheless, a game attempt to implement this program ought to be the president’s highest priority. He might not be as successful as the leader of Singapore, a man who can pretty much snap his fingers and make a program go, but, hell, it was P. Gag who fancied himself a wartime president the other week.

Alright then, now get out there and deliver, baby.

 

Hot Air: Frustration? Sure.

I don’t sympathize much with the hordes of folks gathering on the steps of statehouses or in front of governors’ mansions protesting the various state lockdowns and insisting the COVID-19 crisis is really some sort of wild conspiracy being carried out by tyrants. It’s impossible to feel any kinship with people who parade around with guns, blame everything on libruls, and pledge fealty to the lunkhead in the White House.

(Jeremy Hogan, as usual, did a bang up job covering the protest in front of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s residence yesterday. Go there for it and more local news. And, please, support Jeremy and The Bloomingtonian!)

Indianapolis, Sunday [Image: Jeremy Hogan]

Odd isn’t it, that these people see plots to take over their states and their lives and strip them of their precious shootin’ irons when, more often than not, for the last few decades both houses of Congress, the US Supreme Court, the majority of statehouses, and the Oval Office have been in the hands of the party that they gravitate toward. For pity’s sake, their guys have been in power, mostly, and yet they scream and shriek as if they’re the Uyghurs of China. But that’s a mystery for another day.

Even odder still, as someone pointed out on social media, a lot of these protesters have been prepping for doomsday epidemics, invasions, and commie takeovers for decades now and — wouldn’t you know it? — the first moment a pandemic strikes they’re all shrieking and crying about how it ain’t so.

Mistake No. 1: assuming loons of this sort hew to the basics of logic.

Back in the first graf of this entry, I qualified my premise with the adjective “much.” That’s because despite the fact that the protesters pretty much represent everything abhorrent to me in this 21st Century holy land, I do get their frustration. I’m feeling it too. I’ve been cooped up in Chez Big Mike for more than five weeks now with The Loved One (she, I’m certain, has a different monicker for our stately manor) and although neither of us has yet begun to gaze longingly at the cutlery when the other is in the room, there does exist, shall we say, a tad of strain suffusing through the household.

Mark it up to not being able to talk to anybody other than each other, Terra the Cat and Sally the Dog. TLO’s and my conversations can be engrossing, sure, but, as myth has Groucho Marx famously stating, “I love my cigar but….”

I desperately need some alternative human contact and, fortunately, a friend dropped by Saturday afternoon. We chatted in our lawn chairs on my driveway for two hours in the sunshine and at a prudent remove from each other. That was as welcome a dose of medicine as any I’ve had in ages.

That is except for the fact that I got myself a raging case of sunburn on my head, face, and lower legs, so much so that I was made fairly delirious by it for at least a good 24 hours post-exposure.

In any case, yeah, I’m itching to get out into something resembling the world I was living in a mere month and a half ago, a world filled with friends, acquaintances, shop clerks, librarians, pedestrians, drivers who cut me off, and all my other fellow human beings on this planet. And I want to rant and rave and shake my fist, blaming somebody for my encagement.

So I’m not completely baffled by the protesters’ rage. Just by them.

What Do We Know About The Sun?

I mentioned my agonizing sunburn up above. That’s what happens when you live in the Midwest and the sun comes out once or twice a month. You rush outside and bask in it, forgetting that it’s a ball of flames some 864.938 miles in diameter fed by a nuclear furnace whose emanations can turn any of our heretofore harmless skin cells into raging melanomas.

Honestly, as I sat roasting in the sun, all I could think of was how happy I was to discover the actual color of our earthly sky is blue and marveling at the Georgia O’Keeffe clouds flitting by, driven by a brisk breeze. After a couple of hours, I was inordinately happy — and burnt to a cinder.

If I were to admit to any one regret in my life, it’s that I’ve lived it solely in the Midwest, the states of Illinois, Kentucky, and Indiana, inclusive. Why I never relocated to the Pacific coast with its mountains, ocean shores, redwood forests, Big Sur, caldera lakes, palm trees, mighty bridges, bright colors, and warm winters is yet another mystery I’m incapable of divining.

I almost made it in the early summer of 1974 when, fresh out of high school, I jumped into an old heap with an friend and struck out for San Francisco, visions of the Summer of Love dancing in my mind (even though the Haight-Ashbury of my fantasy by that year was long gone, replaced by a hellscape of heroin addiction). My friend and I got as far as the near edge of the Great Basin on Interstate 80. In the middle of the night as we approached the Utah-Wyoming border, I pulled the car over because I was feeling drowsy and the next thing either of us knew, a nodding driver slammed into our rear end at 75 miles per hour, sending us down a ravine and into the hospital and the heap to its well-deserved final resting place, a car compactor.

We never made it to the Haight-Ashbury, likely a stroke of luck for me, aimless and impressionable as I was at 18, but in the long run it sentenced me to a lifetime of harsh winters, endless stretches of overcast days, flat lands, and a nagging sense of what-if.

And the worst goddamned case of sunburn I’ve ever experienced in my life because, for pity’s sake, we Midwesterners too often forget the sun is a singeing, searing, broiling ball of fire.

Inside Dope

The Hill and others report that Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney, is busy writing “a tell-all book.”

Cohen

Acc’d’g to The Hill article, Cohen aims to have the book published by the November election. And sez comedian Tom Arnold, who’s his friend, “He’s pissed.” Arnold claims Cohen promises “to spill the beans.”

Lots of folks who loathe this presidency will be rubbing their hands together in glee. My advice to them? Chill, babies. Even if Cohen swears on a stack of Bibles that he once saw Trump stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, just for the sport of it, none in Li’l Duce‘s base will be swayed. Recall, if you will, the kicker of Trump’s boast to that effect: he “wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible!”

It sure is. Everything and anything about this presidency has been incredible. Hell, Donald Trump is the very dictionary definition of incredible, as long as we agree that the word means, “too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.” *

[ * From Merriam-Webster. ]

Mangia, Southeast Asian Style

Everybody’s cooking nowadays. I’ve been doing it since I was a late teenager. Hell, I’ve been making homemade bread since at least 1980.

For you newbies to the kitchen, I’ve got a nice little recipe for pad thai. I whipped this dish up Saturday night and am enjoying leftovers still. All the ingredients usually are available at Kroger or, if you’re of the ilk, at Bloomingfoods or Fresh Thyme. Here goes:

Big Mike’s Pad Thai

INGREDIENTS
  • 8 oz. Flat rice noodles
  • 3 oz. Vegetable oil
  • 3 Cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 oz. Salad shrimp, chicken or tofu, diced as needed
  • 2 Eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup Bean sprouts
  • 1 Red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 3 Green onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup Dry roasted peanuts, chopped
  • 2 Limes, wedged
  • 1/2 cup Fresh cilantro, chopped
SAUCE
  • 3 tablespoons Fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoos Light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Creamy peanut butter
DIRECTIONS

Boil the noodles per the package directions, until just tender. Rinse under cold water. Set aside. Mix sauce ingredients together. Set aside. Mix the sauce ingredients well. Set aside. Heat half the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meat, garlic and bell pepper. (Cook the shrimp about 2 minutes; the chicken 3-4 minutes.)

Push all cooked ingredients to the side of the skillet. Add more oil and cook the beaten eggs in it, breaking them up with your spatula as they cook.

Add the noodles, sauce, sprouts, and peanuts. Toss well to mix thoroughly. Top with cilantro, the remaining peanuts, green onions and squeezes of lime.

Eat.

If you’re lucky, I’ll give you my recipe for my own potatoes, ham, cheddar, and broccoli au gratin the next time I post here.

These are treats for special days so, as a rule, remember Michael Pollan‘s haiku-ish injunction:

Eat food.

Mostly plants.

Not too much.

Every once in a great while I even follow his lead.

Hot Air: A Life Or Death Question

I’ve been thinking a lot about death these last few weeks as, I suppose, many of you have.

At my age, musing on the final curtain becomes sort of a hobby, inasmuch as the realization has set in that fully three-quarters of my life is in the past, if I’m at all lucky. If my (grandly optimistic) estimate is correct, that would mean the time allotted to me on this planet would bring me to the age of 85, give or take a few weeks. Fingers crossed I’ll be here until the year 2041, my grand exit coming sometime in the late spring of that annum. Cool — that means I’ll get to see flying cars and vacation trips to the Moon and….

Wait a minute. Those were the prognostications of the 1960s for the year 2000, which we all know passed sans cars with wings. Hell, even trips to the Moon enjoyed by daring astronauts had long been scratched by then due to ennui and bean-counterism.

In any case, whatever 2041 holds, I just may be around to see it. Still, the prospect of a couple more decades of respiration seems a modest — terrifyingly so — aspiration. Hell, when I was 15, I knew deep in my heart I was going to live at least until the year 3535, when we’d be traveling the universe via wormholes, and arranging lunch dates with god, Albert Einstein, and Ava Gardner.

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Where Do You Wanna Go? Club Lago? Okay, Club Lago.

In our youth, we know we’ll live forever, or something close to it. All those olds walking around? The damn fools; they let themselves get old! Not me. I’m active. I can eat and drink and bonk from morning to morning and still find a way to get up for work. Dying’s what happens to other people.

Then, suddenly, we look in the mirror and see that old goat looking back. Golly! Did I let myself get that way?

So now, rather than another millennium and a half in front of me, there’s — at best — a scant twenty or so years, if all goes well with my body and among my species-mates. Yikes.

Yeah, death. It’s coming. And the truth is I’ve sat in my recliner and started cold sweating on any number of occasions late at night, wondering if this goddamned COVID-19 thing is going to rub me out. Sometimes I shake my head and successfully move on to another train of thought and sometimes I can shake the coconut like a bobble-head doll and still I obsess over the End of Me.

Wouldn’t you know it? I’m of two minds when it comes to the final countdown. Just as I entertain contradictory feelings about the whole of the human race (I both love it and hate it), I find I’m torn between two polar positions re: death.

On the one hand, my last breath is the absolutely, positively, incontrovertibly most terrifying thought ever to run through my mind. Honest, my skin turns cold. The hairs on my arms stand straight up. Miscellaneous orifices either open or close in direct opposition to their intended states.

I want to gnash my teeth and moan, Why does this all have to end?

Then again, just as often I lament, When is all this shit finally gonna end?

Funny thing is, I consider both my attitudes toward humanity and mortality to be about as healthy as they can possibly be. Those who profess to love all people unconditionally are either blind as bats or have drunk some mighty powerful Kool-Aid. Same with those who swear up and down that life is precious and wonderful and dear god in heaven never take me away from this paradise.

Life is indeed precious and wonderful…, now and then. I do love all people…, occasionally. Yet there are often physical and emotional pains beyond endurance that cause us to wish for a quick exit. And there are monstrous jerks walking among us about whom we rightfully think, Y’know, if he got hit by a speeding truck right about now….

I’ve always been puzzled by people who say they love the changing of the seasons, that the dead of winter makes them appreciate spring and summer all the more. My retort to them always has been, That’s like saying I hope I get sentenced to ten years in prison so when my release date rolls around I’ll be happy as a pig in the mud.

But the truth is it’s the roller coaster, the crazy line graph of life that forces us to appreciate the good, the beautiful, the sublime. Just as you can’t really know what makes a great play or song or movie or book w/o partaking of awful examples of the same, the secret to understanding happiness — or at least contentment — is to have suffered, either profoundly or somewhat.

Am I suffering right now? I don’t want to go that far. I’ve seen the meme about what Anne Frank had to endure and been resentful of the intended sentiment — for pity’s sake, we don’t all have to be subjected to the worst horrors humans can visit upon one another before we’re given license to complain, yet I’ve realized our current enforced grounding isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened. But it is an ordeal.

Some, like The Loved One and others who identify with the personality type Susan Cain wrote about in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, are reveling in the solitude, in the absence of the challenges of other people.

Me? I feel like I’m starving for human company. I went to the Kroger to stock up this past Friday. The first person I encountered, in the produce section, made eye contact with me. I nodded and smiled (although I doubt she noticed that, what with my mask on) and said, “It feels great just to see people.”

“Isn’t it the truth?” she replied, surely smiling underneath her mask. I felt warm and squishy for the next couple of hours. I’ll bet she did too.

I was thrilled to be alive, at least for those few short hours.

 

Hot Air: Overload

I like to think I started becoming a citizen of the world in 1967. By that I mean that year, at the age of eleven I found myself entranced by the goings on outside of my home and the block where I played with my friends. I began reading the Chicago Sun-Times every day and the Sun-Times and the Chicago American on Sundays. Both were Democratic newspapers. My parents wouldn’t think of letting the Tribune into our house. That paper was for the bankers and lawyers and other swells of suburban Oak Park, just across North Avenue from us but in truth about six million miles distant in every other way.

I also began paying attention to the nightly news. In those days, the networks ran a world news report each weekday at 6 or so. The local news came on at 10 o’clock. The names I’d caught out of the corner of my ear in years previous — Mayor Daley, R. Sargent Shriver, Nguyên Kao Ky, and Charles DeGaulle — became fully realized three-dimensional figures to me, as opposed to simply words I’d hear issuing from the mouths of Huntley & Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, or, closer to home, Channel 7’s Fahey Flynn.

It’s possible for me to even pinpoint the date I became a news junkie. Or, more accurately, the month. It would be January. Within a span of eleven days that month, three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — died in a flash launchpad fire as they sat in their Apollo 1 capsule and rehearsed for their scheduled liftoff in February, and McCormick Place, the largest convention hall in the world at the time — a trivial datum the city crowed about ad nauseum — was consumed by a spectacular fire and essentially groaned, twisted and crumbled to the ground, creating a horrible eyesore on Chicago’s lakefront.

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Being eleven years old, I had begun to view astronauts not only as mystical, fantastical hero cowboys, but as human beings brave enough to climb on top of a several-hundred-feet-tall can of explosive fuel and be launched into the vacuum of space. I’d been especially taken by Gus Grissom, who, it was well-publicized, was a short man, barely qualified by height to be an astronaut. For some reason I though it was the coolest thing in the world that such a little guy could move so surely and freely among giants. Also being the age I was, I bought into the City of Chicago’s incessant boasting about the largest this, the biggest that, or the busiest whatever. There were Buckingham Fountain, O’Hare airport, the Dan Ryan Expressway, McCormick Place, and so many more. The fact that I lived in a city that contained so many superlative things made me feel…, well, bigger.

The deaths of the astronauts and the destruction of McCormick Place got me into what would become a nearly life-long habit of devouring all the news I could find. I gobbled up everything about the Apollo tragedy. I read about McCormick Place and studied newspaper pictures of the collapsed hulk every time a new one came out. I was baffled that such seemingly eternal institutions (to my young mind) could disappear in the snap of a finger.

From there, I became a constant consumer of news about Vietnam, civil rights, the Cubs (who, that year, had awakened from a dreadful two-decade slumber), and elections of any and all sorts. My newfound passion for news spiked the next year when the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive, and the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo all took place in January and, in succeeding months, Lyndon Johnson quit the race for president, and first King and then Kennedy were killed. There were riots, trips around the Moon, sit-ins and campus takeovers, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their black-gloved fists at the Mexico City Olympics, the French taking to the streets, jetliners being hijacked, and even the premier of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in and the ascendance of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to keep me glued to the papers and the TV news.

And so things remained for the next 30 or so years, during which tons of things happened in my city, in my nation, and in my world, things I had to keep abreast of, things that drew me in and kept me riveted. Reagan getting shot. Iran-Contra. Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. The fall of the Soviet Union. The Gulf War. Oklahoma City. The space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. And then, the mother of all news — 9/11.

But by September 2001 I had started to break away from my heretofore insatiable hunger for news. Some time around the the mid-’90s, I came to the conclusion that watching TV news made me more nervous than informed. Everything and everybody, it seemed, was out to get me. Babies by the thousands were being kidnapped and sacrificed in satanic rituals. Just thinking about sex could infect me with the AIDS virus. A mob of crack addicts milled around my house, waiting for the first chance to get in, steal everything, and kill me for the lark of it. North Koreans wanted me dead. Iranians wanted me dead. Iraqis wanted me dead. Bacteria on my dish sponge wanted me dead. Unfailingly, I felt edgy to the point of distraction after every TV news broadcast.

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Be Afraid. Be Very, Very Afraid.

So I simply decided to forego TV news. Simple as that. While I was at it, I got rid of my TV as well. Well, not actually. I just gave up cable and used my ridiculously bulky TV set solely for videotapes and then DVDs. Truth: I felt better immediately.

I was in no way less informed. I kept up with every event and development through the newspapers and online. Reading about the happenings of the world is far less stressful than being constantly confronted with lurid pix of every bombing, every mad rapist/murderer, every molecule of bad cholesterol out to eliminate me.

As Marshall McLuhan famously remarked, “The medium is the message.” And the TV medium works best when it excites the senses, when it scares you. The message of TV has always been, Be terrified. The more frightened you are, the more likely you’ll tune in at 10 to see what’s next.

That was then. Now, we get our news almost exclusively online. And during these terrifying pandemic days, pretty much all the news is COVID-19. People are dying. It’s getting worse by the day. This rock star has the disease. That actor has died from it. The Rock urges us to wash our hands. Basketball stars are having trouble staying in shape with their season on hold. Churchgoers say the blood of Jesus will protect them from the virus.

All COVID-19, all the time.

Now, the other shoe is dropping. I have quit the news, period. COVID-19 is a clear and present danger. It could kill me. I accept that and have agreed to follow all social distancing and disinfection rules. The greatest medical experts in the world are just now coming to some understanding of what this thing is, why it kills some and not others, how it jumps from person to person, yet there is still so much to learn. So much that is a mystery even to people who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of viruses and public health.

I needn’t keep up with every incremental advance in the total knowledge pool. Lots of so-called advances are merely guesses, stabs in the dark. Lots are the speculations of people who have no business doing the speculating. At some point in the as yet unseen future, I’ll be happy to read about what the world’s scientists know about this virus.

Now, no.

I’m out, and feeling better about it already.

Hot Air: Books (And One Or Two Other Things) Will Save Us

Tons o’folks are in the running for the title of Madame-or-Mister Bloomington. I can name at least a dozen off the top of my head. One of my faves is my pal David Brent Johnson, jazz maven over at WFIU, 103.7 FM.

He and I just exchanged book rec’s. It seems appropriate since the whole world is stuck inside trying to figure out how to pass the 103 hours of every day now. Loads of ’em are buying books. Margaret Taylor, the big boss at the Book Corner, tells me the phone is ringing off the hook with calls from people living all over the country wanting to order books. She takes the orders and ships the desired titles out in minutes. That’s cool, considering not too terribly long ago many observers were singing dirges for independent booksellers. Then, about five or so years ago, the indies became hot as Dragon’s Breath Chili Peppers. See, scads of people didn’t want to enrich the already far-too-loaded Jeff Bezos and plutocratic villains like him by ordering from big box outfits and online mega-retailers.

For more on the mini-mania for independent booksellers, check out this piece.

And if you’re curious about the Dragon’s Breath Chili Pepper, as my next door Tom is sure to be, it was developed by a hobby gardener in Wales (who’d’a thunk?) and has a Scoville Heat Unit rating of 2.48 million (that’s right, million). The damned thing is so hot it actually burns human skin. The gardener, a fellow named Mike Smith, apparently is the Dr. Frankenstein of tongue-frying inasmuch as his peppers are too hot to actually eat. They’re so hot that medical researchers are looking into using carefully — very carefully — measured quantities of their volcanic molecules as a topical anesthetic. Just the right dosage, they hope, will deaden the skin nerves for people who are allergic to conventional anesthetics.

The Hottest Pepper On Earth.

Back to DBJ and me. Both of us are voracious readers under normal circumstances — and these, of course, are not. I just got finished re-reading The Third Man, the novella by Graham Greene. And if you’ve never seen the 1949 film noir of the same name and directed by Carol Reed, friend, get on it this minute. The movie, starring Orson Wells, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and the Italian actress Alida Valli, is a masterpiece. The late film critic Roger Ebert said of it: “Of all the movies that I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”

The British Film Institute declared it the top UK film ever made in 1999.

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There are so many bits of fascinating trivia surrounding this movie. The screenplay was written by Greene himself. He actually wrote the novella as a warm-up to penning the script. He explains his thinking:

To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script…. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.

Welles whose character, the shady Harry Lime — we learn at the start of the movie — is dead perhaps murdered. In a flashback he delivers one of the most memorable lines in cinema. He and his friend, the pulp fiction author Holly Martins (played by Cotten) are on top of the giant Ferris wheel in Vienna’s historic amusement park, The Prater, looking down at all the people below. Lime regards them as ants or insignificant dots because that’s the kind of person he is. Lime and Martins descend and get off the ride. For some reason, both Reed and Greene felt something more was needed to be said, both for tempo and for closure to the scene. Welles ad libbed this:

You know what the fellow said. In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love in 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.

That line, of course, was not in the novella or the screenplay. Nor was it of Welles’ own creation. He’d simply recalled a similar line uttered by the Gilded Age painter James Whistler (whose “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1” is more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother”). Fellow painter Theodore Wores once said to Whistler that San Francisco surely would become one of the world’s great birthplaces of art, considering the natural beauty in and around it. Whistler would have none of it. He said:

Consider Switzerland. There the people have everything in the form of natural advantages — mountains, valleys, and blue sky. And what have they produced? The cuckoo clock.

Acc’d’g to Welles in the book This Is Orson Welles, after the movie came out he was flooded with protests by Swiss people. They told him the cuckoo clock actually was made in southwest Germany’s Black Forest.

When you watch The Third Man, you may notice the entire musical score is performed on a single instrument, the zither. The score was written by an amateur zither player named Anton Karas, an Austrian. While touring Vienna in preparation for shooting location scenes, Reed dropped in at a wine bar and heard Karas playing in a corner. Just like that, he asked Karas to score his film. Karas told Reed he didn’t even know how to write music. Reed said that didn’t matter and insisted Karas come back to England with him to write the music for his film. Karas did so under protest.

In any case, the final shot of the movie, set in a cold, lonely cemetery, ends with Valli’s character, Anna Schmidt (Lime’s girlfriend) walking briskly away from Lime’s grave as the casket is being lowered into the ground. Martins, who is attracted to her for a couple of reasons (watch the movie to find out) stands at the entrance to the cemetery, expecting her to acknowledge him. But Schmidt, staring icily ahead, ignores him and walks out as the lonely-sounding zither music (“Harry Lime’s Theme”) continues to play for a long moment. It’s one of the simultaneously sweetest and saddest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Greene’s novella, by the way, opens with this line: “One never knows when the blow may fall.” That’s as apt a line as any for the moment we live in right now.

Okay. So book rec’s. DBJ urged me to read 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan. In it, Kaplan argues America, along with much of the world, leaped into the modern age. As evidence he cites that year’s invention of the microchip; Castro’s revolutionaries seizing power in Cuba; the launches of the USSR’s Lunik 1 and the USA’s Pioneer IV (the first human-made objects to break free of the Earth’s gravity and soar into outer space); IBM’s introduction of the first practical, affordable business computer; Martin Luther King, Jr’s visit to Ghandi’s pacifist disciple, Vinoba Bhave, in India; the federal government acknowledging widespread institutionalized racism in the United States; in music, groundbreaking jazz LPs issued by Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman; in literature, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, as well as John Howard Griffin beginning to travel the south disguised as a black man for his exposé Black Like Me; in movies, the American releases of John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”; the Searle company’s application for approval of the first birth control pill; and much, much more. All of these events profoundly changed their respective fields or participants or culture and society in general. It’s a good read.

In return, I rec’d to him Erik Larson‘s new book, The Splendid and the Vile. It’s about Winston Churchill’s first year as British prime minister. The cover note explains:

On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally — and willing to fight to the end.

I understand from reading other World War II histories that Hitler was baffled that Great Britain would not come to the bargaining table despite the bombing, despite Dunkirk, and despite the fall of virtually every other domino in Western Europe. The Nazi leader didn’t really want to invade England — in fact, he rather admired both that country and the United States for their supremacist bents — but invasion seemed an inevitability after Churchill essentially hand-held the British people to resist the Germans to whatever end, bitter or not.

I just got my copy of Larson’s latest in the mail and I can’t wait to dig into it. Most people know Larson as the author of The Devil in the White City but I was particularly taken by his In the Garden of Beasts. The man is a superb historian and storyteller, so much so that many readers think his books are novels. They are not; every single one is a nonfiction history, based on contemporary accounts, archives, records, journals, other histories, and the private and published papers of each book’s characters. In fact, I’ve had several arguments with people who swear Larsen’s books are fiction. Again, they aren’t; they’re that good.

Reading’s going to get us through these homebound days. I had good preparation for this when I underwent chemoradiation therapy for cancer in 2016. To get through that ordeal, I simply refused to think about today — this moment, when I was sick to my core and unable to move from bed or couch — and thought only of a day in June, months hence, at which point I’d be able to…, well, move again. I got through it; not easily, by a long shot, but nevertheless successfully. And I feel I — we — will get through this too.

This time I have the added hope that none of us lose even one friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor. That’s why I’ve been signing off my emails of late with this entreaty:

Please don’t get sick and die.

That’s all I ask right now.

Hot Air: The Primest Of Primates

Here’s Jane Goodall on the COVID-19 crisis:

[ h/t to Renaldo Migaldi for this. ]

Goodall raises a point not many of us have considered during this mess. Lots of these dangerous viruses arise from wild animals — specifically, humans hunting, trafficking in, and eating them. Acc’d’g to Goodall, China has banned the importing, breeding, and selling of wild animals for food across the nation in response to COVID-19. She says the novel coronavirus may well have arisen from the selling of a pangolin, or scaly anteater, in the “wet market” in Wuhan. Wet markets are collections of open-air stalls where live wild animals are sold for food in China.

Goodall & Pal.

Wild animals develop immunities to microorganisms that we may not (and vice versa). So any virus or similar bug that jumps from another species to us (or, again, vice versa) might well be dangerous or even fatal.

Jane Goodall is the long-time primatologist and anthropologist. She’s been known as an ace in the primate field since she started studying chimps in Tanzania some 60 years ago. She was 26 years old when she first traveled to what was then regarded as a savage, dangerous place. (Most of the world’s view of Africa was informed by Tarzan movies.) She sure as hell had a lot more guts than I ever would at any age.

The story goes that as a little kid, Goodall was given a stuffed chimp rather than a teddy bear. Apparently, she still keeps that stuffed chimp in her bedroom.

Anyway, Goodall is known around the world and has been named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. BTW: the UN Messenger of Peace designation, initiated in 1997, originally was a part of the UNICEF goodwill ambassadors program. And the very first UN goodwill ambassador was… Danny Kaye.

Danny Kaye, Time Magazine’s March 11, 1946 Coverboy.

Just another example of fun stuff you can discover while looking something else up.

10-Year-Old Oatmeal

The guy who writes and draws The Oatmeal recently marked his 10th anniversary putting out that fabulously funny website. His name is Matthew Inman. He lives in Seattle and, acc’d’g to a 2012 story in The Guardian, he raked in a half million bucks a year from it, a wad he richly deserves.

His takes on the relationships between dogs and people, as well as those between dogs and cats, are inspired.

In any case, as an anniversary gift to his loyal readers — and I sure as hell am one — he’s drawn up a list of ten (well, sorta ten) things he learned about making art in the past decade.

At least three times a week I make sure I don’t go to bed w/o clicking the Random button a few times on his comics page.

The World In A Roll

This is from a fellow named Mike DiGioia, with whom I used to work at a an artsy little magazine called Third Coast. It was a weird operation and people came and went like browsers at a resale shop. On a positive note I did get to be able to write a piece for it on the original Kartemquin Films boys who produced and directed the acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, though, so it wasn’t a total loss. Mike was pretty cool — he found a big stray dog and named it Joe — but otherwise it was a forgettable experience.

Anyway, here’s his take on the Great TP Wars and how they relate, surprisingly (or not), to what our world’s economic system has become:

There’s a finite amount of toilet paper at any given time, yet it’s enough for all of us. A minority of people bought it all up and are hoarding it and now the rest of us are looking at empty shelves. Now just scale that up to everything and that should help you understand our society in general.

Yep, That about sizes it up.

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