Hot Air: Myth America

On the mornings when I’m driving up to Indy to do my writing and audio editing at the big central library on St. Clair St. at the north end of the city’s charming mall*, I listen to Chicago sports talk radio. It’s one of my guilty pleasures, of which I have some twenty-three or twenty-four hundred.

This being the morning after the Oscars™ presentation, the conversation turned to last night’s big winners, including The Green Book, Olivia Coleman, and Spike Lee. Naturally, talk turned to what the radio hosts thought was the greatest sports picture of all time. They mentioned the Rocky series, Hoosiers, and a few others. At no time did either mention what I consider to be the greatest sports movie ever made, Raging Bull. They settled on the original Rocky (1977) as their consensus choice.

It occurred to me that the first Rocky and Raging Bull represent opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum. One is pure myth; the other, a slide into the gutter. Rocky can be compared to the works of, say, Norman Rockwell while Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece is right out of the same creative school to which Diane Arbus, Weegee, James Baldwin, and Nelson Algren no doubt made alumni contributions.

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At which point in my musings I hit upon the idea that Rocky is perhaps the most American of films. Rocky, again, is pure myth: the unheralded, unlettered everyman works hard, keeps the faith, and believes in himself enough to beat the heavyweight champion of the world. The world he lived in was chock-full of angelic, simple folk, helpers, supporters — mensches, they’d be called in certain other ‘hoods. It’s all pure baloney, of course, but my point is so is the American ideal.

Look at Thomas Jefferson’s first “self-evident” truth in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” It’s a beautiful, stunning, revolutionary concept, something that’d never before been advanced by people in charge of a government, be it an empire or a breakaway set of colonies. The reason the line itself is so quintessentially American is that it aims for the stars. It sets a goal so high that it’s almost impossible to achieve. Yet it’s as full of shit as a goose chained up and force-fed so it’s liver can be harvested for pâté de foie gras.

Here we are, 243 years after Jefferson (a slave-holder) penned those words and only within the last, oh, 45 minutes have Blacks, Native Americans, women, and whatever is the latest despised group of ethnic immigrants even caught a faint whiff of equality to white men. At best, we’re a good hundred years from dark-skinned and XX-chromosome-bearing fellow members of our benighted species achieving legal, economic, and societal parity with the genetic lottery-winning individuals who run the show.

Raging Bull showed us what life was really like among the hard-scrabble tough guys of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s lower east side New York Italian neighborhoods. Life there was brutal and sweaty, unfair, terrifying, and crushing. Only people with superhuman desire and the good fortune to be born with nearly-impossibly rare superior athleticism could escape it and even if one or two could, they’d be scarred so deeply they were incapable of truly thriving in the wider world. That’s what life is like when a person grows up in a slum with its laughable schools, its food deserts, its street gangs, and its almost bestial pressures.

No, Raging Bull wasn’t a typical American film at all. We Americans like…, nay, love, to pretend the world it portrayed doesn’t exist.

In keeping with the film motif here, let me call out a line from another great movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

That’s America.

[ * I use mall here in its originally intended definition: to signify a landscaped promenade, much like the National Mall in Washington, DC and, prior to that, the Westminster Mall in London, where the game pall-mall, a croquet precursor, was played in the 16th & 17th centuries. ]

No News Is Bad News

Perry [Image: Chris Howell/Herald-Times]

New Herald-Times editor J.J. Perry has a hell of a problem to solve. USA Today is ceasing publication of its national news inserts that have been carried by the HT, the Indy Star, and gobs of other newspapers around the country.

So now, even as local coverage is being carried out by a skeleton staff, the H-T brain trust must figure out a way to convey to us the news occurring outside our comfortable little hollow of Indiana. Perry said in an editorial yesterday that the paper “will again feature national, international and business news from the Associated Press and other syndicates.”

But, hell, even that’ll take humanpower, something the newspaper industry these days is standing on its head to make go away.

The big fear in these parts is our venerable local paper will soon evolve into a dollar-a-copy compendium of high school sports stories and Royal South Toyota and Drs. Don & Lisa Baker ads.

The news? Pshaw, that’s what Facebook and Twitter are for.

Unopposed

God forbid I should ever reveal which well-known political figure in this town whispered the following into my ear:

I’m glad so many people are challenging the incumbents in Bloomington this year. But it’s ironic the two who should be challenged aren’t.

Check out the Herald Times‘ list of primary candidates here. And keep in mind I’m featuring as many city council challengers as possible between now and the May 7th primary on my weekly WFHB interview show, Big Talk.

Hot Air: Bold Gossip, Rookie Pols & Hard Candy

Impeachable Sources?

You may not care that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was busted today on charges that he solicited and paid for sex at a South Florida massage parlor. Normally, the story would be just another soon-to-be forgotten item in our daily diet of salacious gossip.

But NFL beat writer Adam Schefter was quoted in Tyler Lauletta’s Business Insider story about the indictment and his revelation is positively nine-months pregnant with suspense, to wit:

“There are people down there in that area, I’m told, who say this story is going to heat up and get a lot worse,” Schefter said, adding, “I’m also told that Robert Kraft is not the biggest name involved down there in South Florida.

Schefter didn’t hint at who the bigger name could be, or why police would be willing to name Kraft but not that person. But given the wide-ranging scope of the investigation, more information about it is likely to become public soon.

Speaking of investigations about which more info is likely to become public soon….

Need another hint? Take a wild guess who else — whose name these days is much bigger than Kraft’s — lives much of the time in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Newbies

Yesterday’s was episode No. 1 in my Big Talk series of interviews with selected candidates for Bloomington city council this primary season.

Attorney and nonprofit veteran Kate Rosenbarger was my first guest in the series. She’s a first-time political candidate who’s challenging long-time incumbent Chris Sturbaum in District 1. Go here for the podcast.

Former Bloomington czarina of the arts Miah Michaelsen joined me in the studio this afternoon. She, too, is a novice elective office-seeker. Similarly, she’s aiming to knock off a long-time incumbent, Dave Rollo in District 4. I’ll air the Miah interview Thursday, February 28th, at 5:30pm, immediately following the Daily Local News on WFHB, 91.3 FM.

A Bland New Beat

O babies, ya gotta see these. Some guy has created a YouTube channel featuring raw video clips from real music…, um, videos.

That is, the visuals that were shot before the music audio was added.

Betcha didn’t know Mick Jagger belched in David Bowie’s face in the “Dancin’ in the Street” video!

Easy Goin’ Down

Are you depressed yet about the state of toxic masculinity in this holy land? If not, try catching just a few minutes of sports talk radio. Guys, if one might judge by the demographic that has to hear about jocks all day long, are interested in buying their wives and girlfriends pretty much only teddy bears, diamond rings, and easy-to-slip-out-of PJs.

For themselves? Easy. Boner pills. Well, not pills, exactly. They’re, apparently, too hard to swallow.

Fits Right In Your Wallet!

No, Murrican guys need Blue Chew. Yep. Chewable ersatz Viagra. Bleu Chew’s slogan: Chew it and do it. Swear to god.

Hot Air: Talking Politics

Don’t miss today’s edition of Big Talk. This’ll be the first in my series of chats with candidates for Bloomington city council. The primary is Tuesday, May 7th; the general election, Tuesday, November 5th.

Rosenbarger

This week’s guest will be attorney and nonprofit veteran Kate Rosenbarger. She’s now the very first executive director of TEDx Bloomington and has served as an analyst for NeighborWorks America, a federally-funded organization that advocates for and facilitates affordable housing and neighborhood development.

This is Kate’s first go-round as a candidate although she has participated in seven previous campaigns for other people, going back to Baron Hill‘s 2002 bid for reelection to the United States Congress. She served as Liz Watson‘s deputy campaign manager last year.

Kate’s trying to unseat long-time incumbent Chris Sturbaum for the council 1st District seat, a mighty challenge indeed for her.

Already slated for Big Talk in the coming weeks are Miah Michaelson and Andrew Guenther.

With only 10 weeks to go before the May primary, I won’t be able to feature all the candidates for the council so I’ll have to cherry-pick those I think are most interesting. My thinking right now is I won’t invite incumbents on because, well…, their actions in office already are a matter of public record. If you want to learn about them, pick up the Herald Times or listen to WFHB’s Daily Local News at 5.

Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM. I’ll post today’s podcast at 6:00pm and give you the link here, tomorrow morning.

Opine & Condemn

Sticking with politics, gotta say all these social media opinionators who are screaming bloody murder about Bernie Sanders — either pillorying him for daring to run again or condemning Dems who prefer someone else to hell — ought to shut the hell up.

What’s My Line?

Flat out, it’s not Bernie’s fault Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election. For that we can thank Russkie bots and hackers, James Comey, and the sweeping, innate stupidity of the American public. Throw in HRC’s own refusal to be the second coming of Mamie Eisenhower and her campaign staff’s refusal to see the writing on the wall and — voila! — you’ve got a crass, gross, unlettered, incurious, anti-intellectual, unprepared, impulsive, pathological greed monkey as your Dear Leader. That all said, Bernie ran a spirited primary campaign that, happily, moved the Democratic Party to the left.

I like much of what Bernie stands for. I voted for him in the 2016 primary. But too many of his fankids saw him as another Jesus H. Christ and regarded everybody who didn’t hold him in such idolatrous esteem as lower than pond scum. That same either/or bullshit seems to be carrying over now that he’s running again in 2020.

Then there are the Hillary holdovers who see this second Bernie effort for the Big Prize as the worst thing since the ebola virus. It’s not. The couple of years leading up to a presidential election are the time for everybody to jump into the fray, say their pieces, and get winnowed out in the primaries and caucuses. This is when the chorus of voices is raised, people can toss around all their grandiose plans for remaking this holy land, the pretenders are distinguished from the contenders, and the party settles on one banner carrier. Let Bernie speak. Let him run.

Hell, let Joe Biden run, too (although if he somehow becomes the nominee, I’ll have to drag myself to the polling place to put a checkmark next to his name). Let John Kerry run, too. Hillary Clinton can jump in. For pity’s sake, how about Michael Dukakis (Andy Borowitz already has him declaring)?

None of these tilts at windmills will result in a second term for President Gag. The dude’s dead, politically. Right about now, he should be more worried about whether he’ll lam to Saudi Arabia or the small apartment above V. Putin’s garage once he’s either thrown or elected out of office.

I’m sick to death of the childish absolutism that’s infected public chat in this supposed enlightened age. It’s nothing more than a new puritanism or some other such slavish devotion to an arbitrarily determined standard of rectitude.

Stop it. Stop it now.

Hot Air: …They Are A’Changin’

I fell victim to a kind of midwinter malaise the last couple of days. It wasn’t really flu although there were symptoms of that. It wasn’t a bad cold, yet it was as close as could be. I had the old reliable headache/nausea thing I used to complain of to my mother when I wanted to ditch a school day. Ma used to work at Frank’s dimestore over on North Avenue, just west of Oak Park Avenue so she’d have to trundle off to work and I’d have the whole day to myself to draw pictures, watch the Three Stooges and, when I had hit puberty, sneak peeks at my brother Joey’s Playboys, a fine collection of which he’d not hidden well enough from me.

Anyway, I wasn’t crying wolf yesterday — and heaven knows where Joey’s old Playboys are now. Besides, I can’t think of anything more boring than Playboy magazine at this advanced age although, truth be told, I actually did read the articles back in those feverish days of my early adolescence. Problem is, there’s nobody around today like Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Madalyn Murray, Timothy Leary, Helen Gurley Brown, or any of the hundreds of subjects of the fabled Playboy interview. So, stuck in that netherworld between sick delirium and hazy wakefulness, I surfed YouTube on and off.

Lo and behold, I found the entire hour-plus video of the first JFK assassination bulletins on CBS TV. Dang mang, TV was so quaint in those days. The initial network interruption came in the tenth minute of the November 22, 1963 episode of As the World Turns. The soap itself was a prime example of vintage TV production values. Hell, it opens with a simple title card with soap-y organ music behind it. And, as for the show, your nine-year-old niece or nephew can put out a better looking shot, more subtly lighted with higher quality audio, these days.

And then the screen turns black for a few endless moments and a simple black CBS Bulletin card pops up, as if some unseen hand has dropped a piece of cardboard in front of the camera. You can actually hear papers being shuffled somewhere. The card remains onscreen as Walter Cronkite announces, “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade…. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded….” He concludes the minute-long bulletin with, “Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.” And then — swear to god! — the network cuts to a freaking Nescafé commercial. Even more amazing, after the ad, CBS cuts back to As the World Turns.

Think about that for a minute: The President of the United States has been shot — maybe to death; no one knew for sure at that early juncture — and the “Tiffany Network,” so-called because it was the cream of the TV nets and was, for all intents and purposes, television’s network of record, gives the viewing public all of 59 seconds’-worth of coverage.

CBS News cut into ATWT another time moments later, cut back to the soap again, and then ran uninterrupted coverage, but only nearly eight minutes after its original bulletin.

Imagine the same thing happening today. For pity’s sake, Anderson Cooper would leap bodily from your screen and shake you by the shoulders, nearly shouting, “Holy Jesus Christ in heaven, a loud noise has reportedly been heard near the president! We’re now going to interview every single, solitary citizen of the United States — as well as a select few Russians, Chinese, and Brits — for their reactions to this monumental event! Don’t move! Don’t eat! Don’t even pass gas! The world has changed forever!”

And so on.

The coverage would continue nonstop for weeks. The NFL might even delay the Super Bowl for a few moments.

Wow. Well, you know what Bob Dylan sang about the times….

Man Of Lamantia

My guest on Big Talk Thursday was collaborative/community artist Joe Lamantia. He and his wife, Merridee, herself an artist, are key members of this town’s creative royalty.

Joe, who was born and raised on Chicago’s southwest side, and Merridee met in Boston and moved to Bloomington years ago because they’d had their fill of big city living. Joe actually designed the big brain sculptures that were part of Jill Bolte Taylor‘s Brain Extravaganza exhibit of a few years back. Some of those brains, measuring 5’x5’x4′, are still on display here and there around town. Joe’s “Flying V” guitar, more than 30′ tall, adorns the south wall of the 7th St. Garage.

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Go here for the podcast of the Lamantia interview and tune in to WFHB, 91.3 FM, for Monday’s 5pm Daily Local News feature for further chat with the artist on Big Talk Extra.

Hot Air: Dozing & Nosing

Lullaby

The Trumps’ little theatrical prop kid whom they invited to the State of the Union address for the sole reason he shares their surname and has been “bullied” at school for it fell asleep during the Dear Leader’s blathering last night.

Several reactions:

  1. Of course their trophy invitee shared their name — everything they think and care about has to do with, well…, them.
  2. Guaranteed, as soon as President Gag saw the footage of the kid sawing wood he blurted out something like, “That little bastard!”
  3. Now the kid can go back to school and get bullied by both Democrats and Republicans.

Remember, when there’s a problem, only Trump can fix it.

A Professional Digger

Mike Leonard has been plying the journalism trade since the late 1970s. He spent a month shy of 35 years at the Herald-Times (it was called the Herald-Telephone when he first started working there). He went on to edit and write for Bloom mag for a couple of years and has been teaching various journalism classes at Indiana University since 1987.

His is a dying breed. He was the HT‘s general columnist for a couple of decades. When he started that gig, following in the footsteps of Greg Dawson, newspaper columnists were the rock stars of their field. Titans like Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko were at the top of their game back then, known far and wide and read in hundreds of papers each via syndication deals.

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A general columnist’s job was to pick out anything happening in the world, anything that struck her/his fancy, and riff on it. It was the plum job in any newsroom. Now, with nine tenths of the population of the planet either blogging or pontificating on social media, the newspaper general columnist has become something quaint, something as immediate and contemporary today as an etiquette columnist.

Everybody’s got an opinion and everybody needs to share it. It might seem like a fine thing that the internet gives everybody an opportunity to be heard. It ain’t.

See, the vast majority of people can’t spell, can’t put together cogent sentences (much less whole paragraphs or essay-length arguments), and can’t tell the diff. between facts and phonus balonus. When Breslin or Royko or Leonard made a point in print, whether you agreed with it or not, you knew it was well-reasoned and based on verifiable sources. There were standards, even for opinionating. On rare occasions, even straight news reporters and anchors would proffer a tentative opinion, such as the time Walter Cronkite, America’s paterfamilias, told us Vietnam was a bust:

When Lyndon Johnson, up for reelection that year, saw that broadcast back in February, 1968 he knew his chances were nil. Cronkite wasn’t some blowhard like Sean Hannity or even some quasi-stand-up comic like Bill Maher. He was a reporter, a journalist, someone who could be counted on to get the facts and interpret them for us.

Leonard was our town’s Cronkite, our Royko. He joins me on this week’s edition of Big Talk, tomorrow, Thursday, February 7, 5:30pm, on WFHB, 91.3FM.

 

Hot Air: Getting You Hooked On Getting Off

So some beer advertiser is going to run a spot during Sunday’s Super Bowl featuring ASMR.

Know what that is? Autonomous sensory meridian response. It’s a sound that causes a frisson, even a sort of aural climax. Some researchers are calling it a “brain orgasm.”  Sez sleep.org (the website of the National Sleep Foundation):

[I]t is still a relatively new creation. It describes a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation that can come over someone when he or she watches certain videos or hears certain sounds. What kind of visual or audio clips can create such a lovely feeling? It might surprise you, but the videos are of people doing incredibly simple, quiet, calming tasks, such as folding towels, brushing their hair, or flipping magazine pages. You might hear someone’s voice speaking in the background of the video, but not always. The audio clips often consist of voices whispering nice things (like “You are appreciated”), or contain the sound of tapping, scratching, or rain.

Kiddies, this is right out of Brave New World.

Funny thing is, I know just what this is all about — or at least something reasonably close to it. For instance, when I’m in a public place, a store, say, and someone nearby is humming, usually at the very edge of my hearing perception, my insides turn into mush. I feel as though I’ve been dipped in warm chocolate pudding. It’s almost embarrassing, for chrissakes!

Same thing when I use my big Hitachi Wand-like vibrator on my jaws near my ear holes. Yep. I dunno if it’s the sound or the actual mechanical vibration of all the structures in my coconut, but I turn to jelly. I want to OD on the experience.

So if advertisers can figure out a way to tickle your insides using AMSR, golly gee, it’s all over for us. I mean, we’re slaves to consumerism already. We’ll be zombies by this time next Super Bowl Sunday.

 

Hot Air: We’ve Got The Scoop

Jimmy Knew

From the late, legendary newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin:

Trump… senses better than anyone the insecurity of people, that nobody knows whether anything is good or bad until they are told, and he is quite willing to tell them immediately.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Breslin wrote this in the year 1988, long before the idea of Donald Trump as president of these United States was anything more than an hallucinogenic nightmare. Breslin detested Trump from the very first moment the two met in 1982, after which Breslin wrote, “His civic responsibility in the past consisted of getting tax abatements.”

I happen to be reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan right now. Taleb argues that much of human history is punctuated by outlier events, unpredictable and often inconceivable prior to their occurrence. Taleb wrote the book in 2007 so he didn’t know what was to occur in the 2016 election.

Anyway, here’s a game I like to play while I’m washing dishes or standing under a hot shower. Who, living or dead, would be as ludicrous to imagine becoming The Leader of the Free World as Trump once was.

My latest list (feel free to toss in your own ideas):

  • Tom Brady
  • Bill Belichick
  • Susan Boyle
  • L’il Bub
  • Ellen Degeneres
  • H. Ross Perot
  • Martin Shkreli
  • That smirking Covington High School kid
  • Yoko Ono
  • Kanye West
  • Gwyneth Paltrow
  • The Sneezing Panda Baby
  • The Gangnam Style guy
  • Vladimir Putin
  • Stormy Daniels
  • Monica Lewinski
  • James Comey
  • Robert Mueller
  • Jimmy Breslin (he’s dead)

What Do They Know?

Speaking of journalism, if you’re interested in the direction in which this particular pillar of a free society is heading, you might tune in to today’s Noon Edition on WFIU. Host Bob Zaltsberg, the outgoing editor of this town’s Herald-Times will host Stephen Key, exec. dir. and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Assoc.; Elaine Monaghan, professor of practice at Indiana University’s Media School; and Jon Schwantes, who describes himself on LinkedIn as an “Experienced media executive, policy analyst and strategic communicator exploiting multiple platforms to effect change.”

Bernstein (L) & Woodward

Or, you could save yourself an hour and perhaps do something more personally rewarding by skipping the broadcast altogether since, for pity’s sake, none of Zaltsberg’s three guests is a reporter or anything like that.

I mean what would actual, working journalists know about the future of journalism?

The again, I figure all our local newspaper journalists are too busy polishing up their resumes or feeling out the managers of their local convenience stores for job openings, considering they’re all worried about being laid off by the H-T‘s new bosses. And that alone should tell you all you need to know about the direction journalism is heading.

The Big Link

Here’s the link to the podcast of yesterday’s Big Talk featuring Janae Cummings, board chair of Bloomington Pride. And, BTW, don’t forget the 2019 Bloomington Pride Film Festival main slate of short and full-length movies begins this evening at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

 

 

Hot Air: Cabin Fever

Play Ball!

With the temperature rising to a balmy 20ºF today, we can start preparing for spring. Don’t laugh — the NOAA forecasts a high of 58 Sunday. Time for me to dig out that old Mizuno third baseman’s mitt.

A Tremendous Observation

Ken Tremendous*, pension fund monitor for Fremulon Insurance in Partridge, Kansas, is one of the brightest, most creative, funniest guys I’ve ever read on the internets. He is a baseball savant as well as an outspoken liberal/Lefty/progressive/whatever-the-fk-you-want-to-call-people-like-me.

With President Gag reacting to the apocalyptic deep freeze that’s strangled much of this holy land the last few days the way you’d figure some drunk, unread, bile-driven, wife-beater down at the lonely end of the bar would, I feel it’s a perfect time to dredge up one of Ken’s most trenchant tweets from some time last year. Here goes:

He’s not a genius. He’s not ‘crazy like a fox.’ He’s not a master strategist. He’s a 71 year-old below-average-intelligent, spoiled, trust fund-supported, born-on-3rd-thought-he-hit-a-triple, sexually harassing asshole in mental decline. Stop looking for what isn’t there.

Still, though, some 39.5 percent of this great nation’s populace actually approves of the job he’s doing.

538’s real time presidential approval monitor at 9:45am today.

Which, I suppose, makes perfect sense if what you want from a president is the dismantling of federal social services; the elimination of corporate regulations; the smashing of consumer protections, civil rights, and voting rights; scarcely literate direct messaging to his base via Twitter; a proud disdain for science and expertise; and pure, unadulterated greed at the expense of the public good. In that case, he’s our greatest president ever.

Of course, I’d rather have as my president Steve the Dog, who just got finished pissing on the kitchen floor because he has a bladder infection. At least Steve doesn’t disbelieve in the established fact that the planet is undergoing a radical climate change.

[ * A nom de plume — if you don’t know his real identity, go here. ]

Pride Cometh

The sixteenth annual Bloomington Pride Film Festival kicked off this past Monday with a documentary on the life of Montgomery Clift at the IU Cinema. The big slate of more than 100 films, both short and full-length, begins tomorrow, Friday, 7:00pm at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. It continues through Saturday and, in the words of Pride board chair Janae Cummings, is “the best we’ve ever had.”

Cummings

Speaking of Cummings, she’s my guest today on Big Talk. The daughter of a couple of cops (her father went on to become a prosecutor in Anderson, Indiana), Cummings attended the Air Force Academy and then dabbled in law school before settling in as a professional writer. A gig, BTW, her daddy-o warned her against in the strongest of possible terms.

But Cummings makes a living as a writer/editor/marketer/PR specialist for the Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies. That is, when she isn’t helping steer Bloomington Pride. Tune in this afternoon at 5:30 immediately following the Daily Local News on WFHB, 91.3 FM. The podcast will post at 6:00pm sharp.

Hot Air: Luck

Charlotte Zietlow’s back in town after her sad duty to attend her beloved grandson Henry’s memorial in St. Paul, Minnesota Sunday. Henry was killed in a head-on collision near Hayward, Wisconsin, last week.

Click Image For KARE-11 St. Paul TV News Report.

Charlotte adored Henry. I meet with her just about every Friday afternoon so we can work on her memoir. I scarcely exaggerate when I say she shared news about Henry every time we’d meet. He was a brilliant student, an accomplished violinist, a rower, and perhaps the nicest kid you’d ever want to meet. He was a freshman at Bowdoin College in Maine, his father Nathan Zietlow’s alma mater. Nathan had gone on to Harvard Law School and would become a highly successful corporate attorney. His mother Sarah Risser had studied forestry at Yale and attended several other top-notch colleges for her graduate work. No one had any doubt that Henry — no matter what field he’d choose to enter — would be equally as successful as his parents.

Charlotte’s kids, Nathan and her daughter Rebecca Zietlow, both were super-duper achievers. Each was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar; each earned college scholarships galore. Rebecca, who also attended Harvard Law, has become one of the country’s foremost experts on the 13th Amendment. She works now as a law professor at the University of Toledo and is a visiting professor at the University of Vermont law school. Both Nathan’s and Rebecca’s kids are following a similar path of success, earning scholarships and awards, creating art, playing music, and making their little corners of the world better.

I said to Charlotte one day, “You know, you’re awfully lucky. You were happily married to a talented, loving, decent man (Paul Zietlow was a respected literature professor at Indiana University from 1964 through his retirement). Your kids are great. Your grandkids are great. Do you ever sit back and realize how fortunate you’ve been?”

Charlotte immediately countered: “Well, Paul and I were raised right. And we raised our children right.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, “but I know a lot of parents who raised their kids right but some of those kids turned out to have profound problems or be jerks or even suffer terrible diseases.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte said, grudgingly. She’s a great believer in hard work and paving your own road. But sometimes irony can be ugly; sometimes a car can come down that road, traveling in the opposite direction….

She was lucky. She is lucky, if less so now.

Celebrate

With this holy land celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday this week (and with some pretending to mark the occasion, even if they have no business doing so) and with Black History Month beginning a week from tomorrow, I thought it’d be a neat gesture to bring out my interview with local cartoonist Nate Powell for this week’s Big Talk.

Powell, a bestselling creator of graphic novels like Any Empire and The Silence of Our Friends, co-authored with Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) and Andrew Aydin the March trilogy. March tells the story of Lewis’s life as a civil rights warrior. Lewis suffered a fractured skull on Bloody Sunday, March 5, 1965, when state troopers and local posse members attacked hundreds of freedom marchers outside the town of Selma, Alabama.

I’ve celebrated King Day for years, annually watching the documentary “King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis.” I’ll watch it again this year — probably Saturday night — but it’s starting to seem…, well, unseemly for a white guy like me to claim the day.

Aw, to hell with it. I’m all in on King Day. And, like every year, I’ll cry when Nina Simone begins to sing “The King of Love Is Dead.”

You can celebrate, too, by tuning in to Big Talk this afternoon at 5:30 on WFHB, 91.3 FM. I’ll post the link to the podcast of the show either tonight or tomorrow morning, depending on my laziness quotient.

Believers

It was in late summer or early fall, 1983, when I struck out on my own and started working on what would turn out to be my first feature article for pay. It would be for the Chicago Reader, an alternative newsweekly I’d go on to write for until the early years of the new millennium.

One of my circles of friends had become hooked on what was then the relatively unknown phenomenon called professional wrestling. We were hip to the heroes and villains like the Iron Sheik, Hulk Hogan, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, Sgt. Slaughter, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, and Big John Studd. We watched matches on UHF TV stations (the more established VHF channels turned their noses up at the spectacle).

So, I heard about a big event to be held one Saturday evening at the then-Rosemont Horizon, a second-tier indoor arena that sat, at best, some 14,000. It would be called the Battle Royal, the idea being there’d be some half-dozen undercard matches pitting individuals and one or two duos against each other. And then, in an orgasmic finale, a couple of dozen wrestlers would crowd into the ring and begin slamming, pile-driving, leaping, forearm shivering, and otherwise mayhemming their way toward being The Last Man Standing.

The night’s card was put together by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo’s American Wrestling Association. The old-schoolers Gagne and Karbo pre-dated technology like pay-per-view and, to be sure, the internet. The pro wrestling racket made its dough almost strictly through ticket sales. The industry was run on a shoestring. The wrestlers were paid peanuts. All too often, wrestlers who sprained an ankle or broke a bone had to pay their medical expenses out of their own pockets. In fact, when wrestlers were injured, their bosses basically told them it was their fault, that somehow they’d missed a step or forgotten to protect themselves in the intricate choreography that made up the matches.

I wanted to learn about the people who paid good money to see these staged encounters. I’d sensed that the lot of them believed what they were watching on TV was real, dangerous, blood-drawing violence. Guys’d shatter boom boxes over each others’ heads. They’d smash each others faces with folding chairs. One guy was known to brandish a horsewhip. Another, brass knuckles. Somehow, none of the wrestlers seemed ever to miss the next match, even after they’d been pummeled and assaulted with deadly weapons. Like no one else before in my town, I’d get the real story from the mouths of the folks who bought these shows hook, line and sinker. I called for my first press pass, went out and bought a couple of fresh reporter’s notebooks, and slipped my shiny new microcassette recorder into my trench coat pocket. I was off to be a paid journalist.

I walked into the arena and gasped. It was filled to the rafters with baying, howling, shrieking wrestling fans. The attendance later would be announced at better than 15,000, a good thou more than capacity. I’d have bet the real number was closer to 20,000. There was no place to walk as every available inch of aisle space, hallway space, and even in the tunnels leading into the seating areas was taken up by spectators. I elbowed and bulled my way through the crowd, interviewing fans, getting beer spilled on me, and having a whale of a time.

I asked one guy if he believed what he was seeing on the mat was real. Of course it was, he nearly shouted. He turned out to be a touch more sophisticated than the average fan at the Horizon that night. He explained to me that when the suit-and-tie crowd went to go see a Shakespeare play, “Julius Caesar,” say, they might recoil in horror when the gang surrounds the emperor and stabs him to death. It’s the same thing here, he said.

I didn’t have the heart to counter-argue that when the suit-and-tie crowd went home, they didn’t hold malice in their hearts toward the poor slob who’d played Brutus.

After the event, I hustled over to the nearby Air Host Motel, the cheapest of dives, on Mannheim Road, just south of O’Hare Int’l Airport. I’d gotten a tip that the wrestlers normally stayed at the place and that they’d likely gather in the motel lounge for hours into the night after the show. Sure enough, all the big names were there. Ric Flair. Jesse “the Body” Ventura (the future conspiracy theorist and governor of Minnesota). Nikolai Volkov (the despised Russian villain). Hillbilly Jim. Rick Martel. Ravishing Rick Rude. Mr. Fuji. Baron von Raschke, and more. The latter two wrestlers, BTW, were old birds, representing the aging World War II crowd’s enemies, Japan and Germany.

Standing in a corner, nursing a highball, was longtime ring announcer Gene Okerlund. “Mean Gene,” as he was dubbed — ironically, natch — by Jesse Ventura, was still wearing his tuxedo jacket but the ends of his bow tie lay undone on his lapels. I sidled over to Okerlund and chatted with him for a good fifteen minutes. Baron von Raschke passed by, carrying the early edition of the Sunday Chicago Tribune, and bade good night to Okerlund. “I’m tired,” he said in his faux German accent — he was born in Omaha, Nebraska. “I can not keep up wit’ you kids anymore.” Okerlund was a mere two years younger than von Raschke. von Raschke, Okerlund whispered to me after the wrestler had gone, worked as a substitute elementary school teacher when he wasn’t goose-stepping around the ring.

I’m thinking about all this because Gene Okerlund died on January 2nd.

Gene Okerlund at work.

I’m also thinking about this because the folks who made pro wrestling the mega-success it would become almost immediately after that Battle Royal seem to me the same types who cast their lots with Li’l Duce, our current president. They were people desperate to believe in something even in the face of all available evidence. Let’s go back to the Shakespeare reference. Play-goers engage in what’s known as “suspension of disbelief.” We can convince ourselves to believe the actor on the stage is trying to kill the other actor on the stage with a dagger — but just for the moment the action occurs. Wrestling fans — and Trump supporters — don’t suspend their disbelief, they wallow in a form of pure, unadulterated, childlike belief.

It’s no coincidence at all that Trump himself got involved with wrestling, in 2007, long after the American Wrestling Association was eclipsed by Vince McMahon’s gaudy and aggressively-marketed World Wrestling Entertainment syndicate.

I was in shock that first moment I walked into the Horizon, gaping at the thousands and thousands of folks who’d waited all week long for the show and had filled the place. I had no idea how many of them there were in this holy land.

Just about as shocked as I was watching the presidential race throughout the summer and fall of 2016.

Hot Air: Midwest Gal …

… Woman Of The World

Zaineb Istrabadi calls herself a “midwest gal.” She was born in England, raised in Baghdad, lived a large chunk of her adult life in New York City but, still, she considers our acreage of flyover country home.

Zaineb Istrabadi

She teaches Arabic at Indiana University and has been an active member of our community for nearly 20 years. In keeping with the Big Talk tradition of asking first questions, I posed this one to Zaineb: Who’s an Arab?

Everybody knows what an Arab is, right? Ixnay. The day I had her in the studio, I’d asked at least a dozen friends and acquaintances what — or, more properly, who — an Arab is. None could answer to any degree of certitude.

She’s my guest on this week’s Big Talk and my profile of her runs today in the Limestone Post.

Go here for the Big Talk podcast and here for the magazine piece.

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