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I, Tonya, Too.

Everybody funny; now you funny, too” – G. Thorogood

Here’s a fun-stirring intro: It would seem this “me-too” stuff has calmed down a bit. While it’s certainly a worthy movement at its core, the string of celebrity and semi-celebrity accusations was reaching such fever pitch, it couldn’t possibly sustain. Somewhere between Louis CK’s exhibitionist prong-pulling and Aziz Ansari’s bad date, the campaign peaked and returned to earth like a Chinese space station. Along the way it hit well-deserving targets like the piggish Harvey Weinstein and just about every male middle-school teacher in Ethiopia. Obviously there are many more worthy examples, and most will never be reported or publicized. But it also brushed up against some complex bits of male-female relations that are acknowledged privately but find little place for public platform. Sexual aggression is largely unwelcome but sexual assertiveness can be a trickier issue. Self-confidence can be sexy but only when displayed appropriately and with justification. Power is a tricky attribute to wield but to deny its place in the universe is to deny the cosmos itself. And if you’re “pretty sure she wants it” you’re likely far more repulsive than you ever imagined. These are all nuanced conversations that, recently and within the more volatile scope of this subject, can only be safely discussed among women. Simply removing the less-evolved sex from the discussion, however, doesn’t subtract the human element or potential rancor. Despite cliched prophecy, even if us guys disappeared en masse tomorrow, not everything would be Kumbaya.

The problem is that none of this stuff is even up for debate in today’s culture and any suggestion of gray areas gets one lumped in with more egregious offenders. So, as with most things these days, we watch our step religiously and keep our mouths shut. (Under-read bloggists not withstanding.) Of course nothing breeds trouble like suppressed emotion. As George Carlin once pointed out “the classroom is the best place (to get laughs) because, well .. no one is allowed to laugh there ..” Just replace “laughs” with “votes” in that bit and you’ve gone a long way toward understanding the last U.S. election. Huck Finn is a decent book, but is it worth getting labeled “racist”? Using plural pronouns to refer to people in the singular is illogical, but is it worth being painted as a transphobe? Most of these examples lend themselves to political polarization but this can be as inappropriate as it is unfortunate. The “me-too” debate really brought this home by crossing political lines and broadening the divide to one half of the population versus the other. And to be fair, if we were to remove either of the two major, prevailing political parties tomorrow, does anyone really believe it would fix anything?

It is perhaps unconscionable to deny the genuinely troubling aspects of some of these situations. But is it so wrong to point out that some of the most strident, self-appointed enforcers of “properness” are as as grating and unlikable as those they wish to correct? Though many will miss the reference, there’s a reason Belushi’s guitar-smashing “I Gave My Love a Cherry” moment in the film Animal House resonates. There’s a reason that seeing Beavis and Butthead school teacher Van Driessen crash through the front window of the bus and fall down the canyon, bumping his head on each pointed surface en route, releases cathartic joy. Humor is a universal barometer and pressure-gauge for cultural climate. (Granted, “Animal House” came out in 1978, but Youtube clips are as popular today as ever.) This isn’t to say that laughs can’t be misplaced (see “Clay, Andrew Dice”) but at least they put it out there for debate. And it’s the one circumstance under which reflexive response cannot be suppressed. Louis CK will definitely be making a comeback at some point and the opening material for this comeback wrote itself. To be fair, it was already the bulk of his subject matter anyway, but people seem to have conveniently overlooked this.

If you see something, say something” is a post-911 mantra for the New York City subway system, and with good reason. “If you think something, keep it to yourself” would be equally apt for life above ground these days. This is particularly relevant if you happen to be a “straight, white male” which would have been abbreviated to AAA for “asshole, asshole, asshole” by now were it not for the American Automobile Association. I’m inclined to add an additional “A” in my case for “ageing” though the Animal House reference speaks for itself. And if you’re among those in my limited readership thinking “I’ve noticed this guy is running out of material,” well … me too

Shitholes And Other Things Coming

Our esteemed president’s use of the word “shithole” got me thinking the other day, not about Haiti nor Nigeria, but rather the climatic scene in “Unforgiven.” William Munny (Clint Eastwood) walks silently into Greely’s Saloon where his partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is displayed out front in an open, upright coffin with a torch-lit sign reading “this is what happens to assassins around here.”

Munny (pointing his 10 gauge double barrel at the assembled group): “Who’s the fella owns this shithole? You, fat man, speak up.”
Skinny: “I own this establishment. Bought it from Greely for a thousand dollars.”
Munny (to men behind Skinny):”You better clear out of there.”
Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman): “Just hold it right there .. Hold it! ..” (Munny fires, blowing Skinny back against the wall.) “Well sir you are a cowardly son of a bitch. You just shot an unarmed man.”
Munny: “He best arm himself, if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”

The economy of words in Unforgiven is remarkable. Credit goes to David Webb Peoples, the San Francisco screenwriter who authored the film. Eastwood had the insight to buy the script, which had been optioned once to Francis Coppola, and hold on to it until he was old enough to play the role. But as with most great efforts, it’s the writing. Peoples was invited by Eastwood to attend a screening of the film in its final version and, expecting to see a full theater, was shocked to realize just he, Clint and the projectionist would be watching. As the reels turned and it became apparent that not a single word of his original work had been altered, he cried.

What makes Unforgiven so special? To some, not much happens in the film. A broken-down ex-outlaw pig farmer mounts a comeback, a cliched final gunfight ensues, and credits roll. In the hands of a lesser writer it might play as a parody of Eastwood’s early roles. Will Munny is Dirty Harry minus the magnum and spiffy sport coat; Josey Wales minus the cocksure tobacco spitting. And he is both these characters, with a little more time under his belt. Munny is described as “cold as snow” in his younger days and having neither weak nerve nor fear. But this last job he’s going to pull — killing some cowboys for cutting up a whore — is strictly a utilitarian undertaking. He’s in it to pocket some cash to buy a few more pigs or perhaps move somewhere where his kids can have a better life. As pieces of his legend are recounted by secondary characters it’s clear Munny wants no part of his old self. When his partner Ned corrects one account of Will’s earlier exploits (“I remember it was three men you shot – not two ..”) Munny tells him he “ain’t like that no more” and, laughably, that he’s “just a fella now.” Just a fella hunting down two cowboys for cutting a whore. “It was mostly the whiskey that done it,” he explains. As Will regresses to his old ways, darker elements of his legend are revealed. He’s said to be the “same William Munny who dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69, killing women and children and all.” This is emphasized by Gene Hackman’s Sheriff Bill with one chilling sentence after Skinny is killed.

Little Bill: “You be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children.”

Munny: “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.”

By this point the viewer has become complicit with Munny. We understand him to be a child-murderer by his own admission, yet we’re still enamored with the justice he’s about to exact for his dead friend. The moment is as thrilling as any in Eastwood’s previous films, yet we’re being reminded that there is consequence for indiscriminate violence; for every bullet fired or train dynamited. The script is married perfectly with Clint Eastwood’s career to this point. We don’t tolerate the antihero, we cheer him. For every ‘fascist’ label applied to Dirty Harry, trying to argue the catharsis is futile. As is trying to argue the effectiveness of well-constructed cinematic violence. We want to see justice served to the bully or unapologetic punk, collateral casualties be damned. With Unforgiven this idea has been taken a step further and we’re actually celebrating the badness of the protagonist, his sheer cold-blooded force as he recovers from the brink of death, starts taking harder hits off the whiskey bottle, and in hunched, aged form, returns to wreak havoc. As the sign on the wall in Specs’ tavern in San Francisco reads: “Old Age and Treachery Will Overcome Youth and Skill Every Time.”

Peoples’ script is filled with great detail that makes the film whole. The central female characters are whores but not passive in approach. They post the bounty on the cowboys and lure the string of outlaws into town. As the madame Strawberry Alice notes “just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses that don’t mean we gotta let them brand us like horses.” The whores affect action in the only manner available to them and, oddly, are not punished as violence ensues. They are chastised and berated but none of them is put in jail. As Little Bill remarks when attempting to whip answers out of Ned Logan “when their (the whores‘) lies don’t match your lies .. well, I ain’t gonna hurt no woman ..” There are two other female characters who figure prominently: Logan’s wife, the Indian Sally Two Trees and Munny’s dead wife Claudia Feathers. Sally sees right through Will Munny to his murderous soul, still intact. And Munny’s deceased wife serves as hollow guidepost in the film’s early scenes where, despite embarking on this killing for hire, he invokes her guidance from beyond as new moral compass. He tells his kids that his dead wife “cured him” of his evil ways, teaching him not to mistreat animals. He tells Ned that Claudia steered him clear of whiskey, the spirit responsible for much of his past behavior. But as the story progresses it becomes apparent that true change, whether applied to present times or the Old West, is the rarest commodity. This is the film’s arc as it nears climax: Munny once again chastising an uncooperative horse as a “pig-fucking whore” and reaching for the bottle.

Munny’s partner Ned Logan is an interesting character too. No mention is made of his being black, and this at a time when it most certainly would have been noted. No racial epithets are hurled and he’s a land-owning equal allowed to survive on his wits like any other. Some may point to the whipping scene in the jailhouse as allusion to slavery, but Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t reserve his whippings exclusively for Ned and not once does he use a racially derisive word. This would perhaps compromise Little Bill’s portrayal of himself as a fair judge of men with “low character.” But none of the others note Ned’s color either and it’s a detail that can’t be overlooked. Ultimately Logan, as opposed to Munny, is shown to be a changed man. He can’t pull the trigger on his Spencer rifle to kill the cowboy and is forced to hand the gun over to Will to do the job. It’s this very change of heart or crossover to humanity that results in his demise as he is captured “going south,” having given up on the hunt. The other to drop out shortly after is the Schofield Kid, Will and Ned’s youthful and transparently cocksure third partner for most of the film. The kid serves a few purposes. In early scenes his swagger is false as he brags about his exploits and peppers Will with questions about his past. He is symbolically half-blind and wants desperately to be a “bad man” like Munny but when he finally pulls the trigger to end another’s life he is aged and changed instantly, filled only with regret. This leads to the movie’s most famous exchange with iconic lines delivered by Eastwood. “It’s a hell of a thing killin‘ a man,” he observes. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” And then after the badly-shaken kid tries to compose himself by noting that the man he killed had it coming: “We all have it coming, kid.” Clint Eastwood may be a far cry from the best actor of our time, but nobody understands his own epochal legend better.

Saul Rubinek, as the writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp, is another great character. He’s a novelty in a time when many didn’t know how to read or write, never mind pursue it as career. The running joke when Beauchamp reveals his profession as writer is the retort “you mean letters and such?” There aren’t many biographers in western scripts and this is yet another great detail at the hand of David Webb Peoples. Peoples is in a subtle sense pointing out his own centrality to the film; how writers shape everything. Beauchamp is a parasite of sorts wanting only to attach himself to the greatest legend. He begins with English Bob (another superb example of character and casting as portrayed by Richard Harris.) Bob is a proud Englishman, deriding locals for America’s custom of electing a president and espousing the majesty of monarchy. He then receives a beating at the hands of Little Bill (in another of the film’s brilliant scenes with Hackman deftly conveying both his character’s penchant for and discomfort with violence.) Shortly after the writer Beauchamp jumps ship to follow Little Bill as his biographer and this sticks to the film’s end when he attempts to gain access to Munny after he’s single-handedly shot and killed five armed men.

Beauchamp: “Who, uh, who’d you kill first?”
Munny: “Huh?”
Beauchamp: “When confronted by superior numbers an experienced gunfighter will always fire on the best shot first.”
Munny: “Is that so?”
Beauchamp: “Yeah, Little Bill told me that. And you probably killed him first, didn’t you?”
Munny: “I was lucky in the order. But I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”
Beauchamp: “And who was next? It was Clyde, right? You must have killed Clyde ..”
Munny (eyeing Beauchamp): “All I can tell ya is who’s gonna be last ..”

And so Beauchamp beats a hasty retreat, writer as observer with the rest of us, as the others huddle hidden in the night’s driving rain outside Greely’s to watch Munny exit on his horse. Several have a direct and open shot on him but none will take it. He barks a few words of authoritative instruction — “You better bury Ned right! .. Better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores or I’ll come back and kill every last one of you sons of bitches!” But it’s the exit of a man invincibly alone with another pile of bodies to account for when he eventually reaches his final authority. There is satisfaction in Unforgiven, but no redemption. Even if we can make things right against all odds it doesn’t equate to ‘true change.’ And it doesn’t stop any of us from having it coming.

Saul Rubinek Blues

Well he should’a armed himself .. if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.” – Eastwood

I was sitting in my old Noe Valley apartment a long while back with a friend, watching ‘Unforgiven.’ If it isn’t my favorite all-time movie it’s top-three without voting. “I wonder who we would’ve been,” she mused, “if we’d lived in the old west.” She went on to suppose roles for us, fairly accurate I’d guess, based on who we were as modern-day, semi-adult city-dwellers. A lot of things you look back on and think “what bullshit that was“, but this isn’t one of them. The more road I take on the more I see the permanence of who I am and the futility of ever trying to change it. This subtracts nothing from the occasionally necessary change of scenery, either. What it does emphasize is the even greater futility of trying to change someone else. This idea lends itself to other interesting ones, free will among them. If the ego is an illusion, as so many fashionable sorts claim, this might explain the inflexibility of identity. It would be a tough illusion to sustain otherwise. It’s a little like the way a body fights instinctively to remain, despite all suffering and reason. People would go around dying everywhere were this not the case, easy as they drink bottled water.

I remember, as a young man, taking a tour of an East Bay film studio and meeting some guy who made film trailers. His job was to elicit as many positive responses from a two or three minute clip as possible, and they had wires they’d attach to people’s heads to tell them when they’d succeeded. Essentially, at that point in cinematic history anyway, it all came down to putting Bill Murray’s face up there. They could construct the most elegant tease in the history of film, but without Bill’s mug it was shit. I thought about this for a long while after. To me Bill Murray represents some sort of Zen Resignation. It’s like his face says “nothing is going to work out but I’m going to stick around to see how it plays, anyway.” And yeah, if I’d seen it appear in a film trailer I’d probably have made note to see that movie. The other face that registers that way with me is Clint Eastwood. Yet Clint’s face is far from indifferent; it kind of says “Now I’m gonna kill you and I’m lookin’ pissed off for you makin’ me do this.” It’s a joyously, handsomely, constipated and comically angry face. It’s the look he gives Gene Hackman in ‘Unforgiven’  just after Gene tells him “see you in hell” and Clint replies “yeah” and then fires a shotgun at his head, point blank.

Where am I going with all this? Not sure, but it’s the only place I could have gone anyway. We need division to have identity and we cling to identity despite its being arguably false. Here was my exact thinking for this year’s World Series: I didn’t care because the Giants were 55 games out by August and I only had subliminal recognition of divisional standings due to the scrolling crap they put at the bottom of the screen when I’m watching something else. I had other hard stuff going on and this was meaningless. But then the playoffs came around and I needed diversion for a few hours at night and they use an extra twelve or thirteen cameras and a bunch of other people care so I started to follow. I rooted against the Dodgers because they’re the Dodgers I suppose and because I have some kind of emotional investment in Madison Bumgarner’s post season legacy outliving Clayton Kershaw’s. Also because Kershaw is arguably the best pitcher in the game and has enough other things going for him to not worry about him. I took this thinking all the way to Game Seven and seeing my adopted favorite Astros heading for victory, but was unable to fully enjoy their ultimate success due to feelings of empathy for Dodger starter Yu Darvish. If there’s a way to contain this in a character description, this is who I would have played in ‘Unforgiven.’

What I’m getting at here is that politics is a kind of uber-bullshit, burning and hurling through space at breakneck speed and consuming everyone and everything in its path. It’s sports for those who are too lame or disinterested to inappropriately filter their emotions in that direction. It’s “the world’s gonna end” every week and every day until the Cuban Missile Crisis rolls around the day after Richardson snags McCovey’s liner to end the ’62 Series. And now it’s been distilled to its purest form with hatred based solely upon who or what one aligns himself with or similar estimate of another. The real bitch of it is, you can’t escape this conundrum. It’s like trying to be blissfully unaware of playoff baseball with those lines still scrolling at the bottom of your screen. If you have no horse in the race you still have something against someone’s jockey or the colors the little shit chooses for his silks. And of course sometimes the race does matter; sometimes it’s war or somebody’s kid dying or the powerful taking advantage of the weak. But trying to distill this into political lines is never clean and a little like trying to hate Clayton Kershaw while still feeling sorry for Yu Darvish.

And so we end up with music. Or I do anyway and I defend it passionately while gloriously taking sides against all reason. I never cared for the Beatles.  And I spent a Sunday overnight in Stockton a few weekends back with two close friends in order to see Dwight Yoakam at the Bob Hope Theater, but neither Bob nor Dwight ever showed up. See? It just doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the point.

You’re A Funny Guy

Well you know she still laughs with me / but she waits just a second too long” – John Prine

One of the funniest things I ever read was an Onion headline back in 2004 during the Jim McGreevey scandal: “Homosexual Tearfully Admits To Being Governor of New Jersey.” It works on so many levels .. which was what Homer Simpson said about Hans Moleman’s short film “Man Getting Hit By Football.” But I digress. Solidly humorous material can be rendered a fail given the wrong audience. The same person laughing uncontrollably at my Herve Villechaize M&M’s joke (“The plaaaaain … the plaaaaaain!”) won’t crack a smile at my “snail chucked over a fence” bit. Neither is mine of course, except by virtue of being in my limited joke wheelhouse. So it is with outdated trepidation and non-sequitur ease that I accept responsibility for some hate-mail I received last week objecting to something I wrote four years ago on infamous Marin Country outlaw high schooler Max Wade. I won’t recount the post in question or my failed attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor. This guy let me have it for being a trust fund kid and waste of space. In my defense I’ve lost some weight of late, so that’s less space being wasted. Point is, in this case anyway, it missed the mark.

Comedians benefit from a lack of neediness. This isn’t the same as not giving a shit. Plenty of comics adopt the guise of defiant, tough-guy indifference yet aren’t particularly funny. But in the case of some — think Norm MacDonald — this absence of the need for reassuring laughter combined with genuine talent is a powerful combination. There are also those who are both needy and occasionally funny. The late Robin Williams comes to mind. But pure “needy” rarely works. People like to think they’re special when it comes to laughing. Nothing kills a comedian’s appeal more than seeing your idiot neighbor coming unglued over one of his bits. Said neighbor might be laughing at the inflated surgical glove atop Howie Mandel’s head while totally missing the subtleties of his discourse. It’s been said that there is no greater aphrodisiac than laughter, but this too comes with caveat. Woody Allen’s brand of nebbish, self-effacing, pseudo-intellectual hilarity didn’t have the same end-result when he was Allan Konigsberg, and this has little to do with practiced timing. If women respond to humor they respond even more to power. (See above for hate mail address.) Yet many powerful men just aren’t funny. If you can get the two working in conjunction it’s a license to print money.

Women’s humor is a somewhat controversial topic. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a (partly) satirical piece for Vanity Fair titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Predictably it got a lot of blow-back, but that was the point. While I’d never put it in such certain terms, it’s an idea that’s been floated before. Some years prior a slightly less articulate but more disheveled John Belushi made the same claim. Is there a biological imperative, as Hitchens claimed, that men work on their sense of humor more than their female counterparts? Perhaps, but I don’t find gay guys particularly funny either. And generally speaking they’ve got more testosterone flowing than a small engine repair school dropout at a Black Sabbath show. There aren’t as many women who can make me laugh, but there aren’t as many trying. Sarah Silverman once had a line that broke me up. Again, in deference to the hate mail, this was her bit: She was speaking plaintively about rape and observed “No woman asks to be raped. Some women are asking to be motor-boated, though … ” It’s a line that could only work for a strong, female comic, just as some material can only work for a black comedian. Chris Rock’s infamous “black people vs niggas” is another example. Only part of his audience is “allowed” to laugh, and in both cases (Silverman and Rock) the result is potent. Suppressed laughter was the central thesis for George Carlin’s “Class Clown” routine.

Nothing is less funny than someone attempting to dissect humor. (See “Crystal, Billy: ‘Mr Saturday Night’ “) But I defend my efforts here on the grounds of laziness and having nothing else to write about. If ever there were a time for laughs it’s now. Images of Harvey Weinstein’s mug beg for comic relief yet none arrives. Saturday Night Live, after brief reprieve, jumped the comedic shark post election night with Kate McKinnon’s tearful rendition of ‘Hallelujah’. It simply hasn’t been funny since. Where have you gone, Chris Farley, with your “I want Holyfield!” Norman Schwarzkopf impression and coffee table destroying belly flops? Our nation turns its unamused eyes to you. These were simple premises with big returns and they are all but gone today. The recent mass sexual misconduct allegations have landed comedian Louis CK in hot water. I never found CK as amusing as some do and his material seemed to have a preternatural obsession with dicks and masturbation. What are the odds, then, that he’d be accused of taking his out and doing so repeatedly and without invitation? Where do these people think “art” comes from — thin air?

“Taking the piss” or “winding somebody up” are British expressions for humorous attempts at another’s expense. “Breaking balls” would be the American equivalent, though it’s always risky equating colloquial English with colloquial American. An over the top example that comes to mind is Joe Pesci’s “what the fuck is so funny about me?” scene with Ray Liotta in the film “Goodfellas.” Pesci goes from being laughed with to feigned paranoia over being laughed at back to the relief and release of being laughed with again. It’s a real tightrope walk and underlines the idea that humor is serious business. If you laugh hard enough you’ll eventually cry and comics are some of the saddest people going. Just ask Louis CK.

Petty Thoughts

Here it is three days later and I’m still bummed out. This doesn’t generally happen to me, not for these reasons. He was a pop star; a rock ‘n’ roller and celebrity who hung out with Harrison and Dylan. He smoked like a chimney and made it to sixty-six, died in fairly unspectacular fashion and on a day when sixty others were tragically gunned-down in Vegas. Moreover he was fucking main-stream and loved by the masses; not some unique trip that I alone had discovered and taken.

It was always easy to underestimate Tom Petty. I didn’t but saw others have at it — those who fancied themselves possessing more “sophisticated” musical tastes and lumped him in with, I don’t know, Boston or Kansas or Skynyrd or even Springsteen. I recall, some years back, driving my small Nissan 240SX up to Sonoma for a company party with my girlfriend sitting shotgun and another coworker who’d requested a lift crammed in back. He was usually an affable sort but had a thing for her and on this hot summer day gave some lip when I went to put a cassette in the player — “I hope Rick isn’t about to play Tom fucking Petty again” — with snotty attitude and accent. I cut him some lovesick slack; people say stupid shit under such crowded, uncomfortable circumstances, even when there by their own volition. But the slight directed at Petty has stuck with me, ridiculously, for 20-plus years. There is something particular about select musical tastes that I possess. It’s limited to precious few and I burn out and come back to the tunes myself all the time. But they are there in my head constantly, triggered by a word or thought. Give me “there’s a dream I keep havin‘ ” and I immediately go to “where my mama comes to me / and kneels down over by the window / and says a prayer for me.”  I’m just lost, at least for the moment. The image is specific and may or may not extend to the south or praying, but is my mom and as real as the day is long. That’s one overwrought example but there are many others, trivial or otherwise. Give me “I was talkin’ with a friend of mine” and I jump to “said a woman had hurt his pride.” It just happens and not because I’m some savant or suffer post-traumatic stress associated with “Damn The Torpedoes.” It is just there and will be until the day either I or my brain dies. Such is Tom Petty to me.

Petty was a lizard, a snarling, straw-haired swamp jockey who dragged Gainesville to Los Angeles and got it in the water system. He was, as I often observed, a “weird dude” and had something else going on that isn’t easy to define. He used words to combine the personal and specific with the eternal and relatable. That, as pretentious and grandiose as it sounds, is about as close as I can come. He’d take a phrase like “don’t do me like that,” uttered first by an abusive, southern father, and make it understood by a fifteen year-old high school girl in Tarzana. Years later he’d take a spot just up the road from that girl’s house and write “it’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda / there’s a freee-way, runnin’ through the yard.” If you ever want to get why people both understand and underestimate Tom Petty, listen to “Free Fallin’.” It makes millions who never lived near the San Fernando Valley connect to the place and cements the words to those who have for life. We’re all bad boys ’cause we don’t even miss her,  all bad boys for breakin’ her heart.

Or maybe I’m going too far with this .. it’s possible. Petty was a rock ‘n’ roller in the way I came to understand the word. Some of my earliest memories are from ’77, sitting on the carpet in my brother’s bedroom when he wasn’t home, cranking the first album and “You’re Gonna Get It” on his Sansui receiver through Infiniti speakers. And then, well before the advent of MTV on a local cable show called “Rockvision,” seeing a clip of Petty, shot in glorious film, at the Whisky on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The tune was “I Need to Know” and he seemed to anchor that famous schnoz on the microphone and bob up and down to the beat in so cool a fashion it went straight to your veins. He was the anti-rockstar and the epitome all at once. The second grainy Rockvision clip was “American Girl” and I suppose that was it for me, for life. Mike Campbell’s Telecaster outro solo was the same back then as today and, appropriately, those were the last notes Petty heard before walking off stage last week to end his 40th anniversary tour and the last he’d play in front of fans before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Petty cared about his fans and understood that it was a personal thing, that he got in their blood. Unlike Springsteen who would alienate to make a point and launch into a ten-minute political diatribe mid-show, Petty would never dare stop a show to politicize or take anyone out of the experience. As he put it, it wasn’t hard to figure out what side of the aisle he leaned toward. He played at Al Gore’s concession party and quietly issued a cease and desist order to W. when Bush used “I Won’t Back Down” on the campaign trail. But he didn’t make a big deal out of it, just as he didn’t when his riffs or words were lifted by other artists. “I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs,” he said. He could have been the biggest hack going and those words would still resonate with me. He went to bat, quietly and fiercely, dozens of times for what he believed in. He went up against MCA in ’81 when record companies ruled the land, refusing to let them raise the price of his album “Hard Promises” by a buck for fear that it would put it out of reach for some 16 year-old grocery-bagger waiting on his hero’s new vinyl. He did all of this quietly and tenaciously to the end. Stopped flying the flag of the Confederacy even though it never meant “that” to him or to most of his fans. Did this quietly and respectfully too, despite redneck protests, saying it left him feeling “stupid” and that he’d “never do something to hurt someone.”

But what he did above and beyond all of this was use music with words in most remarkable fashion. He was derided by some for his appeal to many. Going to a Heartbreakers show in recent years was to go to a “greatest hits” show. This wasn’t due to his choice of songs, but rather because of his appeal and popularity .. his talent. Those shows were as cross-generational as they come .. parents, grandparents, kids. As my buddy Dave put it recently “there’s something wrong with somebody who doesn’t like Tom Petty.” I prefer to think that they’re either a) not from “here” (with “here” defined as broadly as America or narrowly as Reseda) or b) they just haven’t listened. The outpouring the last few days has been immense and I’ve taken comfort, and felt a little less foolish, by reading what he meant to so many. Somebody, somewhere wrote that “if you think back on the ten best days of your life, there’s a good chance Tom Petty was playing in the background for half of them.” An exaggeration perhaps, but like all good exaggerations, one that applies to me. So I’ll close it with that thought and a short bit of verse from a more obscure track off a lesser-known album, “The Best of Everything” from “Southern Accents”:

yeah and it’s over before you know it
it all goes by so fast
the bad nights take forever
and the good nights don’t ever seem to last

Of Pancakes And Porridge

Denis Munro is a conundrum with a Sean Connery accent; a cuisine-phobic, teetotaling man-about-the-High Street decked in snappy sports jacket complete with neatly folded hanky. “The hanky is sewn into the pocket” he pointed out as I dropped him off for a ten-day Alaskan cruise departing San Francisco. He wanted to make sure I didn’t picture him meticulously folding one himself, thereby dismantling the image he’d been carefully constructing all week of an edge-dwelling man hell-bent on destruction. The week saw us tracking ample city miles, climbing both Telegraph and Russian Hills. Seeing my surroundings through Denis’s eyes lent new perspective to the old and tired. A graying, bearded homeless man on the Wharf, flipping off passers-by with a “Fuck Trump” sign and plastic jar filled with cash transformed from eyesore obstacle to novel entertainment as Denis pointed his lens and parted with carefully-minded dollars. The dour-faced waitress with ample caboose in my local eatery couldn’t stay close enough to our table as Denis peppered her with pleasant chit chat ( “I’m from Scotland and don’t eat a wide range of food; it’s my only fault” ) and repeatedly asked about her life ( “Do you live in San Francisco? ; How do you get to work?” ) Bringing Denis to a restaurant is like bringing LSD to a Quaker picnic. He’s content to sit and watch you eat, ordering only an “Americano” and settling for regular coffee. Food phobias are matched only by a fearlessness for polite conversation.

The week was divided by a Lake Tahoe sojourn, pausing at Auburn on the climb up. Auburn is a Gold Rush town, its history steeped in prospecting and Old West doings. These destinations have filled Denis’s cup of tea since first visiting America long ago. Back then he returned from state-crossing adventures with tales of asking a Colorado filling station attendant what they grew in the mountainous terrain. “Son,” the old man told him, “‘round here we don’t raise nothin’ but rhubarb and pregnant women ..” Denis preserved such quotes in his trusty notebook, tucked away for future telling. He wasn’t keying on some imagined part of the western frontier; these people and places exist today. They’re just waiting for a garlic-avoidant man in a snappy blue sports coat to drive through and draw them out. He enjoys bars despite abstaining from drink and can be found recording bits of Americana from the graffiti on lavatory walls. Bumper stickers are memorialized in Denis’s canon and in 1980’s Nevada “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Fuckin’ Way” was preserved, suiting something distinctly American. After Auburn we pulled into Truckee, a river town along train tracks and just over the last mountain range from Tahoe. I’d mentioned the Pastime Club, a local dive featuring live music on weekends and where I once risked ruining expensive dental work by dancing with the girlfriend of a six foot five biker who looked like Willie Nelson. No such diversion this time as we arrived late-afternoon to a sparsely populated bar and profane bartender speaking of her “shit-headed girlfriend in Florida” who had decided to stick around for Hurricane Irma. I ordered a Corona, Denis a club soda, and we ambled back to the billiard table where he impressed me with his cue-handling skills. Then it was back on the road for the short scoot to the lake.

No place manages to impress upon first sight like Lake Tahoe and the sensation doesn’t abate with return visits. “Here we go,” Denis remarked catching first glimpse. Later I grilled two filet steaks on the deck with simple baked potatoes and salad. Denis ate every scrap, efficiently and quickly, causing me to consider whether this was because it was palatable or if he figured if he slowed down he’d be faced with the sobering reality that he was actually ingesting food that wasn’t pancakes or porridge. The latter is a Scottish staple (or at least it was sixty years ago) and as central to his existence as snow to an Eskimo. I may have become cocky after managing to prepare a meal he consumed fully that first night, but after that it was porridge with berries three dinners in a row. I’ve never seen someone hover so intently over the fruit and raw nuts section of a supermarket and he purchased enough whole foods to keep the Central Valley stocked for a week. As for pancakes, they were first introduced many visits back by my equally-Scottish mother whose natural charms had wooed Denis since he was a wee lad. She put the flapjack stack in front of him at the kitchen table and as he reluctantly tucked in he realized that he was experiencing the rarest of rare; a new menu item added to the Munro Repertoire. This and the soon to be discovered fact that coffee refills are free in America had Denis looking into job opportunities in San Francisco after a single visit.

I’m not a man of excess but traveling with Denis can make one feel like Hunter S. Thompson on an ether binge or Rosie O’Donnell stumbling upon the all you can eat buffet at Trump Tower. We watched several Coen Brothers films as I indulged in Kit Kat bars and single malt drams. Denis flossed filet bits from his teeth. I snuck out to the deck to watch through the window while firing up a Montecristo cigar. Where others might make you feel self-conscious about habits they don’t share, Denis is quick to defer, admire and compliment. He asked with interest how one knows that a potato is baked sufficiently and commented on “quite enjoying” the whiff of a good cigar despite not tolerating the smell of cigarettes. The following morning we set out for Reno and Virginia City, two reminders that Nevada, of all American states, is operating on its own set of rules. Denis fondly recounts the time in Reno when, at the Silver Legacy Casino, he threw caution to the wind and put a second quarter in a one-armed bandit and pulled the lever. I provided the thrills this time, quickly dispensing with ten bucks at video poker before we opted for brunch (“ahhh … pancakes!”) then set out for Virginia City. There we took in typical mining town attractions — the ‘Suicide Table’ at the ‘Bucket of Blood’ — after entering the main drag up a set of back stairs through the Silver Dollar Saloon. Denis was too enamored with Toby Keith blaring on the juke box to notice the hundreds of lady’s brassieres suspended above the bar or the curious glares from leather-clad local bikers as he ambled by in finely tailored felt.

He’s a good man and I don’t toss the words out lightly. His fondness for my mother would have sufficed in securing my long friendship but Denis’s charms go beyond this. We hiked down a steep hill to sit on a rocky perch above the glassy-still, deep blue Tahoe water on our last afternoon at elevation and out-drove the edge of an approaching mountain thunderstorm back to the cabin. Once more I grilled my dinner and Denis indulged in some plain crackers, unsalted nuts and main-course porridge. The skies opened up with a spectacular light show, rain, tall swaying pines and thunder that seemed to reverberate from Tahoe to Glasgow. An early exit the next morning and drive down to San Francisco featured Norm MacDonald on the Audi sound system and brunch (“ahhhhh .. pancakes!”) at the appropriately-named Denny’s south of Sacramento. Nothing exceeds like excess, but there is something to be said, too, for simple routine stacked with hard laughs and good memories.

Blame The Vain

If I could choose one God-given gift it would be a good singing voice. I can strum a few chords and butcher my way through an original tune while relying upon questionable wit and song parody. But to really sing in a manner that makes one pause from her drink to look up and find out where that sound is coming from .. that’s something else. Then there’s Dwight Yoakam. The man could sing the English instructions for a selfie stick and bring any house down. He’s strut the line between stardom and obscurity but never wanted for attention. Johnny Cash called him his favorite singer. He dated Bridget Fonda and Sharon Stone but flies just below the radar. His acting career dates back to 92’s “Red Rock West” and he played Doyle Hargraves, Billy Bob Thornton’s trigger-tempered nemesis in “Slingblade.” Standard film persona is the bad guy or criminal with a sad but menacing edge. Minus the ten-gallon Stetson, boots and painted-on jeans, he’s an oddly decked character actor; a 70’s Central Valley gas station jockey or Tom Petty’s distant brother minus the hair work. But in the get-up with a strapped D-28 he becomes D-wight with a capital “D.” The vibe is difficult to nail down .. Ohio by way of Kentucky but pure Hollywood, all sequins and sex. The voice drawls, twangs, cuts, rocks, soothes and simmers. It crosses genres and sneaks up with potent appeal — angelic reminder that overlooking flyover states can be an egregious error.

Dwight played Saratoga Mountain Winery last Sunday night, the last leg of a day I spent driving down from the Sierras with a re-charge San Francisco nap sandwiched between. It’s a small, impressive venue nestled into the south bay hills and accessed by a winding, narrow two-lane road. The older gentleman and season-pass holder sitting next to me explained that “it was purchased by the guy who invented the Internet.” Temperatures hovered around 90 globally-warmed, dryly heated degrees and the venue fit the show. San Jose babes flaunting porn star cowgirl regalia with skimpy cutoffs and western boots abounded. Yoakam has played Sunset Strip punk clubs and big stadiums alike, but he shines at local yokel spots like county fairs and Saratoga. The Blasters opened and go back with Dwight to the early 80’s L.A. cowpunk scene. The “eclectic” label has followed him, accurate though insufficient, and he came up with Los Lobos, X, Rank & File and The Knitters. He was called too punk for country and too country for punk but the talent was there and undeniable. You can come to Dwight by way of movies, biscuits, Buck Owens, Sid Vicious or Elvis, but you stick around for the voice. It fits all genres and he opened Sunday with Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” leaving plenty of room for honky tonk pause at the “meanwhile, I’ze still thinkin‘ ..” break. The punk influence has sustained and he still cranks the amps, playing loud but precise notes and rarely pausing for applause between songs. He’s always surrounded himself with excellent musicians and his current, youthful guitarist Eugene Edwards not only fills the early 80’s Dwight heart-throb role, he plays iconic Pete Anderson solos note for note. (Pete being Dwight’s trend-setting axe man between ’84 and ’02.) Then Dwight will shift gears and croon out a straight-up doo-wop original like “If There Was A Way” and just own the place in the process.

I’ve been thinking lately about how music fills a somewhat safe role between politics and religion. Where I’ll rarely offer an honest opinion on Trump or God with any except those who know me best, I’ll generally speak up if someone spews an untempered or critical take on Dwight Yoakam. It isn’t that I don’t have my own thoughts on the other stuff but there’s always a nagging undercurrent of doubt and lack of conviction regardless of which side I take. But tell me that you “don’t like that country shit” or you’re “not into twang” and I’ll engage forcefully. Or I’ll just turn it on low in the background and let him sneak up on you. Many roads lead to Dwight Yoakam and none of them have been paved by Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney. It just takes a while for most people to figure this out.

The Low-Carb Anarchist Cookbook

I watched two documentary films, by chance and back to back, during a recent Netflix binge. One is called New York Doll and focuses on the life of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for the seminal NYC punk band The New York Dolls. The other, American Anarchist, is about the life of William Powell, author of the 1971 instructional manual The Anarchist Cookbook which has sold over two million copies. The book directs and even encourages the amateur bomb-maker in carrying out his trade. There was a strikingly coincidental theme in the two films (“film” being used colloquially here) particularly given that I watched them in succession. Both subjects die prematurely and during the making of the documentaries but not so soon as to prevent a finished product. Kane passes away at 55 from leukemia just days after seeing his dream of a Dolls reunion come to fruition and Powell at 66 of a heart attack shortly after being interviewed at some length about his now infamous work. Neither death seems imminent; both occur out of the blue. In Kane’s case he dies just two hours after he’s been diagnosed. And both deaths come within the brief time-frame of the respective documentaries’ production. They aren’t used as cinematic device some years later or for a flummoxed director to conclude “I guess I’ve got my ending.”

There isn’t much controversy to New York Doll. It follows a sweet man who struggled with youthful, short-lived fame and alcoholism. Arthur Kane seems a genuinely good guy whose life was cut short but not before coming full-circle with poignant emphasis. American Anarchist is different. Powell wrote The Anarchist Cookbook when he was 19 and attending Vietnam War protests. He cites a particular mass protest at Grand Central Station with indiscriminate police beatings as motivation. It’s later revealed that personal alienation, a disjointed upbringing and molestation by a school administrator might have been even stronger influences. Whatever his reasons, the fact remains that the book tells its reader how to make bombs and other weapons and encourages their use as a legitimate form of political protest. The manual has been found in the possession of numerous killers and domestic terrorists including Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Klebold (the Bill Maher resembling half of the Columbine duo.) It’s a terribly reckless effort at best and arguably indefensible. Maybe causal evidence can’t  be drawn for Powell’s culpability, but there’s a lot more to work with than with JD Salinger and Mark David Chapman.

Of course Powell was just 19 when his work was published and as his wife notes “we all do dumb things but not everyone prints them in a book.” He is obviously regretful but has also become somewhat adept at compartmentalizing and rationalizing. Curiously, the film’s director Charlie Siskel seems guilty of a similarly egregious error in his approach to Powell: he can’t lay off the guy. In cut after cut he pushes him for something more than he is capable of giving. Powell has consented to be interviewed at length and is obviously a man who shoulders a heavy burden for his youthful ambition. But he isn’t sufficiently contrite for Siskel’s taste and the director wants something more. What that might be ( tears? .. mental breakdown?) is never quite clear. One wonders if Siskel sees any link between his approach to bring this partially repressed guilt to the surface and his subject’s fatal heart attack not long after the interview.  His editing choices and heavy-handedness are particularly suspect given that he was putting the film together in the wake of Powell’s sudden and unexpected death. It’s a time-honored theme, this “pot calling the kettle black” stuff, but most of us don’t go so far as to use it in a documentary.

Other high-profile examples of culpability arguments came to mind watching American Anarchist. Mike Judge was criticized for influencing child arsonists with Beavis and Butthead and the “Jackass” films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, either. But what is art if not exposing and celebrating the disposition of the truly stupid? And what are the odds that preventing this celebration will do anything to curb this most human of all traits? It’s always a bit more difficult when the work in question emphasizes humor or satire. Put Beavis and Butthead on the chopping block and pretty soon they’ll be coming after Spinal Tap. The Anarchist Cookbook, for what it’s worth, wasn’t a humorous attempt. But neither is the Bible nor Quran,  and if we’re to start somewhere we should probably go after the heavy-hitters.

Millertown

To understand the Minneapolis-based kinetic sculptor, filmmaker and artist Scott “Coleman” Miller, one needs to understand his vocabulary. It involves little premeditation and flows naturally. Near the top of the heap are the tried and true “splank,” “na-gooshed,” (pronounced ‘na-GOOSHED’) and “sheesh.”  Sheesh is an expression of exasperation, as in “I spent all night applying for a grant from the Boise Film Festival but spilled a Pepsi down my hard-drive .. SHEESH.” Splank is more difficult to explain and denotes both an unfortunate occurrence and an object contacting an unintended target. “I tried to hit the bucket with that big handful of moldin’-putty but it stuck to the wall instead .. SPLANK.” Na-gooshed is more specific, almost always referencing some kind of personal pain being inflicted upon an unsuspecting party by a  larger second party and as result of social misstep or wrong choice of words. “Yeah .. I can see me walking up to LeBron and suggesting that he stop wearin’ those straight-brimmed hats .. Na-GOOSHED!” This only touches on Miller’s full range and “sit-down,” “whiz-bang” and “SLAPPY” all figure prominently.

Tom Myers, the thrice Academy Award nominated sound designer and editor, has never changed his name. (Or if he has it’s only been temporarily and under circumstances he doesn’t discuss.) I wrote Tom a poem for his wedding many moons ago and called him a “guy among guys.” “Man among men” would be too exalted for Tom. His career achievements and popularity with the ladies would make another insufferable but Tom counters them nicely with a healthy amount of self-loathing and contradiction. In explaining his motivation for recent dietary changes and weight loss he notes “there’s less for me to hate now,” and he uses inexplicably un-Quaker expressions like “it really scratches that itch” to describe a favored musical passage. Tom is the pause in Miller’s monologue, the breath in between his antics. Miller becomes MILLER around Tom and jumps from eight to ten. Scott is the Sloppy Joe to Tom’s brown rice, the blurted “How you doin’ Chief?!” to Tom’s eye contact and hand shake. That said, Tom will politely call you on your shit when prejudice is expressed with a touch too much sincerity.

These two would not have met had it not been for the now-defunct and once semi world-famous Monaco Labs. I had mixed feelings about the place, for reasons that are perhaps self-evident. Miller describes those times as “the best” (an opinion contradicted recently by a third friend who worked the same era –“yeah .. I don’t think so.”) But time is subject to the perspective of the person living it.  That Miller and Myers crossed paths as result of the Monaco print department is unarguable. Their friendship would not be were it not for Dan Monaco, and that’s some rather powerful stuff when I give it a moment. I’m never sure where to go, however, with these moments. It’s a story that needs to be adequately told but that’s no blog-post task. Instead I’ll opt for the ever-convenient cartoon ending and quote a verse from “Millertown,” a recently-penned effort stemming from the three of us spending a few nights up at Lake Tahoe.

Everybody had a splank
Everybody a Na-gooshed
Everybody had a Big Sheesh
Got their Miller Buttons pushed (Down in Millertown ..)

No Friend Of Yours

Some friend of a friend of a friend of mine – Petty, “What’re You Doin’ In My Life?”

“Share Your Facebook Memories” is a recent feature on the internet titan that allows users to auto-generate a post from four or five years back and re-distribute some enthusiastic highlight from their past. I’m not sure how Facebook distinguishes and chooses these posts from the more dour “Sue has contracted Crone’s Disease” ones, but with face-recognition and virtual reality not far on the horizon and a zillion dollars in stock value, it can’t be any huge trick. This company may be getting too smart for their own good and is now compensating for the weariness of their massive user base in having to daily generate and project more interesting and enjoyable lives. “If you’re no longer buying the illusion,” they seem to be saying, “let’s show them how great everything was when you were.” Facebook is recycling old dopamine and offering a nostalgic high. I find most of the site to be a large-scale exercise in duplicating the mind-set of a friend of a friend, who was once described to me as never answering a question directly but instead turning every reply into a compliment for his wife. “I don’t know about that,” was this guy’s standard response, “but if I had it to do a million times again, I’d marry Linda every single one of them.” Yes, but the topic at hand was global warming, you moron. It’s this kind of inane positivity that dominates Facebook and makes us shape our days as an interminable series of life-affirming photos, comments and observations. Sure, you’ll get the occasional post when someone kicks the bucket — “Carbunkle Family Matriarch of 98 years and the rock at our center ..” But it’s a sanitized zeroes and ones obituary that only serves to emphasize the “you’re OK .. I’m OK, right?” nature of the deal. I’m not sure if birth announcements are proper fodder for the digital domain, but I surely don’t want somebody clicking a button to re-share the day I bit it, four years after the fact.

Or perhaps I’m just exceedingly bitter. Historically, this has been the case. Connectivity is the buzzword. We all know what the other is doing (or at least what the other wants us to think he is doing) and don’t have to wait for the morning paper on our doorstep to get the latest political news complete with spin. That spin can come from a variety of sources — paid “professionals” on various news sites, our personal group of 3000 close “friends” or Larry the Electrician texting us from our vacation home where he’s repairing a fuse box “did you see where Trump fired his FBI director?” There are two distinct differences from the past: it’s coming at us 24-7 and in much larger quantities, and there is no digestion-time. We used to have to wait for things: the paper, the six o’clock news, a phone call or letter or family get-together. We’d consume this information and then have some down-time to put it together in our own heads or find some way to put it aside. No such luxury anymore; we’re getting fed around the clock and all feeling the information-equivalent of being on one of those Caribbean cruise lines with no port in site.  I know how Benmont Tench feels about Sean Spicer because I’m on the former’s Instagram feed .. when all I was really looking for was some cool overhead piano shots from the latest Mudcrutch tour.

And what of these more “serious” political discussions on Facebook? I suppose one could view them as reprieve from shots of our buddy’s eighteen year-old daughter in her first low-cut dress readying for prom night or banal up to the minute postings like “look — a wasp has landed in my milkshake.” But in most cases the vast majority of these “friends” reading our opinions on Washington or Syria or healthcare are of like-mind and this “discussion forum” more resembles a closely-knit circle-jerk. We’re steeling and fortifying our already like-minded clique and creating this illusion of cohesion and shared “common sense” when in fact it’s no more accurate or reality-based than that picture of your friend’s eternally-happy extended family enjoying a ten-course meal around a perfectly decorated dining room table. If you really want to change minds or get an accurate reflection of those outside your group, jump into an Alabama discussion group if you live in San Francisco or Brooklyn .. or reach out to France if you’re from Tennessee. It’s never been easier to do so and they even have the language-barriers figured out. Of course you just won’t see this happen. We all enjoy being told that we’re right and smart and insightful. Nobody wants to go looking for instant dopamine only to be informed that he’s got his head up his ass.

I struggle with using the word “irony” correctly, even being familiar with it all my life and having looked it up in Webster’s on many an occasion. I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t fully “get” irony .. but I think it was by some pussy Frenchman or effete English dude with bad teeth. At any rate (what about six and half percent?) I think the term can be aptly applied to elements of our modern world, and more specifically the idea of information dissemination. Here we are at a time when it is easier to reach out or be reached than ever in history. And yet the result seems to be more disillusion, extreme personalities as figureheads, and the re-affirmation of bubble-living. We’ve bridged huge gaps only to ramp up the process of closing our minds. I guess it’s no great surprise, and if we’re to believe the film “The Social Network,” Zuckerberg created Facebook primarily to get laid. And the site has reportedly led to more infidelity, break-ups and divorces than at any time in our history. (The more pronounced side of staring into our phone and lusting after our buddy’s eighteen year-old daughter in her prom dress.) I still like to believe there is a basic good in people and I’ve had one shining, indefatigable, remarkable example in my life: my mom. She never got near a computer, didn’t own a smartphone and didn’t even trust ATM machines. Take that for what you will.