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Nobody Home

“I got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains” – Waters

What’s of greater value — getting better with something at which you’re innately good, or good with something at which you struggle ? I would argue for the latter, though there is no right answer. Clearly those starting out best at what they do have a distinct advantage and often go on to greatest success. Willie Mays’ love of the game was expressed with fluid motion, boyish enthusiasm, and a sense that he was born in center field with a glove on. But there was a particular beauty to Pete Rose, that most un-beautiful of ballplayers, too. Watching him lumber full-speed after a meaningless late-September foul pop before snagging it in a dusty, violent tumble was a thing to behold. Often those we admire most for what they do look at their ability with curious disregard and long to do something else. Gary Larson, perhaps the greatest of one-panel cartoonists, put down his pens to pursue jazz guitar. Michael Jordan tried to play baseball. Johnny Carson loved playing drums and wanted to be Buddy Rich. When people pursue these things passionately and outside the realm of vocation, we say they have “hobbies.” For most working stiffs this is a distinction made of necessity and because nobody will pay them to play jazz guitar. Some people are so crushed by the weight of their work-a-day world, they have neither time nor energy to consider that what they’re best at isn’t what they do. Others learn to hate that which comes naturally because they’re trapped making a living at it. There have to be a lot of natural-born accountants out there who could give a rat’s ass about their ability.

What’s this got to do with anything? Not much. Were I in a more constructive state of mind I’d find a segue here between Pete Rose and Theresa May or global warming. Or find a link between Gary Larson and the start of baseball season. But that’s just a parlor-trick; a device to try and trick the reader into thinking you know where you’re going.

I was watching the author, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris on Youtube the other night. How’s that for a cocktail party show-stopper? “What do I do? Well I’m an author, neuroscientist and philosopher .. but I really want to play jazz guitar. Want to see my van?” Harris’s command of speech is admirable .. a close-second, perhaps, to the late Christopher Hitchens. He was making a point about the dangers of religious fundamentalism with an argument about how nobody on an airplane, regardless of secular devotion, would sit calmly if the pilot came on and told them he was turning off the controls and relying upon divine intervention to fly the thing. Except Harris made the point both extemporaneously and better, despite my having the time to consider and edit here. This — for a variety of personal reasons — might be what impresses me most these days. We take for granted the ability to form words in our head and spit them out of our mouths. But it’s a small miracle, even for those with limited vocabulary. Then there are people like Harris and Hitchens who seem not only to always have a salient point at the ready, but the effortless ability to use the right words in making it. I would argue that this form of intellect is more of the Willie Mays than Pete Rose variety. Sure, being a voracious reader and practiced public speaker helps, but there are geniuses of the first order who become tongue-tied no matter how they try to make a point. The ability to speak well and intelligently is a natural gift and great advantage in asserting one’s view. A decent argument will often beat a great one when expressed fluently and with the right words.

And finally, what’s the deal with San Francisco? I love the place and suspect I wouldn’t do well in Akron or Billings, but has there ever been a city more filled with unfriendly and weird stiffs? When I first moved to New York and was using Craig’s List extensively, somebody pointed out that even this was different in the two cities. People in San Francisco, he said, would contact you and arrange to meet or purchase something, then drop it without ever getting in touch. I thought at the time it had to be an errant observation. I was from San Francisco, after all, and would never do this. But the past few months in both cities have underlined his point both emphatically and empirically. For all its liberal posing and “community” activism, San Francisco lacks a strong sense of cohesion. Then there was “Max”, the guy who emailed multiple times to berate me for not offering enough to haul off a dismantled piece of furniture. “It costs $40 just to take something to the dump .. so what am I making here??????” (He included the six question-marks and an equal number of exclamation points elsewhere in his rant.)  I hadn’t contacted Max directly; he was responding to my posting. Instead of going on to the next one, or offering to do it for more money, he chose to lecture me. Yeah, yeah .. I know .. there are plenty of Maxes in a city like New York with eight million people. But I lived there and almost never ran into them. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a different brand of idiot in New York, and it’s more to my liking. Fortunately, a guy name Michael from the Avenues and with an Irish last name responded to my post well before Max did. He came by the place in the rain half an hour after I posted the ad and gladly hauled away my stuff, pocketing some extra cash to take an old bed frame as well. He said nothing and smoked a cigarette as we loaded the bed of his Toyota Tacoma, but offered an “Awesome – thanks” when I handed him the money and before I watched the red tail-lights fade into the damp March night. There was hope for me in and beyond his two words .. more than I could adequately explain here. Where’s Sam Harris when you need him?

All About You

“Horses scream, the nightmares dream
 and the dead men all wear shoes” –  John Prine

“Once you’re down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the king” – Waylon

I figured I could do better than that. Not Prine or Waylon, of course, but what I wrote previously about New York. Someone once told me that I possess a particular form of bravery and will look some things dead-on that others won’t touch. If it’s true it exists in conjunction with an equally potent brand of avoidance; not cowardice exactly, but the kind of deal that makes you not want to walk out the door in the morning. Some days I just don’t want to see anybody and will indulge the option. Lately, though, the option hasn’t been there. I’m a cynic. It’s ingrained to the point where it doesn’t register internally. I said it recently — “I’m cynical about a lot of stuff” — and the other person burst out laughing. So be it. Here, however, are some things about which I am not cynical: New York City. It smells like garbage and subways in the summer and can possess a particularly bleak, cold and grey winter quality. But it’s too big to be vilified, classified or marginalized. America never stopped being great and you need look no further than where I am now .. for a few more days, anyway. To quote Letterman post 9-11 “If you didn’t believe it before — and it’s easy to see where you might have been skeptical — New York City is the greatest city in the world.”

Loss provides perspective. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Too many cooks .. well, you get the picture. “In order to win,” says the great and grumpy Van Morrison, “you must be prepared to lose sometimes .. and leave one or two cards showing.” So it is with New York. I’ve been coming and leaving since 2003 and within that context I’ve learned to appreciate the place. I’ve heard it since I arrived “it ain’t what it used to be” .. “Times Square is Disneyland” .. etc. New York City is immune to old money, new money, white kids, black kids, rich kids, Alec Baldwin, Williamsburg, Trump, BeBlasio and the Knicks. (And if you can be immune to the Knicks you’re doing OK.) Stand at its perimeter and feel the place buzz if you don’t believe it; pulsating like an old person refusing to die. It swallows, absorbs, embraces and spits out, but it isn’t going anywhere.

I’m no theologian .. this can be documented. But I’ve been talking to a Higher Power of late. Not sure if it’s God, the Universe, or the guys who designed and built the Golden Gate Bridge. (And for the record and with deference to New York’s many impressive overpasses, there is none like that bridge anywhere.) But it seems to me, if we’re to extract one usable instruction from most religions, it would be “it ain’t all about you.” Where they go from there gets a little shaky, but never mind that. Point being, no city emphasizes this idea more than New York. Here you will get your balls busted, regardless of how you choose to avoid or engage. Resist at your peril. Don’t be a sucker, but don’t be a stiff or a pussy either. There’s been a lot of buzz about that word lately, but in this context it refers to self absorption. A true New Yorker — and at thirteen years in, knowing I’ll never be one myself, I use the term sparingly — set me straight on this. “It isn’t all about you.” Never confuse self-absorption for sensitivity. New York embraces, is shaped and even hardened by the sensitive and is too big and bad to pretend otherwise. But it ain’t all about you.

And so the place again washes over and hits me with a fresh dose of reality. It’s there picking up the tab at a ten-dollar an oyster, overcrowded bistro down Court or sitting at the bar down Henry with a great plate of rigatoni and more than palatable glass of five-dollar red. Or sitting alone at a table in the back of Great Jones, remembering the first time I stopped in back in 2001 and observing that they still have Bob Wills vinyl 45 in the jukebox. It’s the Russian woman noting that she didn’t know she’d have a “big strong man” helping her load my $200 end-table sold for $40 into her Chrysler minivan. Or the beautiful brown-skinned Manhattan girl wheeling away my IKEA dresser as deftly attached to a dolly by her male companion. (“He was trained in European furniture repair ..”)  It’s there in Ismail my super, changing the “probably” to “will” in my noting the likelihood of return. Or seeing Springsteen at Giants Stadium before they tore the place down and Philip Seymour Hoffman performing “Death of a Salesman” before he shot himself up. It was in the Old Man, still in OK shape and between visiting melt-downs, marveling at the “energy” everywhere and noting “it’s a good hat” after scoring him a four-dollar beanie on a cold day in Central Park. And it’s there in every box I triple-tape and ship UPS ground from the packaging place across the street. In savoring just being here, again, for a while, while the apartment grows more spacious by the day.

I  read and wrote essays when I arrived here and recall one by a young woman noting how difficult and isolating this city can be. It ended with the cheese falling off the top of her frozen pizza and to the floor as she pulled it from the toaster oven, alone in her Brooklyn studio. “I sat and cried for two hours that night and knew that was it .. I was done with New York City.” I got it, sure. But the top had fallen off my pizza long before I arrived. Better to walk a few blocks and stand in line with the other lonely souls waiting on a slice at two in the morning, noting that you can’t do this anywhere else. No, I’ll never be a “New Yorker.”  I know a few things about the place, though, and it’s inside of me. Tell me about your city and I’ll tell you about a few others .. we can chat on it all night. But there’s nowhere like here.

Little Pink Colorblind Tests

I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp of late. It’s been thirty years. Returning to him at this ripe age affirms a long-held suspicion. Everything needed to know about life can be attained by studying this man. Start with the obvious — don’t change your name more than once. Never mind airport security hassles; it’s not good practice. The world lets Zimmerman to Dylan slide. But Johnny Cougar to John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp to John Mellencamp to Rick Barry Basketball Camp is too much. It’s like a young girl changing her signature while trying to project the desired image. Nobody cares how you cross your “t’s.” The same applies to other changes .. facial hair, footwear, religion, sexual preference, etc. One shift every five years is acceptable but don’t go jumping around too much. It’s bad form.

Don’t be too earnest. Have a solid back beat and simple chords but don’t over-sell. Stick with lyrics like “get a leg up / get a leg over,” and avoid “well we’re dropping our bombs, in the southern hemisphere / and people are starving, that live right here.” Go with your instinct on “rooty toot toot, rooty toot toot” but steer clear of “is this your life, Jackie Brown?” People enjoy assigning personal meaning to simple songs. If you’re going to be literal take a clue from Hank Williams and “hey good lookin’, what ya got cookin?” Don’t write a great song like “Hurts So Good”  only to later claim you “never wanted to be no pop singer.” The same applies to claiming you never wanted to be “Johnny Cougar.” There is nothing wrong with being a pop star; the world could use a few more Cheap Tricks and a few less Alanis Morissettes. Earnestness is often mistaken for righteousness and righteousness never made any dinner party easier to get through.

Have a compelling personal life but keep it in check. Generate interest via your Wikipedia page when your career starts to wane. Marry multiple times with flocks of kids by different women. Name your girls “Justice” and your boys “Hud.” Date famous women after giving up on marriage. Start with Meg Ryan then jump to Christie Brinkley. Have Christie explain your amicable split was based purely on her distaste for Indiana and yours for the Hamptons. If you’re only 5′-8″ and have a disproportionately large head, don’t be adverse to chain-smoking and wearing heels .. particularly if you plan on standing next to Johnny Cash at Farm Aid. Go on Letterman (or current day equivalent) and tell him you saw a tear in his eye when you perform your latest tear-jerker. Smoke on the show.

That’s about all the John Cougar Mellencamp life advice I can dish, but I do have one other recommendation. Don’t post colorblind and/or math tests on Facebook. And worse yet, don’t reply if some other idiot posts one. You know the ones — a group of lavender and pink dots forming a word or a block of integers between one and two hundred with one missing. Then the claim “if you can identify this word / spot the missing number (in ten seconds or less) you are in the top five percentile.” This is then followed by a long list of replies, most of them correctly identifying “party” or “152.” And none, apparently, realizing that the answer is written a hundred times already and there is no way of determining whether you took all afternoon to get there. I’ve always assumed that those posting the wrong number or word are in on the joke and only doing so to keep the other Einsteins going at it. In any case it’s nothing in which Johnny Cougar would ever partake.

I Used To Live Alone Before I Knew Ya

I grew up with a lot of conservatives. Well, I grew up with the kids of a lot of conservatives. This was by no means a reflection of the prevailing demographic; rather it was our small group of largely Italian friends and family who tended to spend Thanksgiving and New Year’s together. And even “Italian” is a stretch here. My mom is Scottish, my grandmother Irish, and the group extended outward to all neighbors. But the names on the predominant mailboxes were Italian. And these people were and still are among the warmest and most inclusive sorts I’ve ever known.

As kids we didn’t know from Italian or any other group simply by hearing a name. “Monaco” or “Picetti” or “Galli” only reflected a family, or the kid in question. We applied no more ethnic identity to them than we did “Greenman,” “Greenberg,” “Callahan,” “Ramirez,” or “Jones.” The name meant a face — this was the immediate association. (Granted there weren’t a lot of African American kids where I grew up, but had there been equal numbers I believe the same would have applied.)

Then we all got a bit older and distinctions crept in. One of the first for me was the after-school catechism classes that my Catholic friends attended. They’d make a left turn climbing up the hill to go to Mrs Costello’s house and learn about Jesus and his pals while I continued onward alone. “Catholic” became a distinction for me. It was something they were and I was not. I wasn’t alone in this regard and it wasn’t as though I was a single non-believer in a sea of followers. But I didn’t go to Hebrew school or temple either. We weren’t Catholic or Jewish or Protestant (though I used the last when asked as a catch-all.) We were nothing.

By the time high school rolled around the distinctions were more clear. There was an entire school for the Catholic kids where they had to wear uniforms and study theology. It was also where the kids who were already fucking up badly tended to be sent, whether they were Catholic or not and if their parents cared and had a bit of money. My public high school was more diverse in makeup from Catholic school, but still largely white, affluent and liberal given the demographic. It was a relatively large school though, so there were plenty of kids from more conservative families as well as a handful of blacks and other minorities. By the time we all graduated, lines had been clearly drawn. Yeah, we were mostly rich white kids by national standards, but we definitely distinguished between ethnicity, religion and politics.

I won’t go into my college experience .. I didn’t graduate until later, anyway. In between I quit and went to work for our family company. We ran a motion picture lab in San Francisco, a city so liberal it would later have an actual proposition on the ballot to name a sewage treatment facility after George W Bush. My father grew up in North Beach and is a third-generation San Franciscan. When he was a kid, what passed for “liberal” politics in the city would be considered conservative today. And he ran a (relatively) small business in a city that never made that easy. The people I worked with — young, interested in film, and having moved to San Francisco — were mostly liberal in outlook. The company itself had a long tradition of informality and was rich in varied personalities. Put another way, we employed a lot of nuts. This was not Dow Chemical nor Goldman Sachs. We threw parties and played softball together. Management and middle-management were respectfully mocked at times, but it was kept to a healthy level. Most people knew that the shit that flew at our company wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere and this served largely as glue more than dissent. I made many good friends working there, several of whom I’ve kept to this day.

There’s been a lot of talk of bubble-breaking recently; a need to reach out beyond one’s prevailing circle to engage others who might have a slightly different world view. I’ve heard some speak to the difficulty of this .. “I don’t know these people .. how can I reach out if I never come across them? Do I have to get in my car and go find them?” But I don’t think it’s about the staunch liberal and the gun-toting conservative crossing state lines for a Kumbaya moment. You don’t have to look too far to find someone who thinks slightly differently than you do and you might not need to pierce your own bubble. Perhaps I’m over-simplifying or being naive in light of too much time or water under the bridge. It’s almost 2017 for god’s sake. But I can remember a time when a name just meant a kid’s face, and in that fact I still find hope.

More Three Dot Journalism

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My buddy Miller ran into Herb Caen at the Saloon in San Francisco some years back. He (Miller) had a tendency to “project” back in the day, and seeing Herb on the town flanked by two thirty year-old hotties was more than he could resist. “HERB — you NUT!!” he yelled, two feet away from the famed scribe and loudly enough for the packed bar to take note. Herb smiled calmly and without breaking unhurried stride replied “You’re pretty crazy yourself ..” Miller’s Cubbies are in the playoffs again, beginning tonight against the Giants. Herb, for the record, was from Sacramento .. no more a “San Franciscan” than Miller. “Sometimes we’re all hypocrites,” to quote Meadow Soprano talking late-night in the kitchen to a drunken Tony. So in this spirit and that of three-dot journalism ..

***

How about that Conor Gillaspie, replacement third baseman for a guy (Eduardo Nunez) already replacing a traded favorite Giant (Matt Duffy.) The guy made an incredible catch in their final regular season game against the Dodgers, flipping over both railing and massive TV camera. And then he squares one up in Queens the other night — over the right field fence — in the ninth inning of a do or die wildcard match as the team rode Madison Bumgarner’s formidable shoulders into the playoffs. If you can’t appreciate this moment in a world of chaotic nonsense, then I can’t help you. (Except, of course, if you aren’t a baseball fan, which is perfectly acceptable and would account for your indifference.) “Enthusiasms” as DeNiro, playing Al Capone, notes in DePalma’s “Untouchables” before punctuating his point over some guy’s head with a baseball bat. They call it “squaring one up,” I believe, because it aptly describes what’s necessary to hit a round ball — traveling an unknowable path at a hundred miles an hour — with a round bat. Which reminds me of another get together around the same time as the Miller-Herb story and at Vesuvio, a bar just down the hill from the Saloon. There was a group of us, including three-time Academy Award Nominee Tom Myers. Tom and I were discussing the Ted Williams – like swing of Giants first baseman Will Clark. Another young woman, typical of the type who moved to San Francisco back then, interjected with “Yeah .. but you know it’s just baseball. I mean if you got a hundred people together who were pretty good at sports, one of them could hit the ball like that ..” I’m not sure what my facial expression reflected in that moment .. all I recall is Tom grabbing me with two hands and saying “OK .. steady big guy .. steady ..”

***

While I’m on the bar theme and writing in this non-sequitur, stream of nonsense fashion, here is a short list of names I’ve created over the years for the assortment of regular characters frequenting Specs’ tavern at 12 Adler: Monkey Boy, Forrest Whittaker Junior, WSM (World’s Saddest Man) and J’sus Christ the Lord. (Actually that last one is credited to Paul Tognotti .. as it relates both to the guy’s appearance and, I think, the speech Linus gives toward the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”) I’m sure there are several more I’m missing but those four, and the individuals so assigned, are novel-worthy.

***

This is where Herb would throw in an anecdote about something one of his oft-quoted San Franciscan buddies heard while waiting on line in Safeway, or drop a restaurant owner’s name to assure he continued his well-known tradition of never picking up a tab. I know no such luxuries, though I certainly know a few others. That said it’s been a hard summer and into the fall, and I’ve seen some shit. Enough to know that, as my buddy Dave (as well as Iggy Pop and several others) once noted “I don’t want to take any more.” Or any more than necessary, I suppose. Here’s to Conor Gillaspie, Joe Panik (native New Yorker,) Brandon Crawford, some other dude and an early Thursday morning NYC pizza slice shot that’s bound to bring back a few smiles in years to come. Enjoy it while it lasts boys and well beyond. Here’s tae us; wha’s like us? .. Damn few, and they’re a’ deid.

Forgive It All

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No news is good news, and a cursory check of recent headlines would seem to back this. Kooks running amok. Some dude in France runs down eighty-plus revelers in his truck. Cops shooting people and people shooting cops. Turkey in turmoil. Britain divided. And two of the most unlikable candidates in U.S. presidential history. I’ve been avoiding both headlines and something called a “heat dome” which has settled over New York City by retreating to San Francisco. Here it is July-cool with frequent fog in the evenings and easily accessed dry summer heat just a short drive away. Yes, the city has changed but I still know a few folks. I took off to Tahoe for a bit as a birthday-gift and it was even nicer up there. This is the lesson learned: you can alter neither the world nor the headlines, so manage your own. Be very good to those closest to you and gentle with those beyond. And, whenever possible, avoid traveling on the weekends.

I ran into a bear up at Tahoe. “Ran into” might not be the most accurate way of putting it — he (going with gender-assumption here) clawed the screen off the open side window of the cabin while I lay sleeping on the couch just below. This sort of thing wakes you up in a hurry. He then stuck his head in the window, up on all fours against the side of the house. When he pulled back for a split second I reacted quickly and slammed the sliding window shut left to right. This was enough to frighten him off and I don’t think it was until that instance, seeing him moon-lit and scurrying away, that I put together what had happened. I did some research the next morning and discovered that maulings by black bears are very rare, unless you get between a mother and her cubs. But none of this matters when an animal of this size sticks its small-refrigerator-sized head inside your personal domicile and snorts a few times.

Prior to traveling to Tahoe I’d caught Mudcrutch at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Mudcrutch is Tom Petty’s reunited pre-Heartbreakers band and the cover of their second album shows two bears squaring off. Or perhaps it’s two guys in bear suits. In either case, this bear theme was carried over to the posters made for the event at the famed venue, and I’d brought mine up to Tahoe to put up on the cabin wall. So it all ties together .. album cover, poster, bear sticking head in window. Maybe he just wanted a closer look at the artwork. Mudcrutch is a solid band and Petty is a good songwriter. Some people tend to underrate Petty, likely because he’s had strong commercial success and he’s from the (American) south. I tend not to like these people, nor do I care for the type of music “they” generally prefer. (Think David Byrne in a big suit making choppy motions up and down his forearm.) But that’s OK and to each his own. Life is too short and you never know when a bear is going to stick his head in the window.

Great Apes and Average Folks

I think I’m sophisticated ’cause I’m living my life like a good Homo sapien” – Ray Davies

I thought I’d take a more blog-like moment to write about the incident that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo last weekend when a three year-old boy wandered from his parents’ reach and fell twelve-plus feet into a moat at the gorilla enclosure. He was promptly made welcome by Harambe, a four-hundred and fifty pound silverback gorilla and pride of the zoo’s exhibit. After assessing the situation and watching Harambe briefly drag his new friend through the water with ridiculous rag-doll ease, zoo officials deemed it necessary to put the animal down. There was ample cell phone video of the lad’s brief but memorable face-time with the great beast but thankfully none of the shooting. I would hope that, at the least, it was executed by a competent marksman in as humane a fashion as possible.

There’s been much discussion about the matter .. more than there would have been twenty years ago when nobody had a video camera in their phone. When it comes to zealousy there are no more passionate practitioners than parents and animal rights activists. I have no qualms about the way the zoo handled this unfortunate matter. Watching the moment when Harambe — be it affectionately or otherwise — decides to relocate the boy is enough to see that he could have pulled off his head or other appendage with the ease in which a child removes an unlit candle from a birthday cake. There has been backlash against the parents and questions about how they let this happen. But where three year-old boys are concerned, one quick glance from Mom toward the cotton candy cart or Dad at the stems on Blondie heading to the giraffe exhibit is enough to do it. When I was about that age I got my arm stuck up in a vending machine reaching for some shiny object while my grandmother was getting her groceries bagged at Safeway. She was mortified at having to call the store manager over to soap up my arm and unlock the machine. Looking back now, she didn’t know how good she had it.

So yes, this was the preferred outcome. The parents got their child back safely and a tragedy of more epic proportion was averted. This said, I’d like to speak both selfishly and on behalf of the Gorilla Community. I prefer gorillas to most children. They have a consistently appealing appearance that conveys a calming, zen-like solemnity on the observer. Kids are typically unpleasant to look at for everybody but their parents and become even less so when they open their mouths. Yes, I know, this is an untenable and misanthropic position. But a random sampling of ten gorilla head shots and those of ten kids will validate it. And if the ten random kids are accompanied by their parents (say, at the zoo,) thereby forcing one to ponder the long and unfortunate road ahead? Forget about it. I wouldn’t pay twelve bucks to watch a human family interact and I doubt that most gorillas would. Conversely, I’d offer twenty or more to have a lot of human families removed from my sight-line. As much as I find zoos distasteful, I could watch a gorilla sit on a rock in the warm sun all day. But I can’t say the same about any human, short of perhaps the Dalai Lama .. and even then it would take some consideration on my part.

Think for a moment on the kind of deal Harambe got. He was snatched from his natural environment and brought to Cincinnati — a city with marginal cultural appeal and a lousy baseball team. Yeah, he was provided with free room and board, but it was the jungle equivalent of a crappy studio apartment with an insulting excuse for a moat surrounding it. If he wanted to splash in the water he had to do so in front of a bunch of gawking, pointing, trolls. Zoo-goers are far from the finest humanity has to offer and they almost always bring their offspring. This was what replaced his view of the lush expanse of God’s creation. Then one day the monotony is broken when a three year old child appears in his moat. Harambe goes over to investigate and is rewarded with a bullet to his head. So yes, I’m glad this child survived unharmed and was reunited with his parents, but regardless of how this went down, the gorilla wasn’t coming out alive. There are over seven billion humans on the planet and  little more than a hundred thousand gorillas. From a percentage standpoint, this was a much more significant blow to their population. The evolutionary chain was in full view that day in Ohio .. but make no mistake about this: ours too is a closed-end experiment. We may have a few dozen generational cycles ahead but we’re going down, and in what amounts to a second-hand tick on the cosmic clock. The most we can hope for is a few more sunny days ahead and that one of our progeny’s progeny doesn’t end up in the human exhibit at some latter-day equivalent of the Cincinnati Zoo.

Dr Everything L.B. Alright

My system broke down upon returning to New York. I say “system” because I believe this is how it works, much like a car with a small, untreated mechanical concern eventually necessitating complete overall. Somebody told me the that I “think too much” recently, and while this is undoubtedly true, the opposite approach can kill one, too. Unless of course you’re blessed with the rare but fortunate condition of genuine stupidity .. but this is nothing to bank on. I sat next to a guy on the Jet Blue red-eye who hacked, open-mouthed, for the entire cross-country trip while not making a single effort to cover himself. Spittle flew everywhere. Eventually I draped my sweater over my head like some nutty, cross-country Arabian sheikh relegated to coach. I won’t mention my hacking co-traveler’s nationality, lest I label myself xenophobic racist on top of over-thinker. But let’s just say his mother never taught him to cover his mouth when he coughed, and whether this is a cultural or personal trait I don’t trust it. I stared daggers at one point when his droplets literally sprayed my TV screen from across the aisle but he simply stared back at me with a look that said “soon you will know this sickness, too.” All of which probably wouldn’t be relevant had my system not been vulnerable .. specifically my brain. I sincerely believe there are times when you literally can’t get sick, no matter what kind of germ incubator you’re trapped in and how many virulent, airborne particles you’re breathing in. But this wasn’t one of those times.

Merle Haggard died shortly before I left Northern California and Prince after I returned east and was in the throes of this brief illness. I wrote recently that there are “a lot of people dying of late,” but the reality is closer to an observation I made at a friend’s funeral when I wasn’t even thirty. “The older you get, the more dead people you know.” I brought up David Bowie with my niece while driving her to middle school when I was back in San Francisco and she (understandably) asked “who was he?” This is the true advantage of youth — not the effortless vigor or having your entire life in front of you — but the not being familiar with as many dead people. I can recall my grandmother being upset when Jack Benny died and making the comment “he was always thirty-nine.” I didn’t get the reference then, but I do now and am sad that Jack is no longer around. This is the converse of youth; with age you not only mourn the dead of your generation, you actually go back and acknowledge the passing of those from previous ones. Or I do anyway, but this likely speaks to the over-thinking thing and my niece will be too busy grieving Taylor Swift’s long and slow decline to ever give a shit about the Thin White Duke.

Getting back to Prince .. bummer. I sincerely believe that music can bridge gaps between those who share nothing else in common. Of course the reverse can be equally true and people can be driven even further apart by their divergence in musical taste. But Prince bridged more gaps than he widened. You needn’t be into his electronic funk, religious pontification nor symbol-for-name offshoots. Perhaps, like the young rockheads who yelled “fag” when he opened for the Stones at the L.A. Coliseum in ’81, you were never a fan of his sexually ambiguous, leather-bikini-brief-wearing style. (Although, unlike Bowie, “androgynous” wouldn’t be the first word I’d assign to the cat.) But if you ever played, attempted to play, or simply appreciated someone else who could play an instrument, Prince was hard to deny. This medley clip of the lad strapped only with a purple acoustic guitar is evidence enough. He was the exceedingly rare example of a narcissist who added more to the world than he subtracted. Five-foot-two and perennially in heels, the man knew he loomed large. Watch his 2007 Super Bowl halftime appearance for example of a guy with ice water in his veins who could still connect with an audience of a hundred million. Enough on the adulation. All his foibles, true or otherwise, being exploited in the wake of his death (an opiate addiction as result of his Jehovah’s Witness hip surgery aversion, etc.) only add to the remarkable reminder that he was like the rest of us; vulnerable to complete system break-down. But when it came to his music and how he put it out there — however and whatever it took to put it out there — he was unique and one bad man.

Horace and Steph

A decidedly liberal buddy of mine was recently Facebook-reprimanded by a Bernie Sanders supporter for his defense of Hillary Clinton with this observation on his artistic potency: “Not enough fangs to be fifth-cousin to a vampire.” This, I’m afraid, is what the Trump candidacy has brought us to. The Republican Party has become so whacked-out that Democrats have taken to preying upon themselves. Perhaps it’s all part of some grand scheme and right-wing conspiracy. Let them have this election and take over everything in four years after they’ve eaten their own. I find myself moving with troubling expediency toward the George Carlin world-view that I’ve mentioned numerous times in the past. The drain-circles are getting smaller and faster and the only appropriate response would seem to be rooting them on. Something has clicked in me over the last year and it’s not unlike the curtain being pulled back on a less intelligent and compassionate version of Oz’s wizard. The rockhead to genius ratio is no different than it was on the third-grade tetherball court and any illusion I had that age might improve things puts me squarely in the former group. Your children aren’t special. Merle Haggard is dead.

Thank God for professional sports and Louis CK. One of the upsides of spending much time in Northern California of late has been watching the Golden State Warriors play basketball. I’ve been to two Warrior games this year, one on each coast, and watched a bunch on TV. What Stephen Curry does on a basketball court is the antidote for all of life’s bullshit ambiguity. Anyone of the mind that sports are frivolous pablum for the masses need only keep this in mind: it’s simple. All you need to do is make the ball go through the hoop. Just watch this guy do what he does for a few minutes and try and deny its beauty. “Ah yes,” some of you may be inclined to observe, “but what does it mean in the grand scheme of things?” It means everything. Not the wins and losses, not the political bickering, not the micro-lessons in the produce aisle on avocados and where they come from for your precious bundles of joy. But what Steph Curry does, in the moment and with a basketball. It means everything.

Of course if you still crave the great, ambiguous milieu, there’s Louis CK’s “Horace and Pete” which just wrapped a few weekends back. I was listening to an interview with Garry Shandling in the wake of his recent death and, to paraphrase him, it all comes down to art and heart. This applies to CK’s recent, brilliantly flawed, visionary effort. The finale peaked with a kind of peculiar and pointed emotion just at the moment CK’s character Horace is hit with a personal epiphany. And then, before we can discover what it is and not unlike the Soprano’s finale, a cut to black. As Edie Falco, playing his sister, later observes about Horace: “He was nothing, really. He was, uh, no kind of man. He was just some guy.” True enough, but within that description lies a Steph Curry jump-shot; all the world’s promise and all the world’s heart.

Feel Free to Flip

Lots of folks dying of late (or “passing” to use the often-invoked and sanitized metaphor suggesting life as a freeway with the dead going by us in their cars.) More specifically, lots of famous folks dying. This is usually what we mean when me make the observation, and celebrity has taken on this added dimension of making the rest of us pause for a moment to note that the clock is ticking after checking our Twitter feed. Garry Shandling was the latest, just yesterday. He registers significantly with me, not only because he wasn’t all that much older (sixty-six) but also because he created the greatest television show in history. I make no qualifications for that last statement and I’m a student of some pretty good ones, The Sopranos and The Phil Silvers Show among them. ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ was so good that you could extract the performances of Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, run them as their own shows, and they would qualify for the top ten. Lesser minds misinterpret comedy solely as a vehicle to make us laugh but The Larry Sanders Show was much more than this. The laughs came because it was true and familiar and human; because it’s the only place to go with things before we start crying and look like a bunch of pussies. Which leads me to another great Garry Shandling line, while hosting the Emmys in 1999: “The Sopranos has a character named ‘Big Pussy.’ This, coincidentally, was my nickname in high school.” I was a fan of Shandling’s comedy but nothing came close to ‘Sanders’ for me. I must have expressed this to more than a few people, because I received a flood of texts yesterday alerting me to the news. If all I’ve done in this life is to turn a few more heads in the direction of that program, it wouldn’t be all for not.

Shifting non-sequitur gears here, I’d like to make an observation about those ‘funny’ ring-tones some people choose for their cell phones. I’m not talking about merely choosing a different ring, but the odd sound effects of barnyard animals and the like. Goofy AHH-OOOGAH horns. This kind of thing. I’ve spent my share of time in various medical facilities in recent years and amid folks getting all manner of serious news. Nothing punctuates the gravity of a nurse telling a patient that the doctor has spotted something in his test results that he’d like to speak to him about than a single, loud sheep’s “BAHHHHHHH.” Really, is this what things have come to? And then the oblivious phone owner tapping the screen and answering with a dull ‘hello?’ Indignities are mounting all around us, multiplying by the day. Can you picture such audible punctuation after Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” or FDR’s “a date which will live in infamy”? We’re getting stupider and the circles smaller and smaller.

On the other hand, “The People vs OJ Simpson” is one of the better things to come along in quite a while. The FX mini series walks a dizzying tightrope, blending spot-on parody with historical context and cultural sensitivity. It’s good on so many levels, the least of which not being John Travolta’s portrayal of smarmy celebrity attorney Robert Shapiro. It’s a real shame that several of the principals from the case didn’t live to see themselves depicted. You have to admire what Travolta’s doing here, apparently resurrecting his career for a third time as he simultaneously plays off his own real-life image as a Hollywood straight-man sending out hotel riders demanding a male masseuse and tin foil with heavy curtains covering all windows. The show offers a rare combination of satire and illumination, skewering racial groups and ego-laden individuals alike. It refuses to insult its audience’s intelligence on the matter of who killed whom, yet manages to present a nuanced interpretation of what was going on back then (and likely still is today.) It’s also worth watching, as my buddy Tom Myers points out, to watch Nathan Lane’s portrayal of ex Marine F. Lee Bailey while knowing that, unlike some of the others, the 82 year-old lawyer lived to see it. Put it on your must-see list, right after ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ in its entirety.