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Ilka Joy and Treasure

I wouldn’t touch this under normal circumstances — trying to write something about my mother now and do her justice. But we had the services Friday and I did write and read a eulogy. It was a nice day; a pause in what’s been weeks of rain. She told me once that she’d like a piper to play and I was able to make that happen .. a young auburn-haired, kilted lass who reminded me of her. And the reverend read Burns’ “Ae Fond Kiss” at graveside and at my suggestion. Somebody bought me a book some years back and outlined that one. I could have chosen worse. It was a beautiful ceremony and I don’t toss such words around. But like I say, words will fail me for a long while with this one. I did, however, manage to string these together and then read them in front of the assembled crowd:

Some of you have heard this story. It was about five years back and Mom had just suffered another in a series of interminable falls, hospital stays with delirium and long stints in the cardiac unit, a month of physical rehabilitation and other complications at Kindred in San Rafael .. all par for the course. I was at the end of my rope and had contacted Lynn and Leslie at Eldercare, which would eventually lead to meeting Marilyn and a significant change for the better.

But she was happy this day in a way that defied odds and defined her spirit. We’d been to the orthopedist and seen an x-ray of her lower body that displayed enough pins and rods to construct a go-kart. Rob said it looked like something from a ‘Ren and Stimpy’ cartoon. And we’d finished getting blood tests at Marin General where we’d run into an ex girlfriend of mine there with her in-laws and at her father in law’s deathbed.

“How’s he doing?” I asked, and the solemn answer came back that he was near the end and with the priest in his hospital room.  “Ooh,” my mother queried, “Don’t they trust the doctors?” There were intense stares all around as she smiled obliviously. So I excused us and shuffled her away with her walker. When we got to the parking lot I asked “Mom, why would you say that?” and she replied “what did I say?” I said “they told you he was with the priest and you asked if they trusted the doctors.”

Priest?” she said .. “I thought they said he was with the police.”

Helen Davis Monaco was born to Agnes and John Moncrieff, March 1, 1935, in Perth, Scotland. At the time she attended school, Scottish education was regarded as among the best in the world. From age five all children were schooled together until streamed, at age eleven, towards an academic or trade-oriented education according to their abilities. This segregation took place on the basis of an examination the final year of primary school. She did so well in those exams that she was awarded the title of “Dux,” or top student in academics and all-around merit. This honor led her straight to Perth Academy where, the records show, she continued to excel.

In 1952 she moved to London and worked for the Foreign Office, eventually being transferred to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. And in 1958 she made it to American Airlines Flight Academy in Dallas/Ft Worth, before being stationed as a stewardess in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After a year of flying she landed in San Francisco, got a small Tenderloin apartment at 525 O’Farrell Street, and was hired by my grandfather Dan at Monaco Labs. Dan would soon tell my father “if you don’t ask that girl out, I’m going to do it for you.”

She was a first-ballot inductee to the Scottish Mother’s Hall of Fame, ruined two sons for life in any attempt they’d make to meet a woman who equaled her, and made my father the very epitome of a man who didn’t know how good he had it. I can’t begin to convey who my mother was in spirit, but up until the end and through huge cognitive changes, she could somehow transmit this simply by being herself. It didn’t even take words. She had caregivers fighting over who would get to care for her after my father died.

I can’t properly eulogize my mother. It’s an impossible task. She equaled my dad in all the flattering ways I eulogized him, but eclipsed anyone I’ve ever met in a more ethereal sense .. in positivity, in spirit, in goodness. Fortunately she was able to convey these qualities with just about any encounter. As a hostess. As an employee or employer. In line at a bank or supermarket check-out. She was the only person I ever believed when told “everything is going to be alright.”

As with all elite conveyors of wisdom, she taught by showing .. not telling. She taught by being. I’ve received some praise in recent years for helping to take care of my parents. But the truth is, this wasn’t some self-sacrificing act or run at becoming the next Mother Teresa. It was a pleasure to give back a fraction of what my mother gave me. She was the draw. She was the pull. She was the reason. Moreover it was an exceedingly rare example of an extended stretch where I was able to get out of my own head — and believe me, that’s no place where any of you want to be. It was simply another in a long line of gifts that she gave to me.

I discovered music through my mother .. discovered Johnny Cash. Then I went in my own direction as she tried to keep up. For a short time when I was in high school she thought everybody was Sting. A tune would come on the car radio and she’d say confidently “That’s Sting!”  “No, Mom,” I’d say, “that’s Tom Petty” or “that’s the Pretenders.” It didn’t matter .. everybody was Sting. Her roots were strong. She had a similar memory to my own for song lyrics and would point out that the Neil Young song I was playing was, in fact, a Don Gibson song.

She used to tell me that she was a Scottish witch; which would explain a lot of things. Not a witch in the good-witch bad-witch Wizard of Oz sense, but more like some elfin creature tripping from one serendipitous moment to the next. She had sayings – “Yer bum’s a lemon, suck it and see” and “Ye can’t see shite but ye need a bite.” She had all the exterior qualities too, thrown in for good measure. She was as good-looking as my dad reckoned he was. More than one male friend, in noting her passing, has begun with “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I always thought your mom was …”

There is no easy transition in trying to wrap up a goodbye to my mother. And this isn’t that. The truth is I talk to her all the time and will continue to. She said some things to me about that as well .. prepared me for this time as much as any son could be prepared for losing someone of her stature from this earthly existence; from ‘shuffling off this mortal coil’ as she and Shakespeare put it. Instead I would like to include some quick thank-yous as I did with my dad’s eulogy. Again, thank you to every caregiver who worked at the home in Greenbrae and took such great care of her. You all know better than anyone what went down in recent years, who was there and what was needed. You all bore witness. Thank you to Hospice for being such a fantastic service and allowing me to meet some great people. Thank you to Eldercare, Lynn and Leslie, and most particularly Marilyn Christensen, who had a Scottish mother herself and understood and bonded with my mom the very day she met her. Thank you to Anne O’Toole for her invaluable friendship and assistance this week. Elissa, once again thank you for making this trip for just 24 hours from New York to pay respects to a woman who thought the world of you. My parents were very different people, but they both agreed on you.

Most of all, thank you Mom.  I said it plenty when you were here and will continue to until they eulogize me. You were the single greatest influence in my life. You were me and I am you. You live on.

Looks to Kill

Netflix has issued a discretionary tweet directed at viewers of their recent Ted Bundy doc who have commented on the serial killer’s ‘hotness.’ “There are literally thousands of hot men on the service,” they write, “none of whom are serial murderers.” Netflix wants it both ways. They’re aware that part of the fascination with Bundy is his appearance — this and an understanding of the large holes in 1970s interstate law enforcement allowed him to get away with murder. They want to glorify his handsomeness enough to get you to watch but they don’t want you tweeting about it. It’s hypocritical at best; the documentary includes footage of female admirers at his trial, including one who married him and managed to conceive his death-row kid. None of this is good news for the average-looking Joe working his H&R Block gig by day and coming home from the local pub at night minus any viable phone numbers. Life isn’t fair but we don’t need a Netflix subscription to figure this much out.

Bundy’s relative hotness is a bit of a mystery to me. I get that he wasn’t bad-looking and had more physical appeal than, say, John Wayne Gacy (no offense to Gacy relatives or supporters intended.) But even minus knowledge of his murderous ways I’d think most would pick up on a certain creepiness the guy exuded. His eyes were spaced just a tad too close together and his nose came to a rather severe point. Moreover his overall impression was one of a fake ski bum posing at the lodge over a cup of hot cocoa. He seemed like the boy who attracts girls at the schoolyard but gets hit on the head with the football when he attempts to join his peers on the field. This is the terminal curse of handsome types who can’t compete. The mixed-signals they receive are infuriating and can lead to aberrant behavior.

What Bundy did not lack was ambition. I realize this is a ballsy declaration running the risk of nasty responses from those with no contextual sense. But yes, he had ambition. From all I’ve watched and read it’s no easy feat killing someone, particularly when implementing Ted’s chosen methods. Of course this can’t explain the “why” part about the women who trusted him. Presumably most did not know he was a murderer. His ambition extended to two dramatic jail breaks and appointing himself as his own courtroom defender. This was perhaps the deciding factor for the woman who accepted his marriage proposal, which he extended while questioning her on the witness stand. Have to give it to him there as it’s far more memorable than a ring at the bottom of a Cracker Jacks box. Equally troubling is imagining the more plainly-appointed boy back home whom she rejected in favor of Bundy. Being turned down for a guy standing trial for serial murder can be a big blow to one’s self-esteem.

On a slightly more serious note, the documentary never solves the question of motive in any conclusive manner. There are the usual points; he never fit in and always came up short in more legitimate endeavors. The woman with whom he planned most loftily turned him down. Toward the end he offered a sketchy explanation involving an escalating pornography habit, but that never passed the bullshit meter either. If Bundy’s behavior is most abhorrent it doesn’t lessen other eyebrow-raisers like the Florida judge who sentenced him to death while calling him a “bright young man” and noting that he didn’t “feel any animosity” toward him. That’s setting a fairly low bar for one’s shit-list. Then there are the frat boys who turned out in large numbers for his execution while pounding cases of beer and selling Ted Bundy key chains. Ambitious perhaps, but not exactly on par with migrating penniless from Utah to Florida to successfully continue one’s murderous spree. Yeah it’s all rather sick and reminiscent of the Springsteen song ‘Nebraska’ :

They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world

At the end of the day you’re better off watching ‘Narcos.’

Louis, Louis, Louis ..

Louis CK is edging back into his standup routine amid much cultural blowback. A bootlegged recording of his new year show caused substantial outrage when he targeted teenage spokespeople of high school shootings and did bits on the relative endowment of black and asian men. I’m not sure that I follow the thinking here. I’ve never put him at the top of the comedic pantheon but there was little doubt he’d be back doing comedy after getting caught up in the Me-too movement and admitting that he had a predilection for masturbating in front of women. His offenses were odd and worthy of rebuke, but somewhere below those of Harvey Weinstein. What he did seemed in line with much of his comedy, which is often centered on things like masturbation, dicks, and layered sexual fantasy. It isn’t my cup of tea but tea connoisseurs come in wide variety. He was the most revered comic in the country, raking in millions with Netflix specials, a top-rated cable show, and whatever else caught his imagination. He self-produced an unadvertised drama, ‘Horace and Pete,’ about two middle-aged bar owners in Brooklyn. Its centerpiece was an intense monologue by Laurie Metcalf on her shut-eyed, exhibitionist self-pleasuring in front of her 84 year-old father in law. This performance drew rave reviews with words like “daring” and “brilliant.” This is what Louis CK did before his more questionable tendencies were confronted; it was his bread and butter.

So now he’s back doing essentially the same thing. He’s still worth millions but sacrificed thirty-five of them in confessing to his transgressions and going away for a year. It wasn’t enough for many, including moral arbitrator Judd Apatow who took to Twitter gavel in hand and skewered CK for lacking sufficient empathic tendencies. He was accused of picking on ‘soft targets’ and toeing the line for angry white males with anti-PC agendas. It was suggested that he’d switched gears to jibe with red-state psyches and appeal to rogue instincts. Not sure what the ‘political’ in ‘PC’ refers to here, but CK is on record saying that Hillary Clinton was the only sensible choice in the last election and that our current president was a sucker’s vote. His stage patter rarely trended toward political and was more psycho-sexual and self-loathing. He fixated on his own awkwardness, disgusting middle-aged body, and sick fantasies. I never found the bulk of this appealing but many did. At other times I did find him funny, as when he’d riff on modern era minds, content to bitch about air travel when one can sit in a seat and be transported from coast to coast in a matter of hours. Whatever the consensus, the man was not an early-90’s Andrew Dice Clay incarnation or an edgier, more intellectually inclined Larry the Cable Guy. Yet this was the sense one got reading the comments and blurbs about his most recent stand-up material; those who had once lauded him as ‘brave’ were turning on him with ‘indignant,’ and ‘self-pitying,’ and ‘fear-mongering.’

So I gave the recording a listen. What it sounded like was Louis CK; like someone who had gone away for a year and picked up about where he left off. The stuff I didn’t like about him remained unchanged. Scattered among it were some genuinely funny bits. The Apatow calls of ‘insufficiently contrite’ or ‘un-empathic’ are curious. Yes, he begins the routine with “how was your year?” and talks about 365 consecutively sucking days, mentioning the huge pile of money that he lost. But the unstated vibe doesn’t feel self-pitying or indignant. It’s in line with his usual shtick of what an awkward loser he is despite his career and success. He references buying a gold watch prior to his downfall then basking in self-loathing looking at it. The question the criticism begs is “what is he supposed to do?” Putting large portions of self-examination in the routine would feel forced and shallow. Trying to beg forgiveness or push the “I’m not that guy anymore” narrative (whether he is or not) would lack any trace of sincerity he once had. Whether he deserves to be back or not is a matter for public vote. Trying to excuse, explain, justify, apologize, analyze or contextualize isn’t exactly nightclub material. The image of him fervently preoccupied, Little CK in hand, will be forever burned into his audiences’ subconscious retina. Those who think he’s a creep or pervert will likely stay away and those more inclined to offer the ‘genius’ label will take their seats.

Central to the outrage was his brief bit referencing the kids involved in the aftermath of the Parkland School shooting. Reading accounts of this caused me to track down the recording at five in the morning. There was no mention of context. Even when failing to make me laugh the one thing Louis CK could not be accused of is a lack of thought. As it turned out, this stuff was funniest to me. I too (pun notwithstanding) won’t apologize for this. Funny is reflexive and my inclination is usually opposite. I’m not an easy laugh though I appreciate those who are. The brief segment begins with him noting how his own teenage daughters loathe him, which puts them right in line with most teenagers. His younger tells him “no offense” then goes on to explain how she’s not into what he does for a living, the whole ‘stand up thing.’ She doesn’t get it, despite its having put food on her plate for years. Only then does he begin his transition toward the Parkland School “spokeskids” with the premise that almost no teenager has done anything with his or her life to be worthy of the tag “interesting.” The overriding premise is that teenagers are supposed to be fuck-ups; not pillars of reverential wisdom.

The observations that follow, that having your fellow students get shot up does not make you interesting or worthy of respect, are definitely ‘edgy’ material, but the idea that it is unacceptable or a reflection of CK’s selfish dissatisfaction with his own circumstances is ridiculous. Becoming a young spokesperson on the heels of such an event could be seen as exploitive. Many will disagree and have a good argument in doing so, but it isn’t outside the realm of reasonable debate, particularly considering the comedic context. What the bit quite clearly isn’t is some newly-found NRA sensibility that Louis CK has suddenly decided is his go-to pitch. Whatever the take on this stuff, a moment’s pause is in order before calling it ‘unacceptable.’ A fine argument could also be made concerning the reaction one might have if they were a parent of one of these kids, or the kid himself. This gets into a broader area about free speech, comedy, censorship, satire, absurdist humor, etc. And any discussion of that area could easily include names like Don Rickles and Lenny Bruce.

Norm MacDonald did a bit shortly after the death of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ some years back and, hilarious as it was, it probably wasn’t being played at gatherings of the man’s remaining family. Norm has since said that he’s curbed his instincts with some material. Whether this is a good or a bad thing isn’t for me to decide. Family members deserve respect following a tragedy. Then again, the guy was a public figure who made his money interacting with dangerous animals. Laughter is a good, strong and rare commodity. Should we be regulating its sources with concern for the few in light of this good for the many? Maybe Louis will cover this in his next routine.

Summer’s End

Saw John Prine in New York City a few weeks back and just a few days after seeing Bob Dylan. It can be hard going to these shows; simply wading through the degrees of reverence is exhausting. This is particularly true amidst a bunch of Upper West Side sorts all straining to “be in the moment” while bristling in Worst White Person Fashion at any perceived interruption. The woman two seats down getting a beer dumped on her head at Dylan really eased me up some. You would have thought she received unimaginable news from the front line regarding her only son. Something perfect about Bob straining with the words to “Early Roman Kings” while some stuffed shirt reenacts the final scene from “Carrie.”

But Prine .. yeah. That first line from the tune .. “summer’s end, around the bend, just flyin‘” .. I don’t think there’s ever been a better or easier “we all got it comin’ ” writer. He really captures that sense of foreboding joy. I’ve been listening to it while sitting with my mother and it is indeed a time-stopper. There isn’t a better view on this planet (and I’ve seen a few of them) than that from her living room. In that moment all regrets evaporate. But really, enough of this shit.

All for now. This may be my new brevity-centered format going forward and for my stretch run. I mean, how much can a man write about Facebook and Tim Lincecum, anyway?

San Francisco, Ashtabula.

I keep listening to this one tune from the recently released More Blood On The Tracks, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 5).’ It should, perhaps, make me think about my dad, who died at the end of September. But instead it’s my mom who keeps coming to mind and I suspect always will. “I could stay with you forever, and never realize the time.” Too much, really, but feels like the only way to start a post of this nature.

My father was my supporter, fan, comrade, etc, largely because he saw himself in me. It was an observation both dead-on accurate and way off the mark, but that was the man’s charm. He only knew two songs, really: “White Cliffs of Dover” by Vera Lynn and “Can She Bake A Cherry Pie (Billy Boy, Billy Boy.”) You could throw in “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin, but he was lost after “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” So he wasn’t very musical. I bought a Fender Telecaster some years back; a ’51 reissue in Butterscotch Blonde. One evening I left it over at my folks’ house but mistakenly thought it had been stolen from the trunk of my car. “Hey Dad,” I phoned and asked, “did I leave that Telecaster guitar over at the house?” “Let me check,” he answered with a barely discernible sigh. He was always more fond of my working on my fastball than my palm-muting. “Yeah, I think it’s in the living room .. the yellow one, right?” Yellow .. Butterscotch Blonde. A small detail but one that stuck with me. There were vast regions of life where ours did not intersect, yet in his mind we were always side by side. He wasn’t wrong; just overly-certain. He’d begin sentences with “Candidly ..” as though there were other times when he actually withheld opinion. He let me make fun of him and for that I am eternally grateful.

He had a temper, far more explosive than it was vicious. He always calmed down, never held a grudge, and appreciated my forgiveness. But when it discharged, atmospheric conditions were altered. He didn’t get it — didn’t understand the cumulative effect. “If I keep it in it will kill me,” he reasoned, which I figure was the same excuse we used in Nagasaki. I recognized it because I had the same, up until my early 20s. I only brought it out after on rare occasion, a few to show him what he was like. He did and didn’t get it. Looked at me like I was from another planet. Saw himself in me and then right on past.

Anyway, here’s the cop-out .. for now, at least. I wrote “post of this nature” but don’t have the rest in me at present. It just felt like I should say .. something. For a long stretch of time he was unquestionably my most dedicated reader. He liked my stuff on sports, ‘people-profiles,’ and of course anything about him. He thought I could write and I appreciated that. I don’t figure myself prone to superlatives too often, nor at this particular time, but ‘great man’ probably isn’t a stretch. All for now, though. Maybe a full-page comic strip is in order — he was a huge fan of those too, so forget what I said about the guitar stuff. “Dick in ‘Oh Christ, Now This.’ ” Almost boggles the mind ..

Great White New Yorker Cover

I was discussing a recent New Yorker cover with a friend the other day. He’s possibly the most liberal guy I know and the illustration had a political theme, so I asked for his take. The image depicts a young, white family unloading for a summer canoe trip by a riverside. The boat is still atop the roof of an SUV or minivan and the father, thin with sun-guarding fishing hat strapped under chin and Birkenstock sandals, holds two oars and scans the parking area nervously for signs of trouble. His wife dutifully fits each child with a life vest. Parked adjacent is an unoccupied Ford pickup truck with a shotgun on a rack and three bumper stickers, one with the MAGA slogan, one a Christian cross flanked by two American flags, and one the Gasden Flag snake, coiled against blue background. The implication about the unseen pickup people is clear. For anyone who’s seen “Deliverance,” there’s strong correlation with the backwood toothless crackers who rape Ned Beatty in the film. I was less sure about the qualities ascribed to the young family, but my buddy thought the drawing cast a “wry eye” and depicted them as “crunchy.” Crunchy isn’t the adjective I’d choose; if anything they seem upper-middle class white Brooklyn with all this image entails. But I wasn’t sure. I got the artist’s intent but other subtleties escaped me. Being the New Yorker, safe assumptions can be made.

Here’s my theory on current cultural stereotypes: The left sees the right as morons and the right sees the left as pussies. Apologies for the latter word here, but it best fits. ‘Moron’ on the right includes uneducated, unenlightened, unintelligent, uncaring and unwilling to change. ‘Pussy’ on the left includes ineffective, bubble-living, hysterical and un-American. ‘Heartless,’ ‘selfish,’ ‘provincial,’ and ‘xenophobic’ can also be tagged to the right, while ‘cabbage-headed,’ ‘elitist,’ ‘condescending’ and ‘NIMBY’ work on the left. The truth is that all these tags could be applied to either side, so perhaps the one best fitting these mudslingers is “hypocritical.”

Many will point to the current social and political climate for fostering these caricatures but I believe the opposite is true. The labels and division they create have fostered the climate. It’s OK to despise a president but it seems another matter to despise an entire group or region. I know San Francisco and New York City somewhat well and can attest that the stereotypes in each case are both accurate and way off the mark. The same must hold true for places like Alabama or Tennessee. Never before have we been so connected and so far apart.

Non-sequiturs notwithstanding, I look to the tangential nuances of music. It’s an equally inaccurate means of tapping the American pulse, but does offer convenient metaphors. It’s also a safer way of finishing a post that was going in a dangerous direction. Sports may seem equally appropriate, but similar vitriol can sneak in discussing football (take a knee, buddy) soccer (nothing ever happens in this game) or basketball (these guys need to keep their mouths shut.) Baseball is the most quintessentially American game, reflecting purity of intention and wide-spread corruption. But it too can get dicey. Music is different and sneaks up on us in unconscious fashion. Toe-tapping often precedes understanding, and by then it’s too late.

Take the early work of Detroit’s native son Ted Nugent. Specifically, his song “Great White Buffalo.” It came out in ’74 on the album “Tooth Fang and Claw.” You think you know Uncle Ted, but here he explores the topics of conservation, colonialist greed, and native American wisdom. It’s sewn together with one of the greatest electric guitar riffs and climactic pay-offs of all time. The set-up is simple — The Indian and buffalo are living in harmony “only (taking) what they needed” and existing “hand in hand.” Enter the greedy white man who “couldn’t see past a bill-fold” and wants “all the buffalo dead.” The epic payoff comes when the legendary beast shows up to even the score. “When I looked above the canyon wall / strong eyes did glow / was the leader of the land / the Great White Buffalo.” GWB proceeds to “lead the battered herd” in making “a final stand.” None of this happened, of course, and the buffalo were wiped out. But the sentiment is firmly intact.

Moving along .. Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam have been riding together this summer on the “LSD Tour.” I can’t get away too much, too far, or for too long these days, but I’ve managed to catch a couple of shows in NYC and San Francisco. I’ve also seen Yoakam perform solo in spots like Santa Rosa, Stockton and Sparks, Nevada. The fanbase for these acts, particularly Yoakam and Earle, can be politically disparate. Earle rants on about fascism and Trump between songs and Dwight pays homage to Merle Haggard and “Fightin’ Side of Me” blares from P.A. speakers before he takes the stage. Yet Yoakam’s fans cross over to Earle and his early work like “Galway Girl.” And I saw two young gay dudes at the Masonic show in San Francisco, obviously there to see Dwight, still rocking tight jeans at 61 and twirling on the toe of his Rios of Mercedes cowboy boots. All three acts are southern and came up together. It has to be one of the oddest fanbase congregations ever  but it works and everybody walks out smiling. It’s a bit reminiscent of when Willie Nelson let his hair out and wrote “I’d have to be weird to grow me a beard just to see what the rednecks would do.” Music allows this type of odd integration and even celebrates it. Or maybe I hope it does .. I don’t know. Like I said “tangential nuance.” I’m as lost for answers as most others, but this seems as good a direction to push my chips as any.

Bucking the Friends

Facebook is plastering the NBA playoffs with new commercials emphasizing its efforts to fix things. Privacy protection and “reducing the spread of false news” are chief concerns. They want to get back to what they were “all about” in the first place — friends. This may be the single largest chunk of shit that this shit-delivering behemoth has ever tried to sell. “Friends” are the original source of false news. Friends try to sell other friends on their lives being better than good. Friends share perfect meals, attractive camera angles, and harmonious familial interaction. Friends’ kids always get into their college of choice, their pets are reliably adorable, and their significant others worthy of widely-disseminated consecration. Friends complain to other “friends” that the rest of the world has gone crazy by virtue of its misalignment with their core values and are then vindicated with upward thumbs, smiley faces and hearts. Facebook friends .. sheesh. If this is to be our starting point for ending fake news we’ve got a long climb ahead.

Easy, everyday contact with hundreds can be a complex phenomenon that requires caution. Every new instrument of communication has brought this challenge. The microphone allowed tyrannical weasels to project. The telephone brought people into our homes from outside its walls. Facebook is these inventions on steroids. The professed goal may be better human interaction and making the world a more harmonious place but its stock is steeped in millions checking in daily and providing personal information. It’s becoming an old platform anyway and the younger generation seems to have next to nothing to do with it. Even these Internet behemoths aren’t impervious to the passing of time. As an old guy I see this as rare reason to have hope in the future. The speed with which stuff changes these days may be staggering but on some levels it keeps bullshit in check.

Here’s what I know about friends: they’re hard to keep. Given the choice, many of us would choose not to keep in contact with ourselves. Most of us go around wondering why so and so hasn’t stayed in touch when the impetus is on us. Even family drifts, and, at all cost, avoids the responsibility of caring for one another. This began with the first absent caveman father thinking “I’m getting the hell out of here.” Divorce isn’t a modern phenomenon; it’s a legal escape hatch. If Facebook wants to survive it should be considering this. They’ve grown too big too fast and need to accept limitations and stop slinging this altruistic intentions crap. Facebook Divorce. This is what I’d be telling Zuckerberg were he not so much younger and richer than me. Here is where your answer lies. And it could be better than actual divorce, at least initially and until the lawyers catch on. With one click ties are severed completely and surgically. Oh sure, I know what you’re saying .. they already offer this with with the “unfriending” option. But I’m suggesting something more than this that offers a deep and satisfying cleansing from the other’s existence. Then they can run the playoff ads. “Facebook Divorce : because we get it right.” Swish.

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.