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Viral Notes

Comedians, like viruses and tides, tend to peak and recede. It’s a natural law and even the late, great George Carlin wasn’t immune. He likely peaked prior to a bit he did on ‘saving the planet’ some years back, which was reflective of both his genius and a macabre tone he adopted in later years. It begins with him talking about human arrogance and the idea that ‘we’ can ‘save the planet.’ “The planet isn’t going anywhere .. we are. Pack your shit, folks — we’re going away.” It’s an observation based on common sense and science. The planet has been here billions of years next to our two-hundred or so thousand. “Way over ninety percent of all the species that have ever lived on this planet are gone,” Carlin explains. “We didn’t kill them all; they just disappeared. This is what nature does.” He maintains the uncomfortable hilarity until the end of the routine when he speaks about environmentalists’ illogical obsession with plastic:

The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it. It wanted plastic for itself .. didn’t know how to make it. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question ‘why are we here?’ (Adopting godly tone) “Plastic … assholes!”

It’s in finishing that Carlin gives nod to what would be his late undoing as a comic. He concludes that having invented plastic, “our job is done” and muses about what will do us in as a species. Viruses, he prophetically concludes, would be a fine guess. At that time it was AIDS, which had the added benefit of discouraging procreation. He jumps the shark with a single line — “I can dream, can’t I ?” — which shifts the tone from empathy to one of removed superiority. This was George’s prerogative as he claimed to ‘cherish individuals’ as he met them but ‘abhor’ the groups that they formed. By the end he was a mess, celebrating death and doing long routines on apocalyptic visions. People love laughing at the insinuation that we’re all doomed but when you put too fine a point on it you run the risk of overstaying your welcome. He probably knew his time was up, anyway, having suffered multiple heart attacks before the one that did him in at seventy-one.

Perspective, like Elton John’s persona, is a bitch. We’re all aware that time seems to move faster as we age but the real point is that it doesn’t hit hard until we get there. What took place prior to our birth, whether ten years or a hundred, seems inconceivably removed. No matter how significant or trivial the life, those who live long enough often include the word “folly” when reflecting. You invent the cure for all deadly viruses just as they’re blowing up the world or get the Russians to back out of Cuba just as a new bug appears. I think back a lot to when I was twenty-four and living in Italy. There was a young guy and a fellow student who I dubbed “The Big Turk.” BT chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes and seemed above the general, shirking, university town vibe that permeated Corso Vannuci and the central plaza. “Hey Reeeeek,” he’d say, momentarily pulling the Camel from his lips, “I saw your girlfriend yesterday. She was wearing a Tom Petty teeee-shirrrt.” One time he described the mandatory military service in Turkey that kicked in for all young men at seventeen. “Eeet’s all bull-sheet,” he assured, “they make you sleep on a sheep for six months then send you home.” I’ve thought about him over the years and now wonder, if he survived the chain-smoking, whether he’s been able to get hold of some decent hand-sanitizer.

The flip-side to these disparaging observations about humanity is all that stuff that seems cliche and that many ignore as church-group babble. Turns out that doing for others is, in fact, its own reward. This may seem hard to wrap one’s head around as we try to avoid getting too close to the guy we’re duking it out with over a pallet of two-ply toilet paper at our local Costco. Turns out we’re far more interconnected than most are willing to acknowledge. My dad’s pontificating on the superiority of our (read: ‘his’) clan’s genetic line was, as I suspected, irrelevant. We’re all subject to being dragged down or elevated by virtue of strangers. So, how to best meld this with Carlin’s observation on the value of treasuring the individual over the group? Interact with more individuals in a pleasant, positive or helpful way. Do it from a safe distance if current times mandate, but do it anyway. Then let this spread, like a virus, to the larger group. Sure, you can’t all be pollyannas like me, but even the coldest winter has its spring.

Aye, Corona!

No better means to further cement my ignorance than commenting on an evolving and fluid situation .. so here goes. Let’s start with the reported statistic that 38% of Americans believe it’s unsafe to consume Corona beer at present. This means that four out of every ten people in this country are certified rock-heads. I’ve always been liberal with my rock-head estimates but this number is staggering to me. Every one of those individuals has access to Twitter, Facebook and the like and is fully capable of disseminating information in any manner they see fit, as long as they remain sensitive to “community guidelines” and use the correct, new gender pronouns. Couple these facts with a Commander in Chief who has the light-touch of Ronnie Lott and refers to Tim Cook as “Tim Apple.” Then throw in the approaching home stretch of a national election, automated algorithm-driven stock market transactions and Mardi Gras. And, oh yeah, a genuinely concerning new virus outbreak stemming from China. Buckle up, folks.

There was a march in San Francisco’s Chinatown last weekend, its theme being “Blame the virus; not China.” I have no inclination to blame the Chinese. Shit happens and plenty has emanated from America that hasn’t exactly helped the world. But it seems a bit ridiculous to deny certain cultural customs in vain attempt to harness ‘political correctness.’ One need only take the 30-Stockton bus to observe multiple deboarding Chinese grandmothers hocking massive loogies in phlegm-clearing ritual. Yet you don’t see any CDC Chinatown loogie warnings circulating. And a cursory stroll around the area will reveal all manner of ‘food markets’ selling a wide selection of ‘exotic’ items. ‘Personal space’ is a concept infrequently debated in this particular locale. All of these facts stand readily observable but it isn’t too cool these days to point them out. As I say, I love the Chinese .. without them, we’d have neither firecrackers nor Chinese checkers. (That last line is reminiscent of a Norm Macdonald bit on being a feminist: “I love women. Without them, we’d have no cookies.”) Time to quit while I’m behind.

My sobriety continues, save one bottle of Anchor Steam beer over the weekend. This puts me at roughly three weeks with almost no drinking. “Roughly” and “almost” are words I’d have to work into any abstinence contract. Removing vices from my life has an almost identical effect to adding them; nothing much changes but the habit itself. Back in the 1990s, I took up the habit of running several times a week. “Running” is a loose interpretation of what I do and it fluctuates between something fairly impressive for a guy in his fifth decade to a husky trot. Still, I seem stuck with it now because I feel shitty if I don’t and, as I get older, stopping would reflect some undesirable landmark. Everything continues to boil down to Bill Murray’s line in the film ‘Meatballs’ as he advises a bunch of nerd kids in summer camp on an approaching competition with a cooler camp: “It just doesn’t matter.” You’re born, you’re nurtured for a while if you’re lucky, you long for love in vain, you take up drinking and exercise, you give up drinking, and you die. If you’re lucky, something like ‘The Sopranos’ shows up halfway between.

The above might sound hopeless, but it isn’t. It’s all about gauging expectations and taking it day by day. And, for me, comparing myself frequently with others who project a happy outward image. I may not be great at such projection myself but have an uncanny facility for doubting what I see. This comes in handy at key life junctures and amid virus hysteria. Take Joe Biden, as a relevant and current example. He could have folded in on himself prior to Super Tuesday and amid the recent Bern-feeling climate. Yet he plowed on, mistaking names, forgetting what day it was, and calling young female voters “lying, dog-faced, pony-soldiers.” I’m not sure what a ‘pony-soldier’ is, beyond a soldier atop a pony, but that’s not the point here. He didn’t believe what he saw and now he’s back in the race. Funny that forgoing alcohol, as opposed to taking it up, would lead me to this conclusion. It’s all an illusion. But of course, it is, and this was never in doubt for some. It just doesn’t matter, indeed.

Is it too early for a drink?

Best Part Of Waking Up

I’ve given up drink for a week. Not sure if I will continue for another, through the evening, or beyond the end of this sentence. (OK .. made that last deadline.) Initial observations haven’t been life-changing and the benefits few outside of confirming that I can last this brief stretch. My sleep is shit (as usual) and I’m noticing neither increased energy nor lucidity. Part of my problem is tolerance. This isn’t a macho brag and there are many who put away far more than I do. But I could always inflict a sizable dent in a bottle of single malt without much slurring, stumbling or stares. My tendency to fly under the radar extends to all areas, inebriation included. This may be what got my attention. Nobody was going to notice but me and the same likely applies to sobriety.

I’ve been watching this ex-con motivational speaker on youtube .. Wes Watson. He’s a majorly ripped, tatted-up dude who speaks hard truth at high volume with spittle flying from his mouth. Wes seems a caricature at first glance, easily dismissed until you give him an extended listen. Then you realize that he’s gained more wisdom at 36 than most guys gather by 70. His ability to articulate rivals his muscles, once you get used to the frequent use of ‘motherfucker’ and the sensation that he’s about to jump from the screen and rip your head off. Ol’ Wes is rather straight-edged when it comes to substance use, save his indulgence in Folger’s coffee (served black, of course) when he wakes at 2:45 a.m. It seems penitentiary time has guided his philosophy and greatly expedited life lessons. The more severe the conditions, the faster and greater the wisdom. Fourteen months in solitary equates to three graduate degrees and all the Tolstoy one can consume. At the core of his preaching is the simple principle that serving others is the key to being released from internal suffering. Dude makes Joe Rogan look like Rip Taylor.

Not sure where Wes Watson and my brief flirtation with sobriety cross. I’m already up a lot at 2:45 a.m. but not by course of discipline and I’d have to do too much body shaving to pull off his tattoos. But I do find interest in his “Zen of rage” message even if I don’t subscribe to the method. I was listening to Wes speak about his Folger’s coffee habit around the same time somebody sent me a piece that Warren Zanes had written about Tom Petty. Zanes was Petty’s biographer and wrote some revealing bits about Tom’s heroin habit and personal relationships. The book was OK’d by T.P. but still caused a stir and the article was the first Zanes had written about Petty since his death a few years ago. Coffee again figured centrally; Tom was a Maxwell House man. He arrived at this choice with some serious thought on the matter. He didn’t see the point in fancy coffees or espresso and instead longed for something that would take him back to Gainesville, Florida, sitting in a diner for six hours with a never-empty cup and talking music until the alligators came home. In essence, the coffee was his link to the past; to a purer less complicated time. It all resonated as I’ve been thinking about this myself lately. Not having arrived yet seems less a problem than not being able to go back; not being able to re-set our brains to a time when there was less in there. Not sure how Tom and Wes might have gotten along, but both seem and seemed to know a lot about the same things.

Three-Dot New Year

She said ‘my brother, you know, he used to have this friend ..” – Dwight Yoakam, “Second Hand Heart.”

2020 – holy moly. Getting to the stage where track-covering seems relevant. I’ve got about 30 old journals that need torching before scrubbing all traces of this web-blog from the Internet. Not sure if this is a web-blog or website. Either way, would hate for these musings to be circling the World Wide Whatever indefinitely, like early digital cave drawings pinging out into the blogosphere. The last thing this world needs is confirmation that assholes have always existed, bucking evolution. Was never a secret anyway; some of those early non-Turin shrouds include evidence of hand-buzzers.

Watched the Golden Globes Sunday night for the first time in a decade, perhaps due to interest in The Irishman and seeing the sunglasses Patricia Arquette borrowed from Nick Cage. Enjoyed Ricky Gervais in select moments, including his unheeded cautioning of blowhard celebrity types inclined to lecture the masses on climate change and voting. Nobody, not even those of like-mind, tunes in to this show for edification by way of genetic crap-shoot winners. Didn’t matter though, and they blathered on. Michelle Williams, pregnant, opined on how career-altering her past pregnancies might have been minus the right to choose. Russell Crowe, absent, updated on Australian fires and their cause. Tim Allen, not particularly liberal, said something benign and soaked up the room’s hatred. In the end Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt came through by basking in their handsomeness and reminding all what they’ve been anointed to do.

***

In local sporting news (“sports” or even “sport” to our tea-swilling British brethren) the 49ers are back in the playoffs after a long stretch of ineptitude. Apparently all they really needed was another paisan at quarterback (sure-footed Mormon royalty notwithstanding.) And Jimmy Garoppolo has been just the ticket. Jimmy G is also exceptionally handsome, in the grand tradition of his particular position in this particularly American sport. You don’t have to be Darwin to spot the starting quarterback at any local high school .. just look for the kid standing several inches above the others, minus the neanderthal slouch of his offensive line and basking in overt female-attention without any particular effort on his part. Also in the tradition of the Great Joe Montana (hallowed be thy name) Garoppolo seems to have keen enough football instincts while maintaining a slightly clueless air about him. Yes, the ability to orchestrate modern offensive schemes is requirement, but you don’t want your QB to be an over-thinker. That same effortless manner that attracted top-tier cheeserettes in high school should signal his leadership capabilities in the pros.

There was a great Sports Illustrated profile on Montana a long while back, after San Francisco had traded him to Kansas City where he continued to excel. The writer was expounding on what made Joe Cool able to both perform and remain calm in the clutchest of clutch moments. As example he used Super Bowl XXIII when, down by three with three minutes left, Montana looked up from the huddle, distracted by something in the stands. “Hey isn’t that John Candy?” he asked befuddled teammates, before leading them down the field to victory. The article noted a similarly pressure-fueled moment in the Chiefs’ huddle when, in the middle of directing another game-winning drive, he diffused tension by calling out one of his wide receivers for possessing notably large ears. This, the writer reasoned, was what he did — saw the potential for others to buckle under pressure and let them know it was just another day at the office. A fine theory but also one debunked when, several days later he caught up with Montana in the locker room doing the same thing .. making fun of this guy’s ears. Apparently it was something he did all the time; the game-winning drive truly was just another day at the office for Joe. Jimmy Garoppolo has a long way to go before being mentioned in these Montana conversations, but he has nailed the nascent stages with a 21-5 record and early career penchant for dating porn stars. The big ear thing will no doubt come with time.

***

Has the whole world gone nuts?” This is either a) a particularly relevant question as we enter the new decade, b) something that old guys say, or c) a & b. I’m going with “c” but keeping the percentages to myself. All about ‘enthusiasms’ to quote the increasingly quirky DeNiro as Capone in ‘Untouchables.’ He then punctuates said point with a baseball bat, which may or may not be overkill. Pitchers and catchers on the horizon, Yoakam still touring North America and the Niners playing meaningful football into January. Why do I keep looking for that Louisville Slugger shadow on the table cloth?

Goodfellas: The Later Years

OK .. maybe I will tackle ‘The Irishman.’ It’s early in the evaluation game and the film has been playing on Netflix for a week after limited theater release. I’ve seen it in both settings and multiple times. It’s been lauded and bestowed heaps of praise, but as Scorsese might point out this is an Avengers/X-men age we’re living in. I’ve never seen any of ‘those’ movies, so my opinions here are irrelevant. Plenty are acknowledging that it’s good, but perhaps fewer realize just how good it is. If ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Goodfellas’ are the standard, ‘Irishman’ completes the trifecta. It’s a notch above ‘Casino’ and anything starring DiCaprio, and while an argument might be made for ‘Mean Streets’ he was still cutting his teeth back then. ‘The Irishman’ is indeed something special.

It is, in every sense, a Scorsese film. The pacing, vignettes that play like short movies, acting and actors, establishing shots, music, and theme all have his personal stamp. It’s the first work he’s done that truly addresses age and growing old in both subtle and poignant manner. There’s a risk of losing audiences when you tackle this theme. Younger viewers miss the subtleties and things can tilt toward the slow-paced and depressing. But here’s a work of some technological achievement where the actors portraying characters at multiple life stages do so from the perspective of men in their seventies. The much talked-about ‘de-ageing’ process isn’t flawless and it’s impossible to view without some subconscious acknowledgement that these are all older men. (Pacino may be the exception here but more on his excellent performance later.) Even fully cognizant of this modern times sleight of hand, one’s brain adapts — largely due to superb acting and directing. This is particularly true with repeated viewing and, in this select sense it may be the quintessential Netflix production.

Joe Pesci (as Russell Bufalino) is brilliant. Having forged a career as the most explosive little guy in the history of cinema, here he is something else: underplayed, reserved, gently killing it. It’s an odd word to invoke given the mobster genre but there’s a strong and intangible love between Pesci and DeNiro. When they meet in a hushed-tone Italian restaurant, Pesci notes half-jokingly “there’s a lot of tough guys in this place .. you’re not afraid of tough guys, are you?” He already knows the answer but his manner and gentility underlines how this film isn’t ‘Goodfellas’. That ruthless killers can share this bond and dichotomous appeal is at the film’s center. Later, as older men, the two meet early morning, the only ones in a Howard Johnson’s self-serve breakfast nook. They’re on the cusp of their later years and the setting speaks to this — the quietness and intimacy of the moment, the morning sun shining in from another new day begun with many under the bridge. The gravity of the conversation is belied by the mini cereal packages of cornflakes and Total and the non-essential lines in a situation where every word counts. Here Pesci is the gentle father figure, explaining to his grown son how the world works. DeNiro has always been a quiet actor but he says more in silence in this film than any of his previous work.

If I had to (previously) rank my favored order of these three established icons (Pesci, DeNiro and Pacino) Al would perhaps have finished third. This may have changed with ‘Irishman.’ As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino has done something remarkable. It’s an extraordinary performance and as good as any he’s done. The scenes opposite English actor Stephen Graham (portraying Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano) are worth watching repeatedly. Even paired with an actor thirty-plus years his junior, nothing about Pacino’s digitally-enhanced performance seems aged, fake or manipulated. He adds both weight and levity to the film and his lines (“if you GOT it .. a TRUCK brought it” .. “CHARGE with a gun .. with a knife you run” etc) are instantly quotable. He portrays Hoffa as a man so certain of himself that you have to wonder if he’s figured his inevitable fate and legacy are preferable to those of his mobbed-up counterparts. That Scorsese has waited this long to work with Pacino makes it more special. It’s hard to imagine him in a better or better-cast role.

Supporting performances fire on all cylinders. Ray Romano is fantastic as Bufalino’s attorney cousin and, along with Sebastian Maniscalco as Crazy Joe Gallo and Jim Norton as Don Rickles, testament to the idea that comedians are most suited to transition to dramatic acting roles. Harvey Keitel shines as does the young Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s son. (Did this kid make a conscious decision after “Friday Night Lights” to pack on the extra pounds? Either way, it lends to his dramatic appeal.) There isn’t a bad performance in the movie and at three and a half hours it always holds attention. Anna Paquin and Kathrine Narducci are excellent as is Welker White as Hoffa’s wife. Some shade may be cast on the film for being typically chauvinistic and male-dominated, but it is what it is: a Martin Scorsese mob epic with a who’s who of Italian-American actors. If hitting the ball out of the park doesn’t suffice or justify its existence or cost of production .. well, it isn’t like they’re going to stop making X-men films anytime soon.

The Bear and the Quakerman

The Irishman premieres on Netflix tonight. I had the good fortune of seeing it several weeks back at a first-class venue — Skywalker Ranch. My buddy Tom Myers invited me up for the screening. It was a great low-key atmosphere and we shuffled into the top-flight screening facility just feet from Tom’s office door after a glass of bourbon. There is no luxury in life quite so compelling as circumventing the general public. Sure, Netflix offers this; but this is a film meant to be viewed on the big screen. It didn’t disappoint, but enough has been said of this already. Very rewarding seeing something from my generation transcend to the present and proof that there is some hope in growing older. Magnificent, dialed-down performances all around. Joe Pesci is superb. Was with Tom again a few nights ago for a brief sojourn to Lake Tahoe and a Dwight Yoakam show. I’m nothing if not predictably repetitious, and this is the second time I’ve seen Dwight in Sparks, Nevada over the last few years. All tolled it’s at least the seventh time I’ve seen him since August of 2017. That I’ve apparently lost count speaks for itself. My travel and life was restricted for a while there and most of my away time was spent stalking the music and film icon. The way I figure it, once Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver go, Dwight Yoakam will be just about all that’s left. But that’s just my figuring and is open to argument. If you want to have at it, be prepared to segue into the follow-up debate: there is no better place to see a man performing with a guitar and cowboy hat than the Nugget Casino in Sparks.

In the spirit of circumventing the general public, we headed up Interstate 80 late Thursday night with a brief stopover to eat in Auburn. The place we chose was wrapping up an open-mic music night with the kind of talent you’d expect from second-tier Auburn performers. Tom commented on how long it was taking the last act to set up before realizing that his date was sitting at the table next to us. He made up for the gaffe in fine Quaker form with vigorous applause and whistling as the guy hacked through his poorly-mixed ten minute set. Then it was back on the road for the last leg of the drive before arriving at the cabin, where a dim light was on in the kitchen. This was the first troubling sign of a few that would be coming in rapid succession. Peering in with flashlight, the dim illumination was from the open fridge and the place appeared torn apart. Things got worse around the back where a large opening had been smashed through the door. For the second time in as many years (and offering none of the same rewards as a Dwight Yoakam show) a bear (or bears) had broken into the place. Fortunately Tom is no slouch in the rolling up one’s sleeves department and we dug into tackling the obscene mess after making sure the beds were empty and it wasn’t some real-life Goldilocks scenario. Two hours later the place was again reasonably inhabitable (save the huge hole torn in the back door which I would secure with plywood the following day.) Like Scorsese working with DeNiro and Pesci, there is something to be said for knowing the company one keeps. Additionally, there is something to be said for now knowing the proper response to the old adage “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Yes, of course he does, but this doesn’t stop him from utilizing Rick’s cabin for said purpose, or just about anywhere else he damn-well pleases.

(And after further consideration the Dwight show count is eight; ten if you count a no-show for each of us in Saratoga and Stockton.)

Bust Out

” ‘cause imitation’s boring . .” – Iggy Pop “Cry For Love”

There’s a scene in season two, episode ten of The Sopranos that seals it as the greatest TV show ever. Tony, facing the possibility of going away for a long, long time, sits in the dark of his kitchen with a bottle of booze. Among James Gandolfini’s many acting talents was his ability to portray being drunk accurately; always nuanced and never overplaying it. His daughter Meadow enters the kitchen for a glass of orange juice, unaware of her dad’s presence. She’s startled when he addresses her and turns on the light. He responds with hand blocking his eyes “no -turn it off” and she complies, realizing immediately that he’s inebriated. “Why are you sitting in the dark?” she asks, and he answers honestly “I don’t know .. (I) like the dark.” The next few minutes are brilliantly constructed. He tells her how much he loves her and wants to hear from her that she knows. But in doing so he includes “your mother doesn’t think I love you enough” — a blatant and manipulative lie designed to gain the favor he’s so desperately afraid of losing. It works and she responds “you listen to her?” David Chase, who created the show, once said it was fun to write because everybody was lying or saying the opposite of what they really meant. I think he sold his genius short; people lie in The Sopranos for a myriad of reasons, one being that it’s often the only means of getting to the truth. Tony continues – “I tell people you’re just like your mother, but you’re all me. Nothing gets by you.” Meadow tells him that he should go to bed but he says he’s going to finish his drink. She lets him off the hook in the most loving and bonding way. “Sometimes,” she says, “we’re all hypocrites.”

Being hypocritical is part and parcel of being human. (Just as using the phrase ‘part and parcel’ is part and parcel of being an asshole.) It’s a lesson slow to come to most of us. The important conversations that I regret least are those where I’ve made no great effort to defend myself. You can’t “try” to reach this state; it’s either there or it isn’t. The kind of love Tony seeks from Meadow is conveyed equally in silence. Declared love (in this very select case) conditionalizes; it lessens. When I’d tell my mother I loved her, she’d respond with a slight chuckle .. “I know that.” It’s a difficult standard in mortal relationships. Most of us go about seeking approval by explaining ourselves, by letting people know who we are and trying to pave over the rough bits. But once broken, this type of ‘unstated’ love can never be the same. Chasing it only emphasizes its absence. This isn’t an argument against saying “I love you,” but rather an example of when it can be redundant or even needy.

If hypocrisy is rampant even in the most personal relationships, it’s the bread and butter of governance. The word “politics” is synonymous with what we feign to find most objectionable: dishonesty, distrust, bullshit. So why, if we already know this, do we cling to our political identities so and go through this same practice of trying to define, conditionalize and explain? Not sure on that one, but it’s at the core of the ongoing meltdown. Most of us think we know what’s right and defend our stance almost as we would our family. But these positions are often as flawed as that degenerate uncle or fuck-up kid. And switching to the opposite position is of no help if we’re looking to break the hypocritical chain. So inherent is this political imperfection that it comes to embody our representatives. You can’t govern unless you’re elected and you can’t get elected if you’re completely sincere about what you believe. Your true positions always need nudging and tweaking and this becomes truer the farther up the chain you go. The more important the political position, the less honest one must be to achieve the votes. It’s almost as though the biggest asshole has the best chance of winning; either this or the person willing to push the bigger fairy tale.

So we settle for this imperfection and, in more select and patriotic moments, argue for our system being less imperfect than the other guy’s. It’s much like defending our families all the while knowing that ours has its flaws, too. When the chips are down some people will show up and others won’t and there is no impenetrable honor in the crest. Perhaps it’s best to turn the lights back off now and then, sit with our glass in the dark, and take comfort in our daughter’s true words.

Nine Eleven Eighteen

All systems eventually fail. Whether mechanical, biological or theoretical, they all work until terminated or replaced by a new system. I always liked Neil Young’s music because he burns with a passion that realizes he’s burning up the very thing that sustains him. And he’s pie-in-the-sky enough to think we’ll all soon be driving ’82 Mercedes Coupes fueled with leftover vegetable oil from local eateries.

It feels like a long time ago, finally. Not sure what it takes for this to happen .. there is no formula that guarantees 18 years will feel like 18 years. I was with a woman September 11, 2001, and we laughed as Sandy Berger reported from CNN amid collapsing buildings and chaos. Berger was Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor, but on that day we focused on his name (as though it were spelled ‘Burger’) and quipped “don’t want to be playing ketchup” and “lettuce begin.” Maybe it was just black humor in the face of a blacker reality; our version of Janice Sopranos’ “another toothpick.” But when I tried to be sincere the following morning with a sober World Trade Center photo post, I was put in my place by another old friend who told me how we’d run roughshod on the rest of the world too long and this was our comeuppance. So I took the post down and figured “fuck it” .. because sometimes “fuck it” works best of all.

Not too long ago I was taking a long walk around Manhattan and pointed myself in the direction of the Freedom Tower (which, in a flagrant example of modern-day irony, has been rebranded ‘ONE World Trade Center’ with the emphasis on singular unity.) I hadn’t seen the memorial in person and, in a rare instance of having my cynical core shook, it took my breath away. I’d read about it and subconsciously half-knew what to expect. Then there it was .. this huge inverted space with all this water and all these names. I didn’t think about the ‘whys’ or the time that had passed in between. I just thought about the people. And it made me temporarily numb — enough so to black out the freelance tour guides and Chinese dudes selling self-published ‘DAY OF DISASTER’ photo books. I wandered away lost in thought until, in a matter of yards, I stumbled upon the exact replica of the first, massive, inverted water memorial. TWIN towers. TWO of these things came all the way down with all of those people inside. Thank God for O’Hara’s Pub down there, with its hot day Coors Light and all of its mismatched sensibilities. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

All systems indeed fail. That we’re a closed-ended experiment doesn’t make the experiment any less beautiful or wondrous. In the eighteen years that have passed I’ve met some good people and lost some others. Nothing adds up any better than it did back then and, if anything, I’m more annoyed with people who claim otherwise; claim to have it figured out or have a line on religion, common sense or sticking to the right diet. Bush II is gone and seen in almost folksy terms next to the crazy shit-show that now plays daily. Hope and Change is worth 50 million, on the corporate lecture circuit, and dropping huge bucks on a Hamptons beach bungalow. But that shit is too easy .. getting jaded about how it all should work .. trying to defend some system like it might be the right one and stop religious kooks from flying airplanes into buildings. All it ever does is keep rocketing forward while remaining in the present. And that’s probably good enough.

Indifferent Swiss

A while back Jay Leno had a joke relating to a feel-good story about a little girl who got trapped in a well and was rescued after a number of days. The community “rallied around” the event, as communities tend to do in such circumstances. “I was watching the news coverage,” Leno said, “and the reporter said ‘only in America’ do people respond this way.’ Yeah, sure .. like the Swiss would have left her in there.” These days “only in America” is typically invoked for something bad or in disfavor with the person using the phrase. Some kook shoots up a shopping mall or a nightclub and it’s an “only in America” thing. Some brash real estate blowhard is elected President. The uses don’t hold up to close inspection without further qualification. Most of the time you need to be speaking about the western world, because if you include everybody else all bets are off. Of course you’ve got your share of crazy shit going on in Europe and elsewhere with no shortage of varying personalities being elected to public office. America is just bigger and more powerful, which in itself raises the red flag of suspicion. I’ve had people younger than me from other countries tell me “I used to have such great hope for America.” Really? What should make our evolution and self-perception any different from yours?

My Scottish pal Denis has a phrase for types inclined to use “only in America” in a pejorative sense. He calls them the “Down With Us” crowd. Down With Us folks seem unaware that they are included in the group they criticize. Either this or they somehow think that by asserting such criticism they are set apart and given a pass. Down With Us is an extension of Down With Me, which typically has roots in either charming self-deprecation or crippling depression. I had a blind date with a woman who critiqued our meeting the next day with the observation “while I enjoy a self-deprecating sense of humor, there is nothing more intoxicating than self-confidence.” It was included in a bit of “free advice” she gave about why there was no “love connection” between us. For me it rested in the fact that her arms were kind of fat, so she could have included ‘superficial’ with “unassertive” in my list of faults.

Being anti Down With Us isn’t the same thing as outlawing all criticism. At any given time there’s going to be well over fifty percent of the population doing something that rankles you. It’s perfectly acceptable to point this out, bitch about it, or vote them out of office. It’s when you attribute these objectionable qualities to the group at large that you run into problems. Think Homer Simpson watching a black comedian bust on white people on ‘Def Comedy Jam’ while bursting into hysterical agreement. “It’s true! It’s true! We’re so lame!” If someone makes a comment on boorish Americans and you’re from America, perhaps an eloquent and restrained reply is in order before enthusiastic concurrence. Yes, we have louts a’plenty .. but they aren’t in front of you at present, choosing to run down your country. In the current climate “patriotism” is sometimes assumed synonymous with “racism” or “nationalism.” But there’s plenty of things to be unapologetically patriotic about .. baseball and jazz music to name just a few. Could anybody really call nationalism on being a patriotic Louis Armstrong fan? OK .. so I’m conflating a bit here, and jazz fans aren’t typically getting called nationalists. But conflating is what we Americans do. We’re so lame ..

Perhaps the most important distinction to keep in mind is that Down With Us typically involves an observation. It shouldn’t be a movement as such because it offers no solutions. There’s never a “here’s what we should do” attached. But sadly it seems to be turning into a cause. The most vocal proponents include anybody in the majority or ruling class. If someone makes the observation “Americans are xenophobic bigots” it won’t raise an eyebrow in some circles. But this isn’t true if they include the qualifier “especially Chinese people.” The implied racism disallows the statement. But aren’t Chinese Americans just as American as the rest of us? Maybe the “especially” should be disallowed, but the point still stands that you’re speaking for everybody. On the other hand I was annoyed recently by a friend who corrected me from the colloquial use of “we” in a conversation while making a common observation. “Please,” he interrupted, “use ‘I’ and not ‘we’.” I would have been OK with dumping a chocolate milk on his head at that particular juncture, but it had nothing to do with his being American.

Down With Us is plain lazy, and indicative of neither sophistication nor evolved thinking. It isn’t even a distinctly American instinct and has likely been around since cavemen learned to cook food and sit in reflection by the fire. Only In America is OK if Don King is using it to bolster his pomposity or someone is pointing something out that’s specific to our Constitution. But it might be better used more carefully, whether being applied to positive or negative observation. Unless of course you’re simply using it to bond with your fellow countrymen and create warm feelings. Come to think of it, there are no hard and fast rules. Only in America would this pass as a blog post.

God Bless the Oddballs

“Sleep late down South, look up my former mentors
 Live off Yankee winters, be a landlord and a renter” – Tom Petty

Rip Torn is gone. The news blips in on my text message exchange with Miller. Rip defined a particular VHS playback chunk of my 4304A days back on 23rd Street in Noe Valley. The Larry Sanders Show was in my wheelhouse, so to speak .. like saying I’ve seen Goodfellas a few times. There are  productions that impress as a whole, and within that select group fewer that can be stripped down to their minimalist parts. A line here, an expression there. Such was Torn’s effect on (and affect in) Garry Shandling’s 1990’s masterpiece ensemble. Nevermind the comedy that constituted the bulk of the show. Torn could deliver raw pathos with a pained grin and carry entire episodes as he did in 1995’s “Arthur After Hours.” He was a consummate line-blurrer, a real-life drinker who could convey the same brilliantly on screen. “Sanders” was funny because it was about serious stuff — about vanity, and ego, and the damage of self-love. You can’t laugh like that without involving some hurt, and that hurt was always on Rip’s face. His “real life” exploits were more legendary than the screen performances. For a certain post-Sanders stretch it wasn’t uncommon to read about him being extracted from his car, from inside a Connecticut bank lobby, where he’d crashed through after hours, bottle in one hand and gun in the other. The man had a particular flair.

So yeah, God Bless the oddballs indeed. Rip Torn’s passing comes on the heels of my seeing yet another brilliant non conformist perform for the umpteenth time in recent months. What makes a man stop over in a Sacramento hotel for one night, the day after the Fourth of July and following a week by the Tahoe shores, to catch another man in a giant cowboy hat crooning Merle Haggard covers? Not sure, but it’s got something to do with that Rip Torn elusiveness. Dwight Yoakam is, to use an overused word, an enigma. Never has one possessed such an affinity for talking while revealing next to nothing about himself. He is, in one sense, an ageing sex symbol on stage in tight jeans still evoking female squeals with each leg twist. And in another breath he’s a balding, paunchy, brilliant character actor who could perhaps have had Torn’s career had he not been so hugely multi-talented. Add to that a phenomenal songwriting sense, fiery past romances with Hollywood starlets, and a particular mercurial bent that sees him both fawning over his loyal following and eyeing his guitar technician with a look that could kill after being handed a mis-tuned Martin. It’s hard to look away for fear you’ll miss something. He was late to the Crest Theater stage in Sacramento, laying the blame on ‘technical difficulties’ and news that a 7.1 earthquake had just shook his home base in Los Angeles. And then he did some shaking himself to a packed if relatively small venue. Why would a guy, worth $45 million according to the Internet, choose to spend his days touring the country by bus blasting tunes to intimate crowds, after having sold 25 million records? You’d have to ask him, and still run the risk of having no answer many words and hours on.

It isn’t lost on me that both these guys share southern roots, albeit from different areas of the country (Rip was from Texas and Dwight from Kentucky.) I don’t have many Kentucky references not involving bourbon, but when I think of Texas I think of my Uncle Marvin. He shared my same July 6 birthday, occasionally wore a Stetson and rode a motorcycle, and would look at me with a particular grin and say “shidddddd Riggy ..” or “gall-damn you, Rick, you are one funny nephew ..” Once, at my dad’s country place in Geyserville, California, Uncle Marv observed my father struggling with an ant problem on the back 40. Many thousands of the angry, biting creatures were spilling over from numerous hills that had sprung up in the vegetable garden. When my father’s more conventional methods failed to curb the situation, Marvin retreated to the garage and came back with a large gasoline can, poured it out over the colonies and set them on fire with a match. My dad, a city boy, was taken aback by the raw carnage and multitudes of inflamed ants curling crispy and reaching skyward in vain. “Well shit Dick,” Uncle Marv reasoned, “it’s either you or them ..” He was a big country music fan, as would be expected, and I made him mixtapes bridging the gap between Yoakam and Johnny Cash. One time I recited all the words to Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” for him in a single sitting, to his great amusement. No great trick for me, but worth the merit points with Uncle Marvin.

Johnny Cash’s people were from Scotland, not far from where my mother grew up. So you see, it all fits together. Something is calling me toward a tour of the South. It’s as ill-defined in my head as a Dwight Yoakam personality sketch, but I’m thinking of flying in and renting a car. Maybe a modern-day equivalent of Bo and Luke Duke’s ’69 Charger .. but this remains to be seen. Somewhere between states I’ll lift a glass to Rip Torn and Uncle Marvin. This seems like plenty to go on for me.