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Runnin’ Around With The Rag-Top Down

“Gonna drive to Atlanta, live out this fannn .. ta .. sy” – Gillian Welch

I wasn’t thinking a rag-top, but this was the general plan: head south and do some charity work. Maybe rent a muscle car and play the out of town asshole. I checked out Habitat For Humanity and several others, and had the loose idea to teach writing in Georgia or Louisiana or some such spot. I know California, I know New York City. The south was the third piece of my personal puzzle. These plans were derailed by way of Wuhan, but things are opening up a bit now. It may require a vaccine passport and selling a bit of my soul but hey, I pursued British citizenship a while back for similar purposes. “Willie tells me that doers and thinkers say ‘movin’s the closest thing to being free.’ ” And all that good stuff. The South will rise again whether I ever do or not. That’s the thing about plans, they tend to change. You can head down to the station with a suitcase in your hand but best to have no expectations. That’s four somewhat obscure song lyrics before making it out of the first paragraph. A sure sign of lazy writing.

At least it’s writing. And at least it’s still Il Pollaio, my favorite Argentinian grilled chicken spot, operating on Columbus Avenue in North Beach. They’ve apparently now got a sister outlet in the Mission as well. And here I thought this pandemic would be the end of all that was familiar. Turns out to be a force-multiplier. I stuck my head in last week for the first time in over a year and my waitress asked where I’d been. “How long you been open?” I asked, and she looked at me strangely. “Long time,” she said, “I thought you left town.” Sure they’ve been “open” for takeout and sporadic outdoor seating but everything seems to operate in degrees these days. On this particular day there was an available indoor table so I walked in and pointed to the courtesy mask on my face, asking “Will I need this?” “Only walking to your table or the restroom,” she explained. Makes perfect sense. I can sit with fellow maskless diners, yacking away in this tiny hole in the wall bistro. But something about rising to my feet signals viral danger.

No worries, though. I’m fully vaccinated (though I refuse to brag on it or list it in personal ads profiles.) I’m no kid anymore, so I went with the “I’m no kid anymore” reasoning. This train of thought basically asserts that you’re more at risk from a lab-leaked Chinese virus than you are from a largely untested vaccine. But it’s a personal choice, at least for now. Can I see clear to not calling those who would balk at getting their five-year-old vaxxed selfish conspiracy theorists? Of course I can, but I’ve always been a little rough around the edges. A “plucky contrarian” according to one friend this week. I was quite satisfied with that until a few days later, when listening to Christopher Hitchens comment on the word in an interview. He was objecting to the title given one of his books by a publisher — “Letters To A Young Contrarian.” He said the word is often used in the same vein as “eccentric uncle” or “colorful kook.”  He also pointed out that we are in desperate need of real contrarians these days. (And this interview was quite a while back, as evidenced by the fact that he wasn’t dead yet.)

So I’ll take “contrarian” in light of the likely alternatives (“crank”, “asshole”, etc.) Maybe I can combine it with my delayed Dixie sojourn and write my memoirs. “Southern Contrarian” has a nice titular ring to it, inaccurate as it may be. These days, I seem to be testing my few remaining friendships left and right, but like my vaccine-reasoning I’m going with being the better of two self-determined personal evils: jerk or phony. (There’s another book title.) The chicken was a bit dry, and I’m chalking it up to the young, tattooed woman, womaning the grill. Il Pollaio has always had male chefs anchoring the cooking nook, usually south-American ones. Maybe they’re stretched thin, given the pandemic and new location in the Mission. I’m perfectly willing to give the young lady a chance, but it’s always been a “do one thing and do it right” kind of spot. After the chicken there isn’t much left, save questionable chops, fries and salad. All things in time.

Keep On The Sunny Side

He Has Risen.

No, not our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but Dwight Yoakam. At the risk of sacrilege, I make this observation in light of my personal timetable. “We all have it coming,” to quote the great Lord Eastwood (hallowed be thy name.) But it’s in how and when we have it coming that things get interesting. I had my life (or what passed as such) uprooted some time after switching into double-digits in the 2000s. Light (read “death”) shines at the end of every tunnel and that seismic shift kicked in about two years back. But less than a year into this new chapter, asses were kicked again in the form of a pesky virus sweeping the land. Back inside I went, feet and head first. None of this is terribly fascinating, but it is a lead-in to Mr. Yoakam.

Somewhere in that dark valley, round about four years ago, I went to a show in Saratoga. I couldn’t steal away back then for more than a day at a time, but I made a habit of it for eight or nine Yoakam shows over the course of those troubled years. I was looking for something consistent, and having modeled the Bob Dylan “tour always or die” theme, Dwight was it. To Stockton I went (and Sacramento, and Sonoma, and Sparks, and San Francisco, and New York, and so on.) All short trips, all greatly appreciated. Funny how those old cliches stand up: life never burns so brightly as in the face of death.

But even a balding, Kentucky crooner isn’t oblivious to a worldwide pandemic. Dwight’s roadshow packed it in about a year back. He seemingly made decent use of the time, getting hitched and having a late-life first child. (I was hoping they’d name the lad “Hoakam”, but alas, no dice.) But what would become of me, you’re all asking. A year came and went: riots, protests, contested elections, and three thoroughly uninteresting sports seasons. A vaccine appeared on the horizon. I fell in line despite hesitation (hey, if they can’t get the mask thing straight what good can come of letting them inject something in my arm?) But still we were told “don’t blink .. don’t leave the house without your rubbers .. don’t forget to check your privilege ..” etc etc.

Where am I going with this, other than revealing a likely permanent sabbatical from what used to be questionable writing skills? OK, OK ..

I’m scanning Youtube last night, as I’m prone to do, and what should come up in my feed? Mr. Yoakam, back on the road in wide-open Texas, restoring some semblance of order to my universe. He’s apparently chucked the Chuck Berry tribute “Little Queenie” for an opening number and decided to go with the Ada Blenkhorn 1899 traditional (popularized in 1928 by the Carter Family) “Keep On The Sunny Side.” But in true cowpunk fashion, he’s doing an ass-kicker, redneck version that seems to say “hey, if you can’t manage the real deal, motor through.” In any case, here is a link to the video that put a smile on my face (“Sunny Side” is the first number.) As Herve Villechaize once said, “it’s the little things.” (P.S. : What kind of M&Ms does Tattoo eat? — The plain! The plain!!)


If I Could Turn Back Time

Think I’d like to go, back home, and take it ea-sy – Neil Young “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”

What does a post-Covid world look like? The mind wanders after one concludes that he probably isn’t going to die, at least not today. “New Normal” has become an increasingly relevant phrase over the past year, but what was the ‘old’ normal? Way back when, it wasn’t uncommon to see those who weren’t intimately related shaking hands or even embracing on the street. Cities like New York and San Francisco teemed with people, buildings were full, and bustling commercial neighborhoods with five-day workweeks were common. Yoga classes met in person, people crammed into crowded basketball arenas, and those entering commercial establishments while masked were regarded with suspicion (as opposed to the other way around.) There were no markers on the supermarket floor instructing us where to stand and outdoor eating was a pleasant option for warm weather. Parents sent kids off to school and went to their jobs or catered to matters best handled when the house is empty. Governors and mayors stuck mostly to ribbon-cutting, budget-signing, and the occasional forest fire. Generally speaking, they didn’t wield such sweeping, authoritarian powers.

So what are the odds that some of this new normal has seeped inside our brains? What are the odds that going back won’t be the cakewalk that some envision?

Minds are malleable. It’s been proven in countless hypnotherapy sessions and in Germany during the ’30s and ’40s. ‘Normal’ is a relative concept, susceptible to such things as age, weight, sexual orientation, and what cable news show you watch. Such a delicate process is self-identification, it can be radically altered by local riots or by your football team signing a new quarterback. I used to be that guy but, you know what? .. now I’m this guy. Get used to it.

An effective vaccine produced in record time may be a modern miracle, but it doesn’t turn back time. (Think Cher, significantly past her prime and busting a move in a see-through leotard on a battleship.) The unempowered and the powerful tend to move decidedly in opposite directions and never more than under circumstances like these. Jeff Bezos’ wealth was halved in a divorce, only to increase exponentially during a pandemic. That’s but one minute example of how a pesky microbe changed the world. Entire political movements were swayed, careers made then ended, and what used to pass as science was, both rightly and wrongly, held in doubt. Friendships were shattered and new alliances formed. The CCP and Communist China scooched over to the driver’s position and adjusted the seat to better reach the pedals. An overstatement? Too much? We’re about to see.

Oldsters tend to revert to the small when the larger picture shifts. They look after themselves and their own and shore up the homefront in anticipation of more radical change. If you have money you tend to guard it, if you have children you tend to protect them. Those with neither sometimes reach for more radical markers like tinned food and guns. This may seem counterproductive in the face of global crisis and urgings to consider ‘the other.’ But people react to the messenger as much as the message and tend to grow weary if constantly flogged. Selfish? Untrusting? Hey, we’ve been going about in masks for a year and have seen our basic liberties stripped. We’ve been pitted against one another in previously unimaginable ways. Think not? Roll the footage. Maybe it’s been for our own good .. who knows. But to be in a place where even the questions are disallowed seems unhealthy. Like that old Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” Twilight Zone? Anybody? OK, I’m putting my mask on and heading to the CVS for some smoked almonds.

Potato Head Reveal

Mr. Potato Head got banned yesterday. Or at least the “Mr.” part did. They canceled him, or de-platformed him, or de-mistered him. Gave his wife the same treatment, too. The toy company Hasbro (and really, isn’t it time to drop the ‘bro‘?) tried to backtrack a bit in the face of public outcry. They explained that the Mr and Mrs would, in fact, continue to exist, but that the “brand name” had changed in order to be “more inclusive” and so that “all could feel welcome in the Potato Head world.” Too late fellas (ladies, dogs, chairs, eyebrows .. insert your appropriate designation here.)  This Potato Head world ain’t for me.

For a very long while now I’ve attempted to keep this blog free from the more hardened and reflexive aspects of my personal opinions. It isn’t that they didn’t always exist; those who know me best could attest to this. But even in its nascent stages, I realized that the Internet Is Forever, and no amount of deleting, canceling, or erasing would change that fact. I worried that, if I stated an actual opinion without carefully acknowledging its counter, I would forever be labeled an extremist, nut, or kook. But if you’ve read some of my writing you’ll also see that the people I most admire often turn out to be extremists, nuts, and kooks. What was it that I was afraid of and how long would this fear persist?

A good friend of mine recently revealed some advice from his ninety-year-old mother, who had conveyed to him that, the older she gets, the less she worries about what others think of her. What a liberating conclusion this must be. Somewhat ironically, this same friend and I had been engaged in a spirited debate over ‘politics’ (this word is entirely insufficient but will have to do for now) in the lead-up to the last election. The opinions revealed did little to alter my view of him and were more or less in line with what I’ve always suspected. But the same didn’t apply from his perspective, listening to me. There was a good deal of cognizant dissonance in that direction, and he had to rebalance the person he thought he knew with what was being revealed.

Another friend and I were recently discussing some of the more Potato Headesque elements of modern culture. I was expressing my shifting take on inveterate institutions like the New York Times as the inevitable occurs and its editorial positions are filled by 20 and 30 somethings. Still an avid ‘Times’ reader, he referenced his two daughters, liberal arts college students firmly planted in woke culture, and suggested that we (he and I) had “held the microphone long enough.” He said it was time to pass it to the next generation. It didn’t matter that I’ve never seen myself as much of a microphone-holder. I understood his point, and agree that it has some validity.

We all get labeled in life. Somehow, initial impressions tend to peg me as a “guy’s guy,” perhaps because I can talk about sports, am losing my hair, and have a rather stocky upper torso. I’m accustomed to a kind of wariness from liberal sorts when they first meet me, like I’m going to crack a Burgemeister, plant a confederate flag, and start blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd at any minute. Then, if they get to know me, they’re typically surprised to discover I’m ‘socially liberal,’ at least by former, standard designation. After this, they tend to give me a chance, and deeper connections are occasionally forged. On even rarer occasions, after these deeper connections are forged, they find out what it is that I “really think” and it goes to hell all over again.

Here’s the thing: This lockdown is having a bad impact on kids. While it sounds great and liberally-solid to say stuff like “follow the science” it really doesn’t mean anything if the science is inconclusive, constantly debated, and heavily politicized. We’re inundated by pussy bullshit right now like no other time in modern history. We’re constantly being fed crap, either intentionally or otherwise, that distracts us in substantially unhealthy ways. What we’re losing sight of is how tricky the process of socialization and integration is. Hell, I never figured it out and they didn’t shut down my school for long chunks of my formative years. Teacher’s unions have entirely too much power and political influence and often don’t reflect the wishes of teachers themselves. We need to open schools back up as a ground-floor measure, with appropriate precaution, and as a first step in pushing back on this illogical and increasingly Orwellian New World Order.

A bit of a non-sequitur. But wow .. I feel better already.

Kindergarten Cop & The Don

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump are Bombastic Bushkin types. If you don’t get the reference don’t worry — you’ve likely got a stronger grasp of Tik Tok than I do. Point is, neither of these guys is nearing runner-up status for the National Salt Of The Earth Awards. They are flamboyant sorts who made their bones via capitalism before transitioning to celebrity. It isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, but we do it with a certain panache. Where does one go once he has achieved tremendous wealth? I always believed the answer to be “home,” but I was wrong. Power is the only thing that surpasses wealth, and for your average Arnie or Don, politics is the next logical move. And so they made that move, with Arnold ascending to govern the largest state in the nation and fourth-largest world economy. Don, being the pesky alpha that he is, had to one-up Arnold and go for a slightly more elevated position.

These honorable, solemn men crossed paths when they hosted the reality TV show “The Apprentice.” Trump started the show and Arnold ushered it out, rather abruptly. This mish-mash of facts led to a nasty exchange on Twitter when Trump took office and the entire planet was dumping on him. Arnold joined the pile-on and Don noted that he (Arnold) had essentially killed the greatest television franchise in history. I’d put The Honeymooners in that slot, but let’s face it, Trump has a hyperbolic streak. This made it personal for Schwarzenegger.

Cut to the present. Trump, still the sitting president but with no pocket change and a ticking parking meter, has seen his Twitter account pulled. This was his last avenue to get the word out, crazy as that word might occasionally be. They were tagging his every utterance with an approved Jack Dorsey message that said “Please Disregard This Kook” but he still had a podium. Now that podium is gone and the most active piehole in the land has had the Denver Boot clamped on said pie and said hole. Arnold, however, still has an active Twitter account. This gave him an opening while reaffirming that he’d failed to reach the heights of his orange competitor.  This led to the spectacularly enjoyable and absurd moment that we saw yesterday.

Schwarzenegger, sensing his Apprentice adversary in Terminator crosshairs, posted a seven-minute video complete with a soundtrack so stirring it made the score for Total Recall play like the “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” He compared Trump to Hitler, a hackneyed claim that’s been overused. I believe Trump still has some heavy lifting to do to attain Hitler status and his good standing with Netanyahu makes reaching these Fuhrer heights problematic. But nobody asked me. Point is, Arnie made this comparison using the kind of personal flair that rocketed him to stardom despite a ridiculously thick Austrian accent and neck so wide that no man-made shirt collar could contain it. For seven minutes he spilled on about a memory “so painful” that he’s never mentioned it publicly. You see, before making it in the Land of Opportunity, and as a young boy post WW2, Arnold would watch his alcoholic father drown his sorrows in front of their flaming hearth, tears in eyes, regretting that he had not done enough to stop the Nazis. And, by extension, Arnold suggested that millions of Americans were in for some serious fireside weeping if they refused to repent.

Absurdity is relative, but we’ve set the new bar in America. That two guys like Trump and Schwarzenegger could blaze such a trail is crazy enough. They make Reagan’s “Bedtime For Bonzo” roots seem solid as Abe Lincoln munching cornbread in his Indiana log cabin. Propping up Joe Biden as a “return to normalcy” or national soul-saver is rich. He famously called Trump a clown, but I’d say Trump is more a PT Barnum character. Nobody’s got anything on Uncle Joe in the clown department. He’s never come equipped with an Obama or Clinton level intellect, even when all of his neurons were firing. He’s an empty suit propped in place by a powerful national party that knew, under no circumstance, could the phrase “second term” be uttered. We’re less than a week into Trump (finally) conceding and the most logical move the New Order could think to make is deleting his Twitter account, invoking the 25th Amendment, and starting impeachment proceedings with just seconds on the clock. Biden, for his part, went full-Schwarzenegger and likened Republicans who backed Trump to Nazis. Swell, that should calm the restless millions and help lower the national temperature by a few degrees. It’s not like we’re in the middle of a pandemic with bigger fish to fry.

I typically avoid such pontificating and end my pieces with a self-consciously pithy line or two .. but I’m all out at present. New year, New me. Look for those World View campaign signs to appear on lawns in short order — we’re just getting the color scheme worked out.

You Down With CCP?

Yeah .. you know me.”

Easy come, easy go” is a decent idiom. So is “hard come, easy go,” even if it never caught on much. Any combination of coming and going, with applicative difficulty, works, actually. At the end of the day (or any other time, really) that’s all there is to life. The day comes and goes, the night, the morning, the minute, the second. Thus the need for religion — to give us all a sense of something permanent. Of course, religions come and go, too. As do gods and goddesses, newspapers, and software updates. This brief streak of profundity will pass as well, so please keep reading.

I had a Jewish girlfriend when I was younger and she described a philosophical exchange with a Muslim student at college. He wanted to know why, if “your people don’t believe in an afterlife” she didn’t go around “screwing people over left and right.” Troubled by the idea, she called home and asked her mother the same question. “You tell him,” Mom asserted, “that we just aren’t that kind of people.” This has since come to fill my definition of a “good answer.”

Nothing much is adding up these days. Some 25 years back, I had the idea of a burgeoning ‘Internet’ explained to me by a young, rotund, computer whiz on Ken Kesey’s farm. Best I could understand, it involved millions of individuals, all of whom would be equipped with increasingly small and portable computers, being linked to central data servers. Those servers would, in turn, be linked to one another, and voilà — to quote John Lennon — the world would live as one. But they didn’t figure for Mark David Chapman. They didn’t figure for the “individual” part being as powerful as the “connected” part.

A friend of mine, pre-election, was troubled by various conspiratorial ideas being voiced by a family member. He told me that his “bullshit detector” was going to be on its highest setting in the months to come. There are, of course, no conspiracies; just as there are no coincidences. This mass migration to Texas, therefore, can’t be conspiratorial. I know more people making this move at present than I do those who have contracted COVID or those espousing conspiracy theories. Like Texas weather, this fact is subject to rapid change. But it’s happening all around. Major companies like Oracle, HP, and Tesla are making this move, as is my niece, best friend, and (potentially) my brother. What gives?

Here’s what I know about Texas: It was where my Uncle Marvin came from, and he could detect bullshit rather well. He was an Air Force man who married my mom’s sister, June. Back then, Texans epitomized America to young, impressionable Scottish women growing up at the end of World War 2. June moved to America and started a family with Marvin, eventually settling in California. My mother followed a similar migrational path, working for the British Embassy in D.C. and flying for American Airlines. She came to California before her sister and went to work in San Francisco where she met my dad.

You’re all over the place,” to quote Meadow Soprano, speaking to a rapidly spiraling brother A.J. Yes, yes I am .. but I have yet to move to Texas. I’m back in California and have been for some time now. California is, somewhat obliquely, the center of everything at present. It’s the central, central data server; home to Steve Job’s garage, Zuckerberg’s Tahoe and San Francisco spreads, and Jack Dorsey’s Sea Cliff mansion. San Francisco is still that oddest of places: a certified shithole on several levels, yet possessing vistas that will knock your billionaire socks off if you want to hole-up and work remotely in a bayfront estate.

When my Uncle Marvin first visited San Francisco, the Free Love movement was at its height. (Free Love — there’s a concept.) He, June, and their growing family stayed with my parents at their home in Greenbrae, a newly-established, somewhat sleepy burg in Marin County, California. This was the last pre-Me juncture. My older brother and cousins had all arrived but I had not. Dad took my uncle for a tour of San Francisco, noticing that Marv got rather quiet as they drove through Haight Ashbury. This was peak psychedelics Haight; peak hippie-hippie-paint-your-tongue-blue and protest The Man while copulating in the streets Haight. When Marvin did finally speak up, he was concise and to the point. “Dick,” he told my dad, “these people are fucking insane.”

Aaaaaand … scene.

Faucian Flubs

Gaylord Perry he ain’t ..

I wish to retract my unmitigated praise for Tony Fauci, as asserted here some months back. It’s got little to do with whether he’s been an unfaltering source of invaluable information and guidance during our Season of Designated Distancing. The words “definitive claim” and “Coronavirus” rarely appear in the same legitimate sentence. Rather, it has to do with the first pitch that Fauci threw out at the Washington Nationals’ season-opener baseball game this past July.

Nevermind that the baseball season traditionally begins in April, not July. 2020 has been a year of abandoned normalcy and we’ve all (mostly) accepted this. This was all the more reason for projecting a strong image. If, in this era of 240-character tweets (up from 120!) you’re still clinging to the antiquated notion that “image isn’t everything” then I can’t help you. Clearly, huge and consequential decisions are now made on the basis of a snapped cellphone photo or poorly considered sentence typed out on the same device. This isn’t new, of course. When Kennedy took the 1960 election from Nixon (purportedly with a little help from his old man and Richard Daley in Chicago) some traced the win back to Tricky Dick’s poor appearance in their televised debate. Nixon lacked Kennedy’s boyish good looks, full hair, and TV-ready manner. He perspired noticeably and had five-o’clock shadow. And while many claimed he beat Kennedy on a substantive level, it didn’t matter. Kennedy looked better, ergo Kennedy won the debate. You can question whether such things should be relevant, but it’s another matter to question whether they are.

It takes a substantial helping of narcissism to run for president. The particular strain of narcissism is largely irrelevant and down to public taste. Trump’s brand is considered obnoxious by many, entertaining by others, but always front and center. Obama, by contrast, may seem a humble, folksy character, but the man just put out his second autobiography before the age of 60 and it’s 800 pages long. The audio version goes on for 29 hours in Barry’s dry-cool, you-were-so-lucky-to-have-me timbre. Point is, self-love is part of the deal; it’s as essential as teeth-whitener on a news anchor or foam on a rabid dog.

But self-love does not an adequate first-pitch make, which brings me back to Tony Fauci. At first glance, he, too, seems a humble man. He’s barely five feet tall, bespectacled in scholarly frames, and speaks in measured, calm sentences. There was much for me to admire at first. He’s Italian-American, born in the most solid of birthplaces, Brooklyn, New York. His parents were pharmacy owners and the young Fauci made prescription deliveries for the family business. When this pandemic hit, calm authority was in short supply, but that short supply was nicely packaged in Anthony Fauci. And, from where I was standing, it didn’t hurt that he was a huge baseball fan.

Cut to five months later at the Washington Nationals’ season opener. The scene was Fauci-ready with nary a soul in the stands and the diminutive public leader strode to the mound with the confidence and authority of one who can clear a major league baseball stadium via public decree. He was wearing the appropriate gear .. a Nationals’ jersey and matching mask. And then he let loose with what had to be one of the worst first-pitches in the history of ceremonial baseball. It wasn’t that he ‘bounced it’ or failed to reach home plate. It wasn’t that he threw from the front of the pitcher’s mound or well wide of the catcher. It was that, well, one would have to rehearse such an effort in the same way one presumably does a ‘normal’ first pitch to make it go so awry. Despite his being aligned in somewhat traditional fashion, the ball was ‘thrown’, to use a kind term, in the general direction of the home dugout. It was akin to having someone attempt to play a ceremonial first-flute at the symphony season opener, and then shove the instrument up his nose. Except it lacked grace and purpose.

I can hear the protests of “what a ridiculous concern” or “this man has bigger things on his mind.” And they are acknowledged as appropriate and reasonable. But in this anomalous age, that which doesn’t matter frequently matters most. This isn’t novel, but it’s accelerated. Life is neither fair nor reasonable. Masks, no masks, two weeks to flatten the curve, 95% vaccinated efficacy? Hey, I don’t need it belt-high and over the plate, but somewhere in the ballpark would be nice.

The Way We Were

It was some effect, that Streisand Effect. I was under the mistaken impression that it meant whatever annoys Barbra Streisand most is bumped to the top of Google searches. Technically, I was wrong. But interestingly, the searches turn out the same either way. I’m calling this the Monaco Effect, which up to this point had something to do with Formula One race cars.

What an age we’re living in. I’ve been cranking out these blog posts for a long while now and chalk my scribbling longevity up mostly to misplaced narcissism. But I’ve also been careful to keep my themes consistent with the rhetorical question (and titular qualifier) “Who Asked Me?” Truly, nobody gives a shit what anybody else thinks unless it’s that you’re unusually intelligent, attractive, or funny. So I’ve written a lot about sports, people, and music. Where I do brush up against the political, I tend to couch my opinions in concessions to what I imagine to be the opposition view. Or I simply lean into humor, or what passes as such for me. The public figures I’ve admired have tended to be publicly apolitical. I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to tell where someone is coming from, but I may be wrong. There have been rare moments in my life where I’ve confided a true take to someone who has known me for a long while and have been amazed by the reaction.

Never have such revelations been more volatile. I was at a small party a long while back in New York, speaking to two young dudes who were recent Julliard graduates. I mentioned that I preferred the Kinks to the Beatles and their response was beyond insulting, bordering on challenging, or even threatening. A friend of mine was at a costume party in San Francisco some years back, dressed as Joe DiMaggio. A young guy came up to him and said “I know this is a costume party, but I’m a Red Sox fan, and just seeing you wear that Yankees cap makes me want to punch you in the face.” Both these incidents involve male stupidity, but there is very much a female and inter-sexual equivalent. And there is a precise political parallel.

The thing is, it feels good to win. It feels good to have our opinions or identity validated and to see those who mock that identity crushed. Even when we stay quiet or ‘fake it’ in a practiced, stealth manner, we’re not immune to this very human truth. It’s inescapable and seemingly unavoidable. And while it’s legitimate to point out that this self-validating, victorious feeling often dissipates quickly, it would be disingenuous to claim that it’s inconsequential or doesn’t return.

I can’t recall a time that was riper for conspiracy theories. Tin-foil hat sales are through the roof. To argue that it’s some kind of mass hysteria is to discount the reality of diametrically opposed versions of the “truth” being asserted daily. This is the Grand Paradox of the information age. Where we may have assumed that more people having access to more information at greater speed emboldens a democracy, there’s a key addendum: More people are being fed disinformation, more channels are being suppressed, and all of it is happening exponentially faster and on an unimaginably larger scale. Still, the Streisand Effect is real and people will get at what you try to obscure or hide.

Billy Joe Shaver died last night. How’s that for a non-sequitur. The thing is, he was one of the greatest songwriters of all time, yet many don’t know his work. I’d urge anyone unfamiliar to listen to “Ragged Old Truck,” or “I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal,” or “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” These are works of art. This is all I’m certain of anymore. And those guys at the party can go fuck themselves — Ray Davies rules.

November Rain

American elections and Thanksgivings share much in common. Technically, one is biennial and the other annual, but the intolerable aspects of each often lead to participants skipping a year. A single Thanksgiving may pass without disruption, but if you divide them into four and eight-year spans, the likelihood of an explosive shit show increases exponentially. A good Thanksgiving follows a set pattern: polite hellos and greetings at the front door followed by “take your coat off,” cocktails sipped in initial moderation, and the bird served late afternoon. By dessert, things get notably looser, booze and tryptophan take hold, and opinions slip through the cracks of sobriety. The kids retreat to the family room to get high and make fun of the old folks. A bad Thanksgiving ends in total disintegration; profanity screamed, plates broken, accusations of lives ruined, etc. After enough eight-year spans come and go, kids assume the pathetic adult role (save that even more troubling uncle who persists in drawing cartoons somewhere in a corner), and the simulation continues. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Our Thanksgivings often pitted my father against my Uncle Ned. Ned was a dead-ringer for the ‘Anderson’ next-door-neighbor character on Beavis and Butthead. He was the “conservative” uncle, childless and married to my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Adele. He called her “Mrs. Hib” — short for Hibbert. My dad was a fairly conservative sort, too, but we all need extremes to cement our starring role in the Hero’s Journey. Next to Ned, Dad was Jane Fonda atop a North Vietnamese tank, smoking a doobie and telling the pigs back home to kiss his ass. The Thanksgivings I remember most were in the 1970s when the old man wore his sideburns long and favored high-heeled Florsheim dress boots. By evening’s end, the conversation inevitably turned to subjects like the draft, presidents past and present, and, from my dad’s increasingly emboldened perspective, Ned’s asshole views. Dad was drafted during the Korean War but never saw action, serving instead in the Signal Corp in Panama. He reckoned the best thing about the army was “it teaches you to take shit from assholes,” something he figured was inevitable in a life long enough lived. Ned had a deferment during World War II, performing what was considered an “essential” job as an executive at the American Can Company. Ned’s childless status and military deferment gave Dad what he considered moral high ground and license to pass judgment on his elder uncle and his hawkish views.  What did this never-drafted man know about the military and how could he share a father’s empathy for his sons?

Fortunately, none of our Thanksgivings ended in complete melt-down, and for this, I credit Uncle Ned’s steady demeanor and tempered approach. I’m not sure I would have fared as well, faced with my father’s increasingly animated taunts. “Oh bullshit, Ned, BULLSHIT. You were a draft-dodger. DRAFT-DODGER!!” The universe leans curiously toward equilibrium, though, and the old man soon had to endure my pre-adolescent, pitch-perfect imitation of him coming from the next room. “Oh fuck you, Wiseass,” he’d say before the de-escalating relief of laughter kicked in and Mom served the pumpkin pie and coffee.

It kind of feels like an eighth-year Thanksgiving these days, as we roll toward November, quarantined, masked, and a bit nuts. De-escalating laughter is in short supply, despite having more than enough to make fun of. I’m placing the blame on smaller families and the lack of alternate uncles. You see, my grandmother came from a large Catholic family with twelve kids (it would have been fourteen, had the twins not died at birth.) She had multiple sisters, my Aunt Alice among them. Alice was the elder and she was married to Uncle Mick. I never met Mick but he assumed legendary status in my mind via Dad’s stories about him. Mick was fond of the grape, didn’t care much for work, but had a caustic wit and razor-sharp mind. He could recite voluminous lines of poetry by memory and was a voracious reader. Aunt Alice was the bread-winner and had a job at Podesta Baldocchi, the famed San Francisco florist. One year, Uncle Ned decided to pull some strings and get Mick a job at American Can — a favor for which Mick never forgave him. I’m not sure how long Mick lasted at the can company, but my dad said his most remarkable career accomplishment was finding what proved to be an undiscoverable hiding place for his bottle of hooch. The circumstances of Mick’s death, some years later, were re-told admiringly in the family. The corner grocer was the last to see him after he’d purchased his daily bottle of vino. He’d died in the middle of his afternoon nap, the bottle half-finished, and a book of poetry resting comfortably on his stomach.

I’m not sure where the Ned-Mick story fits in with the approaching November election, but it makes for substantially more pleasant reading.

Toasted Corn Pops

Sometimes, I think it’s a shame when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain” – Gordon Lightfoot

California has three seasons. They are, to quote Bugs Bunny’s great adversary Elmer Fudd: Duck, Wabbit and Fire. We are currently in the latter, which means it’s time for our own more regal Fudd-proxy to shine. Now is when Governor Gavin Newsom dons his best Golden Bear khaki suit and, like some kind of reverse-phoenix, returns to the ashes. It’s a striking look for the tall, gel-haired, toothsome politician, and he knows it. Where former Gov and gap-toothed action star Arnold Schwarzenegger shone behind an oak desk with a stogie in hand, the current head of state prefers the subtle hue of an obscured sun and plenty of  Blade Runner gravitas. Newsom is also fond of the fire-seasonal, period-laden Preachy Tweet, like “Climate. Change. Is. Real.” It gives those cavemen Yorba Linda deniers reason for pause. Just out of the tweeting frame, beyond his well-coiffed bean, one can find failed, charred PG&E transmission lines that pre-date Gavin’s Redwood High days (my alma mater — home of the Giants!) by some forty years. Further still is acre after acre of crowded, toasted timber, and, in the ominous distance, motionless windmills upon golden hills. Finally, one finds Newsom’s denizens: powerless, hot, breathing smoked air, sitting in the dark.

As with pronoun preference and grievance qualification, there is no one answer to why the forests burn every year. California is a non-binary state and skies brown for a multitude of reasons. Climate change is the canopy and big top of blame, but underneath is a multi-ringed circus of triggers. Failed electrical infrastructure and unchecked timber (despite what the Sierra Club preaches) have provided plenty of spark and kindling. And PG&E, our electrical utility, is to corporate arson what Ted Bundy was to serial killing. Historically, the state has burned. But it didn’t always have forty million inhabitants. Native Americans practiced controlled fires and tended to keep their own tented McMansions on the reservation. That was a long time ago, though, and complexity abounds where the white man multiplies.

The important thing, in an election season, is that the Governor’s photo-ops keep coming. Between wildfires and wildfire-viruses, Gavin has plenty. To be fair I don’t know much about the man, besides his having an affair with his best-friend campaign manager’s wife and playing on the same Little League team as my childhood buddy’s kid brother. His ex-wife is currently dating Trump Jr, which lends sufficient insight into the world of political power. He’s family friends with the Gettys, which puts him on another stratum of Marin County elite. And he’s well-attuned to the first rule of politics: people always listen to those with more money, teeth, and hair. Add height to that trio and you’ve got gubernatorial, and potentially presidential material. Conversely, you’ve also got the potential for a colossal fall from grace, which tends to happen when you mix righteousness with abysmal air quality. It’s all about timing and message and Newsom has pushed his chips forward on shiny green deals and apocalyptic admonishment. Obviously, he has his sights set on loftier perches.

But enough of that. Everybody’s choking on the political these days. “Don’t leave home without a mask” has become “don’t leave home.” These scribblings are proof of just how fucked-up one’s brain becomes without the outlet of daily, moderate exercise. Small wonder those San Quentin inmates get so jacked in such short order. Thank God for the Joe Biden Corn Pop story.

Corn Pop, for the few who still don’t know, was a bad dude. He ran a gang at the same Delaware pool where Biden lifeguarded in his golden youth. Back then, you weren’t allowed in the pool sans bathing cap if you favored the Pomade, but the Pop wasn’t one for rules. This riveting hodgepodge of circumstances set up the great Joe Biden – Corn Pop Parking Lot Showdown of nineteen-sixty-something. Replete with rusty rain barrel straight-blades and bicycle chains, it’s a glorious, glorious tale, impervious to succinct retelling, even with the benefit of a laptop computer and time to think. So you can imagine where Biden went with it. For those who have yet to Google “Joe Biden Corn Pop story”, I urge doing so. There’s so little left to rise for on a smoky morning, but this one might just keep you going until skies clear. The highlight of the story (blink and you’ll miss it) is when Biden disses the Pop by referring to him as “Esther Williams.” Williams, a competitive swimmer and actress, starred in such delicately-titled motion pictures as “Million Dollar Mermaid” and “Dangerous When Wet” (don’t have to be Fellini to figure out that last one.) It just wasn’t in the cards for an urban-dwelling, swimming-capless gang leader to allow such comments to go unchecked. They aren’t allowing Biden to go unchecked these days, either, which I think is a shame (see Gordon Lightfoot.) Were I running things, I’d advise leaning harder into the crazy. It hasn’t hurt his opponent any and let’s face it — Crazy Biden is Fun Biden. Hell, the whole state’s on fire anyway.