Monthly Archives: June 2011

So It Goes … And Other Stuff


I knew my most recent post would create controversy, at least within my own house. As I said in the teaser to Either Learn to Endure or Hire a Bodyguard, it was intended as an exercise in nonlinear storytelling. Which means it was one of those posts that I was writing mostly for myself, mostly to practice my craft.

Karen hated it. She said it didn’t make sense – she might have me on that one. And she even criticized it again this a.m.

Which is kinda funny. Because she inspired it.

Here’s the inside story on Either Learn to Endure, in a special Behind the Music edition of Rants ‘n’ Raves.

It was last week when she was looking at some bargains on Amazon for her Kindle. She asked me if I’d ever read Slaughterhouse-Five. I had.

Then she asked what it was about. I paused, laughed, and said, “That’s a pretty good question. I guess you could say it’s about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II.” She was horrified. “It’s a pretty funny book.”

She looked on for something else. So it goes.

But it got me to thinking about writing a story that jumped around among sort of unconnected things that might have a bit of a connection after all through all the machinations. I thought immediately not just of Vonnegut, but of two of my favorite works – Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy.

Now I don’t pretend to be Vonnegut or Faulkner or Dos Passos, but I thought I’d borrow a bit from all three for a disjointed narrative (Faulkner) that jumped from topic to topic (Vonnegut) with lots of obscure song and topical references (Dos Passos).

And that’s what I did. The central portion of the narrative was about how I’d narrowly missed being in fight once in a Jacksonville bar – the closest I’d ever come to getting punched out (which would most assuredly have happened had things progressed). But I also wanted to talk about the ongoing struggle of newspapers to survive – to the point of dumbing themselves down so much – both in what they write about and how they write it – to become less relevant, not more.

To tie all those notions together, I used a headline inspired by The Sound and the Fury, lines from one of my favorite poems, Ozymandias (by Percy Bysshe Shelley), a quote from Watchmen (spoken by the character Ozymandias) and lyrics from Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, Whiskeytown’s Yesterday’s News,  Dave Alvin’s Evening Blues, and the Avett Brothers’ Shame.

It occurs to me, of course, that having to explain means I didn’t do a very good job of storytelling: nonlinear or otherwise. So it goes (couldn’t resist).

I’ll close this section with a Vonnegut passage from Chapter 9 of Slaughterhouse-Five: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.”

Here’s the And Other Stuff:

I have been struck by some more examples of bad newspapering, courtesy of bad or nonexistent copyediting.

In yesterday’s (or maybe Wednesday’s) Wilmington paper, an article addressed the governor’s need to appoint a judge because of the “sudden death” of a jurist. Isn’t all death sudden? You go from breathing one second to not breathing the next. Methinks they meant “unexpected” death. This is the same kind of lazy writing that produces articles praising the creation of “new” jobs. I want to see some old ones created once in awhile.

Today’s Charlotte Observer had an egregious headline on THE LEAD STORY about the governess vetoing the voter-ID bill. Here it is (still up on the website at 11:09 this a.m.): Measure’s critics say it cut reduce turnout.

I guess it cut at that. I’ll bet they wish they wut have read it closer.

They also should have read their story on a Chinese company that will begin production of solar panels in Charlotte later this year a bit closer. Here’s a gem from it: “which opened its first North American headquarters in Charlotte last month.” I’m just wondering where they’ll open their next North American headquarters.

At least I was trying to be sorta obscure.

Shalom.

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Either Learn to Endure or Hire a Bodyguard


They endured. Bruce Lee said the words in the headline on this blog. And of course he didn’t do either. Unlike Dilsey.

I met a traveler from an antique land …

“Our freedom of speech is freedom or death. We got to fight the powers that be. Lemme hear you say, Fight the power.”

Karen enjoys watching the “The Bachelorette”/”The Bachelor.” And I watch along with her. Lord knows she accommodates me on enough of the crap I watch. So I don’t complain, and sometimes I even marvel at the dynamic present as the guys and girls try to find forced true love. Of course it doesn’t work very often. The bloom came off the last couple even before the final wrapup show. Lots of the folks they pick to be on it are either pretty self-absorbed – not a good prescription for letting someone else in – or have intimacy issues to start with. We don’t take it very seriously. We’ve come up with a drinking game – take a shot every time someone says “amazing” or “here for the right (or wrong) reasons,” though we haven’t played it (the show is on Mondays, after all).

“I can’t fly or sink or swim. It’s a lot like falling down standing up, and I’m falling down. You’re my cup till I understand. Wait a minute and see the pieces don’t fit this time.”

What if they threw a protest and nobody came?

“Well, yesterday’s news is what I have been reading.” And in my Charlotte Observer Monday there was an article about Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas and its plans to protest at the funeral of a Gastonia Marine, as it does with other service members who die in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was on the front of the local section, about 600 words or so. Which was about 600 or so more words than people who actually protested, according to today’s Gaston Gazette. Still, mission accomplished. The nutso church got the attention it wanted without even having to stand out in the hot sun.

Last night’s episode had the bachelorette, a young dentist named Ashley, in Thailand with her entourage. On one of their group dates, the guys learned how to kick box, apparently the national sport of Thailand. So then they faced off against one another. Apparently no one saw that this could be trouble. One of the guys, a Wall Street financier named Ames, got his bell rung pretty badly and had to go to the hospital. Which at the very least got him the pity vote to stay on the show. Turns out he’d never been in a fight in his life.

“Then you heat the coffee on the stove. Pull the cup down from the shelf. And slowly turn your back on me. As I sing a blues song to myself.”

There was an interesting twist in The Charlotte Observer story. It said the church “protests at the funerals of dead servicemen.” I guess that’s because there’s really no one at the funerals for live ones.

“And I wish that I could hear, Yeah I wish that I could hear, The blues you sing to yourself.”

But that wasn’t the stupidest thing I’ve seen in the Observer over the past three days. That honor would have to go, as it usually does, to columnist Scott Fowler. Who says the Charlotte Bobcats shouldn’t select Jimmer Fredette from Brigham Young University in the NBA draft this week. That’s actually fair enough. I wouldn’t either. But he doesn’t say it’s because Fredette isn’t quick enough to play the point or strong enough to play defense or any rational criticism. No, he says the Bobcats shouldn’t pick Fredette because Adam Morrison was such a disaster pick for them. He says they’re two of a kind. What’s he mean by that? They play different positions, after all. And they seem to be different guys – Fredette appears to be much more comfortable in the spotlight, for instance. And Fredette hasn’t wrecked his knee. Oh, yeah, they’re both white! Guess they Bobcats shouldn’t pick Dirk Nowitski or Larry Bird, either.

“My life is different now I swear. I know now what it means to care About somebody other than myself.”

Karen asked me if I’d ever gotten punched in anger. No, I said. What I didn’t say was that I almost had. It was back when I lived in Jacksonville.

“Shame, boatloads of shame. Day after day, more of the same. Blame, please lift it off. Please take it off, please make it stop.”

Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,  And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read. Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.

“I did it 35 minutes ago.”

It was at a bar on the cusp of Court Street. It wasn’t a topless place. I’d gone after work to have a beer and play some pinball. That’s what I was doing when the Miller sitting on the pinball machine fell to the floor. It had been put there by one of the two Marines playing on the next machine. “You owe me a beer, chief,” the owner said. “No,” I said. “You had yours sitting in a place where it was bound to fall off.”

“You expect me to talk. No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

The Bobcats obviously have no plans to draft the Jimmer anyway. They haven’t had him in for workouts, and I don’t think it’s because they’re planning some great misdirection move. Later in it, he says, “I (Fowler can never write a column without an “I” in it) don’t think Fredette will turn into Morrison …” So what was the point? It was a column in search of a delete button. As most of his are.

The Marine kept at it, raising a pretty big fuss. One of the waitresses I was friendly with bought him a beer to shut him up. Only it didn’t. He kept threatening me and telling me to come outside. Now I have some anger issues and I can do – and have done – some stupid things when challenged, but Hilda’s boy wasn’t born yesterday. I wouldn’t have had a chance against him, even if his buddy stayed out of it. Which he wouldn’t have. Eventually the bar manager, a big biker guy named Buffalo whom I also was friendly with, threw the guys out and made sure they left. So I was saved from the closest thing to a thrashing I ever got.

“Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, Something that they just can’t face, Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it, They carry it with them every step that they take.”

… Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Too Cheesy Even for the Rats


Now Playing: Johnny Cash’s chilling version of If You Could Read My Mind.

A friend has been compiling a tribute to 1970s movies lately on Facebook, and the other day he put up a trailer for “Willard,” the 1971 horror film about rats that starred the always-serviceable Bruce Davison, the great Ernest Borgnine, Elsa Lanchester and a young Sondra Locke.

I think I saw it on television once. It was a completely forgettable, stupid movie. I mentioned on my friend’s post that I had seen the film’s sequel – yes, this stinker had a sequel, “Ben,” starring the (and I swear I’m not making this up) lead rat from the first film – in the theater and that it was the second-worst movie I’d seen in one. I mean, I’m not against people-eating rats or anything, but it had a really terrible Michael Jackson song implausibly sung by the movie’s main human, a stupid looking kid that I kept hoping would get eaten by the rats. Alas, that potentially movie-saving scene never happened.

Which raises the question of the worst movie I even saw in the theater. And it’s not even close.

But first, there’s an honorable mention – the truly detestable “Stealing Home.” Which just proved that a sort-of baseball movie could be bad even when I liked baseball, which I no longer do. This one had Mark Harmon, Jodie Foster and a bunch of other folks but was truly bad. It had to do with a washed-up baseball player called home to dispose of the ashes of a childhood friend/lover who had committed suicide. There wasn’t one scene that rung true. There was some sort of dialogue repeated about touching the drain in a swimming pool that was supposed to be a metaphor about living life. It was so bad it was funny. Which saves it from being higher on the list.

As for the worst movie I ever saw in the theater, it actually starred one of my favorite performers, Jackie Gleason. And some other actors I like as well: Barry Corbin, Eva Marie Saint, Bess Armstrong, Hector Elizondo. But it also has quite possibly my least favorite actor of all time. That would be Tom Hanks.

I know, I know. How can I despise Tom Hanks? Everyone loves him. He’s Everyman. Well, I don’t love him, and he’s certainly not my idea of Everyman (that would be Gary Cooper, by the way). I started disliking him in “Splash,” when Darryl Hannah started snuggling up to him and all he could do was bitch that she was a mermaid. Who cares, dude? It’s Darryl Forgetting Hannah! I’ve never scene “Forest Gump” and don’t want to, found “Castaway” completely unbelievable and while I liked “Philadelphia,” that was mostly because of Denzel. I just don’t find Hanks believable or compelling or funny or even likable in any of his roles.

In “Nothing In Common,” he’s the irritating ad salesman son of an irritating garment salesman (I think). Some toes get cut off. Everyone lives reasonably happily ever after. It was supposed to be a comedy-drama, but I can’t remember laughing once. Even unintentionally. Even with the Great One in the cast.

But you know, upon further reflection, a killer rat or two and it really might not have been so bad after all.

 

“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.” _ Quentin Tarantino (now there’s a guy who knows how to make movies)

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Fast (Food) Times at Halifax County High


Now Playing: Pissin’ in the Wind, by Jerry Jeff Walker. “Pissin’ in the wind, bettin’ on a losing friend, Makin’ the same mistakes, we swear we’ll never make again. Pissin’ in the wind, but it’s blowing on all our friends, We’re gonna sit and grin and tell our grandchildren.”

This one is not so much about life at my alma mater, Halifax County Senior High School in South Boston, Va., though I’m a proud Blue Comet.

It’s about fast food.

Despite my girth, I’m not a fan of fast food. I rarely eat it, with the exception of an occasional chicken biscuit at Bojangles’ or Biscuitville. I did a story for the magazine several years ago on the former CEO of Bojangles’, Joe Drury, who happened to be a great guy. He recovered from a terrible wreck to take over the company on the advice of his mentor, the late Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s. (Speaking of Wendy’s, am I the only South Boston-ite who hears Berry Hill every time they say Berryville on the new Wendy’s commercials?)

These days, I most often stop at fast-food joints solely to use their bathrooms during long driving trips. And my bathrooms of choice are those at McDonald’s, which I find consistently cleaner than most. Plus I like the coffee there well enough. And the fruit salads aren’t terrible, either. Mostly, though, I just use the bathroom and get back on the highway.

But if you’ve ever been on the desolate road leading from Harrisburg, Pa., to U.S. 81, you know the desperation you can feel at needing to find a bathroom. It’s second only to driving through Arkansas on the way from Memphis to St. Louis (though the stretch of I-85 between Greensboro and Danville, Va., is bad as well -though it’s not as long as either of the other two).

At any rate, on my recent trips to PA, my full bladder and I stopped – for the first time in years – at a Hardee’s. This one was in Bumforget, Pa., just before the junction with 81.

The first thing I noticed was the sign offering some kind of fries covered in ranch dressing and bacon – the kind of unhealthy fatfest Hardee’s has become famous for in the past few years. And also a missile aimed at my Achilles’ heel – a weakness for fries in general and bacon in particular. So after I peed, I got an order for the family to eat in the car as we headed back on the road. First off, they were as delicious as I feared they’d be. Secondly, the staff at this particular Hardee’s reminded me of the Stepford Clerks at Harris Teeter. Which is to say the kids there were unbelievably perky and courteous.

Which all set me to thinking about my days back in SoBo when Hardee’s was my fast food of choice. In part because there was no choice.

It was the first fast food in my little town. And there was great controversy when it opened. I remember hearing my neighbor, Cecil, tell my dad about the burgers. “They’re no bigger than biscuits,” he said.

Still, my family decided to check it out, despite the lines that were always there in those days. I liked the char-broiled meat, the usually not-too-stale buns, the ketchup and mustard and even the pickle. We didn’t eat there a lot – we didn’t eat out much in general – but I really liked it. And for years, I preferred Hardee’s burgers to their fried counterparts covered in onion bits at the Mack-Donalds, as my mother always pronounced it. (And believe me, I write that not to mock her but in tribute to her.)

Later, when I got my driver’s license, Hardee’s became – for a short time – kind of a hangout. We’d go there and either park in or circle the parking lot for hours, I tell you. Then there was another reason I went there, too. My biggest high school crush worked there, and I’d stand in her line and get food and a smile and I’d be on Cloud Nine for days.

But, as it always does, everything soon changed.

La Belle Dame (who had plenty of Merci though she’d keep me in thrall throughout my time in high school) quit pretty soon, and the packs of cruising and parking teens didn’t exactly make the people trying to sell burgers there too happy. They eventually hired this guy who taught agriculture to be their security guard. He’d chase us off almost as soon as we’d pull in.

Which eventually produced the desired effect. We stopped going there – funny thing, so did the paying customers – and started hanging out at Nelson’s Pond, which is a story for another day. And when we’d get hungry, we’d go to the Pizza Hut that sprung up near Halifax. Where they’d often sell you beer. I remember buying beer there at least a year before they gave me one for turning 18 (the legal age for beer at the time). Plus I had a crush on an older waitress there – she must have been at least 23 or 24.

SoBo has at least one Mack-Donald’s now, and a Burger King, and probably other fast food, too. I don’t really get back there very often these days.

And I probably won’t stop again at a Hardee’s any time soon, either. Unless I get stuck in Pennsylvania  or Arkansas.

 

“The past is never dead, it is not even past. _ William Faulkner

 

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A Late Morning Soap Opera


Now Playing: Oh, My Sweet Carolina, by Ryan Adams. “I went down to Houston And I stopped in San Antone. I passed up the station for the bus. I was trying to find me something. But I wasn’t sure just what.”

I ran into a friend yesterday. I’ll call him Arnold. He was limping. When I asked him why, he told me the following story, which he swears is true. It had me falling out of my chair. Here goes:

Arnold was wrapping up a free-lance article yesterday morning, trying desperately to finish so he could run some errands that afternoon. He had one more person to talk to – this person wasn’t even central to the piece, Arnold just had to tie up a loose end with him. Anyway, he’d reached the source’s handler that morning and had gotten a commitment for a phone interview sometime that day, probably early afternoon, because he was in a meeting right at that point.

Arnold shifted in his chair, wincing a bit, as he told me what happened next. He got his questions ready, went over his other notes again for the piece and waited for the source to call. Finally, at about 11:45, he decided to shower, figuring that the guy probably wouldn’t get back to him until early afternoon.

Well, you can guess what happened next: Arnold got in the shower, put shampoo in his hair and lathered up all over with soap. All over. And then the phone rang. “Crap,” he thought. “I’ve got to get that.” The problem being, he said, if he didn’t talk to the guy, then he might not the rest of the day.

So Arnold dashed out of the shower, covered in soap, shampoo and nothing else, and grabbed the upstairs phone. Sure enough, it was the source, who wanted to talk right then.

He dashed downstairs as he chatted with the guy, the CEO of a company in Greensboro, and got to the computer, where he had his questions ready.

Keep in mind he’s still wearing nothing but soap and shampoo. Thankfully for the neighbors, he’d closed the blinds on the downstairs window in his office.

But there were still problems.

Problem No. 1: He didn’t have time to grab his glasses. And trust me, Arnold is pretty blind without them. So he was depending on his ability to find the home keys on the keyboard – as always, the boogers on the “f” and “j” keys helped.

Which brings us to Problem No. 2: When Arnold sat down in his vinyl office chair, he was still soaped up. Which meant there was no friction. Which sent him sprawling out of the chair to the ground. Not once. Twice. So he knocked the stuff out of the card-table chair he keeps as a credenza in his makeshift office and used it instead as – wait for it – a chair.

That was a precursor to Problem No. 3: Because he was using both hands to type the CEO’s responses, Arnold – as is common for reporters, even those who aren’t naked, blind and covered with suds – tucked the phone between his shoulder and his ear. Only there was no friction there, either, just slippery soap. Which meant the phone squirted out of its position there to the floor. Not once. Not twice. Three times, finally turning itself off. Luckily, Arnold said, CEO guy called right back, and the delay gave Arnold a chance to grab a hand towel from the downstairs bathroom and dry his shoulder, neck and face.

They completed the interview without any other incident – I shudder to think what CEO guy thought of the obviously discombobulated reporter on the other end of the phone, but I didn’t say anything to Arnold. He was embarrassed enough without any sarcasm from me.

After they finished, Arnold headed upstairs, finished showering and then came back down to make sure his notes made sense. They did, he said, and he finished the story a little while later.

In the meantime, he’d discovered that the falls from the chair had left him with a pain in the groin and a limp noticeable to his friends – one that would make quite a story. Not to mention an as-told-to blog entry the next day.

That’s right. I must confess: I’m Arnold. And I really did fall out of my chair.

As Keats might say: Beauty is truth, truth beauty – and there wasn’t anything beautiful about that situation, even if its true.

Shalom, my friends.

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