Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas on the Air

I've worked a few Christmases, mostly during my years in the newsroom, but the most memorable was 30 years ago tonight.

I had an evening talk show on KVOR-AM in Colorado Springs, which was just switching to a news/talk format. My show had begun that fall, which I remember because my time segment happened to be when the station in years past would have run the baseball playoffs.

That wouldn't have been a problem except that, for one thing, the station never came through with all the publicity they told me they were going to mount for this new program and, secondly, I had no producer answering phones in the control room, which meant that people were calling in to find out where the baseball game was and their calls were coming straight through to the studio.

So I'd be talking to an author about the ecological effects of Agent Orange on the people and wildlife in the Mekong Delta and I'd take a call and it would be someone asking when the ball game came on.

Later, as fall gave way to winter, that changed, so that, in the middle of interviewing someone, I'd get a call asking if Monument Pass was open, which was a reasonable question to ask our newsroom but not always relevant to the topic of the show.

I also had kids call in who had figured out that there was nobody screening calls and no 7-second delay, but, fortunately, they'd get so excited that they'd scream the F-word instead of just saying it, and all you'd hear on the air was a burst of incoherent noise.

And I would say to the program director that I really needed a call-screener, but, as with putting my face on the sides of buses, the answer was that, until the show was more established, they didn't have budget for that.

I'd done enough advertising work by then to know where publicity fits in the timeline of success, and I also knew that the quality of the show was suffering because of idiotic, irrelevant calls coming straight to the studio.

But I'd also done enough work in the world to know when the boss was going to get his own way regardless of whether or not it made good sense.

So Christmas comes along, and I get a few days off, because the station has bought a package of pre-recorded tapes of Christmas music and is about to become the community's Yuletide background sound for the week leading up to Christmas. And I had small boys and a wife and a home to go to, so it was fine with me.

Only the program director approached me a few days before the Christmas thing began and said they had miscalculated on something: The package ended at 6 p.m. Christmas day, the time my show would normally go on the air.

They could cobble something together, he said, but he wanted to let me know. And I said that I'd be happy to come in, because Christmas would be pretty much over at my house, and anybody who needed talk radio on Christmas Day really needed a familiar voice.

The problem was, I wasn't going to get any calls and I was going to be hard-pressed to line up a guest for a show that nobody was going to be listening to.

But the news director was letting his staff off for the night and he said he'd be happy to come be my guest. We'd sit and swap stories through the three hours, and if anyone called in, that would be a bonus.

So the program started and it was the two of us sitting there in the empty studio talking about the various holidays we'd had as kids and inviting listeners to share their favorite holiday story, and a little old lady called in to say how much she liked Perry Como and we talked to her for awhile and then we talked to each other about Christmas music, and TV specials and suchlike.

And then we got a call from someone who said, "I don't know what I'm going to do." And then he said it again, and then he said he was going to kill himself.

And then he hung up.

The plan for the evening had changed, and I told him he had to call back because it wasn't fair to lay this on me and not give me a chance to do anything about it. And the phone rang, and it was him again, and his voice was unnaturally low, the voice of someone in a deep depression, and he said he didn't want to talk to me because I knew too much about him already.

And then he hung up again.

He may have said something else, because, despite the depressed tone, I suddenly knew who it was: Steve, a regular caller who was a Biblical literalist who used to call me to debate Scripture.

And who, I knew, had a sister who had taken her own life.

So the show went from "What are your favorite Christmas memories?" to "Call me back, Steve." The news director was a gem -- he let me drive the bus while he just sat back and made calm, neutral comments of support.

And we went on for about half an hour, blowing off all the commercial breaks, blowing off the five minute Dan Rather commentary, and a young engineer came in, who was supposed to work later than night but had heard what was going on.

At some point, I said that, if Steve didn't want to talk on the air, I could understand that, so I turned over the on-air component to the news director and the engineer and went back into the control room. And they were champions -- they kept it low key and supportive and they didn't make any leading statements or say anything stupid and they were wonderful.

I was in the control room hoping Steve would call, but also going through the phone book looking for his church, which had a fairly generic name. I found one minister at home but he wasn't the right guy.

And then finally, nearly an hour after this whole thing had started, Steve called, and I hit the wrong button and hung up on him. But he called back, and he said he was all right now, and he thanked me for caring. And I made him promise to call me back in the morning and let me know he was really okay.

Which he did. Apparently, the problem was that he had fallen in love with a Jewish girl, so the people in his house told him he was going to Hell and they threw him out on the street as a sinner who they couldn't associate with anymore.

But he realized now that it was going to be okay, and he was going to be fine. And he thanked me again for being there.

Meanwhile, the news director and I had to explain to management why we had blown off all the commercials for over 45 minutes, including Dan Rather's commentary and the news at the top of the hour. And we explained it to them.

And the next time I went on the air, by golly, they had finally given me someone to screen my calls and hang up on anybody who shouldn't get on the air.

God bless us, every one!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tales from the backshop
(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, March 24, 1996)

Today, the term "boilerplate" is usually associated with lawyers: It's those required blocks of verbiage that never change from one contract to another.

But boilerplate was a newspaper term in the days before offset printing, and it rose up to bite the Plattsburgh Daily Press a century ago.

On March 23, 1896, the Press ran a column headlined "Unfathomable Snobbery," about a young army officer harrassed until he resigned his commission by fellow officers and their wives for marrying the daughter of an enlisted man. It was, the story said, "a systematic persecution ... at the hands of the tabbies of both sexes who constitute our snobbish and ridiculous army aristocracy."

But there was a problem: The story had been revealed as a falsehood several weeks before, by a military writer who reported that the young officer was popular and happy at his post and had resigned for health reasons.

It was a terrible mistake for a paper in the hometown of Plattsburgh Barracks, and the redfaced Press included the facts of the case the next day in an editorial that contained an odd mix of explanation and self-forgiveness: 

"The article in question was a product of the syndicate system and did not come to the knowledge of any member of the editorial staff before its appearance," the editorialist wrote. "This explanation will be sufficient to relieve us of any imputation of intention to attack the social usages of the army."

But it wasn't sufficient in the view of the Plattsburgh Republican, a feisty little weekly ever willing to chortle publicly over such a delicious blunder by its larger rival:

"This apology ... naturally suggests an inquiry or two," the Republican scoffed: "Since no member of the editorial staff had any knowledge of this article, how then did it get into the Press...? Was it the office cat or the stock 'scapegoat?'"

The delighted Republican also ran outraged letters to the editor, calling it "scurrilous journalism ... of a character to make Ben Franklin turn in his grave and the shades of Faust and Gutenberg regret that printing was ever discovered," wrote an anonymous "Citizen," warming up for this indignant run-on sentence: 

"Our citizens feel ashamed of so unworthy an item in their only daily journal, for although that journal itself is an unworthy representative of journalism, printing its news after it is 24 hours old, yet in the absence of any other daily newspaper it has been tolerated, but it was not expected that it would add spite to its other weaknesses."

The second letter was suspiciously loaded with inside references to the operations of a newspaper: "A pall of mystery hangs over our great freight train-despatch daily," wrote the anonymous critic.

"Who done it? ... Was it Cock Robin? Or the Official Papster? Or the Bucksaw Editor? Alibis are in order...."

References to a "freight-train-despatch daily" and the "Bucksaw Editor" were slams at the Press for not including enough local writing. It's likely the article was boilerplate: Part of a long bar of lead print, typeset in New York City and sent to Plattsburgh to be cut to fit whatever holes in the paper needed filling. A feature article like this could be held to run anytime, and, in this case, had apparently been sitting around since before the follow-up story that branded it a lie. Then, when something that length was needed to fill the column, the story had been sawn off and put into place.

The Republican's editorialist merrily hammered the point home: "By the way, it has generally been understood that the Press's 'news' departments were filled with 'boilerplate' matter, cast in New York, but since when has its editorial pablum been created in the same manner, by a boilerplate 'Editorial Syndicate?' And where does the work of the 'Editorial Staff come in, since, as it appears, a handsaw is all that is needed to get the work of the editorial syndicate into shape for printing?"

Today, the technology has changed: Local media still rely on outside features, though they arrive through satellite dishes instead of trains, and it still happens that, for all the editorial controls in place, something occasionally gets through that oughtn't to have. And it still causes gleeful guffaws among media rivals when it happens.

Today, of course, those rivals are TV and radio stations, but the big difference is that we've all become too mature, professional and responsible to publicly ridicule the mistakes of our competitors.

Or maybe we've become too thin-skinned to risk having the tables turned.

(The media still decline to criticize each other with much in the way of élan, though there's no reluctance on the part of various web sites. The real trick is finding web sites that understand how these things happen. Recently, we lost one of the greats, Charlie Stough, and I would direct you to this remembrance of a funny, funny ink-stained wretch.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

 Court on child molesters: Don't ask, don't tell
The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY    c.  June 28, 1998

Five out of nine Supreme Court justices agree: When it comes to sexual assault on children; what the school doesn't know can't hurt it.

Last week, the court ruled that a district can't be sued for damages in a sexual-harassment case, as long as administrators keep their heads firmly jammed into the sand.

The case concerned a girl molested by a teacher beginning when she was 13, a situation which advanced to sexual relations within a year.

When a police officer caught the teacher in the act, the parents sued the teacher and the district, reasoning that the district was responsible for its teacher's actions.

This is a lively issue in sexual harassment.

Common law holds that, if you give a person authority, you bear some responsibility for what the person does with that power, but the question is how much responsibility an employer has for unauthorized acts the employer is not aware of.

In this case, the court ruled that, unless the right person at the district knew exactly what was going on, the school could wash its hands of all responsibility.

Here are the facts, as laid out in the decision:

1. The district was required by the Department of Education, as part of its receipt of federal funds, to institute a policy on sexual discrimination (including harassment) and to make that policy known to employees and students. It did not do so.

2. While the child did not report the sexual contact, other students' parents had complained to the principal about suggestive and inappropriate remarks in the classroom. The principal met with the parents and the teacher and reported on the meeting to the guidance counselor.

3. The teacher had repeated sex with the student, apparently leaving school with her during what were supposed to be regularly scheduled classes.

Here is what the court ruled:

A. Not having the required policy or letting students and teachers know how to report harassment did not mean the district was indifferent to the issue.

B. The complaints about suggestive language didn't count, the court said. The parents had spoken to the principal instead of the superintendent, who was the district's Title IX officer, and the principal passed the information to the guidance counselor but not to the Title IX officer. Officially, then, the school did not know there was a problem.

C. Since only suggestive remarks were reported, the complaint "was plainly insufficient to alert the principal to the possibility that (the teacher) was involved in a sexual relationship with a student."

This is like ruling that a report of smoke pouring from a school is insufficient to alert firefighters to the possibility that the building is on fire.

To continue the analogy, it is like saying that calling the fire station to report the fire is not good enough, unless the fire chief answers the phone personally.

Finally, it is like saying that, if the school is required to put in an alarm system, but fails to do so, it still can't be blamed if children die in the burning building.

Whatever the legal logic of the court's ruling, it is asinine.

It is beyond outrage that the justices of the highest court in the land should exhibit such abysmal ignorance of the matter before them. It also reveals an appalling set of national priorities when the court brings in tekkies and webheads to explain the Internet so that they can rule wisely on the Communications Decency Act, but blunders ahead in this ruling without the most rudimentary knowledge of child molestation.

The court may rule that ice cream is boiling hot, but that will not make it so, nor can the court's absurd ruling in this case change what a school administrator ought to know. Of course the school should have been alerted to a risk, based on those other complaints.

Not every dirty talker is a baby raper, but nobody with any training in education could fail to recognize suggestive comments as a strong indicator of a potential hazard. It is impossible for anyone in education or human services to escape this information without a deliberate and concerted effort to do so.

These administrators did not want to know what was going on in their school, and that willful, hard-won ignorance has saved them.

There is a ray of hope in this otherwise horrific ruling.

The court said only that current law permits the "don't ask, don't tell" defense for those who fail to protect our children. It would only require a new law, not a constitutional amendment, to change that.

Congress must now break the conspiracy of ignorance that aids and abets child molesters.

Joining in the majority opinion  in 'Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District' were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

That's me and my big brother, Rick, and my sister Fran, and Mom holding our little brother, Tony, and Pop, patting their dog, Puddles. I'm not sure exactly when this picture was taken, but, if it wasn't the last time we were together, it was close.

Mom and Pop were our mother's parents, but we called them "Mom" and "Pop" because that's what our uncle Teddy called them, and he certainly should know. And "Grandma" and "Grandpa" lived in Pennsylvania, not Connecticut.

Some few months after this picture was taken, a major storm hit Connecticut. Teddy was 13 and old enough to stay home alone while his parents had dinner with some friends, but, when the power went out, he called to let them know and they told him they'd come right home.

When Teddy called some time later to ask if they were coming, it caused some alarm, because they had left after his first call, and it wasn't that far.

Meanwhile, the librarian at the Mark Twain Library in Redding had seen odd lights on the ceiling of the apartment over the library and called for help -- they were from the headlights of a car that had been swept off an undermined bridge on the road just under her windows.

Pop was gone almost immediately, but Mom clung to a tree in the middle of the river for three hours while they tried to get out to help.

And thus it was that I suddenly found myself with a second older brother, my uncle Ted. My mother was 31 at the time, and I cannot imagine how it rocked her world. When the news came, she was told not to come to Connecticut yet, as the roads were impassable and the bodies had not yet been recovered.

There was a memorial service in Connecticut, and then a train trip to Chicago and a huge funeral, swelled by the family's connections in the Catholic community, with two nuns and a priest as siblings of the deceased. And then a second train trip back to the East Coast.

I cannot imagine.

But I went to visit my mother last week, and we drove up to Redding to have a look at the old homestead, seen in the picture.

And since I couldn't imagine, I didn't know what we were going to encounter.

For example, the bridge was a place I remembered because we used to play Pooh Sticks there, each dropping a stick off one side and then racing across to see whose stick would emerge first.

I'm sure this is not her first association with that bridge.

But there were many other memories around the place, starting with the many stone walls I saw in the woods well before we got to Mom and Pop's house. I remembered playing in the woods and climbing over many of those old barriers, including the time we were ambushed by a horde of yellow jackets and came screaming down to the screened in porch where Mom and Pop and our parents were sitting drinking from the colored, milled metal glasses that ended up at our house later.

Bad yellow jackets. Great glasses. Someone had glassed in the porch in the half-century since.

Someone had done a fair amount in that half-century, but, then again, not so much in recent years.

There was a swimming pool that was new to us, but looked like it hadn't been used in a couple of years, though the cover was in place and it only needed a good cleaning. And there was much construction material piled up. The garage and guest house, badly deteriorated, were being torn down.

There was nobody around, but there was a car in the driveway and it seemed logical that perhaps they'd gone to lunch. We walked around a bit, sharing memories, and then were rewarded when a front-end loader came up the drive, one man driving and another clinging on the side.

We explained ourselves, and they explained themselves. One was a son of the owner of the property, the other an employee, and they were in the process of fixing the old place up. The owner not only had purchased Mom and Pop's house, but the property across the way as well, so that he could preserve the quiet, forested atmosphere.

And he had done much of the restoration on the house without making many changes. The winding wooden staircase my mother remembered was still there, and the gabled ceiling on the second floor would likely still thump the crown of anyone who jumped on the beds up there.

We both left satisfied that our memories were in good hands.

ADDENDUM: Here's a link to a piece about the history of the storm as well as the accident itself. Note in the comments here that the NYTimes and my mother have a disagreement over the phone call. Having known both the Times and my mother for many decades, I'm going with her version of events.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Vaska's First Birthday
October 2 is Vaska's first birthday, and he's become a fine young man.

He began life as a puppy in Florida.

He was raised with the help of his Auntie Esme, a refined southern lady of truly excellent breeding, who taught him the gentle arts of muay thai and ground-and-pound.

At 10 weeks, he boarded a plane in Orlando, got out in Burlington and discovered that, somehow, the world had undergone some real changes in the intervening four hours.

He had arrived just in time for the annual Christmas photo shoot, which was taking place at a store next to where he went for his first meeting with his new veterinarian.

He quickly adjusted to the new climate ...

... as well as the rigorous pace of his new home.

 He immediately set about the task of making friends.

And by spring, he had some real pull within his social circle.

and had made quite a social splash.

Speaking of splashes, he has recently added a new skill to his repertoire, a signal of what the lad will be experiencing in the first few weeks of 2012.
However, it will take more than a minor surgical procedure to wipe the smile from his face.

Happy birthday to my constant companion and this man's best friend.

"The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too." -- Samuel Butler

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Minor Event of the (very) Late War

(Came across these documents while researching my next historical fiction, which is set in the War of 1812. In order to read between the lines, you must realize that dueling was illegal but not unknown. Consequently, the British [Canadian] reports have no qualms about explaining what these fellows were doing rowing out at dawn to an island in the Niagara, between the British and American lines, while the American report is couched in more discreet terms though I doubt the editor was much fooled. I would also suggest that Lieutenant FitzGibbon and his party of Irish misfits were anticipating Lee Marvin's fictional "separate command" by quite a few years and that there may have been a bit of laughter among the troops at the plight of these young gentlemen.)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Aquadog at 10 months

I've had ridgebacks for 25 years, and, in that time, I've known some who hated water and some who would go into the water up to their bellies and no further.

But Vaska has somehow become a swimmer, goaded on by his best friend, Bogey, and his other buddies, all of whom have no problem at all racing into the river after a stick. For a time, Vaska would act like a proper ridgeback, walking out until his feet threatened to leave the ground, and watching until the others came back within reach, then joining in the wrassling match as they came back onto dry land.

Life is too exciting, however, for such limitations. At the top, he joins in the race for the stick in the Connecticut River, along with Bogey, the chocolate lab in the lead, and Star, the yellow lab in second place. They're built for swimming and he's not, but he refuses to be left behind.

And here you see that he's certainly willing to join in the tussle over who would bring the stick ashore, and he doesn't wait until everyone is touching bottom to enter the fray.

But, while it took the excitement of a stick chase to get him in at first, he's now perfectly comfortable in the water under far more relaxed circumstances, as seen in this scene shot in the White River, with Guinness and Guinness's little blonde-haired mistress.

All this playfulness and non-ridgeback-style comfort with water, however, hasn't undermined the courageous lion-hunter's natural instinct for confronting danger.

I should have named him "Leiningen."

Monday, July 25, 2011

You have a good day, too, Uncle Duke!

(This piece was written in November, 1969, and was submitted to the University of Colorado Writers Workshop the following spring, earning me a fellowship and praise from Harlan Ellison, who called it "a Marx Brothers landscape." It was then revised slightly in the fall of 1971 and submitted to The Rolling Stone, where it was memorably rejected by someone I greatly suspect to have been Dr. Hunter Thompson. That abusive, obscene rejection letter, which is framed over my desk, is being reprinted at "Letters of Note," and I thought it would be interesting to let readers there see what brought it about. And I think readers here will find that blog worth visiting, too. Even when Uncle Duke isn't [apparently] writing the material.) 
(The curtain opens on a cross sectional view of a giant human head. The outer rim is bright blue with a red stripe representing the skull. The brain proper is divided into little rooms like the layout of a ship or a science fiction rocket. In the rooms, little tiny men can be seen running to and fro, up and down by means of hatchways and elevators. Some are sitting at desks, typing and answering phones. In one room, there is a scene of a family of four watching television and eating Fritos and drinking Coca Cola. In another room, a woman in leather is flagellating a writhing masochist in ecstasies of pain. In another room, three men in Day-Glo clown costumes are determining the fate of the world. In another room, two people are smoking a water-pipe and listening to Abbey Road. In another room, two people are making love and listening to old Beach Boys albums and laughing an awful lot. In another room, a teacher is explaining the Crito to a roomful of freshmen in glen plaid slacks and penny loafers and Beach Blanket London Fog jackets who are picking their noses and whispering. In another room, another teacher is picking his nose to a roomful of freshmen who are taking notes. In another room, someone is dying and the priest is preparing Last Rites and trying not to laugh at the family who are in the other room steaming open the will. In another room, Annette Funicello is surfing with Frankie Avalon on an ironing board, clad only in a floor length one piece bathing suit with turtle neck and long sleeves. Frankie Avalon is being titillated. In another room, a young couple is falling in love over a bottle of Lancers and an order of garlic bread. In another room, someone is crying while his friends try not to laugh thinking about their own hang-ups. In another room, two turtledoves are discussing cinema verite. In another room, Eric Clapton is trying to fix his amplifier in time to play before he stops rushing, and cursing an awful lot. In another room, an old maid is sweeping up around a large mahogany desk, and helping herself to a box of cigars. In another, room is being made for another room.)


Matterhorn (The camera pans over a landscape of snowcapped mountains and pines. It centers on one particularly large mountain, which looks to be the Matterhorn. As we are zoomed into a close up, we begin to see a small log cabin about five hundred yards from the summit. Smoke is pouring from the chimney. We are by now looking through the window, where a cheery fire is burning in the fireplace, and being reflected off the pine paneling of the walls. The cabin appears to be empty, but as we look in front of the hearth, we see a couple sitting naked on a bearskin rug gazing into the flames and passing a joint. They are not touching, nor do they look at each other. A small gray and white cat passes before them and pauses for a second in front of the fire. Then it leaps into the fire, where it turns into a panther, and then bursts into a blue flame and is sucked up the chimney into the air above the cabin. The boy turns to the girl and speaks.)
BOY: (handing the joint to the girl) Oh wow. Did you see what the cat just did?
GIRL: Is that what that was, a cat?
BOY: Yeah. What did you think it was?
GIRL: I don't know, man, but I didn't know it was a cat. If I had …
BOY: If you had what?
GIRL: If I had known … that that was a cat.
BOY: Well, what if you had known that it was a cat?
GIRL: Yeah, what if?
BOY: Say, what are you doing tomorrow?
GIRL: I have to go home. I forgot my deodorant.
BOY: You can use mine.
GIRL: Thanks, but I'd rather have my own. I feel more secure.
BOY: What’s wrong with my deodorant?
GIRL: Nothing. I just like having my own deodorant. Makes me feel, you know, more independent. Liberated.
BOY: Well, I don't know why you use my toothbrush and my mouthwash and even my razor but you can't use my deodorant.
GIRL: Did you see that cat a minute ago?
BOY: Is that what that was, a cat?
GIRL: What did you think it was?
BOY: A cat. I knew it was a cat. It was my cat. Its name was Delilah and it slept next to the stove and ate chicken and hamburger. It was two years old and killed mice and small birds and laid them at my feet. It had four kittens a year ago. It shedded like crazy for a while until I fed it a small lizard.
GIRL: Did it stop shedding?
BOY: Oh yeah, immediately. But there were some side-effects.
GIRL: Such as?
BOY: I think that was one of them. Do we have any more lizards in the medicine cabinet?

                                                              i wish that i could
                                                                        talk to e.e. cummings.
                                                                                         I would say
           e.e., do you                        realize
                             the effect
                                        the influence
                                                    of your p
                                                   eht no  y                                           yrteop 
                                 eht no
                     fo selyts
      p etaigelloc
                             he would
                      probably nod and

Burros (Still here? Did you remember your gloves? Good. The scene opens on the floor of the Grand Canyon. Two burros are attacking a tourist. The Park Ranger is attempting to MACE the burros, who are protected by their long  Prairie_dog_2 winter coats and their abnormally long eyelashes. The wind shifts and the  MACE drifts off into a village of prairie dogs who immediately succumb and fall backwards and head-first into their burrows, where they become wedged in awkward positions.)

Orange drink1
(Orange drink is available in the lobby at the phenomenal price of $15 a carton. The cartons, however, prove to be only half-full! The straws are very narrow and collapse easily. You forget your matches and have to ask a stranger for a light. Your date is mortified at your flirting and general incompetence. You inadvertently burn a hole in the carpet with a stray ash, and several people notice the smoke before you do. There is a general panic which your date resolves by pouring $7.50 worth of orange drink on the spot. The stench is horrendous. Your date fixes you up with one of the ushers and goes home. The usher keeps shining his flashlight on the ceiling.)

(We switch back to the cabin, where the young couple is snorting a lizard preparatory to making love.)
BOY: Oh wow. I can hardly wait to finish this.
GIRL: Me neither. It will be such fun.
BOY: I hate my parents. That is why I am going to make love to you.
GIRL: I hate the establishment. That is why I am snorting this lizard.
Lizard BOY: I hate cops and teachers and all civic authorities.
GIRL: I hate motherhood and the flag and apple pie.
BOY: I hate circuses and hot dogs and baseball games.
GIRL: I hate church and the Girl Scouts.
BOY: I hate TV dinners and the Boy Scouts.
GIRL: I like straight people.
BOY: I like … wait a minute. What did you just say?
GIRL: I like straight people.
BOY: You're not supposed to like straight people.
GIRL: I don't like all straight people. But some straight people are pretty nice.
BOY: Yeah, well, some of my best friends are straight people. I got nothing against them. They sure can dance. But I still wouldn't want my sister to marry one.
GIRL: I wouldn't want her to, either.
BOY: I got nothing against straight people. I just wouldn't want my sister to marry one.
GIRL: God, no. I hate marriage.
BOY: I hate pigeons and squirrels and cotton candy.
GIRL: I hate Johnny Carson and my parish priest.
BOY: I hate Glen Campbell and Arthur Godfrey.
GIRL: I hate the boy next door and color TV.
BOY: I hate breakfast and beer.

Chi_Chi (Fourteen pregnant pandas are filing paternity suits against An-an or Chi-chi, as soon as they figure out which is the male. Meanwhile, the Russians are rounding up character witnesses in the event that they discover their bear to be a male. Chi-chi and An-an are trying to remember.)

VW_Bus_T1_in_Hippie_Colors_2 (An aerial shot of the Santa Anita freeway, showing a traffic jam consisting entirely of old buses painted in Day-glo paisley containing freaks off to do their own thing.)

(Two sentries at Elsinore: Thodwick and Benvenuto)
Thodwick: What time is it'?
Benvenuto: The clock has but struck.
Thodwick: T'is a nipping and eager air.
Benvenuto: Sure is. Where the hell is Horatio?
Thodwick: Hold your tongue. I hear something.
GHOST: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark!
Thodwick: Hark ye! He calls the Prince!
GHOST: I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!
Thodwick: You're lost, man. This Is Denmark.
GHOST: I know, I know.
Benvenuto: What happened to the other guy?
GHOST: You mean Hamlet's father?
Benvenuto: Yeah.
GHOST: Bad earache, man, couldn't make it.
Benvenuto: Well, what do you want?
GHOST: Another lizard, please. And make it a long one.

  (Amid the splendor of a sylvan glade, three satyrs are mugging a young nymph. A Centaur enters at right, and they run off, leaving the girl behind. She thanks the centaur and gives him a kiss. They ride off into the sunset, to the utter amazement of all, since it is one o'clock in the afternoon.)

OhCalcutta (The entire cast ad-libs a completely tasteless, meaningless nude scene, grossing out not only the audience, but each other as well. At the end, they select the best actor by use of a meter indicating how many people walked out on his account. Other actors count as two members of the audience. The winner is given a $25,000 bonus and is beheaded.)

NightTrain     Charles got off the train without a word to Eve. As the train pulled out, she watched him walk to his car without looking back.
    "Who was that masked man?” the porter asked.
    "Which masked man?" Eve answered. "There have been so many, I may have forgotten one or two."
    “The one who was running up and down the aisle naked but for a pair of argyle socks, making improper suggestions to several of the young ladies present."
    "I don’t know," whispered Eve, gazing at the rising moon, "but I wanted to thank him.”

249  I clattered over mountain trail                                   249.  The Song
        To help the elk to quell the quail.                                      of Oedicox
        I clashed on moss and tripped on vines,
Eddietrisha         I bit the fork to mesh the tines.
        I stripped the truth and fed the lies
        On bigot blood and apple pies.
255  I helped to stop the wild oat seed
        With a massive dose of LSD
        Which nurtured minds as smooth as silk
        And turned their brains to curdled milk,
        Then skimmed the curds, and sold the whey
        To other souls who thought it fey.

261   Oh woe to thee, oh wicked knight,                             261.   Oedicox
        Who dragged the dragon's corpse to light,                           lays a
        And brought upon the land a blight.                                      heavy 
        A curse upon thee, wicket king,                                             curse on 
265 Who sought the fairies dancing ring,                                      the house
        And smote the griffon on the wing.                                        of Nadir
        Fie upon thee, maiden fair,
        With silver cowbells in your hair;
        A wealth of changelings shalt thou bear
270.  But love go with thee, kith and kin,                          270. Love song
        For thou hath saved my fiscal skin,                                   of
        and caused the GNP to grin,                                            Oedicox
        And all the dreams contained therein,
275. Shall live to praise your deadly sin,
        And they shall kill you, raise a din,
        And mount a motto on a pin;
        “[ Your name here] has Never Been!”

Icefollies A terrible tragedy will befall anyone who watches, performs or reads this act. You will be chosen to emcee a late night talkshow for the next fifteen years. Your sidekick is Lester Maddox. Your first guests will be Shirley Temple Black, David and Julie Eisenhower, and three members of the Ice Follies.

(Footnote: The Doonesbury excerpted above was also posted over my desk for several years as a reminder to quit and go to bed at some point. Here it is, from January 8, 1975.)


A question has arisen about whether the letter is original or a form letter. It has been quoted multiple times on the Internet, and it turns out was cited in “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson” as something he provided the magazine as a prepackaged rejection letter. 

Here is the passage, from page 138, one of a series of anecdotes from former RS staffers, this from Charles Perry:

After ‘Fear and Loathing,’ people in Colorado were giving him stuff they’d written, thinking he could get them in ‘Rolling Stone.’ I was the poetry editor, and he sent me a package of poems from other people once, with a note that said, ‘I don’t know about this stuff. If you feel the same way, send it back with to them with this.’ He included a prepackaged rejection letter that said,

(full text of letter follows, including the reference to South Bend)

We actually sent it out to a few people, thinking they would appreciate it. One person took it to a lawyer and asked if he could sue us, and the lawyer said, ‘No, you don’t have a leg to stand on … but could I Xerox it?’”

Here's my analysis:
1. My copy predates this. I don't recall the specific date I received the letter, but I do recall reading it while walking from the mailbox to the kitchen door of a house I lived in from May to the end of October, 1971. "Fear and Loathing" was serialized in Rolling Stone the next month, by which time I was living in Mishawaka, (which I mark by knowing that we had Thanksgiving there.) The book version of "Fear and Loathing" was released the following year.

2. My copy is hand-typed, with the impressions and punch-through periods of a typewriter, as well as impressions of an actual "signature." 

3. The copy Thompson sent includes the phrase "drab South Bend cocksuckers," and while I will contest the first and last of those descriptors, I was living in South Bend. It seems improbable that he would hand-type a form letter simply for the pleasure of adding a specific town.

It seems probable that Thompson wrote the letter that hangs on my wall and was so delighted with his handiwork that he made a copy of it, which he then sent to San Francisco, where it became an office legend if not a standard piece of correspondence after all. 

And, for the record, I did appreciate it, once I got to the P.S. and stopped hyperventilating.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Classic Case of Boredom

(Children's author and middle-school ELA teacher Kate Messner has written a brilliant column on summer reading lists that is a must-read, and inspired me to dig up this column, written for the Press-Republican of February 3, 1989 and copyrighted by them.)

Nobody reads the classics anymore, and I'm not surprised. Nobody ever did.

Oh. they talk a good game, but, when it comes down to genuine cultural literacy, most of those back-to-basics types are blowing a lot of smoke and flashing a lot of mirrors.

An article in this paper, discussing the Board of Regents's plans to revamp social studies, decried the lack of reading among our young people.

"Reading books like The Three Musketeers or Kipling's Gunga Din is an easy way to sneak in history lessons," the article concluded, neatly deleting the quotation marks around titles, which are required by our style book. It also neatly deleted the fact that, aside from whether or not we want our children taking Kipling's imperialistic bombast as history, "Gunga Din" isn't a book. It's a poem.

It's not even a terribly long poem; only 84 lines. That's probably just as well, because it isn't a terribly good poem, either. There's nobody blowing a trumpet on a temple roof with his dying breath. That was Sam Jaffe, saving Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and someone else wonderfully dashing whom I've forgotten. Gary Cooper or somebody.

Anyway, it isn't in Kipling's poem, which is about an Indian waterbearer who drags a soldier to safety under fire and how amazing it is that non-English people can be heroic, too. "An' for all 'is dirty ide, 'E was white, clear white, inside," the poet marvels, in that impenetrable dialect, that made Kipling's doggerel so popular among those who only heard real dialect from their servants.

Anyway, "Gunga Din" is a poem, not a book, and we shouldn't chide our children for not reading the things we haven't read either.

There are a lot of great books nobody has ever really managed to get through. The proof is in the location of their most famous scenes. Every famous scene of every great book occurs in the first few pages, except the death of Achilles in "The Iliad," which doesn't actually occur at all in "The Iliad."

Every other famous scene, you will find the first time you sit down with the book, because there is never a second time.

Whatever happens in the final 75 percent of a great book is known only to the author and the author's mother. No one else has ever made it past the beginning.

For example:

My copy of "Oliver Twist" is 428 pages long. Oliver says, "Please, sir, I want some more," on page 13.

"Don Quixote," in the Penguin edition, is 940 pages long. He tilts with the windmills on page 68.

There are 803 pages in the Everyman's Library edition of Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte D'Arthur." Young Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone on page 11.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" is 244 pages long. Eliza races across the river, jumping from ice cake to ice cake, on page 30, and that's pretty much it for Eliza, who is only a minor character in the book.

But my favorite unread classic is "War and Peace," which, everyone knows, is about Boris and Natasha. We even have a pair of cartoon characters named for Boris and Natasha.

Well, the Norton Critical Edition of "War and Peace" is 1,351 pages long. Boris and Natasha kiss on page 45. By page 251, she confesses that she can't remember what he looks like and isn't going to bother writing to him after all. What do you expect? She's only 13 years old when the book opens, and won't marry until she is 20.

Some readers are voracious and will read anything — cereal boxes, Harlequin romances, even the Speak Out column. A few of them have read some of the great books. They read because it is fun, because they enjoy it and because they are compulsive information addicts. But they are, and have always been, a minority.

Some of the rest might become readers, but the quickest way to stifle a young reader is to throw all those tired old warhorses at him, like "Huckleberry Finn," which was never intended for children anyway or "Treasure Island," which is far too full of chat and too short of action.

Why not give them some quality books that someone might really want to read, like "the Chronicles of Narnia" or the Little House books?

I read "Animal Farm" when I was about 9, because I thought it was about animals, and it was, sort of. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a whole lot more than Treasure-bloody-Island, which I couldn't get through to save my life.

If you want kids to read, read to them when they are young and then make books available to them.

But don't shove a "great" book down a kid's throat just because somebody shoved it down yours.

And, by the way, if you want to appear culturally literate, don't go around letting people know you think that "Gunga Din" is a book.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vaska at 0.667 Years Old

So Vaska has turned eight months old and is closing in on nine. He's training up real well and without a lot of need for specific training sessions: He knows what is expected of him and does his best, with the understanding that he is a hound.

Which means, for instance, that the car is not going to be scratched because, as much as he wants to go for a ride, he will stand on the top step of the porch and look at me while I order him into the car. He'll come in his own good time, or, more likely, after I walk back to the porch and take his collar, at which point he'll placidly walk to the car door and get in.

Or take this morning: We have two main places we go to play, the Dog Park, where it is enclosed and he wrestles and runs with the other dogs, or the Wilder Dam, a wide-open strip of riverside park where there is open park play but also a lot more running-through-the-brush involved.

This morning, we went down to the Dog Park, but there was nobody there, so, after a short stay, we went out to get back in the car and go see what was happening at Wilder. But Vaska did not go from the park gate to the car.

Instead, he ignored my calling and trotted away around a bit of woods and down a short path to check the banks of the White River, where people often take their dogs for a quick dip. Once he saw that nobody was there, he came right to the car and got in. Just checking, Dad.

Here he is with his friends Bogey, a chocolate Lab, and Amos, a small Munsterlander, having some good clean fun on the shores of the Connecticut River, at the Wilder Dam park. By the way, this was taken a few weeks ago, and Vaska is now about two or three inches taller than the other two. We're not sure they've noticed.

Bogey is his best friend, and the two of them are apt to start rassling as soon as they meet, with virtually no greeting. Either that or they will begin a game of keep-away. A few weeks ago, I noticed that Vaska was developing a short of leopard-skin tone under his throat, which I thought at first was simply an unusual color pattern.

But I also found myself petting him at night and thinking I had found a tick on his neck, only to realize it was a small scab. Turns out Bogey also has these small puncture wounds all over his throat. Now, it is a rule of dog judging that "scars of honor" do not count against a dog who is being shown, but the rules are silent on the topic of "scars of idiocy."

What I like about the rassling matches that Vaska gets into with Bogey and also his good friend Tanner, who is a pit bull mix of some sort, is that they readily switch positions during the game. The three share an endearing generosity of spirit and have no need to be "top dog." They have a wonderful time just beating the living bejabbers out of each other and we don't have to intervene. In fact, you'll hear in the background of this vicious dogfight a discussion of yard sales. The kids are playing, the moms are talking, life is good.

And Vaska is still a puppy in many ways. Here he is running towards me, and you can see that he still has the rocking-horse gait of a puppy, and a tendency to "pounce" that is also the mark of a puppy.

But our little boy is growing up. He has started taking an interest in checking the p-mail on lampposts and trees as we walk, though he's a few weeks away from thinking to add his own comments. More to the point, the other day we arrived at the Dog Park to find Buster there, a pit/lab mix who is something of a bully. Buster was in the process of picking on some of the other dogs, playing way too rough, like the sort of obnoxious jock who throws elbows in a game of playground hoops.

He grabbed Vaska by the back of his neck and threw him down, which is fair play, but then held him and wouldn't let him up. A few weeks ago, the puppy would have squealed for help, but Vaska got himself free and then made it quite clear that he didn't expect, under any circumstances, for any reason, to be treated like that again. It was a little scary, but it was simply a quick moment of strong assertion. The message was delivered without physical contact and then, the moment having passed, the group went on to play, with Buster behaving himself.

After Buster and his owner had left, other owners were pleased, chuckling about it, calling him the "Dog Park Police" and telling me they appreciated him doing what the other dogs weren't able to. And that may be where it stays: He's such a good-spirited, friendly, outgoing fellow that he may simply grow to be the big guy with a sense of propriety and self-control.

I hope that's the case, and my experience with ridgebacks suggests that there's a good chance it will work out that way. But the next six to eight months will be an interesting time, because my preference is to let Vaska remain intact until he is about 14 to 16 months old, for reasons mostly having to do with skeletal development. However, if he begins to show signs of throwing his weight around in an unacceptable manner, the snip will come sooner.

In any case, my little boy is about to enter puberty, and the process with dogs is not terribly different than with kids. There will be some testing and a little rebellion. And it has already become a source of amusement: Vaska is very vocal when he plays, and, lately, he has begun to bark like a deep-throated, frightening timber wolf, but there are still times when his adolescent voice breaks into a shrill puppy yip and everyone falls over laughing.

Bottom line: This is one hell of a good dog and we're having a lot of fun together.