Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Pardon me if this is not as well constructed, as coherent, as my regular posts.

Begin here: Bill's was the house where I didn't have to knock. And, if he wasn't home, I'd come in, sit at the kitchen table and talk to his mother instead. At some point, I started calling his folks "Mom" and "Dad" as a joke, because I was over there so often, but, after awhile, I just called them that because it felt comfortable and right. He did the same with my folks. Bill was family.

My dad was the assistant manager at the mine. Bill's dad worked on the trains that moved the ore. Now, on one level, this meant that my dad was an MIT graduate and I'm not sure his dad finished high school, but that had no real significance. None of us ever thought like that, and shame on us if we had.

No, the significance of that was that his dad was a shift worker and mine worked 8-to-5, which, in turn, meant that his family ate dinner at 5 o'clock and mine ate at 6:30.

For a pair of hollow-legged junior high kids, that meant, if we played our cards right, we could eat at Bill's house and then walk over to my house and have dinner again. It worked pretty well until our mothers began comparing notes.

Bill and I were best friends, but we weren't inseparable. It wasn't that kind of friendship. It was more than that.

Looking back, I'm not sure what we had in common except that we liked each other. I think that's what made our friendship so solid. There were no reasons why we were so close. We simply wanted to be friends. There was never anyone in my life I liked as much as I liked Bill, and there was never anyone who had my back the way he did. He was Sundance to my Butch.

Bill was in chorus, he played trumpet in the band and, after I'd graduated and left town, he played in a rock band with my little brother. I was a guitarslinger in college and played in an Irish band later, but it was all for show. Music never rose to the level of importance in my life that it did in Bill's.

But I enjoyed singing and Bill and I sang, mostly walking home from town in the dark, from streetlamp to streetlamp under the overhanging maples. We sang Irish folk songs like "Courting in the Kitchen" and especially "The Rocky Road to Dublin," since each verse of the latter can be done in one breath if you are very careful and walk at the right pace. And we sang, "When I Woke Up This Morning (You Were On My Mind)" and other pop tunes.

People along our route knew when we were going by, but they didn't seem to mind. I guess we didn't sound so bad.

Bill wasn't into the bar scene and very rarely came to the bar in town, despite the fact that it was the only place open after six o'clock and was a hangout even for those under the 18 drinking age. I was down there a lot, but not with Bill. I never nagged him about it. It wasn't his deal. I don't think we ever got drunk together, either. And that was okay. Bill wasn't into it.

When we first started hanging out together, we'd go out in the woods and shoot BB guns, but we outgrew that soon enough and began to center our lives around the pool table in my basement. I don't know how many games of pool we shot -- eight ball and rotation and Kelly and straight pool and such -- but we got pretty good at it. We also got pretty good at hashing out the world's problems as we shot.

At his house, we listened to the stereo. We knew all of Bill Cosby's routines by heart, and spun Herb Alpert's records until they nearly wore out. Bill's older sister ignored us, which is what older sisters do, and I think his younger sister had a crush on me for about an hour and a half. Long enough to accidentally bounce a rock off my head and embarrass herself to pieces. She was awfully cute, but also awfully young, and eventually married the little brother of a friend. Nice pair of kids and I think they're still together. Hope so.

Bill's dad lay on the couch after dinner and we left him alone. He worked hard and deserved his own time, and he wasn't much of a conversationalist to begin with. Didn't effect the way I felt about him, or the way he felt about me, as it turned out.

Once there was a forest fire along the railroad tracks, caused by a broken spark arrestor that had spewed sparks into the woods for a couple of miles. I was just 16, but Bill wasn't, yet, so I got to leave school to go help fight the fire. We filled our Indian tanks and climbed up on the locomotive to be taken from the crossroads down to the scene of the fire, and Bill's dad was on the crew that took us there. He didn't say anything to me, but he gave me a quick wink and a grin. He was proud of me for being there, and I was proud of his approval.

A couple of years later, I was home for Easter and walked over to Bill's house. He wasn't there, but his mother told me he'd gone downtown to find his little sister. I was walking in that direction when the forest ranger swung by in his pickup and said, "Peterson! Get in!" There was a fire, and he was empowered to impress anyone over 16 to help put it out.

I climbed in the back and we drove another half mile before we came across Bill, his little sister and her boyfriend. "Gebo! Get in!" the Ranger barked at Bill, then looked at the boyfriend. "Iaquinta, how old are you?" But he wasn't old enough to be impressed, and was left behind. I shouted to Mary Faith to call my folks and let them know where I was headed.

Bill and I spent about six hours on that fire and it was a great benefit. We weren't all that useful as firefighters, but it gave us an opportunity to be together and talk.

A year or so later, I saw him again. He was a pallbearer at my little brother's funeral. He was incredibly uncomfortable, so deep in his own pain that he could barely deal with the notion of having to play a public role in a very difficult moment for our entire town. I have nothing to say about that, except that there are debts that cannot be repaid.I already respected him. I already loved him. This just reminded me of why.

My next substantial time with Bill, after Tony's death, was at a bar in town with him, and my then-wife, and the Kyer sisters and a husband and a boyfriend of theirs. It was one of the best nights of drinking and talking I've ever experienced. Cathy and Cheryl were girls that every guy in high school had a crush on, but this was 10 years later and we could relax. For one thing, besides being incredibly cute, they were our buddies. For another, they'd chosen really good guys.It was a terrific night of nostalgia and philosophy and good vibes. If you asked me to freeze my life in a 12-hour period to be relived endlessly, that might well be the moment.

What I remember was that we began to talk about Tony, and about another departed friend, Jim Terry, a classmate of mine. We talked about Tony and Jim for a few minutes, and then one of the Kyer sisters stopped us. I don't remember which of them it was. "I can't talk about this anymore," she said. We were such close friends that there were things we all understood that were too painful to pursue.And yet we were such close friends that we could talk until we reached that critical point. And, at this moment, that was where we were.

I saw Bill again at a kind of homecoming that we have, given that our community is too small to try to rally individual classes for reunions. It was a fine conversation, with Bill and our friend Crandall, whose story is worth a whole other post. At that moment, we were three friends and it was worth anything in the world to be there then.

Shortly thereafter, my mother admitted that maintaining a large house designed for nine people was ineffective for one person and finally sold out. I went up to help with clearing out the old family home, after half a century.

It was my last moment in Star Lake as a resident, and so, as was only right, when we were done, I went to see Bill.  I gave him the eight-ball from that pool table over which we'd spent so many hours. We misted up, we hugged. We sat and talked for awhile.

But we knew that I was leaving town. This was it.I gave him one last hug and then drove out of town.

That was five years ago. This year, on Christmas day, Bill had a stroke. And then he died.

I love Bill Gebo. I always will. He is the best friend I have ever had, and there is nothing more to be said.

I know what it means to lose a brother, and Bill was as close to Tony as I was.

And so it is appropriate for me to say that I have now, once more, lost a brother.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 1952
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by His Old Man
(see below)

Monday, December 20, 2010

 So long, Sid and Alma
(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, NY, in December, 1988)

I guess I won't be hearing from Alma and Sid this year.

They've sent a card every Christmas since 1974, usually early in the season. Alma doesn't procrastinate. Their card was always one of the first to arrive.

It was never a fancy card, never sentimental or religious, usually one of those whimsical cards with Santa sunbathing by a swimming pool or the reindeer pulling his golf cart or something of the sort.

And there was never a message, just their names, in what I assumed was Alma's handwriting. For years, it was "Sid and Alma and the kids," then it was "Sid and Alma." The last couple of years, it was "Alma and Sid." A little palace revolution, perhaps.

If you're waiting for some tearjerking tale about two lonely recluses with terminal diseases, spending their last pittances to mail out holiday greetings, forget it. And I don't have a fascinating, touching story to tell of how Sid and Alma acted as parents to me at a time when I really needed an anchor in this ol' world.

Fact is, I haven't got the faintest idea of who these people are.

All I know is that, a few weeks after we moved to Colorado Springs in 1974, we got the first card, postmarked Livonia, Mich. We racked our brains, trying to think of old business contacts, friends of our parents, parents of our friends.

The only guy I knew with that last name had done time in Joliet and was wanted by the Army for desertion, and I didn't think he'd be dumb enough to change his first name and then let everyone know where he was living. Anyway, if he sent whimsical cards, it would be Santa stealing a Mercedes or something, not sunning himself by the pool.

We asked a guy with my name if they were maybe friends of his, but he didn't know any Sid and Alma, either. We let it drop.

The next year, we got another card, and we wondered if maybe we should send them a note and let them know that they apparently had the wrong Petersons and might want to check on their friends. But, we figured, the right Petersons would probably send them a card or give them a call or drop them a line sometime and  then they would know.

Apparently not. The cards kept coming.

We continued to think that maybe we ought to set them straight, but by then the thing had begun to take on a bizarre fascination. How long would they continue to pump out the Christmas cards without any response?

Indefinitely, I guess. Last Christmas, my mail was still eligible for forwarding from Colorado Springs, since I had been here just a shade under six months. Sure enough, Alma and Sid's card came through, with a notation from the Postal Service suggesting I advise my correspondents of my correct address.

I didn't, of course. We had decided a long time ago that it would be cheating to encourage them in their spendthrift ways.

But I would like to be a fly on the wall in Livonia, Mich., when this year's card comes back to them, and Sid asks Alma, "Who the heck are the Petersons, anyway?"

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Speaker and the Demagogue
Were walking near the reef;
They wept like anything to see
So many on relief:
"If they would only go away,"
They said, "t’would cure our grief!"

"If tax breaks for the upper class
Could last beyond this year,
Do you suppose," the Speaker said,
"These poor would disappear?"
"I’m certain," said the Demagogue,
And shed a bitter tear.

"It seems a shame," the Speaker said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've led them on so far,
With promises so slick!"
The Demagogue said nothing but
"Their health care makes me sick!"

"I weep for them," the Speaker said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Listeners," said the Demagogue,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall you be tuning in again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vaska has arrived

Tolstoy is acknowledged to have used Davydov, the romantic partisan cavalryman and poet, as a model for the character of Nicholai Rostov's brother-in-arms Vaska Denisov, but it's obvious he took at least part of the name from the Cossack cavalry commander Orlov-Denisov, who was both more prominent and more conventional than Davydov.

The fellow on the left was a Don Cossack, the one on the right, though he rode with Cossacks, was apparently not ethnically one himself. The one in the middle is proving to be a perfect little Tatar, and that's what I was hoping for. The character in "War and Peace" for whom he is named is a sidekick in the got-your-back sense of the Sundance Kid rather than in the whatever-you-say-boss sense of Sancho Panza.

Vaska flew into Burlington Thursday night, just in time for a holiday photo promotion Saturday to support the dog park that he won't be allowed to visit until after his next round of puppy shots on the 28th. Meanwhile, we're taking walks at another, less potentially infectious, park to try to work off some of the energy of this little fellow.

The first night, he slept fairly well, but that was apparently the result of a long day of airplanes and airports coming up from Orlando. Friday night, he regaled the house all night long with rousing choruses of the dog folksong, "I Do Not Wish To Be In This Crate." And the house next door as well, apparently, since on Saturday the neighbor commented, across the fence and two driveways that separate us, that he had figured I had a new puppy after hearing the commotion the night before. Yes, in winter with all windows closed.

And Saturday's holiday shoot was a pretty good demonstration of why we should all be happy that human babies are not terribly mobile, because a nine-week-old puppy is very much a baby and we ended up with a great many out-of-focus shots of a 19-pound puppy running around pulling up the fluffy cotton floor spread, attacking the decorative stuffed animals and attempting to undecorate the tree, before we finally got a few of him sitting still without a restraining hand in the shot.

On the other hand, he is wonderfully social and was pleased to greet everyone at the store, and I have no doubt that he will be very nice to walk down the street with.

Assuming he eventually comes to realize the difference between a leashed dog and a roped calf.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Waiting for the vacuum cleaner, or someone like him

I had two granddaughters over for dinner and a movie the other night. After they left, I had to pick up a few pieces of popcorn from the floor.

It really made me feel put upon: I haven't had to pick up food from the floor in a very long time. I think it was 1997 when my dog O'Malley had a heart attack, and I had to wait three or four weeks for Destry to be old enough to leave his mother and come live with me.

Before that, it was another three- or four-week stint between giving up Creamcheese, a dog I had been keeping for an ex-girlfriend who finally moved off-campus, and joining up with Taylor, a little mix who provided laughs, mostly at his own expense, for the next 14 years. That was in September, 1970.

So Vaska arrives Friday, and popcorn isn't the only thing I'm getting up off the floor between now and then, because popcorn isn't the only thing that he's going to decide belongs in his mouth. It's been a long time since I've had to puppy-proof a home and I am not running out of things to do while I wait for the vacuum cleaner.

UPDATE: The vacuum cleaner will not arrive until Monday, possibly Tuesday. He had a bit of minor surgery -- the sort of thing that is absolutely necessary but not major -- and apparently got a couple of his stitches yanked while he was playing with the Big Dogs. So there's some swelling that needs to come down and he'll be along shortly. And I just won't make popcorn until then.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I don't know why you say good-bye, I say hello

Zee, that lovely, gentle girl, is suddenly gone, and there's not much to be said about it. She had been having some pain and mobility issues all summer and at first they responded to a combination of rest or exercise depending on what she had been up to the day before. And then about a month ago, she started a real decline. One night, she shifted on the couch and was suddenly ki-yi-ing in agony. I brought her to the vet and he thought he had found the answer.

Unfortunately, he had not. I've always said that I'd spend any amount of money for something that worked but not a penny on something that would only make me feel better and not help the dog. This suddenly went from one of the former to one of the latter. When he did a secondary exam before the scheduled operation, things didn't add up and some additional testing showed deterioration of the spinal chord, a condition that made the test itself too much for the girl. There was no point in even waking her up, since she would have been in agony and would likely not have even made it home.

As it was, her last conscious time was fairly pleasant. Some painkillers were helping and she was able to go to the dogpark and see her friends, human and canine. And that was that. A fun, terrific dog and the house is brutally empty at the moment.

I knew I couldn't be like that very long and began to make some contacts. I expected, at best, to find a new litter somewhere that might be ready in six weeks or a month. But by sheer happenstance, when I contacted a ridgeback breeder in Florida who had been a classmate of my brother in high school, she had a rambunctious male puppy nearly ready to go out the door. He will arrive a week from Friday, and it happens to be a week that I have off, so we can have plenty of time for bonding and going for walks and suchlike.

That is a picture of Vaska and his brothers above. "Vaska" is short for Vasili Dmitreivich Denisov, whom Tolstoy fans will remember as the brave, tender-hearted, fearless, romantic leader of Cossack partisan cavalry. Brother-in-arms to Nicholai Rostov, he's one of the great "buddies" in all of literature.

And I'd say he has big shoes to fill, but, then again, look at those feet.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Liars, damned liars and Fox News

Fox News has outdone themselves, decrying Barack Obama's children's book because it included Sitting Bull as one of the great Americans profiled. "Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General," the headline read.

Now, first of all, Custer, though named a brevet general during the Civil War, had resumed his rank of colonel at the time of his death, with "Gen. Custer" being only a honorary title. More to the point, while Sitting Bull was in the Indian camp at the time of Custer's attack, he had no military role whatsoever, even as a footsoldier. The defense of the combined force was lead by Crazy Horse and Gall. 

So there was no general present, and Sitting Bull didn't participate in the battle.

Not only is Fox News completely inaccurate, but they aren't even terribly original in their bigotry and lies. Luther Standing Bear was a young Lakota at the Carlisle School in the late 19th century, and worked at Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia. He tells this story in his autobiography, "My People the Sioux." 

Hucksters, liars and cheats haven't changed much.

One evening while going home from work, I bought a paper, and read that Sitting Bull, the great Sioux medicine man, was to appear at one of the Philadelphia theaters.

The paper stated that he was the Indian who killed General Custer! The chief and his people had been held prisoners of war, and now here they were to appear in a Philadelphia theater. So I determined to go and see what he had to say, and what he was really in the East for.

I had to pay fifty cents for a ticket. The theater was decorated with many Indian trappings such as were used by the Sioux tribe of which I was a member.

On the stage sat four Indian men, one of whom was Sitting Bull. There were two women and two children with them. 

A white man came on the stage and introduced Sitting Bull as the man who had killed General Custer (which, of course, was absolutely false).

Sitting Bull arose and addressed the audience in the Sioux tongue, as he did not speak nor understand English. He said, 'My friends, white people, we Indians are on our way to Washington to see the Grandfather, or President of the United States. I see so many white people and what they are doing, that it makes me glad to know that some day my children will be educated also. There is no use fighting any longer. The buffalo are all gone, as well as the rest of the game. Now I am going to shake the hand of the Great Father at Washington, and I am going to tell him all these things.

Then Sitting Bull sat down. He never even mentioned General Custer's name.

Then the white man who had introduced Sitting Bull arose again and said he would interpret what the chief had said. He then started in telling the audience all about the battle of the Little Big Horn, generally spoken of as the 'Custer massacre.' He mentioned how the Sioux were all prepared for battle, and how they had swooped down on Custer and wiped his soldiers all out. He told so many lies that I had to smile.

One of the women on the stage observed me and said something to the other woman, then both of them kept looking at me.

Then the white man said that all those who wished to shake hands with Sitting Bull would please line up if they cared to meet the man who had killed Custer. The whole audience got in line, as they really believed what the white man had told them. 

It made me wonder what sort of people the whites were, anyway. Perhaps they were glad to have Custer killed, and were really pleased to shake hands with the man who had killed him!

I lined up with the others and started for the stage, not intending to say a word. But the woman who had first noticed me smiling from my seat, watched me all the closer as I came toward them. She grabbed me by the hand, not knowing exactly what to say and not knowing if I were really an Indian boy.

Finally she spoke in Sioux as follows: 'Niye osni tona leci,' which meant, 'How many colds (or winters) are you here?' I replied in Sioux, 'In winter we have so many cold days here that I do not know really how many colds I have been here.'

That sort of broke the ice, and she laughed, then the other Indians laughed. Then she asked me who my father was. I replied, 'Standing Bear of Rosebud is my father.'

‘Why,' she exclaimed, 'then you are my nephew.' Then she called her brother, who was Sitting Bull. 'See who is here.' He was pleased to see me again.

Of course this caused some excitement among the crowd of white people. I had been working in the store so long that I had become lighter in complexion. All the Indians then crowded about me, forgetting all about shaking hands with the crowd of white people, who could not understand it.

The white man who had spoken on the stage now came up to see what was the matter and why the Indians had suddenly left off shaking hands with the others. Sitting Bull beckoned him to come up, then he turned to me and said, 'Tell this white man we want you to go to our hotel with us to eat.'

So I interpreted what Sitting Bull requested, and the man said, 'Why, yes, you can come with them.' Then the Indians packed up their things which decorated the hall and were very anxious to get back to the hotel where they could have a talk with someone who understood them.

When we reached the hotel, Sitting Bull said to me that he was on his way to Washington to shake hands with the President, and that he wanted his children educated in the white man's way, because there was nothing left for the Indian.

He then asked me how far it was to Washington, and in what direction it was. I told him that it was toward the sunset, and that he was now in Philadelphia, a long way east of Washington. Sitting Bull expressed much surprise, saying, 'Why, we must have passed the place.' Then I told him he certainly had.

Then the white man entered the room, and Sitting Bull said to me again, 'Ask this white man when we are going to see the President, and when we are going home.' The man said to tell him, 'You are soon going home, and on the way you may see the President.' As the man remained in the room, I did not get a chance to tell Sitting Bull how the white man had lied about him on the stage.

And that was the last time I ever saw Sitting Bull alive.

As I sit and think about that incident, I wonder who that crooked white man was, and what sort of Indian agent it could have been who would let these Indians leave the reservation without even an interpreter, giving them the idea they were going to Washington, and then cart them around to different Eastern cities to make money off them by advertising that Sitting Bull was the Indian who slew General Custer!

Of course at that time I was too young to realize the seriousness of it all.

(About 10 years ago, I was working on a project that included material about the Lakota, and came across "My People the Sioux."  I called the tribal historian at Standing Rock to verify that Luther Standing Bear was considered a reliable source and was assured that he and his books are.)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Si mi quieres escribir, ya sabes mi paradero

Actually, what I meant to say was not "If you want to write to me, you know where to find me," but, rather, if you are wondering why I don't update nellieblogs more often, it's because a lot of my energy is being expended over at Comic Strip of the Day.com, where my latest posting is about the New England Webcomics Weekend. 
This particular entry might be a bit too much inside-baseball for non-comics fans, but there's a lot of talk about web vs. print and how all this online stuff works in the real world, and I don't think you have to know much about webcomics to get something out of it. 
In any case, that's where you'll find me. Most days, the favored comic is basically a prompt for whatever is on my mind. Come have a look.
And I'll be back here regularly, too. But the beast is over there, where I have set myself up in a position where I must post every day before 6:45 a.m. 
I think I'm often coherent at that hour, but you be the judge.
And if you wonder at the headline, it is the title of a classic song from the Spanish Civil War. "If you want to write to me, you know where to find me: On the front at Gandesa, in the first line of fire." 
Not all that relevant to this post - in fact, it's not in the least bit relevant - but, damn, it's one helluva great old tune:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Al Jazeera analyzes the Wikileaks files

Okay, this is just under an hour long. Hardly the sort of thing you click on as part of your morning web routine. But it's a very good analysis of the leaked files, covering a great number of topics. I had a few quibbles over questions I wish they had asked or points I wish they had insisted on forcing someone to clarify, but this is, overall, an excellent job, both of taking apart the actual information and of putting into context.

A  source or two are partisan, but you need that perspective. The interviewer doesn't call names, but he certainly lets those couple of people hang themselves. (Notably the fellow who thinks the Americans are supporting Iran's interference. The interviewer doesn't press him to prove it, but, then, why should he? The statement speaks for itself, and adds critical context to his other remarks.) And I don't follow the Wikileaks founder down the line, but he makes some good points.

The section on Blackwater is absolutely appalling, as one would expect, but much of the rest is sad and tragic and often infuriating, yet couched in the context of a sad, tragic and infuriating war where, indeed, sh*t happens.

Not that you aren't permitted to break out a shovel when it does.

So here it is, and I think it matters. When you find that the alternative is "Dancing with the Stars" or something about real housewives, pretend it's just a TV show rather than something on the computer and give it a watch. (You will want to click on it to go to YouTube and then make it full screen.)

It's an hour well-spent.
UPDATE: Al Jazeera has lost its press privileges in Morocco and its Rabat bureau has been shut down. From the story:
"It's a very surprising decision from the government, especially because there was no legal background. It's just a very administrative and political decision," Vincent Brossel of Reporters without Borders told Al Jazeera from Paris.
He said that RSF "suspect that this decision is linked to the way your channel has been covering different issues, especially the Western Sahara, and I think it's mainly because you open your microphone to all sides, and not only the government's side".

Friday, October 22, 2010

In which Juan escapes the NPR Sweatshop

First of all, the volume of feigned outrage and deliberately false information being voiced over the Juan Williams firing is appalling and contemptible. The talking heads and politicians are most certainly lying, because they could not possibly be unaware of the policies and issues surrounding the event. And his own whining and playing of the victim card is contemptible. We know the man is not stupid; is he blinded by his own arrogance? Speculation is pointless.

However, I'm seeing a lot of sincere concern from people outside the industry who genuinely don't understand what happened and how Williams' actions made his termination both understandable and remarkable only for his apparent unwillingness to avoid it.

There's no point in debating the liars, but I'm perfectly happy to try to help other people understand what appears, from this distance, to have happened.

Let's start with some basics:

Nobody took away his rights to free speech. He sold them. Journalists routinely agree to certain restrictions on personal expression when they accept the job. It's generally part of the intake process: You sign up for health insurance, you fill out your IRS form, you offer proof of citizenship, you sign off on the conflict-of-interest and ethics policies. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about it.

That doesn't mean it doesn't come up for discussion. Part of standard journalistic ethics is that you put your politics in your back pocket. John Chancellor famously refused to vote because he felt the process of deciding who to vote for would prejudice him, but I'm not the only person who thought that was kind of silly. However, it is understood that you do not wear political buttons, you don't put partisan bumperstickers on your car, you don't put political signs on your lawn. While it's not required, most journalists register as independents rather than as members of a political party. And, in parts of New England, you don't participate in the discussion or the voice votes at Town Meeting, though you can drop a ballot into a box when it comes to that, because no-one will know how you voted.

Town Meeting does get talked about, as, I would assume, would Caucus participation. The hotter topic, however, is attending political rallies for causes. It's generally accepted that you can't go to candidate rallies, and it's clear that you can march to find a cure for cancer,but it becomes cloudy in the middle, when the march is pro-life or pro-choice, for example. It ain't partisan, but it's sure as hell political.

At some places, you are not supposed to attend rallies or go on marches. At others, you may attend but may not take a visible role: you can't speak, you can't be one of the organizers, you can't be one of the people holding up the big banner as you march down the street. But you can be there. I don't know which of these two policies is more prevalent, but, while it may be a relief to find that a potential employer has the more permissive policy, it's not shocking to find that a media outlet follows the stricter rule. It's like whether or not the dress code requires you to wear a tie in the newsroom.

NPR does take the strict approach, and raised some concerns last week when they sent out an all-hands memo on the subject of the upcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gatherings, apparently to clarify whether these were comedy shows or political rallies. NPR declared them political and reminded staff to abide by the company's policy against attending same. Both right- and left-wing media outlets squawked about freedom, but the majority of journalists shrugged.

Why do such policies exist? Nobody expects journalists not to have opinions. But there is a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell policy on this, and I think it's well-reasoned. Of course you have opinions, but, in order to be a fair reporter of fact, you have to have the ability to set those opinions aside. If you feel so passionately about an issue that you can't bear not wearing the button or displaying the bumpersticker, it suggests that you won't be able to write about someone who stands in opposition to that issue.

And there is another matter here. It is not enough for Caesar's wife to be virtuous. She must be above suspicion. Similarly, it is not enough for a reporter to write fairly. He must appear not to be overtly partisan. We have seen throughout the past few years and certainly in this campaign season, that a great many people judge "truth" and "fairness" by whether it agrees with their existing opinions. They search for reasons to distrust media, and, if they spotted a reporter, even off-duty, at a partisan rally, they'd assume prejudicial reporting no matter how fair-minded that journalist might be.

Is that fair? A story here: When I was freelancing in Colorado in the 1980s, I interviewed Hal Kennedy, who had been the anchor at the local CBS affiliate practically since it first went on the air. Hal enjoyed being known, but he said it imposed a strange burden: Suppose, he said, I'm down in my basement working on my hot water heater, and I realize I need a washer. I can't just wipe the grime off my hands and jump in the car. I have to shower and change, because, if I go to the hardware store in grubby clothes, with dirt and grease on my face, somebody will say, "I saw Hal Kennedy in the middle of the day, and he'd been drinking."

Several years later, when I had been a reporter for a few years in Plattsburgh, I had just begun dating a woman and we needed to go get something at the grocery store. I insisted on changing, and told her the Hal Kennedy story. She laughed it off as my ego, but, a few weeks later, she said, "Boy, you weren't kidding. Everybody knows who you are!"

The notion that Juan Williams was "off the clock" when he appeared on Fox simply won't hold water. To begin with, salaried people are never on or off the clock. Not only is there no such thing as "overtime" when you aren't paid by the hour, but, at that level of responsibility, you can get called into work at any hour of the day.

More to the point, just as Hal Kennedy was always Hal Kennedy, Juan Williams is always Juan Williams. Part of what he has to offer an employer is recognizability. In the modern parlance, it's branding. If he wants to be anonymous, let him stack cartons in a warehouse. But Mel Gibson screaming at a cop at 3 a.m. is still Mel Gibson the movie actor. Ben Rothlisberger taking advantage of a drunken coed at a bar in Mississippi is still the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can't profit from your image and also expect to turn off that identity at will. 

An employer who pays large sums of money for that established identity has every right to protect that investment. Aside from code-of-conduct agreements to avoid scandal, it's reasonable, for instance, for a sports team to insist that an athlete not go skydiving or even play pick-up basketball for fear of injury. After all, they are purchasing the physical prowess and fitness of the athlete.

The employer of a journalist is buying credibility, and they are specifically paying for that person's ability to speak into a microphone and tell people things that those people will rely on and believe. In the case of Juan Williams, he was being paid as an analyst, as distinct from a commentator. His ability to deliver credible analysis of the news was dependent on his being seen as a fair person without strong prejudices. Not a person without opinions -- that would be foolish. But as a person who keeps his opinions in his back pocket. By seeking to trade on those opinions, by selling his commentary in the street, he undermined his value to NPR.

None of this dropped out of the sky. To begin with, Williams was bound by a clearly stated, well-publicized code of ethics. There was no surprise here: You couldn't work at NPR without knowing it. Nor did his firing "just happen." As stated by his superior, it came after numerous discussions with him about the limits of his outside activities and the violations of his contract that he was committing. To say that they should have warned him is quite right -- They should have, and they did. He continued to defy them and they finally had enough.

And now we come to the whine of the kid who has been kicked out of class: "All I did was ..." There is much talk of what he said the other night and whether it merited firing. Machs nix. "All I did was toss a paperwad," but it was the last straw, and the last straw doesn't have to weigh a ton to break the camel's back. You didn't get kicked out of class for the paper wad. You got kicked out for the paper wad and all that came before it.

Finally, I have heard the argument that, because NPR receives federal funding, their employees should have the freedom to express their opinions whenever and however they like.

All I can say to that is that, if this theory becomes law, it is really going to change things down at Parris Island.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ay Caramba!

I haven't watched the Simpsons in years, but here's the opening from last Sunday's show, which was created by an English artist known for tweaking noses.

I found it at The Daily Cartoonist, who referenced this site for a full explanation.

Were the show's creators trying to draw attention to the unethical business practices an animated series must engage in to remain competitive? Are viewers meant to draw conclusions about our own complicity as we consumers indirectly fund companies that enslave people overseas? Or was the sequence merely a stunt calculated to bring attention — negative or not — on an aging, fading series?

Um, I dunno. But, like, wow.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Have a little sample under the counter

I've just posted the first three chapters of my new serial, "Hooch," at www.teachup.com, together with Christopher Baldwin's illustrations. The story is set in Northern New York, somewhat to the east of where I grew up but exactly where I lived from 1987 to '93 and where my own boys went to high school. It's about a young boy in the days of Prohibition when the border, and the tangle of small, local roads below it, invited locals to become involved in rumrunning and people like Legs Diamond occasionally came up for a visit.

The story will be carried in newspapers throughout New York state this spring as part of their outreach to schools. I'm currently working on the teaching guide, and there will be an essay contest. This is the sixth year the New York Newspaper Publishers Association has sponsored the program and the third time I've written the serial.

Fun stuff to write, and even more fun when I start hearing from the kids. Come have a look!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Too little, too late?

I worry that my speech today is too little, too late. I worry that many Americans have already formed their opinion about the Recovery Act, based on the inaccuracies they hear from beltway pundits or from their elected officials.

Al Franken may be right -- after all, they say a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has put on its shoes. And this speech was given to an empty Senate Chamber.

But it's worth a look, as he talks about the success of the Recovery Act, and refutes the lies and distortions that are already out there.

The speech is the fastest half hour you'll spend this week, and perhaps the most valuable, but it is 27 minutes. For those who don't have that kind of time, here's the transcript.

And here are a few excerpts:

My friends on the other side of the aisle often imply that tax cuts would have been more effective than the Recovery Act. But perhaps they've forgotten that over one-third of the Recovery Act was comprised of tax cuts.

Unfortunately, the tax cuts were designed in a way so that many Americans didn't notice they were getting them. An extra twenty bucks on your paycheck adds up for you and the economy over time, but people don't notice like they do a big lump-sum refund. But here's the thing about lump-sum refunds-people like to save them, or pay off debts with them. When you get an extra twenty bucks in a paycheck, you're likely to spend it-giving the economy a boost.

This explains one unfortunate paradox of the Recovery Act-because the tax cut was well-designed, it helped boost consumer spending. . . but nobody noticed it. But that's not a failure of the Recovery Act policy, that's a failure of getting the message to American taxpayers.

And the tax cuts in the Recovery Act did their part. According to CBO, tax cuts for those in lower income brackets increased GDP by $1.70 for every dollar spent. But, for those who would argue that the Recovery Act should have been only tax cuts, consider this. While tax cuts for the lower brackets yielded a $1.70 GDP boost, tax cuts for high income earners and companies only raised GDP by 50 cents per dollar spent. And neither of these figures compare to the return on the Recovery Act's public works investments-an impressive $2.50 increase in GDP for every dollar spent.

*          *          *

Here's another project in Two Harbors, building a water tower. In addition to five crews of workers on the project, the tower tank is made of 723,000 pounds of American steel, and the rebar is another 33,000 pounds of American steel. So additional American workers made that steel. And more American workers mined the taconite. On Minnesota's Iron Range. More jobs.

I visited Two Harbors on September 6th, just a few weeks ago, and personally saw this project in-progress. Now, these folks aren't in suits and ties, shuffling papers. They're building bridges, roads, and water towers. 

These projects are going to improve transportation, health, and safety for people in Minnesota. And because of these jobs, made possible by the Recovery Act, they will be able to keep a roof over the heads of their families, put food on the kitchen table, send their kids to college, and, yes, buy stuff.

*          *          *
Everywhere I go, they thank me for the Recovery Act. They thank me for the teachers and firefighters, for the Workforce Investment Act funds, which they used to train people for jobs. For the highway extension or the wastewater plant or the funds for rural broadband or for weatherization of public buildings.
In fact, Michael Gunwald, writing for Time Magazine, said this: "the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S. The act will also triple the number of smart electric meters in our homes, quadruple the number of hybrids in the federal auto fleet and finance far-out energy research through a new government incubator modeled after the Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet."

A few weeks ago I heard a prominent conservative talking head on one of the Sunday news shows describe the Recovery Act this way. He said: 

If I pay my neighbor $1,000 to dig a hole in my backyard and fill it up again and he pays me $1,000 to dig a hole in his backyard and fill it up again, according to the national income statistics, that's a $2,000 increment to GDP and two jobs have been created. The American people understand, however, there's no real wealth created in this kind of transfer payment.

How out of touch. How downright offensive. And yet this is why so many Americans believe that the Recovery Act hasn't created any jobs or just created jobs for bureaucrats.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Larry the Animal

I doubt that Larry the Animal thought twice when he saw the lineup of motorcycles outside the Bonnie Doon, sporting colors. After all, the Undertakers were his friends. They did business together. And he really wanted a milkshake, so he walked on in.

I can't remember when I first met Larry the Animal, but I suppose it was my sophomore year in college. Larry was one of those high school kids who hang around campus because he's too smart for his contemporaries, but he's not quite socially poised enough to realize that he doesn't really fit in with the college kids, either. Larry was bright and funny and harmless enough, and so we took him in and let him hang around like a stray puppy.

And he really was a stray. Larry had been tossed out of his own home, probably for being too stiff-necked to cut his hair and behave the way his parents wanted. And I'm sure -- very sure -- that he mouthed off to his parents. There was no filter between Larry's brain and Larry's mouth and it was a time when there was plenty of positive reinforcement around for shooting off your mouth in defense of freedom. So Larry lived with Laurie, another high school kid. They weren't boyfriend and girlfriend, simply a pair of bright kids, but apparently Laurie's parents were more tolerant than Larry's.

They'd have to be, because Larry would try anyone's tolerance. He was obnoxious. But, at that time, there was a strong tendency towards tolerating people, and so Larry was welcome. After all, in addition to being obnoxious, he was funny and smart and good-natured. I'm sure I got a few passes on the same basis.

I'm not sure how Larry got by in the world, but it appeared to be a combination of Laurie's parents providing room and board and Larry doing some hustling and a fair amount of dealing.

Larry got his nickname, "Larry the Animal," because he could be clean-shaven one day and heavily bearded the next. You could sit and watch his beard grow. To give you a visual, imagine if Benny Hill, rather than Robbie Coltrane, had been chosen to play Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. Like Benny, Harry wore wire-rimmed specs and had a constant expression of cheerful expectation. Like Hagrid, he was covered with hair.

In fact, Larry the Animal was so hairy and jolly-looking that he was, very briefly, employed as Santa Claus at the department store downtown. Anyone who has done this job knows about the wiseass teenagers who try to goof on ol' Santa, but they got a shock when they'd sit on Santa-the-Animal's lap and ask him for a nickel bag of Panama Red.

"Ho-ho-ho," Santa would say. "I don't know about that, but maybe Santa could hook you up with some Michoacan that the elves just scored, or how about some blonde Lebanese hash?"

However, the career of Larry the Santa Claus ended abruptly when a pair of South Bend police were headed up on an escalator on which he was headed down, and wished him a merry Christmas, to which Santa responded by suggesting an anatomical impossibility, adding a porcine epithet.

Larry didn't consider this in the least a setback. The job hadn't been that much fun, and he really didn't like the police. The fact that the Santa gig had been providing him with pocket money was, well, not a priority.

Larry had good reason to dislike the police. As a kid with long hair, he was hassled on a regular basis. And, as a kid who couldn't keep his big mouth shut, he was hassled more often than other long-haired kids. South Bend wasn't so big a city that anyone who bothered to stand out was lost in the mix.

The South Bend cops were not so good at undercover work -- they tended to the oxfords-and-white-socks fashions. But even a blind pig finds some acorns, and Larry the Animal was eventually busted for possession.

We all heard that Larry had been busted, but there was often a gap between the bust and the result of the bust. Still, it seemed like Larry was out on the street a long time after we'd all heard he had been busted.

And then a pattern seemed to emerge.

Larry the Animal might have stayed out of the clink, but his clients did not.

Had the South Bend police been more polished in their approach, the link might have gone undetected a little longer, but the connection between dealing with Larry and getting busted became pretty clear in a short period of time.

For example, someone bought grass from Larry and, by the time he got home, found police cars in his driveway. It did not take long for people to begin to connect the dots.

But Larry the Animal went on his merry way, believing that his accomodating manner had saved him from a jail sentence and would also go unnoticed in the world.

So when he dropped acid one day and, somehow in the course of his trip decided that a milkshake would be a very nice aesthetically-enhanced experience, he had no hesitation to head down to the Bonnie Doon.

Now, not everyone who trips on acid wants a food experience, but any experience you have on LSD will be greatly enhanced.

Including walking into a roomful of motorcycle bandits who know why you aren't in jail.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What if people judged gun owners the way 
they judge Muslims?
What if all gunowners were judged by the actions 
of a crazed, dangerous few?
Imagine how talk shows would respond to these stories, 
all of which appeared in a single week:

A man is in critical condition after being shot Saturday morning at a convenience store in southwest Atlanta.

Five bystanders were shot during a wild gun fight that took place last night outside a Long Island bar.

An unidentified man in Kentucky shot and killed five people before turning the gun on himself after a domestic dispute on Saturday, Breathitt County Sheriff Ray Clemons told CNN

Minutes after a woman was suspended from her job at a Kraft Foods Inc. plant and was escorted out, she returned with a handgun and opened fire, killing two people and critically injuring a third before being taken into custody, police said.

Edgar Cooper said he was shocked to learn his 14-year-old daughter had been shot in the forehead while walking home from her first day of high school Tuesday.

A man was shot and seriously wounded last night inside a barbershop on Tremont Street in Roxbury, a relative of the victim and police said.

A 45-year-old woman was shot in a drive-by shooting early Saturday in what police believe was an act of retaliation for a stabbing the night before.

A 16-year-old male was found suffering from gunshot wounds early Saturday morning in the 1100 block of Virginia Ave., according to a news release.

Kansas City police say Montra Johnson of Kansas City was found shot to death at the bus stop Thursday. His identity was released Saturday.

Investigators say 36-year-old Thomas London was found in the parking lot of the Majestic Nightclub on Cusseta Road 2 AM Saturday morning suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.

DeSoto Parish sheriff's deputies say a man who refused to prosecute his father-in-law for a shooting five years ago has allegedly been shot by him again.

Two people were injured in a shooting Thursday afternoon near Hirsch High School on the city's South Side.

Authorities are investigating after one person was shot and killed this afternoon in Beltzhoover.

At the corner of 9th and Monroe streets, responding officers located a 28-year-old Wilmington man suffering from a single gunshot wound to his head. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene where he was then transported to the state's medical examiner's office.

Police detectives are looking for a suspect who they believe shot and killed a 54-year-old man on Friday night.

A home invasion Friday in Richmond left one man with a bullet wound to his leg.

A Crawfordsville man charged in the shooting death of his girlfriend's daughter might have been told to take a gun to the room where she and other kids were playing to scare them.

A Capitol Heights teenager who was shot Tuesday night died Wednesday, authorities said.

An 18-year-old woman was arrested this afternoon after she was accused of shooting a man while they were camping on Mount Lemmon, authorities said.

Two teenagers were shot just outside of Mumford High School in Detroit this afternoon on the first day of school

A 14-year-old boy was shot in the leg Friday evening while walking in the Pullman neighborhood on the South Side.

A Knoxville man is in critical condition after being shot in the neck late last night, city police said.

An Antioch man was shot dead during an argument near an East Oakland taco truck, and investigators are trying to determine whether he was killed with his own gun.

The triggerman behind the drive-by shooting that killed a 14-year-old boy and injured two others outside a Paterson bodega might have been seeking retribution for a fatal shooting earlier this week, police said today.

Authorities have identified the man shot while driving at Oakridge Drive and Mia Avenue on Friday, Sept. 10.

A teenager who was charged with manslaughter and had escaped from a mental health facility while awaiting a final resolution on the case was fatally shot Monday night in Mattapan, officials said yesterday.

Clarksville Police responded Friday night to Lincoln Homes, where a 14-year-old girl had been shot while inside a residence on Ford Street.

A Jackson delivery man who was shot on the job has died. It happened around 3:30 Friday afternoon at the Super Saver convenience store on Medgar Evers Boulevard near Palmyra Street.

A young boy and a 25-year-old man were shot and wounded on the city's West Side Friday night.

Police believe robbery was the motive behind the fatal shooting Tuesday afternoon of the co-owner of a DeKalb strip club.

Eva May Francis died after being shot while her home likely was being robbed, Gwinnett County police said Thursday.

A 25-year-old man was shot in the thigh Friday afternoon in north Stockton, and police were searching for the assailant.

An elderly man and his nephew were found shot dead at a neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, detectives said.

A renowned car racer and auto shop owner was discovered shot to death inside his El Monte business early Wednesday after he failed to return home the night before, investigators said.

A man was fatally shot inside a car in Hartford North End Friday morning, police said.

Atlanta officials said they are investigating a deadly shooting in which a father killed his own son.

Atlantic City police spokeswoman Sgt. Monica McMenamin tells The Press of Atlantic City that a man and woman were shot shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday while sitting on a porch at the Carver Hall apartment complex on Caspian Avenue.

Officials have released the name of the man who was shot to death Thursday evening while repairing a limousine in south Fort Worth.

Akeem R. Jones, 19, was found bleeding from a gunshot wound after shots were fired Friday inside a north Omaha house.

Witnesses say a woman calmly walked up to Dominic Nicholas Mahone while he was dancing on the floor of an uptown Charlotte club early Friday, pulled out a gun and shot him twice.

A Marion County sheriff's spokesman says a woman was fatally shot Thursday at a northeast Salem mobile home park.

A former University of Tennessee football player was home recovering Friday after being shot outside an East Knoxville apartment complex.

A 14-year old Highwood girl was fatally shot in her chest early Sunday in North Chicago, officials said.

It was a tragic end for a man who was trying to do a good deed. He broke up a fight and was then shot in north Harris County.

A North Carolina man has been shot to death in what police say was a robbery attempt.

Robbery may have been the motive for a fatal shooting in the parking lot of a Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store on Beechnut.

On Tuesday evening at 1057pm, officers were called to 7007 Longview Road to investigate a shooting. Upon arrival, officers discovered a 29-year-old male dead in the parking lot of the Express Mart.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Laboring on Labor Day

I had a break this week in my normal duties, as the youth publication I edit for the Denver Post was taken over by the Colorado Foundation for Agriculture, one of the four weeks a year they do that.

So, with nothing to do but catch up on neglected work, I wrote a couple of chapters of the serial I'm working on, and struggled with the last chapter, which is always the hardest.

I also redid the website for those serial stories and would like to invite you to visit and marvel at www.teachup.com

It's not a very sophisticated website, but then I'm not a very sophisticated guy. The last one was a little fancier, harder to navigate and full of broken links. The layout also required some redesign in order to add new stories as they were published, similar to adding stars to the American flag. Worst of all, when I needed it fixed or updated, I had to find someone.

I approach the web like I approach my car -- I know what's wrong, I know I could probably learn to fix it myself, and I don't. Fortunately, there are some shortcuts and plug-and-play site builders that are made for people like me, so I just redid the thing with what I suppose is the digital equivalent of duct tape and paper clips, but it's up, it's up to date and, unless someone finds a busted link I missed, it's working. And, if someone does find that busted link, I can fix it.

The prime audience for the site is the Newspapers-in-Education people who continue to run serial stories. This is a somewhat shrinking group, but that simply means you have to be a little more aggressively available. Broad-side-of-the-barn marketing isn't as effective when the barn has shrunken down to the size of a detached garage. My revenue from this work is about a quarter of what it was four years ago. The good news is, I was splitting with my artists and my newspaper back then. Now I only split with my artists.

Speaking of whom, you'll get a chance to see some nice artwork if you check the samples on that site. I've been fortunate to catch a few people on their way up over the years and they're given me an advantage in that area. Some of my competitors use "talented relatives" to illustrate their work, and the quotation marks are there for a reason. But even those who hire professionals often end up with a kind of generic kid art that I find uncompelling, though kids have been taught that this is what illustrations look like and so it works well enough. I'd rather offer them a little more.

Anyway, come have a look. Now, I've got to run. My break is over and I have to start putting together the next issue. A few weeks ago, we had a new writer, a fifth grader, turn in a story about his baseball team's elimination from the state tournament. He's enthusiastic, loves baseball and enjoys writing, so, when Ken Burns came to town, we sent him out to get the interview.

Getting back to work, when work includes something like that, isn't really so painful.