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Journalism or stenography?

My local newspaper contained a story this week about the county legislature allocating $4 million for road repairs. The story listed which county roads would get money and how much road would be repaired: County Road 73, 2.8 miles, $240,000, for example.

Two problems: first, the story didn't list the road names, and second, it didn't say where the roads are. I live less than two miles from three county roads and have driven countless others, but I have no idea what their road numbers are, nor can I tell where they are just by number. I doubt any readers except for school bus drivers, rural mail carriers and UPS workers could have looked at the paper's list of 17 county road numbers and been able to say where half of them are.

I looked and looked through the paper for that information and didn't find it. I looked on the paper's website. No luck. I thought maybe the information would appear in the next day's paper. Nothing there.

My Facebook friend John Firkel breaks big stories nearly as often as the newspaper, and he's a postal carrier, not a full-time journalist. John: What say we start an online newspaper when we retire?


A little older, a little more confused

Thirty years ago I bought an album called Blast of Silence by the Golden Palominos. Not many people have heard of this band. They’re so obscure you can’t find lyrics to any of their songs online.

The group was founded by a drummer named Anton Fier, whom I’d never heard of, and I didn’t know any of the musicians featured on Blast of Silence: Sid Straw, Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell, and T-Bone Burnett, to name a few. Fier often changed the band’s lineup. Other albums featured players unknown to me at the time, like Richard Thompson and Michael Stipe. I know who they are now.

Back in ’86, though, I knew one of them: Jack Bruce, best known as the bassist for Cream, although blues-rock was just one of his musical accomplishments. I knew Bruce had played with the Golden Palominos, and that’s why I bought the album.

Two songs in particular stand out: “(Something Else) is Working Harder,” which features Bruce on vocals; and “Work Was New,” sung by another musician I didn’t know (Peter Blegvad). The first of those songs is chilling. It’s about the never-ending struggle of good vs. evil, sung perhaps from the point of view of Jesus:
I am my father’s only son
His ambition drives me on

The singer, regardless of his persona, realizes his task is futile:
People work hard to keep a lid on their anger
To see that justice will prevail
To no avail
Their efforts fail
Something else is working harder

“Work Was New” is a vein from the same mine of despair (here’s a video of the band performing it): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZpoa0YaZAw
They oughta shoot me
Put the hood over my head and execute me
Put me out of my misery
Like a broken horse
I don’t mind dyin’.

I drink too much
I drink too fast
Prefer a bottle to the glass
From the finest French Champagne
To Thunderbird
I prefer my senses blurred

Two or three times a year, I’ll revisit those songs. More than anything else, though, one particular line from the album—the very first one, and very last one—never really disappears from my brain. It’s an insistent whisper. It’s not a song lyric; it’s seven words spoken by Dennis Hopper:
A little older
A little more confused

Thirty years ago, the first time I heard the album, the spoken lines were a curiosity: Dennis Hopper on a rock album saying something that surely applied to him, but not to me. Hopper’s been dead six years now, and my head has caught up with him. There are times I understand him completely.

I turn 62 this month and will retire in May. I’ve got no problem with 62, because my brain doesn’t feel like it’s any particular age at all. As for retirement, I was called to journalism, and then I was called to teach writing, but now something is calling me away. To what or where I don’t know, but as I tell my students, “We are riding in a car, but we are not the driver. We are passengers. Trust the driver.”

This trust means the ground beneath my mental feet is almost always steady. Most of the time, I am sure of myself and the surrounding world. But still the ground trembles on occasion. I let the smallest things push me into the pit of depression—sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. I often think of enemies as friends or think of friends as enemies. Worries consume me. Those thoughts are millstones, grinding my insides.

I’ve got headphones on as I type this, and iTunes just popped up a new song by Foo Fighters called “Iron Rooster.” I had to stop writing to look up lyrics I just heard:
I'm an iron rooster
Cold and still
Irregular sculpture
Held against my will

The line “held against my will” means someone is doing the holding, of course. With decades behind me, I’ve got some clear perspective, and I realize I may never have had had any will. Or maybe I've held myself back. I’ve been content to life happen. I’ve been like water on a hilltop, taking the easiest way to the river. I’ve been content to feel the breeze on my face instead of flying.

Perhaps there’s a counter-argument. I’ve always worked hard. I’ve always tried to excel—to be better than my fellow reporters, to be a newspaper editor who left things better than he found them, to be a writing teacher who worked semester after semester to learn more about writing and teach better. Mine may not have been the easiest path after all.

I tend to lean toward the former; that’s my nature. That’s one reason a poem by Peter Davison called “A Word in Your Ear on Behalf of Indifference” is, like those Golden Palominos songs, always just over my mental horizon, waiting to rise like a clouded sun. Referring to indifference, the poem’s speaker says:
My client gives us the power this side of death
To shackle ourselves, to live within our dimensions,
To ignore for hours at a time
The outrage and the dread
Of being no more than we are.

As I said, I’m pretty much mentally grounded, my brain steady on its feet, but existential questions linger: Have I ignored the outrage and the dread? Abandoned will in favor of chance? As I get older, will I become more self-assured or a little more confused? I’m reminded of what are reputed to be Marlon Brando’s last words:

“The fuck was that all about?”

A word in your ear on behalf of bad karma

Forty-two years ago, it was, and it still troubles me from time to time. I was a sophomore in college and dating a girl who was my first real girlfriend. Another girl came along, and I liked her better. I abandoned the other girl: no face-to-face breakup, no note to explain my actions, no phone call—nothing.

I dreamed about her three years ago even though she hadn't been on my mind for years. It brought back all of those memories—vividly, as dreams sometimes do—and I was beating myself up for months about what I'd done until I posted about it here and somebody commented, “Why don’t you just realize that you were young and not-so-smart then, and let it go?” I needed to hear that. It helped immensely.

I didn’t realize, though, that the bad karma from what I had done would not go away. Everything that goes around comes around, as they say. You reap what you sow. This karma harvest occurred earlier this month. I didn’t recognize it for what it was; when I did, it made perfect sense. The circumstances, as my friend Billy G. used to say, were “the same thing, but different.” The details are unimportant.

When I recognized the situation for what it was, it became less bothersome. I have reaped what I sowed a long time ago. However, knowing this has led to a state of acceptance, which sometimes is the best we can hope for during our limited number of laps around the sun.

Hold the front page

Thirty years ago today was the first day I laid out page 1 at the newspaper where I worked. I had been doing inside pages for months—selecting the stories, editing them as needed, and designing the page. But doing page 1 was special.

I got my other pages out of the way fast so I'd be able to put together a good front page. I would have been done about a half-hour early, but we were holding the page to await the story about whether the space shuttle Challenger would take off or not because of the weather. I had left space for a headline, a photo and the story at the top of the page. I even had the headlines written: "Challenger grounded" or "Challenger launches."

Then somebody came running into the newsroom from the advertising department: "The space shuttle exploded!"

In times like that, the Associated Press moves fragments of the stories in bursts: A first paragraph, then two or three additional paragraphs, then more. The page editor needs to move quickly and make sure the pieces are assembled in the right order. The story changes almost as quickly as it happens. The AP will move paragraphs to replace ones it already sent. History moves in fits and starts, in bits and pieces.

The editor—quite rightly—pulled me off the page 1 desk and moved in our most experienced page designer. I stood by and watched as he did a masterly layout job under immense deadline pressure. It wasn't until I went home and saw the TV news that I got an idea of just what it must have been to be watching the launch live.


My 90-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with Sherry and me, is in the living room watching reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show at about 98 decibels because her hearing is failing. Currently, a wholesome duo is singing about a "red, red robin" that is "bob-bob-bobbin'" along.

This same show was broadcast a week ago, too (lucky me), and ever since then, I've been puzzling about the song. Take, for instance, the "red, red robin." The robin is the first bird I learned to recognize as a preschooler, and lo, even these decades later, I am yet to see a red robin. They are a combination of a slate gray with dull orange feathers—not exactly standouts in the plumage department, like, say, the cardinal.

I don't understand how someone could write a song about a red robin. Maybe they meant cardinal: "When the red, red cardinal comes ard-ard-ardlin' along." For obvious reasons, those lyrics are problematic.

I also have never seen a robin "bob-bob-bobbin'" along. Now, if you've ever seen a goldfinch in flight, you've seen bob-bob-bobbin'. Maybe the song should have been "when the gold, gold goldfinch comes inch-inch-inchin' along." However, goldfinch in flight travel by yards, not inches. But a robin? They simply don't bob-bob-bob. They walk along the ground, tilt their heads to better hear insects, and the gobble the bugs up or take them back to their brood in the nest. They fly in short bursts of no particular distinction.

My point is that robins aren't red and they don't bob. A parent singing this song to an infant would really be messing with the kid's head. She or he would grow up not knowing what a robin looks like and not knowing what the phrase "bob-bob-bobbin'" means.

America's kids deserve better. Lawrence Welk should have known better. His callous disregard for our children's development is one of the reasons we need to make America great again.

The new planet has been named

Frank Zappa's theory of the universe: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.

With Frank Zappa's theory in mind, I am taking it on myself to name the just-discovered planet "Moronia"—and it seems citizens of that planet have worked their way into our field of presidential candidates. Talk about a birther controversy!

The beginning of the end

Tomorrow is going to be a strange, unsettling day, but it also will be a day full of anticipation for what's next. Monday is the start of the spring semester—and the start of my final semester as a full-time college writing teacher. The end of the semester will mark 15 years of helping students learn.

The thoughts of packing up my office, dealing with students for the final time, and working no more with respected colleagues is a sad one. That is offset, however, by the feeling I am being called elsewhere. I don't know where "elsewhere" is, but I'm reminding myself of what I tell students when they talk to me about their educational and career doubts:

"We are on a car ride. We are not driving the car. We cannot make it go faster or slower, nor can we steer it. We just need to trust the driver."

It's going to be an interesting ride.

40 years of Bowie (and my life)

The cover of Bowie's album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Although I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s music for more than 40 years, I didn’t think of the arc of his work when I heard he died. Nor did I think exclusively about the great music he made during those years. I also reminisced about specific times and specific people.
Love and existential dreadCollapse )



Finding you in the mail, I’d smile.
I’d feel your glossy cover’s warmth and
Make reservations for a quiet night,
Setting aside time for inside stories.
I would open you and see the ink
Tattooed on your pale paper—
Photos, prose, occasional poems,
Timeless other worlds in print.
Now, the mailman brings you late, and
Months go by between editions.
I’m finding that I hardly notice.
When you arrive, your lines imply
You barely care if I am reading.
Unread copies stack on my desk.
Soon, you’ll send a message saying,
“Renew now at this one-time rate.”
I’ve closed the cover on those pages.
I’m letting my subscription lapse.

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valery, as paraphrased by W.H. Auden


Louder, meaner, dumber, and ...

Several years ago, a friend and I were talking about how America had changed during our lifetimes. His choice of three adjectives nailed it, I thought: Louder, meaner, dumber. What words would you use?

Let's build a wall between us and Morocco

(They both begin with M and end with O)

Frank Zappa's theory of the universe: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."

On the local entertainment front

Scroll down until you find the picture of Ronald McDonald:

Terrorist recruiter says it's no big deal

Donald Trump, he of the "ready-fire-aim" school of political discourse, doesn't think it's a big deal at all that he appears in an Al Qaeda recruiting video: “What am I going to do? I have to say what I have to say.” It might help if he, um, thought first before speaking—but his troubles are all the media's fault, as this article notes at the end: (Ass-hattery)

Going, going ...

Yesterday I wrote a blog post, worked on a poem, and did all sorts of other things that having a few days off allows. I found myself thinking, "I could get used to this"—and then remembered that in another five months, I'll be able to.


Last night Sherry and I watched the movie “Birdman,” which is unlike anything I’ve seen in a long, long time. It's a compelling character study with an attention-grabbing element of fantasy (or is it?). Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are at full power, Keaton especially, complemented by an excellent supporting cast.

Keaton plays an actor named Riggin who played a superhero, Birdman, in blockbuster movies. Riggin's career as a superhero has faded, though. Now he is financing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation he has written of a short story by the short-storywriter Raymond Carver.

One exchange between Keaton’s character and his emotionally estranged daughter, Sam, is central to the plot. It involves the drive to do important artistic work that people will remember. How many millions of artists, musicians, actors and writers have that drive? More than we'll ever know. The dialog between Riggin and Sam is sobering to those millions of artists who want their work to endure:

Riggan: Listen to me. I'm trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It's important to me! All right? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me ... To me ... this is—God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You're doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it's over. And let's face it, Dad, it's not for the sake of art. It's because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

Sometimes art—movies, books, poems, short stories—smacks those millions of artists upside the head and reminds them the concept of birthing enduring art is unreasonable. Learning to accept this is challenging. And sometimes, so is life. Sometimes the best artists can do is keep on keeping on and hoping for the proverbial lightning bolt to strike, even though the chances of the right thundercloud to pass are minuscule.

The left sidebar of this blog contains a series of quotations that one way or another are pertinent to my life. The second one is from the musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson. It's second from the top to serve as a reminder of what I'm doing here at the keyboard and what's happening—or more accurately, not happening—as a result:

I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.



Al Qaeda loves ya', Donald

Donald Trump appears in a terrorist recruiting video? Say it ain't so, Donald—and then blame the liberal media, not your words, for this story:

(Damned liberal media)

How online newspapers played this is interesting. The Huffington Post had the on-screen equivalent of a banner headline in red. The New York Times played it as the second story in a single column at the left of the page. Fox News provided a link to the story in its mid-page two-column news digest, with the link appearing near the top of the second column in bold type. I had to scroll down a bit to find the story at the BBC and The Guardian websites. And I couldn't even find it on the Al Jazeera American website, although I looked for it for about five minutes.
The arrest of a Rochester man for planning an ISIS attack on New Year’s Eve is troubling on several levels.

The evidence against Emanuel Lutchman seems to indicate he posed a credible threat to patrons at a Rochester restaurant. Fox News reported, “Lutchman claimed to have been directed by a member of the terror group to attack the restaurant.” The Guardian reported Lutchman said, “I will take a life. I don’t have a problem with that.” Scary stuff. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you’d invite over for a New Year’s Eve drink.

However, there are reasons to question the FBI’s role in the case. I wish I didn"t have these doubtsCollapse )

Big offer! Minuscule print!

By the time you finish reading the fine print, the show will be canceled

I have received a flier from DIRECTV encouraging me to take advantage of “a special offer not available to the general public!” (Exclamation point theirs.)

This flier made it into the bag at the pharmacy (CVS) when I visited there early today, but it really doesn’t matter. I’m feeling, like, unique because I’m not part of the “general public,” unlike—forgive me for being blunt, but—you. I'm special.

This offer will give me access to 145+ channels! (Exclamation point theirs). It will cost me, someone who is not part of the general public, $24.99 per month for 12 months. Plus additional fees. Also: SELECT Package. With 24-month agreement.**. Enrollment in Auto Bill Pay req’d. This package is not available for NFL offer.

The NFL offer, touted prominently on the front of the flier, is the 2015 NFL Sunday ticket included at no extra charge ONLY ON DIRECTV. Out of market games only. With CHOICE Package or above. 24-month agreement required.**

I love this football offer. I watch about 10 minutes of pro football every season, and this offer will give me many more games to choose from. Maybe I can divvy my viewing time into 3-minute blocks so I can see more games.

After decoding the fine print (or trying to) at the bottom of the front page, I turned the flier over and found two columns of type about 5 inches wide and an inch-and-a-half deep in type so small that reading it makes my head hurt. It’s even smaller than the fine print at the bottom of the front of the flier.

Now, even as someone who is not a member of the general public, I don’t have the patience for reading disclaimers that tell me, in essence, that the $24.99 per month figure is more or less a myth. The SELECT package, you see, is $50 per month, unless you’re not a member of the general public; for us, it’s discounted to $25 per month. I’d guess that’s an additional charge. The CHOICE package is $75 per month, discounted for lucky me to $36 per month. At least that’s what I think it says. I tried squinting and holding the flier at arm's length. No luck. As someone who knows a little about typography, I know it's difficult for the eye to track lines of type that are much wider than 2 inches wide, especially as the print gets smaller. Maybe "track lines" isn't the right phrase. "Hard to read" might work better. Small type strains the eye. It's difficult to tell where the next line starts. Some people might find this confusing. I'm certain, though, that it was just an oversight on the part of the firm that printed the flier.

Because I’m not a member of the general public, I guess I should be thankful I’m receiving this offer. In thinking about it, though, I believe I have more than 145 channels right now from the good folks (kaff kaff) at Time Warner, and even then, there’s rarely anything worth watching, except for the home shopping networks and programs about Alaska.

Unless DIRECTV provides me 145 channels that I’m not getting now, I’m going to pass on their offer. It’ll save me a headache from reading the print, even when I use a magnifying glass.

Too bad about the football, though.


Latest Month

April 2016

Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”


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