Sunday, April 30, 2006


When my mom died in February, it was such a shock, everything came to a halt. It even put a temporary damper on my libido. In fact, it briefly made me forget just how bitter I am about being divorced. But time passed, and eventually the old urges kicked back in. These urges were perhaps best articulated by the Jimmy Castor Bunch in the song Troglodyte: Gotta Find A Woman, Gotta Find A Woman, Gotta Find A Woman...

Ah, but how?

Well-meaning friends offer improbable suggestions. There's lots of nice girls at church, they'll say. Okay, first of all, I'm agnostic, and second, attending an institution that I consequently don't fully embrace for the sole purpose of hooking up would be, I'm pretty sure, a sin. Or at least morally dicey.

Grocery stores, book stores, clubs, the places people usually mention--feh. It might work if I had any talent for flirting, but since I have yet to meet a woman immediately impressed with my killer Phil Silvers impression, I get nowhere in situations like these. (And seriously, why wouldn't a woman be impressed with an impression of a great but largely forgotten comedian? It also modifies easily into a passable Woody Allen impression--and no, chicks don't dig that, either.)

Anyway, the point is, I have fallen to the level of trying an on-line dating service. I'll probably go on about the process and humiliations of this at greater length sometime, but the point is, I thought I was on the verge of some kind of success on this thing (success, in my extremely limited definition, means getting a date) when I ran straight into my own haplessness.

I started exchanging e-mails with someone on the system, and our e-mails became longer and increasingly personal. We exchanged phone numbers. The first time we talked, the conversation lasted nearly five hours--a good sign. I got most of her obscure references and she got most of mine--an even better sign.

She attended classes during the week, she said, so if she called again it might be kind of late. No problem, I said. Call anytime.

The only problem is, my sleep patterns are seiously screwed up. So the next time she called, it was fairly late and I was asleep. I mean, snoring, dreaming, deep, deep sleep.

I don't even remember the phone ringing. Literally, one second I was in a dream state, the next second I was talking to her. Small talk doesn't flow well when you're semi-conscious. Nothing flows at all. I tried to sound earnest and contemplative, but I'm sure I sounded whiny and self-important. She responded in a rather snide manner, I got defensive and the whole thing turned awkward. We finally agreed to at least "touch base" at some point in the future, but that hasn't happened and probably won't.

Which is too bad, because she really seemed pretty cool, and yet I'm not as bummed out as I thought I'd be. Maybe after a divorce and several deaths, you learn to put things in perspective. She's just one person. There are plenty more out there.

And when I find a woman who responds immediately to a Phil Silvers impression, I'll be in Heaven, or wherever agnostics go.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


The pod people want to take your soul.

The latest evidence is the new Acura commercial:

A sign in a window indicates we're in a cyber cafe, a haven for psuedo-boho hipsters. Close-ups of our protagonist, looking nervous and out of place. He's being watched. People seem to disapprove. Omigod, he's standing out from the crowd. Finally, the punchline: He's using a typewriter!

The graphics appear--IT's TIME TO UPGRADE--and we realize we're watching a car commercial.

Aside from the shaky premise inherent in the cathphrase--An Acura as upgrade?--this commercial makes it clear that in our society, any assertion of individuality is likely to provoke disapproval of others and bring shame upon yourself. Setting the ad in an enclave of trendy young people is genius: You're never too young to learn how to conform.

Don't be yourself. Be what everybody else is. Never ask questions. Don't do anything different, ever. Try not to stand out. Why risk it? You'll only get hurt. They're all going to laugh at you.
Emotions, intellect, free will--who needs 'em?

We're not asking you to drink the Kool-Ade. We're just asking you to accept the pod. Keep it in your bedroom as you go to sleep. And when you wake up--well, it won't actually be you waking up, not that old you with those messy moods and tempers and dreams and half-baked notions. It'll be the new you, free of all that, accepting of everything you are told to accept.

It's time to upgrade.

Friday, April 28, 2006


All I can think is, they're not serious, right?

With gas prices shooting into the stratosphere, Republican senators have figured out a way to ease the American public's fears: Give 'em some fast green.

Yes, the people elected to represent us apparently think of us as chimps in some Skinner experiment. If they propose to send taxpayers a hundred dollar check around the end of summer--by which time a tank of gas might itself cost a hundred bucks--they think we'll be so grateful we'll forget all about high gas prices.

Or the addiction to gas-guzzling vehicles that is adding to those prices.

Or the fact that instability in the Middle East is also adding to those prices, instability largely caused by the Republican administration's Iraq shenanigans.

Pardon my French, but fuck, fuck, FUCK! Have these people no shame? My favorite part of this whole proposal--which was unveiled with great fanfare at a press conference, exposed in broad daylight as though there was no need for embarrassment--is that the total costs of this scheme haven't actually been figured (!), but that it should cost less than twenty billion dollars.


As I'm reading all this, I'm thinking, okay, they've finally gone over the deep end. They've finally turned into comic book villains, so outrageously over the top that nobody could possibly take this seriously.

Because people aren't stupid. They won't put up with this shameless pandering. They know when people are lying to them.

They know, but so what? Three, four, ten bucks a gallon, we're still going to drive. It's what we do. As Americans, we're conditioned to instant gratification. (The Skinner/chimp thing applies here.) As a culture, its almost impossible to change. Call it lethargy or call it entropy, but the only way this country is liable to ring any meaningful changes is to collapse on itself. No Cassandra-like warnings are going to dissuade us. We've got things to do, and we're going to keep doing them until...well, until we can't anymore.

Sorry. I know this is depressing. And boy, I'd love to find some cause for optimism. But...said it before, say it again: We're hosed.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Okay, so Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild And Got A Life, may have lifted a few passages from somebody else's books. Okay, more than a few passages.

So? We're not talking deathless literature here. The author of one chick-lit book for the younger set is accused of appropriating the work of another author of similar material--but both Viswanathan's book and the novels she borrowed from both employed the same editor. So this particular genre of fiction, with its cookie-cutter plots and lookalike covers, may not be totally on the up-and-up?

This stunning revelation ranks up there with discovering that celebrity autobiographies are ghost-written. I think we were all shocked to discover Kathie lee Gifford needed help expressing the unfathomable depths of her soul on the page. Or else we just noticed the cover, with its prominent credit for a co-author.

Same with Viswanathan. The copyright notice in her book is awarded to her and Alloy Publishing, the book packager that helped her write--oh, I'm sorry, "assemble"--her novel.

Given the apparently incestuous nature of this section of the publishing world, it seems hard to believe no one ever noticed Viswanathan was offering up someone else's work as her own. Yet the author seems to have been left on her own to twist in the wind, making apologetic comments on The Today Show.

One gets the horrible feeling there's something unsavory at work here. Chick-lit is certainly one of the most formulaic forms in publishing today. Innovations in plot, character and form are not much in evidence here. Why treat Viswanathan as a pariah?

Could it be racism? While there are successful African-American purveyors of this literary brand, there hasn't been one of Indian descent. Viswanathan's youth and reported six-figure advance suggest the possibility of envy as well.

But I think the most likely reason this story is getting so much coverage in the mainstream press is simply because the whole James Frey imbroglio had blown over, and the media needed a new author to crucify. Neither Frey nor Viswanathan are now or ever likely to be writers of real merit, but the coverage of their stories implies that the literary world should be viewed with suspicion, that you should never take anything you read at face value.

Which is true, as far as it goes. But why should you believe the person telling you not to believe?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


With George W. Bush's approval rating dangerously close to bottoming out, the White House has been making transparent attempts to look like its actually accomplishing something. (Unless you count dismantling the Constitution and pissing on the middle class--in those cases, Mission Accomplished!)

Most of these changes are cosmetic, at best (Karl Rove has been switched from one shadowy position of power to another) and at worst, offensive (Condi and Rummy visit Baghdad).

But to any being capable of sentient thought, the most ludicrous change would be the bouncing of Scott McClellan as press secretary. Apparently, even the Bushinistas realized the best public face to present to the press was anyone other than McClellan, whose demeanor could charitably be described as twerpish. (You could also use whiny, petulant or sweaty--or hell, use 'em all.)

Unlike McClellan, a virtual non-entity to the public before his high-profiloe White House gig, his replacement, Tony Snow, is all too known. A right-wing gasbag of long standing, who has served time at both The Washington Times AND Fox News, Snow would seem to be the new poster boy for this administration's blatantly far right agenda. Surely that "liberal press" we hear so much about would be poised to tear this guy a new one.

Yeah. You'd think that, alright. Instead, on my way home from work, I heard NPR broadcast a profile of snow--Tony, as he was repeatedly called--that was so fawning it could make Dick Cheney cry. This wasn't a testimonial from some of Snow's fellow travellers--these were NPR reporters giving the Great Man a free suck.

I have this horrible feeling the press is going to collectively decide to start easing up on Bush. Hey, he's on the ropes--cut the man some slack. It's a period of transition in the White House, let's let them get settled before we ask any more tough questions.

And by the time the bombs start falling in Iran, we'll all wonder why we didn't know more ahead of time.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Finally, finally, finally. Today Warner Home Video finally releases one of the best, most overlooked movies of the 1950s: the joyous yet bitter 1955 MGM musical It's Always Fair Weather.

The genesis of this film seemed simple: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen had directed two of the best musicals ever made, On The Town and the peerless Singin' In The Rain. The screenwriters of those pictures, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, had a notion to do a ten-years-later sequel to On The Town. It mutated into an unrelated story of three WWII vets who swear friendship for life, and what happens when they get together for a ten year reunion.

One (Dan Dailey) has sold out his artistic ambitions to be a Madison Avenue suit. One (Michael Kidd) opened a hamburger stand and is plagued by a sense of inferiority. And one (Gene Kelly), seemingly the best and brightest, has become a slimey boxing promoter.

As the story unfolds, all three men will, of course, rediscover their better selves. But the journey is surprisingly bitter, the tone at times downright corrosive. This is a musical for the Age of Anxiety, made at a time when Mad magazine and satirists like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce started exposing the dark underside of Eisenhower's America.

It's Always Fair Weather lacks the gloss and eye-popping Technicolor of Donen and Kelly's previous collaborations. Largely this is due to penny-pinching by MGM moneymen by the mid-fifties--musicals weren't the cash cows they once were--but it seems appropriate for the story being told here. Donen and Kelly clashed repeatedly during production, and again some of this acrimony may have carried over on-screen. The tone is all over the map--clearly the filmmakers were torn between delivering the light entertainment audiences were expecting and following their own darker leanings. And if they never quite strike the right balance, the movie is probably all the richer for it.

As entertainment, if it's not quite in the league of Singin' in The Rain--and seriously, how could it be?--it's still a treat. Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd were easily the best male dancing partners Kelly ever had, and Cyd Charisse has an aptly-named number called Baby You Knock me Out. Dailey's performance is probably the best, as the reservoirs of self-loathing he finds in his character are surprisingly potent, and he gets the movie's best song, Situation-Wise.

Incidentally, Warner Home Video's programming of the DVD is as admirable as the movie itself. In addition to a making-of short, you get outtakes, trailers and a pair of cartoons, Tex Avery's Deputy Droopy and Good Will To Man, about cuddly cartoon animals celebrating Christmas in a world in which humans have been destroyed by nuclear holocaust! A nice memento of a time when Americans felt the world was teetering on the brink, and a sense of disillusionment was starting to settle in.

Thank goodness times have changed.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Frequently, when a prominent person dies, the media proclaims they died too soon. Oddly enough, this strangely-worded praise--Has anybody ever died too late?--is almost always reserved for creative types--actors, musicians, writers. Nobody ever says, "You know, that guy that invented aluminum foil--gone too soon."

I'm guilty of that myself. In fact, I'm guilty of it right now. The following is a list of personal heroes of mine who passed away too soon, who left my world diminished by their passing. And yeah, they're all musicians, actors and filmmakers.

1. Peter Sellers

Anybody who knows me sooner or later gets my rant: The performance Sellers gives in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film Lolita is, simply, the best thing any actor has ever done, ever. Given a juicy supporting role as a satyr-like intellectual preying on both a young girl and the hopeless sucker enamored of her, Sellers alternately overplays and underplays, cuts up and holds back, is hilarious and terrifying and unpredictable and even, at times, sad. Any actor could have played this part--Frank Langella did, in a terrible remake--but nobody could have found the bottomless layers of malice Sellers did.

He was a genius, no doubt--Inspector Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, utterly original characterizations lesser actors continue to recycle to diminishing effects. But the fact is, as he became more famous, he made a lot of crappy movies, and by all reports was a largely unpleasant guy. But his late career performance as a simple-minded gardener, a non-entity, really, in the 1979 masterpiece Being There earned him acclaim he hadn't known in years, and would surely have led more directors to appreciate his skills as an actor, not just a comedian. Sadly, we'll never know. He died of a heart failure in 1980.

2. John Lennon

I don't even have to explain this one, do I? Just listen to It's Only Love, In My Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Julia, Yer Blues, I Want You (She's So Heavy), Mother, Cold Turkey, Watching The Wheels...Seriously, go listen to them. Now.

3. Sam Peckinpah

Wildly boozing, sniffing up mountains of coke, going through whores like Kleenex--this is the legend of Bloody Sam, the wildman filmmaker whose best work was always emasculated by clueless producers and soulless corporate studio heads. In fact, the legend sells Peckinpah short. All that really counts is his work.

His 1969 Western The Wild Bunch revolutionized filmmaking technique forever, its breathtaking cut-to-the-frame editing still an MTV staple. He followed it with some of my favorite movies--Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia--profoundly disturbing visions of self-loathing and madness. His erratic behavior got him booted off some projects and he survived by taking crap that was beneath him.

He died prematurely in 1984, but I've always wondered what would have happened if he had lived to this post Quentin Tarentino world. Tarentino and his acolytes use many of the tropes and settings of Peckinpah's work, but have none of the soul. If only he was here to show them how it's done.

4. Phil Ochs

In the musical world, there is no greater tragedy than the life and career of Phil Ochs. A rich kid with a social conscience, he started out as a run of the mill folk singer, one of many who appeared in the wake of Bob Dylan's early success. But as a protest singer, Ochs had unusually sharp observational skills, and he didn't just preach to the converted, confronting his own leftish audiences with songs like Love Me I'm A Liberal and Outside Of A Small Cicle Of Friends, songs that hit them where they lived. His political anthems could be stirring, he could cut right to the bone, his powers of observation were astonishing. And Ochs was a committed radical, and was heart-broken by the direction the country took in the late sixties.

So he abandoned politics in his song writing and turned personal. His last album of original material, 1969's ironically titled Greatest Hits, was a tour of his personal demons, featuring the terrifyingly prescient No More Songs. In fact there would be no more songs for Ochs. He never wrote again, and though he stayed active politically, he also sank into madness. He silenced his own voice forever, commiting suicide in 1976.

But let's give Phil Ochs the last word here, from his exquisitely melancholy love song Changes:

Green leaves of summer
Turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow they fade
And then they have to die
Caught up in the circle time parade
Of Changes

Friday, April 21, 2006


"But she was nice, and you loved her. But it's too bad nothing lives forever. Or at least as long as you want it to."

Mom and I sat in a booth at a non-descript chain restaurant. We'd just seen the movie The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which had us in a mood to discuss animals we'd known and loved. I mentioned how much I still missed Scotchie, the cat my ex had brought into the marriage, and who died shortly after we split up.

"Even if you and Sue were still together," Mom continues, "it still would have happened. I can't help thinking she might have lived longer if you'd been there to notice she was sick, but still. Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. And aren't you glad you weren't there to see her suffer?"

No, I said. I would have liked to have been there. Scotchie was the greatest cat ever. She was my buddy. I would have liked to have said goodbye.

"Well, what if she was still alive? She'd have proably forgotten about you by now anyway."

We were in the restaurant killing time before the day's main event. The Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines was kicking off its new Sunday night concert series with a performance by something called the Classic Rock All Stars. Well, All Stars may have been something of a misnomer, as it was an assemblage of nameless, faceless guys who'd been in various incarnations of one-hit wonder bands like Sugarloaf. Or Mountain. Or the Grass Roots.

Or Iron Butterfly.

Mom was born in 1928, so obviously she came of age, musically speaking, in a pre-rock era. Still, there wasn't a type of music she wasn't willing to give a chance (except easy listening). She'd listen to techno, death metal, punk, anything. She liked Meat Loaf, for God's sake.

But to all of us who knew her, nothing was as inexplicable as her enthusiam for Iron Butterfly's cheeseball psychadelic masterpiece In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. She had this album in every conceivable format: eight track (she bought at least three copies in this format because they kept wearing out), cassette (two copies that I know of), vinyl and of course compact disc. She had to do an upgrade on the CD when a remastered "deluxe" edition came out. She had compilation albums with the three minute single version of the title song. She had a copy of the movie Manhunter, which she watched repeatedly mostly because the climax features...In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

If you ever asked her, why this album, why this song, she'd answer, "I just like it."

So when she heard about this concert, it was a given that she'd go. But she wasn't going alone. I drew the short straw, and got to go with her.

Memories of the actual event are vague. The concert stage was clear at the back of the zoo, a snaking, largely uphill path, very difficult for Mom with her walker. She had to stop every few minutes to rest. As to the show itself, even Mom thought it was Dullsville until finally, at long last, that cheesy church organ, the snarling guitar and the drums--oh Lord, Mom loved her drums--kicking into In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Suddenly Mom was on her feet, rocking back and forth, a goofy grin on her face. When they got to the interminable drum solo, she started waving her arms like Mitch Miller conducting a singalong, which was as close to pumping her fists in the air as she was likely to get. It was all worthwhile just to see that. "See?" she said afterwards. "Other people were clapping, too. I'm not the only one."

A good day. But my most clear memory is of that interlude in the restaurant, a quiet conversation oddly freighted with discussions of mortality. She couldn't have known then--could she?--that within two months she would learn that she had cancer, or that she had less than a year to live.

It's too bad nothing lives forever. Or at least as long as you want it to.

Thursday, April 20, 2006



Let's accept for a second the State Department's claim that Iranian officials are lying when they claim they are irradiating uranium for peaceful purposes only. Let's assume they are in fact "going nukular"--developing weapons.

Why the hell shouldn't they?

Bush administration officials claim that if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, they will become an "aggressor nation." This is said without irony.

According to reporter Seymour Hersch--whose information, unfortunately, is almost always correct--there is serious discussion within the Bush camp of not only using force against Iran, but in fact using nuclear weapons. The administration denies this, and since everything they say is a lie, we have to assume that this option is indeed being considered. The ultimate cost of such action--in a real world sense, what it would do to the environment, how many lives would be needlessly lost--is unknowable.

But this kind of "consequences, schmonsequences" attitude is all too typical of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His handling of the situation in Iraq has been wrong-headed from day one, and even right-wingers are starting to use words like "hubris" to describe him, presumably because words like "dangerously incompetent" and "batshit insane" just don't seem nuanced.

In any rational world, Rumsfeld would have been fired long ago. But he has a friend in the White House. "I'm the decider," Mr. Bushie said--an actual quote, unfortunately--and the decider in chief says Rummy gets to stay.

Meanwhile, with Bush's poll numbers sliding and Republicans everywhere getting nervous, the Democrats are trying to decide who to run for president--I'm sorry, I meant "decider"--in 2008. So far the front runner is Hillary Clinton.

Holy shit. We're hosed.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Entertainment-wise, the big story in these parts is that Bruce Springsteen is coming to the Wells Fargo Arena. Ironically, it's not a full-scale, raise the roof Bruce & the E-Street Band stadium-style show. It's more of a Bruce hootenanny, showcasing sensitive folk songs that will get lost in the massive environs of the architectural abortion that is Wells Fargo Arena. (The sensitive folk songs come from his new album The Seeger Sessions. As in Pete Seeger. When I first heard the title of the album, I thought Springsteen had finally teamed up with Bob Seger for an Overwrought-Singers-of-Seventies-Rock tour.)

Anyway, this news prompts two trains of thought.


As a teenager, I was never really into rock music. I was more of an Ennio Morricone guy. My tastes started to expand sometime in '84, '85. I don't remember how or why I acquired a copy of Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska--I was in therapy if that helps--but I know it's impact on me was profound. Its portraits of a marginalized America-- a land of small-timers and dreamers, murderers and seekers, working stiffs and wanderers --hit my post-adolescent, death-obsessed self where I lived.

Famously, Springsteen originally recorded this album as a demo, as a way to present his new songs to members of his band. But when he wasn't satisfied with how the songs worked in the context of full arrangements, he simply released his original tapes. As a result, his singing has a relaxed, almost tentative quality to it, a perfect compliment to the songs, the most understated, unforced lyrics he would ever craft.

So strong was this album, I became an unabashed Springsteen fan. True, none of his other albums were as good--parts of The River came close--but, you know, it was all Bruce. But time went on and my interest waned. Tunnel of Love was an album recorded by a rich guy contemplating his own navel, Human Touch and Lucky Town were even worse. And these days when he tries the sensitive folk guy schtick, well it's just embarrassing. I have no desire to hear this new album or see him live.

But for one moment, he was as good a writer as Raymond Carver or Bobbie Ann Mason. Only with music.


Of course, one of the reasons I won't see Sprinsteen this summer is his choice of venue in Des Moines, the Wells Fargo Arena. My reasons for avoiding this location have nothing to do with the place itself (though I've heard nothing but bad things about it) or even the fact that it was shoved down taxpayer's throats against their will, but the fact that it was built over the bones of the River Hills theater.

Ah, the River Hills. Unquestionably the finest place in Des Moines to see a movie. Hell, one of the best places anywhere to see a movie. With its 70 foot curved screen and understated shades-of-blue interior, it was a class act, a Grande Dame, the place where all the biggest movies opened.

And, it should be pointed out, the only place where they opened. In the heyday of the River Hills, movies didn't get the saturation release they do now. In May of 1977 when Star Wars opened--God, I remember it so clearly--the River Hills was one of only 43 theaters IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY showing it. On opening night--and it was night, the evening show was the first show--the line stretched for several blocks. This was in the pre-internet days, when it was harder for there to be any "buzz" around a new movie. But if you wanted to see Star Wars and you lived in Iowa, this is where you had to be.

It seems unbelievable now to think that a major motion picture could play on only one screen in a market the size of Des Moines. But it was a different time. Movies were more of an event, something you did as part of a night out, not a way to kill time.

But times change, and good things go away. More multiplexes started popping up in Des Moines, and studios booked movies onto more screens. If you lived in the burbs and wanted to see Demolition Man--though God only knows why--you'd go see it at that sixplex at the strip mall. Why drive all the way downtown?

I moved away from central Iowa in 1997. The River Hills was still around, but was not even a shadow of its former self, with a small, clueless staff of teenagers who didn't give a rat's ass about a quality presentation, projecting dim, out of focus images on a massive screen and staring at you blankly if you complained.

As the century turned, the plans for a new "entertainment complex" were in the works, and the site was chosen: despite being a real part of Des Moines history and movie history, the River Hills would be torn down. Mercifully, I was living on the east coast when that happened, so I didn't have to see it in person.

So...the Wells Fargo Arena, a location as charming as its name suggests.

Welcome, Bruce. I'm sure your gig here will be, like its venue, barely adequate.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


1. In 2002, my marriage ended, my cat died and my brother was killed. Worst year ever, I thought. So far this year, my mom has died and my nephew has been involved in a serious accident. (He has surgery this week.) If these things really do come in threes, what's next? And do I really want to know?

2. My ex has a blog in which postings are sometimes "written" by her cat. My sister just started a blog "written" by her dog. That's just silly. I would never do that. Never. Ah, forget it--take it away, Delmar...


Okay, that was from the Psychokitty his own bad self. Delmar is a large, wiry black and white cat. He's missing a little more than half of his tail, he's extremely high-strung and one time he tried to gouge my eye out while I slept. And yet I love him. Given his nature, he really should be an only child.

And yet he's recently been joined by Monika, my mom's cat, who's fuzzy, gray and convinced she is the most important thing on the planet. She's twelve, so one would think in the twilight of her kitty years. Mostly she tear-asses through my tiny apartment, looking for the shit.

3. That last sentence was a paraphrase of a line from Apocalypse Now. Whenever my ex and I would fight, I'd inevitably bust an Apocalypse Now quote which never failed to make the situation worse. If you think you can win an argument by proclaiming, "There is nothing I detest more than the stench of lies," chances are, you've already lost.

4. 5 AM is way too early to get up.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


My nephew was involved in a serious car accident this weekend. As I write this, the full extent of his injuries isn't known, but the prognosis seems to be serious, but not too serious. He lives about three hours away. I asked my brother if he thought it was necessary for my sister and me to come over, but he said no, there'll be plenty of visitors.

I don't envy my brother or his wife. They have days ahead of them doing hospital duty, the most depressing thing a person can do.

I'd visited people in the hospital before, but my first real encounter with hospital duty came in 1987. For several days, my dad's left side had been swelling up like something from an early Cronenberg movie, but he steadfastly refused to have it looked at. When the swelling srarted to reach cartoonish proportions, he agreed to a trip to the ER.

Long story short: colon cancer.

Surgery was performed that very night. All my siblings were there, some with spouses, nieces and nephews, Dad's brother and sister. Any of those people individually were easy to talk to, but having all of them there, and for such a grim reason, made conversation difficult. Forced small talk seemed best. If you talked about what was really on your mind, the mood would get weird. There's no protocol for situations like this.

So we sat. We waited. The surgeon appeared, told us the tumor had been removed but the situation was not good. He tried to be upbeat even while presenting a worst case scenario. The details were specific, but the words, the inflections, even his mien felt canned. He'd done this plenty, and chances are he knew that after he used the word "tumor" our brains would go numb anyway.

The main thing I remember about that night is wandering around the parking lot and down deserted hallways. This was after visiting hours, and in a small county hospital. It was like everything had shut down except for our private grief party.

(Dad made it through, but more hospital time awaited him. It was heart failure, not cancer, that took him in '96. )

My most recent stint of hospital duty, of course, came with the discovery of Mom's cancer. Last summer she spent time in four different hospitals. She was in a fifth when she died this past winter.

When you're visiting someone who is very ill, inevitably the time will come when they are taken for tests or grow too tired to talk or simply fall asleep. Those are the worst times, because it leaves you with nothing to do but contemplate your surroundings. The bad art. The ugly color schemes. The other visitors walking the corridors, their eyes usually cast downward. TVs turned to Matlock reruns. Families gathered in corners, ashen-faced, sometimes crying. Overpriced soda machines. Flowers everywhere.

It all conspires to remind you why you're there. Someone you love is sick. Someone you love is mortal.

And worse, so are you.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Iowa City is a bright spot on this state's landscape, the closest thing this town has to a hipster haven. It's also where I lived for most of the time I was married. And Thursday night, it was decimated by tornadoes.

Ordinarily, the combination of things mentioned in the previous paragraph would cause me to deploy a wildly inappropriate metaphor, likening my marriage to a tornado, leaving devastation in its wake. And you know, I'm tempted.

But right now I'm interested in how such a violent weather pattern came to be. According to meteorologists, Iowa's unusually warm and humid spring is a breeding ground for such activity. They'll say that, but they won't say why it's so warm and humid. This spring follows what TV weathercasters like to call an "exceptionally mild"--but I would call "freakishly warm"--winter. But let's not think about why the winter was mild.

Why was last year's hurricane season so bad? What was up with that tsunami? And what about the polar ice caps? Weird, huh? We should do something about it someday.

It's started. The beginning of the end is here, but this is no Biblical prophecy. These are acts of man, not God. Bit by bit, the human race has sought to alter its surroundings, to bend the laws of nature to its will. Sometimes this was done with the best of intentions, sometimes it was done in the pursuit of power and profit, but it was all done recklessly.

And given what we know, what do we do? More of the same! Can anybody offer a moral justification for driving a Hummer? Aside from the embarrassing name, this is a vehicle that pretty much just says, nope, no concern for the greenhouse effect here. How stupid are we?

So we keep screwing with nature, and we're always shocked--shocked!--when nature screws back. And nature will always win, because no matter how much we mess with the planet, the planet will always be here. We may flood it or fry it, but it'll still exist, circling the sun, implacable and unconcerned. No one will remember the beautiful church in Iowa City, or how it was destroyed. There'll be no one left to worship there anyway, and no hymns to be sung.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


First, some backstory: For most of the eighties and nineties, I wrote at a furious pace. In '88 I turned pro, in the sense that I first got paid for it. (In the words of Sam Peckinpah, I was a good whore.) In the late nineties, roughly around the time I got married, writing bacame less of a passion for me. Eventually, I stopped altogether.

Until now. Though I've been writing at this site for less than a week, the discipline involved in the act of writing on a semi-daily basis is invigorating, and reminds me why I loved doing this in the first place. Already I've started making notes and jotting down ideas for a novel about my experiences in 2002, when, in a four month period, my marriage ended, my cat died and my brother was killed in a freak accident.

Notice I said novel.

One of the strangest trends in the world of publishing is the sudden abundance of memoirs. It seems like half of the non-fiction titles on the best-seller list involve some poor sap with crazy parents, addiction to drugs/alchol/sex, a stay in jail/mental institution, death of person significant to author (frequently, though not always, a crazy parent) and finally, some sort of redemption. Who are these people, and why should anybody care?

I was baffled by the recent hooha over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. He embellished, he enhanced, he made stuff up? Of course he did! I don't believe for one second that ANY of this new breed of memoirists do anything else.

I mean, hey, I've attempted suicide, I've done time in mental wards. You know what? It's not that interesting. I mean, the place, the people, the day to day rituals--pretty much dullsville. Oh, but the thought processes involved, the exquisite pain of existence that makes you want to commit suicide in the first place, Golly Moses, that's dramatic. The only problem is, it's all inside your head. It's all subjective. It's all fiction.

After all, at the most dramatic times of your life, are you taking notes?

One of the old-school maxims about writing was that every author of fiction started with the semi-autobiographical novel that he needed to get out of his system, and then moved on to other stuff. But the point is, they were writing novels. Fiction. Of course, any decent author is after some sort of truth--emotional truth--in their work. But fiction, however closely based on one's actual experiences, is free to wander where it may, to discover minor characters who may hijack the narrative, to realize motivations of antagonists, to discover the story you thought you wanted to tell isn't really the one worth telling.

Writing fiction is creating a world. Writing a memoir is making yourself the center of the world. It's the difference between art and masturbation.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I'm not a Luddite, but I do have a basic distrust of technology. I'm not that old--I'm 40--but I remember a prewired world, and it seemed to work much better than the one we're living in now. The last time I wrote on a regular basis was back in the nineties--last century!--when you could still submit manuscripts by mail. No computers for me, thanks, I wrote on a typewriter. (An electric, not a manual. I wasn't that much of a purist.)

Since then, honestly, I tried my best to avoid computers, what with them being the enemy and all. But sooner or later, even the scrappiest of rebels must admit defeat, and I found myself acquiring a home computer.

Since it came with a free trial period of AOL--crappy dial-up service though it may be--finding a DHL provider wasn't an immediate concern. I figured I'd just go with Qwest, since they were my phone company.

But like a bolt out of the blue, in stepped a company that shall remain nameless. They offered me a great deal on phone service, but I had concerns. If I wanted high-speed internet through Qwest, it would be much cheaper to keep them as my phone company and get the package deal.Ah yes, my sales rep said, but I've just been authorized to inform potential customers that we will be providing high-speed service very soon. Okay, I said, but how soon is soon? Two weeks to a month.

The company soliciting me was smaller, based in the midwest, seemed a little more personalized. It's in my nature to shun giant corporations whenever possible, to "run with the little guy" as the folks at Jones Soda once put it. And the price was pretty good. So I said yes.

That was sometime around the end of February.

Time passes. It's mid-April, and I realize my AOL trial period will end soon, and frankly, I'm sick of dial-up. So I call my new phone company to inquire about price plans.

"Oh, we don't offer DSL at this time. We might be offering it soon, though."

Might? Soon? But when I signed up, I was told it was a definite.

"Well, we've been testing lines."

Testing lines? Isn't that what you do before you buy coke?

Customer service guy ignored my joke. "We want to make sure, once we offer high-speed access, that everything works properly. That's why we test, sir."

Yeah, I understand that. But I was told it WOULD be offered, and in this time frame. Now you're telling me it might happen at some unspecified time.

"Should be within a month, sir."

Should be, but I was told it would be, and over a month ago.


Customer service guy promised to check with his boss and call me back. I never heard back. When I called again, pretty much the same conversation transpired, although this guy at least put me through to his boss. She promised to "get to the bottom of it" and call me back. It's been two days, and I've heard nothing.

Corporations are impersonal by nature, and if not inherently evil, they usually represent the Dark Side. But they do usually provide the service they claim they'll provide. Qwest may be soulless, but they did everything they said they would.

It's a possibly romantic notion that a small, locally owned company is somehow better. But it seems that it should be, smaller should mean more personalized, more in tune with where you live. But it's the same thing that can happen when you bypass Starbucks for a local coffeehouse, only to get stuck with some art-hack poseur behind the counter, offering unsolicited opinions on subjects he only half understands. Suddenly Starbucks seems okay. Sure, you have to put up with Norah Jones playing in the background, and tune out the yuppies. But at least it's not aggrivating.

I'm still waiting to hear back from my phone company. In all likelihood, I'll go back to Qwest for internet AND phone service. The corporation wins. The little guy loses. It's not right, but that's the way of the world.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Monika sits on the television, her silver fur reflecting the TV's light, as she carefully bathes herself. She notices me watching her, and leaps down and over to me, rolling on the floor at my feet. Pet me, pet me, she's saying, or at least I think that's what her odd, strangled MEEEEOORR means.

My mom had several pets, and when she died, they needed homes. My sister cat two cats, my brother got a cat and a dog and my nephew very kindly took the cat nobody really liked. But I got Monika.

She had been my cat literally from birth. I'd owned her--well, no one ever owns a cat; let's just say she was living in my house--for about three years. When I moved to an apartment that didn't allow pets, Mom got Monika. (Reading that last sentence, I'm wondering why I didn't just keep looking until I found an apartment that allowed pets. There's a story there, but I don't even think it's that interesting, and I LIVED IT.)

When I had her originally, Monika was a very spoiled cat. I brushed her, I talked to her, I snuggled up with her at night. (Clearly, I really, really needed a girlfriend.) She acted...well, pretty much like she does now.

But in between, for all the years she was in Mom's possession, she didn't act like this at all. She was just kind of there, hanging out, largely indifferent to people. She might hop up on your lap, but she really didn't seem to expect or want attention. Admittedly, she was sharing a household with several other critters, but you'd expect some form of her personality to remain intact.

Was she waiting all that time until I was the only person in her orbit again? Is she even actually aware of the change in her surroundings? Does she wonder what happened to Mom? Is she even capable of thought?

Monika looks at me, her eyes glimmering with secrets, but she says nothing.

Monday, April 10, 2006


It's okay. I can get though this. After a loved one dies, there are the milestones--holidays, birthdays, specail days of all kinds--when you realize it's the first time you've celebrated without them. And this time it's the guest of honor herself who's missing--Mom would be seventy-eight today, and she's not here to enjoy it.

I don't want to dwell on how her absence weighs on me. So I'll try to give you a sense of her as a person, and why she is missed.

Mom had cancer, apparently inoperable, which was discovered last summer. Despite this, she remained in good health and good spirits until about a week before she died. However, mortality was weighing heavily on her, and the subject tended to rear its head when least expected. One time we were talking about music and I mentioned a particular piece I thought should be played at my funeral.

"You've thought about that?" she asked.

"Well...yeah." I hesitated, but went ahead and asked. "Anything you want at your funeral?"

"No. Well. I think you already know."

Did I ever.

After her death, when we, her children, were making arrangements with the funeral home, they politely asked us if there was any particualar music she might want, or did we want them to pick something. We'll handle that, we agreed.

There was music to be played at the memorial service, but that wasn't enough. Mom loved music, it was one of the joys of her life. Her wide-ranging and rather eccentric tastes were one of the things the defined her, that we all thought of when we thought of her. So music during the service itself wouldn't be enough. A soundtrack was needed, continuous music during the visitation the day before the service, and during the family time after, music that would define everything Mom was.

Picking that music was mostly up to me. My sister wanted some spirituals, since it was a funeral after all, and made a recording of herself singing In The Garden, and we agreed to Johnny Cash's version of Peace In The Valley, but I thought too much religious music would be inappropriate, since Mom pretty much considered herself an agnostic.

Beyond that, trying to narrow down the choices was a daunting task. We needed some Roger Miller and Marty Robbins, but also some Rob Zombie. Green Day's Boulevard of Broken Dreams was essential--Mom once yelled at a clerk at a local discount store because they didn't have a copy of American Idiot, an image I'll treasure all my life--and certainly we needed Iron Butterfly. Something from Jesus Christ Superstar, a show she loved (for reasons I've never understood). Maybe some Spike Jones? Nah, even I thought that would be too weird for a funeral.

But the song that most had to be there was the Muppet favorite Bein' Green. She could hear this song a million times, in a million different versions, and it would always make her cry. My ex-wife, Sue Ellen, had promised Mom in happier times that she would sing it at the funeral. In a way, she did. I had a cassette of her singing it, and with her blessing, we used it. This may seem like a cheap, sentimental way to end this, but no finer words could ever describe Mom:

Green is the color of spring
And green can be cool and friendly-like
And green can be big like an ocean
Or important like a mountain
Or tall like a tree

When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why
But why wonder, why wonder?
I'm green, and it'll do fine
It's beautiful and I think it's what I want to be

Happy birthday, Mom.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


The name of this site comes from John Lennon's Across The Universe. It seems a perfect desciption of life--fluid, with happiness cascading over you. But when the waves of joy recede--and they always do--you're left with pools of sorrow.

I must be living in a low-lying area, metaphorically speaking, because I can't seem to get these pools of sorrow to dry up.

It's been exactly four years since my wife and I split up. We were only together for five years, so we've been apart for nearly as long as we were together, yet she continues to dominate my life. Or maybe it's not her so much as the illusion of her, the perfect person I saw in my mind, as opposed to the flawed, all-too-human person she actually was.

Or maybe it doesn't even have anything to do with her. What weighs so heavily on me is that I took a chance with her, I fell in love with her and surrendered my heart, and was willing to follow it anywhere. I rode those waves of joy no matter how rough they were. We were two volatile people, and things got ugly at times, but I was convinced we were meant for each other. We'd always be together.

And then we weren't.

Forgive the overwrought imagery, but the pools of sorrow I fell into at that point nearly drowned me. I attempted suicide, and have the permanent damage to my body to prove it, but the damage to my psyche was far worse. For the longest time I was convinced it was my fault, that I didn't deserve happiness, that I didn't even deserve to live. (Hence, the suicide attempt.) Then I entered the bitter phase, when I was convinced it was all her fault, and that her wretched soul should writhe in unimaginable circles of hell forever. This was followed by wallowing in nihilism--there's no joy ever and what does it matter?

These says I'm in a state of almost-acceptance. Despite being seperated for over three years, we didn't even divorce until last September. She's planning on getting married again next spring--as you can imagine, that makes me feel EXACTLY like Paul Giamatti in Sideways--and I've dated a series of unstable, neurotic or just plain fucked-up women, relationships that are safely doomed from the start.

I certainly haven't met anyone I could fall for as I fell for my ex. That's probably a good thing. The more I think about it, the more I realize she herself doesn't dominate my life. It's the brief happiness she represents, a joy I both long for and dread. If absolute bliss carries with it the promise of overwhelming sorrow, you wonder--is it worth it?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

My mother died about a month and a half ago. This site is a direct result of that, since my mom was pretty much responsible for the person I turned out to be.
Born in 1928, Mom was a remarkably free thinker for someone born and raised in small-town Iowa at that time. Perhaps unfairly, I tend to think of the early-to-mid-twentieth century as a largely conservative, xenophobic period in American history. Not that we're living in an age of enlightenment now, but those were days when casual racism and misogyny were never questioned.
Of course, Mom questioned it. She saw a world beyond her small town existence, a world beyond imagination, a world without borders. Ironically, she never left her small town life, her best years spent raising kids on a farm. But in a household where appreciation for music, poetry, fiction, film and theater was not only encouraged but expected, her world without borders became a reality.
Yeah, she changed my diapers and fed and sheltered me, but most of all Mom gave me myself. She encouraged me to find my own way, and allowed me to make my own mistakes. And along the way she gave me signposts: Dr Seuss books, monster movies, Warner Bros. cartoons. She seemed to have a sense of what I'd like, or maybe what I'd need. The obsessions I've developed over my lifetime, my tastes, my politics, are mostly my own, but I never could have found them if Mom hadn't given me the key.
Sorry. This is getting maudlin. Not just maudlin, but Family Circus-dead-Grandma maudlin. But as I said, this blog came about as a result of Mom's death. She and I would talk on the phone almost daily--once my wife and I split up, there was no one else to listen to my daily rants--and as much as I miss her personally, I miss talking to her. Our conversations were frequently the highlights of my day, because, as always, she wouldn't let me take the easy way out. I'd have an opinion, but even though she usually agreed, she'd still challenge it.
So I guess this is my place to rant. It may frequently become a journal of grief, as I work my way through a world without Mom. It will have plenty of angry political commentary. (I'm a hardcore lefty.) Lots of bitter rants about the state of our culture. And when I'm bored, I dunno, boring Andy Rooney-style observations about everyday things. Uh, well, maybe not that last part.
All I know is that this is my life. And now, I guess you're part of it.