Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bad Grandpa and the broken angel

I'm well aware of the old saying, “fish and visitors stink after three days.” I've been a visitor in Pennsylvania for eight days now, with four more to go, and I have tried to avoid stinking up the place by being as unobtrusive as possible, not being a burden on my hosts.

Yesterday to my horror I committed a faux pas by breaking a piece of statuary that was on the fireplace mantle. It was of an angel. The family members are practicing Catholics and their home has some religious themed artwork here and there. I was up and dressed before the rest of the household on Saturday morning, so I went to the living room to write on my laptop. I saw a safety pin on the floor by the fireplace. Without thinking I bent down to pick it up and when I stood up my shoulder hit the mantle, the angel hit the tile floor and in seconds was in a thousand pieces. I cleaned up the mess and waited for the folks whose hospitality I had so horribly abused to get up. When they did I showed them the garbage bin with the remains of my transgression and expressed my dismay. Basically, they just blew it off. “No big deal. No need to feel bad.” It didn’t help. I still felt bad.

My grandchildren, Bella (9) and Gabby (7 1/2) were eating their breakfast. “Why didn't you catch it?” Gabby asked, innocently. Her mother jumped right in with an admonition to her to be polite to Grandpa.

“We broke that once,” confessed Gabby.

There is a double standard. If a kid breaks something there is often a punishment. When an adult breaks something they can usually get off with a mea culpa and a heartfelt apology.

(This is one bad luck angel. My wife, Sally, told me she had knocked it over one other time and broken something off which she repaired with super glue. My son David later told me when the kids broke the angel he replaced it out of a catalog for $30, and perhaps I could do the same.)

The kids went back to their room to play. Sally, to whom I had confessed my error, had gotten up and dressed, and went to the kids’ room to wish them good morning. When she opened the door Bella said, “Grandpa broke the angel! He broke its head right off!

Sally said, “Yes, and he feels really bad.”

Gabby said, “Bad Grandpa!” then added, “...and once again, victory is ours!”

Bad Grandpa is the name of a movie, and the title fit the situation. The “victory is ours” I recognize but don’t know where she got it. Maybe she read it in a book, or saw it on television. Maybe she recognized what I just said about the double standard on breaking things, and her comment was aimed at that. It cracked us up, though.

Something I may not have mentioned before in this blog is my overall klutziness, which comes from having my hands or feet move before engaging my brain. I have tried to correct this serious flaw, but occasionally it revisits me.

For the balance of our visit I will attempt to do what I do in antique stores: keep my arms at my sides and think before reaching for anything. And my hope is that after we leave in four more days our kind hosts won't turn to each other and say, “Fish and visitors...”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How the gay Grinch stole Utah bigots' Christmas

A story in the Salt Lake Tribune for Tuesday, December 24, means a great Christmas for gay people and their friends, families and supporters in Utah, and a very Grinchy Christmas for the sanctimonious moralists, homophobes and bigots.

I'm away from Utah for another week, spending time with family in Pennsylvania, and yet watching Utah make big news over a judge's ruling this past Friday.

Federal Court Judge Robert Shelby determined that laws aimed at restricting marriage between same-sex couples is unconstitutional. This is a double blow for Utah Republicans. First, they had the ruling that parts of Utah's anti-polygamy laws are unconstitutional, and now laws against gay marriage.

I've been reading that the Brethren* are meeting hurriedly to try to figure out what to do to roll back what this "activist judge" (Utah governor Herbert's term for him) hath wrought. They quickly filed a request for a stay in the law so that county clerks could no longer issue marriage licenses to gay couples and Judge Shelby wouldn't budge because as he put it, the request for stay just repeated the same arguments he found unconstitutional. So the State went to the 10th Circuit Court and asked for a stay.

On Christmas Eve the 10th Circuit Court refused to issue a stay. As I write this during the late evening of December 24th gay marriage is still legal in Utah. I believe it will go through the court system and come out with the same result: Utah will be the 18th state in which gay people can legally marry.

I think it's great. It was coming anyway, my fellow Utahns and fellow Americans (even Phil Robertson, the anti-gay Duck Dynasty guy). You had better get used to it because it is here, and within a few years, maybe less than five, the rest of the United States will fall in line, and all those anti-gay "pro-family" folks (pro-heterosexual family, that is) will have to adjust to a changed society.

I also read online that Utah is expecting a white Christmas. To all of you Utah people who feel that Santa left you a lump of coal for Christmas, cheer up. It will not be the end of the world. I leave you with a wish that your days be merry and bright. To the same-sex couples exulting in a Christmas gift thanks to the Constitution, don you now your gay apparel and have a great and wonderful Christmas and New Year.

*It is sometimes hard to tell Mormon ecumenical leaders in Utah from state officials, since they are all poured from the same mold.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Only in Utah

Some recent stories have made the local news that remind me I live in a place which can be a world unto itself. Sometimes we in Utah are members of American society at large, sometimes we are in a theocratic bubble in which the inhabitants try to ignore the laws of the nation.

For over a century it has been illegal to be a polygamist in Utah. It came about when the federal government made it a condition of statehood in the 1890s. The Mormons, after having taught polygamy was immune to man’s laws and only answerable to God, declared that polygamy was no longer part of the religion. Polygamists would be excommunicated. It caused a lot of splinter sects which still practiced polygamy to spin off from the official church into small bands loosely called fundamentalist Mormons.

Last Friday U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, in answer to a lawsuit filed by members of the family that make up the TLC “reality” show, Sister Wives, declared that parts of Utah’s polygamy laws, those related to cohabitation, were unconstitutional. The rest of the statutes regarding polygamy: no taking of child brides, domestic violence, taking out multiple marriage licenses (bigamy) are still in effect. Polygamists marry in religious ceremonies and don’t take out licenses.

The truth is that except for the more egregious breaches of law no polygamists have been prosecuted in Utah in over half a century solely for being in a polygamous marriage. No polygamists are prosecuted for cohabitation, which would be a total waste of taxpayer money.

So…what changed, and why was it headline news? Well, nothing changed, really, except to make Utah Governor Gary Herbert announce that he would have to study what the ramifications of the judge’s ruling are. He said, “I’m always a little concerned when we have decisions that change public policy by the courts . . .I’d much rather see decisions on social issues come from our legislature representing the will of the people. [Emphasis mine.]

 Gov. Herbert, whose round face makes me think of a grownup Charlie Brown, has that Peanuts character’s wishy-washiness.

In other words, our governor has put himself into the story with his usual pronouncements, implying that any federal law that makes sense trumps a local law that doesn’t. This in regard to a ruling that just affirmed that we are no longer living in the nineteenth century, and laws regarding cohabitation, whether for religious or sexual purposes, are no longer the business of anyone but the people doing the cohabiting. Those laws, which are still on the books in some states besides Utah, are not enforced anywhere in the U.S. because cohabitation may be seen as immoral by some, but is not illegal.

Yet the story made the newspaper front page two days in a row.

Only in Utah.

Another story has to do with a controversy over a long-held belief by Mormons that people of African descent were “cursed in the pre-existence” with black skin to show they had not been as vigilant on the side of right during a war in heaven. So God sent them into the world to be enslaved and discriminated against. I was taught this arcane belief when still a member of the church. Many Mormons used it as a defense of discrimination and prejudice. In 1978 the church changed its policy, declaring that the time of discriminating against blacks for their skin color was over, and that now black people could hold the priesthood in the Latter-day Saints church. Some devout Mormons, who had a tough time giving up those longtime, strongly-held beliefs thought the church was bowing to social pressure, and that the “curse” was still a fact, even if not recognized officially.

Bigot Brigham Young

The story that hit the news last week was that the church has finally admitted that the belief of fence-sitting souls in a pre-existence war who would be born as black was never doctrinal. It came from Brigham Young, church president when the church relocated in the mid-nineteenth century to the wilderness that was Utah. As the church story explained, Brigham Young was “of his time,” and had prejudices relating to his era. All that mumbo-jumbo about a curse was never an official Mormon belief, even though it was taught by church leaders and even defended for many years by devout Latter-day Saints as coming straight from God. (My article about this belief is here.)

My personal feeling was that it became church policy when the Mormons came West in 1847 because the country was being pulled apart by slavery. As a practical matter Brigham Young didn’t want runaway or former slaves to feel at home in Utah. So Brigham did what Brigham did best: he went to the revelation card and claimed God told him that was the way it was. After a century-and-a-half his obvious and odious lie made local front page headlines.

Only in Utah.

Ron Lafferty, tormented by a ghost?

The third story is a little trickier because it hinges on a statement by a defense lawyer defending murderer Ron Lafferty, who lives in Utah State Prison’s death row. In 1985, in some fit of crazy religious zealotry, Lafferty and his brother, Dan, murdered a third brother’s wife and her 15-month-old daughter. Lafferty has never been thought of as a mentally fit person, but the defense lawyer has a unique take on the latest goings-on in this now nearly 30-year-old saga.

Lafferty has claimed to being harassed by the deceased father of the judge. As quoted in the copyrighted article by Brooke Adams in the December 10, 2013 Salt Lake Tribune:
     “Lafferty believes that the ghost of Judge Steven J. Hansen’s father tormented him during the . . . trial, causing him physical discomfort and leading him to act out during the proceedings. The ghost, according to Lafferty, did so because he was unhappy with how the judge conducted the proceedings.
     “While many of Lafferty’s beliefs are rooted in the Mormon faith within which he was raised, this particular belief diverges from [Latter-day Saint] theology about how spirit beings interact with the mortal world, the attorneys say.
     “‘This is not a belief that is shared by Mr. Lafferty’s cultural or subcultural (sic) group,’ the brief says, “Therefore it is a delusion.’”
So let us make clear what the defense is saying. If Lafferty is tormented by a ghost, he’s not delusional in the sense that ghosts do not exist and cannot be tormenting him, it’s a delusion only because the Mormon church does not believe that is how spirits of the dead interact with the living.

Got that?

Only in Utah.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Don Martin’s Great Non-Violent Guns from Mad

Saturday, December 14 is the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty children and six adults including teachers, a counselor and principal were killed by a crazed man with a Bushmaster 223 assault rifle.

Unlike last year after the tragedy when the National Rifle Association made a lot of noise to beat back the criticism of America’s gun laws, this year I haven’t heard a peep from them, or caught a glimpse of Wayne LaPierre’s ridiculous toupée. Maybe the NRA is too busy working on beating back any pending legislation of plastic guns that anyone can make with a 3D printer. (Ain’t technology wonderful?)

Don Martin had some funny ideas for non-violent guns in an old Mad magazine. I wish these were the most dangerous weapons available.

Copyright © E.C. Publications, Inc.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

“I wear the chain I forged in life”

Alec Guinness as my favorite ghost.

Of all the Christmas stories I like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the best. And of the characters in the story, my favorite is one who doesn’t take up much room. It is Marley’s ghost, laden down with chains and cashboxes. Marley is a bellwether for Scrooge, to warn him of the need for changes in his miserly life, and the upcoming visits of three other ghosts.
“I wear the chain I forged in life,'' replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
The chain is a good metaphor for those things we have done that weigh us down. Unless you have no conscience you probably have mistakes or crimes or cruelties that are still with you, maybe even decades after they happened. I do. (Note to law enforcement: any “crimes” I committed were strictly misdemeanors, for which the statutes of limitations have long since passed. Just thought I’d make that clear.)

What bothers me most are things I said to people I wish I had never said. In a moment of anger I spouted off and said something unkind. It happened fairly regularly, so regularly that in the mid-seventies my job supervisor told me I had a “tongue that cuts like a scalpel.” It was him telling me that made me think of what I was doing. And dammit, I am still thinking of it. I’d say that my scalpel tongue has probably earned me about ten feet of heavy battleship chain by now.

I won’t go into any more of my transgressions because, frankly, they would be boring to you and yet for me, even after forty or fifty years they are still hard to speak of. They would be good for telling to a therapist, though, and some of them I have unburdened to the two therapists I consulted since the mid-nineties. Telling them lightened my chain by at least a couple of pounds.

I don’t believe in sin as a religious concept. There are things we do that are right to do because they do not intrude on or damage our fellow human beings, or make them suffer. There are things we should not do, not because we fear eternal punishment, but because they are the price of living in harmony in civilization.

In that sense I don’t believe in Marley’s ghost except as a literary construction, but a powerful construction it is. That image of Marley and his chains is a visual aid for me to help me decide with how much I want to burden myself, not in some hereafter, but in the here-and-now.

Illustration by Roberto Innocenti.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Where do lost things go? The Twilight Zone?

I’ve been looking for five or six days for my eyeglasses, which have a gold-colored wire frame. They are in my house somewhere, I’m 100% certain, but despite my best efforts I cannot find them. They seem to have disappeared between sometime in the hour between taking them off, and then needing them.

Ever have that happen to you? Of course you have. I don’t know how you handle the situation, but my usual way of finding something is to stop looking. After I’ve made a reasonable attempt to locate the lost object, I will stop looking and then within an undetermined period of time, hours, days or even months, I will suddenly come upon it. “So that’s where I left it!” will usually be the first words out of my mouth. Works like a charm. Usually. Stop looking, find what I’m looking for. Not this time, though.

I started going through a mental checklist of things I am missing that defy my efforts to find them. It’s been a gradual thing over time. Because of that time frame I hadn’t really considered all that has disappeared. It is a considerable amount of small things. Where are they, and a larger question would be, where do things go?

Perhaps they go into the Twilight Zone. Do you remember the 1963 episode, “Little Girl Lost”? A four-year-old falls out of bed right into a dimensional gateway. Her father goes in to find her and bring her back.

When I watched that episode again a few days ago I understood where my lost items are. They are in another dimension, having fallen through a gateway that appeared in my house. I suppose once I find that I will find my lost items.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beep beep and beep beep yeah

Obituaries for my former high school classmates are coming faster and closer together as time goes on. This obit is for one of my classmates from the graduating class of 1965.

Beep is not her real first name, but my wife and I can’t remember what it is. Sally thinks it might be Susan. Whatever it is, her survivors and the obituary writer didn’t put it in her obit. I guess everyone just knew her as Beep.

Beep as she was when we knew her.

The obit mentions that she was the first female auto mechanics student in Utah.. That was a big deal in those days, and it got her some attention. If I hadn’t seen the obituary, and if someone had asked me what I remember about Beep it would have been that she studied auto mechanics with a shop full of boys.

The write-up also tells that after living in another state she had come back to Utah because of her relationship with Roger W. (her “first boyfriend”), who was also a 1965 classmate. Roger owns an automotive business, and was in the news in 1993 when he was tried for murder.

Roger in high school.

The story that came out is that a violent, psychopathic ex-convict named Daniels was getting 50% of the profits of Roger’s business through threats and physical abuse. One day Roger had had enough. When Daniels came at him with a screwdriver Roger shot him twice, in the face and heart, with a .357 magnum. What got Roger tried for murder was due to his next moves: he told some men to call the police, then went back and administered a coup de grace. He shot Daniels two more times in the back.

The prosecutor said that was homicide, not self-defense. In the trial it came out that Daniels was “essentially” dead when Roger put the second set of two bullets in him. Witnesses came forward to say they had seen Daniels beat Roger either with fists or shop tools, including a hammer. The jury believed Roger’s version of self-defense and acquitted him.

In the end Beep was with Roger. It says in her obituary that she developed diabetes when she was 12, and that’s a terrible disease. I am surprised she made it to the age she was when she died. I hope she and Roger had some good times together. It seems to me they both deserved it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Another voice amongst the many: remembering the JFK assassination

As a Baby Boomer I’m just one more of millions who remember where we were and what we were doing on that day Kennedy was killed. For the record, I was a junior in high school, attending my daily gym class. The class was being held in the wrestling room because the school had rented out the gym for an electronics show. Dozens of men in black business suits had lined the walls of the gym with equipment, stereo, radios, televisions, all brand-new models for 1964. So when the news broke we were allowed to go back into the gym where everyone watched the unfolding story on multiple TV screens.

The story of the killing of a sitting American President, vivid as it is, becomes part of a larger story, because I believe the assassination of JFK was the beginning of what we call “The Sixties.” At least it was for me; in retrospect it seems all hell broke loose after JFK was killed. It could just be my perception, from where I stood then and through the next ten years. But for me the decade of the 1960s with its turmoil and excitement of whirlwind changes in society began on November 22, 1963, and ended in August, 1974, with the resignation of Richard Nixon.

It has been fifty years since JFK died. Fifty years! To put it in perspective, in 1963 the start of the First World War in 1914 wasn’t yet quite fifty years past. Memories of World War II were still very much with us, still fresh. That war had ended only eighteen years before. The veterans of that conflict were our parents and teachers, still young people in their forties when Kennedy was killed. A veteran and war hero himself, Kennedy was only 46 when he died.

None of those things went through my head during that awful weekend, from the first word of the assassination through the funeral the following Monday. (An incredible achievement, I now realize, mounting a state funeral of that magnitude with only a couple of days to prepare. It’s a story still to be told of the assassination, and I hope someone will tell us how it was done.) I believe collectively the whole country was depressed. It was as if on that weekend all of the business of America came to a stop. We all just put our normal lives on hold and watched television, while history was being made.

Watching some of the current TV programs about that weekend in 1963 has an effect on me. It reminds me of what was going on in my personal life, but also connects me, inextricably, to fellow Americans alive at a time when as a nation we went into a period of mourning.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The prejudiced ear

A big murder trial wrapped up recently in Salt Lake City. It was one of those trials that capture national attention, and the November 13 edition of NBC’s Dateline was devoted to the case.

Martin MacNeill, a doctor, was tried and convicted of killing his wife. One of the prosecution theories is that he killed her so he could be with his mistress. The wife was found, fully clothed, dead in a bathtub. She had recently had a facelift, and her doctor-husband prescribed painkillers, on which she overdosed.

The wife...the doctor...the mistress. A deadly mix.

During the trial, as is the norm in cases like this, the 911 call he made when he called to say his wife wasn’t breathing was played for the jury, and we all got to hear the hysteria in his voice. There was a whole follow-up of things he said to first responders. When introduced to the jury his statements at a time of crisis just didn’t sound like they thought a man who had just lost his wife would speak.

It always strikes me during such moments in a trial as to whether it is fair to introduce evidence that was created at such a moment. Often what the caller says doesn’t ring true to the listener. It often sounds fake. If the caller is very emotional it can sound forced. If there are no histrionics it may sound like the caller is emotionless, and doesn’t care.

But really, how does anyone know how someone else will react during such a stressful time?

What if the caller was innocent, yet was overwhelmed by events? MacNeill screamed at the 911 dispatcher who asked if he was performing CPR, as if his credentials as a physician were being challenged. As it turned out, the jury didn't need to hear that call. They had plenty of other evidence on which to find Dr. MacNeill guilty, but that 911 call piled on to the other events and didn’t help. According to published reports the jury considered it part of his “over the top” response to his wife’s death.

The prejudice comes in when we condemn someone for not having what we think is the proper reaction. I have heard a lot of former jurors in other trials say they didn’t think the defendant sounded sincere, or didn’t act like they imagined they would in similar circumstances.

In the book, Alien Hand Syndrome and Other Too-Weird-Not-To-Be-True Stories by Alan Burrows, the author addresses that prejudice in a chapter called “Cognitive Glitches.”
     The false consensus effect is the tendency of individuals to assume that others think and act the same way as they do. It applies to such things as opinions, thought patterns, attitudes and behaviors.  Essentially, false consensus is an expression of the average person’s complete inability to comprehend the thought processes of another. The effect is so powerful that subjects asked to envision someone with a different attitude or opinion will often imagine the other person as mentally deficient or deluded. This bias severely limits the ability of humans to understand or predict the behavior of others.
Is there a standard by which we judge how other people react? I think it would be prudent for a defense attorney to call a psychologist who could explain the false consensus effect. Whether it would do any good or not to tell people that just because they wouldn't overreact to a 911 operator they shouldn't assume everyone would act as they expect.

I assume someone who has willfully killed a spouse and calls 911 probably wants to make it sound real, so they do an acting job. That in itself will sound phony. Human beings, especially when lying, are acting and we may think we’re up to being convincing, but folks, unless you’re a trained professional, don’t try it. Most people will be too kind to tell you they think you are lying, but that is no indication your acting is working for its intended audience. I believe Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep could be standing over a dead body, holding a smoking gun and still convince police they didn’t kill anyone. False consensus syndrome or not, I know I couldn’t match their acting abilities.

Finally, if I had been on that jury I would have found Dr. MacNeill guilty of murdering his wife. But I believe my decision would have been based on evidence alone, not on how I think he should have sounded when speaking to others in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

MAD History of Sex

Mad magazine takes the whole history of sex, from Adam to now, and compresses it down to a few pages. Funny history, funny subject!

Copyright © 1974, 2013 E.C. Publications, Inc.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Three examples of telling a personal story successfully

I like to write, and I write this blog to be read by others. I also like to read good writing. It gives me intense pleasure, but it is also a learning tool. I think telling a personal story can be a really good way for a writer to communicate with readers. I’m giving examples today from three writers I think tell their personal stories well.

David Sedaris is a well-known author, essayist and humorist, who has made his way to the top of the best-seller lists and is also in demand as a speaker, reading from his own work. That would be the apex of the profession.

His latest essay in The New Yorker for October 28, 2013, is nostalgic, funny and tragic. “Now We Are Five” is a story about Sedaris’ large family, their yearly beach vacation, and the sister who killed herself. We are grabbed right away by Sedaris’ opening lines:
“In late May of this year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down.”
From that point Sedaris introduces himself into the narrative, and then goes into a long story, interweaving himself, his parents and his five siblings and their years together at the beach, all while telling of the most current beach vacation, where they had their annual vacation with their 90-year-old father. Tiffany, the suicide, figures in as part of the overall story, and in Sedaris’ way, in a memory by a non-family member that ends in a punchline:
“The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany’s obituary ran in the Raleigh News & Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old, and had a house. But what else could you do? People were leaving responses on the paper’s Web site, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody’s trash can. He said that she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the nineteen-sixties that included a photo-spread titled “The Ass Menagerie.”
Sedaris has many fans. I am an admirer of his writing. He makes everything about his life interesting, and I highly recommend his books. You can read the essay I have quoted from at the New Yorker website.

Eddie Hunter is a great storyteller. He has a blog, Chicken Fat. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, and he writes often about his hometown. I met him through the old Prodigy bulletin boards circa 1993 and through his posts immediately recognized him as a keen observer of human nature. Eddie is what I’d call a “first draft” author; he writes it and posts it. I have told him with a good editor he could be another humorist in the Southern tradition of Lewis Grizzard. Eddie’s blog is a grab-bag of cartoons, comics, jokes, observations and anecdotes like this very funny story he tells of himself as a young sailor in the early 1960s. (I have taken the liberty of some slight editing, but nothing to take away from Eddie’s style.)
“At one of the many neighborhood bars between where I was stationed, NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Lakewood, New Jersey, one time returning from the movie theater in Lakewood I dropped in a "Dew-Drop-Inn" kind of joint.  Back in the mid 60s the bars and lounges had video jukeboxes. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer.  Next to me was a middle-aged lady quietly weeping.  I looked at her and might have asked her was she OK.  She told me it was her and her husband's 25th wedding anniversary.  He was a chicken farmer and would not dance with her.  He resented having to take the time off from the farm to take out to celebrate.  He sat beside her, looking straight ahead, listening to ever word we said, and occasionally glanced at the person talking.  Finally, I leaned over to him, and saying in a joking manner to ‘Come on, dance with your pretty wife.’

He turned around and glared at me and said, ‘You dance with her, Butterball!’

I laughed like he pulled a good one, and said, ‘Oh no, I'm not the dancing type.... ha ha!’ ’

He stood up to show me his enormous size, pushed his ball cap back to get a better glare on me, and said, ‘Dance, Butterball! Dance!’

I looked at my watch and said I had to run.

I hit the parking lot running. 

My lesson for that day was not to meddle in other people's business.”
Not only is Eddie an observer of human behavior, he can tell a funny story about himself. It is what your English teacher always told you: “Write what you know.”

Eddie (left) and former Mad editor Albert Feldstein. Like me, Eddie was raised on Mad.

Pervocracy is another blog I follow, if only because I find the idea of BDSM foreign. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying sex while being tortured, but apparently, as I have read in this blog, it is a way of life.

From a posting calling “The Sexcalator,” the female author opens with two startling paragraphs :
“By the time I was out of my early twenties, I'd done some fairly hardcore BDSM.  I'd been beaten, whipped, cut, bound, shocked, peed on, done most of the above naked in front of strangers, and frequently during sex.  Which raises the question--where do you go from there? When you're so young, and you've already had such intense experiences, what's left?

Cuddling on the couch, for one.  Or having slow sleepy sex at the end of the day.  Or — not to make this sound like ‘but then I discovered that sweet gentle love was the most daring of all!’ — getting beaten some more, not necessarily in a harder or more shocking way than before.”
She isn’t asking us to accept her sexual interests as moral or immoral. She is telling us what she has done, not asking for approval. It is what it is, she is saying. This is confessional writing, but it also is a look inside the mind of someone who may be doing something we have only heard of, but never done.

In that way I find her story not only titillating, but well written. It instantly portrays to me what she finds sexually exciting, and that is the goal of any good writer: to get the readers immersed instantly, and keep them interested until the point is made and the story reaches its end.

Bettie Page being bad? Or just having some good, sexy fun?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Halloween treat by Richard Matheson

For Halloween I present a short and shuddery tale by master storyteller Richard Matheson. Matheson, born in 1926, died this year, and in his long career produced such classic books as I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, but is also known for his screenwriting credits for television (The Twilight Zone), his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for Roger Corman, and numerous books and stories produced over a long career.

In “Drink My Red Blood...” we have a poignant tale of a boy, told as only Matheson could tell it. It is scanned from its appearance in Imagination Volume 2 Number 2, 1951.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Damned by YouTube

A Tourism Department photo of the alien landscape of Goblin Valley.

You might have seen the YouTube video showing some jerks destroying a natural rock formation in Goblin Valley, a state park in Utah. The video has been taken down, and all that’s left is a notice of copyright by the idiot who took the cellphone video.

Like many before them, these guys found out that when something goes viral on YouTube it can give instant fame, either for bad or for good. In the case of these two it wasn’t good. They both lost their positions as scout leaders, and are facing state felony charges for vandalism. Besides a photographic record, what got them in trouble was their celebration after the vandalism. Guys doing good deeds don’t need to high-five each other.

 “Slip me some skin, fellow moron!”

They claimed they thought they were doing a good thing. They thought the rock was ready to tumble over onto a passing family. Their excuse sounds fishy. To me the whole incident dovetails into something else.

The goblin-toppling incident can be seen as metaphor for events that came before. Two other vandals, Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, caused major damage during the government shutdown. They offered flimsy reasons when called on their misbehavior. Both the former scout leaders in Goblin Valley and the senators in Washington D.C. said they were doing damage in order to save people. Obviously most people saw through those excuses and they will be held accountable. The goblin guys will have their day in court, the senators will have to answer to their constituents come election day. Let’s hope all four get the justice they, and the public, deserve.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Up on the roof

Yesterday I completed the second half of a ritual I have performed each year since 1975. I climb a ladder to the roof of my suburban split-entry house, and I prepare the evaporative cooler for winter.

There are all makes and models of this type of cooling unit. This is as close a picture as I could find online to one that looks like mine. 

The ritual of the cooler usually begins in May, when the weather starts to get hot, or as I have learned, as soon as the weather person on television says it will be getting hot. I go to Lowe’s, buy some cooler pads, climb the roof, install the pads, make sure everything is working and my water line isn’t leaking, and then I switch on my cooler for a summer full of hot temperatures outside, cool temperatures inside. That’s the theory, anyway. What usually happens is the cooler, which is above the main hallway, really only cools the living room, so I also have to set up fans in the various rooms in a vain hope of circulating air.

The cooler, which works on a principle discovered during the 18th century by Napoleon’s soldiers when they kept food in wet burlap bags, depends on low humidity to work at peak efficiency. Typical summer humidity in our area is about 10% or less until the season of thunderstorms, so-called “monsoonal moisture” which sets itself up above us for at least a couple of weeks in late July-early August. If the humidity gets to 25% or higher I might as well not have the cooler on, because the humidity is cancelling out the evaporation.

My house is the proverbial oven, located in the proverbial desert hell. This past summer the temperatures were hotter than any summer before, over 95º F for almost two months, and inside the house with the swamp cooler working it was kept at a relatively reasonable 75º in the living room, but in all other upstairs rooms it was more like 80º. I have lived with this so long I should be used to it, but I still do my fair share of kvetching and complaining about the heat.

When we bought our house in 1975 swamp coolers were preferred for home air conditioning. I read once that about 75% of homes in my area used the evaporative cooler, but now it has flip-flopped, and more people use a central air conditioner with their furnace than use a swamp cooler. The central air is much more expensive to run, because people have a tendency to want it cooler than necessary in summer, just like they want to be warmer than necessary in winter. There’s a comfort zone in there somewhere, which I have found to be about 72º. The other thing I read is that running all of these central air conditioners is actually making it hotter outside. The good thing about my rooftop cooler is that it is no more expensive to use than a light bulb, and it doesn’t really contribute to outside pollution.

The swamp cooler is a simple device: a motor turns a large drum inside the box, a pump moves water from the tank of the cooler to the pads to evaporate. The cool air is forced down into the house through a duct to a diffuser built into my ceiling. Every year I am forced to make repairs, which can be repairing a leak in the waterline to the cooler, or replacing the pump or cleaning out the tubes that pour the water onto the pads when they get clogged. I have had summers where I felt like I was on the roof sweating over keeping the cooler running more than I was in my living room being cooled. A typical summer I’d say means from five to ten trips up the ladder to the roof to get everything adjusted and to keep it that way. It’s usually a big relief to get the cooler ready for winter. The process takes about a half hour to an hour, and there is always a satisfaction of knowing that I’ve got about 7 or 8 months of not having to worry about my cooler. No, I just worry about my ancient furnace, but that’s a whole other story.

Getting the cooler winterized entails taking up a bag of supplies; a 6 x 8 foot tarpaulin (those blue things you buy at Walmart for $6.99), a 1/2” wrench to detach the water line to drain it, some strong string or twine to tie the tarpaulin onto the cooler to prevent it from blowing off in a strong wind (that has happened to me a time or two). 

Yesterday was a reiteration to me of the old cliché, “this shit is getting old.” It is getting old because I am getting old. When I moved into this house I was 28 years old, and now I’m 66. Making several trips up and down a ladder is getting harder every year. I know most guys don’t like to admit they can’t do this sort of thing after they reach a certain point of their biological clock, but I’m not afraid to admit it. Yeah, next year I should hire someone to do it for me. I don’t want to crawl up on that goddamn roof one more time in my life. But then, I’ve said that for at least the last five years.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Man in the Black Hat

Years ago I found the first edition of a 1941 anthology, The Other Worlds, in a Salvation Army thrift store in California. It reprints stories from magazines like Weird Tales that just weren’t getting much attention in their day. Being published in pulp magazines was something of a stigma. The editor, Phil Stong, although relying heavily on those pulps, went beyond them for his collection, including “Aunt Cassie,” a charming and interesting ghost story by his wife, Virginia Swain, and a true classic of the macabre, “The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner. So he went from gentle fantasy to gruesome horror in one volume. Good show!

As good as many of the stories are, one of my favorites is “The Man in the Black Hat," by Michael Fessier, reprinted from the February, 1934 issue of Esquire. It has been anthologized several times, (also adapted for radio and television) and for good reason. It presents a situation that is unusual, with a premise difficult to fathom. It leaves the reader wondering how it happened. I love that in a short story. A good story should have a punch, and keep the reader’s mind engaged after the story ends.

Copyright  © 1941 Wilfred Funk, Inc.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Anthony Hopkins enjoyed Breaking Bad with fava beans and a fine Chianti

Anthony Hopkins binge-watched the five seasons of Breaking Bad, and wrote star Bryan Cranston an e-mail to tell him what he thought of the acting.
Dear Mister Cranston.

I wanted to write you this email - so I am contacting you through Jeremy Barber - I take it we are both represented by UTA. Great agency.

I've just finished a marathon of watching "BREAKING BAD" - from episode one of the First Season - to the last eight episodes of the Sixth Season. [Ed note: There are in fact five seasons of Breaking Bad; this might have been wishful thinking.] (I downloaded the last season on AMAZON) A total of two weeks (addictive) viewing.

I have never watched anything like it. Brilliant!

Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen - ever.

I know there is so much smoke blowing and sickening bullshit in this business, and I've sort of lost belief in anything really.

But this work of yours is spectacular - absolutely stunning. What is extraordinary, is the sheer power of everyone in the entire production. What was it? Five or six years in the making? How the producers (yourself being one of them), the writers, directors, cinematographers.... every department - casting etc. managed to keep the discipline and control from beginning to the end is (that over used word) awesome.

From what started as a black comedy, descended into a labyrinth of blood, destruction and hell. It was like a great Jacobean, Shakespearian or Greek Tragedy.

If you ever get a chance to - would you pass on my admiration to everyone - Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Steven Michael Quezada - everyone - everyone gave master classes of performance ... The list is endless.

Thank you. That kind of work/artistry is rare, and when, once in a while, it occurs, as in this epic work, it restores confidence.

You and all the cast are the best actors I've ever seen.

That may sound like a good lung full of smoke blowing. But it is not. It's almost midnight out here in Malibu, and I felt compelled to write this email.

Congratulations and my deepest respect. You are truly a great, great actor.

Best regards

Tony Hopkins.

Now that's praise that has some teeth in it!