Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Big Orange, Elvis, and 'Anything Goes'

Here we go again.

UT's football team will trot out the "Smokey Gray" uniforms when they suit up against Florida on Saturday at Shields-Watkins Field. The last year they did this, they lost to Georgia (and Vanderbilt).

(Correction: Macon Vol buddy Dewayne Lawson reminded me that the Vols wore the alternate gray last fall and won. I was unable to watch much of the last two seasons due to illness. Thanks, Dewayne!)

This kind of thing bugs me, but then again, I still wore a tie, or at least a sports coat, when I was a regular in Section NN, south end zone, upper deck. So I'm probably not the best one to ask.

(Even Elvis knew about orange and white while he was here once...)

But, I can face facts. I'm not in the target demographic. Continuing a trend, Tennessee (and a lot of other schools) are directly playing to the iPhone generation. And, to quote Johnny Carson, "a dollar is always a dollar." I guess they think this also helps recruiting.

I know winning football games will. Autumn afternoons at Neyland Stadium do not need PR spin when all is well on Rocky Top.

This has been a strange year. Tennessee is 3-0 and ranked higher than Florida. That should be good news.

But they've looked bad for the most part, especially on offense, in close wins against Appalachian State and Ohio University, and fared a little better in the Barnum and Bailey show at Bristol. But it took awhile.

Ah, but again, this isn't a normal year. Florida's backup quarterback has to start Saturday. Tennessee is also missing players at key positions. Josh Dobbs is running for his life. Nobody can hang onto the ball. But the defense is doing well, all things considered, and the Vols go after the Gators at home. 

So who knows.

I miss a lot of Tennessee traditions. I miss the walking horse. I miss John Ward and Bill Anderson. I miss anyone with institutional knowledge.

(I don't miss "Third Down For What.")

But, in my quieter moments, I know it's all soap bubbles. Gridiron games no longer make nor break my weekends. Going through a chronic illness and living to tell the tale puts things in perspective.

I do think Tennessee should wear orange and white uniforms at home. Maybe they can get away with wearing all orange once every 10 years. I did like that one-shot black and orange jersey on Halloween.

Ah, well. To quote Cole Porter, "But now, God knows, anything goes..."

And let's be honest: If UT ends this 11-season losing streak, few will care, nor remember, what they were wearing when they did it.

(But that still doesn't mean I have to like it.)

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Monday, September 19, 2016

On Spenser and September and going home

Had my first extended post-illness outing Friday night. Fun, fun, fun, down at the old school.

I'll post the link when the column hits the street, but the short version is I made it to Halls High for the official kickoff of the school's centennial. Old friends, teachers, classmates, people I hadn't seen since before I got sick, some for 20 years or more, were there. Heady stuff for a Halls guy.

Sis and I even got photographed together on the football field. How about that! 

I only had about a three-hour tour in me (not bad, considering where I've been), so I left as it began to rain. Robert Rogers and I met for Mexican. He'd just gotten back from England with his wife. They'd hiked along Hadrian's Wall, and I wanted to hear about it. The pictures were something.

He said the country folks were friendly. Isn't that usually the way of it? And he said the food was fabulous, and the portions were plenty.

I told Robert he'd subliminally inspired me to binge watch British detective shows. I've always had a soft spot for BBC and ITV mysteries, especially "Inspector Morse." So I watched five or six of them while they were gone.

"Morse," if you know the show, sent me seeking English poets. Spenser, for starters. I kept trying to recall a couple of lines that seem to fit this September. Finally found them.

My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss.
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone...

Forget leaves, lines, and rhymes, and sure as heck forget trying to please. The moon's a harsh mistress, and the sky is made of stone. Jimmy Webb taught me that a long time ago. So, I'll just keep on being me. It's the easiest role to play, you see. 

But the nightmare is ending, bliss is in the blessings, and I'm more or less content. My soul no longer wants for much. It got plenty of feeding Friday night and again Saturday at a small gathering. I saw several high school folks and friends there, too.

I had some laughs and enjoyed the chatter and made it about three hours or so there as well. Then I headed home to crash.

Per Robert's suggestion, I watched part of Andrew Marr's "Making of Modern Britain" documentary. It proved to be just the right amount of mental floss to remove the UT/Ohio game from my mind. Then I couldn't sleep, as usual, so I watched another "Morse."

Sunday was stormy, overcast, cool. So I stayed on the couch most of the day. Lo and behold, Dick Powell, a longtime favorite, and "Murder, My Sweet" aired on Turner Classic Movies about 6. I hadn't gotten to watch my favorite channel in more than two years. Monochrome film noir, uncut and commercial free? Magic medicine.

I wonder if students still read poetry? I stumbled across an article that says wonderful words and rhyme are on YouTube, of all places.

Ah, well. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Yeah, yeah, I know that's Herrick, not Spenser, but I have a migraine headache. And I have a little hope that the language will survive after all.

How could I not? What's that old country song say?

"At least I had the weekend..."

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Super Sarah and Marvelous Marvin

The lake house is the kind for which a writer wishes.

You can find it at the end of a lane on a stretch of land in neighboring Union County. The screened-in back deck boasts views of birds and hues of yellow and orange and blue and green. Not to mention a landscape of a quiet cove in Norris Lake. Upstairs is a den designed to give a lifetime's worth of books a permanent place.

But the place isn't the point. The story is inside, where, as a sign reminds you as you enter, a fisherman lives with the biggest catch of his life.

Seventeen autumns or so ago, Marvin West called the Shopper asking the whereabouts of the column on Tennessee athletics that Jimmy Hyams then wrote for the paper. It happened to be one of the rare times I answered the phone. These moments remind you that not much, if anything, happens by chance.

I recited Marvin's lede from the day UT finally beat the Bear Bryant-coached losing streak to Bama. He told me he'd be in touch about a book he'd just written filled with Tennessee tales.

And a two-minute conversation led to a mountain of memories.

Marvin and I have gotten together every Opening Day, or somewhere near that actual beginning of the new year, for at least 16 seasons. We pretend we're there to watch baseball, but we both know better.

He tells me stories about Scripps-Howard, about the glory days of sports writing, about Gen. Neyland, about Mr. West going to Washington, about that World Series earthquake in California when he thought he might collapse along with Candlestick Park.  I learn something new every time.

I lately learned he sang bass in a gospel quartet. I also learned that's how he met wife Sarah, who he's always told me is "the real story" in the West's world.

Among my souvenirs are stories that I, too, can now tell.

One night I gave sudden birth to one of my 18 kidney stones while writhing around on their floor. Marvin got me upright, Sarah followed in the sports car, and Mom met us at Beaver Dam church.

Another night, I slipped off to sleep during the game and ended up leaving a tip of four bits that fell out of my pocket. What a pitiful payback.

Then there was the time I mistook a hummingbird's buzz for a wasp's warning, but we won't get into that.

One night we discovered my stepdad had played on Marvin's famous Little League baseball team that won 80-some games in a row. Walt Disney wasn't dumb. The world, you see, really is small after all. 

Mostly, I listen. And eat.

We watched the final game at old Yankee Stadium together a few years ago. That was an added bonus of Sarah's September -- the annual month-long celebration of her birthday. Thirty days is too few for what she deserves.

I like the tale about the time Sarah darn near brokered peace between North and South Korea. She's that kind of kind soul.

Marvin helped teach me how to write better. He'd call when I'd hit something close to a home run. He'd call when he thought I needed to adjust my swing.

He and Sarah were there when my universe collapsed. They were there when I got better.

I always feel inadequate when I write about them. Somehow I've managed to be blessed on this journey called life with friends that make Fort Knox look like "F Troop." In other words, the riches can't be monetarily counted.  Not a chance. No way.

All I know is I'm sure glad I answered the phone that afternoon. The memories are magic, the stories are super, and the friendship is forever. 

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

A kind of September...

Fifteen years ago, I was getting ready for work. Ten days before, I had finally made it to Manhattan.

My first trip to New York City, on Sept. 1, 2001, was magic. Perfect weather. Perfect day.

Well, almost perfect. The good news is I got to meet my hero Thomas Magnum, aka actor Tom Selleck, who was appearing that season in a revival of Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns." The bad news is I was starstruck and speechless.

Anyway, Drew Weaver, Scott Frith, and I were there that Labor Day weekend. We took a train into Grand Central Station from Connecticut. Everything I'd wanted to do, dreams derived from the pages of The New Yorker, halfway pretending I was going to be a guest on "What's My Line," for that spectacular Saturday, I got to pretend.

Ten days later, everything changed.

Pieces remembered: My late grandfather knocking on the bathroom door to tell me a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers (this was at 8:46 a.m.). Getting downstairs just as the second plane hit. Turning on NPR on the way to work, listening to Bob Edwards try to explain the chaos. Getting a phone call from Doug from the Rotary Club. Watching the news at work on a portable black-and-white television set. Wishing I were with my family.

That night, I thought the thing to do was go watch television coverage with my mother.  Even though I was in my 20s, a college graduate, and gainfully employed, I knew I was no longer El Gallo's tender and callow fellow, to quote the song from "The Fantasticks." 

I eventually learned I knew a family who lost their brother that day. They planted a tree for Tony Karnes at Gibbs High School later that year.

Visiting Ground Zero with Drew the following February was sobering to say the least. We went downtown, and nobody, and I mean nobody, was saying a word.

We looked at the handmade memorials. One quoted Jack Kerouac. Another one needed no poetic prose: "Osama: Kiss my ass."

I thought everything would change. I thought the partisanship that had marred much of the 1990s and the 2000 presidential election was gone. The civilized parts of the world were united.

Well, you know how that turned out.

I have to tell myself that goodness can arise from the aftermath of atrocities, but post-9/11, it was difficult to see how.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said it as well as anyone on a PBS documentary a few years after the attacks. 

 "9/11, how can you possibly use it for a good purpose? Look, what this reminds you of is the importance of your own life, and making the most of it, because you can lose it in a flash. And if that's all you learned from 9/11, if that's all you remembered, that, my god, that you could extinguish life so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and it could happen to me, and therefore I should think harder about the way I spend my life instead of wasting it...

"Now, it's not going to teach you what to do with your life, but it will teach you to do with your life, and to do it more and quicker and better."

Fifteen years, after all, went slip sliding away, and much of the nation, indeed much of the world, is starving for stability, and sanity, for people doing more, quicker and better.

Never forget the first responders. Never forget the fallen. Never forget the day. Never forget Cuomo's words.

Never forget.

But try too, if you can, to remember El Gallo's kind of September, when no one wept except the willow.

Otherwise, these bastards have won.

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

My 'Star Trek'

I don't recall my first voyage with the crew of the Enterprise. But, I can tell you it makes me think of my grandfather.

My best guess is I first saw "Star Trek," Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train" to the stars as it was once called, on the old WKCH-43 when it was an independent station. This was back in the days, for any kiddos out there, when we only got four channels -- five on a clear day.

But I vividly remember my grandfather bringing home a rented copy of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" when my uncle Jeff bought his first VCR. Mom told me later that "Star Trek" was one of two TV series that Papaw wouldn't let anyone interrupt. (The other was "Gunsmoke.")

As I got older, I began to watch the original series in syndication, captivated by the adventure, intrigued by space (a passion that endures), and drawn to the one thing that to me makes "Star Trek" stand out from its other incarnations and competitors -- the palpable chemistry between Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Theirs felt like a real friendship. They felt -- and feel -- like real people.

My best buddy Matthew Shelton introduced me to "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when we were of middle school age. And we saw every film from "Star Trek V" forward in the theater together. (I'm not getting into J.J. Abrams tonight.)

I liked "TNG," especially the character Data, but eventually stopped watching the series. My grandfather and I watched the premiere of "Deep Space Nine," and liked it well enough, but neither of us stuck with it. (I'm trying, however slowly, to remedy that via Netflix.) "Voyager" did nothing for me (well, other than Jeri Ryan), and I tried my best to like "Enterprise" -- 'cause of its premise and 'cause I liked Scott Bakula in "Quantum Leap" -- but I couldn't get into it, either.

No, there was something special about that original series. I'm not going to get into the "which show is better" debate. That's subjective. But this is my trek, after all.

Going back more than a quarter century ago, I bought a few episodes on VHS, devoured several of the Pocket Books novels, even bought an Enterprise technical manual.

When I got old enough to "get" it, I finally discovered that I was captivated not only by the characters, but by Roddenberry's vision of the future -- a hopeful one, an exciting one.

I took a long break from the franchise for whatever reason until Shelton started buying the movies on DVD. We laughed our way through "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (I still can't believe Robert Wise directed that train wreck), and seemed to enjoy the even-numbered films best. A local station began airing remastered episodes in 2008 or so, and I started watching it again. A few years later, I bought the Blu-ray set that contains your choice of watching the original episode as it aired or enhanced with technology not available in the mid-1960s. It's pretty cool. I also bought the animated series. It's OK.

Shelton and I even went on a whirlwind weekend trip to New York and back to see "Shatner's World" in 2012. I marveled that a man his age could stand up there and tell tales, and do it well, alone, for an hour and a half.

Today is the 50th anniversary of "Star Trek." In a little while, I'll watch  "The Man Trap" just as it aired on Thursday, Sept. 8, 1966, on NBC. If I can't fall asleep, I might watch another episode.

My friend Bill Householder is the biggest Trekkie I know. (He shared his thoughts today, too.) He and I are going to be blogging about the series in the coming weeks, discussing our favorite episodes, maybe even doing a "live chat" conversation, I don't know.

What I do know is that "Star Trek" endures. Its ethos, quite relevant in the mid-20th century, are still relevant today. Among many, many other things, its vision of cooperation, of human beings finally putting aside their differences to explore the universe is as fantastic a future as we can hope to create.

It seems bleak now, what with everyone divided over everything, NASA a shell of its former self, and few dreamers daring to dream.

But dream they will, and dream Gene Roddenberry did, and we're better off for it, entertained, enlightened, uplifted. Fifty years later, "Star Trek" and its legions of fans continue to boldly go...

Well, you know where...

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Islands in the States

Make it official. Mark it down.

This is the Year of the Dead Celebrity.

Granted, many of them lived long lives. You know the ones who didn't.

But when I got the news that Jack Riley, best known to those of a certain age as Elliot Carlin, he of the bad toupee and the bad temperament on "The Bob Newhart Show," had died, it got me to thinking.

For starters, it got me to thinking about Newhart's first series, the best one, set in Chicago, in which he plays a psychologist.

Part of the MTM stable, the show rode a wave of more urban, more adult, slightly (sometimes largely) more sophisticated television comedy into the new decade from what dominated '60s TV. I watched these shows as a kid, some during my teen years on Nick at Nite.

Maybe that's part of the reason why I seem stuck in the '70s.

Anyway, Newhart was a genius at being The Sane One. Everyone around him was nuts. And that look. That pause. That telephone talk.

Riley stole nearly any scene in which he appeared. He took a caricature and made it a classic character. (Characters. Remember those?)

Now that I can watch television for an hour or two, I usually turn to these shows. I watch via antenna again (I cut the cord while ill and ain't goin' back), or on DVDs I either already own or get from the library.

Riley's death also makes me think of something else. Rarely do we share common experiences as a country anymore. CBS's Saturday night lineup at one point was the following -- "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "Mary Tyler Moore," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." All popular, all top 30, "Must See TV" before another network, as they used to say, turned the phrase into a marketing tool.

One can argue the pluses and minuses of having 500 channels, streaming services, the Internet, etc. But one thing's for certain: we're cocooned, isolated, islands in the States.

The only time we all get together is for any kind of national tragedy. And, even then, we're watching different channels.  If we're watching at all.

Now back to our cocoons, already in progress...

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Mamaw, Carol, and me

Whenever I see Carol Burnett, I think of my late grandmother.

Two reasons.

One, I used to watch Carol's reruns and later shows at "Mamaw" Lydia Mabe's house whenever I was there on Saturday nights. Two, we're part of a Burnett family tree (Hi, Seth!), and my grandmother made a good argument for the fact that Carol might be part of it.

Seems like the story goes as such: A long, long time ago, several Burnett ancestors left East Tennessee for Texas. Carol Burnett (her real name) was born in Texas before going to California -- with her grandmother.

Yeah, it's a long shot, but it's nice to think about on rainy days and Mondays.

Moments I'll forever cherish are taking my grandmother to Burnett family reunions in Sharps Chapel. She grew up there until TVA sent everybody packing to create Norris Dam/Lake. My grandmother talked about it, on and off, for the rest of her life, but she must've not minded too much. She remained an FDR/Truman Democrat in a family filled with Eisenhower Republicans.

We talked about it during what became our last conversation. I went to visit her in the hospital in July 2013. She'd fallen at home. The doctors discovered terminal cancer, too. They weren't going to tell her. I don't guess anybody did.

But, when I got there, she was just like she'd been my whole life. Sure, she'd slowed down, but, goodness, she was almost 89. She told me stories from the '30s, from Sharps Chapel, and I left there thinking she'd live another few months to a year at least. That was a Monday.

She died the following Saturday.

Just before things got so rough I couldn't even read, I bought a cheap copy of one of Carol Burnett's memoirs, "This Time Together." I'm finally getting to read it.

And, I asked on Facebook if some kind person out there might have any of the uncut Time-Life "Carol Burnett Show" DVDs for me to borrow. (After two years of disability and being in heavy medical debt, I'm thankful, but broke, and am looking for laughs.)

Two super souls responded. Robin Tindell said she'd let me borrow her parents' DVDs. And a Good Samaritan sent me an Amazon gift card so I could buy the seven-disc "Lost Episodes" set. I'd really been wanting to see those, especially the first show from Sept. 11, 1967. But I didn't have the $99 to spare, nor the cheaper $40 discounted one in the Amazon marketplace.

So, don't let anybody tell you that kindness is dead or that social media isn't good for something. They know their kindness will be paid forward.

So, as I watch Harvey Korman lose it at Tim Conway's antics, or Burnett sing with Bing, or the footage that hasn't been seen since the original CBS broadcasts, I can't help but think of my grandmother and wish she were here to see it, too.

But, who knows? Maybe she's being entertained by Harvey Korman somewhere in the sweet by and by.

I'm so glad we had that time together, Mamaw...

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