Sunday, September 30, 2007

Good-bye to all that

Just after 4:30 this afternoon, when the last gasp of my childhood slipped quietly into the early autumn sun, Skip Caray said that a page has been turned.

But, for me anyway, it is time to find a new book.

Thirty years and a million memories later, TBS is no longer broadcasting its flagship program, Atlanta Braves baseball. The final episode was forgettable, a 3-0 loss to Houston, that will be remembered only as Craig Biggio's final game -- and as the end of an era.

I told J.M. Ramsey, who came over to toast one last drink to the Bravos, that I guess I've spent more time with Skip and his longtime broadcast partner Pete Van Wieren (and Ernie Johnson and Chip Caray and Joe Simpson and Don Sutton) than I have members of my own family. Think about it. Three hours a night, six months a year, for something like 20 years. Hard to believe.

But the memories linger.

The really awful years, losing 18 in a row. But Skip made turning in a must. It didn't matter that the Braves were awful. This was, after all, a family -- and families stick together when the going gets tough.

There were moments. Rick Camp. The first few games of '82. That 19 inning affair with the Mets on July 4-5 of '85. Murph. Chuck Tanner. Bob Horner's four dingers. (OK, forget about Chuck Tanner.)

But then, like a beautiful, insane dream, 1991 happened, worst-to-first, the "you've got to be kidding me" season for the ages. And they kept winning and winning and winning.

Smoltz. Glavine. Maddux. Crime Dog. The Lemmer. Sid's slide. Beating the Indians for the whole damn thing in '95. The Baby Braves of the new century.

I was a kid when it started and was well into my career when it stopped. Through it all, Skip made you laugh and Pete wowed you with his brain. Joe and Don were pretty cool, too. And we'll never forget dear, sweet Ernie.

TBS hasn't been the same for many moons. Dean Harned would tell you the beginning of the end came with the takeover by Time Warner, when his beloved WCW wrestling was canned in 2001.

This is true; but there was more. "Andy Griffith" reruns, redneck movies like "Walking Tall" and, yes, professional wrestling all disappeared, gone with the wind you might say. Corporate blandness took over, indicative of the politically correct effort in this country to eradicate regionalism, destroy anything that makes a people unique, proud of where they're from. What's amazing, looking back on it, is that the Braves survived as long as they did.

So now it's over. I feel like I've lost a best friend.

Oh, the Braves will continue, on Fox and other regional telecasts. Simpson has survived the changes and at least Boog Sciambi has made us all forget about the horrible nightmare that was Bob Rathbun. Skip and Pete will hang out on radio and show up on a new regional channel, Peachtree TV, that we may or may not get here in Knoxville.

But this is it. The era is over; the old picture show has closed its doors.

Knowing this would soon happen, I began weening myself off the Braves, like the addict kicking the habit. Satellite TV means I can watch my other team, the Detroit Tigers, nearly every night anyway. The Internet means I can listen to Skip and Pete if and when I choose.

It is a death in the family, but two decades of sweet, sweet memories will never die. I could write a million words and never tell these guys, and this team, how much they have meant to one little baseball fan in one little corner of the world.

So good-bye to all that. Go to hell, TBS. Make yourself over to look like the other, undistinguishable, 500 other channels on the dial. Your ratings won't be that good and you'll never know the loyalty, or the love, we gave Ted Turner's station -- and this baseball team.

But as the sun sets on a sad moment, here's to you Skip, Pete, Ernie, Joe, Don, Chip, Glen and the crew. It may seem trite to say it, but this journey called life won't be near as much fun without you.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

A letter to 'Ernie'

Dear Ernie,

Why'd you have to go and shoot yourself, all those many moons ago? You were such a talent and would have made a hell of an old man.

I remember trying to read you as a kid, gazing at the novel, impressed by the words, but unable to understand it. Then came college English and the story of the dying writer in Africa. God, how wonderful that was, and is.

A year later, I took your story about the Fiesta in Pamplona to the lake over Memorial Day weekend. I sat on the deck, enthralled, ignoring the bluegill, barely moving until it was finished.

Then came the beaches of Florida, which put me in mind of your beloved Key West, and thus meant a trip also to the local book shop, to find your beautiful story of the first World War. I think I fell a little in love with Catherine myself that spring, not to mention in love, too, with language, writing, the craft of it as a vocation.

A year or so ago, I somehow gathered the gumption to revisit the Pamplona story. For years I had feared this, afraid a re-reading would spoil that first, virginal experience. It did not.

Somewhere along the way I found your short stories, Ernie, and am convinced that is where your true talent lay. Nick Adams, up in Michigan, is the finest of American letters. Let anyone say with a straight face there's something better and I'll punch them senseless out in the street, all in your honor, of course.

My favorite is "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." How fine that is, Ernie. How simply, wonderfully fine. A better understanding of the human condition, of what makes a man hurt inside, does not exist.

There are others. Francis Macomber. The hills like white elephants. Even Harry Morgan and his rum running is good, in its way.

Reading your biographer James Mellow's words this morning makes me yearn to point the Xterra southward, toward Miami and beyond, not stopping until I reach the corner of Greene and Duval. You know where I mean.

Or jaunt off to Pamplona in July. Do I dare run with the bulls? I know I could lose myself in the cafes and at the bullfights, hoping that my own Lady Brett Ashley awaits me there.

One last book awaits, my own personal Kilimanjaro, a journey I've yet to endure. It's the Spanish war book, Ernie, and I don't know why I've yet to read it. I have this crazy theory -- you would, no doubt, call me a fool over it -- that one reads books when one is supposed to, that the words and the moment meet for a strange and wonderful rendezvous in the mists of your mind, right at the perfect time for you both.

I don't know. It will happen soon, Ernie. It has to happen soon.

I think often about those last days in Ketchum, when the Black Dog had become a vulture, (or maybe more appropriately a hyena), attached to your bones in its horrific way. And when it all became too much, when you'd at last lost the final battle with the life you lived so well, did you meet the end with the grace of your characters? Or was that, too, just a lie?

Whatever the case, Ernie, you'll always be the writer of that lost generation. Scotty, Pound, Dos, Gertrude, Sherwood -- none of them can touch you now. You belong, like Lincoln, to the ages, forever tangled between the man and the myth.

Only your words remain, the best, last legacy of any writer's life.

Sincerely from a big fan,


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Friday, September 28, 2007


A little fiction...

He took the book and sat near the fire in the fading twilight. He liked to read Hemingway up here, the way his words flowed, tearing into your consciousness with the force of the Ocoee waters. It was soothing and it was religious and it cleared away the cobwebs of his soul.

Paris in the twenties, Pamplona during the fiesta, it all was so foreign and yet so familiar, as if he were returning to something he'd lost somewhere along the way. Papa's words about Hadley put him in mind of something else, though. Something close, and very real.

After awhile, he put the book down, and took a drink. He sat there awhile, smoking, and watched the light from the big moon ripple across the water.

He remembered how her face looked at twilight, how the disappearing red hues contrasted with the brown oceans of her eyes, and that way she had of looking at you that replaced the memory of a thousand sunsets. The image engulfed him, the waves crashing into the sands of his soul. He tried to make it stop but it wouldn't let him be.

He thought about disappointments, how sometimes the very thing he feared came true, when he was weak and couldn't fight it away. Vulnerable. Tired.

It was part of life, they told him. She isn't worth it. Grace under pressure, and all that stuff Papa wrote about.

And he wanted to believe them, said they were right, but knew he'd carry the memory of that awful night with him for a hundred other full moons and beyond.

He worked at it until the pain eased. Sleep came easily, but he was up before first light, frying bacon, gathering the bait, cleaning his knife.

Her ghost sat there with him, watching, waiting, refusing to leave until the sun found its way into the morning sky.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bionic redux

Well, this has been a week for pleasant surprises.

Last night I TiVOed NBC's brand spanking new version of "The Bionic Woman." And, I gotta tell ya, I wasn't expecting much.

The original "Bionic Woman" (and more importantly its predecessor "The Six Million Dollar Man") are two of my all-time favorite network shows. It is a true travesty that both those fine programs have yet to make it to DVD in the United States.

But, out of curiosity, I figured I'd give the new show a chance. I'm glad I did.

2007's version of Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is a spunky, attractive bartender, and something of a dropout. Jaime is taking care of her wayward younger sister Becca (Lucy Hale). She's also learned she's pregnant by her boyfriend, professor Will Anthros (Chris Bowers).

But as they drive back from dinner, Jaime and Will are victims of a terrible car accident, one that, we later learn, isn't what it seems. In order to save Jaime's life, Will takes her to a secret research facility where, yep, bionic technology -- invented by Will's father -- is used to replace her damaged organs.

Thus the adventure begins...

The new "Bionic Woman" lacks the campy charm of the '70s bionic shows. (I kept waiting to hear that famous springing noise when Jaime's bionics kick to high gear -- and was disappointed).

But the show has been successfully modernized and is quite engaging. The 43 minutes flashed by nearly as fast as the newly bionic Jaime can run.

So, it will never fill the special place in my heart that belongs to Lindsay Wagner's and Lee Majors's bionic adventures, but the new "Bionic Woman" is pretty darn good. I hope the adventure is allowed to play out. I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

I also hope that a successful redux "Bionic Woman" will get the original shows out on DVD. Come on, guys. This is a no-brainer.

"The Bionic Woman" airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. (Eastern) on NBC. Full episodes can be viewed at

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Resurrecting the western (and having fun doing it)


Nick and I ducked into the Downtown Grill just after 6 tonight. They'd moved the host table to the right side of the entrance. But we found it.

The server sat us upstairs. Nick could see three TVs. Still, nothing was on, he said.

All I got was the bar, Fox News on one TV and a view of a woman sitting across the way.

I got the better end of the deal.

Nick ordered a Coke and chicken fingers. I asked for a Blonde and a barbecue pizza.

But we weren't here to eat. Not really. We were going to the movies.

Regal Entertainment has built a big, nice, spiffy looking theater right smack dab in the middle of downtown. I didn't see a speck of dust anywhere. Even the bathrooms are top notch. I thought the automatic blow dryers were going to rip my skin right off my hands.

The film was "3:10 to Yuma," James Mangold's brilliant, mighty fine update of Delmer Daves' 1957 western classic. I said "finally" at the beginning of this blog because this -- finally -- is the movie I had convinced myself that Hollywood couldn't make anymore.

Oh, what a picture it is.

"Yuma" is the story of an outlaw, a likable, downright enigmatic outlaw, named Ben Wade. Played to perfection by the venerable Russell Crowe, you love Wade and hate him too -- sometimes all at the same time.

Wade is captured and sent to the town of Contention, where he has an appointment with the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is the poor farmer who signs on (the reason isn't as obvious as you might think) to help bring Wade to justice.

How cheap that synopsis sounds, though, because "3:10 to Yuma" isn't anywhere near a standard western. Oh, no. It throws all those cliches you've grown to know and love (or hate) on their ear. It's peppered with religious symbolism, ambiguous human motivation, drama, quiet reflection and a whole lot of other things.

At its heart, "Yuma" is Dan Evans's story. Evans essentially agrees to transport Wade to get the $200 reward the railroad offers him. His farm is drying up from a drought. A local magnate wants his land for the coming railroad. Evans has a wife, two sons -- one with TB -- and, as he says, is "tired of seeing my boys go hungry."

But, like a lot of foolish things people do, his motivation isn't so crystal clear. Evans sets off for Contention for deeper, darker reasons.

He's limping from one leg, lost in the war. But he's no hero. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) doesn't respect him. Neither -- maybe -- does his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol).

No, friends, what Evans is really after is redemption, the desire to have his son look at him with pride, the chance, finally, to hold his head up.

It's Crowe, though, who has the real tour de force in this film. His Ben Wade is the most likable villain since, well, Glenn Ford's take on Ben Wade 50 years ago. Oh, he has fun. And, oh, is it indeed a joy to watch him act.

Bale, given a difficult, brooding part to play, is quite good too. So is young Lerman, who should have a long career ahead of him.

I ducked into the Riviera not believing this cast and crew could make me forget about the original "3:10 to Yuma." But guess what, y'all?

They did. Not only that, they've given me hope that both the western, and the thoughtful Hollywood movie, may not be dead after all.

"3:10 to Yuma" is now playing at theaters everywhere. It is rated R for violence, language, adult situations and gore.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I long to see you...

Heard a song getting ready for work this morning that took me to the beginning of my long love affair with American folk/roots music.

Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you/Away you rolling river...

I was back in music class at Brickey Elementary School, that beautiful old brick building that no longer stands. I can still see me sitting there on the bleachers, wearing an alligator shirt and singing to my little heart's content, full of naive wonder about the world.

Away, I'm bound away/Across the wide Missouri...

Wikipedia says that "Shenandoah" originated in the early 19th century as a river chantey. The song spread up and down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and eventually became a haunting installment in the American songbook.

The meaning is disputed. Obviously a tale about a wanderer's love for an Indian girl, arguments have arisen over whether Shenandoah is an Indian chief or the famous Virginia river. Apparently the doubt was enough to keep the song from becoming a Virginia state song a few years ago.

The version I heard this morning was from an old late 60s/early 70s Glen Campbell album. His cover is full of lush strings and a choir; it is a wistful treatment that fits the moment. One can almost feel the longing.

Away, I know I'll go/Across the wide Missouri...

The song has made its way into our popular culture. Bob Dylan recorded the song on one of his albums. Richard Nixon, who apparently loved the song, left instructions for it to be played at his funeral. Filmmaker Oliver Stone used the song to close his 1995 biopic on the 37th president.

Good stuff.

Sad song of the week: Found a new sad song that I'm climbing the walls over.

A few weeks ago, I read News Sentinel columnist Wayne Bledsoe's interview with The Everybodyfields, the Alt-Country Johnson City duo Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews. I missed the group's appearance at the World Grotto because of illness, but their new album "Nothing is Okay" is a sight, er sound, to behold.

I'll write an elaborate review later, but you simply have to stop what you're doing and find a copy of this song "Savior." This may replace George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and RobinElla's "Teardrops" as my favorite sad song. Here, listen:

Love's not a savior/when you're messed up/when you're messed up, forever

You feel you're drowning in red hearts/Wrapped in red ribbons/And blue skies

Then somebody pulls the plug/It all goes down the drain/Don't we all change?

God, that should be illegal.

Anyway, I think I've found a new favorite. I'm going to catch these folks next time they are anywhere near East Tennessee.

Beautiful, simply, wonderfully, heartbreakingly beautiful.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

'The War'

There is a moment near the end of the first episode of "The War," Ken Burns' brilliant, haunting new documentary on World War II, that sears the soul.

A vet is recalling a moment on Guadalcanal. The fighting became all but guerilla warfare --- close, continuous, hand to hand. Days into the battle, his squad came to rest during the night at a lonely spot in the jungle.

Behind him, the marine heard a gunshot, then a gasp for breath. The wounded man began to moan. It continued deep into the night.

Weary, the marine thought, "Just go ahead and die already. We need the rest."

In the morning, he discovered that the wounded marine, who passed away shortly before dawn, was his best friend.

"You can't imagine," he said, "what it does to you thinking that you wished that your best friend would die."

And so it goes, human stories of this variety, for two and a half hours. "The War" is as stunning as it is honest. Burns chooses to tell the story in microcosm, using the citizens of four towns in California, Minnesota, Connecticut and Alabama. What Burns has created is a stunning indictment of the cruelty of war, but also a reminder of the heights to which human beings can rise.

Critics are yelping that Burns doesn't represent everybody; the holier-than-thou New York Times review all but accuses Burns of jingoism.

They miss the point. A television documentary is limited. It simply can't tell everyone's story. And Burns is a master of telling uniquely American tales --- baseball, the Civil War, jazz. He's not attempting to put forth an exhausting piece on all facets of the war, but rather America's four year chapter of this very bloody affair.

Thinking back to the marine's words, one can't help but be proud of that so-called Greatest Generation. They whipped the depression and, when the time came, they whipped fascism and militarism too.

At its heart, "The War" is a soldier's story. It isn't about MacArthur, Eisenhower, Monty or Patton.

It's about the guy in the jungle, haunted by a buddy's death.

What a story it is.

"The War" airs nightly this week on PBS.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sad songs, they say...

If you know me well, you also know this:

I love sad songs.

Armchair Freuds will say I'm depressed, attracted to the melancholy lyrics in search of a catharsis. I've had my struggles with the Black Dog, yes. But no, that's not it.

The truth of the matter is the darn things just feel so vividly alive, as if in the midst of all that romantic angst, actual feelings were felt, life was experienced, the senses totally engaged.

Incidentally, I think I responded so deeply, if a bit ambiguously, to Robert Altman's "Nashville," which I screened during my illness, for similar reasons. To quote critic Roger Ebert, "after I saw it, I felt more alive."

I got into a spirited debate with my friend and former Shopper contributor Amanda Mohney once about our divergent reactions to music. Amanda says she reacts to something with her head.

"You on the other hand," she said, "react with your heart."

For any Miles Davis fans out there, Amanda is a "Bitches Brew" kind of gal; I'm a "Kind of Blue" kind of guy.

The ugly little truth is that life is full of more disappointment than success, more pain than happiness, much more losing than winning. The songs I love most tend to reflect such honesty.

You know all about "Teardrops." I have nothing further to say about it. (RobinElla does have new song, "These Dreams of Mine," that's nearly as good. I hope it makes it on the next album.)

Take Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine." First time I heard that song, I played it 13 times in a row and still couldn't get enough.

That song is full of yearning, made worse by Redding's talent for singing heartache. God, it's beautiful. Anyone who has ever ached for another can relate.

Alison Krauss worked magic a few years ago on a country song, "Ghost in This House," to which I'd never previously given much attention. But in her hands, the tune becomes something more, an ethereal lament to a lost love, the singer forever bound by the chains of loss.

Elvis Presley's mid-70s gem "Loving Arms" contains one line that is forever stamped across my soul. It isn't so much the lyric; rather, it's the way Elvis sings it, full of longing, full of misery.

If you could hear me now, singing somewhere in the lonely night, dreaming of the arms that held me tight...

It's a moment, and it works.

Barry Manilow's "Mandy." Sinatra's treatment of Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." Johnny Mathis' "Yellow Roses on Her Gown."

But the granddaddy of them all, the sad song, is George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Without question, really. Nothing else comes close.

I can't even put that masterpiece into words. It's brilliant, it's suicidal, and it's the finest country recording ever made. My favorite line?

And it kept running through my mind/This time he's over her for good...

A loyal blog reader made the mistake of claiming I'm clinically depressed. No, no, no. Folks, those emotions in these tearjerkers are simply more real to me. They hurt more, the tear into your very essence, pluck at your heartstrings.

But the very best movies, the greatest books we've ever read, the prettiest art to pass before our eyes, and most certainly the prettiest songs we've ever heard all also break our hearts.

Would "Casablanca" be the classic it is if Ilsa stays behind with Rick? If Ingrid Bergman lets Paul Henried get on that plane alone, that movie dies at the box office in 1942-43 and is never seen again. As it is, it's often ranked as one of the best American films of all time.

Same with those blinking green lights that Jay Gatsby stared at across the water and the tragic beauty of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" (not to even mention Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).")

The darn things just make you feel something --- something tragic, yes, but something deeply honest.

Maybe words spouted once on an old television show say it best:

"I never knew until that moment how badly it hurt to lose something you never really had."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Smelling the roses

I've never been so glad to see the gold of the morning sun as I was today, on a calm drive into work.

I can't tell you that I feel like my old self. I'm afraid that guy may be gone for good. But I do feel better. I'm ready to get back in the game -- and stay there for good this time.

Was quite humbled by a note this morning from Brad Nelson, a Halls native serving overseas. Brad says my blog is the first one he's read and that he checks it when he's able.

Man, that's something else. I'm proud of Brad and all of his fellow soldiers. They put their lives on the line daily.

Brad, and several readers and friends, have been clamoring to know who the girl is I wrote about a couple of times last week.

Well, the honest answer is there's two of 'em. One is the story I talked about -- a girl I haven't seen in several years. It was a "ships that pass in the night" kind of thing, one of those great "What ifs?" that I seem to have a knack of getting myself into. I think of her often.

The other woman, who peppers in and out of my fiction and blogs from time to time (besides the so-called "reunion girl," who is actually a high school classmate I had a big crush on once) is a old and dear friend. I can't say much more for fear of embarrassment, but she is someone I really care about, someone I hope has a great life full of happiness, someone I miss a whole awful lot, someone I love very much.

(My favorite guess was from an older friend who thought I was talking about my favorite singer, RobinElla. While I love to hear her sing, and think she has such a charming personality, that's about it. Although I do fear I embarrassed myself while talking to her after a Barley's show a while back. I was heavily medicated because of my illness and all I can remember is her telling me a friend e-mailed her about my sickness and me blushing and grinning like a smitten schoolboy. Robin is mighty talented, folks. I do hope you'll take time to hear her beautiful music sometime. It lifts my spirits.)

Last night I finished reading Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Capote's classic "nonfiction novel," about the murder of a small-town Kansas farm family and the two men who did the deed, sings with a musical rhythm that is so obviously in love with the English language. Oh, to have that kind of talent.

Reading Capote's words made me thankful, so wonderfully, gloriously thankful, that I'm paid to get up each day and toil with the written word. I could sit here in my office the rest of my life, telling stories of this life's real heroes, and my fondest dreams will have come true a million times.

So this morning, just before making my way into the office, I stopped a moment, opened my lungs and breathed in a big dose of this beautiful world in which we live. It was just what the doctor ordered, much better than all those pills put together.

For you see, I hadn't stopped to smell the proverbial roses in a long, long time. I'm glad I did though.

It made me realize what a wonderful life this is after all.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The poem

Some good news and not so good news tonight.

Good news is I don't have kidney stones after all. Bad news is, it's diverticulitis. That's an old person's disease (go figure) involving the colon. I'll spare you the details, but basically I have to watch my diet and take it easy. Doc says after a week or so of antibiotics, I should be OK. Worst case is a scary scenario, but it's unlikely to happen if I take care of myself.

Been thinking about a lot of things tonight. I guess I'll keep most of them to myself. It's a little too personal even for me, the ubiquitous open book, to share.

So instead I'll share with you a poem a friend sent me. This is one of the best things I've read in a long time and, despite the sexist language, comes as close to capturing some of my personal ideals and philosophy as anything could.

Have a safe and wonderful Friday night. I love you all.


Pray don't find fault with the man who limps or stumbles along the road,
Unless you have worn the shoes he wears
or struggled beneath his load.

There may be tacks in his shoes that hurt,
though hidden from view;
Or the burden he bears placed on your back
might cause you to stumble too.

Don't sneer at the man who's down today,
unless you have felt the blow
That caused his fall, or felt the shame that
only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows that
were his, if dealt to you
In the self-same way at the very same time
might cause you to stagger too.

Don't be too harsh with the man who sins
or pelt him with words or stones,
Unless you are sure, yes, doubly sure that
you have no sins of your own.

--- Anonymous

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The girl

Hi there. Me again.

Mind if I pull up a chair a minute? I can't sleep. Big doctor's appointment in the morning. I'm dreading it.

I don't like carrying on about myself. Not really. But I just feel so darn awful.

I can't explain the pain if you've never had a stone. And I so hope you never have. Wouldn't wish this on ya for anything. If you have had one, you know then. We'll wink at each other, nod silently, share the secret handshake.

Wanna hear a little secret? Part of the reason why this is so difficult is because she's not here to help me through this. No use asking. I'm not going to tell you who. Suffice to say, she isn't here.

So I curl up in the orange and white blanket my mother made for me, watch movies and listen to my music. I search for meaning in a Robert Altman film that doesn't make much sense, drown my soul for the hundredth time in RobinElla's sweet heartbreak song, lose myself in the prose of my heroes Hemingway and Faulkner. Anything to forget the pain.

Mostly, I sleep.

Isn't it funny, the barriers we erect? So afraid to mean what we say and say what we mean that we end up going through life, to borrow another's phrase, in a state of quiet desperation, knowing what we need but not knowing just how to get it, or sometimes even why we need it.

There was this girl one time. No, not the one you think. I didn't go to high school with this one.

She was almost the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in my life. (There's an exception, but I'm not going to tell you who.) Anyway, she was smart, full of ambition, funny, independent, free-thinking --- all the things you could ask for.

Last time I saw her, it was turning colder, the leaves had changed, the sky painted dark and gray. She and her sister and another fella were eating yogurt at a chain dessert place down west. I didn't even know she was in the room until she walked up. I noticed her eyes first, then watched my heart, as if I were a witness detached from the scene, as it leaped into my throat.

It was impossible, I knew that. And yet, the heart doesn't know such boundaries. It doesn't lie in fear or worry about getting rejected or broken. Our minds do all that.

No, the heart just loves. Like wild horses, the heart roams fast and free, and can not be contained. Often times reason or sense or propriety have little to do with it.

Anyway. I've thought about that girl at least once a day for three years.

And you know something? Whatever it is I feel for her in my heart hurts me more now than these kidney stones ever could.

Now tell me. Where's the justice in that?

I gotta get some sleep. Here's a quarter. Put it in the jukebox over in the corner and play something sad. "Teardrops," maybe? Turn it up really loud.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The legend

What a sweet, wonderful victory was last night's makeup game with the Toronto Blue Jays. Left for dead, the Detroit Tigers rose Lazarus-like from the grave. And who was the savior this time?

Who else, but Maggs.

I don't know if this team will make the playoffs. It doesn't look likely. But what joy they've given us this year amid all of the injuries, all the disappointments.

A-Rod will win the MVP. We know how things go in the American League as far as those bastards are concerned. But every Tigers fan knows how much that long-haired right fielder has meant to this team.

There is a symmetry to baseball. The season begins, the days turn into months, then it ends. It appears in the spring, the world anew, and slips silently away into the chill of the fall.

I'll miss it when it's gone. The game has kept me company during this most difficult year. Kidney stones and palpable pain have dotted this season for me just as much as fly balls and home runs.

Last night, the Tigers secured for me a joy that the Bengals and Ravens couldn't have conjured up in a million years. When Maggs hit the walkoff, 2 RBI double, I was 7 years old again, oblivious to the harsh realities of the world. All that mattered were those two runs reaching the safety of home plate.

That joy, the ability to instantly transport one back to the innocent bliss of childhood, is why this is the greatest game of them all.

Baseball represents the best about this country, the small town, friendly neighbors, five and dime store, "aw shucks" America that Ronald Reagan insisted for eight glorious, illusionary years still existed somewhere in the amber waves of grain. Football is closer to what this country actually is -- big, expansive, violent, knock the other guy on his ass before he does the same to you.

The fact that football has replaced baseball as our national pastime should tell you quite a lot.

For me, I'll take the illusion, the black-and-white comfort of three strikes, three outs, three times three innings and that's all she wrote. I'll keep believing in my heart that Reagan's America really is out there somewhere, even if my head insists that it isn't.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, or so somebody once said. And, boy, do we ever need that legend now.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

The gridiron disease

There is something downright spiritual about football that doesn't exist in other sports.

It isn't ethereal. That lofty aim belongs to baseball, my first and longest-lasting love. But it's different somehow, special, tough --- and a whole lot of fun.

Thought I'd had enough last night. Somewhere amid that wonderful, crazy air attack that was the Dallas/New York Giants game, I turned the TV off, took a painkiller and went to bed. Headache. Kidney ache. Kind of depressed anyway.

Started out the day at the Meadowlands. Wanted to root for former Halls guy Chad Pennington, that big blonde-headed dude who reminds me so much of his mother, and the New York Jets. Chad's boys suited up against those hated Patriots of New England.

New York fans, if this is possible, achieved a new low, though. They booed my boy as he hobbled, injured, off the field. I used to think Philadelphia fans exhibited the worst sportsmanship in sport. Nope.

I'm not just saying this 'cause I knew Chad when he was just Andrea Pennington's older brother. You should be ashamed of yourself, Jets fans. Mighty ashamed. But, then again, that would require having character and it's obvious you don't have any.

After that amazing, infuriating Tom Brady put that game away, I flipped over to our nation's capital, where the Redskins and Dolphins locked horns in one exciting battle. This one came down to an overtime field goal. Exciting. Nervous. Lots of fun. Joe Gibbs (God, is he still around?) shaking hands. Smiles amid the sea of red and gold.

J.M. kept wanting to check on the Atlanta Falcons. The greatness that isn't Joey Harrington lived up to his reputation. That guy sucks. Pretty much all you can say.

I sure don't miss Vick. He's getting his, and then some. But I bet the Falcons wish he'd never heard of dogfighting. It's going to be a long season in Fulton County.

In the afternoon, the underdog in me rooted for the hapless Detroit Lions, as they braved the insanity that is playing the Oakland Raiders on the road. QB Jon Kitna and the most talented wide receivers in the league put on quite a show.

The defense, and a couple of turnovers, blew a 17-0 lead. But the Lions showed guts. The took advantage of a couple of Raider miscues and won comfortably.

Detroit hasn't won a championship since 1957. They won't win one this year. But maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of better times on the Motown gridiron.

Tonight I'm going to hobble in front of the TV, curl up in my Big Orange blanket, forget about the kidneys and watch two (count 'em) Monday night games. Don't really care about any of the teams, so this will just be for love of the game.

Here in the South, where we manage to turn everything into an allegory, football means everything from how a boy becomes a man to defining a way of life. I'm reading Buzz Bissinger's masterpiece, "Friday Night Lights," about high school football in Texas. It's the same out there.

Funny thing, though. Bissinger finds much to indict about our football-obsessed culture. How the athletes can't seem to make it away from those bright stadium lights. How nothing, especially not academics, matters as much as the big show on Friday nights. At least until high school is over and you have to figure out how to survive. Often that means sweating in the hot Odessa sun, breaking your back in the oil fields.

And yet, Buzz finds much to love about this culture, too; how Permian football defines a town, gives meaning to bleak lives, offers an escape for the talented few.

Here in Knox Vegas, I get tired of the constant chatter about the Big Orange. Flip on the radio here in April. Nobody's talking about the Braves and Yankees. No, talk centers on whether Erik Ainge is going to play in the spring game, what the defensive scheme will be against Florida's spread offense, and whether Fulmer deserves his contract extension. Yada, yada, yada.

It gets old. And yet, last Saturday night when I felt so bad I could barely walk, a friend picked me up and carted me over to his mom and dad's house so I could root, root, root for the home team against Southern Miss.

It's a disease, I guess. My daddy instilled a love for the game in my little torso beginning in 1984, when I sat in Section NN and ate my Cracker Jacks while the Vols beat Utah.

I don't know that it really means much in the grand scheme of things.

But there it is. Give me the gentleman coach in the suit and tie, three yards and a cloud of dust, a crushing defense and solid special teams. Like so much of the things I love, though, that era is gone with the wind, replaced by more exciting but less pure short-sleeved shirts and visors, spread offenses, pass on every down, go for it on fourth and 15.

I keep telling myself it's just a game. Then I see how others, including myself, react to it and wonder if that's even the truth.

Hell, I've got friends distraught over the misfortune of their fantasy teams. Maybe I'll just turn ESPN off tonight and pick up a book.

But what would that accomplish? The book would be "Friday Night Lights."

Whatever. I give up.

Are you ready for some football?

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The dream

What you learn, after awhile, is that life is a juggling act.

Duplicity abounds. For the romantic, it's often difficult to adjust to what you see in front of you versus what you feel in your heart.

The cynic has it easier. Nothing is good; everyone's a jerk or a cheater or a crook.

I'm learning to accept the disappointments. Tomorrow I'll look into the eyes of a sweet little 2-year-old boy and fight the sadness that comes with the realization that I don't have a child of my own.

Tomorrow, the memory will catch up with me again, and I'll acknowledge that it isn't like I once thought. I'll shrug. I've been here before. Then I'll wonder just how much more of this I can take.

Tonight, just before drifting off to dream, I'll see her pretty smile. I'll wonder again if crazy dreams ever really come true, and hope for the thousandth time that it will.

Somewhere around 3 a.m., I'll awaken, and wish that old flame could still burn, bright as a bond fire, just once more. And as fast as it rises in my throat, the feeling will disappear, lying dormant again, just out of reach.

Just before slumber overtakes me I'll pray again that the pain leaves my kidneys forever. And hope that, with it too goes the other kind of pain, the one that hurts worse.

I want the smartass comments, and the pettiness, and the unrealistic expectations to disappear too.

I'm tired. I just want to sleep.

But in the morning Connor will knock on my bedroom door and I'll remember why I still keep the old, good dreams alive. Somewhere in the afternoon, I'll hear a sentimental tune, and in the bliss of the moment believe I can touch the sky.

This, too, shall pass. It always does. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Or so they say.

Sometimes, when it all gets to be too much, I shut my eyes, pretend she's here, or just make believe that the crazy dream will come true, and the years of waiting, and all the awkward moments and the broken promises and the lies and the heartache, will have been worth it, just to see her face.

One day I'll awaken and this time it won't be a dream. It will be her beside me and not some beautiful apparition brought about by the slumbering mind that disappears with the first streaks of light upon the horizon. I'll hold her hand and kiss her gently. She'll smile her smile and let me gaze into her eyes awhile, saying not a word.

I can't lose the sentiment. No matter how things go, how severe the pain or how far the pieces of my heart are scattered, I can't let it go.

The potter's clay rests in her eyes; the mending in the touch of her hand.

Tonight will be but a fading wisp of smoke, extinguished from the cigarette of a nightmare, forgotten amid the dawn of a new day.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Someday soon

First the spring, then the fall. I tell ya, this would be funny if it didn't hurt so damn bad.

Went to the hospital this morning for an ultrasound. Felt real optimistic.

Had something of a bad night last night. I didn't fall asleep until up near 5 a.m. Hurt too bad.

But by mid-morning I felt well enough to make lunch plans, and even thought for a few fleeting moments I might have passed the kidney stone. Note the singular use of the word.

The procedure didn't take long. Afterwards, I was treated to a fine lunch of fried shrimp at Chesapeake's downtown courtesy of the Giant Rat. It was a rare delight.

Went back to work determined to ignore the soreness and just get on with it. Then came the phone call.

Multiple kidney stones. Both kidneys. At least two stones too big to pass --- in each kidney. More surgery likely. Oh, and have a nice day.

So. There it is. No blockage, though. I'm in no immediate danger of losing my kidneys.

But the pain and the drugs and the malaise will continue until they're gone. I'm trying to be thankful it isn't a tumor.

I'm going to take a few days off from the blog. I need to concentrate on my day job as much as I can.

As is often the case during these illnesses, the blog becomes my catharsis, the one place I can compose my $1.98 stream-of-consciousness Faulknerian ripoff prose. So I'll most likely pop in from time to time.

Until then, be safe, life live, be true to yourself --- and turn that music way up loud!

I shall return someday soon.

This time we almost made the pieces fit, didn't we, girl?

Monday, September 03, 2007

'Lights' is one beautiful, perfect spiral touchdown

OK, here's the deal. The best show you're not watching was renewed for a second season by the skin of its teeth.

I can't say too much. I didn't watch it either. Gave up after the second or third episode, not because it wasn't good, but because I've been weary of getting hooked on a weekly episodic TV series since I left a ball game early years ago to watch the final episode of "Dallas."

But this is 2007 and that means TV shows, even bad ones, get released on DVD. When I saw they were selling Season One of this series for a whopping $19.99, it was a no brainer.

And let me tell you something, "Friday Night Lights" is one fine hour of television.

Don't be fooled. It's not about football.

Oh, it is in a superficial way, in that the centerpiece of the series is the Dillon (Texas) Panthers, the big stud AAAAA football school. We see game footage. We rise and fall with the team's fortunes. We learn a little about sweeps, dives and fakes.

But at it's core, "Friday Night Lights" is something else. It's about life, middle-class, Southern small town life, but life nevertheless. It's about growing up, and trying to survive those god-awful, wonderful teenage years.

If you live anywhere in middle America, in one of those smaller towns where football is king and nothing else much matters, you'll recognize this show as something you might have lived through. If you don't, stick around anyway. Otherwise, you'll miss some of the very best television you've seen in years.

What struck me first about "Lights" is it feels familiar. Puts me in mind of Big Red Football on long ago Friday nights. (Well, other than the fact that the Panthers are a much better team, save those magical years of '86 and '96.)

But the petty high school dramas, the small town hypocricy, the belief that everything is do or die when you're 16 --- yeah, I've been there before. Hell, I'm still there, if only (thank God) as an observer.

And what's cool is the show is somewhat idealistic, which suits my worldview just fine.

Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is the type of guy I hope to be. Not that I'm planning to become a football coach. That's not what I mean.

But he's decent, he's honest, tries to do the right thing and acts like a man in the best sense of what that word used to mean. He deals with the chaos around him --- unrealistic expectations, meddling boosters, even a lawsuit --- all while loving his wife and his daughter and juggling the impossible act of preparing teenagers to unite toward a common goal and maybe, just maybe, make something of themselves one day.

The show's young actors are quite superb. They feel like people you grew up with, kids who live down the street. The writing is consistently good. Amid the action on the gridiron, which believe it or not takes up precious little of the show's 42 minutes, the weekly adventures of the Dillon Panthers teach us a little about life and a lot about who we are as Americans, for better or worse.

Those lofty goals aside, it's also a darn entertaining series. I've nearly completed the first season in less than a week. I can't wait for the big season premiere Oct. 5 on NBC.

It's much better than the 2004 Peter Berg film of the same name. And the only reason I'm not prepared to say it's better than Buzz Bissinger's 1990 book is because Buzz is one hell of a good writer -- and he told a real whopper of a heartbreaking story.

But, I'm telling ya, you'll love this. Do yourself a favor and fork out an Andrew Jackson for the DVD. Heck, it even comes with a money back guarantee if you aren't hooked.

You will be, I promise. And the best part? You don't even have to love football to enjoy this fine little family drama.

And tune in or TiVO the show this fall. Network TV doesn't get it right much anymore.

This time, though, they've scored one beautiful, perfect spiral Hail Mary of a touchdown.

"Friday Night Lights Season One" is now available on DVD. The program airs Fridays on NBC.

Pure, simple, sincere joy

If, in the course of human events, all of my dreams turn to smoke and life falls completely apart, I can say that I once had a perfect night.

It was one of those moments when the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars. The words and the music --- yeah, it all came together. And the disappointments of a lifetime, the heartache and the lies and the unkept promises, none of that mattered.

I don't know much about anything. I don't understand why little boys have to die on their way to Friday night football. It blows my mind why anybody would ever try to break another's heart. I simply can't figure out why you love somebody with all your being and that just doesn't seem to be enough.

Call me naive; I don't care. If I don't wear my heart on my sleeve, I'm not being honest with you. And that's the worst sin I could commit.

Dean and Ally and I ducked into Barley's about quarter of 7 tonight. I didn't care about Boomsday. What have you gained by watching a ton of fireworks explode anytime other than our nation's birthday?

I'm not knocking it. If you love it, more power to ya.

Anyway. I ordered a Carolina Blonde and had to wait on it and my pizza. Dean and Ally had Southwest wraps. Jaci was supposed to be here, but she had to head home. I just hope she's safe.

Robin showed up about 7:30 and started singin' about 8:15. I promised myself I wouldn't request a song. I don't want to mess up an artist's set list. Didn't want to be some jackass.

But I couldn't help myself.

"Sing 'Teardrops,'" I yelled.

She did.

I held back the tears and fought the sadness that wrapped its way into my throat. It's been a rough week. I won't lie.

But somewhere in that song, buried amid that talented dude's wailing steel guitar, and Robin's beautiful voice, lies one hell of a powerful truth.

I can't explain it. It's like that with music, or movies, Hemingway's prose or a beautiful woman's eyes. The feelings just happen. It's magical. It's wonderful. It's real.

I think I know why. It's the vulnerable honesty that lies between the lyrics of a line like "Love me for all that I lack." That's a sincere pleading we all can understand, if we tell the truth to ourselves.

I don't want the night to end. But of course, like all the others, it does.

Seems like I'm only happy anymore when I'm writing. Or watching baseball. Or listening to Robin sing.

I just hope she knows how special her talent is. How thankful I am she's here to brighten up the lonely night.

I hope she knows that she once gave a fan something more precious than silver or gold.

She gave her talent. Her voice carried me high and far, fast and strong on that silver eagle, rolling through the night.

When she sings, it's all so simple. There is a God in heaven. Two plus two equals four. Nice guys finish first. Evil is punished.

And for once, for one beautiful shining moment, I feel nothing but pure, simple, sincere joy.

Thanks, Robin.

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