Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My heroes have sometimes been scribblers

OK, so often my heroes have indeed been cowboys.

Willie Nelson aside, though, they've often been scribes, too. And I fear they are an endangered species.

Oh, writers will always be around. Human beings have been swapping stories since the cave dwellers. But, I don't know. Ominous signs are everywhere.

Literacy has dropped dramatically among key age groups -- mainly middle aged men and those under 30. So have reading habits. But, let's face it. Our society as a whole doesn't value good reading or writing.

What? You doubt this? Well, let's think on it a minute.

Book editors (and reviewers) are disappearing from daily newspapers faster than subscribers. Heck, daily newspapers are disappearing. Magazine subscriptions have plummeted.

Look at television. By and large it has been a cultural wasteland for years. But, why do you think you've seen a preponderance of reality shows the last decade or so? They are cheap to make. Producers do not have to pay writers.

Jay Leno didn't just get a five-night-a-week primetime deal because he is popular. The network can save money reducing the number of expensive hour-long dramas.

All isn't bleak. "The West Wing," canceled in 2006, was literate and thoughtful. Pay TV boasts some fantastic shows (e.g. "Weeds" and "Dexter.")

This wasn't always the case. Literate programs were a staple of early television. "Playhouse 90" and "Climax," just to name two, produced live dramas, often either an adaptation from a novel or a well-written script (Rod Serling's "Patterns" is but one example.) And, speaking of Serling, even his "Twilight Zone" was one of the most engaging programs on television in the early 1960s.

Novelists like Herman Wouk and literary critics like Clifton Fadiman regularly appeared on the classic game show "What's My Line?" Hell, Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, was a regular panelist.

The New Yorker magazine still prints short stories. But, it's nothing like the old days, or so I hear. Under the leadership of Mr. Shawn, the magazine once devoted entire issues to literary works, most famously Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

Now, don't get me wrong. Most TV is harmless, if inane. My friend Dean Harned is fond of quoting Willy Wonka.

"A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men."

So it is. One of my favorite movies is "Smokey and the Bandit," certainly not an Oscar-winning screenplay. I once was all but addicted to "Dallas." Legendary Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes loved to read pot-boiler mysteries.

But, it says something about our culture that a recently-graduated high school student once boasted to me that he'd earned his diploma without ever popping open a book. It's worrisome that a remarkable amount of Americans can't even find the United States on a map. I told somebody the other day that I picked the one profession that doesn't pay and almost requires manic-depressive tendencies to execute.

Do yourself a favor. Even if you aren't a voracious reader, pick up a book in 2009. Subscribe to a magazine, even if it's a staple at the Wal-Mart checkout line. Put an HBO or Showtime show on your Netflix list. Visit the neighborhood bookstore or library. Buy a newspaper. (Or get the Shopper -- it's free!)

Trust me on this one -- reading is often much better than the movies or the boob tube. You can all but create the visual image of the characters in your mind -- and that is ALWAYS better than the Hollywood version.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Coloring outside the lines

Robert Fulghum wrote an amusing little ditty a few years ago that boasts "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

Hyperbole, to be sure, but a Brickey brat did learn such a lesson 25 years ago. The only problem is it was not the one the teacher intended.

Kindergarten for some is a moment of horror. Some cry. Some yell for mom. Others walk in, sit down, grab a crayon and get to work.

Nineteen eighty-three could have been a time of chaos. My parents were divorced that summer. I don't remember it.

I remember before, dad setting up my Chattanooga Choo-Choo on the kitchen table; looking down the hallway on Christmas Eve to see if I could spot Santa; driving my toy pickup truck around the living room while my parents watched "Dynasty."

And I remember afterward, opening the front door to see dad standing there just before he admonished me for not being careful in case a stranger was lurking on the porch; mom telling us that "lights out" would come early that fall because I was starting school; staying with Dad one night a week and every other weekend. One night we watched the last episode of "M*A*S*H." All I remember is Hawkeye kissing Margaret and her waving good-bye as she left the 4077th.

But kindergarten was no big deal. I walked past the office, clutching my knapsack (blue and white, with Snoopy and Woodstock on the front of it), made a right at the corner and strolled into the first classroom on the left.

My teacher was Sheena Beal -- tall, dark-headed, attractive. I made friends with a kid named Steven Smartt. I took naps. I played.

I remember the machine that cleaned the eraser. I remember my grandmother bringing homemade ice cream in the spring. I remember Mrs. Beal being astonished that I could read.

And I remember the day that Kristy McMurry talked me into coloring outside the lines. I smiled and went to town in our coloring books. We giggled. And I soon learned that falling victim to a woman's charms will get you into trouble every time. (Well, I say I learned -- I keep repeating that mistake again and again.)

Mrs. Beal admonished us. She showed us another pupil's workbook, all clean and perfect, the crayon-drawn colors painted with precision between those cursed lines. She made us color another page, this time with strict instructions to "do it right."

It has taken me 25 years to get over that good-natured but erroneous lesson. Coloring outside the lines showed independence, creativity, independent thought.

But what I took from it was the disappointment in Mrs. Beal's eyes. I was eager to please. I rarely got into trouble again before leaving primary and secondary education behind.

My boss took me to breakfast back in the summer. "You're indecisive," she said. "You need to take direct control of our writers."

You know what? My publisher, my friend, my mentor -- William Shawn to my would-be Calvin Trillin -- was telling me to color outside the lines.

Who gives a damn if society tells you otherwise? Sometimes you've got to go for it on fourth and six when conventional wisdom says to punt the ball. You can fall flat on your butt; you can score a touchdown. Either way, it's OK. You learn something valuable that can be used later.

Sheena Beal almost died that next year giving birth to her son Isaac. They wrote about her in the daily paper. My grandmother saved the clipping in my photo album. I read it about once every five or six years.

Mrs. Beal insists I call her Sheena when I see her. She doesn't like me to remind her how many years have passed since that kindergarten class.

Isaac, a tall kid with a winsome smile, came up to me his senior year at Powell High School and said his mother talks about me all the time. I loved her like an aunt and I will never forget her.

Nor will I forget, too, the lesson learned from coloring outside the lines. It has taken me a quarter-century to accept it, but it feels like heaven when you tell conventional wisdom to shove it, and the Hail Mary pass finds the receiver in the end zone.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A summer love, gone forever

Macon, Ga. -- Passed by Turner Field last Saturday morning on my way to Bibb County.

It was like seeing your first love years after the fact -- awkward, bittersweet, wistful -- her appearance changed, no longer the girl you once knew.

I found the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s, back when they were awful, back when they showed up every night from April until September on WTBS. You could count on it. Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Gene Garber and Glenn Hubbard.

Then 1991 happened and we danced in the streets. At least until Jack Morris broke our hearts in Game 7 of the Series -- but what a battle of wits between Morris and John Smoltz!

And, back then, you could count on Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren (and, for a long while, Ernie Johnson) to keep you company during the game. Seven thirty-five p.m. Eastern, just after "Andy Griffith."

Skip was your favorite because he made you laugh. This was essential when Atlanta was losing 90 games a year. But you loved Pete, too, because he had such a rich voice and vast knowledge of the game. They called him "The Professor."

This beautiful romance lasted through the 1990s and into the 2000s. The Braves kept winning (1995 was the moment of magic) and Skip and Pete were there for all of it.

Warning signs began five years ago. Turner socked it to Caray and Van Wieren, relegated them to regional TV on Turner South, a cold-hearted slap in the face. I was furious. So were others. Ratings dropped. Skip and Pete were back by mid-year.

Then the Braves started losing and this time around it didn't seem so much fun. Dale Murphy wasn't playing right field. Fewer games were broadcast on TBS. I wasn't a kid anymore.

TBS aired its last game last fall. Skip and son Chip brought me one last moment in the sun, the date when you know you and she have drifted apart. Skip said goodbye and teared up. I did too.

I had met him that summer. He said he liked my Braves Hawaiian shirt. I told him he'd made me laugh for 23 years. He said he was glad to hear it.

He was with us a few times on something called Peachtree TV earlier this year. I laughed at the old jokes ("The bases are loaded and Dusty Baker wishes he was.") I missed -- or chose to miss -- the exhaustion in Skip's voice.

Then he died. John Martin Ramsey broke the news, on a sweltering Sunday night, as I was coming home from a Robinella show. I don't remember the drive from North Knoxville to Black Oak Ridge. I was in shock. I had lost a good friend.

I forwent the TV telecast the following night to listen to Pete on the radio. He told Skip stories and fought back tears himself. "At least I still have Pete," I said.

Then Pete retired.

I had met Pete, too, earlier in the year. He was sitting alone at his and Skip's barbecue joint in the stadium. I told him how much I missed him on TBS, how long I'd been a fan, how he and Skip had lifted my spirits the summer the Black Dog nearly nipped me for good.

He smiled, said "Wow," and shook my hand.

Now he, too, is gone. And my romance with the Braves is over.

I had began watching the Detroit Tigers anyway when I bought a satellite dish from Dewayne Lawson's uncle, Clarence Lowe. They became my "rebound" lover. But, it will never be the same. You never quite forget your first love.

I won't watch the Braves this year. I can't do it without Skip and Pete. I don't see the point.

But they and the Braves brought me pure, innocent, child-like joy for 24 years. I'll never forget it.

Somewhere in my memory, it will forever be the dog days of summer, 7:35 p.m. Eastern, Skip and Pete, Greg Maddux on the mound, a "chopper to Chipper."

You'll have to excuse me now. I must go wipe whatever this watery stuff is out of my eyes.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

A perfect pause

Macon, Ga. -- Otis Redding is still dancing around in my brain. Guess that happens here, in the cradle of soul, birthplace of a genius.

"They don't sing like that anymore" isn't a cliche. Not with him.

But, this is not about the Big O. We'll talk about him some other time.

The Garrison Keillor novel "Love Me" is keeping me company today. The Lawsons left for a perambulation at the park. This is my vacation; today I want to read.

Keillor's book isn't set -- for once -- in Lake Wobegone. It begins in Minnesota -- of course -- and will in time take me to New York, to the New Yorker, back when it was a magazine, back when William Shawn ruled the roost, back when one had to read it.

The tome is erudite -- but you would expect no less. It is funny. No surprise.

And it fits my mood, tugs at wistful thoughts of having lived and loved and lounged with literati, back when NEW YORK was spelled out in neon lights.

Someday I must read the Shawn memoir, the good one, written at the turn of the last century by Lillian Ross. I am too lazy to look up its title.

When Christmas debts are paid in full, and health care is not robbing me blind, I will buy, too, the DVD-ROM that collects every New Yorker through the set's release date -- if nothing else to read Calvin Trillin's U.S. Journal and Roger Angell's musings on baseball.

Now it's back to the recliner, to pages illuminated by the light of the afternoon, to a perfect pause in a holiday week made for such moments.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Otis Redding, tattoos and spinach pizza on a Saturday night

Macon, Ga. -- You gotta love a place that boasts an Elvis bust hanging on a wall.

Ingleside Village Pizza is hopping on a Saturday night. We wait outside on the sidewalk, enjoying the unseasonable spring-like weather, watching Jacob Lawson run to and fro.

This joint has an attitude. Servers that look like extras from "Little House on the Prairie" mix with those covered with tattoos. A sign in the restroom exclaims:

"Employees must wash their hands before returning to work. You should seriously consider it yourself."

It's located on Ingleside Avenue, in a section of this old Southern city that once would have been considered the suburbs, as Fountain City is to Knoxville. It advertises the largest selection of import beers in Macon.

And it has a jukebox (three songs for a buck). Somebody played The Partridge Family, but I opted for a couple of local artists (The Allman Brothers Band) and the incomparable Otis Redding), along with a work of genius, Paul Simon's "Graceland."

This location is moving across the street (the downtown restaurant near Mercer University is boarded up on a Saturday night when students are away) and patrons are popping up in droves to say goodbye.

"I don't understand that," Dewayne Lawson says. "It would be like if 4236 Foley Drive moved to 4238 Foley Drive."

We share sausage pizza with spinach. I pretend to play the Fender bass to Stax Records soul. And I watch people. The young couple beside us -- the guy in a baseball cap with a girl watching Jacob; the red-headed woman in the corner; the server with tattoos.

Why does an Italian pie always taste better when you're on vacation?

Maybe I should blame Pete Coors. Or the tattooed server. Or "I've Been Loving You Too Long" on the jukebox, in Macon's best pizza parlor, on an unseasonably warm winter's Saturday night.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Another Auld Lang Syne

Eleven in the morning on a rainy Friday here in Halls and I'm sitting at my desk.

Oh, it's not a big deal being in the office the day after Christmas. My work is part of my soul. (Plus, at this point, I'm glad to just have a job.)

I'm listening to the rain and thinking about the holidays -- and the oxymoronic nature of the depressing joy of New Years. What I mean by that is society tells you you're supposed to be happy during the holidays, look to the fond expectancy of a new year, but I've always found it to be somewhat melancholic. Maybe it's just me.

But, as I sit here awaiting pages, I reflect on the innate sweetness of life, and the fact that we bring upon ourselves 95 percent of the drama in our lives. I know that joy exists all around us. Find it in good friends, that special someone, your favorite song, a good book, or the warmth of your family, sunsets, a well-thrown knuckleball.

Here's to 2009. Here's to being unafraid of the future. Here's to knowing if you put your mind to it you can accomplish -- and overcome -- anything.

And, here's to you, should old acquaintance be forgot.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas gift

So there we were, 12 years removed from the best of times and the worst of times, swapping stories as if but a few months had passed.

High school is long gone (mostly for the better), but I do miss the people. Work had kept me from attending a similar gathering earlier in the week (don't go into journalism if you actually want a social life), but I made it to Barley's tonight just after 6:30 to enjoy dinner and conversation with some favorite friends from the Halls High Class of '96.

Funny how it comes to you in pieces now. Political arguments in a random English class. Conversations during study hall. Highs. Lows. Performing for your peers.

Listening to the talk tonight, a wave from the past broke in my mind, and I wondered where it all had gone. It's as if you looked up one day to realize an entire decade slipped away while you were looking down.

Hanging around the Crossroads with my job, I've often found the experience at times to be like that episode of "The Twilight Zone" in which the guy wakes up to discover he doesn't know a soul in his hometown. Sure, I know a lot of folks. But friends I saw every day for years have spread out into the ether to forge their own lives. It's as natural as the rise and set of the sun and the moon; and yet it's kind of sad.

I hate that life is such that we're only reunited here and there, at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or once every 10 years. I don't miss everybody from those days, but I do miss a whole lot of folks.

There's an old country song I like that asks, "Is this all we get to keep as the years go rolling by? Just a memory from all the days gone by..."

No, as it turns out. Reunions of any kind are special, bittersweet, a reminder that life at its essence is all about relationships and connections.

I fear we're losing some of that as a society. We're becoming depersonalized, solipsistic and, God help us, desensitized. Humanism has become a dirty word in some circles and we're the worse for it.

But down South at the Crossroads, some of us still get together, talk awhile, make it a point to break bread with old friends.

In all the ways that matter, it's the best Christmas present one can receive.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Long ago and oh so far away...

Halls Middle School, eighth grade, 1991.

I was sitting in an English class, near the back of the room, writing God knows what. Two classrooms were joined together by a partition. I could hear Dave Lewis lecturing next door.

After a few minutes, he showed a video -- one of those "Twentieth Century" documentaries hosted by Linda Ellerbee and a guy who's name I can't remember -- all about 1970.

Then the voice floated into the room. I was so taken by it I couldn't concentrate.

"Long ago, and oh so far away, I fell in love with you, before the second show..."

She was singing just for me, pure and honest, pitch-perfect and full of talent. I couldn't move. You know how it is when a good song envelops you, pulls you in like the undertow of a tidal wave. (This has happened exactly two other times; I'll tell you about them some other time.)

I didn't know her name. I went to the front of the room to ask Mrs. Clapp. I had to know who this singer was that had so stirred my soul.

It was my introduction to Karen Carpenter.

People tell me all the time I'm a walking anachronism. Born out of my time, they say. Kinda corny. Kinda crazy. I plead guilty to all of the above. And there's no good reason why I should have ever been stirred by a singer popular in another generation.

Oh, but that's not true. Talent lasts through the decades, remains just as powerful as it was "back then," rising above the fleeting fly-by-night junk that passes for pop music.

And I took to the Carpenters like peas and carrots.

I was touched by the lyrics, by way she seemed to crawl up into your lap and sing into your ear (to quote Herb Alpert), by the innate sadness in the timbre of Karen Carpenter's voice.

I couldn't get her out of my head. Kept humming what I later learned was a Leon Russell song. Wouldn't let it go.

A few hours later, Dave showed that same video to my class. And I learned all about Karen Carpenter's career, and her struggle with anorexia, and her untimely death at 32.

And, as is my custom, I dove head first into another obsession.

Had to have everything she'd ever recorded. Played it over and over. Ordered rare and out-of-print albums from overseas. All the crazy stuff you do when you're obsessive-compulsive.

What struck me is the all-knowing melancholy of a voice that must have hidden an inner pain. I still find it amazing that she could sing "Rainy Days and Mondays," a lyric that in some ways belongs to a mature performer somewhat weary of life, when she was all of 21 years old. It was as if she already understood something about the world that most of us later wish we'd never learned.

The other night, surfing around on You Tube when I couldn't sleep, I found a clip of Karen singing "Superstar" years ago on the BBC. I was just as taken by it as I had been that spring morning in the eighth grade. I thought back to that too-skinny little boy I was then, painfully backward in his naivete, and wondered how 16 years had slipped away.

And I thought about Karen Carpenter, about the tragic story of her life, and wondered for the 100th time why the special ones seem to leave too soon.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Laughing matters

Here's my "inner nerd" thought for the week...

I'm reading a fun little book, "Laughing Matters" by Larry Gelbart. Just in case you don't know the name, Gelbart is a longtime TV, film and radio comedy writer.

If nothing else, he can forever boast that he developed "M*A*S*H" for television, that classic and peerless sitcom/drama, far superior to the amusing but rather base Robert Altman film. He also wrote the screenplay for the George Burns movie "Oh, God!" as well as the hilarious "Tootsie," to name a few.

His trademark is witty wordplay. And Gelbert's book is fully of it. I find myself laughing out loud while reading, the perfect thing to do at 1 a.m., when you can't sleep.

One of these nights I will devote an entire blog to "M*A*S*H," to its brilliance, to the incredible series of circumstances that brought Alan Alda out to Hollywood in 1972 to become Hawkeye Pierce, to my memories of watching the two-and-one-half-hour finale with my dad back in 1983.

I would have liked to have been a radio writer. Words mattered more then and audiences were patient. Jokes didn't have to be told in a nanosecond.

Course, I wanted to a screenwriter, too. Had the story picked out then realized that "Same Time, Next Year", "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Lost in Translation" had already told my tale.

My story was a weird mix of the three, offering some humor amid a dramatic look at what happens when two people find the right relationship at the wrong time. My catch is that it wouldn't turn maudlin or sentimental and wouldn't be given the traditional Hollywood ending. I could still write it as a novel, I guess.

Anyway, these are mere dreams; Gelbart's been to the top of the mountain. "M*A*S*H" was an 11-year example that television doesn't have to be a cultural wasteland.

I keep waiting to see something that substantive come along on TV again. Why do I think I'll continue to wait?

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nutty dreams...

I'm blaming this on what I ate last night. That has to be it -- although I don't really understand too much about what causes dreams.

Interesting, isn't it, how it comes back to you in pieces?

Riding in the car with you grandfather while he gets gas and argues with the attendant. Sitting in the audience at a Robinella show to be told she's away competing in a beauty contest (!). Angry anyway because your favorite server is also away, catering the Grammy Awards (??!!).

Yes, dreams tend not to make much sense. I had some crazy ones last night.

Some friends were staying over when burglars entered the house. Turns out they only wanted to look at the basement. Suddenly, an old girlfriend appears. She's wounded. Needs to be carried inside the house.

I'm back in middle school. I've just been given some kind of award. I do remember wondering why I'm having to take the eighth grade again all these years later. Suddenly, I'm driving on a road into a bridge that hasn't been completed yet. We get the car stopped before toppling over the side.

And on it goes.

Freud argued that dreams are "wish-fulfillments." At some level, I agree, but that can't be the total picture. For example, I have no desire whatsoever to retake the eighth grade and certainly don't want to topple over an unfinished road.

It does make me wonder if what the ol' noggin was trying to tell me is that there is something unfinished in my life, something I'd like to go back and fix, something I never felt was completed. Who knows. I don't have a degree in psychology. I just think the whole thing is neat -- and amusing in a way.

I just keep wondering what in the heck I ate that brought all this on -- surely it wasn't that Christmas candy...

Monday, December 15, 2008

The woman with the cart

She was walking along Old Broadway pulling a cart filled with what appeared to be some kind of seed. She looked haggard, all bundled up in a too-large blue jacket, weary from her journey.

I watched the woman dragging her cart this morning and couldn't help but wonder about her life. I don't know if she was struggling financially, lived nearby or simply didn't have a car. But, for some reason, it made me sad.

Seems we're reminded every day just how fortunate we are.

Work took me up to Hillcrest nursing home on Saturday. A Halls Middle School student had collected more than 300 stuffed animals and pairs of socks to give to each resident at the facility.

Some of the residents were barely lucid; others were alert and quite cheerful. One man said he didn't want a stuffed animal; a little later, though, he decided he'd take one. As I drove away, the thought crossed my mind that the girl's simple gesture might be the only Christmas present some of those folks receive.

We spend so much time rushing to stores, seeking the perfect gift, wasting too much money on junk we'll forget about come springtime. Oh, don't get me wrong, a little bit of that is OK, especially for kids. Real gifts, though, lie elsewhere.

You know about the babe in a manger and what it brought to the world.

I find little gifts every day -- in a bittersweet love song, in the eyes of a girl that takes my breath away, in the look a child gets when discovering something for the first time.

Sometimes somebody will call just to say hello. That is a precious (and rare) little present. If nothing else, silver shines in the stars and gold gleams in the morning sun.

All of this, and heaven too, mean more than anything wrapped in pretty paper with my name on it under the Christmas tree. What's funny, and pathetic, is that it took a woman walking with a cart by the side of the road for me to realize it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A scant few minutes

A little stab at a sketch of fiction...

She doesn't know how beautiful she is. I really don't think she does.

She catches up with me in the oddest places -- standing in line at the grocery store, walking on a rainy night downtown, looking out the window as the first light of the morning streaks across my room. I think about her awhile, lose myself in the memory of her smile, and dream.

She touched my heart in ways she'll never know. But, isn't that always the way? Sometimes I don't think we appreciate the most special gifts in life until they are gone.

I'll never forget the first time I saw her. It was winter. Her voice, and her smile, warmed my heart. I tried to tell her a few times how much she's meant to me. But, to quote the song, the right words never come; you just get numb.

I think about her often. I hope she's happy now because she deserves it. I think life has finally turned her way.

You know, I owe her a debt I can never repay. She has no idea what she did for me once. That's the way it should be.

LIfe is good now, calm, comfortable. And yet, from time to time on a cold winter's night, I think of her, and wish with all my heart I could hold her tight, if only for a scant few minutes.

Well, if there's an answer, it's just that it's just that way.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Christmas 'spirit'

I was scanning the book aisles at Borders the other night, wasting time before an 8 p.m. meeting, when up came Santa Claus.

Yep, the big guy was walking around the store, handing out candy canes to those who wanted one, offering a smile and a hearty "Merry Christmas!" It warmed the heart to see somebody take the time to simply be kind to others.

We don't do enough of it anymore. Sometimes, it seems, the world is going crazy.

Some of you no doubt read my pal Dean Harned's blog about the impatient assholes at the accident scene he encountered last weekend. I still can't believe that somebody actually came up to demand that the couple responsible for the wreck -- who were clinging to life amid the wreckage -- pay for the demolished neighborhood sign.

Earlier this week in Halls, Enix Jewelers was ransacked by what looks like professional thieves. Stolen among the items were countless family heirlooms, wedding rings and other jewelry waiting to be repaired. Hard blow to take, especially at Christmas.

Then you remember the guy playing Santa at Borders and figure all isn't lost. A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a woman who makes dollhouses (we're talking some detailed stuff here, folks), gives them to sick young girls and donates them to the Halls Welfare Ministry so a young woman who might not otherwise receive any gifts can have something special for Christmas.

The everyday kindness of the so-called backroads, Charles Kuralt once said, more than makes up for the greed in the headlines.

I agree. Don't you wish, though, that we could be filled with the "Christmas spirit" the other 364 days of the year, too?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Seventy-two days and counting...

Yes, folks, the countdown has begun.

Why, you may ask? Well, my first love will return to me in 72 days.

No, it's not that dark-haired little girl with the big blue eyes that broke my heart so many years ago. It's the national game, my favorite pastime, that delicious little obsession called baseball.

I know what you're thinking. "You're crazy, man. Baseball is a spring sport. Why are you talking about it at Christmastime?"

Well, friends, that's just the way I roll, as the youngsters say.

Tell you what made me think about it, in all seriousness. Monday night I opened the mailbox to find my UT baseball season ticket application.

"Yes!" I said to myself. "Feb. 22 isn't that far away. I can make it until then."

My cousin Jordan said it best at dinner the other night.

"I hate the next few months because you can't watch baseball. I mean, I love football, but it's not the same."

No, it isn't, Jordan. But, the little orange ticket application stirred the soul just a bit. Waiting 72 more days won't be so bad.

And, if it is, I'll just pull out that Ken Burns documentary and bide my time.

All I want for Christmas is three strikes, three outs and three times three innings of play.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Funny how the raindrops don't make a sound...

OK, I should apologize to my friend and favorite singer Robinella for paraphrasing her original tune "Teardrops" in my title. But it always comes to mind whenever I hear this Chopin prelude.

It's 2 a.m. and, as usual, I can't wind down. Have this problem every night anymore. I hate to take sleeping pills, or drink one of the cliched sleep-inducing beverages, or smoke a puff or two on my pipe, to try to relax.

I did all of those tonight. Nothing worked.

So, I'm sitting in the chair in my home office, feet up on the ottoman, listening to "Raindrop" -- Chopin's Prelude Op. 28/15 in D Flat Major. It's heartbreaking and sweet, which is why it made me think of that Robinella song I love.

Don't know much about classical music. Well, other than the basics and what any audiophile picks up here and there.

My dear friends Dean and Allison Harned and I have gone to hear the Knoxville Symphony a time or two over the last couple of years. It's been both an education and a grand experience. There is something almost spiritual about live music. (I recommend the KSO's Sunday Chamber concerts.)

The liner notes in this CD say that Chopin predominantly wrote pieces designed for the solo piano. Then it offers a description that gives a hint as to one reason why I have always been attracted to his work.

"Chopin's gift was emotion rather than intellect, instinct rather than analysis."

It reminds me of something former Shopper music critic Amanda Mohney once told me.

"You're a 'Kind of Blue' kind of guy," she said. "I prefer 'Bitches Brew.'"

She was referring to two classic Miles Davis albums. The former is emotional and tugs at your heart; the latter is experimental and appeals to the intellect. Amanda must be quite observant -- either that or I am an open book. Nine times out of 10, my initial response to something is usually with the heart rather than the head.

It doesn't appear that Chopin was afflicted with the artists' disease. Which was good to hear for a change. Apparently he died on the same day as Edgar Allen Poe. Who knew?

I'm beginning to feel a little more mellow, listening to Chopin's falling raindrop, lost in its poetry.

Don'tcha just love good music?

I'm off to sleep. Peace out.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

A temporary 'Bond'

I'm sitting here on a cool night, watching one of my favorite, and underrated, films, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

Got the idea to screen the picture after my pal and Gibbs High teacher Dean Harned mentioned that he'd watched it today during his planning period. He said it was engrossing enough that his intern, Dustin Mynatt, sat down and watched a good chunk of the film with him.

Nobody agrees with me, but I contend that this is one of the best installments in the venerable James Bond franchise.

Long story made short, this film was released in 1969, following Sean Connery's departure from the series. Producers hired Australian model George Lazenby to play 007 in the film adaptation of Ian Fleming's best novel.

It's Lazenby's inexperience as an actor that is the biggest knock against this fine movie. I'll get into that in a minute, but that's basically a minor sidestory in an otherwise excellent James Bond story.

Sticking close to the plot of the novel, the producers wisely reeled in the overblown fantasy of the previous film ("You Only Live Twice") in favor of a more down-to-earth tale. Bond "resigns" from Her Majesty's government to track down SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Along the way the playboy Bond falls in love with a beautiful countess (played by the classy Diana Rigg) and, shock of all shocks, actually marries her.

Lazenby is indeed a weak link. His lack of experience is painfully obvious in several of the key love scenes as well as the film's signature, shocking finale. But he does OK with the all the little things that make the role what it should be, and probably would have been an excellent James Bond in time, had the role not gotten to his head.

Rigg's Tracy Draco is the best so-called "Bond girl" of the series because her character was written as a three-dimensional woman rather than a beautiful bimbo. The montage of her and Bond's courtship, backed by the hauntingly beautiful Louis Armstrong song "We Have All the Time in the World" (his last recording) is one of the finest moments of the series.

The on-location scenes in Switzerland are breathtaking. For once, Blofeld's plan to wreak havoc on the world is (mostly) believable. It was a fine film. Had Sean Connery returned for this outing it would have been the best of the series.

As it is, though, it's still a memorable James Bond movie and, one could argue, the last of the "classic Flemingesque 007 adventures" along the lines of "Dr. No" and "From Russia with Love."

If your only exposure to Her Majesty's favorite secret agent is through the later pictures, or if you're a longtime fan, give "OHMSS" a look. George Lazenby's license to kill might have been temporary, but time has proven that this film's "Bond" is a strong pull indeed.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

A painter passing through...

Made a curious observation yesterday.

My two favorite singers in the whole wide world -- Robinella and the late Eva Cassidy -- are also artists. It makes a difference, me thinks.

Artists bring a certain aesthetic to their worldview anyway. Combine the aesthetic with music and it often creates something quite special.

Robin's best work paints quite a picture. ("Funny how my teardrops don't make a sound/When they roll down my cheeks and they fall to the ground/They slip through the cracks of my broken heart/Ever since we drifted apart...")

I'll never forget the first time I heard that song. Don't think I've still gotten over it.

Eva Cassidy was more of an interpreter than a composer. I'm not sure she ever wrote her own music. But the feeling is there.

Sometimes a singer becomes one with a song. They envelop each other, become inseparable, joined together amid the rhythm and the rhyme.

Eva Cassidy seemingly did this every time she opened her mouth. Listen to her sing Sting's "Fields of Gold" or especially the Robert Burns poem "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose," and you'll feel it. Time stops; you don't ever want the seconds to start ticking again.

The best singers, in their way, are painters passing through our lives, using their canvas to paint word pictures that make us happy, or sad, or introspective.

When the two actually merge... well, just listen to the music and shut your eyes.

You'll see what I mean.

A new collection of Eva Cassidy recordings, "Somewhere," released this fall, includes her rendition of "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose." Robinella's "Teardrops" can be found on her 2006 album, "Solace for the Lonely."

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Wasted words

My uncle told me a story once.

He was remembering high school, specifically a day in which he'd missed class, and had asked to borrow the notes of his buddy, Mike.

Mike handed him a half sheet of paper.

"Wow," Jeff said. "This is all your notes?"

"Yeah," Mike said. "I only wrote down what was important."

Jeff was puzzled. Seems he always had to take pages and pages of notes during a normal class period. So, he asked another friend for his notes.

That friend handed him three pages.

It's a wide-ranging lesson, one that is of particular value to a writer. Anybody can blather on for 700 or 800 words, my boss is fond of saying. The real trick is to say what you have to say in 500 words or less.

Truman Capote was a genius at it. Somebody -- Groucho Marx maybe -- said he wouldn't change one word of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I'd say the same thing of Pete Hamill's peerless memoir "A Drinking Life."

I suppose literature is broad enough to accept both Hemingway's two word sentences and Faulkner's two page sentences. But, I can promise you that one is much easier to read.

Here's a trick if you ever want to while away a rainy afternoon. Write something. Anything. Say everything you want to say.

Then cut it by 100 words. Then read it again and cut it by another 100. It's not as easy as it sounds. But I promise you the final product will be lean, mean and easy to read.

My favorite Bible verse is the shortest. "Jesus wept." Kinda says it all, me thinks.

Don't you wish those jerks on the TV political shows would learn such a lesson? Who knows -- they might actually say something worth hearing if forced to think about it first.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

This 'n' that

Fell asleep in my chair tonight while watching "Citizen Kane" on TV. Do you think that's a sign I'm getting older? Could be a combination of being tired and sitting this close to the fire.

Or it could be the movie. That Orson Welles epic isn't one you curl up with on a cold winter's night.

Guess that's why I quickly flipped to college hoops. Illinois and Clemson got into a good one earlier. Now I'm watching Duke and Purdue. Hoping the school board shuts up long enough for me to get in front of a TV to watch UT's game tomorrow night. We'll see.

Dickie V. is doing the Duke game on ESPN (big shock there, huh?), so I doubt I'll stay here long. Purdue plays in a pretty cool arena, though. Much better designed for basketball than, say, Thompson-Boling Arena.

Met a friend at Pete's Place in Maynardville tonight for dinner after work. Enjoyed a steak sandwich and a piece of peanut butter pie. Nice way to end the day.

It's cold outside. Winter comes quickly this year, me thinks.

Oh, this is cool. I found a YouTube audio clip of Elvis singing one of my favorite songs, Danny O'Keefe's "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," from my favorite Elvis concert (the August 1974 opening engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton). He could sing anything, but here he really grabs hold of the song in this performance. To my knowledge, it's the only time he ever sang "Good Time Charlie" in concert.

Guess that's it for now. I'm going to cut off the basketball game, throw another "log" on the fire and read awhile before bedtime. Gotta find out what happens to these kids over in Spain...

Y'all have a good night. Peace out.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

When will enough be enough?

OK, this does it. This more than takes the cake. This is more than pathetic.

This is downright insane.

News reports began circulating from Long Island over the weekend that a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death on Black Friday while customers rushed to gobble up a sale item like pigs scurrying to the trough. It leaves you speechless, stymied, unable to put into words what this says about our society's priorities.

I've never once felt the urge to venture out to the stores the day after Thanksgiving. For one thing, I'm usually working. For another, there's nothing I possibly need that's going to get me out of bed and to the store by 5 a.m.

I don't begrudge those who get their jollies participating in this kind of thing. I do draw the line when sales clerks end up dying because of somebody else's greed.

The Christmas season has been hijacked by profiteers. The holiday should be a religious observance, if you're of a certain persuasion, or at the very least a time to give and be nice to others for a few fleeting moments.

The madness starts way too early anymore. The wreath went up at the Ace Hardware in Halls weeks before the last Thursday in November. Stores began playing holiday songs before the turkey and dressing were even sold.

Now we're killing store clerks the day after Thanksgiving.

When will enough be enough, you ask? I'm starting to wonder...