Friday, October 31, 2008

Can't sleep

Well, here it is 2 a.m. and I'm wide awake, listening to sappy songs cause I can't seem to wind down.

Didn't get out of work until nearly 11, so I guess that's part of it. I don't know. Don't sleep too well anymore. Up and down, toss and turn. So forgive me while I chat a minute.

I tell ya, life can be a funny thing. I think sometimes of the disappointments, the times others have let me down and the times that I've let somebody down. Never have gotten used to that, either way. I'd walk the long way around the barn before I'd ever intentionally hurt anybody. But I still do it. And I'm forever amazed over the fact that sometimes those you love best can hurt you the most.

Then someone displays such a sweet and honest random act of kindness; it gives you a little more hope, a little more faith in humanity.

Like I told you the other day, sometimes you see the tragedy in Technicolor and forget about all the times you climbed up to the stars. And, you know, life lessons have taught me that the happiest moments of life are simple -- sunsets in springtime, friends and family, hearing your favorite song on the radio, talking to a friendly stranger while standing in line somewhere, baseball at twilight, when maybe, just maybe, Shoeless Joe Jackson might come walking out of that corn field after all.

Life takes its twists and turns, but what I remember most is the people -- the smiles, the kind words, the good times together. And, sadly, I'll remember too the heated words, the senseless anger, the unbelievable cruelty of which human beings are capable.

When I was a kid I watched the old westerns that I still dearly love and figured life would turn out that way. No matter how much I stare through rose colored glasses, this journey isn't a movie and I don't guess ever will be.

But you think about your family and the good friends you've been blessed with, singing skies and dancing waters, cool fall nights fishin' and thinkin' at the lake, times when the melody and the harmony came together and the song was just right.

I shake my head, figure all that far outweighs the disappointments, just dream and keep on being the way I am.

A John Wayne movie it ain't, but life has its own rewards.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My old friend Ernie

Funny, but reading Hemingway seems like spending a few minutes with an old friend.

I guess I've always admired the bastard because he lived life to its full extreme -- loving every woman, drinking every glass of wine, running with the bulls, hooking the biggest marlin, forever in search of the one, true sentence. He was brilliant, possessing such talent; but he was also volatile, manic depressive, perhaps even insane during those last, tragic days in Idaho.

I'd love to have enjoyed drinks and conversation with him during his prime. He must have been one hell of a guy.

Tonight I'm sitting by the fire reading Michael Reynolds' biography of Papa Ernie's last days. Picked it up at the Halls Library this afternoon. Its opening pages remind me that I've yet to read "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the novel many consider to be his best. (Although I fail to see how it can surpass either "The Sun Also Rises" or "A Farewell to Arms." You never know, though -- good literature is like that.)

Reynolds is describing the high that Hem felt just during and after the publication of his Spanish Civil War love story. It's both amusing and poignant that Hemingway always said that a part of him died whenever he'd finish a piece of work. It was, you see, a story that would never again be told.

I don't know why his stories have fallen out of fashion. Oh, I have a guess or two. Probably it has something to do with political correctness as well as the cyclical nature of these things -- Hemingway was so popular for so long, it later became fashionable to rip him and his work to shreds. (Others accuse him of being a misogynist; I think he's simply a man of his times who never quite became comfortable around women.)

But, what do I know? I'm just a fan who came across his work 30 years after his death. That's the way it is, though, with Ernest Hemingway. At the end of the day, when you're enjoying his words by the fire, he seems ever so much like an old friend.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

The whole crazy ride

So I'm sitting here by the fire, watching a presidential biography on TV, thinking about life.

More specifically, I'm thinking about the last 10 years, and its crazy twists and turns.

Went out to Halls historian Hubert LaRue's house this afternoon to look at old pictures with David Sharp for an article he's writing. Saw one photo of Black Oak Ridge from years ago. Where car dealerships and gas stations sit today was once sheer wilderness. Maynardville Pike was a two-lane gravel road.

On the way back to the office, David told me stories about growing up. His family's farm sat where the Halls Plaza shopping center is today. David said his dad would lay $2 on the table for him to take on dates. If it didn't show up one day, he never said a word. David said he eventually had to take a job in addition to working the farm in order to make the $5 or $6 he needed to take a girl out on the town and put some gas in the car.

I felt glad to be where I am today.

Around suppertime, I headed town to UT to grab a burger with some favorite UT profs, Steve Ash, Lorri Glover and Bruce Wheeler. We talked politics and books, movies and music. I thought back to the guy I used to be, and how I figured then that I'd grow up one day to be just like my history department heroes.

After dinner, I drove down to McKay's to browse books. Bought John Updike's memoirs, a Hemingway biography I've never come across before and an examination of Reagan's second term. Didn't linger though -- it was getting chilly and a warm drink by the fire was sounding better and better.

So I drove home, thought about history and growing up in Halls. Somehow, I thought, as the light began to dim on a Monday, the whole crazy ride seems to make sense.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Looking for space

There's this song I dearly love, a little ditty called "Looking for Space." If any lyric reflects my experience of life, surely it's that poem from the pen of John Denver.

It presents life as a roller coaster. Sometimes you fly like an eagle. Sometimes you're deep in despair. Anybody who has walked the long day's journey into night can relate.

Funny thing, life. I think sometimes that nothing turned out the way I thought it would when I was a lad and dreaming crazy dreams. Then I think that things have turned out better than it would have even had I scripted it.

I don't know. The song talks about things standing still just when you think you're moving. Been there. Done that.

The next line, quite vulnerable, is also quite honest:

I'm afraid 'cause I think they always will.

Why is it the heartache is remembered in Technicolor, while the joy tends to fade to monochrome? I remember the blank look on her face when I told her I loved her. I barely recall a better girl, and a better time, one winter's night in Nashville.

And so it goes. The nightmares seem more real than the dreams.

But, oh, these dreams of mine. I'll never forget the times a few of them came true, even if just for a moment.

They say we'll understand it all in the fullness of time. And that's usually the way of it. I never have forgotten Truman Capote's line about more tears being shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

I've taken a piece of it all of it with me -- the smiles, the tears, the music and the madness. I told myself years ago that I'd live life to its limit -- loving too much, laughing too often, singing too loud, grabbing for the brass ring every lap around the carousel.

It's a good way. It also makes the tragedy play out in Technicolor.

But I keep going back to the words of that sad John Denver song.

It's a sweet, sweet dream; sometimes I'm almost there...

If there's an answer, it's just that it's just that way.

So it is, especially when you're looking for space, and trying to reach the stars.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Sunday night

It doesn't happen much anymore.

For a number of reasons I guess, don't need to get into them here, but it just doesn't happen like it once did. The highs aren't so celestial; the lows aren't so deep.

But it happened last night, and thank God for it, because I remembered what being alive -- in the true sense of what that word means -- is all about.

Funny, but I thought about an old country song, all about knowing at that moment that there is a God in heaven and the world making perfect sense, realizing what it means because it's such an apt description. But, then again, it always seems to be that way when you hear the music.

I guess I'm growing up. Don't get as excited as I used to about silly things like baseball and bluegrass and mayhem and music.

But there's one exception, one place I can spend a few hours, one voice I can still hear, that makes you remember why you put up with the stress and the deadlines and the shouting and the screams.

Like an oasis in the desert, last night was a time to dream the sweet, unrequited dreams, land on a cloud and watch your troubles float away.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lust for life

I'm a sucker for old movies, as most any friend of mine can tell you. One classic that seems to have almost a mystical hold over me is David Lean's "Dr. Zhivago," the 1965 epic about war, love and death during the Russian Revolution.

I've seen it at least 12 times and always look in on it whenever it plays on TV. The last time that happened, I caught it just after the opening credits, and thought, "Ahh, I'll watch about five minutes of this." Next time I looked up, three and a half hours had gone by.

Certainly the film's decent, humanistic message is part of its charm (and a reason both the movie and the Boris Pasternak novel were banned until after the Soviet Union's fall). Part of it is Zhivago himself, so passionate for life and for the women he loves (translated from Russian, the word Zhivago means "live" or "life"). Part of it is the haunting cinematography (especially the "ice palace" scene, with Soria, Spain standing in for Russia). Part of it is Julie Christie.

And, at the end of the day, "Zhivago" is a darn good story, set against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous periods in world history. It's the kind of classic filmmaking that didn't survive after this film's release.

I never have made it through Pasternak's novel. Reading Russian romanticism is always a chore (don't even get me started about "War and Peace"), but those who would know tell me that Zhivago is worth the effort. Maybe one day.

I'm about to introduce a spoiler, so if you haven't seen the film and think you might one day, skip this part.

For me, the most tragic moment is the last images we see -- of Zhivago spotting his beloved Lara -- or did he? -- running after her, and collapsing to die in the snow. It reminded me of how American politician Adlai Stevenson met his fate in 1965 -- suffering a heart attack on the streets of London, unrecognized by any of the passers-by. For Zhivago, it was the most tragic of fates, denied one final time the woman he loved.

Hell, now that I'm all depressed, I guess that's enough words about "Dr. Zhivago." Why, though, do I have a sneaking suspicion this film will find its way into the DVD player later tonight?

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Freedom from fear

As the presidential election winds its way to the finish line, I've been thinking quite a bit about the election of 1932.

The stock market, you may recall, crashed in 1929. The Depression followed, although historians are still debating the whole cause/effect issue.

Let's get one thing straight: We're nowhere near a Depression. News reports tell me the stock market made the biggest one-day points jump in its history. It isn't enough to relieve tensions, but it's a start.

But the election of 1932 is worth contemplating awhile because it fundamentally centered around leadership -- and which candidate was ready to step up to the plate in a critical time. (I'm reading a book I've left sitting on the shelf for awhile, David Kennedy's "Freedom From Fear," about the Depression and World War II. Fascinating stuff to say the least -- full of points to ponder.)

Nobody but a nutty ideologue would make the argument that FDR wasn't the leader for that time. We can debate his legacy, his decisions, his philosophy. But his greatest strength was that he helped ease the anxiety, the fear, of the American people. If much of the New Deal didn't pull us out of the Depression, it certainly gave people hope.

Which brings us to 2008. Of the two major candidates, which one is ready to lead? Frankly, it's hard to say. One has precious little experience; the other often seems light-years removed from the challenges of our day.

We won't know until after Election Day. And this is a tough time to be learning on the job.

History, though, proves we shouldn't push the panic button just yet. Abraham Lincoln had precious little experience when he was elected in 1860. He proved more than up to the task; he went on to become the greatest American president.

Teddy Roosevelt was considered to be untried and untested as well; so, too, was Ronald Reagan.

All I know is this election feels so important, so vital in determining what path we want to travel down in a world that no longer seems familiar. The problems are too great, too directly linked to our future, to remain cynical, or worse, uninformed.

Get out and vote. Pay attention to the issues, to the candidates and make a decision based on thoughtful contemplation, research and that strong feeling deep down in your gut.

I never thought I'd ever quote LBJ's shameless "Daisy" ad, but this year, the stakes seem to high to stay at home.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Saturday in the Smokies

TOWNSEND, Tenn. -- For my money, the prettiest drive in East Tennessee is Hwy. 321 from Maryville to what's dubbed "The Peaceful Side of the Smokies."

And, I must admit, the short jaunt from Halls was quite relaxing this afternoon. The heaviest traffic happened in downtown Maryville, and that was over in what seemed like seconds.

I'm here to attend a school board retreat (isn't the life of a community newspaper editor exciting?!) but am also using the trip as a brief getaway. I may go exploring a little later. Or I may stay in the hotel, order a pizza and watch baseball.

It's my Saturday. I can do as I wish.

May watch the Volunteers awhile in a few minutes, but my heart's not in it. I also may get caught up on my reading. I've got a couple of books on Lincoln with me, as well as a few magazines and that Roger Angell book I told you about.

It's autumn here in East Tennessee. From my window at the hotel, I can see the gold and red and yellow hues of the changing leaves. It's a sight of which I never tire, even if it always proves to be the twilight just before the long night of winter.

Here's hoping you're having just such a relaxing Saturday. I think I'm going to need mine.

Listening to the school board at 8:30 a.m. is going to be a wake-up call indeed.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Familiar scenes and recurring faces

I was sitting in my car last night, waiting on friends for dinner, reading Roger Angell. A light rain was tapping time on the windshield. Truth be told, with the cloudy grays and gentle precipitation, I could have shut my eyes and napped.

But as it was I read as Angell, a New Yorker editor and baseball essayist I've long admired, re-created the moments of his life. What he said about it is downright profound.

The stories we remember about our life, Angell says, are mostly fiction.

"Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around."

He's right on a number of levels.

Thinking back on the times of your life, your baseball prowess becomes better than it was, the fish you caught as a lad were bigger, the sweethearts were sweeter, the successes were more profound. If you're a romantic, you tend to glorify the past, or at least remember it as a sentimental, blissful state, better than today. To Angell's credit, in his book "Let Me Finish," he does neither.

The mind is a tricky instrument. It's more powerful than a computer, and yet it often alternates roles as your best friend and your worst enemy.

Angell nailed it. Maybe remembering the memories with stark clarity years after the fact, total recall, isn't all that important. What matters is what we do remember about his familiar scenes and recurring faces, what we learned from it, and what it means to us now.

A point to ponder on a Thursday morning in early autumn.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Simple words


He watched her walk down the stairs and out of his life forever.

She'd given him a new lease on life. But it was like the rose that blooms but for just an hour.

He'd first seen her, years ago, in a faded photograph. He'd been taken by her beauty, by the gentle goodness of her face, by the warmth in her eyes. And he finally saw her, and spoke to her, one fall afternoon just before Thanksgiving. He'd lost the words, time had taken them from him, but he knew in that brief moment his life was changed forever.

"You can come to my house for the holidays," she'd said, and part of him thought she meant it. It wasn't until later that he found out that everything he'd dreamed about her was true.

And yet it didn't come close to describing her beauty.

So she went on this crisp night in early autumn, and as she descended the stairs, his heart sank deep into the dark place, into the abyss with which he was all too familiar.

"Goodbye," she'd said.

It's the simple words that hurt the most.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Getting lost in the screams

All alone in the universe, sometimes that's how it seems/I get lost in the sadness and the screams... -- John Denver, "Looking For Space."

How did this happen? How did we get to this point?

Have you noticed the anger? God, it seems to be ubiquitous.

You can see it on the highway, if you accidentally cut somebody off. You can see it in everyday conversation, when somebody doesn't get their way.

And you can certainly see it in our political discourse, when "debates" have become nothing more than sound bites or a shouting match.

Nobody knows how to be civil. Few can craft a good argument. I think about those famous Lincoln-Douglas debates from 1858; that kind of politicking seems very much gone with the wind.

I don't know. There's a time for passion. There's a time for heated exchange. Occasionally, there's a time to lose your temper.

But, my goodness, for some people it's like sport. And, like the protagonist in the poignant John Denver song, I get lost somewhere in the screams.

We're the worse off as a country as a result.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A night to remember

I never will forget where I was the first time I heard it.

Beaver Creek Road, Powell, 2004, coming back from a doctor's appointment.

"Another summer day has come and gone away in Paris and Rome, but I want to go home..."

The voice hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn't Sinatra. It wasn't Dino Martin. But it sounded like them, and yet it also had a contemporary edge.

Enter Michael Buble.

This phenomenal Canadian talent brought his big band and quirky, charming personality to Thompson-Boling Arena tonight. You will accuse me of hyperbole, but this proved to be one of the best shows I've ever seen.

Buble swung and danced his way through the Great American Songbook, paying homage to Frankie ("I've Got the World on a String") and Dean ("You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You") and all the greats. And he threw in some classic soul (Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones") and some Eisenhower era groove (Peggy Lee's "Fever") and a little something for everybody.

And he joked with the crowd, made fun of us in a good-natured way and promised to come back to Knoxville. He even shook hands with UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl.

It was old-fashioned entertainment in the best sense of what that word used to mean. What a treat to see so many young faces in the crowd, too. It gives me hope that good music might just stand the test of time after all.

The best part? Well, one special moment had to be "Home," Buble's first American No. 1 single, the song that almost caused me to have a wreck on the highway four years ago. Perhaps the best of his original tunes, though, is the simply divine "Lost," which became one of my favorite songs tonight.

But, no, the best part, the "sends chills up the back of your spine" moment, came when Buble brought out his opening act, Naturally 7 (check these guys out NOW!) to work magic on Hoagy Carmichael's great contribution to popular music, "Stardust." He said the song is going to find its way onto the next album; I wish I could buy it on iTunes tonight.


Then Buble closed with Leon Russell's "A Song for You" ("And when my life is over, remember when we were together...") and none of us wanted to find our way back to the car.

We knew we'd been in the presence of pure, raw talent, the kind that only comes around once in a blue moon.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

'Lights' burn brightly again

Well, my guilty pleasure is back.

After a considerable hiatus (thank you, writer's strike), "Friday Night Lights," television's best hour-long drama, is back on TV. The catch is it's only on DIRECTV, so if you aren't a subscriber, you'll have to wait until the show airs on NBC early next year.

The first episode of the new season aired last night. Got distracted, so I had to click the TiVO. But, from what I saw, it looks like our old friends are back with a bang.

Early reviews suggest the show's budget has been tweaked considerably. Popular characters are being phased out or are no longer on the show.

But it's hard to complain. We wouldn't even have enjoyed a third season if not for the unique partnership between DIRECTV and NBC that gives the satellite provider exclusive first broadcasting rights to the show.

I don't know why more people haven't discovered this little gem. I think folks think the show is about football and won't give it a chance. But it captures modern day small-town life better than anything I've seen in many moons, especially on network TV. The characters feel real, not like the blowed-dry stereotypes that usually populate these kind of shows.

The only misstep in three seasons was the insane "murder" subplot that kicked off the show's second season. Thankfully, all that's behind us now, never to be remembered.

I'll post up a review of the season premiere as soon as I have time to watch it. Glad to see that those "Friday Night Lights" are burning brightly again.

Check "FNL" out on The 101 if you are a DIRECTV subscriber. Otherwise, be looking for it in February on NBC.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

To sleep, perchance to dream

She was sitting halfway back in the crowd, alone, watching the show. He saw her from the stage, incredulous, unable to believe what was unfolding before his eyes.

He made it through the last couple of songs, managed a brief "goodnight" and watched as she made her way to the door.

It's now or never.

He caught up with her in the parking lot.

"I...can't believe you're here," he said.

"I had to come," she said.

He looked into her eyes, the eyes that had haunted his dreams for so many years now, and reached out to her. She returned his embrace and they stood there, together, first one minute, then two.

He touched her face. A solitary tear fell down her cheek.

"I'm not going to marry him. I can't do it. I love you."

These were the words he'd waited all his life to hear.

"I love you, too."

He awoke with a start, to the strip of sun beginning to creep across his room. His face was drenched in sweat. He felt disoriented, as if he'd been asleep for weeks.

"No," he said softly to himself. "Please, God, no."

But, yes.

It was but a dream.