Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nighttime companion

It comes creeping round my door from time to time, often in the late hours, before slumber overtakes my mind.

I have come to recognize it, welcome it like an old friend. I try to shoo it away, with books, or television, or the iPod. But it is the definition of stealth; all it has to do is bide its time.

Pills temper it. I wish I could will it away on my own. Such is life.

If I am honest, I must tell you that I often seek an escape, a place to lose myself, an ocean in which to swim. Baseball in the springtime. Sweet music on a Sunday night. John Wayne westerns and John Updike novels. Don Williams and Dvorak. Chocolate ice cream on the patio when the sun sets in the summer.

It is a wonderful thing to soar like an eagle. It is a nightmare to drown in despair.

Good conversation is something to savor; like fine wine, it helps too.

But the clock ticks toward the quiet hours. I think of regrets, though I've had but a few. I lament the too-quick passing of time. I remember her pretty, nervous, vulnerable eyes. I devise a plan to herd a few words. I try to sleep.

Still, it keeps me company, this nighttime companion, often clasping me in its grasp until the first streaks of dawn.

And then I sleep, losing myself in my dreams, again seeking a temporary stop before the journey begins anew.

Friday, January 30, 2009

An endangered species?

Sometimes I fear for the future of this country.

Oh, that's hyperbole. A better way of saying it is I wonder what will happen in the next 30 years.

Let's forget about the economy for a second -- it is too depressing -- and talk about a subject near and dear to my heart.


I yelled and screamed in an earlier blog about the downturn in reading. I won't repeat myself.

But I read a few minutes ago in the New York Times that the Washington Post has decided to eliminate its stand-alone Book World section. Such content will be spread between two other sections.

The Post says the advertising -- or lack of it -- didn't justify the print costs. That is a trend. The modern-day newspaper -- or at least the corporate suits that run them -- don't value the department that creates the reason one purchases the product. It is all about the almighty dollar. Same, too, for magazines. There was a time, if you can believe it, when the New Yorker didn't even print advertisements.

All isn't lost. I suspect that the newspaper of tomorrow will be a Web site. If I weren't poor, I would buy an Amazon Kindle. What a neat contraption.

The traditionalist in me will forever enjoy curling up with a tangible book. But, frankly, I will support anything that promotes reading for pleasure.

My biggest complaint about the plethora of so-called "reality shows" is that networks favor them because they don't have to pay writers. Call me crazy, but I don't think any of this bodes well for the future.

History repeats itself. I can't help but think the pendulum will swing the other way.

I just hope the ink-stained scribe doesn't become extinct before it does.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Good-bye to all that

And so John Updike is dead, and if you at first ask "Who?" or "Who cares?", pull up a chair and let me tell you about a literary hero.

I discovered Updike in college, in a freshman English course, when we were assigned to read a brilliant short story called "A&P." His writing was concise and sharp; his subject matter was something to which an 18-year-old male could relate -- watching girls in bathing suits.

A few years later, after I began taking the New Yorker, I gravitated toward his work. I would look forward to his stories like one looks forward to a winter snow. It wouldn't happen often, but when it did, one savored it.

I spent a memorable Memorial Day at the lake a few years ago, imbibing, talking about life with friends, and sitting on the deck as the sun set, enjoying his latest short story. I remember wondering whether I will churn out consistently well-written work when I'm his age.

He liked to write about sex in suburbia. And, if that seems dirty to you, it wasn't. Updike treated it with honesty, hunting Hemingway's one true sentence, which should be any writer's goal.

I bought his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," for a buck-fifty at McKay's last summer. Just the other night, I was skimming one of his poems in the New Yorker, and reading his article on Ted Williams' last game before bedtime. I won't say I have tried to copy his style in my own work, but through his example I have tried to write with more clarity and honesty.

Don't know why I feel as if I've lost an old friend. But I do.

It's the end of an era, a good-bye to all that tip of the cap to the time when literature seemed a central part of our consciousness.

And so John Updike is dead. I feel like a part of me is too.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Without a song...

So I'm sitting here in the recliner, listening to Tony Bennett sing "When Joanna Loved Me," thinking about past and future loves, glad the weekend is here.

It has been a tough week. Don't feel well. They say that, half the time, medicine is guaranteed to "kill a cure." I believe it.

But, it could be worse. I'm not complaining.

In the end, this will all be worth it. I have to believe it. Sting sang a song about it, so it must be true, right?

Here's something for you to ponder awhile. Don't underestimate the power of music. Might be better than drugs.

Lucas Richman, maestro of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, was quoted by one of our reporters as saying that a recent study found that patients who listened to music didn't require as many painkillers. I believe it.

Played my old friend Elvis on the DVD tonight. Love to hear The King sing. Not the early stuff. The later Vegas, when his voice deepened, his range expanded. The man had a gift. Wish he were still here.

And my friend Robinella? Well, you've heard me talk about her before. Can't wait to go see her again when I'm feeling up to it. Those Sunday nights at Barley's keep me going.

Yesterday afternoon during a break at work, I surfed over to YouTube and found a clip of Karen Carpenter weaving her magic on Leon Russell's "Superstar." Like Robinella, she gives the illusion that she's singing just for you. Like Elvis, I miss Karen Carpenter; hers is a life cut too short by tragedy.

I never have cared much for hard-drivin' rock and roll. Skynyrd is as far as I go, or maybe Janis Joplin. Just because she kicked ass.

Sinatra? Well, I love that ring-a-ding-ding. But, he could sing even in the early days. Much more smooth then. You know, before heartache and cigarettes turned him into a saloon singer. ("It's a quarter to three, there's no one in the place, 'cept you and me...")

And country music. Oh, yeah. Not the new junk. The real stuff. Cash and Haggard, Possum and Hank. And Don Williams. And Willie Nelson. And so, and so, and so, and so. (I stole that line from Hawkeye Pierce.) Andrea Hayes introduced me to Jeff Barbra. He's good. Come to think about it, Andrea introduced me to Robinella. I will never be able to repay that debt.

Jazz? It smokes, baby, if you know what I mean. Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue." Duke Ellington, "Take the A Train." And Coltrane. And later Torme. And Ella. And so, and so, and so, and so.

New, old fashioned pop singers. The late, great Eva Cassidy. And Michael Buble. And Harry Connick Jr. One or two others, names I can't recall.

And the classic gang, too. Bobby Darin. Ricky Nelson. Johnny Mathis. And Barry Manilow, but not as much as before. And John Denver. ("Looking for Space" could have been ripped out of my life.)

It's funny. I love the hippy-era singers, too. Dylan, of course. Joe Cocker. I've already mentioned Janis. The Band, cause they know about "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down." Joni Mitchell, looking at life through both sides now. I say it's funny because for so many years I spent life as a rabid political conservative. Goes to show you that music can bridge a lot of gaps.

Speaking of the late '60s, do you know Jimmy Webb? He wrote some of my favorites. "Galveston." "Where's the Playground, Susie?" "Wichita Lineman." Funny, I just realized that Glen Campbell sang all those tunes.

Gotta mention cowboys. Marty Robbins -- now that guy could sing. Bob Wills, "Faded Love." Michael Martin Murphey. Chris LeDoux.

I know I would like some of the new stuff. Don't listen to it much.

Can't tolerate rap or opera or heavy metal. I need a melody, some harmony, always looking for the hook.

Maybe you have found the lyric to be true. "Without a song, the day would never end..."

Monday, January 19, 2009

A mountain in grandeur of soul...

Let us speak now of humanity a few minutes, since there seems to be so damn little of it anymore.

Forgive the cynical attitude tonight. I have had enough of human beings and their despicable behavior for one week. At some level, it's getting more and more difficult to give a damn.

So let's talk of humanity, and of presidents -- or at least one in particular -- since we will inaugurate a new one on Tuesday. He was a good man, wise beyond his years, decent, humane and brilliant.

Yes, in case you're wondering, it's Abraham Lincoln. And if you think that is a cliched statement, well, I will refrain from saying anything ugly.

When Lincoln rode the train from Springfield to Washington in the winter of 1861, the fate of the republic lay in the two hands on his lanky frame. He was untried, inexperienced, virtually unknown to most of the country. Few gave him a chance.

And yet he became the greatest president we have ever known.

Sure, Lincoln was manipulative, scheming, aware of the power of politics. But he rose above his time, spoke words only a remarkable soul can ever create, seeking malice toward none and charity for all.

Read his Second Inaugural Address. Read the most poignant two-minute oratory in presidential history (it happened at Gettysburg in November 1863 if you need a clue). Then think about the fact that the lawyer from Illinois took less than a year of formal schooling.

He is my one, true hero from American history, a shining example of what a human being and a president can be, someone to grasp onto when you're looking for an inspiration amid the insanity.

I have just about had it. I have witnessed too much senseless anger, too much heartache, too many examples of those who call another "friend" showing no more decency than one would treat a mouse that had stumbled into the house, too many two-faced politicians who offer the world nothing but a shit-eating grin. It doesn't mesh with what I want to believe about the world. It is depressing.

But I think about a lot of things -- the real friends; life's true priorities; the precious, wonderful, all too uncommon moments of pure, unadulterated joy.

And I think, too, about Abraham Lincoln, of the life that is very much the exception to the rule.

Here, let me leave you with some words from the poet Carl Sandburg. This never fails to stir my soul.

"There is no new thing to be said about Lincoln. There is no new thing to be said of the mountains, or of the sea, or of the stars. The years go their way, but the same old mountains lift their granite shoulders above the drifting clouds; the same mysterious sea beats upon the shore; the same silent stars keep holy vigil above a tired world.

"But to the mountains and sea and stars men turn forever in unwearied homage. And thus with Lincoln. For he was a mountain in grandeur of soul. He was a sea in deep undervoice of mystic loneliness. He was a star in steadfast purity of purpose and service.

"And he abides."

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Something I just don't understand...

Here is something I don't understand.

Why have we become so desensitized to one another? How did it happen? When did common courtesy get thrown out the back door with yesterday's trash?

Oh, it's not everybody. We all know that. Whether we'd like to admit it or not, most of us are colored in shades of gray, a little good, a little bad. It makes human beings fascinating, complex, worth of study.

Maybe you can explain this:

I went to Kroger after work tonight. The cupboard and refrigerator were bare. Needed supper.

Along the way I ran into classmate Maggie Meyers. It was good to see a friendly face. We talked briefly. As I turned back to walk toward the milk aisle, I nearly bumped into a woman.

"I'm terribly sorry," I said.

The woman never even looked up.

A few seconds later, I grabbed a jug of skim milk off the shelf. Walking toward checkout, there was no way around another woman also skimming (pardon the pun) for milk, other than walking right in front of her.

"Excuse me," I said as I walked by.

The woman ever even looked up.

Part of this is the "It's All About Me" mentality of our modern life, the prevalent solipsism, the fallout of a society that expects instant gratification. Part of it is a lack of manners. Part of it is just puzzling.

A few weeks before Christmas, I told you about Dean Harned and Mark Padgett's run-in with the injured motorists and the lack of concern by residents in the nearby neighborhood. Amazing. Unbelievable. Sad.

I would like to think we'd go out of our way to say a kind word to somebody who is hurting. I hope we all would take two minutes and call somebody just to say "hello." I need to believe that we would follow the example of the Good Samaritan and never pass to the other side of the road.

We can't always live up to that. I don't. You don't.

But we can try. A reader sent an e-mail saying she wants to give what she'd normally spend monthly on cigarettes (she is kicking the habit as a New Year's resolution) to someone who has lost their job. What a sweet, powerful, wonderful random act of kindness. And guess what? Best part is she wants to do it anonymously. None of this "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee!"

Treating people with decency is so simple. It can move mountains. And, yet, it seems so impossible for a lot of people.

Driving home, I thought about those two strangers at Kroger. I wondered if troubling circumstances in their lives caused them to be distracted. I wondered if they were simply rude. I would like to think they were hard of hearing.

Maybe I am naive. Maybe I am looking at life through rose colored glasses.

But for the life of me I just don't understand it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Down at the old school

Went out to the old school last night.

I was there to watch basketball, to root for my brother and his JV team, to slap backs, to shake hands. I had forgotten how much fun it can be.

Believe it or not there are still some familiar faces. Gary Davis still keeps the scorebook. Rodney Duncan still sits in the corner -- I guess because Cheri makes him. It came after I graduated, but Tim Reeves still works the PA.

Here is a "this will make you feel old" moment. I noticed an attractive, well-dressed young woman sitting with several students. After a few minutes, realization struck. It was Brooke Underwood, one of pal Gary Underwood's daughters, who was about 10 when I graduated from Halls High. She is an assistant girls coach now for J.D. Lambert.

My, how time slips away.

Jason Webster, who like Tim is about my age, is athletic director. Coach Mark Duff -- hero, teacher, history mentor -- is principal. The kids look so young. (Did we look like that back then?)

As I bundled up to face the winter chill outside, I thought for the hundredth time how lucky I am to still be haunting the homestead. Sometimes I wish I were elsewhere, but when you balance the scales, it tips in my favor.

I had such a good time it made me forget about what I saw later -- Kentucky's Jodie Meeks and Tennessee's inability to stop the guy's red-hot shooting.

Well, almost.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A winter dream of spring

In the springtime, when the earth awakens and gray gives way to blue, I will head to Minnesota.

I will take a week, and take my time, and meander to the Midwest, to baseball, to a new experience.

When I was younger, my parents dragged us on two two-week vacations. At the time I hated it. I wanted to go to the beach. I wanted to stay home and enjoy the summer. I wanted to be a shiftless teen.

At the end of it we all were tired of each other. But we had also seen quite a lot of our native land. Between those trips, and my own travels, I've been to 45 of the 50 states. This quixotic journey will add two more -- the Land of 1,000 Lakes and to North Dakota. I managed to miss those two along the way.

I will go to Minnesota, to our national game, to the Twin Cities and the Twins. I will stay in cheap hotels, have no need to shave, enjoy the journey, and write about what I see. From there, I hope to return to Little Big Horn, to Custer's Last Stand, to the Big Sky Country, to that still and silent ground. Don't ask me why, but that place haunts me.

I will then travel west, to my last unexplored country from California to the New York islands, then take the leisurely route home. Perhaps I'll go to Iowa, to the Field of Dreams, to Shoeless Joe Jackson and that magical cornfield, and have a catch at twilight.

Those who play it, and those who have lost the childhood wanderlust, insist baseball is just a game. They say it contains nothing metaphorical, nothing metaphysical. But I know better.

Oh, I don't mind the eccentricity of my attachment to it. There are worse things over which to obsess. Besides, at some level, I don't care what you think.

Baseball has always been an escape, my version of an addictive drug, a three and one-half hour foray into sweet surrender. I often combine it with traveling, joining the longstanding American obsession with the open road, the last gasp of Manifest Destiny, or some such thing.

I am more comfortable away from here. I write with more passion, with more clarity, with a renewed sense of purpose. I relax. Clear my mind. Figure out what I need to do. And yet, like this child's game I love so much, I look forward to coming home.

Maybe it is only a passing fancy on a cold, restless winter's night. Or maybe not.

Regardless, it is a pretty thought, something to anticipate, something for which to plan, in the fond expectancy of spring, when the world begins anew.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The best vacation I ever had...

Motown made the news a lot last year.

Not the kind of press you want, though. Most of it was bad.

Hell, bad isn't the word. The American auto industry is all but invisible. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler -- they all went to Congress, hat in hand, looking for relief. Congress told them to drop dead.

Detroit's crook of a mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was thrown in jail. The baseball team, my beloved Tigers, flopped, in spite of its All-Star lineup, and finished dead last in its division. The football team, the Lions, didn't win a single game.

But, you know something? The best vacation I ever had happened in Detroit, two summers ago, when time seemed to stop. Pull up a chair. Let me tell you about it.

I have been venturing up to Michigan since the late 1990s. Baseball, the last dance at Tiger Stadium, first drew me to Motown. We came to say good-bye, to hang out with my friends David Romas and Jennifer Bondy, to pay homage to that grand cathedral at The Corner.

Flash forward to August 2007. I hadn't taken any time off all year. Well, other than sick leave to pass kidney stones. That doesn't count.

Looking to escape the 100-degree heat on Rocky Top, I e-mailed David.

"Hey," I said. "My favorite singer is coming to Ann Arbor. Let's take in a Tigers game and go see her sing."

"OK," David said.

I flew up early on a Sunday morning. David picked me up at the airport. The temperature was 73 degrees. In Knoxville the day before, the thermometer read 102.

We ate lunch at a bar across the street from Comerica Park. The Tigers were playing Oakland that afternoon. We saw a win, my first at Detroit's new park, my first in six tries.

Monday night we headed to the University of Michigan campus. We ate dinner at a cool joint. We sat on the sidewalk. I watched the girls go by and enjoyed the sunset. What a night.

Then Robinella wowed the crowd at The Ark. I worked up the courage to say hello, something a star-struck fan had never been able to do down in the Old City. She gave me a hug and I floated back to the car. Picture perfect. The world made perfect sense.

I woke up that next morning, took a glass of orange juice and a bagel out on David and Jen's back patio, and ate breakfast in the morning sun. Sixty-eight degrees. I could feel the wind on my face. Picture perfect.

I wrote some of my best pieces to date during that trip. My boss liked them so much she devoted an entire page to them in our newspaper.

That Wednesday I flew home to Halls, relaxed and rejuvenated, ready to face the reality of autumn.

It was picture perfect, the best vacation I ever had, in a city that always gets a bad rap.

Hang in there, Detroit. Like this great nation of ours, you'll make a comeback.

Any town that gives a guy his best trip in years all but deserves a break.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Something I never really had...

It’s a funny thing, regrets.

I have lived life in such a way that I don’t have too many of them. Oh, a few trifles here and there. Wish I’d not taken college so seriously. Wish I’d done this or not done that. They are mostly soap bubbles.

All but one — and it’s a big, fat regret.

She came to me in a dream last night. I haven’t thought about her in a whole mess of Sundays. But my nocturnal reverie was such that she stayed on my mind for the rest of the day.

I don’t think I’ve told you about her before. This girl was fun, fun-loving, and quite sweet. She liked me a whole lot. And, I liked her too, but like a fool I was too busy elsewhere, chasing the elusive raven-headed terror that still causes a nightmare every year or two.

Now that I think about it, I don’t know how on earth I let this girl slip away.

But, slip away she did. And, like so much else in this life, I didn’t realize how special she was until she was gone.

My dream was curious. She and I had found each other again. She was telling me about her life. She showed me her house – this fantastic place on the beach, complete with a patio, a big fireplace and two matching La-Z-Boy recliners in front of the TV.

“This is where we’ll live,” she said as we walked hand in hand toward the sand and surf.

“Just don’t let me wake up,” I said, just before I woke up.

I last saw her two or so years ago at a baseball game. She was beautiful, more so than before, and still as sweet as ever.

I smiled, waved, tried to keep the lump from forming in my throat, and remembered a line from a sappy old show.

“I never knew how bad it hurt to lose something I never really had.”

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

All it ever does is rain...

Seems like all it ever does anymore is rain.

Could be worse. If it were a few degrees cooler, this would all be snow.

Last night would have been the perfect evening for a 1940s black-and-white mystery. As it was, I was sitting in the Andrew Johnson Building downtown, at the school board, listening to Robert Bratton go off on the media and the “sensational” headlines that give him heartburn.

It’s OK. This is my free entertainment.

Just before bed, I read awhile on Lincoln, and his pioneering role as commander-in-chief. The Rail-splitter turns 200 this year. And, it seems like the time to read about him, given all the silly comparisons between Abe and Obama.

Tonight, I’ll head over to the old school, to the gym, to watch a few minutes of basketball. Halls is playing Central. It seems the thing to do.

(Well, actually, I get paid for it. Don’t tell anybody.)

Monday, January 05, 2009


“Well, there’s Jake!”

And with those three words, the phenomenon that is Senor Doug Bright entered my world. What a trip it has been.

I can’t call him Doug — even after 17 years. I can’t call him Mr. Bright. Just doesn’t fit. No, he will forever be Senor.

What a fun teacher. Senor could take Spanish and make you enjoy it. You’d put up with all the vocabulary words and all the homework just to see him do the “Truffle Shuffle.” (I am not going to bother explaining that one; it will have to remain an inside joke to those “in the know.”)

You loved singing Christmas carols in Spanish. You loved the fun homework assignments. The late, great Josh Ellis and I put on our version of the “David Letterman Show” for our “commercial” video — he as the acerbic late night host; me as the musical guest, Elvis Presley. (Yes, Senor even made me sing “See See Rider” in Spanish!)

I saw him lose his temper twice. It was enough to never want to see it again.

But he was funny, and fun loving, the biggest Vol fan I know, in so many ways the best teacher I ever had.

Speaking of the Vols, I have to tell you about Senor’s Vol Van. Halls High kids of a certain age will remember that his original van came equipped with a music machine that blared “Rocky Top” and other tunes. His son, Neylan, almost set this off during Josh Ellis’s funeral procession in June 1995. It made us laugh right when we needed it.

Senor took us to Memories Theater a couple of times to see the Elvis show – me, Drew Weaver, Dean Harned and Dewayne “Plab” Lawson. We’d go over to his house from time to time. Heck, a teacher probably can’t even do that anymore.

We kept in touch, even after I graduated and Senor moved on to Webb School. I watched his kids on Valentine’s Day one year so he and Peggy could enjoy the night out. We’ve taken in a half-dozen UT games together and watched just as many on TV.

Getting together to eat pizza and watch football last Friday night, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I had been to find Senor waiting during that Spanish II class years ago.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. I tested out of an entire year of Spanish at UT — only had to take the last two semesters. I can promise you it wasn’t anything I did.

That credit, too, belongs to Senor.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

False spring

This is the kind of day that somebody -- either the Comanche or a Hollywood screenwriter -- once called a "false spring."

It is an apt description. So apropos that I skipped the gym in favor of the Halls Greenway Trail. Too pretty to exercise inside.

I felt the sun on my face, watched a bluebird fly its course, and dreamed of April. That so-called cruelest month is my favorite of the 12, a time of rejuvenation, when the earth awakens from its slumber.

I wanted to go to a baseball game. Then, I remembered it was winter, so I came home to eat a ham sandwich. Such is life.

Walking along the marsh, I encountered the best of Halls (strangers stopping to say howdy) and the worst (anti-Semitic sentiment spray painted on the retaining wall behind the empty Bi-Lo). I shook my head. Guess some things never change.

Funny how even a 30-minute jaunt can do wonders for the soul. I can't help but wonder what might happen if the whole world stopped to smell the proverbial roses.

Decided to skip a New Year's resolutions piece this year. Those, too, have become a cliche. Nobody keeps them anyway.

But, I am determined to forgo so much television this year in favor of a good book, live music, a lazy drive or an hour at the gym. Life is short. Carpe diem.

As I sit here now, calmed by my workout, "A Prairie Home Companion" playing on the radio, I can't help but look unafraid toward 2009.

Anything seems possible on a false spring Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


A moment, real or imagined...

He watched her walk down the stairs and away from him forever.

She had given him a new lease on life. But it was like the rose that bloomed before dying.

He first saw her years ago in a faded photograph. He had 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's lost the words, time has taken them from him, but he remembers her smile.

"You can come to my house for the holidays," she had 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.

Yet it didn't come close to reality.

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

"Goodbye," she had said.

Funny how the simple words hurt the most.