Monday, March 24, 2014

"Far out!"

A funny thing happened on Facebook yesterday.

I've been listening to a lot of John Denver lately. I recently purchased a box set of all of his RCA albums, and he's usually not far from the CD or record player anyway. (He's among my top 6 favorites, which also include Elvis, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Karen Carpenter and Robinella.)

Anyway, I thought I'd take a poll and ask my Facebook friends to name their favorite JD album and/or song.

The far and away favorite song was "Thank God I'm A Country Boy." And it's no wonder. It's infectious. If you can listen to that song without a smile on your face, you have a heart of stone. A close second was "Back Home Again."

And, interestingly, the favorite album was John Denver and The Muppets, "A Christmas Together." Heh, heh. The Muppets have staying power, methinks, and certainly hold a special place in the hearts of those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s.

For the record, no pun intended, my favorite John Denver album is "Windsong" and my favorite single is "Looking For Space," which I consider my theme song.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle; sometimes I'm deep in despair...

John Denver's music does what all good music should -- it makes me happy, sad, introspective, fun-loving, running the gamut of human emotions.

This music has provided the soundtrack of my life. He was omnipresent on the radio in childhood. We even sang his songs in elementary school music class.

"Looking For Space" plays a prominent role in my favorite "Magnum, p.i." episode, "Limbo."

And I'll never forget getting ready for work that awful October day in 1997 when Mom busted into the bathroom.

"Jake, I just heard on the radio that John Denver is dead!"

Stunned silence.

I miss John Denver. I miss his spirit. I miss his soul. I even miss that goofy grin.

Found a few clips you might like.

Here is John Denver guest hosting "The Tonight Show" for Johnny Carson, interviewing Carl Sagan.

Here is the song he wrote for the Challenger 7, "Flying For Me."

And here is JD with Bill and Taffy Danoff singing the song they co-wrote together, his 1971 mega-hit, "Take Me Home Country Roads."

Far out!

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Isn't it rich?

Ah, yes. Detox day.

We all need them from time to time, don'tcha think? Just a day to relax, unwind, do whatever makes you happy, forget your troubles awhile.

Planned on getting outside on Saturday -- gotta work on that Dino tan -- but my back had other ideas. Yep. Having some pain down there. Just hoping it's not a kidney stone. Those are bad words in my house after giving birth to 13 of them.

But, all wasn't lost. I caught a complete "Dean Martin Show" and was able to listen to Jonathan Schwartz's birthday tribute to one of my favorite composers, Stephen Sondheim. (I cannot believe that man is 84.)

I'm not a huge fan of Broadway musicals, but I do like a few. Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein are favorites, but Sondheim's songs touch my soul.

My favorite -- it's hard to pick just one -- is "A Little Night Music," an adaptation of Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." Love that play.

And, although it's a cliche, my favorite Sondheim song is, you guessed it, "Send In The Clowns."

Everybody has their interpretation of the tune. Mine is that it's about a man and a woman looking back at a relationship that didn't make it. She -- in this case Desiree -- runs into the man -- in this case, the lawyer Fredrik -- who has wed but not consummated a marriage with a much younger woman. During the course of the play, Desiree looks back on the disappointments and missed opportunities of her life. It's a universal human theme.

In a 1973 interview at the Lincoln Center, Sondheim said:

"I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a circus [...] 

"It's a theater reference meaning 'if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns'; in other words, 'let's do the jokes.' I always want to know, when I'm writing a song, what the end is going to be, so 'Send in the Clowns' didn't settle in until I got the notion, 'Don't bother, they're here,' which means that 'We are the fools.'"

I've been in that situation once. Right romance. Wrong time. It happens. How you deal with it is what's important.

The song was written for Glynis Johns. I like the covers by Judy Collins, Mandy Patinkin and Barbra Streisand, but -- to me -- the definitive cover is by Francis Albert Sinatra.

Frank recorded it twice. The first attempt in 1973 is fine but flawed. It's a Gordon Jenkins arrangement, and as Schwartz said on his show, it's filled with too many fiddles.

Schwartz sent Sinatra a letter suggesting he record the song again just like he performed it in concert -- quietly, with only Bill Miller's piano as an accompaniment.

So, in May 1976, that's what Sinatra did. It's magic. Listen. See what I mean?

Useless trivia: This is also the only Sinatra song recorded in a studio that features a spoken word introduction.

Anyway. It was good to hear Jon Schwartz tonight. Due to my busy schedule (and frequent migraines), I haven't had a chance to listen to him of late. His was a fitting tribute to a true pioneer. Sondheim's music is magic, his lyrics are lovely, and his plays are (almost always) perfect.

Isn't it rich, indeed!

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lunch with a true lady...

Earlier today, I enjoyed lunch with film, TV and opera star Mary Costa. She's perhaps best known to most of you as the voice of Princess Aurora from "Sleeping Beauty." My good friend Dean Harned arranged the luncheon and brought along his wife, Allison, and their son, Lincoln.

Thank you, Mary, for making me feel "alive" today! What a gracious, gracious woman.

Also included is a screen shot of Mary with Bing Crosby on his 1971 Christmas special.

She was so gracious, so warm, and even so persuading that she talked me into seeing the encore showing tonight of The Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD! production of Massenet's "Werther," starring the touted tenor Jonas Kaufmann.

Here's to a true Knoxville legend!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I like him so much...

You know, it dawned on me earlier that I don't think I've ever told you why I like Dean Martin so much.

 Dino was supremo, the king of cool, calm, classy. Longtime readers know how much I love him and his music.

Of the members of the so-called Rat Pack, Dean is my favorite. Before you have a coronary, let me add a caveat.

Sinatra was superb. Nobody, and I mean nobody, resides in Francis Albert's league. He was a stylist, a singer's singer, The Voice, The Chairman of the Board. I own more Frank Sinatra records than any other performer, with the possible exception of Elvis.

But Dean is my favorite.

For one thing, he's funny. You can't help but laugh at the guy. His drunk routine (he usually was drinking apple juice) was classic. His ad-libbing one-liners were hilarious, delivered with pitch-perfect timing. Even his former comedic partner Jerry Lewis said Dino had the "it" that all superstars possess.

His relaxed, "I couldn't care less" attitude was inspired by his hero (and mine), Bing Crosby, updated for the '60s and '70s. There's a classic clip of the two of them together from Bing's 1970 TV show. Look at the admiration in Dean's eyes.

Oh, and don't miss this gem from Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

And you'll get a kick out of this. Yeah, I've tried to copy Dean's hair, his performance mannerisms when singing, even his laid-back persona when I speak before an audience. What can I say? Imitate the best!

I ordered the complete Dean Martin roasts, a collection of "The Dean Martin Show" -- both from Time-Life -- as well as the "Collected Cool" box set for my birthday. Best money I ever spent.

Maybe one of the secrets to it is that Dean, unlike, say, Frankie, seemed so accessible.

"I made myself part of the audience," he said. "I didn't act like I was doing them a favor on the stage. I've seen entertainers act like they were doing you a favor by singing for you, which is wrong. If you make 'em feel like they're a part of ya..., I don't know..."


And there's a serious side here, too. You know about my migraines. Won't rehash them here. But, when I get them, I can only listen to four singers: Bing Crosby, Karen Carpenter, John Denver and Dino. There's something about the timbre in each of their voices that doesn't further irritate my head.

One of my favorite things to do is put one of Dino's records on the turntable -- and they usually are records -- ease back with an ice pack, shut my eyes and dream of a day when pop culture wasn't pathetic.

So, I owe the boy quite a bit. He never fails to make me smile -- sometimes belly laugh -- and his music is pure magic.

Salud, Dino. I hope each of you has a Dean Martin in your own lives.

P.S. For the record, my favorite Dino song is his cover of Jim Reeves' "Welcome To My World" and my favorite album is "Dream With Dean." My favorite film is a tie between "Robin and the 7 Hoods" and the first Matt Helm movie.

Everybody loves somebody sometime

"And don't worry, Jeanne, I'll be home soon..."

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Laughing through the pain

Couldn't let the day go by without wishing a happy birthday to a comedic genius, an underrated talent in this country, a true philanthropist with a heart of gold, and one hell of a funny man, Mr. Jerry Lewis.

In fact, if I can get rid of this migraine, I'm going to watch "The Nutty Professor" at some point today. It will help me laugh through the pain.

I don't know why Jer hasn't received his just due in the United States. Part of it may be that critics see a one-dimensional character. If so, they are myopic. The French love him. They know good cinema when they see it. I am glad to see that he's being honored at this year's TCM Film Festival in L.A.

Growing up, I never did like Jerry Lewis as much as I liked Dean Martin. That's still the truth today. But it has nothing to do with talent. I wanted to be Dino. Heck, let me take that out of the past tense. I still want to be Dino.

But Jerry was hilarious. His Buddy Love persona in "The Nutty Professor" sends me into hysterics. Every. Single. Time.

And you know about the great work he did for so many years with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His telethons were a Labor Day staple on my TV set if I weren't on vacation. Usually, that's where all my favorite singers and personalities would appear.

I'll never forget one of Sammy Davis Jr.'s last appearances. It's my recollection that he sang "Mr. Bojangles," but you know memory. It's notoriously unreliable.

I still can't believe he was so unceremoniously dumped by the MDA. They should be ashamed. Ashamed, I tell ya!

Well, I have to make this one short, y'all. I have a migraine -- a big one. Have been lying in the dark since yesterday about 8 p.m. I don't mind tell you that these migraines are starting to get to me. It's tough y'all, although, again, I'm glad it isn't terminal. So many have it so much worse than I.

Here's to all of my loved ones who made the 2014 edition of my birthday extra special this year -- right when I needed it.

I love you all.

See you tomorrow.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014


Well, well. Today's my birthday. I'm thirty-someting. (Remember that show?)

I'm closer to 40 than 30, I might add.

Glad to see another year, a fresh start, an approaching baseball season.

Unlike Sinatra's familiar song, this wasn't a very good year. I've always been honest with you, so I'll tell you now -- my wife and I are getting divorced.

I hold no anger, no resentment, no regrets. We discovered we are two different people. Different interests. Different norms and values. Different destinations. And that's all I have to say about that (with apologies to Forrest Gump).

My grandmother died last July. I miss her every day.

And I told you yesterday about the migraines. No need to say more.

I normally have a birthday ritual. I watch the "Magnum, p.i." episodes "Laura" and "Limbo." I watch the John Wayne version of "True Grit." I eat. I sleep. I listen to music.

This year my birthday falls on deadline day, so I have to work. It's OK. I like my job.

You know, it's funny. I still feel like I'm about 19 or 20. That's my mind-set, although my body occasionally reminds me otherwise. Like Magnum once said, "It's not that we're old, we're just not young anymore."

Life is funny. Fastballs, curveballs, sliders, change-ups. You can play it safe. You can swing for the fence. You've often got a short amount of time to decide.

Well, here's to you. Cheers! May we both live to be 100, and may the last voice you hear be mine.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Just need to get this out of my system

Just bear with me on this one, folks. I simply need to talk a minute. If you don't want to listen, it's OK.

Let me begin my saying that I feel guilty about even mentioning my migraines. So many people are dealing with much, much more serious, terminal diseases and illnesses -- cancer, Alzheimer's, dementia, depression, heart trouble, you name it. But, as one of my doctors says, I have chronic, everyday pain, which is no acceptable lifestyle.

You feel lonely, isolated, helpless, worried, miserable, motionless, mad. And, please forgive my language, you simply feel like shit.

Good news is that one of the best medical professionals and human beings I have ever known has taken a special interest in my case. I'm a guinea pig for a new treatment. It's helping kill the migraines. Following treatment two sessions ago, I went five days without one, which for me is an eternity. He and his family will never know how grateful to and thankful for them I feel.

You don't understand if you've never had one. And I hope you never have and never will have one. You can't do anything. You can't move sometimes. About all you can do is lie in a cool, dark room. If I'm lucky, I can listen to Bing Crosby. The timbre of his voice doesn't make my head hurt. Go figure.

I've tried nearly everything but Botox injections. My insurance won't pay for them. I worry -- about my performance, my ability to work on projects, my quality of life. I'll tell you this: you certainly find out who your true friends and loved ones are when you get sick.

As John Denver sang, in another generation about another, more life-threatening, set of circumstances, "I want to live. I want to grow. I want to see. I want to know. I want to share what I can give. I wanna be. I want to live."

So, even though it's much, much, much lower on the priority list than those with terminal illnesses, think about your buddy Jake, if you would, or send up a prayer if you're of such a persuasion.

If I can be vulnerable a minute, it's tough. What's that Dave Loggins line?

But, of all the dreams I've lost or found, and all that I ain't got
I still need a name or two; somebody I can sing to...

Chances are, if you made it this far, you're a special person with a good heart. And, for that, I thank you.

Have a great afternoon. Love you.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Joan Didion wrote something once that hit home with me (and I use that cliche on purpose).

A place belongs forever
to whoever claims it hardest, remembers
it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, 
shapes it, renders it,
loves it so radically that he 
remakes it in his own image. 

People ask me from time to time why I've stayed with the newspaper, why I still live in the community in which I was born -- in essence, why I've stayed here in Halls.

Fair enough question.

Part of the answer is that, by and large, I'm happy here. Halls Crossroads, TN (unincorporated) is my home. People here have been good to me. They've put up with my rants. They've helped me grow. They've taught me valuable lessons, either about what to do or what not to do. They've come to hear me sing, been kind enough to laugh at my jokes. Some of them have even commissioned me to write the community's history, which will be completed later this year.

I always wanted to write and found out a way to get paid doing it in my own backyard. Not bad, huh?

Don't get me wrong. I get the itch now and again.

I've told you before about that Garrison Keillor novel "Love Me." The main character hits the big time with a best-seller, goes to New York, works for Mr. Shawn at The New Yorker. That's my dream!

Just the other day, I was feeling stifled, sick, tired, beautifully, simply longing to move to Bay St. Louis,  wondering if it was worth killing all these trees and working all these hours, all this stress, all this newsprint. And then I read this article by Keillor in National Geographic. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait.

Great, huh?

What I finally discovered is you don't have to go away somewhere to be successful. Success is subjective.

Sure, I get tired of the rednecks, a term I use carefully, in its most blunt, direct, definition. But that's everywhere. There's a difference, a big one, between being Southern, certainly being country, and being a redneck. Rednecks live in all 50 states, can be found in any economic bracket, any country in the world, and are among the most disgusting vermin to ever go slouching across the soil.

I'm happy here. I'm happy at the paper. Some days I miss my old Charles Kuralt-esque beat, but it's cool.

Plus, as you can imagine, covering county government is the best job in town. Who needs so-called "reality TV" when you have that kind of entertainment?

I could make more money elsewhere, but, as I said, I'm happy. Don't guess I'll leave unless the Detroit Tigers or The New Yorker calls.

And, at the end of the day, I love this area, not only Halls, but Knox County, its people, its beauty. It's just big enough to have access to parks and cinema and hyperlocal radio and the fine arts and still be small enough to feel familiar.

Plus, I figure why not subvert from within? My politics are more moderate, a little to the left, a little to the right. People will put up with you, and sometimes listen, if you're purposeful and pleasant. I try to be both. I often fail, but I try.

There's an old, old saying in this business of herding words:

"Write what you know."

Most importantly of all, my loved ones are here.

Compelling reasons to stay, eh?

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

'Follies of the living, concerns of the dead'

Memories of "M*A*S*H."

Oh, how they grow sweeter with age, "vintage wine from fine old kegs," with apologies to Ervin Drake.

Last night, I watched "Follies of the Living, Concerns of the Dead." Yep, I cried. Again.

At the beginning of the episode, Klinger is running a high fever due to a kidney stone. Meanwhile, a group of wounded arrives, including a young man who is DOA.

The problem is that he isn't quite dead. His spirit rises from his body. Only Klinger can see him.

He watches, helpless, as the doctors and nurses of the 4077th argue over trifles -- who's hanger is whom's, for example, and other little quirks. He even watches as Father Mulcahy gives him the last rites.

In one scene, he roams through the camp, hearing passersby worry about the National League pennant or how their hair looks or all the things we, the living, stress over, follies, just as the title says.

Three scenes get to me.

One is when Hawkeye, B.J. and Winchester are back in The Swamp after a long session of meatball surgery. They are drinking to ease the pain. At one point, one of them tightens a scalpel on B.J.'s hand.

"I can still feel it."

Another is when a wounded soldier listens as Col. Potter reads the letter the wounded man wrote to the dead soldier's parents. It's perfect. Poignant.

The last one is the climax. The young man realizes that he is, in fact, dying.

"This way," another dead soldier says.

"Where are we going?" he asks.

"I don't know" is the reply.

I never realized how much this episode puts me in mind of my favorite installment of "Magnum, p.i." It is appropriately called "Limbo." Intended as the series finale (long story), "Limbo" shows Magnum, who is fatally shot at the beginning of the show, walking around unseen, in spirit form, saying goodbye to his friends. He takes a final walk into the mist to the strains of John Denver's "Looking For Space."

I have to repeat the soldier's words from "M*A*S*H."

"I don't know."

I don't know what happens when one dies. The romantic in me hopes that one does indeed get to roam around for a few minutes, saying goodbye to loved ones, taking one last look at favorite places, punctuating all periods.

But the more important lesson, particularly from the "M*A*S*H" episode, is that we're often concerned about follies that just don't matter in the grand scheme of things.

Who cares if someone cuts you off in traffic? So what if you fail an exam? What's the worst that can happen if you make a mistake?

Yesterday morning, I started worrying about missing early deadline. Almost had a dadgum panic attack. And for what? Nothing. It worked out. It always does.

The one thing I like about that "Don't sweat the small stuff" business is that it is a cliche that happens to be true.

Live for today. Don't worry about what you can't control. Don't stress about stuff that doesn't matter.

Laugh. Love. Hug. Be kind to someone for the heck of it. To quote Bobby McFerrin, don't worry, be happy!

Let the resentments go. Forgive those who trespass against you. When you screw up, admit it. Call people when you don't want anything. Use each failure as a learning tool.

Life is short. Carpe diem.

"Follies of the living, concerns of the dead."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

'Long ago, and oh, so far away...'

Those who know such things say smell triggers memories quicker and stronger than any of the other senses.

Can't deny it, but for me, it's sound. Particularly the sound of music, if you'll pardon the pun. 

You ever remember where you were the first time you heard a song? I had just made the turn into the big curve on Emory Road near Greenwell Drive when I first discovered Merle Haggard's "What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana?" Somebody was playing it on the great, long-gone WGAP-FM ("World's Greatest Aluminum Plant!"). 

It hit me so hard, I nearly wrecked. 

I was sitting somewhere in the UT Music Building when I first heard Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches." Music, life, how the weather was -- nothing was ever the same after "Kind of Blue." 

I was at a joint downtown, one Sunday night nearly a decade ago accompanied by a girl with whom I attended high school, when I heard Robinella's "Teardrops." I had a near-religious experience. Killing me softly with her song, indeed. 

And I was finishing a project in eighth-grade English class when the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard came wafting in from the next room. 

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

I would probably be expelled for doing this today, but I stood up, right in the middle of class, opened the partition, and asked the social studies teacher to identify the woman with the warm, ethereal voice. 

It was Karen Carpenter. 

I know it's all subjective, but I get angry at the scorn leveled at The Carpenters. If you don't like their music, no worries. But the cheap shots are musically ignorant. And the anorexia jokes are awful. Just plain awful.

Karen had the intangible quality that makes a singer a star. Those who were there say you could wake her up at 3 a.m. and she could sing on perfect pitch. And she had this timbre to her voice, this warmth, that gave you the illusion she was sitting in your lap, singing just for you. 

And poor Richard. Always overlooked. But he was the man behind the curtain, the arranger, the musical genius who created their sound, the John Ford to Karen's John Wayne. 

I went bonkers. Bought all of their albums. Later, I bought all of their CDs. Even the ones I had to get from England and Japan. And this was before Amazon and the Internet! 

I wrote to their longtime secretary, Evelyn Wallace, whom we lost last August. She sent me a nice note in return and an unopened vinyl copy of their last U.S. studio album released during Karen's lifetime, "Made In America." It's still sealed. 

Although I didn't care for all of it, I was tickled when several modern bands and singers released a tribute album, "If I Were A Carpenter," in the 1990s. 

"Well," I said, "at least somebody gets it." 

I devour music like others devour doughnuts. It is a companion when I'm lonely, it is solace for the soul, it is artistic inspiration, and, yes, it is a time machine. 

Though it was long ago and, oh, so far away, sure enough, the song remembers when. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Hearing what you want to hear...

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion," Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "but not his own facts."

That statement proved to be prescient.

I'm a news junkie, as you know. I work in my own quiet little corner of the media, which suits me just fine. The stories I write and my paper's main mission -- hyperlocal neighborhood news -- fit my personality. As much as I admired him, I could never be Mike Wallace. (I could be Andy Rooney, but I digress.)

Shifting media trends have bothered me for some time. It is now possible for a person to get up each morning and go through an entire day listening to, watching, or reading "news" that does nothing but reenforce opinions one already holds.

This is true for anyone on any part of the political spectrum and of several so-called news outlets. Don't think I'm about to start ranting about conservatives or liberals, Fox News or MSNBC. I'm calling out everybody.

First things first: the bit about the press being a bunch of biased liberals is a load of bull. It's a myth that goes back to at least my favorite enigma -- Richard Milhous Nixon -- but probably began to blossom during the Cold War (McCarthy, Murrow, National Review).

Don't get me wrong. A lot of reporters I know are political liberals. (God, I hate these labels.) Others are quite conservative.

I can't speak for anything other than what I know. But I can say that every reporter with whom I'm familiar -- with a few notable exceptions -- are extremely fair. Those who aren't make no bones about their biases. As long as readers know that going in, no problem.

But the bigger problem is this business about immersing yourself in political propaganda disguised as news. I worry about its long-term implications.

This goes for the person who -- limited to these options alone -- meets the morning with "Fox and Friends," reads the Drudge Report, throws mega dittos to Limbaugh during lunch, subscribes to the Weekly Standard, thinks the New York Post is the greatest newspaper in America, ends the day with Megyn Kelly and thinks Glenn Beck's departure from Fox News was the end of civilization as we know it.

It also goes for the person who -- limited to these options alone -- surfs through Slate and Salon before breakfast, wouldn't dare pay a penny for the Wall Street Journal, subscribes to The Atlantic, ends the day with Rachel Maddow and thinks Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC was the end of civilization as we know it.

Granted, both scenarios are exaggerated and are better than -- God help us -- never reading a newspaper or news website, naming the National Enquirer as your favorite magazine and thinking everything you need to know about the world can be found on "Entertainment Tonight."

But I think you get my point.

This whole notion of a "biased media" and the fallout from consuming splintered, self-fulfilling prophecy type "news" hit home with me three times over the past two years.

The first time was a relatively minor incident that nevertheless left me furious. Long story made short, I had been asked to surprise a North Knox senior citizen during her birthday party at the request of her family. They wanted a story in the Shopper-News to be a gift to her, telling me that she's done so much for so long and never seeks the spotlight. That's my kind of story.

So, I showed up on the appointed day at the appointed hour, and everything was great -- until a woman who wouldn't look me in the eye said with a smirk, "Well, here comes the paparazzi!"

That, my friends, is like calling someone more evil than Hitler. The words paparazzi and journalists aren't synonyms. Paparazzi are scum-sucking parasites who prey on the famous and infamous and are almost never invited or wanted. They are an embarrassment to the human race and certainly to the media. And let's not forget that they only exist because of consumer demand for their kind of "news."

Another, more humorous, incident happened in 2012. Our newspaper supported a Knox County Schools request for an increased budget -- one that would require a tax increase, which this county has not seen in nearly 20 years -- to fund cutting-edge and much-needed technology at every school in the district.

I laughed almost as hard as I usually do at state Sen. Stacey Campfield when someone wrote a letter to the editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel calling my newspaper part of Knoxville's "liberal, elite media."

I continued to chuckle as I went back to writing about a kid who had grown a large head of lettuce in an effort to win a college FFA scholarship.

The third and most bothersome incident happened after my editor and I voiced strong opinions on Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre late last year. After I published this blog post summarizing my thoughts after four months of research and reflection, I was accused of everything from lobbying for a public relations position with the school system, to being McIntyre's hagiographer, to being a backward bumpkin who wanted to return to bare knuckles and back room politics, to excoriating McIntyre as a demanding dictator.

Then it hit me.

"The people who sent these comments simply read into this what they wanted to hear."

And that scares me to death.

Common sense and analytical, critical thinking may be the real national deficit. Anger, vitriol, hyperpartisan ideology and purposefully distracting wedge issues permeate our current political climate.

Individuals I encounter daily (of all ages) know next to nothing about their own history. (I never will forget the customer at the bookstore where I worked during college telling me that he was 30 years older than I, which meant I was wrong and he was "damn sure certain" there had never been a president named Millard Fillmore.)

People are by and large ignorant of basic geography, social studies, philosophy, literature, science and international affairs. I seriously wonder how many Americans can even find Kiev on a map, much less know about the potentially explosive events unfolding there as I type.

Of course, there are many, many folks out there who know much more than I about all of these things. And I don't say all this to be arrogant, but because I have a serious, sincere concern for the future of humankind, one that grows daily. An uninformed electorate leads to uninformed voting, which can have serious, long-lasting local, state, national and international consequences. I want my two young nieces to inherit a healthy, prosperous country and a better world than the one in which we now live.

The lowest form of vermin is the politician who plays to anti-intellectualism. Compare some of the scum that hold office today to Lincoln, who was self-taught; to Wilson, who was a college professor and president; and even to Ronald Reagan, who said that his library card was his most prized childhood possession.

Close behind the education-baiting politicians are the worthless people who are ignorant and proud of it. If being, or hoping to be, an intellectual or a life-long learner is somehow a crime, I plead guilty in the first degree.

I feel like I'm so ignorant on a daily basis because I still have so, so much to learn. My idea of the perfect vacation right now would be to take two weeks off and do nothing but get caught up on my reading and clean out the documentaries and news programs on my DVR.

Any any religion that preaches anti-intellectualism isn't worthy of its name. 

"All politics is local," said former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. That quote has the added benefit of being true. Know your county commissioner or city council member, school board rep, locally-elected officeholders, state rep, state senator and governor by name. They have the greatest impact on your daily lives, not the gutless wonders in Washington. It would also help if you can name the president and vice president of the United States, your representatives and senators in Congress and who's buried in Grant's tomb.

And please, please consider getting your news from several sources. You don't even have to be a news junkie to find it fun. It's almost a parlor game to observe how papers around the state, the major national daily newspapers, the Associated Press, the major networks, the PBS "NewsHour" (my favorite nightly newscast), CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, NPR, the BBC World Service, The New Yorker, National Review, the left- and right-wing websites and even Stewart and Colbert treat the same issue.

Pay attention to the headlines. Pay attention to the inverted pyramid -- i.e. the order in which the reporter organizes a news story or op-ed -- or, in the case of radio and TV, what stories they lead with and how the stories are presented.

The reason I care so much about this is because knowledge is power. We can sit back, be cynical and disengaged, and say, "Ah, that's just politics" or "I can't do anything about it; I just have one vote."

Or we can be active citizens armed with the best weapon of all -- facts.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Making sense of life

John Cheever once wrote, "I want to make sense of my life."

That is as good a reason to herd words for a living as I have ever heard. Leave it to Cheever, cunning at his craft, to say it best.

I have often been accused of writing about myself. Sure, I've done that from time to time. All writers do.

But what I really like to do is reveal things about me -- and also, perhaps, learn things about myself specifically and human nature in general -- through the stories of others. Big difference. My boss told me years ago not to spend too much time contemplating my own navel. It took awhile, but I finally understood. The trick is to get readers to discover your likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, questions and interests through the types of stories you choose to write. See what I mean?


It is raining this Monday morning. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes speedily.

Sunday was a day for slumber, but I couldn't sleep. I did rest, though, and I needed it. Last week proved to be lengthy, full of deadlines, commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out, with apologies to Bob Seger.

I am worried about the situation in Ukraine. Quite worried. Putin would love nothing more than to return Russia to its days of glory. You and I both know that isn't going to happen, but you and I both know what can happen when a despot begins dreaming delusions of grandeur.

Looking at the calendar, I just realized I moved into my home -- the first one I purchased on my own -- six years ago today. Six years! My goodness. Cue Macdonald Carey and the sands through the hourglass.

So much has happened in the last 12 months. Highs, lows, mountains, valleys, good days, bad days, going half-mad days, with apologies to Jimmy Buffett. I'll tell you about them sometime.

For now, I'm going to drift off to dream. My wish for you is a prosperous and happy week. Be careful out there, and don't forget to flash someone, anyone, your sweetest smile. It might just make their day.

Meanwhile, I'll be reading, thinking, listening, writing, trying to make sense of my life, and of yours, too.