Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Islands in the States

Make it official. Mark it down.

This is the Year of the Dead Celebrity.

Granted, many of them lived long lives. You know the ones who didn't.

But when I got the news that Jack Riley, best known to those of a certain age as Elliot Carlin, he of the bad toupee and the bad temperament on "The Bob Newhart Show," had died, it got me to thinking.

For starters, it got me to thinking about Newhart's first series, the best one, set in Chicago, in which he plays a psychologist.

Part of the MTM stable, the show rode a wave of more urban, more adult, slightly (sometimes largely) more sophisticated television comedy into the new decade from what dominated '60s TV. I watched these shows as a kid, some during my teen years on Nick at Nite.

Maybe that's part of the reason why I seem stuck in the '70s.

Anyway, Newhart was a genius at being The Sane One. Everyone around him was nuts. And that look. That pause. That telephone talk.

Riley stole nearly any scene in which he appeared. He took a caricature and made it a classic character. (Characters. Remember those?)

Now that I can watch television for an hour or two, I usually turn to these shows. I watch via antenna again (I cut the cord while ill and ain't goin' back), or on DVDs I either already own or get from the library.

Riley's death also makes me think of something else. Rarely do we share common experiences as a country anymore. CBS's Saturday night lineup at one point was the following -- "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "Mary Tyler Moore," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." All popular, all top 30, "Must See TV" before another network, as they used to say, turned the phrase into a marketing tool.

One can argue the pluses and minuses of having 500 channels, streaming services, the Internet, etc. But one thing's for certain: we're cocooned, isolated, islands in the States.

The only time we all get together is for any kind of national tragedy. And, even then, we're watching different channels.  If we're watching at all.

Now back to our cocoons, already in progress...

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Mamaw, Carol, and me

Whenever I see Carol Burnett, I think of my late grandmother.

Two reasons.

One, I used to watch Carol's reruns and later shows at "Mamaw" Lydia Mabe's house whenever I was there on Saturday nights. Two, we're part of a Burnett family tree (Hi, Seth!), and my grandmother made a good argument for the fact that Carol might be part of it.

Seems like the story goes as such: A long, long time ago, several Burnett ancestors left East Tennessee for Texas. Carol Burnett (her real name) was born in Texas before going to California -- with her grandmother.

Yeah, it's a long shot, but it's nice to think about on rainy days and Mondays.

Moments I'll forever cherish are taking my grandmother to Burnett family reunions in Sharps Chapel. She grew up there until TVA sent everybody packing to create Norris Dam/Lake. My grandmother talked about it, on and off, for the rest of her life, but she must've not minded too much. She remained an FDR/Truman Democrat in a family filled with Eisenhower Republicans.

We talked about it during what became our last conversation. I went to visit her in the hospital in July 2013. She'd fallen at home. The doctors discovered terminal cancer, too. They weren't going to tell her. I don't guess anybody did.

But, when I got there, she was just like she'd been my whole life. Sure, she'd slowed down, but, goodness, she was almost 89. She told me stories from the '30s, from Sharps Chapel, and I left there thinking she'd live another few months to a year at least. That was a Monday.

She died the following Saturday.

Just before things got so rough I couldn't even read, I bought a cheap copy of one of Carol Burnett's memoirs, "This Time Together." I'm finally getting to read it.

And, I asked on Facebook if some kind person out there might have any of the uncut Time-Life "Carol Burnett Show" DVDs for me to borrow. (After two years of disability and being in heavy medical debt, I'm thankful, but broke, and am looking for laughs.)

Two super souls responded. Robin Tindell said she'd let me borrow her parents' DVDs. And a Good Samaritan sent me an Amazon gift card so I could buy the seven-disc "Lost Episodes" set. I'd really been wanting to see those, especially the first show from Sept. 11, 1967. But I didn't have the $99 to spare, nor the cheaper $40 discounted one in the Amazon marketplace.

So, don't let anybody tell you that kindness is dead or that social media isn't good for something. They know their kindness will be paid forward.

So, as I watch Harvey Korman lose it at Tim Conway's antics, or Burnett sing with Bing, or the footage that hasn't been seen since the original CBS broadcasts, I can't help but think of my grandmother and wish she were here to see it, too.

But, who knows? Maybe she's being entertained by Harvey Korman somewhere in the sweet by and by.

I'm so glad we had that time together, Mamaw...

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The 39th

I don't have it in me to write anything here today, but this is an edited version of the post I wrote on the 35th anniversary of Elvis's death. Program note: Bradley Reeves and I will spin an hour of bluesy Elvis at 11 p.m. (EDT) Thursday, Aug. 18, on WDVX-FM in Knoxville or streaming here. We'll be also playing portions of Elvis' April 8, 1972, matinee show from Stokely Athletics Center.

I can't really tell you why Elvis Presley is my favorite singer.

The artist, the music, the listener -- a connection exists. You can't explain it.

The fun part is you don't have to explain.

It makes me sad so many folks don't really know Elvis. Look past the stereotype, the bad jokes, the even-worse impersonators (though several are worth the price of admission), the so-so films, and all that kitsch.

Go back to the music. Go back to the man. Take a good listen. Take a good look.

I had put Elvis away, folded him neatly and placed him in a box marked "memories" for most of the last decade. Well, I had ODed on him during my childhood and needed some distance.

And here's the great part. A year or two or three ago, Elvis came back into my life, as if he'd put on the black leather and returned to the national consciousness on NBC-TV in December '68. And you know what? He's even better this time around.

I bought a Sirius/XM player in large part so I could listen to Elvis Radio. Some might tell you I probably listen too much this time of year, but like Jose Feliciano said from Memphis, "I'd rather be addicted to Elvis Radio than to drugs."

Elvis left us 39 years ago today. The world is a much duller place without him.

It's funny. I feel like he's an old friend. You may think that's nuts. I don't care. Elvis is there when I need him. All these years later, he's still entertaining.

If you don't like him or don't get it, that's OK. I guarantee you have an Elvis in your life. And that's cool. It's what puts the fan in fanatic.

I like the later, mature stuff, more "Suspicious Minds" and less "All Shook Up." But I'll say this. Some of the gems the disc jockeys on Elvis Radio dig up have given me a new appreciation for the "Young Man with a Big Beat" years.

One of these days, I'll make it back to Memphis, to Graceland, to pay my respects. I want to see whether it's changed in 15 years. I want to say thanks. (Note: I did so in December 2013, just before my illness began.)

Forgive me if I am just a little bit maudlin today. I am going to pause. To smile. To listen to the music, that sweet, sweet music. To remember.

God bless ya, Elvis. You'll always be the king to me.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Can't sleep (and other stories)

Fell asleep in my easy chair by accident around 9. Now I can't sleep.


So, I fiddled with Facebook, had some fun, made a little music. Now I'm back in my easy chair, listening to Johnny Mathis sing "The Hungry Years" and - wait for it - "Yellow Roses on Her Gown." Figured it would help me relax.

It's been a (mostly) enjoyable work week. Baseball, Brickey Buddies, other buddies (grand seeing ya, Kurt!), and my favorite uncle's birthday party to boot.

Best part Wednesday was getting to see my friend and former "Perfesser" Steve Ash. We talked history. We talked politics (with no vitriol or yelling, can ya believe it??!!). We talked about tomes we're typing.

Back home, I sat with a heating pad (don't ask) and passed out. But not before "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." I hope the person who gets it is reading. She's a special soul.

Then, oops, 11. Go to bed. Nothing.

As John sings love songs, I'm loving that I'm able to be out and about again. Awesome!

So, I won't complain about no sleep, nor about tailbone trouble.

I'll just sit here, count my blessings, and call it a day.

Hope your week is going as well as has mine (mostly). See ya soon. Thanks for dropping by.

Monday, August 08, 2016

'Teardrops' of a different type

There we (almost) all were, together again, but, my tears have not stopped fallin' -- not just yet.

Don't panic. It was perfect.

For much of the past 10 years, you'd have known exactly where to find me at 8 o'clock on a Sunday night. Robinella would sing. I would smile. Monday morning was still miles away.

Well, that weekly run ended, then I got sick, and, well, you know the rest.

But that's all in the rear-view now, receeding faster every day. Act III is underway, and we kicked it off in style.

Ross and Martha got me there. Yeah, I can drive the 30 minutes from here to Maryville, but, yeah, I wanted a beer. This was a celebration after all. And I'm erring on the side of caution anyway until I've got a full tank of gas.

And how 'bout this! In walks Steve Hobart, yet another old friend I met as a Robinella fan. The only two missing were Mike Finn, and he's up in Michigan, and Webster, who probably had the boys at the Bailey farm, school night and all. Otherwise, it was a dadgum favorite family reunion. The kind you don't dread.

So, she sang funk and soul, country and classics, new and old, old and new.

Her current band is tight and right. Chicken-pickin' guitar, dandy dude on the drums (who rocks mutton-chops better than Roy Clark and I once did), a booming bass, and a smoooth sax.

Robin's daddy, Jerry, got up and darn near stole the show, "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's 40 Below)."

And, yep, "Teardrops." Ten years later it's still my song. And, yep, I got a little water in my eyes. (Cough)

But it was from being back, being better, recalled to life, back to bein' me.

And I'll take those kinda tears any day of the week.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Love (or something like it) at today's five and dime

I love bookstores.

Brick-and-mortar, physical, wonderful bookstores. Always have. Always will.

Sure, I helped put many of them out of business. Forget Cas Walker's old supermarkets. Amazon's prices can't be beat.

But, no. Shopping on Amazon is not the same. Not as good.

Give you one example. One of hundreds.

A bookstore is a treasure hunt. You can be strolling the aisles or heading in for one specific thing, and BOOM! Suddenly you find a book you'd wanted that's on sale for $3.99.


Bill, Robert, and I ate dinner last night, then walked through a nearby bookstore. I won't say which one for a number of reasons, but you've got a 50/50 shot once I describe it.

One thing that puzzles me, and one thing that I think might've helped bring the Hastings chain to extinction, is that mainline chain bookstores have become a Woolworth that happens to sell books and magazines.

You can get trinkets. You can get Godiva chocolate. You can buy toys. You can buy soda pop.

OK, I made up that last one. But it's an odd business model.

I guess the theory is that, given vastly changed purchasing habits, bookstores had to do something to get folks in the door. So, if a family walks in, the parents can go one way and the kids can go another. The comic book guy, the kid, the mom, and the movie buff can find what they want.

Bill made a good point. He said that a place like Hastings would go over great in a small town that doesn't have much. He's right.

Don't get me wrong. I love 'em still. But, I guess my heart's with the small independent, with the antiquarian shop and its random piles.

But, just as I don't go to a baseball game to ride a Ferris wheel, I don't go to a bookstore to buy peanuts and a Coke.

And, since it's Friday, here's the song that inspired the blog title. I hope Rita and Eddie are still waltzing the aisles of that five and dime...

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Seeking the super

Got to see my friend and former co-worker Janna Barrett for a few minutes today.

Janna's off on her latest adventure. In the previous year, she's studied in Paris, moved to Chicago, and has now taken a position that lets her tour the world.

And I thought I'd done well to see 47 states and parts of Canada!

If I could create a dream job, it would be traveling and talking, my two-cent pale imitation of Charles Kuralt, getting off the highways and seeking the super. It's still there. You just have to look.

"The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the greed in the headlines," Charles once said on one of his poetic "On the Road" pieces for CBS. I still believe it. I've seen it. I've heard talk of it.

I've come to think that maybe those stories are more important than ever. Everything is crazy, confrontational, cantankerous, bombastic and bloody.

Don't get me wrong: we don't need to look the other way. Far, far from it. But it's high time somebody reminds us that good people are still doing good things, and it doesn't always have to bleed to lead, to throw you mediaspeak. And guess what? People can discuss, disagree, avoid yelling, and still be friends. What a concept!

I saw the super in May, at my first baseball game in two years, when the strapping young player brought a baseball to the scared little girl grazed by his foul ball.

I heard about it earlier, when a friend suddenly got stranded, and a couple who happened to be nearby loaned him a car to get to chemotherapy.

I read about it, believe it or not, in the newspaper. Sometimes you can even find it buried amid the BS that becomes one's Facebook feed during an election year.

Ideals and realities may be as far apart as the Pacific and the Atlantic, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop seeking.

God knows I'm not perfect, and I'm just one little guy in one little corner of the world.

But if I can make you laugh or make you smile or make your day a little brighter by sharing a Good Samaritan's story, I'll take that any day over covering the White House.

That's an one-way slide toward insanity anyway if you ask me.

Monday, August 01, 2016

My heroes have always been teachers

Here in East Tennessee, where the temperature has exploded during the just-arrived August (capital A for sure) dog days of summer, teachers are returning to school.

It got me to thinking.

One of these days, if the stars align, I'm going to steal the education beat back from Sandra Clark at the newspaper. It's long hours (I still have flashbacks to four-hour school board meetings and scream in horror), it's complicated, you sometimes have to write things you don't particularly enjoy, but it's a passion. So it doesn't always feel like work.

I come from a family of educators. My grandfather got his degree in his 40s and taught welding at the old Doyle High School. My aunt was a longtime social studies teacher and is now a supervisor. My stepfather was an English teacher at Halls High and Farragut High for awhile. My mom would've been an English teacher in another time. My sister is the principal at Clinton Elementary.

And I set out to be a history professor before I got sidetracked into this grand adventure herding words.

Many of my friends are good educators.

And I owe all the gold in California to so many good teachers. I was a blessed boy.

I'm gonna leave somebody out, so forgive me in advance, but --

At Brickey: Sheena Beal, Loretta V. Black, Alma Williams (whom I didn't have in class, but became a special person in my life later), Brenda Miller, Lillian Shoffner, Terry Carr, Faye Nelson Heydasch, Jane Clift, Tommy Noe, Sue Heins (sic?), Joyce Hill, Mrs. Butler (I've forgotten her first name), Irene Patterson, and dear, sweet Virginia Rains, who let me write a story all week and read it to the class on Fridays, as well as Mrs. Bullen, Geneva Jennings, Maryann (Mary Ann?) Taylor, Michele Stidham, Mike Ogan, and our fearless leader, John R. "Second Daddy" McCloud.

At Halls Middle: Linda McCoig (whom I saw a few weeks ago!), Roy Andrews (who also encouraged me to write stories for the class), the late great Betty Reeves, Reba Thomas, Bill Warren, Missy Hensley, Dave Lewis, Donald Thorne, Sue Clapp, Cindy Smith Shepard, Don Yarborough, Pam Walker, the late great Elwood Pennington, Tim Wiegenstein, Mrs. (Barbara or Judy) Jordan, three super music teachers whose names, I apologize, I've forgotten, Becky Howell, Linda Nordmoe, and teachers I didn't have but got to know: Randy Bolinger, Scott Taylor, Susan Hibbett, the late Mike Rutherford, and, of course, principal Jim Ivey and a mentor in a special way, vice principal and hero Paul Williams.

At Halls High: Doug Bright, Mark Duff, Sharon McNeeley, Joanne Fehr, Ed Boling, Doug Polston, Sheri Webber, Barbara Jenkins, Denise Pennington, Mitch Hamilton, Ed Simmons (that impression of you was out of fondness, I promise), Cindy Beckman, Mrs. Jordan (pronounced Jer-dan, as in, yep, Auburn coach Shug Jordan's daughter-in-law), Cheri Duncan, Kim Smith, Stefanie White Henry (who, for better or worse, planted the newspaper seed), H.C. Sumter, Rusha Sams, David Sexton, Dink Adams, the late Bill Clabo, and so many others I got to know then or later -- Trina Polston (a major mentor in a special way), Tina Perry, Debbie Foster, Pam Riddle, David Wayland, Helen Goranflo, Jerilynn Harper Carroll, Gary Shephard, Kim Coker Hurst, Chris Vandergriff, Mike Blankenship, Marcia Southern, Merita Sesler (sic?), Charlotte Smith, and some names I'm afraid I'm forgetting.

At the University of Tennessee: Steve Ash, Lorri Glover, Paul Pinckney, Wayne Cutler, Chuck Maland, Dr. Y.P. Hao, Kathy White, Mark Williams, the late great Robert Drake, Michael Lofaro, a fascinating Shakespearean scholar whose name is lost in the mist of time, Bill Larson, Paul Jones, David Pegg, Elaine Oswald, and, again, some names I simply can't recall.

I've been so pleased to see so many friends and classmates go into teaching, and to have met so many wonderful educators, principals, school board members, supervisors, and others who work or worked downtown while I was covering education (and a great reporter, too -- my friend Lola Alapo). I'm not even going to begin to try to name them all, except four close friends -- Dean Harned, Dewayne Lawson, Dr. Bridget Trogden, and Tim Reeves. I could name 20 or 30 more.

If I've forgotten your name or to list your name, I'm sorry. My memory isn't too good right now, and, let's face it -- it has been 20 or 30 years (or more!) in some cases. 

Teaching is a noble profession, an important one, so important, especially now in this dark and disturbing national zeitgeist. They get criticized by idiots who think they only work a short amount of time. They're not paid anywhere near what they're worth. They sacrifice time, money, hours otherwise spent with family, and a bunch of other stuff. I've seen firsthand as many of them anguished over problems or students or ideas about whom or which they cared, and about a hundred other things.

So many of these educators, those I met inside and outside the classroom, inspired me in ways both large and small -- whether it was to keep reading or to keep writing or, as cliched as it sounds, to keep learning. To keep thinking, to keep exploring, to never be satisfied, to dream big, to get up if I tumble. For better or worse, I am whatever I am in large part because of these dear people.

If the world was fair, good teachers would get paid millions of dollars and ball players would make $40,000 a year. Such is life.

I wish I could give you all more. All I can say is thank you, and I love you. It isn't much, but it comes from the heart.

You teach still.