Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Death of the Obituary

My dear cousin Cynthia Noel Winrow Summers died last month. As the only member of the family with any journalism experience, I've been recruited to write her obituary. It's only appropriate, I guess. I wrote my own father's obit ten years ago.

Which means brings me to a subject. Obituaries just ain't what they used to be.

Oh, sometimes they still are. If someone important dies, that is, someone famous, the newspapers will still do their duty and turn out something professional-looking.

But once upon a time, obituaries were news, and the newspapers routinely wrote them themselves. Didn't matter who you were. If you were anyone noteworthy in the community, the local paper would assign a reporter to tap out an obit for you.

But with the newspapers getting into increasing financial trouble in recent years, what with the Internet and all, they have come increasingly to see obituaries not as news, but as a source of advertising revenue. Hence, the classic obituary has become the "death notice." When a member of your family dies, you have to pay the newspaper so much per column inch...and write the obit yourself.

Since most people can't write their way out of a paper bag, and have no training to do so, this has resulted, in my eyes, in some of the most embarrassing claptrap I've ever seen. I used to open the obituary page to see interesting things about people and their lives. Now I see bereaved families writing stuff like "Our dear Aunt Gertrude went home to be with the Lord last Sunday," etc. That's okay, but it's advertising, not obituary, And they make you pay for it.

So I have resolved to write a more-or-less professional obit for my cousin, as I have been trained to do. I did the same thing for my father a decade ago.

Cynthia's obit, as did my father's, will contain a precis of her life and achievements, plus a list of her survivors. No sentimental claptrap. Oh, yes, Cynthia was a person of deep religious faith, and I'll mention that, but her obit will be a short narrative of her time and noteworthy activities on earth, not a bathos-ridden advertisement about how missed she'll be. Of course she'll be missed. She already is. But that's not what obituaries are supposed to be about. They are news, as I see it, not advertisements. I will write Cynthia's obit as news.

We need to to get back to this, and newspapers need to begin shouldering their responsibilities and treating obits as news, not as a source of cheap revenue.

And that's my rant for today. On to breakfast. I have an obituary to write. And I promise to do a professional job.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I lost a friend and a cousin, but the cousin meant more

October 27                  Tuesday

Two noteworthy events yesterday, in chronological order: my 44-year friendship with Charles Francis Berigan officially ended, and my cousin Cynthia died … 

I went to the library to return some books. Saw Berigan there. We had a protracted discussion among the stacks, centering around his laundry list of childish grievances against me, all stemming from that silly little “writer’s group” of his that I never wanted to get mixed up with in the first place. He brushed aside my apologies and offers of reconciliation and just wanted to go on rehashing his “you did this on August 16th, you said that on June 24th”  bullshit, so I finally just said “Go and nurture your mad,” and walked away. 

I honestly think he has a late-life crush on that Susan bitch, and when a woman comes between two guys, it doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to figure out which way the tree is going to fall. Sometimes he is such a child. I felt like I was listening to a younger brother telling me, “I ain’t talkin'  to you ‘cause you told Mom that I was sneaking jellos.” If he wants to act like a nine year-old, that’s his problem. By the way, Berigan happens to be a fine pianist, but in my opinion he's a lousy excuse for a writer. His stuff is both derivative and shallow. ... Then later came the news that they’d decided to take our cousin Cynthia off life support. She died last night about 9:45. She was obviously suffering so much, I’m glad they let her go. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I Have Measured Out My Life With Jailbirds

It's that time of life: the time when everything seems to remind you of how quickly time is getting away. Happens to all of us who are fortunate enough not to die young, I suppose. You live long enough, you get to be old. And that brings with it a whole smorgasbord of "extras," the least of which is qualifying for the senior menu at Denny's.

One of my personal favorites among the "extras" is being able to say insulting things about the younger generation which they can't possibly understand. This is getting to be too easy, I might add, because the miserable state of public education in America has created an under-30 crowd so abysmally ignorant that they think Abe Lincoln was president during WWII, that Washington, D.C. is located somewhere in Oregon, and that Albania is the capital of New York.

"At twenty I hoped to vex my elders; past sixty it's the young I hope to bother," said the poet W.H. Auden. Hee hee hee.

And of course there are the babies. I can now play with my great-niece and recently-arrived great-nephew, my sister's grandchildren...and when I'm through playing with them I can hand them back to their parents and go watch the ball game.

Well, that's all good, clean fun, but of course there are the "negative" extras as well, some of them so obvious that they don't merit mention. You know the ones I mean: the aches and pains. Earlier to bed not because you want to, but because it's a biological necessity. No more pizza after nine p.m.

The sudden discovery that The Lawrence Welk Show, at which you hooted with derision when your parents and grandparents watched it, actually has a sort of weird fascination when you catch reruns of it on public television. The show has become one of my guilty pleasures in recent years: watching all of those "Stepford People" with their unrelieved gaiety and painted-on smiles sing and dance their way through corny old routines and "champagne music" on a show that was once sponsored by Geritol has become, as I approach sixty, something like WWF Wrestling was when I was approaching thirty. I enjoy it because it's awful.

But for me, as for many of us who are in training camp for old fogey-land, one of the "negative" extras is those ever-increasing reminders of how much time has elapsed since we could claim to be young...and worse than that, how quickly that time has gone by. A wise man once wrote, "That cliches are cliches because they contain grains of truth is as much a truth as it is a cliche."*

Tempus fugit. "Time flies." Now, there's a cliche for you.

There, as well, is a terrifying truth.

This point was driven home for me rather forcefully not once, but twice just in the past week, and in each case the catalyst was something I saw in the news. And both of those news stories had to do with criminals who were facing parole after long prison sentences.

Hey, I saw these guys go to jail. Don't tell me they're getting out already.

Already? In one case we're talking almost 40 years, in another, at least 30.

The fastest 40-and-30 years I can remember.

Chowchilla kidnapping victims after their ordeal,
July, 1976
Summer, 1976. The cenozoic era to those I know who were born later than 1968 or so.  But I was preparing to start my senior year at San Diego State University that fall. I had a part-time job that summer, shelving books at the Chula Vista Public Library. I still had hair.

Then a big story broke in the news. On July 15, 1976, twenty-six schoolchildren on a field trip, and their bus driver, were kidnapped in the small community of Chowchilla, CA. Their kidnappers stashed the bus, drove their prisoners to Livermore, over ten hours away, and buried them all in a moving van which had been equipped with some mattresses and a small amount of food and water.

About sixteen hours later the bus driver and the children managed to escape. No one was harmed.

Frederick Newhall Woods and two brothers, Richard and James Schoenfeld, pleaded guilty to the crime the following year and received life sentences.

Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012. (I was out of the country and missed that.)  James Schoenfeld was paroled late last spring. Last weekend it was in the news that Gov. Jerry Brown, who could have sent Schoenfeld's case back to the parole board, had decided to take no action. Woods may get a parole hearing this fall.

But I had not seen the names of these criminals in the news, any of them, since they pleaded guilty in 1977. Imagine the double-take I did when I opened the San Diego U-T last Saturday and saw this announcement regarding the parole of one of the Chowchilla kidnappers.

As the old alumni say at high school reunions, has it really been 38 years?  There was an old song called Time, in which an old geezer laments that he is now seeing buildings torn down that he watched them build. I'm seeing life sentences end which I can remember when they began. Eek.

And that was only Part I.

Fast-forward to 1985, and from thence to last week. They're (once again) considering parole for Jonathan Pollard. "Who's Jonathan Pollard?" I can hear my nephew Ricky ask. (Ricky was born in 1987.)

Jonathan Pollard was the name on the lips of everyone in the intelligence community and the news media when he was arrested on Nov. 21, 1985 and charged with spying for the Israelis. The shock value in this story at the time it broke lay as much in who Pollard was working for as the fact that he had sold classified information.  Israel is an ally of the United States--do friends spy on friends? Well, the short answer is yes, and today it surprises no one. But thirty years ago it surprised a lot of people, most of them American newspaper readers.
Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard at the
time of his arrest. I me he
looks more like someone who might
make a guest appearance on "The
Big Bang Theory."

This story had a special significance to me at the time, because on the very day of Pollard's arrest in Washington, D.C. I was in town. In fact I had just arrived the day before. I was scheduled to be sworn in at the U.S. State Department the next morning for a telecommunications-related job, one which was going to involve...handling classified information.

You can bet that this story was on the lips of just about everyone in Foggy Bottom, including myself and the dozen other members of my communications training class. It was the talk of the town that weekend. Pollard, as spies usually are, was sentenced to life in prison. It was a major diplomatic crisis for U.S.-Israeli relations. (1985 was a particularly bad year for this kind of shenanigans--when Pollard was nabbed by the FBI, everyone was still talking about the arrest of  former Navy warrant officer and communications specialist Jonathan Walker, who had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1968.)

And now, thirty very swift years later, I see that Pollard is facing a possible parole hearing.

Again, I cry, "Has it already been thirty years?" Really?

"Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset"...In Fiddler On The Roof, the occasion of the song is a wedding. (Irony intentional.) Okay, fair enough. A lot of us get a little misty at weddings, especially of young people.

But I want to see some enterprising songwriter out there get busy and write me a real bathos-ridden, tear-jerking song about parole hearings. Bastards these guys may be, but...well, to return to Fiddler,
"I don't remember getting older; when did they?"


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

He and She

Political Correctness is one of society's "stealth diseases." Almost everyone admits that it exists, but no one wants to admit that they think it's a good thing. Or if they do think it's a good thing, they stick their fingers in their ears and start humming if you begin complaining about it.

Personally, I hate PC as much as I hate cockroaches. To insist that a pile of shit must be called strawberry ice cream because to say otherwise might hurt somebody's feelings is positively Orwellian. And yet, in another Orwellian touch, we now have self-appointed "PC police" who are constantly on the lookout for something that might possibly offend someone. I don't remember the Constitution guaranteeing that the world be turned into your own private Sesame Street.

I was early out of the gate seeing this stuff. I first encountered the term "politically correct" in a San Francisco Examiner article circa 1984. (Appropriate year, I would say, eh, George?) It said, "A politically-correct beauty pageant is one in which at least half the contestants are drag queens." At the time I thought it was funny.

But it pretty quickly got out of hand. In 1992 I issued a proclamation to everyone within earshot: "Political Correctness is the new Socialist Realism." In other words, if it doesn't fit the agenda, saying it won't be permitted.

But the issue isn't just forbidding words, it's replacing them, you know, like Stalin having his political enemies airbrushed out of photographs, or having a photo altered so it looks like he's standing next to Lenin, when in reality he was 1,000 miles away having someone murdered.

Which brings me to the subject of today's rant: pronouns.

In the bad old days of reflexive sexism, an era whose waning days were my childhood, hypothetical people were always "he." "When an author finishes his book, he has it fact-checked." "When the owner of a new business sees that sales aren't picking up, he does this-and-such," and so on.

Well, okay, this wasn't entirely fair. It cut women out of the picture. Women write books, women open businesses, etc. Surely the pronoun situation deserved to be made more equitable.

But in these situations, a "revenge mentality" too often prevails. There are some who actually think that two wrongs make a right. The left, for example. They're the movers and shakers behind PC, and everyone who isn't on the left knows it. The left just denies that PC exists and goes right on enforcing it. The opening shot in this conflict was "reverse racism." Racism is bad and needs to be combatted of course, but many got the idea that switching things around so that whites were the subject of discrimination, rather than nonwhites, was a good thing.

I never bought into that. The idea is supposed to be getting rid of discrimination against anyone, not just engaging in some sort of societal tit-for-tat.

Hence, I've noticed that in a lot of publications, particularly those published by university presses, "he" is being replaced by "she." Where the hypothetical person in the anecdote or illustration used to be reflexively a "he," now the lords of PC have dictated that it MUST be a "she" instead. "When an author finishes her book, she has it fact-checked." "When someone opens a new business and sees that sales aren't picking up, she does this-and such," and so on.

Tit for tat.

The world isn't supposed to be about tit-for-tat. It's supposed to be about mutual understanding and compromise. "When an author finishes a book, he or she has it fact-checked." "When someone opens a new business and sales aren't picking up, he or she does this-and-such." This is what I do in my writings.

What in the hell is wrong with saying "he or she?" Or "She or he," for that matter? The same people who push the PC agenda are always raving about how important it is to be "inclusive." Well, being inclusive doesn't mean cutting one group out so the other can feel good about itself. We're all people, after all, occupying the same planet, breathing the same air and often pursuing the same pursuits. Making men invisible so women can feel good about themselves isn't fair to either men or women.

And so to breakfast.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To The Red Sox Borne

When I was studying the history of ancient Greece at San Diego State University in the 1970s, we learned about people the citizens of ancient Athens called "perioikoi." That meant "dwellers round about." These were Greeks who did not live within the Athenian polis, or city, were not Athenian citizens, but nevertheless enjoyed certain rights and protections because they lived nearby.

When it comes to the Boston Red Sox, I am something of a perioikos. I have spent only about a day and a half in Boston in my entire adult life. For that matter, I have spent only about two days in Massachusetts in my entire adult life. But I'm a Red Sox fan.

Now, my father was a Massachusetts native, and late in life when we discussed this, he recalled, "When I was growing up, to be a baseball fan meant the Red Sox. That was all there was to it." One of my uncles on my father's side, "Amy," was actually scouted by the Red Sox in the 1930s. He wasn't recruited, but still...even to be scouted by the Red Sox? A hell of an honor for a member of the Dupuis family.

But I don't really have any birthright to the Sox. I was born in New England, yes, but that was something of an accident. My father just happened to be stationed in Vermont as a Border Patrolman when I happened along. I'm New England born, but California raised. California is my home.

Still, I'm a Red Sox fan. I have been for years. Why? Well, aside from my Uncle Amy's having been scouted by them (and something else you'll read about below) there's the most obvious reason: I hate the New York Yankees. With. A. Passion. All right-thinking people do. For decades the Yankees won more championships than anyone else because for decades the Yankees had more money than anyone else. That's not "championship." That's "flaunting it when you got it." And I will remind any loudmouth Yankees fan -- and all Yankee fans are loudmouths -- that for 18 years, between 1978 and 1996, the Yankees got to the World Series exactly once....and lost. (In 1981, to the Dodgers. Go Dodgers.) I say let's bring back that lovely period. 1978-1996. No World Series rings for the damned Yankees.

Neither is it any coincidence that all major media outlets have their headquarters in New York. All my life and before it, America has been constantly told that New York is the only city that matters and the Yankees are the only baseball team that matters. (Except for the 1980s, when the Yankees were perpetually in the toilet. Hence, during that decade we were constantly told that the Mets were the only team that mattered.)

Money, money, money. Under the old reserve clause system, which kept baseball players in serfdom until it was chucked out and replaced with free agency in the 1970s, the Yankees could buy all the best players and then hold them to service for life. And slaves seldom get raises. When the great Joe DiMaggio tried to get a raise in 1941, not only did he not get his raise, but he got publicly humiliated for wanting one. Those truly were the bad old days. Ballplayers were paid peanuts and the Yankees usually won because they spent money on buying ballplayers, not paying them. Two very bad things. It was bad for ballplayers to be underpaid, and it's always bad for the Yankees to win.

And of course I hate the Yankees and their hot-air fans for their nauseating sense of entitlement. They think they should win the World Series because of who they are. Yogi Berra made the famous remark that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors. There's one big difference: in its heyday General Motors actually made something useful: automobiles. There's nothing useful about noisy arrogance and hubris, the stock-in-trade of all Yankee fans.

Okay, now you know why I hate the Yankees. Why do I love the Red Sox?

Thereby hangs a tale.

There's just a slight possibility that I might owe my very life to a great Red Sox player.

You heard me right.

In the winter of 1959, no doubt in response to my mother's badgering, my father got himself transferred from Burlington, Vermont to San Pedro, California. My mother's home town was Chula Vista, California and she did not like being taken away from there. San Pedro isn't Chula Vista, but it's closer than Burlington, Vermont.  Dad bought a house in nearby Torrance, and the family packed up and returned to the west coast. I was three. My sister Carla was five, and my sister Lynn was less than two.

The family station wagon, a red-and-white 1953 Ford, had to be gotten west, so my father and my half-brother Garry drove across the United States. My mother had the harder task: flying across the U.S. with three small children.

Why do I say that hers was the harder task? Hey, road trips are fun. I've taken my share. But in those days air travel meant propellors, not jets. Crossing the continent on an airplane was a 14-hour ordeal, not the five-hour hop, skip and jump that it can be now.

And Mom had three small children in tow, one of whom was hyperactive, ADD-afflicted, three-year-old me.

Did he save my ass? 
I don't know, but it would 
be cool if he had. 
This should surprise nobody who has ever known me, but during that flight from Boston to Los Angeles in February of '59, I would not sit still. I don't remember much about the flight; I was only three. I vaguely remember finding another kid my own size and marching over to where he was sitting, probably to see if I engage him in  play. The point is, I was all over the plane. My mother had two other small children to worry about, so she couldn't be watching me every second. 

So, they tell me, while my mother's attention was elsewhere engaged, I wandered over and began to fiddle with the safety catch on the airplane's door. 

That is correct. Three year-old dumb-ass me, at an altitude of probably 15,000 feet, was playing with the safety catch on the airplane door.

I wonder if there's any coincidence between this episode from my early childhood and the fact that throughout my life, falling to my death from a great height has been my greatest fear.

In any case, an alert fellow passenger saw me playing with the safety catch on the door. He got out of his seat, scooped me up and carried me back over to my mother. Her told her what had been going on with me and the door. 

My mother, ever polite, thanked the man and asked him his name.

"I'm Frank Malzone," he said. "I play for the Red Sox."

If not a single other Red Sox-related thing had ever happened in my life, I think this alone would have justified my becoming a lifelong Sox fan. Did Frank Malzone, legendary Sox third baseman (1955-1965) prevent me from popping open that airplane door and falling 15,000 feet to my death? I don't know, but it sure is nice to think about. 

OK. So far we have hating the Yankees, an uncle who was scouted and being picked up by Frank Malzone when I was three. There's more to it. I'm one of those suckers who roots for the underdog. And let's face it, for a long time that's exactly what the Red Sox were, particularly in regard to their longtime rivalry with the neighborhood bully down in the Bronx.

This is the year 2014. It was 100 years ago last spring that my father was born: April 15, 1914. It was also 100 years ago last spring that a pudgy kid from Baltimore named George Herman Ruth came up to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth, as he came to be called, was in fact a very fine pitcher. 

Had he stayed in Boston and stayed on the mound, he probably would have set some pitching records. But the world knows the rest of this story. In 1920 he was sold to New York's Evil Empire. 1920 was also the year that the "dead" ball was replaced by the "live" ball, wound tighter and able to carry further. The Yankees promptly discovered that Babe Ruth could hit gigantic home runs with the new "live" ball. They moved him from the pitcher's mound to the outfield, built a stadium for him and watched the cash roll in as New Yorkers packed Yankee Stadium to watch Ruth hit all of those homers.

And so...for 86 years, a period starting in 1918, the last year the Red Sox won a World Series, they were in the desert. And of course the legend of "The Curse of the Bambino" got started. As the story went, the Sox were condemned to limbo for pulling the bonehead move of selling Babe Ruth right after World War I.

I never believed in The Curse. But the Red Sox did embark on a remarkably long streak of bad luck. Decades of it.  And I do tend to root for lovable losers, although nothing would ever tempt me to root for the biggest losers in the history of baseball, the Chicago Cubs. They aren't lovable. What I don't understand about the Cubs is their fans. Here's a team that last appeared in a World Series in 1945, hasn't won a Series since 1908 (that's right--106 years in the desert so far) and their fans are every bit as loud and obnoxious as Yankee fans. Go figure the human species.

While born in New England, I grew up in my mother's home town of Chula Vista, which is part of the greater San Diego area. The greatest Red Sock of them all, Ted Williams, hailed from the same neck of the woods as I did. He grew up in San Diego, attended Hoover High, and played two seasons with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres (1936-38) before signing with the Red Sox.
This fellow grew up just a few miles from where
I did. 

Amazingly, some people in Boston don't know this. The only time I ever visited Boston as an adult, in the late summer of 2001, I was with a girlfriend who, being Russian, knew nothing about baseball. The Yankees were in town that night, but there was no question of trying to get into Fenway Park. We drove to a Pizzeria Uno in Cambridge, ordered pizza and as we watched some of the game on the big screen, I tried to explain to Tatiana what was going on.

After we had eaten, she wanted to go to a kiosk and buy some magazines. We found one quickly enough, and the two guys inside were classic Boston -- they talked like my late Uncle Louie Dupuis (you know, "pahk the cah?") and of course they had the Red Sox game playing on the radio. I was wearing my San Diego Padres ball cap. One of them noticed it and said, "We don't see many of those around here." I then explained that perhaps they should, because Ted Williams had played for the Padres before he played for the Sox. They were surprised. They hadn't ever heard that.

On September 10, 2004, my younger sister Lynn died. She was 47. We found her dead in her bed that day. The cause of death, as we learned when the toxicology report came back two months later, was an overdose of methadone. My sister did not take heroin, (methadone is often used to help heroin addicts kick) but she was addicted to painkillers. Methadone is sometimes prescribed as a painkiller, and my father had a prescription. She took 15 milligrams of it, went to sleep and never woke up. I was devastated. My little sister, for all of her problems, was my best friend in the world. I plunged into a mourning so deep that I had to seek professional help.

Ultimately the grief counselors did not do much for me.

But the Red Sox did.

October, 2004. My sister had been dead for just a few weeks and I was still in deep mourning. Then one night I missed my "grief counseling" session and came back home. The American League Championship Series was underway, and we had all given up on Boston. The Yankees had won Game #1, Game #2 and Game #3. No one had ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win the pennant before. And no one expected it to happen now. Since 1918, the Red Sox had come THIS CLOSE plenty of times and then blown it. Everyone remembered the 1986 World Series, when the Red Sox came THIS CLOSE and then the famous "Bill Buckner" moment in Game #5 (not really Buckner's fault, by the way: he was a fine ballplayer and was having pain in his legs, which affected his play that night) ended it all. Again. The consensus was that the Red Sox were, once again, finished. Even I had written in my journal the day before that perhaps baseball had better pack up and leave Boston for good.

Then the Sox exploded. They came off the ropes like Sylvester Stallone in a "Rocky" movie. You remember those moments. Rocky takes 14 rounds of pounding from his opponent, then comes alive and destroys him.

That's what the Sox did over the next few nights. New York was already crowing over its pennant (New York loves to crow.) But Boston won Game #4, Game #5, Game #6 and Game #7. American League champions: Red Sox. American League crybabies: Yankees. New York was sent home to blubber in its beer.

And I was happy. I was still reeling from my beloved sister's death, but the Sox' comeback miracle, humiliating the Evil Empire, put a bounce back in my step.

It was so incredible. After the joyous destruction of the damned Yankees, the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals that year was an afterthought, almost an anticlimax. I've always rather liked the Cardinals, but was pleased to watch the Red Sox plow them under in four games, revenge for the 1967 World Series, in which it had gone the other way.

That was ten years ago. I still mourn my sister, but the pain of that late summer fades as the years go by. Pain always does. Joy, however, stays fresh in recollection. And the joy of watching the 2004 Red Sox miracle will remain with me always. This season the Sox aren't doing so well. As of July 22nd, the American League East stood at Baltimore in first place, the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays three games out, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox tied for last place, both 7.5 games out. But the wonderful thing about baseball is that the season is long: 162 games, not sixteen, as in the NFL. It's only July and there's still hope.

I will always be a Red Sox fan, as long as there is such a thing on this earth as hope. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose

I wrote this in my journal, while living in Germany, on February 1, 1998. Tell me nothing's changed. 

I was blindsided by an item in the newspaper this morning.  An insert in Stars & Stripes (the U.S. Army newspaper) took an in-depth retrospective look at 1968: The Year That Still Haunts Us.
....He's a legend in Washington, D.C., but no one
has ever figured out who "Cool Disco Dan" was.

I suppose that in each decade now, in the year that ends with an "8," we're going to get another retrospective on tumultuous 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, the "Pueblo" incident, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the "Black Power" salute at the Olympics, The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Apollo 8 lunar orbiter mission, and oh yes, let's not forget The Beatles' "white album:" that always gets a mention.

This report caught me off guard only because it seems to me like not very long ago that we were reading all of this the last time--in 1988, I distinctly remember reading Newsweek's cover story on the 20th anniversary of tumultuous 1968...10 years ago already since I read that???  I was just getting ready to pack up and leave Frankfurt, newly married and headed for Brazil...Now here I am, full-circle, living a two-hour drive from Frankfurt and getting the 30th anniversary treatment of the same material, which is nothing more than a re-hash of what we were fed a decade ago.

Speaking of journalism and the current scene, I thought Dave Barry's column last week about how shallow, stupid and "showbiz" local TV news shows are was real funny, but bashing TV news for its insipidity seems to be a "hot-button" issue of the moment.  There was a commentary in today's paper, written by a reporter for one of the London dailies, criticizing U.S. television news for how isolationist it's become since the Cold War ended: American network news shows largely ignore foreign news these days, concentrating instead on domestic stories that aren't even necessarily news.  (The author of the column didn't mention this, but my own recent favorite example of this was NBC News actually leading a broadcast with the "story" that NBC's own comedy series Seinfeld was not going to be continued next season.  This is news???) At the same time, the cartoonist who draws "Shoe" had a strip this morning in which The Perfesser is channel-surfing from one news show to the next: "Bacteria in your venetian blinds!  A special team report!"  "Your mouse pad may be making you sick!  Film at 11!" and so on.  Sensitive minds were beginning to notice some time ago that the line between "news" and "entertainment" in America was getting fuzzy, but now things have gotten to the point where some are beginning to think it's a real problem.

More on the "current" scene: Today, in 1998, Young America is making a "nostalgia fad" of the 1970s.  When I was in high school 25 years ago, there was a nostalgia fad for the 1950's, which gave us TV shows like Happy Days. Nostalgia seems to be America's mal du choice. 

Our Marine Security Guard detachment here at the American embassy in Bonn had a "'70s party" just two nights ago, and in a Q&A column in today's paper, somebody wrote in asking about the present spate of interest in the decade, with at least two current movies set during the "disco era."  In line with this, I wrote an e-mail letter to my friend Anya in Moscow just yesterday in which I explained why the '70s are anything but nostalgia to me.  But I'm 42, an "old goat" now.  In answer to the writer's inquiry, the column said that today's youngsters, living as they do in an era of "political correctness" in which just about everything is prohibited or seems to be, are looking nostalgically back at the drugged-out, relatively promiscuous '70's, when AIDS hadn't appeared yet and casual sex had not acquired the stigma that it has now.

All of this seems strange to me because I remember the '70s chiefly as a reaction to the wildly-permissive '60s.  Not that the '70s were the kind of bluenose-puritanical decade that the '90s have been, but repeatedly in the mass media talky-talk of my own youth, we heard about the contrast between "the radical '60s" and "the mellow '70s."  Vietnam dragged on until 1975--all the marches, sit-ins and anti-war protests of the '60s seemed to have changed nothing, and after Kent State, (not to mention Altamont, which threw cold water on Woodstock Nation) Young America threw up its hands and abandoned the idea of bringing Flower Power to the world.  It turned instead to personal growth issues; Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice gave way to Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Tom Wolfe promptly named the '70s the " 'Me' Decade."  It was in 1970 that Stephen Stills quit singing  For What It's Worth and had a hit with  Love The One You're With.    

True, in the 1970s, AIDS had not yet come along to put a damper on recreational sex, but the legacy of the "free love" '60s did lead to a ripple movement during the '70s that called itself "the new celibacy:" fucked-out America, sick and tired of the singles-bar scene and surfeited with one-night stands, decided to experiment with having a little less sex, while at the same time movies like Looking for Mr. Goodbar reminded everyone that the singles-bar scene had its dark and dangerous side. And then there were all the other unglamorous things I remember about the 1970s: Watergate, the ignominious finale of Vietnam, stagflation, the Arab oil embargo and "gas lines," "pet rock," polyester leisure suits, I'm OK, You're OK. Jimmy Carter.

No, I don't remember the 1970s as a wildly fun or permissive decade; I remember them as a throttling-back from the crazy 1960s, when, as my half-sister Madelon once put it, "For seven years, America threw up."  The world of  Saturday Night Fever might look glittery, sexy and dangerous to the current batch of twentysomethings, but I was a twentysomething myself during that era, and to me all that polyester looked decidedly tame when compared with the tie-dyed T-shirts and headbands of a decade earlier.  In fact it looked kitschy, just as it still appears to me now.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Chronicles of Wasted Time

I am currently teaching English to Turkish people in Turkey. At the moment I am teaching classes seven days a week. My students range from level 2 (Elementary) to level 6 (Advanced.) We have a lot of fun. Yesterday, during a round of the word game "Hangman," one of my students stumped the entire class with the word "dog." Yep. "Dog." You know "Hangman:" players try to guess what a word is by guessing the letters in it. Someone tossed out the letter "O," so we had "blank-o-blank."  After that everyone was lost. They ran through the entire alphabet and couldn't come up with "dog."

But that was at the end of class. After three hours my students are getting tired and so I usually refrain from bombarding them any further with adjective clauses, split infinitives and the future perfect tense. We back away and just play some word games to wind the class down.

But earlier in that particular class, our topic had been adverbs of sequence, you know, like "first," "then," "after that," "finally," etc. Words you use when you're describing a sequence of events in chronological order.

I asked my students, "Has anyone here ever kept a journal?" There were blank stares and shaking of heads. "You know? A journal? Sometimes called a diary. You write down what you do every day, usually in the sequence that it happened."

More stares.

"I've been keeping a journal since I was fourteen," I said. (I'm fifty-eight now.) When that didn't seem to sink in especially, I turned to the white board and wrote down "1 9 7 0." "I've been keeping a journal since 1970," I said. "That was the year I turned fifteen."

"Lots of secrets," somebody said.

Well, maybe. Yeah, okay, lots of secrets, few of any interest at this late date. But mostly just a lot of detail. Detail that couldn't ever possibly mean anything to anyone, and in fact, as I review the reams of print and electrons that I've churned out in the past 43 years under the heading "Journals" or "Diaries," I find a lot of stuff that doesn't even interest me, and I've been writing about myself all this time.

Many of my journals have been lost. Those I kept in high school and college were mostly destroyed. I did it, deliberately, myself. Romantic idiocy: I was 22, a girl had just broken my heart, and in response I tossed nearly all the journals that I had kept between 1970 (when I started high school)  and 1977 (when I graduated from college) into a metal trash can and set them on fire. I regretted it shortly afterwards. I don't regret it now; I wouldn't want some of that acne-scarred effusion to fall into the hands of family members, let alone anyone else.

Not that my reams of journals haven't had some use. For years I've had a reputation among my friends and acquaintances as a guy with a remarkable memory, the guy who can repeat back to you something you said to him forty years ago, the guy who can remember exactly where he was and what he was doing when the Watergate scandal broke, or when America celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976, or where he was and what he was doing when John Lennon was shot, or Pope John Paul II. Where he was and what he was doing when Ronald Reagan was elected president, or when Matthias Rust landed that private plane in Red Square. Depending on your age, where he was and what he was doing on the day you were born.

Yes, writing things down has a certain mnemonic utility: nothing helps you remember something like writing it down and then going back and reading it later. I have reviewed my own life like a book editor going over the manuscript of some author's novel. Naturally, I've become an expert on the subject of my own past and the past that has flowed along with it, the past of people I've known, places I've been and things I've seen.

I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing. Oh, it's been useful now and then. When I was writing my book Three Flies Up: My Father, Baseball and Me back in 2007, I mined my own journals, using them as research material for a book about my past relationship with my father and our shared love of baseball. Without my notebooks I would have had a much more difficult time writing Three Flies Up.  Of course I had to do a lot of other research as well, because the ostinato line of my narrative was baseball. For that I had the Internet, plus a shelf full of books about baseball that had been my late father's, many of them gifts from me and my sisters over the years.

My journals have had many guises. When I began keeping diaries, the personal computer was still more than a decade in the future. My first diary was kept in a pocket-sized, wire-bound memo pad from the drug store, the kind people used to use to keep track of their appointments, jot down phone numbers, etc. One of my early journals was just a bunch of pieces of paper, folded over and stapled together, to be scribbled in with a Bic pen. From there I moved on to typing my personal notes, ("typing" -- there's a word that has left the language.)

For you millenials, a "typewriter" was a mechanical device that had a keyboard like a pad or a laptop, but you stuck sheets of paper in it and it actually printed letters on the paper, not on an electronic screen. Yes. It didn't have a "printer" connected to it; it did the actual printing itself. I pounded on a typewriter for years, as a journal-keeper, as a wannabee author of fiction, as a poet and, yes, even as a newspaper reporter at the very dawn of the computer age, circa 1980-81.

This is the way we used to do it, kids. 
My journals, over the years, stacked up as wirebound notebooks, looseleaf binders, paper-and-glue record books from CVS Pharmacy, school "composition books" of the sort children used to use in the classroom and yes, beautiful, hardbound, pale green government-issue record books that I cheerfully stole from the office supplies of this or that American embassy or consulate where I happened to be working over a period of more than a dozen years. Few of these notebooks still survive.

Around 1990 I began keeping my journals on a computer. This enabled me to password them so that my nosy first wife, who had no respect for privacy, (or for me) couldn't invade them without my permission. There have been nostalgic lapses back into paper-and-ink since then, and for a time in the 1990s it was my habit to print out my Word or Wordperfect journals at the end of the year and put the paper sheets in looseleaf binders. But most of my surviving journals since the early 1990s exist as computer files. Even some of these have been lost as I've moved from computer to computer and been remiss about backing up and saving documents along the way. I'm systematic, but I'm also both lazy and sloppy in my habits.

Now I am seriously asking myself why I keep on doing this. The obvious answer is that after 44 years it's hard to break a habit. When I first began keeping a journal, in my teens, my purpose was twofold: first and most obvious, I wanted to be a writer. I had the itch to write. So I started writing things down. On a slightly more neurotic level, though, my journalkeeping stemmed from the same impulse that gets some people on the TV show Hoarders. I just didn't want to let anything get away. Time, even when I was young, seemed a precious and fleeting commodity. Somehow I wanted to grab it, to keep and save memories for future delectation and/or scrutiny. I began keeping a journal as a means of not letting time get away: I was to the passing days of my life what a butterfly collector is to butterflies.

As I have gotten older, this impulse to grab and save moments has waned, for obvious reasons. I'm well past Dante's mezzo del cammino di nostra vita  at this point--the halfway-mark of life--and there isn't much point in trying to preserve moments for future delectation and scrutiny now. There isn't that much future left in which to delight or scrutinize. Or learn. Still, I soldier on. It's too late in the game to give up now. But it all leaves the question open: what, ultimately, am I going to DO with all of this material? My late friend Dick O'Keeffe of Fairfax, VA was a compulsive journal-keeper, and I mean compulsive. I've been known to skip a few days here and there, even a few weeks here and there.

Dick never missed a day. And like all compulsives, he was just as compulsive about his methods and materials as he was about his habit: he always used the same kind of notebook from the same stationery store; he always used the same kind of felt-tipped pen from the same stationery store where he got his notebooks, and he chronicled his days meticulously, in a prose so idiosyncratic (I know because he sometimes shared passages from his journals with his friends) that I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to plow through 100 pages of it, let alone 10,000. But when Dick died he left his journals to the George Mason University Library. I swear. I envision them in the library basement, stacks and stacks of numbered and catalogued notebooks, meticulously indexed (Dick was as compulsive a maker of indexes as he was a journal-keeper; I think he had once been a librarian) and utterly ignored by one and all.

Is this my fate? Probably. I have no conceit about leaving my journals to a university library. If I had been Andre Gide or John Cheever, sure.  But the diaries of a nobody are interesting to nobody. Oh, I can envision Dick's great-great grandchildren, around the year 2075, going and seeking out his journals as a family curiosity. I can't imagine anyone else having any interest in them whatever, including myself, because I was treated to my share of excerpts from them in the early 1980s and found them just about unreadable, meaning, every bit as eccentric as Dick was, and Dick was a character out of Dickens, believe me.

Only half-jokingly, I approached my nephew Ricky Guido last year and told him, "I'm making you my literary executor. After I die, I want you to go through all my computer hard drives and notebooks, gather together my journals and put them into some sort of order. Store and save them. They might be of some interest to someone, someday." Ricky, who is one of the nicest people I know and is as indulgent of his somewhat-dotty uncle as he was of his more-than-somewhat dotty grandfather, readily agreed to do this.

His mother, when she heard about it, guffawed. My sister didn't elaborate, but her very snort said it all: "Who's going to give a damn about your journals?"

Nobody. The only thing that saved Samuel Pepys from oblivion was that, in addition to having a fine prose style, he was also a highly-placed official in the Admiralty in 17th-century London. His diaries are social history; they provide a vivid snapshot of English life in the 1660s, but not only that, of life rather high up in the naval hierarchy of that period when England's navy was just beginning to establish her empire. Historians are interested in Pepys as well as literary buffs. But the Dick O'Keefes and Kelley Dupuis' of this world are not that lucky. Oh, I've been a witness to history once or twice. I was in Moscow in October, 1993 when the Russian government almost fell to a parliamentary coup, and my diary duly recorded all that.

But I'm not sure if the loose-leaf notebook containing that narrative even exists anymore, and even if it did, I was only an embassy support staff employee, not the ambassador.

Ultimately, who cares what I saw and heard?

So tell me why, when I return from teaching class tonight, I'll probably open up the document on my computer entitled "Journals, 2014" and make a few notes about what happened today.

I no longer understand it myself. I'm just doing it because I'm doing it.