Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Week The Music Died

I turned 60 on the 12th of October this year. That makes me, of course, a baby-boomer. Over the years, many people have accused us baby-boomers of being narcissistic and self-obsessed. They're absolutely right: we are. It was 35 years ago this very night that former Beatle John Lennon was gunned down in New York by a deranged fan. I was a young newspaper reporter at the time, working at my first job. I'm proud to be able to claim that, even as the tragedy unfolded, I resisted the urge to write anything about it in the paper. That wasn't my job; I covered local government. But that didn't stop my fellow twentysomething journalists from inundating every publication in sight with their various versions of "What John Lennon Meant To Me." Memories of growing up with the Beatles, that sort of thing. I could easily have contributed to all of this teary nostalgia, but I didn't. It wasn't that I didn't like the Beatles; I liked their music as much as anyone. I just decided to keep my mouth shut. Everyone else was shooting off theirs; who needed my contribution?

Having said that...I can't believe it's already been ten years since I was asked to write a 25th-anniversary Lennon piece. 2005. I was freelancing for a local publication at that time, South Bay Review, whose publisher was Michael Inzunza, the brother of former National City mayor Nick Inzunza. Michael and I used to meet at a coffee shop in Terranova center here in Chula Vista once a month to have a conference about what articles I would be writing for that month's issue. On this particular day, over our coffee, Michael had an interesting twist on the John Lennon 25th anniversary.

Anybody remember the 1961 song Angel Baby by Rosie and the Originals?  Lennon was fond of that song, and covered it on one of his albums. "Rosie," who wrote the song, was living in New Mexico at the time. Michael got her phone number, and my assignment was to interview her and write an article about how the song came to be written, recorded, and how John dedicated his cover to Rosie herself. I called her up. She was a very nice lady, and we had a long and fascinating chat. (Angel Baby was originally recorded in an airport hangar in north county--it was the only place they could find recording equipment. Rosie and her band made an acetate, then forgot about it. Imagine their surprise when, one day at the beach in Coronado, they heard themselves on the radio.)

One of my more enjoyable, and informative interviews. Ranked right up there, in terms of interest, with the time I interviewed Major Charles Sweeney, the man who piloted Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945.

But I digress.

It's much too late (and my generation is getting old) for an essay on What The Beatles Mean To Me. They mean a lot to a lot of people. No, what I'm going to tell you now is about my memories of that week, one of which was rather strange (not that learning of John Lennon's murder wasn't strange in itself.)

On the night of December 8, 1980, when John Lennon walked out of his apartment in the Dakota building in Manhattan and, approached by a fan, innocently thought he was going to be asked for an autograph and got a bullet instead, I was living in El Centro, California. As mentioned above, I was a reporter on the local newspaper. It was a Monday night, and many people remember getting the news of this shocking event from Howard Cosell as they watched ABC Monday Night Football. I wasn't a football fan; I was watching Little House On The Prairie. But then my telephone rang. It was my mom, who did like to watch football, and she had obviously been drinking. But anyway...I learned about the death of John Lennon from my mother, who had heard it from Howard Cosell.

It was terrible news. Not only because of how important the Beatles had been to my generation, but also because, just days earlier, I had listened to a radio interview with Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, and it really sounded like the guy was about to grow up and stop acting like the spoiled child he had been playing for years, moping around taking drugs, sulking and trying to change the world. Now he sounded energized, mature, and most importantly, ready to start new musical projects. He wished everyone a Happy Christmas, as they say in England, and sounded like he was off to the studio to get back to work. It was a heartening interview. Then this.

I had a friend in El Centro named Albert Tapia. Albert was, by anyone's definition, a "character." I could write a whole separate essay about Albert, but of that another time. For now, I'll simply mention that he loved being a gadfly. He was frequently seen at city council meetings, yelling about whatever had him stirred up that week. Perpetually at odds with the local Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), Albert loved doing anything that would piss them off. That fall he decided to piss them off by inviting former Ku Klux Klansman Tom Metzger, who was running for Congress (as a Democrat, by the way), over to his house for coffee. I was there: me, Albert, Metzger, and Metzger's two bodyguards.

MAPA threw a fit, which is exactly what Albert wanted them to do.

But again, of that another time.

A couple of days later (maybe it was Friday) Albert invited me and my then-girlfriend Jamie over to his house for dinner. Albert's wife Dolores was an excellent Mexican cook (she never bought tortillas from the store--she always made her own), and I said, "Yeah. Great. What time should we be there?"

Everything would have been fine; I'm sure it would have been a very enjoyable dinner. Except for one thing: Albert had a job working security at the Imperial County Fairgrounds, and at the very moment Jamie and I were driving over to his house, he got called in to work an unexpected shift. He greeted us at the door, invited us to sit down at the table and enjoy our meal....and off he went.

Swell. Dolores didn't speak English. She was a lovely lady, but she didn't speak English. And now Albert, who did speak English, was gone.

There was only one person left in the house who did speak English: Albert and Dolores' teenage son. And here's where John Lennon gets back into the picture. Albert's son, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, was reacting to Lennon's death as teenagers would in those days: he was in deep mourning. Deep, theatrical mourning. He was closed up in his bedroom, playing one Beatle album after another, having his own private memorial service for John. Well, I understood how he felt, but Jamie and I needed help. We were sitting at the dinner table with his mom, who spoke no English. Jamie knew a few simple phrases in Spanish. I didn't know shit.

Well, the boy came out of his room just to be polite and say hello, then he said "Enjoy your dinner" and withdrew back to his room to continue playing Beatle albums to himself.

As I say, I understand how he felt, but he certainly left us adults in an awkward position: our hostess spoke no English, we spoke little or no Spanish, and the three of us were left to enjoy our dinner in embarrassed silence.

And that's my prevalent memory of The Week The Music Died. 35 years already. John, rest in peace. Albert, why did you have to go to work that night? I think maybe I should go work on my Spanish. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Goodbye, Cynthia

My cousin Cynthia Noel Winrow Summers, 61, died October 26, 2015 at a hospital in Oceanside after a long battle with cancer.
Cynthia Noel Winrow Summers, 1954-2015
Born Dec. 20, 1954 to my aunt and uncle Bert and Mary Winrow, Cynthia, a very brave and optimistic soul, survived not only a long struggle with cancer which eventually cost her an arm, but also distinguished herself by becoming an extraordinarily long survivor of two liver transplants. A first liver transplant, caused by a rare disease in the early 1990s failed, and she had to endure a second one. The average life expectancy for liver transplant patients is said to be about five years; Cynthia survived more than 20 years after hers, and right up until the end she kept a smiling face. She was an inspiration to us all.

I knew Cynthia all my life. She was about a year older than me. We didn’t see each other very often, but always had a few laughs when we did.

Cynthia graduated from La Jolla High School in 1973, and was a student at the University of California at San Diego, where she studied Oceanography and Psychology before deciding to leave the university just short of her graduation. An avid surfer, soon after leaving UCSD she relocated to Hawaii, where she spent a number of years living and surfing, and made many new friends.
Noted for her physical resilience, just days after her liver transplant, she was out rollerblading, according to her family. But surfing was her main passion, both in California and in Hawaii. According to her husband, Steve Summers, she continued surfing right up until losing her left arm to cancer.

A devout Christian, she was a member of the Calvary Chapel in Oceanside, where a memorial service was held on Oct. 31st.  Her pastor, Gary Currie, cited Summers’ favorite Bible verse as Proverbs 3, 5:6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not. In all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make straight your path.” 

An avid artist, Cynthia worked in many media, from painting to jewelry-making. She was also a musician, playing both piano and flute.

My cousin is survived by her husband Steven, her mother Mary, her brothers Skip and Steve, her niece Brooke and her nephews Bryce and Cameron. We are planning our annual “cousins reunion” next spring at her brother Skip’s place in Escondido. It will not be the same without Cynthia there.
RIP, my dear cousin.

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.