Author Archives: vffilak

Pry my turtle from my cold, dead hands, Tennessee!

I understood that Tennessee and I would never see eye-to-eye after a few visits to the place. I made it to one meeting on time because it was on one side of a time zone while I missed a meeting the next time I went down there because it was on the other side of a time zone.

One state, two time zones. Pick a fucking side. You did it in the Civil War. You can do it now.

In the midst of a visit about three years ago, I found myself ambling down some street in Nashville and nothing but country music was pouring out of every window.

I also had a bouncer ask me to come in for a “Hollar and Swallar” event.

However, an article that popped up on my radar the other day bugged the shit out of me.The state of Tennessee is outlawing the sale of turtles because they are dangerous carriers of salmonella.

The rationale behind the ban of turtles is that they are moist, can pull their skin back into their shells and thus create a breeding ground for the bacteria.

“It’s just common sense,” according to Walter Cook, the captive wildlife coordinator of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

As A’s husband was always fond of noting, if it were common sense, everyone would have it.

First, almost ALL reptiles have some form of salmonella associated with them, but it’s in their digestive tract and it usually becomes introduced into the environment via their feces.According to animal studies, while 85 percent of turtles carry the bacteria, 92 percent of snakes carry it. To date, I can find no statewide Tennessee ban on our slithering friends.

Second, the way these bacteria are transferred from reptiles to humans is through ingestion. In other words, you have to put something with the bacteria in your mouth after coming in contact with it. No eat, no treat. This is true of all salmonella contact, including the consumption of raw chicken and other meats or the bags of spinach that somehow manage to be unclean in the fine food processing plants throughout the world. Unless you plan to lick your lizard, you should be fine.

Third, beyond licking a turtle, you can handle the thing and transfer the bacteria through handling and transference to food, food-preparation surfaces or other similar things. According to experts on the topic, this means we are all doomed because once salmonella enters the atmosphere, it’s like the Zombie Virus and no one is safe.Or…

Fortunately, by following some good common hygiene practices and avoiding contact with the feces of these animals as much as possible, we can easily prevent the spread of Salmonella. These basic preventive recommendations include:

· Wear disposable gloves or wash your hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water after handling reptiles, reptile cages and equipment, and the stool of reptiles.

· Do not allow reptiles to have access to the kitchen, dining room, or any other area in which food is prepared.

· Do not use the kitchen sink, kitchen counters, bathroom sinks or bathtubs to bathe reptiles or to wash reptile cages, dishes, or aquariums. Also, do not allow reptiles to have access to bathroom sinks and tubs or to any area where infants are bathed. Reptile owners may wish to purchase a plastic basin or tub in which to bathe or swim their reptiles. Waste water and fecal material should be disposed of in the toilet instead of the bathtub or household sink.

· Wash all food and water bowls and equipment with hot soapy water and disinfect with a chlorhexidine or household bleach solution (remember to rinse all disinfected utensils with clean water before using).

· Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling reptiles, reptile cages, or reptile equipment. Do not kiss reptiles or share food or drink with them.

So wait, all we have to do is wash our hands, not French kiss the things, keep the poop out of our food areas and exercise common sense and we won’t die? Nah. Too hard. We’re banning the bastards…

Fourth, the majority of the cases of salmonella that get ugly in a hurry are those involving infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. In other words, people for whom germs of ANY KIND are more likely to fuck over.

Look, I get the idea of protecting people from things that are dangerous, even in spite of themselves.

It’s why we ban fireworks in certain places or at least restrict them to the point that 5-year-olds can’t buy the Megatron Bomb that promises that the Mars Rover can see it from space.

It’s why we keep kids out of porn stores. When the question, “Mommy, where did I come from?” comes up, it may be an awkward question, but the answer shouldn’t be “Here’s $50. Go to Pleasures and get a copy of “Gentlemen Prefer Bridget” and learn something.

It’s why we keep playing “chicken” with the tobacco industry by raising prices and placing photos of cancerous lungs on their product.

In this fine state of Tennessee, various cities and areas have engaged in a number of laws to save us all from danger, including the banning of “It Ain’t Goin’ to Rain No Mo,” forbidding people under the age of 18 from playing pinball and prohibiting men from having an erection in public.

However, in a state that is listed among the top 20 for most gun deaths per 100,000 citizens, you would think that state officials might be thinking a bit more broadly about how they are protecting citizens.

You need no licensing to purchase a gun or own a gun and the state has no “assault weapon” law. Concealed or open carry is acceptable for handguns, provided you have a permit. The law does not require you to retreat before using deadly force, provided you are in a place that you have a right to be in and you fear death or harm.

I can’t imagine what kind of shit storm would occur if any state agency just up and decided one day, “Y’know, this gun shit is dangerous. Fuck it. You can’t have it.”

I can point to a newspaper, a website or a TV broadcast in any decent sized city on any given day and say, “A gun killed this person.”

I want the gun folks in Tennessee to show me the last guy or gal who was killed with a turtle. The minute some asshole storms a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” or begins an assault on a Sikh Temple with a bag of African Side-necks and sheath of Red-eared sliders, I’m totally anti-turtle.

The words that come forth first when it comes to gun control opponents are “rights” and “personal freedom” and “personal responsibility” and as much as I think that’s horseshit, I also think it should be something that goes beyond weaponry.

If I have the right to a hand cannon in Nashville, I should also have the right to a turtle.

Civic Pride (Part I)

(Ed. Note: In writing about Betsya few years back, I was
accused of creating the “haigiography of a gas guzzling testament to why
we don’t have widespread public transportation.”
Thus, I understand that
another “car” story opens me up to that again. Point taken. Also, please excuse
the “colorful metaphors” others have used to describe foreign cars. As I tell
my kids, violate AP’s rule regarding derogatory terms only if you have good
reason. I think I met the burden, but either way, consider this a pre-strike
apology. Part 2 is next week, as this just kept growing beyond what was sane to
do in one shot. Thanks. – Doc.)

A Mustang discussion board I frequent for repair hints and
automotive advice had an interesting question pop up a few years ago:

“What’s your favorite rice burner?”

The poster noted that obviously Mustangs were God’s gift to
the automotive world, but if you had to choose a Japanese import (a.k.a. a rice
burner) to own, what would it be?

The answers tended to be what you’d expect: high-speed,
low-drag “Fast-and-Furious” mobiles that ate nitrous and crapped flames.

I thought about responding to the post for a while, as my
answer was clearly going to be different. I finally figured I’d add to the mix.

“My dream rice burner is a 1998 Honda Civic EX,” I wrote.
“It has no street mods, offers no high-end speed options and it doesn’t even
have a spoiler. The reason I love it is because I own it. It gets 36 mpg, I
have put about $37 in repair parts into it over the past ten years and it
starts every time I ask it to, regardless of weather. Thanks to that car, I can
afford to dump a ridiculous amount of money into my Stang.”

No one really said anything about it, but I felt my point
had to be made: You can call them whatever you want, but the Accords, Civics,
Tercels and other imports had a lot to like.

Growing up as I did, I never expected to drive a foreign
car, let alone defend one. Dad was an America First-er and I was expected to
follow suit. I still remember a conversation I had with my dad when I was about
16.

“When are you going to get a haircut?” he asked.

“I’m not,” I told him, running my fingers through my nearly
shoulder-length mane.

“Hmm. Why don’t you get an earring then?” (Keep in mind,
this was when a guy with an earring was either a rebel or a gay. In fact, the
issue of “Which ear means you’re gay?” was hotly debated among the pierced and
unpierced alike.)

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Then you can get a foreign car and a new
place to live.”

The next day, I had my head shaved.

I learned to distrust and dislike foreign cars even more
when I worked at the garage. The master mechanic, Tom, had an aversion to
working on these “Jap pieces of shit.”

In many ways, he had a point about them.
The econo-box cars that rolled out of Japan in the 1980s were impossibly
difficult to work on when compared to the traditional American vehicles of that
era. Front-wheel drive flipped the engine sideways, thrusting three sparkplugs
on a V-6 up against the firewall. The smaller engine bay and additional
electronic options led to less open area and more busted knuckles. Even more,
the cars were designed by engineers, not mechanics. The sense that you should
put an oil filter somewhere near an open space since you change it every three
months never seemed to dawn on these people.

The one I remember working on most was a mid 1980s Toyota
mini-van. The battery was under one of the seats of the car. The oil pan was
hiding in some ridiculous spot that required you to practically create a
Tennessee Valley Authority irrigation project to drain it. The radiator was…
well… you get the idea.

Foreign cars were strange. Foreign cars were crappy. Foreign
cars were, well, foreign.


The first time I went car shopping with The Missus was not a
fun event. The Firebird I’d owned since college was suddenly car-non-grata.

I was sitting at a bar when my cell phone rang. It was my
lovely fiancée calling from her job at the police station.

“Did you park in the ramp today?” she asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Get over there. I just ran your plates for Jenna. Seems
that someone slashed a shitload of tires and a couple of them are on the Firebird.”

I paid my bill and hustled over to the parking structure.
Sure enough, I had two flats with giant ugly gashes in the sidewalls. Jenna,
the police officer investigating the situation, had me hop in the car and she
took me back to the station.

The next day, I had the guys at the garage put four new
tires on her. I also asked them to put an alignment on the car, since she
seemed to be pulling to the left. About 30 minutes later, I got a
less-than-encouraging phone call.

“We can’t align the car,” the guy told me. “The steering
knuckle is shot, the rack and pinion is pretty much worthless as well. You’ll
need to put about another couple grand into this thing to make it right.”

I hung up the phone and went down to the garage to get the
car. Tires were fine, steering sucked. I parked her outside the apartment and
went upstairs to discuss the situation with the Missus. We agreed we might need
to trade her in, but that we’d give it a couple days.

I went back downstairs and planned to drive to the grocery
store. The car refused to shift into gear at first before finally lurching into
drive.

I shut the car off, walked upstairs and told her, “We’re
buying a new car tomorrow.”


It was the Missus who broke me out of the “rice burner” mode
by suggesting a Nissan Xterra. It was big, it had 4-wheel drive and it would be
a good car for a family when that time came. Truth be told, she actually wanted
it because it had a first-aid kit built into the back of the trunk and that
just seemed cool.

Our foray into the world of automotive purchasing wasn’t a
good one. The cars were iffy and the salesmen were pushy. Worse yet, they
committed the mortal sin of treating my wife like a handbag.

She’d ask a question that was important and completely on
point. The guy would ignore her.

I’d reiterate the question and he would perk up with,
“Excellent point, sir! Let me explain that to you!”

By the time we had arrived at our fourth lot, I think she
wanted to geld me for the sins of the other penis bearers.

Buying the car at this place wasn’t that hard. The kid
selling us the car looked like he could shave with a Kleenex and he had been on
the job for about two weeks. He was still working out of the “Official
Salesman’s Handbook” when it came to his pitch. At one point, he’d gone through
Stages 1 and 2 of the program and he stopped and stared at us. After about a
minute of awkward silence, he leaned forward and whispered, “You haven’t asked
me for any money off yet…”

I said, “OK, I’d like some money off of the price.”

He then launched into the Stage 3 of the sales guy thing,
explaining how we could work on price.

Eventually, we agreed on stuff and this kid had his first
sale. Got the plates transferred, the car insured and everything else ironed
out. Things seemed fine until later that night when I had to call home. Here I
was, a faculty member who was pushing 30, living three states away, worrying
that I had to call home and tell Dad I bought a “Jap piece of shit.”

He handled it better than I thought he would, although he
handled it worse than when I told him the Missus ran away from home and was now
living in sin with me in Missouri.

Kind of strange where some priorities lie.


After we got married, we realized we needed another car. The
one we had been borrowing from our folks to hold us over as we saved for the
wedding needed to be returned. What we were looking for was a Dodge Neon or
something like a “grocery getter.” Gas was about $1.20 a gallon so “mpg” wasn’t
a huge buzzword for us. Still, we were trying to find something small, smart and
that would get us around town.

The search was spectacularly unsuccessful. The Neons we
drove had huge braking and steering problems. The Saturns were beat to hell and
had engine problems. Everything else either had a million miles on it or had
some other massive flaw.

We decided to consider a new foreign car. The Hyundais were
horrible to steer at that point and it felt like you needed a jet-assisted take
off rocket to get onto I-70.

The Kias weren’t any better. I remember being on the lot
with a sales guy, when I pointed out that the gas hatch looked like it was bent
out. That seemed strange to me for a new car.

“Oh,” the guy said, reaching over and bending it back into
place with his hand. “There we go.”

It reminded me of the “Adobe: The cute car made of clay”
sketch from SNL.

We expanded our search to the outlying areas of the county.
Then, we expanded it to the surrounding counties. Still, nothing looked right,
worked right or felt right.

Finally, one Saturday morning, I took a drive to a city called
Boonville to check out a used car lot off the freeway. When I got there, they
had not only no cars of value, but no salespeople. I walked the lot for 10
minutes and couldn’t find another living soul. The thought of hotwiring
something occurred to me, only to be overcome by the sense that nothing out
here would be worth hotwiring. I got in the car and headed back to the freeway.

As I was approaching the on ramp, I spotted a dealership on
the other side of the road. Decision time: pass up the ramp and waste more
time, or go home. Hell with it… Let’s stop.

The first thing I realized about this place is that it was
different. It was a Chrysler dealership. This was farm country and everything
here appeared to be a diesel.

When I pulled in, there were about four old guys in bib
overalls huddled around the engine bay of some gas-guzzling monstrosity. One
guy in a corn-feed cap looked up and pointed at me.

“Foreign truck,” he muttered.

“Yup,” the guy next to him said, shaking his head.

There were exactly two “foreign” vehicles on the lot: The
one I drove there in and the one I bought.


I still remember introducing my wife to the salesman at this
lot in Boonville. His name was Jim Ray Cluck. He was a rotund man who had the
distinction of being on the same high school offensive line as either the
police chief or county sheriff in the area.

His business card included the slogan, “The Round Man with
the Square Deal.”

I’d driven the car earlier in the week and was now getting
the final approval from my wife.

The car was a 1998 Honda Civic EX model. It was four years
old, had 40,000 miles on it and contained every option you could possibly
imagine. It had been on the lot for almost a year without a single taker.

Jim Ray (you said the whole thing, much like “A Pimp Named
Slickback”
) had explained to me that the dealer bought three of these Civics
from an auction house in Kansas. The first two sold in a week, because they
were stick shifts and the kids in the area were tricking them out. The
automatic remained untouched.

I wasn’t entirely sold on this car, but it was one of those
“this is better than nothing” moments. If I could get him to move on price, I’d
take it. If not, to hell with it.

Jim Ray’s boss wouldn’t move on price at all. It was a take
it or leave it kind of thing. My wife had become so frustrated by the process
that she finally got up and left. When I followed her to the car, she told me,
“You’re really pissing me off. Either buy it or don’t but I’m not coming back
in there.”

I returned to Jim Ray and told him, “She’s not happy with
you.”

He sighed and took a sip out of a Styrofoam coffee cup. He
then leaned in and in a conspiratorial tone, told me something that changed the
dynamic.

“Look,” he said, furtively turning his head left and right
on its non-existent neck. “My boss doesn’t want me to sell this car to you. We
have a thing here where if you sell three used cars in a month, you get a
good-sized bonus and the profit he’ll make on the car won’t be big enough to
cover the bonus. What if I gave you some money back out of my own pocket to
close this?”

“You mean cash?” I asked.

“If you bring cash,” he retorted.

“OK. Deal.”

We drove back home to clean out our bank account and return
with the most money I’d ever had in my hands at once. When we sat down with
him, I tossed the thick envelope containing $100 bills on the counter.

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

“Your money. Cash.”

“Jesus Christ!,” he yelped. “I meant just that we didn’t
have to finance you. You coulda brought a cashier’s check!”

“Hey. You said cash.”

He had an envelope with about 200 bucks waiting for us as
well. Ten minutes later, we were on our way.

As I drove home, I thought, “Well, two or three years and
we’ll trade it in and get something good.”


When we moved to Muncie, the goal was to see if I could get
100,000 miles on the car before it went to shit. When we moved back to
Wisconsin, the goal was to get 120,000 before the problems outweighed the
benefits.

Somewhere last year, the car hit 150,000 miles. I had to do
the routine repairs (exhaust, brakes etc.), but I’d only put about $37 worth of
replacement parts in her, thanks in large part to a place called “Wally’s
U-Pull-It.”

It was a graveyard of dead, smashed or otherwise damaged
vehicles. They would gladly pull pieces off of these wrecks for you, but if you
were willing to sign a “go out there at your own risk” form and wander the
yard, you could pull your own part and save a bundle.

My first experience with Wally’s came when the Civic’s power
steering started to squeak. Turns out, the reservoir had a giant crack in it
somehow and the fluid was leaking all over the place.

I’d called a few shops and part houses to see about getting
it replaced. $120 for a new part, $50 for installation, both of which seemed a
bit excessive to me.

Wally’s price? Ten bucks if I could find one myself.

Found it, replaced it and fell in love with my car. There
always seemed to be an ample supply of dead Civics on the lot thanks to kids
who drove them like maniacs and people with Grateful Dead bumper stickers who
didn’t know red means stop and green means go. The mechanical features of the
car were more simple than I remembered and more intuitive than I gave them
credit for.

When the AC died, I figured out it was the fan, not the
compressor. The cost for diagnostics would have been $50 just to hear that from
a guy in a greasy shirt. It was half that for a replacement fan from Wally’s.

When the radiator blew, I managed to swap it out for a new
one (never use a used radiator; consider that “one to grow on”) along with
hoses, a thermostat and several wiring harnesses I pulled from Wally’s

With the exception of tires, brakes and exhaust, which all
required special tools, I did all the work myself. The car was more than
holding its own and I had come to bond with it in a very weird way.

It wasn’t like the Mustang, a dream car.

It wasn’t like my Thunderbird, my first car.

It wasn’t like anything else I could put my finger on. It
was just a really good used car that ran like a top and survived like a tank.

My new goal was to put a quarter million miles on her and
drive her until 2018. Then, I would get “Collector” plates on her and demand
that I be allowed to drive her in the Fourth of July parade, as she would be a classic.


Fate has a funny way of screwing with you.

It wasn’t a transmission
or an engine or an axle that was on its way to dying that forced me to think
about selling my car.

It was my great uncle.

Uncle Ronnie was my mom’s mother’s brother and he was not
doing well. He had survived a bout with colon cancer somewhere along the way,
but remained on borrowed time. He lived alone, having never married and often
was the after-thought by some folks in the family. After Grandma died, Mom made sure Uncle
Ron was always invited to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, which were often
the only good meals he had. When the Illinois branch of the family invited Mom
down for birthday parties, she made sure Uncle Ronnie had a seat in the car and
was able to attend.

Two months ago, he was hospitalized with a MRSA infection. A
week or so later, they sent him home, only to have him hospitalized again the
next day. Mom knew he couldn’t live on his own any more and together they began
the process of getting him into “a home.”

Things must have been terrible for that to happen. When
Mom’s grandma was dying and riddled with dementia, great-grandma found a moment
of lucidity and with terrified eyes begged Mom, “Please… Don’t let them put me
in a home.”

My grandmother was crippled with cancer to the point where
she couldn’t get out of bed. Still, she was adamant: I’m dying at home.

Three weeks after our wedding, she did just that.

For him to say he didn’t want to live and that he couldn’t
be on his own, well, that just wasn’t our way.

As the power of attorney, Mom had to make some moves. She
had to clean out his apartment, settle his banking and take care of anything
else that he wouldn’t or couldn’t use. The car he had became one of those
things.

The 2001 Civic he owned was unlike anything else in his
life. While he ate Spaghetti-Os cold out of the can and abhorred changing his
clothes, the car was in perfect working order. Oil changes every 3,000 miles,
tires every 40,000 and anything the guy said was broken got fixed. He pretty
much was the stereotype salesmen talk about: the little old person who only
drove it to the senior center. After 11 years, it had 46,000 miles on it.

Mom and Dad had long since gotten out of the life of selling
their old cars by putting a “FOR SALE” sign in the window. They also lacked the
space to keep it at their place.

For all Dad’s proclamations that he’d love a little “get
around” car, he had no interest in this thing. It wasn’t a Cadillac and it was
still a foreign car (never mind that it was probably built in Kentucky).

I told them it wasn’t a problem. They could store the car on
our land until they figured out what they wanted to do with it and I’d drive it
occasionally to keep the seals lubed and the battery charged.

Two days later, Mom had a different idea.

“We’d like to sell you the car.”


The Missus had been dropping hints that it might be time to
trade in our Civic. It’s getting a bit old, she’d note. Hey, there’s a sale at
(fill in the name of the car lot) this weekend. Maybe we should look, she’d
mention.

It wasn’t going to happen. The Civic was like an old pair of
shoes: it fit just right.

I knew what was right and wrong. I knew how it acted on the
road. I could practically set the cruise and drift off to sleep and let the car
drive me to work.

Thanks, but no thanks, I’d tell my wife. We’re fine for now.

When this deal came up, though, I felt I had to do this. My
wife was right: our car was getting older. I found myself doing more work on
her. I found the problems I knew were going to be coming up and I knew we
weren’t far from seeing them in full flower.

She needed new brakes in about six months.

The timing belt was about 20,000 miles past the “you should
really change this” line.

The alignment was drifting a bit. The tranny was getting
old. I wasn’t sure how much longer the engine had. It had gone from a
worry-free tank to a “how long do you want to let it ride?” roll of the dice.

My uncle’s Civic was fine. It was a good car. It was well
maintained.

But it wasn’t mine.

Still, we agreed on the price, which was more than reasonable and I
set about trying to sell my Civic.

At first, I did the things that most people do when they
don’t want to do something: I sabotaged myself.

I set the asking price at about $400 above what AutoTrader
told me to. I explained in the ad that I didn’t want to sell it. I failed to
list a few attributes that would draw people to the car. I took the cheapest ad
possible, thus making it a bit harder to find.

The thought of selling my uncle’s car instead entered and
left my mind quickly. It would piss off pretty much everyone involved for a
variety of reasons. Plus, logically, I knew I needed to do this. Still…

After about a week of no real interest and a couple calls, I
decided to get serious: bigger add, more features, lower price.

As it turns out, I probably didn’t need to submarine myself.
The car was doing just fine on its own in that regard.

As I was cleaning the carpet on the passenger’s side floorboards,
I noticed the carpet felt tacky. I figured it was either a coffee spill or some
Midget-related beverage debacle.

I rubbed the carpet and put my fingers to my nose. The
sickly sweet chemical smell chilled me.

Fuck.

The heater core blew.


A heater core is a simple thing: it’s a mini radiator that
sits in your car. Hot coolant from the engine runs through it and a fan blows
air across it to heat the cabin. It’s also a stupid thing, in that engineers
tend to hide them in some of the dumbest places around. Of all the things that
were intuitive on this car, the heater core was not among them.

To get at this thing, you had to disassemble the entire dash.
You then had to remove several parts of the heating system. You then had to
take out part of the steering system, the radio, the dash panel and more.

If you wanted to do it right, you also had to have your AC
system professionally drained of Freon and have the condenser in the car
removed. You also had to be inverted during the entire process so you could see
under the dash. You had to force the seat to recline all the way, hang your
feet over the headrest and descend into the foot well.

In other words, this was not an easy job.

The cost for a pro to do this was well over $1,000. The part
alone cost upwards of $250 and that’s on a good special. Of all the things that
could break that mattered but didn’t kill the car, this was the worst.

I talked to a couple guys at the parts store, who told me,
no, you could actually do this without draining the AC. They also said you
could get into it without any special tools.

The choice was simple: fix it yourself or the car is dead.
The cost to get it fixed wouldn’t be recouped and I could get more money from
Wally’s by turning it in for parts than I could if I paid to have the core
redone and then sold it for what it was worth.

After two days of bleeding hands, scarred arms and a coolant
headache, I got to the point where I could see the heater core. I still
couldn’t touch it, but I could see it.

After two more days, I could touch it but not move it.

Of course, as is Murphy’s Law, now I had a ton of people
calling with great interest in the car. They wanted to come out on the weekend
and drive it.

It was Tuesday. I had five days to figure this out.

By the time Thursday rolled around, I had to make a choice:
Was I going to replace this the “Honda approved” way or was I going to actually
make this happen? This heater core was the full fruition of every racist stereotype
Tom spat forth while working on Hondas and Toyotas in the garage: Stuff was too
tight to fit, they built it so you couldn’t work on it, the thing wasn’t
engineered for repairs…

I went back into the house and grabbed soda. The Missus
looked at me and said, “Oh my God, your head is bleeding!”

I wiped the blood off of my head, once, twice and then
stopped. Turns out, my head was fine. I was just bleeding profusely from both
of my hands and I had touched my head. I wiped my hands on my pants and sat on
the steps.

She chose her next words slowly and cautiously.

“You know,” she began. “We got a great deal on the green
Civic. If you can’t fix this, it’s OK. We can just call Wally’s and take
whatever they’ll give us for it.”

No.

Not Wally’s.

It was this car that took us through the ice storms of Muncie.
It got us home when her beloved Xterra failed on some shitty road near Lebanon,
Indiana. It took me to Minnesota every summer. It never quit on me. I couldn’t
quit on it. I couldn’t see her out there when I went through the yard to pick
the bones of some other car.

I couldn’t.

I stood up on wobbly legs.

“I’ll be in the garage.”

The Greatest Country in the World…

The Fourth of July here was hotter than hell. Last year, I sweated my ass off while I drove the mayor in the Mustang for the city parade. This year, I couldn’t even think about getting inside the car.

We went to the parade, which was well attended, although it seemed shorter than usual. Fewer classic cars and one of those that did make it had to give up half way when it overheated and blew its radiator.

The Midget was too hot to want to get candy, although many shirtless little boys kept giving her stuff. This was my first official warning that I need to put her in a convent before she turns 12.

It was a more subdued political scene as well. This was the first summer in a while where the candidates weren’t really stumping or fighting recalls. There were a few GOP candidates vying for a chance to take over for retiring Sen. Herb Kohl and one small Dem float consisting of a pedestrian-looking sedan with Jessica King signs all over it.

As the King vehicle passed, an elderly guy, who must have been about 300 pounds of wobble and was wearing a giant flag shirt, cupped his hands around his mouth and started booing. He didn’t stop until the float had long gone passed and the parade of drag queens… er… overly made up twirler girls came into view.

Later in the parade, the flag guy and a large contingent around him joined in singing this “It’s Amerr’ka” country song as the country station’s float rolled past. People were singing along to that as well as participating in the various pro-USA rumblings that were moving through the crowd, despite the heat.

We are ‘Murr’ka, dammit. We rule.

Throughout this event, I kept hearing Will McAvoy’s monologue in the back of my head.

Later that day, as the temperatures climbed higher into the triple digits, A, Mr. A, my brother-in-law and I climbed into a couple cars and drove out to a small neighboring community. Earlier that week, I’d bought a giant wooden play set from a family out there. The lady’s grandkids were getting too old for it and The Midget had been begging for one of these things. It was a heck of a good bargain, but the downside was we had to disassemble and haul it ourselves. That day was the day the thing had to be gone.

The house was in the older part of town and looked like the kind of place the booing guy from the parade would own. Solidly built and decorated woodland style.

A camouflage-painted boat with an outboard motor rested in the driveway and it was obvious the paint was done by the owner and the trailer was rusty as hell. A giant RV camper hulked next to it, with paint peeling from it and one of the tires looking sadly low.

The owners had that small-town look to them as well: her hair was sensibly short cut with a 10-year-old style to it, his was a bald pate with closely shaven white stubble on the outer rim with a brushy white mustache to match. He wore a sleeveless shirt that tightly hugged his barrel-shaped torso and revealed an ancient, home-done tattoo of her name scrawled on his upper arm.

They greeted us as we pondered the best way to attack this thing before grabbing some plastic outdoor chairs and sitting in the shade to watch was sure to become, as A put it repeatedly, “a hell of a YouTube moment.”

Having never done construction disassembly onsite, we suddenly realized that we weren’t overmatched, but that we had left key things behind. The heat began to kick our asses and we realized we didn’t bring water. As we attempted to dispatch one of our crew to get the water, the lady who owned the play set emerged with four bottles of ice-cold joy. They were the last four she had in the house.

As her husband watched us struggle to break the rusted nuts free, he went into the garage and returned with an 18-volt DeWalt drill with a socket attachment.

Each time we realized we’d lost something or left something behind, they went into the house and got it for us, never needing us to ask.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the lady, as a gratefully guzzled my water. “We must be the most disorganized people you’ve ever met.”

She smiled and said, “Well, how many of these have you built or disassembled? How were you supposed to know?”

We got the majority of the pieces into the truck and A’s Prius. We only had one bungee cord. The man emerged with one we could borrow.

“Thank you so much,” I told the lady as we finished packing the first load. “I can’t tell you how grateful we are.”

“You know,” she said. “When I told my daughter what I sold this for, she was kind of upset, but I told her that it was the right thing to do. Everyone else wanted us to break it down or to deliver it. You were the only one to say you’d do the work. I also told her that I saw your daughter jumping up and down when she saw it and how she said ‘thank you.’ I knew this was going to the right house.”

We drove the 10 miles home and dropped off the pieces in the backyard. After a brief cool-down break, some of us headed back to strap the last couple pieces to the top of the truck.

The last couple pieces went on like a breeze. In five minutes, we were ready to be gone for good. The couple was nowhere to be seen, probably either going somewhere for dinner or retreating to an air-conditioned home.

I took the bungee cord we’d borrowed and tied it around a 12 pack of beer I’d bought, which was festooned in red, white and blue decorations. I placed it on their doorstep and headed home.

America to me was in that moment. Two sets of strangers, brought together from different worlds who saw and appreciated each other’s generosity and good will. We didn’t have to agree on everything, but we could agree on something. We could share a moment without suspicion and be grateful for the decency of people from whom we didn’t have any right to demand it.

Kindness provided without prescribed recompense and graciousness repaid in kind.

We might not be the greatest country in the world, but if you look really close, you can sometimes see some of the greatest people.

Scott Walker, Precipitating Factor

As I battled a hangover and tried to make sense of what happened Tuesday night, I started to worry less about Governor Deadeyes and more about what really might be happening here.I argued about this time last year that if the Dems were going to come for the king, they’d best not miss.

And boy, did we miss…

The numbers revealed that even with massive turnout and massive outrage about Walker’s tactics, the election was no different than it was in 2010. In fact, Tom Barrett lost by a wider percentage this time than he did last time.

The people “in the know” saw this coming. About three months ago, I found myself talking to a pretty sharp political reporter who told me that, unless Russ Feingold or Herb Kohl decided to run, Walker would win this thing pretty easily. On the plus side, he noted that Walker would probably lose in 2014.

The scary thought that wandered into my mind last night was this: What if Walker was just the precipitating factor for the anger and hatred Wisconsinites always had toward each other?

In chemistry, a precipitate is a solid that’s suspended in a liquid and can’t be seen until another variable is introduced. At that point, this precipitating factor interacts with the mixture and the solid becomes visible. The idea is that the solid was always there, but it took this new variable to get it to show itself.

Scott Walker is just one person, but he’s one of the more than 1.3 million people who decided that state workers were overpaid, unions shouldn’t get to bargain and that “the spoiled few” needed a spanking.

Those 1.3 million people interact with public employees every day. They see them painting lines on the streets, putting out fires, running state offices and teaching their children. They saw the John Doe investigation building steam. They saw number crunching of jobs that would make a three-card monte dealer blush.

Those 1.3 million said, “Fuck ‘em… Don’t care… And We’re standing with Walker.”

I’m not ascribing this sentiment to money (I still favor spending limits), the individuals running (although Tom Barrett’s next gubernatorial campaign should be run by the Washington Generals) or the general lying (anyone who can be persuaded by a political ad these days is probably too dumb to find a voting booth).

Unless you’re the Jewish son of a carpenter who can change water to wine, there’s no way you’re getting that many people on board for an idea they didn’t already have percolating in their heads.

It frightens me that the people back in my old neighborhood might have always resented my mom for her benefits and state salary.

It worries me that the parents who attended our city school’s carnival and open house with me might have been bitter toward the people who taught their kids.

It hurts me to think that friends and family who have shared barbecues, birthday parties and baptisms might have looked at me and seen a “have” when I was struggling with the same things they were.

Wisconsin has always prided itself as being a purple state, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment any more. In my view, purple would indicate that we could think some Republican ideas on finances are fine, but some Democratic ideas on social protections are good too. Purple would mean that we could fluctuate between good arguments that make sense, regardless of who was making them.

In this election, polls indicated that 91 percent of the people voting made up their mind on this issue months ago (or longer). The contrasts between who was voting which way created sharp divides.

We weren’t a blended purple. We were oil and water. Shake us up as hard as you want, but we will eventually separate out along a clearly demarcated line.

Barrett and others have now made the mealy-mouthed call for healing, but can we really “unlearn” something like this about our fellow citizens? It’s like finding out your grandfather is a raging racist only after you bring a black friend home from college at Thanksgiving. Can you ever really look at him as the guy who took you fishing and used to find a quarter behind your ear after that?

Healing from a major wound almost always leaves a scar. That scar serves as a reminder of what happened to you.

When you see that scar, you remember who inflicted it upon you as well.

And then a different kind of hurt prevails.

Love of My Life

I had this post worked out in my head for weeks. I had it built until about four hours ago when someone decided that “Hey, when we say something is due on X day, that means whenever, right?”

The concept was simple: This summer, The Missus, The Midget and I went to the Wisconsin Dells for a summer get away. One of the things we did was the rather campy tourist trap thing known as “The Dells Mining Company.” They sell you a giant bucket of sludge with raw gems in it and then try to get you to up the ante by getting a few of those things turned into polished gems and jewelry.

The Midget pulled a lump out of her sifting bin and stared at it with a scrunched up face. “It looks like a meatball!” she said as she rolled the round rock in her hand. She was happy to have it and planned to keep it.

The lady at the counter told us it was a garnet, which sent my wife’s eyes a’sparkling. She has always loved garnets, so much so, she has forsaken her actual birthstone and adopted the red gems as her own. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed to have a couple stones cut from the raw rock. It would take 6-8 weeks and they’d be mailed to us.

I hatched a plan in my head to ferry away the stones from the mail, have them put into some nice earrings and have them for her on our anniversary, which is today.The lady at the jewelry store swore that it would be no problem to have these by the 28th, or even a day earlier. She told me to come back on the 27th and everything would be fine. We chatted a bit about how these stones came to be and what it took to get them there. How it was that something so big and lumpy and non-descript could be polished and shaped into something so worthwhile.

Then, I started thinking about my post. I wanted to do the perfect metaphor post. It was a lead-pipe cinch.

If you knew me back when I met her, you’d know that I was probably the least likely person on Earth to land my wife. I was rough, crude and off-putting. In other words, pretty much like now, but imagine it magnified. It took about a dozen stops and starts, a “OK Fuck It” move to Missouri, about $600,000 in long-distance charges, a midnight run away from Wisconsin with nothing but 10 sweaters and a broken coffee pot, a shaming moment from our parents, a series of epic misfortunes and 18 months of eating Ramen so we could save enough money to do our wedding the way we wanted to, but we got here.

However, my wife isn’t great for these reasons. She’s great because she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She rubbed away the dirt, cut away the crap and tried to polish me up so that I could see what she saw, and maybe other people could, too.

Over the past 10 years, we have worked the problems we faced, we have found our way and we have done it because of her. She took the initiative to give me one more phone call after I was in the “I’m not talking about her anymore” phase. She realized that we fit together, even if neither of us really saw how at that point. She cut the gem, whatever it was, from the heart of the mess and shined it.

So, here I was today with this post that had info about gem cutting and jewelry making and this wonderful metaphor of life. It was done and waiting for the earrings to arrive. The closing was going to be tonight when I gave them to her at dinner.

I stopped by to pick them up, only to get a blank stare from the woman at the counter. Turns out, that instead of putting “Due Date 9/27” on the package, she needed to put “Due Date 9/27 RUSH” on the package. Apparently that’s the difference between having earrings for my wife and not.

The woman who sold them to me was apologetic. The owner was apoplectic.

I offered to drive to the goldsmith’s and pick them up. They balked. I guess telling a random guy where a shit ton of gold has been sent isn’t a good business plan.

I then offered to meet the goldsmith at a coffee house or a freeway exit ramp or something. No dice.

I told them if they didn’t want to have me drive to the goldsmith, I’d
pay for the gas for them to drive out there. That apparently didn’t work
either.

They told me they’d call me in an hour but they’d work it out. Turns out, that meant that the earrings weren’t done, but they would be done and they’d be happy to give me a pair of earrings to “present” to my wife as a symbol of what was coming.

Right. Because nothing says, “Happy Anniversary” like saying, “Here are some great earrings, but they’re not actually yours.”

Like so much of everything else that happened to us leading up to that wedding, this wasn’t going to be easy.

In July of that year, her grandfather died.

In August of that year, my dad’s mom died. I still have the invitation response card she sent back to us in June. “If the good Lord is willing,” she wrote on the back of the card. “I’ll be there!”

Two weeks before my wedding, my uncle died

My grandmother (mom’s mom) was the reason we were ever able to make that leap of faith and run away from everything and cling to each other. She was so goddamned stubborn that she swore cancer wouldn’t take her before she saw us wed.

After we opened gifts that following morning, I drove her home and hugged her goodbye. When we left her house, a sadness came over me.

“What’s wrong?” my bride asked.

“I can’t say for sure,” I began. “But I have this horrible feeling I just said goodbye to my grandmother for the last time.”

I was right. Three weeks later, she was gone.

I was pondering this when the phone rang. It was the jewelry store. No hope of getting them until Monday. The goldsmith sent a picture for me and the jewelry store sent along a gift card as an apology.

I stopped for a minute, thinking I should be really pissed off. I smiled instead and said, “Thanks for trying. I’ll pick the stuff up this afternoon.”

Maybe it wasn’t the gem that typified who we were. Maybe it was the process.

We improvise, we adapt, we overcome. We try, we fail, we forgive. We love and we cherish.

And we also love to tell stories.

We can add this one to the pile of them we built together over the past 10 years.

Check out my lizard…

IMG_0722

This is what I get for assuming you all are broke like me. 🙂

I had planned a tasteful “Sticky Fingers” cover shot, but since it was hard… Uh… difficult to get my lizard to cooperate, we had to go with the handful shot.

In any case, this is Archer, a baby leopard gecko that I fell in love with. Always wanted a gecko for a pet and The Missus finally convinced me to give this a shot. He’s usually decent about “hand time” and he’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch run around. He’ll climb all over you if you let him. I have yet to get salmonella.

Seriously, thank you all for donating to this fun little place we all call home. If I could think of something to do with him next year for this that wouldn’t get me bitten, I’d probably agree to it for the fundraising trick.

Archer don’t do hipster glasses.

Doc.

The New Bullies

Sometimes it takes a stupid argument over a stupid thing to
reveal a greater truth. After a week of “Oh, hey, you still live here?” chaos
that meant seeing my wife for about three minutes a day, we finally had an
evening to catch up on some together time. We decided to watch a few episodes
of “Project Runway” we had gathered on the DVR, which isn’t as tortuous as I
thought it would be when she asked for a season pass to this thing.

If you haven’t see this over the ten seasons it’s been on, the
concept should at least be familiar: Gather about 12-14 people from all over
the place with an interest in being famous at X job. Put them together in a
living space and force them to do all sorts of impossible work-related
challenges. Have three or four assholes on a panel judge them in some of the
meanest ways possible.

They shit-can one of them each week and we all listen to the
person who got shit-canned say, “I learned a lot and I know you haven’t heard
the last of me.”

We then officially never hear from that person again and
move on to the next week to start the process all over again.

This week’s fashion challenge was to move away from
designing clothes for people that anorexics call thin and try to design
something for a “real woman.”

(I hate that phrase, despite its constant use in the
program. It’s like models turn in their vaginas when they take to the catwalk.
Or like we’re trying to come up with a nice way to say “size four is too
fucking heavy.”)

These were all women whose friends had sponsored them. They
were too short, too heavy, too “fuck fashion” to be fashionable and the
challenge was to create a look for them that took who they were and translated
it to fashion.

One of the designers is named Ven. Ven is a talented guy and
doesn’t fit the stereotype of “male fashion designer.” Most of the guys on the
show seem like they’re picked based on number of tattoos, tightest Daisy Duke
shorts and how catty they can be. It’s like they went to Fire Island and hired
life coach Jerry Springer to conduct a “Gay Off.”

(I talked to one of my good friends who watches the show and
who also happens to be gay. He said, “I finally understand how my friend (Name
of an Italian lady he know) feels when she watches the Sopranos and Real
Housewives.”)

In any case, Ven has the body shape of a potato with a
half-sucked Milk Dud stuck on the top for a head. He’s the kind of guy who the
mean joke “Have you see his new shoes? No. Neither has he” applies.

His model for this challenge was a woman who was about a
size 12-14. She didn’t like the way she looked so she wore things that were
comfortable. And speaking comfortable, she clearly wasn’t comfortable in the
world of high fashion.

I get it. When I had to buy a suit for the Cardinal Reunion,
I felt like I was walking into “Jimmy’s House of Get Ready for a Random Anal
Rape.”

I was tense. I needed help but I didn’t want help. I felt
like something at the Westminster Dog Show. I was afraid to touch something to
have the sales guy say, “That? Are you kidding?”

So, of course, the first thing Ven does is complain about
his plus-sized model, right in front of her. He then starts talking about how
they’re going to do certain things because she’s a plus-sized woman. Again,
right in front of her. He then proceeds to fuck up his design (a common theme
on the show: Try something, fuck it up, bitch about it.) and complain both on
camera and to her that if she weren’t such a plus-sized model, this would be
better.

The woman breaks down, Ven almost gets kicked off the show
and the show ends with this guy still saying, “I’m not designing for people
like her.”

Thus, the argument.

My wife, someone who loves fashion but hates clothes because
of designers like Ven, is arguing that he wasn’t being that big of an asshole.
I, someone who could probably be a lot more fashion-forward because everything
for dudes is somehow in my size, am losing my mind about this guy being a
complete bag of dick. We argued about this for an hour, went to bed and woke up
arguing about it again. The Missus said she was DREAMING about this and wanted
to continue the argument because of it.

That’s when it really hit me why this bothered me: This guy
was the new bully.

Bullies have been around for forever. They usually were big
and strong and demanded lunch money if they were guys. The girls bullied in
more subtle ways through power gained by beauty, money and status. However,
bullies were bullies. They were the top of the evolutionary food chain and they
used their power and your fear to make you something less than you were.

I find it highly likely that people on “Project Runway”
including Ven were victims of bullies. The word “fag” keeps coming to mind as
the insult de jour. For some of these guys, I’m sure it was even worse that
they were coming to grips with being gay and doing so at a time when even the
most well-adjusted kids teetered on the edge of insanity. Ven probably was the
fat kid in the class as well. He liked fashion. He was quiet: The perfect
target for the loud, boisterous assholes among us.

He probably found solace in being good at something and eventually
realizing that being able to throw a ball for a high school team wasn’t the end
all and be all of life. He left high school, left college and began to find
himself in a world where different was embraced. He was chosen for a show that
celebrates that in its own way and allowed him to create his own power.

The first chance he got to take his skill and his power and
give some hope to someone else, he turned into a bully.

Earlier this month, I got a phone call from home. Mom was
having a week that feels like you fell off the top of a giant pine tree and the
branches are smashing into you constantly. You hope to hit the ground and die,
if only because you want this shit to be over.

Problems with sick family, bad kids, weird administrators and
general bullshit were beating her up. She had the grace and strength to handle
all of that.

Except for one thing.

The district had decided to install new computer programs to
chart and track kids. Even more, it mandated that the faculty members all have
their own personal websites that could be used to contact parents and provide
homework information and such. The district hired a guy to help oversee the
training of the faculty and this guy was supposed to be an expert on the topic.

The in-service day of training turned into what you would
expect: Faculty fumbling around, computers that were older than my car not
being fast enough to do things right and general mayhem. Of course, the expert was
an expert, not a teacher, so this became a lot of “Well, that SHOULD work.”
When it worked for a few people, thanks to their previous knowledge and the
fact they had faster computers, his sense that failure was based on human error
appeared justified.

Of course, when you coupled my tech-phobic mother with the
slowest machine out there (a PC, no less for a Mac person), you have the
makings of trouble. She couldn’t get things to pull up, she couldn’t get things
to link and she had trouble making her stuff work.

She became the perfect target for a bully.

The man kept saying, “Well just do what I told you to!” When
it didn’t work, he mocked her in front of the class. When someone asked for
help, he nodded in my mother’s direction and noted “Why don’t you ask her?” as
others laughed.

I could feel her pain. I could feel her embarrassment. It
just seeped through the phone in that broken, crippled way.

“I just… I SWEAR to you…” she said as she broke down in
tears. “I am NOT stupid! I WILL learn this and I WON’T retire until I do…”

The computer guy should have known better than to be like
this. From every account, he was probably the guy other kids picked on. He
probably liked modems instead of models, SCSI instead of sports and programming
instead of playing. Of all people, he should have been the one to say, “I know
how it feels when it seems like everyone else is laughing at you. Let me help
you.”

Instead, the instant he had the upper hand, he played it in
the most merciless and mean-spirited way possible.

I could feel it building. I wanted to grab my Louisville
Slugger and drive two hours and fuck this guy up. I wanted to just rage against
him and scream, “See if you can .html code your way out of this you FUCKING
FUCK!” It was the same way I wanted to stick Ven on a treadmill and say, “Let
this lady watch you run until you’re the size of the models you think are worth
designing for, asshole.”

Then, I realized why that wouldn’t work. To beat a bully,
you have to beat him at his own game. The reason kicking the unholy shit out of
the bully I faced in sixth grade worked was because he was using violence to
perpetuate superiority. I out-violenced him and thus was left alone.

I couldn’t out-design that turd in a striped shirt, but I
sure as hell could do something to help my mother. I told her everything was
going to be all right and that we would fix this somehow.

The next weekend, I headed to Milwaukee for a card show and
basically locked myself in The Computer Room with Mom for about four hours. We
slowly went through each program and we got her website to work. I helped her
add images, links, email references and more. We used her scanner to grab
photos and homework. We found references online to her previous awards. We
built it together, slowly and scholarly. We also managed to get her classes
updated, her kids added and her parents emailed.

“You’re really a great teacher,” she said with a smile. “If
he had been able to explain things this way, I know I could have gotten it.”

Later that week, I called Mom to tell her my book had
finally published. Before I could get excited and share my news, she
interrupted me and said, “I’ve gotta tell you something first! I updated all my
classes homework by myself! I got all the kids over there and everything!”

She sounded elated, a mix of triumph and giggles.

She then told me that they had another session and she was
one of the few people to have a website done.

“I wasn’t going to show my site,” she said. “I didn’t want
to make a big deal out of it, but then that asshole said, ‘Well, maybe we
should look at HER site!’ and it got a big laugh. So I told him to open it up
and the room fell silent. He mumbled, ‘Nice job on adding those photos. How did
you do that?’ I told him it was because he was such a great teacher.

“People laughed.”

“…You could be another Lincoln…”

I remember the first run of the “Why do you hate America?”
censorship that poured out in the weeks and months after 9/11. It was Bill
O’Reilly and the other “STFU” freedom fighters who labeled anyone who wanted to
stop and think about things for more than three seconds as being someone
willing to offer aid and comfort to terrorists. It was a stupid bit of
illogical patriotism that belied a larger concern that for all the freedom we
were fighting for, we had to pretty much give up our freedom to get it.

Facts? Fuck ‘em

Discussion? Only for pussies.

Logic? Queer shit.

Fast forward to
Friday in which Paul Ryan decided everything old was new again. He spent the
better part of a campaign speech in D.C. deriding the president for engaging in
similar behavior in terms of the economy and social issues.

Ryan noted:

“…if anyone dares to point out the facts” of the president’s
“record” then “they’re just being negative and pessimistic about the country.”

Aside from heaping on the “America: Fuck Yeah!”approach, he
upped his game by pointing out how Obama kept rolling out classic “strawman”
arguments that he would then beat into the ground:

“Nobody is better at rebuking nonexistent opinions,” Ryan
said. “Barack Obama does this all the time, and in this campaign we are calling
him on it.”

Looking at this argument is like staring into a moebius
strip: Every time you think you reached the end of it, you double back on top
of yourself and you feel upside down.

Start with the fact that it was the Republicans who spent
the entirety of the 2000s giving us the “agree or die” philosophy when it came
to actual life and death decisions. If Democrats are anything, it’s overly
sensitive dipshits who a) talk things to death or b) shut up if they can’t get
everyone to agree on something. The whole idea that Obama is doing this “Yeah?
You think so? Fuckin’ hater!” thing is laughable at best.

Then, move to the more amusing part of the program: the
strawman. I’m not a great fan of Bill Maher, but he has been right as rain on
this aspect of how the Republicans are running against Obama. There’s Real
Obama and there’s Imaginary Obama. The Republicans have spent the last several
years building an Imaginary Obama to run against, a guy who has a Negro Army
just waiting to fuck up white people, a man who is plotting to seize all the
guns and who will be walking through Bedford Stuy with milk crates full of
C-notes to make it rain on his peeps any day now. (He’s also a silver-spooned,
cultural elitist who never really worked a day in his life, but don’t let
anything that might seem counterintuitive slow you down here…).

I had a two-day fight with a friend over a fucking Internet meme
about how Obama said he didn’t think people should have guns. The fact he never
said it, has never said it and there was no evidence to support he would even
suggest it didn’t matter. It was online.

It was a picture and had quote marks
around words and EVERYTHING!

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(Click here to see the source of this. When you’re done laughing, c’mon back.)

If that purple-pimp-hat-having, freedom-suppressing, gun-stealing,
black-junta-leading Obama were any more of a strawman, he’d be wearing flannel
and having a crow shitting on him.

So if you want to try to pare this down into an elevator
statement, Paul Ryan is essentially rolling out the ugliest parts of what the
Republicans have done or are attempting to do and saying Obama is doing them,
even with evidence or specificity to the contrary.

Obama isn’t perfect and I honestly don’t know how I’d vote
if this time around a “McCain/Somebody Awesome With a Brain” ticket came along.
That said, when a guy whose convention speech had fact checkers leaping off the
couch screaming, “Lordy, Lordy, we’re having BISCUITS TONIGHT! Chedda
comin’!!!!” calls you out, you have to kind of wonder where rock bottom is on
this campaign.

But if we need a meme to capture this, enjoy:

Gangsta

“Death isn’t always sad…”

That line from Bill Maher’s “tribute” to Jerry Falwell came
to mind today as I heard that former NFL team owner Art Modell had passed on
(pun intended).

Sorry, Art. I can’t say “goodnight” to you here, but I can
say “good riddance.”

Modell owned the Cleveland Browns for more than 30 years
before taking the team to Baltimore and renaming it the Ravens. He did this
despite the overwhelming protestation of Browns fans, the city of Cleveland and
the NFL itself.

For this reason, Modell was essentially exiled from his
adopted hometown and despite his decades of service to the NFL and his work in
advancing it through the AFL/NFL merger remains a Hall of Fame reject.

However, Modell was an asshole long before he decided to
treat Cleveland like a roll of Charmin.

He bought the Browns in 1961 and fired the team’s iconic
coach and namesake, Paul Brown, just two years later. According to Cleveland
legend, the timing of Brown’s firing was set to coincide with a citywide
newspaper strike, as to avoid any backlash.

Brown had won seven titles. Modell won the 1964 title with long-time
Browns assistant Blanton Collier at the helm. It would be the city’s last major
championship.

And yet, he would do the city one better in 1993 when coach
Bill Belichick clashed with quarterback Bernie Kosar.

Kosar was a local kid from Boardman, Ohio, who led the Miami
Hurricanes to a national championship. Through a series of maneuvers to qualify
for the 1986 supplemental draft, Kosar might have been the only athlete ever to
game the system in an attempt to play IN Cleveland. He often called it his
dream job.

Kosar was the guy who took the Browns to the AFC
championship game multiple times and appeared poised to make a run in 1993 as
well, when Belichick benched him in favor of Heisman washout Vinny Testaverde.
To sooth the wound and attempt to smooth the waters, Modell referred to Kosar
as “my son” and gave him a 5-year, $27-million contract extension.

Kosar was cut a week or two later. In a sweet twist of
irony, Kosar was signed as a back up QB for the Dallas Cowboys, who won the
Super Bowl that year.

Of course, at the time Modell allowed this to occur, the
Browns were 5-3 and in the hunt in the AFC Central. Testaverde was hurt and the
team had no legitimate starter.

And, hey, when you can take the field with the immortal Todd
Philcox leading the charge, you have to take that chance, right?

In the early 1970s, Modell took over as the landlord of
Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Modell saw this as a venue to quick cash, as he
would take over the stadium from the city for $1 per year while assuming all operating
costs and revenue. The trick was that while the Browns played 14 to 16 games
per season, the other tenant, the Cleveland Indians, would play 81 home games
each year. Thus, Modell was able to charge both his own team and the Indians
rent, thus doubly feathering his own pockets. Despite this, he consistently
lost money on the deal and the stadium continued crumble. When the city worked
with new Indians owner Dick Jacobs to build a baseball-only park, Modell
refused to find a way to become part of the Gateway Project and attempted to
block the construction. In the end, the Indians got the stadium and Modell lost
out. He then began looking for a way out.

Like it or hate it, the NFL is a license to print money. The
league has salary caps, non-guaranteed contracts and revenue sharing. Stadiums
routinely sell out for exorbitant prices, concessions are overpriced to the
point of avarice and this shows no sign of stopping any time soon. You almost
have to TRY to lose money if you own a team in the post-merger world of the
NFL.

And yet, lose Modell did.

He consistently reported losing money throughout the 1970s
and 1980s. He once noted that he had to “go to four or five banks” to find
someone who would lend him the necessary money to finance wide receiver Andre
Rison’s $5 million bonus.

(And, hey, when you have a chance to sign a guy who’s
nickname is “Bad Moon” and who had his rap star girlfriend burn his house down,
you really should take that chance, right?)

Think about this for a second: Imagine an NFL majority owner
showing up at a BANK and having
him BEG for a loan. And then imagine that the guy had to do that four or five
times until he found someone who would pony up.

Even in the wild post-Reagan deregulation, consumption-based
economy, FOUR OR FIVE BANKERS decided that an NFL OWNER was a BAD INVESTMENT.

Modell never figured this out.

In 1995, Modell did figure something out: Other cities want
teams too. He cut a backroom deal to move the team to Baltimore, ignoring pleas
from civic leaders to simply sell the team to his friend, billionaire Al
Lerner. Modell repeatedly said he wanted to keep the team for his family.

Part of me always wanted to blame Baltimore for this. I
found it offensive that the city that watched Robert Irsay steal the Colts out
of town under the cover of night would do the same thing to someone else’s
city. It always felt as incongruent as a rape victim going out and becoming a
rapist.

Despite a free, modern stadium and tax breaks that would
make Scott Walker blush, he kept losing money. Each year, he had to sell a
little more of the team.

When he died, he owned 1 percent of the team, which some
people viewed as a thinly veiled way to get around a multi-million dollar
finder’s fee he would owe if he ever sold the team.

So much for “the family.”

So much for “the Browns” who remain a laughing stock
expansion team that was reborn in 1999 in attempt to shut the city of Cleveland
up.

So much for death being the ultimate equalizer, in which we
all look for something nice to say about someone who has gone.

Sorry. I can’t.

I can’t look at photos of his fat, toady face or listen to
clips of his self-serving bullshit or even watch a Ravens game without getting
upset.

Modell had his vision blurred by his own arrogance,
frittered away money through his own stupidity and damaged a glorious franchise
through his own greed.

If I looked hard into his past and tried really hard to find
something great about him, I’m sure I could, but doing so would only make me as
hypocritical as he was.

It’s like having to compliment a chef on his choice of
ketchup.

In his final years, people talked about him with a slightly
softer tone (outside of Cleveland, that is). It reminded me of a book I once
read called “Nixon Reconsidered,” which was written near his death in 1994. The
idea was that perhaps now that time had passed, it was worth giving Tricky Dick
a pass. He did some good things and had some bad breaks and some regrets and…
Gee… shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones?

Each time Modell comes up for the Hall of Fame, this issue
reemerges. Each time, a good many journalists and fans recall how Modell took a
shit in the punch bowl and bolted from the party without saying so much as a
goodbye.

Perhaps the only thing about Art Modell that made me happy
was going to ESPN.com and finding his obituary and noticing two things:

1) It wasn’t worth putting out front. I actually had to dig
for it on the site.

2) It couldn’t refer to him as “Hall of Famer” Art Modell.

Strip Tease

It was hot and crowded and the woman in front of me kept
pushing us away from her by grinding her very wide ass into my groin. My wife
suggested that the woman grab a pole and make some money while we all were
waiting.

It was an odd bit of serendipity that landed The Missus and
I
and me in Paris that July. We had gotten married the previous September, but with
both of us working and me still having a dissertation to write, we postponed
our honeymoon. To make up for time lost, we joined a tour group that was
heading to France that summer and decided to make that our belated post-wedding
trip.

After the requisite stops at the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral
at Notre Dame and every mall within the city limits, we chose to spend our last
full day overseas waiting to see a Texas cancer survivor do the impossible.

After a series of floats, odd motorized vehicles and police
escorts, a flurry of steel carbon fiber and rubber came down that long stretch home. Men of
sinew and spandex, flying along on two wheels faster than I could on four.

The riders with nothing to gain or lose sped past with
reckless abandon, figuring on winning that final stage simply to say they did
it. The overall victory had been salted away days earlier with a series of
grueling rides in which the likely winner had separated his wheat from the
others chaff.

And then he came in the blink of an eye, too fast to be
captured by my pedestrian camera.

Lance Armstrong, clad in the yellow jersey, surrounded by a
protective ring of teammates, heading down the Champs-Elysees. We were
strangers in a strange land, but the sense of history filled us with pride.

He was not only going to win the Tour, but he would tie the
record for most Tour wins. As the riders made their laps around the final
circle of the Tour, we ran down to see them finish the race. Armstrong, knowing
he had it in the bag, enjoyed champagne with his teammates as they rode into
history.

The next day, we were on an early flight out. I stopped at
the airport news kiosk and bought one of every newspaper, even though I had no
idea what any of them said.

The photos told the story for me: Lance Armstrong, looking
like a giant banana, hoisting an ugly cup of some sort.

Today, I was told all of that probably never happened.

Lance Armstrong dropped his fight against doping allegations
and so the USADA or the UIC or WADA or some other spoonful of alphabet soup
will be working hard to take away his titles.
He might lose a bronze medal from
the 2000 games and he might also be required to turn in his other testicle.

This recent trend of historical revision has become one of
the dumbest things I’ve seen in sports. In an attempt to punish people who have
already left their sports behind (or in some cases died), athletic oversight
committees have taken to stripping them of things.

When the Gerry Sandusky molestation allegations came to
light, the NCAA bypassed its traditional investigative protocol and just
dropped the shit hammer on Penn State.
It banned the team from bowl games,
levied heavy fines and killed off scholarships for years to come. All of that
made sense to me, even though it seemed like the punishment was being doled out
on people who weren’t there when the crimes were committed.

However, the NCAA also stripped the team of all of its wins
from 1998 to 2011, which made no sense. What did that do, exactly?

Sure, Joe Paterno would no longer be the coach with the most
wins in major college football, but the guy was dead.

Nobody really wanted those “wins” once they got them either.
Bobby Bowden, the former Florida State coach, ascended via default to the
position of “winningest college coach.” He wasn’t thrilled and it wasn’t like
he was immediately retyping his resume.

And the schools that lost to Penn State over those years
didn’t really embrace the moment either. Were the creampuff schools that had
signed on to get murdered by Penn State for a paycheck rewriting their record
books? Were they boasting, “Hey, we didn’t really LOSE to Penn State by 912
points in 2001!” and using that as a recruiting tool?

The players who won games and titles were gone as well. Were
they required to turn in their rings and awards and such?

That idea isn’t too far afield.When allegations came to
light that Reggie Bush of USC had received illegal benefits, the school was
required to cut all ties with Bush and erase him from the record books.
In
addition, he essentially had his Heisman Trophy revoked.
According to the
records, no one won the 2005 award, which must really be a kick in the balls to
Vince Young, who finished second that year. Even when the Heisman committee
noted that it probably wouldn’t award Young with the trophy when they got it
back, Young stepped out and said he probably wouldn’t want it anyway.

Punishment is meant to do two things: penalize a guilty
party and offer solace or closure or restitution to those who have been
wronged. When athletic board, groups and organizations decide to rewrite
history, none of this happens.

Armstrong’s legacy and Paterno’s legacy and Bush’s legacy
get “tarnished” and talking sports heads dither about what this means in the
grand scheme of things. Bush is still getting paid to play, Paterno is dead and
Armstrong isn’t going to be on the side of a road with a “will cycle for food”
sign.

None of them really hurts.

Even more, the restitution factor never comes into play. It
wasn’t like the Bowden family was breaking out the bubbly and saying,
“Whoo-eee! Thank God for that kid-diddler!” Also, it’s not exactly clear how
this impacts the kids who were molested. Is there a bit of solace that their
attacker was on a losing team? Probably not.

Vince Young wasn’t campaigning for sloppy seconds or
demanding a revote as he tried to hang on to a job in the NFL.

And the cycling guys… Well, actually, given what I’ve seen
of the sport, there probably is a ton of cheering and some guys casting lots
for seven yellow shirts.

Look, I get it. You have to do SOMETHING to these people and
you can’t actually punish them in real time. Until Jean-Claude Van Damme shows
up with his ride from Time Cop, you can’t go back and actually stop stuff from
happening. However, rewriting the past isn’t the way to improve the future.

You can take Armstrong out of the books, but guess what? I
was there.

I saw him ride. I saw him win. I still have those hunks of
dead tree in my office that proclaim in a language I don’t understand that he
kicked the shit out of the field.

You can’t make me un-cheer him. You can’t make me un-remember
watching that moment. You can’t make me undo what I got the chance to
experience.

If you can do that, start by getting that woman’s ass off of
me.

Seven

I crept out of my bedroom early this morning and poked my head into my child’s room. She was snoring and muttering in her sleep, same as always. The floor of her room was devoid of most of the toys that usually made walking through a minefield a safer proposition than putting her to bed.

The room was relatively clean because family and friends will be descending upon our home this weekend for her birthday parties (Yes, plural. Yes, we are nuts.).

Today, she turns seven.

I wonder how that is possible.

Three days after my wife walked out of the bathroom, slapped a pee-laden plastic stick in my hand and announced, “Here we go again,” an ice storm hit our part of the state. Of the 50,000 homes in our area, about 49,000 of them were without power, including ours.

We lived next to a nature preserve and spent the first night hearing giant trees forcefully shedding their limbs under the weight of the ice. Every time a chunk crashed to the ground, it sounded like the wood had landed in our dining room.

We spent the first day playing board games and bundling up for what we thought would be like a snow day. The only radio station in town with a gas-powered generator was broadcasting updates as to damage and power issues in between bouts of mid 2000s pop music.

I still can’t hear Lenny Kravitz’s version of “American Woman” without feeling my teeth chatter.

Once we realized this wasn’t going to be a short-term problem, we hunkered down in the family room: Me, The Missus and The Rabbit (who was none too pleased that we chased her into the room and captured her into a makeshift cage). We wore every layer of clothing possible. It wasn’t helping.

Shortly before 9 p.m. on Day Two, the DJ told us something life-changing: The Lowe’s in Muncie had received a shipment of 300 kerosene heaters and was opening immediately to sell them.

The store was about a mile from our house, but the four-wheel-drive truck we owned wasn’t at home. On Christmas morning, we had slammed head on into a deer and the truck was crushed to shit. It was at the shop, being repaired. All we had was our grocery getter, a 1998 Honda Civic. Making things worse, it was trapped in the garage.

“Look,” I said, “I can try to break the garage door and go out there and get one if you think it’s worth the risk.”

She turned to me in the dark and through foggy breath said, “Do whatever you have to.”

I managed to shatter the ice that sealed the garage door and forced it up and out of the way. The Civic started and I wove through the desolate streets of the city.

When I arrived, the Lowe’s was insane. The line was growing out the door and cars were swarming to the parking lot like angry bees, weaving in and out of each other’s way. I threw the car into a spot that might or might not have been marked for handicapped use, as the ice made it impossible to tell.

Fuck it, I thought, they can tow me.

I raced to the line across a slick parking lot and slid into line, quite literally. I counted the people in front of me: 21. The line behind me grew exponentially.

After what seemed like hours, but I’m sure was only 20 minutes, they started selling these things. The first guy walked out with his and commented to no one in particular, “They’re screwed. They thought they had 300 on the truck, but they only have 150.”

Thanks, asshole. Feel free to touch off a riot for no good reason.

The line remained calm as we wove into the store. For about $150 plus tax, I had a heater and a giant jug to hold our kerosene. As I walked out, people who were deep within the line and had no chance of getting one were offering wads of cash to me for mine.

One gas station remained open in the vicinity and all the people with heaters were making a beeline for it. The kerosene pump had never seen use like this before. I got four gallons to be on the safe side, and headed home, where I would build this damned thing in the dark as my wife watched over me with hopeful eyes.

One hour and two clicks of the igniter later, we had heat. It smelled like raw petroleum in our house, but we didn’t give a shit. We were warm.

It took six days to restore power and on each of those days, we had the same argument: I would tell her to take the car and drive to Indianapolis or wherever had power and get a hotel room to stay warm. She would refuse and tell me she wasn’t leaving me alone.

I was afraid she’d lose the baby.

She was afraid of what would happen to me.

And around and around it went.

As the city slowly crept back to life, we were able to find bits of salvation here and there. Our water heater was gas powered, so we could take hot showers when we wanted. Of course, when the shower was over, it was still 43 degrees in the house, so we needed to be ready for that. We would place our clothing around the heater, get it warm, bundle it up and race it into the bathroom. After the shower, we would dry off as fast as possible and get dressed. The bathroom was dark, obviously, except for a small neon light I used when I worked under the car. Between the neon and the steam, the bathroom took on the feel of the movie “Aliens.”

We violated every rule pertaining to the heater, I’m sure, short of running it while we slept. We warmed soup on it. We warmed coffee on it. We ran it inside without the 900 feet of ventilation or whatever it was supposed to have.

About the fourth day, we heard a nearby city had power fully restored, so we drove there for food. McDonald’s never tasted quite so good and hasn’t ever since.

Thousands of workers from all over the country poured into our city to shake the ice off the lines and rebuild our power grid. We treated them like the Poles treated the U.S. Military during World War II.

We bought them lunch when we saw them. We cheered for them as they drove by.

When one of the guys came by to check the power transformer in our backyard, we ran outside and jumped up and down, offering him a choice of beverages: some lukewarm coffee or a semi-frozen beer.

Eventually, the power came back and live moved on. I spent the next month panicking about what that deepfreeze had done to my child.

When we met with the OBGYN to get an ultrasound, all of that panic came to a head.

I couldn’t sleep the night before. I couldn’t eat. I beat the shit out of myself.

Why didn’t I force her to leave?

Why didn’t I do more to keep her warm?

Why… Why… Why…

The doctor was a woman who had the personality of a wet fart. She told us about six months earlier with clinical precision that the child we had been expecting was not meeting growth expectations and had failed to be viable and needed to be removed from my wife. She then printed off some ultrasound photos, handed to them to us and said, “I’ll give you a minute” before walking out the door.

So here we were again. With this woman. Again. An ultrasound. Again.

Why… Why… Why…

She pressed her tool against my wife with the delicacy of someone crushing a cockroach under foot before she located what she was looking for.

It was the size of a peanut.

The heartbeat looked like butterfly wings flapping against the wind.

The next seven or eight months were a blur. We learned about random phenomena associated with this process, including the concept of “nesting,” where men go nuts and build or break shit. I thought it was ridiculous until the day my wife came home from work and found me with a chainsaw cutting up an old split-rail fence because it was dangerous and there was no way in hell I was bringing a child into this world without getting rid of this fucking fence.

On the July 4 weekend, our AC blew and I spent half the day screaming at people who had come out, said it was fixed and then left, only to have it break again.

“Look, you asshole,” I screamed in a clearly counterproductive fashion, “I have a wife who is eight months pregnant, asthmatic and not doing well. You said you fixed it. It’s still broken. Get the fuck out here and fix this!”

Eventually, they sent a different guy who was decent, human and knew what he was doing. He also had something like nine kids, so he fully understood what I was dealing with.

Around Aug. 15, we had “the big appointment” and the doctor said the phrase every woman apparently longs to hear at this stage in the game:

“I think we’re going to induce you.”

Two days later, we were in a suite at the local hospital, awaiting our child. The doctor said it was going to be a girl. My father, whose medical training started and stopped with Quincy reruns, was sure the woman was wrong.

Apparently, we come from a small-dicked people and the male genitals were just hiding somehow, he figured.

The folks had come down from Wisconsin while my wife’s family stayed back home. The day we were having our child, my wife’s grandmother was being buried.

Nothing, it appears, was going to be easy about this.

Truth be told, it apparently was easy. The nurses were amazed at how quickly my wife pushed this little person out of her body. The doctor, months later, would marvel at her cervix and how well it had snapped back into place.

My wife, who had declined the nurse’s offer to have a mirror set up so she could watch this miracle of life, was amazed that I watched the kid come sliding out of her.

The child’s head popped out like it was a whack-a-mole game. It was screaming and it hasn’t stopped making noise since.

They quickly placed the child on my wife. I took a quick peek at the bundle of joy.

No wiener. Dad was wrong. Go figure.

The doctors and nurses swept her away, cleaned her up and used KY Jelly to attach a little bow to her head. They swaddled her and handed her to me and I nestled her into my wife as we posed for pictures.

I know people do this every day, but it was still one of those, “I can’t believe this” moments.

If those nine months were a blur of firsts, the subsequent seven years have gone by even faster. From sleeping through the night to solid food to teething to crawling to walking and more, it’s been a very weird and amazing ride.

Tonight, we have another first: First sleepover birthday party.

Seven little girls will invade the basement and sleep all of about six minutes.

(I know we all have divergent views on faith, but please, if you can, pray for us.)

As I was writing this, a disheveled child with a princess crown atop her head and a blanket wrapped around her staggered into the room.

“Good morning, Daddy…” she said in that slow, “I need coffee” kind of way.

“Good morning, Peanut. Happy Birthday.”

Race to the bottom of Colorado Shooting coverage

At this point of the media frenzy surrounding the Aurora shootings, the victims have become known to us, the nature of this crime has been known to us and the overall breakdown of what happened before, during and after the crime has become known to us. Vigils have been held, family members continue to grieve and we continue to ponder what will come next.

Unfortunately, if you have ever seen one of these things unfold before, you know what comes next from a media perspective.

Scraping the barrel for a new angle, a new insight, a new scrap of information of any kind. We know all about the living and those who died at the hands of this guy, so now we need to know all about him.

So who is James Holmes?

Was this guy a Tea Party member? Was he a Democrat? No on both accounts, but media outlets had no problem putting that out there, as if how he voted reflected on anything. (Hey, he was a hell of a shot for a Democrat! = FAIL)

Did this guy have a conversation with guards regarding the movie’s outcome?According to the NY Daily News, he did, leading people to breathlessly speculate as to his Batman fetish.

Did Holmes frequent prostitutes and then rate them on a message board?TMZ says so, which a) means it’s probably true and b) means you shouldn’t give a shit.

Did Batman teach him to kill?It didn’t take some people long to hang onto that angle, despite the one comic historian who kept saying, “Look, this is so far out there that even Holmes probably thinks you’re nuts.” I wonder if he saw the one “My Little Pony” where Fluttershy gets all mean in the labyrinth, leading to some pony-on-pony violence.

I also found out that several people have had to rethink Twitter after making the oh-so-smart move of tweeting that they thought Carrot Top’s Evil Twin was “hot.”

Even that felonious lust wasn’t enough to reach the top of the “are you fucking kidding me?” list I was forming as I flipped through the articles on Holmes.

Here’s your weekly winner: The media is humanizing James Holmes because he’s white.

I think I read this column about six times, each time looking for “the smoking gun” that showed how the media was treating this guy with a gentle touch because of his general honky-ness.

(Side note: I know this is a student newspaper. I also do my best to avoid ripping student journalists. However, sometimes, it’s impossible to ignore something, much like when a stripper decides to park her ass in your face.)

Here are some of the “humanizing” moments the media has put forth, according to this column:

Many articles described him as a shy and hard-working student.

They elaborated on the Ph.D. research project he was involved in and had quotes from peers who were shocked by his behavior.

The LA Times had a tagline that read, “Was James E. Holmes a brilliant loner? A nice guy with circles of friends? A stubborn near-dropout? …”

Look back at the coverage of pretty much anyone who has done this kind of action and you’ll find that most of this is standard fare stuff. Who was this guy? What did people who know him think about him? Did they see this coming?

The author makes a lame attempt to figure out how the media treats people of color who do things like this, only to find that, strangely, an unprovoked mass shooting seems to be one of those things that tends to shade toward the more pale among us. To try to parallel this, then, the writer provides this:

In a recent article, it was reported that Rudy Eugene was not high on bath salts, and the only drug found in his system was marijuana.

However, that hasn’t stopped the media from calling him the Highway Cannibal, despite only having chewed off a man’s face and not having ingested it.

Even after the new evidence in the case, Eugene has not had the privilege of being called “mentally unstable.”

What’s the main difference between Holmes and Eugene?

Bluntly put, Holmes is a white man while Eugene is a black man.

Or one is shooting up a theater which is tragic, but has some historical parallels while the other is EATING A GUY’S FUCKING FACE IN PUBLIC FOR NO REAL REASON.

Oddly enough, this was the first “cannibal” reference I’d heard about this guy. I’d look it up, but there is no citation of any kind as to where this came from. In addition, I’ve heard him called the start of the zombie apocalypse and believe me, zombies will bite your face off. Eating it might or might not be involved, but either way, it’s fucking insane.

If you want a better look at race and mass murder, take a peek at Carl Robert Brown and James Edward Pough. Two guys, one white, one black, who were consecutively responsible for the worst random shooting spree in Florida several decades ago.

The media reported on both of these guys fairly extensively, which is how we learned that Brown taught junior high until he had a mental breakdown.

He was often known as someone angry about racial issues and someone who saw America sliding into the Bell Jar.

On Aug. 19, 1982, after complaining to a worker at a metal welding shop that the work they did on his bicycle’s new motor was shoddy, Brown declared that he was leaving, but would come back to kill everyone there. He returned the next day with two newly purchased guns and killed eight people while injuring three others.

Extensive writing by the Miami Herald shortly after his rampage revealed that he had been going slowly mad for months. His racism and his anger toward others was reported on as well. His principal had him seek psychiatric help and noted after the fact, he sort of saw this coming.

His neighbors saw him shooting a pellet gun at stuff and picking grapefruits in his underwear prior to the shooting.

Pough, known as “Pop” to his friends, was described in media stories as being a reliable worker, who was never late and was one of the best at whatever labor he was doing.

Neighbors described him as being a quiet and nice man who kept to himself. He was known to fits anger when dealing with money. Relatives called him a recluse and said he kept mostly to himself.

He had an affinity for his car, which had been repossessed by the GMAC finance division when he couldn’t make payments on it any more. On the morning of June 18, 1990, Pough went to GMAC with an M1 Carbine and a .38 pistol and began killing people. He killed nine and injured four others. The day before, he had apparently killed a pimp and a prostitute, shooting both of them to death.

Go through the coverage of these people and you’ll find two things: 1) the only mention of race is that it was weird that Pough did this, as most of these multiple shooting whack jobs are white and unemployed and 2) the coverage is almost a perfect overlay of what’s being done with James Holmes.

Were there any indications that he was going to crack?

What was he like before the shooting?

What did people think of him?

None of this stuff is “humanizing” but instead informative. I don’t think, “Aww… Holmes was a Ph.D. candidate! As a doc, I totally feel for him.” or “Hey, this guy liked hookers! Big ups!” He is who he is and he was who he was.

Taking this issue and making it about race makes no sense.

The victims weren’t targeted for their race.

The assailant hasn’t made any statement involving race.

Let’s chalk this guy up to nuts and save our discussions of racism for a time and place where they might actually apply.

It’s too serious of a topic to apply to this Joker.

Colorado Shooting Evokes Memories of “Never Again…”

The last time Colorado experienced something like this, I was in a newsroom in Missouri with a kid who would later become a good friend and the best man at my wedding. It was 1999 and he was a junior in college. I, all of 24, was in my first real job as staff editor and adviser.

Adam was from Colorado and he knew the area surrounding Littleton. He still had friends in that area. He had connections to that zone based on football rivalries, overlapping proms and other such things that happen to bring high schools from across the state together.

We weren’t covering it locally, as my boss had a (correct) view that having a shit ton of people three states away reacting with “It’s just a terrible tragedy” quotes doesn’t make for decent journalism. Thus, all we could do was watch the AP wire as it came in and stare agape at the TV that hung from a ceiling-mounted swivel near the copy desk.

It turned out that he didn’t intimately know anyone involved. Family members, friends and vague acquaintances appeared to have been spared. He never really spoke of it, though I could see something in his eyes that showed his world had changed a little. The wounding was over, but the scar would remain.

His home state would ever be known as “that Columbine place.”

In the wake of this shooting, everyone agreed on two things: 1) this was a terrible tragedy and 2) something must be done so it would never happen again.

This morning, as I was working in the garage, the radio’s 103-second news update (No shit. 103 seconds. No wonder we’re fucked as a country.) led with the shooting in Colorado. It was a quick hit on the way to other things like Winneconne’s Sovereign State Days and the weather. The announcer didn’t seem to change tone or break stride.

I went inside to read about this and found out that we don’t know anything about this guy.

He was 24.

He was about 6 feet tall.

He apparently owned a rifle, a handgun and some body armor.

He went after people in the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight.”

Why did he do this? We don’t know. However, rest assured, we will quickly be told all the answers by the pundits, the talking heads and Wayne LaPierre.

The Today Show is already yammering on about the movie’s “dark culture.”

I’m quite certain if he had started shooting up “Ice Age 3,” we’d be having a serious morning-show discussion on the impacts of climate change.

Reactions from government officials will be swift. There will be discussions about our gun laws and how easily a whack job can obtain a gun. There will be legislation to ban guns or concealed-carry. It won’t pass because a) the NRA owns everything and b) the slogan “Guns don’t kill people. People do.” will rise up and Jedi mind-trick everyone into thinking this guy could have done this with a Louisville Slugger if he really put his mind to it.

Banning guns isn’t the answer any more than electrifying the fence at the Mexican border is the answer to our immigration issues. If you don’t believe that, watch “Bowling for Columbine” again and get back to me.

Reactions from movie people will be swift as well. People will dither about how costumes need to be banned, as this guy just appeared to be a costumed weirdo, who was in no way a threat to anyone until he started shooting. Eventually, you will be asked to put on a “Marcus Approved Robe” made by the company that produces those fine paper gowns you wear at the doctor’s office when getting a physical.

People will argue that we are a violent culture and we must find a way to fight back, never once seeing the irony in that statement. Colorado is a death penalty state, so rest assured, this guy will be up for the chair or the needle or whatever it is that makes us feel humane in ending a life. They will kill this guy slowly and deliberately to show how much gravity the situation has. They will also silently take perverse pleasure in it, much like someone who manages to ground the fly that has pissed him off for an hour, but not kill it. Finality will now come on his terms.

The death of the insect will be vengeful, as will this man’s inevitable demise.

Why the man did this is unknown. Why we react this way is easy to understand.

When faced with something incomprehensible and tragic, we look for ways to rationalize it. We try to figure out if the guy’s little league coach yelled at him too much or if a priest touched him. We then stop giving a shit about him and start becoming actively self-interested.

We don’t want to be that next group of people watching a movie wondering if the guy next to us in the Darth Maul mask actually has a working light saber he’s going to kill us with. We are like the three idiots in Spaceballs who start screaming “Do Something!” when Mega Maid goes from suck to blow.

We panic. We demand. We say, “Never again!”

In an attempt to keep their seats in congress, their positions running corporations and their sense of control, those we turn to fire off a salvo of actions that have the same logic and accuracy as the shooter’s bullets. They figure if they tighten gun restrictions or make us remove our shoes or scan us for gun powder before we can order a latte, everything will be fine. They delude themselves into believing that they can control everything that could possibly hurt us.

They tell us, “There! We fixed it! It won’t happen again.”

And we go back to thinking everything is fine.

Until the next time.

Kitchen Tables

If you wanted to find my family on a Friday night, you need not look any further than my grandmother’s kitchen. No one could pinpoint exactly how we started this tradition, but every Friday, rain or shine, snow or sun, we’d find our way to my dad’s mom’s house and gather in the kitchen.

It was usually Grandma, Dad, my aunt, me, my cousin and maybe Dad’s little brother, who was still living at home at the time. Some of my uncle’s friends would drop by from time to time and occasionally Mom would poke her head in for an hour or so.

Dad would drink beer, the women would drink cheap champagne and my cousin and I were constantly dispatched to the basement fridge for beverage reinforcements.

We could have spent the night on the comfortable couches in the living room, where the TV and record player resided. Instead, we gathered around the kitchen table, where we told and retold stories of people who were long gone and events that still made us laugh. Grandma would ask if we were hungry and we always said no. Still, somehow she would quietly place a tin of nuts, a bowl of popcorn, a bag of chips and a pan of brownies in front of us and eventually we would be eating without thinking about it.

Food and family. Liquor and laughter.

The time has long passed since then. Grandma is gone and buried almost 10 years. The house was sold and the children have scattered as have the grandchildren.

And the strangest thing still sits in my head: the kitchen table.

It wasn’t anything particularly fancy. It was a bluish-woodgrain Formica top that was shaped like a pill caplet. The legs were stainless steel pipes that curled out of the top and planted firmly onto the ground. The chairs were the same ugly blue, but in a paisley. We always seemed to fight over who got to sit in “the good chair” as opposed to the ones that wobbled like hell.

We played cards on that table.

We ate Easter dinner on that table.

We laughed and we cried and we shared on that table.

After Grandma died, it was sold for less than $50. I never knew where it went.

At my mom’s mom’s house, the table was also Formica, but it was wood-grained simple. The table was simple and direct with one post in the middle supporting the oblong slab. The piece was rectangular with the corners cut off and rounded. It was like a misshapen stop sign.

My Grandma and Harry, her second husband, would sit there and drink coffee and smoke cigarette after cigarette and watch the birds through the back door. When I came to visit, I’d come around the back of the house and enter through that door and take the chair opposite my grandmother and talk about anything.

Hours would become minutes as she would share things with me, some of which I wish I never learned. It was there I found out how her marriage to my grandfather ended, why she didn’t have more children and how she found her way out of the bottle.

It was also there where my life changed drastically. When The Missus and I were dating, she wanted to run away with me back to Missouri. My folks were gone, I had to leave and she was a mess.

I went to Grandma’s, slipped in the back door and told her and Harry the story.

“Call her,” Grandma said, gesturing to a plastic shell phone that was yellowed with age and smoke. “Tell her you’re coming for her. Take her with you.”

I worried about the blowback from her parents and mine. I worried about what would happen if she suddenly changed her mind on Missouri or me.

As I nervously picked at the crud that had lodged itself in the center crevice of the table, Grandma said something that stuck with me:

“Trust yourself. You’re in love and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t take her with you.”

She was right. We were married two years later. She died a month after that.

The parents weren’t thrilled at our Thelma and Louise act, but eventually they came around.

For our wedding gift, The Missus’s mom gave us a kitchen table.

Somewhere around Year Three of our marriage, one of us (not me, but she swears it wasn’t her) put a wok with a wet bottom on the table. A nasty green ring grew from the metal and water combination.

By the time we moved back to Wisconsin, the ring had gotten uglier with age and we contemplated a new table. The Missus was adamant about keeping what we had, but we both agreed something needed to be done.

I was fully in furniture refinishing mode at that point and told her, “Look, I’ll give it a shot, but it’s a risk. If I screw up the table or it can’t be saved, you can’t hold it against me.”

She agreed and I managed to make it look respectable. Today, you can’t tell that the ring was there before. I also layered on about six coats of a sealant that is supposed to be impenetrable. Between the Fourth of July drinking, the birthday parties and the kids in the neighborhood, the table has hosted dozens of people with no sign of it being worse for wear.

To me, the kitchen table has been where the business of family comes to bear. It’s where we share and laugh and cry and more. Whenever my parents needed to dole out a punishment or explain something important, they did it at the kitchen table. Whenever we wanted to play a game or share a story at grandma’s, we did it at the kitchen table. Whenever the Midget has homework or we want to share some family time, we do it at the kitchen table.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, although the trend seems to be away from gathering and toward individualism. I found an amazing hardwood kitchen table at a rummage sale, an item as out of place as a turd in the holy water fountain. When I asked about it, the people told me they never used it. The kids eat on the run, the parents didn’t have time to sit down and whenever they did get together, it was in front of the big screen.

If it’s true, it’s sad. If it’s a trend, it’s worse.

Still, I have an affection for old tables like the one I refinished for my mother-in-law that was a wedding gift for her parents or the one I found a few weeks back at an estate sale.

The table was oak with a thin veneer finish. The table top was rough from years of use and probably a few incidents where the husband used it as a cutting board or a workbench. The legs were marred with pockmarks, which were nothing compared to the rungs of the chairs. They were all mangled and several looked like something had chewed through them.

“My parents had a dog,” the woman explained. “He would bite and yank on the chairs when they were playing cards at the table and didn’t pay enough attention to him.”

The price for this set of dog toys? $8

I took it home and began the restoration process. Why? Who knows. It just felt like the right thing to do.

When I told Mom about my find, she mentioned it to a young family who lived next door to them. They offered to buy it if I was willing to sell. Apparently, the giant glass table they had was great when they didn’t have kids. Now, with three of them, none older than six, it was impossible to keep clean. The kids loved climbing under it and making monkey faces on the glass.

I brought it with me and sold it to them for what it cost to refinish it.

The way I see it, the world is better with one more kitchen table in it.

Rummage Day

On the road, conducting a rummage sale. We hope, as always, that we “make table.”

Next week, I’m back.

Until then, curse about something for me.

Doc

45 years of marriage and counting

“Marriage, is what brings us together today… that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream…”
– The Impressive Clergyman, The Princess Bride

The main aisle at St. Fred’s church in Cudahy is a long one, paved with glossy stone that echoes with footsteps in the quiet of day. Row after row of pews, adorned with clips for men’s hats and wood rails worn by the clasped hands of prayer, separate the narthex from the altar.

The few narrow windows begin almost a story in the air, with little in the way of natural light seeping in at the ground level.

A giant slab of pink and white marble, which vaguely resembles a large piece of uncooked bacon, hovers over the front of the church. It hosts a magnificent cross, adorned with a white stone carving of Christ. Atop the crucifix sits a small symbolic scene of two stags drinking blood from the bottom of a smaller cross, a referent to a long-forgotten passage of the Bible.

In this cavernous testament to God and faith, less than five years after the Second Vatican Council allowed for the use of an English-based mass, a pair of young 20-somethings joined hands and exchanged simple silver rings.

A four or five second utterance of “I do” that led to a 45-year expression of love.

June 17, 1967 was the day China successfully tested an atomic bomb, the Tigers and A’s played the longest double header in baseball history and my parents decided it was worthwhile to spend the rest of their lives together.

Continue reading

Cancer, Earrings and The Fight that Must be Won

Fuck it.

It’s still Friday.

I still have the floor.

Maybe that’s the only thing I can control right now, which is why this is what I’m doing at 11:24 p.m., when I should be nestled in bed, wrapped around my wife and snuggling in for some much needed rest.

My friend Amy is battling cancer.

It’s a simple noun-verb statement that I can’t get past.

She fights it.

Noun-verb-object.

If you want to find the people who run universities, don’t look for the presidents and provosts and chancellors.

Don’t seek out the deans and the chairs and the academic elite.

Get past the people with giant offices who sit behind giant mahogany badges of self-importance and who layer their walls with plaques and certificates and photos of them shaking hands with other important wankers

Look for cubicles. Look for the small, cramped offices off the “main office.” Look for desks piled with papers that pulse and wobble. Look for the places with “Same Shit, Different Day” bumper stickers on the filing cabinets and the odd trinkets glued to the tops of ancient computer monitors.

Look for the administrative assistants or the program assistants or whatever title we’ve decided to bestow upon once we learned that secretary didn’t quite cut the muster.

Look for people like Amy.

Had I never met her, I would never be where I am today.

It sounds cliché. It sounds trite. It sounds hollow.

It’s what we say about people when they retire and when they die.

She has already done the first and I would step in front of a bus to stop her from doing the second.

She was the assistant to the director of the journalism grad school where I went for my Ph.D. She had a kind, round face and a body to match. She had glasses that were thick and large and were at least 10 years out of fashion. She sat in a cramped office behind an overflowing desk near a filing cabinet that had a single calendar page taped to it with one date circled: the day she could retire.

She could have been the stereotype of the school marm in any 1950s sitcom, but she was so much more. She had that uncanny ability to coddle and nurse and yet kick your ass at the same time. She had a biting sense of humor and she knew exactly how to needle everyone from the first-year master’s student on through to the dean.

She was like a maestro, waving the wand perfectly to get the very best out of each member of the orchestra, all the while never once picking up an instrument to join the cacophony that was all around her.

She stayed out of the politics. She stayed above the fray. She had her finger on the pulse, but never attempted to alter it.

For me, she was like a modulating device. She knew when I needed to be brought up out of the depression and the doldrums. She knew when I needed to be taken down a peg.

This was true, even when I didn’t know which of those things I needed myself.

The honest reason I can say she was the sole reason I’m Doc and not “Hey, you, car guy” is a cold, miserable Friday in February about a decade ago.

If you have ever finished a doctoral program, you know what comps are. If you never have, you probably have heard about them. If you have done neither, let me explain.

Our program was simple: You have five members on your doctoral committee. Each of them chooses a “section” of your program to quiz you on. You agree to a readings list. You read those readings for about a month or two. You read them over and over and over until your eyes bleed.

Then for five days, four hours per day, you show up at Amy’s office.

She hands you a single question and a floppy disk (yes, they still had those). You have never seen the question. You don’t know what is on that piece of paper. You have no notes, no materials (save for a dictionary in those pre-spellcheck-is-installed-already days) and no help. You enter a room that has a computer, a desk, a chair and any food/beverage you want to bring with you. From that moment until the moment Amy comes to get you, you write.

You analyze the question. You write.

You think about the readings. You write.

You type and you type and you type, not knowing how much is from your head and how much is regurgitation of someone else’s shit. You then type some more.

Five days. Five questions. Thousands of words. Each more mind-numbing than the last.

The first day, the question threw me. The member “zigged” while I had planned to “zag.” Rough start.

The second day, my committee chair and resident hard-ass had the floor.It felt like this scene from “Back to School.”I got to part 27 at about the 3:59 mark.

I was fucked.

I saved what I had. I took it to Amy. I lost my shit.

“I can’t do this,” I practically pleaded. “This isn’t something for me. I’m not supposed to be an academic. I’m the kid of a factory worker. I’m… fuck.”

She looked at me, broken, tattered and eroding me, and said something extraordinarily calming.

“You have Stephanie’s question on Monday, right? Try that one. If you really fall apart on that one, maybe you’re right. But I don’t think that will happen. If you can’t do it, we’ll talk.”

I had a restless weekend, followed by a series of “I’m buried alive” dreams.

Monday came.

I opened the question.

Total cake.

The final three questions were a blur of ease and jargon. A perfect blend of ease and academic obfuscation.

I passed written comps and the oral defense. I was ABD, or as we say in cribbage, in the shit hole. Almost there, but so far away.

Amy leveraged my last shred of sanity into salvation.

She did it again when my chair submarined my dissertation proposal at my proposal committee.

She did it again when I fucked up, playing two jobs against each other before losing them both.

She did it again and again and again.

It dawned on me that, as I walked across the stage in that “Henry the VII meets Detroit pimp” doctoral regalia, she probably did it for hundreds of other doctoral students, having never actually walked the doctoral path herself. She was like the Louis Gossett Jr. character in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

She made us officers. She made us what we are.

Thanks to her, universities saw us as “better than her station.” If we were honest, we never did.

I wonder if she saw us that way.

I wonder how many people see her that way.


Tonight, an odd confluence of events brought me to the breaking point.

The Novocain wore off at about the same time that The Midget came home from a pool party. Shortly after arriving home, I heard some rumbling upstairs and the garage door open. She and The Missus left abruptly.

Upon returning, my wife came downstairs with her “Remain calm. The kid feels bad enough already” face on.

“She lost an earring.”

“Which one?” I asked kind of already knowing the answer.

“Grandma’s”

My grandmother died of cancer about six weeks after our wedding. She was at least a couple pack-a-day smoker and had been for most of her life. She suffered like I’ve never seen anyone suffer before and yet she was so goddamned stubborn that she wouldn’t quit on us. She was going to see us married and it didn’t matter how hard it was to survive.

She was also a recovering alcoholic. She had few possessions at the end of her life, as what little she had went to the cancer treatment.

One of the last “pleasures” she allowed herself was on her 75th birthday, when she went out and got her ears pierced. After decades of clip-on earrings (do they even make those any more?), she had two holes punched in her head and adorned her ears with whatever she could afford.

The earrings were single stones, probably some level of cheap cubic zirconium. Mom had saved them from the estate and when The Midget lost an earring while staying over at her house, she put the earrings delicately in my child’s lobes and explained where they came from.

“Don’t let her lose them,” Mom cautioned as I took her home.

And I did. And then I found out about Amy.

Despite my best effort to be a calm and explanatory parent, I failed.

I somehow gave my child the impression that my grandmother, who is now in Heaven, hates her because she lost an earring. I spent 20 minutes holding her as she sobbed herself to sleep, feeling like the worst parent ever, knowing my grandmother was looking down at me and cursing, “Dammit, they’re just earrings!”

The folks at the party said they’ll check the pool filter and the bathroom where the girls changed tomorrow.

We might find it. We might not.

Dammit. They’re just earrings.


Cancer is a scary and evil thing.

I honestly don’t think it means to be, any more than a roach means to be spread infection or mold means to ruin food.

Each is born, somehow, and does what it is predestined to do.

Roaches scurry. Mold grows. Cancer attacks.

Intent? No such thing. It is what it is. It does what it does.

We can destroy roaches. We can inhibit mold. We can fight cancer.

Cancer is to the body what weeds are to the garden. Somewhere along the line, someone determined that certain plants are good and pretty and should be saved while other plants are bad and ugly and must be removed.

The plants don’t know why. They just grow how they grow.

We look at certain cells of the body and say, “Grow! Multiply!”

We look at other cells of the body and say, “Stop! Die!”

The cells don’t know why. They just do what they do.

Somewhere in all of this is a scared person, sitting in a paper robe as a doctor holds up an X-ray to the light and explains in the simplest possible terms that the garden is growing too many weeds and something needs to be done, lest the garden be lost.

So the ingest poison, they endure radiation and they hope against all hope that normalcy will somehow be restored.

And we all hope for them.


Talk to an old boxer who has been to the brink of death. A fighter like Joe Frazier or Meldrick Taylor. A fighter who has been pushed to the point in which the mortal coil has seemed to unravel.

Ask that fighter about the last nerve. The last moment. The last flurry.

Doctors and scientists will explain it in scientific terms, in “fight-or-flight” language.

A fighter will explain it differently.

When faced with that moment in which death has come to collect its due, that very rawest of human nerves will be tapped.

The fighter, pushed beyond what should be tolerated, will be systemically spurred to fight back. To flurry. To punch. To prevent what might be.

It is my hope that somehow tonight, amid her early cancer treatments, that Amy knows how many people are digging down to find that nerve for her.

I hope that my grandmother pokes St. Anthony in the ribs and says, “C’mon. Just put it in the pool filter and get it over with.”

I hope.

Because sometimes, that’s all you can do.

Uncomfortably Numb

The week that was started with The Missus and The Midget spending about 24 hours between two airports and never actually getting to their Texas destination. It ended this morning with a very nice lady I just met taking pity on me and drilling a hole in my head to clean out some infection that had crept under an old filling.

Novocaine has a way of making not just my jaw numb but my brain numb as well. Tried to write. Wasn’t happening.

With that in mind, I’ll take the advice that an old priest told a young priest, the latter of which filled in for a church service I attended long ago:

“When it’s hot and there is no air conditioning, if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything. Faking it will only make it worse.”

With that, he ended his homily and led us in the creed.

I’ll be back next week with what I hope will be a fun post for those of you in love or marriage or both.

Doc

“No good thing ever dies…”

For A and all the folks who give us this place. Today, more than ever, we hope.

$20 from a safety net

Her name was Rachael and she would have been 14 this year.

I usually think about her as school gears up each fall, as
kids shop for school supplies and new gym shoes.

I think about her parents, both of whom are now well on
their way to middle age. When Rachael was born, they were two scared
20-something kids with a daughter in danger. He was an agricultural laborer,
and she was a stay-at-home mom.

I thought about all of this today in the wake of Mitt
Romney’s speech at the RNC last night. He spoke out against the failure of
Obama to do much of anything good. Jobs lost, costs hiked, people screwed.

(Side Note: I have to give the RNC a lot of credit for one
thing: Clint Eastwood. Instead of the media going after Paul Ryan’s horseshit
or Mitt’s bullshit, everyone is enamored by rambling oratory that was likely
taken from the “Book of Speeches, Salutes and Wedding Toasts delivered by
Drunken Brothers-in-Law and Other Morons Who Grabbed the Mic.” Nice inadvertent
idiotic brilliance.)

When Mitt was yammering, I was flipping back and forth
between two channels filled with lies: The RNC on one station and the Green Bay
Packer announcers who were trying to convince me that the Packers wouldn’t miss
a beat if Aaron Rodgers went down and Graham Harrell had to take over on the
other. I was also uploading news articles I needed my students to read this
term for my feature-writing class, which is where I came across a piece on
Rachael.

And then it all came back.

When I worked as an editor in Missouri, one of the things we
didn’t lack for was reporters. The students would fill the newsroom each year
and look for stories that hadn’t been done before. The joke around town was
that if you hadn’t been interviewed at least three times each year by someone
on our staff, chances are you were dead.

Most of the stories were what you would expect out of a
newspaper brimming with cub reporters: fires and floods, meetings and speeches,
pomp and circumstance.

I was helping to oversee coverage of outlying areas, which
usually led to some meeting stories and an occasional county fair story. If it
was happening out in Boonville (an actual city, not a slight) or beyond,
chances are no one really cared.

One day, a kid came to me with a scrap of paper he’d pulled
from a weekly paper that covered an outlying farm community. It was a tiny ad,
alerting the community at large that someone was hosting a chili supper with
proceeds to benefit a girl named Rachael.

“Can I go?” he asked, understanding that space and mileage
money were tightly rationed.

“Sure,” I told him, figuring not much would come of this.
“Let me know what happens when you get back.”

The next time I saw him, he was chattering away like an
agitated monkey. He told me the story of Rachael, a baby with Down Syndrome and
a hole in her heart. The family had no insurance, the dad was the sole source
of income and they had already been drained by all the complications associated
with Rachael’s birth.

Her grandfather had gotten some people together to make and
serve chili to help defray the cost of the upcoming open-heart surgery.

The family wasn’t thrilled about this nosy kid who was
writing down everything thing they had to say. They were guarded and concerned.

But, the next time they had a supper, back the kid went for
another update about the fundraising and the girl.

The more he went, the more he wrote. The more he wrote, the
more people heard. The more they heard, the more they gave.

Eventually, the family adopted this goofy college student
who had taken up their cause in print and started opening up about all of this.
They told him they never regretted the decision to have a child they knew would
have these problems. They felt both saddened and overwhelmed with gratitude
when people started to donate to their cause.

“We’re afraid to ask how much it’s going to be,” the mom
said at one point. She had been trying to find a job to help out, but between
caring for Rachael and the general state of the economy, she couldn’t manage
it.

Her husband did everything he could to be the breadwinner.
He worked upwards of 80 hours a week during planting season in an attempt to
help the family cobble a life together.

He might have been better off if he hadn’t.

In one of the last interviews leading up to the surgery, the
mom revealed her husband made too much money in the previous fiscal year to
qualify for Medicaid and WIC benefits that would have taken care of much, if
not all of the bills.

“How much is too much?” the kid asked.

“We missed the cut off by about $20.”

Rachael kept getting worse and then a bit better and then a
bit worse.

Something had to be done.

The surgery happened in November of that year. She was less
than two months old when her family gathered in a private waiting room. Her
grandfather was in a hospital bed on one floor, recovering from his heart
attack while she was being tended to on another floor.

My kid was there as well, at the behest of the family,
watching all of this come together.

Were the chili suppers enough to pay for the bills? No one
knew.

Would she make it out alive? It was a 50/50 bet.

He was rolling through these thoughts as a nurse came in and
told the family that things weren’t great.

“Please, God, let us keep her,” Rachael’s grandmother said
in a quivering voice. “… We need her more than she needs us.”

She survived the surgery and continued to struggle forward.
Each day, one small step in a positive direction. The family spent weeks holed
up in the waiting room, each day, praying for a small miracle.

“She still has a chance,” her mom told the reporter. “But
everything has to go perfect.”

Everything didn’t.

Years after that story ran, two things remain fresh in my
mind.

First, that story wrecked my reporter kid in a way that I
never would have imagined. He was about 20 years old at the time he wrote that
story and he was never the same after it.

He had grown up in an America that preached the idea of hard
work, sacrifice and prayer. If you wanted something badly enough and you worked
hard enough, then you would always triumph, the story went.

He gave everything he had to telling that story.

The community gave everything they had to raise the funds.

The family sacrificed and prayed.

The girl died.

This wasn’t the script he was used to.

The parents were close to his age. He sympathized and became
part of a story that consumed him. He couldn’t let it go.

Years later, I got in touch with him and found out it still
haunted him in some ways. He was a serviceable reporter doing a good job and
managing post-collegiate life.

“It’s funny,” he once wrote to me. “After all I’ve done in
the years that have passed, I still remember that story. It’s always with me.”

The second and more depressing thing was the quotes from the
family. They prayed and hoped and loved and more, but so many of the quotes
came back to the issue of money.

They were trying to earn money.

They were trying to raise money.

They didn’t want to know how much this would cost.

They feared the costs associated with the life of their
child.

At a time in which they clung to hope, the niggling fear of
funding scratched loudly at the corners of their mind.

I can’t say for sure that they didn’t get the best possible
care for their child. I have no idea if there was a “broke people” wing for
folks without bulletproof insurance or if they had insurance it would have been
better or faster or stronger care. I have no idea if that $20 kept their kid
from landing in a safety net of government assistance and medical assurance
instead of crashing into an early grave.

I can say, however, that isn’t a concern anyone should face
while their infant’s life hangs in the balance.

Healthcare is a rather abstract concept to people who have
it or don’t need it. If you are healthy or insured, chances are when Romney
says, “We must rein in the skyrocketing cost of healthcare by repealing and
replacing Obamacare,” it doesn’t mean much. It’s just a word like socialism,
communism or whatever ism is on the outs at the time the writer is using it.

Obamacare. Like he’s the guy giving me my prostate check
each year.

Obamacare. A Franken-word that smacks of too much government
and not enough freedom.

Obamacare. A term inviting the icy scorn of those who
believe they just hit a triple, when in actuality, they were born standing on
third base.

And that’s exactly who Mitt Romney is and why it’s hard for
me to take him seriously when it comes to problems that impact people who earn
in a year what he took home in a day.

When he talks about working hard as a businessman, I’m sure
it was never in a Missouri farm field, planting seeds for 10, 12 or 15 hours a
day.

Sweating for life. Praying for hope. Losing both.

Thursday, Mitt Romney told us, “If I am elected President of
these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that
America, to lift our eyes to a better future. That future is our destiny. That
future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it…”

Today, Rachael rests in a small grave in a small town in
Missouri with a marker noting she lived for 63 days.

Each one of those days, her parents had to worry about how
much money it would take to keep her alive.

That can’t be our future.

It can’t be our destiny.

No one deserves that.