Monday, November 28, 2011

Words as Bullets

PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—is now suing Sea World out in San Diego for violating the constitutional rights of whales. Apparently, Sea World is not honoring the 13th, or anti-slavery amendment.

Now most sane people—meaning people who are not members of PETA—realize this is a publicity stunt, plainly and simply. But let’s humor these “activists” while I reminisce.

Back in 1992, I was assigned to write a series of profiles on all the candidates running for freeholder in Cape May County, because—believe it or not—I was covering politics in those days. I considered that my time in purgatory here on earth…so I got that goin’ for me. It’s sort of a spiritual deposit to my existential bank account. (Those who know me personally are aware of how little I admire politics and politicians.)

Anyway, the first woman I interviewed was an animal rights activist, and during the course of the interview she railed on about people who left unwanted pets at the animal shelter where she was employed.

What she said was very succinct: “I’d like to be waiting for those people with a machine gun and mow them down as they walk away,” she said.

Well, as a reporter, I jumped right on that. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want to machine gun human beings who have decided that they can no longer care for a pet. Can I quote you on that?”

She then answered, “Hey, those animals can’t take care of themselves, so we have to do it for them, right?”

I neither agreed nor disagreed; I just went on to my next question. And I wrote a pretty interesting article after that interview, even if I do say so myself.

However… (you knew there was a “however” coming, didn’t you?)…that article never saw the light of day. It—and the entire series of articles on all candidates—was spiked by the editor. Killed! DOA! Do not resuscitate!

When I asked why, I was simply told that there was not enough time or resource to give equal space to every candidate. Well, my opinion was—this is a newspaper; we find the time, we create the resources necessary to get the story to our readers.

And I thought that the voters of Cape May County needed to know that one of the candidates standing for freeholder was advocating the use of automatic assault weapons as a means of giving FIDO a fair chance at finding a home.

But I wasn’t the editor in those days—merely a reporter. So I couldn’t tell the tale. And I’ve looked askance at animal activists ever since. And…I’ve always wondered why journalists, when faced with something as out of the ordinary as a lawyer suing for a whale’s constitutional rights, don’t ask some obvious follow-up questions. I would want to know if that attorney would also think it reasonable…and just…to sue for the rights of a child in the womb who was about to be aborted.

Machine guns and pampered sea creatures aside, if we fight for the safety and freedom of whales, puppy dogs, mosquitoes, sewer rats, house flies, polar bears…do we not also fight for the safety and freedom of a child?

If not; why not? Why is the baby whale more valuable than the baby human? And more basically, why can’t a reporter ask that simple question?

As a writer—whether through my novels and short stories, or through my newspaper columns—I always tried to shoot straight from the hip. But, unlike some I’ve spoken to, I’ve used rapid fire words, not a thirty caliber machine gun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Game Bored the Turkeys Too

Yes, we all know that Thanksgiving is about food, first and foremost.

Such traditions of course date back to the first Thanksgiving, when the Indians played the Pilgrims to a 14-14 tie, with time running out as the Indians took their football and went home, forever leaving the Pilgrims dissatisfied, since they—coming from Europe—naturally would have preferred to play soccer.

This is the reason why soccer has never really caught on in this country.

Consequently, food became the focus of ensuing Thanksgivings, and as you may know, footballs are made of pigskin (hence their nickname), and since so many pigs were used in those days to keep the tribes supplied with footballs, hogs became scarce in the fall.

But turkeys were plentiful, because these curious birds would instinctively gather to watch the Pilgrims play this crazy game of soccer that they had brought with them from England. And after the game, the Pilgrims could easily harvest the large number of turkeys that would still be standing confused along the sidelines. (Seems like turkeys were the first ones to be lulled into lethargy by watching men futilely kick a ball up and down a field for two hours without scoring a goal!)

This is why today, guys—whether Pilgrims, Indians, or even Italian—will eat until they have to unsnap the top button of their trousers, and then sit in front of an oblong plastic monitor while they watch a bunch of obese men pushing against another bunch of obese men for three or four hours.

Somehow, this evokes passion, especially so if one bunch of obese men have stars on their headpieces. (This, I believe, has something to do with astrology, and the moon being in the seventh house of Häagen-Dazs, or some such place.)

At any rate, my wife, Barbara will be cooking one of those turkeys this Thanksgiving. She doesn’t care for either football or soccer, so she can’t grab one of those languid birds from the sideline of a game—she has to actually go to the Williamstown Farmer’s Market and buy one. Can you imagine! Her Pilgrim forefathers—or foremoms, I guess—would be horrified.

And me? Well, if there are no good movies on TCM—The Maltese Falcon or El Dorado would be good—I’ll guess I’ll have to be content to sit with my sons-in-law and watch those fat guys on the monitor push against one another for three hours.

God, I hope TCM doesn't show Drums Along the Mohawk this Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Maybe You Should Wait for Spring

Like most people, writers like to get away—take a vacation now and again. But I’d like to take a “writer’s vacation,” one of those retreats that I always see writers taking in the movies. It’s usually to a mountain hideaway, a lonely beachfront cottage, or, someplace even more out of the way, like a deserted lighthouse.

I was this way long before I made my living by stringing words together. When I was a young cop back in the 60s, I worked the area around old Connie Mack Stadium—21st and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. I can recall a night in August of 1968. My partner and I were working car 399 on our last night of 4-to-12 shift.

It was Saturday night, the Phillies were at home, and the neighborhood was jumpin’. We were flying all over the place, and we were both looking forward to midnight, because we each started an 18-day vacation when the shift was over. He was getting on a plane and flying to Vegas; I was driving to North Dakota first thing in the morning.

He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to the Great Plains for my vacation, and I couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the bustling streets of North Philly for the hectic Las Vegas strip. Me…I just wanted peace and quiet. And the Badlands of North Dakota provided that in spades.

Several days after that shift ended, I awoke in a camper on the banks of the Little Missouri River near Medora, North Dakota. Medora is where Teddy Roosevelt used to like to take his vacations. I don’t imagine the place had changed much between Teddy’s visits and mine.

That cool, crisp August morning, I brewed myself a pot of coffee, filled a large Styrofoam cup, zipped up my windbreaker, and went for a stroll along the river. I was alone with my thoughts and didn’t see another living thing. (You see, now that’s a writer’s vacation!)

As I strolled along the Missouri I wondered how my partner was relaxing in Vegas. Somehow I believed I was in the more relaxing venue. As I said...just me and my dreams. Then, I saw someone coming toward me. I felt as though my land was being invaded. Coming around the bend of the river bank, another man walked toward me.

As he came closer, I noticed our similarities—he too wore a windbreaker, and he too carried a Styrofoam cup. When we met, we exchanged pleasantries, remarking to each other how beautiful and peaceful it was here, and how neither of us ever wanted to leave.

“My whole attitude changes when I’m out here,” I told him. “Me too,” he replied. “This is so different from back home.”

“Where’s that?” I asked. His answer caused my jaw to drop. “I come from a pretty hectic place,” he almost apologized. “Camden, New Jersey.” After I finished laughing, I told him I was a cop from Philadelphia, right across the bridge from his home town.

We walked for a while, talked for a while, shook hands, then wandered off—he back toward his camper and me back toward mine. But as I walked back through that fresh Dakota morning air, I reassured myself that I was correct; I took the right vacation.

A Vacation should calm you down; give you respite; allow you to breathe. And the Great Plains always did that for me. I went on vacation to the Midwest for the next several years: Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, Jackson Hole…

Admittedly, these are venues that might seem a tad frigid for anything but the spring and summer months, so if you’re planning a vacation over the coming holidays, the Dakota Badlands might be a tough call, although they are quite beautiful after a snowfall.

But if you haven’t visited these places, treat yourself—take a writer’s vacation, and learn how to be good company for yourself.

If you happen to be out in the Badlands some day, and you run into a guy from Camden, tell him I still remember him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

There's Got To Be an App for That

As most of America (and probably the world) is no doubt aware, a new Apple iPhone came out Oct. 14. I believe it’s the Apple IPhone 4-S, and people lined up to get one. Well, who are we kidding, from the news footage I saw, it was predominantly kids—looked like teens, adolescents, and some “grown-ups.”

Now this new iPhone is state-of-the-art—takes swell photos, has a Dual-Core A-5 Chip (if you want to say “whoopee,” get it out of your system now), it can do your wash, cook you a medium-rare steak, iron your trousers—oh, that’s right, who in the devil irons their clothes today.

My point here—and I do have one—is: Where do most of these kids get the 200 bucks to upgrade to one of these things? And why did so many of them have to stand in line to be there when the stores opened their doors? What would have been the difference if they got their new iPhone October 15 instead of 14?

I did a little research on this and came to the unofficial conclusion that they did it to honor our 34th president. You see, October 14 was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s birthday. He would have been 111.

He was in large measure credited with the successful planning of the Normandy Invasion of 1944 which was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. So you can see why people wanted those phones on the 14th and not one day later. I imagine a lot of them immediately got busy texting birthday wishes to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

Why else would they have had to trade up to get the iPhone that first day? And the 200 bucks? Again, I think I have that answer. Their grandfathers probably remember their fathers returning from World War Two. And no doubt gave most of them the 200 rockets needed for a new iPhone. Of course, when my dad returned from World War Two, he barely had enough bread to buy me a new pair of sneakers at a buck-ninety-five.

Perhaps that’s why I grew up knowing the value of a dollar—let alone 200 of them. I also know the value of a pair of sneakers. And the value of a mobile phone. And what it’s best used for. And why it can be seen as necessary at times.

Despite all my cynicism, I realize that most of the soldiers that participated in World War Two—from General Eisenhower to Private First Class Vanore—knew what they were ultimately fighting for. It was a simple goal: They wanted to make sure that their children, and their children’s children, would have the freedom to make their own decisions. Even if what they decided seemed foolish to others.

Yes, even if they chose to wait all night to shell out 200 bucks for a new phone, when the phone they had was working perfectly. Three-hundred-thousand of our men died in World War Two, and many of them would never have guessed that they were giving up their lives so their descendants could get their hands on a Dual-Core A-5 Chip.

But, you could say it’s little things like that, that our ancestors have always fought for. Maybe a lot of young people can think about that this November 11. If they don’t know why that date’s special, I’m sure the new iPhone has an app that can explain it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

If a Little Is Good, Must More Be Better?

Have you ever heard one of those “hog-calling” contests where competitors give off those high-pitched shouts that are meant to call the pigs in from the field?  It’s how farmers let the animals know that their slop is set out, and it’s time to feed. I’d describe it as a combination scream and yodel, and it does take a certain amount of vocal ability.

You can get a taste of some hog calling techniques here:

Or you could just tune in to American Idol, since that program seems to spawn that type of singing performance. Talk about cookie-cutter presentations—some of these young people have great vocal range, but when did the imitation of hog-calling become trendy in pop music circles?

I can recall Eydie Gorme hitting some high notes back in the 60s (listen to her penetrate the ceiling on What Did I Have That I Don't Have and you’ll understand), but, like most accomplished pop singers, she did this only occasionally; and the Barbra Streisand/ Céline Dion ear-piercing scales can have their appeal on certain numbers, but too much of anything gets annoying.

I once told one of my students that I didn’t care for his favorite singer—Whitney Huston—because she “screamed” so many of her lyrics. “She has a great voice,” I admitted, “but why does she shriek everything?”

He disagreed with me, and was even crestfallen to hear that there was someone who didn’t think Houston was the greatest singer alive. I told him to listen carefully to her rendition of I Will Always Love You.

“She yodels it every bit as much as did Dolly Parton,” I said.  “Even more. She sounds like those people who enter hog-calling contests.” That exactly how I described it.

He came in the next day and sheepishly admitted that Houston did scream her way through I Will Always Love You.

“I never noticed it before,” he said.

I didn’t mean to burst his bubble. I told him that I felt she—like many other great voices—had abundant talent, and hitting the occasional elevated octave was a fine adornment to a suitable song.

But just because a little is good, more isn’t necessarily better. That’s kind of a…hoggish approach…to anything!

Eydie Gorme, Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Dolly Parton…these are people blessed with superior vocal chords, and just about every young hopeful today wants to emulate them.

The latest star in this line might be Jennifer Hudson. I love the song, Feelin’ Good, but I don’t need the over-the-top yodeling touch at the end of each bar. This woman has a powerful voice. She, like the others, is gifted.

I’d really enjoy hearing her resonance without a herd of hogs coming in from the north pasture.