Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Life in Ten Songs

Inspired by a regular column in Rolling Stone magazine.

  A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
  Ol’ Man River – Valentine Pringle, Show Boat, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein III
  Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Beach Boys
  Your Song – Elton John
  Silver Wings – Merle Haggard
  London Homesick Blues – Jerry Jeff Walker
  Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen
  I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra (Live at the Sands)
  I’m Not Ready to Make Nice – Dixie Chicks
  Practical Arrangement - Sting

A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles

I was 11 years old in mid-January of 1964 when the Beatles stormed America behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” their first #1 hit here, and they didn’t just nudge aside Motown, Elvis, Bobby Vinton, Jackie Wilson, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore, and girl groups like the Chiffons and the Shirelles, they obliterated them. In an instance, the Beach Boys and “Surfin' Safari became about as hip as Kay Kyser and Old Buttermilk Sky.

Our parents were horrified. Our older siblings, accustomed to Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and all that earnest, four-chord folk crap — “If I Had a Hammer — looked down their noses at us and made fun of “yea, yea, yea,” and we didn't give a shit where the flowers and the husbands and the soldiers had gone. We knew where all the young girls had gone. They were glued to their televisions, watching the Ed Sullivan Show and screaming their lungs out.

Name any Beatle album. I can tell you how old I was, where I lived, who my friends were, what we were in to, and what we were trying to get in to when that album hit the shelves. Name any Beatle single released as a 45 rpm. Same thing. This list could easily consist of 10 Beatle songs. In fact, my original list contained three: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Yesterday,” and “Hey Jude,” although I bundled them as one. I know this violates the rules, but I’m old and entitled.

However, I’m going with “A Hard Day’s Night” because it was the first Beatle album I owned, and I saw the movie at the Arlene Theatre in downtown Longview, and the little old lady who ran the place tromped up one aisle and down the other, trying unsuccessfully to shush the hysteria. The opening chord of the title song is as ebullient a sound as rock and roll has produced. Plus, they were so damn cheeky. If you want to understand 1964, watch “A Hard Day’s Night.” It is to Beatlemania what the first 10 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” is to Omaha Beach.

As for the other three songs, they were contenders because:
• “I Want to Hold Your Hand” got the ball rolling.
• “Yesterday” certified their musical genius. Even my sixth-grade music teacher, Mrs. Barbara Coones, admitted that she'd been wrong about the Beatles. She went so far as to apologize. “I was wrong,” she said. We just sat there, stunned.
• “Hey Jude” helped me through a difficult time. Here’s the story: I heard it for the first time in August, 1968, out of a cheap, plastic portable radio propped in my aunt and uncle's milk barn in Muenster, Texas, where I was working most of the summer. The song astonished me. I couldn’t believe how long it was, and how great it was. Every morning and every evening, I sat and waited and waited for the Gainesville radio station to play it again until, finally, my mom and dad returned to retrieve me. Without my knowledge or consent, they decided to move us from Longview to teeny, tiny little White Oak — 10 miles west, though it might as well have been 10,000 miles — so I returned to a new 3-bedroom, 2-bath, cookie-cutter brick home, next door to one just like it, and across the road from an empty field that stretched all the way to Gilmer, I suppose. I was enrolled in a new school, in a new town where I didn't know a soul except for my two younger brothers and the son of one of my mother’s friends — a huge lug of a guy who, if memory serves me correctly, seemed addicted to fireworks and flatulence. But I made new friends because I played football and because "Hey Jude" remained #1 on the charts for nine weeks, and it was obvious what a huge fan I was, and that opened other doors for, even in little ol' White Oak, most kids spoke Beatle.

I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra

I always liked Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole and Bobby Darin. I even liked Johnny Mathis. But I despised Frank Sinatra, his ring-a-ding-ding sleazy shtick and his unctuous sidekicks, salivating over buxomly blondes in go-go boots and mini-skirts, sloshing their martinis on their tuxedos and flashing diamond pinky rings, like second-rate New Jersey goombas.

So, I barely noticed and little cared when Sinatra died in May of 1998. But then, an odd thing happened. I was teaching a journalism workshop at the University of Oklahoma, and some kid had purchased an issue of People magazine devoted to his top 100 albums, and the kid was about to slice it up as part of some yearbook design assignment, and I stopped him and convinced him to cut up a Sports Illustrated instead. Out of curiosity, I bought “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and “Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years,”  and two months later, I tucked them in a carry-on bag, along with my Sony Walkman, on a flight to Budapest, where I was to teach what we called “fact-based journalism” to a group of 25 or 30 exceptionally bright high school students. Helen Smith of Boston and Shirley Yaskin of Miami and I took turns teaching Hungarian kids the difference between objective news and government propaganda. 

After a full day of teaching, we'd stroll down the Utsa Vaci for dinner and drinks,  then they would go to their hotel in Pest and I would amble toward my apartment in Buda across the Danube, and I’d stop midway across the Chain Bridge and watch the city lights flicker on, and listen to “Summer Wind” and “The Way You Look Tonight” and “All or Nothing at All," and suddenly, I got it. One of his many biographers, Michael Ventura, wrote, “The lyrics were trite, obvious, sentimental. Somehow, he made them true. The music was simple to the point of childishness. Somehow, he made it complex.”

From Budapest, we flew to Bucharest for a similar 10-day workshop, and there, I fell in love with eight or nine of the most perfect young people I’ve ever met. None before, and none after compare. Four or five days before the end of the workshop, I began each morning, sobbing in my tiny hotel shower, knowing my time with them was coming to its inevitable end. Of course, the experience changed me profoundly, and I returned to the U.S. a different person. It’s been 17 years since that workshop, but every time I hear Sinatra sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” it takes me back to Bucharest and  reminds me how difficult, how painful it was to leave those kids, it makes me want to find some dark, smoky bar where a paunchy bartender knows you need a whisky on the rocks without being told.

Ol’ Man River – Valentine Pringle, Show Boat

Around 1963, my mother purchased from Reader’s Digest a collection of 18 American operettas, among them Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and, most importantly, Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel into the most important play in American musical theatre history. It created a new genre — the musical play as opposed to the wispy musical revues of Florenz Ziegfeld, or anything starring Fanny Brice or Sophie Tucker or dancing boys in sailor uniforms. Show Boat’s songs grew out of dramatic situations involving abandonment, poverty, miscegenation, racial injustice and alcoholism. Despite these gloomy subjects, the music is radiant — some of the best ever written: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” “Bill,” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.”

At the heart of the play is “Ol’ Man River,” which is, in my opinion, the greatest American song of the 20th Century, especially when performed with primal conviction by a baritone the likes of Valentine Pringle. Everyone from Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Jerry Reed and Jeff Beck to Screaming Jay Hawkins has covered it, and the venerable Paul Robeson sang it in the original 1927 stage production, but Pringle — better known for his lead role in a British science fiction television series than for his Broadway performances — owns it.

For years, my late night boozy trips down memory lane would crescendo with Merle Haggard, the Beatles and "Ol' Man River." After I'd played it once or twice, the wife and kids would know I’d drained the last of whatever I'd been drinking and was finally headed to bed or couch.

Silver Wings – Merle Haggard

Speaking of Merle, “Silver Wings” nudges out “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which is my favorite country-western song ever, and why? Timing. It came out in 1969 but I discovered it in 1974, along with the rest of the Haggard catalogue, right about the time I was breaking up with and then getting back together with a girlfriend, who left Texas and a difficult family life to join her father in California. I drove her to Dallas in my 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and watched her fly out of Love Field to Los Angeles, then picked up a six pack of something and drove over to Bachman Lake Park and drank them all and listened to Silver Wings about 19 times in a row — and those were the 8-track tape days.

Three months or so later, I was between fall and spring semesters at UT, and I was working on a crew building a honky-tonk called Frontier City, a few miles south of Chandler, Texas, out in the middle of nowhere. We’d work all day building the cheesiest faux frontier city imaginable, but around 7, a damn fine local country band would take the stage, and the first or second song they sang every night was “Silver Wings.”

I saw Merle in concert at Austin’s old Palmer Auditorium in the spring of ’75, I believe. Barbara Mandrell opened for him, and she was amazing. But Merle and his band, The Strangers, tore up the place. Merle sang every song he knew, and then he wrote and performed a couple mid-stream. I’ve seen him twice since: once at Stubbs, which was great, and the other time at the Riverbend Church on Lake Austin, not far from the Pennybacker Bridge. He’d somehow staved off lung cancer and looked and sounded frail, and it wasn’t much of a show, especially since neither beer nor wine were sold, and no one dared sneak in a flask or a joint inasmuch as Jesus was surely watching and taking notes.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Beach Boys

I was 14, a girl-crazy eighth grader, and I had a huge crush on a girl who lived down the block, and more than anything, I wanted to sleep with her — but only that, just sleep. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to just lie in a bed close enough to smell her hair, and sleep.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” perfectly captures that moment, that innocence. Today, I’m still in awe of Brian Wilson’s brilliant melody and its execution by the Wrecking Crew, particularly drummer Hal Blaine. It’s my favorite Beach Boy song.

Your Song – Elton John

In April, 1970, Paul McCartney quit the Beatles. I still have a newspaper clipping from the Longview newspaper. We all saw it coming. It was like watching our parents fight night after night. A divorce is inevitable, if they don’t kill each other first. The break-up of the Beatles left a void that neither Lennon nor McCartney could fill as single artists, and though there remained a lot of excellent music out there — Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel — something was missing.

And then, Elton John arrived, ironically enough, in April, 1970, with the release of his eponymous album, Elton John. The album was not an immediate success, but its popularity grew, driven by one song: “Your Song.” I remember the first time I heard it. I was walking out the kitchen door on my way to pick up my date for the 1971 high school football banquet, and Elton was performing the song on some television variety show. I paused, turned back, listened to the rest of the song, and thought, “That was not bad.”

What an understatement. Over the next five years, he and Bernie Taupin recorded seven remarkable albums, particularly Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The string ended with “Rock of the Westies,” and the next album “Blue Moves” would have been equally disappointing had it not been for two songs: “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” and “Idol,” Elton’s haunting homage to Elvis Presley.

London Homesick Blues – Jerry Jeff Walker

I attended the University of Texas in the 1970s, the heyday of the Cosmic Cowboy and Redneck Hippy, of the Armadillo World Headquarters and Willie Nelson. But the soundtrack of those years was Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band. It was recorded live in Luckenbach, which then consisted of a post office, a dance hall and a parking lot. Now, it’s a shrine. Mecca for aging hippies, who even now want to swill a dozen or so Shiners and belt out, “Up against the wall, redneck mother.” Back then, we drank Lone Star, but no one does that anymore except tourists and dorky college kids.

But the best song on the album isn’t “Redneck Mother,” and it’s not “Desperados Waiting on a Train.” It’s “London Homesick Blues.” After graduation from UT in 1975, I followed that off-and-on girlfriend I mentioned earlier to Southern California, even though we had a tortured relationship. She was younger and full of silly ideas like chastity because, she told me, she had promised Jesus she would save the good stuff for marriage. She didn’t, but we broke up not long after I arrived anyway. I bounced around Anaheim, Fullerton and Huntington Beach long enough to truly appreciate this lyric:

And I’ll substantiate the rumor
that the English sense of humor
is drier than the Texas sand.
You can put up your dukes
and you can bet your boots
But I’m leaving just as fast as I can.

Then, I said my goodbyes to the girlfriend and her family and to some really dear friends I’d made — including a married woman with whom I’d had a dalliance — and I drove my '73 moss green Chevrolet Monty Carlo 1,500 miles back home to East Texas. I doubt I arrived with more five dollars to my name.

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen played the Armadillo World Headquarters five times in 1974, but I never saw him because at the time he was playing small venues like AWH, I had no idea who he was. A year later, with the release of his album, “Born to Run,” everyone knew who he was. It helped that he made the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week, and no rock star had ever managed to do that.

“Born to Run” is one of favorite albums of all time. On any given day, it ranks as high as fifth, as low as tenth.  The title song is pure adrenaline, but Thunder Road is more musical, more lyrical, more visceral, more magical. “The skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.” How do you write a line like that?

“Thunder Road” was Jeff Nardone’s favorite Springsteen song too, and his family chose it to close his funeral service, and I can’t hear it now without choking up, just a little.

Not Ready to Make Nice — The Dixie Chicks

In 2002, I didn't know a thing about the Dixie Chicks until Natalie Maines made her infamous comment about George W. Bush, thus triggering the Fox News backlash and the Nashville boycott and, worst of all, Toby Keith's despicable "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,"  his little love ditty to the throngs of angry American idiots who thought Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks and just wanted to put a boot in some Arab's ass. So, I bought a copy of "Home" to protest the protest, and could not believe how great it was — the best start-to-finish album I had heard in years.

And we became huge fans, and not for political reasons — for artistic reasons. They wrote and sang great songs — original, creative, intelligent songs instead of the schlock that passes for C&W these days. Of course, we also admired and respected how these three young women stood together and held their ground in the face of relentless and senseless attacks. Their 2003 inteview with Barbara Walters was inspiring, heroic, entirely noble. 

Three years later, they released a defiant, new album, "Taking the Long Way," which, of course, Clear Channel and the local 'Bama and Bubba disc jockeys boycotted, even though it's brilliant, almost Beatlesque. As for "Not Ready to Make Nice," it still sends a chill up my spine. I don't even have to hear it. I only have to think about it. 

Jeez, I wish these girls would get back in the studio. 

Practical Arrangement — Sting

I'm often assured there's a lot of good music out there. “You just have to look for it,” I’m told. "It's there. Just look."

How sad is that? I must search for it, like it’s an original Napoleonic tunic, or a prehistoric cockroach caught in amber. What if we applied this standard to food, or film, or football? What if we applied it to diapers or detergent? What if we applied it to anything?

“There are a lot of great coffee out there, pal. You just have to look for it.” People would freak out. They want great coffee, and they want it now. They don’t want to spend hours excavating websites and visiting chat rooms and exploring Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and Starbucks and ending up at a mom-and-pop trailer where the beans come from an organic farm in Guatemala. People would riot.

But music? People eat whatever the music industry wardens flop on a plate, and there’s a reason for this: People are cheap. Music today is a disposable commodity — like a razor, a jar of jelly, a pair of socks - only better. It's free. Why buy music when you can rip it off YouTube? 

And so, music is worth what the market is willing to pay, which is nothing - and that explains Drake and Katy Perry and Justin Bieber and and all those bands that crank out the same song  with the same riffs and the same vocal gimmicks over and over and over. How many times have you heard, "Oh, uh oh. Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh?"

I concede that there are talented musicians out there. Avett Brothers. Decemberists. Adele. And Beyoncé has voice as stunning as her body, but the music she chooses to sing sucks. It's written for 10-year-old girls and performed for 13-year-old boys. It has a shorter shelf-life than raw milk.

So, it's shocking and thrilling to stumble upon a beautifully crafted song - a song Paul Simon or Burt Bacharach or Jim Webb or Carole King might have written. It just doesn’t happen often. Sturgill Simpson seems to me to be the real deal. His “Long White Line” has been compared to Waylon Jennings but his twang reminds me of George Jones.

Amy Winehouse might have been a trainwreck as person, but her “Back to Black” album blew me away, particularly “Lose is a Losing Game.” As far as this list is concerned, it’s 10-B.

10-A is Sting’s “Practical Arrangement” from his amazing album, “The Last Ship.” The gorgeous melody can be performed high or low, a capella or fully loaded. It’s about an older man saying to a younger woman to consider the possibility of a practical idea: “Sure, it may not be the romance you had in mind, but let’s live together for a while, get to know one another and, in time, you might come to love me.”

I'm not promising the moon,
I'm not promising a rainbow,
Just a practical solution,
To a solitary life.
I'd be a father to your boy,
A shoulder you could lean on,
How bad could it be,
To be my wife?

It’s sumptuous music for intelligent adults, and it gives me hope that I haven’t been introduced to my last fabulous song, that it’s possible I might one day revise this list and include one or two songs as yet unwritten. But I’m not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The hero who took out the bad guys

Buy a gun or two. Something powerful. Something you'd never shoot a deer or a wild hog with. Something made for one reason and one reason only: to kill. To kill people, in particular. Now, buy a couple hundred rounds of the most lethal bullets available. They're called RIP bullets, and they don't just kill. They butcher. They maim. Think of a regular bullet as a sharp knife and a RIP bullet as a blunt axe.

Next, play with the gun. Toy with it. Load it and unload it and gaze at it and fantasize shooting it, of blowing people away. Just for kicks, lug your new gun into the local Applebee's and scare the hell out of some children and old people and libtards.

Eventually, you'll want to take it out and shoot something. That's what it's for. Shoot up an old TV set or computer monitor. Take out some clay pigeons. Just don't forget to take along your ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones. By the way, 3M makes a nice pair of tactical ear muffs. A lot of SWAT teams use them. I'm sure they'd look great on you.

And now, wait for the bad guys to show up, to threaten you, to step into your cross-hairs. It might be a genuine criminal. It might just be that punk kid who owns the monster truck down the street, who's always gunning it at 2 or 3 in the morning. And when you confront him and he smarts off and then decides to bull-rush you because he's young and drunk and stupid, then you shoot him. In the chest. In the head. If you're lucky, he'll be wearing a gray hoodie, which means he's a gang-banger for sure, and you stood your ground.

Well, good for you. The Founding Fathers salute you, and your fellow Constitutional scholars at Cabela's and Walmart and the gun shows applaud you defending freedom and liberty and the American Way of Life, not to mention the Second Amendment.

And so what if a few of these guns fall into the hands of the wrong people. Of course, I'm referring to children. Not hardened criminals.

Kids do crazy things, especially when there are guns stashed around the house. Like the 4-year-old Kentucky boy who shot and killed his 6-year-old sister. Or the 3-year-old Michigan boy who died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with the gun he found on the closet floor of his home.

As Joe the Plumber so eloquently stated, your dead child doesn't trump his Constitutional rights to hoard guns. Besides, criminals will have their guns, regardless. It's part of being a criminal. They're loaded, and they can always get more — legally, in most cases. Most importantly, they get the first shot.

And you can't stop them because no one sees them coming. They're odd-duck types who have never once broken the law but who are quietly and politely seething, roiling, ready to explode. They plot their revenge and, one morning, strap on the gear and show up, locked and loaded, at a post office or a J.C. Penney's or in the halls of your 12-year-old daughter's school, where they blurt out the lyrics of a rock song or a line from Catcher in the Rye and then start blasting away.

It's at that point that I wish you would show up, but you never do, so over the course of the 45 minutes, they slaughter 10 or 12 and then kill themselves or are killed by police officers who are specifically trained and equipped to do just that. It's their job whereas you work the counter at Pep Boys.

Eventually, the blood is mopped up and the funerals are held and the victims are buried and nothing changes. You still troll Walmart or Cabela's and the gun shows and buy another gun and another bucket of bullets, and you return home and diddle with them and gaze at them and sink deeper and deeper into your cammo-covered BarcaLounger and your warrior fantasies of being the big hero who takes on the bad guys and defends America. The Beautiful.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The commie, socialist wannabe

I received an email recently from a former colleague, a retired Texas school administrator who trades in tea party agitprop. The email linked to a piece of hogwash that's made its way around the Internet a dozen or more times, titled, “4 Simple Questions.” It was written by a New Jersey lawyer, Richard Silverlieb. 

“Help me figure this one out, Bobby,” my former colleague asked, sarcastically. “I'm not sure I can!”

Well, I knew it was a set-up, but I glanced over it, then responded, first, by questioning Silverlieb’s objectivity, inasmuch as he ends his screed with "A pen in the hand of this socialist commie wannabe is far more dangerous than a gun in the hands of 200 million patriotic law-abiding citizens."

Then, I questioned his veracity by pointing out that communism and socialism are not the same and that no one I know cares if one gun is shared among 200 million law-abiding, patriotic citizens. I mean, that is what he wrote. "…a gun in the hands of 200 million patriotic law-abiding citizens." 

I suspected Silverlieb's accusations were as pristine factually as they were grammatically and, of course, I was correct. Almost every one is deemed false or highly misleading by either or both Snopes or Politifact. Of course, my former colleague thinks Snopes and Politifact are libtard b.s. published by Bolsheviks, and, besides, mere facts are just some pinhead's opinion. Darwin is wrong because not all apes have evolved into humans, and snow in Boston means global warming is a hoax, perpetrated by someone really, really evil. Like Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

My former colleague reminds me quite a lot of an old friend who turned 61 recently. Many of us sent him the obligatory ‘Hope you have a great birthday blah blah blah’ message. Late in the afternoon, my old friend posted a message on Facebook, thanking everyone for thinking of him. He told us he had spent the day with his children and grandchildren, had a great time and yak yak yak, but then, for no apparent reason, he took a roundhouse swing at "the idiots in Washington D.C." 

Why go there? Why couldn’t he have just written, "Thanks for the kind thoughts and messages. I hope you all had as good a day as I did." Why drag politics into this otherwise sweet moment?

Well, here's why. He believes he's oppressed. He feels threatened. He fears the big, bad goose-stepping government of the criminal commie socialist wannabe is going to ban the future sale of .223 M855 ammunition. This especially infuriates him because .223 M855 ammo is the only ammo capable of bringing down a stag or a wild hog or whatever it is he picks off from the comfort of his deer blind. Apparently, regular bullets just bounce off.

Should I have been surprised by his micro-rant? I suppose not. He seems to get much of his political and some of his religious instruction from the NRA or Duck Dynasty. A week or so earlier, he suggested that Obama "Just needs to stop breathing.”

So, what does this suggest? It suggests that these otherwise good people — salt of the Earth types — wake each morning and return to sleep each night, swathed in the comfort of their loathing of one man, the scary wannabe. They call him all kinds of names and make fun of his wife and ridicule his two teenage daughters. The wife is said to resemble a monkey, and the daughters are surly and hateful.

Of course, that's pittance compared to the lies they tell about the commie socialist, who, by now, should have destroyed the economy, gutted the military, declared Sharia law and dispatched his ISIS storm-troopers to confiscate all guns, knives and Bibles. That the economy seems to have improved significantly since the meltdown he inherited in 2008, and that he made the call that took out Bin Laden only infuriates them further, so they invent and circulate more lies about him, and nothing is too petty. He failed to salute the nice Marine standing next to the helicopter. He refused to wear an American flag lapel pin, or he wore it on the wrong side, which means he hates America. He hates America so much, he sent U.S. soldiers to West Africa because he wants them to die of Ebola.

So, here's the deal: I wonder what might the country be like today if my old classmate and my former colleague and the rest of their kind had invested as much time and emotion and energy into something constructive — losing weight, learning a second language, mentoring an at-risk child, reading a book that didn't involve snipers or Bill O’Reilly? 

Perhaps the nation would not be as mean and dumb, as frightened and fatuous as it is today. Perhaps we might have found a way to come together to get something done. Perhaps we might have found that we have more in common than we do in opposition. Perhaps we might even have attempted to do what Jesus instructed us to do: love each other, even our enemies, even the socialist, commie wannabe.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Finding the real Ronald

I’m not sure what I thought I’d found when I met Ronald, an African-American kid in a football letter jacket, attending an after-school newspaper session I was conducting as a favor for an old friend. Her staff is almost entirely female, which is typical. Girls read and like to write, while boys don’t read and hate to write and spend huge chunks of their young lives wasting zombies on computers.

So, I was surprised to find Ronald there. He didn’t participate in the discussions, but he wasn’t disruptive, so I paid scant attention to him until his teacher shared with me a rough draft of his article about two brothers who play tennis.

“Rough” is an understatement, and my lizard brain tempted me to embrace the convenient stereotypes regarding race and gender and teen culture, which I’m apt to do if I’m not on my guard and might have anyway had I not just watched the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and the media circus in tow. I thought about Michael Brown and decided I needed to learn more about Ronald than the fact that he’s black and wears a football jacket and once wrote “tense” when he should have written “tennis.”

So, I asked my friend to ask Ronald if he’d agree to a short interview. Of course, he was happy to, but then, he would be because, as I now know, Ronald is happy about most everything.

During our brief interview, he used the word “love” at least a dozen times. He loves school, his classes, the other members of the newspaper staff.

Mostly, he loves sports, especially football. He’s a JV tailback and defensive end, and though it was an up-and-down season, he loved every moment of it — even when he conked his head on the corner of a table while horsing around in the locker room, landing him in the emergency room with a gash that will likely leave a scar.

Somehow, Ronald is happy about this because it taught him an important lesson: Leaders don’t horse around in the locker room. That’s important to know because he now sees himself as a leader.

“A leader,” he told me, “has to be strong. He can’t get down and want to quit and just say, ‘Aw, I quit. I can’t do it.’ If you’re going to be a leader, you have to be ready to go when times are tough. Sometimes, I just have to say, ‘Hey, be the leader you can be and try a little harder.’”

Like in chemistry, which he thought would be his hardest class but is not. In fact, he loves it.

“I got a knack for chemistry that makes me want to figure out all this scientific stuff. It makes me wonder, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Where did this come from?’”

Actually, Ronald has a knack for life. His sophomore classmates voted him onto the Homecoming Court, but he missed the pep rally because that was the day he was horsing around and bonked his head.

Bandaged and released, he made it to the game. Of course, his classmates were ecstatic to see him on the sidelines.

“I saw one kid with a poster of me,” he said. “You could see the tears and joy in my eyes. I was so happy and so excited, but I could still feel the pain, but, I was thinking, ‘It’s just a great moment.’ I was extremely happy to be there.”

Make of this what you like, but here’s my take-away: Almost everything I first thought about Ronald was wrong, and if I hadn’t met him, my first impression would have calcified and confirmed a lie. Imagine that. Now, Imagine doing that every day, several times every day. That probably explains Ferguson.

Truth Be Told

Several months ago, I was invited to attend a graduation ceremony held inside the state prison in Lockhart, and I agreed to do so, mostly for reasons no more noble than fleeting curiosity. The ceremony is one step along a longer journey of discovery for female inmates, sponsored by an outfit called “Truth Be Told.”

Once I’d agreed to attend, I was instructed to read, fill out, sign and return a stack of forms that reinforced the fact that I was about to enter a real prison, and this is serious stuff. Even an inveterate smartass like myself was impressed and sufficiently cowed.

A month or so later, on a stormy November afternoon, I and 20 or so other attendees — all women   assembled in the gravel prison parking lot, emptied our pockets, removed our jewelry, dropped our cell phones in our car trunks, queued up and double-timed our way into a holding area, where we were reminded politely first and sternly second to pipe down. Duly chastened, we allowed ourselves to be eye-balled and stamped and processed and shuttled through a maze-like corridor past gawking inmates into a huge assembly hall that resembled an empty bus barn. We dragged metal folding chairs across a damp concrete floor into a semi-circle and sat and waited, making small talk and listening as the rain peppered the corrugated tin roof.

Eventually, the women inmates entered. They were mostly young and mostly black or brown. Some seemed defiant. Some were sheepish. Most of them were something in between — embarrassed but determined to make sense of the wreckage of their lives. They ambled in and sat among us, and we were invited to chat with them, but we were instructed not to ask anything about why they were in prison, how long they’d been in prison or how long they’ll be in prison, though we could ask them where they grew up and went to high school.

Most of the inmates had names like Monique, Crystal, LaPorsha and LaShon. I doubt any of them grew up in Westlake Hills or Highland Park. Several went by nicknames such as Nay-Nay and T. Bo. One tiny, young black woman was movie star gorgeous, full of spunk. Another was a tall, lumbering Hispanic gal who reminded me of Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She spoke no English that day, although I'm told she speaks well enough, and seemed desperate to disguise the fact that she’s 6-1 at least.

After the obligatory introductions and an occasional abrupt interruption by a guard (or, correctional officer or whatever they’re called), the program began. I expected a half hour of hip-hop dancing and geeky pantomime worthy of a fifth grade talent show at an all-white school. I was so wrong. The program was funny and sad, poignant and profound, smart and deeply moving. I was particularly blown away by a poem by Chantel, titled “Let It Be.” 

Here’s a stanza:

I’ve taken my mask off before and got hurt.
But with my mask on, I be damn if I’m treated like dirt.

Some think my mask is ugly, but to me, it’s beautiful.
My eyes black as coal lookin’ straight to your soul.
My lips are painted ruby red from all the blood I’ve seen shed.
My skin is a tone of 18-karat gold.
You will never see through it, so my secrets are never told.

The skits and the poetry readings, the “wise letter to myself” all hammered home a seminal point: I am here for a reason, and I have no one to blame but myself. Neither Momma nor Daddy. Not some piece-of-shit man. Not “The Man.” Not God. I’m here because I didn’t love myself enough to avoid or reject those people who used me and abused me, so I put myself here. I know that now. I also know that I can be someone of value if I believe in myself and trust in God, if I surrender my false pride, if I wise up and grow up and stop living in fear because it’s never too late.

Love may never find me here.
Alone and scared, my biggest fear.
I must search within and find out why,
Confront this pain, “I have to try.”

Memories surfaced from deep down inside.
My past, My Self, could no longer hide.
I then realized this prison was built
With blocks made of secrets, shame and guilt. 
— T.Bo

After the skits were finished and some of us outsiders had a moment to compose ourselves, the Truth Be Told directors invited us to offer a few thoughts, and I was thrilled to do so. 

This is what I said:

“Two or three years ago, I was teaching a writing workshop at Columbia University in New York City, and one afternoon I was sitting in Alfred Lerner Hall, and I picked up and thumbed through the campus literary magazine, which is produced by some of the smartest yet most coddled and privileged kids on the planet. Everything I saw and heard here today was light years better than anything I read in that literary magazine.”

I told them how inspired I was by their honesty and courage, and then I got choked up again and had to cut my comments short, but here’s the deal: Not so long ago, I was asked to respond to the following writing prompt: What Inspires You? I submitted something, but it was half-hearted because at that time, I had no idea what inspired me. After meeting and watching and hearing these women who are struggling valiantly to understand how it is they are doing time in a privately-run, for-profit prison in Lockhart, Texas, well, let me just say, I do know now.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug.

Principal Terrence Cutler: “When I heard that you were going to be subbing here, I almost lost my mind. Well, there’s something you need to know about, Kenny. You’re not the only athlete here at Jeff Davis. I happen to be training for a triathlon right now. So, I’m doing a lot of running. And cycling. Swimming. Well, you know all about that.”
Kenny Powers: “No, actually, I don’t. I play real sports. I’m not trying to be the best at exercising.”

The UIL’s decision to pilot competitive cheerleading reminds me of this scene from HBO’s “Eastbound & Down.” Kenny Powers is a wasted and washed-up professional baseball pitcher, thoroughly, unredeemingly obnoxious. I love the guy, and I’m certain he’d agree with me when I say, “Competitive cheerleading is not a real sport.”
Actually, it’s not any kind of sport. Why anyone thinks it is escapes me. I asked a couple of cheerleaders if they thought it should be, and, of course, they did, but they failed to provide a single compelling reason beyond, “Cheerleaders work hard.”
Well, that’s lame. So do the team managers.  Anyone thinking about an ankle-taping contest? Or, how about competitive PE?
In truth, cheerleading ranks up there with twirling, which is a UIL music competition even though it has nothing to do with music and everything to do with dance and digital dexterity. It remains a UIL solo-ensemble contest because of events described later, and, of course, because it’s saddle-stitched to marching band.
Well, two wrongs don’t make a right.
I have no objection to twirling or cheerleading as school activities. Twirling provides girls (and a handful of boys, I suppose) the opportunity to perfect their tossing and fetching skills, which might prove helpful later in life should they turn into border collies.
Cheerleaders, meanwhile, learn histrionics and facial contortions as well as flipping and bouncing and shaking things — real and inanimate —which, I suppose, is the perfect preparation for future marriage counseling sessions or school board meetings where sex education is discussed.
So, please, don’t accuse me of being prejudiced against cheerleaders or twirlers because I’m not. Fact is, my daughter was once a head-bobbing, ribbon-draped, fist-pumping junior high cheerleader who for two full years spoke only in all-caps and exclamation points, as in “GOOD MORNING, DAD!!! PASS THE TOAST!!!” which, in time, forced me to respond, “Can’t you just take drugs like all the other kids?”
Incidentally, I remember when UIL’s former director of music proposed dropping twirling as a state solo-ensemble music contest because — duh — twirling isn’t music. He provided a clear and reasoned argument to support his claim, and his proposal appeared destined to pass when the doors of the big hotel banquet room burst open, and in tromped every mascara-caked, metal-mouth mad-as-hell twirler east of IH35, along with their mothers and the owners and operators of the local twirling academy.
Over the next hour, they testified in their little pixie voices about how that mean old UIL director of music was ruining their lives and stealing their dreams, and their tears soaked their rhinestone outfits, fringe and all. And what about all the people who come to the football games just to watch them? What would happen to these people? Does anyone even care?
It wasn't meant rhetorically.
It didn't matter. The sweet old men sitting on the committee charged with legislating such matters wilted in the face of this lipstick blitzkrieg.
Suffice it to say, twirling remains a state music solo-ensemble contest, today, tomorrow and forever.
I suspect the same will happen once cheerleading gets its bow in the door. There’s little difference between a head bob and a head butt, and, like it or not, competitive cheerleading is certain to become a UIL “sport” after its one-year pom pilot. Go ahead. Stand up and holler.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Game Changers

Brenham head football coach Glen West’s first name isn’t Glen. It’s Gordon.

If you know anything about Texas high school football, you might guess where “Gordon” comes from — especially when you learn that Glen’s daddy grew up in Stamford and played football there for Gordon Wood — the greatest Texas high school football coach ever.

Wood coached from 1951-57 at Stamford, which is located 41 miles north of Abilene in the middle of not much and generally dry. The town was built by Swedish immigrants in 1900 along the Texas Central Railroad, so when folks there talk about “the wrong side of the tracks,” they mean it literally.

Glen West’s daddy — his name is Kenneth — grew up on the wrong side of those tracks. He was a bad student in a bad situation but he wasn’t a bad kid. He was mostly lost. His mother was often sick and hospitalized. His dad had trouble finding work, and when he did, it forced him to hit the road, so Kenneth and his two brothers were often left to fend for themselves.

One day around 1950, Gordon Wood pulled Kenneth aside and said, “Son, straighten up or you’ll end up in a place that’s a lot worse than Stamford.” Of course, he coaxed him to play football, but he knew football alone wouldn’t change what Kenneth needed: a steady, consistent, reassuring voice. Someone to break the chain and stand in the gap. Basically, a parent. So Wood stepped in, made sure the boys were fed, clothed, doing their schoolwork and sleeping indoors.

As for football, Kenneth played tackle and played well enough to earn a scholarship to play for the “Traveling Cowboys” of Hardin-Simmons, coached by Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. By the time Kenneth had graduated and served a brief stint in the Army, Wood was coaching in Victoria, and Kenneth joined him there, launched his coaching career, met his future wife and started a family.

In 1960, Wood moved to Brownwood, and Kenneth followed him two years later, toting with him an 18-month-old son, Glen, who grew up celebrating Brownwood state football victories — especially the 1978 title in which he started at linebacker.

“To say that Gordon Wood has had an influence on me is a huge understatement,” Glen said. “He has had an influence on my whole family.”

He can’t imagine where any of them would be without him. He probably wouldn’t be a coach, and even if he were, he probably wouldn’t be the coach he is — the man he has become.

Here’s why: For years, Glen was nagged by the thought that he needed to be doing more for the athletes and students at Brenham High, something beyond the X’s and O’s and coaching poster platitudes. Then, on his way home from a leadership conference, he figured it out: To make a real difference in the lives of some young people, he had to be less like a coach and teacher, and more like a father. From that epiphany sprung the “Brenham Game Changers,” a group of local educators, business people, clergy and civic leaders who have committed themselves to do whatever is necessary to make a difference.

He says it’s not about quick and easy solutions or instant gratification.

“You’re not always going to get the Cinderella ending,” he said. “The slipper doesn’t always fit, but you just have to keep trying.”

Because that’s what Gordon Wood would have done.

So now, let’s end with an anecdote.

After coaching, Kenneth West became a Brownwood High principal. One day, Gordon Wood pulled Gordon Glen West aside and said, “Who would have ever thought your daddy would end up being a high school principal?”

Wood paused, then added with pride, “Isn’t it great,” as if he was talking about his own son, which, in some ways, he was.