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Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances

 

Saturday, March 22, 2003

 
Notes and comment on important news of the day from the insightful Peoria Dave, analyst extraordinaire.

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Since November, nude demonstrations against an invasion of Iraq have taken place in Marin County, Calif. (200 women at three sites); near West Palm Beach, Fla. (23 people); Byron Bay, Australia (700); and New York City's Central Park (30, in the snow). [San Francisco Chronicle; Tampa Tribune-South Florida Sun-Sentinel; New York Post-Reuters; New York Post]

I’ve heard of naked aggression, but naked pacifism?

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Motorist B.J. Justin Lundin, 20, stopped his car in the middle of a two-lane road near Weatherford, Texas, got out, and attacked the driver behind him in a fit of rage over the driver's having earlier objected to Lundin's tailgating. Lundin was struck and killed by a third driver trying to go around the two cars. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram]

Okay, put this dude up there on the irony scale with the Missouri cell-phone user who walked in front of a train and the California anti-logging protester who feel out of a tree, both of whom wound up slightly dead.

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A worker at the Brown-Forman Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, sent 1,800 gallons of tequila into the sewer system when he mistakenly attempted to unload one tank into another tank that was already full. [WAVE-TV]

And the sewer rats go, “It’s another tequila sunrise, stirring slowly across the sky . . .”

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Circus clown Gavin Riley, 37, was jailed for two years in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, for beating up his girlfriend because she declined to go watch him perform. [Daily Telegraph (London)]

If the guy was a mime, his girlfriend probably would have beat HIM up rather than suffer through a performance.

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The new edition of the Encyclopedia of American Religion lists 2,630 denominations. Among them are the (John F.) Kennedy Worshippers, the Church of God Anonymous and the Church of the New Song (which once offered porterhouse steaks for communion). [Associated Press]

If you find a church that offers pecan pie for communion, send its evangelist to my house.

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Authorities in Guadalajara, Mexico, arrested fake "Dr." Myriam Yukie Gaona -- a former a former stripper -- for performing cut-rate plastic surgery on hundreds of women, augmenting the lips and breasts of some with industrial silicone and motor oil. [The Guardian (London)]

Wonder if Melanie Griffith has been to Guadalajara lately. Or Meg Ryan.

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Boston City Councilman Felix Arroyo, who opposes war in Iraq, announced in January he was going on a hunger strike to protest U.S. policy. Arroyo said he would begin a liquid-only regimen. Then he limited that to daylight hours, thus allowing himself dinner and, theoretically, breakfast. Later he qualified that by saying he would only follow the diet on the second and fourth Fridays of each month. [Boston Globe]

As they say, the road to Hell -- and McDonald’s -- is paved with good intentions.

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Health researchers told a conference in San Antonio, Texas, they had treated a college student who came down with the old-time mariner's disease of scurvy. They blamed an absence of vitamin C in the student's steady diet of cheese, crackers, cookies and soda. [Reuters]

I’d better get all three of my kids over to Dr. Wittkopp’s office for a scurvy check-up.

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Authorities in Lincolnshire, England, are trying to identify a 60-ish woman who was admitted to Lincoln County Hospital in December, suffering from amnesia but insisting she is Barry Manilow. She carried only several Manilow music albums. [BBC News]

She should have claimed to be Wayne Newton. He’s just as lame, and he SOUNDS female. Danke schoen, or however you spell it.

[With thanks to Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird on MSN]



Thursday, March 20, 2003

 
Men of profound thought appear to themselves in intercourse with others like comedians, for in order to be understood they must always simulate superficiality.

--Friedrich Nietzsche



Wednesday, March 19, 2003

 
“The Horned Man” is a disappointing novel.

Author James Lasdun, an English expatriate with a background in poetry, can write, but his decision to mount “Man” as a tale told by an unreliable narrator results in a book that is confusing and, in the long run, unsatisfying.

The reader is forced to assemble what is really going on, as opposed to what narrator Lawrence Miller says is going on, like a jigsaw puzzle, and once the solution was gained my response was -- “yeah? so what?”

It’s really just a story of an Englishman who marries a cold fish American woman to get his immigration green card so he can stay in the United States, falls in love with her after the fact and gets dumped when she decides she prefers bondage-type sex with women. Distraught, he decides an evil man is compounding his woes by stalking him. He sets out to investigate, but the reader gradually begins to question whether the evil fellow really exists. Has grief-addled Lawrence actually committed criminal violence himself and imputed it to an imaginary man? That becomes the book’s central issue.

The book elicited some positive reviews late last year, which caused me to ask for a copy as a Christmas gift. Some literary types may have found Lasdun’s approach praiseworthy, but I didn't.

As often seems to be the case, I return to the theme of honesty in writing -- what good is served by dressing up a ho-hum story (see any number of Hollywood screenplays about green-card marriages) with a smokescreen of disguised motives and fuzzy facts? I know the unreliable narrator is an accepted literary convention -- even I enjoyed Truman Capote’s “My Side of the Matter,” but Capote had a sense of humor to help carry it off, and Lasdun doesn’t -- yet it strikes me as cheating in this case. Lasdun introduces “Horned Man” as a take on academic and sexual politics (Lawrence Miller is a college professor of gender studies who serves on a sexual harassment watchdog committee), keeping his protagonist’s marital problems hidden in the deep background for at least the first half of the book, then turns the whole thing into a Kafka-esque mystery of sorts. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste. Give me campus political correctness satire or give me psychological mystery, but don’t try to pass one off as the other.

As I said, though, Lasdun writes well from time to time. He delivers short, essay-like bursts on subjects like how it feels to ride a bus through middle America when you are feeling alienated and alone that caused me to stop and say -- “Yeah! That’s the way it is!” Maybe next time out he will offer more of those bursts and fewer imitations of Kafka.



Tuesday, March 18, 2003

 
The U.S. Navy is offering morticians a $6,000 bonus to enlist, I read in a local newspaper the other day.

I suppose one could score points on the political irony scale by linking that gesture to America’s impending military clash with Iraq, but it made me think of a guy I went to high school with, Gene Baldwin.

Gene was a senior at Cottage Grove High School when I was a sophomore. A new kid in a small, close-knit community, I was slow to make friends, but Gene took a shine to me. Perhaps the disparity in our appearances amused him -- he towered 6 foot 6 and had a swept-back mop of blonde hair, while I stood 5 foot 6 and sported a brown buzzcut. For whatever reason, he made a point of saying hello in the hall, chatting in the locker room after I practiced football and he ran cross country, laughing at my alleged witticisms as we stood in the cafeteria line. We were friendly, if not exactly close pals.

Gene was a minister’s son. His dad was the preacher at the local Baptist church. His younger brother, Palmer, was in my class, and he was the prototypical preacher’s son. He mouthed off to teachers, skipped school, drank, tore around town in hotrod cars with a collection of low-life buddies. Gene, on the other hand, didn’t seem to feel any need to prove he was different from his father. He didn’t spout religion, but he wasn’t wild, either. He was laid back, sort of ambling through life. He played on the school basketball team in the winter because of his height, but he couldn’t sprint or jump much, so he mostly sat on the bench. It didn’t seem to bother him. He usually seemed to have a rather bemused smile on his face.

Gene graduated at the end of my sophomore year and I didn’t see him for quite a while. I heard he had joined the Navy. Palmer continued to be one of the resident semi-bad boys in my CG High class, although the opportunities for true badness were limited in an Oregon logging town of 4,500 rain-drenched folks. I heard about his run-ins with authority mostly from my Aunt LaVelle, who attended his dad’s Baptist church, and my younger cousins. LaVelle was scandalized. The cousins were amused.

After graduation, I lost track of Palmer much as I had lost track of Gene. I went off to Eugene, enrolled at the University of Oregon and made a more-or-less conscious effort to put Cottage Grove behind me.

At the start of my junior year, I rented an apartment in a small, aged building eight or ten blocks west of the campus. Next door stood another little house that had been split into apartments, and beyond that, on the corner, sprawled a garish monstrosity, a large, faux-Spanish-design structure (tile roof, adobe walls) that contained a mortuary. One morning the first week of classes I was striding along the sidewalk headed for the campus when I heard a voice call my name. I turned toward the front steps of the mortuary and spotted a tall, blonde fellow in a dark suit walking my way. Grinning, he stuck out his hand. “Gene Baldwin,” he said. “Remember me?”

I did remember Gene, but I had trouble connecting him with our surroundings. I remembered him from the locker room at CG High, from the cafeteria and the hall. I remembered him wrapped in a fuzzy white towel or ambling along in blue jeans and plaid cotton shirt. Seeing him come out of a mortuary in a dark suit while I was hurrying off to History of the Far East in Modern Times disoriented me.

We shook hands and chatted for a bit, though, and I learned Gene recently had completed his naval service. The Navy had trained him as a mortician, and now that he was a civilian again he was apprenticing himself at the hacienda/mortuary.

I kidded him about how ghoulish his line of work sounded, but he just laughed. It was a job, he said. He could make a decent living at it. Eventually, he hoped to own his own burial business.

The rest of that school year, I saw Gene from time to time. I’d walk past the mortuary on the way to or from class and he’d be outside pruning shrubs or watering the lawn or wearing his dark suit and waiting for mourners to arrive or leave, and we’d chat. He told me horror stories about mutilated bodies he’d picked up with the mortuary’s hearse and brought back for the head mortician to try to reassemble. (I remember one story in particular involving a guy who rode his motorcycle into a barbed-wire fence.) He talked about goofy things survivors sometimes did (trying to climb into the coffin with the dear departed, for instance). He spoke of formaldehyde. I shook my head, marveled that someone could maintain his emotional equilibrium while dealing daily with that kind of stuff. Gene even LIVED in the mortuary. That was one of the perks of his apprenticeship. There was a tiny apartment on the top floor of the hacienda, and he lived there rent-free. He was on call to pick up bodies in the hearse day and night, so he stayed in the mortuary.

Many evenings, as I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, I would look out the window of my apartment at the tan adobe wall and red tile roof of the mortuary where it extended above and behind the house next door. I would think about Gene sleeping upstairs while empty coffins yawned open in the display room below. I would picture the boss mortician piecing a damaged body back together on a stainless steel table in a dim back room. Some nights smoke rose from a chimney on the mortuary roof. It might have come from a fireplace or a furnace, but I chose to believe it signaled a cremation oven at work. Staring out the window at that mortuary in the dark seriously spooked me. It remains one of the prime, if least appreciated, memories of my college days.

In June I went off to Portland for a summer job, and when I returned to Eugene in the fall I wound up living on the other side of campus. I never saw Gene Baldwin again. I heard from a mutual acquaintance a while back that Gene indeed did go into the mortuary business, and made quite a financial success of it. In fact, he and his brother -- erstwhile wild child Palmer -- were partners in a large mortuary, I was told.

When I was a kid at Cottage Grove High School, I never would have dreamed affable Gene Baldwin or his rowdy little brother would turn out to be morticians. As I think about it today, it still causes me to shake my head in wonder. They’re probably too old to collect that $6,000 for enlisting in the Navy, though.



Monday, March 17, 2003

 
I watched Redmond High School win the Oregon state basketball championship on television Saturday night, and I found the outcome of the game both pleasing and troubling.

I was pleased because a small downstate school won the title. I long ago grew weary of people yakking about “the city game” and saying only kids schooled in hoops on the concrete playgrounds of Portland could win titles in Oregon.

I was also pleased because Redmond is in Central Oregon, where I lived for several years before moving to Portland. Central Oregonians have a major inferiority complex about high school sports, because their teams rarely win in the traditional big ones -- football, basketball, baseball and track. Bend High won a baseball title and a few cross country championships in recent years, but no Central Oregon team had ever won a basketball title and, as far as I know, Redmond had never won anything. Hooray for the have-nots!

I found the game interesting, too, because it featured a 6-foot-9 prodigy, Redmond junior Maarty Leunen, I had been reading about all season. I wanted to see if he was as good as the newspapers said, and -- judging from what he showed Saturday night -- he is. Besides being tall, he can run, jump, dribble and shoot. Plus he is blonde, baby-faced and articulate. He could be the next sports media star coming out of Oregon -- move over Joey Harrington and Luke Jackson. Let’s hope he stays in-state to play college ball instead of fleeing to California or some other Big Time locale.

The troubling aspect of Redmond’s championship came to light in a pre-tournament story I read about the team in The Bulletin, Central Oregon’s Bend-based daily newspaper. The story quoted the Panthers’ coach, 30-something-year-old Kelly Bokn, as crediting the team’s success to a stepped-up level of commitment and competition. He was referring to a decision to push his players into a summer basketball league in Eugene last year. Two nights a week all summer long, the Redmond kids carpooled to Eugene and back (a round trip of 250 miles) to play games against teams from big Willamette Valley schools. They honed their teamwork and their individual skills by joining Gym Rats Anonymous, and Bokn said it made all the difference.

There are two ways to look at this. You can laud Bokn and his players and their parents for their energy and dedication. Or you can shake your head and say all of them need to get a life.

I come down with the head shakers, I’m afraid. I think it’s sad when 15- to 17-year-old kids have to play a sport year-round in order to secure a spot on a school team, and I think they should be doing something on summer evenings other than schlepping 250 miles to bust their humps for a coach who Wants To Win. I know this is the way it goes with Oregon sports these days, involving everything from fall baseball to sixth-grade winter soccer trips to Arizona, but it seems wrong. I coached youth league baseball and basketball for years on the grade- to middle-school level, but I always figured what I was doing was giving kids a chance to play a game and have fun. Play baseball for fun in the spring and summer. Play basketball for fun in the winter. Improve your physical skills and stay in shape, but have fun. Don’t live your life for your coach. Don’t let your dad’s (or your mom’s) dreams of reflected glory goad you into becoming a one-sport obsessive.

Oh, well. Congratulations to the Redmond High School basketball team. I just hope the championship didn’t take too much fun out of several young lives.



Sunday, March 16, 2003

 
What, me answer the Sunday Seven? Well, if you insist.

1) What are you wearing?

Purple Goofy sweatshirt, a souvenir bought for me by my kids during a Disneyland trip on which I did not go; green Pomona College t-shirt, a memento of parent’s weekend my son Joe’s freshman year; Levi’s blue jeans; black baseball hat with a letter J on the front (it was a Christmas gift to Joe when he was in high school, but he left it behind when he went away to college and I inherited it; the J can stand for Jordan as well as Joe, right?); white and orange Nike socks (go, Phil!), sweat boots.

2) What are you reading?

A New Yorker magazine article about the late Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World” and other novels.

3) What’s for dinner?

Baked potatoes will be on the menu, my wife says. Maybe roast pork. Maybe apple sauce.

4) What’s the best thing that happened this week?

I had a poem accepted by a little Iowa magazine called Colere. It broke a string of nine consecutive rejection slips. Huzzah!

5) What’s bugging you?

My legs hurt. I went running yesterday for the first time in six months. My erstwhile sore back didn’t act up, but today my legs feel as if I just pushed a Buick up Mount Hood.

6) Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?

Due West, South Carolina.

7) What’s it all about, Dave?

Mind over body.

 
My wife, Cookie Jean, was one of the 25,000 or so people who demonstrated against a war with Iraq in downtown Portland Saturday. She said the vibe was weird, because many people in the crowd “acted like it was some kind of party, just laughing and gabbing away.” She also was bemused to note that the demonstrators included a group of skirt- and lipstick-wearing men calling themselves cross-dressers against war.

I mentioned this to my old acquaintance Buford A. Chase Saturday night when he called from his home in Dufur to update me on his campaign for the U.S. presidency on the Greed and Indifference Party (GIP) ticket.

“Sounds like things haven’t changed much since my peacenik days,” said Buford.

“YOUR peacenik days?” I said incredulously. “Since when were you ever a peacenik?”

“Everybody was a peacenik when I was a college kid back in the 1960s,” he replied. “I didn’t want to get sent to Vietnam and have my ass shot off any more than the next guy, so I was majorly anti-war. Besides, it was a good way to meet chicks. March on the Army recruiting office with them in the afternoon, fill them up with Annie Green Springs or Mad Dog 20-20 that evening, shag them on a throw-down mattress in the back bedroom of some dude’s apartment that night. Besides, most of the profs at my college in Eugene, the Academy of Television Sales & Repair, were anti-war. You got better grades if you showed up at peace-ins to cheer their speeches, flashed them the peace sign from the front row, that kind of thing.”

“You make it sound as if it wasn’t exactly a matter of principles, Buford,” I said.

“Oh, it most assuredly WAS a matter of principles,” he replied. “Principle number one: Do Not Get Your Ass Shot Off. Principle number two: Get Laid. Principle number three: Suck Up.”

“You didn’t really care if a lot of Americans or Vietnamese died in an unjust war?”

“Long as the ones dyin’ didn’t include me, I was okay with it. So were most other guys my age. But there was always that chance the Army would nab your ass and you’d come home in a box. So we marched.”

“I thought you were a veteran, Buford. You spout all that jingoistic stuff about kicking Saddam Hussein’s butt and such.”

“Oh, I AM a veteran. I finally joined the Army National Guard to avoid the draft and Vietnam. I served six months at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and then stood guard over the Dufur Armory one weekend a month for years. I want to tell you, boy, no Arabs ever dared attack the Dufur Armory while yours truly was at his post.”

“You put the fear of god into them.”

“Fear of Buford, boy. Much more effective.”

“But this was after your anti-war days.”

“I was still pretty much anti-war while I was in the National Guard. If they had tried to activate my outfit for combat, I might have had to shoot off a toe or two.”

“So when did you decide it was okay to kick Saddam’s butt and all that?”

“When I got too old to be drafted. It’s much easier to make these policy decisions if you’re not directly involved. My life isn’t at risk, so I have no conflict of interest.

“Besides, if folks accepted my proposal of a mano-a-mano Texas Death Match between George Dubya Bush and Saddam Hussein in a steel cage wrestling ring down in Las Vegas, nobody would have to worry about other folks dyin’. We could forget about peace demonstrations. Unless, of course, we needed to establish a party mood for consumption of Annie Green Springs and use of floor mattresses.”

“Buford,” I said, “you are incorrigible.”

“Also inimitable,” he replied. “Remember my campaign slogan: Ask not what Buford can do for you, but what you can do for Buford.”





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