Monday, June 29, 2009

A Few Words for Recent Graduates

Another season of Americana has come and gone; that being the Graduation season which is met in this nation with, literally, much Pomp and Circumstance. And, like all American Institutions, this one comes with its own rituals. Namely, the invitation of prominent or not-so-prominent speakers to address one's commencement. Jon Stewart has done it; so has Stephen Colbert. Presidents, Vice Presidents, Presidents' and Vice Presidents' wives. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's volatile Chief of Staff, delivered the commencement address at George Washington this year. One hopes he kept his remarks clean.

The gig, by all appearances, consists of standing in sunny, warm June weather in heavy robes, listening to other blowhards deliver endless speeches while smiling and applauding at the appropriate times. Then, when it's your turn, you deliver your endless, boring speech. For the effort, you're rewarded with an honorary degree.....sometimes.

I've given this a lot of thought, and I've concluded that I'm not likely to be awarded any degree - honorary or otherwise. However, I do have some hard-won wisdom that I can impart to those who are now poised to enter the "real world". So folks, wake the kids, sit them down, and let Uncle Tripster enlighten them.

1. Life isn't fair. Get over it.

2. Learn the art of compromise, but never compromise your principles. From there, it's a short leap to selling your soul. Trust me on this one.

3. Just because you have a degree doesn't mean you've stopped learning. Pursue knowledge whenever possible.

4. Consider this: every one of the world's major religions, Judaism; Christianity; Islam; Sufism; Buddhism; Shinto; Sikh; Taoism -- all have, as a basic precept of their faith, some form of "The Golden Rule". Treat others as you would have them treat you. This can hardly be a coincidence.

5. Your parents are pretty dumb right now. They'll wise up. Give them time.

6. Over the years, your perception of success will change. Right now, you're going to be chasing the dollars. There's nothing wrong with that. Save some for retirement. But many years from now, you'll realize that success isn't about the money you make as much as the lives you touch. Do the right thing. Leave this world cleaner, better, more just than you found it. And if, when you depart, just one person can say they are better for having known you, you will have succeeded.

7. One thing nobody told you: Real life is hard. Excruciatingly hard. And it doesn't get easier, so get used to it now. I don't care what job or position you get, there's always someone out there who's gonna bust your balls. So get tough. Fast.

That's all I got. Good luck.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Where the Hell is My Wallet?

I lost my wallet yesterday. It's not an unusual occurrence, it happens about once a month; usually it turns up in a few days. Problem is, like every other sentient hominid in the world, everything that allows me to function and move about in modern society is in my wallet.

In Indiana, in fact, if a police officer pulls me over, I MUST have a driver's license in my possession. If I cannot produce it, I get a $50 fine in addition to whatever other infraction for which I get cited.

My question is, when did just knowing who you were cease to be enough? I remember when I never even carried a wallet, no ID of any sort. People knew who you were.

Update: Just found my wallet.

But I won't let that stop me now. When I grew up, and I know there are a lot of you who know what I'm talking about, your identity was never questioned. Everyone who needed to know you knew you. If the cops pulled you over, they would call in your social security number and get whatever facts they needed.

So what happened? Well, the aforementioned Indiana law was a factor. When it got really bad, though, was after 9/11/01, when Congress passed the Patriot Act, a wholesale sell-off of the Constitution. I remember trying to cash my paycheck shortly thereafter, and being turned down at bank after bank because I couldn't produce TWO forms of picture ID. Huh? (Note: I have never been good with money, so I don't keep bank accounts for long.)

I have made bad decisions, and live with the consequences every day. I have committed my sins, and expect to stand before the Father to account for them. I have at times lived on the margins of society. And one thing the Government doesn't understand is that those of us on the margins of society don't appreciate being marginalized.

I will continue to carry a wallet, with picture ID, though grudgingly. But I will continue to remember when, in America, you could be recognized without having to produce useless documents.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I wouldn't call it a "Tribute"

I'll be the first to admit that Michael Jackson overstayed his welcome by a dozen or so years. But it cannot be denied that his was one of the most forceful presences in modern music. For you, my loyal reader(s), I give you my very favorite Michael Jackson performance. Even at a very young age, Michael had the ability to sing about love and loss and make you BELIEVE that he'd suffered the heartbreak personally.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Happy Father's Day (A Day Late)

Well, yesterday was Father's Day. I never got too excited about it as a father: now that the kids are grown, and Alison is out of the house, a great Father's Day to me is just being able to hang out with my family for the day. I don't want a bunch of gifts, no ties or wallets (although a Johnny Bench throwback jersey would be cool, or a J. Peterman shirt), I just want my kids to hang out with me and maybe a pan of brownies.

My dad never made a big deal out of it either. One Father's Day, I spent the day with him fencing off his property down in the lowland of his property. Hell, I didn't even know it was Father's Day until we were done. But we worked hard, and put in a full day, and when we were heading back to the house he told me that that was the best Father's Day present he'd ever gotten. I was 12 or 13 then. In years after, I always helped him work on one project or another. I suppose part of the reason he liked it so much was that he didn't have to give me money to buy his gift. But there was something spiritually uplifting and satisfying in doing physical work, and helping my dad with his projects.

That's all I want from my kids, really. Hang out with the old man for a day, help me with something I'm doing. That's better than any gift you could buy. If you're a dad reading this, you know what I mean. If you're a kid reading this, I hope you understand what it means. Either way, I hope you come out of this with a new understanding of the relationship between a father and his children.

Remember: Father's Day is just another day for us dads. For us, EVERY day is Father's Day. Because it isn't about the Fathers, it's about the kids.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What's It All About, Alfie? The Origins of Dancing Madly Backwards Again

When I began this anthology of haphazard psychotic ramblings and eccentric observations, I promised you, dear reader(s), that one day I would explain the curious appellation it bears. What exactly is the provenance of Dancing Madly Backwards Again?

Well, I'm glad you asked. It all started about 29 years ago. It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. No, wait. That's Ode to Billie Joe. It was actually early September 1980, and a naive kid from Troy was beginning his Freshman year at Ohio University. I had chosen OU in part for the excellent journalism department, in part because it was a relatively small school in a small town, not unlike whence I came. But in large part, I chose to matriculate there (NO, NOT THAT. It's not even spelled that way. Look it up.) because of the bucolic atmosphere of Athens, Ohio. It seemed like a place where I could pursue my studies without much distraction.

Fast forward two months, to November when, as a freshly minted 18 year old, I was proudly voting in my first general election, and for the presidency, no less. I pulled the curtain in the voting booth and cast my vote for John Anderson, who was running as an independent. Did I mention I was naive? John finished strong, netting about 3% of the popular vote. In case you slept through history class, a guy named Ronald Reagan, actor and former Governor of California (kind of like Schwarzenegger, only he did films with a monkey) was elected President of the United States. Yes, it happened kids. You can pretend it didn't, but that won't make it so. You can wish Carter had been re-elected; then you can wish in one hand......

No, Reagan was president. In fact, it was a landslide victory, so the election was called fairly early the night of November 4. So I woke up November 5 with trepidation. I thought Trepidation was an odd name, so I asked her again. It turned out her name was Trudy. I promised I'd call her, and headed back to my dorm.

That's when I saw it. Directly across the street from the main campus green stood the College Bookstore. It was an independent business, not affiliated with the university in any way. It just so happened that its owners were peculiarly unimaginative. Hence the name College Bookstore.

But I digress (because you'd be disappointed if I didn't). The entrance to the bookstore was actually facing Court Street, the main business road for the town. So facing the college green was a huge brick wall that made up the side of the bookstore. And there, freshly spray-painted on the wall, were the words that would haunt me for life:

Dancing Madly Backwards Again

The meaning wasn't immediately obvious. I studied it for days. Every night, on my way to the quiet confines of The Union, where I studied, I passed that wall and it's haunting message. And at 2:30, when The Union closed, I'd walk past that missive of unknown origin once again. I thunk and I thunk and I thunk and I, being a bear of very little brain, got tired of all that goddamn thunking.

You must understand the context of the time, dear reader(s). 1980 was a transitional time. The tumult of the 60s was still fresh in the mind of the student population, especially the older ones on the 10 year plan. The massacre at Kent State was just a short 8 years past. The crimes of Watergate and the disgrace of President Nixon had soured us on politics as usual. Dissent wasn't even considered treason then, like it has been for the last 8 years. In short, Athens was a bastion of free thought and radical political views.

So in that heady brew of intellectual thought, cheap beer, and good weed, an idea was born. The night Reagan became President-Elect of the United States of America, some unknown radical summed up his feelings in four short but effective words.

With the election of the Father of Neo-Conservatism, the architect of trickle-down economics, one bright soul saw our nation in retrograde. After the disillusionment with our government, the loss of trust in the office, our fellow citizens saw fit to elect the one man who represented the worst of what America was. Put briefly, our beloved country was dancing madly backwards again.

Those words stayed on that wall for years. They may be there still, I don't know. Every time I go back to Athens, I experience a flashback, so I haven't been there for a while. But they were there for the span of my career there. And that phrase became ingrained in my subconscious, where it took on a life of its own, and gained a multitude of meanings.

What it eventually became for me was a metaphor for life. When I dropped out of school: Dancing Madly Backwards Again. When I failed at running a business: Dancing Madly Backwards Again. You see where I'm going here.

On the surface, it doesn't sound like a healthy philosophy for living one's life. It's not a very positive metaphor. But I've grown into it. It reminds me of my successes as much as my failures. It teaches me that, no matter how bad things seem, they could be worse, and there is still hope someday that we may dance forward into a better place. Yeah, it sounds lame, and if I were the type of writer who frets over rewrites constantly, I'm sure I could spiff up the sentiment. But it is what it is.

Steely Dan sings, "They got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose." If there is one thing I've learned in my 47 orbits of the sun, it's this: life is about losing. You lose family, you lose friends, you lose lovers, you lose jobs, you lose money, yer dog, yer truck, yer double wide.....In any contest there is only one winner. The rest of us are losers. The New York City Marathon hosts thousands of runners every year. The one who covers 26 miles the fastest is the winner. The rest of them are losers.

My point is that "loser" carries a stigma it doesn't deserve. I am a loser. But if I had never tried, I couldn't have lost. And that means that at some time in the contest, I believed I could be a winner. So what does it really mean to be a loser? To me it means that I believed, I gave everything I had in the battle. And a stronger person won, and that person deserves my respect, and if she is truly deserving, she will see I deserve her respect as well.

When you think about it like that, being a loser isn't such a bad thing after all, is it? So I'll wear that with pride. And I will continue dancing madly backwards; again, and again, and again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

David Letterman's Top Ten: Sarah Palin

Just had to share this because it's too damn funny to keep to myself.

Of False Prophets and Poo-Flinging Monkeys

Just when I thought the right couldn't possibly get any crazier, they come along and make my lunatic Great-Aunt Myrtis (that's right, she was from the Old South) seem as rational as Michelle Obama (a comparison which would have enraged that batshit-crazy racist bitch). According to Talking Points Memo, Jon Voight was the "celebrity" speaker at Monday's GOP Circle-Jerk, and after this bullshit he was spouting, it's no wonder Angelina Jolie wants nothing to do with him. After praising the Rogues' Gallery of the right, "Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, William Bennett, Glenn Beck, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Dennis Miller, Dick Morris, Ann Coulter, John Kasich, Michael Steele, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Thomas Sowell, Victor Davis Hanson, Shelby Steele, Charles Krauthammer, Michelle Malkin, Fred Barnes and so many others", he went on to call President Obama a "false prophet".

Now, this is wrong on so many levels, I don't know where to start. Let's begin with the "false prophet" tag Voight laid on Obama. My guess is he wanted to go with the "AntiChrist" label that the fundamentalist loons have been spouting, but thought it was too far out there. Are you kidding? Go with it, Jon. At that monkey-shit-tossing extravaganza, that would have made you King Primate. So, maybe he didn't just dial it back, and "false prophet" was really what he meant. So, where is the Book of Barack that is going to go into the Bible, or at least the apocrypha? Maybe I haven't been paying as much attention to the President's speeches as I should have been, but I think I'd have noticed if he went on a "Woe be unto you, O Israel, a curse on you, O Jerusalem" full-on prophet/nutcase rant. Maybe if we play his speeches backwards, we'll get the truly Satanic stuff, kind of like the Beatles albums. And isn't Voight worried that the liberal, Jewish, Zionist elite that runs Hollywood (and the rest of all media except Fox) will see this and blacklist him from working in films again?

Next, let's turn to the Demon's Roll-Call Voight introduced. He just about covered every major wingnut in politics or media today. I'll be honest, I was a fan of Dennis Miller for a long time, even when he was on HBO. When the "rants" started getting edgier and, well, let's face it, crazier, I began to worry. Now he's abandoned all pretense and he's on right wing radio spouting conspiracy theories with the same good humor he used to use on "Weekend Update". ("That's the news the Jewish controlled media doesn't want you to hear folks, and I am outta here!") But what's Michael Steele doing in that group? I thought the guy was a joke to the true believers. Oh wait, he's their token negro. Gotta keep up that charade of inclusion. And Michael Medved? When did he go from just some cranky old "hey kids, get off my lawn" movie critic to mover and shaker in the conservative movement? Come on, if you don't like the movie because it's too "liberal" then don't fucking watch it! There's a word for folks who try to dictate what we can and can't watch: Fascist.

There's a reason that everybody to the right of George Herbert Walker Bush is concerned about the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party: The lunatics are running the asylum! When Hannity, Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Coulter are prominent on a list of the "stars" of the conservative movement, you know they don't have anyone of substance to carry the ball. Only two names on that list stand out for that type of intellectualism, and they both carry more baggage than a bellhop at Caesar's Palace: Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett. Neither are electable, but I'd love to see either of them try. Talk about a lock for Obama's next term. It's so bad, even Joe Scarborough has written a book about how the Republicans can get back on track. Morning Joe? The guy who does the stupid upper-body chair dances to "cool" old school songs when his show goes to commercial? The Republicans need a hero along the lines of...well, Obama, if they want to get back in the race. But for now, I'm just enjoying watching the monkeys fling shit.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ten Years

Wednesday, June 10, 2009, (sometime around 5 a.m.) will be precisely 10 years since my father died. I don't even have to look at a calendar to know it's coming. About a month beforehand, I begin to act like (even more of) a prick to those around me. My anti-depressants stop working, and I get increasingly anxious. My insomnia increases from about 2 sleepless nights per month to 2 per week. Or, conversely, I spend weeks in bed.

Oddly, I can't place the cause of these symptoms until about June 5 or later, when I realize of a sudden, "Oh fuck, that's it." Then the odd behavior of the past few weeks all makes sense. Ten years is a long time to mourn the loss of a father, I know, and i have had friends tell me "get over it", but if I could I would. Until I do, friends, shut the fuck up.

It is very unusual for me to open up about personal business, even to my best friends, and it is absolute insanity for me to put my feelings into words here (though the fact that very few people will read this gives me courage). I've never told the entire story of my father's death, and its effect on my psyche, to anyone besides my immediate family. And to be honest, I'm not sure if they really understand. So, if you're interested, and you have the time to invest, here are the facts.

I don't know exactly what happened in the last couple years of Dad's life. One reason is that he never wanted his children to worry, so he never told me what was going on with his health. The other reason is that my step-mother kept anything important from me, for reasons I can only speculate. Karen is asleep, so I can't ask her about exact dates: I was never good at that stuff.

I know that about the mid-1990s Dad was in the hospital and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with him, so he was transferred to the Ohio State University Medical Center. I don't remember if they figured out what was wrong there but they stabilized him and sent him home.

What I remember next consisted of two separate incidents which happened at about the same time. I still had friends in Troy (actually Karen had friends in Troy, I never had many friends), and reports made their way back to us that my step-mother was having an affair while my father lay sick at home. I am trying to not be judgmental. Otherwise, I'd be using terms like "whoring around" or "neglect". But I won't sink that low. The second incident I know is true because it came from a reliable source. My sister Ellen called me one day, crying, because Dad had called her and asked her to bring him some food. It seems his loving wife had taken the kids to school, then gone to work (whatever that was) without preparing breakfast for Dad. So Ellen and her husband Randy (a workaholic, so taking the time to do this was a testament to his love for Ellen and Dad) went to the grocery, bought some food, then went to Dad's house and made him breakfast.

At about the time I was planning a murder in which I would leave no evidence, I got a call from the step-mother (shock) telling me that Dad was in Miami Valley Hospital. The prognosis was grim. Nobody knew how much time he had. I had an understanding boss, so I left for Troy asap. When I got to the hospital, Dad was on a ventilator. There were other things attached, but I didn't know or ask what they were. He was conscious when I got there, so we talked. Well, I talked. I remember asking if we were there to say goodbye. With tears in his eyes, he nodded yes. Although it wasn't quite the situation I imagined when I had imagined our final goodbyes, it had to do.

I apologized for all the hell I had put him through. I apologized for moving away when he needed me most. He could only shake his head and mouth "No, no" from around the respirator tube. I told him how much I loved him. Karen told him how much she loved him. We told him how much the children loved him. Eventually we ran out things to say.

When it was time to leave, when I could no longer see my father reduced to that, we said our goodbyes. Watching my father mouth "goodbye" and "I love you" past that tube broke my heart. We made promises to return, but the next day I didn't have the heart.

So we returned to Elkhart. The next thing I heard was that Dad had slipped out of consciousness. I wouldn't be able to talk to him again. I made sure the hospital had my home and work numbers, partly because I didn't trust his wife to contact me. The call came from the hospital while I was at work. "Get here as soon as you can. We don't know when." That was Tuesday, June 7. My boss told me to go, take as much time as I needed. I had 3 bereavement days coming.

On Wednesday, Karen and I went to the hospital. I was a bit pissed that my children weren't allowed in. Something about carrying germs that could affect the patients. He was dying, what the hell could they do worse? When I got to his room, there he was, covered by machines and tubes and God knows what. I knew he didn't want to go out that way. We had had several lengthy conversations about it. But my little sister had just been crowned Troy Strawberry Queen, and his "wife" wanted to keep him alive to "watch" his daughter in the Strawberry parade the previous weekend. What a fucking joke. "Look, Dad, there's Kristen. I know you have no brain activity, but there she is."

Somewhere in all that, I lost it. A bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles were there, and I remember going into the hallway and punching walls. "This isn't what he wanted." My cousins tried to understand, but they had no idea. In the many conversations we had about this situation, Dad always made me promise that if he were in such a situation, he wanted me to "step on the air hose". The guilt I felt right then was overwhelming.

Somehow, Karen got me out of there. We were to return at 9 or 10 a.m. the next day so that they could take him off life support and we could all say our goodbyes. I went out and got drunk. Then the strangest thing happened. I woke up in the middle of the night to throw up, as I often did when I got drunk. But I happened to look at the clock. It read 5:17 or something.

That morning, when we went to the hospital to take dad off life support, he had already passed. Time of death: 5:17 a.m.

I remember the viewing. Childhood friends turned out in scores, giving me strength. Colleagues and co-workers of Dad's offered their support. It was more like a reunion than a wake.

The funeral was amazing. I was scheduled to speak last. Before me went Judge Richard Goater, my Dad's first law partner, Robin Coleman, who had known Dad since she was in high school, my little brother Brian, then me. Problem was, they all did my best material. For once in my life I was at a loss for words. But I am my father's son, so I ad-libbed as well as I could. I'd like to say I brought the house down, but that's not appropriate.

The line of cars to the cemetery had to be at least a mile long. It was stunning. At the gravesite, after the prayers and speeches, everyone headed for their cars. Not me. I stayed as long as I could. Finally, I kissed the coffin goodbye, and left.

Through all this, I knew I had to be the strong one. My family was a wreck. I remember switching seats to be next to Brian so I could hold him; he cried into my shoulder for a good ten minutes.

So I didn't let my grief show. For a long time. A few week later, when I learned that my step-mother, who had power-of-attorney for Dad, had transferred all his possessions into her name and the names of her two children, I didn't break down. I got pissed. Very pissed. Then I got a lawyer.

As it turned out, power-of-attorney or not, the timing of her power grab couldn't have been worse. The transfers were dated two days prior to Dad's death, when he was (in legal terms) "in extremis", which means he was in no condition to make that decision on his own. Now a power-of-attorney gives you certain rights, duties, and obligations, but it does not give you the ability to make a fiduciary decision for someone who has no mental capacity to make that decision for himself. A power-of-attorney requires the holder to make the decision in the best interest of the person for whom you hold that power. I don't think her actions passed that test.

So we went to court. Even at the most litigious moment, I admit, I wasn't sure of my motives. So I asked my attorney, a very wise man named Robert Huffman (who eerily reminded me of my own father) if I was doing the right thing. "Dale," he said, "not only do I think you're doing the right thing, I'm sure it's what your father would have wanted. And the fact that you're asking me that question convinces me that you are doing this for the right reasons." Thus reassured, I stood my ground.

As for my step-mother, she got more than she deserved (having conveniently lost the pre-nup she signed), but she lost any respect she had in Miami County and almost lost her law license (only because nobody took her seriously as a lawyer). So if you ever need a lawyer in Troy Ohio, and you come across Susan Strayer Swinehart, remember, you get what you pay for.

You might think the story ends there. You don't know me well, do you?

As I said, I showed strength throughout this whole ordeal. With the aid of Vicodin, I was almost able to dull the pain just enough. But I came to need more and more Vicodin, and my family was falling apart because of my addiction, which required more Vicodin to cope with.

Until one day, about 4 or 5 months after I buried my father, I exploded, curled up on the bathroom floor, bawling like a baby, the detonation sending pieces of existential shrapnel into my wife and children, wounds from which they will never recover. Though my wife nursed me through this breakdown, I never lost my need for narcotics. Eventually, the Vicodin addiction would break my family apart and scar them in ways I never dreamed possible.

I'm not blaming the addiction on my father's death. But the guilt I felt was eased by the high I got from narcotics. That I could consume as much as I did without dying, or at least permanently damaging my system, is miraculous.

All that is for another time, though. I hope that telling the story of my father's passing will help me get stronger in the face of each coming June 9. Because I'm tired of letting it consume a month of my life each year.

In nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen

I've been out of the loop (on purpose)

Took a week off just because I felt like resting and not bothering with the news. Sure, I kept up with the news, watched it for at least 15 minutes a day, which is about the length of the loops the 24 hour newsnets run before cuing it up again. I heard about Obama's concession to the Egyptians and his encoded message that he would supply the U.S. Military when the Arab/Muslim alliance launched their world takeover.

And I read with sadness about the "suicide" of Keith Carradine, whom I've loved ever since The Long Riders. I've never heard of someone binding their testicles right before hanging himself, but the Bangkok police seem to know what they're doing, so who am I to argue?

In a sure sign that the Apocalypse is upon us, Bill O'Reilly actually issued an apology. On air. I kid you not. Seems Bill took CNN to task for not reporting on the June 1 murder by a Muslim extremist of Army Recruiter William Long until Anderson Cooper mentioned it in his show during the 10 to 11 pm time slot.

Rick Sanchez, ever vigilant, put together a montage of all the mentions that story had received from CNN, beginning with the first breaking of the story, up until Cooper's analysis of it on AC360. O'Reilly, ever the gentleman and conscientious journalist, apologized, on the air, on his June 6 Factor. Hey Bill: a true "warrior" would fall on his sword rather than admit defeat. Please do so. Imagine the ratings your last deed could give Fox News. You'd go out a hero.

Is it me, or does David Axelrod (left) look like a young G. Gordon Liddy (right)?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Home Decorating With Sharpie

I thought this was so cool I had to share it with my reader(s) immediately. Here is a story about a lawyer, presumably upper middle class, regular guy with the house and wife and two and a half kids, who one day took a sharpie and started drawing on his basement wall. Pretty soon, presto, he's got his entire basement filled with drawings of a library, a hallway where there is none, famous people from history with fictional stuff, just a bunch of really cool shit that this guy probably did without even thinking or planning what was gonna happen next. I guess if you're gonna just jump up and do something without thinking or planning, it's better if you just take a Sharpie to your basement walls than going and starting a war in Iraq.