Insanity

One afternoon in 1978, I walked into the radio newsroom where I had my first reporting job and found myself in the middle of a huge, fast-breaking story: a multiple shooting. The killings in El Paso and Dayton have brought back memories of those times, when these awful events were still rare—and of my own brush with the shooter.

This is what we reported that day: Billy Hardesty, who was 21, unemployed, and had done time for assault and battery, shot his parents dead at their home. After putting his father’s body in a freezer, he killed two men in the parking lot of a bar, gunned down his ex-wife’s brother and wounded two others at their workplace, and held police in a standoff back at his parents’ house before being shot and captured. The state trooper whose bullet hit him was a guy I’d met at church camp during high school.

I was in the courtroom when Hardesty was arraigned. Still recovering from his injuries, he was brought before the judge in a wheelchair, a thickset kid with long, dark hair and a dazed look on his face. From that point on, the key issue in the case was whether he was mentally ill and legally insane, i.e., not responsible for his crimes.

Several months later, I covered a competency hearing in which he rambled about evil movies at the local mall, and asked to be released in the custody of Billy Graham. Not surprisingly, the judge declared he was having trouble dealing with reality and ordered him back to the psychiatric hospital where he was being held.

Afterward I was chatting with another reporter in the hall when we heard a loud noise, the courtroom door popped open, and we saw two detectives wrestling Hardesty to the floor. He’d made a break for freedom but they caught him just in time, with one of the cops hurdling benches to beat him to the door. Another second and he’d have been out, and I’d have been right in his way. I ran to the nearest phone to file the story. I had a few beers too.

Eventually Hardesty was convicted of the five murders, plus two others he’d committed earlier in California, and sentenced to life in prison. His obvious mental problems didn’t stop a judge from ruling him competent to stand trial or a jury from deciding he was legally sane.

It’s likely that no one even imagined a red-flag law that might’ve kept the gun out of his hands. But Billy Hardesty did his killing with a 1970s-vintage .22 rifle. What would have happened if he’d had a military-style assault rifle and a few hundred bullets, like the butchers of today?

My Woodstock memories

They finally pulled the plug on Woodstock 50 and I for one am not sorry. Anniversaries aren’t created equal and re-creating this one made no sense to me, despite being part of the generation it supposedly defined. I’ve never liked being branded by others—especially now, when I’m one of those selfish old coots who are systematically destroying the millennials’ future even though we can’t figure out our smartphones. But I digress.

In August 1969 I was fourteen, living with my mother in Michigan, a few weeks away from my first year of high school. Naturally, I was worried about meeting a raft of new kids, keeping up in class, and not being a complete bozo around girls. As if this didn’t stir up enough anxiety, my father had died during the winter, and I was still struggling. A music festival in some far-away place was the farthest thing from my mind.

At that point, I’d never even gone to a concert. And because Kalamazoo didn’t have an FM rock radio station, I was clueless about many of the performers. I’d heard some on Top 40, like Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane, but that didn’t make me a member of the Woodstock nation. Those three days of peace and music were part of another world. Today that spirit seems like a firefly, glowing for an instant before flickering out, never to reboot.

The Woodstock 50 crew cites lost venues, a dispute with a partner, and various other reasons for cancelling the show, yet claim, “A lot of people clearly wanted it to happen.” They did not. Woodstock came together and made history in spite of financial disaster, hostile local citizens, food shortages, and nasty weather because 400,000 people believed in it. After half a century, nobody cared about getting “back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell wrote in her haunting song about the original event. Woodstock 50 turned into such a mess that Country Joe McDonald could’ve updated his famous anti-war lyric to, “And it’s one, two, three, what are we paying for?”

That year at school wasn’t fun but I survived and gradually got back on an even keel. The Woodstock film and soundtrack album came out in 1970, and like everybody else I dug Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, and especially Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.” I still cue them up sometimes, but by the time I graduated I’d started listening to jazz too. In a few weeks I’m heading to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 40th year and will surely have a 41st. Peace.

Original Woodstock poster, "3 Days of Peace and Music."

Uncle Grumpy’s gone fishin’

Welcome to my retirement! Not the one from my actual job a few years ago but the brand new one from my other life as a professional language police person and grammar nag, writing under the moniker Uncle Grumpy.

You might ask why I’m retiring. (You might also not care.) Well, it wasn’t an easy decision. I like showing off my knowledge, skewering other people’s bad writing, and—at least once in a blue moon—being funny. However, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the odds of making any real impact* on the problem are somewhere below absolute zero. I’d have a better chance of being voted, “The Hottest of All the Hot Dudes in the South Even Though He’s Sixty-Plus and Is Minus Most of His Hair.”

What brought me to this sorry state? ‘Twas this bit of prose from a New York Times article: “In one dramatic marker of the divide, the Republican minority in the Oregon Senate on Thursday fleed the Capitol to prevent a vote on the carbon-pricing bill, which they say would harm the state’s economy.”

That’s right, FLEED. Of all the linguistic apocalypti** I’ve seen, which is plenty, this is among the worst. What next, “bleeded?” Most fourth-graders would know better. Even spellcheck, which I usually warn people not to lean on, would’ve caught it. I’m reminded of Groucho Marx in Monkey Business: “Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills? I mean… flee to my lodge in the hills.”

In any case, I am done grumping. I will no longer rend my teeth or gnash my garments over every goof I find. I shall live a life of serenity, unbothered by dangling modifiers, promiscuous possessives, buzzwords, typos like “pubic” for “public,” and all the rest. I’ll mentally step over these little issues like parking-lot puddles, and if they threaten to aggravate me I’ll simply take a stiff drink (unless I hear them on the radio while driving).


*This is literally the last time I’m going to say it: “Impact” is not a verb. I know I’m not supposed to say “literally” but since I’m retiring, this IS literally the last time I’m going to say it, so I’m literally giving myself a mulligan.
**This might or might not be the proper plural of “apocalypse.” Who cares? I’m retired, remember?

Nonsense of direction

This “new old age” business is definitely getting old. Not only am I losing vital inches from the frame I’ve been feeding and cultivating all these years, but a precious part of my brain is wilting like last week’s boutonniere.

Why? Because I use a GPS! Those pesky scientists have found that those who lean on this crutch show a decline in the hippocampus (which has nothing to do with African wildlife) and the ability to navigate. Of course, this assumes they have that ability to begin with. Your narrator is not among these fortunate souls.

My powers of direction are such that given half a chance, I’m liable to act like this guy, or this one. In contrast to the famous Wrong Way Corrigan, when I set out for Los Angeles and wind up in Ireland it’s not on purpose. “East is East and West is West” is no guarantee! Like Bob Dylan, I’ve been stuck inside of Mobile, even after they built I-10, and unlike Chet Baker I don’t need to sing “Let’s Get Lost,” because I’m usually there already.

You might wonder how I ever managed to function as a cab driver, which I did for about three years in my college town in Michigan in the 70s. I had moments of misdirection, and a few peeved passengers, but after being out there for eight or nine or ten hours every night—and having to drive efficiently to make money— I learned my way around.

That’s what the GPS generation doesn’t get. Despite having DNA that’s programmed to make me run around in circles, I still remember my routes. Even today, I’ll bet I could make it from the Old West Side of Ann Arbor to the Watergate in quick time.

And no, I don’t mean driving from A2 to DC. “Watergate” was what the drivers and dispatchers called the intersection of Nixon Road and Bluett Drive. Nixon-Bluett. Get it?

Toys in the…well, not the attic

I don’t know why I write about sex toys so often. It’s definitely not based on personal history: in my long career as a human of the male variety, I have never needed any artificial prodding, encouragement, incentive, or hydraulics. Note: Vodka and “Taxicab Confessions” reruns don’t count. (Besides, I used to be a cabbie and the only thing my passengers ever confessed was that they couldn’t pay the fare. But I digress.)

I thought my pioneering post on hot bots would be the last word for a while. Now, however, there’s a monumental tzimmes* because a toy for women and gender-nonconforming people was denied a promised award at CES, the big tech industry trade show. The show claimed it’s allowed to disqualify immoral, obscene, or indecent products. Which sounds juuusst a bit like a double standard when said show has “booth babes” all over the place.

Since the award has been restored, we can focus on the device itself, which is called the Osé. If I was looking for cheap laughs I’d insert—I mean write—something like “Osé Can You See My Heaving, Lust-Filled Loins” but this is a serious discussion so I won’t. The company promises blended orgasms, which it describes as “the holy grail” of orgasms. It claims Osé doesn’t vibrate but mimics all of the sensations of a human mouth, tongue, and fingers…because there are better uses for your hands.” Like what? Instagram?

It looks like science is moving faster on bedroom bliss than trivial things like saving us from climate change or escaping into outer space. Come to think of it, have any of our astronauts ever done the deed in zero-G and joined the 100-mile-high club? “International Space Station Confessions” is coming soon to a screen near you!


*Yiddish for fuss, uproar, hullaballoo etc. I usually use “kerfuffle,” which is British in origin, but I’m an equal opportunity word nerd.

Farewell to a friend

The dragonflies were coming out at the beach last week, a new cycle of life beginning with the season. For my wife and me, a stage of life was ending, as we cleared out and sold the beach house we’d owned and cherished for the last sixteen years.

Beach house

Growing up in the Midwest and not being the imaginative type (think Lake Wobegon), I never dreamed I might someday have a home by the water. I spent lots of summer days swimming in lakes, but never went to Florida for spring break. I had no clue that the world’s most gorgeous beaches lay on the Gulf of Mexico in the area once called the Redneck Riviera, now the Emerald Coast.

Then my girlfriend and I visited friends there and were entranced by the white sand, the balmy turquoise-blue water, and the cool, laid-back vibe. We bought a condo, got married on the beach, and a few years later traded up to a house, where we spent the best times of our lives. Swimming in the Gulf as little fish nibbled our toes. Riding our bikes to get ice cream at ten a.m. if we felt like it. Floating in our pool with Pat Metheny on the outdoor speakers. Kayaking in the rare dune lakes all around us. Eating sweet Gulf shrimp on the beach at sunset. Joining our neighbors for a Fourth of July pig roast, complete with a New Orleans funeral procession for the pig, then watching fireworks all along the coast. Catching beads at Mardi Gras in Panama City.

The Mardi Gras parade in St. Andrews, a few years before the hurricane

Of all those moments, the very best were the clear nights when we lay in our deck chairs for hours on end, marveling at the Milky Way and the planets, talking, and just being together. My wife’s creative spirit and loving heart touched every corner, from the wreath on the door, to the screened porch she had put in, to the nature photos she took and hung on the walls. We could go down anytime and find everything as we’d left it, waiting for us like an old friend.

But eventually, managing the place became a struggle. Meanwhile, our historic beach town was ruined by a plague of mini-Trump Towers, hideous new houses that blocked our Gulf view and were full of obnoxious tourists. These are the kind who bring their guns on vacation, then forget and leave them for the next group of renters (or their kids) to find. They overran our formerly uncrowded beaches, tore around the streets on golf carts, and shot off tons of fireworks even when it was nowhere near the Fourth.

We fought back. When some jerks got raucous in the house behind ours, we fired up the stereo and introduced them to John Coltrane at top volume. But it just wasn’t paradise anymore. And when Hurricane Michael slammed Panama City and came within twenty miles of us, it was time to sell and move on.

I know it’s the right decision. I still feel like I’ve torn out part of my heart. Little things remind me of the place all  the time: no more beach house keys on my ring, several beach-related bookmarks to delete from my browser, the storm forecasts I don’t need to follow anymore.

But we gave our home a proper farewell. We donated lots of household goods to people who’d lost everything in Michael (and didn’t need the National Hurricane Center to tell them it was a Category 5). On the last evening, we walked down to the beach with boxes of shells we’d collected over the years and cast them back into the sea.

Our last sunset

Like Hemingway’s Paris, the beach is a moveable feast, a state of mind. We can see the same stars and planets from our porch in Atlanta. It’s spring and this Sunday is Easter. The dragonflies will be back soon.

Dave closing door.
Goodbye

This post might be a failure

Stop the presses! No: stop the world, right now. Physics be damned. Not kidding. If we turn all our missiles and SpaceX vehicles upside down and fire the engines at once, it might work like a supersize retro-rocket and stop this poor planet before the humans get any more cuckoo.

How bad is it? Well, the college admission scandal, in which one-percent parents bribe elite schools to get their kids in, is just the illegal tip of a societal iceberg. It goes beyond helicopter parenting into “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parenting: clearing obstacles, melting black ice, and removing anything that stands between Junior and success. In other words, we’re trying to stop our young from growing up. I’m no scientist but this strikes me as the fast train to extinction, if climate change doesn’t get us first.

We’re already seeing the problems facing young “adults” who don’t know how to live on their own or deal with adversity and (shudder! gasp!) failure. In a lengthy piece on this craziness, the New York Times reports, “There are now classes to teach children to practice failing, at college campuses around the country and even for preschoolers.” Let me repeat that: There are now classes to teach children to practice failing.

I sure didn’t need to practice failing when I was growing up. Without even trying, I failed at being cool, impressing girls, getting parts in school plays, learning guitar, making the grade in my original college major, and especially sports. In baseball I usually wound up in right field, where they put the worst player because most batters hit to left or center. But thanks to a teacher, I learned to deal with mistakes and defeat.

Mr. Turner was an assistant gym teacher when I was in junior high, the 60s version of middle school. I didn’t know much about him, except that he was one of the few African-Americans on the staff and might have been ex-military because he sometimes sounded like a drill sergeant.

But one day we were playing softball and I struck out. Mr. Turner noticed me walking around with a frustrated, disgusted look on my face and asked why. When I told him what’d happened, he said, “Willie Mays strikes out sometimes, but you know what he says? ‘Next time I’ll do better.’”

That was the most valuable lesson I ever learned. In the next inning, a long fly ball came my way and I caught it. I did better. I’ve dropped a few since, but I’ve never forgotten what Mr. Turner said.

Being the age I am, I’m tempted to quote Bob Dylan: “There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.” However, another song fits better: “Pick Yourself Up,” written during the Depression and quoted by Barack Obama in his first inaugural address: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Our children can’t finish the job if we don’t let them remake their own lives.

I hope this post is a success. Your opinions are welcome as long as you don’t tell me to hire a snowplow. “Go stick your head in a snowdrift” is perfectly okay.