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Friday, December 14, 2012

A Time for Everything Under Heaven

So goes Ecclesiastes, and so goes Roger McGuinn.  The slaughter of the day is barely 6 hours old.  Myself, I only woke up to it 4 hours ago.  Another massacre on the television.  It seems like I've seen this program before, but there was something more hideous this time.  The victims were children, five year olds, six year olds, seven, eight, nine and ten year olds.  I can even believe I am typing these words. I am just now facing the reality of it.  Food doesn't feel so well in my stomach and nothing seems appropriate right now but this, writing, thinking, processing.  I can't deal with anymore facts.  They seem to have no meaning right now.  Somewhere in this country parents are dealing with the unthinkable, the unfathomable.  Somewhere in our country there are children who have seen what no one, not a fireman, policeman or soldier should ever have to see.  Our national mourning is just beginning.  The obsession over what has just happened has already begun.  Radios, TVs and computer screen are bleeding facts, shock, pictures, interviews and disbelief.  If only it were not true, if only.

I have no 6 year old of my own to hold, hug and cry over.  I've never felt the absence so keenly.   Since I don't pray, now is not a good time to start, but if I did, I would be.  I'd pray, Lord, what can I do to prevent this, to keep another parent or child from seeing this, feeling this and when can I start?  What, what, what should I do Lord?  What should I do?

There is no TV on in my home right now and there will not be.  I do not feel like being entertained, gazing into the abyss or even talking for that matter.  I had hoped to say something here that would matter, give someone some bit of hope to hang on to, some word they share with their family, something.  I'm not sure what that something could be.  Right now I just want to be with someone, someone who does pray.  Someone not to talk with, but to seek some peace with, someone to our hearts with, someone to cry with, someone who care, a stranger preferably.  Why?  Because these days it seems everyone is a stranger.  We all walk around in our private little worlds, with our private angers, hopes and fears,  It takes a disaster, a 9/11, a Columbine, and now a Newtowne, Connecticut to knock down these walls we surround ourselves with.  So what am I going to do?  I'm going to walk.  I'm going to look into the faces of these strangers, into their eyes and see whatever kind of pain is there and acknowledge it.  I don't need to know what it is, I just want them to know that I care and that maybe they care to.  Maybe they can take that home to their loved ones.

Children will never understand something like this.  Till now, I guess they never had to.  My hope is that parents all over this city will turn off their TVs, their radios, their computer and sit with their little one, pray with them, read to them or just hold them.  There will be time enough in their lives to deal with horror, but this is not that time.  Let them wait five, ten, twenty years to learn about hate and evil. Let them learn now that they are loved and protected and that as long as you are there, nothing will ever harm them.  This may not be true, but they don't need to know that, yet.

The politicians and pundits are already all over this. I can't listen to them.  I can't stand it and I won't stand for it.  This is not that time.  God knows we'll have plenty of time in the days to come.  In the mean time, if you have any prayers left, say one for me.  I'll be going for a walk and thinking about you.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Night to Remember

(Written between 1:00 am and 4:00 am Wednesday morning Nov. 7th)



Can't sleep. Don't want to sleep. I want to remember. It's Tuesday night, November 6th and I just felt the ground move. This election is one you will want to remember, to save. It is pivotal. It is the first one I have really cared about in decades. For a political junkie this is not so good. My vacation from politics started in the 80s when Ronald Reagan of all people became the hero and savior of the Republican Party. Let me back that up four years though to 1976. Jimmy Carter was the first candidate and winner I ever voted for in a Presidential election. I actually got to speak to the man about a year earlier when he was just a nobody ex-governor from Georgia going around to college campuses introducing himself as "Hi, I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for President." That was about the extent of our conversation, but I remembered the friendly way he explained himself to a small crowd of college students and thinking, "I'm gonna vote for this guy." Why not, he got to me first. Well this simple Georgia peanut farmer sailed under the radar to the Presidency with the campaign slogan, "I'll never lie to you," very appealing in the post-Watergate era. While he was there he brokered the first Arab/Israeli peace agreement and officially recognized China.

Let's back up four more years. It's 1972 and a much younger political junkie gets hooked on the campaign of George McGovern. I've been thinking about George lately. If you don't know, he just passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 90. He is another of my father's generation that grew up in the Depression (nobody called it Great), served in war, got married and raised a family. They are about mainstream as you can get. Tom Brokaw called them The Greatest Generation, but they didn't think of themselves in terms like that. They just dealt with the world they were given and didn't complain about the cards they were given. If you asked them today, and you still can, they would tell you they had it pretty good. Families were strong. They had brothers and sisters to keep them company in life. Mothers were strong-willed and everpresent and Fathers performed as benevolent dictators and divorce was almost non-existent. I could go on, but you get the picture. Think Norman Rockwell and you won't be far off.

Where was I? Oh yeah, politics. My family were New Deal Democrats. Franklin Roosevelt was the only president my parents ever knew growing up. From 1932 to 1945 and four presidential elections Roosevelt helped redefine America. People who grew up in that era, well people who weren't Republican, never questioned their party affiliation. Of course you would be a Democrat. In a parallel to our current President, Barack Obama, Roosevelt saw us through the worst economic crisis in our nation's history. He saw us through a war that threatened the survival of the Western world. Why would you be anything else? Of course there were those other guys, God help me if I knew who they were, but there were a bunch of them just chafing at the bit (think Mitt Romney) at the chance to dethrone President Truman and restore the republic. The salvation of the Nation was at stake and Truman was considered a light-weight nobody who accidentally got to be President. They had just the candidate to do it, another governor, Thomas Dewey of New York. Dewey was an old-line Republican insider and was considered a shoo-in. Truman, one of the feistiest campaigners ever (Give him hell, Harry), began a cross-country whistle stop trip campaign that caught the public's imagination. Crowds grew daily and so did his momentum. Truman ended up pulling out the Presidential upset of the (last) century.

But I digress. My political memory is littered with milestones and tombstones. My earliest memory is the death of President John Kennedy. I just vaguely remember him, but I do remember how he was idolized and the speeches that are still talked about today. The death of his brother Robert 4 1/2 years later cemented the Kennedy name as a symbol of sacrifice and courage. They represented the new postwar generation of Democrats, a strange mix of nationalism, optimism and progressivism. My mother, like mothers everywhere looked to Jackie Kennedy as an American ideal. Hair styles were changed and babies were named. George McGovern was that same kind of Democrat, baptized in war and committed to social justice. As a 16 year old kid, he captured my imagination. The fact that he was tilting at windmills only added to the attraction. My life from August through November was consumed with posters, politics, telephones and donuts, the fuel on which volunteer campaign workers lived on. Almost no one, including myself, believed McGovern had a snowball's chance in hell of winning, but it didn't seem to matter. We were involved with something bigger than ourselves for the first time in our lives. If we didn't have close friends before, we had them then. We had stuff to do, older people who were looking out for us and absolutely no time on our hands. It was great. Well, you know the end of that story. Richard Nixon went on to win one of the greatest landslides in American history and we moved onto other things, college, first girlfriends, and the political haze of the 70s and 80s. It was an interesting run, but as the politics of bitterness descended (Democrats hated Reagan and Republicans never forgave the Watergate trials) I just quit caring. I just couldn't get angry or hateful enough to get involved and I went through a long string of picking losers. Let's see, Carter in '80, Walter Mondale in '84, Dukakis in '88, George H. Bush, yes Bush in '92. I voted for Clinton in '96 then Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and much to my chagrin John McCain in 2008. In my defense, I was tired of amateurs and I knew that Obama was going to win anyway. So I wasn't part of history then, but history has overtaken us all since. A first black President (one of the tiredest phases in the American lexicon) took office amidst some of the greatest hopes and fears of a generation. There was blood in the water at the time. In my lifetime I'd never seen the kind of fear we felt then, the fear of economic chaos and collapse. Like Europe now, no one knew if or how disaster could be avoided. I knew it wouldn't take a Black President to save us, but a courageous one and in one of the miracles of history, that is what we got. Barack Obama became the right man in the right place. He put his entire political career on the line by signing and implementing the TARP, the auto bailout and bringing in a bipartisan economic team to steer us away from the fiscal cliff, steps that were started by the previous President. He did this in the face of a united Republican Party that opposed at every move. They were horrified that a young, black, savvy politician from Illinois could sweep them from power. With virtually no support from the opposition, he took the steps needed restore faith in the American economy. The numbers WERE staggering, an 800 billion dollar stimulus plan, the auto bailout, millions of people losing their homes, their jobs. Then he took the last bit of his capital and spent it on a landmark healthcare bill which the Republicans had vowed to repeal. He and his party paid the price the following year when the Tea Party swept the elections and laid siege on the Obama Presidency. In a cynical and unpatriotic move the Republicans decide to take the economy down and Obama along with it. All the while he kept his spirit and laid the question at the feet of the American voters, "Shall we reward those whose only motivation is revenge, whose only goal is power?" When the dust settled and the smoke cleared we saw an historic rejection of bitter partisanship. The American people said, "Look, if you are going to serve you have to govern and that means compromise. If you don't, we will punish you." And they did. In the face of the worst economic climate in generations, the President has triumphed with victories in both the popular and Electoral College vote. It was a Gettysburg moment. The Republican nearly took the summit but were swept back. Will they go kindly into that good night? No, but they have been chastised, demoralized and confused. Watch as they start to eat their own and new moderate voices emerge. The President on the other hand is on a roll. Business will come to terms with he new political reality and start investing and hiring. I think there is more hope for the future now than there has been in years. In a dangerous world we have a President who hates war and will work to prevent one. The Republicans can only step back and let him govern. The American People have spoken. So as far as I am concerned Obama did deliver on his promise of hope and change.

I've been up about 18 hours now. Much as I hate missing sleep, I didn't want to miss this either. This will be a night I remember, Obama won, Tim Kaine won, a close personal friend, Charles Samuels defended his City Council seat and City Council's loudest mouth, Marty Jewell got voted out of office. It feels like the country is moving in sync. It feels like the country is moving in sync. My job is going to change, the city will, maybe even the country.

When I heard that the national election had been called, I said "screw sleep, screw work, I'm gonna be part of it, and I hit the streets of Richmond, started violating the City's new noise ordinance. The streets were full of dancing, chanting VCU students and by virtue of my Chinese-made OBAMA hat I led them in cheers and posed for pictures. I told one group of bewildered students to be happy, "your future just got brighter." There nothing like optimism to make a body politic feel better. If Obama can tap into some of that optimism he has created, the hope and change he hoped for, may just become a reality. You don't want to get in front of an America full of spit and vinegar. You just get on board or get out of the way.





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Sunday, October 07, 2012

How We Remember

(Written, as often happens, on a night my brain was stuck in 2nd (1st?) gear.)

I can't remember what happened yesterday.  Sometimes I can't remember what happened this morning, what I just said, what your name is.  It's like a fog that rolls in and out.  It's like,  what is it like.  It's just like it is.  I know I know these things, I don't know why I can't name them.

Memory is such a fickle thing.  I know a fellow.  His name is Mark.  I can't remember his last name.  It's on the tip of my tongue.  I'll never come up with it.  Then again it just might come to me in the course of things.  Details are important, but some are more important than others.  Mark was not a friend.  He only passed in and out of my life briefly.  He was Warren's temporary friend.  They were both vets of a sort.  Warren as a teenage soldier in Vietnam, Mark in some motor pool in Germany.  This mattered more to Warren than myself who served nowhere, but their lives came together at the VA hospital when they were both detoxing from alcohol abuse.  I met Mark months later.  He was an odd fellow.  Small, gray bearded and looking much older than he should.  He hung his head on his chest and looked at you over his glasses.  He had a wasted old soldier look to him. He was odd, but I couldn't and didn't want to make judgements about him either way.  That said, I thought he was a nut.  That was about as far as I wanted to know him.  There are a lot of nuts out there and I'm content to let them be, veteran or not.  I've not found it useful to collect them as friends.

In a colossally bad decision Teal decided to move in to Mark's house on the Southside.  The house was nice enough and the neighborhood was alright, but the interior was a disaster.  It was one step away from an episode on hoarders.  Mark was a lifelong drug addict and lunatic.  His injuries were self inflicted and his dealer was the McGuire VA pharmacy   Around his home were dozens of unopened medication boxes auto-shipped by the VA. Besides prescription pain killers, Mark was addicted to Diet Coke, consuming two to four liters a day in 16 oz. Styrofoam cups, boxes of which were stacked in his garage.  If you know a hoarder, you know that they would miss a single one of these disposed of without their approval.  There's a lot more that could be said about Mark, but let me cut to my point.  Mark watched TV, all the time, the same channel everyday, in every room.  Of all the 300 channels that came with his cable package, there were only two I ever saw him watch.  Initially it was the Military Channel, broadcasting Nazi exploits round the clock.  Then it was Turner Classic Movies, black and white films from the 30's, 40's and 50's and here's where Mark really comes into this story.  Mark could tell you the year, the director, the lead actors of every movie on that channel.  On any other subject Mark had nothing worthwhile to say, but if you wanted to know who won the Academy Award in 1935, he could tell you.  Mark was junkie, his life was in shambles, his neighbors were afraid of him, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies.

This drove me nuts.  I know a lot of stuff, I remember a lot of stuff.  I just can't recall it on command.  Like dyslexics and what's the word for people who can't read,  ineligible?, illegible? I know it and it will come to me later, but you know the word and I know the word, but Jesus if I can think of it.  It's all I can do not to resort to Google to find it.  I work around this constantly saying almost what I mean, but never exactly.  For a writer or at least someone who writes, this is maddening.  I feel like that country music guy, Mel Tillis (amazing, it came to me), that stutters.  He would get stuck, get stuck and get stuck, then stumble his way around it,  Since he couldn't beat it, he made a virtue out of necessity and made it part of his act.  He smiled through it  and made people laugh, but I know the pain of not being able to express your exact feelings when it is most important.  Give Mel a song though and his voice was golden and his delivery was smooth as silk.

This is not something I especially like to talk about.  It is certainly nothing to brag about.  Everybody's got problems and mine don't rate very high , but it is a big deal to me.  Something that has gotten much worse of late.  When I feel passionate though, the words flow like water.  Phrases jump to mind.  Whole stories unfold in front of me.  When I feel the love I don't want to stop.  I don't know when ofr if it will strike again.  It is why I often say things I regret.  Sometimes I think you need to just go with what's in your heart and let things sort themselves out.  Other times I spill my guts, publish them, think twice about it and immediately delete them.

Adios, Aloha, Arrivaderci, Buenos Noches,Ciao, Dos Vidanya, Guten Abend, Sayonara, Scram, So Long, Farewell , Auf Wiedersein, Good Night, TTFN.

BTW In 1980 the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Ordinary People and Best Director went to Robert Redford (I even remember his acceptance speech.  The movie starred Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton  and Elizabeth McGovern.  The movie opened up with Pacabel's Canon in D, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. For what it's worth, I recalled all this from memory.

The word I was looking for was "illiterate".


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Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Huckleberry Friend - The Beginning

"We had a great adventure! Didn't even have to try!" - Huck Finn

I lost my closest and most complicated friend this year.  Complicated because well, like most people he was full of contractions, only his contradictions, aggravated by alcohol, were more extreme than others.  When I met him he was near his the most of his most down and out, really unrecognizable from the person he thought he was or wanted to be.  He moved into my building on the skids, recently released from jail and recently divorced.  To me he was just another guy, one of the displaced (misplaced) adults that end up in downtown apartments.  I count myself among them.  We stand out by the fact that most of our co-residents are college students, albeit graduate students- only a few undergrads, in their 20's, so we form a little club of adults that chatted in the halls.  Warren (Teal to others) was friendly enough, maybe a little too friendly.  He'd say inoffensive, but real chummy things, most of which just slid off my back.  I didn't know him too well so it didn't much matter.  The other half of it was that he was frequently drunk.  It's not so much as I would notice, it wasn't my business, but it made him a little friendlier than you would expect and given to a bit of storytelling and friendly advice.  I'm a bit standoffish, so I mostly held him at arms length, giving him a polite few minutes, but not much more.  We liked him alright, both myself and my wife, in part because of Buster, the original Buster (more on this later), his dog.  Buster was a shy, nervous Lhasa Apso, but we were dog people ourselves and liked to fuss over them.  So we became acquaintances.  I didn't much see that we would be any more than that, but it was a start.  Friends are not too easy to come by downtown (or anywhere else for that matter) so in a calculating sort of way, we (I) put him on our candidate list of at least temporary friends.  It was interesting how the friendship grew and changed over time.  It said, I think, as much about myself as it said about him.  It was not a likely friendship and I never expected it to become what it became, but it is a long story and this is a fare beginning.  There were a lot of breakdowns on the long road to getting to know each other.  These breakdowns, as much as anything else became the building blocks of a not always healthy relationship.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  I'm not sure most people who knew him did.  That is the story I mean to tell.  He was not an ordinary person and things did not turn out well for him, but along the way we had some very interesting and rewarding times.  They didn't come without cost, but then that's how life is.  You have to pay the price of admission to see the show.  I'm glad I have this forum to tell them in.  It really needs be told in chapters.  In time I hope to fill in the pages of the chapters I only now know the margins of.  He would have liked that.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

You're Fired!


An unusual thing happened yesterday. I spent my usual half-day at Louisiana Flair shopping for supplies at Sam’s Club, picking up oysters at P.T. Hastings, and making a few deliveries in the blazing heat. Just another day at my favorite part time job, my only paying job. Since I left my so-called career position at Media General, I’d made a decision to exit the corporate world, a decision I’ve reconsidered numerous time. I never got serious about getting back in and I discovered something. If you’re not serious, someone else will be, especially in today’s economy. There are ten serious, more qualified people than myself standing in line for each of those mid level, technically orientated position, and the right thing ended up happening. Someone else got the job. Good for me, I stick with my original pledge and good for them, someone deserving got the job.

So some two years on, I’m still cruising in my part time world.
I’ve latched on to a job at my favorite neighborhood joint, and I’m part of a working class team that serves good food to regular folks. I’m going under financially, but somehow–and by that I mean I have no idea how–I’m getting by. My rent gets paid, and I get to spend the rest of my time delivering the news from Greater Jackson Ward. I know this can’t last forever, but I’m reluctant to cut it short. Then BOOM!
This headline.

Chef Nate is closing Louisiana Flair

And where am I reading this? On my own website, the Greater Jackson Ward News. One of my co-editors has popped this breaking news story online while I was out wandering blissfully in the analog world. There’s something surreal about picking up a newspaper (website) and finding out your job has vanished, especially when it's your newspaper. I’m sort of shocked, not by the news, but the manner of its delivery. I’m still absorbing that and appreciating the humor of it. The news itself comes as no shock. I know enough about the business to know that it is a here today gone tomorrow way of life. You give it the best run you can for the money and when the money runs out, that’s it.

And that’s what happened.

4th and Grace will never be the same to me. I discovered Louisiana Flair shortly after it opened. After all, I worked virtually across the street and live just a few blocks away. When I found that their beignet serving days were almost over, I made it my business to tell the world. What resulted was a long series of publicity stunts, including a powdered sugar fight on the steps of the restaurant. The result? Beignets were saved and a longtime friendship was started.

Nate started business on the threshold of an economic downturn. As the economy started to turn sour, his mainstay neighbors, Media General and the Times Dispatch walked off an economic cliff sucking the wind and cash out of a major source of business. Even still, optimism and hard work won out over economic reality, at least for awhile. Louisiana Flair survived on guts, good food, and the engaging personality of Nate. Hardly a person walked in there that doesn’t remember a personal greeting from the chef. Eating there was less a restaurant experience than a cultural experience. For those of us who were hooked, we just couldn’t get enough. I am proud to have been associated with the restaurant almost since the beginning and played a small part in keeping interest alive when things were looking slim.

So now I’ve been fired twice (sort of) in two years. The first one came as a haymaker that left me wondering what hit me. This one just glanced off my cheek, not leaving a mark. Together they bookend an interesting time in my life, and each one marks the end of one era and has somehow prepared me for what comes next. It will be interesting to see what that is.

Nate is planning to run the show through the first of August, so it’s not to late to stuff yourself with an Oyster Po’ Boy, an order of beignets, a catfish dinner, or whatever turns your fancy. Stay tuned for a possible farewell party. I don’t know what comes next for Nate. Louisiana Flair was kind of a reward and a redemption from a difficult past. I can only wish him well and look forward to what’s next, for both of us.

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