Some Time in the World

I will be completely off electronic/digital/social media for the next few weeks.

“Doing what?,” you might ask. Well, a number of things: writing, participating in a few events, talking with some interesting people, spending some precious time with my family and old friends.

When I return, I’ll have some stories to share.

In the meanwhile, please explore my writing and, if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think.

Enjoy your summer.

No More Like Her

Despite the hits, the 60-plus year career touring as the “Queen of Country Music,” the omnnipresence on stage and TV, what I most vividly remember about Kitty Wells is my mind’s image of her sitting at her kitchen counter sipping a cup of coffee, smiling that beautiful smile, engaging a perfect stranger, a stranger she’d warmly invited to her home, in happy conversation about her life in country music.

I was not a fan of country music when I first moved to the South in the 1980s. Of course, at that point I’d only heard the overproduced junk that was most popular during that period. I knew little, if anything, about the hard-edged, truth-telling, straightforward country music of earlier eras. Lucky for me, every Saturday night, my local PBS station played old films from the Grand Ole Opry.

I watched, reluctantly at first, eventually as a die-hard, never-miss fan. My biggest “discovery,” without question, was Kitty Wells. Her music blew me away. It was everything contemporary country music wasn’t. It was raw, honest, stripped-down, real. And Wells’ on-screen presence was phenomenal. Her eyes burned through the TV right into my brain. If you don’t already know her music, I encourage you to find it and listen for yourself.

Sorry to sound cliche, but they just don’t make music like that anymore.

Wells blazed the trail that was followed by other country music giants, like Pasty Cline and Loretta Lynn.

When, years later, I had the chance to interview Wells and her husband, Johnnie Wright, half of the country duo Johnnie and Jack, I jumped at it. The couple invited me to their home, insisted we’d all be more comfortable there than at some office or hotel. And so we were. I was greeted as an honored guest and treated like an old friend. They were gracious and generous to a fault, not only engaging and bottomless sources of history and information but singular hosts and warm human beings who, incidentally, showed great affection for each other.

As I think back on the music of Kitty Wells, I’ll remember listening to “I Don’t Claim to Be An Angel,” for the first time, questioning everything I’d assumed about country singers. You can watch Kitty sing it here. Even without the music, the lyrics jump off the page with searingly painful regret, are current and fresh still:

I don’t claim to be an angel my life’s been full of sin
But when I met you darling that all came to an end
Never doubt my love dear whatever you may do
I don’t claim to be an angel but my love for you is true.

You’ll hear talk around town of things I used to do
Some will try to poison your mind that my love can’t be true
Many nights I lay awake dear hoping our love will last
Wondering if your love is strong enough to forget about my past.
I don’t claim to be an angel…

I never knew what real love was till you came along
You changed my outlook on life made me regret my wrongs
Why should my past keep haunting me all through the years
I paid for each mistake with millions of bitter tears.
I don’t claim to be an angel…

I sincerely mourn the passing of Miss Kitty Wells. May she rest in eternal peace.

Onward State (GO!)

[Note: I’ve written about the Penn State sexual abuse case several times previously, first here, about Joe Paterno and later here, about the deeper institutional problems associated with sexual abuse.]

The report from the inquiry into the Penn State sexual abuse case has just been released. The New York Times’ coverage is here.

In my professional life as a communications consultant, I’ve dealt with numerous cases of sexual abuse; I have hard-earned insights about this heinous crime.

Here’s one: while individuals are and must be held responsible for their own actions, institutions, through selective attention (i.e., looking the other way), misplaced priorities (i.e., considering athletic success of paramount importance) and enabling (i.e., providing opportunity), create the conditions necessary for abuse to occur. Unless and until institutions are willing and able to address these conditions, abuse can continue.

This was certainly the case at Penn State (That’s what the inquiry’s report found.) and I’ve found it to be the case elsewhere.

So, Jerry Sandusky is in jail. Penn State and its football program will forever be linked with sexual abuse. Good but not enough, not nearly enough.

People like Sandusky can’t hurt kids without lots of help.

Tortured Or Obedient?

My father, a veteran of the Second World War, spoke very infrequently about his experiences in the war. The engine room of a ship in combat was simply a place I don’t believe he much wanted to revisit. Memories of one of his stories, however, still gives me chills.

His ship was assigned to pick up surviving Marines after the horrific battle for the South Pacific island of Peleliu. My dad described the Marines as, in his own words, living ghosts: withdrawn and disconnected, starving and thirsty, filthy, wandering aimlessly about the ship, unable to speak, shaking, staring blankly into the air.

It didn’t help that Peleliu was a complete disaster: a ‘victory’ that came with a very high cost in lives and, as it happens, no real military value.

I’m reminded of my dad’s story whenever I think about our nation’s recent military actions in Afghanistan, a mission that is literally bleeding away our nation’s resources, cannot hope to succeed (whatever that would even mean in this context) and is of dubious military value in any event.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Afghanistan has been repelling and outlasting invaders for millennia. Most recently before our arrival, Afghans bled the army of the Soviet Union to near-death during its 10-year occupation. Today, Afghans are already preparing for the day American forces depart by arming themselves and their militias to the teeth and setting up militia-led and, in some cases, Taliban-led de facto local and regional governments. In many cases, according to recent reports, these governments are more accepted and more efficient at providing services than the elected Afghan national government.

Over the long term then, what, exactly, have we accomplished through our sacrifice of blood?

Understand, I’m not in any way criticizing the men and women of America’s armed forces. The problem lies considerably higher in the chain of command. Our soldiers, sailors and Marines were put into an untenable and dangerous situation because our leaders lacked firm goals and adequate knowledge and understandings of the context. Further, they continue to be sacrificed because our leaders are more concerned with their own egos than the lives of our service men and women.

Those in our armed forces pay the price, sometimes the ultimate price, for the stupidity, fecklessness and ego of their masters.

As he contemplated the cost of war, author and scientist Jacob Bronowski mused:

‘There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.’

Just like their predecessors on Peleliu, the men and women in our armed forces are being turned into ghosts, whether obedient or tortured, for nothing of real value.

Our leaders should be ashamed.

Money Matters

I’ll say it flat-out: Randy Newman is a treasure. His music weaves the ancient motifs of American popular and folk with brilliantly sarcastic (some would say caustic) lyrics to convey, I think, the essentially dual nature of our national character.

Polite but mean. Happy but depressed. Erudite but dumb as dirt. Self-satisfied but never sated.

As I hear the overheated (but, I believe, completely beside the point) campaign rhetoric about which candidate has raised more than which other candidate for president, my mind keeps coming back to one of Newman’s masterpieces, ‘It’s Money That Matters.’ You can watch the video here. Some lyrics follow (below).

Of all of the people that I used to know
Most never adjusted to the great big world
I see them lurking in book stores
Working for the Public Radio
Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back
Moving careful and slow

It’s money that matters
Hear what I say
It’s money that matters
In the USA.

All of these people are much brighter than I
In any fair system they would flourish and thrive
But they barely survive
They eke out a living and they barely survive…

It’s money that matters in the USA
It’s money that matters
Now you know that it’s true
It’s money that matters whatever you do.”

I don’t want to see infusions of un-Godly big pots of money unduly influencing elections but I also don’t want money, and how much of it gets raised, to be either (a) used by our news media as a tool to distract the electorate from the real issues facing our country at this moment in history, or (b) an excuse used to explain why an extremely electable candidate eventually loses.

Money does matter but issues, including policy positions, matter more. One problem, I believe, is that those in our news media (especially cable and broadcast media) have shown themselves ill-prepared to discuss the substance of policy and issues. Therefore, they concentrate their coverage almost exclusively on three relatively unimportant sideshows: (1) the horserace, polls, who’s falling, who’s gaining, delegate counts; (2) gaffes, blunders and bloopers, embarrassing personal disclosures; and (3) easy to obtain and understand data, like campaign contributions.

But part of the blame also rightly belongs to the campaigns themselves. I’ve been surprised (not in a good way) by the amateurishness of even national-level campaigns this year. Lack of depth. Lack of candidate preparation for events. Lack of ‘brand’ awareness and adherence.

Money does, of course, matter in politics, in the sense that the public conversation can be seeded with advertising and so forth. But let’s be honest. Campaign contributions aren’t in any way a surrogate measure for popular support, as is frequently posited by media pundits and analysts. The truth is, rich people, including the candidates themselves, and corporations spend a lot of money on campaigns because they have vested interests in certain candidates winning.

Nothing more or less than that.

Americans aren’t complete dumb-asses; we’re just treated that way.

Maybe Randy could write us a song about it.

So Long, Ernie

When you see the photo of an actor of a certain age on the front page of The New York Times, you come to know exactly what to expect.

I’d spent the weekend in the mountains with my family, sequestered from pretty much all news media, so I didn’t hear until we got back to San Francisco and I logged on. There was a publicity still from ‘Marty.’ So, in pretty short order, I knew that actor Ernest Borgnine had passed away.

Ernest Borgnine provides a sort of demographic litmus test. For most people my son’s age, he is best known as the voice of Mermaid Man to Tim Conway’s Barnacle Boy on the animated TV series SpongeBob Squarepants. For those my age, he was the fun-loving, wise-cracking, Navy commander Quinton McHale on TV’s ‘McHale’s Navy.’ To those of his own generation, Borgnine would always be the Oscar-winner who portrayed Marty the New York bachelor butcher.

He was, of course, so much more.

As an actor, Borgnine inhabited a dizzying array of roles in singular films like ‘From Here to Eternity,’ ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock.’ He more than held his own with co-stars who were legends of film acting and entertainment, such as Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, WIlliam Holden and Spencer Tracy. Even when he portrayed a tough guy or bad man, which was a lot of the time, he was often the person in the cast the audience most closely identified with. Some called him an everyman but he was really more like the man everyone wanted to either be or have around to watch your back.

Borgnine’s best and most beloved characters were, without exception, normal working stiffs. Sometimes they were put in situations over their heads and sometimes they put themselves there but they were always normal working stiffs. Marty Piletti, perhaps his all-time most beloved character was, after all, a simple butcher. Not, as populate so many films today, people of means (e.g., doctors, lawyers, architects, superstar athletes or entertainers, or just plain old rich guys) who can afford just about anything they want. Ernie played working stiffs.

They had to cut corners to make ends meet. They knew the price, by God, of a cut of beef and a quart of milk. Some were abused as kids. Some had been roughed up. In truth, all had, in one way or another. They took the bus and the subway. They lived in little apartments they felt lucky to have. They didn’t have professionally decorated summer homes in the Hamptons. They didn’t run the precious latest-thing bakery in Santa Barbara.

No, by God, Ernest Borgnine was playing quintessential hard-working Americans back when that concept didn’t seem like an anachronism on TV and in films.

What actor takes on that kind of role today? Exactly.

Ernest Borgnine was 95 when he died; he’d led a full and exciting life (He’d been married to Ethel Merman, which was the source of some hysterical stories I’d heard him tell one time.) and I bet we’re going to miss him a hell of a lot more than he’s going to miss us.

Ernest Borgnine was an actor who played the best of what we Americans used to value most in ourselves and each other.

Plastic Owls – An Allegory

In the full warm sun, pigeons covered the supermarket roof, making it seem alive. Each slip, peck and adjustment led to waves of responses; cascading movements and flutters. Minute after minute, more birds came. Few left.

I watched the birds for quite some time before I saw the other figures, the large, threatening-looking, evil-eyed plastic owls mounted on the roof, staring blankly at the pigeons circling around them. Some pigeons even bumped up against the owls. Were the pigeons showing disdain, mocking the owls’ very existence, or did it just seem that way to me?

We’ve all, our course, seen these owls in hardware stores and wondered if they fulfill the package marketing promises. It would seem the people running this particular grocery store should by now have ample evidence of the utility or, in this case, disutility of using plastic owls to repel bird invaders.

And yet, they remain deployed.

We, too, have set out impotent sentries long past the time when, if we were paying attention and were objective in our understandings, we would have realized they provide no protection from our demons. We are like the cathedral builders of old who installed gargoyles, realizing full well they truly served only aesthetic purposes.

Long after they have lost their meaning and power, the icons of our empire remain.