Monday, November 26, 2012

End of the Season

This past weekend the Penn State football team closed out its 8-4 season with an over-time win against Wisconsin.  Of the four losses, two were against major teams (Ohio State and Nebraska) and two were the first games of the season, when the team was taking baby steps after the year-long media blitzkrieg over the nightmarish Sandusky situation.  I recall how awful I felt after the second loss to Virginia, when the team clearly played well on the road, should have won, but got torpedoed by special teams play, particularly numerous missed field goals by placekicker Sam Ficken, who was replacing Anthony Fera, one of the high-profile starters who left the team under the NCAA open-door policy.

There was a lot of black humor floating around, with the team 0-2 and headed for the dismal season that everyone was predicting, and a lot of people were hoping for as some type of karmic punishment for the university.  There were jokes about Ficken trying to commit suicide the morning following the game, but the six times he fired the pistol, he missed wide right.

Well, a strange thing happened after that.  Ficken was still the kicker, and it took him a few more frustrating games to get his bearings.  (He eventually won the game against Wisconsin.)  Those first few games when he still could barely function as a place kicker, the team rallied around him.  He wasn’t ignored, or treated like an outcast.  Guys would gather around him, pat him on the back, tell him not to give up because he was needed.  Coach O’Brien didn’t give up on him, kept him in there despite fans calling for his head (although I suspect the team’s penchant for routinely going for it on fourth down had a lot to do with this).

Ficken is emblematic of the team, the program and the season itself.  He failed terribly, and he hung around.  And he got better, as did the team, visibly with each passing week.  To the point where a team everyone had left for dead ended up having a solid season, far better than anyone had hoped for or predicted.  While not a perfect season, it was enough to show everyone Penn State football was not going to be a wasteland of harsh NCAA sanctions and marquee players jumping ship every other week.  It was crucial for the program to have a season like this, with nearly every game receiving more media coverage than it warranted, and the entire country seeing that these guys were fighting every step of the way, growing more confident with each game.  It was the perfect advertisement for recruits: a team that in no uncertain terms had been told to go fuck itself by the NCAA (and the sports world at large) managing to have a solid year against enormous odds.  An exciting team with a no-holds-barred offense and traditionally solid defense.

From a fan’s point of view?  Barring the two years Paterno guided them to national championships, this was the most rewarding season I’ve had as a fan.  In ways, it was more rewarding, not just because the team overcame such steep odds, but because Bill O’Brien clearly fell in love with the town and program, sensed the community was behind him as head coach and made the best possible transition from what can only be described as a world of shit to a competitive football program still facing sanctions that are going to make his job difficult for years to come.  Where once I could never imagine a Penn State football team without Joe Paterno, I now look forward to the next decade with Bill O’Brien.

Even before the world of shit blew into town, I was hoping Paterno would hang it up.  It seemed clear that his offensive and defensive coordinators were running the show, and he was hanging around because he simply couldn’t envision life without being the head coach of a powerful Division I-A college football program.  As much as I had trained myself to dislike Paterno’s main competitor Bobby Bowden, I couldn’t help but see the guy in retirement and think, “Bowden has it right: relax, rest on your laurels, god damn it, in your 70s, with nothing to prove to anyone anymore.  Go fishing and dote on the grandchildren.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

And he stayed too long, too!  Knowing when to leave is an art form worth cultivating.

I don’t know.  Should I feel guilt-ridden now that I’m still part of the “Penn State football culture that glorifies sports over academics, even over morality”?  I’m still not quite sure what people mean by that, what judgment they hope to impart over someone who either goes to, watches or listens to these games.  (I’ve spent the past two seasons listening on the radio as I had no cable TV while living in temporary housing after the house fire.)  I sure don’t feel like a lesser human being for being a fan.  I know I’m not.  This team had nothing to do with that shit.  Frankly, the only person in the whole program who did was Paterno, and from what I’ve seen thus far, his greatest sin was not being proactive enough and using his power to correct a wrong situation with a former coach still using his premises. 

I’ve got no mea culpa regarding the Sandusky situation.  It was a horrible thing to happen on anyone’s watch, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the new year about what really happened.  I’m sure the moral vanguards who were carrying on earlier this year are going to start tree-stump speechifying again come January and the upcoming trials.  It’s been pure pleasure the past few months to have these jerk-offs butt out and let the football team stand or fall on its own merits.  I’m sure there have been many other moral crises since then requiring the profound wisdom and guidance of the sort only hack newspaper columnists can provide.  I suspect after the trials they’ll be gone for good from the Penn State landscape, unless it’s to write puff pieces about what a decent man O’Brien is, the same way they did about Paterno for decades, and then wonder why there was a culture of reverence surrounding him.

This has been a great season to be Penn State football fan.  Which I surely did not see coming.  After the first two games, I thought, “Here were go.  This team is going to suck and have a lopsided losing record.  All these dogshit sports columnists who crucified Paterno are going to take it a step further and make some stupid, hackneyed connection between the Sandusky mess and how poorly the team performed this year, and will do so for years to come, as spiritual punishment for men of power who did nothing when they had the responsibility to correct a horribly criminal situation.”

Well, that didn’t happen.  I saw my team move forward into a new era (with a coach everyone thought was nuts for accepting the job), play with heart, against all odds, with the world hoping they would fail.  They didn’t, and they reinforced that it makes sense to go on living with a vengeance when you’ve been left for dead, unless you quit all together, which more than a few people suggested was a viable option for this team and football program.  I’m glad these guys didn’t.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Return to Astoria

Coming back into Astoria, the first thing I noticed was the smell of cowshit.  This is really nothing new.  People have complained about “that smell” for years.  I’ve caught wind of it a few times myself, usually in deep summer.  Most people put it down to the sewage treatment plant about a mile from here, which always seems to be in various stages of disrepair.

Coming back in a car, with all the stuff I’ve been using to live the past year and three months piled into the back seat and trunk.  I was shocked by how much kitchen and bathroom stuff I had, two laundry baskets worth.  Otherwise, it was a large suitcase filled with clothes, a smaller travel duffel with the laptop, Kindle, ipod, DVDs, shoes and such, and gym bag with the sort of stuff you scatter on counter tops.  Left behind the lawn chair and fold-out bed.

Slept in my own bed for the first time since late August 2011.  Felt weird.  Got used to that wire-frame bed sagging in the middle, which played hell on my lower back some nights, but made reading in bed easier.  The landlord’s been living here the past few months and feeding some stray cats, so every now and then, I’d hear one yowling in the night.

It hasn’t been the red carpet rolling out with a mob of people cheering under a banner reading, “Welcome back, Bill!”  But the landlord was sure glad to see me.  She’s been feuding with everyone in the family, raising holy hell over how long this ordeal has taken to play out, still, months after moving back in herself but still waiting for major furniture to arrive, just not letting it go.  I can understand this as it’s her house, the first and only place she’s lived after coming to America in the early 60’s.  The family members, of course, have had a bellyful, but what can they do.

There are large weeds sprouting from the sidewalk, and just like old times, some errant douche bag had dumped a few square feet of dirty clothes onto the sidewalk.  The curb is rotten with packed-in leaves, and the shrubs need trimming before it snows, otherwise the overhang will be hard for pedestrians to deal with.

I came into the apartment to find a plumber fixing the stove, which had proved more problematic than expected, as evidenced by the hole in the ceiling and adjacent walls so he could get at the gas pipes.  Dusty boxes of landlord’s long-forgotten artifacts still take up the kitchen counter, waiting to be waded through and taken upstairs or discarded.  The landlord’s huge paintings and wall art are still in the closet, particularly the “macramé stagecoach at night” that used to hang down here, but the one day she asked me what I thought of it, I said I didn’t like it, and she said the frame alone for that painting cost $200, so I said wouldn’t it make more sense for you to have it in your apartment, and the next day it was gone.

A big plus: the TV wasn’t stolen!  The workers had placed it in a tarp and wedged it in the crawl space beneath the stairs, so I was relieved to realize I wouldn’t have to plunk down a few hundred bucks on a new one, and felt guilty that I pondered the likelihood of someone working here in any capacity using the five-finger discount.

So, even after a year and three months, still waiting in a sense for this thing to wrap up.  But, make no mistake, this is my glorious return.

The streets are rotten with hipsters and yuppies in training … seemingly more than a year ago, but that might be an illusion.  I’ve just spent a year in a far more suburban place, with a broader age range of people, many more kids and full families, so it just might be the culture shock of being plunged back into a place where there are so many apartment renters. 

Can someone explain to me the attachment to the word “like” so many people up through the age of 30 have?  I’m not saying that in some curmudgeonly, “damn these kids and their crazy lingo” way.  I’m saying it in a way to demonstrate how creepy and annoying it is to hear it all the time.  It’s disturbing to hear, routinely, over and over, from hipsters, from teenagers, from young women and men who are clearly neither, but don’t seem to recognize how dumb they sound.  Every third word is “like.”  Used in a completely superfluous manner, the same way people who don’t know what to say go “uhhh” before saying what they mean to say. I’ve known this for a long time, but it seemed like yesterday, like, everyone was, like, using the word “like,” like, you know, in every conversation, you know, like, I heard on the, like, street, you know?

To be, or, like, not to be, you know, like, that is the question?

I have to learn how to deal with these folks, because they’re clearly going to be a permanent fixture of this place.  In a way, I was one of these people years ago: I moved to New York from a small town in Pennsylvania in the 80s and no doubt had people 10-20 years older over-hear me in conversation and think, “Christ, what a pompous ass.”  They probably still think it now!  But I'm half the horse's ass I was coming straight out of college, that much is true.

That decade in the Bronx was crucial in terms of learning how to live in New York, or anywhere, that it’s important to humble yourself to a place, to shut the fuck up, for once, and listen, and look, and realize you’re there to learn, to weave yourself into a community as much as you can.  That’s the essential difference I see between someone like me moving here in the 80s and the people moving here now.  They have that suburban sense of expectation, that this place should succumb to their wishes and lifestyles, that this neighborhood, like, would be a whole lot better with a really good frozen yogurt place and, like, a cool used book store.  Not to mention I moved to the Bronx, and then here for one over-riding reason: they were working-class neighborhoods and affordable.  I’m sure the Bronx still is, but this place isn’t.  You get a whole different breed of people when the reasons to move to a given neighborhood are hipness quotient and exclusionary rents, and it's a breed I never much cared for, going all the way back to my first exposure to them in the late 80s.

The past year has taught me there’s only so much you can attribute to a given neighborhood in terms of how you live your life, and the real deal, what your life is about, is how you choose to live it, regardless of where you live.  Or how much you have.  Or don’t have.  Whether you’re 25, or 45, or 65.  It’s not so much wearing blinders as realizing the things floating around you aren’t you, and there’s no point in focusing on things that don’t sit well with you, but you have no control over.  It’s clear to me now if I really have that hard a time with the genuinely annoying people who’ve moved here in droves, I can always leave.

Hell, I did for over a year, if not by choice, and life surely went on.  That far edge of Queens is such an odd place to live, nice in so many ways, much more quiet, far fewer assholes to deal with directly, and cleaner.  But such a huge hassle in terms of transportation for anyone who works in Manhattan, literally an hour and half ride, each way.  Even if I had a car, I suspect pointing it towards Manhattan during rush hour wouldn’t be that breezy 30-minute jaunt it is in off hours, not to mention the prospect of parking garages that equal many people’s monthly rents.

And the car culture!  Most Americans need cars to get by, and I’ve realized it’s a luxury and a pleasure to live somewhere where one isn’t necessary.  On Long Island, that culture is taken to the nth degree, very few people walk anywhere, and the driving style is eternally crazed, people who forever appear to be on the verge of nervous breakdowns behind the wheel, and drive accordingly in that “fuck everybody else” style infamous to the tri-state area.  Post-hurricane, this became even more obvious.  There was no gas.  Not a drop to be found anywhere on Long Island.  For an entire week.  The rare instance when a station would open, word spread, and there would be a 3-4 mile line of cars waiting to get in, with the station invariably running out of gas within an hour or two, while various riots nearly played out with the typical line-jumping scum you find in any emergency situation.

Yet … the volume of traffic did not let up all week.  I would ask people at work from Long Island if they were driving, and they would say no, how could I, there’s no gas.  Well, you had an entire culture of people there who … could … not … stop … driving … even … though … there … was … no … gas.  Ponder being stranded on a desert island, with someone who ate all of the meager amount of food you could forage the first night.  That was your typical Long Island car driver the week after Hurricane Sandy.  Public transportation is such out there, particularly with buses, that if you need to get somewhere, anywhere, you can get there.  Might be a pain in the ass, but it will work.

But I swear to you, the traffic volume the day after hurricane (Tuesday) through Saturday, was virtually no different than it was before the storm.  Sunday, I did notice, there seemed to be far fewer drivers on the road, as the realization sank in that this gas thing wasn’t going to work itself out immediately.  Here we are, two weeks later, with rationing, and it does seem to have worked itself out.  There are no more lines, and people are getting the gas they need to get around.

If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here now typing this in my old apartment.  That damn storm pushed back my return by two weeks, first with its destruction and then with the ensuing gas crisis.  I was contemplating dragging my bags and suitcases onto the Q46 bus and then the E/F train, then the R/M train, then the Steinway Avenue bus to move back, implying two round trips totaling six hours, but luckily the gas situation let up enough that the landlord’s daughter could give me a ride back.

This past weekend has been exhausting: emotionally and physically.  I don’t know what it is about moving, but it tends to inspire the full range of emotions.  All save a mild angry under-current subside once you realize you need to get a ton of shit done before you can feel even remotely settled in.  It’s going to be at least another week or two before that happens.  There’s a constant layer of grit on my feet now from the recent holes punched in the ceiling and walls, and I spent last night rummaging through the cabinets under the kitchen countertop, discarding three black garbage bags of unclaimed vases, ponderously heavy ceramic ash trays, rusted metal ice cube trays, old AM/FM clock radios … just a mess of shit that I can’t even tell if they belonged to the landlord or previous tenants.  All I know is I’ve been living here since the late 90s, none of it’s mine, and it’s got to go, if only to make space for my clutter.

That’s another key thing I learned.  Man, throw shit out.  I’m not just talking physical things like junk in cabinets.  I mean everything that doesn’t serve a recognizable purpose in your life.  Throw it out.  I will surely take this advice to heart with my feelings towards the new landed gentry – I think this is going to be the last time I mention them, and you can hold me to it.  All the bitching in the world, much like King Canute ordering back the sea, isn’t going to change a damn thing on that front.

Anti-climactic?  That’s how life tends to be, save for the grand climax, which I have reason to believe won’t be the gloriously inspired ending as portrayed in the obituaries of celebrities and heads of state.  Your time comes, you go.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s good to be back here, for any number of reasons.  The main one being the fire didn’t kill any of us that night, and we’re back to reclaim what was a stinking, wet hulk of charred wood and broken glass that harsh morning after.  It's time to be how we are, again, and this is a major victory.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Bookends

Last year for Hurricane Irene, I was back in Pennsylvania, temporarily homeless after the house fire, and listening to the howling wind tear through the countryside.  Even back there, it was pretty frightening, and I’m assuming the wind was much stronger where it first hit the coast.

And now that I’m on the verge of moving back to my apartment, after 14 months of waiting, we go and get nailed by Hurricane Sandy, which is kicking in right now as I write this on Monday in the apartment I’ve lived in for the past year on the edge of Queens.  I’m starting to hear those big wind gusts every few minutes, and as the woman who lives here (and has to work today) has two gigantic oak trees in her backyard, you better believe I don’t want to hear that horrible cracking and slamming sound of a large tree falling down.

Got plenty of fresh water stored away, enough peanut butter, bread and power bars to eat a few days, two fully-charged Kindles with lights, fully-charged cellphone, this laptop with USB broadband plug, flashlight and a table-top radio with two sets of batteries.  Check, check, check, etc.  And all I’m going to do is sit down here and wait this bitch out, hopefully without drama.  NYC Transit completely shut down today, wouldn’t be surprised if it was shut down tomorrow, too, so we’ll see how things stands then.  I think the worst thing I’m worried about is a prolonged power outage which, forget about light and electricity, means no water, and going outside to relieve myself like a dog in the streets.

Phew.  And I’m one of the more sane people you’re going to run into!  I got groceries Friday night, knowing how the supermarkets would be yesterday, knowing full well how shitty people get in these situations.  People around here can be shitty enough normally.  There’s a Waldbaums about 10 blocks from here that is constant angst and bad vibes any time I go there, so I can only imagine how grotesque it was on Saturday, people with thick Long Island accents squabbling over meat, bread and milk.  Yeah.  Meat, bread and milk.  Used to be cigarettes, too.  Only four things you need in an emergency.  Never mind if you don’t normally eat meat, bread and milk.  Just fucking get it.  And now’s a good time to start smoking.

But I did have to go out yesterday for batteries, which was an ordeal, as I made the mistake of going to the local Ace Hardware, which was picked clean like a roadside gopher carcass by crows.  Ditto, Sears.  As it turned out, no one thinks “rugged survival” when it comes to Bed, Bath and Beyond … and they had a surplus of the Size C and D batteries I needed.  What blew my mind was most people were shopping as they normally would there: casually buying over-priced bedding and cookware.  Now?!  You’ve got a special fondue you make for hurricanes?!

Had a burger and fries at the local diner around sundown … me and about three other customers.  I had noticed the place was packed in the morning, so I guess everyone wanted their cabin fever meal early.  Hell, I might go down there later today, but would also rather hold on to my cash for the time being, too.

And I keep hearing this fucking portable generator, although there’s no need for it.  Normally, that’s the dumpy 24-hour gyro cart across the street that drives the landlord here nuts, the doomed soul manning it running the generator for heat in the dead of winter.  But that cart is long gone now, and I have no idea who has this generator going, which sounds like an idling mini-bike, must be one of the neighbors.  Obnoxious things.  I can see turning it on for an hour so everyone can shower, shit and shave, but otherwise, man, I’d go without.  This is especially odd considering we have power, and whoever’s running that thing is just wasting valuable gas he might need later.

Went outside a minute ago to get a feel for this thing.  I hate to say it, but it felt good.  Wind wasn’t over-powering yet, strong, but not frightening.  Light rain falling.  Probably the same kind of feeling I got walking along the Scottish coast on a windswept day, gazing out at the North Sea.  Bleak, but the sort of bleakness that suits your bones some days.  I looked up at those towering oak trees.  I can’t picture them coming down, they’re so damn big, but stranger things have surely happened. 

I’m tempted to go out walking, but probably a better idea to stay put.  I know I’d enjoy the walk in this kind of obtuse, rare weather, but I’d also have to consider people driving like lunatics and the possibility of falling tree branches/downed power lines.

All this pushes back the return to the apartment in Astoria.  I’ve been going back there the past few Saturdays, unpacking my belonging from black trashbags and getting them back onto shelves and in drawers.  It’s felt strange.  Most of this stuff is dusty and grimy after sitting unattended for over a year, so I feel the need to get it clean before I get it set up.  And I’ve spent the past year with so few possessions: clothes, cooking utensils, bathroom stuff, laptop, iPod, Kindle, DVDs, lawn chair and roll out bed with blankets.  Period.  I have to re-train my mind to get used to the concepts of real furniture, large CD and DVD collections, a lot of clothes, a normal bed.  Just unloading books put me in a weird mood … most of them, I probably won’t be re-reading.  And they’re so damn heavy to unpack.

There’s something to be said for freeing yourself up from possessions.  I’ve always been a “less is more” person, but this past year has been A LOT less.  “Psychic clutter” is the phrase that occurred to me while I unpacked: this stuff made my life feel heavier.  I can only imagine what it’s like to have a house full of this stuff as opposed to a few book cases.  Do yourself a favor and throw things out that serve no purpose – I mean that in more ways than one!

So, I took a few hours that first time back, got all my stuff unpacked and put in place, realized I’d have to come back again and do another big cleaning, then set about untangling the ball of cable wires feeding into the apartment by one of the windows.  That took some doing, but eventually got the TV and computer cables separated, pointed in the right directions, now let’s get the cable TV box and DVD player, see if I can arrange the plugs in that magical configuration that gets everything working right, think I got it, good.  Now, the TV set …

I couldn’t find it, because it wasn’t there.  That was the one thing we didn’t put into a black trashbag back in March as it was too bulky.  Landlord’s daughter recommended just turning it face down and leaving it on the cabinet where it was standing.  That’s where I left it.  Can’t recall seeing it again when I went back in September to give directions to the landlord’s nephew for the work crew on what not to throw out – then again, I wasn’t looking for it.

I’m assuming someone stole it after March – stuff like that doesn’t get accidentally thrown out.  When I told the landlord, she slapped her head and said, “Ah-Billy, they-ah got some of my fine-ah Chinah, too!  I-ah think it was-ah the bunch of Filipinos my-ah nephew got in here to clean-ah out the junk.”  Yeah, well, there were any number of people who could have picked that thing up some quiet Friday evening and walked it out to his waiting car.  I had thought since a family member as handling the construction that I wouldn’t have to worry about stuff like this, but I should have also considered that guy would be hiring any number of people to do side jobs: debris removal, plumbing, electrical, that could have conceivably left any of these workers in that apartment alone for hours.

Ultimately, I have to blame myself for being so lackadaisical with an item that cost a few hundred dollars and would obviously be eye candy to any schlubby, low-level thief.  As it was, when I told the landlord, she said she’d try to get her old 42-inch flat-screen TV for me since she got a new TV under her insurance, which was very nice of her.  We shall see.  I shouldn’t get too upset.  Here I am, espousing the joys of less possessions, when some low-level prick does me the favor of lightening the load by stealing a TV set that, for all I know, might have been water damaged.  (It was positioned in that one area of the floor where water was coming through the ceiling.)  I figured it would cost me a few hundred bucks to move back in, just in terms of replacing minor items like rugs and small appliances.

And I was back there Saturday, doing one last big clean, foaming down my easy chairs and scrubbing the year-long grime out of their fabric, dusting, mopping, getting the place as clean as possible, because that’s what struck me after the first visit, the place still felt dirty despite the landlord hiring a cleaning lady to go over the place a few weeks earlier.  As far as I’m concerned, I got it just-so that day and am ready to go back …

… only to have this shithouse storm blow in out of the Atlantic and put everything on hold!  That’s how life works sometimes.  That’s surely how it worked the night of the fire, when I was standing on the sidewalk in a pair of shorts, holding a cellphone, and thinking that might be all I walk away with.  One thing I noticed while unpacking my shoes was the pair of sandals that the couple down the block had given me that night, the first sign that other people were looking at me like a human in need and acting accordingly.  I’m keeping those, and if I see that couple again while I’m out sweeping or shoveling snow, I’m going to go back in my apartment and return those sandals.  Which I don’t wear anyway, but those things felt so good in my hands on Saturday, reminded me that not everyone’s a prick, and some people will go out of their way to help you.  Things to keep in mind over the next few hours and days.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Outcasts in Scoutland

I’m just finishing up the memoir by Damien Echols, one of the infamous West Memphis Three, who were placed in Arkansas jails for nearly two decades (Echols on death row) for the murder of three small boys in 1993 in a patch of woods in West Memphis (Robin Hood Hills), but were recently released under an Alford Plea that, as the Wiki page notes, “allows them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.”

Strange stuff, and a strange ending to a troubling case.  This is the end of it, unless someone comes forward with either a blockbuster confession or fresh evidence.  Echols isn’t a bad writer, although he leans into purplish prose too often for my tastes.  His wild abuse of the word “magick” (he spells it that way) is something that should have been reined in by his editor – the word appears every other page.  It’s like reading a treatise from a private-school rebel who insists on using the word “America” constantly and spelling it with a “k.”

The pain of it for me is … I think he and his friends might be guilty.  “Might” is the key word there.  Thank God I didn’t have to sit on a jury for this case, because it’s one of those cases with a ton of circumstantial evidence, some physical evidence (but no smoking guns) and both direct and secondary confessions that can all be interpreted in any number of ways.  I touched on this case briefly in another post a few years ago.  You could tell at that point I had watched the documentaries and read one of the books on the case, all of which are stacked decks leaning far towards the not-guilty side.

The few hours of research I’ve done in the past few weeks while reading the Echols book have been illuminating.  I hadn’t known there was so much evidence available regarding the case.  The  Callahan site is a mother lode of material: evidence, testimonies, confessions, etc.  It would take weeks to wade through the whole site, and hats off to whoever compiled that mountain of material.

Why do I lean towards the guilty side now?  Well, I’d recommend that if you have any experience living in a small town, you should think about your small town and how this case would have happened there.  My hometown in Pennsylvania was and is surrounded by woods.  When we were growing up, we had a place on the edge of town called Scoutland that was a few acres of trails and cabins that must have been used as a camping site in previous decades.  By the time we got there in the late 60s and 70s, the cabins were still there, but no longer used.

We loved Scoutland.  If you were a kid, and you had a bike (meaning every kid in town), you went to Scoutland and spent a lot of time there, especially in summer.  Kids were there all day in summer, riding bikes through the woods, playing army or cowboys-and-indians, hiking, or just hanging out.  It was also a popular place for mini-bikes – these days, you would find four-wheelers.  Many kids probably had awkward first kisses and sexual encounters in those woods.  I think someone bought that property a few years back, so it’s probably no longer open to the public.  I’m not even sure how it was open to us back then, but it surely was.

And all I can think now is, Jesus Christ, the horrible shit that could have gone on there.  We were completely separated from the outside world.  Had we screamed, people in the few homes near the edge of Scoutland could have heard this, but probably would have assumed it was just kids messing around.  If anything strange, violent and/or sexual happened there, we would have had to deal with it on our own as children.  I recall once, sitting by a stream, just talking to myself and day-dreaming, when I suddenly heard a voice in the bushes nearby mimic what I had just said and snicker.  I was sure it was one of the older kids from town, probably out there getting stoned with one of his friends, but I pretended not to hear it, got on my bike and left as fast as I could, because I realized I was being watched, and being watched by someone I knew was a scumbag.

The same thing that happened to those kids could have easily happened to any of us there.  But ask yourself.  Who hangs out in the woods?  I can answer that easily: other kids.  Kids on bicycles.  Kids playing in the woods, because they present another world from the rural/suburban one with parents.  Kids with BB guns, shooting at birds and squirrels.  And not just those relatively innocent 8-12 year-old-kids.  Kids who are too young to drive, or old enough to drive but can’t afford to have cars.  When you get past that certain age of innocence, kids who are up to no good.  Getting high.  Drinking.  Hanging out in the woods because they feel dislocated and strange.  The woods are cool because it lets them escape from a world they see as complete bullshit.

I rarely saw adults in Scoutland, and if I did, they were there as part of some Boy Scout or fresh-air program.  Adults just didn’t go there of their own free volition.  You went there if you were a kid.  I don’t doubt Robin Hood Hills held the same allure for kids who live in West Memphis.  It was put forth that the three kids who were killed had some type of tree house or fort they were frequenting in that area.  It would make sense that they’d go there after school on a nice day in May and hang out.

It’s been put forth by some people that the crime scene at Robin Hood Hills was only a drop-off point for the already-murdered children … but two of the boys essentially drowned in the small creek there.  They were found with water in their lungs, i.e., still alive after they were bludgeoned, then hog-tied with shoelaces and not just thrown in the creek, but tied to sticks stuck in the creek bed with their own clothes so their bodies would stay submerged.  Meaning whoever killed them, killed them right there. 

Besides, think about it.  The boys were seen in the vicinity of those woods just before all this happened.  They were clearly headed there on their own.  Someone is going to go to the trouble of abducting them from those woods, taking them in a car or van, killing them somewhere else, and then bringing them back to dump them in the same place where they were last seen?  No.  We’re talking rural Arkansas.  This was a patch of woods on the edge of a town by an interstate.  If someone who saw those boys go into the woods transported them somewhere else and killed them, I’d wager that there were a few thousand better places to dump the bodies than a patch of woods on the edge of town by an interstate.  If it’s anything like Pennsylvania (and it is), there are places you can drive to for miles, dump a body, and the body may not be found for weeks or months, if ever.

So, I’m thinking whoever killed them, killed them right there in those woods, and had no way of transporting them out those woods.  It’s been put forth separately that two of their step-fathers were possible suspects.  Mind you, not acting together.  Three kids were killed.  I’m assuming one adult will not be able to kill three kids.  At least one of those kids could have broken free and run away when he saw what was happening.  This also rules out the possibility of a vagrant performing the murders.  There had to be more than one person present.  Either step-father acting on his own … forget about why on earth either of these men would want to murder his own son and two other boys … I’m not seeing how either could accomplish this on his own.  Or why.

There had to be more than one person involved.  I’m not sure of the alibis of the step-fathers, but they were apparently good enough for the police not to consider them suspects for long.  Whereas the three teenagers convicted had alibis that didn’t hold up in court.  Two of them tested positive for deception in polygraphs.  One of them, Echols, was seen walking near the woods later that night in muddy clothes.  One of them confessed to the killings numerous times: Jesse Misskelley.  (You can listen to a few of those confessions here, although be forewarned that it's gruesome listening.)  It’s been put forth that his extremely low IQ should have discounted at least the first confession to the police.  But he then confessed again, with his defense attorney present, and once again after being convicted, to two deputies driving him from the court. 

His story had holes in it.  And you could look at it this way.  If his story was air-tight and matched every loophole that could have occurred in this situation, then it would have been clear that he had been coached and somehow coerced into giving this air-tight explanation of what happened, case closed, they did it.  As it was, he got facts wrong and appeared confused at times … which is exactly how I’d picture someone with an extremely low IQ confessing.  He’s going to get things wrong, and embellish, and possibly just say stupid shit that is outrageous and totally incorrect. 

And if he’s supposedly that dumb … how on earth would he have the imagination to concoct such a story, especially the “cult” stuff the he claimed was going on in the woods previous to the murders?  I’d love to hear what cops said to him in the three hours before the taped confession, and what was publicly known about the case on June 3rd, when he was first interviewed, to compare with what he put forth.  They should also understand Misskelley’s father was allowed to attend the questioning as his son was a minor, but chose not to, which boggles my mind, if I had a kid being hauled in by police on a murder investigation, you better believe I would make myself available every step of the way.

It’s this combination of things that has me wondering what happened that day.  In my mind, knowing how woods are in rural areas, knowing who spends time in them, only other kids, probably older kids, would have committed this crime.  And I don’t buy into the satanic bullshit (unless it was half-assed teenage attempts at mimicking this sort of decadence), which the prosecutors used successfully in a heavily Baptist/Christian part of the country.  (Believe me, if it had worked in the defense team’s favor, they’d have done this, too.)  Echols described himself as a Wiccan at the time and was clearly dabbling in the occult to judge by the evidence.  Even a cursory examination of his mental state around that time shows a severely troubled kid, not the sweet, well-meaning outcast, which is exactly how he remembers himself in his book, when the evidence suggests a much more mean-spirited kid.  But I’m just picturing him and the other two killing time in the woods, as bored teenagers often do, maybe drunk or stoned, when these three boys enter the woods, the older boys start picking on them, one of the boys fights back, things escalate, and next thing you know, this horrible turn of events.

But did that really happen?  There’s very little evidence to suggest so, and there’s the rub.  It’s hard to believe that three teenagers getting out of control like this and killing three small boys would not leave behind more evidence.  Granted, dumping the kids in the water destroyed what was more than likely a ton of DNA and blood evidence.  I doubt that was the killers’ motive – they just wanted to hide the bodies as much as possible.  But it’s unquestionably strange that in all these years, more evidence could not be produced linking any of them to the crime scene.

In his book, Echols makes a point of noting that people never grow up, actually when he was referring to Wiccans, that they somehow get stuck emotionally in their teen years and want to stay there forever.  Point well taken.  He makes a lot of good points in the book.  Frankly, I like the guy as I’m reading the book.  The interviews I’ve read of Jason Baldwin since his release, he seems like a thoroughly likable person who learned a lot from his time in prison.  Misskelley has been pretty quiet, but also seems to have shown some humanity by desiring to be close to his father and living quietly in that same area.

Which doesn’t mean they’re innocent!  It just means that I’m prone to liking them personally, or at least how they’ve been presented to me as someone reading along with recent developments.  Echols doesn’t consider that inability to grow up emotionally a positive thing.  But he should.  Because I’d put forth that’s the reason why he’s now free.  He and the other two have had a groundswell of support over the years, thanks mainly to the documentaries, from people who clearly view themselves as similar outcasts who could have easily been in their place in similar circumstances.

If you read along with the various guilty/not guilty websites, it’s clear that a lot of the people leaning in the not guilty direction know well that rural/suburban sense of dislocation and misunderstanding that kids like Echols were wandering around in circa the early 90s.  I’d say they view that sense of being outcast as a shadow that follows them around as adults, but I’d go a step further and suggest the shadow has become who they are.  They can’t or don’t want to let go of that teenage sense of dislocation, because it had such a deep impact on their psyche at the time, because it permanently tainted their view of humanity.  They spend all their lives viewing any authority figure as an alien presence that always means harm, and themselves as purely innocent people just trying to make sense of the world around them.  When reality is just as much them positioning themselves against anything that threatens this “innocent” view of the world.  Their entire lives are one big defense mechanism, which is how most people seem to go through life now, much less people with authority issues.

The world as I’ve experienced it has crossed itself so many times over, in terms of what I should or shouldn’t believe in, what is or isn’t true, how much I do know, how much I don’t, that I’d be hard-pressed to live by any set rule in terms of how I deal with other people, especially authority figures, some of whom I’ve found to be no more or less human than I am.  I treat each situation, each person, differently, based on what I’ve learned about life over the years, and I’m a lot more cautious/less trusting than I used to be, mainly because appearances can be deceiving.  I’d also put forth that I bend over backwards to avoid situations that could end up with me being institutionalized in any sense, particularly in places like court rooms, hospitals or prisons, because those worlds look like hell to me, and mainly because of the complete lack of control one is allowed to have over the course of his life in such places.  I can't blame these guys for wanting to go free after a few decades in that environment and seizing the opportunity,whatever the circumstance; we'd all do the same, innocent or guilty.

I really don’t know what happened here and am assuming very few people do.  But hopefully what I’ve noted above sheds some light on what I understand about small towns and “the woods” that surround them.  What I’ve noted above is an honest recollection of personal experience hanging out in the woods as a kid, which I’m putting forth because I really haven’t seen anyone else come at the story from this angle.  Which doesn’t make me right or wrong, or anyone guilty or innocent, but hopefully adds more things to think about with this awful case, as I'm sure there are plenty of other adults out there who remember the woods in their town the same way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Aint There One Damn Song ...

that can make me break down and cry.  I don’t have to tell serious music fans that this is the key line from David Bowie’s song, “Young Americans.”  This song will not make you break down and cry.  It will make you marvel at Bowie’s word play, the stream of images and one-liners that make no sense, but somehow nail a vibe of mid-70s America, bopping along through troubled times.  It sounds pretty good, too, never get tired hearing it.

I’ve noted Bowie’s influence on me before.  But I’m focusing in on that key line because I often ask myself, what songs can make me break down and cry?  And my response is very few.  I don’t think any song can reduce me to tears, but there are a select few that get my eyes watering, strike some chord that pulls me into that different emotional place where all shields come down.  It’s nice to be reminded that everything can stop on a dime and change, that there are things out there that can penetrate your façade so easily, so why the façade?

Of course, these moments often come when I’m on a bus or subway train, with my ear buds on, and it’s a bit awkward to be sitting there in public, having this deeply emotional moment.  I try to keep me head down when this happens, not make eye contact, because I know the feeling will subside in a few moments.  These songs are also a nice reminder of how your emotions work with real people, too, people who are gone, their presence will sweep over you at times, beyond your control.  Oddly, a lot of these song moments aren’t associated with any particular memory, it’s just some strange convergence of different variables.

So, I’m going to list a few of these songs in no particular order, as it’s a bad idea to quantify your emotions, although I’m sure these days there must be an app for that.

“Perfect Day” by Harry Nilsson.  The first time I heard this surely must have been the Bob Fosse movie, All That Jazz, where the song was misused.  As I recall, this song played while Roy Scheider’s conniving choreographer character seduced one of his dancers.  It didn’t register with me at the time.  It’s a flawed song, too.  The lyrics lose their way at times (Ride with me, glide with me, etc.), while the song gets a little too glossy, too.  But … the choir and background vocals are among the best recorded I’ve ever heard.  Particularly the choir in the last minute of the song, the sorrowful moans, the rising flourishes that perfectly match the string section.  It’s not easy to record a choir!  Whoever did it here nailed it.  Gets to me every time.

“Father and Son” by Cat Stevens.  Even before Dad passed on, this song would kill me.  Not a road song, but a pre-road song.  I got to go, leave home.  Leave home where I have parents who I know love me, but we’re driving each other a little nuts.  Loving someone is always a little nuts, particularly with parents, who are always going to present a mixed bag of emotions, because those people had to break you down and teach you some hard lessons along the way.  Cat Stevens gets that in this song.  That opening guitar riff, sounds like someone turning around one last time to get a good look.

“The Pretender” by Jackson Browne.  I’ll never quite understand the shit Jackson Browne took from critics in the 70s for being “too sensitive.”  This was a guy going into his 30s and writing songs that were wise beyond his years, much like Hank Williams Sr. or Bob Dylan in their 20s.  Surely not on that level, but good enough for me.  “The Pretender” nails that sense of not getting what you want in life, but going on anyway.  Which is everybody I know.  The ability to accept defeat and move forward is a necessary part of adulthood.  We want to bullshit ourselves with sports and money, these artificial win/loss situations that make us feel good when “we” win.  But our real lives are not the same.  You apply a sports mentality to life as an adult, you’ve got to be an asshole.  But people do it all the time!  Life isn’t about winning or losing.  It’s about living until you die.  A song like “The Pretender” acknowledges that life is going to get strange in ways you didn’t see coming, and you’re going to lose your way.  So Jackson Browne wasn’t running around in a Ramones t-shirt, getting stoned and insulting everyone in sight.  That’s not what you do when your wife OD’s on a bottle of pills and leaves you with an infant son.  You duct tape your broken life together, and if you’re lucky, write a song half as good as this.

“It Was You” by Fred Eaglesmith.  Time to get away from the 70s.  It occurs to me that a lot of songs that blindside me emotionally are from that decade, probably because childhood and teen years are such open times emotionally.  But good music is always being made, and I’ve surely heard plenty of songs since then that register.  Like “It Was You” – a simple, mournful break-up song by Fred Eaglesmith.  Also “Birches” by Bill Morrissey.  (More about Morrissey here.)  With the Eaglesmith song, it’s someone looking back and mourning a state of innocence that is no longer possible, while the Morrissey song is looking forward and realizing things aren’t going to work.  There’s something to be said for an artist simply picking up a guitar and singing.  I’m leery of any musician who can’t do this, who needs to stack the deck with production values and over-statement.

“Blue Moon with Heartache” by Roseanne Cash.  I can’t stand that easy-listening guitar noodling in the opening riff.  It nearly ruins the song for me.  But that’s where the disenchantment ends, as everything else about this song is perfect.  Her voice is well-suited to the subject matter especially with the line, “What would I give/To be a diamond in your eyes again?”  I’d love to hear a stripped-down version of this song, but have yet to find one.  Country music is filled with songs like this, which is why I like country music.  It allows you to be an adult, to have adult emotions, to age, to lose the urge to get over on people, to not wallow in self pity and anger.  Which discounts about 80% of pop music made in the past few decades.

“Houses on the Hill” by Whiskeytown.  Ryan Adams, another talented guy who takes a lot of shit for things that have little or nothing to do with his music.  A boyfriend rooting around the attic of his girlfriend’s house finds love letters another boyfriend wrote to her mother, decades ago when he was a soldier fighting in World War II.  He was killed over there, obviously not the man who went on to be her father.  Which explains and links up to this house on the hill, with this older woman, his girlfriend’s mother, who’s had issues with pills.  Just brilliant, simple songwriting.  He does this, every now and then.  Not near enough for me, but enough to let me know he can turn it on when he feels the need.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” by Bing Crosby.  There are any number of songs from this era that can hit me unexpectedly, due to Dad’s passing, and knowing that Mom is so much older.  She used to play Big Band music on her AM radio in the kitchen while making Sunday dinner.  At which time I’d harass her for having such archaic taste in music.  I had my head completely up my ass.  This song in particular, whoever does it, and countless singers have, kills me.  When someone dies on you ... this is the song to remind yourself that you’ll always carry around vestiges of that person.

“Orphan Year” by NOFX.  I often wonder how it feels for someone with a bad parent to mourn that parent’s passing.  Here it is.  I can live without the stupid “punk” vocal affectation.  I just want to hear this guy sing the song, defenseless, in his real voice.  This isn’t it.  But I guess the requirements of his job, being a snide punk rocker, prevent him from doing this, or that role he’s played has become who he is.  This underlines my problems with punk music as I age.  The affectation.  Which makes a lot more sense when you’re 17.  But makes no fucking sense when you’re long past that.  And trying to be honest.  Our youths are a prison of taste, and it’s a good feeling to break free of those constraints.  I can hear the constraints in the guy’s voice in this song, which is a shame, but doesn’t negate the fact that he’s written a great song about how awful a parent’s death feels.

“Days” by The Kinks.  The Kinks go all the way back for me, back to being a teenager and learning about what came before me.  I first heard “Days” on The Kinks Kronikles set that changed my life, and it registered from the first listen.  I later learned Ray Davies wrote it about the passing of a friend, but it could just as easily be about a break-up.  And the best response is to take what you learned from the person and carry it with grace.

“Pastoral” by Moondog.  I don’t know who Moondog was.  I don’t think anyone really does.  His work was all over the place, as was he.  This piece sounds as timeless as any famous classical piece.  I gather it was played on some type of harp.  The first time I heard it, I had to believe it was his version of some classical piece, but, no, he wrote it, apparently around 1970.  A similar piece for me is “Sligo River Blues” by John Fahey, a rolling acoustic piece he wrote in the 1950s that sounds like it could have been recorded at any time.  I don’t know what it is about music like this, but it sounds as elemental as the wind or water.  I gather it’s not that easy to be so simple, which I take as a mark of genius.

“Annie” by Ronnie Lane & Pete Townshend.  I’m not sure what Townshend has to do with this song, other than that he was gracious enough to record Rough Mix, a duet album with Lane, and raise a small fortune to help Lane get back on his feet financially.  (Unfortunately, while making this album, he’d feel the first pangs of Multiple Sclerosis that would take his life by 1997 at the age of 51.)  Every leaf must fall … that’s it.  A song that acknowledges the passing of time, and the dark side of ageing, that everyone must go.  Done beautifully.

Waiting for a Superman / Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips.  Wayne Coyne writing about the passing of his father.  “Is it getting heavy?”  That’s how you feel when you have no precedent to measure this thing against.  You don’t know if someone is just really sick, or days away from passing on.  I can tell you now, if everyone around you in a given situation with someone in very ill health can’t seem to come up with a straight answer about the person’s health, get ready.  We tend to push ourselves into these gray areas where no one can or wants to admit the truth, that this is the end, like a bad daydream that won’t end.  I think “Realize” covers the same ground.  I often get annoyed with Coyne for writing such flip/silly lyrics, but there are times when he can and does connect.  Unfortunately, haven't felt that way for a few albums!

“Clay Pigeons” by John Prine.  Prine has written so many great songs.  But he didn’t write this one.  Blaze Foley did, and his original just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight.  “Sing a song with a friend/Change the shape that I’m in/Get back in the game/And start playing again.”  This is a song about someone who knows he’s lost, but also knows he has to stop feeling sorry for himself and find his way again.  Which is why he's on the bus with the mother with two or three kids, maybe going nowhere, but at least moving.  We’ve all been there.  “Lake Marie” is another place and song for John Prine, that doesn’t make my eyes water up, but it is about a guy who links all these stories about that lake with his failing marriage, more of a “what can you do” vibe when life turns against you.  He wrote this one, and I’m guessing it’s not fiction!

The more I think of it, I could add about a dozen more songs.  But this is enough for now.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Late Retirement

I’m just finishing up the latest Joe Paterno biography by Joe Posnanski which seems to be getting mixed reviews because the author didn’t crucify Paterno as a vast majority of journalists (a better but less apt word choice than hacks, charlatans or necrophiliacs) have chosen to do in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.  It’s a good read that examines the man’s entire life as opposed to the bitter end.

A good read, but I surely have issues with it.  I’m left feeling much like when I read Keith Richards’ recent autobiography, which received glowing reviews.  I’m not sure why.  I’ve read at least a dozen books about The Rolling Stones.  Perhaps the most blunt was Spanish Tony Sanchez’s book, which Richards clearly doesn’t like for obvious reasons as it gets into touchy areas like Swedish blood transfusions and years of drug abuse.  But Richards’ book, I couldn’t help but feel afterwards that he was a profoundly spoiled rock star who found success very early in life and lived in a bubble of his own making for the rest of his days.  A self-serving, self-mythologizing bubble that, since he was a depraved, heroin-addicted rock star, doesn’t much lend itself to bubble-bursting, since low-level degradation is a sacrosanct understanding with most rock stars.

I feel like I’m being told a relevant story, but one that comes with a bill of goods, based on image and legend.  The last chapter in the Paterno book is where Posnanski loses me, as it’s a series of personal remembrances by family members and former players.  All positive in some respect, which feel like a stacked deck of cards.  (A biography is no place for a memorial like this; a coffee-table pictorial book would be a much better place for remembrances like this.)  All are “success stories” in some respect of players who have gone on to become businessmen, sportscasters, coaches, high-school principals, etc.  All because of the lessons they learned while associated with Paterno, the things he taught them that propelled them through life on this higher plane of existence, thanks to his guidance.

Which may be true on one level … but complete bullshit and against so much of what Paterno preached.  On one hand, you have him getting across the benefits of humility, a basic understanding of life, the simple desire for excellence of some sort, regardless of success to the outside world.  Boy, I can get behind that.  We all can.

On the other, look at it this way.  You could include Jerry Sandusky in that last chapter, sans what we’ve learned about his serial pedophilia.  Without that crucial bit of information, Sandusky is a raging success story thanks to Paterno’s tutelage and guidance.  Coach and defensive coordinator who helped forge two national champion college football teams, dozens of teams that finished in the Top 20 or even 10.  A man who also created an organization to help disadvantaged children get through life (we’d later learn the horrible, diabolical truth of why he created this organization).  In short, a winner in life.

Working in Manhattan offices my entire adult life, I’ve dealt with many “successful” people … a large percentage of whom tend to be oddly miserable people who have left a wake of destruction in terms of broken families and personal relationships, along with a crippling sense of personal insecurity that finds them never happy or satisfied with their financial wealth despite net worths well into seven figures.  Not everybody I’ve worked with, surely there are some people who have held on to their integrity and made efforts to be humane and decent with the people in the lives, personally and professionally.  But enough for me to know that people presented to you on paper as successful often do not see themselves this way and have lives no sane person would desire, as the personal unhappiness greatly outweights the financial wealth.

So, I’m a bit leery of Paterno’s “success stories” and would really feel no differently about those presented to me as people who “went nowhere” in life after clashing with Paterno or not living up to his expectations.  Don’t get me wrong – I know the man has done immeasurably more good than harm in his life.  If you can’t see that, you’re too focused on the awful way things ended for him and not taking into account the thousands of lives he’s touched in his work over the course of decades.  Millions when you count fans, of which I’ve been one since early childhood.

The truth is his inability to fully acknowledge simple human suffering – a boy being raped by a pedophile – ended up forever tainting his image and destroying a football program he spent his entire adult life creating and nurturing.  Forget about that for a moment.  Think about what he professed to believe in – winning with dignity, the great experiment, creating student athletes, etc.  There’s a story in the book about him quoting Shakespeare to his players to inspire them at a low point in Penn State’s history.

Cute stuff … but if he wanted to be an English teacher, why not be an English teacher?  If he loved literature that much, wanted people to share his wonder in the things he read, why not teach it?  At the end of the book, he claims he might have wanted to try his hand at poetry.  I can only imagine how awful it would have been, but kudos to him for even pondering the possibility.

My point being, he was a man so obsessed with always winning in some sense, winning in every way possible, even if it meant a minor personal argument that had no consequence, this was a man who could never truly grasp an artistic way of life or seeing the world.  Where you need to ponder, accept and in some way embrace losing, as it’s a simple part of the human condition we all face every day.  You need to accept and understand darkness on some level.  You need to accept failure.  You need to see through success to understand it often means nothing in the grand scheme of things.  Your personal success might mean everything to you, but it means nothing to everyone else.  All other people will care about is how you treat them, how humane and decent you are with them, what you genuinely show the world through your words and actions.  They don’t care about your statue.

The author claims that Joe understood this, but did he really?  He created a football program where he routinely put in 16-hour days to do nothing but win.  If you understand and accept failure … you just don’t do that.  Sure, failure will be part of your life in any sport.  But your obsession with winning will be so strong you will do whatever you can, within your moral parameters, whatever they may be, to ensure that you win.  Paterno certainly did, much to his credit.  If you’re a football coach, that’s what you’re paid to do.

There’s an interesting story one of his son tells, of being a bit of a black sheep in the family, the wild kid, who eventually got his head on straight, went to law school, and after his first year found himself ranked seventh in his class: a monumental achievement for someone who, it seems, might have spent the previous few years with a gurgling bong and fellow dudes attending college on the 10-year plan.  He tells his father about this, this incredible news of how he turned his life around.  Paterno’s response:  what, there are six kids smarter than you, and you’re resting on your laurels?

Think about how fucked up that is, in and of itself.  Here you have a son, who seemed on a path to nowhere, who had reversed his course in life to rise nearly to the top of his law-school class.  There are numerous stories like this in the book, of Paterno demanding his players to rise above, to keep pushing to do their best.  But in this personal case, a child he’s brought into the world, who had been stumbling and lost, turns his life around completely … and is then told his efforts are not good enough?

In the context of how Paterno handled the McQueary revelation in 2001, much less the knowledge (if we are to believe the Freeh Report) that he was aware of the 1998 shower incident with Sandusky, Paterno’s response to his son becomes even more pathetic.  Because bottom line, Joe did hardly anything.  Yes, he was a good administrator and reported the incident that a coach had reported to him.  But if he knew of the 1998 incident, with McQueary sitting at his kitchen table describing what sounded like a grown man having sex with a prepubescent boy on school premises that were his domain … the man should have been turning over the kitchen table, cursing his head off, grabbing McQueary, getting in his car, driving to Sandusky’s house and trying to kick the man’s ass knowing that this monster was raping a kid in the football coach’s locker room.  And after that, going straight to the police, forget about school policy, this is outrageous behavior he could not and would not tolerate.

If Paterno expected his sons and players to not rest on the laurels, settle for mediocrity and push the envelope … what in the hell was this?  Something doesn’t pan out here.  All these cute, inspirational stories of Paterno, in his yammering, high-pitched voice, pushing his players to go the extra yard … while he essentially did nothing in a situation that yearned for him to do so much more?

No.  I believe the reality was Paterno simply didn’t care.  No cover-up.  No evil scheme to protect his legacy.  He just didn’t care.  Which is almost as bad as a cover-up.  Because he turned his back on one particular young man who was in profound need of help from anyone … most likely because the situation did not impact his football program directly, and he didn’t want to get involved.  This radical moral error brought down not just him, but his entire program.

In the context of his entire life?  I think he just hung around far too long and should have retired at age 65, like most people do, record books be damned.  Problem being, he was incapable of letting go of that power he had.  It was obviously his only sense of identity.  Again, with my work in Manhattan offices, this is something else I see routinely, too.  Men working into their 80s because they have no identity without the sense of power their work grants them.  It’s sad to see.  These men are incapable of enjoying life without that identity – they’re afraid to even try.  For the men I see, it’s money.  For Paterno, it was being a legendary football coach.  For both, it’s power.  These men feel powerless as simple human beings which, again, as an English major in college and writer in my adult life, is how I will always see myself, just a human, with no desire to see myself as having more or less power than you have.  That’s about the only chance I have to see the world clearly.  I can only imagine how clouded your vision of the world must be if the only view you have of it is from some counterfeit citadel you’ve constructed out of your life.

Even through all this, I still consider myself on Joe Paterno’s side, his presence and influence  are woven into my life like so many other things I grew up with in Pennsylvania.  But I’m on his side with the knowledge that he blew it terribly in a situation that called for him to rise above and take control, as he so often demanded of his players, coaches and sons.  While I don’t advocate anyone losing his sense of power or legacy the way he did, losing his ultimately made him human again, which he wasn’t for a long time to so many people, be it weeping kids on campus when he got fired, or sports writers who felt the need to burn him in effigy when his situation blew the whistle on the shitty, plastic hustle their writing careers are.  He was a great college football coach who wanted to weave academics more into the sport to ensure that his players were ready for life after leaving college, as most of them would not become professional football players, and even if they did, would only do so for slightly more than a decade.

And do he did.  Would have been even better if he felt the same sense of protectiveness and dedication towards disenfranchised, defenseless kids in a program designed to help them, that really turned out to be a farm system for a pedophile.  But those kids offered him nothing.  They were just people … who were outside his program.  Even if something happened to one of them on premises that fell under his domain, and he chose not to be outraged, which he should have been, especially given that he couldn't stand Sandusky, according to Posnansky.  We still have a lot to learn about why he wasn’t and what really happened in 1998 and 2001 when this monster should have been stopped, as opposed to being ignored.  But again, I find myself learning more as new pieces, like this, keep getting added to the puzzle.  The next big pieces should be the upcoming trials next year.

Greatness?  Success?  Fortune?  They’re all things you should think about, balance with your own life, place in context with your experiences in the world, when you read a book like this, which I do recommend.  But the older I get, the less I want to respect people for presenting themselves as “successful” to the world.  I was raised by a factory worker, who was raised by a coal miner, and I have no idea what my great grandfather was.  Most of the kids I grew up with were raised by factory workers.  When I went to my class reunion recently, a lot of those people had basic working-class jobs and were struggling to put their kids into and through college.  They weren’t trying to impress upon me how successful they were – most of them professed to having a rough time.  We all do – that’s reality for most people.  We were all raised to recognize the only things we truly had were our word and each other.  What that has to do with beating everyone over the head with how wonderful and successful you are, I don't have a clue.