Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Let the Zombie Bite You

I’ve been thinking a lot about zombies lately.  The concept of zombies and how this whole bizarre culture surrounding them has formed over the years, mainly thanks to the AMC television series, The Walking Dead.

Not just with this series, but with zombie movies in general, there are some serious flaws with the concept.  We’re talking zombies: formerly living, healthy humans who, through some type of virus, or being bitten by another zombie, become this “undead” type of being who may have technically died, but has “come back” as this crazed, flesh-eating zombie with apparently no flicker of its former humanity, no ability to communicate, just this permanent, blood-crazed haze where the zombie exists only to find normal human beings to eat their flesh, particularly their brains.

Got that?  It was a pretty cool concept when George Romero first came up with it way back when, my favorite example being Dawn of the Dead, which perfectly sent up the relatively new shopping-mall culture by setting the flesh-eating frenzy in an abandoned mall turned fortress for some desperate, ass-kicking humans trying to stave off the zombie hordes.  Hard to believe that was 1978 … I took special pride in that movie as it took place at a shopping mall outside of Pittsburgh that some kids I went to Penn State with actually shopped at back then.

In the context of those first few zombie movies, what was happening made perfect sense.  The action took place in a matter of hours or days, and the audience got a real sense of the humans fending for themselves in the here and now, fighting desperately for their lives against overwhelming odds.

But … we eventually got into the concept of 28 days later (after the zombie apocalypse), then 28 weeks later.  Bear with me on this.  A zombie appears to be nothing but a human body, with the mind completely gone or replaced by this animalistic mind that exists only to hunt down uninfected humans to eat them.  The zombies still have human bodies.  Put your mind in another context, bereft of zombie culture.  The human body will cease to function without nourishment, zombie or not.  Eating is part of it, but without water or some other type of fluid, the human body will perish in a matter of days.

When’s the last time you saw a zombie in a zombie movie drinking water?  Craving water?  Having anything to do with water?  OK, they crave brains and flesh.  The same way I crave, say, frozen yogurt or pizza.  The reality is without water, I would be dead within a week, much less 28 days later, much less however many weeks, months or years are supposed to be inferred in the plot line of The Walking Dead.  Presumably, zombies would die in a matter of days without water as their bodies are essentially the same as when they were alive.  Their minds are gone.  They no longer have human sense enough to turn on faucets or pull beverages off supermarket shelves.  Even if they did, we never see that as the viewing audience.  I know, movies don’t dwell on seemingly mundane trivialities like drinking water, or taking a shit.  (Besides, unless you’re really quirky, do you really want to watch someone taking a shit?)  But we’d be dead inside of days without these “trivialities” … God help you if you ever go a week or two without shitting, you’ll surely be hospitalized if you’re still alive.

That’s one major problem with zombie culture.  The other major problem is food, i.e., in the case of zombies, normal humans.  I don’t quite grasp this.  Zombies in these movies don’t seem to grasp the fact that they could eat each other … they’re human flesh.  They only respond to the “warmth” of humans as they’re somehow cold and dead?  I don’t know … I can eat a cold turkey sandwich the same way I’d eat roasted turkey on Thanksgiving.  Turkey is turkey.  Flesh is flesh.  Maybe zombie flesh won’t taste as good, but it would be sustenance, wouldn’t it?

Still, as portrayed in movies and television, living humans are the only food that zombies can eat.  Never mind that they could still eat the food they once ate as normal human beings.  It doesn’t seem as though they crave that sort of thing.  But in lieu of a rapidly diminishing human population, wouldn’t they?  If I’m a zombie, maybe some flicker of memory plays in my mind, and as I walk past a supermarket, I go in, pop open a bag of potato chips and start mushing them into my slobbering, gaping mouth.  I groan.  Good, I think, even if I can’t formulate the word.  Not as good as a nice warm human brain I’ve just gnawed out of someone’s skull, but this will do.  Seeing as humans flee zombies or try to blow their brains out when they see each other, wouldn’t my mute zombie mind think, this is so much easier, I should hang around this place and break open more bags.  So I’m not eating at the zombie equivalent of The Four Seasons.  I’m getting by.  Nobody’s trying to kill me (again).  I’m already dead.  And these chips taste pretty good.  Not brains.  But I’ll make-do.

So we have this unrealistic, unsustainable mass of zombie hordes, always traveling in hordes, it seems, chasing after these few remaining humans in hopes of eating them.  A vast army of zombies.  Think about armies roaming the land.  We don’t have that concept in our minds anymore because that sense of warfare doesn’t exist.  We have occupying forces, like in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But not vast, roaming hordes of warriors like there used to be in military history.  Think the American Civil War.  Hundreds or thousands of soldiers walking the country side, looking to engage and defeat opposing forces.  When not doing that … these men need to be fed.  They need water.  Every day.  A few times a day.  There’s a lot of work involved in doing just that, whether it means carrying around enough supplies to at least have a base level of sustenance, or pillaging the land, killing local cattle, confiscating local harvests, finding clean water supplies in terms of rivers or lakes.

Hundreds or thousands of zombies clawing at the gates or windows of some temporary fortress the remaining humans have set up?  That’s a very real moment.  But it’s not a very real week.  Or month.  Or year.  If those humans just sat still and defended their ground for a week or two, most of those zombie would be dead-dead from lack of sustainable nutrition and water.  No need to waste ammunition on them.  Their bodies simply would stop functioning.  But then again, wars of attrition, while often more real than war itself, don’t make for good movie and television viewing.

Those are the physical issues I have with zombie culture.  Let’s get into the mental ones.  The whole zombie culture may have started with the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, from back in the 1950’s.  One of my favorite childhood movies was based on this novel, 1971’s The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston as one of the few survivors of a plague that had turned most people into strange, nocturnal zombies.  Not vampires or even flesh-eating zombies: sentient beings with greyed-out hair and eyes who couldn’t stand the daylight.  Heston holed himself up in a townhouse in Los Angeles and spent most of his nights shooting at the zombies with a high-powered rifle and his days trying to find their nesting places in hopes of wiping them out.

As usual, Heston is cast as the tragic hero who goes down fighting in the end, trying to save the rest of whatever unaffected humanity remains, with the hope that a serum he’s developed can be administered to the zombies to bring them back to normal humanity.

I never read I Am Legend, but from what I gather, there’s a stark, shocking difference to how the protagonist ends up in that novel as opposed to the movie.  (I’ve never seen Will Smith in I Am Legend and can’t vouch for how that movie plays out.)  He comes to realize that it’s not the zombies who need to be exterminated … he needs to go.  For whatever reason, even if it’s some type of plague, disease or fallout from nuclear war, these zombies now represent the mass of humanity, with isolated humans like him fighting for their lives.  He’s spent so much time feeling threatened by the zombies that he can’t unravel his memories and emotions to realize that his horror and revulsion were conscious choices he made when first faced with these zombies.  Chances are, they had done nothing to him.  He just saw groups of them after dark, felt threatened as he knew there was something “wrong” and not traditionally human about them, and most likely started killing them as a defense mechanism.  Naturally, like any threatened beings, they came to hate him and defend themselves accordingly, knowing that they had to kill him before he killed them.

That’s not the sort of thought process that makes for good movies.  Self realization rarely is, as the clouds parting that way always occurs as voice-overs or montages leading up to the protagonist staring off into the middle distance while this new wisdom sinks in.  It’s bullshit from a movie and television point of view.  But it’s something I can relate to as a relatively normal, thinking human being.  I’m surrounded by nocturnal zombies.  Hundreds or thousands of them.  How long can this go on before they kill me?  How much effort will it take for me to kill all of them when it appears there’s no end in sight for how many of them there are?  What’s the point?  All wars end.  This war would never end, or at least not in my favor.

That’s how my mind would work in that scenario.  In other words, I’d let the zombie bite me.  I’d become one of them, the slobbering, stumbling, stinking, flesh-eating shit bags waiting to be blown away by someone who hasn’t grasped how the world has turned.  Probably wouldn’t like it, but I’d look at the big picture and realize, man, do I want to spend the rest of my days fighting for my life?  Fighting for a past version of the world that no longer exists and will never exist again? 
(I often get the same feeling on the rare occasions I watch cable TV now and see ads for survivalist reality shows … I think I’d rather die than live in a world filled with these people.  Then again, if I’m being totally honest, I’d rather die than live in a world filled with reality-show people … and it’s too frightening to contemplate how vast and close to every-day reality in America circa 2014 these fucking awful shows are.  Wait a minute ... are these d-bags on reality shows, the overweight, tattooed, shaved-head, bad-facial-haired, do-ragged, white-trash jackasses ... the zombies ... and I am the Omega Man in this scenario?  Sometimes I frighten myself.)

This makes me want to read I Am Legend because I can sense that when it was written, the world was changing fast, in that post World War II haze of the 1950’s, just before the 1960’s kicked into high gear, and there were surely a lot of people hankering for “the old days” much as many of us do now as we age.  Imagine a world ravaged by war, millions of Jews exterminated, millions of people, soldiers and civilians, killed and maimed in an insane war that had to be fought, countries decimated and destroyed by bombs … you get a sense of what Matheson was shooting for in his novel.  That your perspective must change with time, whether you like it or not, whether you understand where the tides will carry you (and no one ever does).  This really rings true to me now that both my parents are gone, and that orphan sense one develops without those very real guides in one’s life.  I’ll always have the past, but there’s no fighting for a world that no longer exists, just the realization that I have to step into this new world and find my way.  Sure, the memories of them walk with me like comforting shadows, every day.  But in effect, I become a zombie, forget the complexities and desires of the old world, the myriad number of ways I felt I had to justify my existence, all that matters now is brains.  No worries.  No legacies.  Just now.

Food for thought?  Or have they already eaten my brains?  For the love of God, if anyone receives this transmission, I’m running low on ammo!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dog Bites Man

Until this past Wednesday, the last time I got bit by a dog was about 1973 or so.  Way back.  And it happened in roughly the same area, the back roads running through the farms and open fields around my hometown in Pennsylvania.  In roughly the same fashion, passing through, in 1973 on a bicycle, Wednesday while on a morning run, along a route I first started running in 1978.

It was a traumatic experience that first time.  We called that stretch of road “the Milee,” I think after the mile-long creek that ran parallel to the road.  Back then, housing was sparse: a few old single-frame houses, but mostly bolted down trailers on small parcels of lands between wooded areas.  I’m sure if someone had filmed a simple car trip along those road back then and showed it to me now, I would be shocked at how “wild” the area was, as compared to the dozens of small, sometimes expensive homes that have sprung up in the woods and fields in the passing decades.

But there was that one stretch of straightaway road that remains virtually the same today, a few small trailers, two or three houses, farm equipment.  One of the home owners has expanded over the years and now has a field for two horses and a mule, along with a bunch of ducks and dogs that I hear barking every time I pass.  All behind fences.  Unlike back then, when it was common for all those farmers to have dogs wandering free in their fields.

This became a problem periodically.  The worst incident was the big German Shepherd owned by the Hampton family, I think his name was King, getting loose and killing a few chickens in a neighbor’s coup.  Only to be shot dead by the teenage son in the family that owned the chickens.  Unfortunately, he was in his right as the dog was trespassing on their property.  We all sided with the Hamptons, because the kid shooting King seemed like a wild over-reaction.  But looking back now, King was a pretty frightening animal, a large dog, who loved to bark and chase.  He would often pick up small, cut-down railroad ties with his mouth and carry them around.  I never got bit by King, but I got chased many times, and had I not known the dog as well, would have been scared shitless in his presence.

A German Shepherd much like King attacked me one day in the summer of 1973.  We would often take field trips on our bicycles back then, along the Milee, where we’d park and drink from the streams or simply go in the woods and enjoy them, skipping stones, swimming, playing hide-and-seek.  I wouldn’t dream of going into the woods today, and couldn’t as most of that land now has homes nestled between wooded lots.  Going out to the Milee Road seemed like a big adventure, and it was to our pre-teenager minds where every distance more than a few hundred feet seems impossibly long.  It was only about two miles from our house: I would go on to run five and seven mile routes along those roads in a few years.

But I recall riding along that road with my brothers and sister, probably another kid or two from the neighborhood.  We knew about that dog who lived in one of those farm trailers, but also knew if you sped up around there and kept your mouth shut, you’d be way past the property by the time he started barking.

It was drizzling that day, a misty summer rain, and I recall us picking up speed as we pushed our 21-inch Huffy’s fast through that forbidden zone.  But it was hardly forbidden, just an area of public road where a guy was too cheap to buy some fence to keep his dog in.  I recall that dog snarling and barking, which of course scared the shit out of us.  I was bringing up the rear, peddling my ass off, and I could hear the dog’s nails clicking on the macadam of the road as it approached.

Next thing I knew, I heard a ripping sound, could feel the dog’s snout on my upper thigh, then a searing pain shooting down my leg.  I knew he had got me, and I started screaming.  But didn’t stop pedaling.  I figured, this son of a bitch will kill me if I stop.  I don’t remember much after that, save all of us pulling over a few hundred yards away, me sobbing, and showing everyone my leg, where there was a six-inch long gash where the dog had bit tried to get hold of my leg then slid off, blood seeping into my shorts.  I don’t even know how we got home, as I was carrying on as though a shark had chewed off my leg, but we did.  My parents rushed me to the hospital, where I got tetanus shots, and various ointments and bandages for the leg.  As bad as it looked, it didn’t take that long to heal.

I can’t remember how the situation with the dog was handled, save to say my parents called the cops, and we never had a problem with that dog again, whether it was put down or sent to a shelter or what.  It was like a demon being removed from our collective dreams, just one less thing to worry about when we got on our bicycles.

This past Wednesday, I got the nostalgic thrill of getting bit again.  Honestly, I was surprised that this still could happen today as most farmers with dogs either have them trained not to go near the road, put them on long chains or build fences so they have an area to wander.  Everywhere I go on my runs around the woods back there, dogs are there.  Always barking.  There’s the family in the log-cabin house with the old Irish setters coming up the Spring Crest Hill, dogs that don’t bark, but will chase.  And those dogs have always been friendly.  When they catch you, they want to be petted.  Unlike the dog at the house on top of Hampton’s Hill, which will bark horrifically at anything non-automobile that passes.  Then again, I haven’t heard that bark in at least two years, so maybe he finally died.  I think the same happened to at least one of those nice Irish Setters, and the one I still see looks pretty old.

In any event, while I hear dogs all the time on my runs, I’ll often only see them through rails or fences, hear them barking through windows.  There are public ordinances back there against dogs roaming free that apply whether you live in town or along the rural routes.  Some owners of dogs out there along the back road tend to be oblivious of these rules.  Their dogs are nice to them, but bark like hell at anything else, often aggressively, which I’m sure they’ve been trained to do.  Unfortunately, not trained to be real guard dogs, but sort of morally-retarded guard dogs: make noise at anything that moves.  They somehow know not to bark at cars, but go crazy over everything else that: a. moves, and b. isn’t their master(s).

There are two such dogs like this on the other side of the Spring Crest Hill.  Again, farm folks, not sure exactly who they are, but I gather a young couple owns one of the two houses next to each other just over the top of the hill.  Each has a dog, both barkers, both usually locked in on their porches.  They go nuts when I run by, only to start dolefully howling after I’m about 30 yards down the road.  Their howling usually alerts another dog just down the road who used to roam free years ago, but must have been chained up since as I haven’t seen him in ages.

I like dogs but can’t stand idiot dogs.  Much like people.  Most farm dogs are idiots.  They’ve been trained to be friendly to maybe five or six people, immediate family or neighbors, and treat everyone else like potential meat, despite the fact that public roads snake all along these properties, and I can’t be the only one out there running, or walking, or biking.  Generally when I’ve had snags with dogs along these roads, there’s always something annoyingly condescending about the owners, who are invariably rednecks.  I don’t say that as an insult, more as shorthand for you, dear reader, to gather with whom I’m dealing.

I’ll be there, in my shorts and t-shirt, paused as I try to coax a barking dog to get off the road so he doesn’t get run over as he chases me down the road, then backs off when I run towards him, then chases me down the road as I start running again, then backs off when I again run towards him, repeat for about five minutes.

If anyone should be pissed off and condescending, it should be me.  I’m minding my own business, traveling on a public road, and this shithead animal, who is illegally roaming free, is making me stop.  But the farmer who comes out tends to have a bit of a been here/done that attitude, oh, you’re messing with my dog again, don’t worry, I’ll save you, here Schep, leave that wandering homo in shorts alone now, I know he’s a dick, but humor him, old canine friend, he doesn’t know any better.

I’ve been on the receiving end of that attitude literally since 1978, when I first started running those roads.  Back then, daily, now more like every two months when I visit.  And it’s a rare occasion when I have to deal with an unchained dog, as I gather most dog owners foolish enough to let their dogs run free have either paid the price with dogs run over by cars or euthanized by the SPCA for attacking pedestrians.  It’s a no-win situation for the fools who do this, and they’ll surely spend the rest of their days cursing the 10-year-olds or relatively innocent car drivers who lead to the pre-mature deaths of their family pets.  Never once realizing they essentially killed their own dogs with their rank stupidity.

With the dogs on the Spring Crest Hill, this wasn’t the first time I’ve dealt with them running loose.  I gather both dogs are normally locked in on the porches of those houses, and there doesn’t appear to be any fenced-in area for them to roam around.  But back in September, I came over the hill, and sure enough, coming up the house, the smaller black dog (not a pit bull, but some type of larger terrier) came barking up towards me on the road.  I’ve learned with dogs to not show fear, to either stop, or if they appear not to be in attack mode (and aside from that crazed dog in 1973, I’ve never seen this), to run towards them, as nine times out of 10, that dog will retreat, still barking.

Sure enough, I ran towards him, and he retreated.  Just as I did, a guy in his 20’s came down the hill from the house, calling out the dog’s name.  I told him, I’m trying to get your dog off the road so he doesn’t get hit by a car.  Thanks, buddy, I appreciate it, Red (not real name), come on over here, stop barking now.  Again, that sort of casual attitude that I don’t equate with a dog running loose.  No apologies, again, the vague attitude that it’s somehow my fault for inconveniencing this asshole animal who can’t stop making noise.  I’m used to that, no need to escalate the situation, which I’ve often thought to do, but I know it will lead nowhere good as this horse’s ass will feel threatened on his home turf and respond accordingly.  When I used the word “redneck” before … this is what I mean, that attitude, the counterfeit authority from someone who is exerting no real authority.

Well, Wednesday morning, I come over the hill, and sure enough, I see that black dog rooting around in the tall grass on the downside of the road away from the house.  I can only imagine how many cars have had to slow down coming over the lip of that hill to avoid killing this animal.  Then again, I don’t live there, I have no idea how much they’re allowed to roam free like this, but if I see it twice in four months, I have to assume it’s too regular for their own good.

I approach, dog starts barking, and now I hear the other dog barking, a large mixed breed from the other porch, who is also roaming free.  Not a big deal, just slow down, make the occasional charge towards them, and they back off.  The usual.  But this time, as I start to run away, the black one comes towards me.  I stop and hold out my gloved hand (it was in the 20’s that morning) so he can sniff.  He does.  I start running.  He lunges out and nips at my hand, doesn’t hurt, but I find it annoying that this dog is playing games with me.  As I start running, the other dog comes up behind my right leg and snaps at my calf.  I felt a slight thud on my leg, like bumping into a hard object, but make no note of it.  A woman in her 20’s on the porch finally calls out to the dogs, and they run away.  We wave at each other, and I take off running again.

I really didn’t think anything was off until I got home and saw there was a small puncture in my sweat pants on the back of my leg.  I then rolled up my pants leg to see that there was a small blackish-red spot on my calf where the dog must have bit me, with a small trickle of dried blood beneath it.  It looked more like I had fallen and scraped my leg.  It didn’t really hurt; I hadn’t even felt or acknowledged it when it happened and ran four miles afterwards.  I guessed that the sweat pants absorbed most of the blow, and I was left with this flesh wound that would have been a whole lot worse had I been running in shorts.

In any event, I gave it a thorough cleaning and have been treating it with Neosporin and a bandage every day – it’s not a problem.  When I got back to New York yesterday and told a few people, the response was the same each time: are you going to sue them?

Sue them?  I didn’t even bother going to a doctor.  Those are essentially kept family dogs, not wild, rabid wolves, and people get bit by dogs all the time.  I know I did when I was a kid and had dogs, nips here and there, dog grabs your hand while you’re playing and inadvertently draws blood.  Shit happens.  Not going to be suing anybody.  Not going to the doctor.  It’s been enough to annoy and inconvenience me, but not enough to worry me or have me thinking we’ll have to amputate.

By the same token, the experience has brought back memories of when that dog ripped into my ass back in the 70’s, and it has unnerved me in that sense more than any.  I realize if I were to report this thing to the local police, chances are good those people could lose or be forced to put down that animal, which I don’t want.  I guess I just wish rednecks could be a little smarter?  Have a little more common sense?  See the world from someone passing them along the road instead of that same place they remain along the road?  That sort of healthy realization has clearly happened with most of the people along those country roads back home, but every now and then I’m reminded that some things don’t change.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Failed Gangsta Rapper in the Desert

For some odd reason, a coworker and I got into a discussion about The Manson Family the other day.  How Manson, or any dimestore maniac, got so many people not just to believe in him, but to do utterly crazy, violent nonsense for him.  We’re sane people.  Know how to present ourselves in public.  Can be persuasive when the need arises.  But to get a few dozen runaway teenage girls to be our sex slaves and kill people for some totally insane cause?

I guess drugs, limited intelligence and under-developed emotional maturity in the participants really go a long way towards megalomania.  I pictured myself on one of the Manson girls parole boards:

Manson Girl (now Grey-Haired Woman): And as my syllabus states, I found Our Lord Jesus Christ in the summer of 1978.

Bill: Thank God you didn’t find him in the summer of 1969.  Otherwise you might have stabbed him 47 times and carved Beatles lyrics into his chest.

I ask myself what the Manson Family means now, considering how the world is, with maniacs chopping off people’s heads in the desert.  And not just that, but having the presence of mind to film it and use it as a berserk recruitment tape for other like-minded maniacs.  (That’s what I think is really going on with terrorism.  The horrible acts in and of themselves are meant to scare and intimidate the people these maniacs consider enemies, but the real deal is always a visual record of their work that they can use as an integral facet of their marketing pitch to other doomed assholes.  They know their numbers are small.  They need more people to join their cause, more than they need to kill the enemy.)

What’s really strange to me is not the use of old-world torture methods but mixing them with “cutting edge” technology – filming the act, possibly with a smartphone, and then uploading to Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc.  I’d say “these guys are no dummies” … but they’re idiots.  We know this.  Their version of a good time is filming a beheading in the desert … while ours might be filming an ice-bucket challenge and hoping it goes viral via our group of Facebook friends.

The age of wonder?  It feels more like the age of wandering.  Aimlessly.  Covert marketing, envy and materialism masquerading as progress.

The world now feels like a surly mix of things that will always be with us – like death in any form – and these trendy play things we’re supposed to flock to like sheep.  As you could guess, I’m more inclined to things that will always be with us, but you’re reading this now on one of those trendy play things – the internet – that surely heralded the beginning of this new and confused age.  I’m typing this now on a bus, an act that was unthinkable 25 or 30 years ago (with all 10 fingers … call me a luddite).  If I wanted, I could upload the story and put it on the web, although this bus’ wifi system is pretty choppy and I might be denied.  But my words must get out and reach the waiting masses!  You’re waiting for this, right?

That’s what I’ve realized as I’ve grown older.  Nobody’s waiting.  Maybe the Grim Reaper, but he waits patiently for everyone.  Nobody waits for anything anymore.  Earlier this month, I was in the supermarket, back in rural PA, waiting in line.  A guy in his 20’s in front of me.  Big.  Not just fat, a guy who clearly lifted weights, but was chunky on top of that.  At the counter, an elderly man, who appeared to be chatting about nothing in particular with the cashier.  It was mildly annoying.  There was a line, and this guy was killing time, maybe lonely, needed someone to talk to, seemed oblivious that the cashier’s function was not to be his sounding board about whatever was on his mind.

While I was mildly annoyed, the guy in front of me was fuming.  Started to shrug and sigh, turning around to make eye contact with me as if to say, “why do I always get stuck behind assholes like this” … I knew the feeling, but I could also see the big picture.  Lonely old man, needs someone to talk to, this is it for today, let him run it out, will tag on two minutes to my wait in line, this, too, shall pass.  There were no other cashiers, so we were stuck.

In New York, the younger guy would have been flipping out, making his impatience verbal, as that’s how the manners meter rolls here.  But in rural PA, he just stood there seething, in ways that struck me as vaguely threatening, given his size and demeanor.  He wasn’t smart enough to grasp that his size combined with a lack of patience puts other people on edge, which will not serve him well when he runs into like-minded individuals with better self-defense skills.

Nothing happened.  As it normally does.  His options were clear.  Pick up the old guy and drag him out to the parking lot to possibly kick his ass.  And get arrested.  He took the easier choice, to feel bad for a few minutes, as if the world had it in for him, as it always does.  So if that was the case, it made more sense to look at his own big picture: down that Muscle Milk and eat three meals of meat each day, keep pumping that iron, getting bigger, getting bloated.  Because the world has it in for him.  And no douchebags in a desert are ever going to lop his head off on Twitter, no sir.  The world is your oyster when you can bench 250.

(Sidenote: isn’t it amazing that you can say so much on Twitter visually – cut someone’s head off – and never get anywhere near to communicating what that means in 140 characters?  You’re not prohibited from showing things that would take thousands of words to fully express, but 140 characters are too heavy to get across in one tweet.  They banned that video from Twitter, despite the fact that it perfectly, and brutally, underlined their philosophy.  Which is lightning fast communication of concepts.  Lopping off an infidel’s head in the desert … do you get the picture?  Not even sure why they allowed the failed gangsta rapper to make his asinine, comic-book villain speech … totally unnecessary, like when a “bad guy” professional wrestler grabs a microphone to pontificate in the ring.  Madonna could have told him that in 1985 with her experience on MTV … people don’t really listen to the words, especially with videos.)

You better believe, if we had all this social media available to us in 1969, the Manson Family would have filmed both trips they made, to Sharon Tate’s rented house and the LaBianca residence, to film the whole thing.  Living on an abandoned movie ranch in the desert?  (Funny how deserts seem to attract these folks!)  Eating out of garbage bins.  I assure you, at least one of those dislocated upper-middle-class runaway chicks would have had a smartphone, probably more.  And they’d have filmed the whole shebang.  Not just the murders, but the orgies, the insane speeches where Charlie made the connection between The White Album, messages from God, and their role in the upcoming race war that The Bible predicted.  Just trying to imagine now what The Manson Family's Facebook page might have looked like, aside from the obvious Beatles and Biblical reference links.  Would you "friend" them?

Do you ever get the feeling that life is passing you by?  I can guarantee you, Charlie Manson didn’t feel that way for a good part of the late 60’s.  I often look at people like him, or David Koresh, and wonder how in the hell they got people to follow them.  Koresh seemed like an REO Speedwagon roadie, the kind of guy who would try to “rock” while wearing wire-frame glasses and sporting a shag mullet.  What I’m trying to say: he was a dick.  Ditto, Manson.  A petty criminal from the middle of nowhere who spent most of his formative and adult life incarcerated.  Manson was roughly the same age as Mom, which shocked the hell out of me at the time.  This crazed maniac with hair down to his shoulders and swastikas carved in his forehead … could have been one of those dorky guys with a crew cut in Mom’s Class of ’50 high-school yearbook?

George Carlin, too.  While guys like this were out there doing their thing in ways not indicative of their generation, Mom was quietly raising a bunch of kids in rural Pennsylvania, supporting values passed on to her as a child raised in the shadow of The Depression and World War II, and all those other working-class Irish things we all had in The Coal Region.  The funny thing was, particularly with Carlin, that I’d later read interviews with him and gather that he fully understood my Mom’s world, that era in the middle of the 20th Century.  Maybe he rebelled against it, but he also seemed to have a begrudging respect for the hard sense the world made at that time.  Or he could have just been nostalgic for that rough-and-tumble Irish Catholic upbringing he had in NYC.

Where do you draw the line between living a relatively normal life and going over the edge?  It’s hardly a line: it’s a radically different lifestyle choice.  Manson simply took his hardened upbringing, particularly the mannerisms he learned pimping women when he moved out to the West Coast and had to find some dubious way to make money, and used them in a new environment.  One where he sensed there were a lot of stoned, lost, impressionable kids congregating in California.  People forget that the Baby Boomers wanted to be lead; their generation was one that flocked towards cultural icons to guide them.  One good thing I’ll say about kids now: they seem much less impressionable in that sense.  Then again, I don’t see too many worthwhile leaders to guide them anywhere either.  Other than blank materialism, devices and the burning desire to use them all day, I’m not quite sure what guides them anymore.

It might be a strange way to look at it, but the failed gangsta rapper in the desert … isn’t he just being nostalgic?  And I mean real, old-world, let’s roll the clock back centuries kind of nostalgia.  Burning witches, or throwing them in a lake to see if they float.  That kind of “world was better before we were born” nostalgia that really drives home the concept.  There’s a safe kind of nostalgia where you can long for how the world was when you were a child.  I understand that and indulge in it quite a bit.  (And it’s harmless, too, if you ask me, despite what some jack asses may tell you about indulging at all.  It’s a good idea to understand your past, because most of it is going to guide your future.)

The failed gangsta rapper in the desert looks at the world the way it is and thinks, “This is a load of shit.”  How many times have I had the same thought?  Countless.  You, too?  We all have.  But then I catch myself and think, “The world isn’t really that bad.”  It might be bad enough that I’d buy a bunch of Civil War duds online and pretend I’m fighting for the Union in some weekend re-enactment of Gettysburg.  But to actually kill someone in that re-enactment?  Come on, now.  War is over.  The South lost.  And they aint gonna' do it agin, no matter what Charlie Daniels says.

I’m starting to believe anyone who believes in a religion, or any cult-like belief, large or small, simply imagines a better world that used to exist, or the promise of a better world that was put forth in an age-old book of wisdom.  They want to be guided.  “We” want to be guided?  “I” want to be guided?  At this point in my life, I’m not so sure.  The two people who guided me when it mattered are gone.  As are some of the people who helped me along the way through school and early adulthood.  If not physically gone, then I just don’t know where they are now.  And I'm too old to follow anybody.  I must admit, it’s nice to recall those days and see there were people in the world who didn’t owe me a damn thing, yet made an effort to push me in good directions.  But the whole point of that is to find your own way.

Dylan’s Basement Tapes are coming out on Tuesday, something that fans have waited decades for.  Well, most fans didn’t – they bought the stuff on bootleg over the past few decades, but to get them officially and polished is a nice deal.  In his time, Dylan was like Moses, leading his tribe across the desert … to the promised land?  No promises kept in the desert.  Just a bunch of strange people with bad shit running through their heads.  Can’t help but feel sometimes that the world has turned into one big desert and all that entails mentally.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

U Who?

I hadn’t intended to write about the recent U2/Apple manufactured controversy, but what the hell, it’s an interesting topic.

So, the day Apple stages its fall event to announce the release of the new iPhone, U2 makes a promotional appearance.  Afterwards, Tim Cook announces that U2’s new album will be available for free to all iTunes customers.

While I’ve been an iTunes user since buying my first 160 GB iPod more than a few years back, I’ve never used the iTunes store.  This goes ways back, to Apple’s initial practice of only selling DRM-protected files, which I shunned like the plague and never got over.  But that night, I logged into the iTunes store and saw that the U2 album was noted as already-purchased, so all I had to do was download the files, free of charge.

What a nice promotional gesture, I thought.  Even if U2 albums over the past two decades haven’t done all that much for me, usually a few tracks are keepers.  I downloaded them into my iTunes library, copied them to my laptop’s Desktop, then deleted the files from my library.  I’m this thorough since I have around 30,000 tracks in my library and have my own filing/tagging system to keep things in order.

As the week goes along, I become aware that there is a “massive outcry” over what Apple did, that some iTunes users immediately got onto Twitter and other social media, complaining about Apple violating their privacy and trust by forcing free music into their library.  I didn’t immediately understand, but later learned that some users have iTunes set-up so that purchased files drop straight into their iTunes library, and by extension their “cloud” and devices.  These people had about a dozen tracks dropped into their Apple devices from a band they either didn’t know or like.  But the only way to state that properly in the wonderfully literate syntax of internetese is to say they “hate U2.”

The “massive outcry” was the usual thing: overgrown babies turning a non-issue into their version of walking five miles in the snow to borrow a library book.    This is the kind of thing they will look back on as symbolic of the tribulations they suffered in the halcyon days of their youth, while lecturing grandchildren who have silicon chips that stream music and virtual-reality video embedded in their fucking skulls.  The grandkids will roll their eyes: “Man, grandpa’s going off again about the time Apple downloaded MP3 files onto his iPhone without his permission.  What’s an MP3 file?  What’s iTunes?  What’s an iPhone?”  They’ll vaguely remember Apple the same way I remember IBM Selectric typewriters.

Never mind that a vast majority of iTunes customers, hundreds of millions of them, either quietly downloaded or ignored the free tracks.  Massive outcry?  More like what happens these days: a few thousand people on Facebook and Twitter riling each other up about the same non-issue, and the media then picking up on this and turning it into a firestorm of bullshit.

Some of the utter nonsense I’ve been reading the past week has been unreal.  An internet buddy linked to a story on Salon calling U2 “America’s Most Hated Band” – not necessarily because of this recent situation with Apple, but that and a lot of issues concerning Bono’s pomposity over the years and the sort of myth-building that any massively successful rock band or artist cultivates.  (The article didn’t even mention one of their more glaring episodes, when U2’s record label sued the band Negativland for not getting permission to parody “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in their song "The Letter U And The Numeral 2.”)

“Hate” is one of those internet words that has lost its meaning.  Hate much?  How many times have I seen some catty millennial mutter that passive aggressive bon mot when disagreeing with someone venting?  Like “epic.”  Like “awesome.”  Like “like.”  Words that have lost their meaning and only underline inferior language skills, where a Youtube video of a dog making friends with a billy goat becomes “awesome.”

It’s not awesome.  It’s not epic. It’s not even, like, epic.  Most people using the word “hate” don’t have enough heart and soul to hate.  You only develop that sort of emotional depth by being engaged in the real world, not spending all day in the world of devices and the internet.  “Hate” has come to mean that you think something is bullshit.  It bothers you.  Real hatred is a profoundly negative and violent emotion that goes far beyond feeling irritated. It’s something that burns in your soul and may very well destroy you.

I know we’re all being facetious when we use the word “hate” to describe bands, or types of music, or movies, or any form of art that elicits an opinion.  Most bands, music or movies that I don’t like don’t inspire the emotional effort required for genuine hatred.  I don’t like them, don’t have time to waste on them, don’t even have time to give the right amount of attention to things I love.  I don’t like hiphop in general, but, dude, I really should take the time to listen to the cool underground stuff to really get it, man?  No, thank you.  No time.  Would I listen to it if it was dropped in my iTunes library for free?  Sure, why not, but I would delete it immediately if there was nothing there for me.  It’s fine not to like U2, or any band, or any type of music.  So while I see through the faux hatred, I’m slightly befuddled by legitimate publications calling a band like U2 “the most hated band in America.”

That was the surface issue.  The real issue?  I’m going to go out on a limb here … the complainers could have taken two minutes to click open their iTunes library and delete the files.  Notice that a few thousand people instead took that two minutes to vent on Twitter, which tells you everything about their priorities.  Oh, but my trust has been violated!  How dare Apple and U2 pull this fascist bullshit on me, man!  On us!  They did it to us, man!

(Sidenote: I’ve never read those long-winded user terms of agreements that appear every time I download a piece of software, but I suspect Apple addresses this issue in the agreement for use of iTunes products.  If not, there would surely be a case here for a class-action lawsuit, right?)

Here’s an idea.  If you’re that genuinely offended by what Apple (not U2) did, boycott Apple products.  Trade in your iPhone for an Android.  Stop using Apple products.  If I was that offended, I would dump Apple from my life.  (As it is, new iPhones are selling like hot cakes, and U2’s back catalog sales on iTunes have picked up considerably since this whole “crisis” … no such thing as bad publicity.)

The gist of what happened here: the device is much more important to these people than the music on it.  Noticed this four years ago and is even more true now.  The emphasis in this scenario was placed on the importance of the device and unwarranted (i.e., free) files suddenly appearing on it.  The sanctity of the device had been violated.  “Sanctity” is the perfect word here.  The device is sanctified in the lives of many of these people: holy.  It’s not just a physical extension of who they are, but a spiritual one, too.  It’s their best friend.  Much more important than music.  More important than the Facebook friends and Twitter followers.  The other week, I read about a 50-year-old woman in NYC getting crushed by a bus when she tried to rescue her dropped phone.  That’s what we’re talking about here … that level of devotion.

What’s really baffling to me about all this is that the “controversy” was stirred up by Facebook and Twitter viral messages.  Facebook and Twitter are far more intrusive and in violation of their users’ personal privacy than Apple and/or U2 could ever be.  The way they track and catalog users’ personal preferences, likes/dislikes, types of friends, age group, gender, race, geographical location … all for marketing purposes.  And these people are worried about a company dumping free music on their sacrosanct devices?  There are social-media companies using you, the personal details of your life and your friends’ lives as financially valuable marketing data for corporate entities that see all of us solely as dollar signs!

The last thing I saw this week was on Bob Lefsetz’s website.  Lefsetz is a shithead.  Everyone knows this.  He knows this, too, which is why I can stomach his routine.  He blurts out stupid black/white takes on issues that he will usually reverse himself on in another week or month.  He believes in absolutes in a world that’s a patchwork of all sort of compromises and different ways to do things … but he feels he must dictate his extreme terms to an ailing recording industry.  And I’d gather most of the idiots in the recording industry who follow him lap up his nonsense.  If Bob Lefsetz says something is “dead” (like MP3 files or CD’s), I can assure you, there are millions of dollars of revenue generated weekly for these “corpses” that keep the recording industry alive, and will do so for years to come.

But he linked to this site as a legitimate response to the Apple/U2 situation, posting social-media responses by people who weren’t happy to get those U2 files.  Leave it to Lefsetz to use something this innocuous to, in his mind, damn U2 to cultural irrelevancy, despite the fact that they’re one of the most popular bands in the world.  I gather this is not the whole picture – I’ve seen some people take the sophomoric “Apple is Orwellian” route of complaining, I gather because they’ve been to college.  Most of the people responding on this site seem like kids – if they’re older than teenagers, they missed a few boats.  I’m probably being generous, as there are surely people in the 30’s still acting like teenagers, and let’s not forget that 50-year-old who gave her life for her phone.

But just read some of the responses:  I have no idea who U2 is but I’m pretty sure I hate them.  Who is U2 and why are they on my iPod?  Like who even is U2.  My dad know who U2 is … ok.

Shit like that.  Here’s an idea.  If you don’t know who U2 is … maybe you should keep it to yourself.  (It’s all about the device, not the music on the device.)  I’m a fan of U2, not a major fan, but nearly all of what they did in the 80’s and early 90’s still rings true to me.  I can see why people don’t like them.  The new album is marred by the sort of windy self-seriousness that they’re notorious for.

We’re talking kids here, so they weren’t raised in that era?  OK.  I wasn’t raised in the era of Frank Sinatra.  I knew who he was when I was a kid.  Yo, nigga, these kids, maybe they aint white?  (Sorry for the yo-yo-yo vernacular ... just mimicking some of the responses on the above link.) I knew who Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and a few dozen other non-white recording artists were, too.  I aint black.  I knew dozens of recording artists from previous generations and decades without really knowing much or any of their music.  I wasn’t raised by musicologists – I was raised by a factory worker and stay-at-home Mom.  I didn’t own any Frank Sinatra 45’s or albums.  Our idea of culture was that month’s copy of Readers Digest on the bathroom radiator.  But kids today have so many other distractions, etc.?

No.  They usually have one massive distraction: smartphone with its self-contained world of social media outlets, or in other (teenage male) cases, online video games.  Everything else exists in a gray void outside that world.  It’s not this insane barrage of media that clueless adults picture kids as being bombarded with today: it’s usually one device with a few social-media facets attached that take up massive amounts of kids’ time.  Kids are geniuses at wasting time, with the internet being the colossal, be-all-to-end-all waste of time ever invented.

We’re talking about kids here.  They’re either purposely lying to appear cool to their friends … or what I suspect, they’re just idiots.  I’d be real curious to know what’s on their iPods that a highly-visible band like U2 is totally unknown to them.  (Probably the current Top 40 suspects, nothing more or less.)  U2 just performed live at an event heralding the newest version of the device they’re thumbing their “who is U2” messages on … covered by thousands of media outlets … and they don’t know who U2 is.  U2 has appeared in numerous TV commercials for Apple products.  They had an iPod branded especially for them by Steve Jobs.  Again, they’re either playing stupid to the rest of the world or are just plain stupid.  The way kids are and always have been.  The way we all could be at times as kids.  I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, nor as dumb as adults thought I was.

I know … what’s cool to a 14-year-old will not be cool to me.  And vice-versa.  But here’s what you learn about life as it goes on: no one is cool.  There is no cultural center anymore at any age.  Everything is so sub-divided and micro-marketed that the few things we can agree on in terms of popularity tend to have profoundly short shelf lives.  The private worlds of Facebook and Twitter create these cocoons for people to feel cool in with their friends, and I like that about these entities, but that’s about all I like about them.  I don’t need to tell those kids they’re cool or dicks for not knowing or caring who U2 is.  It has nothing to do with U2.  These people are not cool, nor am I, but let them hold the illusion as long as they need.  For as a wise man once said, change will come around real soon, make them women and men.  Of course, by the time they’re adults, the age of reason will probably be 48 years old.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

T Rex

On my last visit back home, I went out for a morning run that takes me about six miles along the back roads, behind the high school and coming back along Route 61.  As I was heading down an alley a few blocks from the house, I heard someone yell out, “Bill or J?”

He meant was it me or my brother he was seeing.  I turned to look, and it was a middle-aged guy, a little burly, but not huge, standing in the middle of a backyard vegetable patch.  It’s Bill, I said, slowing down to try to figure out who was talking to me … happens every now and then back there with people I haven’t seen in decades.

“It’s me, Joe H.,” he said.  And I should have known as he was standing in his mother’s backyard.  All I knew of him in adult life was that he was a postman for years, probably still was to judge by his tan.  I told him I was back from New York for a few days, and he said he was taking care of his Mom.  Might have to move back into the house as things weren’t going so well.  I told him that I knew the feeling, unfortunately, as both my parents were gone, and told him I was sorry to hear that.  Well, I don’t want to interrupt your workout, good to see you again, he said.  And I went my way.

I hadn’t seen Joe since at least the early 1980’s.  He was a few years older than I was, a great high-school athlete, known for his speed.  There’s probably still a picture of him hanging in the awards case at the high school with the four-man relay crew he ran anchor on.  Back then, he was a sleek, naturally-muscled kid with shaggy black hair and clunky horn rims.  The guy I saw in his mother’s vegetable patch had a small belly going on, looked like either closely-cropped or shaved head under his baseball hat, but when I looked him in the face, yeah, that was Joe.

But that really wasn’t what he known for back then in the 1970’s.  Every waking hour of every day, every time Joe came walking up the street to the heart of the neighborhood, the schoolyard next to my house, he would have Rex with him.  Rex was a big black collie/labrador mix.  They were inseparable, always together.  I’m not even sure where Joe would walk Rex when they came around.  Usually when you walk a dog, there’s a certain, long route you follow to give the dog a good workout.  It just seemed like Joe and Rex weren’t going anywhere in particular.  Joe was heading up to the schoolyard to hang out, and it was second nature for him to bring Rex with him.

Heading up to the schoolyard, at least in daylight hours, didn’t imply hanging out.  It implied x number of baby-boomer kids gathering, almost every day, to indulge in a game or two of whatever sport was in season.  Spring/summer was baseball.  Fall was football.  Fall into winter was basketball.  If there were six kids, it would be a small game.  If there were 12, a bigger game.  If everyone showed up, upwards of 20 kids, we would head over to the open field by the hospital and play a big, official game on grass.  We’d also do that sometimes in the cemetery, although that was a bit of a pain in the ass as the open field there was on a hill.  It didn’t seem incongruous to us to play football in a cemetery: it was an open field in our hometown, fair game.  Despite being a rural area, there weren’t a lot of open public fields like that.  Plenty of woods, but not so many big fields.

For better or worse, Joe served as a guide as he was older, a real baby boomer, as opposed to the bulk of us who represented the very tail end of his larger baby boom generation.  There were plenty of kids Joe’s age in the neighborhood … the issue being most of them, like him, were in the middle of their teenage years and even in rural Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s, were heavily into drugs and partying.  Joe wasn’t, and because of that, and his clunky glasses, and his constant companion, Rex, he was considered a little odd by the other kids his age.

Joe would never come by the schoolyard at night.  I have a hard time grasping this now, as kids in my hometown back there these days don’t hang out at all.  But back then, the older neighborhood kids would come by the schoolyard to hang out at night.  Just druggy/stoner teenagers for the most part, hanging out.  Not necessarily looking for trouble, but by the same token, they were taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, not doing anything, pretty much avoiding their homes, probably because their home life was awful, thus their condition.  I don’t know how the adults around there put up with this, including my own parents.  If that sort of shit went on now, kids hanging out until midnight, carrying on, occasionally blasting rock and roll on portable eight tracks and radios, I’d be pissed off, at the very least.

In the summer there were nights we would all hang out, but that would be to play hide-and-seek, and later Jailbreak, a hide-and-seek derivative our relatives from New Jersey taught us when they visited.  Even that must have been pretty harrowing for adults, a dozen kids screaming “jailbreak” at the top of their lungs every 20 minutes or so.  But at least they grasped it was an all-age event that would break up no later than 9:00 pm.  As opposed to the harder-edged kids hanging out year round, later than that, and not playing any such games.

But Joe would come around during the day, and that almost always meant starting whatever game we were going to play that day.  Tie Rex's leash to a shady spot in the chain-link fence and get into it.  Like most of us, he was a good-to-great athlete.  Our social lives at the time were built on sports, with the schoolyard serving as the hub of that activity.  I would later find this to be smothering and annoying, especially with our house right next to all the action, but it was good up through the age of about 12 or 13, after which time, man, how many pick-up games do I have to play, can’t we change this up a little?  While I don’t look back charitably on the druggie kids in the neighborhood, I can also see they probably went through their sporting days, and at the age of 12 or 13, like me, wanted to spend their time doing other things.  In my case, it was reading books, and in theirs, it was smoking joints or dropping acid.  Although I suspect the greater reality was just drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, more so out of economics than desire.  I’ve always had an aversion to kids hanging out as a result of this.  I don’t give a shit if you’re turning over cars and lighting them on fire … at least do something!

We never paid much attention to Joe as an authority figure, but he was, by sheer dint of his age.  It also helped that he was fair-minded, not an asshole, and a real stickler for rules.  Unlike some of the older kids, he would never pick on a younger kid, never threaten anyone, never take that upper hand that an older teenager with less character would assume as his natural authority.  I point this out to underline what a positive influence he had on all of us at a fairly crucial time in our lives.  He wasn’t the only one.  The brothers Mark and Dave T. had the same love of sports and were roughly the same age, as was brother J.  They were hardly at war with the druggy kids, but there was a clear delineation that sometimes pronounced itself in strange, troubling ways.

I should point out that turning 16 was like Cinderella putting on the magic slippers: almost to a kid, it signaled the end of his neighborhood sporting days, assuming he hadn’t thrown in the towel sooner.  The ability to go out driving with your gang of friends signaled a whole different way of life.  By that point, a kid who was genuinely into athletics would be fully integrated into high-school sports and no longer have the time or inclination for neighborhood pick-up games.  Not to worry though: through the mid-80s there always seemed to be a batch of kids coming along who fell into that 12-to-15 age bracket.  As I recall, the batch after me, in the early 1980’s, could be a bunch of insufferable little pricks as they had no older guides like we did with Joe.  Even when Joe and the other older kids started getting into high-school sports and not being around as much, I can recall some of us carrying on like pricks, being abusive and weird with each other in ways that wouldn’t have flown with Joe around.  Oddly enough, it was often brothers who would be attacking each other like this!

I shouldn’t judge too harshly.  Looking back, I can see that the main difference between Joe and a lot of those wayward kids, aside from a stable home life, was drugs.  I could see how the stoner kids became that way.  They had rough home lives, often with abusive parents, so it was in their best interests to stay out of the house as much as possible.  And it only made sense for them to group together with other like-minded kids in the same boat.  Drugs helped them get out of their heads, out of those problems which were there every day and inescapable, not quite realizing they may have already been mimicking how their parents were at that age, fruitlessly trying to escape their asshole parents in that never-ending chain of abuse.  At that age, it seems like you have a thousand choices, but the greater reality is that you’re more than likely already starting to imitate your parents in ways that suggest you’ll be just like they are.  In some cases, that’s a nightmare, in others not, although every kid would surely consider that a nightmare at the time.  Genetics, character traits and learned behavior … the hidden barriers to true freedom.

Still, I look back and see that if there had been no buffers like Joe, that whole wave of drugginess and bad behavior that ran so deep in the first half of the decade might have overtaken the whole gang of kids through the 1970’s, as opposed to petering out the way it did as time wore on.  I didn’t think all this when I saw Joe running that morning a few weeks ago, but when I thought about it, afterwards these things occurred to me.  It made me feel some sense of delayed gratitude and recognize that most of our time as kids back then, it was older kids who guided us in those many hours we spent outside of parental and all other adult boundaries, and I was thankful that someone like Joe was in charge back then.  I get the impression these days that kids don't have anywhere near the freedom we had back then to roam and govern themselves accordingly.

I think my last teenage memory of Joe was him and Rex coming down the street on a summer afternoon.  One of those unbearably humid days, around dinner time, when it was clear a thunderstorm was going to explode any minute.  I could feel a few raindrops as I sat on the steps in front of our house and was thinking, “Man, we’re going to get hammered.”  Just then I saw Joe and Rex, tearing down the street.  He yelled out, “We’re running through the raindrops!”  And it seemed like they did for a few dozen yards as he and Rex sprinted down the block.  But then a sheet of hard rain came along and soaked them before they even crossed Route 61.