Monday, December 25, 2000

No More Ms. Nice Gal

Back before we ever considered Chad a four letter word, back before we elected a president who received over 500,000 less votes than his opponent, I won the ultimate popularity contest in my fifth grade class at Central Park Elementary School. My classmates voted me "Citizen of the Year" and it wasn't even close enough for a recount.

What had I done to deserve such an honor? Had I organized a student movement to clean up school yard litter? Nope. Had I led a protest over having to wear those standard ugly blue uniforms in gym class? Nope. Had I demanded higher quality school lunches that actually tasted and resembled actual food products? Nope. Did I lobby the teachers to ensure less homework? Think again Pepe. I was just a nice little guy that everybody seemed to like. Could the lesson therefore be that to be a good citizen is as simple as being as nice and popular as you can be? Hmmmm. Call me Mr. Congeniality.

Speaking of which, Sandra Bullock is a likable enough actress. I don't know of anyone with the exception of my pal Spunky who dislikes her. You may not like her movies and you may have no feelings about her whatsoever but in general I don't think there's anything about her screen personality that is all that unlikable. One of her first movies, Love Potion #9, ironically enough was written by Spunky's cousin, Dale Launer. In it Sandra played a nerdy scientist with a nerdy boyfriend. When they get their hands on a magical love potion they become irresistible to members of the opposite sex. But the lesson of the movie was that it wasn't only the chemicals that changed things. With a new found confidence both Sandra and her boyfriend developed the inner strength needed to be attractive to others. Sandra broke out of her cocoon by shedding her big glasses and protruding teeth. Beneath that waif of a person was a beautiful woman waiting to emerge.

Her new movie, Ms. Congeniality, isn't merely just a repeat of that previous film, it is a disappointing step back. If the new film didn't star Bullock and didn't feature some fine supporting performances by Michael Caine, William Shatner, and Candice Bergen, it would be in a word, dreadful. But somehow the cast is able to rise above the inane plot of a tomboy FBI agent who must find her feminine side in order to work undercover at a beauty pageant.

That Bullock served as the producer of the film suggests it may be time for somebody to take her aside and say, "Sandra my dear god love ya, but you can't live off your popularity forever. Someday if you keep choosing the same scripts over and over there are gonna be more people who side with that prophet Spunky. You my friend need to start making a better class of movies or risk a future in some lame TV sitcom."

There's a certain underlying sadness about Ms. Congeniality. Bullock's character, Gracie Hart, is a tough but lonely 30ish woman. Her most endearing quality besides her biting sarcasm might be her chuckling snort. She admits she has only had a couple of dates over the past several years excusing her obvious loneliness by saying her job is taking up all her time. Neglect those around you long enough and you end up drowning your sorrows with a pint (of Ben and Jerry's that is). But Gracie obviously has a big heart as she helps the lacking in self confidence Ms. Rhode Island believe in herself enough to have a chance to win the pageant.

The best part of the film is that Gracie does let down her shield and actually starts to like her fellow pageant members rather than looking down at their light bulb screwing waves and pleas for world peace. She sees that at least they (unlike her government thug colleagues) sincerely care about what they are doing and only in the end want to make the world a better place. No matter how shallow that wish may be is it such a bad thing to want?

Perhaps the point of the movie is that despite the makeover, despite the sexier wardrobe the made up Sandra really isn't any more beautiful than the rough and tumble never get a second look from her fellow FBI pigs true self. It is her sense of humor, her disengaging smile, her aggressive saunter that warms the heart more than any low cut cleavage revealing outfit can ever do. Beauty is in many ways skin deep as we are constantly bombarded with images of what we should and should not be attracted to. But after you peel all that away, after you wash away all the makeup what is truly beautiful is the heart that can find the way to give itself to others. Call it congenital congeniality.


10) When Madonna appeared in her little girl cowboy outfit on the Late Show with David Letterman she looked tired- the kind of tired that comes from raising two kids (Lourdes and Rocco) and trying to rev up a professional career again. It had already been a good year for her beginning with a wonderfully subdued cover of "American Pie." The refrain of the song, "the day the music died" asked a question that her terrific CD, Music answered. On her new CD Madonna proves that despite the changes in her life, music is still what matters most to her and through its healing ability- it hasn't died. Music is in many ways a return to her dance days with a nod to a more contemporary sound- the French techno style so hip with the kids these days. On the Late Show however she agreed to perform an acoustic version of the new CD's strongest song, "Don't Tell Me." She said she was just beginning to learn how to play the guitar again and she brought out her guitar teacher and humbly asked the audience not to laugh at her if she flubbed things up. What followed was a very moving version of the simple song- and a demonstration of the artist's innate musical abilities. Yes she was a limited instrumentalist and yet somehow she used the lack of experience to bring out the powerful emotions of the song.

9) Tubby Esquire, the 2000 Minnesota Music Award winner for best polka band, opened their set at Mayslack's on May 26 to a rather unenthusiastic looking group of people. A couple of the band's friends sat at the table nearest the dance floor in front of the bar's cramped stage. I sat slightly behind the two and to the right. Behind me was an elderly couple that looked like they had been in the bar since the day it opened. A few stragglers came from the main area to the back room once the music started but they invariably didn't stay long. The country and polka music sounded good but unfortunately few were listening. The band began to take requests- everything from the "Beer Barrel Polka," to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." When they struck up Hank Williams' "Dear John," a group of younger people meandered into the area and began dancing. They were joined by an obviously intoxicated young man that danced by himself doing some rather interesting if not obscene gestures. It was a scene straight out of the oddest novel and I can honestly say I've never had and may never have a better time listening to polka music.

8) My sister, who is in the process of earning her Masters Degree in writing with a focus on personal essays, gave me a high compliment the other day. She said she is impressed that I have been able to write this weekly column for so long. Truth be known the major lesson I've learned in trying to write something interesting every week for the past eight and a half years is that writing personal essays is about the most difficult thing in the world. Finding worthwhile material is bad enough but the process of openly sharing yourself and still connecting with potential readers can be akin to taking a fist in the gut every so often. That's why I was so impressed with Sarah Vowell's collection of essays, Take the Cannoli: Stories of the New World. Vowell, a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "This American Life," has a sardonic view of life that she shares with a razor sharp acerbic wit. Take the Cannoli is a constantly entertaining read, and the two essays on Sinatra are priceless.

7) In the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a demon can jump out at you at any moment. The way to defeat the demon usually requires staking it through its heart. Rest be assured however that there will always be another demon just around the corner. Overnight your best friends can turn into the ones that drive you mad. And those that are dead don't always remain that way (Buffy herself was killed the first season; Angel's tormentor Darla returned this year having been staked by the big guy himself). Those that are apparently alive are often dead and without a soul. As the characters explore their darker sides they often see that the only way to get through is with a witty one liner. Maybe this has nothing to do with the world you see around you but it's a fairly fair reflection of my world (and we don't even have to mention that poor Angel lacks a reflection altogether).

6) The Minnesota Twins drift ever so perilously and sadly towards becoming not just a symbolic Triple A baseball team but an actual one and last season was yet another discouraging effort. Indeed the current state of affairs can be summed up by the fact that the undisputed highlight of the year, the thing that got the fans most interested was the giveaway of four porcelain bobblehead dolls. Through a lot of work and planning my friend and I were lucky enough to get all four. As they sit atop my desk those noddin' stars of the past mockingly bob their noggins as a reminder of better days.

5) Early in the year I stood underneath a speaker with tinny sound in a dollar store in the Burnsville Center. I was killing time waiting for my wardrobe manager to arrive to help me pick out some new work clothes. Out of the clatter and chatter and bumping and jostling came a familiar voice singing his new song that I had yet to hear. The song's jaunting melody and sardonic words were enhanced by that wonderful voice. "I used to care but... things have changed," Bob Dylan sang. It was a perfect moment coalescing anticipation and appreciation. I find it difficult to believe that one can say he doesn't care anymore yet still is able to write such a cutting, observant song. A few months later I was standing in the second row next to the stage watching Bob sing the same song. He was no more than twenty feet from me when he looked into my eyes. The artist whose work has touched me like no other was looking directly at me. In the immortal words of that Mike Judge character, "...uh... cool..."

4) The one-year anniversary of my Mom's death was dreadfully approaching. My friend had agreed to come over and go with me to the cemetery, the place I was finding it increasingly difficult to visit. Prior to our trip out I bought an Azalea plant. The plant had an abundance of pretty lavender flowers. I figured I could clip a flower a day and bring it out to Mom. Mr. Max being the vegetarian he is was quite curious about this new addition to our house. I put the plant out of his reach to squelch his curiosity. But every morning I moved it near a window so it could get some sunlight. I carefully constructed a blockade to try and discourage Max. One day I found he had skillfully maneuvered his way past the barricade and was contently munching on the dark pointed green leaves of the plant. I scolded him and chased him away. Later that night he was acting more sluggish than normal so I looked up information on Azaleas on the Internet. I was horrified to find out that the plant was listed as one of the most toxic for cats. I immediately called up an animal poison center (who knew such a place existed)? and was told to bring Max in to his vet. As I dropped him off after watching them poke and prod him, and seeing him shivering in fright I stepped out to the hospital's parking lot and called my friend. She thought I sounded so shaken that she came out to be with me. The next day I was told Max probably had about a 50/50 chance of making it. I visited him on my lunch hour and as the vet's assistant retrieved him and brought him out I saw my faithful friend had a tube attached through his nose. Not once during the half an hour I held him would he look at me. The smell and sound of sick dogs surrounded us. When I finally was able to bring him home, my perspective of our friendship, always held in the highest regard, was even more appreciative.

3) Looking back it was probably more insipid than I thought at the time and at the time I thought it was pretty damn insipid. But Survivor was also pretty damn compelling TV. How can watching a group of people put in a silly and contrived situation saying bitchy things about each other be compelling? In the same way that watching any group dynamic where people have to work together to achieve a goal that will most benefit one individual is. The silly tiki torches and solemn ritual of voting the others off the island added to the wonderfully over the top, we know this is silly but we are taking it seriously, approach of the show. The end result with the most conniving of the group winning by being the only one keeping in mind it was always a game, was perfect. So was Sue, the truck driver's scathing monologue against her former best friend, Kelly Wigglesworth. They couldn't write stuff this good.

2) Some of my closest and dearest friends are election officials. I'd trust them with my life. But when did we start following Stalin's rule of law, that it doesn't matter who casts the votes, it matters who counts them? It was astoundingly absurd and disconcerting the way we went about electing a President this year. For years people have complained about not having any choices to vote for. For years people have also complained about the dwindling voter interest and participation. Little did we know we'd ever reach a point where our next President would be chosen by a difference of one vote (5-4).

1) For 36 years of all the things I've learned and tried to unlearn, for all the things I have seen and heard and have tried to remember and forget- the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is probably the single moment of expression that in many ways sticks with me most. And if somebody would have asked me along the way what is the one thing that you in your wildest dreams would never believe for an instant you'd ever see happen, I probably would have said seeing the writer of that wonderful song cycle perform those songs live. So last fall when I indeed had the privilege of seeing Brian Wilson perform the LP in its entirety it was with some trepidation. What if it didn't live up to what I thought it would be and how could it? But it did. I don't believe I've ever smiled wider than when Brian raised his hands in a football referee's touchdown signal at the end of "I'm Waiting for the Day."

Monday, December 18, 2000

Chris Clouser We Hardly Knew Thee

Years back KSTP-TV, the station with regularly revolving anchors, hired a man named Randall Carlisle who loved to open the newscast with a question. One night the newscast's lead story was of a salmonella outbreak involving some local dairy products. Randall dutifully opened the show with the wonderfully profound, "How many of us have ever had cheese?"

I never much appreciated Randall while he was here. But now I'm beginning to see the wisdom of the philosophy of living life by thinking in questions rather than declarative thoughts. I used to think that it was the not knowing that made people mad. Now I see that sometimes it's what you don't know that won't hurt you. Was it Plato or Socrates that used to ask so many darn questions?

My week began by receiving a check for $48 in the mail from Hennepin County. It came completely from out of the blue and the only note were a few words written on the stub- "Non- negotiable" and "Restitution." I appreciated the unexpected windfall all the more by using the Carlisle approach to life. How many of us like getting a surprise check in the mail?

To find out what it was about I called a nice young fellow at the county as soon as I had the chance. It was as I suspected. Back on election night 1998 I was doing contract work for the county. My car was parked on the deserted late night streets of downtown Minneapolis with thousands of dollars of election equipment inside, and somebody busted the passenger door window. The $48 restitution check was a result of the perpetrator being sentenced and slowly but surely paying his debt to society (five others and myself). How many of us have ever had to pay back an unwanted debt?

Actually if truth be told, the county owes me much more than that if we want to talk about just restitution. Who among us always gets what we deserve?

Certainly not new Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez a.k.a. "A-Rod." Rodriquez was rewarded for his standing as the world's greatest baseball player with an astounding $252 million contract. To put the state of the game in perspective the local team is struggling to sign journeyman Ron Coomer to a $1.7 million contract. Rodriquez now will make more by himself than the total payroll of twelve teams. This turn of events now makes even those most ardent in the support of building a new baseball stadium scratch our heads. Can the game survive such obscene disparities?

With the current state of affairs it's important to keep in mind that dealing with disappointment is all a part of life as the poets tell us. We live in a land of tainted beef and presidents so it's important to remember a principal principle of writing- in writing it is better to "show not tell." How many of us wouldn't be better off living the life of a writer?

One answer to that question is that those who live in movies (or "la la land" as someone I'm quite fond of once said) are often better off not living the life of a writer. I imagine it would be much less stressful being a full-blown movie star. 'Cause we all know what all movies are ultimately about- sex. What is sexy?

It's an unfortunate Hollywood cliche' that many of our biggest starlets worked their way up through the ranks by taking bit roles in some pretty lousy movies. Of course one of the unwritten duties of unknown starlets in unmemorable pictures is to do the obligatory sex scene. The apple peach of my mind's eye, Sandra Bullock, unfortunately was no exception. Who needs to see the girl next door naked?

In 1991 Bullock "starred" in a Roger Corman film called Fire on the Amazon. The film was completely forgettable. Co-starring Craig Sheffer as an obnoxious American photographer, Bullock plays an activist fighting the destruction of the Rain Forest in some Amazon country. One of the leaders of the cause is brutally murdered (arrow through the neck witnessed first hand by a young daughter). A local native is arrested for the murder and commits "suicide" while awaiting trial of the apparently open and shut case. Bullock and Sheffer are the only two who believe the accused has been conveniently framed by the local authorities. Who says all third world countries are full of corruption?

The movie seems to have its heart in the right place- sort of. There is a message about ugly Americans bringing their unwanted arrogant judgments to other cultures that they don't understand. There's a message about the need to stop the destruction of the Rain Forest. It's just that it's all approached on a somewhat superficial level- and comes across about as effectively as your average late night cable USA network offering. Still the essence of Sandra's appeal is readily apparent. She's plucky, she's smart, and she's immensely likeable and familiar. Isn't this true of all her subsequent roles?

In some far off stretch Fire on the Amazon reminded me of the classic Rita Hayworth film Gilda. That film was a pretty standard exercise, a love story revolving around a political thriller. Both films feature plots about corrupt men dealing in a precious earth element. In Fire on the Amazon it's the rubber barons who are the bad guys. In Gilda it's the men trying to build a monopoly on the world's supply of tungsten. In the center of both films are climatic sex scenes. What movie would be complete without one?

And it is here where the "show don't tell" approach is proven way wrong. The sex scene in Fire on the Amazon comes out of nowhere. Bullock's character views the Sheffer character with disdain and rightfully so. He's selfish, single-minded and has annoying hair (even the local police notice that). They venture deep into the Amazon and are captured by an angry local tribe. So of course what is the first thing that they do?

They have wild jungle sex. The scene itself was graphic enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. For those scoring at home so to speak, we get to see lots of skin and lots of bodily movement but not much anatomy. So therefore it's a treat for us Sandra Bullock groupies right?

Not necessarily so. Her sex appeal isn't her greatest appeal to some of us. And that's not to say on the other hand that it's her wholesomeness that attracts some of us either. For some, Sandra's appeal has always been rooted in her cloned believability- a reminder of a limper from the past, the giver of a lucky rock- a Siskel to my Ebert- the rare one who enjoyed the movie "experience" as much if not more than I. If I can't enjoy her company next to me at the movies anymore it's always nice to be reminded of her up there on that big white screen. Movies as life, life as movies etc. Isn't it hard to separate the two?

Fire on the Amazon was the last movie of Bullock's film catalog remaining for me to see. And I wavered in my decision of whether or not to see the film. I'm a completist by nature and I'm now quite proud to say I've seen all her movies (I even have the made for TV movie The Bionic Showdown on tape). I'm the first in line to see her new movies (and plan to be there December 22 when the ironically titled Ms. Congeniality opens). Yet I know Sandra tried to block the video release of Fire on the Amazon for obvious reasons. Is my devotion only skin deep?

But back to the heady and admittedly not too fair comparison with Gilda. The sex scene in that film is one of the most famous film moments and to my eyes probably the most erotic bit of filmmaking I've ever seen. Ironically the sex of the scene isn't between Hayworth and any man but rather between Hayworth and the camera. The movie establishes that her character Gilda isn't exactly the most stable woman around, but she is a free spirit with a devilish mind. Entrapped in a manipulative marriage she is literally imprisoned in a casino owned by her husband (played by of all people Glenn Ford). One night in a sly effort to break out she protests her entrapped state of being by seducing a captive crowd of men with a stunning version of "Put the Blame on Mame" much to her husband's discomfort. It's a smoldering performance that leaps off the screen in an apocalyptic way. Decked in a shimmering dark dress the dangerous carnal appeal of Hayworth's performance is greatly enhanced by the black and white photography. We're not sure what color the dress is only that it clings at all the right times in all the right places; we're not sure what color Gilda's hair or eyes are only that they have to be the color we desire them to be; and that voice (though not really Hayworth's but singer Anita Ellis) oozes sensuality. It is a clear example of how some things are better left to the imagination rather than explicitly lay bare. Tell don't show. Share don't hold back. Trust don't worry. What we see often is not as powerful as what we think we might see. And it all depends on what the definition of "is" is. In between the darkness and light lies some mighty confusing gray hues. When is a vote not a vote?

So leave it to Sandra's character in her constant comforting way to offer up the ultimate intimate wisdom. "Promise me one thing, write about what you feel not what you see..." she says fading away after earlier offering up the fitting and insightful question, "How far will you run when you have nowhere to hide?"

Monday, December 11, 2000

How My Chad was Dimpled

We look before and after
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought


I got my car back from the shop, the dang dings and dents and dimples all polished and removed. I'm hoping it can stay in this shiny condition for at least two weeks this time. I told Abra friendly receptionist Sue, a former high school classmate, that it looked as if I was becoming a regular of her establishment. She asked if I was married. On the radio on my way home I learned that Colonel Klink had died on Pearl Harbor day. I tried my best to figure out the meaning. Maybe it was connected to Shaq missing all eleven free throw attempts in one game; or the cost of sharing and sending a written word increasing by another unaffordable copper coin; or the Iron Chef finally being defeated by a challenger. All end of the world stuff. I remembered another not so long ago time I thought the apocalypse was upon us.

Sitting on the rug in front of my couch, legs stretched out underneath my coffee table, the TV was tuned in to Dick Clark's Rockin New Years Eve. The shade to my front picture window remained open allowing the flickering street light across the way to interfere with the darkness level of my living room. Max (henceforth known as Mr. Dimples) paced about as I tried my best to keep his natural curiosity from messing up the project in front of me.

Ever since Thanksgiving I had been working on the project- attempting to paint an oil portrait of the picture of beauty burned inside my heart congruent with the enhanced image (and memory) in my mind's eye. Actually I was cheating a bit with an inspiring photo available that I was relying on heavily to sketch out the details to the painting. The painting was not going well- the colors weren't right and my attempts at getting the eyes and smile right were equally futile with my attempts to get the proportions correct. The absence simmered more overwhelmingly than the times of her presence.

I got up and headed to the bathroom where I shut off the water that was filling my tub. I wasn't drawing a bath but rather as the clock approached the new year I figured the bathtub was my largest storage vessel and it was prudent to be somewhat ready. I had already filled all my empty bottles with water and gotten out my flashlights and candles. If this truly was going to be my last night on the planet I figured at the very least I should go out prepared.

I must say having attended several legislative hearings over the past two years on the potential Y2K scenarios I thought myself a bit more educated than the average citizen. Paraphrasing a Barbara Mandrell song, I knew what Y2K was before being Y2K compliant was cool. Deep inside I kinda hoped the world was going to explode. It wasn't so much because of my acknowledged fatalist tendencies, but rather it was more rooted in my journalism background. If this was really society's end, I wanted to be there to witness the biggest story of all. Selfishly I didn't want others to eventually see something I wasn't around to see for myself.

The phone rang and my sister in Los Angeles was on the other end. We chatted as the big hand of my Japanese clock edged ever so closer to the midnight hour. I turned down Dick Clark but didn't dare change the channel since he is the closest thing we have to father time. The Times Square ball hit its appointed spot and all the bells and whistles sounded. My sister asked if my electricity remained on. And it did leaving me feeling foolish for having nothing but a tub full of fear drawn water to celebrate with.

Yes I felt a bit daft for falling victim to the hype. But it had all seemed at least a bit plausible to me that because computer programmers hadn't planned ahead and had used two digit year indicators in many of our programs that there would be some computer glitches somewhere- the severity of which we couldn't really know in advance. I could very much believe our end would be caused by a reliance on science over our own spirituality.

But nothing happened. Our technology wasn't the end of us. Or so we thought.

On November 7 those of us still interested in the notion of civic duty went to our polling places to supposedly elect a president. There are a lot of myths involved with the importance of elections: that there is that much difference between the two major political parties; that every vote counts; that our system is so strong that it can handle any apparent crisis in a fair way. What seems a tad ironic is for years much of the nation has used voting systems relying on technology that was literally invented in the 1800's. That this year's election hinges on whether or not a ballot with a hanging or pregnant chad should or should not be counted makes those Y2K doomsayers seem absolutely ahead of their time- only they got their centuries a little mixed up.

Friday, December 8, 2000

Nobody Loves You When You're Six Feet Underground

It was twenty years ago today when I was at the end of my well established getting ready for bed on a school night routine. My mom and I were watching Johnny Carson's "Best of Carson" monologue when NBC News broke in with a bulletin that John Lennon had been murdered. A feeling of loss like I'd never felt before welled up inside. I was sad at the world losing a great artist. I was even sadder having read many recent articles on John's musical return, how he had finally been able to find some inner peace against the demons that he had so courageously always shared in his music. It seemed doubly tragic that just as he found that peace somebody took his life away.

John and Yoko had newly released their first LP in five years, Double Fantasy (which I dutifully went out and purchased on its day of release). Listening to the LP today is a bittersweet experience- the music is happy and free, laying the foundation to a new beginning. John had taken time off to raise their son Sean, and his return to music making was much appreciated by a fairly new Beatlemaniac. I had become a Beatles fan two years earlier in eighth grade band. Our director, the sleepy eyed Mr. Kelly had us perform a medley of Beatles songs, "Michelle," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Yesterday." My new best friend Steve Olson and I soon began to collect all things Beatles. When I fell head over heals in love with our first clarinetist Susan Weiss, it was the Beatles' songs that walked me through the incredibly wondrous inspiration inside, and the eventual heartache of seeing her hold hands with another.

Steve and I always used to argue which one of us in our friendship was Paul and which one was John. We both wanted to be Paul because who wanted to be the "weird" one? At that stage of my life I would never have forced "Revolution #9" on my fans. And what was the deal of appearing nude with Yoko on the cover of Two Virgins? I loved John's cockiness and sense of humor but Paul's charming accessible appeal seemed quite the ideal for an increasingly depressed adolescent trying to find his way through the hallways of junior high and high school.

My most Lennonesque moment came on a bus ride home from a band field trip at the end of ninth grade. It was a dark and stormy night and we had just delivered a perfunctory performance of our unique reading of Dvorak's New World Symphony at another school. I don't exactly know what came over me that night, maybe the giddiness of performing, maybe the fear of knowing that Steve and possibly Susan (who lived on the border) were going to the "other" high school in our district, the dreaded and hated Alexander Ramsey Senior High, rather than my proud alma mater, Frank B. Kellogg. How was I possibly to survive without my partner in crime, the guy who understood my sense of humor and point of view better than anyone else ever had? How was I going to live without the girl who made my heart beohyoingoyng like it never had before? So I began to sing every Beatles song I knew (and I knew them all) not quietly either, but at the top of my lungs with my voice cracking quite audibly on the upper notes of my register. Call it a spontaneous primal scream therapy session. Steve soon joined me and Susan couldn't hide her amusement at our performance. Some of our bandmates on the bus joined in on the songs they knew. Others seemed more than a tad bit upset at our impromptu concert (especially that evil french horn player Janice Kinney who had always thought I was a bit immature).

This was before I knew of John's own cleansing therapeutic scream LP, his self titled album that followed the Beatles breakup. It remains perhaps the most emotionally devastating music I've ever heard (and respect). The LP is a harrowing listening experience- as John tears up his past, everything that's hurt him and everything that has made him who he is- from his mother's death to Elvis and Dylan to the Beatles. He spares nothing and no one, certainly not his fans. Painful in its vulnerable self expression and heart bare sparse backing, an elegiac musical pall is cast. The naked vocal performance on the LP is astounding. Ranging from a near whisper, to an agonizing howl, to the stark confessional cathartic cry in "God" it is a stunning oral tour de force.

Perhaps John's most endearing quality was his nonchalance about making an ass out of himself. If he believed in something whether it be world peace or his love for Yoko, he always took things to their fullest absurdity. With the news of his assassination my mom said she felt sad knowing how deeply John's music had touched me. I tried to say something about his devotion to family. It was that devotion that stirred in me a new found appreciation for my own family. My first nephew Nathan had been born just a few months before and watching the miracle of this newborn child's awareness of the brand new world always tempered my seeping blues. It was an odd (and perhaps indulgent) connection to feel with John but it was one I felt nonetheless. "Before you cross the street/Take my hand/Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans/Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy" John once said that unlike his former partner, he himself did not believe in yesterday. Unfortunately all too soon that became all that remains.

Monday, December 4, 2000

Little Green Man from Alpha Centuri

The other night as Mr. Max and I were watching the bickering boys and girls on the McLaughlin Group an odd looking light flashed outside our front window. Then there was a whirring noise like unpopped kernels at the bottom of a popcorn maker. Suddenly out of nowhere a little green man appeared. Mr. Max looked half ready to pounce half ready to sprint away, but seemed too paralyzed in curiosity and fear to know exactly what to do. I turned down the sound of the television.

"Take me to your leader," the little green man with a protruding forehead and pencil thin nose said.

I shrugged not knowing how to answer him and who to point him to. "Hmmmm, you are the third human who has given me that unresponsive response tonight," he said. He muttered underneath his alien breath something about civic responsibility and disappeared into the dark night.

"Well that was kinda peculiar," I said to Max who looked up at me with a "when ya gonna feed me" look in his attentive feline eyes. I took another swig of my Old Weller whiskey, pulled the quilt Grandma Maeda made me further over myself and turned my attention to Eleanor Clift who was chastising a visibly bothered Michael Barone. We thought the excitement was over but it was not.

Poof, the little green man reappeared. He carried in his hand a piece of paper. "There are things you just should not take for granted," he said as he tossed the paper at me. I looked at it. There were names with arrows to the left of some and to the right of others. Perforated slots ran down its cleavage. It was by golly a butterfly ballot.

Just as I thought that the long national nightmare was never going to end the paper transformed itself into a caterpillar about 1 4/5 inches long. Then it began to pupate into a pale green golden spotted chrysalis. It remained in that state for only a moment when a small creature began to emerge. I looked over at the little green man who had a look of disdain on his face as if he really didn't have the time to spend teaching me whatever lesson was forthcoming.

What now appeared was a familiar member of the Danaidae family (order Lepidoptera) a butterfly with distinctive coloration, orange brown wings marked by black veins and a black border with two rows of spots. Forget that it was the most beautiful monarch I'd ever seen. It's graceful flutter was perhaps the most picturesque spiritual silhouette I'd ever shown my heart to. It flew around about a foot above my head. Max sat up and followed its every move closely. His tail thumped impatiently. The little green man remained very still.

There was familiar clanking in the basement as the furnace coughed up and kicked in. I remembered my lessons from school how butterflies hated Minnesota's cold and migrated every fall down to the otherworldly sands of Mexico. I was lost in my thoughts, in my dreams when the little green man finally spoke up.

"Sometimes you humans have the ability to convince yourself there is no choice even though a choice is apparent," he said. "You complain at times of having to choose between the lesser of two evils but that's more out of your own laziness than any actual empirical study." He pointed out that a rudderless ship would only lead to disasters like insurance companies giving breaks to SUV owners because they have the safest vehicles despite the danger they cause all around them on the road.

I had no real idea what he was talking about but I had a vague understanding of where he was headed. "You think that is a monarch butterfly don't you?" he said chidingly. I nodded. "Well taste it," he said as the butterfly floated into my mouth. I knew the coloration served to warn predators of its bitter taste but this butterfly was anything but bitter. It left the sweetest memory inside my mind.

"That was a viceroy butterfly," the little green man sneered. And the deceptive butterfly reappeared. It sauntered into the palm of my visitor. Max looked at me as if expecting me to do something about things. I knew enough about nature to know that viceroys cleverly imitate the monarch's color so its own enemies won't touch it. It may look like a monarch, our state's 13 state symbol, but it's an imitator like the difference between love and heartache. Great lights of Zetar my brain's bulb burned a little brighter. The little green man smiled and left me to concede that you can always come back but you can't always come back all the way.