Writing here – and there

I now have a second blog, on my writing business website, and posted the first story today. (Please don’t ask me why the date is 4/5/2017.)

These pieces will probably be a bit shorter and promote the entrees on my Story Menu: Life Stories, advance obituaries, stories of immigration, bios, etc.

The first one is about something I just found out about my Great Aunt Adah (pictured above), who died in 1981, the wife of my only famous relative, Ted Lewis.

I’m planning to put most of my more personal stories on the other site – reserve this one for columns on current events – and will post a link here if you’re interested.

I may also reprise some of the stories I’ve filed here over the past couple of years.

Doesn’t look like there is a way to follow the new blog, though there are links to “like” on Facebook and Twitter, if that’s your thing.

No mas!

Too many thoughts on the daily deluge of dreck from Washington. Too many hours reading the news, watching CNN and MSNBC.

Too many headaches. Media-induced vertigo.

Need to go back on the wagon, back to my post-election news blackout.

Never had a taste for science fiction or fantasy, unbelievable plotlines.

Time to return to the real world, just in time for Opening Day of the baseball season and the Masters.

But first, I need to upchuck some sentences that have been incubating for months:

  • The current president of the United States is the evolutionary product, the natural selection, of forty years of Republicanism – the Me Party – every policy shaped by the question: What’$ in it for me and people like me?
  • Do-gooder Democrats lack such steadfastness, such clarity of purpose.
  • Even if he is impeached, leaves the White House in disgrace, or loses a run for a second term, Trump will achieve his only goal – cashing in on his presidency.
  • After eight years of the classy Obamas, the new family in the White House reminds me of the Clampetts in designer clothes, with New York accents.
  • Suggested question at Trump’s next news conference: “Are you crazy, or stupid, or both?”
  • Suggested follow-up question at a Sean Spicer briefing: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
  • The Trumpiacs on CNN are equally nonsensical, though one, Andre Bauer, was quite clear when running for governor of South Carolina in 2010, talking about programs to help poor people: “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.”
  • When did the politicians and the media decide to label everyone either left or right? What happened to liberals and conservatives?
  • What the hell is the Freedom Caucus? What happened to the Tea Party?
  • What is a moderate Republican?
  • Want to crush the crackers in states that discriminate against poor people and minorities by legislating to limit voting rights, women’s rights, religious rights, gay rights, worker rights etc.? Organize campaigns to persuade top high school football and basketball players – from poor and minority families – to boycott state universities in places like South Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas.
  • Why does the president have two Twitter accounts? Is @realDonaldTrump the real Donald Trump and @POTUS the fake president?
  • Why is he so obsessed with Obama and the Clintons? Is it because he really wanted to run as a Democrat and knew they’d laugh him off the stage?
  • Have we ever seen Trump laugh? Smirk, yes. Laugh, no. SAD!
  • Dear Bernie Babies, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson voters: Having fun?
  • What’s the difference between the Electoral College and Trump University?

Whew!

No mas!

Now I can get back to writing other stuff, watching reruns of M*A*S*H and Cheers on TV, rereading Nelson DeMille and Michael Connelly novels.

Counting flowers on the wall,

That don’t bother me at all.

Playing solitaire till dawn,

With a deck of fifty-one.

Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.

Now, don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do.

FAKE PRESIDENT the enemy of the people

For journalists, being branded an enemy of an insecure and vindictive president is nothing new.

On June 28, 1973, I arrived in my office, the Vancouver bureau of United Press International, to find the news I had been waiting for.

WASHINGTON (UPI) – Here is a verbatim list of the White House “enemies” supplied the Senate Watergate committee Wednesday by John W. Dean.

The previous day, Dean, a weasel turned rat, had told the committee that during his years as counsel to President Paranoia, the Nixon administration compiled the list so it could “use available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”

There were 202 names: politicians, business and labor leaders, lawyers and academics, and celebrities such as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand.

The largest number – 56 – in any category was under media.

Tricky Dick hated the press.

So, it was hardly shocking that early in his presidency the enemies list started to take shape.

I clipped the list from the UPI teletype machine and taped it to a wall in my Vancouver office. It stood nearly four-feet high.

I focused on the media section. Among the most familiar names to me were journalists whose work I admired – Pete Hamill, Mary McGrory, James Reston, Tom Wicker, Gary Wills, Richard Rovere, Daniel Schorr, Sander Vanocur.

I had been with UPI in my hometown of New York during the 1972 presidential election, covered some of the campaign, watched poor George McGovern ignored every time he tried to make an issue of Watergate.

After the Nixon landslide, as the breadth of the scandal unfolded, I was in Vancouver, 3,000 miles from the action in Washington.

I tried to grab a piece of the story when I tracked down a fellow named John Meier – with connections to Nixon’s brother Donald and a shady deal with Howard Hughes – living just south of Vancouver. But all I found was a nice family in a big, new house. No smoking guns.

Still, though I failed to earn a place among Nixon’s enemies, I penciled my name and Hunter Thompson’s on my copy of the list after I read he was pissed at being excluded.

Most conspicuously missing were Woodward and Bernstein and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post.

At the zenith of their Watergate coverage, Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler had said:

“I read the other day where Mr. Bradlee was giving a speech and he said the Nixon administration is committed to our destruction – referring to the press – that this administration is committed to the destruction of the free press.

“There has been nothing as long as I have been press secretary where we have ever involved ourselves in a program of destruction of the free press. We respect the free press. I respect the free press. I don’t respect the type of shabby journalism that is being practiced by the Washington Post, and I have stated that view to you.”

After the Post’s Watergate revelations helped send all the president’s men packing – off to jail, in most cases – and boot Nixon from the White House, there was a new appreciation for the Fourth Estate.

Seven presidents who followed at least professed a respect for a free press and possessed the cognitive ability to comprehend the difference between fact and fantasy.

Enter Drumpf, who thinks the Fourth Estate is the fourth mansion down the road from Mar-a-Lago and has adapted the old Nixon playbook as mein kampf (my fight).

“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news.  It’s fake – phony, fake,” Drumpf said to cheers at the annual right-wing reichstag known as CPAC outside Washington last week. “A few days ago, I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people’ – and they are. They are the enemy of the people.”

Each Jew is a sworn enemy of the German people … If someone wears a Jewish Star, he is an enemy of the people.

– Goebbels

Press credentials became the new Star of David in Drumpfworld during the campaign, exemplified by his supporters chanting “Jew-S-A” at reporters.

The Creep in Chief and his blissfully ignorant followers appear bent on making politico and Pinocchio synonymous.

I’ve got no strings

To hold me down,

To make me fret, or make me frown.

I had strings

But now I’m free

There are no strings on me …

Down where the Volga flows

There’s a Russian rendezvous

Where me and Ivan goes,

But I’d rather go with you – hey!

In the final presidential debate last October, there was this exchange:

Clinton: “Well, that’s because (Putin would) rather have a puppet as president.”

Trump: “No puppet, no puppet.”

Clinton: “And it’s pretty clear …”

Trump: “You’re the puppet.”

Clinton: “It’s pretty clear you won’t admit …”

Trump: “No, you’re the puppet.”

I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.

I want you all to know that we are fighting the FAKE PRESIDENT. HE’S FAKE – phony, fake … HE IS the enemy of the people.

All you need is love?

Love trumps hate. Sign of the time.

America as antonyms. Always emotional extremes these days.

Drama kings and queens. Insecure attention addicts of the Internet Age.

Love. Hate.

The Junkie in Chief from the Bully’s Pulpit of the White House last week: “I think a lot of good things are happening, and you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love.”

The next day, at his 77-minute telethon with the press corps, he flipped the script: “I watch CNN, it’s so much anger and hatred and just the hatred.”

To which, a CNN reporter later prefaced a question with this:

“And just for the record, we don’t hate you. I don’t hate you.”

To which, the Id in Chief answered in part: “You take a look at some of your shows and you see the bias and the hatred.”

Love. Hate.

***

During the years I was teaching journalism at a college in Toronto, more than one student, after receiving a bad mark or criticism of work on an assignment, asked: “Why do you hate me?”

My standard response was: “I don’t hate you. I don’t have such strong feelings about you one way or another.”

So, let me get one thing straight – I don’t hate Donald Trump. I don’t hate Republicans.

Do they hate me?

I turn to Aaron Sorkin, writing for Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom:

“I call myself a Republican because I am one.

“I believe in market solutions and common sense realities and the necessity to defend ourselves against a dangerous world and that’s about it.

“The problem is now I have to be homophobic.

“I have to count the number of times people go to church.

“I have to deny facts and think scientific research is a long con.

“I have to think poor people are getting a sweet ride.

“And I have to have such a stunning inferiority complex that I fear education and intellect – in the 21st century.

“But most of all, the biggest new requirement – really the only requirement – is that I have to hate Democrats.”

The haters are now running the whole shebang – the White House, the Congress, the Supreme Court (soon), more than 30 governor’s mansions and two-thirds of the state legislatures.

The Stooge in Chief has put arsonists in charge of every government department.

And while the Democrats bitch and moan, the GOP is gleefully passing laws to plunder the planet and feed the rich.

***

The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines.

Emerson

***

The Sponge in Chief stole his slogan, Make America Great Again, from the Reagan campaign of 1980.

reagan-80

He stole his “America first” mantra from the right-wingers who didn’t think Hitler was such a bad guy and wanted to keep the U.S. out of the Second World War.

***

Nazis, I hate these guys.

– Indiana Jones

***

He stole his “law and order” dogma from the 1968 Nixon campaign.

What’s next? Another chant from the ’60s – “America, love it or leave it.”

Love.

***

All you need is love.

All you need is love.

All you need is love, love.

Love is all you need.

***

Sometime in the final years of my father’s life, he would end our phone conversations with, “Love you.”

I didn’t know where it came from. He’d never said it to me before. Neither had my mother.

It was shocking. But it became a routine closing for them, as it has become routine for me when talking with my kids.

Love.

Has the word been devalued?

It’s ubiquitous in places such as Facebook.

Click the heart when Like is not enough.

Write it out:

Love ya.

Love ya!

Love ya, bro.

Love ya, girl.

Not enough?

Share a public declaration of love in the infinite space of the Internet.

***

Scientists prove it really is a thin line between love and hate – 2008 headline in the Independent

***

Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.

– 2 Samuel, 13:15, Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar

 

love-hate

Love and hate.

Here’s Robert Mitchum as the evil preacher Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter:

“Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand, left-hand? The story of good and evil?

“H-A-T-E!

“It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low.

“L-O-V-E!

“You see these fingers, dear hearts. These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man.

“The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life.

“These fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin the other. Now watch ’em.

“Old brother left hand, left hand he’s a fighting, and it looks like love’s a goner.

“But wait a minute. Wait a minute!

“Hot dog, love’s a winning. Yessirree!

“It’s love that’s won, and old left hand hate is down for the count.”

Love trumps hate.

What will be the lead of your obituary?

I have decided to add a new service to my writing business – advance obits.

These stories will be shorter, less detailed and cost less than the life stories I offer, more in the wire service style.

This has always been an unspoken, unadvertised, benefit of my stories – the prepared obituary to be tucked in a file along with the last will and testament.

Since most of us don’t rate a proper newspaper obit, this would be an alternative to the boilerplate notices assembled by funeral directors, generally a bulleted resume and list of survivors.

Sadly, that was all I could find when my old colleague, Chisholm MacDonald, died recently. (I can’t even calculate Chisholm’s age when he died on January 9, since the funeral home obit did not give his date of birth, only the year.)

Chisholm was a wonderful writer, an interesting Down East character, who toiled for many years as a reporter and rewriteman for the Canadian Press. Yet not even CP deigned to run a proper obit.

Instead, we were left with an indistinct trail of comments posted on Facebook:

  • And the golden age of writing by typewriter. I sat beside him on the rewrite rim from time to time in my early CP days and wondered how he found those words. Inspirational.
  • I learned a lot from Chisholm MacDonald. He was very generous with his time when I was new to journalism.
  • He was a wonderful fellow and a terrific writer with a great sense of humour.
  • He had a great turn of phrase that brought any story to life.
  • When I worked on The Canadian Press Ontario Desk as a summer intern, Chisolm (misspelled) was so generous with his time and knowledge. I loved his writing and his jokes too. A very kind man.
  • A fine man. A wonderful reporter.
  • A humble man. Turned out some absolutely wonderful stuff and always seemed startled if anyone said so.

If there had been an obit that did justice to the man, written in advance and based on an interview with Chisholm, I suspect it would have been welcomed and published by any one of the understaffed newspapers in his native Maritimes.

And it definitely would be cherished by all those survivors, especially the grandkids, listed in that funeral home obit.

I have no idea what would be the lead and content of a proper obituary of Chisholm since, like the rest the rest of us, there is no publicly available storehouse of information, not even a Wikipedia page, from which to draw a picture of his life.

And I’m sure, like most of my fellow journalists, he would have shrugged off the need for someone else to write his story.

Yet you might consider the famous Lincoln quote: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

We all wonder what would be the lead of our obituary.

“When I die, if the word ‘thong’ appears in the first or second sentence of my obituary, I’ve screwed up,” Albert Brooks once said, recalling his scene wearing a red thong in the movie The In-Laws.

As someone who turned 70 recently, I recognize that once you reach a certain age, chances are your most notable accomplishments and life experiences are in the memory bank and ready to be shared.

And there is a more urgent need to uncover and preserve the most memorable moments, the most meaningful anecdotes, of the life of those in the early stages of dementia.

When I was a copyboy at the New York Times in the mid-1960s, I would often encounter Alden Whitman in the morgue, reading clip files.

Whitman was then the paper’s most celebrated obituary writer. He did advancers on the most prominent people of his time – presidents, popes, prime ministers, Nobel laureates and the like.

A 1966 Esquire profile of Whitman, written by Gay Talese, was under the headline: Mr. Bad News. Yet most of those Whitman interviewed appreciated he took the time to present their obituaries with such preparation and care.

In the Talese piece, Whitman even imagined the lead of his own obit:

Alden Whitman, a member of the New York Times staff who wrote obituary articles on many of the world’s notable personalities, died suddenly last night at his home, 600 West 116th Street, of a heart attack. He was fifty-two years old.

When he died at the age of 76, in 1990, the lead in the Times was more flattering:

Alden Whitman, a retired reporter for The New York Times who pioneered the use of interviews of notable people to personalize and energize their obituaries, died yesterday at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

Before I started writing TV news at CBC in 1998, I was given a test. Among the questions was this: You’ve just died. But you’re not very important, so all you deserve is a 30-second copy story. Write your own obituary.

My answer:

It would have been nice if Ken Becker could have written this story.

But he can’t … because he’s dead.

He was one of the many writers who put words in the mouths of people like me.

And he did it well … made us sound more intelligent than this.

He worked for Newsworld in its formative years.

Then he disappeared suddenly … and mysteriously … at about the same time the CBC reported a 10-million-dollar shortfall it could not account for.

Ken Becker died today of boredom at his private island in the South Pacific.

He was 95.

 

Drawing blanks on the new president

A major component of my high anxiety over Trump’s America is there is no precedent for this president.

Forget Hitler and Mussolini and Nixon; Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi and Jesse Ventura.

From bad to worse, they were all fully formed humans. Members of an identifiable species.

They were definable. Easily categorized.

But I doubt Aristotle, Freud and Darwin could reach a consensus on the makeup of the 45th president of the United States.

Cue Rod Serling:

You are about to enter another dimension … Next stop, the Twilight Zone.

The combination of words and actions – and hair – make Trump unlike any human I’ve ever known, seen or heard.

That’s why, since the election, I have been searching for the right word, or words, to compare Trump to anyone – or anything.

He is certainly a first. But not a first in the same sense as any of his predecessors.

JFK was the first Catholic president. Obama the first black president.

But I’m stumped — help, please — when I attempt to fill in this blank with one word:

Donald Trump is the first ________ president.

Let’s broaden the field, beyond past presidents – and humans.

Perhaps a fictional character. Or, as in the old game of 20 Questions, feel free to define Trump as animal, vegetable or mineral to complete the following sentence:

Having Donald Trump in the White House is like having ________ as president of the United States.

(Note: Do not purloin Bill Maher’s suggestion the orange one is the spawn of an orangutan.)

Now, try this analogy:

Donald Trump is to Barack Obama as ________ is to ________.

Please take your best shot at any or all of the above and send to me.

I will compile and reprint the most astute.

An old friend lost, found, lost again

About a month before I got into the business of writing people’s life stories, I tried to reconstruct the life of my oldest friend – post mortem.

I’d known Barry Ginsberg since we were eight years old, playing little league baseball on the same team in our neighborhood in Bayside, Queens.

We were also on the same basketball team, as you can see in the photo above. That’s Barry on the far right in the front row, kneeling next me, when we were about twelve.

I’ve been reading a lot lately that 2016 has been a year of great loss, people citing the U.S. presidential election result and adding the death toll – Ali, Prince, John Glenn, Leonard Cohen, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Gene Wilder, Patty Duke, Garry Shandling, Carrie Fisher.

I could have easily written any of those obits with material available online. Piecing together my friend Barry’s life proved more challenging.

Barry and I had been out of touch for most of our adult lives. And just after we reconnected, began to catch up, he died on October 5th in northern California at the age of 70.

As I mentioned, we met as kids playing baseball. I was the pitcher. He was the catcher.

My dad managed our team. Barry’s mom, Flossie, was the team mother. That was an actual title – team mother. She was in charge of the drinks and snacks.

Barry and I became best friends. Our families became close, went on vacations together. But then, Barry and I went to different high schools and colleges, had separate sets of friends.

This was the mid-1960s. Hippies and straights. Barry was a hippie. I stayed straight.

I didn’t see him for a couple of years. Then, in 1968, the summer after the Summer of Love, I moved to San Francisco.

I knew Barry was in the Bay Area. I saw him once.

We met up on the Marin side of the Golden Gate. We each had girlfriends along, and he suggested a drive to the top of Mount Tamalpais to watch the sunset. Much alcohol and cannabis was consumed.

Walking back to the lot where’d I’d parked my Mustang, we spotted a biker making off with my hubcaps. “Let’s get him,” Barry said.

I tossed him the keys. “You drive.”

It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the mountain, no sign of the biker, that I smelled something burning and realized Barry had neglected to release the emergency brake.

I didn’t see him again for nearly five years. In January 1973, I drove across the country – from New York to L.A. and up the coast – to take up a posting as the UPI correspondent in Vancouver.

I stopped a night at Barry’s place in Mill Valley. By this time, he had a wife and young daughter. I remember playing with the kid — and that Barry and I had nothing to talk about.

The last time I saw him was the spring of 1978. I was covering the Blue Jays, in Oakland for a series against the A’s.

The Jays weren’t playing that Monday in May. I rented a car and arranged to meet Barry in Sausalito.

We had a drink in the No Name bar. He told me he had been abducted by aliens.

That was it for me – until last May, 38 years later, when he phoned to offer condolences after my mother died. Barry sounded good, like my old friend.

It was a brief conversation. I was at my sister’s house in New York, and my family had a funeral to get through the next day.

After I returned home to suburban Toronto, we had a longer chat. He was in northern California, where he’d lived since the ’60s.

I learned he was married again, to a woman I never knew existed. We talked some sports, our original bond. But he spoke mainly of his ill health.

On August 1st, I sent him a HAPPY BIRTHDAY email. I figured we’d keep in touch, maintain a long-distance friendship through our declining years.

A little more than two months later, I got the news he was dead.

I phoned his wife, Alex, the woman I never knew, and asked her to fill in my blanks of my friend’s life.

I conducted the conversation like an interview for a profile I’d be writing. In this case, I knew the beginning and end but not the middle.

Barry started as a chef in the 1970s at The Trident, beside the bay in Sausalito, a hangout for the likes of Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.

From there, he moved up the coast to run the kitchen at the Pelican Inn, in Muir Beach. That’s where he met Alex when she started as a waitress.

“My first impression was – chef has a bit of a temper. I thought he was mean.”

But it soon became clear to Alex that the “big lion was really a pussycat – and he was funny.”

That was 1989. Barry was in his early forties, long divorced from his first wife.

He had raised his daughter Lucy, then 18, on his own, and recently dealt with the deaths of his father and his kid sister, Sharon.

Alex recognized the sadness in Barry’s “beautiful blue eyes.”

They flirted at work for months. “One day, he just moved himself into my apartment, lit a joint, and stayed.” They married four years later.

In the mid-’90s, Barry had a serious heart attack. “After that, it was extremely difficult for him,” Alex said. “He’d say, ‘I feel like a shell of a man.’ It took him quite a while to recover – physically, mentally, emotionally.”

Just after he bounced back, Barry found out he had cancer. Nine surgeries would follow. Last January, he had a kidney removed.

Barry and Alex lived in a little one-bedroom cottage in Guerneville, in beautiful Sonoma County. Barry tended his garden, medicinal marijuana, and watched a lot of sports on TV.

When he died in October – of a massive seizure, not the cancer – he was looking forward to the Giants playing the Cubs in the playoffs and seeing Kevin Durant with Curry & Co. on the Warriors.

It saddens me that I will miss the opportunity to again talk sports with my old friend, my old catcher.