Chasing phantom fugitives

My former United Press Canada colleague Nelson Wyatt reminded me the other day of a real fake news story we were dragged into more than 30 years ago.

Real fake news is reported when generally authoritative sources, such as police or government officials, say something that turns out to be claptrap. This can have deadly serious consequences – consider the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that escalated the war in Vietnam and Saddam Hussein’s “WMDs.”

Or it can simply be folly – so far – as with a Fabricator in Chief in the White House.

Then there are the many instances when authorities overreact – think terrorism threats or hurricanes – and get things wrong.

This was the case with the Canadian connection to the tale of the Briley brothers, Linwood and James, who led the breakout of six men from death row at the state prison in Mecklenburg, Virginia, on May 31, 1984.

While the other four fugitives were recaptured quickly, the wily Brileys were on the lam for nearly three weeks.

It was during this time that Canadian news outlets began reporting sightings of the brothers in Quebec’s normally peaceful and picturesque Eastern Townships.

I was running the news desk at UPC headquarters in Toronto. Nelson was a reporter-editor in the Montreal bureau.

The story smelled sketchy from the get-go. I figured someone had spotted a couple of black guys, a rarity in those parts, assumed they were up to no good, called the cops and … voila!

Next thing you knew, police armed to the teeth were combing woods and fields, setting up roadblocks and generally scaring the shit out of everyone from Gaspe to the Laurentians. We dutifully reported what the police said, and the hysteria they unleashed.

(The Brileys were truly scary guys. Over seven months in 1979, in and around their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, they robbed and raped and shot and stabbed more than a dozen total strangers. They were convicted of 10 murders.)

The manhunt in Quebec went on for nearly a week. I talked daily with Nelson. The information was so flimsy we started joking about phantom fugitives.

“Where do you think they really are?” Nelson asked.

“Disneyland?”

“Vegas?”

“Probably never left Virginia,” I concluded.

I was close. Linwood Briley, 30, and brother James, 28, were cornered and captured in their uncle’s garage in Philadelphia on June 19, 1984.

The state of Virginia wasn’t taking any chances on another escape – Linwood was executed in the electric chair that October and James the following April.

Imagining the art of the steal

I could easily have pulled off the greatest art heist in history.

Millions and millions of dollars worth of paintings were mine for the taking.

No alarm sounded. No cops. No witnesses.

Today, the original of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party could be hanging above the mantel in the living room of my townhouse in Mississauga, instead of my photo of a flying wood stork.

And Dufy’s The Artist’s Studio would look good in my home office.

The Artist's Studio

Such treasures would be mine if only I’d had a proclivity for thievery 45 years ago today.

On May 29, 1972, I was in Washington with my Swiss wife Anita, who schlepped this kid from Queens through the art museums of two continents during our short-lived marriage.

So, on this hot, sunny Memorial Day in the mecca of American history, instead of paying respects to Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Jefferson, we went to see the Phillips Collection of modern (mostly European) art.

I parked my dark blue Fiat 124 sedan on the street right in front of the gallery. We walked to the front door, opened it, and went inside. There was no one there.

In the entranceway, we admired a small Braque. We walked up a staircase and stood before that large Renoir canvas of the Boating Party, in its gilded frame.

Not another breathing soul around. Just the two of us and those Parisian partygoers, Renoir’s chums from the 1880s, drinking and gabbing on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Seine.

We moseyed on, dawdled in front of paintings by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat.

“This is weird,” I finally said to Anita. “We could just take any of these paintings and walk out the door.”

“What should we do?” she asked.

Since we were leaving Washington the next day and didn’t know when we might return, we decided to spend a little more time with the paintings.

After about a half hour or so, we began to head out. “Let’s see if we can call someone,” I said.

We went back to the entranceway and found the reception desk. It had one of those sliding shelves where people often pasted lists of phone numbers. Sure enough, I found a list.

There was a number for a “Mrs. Phillips.” I dialed it on the phone atop the desk.

A woman answered.

“Mrs. Phillips?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“My name is Ken Becker and I’m inside your gallery right now but no one else is here.”

“Yes,” she said, “we’re closed today.”

“But my wife and I just walked in. The doors were unlocked.”

“That’s odd,” she said.

“Yes it is,” I said. “What would you like us to do?”

No reply for a moment. “Well, I’ll call our security company. If you wouldn’t mind waiting there until they arrive …”

“No problem,” I said, and hung up.

Anita and I stood inside the front door and guarded the Braque. When we saw a couple of rent-a-cops pull up and rush up the walkway, we met them outside.

“How’d you get in there,” one snapped.

“We just walked in,” I said, turning to demonstrate how I’d grabbed each handle of the double-doors and pulled. The doors opened.

“You’re not supposed to do it that way,” said the uniformed security man. He closed the doors, grasped only one handle, pulled, and the doors stayed locked.

I laughed. “You mean anybody with two hands can get in but you’re counting on them to only pull one handle?”

He and his partner nodded. Dumbfounded. But not amused.

They looked us over, apparently checking to see whether I had a Degas in my pants or Anita had a Klee in her purse, before dismissing us with a wave.

All these years later, I envision filling my Fiat with great Impressionist works, driving up the Jersey Turnpike, home to New York, with the Renoir strapped to the roof.

When Anita and I split up later that year, she took the Beatles albums and I got the Sinatra and Simon and Garfunkel.

But I can now imagine us sitting around the living room of our apartment in Queens with priceless canvases strewn about.

I want the Picasso.

Fine, but I’ll take the Matisse.

No, I want the Matisse.

I’ll trade you two Cezannes for the Matisse.

Deal.

Let’s divvy up the Van Goghs.

Okay, but who gets the Renoir?

Considering all the places I’ve lived since then – Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Maine, Northern Ontario, Mississauga – I would have had to hire a Brink’s truck to haul my stash of paintings from house to house.

And now I’d have that Renoir above the mantel.

Or maybe Gauguin’s The Ham in the kitchen.

The Ham

And Picasso’s The Blue Room in the john.

Picasso

On sparring with pols

The assault of a reporter by a congressional candidate in Montana got me thinking about my confrontations with politicians – and a strange press scrum at the bedside of a comatose Mafia don.

Like the Guardian reporter who was “body-slammed” to the floor in Bozeman on Wednesday, I have inserted myself in political places I wasn’t welcome.

The first time was after a televised debate between Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Democrat Arthur Goldberg in New York in 1970, when I followed Rocky and his entourage into a freight elevator at the TV studio.

The governor was steamed. He hadn’t done well.

As the door was closing, I raised my notebook and pen and asked Rockefeller a question.

“Who the hell are you?” he spat.

“Ken Becker – UPI”

“Get him out of here,” the governor ordered.

His bodyguards obeyed, opening the doors and pushing me out of the elevator.

I have written before in this space about my experiences covering Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret for UPI in the 1970s. And about the skirmish I had with Trudeau in 1974.

In case you missed it, here’s the setup and the blow by blow:

I was in the office that September when one of our reporters in Ottawa called with a tip that Margaret was in the psychiatric wing of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and that her husband was on his way to visit her

By this time, I had covered Trudeau often enough that he recognized me.

So, when he arrived at the hospital with a two-man security detail – they stayed in the car – he knew the one guy waiting for him was a reporter.

“What are you doing here?” he snapped.

“How’s your wife doing?” I responded.

“And how would that be your business?”

I tried to make the case for the public’s right to know. He countered with his best harrumphs and shrugs of dismissal. I followed him into the lobby, to the elevator doors.

“Fuck off,” the prime minister of Canada said.

I was a wizened old hand in the news biz when I had a more public spat with a future prime minister.

It was 1991, when I was working for Canadian Press, mainly as an editor. But I put on my reporter hat to cover an early morning news conference held by the federal justice minister, Kim Campbell, in a meeting room at a Toronto hotel.

We knew she was going to announce whether to order a review of the 1970 murder conviction of David Milgaard, whose supporters had made a persuasive argument for his innocence.

I commandeered the only phone in the room – this was the Paleophonic Era – called my office and was ready to dictate a bulletin as soon as Campbell announced her decision.

“Hang up the phone,” one of her lackeys told me.

“Why?”

“Because …”

“Because what?”

“Because the minister is about to speak.”

“I’m not stopping her.”

By now, all of those in the room were focused on me. Including the minister of justice.

“Somebody’s not a morning person,” Campbell said with a smirk.

“You do your job, I’ll do mine,” I said.

I held onto the phone, kept the line open, and dictated my story as soon as she announced the news.

Now to that bedside vigil with the Mafia don – one time you’d think reporters would be unwelcome and in peril.

Joe Colombo was a mobster who craved media attention. Fed up with being shadowed by the FBI and angry at the portrayal of his family business in The Godfather, Colombo went public, saying he and his paisans were discriminated against not because they were killers, but because they were Italian.

He founded the Italian-American Civil Rights League, the Mafia’s answer to B’nai Brith or the NAACP.

In June 1970. the league, with Colombo the star attraction, held its first Italian-American Unity Day rally, drawing 50,000 people to Columbus Circle in Manhattan. A few months later, Frank Sinatra headlined a benefit concert for the league at Madison Square Garden.

I was working for UPI when Colombo was shot at the second unity day rally, on June 28, 1971. He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, a few blocks from Columbus Circle.

I followed the herd of reporters – right into his room. About a dozen of us were at his bedside, with Colombo’s wife and sons.

While the wife cried, and the sons talked of revenge – everybody suspected the rival Gallo gang had set up the hit, though the shooter was a black guy posing as a news photographer, shot dead at the scene – reporters shouted questions at the unconscious Colombo, some sticking microphones within inches of his mouth, which was hooked up to a ventilator.

“What happened, Joe?”

“How do you feel, Joe?”

“Who did it, Joe?

“You going after the Gallos, Joe?”

It would be Joe Colombo’s last news conference. He never said a word.

He never woke up either – was “vegetabled,” as Joey Gallo put it – but hung on for another seven years.

Jimmy Breslin’s wonderful comic novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, was a take on Crazy Joey’s Brooklyn crew.

The Colombo-Gallo war was effectively over less than a year after Joe went into a coma, when Joey was gunned down in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nearly a year ago, I sent Harry Edwards an email with the subject line: An idea for your consideration, please.

Edwards rose to prominence during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with his call for black athletes to boycott the Olympics, the inspiration for the black power salute at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.

Now professor emeritus of sociology at Berkeley, Edwards has long been one of the strongest voices linking human rights to the exploitation of black athletes.

My email, sent June 9, 2016, read:

Dr. Edwards,

I’ve been thinking lately about all the states that have passed discriminatory laws aimed at stripping African Americans and others of basic rights: voting, social assistance, marriage, abortion etc.

And this had led me to the idea that black athletes should stop enriching and enabling state universities in these places – and go to more progressive states to play football, basketball and other sports.

Can’t think of a stronger means of taking on politicians seeking a return to the bad old days.

And, I’m writing to you because I can’t think of another person who might be in a better position to explore this kind of action.

Thanks for your time.

Ken Becker

Expat American, retired journalist, writer, living in Canada

I came of age in the ’60s, when states in the Old Confederacy still barred the schoolhouse door to black students and colleges consequently fielded all-white teams. Federally ordered desegregation changed that.

Yet here in the 21st century, I was struck by the success of nearly all-black starting lineups on teams from state universities in the New Confederacy, solidly Republican and demonstrably racist.

When I wrote to Edwards, I imagined calls for a boycott, and a new generation of Freedom Riders going to the homes of the top – African American – high school athletes in Red States, persuading them to go to colleges in Blue States.

I wondered what would happen if Gomer and Bubba woke up one Saturday morning to discover their favorite teams fielding a roster of their slow, clumsy kinfolk? Would it force political change?

But the timing of my email to Edwards could not have been worse, as he noted in his reply:

I’m sorry that I am unable to respond substantively to your email at this time.  I am attending  the Memorial Service and associated events in Louisville, KY, honoring the Life and Contributions of Muhammad Ali …

DrHE

That was five months before the U.S. election, before the Race Baiter in Chief moved into the White House, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III became Attorney General, and the GOP whitewashed the rest of Obama’s Washington.

I began sketching this story in January, when publicly funded schools in two of the most reactionary states – South Carolina’s Clemson and the University of Alabama – played for the second straight year in college football’s national championship game.

Once more, as is always the case from Tuscaloosa to Norman, Tallahassee to Topeka, all the star players on the field were black and all the well-heeled fans in the stands were white.

But the piece never came together. I wound up folding the idea into a paragraph of a blog posted April 1:

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.

I provided a link on Facebook and got a nice response from a former Canadian Press colleague, Lee-Anne Goodman: “Brilliant suggestion re: football and basketball stars boycotting certain colleges. That is something people would pay attention to … We need to make this a thing.”

Well, as far as I can tell, people were not paying attention and this is not a thing.

So, I now call on you, soldiers in The Resistance, to add this action to your “Resources for the Fight,” along with your attempts to swamp congressional offices with phone calls and emails.

You call yourself “a grassroots movement fighting against the hateful and authoritarian agenda of Donald Trump and the radical right.”

Some of you have also enrolled in Resistance School, and dutifully tune in to episodes of The Resistance with Keith Olbermann at gq.com.

Cool!

And, while the media have compared you to the Tea Party, remember that those folks mainly replaced right-wingers with right-wingnuts in Congress.

If you really want to stick it to the man, start organizing Freedom Rides to liberate young jocks from the servitude of college sports in the New Confederacy.

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.