Saturday, January 30, 2010

War Is A Dreadful Sight To See

Some of you may recognize the title as the opening line from young Gerald McMurray's prize-winning poem, "War":

War is a dreadful sight to see
When all the boys are sleeping there
They are not sleeping; they are dead.
Some are in their foxholes when they are found.
Some never are found, and the ground is their bed.

My father was, if I remember right, in 7th or 8th grade when he wrote this poem.  He would recite it at every opportunity, usually to comic effect.  We would be in the car, in the summertime -- cars in our family were generally used, often rusty, and never equipped with air conditioning -- and we'd be blasting down the road, windows open but still sticky and uncomfortable, and people would be a little bit edgy (for that was another crucial facet of our automobile history: the cars were always one seat smaller than our number.  Car travel was like a sad game of musical chairs, where the music never stopped and no one was ever "out," the backseat a constant, desperate shuffle for space) and Dad would ask, "Did I ever tell you about my prize-winning poem?"  He'd draw himself up, set his jaw, and nobly intone, "War.  A Poem By Gerald McMurray.  War is a dreadful sight to see..."  and we would laugh and listen and things would calm down a little.

There was a time when I loved all things military, loved the history, loved the uniforms and the noble sense of purpose.  I had a big Civil War history book, heavy on maps and illustrations, that I carried everywhere, fascinated by the heroic portrait of Admiral Farragut clinging to the riggings and urging his crew to victory at Mobile Bay, haunted by Matthew Brady's photography, lost in the painstakingly drawn maps:

"Damn the torpedoes -- Full Steam Ahead!"

Matthew Brady.

The image doesn't do the maps justice...Trust me, they were amazing.

Vietnam was on television.  Young men from our community were fighting (and dying) there, needlessly, shamefully sacrificed.  I was too young to understand.  I was too young to know that my dad was joking about winning a poetry contest; he wasn't joking about his message.  Dad's buddy Norm Keller died in Vietnam -- his name is on that black granite monument in Washington -- and every time he mentioned Normy, Dad would get very solemn and tell us that Norm was a good guy, an athlete, a college guy, and that he'd been killed while trying to give aid to another wounded soldier, that he'd died for his country, that we must not forget him.  I remember driving back from Aunt Gladys's house in Sanborn, risking the trip over the creaky, impossibly arched bridge that spanned the railroad tracks and cruising down Townline Road in the twilight, and seeing house after house with blue star pennants hanging in the front windows, not really understanding that every star stood for a boy who was far away from home, hunkered down in some southeast Asian jungle and praying that he'd live to go back home.  War was a little boy's game, GI Joes and Civil War picture books, all strategy and uniforms, noble men and noble causes.  It was grand and good and not real.

It's different now.  Years and experience and a decade of war and I see the weariness, the soul ache in the faces of Brady's subjects.  I think about Norm Keller, his life stopped at 24, and of the family he would never have.  I think of the waste and wickedness, and the Blue Star parents and the Gold Star parents, and I think that war is a dreadful sight to see.

Unfortunately, war is also a great source of family history information.  Death and destruction are usually accompanied by copious amounts of paperwork.

Peter Litwin, Walter Siedlecki, and Alfred McMurray, three young men who probably didn't know one another, but who are eternally linked through me and my posterity, all registered for the 1917-1918 United States draft.  None of them, as far as I can tell, were ever drafted, although Walter did eventually enlist with Haller's Blue Army and fought for the Liberation of Poland in the strange years after the German armistice. 

Here are their draft cards:

There is a lot of information here.  

Alfred is 20; the registrar misspells his middle name as "Hermon," not "Hansen."  He works as an electrician, and lives with his mother, Charlotte, at 137 Stenzil Street, close to the intersection of Stenzil and Oliver on the north side of North Tonawanda.  That he lists his mother as next of kin implies that his father, James Ocean McMurray, was dead.  Al is single.

Walter is also single, a 21 year old laborer at Buffalo Bolt.  He was born in Suwalki, "Russia - Poland", his insistence on including Poland as an identifier when the Polish state had not officially exited for decades belies a patriotism that makes understandable his decision to join with Haller's liberation army later that year.  He lives at 661 Oliver Street (which for those of you keeping score is the little white building between what used to be Bonk's Deli and what used to be Rudzinski's Hardware), and lists his next of kin as his brother (and my grandfather), Anthony.  Anthony would have been six years old in 1918; my guess is that he was the only one in the family who could speak English.

Peter Litwin is still Piotr in 1917.  He's married, with two children.  He states his intention to become a citizen of the United States, although at this point, after about six years here, he's still a resident alien.  He, too, lives in the Avenues and works at the Bolt.

Had a couple of things gone differently -- a draft number comes up, and a kid sitting in a trench in France takes a German bullet or contracts the flu -- our family might never have come to be...

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Two non-blog readers...

People are competitive.

Everything these days is "biological imperative" and "evolutionary conditioning": we gorge on  hamburgers and corn syrup-laden soda pop because salts and fats and sugars were hard to come by for our simian ancestors, all those years ago, and there is some tiny neolithic sensor still pulsing in our brains, telling us to load up on all this life-sustaining goodness, because it won't be here for long.  Promiscuity is more of the same, the ancient lizardy center of our brains impelling us to propagate, that the species might survive.  The Seven Deadly Sins aren't sins at all, but Normal Human Behavior, Extravagance, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy and Pride all natural and completely understandable vestiges of our caveman past.

Competition is part of that.  I regularly jump into that particular vortex, most recently when I stumbled onto a blog which was much like this one in many, many ways (that is, too many words and too much navel gazing), except that it was called something like "From Miserable Mormon to Happy Atheist" and its followers numbered in the hundreds, and the site had had thousands of hits.

I spent a few black moments, feeling thwarted and unsuccessful because this woman, who is a half-decent writer, has found her audience, and I can't even get my mother to read my posts.  And the Happy Atheist has an audience: there are many turgid messages, from people who have abandoned all sorts of religious traditions, but mostly content ex-Mormons, thanking her for her Courage and her Wisdom and her Example, for bravely unhinging the shackles of her benighted and suffocating superstitions, and entering  Nihilism's sweet embrace (maybe that's harsh.  Maybe she's not a nihilist, exactly.  As Robertson Davies notes, the one thing that atheists believe in is themselves, usually with a Weimar-like rate of inflation: "A man who recognizes no God is probably putting an inordinate value on himself.")

There is an interesting arithmetic at work here: anyone from Aaron the priest to Aaron Spelling will tell you that appealing to people's baser instincts will win you friends and make you money.  If I were to change the entire focus of this blog to something more palatable to the worser devils of our nature -- Handsome Nude People, say, or Donuts -- I would probably have a lot more visitors, and more comments (though they would all be along the lines of "More photos like this one please" and "Ooooh! Yummy! And the Donuts look good, too!") and that little lizardy lump in my brain, the one that Yearns For Acknowledgement, would tell me, "Yesssss, well done, my precious."

That's not the point.  Mormonism -- and this will be a surprise to many Mormons, particularly those who live in Utah and are afflicted by a myopathy so acute that one recent transplant to Houston expressed a fair amount of shock to discover that Costcos in Texas do not carry a full array of LDS books and tchotkes, like they do in Orem -- is barely a blip on the world's radar screen (I was at a State Priesthood Leadership Meeting not too long ago when a high Church official mentioned that there were now more Mormons than Jews.  I couldn't resist pointing out that a few decades back, history handed worldwide Judaism a 6,000,000 member deduction, so maybe our victory should carry an asterisk in the record books.  Comments like that are probably why I am no longer required to attend Priesthood Leadership Meetings).  Those aware of the blip, those wholly dedicated to making the blip a great glowing blob, are often far more committed to the cultural barnacles attached to the movement -- BYU Football, Donny Osmond, our love of Jell-O, the fact that a panoply of Noteworthy Figures, from Dennis Eckersley to Philo Farnsworth to Christina Aguilera to Amy Adams, have some tenuous connection to the Church, and therefore, despite their complete estrangement from its doctrines and tenets, are Among The Faithful -- than to the movement itself.

Christianity as a whole fairs little better.  As G.K. Chesterton famously notes, mostly it is found difficult, and not tried: the bulk of what passes for Christianity is actually prejudices, superstitions, rumors, misremembered vestiges of catechism or Sunday School, and, for some at least, liberal doses of the oeuvres of Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, while others apply a heavy schmeer of the lunatic ramblings of Pat Robertson or, even worse, the limp and lifeless cheerleading of the oh so sincere Pastor Joel Osteen, the Richard Simmons of bonehead religiosity.  I am fairly certain that the same is true for Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam: most of the people professing adherence have no idea what the religion is actually about.  I suppose that even Druid true believers get frustrated at the sodden incompetence of the bulk of their kinsmen ("That's no way to worship an oak tree!  This is just depressing.")

(You may think I overstep with the Mafia moviemakers reference.  I do not.  About 12 years ago, and I swear that this is true, I visited an Elders Quorum meeting in a ward in Texas, and a man said, in all seriousness, "Brethren, it's like the Lord says in the New Testament: 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.'"  Many heads nodded in agreement at this sage advice from the Man from Galilee, except Jesus didn't say it; Michael Corleone does, in Godfather II.  And Mike tells Frankie Pentangeli that he'd learned this particular truth from his father, Don Corleone.  As for Pastor Joel, I prescribe for him repeated readings of Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself" and lots  and lots of Paul.  And maybe some King Bejamin or Jacob, if reading from the Book of Mormon doesn't cause his eyeballs to spontaneously combust.)

Christians -- true, committed followers of Jesus Christ -- are a rare breed.  I'd like to think that I am one, but mostly, I fall far short of that mark.  It is not an easy life.  It is a life of service, and sacrifice, of constantly, consciously walking away from the "the natural man," of rejecting that little primitive voice in our heads, telling us to sate our lusts, whether the lust that draws us is sex or fame or food or power.  It is a constant expectation that we will bend our will to a God we cannot see and cannot touch, a God whose presence, whose very existence is usually no more than a whisper at the very edges of our conscious.  It is a determination to press on, usually against the prevailing norms, even when we have all the reason in the world to doubt, to disbelieve.  Prevailing norms change, which is why Martin Luther dismissed reason as "a whore" and a threat to faith.  Faith is illogical, unnatural, unchanging, the message a constant "Doubt not, but believe," which is why it is at once difficult and necessary.

One of the most wonderful things I have ever heard came from the lips of Jeffrey R. Holland, a man I personally acknowledge as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, who said that we know virtually nothing about the Afterlife, that nearly all that is said about it is conjecture and supposition (how often do you hear anyone have the courage to declare, "I Don't Know"?)  What we do know, Elder Holland said, "is there will be families there."  I don't know Heaven.  I don't know what transpired in Gethsemane's garden or on Golgotha's hill.  I don't know what happened to Joseph Smith in that grove of trees back in 1820.  But beyond my senses, beyond reason, I know.

I know because of my grandmother's huge crucifix and my grandfather's rosary and Bible (a Bible read and well-worn) and my father in his bathrobe, stooped and dying from cancer, curled on his bed, reading the Book of Mormon.  I know because Piotr Litwin got on a boat and sailed to a new country, and James Ocean McMurray did the same.  I know because my mother, true to the legacy of the saint whose name she bears, pressed on in a hopeless cause, and found that it was not so hopeless, after all.  I know because of my wife, who prays with real intent, and loves perfectly. I know because of three bright and altogether wonderful children who are uncannily well-equipped to stretch me in all the ways I need stretching.  I know because of a million whispers, more felt than heard, eye blink brief but somehow lasting, telling me to press forward, to keep working, to be happily, gratefully, blessedly obscure.

So I remain, fitfully, inefficiently striving to be like Jesus, who, I am sure, didn't worry too much about the competition.

Tomorrow, a bit about the World War I draft.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Peeling paint on Oliver Street
Photo from the remarkable Jacob Kedzierski -- check out his 
North Tonawanda collection at

The customers are restless.  Most people who wander into this site do so by accident, which is fine (howdy, Mister Clinton!).  The few who actually come here by design tend to be, shall we say, demanding readers.  

"Where's the family history?" I was asked today.  "You're way behind schedule on this 3,000 dead relatives thing."  The general consensus is, less Obama talk, fewer song lyrics, and more names of dead folk.


One of the most admirable aspects of practical Mormonism is its constant awareness that we are part of a large family, and that the living have an obligation to bind themselves to the dead, to learn from the past, to remember the past, to knit together generations.  One of the most repulsive aspects of practical Mormonism is the one-dimensionality that that binding usually takes.  We log onto the websites and contact the town clerks and visit the country cemeteries, feverishly collecting names, piling up the pink and blue Family File slips like so many baseball cards, with no thought to the people, the breathing, living, bleeding, laughing, loving people, the remarkable people and the reprehensible people, our people, that all those slips of paper represent.

More stories are in the offing.  It takes hours of research and not a little effort to put those things together.  And right now, for whatever reason, I am thinking a lot about my grandfather, so he is the ancestor I'm writing about.

With that, a brief exegesis of "Oliver Street":

The Third Ward of North Tonawanda is dominated by a neighborhood known as "The Avenues".  From the turn of the century until the late 1970's, this was a predominantly Polish, working-class neighborhood.  Major employers included Buffalo Bolt Company, International Paper, and later, The Wurlitzer Company, home of the legendary juke box:

I would love to own one of these some day...

Running through the Avenues like a central nervous system is Oliver Street, a two-lane collection of small businesses and factories and bars and presiding over it all, the great spire of OLC Church.  Oliver was the spine, the avenues branching off it like a ribcage of two bedroom, one bathroom slate singled houses.  The streets in the Avenues, as in most of North Tonawanda, were asphalt, which is no match for the brutal winter.  Even at its peak, the streets in the Avenues were a mess of cracks and fissures and potholes.

There were hundreds of bars, literally hundreds of them, on Oliver Street, a staggering number of bars, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Guiness Book of Records number of bars.  These were less places to get drunk -- though there was certainly plenty of that -- than miniature community centers.  Political careers were launched from these places.  Families gathered to eat Friday fish fry.  Tired working men stopped to socialize at the end of their shifts.  Litwin's Bar and Grill was founded by great-grandfather, Peter Litwin, and managed by my great-uncle, "Jumbo" Litwin.  My grandfather was a bartender on the weekends.  He poured drinks and told stories and played his fiddle, accordion and mandolin to entertain the patrons.

There was always music, mostly polkas and other "ancient melodies" with their roots in eastern Europe.  The "accordion in the upstairs room" is a tribute to my friend and second cousin, Steve Litwin, concertina player extraordinaire, who back in the Sixties started learning the traditional songs, taught, in part, by my grandfather.  Steve has made the preservation of traditional Polish music a lifelong pursuit, and God bless him for his efforts!  

My grandfather and great-grandfather worked at RT Jones Lumber Yard, a vestige of the once-thriving North Tonawanda lumber industry, an industry that had been decimated by two massive fires around the turn of the century.  Later, Grand-Pa took a job at Wurlitzer, and worked there until his forced retirement.  Wurlitzer shut the plant, in part because of a lousy economy, in part because they ruined the business by changing the design of the juke box from something iconic and beautiful, to something that looked a lot like a commercial washing machine:


All of the plants shut down. Buffalo Bolt, Roblin Steel, American Standard Iron Works, International Paper:  they're all gone.  And all of this happened as my grandfather's generation reached retirement age.  OLC remained (and remains still), but where Roman Catholicism had been for a century the one and only faith in the Avenues, the Baptists and the Assemblies of God and the Jehovah's Witnesses and even those pesky Mormons began to drain away the faithful.  In the song, the lyrics move from "factory whistles" and "church bell" to "factory whistle" and "church bells" to describe that shift.  "Walking down Oliver with a black rosary in my pocket" is a symbol of my grandfather's determined commitment to his Roman Catholic faith.  The rosary is black to evoke mourning: the old life is dying; the old neighborhood is disappearing. 

The amazing thing about this massive change is that most people didn't really see it happening.  A plant would close, a family would move away, but it was still the neighborhood, still the Avenues, "the same old thing."  It was only at the end, after everything closed and everyone left, that it became clear something wonderful was  forever gone.

The neighborhood, which had been home to Poles (and to a lesser extent, Russians, Czechs, Bohemians, and Hungarians) for three generations turned into a ghost, a forgotten place.  The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of them, live in the suburbs, or they live in Charlotte or Orlando or Houston.  What's left, including Litwin's, our once thriving family establishment, is mostly boarded, mostly sagging, mostly abandoned.

There's a lot in that little song.

I'm working on another one, called "Blue Room", about my grandfather's efforts to turn the Litwin's dining room into a jazz club.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bushed, Or The The Theory of Attraction

I did not vote for Barack Obama.  I've explained why in previous postings, how his roots in Illinois politics are suspect and how his combination of youth and rapid ascendancy makes me question his bona fides and how I got tired of people comparing him to Jesus.  I've also written how the more I see him, the more I like him.  I admire his toughness, and his willingness to seek compromise.  I respect his intelligence.  Frankly, I like the guy, his pandering to Latino voters by recording a promo for the execrable George Lopez Show notwithstanding.

But this president, people hate this president.

In the last week, I've been hit with a flood of anti-Obama rhetoric, most of it coming from white women in their Sixties.  This isn't the normal "all politicians are crooks -- they want to steal my Social Security" haranguing you normally hear from the AARP crowd.  This is vicious, mean, angry stuff: dark intimations that Obama is Anti-American, even Antichrist, and  comments like, "I hate that man" and requests to sign a petition demanding his impeachment for "crimes against America."

We're in a recession, the roots of which lie deep in the Clinton Administration.  We're in two wars, one of which, if we're going to be honest about it, is Clinton's war, and one the result of a man with serious Daddy issues deciding that lying to the American public and invading a sovereign nation was preferable to getting some much needed therapy.  Last year saw the death of the American car industry, but the American car industry has been dying for fifty years, so how can you pin that on a 48 year old president?  Health care, the deficit, the Middle East, our dwindling oil reserves:  pick up a paper from 1973, and the headlines will look eerily contemporary.  It's all been around for a long time, and none of it is Obama's fault.

So why the hate?

I have three theories.

First, It's Just Plain Racism.  Plausible, but more likely if it were, well, 1973.  There is still racism in America, buckets and buckets of it, but not everything that's offensive is necessarily racist.  Take the casual insensitivity of old men like Harry Reid, who are disconnected enough from any real interaction with African-Americans to know that Negro crossed the Rubicon of Political Correctness a generation ago.  This isn't racism as much as it is Old Man disease.  A couple of years ago, I happened upon Larry King, the patron saint of Old Men, interviewing some software developer about the latest advancements in video games.  The guy was going on about CGI and other technical mumbo jumbo, when King, impatient and confused, interrupts with, "So what are we talkin' here?  Is this the Pac-Man?"  That's about where Reid sits.

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it...
True racism, like Trent Lott lionizing Strom Thurmond -- he of the last great effort to establish Apartheid in America, he of the Black daughter fathered out of wedlock (with the family housekeeper, no less) -- lamenting that had we only listened to the Good Senator back in the Forties, we wouldn't be in this mess today, is still out there, putrescent and rank and disgusting.  And there are plenty who hate Obama, just because he's African-American.  But the ladies I'm thinking of are not members of the white hoods and flaming crosses crowd.

That leaves my two remaining theories, both of which involve, um, Tender Feelings.

Dennis the Menace tore up Mister Wilson's flower bed.  
Menace the President tore up everything else.

The first is that these women really, really, really loved George W. Bush.  They loved him for all of his scraped knee boyishness, loved that he messed up sometimes and looked confused sometimes, loved that he was an underdog.  Look at the beady eyed photo above.  That's Dennis the Menace on class picture day: cleaned up, but ready for mischief.  It's a face that screams for nurturing, and for Women of a Certain Age, their nests empty, their well-exercised Mothering muscles yearning for a good workout, Bush was manna from heaven.

It stands to reason that they would dislike the sharp talking class president type who relegated their guy to a porch rocker in Crawford.

My second theory is that against all of their conscious desires, these ladies have the hots for our current President.  Somehow, the sight of that Mahogany toothpick, speaking in fluent Policy Wonk, stirs something Deep and Forbidden, flushes them with a low grade case of Jungle Fever:

I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, you!

But all of this could just be sleep deprivation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Litwin's Bar and Grille, Sixth Avenue at Oliver Street, New Year's Eve 1971.

Dere are some tings you should know about me (not typos, Gentle Reader, but an homage.  Read on!):

1. My relationship with my father is strained, partly due to the fact that for half of my adolescence he was gravely ill, and for the other half he was dead.  You've heard that Mark Twain line about fathers and sons, something like "When I was 17, my father was an imbecile; when I turned 21 I was shocked to see how smart he'd become."  When the father-son relationship is suspended, either through abandonment or estrangement or death, the son spends a lot of time feeling uncertain and disoriented, wanting and needing to figure out something important, to set in order something screaming to be set in order, and not being able to.  It's like waking up in an unfamiliar place, or discovering that your zipper is undone and there is no way to unobtrusively remedy the problem.

(Parenthetically, the worst, most insulting, most aggravating thing religious people say to the bereaved is, "God had something else for him to do."  The Mormon version of this is "The Lord had a bigger mission for him on the Other Side of The Veil."  If I ever hear somebody say that to anyone, I will wait until the grieving family is a safe distance away, and then I will punch that person in the nose.  For most of my adult life my deep and abiding conviction in the notion of a personal God and my paranoid fear that that personal God really doesn't care about me have conducted WWE-style wrestling matches in my brain, bashing around and breaking things, all because some cementhead declared, when I was sixteen years old, that Dad died because some very important God-issued assignment, something more important than being with our family, required his attention.  Stupid words mess people up for life.  Just hand them a casserole and say "I'm sorry for your loss" and shut your pierogi hole.)

2. We have lived, for all of our married life, within three miles of my in-laws.  For the last 22 years, we have lived less than three blocks from them.  This has not always been comfortable for me. My wife's family is very close knit, and my in-laws protect that family unity with relentless watchfulness, Secret Service watchfulness, Swiss Guard watchfulness, Robert DeNiro in "Meet the Parents" watchfulness (funny, but still Robert DeNiro, so funny with liberal dash of When Is He Going to Rip Out Someone's Spleen?)  Living near in-laws is a little like playing golf in a lightning storm: One Must Be Careful.  The blessing is that they are wonderful people, and our kids love their grandparents, and love going to their grandparents' home.

3. My favorite people in the world were my maternal grandparents.  Grandma was tough, and smart, and maybe just a little bit mean.  My grandparents had separate bedrooms, both hardly bigger than walk-in closets, just off the main rooms of their tiny slate grey house on Sixth Avenue, the place with the same linoleum tiles from the entryway to the kitchen, and the one car attached garage, and the postage stamp back yard, and the attic plastered with hundreds of baseball photos my uncle had cut out of old "Sport" magazines.  Grandma's room was stuffed with Important Papers and crossword puzzle books and World Almanacs and newspaper clippings and hundreds of pill bottles and, on the wall, an enormous painted Crucifix, nearly as big as she, surely heavier than her tiny body, that filled me with shame and terror and gave me nightmares about Jesus straining on the cross, suffering for my sins.  Grand-Pa was silly and blustering, telling scary stories that weren't even scary and coloring with us and playing his fiddle and making us give him kisses.  Grand-Pa was first generation American, and learned English as a second language.  He still had the old Polish lilt to his voice, dropping his "h's" and saying "dese" and "dose" like a man with a head cold (I told you they weren't typos!)  Grand-pa would fume sometimes, and complain about your behavior, but it was impossible to take offense.  That's the thing:  Dad told me he loved me, but I always felt like he thought I was a bum.  Grand-pa told me I was a bum, but I always knew he loved me.  

I do not understand how it works, but I know it's important, that relationship between grandfathers and grandsons.  It heals things.

Grand-pa died a couple of years ago.  I didn't go to the memorial service, and I really can't explain why.  I miss him.  I think about him, and not just him, but that whole place, the Avenues, with Bonk's Delicatessen and the big steeple of OLC Church and all of those Mom and Pop bar and grilles.  It was heaven to me.  I hope my kids look back on their time with their grandparents (including my mother, who lives much farther away) and feel that same warmth, that same happiness.

Anyway, I've written a song lyric.  I have a tune, but I didn't write it, and I don't have permission to replicate it, so the lyrics will have to do for now.  It's for my grandfather, and it's called "Oliver Street":

In the Avenues
It's the same old thing
Factory whistles blow
And the church bell rings
Down in Litwin's bar
I pour whiskey neat
For all the boys on Oliver Street

From the old Bolt plant
And the paper mill
When their shift is done
They come drink their fill
And my fiddle plays
Something soft and sweet
For all my pals on Oliver Street

In a room upstairs
An accordion plays 
An ancient melody from someplace far away
And the sound it makes drifts through these potholed streets

Like some faint memory of younger days

In the Avenues
It's the same old thing
Factory whistle blows
And the church bells ring
In my pocket there's 
A black rosary
I carry it down Oliver Street

Our lives were there

In the Avenues
The bars and houses shined like fireflies in the night
And we laughed and drank, wrapped in that amber glow
Now Time has moved her hand, put out the light

In the Avenues
Nothing's stayed the same
It's all peeling paint
Broken windowpanes
Even Litwin's bar
Sags in sad defeat
There's only ghosts on Oliver Street

(Happy birthday, by the way, to a gentleman and a scholar, the most earnest, most decent, most sincere young man I know.  Now you know where your love of almanacs comes from!)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fake Records of Rock and Roll

If they could talk, they'd be saying that Graham Parker's version of "I Want You Back" is better than 
the Jackson Five's original.  Some people would look at them as if they were insane.  Most people would look at them
and say, "Holy cow!  Those birds can talk!" 

Today's title comes courtesy of Daniel Johnston, the reclusive, mysterious, mentally ill Austin-based singer-songwriter.

Johnston is rather amazing.  His "Casper the Friendly Ghost" is one of my all-time favorite songs, a lo-fi masterpiece with cryptic lyrics ("you can't buy respect like the librarian said"), unusual instruments (including a "See and Say" player) and a hook that plunges itself into your brain and stays there all day long (Listen to it first thing in the morning, and hours later you'll find yourself in line at the Post Office or looking for PVC fittings at Home Depot, realizing that all those people are staring at you because you've been singing lines like "Thank you, Casper the Friendly Ghost" in a plainly audible voice).

And thus begins my old man rant for today.

I love iTunes.  I love it too much, the way I love pepperoni and mushroom pizza or chicken wings, love it to excess, love it to the point of self-injury.  I knew of Daniel Johnston -- he is a minor legend in this part of Texas -- but had it not been for iTunes and the anonymous, non-judgmental, point and click way it allows us to indulge even the most fleeting buy impulse, I would have never actually owned any Daniel Johnston music.  Which is great, except that there are hundreds of Daniel Johnstons out there, earnest and mostly obscure, recording their songs in makeshift home studios, and every one of them has a critic somewhere who proclaims them The Future of Music, and before you know it, your iPod is groaning with all sorts of songs that you feel obligated to buy, but will never listen to.

It feels like a trip to Buffalo, my home town.  Between the airport and the hotel, I stop at Ted's Red Hots for a foot long and some curly fries, then Anderson's for frozen custard.  Drop the bags at the hotel, and it's off to Pizza Junction, then Duff's or Anchor Bar for wings, and on to Grover's for a Bleu Cheese burger nightcap.  That night, groaning in my room, I look at the half-filled pizza box and the take away container of cold, grease-congealed wings sitting on the dresser and promise myself that from here on, it's Vegetarianism and Rigorous Exercise.  Scroll through song after song by artists like Ohbijou and The Woodpigeons and Conor Oberst and Les Charbonniers de l'enfer and Cafe Tacuba and Gare Du Nord and Great Lake Swimmers and the feeling quickly moves from happy and satisfied to bloated and shamefaced and just a little out of control.

I miss record stores.  We have a good one in Houston, Cactus Records.  There's another good one in Austin, Waterloo Records.  There aren't many left.  In North Tonawanda, we had Jeff's Records, in the Mid-City Plaza.  Jeff's was a short walk from the high school, right on my way to Grand-Pa's house, so I was in there a couple of times a week.  The owner was a skinny young guy, always smiling, short haired and bearded.  Jeff was friendly and good natured and  self-assured, convinced that this store was the first step in a establishing a mighty chain.  He carried himself like a guy who spent his summers on a kibbutz.

I didn't spend much money at Jeff's.  I don't think anyone did -- there wasn't much money to spend back then -- which is probably why the store disappeared sometime in the early 80's.  I vaguely remember that Jeff had opened a second store near Eastern Hills Mall, but his dreams of World Domination never came to fruition.

The store, though, the store!  I hated high school.  I hated that whole time in my life.  My father was dying and eventually dead and I was barely passing my classes and for reasons I have never fully understood, my teachers either treated me as an object of extreme pity, or as a whipping boy.  (Some people shimmer with charisma: for several years I worked closely with Giff Nielsen, former NFL quarterback and inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame, and every time I was with him, I felt like I should be wearing a number 63 jersey and blocking a blitzing linebacker.  Giff has a talent for uncovering the latent Pulling Guard in everyone.  Some people are like those brightly colored poisonous tree frogs in the Amazon rain forest: crazy eyed and disheveled, their markings fairly scream, "Watch  out!  Contact with me will bring nothing but misery!"  On good days in North Tonawanda, my bearing said "Mensch."  On bad days, it was stuck on "Schlub."  Most days, it was "Schlemiel.")  After a day filled with indignities large and small -- in 11th grade, our history teacher, a sullen, goateed, sallow cheeked cynic who wore the same black bell bottoms and turtleneck to school almost every day, was telling our Honors Russian History class that the biggest hurdle we would have to face in college was accepting the fact that despite all of our great accomplishments in high school, there would be times when we wouldn't be the best in the class, times when we would be less than straight-A students.  He paused, looked at me, and said, "Except you.  You, you're used to failure."  High school was like being the only audience member in a four year long Don Rickles concert -- an hour in Jeff's Records was bliss.

Jeff's is where I heard Dire Strats for the first time, and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and Springsteen's "Darkness On The Edge Of Town".  It's where, on a rainy, miserable October night  I bought my first copy of "The River", still The Greatest Album of All Time, and where I first heard the "weird, whispering burl" of my favorite singer-songwriter, Al Stewart.  Rifling through the racks at Jeff's, listening to whatever he put on the turntable, was the first step in developing my musical aesthetic.  Part of that development came in knowing that there were very few dollars to spend on music, so I had to be very, very careful.  Purchasing Al Stewart's 2 disc retrospective "The Early Years", with its compilation of tunes from his extremely rare first four albums, meant not buying the newest Pink Floyd or Rolling Stones.  Getting a copy of "Darkness" or "Greetings From Asbury Park" eliminated Elton John and Peter Frampton from consideration.  Wandering the mostly empty store with Jeff the happy kibbutznik playing all of this amazing music, feeling slightly lightheaded from the plastic and printer's ink fumes rising gently from the record racks, the Top 40 barely touched me. I didn't listen to what everybody else listened to; I was like some strange mutant finch, and Jeff's was my Galapagos.

I don't miss the past.  I do miss that excitement of discovery, of hearing something for the first time, and feeling like Father Hennepin when he first saw Niagara Falls: thrilled and energized and awed and amazed at the majesty of God's creation.  I also miss the days when every song was hard won, when every note was precious.

Pascal writes, "It is not good to be too free.  It is not good to have all one needs."  Awash in plenty, blessed with all I desire and far more than I need, I think I understand what he means.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

To Be Honest, I Never Liked Benny Hill, Either

Benny Hill: Kinda Creepy

Dutt Tiwari: SUPER Creepy

 NPR reported yesterday on the case of one Dutt Tiwari, an Indian public official who was caught in a sex scandal and forced to resign.  Nothing unusual about that: the United States has enough sex scandals involving our politicians to not need any Indian imports.

What makes it newsworthy is that Mr. Tiwari is 86 years old, and he was filmed en flagrante with three young women.  The Case of the Wrinkly Lothario was reported with a breezy, "wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more"attitude.  Posts to the NPR website were mostly of the "You go, Grandpa!" variety, with more than a few commentaries about the evils of Puritanism and the folly of placing restraints on human sexuality.

This got my Irish up.  (And isn't it nice to be able to say that, and know that it is literally true!  Family history research proves it without question: I'm Irish, by Jingo, and I'm proud!  On March 17, I expect you all to kiss me.)   

NPR listeners aren't the people watching Jerry Springer, or if they are, they do it to be ironic, not to get Life Coaching.  They're the people who wear turtlenecks and earn graduate degrees and listen to records that feature Sufi singers doing covers of old Animal Collective songs, our marathon running, hybrid car driving, Bill Maher loving superiors, the people who follow the Tour de France and can listen to an entire week's worth of "Fresh Air" without once feeling the need to swear or hit something.  You would expect the Springer crowd to to meet the news that a rich and powerful octogenarian had exploited three girls with chest bumps and woofing noises, but Planet NPR?  They're smarter than that.

Why is it that advanced age makes the reprehensible commendable? If a 46 year old politician were caught having sex with three young women, would people be saying, "Well done, sir?" And all of the giggles and twitters about The Little Old Man Who Could ignore the buried lead: this is a desperately poor nation, whose government is awash in corruption and whose society is constrained by a rigid class structure. In Georgian London under similar conditions, twenty percent of the female population was engaged in prostitution, the only profession open to them. Venereal disease was rampant, even among young children.  The numbers are comparable in today's India, where more than ten million women, mostly teenagers, work as prostitutes.

This isn't Rob Lowe at the Democratic National Convention, gettin' it on with a couple of willing partners. It isn't even Benny Hill, with winks and eye rolls and that silly saxophone music in the background, where it's slap and tickle and the girls are in on the joke. This is an elected representative using power and money to exploit impoverished women.  Prudishness doesn't drive my outrage. Old people sex, even multiple partner old people sex, doesn't disgust me; the rich and powerful using the weak and poor does.

 Where there is a combination of economic adversity, limited educational opportunities, and a wide gap between rich and poor, sexual exploitation of women and children is inevitable. This was true in England in the late 18th century. It is true in India today. In the United States, where economic disparity is growing, families (and the social, economic, and emotional stability that families bring) disintegrate, and the national intellect is progressively dulled by talk radio, the E! Network and mixed martial arts, sexual exploitation of the poor and deprived will be ever more likely, and ever more common (look at the online porn industry, our modern version of Georgian prostitution).

Bottom line: the old question, "Would it be so funny if your daughter were involved?" should be applied here.

Power attracts sex, even when it's old power. Ancient Nelson Rockerfeller expired while sampling the pleasures of his twenty-something mistress.  Getting ahead by sleeping with the boss is as old as the workplace, but this isn't a case of power attracting ambitious sex partners. It's exploitation, plain and simple. Let's frame this another way: if he were an 86 year old priest, and the partners were young altar boys, would anyone be lining up to give ol' Dutt an electronic high five?

These young ladies weren't smart, cynical careerists, taking one for professional advancement. These were poor, exploited women, hoping to make enough cash to put food on the table. The guy can take Viagra til his teeth turn blue for all I care, and he can cavort on a Beattyesque level, with as many Grandpa-fixated young women as his shriveled little body can service. Life, liberty, blah blah blah... It's just that in a country where 50 million people suffer from STDs, and 10 million woman work as prostitutes, and 20 per cent of them are between the ages of 13 and 18, and 70 per cent of prostitutes were forced into the trade, often by their parents or husbands, and Nepalese girls as young as 9 have been found working in Bombay brothels, it's hard to laugh at the image of "young women" in this old goat's bed.

Monday, January 4, 2010

This Modern Life

I was going to use this photo to show Our Tired President....


But then I found this Photoshopped masterpiece. 

There are two aspects of Modern Life that may be unique in human history.  One is the brain-bending array of choices available to us, choices that act as a sort of spiritual curare, stealthily and surely paralyzing us, a nation glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, fingering the remote control, our few and precious mortal hours spent on "Lingo" and "Iron Chef: AMERICA!" and The National Football League.  

The other is our penchant for the Pointless Display of Moral Outrage.  When the Russian tanks rolled into Warsaw in December 1981, millions of Polish Americans donned red ribbons and "Solidarnosc" pins as a show of support for the motherland.  We did this -- for I was one of the Ribboned Masses -- at zero risk to ourselves.  All the heavy lifting was being done six thousand miles away.  It made us feel good, though, made us feel as if we were on the battlements, fighting the Good Fight.

Cross these streams, and you end up with something like the curious case of Barack Obama.  I did not vote for Mister Obama, partly out of a deep distrust of both his meteoric rise to prominence -- he's the political equivalent of a bag of microwave popcorn, completely ready for consumption before the "Coming Attractions" portion of the DVD is finished -- and of his Illinois roots.  Illinois, like her sisters in corruption Louisiana and New Jersey, is a badly rotten plank on the ship of state, slimy and wormy and well eaten through. It is hard to envision anything so clean and pure and perfect as the Man of Hope coming from such fetidness.  

Distrust of the image was part of it.  Sheer perversity was the other.  I voted for the train wreck, the crazy old man and the coyote killer, just because it would have been wild and weird to see the havoc they two together could wreak.  Plus, our polling precinct is heavily, almost exclusively Democrat and Latin, Asian, or African-American.  Obama garnered something like 97 percent of the vote here, and I like to be different.

Back to Barack.  The more I see of him, the more I like him.  

The election made me a little sick, the Obama as Che Guervarra posters and the smirking Mrs. Obama and the strange Clash of the Titans meets The Fortress of Solitude stage dressing at the Democratic National Convention, as if Mr. Obama had not been born in Hawai'i or even Kenya, but somplace really keen, like Mount Olympus, or Krypton Community Hospital.  The low point was when the widow of Medgar Evars appeared on the tube, stating that a photo of basketball playing Barack, stretching for a layup during a pickup game, reminded her of Jesus: he floated in air, the world (in this case, an orange planet with "SPAULDING" stamped into it) cradled safely in his hands.  To be fair, Mrs. Evars may have been attempting a little Karmic alignment, her Obama as Messiah rhetoric an effort to counterbalance the nuts on the right who insist that Obama is the Antichrist, but that's probably giving her too much credit.

So we're a year in, and even with my strong predisposition to distrust and dislike him, Obama is growing on me.  I like that every day he looks a bit more like football coach turned teevee analyist Tony Dungy, all gray haired and bony (the difference, of course, is that Coach Dungy carries a stress-free, almost serene countenance, while the President often seems Close To The Edge).  I like the courage he showed in his Nobel acceptance speech.  I like the way he has changed goals and expectations as he has assumed the responsibilities of the office.  He's a realist, a pragmatist, and after eight years in Cloudcuckooland, we need that.

The thing is, the people who elected him don't see it that way.  His approval ratings are sinking faster than Joe Frazier at a swim meet (anyone under the age of 45 who has never seen the footage of Joe Frazier at "The Superstars" competition won't get that.  Trust me, it's hilarious.)  Check out the leftist blogs, websites and radio shows.  They hate the guy.

I know why Obama has been such a crushing disappointment to his supporters.  This is Casino America, where all you do is pull a lever, and a magic machine spits out mountains of nickels.  No problem takes longer than 22 minutes to resolve.  He's taking the Sensible Weight Loss view -- it took years to get to where we are; the only way to get back to normal is Eating Right and Exercise and Slow Steady Progress -- and we want Mexican diet pills and Weight Loss Miracles!

We need a new Mount Rushmore, featuring the faces of our new ethos: Ronald Reagan, who convinced us that we are strong and wise and wonderful, no matter how weak and stupid and awful we might be; Oprah Winfrey, who taught us that everything is part of the public record, and that pursuit of personal needs is the most noble human endeavor; Hugh Hefner, who showed us that if you use words like "empowerment" and "liberation" and "rejecting Puritanism" often enough, you can infantilze sex and reduce women to blonde, plucked, pneumatically enhanced toys all you want; and Oral Roberts, who reinvented Christianity as a series of parlor tricks, performed to a mass television audience, and reimagined the Savior as a 900 foot tall mob enforcer, poised to rub you out if you don't give Him the requisite protection money.

So Obama enters the cesspool left behind by The Worst Administration in History, and tells us, "Draining this mess is going to take longer than we thought, and it's going to take some sacrifice from all of us," and his reasoned, rational supporters respond with head shaking and finger pointing and great steaming piles of criticism.

I am still not completely sold on Mister Obama.  But he's our president, the only one we have, and I for one am prepared to do more than wear a red ribbon to show my support.  And that includes being patient.

Friday, January 1, 2010


Watching a test pattern is a lot like watching Keanu Reeves: it's lifeless, two-dimensional, and doing just might mean you're crazy

We have one television.  This is a conscious decision on our part: there was a moment, ten or twelve years ago, when there was a teevee in the living room, and a teevee in our bedroom, and a teevee in our son's room, which was hooked up to the video game machines.  We have a small house, a house that realtors often call "a starter home" -- three bedrooms, two baths, and "lots of charm", all tucked into a cozy 1600 square feet.  When there were three teevees, we might as well have been living in one of Cornelius Vanderbilt's mansions: family togetherness was placed on the altar of personal preference, as we each disappeared into the warm blue comfort of The One-Eyed Educator of our choice.  ESPN in one bedroom, Nintendo in another, Disney Channel in the living room: we barely saw one another.

So we got rid of two teevees.

Compromise is the watchword of a one teevee home.  Right now, we're watching the great, throbbing stupidity that is "The Matrix", something my older son finds intriguing.  My daughter is lobbying for some nasty bit of treacle that features Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez, with Wanda Sykes as the sassy personal assistant.  When The Matrix goes to commercial, we flip to Jane and J-Lo.  It's like being beaten with a tube sock full of oranges:  no bruises, but the pain is real.

Pain, even the lingering pain of Neo's first meeting with Morpheus, even the deep trauma of Comic Hijinx with Hanoi Jane and Jenny From The Block, eventually fades.  Compromise is forever.

We don't know how to compromise anymore.  We are flooded by choice, everyone in front of his own screen, watching programming tailor made to his personal tastes.  When all entertainment, all information is Balkanized, when all the world is Luby's, allowing us to take extra helpings of only the stuff we like, compromise is a quaint anachronism, like black and white television or rotary dial telephones.

It's dangerous, this path we're on.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

New Year's Eve 2009:  Good Times, Good Times

I recently finished spending nearly an entire week rebuilding my iTunes library, which for some reason had reverted back to a previous library, effectively relegating thousands of music and movie files to some sad electronic limbo, unavailable to my iPod.  It was a mess, a time consuming and aggravating mess.

Last night, driving home from the Most Muted New Year's Eve Celebration Ever, traffic on State Highway 290 suddenly, inexplicably seized.  What was the cause of the slowdown?  Had some holiday revelers crashed their automobile?  Had the local constabulary established a drunk driver checkpoint?  Had The Rapture occurred, causing the now-driverless vehicles formerly operated by devout Southern Baptists to careen across lanes and into the paths of others, sending the Unsaved to an early rendezvous with their brimstone-ridden Eternity?

No, it was a dude in a cream-colored Corsica, who'd slowed down to thirty while attempting to text message.  I got a good look at Joe Texter as we passed: neck tattooed, head shaved and goateed, his face twisted in lumpen concentration, one eye on the little glowing screen, one eye on the road, his simian fingers mashing the keyboard as he unsteadily steered with his elbows, his foot intermittently tapping the brake in a sort of spastic Morse Code.  I can well imagine the text: "Whr da Prty?  Gt 2 prtay lk it 1999! Boo-yah!"  He wasn't involved in negotiating a Middle East peace, or guiding some poor woman through delivering her own baby, or sending Kevin Sumlin the secret he needs to make the University of Houston defense less porous against the run.  No, this was just another cementhead, looking for just another opportunity to polish off a few brain cells.

We are slaves to technology.  We need it for information, for entertainment.  It is our friend, our confessor, our one true companion.  Two days ago, I met with a new customer at his home.  The meeting should have taken ten minutes.  It took closer to an hour, largely because he excused himself no less than four times to take  cell phone calls.  Twice he responded to text messages, WHILE I WAS TALKING WITH HIM.  I could have told him that the chemicals we were using to treat his swimming pool were extracted from the adrenal glands of adolescent pygmy elephants and he would have nodded his head and said, "Gotcha," because the texts had totally transfixed him  (As best as I can tell, they were from his wife, who was asking him what he wanted for lunch.  She showed up as I left.  He'd opted for Wendy's.)  This guy wasn't an  advisor to President Obama, or a in-demand cardiologist; he was an oil field worker, a nice guy, a friendly guy, but hardly the Linchpin of Western Civilzation.  Like the Corsica Texter, he possessed technology, and by gum, he was going to use it, no matter how trivial the application, no matter how much it inconvenienced or (in the texting while driving instance) endangered others.

I'm not important enough to text message.  It's more technology than my life justifies.  In  other ways, I have a love-hate relationship with technology.  The obsessive compiler of stuff in me covets the Kindle and its ability to store 1500 books.  The proud and rational Luddite in me knows that nothing is easier or more spiritually satisfying that holding and reading a real book.  I have more than 9000 songs in my iPod, one for every conceivable mood, moment or emotion.  The ones I listen to with any frequency could all fit on a single Maxell cassette tape.

This would be a good time to introduce an observation of my own invention.  I call it The Law of Technological Homeostasis, which states that for every minute you save because of the convenience of an electronic device, you lose ninety seconds repairing system malfunctions or wasting time on some activity that doesn't really matter.  You know that garage where Hewlitt and Packard supposedly invented the first computer?  The earth should have opened up and swallowed it whole, and saved us all a load of frustration. 

Three decades ago, Solzhenitsyn complained that the West was a place where people were enslaved by their own avarice:  shackled by chains of gold, they congratulated one another on their beautiful necklaces.  Today we are slaves to technology, slaves to electronic acquisition, slaves to a tsunami of information.  The chains are still there, we are still comfortably shackled.  Only now they are invisible: we've all gone wireless.