Conflicted in the 21st century

“The medium is the message.”

Marshall McLuhan wrote that famous unfortunate sentence forty-five years ago in his most celebrated work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Now, if that title alone doesn’t make your heart flutter with adoration as you briskly snap your fingers in hip approval, (the early sixties beatniks snapped their fingers to applaud) …read on, McDuff!

“Five word proclamations are cool.”

There, I just wrote one myself.

“The medium is the message.”

But if you persist in plunging (with a sturdy plumber’s helper) the depths of McLuhan — who, by the way, is also credited with giving us the term “global village,” damn his simpleton soul — you run into passages such as the following from the same ponderous treatise on American culture.

Mind you, this gobbledegook has been hailed as genius for decades:

If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?

Well, now. As the green guard of the gates of Oz proclaimed, “That’s a horse of a different color!” Or, as we sneered in those days…

“Far out, man!”

We all want to be smart. We wish we were smarter than we fear we are not. We try to achieve wisdom by wearing its overcoat and shiny shoes. That’s just human nature, I think. We want people to like us, that’s all. Well, that’s not all, exactly. We also want our spouses and children and grandchildren to think we are the smartest people in their very personal lives. It would be lovely if they said so at our funeral.

Only now, just after my 58th birthday, having spent half a century trying to measure up and show it off, have I suddenly realized what I need to do about myself.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

It doesn’t matter that my job involves telling hundreds of thousands of people what’s going on in the world (as far as I can guess or presume to sell as truth.) Occasionally I also give them one man’s free perspective for the mere purpose of kick-starting a few brains. That’s what I get paid to do.

I do not get paid to be smarter than I really am.

I’m starting to think my family is on to me, anyway.

Forty-five years after he published his ultimate intellectual achievment I wonder if McLuhan would be shocked to find that the age of information is a Chucky Cheese cacophony of noise, a digital blender of childish delights, proclamations, accusations and constructed horrors.

We have so many sources of information, rumor, implication, insinuation, views, opinions, counter-opinions, perspective, conspiracy theories and wild-ass guesses we’ve just about run out of any reason at all to try to understand the world all by ourselves.

I have absolutely no need for my brain for such purpose. I’ve decided from now on to use it just to amuse myself.

I guess you’re on your own.

 © Copyright 2009, Dave Williams. All rights reserved.

Dog Days

As I type these words it’s 106 degrees outside our home and not yet 1:00PM.

Dog Days, huh? Does that make any sense? Well, yes, now that you mention it. Having nothing more to do than busy my mind in front of a whirling fan blade I decided to look it up.

The Ancient Romans called it caniculares dies (days of the dogs.) It arose from the notion that Sirius, the dog star, was angry this time of year and caused the Earth to get very hot. To appease the star’s rage the Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of Dog Days.

No, I don’t know why it had to be a brown dog.

The Romans, of course, thought nothing of committing carnage upon any creature that moved if it might be even remotely possible that a good screeching, bloody sacrifice would serve some useful or noble purpose.

This is why the Ancient Greeks were considered the brains of the outfit.

Apples and oranges

It is August in the San Gabriel Valley and though we haven’t had a day that hit one hundred degrees recently it has been in the nineties and the past couple of days have been Deep South humid.

Two days ago the air conditioner in our house stopped working. The diagnosis is not good: dead compressor. We’re looking at a large fix-it bill we can’t afford and it will probably be several more days before the fix is done.

I don’t like to complain for the sake of complaining and yet I do it. I think most of us do it because it must be human nature, which is a perfectly fine excuse for fishing for sympathy. But you know what drives me nuts? When I say something that evokes an apples-and-oranges response.

“Boy, it’s hot. I can’t wait for the AC to be working again,” I might say.

“When this house was built nobody had air conditioning,” is the likely reply.

Or…

“When we were little we didn’t have air conditioning, just those awful swamp coolers.”

Both of the responses are true, but so what? How does that help? We didn’t have AC when I was a kid and I’m sure I was uncomfortably hot. What has that got to do with the heat of now?

When our house was built in 1903 not only did they not have air conditioning, they didn’t even have swamp coolers. And, people dressed in multiple layers from throat to toe! I know this and I am grateful to be living now rather than then.

But dammit, I’m still sweating and unhappy about it!

And now, even I have no response for that.

The Boy in the Bubble (wrap)

“Isaiah,” I called across the yard, “please pick up that empty box and take it to the trash cans.”

It’s grandpa and grandson clean-up-the-back-yard-day on an unusually cool and pleasant Sunday morning in August.

I was scrubbing the barbecue pad and smoker oven as I watched him run to the box.

“Grandpa,” he called from the patio. “Can I make a club house in the box?”

The auto-dad in me started running my mental computer through all the reasons I should say no.

He wasn’t doing what I told him.

I don’t have all day.

It’s just a crummy little box, not even big enough to play in properly.

Grandpa didn’t hesitate.
“Sure!”

Within ten or fifteen minutes he had wrung all the fun out of that stupid box and threw it away where I had asked him.

We’re going to fix lunch now.

Living legends

In this era of hyperbole run amock when we no longer have mere movie stars, only “superstars,” there is one descriptive term for an elite and rare level of talent and performance that still holds its water: living legend. You just can’t pin that label on every actor, singer, dancer or athlete who ever performed or competed at the highest level of his or her craft. Only a handful of even the greatest performers in any field manage to reach the rarified air of that loftiest of accolades.

Last night I had the pleasure of nearly three hours in the company of a living legend doing his thing.

I saw Topol perform Tevye in his farewell tour of Fiddler on the Roof.Topol as Tevye

I’ll leave the reviews to the critics, although I can’t imagine anybody having the audacity to suggest that this actor, who has performed this particular role more than 2,500 times in the past forty years, is lacking in any nuance or that he left any fragment of his massive talent or energy in his dressing room.

This is not so much about performance as it is the experience of seeing a globally-beloved entertainer doing the one thing that made his fame greater than his own existence.

I’ve had this experience three or four times before. I saw Sammy Davis Jr. perform in Vegas. He did two hours that kept me spellbound to the point that time and place were irrelevant. Sammy held a large room full of people in enraptured suspension of animation. You wanted to cry for being so fortunate as to be in his audience.

The same was true when I saw George Burns onstage no more than fifty feet away at Harrah’s in South Lake Tahoe.  That man could milk more laughter out of a slightly raised eyebrow or a turn of a cigar than the greatest of today’s comics. When you saw George in his nineties you knew you were watching one of the greatest performers from an age already long past.

I saw Elvis in Vegas just a handful of years before he died.  I was never much of an Elvis fan but living legend status does carry the weight of one’s body of work and the universal adoration he commands. Elvis certainly had that and the air crackled with the magic of his presence.

And, I saw Rex Harrison as Professor ‘enry ‘iggins in My Fair Lady. Show me any other actor who was beloved by millions for mumbling his songs in the essence of fabled British understatement.

This is my very small collection of wondrous moments of time trapped in bottles. And now I have added a precious summertime evening in Los Angeles when the world’s best-loved piece of musical theater was given to me in its full orchestral celebrated glory. And for this evening the man who did not invent but became the synonymous face and distinctive voice of Tevye, the milk man, was — as the song goes, the master of his house.

Tupperware: Satan’s tool

My friend and blogging partner Anita just posted a loving ode to Tupperware and it has me seriously concerned for her health and sanity.

In thirty-eight years over my two marriages, and in my mother’s home before them, I have had a love/hate affair with Tupperware.

Tupperware is a cook’s blessing until wild-eyed, greedy dreams of organizational nirvana overtake breathless You.

Now you have too much of this wondrous thing which merely jams beyond stacking in one cabinet closest to the ground.

Fat and feeble, weary from the evening’s wine and culinary chores, as you lie on the floor groping into the nether-reaches of darkened cupboard for the the proper size plastic container while praying beyond hope to find its mated lid, the damned pieces begin literally leaping out of the shelf at you, snapping at your eyes and nose like a demented chihuahua, snarling in derision!

You’ll never get them back in their places. You know that’s true.

For salvation you turn to the Saran-Wrap in the pantry and vow you will never go near the plastic cupboard of the damned again.

Never, at least, until it beckons you with demonic insistence.

Tupperware is the very essence of Biblical temptation. A little of it is a blessing. When you start to get greedy it is a curse that never leaves you in peace.

The swimmer

This morning our phone rang and Carolann answered. When she immediately began chattering like a demented kindergarten teacher on a sugar high I knew she was talking with our youngest grandson. Tyler was calling to ask if we could come to his house and swim with him today. While it’s true that the plot was hatched last night between his mother and me a four-year-old issuing such an invitation is a mighty big deal for children of all ages. Carolann practically shrieked our acceptance. All three of us were pretty darned excited, I can tell you.

We arrived a short time later and Tyler whooped as he ran to the door to admit us. But when he couldn’t quite solve the considerable mystery of the system of locks on that particular front door, (which stymies every adult I’ve ever seen fiddle with it,) he did what any level-headed person would do. He stepped back and settled for waving at us through the window. Mom arrived a moment later, swept away the hinged barrier, and the hugs and giggles commenced.

Carolann and I are blessed to have wonderful and loving children and grandsons. And we are doubly blessed to live near them so that we can watch and help them all grow. It is a treat that requires no purchase or qualification.

Grandparents in proper families are quite rightly V.I.P.s.

Most of us feel we somehow weren’t qualified to be parents when we were much younger and we’re right about that. As Carolann likes to say, those kids didn’t come with instruction manuals and when you’re barely outside of childhood yourself, perspective and wisdom must be earned through eighteen or twenty years of 24/7 OJT. You screw up. You learn. And generally the progeny grow up in spite of us in remarkably sound condition and showing some promise.

Raising kids is damned hard, wonderful work. And when it’s finally finished they leave you with something that feels very much like a hole in your heart. The love remains but the work is gone. You tell yourself what you already know but need to hear: that they’re gone and will never be back. Never. Not in the same way.

Here’s the epiphany:

When the children we were as new parents finish the job, we can finally continue raising ourselves.

Tyler carefully put his toes on the edge of the pool, brought his little hands together above his head…

“Watch! Grandpa, watch me! Nana, watch! Watch me!”

…SPLASH!

The air left me like the eye of a cyclone. He had never done this before! He couldn’t even swim without his floaty vest!

But that was last week and this is now.

He surfaced in front of me, a river of water pouring into eyes and mouth sputtering to open with excitement.

Tyler is a swimmer. And, a diver! And it had all happened when Carolann and I had our backs momentarily turned as Mommy and Daddy were doing their hard, wonderful work.

A friend of mine told me not too long ago that if he had known how great grandkids would be he’d have had them first.

I’m nursing a bit of a sunburn this evening. My eyes are chlorine sleepy and I’m wearing a silly grin that won’t leave my face.

About an hour after we finally left our liquid circus, as I sat in a soft, fat leather chair, my grandson climbed into my lap, got unusually close to my face, looked directly into my eyes  and asked with deadly serious amusement:

“So…how was that swimming for you?”

“Hazy sunshine; 60s at the beaches, 70s and 80s inland…”

What’s the first thing you think about when you awaken each morning?

It’s different every morning? I suppose that’s technically true. It is for me if I’ve been dreaming and can still remember the last few seconds of my ET life in Neverland. But once I’ve whitewashed my always ridiculous life in slumbering absurdity, check my limbs for flexibility and my brain for purpose; once I decide that consciousness is doable, I’m pretty sure the first lucid thought I’ve had nearly each morning of my nearly fifty-eight years is the absurdly pedestrian wondering about the day’s weather.

You may well disagree. Maybe you don’t think about the weather first thing.

Then again, maybe you do but just don’t realize it.

The weather is ubiquitous. Except when it threatens your comfort or very existence it is well worth ignoring. I’ve never understood how TV weather-casters can spend three minutes on “sunny and warm for the rest of the week.” Unless you’re planning a garden wedding or luau, who cares?

Why am I even prattling about weather?

Because my friend and partner, Anita Garner, has put my mind to something I describe two dozen times each morning on the radio but rarely give a second thought.

You should pause now and go read her delightful and insightful, “Weather-watching obsession…”

I’ll wait right here.

***************

Anita has plugged into something most of us have forgotten.

“…my country born-and-bred father had a set of weather instruments on the back porch and glanced at them  several times a day, always remarking out loud on what he saw there.  He often disputed what the dials told him, and he was always right.  He could feel changes in his bones.”

This passage slapped me in the face with a crystal clear memory from a parched, rocky slab of Wyoming hardpan more than fifty years ago.

I barely reached my grandpa’s waist, standing there in his unfenced Rock Springs backyard which stretched all the way to Nebraska. The clouds were few and unremarkable. It was barely nine in the morning but already hot and unusually still. Grandpa shaded his eyes and looked first one way and then the other.

A moment later we were back in the house and he told my grandmother she should hang the day’s laundry on the line early because it would rain by that evening.

I awoke the next morning to the open-window smell of soggy clay and prairie.

They knew, back then, because they needed to. Somehow that inclination to know still reaches us eventually.

When we’re old coots, obsessed by the weather.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Starry night

Our four year-old grandson, Tyler, is an aficianado of fine art and classical music. 

Seriously. He’s been like this for half of his life, since he was a mere child enthralled by the cartoon series Little Einsteins on the Disney Channel.

This painting may be familiar to you but in case you don’t know the title and artist, you could just ask Tyler. It’s the renowned Starry Night by Dutch impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.
Tyler has it hanging in his bedroom. Oh, not the original, of course. Just a poster. It’s there, right next to many others including one his Nana and I considered a startling discovery in the bedroom of a very little boy.

There, among the Thomas the Train tracks and electronic piano is Edvard Munch’s alien nightmare, The Scream.

I don’t get it. Art, I mean.

Oh, I recognize the craftsmanship involved in combining all those tiny brush or pen strokes to create a picture which is recognizable as an image from life or imagination. Even impressionists leave an impression on me. (Though, don’t get me started on the chaos of abstract, or modern, art.)

No, what I don’t get is the marvelous functioning of minds that perceive with dazzling clarity worlds I cannot fathom. The ability of genius to sense beyond my senses is a divine gift which challenges the concept of normal and allows me an occasional glimpse into a greater reality.

I find it enormously comforting.

Sometimes a child so young that he struggles to express himself verbally may also be dancing in the heavens while picking out the classic melodies of Mozart and Chopin on a toy keyboard with nothing but a cartoon and an undiscouraged potential to guide him.

The gifted frolic like otters in many realities at once while the vast rest of us cling to “normal.”

Forever and ever, amen!

Carolann and me, June 4, 1988Twenty-one years ago today CarolAnn and I stood together in front of a small lake before a crowd of some three hundred seated on hay bales. They were all dressed in Western boots and hats and beaming with love, or at least anticipation.

The minister was perched above us, standing on a small platform on the back end of an ancient buckboard wagon adorned with flowers. We were in white, he was in his black robe wearing a silly looking cowboy hat with feathers sticking out of the brim, a last-minute donation by a member of the congregation.

He was proud of that hat.

The horses on which we had arrived held their quiet respect.

Under an overcast sky which had threatened to rain on all of us since our arrival a few hours earlier, our minister began the traditional address:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God to join this man and this woman in the eternal bonds of holy matrimony.”

A peacock cried out from the distance: “Help! Help!”

That is truly how peacocks sound and what they seem to be yelling. It cracked everybody up.

I mugged mercilessly.

The ceremony continued. Our sons, ages eleven and seven, dressed in their own little Western tuxedos and cowboy hats, brought forth the rings.

“If anyone can show cause why this man and this woman should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace!”

My six groomsmen, a rugged gang of cowboys, drew their revolvers and scanned the crowd with a scowl and certain threat. Everybody laughed again.

And then, God chimed in.Milhous Ranch June 4, 1988

The clouds that had covered the proceedings all day parted slightly, dramatically, and an array of golden sunbeams shot through the sky and landed squarely and solely on CarolAnn and me.

I swear, that’s just how it happened. The crowd noticed. We heard the whispered exclamations.

The minister glanced up with more than a hint of awe.

“By the power vested in me by the state of California and the County of Nevada, I hereby pronounce you man and wife.”

I kissed her.

Gunshots rang out from my groomsmen, hooting and hollering as the crowd laughed, cheered, and cried.

Twenty one years ago today.

Our love is all grown up. We are grown up. And happily honeymooning, still.

In the words of “our song,” (which I talked Randy Travis into singing for us live on KABC radio in Los Angeles…)

…as long as old men sit and talk about the weather,
as long as old women sit and talk about old men.
If you wonder how long I’ll be faithful
just listen to how this song ends…
I’m gonna love you forever and ever..,
Forever and ever…
Forever and ever…
Forever and ever…

  A-men!”