Wednesday, December 28, 2011

AR-EE-ESS-PEE-EE-SEE-TEE

When we're small, adults always talk about the deeds of "great" people.  By the second or third grade we've been indoctrinated into our religious and political culture by hearing about George Washington's misadventure with a cherry tree or Jesus turning water into wine and raising the dead. 

By the time we're adults we've learned that the cherry tree thing was a bunch of bull and, however much you may want to believe, a man raising the dead has more zombie overtones than the deed of a remarkable demi-god.

So when you stop and think about it, how many "great" people are there in this world and, more importantly, have you ever really met one?  Ya know, face to face?

I've met people that have done great things or been responsible for a remarkable, extra-ordinary feat. I worked alongside Steven Spielberg for a month or so and saw him put together a pretty cool dinosaur movie.  I met Scott Carpenter, one of NASA's original astronauts. I've talked with the late Dr. Benjamin Spock, and he gave me parenting advice. I've met several U.S. presidents over the years and talked with humanitarians that have put our species above their own needs.

But none of those people, no matter how awesome their deeds, ever touched me on a personal level.

I truly admire the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr.  That guy who faced down the tank in Tiananmen Square gets my vote for one supremely brave dude.  Chuck Yeager, strapping on a rocket and going Mach1, gets my respect.

But, once again...

I had dinner tonight with an old friend, a mentor who ruined me for the rest of my working life because he showed me at a very young age what a "boss" can truly be.  Most of my employers since that job haven't held a candle to the kindness, sincerity, and humility of Mr. Lou Hull, a man that I can truly define as a great person.

I worked at a video store in the mid 1980s.  Both Lou and his partner were Elyria High School teachers; I worked there for almost seven years and the way I do business today--the way I treat people and expect to be treated in return--was formed by my tutelage at that little video store.

When I took the job I was a little reticent.  I never had Lou as a teacher at either Northwood Junior High or the high school, where he transferred after they moved the ninth grade to the old high school building in 1980.

My only real involvement with him was once in the seventh grade and in March of 1984, just after they opened Heights Video on the corners of Fourth Street and East River.

A fight had broken out early in my seventh grade year.  I was small, a little meek and somewhat intimidated by the much bigger eighth and ninth grade students.  As the two ninth graders fighting started smashing each other into the brown lockers, Lou came rushing down the hall to break up the fight.  In his zeal to get through the crowd he pushed me out of the way.

Right into a locker.

I shook off the daze, picked up my books, and thought to myself one simple thing:

This guy is an asshole.

Flash forward five years.

It was March of 1984.  It was a Friday night.  The video store was only a few weeks old and they had about 200 movies to rent.  Al Pacino's "Scarface" was due to arrive and Lou had a few customers anxiously awaiting the movie.  As I was standing there mulling over the cost of a membership to the private rental club the UPS deliveryman walked into the store.

No "Scarface."

Lou got upset, threw his pen across the room, and muttered something under his breath.

I remember leaving that night, reinforced in my belief that, yep, this guy was an asshole.

About eighteen months later I took a job at the store.  We were constantly busy; a stream of customers would pack the small store from noon to nine every day.

I worked with Lou intimately.  Five days a week.  For seven years I saw him almost every day.  His partner Bill was also his family; they came to Elyria from East Liverpool after college and had taught in the same school system for almost twenty-five years before opening the store.

After working there for about two months both Bill and Lou pulled me aside and wanted to talk to me.  Uh-oh, I thought.  Am I doing a bad job?  They asked if I would feel comfortable calling them by their first names as opposed to their high school teacher names.  Wow.  Mr. Hull and Mr. Pierson instantly became "Lou" and "Bill."  I smiled, felt a little more grown up, and returned to work the next day with an even-bigger smile on my face.

I worked about forty hours a week, but would put in another twenty hours off the clock because I loved the environment.  It was fun; our customers would bring me Christmas presents, birthday cards, and Easter eggs and baskets each year.

Eventually, I graduated from college and decided I needed to get a "real" job.  I left Heights Video and probably one of the most special times of my life for the corporatized retail world.  I got an assistant manager position with Suncoast/Sam Goody, the movie and CD retailer.  I lasted two months.  The focus was squarely on profits and the financial bottom line. 

People?  Connections with our customers?  Nobody cared.  It was a lifeless, bloodless corporate structure: Move 'em in, get their money, and get 'em out.

I've kept in touch with Lou over the years and, on occasion, have seen Bill.  The store closed about five years ago, a victim to the economy and the shrinking video rental market.

As the years passed at that store I saw a side of Lou very different than what my prior encounters had taught me about him.

Asshole?

Not even close.

I realized the pen-throwing incident was his passion for his customers and the disappointment that he wouldn't be able to deliver something that he'd promised them.

The junior high fight?  He wanted to stop two or three kids from doing something stupid and in his rush to lend a helping hand I became a little bit of collateral damage.

So now I'm almost as old as he was when I took the job at that store.  I see life a little differently than when I was nineteen.

It's a shame we can't qualify people when we meet them.  Sometimes, it takes a gander into the rearview mirror to recognize those people that have had a large influence upon our lives.  So, like I said at the beginning, he ruined me. Or at least my expectation for what an employer should be.

For a while I thought Spielberg came kind of close.  On occasion Spielberg would greet me, shake my hand and say hello.  He knew nothing about me except I was the wide-eyed kid who would jump into a muddy river if asked to do so.  Just like a million other moviemaker-wannabees.

Lou is the kind of guy who gets to know you for who you are.  He'd give you the shirt off his back in freezing temperatures if you needed it.  He never judged a customer or one of his employees.  He fiercely loves his children and grandchildren.  If a customer was a little short of cash he'd float them a free movie rental.  If you returned your movie rentals late and the bill was too high, he'd shave a few bucks off and accompany it, always, with a smile.

For almost fifty years he was a physics teacher.  He retired a few years ago from public schools and, if needed, still substitutes around Elyria.  If he knew I was writing this he'd be embarrassed; his character would shy away from any adulation.

He's still going strong at seventy-five years old. At tonight's Mexican dinner he sucked down his burrito with the zest of a high-school football player.  He pulled out pictures of his youngest grandson, displaying the same passion as he did in that pen-throwing incident from almost thirty years ago.

And the funny thing?  He taught me so many things during my tenure there.  And unlike advanced math or (yuck) physics, the things he unknowingly taught me are still being used by me.

Every day.

In an age where everyone is being proclaimed a "hero" and the term "great person" is used so loosely, I want to exclaim that, yep, I've met some cool people in my life but only one really great one.

And, so far, that's been good enough for me.



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Name Droppings

So there's that time after you crawl into bed but before you drift off into the awaiting arms of the sandman when your brain starts to wander.  A thousand different, random thoughts plague your mind.  Last night I was laying there, helplessly adrift in a thought when it occured to me that several of our presidents have shared last names. 

Yep.  These are the type of thoughts that keep me awake at two ay-em, unable to finally close my weary eyes and drift off...

Other notable late-night ones have been naming the seven dwarves in alphabetical order (three times fast), counting how many state capitol buildings I've seen in my life and whether Carolina barbeque is better than its Texan counterpart.

By my count five different last names have been shared amongst ten former presidents; four of them familial, the fifth divided by a span of about a hundred years.  The easy ones that popped to mind were, of course, Bush and Adams.  Roosevelt came easily and then Harrison, whom I think were cousins.  William Henry came first followed by Benjamin fifty or so years later. 

The last?  Presidents Johnson: Lyndon of Texas and Andrew of Tennessee.

Then another thought struck me: We have a coffee-with-too-much-cream flavored president.  We need a president of color that has, well, a little more color to him. Caucasian Americans have less trouble with a black president that has a few white logs in his fireplace. I'd like to see a Bernie Mac-looking First Family.
 
We need to elect another Washington or Jackson.

But this time he needs to be a Harold Washington.

Or a Leroy Jackson.

Then we'll have fulfilled the promise of what this country has to offer.

So, after nodding to myself in agreement I rolled over onto my left shoulder and stared at the clock.  It was close to three in the morning.

Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy...

Here we go again.


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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Onward

I think I'm going to break down and make a much-despised resolution for the upcoming year.  I hate them; usually the turkey and stuffing left-overs from the holidays have a longer shelf life than most people's resolutions, right?

I'm going to disconnect from politics. 

Do a whole tune-out-and-drop-out thing to save me from stroking out over all the maladies that our country is suffering but I can't seem to do a damn thing about.  I read incessantly:  at the breakfast table, on the toilet, laying in bed at night and sometimes, oops, while driving down the highway at seventy-plus miles an hour.

Sorry for the toilet visual or if you're in close proximity to my car at excessive speeds.

I really try to ignore the headlines and how truly, royally-screwed the media portrays our country.  I keep a stiff upper lip, sit up straight and continue to read on even though every bit of news is bleak. 

But it's so hard not to become affected by what I read.

So, I want to get one last rant off my chest.  It's gonna be a long one so please bear with me ever-so-patient cave dwellers.

On election night 2008 I cheered.  I shed a tear that finally this despotic reign of terror that King George had thrust upon most of the world was going to be over.  Gitmo, the PATRIOT Act, waterboarding, WMDs, and the rest of the Stalinistic methods of American big-man-little-dick empowerment were going to go quietly into the night.

And I couldn't wait.

Enlightenment, intelligence, and a modicum of sense would be upon us.  Onward and, so to speak, upward would our culture be lifted under the aegis of a new type of president:  Young, intelligent, and, yep, non-white.  Obama would allow us to regain some respect with the rest of the world community.  Our standing as an upright beacon of freedom would be restored, and normalcy would return.

So here we are a little over three years since that tear-stained night and not much has changed.  As opposed to my onward-and-upward prediction things have only gotten worse.

Even a few short years ago when I started this blog I felt hopeful, energized, and a little skittish about the future, but steadfastly hopeful that America would find her way again.

The economy has sputtered.  The GOP has reduced political debate to a shouting match over queers and bible-thumping.  Banks have consolidated their power and have started to stranglehold any resistance to their dominion.  The OWS movement is being portrayed as a terrorist movement led by a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothings who need to take a shower and get a job.

So let's blame a conflagration of entities for putting America, natch, much of the world, on the brink of collapse. 

Let's blame religion and its minions for destroying the progress of the enlightened men and women that came before us.  Do you know that upwards of 70% of Americans believe in angels?  We've sent men to the moon and these prehistoric superstitions still haunt our everyday lives?  Look how deeply-religious men smashed a few planes into American real estate in the name of their god.

Look how deeply-religious men and women stand in front of funeral parades and claim that God hates fags.  Or put a gun in a doctor's face and pulls the trigger because he performs an abortion.  Killing is wrong they say, as they snuff out a life because God told them to do so.

Let's blame the wealthy of our country.  They not only want to keep that big piece of the pie that they currently have, but now they want the whole pie, the oven it was created in and the whole damn bakery. 

Let's blame our current president, a man that inspired so much in so many, gave me goosebumps when I saw him speak in person on several occasions, and promised to turn our spiral around.  He has proven to me that even our best and brightest can be bought for the right price.

Let's point the finger to our own greedy, spectacularly-inept Congress.  They've proven, beyond measure, that they represent not the people they've been elected to serve or the corporations that have purchased them, but their own private interests.  Congress looks out for Congress.  Last March's near-government shutdown proves that; in an environment where 800,000 federal employees may have been furloughed for an indefinite period without pay, both houses of our Congress voted to continue paying themselves.  Even our active military would have been issued IOUs.  Not Congress. The self-serving bastards.

But most of all let's point the finger where it truly belongs.

At ourselves.

While we all enjoyed our large flat screen televisions, giant gas-hogging SUVs and trendy Starbucks coffees, we fell asleep.  We stood by, knowingly, and let the powers I've just talked about take away some of our most precious American possessions.

Sure, you'll say that you didn't know what was happening, right? 

Really?

You can honestly look at me, square in the face, our gazes meeting eye-to-eye, and tell me that you didn't suspect that our freedoms, one at a time, were being slowly chipped away?

As the PATRIOT Act was passed, with rousing approval, it didn't get your Spidey Sense tingling? 

I can name hundred of events over the last ten years that have shown me, viscerally, that my country is being torn apart, from the wholly-unnecessary Iraq War to the recent electronic voting machine scandal in western Pennsylvania.  We're corrupt.  We're frauds.  And we know it.

Even if we deny it to ourselves.

As opposed to finding an answer for ourselves, many of us look to the TV and have an answer provided for us.  The pundits appeal to many of our basest fears.  They bring out the racist and jihadist inside some of our souls and point the finger at entities that have nothing to do with our current meltdown.  And we believe them.  Obama is a Muslim. Muslims are all evil.  Therefore Obama is evil.  The Birthers are the funniest.  Well, except for the crop of GOP candidates for next year's election.  They each try to trump one another to show who's the most conservsative one of the pack.  At this point, the only groups they haven't disenfranchised are the "unborn" and millionaires.

So now I can invoke two things that I truly don't believe in.  A phrase that most politicians love to vomit in the same sentence without the slightest hint of irony.

One, like angels, never existed and the other, until recently, I believed was something more than just an idea that all countries aspire to become.

God Bless America.


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Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Very Teahadist Christmas

As the holidays approach a new, and very interesting, bit of propaganda has spiked on several social networking sites.

Like a virus, a photo hits Facebook and is copied and shared from page to page, ad infinitum. 

A few new ones have hit over the last few days that smack of the whole let's-put-Christ-back-into-Christmas dogma.  Now, I have no problems with celebrating Christmas.  I'm an atheist so I don't buy into the whole divinity thing anyway.

But I love the holidays.  You may ask how an atheist, a devout believer in rational thought, can like a holiday that celebrates a supernatural entity?  I like Halloween too.   Christmas has about as much to do with Christ as Groundhog Day does with a psychic rodent.  I love the gatherings, the flaming rum drinks and the mountains of turkey that put me into tryptophan comas for hours after the annual early-afternoon meal.

So if you want to yell "Merry Christmas!" to like-minded people, have at it.  Sing "Jingle Bells" until you're hoarse and can't speak.  Just make sure you're doing it to those that have the same philosophical bent.

If you believe that Christ and Christmas go hand-in-hand, think back to when you were a child.  What memories instantly pop to mind?  I'm sure those midnight masses on Christmas Eve trump whatever toys and candies you received as a six year-old, right?

We give Jesus a cursory moment of remembrance, right between the spiked egg nog and the hot blonde standing too damn close to the mistletoe.

Anyway, when I saw these photos making their rounds I shook my head and got a little steamed.  The first one, copied and pasted to about ten of my Facebook friends' walls, was an exclamation of faith, I guess, drawing a proverbial line in the sand.  Rick Perry would love this little pro-Jesus, anti-everyone-else snapshot:



Once again, being an atheist, I don't really follow the New Testament that much.  But I know one thing: Jesus would be ashamed at his name being invoked for such an abysmally bigoted thing to witness.  Especially during the season that's meant to celebrate his birth and teachings.  It reeked of an imperialist, Manifest-Destiny dogma employed by the Spanish conquistadors bent on eradicating anyone not of their ilk.

The second one reinforced the first:


Our Constitution was set up so people of all religious backgrounds, faiths, and persuasions could openly practice whichever God they chose to worship without influence from the state or fear of intimidation from other groups.  Or even, like me, not worship a god or gods without fear of being persecuted or being burned at the stake.  Which kinda happened a lot back in Europe.

So now a few myopic editorialists post some inflammatory photos on Facebook.  And, without thinking of the ramifications about what these photos mean, people "share" them as their ideas as well.   Stop good Christians, if you will, for a moment and think about what message you're sending:  You're either with us or you're against us.  If you don't like my God, get out, go back to your pagan country.  We don't want you here.  Let's forget that the historical Jesus' message was that of peace.  Of understanding.  Compassion.  Forgiveness.

The second photo nailed the truth of these shared images perfectly.

Oh, the world needs a stable influence all right.  An influence based on logic, compassion and thought.  If you get the joke, we all know what the biggest by-product of a stable is, right?

And, right now, the world needs a lot less horse shit.

So says an atheist.



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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Socialist Networks

So yesterday I came across another one of those proud Faux News watching demagogues who loudly attempted to school me about how our country is dangerously close to becoming a socialist country.

God, I hate these people.

She was spouting off the talking points that Rush and O'Reilly have ingrained into her little head that she didn't even give pause to what she was telling me.

Obama wants to become a socialist state.  He wants to take ALL of our money.  He wants to corrupt our kids with pro-gay propaganda.  And on and on she went without stopping for a breath.

Except that time she paused to take a sip from her double-latte-caramel-frothy-Christmas-caffeine drink that was so large you could dock a jet ski in it.

I stood there shaking my head and looking for a reason, any reason, that I could use to duck out of there.

But I decided to try and school her back, you know, take-the-frown-and-turn-it-upside-down kind of thing?

So I asked her to define "socialism" for me.

And when pressed, it seemed, she couldn't come up with a definition.

So she fell back on what she heard from her buddies on Fox.

Now I'm no social scientist or an expert on political ideologies.  But at least I know the country in which I live.

I asked her if she ever relied on our fire and police departments for help.

Huh? she answered.

She was falling into my trap.

Muhahahah.

I said if she truly believed in what she was spouting that she wouldn't dare call the cops if she was attacked or needed roadside assistance.

Or if her house ever caught on fire she would put it out herself, because if she accepted the help from her local firehouse she was an outright hypocrite and full of the proverbial shit that lends our story such credence.

Huh, she said again, this time her jaw was slightly askew and a litle slack.

Why, our police and fire departments, among every other city service, is funded by us, the taxpayers, and therefore constitutes the classic dictionary definition of "socialism."

We all put some money into a big pot, the state, county, or city tax collection funds, and pay the firemen, police officers, and other state, county, and city workers to do what must be done on a collective level.

Like putting out a housefire that, simply speaking, has nothing to do with the person that's running into the burning structure to save your life.

I smiled.  I went for the close: "Haven't you been living in a socialist state your entire life? And really, has it been that bad?"

She stood there for a second, kind of dumbfounded, processing what I had just told her.

As her eyes squinted a bit and her brow furled I could see that she was having an epiphany.

Wow, she barked.  I never thought about it that way.

So I reiterated, you know, for emphasis and maybe for a little personal satisfaction, that if she ever needed help with anything she better not call 911, or she was an embarrassment to her cause and a complete and utter hypocrite.  Italics meant to emphasize how I annunciated those words to her shell-shocked ears.

I saw a change.  I know it sounds stupid and probably somewhat cliched, but she saw things in a different light.  She acquiesced; I got a meek little "thank you" for making her see things a little differently.

Score a victory for logic and knowledge.  I gave myself an imaginary back pat as I felt I had made a little bit of difference in this ridiculous faux-Marxist argument.

As I turned to finally leave she spat something that stopped me in my tracks.

"Well, your president is a Muslim and he'll be out of office soon anyway so his socialist agenda won't matter."

Sigh.

I hung my head and realized that, as an old boss used to say, you can't fix stupid.


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