Critiquing the Critics

The Wall Street Journal not only honored Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday (see my last post), but the same issue had an article entitled “Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records.” The sub-title was “Sales of LPs soared during the pandemic as younger listeners discovered their nostalgic and sensory appeal.”

For years I’ve tried to get my millennial son to understand this. Maybe it’s finally kicking in.

On that note, when I was even younger than Nick is now, I made the discovery of music appreciation books, guides, and encyclopedias. They assisted me when, as a teenager, I began compiling my (now massive) record collection that I hope to one day bestow on Nick.  They helped me peel back layers to reveal all sorts of juicy musical fruit under the outer skin.

Paul Gambaccini

Just recently I revisited an old book that I’d once pored over while wasting time in Walden Books at the local mall.  It’s called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It was compiled way back in 1978 during the Pleistocene Age, when the publication of rock music books began catching up with magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. The compiler was a venerable BBC presenter named Paul Gambaccini (an interesting man, in more ways than one).

Rock critics you say?  Someone once called them frustrated rock musicians.  Musician Lou Reed was more succinct.  He called them “scum.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones.  In their defense, rock critics provide potential purchasers with insights into music that circumvent “record company advertising (and) the squeals of the loudest fans.”  It’s nice to have a temperate and unbiased guide before one contributes one’s hard-earned cash to Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records. 

Most rock fans, especially in the U.S., get their music from the radio or television.  But deejays and “veejays” have always been at the mercy of their employer, or corporate wankers like Fufkin.

Rock critics cut through the hype (sometimes) and were helpful when I became a serious listener in the 1970s. Rock Critics’ Choice in particular introduced me to artists I might otherwise never have heard.  The other book so beneficial to me over the years has been The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express.

(Last month, during one of my late-night vinyl appreciation sessions, I joyously re-listened to Edgar Broughton Band’s album Oora, which Illustrated Encyclopedia had led me to.  Talk about a great unknown record.)

Anyway, back to Rock Critics’ Choice…compiler Gambaccini queried about 50 of his print and radio colleagues, asking them to list what they consider the ten greatest rock albums, in order of greatness.  He defined “greatness” as whatever criteria the particular critic wanted to use.  He permitted “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections. (Not sure I’d allow that.)  For fair and diverse representation, he consulted critics who were male, female, young, old, white, black, American, British, Canadian, French, Jamaican, and Eskimo.

He then tallied the results and assigned points to each album.  (I assume an album in the first position got 10 points, and tenth position got one point.)

Unlike those ubiquitous Rolling Stone lists, quoted everywhere and which are heavy on mainstream rock and dripping with set-in-stone conceit, Gambaccini’s book is looser and more democratic. It permits diversity (both critic and music) and honors both rock establishment (i.e. classic rock) as well as cult artists.

I found his ultimate Top 200 list predictable in some ways, but surprising in others.

Predictably, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones dominated the top positions.  Also predictably, older critics leaned toward early rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the like).  There were a lot of soul records, ala Otis Redding, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, etc.  Some choices teetered over the boundaries of rock (Huey “Piano” Smith, B.B. King, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).

The book also had some truly oddball choices.  For example, a minor South African actress named Genevieve Waїte (note deliberate umlaut over the “i”) made one and only one album in 1975 called Romance Is On The Rise.  It made two critics’ lists, clocking in overall at number 98.  It’s actually more of a John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) album with his then-wife doing the singing.  She sounds like a disco version of Cyndi Lauper trying to imitate Billie Holiday.  I concluded Genevieve must have been a flavor of the moment.

Michael Nesmith, who got off to a dubious musical start with the Monkees, actually had talent. One critic, however—as his number one greatest album of all time—selected Nesmith’s solo country-rock effort And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘.  Though I’ve yet to hear it, this offbeat choice also raised my incredulous eyebrow.

Another critic chose as his list topper a collection by the R&B group The “5” Royales (note deliberate quotation marks around the numeral). I appreciate certain fifties music from a historical perspective, but this elicited more head scratching. My guess is that the Royales’ song “Dedicated to the One I Love” might have been playing in this particular critic’s Buick Roadmaster the first time he got laid.

One cheeky rebel without a cause listed a bootleg album, by Bob Dylan and the Band.

The book’s lone Canadian critic, for both his number one and number three picks, listed Supertramp albums.  Yes, you heard right. Respectfully, sir, I have to take issue with your thinking.

Another critic, the late Robert Shelton, had no less than three Bob Dylan albums in his top ten.  But considering Shelton virtually launched Dylan’s career in 1961 with his New York Times review of a performance at Gerdes Folk City—and considering it’s Bob Dylan, not Supertramp—I can forgive Shelton’s zeal.

Rock Critics’ Choice is an enjoyable little book—great bathroom reading—and like I said, when it came out in 1978 it prodded me to explore music I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.  The book’s only negative is its vintage.  Although punk bands like the Clash and Ramones are represented, it was published before new wave, alternative, indie, thrash, grunge, rap, hip-hop, and other assorted popular flavors of rock.

But if you’re a baby boomer like me whose era was the late fifties through the mid-seventies, this book provides pleasurable non-think entertainment, and spurs one to make one’s own list.  My own top 10 “greatest” list had five albums that made the top 20 of Rock Critics’ Choice: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (ranked number 3 in RCC), Rubber Soul by The Beatles (number 5), Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (number 12), The Velvet Underground And Nico by the Velvet Underground (number 14), and Forever Changes by Love (number 16).

My champion pick, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was listed by many of Gambaccini’s cohorts and made number 14, but only one picked it to top her list: New York critic Lisa Robinson.  Lou Reed and I like her.

Of course, the term “greatest” is entirely subjective (excepting Muhammad Ali, who truly was The Greatest). But if you have a pre-1979 rock album or albums you consider deserving of this descriptor, and wish to share them here, leave a comment and I’ll see where they rank in Rock Critics’ Choice.

(And the vinyl just keeps on spinnin’…)

Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

Confessions of a Running Junkie

[UPDATE, April 2022: this post is more about my running fixation than my health, but just recently I had a CT scan of my heart and learned I have signs of atherosclerosis (calcium plaque in my arteries) and unless I take steps I could have a heart attack. I thought my diet was good, but maybe not. Although both my parents lived long lives, it could also be heredity. Anyway, regular exercise and low cholesterol levels are not necessarily a guarantor of a healthy heart. I urge everyone when they get older to have a heart CT scan. They only cost about $100 and could make a big difference.]

Last week I donated blood.  The Blood Center folks always check vital signs before inserting the needle.  For the third visit in a row after taking my vital signs, the nurse had to phone the doctor to “clear me.”

Although my blood pressure was slightly high (blame coffee, age, and Washington D.C.), that wasn’t the issue.  It was my pulse: only 44 beats per minute.  Halfway to dead.  A minimum pulse of 50 is required to donate.

Before phoning the phantom doctor, the nurse tried to get it up.  “Think of something exciting,” she instructed me.  So of course I concentrated on hardcore sex.

“I can’t believe it,” she said after taking my pulse a second time.  “It actually went down.”

Fortunately, my visit to the bloodsuckers wasn’t wasted, because Dr. Mysterioso “cleared me” after hearing that I was a daily runner.  Evidently runners and other athletes have lower heart rates.

This latest longitudes yammer isn’t to puff myself up.  No athlete am I.  Like my man Lou Reed, I’m just an Average Guy.  But running is a big part of my life, as you’ll soon see.

Back in high school, inspired by running icons like Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, I ran cross-country for one season.  Then in college I got sidetracked with my studies: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.  (The sex part was a distant third.)  Then I continued my studies while living the single life in Florida, but also began jogging along the beach.  I needed to work off the cheap beer from the previous weekend. 

I didn’t commence a regular jogging routine until 1992 at age 34.  I’d been laboring several years at a strenuous outdoors job, then suddenly found myself behind a desk doing sedentary work.  This abrupt venue change triggered some long-suppressed anxieties.  Then the anxieties triggered depression. 

Running helped lessen my mental struggles.  I found that—once I dragged myself out of the recliner and stepped outside—the sustained cardiovascular activity provided by running helped me escape the inside of my head.  And during the in-between times, the bleak moments weren’t quite so bleak.

Therapy and benzodiazepines also played a role, but there’s no doubt running helped pull me out of my deepening funk.

In 1993 I got hired by a company that co-sponsored a popular local road race: the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon.  I’d been jogging regularly now for a while, so I registered.  This race was the turning point.  It was like a giant party without the booze.  And instead of a hangover afterwards, I experienced the oft-cited “runner’s high.”  I had so much fun running those 9.3 miles downtown, I began doing smaller 5-kilometer races (3.1 miles).  Then 10K races.  Then marathons (26.2 miles).

At this stage—before age began chipping away at my testosterone level and male ego—speed was paramount.  Pushing myself to set PRs became a minor hobby.  Sometimes, the night before a race, I dreamt of being pulled by a giant conveyor belt strapped around my waist.  (And sometimes I was sprawled on the edge of the freeway and clawing gravel with my hands.)

My speed peak arrived in 1998 at age 40 when I qualified for the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of road races.  In Boston the following year I set a personal best time of 3:11 (three hours, eleven minutes). 

After Newport (RI) Marathon, October 2013 (photo by Mom)

My times soon slowed, but the marathons continued.   Altogether I’ve run 32 marathons in 22 different states.  (It would have been more, but I had two multi-year marathon layoffs due to back trouble…probably running-related.)

These days I average about 18 miles a week.  This includes an eight-mile run every Saturday morning on the nearby Little Miami River Scenic Trail, where I’ve co-adopted a four-mile segment.  I supplement my volunteer hours by scooping up litter that the fair-weather slobs have discarded.

My weeknight runs are two miles through my neighborhood.  This is also social time.  My wife asked me recently, “How did you get to know this person?”  I told her to join me on a run and I’d show her how.  (She declined.)

Running is my TM and yoga combined; it strengthens both my body and brain.  I can’t imagine what my BP reading would be without it.  Also, as with mountain backpacking, I like the outdoors solitude.  I get a lot of writing ideas while running alone.  The first few paragraphs of this essay came while running along Little Miami.

There have been occasions when I couldn’t run, such as after breaking my ankle in 1995, or after surgery in 2019.  The sudden indolence actually brought on physical withdrawal.

So that’s where the “running junkie” in the title comes from.  It’s an addiction.  I realize running isn’t for everyone.  Some people can’t run due to bad knees or back or other health constraint.  Others, like my brother, claim running is “boring.”  Some have exercise alternatives like walking, bicycling, swimming, or weightlifting…all good. 

Still others enjoy massaging their gluteus maximus with a recliner cushion.  Hey, I figure if you remain undistracted, that’s good too.  In these digital-compulsive days, doing absolutely nothing is vastly underrated.  As we say on the Appalachian Trail, Hike Your Own Hike.  As we said in the Sixties, Do Your Own Thing

My thing is running.  See you on the sidewalk.

A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock

February was a somber month for fans of the progressive rock music genre.  Both Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum died.  Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aims a jaundiced eye at progressive rock (fondly called “prog rock” or just “prog”), this music coincided with my hormones becoming jumpy and has enhanced my life. 

Brooker was the lead singer and main arranger in Procol Harum, and multi-instrumentalist McDonald was the chief musical force behind King Crimson’s first and best album, In The Court Of The Crimson King.  (He later helped start Foreigner.  For me, that’s like going from champagne to club soda.)

Prog rock might loosely be defined as music that evolved from Sixties psychedelic and that mixed straight rock with classical, jazz, folk, ambient sounds, or tape looping, often with an English or European veneer.  Arrangements became longer and more complex than previously, and lyrics—if there were any—flowed with florid poetry, science fiction, fantasy, and the mythological.  Electric guitar was still prominent, but keyboards, Mellotron, brass, woodwinds, and strings became equally important. 

Debate continues as to when and where prog began, but I date it to the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed album and Procol Harum’s grandiose single “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” both from the year 1967.

Prog fell out of fashion starting in the mid-1970s.  The biggest groups, like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Genesis, began overreaching themselves.  Punk rock also helped deflate the balloon, with its return to short, fast-paced songs and simple chords and lyrics.  Today, there’s a small but enthusiastic cult of prog-rock fans who help keep the flame burning. Most of them, like me, have thick eyeglass lenses and thinning hair.

In honor of Messrs. McDonald and Brooker, here are my 15 favourite progressive rock albums, in order of increasing obscurity. (Note my British spelling of “favorite.”):

Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon (1973).  A powerful album, musically and lyrically, and a sonic wet dream that no respectable record collection should be without.  A rock-music masterpiece. If you’re a young person, DO NOT listen to this album with the songs digitally splintered up. It flows, like a river.

Genesis, Foxtrot (1972) or Selling England By The Pound (1973).  Peter Gabriel was still the focal point of Genesis at this time, especially onstage.  Early Genesis emphasized melody and were like a musical version of Lewis Carroll, which is why I love them.

Emerson Lake & Palmer, Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970).  THE supergroup of prog, with a sinister and heavy edge. Keith Emerson had fronted the Nice, Greg Lake was King Crimson’s original singer, and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer was with hard rockers Atomic Rooster.  ELP’s first four studio albums are prog classics.

King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969).  Some say true prog-rock started here.  Guitarist Robert Fripp was the only constant in the ever-changing Crimson, but arranger Ian McDonald is all over this stunning debut, which Pete Townshend of the Who called “an uncanny masterpiece.”

Procol Harum, Shine On Brightly (1968) or A Salty Dog (1969).  Why Procol isn’t in that museum in Cleveland is, well, “beyond these things.” Procol has a sound all its own. Imagine Mary Shelley married to Howlin’ Wolf. These two classic LPs feature guitar-god Robin Trower, who went on to a successful solo career.  (I saw him four times and my ears still ring.)

Renaissance, Ashes Are Burning

Renaissance, Turn Of The Cards (1974).  Renaissance came closer to a straight classical sound than any other prog band.  Lead singer Annie Haslam has a voice like a bell. Notable song on this LP: the timely ”Mother Russia.” I also recommend Ashes Are Burning.

Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts (1971).  Led by histrionic vocalist Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf was more dark and apocalyptic than other English prog bands.  Pawn Hearts was produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.

Caravan, In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971).  Caravan was part of the “Canterbury Scene,” which grew out of a musical collective in Kent called Wilde Flowers.  The Canterbury Scene musicians were more ingenuous and witty than their non-Canterbury peers.  Serious prog fans know of them; why others do not is as mysterious as why David Crosby is still alive.

Soft Machine, Volume Two (1969) or Third (1970).  The first Canterbury band to record, they got their hallucinogenic start at Joe Boyd’s underground club UFO along with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.  Volume Two is more psych-sounding, while Third is a double album of very heavy prog.

Kevin Ayers, Joy Of A Toy (1969).  A founder of Soft Machine along with Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen (Gong).  Some Ayers fans think his third album, Whatevershebringswesing, is his best.  It’s excellent, but I prefer this solo debut, more whimsical and psychedelic than most prog, and with shorter songs.

Egg, Egg (1970) or The Polite Force (1971).  An organ-dominated three-piece (no guitars!) with a Goth sound not unlike ELP’s.  Bass player and singer Hugo Montgomery (Mont) Campbell wrote most of their best music.  They’re on the fringes of the Canterbury Scene, so they have to be good.

McDonald and Giles, McDonald And Giles (1970).  Very under-appreciated spinoff from King Crimson.  Crimson lost its melodic element when Ian McDonald split, taking inventive percussionist Michael Giles with him.  If you love Crimson’s first album (see above), you must get this, which continues the pastoral side of Crimson.

Curved Air, Second Album (1971).  Critics didn’t like this band much, but their second album is quite good, very dreamlike.  Key musicians were singer Sonja Kristina and violinist Darryl Way.  A later lineup included drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police.  (He and Kristina married.)

Jade Warrior, Floating World (1974).  A two-man group, their all-instrumental albums on Island Records are the best, with lots of Oriental flourishes.  Both Kites and Waves are also good, the latter with Steve Winwood guesting on ivories.

Gryphon, Gryphon (1973).  This unique and obscure band once opened shows for Yes.  Their musical zeitgeist were the Renaissance and Middle Ages, and they played every instrument in the cosmos.  (Ever hear of a crumhorn?)  I prefer the eponymous debut to their other records because it has playful lyrics and vocals.

***

Why no albums by Yes, some of you ask?  Good question.  Yes might be prog’s signature group.  I liked Yes in high school and college, especially the Close To The Edge album.  Maybe I became oversaturated with their music, plus I discovered lesser-known artists who intrigued me much more.  I will admit, they were masters of their respective instruments.  But these days, instrumental virtuosity doesn’t float my boat like it once did. I just like a good song.

There are many other progressive rock groups, most of them British: Moody Blues, Nice, Hawkwind, Family, Strawbs, Colosseum, Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Eno, Phil Manzanera/801, Gentle Giant, Electric Light Orchestra (which evolved from the Move), Barclay James Harvest, Camel, and Canterbury offshoots like Daevid Allen/Gong, Steve Hillage, Hugh Hopper, Mike Oldfield, Robert Wyatt/Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, and National Health. 

Germany produced denser, more machine-like bands (not surprisingly): Nektar, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust, Can, and Amon Düül. 

Italy had Premiata Formeria Marconi (P.F.M.).

France spouted Magma (and Gong lived communally in France).

Holland had Focus, featuring guitarist Jan Akkerman.

Japan had Stomu Yamashta and Far East Family Band.

North America produced Kansas, Styx, and Happy the Man (all U.S.) and Audience (Canada). 

Johnny-come-lately progressive rockers include Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, The Alan Parsons Project, Kate Bush, Sky, Marillion (a Genesis clone), Klaatu, Starcastle, Porcupine Tree, supergroups U.K. and Asia, and Rush, who began as a hard-rock trio.

Some folks consider Jethro Tull, Traffic, and Frank Zappa to be progressive rock, though I might question that categorization.  Same thing with “glam” bands like Roxy Music, Queen, and David Bowie.  Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Lindisfarne might be classified as prog, but I’ve always considered them English folk rock. 

Did I leave any out?  What are some of your favorite progressive rock bands?

Lastly, thanks for the music, Ian and Gary. Here’s a prog-rock taste test: a demo of King Crimson’s beautiful “I Talk to the Wind,” written by McDonald and lyricist Pete Sinfield. The singer is Judy Dyble, formerly of Fairport Convention. (Greg Lake would soon replace her in Crimson.)

Thoughts on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics just concluded.  So many things happened, some of them even having to do with sport, that I thought a few longitudinal observations might be in order.

(Full disclosure: the only sports I watched were Alpine and Nordic skiing, speed skating, and curling.  Therefore, I received much of my information second-hand.  I’m sure a lot of folks enjoy the bobsled event, but four people crammed into an ugly oblong box and sliding down the ice to cross an invisible line within hundredths of a second of their competitors just doesn’t appeal to me. Unless the bobsled is Jamaican.)

Here are some suggestions for improving the Winter Olympics.  You may wish to take some of these with a grain of salt:

  • Russia and China should be kicked out of the games for 20 years.  If after 20 years they’ve gotten their act together, they can then rejoin the party.  And I don’t mean the Communist Party.
  • The figure skating age limit should be raised to 18.  Why are little girls skating out there, anyway?  At first I thought the Russian silver medal winner, 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova, was bawling because her teammate, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, was scolded by her Politburo coach after a disastrous performance. Then I discovered she was upset because “Everyone else has a gold medal, everyone, but not me!”
Silver medalist Alexandra Trusova with dripping mascara (Getty Images)
  • If you have to have little girls skating in the Olympics, at least make sure they receive adequate food and water.  Anorexia shouldn’t be a prerequisite for competition.
  • Flags are really important in the Olympics. Since the U.S. right wing loves flags so much, our conservative athletes should be permitted to add their own flag to the stars and stripes during ceremonies. There’s the Don’t Tread On Me flag, the thin blue line flag (I think that’s what it’s called), and a couple other unmentionables. Let the rest of the world see how regressive America really is!
  • Bring back some old-timers for us old-timers.  You know, a senior category.  Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn, Katarina Witt, Tonya Harding, and Nancy Kerrigan are all still alive.  It would be fun to see them back in action. Roll them onto the ice, give Harding a hammer, and let ’em mix it up. And to spice things up, throw in that corrupt French judge from 2002.
“Insert Race Card Here. KA-CHING! Here’s Your Entitlement Receipt” (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • Keep race and the race card out of the games.  After speculation that Russian medal favorite Valieva might be denied a medal due to ingesting trimetazidine (she was actually denied due to stress), U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tweeted that the only reason she herself was barred for smoking pot in the summer Olympics was her “skin color.”  Longitudes, however, feels it has more to do with Sha’Carri’s stupidity than her skin tone.  Getting stoned is okay, Sha’Carri, but when you compete for your country, give the bong a break.
  • United States, lighten up on coverage of our sports stars. Media saturation of Mikaela Shiffrin, top U.S. athlete in the winter games, caused her to DNF in three events and finish 9th and 18th in two others. Even the White House press secretary pressured her. You U.S. talking heads did the same thing with male skier Bode Miller. There are other attractive female skiers out there besides Mikaela Shiffrin. I’d like to suggest Lara Gut-Behrami and Dorothea Wierer.
  • Since the U.S. usually does poorly in the biathlon (cross-country skiing combined with target shooting), give us Yanks a break and revise the target.  A human shape with a bullseye over the heart would be more appropriate to our unique culture of gun violence.
  • Add a triathlon event.  The athletes have to downhill ski, then speed skate, then perform in an ice dancing competition.  The last event would be especially fun to watch.
  • Judges, keep a sharper ear on the music selected for figure skating.  Although 99 percent of people are probably unaware, part of Alexandra Trusova’s program (see mascara above) included “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges, Iggy Pop’s old band.  It’s a fantastic rock song, but more appropriate for an opium den than a women’s girls’ skating program.  What’s next, Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm”?

I hope my above suggestions prove useful. I’m sure I’ve offended at least one person with them: bobsled fan, Communist, prepubescent girl, senior citizen, social conservative, social justice warrior (SJW), gun nut, flag waver, feminist, French skating judge, or oblong box. But as I see it, if I haven’t offended at least someone, then I’m not doing my job.

Iggy Pop (photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

“A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”—Book Review

Fifty years ago this June 9, John Vann died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in central Vietnam.

The anniversary coincides with my reading Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book (published 1988) about Vann and the Vietnam War.  This monumental work is 800 pages-worth of small print.  As with after my reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (click here), I figure all that labor deserves to bear some fruit, even if only a few dried raisins on WordPress.  Thus, my review.

Who was John Paul Vann?  He was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 soon after the Kennedy administration began sending military “advisors” there.  Vann was one of a handful who early on criticized U.S. strategy.  He left the army in cloudy circumstances but returned to ‘Nam in 1965 as a civilian U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) director right when Gen. William Westmoreland and the Johnson administration began ramping up America’s failed war with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

John Vann

Vann tried to convince Washington that the U.S.-built Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt; that Diem’s army (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) was afraid of confrontation; that the American-backed Strategic Hamlet Program (isolating Vietnamese hamlets with barbed wire to repel the Viet Cong) was counterintuitive; that U.S. commanders were fudging the numbers; and that America’s war-of-attrition strategy would ultimately fail.

Neil Sheehan was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam.  He covered the war for its duration, first as a UPI correspondent, then as a reporter for The New York Times.  Sheehan and other Vietnam journalists, like David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, admired Vann.  Vann didn’t bullshit the reporters.  He told it like he saw it, warts and all, despite the career risk.  He exhibited a professional courage unusual for most Vietnam-era military and civilian protagonists.

Before writing this book, Sheehan was most known for obtaining the Pentagon Papers from RAND Corporation “whiz-kid” and a former protégé of Vann’s, Daniel Ellsberg.  Publication of a portion of the Papers in the Times revealed among other things that four presidential administrations, primarily Johnson’s, had systematically lied to and misled the American public about their intentions in Vietnam.  The Pentagon Papers became a First Amendment cause célèbre.  Sheehan died January 7, 2021.

____________________

Sheehan writes in a direct, declarative style undoubtedly honed by his years as a wire reporter and war correspondent.  He doesn’t succumb to the temptation of hyperbole.  There are no exclamation points or sarcasms, despite the black-comic nature of what he observed in Vietnam.  Because he was there, he occasionally uses first-person narration.

Neil Sheehan (photo Frédérick Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Once—in an exchange so staggering it beggars belief— Sheehan managed to discuss the war with Westmoreland, the second of three commanding generals. He politely asked the general about the extraordinary number of civilian casualties.  The civilians—South Vietnamese peasants, including women and children—were ostensibly those whom the U.S. was trying to save from Communism.  They were being killed, maimed, and made homeless by U.S. bombs and artillery shelling.

Westmoreland responded: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem…but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”

Vann’s story parallels the war’s history.  He’s the human focal point of the book; however, he’s far from a choirboy.  He was a philanderer who exploited his family-man status to burnish his own résumé.  He manipulated people and lied to them, even young and vulnerable girls, victims of Vann’s pathological sexual hunger.  Vann amply contributed to a familiar by-product of the war: illegitimate pregnancies, abortions, and child abandonment. Sheehan uncovers more than one dark secret about Vann’s past.  The “bright shining lie” of the book title, taken from a direct quote by Vann about the war, has a double meaning.

Sheehan weaves Vann in and out of the larger story of America in Vietnam. He touches on a chilling capture and imprisonment of Vann’s partner Doug Ramsey, buried in the jungle for seven years.  He covers the significant Vietnam War battles: Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and the Tet and Easter Offensives. Vann tried to direct the first major confrontation at Ap Bac as an advisor to the incompetent ARVN.  It backfired.

When it became clear that full American intervention was required (total withdrawal was rejected, of course), the military strategy proved stupid and unnecessarily brutal. Westmoreland convinced the Johnson administration that a war of attrition would prevail, rather than Vann’s policy of South Vietnamese pacification (winning rural ”hearts and minds” through security, arms, training, and social reform). It was a “stomp-them-to-death” policy of bludgeoning the enemy with relentless matériel and manpower from the air and in the jungles, and it was a total cul-de-sac. After the war crescendoed with the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Richard M. Nixon continued these bludgeoning tactics by invading Cambodia (secretly in 1969, not-so-secretly in 1970) and with the 1972 “Christmas Bombings.”

Ho Chi Minh, 1946

The U.S. mistakenly tried to transfer WWII tactics to the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. There was little attempt to understand Vietnam history, culture, or Vietnamese soldiers’ perfection of guerrilla warfare for over 1,000 years. (The French had failed here, too.) Additionally, due to its monomaniacal hatred of Communism, the U.S. could not recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Nationalists first and Communists only second.

By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity…American society had become a victim of its own achievement.  The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.

“A Bright Shining Lie,” page 285

Vann didn’t waver from his position on how the war should be fought.  Like everyone else in those innocent years of the early 1960s, including reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, he believed that America had a moral obligation to “stem the Red tide” in Southeast Asia.  But while Halberstam, Ellsberg, ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and much of the rest of the world eventually recognized the folly of that tragic conflict (McNamara secretly), Vann clung to it like one of his many sex partners, and still believed, at least publicly, that it could be won.

A one-time dirt-poor Southern cracker, in Vietnam Vann transformed himself into ”The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He embraced President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization (gradually transferring combat roles back to South Vietnam), which incorporated Vann’s pacification ideas. Nixon in turn gave him smiles and pats on the back. He both finagled and earned stars to put on his résumé. His fighting instincts and courage were beyond reproach. He found a home in that land of atrocities and waste. Reading this book, one gets the impression he’d have been content if the war continued forever.

____________________

Vann’s June 1972 burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a who’s who of principal players in the conflict, civilian and military.  Sheehan was there.  When he looked around and saw the faces, it struck him how Vann’s scarred life and tragic death were a metaphor for the war itself.  Vann’s funeral, in fact, was the genesis for Sheehan’s book.

William Westmoreland

(Spoiler Alert)…Vann’s discarded family was at the funeral, too.  Afterwards, they met with Nixon in the Oval Office.  Nixon was to award Vann a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Vann’s second of four sons, Jesse, had just been drafted.  Earlier that day he’d torn his draft card in two and placed one half on his father’s casket.  He intended to hand the other half to Nixon.  He was talked out of doing this only at the last second.

The president had been alerted to what Jesse might do.  After Jesse reluctantly shook hands with Nixon, the president offered a muffled “Thanks.”  He’d been saved from embarrassment.

The image of an uncomfortable Nixon greeting a 21-year-old boy whom he’d tried to send to Vietnam—a boy whose father had just been wasted by the war Nixon was prolonging—is hard to stomach.  But it happened.  There’s a photo of the Vann family with Nixon in the Oval Office.

Of the eleven people lined up for that photo, Nixon is the only one smiling.

A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

A Scouting Trip to the Sunshine State

Sunset at Humphris Park, Venice, Florida

We’re finally narrowing it down…our final destination, that is (short of the graveyard).

Lynn and I just returned from a whirlwind visit to Florida, U.S.A., and we think we know where we want to retire.  Florida actually is not at the top of our list.  Neither of us is enamored with the goofy politics, and I can do without quite so many OWFs (Old White Fuckers) from Ohio and Michigan…people like me, in other words.

But Florida has sunshine, ocean, zero state income tax, and is far more affordable than Hawaii.  And since we both suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and are inveterate beachcombers—and I’ll have the opportunity to kayak, snorkel, and kitesurf—this state may be in our future, assuming housing costs don’t continue to skyrocket.

Here’s a quick synopsis of our trip:

St. Petersburg/Clearwater: if I had to choose one major city in Florida, this would be it.  It gets high marks for retiree living.  Lotsa water and sun, recreational opportunities, good medical facilities, and urban action.  We stayed two nights in a condo on a narrow peninsula called Pass-A-Grille, easy walking distance to the beach.

Wild parakeets at Pass-A-Grille

My favorite moment was kayaking offshore.  I paddled past the tip of the peninsula, and came close to petting two dolphins that were surfacing in perfect synchronicity.  But whenever I paddled to where they’d submerged, Flipper and friend popped up somewhere else.  It was like playing Whack-a-Mole.

My idyll in the sea was rudely interrupted when I spied flashing colored lights on the beach.  “Oh God, what did she do now,” I muttered while finishing off my illegal Budweiser.  Sure enough, she’d called the rescue squad after losing sight of my kayak.

People, I love my wife, but this is exactly why I disappear for months at a time in the mountains.

Complimentary kayaks. I borrowed the green one.

Sarasota: a smaller urban area, and we talked with a realtor, but unfortunately weren’t able to visit any neighborhoods.  The big attractions are Siesta Key and Largo Key, the former consistently ranked as the top public beach in the nation.  Good school system, too, which always enhances a place.  Lynn doesn’t like larger cities like Tampa Bay/St. Pete (she’s a country gal), but she’s open to Sarasota.  Might need to take another look.

Venice: this was our favorite spot.  It has a cool historic “downtown” area (mainly a collection of trendy shops, cafes, and restaurants, with a modest park separating traffic lanes); lots of waterways (which is why it’s called Venice); free but well-maintained public beaches; and an abundance of condos, villas, and houses for the many OWFs. 

Another perk is the Legacy Trail, a running/biking route which begins at a historic railroad depot in town and combines with the Venetian Waterway Park Trail to course northward 20 miles to Sarasota.  I jumped on it one evening from our efficiency rental in Nokomis.  Having to pass through several back streets to reach the trail, it wasn’t five minutes before I realized I was no longer in Kansas.  The houses and people changed, and I suddenly heard the booming sound of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.”  The Land of OWFs had become the Land of a Thousand Dances.

“I haven’t heard that one in years!” I yelled over to two elderly black men drinking beer at a picnic table in their gravel drive.  They raised their beers to salute the bold OWF who’d infiltrated their turf.  I seriously came close to aborting my run and joining them.

Venice Harbor, Venice

But recalling the kayak incident at Pass-A-Grille, I continued on, only to encounter a large metal fence separating their neighborhood from the Legacy Trail.  It took me a while to find a gap in the fence, then suddenly I was back in the Land of OWFs.

It’s a good thing that metal fence is there to maintain the purity of the trail, not to mention the OWFs.

Estero/Fort Myers: Estero is probably our second favorite spot.  We reunited with good friends David and Melissa, who moved into a very cool condo complex after retirement in 2015.  They took us to Brio’s Restaurant the first night, then the original Tommy Bahamas in Naples the second, where I followed Melissa’s lead and indulged in the delicious crab bisque and breaded snapper.

In between restaurants they offered prescient advice during our visit to the planned community of Babcock Ranch, established by a visionary ex-football player named Syd Kitson (same age and birthplace as me) and which will be the first totally solar-powered town in America.  We liked the home prices and sustainability concept, but Babcock was too isolated.  It was also too new (lots of construction noise), and a hospital was only in the planning stage.

On our last day we glimpsed the beaches and downtown of Fort Myers, along with Sanibel island, where residents have successfully managed to protect the ecology by restricting development.  Perhaps the snowbirds were flocking heavily that day, but traffic everywhere was crowded and tight.  However, we’re definitely keeping Estero in mind.  (Just to warn you, David and Melissa!)

The original Tommy Bahamas, Naples

Naples: one of the most popular places in Florida for both snowbirds and year-rounders, but we’ve heard it’s somewhat overpriced and snooty.  But you can’t believe everything you hear, so it’s still on our radar.  And if we move to Naples, I can jam with my friend Jesus, who lives here (click here).

Everglades: not a retirement destination, but we passed through on our way to Key West, which is also not a retirement destination (but is exotic enough that it will be a separate longitudes post).  While in the Big Cypress National Preserve, we pulled into a wildlife viewing area where we saw native birds and alligators.  Lynn was on the other side of the bridge observing a floating gator while I snapped a photo of sun-worshipper Wally Gator.  (Anyone remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoon?)

Female anhinga, Big Cypress National Preserve

We also passed a number of fenced-off villages that had houses with thatched roofs, identified by road signs with the modest words “Indian Village.”  I first thought these were Seminole areas, but they’re actually Miccosukee, a tribe that emerged from the Seminole in the mid-20th century.  The Seminole/Miccosukee are supposedly the only Indians who never signed a peace treaty with the U.S.  This is significant, because most other Indian treaties were broken by the U.S.

Vero Beach: while we concentrated on Florida’s Gulf Coast, we wanted to at least take a peek at the opposite side, and we chose Vero Beach, which is almost the same latitude as Venice.  My parents honeymooned here in February 1957.  Lynn and I stayed at the throwback Sea Spray Inn near South Beach, which was built about the same time my folks had me on their minds.

We both loved South Beach, a very expansive beach with free parking that has a strong surf (good for kitesurfing).  I liked downtown Vero Beach (Lynn didn’t).  It supposedly has a good arts scene.  And Vero Beach is a great place to see gentle, herbivorous Florida manatees (sea cows), recently downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” status. But neither of us was impressed with the neighborhoods the realtor took us to.  Too many pickup trucks parked in grass.  I used to own a Chevy S-10, but these days I have an aversion to pickups.  And when parked in the front yard?  Forget it.

American alligator, Big Cypress National Preserve

Then it was back to wet and gray southwestern Ohio.  Other than the politics, absence of seasonal transitions, and prevalence of OWFs, about the only negative we foresee with a move to Florida is distance from our three granddaughters.

But when they visit (hint to our daughter), they’ll have a great destination vacation…although Avi got really upset when I told her that, if there’s one more “kayaking incident,” I’ll be feeding Gigi to Wally Gator.

Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

A Christmas Visit with Pope Francis

Yesterday I was slothfully bumming around the boob tube and I landed on one of those late-night comedy shows.  One of the show segments dealt with recent newsworthy comments made by Pope Francis about adultery.

It seems one of the Pope’s employees, Archbishop Blah-Blah, was fired because he supposedly had sex with, or groped, or massaged or caressed, or grazed the shoulders of, or maybe leered at a female.  (The media is still unclear about the extent of his so-called “sin,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

Even if he did have sex, his behavior wasn’t technically adultery, since Archbishop Blah-Blah isn’t married.  But the Pope’s people have to remain celibate and also conduct themselves like gentlemen, so he did, at the very least, violate his employment contract.

Today we have a preponderance of “fake news,” as well as factual news that certain people claim is fake.  After cranking up my search engine, though, I landed on enough fairly credible sources carrying this story that I concluded Pope Francis actually did make the comments in question.

I decided to fly to the Vatican to speak with the pontiff himself.  Although I’m not Catholic, nor even a technical “Christian”, I have a grudging respect for a few spiritual leaders, despite disagreeing with them on technicalities.  I wanted to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.  Did he really say these things?  And if so, could he please elaborate on them?

So here’s my interview with the Supreme Pontiff:

longitudes:  Merry Christmas, Pope!

Pope Francis:  And Happy Holidays to you, my son.

longitudes:  Uh…yes.  Pope, I know you’re a busy man, what with Christmas and your governing chores, so I’ll try not to take up too much time.  But I have some questions about some things you recently said that might be construed as being controversial.

Pope Francis:  Fire away, my son!

longitudes:  My first question concerns your response after Archbishop Blah-Blah was fired for, uh, doing “something” with a woman.  You said—and I quote—“Sins of the flesh are not the most serious.”  What did you mean?

Pope Francis:  I meant just that.  On the scale of sinfulness—the other sins being gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride—lust isn’t that big of a deal.  I mean, we all lust, even Jimmy Carter.  (Different denomination, but he’s still a brother-in-arms.) It’s not exactly like murder, or something.  It’s more like jaywalking.

longitudes:  Okay.  But some people might view this “jaywalking” as condoning cheating on one’s spouse. After all, many of them have taken a vow of faithfulness, and some have even done it in church.

Pope Francis:  Well, lust is still bad.  But it’s more like a misdemeanor than a crime.

longitudes:  Gotcha.  But lust could be defined as anything from having sexual thoughts about someone, to jumping in the sack with your neighbor’s wife or husband.  Where do you draw the line?  Are lustful thoughts and extramarital sex both misdemeanors?

Pope Francis:  Yes, but one is a more serious misdemeanor than the other.

longitudes:  And if indeed there is extramarital sex, is hitting a home run a greater sin than merely reaching third base?

Pope Francis:  I don’t understand the analogy, my son.

longitudes:  Sorry sir.  What I meant was, is intercourse a greater sin than heavy pet—um, than touching the genitals?

Pope Francis:  I think we’re splitting hairs here.  But let me cut to the quick.  Lustful thoughts will require a brief anteroom meeting with God.  Extramarital sex, however—which includes the home run as well as reaching fourth base—requires temporary purgatory, and maybe a few flame lickings on the backside.

longitudes:  And how do you know this?

Pope Francis:  My son, I think you would have to be Catholic to understand.  Are you Catholic?

longitudes:  No, I’m not much for organized religions.  I’d list the reasons, but I don’t want to offend you or others.

Pope Francis:  I admire your humility, my son.  We could use a few more like you in the Christian faith.

longitudes:  Thank you, sir, but I’m not as humble as it might appear.  (And sorry for the false modesty.) Another question I have concerns your comment that Archbishop Blah-Blah was merely “condemned by gossip” and “could no longer govern.” 

Pope Francis:  Right.  Blah-Blah is not a crook.  The press was out to get him.  Then there’s the gossip factor.  But now that I kicked him out, they won’t have him or the church to kick around anymore.

longitudes:  This sounds familiar.  But anyway, you accepted his resignation, quote, “not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy,” unquote.  What did you mean?  It sounds like you are defending him while at the same time capitulating to those critics who want him removed.  Similar to certain American politicians.

Pope Francis:  I have 1.3 billion Catholics in my flock.  Not to mention 5,000 worldwide real estate holdings.  This is not just a government, it’s also big business.  Oh, yes, it’s also a big-time religious denomination!

longitudes:  I see your point.  One last question, your supreme pontificator. Despite their significance, I noticed your statements weren’t carried by either the National Catholic Reporter nor the Vatican News. Might there be a quid pro quo going on here?

Pope Francis: My son, I’m impressed! You spoke Latin! Unfortunately I can’t comment on this. I’m unfamiliar with the first-named publication, and my subscription to Vat News ran out last March.

longitudes: I see, Holy See. Anyway, I’d like to thank you for meeting with me this most joyous time of year.

Pope Francis:  My pleasure, my son.  Have a wonderful holiday season, and don’t drink too much egg nog.  Remember, gluttony is also a deadly sin.  Actually, it’s not exactly “deadly.”  And probably not a sin, either.  Definitely a misdemeanor, though. Two flame licks and a closed-door meeting.

    

DISCLAIMER: This is not a real interview.  I did not actually meet with the Pope.  Anyway, I can’t afford the airfare, and he never visits my neck of the woods.