Awkward, but Amusing

My phone rang about 20 minutes ago from an unknown number. I’m not usually in the habit of answering those calls, but we’re in the process of finding a car for the Spawn to take to Maryland, so I thought it might be a follow-up call.

“Hello?”

“Michael?”

“No — this is Warren Moore. Who were you looking for?”

“Yes, this is So-and-so from Company X, and I’m trying to reach Michael Moore about an urgent matter. Do you know if he’s available?”

“Um. He’s really, really unavailable. Actually, he’s incarcerated in Kentucky, doing two life sentences for murder.”

“Oh.”

“If you’re trying to contact him, he’s at the Green River Correctional Complex, near Central City, KY.”

“Oh.” But God bless her, the woman continued. “Well, a woman named [someone I don’t know] listed Michael on a form, and this is the contact information we had. You wouldn’t happen to know [this other person], would you?”

“I’m afraid not. I’ve never heard of her. And Michael’s been in prison since 2013, and in jail for the four years prior. He murdered our parents.”

“Oh. Well, I’ll change our information. Sorry to have troubled you.”

“No problem.”

End of phone conversation. Now this isn’t the first time I’ve had a version of this conversation, but it doesn’t happen too often. And because I have the sense of humor I do, calls like that amuse me when I get them.

But I found this one especially funny, partly because it’s been a year or two since the last time I took a call for Mike, but also because, after I hung up, this occurred to me.

The caller said she was looking for my brother because someone else had listed him on a form. And I wondered if someone had listed him as a reference, and what kind of life must they have lived for that to seem like a good idea?

“Well, Gacy’s dead, and Ed Kemper won’t return my calls… I guess I’d better list Mike.”

Makes me giggle.

Posted in Family, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Farewell, Mr. Clegg

Johnny Clegg, a one-time anthropology prof turned world music pioneer, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66. His South African bands Juluka (with creative partner Sipho Mchunu) and Savuka were among the first to merge Zulu and Western popular music, and influenced a wide range of other musicians, from Paul Simon (who name-checked Juluka in the process of creating Graceland and found African musicians through Juluka’s producer, Hilton Rosenthal.)

Clegg’s music drew from his youth sneaking into race-restricted areas in South Africa, where he was often the only white present. He was arrested on numerous occasions, but typically would be released to his parents due to his age, rather than face prosecution. He was fascinated by the Zulu culture he encountered, and ultimately went from the role of visitor to the role of adoptive member.  His introduction to Zulu music and dance led him to combine it with Celtic folk, rock and roll, and other forms of popular music, and along with Mchunu, he formed Juluka, which went from playing more or less underground (as an integrated and political band, they were barred from a lot of performance opportunities.) Juluka cut two LPs, handled by Warner Bros. in the US, and that’s how I discovered them in 1983 or 84, during my Freshman year at Transylvania U.

The song I first heard, “Scatterlings of Africa”, was their biggest American hit, and the one I typically used to introduce the band to new listeners. A snippet of it also appears in the soundtrack to Rain Man.

They became one of my father’s favorite bands, and another track from the first album became a standard feature of car trips with my parents.

Both before and after he became a celebrity, he was active against the apartheid state, both on and off stage.Later, during the 1985-6 South African State of Emergency, Clegg wrote “Asimbonanga” in honor of Nelson Mandela, the song becoming an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1999, Clegg performed the song with a special guest.

Now both Clegg and Mandela have gone, and while South Africa faces a variety of challenges, I think it’s good that they got to see at least a beginning to the nation they wanted.

Scatterlings was likely Clegg’s best album, but my favorite song of his appears on Juluka’s sophomore effort, Stand Your Ground (known elsewhere in the world as Work for All). “December African Rain” rises above the mid-80s production, and there’s some melancholy along with its energy. It reminds me of my circle of friends at Transy, some of whom have gone on to join the majority.

One more thought crosses my mind. We may be lucky that Mr. Clegg, Mr. Mchunu, and the other musicians met when they did. In today’s climate, with its claims of cultural appropriation, I’m not sure the band would have met with the same acceptance it did at the time. (For that matter, Paul Simon caught flak when Graceland came out, and I can remember his having to address a rather hostile crowd at Howard U around that time.)

But in any event, we’ve lost a talented artist, and I was listening to his work just a few days ago. So long, Mr. Clegg — thanks for the songs.

 

Posted in Culture, Family, Music, Politics | 1 Comment

Meanwhile, at the Corner of Harris and Slade…

The Spawn and I were chatting earlier this afternoon, and as often happens, the talk turned to writing and reading. Specifically, we were talking about genre fiction, and the considerable blurring that takes place.

She mentioned one of her favorite stories of mine, and how she thinks of it as speculative fiction. I agreed that it could be seen as urban or contemporary fantasy, but that I also thought of it as something akin to a crime story, and that I do tend to see myself as a noirist or as a writer of crime fiction. But I think the darkness in my work is concomitant with my tragic view of humanity, my suspicion happy endings in the life we know. It’s noir as attitude, really, rather than as genre in a traditional usage.

I also write Westerns from time and time, having published three stories about a cowboy named Graham. (I don’t really know if that’s his first or last name, but it still gives him one more than Eastwood had in the spaghetti Westerns, so why worry about it?) But again, I don’t really think of Western as a genre as much as I do a setting. One can use the furniture of the Western while telling any number of stories, and Graham has appeared in a revenge tale, a ghost story, and a story about domestic violence. For that matter, I have a chunk of a novella (likely never to be finished) in which Graham finds himself in a cosmic horror scenario. It just happens in Colorado in the 1870s. In Louis L’Amour’s books, we can see the West as the backdrop for heist novels, detective stories, and the occasional romantic subplot. Again, one can fit a lot of different stories under the Western’s umbrella, or its 10-gallon hat.

And so on.

But where the Spawn and I went in our chat was to the terrain where crime and horror seem to intersect. This is hardly an original concept — I know James Ellroy talks about it in his intro to Jim Thompson’s Heed the Thunder. I mentioned to her that when I heard Silence of the Lambs described as the only horror movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, I was taken aback, because I saw it as a detective movie. Meanwhile, I discovered Michael Slade‘s work because of a mention of the novel Ghoul in an Alice Cooper newsletter, which described it as horror. But while that’s certainly a fair description of the Special X thrillers (particularly the first several, which are pretty splatterpunky), the books are also detective novels, with aspects of the police procedural — the good guys are Mounties, after all. And Slade themselves describe the works as “Mountie Noir.” Meanwhile, Stephen King has won Edgar Awards, and is in fact an MWA Grand Master.

Of course, having lived through what we have over the years, the Spawn and I are both aware that crime and horror can and do intersect in life as well. And as for fiction, I guess the point is that genres are like the quote on music variously attributed to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Richard Strauss: There are only two kinds — good and bad. Meanwhile, Mr. Block has noted that there used to be a very useful definition of the mystery. It was a story, with a crime in it, that would sell between 3,000 and 6,000 copies in hardback. (And Mr. B has written at least one novel that I would class as psychological horror — and a very fine job of it.)

When I sit down to write, I tend not to think I’m going to write a crime story or whatever — I write whatever story comes to me. But I do try to make them good ones.

 

Posted in Family, Literature, Pixel-stained Wretchery | Leave a comment

A Couple of Academic Quick Takes

Down in Real City, there’s a flap about the presidency of Flagship U. The Governor has apparently attempted to intervene in the process to select the new prez, and that’s a pretty serious party foul in this world. Although the Gov is an ex officio member of Flagship’s Board of Trustees, his lobbying for a particular candidate interferes with the Olympian detachment with which the Board is expected to operate.

Real City’s daily paper has interviewed the head of our regional accreditor, who warns that the consequence of this sort of meddling can be dire. The daily went with an alarmist headline: “McMaster’s involvement in USC presidential search could threaten accreditation.”

Technically, it’s true. However, if there is anyone — indeed, any multi-celled being, or even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who believes that SACS would actually yank the accreditation of a state’s top institution for anything short of mass murder, then I would like to have a word with that entity about investing in my magic bean futures.

Accrediting agencies will drop the hammer on wayward institutions — or at least on small and/or financially strapped ones. Indeed, Mondoville itself was placed on probation at one point in my career when our bottom line didn’t look strong enough. (But like John Astin’s character on Night Court, we’re “feeling much better now.”)

To be fair, our regional accreditor, known as one of the tough ones, is willing to call out major institutions — in 2003, they placed Auburn on probation, and in 2016, they did the same for the U of Louisville. But there’s a significant distance between a school’s being on probation and getting what amounts to an accreditor’s death penalty. And that’s a distance I don’t believe SACS was prepared to cross in either case, nor is it one I think they would cross now.

As an example, consider the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the course of a recent investigation, the administration cheerfully acknowledged running sham classes and degree programs for athletes that amounted to wholesale academic fraud. (In fact, rather than acknowledge that “student”-athletes were receiving fraudulent degrees because they were athletes, UNC’s administration essentially chucked the academic side of the institution under the bus.) This was as flagrant a case of academic corruption as one could wish for. The result? One year’s probation, just as with Auburn and Louisville. (And please note — I attended Kentucky during the “Kentucky’s Shame” era. I know scandal.)

But if your bottom line looks bad? Sorry, Bennett College. Hard cheese, St. Paul’s.

I don’t really blame the local paper for amplifying the saber-rattling. But realistically, I’m more likely to be struck by lightning while holding a winning Powerball ticket than I am to see Flagship get the big hammer. If this seems like I harbor a certain disdain for the accreditors and their capacity for bullying smaller colleges, it’s only because I do.

And that brings us to our other nightmare scenario. I talked about the shenanigans in Alaska not long ago. Well, the legislature went full Planet of the Apes, and now? The U of Alaska is in deep yogurt indeed.

Despite the radical rhetoric of a lot of folks in higher ed, it’s my experience that they tend to act and choose pretty conservatively. We trade a certain amount of financial compensation for the security of tenure, and in order to achieve that tenure, a lot of folks decide to avoid rocking the boat along the way. (I’ll admit that I hoped to fly under the radar as much as I could in my early years here. However, the combination of my lack of protective coloration and my inability to keep my mouth shut meant that wasn’t to be. And I’m here anyway. Go figure.) For the folks at Alaska, that security turned out to be an illusion. I feel badly for them, and I wish them well.

Posted in Education, Politics | Leave a comment

Sub Conscious

I stopped by the supermarket a little while ago, after spending the afternoon at my office. As I walked toward the entrance, an older fellow crouched near the door, and called, “Excuse me, sir?”

I knew what was coming. For someone as imposing as I should be, I seem to be a magnet for ancient mariners and folks looking for a handout. Apparently I project the aura of the soft touch.

This man looked significantly older than my 53 — gaunt, patches of gray in his hair, rheumy of eye. I had a little trouble understanding him at first — he was missing his upper incisors. I told him that I didn’t have any cash on me. But he didn’t stop talking. He showed me a ring with a US Army logo. “I’ll sell it to you,” he said.

I told him I couldn’t do that. He said, “People like to say ‘Thank you for your service.’ I just want a sandwich.”

“I can get you a sandwich,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” I went into the store, grabbed a frozen pizza, some mustard, and a ham-and-cheese sub from the deli counter. I paid for everything, and went back outside, where —

The guy was gone. I looked around the parking lot — no sign of him. I asked the guy gathering the carts if he had seen the guy who had been sitting there five minutes before. Nope. I checked the other entrance, and looked up the sidewalk at the other stores in the strip center. Nothing.

So that’s why I’m having a ham-and-cheese sub for dinner tonight. But wherever you are, Mister, I tried.

And thanks for your service.

Posted in Culture, Faith, Why I Do What I Do | 5 Comments

Sunday Potpourri: Daydreaming Edition

Happy Ringo’s Birthday, everyone! Meanwhile…

***

Last night, as I sometimes tend to do, I was noodling through cars for sale on Ebay and various other online locations. I’ve made no secret of my love for convertibles, so that’s usually what I gawk at when I do this sort of thing. Although Mrs. M’s ride is now paid off, leaving us without a car payment for the first time in many years, my current browsing is chiefly speculative — the drum hauler still runs (he said, knocking wood).

And that’s probably just as well, as one of the vehicles to catch my attention was a 1929 Packard Dual Cowl Phaeton, for which the bidding starts at nearly half what wee paid for the Mid-Century Mondohaus. On a lark, I posted it on the Book of Faces, and a friend of mine told me I should look at Teslas instead — he happens to drive one.

Now my friend is a really good guy — we’ve been friends since I moved to Kentucky in eighth grade, and lives a life that most folks would envy, residing in Key West with his lovely wife. And from a rational perspective, I’m sure he’d be right (granted, of course, that I can’t afford any of these cars in any case). But his post reminded me of one of my odd internal contradictions.

In many respects, I’m a pretty cynical person. I’ve been mugged by life enough times and read enough history to regard much of both as opportunities for bitter laughter. My sense of humor has always been dark enough to lapse into the ultraviolet, which shows in a lot of my fiction, for example. (Stephen King has said that he finds most of his story ideas to be hilarious. I get it.) This attitude shows in my political views and general curmudgeonliness as well.

It’s not so much that I think people are lousy — although some are, and I sure as hell don’t trust them in groups, and never have; I got nervous at school pep rallies, even when I was on the football team that was ostensibly being feted. It’s that my own position on people tends toward Calvin’s Total Depravity — in a fallen world, neither we nor our actions can ever be as good as we want them to be. I go through life constantly aware that Utopia means “No Place,” and that nearly every solution is simply the creation of a new problem that will likely be worse.

But at the same time, I crave the Romantic. I occasionally envy the Mad Dog’s insouciance and the faith he has in human endeavors, or the belief (whether expressed by Blake, Wordsworth, or Joni Mitchell) that we can one day “get ourselves back to the Garden.” I believe that art and literature and music have value beyond price tags, that we are creatures of spirit as well as matter, and that joy and exaltation are essential (if infrequent) parts of what life should be.

I try to balance this in my own life through my faith, occasionally joking that it allows me to accept the wrongness of the world-as-it-is because I’m playing the longest of long games. Likewise, I try to live as a good person (knowing full well that I’ll ultimately be less successful than I like), even if there isn’t much profit in it, because I think I should, and honestly, because I usually like doing the right thing.

And this balance shows up in other ways — balancing my inner editor against whoever calls my stories to the surface, playing music that almost no one cares about as passionately as I can. . . and daydreaming about cars that are not supreme triumphs of automotive excellence, but that look as though they’d be fun to inhabit. God knows that my fondness for 1960s and 70s convertibles (even the ones that I can fit in) isn’t based on their reliability or creature comforts, or even their superior performance, really. It’s based on how they feel to me — or more specifically, how I think they would feel to me, the spirit that imagining myself in one inspires in me.

Volkswagen_Karmann_Ghia_convertible_2

Perhaps a bit pricy for an antidepressant, but hey… (Photo: St. Wiki)

I’d never be able to haul drums in a Karmann Ghia (or the Fiat 124 Spiders I was looking at this afternoon). But the person I’d usually like to be? Oh, he’ll fit, no matter the headroom, so my friend is welcome to his Tesla. My eyes and daydreams are elsewhere.

***

One of my favorite online presences is James Lileks, and for years I’ve enjoyed his work whether he was commenting on the current scene or poking good-natured fun at a mind-boggling range of American popular culture.

I’ve known for years that he wrote fiction as well, but had never gotten around to reading it. I corrected that lapse this week, buying his three novels for my Kindle. All three are serviceable mystery plots, but unsurprisingly, their real strength lies in the world-building Lileks does, even when his world is only a few years removed from mine (and perhaps from yours.) He creates — indeed, inhabits — Minneapolis in the early 80s, late 40s, or late 2000s convincingly. I recognize the people who populate the stories, whether as people I’ve known or as types from the stock companies of fiction, and Lileks renders them engagingly.

Insofar as the books have drawbacks, it seems as if the author (or his narrative voice — first- or close-third person) occasionally tries too hard to be clever, and on other occasions he lets his research into period slang and the like a little too far into the spotlight, again resulting in too much of a muchness. But he hits far more often than he misses, and I can usually find at least a chuckle per page. I still have a way to go on Falling Up the Stairs, but at this point, I feel comfortable recommending all three of the books for fans of crime with screwball elements.

***

And speaking of crime writing, you may recall my occasional mentions of Steve Lauden (who writes as S.W. Lauden.) He’s another crime-writing drummer, and we were on the same panel at B’con last year. He also was kind enough to interview me some time back, so we already know his taste is impeccable, right? Seriously, I’ve enjoyed his fictive work, and now I’m happy to report that he does cool musical stuff as well.

“Carolanne” is the debut single from his new group, The Brothers Steve. It’s a tasty bit of power pop, and if you dig it, you can check them out (and order the forthcoming album) here.

Seems like it would make good top-down music, huh? And back we go…

See you soon!

 

Posted in Culture, Faith, Literature, Music, Politics, Why I Do What I Do | Leave a comment

Happy Independence Day!

When I lost my scholarship at Transylvania U, a member of the faculty urged me against bitterness. “Remember that the University is not the administration.” I try to keep that in mind when I think of my nation this Independence Day.

I was chatting with the Mad Dog yesterday, and I mentioned that the political climate, the people wanting to lead (or rather to control), left me feeling like I was living in the first stanza of Yeats’s “Second Coming.” But again, I try to focus on the fact that my nation is more, much more, than those dreadful people. It is people like my family, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors. It is the things we choose to do, the things we choose to be.

So today, I offer an excerpt from another poem. Here’s Carl Sandburg, from his book-length poem The People, Yes.

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum: phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth: “They buy me and sell me…it’s a game…sometime I’ll break loose…”

Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.

Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.

The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.

The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:

This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people
march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:
“Where to? what next?”

***

And along with Sandburg, I’ll offer some words from the Wise Old Man:

I am not going to talk about religious beliefs but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them. I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults.

Take Father Michael, down our road a piece. I’m not of his creed, but I know that goodness and charity and loving kindness shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike. If I’m in trouble, I’ll go to him. My next door neighbor’s a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat—no fee, no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.

I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town, say “I’m hungry,” and you’ll be fed. Our town is no exception. I found the same ready charity everywhere. For the one who says, “The heck with you, I’ve got mine,” there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, “Sure pal, sit down.” I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, “Climb in Mack. How far you going?”

I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime. Yet for every criminal, there are ten thousand honest, decent, kindly men. If it were not so, no child would live to grow up. Business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news. It is buried in the obituaries, but it is a force stronger than crime.

I believe in the patient gallantry of nurses, in the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land. I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.

I believe that almost all politicians are honest. For every bribed alderman, there are hundreds of politicians—low paid or not paid at all—doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true, we would never have gotten past the Thirteen Colonies.

I believe in Rodger Young. You and I are free today because of endless unnamed heroes from Valley Forge to the Yalu River. I believe in—I am proud to belong to—the United States. Despite shortcomings—from lynchings, to bad faith in high places—our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.

And finally, I believe in my whole race—yellow, white, black, red, brown—in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth—that we always make it just for the skin of our teeth—but that we will always make it, survive, endure.

I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching oversized braincase and the opposable thumb—this animal barely up from the apes—will endure, will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets—to the stars and beyond—carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage, and his noble essential decency. This I believe with all my heart.

And as I type this, I even can share RAH’s optimism about politicians. . . up to a point. Beyond that point, I’ll try not to think today.

Happy Independence Day, everyone.

Posted in Culture, Faith, Family, Literature, Why I Do What I Do | 3 Comments