The rest of The Rest of The Story

I was reminded the other day of a Paul Harvey “Rest of the Story” from years ago. (I should probably add that Paul Harvey was a radio commentator back when people listened to the radio… just in case anyone under age 35 reads this. “The Rest of the Story” was his daily, non-news, commentary.) The rest of this particular story was how It’s A Wonderful Life became a hit. I’ve been unable to find the original air date, but I remember when it aired. At the time I didn’t know Jimmy Stewart or the movie very well. It wasn’t till years later that Stewart would become like family to me; an adopted grandfather that embodies everything I’d like to be as a man. I listened to Harvey tell his story in the tobacco stripping room the same way we did every afternoon, but it was little more than trivia to me then. Today it makes me think of how a simple twist of fate can change the world.

As Harvey told, the movie was released in 1947. Largely ignored, it received just enough at the box-office to make back the budget and got no special awards. In the 50s and 60s it was just another forgotten film like so many that studios have in their portfolios. It was so unimportant in fact that the intellectual property owners either forgot or chose not to renew the copyright when it came up in 1974, meaning it went into the public domain and could be used by anyone for free. Shortly thereafter, TV and radio stations began presenting it. How could they not? It was a free property with recognizable stars (still very recognized back then: Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, et al). They could present it at an already off-peak broadcast time when ad revenues were low. It was an easy solution for what might be a lost time slot. But then, something funny happened. It seems enough time had passed that the film suddenly meant more than it had in its infancy. In the late 40s, the story probably didn’t mean too much. There were lots of towns like the fictional Bedford Falls. There were lots of men like George Bailey. Memories of the Depression and bank failures would’ve still been fresh. The saying goes that “familiarity breeds contempt.” While you could never call George or this movie contemptible, maybe something about the film was too familiar at the time. Maybe neighbors coming together to support an unsung hero was something people expected. Who knows? What we do know is in the 70s with wide exposure and enough passage of time, the always sweet and hopeful story seemed even sweeter. Seeing the film for the first time, thirty years on, and every year since, the lessons ring as true as they were when it was first written. Add nostalgia to truth and usually, you’ve got a hit story. In 2022 it’s a piece of Americana that is almost impossible to separate from the tale of who we were and what made us special once upon a time.

The climax of Mr. Harvey’s radio essay was how for $4, the studio could’ve renewed the copyright to the film. It’s one of the most important unpaid bills in pop-culture history. Not paying that $4 filing fee gave us one of the greatest holiday gifts ever. You see, Mr. Harvey didn’t note this, but had they filed the extension, the film would likely still be unknown. He focused on all the money people made with it once it became “free.” In this case, Harvey forgot the rest of “The Rest of the Story.” Had they filed, there would’ve been little reason for the movie to see the light of day; no way for it to get the unimaginable exposure it got by being a free (and remarkably good) property. It would’ve stayed in a film archive appreciated only by a few, never to become a huge part of our collective memory. This might’ve been an accident, but I call it a miracle.  

I’ve often said that nostalgia is a drug with a potent high and no headaches. As we approach the holidays, one can’t help but get nostalgic. This one can’t, anyway. Well into middle age, I’ve just penned this essay on my memory of a memory wrapped inside a dream. When I watch It’s a Wonderful Life this year it will activate a thousand more memories. I may never have gotten an ice cream at Gower’s Drugstore. I didn’t live through the Depression or World War II.  There aren’t many people alive who remember those things now. I do however have memories of the people who lived it, plus my own of places and days gone by. Through the haze I can see their faces and feel the warmth of a gas stove. You see, I once walked with people who still heated their house with coal and made biscuits in a wood-fired oven. We laughed in a long-gone stripping room and now shuttered warehouse as we worked and listened to the radio. I also have memories of fighting my own versions of Mr. Potter, not understanding their greed, and feeling like a failure in spite of my harder-to-see successes; palpable memories as if I was on the bridge with George staring at life insurance only to be saved by the grace of God and a nudge from a guardian angel. Memories of not knowing what to do but being saved by friends. It’s a very relatable story. This Christmas Eve it is my sincere hope that I’ll be watching when George gets his copy of Tom Sawyer and the bell rings. There will likely be a tear in the corner of my eye, just like the first time I saw the movie. May you find your own bitter-sweet tears and treasured memories in the days ahead. Happy Holidays.


They know better, so shut up.

This is going to be a quick one. I’ve been working later than I wanted to, so I’m not going to write a thousand words. I did want to put this out in the world while it’s fresh on my mind though.

Years ago, I had a client that was a plant manager for a corporation. What the factory made was irrelevant.  He was the big boss, and quite proud of himself for sitting in the big chair. He was a nice enough fellow, but our conversation drifted towards politics in our second or third meeting and I could tell that our beliefs didn’t align. That’s okay. We didn’t have to agree for our transaction. But as that conversation went further it went past just a friendly disagreement. This man was angry and self-righteous. I had somehow brought up a disagreement I’d had with what we’ll call a “licensing authority.” I don’t want to get specific because I’m still in business and don’t want to draw their ire at present. (See how the chilling of free speech already exists?) Anyway, I was having a problem with this “authority” that was likely to cost me an exorbitant fee that might threaten my business and my ability to continue. He told me “then you shouldn’t continue.” Excuse me??? I was floored. He went on to explain that he and the smart folks that ran big businesses had all that stuff figured out. The fee that was a big problem to me didn’t mean anything to their bottom line.  He explained in no uncertain terms that if I couldn’t figure out how to accommodate the powers that be, that I didn’t have any business being in business. Better to leave it to him and the rest of the smart people. And that, my friends, is fascism.  It’s the unholy alliance of big business and government. It’s what we’ve been seeing play out over the last three months (longer) in America. The fat cats in government and the fat cats in business are pretty sure that none of the rest of us have the brains to do anything worthwhile. We need to get out of the way and let them handle things.

I’ve watched many people decry the way “mom and pops” are being treated since the cerveza sickness hit. Home Depot and Walmart get to stay open, while everyone else can pound sand. Governor Andy or Whitmer, or who the hell ever, has decided that those big-box stores are equipped for the order of the day. Joe Sixpack is not, and he’s just going to have to ride it out. Well, the ugly-as-sin truth is this: THEY DON’T CARE! They have this rigged game figured out. They’re smart. You’re stupid. And you had better shut the hell up and get in line. For years I’ve worried as I saw Hitler painted as a monster, a larger-than-life horror movie cartoon character. I worried because I know the truth: He was just a man. An entitled, egocentric, socialist man who had some serious grudges against certain people is what he was. By making him a monster people thought it couldn’t happen again. It was some historical anomaly. Well, it’s happening. Right here in the Bluegrass state. It’s happening. Just like 80 years ago in Germany, there are some self-righteous, smarter-than-you jerks who are pretty sure you don’t have a right to be in business. Their friends that are CEO’s of big box stores, they’re okay, but you… you had better shut the hell up and do what you’re told. It’s time to wake up and realize that how you vote has consequences. And we’d better pray to God that it’s not too late to right the ship.

Remembering Keith Lambert

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances…” -William Shakespeare

A man meets a lot of people over the course of a lifetime. Characters in our personal story play their parts: starring roles, supporting cast, and small one-liners. We return the favor and do our part for them until that day when they or we make our final exit and the story goes on without us. When I think of the friend that just exited, I can’t help but view his supporting role with gratitude. Without it, my performance would have been weaker, the story less dramatic, and my life would be a little less full.

I first met Keith Lambert in my most impressionable years, around age twelve. He was not like my parents; rougher, harder, and more abrupt. He was a city boy who’d found his way to the country; an outsider trying to make his way in life and following in the footsteps of a very successful businessman with mixed success. Smarter than most, he wasn’t going to fit in with just anyone, and he wasn’t one to tolerate foolishness. He was serious and hard, but he could also be kind and forgiving. He had a laugh that could make my day and a growl that made me tremble. And he could do the work of two men in the tobacco patch. It didn’t matter how hot and dusty it got, he’d just keep working to the end of the row, rest momentarily, and head back to it. No load was too heavy. He’d carry two sticks to your one, lap you on the way back, and make you wonder why you were having such a hard time at it. He worked hard for every dime, but was never a miser. He was generous to a friend in need, and the first to donate to a charity he believed in.

His life was hard. He didn’t make it any easier for himself. While he was a great giver of solid advice, he never seemed to take his own. If I was having trouble and called for help he would gently encourage me towards a good path, but he always had trouble finding his own. It would be fair to say he was his own worst enemy, and anyone who crossed words with him knew how fierce an enemy he could be. There was never a fight he would back down from if he thought he was in the right, or if a friend had been wronged. He had no affinity for cattle, but it would be fair to call him a cowboy — and while he wasn’t a fan of country music, his life was a sad country song. But it wasn’t all sadness. He loved his family, and adopted people he loved into that family. He taught me how to work in a way that my own family never could, and inspired me to keep trying even when it was probably time to quit. We adopted each other and were brothers and kindred travelers on a difficult road.

As I got older and my life went through its seasons, he was always a phone call away when I was having doubts. I saw him less as the years went by, but by chance (or fate) we had lunch a short time ago. He spoke with pride about his kids and grand kids, and listened intently about my life. We caught up, talked about the old times, and parted as friends must sometimes. He was a little road weary, but still in the fight, trying to help the people around him as he always had. He told me he appreciated me, and without saying the words, he let me know he was proud of me. I didn’t know then that it would be our last visit, but I knew somehow that we wouldn’t have many more.

Keith left us today for parts unknown. This little obituary is my prayer that he finds sunny skies and happier times. And that someday, we will meet again as friends do, so I can thank him once more for helping me along the way. RIP  

The rules have changed

Over the course of the panic, pandemic, and politician pandering of the last month I have kept mostly calm. Mainly because I saw it coming and recognized early on that there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it. In January, I started paying attention to the virus. That doesn’t mean I knew exactly how it would play out, but just that I was paying attention. Late last year I heard about disruptions in the financial markets. The Fed was pumping money again. I wasn’t sure what that would mean, but I knew that they really hadn’t fixed anything in the Great Recession. For several years, I’ve been waiting for the inevitable correction that would eventually come. I wondered why it was taking so long, but I never doubted that it would arrive at some point. If we were lucky it would be soft, but people (and in this case, countries) that play it fast and loose usually aren’t lucky in the long term. The details of this virus, its origins, and its actual health impact on society are debatable at this point. Time will sort that part out. The corporate and government response to it will be harder to decipher. I’ve said from the early days of the panic that it was a convenient excuse for the financial reckoning that was already coming.  That becomes more apparent all the time. So why write about it today? Because I enjoy being right. Always have.

About the first of April, in the afternoon, my banker called and asked how the “virus situation” was affecting my business. Thoughtful of her to call. I said that it wasn’t, today… ask me in six months. Well, if you think it’s going to, you need to take a look at this PPP loan from the SBA, she said. After listening to the basics, I said I’d think about it. The nature of my business is that I get paid for work done weeks, if not months ago. So while I was doing well that day, I decided over the next few hours that I should apply for the loan just in case. That way in a few months, if things were tighter, I’d have more working capital. I applied for the loan the next morning. Though I had applied, the bank wasn’t even sure what the requirements were yet. Details were trickling out from the SBA, they said. They were working as fast as they could. Over the next week, they built a website and got ready. I was in line they said. Money would be allocated based on the order in which the applications were received. So when they were ready, I immediately submitted all requested documentation. It was a little bit of a pain, but no more so than any other loan I’d ever gotten. I dug up the forms, fought their stupid website, and had everything submitted within 24 hours of them asking for it (keep in mind, some of their emails were coming in the middle of the night). Thanks for your application, their email said. They were working on it. But deep down, I wondered. Fast forward a week and I heard that there’d been 2 million more applications than the Feds had planned on getting. The bank emailed for some additional info. I sent it, but as I did, I put in the email to my banker: “Bet you $5 I never see a penny of this.” She didn’t really take the bet. She probably already knew. Today, I got the word that the program was exhausted. “You’re not getting it,” she said dryly. I said, “I know. You owe me five bucks.” There was no shock value. I’d known since the first week I applied. It’s okay. I’ll figure it out without government money; same way I always have. At the end of the “You’re not getting it” conversation, I asked a question about mortgages. I wanted to know if she thought there would be any to be had next year. “What do you mean?” Like she didn’t even understand the question. I said, “Do you think people will be able to even get a mortgage this time next year?” Well, yeah, she said. Like it was the dumbest statement ever spoken. This person who had just told me the well was dry on the loan she had assured me was a good idea a few weeks ago didn’t comprehend that other wells might dry up too. We are facing Depression level unemployment, unprecedented federal debt and spending, potential societal unrest, and some people can’t even consider what that might mean in a year. Lots of people. They just can’t process the question. Nothing against the banker. I know the extreme stress they’ve all been under. She probably hasn’t had time to ponder next year, but it’s a worthwhile exercise.

There was another phone call that took place early on in this most unusual springtime. My financial advisor called to “see how I was doing.” I had resisted the urge to call her after the first ferocious days of losses. Retirement wasn’t close for me anyway. We’d just ride it out. It always comes back, I told myself. But there she was, calling me. What did I want to do, she asked? We both knew full well that it was too late to do anything… unless we were headed for Dow 7,000… that couldn’t happen though, right? Or could it? I wasn’t so sure, but after a twenty minute conversation, I ended up back where I’d been. It was too late to sell. Just ride it out, I said. Since then the FED has printed and printed and digitized an unreal amount of money, and the dead cat has bounced a bit. So that was a good move, I guess. The same advisor called back this week… to check on me.  I know she was probably calling because her relationship management software told her to do it. She was mainly just doing her job, but I appreciated the call. She was calling back to check on me because I sounded pretty down on our last call. Well, yeah, I sounded down: The stock market had just taken a historic dive, the Fed was printing trillions of dollars, and there was a killer virus on the loose. I was having an off day. She said I sounded better this week, but then…. she started asking me what I thought. So I started telling her: THINGS ARE GOING TO BE DIFFERENT. This is bigger than the virus. The stock market doesn’t work the same way anymore. It’s a rigged game. The Federal Reserve now has a mortgage on all of America, a major stake in stocks, bonds, junk bonds, real estate. The central bank literally has a note against almost everything in the country. Truth is they’ve owned most of it for a hundred years, but this cements it. I WAS in a pretty good mood when she called. I was not hysterical, but I was saying things foreign to her ears, which led her to say I didn’t sound so good. The home office at “BIG INVESTMENT FIRM, INC” hadn’t told her any of this. The stock market just goes up and down. It’ll all be fine, long term. Nothing to see here, folks. Just relax. Keep your IRA contributions in place. Keep doing what you’re doing. That’s all she’s heard her whole career. She can’t process information outside that realm. Same as the banker that can’t imagine that the mortgage market might seize up entirely. They can’t even consider it. It’s not normal. It’s not conventional. So they block that information out. Like the Titanic passengers that were sure the ship couldn’t sink, they keep going about their business. And they don’t want to hear about the leaks below the waterline. Things look fine in the dining room. The lights are still on. Everything’s fine.

The truth of the situation is this: We’re in a new arena with new rules. The people that know that (big corporations and the elite) are already changing their game plan. The table is tilted in their favor. It always is. If any of the rest of us are going to thrive, or even survive, in this new world we are going to have to start thinking outside the box. Six months ago if I’d told you grocery store shelves here would look like Soviet Russia in a few months, you would’ve said I was a nut. Any of what’s happened would seem crazy back then. That churches would be shuttered. People would be arrested for standing on an empty beach. License plates would be copied by law enforcement for driving to the wrong parking lot on a given Sunday. You wouldn’t have believed any of it a few weeks ago. Not in America. But here we are. Doesn’t take long for things to change, does it??? Buckle up, kids. Change is here. Historically when situations like this arise, war is next. Mark Twain is credited with saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Right now, it’s humming a familiar tune. I wonder what the words will be. I hope to God I don’t know. Being right is overrated.

A wilder time

It’s been close to two years since I’ve sat down to write anything for public consumption. Two years of laughing, and crying, living, and dying since I’ve shared anything with you people. They’ve been rough. I don’t think any of the mistakes have been permanent. I don’t think… I’m a dad though, so my mistakes will play out over the next hundred years or so. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

For the better part of a decade, my writing was my ace in the hole. Even though my teachers and editors in college didn’t really get it, I had a knack of putting some truth in words and getting people to respond. My job didn’t really call for it. Matter of fact, it confused and befuddled my peers. All it took was someone telling me “right on” though, and I’d be right back at it month after month. The fan mail… the hate mail… I took both as validation that I was doing something right. Little by little, I proved that there were enough like-minded people out there for me to make a living on, and I didn’t always have to put up with the dummies I detested. I could throw out a line here and there, and if it was good every other time people would keep coming back to it. In a PC police state, people were thirsty for anything that reminded them of how people used to talk; the way were were. People also enjoy watching a good train wreck. If I’d pick a fight with the establishment it was fun for them. They didn’t have to risk anything. They just got to sit back and enjoy the show. The haters were my favorites, always sitting back and predicting my imminent demise. Year after year, I kept dancing on the line of what is socially acceptable and morally defensible. They were sure I’d cross it, but I never did. I came close a time or two. Those were the glory days of my self-published writing career. The days when the whole town would talk. “Did you see that?” they’d whisper to one another. “Read your article… what did your mother say?” they would ask me. I wasn’t writing for my mother. I wrote for my enjoyment, and for my livelihood. For a time, the writing business was good. Like so many aspects of my life though, I was about a hundred years too late. I was a creature of the print medium, and it was dying faster than I could succeed. At the same time as readership was dropping for print overall, I was getting tired, played-out, and stale. I was confined to a box. I couldn’t write about the things I was really interested in because the profession, the primary profession that payed the bills, demanded that I remain respectable. There was a family to provide for, and I couldn’t get too controversial and there were risks for which I no longer had a tolerance. My points got weaker, my straight talk more general. The more conservative I became the less my few remaining readers were interested. I tried to move to an online platform, but I couldn’t gain a foothold. While print is starving for good content (for many of the same reasons I was hurting towards the end) the online world is full of good content fighting for eyeballs. As a blog I wasn’t special. Put me up against the lukewarm fools that fill most local newspapers and I’m a phenom. Online, I’m just another guy who can almost write. So I gave up, lost interest, and quit.

So why am I back today? To scratch an itch, I suppose. To feel a little of what I used to feel when I would sit down, pour my heart out, and hope it connected with someone. I’ll post this piece shortly, and few will notice. My adopted grandmother might congratulate me. My mother-in-law might say something to get my goat. My wife will ignore it (she’s already heard all my stories… I talk a lot.) These last few minutes though, I’ve settled down a few noisy thoughts. Will I write again? Maybe tomorrow, maybe never, but every now and then it’s nice to think about when I had something to say; something people wanted to hear. It’s nice to remember a little bit wilder time in my life, and wonder if maybe I did miss my calling after all.

Today is what matters

When asking someone to name the worst dictators of the twentieth century, you’ll get responses like: Mao Tse-Tung, Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, and Nicolae Ceausescu. Ask about the nineteenth century, and people are going to have more trouble naming them. I’m sure they existed, but as for me, I can only think of one, and his name is Abraham Lincoln. While lionized today as one of America’s greatest presidents, Lincoln exercised an unconstitutional tyranny so extreme that modern liberals could never defend his actions if they’d only take time to study them.

In the last few weeks I’ve grown tired of the fictional dramas and comedies that I watch in the evenings, and taken to watching documentaries. I would call them non-fiction, but I’m afraid too many of them have fictionalized, or at least, highly questionable accounts to refer to them as such. One of the more accurate series I’ve discovered is Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States.” It too has a particular slant to its retelling of American history, but it’s one that we don’t get as often. Aside from deriding Reagan a little too much and praising Gorbachev a little too often, Stone chronicles many of the facts I have studied in later years that were never mentioned in my formal education. With a little reading between the lines, it’s quite good. Once I finished all those episodes on the Netflix, I moved on to look for something else. I tried watching a Ken Burns doc on The Civil War, or as we Southerners used to call it, The War Against Northern Aggression. That film is several years old, and I probably watched it the first time it was on PBS, but I didn’t stay long with Mr. Burns this time. It was very early on that he started the typical Lincoln narrative, and I was forced to turn away. There’s a book in my personal library, The Real Lincoln, by Thomas DiLorenzo, with many Lincoln quotes and facts that would not be suitable for Mr. Burns’ audience. They paint a picture of a very flawed man, even for his time. I remember a conversation I got into with a history professor when I was in college. He was not one of my professors,   but just a guy I met at a party. When he found out I was interested in The War Between the States, I clumsily stated that I had a suspicion that it was about much more than slavery. He laughed heartily at my naiveté, for he had already read the books that I would peruse over the next twenty years. He knew that the war had far less to do with slavery, and far more to do with the things that all wars are fought over: money, power, and ultimately, control. He knew that the slavery of antiquity had evaporated around the world without major wars, and that it would have ceased to exist here with less human suffering had more level headed and less egotistical politicians than Lincoln been in charge. Still, today Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator. No one mentions that he “freed” the slaves in states he did not have authority over, and retained the slavery of those in states he did lead. Freeing any captive is a good thing, but look deeper and you’ll see all the political machinations that were behind all of Lincoln’s “good deeds.” The first real instigator of race-baiting in the United States was no less than Abraham  Lincoln. He’s also the first man to greedily come after your income, by imposing the first federal income tax in our history. I’ve often remarked that the politicians in Washington built him a monument not for fostering freedom, but for being the inspiration for tax-and-spend pols who would forever follow in his footsteps. To be fair, Jefferson Davis, the greater statesman of the two, committed many of the same missteps as Lincoln. He was on the wrong side of history on the central issue associated with the war though. Therefore his sins are remembered, and Lincoln’s forgiven. His statues are ripped down, and Lincoln’s are adored by millions. Both were flawed, unquestionably racist leaders from a bygone era. Only one has had his story whitewashed (a word with a certain irony).

A friend of mine shared an essay about a modern day slave recently. She was from the Philippines, and lived her whole life as a slave. As I read the story, written by one of her owners who was just a child when her family acquired her, I was reminded of Jefferson Davis writing about his favorite slave, who was also his friend. How tragic that people want still to argue about guilt and blame for centuries old slavery in this country, when there are slaves the world over this very day. What a wonderful thing it would be if people would stop and think for a minute about the atrocities of today instead of worrying about the sins of our many great grandparents. If it were possible to do that, maybe a hundred years from now people would have as much trouble naming twenty-first century dictators as I have naming nineteenth century tyrants. Tyranny and oppression can only be fought in the present. The study of the past is noble, but “history is not always what you think.

Institutional Delusion

Americans are often derided by foreigners for having a big country, and tiny, closed minds. There was a time when I would’ve found that offensive, but more and more I find it to be true. While most people start out liberal as youths and become more conservative over time, I find myself walking backwards on that path. Oh, I’m still against confiscatory taxes and in favor of individual freedom. I’m just more open-minded about things I don’t understand. Instead of my perspective shrinking as I approach the destination, it is expanding as I look back on a larger horizon. It seems that when you learn more you end up knowing less and less. And the further you go not seeing the surprises that lie ahead, the more shocked you are. Occultists have a belief in doing things backwards, but my metaphor is not an endorsement of the occult. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” right? That’s Freud, by the way.
A couple of years ago I discovered a fringe archeological theory that civilization is much older than we think. There are people smarter than me that believe the great megalithic monuments of antiquity may have been built by even earlier civilizations. Since they don’t ascribe to the theory of “Ancient Aliens” popularized by The History Channel in recent years, they have another idea. What if our current society doesn’t represent the pinnacle of human intellect? Could it be possible that there was an advanced civilization before the Biblical Flood? It doesn’t sound as crazy as aliens and panspermia (look it up) if you ask me. We already know that history seems to cycle politically, technologically, and morally. What if this cycle is just bigger than we currently accept? Is that such a stretch? The Flood story is not just found in the Bible. It spans most of the cultures of the world. Nearly all cultures have stories of a great flood with just a few survivors. Those survivors could have passed down the knowledge needed to build  the pyramids of antiquity, which are scattered around the world, not just in Egypt. Maybe the Egyptian ones were turned into tombs only after their original purpose had been lost to time. Perhaps they were as mysterious to the Pharaohs as they are to us.

One of the more recent authors I’ve been exploring, John Anthony West, thinks that water erosion on the Sphinx, which he’s had studied by geologists, means that it is much older than the 4500 years it is credited with. If this were ever accepted as true, it would re-write our entire understanding of human history. Most of academia rejects the idea, but how interesting to think that something so simple could shake the very foundations of civilization. That’s likely why academics discard the thought. The books they’ve written would be invalidated; their lectures pointless. And this returns us to the close-mindedness discussed above. There is an institutional rejection of unorthodox ideas that is almost frightening when you think about it. It’s been too long, and I’m not going to dig up the research because it doesn’t matter (though I did try)… Several years ago I heard the story of a world class, leading cardiologist, who rejected the catastrophic effects of cholesterol on the heart. He argued that inflammation was more the culprit for heart patients, and that the changes in diet and use of statin drugs might be doing more harm than good. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know all the merits of the argument, but I do know that the man was not a quack. He was educated at a leading university, and had something like thirty years of practice under his belt. The reason I heard of it was the uproar it caused for him to even make the suggestion that his hypothesis be studied. It challenged the multi-billion dollar paradigm of modern medicine, so the machine worked overtime to marginalize the man. Maybe he was right, but we’ll likely never know. We live in a time when our institutions are more important than knowledge, so renegade thinkers are silenced more than they are studied.
The average person has about a thimble full of knowledge in an ocean of questions. Once we get the thimble filled up, we just stop asking questions. We live in an information age that allows us to access more knowledge than the Ancient Library of Alexandria with the touch of a button. Rather than letting our institutions tell us everything, we should individually seek out the truth for ourselves. Fiction is boring. Reality is where the fun is.

“If I ever could”

Exploring philosophy in popular culture is an exciting hobby that can never be exhausted. No matter how hard you try, you can’t ever examine every film, song, or play to find all the subtext. Authors, directors and actors rarely divulge all their hidden symbolism anyway, so most popular works are left open to wide interpretation. This creates what I would call “sub-art” because the interpreter is, in a way, producing a new work with their interpretative portrait based on the original. It’s harder to be unique in interpretation though.

Today is Groundhog Day. Every February 2nd, I’m reminded of the Bill Murray film that I’ve loved for so long. Murray has become a bit of a cult of personality over the course of my life. Other stars of a similar caste have done the same, John Malkovich to a lesser degree, but Murray takes the cake for cultural icons with minimal attractiveness, and maximum cerebral appeal. I’m not going to give a synopsis of the movie. If you haven’t seen it more than once you are of limited taste, and have possibly been living in the third world for the last twenty years. I have often philosophized about the movie, so this year I thought I would search the internet to see what other theories were out there. One of my favorites, it turns out, is actually quite popular and not at all original. Punxsutawney, PA is actually Purgatory. Come to think of it, the alliteration might be the inspiration that sparked the idea in the writer’s head. Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis are credited as writers on the film, but Rubin was the originator. I’ve not been able to find much info on him, but I presume he is Jewish, so I’m not sure that Purgatory was what he was striving to depict. Still, when viewing it through Catholic lenses, it looks very much like a study on theology. There’s a great piece by Jim Ciscell (no relation) on that studies this in detail. I regret that I didn’t take the time to write it myself, but my day job keeps getting in the way of my writing. I especially like his observation that Phil (Murray’s character) might actually have ruined Ned Ryerson’s life through his disregard for people he found insignificant. In a way, his vanity had led not only to a miserable existence for him, but possibly for others too, even people on the periphery of his life. While I would like to think that my analysis of the movie was original, it is also gratifying to have the validation that comes with other people espousing the same view.

The Youtube channel “WhatCulture” has a video that attempts to explain how much time Phil may have spent living the same day over and over again in Pennsylvania. Even though I’ve never thought to compute the time, I’m somehow relieved that there are people out there working on important studies such as this. They came up with something over thirty-three years. That’s how long it took him to become fluent in French, a concert pianist, and a professional ice sculptor. Oh, the things one could do if they spent three decades devoted to nothing but self-improvement… and with that realization, a little bit of sadness crept over my heart. I have not used the last three decades to their full potential. Nobody does, I guess. Still, there’s more I could’ve done. There’s more I should have done. Phil was given a great gift in that he was able to live the same day over until he got it right. I’ve only been working with consecutive days, none of which have been perfect, but many of which have been good. Many reject the idea of Purgatory in general, but I’ve always found it to be one of the few comforting beliefs in Catholic Dogma; the idea that it is not necessary for one to be perfect, for they will be afforded the opportunity for perfection if their humanity keeps them from getting it completely right on the first try.

Life is all about second chances, and according to the expert analysis on the internet, Phil Conners got over 12,000 second chances. While he started out bitter and angry over the “hell” in which he was trapped, he eventually came to appreciate it as he became more and more perfect over time. My understanding of the theological necessity of Purgatory is that it is to perfect the soul before it can participate in the perfection of the creator. While I’ve heard it described as equal to hell in its pain and suffering, my own interpretation is that as a soul is purified it begins to see the need for it all. No pain, no gain. By the end of the movie, Phil is a delightful person, adored by all the people that despised him at the beginning of the “day.” He won them over in one day. It just took him thirty-three years to do it. Good show.

“Where do the good times go?”

In 1987, when I was a very young man, Kenny Rogers still had his natural face. He was quite a superstar with hit records, movie roles, and concert tours. And he came out with a song that year called “Twenty Years Ago.” Apparently “life was so much easier” then. So, 1967 was a good year for the songwriter, I suppose. I remember listening to that song on the radio, and relating to it even then. I’m not sure what was so difficult about life for me in 1987. I was just a kid; no responsibilities, no bills to pay, no mouths to feed, no vices either. It was before I’d picked up any of the bad habits that adults find so hard to shed. Even in 1987 though, I was sure that life had been easier before.
Flash forward thirty years and here I am twenty years out of high school, the same as the writers were thirty years ago. Thirty years is what it takes sometimes to gain a little perspective. Back then, I was listening to the song dreaming about the things I’d never seen. Thirty years is a generation, you know. You lose a lot in a generation. I often think of how my grandfathers’ generation is currently on the way out the door. The last guys to put out a crop with a team of mules… well, the last non-Amish guys to put out a crop with a team of mules, they’re almost gone. The boys that stormed the beach at Normandy, and remember their dad’s first Model T, are departing daily. Once that’s gone there’s a good piece of history that none of us can really know about. Oh, we can dream about it, and read about it, and imagine what we think it was like. But we’ll never really be sure because we didn’t see it with our own eyes. We will never know what it was like before electricity was a given; when you had to study by the coal-oil lamp on a long winter evening. Hopefully we won’t find out what it was like during the Depression when my Grandad says they would set rabbit traps all the time just so they would have something to fry up for breakfast in the morning. Dirt-poor used to have a tangible meaning, the key word being dirt. I’ve never known it though. Most of the dirt-poor people I know these days don’t know much about it either.
There are other songs I remember from my youth with much the same theme as Kenny’s from ’87. “Like a Rock” from Bob Segar is pretty similar. I wouldn’t have equated the two back then… no perspective, you see. Now I know that both songs are not singing about a year in time. They are about a year in the life of a man. The other day while we were filing away some things with the changing of the year, a photo appeared in one of the drawers of a much younger version of me. It was from early in my career when I thought I knew much more than I actually did; such an arrogant guy. I remarked that there was so much I’d like to tell that guy I used to be. It’s interesting to think about what you might do differently if you were given the gift of writing a letter to your former self. If there really was a way to get a message to a younger version of you, what would you say? It doesn’t matter. Cocky as I was I’m sure I wouldn’t listen anyway. Still, twenty years ago if I’d known half of what I’ve learned I would be a very dangerous man. Come to think of it, that sounds a little cocky. Perhaps I haven’t lost it all yet. The thing about it is, time has a way of mellowing you out a bit. Some of the most interesting people I knew twenty years ago have gotten quite mellow these days. I’m not talking about my peers. The guys I knew… my mentors twenty years ago have settled down quite a bit in their fifties and sixties. It seems that I’m not the only one time has changed. Life was anything but easy for them twenty years ago. They were scratching and clawing at success back then, sometimes making great strides and sometimes falling on their face, but they were taking the big risks back when I had very little skin in the game. For some of them, fortune has shined brightly. Others have passed the years and made bets in all the wrong places, squandering what little they might have had. Some are still my heroes, and some are goats.
As I look back twenty years at my eighteen-year-old, and twenty-eight-year-old self, I’m struck by how at each year since eighteen I’ve learned more and more, and known less and less. When you’re young, you think you’re gaining knowledge with experience. The older I get, the questions just get bigger, and the answers more elusive. And that, perhaps, is why life was easier twenty years ago. To quote the lyrics: “It almost seems like yesterday. Where do the good times go?” Ah well. If I get another twenty years, maybe I can figure it all out.

Merry Christmas! God Save You!

To Christmas or not to Christmas, that is the question: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” So dramatic, that Hamlet. Yet, this is what my inner dialogue has been focused on these last few days. The news too often reminds us that no one is safe, not even in a little town like Owensboro, KY. Regardless of the things we do to pretend, life is fleeting. It can be snuffed out at any second, even at Christmastime. It’s enough to make you want to not participate in Christmas at all; to let it die, to sleep, to end the heartache and shut out the light. That’s the temptation, and likely the reason so many people choose Christmas as a time to die.
Christmas is an idealized dream world. We have been conditioned to think that Santa Claus is coming to town, and every boy and girl child will wake up happy and excited. Many do, but as we are reminded every year by holiday classics like “A Christmas Carol,” there is just as much suffering on Christmas as any other day of the year. The Sir Patrick Stewart incarnation of Scrooge from the 90’s is my personal favorite. When watching it the other night, as I do every season, I was still struck by how many Scrooges I come in contact with throughout the year. Sometimes I even see him in the mirror. It’s easy to let a storied character like that become a caricature of what they actually were intended to be: a depiction of a real person, not a cartoon. Sir Patrick’s Scrooge is very human, and that’s one reason I like him so much. The other reason is that his version of the story focuses keenly on the broken heart that caused Scrooge to become the person he was. The sub story that the Ghost of Christmas Past tells us is of a young Scrooge who became such a heartless old miser. His young heart was broken by the death of his sister, and then by the loss of his true love. The first was the uncontrollable truth that is life: death waits for us all. The second was even more damaging because it was self inflicted. Villains aren’t born. Life makes them what they are. As a young man, Scrooge chose to focus on the financial failure that he perceived himself to be instead of on the riches of young love. By choosing material wealth as a prerequisite for love, he lost the more precious of the two, and then he did what so many of us do by hardening his heart. His love gone, he was left with nothing to focus on but himself. That is always a dead end. Enter the Ghost of Jacob Marley, and the Christmas miracle that would save Scrooge.
A friend remarked to me in a correspondence this week (yes, some people still correspond) that he was using Christmas as a time to focus on the outward instead of the inward. That’s what Scrooge learned to do in one night from his ghostly friends. Most of us don’t have that advantage. While it would be horrifying to be visited by ghosts and given future knowledge of one’s destiny, it would be easier than learning things the hard way in real life. Still, we can take cues from our community rather than ghosts on how to focus on the needs of others. Some people collect food for the homeless, some support toy drives, others go visit a shut-in. Everywhere you look, there are people trying to ease suffering this time of year. All you have to do is take a hint and join in, or harden your heart and sit in the darkness like pre-miracle Scrooge. It’s a choice.
Back to Hamlet… In thinking about hardening my heart this Christmas and focusing on the fact that it’s just a dream, just another day… I was reminded of the Scripture that says “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” And that is the true meaning of Christmas. After all, it’s His holiday. Life is an unpredictable mess each and every day of the year. There are wars and deaths and crises of every kind. Christmas is a season to set all that aside and “let your heart be light.” While your troubles may not be out of sight for long, it is a season to forget about your problems and focus on the troubles of others for a little while. It’s not a cure all, but a salve that certainly soothes the pain a little. Scrooge’s boisterous nephew, Fred, reminded us of that. Christmas never put a scrap of gold in his pocket, but he believed it had done him good, and would do him more good. “So, God bless it!” I wish all my readers a sliver of joy this Christmas even if it’s just for a day, and as Fred exclaimed, “Merry Christmas… God save you!”