Get More Game in the Game!

This evening, the Yankees are rudely and repeatedly defining “launch angle” for the Boston pitcher. I’m not convinced geometry was the pitcher’s best school subject.
This afternoon and yesterday afternoon, my beloved Reds played powerfully and dominated the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. If they continue this style of play, I’m convinced that by September they can be out of last place. After that, the sky’s the limit…well…maybe a .500 season’s the limit.
I love baseball.
It is experiencing some problems, yes, but it has always needed adjustment. The players and coaches have always made those adjustments. Those adjustments, the ones from the players and coaches, work best. Adjustments that originate outside the game may sometimes be necessary, but are usually inferior. The designated hitter, performance-enhancing drugs, inter-league play, tinkering with the height of the mound, replay review…these have not improved baseball. It is a validation of the rigorous beauty of the game that it survives such crimes against its nature.
For example.
The defensive shifts dictated by sabermetrics are a nuisance and have currently shaped the game into a homerun or strikeout experience. The hitters have adjusted to the shifts. They understand that an out is an out, whether it’s a strikeout or a ground ball to a third baseman improbably standing in shallow right field to which he has no valid passport. Hitters will always try to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” So…where ain’t they? For sure, there are no fielders in the stands beyond the outfield wall. Hit ‘em there! Thus, the 25-degree launch angle becomes a player adjustment to the coaches’ defensive shifts. As I watch the Yankees hit their fourth (woops, make that fifth) homerun in the first four innings off David Price, former Cy Young Award winner, I know this is not the same game I’ve watched for over 50 years.
But that’s OK. Pitchers will adjust. I suspect low outside sliders two inches off the ground, and high inside four-seam fast balls two inches off the batter’s chin will become a bit more prevalent. Put yer 25-degree launch angle on that, Buster!
The game as it’s played on the field will adjust to every nudging of the limits with a correcting nudge. That doesn’t worry me.
There are a couple of things that do trouble me. They concern the length of the games. Understand, I’m not at all bothered by the fact that a game, if tied, could theoretically last forever. I cherish that threat. Bring it on…and on…and on…and…
(I’m hearing Harry Carey braying in the background; “I don’t care if I ever get back.”)
At this point, I should take an opportunity to recommend W. P. Kinsella’s novel, THE IOWA BASEBALL CONFEDERACY to you. It posits just such an expression of the potential of an eternal horsehide struggle. Mr. Kinsella’s better-known book, SHOELESS JOE, is the book upon which the film Field of Dreams was based.
No, I acknowledge when I purchase a ticket to a baseball game that the rest of my journey on this mortal coil may consist of wearing out the path between my seat and the hot dog stand till the end of time or till the end of me. I’m good wit’ dat. I like baseball game hot dogs and I made out a will.
I’m not looking to put baseball on a clock. What chaps me is the amount of time spent on non-game activities. The time stolen from the game and the audience’s lives by equipment adjustments, equipment changes, pitching changes, pick-off attempts, mound meetings, off-the-mound/out-of-the-batter’s-box meditative strolls needs to be examined and eliminated.
I wanna see some baseball.
I have a few suggestions. Yes, I am aware they are adjustments not originating from the players and coaches, and therefore probably inferior, but I gotta try. Four-hour nine-inning games are only helping the beer vendors.
My probably inferior suggestions;
– Pitchers, you get one unsuccessful pick-off attempt to a particular runner on a particular base. After that, each unsuccessful pick-off attempt costs you a BALL on the batter. This would save time, make stealing bases more viable, thus making a base hit more enticing.
– Pitchers, if you leave the mound between un-hit pitches, it costs you a BALL on the hitter. No moseying. Stay on the mound and pitch.
– Batters, if you leave the batter’s box between un-hit pitches, it costs you a STRIKE. No meandering. Stay in there and hit.
– No batting gloves. Go back to pine tar. Pine tar doesn’t have to be adjusted after every pitch.
– Batters, if you wear protective gear while batting, you must wear the same gear while running the bases. We will no longer have to wait while you effect a costume change at first base.
– Coaches, one pitching change per inning, barring injury.
– Coaches and catchers, the only visit to the mound allowed is during a pitching change. If you need to communicate with the pitcher, use hand signals, smoke signals, or just shout in pig latin.
– Eliminate all replay reviews. Let the umpires call the game. If they make a mistake, well, so do the shortstops. It’s a game for chrissakes. A game! If the important thing is (as the announcers assure us in their most funereal tones) to “get the call right.” Why do we allow Mr. Trump to do anything?
I feel we can get a regular nine-inning game down to about two and a half hours or less and keep all the excitement.
See the ball. Hit the ball. Catch the ball. Throw the ball. Run like hell.
It’s really pretty simple.
And it’s beautiful.
Even the pine tar……beautiful.

Ten or So Things I Learned From Harlan Ellison

I knew it was coming. I had heard he was ill. Still…the death this week of Harlan Ellison is a gut punch.
I feel diminished, but that feeling’s not accurate. Though I never met the man, he enhanced me. He pointed a way to empowerment and wit and ferocity. On many days, he is my favorite writer. This is one of those days.
Things I learned…
1. “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Perhaps Ellison’s most relevant statement since the onslaught of the radio talk shows. It’s a pretty safe bet if you can’t spell your opinion or you’ve cut and pasted your opinion, you haven’t researched your opinion. You’re simply spouting randomly or piping “ditto” into the chaos. It’s unhelpful at least, certainly a waste of everyone’s time (including your own), and probably destructive of anything that might possibly “make America great.”
2. “Don’t start an argument with somebody who has a microphone when you don’t. They’ll make you look like chopped liver.”
This is so obvious. Just tune in to a Trump rally or any politician’s town meeting. This also applies to getting into social media debate with a professional writer. Geez…these people write for living! Or suggesting to LeBron James; “Let’s settle this with a game of HORSE.”
3. The three most important things in life are sex, violence, and labor relations.
No. I didn’t buy it either at first. But his essays on the subject convinced me…or perhaps made me laugh so hard I could no longer think rationally.
4. “No one gets out of childhood alive.”
A grim notion, but I fear its accuracy. I still think artists have a chance, but even they must constantly “beware the little deaths” warned of by Carl Sandburg. As I write this, the strains of Stephen Sondheim’s “Everybody Says Don’t” are snickering through my head.
5. “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”
Probably Ellison’s most famous quote. I know it sounds like bumper sticker wisdom, but…duh!
6. “Once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak become strong.”
I know a number of well-meaning, successful people who started out with a two-step plan for their lives; 1. Make a lot of money and 2. Help others. However, after achieving #1, they added a third step; 3. Forget #2. I suspect Mr. Trump scoffs at the very idea of the #2 step.
7. If you work at Disney, nobody f#@ks with the Mouse.
Just ponder that a moment. These are words to live by…or at least words to remain employed by.
8. “…love and sex are separate and only vaguely similar. Like the word “bear” and “bare”. You can get in trouble mistaking one for the other.”
In my 60’s… I think… duh.
In my 20’s…I think I shoulda listened to Harlan.
9. A number of other very specific things that have been helpful to know;
“Ignorance is never having seen a film by Akira Kurosawa.”
Listen to your dog.
Trophy-hunting is a poor idea, especially on Ristable.
“…you can fight City Hall…”
10. And finally, if you’ve not read any Harlan Ellison, you have that to look forward to. I suggest starting with my favorite Ellison story; “Jeffty is Five.” Jeffty is always five, another good thing to know.
Thank you, Mr. Ellison, and now that you’re on the other side, please send back messages as you promised. You ain’t a writer for nothing!

Darkness Dispelled

I was on the road to Damascus a couple of weeks ago, sitting in the darkest back row of the Singletary Concert Hall for my fifth viewing of this year’s It’s a Grand for Singing (a hugely popular show-music extravaganza, mounted by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre), when the light hit me.
I was listening to three dying soldiers in the show The Civil War dictating a message their fathers;
“…I tried to remember you are judged by what you do while passing through.”
I was jarred.

Live performance can do that to you.

That concept had been important to me until the last two years. I hadn’t thought about it as much lately. I’ve been too busy following the daily outrages of the Trump Family & Friends Medicine Show.
Before that carnival hit town, I had resisted successfully the dubious lure of reality TV.
Honey Boo-Boo, roguish pawnbrokers, Kardashians, and dynasties of ducks claimed not one minute of my attention…not one minute. Then I had allowed the Trump Reality Show powered by the 24/7/365 news industry to hijack my focus. I now am urgently convinced of the higher priority of Melania’s jacket, Hilary’s emails, and Sarah’s dinner difficulties over the abandonment of NATO, neighborly relationships with countries that actually share our borders, and most of the progress for health care made in the last ten years.
Interlude #1
People who farm are called farmers.
People who work are called workers.
People who earn are called earners.
People who loot…
A few minutes after the soldiers’ number, a single plaintive voice grew to three voices, then to ten, then to about forty voices reassuring us from the show Dear Evan Hansen;
“Even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you, and when you’re broken on the ground……you will be found.”
Forty young voices singing what our leaders should be offering in response to daily reports of rising suicide rates of our youth, our veterans, our rural communities, and even our successful. Instead, we are distracted by chants of “Lock her up!” and self-pitying name-calling tweets of “witch hunt”, “me”, “no collusion”, “ME”, “fake news”, and “M-E-E-E!!”
Tweeting and chanting are legitimate forms of expression. Singing is better.
Interlude #2
People who sing are called singers.
People who act are called actors.
People who write are called writers.
People who tell stories are called storytellers.
People who mock the afflicted…
People who lie…
The show closed gloriously with a stage-full of circus-clad passion and hope from The Greatest Showman;
“But I won’t let them break me down to dust. I know that there’s a place for us…for we are glorious!”
Damn straight.
The reality show people may lie, loot, despoil, degrade, mock, and commit treason. They may then flee justice or even flee the country. But they will pass and be judged by what they did while passing through.
We will rebuild and restore and fix and repair. For we are glorious.
Interlude #3
People who teach are called teachers.
People who nurture are called nurturers.
People who heal are called healers.
People who restore are called restorers.
People who believe…
People who resist……
Literature, drama, poetry, music, and art have become time windows through which we can look back to before 2016 and be reminded of the glorious path we were on before the reality show took over. We can recapture our distracted momentum.
There will be damage to undo. We have undone damage before.
I think I know where we can find about forty young voices and citizens to help.
I believe they will resist…for they are glorious.

Perfect Baseball Weather – Alert!

“Boy, the weather’s great tonight and s’posed to be even better tomorrow. Looks like perfect baseball weather for tomorrow afternoon’s game! C’mon out!!”  –tonight’s dogged Reds announcer.

It is a beautiful night. The forecast is rosy. The Reds are playing poor baseball tonight and deservedly losing…again. The Reds’ season record is sadder than sad, bluer than blue…deservedly. Tonight’s crowd is less than impressive. The announcer’s exhortations for attendance are understandable.

But “perfect baseball weather” sets me to thinkin’…

I understand the idea of perfect baseball weather, but I have an expanded definition of what that is.

  • It’s October, 1976. I’m in a tiny apartment in Dallas with my old friend, Chuck Pogue, and my new friend, Larry Drake. I’ve convinced them (being lapsed baseball fans) to tune in the Reds/Phillies playoff game on Chuck’s 12-inch Sony Trinitron. The temperature in the dim room was probably about 72 degrees. Watching that magnificent Reds team utterly dismiss Philadelphia delighted me and rekindled a passion for baseball in Chuck and Larry that never left them. The weather was perfect that day where I was.
  • Last summer, Janie and I drove over to a community softball field in Frankfort to spend a sizable chunk of a hot, sunny, humid day watching her great-grand-niece play. Eight-year-old ladies running randomly after ground balls and running with abandon around the bases to compile football-like scores, followed by a drive home with my babe through the farms and green-ness to which I am addicted, was perfect baseball weather to me.
  • My back yard in the early 60’s playing wiffle ball; it never rained…never.
  • High in the red-seated Alps of Riverfront Stadium, architecture actually swaying a bit with each impassioned roar of the crowd, watching the Reds win a World Series game in the bottom of the ninth while I was wearing a winter jacket and gloves…yes, perfect baseball weather.
  • Eating Dodger Dogs at Chavez Ravine while the visiting Cubs’ Ernie Banks in an immaculate white business suit is introduced to the crowd…no complaint about the climate here.
  • Sitting three rows behind Joe Morgan at Riverfront a week after his induction to the Hall of Fame; I recall it was hot, it was humid, there were bugs, it was perfect baseball weather.
  • It was also perfect while sitting behind the dugout of the Hickory Crawdads at the Lexington Legends field and being embarrassed as Chuck harassed the Hickory players to give us a hat. I later ordered the hat online – that’s just how cool it was – the hat, not the weather.
  • There was another memorable Legends night when it was 186 degrees and the setting sun was smack in our eyes during the first six innings and the Legends lost by five. But a train chugged past the left field fence, whistle singin’, and a promotional baseball bound in basketball leather and stamped; “UK Wildcats” was given out. Perfect baseball weather.
  • Tonight the Reds have continued to play poorly and are further behind and will undoubtedly lose again. But I’m sittin’ in the library, the windows are open, the frogs are singin’, the dog is chasing a mouse with glee and incompetence while the cat Googles “mouse”, and Jeff Brantley is describing his prodigious eating adventures. Perfect baseball weather to me.

Make America great again?

It’s great now.

Baseball is being played in perfect weather all over the land. How great is that?

Don’t screw it up…or give it away…or loot it……and shun those that do.

Let’s play two.

Lloyd Rowe – Another Varney Yarn

“Lloyd Rowe…”

Jim squinted like he could glimpse the man in question on the far horizon.

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.”

I was impressed with the solemnity of the moment until I reminded myself that the “far horizon” was the Green Room wall beneath the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky about eight feet in front of Jim, and just how many “ages” can a 20-year-old have actually seen?

My friend and fellow student, Bob Perkins had suggested to me that I might want to ask Jim Varney about Lloyd Rowe if I had sufficient time for a good story. This seemed like just the moment to pose the question.

It was September, 1970, and like clockwork, here was Jim, not a UK student – hell, he hadn’t even graduated from high school according to local legend, lurking in the Green Room at UK. This was a September tradition…like mums at the Saturday football games. Jim would drop in and loiter in this theatre department lair in hopes of broadening his life experience by meeting and “mentoring” the hopeful freshman actresses newly arrived on campus…or, as Jim referred to them; “sweet young things.”

This “mentoring”, to outward appearances, seemed to last a couple or three weeks until the young lady would reappear, a generally gladder but wiser girl devoted to catching up on classes missed.

Hey.

It was a freer time.

We spoke freely. We dressed freely. We undressed freely.

AYDS was still just a dietary supplement candy advertised on Paul Harvey’s radio show.

On this particular afternoon in the Green Room, the requisite young lady was present filling out some requisite semester-starting forms, I was present killing time until some rehearsal started – any rehearsal, and Jim loped in. He sized up the prospect (singular), and turned to me with a normal greeting; “Well, Goddy-dam, it’s Leasor. Howya doin’ Podge?”

I could have just let things follow their inevitable course…but no-o-o-o-o-o-o. I thought if I got Jim started on a saga it might disrupt the day in an entertaining way.

“Tell me about Lloyd Rowe.” I ventured.

That’s all it took. We’ll let Jim tell it from here.

Lloyd Rowe…

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.

Lloyd Rowe was mean.

He was a mean, mean man.

He was the meanest man in the world…and he knew it…he was proud of it. He got up every morning expecting to receive an award for mean-ness.

He didn’t bother to spit nails, he just digested ‘em. The only salad he would eat was poison ivy.

He took little petite little small-ass Donnie’s cake away from him and ate it. (Whatever that means.)

The laws of physics and medicine bowed to his hateful will. One day he was shot by a bullet in the chest. He whistled sharp and growled “Git back here.” That bullet backed up, healed instantly out of pure spite, and gave Lloyd a written apology.

Mean.

He was driving to Louisville one day and ‘long about Waddy/Peytona he had four simultaneous flat tires and he ran out of gas. He said; “This’ll not do.” He removed the gas cap, pissed in the tank, and crooned; “Go-o-o-o.” That car reached the White Castle in Downtown Louisville in two minutes flat and was a molten heap when it arrived. Lucky it was still under warranty.

He once lived on spite and nothing else for five months just to hurt himself.

He started campfires with small animals as kindling.

MEAN.

He decided one day to visit the mountains in Eastern Kentucky. His aims were two;

  • He wanted to broaden his life experiences by paying court to the Low-Life Sisters. There were three Low-life Sisters; Bunny Jeanette, Juanita Dean, and the little baby Nylon. Miz Low-Life had given birth to Nylon in a drugstore and named her after the first product she saw. Other naming possibilities spr-r-r-r-ing-g-g-g to mind. It would make an intriguing parlor game.
  • And two. He wanted to spend a serious moment with Greenbury Deathridge.

Greenbury Deathridge was the meanest man on Earth…and he knew it.

You perceive the problem, n’est-pas?

Lloyd wanted to settle the issue and establish harmony on the planet.

Well, he wanted to settle the issue.

He climbed mountains for thirty days through heat, humidity, snow, cyclones, tsunamis, baseball strikes, plagues, earthquakes, and “Gunsmoke” reruns. When he got to Greenbury’s cabin, he learned that the man he was seeking had died seven days before. Lloyd took that personally. He knelt at Greenbury’s grave…for three days…in abject disappointment and holy resentment. Finally, he dug up the corpse and carved it into a bar of soap. That seemed to bring closure.

He sought solace in the arms of Bunny Jeanette Low-Life, but at a crucial moment in their relationship, she cried “Oh, sweet Jesus!” Lloyd froze, appalled. He extricated himself, dressed freely, and marched back to Lexington on foot (his car being a molten heap at the time).

At this point in Jim’s narrative I cried enough.

Jim was jarred out of his fake memory rapture.

The requisite young lady? Oh, she was in love.

 

Oh, sweet Jesus.

Cannabis, Candor, & Courtroom Drama

“Thank you for your candor, Mr. Lay-zer.” the judge intoned, and with that I knew my fate had been determined.

It was around 2005 and I was in my 13th month of jury duty. At that time, federal jury duty called for 10 days of actual service or one year of being “on call”. The clock, however, did not begin until you had actually been called and served the first day. I had, by the time this call was issued been “on call” for 13 months. It felt like a side hustle at an occasional $15 dollars a day and a lot of worry and schedule-shifting.

This jury call was unusual. I was accustomed to reporting to a jury pool of 25-30 people, but when I had surrendered my phone for the day and passed the metal detector, I entered a juror’s room packed with 80-100 bleary souls.

There aren’t many comforts in a jury room, but there is coffee and I wonder about that. I mean, you’re pretty well limiting how long a court session can be when you immerse the jury pool (note the choice of words there) with java. Someone’s gonna have to pee or they’re gonna get pissed. Of course, it could increase the alacrity of the jury’s deliberations and save a little time there. Comme-çi comme-ça.

This was a big trial from out of town, moved to Lexington because of local notoriety in Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati. Thus, a large jury pool was summoned.

I gathered from the voir dire, the two defendants were accused of possessing a semi-truck full of marijuana, intending to informally retail same. I learned after the trial, that one of the defendants, instead of making that “one phone call” to his lawyer, placed the call to his girlfriend who was just then firing up the grill for a celebratory cook-out at their apartment homestead. Being an adaptable, quick-thinking gal, she ran to freezer and removed several chunks of cold cash and surplus inventory from the semi and employed them to get the charcoal started. The police arrived soon enough to preserve some evidence but not soon enough to prevent an escape of intriguing fumes. I understand attitudes improved and vocabulary decayed in Cincinnati for about a week.

Uh…that last paragraph…

…if you scrambled all the words in it and subtracted every other letter and divided by two and had a beer and squinted real tight, it might spell; “urban legend”…or not……oh, wow!

Whatever.

In court, the judge began the day by wishing the jury a “good morning” and then turning to the attorneys and wishing them the same. The prosecuting attorney, a local fellow, returned those good wishes. The defense attorney did as well, adding that being from Cincinnati, he admired the quaintness of such civility as a “good morning” in a courtroom. I, having just interpreted his comment as being called a hick, made a mental note that if I ever was caught with a semi-truckload of marijuana and made to miss a real interesting cook-out, his would not be my first phone number to call, even if it was a cute number.

I glanced at the judge and thought I caught a flicker of “Well, bless your heart and fuck you” in his visage.

I felt we were simpatico.

Actors are often foolish that way.

Voir dire began.

The judge, in order to expedite the process, decided to ask some basic winnowing questions to the group. Useful queries like;

  • Is anyone here not a US citizen?
  • Does anyone here not speak English?
  • Does anyone here not know how many fingers are on their left hand?
  • Does anyone here not have a pulse?

We handled those pretty well as a group.

Then he asked a hard one – I wanna be sure I get it right;

“Does anyone here think…let me say this right…uh…marijuana is illegal…should it…maybe it…well…uh…lemme just say it. Does anyone here think marijuana should be legal?”

I raised my arm, confident in the belief that it would be lost in the forest of other raised arms.

My arm was a specimen tree, alone in a sunny field, commanding the attention of every eye in the universe.

<< A side note, if I may. >>

I had determined early on in the jury process that the best way to repel being selected for a panel was to look as much like a 2005 Republican as I could. I showed up every day dressed in gray slacks, blue blazer, light blue Oxford button-down shirt, double-Windsor-knotted tie (red, white, and blue foulard), short hair, and glasses…and flag pin. If I coulda found a place to slap on a flag decal, I woulda. I think it kept me out of a few juries, but it made me the foreman of almost all of the juries for which I was selected. Comme-çi comme-ça.

This side note is only important to truly depict what the judge saw when his eyes followed my specimen tree arm down to the rebellious source that raised it.

<< End of side note. >>

Where were we?

Oh yes.

My arm was a specimen tree, alone in a sunny field, commanding the attention of every eye in the universe.

The person in the seat next to mine subtly adjusted his seating choice by two to the right.

The judge gazed, open-mouthed, in my general direction. I suspect he was reconsidering the accuracy of his “good morning” greeting.

An exchange of information ensued.

“Your juror number, sir?”

“Juror number 73, your honor.”

“(Consulting his print-out) Mister……Lay-zer?”

“Close enough your honor.”

“Mr. Lay-zer, did you understand the question?”

“I think I did, your honor.”

“So…you are saying you believe that possessing, selling, and using marijuana should be legal?”

“I do, your honor. I have been in the alcohol retail business for over thirty years. It seems to me that it would be hypocritical for me to believe marijuana should not be legal.”

“I see…”

A longish pause before the judge continued; “Believing as you do, do you believe you could render an impartial verdict based on the facts to be presented at this trial?”

“I think I could, your honor. You are asking me to make a decision based on the law as it is, not as I think it should be. I think I’m capable of that.”

“Hm-m-m-m. Well, thank you for your candor, Mr. Lay-zer.”

I knew then I was about to get the rest of the day off.

I made another mental note. If I ever was caught with a semi-truckload of marijuana and made to miss a real interesting cook-out, I would not want this particular judge.

BUT, if I was the taxpayer lookin’ to keep juries fair and impartial…I might.

Jim Sherburne & West Coast Jazz

Jim Sherburne doubled my jazz world all by himself.

I love jazz; old jazz, new jazz, Dixie-land, Chicago, Bop, Free…but being of a certain age, I am particularly enthralled by jazz from the mid-20th century (doesn’t that make it and me sound accurately ancient?).

Until I met Jim, I was comfortable in the belief that all the best jazz originated on the East Coast. Then one afternoon while waiting for Nancy Sherburne’s lasagna to finish simmering, Jim and I traded rants in the living room. Translate that to; he ranted while I listened and nodded and thumbed through his tattered record albums.

(Shelly Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Howard Rumsey…who were these guys?)

Jim had graduated from UK and then lived and worked in the advertising world in Chicago during the 60’s. He developed ad campaigns that featured a singing Kool-Aid pitcher and the encouraging “Double your pleasure, double your fun, with Double-Mint, Double-Mint, Double-Mint Gum!”

The man could write.

(Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, the Lighthouse All-Stars…who WERE these guys?)

Jim began to research and write historical novels…good ones. They were published to good notices by Houghton-Mifflin; HACEY MILLER, followed by THE WAY TO FORT PILLOW, then my personal favorite; STAND LIKE MEN, about the coal union wars in Kentucky.

The Sherburne family moved back to Kentucky.

(Shorty Rogers, Chico Hamilton, Gerry Mulligan…WHO WERE THESE GUYS??)

I loved going to Jim and Nancy’s house. I would park behind their car with the informative bumper sticker; “Republican in Trunk”. I’d dutifully follow the instructions on the 1950’s era poster in the bathroom; “Don’t be a Commie! Wash your hands!” The lasagna was killer. The laughter was eye-watering. The volume was cranked up to “eleven”.

(Wince at the scratches. These records have been played to death!)

Afterwards we would play the “Song Game”. The rules were simple; we went around the room and when it was your turn, you sang a song, any song. If I had brought a date, at this point in the evening, she would generally be terrified and I knew I would have some splainin’ to do in the car home.

When it was Jim’s turn, he’d sing old union anthems I’d never heard of.

I’d be so happy for him. His world was filled with passion, anger, joy, outrage, and fierce hope. He was delighted to share it all with you.

His book, RIVERS RUN TOGETHER, depicts those chaotic days of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The hippies had taken over the park and one of their slogans was “Don’t trust anyone over 40”. Jim was over 40. His and his protagonist’s hearts were in the park with the kids, but the math excluded them both.

On the day his book; POOR BOY AND A LONG WAY FROM HOME (which features a young D. W. Griffith and a young silent film industry) was released, I drove to a bookstore in Danville to purchase the book. I knew Jim would be there to sign books. I was first in line. I like to think my graciously inscribed copy is the first of the first printing. Book nerds are just that way.

But what about the music?

When I finally got a word in between the rants and before the lasagna, I asked Jim where this music came from. He explained that while he was in Chicago, he had access to all these recordings of California musicians. Many of them worked for the movie studios and played jazz with each other on the week-ends. He thought they were pretty good.

I should say.

The West Coast jazz spoke of short sleeves, loafers, and the long, long lines of horizons. The East Coast responded with rolled-up sleeves, jackets & ties, edges & corners.

The West Coast sang of sunsets & fogs, beaches, cars & personal distances. The East Coast argues night, streets, cabs & crowds.

The West whispers innuendo. The East yells back in-your-face—OH!

The West is cool, the East hot.

Stars vs. neon.

Highways vs. subways.

Wake-up!

Don’t sleep!

It doubled my jazz world.

Thanks to Jim.

Thanks…

To Jim.

Saratoga Day-Dreaming

In the early 70’s I was working a lot of nights. Four to midnight was a regular shift for me. Thus, my days were a bit skewed. Lunch was important. Many days, it began my day. It got the juices flowing. It got the little gray cells humming.

I was living just off Euclid Avenue. Geography and lunch funneled me to the Saratoga Restaurant. If it hadn’t, fate probably would have.

The “Toga” sagged on the precise piece of High Street where that urban label became the more rural Tates Creek. The front sagged. The neon sign sagged. The interior ceiling sagged. I snuggled in.

Chipped plastic-topped tables, free-standing and booth…harsh and flickering fluorescent lights…woogety chairs… two steps up to the bar with stools and more woogety chairs and tables…12-inch TV perched in the corner (black/white, non HD, squinting helps)…seriously heavy drink pours…

I know. It sounds too exotic to possibly be true, but as God is my witness…

Two or three times a week you could find me there for the $1.79 lunch special.

  • Might be the Iceberg Wedge; one-fourth of a head of lettuce buried in an impenetrable lava flow of blue cheese.
  • A Chicken-Fried Steak; to this day I don’t know what that even means and am in no hurry to enlighten myself.
  • A Salisbury Steak; to date, none of the Salisbury’s on the planet have stepped up to claim this war crime.
  • Pot Roast; picture a lake of brown gravy (23,412 calories per ounce) over an Alps of mashed potatoes.

It was a different dietary time.

The service was impeccable and personified by Mona.

Mona was the mistress of efficiency. She could approach your table and release your plate two feet away from your table. It would glide with a spill-less thud precisely in front of your cringing napkin. I remember one Friday during Lent. One of the specials was fish, of course. It was served with the head still attached. The patron who ordered it objected to that arrangement. Mona picked up the plate and the customer’s butter knife, performed radical surgery, and returned plate and knife to their original deployment. There were no more objections.

Most days, I was left alone to my lunch special and my book (I think I was reading a lot of Stephen King, Kazantzakis, Blatty, and Joseph Campbell at the time – whatta literary salad!). Other days would find me sharing a table with Charles Dickens (yes, that was his real name), professor of theatre, University of Kentucky. I learned a lot of theatre at lunch. Good for me. Unfortunately, it may have been at the expense of other theatre students at UK. I knew when Mona asked if Charles wanted another Manhattan before ordering lunch (there were two depleted glasses in front of him at the time), that his 1pm Directing Class was about to be discarded in favor of a mentoring/reminiscing session for yours truly. I’m not saying it was right, but…I learned a lot about the theatre, and heard some killer stories.

Yes, lunch is what I primarily remember about the Saratoga, but there were some remarkable Monday nights as well.

Monday Night Football was a major weekly event in season.

  • Arriving about seven to partake of the thinnest t-bone steak possible.
  • Matriculating up the three steps to the bar to join the Runyan-esque elite of the liquor industry as they attempted to out-drink and out-lie each other.
  • Watching my boss try to impress me by pounding double-Drambuie’s and ending up pounding the floor.
  • Ordering a Coke and being accused loudly of being a “Coke-sucker”.
  • Placing my weekly $5 bet on that night’s game.
  • Watching the blurry TV image (black/white, non HD, squinting helps – remember?) of the kick-off and about half of the first quarter in a room-full of blurry wannbe Nathan Detroit’s.

The bar and the restaurant closed at ten, so we were all off to our homes or what dubious adventures could be found in Lexington on a Monday night in the 70’s. I’m told you could be surprised,

Alas, I would be surprised.

But the “Toga”…

Tawdry…perhaps.

White, misogynistic, homophobic…oh yeah.

Dietetically healthy… <<snort>>

Enjoyable…hell…I was white, young and indestructible, straight male, privileged……sure.

I snuggled in.

Would I like to return to those halcyon days?

No.

I’d like to think I could grow.

It felt OK at the time, but it was not for everyone, and that was the problem. I no longer wanna keep track of who it’s good for and who it’s not. That’s way too much scorekeeping for me.

If that Saratoga reopened tomorrow…I’d be busy that day…whatever day it was.

A Marvelous Party

“I have been to a marvelous party.”

Thus wrote/sang/chanted Noel Coward in 1938 and I lived it last Saturday night.

The “marvelous party” was “Encore”, ostensibly a fund-raiser for OperaLex to raise money to support the Opera Program at the University of Kentucky.

What it was, in practice, was a resounding celebration of much that is special about living in the Bluegrass.

To begin with, it was Keeneland, in May; intoxicatingly green, lush, and bursting with life…or at least the assurance of life after Derby.

Then there was the 1938 Rolls Royce convertible just inside the entrance. Is that what it takes to get a good parking space?

Then there was the wine-tasting (thank you Liquor Barn) and the mingling of Lexington’s arts supporters with the singers/students/nascent citizens of the UK Opera program. Seeing Houston Tyrrell (you’ll see him next in GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING) discussing the merits of a box of stunning South American red wines with Ben Kaufmann (you saw him in last year’s GRAND NIGHT) was jarring. I’m not completely convinced of who was advising whom, but the entertainment value…priceless.

And then the dining room; it was a palace of glassware, auguring well for the meal to come.

From the stage, Jenna Day came back from her home in Los Angeles to guide us through the evening and share her passion for this program and these students. She introduced Dr. Everett McCorvey and Dr. Tedrin Lindsey.

The spirit in the room got higher and higher;

  • Tedrin’s program for the evening included selections from the past season; LA TRAVIATA, SHOWBOAT, and BOUNCE the basketball opera.
  • Cameron Mills’ and Rex Chapman’s delight for being in the room was obvious and incandescent.
  • The passion and the talent of the singers could not be resisted.
  • Tshegofatso Clement Baloyi broke everyone’s heart with his “Ole Man River”
  • Michael Preacely and Taylor Comstock delivered world-class performances and inspiring personal stories.
  • Jessica Bayne defined class for us all.
  • Emilia Bustle charmingly explained to us that “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” isn’t what a girl supposes.

These young people come to the University of Kentucky to sing and learn to sing and learn to teach others to sing. Tell me again how Lexington, and Kentucky, and the planet is not made better by that. They are with us for two, three, four, five years. They and Lexington are made better by their time here. It is a kind of gardening of talent, and scholarship, and citizenship. Saturday’s Encore event was a kind of harvesting and renewing of that gardening.

Next year, I propose we measure the height of every participant as they enter the event, and again as they leave. I’m convinced that everyone is two inches taller for having been there.

Get It Right

There was an OperaLex Board meeting tonight.

We meet in the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center at the University of Kentucky, which is also where this year’s cast of It’s a Grand Night for Singing rehearses. After my meeting, I slipped in to watch and listen to a bit of their rehearsal.

These are early rehearsals, devoted to learning the music before the choreographer comes in next week.

Dr. Everett McCorvey was conducting the rehearsal. Two evenings ago, Dr. McCorvey was awarded UK’s highest academic award by the president of the university. Tonight he’s guiding about 30 young singers through the intricacies of the Great American Popular Songbook. The passion and the pride is the same for each night – his and the young singers. It’s the same passion and pride he’s brought to this production and these singers every year since 1993. I’ve witnessed it myself every year.

Dr. McCorvey took a moment to explain to the cast that the geezer that just sneaked in was harmless. One lady in the alto section mentioned that in the second year of Grand Night, I had sung “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” to her daughter, and that her daughter was now 29. There’s a special place in Purgatory for people like her.

They were working on “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity.

Everett stopped the rehearsal to point out that in measure 89 (of several hundred measures), the staccato was on the first beat only. The rest of the measure was rhythmically smooth. He then ran the passage three times to emphasize the rhythm and get it right.

Get it right.

One measure out of hundreds – get it right.

Not just on a solo when everyone is watching you, but in a chorus, perhaps in the background – get it right.

Not just when it matters – it always matters – if you know what “right” is, get it right.

Not just in loud places, not just in quiet places, not just in public, not just in private, not just in the Schmidt Center, not just in Lexington, not just in Washington, not just today…

…everyday…

…it always matters.

If you know what “right” is, get it right.

That’s what the arts can teach us…and I fear we are in sore need of that teaching these days.