Monday, October 2, 2023

Community Combats Climate Change with Concrete Trees: Just doing our part

The epitome of sustainability

Our little community was in a pickle, to say the least. Our population was growing, and our roads were becoming parking lots, especially at rush hour.

We needed to expand our highways, but more roads mean fewer trees and we all know that’s bad for the environment. Deforestation, duh!

What could we possibly do?

We fielded a bunch of proposals for mass transit options, staggered commutes, and all kinds of stuff that people suggest to save the planet, as long as they don’t have to do it themselves.

I mean, really, who wants to ride a smelly bus to work when you can just jump in your comfy Tesla? Isn’t that good enough for the environment?

I guess I could consider staggering my commute. Does that mean I get to go in late and leave early? Because if it doesn’t, I’m not interested in that, either.

After listening to one crappy solution after another, we invited one last firm to the city council meeting. Sure guy, we’ll sit here and snooze through your dumb ass presentation.

We figured we’d dismiss it like all the rest, but at least we could show we’d done our “due diligence.” That just means acting like we’d thought it over really carefully before saying no like we planned to all along.

Only this guy waltzed in wearing his designer suit and blew us away with the best idea we’d ever heard. He said we could build roads and trees, like literally, build trees instead of planting them!

Impossible, you say? Oh no, nitwit. You’re not thinking outside the box. You’re trapped inside the box and the lid is closed tight on your tiny little baby brain.

So, here’s how it works. His firm sells those soundproofing panels you’ve all seen along the highway. Only his aren’t the typical eye sores littering the landscape.

Nosirree! These things have trees painted on them. Read that again so it sinks in and you absorb the genius—trees on sound barriers!

For every tree we cut down, he explained, we could paint one. Heck, we could paint two if we want. The number of trees is really only limited by the number of sound barriers.

You want a win-win, huh? You’ll never find a bigger win-fall (I’m so clever I just made that up!) than this—more roads = more sound barriers = more painted trees. It’s like math, the sort of math I, a person who can’t even make change at my kid’s bake sale, can understand!

Since we heard that illuminating presentation, we’ve been building roads and erecting (hahaha, I just wrote “erect”) sound barriers like gangbusters. We even took this revolutionary idea a step further by painting trees on both sides of the barriers. That way, we can chop trees down right in homeowners' front yards and give them paintings of fresh new ones to enjoy.

Sure, we get a few complaints. And they always walk away looking slightly confused when we explain how it works. But just like pigs in a blanket, every revolutionary idea takes a little getting used to.

We submitted a bunch of photos of our lovely trees just like the one up top to the National Community Planning Association. We’re probably going to win one of those nice dual-purpose crystal trophies that can double as a giant glass dildo.

Sustainability, that's what it's all about. And what, besides maybe a titanium phone that I'll replace next year, could be more sustainable than concrete trees?

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Time Marches On: Remembering my daughter

Together on a fall day

Fall colors begin to fade,
Giving way to dark and gray
Who exactly decided you couldn’t stay?

You can be the CEO
or just a street wino
Death as arbitrary as the wind blows.

Years go by and I still wonder why
I barely said hello to your sweet face before goodbye
Perhaps our time together was just a lie.

These new things I build
Hoping the void I might fill
Better to move, they say, than remain standing still.

But am I drifting further away
or drawing closer by the day
It’s all the same anyway.

“Do you have children?” comes the question I dread
Panicked responses swirling in my head
“No,” I answer as the rooster crows — truth unsaid.

The thought of never seeing you again too painful to bear
Reuniting in heaven my only hope of lifting this despair
Please God if you’re there, I beg you, answer just this one prayer.

I'll be waiting for you.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Outfoxed and Overthought: A story about time slipping away

Zapruder-like photo quality of my soulmate lurking at the edge of the woods.

There’s this fox that lives in my neighborhood. I bet I’ve seen it more times than anyone else has because I look for it. 

Most mornings I sit on my back porch having coffee. If I’m up and out there just before dawn, there’s a decent chance I’ll see it trot right past, presumably on its way back to its den after a night out carousing. 

Then later, when Kris and I take our walk, there’s another chance we might see it out sunning itself in the field, not too far from the safety of the woodline. It’s gotten so it will sit and look right at us without moving as long as we don’t get too close, not that I would. I think it knows who we are—a little bridge of understanding between our two worlds.

And then there are just occasional random sightings, like the time walking in a different area we saw it come trotting around a small grove of pine trees with a deer it must have roused chasing it maybe ten yards behind. I swear that damn fox turned its head toward me as it rounded the corner, a grin affixed to its face as if to say, “I’m just toying with that slow poke. It’ll never catch me.”

By the way, I’m 53 and I’m lost. I think I’ve been so from the moment people told me I had to be something other than a cowboy or an Indian when I grew up. 

I may as well be 15 all over again, never having kissed a girl or maybe one awkwardly, not yet able to drive, no longer a boy but a long way from being a man. Only 3 years from heading off to college, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with myself. I still feel the same way today, only a lot older and tired of thinking about it.

I managed to write my way into a pretty decent job this past year—a 10-month tryout of sorts as a contractor that I parlayed into a full-time gig. Now that I have it, I don’t want much about it besides the steady paycheck. 

I liked the cafeteria during my freshman year at Grove City College. You could go to the salad bar as many times as you wanted, so I did. They had stuff on there besides salad, like pudding. Sitting at dinner for two hours beat the hell out of trudging back to my room to study.

A high school buddy helped me pick that school. He was a diligent fellow and tried to do right by me. We both thought the small atmosphere and academic focus would be perfect for me. 

It didn’t work out as we planned. Channeling Holden Caufield, I nearly failed out and transferred to WVU after a year. To be fair, I’d kissed a girl by then, and a little rift between us played a role in my demise.

Being back on familiar turf was better, but I changed majors three or four times, including crying uncle once after picking up a hot Bunsen burner with my bare hand during a chemistry lab. I only finally graduated in journalism because it seemed to be the one for which I had the most natural ability, and word processors weren’t nearly as dangerous as open flames. 

Despite incessantly pondering how I’d earn a living writing for the hometown paper at five bucks an hour, I could still push through with a passable news column. My skillset was about as wide as a piece of thread though, and so it seemed were my employment prospects.

While I had no answers, lots of other kids, content to float from one party to the next, didn’t even have any questions. Many of them also didn’t make it to graduation.

Once I got a little foothold, however, the place couldn’t get rid of me. I amassed two graduate degrees and an alphabet soup of letters after my name, far more out of not knowing what I wanted to do and avoiding a depressed Gulf War-era job market than out of ambition.

Fast forward to the present and with several years after age forty where my tax return shows an income under $25,000, I’ve not only avoided a career but also narrowly avoided living in a homeless shelter at times. Luckily, the closest I came was as the fundraising director for one during one of my better recent years income-wise.

My working life has been a joke, moving from one dead end or wrong turn to the next. I wouldn’t begin to know who to blame, but I suppose pointing that fucking finger up my ass like Tool advises the kid wearing Vans and 501s in Hooker with a Penis is a good start.

The cafeteria is pretty good at my new job, too. Sometimes they make stuff I’ve never heard of, and I almost always order that. I invariably like it and end up looking up what it is and where it came from, but I doubt I’ll ever make any of it.

Ah, but the work. What can I say about the work? 

The work is fast-paced and tedious, a combination about as pleasant as pickles on chocolate ice cream. I’m a ball of nerves most days waiting on edge for that stupid Microsoft Teams messaging platform’s annoying ding to alert me that I’ve been “tagged” in another “deliverable.” That just means someone is telling me I have an assignment to write the same thing I always write—only differently, thanks.

Three months in, and I’m already out of stuff to say and ways to say it. What creativity I may have had for this line of work has been squelched by frenetic monotony.

My work computer is right here beside me on my desk, but I’m writing this instead of logging on to that. Like Kate Moss checking her weight in her heroin chic heyday, I also obsessively review my 401(k) balance daily, dreaming of retiring to a beach town before they figure me out or I reach the end of my rope and quit for no good reason, or maybe for a really good one. 

Apart from hearing occasional stories about otherwise healthy people dying, I enjoyed the slow pace of the pandemic. I wasn’t tethered to a strict schedule and didn’t have to worry about running hither and thither. I wasn’t making much money working part-time from home and putting my personal training side hustle on hold, but I wasn’t spending much either.

My time was more my own, and I was free to write a little most days and lift weights whenever I wanted. But even as much as I enjoy those pursuits and willingly engage in them, I don’t want to bang weights or the keyboard forty hours a week, never mind doing someone else's bidding.

As long as my basic needs are met and I’m comfortable, if I have a choice between working the long hours it seems to require to have one of those fancy cars I see in the parking lot of the office building where I work or having the time to myself, you can keep the car. I’m choosing the time every time. People make such a big deal about work ethic and hustling just to acquire more stuff, but sometimes, more than most people I guess, I’d rather bang on my metaphorical drum all day.

Kris and I made every meal at home and lazed around most evenings watching TV together during lockdown. We still mostly squeeze in both of those activities, but our days were more relaxed then.

We watched a miniseries called Maniac starring real-life besties Jonah Hill and Emma Stone—a neat little backstory that drew me in before I knew anything about the plot. Quirky nerd sparks friendship with pretty girl on set of coming-of-age comedy, then they both go on to achieve stardom before reuniting years later as adults so they can work together on this new project… sign me up! 

Far from my usual straightforward revenge or survival fare, it was disjointed and trippy. I had a little trouble following until I figured out that underneath all the plot twists, the show somewhat parallels their actual journey. Turns out it’s a pretty familiar story about finding that special connection that brings life into focus and helps give it some meaning. Unless I’m wrong and that’s not what it is at all.

Speaking of connections, it seems like I was a little more connected to the people who matter in my life and a little less connected to those who don’t. Kris and I had a weekly FaceTime call with my mom during which we would all play Yahtzee together. It wasn’t as good as being together in person, but it was better than we’d managed during many other busier times in our lives. 

I could tell Mom looked forward to our call as much as I did, even as she was starting to slip and have trouble articulating what she’d rolled. When the pandemic ended, so too did those FaceTime calls. Just a couple of short years later, she’s no longer well enough to take my calls.

These days, that 401(k) balance is rising like it’s supposed to as I diligently follow the standard advice to “stay the course” with my monthly contributions. What they neglect to mention about that much-ballyhooed time value of money equation is the inverse relationship with the more valuable of the two resources. 

Bean counting like a modern-day Mr. Potter, I think about the desperate race I’m running. Will I exhaust my good health and decent days before my balance is sufficient to walk away, or will I make it to that beach before the sun sets? Considering my father's death from a heart attack at 55 and my own type 1 diabetes, the odds may be as close as a coin flip. Faintly, I hear Mom’s soap intro whispering, “Like sands through the hourglass of time….”

Winning that race—not power or recognition—is my only work goal now. It’s not that I’m too earnest for the petty concerns of less righteous men and want to pursue a nobler calling like helping people; it’s that I’m simply too tired to care. Sometimes, I’m even a little relieved I don’t have to worry about figuring out how to pay for Ruby’s education or wedding, and my shame in admitting that doesn’t make it any less true. 

A classmate of mine recently died. We didn’t keep in touch after graduation, but this wasn’t just any classmate. He was a good-looking, athletic kid who also had a rare genuineness about him. Nice to everybody, he was universally well-liked by jocks, nerds, gearheads, stoners, and any other group you can name. He was arguably the face of Bridgeport High School’s class of '87.

I doubt I'll ever attend another class reunion, but I considered attending his funeral. Being the type who stealthily dodges coworkers when I spot them at lunch so I can enjoy a quiet meal rather than endure forced conversation, I guess it makes sense that a somber setting suits me better than a social one. I saw it as a way to see a few people without the usual phoniness.

People suffering from extended illnesses often cling to life, never quite wholly ready to go despite their pain. Others never see it coming, assuming they still have more time one minute and dropping dead the next. Regardless of how it happens, if this fellow I remember so fondly can die before his time, then I’m damn well sure someone like me can too.

I’ve seen two foxes together on a few occasions. For all I know, the one that runs past the porch in the morning isn’t the same one that suns itself in the field in the afternoon.

I certainly don’t know if it’s male or female. That’s why I usually just refer to it as “it.” I don’t know if it’s hungry or full; if it has a mate and a litter of pups or is flying solo; if it’s sick or well; or anything at all.

I just catch these small glimpses and pretend they mean something, like that the fox and I have some sort of unspoken relationship similar to Jonah's and Emma's souls finding each other out of all the souls in the universe. Well okay, not exactly, but I do imagine a connection.

There's a line in the Robert Redford fly fishing movie A River Runs Through It where the narrator ponders how well he knew his deceased brother concluding, "...maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman." My pretending about the fox that I actually don't know any better than any other is not too dissimilar from my understanding of most people, even some with whom I claim to be close.

I do know one thing about the fox. I know it isn’t wasting time thinking about me. When it’s time to hunt, it hunts. When it’s time to rest, it rests.

The Byrds wrote an old folk song about that sort of thing. Maybe I should go and listen to their lyrics about the seasons and all. Maybe I don’t need to unless I just feel like it.

Either way, my time is coming.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Lord of the Plains: Discovering the Real Taylor Sheridan

Ben Foster in Hell or High Water (2016), OddLot Entertainment and Lionsgate Films

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs in one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest counties. I work for a venerable finance firm that doesn’t just have an office building but supports an entire “campus.”

Fitting, as many of my co-workers graduated from prestigious Ivy League universities situated on sprawling grounds. I did not.

Cowboying? Folks from these parts don’t even mow their own lawns. They have nannies and personal assistants and people to do their shopping for them. And yet, the water cooler chit-chat at that campus often revolves around them counting the days between Yellowstone episodes, giddy with anticipation I've not seen since that long ago summer when we all wondered who shot J.R.

Widespread appeal far beyond what you’d normally expect for a show about rural people doing rural things, buoyed by their unusual good looks and a whole heapin’ helpin’ of ass kickin' thrown in too, is exactly how we got to where we are today. And just where is that, you ask?

Kansas, my dear Dorothy, or Montana—same difference as long as it's somewhere with a view of the big, blue sky. Maybe it’s not so perplexing that these city slickers who have everything they could possibly desire except space to spread out want to be out there in the great wide open, so long as they’re actually all bundled up warm and cozy on the other side of their 80-inch TVs watching those pretty ranchers ranch and not getting any mud on their own designer boots.

They’ve glommed on so hard that Yellowstone’s cavernous borders couldn’t hold back this relentless westward expansion. Faster than you can say “gold rush,” we loaded up the wagons and moved not to Beverly Hills but right on into writer and director Taylor Sheridan’s whole “universe” of spin-offs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan too, but the Yellowstone universe sounds as nauseating to me as the Marvel multiverse. "Why is that?" you may be wondering.

Sticking with the wagon train theme, the answer is simple: y’all have hitched your wagons to the wrong horse. I’m sorry to tell you, but most of you Dutton groupies are just a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies to my personal Western hoedown.

Yellowstone has its moments—Rip throwing a chair through a glass wall, eating a bullet to the belly, and beating Beth’s assailant to death comes to mind—but it’s still largely Sheridan-light. Its darkness and violence are muted by just enough hope and soapy intrigue to keep mainstream audiences coming back for their next fix.

The real Sheridan forces you to mainline that smack straight into a vein, whether you’re up for partying that hard or not. In the same way that A Perfect Circle or Puscifer could be gateway bands to Tool—solid in their own right but lacking the depth of Maynard's masterwork—Yellowstone, the pinnacle for many of you, should really only be an introduction to the best of Sheridan.

So come along now and let me show you a few of his real classics, but be forewarned, I like my entertainment the same way as my coffee, the only way a proper cup should be brewed—intense, relentless, suffocating, and black like my soul. What can I say? I guess the familiar taste of blood in my mouth has become oddly comforting in the course of a life lived.

Regardless, you'll find little in the way of catharsis here; just a brutal acknowledgment of the way things are. Okay, maybe there’s a little healing in these stories, but much like in real life, you have to endure an awful lot of pain for what’s usually a bittersweet payoff.

We first find ourselves sitting on a drab front porch on a poverty-stricken Indian reservation in some desolate corner of Wyoming. By featuring Native American characters, often but not always portraying them hopelessly, Sheridan has done more to generate awareness of the challenges they face than any other modern filmmaker I can recall, yet I’ve never seen that fact acknowledged in coverage of his work.

The tragedy depicted in this monologue, however, isn’t the exclusive domain of Native peoples. Coldly indiscriminate, it touches all races and socio-economic backgrounds and is one I’m all too familiar with—child loss.

"''re never gonna be the same. You're never gonna be whole, not ever again. You lost your daughter. Nothing's ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, and you let yourself suffer—you allow yourself to visit her in your mind—you'll remember all the love she gave you, all the joy she knew.' Point is, Martin, you can't steer from the pain. If you do, you'll rob yourself. You'll rob yourself of every memory of her, every last one, from her first step to her last smile—kill 'em all. Just take the pain, Martin. You hear me? You take it. It's the only way you'll keep her with you."

In that monologue from Wind River, the Corey character, played by Jeremy Renner, shares more truth about the bleak reality of losing a child than anything I've ever heard from any other source, including all the professionals with whom I spoke. He's the only one who didn't gloss it over with some weak platitude about time healing all wounds or things happening for a reason.

After that feel-good moment, I wouldn't want you to get the idea that life is all sunshine and rainbows. I'd better bring you back to Earth with a visit to grayed-out Kingstown, home to not one, but seven, prisons and a host of sordid characters who either make their living off them or are incarcerated in them. Mercifully, we're on a boat with a hint of sunshine for this little gem delivered again by Sheridan favorite, Renner, this time as "Mayor" Mike McLusky.

"My father used to say, 'I can't wait to get old, for my mind to soften and my memories to rot away. The hardest thing to do is forget—forget the scars that life gives you, forget the scars you gave others. The challenge, then, is hiding a few memories worth keeping from your dying mind.' He told me to keep a journal and only write down the good things. Then, when the bad things fade away, you can read about the happy life you had. But minds don't forget so easily, and the horror that we witness and endure takes root. Only madness and dementia can remove it."

At least I have that to look forward to in my decrepitude. When I inevitably forget Ruby's name and everything she meant to me, I'll also finally be purged of the haunting memory of the day she died in my arms.

And now to where it all started for me, where I first felt Sheridan speaking to me more clearly than any other filmmaker today—on a dusty hill outside some nondescript West Texas dustbowl town. A modern-day cowboy of sorts—just not the kind you’d want anywhere near your daughter, or even your enemy for that matter unless you really hated him to the core—sits high on a rock, his rifle resting on his knee, and surveys the scene below.

What Tanner Howard, acted superbly by Ben Foster, sees is a dirt road lined with police cars and civilian trucks, all of them heavily armed and trying to pin him down on that hill. He’s led them here where he knows he’ll make his final stand and die, but incomprehensibly to most of us, that’s fine by him. While his methods and morals may be ruthless and twisted, he has a code of honor centered around family and he aims for that death to matter as much as it can in this grim version of Sheridan's universe that was born not on a picturesque Montana ranch but in a fiery hell (or high water).

Satisfied that it will, he inhales deeply and, in tribute to the Comanche who we've all but exterminated in our real westward expansion of the American empire, declares himself “Lord of the plains.”