Thursday, February 22, 2018

Laura Nyro's seven hits

Reading the comments on Laura Nyro-written songs on YouTube, there are usually three comments that stand out:
1) Her seldom-heard originals were better than the hit covers they produced.
2) Music was a lot better than now.
3) What? You mean the Fifth Dimension version wasn't the original? I love Marilyn.

In the period before her 22nd birthday, Nyro wrote all seven of her top hits. Four of them were recorded by the Fifth Dimension:

Stoned Soul Picnic-- The song that brought "surry on down" into the language. Nyro's version and the Fifth Dimension's cover both came out in 1968. Fifth Dimension's reached No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart, it's a little smoother. 

Sweet Blindness-- I loved this song as a teenager. Nyro's 1968 original about her song about  teenagers getting drunk (and horny, if "come on baby do a slow float" means what I think it does) has been described by a Youtube commenter as "like a prog-rock Supremes or Shirelles" with its tempo shifts. But nothing matches the Fifth Dimension's video ride in an antique car along the beach in Cannes.  Marilyn McCoo is breathtaking, and both girls get kissed by their boyfriends at the end. Their version reached No.13, but I never hear it on oldies stations, it's too subversive. 

Wedding Bell Blues-- Written as a circle (the last line of the verse is the first line of the chorus) in 1966, Nyro's soulful version is wonderful even if it's not quite how she wanted to sing it. So is Fifth Dimension's 1969 hit. It was humorously sung on TV by McCoo to her real-life fiancee Billy Davis Jr., and became the only one of Laura's songs to reach No. 1.

Save the Country-- A protest song: "Can't study war no more." Kids on YouTube don't understand "Keep the dream of the two young brothers" is talking about the Kennedys until it's explained to them. It was unusually political for the breezy Fifth Dimension, who recorded it in 1970.

Realizing the Fifth Dimension were working on a groovy thing, other bands started combing through Nyro's albums for songs. Three of them became hits:

And When I Die--  Nyro wrote it when she was sixteen, and how someone that age could come up with those lyrics is an everlasting mystery. She sold it to Peter Paul and Mary for $5,000 and they squandered its emotion in folk-song polyphony like it was "Rock Island Line." Nyro's version came a year later, and is a lot more soulful. In 1968, Blood Sweat and Tears recorded the hit version, reaching No. 2 (they offered Laura the chance to become lead singer, but she wasn't interested). Unlike Nyro's other cover bands, they expanded its vision, with even more tempo changes, adding Western and preaching sections to make it even more surreal.

Eli's Coming-- A crazy song with time and volume changes building to a crescendo. Three Dog Night's hit 1969 version is great, but not any better than Laura's.

Stoney End-- Of all of them, this is the one I think Laura's original is most clearly superior to the hit version, by Barbra Streisand in 1971. Laura's phrasing brings out the lyrics better than Streisand's belting. I'm guessing Stoney End refers to Virginia Woolf's method of suicide, which also goes with the lyric "now I don't believe I want to see the morning."

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Limits of Memory

Most avid baseball fans know about the three great championship droughts, all broken in the 21st century.  One of them, meaningful to my family, has a characteristic the others don’t share.
In 2004, when the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years, newspaper features highlighted their oldest fan, Fred Hale Sr., age 112. He had been twenty-seven when Babe Ruth led them to victory in 1918, before the Bambino was sold to the Yankees, supposedly putting a curse on the team.
In 2005, when the Chicago White Sox won after eighty-eight years, Monsignor Richard O’Donnell, a South Side priest, enjoyed his second championship at the age of ninety-five.
But in 2016, when the Chicago Cubs finally won it all for the first time since 1908, there were no stories about fans who could remember the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play combination and pitcher Three-Finger Brown, whose mangled hand produced an unhittable splitter. The fan base’s memory did not span 108 years, the longest championship drought in any U.S. professional sport.
 It was too much for my great-aunt Tee, a stylish woman who operated a currency exchange on the North Side. She could remember her father taking her to the 1929 World Series at Wrigley Field, which of course the Cubs lost. Eventually, she retired to Las Vegas but continued to watch every game on the WGN superstation, even after glaucoma had taken her sight. She lived into her nineties and never saw the promised land.

                                            Bud, Dad, Norman, Lyle circa 1963 

Sometimes a person has a memory so distant as to come from another world, as when Samuel J. Seymour appeared on the popular TV show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1956. His secret: He saw  John Wilkes Booth assassinate Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. Specifically, he heard a shot, then saw the killer jump from Lincoln’s box to the stage and break his leg. Not knowing what had occurred, the five-year-old wanted to rush to the stage to help Booth.
My own first semi-historic memory also involves a president.  
In October 1962, when I was eight, my sister Tempra and I were spending the weekend at my grandparents’ flat on Chicago’s Northwest Side. My movie-star handsome Uncle Norman came in, sweaty from his Saturday morning handball game. “Want to go see Kennedy?” he asked.
“Really? I’ve never seen a president before!”
The Chicago Tribune had the details on the front page: The president would arrive at O’Hare Airport at 4:30 p.m. His motorcade would proceed down the Northwest Expressway to a Democratic rally at City Hall. 
We left my Republican grandparents behind, walked a couple blocks, and scrambled down a grassy hillside to the expressway’s steel railing. There was no security checkpoint.  A single cop stood around, bored, not looking at us.   
A motorcade began crawling by. The fire engines, sirens blaring, came first, followed by a dozen or more police cars, lights flashing. Finally, I spotted the open convertible carrying Kennedy in the back seat. He stiffly turned his head, but not his injured back, to wave to the crowds on both sides.  His face was puffy and pale, not the tanned look he had on TV. Still, he outclassed Chicago’s saggy-faced mayor, Richard J. Daley, in the seat next to him.
I was no more than fifteen yards away.  With a skimming stone from a Lake Michigan beach, I might have been able to conk him.
An hour later, after his speech downtown, Kennedy canceled the rest of his campaign swing and returned to Washington. The explanation given to the media was that he had a bad cold. The real reason was that it was the fourth day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, though no one except the president and his advisers knew about it. A few days later, we’d be doing duck-and-cover drills under our desks and talking about our dads building bomb shelters.

Friday, November 22, 1963, was unusually warm in suburban Highland Park, with occasional light rain. I was playing soccer at lunchtime on the Ravinia school field with a tin can for a ball when somebody said Kennedy had been shot. We rushed into the classroom. Mr. Detweiler had brought out a small black-and-white TV. After a few minutes, Walter Cronkite said Kennedy was dead, took off his glasses, wiped his eyes. Mr. Detweiler couldn’t think of anything to say. School was dismissed. On the way home, everyone was quiet except for a Republican kid who shouted an impromptu rhyme, “JFK’s dead/He was shot in the head.”  
All weekend, I watched much of the round-the-clock assassination television coverage including the shocking shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. TV retrospectives show the same clips over and over, and assume the nation was plunged into sorrow by the death of its gallant young president.  I don’t remember grief, though, just shock. Over the weekend, a consensus had formed Kennedy had been a great man.
Tuesday, when school resumed, the kid who came up with the rhyme stayed quiet. Friday, the Chicago City Council voted to rename the Northwest Expressway for Kennedy.

Christmas 1963: Uncle Nick, Tee’s husband, carried a brown paper bag into my grandparents’ flat. He raised it briefly. The men went out in back.
 Nick called it Dago Red. The wine was supposedly made in some friend’s garage, though Dad suspected Nick just poured a jug of Gallo into a fruit jar and passed it off as bootleg.
Nick was Italian; my father Jewish, adding some ethnicity to an Anglo-Saxon family that had been in rural central Illinois since pioneer days, before moving to the big city in the 1920’s. “These Chicago marriages. There ought to be a law,” my grandfather, Lyle Pritchard, had joked.
To my mother’s embarrassment, he took a job in the Depression driving a Chicago Transit Authority bus and held it the rest of his life.  It didn’t bother him. The regular hours left him more time for his hobbies, including clarinet, photography, skeet shooting, and sailing. When he spotted a rare coin in the fare box, he added it to his collection.
He was open about disliking blacks, whom he called “colored.” White and black drivers competed for the best routes and never shared a table in the lunchroom.  In fact, he didn’t even root for the Cubs, because the National League had too many black players. He preferred the American League, dominated by the Yankees, who were almost all white.
His attitude came as a shock. Living in the mostly liberal, all-white suburb of Highland Park, I didn’t actually know any black people, but the Cubs’ big stars, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, were heroes.
The tension between my mother and grandfather extended to my upbringing. Mother had resisted television, kept us away from other kids, taught me to read at age two. By five, I could name the presidents in order, from Washington to Eisenhower, and identify their pictures.  I was so serious family members called me “our little man.”
She discouraged television and pop culture influences, but took my sister and me to string quartet concerts, including difficult composers like  Schoenberg, and the Art Institute, with its renowned collection of modern art. Paul Klee was my favorite.
My grandfather didn’t approve. He accused Mother of sissifying me. Besides teaching me the history of baseball, he gave me lessons in shooting, boxing, and fencing.

We sat down to a turkey dinner, indistinguishable from Thanksgiving except for the additions of Waldorf salad and Stollen. My grandfather sprinkled Tabasco on lots of dishes including mashed potatoes, a practice I picked up, but only when the chef was looking the other way.
After dinner, the men retreated to the living room and cigars. All five of them, plus nine-year-old me, wore white shirts, ties, and slacks.  The vinyl-covered chairs and sofas came from Community Discount World, including my favorite, the vibrating, reclining easy chair. Even in the all-male setting, there wouldn’t be a swear word spoken, presumably because of me.
These guys all knew guns. My grandfather, a bit too old for World War II, was a skeet shooter.  Most of the others had served in the Army in the 1950s.
“Three shots in seven seconds.”  Uncle Nick extended his left arm, put his head against his shoulder, and closed one eye.
“Bang.” He turned the imaginary weapon fifteen degrees to the right. “Bang.” He turned again. “Bang. I don’t think Oswald could have done it. That’s a tough shot from that distance.”
My Dad, who as a corporal had taught recruits to shoot, closed one eye and tried it with his own  imaginary rifle. “I don’t think it would be that hard.”
No one expressed regrets—some of them hated Kennedy, and in any case those men wouldn’t voice a weak emotion like sympathy in all-male company.
Nick thought it was the communists who did it. Oswald might have been one of the shooters, but there was somebody else on the grassy knoll.
Norman, my bodybuilder uncle, thought it was the CIA taking revenge on Kennedy for failing to support its ill-fated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Norman was a supporter of Fidel Castro. He was also the first person I knew who opposed the war in Vietnam, shocking to a child who had never heard anything except that the United States was always the good guy.
Dad told me Norman came home a few months in the Army on a “general discharge.” That didn’t mean anything to me. Years later, I figured out he was hinting Norman got kicked out because he was secretly gay.
I stayed quiet, though I was convinced Oswald was the lone killer, not part of any conspiracy. My parents didn’t like it when I argued with adults.
 Half a century later, I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and looked out the window toward the X painted in the street. Dad had been right--he could have made those shots easily. It confirmed my belief Oswald’s only assistance came from ludicrously inadequate security measures like the ones I’d witnessed a year earlier. Chicago was lucky the assassination hadn’t happened there.

The closest I can come to the way children and adults interacted in 1963 is a black-and-white TV show made that month, “The Judy Garland Christmas Special,” which I watch every December on YouTube.
Despite a dysfunctional family life, and addicted to painkillers, Judy manages to present the illusion of an ideal family as she invites viewers into a replica of her Hollywood living room.
She is joined on the sofa by her younger children, ten-year-old Lorna Luft, in a lace-trimmed dress, and eight-year-old Joey, in an over-the-top fur-trimmed smoking jacket with tie. Others begin arriving, including her teenage daughter Liza Minnelli and singer Jack Jones, who performs the wistful “Lollipops and Roses.”
Lorna (coming up to him): Excuse me, Mr. Jones.
Jack: Yes, Lorna.
Lorna: Would you please sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town?”
Jack: You know, actually it’s a children’s song.
Lorna (giggles):  I was hoping you’d say that.
Jack (smiling): Oh. So you’d like to sing.
Lorna sits on Jack’s knee. The polite little girl transforms into a miniature version of her mother, belting out the song confidently. At the finish, he congratulates her with a squeeze.

February 1964-- I came to school on Monday and everyone—even the teachers—was talking about the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” the night before, seen by a record 73 million viewers.
One boy, already growing his hair long, brought his acoustic guitar. As we waited at the entrance to get in out of the cold, he performed “Please Please Me,” laboriously arranging his fingers to make the chords.
It seemed everyone had watched, except me.  I didn’t even know it was happening, or even who the Beatles were.
We had only a small black-and-white television and were limited to 10 hours a week. I watched little besides news and sports, especially the Cubs.
Mother spoke beautifully, with no trace of the Chicago accent used by most of the “hunnerts” of people I knew. She played only classical music on the hi-fi. Her taste was ascetic, preferring chamber music, particularly Vivaldi, to symphonies or, God forbid, opera.  Despite an obvious lack of talent, I was forced to struggle through three years of violin lessons.
Sometimes other parents congratulated Mother on keeping us insulated from a shallow popular culture. Still, they didn’t do the same thing with their kids. I had only a vague notion I was missing something important.
In the months ahead, while many boys grew their hair to resemble the mop-top Beatles, I kept my crew cut. I never wore jeans to school, only button-down shirts and slacks. I didn’t make the jump to the ‘60s until they were two-thirds over.
Even in relatively liberal Highland Park, red-lining by the real estate industry and banks kept blacks from buying a home. A petition came around urging a Fair Housing law that would ban racial covenants. Mother signed.  Dad refused for some reason, probably property values. She was angry about that forever.
In December 1966, we left Highland Park, and its economic and social pressure my parents couldn’t quite keep up with, and moved to a rented 52-acre horse farm in an unincorporated area called Half Day (now part of Lincolnshire). The community was in transition from farmland to suburban. Some of my classmates were culturally rural, with thick Kentucky accents.
1967 was the worst year of my childhood. I was made fun of for my formal way of speaking, my dress slacks, my out-of-date crew cut. I got into a few fights. In those days, they didn’t suspend boys for fighting, they just broke it up and life moved on. If a kid got bullied, the solution was to get stronger and tougher.
The main compensation of the year was the Cubs. After being terrible for twenty years (an eternity to a thirteen-year-old), their young talent came together, posting a winning season and the prospect of better things to come.
In self-defense, I did 100 push ups a day, roughened my accent and grew bangs to the top of my eyes. My popularity improved after I hosted a party designed to prepare decorations for a pep rally, which spun out of control after some kids raided the liquor cabinet and couples started making out in the swimming pool control room. Dad was furious, but really, what other parents wouldn’t think of monitoring the party, or at least locking up the booze?
Over the next few years, we slowly moved toward the mainstream, never quite getting there. By the time my parents divorced, it was obvious whatever they’d been aiming for hadn’t been achieved.

The most distant famous memory belonged to the person documented as the oldest who ever lived, Jeanne Calment, who lived to 122. She became famous at age 113 when reporters visited Arles, France, to write about the 100th anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s yearlong stay.
Calment told reporters she remembered Van Gogh visiting her father’s shop to buy canvas. She recalled him as ugly, alcoholic, and a customer of prostitutes, an unexpected impression of the post-Impressionist. If Calment could still remember Van Gogh just before she died, that memory would have been 109 years old.
By coincidence, direct memory of  the Great San Francisco Earthquake also lasted 109 years. Ruth Newman was a four-year-old girl living on ranch in Healdsburg, 70 miles north of the city, on April 18, 1906. She recalled her grandmother being upset because they had just milked the cow and separated the cream, only for it to be shaken all over the floor. Newman died in 2015. 
Those two cases show it would have been possible—barely—for a particularly long-lived Cubs fan to have had memories of both 1908 and 2016, though it didn’t happen.
If we take 109 years as the limit of memory, and build in a five-year margin of safety, the Cubs should have until at least 2120 to win again and still have a fan who can remember the 2016 championship. Even for them, that should be doable.

Memory can be measured in ways other than years. Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory” contains the memorable line “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” For Nabokov, the crack revealed an astonishing amount of light.
The author takes readers to the vanished world of his youth, the aristocracy of pre-Revolutionary Russia, with tales of childhood pranks on sad middle-class tutors and governesses. He describes passing by a pretty peasant girl on his family estate who called him “the young master,” giving a sly indication he got an erection—a precursor, perhaps, of his most famous character, Lolita.
 Nabokov’s world disappeared with the Revolution, along with his family’s fortune and some of his relatives. He never returned to Russia, even though he could have done so as a U.S. citizen.
My grandmother Lena’s childhood world also vanished, though she sometimes went to the physical place. She had grown up without automobiles, electricity, indoor plumbing, or central heating. The absence of a furnace was particularly important—children got the sniffles all winter. The technological distance from her horse-and-buggy childhood to old age, with all those things plus television, atomic energy, jet and space travel, and the personal computer, seems far greater than the gap between my childhood and now.
The main distance from my childhood is social. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the pursuit of money, respectability and social conformity was supplanted by a do-your-own -thing attitude and a widespread sense of social justice. Money rushed back in the room with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, remounting its accustomed throne, where it remains today.  But respectability, high standards of dress, and children’s deference toward adults were left sputtering outside the door.

I got away from Chicago winters and my fighting parents at age eighteen and have long lived in the Bay Area. Still, my longest-lasting ambition was to see the Cubs win it all.
Most of the 2016 season, the Cubs had the best record in the National League, but that had also been the case in 1969, 1984, and 2002, and it hadn’t led to anything but heartbreak. Some people blamed a curse uttered by the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern after his pet goat was banned from Wrigley Field. More likely, it was dumb management that even in good years never acquired enough pitching to survive the grueling season.
Early in the decade, the Cubs brought in Theo Epstein, the executive who had broken the curse in Boston. He cold-heartedly tanked a couple of seasons, trading the best players to obtain younger talent still in the minors and all but admitting he was trying to finish last to get top draft choices.  One of those picks, third baseman Kris Bryant, blossomed into the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2016.
 By luck, the Cubs’ first opponents in the playoffs were the San Francisco Giants. Jacquie and I took the train to AT&T Park in Cubs gear.  People in our car were surprised we paid with fare cards designed for commuters, having assumed we were part of the army of traveling Cubs fans instead of locals who didn’t happen to share their allegiance to the Giants.
Baseball fans are highly superstitious. During the playoffs, if the Cubs won, I kept the same t-shirt on for the next game; if they lost, I’d finally throw it in the laundry.
 About the time the World Series began, I learned the family that owned the Cubs were major financial backers of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and I had a premonition  the Ricketts family would get both their wishes or neither.  I told myself I’d accept the tradeoff.
The World Series came down to a decisive seventh game. Tickets in Cleveland were going for $10,000. I was content to watch on TV in my “Just Once Before I Die” t-shirt, hoping the wish would be fulfilled that night and thinking I might have a fatal heart attack if it weren’t.
The game was long and tense. The Cubs took a 6-3 lead into the eighth but had to bring in overworked relief ace Aroldis Chapman, who was throwing well below his normal speed. He gave up a game-tying home run, an echo of past pitching collapses.
 The game went into the 10th inning. A shower moved in, causing a 20-minute delay that gave the Cubs time to regroup. They came out strong, retaking the lead on a double by my favorite player, Ben Zobrist. Final score, 8-7. Pure joy! I fielded congratulations from friends from all over.
Six days later, Trump won. I still feel guilty.
None of the ten adults around the 1963 Christmas table got to see the Cubs’ triumph. Mother had been the last survivor. She had gotten a cancer diagnosis early in the year, at age eighty-seven, and a few days later took her own life, not even waiting to hear a course of treatment. Late in her life, I could sense her disappointment her remarkable little man had grown into such a conventional middle-aged adult.
She had no interest in sports, but I suspect she would have cried for Aunt Tee.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Finding Out

The morning before I entered first grade--kindergarten had yet to reach small-town Indiana--my parents drove me to the county courthouse in Valparaiso. In a room with an impossibly high ceiling, the judge granted me a new last name to replace one I didn’t even know I had.
After court, we stopped at an ice cream parlor. As I gobbled a mocha chip sundae, my parents instructed me not to tell my little sister my mother had been married before, or that I was only her half-brother.  Instant glee! I had a secret to hold over her.
Except for that day, my parentage was never openly discussed. My mother, Lee, had been married to a silk-screen artist named Milan when I was conceived. We received child support from him for a few years, even though she had gotten remarried to Bill, the only Dad I knew. 
Still, as a teenager I realized my evolving looks were being scrutinized for a family game of “Who’s Your Daddy?” Unlike Milan, I didn’t look Serbian. Unlike Bill, I didn’t look Eastern European Jewish. Both of them had dark hair. I resembled my maternal uncles Bud and Norman —light-skinned, light-haired, with ancestry they called early American.
Vlae, Bill, Tempra, Lee, Christmas 1962

Bud, Dad, Norman, my Grandfather Lyle --When lapel pulling was the height of style 
Once a great-aunt on Dad’s side, visiting from Canada, remarked on my similarity with blond relatives she remembered from Ukraine. But Aunt Freda, a practical immigrant who had little use for my artistically minded Mother, couldn’t see any resemblance to their family.
I can’t say I wondered about it much, except for this: If Dad wasn’t my real father, was I still half-Jewish, or all Christian? Neither of my parents was religious, but they had relatives who were, and the two families were never invited over at the same time.
One night when I was a teenager, my father came home from a long day at his import crafts store. Mother was just back from a horseback ride. Dinner was not being prepared. A vodka martini or two later, the fight began. A hand-crafted Tonala serving dish, bought back from Mexico by my father, flew through the air and shattered against the wall.
“You know she was married before, right?” Dad yelled. “She doesn’t work and she doesn’t keep house either. She acted the same way with her first husband.”
My sister ran to her room, crying. The secret was out. A few years later, they divorced. Neither remarried.

In the 1990s, Dad retired to New Mexico. He had house built and furnished it with Mexican and Native American crafts. Mother visited him for extended periods in the winter. They liked to cross the border at Juarez, shop for hand-crafted furniture and decorations, and hit up Chihuahua Charlie’s for margaritas. They would return buzzed to Las Cruces, get into an argument, and retire to separate floors. She wanted to move in. He said no.
Dad, who had started smoking as a nine-year-old dead end kid, developed lung cancer. That summer, he finally brought up the unmentionable subject.
 Genetic testing was just becoming readily available. “I thought about getting the test and having you get one, but at this point it doesn’t make any difference.”
I agreed. Milan had rejected my inquiries when I was a young man, so screw him. Either way, I only had one Dad.
After Dad died, Mother moved into the house my sister and I had inherited.  She made it even more of a showpiece as well as a shrine to him.
In 2011, when she was eighty-two and I was fifty-seven, she poured my coffee into a Tonala mug on the deck overlooking the saw-toothed Organ Mountains.
“Vlae, I had the test done and I paid for one for you too.”
For the first time, she told me the story. During World War II, she, Bill, and Milan began working together at Chicago’s Polk Brothers electronics store. A love triangle developed.
At seventeen, she married Milan, a decade older. She didn’t love him but was taken by his Old World courtship and her desire to get out of the house of her autocratic father. Her mother cried.
Still, she never lost contact with Bill. When he returned from the Army, they picked up on their old affair. In July 1953, she packed up her bags and they hightailed it to a summer hotel in the Indiana Dunes.
I arrived the following Easter Sunday. The timing was such she didn’t know if Milan or Bill was my father. 
Now, she wanted an answer before she died. A company called 23AndMe promised to identify one’s ethnic heritage. I spit into a barcoded tube and mailed away the sample.
Three weeks later, I opened the envelope.
 “Forty-three percent Northwest European, forty-three percent Eastern European Jewish, fourteen percent other.” So Dad was my Dad. I fist-pumped “Yesss...”
What would have happened if we had known when I was growing up? Maybe he wouldn’t have been so distant. Maybe I would have felt Jewish instead of celebrating Christmas and ignoring religion the other 364 days.
I phoned Mother. She started to cry.
“I wish Bill could hear this,” she said. “It would have meant so much to him.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One Question Stays or Goes From 'Is You Is' To 'R U Mine'

Insecure guys in relationships ask a certain question.

For the Arctic Monkeys, it's "R U Mine?" a rock song released by the UK band in 2012 that became a gold record despite (or because) the fact the title was written in text-speak instead of English.
Not that it's the first time that question became a hit.

The U.K. punk band The Clash scored in 1982 with "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" which became the band's only No. 1 single a decade later. It still sounds good today. The lyric "Don't know which clothes even fit me" says all you need to know about that particular relationship. Next time, pick up your underwear, Joe.

In 1967, Paul Revere & The Raiders, an American band with the British Invasion sound, scored with "Him Or Me" -- What's it gonna be?

Long before that, bandleader Louis Jordan topped the "race charts" in the 1940s with a raucous sound that helped pave the way for '50s rock-and-roll (which, unfortunately, ended Jordan's time at the top). His slang-slinging hits include the raucous "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" from 1944, which reached the top three on the R&B, pop and country charts, a rare triple for anyone, especially a black artist at the time.

One can imagine that if Jordan's girlfriend was an English teacher, just the title of that song would be enough to produce a curt "I am NOT."

This is a pretty universal sentiment, the dude asking the intentions of the girl, usually with a rival lurking in the shadows.

I don't know of any songs where a woman asks that specific question--Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" wants to know something subtly different.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A constitutional amendment for a Trump administration

Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech raised the chilling thought of a furious Donald Trump in the Oval Office at 3 a.m.: "A man you can bait with a Tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."

Ever since the night before Richard Nixon resigned, when the idea that the depressed, heavy-drinking president would pull something crazy did not seem farfetched even to his defense secretary, I've wondered about our system of launching nukes, which is so dependent on one person.

Under the National Command Authority, the president has sole authority to order a strike, but the secretary of defense has to confirm the order. This at least theoretically guards against a president who has lost his sanity. But if the defense secretary doesn't go along, the president can fire him and immediately replace him with the chief deputy, rather like Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" in which he ran through two attorney generals before he got to one who would fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

My proposed constitutional amendment would state: Except in direct response to an attack on the United States, its armed forces, or treaty allies, the president must receive the consent of Congress prior to initiating military action against a foreign power. 

This amendment would stop any president from launching most attacks, but allow for retaliatory strikes against, say, North Korea, when every minute would count. If a president did order a non-retaliatory strike, the defense secretary or the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have the duty to refuse to obey an unconstitutional order.

It would also strengthen the War Powers Resolution, which requires Congress to authorize military force within 48 hours of taking action but has been circumvented by presidents of both parties--including by President Obama in 2011 in Libya, an action defended in Congress by none other than Hillary Clinton.

This amendment would help keep our country out of wars no matter who was president--and if one particular person becomes president, it would let us get better sleep.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Brock Turner should have written this letter

Now that Brock Turner has become the despised symbol for campus sexual assault in America, the narrative has sprung up that he got a very light sentence because of his status as a privileged white male athlete.

That's true, but another powerful dynamic was at work in the courtroom--Turner's obvious softness.

Prosecutor Alaleh Kianerci was so worried about the jury sympathizing with the former Stanford student she felt it necessary to say as she began closing arguments, "There's an elephant in the room. It's hard to look at Brock Turner and not feel badly for him. Brock Turner may not look like a typical rapist, but he is the quintessential face of campus sexual assault."

The trial itself only attracted a few journalists from local media (I attended some of it and wrote a blog post, but unfortunately missed the sentencing due to my son's graduation). Yet since the sentencing, Turner has become nationally infamous, even more than the ex-Vanderbilt football players who gang-raped an unconscious woman

That's because Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky imposed only a six-month jail sentence along with three years probation.

                                      Brock Turner's mugshot. Even here, he looks soft.  

He'll likely serve only three months at Elmwood jail in Milpitas, with the standard 50 percent off for good behavior. Jail authorities have him in protective custody in a single cell. Given the obvious danger from much tougher fellow inmates, they could have faced another huge lawsuit if they put him in general population.

If Turner had wanted to avoid prison without relying on an overly sympathetic judge, he should have pleaded guilty, as the victim said she had expected, in her eloquent statement.

With two witnesses who didn't know either party testifying they had seen him humping a half-naked unconscious woman, it was obvious before and during the trial he was going to be convicted. Maybe his father and his lawyer were giving him bad advice, or maybe he just couldn't admit to his tearful mother he was, in fact, guilty.

Instead, he offered a weak defense about how the victim offered consent at every stage, recapitulated in his statement to the judge before sentencing.

Oh, come on. Besides the improbable whisper in her ear, his testimony was not believable because he failed to mention getting consent or her reactions when he was interviewed by police the morning after his arrest, after he'd had a few hours to sober up. Instead, he "remembered" it when testifying more than a year later.

Since the trial, the main narrative has been Turner was spared prison because he was a white, privileged Stanford athlete. That certainly didn't hurt, but as Stanford football fans know, it didn't save Eric Abrams, at the time the school's all-time leading scorer. And remember Ma'lik Richmond, the black teenager in the Steubenville rape case, was rightly punished less severely than Trent Mays, his white co-rapist and the bigger football star. (The pair committed the same act as Turner, except in Ohio it's called rape and in California that term is reserved for penile penetration. Thus, Turner avoids being legally branded a rapist because he wasn't in his home state.)

Another factor is that the judge is an ex-Stanford athlete who looks like an older version of Turner. Under the Donald Trump theory of judicial prejudice by ethnic association, should this have been enough for the prosecution to have him disqualified?

Still, I think the main reason the probation report and later the judge went easy on Turner has been largely unremarked upon. He came off as weak, a baby-faced 20-year-old who couldn't grow a beard, a person who would be preyed upon in state prison by much tougher inmates disposed to attack sex offenders.

His father was generally at his side outside the courtroom, often with his hand on the shoulder of Brock's omnipresent navy blazer. A woman friend from church in his hometown who testified as a character witness on his behalf embraced him and rubbed his shoulders in the hallway, both of them near tears. His entourage treated him as though he was facing cancer surgery and needed to be bucked up.

He wasn't some cocky football player, like Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey in the Vanderbilt case, who felt entitled to anything he wanted. In my opinion, it was just the opposite. He was a weak character led by peer pressure.

Turner wrote a BS statement to the court blaming a campus culture of alcohol and promiscuity, and saying he ran away not because the two hero Swedish students riding their bicycles stopped to yell at him but simply because he thought he was going to throw up. (At exactly that moment--what a coincidence!).

           Lake Lagunita's Scary Path, where the bicyclists were riding when they saw Turner. 

Based on both his statements and evidence presented at the trial, here's what he could have written to the court if he had been honest with everyone, including himself.

On January 17, 2015, I attended a party at Kappa Alpha house. I was really drunk. I had seven Rolling Rock beers and two swigs of Fireball. I was looking for an opportunity to hook up because that's what I've seen my friends on the swim team do at parties, and they encouraged me to do it too. Only they aren't as socially awkward as I am.

On the dance floor, I found this woman who was a graduate of another college and we started talking. I should have known she was drunk because she wasn't speaking too coherently, as that recording of her phone message for her boyfriend shows, but I didn't really think about that. I asked her if she wanted to go to my dorm room and she said Yes. I led her and somehow we ended up falling down on an incline near these trees behind a Dumpster. She didn't get up right away and I knew she probably couldn't walk as far as my dorm. I saw my chance and started kissing her and she seemed OK with it so then I took off her underwear and she didn't say No.

By then I knew she was drunk, because what sober woman wants to have sex with a college freshman she doesn't know while lying in public in the dirt and pine needles? I fingered her for awhile.  I didn't know I was getting dirt inside her. Then I got on top of her and started thrusting at her with my pants still on. I was trying to decide whether I could get away with taking my pants off in a public place when these two bicyclists came along and started yelling at me. I looked at her and realized she was unconscious and thought "Oh shit, Brock, you really f-- up now." I started running, but they chased me down and held me down till the cops arrived. 

After that, I made a statement to police, but it wasn't very good so I reimagined it for my testimony a year later so it would seem like she was very responsive and was giving me consent, and had an orgasm. 

I've had a lot of time to think about this. I admit I was acting like an animal. There's a lot of peer pressure for guys to get drunk and laid in college, especially for a guy like me who isn't socially adept and has a hard time meeting women. But I knew right from wrong, or else I wouldn't have run, so that's no excuse. 

To the victim, I apologize for all the pain I caused you. I read your victim impact statement and it was incredibly moving. I'm so sorry you're having problems getting your life back together. I'm a Christian and I've been praying you can have still have a great life. 

My life is basically wrecked with all the national publicity, the lifetime sex offender registration, the end of my swimming career and the fact no medical school will accept me. I apologize to my mother and hope you can stop crying eventually. It's not your fault. 

Your honor, please give me the lightest sentence you think is appropriate. The sooner I'm released the sooner I can go back to Ohio and live with my parents. My friends and family are in Dayton so they can help make sure I continue my college education, complete my sex offender management program and try to find a decent job in an industry that will hire convicted felons. 

I'll never drink again and I'll never sexually assault anybody. In fact, I'll tell any prospective sex partners about what happened and get their written consent before we have sex, because I need to be extra careful. 

To the victim, I promise not to set foot in Northern California after my sentence is over unless the probation officer orders me to, so you won't have to worry about seeing me again. Thank you. 

In his actual statement, Turner wrote: "I would make it my life's mission to show everyone that I can contribute and be a positive influence on society from these events that have transpired. I want no one, male or female, to have to experience the destructive consequences of making decisions while under the influence of alcohol... I want to let young people know, as I did not, that things can go from fun to ruined in just one evening."

He could start by facing up to the truth.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Brock Turner case: Heroes were needed sooner

                                                      'Scary Path' along Lake Lagunita 

Unlike most campus sex attackers, Brock Turner was caught because of alert, brave witnesses. The problem is, the heroes came too late.

The former Stanford swimmer, convicted Wednesday of three felony counts of sexual assault against an unconscious, intoxicated woman, faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The law allows lesser sentences, even probation since violence was not alleged, though it's hard to imagine that as the outcome when sentencing occurs June 2.

As a Stanford alumnus and sports fan, I was interested in the case and attended some of the trial, including closing arguments. My impression was that conviction on two of the counts--sexual penetration with a foreign object of an unconscious person and penetration of an intoxicated person--was all but certain, and I was somewhat surprised he hadn't taken a plea bargain. Maybe none was offered.

The third count, assault with intent to rape, didn't seem as clear, since Turner never took his pants off. Two counts alleging rape were dropped before trial. The jury deliberated for two days before convicting him of the remaining three.

His mom cried and stamped her feet when Deputy District Attorney Alaleh Kianerci asked that he sent to prison immediately, which the judge denied. The victim cried and smiled.

Turner, 20, who had Olympic dreams in freestyle and backstroke, came off at the trial as a mild-mannered, polite kid (he looks younger than his 20 years), not a cocky, entitled Jameis Winston type. A former girlfriend testified he was "extremely respectful."

But that's not what the evidence showed.

He attended a party at the Kappa Alpha fraternity along Lake Lagunita on January 18, 2015. He wasn't a member of the fraternity--Stanford freshmen live in dorms.

A group of young women showed up at the party. Only one was a Stanford student. Her friend brought along her older sister, a recent college graduate who had attended Gunn High School in Palo Alto. They had been drinking champagne and whiskey.

Turner, who had consumed seven beers and a couple swigs of whiskey, went up to the younger sister and kissed her with no warning, one of the women testified. He admitted he was out to hook up.

The woman who was a Stanford student got so drunk her friends, including the younger sister, left to take her back to her dorm, leaving the older sister alone slightly after midnight. Mistake. The victim has no memory of what happened, but we know from her cell records that she called her boyfriend on the East Coast and left an incoherent, rambling two-minute message.

Turner testified he asked the woman if she wanted to go back to his dorm, but once outside, they slipped and fell on a rough patch of ground--there were leaves and pine needles around--and they just started making out. He says he asked her at every step if she wanted to continue, and she said yes. So he rubbed her breasts and started fingering her sexually.

Next thing we know is about 1 a.m., when two Swedish graduate students cycled by on what's known as "Scary Path" because of its bumps and ruts.

They saw Turner thrusting his hips, dry humping a woman who was naked below the waist and appeared to be unconscious. One of them, Lars Peter Johnson, got off his bike, approached, and yelled at Turner "What the fuck do you think you're doing? She's unconscious."

Turner got up and ran. Johnson chased him down and held him on the ground while his friend Carl Arndt checked on the unconscious victim. Someone called 911. The police arrived and arrested Turner. They tested him and found DNA on his fingers that matched the victim.

The average person imprisoned for sexual penetration with a foreign object serves about 55 months, according to CDCR data. So Turner will still be a young man when he gets out of prison, but his life isn't likely to have a happy ending.

  • He was expelled from Stanford. He may be able to get a college degree, even while behind bars, but he won't be admitted to a medical school as he once dreamed.
  • He won't be an Olympic swimmer. USA Swimming bans sex offenders for life.
  • He won't be able to coach.
  • He faces lifetime registration as a sex offender. The only way to get out of it is to wait at least 10 years from the time he is released from custody, get a certificate of rehabilitation from a judge (requiring a lot of evidence) and have the governor pardon him. Even then, since he was convicted of multiple felonies, he'd need approval of the California Supreme Court.

Most likely, he'll go back to Dayton and live with his parents, who were extremely supportive during the trial.

A cursory reading of Ohio law indicates they may have to move, if they live within 1,000 feet of a school. Everyone in his neighborhood will know a sex offender lives there. Neighbors who know his parents probably will be supportive, but newcomers might not be.

Sex-offender registration is the scarlet letter of the 21st century.

Maybe his parents can set him up with some kind of job. Some woman might agree to marry him, but she'll know their children could be teased and hassled. He's a fool if he ever touches alcohol again.

Do I have any experience with his situation? A little. When I was at Stanford, many years ago, I remember a guy who talked a lot knocking on my door and telling me the girl in the room across the hall was totally drunk. I was studying and sober.

I went across the hall. Her door was unlocked. I lay next to her on a mattress and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled and said something to me, not coherently, and I realized I could probably do...whatever. I thought "this is wrong" and walked out.

I don't know what happened to her, but thinking back on it, I should have called an RA before the chatterbox gave the next guy the word.

We all know a lot of guys at many colleges could be found guilty of sexual assault too, except they weren't so drunkenly stupid as to take their victim near a bike path and be stopped by two grad students, whom Kianerci called "heroes."

But in many of those cases, there must have been witnesses at the party who could have stepped in before the man lured the woman to his room. They could have been heroes too.

 Some people say the solution is to teach boys, "don't rape." Definitely. But that's not totally going to solve the problem given the ubiquitous nature of alcohol and the hookup culture.

There were plenty of people around the KA party. Any one of them could have told the party organizers: "I saw this drunk guy go up to a girl (the victim's sister) and just randomly kiss her, you should get him out of here."  Or later, "Hey man, don't grab her hand and lead her away, she's drunk."

Parents and colleges should stress that every single person attending a campus party needs to take responsibility for watching out for everyone's welfare, especially people who are drunk. Keep women from being sexually assaulted and men from ruining their lives.