Monday, June 29, 2015

Addicted to Choice

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 2004. 

John Lennon illustration by 
Mike Lormand (1984)

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or life 'salright, 'salright”
 -- John Lennon

Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior: In a time of plenty, many Americans seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has unwittingly developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance. Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, the great facilitator of this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss: Come and get 'em! These limited-edition widgets come in five, I say five, designer colors.

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will. Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates. While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: 
Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.
Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another. Marcuse laughed at a man feeling free to choose between a new Ford or Chevrolet, then being chained to years of monthly payments. But Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. Still, his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us remains as valuable as ever. Propaganda works better than ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered: 
Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.
British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: 
Speech was given to man to prevent thought.
OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop and they shop. But from what I’ve seen, it's what couples do after their choice/commitment that has more to do with the success of the relationship than the perfection of the choice, itself. Of course, some just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. After all, in order to be able to surf 200 channels, as opposed to only 50 or 100, customers gladly pay extra, although many of them never watch any program in its entirety.

Much of television’s most popular programming feeds its audience a steady flow of information about people who act as if they have genuine clout -- rich celebrities who cavort about with enough bread to buy anything. Then, quite conveniently, every few minutes, commercials interrupt the program to offer the viewer/schlemiel a chance to unjitter their jones by calling a phone number, or getting online.

Anytime your options are limited to what’s on a menu that was put together by someone else, by choosing from that prepared list you are surrendering some control to the list-maker.

And, the mountain of disposable schmidgets grows, evermore, as choice addicts cast off yesterday’s tarnished urge, to grab after today's sparkling urge ... just to get through the night.

-- 30 --

Sunday, June 28, 2015

About Those Monuments


Today's Commentary section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch has an OpEd piece I penned about commemorations of the Confederate States of America.
Stemming from the sea change underway, just how many public commemorations of the Confederacy will be affected remains to be seen. For the time being, the focus is mostly on flags. Which makes some sense, because flags are graphic symbols of ideas and events. What about public schools and bridges named after Confederate heroes? The flags can easily be put in museums. Renaming a bridge might ruffle feathers, but it won’t be all that difficult. Bringing it all the way home, what to do about heroic sculpture in our midst that’s extremely offensive to a significant portion of the community is a problem not so easily solved in a lasting way.
Click here to read "Maybe we should wrap those monuments"

-- My photo (2007)


Monday, June 22, 2015

Body Snatchers


The day after a one-man lynch mob executed nine people in a Charleston church, Tidewater's E.W. Jackson appeared on cable television to offer his take on the shooter's motives. Without any evidence to support his contention, Jackson suggested the white shooter could have chosen his nine black victims largely because of their Christian beliefs.

That, rather than the skin color the victims had in common with the founders of the 199-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church -- a church considered to be sacred ground to millions of Americans who know and appreciate its history.  

Jackson told his Fox News audience, "a hostility toward Christians,” was a likely motive behind the bloodbath in Charleston. Then he went on to frame what appears to have been an act of domestic terrorism as part of a larger War on Christianity -- a fantasy war he and some other conservatives claim to believe is ongoing. In the doing, the lawyer-turned-preacher-turned-pundit changed the narrative. With the help of a Fox News panel of shills he crammed the tragedy in Charleston into a context of boilerplate right-wing talking points. To hell with respect for the dead.

In effect, Jackson virtually body-snatched the victims from the embrace of their grieving loved ones. On Thursday, Jackson might have stood alone. After all, in his hunger for face-time on TV he had jumped the gun. Evidence was pouring in that was already branding the shooter as an angry young man who seemed to have designed his bloody caper to imitate a Ku Klux Klan style of terrorism from yesteryear.

After Jackson's imprudent remarks, it would have been easy enough for smart Republican presidential candidates to say they didn't want to speculate about the motives behind such an act of barbarity. They could have concluded their brief comments by saying they would be praying for the grieving families. Over and out...

Yet, presidential hopefuls, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham, quickly chimed in to support Jackson's twisted theory. By Friday plenty of information had been presented by the churning media that bolstered the theory the shooter is a white supremacist.

Then Jeb Bush announced he wasn't quite sure if racism played a role. Later Rick Perry must have forgotten what he meant to say ... so he called the mass murder itself an "accident." Oops.

Given what has been reported since the shooter was captured and has reportedly confessed, there's just no good reason to blow off the evidence that paints him as an unrepentant racist. As far as what he was truly thinking at the precise time he was pulling the trigger, who can say?

Most importantly, other than to play a propaganda game, there was no reason for Jackson to say what he did. Furthermore, there was no honorable reason for anyone else to instantly agree with him.

Speaking of propaganda, after each episode of mass murder facilitated by firearms we've had  to endure another of the gun lobby's avalanches of denial. Mean-spirited stuff, sometimes.

For instance: The National Rifle Association's Charles Cotton said, “Eight of [Clementa Pickney's] church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue."

Like Jackson, Cotton seems perfectly willing to use the nine deaths for his own purposes. To help stave off the chorus of cries for better regulation of guns he knows is on the way, Cotton has become a body-snatcher, too.

The flaggers in South Carolina who see the tense aftermath of the massacre as just another time to dig in their heels and insist upon saluting the Stars and Bars, even as it waves over the coffins of fellow citizens whose futures were snuffed out by hate-driven violence, are body snatchers. 

In the next few days, we'll see how many Republicans will have found a way to walk back their foolish backing of Jackson's War on Christians theory. Some may have to go through some amusing contortions. Others may assume their constituents "get it," double-down, and go on insisting the victims were shot to death by an enemy of Christianity.

Nonetheless, please don't forget, this same E.W. Jackson was the 2013 Republican nominee for Lt. Governor in Virginia. Oops.

A lot of Republicans you may know worked to get Jackson elected less than two years ago. In the coming days, we'll see which of the commonwealth's Republican office holders are smart enough to decry Jackson's eagerness to travel the low-road. 

By the way, if the reader wonders why the shooter went unnamed in this piece, my policy is to avoid boosting the promotional campaigns of publicity-seeking murderers, regardless of their supposed motives. Since this is an opinion piece, not a news story, there's no obligation here to report his name.

The obligation here is to state an opinion and try to support it. Here it is in a nutshell:

The shameless E.W. Jackson – a man of the cloth? – should be rebuked for his willingness to become a Fox News tool, without regard for the pain it might inflict on innocent people. Opportunistic politicians who showed the poor judgment to publicly agree with Jackson should be shunned.

-- 30 --

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Public Schools Come Before Spectator Sports

Next year, to win my vote a mayoral candidate will have to be on record as being unconditionally opposed to building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. The same will go on my vote for a Second District representative on City Council. 

While my endorsement may not seem important to the people who are considering running for those offices, in working to oppose baseball in The Bottom I've talked with a lot of voters who will likely need the same sort of guarantee. And I know a few anti-Shockoe Stadium/Save The Diamond people whose endorsement could actually mean a lot to a candidate. 

My prediction is that the winner of the mayoral race in 2016 will be a candidate who says something like this -- "public schools come before spectator sports."

And, although I like baseball and I understand some of why the Richmond Flying Squirrels aren't happy with City Hall, it's easy for me to shrug off the threat they might leave town. First of all, I don't believe they will. Furthermore, I predict the owners of the team will be delighted if a new deal to refurbish The Diamond falls into place over the next couple of years.   

The Squirrels made a business decision to believe Mayor Dwight Jones could deliver on a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom. In choosing to believe the Jones team, the Squirrels decided to blow off the potential of the staunch opposition to baseball in The Bottom to organize and scuttle the mayor's plan. It has turned out to have been a bad choice. 

But if the Squirrels didn't understand the currents and undercurrents of the politics in Richmond, if they guessed wrong and bet on the wrong team, well, whose fault is that? 

Today, when it comes to the baseball stadium issue, Mayor Jones lacks the power to resolve the controversy. His credibility is in tatters. After a full year of stalling, it looks like Jones would rather run out the clock with double-talk than admit his Shockoe Stadium scheme is kaput. So, like it or not -- just like the rest of us -- the frustrated Squirrels are going to have to wait for next year's elections to bring in a new mayor, plus some new members on city council. 

A fresh start is the best any of us can hope for. Meanwhile, whether the Squirrels choose to stay in Richmond, or to hit the road, their spokespersons ought to stop blaming others for their own errors in judgment.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day


The movie business changed during the summer of 1975. A new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was established when “Jaws” opened in 465 theaters and became an box office smash.

Typically, in those days, major releases opened initially in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. Which meant the advertising buys were all local. The unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence. Its distributor, Universal, had to spend millions on national advertising and strike at least 465 prints of the film.

Before that summer was over “Jaws” had already broken all-time Hollywood box office records.

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that Universal chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way. Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown; it was run by the National Association of Theater Owners and seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

At this time I managed the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street in Richmond. My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the DeeCee screening room over the 12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place a few weeks before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities on the same night. As I remember it, in DeeCee the function was at the old Ontario.

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws.” My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house and the show itself went over like gangbusters. The rather jaded audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to put up a big cash-in-advance bid on “Jaws.”

Ordinarily, such a picture would play at the dominant theater chain’s flagship house. That summer I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to steal the picture by out-bidding Neighborhood Theatres for the Richmond market. I even convinced a neighborhood branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough.

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying seeing “Jaws” open on June 20, 1975, and go on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” everybody in Hollywood rushed out to try to duplicate the way the producers and distributors had handled it. Thus, in 1975, the age of Hollywood-produced summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make guys who were sometimes too self-absorbed, like me, feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I actually had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track.

Fast-forward to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Directors and other players from that time were interviewed. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining. I saw it on Turner Movie Classics in 2009.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater, because he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen.

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years.

Well, flashing back on my absurd jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked Spielberg’s age up; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I Googled around and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.
*   *   *

The Price of Free Speech

Note: This piece originally appeared in C-Ville Weekly in 2001.


Given that in Richmond the proper meaning of the words and deeds of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) is still hotly debated, the stately Lee Monument has been a lightning rod of sorts over the years, as well as a tourist attraction. On a pretty morning a few summers ago a curious commotion was underway about the statue's pedestal. About 25 adults were milling about purposely; some were propping large posters against the monument itself. Upon closer examination the posters proved to be pro-life propaganda. It was the same sort of designed-to-disgust material displayed relentlessly by demonstrators outside the Women's Clinic on the Boulevard for years.

So, why would anti-abortion activists be rallying in the shadow of a piece of heroic sculpture that fondly remembers a Confederate general mounted on his horse? Baffled, this scribbler's curiosity got the best of him.

To get a better look, I continued walking toward the proceedings. In response to my inquiry it was explained they were there to picket an “abortionist” with an office in the medical office building, just across the street. Well, OK... Then, with that mission accomplished, the group had opted to take some keepsake photographs, using the oldest of Monument Avenue's statues -- it was dedicated in 1890 -- as a backdrop.

Standing next to identical placards displaying a blown-up depiction of a bloody fetus -- at first it looked like an undercooked hamburger that had fallen off the grill -- they posed with easy smiles; it could have been a company picnic or a class reunion.

On a one-to-ten scale, in the Absurd Postmodern Juxtapositions category, this business was easily a nine. Old General Lee -- whose view on abortion is not widely known -- he did not flinch.

A year or two before this morning a group of a similar ilk had set itself up on the grassy, tree-lined median strip, a half-block to the east. On this occasion they were there to use the funeral of Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to suit their purpose. Along with a large contingent of the working press and dozens of uniformed police officers, they waited for the funeral underway to end.

Inside the church Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist delivered the eulogy, “...[Powell] was the very embodiment of judicial temperament; receptive to the ideas of his colleagues, fair to the parties to the case, but ultimately relying on his own seasoned judgment.”

Outside the church the eager TV crews had their cameras and microphones at the ready. The patient cops had their night sticks and side arms close at hand. The lathered up news-makers brandished their oozing fetus signs and posters citing Powell as a “murderer.”

When Powell’s family, friends and Supreme Court colleagues came outside, following the service, they had no choice but to notice the demonstration before them. Lenses zoomed in to focus on their stunned reactions.

As a longtime admirer of Lewis Powell, when I saw that one of the ranting pro-lifers was wearing a clerical collar, my curiosity got the best of me then, too. So I walked over to ask him something like -- was he really a man of the cloth, or was it just a shirt?

Taking umbrage, he fired back at me something about Powell having killed millions of babies. I had to assume he was referring to Powell’s role in the famous Roe vs. Wade decision. Asked what that had to do with forcing the dead judge’s family look at his gross placard, the sweaty zealot huffed and puffed. Instead of answering the question he repeated the same blustery charge against Powell.

There you have it -- free speech isn’t always pretty. In practice, the first amendment means we all have to take turns putting up with people who seem twisted, even mean, to us.

It’s difficult to imagine the demonstrators at Powell’s funeral changed any minds on the abortion issue by creating such a disturbing sight in the middle of the street. No, I’d say they were chiefly interested in venting their collective spleen and dealing out some payback. They weren’t there to persuade. They were there to punish and strike fear in the hearts of anyone who dares to rub them the wrong way.

Still, in our optimistic and open society, we are supposed to be obliged to allow for such venting. Let’s not forget that popular speech has never needed much protection at any time in history.

OK, that’s the price of free speech. Pose however you like next to the statue of old General Lee, astride Traveler. Wear funny costumes and bring props, if you like. Short of what might constitute an assault, it’s your right. Lee won’t flinch, even if I do.

-- 30 --
-- My words and photo.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

With 1968 in the Rear-View Mirror


Note: After years of hibernation this story was rewritten in 2012. The illustration was done originally for Richmond.com in 1999. 

*
Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story I got. At the time I was in the Navy and I had little doubt we would rescue the Pueblo’s crew, even if it meant another war.

Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought the USA's Super Power status meant such things could not happen.

Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.

Mar. 16: Some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. However, it would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.

Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”

Apr. 4: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary.

In Richmond, it ended an era. Young adventurous whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized. No more Sahara Club for me.

May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France, itself, was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.

May 24: On the same day I was discharged from the Navy, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got sentenced to six years for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident where duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.

June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory. 

June 5: Having just won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night. It’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy's death meant the gravy train being enjoyed by big corporations supplying the war effort would continue to chug along.

June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime and Ray's role linger today.

July 1: By an act of the General Assembly which was signed by Gov. Mills Godwin, Virginia Commonwealth University was established by a merger that seemed awkward at the time. The School of the Arts the new university inherited from RPI was already the largest professional art school in the country. The Medical College of Virginia was showing the world how to do heart transplants.

July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). Looking at the long line to get into the concert, I was quite surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows.

The acid I took that day served me well.

Aug. 20: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.

Aug. 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets, CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched on the convention floor.

Watching the riots surrounding the Democratic convention on television, I began wondering if those who were saying our society was coming unglued might be right. Consequently, for the first time my political ideas were aired out in a newspaper, when my letter to the editor was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That experience began a love affair with seeing my name in print.

Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.

Nov. 5: Richard Nixon (depicted above) narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey, himself, was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy. It cost Humphrey dearly.

Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.

Dec. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.

Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. The U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher, for the entire painful fiasco. Mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.

*

Note: With 1968 in the rear-view mirror, the general public’s perception of the antiwar movement’s protests as being unpatriotic kaleidoscoped into something else. The Doves began to prevail in the propaganda struggle. Over 1969, the Hawks' picture of how a victory in Vietnam would look steadily faded into a blur ... yet, the bloody war went on, anyway.


All rights reserved by the author.
  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

They're Ba-a-ck: Right to Bear Arms in Carytown

Last summer I responded to a news story about guys marching around in Carytown with rifles. I wrote "A Stunt Without a Cause" and posted it on this blog. Well, it seems the summer-like weather we're enjoying in Richmond has the Right to Bear Arms Richmond crew back in the business of trying to draw attention to itself.

RVA Magazine has the story: 
Reggie Bowels, one of The Right to Bare Arms Richmond's founding members, said Memorial Day marked the one year anniversary for the group which made national headlines for their demonstrations in Richmond's busy local shopping district. 
Click here to read the rest of the story.

And, since my thinking about what this monkey business is all about hasn't changed since last summer, here's what I wrote about this group's craving for publicity on July 5, 2014:
A Stunt Without a Cause

Like a good political cartoon, a political stunt can sometimes drive a point home much better than an essay or a speech. However, to be good at cartoon-drawing, speech-making, or essay-writing it takes a certain amount of finesse and practice. Whereas, a stunt might be pulled off by anybody with the imagination and the nerve.
For instance, there was the Independence Day incident that had reporters with notepads and cameras following two young men carrying eye-catching firearms around in a busy shopping district in Richmond known as Carytown. Before that story is examined more closely, to provide context, here's a little history:
The Boston Tea Party, which was perpetrated 241 years ago, is one of history’s most famous political stunts. To protest England’s notorious Tea Act of 1773, the self-named Sons of Liberty dressed up like Indians, boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and flung a bunch of tea overboard. It clearly sent the bold Sons' sentiments about “taxation without representation” across the pond to the King of England.
Fast-forwarding to the 1960s, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, which featured Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, received extensive live television coverage that amplified the message of the gathering. Some 250,000 attendees made this pivotal event the largest demonstration anyone had ever seen in the nation’s capital.
Less than three weeks later, in Birmingham, Alabama, a church that had been central to the Civil Rights Movement was bombed; four black girls were killed in the blast. The dynamite was planted by message-sending members of the Ku Klux Klan, white men who wanted to inject a nightmare into the fray.
As different as they were, both of those events in 1963 were political stunts. The antiwar demonstrations that occurred in DeeCee and on college campuses later in the same decade were also designed to express a bitter disapproval of the escalating war in Vietnam in a way that delivered that message to all the world, in general, and policy-makers, in particular.
It was in this era the television industry became entwined with the authors of political stunts in a fashion that has facilitated the promulgation of all sorts of messages ever since. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11’s hijackings/explosions have underlined how cold-blooded message-senders can be, once they cross the line to become terrorists.
Of course, for all sorts of reasons most stunts don’t end up reaching wide audiences. Modern society has grown accustomed to them. Many simply fizzle, or they don’t manage to send a clear message to anybody -- at least not a message than stands out more than the galling look-at-ME factor. Which brings us to back to the unfolding “open carry” story in Carytown, a story that had been brewing for a while leading up to a July 5th article written by Jim Nolan for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
More than 300 people were invited on Facebook to walk down Cary Street on July Fourth with handguns, rifles and other so-called “long guns” proudly displayed. Two showed up — and they were the organizers of the midday event in the family-oriented Carytown shopping district.
Click here to read the entire article.
Once again, context is important. Two or three guys carrying rifles across the parking lot of a suburban gun store won’t get much notice. Two or three guys walking by the Byrd Theatre with rifles might make some film buffs think of the 2012 shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado: 12 killed; 70 injured. And, speaking of Colorado, school children might flash on the dozen students shot to death in Columbine in 1999.
Since there’s no practical reason to have a rifle at hand, to leisurely stroll by shops, it had to make bystanders who saw the reporters and guys with rifles wonder what was going on. While Virginia’s laws would seem to allow for an open-carrying stunt in Carytown, some observers had to wonder if the right to own, carry and use a rifle gives anyone permission to provoke fear on a city sidewalk.
Context.
If the wee parades through Carytown keep up -- with loaded or unloaded rifles, how does anyone know which? -- eventually, dear reader, you know there will be some sort of problem. A child will get scared. A dog will lunge. Or some paranoid having a bad day will...
As for the expectations of business owners in Carytown to make a living, aren't they being trampled over? So maybe the trouble on the public sidewalk will come from an angry merchant confronting the perpetrators of the stunt with a question: weirdo Ayn Rand-ism aside, how far can the rights of an individual be stretched, at the expense of the rest of humanity?
Back to context: Unless they had seen some of the publicity the Carytown Riflemen had garnered leading up to the holiday stunt, how would anyone on the street's sidewalks have known in time to make a difference that they were witnessing a what was meant to be a harmless stunt?
Speaking of messages, from here on, what chance is there a shooter with a growing yen to shoot will hear the call to join the open-carry brigade? In the future, how will anyone know the guys with rifles in Carytown aren’t terrorists without a cause?

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Music, Movies & Magic



At Hardywood Park on Sunday, May 17, 2015, between noon and 6 p.m. the Bijou Film Center will present a springtime frolic -- "Music, Movies & Magic." The afternoon's variety show will offer live performances by three bands. Short comedy films will be shown between sets by the bands.

Admission to this benefit event will be free. The beer will be cold. For this occasion the nonprofit Bijou will receive a small percentage of Hardywood's take in beer sales. Stay thirsty.

Live Music by: 
  • The Red Hot Lava Men are a surf-rock band that formed in 1997. They play righteous covers of classic surf guitar instrumentals from the late-'50s/early-'60s. Personnel: Mark Golden; John Gotschalk; Doyle Hull; Greg Weatherford.   
  • The Happy Lucky Combo originated 10 years ago as a trio of local street musicians. Barry Bless, Pippin Barnett and Dave Yohe will be performing what STYLE Weekly's Chris Bopst says is, "timeless vaudevillian musical comedy." 
  • Avers: Serendipitously, members of various bands with projects aplenty fell together a couple of years ago. Now Avers is seen as a noticeably talented six-piece rock band with a psychedelic flavor. Avers just knocked 'em dead at the South by Southwest Music festival (SXSW) in Austin. Tyler Williams, James Mason, James Lloyd Hodges, Alexandra Spalding, Adrian Olsen and Charlie Glenn are Avers. 
Classic silent films by breakthrough movie-making geniuses Charlie Chaplin  and Buster Keaton will be screened. Early on, Chaplin saw the making of films as akin to magic. Consequently, much like a magician he went to great lengths to keep his tricks/special effects a secret. Speaking of magicians, John Smallie, who is a familiar busker in Carytown, will also be working the room. Plus some raffles will be held; prizes will be awarded. 

Yes, admission is free but opportunities to contribute to the establishment of the Bijou Film Center will be easy to find at the event on May 17th. It promises to be a splendid party.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Living in the Moment


Note: On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced on television that he had authorized the invasion of Cambodia. This escalation outraged the burgeoning anti-war movement. On May 4 four students were shot to death during a demonstration on the Kent State campus. They were: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheue and William Schroeder. Five days later I drove to Washington, D.C. Two friends rode the 100 miles with me in my 1956 baby blue Cadillac. We wanted to be there to protest the specter of the government waging war on students. Other than that, we had no plan. The photos accompanying this piece were taken with my then-new Ricoh 35mm single lens reflex.   

*

May 9, 1970: As the crowd was being funneled into the grassy ellipse south of the White House, the designated demonstration area, the morning’s temperature had already risen into the mid-90s. The blistering heat added to the growing sense in the air that anything could happen.

The White House grounds and Lafayette Park were surrounded by D.C. Transit System buses, parked snugly end-to-end. Cops in riot gear were stationed inside the bus-wall perimeter every few yards.

 

Estimates ranged widely but most reports characterized the size of the crowd at well over 100,000. In those days crowd-estimators frequently let their politics color their numbers, so there may have been 200,000 there. Home-made signs were everywhere, including a sprinkling of placards that denounced the mostly young war protesters. Before the program of speakers and singers began, the distinctive smell of burning marijuana gave the gathering a rock ‘n’ roll festival feel.

Unlike the other large anti-war demonstrations of that era, which were planned well in advance, this time it all fell together spontaneously. Many of who were there had never before marched in protest or support of war, or anything else. Nonetheless, they had felt moved to drop whatever they were doing, to set out for Washington, D.C. — to live in the moment.

As a convoy of olive drab military vehicles drove into the park area many in the crowd booed. When it turned out the uniformed troops were bringing in bottled water for the thirsty, the booing stopped. Dehydration was a problem that cloudless day.


After the last speaker’s presentation, thousands of citizens marched out of the park area into the streets, to stretch a line of humanity all the way around the wall of buses. The idea in the air was that whether he liked it or not, the commander-in-chief hiding inside the White House, would at least hear the crowd’s anti-war chants.

The demonstration flowed north, then west, from one block to the next. Long lenses peered down from the roofs of those distinctively squat D.C. buildings. Fully-equipped soldiers could be seen in doorways, awaiting further orders. Many of them must have been afraid they might be ordered to fire upon their fellow Americans.

Hippies who had been wading in a fountain to cool off scaled a statue to get a better look. A few minutes later a cheer went up because a determined kid had managed to get on top of a bus to wave a Viet Cong flag triumphantly. When the cops hauled the flag-waver off a commotion ensued. Soon the scent of tear gas spiced the air...


The next day I was back in Richmond for yet another gathering of my generation. Staged in Monroe Park, Cool-Aid Sunday featured live music. Information booths and displays were set up by the Fan Free Clinic, Jewish Family Services, Rubicon (a dry-out clinic for drug-users), the local Voter Registrar’s office and Planned Parenthood.

Although it was not a political rally to protest anything, the crowd assembled in Monroe Park, while much smaller, was rather similar in its overall look to the one the day before in Washington. As I remember it, there were no reports about anyone being seriously injured at Saturday’s tense anti-war demonstration. Then, ironically, Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr. -- a 17-year-old boy -- was killed on Sunday in the park in Richmond, when a four-tier cast iron fountain he had scaled suddenly toppled.

The photograph of Donivan falling to his death that ran on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the next day, May 11, 1970, is one I’ll never forget.

No doubt, the convergence of strong feelings from the extraordinary week that had preceded Cool-Aid Sunday had worked to set the scene. Shortly before Donivan fell, I remember seeing him on the fountain, seemingly caught up in much the same spirit as the hippies climbing on statues the day before.

Without that week’s unique momentum Donivan may not have felt quite so moved to demonstrate his conquest of that old fountain. Witnesses said he was rocking it back and forth, just before it crumbled.

The way that Sunday afternoon’s be-in ended with tragedy was burned into the memory of hundreds of young people who had gathered outdoors, to celebrate being alive and free to pursue their happiness peacefully.

In those days the USA was becoming ever more bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. Every night on the televised news the death counts were announced -- numbers appeared next to little flags on the screen that represented the armed forces at war. In the spring of 1970 living in the moment had the potential to kill off the young and unlucky, wherever they were.

*

"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming ... Four dead in Ohio"

Thursday, April 09, 2015

April 14, 1973: Discover the Fan

Thirty-eight years ago an ad hoc group of 21 merchants in the VCU area cooperated for a one-time-only promotion that went over quite well -- Discover the Fan. Alas, none of the participating businesses are still there and open for business.


Click on Rebus' nose to enlarge the art.

On April 14, 1973 the weather was absolutely spectacular. For that Saturday afternoon the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street, and environs, were packed with an unprecedented amount of foot traffic. There was live music. Hundreds of helium-filled balloons and free prizes donated by the merchants were given away. The street was not closed and the vehicular traffic was slowed to a crawl all day.

Motorists traveling toward the West End were shown something rather unexpected, given the neighborhood's bohemian image. (Grace Street was a busy one-way street heading west in those days.) There were thousands of ordinary-looking people milling about having a good time. Many of them seemed like tourists. Kids with balloons were everywhere. Suddenly that strip known for its hippies and beer halls looked safe as milk.

The handbill above was done by yours truly. With its list of participating businesses it provides a snapshot of the area in what was probably the zenith of the hippie age. Some of the characters who ran those businesses were rather interesting people.

At the time I had been the manager of the Biograph Theatre for a little over a year and the promotion itself was my project. Many people helped put it together, but it couldn't have happened without the help of Dave DeWitt and Chuck Wrenn.

Below is a piece about this event, written by the late Shelley Rolfe:
Shelley Rolfe’s
By the Way
Richmond Times-Dispatch (April, 16, 1973)

It was breakfast time and the high command for Discover the Fan Day had, with proper regard for the inner man, moved its final planning meeting from the Biograph Theater to Lum’s Restaurant. Breakfast tastes ran a gamut. Eggs with beer. Eggs with orange juice. H-hour -- the operations plan had set it for noon -- was less than three hours away. Neither beer nor orange juice was being gulped nervously.

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph and the extravaganza’s impresario, was reciting a last-minute, mental things-to-do list. There was the vigilante committee, which would gather up the beer and soft drink cans and bottles that invariably infest the fronts of the shops in the 800 and 900 blocks of W. Grace St., focus area of the discovery.

The city police had promised a dragnet to sweep away the winos who also invariably litter the neighborhood. The day had bloomed crisp and sunny, the first dry Saturday since Groundhog Day. “I knew it wouldn’t rain,” Rea said with the brash confidence of the young. “Lots of young businessmen around here,” a beer drinker at another table said. The free enterprise system lives.

REA WAS assigning duties for the committee that would rope off two Virginia Commonwealth University parking lots that would serve as the setting for a fashion show and band concert. The committee to blow up balloons, with the aid of a cylinder of helium [sic]. One thousand balloons in a shrieking variety of colors. “If we only get 500 kids... two to a customer,” Rea said cheerfully.

“I need more people,” said the balloon task force leader.

Twenty-one businesses were involved in the project. Each of them had contributed prizes, and gift certificates had been put into plastic Easter eggs. An egg hunt would be part of the day, and Rea had a message for the committee that would be tucking the eggs away: “Don’t put them in obvious places, but don’t put them were people can get hurt looking for them.”

“We talked about doing this last summer but we never got it together,” Rea said. There had been fresh talk in late February, early March, and it had become airborne. The 21 businesses had anted up $1,500 for advertising, which was handled by Dave DeWitt, proprietor of a new just-out-of-the-Fan, small, idea-oriented agency.

“Demographically, we were aiming for people between 25 and 34,” Rea said. There had been newspaper advertising and spots on youth-oriented radio stations. “We had a surplus late in the week...” Rea said. The decision was made to have a Saturday morning splurge on radio station WRVA. “Hey,” said a late arrival, “I heard Alden Aaroe talking about it.”

“We wanted people to see what we have here,” Rea said. “People who probably close their windows and lock their doors when they drive on Grace Street and want to get through here a quickly as possible.”

Well, yes, there must be those who look upon the 800 and 900 blocks as symbolic of the counterculture, as territory alien to their visions of West End and suburban existence. Last November the precinct serving the 800 and 900 blocks went for George McGovern, by two votes. Not a landslide, but, perhaps, a trend.

NOON WAS approaching. Rea and DeWitt set out on an inspection tour. Parking lot ropes were being put into place. Rock music blared from exotically named shops. The balloon committee was still short on manpower. An agent trotted out of a shop to report, “They’ve got 200 customers ...” And how many would they normally have at this hour of a Saturday” “They wouldn’t be open,” Rea said.

Grace Street was becoming clogged with cars It would become more clogged. Don’t know how many drivers got out of their cars, but, for a while they were a captive audience making at least vicarious discovery.

Also much pedestrian and bicycle on the sidewalks. Merchants talked of espying strangers, of all ages. A white-haired woman held a prize egg in one hand, a balloon in the other. A middle-aged man had rakishly attached a balloon to the bill of his cap.

The fashion show went on to the accompaniment of semijazz music and popping balloons, most of them held by children. Fashions were subdued. A dress evocative of the 1840s. Long skirts. Loudest applause went to a man who paraded across the stage wearing a loud red backpack. Everybody’s urge to escape?

ON GRACE STREET a sword swallower and human pin cushion was on exhibition. No names please. “My mother ...” he said. He wished to be identified only as a member of “Bunkie Brothers Medicine Show.”

Discounted merchandise on sale included 20-yesr-old British Army greatcoats and a book fetchingly titled “Sensuous Massage.” Sales resistance remained firm.

On Harrison Street a sidewalk artist was creating. A wino, who had somehow escaped the dragnet, lurched across the sidewalk art muttering. “Free balloons ...” In a shop a man said, “I want the skimpiest halter you have ... for my wife.”

On an alley paralleling Grace Street, a man holding a hand camera and early on a VCU class assignment was directing actors. One stationed in a huge trash bin. “Waiting for Godot” revisited? The second, carrying a an umbrella in one hand, popcorn in another, approached the bin. A hand darted out for popcorn. “I ran out of film!” screamed the director.

Everything was being done again. The actor in the bin emerged, seized the umbrella and ran. “Chase him,” from the direct. Actor No. 2 did a Keystone Kop-style double take, jumped and ran. A small crowd that had gathered applauded.

LATE IN the day. Traffic still was at a saturation level. Early settlers said the territory hadn’t seen such suggestion since the movie, “Deep Throat.” Rea spoke of objectives smashingly achieved. Euphoric talk from him on another day of discovery in September. City Hall would be petitioned to block off Grace Street.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Radio Re-creation of Baseball Games

Photo of Frank Soden from the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

The job I left behind to become manager of the Biograph Theatre was in radio. Lee Jackoway, a veteran radio and television ad salesman who was the general manager at WRNL AM/FM, hired me to sell time for the two stations. That opportunity gave me the chance to learn a great deal about advertising; the job lasted a little less than a year (in 1971). At the time I had dreams of starting a magazine and making documentary films. Working in radio/advertising seemed like a step in the right direction.

By learning to write commercials, I also got my first taste of professional writing at WRNL. Learned a bit about production, as well. Some of my efforts at writing and producing commercials were aimed at being funny. I got my permission for that approach from Stan Freberg, a comedian, songwriter, adman I never met.

Jackoway, who could be a tyrant one minute and a standup comedian the next, took me under his wing and gave me a bunch of big accounts. That was partly because he liked me. And it was partly to piss off the senior salesman who Lee wanted to drive off. I also learned some good lessons about promotion in general from media buyers and account executives at local ad agencies.  

Jackoway sometimes liked to hold court, telling the young DJs and salesmen stories of his freewheeling days as a top salesman for Ziv Television. He had been a national sales rep for popular half-hour TV shows, such as "Sea Hunt" and "Home Run Derby." Traveling to markets large and small, Lee sold the rights to the shows to local affiliates. In the trunk of his Thunderbird he carried 16mm reels and a projector with him for presentations. He would go with the local salesman to call on his clients to line up sponsorship. Lee, who was truly a master salesman, died at the age of 78 in 2008.

During my stint at WRNL AM/FM the ownership changed from the Richmond News Leader to Rust Communications. Rust promptly changed the call letters for the FM station to WRXL.  

In 1971 WRNL AM carried lots of local sports -- the R-Braves games, college football, etc. A previous station manager there, broadcasting legend Frank Soden, who died at the age of 91 in 2010, was in and out of the station frequently. Among other things he was still the talent for much of the station‘s sports broadcasting.

Bob Gilmore also did some of that kind of work for WRNL, as well. Before coming to Richmond, Gilmore had been the play-by-play man for the Cincinnati Reds on radio. One of my fondest memories from these days played out on an afternoon that Soden and Gilmore were trading stories about their “re-creation” era. (Here's the link to a story about the legendary Harry Caray and re-creation.)

As a kid, I was fascinated with both radio and baseball. If I wasn't at the Richmond Virginians -- "V’s" for short -- games, I listened to them on the radio. But in the late-1950s, when they were on the road, the voices I had tuned in weren’t coming from press boxes in Rochester or Havana. They were in the WRNL studio, then in downtown Richmond, across Fourth Street from the Richmond Newspapers building.

In those days, for away games, Soden and his broadcast partner Frank Messer would get the bare details of the game in progress by way of Western Union, or sometimes over the telephone. Then, using canned sound effects, they would "re-create" the game as if they were watching it live. It was said this was done to save the money it would have cost to send the announcers on the road with the team.

According to Soden, a lot of time all he knew was that a batter got a single, struck out, or smacked a fly ball that an outfielder caught. Maybe not which outfielder. He might not have known what the pitch count was, etc. So, routinely, he would make it up. Sometimes the sender would leave out a play entirely. Again, that called for the announcer to improvise.

With a few other guys who worked at the station as their audience, Soden and Gilmore told several stories about how they covered for times when no info would come in for 20 minutes, or so, and other such calamities. They’d create a rain delay, an injury on the field, a bug in the umpire's eye, or whatever they needed to keep from breaking the spell and saying what was the truth -- that they had no idea what was going on.

By 1971 "re-creation" was a thing of the past. As I remember it, Gilmore said he was the last guy doing re-creation broadcasts in the major leagues, when he was with the Reds in the late 1950s. It was a rare treat hearing those radio yarns, whether they were true or not.

At the Biograph I used my radio background a great deal over the first couple of years. The success we enjoyed with midnight shows couldn't have happened without the many spots -- some of them supposedly funny -- that ran on WGOE-AM. Today I still listen to the radio regularly -- mostly public broadcasting, which I wish would be funny more often.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

The End of Havoc

Shaka Smart speaking his first words to the local press in 2009

Last night, at about 8:30 p.m. I got a sinking feeling when I read an update that said the 8 p.m. coach-and-team meeting had been postponed. No doubt, I wasn't the only VCU basketball fan to sense that it wasn't a good sign.

Before the evening was over the bad news broke -- Shaka is leaving! Adam Kilgore writes about Coach Smart's decision for the Washington Post in his piece, "Shaka Smart leaves VCU to coach Texas." 

Of course there were hoops fans in Richmond who had expected it. Some of them had also said Smart would leave in previous springs, because coaches generally take offers that mean a raise and a higher profile job. They said so when North Carolina State tried to hire him, and when UCLA tried, and when Marquette tried. Each time they were wrong. This time they were right.

Maybe the departing coach will bare his soul and tell us all the reasons he accepted the Texas offer. Is the job he's accepted in Austin really a better job than UCLA in Westwood?

Maybe. But I expect Smart will play his cards closer to his chest and not get into any of that. If I'm right he will likely say a whole lot of nice things about VCU and Richmond, then he'll mention the new challenge and providing for his family, etc. Maybe he will be so straightforward as to say something like, "It was the right time." 

My sense of it is that timing, one way or another, had plenty to do with his decision to leave. What about blame? Is it anybody's fault Smart decided to move to Austin, Texas?

If it is, if somebody said or did something here in Richmond that made Smart feel differently about working and living in the Fan District, my guess is we won't hear it from him. But that scenario does make some sense -- perhaps something happened recently that put it all in a new light.

That's just a possibility, like others, but if you simply want to blame somebody for running Shaka Smart off, maybe it should be the people who haven't let their lack of knowledge about college basketball stop them from writing mean comments under articles about VCU basketball after every loss. (It still amazes me how pissed off and mean-spirited commenters get online posting their thoughts about sports, politics, etc.)

Examples of that sort of trash-talking are available for your perusal under Paul Woody's "Can't Blame Shaka Smart for Taking Texas Job," written for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Or, if you like, maybe you should blame the people who hate sports so much they squawk about it incessantly. Or, on another angle, you might rather blame those relentless locals who run down VCU every chance they get. That sort of useless blather might get less traction in Austin ... I don't know.

Still, rather than dwelling on any of that, my advice is to accentuate the positive. To hell with blame. Shaka's teams won at least 26 games in each of his six seasons at VCU. While accumulating an overall record of 163-56, there was never a hint of scandal associated with it. It is also worth noting that Shaka and his wife Maya have been noticeably good citizens and role models in their time in Richmond. And, they didn't live in a gated community in Goochland, either, the Smart family made the Fan District its home turf.  

Coach Smart talked about "havoc" in his earliest days at VCU. He brought the concept with him. Is Havoc, Smart's signature style of play on the court -- his "brand" at VCU -- portable? Will he pack it all up and start preaching the gospel of Havoc as soon as he gets to Austin?

Maybe, but I doubt it, because I don't think it really is portable. It could seem like a self-promotional gimmick if he tries to warm it over and sell it again. Havoc worked at VCU, in good part because he wasn't coaching a team made up entirely of blue chip recruits. At Texas he's going to be coaching some wannabe one-and-done guys who want to compile stats to warrant their first-round selection in the NBA draft. Some of them won't be as coachable as four-year players like Briante Weber and Treveon Graham were.

Last prediction: Smart won't talk about Havoc at Texas and the next VCU coach will be savvy enough to say the Rams will play hard, but he won't try to keep that slogan alive. It's  had its time and now those Havoc T-shirts will become collectors' items. Havoc was an era. It was fun while it lasted.

Moreover, Shaka Smart has been the best coach in VCU's history, but nobody should assume the Rams will suddenly drop off of the map. The university at the heart of Richmond has had its successful coaches hired away before.

By the way, if everybody stays the Rams have 10 guys returning and only one of them is a senior. We don't know if the recruits will stick, but they are highly regarded. My hope is that next spring somebody will be trying to hire the Rams head basketball coach away, again.

The best part of this story, at least for for me, is that I didn't wake up today with a hangover. After the bad news last night, I tried to drown my sorrows with Rolling Rocks at the Bamboo Café. Got away with it clean as a whistle.  

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: In an effort to be funny, in an off-beat way, I wrote this piece in 2000. The people quoted were told the scenario and given the freedom to write their own lines, in character. It was published by Richmond.com.  

*

Though cynical people like to say, “All cats are gray in the dark,” the difference between this and that counts with me. Thus, if for no other purpose than to satisfy my own curiosity, I set out to find the truth about Gus, the cat that had long presided over lower Carytown from his plush basket in a bookstore display window facing the street.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ohaIkmTZU_0/TYOKL0YuoAI/AAAAAAAAAxw/v5kt5utrTbc/s1600/gusstacywarner.jpg

The mystery began in the course of a casual conversation about re-makes of old movies. Film aficionado Ted Salins, a regular among the society of conversationalists who gather at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Coffee & Co., tossed out that the cat living next door in Carytown Books is not the “original” Gus.

Since I’ve known Salins, a writer/filmmaker/house-painter, for a long time, I suspected his charge was a setup for a weak joke. To give him room to operate I asked, “So, this Gus is an impostor?”

“Just like Lassie, several cats have played the role of Gus over the years,” Salins said matter-of-factly.

Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Gus, someone else’s cat, had slowly become important to me over the years. In the past I’ve been told that he’s over 15, maybe pushing 20. Who can say what that is in cat years? He still has a few teeth left.

“You see, in ‘91 I had lost my beloved Skinkywinkydinky in a separation,” Salins went on, as if revealing a dark conspiracy. “When I first saw Gus, I took to him because he reminded me of Skinky. That Gus wouldn't let you touch him. But, this Gus…”

“Ted, this is absolutely the most off-the-wall nonsense you’ve come up with yet,” I accused.

“The place has changed hands a few times since then,” Salins smugly offered. “The problem is each owner falls in love with the cat and keeps it. But since Gus has become an institution in Carytown, each set of new owners has to find another cat that looks like Gus. The switch is made at night in order to preserve the secret. I’ve seen it.”

Before I could say “horsefeathers,” another member of the Carytown intelligentsia, who had just walked up, spoke: “Salins, as usual you’re all wet,” said artist Jay Bohannan. “That is not only the same cat, but Gus is, let’s see, yes, he’s nearly 70. That particular cat is probably the oldest cat this side of the island of Lamu.”

I laughed at Bohannan’s crack and excused myself from the table to let them hash it out. The two of them have been arguing good-naturedly since their VCU art school days in the early ‘70s.

Walking toward my car, Ted’s suggestion of a fraud having been perpetrated on the public bothered me. I felt certain that if somebody had actually installed a faux Gus in the bookstore it would have been all over the street the next day. As I tried to imagine people spiriting nearly identical cats in and out of the back door, in the dead of night, the matter wouldn’t rest.

So I turned around and went into Carytown Books. The shop’s manager, Kelly Justice, who has worked there for six years under three editions of ownership, scoffed at Salins’ charge.

“Anyone who knows Ted, knows he’s a nitwit,” said Ms. Justice with a wry smile. “More likely than not, this is an attempt to raise funds for another one of his documentaries.”

When I told her about Bohannan’s equally outrageous suggestion that Gus was almost a septuagenarian, Justice laughed out loud. “Perhaps Jay and Ted are both trying to hitch their wagons to Gus’ star,” she suggested playfully.

Back outside, Salins and Bohannan were both gone. So I walked east on the block to Bygones, the collectable clothing and memorabilia store known for its artful window displays. Since Maynee Cayton, the shop’s proprietor, is an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, I decided to see what she knew about Gus.

Cayton, who has been at that location for 16 years, said she had some pictures of the block from the ’30s and ‘40s, but she didn’t think she had any shots of a bookstore cat. However, she did remember that when she was a child she saw a gray and white cat in the window of what was then the Beacon Bookstore.

“It was in the late ’60s, I think it was 1967,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And I’d say it was a young cat. Either way, I can’t believe the feline impersonator story, so maybe it was Gus.”

The next day, Bohannan called on the phone to tell me he had something I needed to see right away. He was mysterious about it and wouldn’t explain what he was talking about, except to say that it was proof of his claim about Gus the Cat.

Unable to let it go, I told him I’d stop by his place to see what proof he had.

Bohannan’s apartment, located between Carytown and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was an escape from the modern world altogether. It’s furnished in a pleasant mix of practical artifacts and curiosities from yesteryear. The heavy black telephone on his desk was almost as old as Jay. Next to the desk was a turn-of-the-century gramophone. Bohannan, himself, dressed like a character who just stepped out of a Depression-era RKO film, reached into a dog-eared manila folder and pulled out a photograph. When I asked him where he had gotten the picture, purportedly from about 1930, he shrugged.

In such a setting, his evidence of Gus’ longevity took on an eerie authenticity. Sitting in one of Bohannan’s ancient oak chairs, surrounded by his own paintings of scenes from Virginia’s past, I thought I could see the cat he claimed was depicted in the storefront’s window. Why, it even looked like Gus.

Jay told me I could keep the photo, it was just a Xerox copy. What a scoop!

Later, when I looked at the grainy picture at home, I could hardly even see a cat. The next day, back in Carytown, I spoke with several people who hang out or work in the neighborhood. A few actually thought Bohannan’s bizarre contention could be true. Others agreed with Salins.

One man, who refused to be quoted with attribution, said he was sure the original Gus was an orange cat. A woman looked up from her crossword puzzle to note that Bohannan's evidence was at least as good as what she'd seen on the Loch Ness Monster.

Then the whole group of chatty know-it-alls went off on the general topic of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. At the next table a woman in a straw hat started sketching the sidewalk scene.

A few days later, I saw Ted Salins holding court in front of the coffee shop. I told him what Kelly had said about his claim and I showed him Jay’s so-called proof that Gus is ancient.

“The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays," Ted said mockingly. "Look, it’s not the same cat. Live with it. This Gus is a ringer, maybe three years old.”

Turning around, I looked through the storefront’s glass at good old Gus in his usual spot. He looked comfortable with a new electric heater under the blanket in his basket. It dawned on me that there was a time when Gus used to avoid me, as well. Now he seems happy for me to pet him, briefly.

Pulled back into the spell of the mystery, I wondered, had Gus changed or had I? Gus stared back at me and blinked. Like one of his favorite authors, J. D. Salinger, Gus wasn’t talking.

Gus was smiling as only a cat can; a smile that suggests equal parts of wisdom-of-the-ages and dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers. One obvious truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown quite accustomed to having a public.

*

Note: The photo of Gus was taken by Stacy Warner for Richmond.com. On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Right Brand of Treason?

On March 2, in his speech in the House of Representatives, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear he doesn't trust Iran's government. Although his remarks along those lines drew applause, some of Netanyahu's supporters in the room surely knew that nobody trusts the regime in Iran all that much, including America's President Barack Obama. 

Although I have no good reason to trust Iran's bosses, either, sometimes the more a person talks about trust the less I trust them. Hey, who trusts Netanyahu? 

And, dear reader, do you trust many American politicians, elected or wannabe -- donkey, elephant or off-brand -- to regularly put considerations for the commonweal over all other interests? My reason for asking is to set up this question: Does trust even matter all that much in 2015?

For a lot of people, it seems to have become much more important to agree with a politician's perceived "brand" than to trust that person to be fair and honest in their dealings. Furthermore, I'm saying that as a baby boomer/geezer, I remember a time when trustworthiness seemed to be more important than appears to be today. At least, I think I do... 

Oh well, eventually, I'll finish this piece about how "branding" in our culture has become more important than trust. But for today, I'll wind up with this two-part question connected to how to deal with Iran:

Did you buy it that the 47 Republican senators who wrote a letter to Iran, trying to scuttle the international negotiations about limiting that country's nuclear program, were motivated by good intentions? Or, put it this way -- because you trust in the persuasiveness of bombs, is a letter that nudges America toward war with Iran just the right brand of treason? 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

West Regional Preview

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is my favorite sports championship. When comparing it to baseball and football, in my view basketball is the best sport for a tournament format. The one-loss-and-go-home rule in college basketball's championships always seems to make a few players do things they probably didn't know they could do ... before they had to invent something to win and advance.  

While the highly-regarded teams usually win the last game of the NCAA's, along the way underdogs inevitably have their moments in the bright lights. Longtime VCU fans still talk about a game-winning shot by Rolando Lamb that beat Jim Calhoun's Northeastern team in the 1984 tournament. 

It's always fun to see a team that's won a lot of games in a supposedly weak conference prove to the fans who expect power conference members to have an advantage that some teams are just good at winning, no matter who they face. Only one squad will finish the whole shebang without a loss. 

The top two seeds of the West Regional, Wisconsin and Arizona, seem quite capable of going all the way, if you think anybody can beat Kentucky. The third seed, Baylor, is certainly good enough to reach the Sweet 16. The fourth seed, North Carolina, has the talent to play with anybody, but there's a softness about the Tar Heels collective team personality this season that I suspect will betray them.

Below I've listed the four teams I think are most likely to win the regional to appear in the Final Four; they are listed in my perception of the order of their likelihood. All four should win their first games. So, with my prejudice for VCU showing, I think the Fearsome Four schools in the West Regional are: 
  • #1 Wisconsin (31-3). Last five games: 5-0. RPI: 4. Conference: Big 10. Best wins: Oklahoma and Michigan St. at neutral sites. Worst losses: Duke at home and Rutgers on the road.
  • #2 Arizona (31-3). Last five games: 5-0. RPI: 5. Conference: Pac-12. Best wins: Gonzaga at home and Utah away. Worst losses: Oregon St. and UNLV both away.
  • #3 Baylor (24-9). Last five games: 3-2. RPI: 10. Conference: Big 12. Iowa St. and W. Va., both on the road. Worst losses: Kansas St on the road and Oklahoma St. at home.
  • #7 VCU (26-9). Last five games: 5-0. RPI: 15. Atlantic 10. Best wins: No. Iowa at home and Dayton at a neutral site. Worst losses: La Salle at home and St. Bonaventure away. 
The most likely Cinderellas to stage upsets in their first games are #12 Wofford (vs. #5 Arkansas) and #13 Harvard (vs. #4 UNC). Should I be right about VCU and wrong about UNC, it sure would be fun to see them play at the Elite Eight level, with the winner Final Four bound.