Monday, January 28, 2013

Deep, Deep, and Forever


As a child not much more than four or five-years-old, it obsessed me. Quite a bit of chuckling was heard among my family members when I would ask my mother the following question: “If I eat the house, will I die?” A literal question, but it wasn’t asked as literally as it sounded. I was mainly concerned about the possibility of accidentally eating a piece of chipped paint from the wall and dying of lead poisoning.

When I was five or so, I nearly did die when I was electrocuted in a bakery. Through the years, I’ve been depressed thinking about the inevitability of my own extinction, while at other times I've wished for it when bitterly disappointed with the course of my life. Life is a grim business. Once born, we are doomed to the grave, and we become aware of that truth early on. "How can we live," Kenneth Tynan asked, "knowing we must die?"

One way is to prepare for it. Unless you are a committed and contented atheist, one way is to get your ass right with God. Another way is to plan for the disposal of your remains.

On the Internet, I looked up various sites that had information about embalming. It convinces me that cremation is the way to go.

One site belonged to a funeral home. The dead body is cleansed with a disinfectant. Then embalming fluid is injected into a vein while the blood is drained through another vein at the same time. Cotton is stuffed in the back of the throat, into the nose, and up the ass (and, for women, in the vagina), the mouth is sewn or wired shut, and rigormortis is dealt with by massaging the corpse. Embalming is not required by law. It is performed to prevent the spread of disease, as well as to hinder decay to enable the viewing that funeral directors insist is an essential component of the grief process.

No mention was made at this site of how the organs are removed from the body. That may seem a bit too outrageous, but it is, I believe, a part of the process.

Whenever I ponder this awful stuff, I think, first and foremost, of a 12-year-old classmate whose life was claimed by pneumonia back in seventh grade. She was the first among my peers to die, and though she was hopefully unaware of how her body was being vandalized by a mortician, I still find it unnerving to think about. It was her sudden demise that really communicated the reality that death doesn't just happen to other people. It happens to everyone, and someday in the not too distant future it will happen to me.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Name Game

These days many parents want distinctive names for their children. “They don’t want their child to be a cookie cutter,” Linda Murray of BabyCenter told Time. As a result, you’re more likely to be introduced to a child named Jayden or Caitlin than Edward or Susan, and you’ll meet a Liam and Chloe before you run into a John or Mary. I wonder why parents aren’t naming their kids Seven, which George Costanza, the neurotic loser of TV's Seinfeld, was convinced had cache? Or Soda, the name he suggested to the expectant parents who upset him by deciding to name their kid Seven?

As Murray said, parents “want their kid to have a unique identity.”

That explains Apple, the name actress Gwyneth Paltrow gave to her daughter, and Lourdes, Madonna's kid.

I suspect that parents who choose unusual names for their children are as insecure as Seinfeld’s George, and regard their offspring as little more than extensions of their own egos. They are like the stage mother who failed in her dream of stardom and transfers her ambition to her daughter, or the father who wants his son to have the career in sports that he wanted for himself.

Too many of these names won’t remain distinctive in the long run. In the 1980s, dozens of TV characters were suddenly named Dylan, probably in imitation of the famous Bob who swiped the name from Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet. Some biographers of the former Mr. Zimmerman argue that the folk singer originally took the name “Dillen” in honor of the marshal played by James Arness on TV's Gunsmoke. Upon discovering Dylan Thomas, he changed the spelling because a writer who died of drink was hipper than a TV cowboy. It's a persuasive argument when you consider that the rock legend is a movie buff and western fan who appeared in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and honored the Gregory Peck western, The Gunfighter, in his 1986 song “Brownsville Girl.”

Regardless of where Bob Zimmerman received the inspiration for his stage name, it is no longer possible to enter a classroom without meeting assorted children, boys and girls alike, named Dylan. All the parents who chose the name believing it was distinctive or hip have discovered otherwise. Dylan is now as common and mundane a name as Bob.

If you're an expectant parent and you want to make your child or yourself feel special, you’re better off christening the kid Susan or Sam.

Or Soda.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Article first published as The Name Game on Blogcritics.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama's Public Inaugural

And so Barack H. Obama begins a second term as president of the United States.

All the pomp and ceremony missing from the private inaugural (the one that counts) on Sunday January 20 was present today as Obama placed his hand on a Bible and solemnly swore to uphold the Constitution, something his critics would argue he has not really done these past four years.

A black woman whose name I missed mentioned Jesus in her remarks; the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; Joe Biden took the oath of office for the vice presidency without any of the gaffes for which he is infamous; James Taylor strummed an acoustic guitar and offered a tasteful – and dull – rendition of “America the Beautiful”; and, finally, John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who fumbled when administering the oath four years ago, proved more competent today when swearing in our 44th president for a second term.

“America’s possibilities are endless,” Obama said, one of its strengths being “a gift for reinvention.”


It sounds like he read my book, Rediscovering America: Benjamin Franklin and the American Dream. He has two copies, sent on December 9, 2012, accompanied by a letter that read in part:

“I have always been intrigued by your claim that the United States was in need of ‘perfecting.’ You reiterated this belief on election night when you said, ‘the task of perfecting our union moves forward.’ Such ideas were on my mind fifteen years ago when I wrote the three essays that comprise my book, Rediscovering America, two copies of which I have enclosed as a gift for you and Mrs. Obama. It is a short read, but an enlightening one. The essays - "America and the Perfectibility of Man," "James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son: Loving and Leaving America," and, particularly, "The Pattern American" - examine the beliefs upon which our country was founded and attempt to describe the common characteristics of its inhabitants. If Benjamin Franklin was, as author D.H. Lawrence believed, “the pattern American,” how has Franklin’s model for success inspired others, particularly those outside the mainstream like Baldwin, an African-American writer, and Scott Peck, a gay teenager?”

So, why didn’t he mention my name?


(Excuse the shameless plug.)

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Obama's Private Inaugural

Somewhere in Washington D.C., Barack Obama is being sworn in to a second term as president of the United States. The ceremony is taking place behind closed doors. This is a Sunday, after all, and a televised inaugural would have to compete with sports.

Tomorrow, our president will be sworn in again with cameras present. A parade will precede the ceremony and celebrations will follow, including a performance by Lady Gaga. The presence of the outrageous Gaga (at least outrageous to those born too late to have seen David Bowie at his peak) proves the point I made earlier about the recent Kennedy Center Honors at which Led Zeppelin took bows from a box they shared with the president and first lady. Everything is mainstream today. The only road is in the middle.

Can you imagine Elvis Presley performing at the second inaugural for President Eisenhower?

Bob Dylan performing for LBJ?

Bowie or, for that matter, Led Zeppelin performing for Jimmy Carter?

The Beach Boys sang for Reagan and Bush, but those were the Beach Boys, fun in the sun and all that.

Of course, I could be wrong about rock ‘n’ roll having become tame and respectable. It could be that our leaders are more radical and rebellious.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, January 11, 2013

Nature or Nurture?

On this, my 90th birthday (or so my aching bones suggest), I could think about the many things that went wrong in my life, but instead I'll be positive and think about what went wrong in the lives of others.

Nature or nurture?

Which defines a person's character?

Is it a little of both?

The question comes to mind after spending a couple of hours searching through the court docket at a county web site. Type in a name and you get the criminal history of county residents. So many of the people with whom I crossed paths in my youth, often as classmates in Catholic school, have criminal records, and a number of them have died of something other than natural causes.

Dennis D. (last name withheld to discourage lawsuits from survivors), the ferret-faced loser who tried to sell me some catnip for a dollar back in 1971 (claiming it was marijuana), spent several years in a "correctional facility" after two different drug busts. He was apparently selling drugs in the vicinity of a schoolyard when he was arrested in 1999. He was about to begin another period of incarceration when, on May 31, 2000, "the court being notified of the death of the defendant, and being satisfied of the truth thereof. . ."

Well, it's hard to prosecute a corpse, so Dennis, at age 43, left this earthly realm to face a more fearsome judge in the hereafter. The cause of death was not available but I assume drugs were involved there, too.

Mark M. was the younger brother of a kid who died in 1970 at age 16 after he caught fire while simultaneously smoking a cigarette and siphoning gas from a car. (Brains were not abundant in the “hood” of my youth.) On February 9, 1994, the kid brother, obviously having failed to learn from his older sibling’s mistakes, was facing charges of felonious assault. He, too, avoided time in a correctional facility when "the court being notified of the death of the defendant, and being satisfied of the truth thereof. . ."

Like Dennis D., Mark M. exited this world for one in which the judgment is truly final.

And there are others. . .

Billy H. went up in flames at age 27 in 1982, not long after he was released from a "correctional facility" where he had been sent after inserting a knife into someone’s gut. Upon his release, unemployed and without prospects, he moved into his parents’ garage. On a crisp October night, a fire broke out. The suspicion was that he was either asleep or simply too high to notice the fire, which probably resulted from the careless smoking of an illegal substance. There was a certain poetic justice in his fate. As a teenager, he was notorious for setting off fire alarms. Now, the fire department was notified too late to save him, and he died, of smoke inhalation, at a hospital less than a quarter of a mile from his home.

I became acquainted with Billy H. through John S. who acquired the nickname of Hardy due to his resemblance, in weight only, to Stan Laurel’s on-screen partner. I had known him since third grade when he followed me home from school and pestered me into a relationship that continued through high school. A classic “latch-key kid,” his mother worked and his father was a drunk. The father was also a bully, and John S. was a bully who later became a drunk. It’s as if he was handed a script at birth and followed it faithfully, having been too unimaginative to improvise.

“How come you're not a drunk like me?" he asked when I saw him for the last time two years before he reached his expiration date. "You lived the same way I did."

I never lived the way he did. My "best friend" never realized that when I reluctantly accompanied him in wandering the streets and, later, hung out at the playground where he had found a home and family with the thugs who loitered there, I was merely physically present, an observer in his life. A quiet, self-contained lad, I would have preferred to stay home and read, write, draw, watch movies, etc. I savored my solitude and needed no companion other than my imagination. True, I seemed to have lived the way he did. When in the company of the "friends" of my youth, I did as they did. I drank beer, I occasionally smoked dope, and listened to the music they favored (Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Hawkwind). But I only drank ONE beer, two at most, while my companions downed one after another and encouraged me to do the same.

"He sips his beer," John S. would point out.

"Gulp it!" he'd say before gulping his Colt 45 to demonstrate the technique.

But I didn't "gulp." I defiantly "sipped." Once I got home, I returned to my life which I shared with no one.

John S.’s fate was sealed from the beginning. When I learned he had been found dead at age 35 in a room in the house of a friend (for which he could never pay rent), I was neither surprised nor saddened. I remembered how, following the death of a 12-year-old girl in seventh grade, he would chuckle as he lowered his head in mock solemnity when passing her house. When I once expressed the wish to be cremated when I died, he sneered and asked, “Who’d want your ashes?” Now he was cremated, his ashes dumped, per his request, on the playground that represented his only true home. His death also went unnoticed since no one bothered to pay the fee for a newspaper death notice. What a man sows, surely he shall reap. John S. sowed nothing but misery, and he met a miserable end.

I know little about the home lives of the others who met premature and unnatural ends, but, like me, they all came from working class families and were raised in the foreboding shadow of the Catholic Church. Lord knows I’m far from perfect, but I’ve never been arrested, I’m not a drunk, and I find nothing amusing about the death of a child. Oh, and I’m still alive, if not that lively.



A little of both?

Are some people just born assholes?

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Elvis Is Everywhere

Elvis Presley would have turned 78-years-old this Tuesday, January 8. I can’t forget the King on his birthday even if he isn’t around to celebrate. Here, from 2002, is my tribute to a man who truly changed the world:

“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

John Lennon's frequently quoted tribute to the King of Rock and Roll is an exaggeration. Before Elvis, there was the girl, name unknown, who won first prize in the talent program at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945. Ten-year-old Elvis Aaron Presley won second place singing 'Old Shep,' a heartbreaker about a boy's love for his doomed dog. Years later, with characteristic modesty, Elvis would remember finishing fifth or even seventh in the contest, but no matter. He won the competition that counts.

Today, you can visit any record store and search the bins in vain for even one recording by the first place winner. But, as a song by Mojo Nixon declares, Elvis is everywhere.

For his performance at the fair, Elvis won five dollars and a free ticket to all the rides. With stardom, the five dollars multiplied into millions, and Elvis still had a ticket to all the rides, including the chemical kind that most reports indicate were in his system on the afternoon of August 16, 1977 when his lifeless body was found at Graceland, his estate in Memphis, Tennessee.

There are those who maintain that drugs were not a factor in his death, that the original autopsy citing an irregular heartbeat was correct. But the conflicting reports about the cause of his death are just another part of the mystique of the man for whom even the word "superstar" always seemed inadequate.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, and some fans remain convinced he did not die at all, but fabricated his demise to escape the burdens of fame. Silly as these true believers often seem, you can't blame them. In a sense, Elvis is more alive than ever.

Although none of his 33 movies earned Oscar nominations, three of 1994's Best Picture nominees (Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Quiz Show) refer to him, as have too many movies and TV shows to count. There are songs about him and enough books examining his legend to stock a special Elvis section in a large bookstore or library. Greeting cards bear his likeness, as do collector plates, and virtually any product that has room for his portrait.

He's been officially recognized by the United States Postal Service with a stamp in his honor, and his gaudy estate earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places several decades earlier than the rules allow, simply because its place in history is a foregone conclusion. Even the announcement made at the end of his concerts – “Elvis has left the building” - has taken on a new life. It's an exclamation point now, a way to describe an exciting moment, such as the winning touchdown in a football game.

The Beatles idolized him, as did former U.S. president Bill Clinton. It could be argued that the wavy-haired Clinton might not have been elected to the Oval Office if not for the social revolution that Elvis started in the Fifties. Before Elvis, the 20th century's presidents were old and often bald. “(Elvis) introduced the beat to everything,” said Leonard Bernstein. That included hairstyles. Presley paved the way for Clinton's presidential pompadour.

His unrivaled popularity, even in death, is proof that talent and charisma are more important to stardom than marketing or management. Elvis had the worst manager of them all in the form of Colonel Tom Parker, a con man to whom many give undue credit for Presley’s success. But Parker latched on to Presley only after the star had conquered the South in ways unseen since the Civil War. Parker rode Presley’s coattails to glory while creating hurdles that his client had to overcome. The long string of mindless movies that wasted the star’s talent for almost a decade were Parker’s idea. And if Parker had his way, the 1968 TV special that rescued Elvis from Hollywood’s manipulative and destructive claws would have been a cozy, mild-mannered hour of Christmas carols rather than the dynamic showcase for Elvis’s talents that it became.

Nor did RCA Victor, the record company that bought his contract from Sun Records, provide him with much support. The label treated its biggest star as little more than a steady source of predictable profits. Knowing his records would always sell a minimum number of copies, the company rarely gave his albums and singles the promotional push that would have increased his existing fan base. Until his death, his RCA contract required him to crank out three albums a year at a time when major artists were considered prolific if they released only one in the same time period. With Presley product flooding the market, it’s little wonder that after 1972’s “Burning Love,” his singles consistently failed to crack the top ten and his albums stalled below the half million mark needed for gold certification.

But if his management and record company let him down, his voice never did. Bob Dylan compared the experience of hearing Elvis for the first time to "busting out of jail." No one led more jailbreaks than the sharecropper's son from Tupelo, Mississippi. "It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody's ear, " Bruce Springsteen said, "and somehow we all dreamed it." And down at the end of lonely streets all over the world, late at night in rooms illuminated only by the glow of the radio dial, he's still whispering that dream, inspiring more broken-hearted lovers to bust out of jail. The dream may only last a moment, but its memory can live a lifetime and beyond. Twenty-five years after Elvis left the building for a final time, his voice still echoes, and so does the dream it carried.

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2002 Brian W. Fairbanks


Previous posts on Elvis:
Remembering Elvis
Elvis Remembered
August 16, 1977