“Alien: Isolation” And The Art Of Dying

Alien-Isolation-6 Fear is holding me back.

Most people can say this, but I’m at a crossroads in my life where it’s more apparent than it’s ever been. I’ve always been fearful. There’s a pit in the middle of my soul that has always been a ball of  solid, concentrated fear. I remember going through a sheaf of papers in grade school and finding a progress report from pre-school: “Talks often about monsters getting him. Is often fearful.” I was scared of the dark, of bugs and moths. I was scared of the vacuum cleaner and the blender. At parades, I would go to great lengths to avoid clowns (well, some fears are justified).

I’ve had modest success as a musician and writer, but I’m stuck at both. I need to break through a wall of fear that has surrounded me.  Every selfish decision I’ve made in the last two decades of my life, every alcoholic drink I’ve ever taken, every time I’ve ever eaten until I was almost sick, every weird OCD habit creeping into my life (as I write this, I’m looking obsessively at the screen of my new laptop, looking for scratches) is there because of fear. One of the first things anybody ever says about any great artist, from Miles Davis to Bruce Lee, is that they were fearless. I’m not a great artist.

I have a book in print, which is something that most of the human population will never be able to say, but it’s sitting squarely somewhere around the 5-million mark on Amazon because I’m afraid to promote it. I’ve said for a long time that I believe that writers have to face rejection in a way no other artist in any other medium has to. Stephen King talks at length about the trunkful of rejection letters he received before he started getting acceptance letters, and the oft-told legend is that his wife rescued Carrie from his garbage can.

And, what is fear of rejection if not fear of death? In his book Beyond and Back, Ralph Wilkerson states-correctly-that every single fear we have is ultimately rooted in the fear of death, and if the fear of death can be conquered, the other fears vanish as well.

I have a videogame that I’m literally scared to play. As a huge fan of the Alien franchise, I saw reviews for Alien: Isolation and of course, wanted to play it. In fact, I broke one of my rules and paid full price for it instead of waiting for “Greatest Hits” status and a substantial discount.

The game is marvelous, immersive. The plot, in a nutshell, involves Ripley’s daughter Amanda (mentioned during a sub-plot in the director’s cut of Aliens) and a ship, the Torrens, identical to the Nostromo. The game’s design nails the 21st-century-meets-1970s aesthetic of the original, along with the amazing sound design (watching the Alien director’s cut through a good sound system is a religious experience).

I’m not a huge gamer, but I’ve faithfully played every Resident Evil installment and the first three Silent Hills, along with various others. Getting killed in Resident Evil has never been pleasant, but it’s never kept me from playing the game, either:

This has happened to me countless times over the last fifteen years: I just shake it off and come back for more. But, not this time.

Some people might live in fear of zombies, ghosts or serial killers, but I don’t. For me, the last word in terror has always been H.R. Giger’s ubiquitous xenomorph. It’s always been disturbing to me in a way that guys in hockey masks will never be. Beautiful and deadly, a perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility. Eight feet long (well, Bodaji Boladejo, the actor in the costume-yes, it’s a guy in a suit-is technically 7’2) but endowed with cat-like grace…by the time you see it, it’s usually too late.

It’s the only movie monster I’ve ever had recurring dreams about. In these dreams, it never kills me-sometimes I never even feel like it’s hunting. It’s an enigma that stalks for its own reasons and on its own timetable. But, it’s like a time bomb that could go off at any moment. Quite simply, it has a mythology inside my head that no other creation like it has.

Two nights ago, I did an experiment that I’ll most likely do again tonight. The best suggestion I’ve seen for “Isolation” was; just simply let the monster kill you a number of times. Get used to being killed by the beast until you’re completely desensitized to it. I think there’s a real parallel there in regard to making friends with, accepting and even welcoming failure as a stepping-stone on the path to eventual success (or peace with said failure).

So, I fired up the Xbox with the express purpose of dying. And, believe it or not, it was incredibly difficult. I was in the medical wing (like in the video below), and watched it fall out of the ceiling vent. I forced myself to walk toward it instead of running away (incredibly difficult, even in a cartoon), let it see me and it was over.

I was going to let it kill me several times, but during my one deliberate failure, I found the door with the security code that let me in. If I hadn’t failed on purpose, I wouldn’t have found the door that let me continue. And, it did finally snatch me out of a storage locker, but I imagine I’ll get a little farther tonight:

I’ll die some more tonight, and maybe while I do, it’ll give me some clues on how to keep on living.

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“Left Behind” And The End Of Christianity

"Woe to you, o Earth and Sea, because this movie isn't very good"

“Woe to you, o Earth and Sea, because this movie isn’t very good”


So, Nicolas Cage, LoLo Jones, Jordin Sparks, a Muslim and an angry midget are on an airplane…

Sounds like the setup to a joke, but happens in the 2014 movie version of  Left Behind, based on the bestselling series by Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

A brief foreword: I was raised a Presbyterian and have been in churches my entire life. I read the entire Bible when I was in college. There are aspects to the faith (and its practitioners) that I’m not in love with, but I’m not anti-religion or anti-Christian.

So, on to the movie:

Nicolas Cage plays Rayford Steele, a womanizing pilot. Now, I would never condone adultery, but his wife (played by an unrecognizable Lea Thompson) is a humorless evangelist just this side of Carrie White’s  mother. I’d say the movie’s first failure as a recruitment tool is that every overtly “Christian” character either disappears or is a grinding, obnoxious nag.

He’s chastised by his daughter for never being home; his daughter is obsessed with The Big Problem of how a kind and loving God can allow suffering in the world. Well, her questions are about to be not answered, because she’s at the mall hugging her winsome little brother (who looks about twenty years younger than her) when all of a sudden she’s hugging an empty set of clothes. Screams echo throughout the mall as little piles of clothes end up where all the children and some adults were.

Up in the air, Nicolas Coppola/Steele/Cage and his stewardess/squeeze are the only members of the flight crew left, and half the plane is gone. On Earth, all Hell is breaking loose as planes drop from the sky and driverless cars crash everywhere: it seems that Nic Cage is the only non-Christian pilot flying the friendly skies. His daughter, Chloe (I had to look it up, just like I had to look up the name of every other character, because the character development-shocker-sucks) dodges crash after crash, smashing her way through windows and glass doors so flimsy that you wonder how they got installed in the first place. I mean, I knew a guy in junior high who punched through a car window when he was drunk and literally broke every bone in his arm, but I’m supposed to believe Nic Cage’s girly daughter doesn’t see broken glass as an obstacle.

Rayford Steele’s plane has a minor collision with another plane, which was apparently staffed by better people than his because the cockpit is empty, and in between whining “mayday,” he goes through the missing flight attendant’s purse and finds a Bible and an appointment book full of bible-study appointments and figures out (with the help of a kooky passenger-again, for a Christian-produced movie, every portrayal of a Christian is either a kook or a humorless crank) that the Rapture has occurred. Of course, Nic Steele’s been married to a Christian presumably for decades, but never once heard of the Rapture, although he’s probably ignored his wife all this time anyway.

His daughter Chloe is making her way across whatever the hell town they’re in, hearing story after story and seeing that all the children are gone. It’s great that the children are all in Heaven, but boy, God sure ripped a lot of babies out of a lot of mothers’ arms. She finds her childhood church and the pastor’s inside. She’s figured out by now what’s been going on, and is surprised to see him, because you’d think a pastor would have made the final cut. He explains that “the words were on his lips, but he didn’t believe enough.” Oops.

Back on the plane, there’s all kinds of manufactured tension to try to lure me into caring about these people. There’s back-and-forth between an angry dwarf and a Muslim-y guy (they never actually identify him as a Muslim, but he’s wearing a little hat). I guess his name’s Hassid. I had to look it up because, again, I don’t care about these people. There’s also a fun senile old couple. Rayford Cage is in the cockpit with the dashing journalist, trying to figure it all out. Also, it becomes obvious pretty early on that the movie’s writers know nothing about aircraft or aviation and couldn’t be bothered to find out.

"Mission Control and aviation and um...stuff about flying."

“Mission Control and aviation and um…stuff about flying.”

There’s an angry dwarf. He’s clearly angry at God for making him “different,” and I don’t know if the coming tribulation is going to make him less angry. Jordin Sparks is the ex-wife of an NFL player who accuses her husband of masterminding an elaborate plot to kidnap his daughter back by drugging her and swearing the rest of the plane to silence. Of course,his daughter’s been raptured away (again, it seems that a Kind And Loving God could have made His point without ripping another child out of the arms of her parents, but who am I to ask?) She also sings the slow-jam gospel song over the end credits, again making me question whether the movie’s producers actually listened to the music cues before they pasted them into the movie.

There’s a Muslim on the airplane, but no overtly gay people. On the ground, Chloe Steele doesn’t encounter any gay people either, which means legions of well-meaning bigots were wrong and they got raptured away, or that LaHaye and Jenkins were so repulsed by the phenomenon of homosexuality that they couldn’t even envision an apocalypse where gay people are eaten by radioactive scorpions, or whatever’s supposed to happen.

"We couldn't find a gay person who was angry at God."

“We couldn’t find a gay person who was angry at God.”

Early on, the movie shows promise as a camp classic, but takes itself so seriously that the sheer weight of its self-insistence turns what could have been a fun Airport-meets-World War Z-mashup into a dreadful, proselytizing bore. The initial dialogue is terse and clipped (“hey, if we stick to single sentences and one-word answers, they won’t know they’re watching a ‘Christian’ movie!”) but when the sermons come, they have all the nuance and subtle poetry of a Jehovah’s Witness camped out on your porch when you’re late for work. And, there’s no mention of why God is doing this, or what the end reward is for not just simply sticking a gun in your mouth to avoid the radioactive scorpions.

There’s a scene where Chloe Steele is at the top of an electrical tower ready to ‘end it all’. I’m not sure why-maybe it’s the sojourn through the maternity ward full of empty cribs, or maybe it’s the shock of learning her pastor wasn’t any more prepared for Heaven than she was, or maybe it’s the God-awful white-bread country-spiritual music playing, but she gets a sat-phone call from the dashing journalist and her father and somehow clears a path for the plane to land-the movie’s camp status is somewhat redeemed when we learn she’s not only an expert motorcycle rider but also knows how to operate heavy machinery.

Nicolas Rayford Steele Cage lands the plane and there’s a moment of subtle hilarity when the senile old lady says to her equally senile husband, “Honey, wake up, we’ve landed.” The movie ends with the same cliche’ ending used in every apocalyptic thriller from The Thing to every Resident Evil installment: the group standing by the wreckage, looking out onto Armageddon. The bad news is that this is the beginning of the end of the God-engineered collapse of human-society…the good news is that Rayford Coppola is free to bang away with his stewardess girlfriend, since of course, his Margaret White-ish wife has been raptured away, the only remnant being her earrings in the shower drain.

Then the Jordin Sparks slow jam starts, along with a Bible verse, which I think is Matthew 24:36 (“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only) but like everything else, the movie screws that up, too.

I guess this mess is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.

I guess this face is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.

I guess this face is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.


At the beginning of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, he relates the account of a husband and wife in his synagogue whose college-aged daughter drops dead of a brain aneurism. The husband, stricken beyond belief, tells Kushner, “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.”

“Who,” muses Kushner, “taught these people to believe in a God who would strike a promising young woman dead for someone else’s ritual infraction?”

What follows is an examination of the dichotomy between the patient, loving, kind God most of us were taught to believe in, and the wrathful Old Testament deity Kushner dubs the “monster-god.” It’s no mistake that, since the birth of film, the movie most credited for religious conversions has been The Exorcist. What does this say about us-as spiritual beings or as a species?

"I was #1 until that meddling Pope Francis came along!"

“I was #1 until that meddling Pope Francis came along!”

In no sense of the word can this be considered a “recruitment film.” More people probably joined the Army after watching Stripes than became Christians after viewing this dreck. Left Behind is such a failure in this regard that the only conclusion I can make is that it was never intended as such a tool in the first place. This movie was made to reinforce the worldview of people who not only believe the Rapture and Armageddon are coming, but are looking forward to it, and if given half the chance, would probably hasten the process. All I’m saying is…do you think anyone involved in writing or producing this movie looked in the mirror afterward and said “hey, a lot of planes fall from the sky in this movie…anybody else find that a tad ironic?”

One of my favorite novels has always been William Peter Blatty’s Legion (filmed as the credible but disappointing Exorcist III). The novel’s central character, the Jewish lieutenant William Kinderman, muses, “Why do I hear the words ‘love your enemies,’ and my heart sings?” To me, the concept of loving your enemies is central to the Christian faith, and yes, my heart sings when I hear those words as well. If the Left Behind book series says anything about loving your enemies, the filmmakers did a great job of leaving it off the celluloid.

God isn’t dying…the monster-god is, and personally I’ll rejoice when it’s done.


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So, on Monday evening while Baltimore was burning,  I had not one, but two encounters with South City’s finest.

Most people have strong opinions about police: they’re either pigs whose sole purpose is to protect private property (you might as well carry a gun, because they’re “under no legal responsibility to help you if you’re the victim of a crime”) or modern-day Wyatt Earps who are always right and the bad guys are always wrong (and if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about). My take is somewhere in between…in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need law enforcement, but we don’t live in a perfect world.

But, due to age and too much news, I have to microanalyze and attach almost cosmic significance to every mundane event in my life. But, in the words of an early-1990s made-up hip-hop version of The Monkees, sometimes things make you go hmmm.

So, Monday evening, I’m sitting in the lobby of the music store where I teach, waiting for my six-thirty student to arrive. The door opens, but it isn’t the kid…it’s his dad. And, I do a serious double-take because he’s dressed in full cop gear: Kevlar, gun, Batman belt, uniform, boots, the whole nine yards. I never knew before what he did for a living (some parents give me their life stories, and some of them I barely even meet), but yeah, the dad of my six-thirty-p.m. Monday student is clearly a police officer. And, he’s with another cop.

I don’t know this man well, but I’ve given his son lessons for two years. The son is soft-spoken, doesn’t smile a lot or make a lot of eye contact, but he’s in a garage band with his buddies and plays baseball and runs track. Listens to a lot of Avenged Sevenfold and Marilyn Manson. Whenever I get him to smile, really smile, or laugh, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.

The dad is equally soft-spoken. I know he has an eight-month-old son, and a couple months back when I made a critical billing error, he was cool about it and paid me for the back lessons even though I was ready to write it off as my own mistake. I’ve seen him enough-and seen him with his son-enough-to feel like I know him.

So, I give him my typical cop greeting: “I didn’t do it.” He and his partner laugh, even thought I’m sure they hear that all the time. He tells me his son is leaving track practice and will be along in a moment, and I tell him no worries, the slot after his son is vacant in case we need a few extra minutes.

Moments after they leave, his son comes in. I razz him: “Hey, these two cops were in here looking for you.” He winces and we get to work.

In some peculiar way, the fact that I knew this man before I learned he was a police officer made all the difference. If he pulled me over, or if I was involved in some kind of disturbance and he was called, would it make a difference in lowering the tension or defusing the situation? Probably. In a perfect world, would you know the police on your street outside of their jobs? Would a police force drawn from the community they’re charged with policing be less likely to overstep their boundaries? Almost certainly.

Lessons were done for the day; I was driving home in the cold foggy dusk when I see blue-and-red lights in my rear-view mirror. Great. I pull into the gas station where I was planning on gettting gas anyway and wait. I’m next to a pump and not sure which side I’m going to be approached on so I roll down both front windows. Two cops approach, one on the driver’s side, one on the passenger side.

The one on the driver’s side is younger; he informs me my headlight is out. The one on the passenger’s side literally looks like me: tall, fair complexion, shaved head. The tall bald one tells me the shorter one is in training.

He asks for my license, registration and insurance card. I start to reach for the glove box; then, remembering decades-old advice from my dad, announce “My registration and insurance are in the glove box.”

“No worries, sir,” the bald one says. I reach for the glove compartment and get the registration; of course, I don’t have a current insurance card. “That’s okay,” the trainee answers. “We’ll just borrow that for now.”

They go back to their car for what seems like an eternity. Why does it always take so long? I figure I’ll just get what’s known as a “fix-it ticket”…no fine or points, just send in proof that the problem is fixed.

While I’m sitting, another police SUV slinks by, and I make eye contact with the driver…and lo and behold, it’s the dad of my 6:30 p.m. student. His expression is unreadable, but then again, I’m not really in trouble.

I get a fix-it ticket…no points, no fine, just get it fixed. My two cops seem genuinely sorry to have bothered me. In fact, their treatment of me is so gingerly and deferential that it’s almost comical.

Before they leave, I have a question. “Is it just me, or is there more…activity tonight?”

We’re doing training,” the bald cop answers. I get gas and flash the peace sign to them while they drive away.

Maybe I’m overanalyzing, but what made the difference-in both situations-was that I knew the cops, that I looked like them, that they were clearly from my community and from the same demographic I was.

Am I naive enough to believe this is the norm?







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Death At The Movies

untitledBy the time they’re eighteen years old, the average American child will have witnessed 200,000 violent acts on TV, and 16,000 murders, and since I’m nothing if not average, I guess that applies to me as well. And, since I’m more than twice as old now, we could probably double or even triple that number.

Make no mistake: I’ve seen people killed on TV. And, in the movies. A lot of people. I’m a horror movie guy: I’ve seen every Alien movie multiple times, even the ones I hate (3 and 4, I’m lookin’ right at you). I’ve seen Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Evil Dead: Army Of Darkness, and the Evil Dead reboot from a couple of years ago. I’ve seen at least two Texas Chainsaw Massacres, three or four Halloweens, and every Rob Zombie movie including the execrable Lords Of Salem (I actually unfollowed his Facebook page, not because of him, but because of all the pics of “Salem” tattoos people keep posting. Yes, there’s at least a battalion of people out there who permanently disfigured themselves to pay homage to a movie that makes Caligula look like Chariots Of Fire). But, then again, for some reason I have to watch Jason X every time it’s on, so maybe I shouldn’t be throwing stones.

Thanks to the magic of movies, I’ve seen people shot, stabbed, dismembered, set on fire, then shot again. I’ve seen people ripped apart with meathooks, melted, had their eyes put out with blowtorches (although I decided shortly after that I wasn’t an Eli Roth fan). I’ve seen people die in ways that almost certainly would have driven me insane if I’d witnessed it in real life. I’ve seen “realistic war violence,” “unrealistic cartoon violence” and “pervasive violence throughout”. Let’s just say I was part of the first generation of kids who-compliments of HBO-saw R-rated movies in the comfort of my own home on cable TV. I’m way too desensitized to violence-and its aftershocks.

Except for one curious case.

I saw West Side Story on PBS for the first time when I was about eight years old. At least, I think I was eight, because we went and saw Grease in the theater shortly thereafter (but more about that later). I guess I was watching because it was on the TV, and everybody else was watching it, and it was 1978 and TV had four channels (counting PBS). And, we had ONE TV…my early memories of TV are black-and-white, but I’m pretty sure we’d graduated to color by then, because my first memories of “Story” are definitely color.

I was captivated. I understand why now, but at the time, it was a mystery. What hooked me was Leonard Bernstein’s score-easily the greatest music ever written for a Broadway production, and one of the finest movie soundtracks ever recorded. I fell in love with the colors, the action, the rhythm, the gorgeous cinematography that somehow managed to make the city streets look gritty, dangerous, and gorgeous all at the same time.

And Natalie Wood, my God, Natalie Wood. Yes, I understand she didn’t do her own singing, and even I can tell now how phony her Spanish sounds. And, no, I don’t give a shit. Perfection, thy name was Natalie Wood.

So, between Bernstein and Natalie Wood, I was hooked. Of course, I’d never heard of Romeo and Juliet. All the business about hostility towards immigrants, gang warfare, and tension between poor communities and the police (problems we’ve all solved, thank God, amirite?) went straight over my head as I watched the love story between Tony and Maria unfold.  You know, there’s a part of the song “Maria,” where the lyrics are just “Maria” over and over again for at least three lines? And it doesn’t sound the least bit stupid? I mean, if you’d just met a girl like Maria, wouldn’t you just run around in circles screaming her name over and over again?

So, halfway through this amazing movie full of roaring, rapturous music and romanticism that could floor the most jaded soul imaginable, people start knifing each other. I was horrified. It was almost like Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were playing the sickest joke on me imaginable. I still remember seeing the flash of the switchblade on TV and thinking, no, Tony will manage to talk them down and the Jets and the Sharks will get along and he and Maria will ride off into the sunset, like the glossy Aaron Spelling shows that were coming into their own at the time.

But, no, Wise and Robbins aren’t Spelling (Spelling also isn’t Shakespeare). Riff and Bernardo went down, and I still clung to the hope that Tony and Maria would make it out of town. I know now why they don’t, why they can’t but it still doesn’t mean I can’t hope, every time I see it, that they’ll make it to the bus station, and not run into Chino at the playground.

My mom took us to the movies to see Grease a week later, and I was sweating bullets the whole time. I refused to emotionally invest myself in Danny, Sandy, or any of the rest of the crew or allow myself to get sucked into the songs or the fun because I knew, KNEW at some point the knives would come out, Danny and Kenickie would be toast, and it would end with Sandy sobbing over Danny’s lifeless corpse. And, even now, going on 40 years later, I STILL don’t trust Grease…just like I keep hoping that Tony and Maria will escape in some alternate universe, I can’t trust that, at some point, Danny will end up face-down at the playground. West Side Story scarred me that bad.

And this, friends n’ neighbors, is why I can watch Cabin By The Lake, Oculus, Grindhouse, and The Hills Have Eyes over a full meal and sleep like a baby afterward, but I have to completely steel myself to view West Side Story and am spent for days afterward.


I’ve taught a twice-weekly music class for a group of middle-schoolers at a small private school this year, and they think they’re pretty tough. Compared to me at their age, they ARE pretty tough. They come from a neighborhood that still deals with most of the issues detailed in “Story.” Most of them are Hispanic (Nicaraguan, Cuban and Mexican) and several of them weren’t born in the US. And, most of them are girls.

I’ve introduced various bits of high culture to them during the year with mixed results. They have hard shells: they live in a hard neighborhood, have hard parents, watch hard movies and listen to hard music. In order to get to them, I need to break them a little bit, so I decided to see if West Side Story has the same effect on them it had on me. I want to get them to fall in love with Tony and Maria and end up shattered, because maybe if it shatters them the way it shattered me, it’ll leave some room for Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Scott Joplin, or-dare to dream-Brahms or Beethoven.

West Side Story is amazing because it’s one of the few (hell, only) works of art I’ve ever seen that creates a world, destroys it…and then creates it again. We’re about forty minutes in and the kids are hooked so far-I’ll keep you posted 😉



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What The Tea Party Gets Right, Part II

So, friends n’ neighbors, I got laughed off one of the most listened-to radio shows in the Bay Area yesterday…all because I had the temerity to insist than an elected official be held to the same courtroom standard he demands that civilians adhere to.

And, it really made me think about something. A common theme throughout most of Len Tillem’s shows is that you can’t fight city hall. There’s no point in fighting, and even if you win, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Pay the fine, get over it, and move on.

Ideologically, I’m the diametric opposite the of most self-described Tea Partiers. I’m a tax-and-spend liberal with no apologies, and the experience of teaching and having a special-needs child has made me a true believer in our public school system (and we’re lucky to have a school system where that belief is justified).

But, this whole debacle has given me insight (maybe “respect” is too generous) into what I understand to be The Tea Party Mindset. In light of Red-Light-Camera-Gate, here’s what me and the kooks who open-carry rifles in Starbucks have in common (I’m now waiting for outraged screams from people who are ready to educate me on the difference between ‘open-carry activists’ and the Tea Party):

1). You CAN fight City Hall. You SHOULD fight City Hall. If you think City Hall is wrong, you call them on it. Get mad. Fight back. If you can’t fight them, settle for annoying them (in the long run, that can be more effective).

2). Anyone who presumes any level of “authority” over you-police officers, court officers, judges-who is paid with your tax dollars works for you. They are subject to the same laws you are, and owe you the same courtesies you owe them. I’ve heard from multiple sources that cops don’t respond well when you tell them “I pay your salary.” Deal with it. I’ll stop saying it when it stops being true.

And, if I’m standing in front of a judge who has issued dire warnings about the consequences awaiting defendants who are wearing hats, cursing, talking, or have their hands in their pockets…well, if I don’t get to be a comedian, HE doesn’t get to be a comedian. And, that judge is a public servant who is paid with MY TAX MONEY…if I feel like filing a complaint because I don’t like his haircut or the way his shoes or shined, I WILL. Remember those videos of activists standing on the White House steps chanting “YOU WORK FOR US!”? At face value, that’s true, and it’s never bad policy to remember that.

However, the whole “anti-government paranoia” thing can bring some real crazies out of the closet. Here’s a modest proposal: instead of this all-consuming rage at at faceless, nameless “government,” we focus that rage at more local targets? Instead of going apeshit about Hillary Clinton’s email account or Barack and Michelle Obama traveling in different airplanes, we go nuts hounding school superintendents who make over half a million dollars a year, or city mayors who vote in ill-advised projects like the aforementioned cameras, or people who run utility companies who flatten entire neighborhoods and then try to weasel their way out of paying reparations to the people who managed to survive? How about instead of driving to border towns in Texas and California and screaming at buses full of kids from El Salvador or Honduras, you track down the people who are REALLY fucking up your life? Your voice has a better chance of being heard, and your anger just MIGHT make a difference.

3) No amount of taxation is too small to scream about if that form of taxation is unjust, or is levied without representation. And, yeah, here comes a giant discussion about what constitutes “just” taxation and what doesn’t. But, there’s taxation, and then there’s just racketeering, plain and simple…if you drive through an intersection enough times, you’re going to get caught. There might as well have been a giant guy with a gun at that intersection robbing every tenth person who drove through, because that’s what it amounted to.

And, our court system is 99% about collecting money from the people who have the least ability to pay. It was clear when I walked in that the judge’s principal job was to hear the largest number of cases in the shortest amount of time possible, and if you fought your ticket and lost, you were going to get screwed. I seriously considered pleading “not guilty” and fighting it, but decided (before being sneered at in front of a room full of people) that it would cost me more time and energy than it was worth (for the record, I pleaded no contest) and there was no guarantee I’d win. Is there not a hint here of how innocent people end up in jail for years?

I remember working as a credit card rep and having long, bitter arguments with octogenarians from Queens or Sarasota or Sun City about .35-cent finance charges on their bills, and thinking “Jesus! It’s only thirty-five cents! Pay it and move on!” Well, some of those people were most definitely misers…but some also understood that the .35-cent finance charge of yesterday has the sinister ability to turn into the $40 late fee of tomorrow.

Before I called in yesterday, I HAD paid the fine and moved on. But, moving on doesn’t mean it never happened, and moving on doesn’t make it right. If, six months ago,  somebody on a streetcorner had shoved a gun into my ribs or whacked me over the head with a lead pipe or broke into my house and stole $500 from me, I sure as hell wouldn’t be “over it” by now…and nobody would be TELLING me to be.




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What The Tea Party Gets Right, Part I

Yesterday, even though I should have known better, I called a local radio show, The Ronn Owens Program, on KGO. His guest was a frequent contributor and lawyer named Len Tillem, who at times has had his own radio call-in program.

Ronn (at least in the past) has been a voice of sanity in the 9am slot on KGO…the other option is Rush Limbaugh (not an option).  I don’t agree with Ronn on everything, but I certainly agree more with him than with Limbaugh. I even called his show once before (the topic was arts education)…he agreed with me and was cordial.

So, he had Len Tillem on, and I thought I’d run an issue by them, but didn’t have a concrete question. Which was my main mistake. I’d heard nuanced conversations on Ronn’s show before, but when I called in, they weren’t looking for “discussion topics”…they were looking for soundbites and easy situations to riff on.

My “situation” isn’t really a “situation,” because it was resolved months ago. Around July of last year, I got caught in a red-light camera at the intersection at El Camino and Chestnut to the tune of $490 (probably more than double a similar camera costs in other states). I had been making a perfectly legal right-hand turn on red-the camera just decided I hadn’t stopped as long as I should have. Adding insult to injury, I discovered that camera had never been ratified in a city council meeting (causing $1.5 million in fines to be refunded) and said city council had voted-THE PREVIOUS MARCH-to take the camera down. Yet, in July, it was still operational.

But, a ticket for an exorbitant fine under incredibly sketchy circumstances wasn’t the problem. I showed up in person to my arraignment at the Redwood City courthouse (always a good time) remembering that judges can and will reduce fines if you show up in person. After the judge announced the rules (“plead ‘guilty’ or ‘no contest’ and you’ll get the minimum possible fine, plead ‘not guilty’ and lose your case and we’ll throw the book at you”), the games began. And, it was true-he was able to reduce fine after fine. I saw a guy with THREE VIOLATIONS (unsafe speed, texting while driving, carseat violation) walk out with a total tab of $261 (if my $490 had been busted down to $261, I wouldn’t be writing this now). I saw another guy who was being arraigned for exhibitionist driving (over 90 mph) get a $200 reduction. But, there were also several people there with red-light camera tickets, and the maximum-THE VERY MAXIMUM-the judge was able to reduce peoples’ fines was $90 (in addition to traffic school, which of course, also costs money). I guess if I’d been pulled over by a live cop for texting on my phone with an infant in an improperly secured carseat, that would have been better somehow.

So, I got called in front of the judge, who looked calmly at a computer screen, then said, “Well, Mr. Nemeth, do you want to hear some good news?” Well, yeah, sure I did.

“The good news is that this camera was taken down.”

I let myself relax a little bit.

“The bad news is that this doesn’t apply to you. $400 and traffic school!”

I guess he thought he was making a joke. It wasn’t funny. Considering that this judge, like every other judge I’ve seen in person, had a corncob up his ass in regard to decorum in HIS courtroom, I didn’t think this was funny. If he’d just simply said “$400 and traffic school” and asked for my plea, I would have just sighed and given my plea.

Maybe I’m being too touchy here. I’ve been a career musician for going on thirty years, which means bars, dark alleys, and being around people who’ve been to prison and are proud of it. It means snappy comebacks, good-natured insults and ‘the dozens.’ I pride myself on being able to give-and get-infield chatter and good-natured insults.

But, I guess that doesn’t extend to having a traffic court judge come in, jump on citizens about decorum in THEIR court-and then claim exemption from their own rules. It’s this quaintly outmoded concept called “public servants are accountable to the public”…one of the things the Tea Party actually gets right, but more about that later.

So, following the directions on the back of the form I got back from the court, I filed a complaint against the judge, citing “improper demeanor” and (I forget the term because I don’t have the form in front of me) his curious inability to reduce photo red-light violation fines. A couple of weeks later, I got a form letter back saying that my complaint was “under review.” Then, a couple of weeks after that, I got ANOTHER form letter saying that I had received the original letter “in error” and I had to send my complaint to a DIFFERENT address, addressed to a specific judge. I was also advised to send my letter certified mail.

Now, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. It was pretty clear I was getting the runaround. And, to be blunt, I didn’t EXPECT anything to happen. My greatest hope was that, at some point, this particular traffic-court judge was going to have to sacrifice half an hour of his precious time and sit across from ANOTHER judge and explain himself. But, it was pretty clear even THAT was too much to hope for. So, both letters from the Judicial Review Board went in the trash and life went on.

Until yesterday, when I thought that the concept of “what’s the point of filing a complaint against a judge if it’s not going to be taken seriously might be an interesting topic for Ronn’s show, and made the mistake of calling in.

Halfway through the screening process, I had a change of heart. I tried to hang up on his producer. “You know, this is a stupid call. I know what they’re going to say-I’m wasting my time.”

“No, no, no,” the guy answered. It’s funny how you can tell on the phone when someone has facial hair. “You’re asking how to file a complaint against a judge.”

Well, not really. But I was interested to hear what Len and Ron had to say. So, I waited for a moment, and then was live on the air in front of hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of people.Let’s…just say it didn’t go well.

“So, you filed a complaint for improper demeanor against a judge,” Len said. “What’d he do?”

I explained the judge’s joke and they both exploded. “Oh, come ON!” Ronn exploded. “REALLY?” It was pretty clear he didn’t have much sympathy for me.

“If I was that judge, I’d have fined you an extra $100 for being a sore loser,” Len quipped. I opened my mouth to reply-but I’d already been cut off.




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Should My Teachers Have Carried Guns? Part Deux

1983-1986: North Arvada Junior High School

My memories of junior high (I guess they’re “middle” schools again) haze out a little bit due to the greatly increased number of teachers. I’m a little shocked at how little I remember of seventh grade, which makes me wonder if I was locked up in an insane asylum under someone else’s name for that year. Here’s the standouts-for better or for worse:

Band: Mr. Lebsack

Mr. Lebsack was my band teacher for all three years and my wrestling coach during my sole flirtation with organized sports. I believe “Leb” went hunting on the weekends, so at least he knew which was the business end of a rifle.

Carry a gun? Probably not, although the fact that he at least handled a weapon at some point could be a game-changer.

Eighth-grade history: Mr. Hays

Mr. Hays was 4-F during Vietnam (I believe he was too tall). Famous on-campus for spending a summer drumming for Three Dog Night while their original drummer recuperated from a broken arm.

Carry a gun? No, but definitely groovy.

Ninth-grade science: Mr. Briggs

Mr. Briggs earns the distinction of being probably the only teacher I had in my entire K-12 schooling who I would actually trust with a gun around students. He was a Vietnam vet who also had been a cop doing search-and-rescue missions. A burly character who drove a motorcycle to school, he seemed fairly even-tempered. I remember him standing and shaking his head the morning of the 1986 bombing raid in Libya, announcing “If we’d done it right, those cities wouldn’t be standing now.”

Carry a gun? As likely a candidate as any, but I don’t see him volunteering for (or wanting) the job.


1986-1989: Arvada High School

Sophomore history: Mr. Poisson

Despite the French name, Mr. Poisson was of Irish descent and alluded to a cousin who ran guns for the IRA. An avuncular, personable man.

Carry a gun? No, but he could probably get one for you.

Sophomore history: Mr. Patera

A gnarled fist of a man, Mr. Patera screamed everything and referred to himself in third person. He adored my family, and actually once gave me a pass on an unexcused absence (normally the kiss of death in his class). Had a “Semper Fi” bumper-sticker on a cabinet door in his room, but if he was ever in the Marines, he kept it to himself. I think he may have been a Communist (made a quiet reference once to delivering a “socialist” newspaper as a side job). Expressed remorse at running over a squirrel on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago.

Carry a gun? Maybe.

German I, II and III: Frau Helga Duncan

Formal and ladylike to a fault, Frau Duncan wouldn’t be a natural candidate for “school deputy.” Plus, her roots in WWII-era Berlin might make homeland-obsessed Tea Partiers a tad uncomfortable.

Carry a gun? No.

Junior and Senior (AP) English: Mr. Tyrrell

I loved “Big Ed’s” classes, but Mr. Tyrrell was no cop. I think his overall philosophies were conservative: I’d probably describe him as an Eisenhower Republican. He’d spent time as the golf coach, so probably had good timing and eye-hand coordination. However, Mr. Tyrrell was a big fan of existentialist literature (Camus, Faulkner)-I don’t know that I’d deputize someone who believes that life is essentially meaningless.

Carry a gun? No.

Band teacher: Mr. Heyman


Sociology teacher: Ms. Lundy

Theatrical, gabby, cartoonish and liberal, I enjoyed her classes, but nobody (I’m sure including Ms. Lundy herself) realistically saw her as a rent-a-cop.

Carry a gun? No, but the fact that she operated on a level uncomfortably close to that of the students might have made her a valuable intelligence source.

Psychology teacher: Mr. Minden

Brilliant teacher, but once told us the perfect way to “take over” the Denver metro area would be to hijack a tank, take it up into the foothills and camouflage it, firing random shots to keep people at bay. Taught me a new word: somatotyping, the arcane practice of prediction someone’s intelligence and/or profession by how their body was shaped. He then informed me I had the body type of an “axe murderer” (I used to work out a lot more).

Carry a gun? No, but the Hollywood possibilities are endless.


1989-1994: University of Denver

None of my college professors had any business being around guns; however, Mr. Arnesen, my double-bass instructor, did go bowhunting from time to time.

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Should My Teachers Have Carried Guns?

Well, there’s been another nationally publicized school shooting which, inevitably, brings our dialogue back to the subject of guns and schools, and the growing chorus of people who believe that The Only Solution is to have public schoolteachers (you know, those lazy, overpaid union bums) carry weapons.

Anybody who knows me knows how I feel about the arming of public schoolteachers, and I’m not (honestly!) trying to start a discussion about the Second Amendment, private weapon ownership, or guns in schools.

Because I’ve been blessed (or cursed) with a long memory, any time anybody presents the solution of arming schoolteachers, I wander back down Memory Lane and think about the public servants who molded and shaped MY fragile little mind (whether they’ll admit to it now or not).  So, what I’ve decided to do is present a comprehensive list of teachers that I remember, and based on my recollections, do a post-mortem on whether or not they would have fit the NRA narrative of “Good Guy With A Gun.”

As I age and think back on an increasingly hazy childhood, I really only remember the very good and the very bad. A lot of my teachers aren’t on this list. And, I want to stress that, even though there’s a couple of bona-fide kooks on the list, for the most part I had a fine K-12 public education.

Also, I am NOT making the argument that any of these teachers should not have been privately allowed to own weapons-just the feasibility of that teacher being “deputized” for classroom weapon duty.

For a sense of perspective, my entire public education took place in the Jefferson County School District (CO) between the fall of 1976 and the fall of 1989. I entered school at roughly age six and graduated at age 18.

So, let’s begin, shall we?


1976-1980: Fitzmorris Elementary

Kindergarten: Miss Bragg

An attractive younger woman who wore culottes and giant sunglasses roughly 35 years before they were “in,” Miss Bragg was in most senses the perfect kindergarten teacher. She became a little less perfect the day she kept a group of us after school for misbehaving and brought out a child-behind-sized paddle and informed us that, in the Good Old Days, children who misbehaved were paddled, and she had half a mind to bring the Good Old Days back. The paddle disappeared when my mom appeared at the door to find out why I wasn’t home from school yet. Years later, I heard a rumor that Miss Bragg had taken a year or two off from teaching after locking herself in a closet during school with a roomful of children.

Carry a gun? No. Even the suspicion of instability rules it out.

First Grade Homeroom: Mrs. Norman

The only thing I really remember about Mrs. Norman was her advanced age. Apparently she thought I was great, but don’t remember any special or preferential treatment.

Carry a gun? Mrs. Norman was so old that she might, in fact, have had to defend her homestead during frontier days. Her firearms proficiency would probably have been limited to double-barreled shotguns, Winchester repeaters and Colt .45s. Probably not good tactical classroom armament.

Second grade homeroom: Mrs. Gillice

Yowza. Hottie, hot, hottie is pretty much my memory of Mrs. Gillice. A tall, blonde Scandinavian-looking woman.

Carry a gun? Probably not, although with those cheekbones, a broadsword or throwing axe might not have been out of the question.

1980-1983: Hackberry Hill Elementary

We moved and I finished my elementary years at Hackberry. Here’s where it starts getting interesting due to increased classes with non-homeroom teachers.

Third Grade Homeroom: Mrs. Harms

A placid, friendly woman. I think she was raised on a farm.

Carry a gun? Probably not.

Fourth Grade Homeroom: Mr. Suley

Mr. Suley adored me, which was for the best, because he had a temper. I saw him punch a kid in the ribs once and drag him out of the classroom-I think later on, he also manhandled that kid on the playground. Draw your own conclusions depending on how you feel about corporal punishment in schools.

I think (don’t know where or how I heard this) that Mr. Suley may have been a Korea vet.

Carry a gun? NO. Even if he had military/combat experience, too unstable. Also potential PTSD issues.

Fourth-grade math: Mrs. Helgoth

As old, if not older than Mrs. Norman. Most of her teaching involved a series of “stations” where we were to work independently (when you’ve finished E-22, move on to E-23, etc). It didn’t take me long to figure out this system was created to ensure she spent as little time teaching as possible. If she thought you were chewing gum, she’d make you blow into her face so she could smell your breath.

Carry a gun? No

Fifth grade homeroom: Mrs. Harmon

Another hottie, and I flourished in her classroom, but she took twenty minutes of class time one day to tell us how she dated a warlock in college and almost became a witch, but Jesus came to her personally one night and talked her out of it.

Carry a gun? Nope. Sorry. Two-way discussions with Jesus are a dealbreaker.

Fifth-grade (?) history teacher: Mr. Wagner

For some reason, I have distinct memories of Mr. Wagner, even though he wasn’t my homeroom teacher. He was missing part of a finger due to a mishap with a vacuum cleaner. He was probably the age range to have served in Korea (or even WWII), but I don’t know if I’d trust someone with a gun who lost part of their finger to a vacuum cleaner.

Sixth-grade homeroom: Mrs. Reese

Had a fine sixth-grade year, due in no small part to Mrs. Reese and her sister, Mrs. Stocker, who taught in adjoining classrooms. However, there’s nothing to suggest that she or Mrs. Stocker would have made much of a difference in a combat scenario.

Carry a gun? No…not that she would have wanted to in the first place.

So, that’s elementary. Junior high? High school? Stay tuned…


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Goodreads Review: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his memoir “My Reading Life,” the great Pat Conroy states that “War And Peace” should be required reading in every military college (I’ve actually said the same about “The Art Of War”).

In this spirit, “A Christmas Carol” should be required reading for anybody working towards their MBA or law degree.

My wife and I have joked that the perfect holiday would be an amalgam of Halloween (my favorite) and Christmas (her favorite). In a way, “Carol” captures this spirit (later to be bottled and sold by Tim Burton). What’s striking about “Carol” is that the spooky parts, even with the dated language, are REALLY spooky-everybody loves a good ghost story, even during the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and Dickens doesn’t hold back.

Dickens’ language is wonderfully descriptive: you can practically taste the sage and onion at the Cratchits’ dinner table, you’ll shiver at the cold in Scrooge’s office (to hear tell, offices in this day and age aren’t heated much better) and all the joy and loneliness of the holidays.

The overriding theme is generosity in the face of economic inequality: maybe this novella should be required reading for Congress as well.

One of my favorite TV shows this fall has been “Sleepy Hollow”…I’m waiting for the day Scrooge will be resurrected for a cop show. Come to think of it, the book doesn’t give a year…maybe Scrooge’s birth can be delayed forty years and he can fight Jack The Ripper. I’m not sure there was a huge difference between the London of 1843 and the London of 1888. Okay, I’ll stop now…read it!

View all my reviews

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We watched an excellent documentary called Happy a couple of nights ago, and I’m still kind of digesting what it was all about.

The basic premise is simple: in order to treat people, psychologists have been focusing on the root causes of unhappiness in their patients. What if they turned this on its head and researched what makes people happy instead?

Several different subjects are interviewed across the entire globe, some of whom are dirt-poor on a level even the poorest American will never be able to relate to (a rickshaw-driver in the slums of Calcutta, bushmen in the Kalahari). Here are the findings in a nutshell (although I can’t call these “spoilers”)-some surprising, some not.

The people with the greatest sense of internal happiness were the ones who pursued goals related to personal betterment (education or skills) and the ones who had the greatest sense of family or community (telling segments in a commune in Denmark and a retirement community in Okinawa highlight this). Also, researchers found that what created a sense of enhanced, lasting happiness was the feeling of serving or helping others:

Happy doesn’t make this point directly, but it seemed (to me, anyway) that the interview subjects who seemed the most satisfied with their lives felt directly connected to nature, as highlighted by a sixty-something surfer in Brazil.

The documentary makes the distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” goals. The ugly truth is that we’re taught, as Americans, that true happiness comes from “extrinsic” goals: status, wealth, social standing. Happy drops the bombshell that, once your basic needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, medical attention), there’s no significant “spike” in happiness: there’s a large difference in personal satisfaction between someone earning $5000 a year and someone earning $50,000 a year, but no correlating jump in personal happiness between someone who earns $50,000 a year and $50 million a year (hell, I could have told you that after watching The Queen Of Versailles).

The doc’s bleakest point comes during a visit to Japan, where so many people die of literal over-work that they even created a word for it: karoshi.


The most overtly controversial scene in Happy (at least, to me) came during a segment in Bhutan where the governor claimed that it was the Bhutanese government’s job to cultivate the conditions that lead to a contented citizenry (a claim that should have every good American free-marketer’s blood boiling). Folks, the ugly truth is that American multi-nationals have been trying to “sell” happiness for decades, and no matter how much we buy, it’s never enough. In fact, if McDonald’s COULD bottle true happiness, it would be sold by the ounce and cost twice as much as beluga caviar.

So, anyhow, Happy is definitely worth a spin (it’s on Netflix and PBS).



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