Heroes’ Welcome

Parades, parades, parades, parades in every town, every zip code, every backwater trailer park, on ABC, CBS, CNN, newspapers, t-shirts, bumper stickers, Continue reading

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40 Years at Maximum Volume

Ramones40

I only saw the Ramones once. It was during their final tour in 1995, when they headlined the KROQ Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. Continue reading

“Let’s Pretend It’s The Principal’s Skull!”

I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. — John Dewey, from “My Pedagogic Creed”

It was the 5th grade but that was irrelevant. We already had it figured out. Their real job was to teach us two iron lessons, and we were expected to memorize them cold: 1) The teachers were always watching, and 2) The teachers were the rulers in charge. Which made about as much sense as stale air in a rubber ball, because the evidence was already clear: the teachers were actually counterfeits. The real ones were being driven to extinction. We didn’t know how, but our hunch was that they were being poached so their bodies could be used as camouflage by these robot “rulers in charge.” It made sense.

It started to make sense when the new principal arrived. The switch that controlled Mr. Briar’s brain was set to Maximum Corporal Punishment, and he immediately invented the task of straightening us out and “fixing” our school. As far as we could tell, the school wasn’t broken, but Mr. Briar was squarely convinced that our minds were being “ruined by the hippies.” His mission was to purge them, replace them with evil obedience machines, and transform Vineyard Elementary into a prison camp.

Detentions were suddenly handed down for the smallest “infractions” like writing our names in textbooks (which we had always been instructed to do), or blurting out answers before raising our hands and waiting to be chosen. New rules were coming faster than we could wad the printed notices to our parents into spitballs.

One week I was holding hands with Shirley; the next it was palms flat, arms to the sides, and separate lunch lines; and the next it was getting a swat for kissing her on the lips. I thought we were in the clear, but Mr. Glitsch with his lazy left eye was peeking us out the whole time from around the corner of the building—and he waited until we were finished before springing his trap and sending us to the office.

On our way there I asked her, “If kissing is against the rules, how come he didn’t stop us right away?” Shirley just shook her head, walked with her eyes fixed to the ground, and didn’t say a word, as if she was signaling that we didn’t want to know the answer. We both got swats from Mr. Briar, and after that we drifted apart.

We weren’t alone. Girls, boys, blacks, whites, and kids from different grades were forming into separate groups. Fights after school were happening more often. Some of the kids’ grades were dropping, and even our schoolwork began to look different. Drawings of race cars, castles and puppies turned into car crashes, burning houses, and black dogs with red glowing eyes and bubble captions that read, “Single-file! Left-right-left!” and “Wrong! Do it again!”

One day I was sitting next to Brian in art class. He was clenching a fistful of crayons, the ugly colors that nobody liked. He had the tips pushed flush against the paper so they made one giant crayon like a “suicide” drink from 7-Eleven but without any flavor (not that anyone was eating the crayons). Then he began coloring in a wild circular motion, coloring really hard, so hard it was making tears in the paper, and the picture he made was a hideous blob that looked like throw-up mixed with gasoline and set on fire. Then he added stick people running in all directions, and when he finally stopped, I just looked at him and said, “Well, what is it?”

“Napalm.”

Brian only weeks earlier had been obsessed with “Speed Racer” and coloring the immortal picture of the Mach 5, and here he was, flashing back to the third grade when the new kids from Vietnam came out of nowhere and joined our school. We left on a Friday, came back on Monday, and there they were, a pack of about 30 of them, sticking close together, speaking their Vietnamese, and not trusting a one of us. It didn’t matter what we were—black, brown, white, whatever—none of them would talk to us at first.

But after a few months of English lessons taught by the good teachers—the ones we still had back then—they started telling us stories about the American bombers that dropped fire all around them and forced them to move to bigger villages where they had to hide from American grenades and machine guns and the other Vietnamese from the north. The worst part, they said, was that both sides were shooting their relatives who weren’t doing anything wrong; either that or they were shooting them by accident, or worse: just for fun.

A few of the kids had American dads who got them out of there and brought them and their mothers back with them to California. Some of the kids were orphans because their relatives were dead or trapped behind and not allowed to leave. Either way, it was weird to watch the war on television, then hear about all the “refugees” coming to America, and realize I was going to school with them now.

And when they talked about what their country was like when the bombs started falling—that the air was full of smoke and the stench of burning bodies, the sky was always dark and sad, and their families and friends were being slaughtered—I figured that that was Brian’s image of our worsening situation: these “teachers” were dropping punishments like bombs and making us prisoners in our own school.

And even those kids were saying that the place was closing in, steadily getting darker and sadder, and that the bad teachers were “disappearing” the good ones. It was nothing compared to the horrors they’d experienced; nevertheless, it was a process they seemed to be familiar with.

But speaking of throw-up, that’s what our school lunches began to look like. And our choices for school activities we’re being eliminated. Art class was cut from an hour to a half hour. Music class was cut altogether. Team sports were replaced with marching and formation drills. Instead of having open debates in history class, we were told to simply memorize the material, pass the tests, and not ask questions. And we were constantly reminded of the Two Cardinal Lessons: the teachers were always watching us, and their rule was absolute and not to be challenged.

We finally came to realize that there was another, darker lesson being taught, a lesson we knew was a complete lie: that our world was going to be flat—nondescript, malformed, deflated by design, and dictated by others—and we needed to form a resistance, but how?

The only symbol of protest we had was a red rubber ball we brought back from recess, after taking it to the playground where nobody could hear us, and forming a wide circle around it so we could take turns kicking and kicking the shit out of it until the fucker finally popped—then facing the relentless accusations of “deliberate destruction of school property,” which we denied vigorously for fear of our lives.

The Ides of March, 1991

It was 9am when I got the call. My grandmother had passed in her sleep. I was living in Phoenix and the next morning I jumped a flight to California to be with my grandfather. But I could only stay for the weekend, and come Monday morning I’d be on a plane to Honolulu on orders from the Navy. My team wasn’t scheduled for dive school until late July, but there was a war being staged and our orders were pushed up to 18 March.

Fair enough. My “bitchin’ summer” at Pearl Harbor doing compass swims through West Loch only yards from a hammerhead breeding ground was a bygone fantasy now. But so was seeing my grandmother off: the funeral was Wednesday and I wasn’t going to be there because the war was on full display and we had to be trained post-haste for deployment in the Persian Gulf; trained to plant counter-charges on the same 50-year-old underwater mines our government had been selling to Saddam since they “installed” him in 1957, and now he was showing his appreciation by scattering them all over the Gulf.

And none of us were looking forward to those mines. They were mean, ugly, primitive bastards that looked like medieval maces, with magnetic pins so brittle and corroded you’d piss your UDTs hoping you could stick the detonator in before the currents made you brush against one of them. That’s all it took.

But Bush’s War for Oil was already over by the time we reported for Basic SCUBA, so we never went to the Gulf. The active duty teams were already deployed, and they didn’t need to activate the “pussy reservists” for mine-sweeping duty. That was okay with me, and six weeks later I was back in Phoenix working a minimum wage job at a car wash after the company I was working for (before I got called up) decided to let me go—illegally. Which didn’t really matter because the pricks would be out of business in less than a year: as soon as the Reagan-Bush recession sucker-punched the economy in the throat and the truth behind “Morning in America” came out, the company was down the toilet.

At the end of August I ditched that arid conservative shithole and moved back to California to live with my grandfather. Soon after I arrived, he took me to the grave marker at Riverside National. (14 years later we’d have to replace that marker for one with both their names on it.) Her wish was to be buried with her body intact in a white coffin with lavender accents. Lavender was her favorite color, her favorite scent, her favorite everything. She bought it twice a month from the Avon lady in various forms. She might have washed my hair with it once. But instead of being buried with it, her body was cremated and packed into a cardboard box as if it were a box of MREs, like so many other military wives who were boxed into an obsolete narrative of keeping their pretty mouths shut while their husbands were off playing wargasm for the benefit of corporate welfare queens who couldn’t give a shit about the Land of the Free.®

But Grandma would have none of that. She may have died in her sleep, but she was never asleep in the cognitive sense that was commonly expected of mid-century American women. She had no trouble standing her ground, raising her voice and getting things done. As I looked down at her name stamped on a flat metal headstone, I remembered her story about the time during the Korean War when Grandpa was serving in a M.A.S.H. unit there. The base housing in Manila was infested with wharf rats, and it got so bad she had to cut them down with a machete as they crawled up and down the curtains, eyeing my mother in her high chair—that is, until a kind, elderly Filipino woman showed up with a box of cobras and loosed them in the crawl space underneath the house. Sure enough, the rats began to disappear, but Grandma was even meaner than the cobras: the machete was cleaned off and put back in the kitchen drawer in 2 or 3 days.

I remembered that my grandparents would’ve been married 50 years in December of that year. They were supposed to get married on Christmas Eve in 1941. Pearl Harbor happened on the 7th, they were married on the 12th, and Grandpa was shipped out two days later. Their marriage wouldn’t effectively begin until he came back four years later, and the year after that my mom was born.

Grandma never concealed her utter disdain for organized religion, or, for that matter, the state of Texas. She was raised in a punitive, unloving family of Southern Baptists in San Antonio, and most of the people she remembered there were “shit-asses.” After Grandpa got transferred to El Paso in the late 50s and she had to move there with my mom and uncle in tow, she swore she’d never return. Her advice to my sister and I was always, “Don’t ever go to Texas.” And we didn’t.

And as I stood above her grave that now only contained her ashes in a box, I remembered that Grandpa was standing there beside me. Their marriage wasn’t always the happiest, but they still loved and depended on each other, and it was only after she passed that he realized how much he was lost without her. He started to feel better as his final years approached, but he never met another woman and never fully recovered. Instead, he preserved as best he could the traces of what she had left behind. Every weekend I helped him in the garden, pruning the rose bushes she had raised and nurtured for over a generation. Grandad was an expert photographer and had those roses framed all over the house.

Then I remembered how close we were, my grandmother and I; how bitterly regretful I was that I couldn’t see her laid to rest; how much I already missed her defiant sense of humor, always delivered in a flat Texas drawl; and how she had always encouraged me to do whatever the hell I wanted, as long as it was something that mattered.

So when the election year cutbacks came and I couldn’t get an active duty billet to go to BUD/S—which was just as well because I wasn’t cut out for government work anyway—I dropped out of the Navy and decided to start drinking more. I spent whole days at the Riverside Library discovering the beats, the bums, the drunks, the expats and the existentialists. I smoked cigars, stayed up late, and typed poems and stories. Bad ones. Pretty soon I was feeling better about myself.

I paid Grandpa $350 a month for rent, and for seven years I slept in the same four-poster bed in the same room my grandmother died in. It was good in the beginning. The summer of ’91 turned out to be one of the best I have experienced before or since. I read and wrote voraciously, inherited my grandparents’ love for classical music, and began what would become a great philosophical and intellectual awakening.

And Grandma drifted back to visit a few times. I sensed her unmistakable presence as she stood there in her old room and watched me sleep in her old bed; as I laid there suspended in a semi-conscious void, I knew it was her because the room smelled of lavender. Once, I caught a glimpse of her at the end of the dark hallway as I was coming out of the shower. Every hair on my body stood up, but then I smelled the lavender again.

There’s something to be said for knowing who’s coming to pay you a visit. It’s a bit less startling. When I was a kid, Grandma told me that her Papa had visited her often after he died. She didn’t know it was him at first and almost peed the bed, but as soon as she caught the whiff of his cigar smoke, she knew she didn’t have to be afraid. “That was our Irish luck,” she said. (Papa Lucas had emigrated from Dublin.) So I guess her visits were my Irish luck. Then the luck ran out and she stopped coming back.

And when I woke up this morning 24 years to the day after she passed, I remembered the times when I had pissed her off, and there were plenty of those because apparently I was a bit of a rascal and pulled some nasty stunts. Like the time when I was four and Grandma was sitting on the toilet, and I burst into the bathroom and pointed at her bush—I’d never seen one of those before—and said, “What the heck is that,” and she hissed at me and said “My ankle! Now shut the damn door!” And I ran out and hid underneath her baby grand piano. I thought for sure I was about to get an ass-whipping, but she calmly returned to the living room, called me out from under the piano, and told me it was no big deal—and for Christ’s sake to knock first. Then there was the time when I was playing with the piano and got the idea to loosen all the strings…

And then I fell back asleep this morning and dreamed that I was back in Arizona. I was walking alone in the empty desert with a rattlesnake coiled up in the toe of one of my boots. At sunset I pulled off my boot to let the snake go and it wasn’t angry or scared. It just stretched out beside me, warmed itself in the white sand, and watched me as I put my boot back on. And when the sun disappeared behind the purple and yellow hills, the snake crawled off and disappeared with it. And the whole desert reeked of lavender.

Ritalin Sold Separately

At eleven and eight, respectively, my niece and twin nephews are now permanently molded into intelligent, discerning, brand-conscious consumer slaves—and ready to take their operant conditioning to the next level of capitalist absurdity. So this Christmas their parents and I decided to arrange a new challenge for them; something better than the usual round-robin of opening presents, feigning surprise, and posing for pictures with their drunk relatives. And what better way for kids to sharpen their predatory teeth in the New Economy® than with a game of Random Sudden Death Presents?

Here’s how it worked. The adults put a smattering of gifts under the tree. The gifts were wrapped but left unmarked, and consisted of the following: one tiara, one pair of skinny jeans, one t-shirt with the glittery slogan “Future Student Loan Slave,” one bicycle, one skateboard, one scale model of an aircraft carrier, one scale model of an unfurnished studio apartment with no central heating, an Xbox with only one controller, a baseball bat, a breakup letter, a box of marbles, a part-time job, and a stack of unpaid traffic tickets.

At the count of three, the kids were released—all at once—and scrambled into the colorful pile of Christmas plunder made possible by their corporate masters Santa. This was called the Acquisition Phase*.

Following the Acquisition Phase*, the kids were allowed one trade of a single item; otherwise they had to keep what they got. When one of the boys wanted to “regift” his tiara, the response he got was, “Suck it up, Cinderella!” since no one else wanted a tiara. This rule was strictly enforced.

[Parents: Relax. This rule is surprisingly effective at reinforcing favorable character traits and other important skills like openness, tolerance, empathy, generosity, hyper-organizing for ADHD, black market trading, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.]

In keeping with the corrosive myth formerly known as the American Dream—while dispensing with an even more corrosive myth that “everyone is a winner”—this game had only one winner; the other 67% were the losers. (The 99% was reduced by a factor of 32% for an obvious mathematical reason: there’s no way in hell my sister was going to birth 100 kids.) The winner was determined by whoever had the good sense to act grateful and not complain. This year’s winner received an iPad loaded with tons of spyware apps and free albums released in a shameless act of self-promotion songs, plus a trip to Las Vegas left in a hotel room while Mom and Dad gamble downstairs. The losers each received a sample foreclosure notice.

The results were as follows: [Redacted. See below.]

“Yay, presents!… Wait, what’s this game called again?”

Pictured at right are the kids shortly before the Acquisition Phase*, modeling their protective body pads specially made by their Nana (my mom) who calmly reassured them that my sister and I survived several Christmases involving a similar gift-giving process. (I still have the scar from a Commodore 64 to prove it.)

Not pictured is the aftermath. In the emergency room. Stitches. Ignore that. A call was not placed by an “anonymous” neighbor (we know who you are) with a spurious report of “domestic violence.” The dog isn’t dressed up as Cinderella now. No further details are provided in case Child Protective Services is reading this too.

*Incidentally, the phase after that was called Now Clean Up This Mess and Go Outside While the Adults Continue to Get Drunk.