Today, Nov. 20, 2017, is disorienting for me. I reach exactly the age, to the day, at which my mother died in 1983.
Yes, a person would have to be an obsessive number cruncher to know that today is the precise number of days since my 59th birthday last summer that Mom lived past her 59th. And a person would have to be just a little insecure and into the mystical to be preoccupied with this fact.
It’s not a health concern that’s on my mind. I fully expect to be as fine tonight when I drop off to sleep as I am typing this – spry, mobile, and with a nearly ideal body weight since losing 90 pounds nine years ago and keeping it off since.
But something just isn’t right – I will be older than Mom ever got to be.
Older than Mom. No way. Can’t be.
I am not ready to be senior to my source of wisdom and nurturing. Mom will always be older and savvier than I am.
Millie Morrison raised my older sister and myself as a single parent, starting when that was too new even to be a phenomenon.
I will still look to Mom in my memories and in my modern day conception of her for a more mature perspective on things.
Of much more importance than the fact that Mom was our sole financial provider during 15 years when no child support arrived, she was our moral and intellectual guide. A high school English and Humanities teacher, Mom made sure we would love learning as we grew up by incorporating it into what we enjoyed.
When she saw I was fascinated by maps at age five, Mom introduced me to reading by going over the Indiana page in an atlas and teaching me to read our state’s city names. (I’m not sure if it was state loyalty or an abundance of short words; Gary, South Bend and Fort Wayne were great starter outers.)
In a few years I was a sports lover, helped along by the NBC Baseball Game of the Week, so Mom brought home sports themed fiction and non-fiction books she bought through her school to keep me developing my reading skills while liking the experience.
Mom earned her master’s degree, taking classes at a downtown Louisville college while our grandmother and other adults came over to child sit. Mom also enrolled in a non-credit institute to study the culture and politics of India.
She rose at 5 every morning, fed the beloved cats who owned us, then worked the crossword puzzle with coffee in hand — all before taking her son and daughter to school, then driving on to her job to teach other people’s children.
We didn’t think of Mom as extraordinarily disciplined as such, because we had no comparison. But in retrospect, oh my, how she epitomized efficiency and focus, while maintaining an easy, approachable manner (despite a son who tested her patience).
We did appreciate Mom serving as a fountain of information. Friends, students and even a television news anchorman at a station where my father had worked decades earlier would sometimes call asking her to resolve a grammatical matter, which Mom would do in seconds, then go back to cooking supper.
Books by Hermann Hesse, D.H. Lawrence and Alvin Toffler shared space on her shelves with parenting guides and her college yearbooks – and Mom’s issues of The Atlantic.
Their pages each month represented the eclectic spheres Mom would have seen more of in person, but for tight finances and her firm belief that her children came first.
Besides, Mom was happy sharing minds and hearts with the educated friends she had, in our area and other nearby places.
Of course, she gave us needed advice in a rapidly changing world. And today, as I reluctantly walk past that chronological point where fate took her from us, becoming – as impossible as it is to behold this – older than Mom ever was, she gives me the same advice on my number fixation about today’s date that she often did when I’d overthink and anguish about the shallowness and incongruity of the world:
Stanley Kubrick, in a bold artistic flourish, set out to film the movie by taking Polaroid pictures, then stringing them together. The need to make 30 photographs for a single second of screen time caused him to abandon the plan early, to the relief of a skeptical cast and crew.
I wrote the following letter Aug. 16, 2017 to my congressman, Rep. John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky’s 3rd District:
Dear Rep. Yarmuth,
After careful consideration of the effects it may have on the stability of the nation, I write today to ask you to initiate the use of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to remove President Donald Trump from power.
The amendment allows the Vice-President and a majority of the Cabinet to recommend the removal of the president in cases where the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” and allows the House and Senate to confirm the recommendation over the president’s objection by two-thirds vote.
Though it may appear that partisan loyalty by the Vice-President and cabinet members would impede the process, under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, Congress has considerable input.
In lieu of waiting for a cabinet majority to make the recommendation, Congress may by law provide an independent body, described as a “disability review body” which, with the Vice-President’s concurring, could declare the president unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and send its own written declaration to the Senate president pro tempore and the House speaker.
Twenty-fifth Amendment author U.S. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, concurring with former President Dwight Eisenhower, said the question of whether a president should be removed is “really a political question.” Bayh continued that the decision to invoke the 25th Amendment should rest on the “professional judgment of the political circumstances existing at the time.”
Today, President Trump’s performance in office has demonstrated ineptitude and instability which have endangered the security of the nation and the lives of millions of innocent Americans and residents of other nations. I strongly believe that circumstances show, based on Senator Bayh’s criteria, that President Trump is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. These circumstances include the president’s:
*Inability to abide by the 14th Amendment’s requirement of equal protection of the law, as shown by his use of derogatory sweeping generalizations of minorities.
*Failure to devote effort to his job in the crucial first months in office, constantly vacationing at his own resort while his agenda flounders in Congress.
*Hazardous and ill-considered nuclear saber rattling done on his personal whim, instead of relying on plural input by military strategists.
*Lack of basic linguistic skills, which undermines the communicating to the public needed to ensure consent of the governed, and use of gaslighting trickery and evasive adhominem responses to criticism.
*Refusal to sit for the crucial American tradition of independent media scrutiny, instead calling reporters enemies of the people, a verbal assault which undermines the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the May issue of The Atlantic magazine, National Constitution Center president and George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, while acknowledging that use of the 25th Amendment’s never before employed involuntary removal mechanism on a president not incapacitated by illness “could trigger a political crisis,” added: “…(T)he constitutional test of the president’s being ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties’ of the office was intended to be vague and open-ended.”
Rosen added: “Because the Twenty-fifth Amendment was intended to leave the determination of presidential disability to politicians, rather than to doctors, nothing in the text or history of the Amendment would preclude the vice president, Cabinet, and Congress from determining the president is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office’ if they deemed it in their political interest to do so.”
The intractable and worsening dangers posed by President Trump’s clear inability to discharge the powers and duties of his office now outweigh any negative effects of the use of the 25th Amendment. Though sufficient votes in the House and Senate certainly would not exist now to remove the president, appointing a disability review body would communicate to the administration that President Trump’s fitness for the office is an issue that will very possibly result in his facing removal if he continues using his current tactics.
I urge you to propose a discussion on the prompt creation of a disability review body for the purpose of weighing the evidence on using the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to remove President Donald Trump from power.
“Hey, whose Grandpa didn’t tell some tales?” asked the headline on a New York Times obituary in February 2006 for television actor Al Lewis, best known for playing the vampire-ish Grandpa on “The Munsters,” the 1960s CBS comedy.
It was a lighthearted and deservedly cheery send off for a brilliant character actor, political activist and restauranteur whose contributions to our lives ranged from a million escapist TV laughs to bold radical street activism.
The headline was also a colossal understatement. Al Lewis told more than just “some” tales like the embellished fish stories everybody’s grandfather leaves us with. In fact, the same obit story listed him as age uncertain. That’s because Lewis at different times had listed two birth years as his own.
He was born in either 1910 or 1923 as Alexander Meister. Or Albert Meister. In New York City. Or 287 miles from there in Wolcott, a small town in far upstate Wayne County, N.Y.
That town near Lake Ontario entered the Al Lewis narrative late in his life when a reporter trying to clear up the matter of the actual year in which he was born asked Lewis why no birth certificate bearing his identity could be located in NYC, his hometown. Lewis responded that he was not born in the Big Apple, but entered the world while his mother had briefly lived in Wolcott to work in a factory.
Sealing Al Lewis’ stature as the greatest man of mystery is that no birth record for any A. Meister can be found in Wayne County, said imdb.com, a public figure biography site.
Imdb said that days after Al Lewis’ death, one of his three sons announced that Lewis had in fact been born on April 30, 1923, not 1910 as the actor had claimed.
“Why the deception?” asked the web site Everything2.com. “It could’ve been part of his tryouts for ‘The Munsters.’ If he was born in ’23, he was actually a year younger than Yvonne DeCarlo, who was supposed to be his daughter. But by claiming to be 13 years older, perhaps he felt he’d seem more grandfatherly to the show’s producers.
“At any rate,” Eveyrthing2 continued, “it seems likely that Lewis told a bunch of stories about his youth, either to support his claims about his birthdate or just for the joy of telling stories.”
Al Lewis’ lifelong penchant for fudging brought anything but joy to historians and journalists, who often had to retract or revamp information they had confidently published about one of the television era’s most beloved and eclectic entertainers.
In fact, that New York Times obituary was the second one within days the nation’s newspaper of record published on Al Lewis, the latter correcting the first’s careless inclusion of already discredited information. The Times obituarist Dan Barry wrote that almost every claim Lewis made about his early life – his birth date and place of birth, his wartime adventures in the merchant marine, his education – was unverifiable and possibly false.
Among others were that Lewis had faced danger touring the maliciously anti-union Southeast to help John L. Lewis organize workers, rallied outside the White House in support of condemned immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, performed as a clown in a traveling circus, sold hot dogs at Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, and in the mid-1960s hired Charles Manson to babysit his three children (he recalled Manson as trustworthy and caring).
Regarding Al Lewis’ educational resume, the imdb.com site added: “Although he claimed to have a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University, the university has no record of it, under his stage name or his real name.”
Lewis’ reliability began being questioned in the early 2000s after his wife of two decades, Karen Lewis, found documents while preparing for her ostensibly 93-year-old husband’s hospitalization for an angioplasty which showed he was in fact just 80. That was the first she knew of any age discrepancy, but the Times quoted her as saying the finding didn’t affect her feelings about him.
A reporter soon examined the actor’s commonly reported story that he had served as a paralegal in the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a landmark civil rights case involving nine black Alabama teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women.
A 1923 birth would have made Lewis eight during the trial (or college age if he were born in 1910). At whatever stage of life, Lewis said he learned of the Scottsboro Boys’ plight after his mother attended a rally for their freedom.
His mother, if one trusts the following Al Lewis recollection on the web site Everything2.com, “worked in the garment trades. My mother was an indomitable spirit. My grandfather had no sons. He had six daughters. They lived in Poland or Russia, every five years it would change. My mother being the oldest daughter, they saved their money, and when she was about 16 they sent her to the United States, not knowing a word of English. She went to work in the garment center, worked her back and rear-end off and brought over to the United States her five sisters and two parents. I remember going on picket lines with my mother. My mother wouldn’t back down to anyone.”
Nothing suspicious about that classic early 1900s immigrant working class bio.
Also perfectly plausible is the 6-foot-1 Lewis’ description of his playing basketball in his youth in New York City and later serving as a non-hired scout for NBA teams – but was he the very best scout in the game?
When Lewis boasted to independent radio station WFMU’s blog that, “you can call Marty Blake, the chief scout for the NBA, he lives outside Atlanta, and ask him who is the most knowledgeable man of roundball you have ever met. Without hesitation, he will tell you, Al Lewis.”
So Kliph Nesteroff, the author of WFMU blog entry “The Myths and Politics of Grandpa Munster,” ran that claim past Blake, who concurred: “He (Lewis) knew everything there was to know about basketball from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.”
However, Nesteroff also wrote: “Lewis liked to say he worked on the defense committee of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. If there were any semblance of truth to this, it would have occurred when he was no more than five years old…. Neither was he in Washington, as he claimed, the night the American communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for treason, were executed.”
It IS known that Al Lewis, living out his left-wing values, donated his time and most of his earnings from the two-year run of The Munsters to charities, particularly a program helping teenage runaways, who were proliferating in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. But the admiration one feels upon hearing of this altruism quickly turns to skepticism, when Lewis identifies one of those kids he brought under his wing:
“That’s how I met Charlie Manson. He babysat my three kids…. He sat for four or five hours, he amused the kids, he brought the guitar and he played, no big deal, no sweat.”
Back in the real world of documented facts, Lewis ran for governor of New York as the Green Party candidate in 1998, opposing Republican incumbent George Pataki. Like a precursor of Bernie Sanders and with an accent to match, Lewis toured the Empire State fervently condemning health insurance companies, polluting industries, U.S. wars, and corporate tax breaks which made the poor overtaxed. At age 88 (or 75?), he won 52,533 votes, above the 50,000-vote threshold for receiving automatic ballot placement in the subsequent election. Lewis decided not to make another run, however, citing long odds of being elected as a Green.
He sought to be listed on the 1998 ballot as “Grandpa Al Lewis” to gain momentum from his TV recognition. A state judge turned down the request.Before The Munsters premiered in 1964, Lewis played New York City police officer Leo Schnauser in the comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?” from 1961 to ’63. Real police in his hometown loved the character and Lewis did public appearances on their behalf. Relations 40 years later between police and radical candidate Al Lewis were cooler when the Green gubernatorial hopeful criticized police use of force practices as racist.
Everyone, however, was warm toward “Grandpa,” and Lewis’ most memorable TV character was how he was often addressed by political supporters, TV fans and customers at Grampa’s Bella Gente Italian, a Greenwich Village restaurant he founded and where his regular presence was a draw. Lewis would greet customers entering, chatting with them, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
One unlikely sounding distinction by Al Lewis that was in fact documented before millions is that he was once censored by Howard Stern. You read right, censored by Howard Stern, America’s chief poddy mouth of the air.
Lewis, who discussed political issues with iron fervor, but free of obscenities on his own Saturday radio show in the early 2000s on New York City’s WBAI, once joined Stern in an outdoor rally against the FCC’s frequent fining of Stern and others for regular use of words banned on airwaves. Not realizing that his microphone was tied into a live broadcast of Stern’s show as well as the rally’s public address system, Grandpa told the crowd: “We’re here because we all have a purpose… And that purpose is to say ‘Fuck the FCC! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!’ ”
An uncharacteristically mortified Stern frantically slapped his hand on the mic to try to keep his fines from piling even higher.
“I really thought [he’d] lost his mind,” Stern said on the WFMU blog. “As far as I was concerned, my career was over because we’re on the radio live.”
For once, there was no doubting Al Lewis meant what he said.
Brian Arbenz loved Grandpa on The Munsters — and the radical left positions he took while running for office.
49 years later, Mr. Manring froze, fell to his knees on a rock and said he knew this was the spot….”I hope I’m at peace now.”
Mr. Manring was a family man, a veteran and a machinist in a factory back in the era when blue collar jobs brought the wages and benefits to support a family and veteran status was naturally associated with being an upstanding person.
I still refer to him as “Mr. Manring,” rather than Roy Manring, because he was one of the adult volunteers for our Boy Scout Troop 54 in New Albany in the early 1970s. The form of address I used then for our adult leaders still seems proper to me.
Yet I was a rebel — then, as now. And when I beheld the green uniforms, the trademark salute and the combat medal-like layout of our merit badges, I would be aware of a contradiction between my like of scouting and my passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Among our troop’s adult leaders, two — including my easygoing uncle Joe — were Spiro Agnew-admiring conservatives and World War II veterans.
Mr. Manring, however, didn’t show his ideological cards. He always maintained an easy smile and although his dark eyes were piercing and handsome, they were wide and innocent. He seemed perpetually to be an uncomplicated, contented, locally immersed average person, untouched by the controversies of the wider world.
But before I make him sound like the kind of person who might not follow the national news, let me recall one day when I was 11 when my mother astonished me by telling me that my very own scout troop’s adult volunteer had in the early 1950s been a national news story.
Mr. Manring was interviewed on the Today Show. That’s the NBC Today Show, with the whole country watching.
And no, this wasn’t one of those chance interviews with tourists hanging out by Rockefeller Center. Mr. Manring was a guest in the studio, telling the nation of a medical miracle, as Mom passed the story on to me. She said that while he was in combat in the Korean War, he was hit with a barrage of gunfire and survived having nine bullets in his body at once.
I don’t recall her giving any more details, except that Mr. Manring seemed homespun during the interview, and I got the impression that he was almost casual talking to the nation about such a hellish experience.
I don’t know which Today Show icon conducted the interview, but I figure a polished and professional Hugh Downs or Dave Garroway sitting with a warm and folksy laborer made for as unlikely an encounter as when the unknown Korean villager and the teenager from Southern Indiana faced each other down for a horrifying moment in a war waged by superpowers so beyond the reach of either.
Flash forward to the era of the internet. I now find out that Mr. Manring’s voluminous wounds weren’t from one-to-one combat.
He had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans and was one of 42 U.S. captives shot on a hillside while their hands were tied behind their backs. It was a massacre.
Records were vague and for decades Mr. Manring had understood that he was the sole survivor. Hence, the solo Today Show appearance.
A historian researching the atrocity in the mid-1990s found that in fact five people had survived — three of whom were still living — and persuaded the Army to give the trio medals to note the suffering of all 42 of the POWs. The Pentagon also offered them a trip back to South Korea in 1999 to let them try to identify the exact spot of the massacre so a plaque could be placed there on the 50th anniversary the following year.
From the British newsreel on the Waegwan massacre
One of the three was not physically up to the trip — so my former scout leader and a fellow survivor, a private first class who had been Mr. Manring’s friend during the war, traveled to a hillside near Waegwan, South Korea. (The friend, who of course had been presumed dead by Mr. Manring for more than 40 years, lived in Cincinnati, just 110 miles away, all that time. When Mr. Manring learned that his buddy in fact had not been killed in the massacre, he jumped in his car and drove straight up I-71 to reunite with him).
In 1999, the return trip to Korea commenced, and a Boston Globe reporter accompanied Mr. Manring and his Cincinnati friend all the way to Waegwan. She reported that Mr. Manring had taken not the nine bullets I recall in my mother’s telling, but 14 — including five from what we call “friendly fire.”
The Globe, detailing the horrible events on the hillside in 1950, said that after the North Koreans left the 42 Americans for dead, the bullet-ridden Mr. Manring began to hobble away from the killing site, only to be shot at by a U.S. unit which was unable to identify his tattered uniform.
Ravaged seemingly beyond hope of survival by both sides in a war euphemistically called a “police action,” he spent 18 months in hospitals in Korea, Japan and the United States. Amazingly, as a boy scout, I never recall detecting a limp or a stammer or any other indication that this happy and laid back man could ever have been victimized by violence on such an historic scale.
For a long time, even some of those closest to Mr. Manring didn’t fully know either.
He told the Globe reporter: “My kids knew I was an ex-POW, but they didn’t know what I had been through…. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, except my wife.”
The reporter watched Mr. Manring and his buddy examine the terrain around Waegwan for hours, patiently trying to match what they were seeing with 49-year-old memories. Then, in one instant that brought back an anguish the opposite of the mood familiar to his New Albany piers, Mr. Manring froze, fell to his knees on a rock and said he knew this was the spot.
Shuddering, he described to the Globe how on that day in 1950 his grandfather appeared to him in image just after the North Koreans pulled out, put his arm on the shoulder of the bloodied 18-year old and warned him: “They’re coming back, get out of here.”
The reporter and others in the entourage then allowed Mr. Manring and his friend a few minutes each alone on the hillside.
Mr. Manring returned, the Globe reported, then whispered:
“I talked to the boys. I hope I’m at peace now. I begged their forgiveness. I have dreams about them all the time. I feel guilty that I survived.”
There was one more profound memory the visit brought out, one which the reporter said caused Mr. Manring to be overcome with emotion.
Speaking softly, he said to her: “I’m going to tell you something I’ve hardly told anyone…. I shot a little Korean girl — she was maybe 8 or 10 years old.”
Mr. Manring then recounted a kill-or-be-killed moment in the early days of the war. His platoon was approached by a group of refugees, but when he took out his binoculars, he saw a girl among them holding a grenade — with the pin removed — forcing him, with no time to think, to become a killer in order to be a lifesaver.
He shot the child, resulting in the grenade exploding at her feet, killing many of the refugees, rather than her intended targets. Even though some of the refugees were found to be wearing North Korean uniforms under their civilian clothes, Mr. Manring, almost a half century later, thought of the person who nearly lobbed a live grenade at him and his colleagues first as a little girl, not a guerilla.
“I put a bullet in between her eyes,” he told the Globe, sobbing. “She bothers me to this day.”
Also around the 50th anniversary of the war, Mr. Manring discussed the incident with a student historian from Indiana University Southeast, who quoted him recalling the little girl on a website: “She comes and sees me every now and then. She asks me, ‘Why, why did you do this to me?’ I told her, ‘I’m sorry honey, but I had to.’ ”
After describing to the student the wartime policy of a ruthless North Korean government of using civilians of all ages as homicidal infiltrators, Mr. Manring added that he would again respond the same way to seeing the child pull the pin.
Reading the full story of the anguish in our cheerful scout volunteer’s past opened my eyes to the dual role of soldiers as victims and offenders in war.
This has always complicated peace activism by rendering expressions of appropriate sympathy for them vulnerable to being twisted into pro-war spin.
Hesitating to kill in a combat situation because of awareness of the enemy’s humanity is precisely what combat training is designed to prevent, as though such a moment is a fatal weakness. It is in fact our greatest strength.
Regarding the two directions from which the gunfire came that ravaged the teenage Mr. Manring, I was socialized during my childhood to see being shot by the other side, or one’s own, as polar opposite phenomena.
One is heroic and noble, the other an absurd boondoggle.
Yet if we accept the overriding principle of our religiosity that we are put in this world to love one another, are not all war wounds from friendly fire?
“Accidental” describes not just the five American-made bullets that hit Mr. Manring, but the whole scenario of a young man from New Albany and counterparts from equally insular villages on the Korean peninsula being whisked from lives of community involvement and small scale economics not to meet and interact, but to kill or be killed.
Roy Manring donated many hours to help our scout troop’s leaders help me and my young colleagues learn to work together pitching tents, preparing food, hiking, telling folk tales – fitting his volunteering in around the customary 40 hours a week of conscientious factory work when American industrial jobs were in their prime. Precisely the day-to-day mundanity which boys of my youth turned to war comics to escape in pursuit of a glamorous warrior narrative we believed was at the heart of our gender’s identity.
We did not see that the time spent quietly adding to lives by one’s own initiative – rather than imperiling lives, one’s own included, by robotically adapting to an arbitrary and unnatural state of enmity – constituted Mr. Manring’s true moments of valor.
There was a time when one office co-worker or member of the lunch bunch was the go-to person for questions like, “Who was Lincoln’s first vice-president?” or “What year did ‘Jeopardy’ premier?”
I remember that time well because I was that one turned to to instantly produce “Hannibal Hamlin” or “1964.” Then came Google on I-pads and my principal role in the group was obsolete.
As with all who find themselves displaced by technology, I had to find new skills to, in this case keep my sense of validation, rather than employablity.
For a while, that was tough! Gradually, though, I learned that I can have a purpose in the group by – this is so simple it is embarrassing – just being a pleasant person. I’d put that: by just being me, but the problem was, “me” had equaled “knowledge” for as far back as I could recall. Being the brain was a great gig for so long that I complacently stuck with it, until my support system was yanked away, forcing me to access the many parts of myself I had been ignoring. So, thank you, Google!
That’s the positive angle on the new, less cerebral, more personable me. There also have been unhappy developments which have influenced this change.
Months after Robin Williams’ stunning death in 2014, his loved ones laid out how he simply could not control the genius currents constantly running his mind, pushing him always to observe, create comedy and dazzle, a three-step process that had long been as natural, even automatic to him as breathing.
His stuck-on mind was so fast, that being humorous on the spot became a command more so than a talent. He began hallucinating, then experiencing dementia through a condition called Lewy Body Disorder, so named from a protein called alpha-synuclein abnormally deposited in the brain in configurations known as Lewy bodies.
No, I have never had that, or experienced anything like Robin Williams’ reported symptoms.
Nor has my mind reached the level of dysfunction endured by Phil Ochs, an outspoken folk singer in the early 1960s. He was my kind of person: left wing, esoteric and fearless.
The son of an army doctor in World War II, Phil Ochs’ genius produced biting satire which attacked shortcomings he saw among progressives, as well as excoriating capitalism and racism.
Colorful, handsome and daring, Ochs had high standards for his art and for left activism. He occasionally argued with members of his own audiences over pronouncements they shouted.
Yes, I can identify with Phil Ochs, primarily because his depth of understanding was a burden. In a society of snappy phrases and sound bites, getting elaborate messages out through pop culture eventually is futile, I believe.
I figure that may have been one of the factors in his losing his mind in the 1970s, even becoming dissociative from his own identity.
His changes seemed innocent at first. His music’s ardent leftist tone softened as Ochs did songs of centrist Americana and he became longing for martyred brothers John and Robert Kennedy. The changes then kicked into rapid gear. After becoming homeless, Ochs was diagnosed as genuinely perceiving that he was someone else – a self-invented persona Ochs gave the name John Butler Train (after JFK and William Butler Yeats). And he believed he, as Train, had killed the great folk figure Phil Ochs.
He eventually regained his identity and seemed clear headed and contented if apathetic while living with relatives on Long Island, N.Y.
He did child care for nephews and nieces, played cards and did little else, acting blasé about his musical achievements and the political struggles wrapped up in them. Internally, however, Phil Ochs was not so sedate. He committed suicide in 1976.
Again, my strains in life have not been as great as what Ochs faced, but had I achieved some national stature, who knows?
I’ve gone through some similar outlook adjustments. I took on the world in my late teens and early 20s, often championing leftist causes in my writings in mainstream and my college media, as well as letters to the editor in newspapers and over Marxist nations’ shortwave radio stations (shortwave was then essential in much of the world, but in the 1970s and ‘80s followed by only five percent of Americans, generally introverts and the NSA’s unit which created dossiers by monitoring letters like mine).
Suddenly feeling worn down by the absence of results in the me-generation society around me and put off by the sectarian splits on the world’s left, I started seeking social democratic change. I became more mellow and less strident, much in the same manner as Phil Ochs had, and started feeling more affinity with the society’s better angels. I even gave a tip of the hat to John and Bobby Kennedy.
I saw great progress possible via better social policies like family planning, gun controls, mass transit and restorative justice.
My path has resembled Phil Ochs only to a limited extent, but considering his end, the similarities have been enough to give me pause.
If there is one similar thread in what I have chronically experienced and the derailments of Williams’ and Ochs’ lives, it is overthinking. I am constantly aware — hyperaware of meanings to be defined from events, encounters and statements, even unscripted ones.
“You’re too much of an empath,” one acquaintance told me after I described how a stranger’s momentary frustration that morning over one of life’s rough spots was sticking with me all day.
Yes, I have trouble letting simple events I observe remain simple; I must fight the ingrained habit of referencing everything to the realm of complex ideas, concepts and polemics.
While sauntering along an apartment walkway to visit a friend in what happened to be the year 2001 I was greeted unexpectedly by a pleasant chatty little girl on a trike. She looked a little like the character Josephine Floyd, who speaks to her father in a picturephone call in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Most people would be content to note the nominal resemblance and move on. My instincts for drawing parallels wouldn’t nearly be sated with that.
I instantly decided to write a column for the monthly peace and justice newspaper I edited telling how the encounter with this charming child crystalized in my mind the differences between the future year envisioned by Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick and the real 2001.
That actual year was about whether little children would get health care, a home and eventually a job beyond Taco Bell, not whether life on a space station would beckon their fathers, who in the real 2001 may be known to the Josephine Floyds of the nation more for their signatures on child support checks.
That column was never written, a sign that my red hot penchant for epiphanies was beginning to cool.
Then came social media, which reconnected me with elementary school chums with whom I’d had almost no contact for decades. That opened my eyes to something else that might be an imbalance in my mind – it turns out I have precise memory skills that are astonishing, maybe even spooky to some.
“You mean everyone can’t do that?” I asked a 6th grade classmate from 40-plus years earlier when he was flabbergasted at how I, from memory, tagged everyone in his copy of the class picture – in two minutes. No, that is not a normal skill, I learned.
Though neither he nor any of the other schoolmates I checked in with after joining Facebook thought it troubling that I could, say, remember particular questions they had asked our teachers during lessons on adjectives and adverbs or South American geography, I became a little self-conscious.
Was this newfound ability a gift, or was it creepy? After all, some of these folks about whom I could remember such details were people I had never actually talked to back in school.
More to the point of my present agenda, would it be an obstacle to improving my social contacts – just another reminder that I have always been different?
When asked by an innocently smiling person from way back, “How do you remember all this?” I, perhaps out of a sudden awareness that this could indeed be a problem, or just being lightheartedly self-effacing, told her, “I’m forgetful impaired.”
Truth is, my bigger situation is hyperawareness. And as a method of treatment, I am experimenting with being less precise on arcane data. In conversations, I’m saying, “that was more than 30 years ago,” instead of my traditional way of citing of the exact number when that number is not essential to the topic.
I’m asking myself, how much should I hold onto empathy over some complete stranger missing a bus this morning, or a driver pulling away not realizing their soft drink had been placed on their car roof.
Or a telephone customer to whom I gave the wrong serial number on a model railroad set sold at the store where I at age 18 worked my first job, forcing her and her husband to drive across town on a snowy night in pursuit of a coveted product it turned out we did not have. Yes, self-forgiveness is another issue involved in my being “forgetful impaired,” perhaps better described as an inability to let go.
I’m also using paraphrases more when they will do instead of exact quotes in recounting statements by public figures, or a judge’s ruling on a water rate hike, or my 2nd grade teacher when she taught us what homonyms were in 1966 – uh, make that more than 50 years ago.
Brian Arbenz, a self-published of author and independent journalist, lives in Louisiville, whose residents may notice he seems less deep in thought these days.