Friday, December 16, 2011

The Dood Abides

I watched the movie "The Big Labowski" the other night. This 1998 cult classic follows the misadventures of 3 idiots, as they attempt to navigate the turbulent waters of the Cohen Brothers' imaginations. Jeff Bridges plays the lovable Lebowski, a burned out free loader, whose friends call, "The Dude." After surviving a severe beating by rug pissers, a shoot out with nihilistic terrorists, and several bad (but creative) hallucinations, Jeff Labowski explains it all away with the simple statement, "The Dude Abides."

My dad, Lieutenant Commander Robert J. Riger was also called "The Dood." My little sister Betsy named him that when she was in second grade. Dood was a devout smoker of KOOL 100s, and Betsy made him a ceramic ashtray with this new monicker permanently fired into it. Everyone called him Dood for the rest of his life.

The journey from Lieutenant Commander to Dood involved an electrical engineering degree from the Naval Academy in 1949, the Korean Conflict, a nervous breakdown, schizophrenia, mental institutions, Thorazine and the ubiquitous dark cloud of depression that also followed him for the rest of his life.

Nicotene was Dood's drug of choice. He only took the anti-psychotics because he had to. Without them, his life would turn into a Cohen brothers movie, replete with hallucinations and terrorists and the occasional rug pisser. Cigarettes (and coffee) had a marvelously calming affect on Dood, and just plain took the razor sharp edge off of his life. After his third heart attack, my mom made him stop, which meant she quit buying them for him. After several weeks of brooding angst, I became his connection to the tobacco industry. I couldn't stand to see my old man live the rest of his obviously short life, in a constant state of frustration and anger. Even Mom had grown weary of the old curmudgeon my dad had become. Cigarettes were as permanent a part of his life, as the stains between his index and middle fingers.

Except for those stains, my old man had beautiful hands. With them, he could play the piano with exceptional ability. In fact, Dood could play anything he ever heard. When pressured, he would sit down in front of our Chickering upright baby grand and proceed to blow us all away with his repetoire of show tunes, college fight songs, and just about anything else that had earned its way into the lexicon of musical Americana. Often someone would ask him to play one of the current hits. He would hang his head and look at the keyboard for a few seconds as if he could see something moving. And then, out of nowhere but his permanently damaged mind, he would hammer out the request, better than if it was in a professional musician's fake book. There was more singing in my house than in most Irish pubs on a Saturday night.

Dood was a gentle, talented, loving soul. It took me fifty years to realize that there was nothing wrong with him that's not inherently wrong with us all. Eugene O'Neill nailed it when he said that "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue." Dood died at 53. The official cause of death was heart failure and emphysema. He was buried at the Lutheran Church in Gatesburg, Pennsylvania, where he had been living for nearly 10 years. But the Dood abides forever in my heart and mind and DNA.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How to Hop a Car

February of 2010 has delivered record snow to the megalopolis that extends from New York to Washington, D.C.. I have lots of friends and family whose lives have been disrupted by it. The emotions that they're sharing on Facebook regarding these storms range from mild irritation to despair. I can't help but think of a happier time when we would have sold our souls for this kind of weather.

As a boy growing up in the sixties, I could hardly sleep the night before a potential "Snow Day." I'd spring from my bed in the pre-dawn hours, run downstairs in my pajamas to the kitchen, and then turn on the local radio station. I remember huddling over a heat register in the corner, with a blanket wrapped around me to trap the hot forced air. One by one my brothers and sisters would join me in my tee pee to listen for the only thing that mattered to us that day. After several commercials and a few songs, the litany of school closings would begin. Delivered in alphabetic order to heighten the suspense, it took a long while to get to "St. Peter's Elementary School in Riverside, NJ". The endorphin rush that I experienced with that announcement has yet been matched in all my years. You'd have thought we had won the lottery. Invariably, our startled parents would shuffle into the kitchen and pretend that they had no idea what all the noise was about. "Snow day" we'd shout; "school is closed."

Oatmeal and hot chocolate were the only things you should eat on a fine day like this. All the while, we'd chatter about snow balls and snow men and sleds and stuff. However, when I became ten years old there was only one thing in my mind, and I dared not mention it with my parents present. It was an extremely dangerous and foolish winter sport that we called "hopping cars."

Hopping Cars was a rite of passage for every boy in my neighborhood. When the streets were covered with snow, and after the plows had made their initial pass, we'd congregate on a street corner and wait for just the right vehicle. It was similar to the way surfers hang out for good waves out beyond the breakers. We tried not to look conspicuous, else the driver might give us the "dirty look", letting us all know that they would not tolerate our shenanigans. You had to learn how to size up approaching cars: little old ladies were for the younger boys, young men in muscle cars were for the 8th graders. As they'd approach the corner, and have to slow down to make the turn, we'd rush their rear bumper, 3 to 4 boys at a time. Timing was critical. Too early and you were busted. The driver would spot you in their peripheral vision and either stop dead or speed up to avoid capture. So you'd let them roll on buy and then slip in behind them, grab the bumper at a full run, squat down to lower your center of gravity and then hang on for dear life. It was kind of like water skiing, the trick being to keep your feet under you.

If car hopping was an winter Olympic event, it would consist of three portions: the mount, the ride and the dismount. Scoring would be a combination of how well you executed all three, and their associated degrees of difficulty. A perfect ride might unfold as follows. Catch a GTO with a young male behind the wheel. If detected, then the degree of difficulty goes up. Smoothly settle into the low squat and appear relaxed and nonchalant as you traverse a course of the drivers choosing. Maintain your hold and balance throughout the ride, while successfully maneuvering across potholes, manholes, and turns. No one to my knowledge ever attempted a railroad crossing. That's akin to the elusive quadruple axle in figure skating. The longer the ride, the more points you would accrue. Dismounting the vehicle needed to be deliberate and controlled, with extra points for flair. Falling off under any circumstance would lower your score by one full point.

Amazingly, the safety equipment was relatively primitive, and consisted of several layers of clothing, enough to keep you warm the entire day, and a pair of gloves to keep your fingers from being severed. Galoshes were recommended, but optional. This depended on the age of the contestant and/or his desire to impress the spectators and the competition. Helmets were not allowed, this was the sixties.

I asked one of my childhood friends today who still lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia if anybody had hopped his car yet. He said that it's not something they do anymore. I was halfway home on the interstate before I realized why. Virtually all late model cars are equipped with bumpers that have absolutely no hand holds. It might be possible to latch onto the license plate or the tail pipe, but I doubt if either option would turn out well. The bumpers that we had back in the sixties were chrome plated steel rails, bolted to the frame, and hung out there just begging to be ridden. I'm also pretty sure parents, cops and social workers would take a dim view of such behavior nowadays. It's not that we weren't valued as kids, it just that recklessness was more of a traditional value back then. There were future wars to be fought. And somebody would have to spawn the yet to be conceived generation of extreme sports athletes.

So what are all the boys doing during these recent epic snow storms? They're safe and warm, in front of their TV sets, with video game controllers in hand. If I had any brains, I'd produce a game called "Hopping Cars."

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I Thank Thee
Jane Crewdson (1860)

O Thou whose bounty fills my cup,
With every blessing meet!
I give Thee thanks for every drop--
The bitter and the sweet.

I praise Thee for the desert road,
And for the riverside;
For all Thy goodness hath bestowed,
And all Thy grace denied.

I thank Thee for both smile and frown,
And for the gain and loss;
I praise Thee for the future crown
And for the present cross.

I thank Thee for both wings of love
Which stirred my worldly nest;
And for the stormy clouds which drove me
Trembling to Thy breast.

I bless Thee for the glad increase,
And for the waning joy;
And for this strange, this settled peace
Which nothing can destroy.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Magician's Stooge

While surfing through the bottomless pit of useless drivel on the TV today, I came across a documentary about magician's assistants. It was called, "The Woman in the Box", and it was about stage magic from the unique perspective of the women who helped magicians pull off their illusions. That's when it all came back to me. (Here's where I would insert a rolling harp arpeggio if I had one, but then, this is a blog not a movie.)
I'm not sure if they still do this, but the high school that I attended in the late sixties would have what they called "assemblies" about 4 times a year. Everyone attended, all four grades, and they were a nice break from the routine of classes. Held in the auditorium, they would sometimes show an old movie, or feature some sort of speaker. This time however, they brought in a magician. Why, I'll never know, but I have to say that this was the "Mother of All High School Assemblies."
I can't remember the magician's name, but he was very very talented. He worked with birds - lots of them; and handkerchiefs, and levitaded things and made stuff disappear - you know the usual fare. Above all though, he was a good showman, and within an hour's time, he had everyone clapping and cheering and believing that the laws of physics were fun to break.
Just when you thought that he had reached the climax of his show, he dialed it down. There in the confines of a single spot light, he started to tell us about his profession.
The magician stated as a matter of fact, that the majority of his craft was creating illusions through slight of hand. Misdirection was his principle tool. If he could get everybody to look "here", then he could pull off the stunt "there". To illustrate how this worked, he needed a volunteer from the audience.
As I sat there in the dim of the house lights, I looked around to see which brave fool would raise their hand, and I heard him say "you sir." To my shock, I turned my attention toward the stage to find him pointing directly at me. I immediately replied not with words but with body language. Simultaneously raising my eyebrows, lowering my chin and ever so sheepisly touching my sternum with my index finger, I heard him say, "yes, you sir ... six rows back." A cursory count of the five rows in front of me confirmed the dread that was boiling in side of me. I had just been fingered by a man of great cunning to join him on stage for some fateful purpose about which I was completely ignorant.
By the time I had arrived on stage, the magician's assistant met me with a smile and wooden folding chair, upon which she motioned for me to sit. After the usual pleasantries, he dove right into his demostration of the simple workings of slight of hand. My job was to bust him, and I was certain that I could. I watched him remove a single tissue from a box, and then ball it up by rolling it between the palms of his hands. Holding the wad directly in front of my face, he said, "now watch carefully." As he closed his hand around it, I thought to myself, "this is easy", only to find that when he opened it again, the kleenex had disappeard. The uneasiness that I felt was aggrevated by the sporadic laughter of the audience. The magician asked, "did you see it?" "Well, it was there, and was gone," I stammered. He said, let's try it again." Seven futile attempts later, with the entire student body of Riverside High School rolling in the isles, he instructed me to look on the floor behind my chair. There they were, seven white facial tissues, glowing in the spot light. I could feel my face turning red as the magician explained to me that he had simply tossed them up over my head. I had been had, and it was great! I don't think I've ever felt more alive.
Having proved his initial point, the magician moved on to "the rest of the story." He implied that some magic was difficult, if not impossible to explain, as is anything mystical or surreal. Figuring that he was done with me, I slowly started to side step stage left. He caught me out of the corner of his eye, and like a traffic cop with flair, he raised his right arm and said, "stop, I'm not done with you." Just then his assistant appeared with several polished steel rings about 14 inches in diameter. Striking a pose center stage, she held them above her head, and after a half pirouette, placed them on the stand behind her.
The magician grabbed two of the rings and beckoned me center stage. He handed them to me and then asked me examine them carefully. They were two precision-machined hoops of solid steel, identical in size and weight, with no gaps, seams, hinges, hair-line cracks, flaws, imperfections, or anything else that could explain what I was about to witness. Holding them at a comfortable distance from my eyes, once again he said, "now watch." Slowly and deliberatly, he rubbed them together. I heard a slight whisper of steel sliding against steel. There's no explaination for what I saw. Two separate rings became joined like links in a chain. Once again the magician asked, "did you see it?" "No." I had to be honest. It was like I had fallen asleep for a second. "Ok," he said, "watch carefully." As easily as he conjoined them, he separated them. I was being deceived, and my eyes were complicit in the matter. Again and again, his question was simple. "Did you see it?" "No" was my simple reply.
As a cat toys with a mouse, he soon grew tired of me, and turned to his assistant. One by one she tossed the other rings to him, maybe seven in all. One by one he popped them together, and then one by one, he took them apart. He could even juggle them, and this elicited some sporadic applause, which grew and grew untill finally, standing there with a chain of rings stretched out before him, he gathered them together in one hand, and tossed them into the air. A thunderous crescendo of shouting and clapping accompanied the rings in flight, while we all watched them come apart, crash to the stage floor, and then scatter to the wings.
With one fluid motion he bowed low to the assembly, straightend up smiling, and then stretched his hand toward me, as if to say, "well done, my good and faithful servant." A roar erupted from the crowd. I was buzzing inside with adrenaline and endorphines. His assistant scrambled to recover all the rings and then led me by the arm to the short flight of stairs that led to my vacant seat.
Surely, there could be no more. But as the applause died down and the stage lights dimmed, he stood there in that solo spotlight, and thanked us. He was grateful that a thousand kids would take time away from their exciting classes to watch him work. He thanked the school administrators for their kindness. He thanked his lovely assistant and then, I swear he started to cry. On cue, she handed him a pink, silk scarf that he used to blot his tears. But then, with a wink and a wry smile he stuffed the scarf into his fist, disposing of it as only bona fide magicians can. I thought, "No, he can't end with this. Any magician can do that." It was then that I noticed band music softly playing in the house speakers. With slow, deliberate movements he would make the pink scarf appear and and then disappear again. The music grew louder throughout his routine. I know it now as John Phillip Souza's "Stars and Stripes Forever", and whenever I hear it played, I remember what amazing things he did that day. The pink scarf turned up again, peeking out of the lapel pocket of his tuxedo. He looked down at it and then back at the audience. Slowly he lifted it from its hiding place only to find it tied to a green one. And then that scarf was tied to another, and another... You've seen the routine before. Feverishly, he extracted the entire trane of silk that had been hidden on his body, and it lay in a waste-deep heap before him. But he wasn't finished yet. Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out an American flag - a really big American flag. It was the kind they fly over baseball stadiums and car dealerships. It was so big that he needed his assistant to hold up the other end. With the music reaching its climax, the two of them bundled up the flag, and from within the depths of its folds, he pulled out an American bald eagle. Holding the bird above his head, and carefull to avoid its enormous flapping wings, the magician saluted the audience that was now on it's feet, shouting and clapping to the marching rythem of his patriotic finale.
To this day, I'm not sure if I believe in magic. But what I witnessed on that day was something truely wonderful, and magical through and through.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Life is Puzzling

My brother John just sent me a short story about one of his earliest childhood memories. I was amazed how vividly he described the cluelessness of innocence. It's a dreamy state of awareness, where the pieces of the puzzle to whom we are becoming seem to just float into place. In isolation, those early events are mysterious, and at times wonderful, and sometimes scary. But a mother's love, or a teacher's genuine care can help bring order to the chaos, and in doing so, positively influence our developing lives.
Do you remember putting together jigsaw puzzles as a child? I think I remember every one. We would always start by putting the borders together first. It was almost a rule. It makes sense when you think about it, because we would usually set up the card table first. Then each kid would find their spot around the table, and immediately look for the pieces that have a straight edge. I'd get a little endorphin rush every time I got those first two pieces to fit together? That's when that voice inside would say "yea, you can do this". Gradually those two pieces became a line, and then four lines merged and met at the corners. You know, I can't ever remember bickering while we were working on a puzzle together. We'd willingly share pieces and the lid, knowing that each child was focused on a different portion the same goal. The more difficult puzzles might have taken days to assemble. Players would come and go. Mom and Dad, even Grandma would sometimes join in the fun. Occasionally, the last piece would be AWOL for a while, only to be found on the floor under the card table, all mangled and saliva-soaked? After a brief interrogation, the dog would usually fess up by looking confused and worried that he was about to be eaten by the family he had grown to trust?
There's been a lot of jigsaw puzzles in my life; some more difficult than others. But I am so grateful for the company I've kept and the time we've shared at the table. Even though the picture changes, I can still count on someone to say "hey, I think this is one of the pieces you've been looking for."
And above all, I still routinely refer to the lid. I think that everybody does in one way or another - especially at this time of the year.
So let me share the lid with you this holiday season, through the lyrics to one of my favorite songs. It's called Round & Round, by John and Carol Barnett.

Round and round, up and down,
Chasing the eternal sound,
The prayers of saints like incense rise
Up to Your throne, before Your eyes.

And day by day, and night by night,
You see between the wrong and right.
When world's collide and fall apart,
You find the pieces of each broken heart.

We exalt You Lord. We exalt Your Name.
From age to age Your Word remains.
We will sing your Praise in the Holy Place.
And we'll shine like stars to the glory and the honor of Your Name.

Merry Christmas Y'all

Monday, August 06, 2007

Random Thing #2

I used to be a political activist.
I hated Richard Nixon. And so did everybody I knew - except my grandmother. She loved "Tricky Dick" like nobody else. She gloated when he won reelection over what's his name in 1972. I bet her $10 that following Christmas that he wouldn't finish his second term of office. (I think they were just beginning to connect the dots in the Watergate breakin.) Anyway, I knew he was sleezy, and that it was just a matter of time. I was 19 years old and becoming politically active.
One cold Monday in early January I headed down to D.C. with a few other like-minded citizen friends to protest his second inauguration. After spending the night in the halls of Georgetown University, we joined a throng of peace marchers that eventually wound up at the Lincoln Memorial. I'd like to think that Pete Seager, Joan Baez and Alan Ginzberg were there too, but considering how much marijuana I smoked in those days, I can't be too sure.
Either way, we got bored with the crowds and the rhetoric and the lack of sanitary toilets, so we decided to mosy (mosie, mozy, mozie?) on over to Pennsylvania Avenue to catch a glimpse of the President. We passed the Washington Monument just as the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was(were) finishing up its(thier) senseless paint job. I remembered how incongruous swastikas were with the concept of democracy, but I guess that's not the first time that's ever happened.
The crowd lining the parade route was impenetrable. I've never seen anything like it. They were maybe 50 people deep. We kept sliding across the back of this mass of conservative humanity, hoping to out-flank it somehow. As we inched closer to the White House, some bleachers appeard, so we decided to make an assault on the high ground. My attempt to climb up the back of the bleachers was repelled by a plain clothes officer. Grabbing the hem of my US Army surplus overcoat, he pulled me down off of the bleachers, and told me to get lost, or else I could go to jail. I called him a fascist pig and ... wait a minute ... no, that's what I was thinking. What I said was more like, "uh,yes sir" and soon rejoined my friends. At that point, another offical looking person in a black trench coat handed us $200 worth of tickets to see the President and said, "Here, stay out of trouble". Each $50 ticket had a glossy picture of Richard Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew on it, and officially granted us admission to the expensive seats, right in front of the White House. We had no trouble finding a place to sit down, because the bleachers were only half full. Based on the amount of real fur and cashmere that surround us, we speculated that this was a VIP section, and that we had just been given free tickets to make it appear full for the TV cameras. We had the best freakin' seats you could get to see the inaugural parade!
The Chicago Police Motorcade led the procession. There were at least a hundred of them and they looked like Nazi wannabies, rumbling along on their Harlies and in their black leather boots, pants, jackets and caps. It made me wonder, what might be under all that sadistic outerwear. If I'm ever elected president, the Shriner clowns will lead my parade in their wacky little cars.
They were followed by a host of politicos and government big shots all itching to bask in the glow of the sunshine on this cold January morning. I recognized Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff in his navy dress blues. Then along came Spiro. He was already being investigated for tax evasion as former governor of Maryland, to which he soon pleaded "no lo contendre". (One down - one to go.) We couldn't resist the urge: the opportunity was perfect. As Spiro's limosine approached the friendlier part of the parade route, all four of us rose to our feet, and in mystical union, extended the middle fingers of welcome to the Vice President of the United States. About a half-dozen secret service agents slid one gloved hand inside their lapel, and stuck the index finger of the other inside their ear. Spiro T. glared at us with equal parts of disgust and disappointment. They didn't expect us to be there. We didn't belong there.
But fate has its fortunes, and this was our day to shine. Richard Millhouse Nixon was our next victim. It's not often you get to tell the President of the United States exactly how you feel about his foreign policy. We might have become a little boisterous, and intoxicated by the circumstances, but we got his attention. The message was a simple and clear...f*** you! About then the thought, "I'm going to jail" crossed my mind. But "The Trick", in characteristic fashion, stood up in the limosine, smiled, and returned the salute with arms extended outward above his head, fingers on both hands forming the universal sign for victory.
He was famous for that pose. If I'm not mistaken, the last film image that we have, is of him bording an Air Force One helicopter in disgrace, saluting the viewing public in like manner. Every politician since has eschewed this gesture, knowing how much bad karma is attached to it.
Grandma never paid up. She died shortly thereafter - of a broken heart I think. But I'll never forget that cold January day, and the profound impact I made on the American political system.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gimme a Break!

It's July 17, 2007, and that means that it's time for me to wax political. We're a year and a half away from electing a new president, and as the excitement builds, I'm happy to share my opinion.
Did you know that there's a cartoon series called Lil' Bush? It's on Comedy Central every Saturday morning, (which technically satisfies the FCC requirement that every station provide a modicum of children's programming), but in truth, it's very sophisticated, adult, political satire. Which according to experts who study this kind of thing, only serves to fuel the apathy that consitently prevents young liberal voters from actually voting. Which in my mind, is just another fine example of why freedom of speech as guaranteed by the Constititution is nothing to be feared. If all of the totalitarian governments throughout the world only knew this secret truth, they could stop worrying about losing their jobs, relax a little bit, and laugh a whole lot more.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that I'm already getting bored with the run up to the election. At this time, it appears that the Republican front runner is Fred Thompson, who's not even running. Huh? Well, at least he's another actor, and if history does in fact repeat itself, that could turn out ..... O.K.
For me, the high water mark of the American Political System was reached in 1998, when Jesse Ventura was elected the 38th governor of the great state of Minnesota. A.k.a Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a renouned professional wrestler, defeated 2 other "legitimate" candidates in what can only be described as the greatest political smack down in U.S. history. Jesse's other credentials included: retired Navy SEAL, body guard for the Rolling Stones, actor, talk radio host, NFL color commentator and mayor of a small town in Minnesota. Jesse embodied all that is good and safe and right with America. Who wouldn't want this guy to run their state for them?
Apparantly Minnesotans did, and in large numbers. By the end of his first year in office, he had earned a 73% approval rating, the highest in Minnesota state history. Bumper stickers proudly boasted "My governor can beat up your governor". The honeymoon only lasted for another year though, as a litany of "controversial remarks" (surprise) began to erode their confidence in his goobernatorial abilities. After 4 years in office, Jesse "The Body" Ventura did not seek reelection.
Jesse's meteoric political career represents what I have long suspected to be the essence of the American political system. That like professional wrestling, it's mostly fake. Wikepedia defines Pro Wrestling as "the performance, management, and marketing of a form of entertainment that is based on simulated elements of catch wrestling, mock combat and theatre." My apologies to all the Gomers out there who are hearing this for the first time,but THE OUTCOMES ARE PREDETERMINED. I'm not saying that elections are rigged, just that they're just for show, that's all. "We the people" individually decide who we're going to root for, and sometimes become passionately engaged in this mock struggle between good and evil. In a good election, our candidate wins, and we get to gloat in their victory right up untill we find out that, after a while, nothing really changes. If our candidate should lose, well that's not so bad. We get to criticize, mock and accuse the incumbant for at least 4 years. Likewise, nothing really changes. The issues are still the same: immigration, education, security, abortion, poverty, pollution, energy dependance, racism, inflation, taxation, health care, free enterprise, big government, ...... continue unaffected and undetected untill the advent of the next political season. Then the pundants, promoters and profiteers begin to work their magic and cast their spells upon their loyal but naive fan base, untill we're all cheering or geering ouselves into an emotional feeding frenzy called the electoral process. The ideal contest would be Hillary vs. Condoleeza Rice,(Yea, girl wrestling), but alas, Condie has no interest in running for office, ever.
Meanwhile, it's all about the money. But maybe that's the good news. Whoever is really running this country, is actually doing a pretty good job. The economy's strong. Our standard of living is still the highest in the world, and steadily rising. Maybe the effective input/interferance of "we the people" would just mess things up.
Nevertheless, I'm still going to vote. I'll continue to pursue the truth in the midst of all the emotional hype and deception.
No deja los bastardos a desanimarte.