Chuck Berry, RIP

Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 90, and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed isn’t faring so well lately, but the aftershocks will still be felt for a while.
It would be going too far to say that Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, which seemed to spontaneously rise from the American soil and burst forth from the rural honky-tonks and ghetto dives and on to the Ed Sullivan Show back in the mid-50s, but otherwise it’s hard to overstate how much he had to do with it. He was the first honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roller to wind up with Patti Page and Mitch Miller and all the other big-name pop stars on Hit Parade, and he was the very quintessence of the deep-rooted yet newfangled genre. Three simple chords borrowed from the blues, a certain twang taken from country, a couple of those can’t-get-out-of-your-head hooks redolent of the popular standards, all delivered with a hot-rod drive and certain goofy swagger in the sly clever lyrics. The formula yielded a remarkable string of classic American songs, plenty of tabloid scandals, and a broader cultural revolution that is still with us for better or worse.
Chuck Berry was one of those only-in-America stories, which he always gratefully acknowledged, even when he was in jail. He was a more-or-less-happily married 30-year-old aspiring hairdresser when he became the prototypical rock ‘n’ roll star, and was not only black but quite defiantly so at a time when only such refined negro gentlemen as Nat “King” Cole and The Ink Spots got to share space with Patti Page and Mitch Miller on the Hit Parade, but Berry was simply too cool to be denied his place in the spotlight. The extra years in his conveniently located hometown of St. Louis had allowed him to soak up all the blues licks of such southern greats as Muddy Waters, the rollicking style of country that was being played out west by the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well the gritty gospel of Chicago’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the emerging rhythm and blues sound of Louis Jordan and the other jump bands that were on the air from the coast to coast, and he still had some sex appeal to the mix.
Berry started playing around with his odd melange of music, and on a trip to Chicago he was recommended to Chess Records, a label run by a couple of Polish Jews who had an uncanny knack for finding and recording the blues. They’d scored plenty of hits on the southern and urban R’n’B charts with such all-timers as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and had one of the best and scariest of the early rock ‘n’ rollers with Bo Diddley, but Berry had something that allowed the label to start selling to white and black and hispanic and any other kind of restless teenager you might find anywhere in the country. His first hit was “Maybellene,” derived from the old country standard “Ida Red,” which opened with a raucous guitar solo and revved through an all-too-familiar tale of a faithless love. The string of hits that followed included “School Days,” a witty lament about being stuck in class, “Thirty Days,” another chase after a wandering woman, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” which featured a far raunchier take on romance that somehow made it past the era’s censors, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” both of which celebrated a brand new music that suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
There were also such classics as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” not to mention such gems as “You Never Can Tell” and “Come On” and “Little Queenie” that should have been bigger hits, and pretty much every single track on every LP in our prized box set of Berry’s complete Chess Recordings is grade-A badass rock ‘n’ roll music. The old bluesman Willie Dixon put together a crack band that included the great Johnnie Johnson on piano, the Chess brothers wisely recorded them in the same rough spare style of their blues acts, and the material came through as something altogether new. Aside from the quirky hillbilly influence that Berry had learned to survive his white honky-tonk gigs, there was also an ingeniously corny quality to the lyrics, which had people keeping their ginger ale in “coolerators” and motorists “motorvatin'” and somehow rhymed “tearing up the road” with “V-8 Foad.” The short stories with the steady beat told all the old stories about cheating women and somehow recalled schoolboy angsts and in sum celebrated a tail-finned and jet-engined and racially mixed and rapidly evolving America of limitless opportunity.
Berry grabbed the opportunity to become a household name and an eventual face on the Mount Rushmore of American music, but the rest of his complicated story was part of the same only-in-America narrative. Despite Berry’s widespread appeal and appearances in Hollywood movies it was the equally talented and slightly better-lookiing and far whiter Elvis Presley who popularized the miscegenation of country and western and rhythm and blues known as rock ‘n’ roll, and he once again found himself afoul of the law. He’d served some time for armed robbery before his show biz breakthrough, and at the height of the rock ‘n’ roll craze he was sentenced to further time for a violation of the Mann Act, which at the time everyone understood to mean something sleazy and interstate involving one of those teenage girls that Berry was always singing about. That was in 1959, the same year Buddy Holly died and Presley got drafted and Jerry Lee Lewis was kicked off the radio for a sex scandal of his own involving a teenaged girl who also happened to be a second cousin.
Rock ‘n’ roll survived the ensuing few years of clean cut white boys and girl groups with white dresses and bouffant hair, then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys and all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll craziness came along, and somehow Chuck Berry remained just as cool as ever. Because of a pretentious aversion to the notion of “cover songs,” meaning the age old practice of great singers and great musicians playing from the repertoire of great songs, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really have standards such as the blues and jazz and pop and country singers can draw from, but there’s never been a time when it wasn’t acceptable to play a Chuck Berry song. Back in the earliest days Jerry Lee was a cutting a salacious “Little Queenie” and Buddy Holly was making rock ‘n’ roll safe for bespectacled nerds with a very cool “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and even Elvis was offering up a still cool “Too Much Monkey Business.” All the hippie bands covered Berry tunes, and we especially like The Chocolate Watch Band’s “Come On,” and “Johnny B. Goode” was an almost obligatory part of any rock performance no matter how pretentious the performer. When the punks came along The Sex Pistols were reviving “Johnny B. Goode,” the oldie but goody about a country boy who could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell, and all of those bands seemed to striving to reclaim that ineffable primitivism of the Berry records.
Berry did pretty well for himself on the oldies circuit, playing with pickup bands in any town that would book him, and in the early ’70s he was back on the charts with a ridiculous little smutty novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling,” which put him on an arena tour that included a gig at Wichita’s Henry Levitt Arena where he absolutely wowed our junior high-aged selves. He played a gig at the White House a few years later, went to prison again for tax evasion a couple of weeks after that, was frequently honored with such gigs as an adulatory documentary of a thank-you concert with The Rolling Stones, and kept rock and rolling and paying the rent with it until his ’80s. We heard some good reviews from those shows, and the advance buzz on his last album is hopeful that he had yet another great record in him, and we note it has been dedicated to the woman he was still somehow more or less happily married to.
There were some other unseemly tabloid scandals, and legends about backstage spats with his equally tempestuous rock ‘n’ rollers from the stone age, but what would you expect from someone so exquisitely attuned to the very heart and soul of America? Should the country ever grow tired of “The Star-Spangled Banner” we’d recommend “Back in the U.S.A.” as a new national anthem, with its revved-up guitar licks and tinkling piano and heartfelt paean to a land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” Tail-fins are out of style and jet engines have lost their novelty but America is still a racially diverse and rapidly evolving land of unlimited opportunity, and for better and worse both Chuck Berry and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed have something to do with that.

— Bud Norman

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March Madness on the Prairie, Minus the Politics

An unaccountably warm February got all the trees and flowers budding around here, but March has thus far been back to its usual cold and windy way on the Kansas plains. The Kansas State University Wildcats played themselves into the round of 64 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament on Tuesday, though, and thus pretty much all Kansans are once again warmed by the fever of March madness.
Every state has its own distinct sports culture, but especially here in the hinterlands where there’s not much else to do. Down south in Oklahoma they’re mainly concerned with football, although they can boast about Oklahoma A&M’s basketball championships back in the ’40s with original big man Bob Kurland and many other big-time players since, and our kin in Oklahoma City do love that Thunder team in the National Basketball Association, and they can also boast about that injun Jim Thorpe as an all around-athlete and such stalwart baseball white boys as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The sparsely populated eastern part of Colorado that looks just like the sparsely western Kansas plays eight-man and six-man football and mostly concerns itself with five-man basketball just like western Kansas, but in the western half of the state they seem to ski and root for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Up north in Nebraska they only care about football, and although the baseball’s not bad they don’t seem at all embarrassed that except for Omaha’s Catholic Creighton University their basketball is abysmal. Back east in Missouri baseball’s the big thing, especially the Kansas City Royals and more especially the St. Louis Cardinals, and although they used to wreak occasional havoc in the old Big Eight’s basketball competitions they’re seemingly content as an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
Here in Kansas we take football and baseball seriously enough to have produced our per-capita share of top-notch players, and we’ve got high schools girls winning Olympic gold in skeet shooting and can boast of some legends in track and field and the skateboarders aren’t bad, but the big game by far around here is hoops. There’s no professional franchise in a state where the biggest city has only a half-million or so in its metro area, but we’ve got three state universities competing in the collegiate championship, several more playing in their lower divisions’ tournaments, the state’s highly competitive community college teams are always contenders, and even at the small school tourneys the state high school championships always feature enough talent to draw the recruiters for the next level.
Even the kids who didn’t make the high school teams are playing in the driveways and playgrounds all over Kansas, and we’d put them up against the kids playing in the driveways and playgrounds anywhere else. Folks have been playing the game around here ever since it was invented by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christians Associations that were here from the start, and ever since they’ve been pretty good at it. Naismith coached at the University of Kansas, where he’s the only coach with a losing record, and its program has won multiple national championships and is one of the most blue-programs in the country, with another number one seed in this year’s tournaments and a decent shot at winning it all. The land grant cow college Kansas State University has some big time wins to brag about, including several notable ones over the the snooty KU, many provided by those tough-nosed kids from the hard-luck small towns that those small school championships always seem to turn up.
As good as those small town Kansas kids are, we’re from the big bad city of Wichita and take a particular pride in our local brand of ball. The City League has sent several players to the pro ranks, including a couple of nice guys we went to school with, and many more to Division I collegiate glory, and we recommend that you get in shape for a pickup game around here. Although we spent a couple of all-too-carefree years at K-State and only a couple of hours at Wichita State University we root for the WSU Wheatshockers, because Wichita is our city and the ‘Shocks are its team. Back in the ’30s and ’40s they used to play their homes games at the old Forum building downtown rather on the campus, and tended to draw more from the local factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados rather than students, and although a local haberdasher built a roundhouse on campus in the ’50s and a local oil-refining billionaire rebuilt to state of the art more recently the Shocks still belong more to the factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados than the students. Over the years, Wichita State fans have had some lulls but also some things to cheer about.
Back in the ’60s WSU had some championship years in the then-feared Missouri Valley Conference, went to a Final Four in ’64, had another run in the ’80s that would have resulted in a Final Four if not for some recruiting violations and probations, made a few tournaments and won a few games in the ’90s, and for the past decade have been on another tear. Coach Greg Marshall inherited the team at a very down point, immediately started bringing it up, and has since notched a National Invitational Tournament victory and a Final Four and a 35-0 streak and a run of tournament appearances with at least one victory that bests some of the blue-blood programs, and we hopeful that will continue. As always the ‘Shockers are under-ranked as a 10 seed, but most of the sportswriters regard them as a favorite in their first-round matchup against Dayton University, and the Vegas line has the ‘Shockers as a 6.5 point favorite, and with all due respect to the hard-working factory of Dayton we like our chances. In the second round they’d most likely meet the University of Kentucky, which is about as blue-blooded a program as there is and the same ones who ended that 35-and-0 run in a down-to-the-final-second thriller, but who knows? The Washington Post’s supposed expert ranks the ‘Shocks as the sixth most likely winner overall, just behind KU and just ahead of Kentucky, and a Facebook friend altered us to some site that predicts WSU beating not only Kentucky but also the blue-blooded University of California-Los Angeles and University of North Carolina to get to another Final Four. Those scribes rightly note that “Wichita thrives on beating up snobs from the rich side of town and will relish giving UK a bloody nose,” and predicts “Wichita is going to the rich side of town with a pack of matches and a five gallon tank of gasoline and try to burn everything to the ground.
As nice as it sounds that’s a bit optimistic for our dour prairie souls to believe, but one can always hope. Next year the ‘Shocks are bringing everybody back from an already 30-win team, and they’ll all be one year better if Marshall’s methods once again prove true, and they’re also bringing in a juco player of the year and this 7’2″ Danish guy that looks pretty good from the YouTube videos, and the thought of how good that team will be should get us though one more change of the damnable seasons we experience around here.
In the meantime Kansas has three teams still playing, and even the hoops-crazed and more densely populated states of North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and New York and California can’t match that, and we’re even rooting for that snooty KU and hoping for a rematch next year, which would allow the ‘Shocks to go 3-and-0 against the rich kids in tournament competitions, and we’ll still put our Kansas kids in the driveways and playgrounds up against anyone. Back in the day we had a pretty mean hook shot ourselves, even if we never came close to playing on the high school team with those future pros, and on these cold and windy days that’s a warm memory of a cold wintertime’s most beautiful game.

— Bud Norman

What We Did With a Lost Hour

Yesterday was a slow news day, which was a good a thing because most people were wandering around more slowly than usual after losing an hour of sleep to to the switch from Daylight Savings Time to the most usual Standard Time. That early morning moment when the clock sprang forward an hour on Sunday turned out be one of the most reported-on events of the day, and The Washington Post even had an opinion piece about about how “Daylight saving time is just one way standardized times zones oppress you.”
Although we were a bit groggier than usual when reading the headline, we really didn’t find the time change or our time zone all that oppressive. Being the nocturnal sorts we had been up to watch the clock jump from 1:59 to 3:00 on our computer screen, but we were nonetheless in our usual spot in the pews at the always-too-early services at the nearby church where we worship, and when we congratulated the deacon on getting there early enough to set that lone clock at the back of the pews ahead he explained that it was programed to spring forward by itself, and after a scholarly sermon from the Gospel According to John we both agreed that this was indeed still an age of miracles. We quickly got back that hour of lost sleep and then some with an afternoon nap, and with half the usual caffeine we were relatively alert during the early evening rehearsals for our annual amateur theatrics, and at no point on a cold and rain day did we feel any more oppressed than usual by standardized time zones.
The author of The Washington Post’s opinion piece is described as a “doctoral candidate in sociology at Columbia University,” which is more than we can say, but he also “studies organizations and the sociology of science, knowledge and technology,” which we have occasionally and deeply dabbled in, and at this point we are no longer intimidated by academic credentials. His essay was nicely illustrated with a well-shot silhouette photograph of the clock tower in Clay Center, Kansas, a town we quite like, which warmed our Kansan hearts, and he starts with a perfectly reasonable rant about all the Daylight Savings rigmarole, which is arguably unreasonable in this day and age when most folks don’t work on a farm, but from there it devolves into utter nonsense about the oppression of time zones and and time measurement and time in general.
Time zones make sense to us, given the fact that the sun rises in the east and then rises somewhat later in the west, and that it would it be damned discombobulating on an everyday basis for all of us out west to have to get up at the same time as the folks back east, especially here on the western edge of the improbably vast Central Time zone where the days can last through the evening on a summer day. As imperfectly as those time zones may have been drawn, they’ve allowed people to start their day at the respectable hours and tend the fields and man the factory floors and come up with all sorts of caffeinated schemes in the office suites, and despite the banking time differences between the east and west coasts the coast-to-coast commerce has benefitted. That’s not a feature but rather a bug to our Washington Post opinion piece author, though, as he bitterly notes that “Standardized time is immensely useful. It is no exaggeration to say that the modern world depends on it.” We have our own complaints with the modern world, as regular readers of this publication well know, but we can’t see why a doctoral candidate in sociology at Columbia University is so dissatisfied with it that he would want to plunge any part of the world into the inevitable darkness that his apparent preference for a singular clock would inevitably cause.
The author seems to have a certain dislike of any measurement of time, especially those he deems artificial. Earth’s every trip around the Sun takes a year, every day represents another rotation of the Earth along that journey, and the months have something to do with the waxing and waning of the moon, so the author doesn’t object to that, but those seven days of the week and those 24 hours of the days and the sixty minutes within each hour and the sixty seconds of each hour strike him as suspiciously conducive to commerce. So far as we can tell the seven days of the week have something to do with the seven days God when created everything and then took a rest, even though they’re named for Roman gods and emperors and other pagan faiths, and the sixty minutes in an hour and the sixty seconds in a minute apparently derive from some ancient mathematical theorem that no one has ever disproved, and so far they’ve worked well enough for us to show up where we’re supposed to be at the right time, except for all the times when it usually our fault.
The author of the The Washington Post opinion piece seems to find the whole concept of time oppressive, and to that we can only say amen. A late and lamented friend of ours once wrote that “Frighteningly, at any given moment another hour has passed,” and we growing increasingly aware of his point with each passing day. Elect any old visionary you want, but the Earth will take another spin and edge another 365th on its passage around the Sun, you’ll also be another day older, and it really doesn’t matter if you break it down to longstanding mathematical theorems or some convoluted political philosophy.
On America’s command the sun will set another hour later tonight, and we’ll be glad of it, because we like the daylight, and we’ll enjoy watching it stretch into the summer solstice. We can remember some times right before Daylight Savings Time kicked in when we were waiting for a school bus in the dark, and even our nocturnal selves appreciate that some people like the early hours of day, so we don’t even argue much with that admittedly artificial Daylight Savings Time stuff. Tempus Fugit, as they used say a long time ago, so we’ll try to be more alert today.

— Bud Norman

A Day Without Women, and Another With Trump

Wednesday was a “Day Without Women,” and if not for all the news stories about it we wouldn’t have noticed. It was already the annual “International Women’s Day” on the calendar, so women got together and declared a general strike to protest President Donald Trump and other affronts to womankind, and a “Day Without Women” was the catchy name they came up for it.
The protest reportedly drew large crowds to rallies in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and other large cities, with smaller ones scattered around the country, and enough public school district teachers joined in to force several districts to shut down for the day. Meanwhile Trump remained president, the Republicans in congress went right ahead with consideration of a budget that would cut funding for Planned Parenthood, and someone on the Howard Stern was telling a sexist joke, along with all the usual domestic abuse and unwanted cat-calls and the slightly indignities that accumulate every, and all the coordinated outrage about it went largely unnoticed around here.
Being the contentedly solitary sorts we’ve survived many a day without women, or even men, and usually found it blessedly hassle-free. Even to the extent that we count on women for fast-food service and other commercial transactions, or just for some friendly conversation, the “Day Without Women” was pretty much as usual. The same group of delightful women in the local amateur theatrical we do every year were there at rehearsal, afterwards a lovely and charming young lady at the Thai fried rice place on West Street got us out take-out order of the very spicy chicken fried rice with admirable efficiency, and the woman with the mellifluous voice on the old folks AM radio station was playing some sultry Peggy Lee on the way home. There was nothing in the station’s news break about the local schools being closed, which was too bad for the local kids because the weather was unseasonably perfect for a day off, and although we didn’t check our Facebook we don’t think the general strike had much an effect on Wichita, Kansas.
Even here in the middle of the big red splotch on the electoral map, and despite our blissful bachelorhood, we’re quite sympathetic to at least some of the striking women’s complaints. Especially the more striking ones, if you’ll forgive the joke, which we couldn’t resist. Although we’ve never hesitated to argue with a woman that de-funding Planned Parenthood doesn’t constitute a “war on women,” and neither did any of that silly stuff they used against Republican nominee Mitt Romney back in ’12, we aren’t so willing to start a potential shouting match in defense of Trump. Especially if we were at a party and she were attractive and drunk and flirty, which is also a joke we apologize for but couldn’t resist.
The relative dearth of female cabinet picks and that transgender bathroom rule and the rest of what Trump has thus far done as president doesn’t bother us all that much, and most of the women we know seem similarly unbothered by any of it, but we can well understand the objections to the whole Trump persona. Even the most die-hard Republican women we know, and being here in the middle of that big red splotch of the electoral map that includes some pretty damned die-hard Republican women, would have preferred that their party had beaten Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with someone, for that matter anyone, who wasn’t a thrice-married and proudly adulterous strip club owner who habitually makes public comments on women’s looks and tells sexist jokes on the Howard Stern show and goes around grabbing women by their wherevers. That’s what our Republican women friends say, so you can easily understand that what our Democratic women friends have to say about Trump does not bear repeating in such a genteel and family-friendly publication as this.
Perhaps it’s some vestigial sense of chivalry, or maybe we’ve just been wussified the feminization of America, but we find it hard to argue with any of the women we meet who don’t like Donald Trump. Our God-fearing Church of Christ mother taught us an old-fashioned and even Old Testament respect for women, the old movies on the late show taught the same manly code, a series of ferocious girlfriends and fiancees and fleeting encounters have successfully demanded our full respect, and although feminism far too often makes a fool of itself we can’t deny it still has some valid complaints.
Trump doesn’t treat women well, either by the standards of early 21st century feminism or the manly code you’ll see in all those old movies that still pop up on the late show, and that is a conspicuous flaw in a President of the United States. If it hasn’t inarguably affected any of his policy decisions, it has given license to the up-and-coming comic who’s taken Trump’s place on the Howard Stern show to keep up the sexist jokes, and for the construction worker to feel unbound by political correctness and shout out his appreciation of female passerby’s breasts, and to confirm that the most vulgar aspects of our popular culture trump all.
This is bad news for both the old-fashioned fuddy-duddies on the right who thought they controlled at least the Republican party, and for those hippy-dippy do-in-the-road lefties who thought their domination of the popular culture would bring about a utopia of sexual equality, but that’s where find ourselves on another generally fine day without women.

— Bud Norman

Invasion of the Celebrities

Oprah Winfrey is reportedly considering running for president in 2020, which is the sort of celebrity gossip we used to happily ignore but now have to take seriously in the age of President Donald Trump. She’s a more popular television personality than Trump was before launching his political career, has just as much government experience, and would no doubt get the same lavish media attention Trump received in a presidential race. Her penchant for leaving gifts under the seats would play well with many voters, too, and her warmer and fuzzier public persona might prove all the more appealing after four years of Trump.
There’s also talk of running the musicians Kid Rock or Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent as Republican candidates for a Michigan Senate seat, billionaire sports owner and reality television star Mark Cuban is apparently starting to wonder why he couldn’t be president, rapper and Trump pal Kanye West has been making threats of a run for years, and former sitcom star Roseanne Barr already has a sixth-place finish in a presidential race and next time around all her crackpot conspiracy theories might not sound so crazy. Celebrities have leaped into high office before, including Sonny Bono and that guy who played the doctor on “Love Boat” to the House of Representatives, a former Saturday Night Live wag to the Senate, and professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura and professional body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorships of populous states.
The country had also elected a former Hollywood actor to the presidency, but only after he’d been president of a national labor union and served two terms as governor of the most populous state and many more years as an elder statesman of conservatism, and none of the current crop of celebrity contenders can boast such credentials. Kid Rock’s heavy-metal-rap-country stage show used to include a sidekick midget, so he can credibly claim to stand by the little man, and Nugent’s guitar solo on The Amboy Duke’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” still sounds better than that Elton John and Rolling Stones stuff Trump always plays at his rallies for some reason or another, but that’s not what we’re looking for in a candidate to what’s supposed to be the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Cuban strikes us as hipster version of Trump, and he traded Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks just before his Most Valuable Player Seasons, and unless he’s darned good on that reality show we’re not that impressed. Kanye West is kookier than Rosanne Barr, too, and the past track record of celebrity apprentices is not promising. Sonny Bono and the Love Boat guy were mediocrities in the House, that Saturday Night Live guy is as much an embarrassment to Minnesota as the pro wrestler was, and Schwarzenegger was far better in “Conan the Barbarian” than he was in the role of Governor of California.
Still, celebrities start with certain advantages if they decide to make a career change to politics. They start with bigger fan bases than mere politicians, for one, because everyone hates politicians. That popularity also derives from a certain image that can be easily carried into the ring, too, such as Trump’s blunt-spoken take-charge businessman shtick, or the sensitive and caring sincerity that Winfrey so effortlessly fakes, and we assume that even the likes of Rock and Nugent and West and Barr have some qualities people find so admirable that they’ve become rich and famous. There’s all that lavish attention the media pay to them, too, while the only time a mere public servant ever gets in the papers is when he’s raising taxes or cutting spending or letting budgets go in the red, because the reality of the real world is that those are really the only things anybody in office can do.
Even the most blunt-talking celebrities aren’t quite so frank as those limited choices and make a case for what they consider the least worst of them, so they peddle the notion that they overcome such dreary realities such as they’ve seemingly done in their own real lives. Celebrity is a lucrative industry into itself because it sells something people will always want, a vicarious experience of a life unconstrained by carpooling the kids to school and hearing rumors of lay-offs around the water cooler and coming home to a spouse who’s not aging as well as hoped and sitting on the couch to watch whatever’s on the tube, and the profit margins are high because you don’t have to produce anything real. Politics is a pretty lucrative business, too, especially if you have the same ethics as the average celebrity, but its results are always all too tangible.
People used to be fond of saying that “politics is the art of the possible,” but at this point in our popular culture, when one can be any race or sex or species of their choosing, and the conspiracies about a cabal of shape-shifting reptilian Jesuits and Jews and Masons and future presidential nominee Lady Gaga are part of an Illumnati that’s running everything are gaining wide currency, the idea that some things just aren’t possible is hopelessly out of fashion. Celebrity reality will likely prevail for a while, be it the tough Trump style or the softer Winfrey variety, or heaven help us even the West and Rock kind, but real reality always wins n the end.
They’d also say “politics is show biz for ugly people,” back in the day. We used to think that amusing and apt, but it’s no longer so funny and is also hopelessly out of date. These days politics is becoming show biz for people who haven’t aged so well despite their magical shape-shifting powers and are now too ugly or old-fashioned for show biz.

— Bud Norman

Oh, You Beautiful Doll

According to folklore, when television sets first started showing up there were some older Americans who wouldn’t have one in their homes for fear somebody might be watching them through the machine. Any electrician of the era could have assured them that there were no cameras inside the set, and nothing that could transmit anything out to Uncle Miltie or anybody else, but there was still a lingering suspicion of newfangled contraptions. It now sounds quite ridiculous, but these days we all have machines that do have cameras inside and are quite capable of sending whatever they’re watching to any number of tech-savvy sorts, and some future generation will probably be laughing that no one seemed suspicious at all.
We’re not the paranoid sorts who have placed black tape over that little dot on the top of the machine we’re writing this on, even though sometimes late at night it does seem to be looking at us funny, but we do try to maintain a healthy suspicion of newfangled contraptions. A recent report in The Washington Post suggests you can’t even trust that cute doll you bought for your daughter.

Apparently the German government has warned parents not to purchase the “My Friend Cayla” doll, which looks from the photo to be an adorable blond and blue-eyed and pink-dressed girl with the same Converse sneakers we favor, and another selling point is that she’s rather eerily interactive. She not only talks, as certain dolls have done for some time if you pull the right string, but she’s connected to the internet through one of those ubiquitous Bluetooth devices and can converse as fluently as those Siri thingamajigs that everyone seems to have these days. The cute little thing also apparently transmits everything it hears back to a voice recognition company in the United States, so the German government has also decided to make ownership illegal.
One can only wonder why a voice recognition company in the United States would be interested in the conversations that very young German girls were having with their dollies, but by now we can guess at enough marketing and political and sexual perversions that are now possible to think the Germans are being prudent. For one thing, the technological marvel of a doll that actually has meaningful conservations with people is intimidating enough to us, and we shudder to think of the marketing and political and sexual perversion possibilities of this technology when it reaches a more adult level of sophistication. For another thing, and maybe it’s just too many slasher flicks and old Twilight Zone and Night Gallery re-runs, but there was always something about talking dolls that kind of creeped us out, and for that matter we think that machines in general talk too much.
Sometimes we’ll drive our beloved Pop around town in his exceedingly fancy automobile, and it’s always trying to tell us when to turn or change lanes or stop as if we don’t know the streets of this city better than any highfalutin computer. There are certain elevators in this city that tell us when we have reached our floor, which also strikes us as rather condescending. Far, far too often we find ourselves talking on our Star Trek-ish telephone with some machine or another, and we usually wind up thinking we’d have done just as well if we’d opted for Espanol, which we hardly habla at all. Some of the late night drive-thru restaurants around here now have a machine greet us at the window, and we expect there will be more of that if the $15 an hour minimum wage happens, and we lately notice a lot of other interactions that used to occur more pleasantly with real live human beings.
The machines seem to know more about us than we do about them, too, which is also kind of creepy. Too much of our time is spent delving into the vast sea that is YouTube, and every time they’re recommending the old Hee-Haw episodes with Ray Charles or the Boston Celtics of the ’80s or old Van Morrison songs or some similar stuff they somehow know we like. They’re always touting the latest Alex Jones “InfoWars” screeds and other assorted conspiracy theories, which we watch purely for yucks, so we sometimes worry they think we take that stuff seriously. We have no idea who “they” are, or why they would take any interest in our YouTube tastes, but pretty much everywhere in the internet some they or another seems to know where we are and provide advertisements for business located nearby, and those Wichita Symphony ads that keep showing up seem uncannily aware of our recent concert-going tastes, and by now anyone would shiver to think what else they, whoever they are, might also know.
In our case, and in most people’s cases, we can console ourselves that our interactions with both machines and human beings are too mundane to attract anyone’s attention. We can all still aspire to some significance, though, and it’d be a shame if we all went awry because of one of those arguably weird things we found on our machines. A cousin or second cousin or cousin once-removed of ours is a great guy and a very smart fellow who’s an engineer at a company in California that is figuring out how to have your morning coffee brewed when you’re awakened by a computer-run alarm clock and your car is revved up and the garage door open as you head to work and guides your right along the way, and he makes it all sound very promising. Still, somehow we can’t shake that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the soothing voice of the all-powerful machine tells the desperate astronaut that “I can’t let you do that,” or a recurring nightmare that the condescending voice on the elevator won’t let us off because it heard we’d been mean to that kiosk at the mall.
There’s no avoiding these newfangled machines, but at least there’s still plenty of the real life that our superstitious ancestors once enjoyed. The weather has been so nice lately we’ve been driving around with the top down and no machines telling us where to go and an old-fashioned cassette player blasting rockabilly and garage rock, and we’ve had some nice interactions with real live humans conducted in such places that no one would ever think to surveil, and we have a houseful of books including Mien Kampf and Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and The Federalist Papers and the King James Bible and Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” and tons of P.G. Wodehouse that no one can hold against us, and even in this modern age that’s the best of it. Machines have taken more jobs than China and Mexico combined ever will, they keep you in touch with anyone who wants to call you no matter where you go, and they’re increasingly bossy about everyone, even if they do occasionally give us a good tip to a Tom Waits song or an old MGM musical number. We’ll try to stay free of it as best we can, and hope those cute little German girls find their imaginary conservations with their mute but cute little dolls more edifying than talking to even to the cutest little machine, and that the human thing prevails.

— Bud Norman

An Outrage Too Far

Although we do our darnedest to pay no attention to Milo Yiannopoulos, there was simply no avoiding the fellow in the news on Monday. The Breitbart News editor and political activist was dis-invited from a speaking engagement at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual get-together, and the resulting controversy proved more interesting than Yiannopoulos has ever been.
If you’re fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with Yiannopoulos’ act, he’s an ostentatiously homosexual British provocateur known for his apologetics on behalf of the “alt-right,” sneering denunciations of immigrants and Muslims and especially Muslim immigrants, insulting comments toward women in general and lesbians in particular, and a such an enthusiasm for President Donald Trump that he calls him “Daddy.” This resume somehow earned him an invitation to speak at the national largest annual gathering of conservatives, but that ended when the sponsoring American Conservative Union’s chairman was given audiotape of Yiannapolous seeming to argue that grown men should be allowed and even encouraged to have have sex with 13-year-old boys, which is still a bit much for conservative tastes even at this late date.
For our old-fashioned sensibilities it was an offense he was asked in the first place, but our old-fashioned sensibilities are growing used to be offended. An ostentatiously homosexual Brit who can’t stop talking about his predilection for black men might seem an unlikely conservative hero, but it allows his fans to cheer on his sexist and racist while claiming that their support of proves they aren’t sexist or racist, and when it doesn’t provide the usual immunity to leftist anger they can gleefully point out a double standard. His insult comic style of rhetoric is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the very real problems associated with immigration and Muslims and especially Muslim immigrants, nor the very real excesses of modern feminist ideology or our rapid rush toward a cultural celebration of homosexuality, and we can’t imagine he’s won any converts to either the “alt-right” or Trump, but he drives the left-wingers so crazy that they were literally rioting in the streets at the University of California-Berkeley during his “Dangerous Faggot” speaking tour a few days ago, and that’s enough to make for a right-wing hero these days.
There has long long been a more peaceable opposition to Yiannopoulos on the right, which has included our previous policy of ignoring his antics altogether, but during his frequent publicity-seeking contretemps even the most respectable sorts of conservatives have felt obliged to weigh in that of course he deserves freedom of speech, even if they’d prefer he’d exercise the right more responsibly, and that of course his ostentatious homosexuality has nothing to do with it. He’s said that the Constitution is outdated and needs to be scrapped in favor of a more authoritarian arrangement, and his apologetics on behalf of the “alt-right” take aim at traditional conservatism as much as liberalism, but he’s with Breitbart, the same publication that gave us Steve Bannon, Trump’s top consigliere, and the insult comic style of conservatism seems all the rage these days, so we assume that’s how he got the invitation. Even such stellar credentials, though, aren’t enough to withstand allegations of condoning sex with minors.
Yiannopoulos has offered a lengthy explanation for what he said, but the tawdry transcript is right there on tape for anyone to hear, and we don’t believe many of the old-fashioned conservatives will buy it. He claims he was referring to the sorts of platonic relationships that older men often have with boys, but he never makes that at all clear during the lengthy videotaped oration, and it includes one of his favorite jokes about his gratitude to the Catholic priest who taught him improved oral sex skills during his own boyhood, and its hard to escape the conclusion that the supposedly brave truth-teller is trying to weasel his way out of what he knows was one step too far. His critics on the left are of course gleeful that he was denounced by the right, so a few stubborn supporters thus feel all the more obliged to come to his defense and blame that supposedly spineless establishment for caving into the “political correctness” they see stifling free speech, but surely most people on both sides and in the middle will agree that sex with minors is not merely “politically incorrect” but also legally and morally wrong, and note that CPAC should also be free to exercise its rights to free speech by choosing its speakers and that Yiannoplous is still free to speak such hideous nonsense elsewhere.
The latest publicity that Yiannopolous sought has been bad enough to cost him not only that CPAC invitation but also a lucrative book deal, and there’s even an internal effort to get him kicked off Breitbart, and if he winds up in obscurity we’ll not consider it a defeat for free speech or a victory for “political correctness.” If it also deals a blow to the ridiculous notion that getting the left so laughably riled up that they’re rioting in the streets over the insult comic shtick of a self-proclaimed “Dangerous Faggot” is somehow a victory for the right, all the better. The level of political discourse has descended to the level of the meanest playgrounds on both sides of the spectrum, with both keeping score by how annoyed the opponent becomes, and the climb back toward a civil discussion of how to makes things better for everyone might as well begin on the right.

— Bud Norman

Winning So Much You Get Bored With Winning

There was a lot in the news on Monday, including the late-breaking story that President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor has resigned in the wake of a scandal likely to linger a few more days, but that was all the more reason to take refuge in the sports pages. The big story there was the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team winning its 100th consecutive victory, and although we rarely comment on the sporting scene that seemed worth noting.
We’ve followed some remarkable winning streaks over our many years of sports spectating, but none of them approached triple digits. Back in the 2013-14 season our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers men’s team reeled off 35 in a row before losing on a missed buzzer beater to a powerhouse Kentucky University Wildcats squad in the second round of the championship tournament, and we’ll always love them for that, but that’s a full 65 games short of 100, and of course the streak didn’t include a couple of national championships. Way back when we were first falling in love with basketball the University of California-Los Angeles was dominating men’s collegiate basketball like no one had before and no has since, but their best win streaks were 47 in a row with the great Lew Alcindor, now better as known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was inarguably the best college player ever, and 88 in a row with the pivot manned by the great Bill Walton, who was arguably the second best college player ever. UCLA won five national championships with those legendary centers and another five without them over a 12-year span, which is as many the blue-blooded programs of the University of Kansas and the University of Kentucky have combined to win over their many years of play, but the Connecticut women have won 11 since 1995 and are almost prohibitive favorites to make it an even dozen this year.
The longest winning streak by a professional basketball team was 33, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in the ’71-’72 season, which we well remember following, being big fans of the Jerry West and Gail Goodrich backcourt and awed by the comic book superhero play of Wilt Chamberlain at center. That squad won the championship and is still regarded as one of the best ever, but it didn’t sustain that championship level for long. In pro ball there are 82 games and none of them are easy wins, so the most impressive streaks were the Boston Celtics’ nine consecutive championships, with 11 in 12 years, and the Connecticut women are in that territory even though they’re forced by college rules to completely turn over the team personnel every four years.
No other American team sport has seen such a streak. The longest winning streak in college football is 47, set by the University of Oklahoma’s Sooners between 1953 and 1957, which coincided with our beloved pop’s matriculation at the school, and of course his children were taught to faithfully await it happening again, which we still do starting with every win, including their impressive bowl to finish the past season. The Sooner’s streak started after a loss to the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, and ended with a loss to the same villains, and to this day our beloved pop and all his children still root against Notre Dame in any sport even if they’re playing against the Islamic State. Those darned New England Patriots have the longest win streak in professional football, having reeled off 21 in a row from October of 2013 to October of 2014, but that provided only one of their five championships to show for it. You have to go way back to 1916 to find major league baseball’s longest winning streak, which was The New York Giant’s 26.
Connecticut’s Hartford Courant has been following the Lady Huskies’ streak closely enough to compile an intriguing list of other streaks, which includes an amazing 555 straight by Pakistani squash legend Jahangir Kahn, whom we admit we’d never heard, and 252 wins in a row by Hartford’s Trinity College in women’s team squash. The University of North Carolina’s women won 103 soccer games without a loss, and the great Edwin Moses went 10 years and 122 400 meters high hurdles races without a loss.
Given how humans tend to have off nights, even the very best of them, one hundred straight games without being so off as to suffer a defeat against the toughest competition in the land is a laudable achievement.
There’s some grumbling among the fans that Connecticut’s dominance is diminishing the popularity of the women’s game, as if the great dynasties of the UCLA Bruins and Boston Celtics and New York Yankees and the recent sustained excellence of those darned New England Patriots wound up hurting the ratings and gate attendance, and some of the old school feminists who’ve long been involved in the game are sore that the very much male coach Geno Aurriema has been the one constant presence over the streak, but we’ll pay no attention. We turn to the sports to find excellence that can’t be found elsewhere, and refuge from arguments and resentments, and we’re glad that the Lady Huskies are providing both. Their 100th win was quite a joy to watch, too, if you like seeing the beautiful game played beautifully.

— Bud Norman

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An Almost Trump-Free Weekend

Saturday somehow had top-down driving weather here in our portion of the plains, and although Sunday was more typically February it featured a fine sermon at our low church and some high culture at the civic center where the Wichita Symphony and the Wichita Musical Theater teamed up on a terrific performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel, which was followed by a taped-delayed watching of the Wichita State University Wheatshockers reeling off another impressive victory on the road against a surprisingly tough Loyola-Chicago Ramblers squad. All in all it was a pleasantly apolitical weekend, but of course there’s no avoiding the news altogether.
We logged on to our Facebook page to keep up with a dear friend’s ongoing cancer treatments, and although that news was guardedly good we also came across countless screeds about the Trump administration. Among our Facebook friends are an unaccountable number of irritable lefties, who are predictably irritated by anything Trump, and the more astute of conservative friends are more carefully expressing their own reservations, and nobody was arguing that America is being made great again. Our cursory glance at our usual news sources from the left to the right were no more encouraging, with plenty of stories giving Trump’s critics on either side something to be understandably annoyed about.
The Cable News Network and The Washington Post both claimed confirmation that Trump’s national security advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, was in contact with the Russian government during the campaign that all the intelligence agencies allege the Russians were trying to influence, just like that dossier full of salacious but unconfirmed sex allegations alleged, and so far the Trump spokespeople haven’t categorically denied it. Flynn already had controversial ties to the Russian government that included his appearances on the dictatorship’s propaganda network and featured seating at Russian state dinners, and his son was kicked off the Trump transition team for “tweeting” about that crazy “pizza gate” scandal, and his presence on the National Security Council along with former alt-right internet publisher Steve Bannon while the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs was unprecedentedly kicked off had already made for much comment on both the left and the¬†formerly supportive¬†right.
Trump’s more reliable mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway was meanwhile using her airtime on those Sunday shows where Trump says he gets his news to pitch First Daughter Ivanka Trump’s overpriced line of shoes and jewelry, which has lately been discontinued by the Nordstrom’s chain of department stores, which Trump has angrily “tweeted” about. Sears and K-Mart have also discontinued the line, but so far haven’t suffered the wrath of a presidential “tweet.” A few hearty souls endeavored a defense of Trump, most of them nostalgically recalling the time President Harry Truman publicly berated a music critic who panned the presidential daughter’s vocal recital, which was by all accounts awful, but it’s hard to see how that’s making America great again and those questions about the president’s on-going business deals and how they might intersect with his foreign policy remain, and we’re still wondering why Trump seems so darned smitten with Russia’s dictator.
Over at the admirably conservative and still mostly NeverTrump National Review they’re noting that the left’s reaction has gone beyond understandable irritation and well into full-blown tin-foil-hate conspiracy-theorizing paranoia, which is a point well taken, but they’re obliged to admit that Trump’s own rhetoric of Bush-lied-people-died and Obama-was-born-in-Kenya and his electoral victory was rigged haven’t elevated the level of political discourse. One of Trump’s rich buddies went on videotaped record to blame it all on Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Preibus, who used to be the Republican Party’s national chairman and was reviled by Turmp’s most fervent supporters as one of them damned establishment Republican-in-name-only types, and we expect that storyline to spread out over the next few days. The popular storyline that the no-record-in-public-serve-at-all Trump is the one who “in over his head,” as that rich Trump buddy described Preibus, will also probably persist.
We’ll hope there will be warm days and gospel sermons and fine concerts and Shocker victories and healthy Facebook friends to get us through it all, and try not to succumb to either paranoia or false hope.

— Bud Norman

The World’s Foremost Authority, RIP

It was quite a surprise to see Professor Irwin Corey’s obituary in Wednesday’s news, because we thought he was dead. That’s an old and rather rude show business joke, but we mean it respectfully and hope he would have appreciated the absurdist humor. By the time Corey died on Monday at the last laugh old age of 102 most of the youngsters out there didn’t know the name, but back in the days of variety shows and PG-rated celebrity roasts and smoke-filled late night talk shows he used to crack us up, and his passing marks an end to a subtler and slyer and slightly less angry era of American comedy.
Corey was a left-winger even by show business standards, but that wasn’t readily apparent from most of his comedy. He grew up in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, got his start in show business with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s annual musical revue, and carried the resulting political perspective through the rest of his days, but his humor was mostly apolitical and altogether too convoluted to figure out what it might imply. By the time we started catching his act on television in the late ’60s and early ’70s the high school drop-out had reinvented himself as an eminent professor of some unnamed discipline, always introduced as “The World’s Foremost Authority,” and he would present himself in a black swallow-tailed coat and string tie and high-topped Chuck Converse All-Stars, his gray hair running wilder than Albert Einstein’s ever did, then starting spewing the most inspired academic-sounding gibberish. He’d throw in jokes about how heat expands and cold contracts and that’s why the days are longer in the summer, and how if we don’t change direction we’ll wind up where we’re going, and he had a great bit of physical humor where he’d forget what he was going to say and eventually reach for his notes and then crack up at whatever he’d written, which he’d never get around to reading, and he’d usually begin these monologues by saying “However.”
Any youngster who comes across these routines on YouTube might take them as brilliant satire of the meaningless mumbo-jumbo that today’s liberal academia spews out, but at the time he started to develop the act way back in the ’40s it probably worked just as well as spoof of the meaningless mumbo-jumbo of the more conservative academia of his youth. There was a distinctly vaudevillian flavor to it, like the even older comics who were still killing on TV, but also something very modern, like the sophisticated younger comics in the suits and ties who were starting to take over, and something as anarchic as both the Marx Brothers that had come before and the National Lampoon punks who would come later. Put in any context it was pretty funny stuff, and a sly warning about the world’s foremost authorities that has always been and ever will be worth heeding.
The variety shows disappeared and the celebrity roasts went on cable and started featuring raunchy women talking about their privates and the late night talk shows weren’t booking acts with roots in the ’40s, but Corey would still occasionally show up over the decades. He did get more explicitly political, and his lifelong leftism descended into conspiracy theorizing that was hard to distinguish from his more deliberate attempts at absurdism, but he’d still crack us up during our occasional encounters on the internet. He kept performing into his 80s and 90s and even his early 100s, but apparently his last performances were on behalf of the New York City sidewalk passersby that he would panhandle. He didn’t need the money, as the inveterate anti-capitliast had invested his earnings well enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood, so he’d donate all the proceeds to a favorite charity, but he and the better senses of humor among his unwitting sidewalk audiences reportedly got some final much-needed laughs from it.
It also occurs to us that with Corey’s passing we now inherit the title of “World’s Foremost Authority,” having previously been “World’s Second Foremost Authority,” and we will do our best to carry it with an honor worthy of the man.

— Bud Norman