Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2000s: The Wasted Decade

The first decade of the 21st century closes—not with a bang nor even a whimper but with an exhausted, bleary-eyed, subdued gasp for something fresh, something new; something that is truly beautiful, ennobling, or offers the hope of redemption because the 2000s were none of those things.

Usually decade endings years end with a climactic rush of events; a hope of something better for the next decade; a premonition of what is to come. 1969 was like that. So was 1989 and 1999.

This decade offered none of this. Instead we’re backing into the 2010s with a sense of numbness, apprehension, and fear. Actually it reminds me of 1979. 1979 was fraught with economic crises; rising energy costs; political and social malaise; a lack of faith in our leadership; America beleaguered abroad by its ideological and spiritual opponents (remember the Iranian embassy hostage crisis?)

When I look back at this past decade one word keeps punching me in the face: waste. If I had to define the 2000s I would use that word: waste. The 2000s was a wasted decade for America and the world: wasted resources; wasted opportunities for improvement, change, and growth; wasted words; wasted monies; wasted gestures; wasted time; and the most tragic, saddening, devastating waste of all time: beautiful, brave, magnificent, innocent lives lost, taken from us, wasted.

I am struck by the despair this past decade has caused in all walks of not only American life but in every day life around the world. I feel like the high priest in the Bible watching the Temple curtain being torn in two the day Jesus was crucified. I sense an unraveling; a world being undone deliberately or unwittingly by our own devise. We see the damage being done. We express shock, dismay, and concern. We try to make changes as best as we can yet the unraveling, the uncoupling continues and, to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, the people come and go and talk of Michelangelo.

What about me, personally? All I can say about myself, at the end of this decade is that I am still alive. Don’t ask me how or why? But I’m still alive. For me, what interests me about 2010 are the following: how will the American electorate express itself on Election Day 2010. Will it be a repeat of 1994 when the G.O.P. recaptured the House and Senate? If so then who will lead the G.O.P. resurgence? What will the Phillies do in 2010? Can they win a third pennant in a row? The last National League team to win three pennants was the 1944 St. Louis Cardinals. If the Eagles fail to reach the Super Bowl next month what will become of Donovan McNabb?

For me personally, my personal challenges are this: continuing my hockey oral history research, completing my hockey coach articles and converting them into a book worthy of publication; climbing Mt. Katahdin in Maine in October and trying to survive 2010 intact physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Most of all, I want some peace and quiet.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I am suspending my blogging until June next year. I am presently committed to submitting a weekly column titled "Profiles in Excellence" at

The column work will continue until June 12, 2010, whereby I hope to restart my blogging.

Right now, I cannot juggle my weekly writing with my blogging schedule. I wish to devote my time and energy towards the column proper.


Matthew DiBiase

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees World Series Win? Who's to Blame?

The Phillies have no reason to be ashamed for losing to the Yankees in six games in the World Series. If anything it’s better that the Phils lost to the Yankees rather than a lesser team that they should have beaten. The fact that the Phillies were able to repeat as National League pennants winners is a testament to the team’s resiliency and desire. A year ago I wrote that the 2008 World Series champions were the greatest Phillies team of all time. Today I reaffirm that sentiment. Considering the problems the Phillies had with their starting pitching in terms of injuries and inefficiency, it’s even more amazing that they won the pennant. A lesser team would have folded.

As for the Yankees their World Series triumph can be seen either as a last hurrah for the older team members who were there between 1996 and 2003 or it heralds a resurrection of the Yankees dynastic dominance. There were unique aspects to this World Series. It marks the first time that a team won a World Series at the start of a new decade and won in the closing year of a decade. (The Yankees won in 2000 and again in 2009). That’s never happened before.

When the Yankees won game three I had a bad feeling that the Phillies would go down in defeat. When the Yankees won game four I became even more convinced because I knew that throughout the entire World Series history of the New York Yankees the Bronx Bombers never blew a 3-1 World Series lead. Their triumph in game six reaffirmed that fact.

There’s another more obscure factor that played heavily in the Yankees favor. I don’t know if some of you realize this but ever since 1973 (when George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees) the Yankees have always won the World Series when there was a Democrat in the White House and lost when there was a Republican as President.

Before you scoff, just look it up. In 1976 the Yankees lost to the Reds (when Gerald Ford was President). In 1977 and 1978 they won (when Jimmy Carter was in office). In 1981 they fell to the Dodgers (when Reagan was in office) but came back to win in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000 (when Bill Clinton was President. They lost in 2001 and 2003 when George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office but now in 2009 they have won the World Series while Barack Obama presently inhabits the White House.

For those of you who hate the Yankees and hate it when they win then you can blame the Democrats for all this!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

America's National Parks and the Lessons of Advanced Citizenship

The dominant sub-theme of Ken Burns’ documentary series National Parks had to be the role of concerned American citizens who, either individually or collectively, took it upon themselves to take all political, economic, polemical, intellectual, and scientific measures to preserve and protect America’s natural treasures—which over the course of decades and centuries would later become America’s national treasures.

Time and again throughout Burns’ series one saw American citizens: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, eccentric and ordinary, the famous and obscure, outsiders and locals, the politically connected and the socially dispossessed rolling up their sleeves and going to work using extraordinary methods and tactics to maintain those parts of America which define the American experience so that Americans and foreign visitors can understand what makes our country so beautiful.

What Ken Burns’ documentary reaffirmed was what actor Michael Douglas called “advanced citizenship” in the movie American President; behind every great movement and action in American history were ordinary citizens using their collective talents, energies, and resources to make their country (and later on the world) a better place for themselves and their fellow citizens. Without that spirit of advanced citizenship there would have been no American Revolution; no Declaration of Independence or Constitution or Bill of Rights; no movement to grant women the right to vote and, later on, their right to an equal place in society; no movement to grant African-Americans (and other minorities) their full civil rights; no military triumphs in two world wars against militarism and fascism; no eventual triumph over communism. Even now it is advanced citizenship that is working today to keep America safe from another 9/11 type of attack.

Advanced citizenship has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism. It is simply concerned American citizens who, when faced with a major crisis, resolving not to wring their hands and accept the supposed helplessness or powerlessness of their situation; joining forces with others who share their concerns and, most important of all,


That is what makes America beautiful.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize: The Middle Finger of Fame

The view of various political pundits that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama should be seen as a belated slap at the policies of President George W. Bush and his supporters is an appropriate one. This is not the first time this has happened in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize nor will it likely be the last time. The two most recent examples of using the Nobel Peace Prize as a slap at a sitting or former U.S. President happened in 1987 and 1988. In 1987 the Peace Prize went to Oscar Arias Sanchez, who was then the President of Costa Rica. Sanchez was a noted opponent of the Reagan Administration’s Central American policies which called for military support of the Contra uprising against the Sandinista regime in Nicarauga. Sanchez sought a negotiated settlement which would ease tensions and reduce armed conflict between the nations involved in the region. The following year was an even more notable slap at President Reagan. In 1987 the Reagan Administration and the former Soviet Union concluded the historic INF treaty which agreed to eliminate intermediate and short-range missiles from Europe. There was a major campaign in 1988 that President Reagan be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this historic agreement. Instead the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. This was a real backhand at Reagan because the Reagan Administration had long shown enormous disdain towards the U.N.

So what we’ve seen in recent days is nothing new.

Past is prologue.

The only question about President Obama receiving the prize is whether he can live up to what the prize entails: the furtherance of the cause of peace and the betterment of all humanity. Only time will tell.

Oh yes, another thing. The last African-American citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize was the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Burying the Kennedy Imprisonment

Of all the aspects concerning the death of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, I am struck the most by the repeated affirmations of Kennedy’s patriarchal status of the Kennedy clan after the assassination of his brother Robert. As far as I have seen or heard all the media outlets have gotten on the bandwagon in discussing this. Even the late Senator’s nephews and nieces all joined together at the memorial service in reinforcing the image of Teddy Kennedy as a noble patriarch who maintained the family standard after Bobby’s death in 1968 and the media has gone along in enabling that rather mythological image.

I use the word “myth” because Teddy Kennedy’s patriarchy was mythological. He was patriarch in name only. In truth, the elaborate framework of the Kennedy family slowly began to unravel in the years and decades following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—and with it its attendant image of being America’s First Family.

In truth, under Teddy’s patriarchy the Kennedy clan lost its sacred oneness and singularity of purpose. None of the grandchildren of Joseph P. Kennedy have ever equaled or surpassed what his children (and in-laws) had created or accomplished.

In truth, under Teddy’s patriarchy the Kennedy clan suffered a lot of traumas and scandals which could have been avoided if Teddy had taken a stronger hand and/or else the Kennedy family members involved had possessed a stronger moral framework.

At the memorial service Teddy’s nephew Joseph P. Kennedy II (eldest son of Bobby Kennedy) spoke warmly and fondly about Teddy keeping the family together. It’s ironic that he would say that because in the wake of his father’s death it was Joseph who went into a prolonged period of emotional drift along with his brothers Robert Junior and David. All three brothers spent the next twelve years acting at odds with their uncle Teddy, experimenting with drugs, and getting into scrapes which some times led to innocent people being injured physically and/or emotionally. Robert Junior and David developed heroin addictions. Robert Junior would be busted for possession and David would die of an overdose.

Where was Teddy in all this?

Teddy’s nephew Chris Lawford also had major problems with drug abuse (he and his cousin David Kennedy regularly got high together). Luckily, Chris Lawford eventually cleaned up but still the question begs to be asked:

Where was Teddy in all this?

What about William Kennedy Smith, an accused rapist? At least we know where Teddy was that night: drunk, clad only in a nightshirt.

I could go on and on but I will have mercy upon the reader.

Was Teddy a great senator? Methinks so (depending on one’s political point of view).

Was Teddy a true patriarch? Methinks not.

One thing is absolutely certain: now that Teddy is dead there are no Kennedys anymore. Sure the children, nephews, and nieces, and grandchildren are still alive, maintaining the family name but they are not Kennedys with the magical aura and the built-in political life support system which allows them to become a force in American politics.

Those days are over and I think the surviving members of the Kennedy clan know it too—if not the rest of America. What was buried in Arlington National Cemetery was not solely a human body but also an American mythology as well.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Going back to Yasgur's Farm

The voices of Woodstock

“I’m a farmer.”—Max Yasgur

“I’ve got that joint for when we get into the electric set.”—David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash

“We must be in heaven, man! There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”—Wavy Gravy aka Hugh Romney

“The next bleedin' bastard who comes on my stage gets f@#*ing killed! [Crowd cheers]. You can laugh! You can laugh but I bloody well mean it!—Pete Townshend of the Who admonishing the crowd after forcibly ejecting Abbie Hoffman from the stage during the Who’s set

“Marijuana, exhibit A.—Jerry Garcia

A million words have been written in past forty years about the Woodstock Festival. I figure a million more words will be written ten years from now when we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of that august disaster area of a rock concert.

I was only six years old when Woodstock happened. In a few weeks I was about to start kindergarten and I had absolutely no comprehension or understanding about the concert. (I wonder how much of the cultural symbolisms and memories we now associate with Woodstock were associated with the documentary film as opposed to the memories and impressions which were drawn in real time by the observers and participants of the show).

My point is this: Woodstock was not a singular concert event like Live Aid was in 1985. Woodstock was one festival on many rock festivals which took place during the summer of 1969. Almost every weekend from June to August there was a rock and roll festival and many of the acts which played at Woodstock attended those other festivals as well. We remember Woodstock because (like the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967) there was a documentary film of the event along with a wonderful multi-disc soundtrack album of the same. If there had been no documentary film of Woodstock would the show remain such an epochal cultural event or would the show have faded into obscurity along with the other festivals which took place that same year. (Don’t laugh. During my college years, I had a fascination with the 1960s and had an idea of writing a novel called Festival Summer which would feature the adventures and misadventures of two young male hippies hitchhiking across America bouncing from one festival to another; encountering the obscure, the infamous, and the famous along the way; the novel would have had a lot of sex, social commentary, more sex, drugs, much more sex, and a little bit of violence along the way; the two heroes would have made it to Woodstock, and beyond, and the novel would have ended at the infamous Altamont concert in December 1969. Sadly, I never had the guts to write it. I became an archivist instead).

Woodstock was not about altruism either. It was supposed to be a money-making operation. You had to buy tickets to get to the concert. It only became a free concert after the first day when the approaching crowds overwhelmed the crowd control infrastructure set up the organizers. (Early in the Woodstock documentary you can see the late rock promoter Bill Graham giving a Dutch uncle lecture to the festival organizers about their failure to provide proper crowd control to the event).

Getting to Woodstock wasn’t rough solely for fans but for the musical acts as well. I have read many comments and seen film footage of Woodstock artists complaining about the difficulties they had in getting to the area and then getting organized to take the stage. Many acts were late in taking the stage. The festival was supposed to end Sunday evening August 17. It actually ended Monday morning of August 18. Waiting back stage wasn’t pleasant either. The late John Entwistle of the Who once said in an interview that all the drinking water back stage was spiked with LSD and that all the coffee was spiked with STP (a hallucinogenic drug with five times the power of LSD). Simply put you were going to get stoned whether you wanted to or not. (If you’ve seen the documentary film you will see a lot of stoned people. My nominees for the most stoned looking people in the film are Country Joe McDonald and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. Both of whom were severely stoned while they performed). Indeed I have read several accounts from musicians who called Woodstock the worst gig they ever played. Pete Townshend of the Who, Levon Helm of The Band, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival have been quoted as damning their experiences at Woodstock.

(I’ve written this before but if I had a time machine and had a choice of attending the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock 1969, Monterey Pop wins hands down, no contest).

But it wasn’t all about the drugs. Woodstock was a happening as well. One of the reasons for the massive overflow of people was because of the word-of-mouth aspect of the festival. Everyone wanted to attend because rumor had it that the festival would be a real event—in the end it was if you didn’t mind the disastrous side effects of the experience.

My favorite couple from Woodstock is not the lovers depicted on the movie picture poster and the album cover. In 1999 and this year that couple (now married) have been covered in the media. My favorite couple can be seen in the director’s cut of the brown-movie at the one hour, ten minute mark of the film. It’s a blonde-haired male hippie and a brown frizzy haired female hippie, both of whom look like they’re college freshmen. They’re filmed hitchhiking to the festival and then, later, on the festival grounds itself. Their discourse was deemed so fascinating that film director Michael Wadleigh gave them five minutes of airtime in the movie (which is a very long time when it comes to commentary). The male hippie does most of the talking and what’s amazing is that his discourse is not some psychedelic stoned dementia one would expect from a festival of youths freaking out on brown acid. Instead his commentary is thoughtful, insightful, and deeply perceptive. He admits to drug use, communal living, and living in a free love union with his female companion. (Remember People this was the sexual revolution and this was ten to twelve years before anyone knew anything about A.I.D.S. and other STDs). He and his female lover talk about the generation gap with their parents. Every time I see the movie and I am always impressed by what he had to say. I keep hoping every time someone does a Woodstock retrospective that someone would find the young male hippie and his companion and talk to them again to see what became of their lives. The questions would be compelling: Are they both still living? Did they remain together? Did they marry? Did they break apart? Did they find love and contentment with others? Did they succeed in life? What are they doing now? What are their beliefs and ideals?) Their commentary in the film is a microcosm of what the youth of America was thinking and feeling in the summer of 1969. If I were a high-school or college teacher I would show that five minute clip to my students just to show them what youth was like in those days.

And yet despite the traffic, narcotic, and meteorological obstacles encountered at Woodstock there was some truly incredible music played at the show. Over the years I have downloaded my favorite songs from Woodstock and have my own four CD compilation of the Festival. My favorite performances from the festival are as follows:

1) The Who’s entire set
2) Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s entire set
3) Sly and the Family Stone’s entire set
4) Richie Haven’s doing Freedom
5) Arlo Guthrie doing Coming into Los Angeles
6) Santana doing Soul Sacrifice
7) Country Joe McDonald doing I feel like I’m fixing to die rag
8) Jefferson Airplane doing Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon
9) Jimi Hendrix doing the Star-Spangled Banner, Purple Haze, the Woodstock Improvisation, and Villanova Junction.

The Who’s Woodstock performance was a breakthrough gig for the band. Before Woodstock the Who was a struggling hit band with a cult following. Woodstock elevated The Who into the stratosphere where they stood alongside the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as epitomizing the best of the British Invasion. What’s ironic is that the Who originally didn’t want to do Woodstock. They had already done an extensive tour of the United States in support of their immortal rock opera Tommy. They badly needed some rest but it was their booking agent who saw the potential of what the Woodstock festival and the impending film and album could do for the Who’s image and earning potential. He wore down Pete Townshend and the other members of the band and got them to agree to perform. Even then their going onstage was not a sure thing. The Who demanded their performance fee and were forced to wait for almost an entire day before they got their money (that’s why the Who performed in the pre-dawn hours). Even though the band for the rest of their lives panned Woodstock their performance became a part of Rock and Roll iconography. The image of Roger Daltrey attired in buckskin fringes and long blond curls singing See Me, Feel Me is an eternal image of Woodstock. Despite being spiked with hallucinogenic drugs; despite their anger at being denied a rest day; despite their rage at being inconvenienced by the prolonged delays, the Who overcame the obstacles and delivered the goods. (The Who film The Kids are Alright features three songs from their Woodstock set. I remember I was fifteen years old at the time and seeing the film with my mother. I remember two of the three songs featured slow pans of the 500,000 gathered screaming their praise for the Who as dawn slowly broke over the lysergic New York landscape. I remember at the time being spellbound, awed, wishing fervently that I could do a thing like that: make 500,000 people absolutely ecstatic with joy—part of me still wishes I could do that some day or at least seeing my nephew Frankie do that because he’s a musician too).

It’s Jimi Hendrix’s performance though which offers the greatest symbolisms (and answers) as to what Woodstock represented to America and the world. Hendrix was the last act to perform onstage at the festival. Interestingly he played to only 50,000 die hard fans who remained the remaining 450,000 people who had been there had left to go home. (If you see the documentary all the camera shots are close-ups of Jimi and the band with extremely few crowd shots and what shots there are of the crowd are very tight close-ups so the viewer cannot see that the vast majority of the people have left).

The Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up the previous month even though he was introduced onstage as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Jimi quickly puts the crowd to rights by introducing his new music musical incarnation: A Band of Gypsies. Hendrix wanted to outgrow his power trio attack and expand his musical horizons. He was experimenting with new percussive sounds and additional musicians, dabbling with fusing jazz and rock into a newer, broader musical universe. His Woodstock performance was to the debut of this new musical direction.

When you listen to Hendrix’s entire performance what you hear are guitar sounds which have never been replicated by any other guitar legend. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eddie Van Halen have never come remotely close to matching the wizardry which Hendrix displayed on that August morning. (What’s even more amazing was that Hendrix was performing under extreme physical conditions. Before he took the stage, Jimi had gone 48 to 72 hours without sleep. Drinking the water and coffee at Woodstock meant that Hendrix was under the influence of LSD and STP. In addition to those two potent hallucinogenic drugs, Jimi was also using crystal meth as well--a drug Hendrix loved very, very much. Simply put when Jimi took the stage Monday morning August 18, 1969, he was in the 99th dimension so when you listen to Hendrix’s rendition of the National Anthem it should be heard in that context).

Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner is an iconic moment in American musical history. There hasn’t been a documentary of the late 1960s which hasn’t featured that singular performance. It wasn’t the first time Hendrix had done the National Anthem (it wasn’t patriotism on Hendrix’s part either. Whenever Hendrix performed in England, he would do God Save the Queen) and yet Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition was rife with symbolism, imagery, and augury. Near the end of the song, Hendrix plays a few bars of Taps. When Hendrix did that he was tapping into a vibe that would take the rest of America decades to comprehend. At the time people thought Woodstock represented a beginning of a new cultural era. That was a lie. Woodstock was the last gasp of psychedelia and the Counter Culture movement as a whole.

Jimi Hendrix was playing the funeral music of the Cultural Revolution. As Hendrix was performing powerful, unseen forces were at work which would sweep away much if not all that Hendrix and his fellow musicians had created.

Jimi Hendrix had precisely thirteen months left to live. Fellow Woodstock performer Janis Joplin would soon follow him in death (as would Jim Morrison). Weeks after Woodstock, John Lennon would tell Paul McCartney that he wanted “a divorce” thus breaking up the Beatles for good.

The week before Woodstock Charles Manson and his followers committed the Tate-LaBianca murders. Those crimes would be used by mainstream America to discredit Counter Culture. Indeed Richard Nixon would be elected President in 1968 and reelected in 1972 because he tapped into Middle America’s fear of the Hippie movement and converted into political power. The present day conservative movement in America arose in reaction to the Counter Culture movement. Ronald Reagan would pick up where Richard Nixon left off and achieve the Presidency in 1980 because he stood in opposition to what had happened politically and socially in the 1960s.

A cultural tsunami of woe followed in the wake of Woodstock: the Nixon Administration’s war on civil liberties and the press; the invasion of Cambodia which sparked the Kent State shootings; inflation and the rise in energy prices; Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon.

When Hendrix finished the National Anthem he segued into what I believe is the ultimate version of Purple Haze. The Woodstock version of Hendrix’s signature tune is the most muscular expression of guitar fury and percussive expression in rock and roll history. To call what Hendrix was doing heavy metal or hard rock or acid rock fails to do it justice. While Jimi solos drummer Mitch Mitchell delivers some incredibly explosive drum licks which forms the mortar to Hendrix’s sonic architecture. Not content with conventional guitar chords, Hendrix literally splits atoms as he speeds up the pace of his guitar-playing, causing a melodic chain reaction leading to critical mass which thus culminates in the Woodstock Improvisation. Years ago Rolling Stone magazine made a list of the 100 greatest guitar solos in rock history. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven was listed at number one. A fine guitar it was and very worthy of the honor but my vote goes to Hendrix’s Woodstock Improvisation. The instrumental solo is literally a musical journey around the world; Hendrix’s playing is so astonishing the rest of the band stops playing to listen thus leaving Jimi to perform (appropriately enough) the song all by himself. At warp speed Hendrix goes from Spanish flamenco licks to Near Eastern to Far Eastern keys and modes back to hillbilly licks. At times Hendrix makes his guitar emit bird noises and other agonized sounds as he coaxes feedback and other modulations into a sonic vocabulary that the rest of the world still has not caught up with.

In the end Hendrix brings his journey right back to the very roots of American music: the blues. If Villanova Junction proves anything it was that Jimi Hendrix could play the blues and the fact that Hendrix was playing the blues at Woodstock is, to my mind, a reaffirmation of the funeral music aspect of Woodstock. Hendrix plays the slow lugubrious blues to its conclusion, says a subdued ‘thank you’, has enough strength to do an encore of Hey Joe and then collapsed onstage from extreme exhaustion. Hendrix was comatose for 48 hours before recovering fully.

Woodstock was over.

Since then others have tried vainly to replicate Woodstock but have failed miserably and rightly so. If history teaches us anything it is that you cannot replicate a vibe. Woodstock endures because it was such an utterly singular experience.

There was a Woodstock 1994 (famed for its mud fight) and there was a Woodstock 1999 (famed for its crowd riots, random acts of arson, and for Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers performing stark naked save for his bass guitar. If you don’t believe me just go to Youtube and see the clip of Chili Peppers doing Fire. It’s a awesome!)

As for me: we are stardust. We are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.


Monday, August 10, 2009

The Legacy of No Name Maddox

Forty years ago (over a two day period) seven of the most brutal, savage, bestial, and horrific murders in the annals of human criminality were committed. The man who orchestrated those murders: Charles Manson remains, to this day, inexplicably, a beguiling figure who continues to weave a spell upon the American consciousness from his prison cell in California.

If you’re wondering why I used the name No Name Maddox in the title of this blog entry it’s because that was the name recorded on Manson’s birth certificate when he was born in 1934. He got the surname Manson later in childhood but Manson was a man with many names, aliases, faces, and guises. During his long strange trip through the underbelly of California life from 1967 to 1969, he was known variously as God, Jesus Christ, Infinite Soul, Satan, the Devil, as well as Charles Willis Manson. (Prosecutor Vince Bugliosi was curious about the latter alias. He asked a Manson Family member what it meant and he later wrote that the answer he received chilled him. The Family member said, “Charles’ will is Man’s Son.” i.e. Charley’s will was equal to that of the Son of Man.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that so many young men and women were so willing and eager to believe that Manson was a divine figure. That was the aspect of Manson’s crimes that beguiles and frightens us today: what did he possess which could twist the minds of ordinary American youths and make them into killers, eager to do his bidding; eager to kill at his command? To look at Manson from afar it’s hard to figure. Manson was short (only 5-2) hunchbacked, lacking a proper formal education, living nearly his entire life in criminal institutions for various charges (none of which involved murder) until he sent his killers on those two hot August nights in 1969. And yet if you read the massive library of literature about Manson from those who met him up close and personal Manson had that ability to reflect back at people what they wanted to see and to hear. He had that conman’s ability to be what you wanted him to be. He could say the right words which turned the keys to the heart and soul which allowed him to take possession, manipulate, and control his followers. Subtlety and deceit were intrinsic in his nature. Manson amazingly hobnobbed not only with the detritus of society but also the California elite. Rock stars Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Neil Young, John Phillips and Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas had encounters with Manson. Manson claims in his memoir written by Nuel Emmons that he had sex with a Hollywood producer and his wife. (My favorite celeb encounter with Manson is the one involving Dean Martin’s daughter Deanna. She met Manson at a Hollywood party. Manson gave her a coral ring and asked her to join the Manson Family; true story.)

Even today he commands followers. If you google the name Charles Manson you will be amazed at the number of websites that record his murders, fornications, and his thefts. (Be warned though some of those sights contain horrifically graphic photos of the crime scenes and autopsy photos of the Tate-LaBianca murders. If you see some of those photographs like I have you will never forget them for as long as you live). Indeed I like to use the Manson case as an example of the decline and fall of western civilization. When Vince Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter came out in the 1970s the book had crime scene photos in it but the photos showing the dead bodies were obscured out of respect for the victims and their families. Twenty years later I have seen at least two books and several websites which show the crime scenes with the dead bodies in place in complete gory detail, especially those showing Sharon Tate (eight months pregnant) in a pool of blood caused by sixteen stab wounds. It took a lot of personal will and discipline on my part not to break down and cry when I saw those pictures.

Actually the most frightening crime scene photo is not that of Sharon Tate. It’s the one of Abigail Folger, the heiress to the Folgers Coffee fortune. Folger died from twenty-seven stab wounds. She had been wearing a white night gown which would become saturated with her own blood. The photograph I saw showed her lying flat on her back; her hands and arms frozen upward in rigor mortis as she was vainly trying to ward off being stabbed by Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel and the others. Her cheeks have two deep puncture wounds from the Buck knife used by Krenwinkel. She died with her eyes and mouth wide open; her face contorted in a look of absolute fear, horror, and terror. When I looked at that photograph a rather morbid and odd thought entered my head. If I was told that I was to die a violent death and I had to choose the mode of violent death, I would unhesitatingly choose to die by gun than by knife; after seeing the photos of the Tate-LaBianca murder victims who died by knife wounds. I would definitely prefer to be shot to death rather than be stabbed to death.

Hopefully I will never die violently.

One topic of debate amongst criminal experts was how Manson kept his followers in line. One recent documentary I saw on TV gave great credence to drug use by Manson and his followers but I don’t buy that. Yes, Manson and his minions did an enormous amount of drugs during their heyday but if drugs were the motivating factor in causing the killings then why is it that there weren’t more horrific knife killings caused by people taking LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs? Not everyone who took LSD turned into a Mansonoid killer. (In fact some of Manson’s killer used speed during the two nights of murder). Indeed not everyone who encountered Manson from 1967 to 1969 fell underneath his hypnotic spell. Ed Sanders who wrote an excellent book called The Family about Manson (one of the greatest works of counter culture literature) relates that many youths came and went through Manson’s life. Not everyone who passed through Manson was bewitched by him. The ones who stayed the longest were the ones who did believe in Manson; who worshipped at the altar of his nihilistic personality.

Manson didn’t start preaching Helter Skelter until the winter of 1968-1969. Before that Manson and his followers’ sole focus was sexual excess, drug use, and, later on, what Ed Sanders would call sleazo inputs such as Satanism and other unspeakable practices. Sex was the lever which Manson used to keep his followers in line and to recruit new minions. Is it any coincidence that one of Manson’s former occupations was being a pimp? Manson used sex to entice, enthrall, and enslave.

One psychiatric expert told prosecutor Vince Bugliosi that if you take an average American youth (male or female) who comes from a middle class background and moral compass and subject them to a wide variety of sexual stimuli and sexual practices which they would never have performed in their normal milieu then you can go a long way into achieving control over that person. If a person balked at performing a certain sex act then Manson would force the person to perform the act again and again and again. Manson killer Susan Atkins would later tell a prison informant that she had done everything there was to do sexually and that she didn’t care whether she lived or died anymore. She was barely into her twenties when she said that.

Sometimes Manson used violence to get his way. Ed Sanders writes that three weeks after the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson and his followers were hiding in Death Valley from the authorities. With them were two new female recruits named Sherri and Barbara. Manson decided to initiate them into the Family in his own inimitable way. First he ordered Sherri to perform oral sex on a male member of the Family in front of everyone. Sherri refused whereupon Manson gave her a brutal, savage beating. Manson then ordered Barbara to do the same thing. Frightened, Barbara reluctantly obeyed. (Barbara would get her revenge. She would be a key prosecution witness who helped convict Manson and his killers of their crimes).

One would think that after forty years there would be no mysteries left involving Manson. The truth is there are innumerable questions left unanswered about him. How many people did he kill? Manson was formally convicted of ordering nine murders yet Manson family legend and police investigations seem to suggest he may have killed more. Indeed last year forensic teams went to Barker Ranch in Death Valley (Manson’s last hideout) to do underground sonar searches to see if they could find any shallow graves on the property. At first investigators thought they had some possibilities but subsequent digging failed to find any human remains.

Another question is whether Manson’s satanic gospel of Helter Skelter was the real motivating factor behind the Tate-LaBianca murders? Author Maury Terry in his book The Ultimate Evil suggests strongly that Manson had other hidden motives for committing the killings and that he might have been acting at the behest of others when he sent the killers to the Tate residence. If so then who was Manson working for? There are disturbing questions. Some of Manson’s followers have said that they were told ahead of time that Sharon Tate was not supposed to be home during the first night of the murders. Indeed Sharon Tate had plans to spend the night with a friend that evening but changed her mind at the last minute. The question is who told Manson and his killers that information?

Another question regards the conduct of Bill Garretson, the caretaker of the guest cottage on the Tate property, during the night of the Tate murders. Murder victim Steve Parent was at the Tate property to see Garretson in the hopes of selling him a clock radio. Garretson refused to buy the radio and he led Parent out the door to his car whereupon Parent drove to the front gate of the Tate residence only to be killed by the Manson family killers. Parent was murder victim number one. The guest house where Garretson was staying is only fifty yards from the Tate house where the other four victims were killed and yet Garretson would testify that he heard no gunshots or screams during the night and he never left the guest cottage; all well and good right? There’s only one problem. Manson killer Patricia Krenwinkel claims that she went to the guest cottage to see if anyone was there (with instructions from Manson killer Tex Watson to kill anyone who was in there). She looked through the windows and saw no one. So why is Garretson lying about not leaving the guest cottage?

If Garretson had said that he had heard shots and screams and tried to call the police but couldn’t get through because the phone line was dead (the Manson killers cut the phone lines before they entered the Tate property) and so he left the guest cottage and hid in the bushes for fear of his life then no one would have blamed him. His behavior would be completely understandable. Even more interesting is what happened when the police entered the Tate property after being called when the victims were discovered. They approached the guest house and overheard Garretson telling the guard dog “be quiet! They will hear you.” Which “they” was he talking about? Sharon Tate’s mother (who later became a vigorous advocate for crime victim’s rights) always expressed doubt and skepticism about Garretson’s story and rightfully so, in my opinion.

Considering the forty years of public scrutiny Manson has faced and the periodic televised questioning by such journalistic luminaries like the late Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera, Charley Rose, and Diane Sawyer, Manson has not been given the ultimate pop culture seal of immortality—a major Hollywood motion picture about his life and crimes. Other, lesser known killers have gotten the full cinematic treatment but not Manson. There have been ample documentaries on Manson and a few portrayals in made for TV movies (the best of which remains Helter Skelter starring Steve Railsback as Manson and George DiCenzo as Vince Bugliosi. Interestingly Railsback’s acting career subsequently suffered because he played the role of Manson. Why? I do not know. Railsback did an excellent portrayal in my opinion).

But no major motion picture.

The question is why? One would think director Oliver Stone would be tempted by the possibility since Stone has always had a fascination with 1960s history but so far he has not bitten on the project. When one considers how much Manson’s stigma has permeated American pop culture the failure (or refusal) of Hollywood to examine Manson, the Manson Family, and the murders is puzzling. It’s not out delicacy for the victims or their families. When one considers the tawdriness of Hollywood society and its gutter instinct for mega-millions, the absence of a Manson picture becomes suspicious.

One wonders if the reason why is because Manson moved so easily through Hollywood society; interacting with its resident powers that be; perhaps serving their bidding is the motive for denying him cinematic immortality?

The only person who can answer the question in Manson himself and he’s not talking.

May he (and his killers) rot in jail (and in hell).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Poem: Humidity

Green grass
After the summer thunderstorm
Like so many knives against the soles of my feet

Air heavy
Time Heavy
Morning eyes blurry and bleary
After a good night's sleep

I spent a lifetime waiting for love
But it didn't come
I spent a lifetime hoping against hope
But it didn't come
I spent a lifetime waiting for my family to grow up
But it didn't come

Finally I left...

When you cut the anchor you cut the cord as well
Like Kurtz in the Congo
Or was it Vietnam?

Sometimes faith needs to grow in the absence of love
Sometimes faith needs to grow in the silence of others
Sometimes faith needs to grow in the presence of hate
Because hate feeds and devours and consumes and corrodes and erodes
Relentlessly like tooth decay

Sometimes faith needs to grow against all we believe in

Sometimes belief and faith are two separate things

Monsters of my youth come back

I could not slay them then
No need to now

Just ignore what's happened

And pretend...

A world without people
A people without a world

Vines consuming
The modern day deluge washing over all our buildings
The animals dominate

As we become dinosaurs
Fossilized amidst the monuments of our existence

Abandoned buildings...



Toppled like nine-pins

Modern day Jerichos

No rams horns

No priests

No ark

No Joshua

No Canaan

No Promised Land

Just Nothing

(Look what we've become?)

(c) 07/30/2009 by Matthew DiBiase

Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite: That's the Way it Was

I grew up as a child watching Walter Cronkite every evening until 1981. His death, in my eyes, signifies the end of responsible, pure broadcast journalism as we know it. Since his departure from doing the CBS Evening News in 1981 broadcast journalism has declined dramatically, damningly, and, in certain respects, pathetically.

Cronkite was a legitimately Olympian figure—a stature granted to precious few Americans. (There are plenty of public figures we think are Olympian today but in reality they are not). Cronkite breathed rarified air. He, along with the late Edward R. Murrow epitomized broadcast journalism in its most pristine and appropriate form—a form you do not see on TV today.

The real tragedy of Cronkite’s death is that no other TV anchor figure has ever come close to the standard he set for himself and for his profession when he anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. To be even more blunt: no one will ever come that close again or have such an enormous impact as Cronkite did.

Even more damning in my eyes at least is that if Cronkite were reincarnated and entered broadcast journalism today there is no way in the world he would ever be granted a network anchor position. What I think was one vital source of Cronkite’s magnificent appeal was that Cronkite looked so utterly and magnificently American. There was no glitz or Hollywood freeze-dried processed good looks to him. Has anyone noticed that all the TV anchors appearing on the news since 1981 look nothing like Cronkite? Walter Cronkite looked like the unassuming Middle American reporter that he truly was. Cronkite (unlike his successors) was totally real. Cronkite (unlike some of his successors male and female) was a true journalist. The late Marshall McLuhan once called TV a cool medium. No one other broadcast journalist exemplified that coolness better than Cronkite did. I wouldn’t be surprised if McLuhan developed his insight by watching Cronkite in action. Indeed, no one personified the American image and ethos better than Walter Cronkite.

Even more significantly Cronkite did not curry favor from either side of the political spectrum. John F. Kennedy always expressed suspicion about Walter Cronkite. Privately, Kennedy accused Cronkite of being a Republican because of Cronkite’s long friendship with Dwight Eisenhower and Cronkite’s refusal to be seduced by Kennedy’s charismatic charm. (Kennedy was suspicious of any journalist whom he did not have in his back pocket). Conversely, Richard Nixon considered Cronkite (along with the rest of the CBS News Division) to be a political enemy in league with the Democrats and waged unrelenting war on Cronkite and CBS along with the remainder of the American press until his resignation in 1974. In truth Cronkite was a registered Independent who wisely kept his political views to himself—something most broadcast journalists today do not do.

Indeed since Cronkite’s retirement in 1981 the political propagandization of broadcast journalism (both liberal and conservative) has debased the pure journalistic currency that Cronkite minted every night from his desk at CBS. When America lost Walter Cronkite we lost someone very great indeed. We will never see the likes of him again. And that is sad commentary on the present condition of broadcast journalism today.

Rest in Peace, Walter.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sarah Palin: Politicus Interruptus

“If you can’t stand the heat then get out of the kitchen.”—Harry S. Truman

Sarah Palin’s supreme political moment came when she gave her acceptance speech for the Vice-Presidential nomination at last year’s Republican Convention. Since then she has descended slowly but inexorably towards a political precipice which has already claimed several promising new stars in the G.O.P.

Palin’s resignation as Governor of Alaska (although shocking to many) is really not surprising when considering her performance as a politician since August last year. When I first wrote about her I considered her presence a charming new start for the G.O.P. which badly needed some changes but now, after nearly a year in the spotlight, Sarah Palin no longer appears to be Presidential timber but more like Presidential kindling—mere fuel for the prairie fire which is always Presidential campaign politics.

At best political pundits can call her questionable move unorthodox but in reality her departure reeks of opportunism; a reluctance to risk her shaky political reputation in the risky and tedious business of governing the largest state in the Union; and, perhaps, a personal inability to rise above the attendant intense media scrutiny all potential Presidential candidates must endure if they are to achieve the Presidency.

Ever since Sarah Palin got the taste of the Presidency in her mouth it seems obvious in retrospect that she considers being the governor of Alaska as an obstacle to her quest for higher office. Now that she has become a national figure, the Governor’s seat has turned into a confining box (a political coffin maybe?) that she needs to jettison, to escape from. What Sarah Palin fails to realize though is that if American history teaches us anything it is that many governors have used their office as laboratories to develop and experiment with new policies which could then be translated onto the national stage. Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all followed that path towards the Oval Office. Sarah Palin’s refusal to do the same must be seen as a failure of political nerve. Alaska, like all other 49 states in the Union, is in an economic crisis. If Sarah Palin really wanted to demonstrate that she was worthy of the Oval Office then remaining at her post and working like hell to get Alaska out of its doldrums would be the best course for her. Of course there is always the chance that she might have failed in the attempt which, in turn, would have cost her dearly in 2012 but those are the risks every politician must take if they are to achieve the Presidency. Every President from Washington to Obama took some awesome risks to become President: that’s the nature of the job.

As it stands right now, Palin did not do enough as governor to show that she is Presidential material. What probably hurt her chances of winning the White House the most was when Republican Senator Ted Stevens failed to win reelection last year after being convicted of corruption charges (his conviction was later overturned due to prosecutorial bungling). Had Stevens won reelection he probably would have been forced to resign his seat. Had this had happened Sarah Palin would have been obligated to select a replacement for Stevens and I have no doubt she would have chosen herself to fill that role. Had this had happened Palin could have improved her political stock immeasurably. As a Senator she would have been better placed to address national issues than as governor. She would have been the 41st Republican Senator and could have used her seat as a powerful tool to block or filibuster the Obama Administration’s costly programs. She could have rapidly emerged as a catalytic presence in the Senate and could have provided some badly needed energy into the G.O.P. minority ranks. By 2012 she would have come a long way towards achieving the badly needed political experience and maturity necessary to become President.

But it didn’t happen that way.

Sara Palin may feel that garnering headlines is equivalent to being Presidential but if that were true then Jesse Jackson would have been elected President in 1988. Fortunately for America that did not happen. Indeed the way she does make headlines is disturbing in some respects. She complained in her resignation speech about the intense media scrutiny on her and her family. All well and true but does she expect the media scrutiny ever to lessen if and when she does close in on the Presidency? Even more disturbing is her Nixonian tactic of labeling every gaffe or miscue she makes media lies and distortions. That inability to learn from her mistakes and rise above them is more about her wanting to have her cake and eat it too. Her complaints about how the media has pried into her family’s affairs are disingenuous as well. She has not hesitated to use her children as stage props for her political campaign. Their willingness to be used in that manner makes them fair game for the media. Interestingly the Obamas have done a much better job at guarding the privacy of their young children than Sarah Palin has with hers.

Sarah Palin will run for President in 2012 but whether she will win the office is another matter for another time and place. A good viable female conservative Republican candidate would go a long way towards restoring the G.O.P.’s political and ideological spirit.

Sarah Palin, right here, right now, is not that woman.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Jackson: The Price of Fame and Youth

To have fame and youth at once is too much for a mortal”—Schopenhauer, German philosopher

So, too, it was for Michael Jackson. Was he the King of Pop? No, that title rightfully belonged to Frank Sinatra. Michael Jackson for the last twenty-seven years of his life and career was the King of Plop or should I say the King of Hype? As his creativity gradually declined in the wake of his magnum opus Thriller his hype and notoriety grew exponentially, like a cancer upon the world’s hedonistic consciousness. At the end the only thing sustaining his name was his hype. He squandered and exhausted his creativity decades ago.

When John Lennon died I was devastated and I wept for his passing. When Kurt Cobain died I sympathized and understood. When Frank Sinatra died, I paid homage and showed respect. When Ray Charles and James Brown died (two authentic musical geniuses) I truly mourned.

To be cruelly blunt, I felt nothing when I received the news about Michael Jackson’s death; and with it the allegations of prescription drug abuse, not even surprised. John Lennon, shortly before his assassination, commenting on the death of Elvis, said that “the courtiers always kill the king.” So too it was for Michael Jackson as it was for Elvis; the same enabling support systems; the same refusal by his family and friends to properly confront his destructive addictions and habits head on because they were beholden financially to him. Just Elvis needed his Memphis Mafia, his gun collection, his karate lessons, his girlfriends in white lingerie, and his trusted physician Dr. Nick to administer his “medications” (and even when Dr. Nick wasn’t available, Elvis had plenty of other physicians who could be counted on to administer the prescription drugs he desperately craved and was addicted to) so, too, it was for Michael Jackson. He, too, needed the enablers, the omnipresent Doctor Feelgoods, his personal amusement park, his bizarre toys, and, lastly, his young child playmates for the sleepovers at his mansion.

When I started blogging in May 2005, one of my first blog entries was about the civil suit against Michael Jackson for allegedly molesting various young children during the course of his career. I remember a phrase I used when commenting on the trial. It went like this: rule of the fast lane: there are no victims only volunteers. The phrase remains apt. Even though he was never formally convicted of child molestation charges it remains disturbing (and compelling) that he deliberately placed himself in a position where such accusations could be made. Even allowing him the presumption of legal innocence his personal judgment must be seen as appalling if not criminal. And why did he settle out of court with the children’s families in question? Why, afterwards, did he consider seeking citizenship in Bahrain (in the Middle East) where there is no extradition treaty with the U.S. for sex crimes?

When contemplating the flotsam and jetsam of his life, I am reminded of something former Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell said in a documentary about Jimi Hendrix. Mitchell was asked about how the various leaches and hangers-on in Hendrixes life contributed to his death. Mitchell acknowledged their role but made some interesting remarks which need to be considered. I don’t what Mitchell said precisely but the gist is as follows: Mitchell said that, yes, Hendrix did have a lot of leaches and spongers living off of him but that Hendrix knew what he was taking on otherwise Jimi would not have gotten involved in it. Mitchell added that Hendrix took on what he wanted to take on. In other words, Hendrix lived the way he did with his eyes wide open.

So, too, it was for Michael Jackson. He took on what he wanted to take on and in the end it took him. In the end what’s left is the debris of his personal life and, sadly, his three children who, already, are being used as pawns. (I have a nasty prediction to make: don’t be surprised if their grandfather, Michael Jackson’s father, tries to forcibly forge the three kids into a musical act in the forlorn hope of regaining the Jackson’s family musical glory. Considering that Jackson’s father is a psycho-hose beast stage father, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit).

In the end, with regards to Michael Jackson, all I have to say is good, bloody, riddance.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran: An Aroused Electorate

A strange fire is being kindled in Iran; a fire that has the enormous potential of erupting out of its chamber and consuming all who stand before it. The growing protests in Iran led by supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi over the results of the Presidential election are reaching critical mass. Despite Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s affirmation of the election results and his threats of a brutal crackdown the simmering fury of an aroused electorate continue to grow. Khamenei’s reaction was not surprising. After all the repudiation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral “victory” is also a repudiation of Khamenei (and his ilk) as well.

The protest movement in Iran raises more questions than it answers. Does Mousavi know that to overthrow Ahmadinejad he must also overthrow Khamenei, the mullahs, the Revolutionary Guard, and the militias that do the filthy work of the present regime? If Mousavi succeeds in overthrowing the present regime and its associates what will he create in its place? A more socially liberal regime or will this is be a repeat of 1979 when the Shah of Iran (a brutal dictator who ruled in the Western-style) was overthrown by another brutal dictator who ruled in accordance with the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism? Is Mousavi truly motivated to achieve true reform in Iranian society or this is another mad quest for power by a self-seeking adventurer (which one could say the late Ayatollah Khomeini was when he ruled Iran). Another question is this: is it truly possible to reconcile democratic socio-political values with the Shiite Islamic faith? Indeed this leads to further questions: if Mousavi’s revolt (and that is the proper word for what is going on right now in Iran) succeeds what will happen to Khamenei and his fundamentalist mullahs who have held great power in Iranian society since 1979? Does Mousavi send them all into exile (which allows the surviving mullahs to foment potential counter-revolution like Khomeini did when the Shah exiled him?) Or does Mousavi have them all killed which would lead to the mullahs being declared martyrs by their adherents and which would then spark even great counter-revolution? Given a cursory look at their records there is no way that Khamenei and the mullahs would ever peacefully accept being reduced to socio-political impotence. Even if Mousavi’s revolt succeeds there is a distinct possibility that Iran can and will disintegrate into a costly and prolonged civil war; perhaps even fragmenting the country geographically as well as politically. If such a civil war does take place how will that impact the Middle East and the world? If a civil war erupts and it disrupts Iran’s considerable presence in the oil-producing market than one much expect an even greater spike in gasoline prices than what we’ve seen during the past year.

And what can America to do while all this goes on? As it stands right now we can do nothing. This is an Iranian matter and must remain so. For all our loathing of the present Iranian regime, we must remain silent. It’s no accident that Ayatollah Khamenei tries to portray Mousavi as an American stooge (please remember one of the prime motivating factors in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran was that the Shah was very much a client king of the U.S. during his reign from 1941 to 1979). Indeed there is no guarantee that Mousavi will be more friendlier to the U.S. than Ahmadinejad is right now.

No, all we can do is sit and watch this revolutionary tennis match which will have seismic socio-political ramifications for the world at large.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Song: Hammer or Anvil...and the story behind the song

"In life, one must either be hammer or anvil"
--Goethe, German writer and philosopher

I wrote this song in the late winter of last year. It was written and influenced completely by the Elliot Spitzer scandal when (then) Democratic Governor of New York Elliot Spitzer was forced to resign as Governor when it turned out he had been a frequent client of a Washington, DC escort service. The irony of Spitzer's downfall had been that he had been a very vocal advocate of "family" values and condemning pornography and other assorted immoral aspects of American society.

Thus the exposure of Spitzer's hypocrisy made for delicious debate among American political pundits as well as ending a once promising political career.

The title of the song is drawn from the above-mentioned quote from Goethe. It is also drawn from one of my favorite episodes from the 1967 British mini-series The Prisoner which starred Patrick McGoohan (who also used the above-mentioned quotation) when facing his nemesis, Number Two.

The lyric is relatively self-explanatory about the Spitzer scandal.

The "no rights we can abuse" line is me making a social comment about the Bush Administration.

The "wife displayed" line is me commenting on Spitzer's execrable decision (like all other politicians who get caught in scandals) of having his wife stand by his side (and thus forcing her to share in his humiliation) while he tries to explain the unexplainable; justify the unjustifiable; and ask for pity when he was being pitiless to the woman he loved.

When it comes to the melody, imagine acoustic guitars scraping, elementary percussion instruments being shaken, while a hammer clangs against an anvil in the background.


"Hammer or Anvil"

What you’ll be is precisely what you’re not
What you’ll get is what you haven’t got
The lie you live is not the lie you are
The path you lead is not the path you carved

Dishonesty’s disarray
Communities we betray
The answers left unsaid
The debtors left unpaid

Excess is no excuse
No rights we can abuse
The hammer becomes the anvil now
The anvil chorus destroys the sacred cow

What you missed is what you haven’t shot
What you pissed is what’s outside the pot
The life you take is not the life you sought
The wife displayed is not the wife you bought

Hypocrisy’s panoply
Idolatry’s feet of clay
The heroes left unsaved
The villains left depraved

Excess is no excuse
No rights we can abuse
The hammer becomes the anvil now
The anvil chorus destroys the sacred cow

© 03/14/2008 by Matthew DiBiase

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: The folly of dispassion

The real reason behind the G.O.P.'s opposition to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is not because of her qualifications or her comments made in 2001 about being influenced by her life experiences it's because the Republicans are angry that President Obama once again showed excellent political shrewdness in selecting Sotomayor.

Obama's first Supreme Court nomination was fraught with a lot of potential political danger. His selection of Sotomayor which expands the doors of opportunity for women and Hispanics in the Supreme Court and the strength of Sotomayor's qualifications (she is far more qualified for the post than Clarence Thomas or Bush crony Harriet Miers) are the real motivating factors for the G.O.P. carping.

Personally I find the Republican's insistence that any future Supreme Court nominee must be dispassionate amusing. Ideally we like our judges to be dispassionate and balanced and fair. That is the ideal but in reality all legal officers, judges, lawyers, and police officers alike are ruled by their life experiences. Their judgments are colored by who and what they are and what they feel and how the law is interpreted is based on those feelings and life experiences: for better or for worse. Only machines are dispassionate.

When the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1890s ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that racial segregation was legal how many of the justices were dispassionate or unaffected by emotions or prejudices? How many justices based their legal reasoning in mandating racial segregation in deference to the enormous and virulent prejudices of that era?

If anyone thinks the U.S. Supreme Court is dispassionate in its inner dealings and workings then I strongly urge all readers to read Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's book The Brethren an insider account of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1969 to 1976. Although it is dated a cursory reading of the book will disabuse anyone of the notion that Supreme Court justices are dispassionate. Actually it's the opposite. That goes for both liberals and conservatives.

Sonia Sotomayor will make a fine justice and should be confirmed with all deliberate speed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Travels with Matt: The Way West

I am struck by the differences that exist in the Western U.S. as opposed to the Eastern part of our country. Being a Easterner (or should I say a Northeasterner) I am required to live amidst concrete, steel and glass, and small pockets of nature surrounded by human civilization. In the West humanity lives in small pockets of concrete, steel and glass totally surrounded by the forces of nature.

In the East one is always confronted by the noise of city and suburban life. In the West (unless you live in a major city) one is struck by the absence of noise. The other day I was hiking alone on a lonely ridge that was the site of the Fetterman Massacre (which took place in December 1866). I could see the lanes of U.S. Route 90 snaking through the Wyoming grasslands yet the freeway seemed so distant as if it didn't even exist. In a sense I felt as if I were in a bubble cut off from modern civilization; as I were communing with the spirit of 1866.

Out West one can sense the antiquity of the land. In some places the terrain hasn't changed since the dawn of time. It is that permanence which lends a magic aura to the natural treasures which makes our country beautiful. Whereas in the East, massive changes in the land make what was a memory we can only imagine.

You have to go to the West to appreciate the true vastness of America. I can travel through five states in six hours if I drive through the Northeast but out West one can remain in the same state for days.

I remember when I vacationed in West Texas in November 2005. I was averaging 100 miles a day in my car while never leaving the state of Texas. Right now as I am vacationing in Montana and Wyoming I am awestruck at the endless rolling grasslands of the Great Plains. What I am experiencing isn't even remotely close to capturing the enormity of the landscape of this part of the American West.

As I experience the terrain, elements, history, and wildlife of the American West I call to mind what the historian Dee Brown told documentarian Ric Burns in Burns' magnificent documentary The Way West. Brown (who wrote Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee) told Burns. "The Western Experience forms a major part of the American mythology. We see it as America."

Standing here in a small town in Wyoming, I see the truth in what Dee Brown said and I find comfort and hope in that truth. Travelling through this land makes you fall in love with your country.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jack Kemp: A Gridiron Perspective

It’s interesting (and a tad unfortunate) that the press, when covering the death of Jack Kemp, focused more on his political career as a congressman, Presidential candidate and Vice-Presidential candidate, conservative advocate, and cabinet member of the George H.W. Bush Administration than on his professional football career. Indeed the media treated his career as a minor footnote in Kemp’s distinguished life.

That is unfair to Kemp’s memory. Jack Kemp’s professional football career was an amazing story of perseverance, courage, leadership, and triumph. It was during his pro football career that Kemp developed the characteristics and qualities that launched his political career and led him into a life of distinguished public service which stretched from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.

Kemp was a quarterback drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1957 from Occidental College in California. He was behind NFL Hall-of-Famer Bobby Layne and veteran all-pro Tobin Rote on the depth chart. His stay with the Lions was not particularly pleasant. One time Bobby Layne convened a quarterbacks meeting at the Tiger Stadium bar. (Layne’s magnificent skills as a quarterback were matched by his drinking prowess). Layne and Tobin Rote (who, ironically, would later replace Kemp as starting quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in 1963) were drinking beer while Kemp, a raw rookie was drinking soda pop. Layne and Rote were going over that week’s game plan while Kemp, awed by the two veterans, was content to listen, not saying a word. Layne finished the meeting and ordered another round of drinks for Rote and himself. He stared at Kemp sipping his soda and grumbled, “Kid, if you want to make it in this league, you’re gonna have to learn to drink.” Kemp was eventually cut by the Lions and bounced around for two more years as a taxi squad quarterback for the New York Giants and a brief spell in the Canadian Football League.

It was the creation of the American Football League in 1960 that gave Jack Kemp the opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a starting quarterback. He was signed by the Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers. He was the field general leading the offense for Chargers head coach Sid Gillman. Gillman is seen by many football historians as the man who developed the tactical antecedents of what is now known as the West Coast Offense. Kemp had a powerful throwing arm and great receivers and running backs to throw to. Kemp was ranked the best quarterback in the AFL in 1960 and led the Chargers to two AFL Championship game appearances in 1960 and 1961 (losing both times to the Houston Oilers who are now the Tennessee Titans).

Kemp’s world changed in 1962 when he broke his hand and was waived (either accidentally or deliberately) by the Chargers and claimed by the Buffalo Bills for a mere $100. Kemp would remain with the Bills for the remainder of his football career. The Buffalo Bills were an anomaly in the AFL: a team that lived and breathed on its defense. Kemp virtually led a no-name offense. The only Hall-of-Fame player on the offense was offensive guard Billy Shaw. The Bills had no dominant running back and an average receiving corps. Kemp had his work cut out for him.

Amazingly, Kemp overcame the Bills offensive limitations and led the Bills to three consecutive AFL Championship Game appearances in 1964, 1965, and 1966 (winning the title in 1964 and 1965). What’s amazing was that Kemp’s personal stats were hardly championship caliber. During those dynasty years Kemp’s passing percentages were always below 50%. He was never the top-ranked quarterback in the AFL (indeed he wasn’t even among the top five) during those dynasty years. He threw more interceptions than completions. Indeed the Bills offense gained most of its first downs by rushing instead on passing.

And yet Kemp led the Buffalo Bills to the only championship titles in their existence. What Kemp lacked in gaudy stats he made up for in leadership. Kemp provided constancy and stability to the Bills offensive unit. He called and made the plays that needed to be made when leading the Bills downfield. His prior championship game appearances with the Chargers provided him with the experience needed to handle the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the post-season. He was popular with his teammates (many of whom would stand by his side when he later ran for the political office). He was a moving force for the establishment of the AFL players union (which would later merge with the NFL players union). His union organizing experience would hone his advocacy skills that he would later use as a congressman and Presidential candidate. Kemp’s leadership skills illustrate a seldom seen lesson in the annals of pro football: that you don’t need overwhelming stats to become a championship quarterback. There are many examples of quarterbacks who had unspectacular stats leading their teams to titles: Charley Conerly, Kenny Stabler, and Trent Dilfer come to mind. None of them were in the same league as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, or Johnny Unitas yet they led their teams to championship titles. Look at the other great quarterback in Buffalo Bills history: Jim Kelly. Kelly’s passing records dwarf Jack Kemp’s by a wide margin and he led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances but, unlike Kemp, Kelly could not lead the Bills to victory. Some cynics may suggest that you cannot compare the pre-Super Bowl era title games to the present-day Super Bowl experiences but a title game is a title game is a title game is a title game. You still have win when it counts. Jack Kemp did it. Jim Kelly didn’t.

After 1966 Kemp’s playing career went into decline. Age and injuries sapped Kemp’s and the rest of the Bills’ effectiveness. When he retired in 1969 he led all AFL quarterbacks in pass attempts, completions, and passing yards. Football historian Sean Lahman ranks Kemp at number 52 among all pro-quarterbacks (interestingly he ranks Jim Kelly at number 21). Whatever one thought about Jack Kemp’s political convictions there is one thing which cannot be denied. Jack Kemp was a championship quarterback, a winner.

May he rest in peace.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama: 100 Days Down, 1361 Days Left

Examining President Obama’s first Hundred Days, I come away with the following insights: 1) he has been far more effective in utilizing his congressional majorities than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter or even John F, Kennedy. The latter three Presidents often were at odds with their own party during the early going of their respective Presidencies. Obama has been more adroit in working with congressional leadership although he has failed in gaining the bi-partisan support he called for during his campaign. But even his failure to draw bi-partisan has not derailed his initiatives thus far. Even though he cannot get Republican support at least he has not allowed the G.O.P. to ruthlessly gridlock his programs like they successfully did under Bill Clinton.

2) Obama has thus far deftly replaced the aggressively confrontational (and occasionally bullying) style of the Bush Administration with a governing philosophy of subtle, brisk efficiency. The Obama Administration is using action to make its statement in the American and World landscape. Legislation is being planned; negotiations are being held; and crises are being managed with a modicum of wrangling or fuss or consternation. Obama has created an image of movement. Now whether we are moving in the right direction remains to be determined but there is movement. One must contrast this with George W. Bush’s first few months in office. From January 20, 2001 to September 10, 2001, the Bush Administration’s style was one of drift and lassitude. People forget that Bush’s poll numbers were poor before 9/11 and his only significant achievement was the 2001 tax cut. By contrast, Obama’s approval ratings remain good despite the fact that the economy is still in the throes of a major recession.

3) Obama has toned down the volume of partisan wrangling. Obama has not rubbed his triumphs in the faces of his opponents. The political atmosphere in America has quieted down and that is a good thing. Since 1993 the decibel levels of American politics have gone beyond the threshold of pain. The ideological vehemence shown by both sides has numbed the American electorate and has resulted in massive cynicism and disillusionment with the political process and faith in the government. Obama’s quieting down of the governing process has allowed, I believe, the American people to gain a little peace and solace amidst the silence. Sometimes silence can be the most effective statement of them all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Columbine: Lessons Left Unlearned

Ten years ago today I spent a lovely morning and early afternoon driving the full length of the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I was vacationing in the Valley, staying in New Market, and enjoying the many natural treasures and historical sites in the Valley proper. During my drive, I got to see the flora and fauna of the Valley in all its wondrous glory. It was early afternoon when I got back to my hotel to relax for a bit before eating dinner. I took off my shoes, flopped on the bed and switched on the television to find myself watching the tragic aftermath of the Columbine Massacre in Colorado.

There, on all the TV channels, was the footage of the students being escorted by police out of the school with their hands on their heads; the commentators repeating ad nauseam the gory details of the bloodbath; the ad hoc experts offering up their theories as to why; and, the now regrettable penchant of news people to seize on a descriptive phrase and beat it to death. (If I had been given a dollar every time the phrase “trench-coat mafia” was used I would have been a millionaire by night fall). I remember at the time when everyone was speculating as to why the massacre took place that my personal theory was that the killers, Klebold and Harris, were Satanists because the shooting took place on April 20 which is Adolf Hitler’s birthday (I have read books which state that Hitler is worshipped as a demigod among various Satanic cults). As it turned out my theory was wrong. Klebold and Harris were not Satanists but their motivations were certainly drawn from the bowels of hell itself.

Ten years after the maledicta, finger-pointing, second-guessing, and senseless speculation as to why Klebold and Harris committed their nihilistic act, I find myself looking inward while contemplating the Columbine Massacre.

When it came out the Klebold and Harris had been victimized by school bullying and had turned to each other to form their own murder clique as a mean to gain revenge on their peers, I couldn’t help but look at my own victimization years ago. From age eight to eighteen I was subject to constant physical, verbal, and psychological abuse at the hands of my peers and some of my teachers while I was a student in the Delran, New Jersey school system. Having had visited upon me so much vile poison the questions begs to be made is why didn’t I do the same thing as Klebold and Harris did?

There are several answers:

1) I am, by nature, not a violent person. Even though I am quite tall and now, quite, bulky, I was never a violent person by nature. I was more a victim of violence than someone who victimized others through violence. Obviously, Klebold and Harris were different. They were inherently violent and they did everything they could to give expression to their violence. They sought refuge in their video games where mass murder and indiscriminate slaughter is passed off as child’s play with the appropriate reset buttons to inure everyone that in real life, violence is deadly, bloody, and there are no reset buttons.

2) I lived in a house where there were no guns. Even if I had intended to commit violence, I had no weapons with which to commit the violence nor did I know of any places in Delran where to get a gun. (To this day I have never fired a gun or a rifle in my life. I have held guns (always empty) but I have never chambered a round into a firearm and have shot off a round. In way I am proud of that fact and it is my wish that I never fire a weapon of any kind). Klebold and Harris were different. They grew up in homes where guns were available, accessible, and usable. They grew up in a region where the Second Amendment is regnant and inviolate. Simply put, Klebold and Harris had access to the basic tools to commit a massacre and had the gumption and the access to information to manufacture their own explosive devices which they intended to compound and enhance their homicidal intentions.

3) I knew that violence was a waste of time and a self-destructive act which would have led to my personal destruction. I had a definite sense of right and wrong. Where it came from I do not know. Was it my parents? Was it from inside of me? I don’t know but I had the inner sense and sensibility to know that revenge was for fools. The actor Roger Moore in the movie For Your Eyes Only once said, “when you seek revenge you better dig two graves. One for your victim and the other for yourself.” Klebold and Harris were different. They lived in an emotional milieu where revenge and violence were glorified; the sufferings of its victims diminished; the resort to violence encouraged and enabled. In the days and weeks following the Massacre, we all saw Klebold and Harris’ videotapes of them practicing their marksmanship and bragging about their intentions. Their nihilistic posturing reminded me of another Colorado native, John Chivington, who loudly proclaimed in 1864, “I long to be wading in gore! Kill and scalp, big and little. Nits make lice!” What followed was the infamous Sand Creek Massacre where Colorado militiamen murdered peaceful Southern Cheyenne Indians (men, women, and children all). Chivington—when he was not murdering Indians—was a clergyman. In manys, Klebold and Harris were no different than the hijackers who flew their airplanes into the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and the Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. The same mentality that goaded Klebold and Harris to kill also goaded the 9/11 hijackers; murder for the sake of murder.

I remember reading one so-called expert say that Klebold and Harris were suicidal. Hogwash. Although they both took their own lives rather than surrender to police I do not believe their intent was suicide. If it had been then why murder innocent people. Why didn’t they go into the woods with their weapons and shoot themselves. The fact that they did take their own lives was merely incidental in my book. By taking their own lives they cheated the hangman (although Colorado didn’t have the death penalty at the time). If Klebold and Harris had surrendered to authorities then they would have stood trial and had been made to assume responsibility for their crimes and would have been forced to listen to the many victim impact statements that would have been read during the trial. Klebold and Harris’ suicides were a way to evade responsibility for their murders. If Klebold and Harris had been able to find an escape route from the school I have no doubt they would have taken it and would have continued their murder spree until they were killed or captured. My guess is that their only regrets were that they had not chalked up a larger body count that they had hoped for.

What’s amazing about Columbine is that ten years have passed and we still have massacres of this type going on in America and around the world; that we still give people access to guns which they shouldn’t have—all in the name of the Second Amendment; that there are kids out there in the world who consider Klebold and Harris’ rampage as something to imitate, build on, and improve.

Ten years on and we still haven’t learned...

And that is the real tragedy of Columbine.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Keeping The Faith

April 3 will mark the tenth anniversary of when I was baptized into the Catholic Church. It’s hard for me to realize it’s been ten years since I took that spiritual step in my life. So much has happened since that day: some great; some indifferent; and some of it very, very bad.

How I came to take that important step is even more extraordinary (at least in my eyes).

On the surface I was born into a Seventh Day Adventist family but in actuality it was a “family” mired in spiritual conflict. My mother (when she was pregnant with me) used her pregnancy to stop attending SDA Sabbath days. From that day forward she drew steadily away from SDA. My father remained firm in the faith (or at least firm in his eyes). He took my brothers and me steadily until when my brothers became teenagers they drew away as well. I kept going (it never occurred to me not to go).

Looking back at my years attending Sabbath at the SDA church in Laurel Springs, New Jersey my mind is filled with disturbing insights and memories. The spiritual milieu at Laurel Springs was not a healthy one. In retrospect I consider the atmosphere there to have been poisonous, sick, and emotionally diseased. There are two literary metaphors that describe the congregation there. One comes from T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece The Hollow Men where he wrote, “The whole world is our hospital.” Actually Laurel Springs was not so much a hospital as it was a hospice. A hospital is where you go to be healed and get well. A hospice is where you go to die which leads me to the second literary metaphor: what Joseph Conrad wrote about Marlowe meeting Mr. Kurtz in the flesh after the long, harrowing river journey in Heart of Darkness. Conrad wrote “It was slow death in there; malaria; nightmares.”

That’s what it was like for me at Laurel Springs: slow, lingering death; nightmares.

There was no wellness in Laurel Springs. There was a lot of anger and a lot of bigotry (not directed at me) and a lot of borderline insanity. (There were a lot of people there who either had or were developing or would later have severe emotional and mental problems). But in my eyes the most damning indictment of Laurel Springs was that there was absolutely no love in that church.

I was too young to realize it back then but as I age I realize what Jesus meant when He told the disciples to love another. Jesus knew that the only way for the love of God to flourish and grow was that His followers had to love another first before they could teach others to love the Lord and obey the Word of God. Love was the rock upon which He built His Church.

But there was no love in Laurel Springs. Indeed there was a lot of ugliness and hypocrisy and in time that ugliness would be directed at my father (and by extension towards myself as well). It began when my mother and two older brothers stopped coming to Sabbath. The elders at Laurel Springs kept haranguing my father about it. In time the harangues turned into prolonged, confrontation, intimidation sessions where my father would literally be surrounded by seven to ten male elders who hammered him repeatedly about why my mother and brothers weren’t there while ruthlessly brushing aside whatever explanations my father offered.

I had to wait in another room while these sessions took place. At the time I had no idea what was going on. In retrospect the hypocrisy and the frightening aspects of those sessions anger me enormously. The elders always demanded sacrifices from my father (and by extension me as well) while they themselves never practiced what they preached.

Looking back what happened at Laurel Springs those sessions smell more like a demented cult than a Christian faith.

My father never admitted it but he stopped attending SDA church altogether although he always abides by the teachings. There was another SDA church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey but he refused to go there. It was Laurel Springs or nothing. He still wants to go back to SDA desperately but the only thing that is stopping him is himself.

I was 11-12 when we stopped going. At the time I was going through an incredibly prolonged emotional ordeal which devastated me emotionally and left me psychologically desolate.

By the time I was age 16 I had abjured all religion; choosing instead a philosophy of simple Deism: God exists but is unknowable.

Mostly I was angry during those salad days. Anger is not the best way to come to grips with God. (In many ways I am still angry although not at God but at my so-called “family”).

Eschewing SDA led me into a new concatenation of new grief. Since that day I have been on the receiving end of a lot of browbeating from relatives who took issue with my departure from SDA. Back then I thought it was solely because my personal break from SDA but now I realize that it was more than that. My break from SDA was only one stick my relatives used to beat me with but the main issue was simply their refusal to accept my existence as a person. It wasn’t my lack of “faith” that angered them. It was the fact that I existed. Even if I had given in and returned to SDA I knew the contempt I received would not have stopped. It would have continued and grown. Like Napoleon once said, “Never do what your enemy wants you to do.”

In many ways I drew anger because I represented a reality and truth that some of my relatives could never accept or else it frightened them because it called into questions their own “values” or “beliefs”. In many ways I was a living refutation of what they imposed upon others.

Like Jack Nicholson said in the movie Easy Rider, “When people see a free individual it’s going to scare them.”

So it was with me.

College helped me with my spiritual quest in many ways. I took classes in Oriental and Western religions. These classes were merely to provide students with the historical and cultural backgrounds of the major world faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There were no spiritual services being rendered or proselytism. The idea was simply to understand the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of those faiths. Those classes did a world of good for me. It opened my eyes in myriad ways and allowed me access to various insights and spiritual concepts I could never have comprehended in my former life.

Those classes made me a better person and, ultimately, a better Christian too. Despite what certain relatives obstinately insist on promulgating I was never a follower of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Taoism. (Not possible. I do not possess the psychic stamina or courage to be able to faithfully practice the tenets and concepts of those faiths).

But I have always drawn insight and inspiration from Buddhist and Taoist concepts. I do have the Tao Te Ching and a book of sacred Buddhist teachings on my book shelf. They lie beside my King James Bible which I still read from time to time. (In fact I was leafing through it the other night, reading the Book of Kings).

I have also drawn great insight from reading books on Native American spirituality: the spiritual beliefs of the Lakota Sioux, the Apache Indians, and the Paiute medicine man Wovoka (creator of the Ghost Dance). Black Elk Speaks and Crow Dog also opened my eyes to a new way of seeing life and how humanity interacts with the Maker of all things.

Years passed and I remained unattached. My family life disintegrated. My relationship with certain relatives became more poisonous.

It took the death of my beloved Aunt Anita in 1996 which led the closing of certain doors and the opening of new ones. When the late Anita Mayers died in 1996 it was a hammer blow to me. Her passing and the heartbreaking days which followed her funeral caused me to look anew at my spiritual past. What I saw repelled and sickened me and I turned my back on it for all time.

I did a lot of talking to certain individuals in the months that followed and it was those talks which caused me to make the final cut. Four months after Aunt Anita’s death, I was attending Mass at my parish in Bellmawr.

How that came about amazes me today. It all began with a bottle of wine I could not open. Some friends of mine gave a bottle of wine as a gift and I kept it in my refrigerator; awaiting New Year’s Eve when I would open it. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to properly store wine bottles. I kept the bottle upright instead of on its side. When New Year’s Eve arrived and I went to open the bottle, the cork had slid down the bottle and could not be reached by the corkscrew. I was so enraged and incensed and upset by this that I had to throw the bottle away. This may sound crazy but I cried myself to sleep that night. It was one of the worst New Year’s Eves of my entire life.

I didn’t have a drinking problem, far from it. At the time I felt that my failure to open that wine bottle stood as a symbol of all the failures in my life. Now I know that most of the “failures” I thought were mine were not mine at all. It was the fault of others as well; my “family” most of all. Some of my failures were brought about because I trusted my “family” and my “family” abused that trust. That’s not failure. That is betrayal and it was that climate of betrayal which would later culminate in my own divorce from my “family”.

I realize that now but I didn’t back then.

But why attend Mass? There is no one major reason. Driving home from work I would see my future parish church and it had a big sign which bid all visitors welcome. My genealogical research also played a key role in it. The realization that my father’s ancestors were Catholic resonated in me.

Mostly it was bloody curiosity. I attended my first Mass on January 12, 1997. I went there feeling afraid and tentative. If anyone had said “boo” I would walked right out of the church. Interestingly no one said “boo”. I sat there not knowing what to do and I stuck it out. One moment in the Mass put the hook in me. It’s near the end where all the members of the congregation show one another the sign of peace. People shake hands or bid one another welcome. I wasn’t expecting that. When it happened it surprised me but it also pleased me as well.

The following Sunday I went there again…and the Sunday after that too…and on and on it went.

Why did I stay? The atmosphere at my parish was loving, kind, warm, and welcoming; totally unlike Laurel Springs which is not too far away from where I live now. The atmosphere of my parish is an extension of the town of Bellmawr which is a very nice place to live in. I often wondered if I had visited a different Catholic parish, would I have kept attending Mass?

I also dated a very dear and darling woman who was very devout in her Catholicism (we met at a Catholic singles dance in Glassboro). She was very encouraging in my spiritual quest. Although she left me later I still kept the faith. Later, I made friends in upstate Pennsylvania who were (and remain) wonderfully encouraging in my quest as well.

Who knows? There are some parishes that are good and some that are bad. One could apply that lesson to SDA as well. If Laurel Springs had not been such a hospice and if certain specific relatives of mine had not acted like bloody fools in their treatment of me, would I have walked away from SDA?

All I know is that the ill treatment I received played an enormous role in my decision to leave SDA and it was the lovely treatment I received at my parish in Bellmawr which led me to become Catholic.

I gave myself a year to decide whether or not I wanted to be baptized into the Catholic faith. In January 1998 I made my decision to be baptized but there was one problem. RCIA classes for Catholic instruction always begin in September. I was too late to be baptized in 1998. I was asked if I could wait for September 1998 to begin. I said yes and when September 1998 came around I was there for RCIA classes. I was quite the bright student and I became the favorite of Sister Marie Magdalena who taught me. (She wanted me to become a priest. She thought I had potential. I kid you not).

I persevered and on April 3, 1999 I was present at Easter Vigil to receive baptism, confirmation, and communion for the first time. I was totally alone that night. None of my “family” knew about this. Precious few ever knew. I made the decision not to tell anyone because I didn’t want anyone’s “expert” opinion about whether or not I should do it.

This was my decision. Mine alone. The way it should be when it comes to being one with God. I have said this to others many times. Faith must be an avocation; not an imposition.

I didn’t want anyone’s second-guessing or eye-rolling or condemnation.

Still, as always in my life, there was an element of opera bouffe in the proceedings. When it came time for Father Ryan to baptize me with water there was a minor problem. Father Ryan is very short and I am 6-1. He couldn’t reach up to sprinkle the water on my forehead. He was wired for sound and the congregation could hear the whispering between me and Father Ryan about what to do. I offered to get on my knees but Father Ryan demurred. Finally I got into an outfielder’s crouch and I was duly baptized.

I was given a votive candle which was lit to signify my entrance into the faith. A member of my parish later told me that she was struck by the look of rapture on my face as I held the candle in my hands after my baptism. I do remember staring at the flame on the candle and feeling the warmth of its glow, all the while having a childish grin on my face. After decades of being made to feel like an outcast by the entire world, I was finally a part of something; something wonderful; something fulfilling; something loving.

I was finally one.

I still have that votive candle. Each year on the anniversary of my baptism, I light the candle and eat dinner by its glow.

I shall do so again this year.