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I was THIS close to being a famous songwriter

22 Aug

royalWhile late-summer cleaning at the Smith Estates, I uncovered a treasure trove of unpublished song lyrics. After you experience a small sampling of this lyrical magic, which I created as a teenager, you’ll wonder why I’m not churning out the hits in Nashville or L.A. If you’re not prepared to be in awe, go find a kitten video.

(No title)

You dragged me away from my job in Buxton, Utah
And we drove through the desert all day
We drove past numerous canyon boxes
In your beat-up Chevrolet

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

You’re headin’ for the butte in the middle of the plain
Which rises to a thunderous roar
To the old graveyard in the middle of the butte
Where the great eagle flies no more

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

This song has many more verses and would have come in at roughly ten minutes as a finished product. It would have been longer had I written the letter G at end of certain words. Instead of a graveyard, the couple arrives in an Indian village where they see a medicine man, children playing, and lots of eagles, though I had just written the great eagle flies no more. Though the song is chock full of geographic and meteorological improbabilities, I most love “numerous canyon boxes.” This may refer to the short-lived Canyon & Sons cardboard box factory that folded in 1983.

And now something completely different:

(No title)

She’s in love with every movie star
All the teenage idols, too.
She follows every big rock singer
And knows everything they do
She sings their songs
And plays their games
And dreams every chance she gets.

Dart

From Comedy Central’s Reno 911

I wish I had finished that one. I’m dying to know what happened to the subject of the song. What games did she play with her idols? I picture
70s rock singers playing a lot of Lawn Darts, so I hope she didn’t get a Lawn Dart through her skull.

With wonderful lyrics like these and others, I had to share my gift. When I was 15 or 16, I got out my 45s and wrote down the record company addresses that were on the labels. Then I typed copies of my best work and mailed them to each company. Since I had no contact names, I sent the packets to the main addresses. I assumed the people in the mailroom would know what to do. This is how I imagine it went down at MCA Records headquarters in Los Angeles:

MCA underling: Hey chief, we just received an unsolicited envelope crammed with awesome lyrics by a fabulous songwriter named Ronnie Smith. He didn’t include a letter of introduction, but that would have been overkill.

MCA CEO: Smith huh? Never heard of him.

Underling: Oh, but you will when you see these beauties. (Thumbs through several pages of lyrics typed on a Royal portable typewriter.) Here’s one with a line about numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: Canyon boxes, huh?

Underling: Numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: By God, that’s brilliant.

Underling: (Holds up a page for the CEO to see.) Look, he doesn’t waste time writing the letter G. And here’s a song called Jimmy Solar. You know, I think Elton would love to put this one to music.

CEO: (Rubs his chin doubtfully) EJ’s committed to Bernie Taupin.

Underling: Taupin’s a two-bit hack compared to this Smith kid.

CEO: Hmm. What if Smith’s too good?

Underling: Whaddya mean, too good?

CEO: Unless he’s a lyric-writing machine who doesn’t care about his craft, he can’t write for all our artists. Sure, Alice Cooper would love the canyon box song. And Lynyrd Skynyrd will want first dibs on any song that mentions Lawn Darts. But what about Olivia Newton-John and the others? No one will buy their records if the lyrics pale in comparison. We could have a mutiny on our hands. And believe me, you don’t want an upset Olivia Newton-John.

Underling: (Shivers in fear) Yeah, I never thought about that. (Pulls out a cigarette lighter and sets the lyrics on fire.) I’ll file these with away with the ones from those kids who call themselves U2.

MCA Records no longer exists. Coincidence?  20150821_203701

In 1975 I took a different approach to instant stardom by entering a national songwriting contest. The grand prize was $3,000 and all the songwriter groupies one could handle. The contest was intended for professionals: singer-songwriters who had access to professional instruments, studios and talent. I had access to my mom, a cheap cassette recorder, and my older brother, who had to do what Mom said. While the professionals were putting their blood, sweat and tears into songs recorded on reel-to-reel tape, I spent fifteen minutes producing mine. Mom played an upright piano while Jeff sang The Unmarried Song. This nuanced number, which no longer exists because no one involved wants it to, was a marriage opposition piece. I don’t know why this subject was on my 16-year-old mind. I don’t remember the lyrics, except my brother often reminds they included, “The answer’s negatory.” Think about that: I entered a song in a nationwide contest that incorporated the word “negatory.”

The reaction from the judges was negatory. Perhaps The Unmarried Song had an unintended benefit, however. The following year, the same contest organizers held a lyric-only competition, which was a relief to anyone with ears. Instead, of sending my “best” song, however, I wrote one just for the competition. It was a country song, which I only listened to because Dad wouldn’t play anything else in his truck. It had to be the weirdest, creepiest song a teenage boy could write. It makes me cringe to share a verse, but here we go:

Little girls were made for lovin’ (again, where’s the G?)
This I’ve always said
Like seeing that you’re clothed
Or seeing that you’re fed.
Bedtime kisses, making wishes
And hoping they’ll come true
The little hugs that make me happy
Are coming straight from you.

I won’t even attempt an explanation.

I should have entered the canyon boxes song. And yet… That creepo creation made the initial cut in the competition. The judges, or perhaps some malfunctioning robot, considered my lyrics better than thousands of other songs. Imagine what the others were like. I won no money, but I received a certificate I framed and hung next to my bed for years until the printing faded.

I quit writing lyrics just as I was on the edge of superstardom. Something shinier must have caught my interest. Here’s the last song I wrote, which I typed in a business class when I was a senior in high school. Although I had never taken anything stronger than St. Joseph Children’s Aspirin, this makes me wonder what was in those pills.

(No title)

She sits in the courtyard
Sucking an apricot
Watching the train go by
They form a large circle
Singing a ballad
They don’t even know why
The tangerine glistens
Its nectar is sweet
And picked in the season of sun
The mellow morning answers
The daybreak song
The birds have gathered in one

Sometimes they feel
They’re not wanted
But only a moment or two
They woke up this evening
In a grandeur of darkness
And had a feeling of mystic blue.

I’ll spare you the second half. The key to a surefire hit is starting with an apricot and quickly switching to a tangerine. Keep the listener guessing what fruit you’ll name next. If you’re really feeling it, mention passion fruit or even a mango. Or find another career.

Signature

Special added complimentary bonus below.      If you’re really adventurous, a double special added complimentary bonus here.

JimmySolar

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Colombia: close, but no cigar

21 Mar

Dear Country of Colombia,

LaDorada Valentina and Juliana

Valentina and Juliana early Saturday morning at a small park in La Dorada

It’s me, one half of Los Americanos Gigantes who recently visited your country. (My brother, Jeff, the other Gigante, is still there, somewhere. If you see him, point him north.) I had a very good time in your country. I was not surprised to learn tourism was up 12% last year. Colombians are very nice and hospitable, the country is beautiful, and I never saw a single snowflake. These are my main criteria for judging any country in March. However, you’re not a world-class destination, yet. With a little extra effort, you can get there. I offer a few tips:

1. Play hard to get
You make it too easy to enter your country. Make us think you don’t care if we visit. Though there was plenty of security at El Dorado airport in Bogota, it took me only ten minutes from the time I left the plane to pass through customs. This is not acceptable. How am I supposed to believe your country is worth visiting if you don’t make it a hassle to enter? Let me give you a better model: I returned from Colombia to the U.S. via the Miami airport. It took me, entering my own country, one hour to navigate customs. Miami provides kiosks that allow U.S. and Canadian citizens to self-process their passports. This is supposed to accelerate the procedure, but I had to wait in a long serpentine line to use the kiosks while being barked at by a customs official who would make a good drill sergeant. After that, A few hundred of us new arrivals were directed to another long line, where other officials yelled at us. There, I went through Passport Control where a human checked my documents anyway. From there, I stood in a third line so I could hand my customs form to another person who put it in a stack without looking at it. Finally, I went through the TSA checkpoint where I got to take off my smelly shoes and receive a full body scan by a device that checked my body mass index and got way too personal in other ways I would rather not think about. If that doesn’t say “Welcome to America,” what does?

 2. Don’t be sorry
Oldest Streets in Bogota
Don’t apologize because so few of you speak English. If we visit your country, it’s our responsibility to know your language should we want to communicate easily. In our America, we would expect you to speak English at least as well as we can. I mean, come on, we’re AMERICANS. It did not surprise me that you struggled with Spanish spoken with a north Missouri country accent. I’m still not sure how my brother is able to generate eight syllables out of Buenos Tardes. But who am I to judge? When I thought I was asking for directions to the Museo Nacional in Bogota, what you heard was: “Where can I buy a pair of purple shoes that smell like turtle poop.” You did not flinch. You told me exactly where to find such shoes, as though such questions arise daily. However, I mistranslated your answer to mean: “The museum is next to the Piggly Wiggly.” That is my problem, not yours.

3. Don’t be so helpful
My brother flagged down a second person on the street to ask for directions to the museum. The man appeared to be in a hurry, but he was eager to help. However, like nearly everyone we met in Colombia, he spoke rapidly. The only two words I caught were calle and carrera. I became very practiced at saying in Spanish, “My good sir, we are but simple North Americans of limited intelligence. Please, repeat what you just said.” He did. We still had no idea where the museum was.  (It was right in front of us.) Jeff and I waited until the man was half a block away before heading in the direction we thought was correct. We had taken about twenty steps when the man ran back to point us in the correct direction.

Prez Palace

Jeff in front of the Presidential Palace, just before being told there’s nothing to see here. So, move on.

Don’t be so nice
The man on the street was the rule and not the exception. Even cops and soldiers were nice. You have had more than your share of political assassinations and attempted assassinations, so I understand why armed soldiers are everywhere you have important buildings. And I can understand why they did not want us tarrying in front of the presidential residence. But even the guard who shooed us away did so with a sheepish smile. A motorcycle cop told me to quit waving my cell phone around like a twelve-year-old girl (I’m paraphrasing), because it made a tempting target for thieves. But nearly everyone in Colombia had nicer phones than me. I was kind of hoping someone would steal mine.

There is no place for your kind of honesty into today’s world. My math skills are left wanting in English, so you can imagine how bad they are in Spanish. Yet, store clerks and servers showed us exactly how much something cost before we paid. And then they slowly counted our change as though we were five-year-olds. Even then, it didn’t always help. In La Dorada, a store clerk had to chase Jeff when he left a few dollars in change on the counter.

Jeff believed he needed to have a Cuban cigar. He did not realize that only three Colombians smoke cigars and that two of them have succumbed to lung cancer. Still, everyone he asked had heard rumors of a place that possibly sold them. They provided the best directions they could. We spent more money on cabs trying to find one cigar than the entire Cuban GDP for 2014.

That reminds me. You make it too easy to move around your cities. The cheap, clean mass transit system in Medellin makes ours seem antiquated, which it is.

Jeff and Cecilia-Case Guadelupe

Jeff with Cecilia, our Bogota spouse

Don’t worry about us so much.
Many people in Bogota, Medellin and La Dorada told us to be careful. For example, Cecilia worked at the Bogota Hotel where we stayed. Cecilia does not speak English, but she made herself very clear. We called her our “Bogota spouse,” because she tried to keep us in line. She reprimanded us when we forgot to lock the door to our fourth-floor balcony. She wrote “No” on a map to show places we shouldn’t go, because that part of the city can be a little dangerous at night. But everyone else was out having fun, so why couldn’t we?  We may have ignored Cecilia’s advice. Please, don’t tell her.

I intend to return as soon as possible to see if you have implemented any of my recommendations. I will be extremely disappointed if you have.

Signature

p.s. suggested reading: The Vortex by José Eustasio Rivera is Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joseph Conrad rolled into one.

I’m just talkin’ ’bout Shaft

23 Jan

In olden times, kids could purchase items called “45s” from magical places called “record stores.” On one visit, my brother Jeff bought an Osmonds single while I bought one by the Jackson 5. I still believe I had better taste. But we saw no need to spend all our lawn mowing earnings on records when we could record songs right off the radio. That didn’t last long. It may have had something to do with the quality of our $20 cassette recorder, the cheesy microphone, the poor speaker on the radio, or perhaps the quality in general of AM radio. So, we resorted to the king of all too-good-to-be true mail-order schemes: Columbia House Records. Columbia House offered ten albums or tapes (cassettes or eight-tracks) for the low, low price of two dollars. All you had to do in exchange was buy a certain number of albums of the month at regular price.

Imagine the delight of choosing ten highly-listenable rock and pop albums. Then imagine the disappointment we felt when we could not identify ten albums we wanted to listen to. A “good” album would be any that had least two songs we knew. It seemed as though eighty percent of the albums offered by Columbia House were by Ray Coniff, Ferrante & Teicher, Dean Martin, Jim Nabors and similar tuxedo wearers. Our mom could have found plenty to listen to, but not my brother and me.

breadThe first few tapes we chose were easy. By the time we reached numbers seven, eight, nine … we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. My brain has judiciously prevented me from remembering all ten tapes, but I just re-listened on Spotify to the ones I do remember. Let’s see how our selections held up, or failed to, more than 40 years later. Let’s also see what the “experts” at AllMusic have to say.

Best of Bread by Bread: I know: Soft Rock is the ultimate oxymoron, but I played this tape a lot when I was fourteen. I loved it, especially Mother Freedom, which was as RAWKing as Bread ever got. I didn’t re-listen to the album, however, because I’m a man now, and I have my pride. AllMusic doesn’t have much to say either. Moving on…

Honky Chateau by Elton John: This came out when Elton had yet to start dressing like a Vegas Christmas Tree (on his album covers anyway). MI0000434654You may know the singles Daniel and Rocket Man, but the album is filled with strong cuts. “Mellow,” the first track, is the classic Elton I loved as a kid. (I raised two steers named Elton and John.). AllMusic: “On paper, (Honky Chateau) reads like an eclectic mess, but it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote.” Well done, young Ronnie and Jeff.

albumcovermcleanAmerican Pie by Don McLean: Just like everyone else in the world, we chose this album 99% because of the title anthem, and 1% because Vincent was a decent song, too. AllMusic: “… the album has an overall elegiac quality that makes it sound like a final statement. After all, if the music has died, what else is there to say?” You can say the album cover was pretty decent.

Looking Glass by Looking Glass: This seemed like a dumb buy at the time, but it surprised me how much I liked it 43 years later. Thanks to the hit Brandy remaining in heavy rotation on Oldies stations, the songwriter will never go broke, but there was potential for much more. If you replaced the early 70s piano with a fiddle, this album would fit well with 21st century Americana music. AllMusic: “Their great one-shot hit ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)‘ pegged the group as a smiley, sunshiny AM pop frivolity, and while they surely shone in this regard, Looking Glass started out as a hard-boogying rock & roll band, and elements of that can be heard on their 1972 debut. It’s not enough to make the LP an unearthed hard rock treasure thanks in large part to producer Bob Liftin, who helped turn singer/songwriter Elliot Lurie’s “Brandy” into a seamless, sunny confection and wound up defanging whatever rock & roll bite the group had in the process.” Ouch.

Sammy_Davis_Jr._NowNow by Sammy Davis Jr.: … It’s your serve, AllMusic: “The song ‘Candy Man’ starts the first side off. Yes, this was the biggest-selling record Sammy Davis, Jr. ever had, but thankfully full appreciation of the dismal nature of that fact does not require repeated listening to the song itself. There are tracks enough on this album that are painful to sit through, without enduring this one.”

When we chose this tape, I thought it included Isaac Hayes singing The Theme from Shaft. The tape cover had an inset photo of Sammy together with Isaac. But Hayes did not sing on Sammy’s album. I suspect his attorneys made sure of that. The song is not even called The Theme from Shaft. It’s called John Shaft, which should have been a clear signal to put down the tape and walk away before anyone got hurt. Sammy’s version is sort of the same song as the original, but with a good dose of Vegas Schlock.

Let’s compare: In Hayes’ version, he says or sings 73 words in a song that is well over four minutes. We don’t hear Hayes’ voice until three minutes in, and the last thirty seconds of the song are instrumental. Less is more.

Do you think Sammy Davis, Jr. could wait three minutes into a song to start singing?  Though his song is shorter than the Hayes version, he had a lot of space to fill, and he did it with lyrics that I suspect he ad-libbed at the end.

Hey man, can you dig him?
Always looking so cool.
Together for days in all that leather.
Takin’ care of business, too, baby.

He’s always on the case.
I mean he gets it all together. (grunt)
Yeah, he’s bad, bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad.
Bad bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad. (Repeat.)

Sound engineer: “Sammy, how about we do a second take?”

Sammy: “Nope, I’m good with that one.”

Could Now get worse? Yes, if you choose to put McArthur’s Park on it. I’m not saying I have strong feelings about that song. However, if I could, I would tie it up in a gunny sack and dump it in a pond.

A+Passion+Play-1024x1015Still, Jeff and I paid only a couple of dollars for a lot of music. We did not reach our Columbia House nadir until Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play came in the mail. We had failed to return the card that said we did not want that album of the month. I still cannot describe what this progressive rock opera is about, but it may involve a recently-deceased guy looking back on his life. Or it may be a light-hearted musical about a puppy. I could go either way with it. All I know is, the album cover with a dead ballerina was enough to make me long for Best of Bread. I don’t believe the Scottish flutist Ian Anderson had a 14-year-old rural Missouri boy in mind when he created the record. I listened to thirty seconds of it before using it as a door stop.

Still, it was worth another listen a few days ago. I didn’t love it, but it was pretty good. Still not sure what it’s about, though. The ball is in your court, AllMusic: “… a dazzling mix of old English folk and classical material, reshaped in electric rock terms. The band is at its peak form, sustaining the tension and anticipation of this album-length piece across 45 minutes, although the music runs out of inspiration about five minutes before it actually ends.”

I may listen to A Passion Play again sometime. Not all of it–I’m not that into it–but some of it. And I would also listen to Honky Chateau again. The others? I don’t know. But if my parents run out of things to do, they can dig through the basement and perhaps find those old cassette tapes. Nothing can add zest to a cold night in northern Missouri like Sammy Davis, Jr. talkin’ ’bout Shaft.

Signature

My wife is a lazy liar

6 Jun

It’s the last day of school for my lazy, lying wife. She says teachers still have to go to work, but that can’t be right. Teachers only work when the kids are at school. I wish she would come clean and admit she is not really a teacher.  School starts around 9:00 and dismisses at 3:45.  She leaves the house before seven each morning, and it’s only a fifteen or twenty minute drive to the “school” where she “teaches.” She comes home around six or six-thirty in the evening. Sometimes later. What is she doing with all the extra time?

6:57 a.m. and the bag lady leaves the house. Looking for an OTB parlor that opens early.

6:57 a.m. and the bag lady leaves the house. Looking for an OTB parlor that opens early.

When she gets home, I make sure dinner awaits the slacker. It’s a wonder she doesn’t demand I spoon-feed her. After dinner, she works on “lesson plans” and “grades papers.”  The way she describes it, the school district’s grade report system is so convoluted and labyrinthine that it must have been designed by Ernő Rubik. I am not fooled. I believe these “papers” she is working on are actually Racing Forms. I also believe she is a terrible gambler, which explains why we are not rich.

About ten or eleven at night, she comes to bed and pretends to be exhausted. She acts as though teaching 24 kids, some with significant emotional problems, is more challenging than having a real job. Who does she think she’s kidding? If she really is a teacher, how hard can it be to mark second grade homework? Does she have to look up the correct answer to 4 x 5 each time she grades a math assignment?

Hmm. This looks suspiciously like the lazy liar at the race track.

Hmm. This looks suspiciously like the lazy liar at the race track.

Because she’s so lazy, my wife rarely does “school work” on Saturdays, but she always spends part of Sundays pretending to do it. I see through her little act. She doesn’t want to do any real work on Sundays, like taking walks and going on bike rides with her fantastic husband. What a loser. If she likes to play the ponies, she should admit it. I would still love her, more or less.

I work at a real job, and I don’t go to nearly as many “meetings” as my wife does. Many of her meetings, she says, are focused on discussing test results, new testing procedures, testing tests, test testing, tester testing, and test testing testers. Occasionally, she says, these meeting diverge into other topics such as testing evaluations. Some meetings allegedly occur during school hours when my wife should be “teaching.” These meetings are dreamed up by highly-paid, redundant administrators who have clandestine responsibilities no one can figure out. At the end of these meetings, it is determined that “teachers” at my wife’s school are not spending enough time teaching.

This is too illogical to be true. That’s why I know my wife is lying.

My lazy, lying wife can’t get enough of meetings. This is why she is lucky to be a “person of color.”  She is often called on to represent the “school staff” on “committees” that need some “diversity.” As a consequence, she stays late at “school” to discuss issues other than “school work” or tasks directly related to “teaching.” If a person has such an easy job, she should not complain about attending lengthy meetings to discuss the latest tester testing results.

Last night, my wife came home from school after 10:30 p.m. What? Is she teaching night school now?

She should be thankful she does not have a real job. In my job, which is real and has been known to require multiple hours of work on some days, I go into the supply room and load up any time I’m running short of pens and paper. If my company told me to buy my own supplies, I would laugh and tell them to piss off. This is the way it works at a real job. But my wife spends hundreds of dollars each school year buying “supplies.” How many backpacks and calculators does one woman need? She says they are for students who can’t afford them, but really? These students are like her customers. I don’t buy supplies for my customers. That would be silly.

What a liar my wife is.

This summer, the school district that allegedly employs my lying wife is renovating the school building where she claims to teach. The district has required all the “teachers” to pack up everything in their classrooms and store it for the summer. The school district is providing some storage, as long as the contents can survive a couple of months in a container as hot as a vinyl car seat  in Hell’s parking lot. But anything that could become damaged by the heat is the responsibility of the “teachers.” Seriously, what employer would ask its employees to provide their own storage when they renovate work space? I saw a transaction in our bank account for “Storage Facility.” I believe this is the name of a four-year-old gelding that finished out of the money in the seventh race last Thursday at Churchill Downs.

Here’s the final proof that that my lazy wife is a big liar: Despite all the so-called hassles she puts up with at her “school,” my wife talks about her students like they are her own children. A week from now, she will lament how much she misses “her kids” during the summer. Even the ones who “take things without permission,” and the ones who “stretch the truth” despite overwhelming evidence otherwise.

Okay, perhaps my wife is not a lazy liar. Perhaps she is just crazy.

(Teachers: Here’s a parent who appreciates you.)

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P.S. Happy Anniversary to the big liar, who will probably stay at “school” late tonight.

The shameless truth of high school graduations

7 Jun

I am the father of a fresh high school graduate. If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend a commencement lately, do not panic. I will give you the experience now.

2:40 pm The commencement begins in twenty minutes here at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The crowd, a couple of thousand family members, is relatively low-key and quiet. It’s a lot like the crowds at University of Louisville Cardinal basketball games, which used to be played here.

A few people feel the basketball vibe and try to get the cheer “C-A-R-D-S” going. Instead, “CARDS” reminds dozens of parents they forgot to buy Hallmark cards for their graduates. Some hurry for the exit.

Even though we arrived twenty minutes early, we re are approximately 1.3 miles from the stage. I text Daughter #1 (D1) to let her know where we are sitting. I hear her phone beep in my wife’s purse next to me. Using my keen deductive skills, I determine my daughter will not receive my text. My wife looks at the message and ponders what our daughter is trying to tell us. We are not a very bright family.

IMG_0118

That’s my daughter, the one in white. There, in the next to last row.

3:00 pm The processional has started on time. This is a good sign. I’m trying to get a good photo of D1, but the lighting in the hall is weird. Everything looks a little blurry. Maybe it’s only my contacts. Since every third student is a slender Asian-looking girl with long brown hair, I may take a picture of the wrong graduate. Perhaps no one will know.

3:04 pm Six cops loiter near the back of the arena. They are prepared to quell any instance of  trouble. You know how a gaggle of math and science geeks can easily riot when they smell freshly-pressed diplomas.  Chaos worse than a calculator sale at Staples.

3:19 pm  It has taken nineteen minutes for all the students to process. My entire commencement didn’t last that long. This is going to be a long ceremony.  I order a sleeping cot online from Amazon. Even if I opt for free shipping, it should be here in plenty of time.

The graduates sit at the far end of the arena. The girls wear white gowns and the boys wear red.  They sit so that the red gowns form an “M” for Manual High School. Depending on where you sit, it could look like a “W” or a Sigma symbol. From where we sit, it looks like a melted peppermint.

I’m glad I wore a jacket. It’s a little cool in the hall. In case you didn’t know it, this—the Kentucky State Fairgrounds—has more air conditioned space than any other state fair. The State Fair Board promotes this fact every year at fair time because it sounds better than saying, “Sorry. We don’t have butter sculptures like the Iowa State Fair does. But we do have three chickens and a Holstein heifer.”

3:25 pm We obviously don’t talk about grades much at home because I have just learned D1 is a valedictorian. We have this in common because a valedictorian spoke to me once. I believe she said, “You rode the short bus, didn’t you?” This school has 113 valedictorians–all with perfect GPAs. There is one salutatorian. Slacker.

Since “valedictorian” literally means the person who gives the farewell speech, I guess we’ll hear 113 goodbye speeches. I hope Amazon delivers my cot soon.

3:31 pm School administrators and students make speeches generously peppered with quotes. Updike, Twain, Thoreau, Covey… By the end of this ceremony, I’ll be the only writer who hasn’t been quoted.  Unless… In the sage words of Ron D Smith, “Man, my butt is getting sore.”

3:47 pm It’s now time to hand out the diplomas. At least, they’re handing out diploma covers. There are no diplomas inside the cases. It’s a sham perpetuated every year at this time by the diploma industrial complex. They make you think you’re getting a diploma, but it’s only a letter saying final grades haven’t been entered, yet. The school also checks to see if the student owes anything. CNN should do an exposé.

Before the diploma covers are distributed, the class historian will make a short speech. She is telling all of us to shut up when our graduate’s name is announced. Seriously, she says. Don’t yell. This is a solemn event and the class doesn’t want all that noise. Families and friends are supposed to stand when their graduates are called. Seriously, the historian repeats, don’t yell. She is naive. These students haven’t listened to their parents for years. The tables will now be turned.

3:55 pm We’ve made it to last names that start with B. For the most part, the audience is respectful, with a few exceptions. Reaction pretty much falls along ethnic lines. The Hispanic families are most quiet, mainly because they’re not present. They are on their way to their second jobs. Because my family is mixed, we will have a combo reaction when D1’s name is called. Some of us will stand quietly, just proud that our graduate made it through high school. Others in our group will remain seated, too busy collating medical school brochures according to national rankings.

4:07 pm  Ace thinks he will have to go on the run again. A mysterious guy with a Russian accent has come to this Podunk Arkansas town… That’s not part of the ceremony. It’s in the book I’m reading as the announcer reads off the F names.

4:11 pm We’ve made it the H’s. I’m having hunger pangs. Must have food. Where are the vendors like at the basketball games? How about some pretzels at least? They’re missing a big opportunity to make a killing. Note to self: Set up “side business” at next year’s graduations.

4:20 pm  Hmm. I’ve never noticed that mole before. Should I have it checked? I’ll do the lick test. Oh, it’s just a chocolate smudge. When did I have chocolate? Two days ago? What does a chocolate plant look like? Is it brown? I’ll Google that.

4:32 pm  D1 gets her diploma cover. I think it’s her anyway. She’s too far away to tell for sure. I’m proud of somebody up there, whoever it is.

4:55 pm  The graduates are beginning to recess. I tell D2 that, see, she’ll get to have recess in high school, too. In fact, it’s the last thing she’ll do. D2 scowls at me. She does not think I am funny. Just like her sister.

Time to go. Another school holds its ceremony immediately after ours. I sell my cot to the highest bidder.

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A letter to the naïve doofus I was at eighteen

23 May

On the anniversary of my high school graduation:

Dear Ronnie,

First of all, why are you still going by “Ronnie?”  Have you noticed your friends are called Tom, Rob and Rod? They switched from Tommy, Robbie and Rodney in fourth grade. Unless you’re planning a career in professional baseball or bluegrass music, “Ronnie” has to go. If you still hold out a sliver of hope for pro sports or music, here’s a reality check: Your career Little League batting average was .137 and you sound like a constipated capybara when you sing. So it’s off to college you go, and you better be “Ron” when you get there.

Speaking of college, you were wise to avoid the disco era. Well done.  I congratulate you on being one of only three people not to buy a Bee Gees album. Bee_Gees_154.jpgDon’t worry. You’ll hear about punk and new wave very soon. Hang in there during this period of disco balls and oxymoronic soft rock. But the album Rock and Roll Over by Kiss will not go over well on your dorm floor, especially played on an eight track tape deck.kiss Sorry, that’s just the way it is. You will encounter audiophiles for the first time who play their music on high-priced turntables and actual reel-to-reel tape decks.

Your first roommate will be heavy into Styx. Even typing that sentence so many years later leaves me a bit unsettled. Other than the single Lady, you are unfamiliar with the musical output of this band. Don’t worry. That will change. Your roommate loves progressive rock, and Styx helps him relax as he does his Trig homework. You will soon know every song on every Styx album. Sorry, but the seventh one will come out your freshman year.  Also, your roommate will inform you that Carry On Oh Wayward Son was not the best song on the Kansas album Leftoverture. In fact, he will let you know that it was the worst song on the album. You will silently nod and take his word for it, because you don’t know any of the other songs on the Kansas album. You will decide fairly soon your freshman year that progressive rock is not your thing. (Except for a few weeks when you date that girl who loves Rush and is obsessed with their drummer. You’ll be a prog rock fan then. Oh, yes you will.) You will stow your opinion on Emerson Lake and Palmer and similar groups until you get a new roommate your sophomore year. By then, Darkness on the Edge of Town will be your antidote. (You will have a lot of roommates, by the way. You may want to do a little soul searching on that.)

About your chosen major of journalism, which you have had your heart set on for years. Consider this: Your parents have taught you to mind your own business, and prying into other people’s affairs is just plain rude. That pretty much defines the role of a reporter, doesn’t it? Good luck with that. And when that fledgling news operation CNN posts openings for news writers at your journalism school, maybe you shouldn’t voice the opinion that a national news outfit on cable will never succeed.

You’ll turn eighteen in a few days. In addition to all those cards from aunts and uncles, you’ll receive one from that girl you have a crush on. Inexplicably, you’ll think she’s sending you a card just to be nice. You’re too stupid to realize she’s sending you a very clear message, almost literally. This will not dawn on you for about twenty-five years. Such ignorance will be a recurring theme in your young life. You are a fool. Sorry to be so blunt, but the evidence is overwhelming from where I now sit.

I know you’re really excited to let your hair grow when you leave home, because your dad hates long hair and never allows it to cover your ears. You look forward to having cascading tresses, just like George Harrison.George If you have to, you’ll stay on campus during holidays just so your dad won’t make you cut it. Here’s the thing. The preppy era — with short hair — is arriving. You just don’t know it yet because you live in Eagleville, Missouri where “prep” refers to the process of warming a Guernsey’s udders before morning milking. Because you’ll become a preppy, don’t spend any more money on bell bottoms and polyester print shirts, Ronnie. You’ll just throw them away when you discover overpriced Lacoste shirts. lacosteYou’ll spend a lot of money just to have that little green alligator on your chest. And that denim jacket with the Woodstock patch on it? Unless you’re the bassist for The Grateful Dead, get rid of it.

You know how you say you won’t attend a high school reunion until you can come back in a Mercedes with a blonde on each arm? You will keep that promise, but maybe you should adjust the rules a bit. Maybe the car starts with an M? Instead of a Mercedes, perhaps you meant a Mazda. You’ll have one of those for awhile until someone rear ends it when your five-year-old daughter sits in the back seat. Don’t worry, she’ll be OK, but the car will be totaled. You’ll replace the Mazda with a Maxima. Maybe that’s the car you meant? You had a Malibu for awhile, too. In fact, you’ll own just about every M car but a Mercedes. And about those blondes. You’ll marry a Japanese-Filipino, and there’s not a lot of blonde hair in that gene pool. There’s still hope, though. At your fiftieth high school reunion, you could be escorted by two Norwegian home health aides named Stefan and Lars who keep your spare adult diapers for emergencies. Maybe one of them will drive a Mercedes.

Still, you’ll be lucky. You’ll fall in love a few times, and stay in love once. You won’t win any Father of the Year awards, but your kids will make you proud every day. You’ll never be rich or famous. But you won’t be infamous either, so there’s that. In all, life will turn out even better than you expected. I’m actually kind of excited for you.

 

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A profane family history

15 Mar

I was nine or ten the first time I heard my granddad pepper his speech with cuss words. I could still point out within a five square foot area where I stood in his barnyard when he let loose one of those forbidden four-letter words in my presence.  I had crossed some invisible line of male-dom where Granddad decided my tender ears could hear those words without catching fire. I don’t recall being overly happy to hear that good man use those words, but I got over it soon enough.

Soon after that, I crossed the swear-word line with my dad, too. He was his father’s son when it came to cussing, following certain unwritten rules: Never overdo it, never swear in a house, and absolutely never swear in mixed company, particularly around the saintly woman I called Grandma.

By the time Dad started cussing in front of my brothers and me, I was already a semi-rehabilitated swearer. It seems quaint now, but I had a habit of inserting “damn” in every other sentence when I was six. My parents warned me to stop before I got in big trouble, but they never took serious action. I didn’t get the cure until after I cussed in front of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kraft. In addition to missing recess, she ordered me to drag my desk outside in the hallway and park by the classroom door for a while. She wanted me to spend that time to consider cleaning up that potty mouth of mine. That was Mrs. Kraft’s worst punishment for scofflaws like me, boys who were on a direct path to reform school because “damn” had become our favorite adjective.

Spending a bit of time in the hallway wasn’t such a terrible ordeal, except my dear father was also the superintendent of our tiny school. He rarely had reason to walk down two flights of stairs from his office to the first grade classroom in the basement. But I had only been serving my hallway sentence for a few minutes when he came by.CCI03022011_00002

“I hope you’ve got a good reason for sitting out here,” he said.

I considered saying I had been given the honor of Hall Monitor, but we didn’t have such a thing in our school. Even if we had, my dad knew that responsibility wouldn’t be trusted to me.

“Cussing,” I said, without bothering with specifics.

Dad said nothing, but he shook  his head and walked away. I had embarrassed him. Damn, I thought. I’ll never cuss again.

For the most part, I didn’t swear much after that until I reached twelve or thirteen. That’s a monk-like period of abstinence for a boy who grew up around people who tossed around profanities with the same deftness Peyton Manning throws passes.

Even then, I never cussed around my father. Still don’t. When my brother Jeff and I were teenagers, Dad took us aside one day to sternly reprimand us for using a word that  offended our mother. He warned we had better stop using this particularly foul word immediately or there would be serious consequences.

“What word are you talking about?” we asked Dad.

“I’m not going to say it, but you know exactly the word I mean,” he said.

“No, we don’t.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. Just quit using it.”

If the word was so offensive that even Dad wouldn’t repeat it, it must have been a doozy. Because we didn’t cuss around Mom, the word had us stumped. It had to be so terrible that even Jeff and I didn’t know it was a curse word. Jeff and I pondered this question for many years until we finally decided the word that offended our mother was… mother. As in, “That bolt sure is one tough mother to get off.”  We must have used “mother” that way several times a day.

My dad says he turns forty-eight today. This is amazing considering that makes him younger than me. But he suffers from AOBD (Adult Onset Birthday Dyslexia), which causes him to invert the digits in his age, so I’ll give him a break. Anyway I hope he has a damn fine day and one mother of a birthday party.

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Random Thoughts at a Stoplight

28 Feb

Is it redundant to use my left turn signal if I’m already in the left turn-only lane? That’s like a double negative.20130301_081010

“I ain’t never seen nothing like that never in my life.” Quadruple negative. Nicely done, Ron.

I will not use my turn signal. I am a rebel. Rebel, Rebel. That reminds me of that David Bowie song. How old is he now? Seventy? I should Google him.

Now I can’t get the Bowie song out of my head. I’ll hum “Tequila.” It’s like methadone for earworms.

The time has come to buy new boxer shorts. Has underwear technology changed much in the past ten years? I should Google that.  Boxers? Why are they called that? I’ll look that up, too. No wonder I never get any work done.

What is the woman in the car next to me listening to? It must be a great song the way she’s moving. I’ll try to find it… Nope. Nope. Oh, she’s listening to that? I never would have guessed. She’s looks smarter than that. Maybe I’m mistaken. Ugh, she’s mouthing the words. Look away, Ron, look away.

Geez, this light is long. I should have turned off my car to save gas. I wonder how much gas I would save if I had. If I turn off my car, maybe it won’t start again. Then everyone will honk at me, and I’ll be embarrassed. Even the woman singing that song will scowl at me. I’ll leave it on.

Justin. Is there anyone over the age of fifty named Justin?  Is anyone under the age of seventy named Adolf? I bet there are some really old men who go by Addie or Dolf.

It would be terrible to have the same name as the infamous person in the world. If there was ever a super villain named Ron, I would change my name. I would go with Chi Chi. Nobody bad could be named Chi Chi.

My goodness, it’s that guy on the radio again. How much do I have to pledge next time to keep him off the air? Maybe I’ll have my own pledge drive just for that.

Do jeans shrink if you don’t wear them for a few months? They must. And boxer shorts shrink even if you do wear them. I’ll Google it.  fatjeans-6

My jaw is hurting again. What has it been? Three days in a row now? I hope it’s nothing serious. What if I have jaw cancer?  Oh, please, no, not jaw cancer. I’ll end up like Roger Ebert without the fame and fortune. What if I die from it? I should review my will just in case. I hope Michele has me cremated like she promised. She’ll probably dump the ashes in the trash bin. I’ll need to have a frank discussion with her about that. What if a super villain named Ron comes along after I die? My survivors will have to re-chisel the tombstone so  it says Chi Chi. I need to put that in the will, too. No tombstone for my ashes.

Why don’t they have recycling cans for ashes? Hmm. Maybe I could get the patent on that. I’ll trademark ReinCANation while I’m at it. Note to self. Google ReinCANation to see if it’s already trademarked.

A Viking funeral would be nice, but who would be my thrall? A short list there.

I wouldn’t want to be set afloat in the Ohio River. Beargrass Creek?  I’d get stuck in a jam of limbs and trash. Then all the overhead trees would catch on fire. There might be health code issues, too.  I need to Google that.

ChiChi

What I would say if advertisers would listen

8 Feb

Dear advertisers,

Just a few suggestions I ask you to consider.

First, I direct my attention to you, Local Business Owner. I ask you kindly to refrain from using your family in your commercials. I am sure your children and grandchildren have prodigious talents, and they will someday discover a cure for low-grade acne. However, being an on-camera pitch munchkin is not their calling. Your grandchild, the one with the slight slur and three-centimeter gap between his front teeth? No, the other grandchild. When he says “call our emergency repair line,” “emergency” sounds like a cross between “mercy” and “surgery” so that it sounds like “mercygery.” This does not make me want to hire you as a plumber.  If you are not willing to pay for a professional, why should I pay for one when my pipes leak?  Also, when your tag line says “simply the best,” I will assume the opposite.

And now for you, Company That Thinks It’s Clever to Use Talking Animals. Please stop. Talking dogs haven’t been a clever ad idea since 1950 when Mister Puffles spoke of the magical qualities of a feminine hair removal product. Also, why does the voice have to be so dull — so Middle American white guy? I imagine my dog would sound like Phyllis Diller after a hard drunk and a carton of Salems. That would be interesting to hear in a commercial. That would get my attention when you’re selling pork and beans. If you insist on using an Irish Setter that speaks, should it at least do so with an Irish accent? Just consider it.

0003700029753_AWhile discussing animals, why are bears trying to sell me toilet paper, Bathroom Tissue Manufacturer? (Who calls it bathroom tissue anyway?) Is it a subtle reference to the bear shitting in the woods? I will buy your toilet paper if you are honest with me, but primarily if it’s cheap. As long as it’s not prison-grade paper, I don’t care how soft it is. I have never held a piece of toilet paper to my cheek. That would be weird. In your commercials, just once show a human being on the toilet, but please don’t hold the shot too long. Have the person grimacing and maybe reading a Sports Illustrated. You  know, like real life.

Luxury Car Maker, this is a polite request to stop showing cars with big red bows at Christmas. Does Hallmark sell those big bows?  I’ve never noticed the big-honkin’ bow section at the card store. Yeah, we get it. The husband is awesome, because he surprised his wife with a new Lexus LS. And the rest of us husbands suck. If I surprised my wife with a new Lexus, she would say, “Who is the slut and how long has it been going on?” I’d like you to show the day after the guy gives his wife the car with the big bow, when she says, “Five-hundred dollar monthly payments? We’re still paying for that damn boat you just had to have.”lexus-ls-460-overview

While we’re talking about cars, Pre-Owned Car Dealership. You’re not fooling anyone. They’re used cars. You’re a used car dealer.

Jewelry Store Chains, I hate you. Sorry, I got carried away there. Still, I would love you to produce a commercial like this: Open on wide shot of jewelry store, glass display cases glistening with diamond rings. Young man enters store and scans the array. Cut to helpful store clerk, who asks, “How may I be of service?” Young man hesitantly approaches ringcounter. Camera angle reveals he is covered in blood. Customer pulls small, blood-soaked bundle from his pocket and unwraps it to reveal severed finger.  Customer says, “I want to surprise my girlfriend with an engagement ring. Can you size it?” I still wouldn’t shop at your store, but you would have my unwavering admiration.

Just a quick word to you, Household Cleaning Product Manufacturer: Would it kill you to show a man with a mop once in a while? I do all the mopping in our family, because my wife still  hasn’t forgiven me since I surprised her with the Lexus.

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My ten-hour career as a movie extra

19 Oct

Parts of the movie 50 to 1 are being filmed at Churchill Downs.  The film is about Mine That Bird, which won the 2009 Kentucky Derby as a long shot. I thought the film could use my help, so I signed on as an extra. This is the story of my day, most of it true. 

8:20 a.m. An email from a production assistant last night tells me to show up at the race at ten-thirty, but I get a call asking me if I can come in early. Probably, I say, but I don’t commit. Is Hollywood already rubbing off on me? I’m wondering if they need me for a love scene. If so, I’ll do my best.

8:50  I arrive at the track and fill out my non-union voucher. I’ll be paid eight dollars an hour. I thought a love scene would pay better. Should I be hurt that they don’t check the box that says I have a special talent?

9:15  The wait begins. What I’m wearing (blazer, pink shirt, pink tie) gets blessed by the wardrobe woman, but she asks me to ditch the argyle sweater vest. I thought that was my signature piece.

9:23  That was quick. I’m not in a love scene, but I’m not too heartbroken. Along with a hundred other extras, I’m put in the grandstand, where I’ll play the very important part of First Guy in Fourth Row.

9: 25 Wait. Is that William Devane just a few feet from me? He’s like my co-star now.  Uh oh. They’ve positioned me behind a sweet woman wearing what must be the largest hat in the history of Derby-dom. No one will see my face in this movie. Perhaps that was by design. 

9:35  Wait a minute. This is a singing scene? I didn’t sign up for this. We have to sing My Old Kentucky Home in entirety. I do my best, but I think Second Woman in Third Row is little off tune. Still, we do just one take, and the director is  happy.

9:59  Second Guy in Eighth Row is getting on my nerves. He thinks he’s hot stuff because he played the part of Third Decapitated Man  in a Stallone movie.

10:23  Three takes so far on this shot. The only thing the camera can possibly see is my midsection. Need to do some ab crunches. I also realize I forgot to put on a belt. We’re in the box behind Bill (I can call him that now) Devane and his “family.” A crew member has given me a beer to hold in this shot. Sorry, Mom.

10:40  My most important job is making sure the Bud Light label doesn’t show on my bottle. We’ve been repeating the last three lines of My Old Kentucky Home in this shot. We’ve done five takes, so far. I’ll be hearing the song in my sleep.

12:23  It has now been explained to the extras in my box that we have bet on the wrong horse in this race, but we still believe he can win. I hope I have the acting chops to express the proper disappointment when the time arrives. Again, because my face will not be visible thanks to the large hat in front of me, I will  have to rely on my hands to pull off this feat. I’m also excited for the attention the beer bottle will receive.

12:30 p.m.  Bill D. seems like an affable chap. So are the extras around me. There must be something about being an extra in a movie that attracts companionable people. I’m sitting among extras veterans, who have appeared in other movies, plus some “what the heck” types like me. 

1:59  Lunch time. I asked where I could find my trailer. Someone pointed me to a horse trailer. I only used seven dollars of my ten-dollar voucher for lunch. The three dollars left over make me a paid actor.

2:55  Bill just dropped the f-bomb at the end of the scene. We’re pretending to be watching the end of the Derby race, tracking a sign that is matching the horse’s pace. Bill, who plays Mine That Bird’s owner, said his horse was too #!@$& slow.  Everybody laughed. Bill and I may share a beer later, but not the one I’ve been holding in my hand all day.

4:00 I just nailed my big scene, the one that will put my name on the lips of casting directors everywhere. I walked up a set of stairs just as the winning owners of Mine That Bird were walking down. I’m sure they’ll cut the scene before they get to my part, but I’m okay with that. I’m a professional.

4:10 Wardrobe change. I’m switching the pink shirt and tie for a blue shirt and tie. I’m sure that’s enough to make me look like an entirely different person.

4;53  My second bag of Cracker Jacks. Do I even like Cracker Jacks?

6:00  This isn’t fun anymore. Lance, a young guy I had just shared a shot with, had a seizure and fell a couple of steps onto the walkway. It scared everyone, including the crew. They have paramedics at the track, so he got help quickly. It was also nice that some of the extras were nurses. Lance is lucid now, but he says he has no medical problems that he knows of. They’re taking him to the hospital. Everyone cheers as he’s carted away.

6:45  One last shot and it’s a wrap. I check out at the desk, and I’ve made about eighty dollars including some overtime. It was fun, but I’ve scratched that itch. Here’s praying for Lance.

aka Third Guy Walking Up Steps

And if you thought that was good, check out this.