Category - personal

Now Batting: Number 39

The  Post-Covid Recollections of a Closet Dodgers Fan

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.” 

— James Earl Jones as Terence Mann in Field of Dreams (1989)

 – – –

I went to Atlanta last week to see a baseball game, the first major league game I’ve been to in at least a dozen years.  I went to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves.  

My attire for the occasion was conflicted: I wore a white Dodgers home-team jersey emblazoned  with the number ’39’ – and a Braves cap.  Other fans, many with the good sense to be wearing Braves jerseys and caps, inquired about my divided loyalties.

“I’ve been a Braves fan since I lived in Hawaii in the 1980s” I explained, “and Ted Turner’s cable station was the only live television we had out there.  That’s when I first tuned in to the Braves.  But I’ve been a Dodgers fan since I was 10.  And that’s all because of that number 39…” 

My trip to Atlanta for this afternoon of divided loyalties was, in some ways, a consequence of the pandemic. Call it “a gift of Covid.” 

I’m still sorting out the impact of the bizarre year now past,  how 14-plus months of nearly total isolation has slowed down my inner rhythms and rekindled dormant interests.  I spent a lot of my involuntary solitude reading real books.  And, curiously, a lot of those books were about baseball.  

As the pandemic relaxes its grip and a new season of baseball chases the arc of the sun from spring into summer,  I find myself interested in the game again, in a way I had not been for several years. 

Of all  the major sports, baseball is the only one I have ever had any real affinity for –  perhaps because it was the only sport I played in school that I had any ability for, even though it wasn’t much.  I never could run and bounce a ball, stop and throw it in a hoop. And given my 98-pound-weakling physique I had no business playing football at all.   Though I was never picked first for anybody’s team, I could swing a bat and occasionally hit the ball, and I recall at least one dazzling play in the infield that got me thinking I had a future as a second baseman – at least until I tried and failed to turn a double play. 

My interest in baseball faded over the past several years.  Maybe because of the way computers and the internet have rewired my brain, I lost patience for the game’s languid pace.  And once I got a TiVo, I l could no longer sit through the commercials. 

I’d try to get interested in the playoffs and World Series, but those games are interminable.  Glorious and brilliant as the essential game may be – as much as 90-feet between the bases and three-outs-per-inning are evidence of Divine Inspiration –  four-plus hours is just entirely too much baseball, especially when most of that time is filled with endlessly repeating ads for trucks and nachos. 

When the pandemic started and I found myself #HomeAlone, I started reading books about baseball.  I started with W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe – the book that inspired the movie Field of Dreams.  Then I read The Last Boy, a biography of Mickey Mantle. After that I plunged into  David Halberstam’s epic account of the season that concluded with the Cardinals facing the Yankees  in the World Series in October, 1964. Then I read a Phillip Roth book pretentiously entitled The Great American Novel which was, naturally, a satire about baseball. 

All this reading seems to have rendered two clear, positive benefits.  First, with nothing but time on my hands I rediscovered the simple pleasure of reading actual books, focusing on printed words and turning actual pages.  And I think that re-rewired my brain in way that, coming out of the pandemic, I have also rediscovered baseball.   

 *

Did I mention we wuz Yankee fans?

I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York.  We were Yankee fans.  My father was raised in Manhattan, and the Yankees were New York’s team.  The Dodgers? They were the less worthy denizens of the remote cultural backwater known as Brooklyn.

Some of my earliest memories revolve around baseball.  Like that time I asked my older brother Arthur, “How long is an inning?”  

“Three outs,”  he informed me. 

“Yeah but how long does that take?” I pestered. 

“As long as it takes,” he insisted. 

That was how I learned that there is no clock in baseball.  

Other baseball memories include sitting on the bus after school one sunny October day and listening to the 7th game of the 1960 World Series – when Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates hit the home run in the bottom of the 9th inning that ended the series – and Casey Stengel’s long tenure as the Yankees colorful manager. 

The following year Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris went after Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and we tracked their progress on a bulletin board in my 5th grade class room.

Sometime in the mid-50s, my father took Arthur to a game at Yankee Stadium, and  brought home a ball that had been autographed by a pantheon of 1950s icons like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.   Like idiots, though, we used that ball to actually play baseball in the backyard, and lost it in the weeds.  I imagine that ball would be worth quite a few shekels today. 

Unlike my brother – and all those talking heads in the Ken Burns Baseball documentary series – I never went to a baseball game with my father.  My mother said once that he died just as I was getting to the age where he’d started doing things with me.  Had he lived a little longer, maybe that would have included going to Yankee games. 

The only game I do recall going to as a kid, my grandfather took me and Arthur to.  It was the annual pre-season Yankees – Dodgers exhibition game, which had been a tradition in the years when those teams – and the Giants – made New York what Ken Burns called, “The Capital of Baseball.” That year, the Dodgers had to come from the other side of the country rather than from the neighboring borough of Brooklyn – since they’d moved to Los Angeles a few years earlier.  

We were seated somewhere along the first baseline, at field level.  I remember being astonished at how high a fly ball could go: on the TV, they just disappeared from the frame before falling into the fielder’s glove.  In real life, they just keep going up and up and up until they’re just another tiny white dot in the night sky.  To this day when I go to a ball game and somebody hits a towering pop fly, I am amazed at how high they go – once again an 8 year old is following the upward trajectory and wondering if it will ever come down. 

Maybe because that first real baseball game was between the Yankees and the Dodgers, I have always felt that the best outcome to any baseball season is a Yankees-Dodgers World Series – like that Series in 1977 when Reggie Jackson hit all those home runs.  

When the Yankees and the Dodgers play, I don’t really care who wins.  I can cheer for  every seeing-eye single, every dazzling catch in the outfield and every split-second double play.  I can simply dwell in the explosive, athletic artistry of baseball.  The Dodgers scored?  Great.  A Yankee struck out with two outs and the bases loaded?  That’s great too.  Just keep throwing, hitting, running and catching.  Baseball is the only game that can transcend any moment and ride the relentless, infinite crest of its history. 

That was our baseball heritage, to the extent we had any; we were New Yorkers living in New Jersey, and our team was the Yankees.  The Brooklyns were a lesser breed  who had abandoned the grungy city and moved to some sunny place called California. 

But there is another reason why I could root for the Dodgers and/or the Yankees, why I was always a ‘closet’ Dodgers fan. 

Because in the 4th grade I read a biography of a Brooklyn Dodgers catcher named Roy Campanella. 

*

Roy Campanella

I don’t recall how that book first fell into my hands back in 1960, and until I re-read it along with the other baseball books I read during the Pandemic Summer, I really didn’t remember much of the actual story.  I’d forgotten that the man’s name was ‘Campanella’ because his father was a white Italian immigrant who had married a black woman from Philadelphia.  That one drop of Negro blood was all it took for Roy to be regarded as 100% black, and consigned to the Negro Leagues for much of his baseball career. 

What I do recall vividly – some 60 years since I first read it – is that that book opened my eyes to the truth of America that they weren’t teaching us about at the Forrestdale School.  From that book I learned about racial discrimination and inequality in the country that my all-white suburban elementary school taught me was  the land of the free, where “all men are created equal.”  From Roy Campanella’s story, I learned that there was – literally – a dark side to the “liberty and justice for all” that we pledged allegiance to every day when we stood with our hands over our hearts and saluted the flag. 

And I learned from that book how a white man named Branch Rickey took a giant stride toward alleviating centuries of injustice by sending a black man named Jackie Robinson onto a grassy green field in the heart of Brooklyn to play a child’s game with white men. 

Even in the 4th grade I knew, if vaguely, that  Jackie Robinson was the first Negro to play Major League baseball. Robinson’s  name is now enshrined not only in the annals of baseball history, but in the annals of American history as well.  His number 42 is retired from all the teams in both the major and minor leagues, and every April 15 is Jackie Robinson day, when every player on every team wears that revered number 42.  

Everybody remembers who came  first. 

But I remember the man who came second*. 

Now batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, three times the National League’s Most Valuable Player and eight times an All-Star, the catcher,  number 39:  Roy Campanella. 

Campy could have been first.  He had played in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 40s, and was signed to the Dodgers farm system 1946, the same year as Jackie Robinson.  But when it came to finally breaking the color barrier that the Major Leagues had quietly enforced since the 1880s, Mr. Rickey chose the grittier Robinson to face – and face down – the taunts of opposing teammates and fans.  Campanella made it to ‘the show’ the following year, after Robinson had proven that black players were just as deserving as any white player and carried the Dodgers to the 1947 World Series – where, of course, they lost to the damn Yankees. 

Roy Campanella posted a lifetime batting average of 276, knocked in nearly a thousand RBIs, hit 242 home runs (putting him at #11 on the catchers lifetime homers list), was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969 and according to legend was one of the happiest players whoever put on a uniform and glove. 

All that came to a screeching, glass-and-bone-shattering end for Roy Campanella one frigid night in the winter of 1958, when his Chevy sedan skidded on a patch of ice, hit a telephone pole and flipped over.  This was well before seatbelts were required in all cars, and the accident tossed Campanella around in the front seat, breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down.  

His biography describes how Campanella almost gave up on life, but gradually came to accept his condition and rehabilitate some of the use of his arms and hands.  He remained confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life, but I was mightily impressed with the way the Dodgers organization took care of him.  When the team moved west before the 1958 season, they took Campanella with them and kept him on as a coach. Over the following four decades he remained one of the most revered members of the Dodgers staff. 

*

Roy Campanella at Dodger Stadium, flanked by Hall of Fame pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax

I lived in Los Angeles twice, first in the 1970s, and again for two years in the early 1990s.  I went to a game at Dodger Stadium in the spring of spring of 1993.  I don’t remember anything about the actual game – who the Dodgers played, any spectacular hits or plays in the field, or who won. 

All I remember is one moment after the game.  

I was on my way out of the stadium when I looked up the concourse and saw him: in his wheelchair, wearing a dark blue suit and a smile, waiting for an elevator, only a few yards away, in the flesh: the 71-year-old Roy Campanella.  

I wanted to approach him. I wanted to say something to him.  I wanted to thank him – for being alive, for living such a magnificent life, for overcoming his injuries and disabilities and remaining an inspiration.  

But… 

I whiffed it.  

I let the moment pass, and regretted that choice the instant I’d left the stadium.  

A few weeks later I regretted that decision even more, when came the news that Roy Campanella was finally well and truly safe at home: he died in June, 1993.

This spring, after re-reading that biography I had first read in the 4th grade and a small trove of other books about baseball, I am interested again in the one game that has been a constant through all the years, the only thing about America that has survived all the steamrollers and  blackboard erasures.  And in these moments of rediscovery I’ve done something that had never occurred to me to do before: I bought a baseball jersey.  I found a website  where I could get a vintage Dodgers jersey with whatever number I wanted, and I sent off almost $200 for a jersey with the number 39.   

“B” is for “Brooklyn”

Along with the Dodgers jersey, I bought a bright blue cap emblazoned with the white letter “B” that the Dodgers wore for all those years they were the heart and soul of Brooklyn.  I wear that hat often, and it is heartening when somebody stops and asks me what that “B” is for.

“No, it’s not for Boston,” I usually have to start out. “It’s for Brooklyn.  Surely you know the Dodgers played there long before they moved to L.A., right? And do you know about Roy Campanella?  No?  Then let me tell you…” and off I go with how this man’s half-forgotten story opened my eyes to the underlying truth of American mythology – and made me a life-long Dodgers fan. 

Every one of those conversations  ends with an account of that day on the concourse at Dodger Stadium, seeing Roy Campanella in his wheel chair, waiting for an elevator and how I wish I’d said something. 

I suppose I have a lot of regrets in life.  It would be ludicrous to think that I could spend 70 years stumbling around on this planet without compiling a considerable list. Girlfriends come and gone, a couple of marriages (but no kids), opportunities squandered, friends and fortunes made and lost. 

Nor can I think of even a handful of people who, over the course of those seven decades, have truly changed my life.  But  countless times over the years I have told the story of the book that I read when I was in the 4th grade, and of the ebullient black baseball player whose story wrapped itself around the heart of a ten year old white boy. 

That afternoon on the concourse at Dodger Stadium, I had my opportunity to close the circle – and I let it get away from me.  

I understand myself and my country better because of him, but in that moment I just couldn’t think of how to say, simply, “thank you” to number 39, Roy Campanella – the second* Negro to play baseball in the Major Leagues.  

– – – – 

Braves cap, Dodgers Jersey – and Guy Tucker, a kindergarten classmate who lives in Atlanta. We connected via Facebook but had not actually seen each other since about the time that photo of “The Little Yankee” (above) was taken.

– – – –

*OK,  here’s a correction for all you purists and historians: it has come to my attention that, in fact, Roy Campanella was not the second Negro / Black / African American to play in the Major Leagues.  That distinction  belongs to Larry Doby, who went to bat for the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, a little more than two months after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  That made Doby the first black player in the American League, and makes Roy Campanella the third black player in either league (and second on the Dodgers).  

The point of this story is that ‘nobody ever remembers who came second.’  I’m leaving the text as written, but will add, ‘…or third’ to set the record straight. 

Seasons of Solitude – My Pandemic Year

(or: How I spent My WinterSpring SummerFall Vacation). 

(This post is a revision of an earlier opus posted to coincide with the actual anniversary of the pandemic/quarantine.  That version was more than 4,500 words.  Shortly after I posted it I learned that the Nashville writers collective The Porch is compiling an anthology about the plague year, with a maximum word count for submissions of 3,000 words.  So I cut and revised, submitted what follows on  March 25, 2021, and still await a verdict re: acceptance or rejection. In the meantime, the guidelines say that posting to my own blog is ‘fair game.’)

*

1. Winter: #HomeAlone

March 13, 2021 marked a full year of the condition I’ve recorded in my journals and social media posts as “#HomeAlone.” I guess that was #HomeAlone Day 366 – since 2020 was a leap year.

Maybe it’s enough to say that a full year into the pandemic, I am still among the living. There are now more than two-and-a-half million Covid victims around the world who cannot say the same.

We have lived through a full cycle of seasons with Covid. It started in the winter of 2020, tore through the spring, the summer and the fall, and now here we are in the spring of 2021. Even with the vaccines, it could be a another full cycle before we can return to whatever passed for ‘normal’ before the virulent little bug first appeared.

Everybody on stage for the finale: Dave Olney tribute/memorial at the Belcourt – March 9, 2020

The last public event I attended was a tribute concert for the iconic singer/songwriter David Olney (Spotify link) – who died suddenly after collapsing on a stage in Florida in January, 2020. As friends and fans gathered the evening of Monday, March 9 at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, there was casual recognition that something ominous was in the air, but it had yet to dawn on anyone that this might be the last concert we would attend for more than a year.

I worked my part-time job – peddling gizmos for a tech retailer – at the mall in Green Hills on Tuesday March 10 and Wednesday March 11 – which was the day the World Health Organization declared that the novel Corona virus had become a Global Pandemic. My customer interactions that day were normal, but I second-guessed myself after shaking hands a couple of times. By the end of the second day, co-workers and I had resorted to hand waves and fist bumps.

The next two days I was not scheduled to work. I watched too much TeeVee news, read too many online accounts, and tried to make sense of the invisible asteroid that was about to smash into the planet. I tried to separate useful information from the bubbling brew of hysteria. And I wondered how I was going to explain to my employer that because I was born while Harry S Truman was president, I am in the “high-risk-for-mortality” age bracket – and maybe I shouldn’t be coming into work for a while?

The day before my next scheduled shift, I called the store and said, “I’m a little concerned about coming to work today.” A few hours later the woman who runs the whole operation called back and said, “OK, we will take you off the schedule – and find someway to keep you on the payroll until you can come back.”

As I told my therapist at the time, that was such a moment of unexpected and unconditional support that it nearly brought me to tears. Actually, strike the “nearly.”

The next day my company closed all of its more than 300 stores in the U.S. and sent tens of thousands of employees home. The whole world went into panic mode and started running out of toilet paper.

And I started using the hashtag #HomeAlone. I’ll stop using it when I return to work in the store.

 

2. Spring: Expanding Waistline

I had started using a grocery delivery service a couple of months earlier; Once I entered the “I’m not leaving the house” zone, I came to rely even more heavily on such services.

Knowing the risks they were taking, I tipped the drivers generously. And I imagine I was quite the comic vision in bright yellow rubber gloves, washing and rinsing all the packages in the kitchen sink before putting them in the cupboards.

Thankfully, I already had more than enough toilet paper for the one person in the house who needs it once a day, but I might have started over-stocking on certain other staples. The freezer in my basement is still provisioned with a six-month supply of frozen proteins, and I still get weekly deliveries of fresh milk, orange juice, and eggs. And Oreos. Oreos have become my Quarantine Comfort food. I’m quite certain that I have single-handedly kept Nabisco in business for the past year.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I really didn’t do much for the first few months besides eat. What I did do was get fat on Wheat Thins and cheese in the afternoons and a honkin’ bowl of Purity Cookies and Cream that I scarfed down with some late-night comedy around 10 o’clock every evening. From March to July I went from 173 pounds and jeans that were already a bit tight in the waist to 184 pounds – and the next size larger jeans.

Once it became apparent that nobody was going anywhere to do anything for months to come, the commentaries in my daily newsfeed ran the gamut from “don’t feel guilty about not doing anything during a pandemic!” to “use this time to do all the projects you’ve been putting off!” I did a bit of both.

Harvey Schatzkin & Ellen Gould, ca. 1943

On the ‘get busy!’ front, I played my guitar some, and returned to a project that has been lurking on the back burner for a couple of years.

I have in my basement a scrapbook stuffed with all of the letters that my parents exchanged in 1943 – the year between when they met and when they were married in January of 1944.

Most of that time future-father Harvey was deployed to a weather station in Greenland (you’d be surprised how vital weather information from the arctic circle was to the aviation war effort in Europe); Future mother Ellen stayed home in St. Louis, and they exchanged the sort of letters that war-time love stories are made of.

A while back, I’d started reading those letters, using voice-recognition software to transcribe them into digital text. Now with nothing but time on my hands I returned to that undertaking, reading and dictating several of the letters every day.

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

I am drawn to the letters in part because I never really knew my father. He died from cancer in 1958, at the age of 37; I was only 7 at the time – the age, my mother said later, when he was just starting to do things with me – like the night in October, 1957 when he took me out to see if we could find Sputnik wandering among the stars.

From his letters, I can tell that my father was a man of humor and depth – and was, uncommonly, passionately devoted to the woman he would marry and father three children with. Thanks to Covid and the afternoons spent combing through those letters, I have over the past year spent more time ‘in the presence of my father’ than I did in the few years when were both alive.

 

3. Summer: Life Is Better With The Top Down

As the months wore on, my part-time job went through numerous work-at-home iterations. To its credit, while millions were being fired or furloughed, my employer kept everybody on the payroll. But there really wasn’t a whole lot for us to do.

For the first few months, we did a lot of video conferencing, studying online manuals and guides to keep our knowledge and skills sharp in the event we returned to the store.

The store tried to reopen in the spring and called us all in for some “socially distanced” sales training.

It was weird driving into town for the first time in months, though it did occur to me that one upside of a global pandemic is the relative absence of traffic. It had been so long since I’d been to work, I had to consciously remind myself of the route that I take from my home in Pegram to the Mall in Green Hills: “Oh yeah, I get off the Interstate here… I turn here… wait, where the hell is everybody? Oh, look, plenty of places to park.”

Walking into the the Mall, I got my first taste of who was or was not wearing a mask – and I discovered how irritated I get whenever I see somebody with a mask that doesn’t cover their nose. I’m writing this nine months later and that still pisses me off – but I have learned to stifle my irritation – if barely.

With Covid case numbers still rising, the reopening date was postponed once… twice. When it was postponed the third time, they didn’t even bother to reschedule. The store stayed closed all summer and well into the fall.

In July, the company sent us specially configured computers so that we could join the online-and-telephone sales force. I am now a telemarketer.

I am genuinely grateful for the benefits my company has continued to provide – like health insurance (even though I am old enough to qualify for Medicare), weekly Covid tests and generous discounts on all the gizmos that I have come to rely on even more heavily in all these months of digitally-mediated isolation.

And I must admit that that those bi-weekly pay checks provide an essential buffer between daily deliveries from Amazon and having to compete with the cat for food.

When my shifts ended early enough – especially after Daylight Savings kicked in – I amused myself with almost daily drives in my Mustang convertible along the curvy backroads of this part of Tennessee on the outskirts of Nashville that I like to call “West Bumfuque.”

When there isn’t much else going on in your daily life, there is a lot to be said for putting on a cap and sunglasses, putting the top down – and downshifting and stepping on the gas coming out of the backcountry curves while a carefully curated playlist throbs from the stereo.

They said I’d never find what I was looking for: a Mustang Convertible with 6-speed manual transmission. But there it is, even in the color I wanted: Ruby-Fucking-Red.

Since there are no passing lanes along my routes, my idea of an “an achievement” in those days was going the whole 15 or 20 mile route without getting stuck behind a slower car in front of me. Suffice it to say my average speed was well above the posted limits.

Every such excursion reminded me how fortunate I am to live in the country, and offered a new appreciation for the fresh-cut fragrance of a farm no matter how fast I drove past it. But I did wonder if the people I zoomed past noticed, perhaps saying to one another “there goes that crazy guy in the red Mustang again!” – and again, and again.

I remember how anxious I was the first time I had to stop for gas. One of the info-nuggets that circulated during the early Days of Covid was that the virus could be transmitted through physical surfaces like a gas-pump handle. I adopted the practice of carrying my yellow rubber gloves with me when I went to the gas station. I panicked slightly one time when I left the store after paying and opened the door with my bare left hand instead of my gloved right.

Maybe it’s just fatigue after nearly a year, but I am less reluctant now to enter public spaces – though I still prefer curb-side delivery. Recently I ran to a restaurant in town to pick up a take-out order. While I was there I observed a surprising number of people seated at tables – and wondered if there was a revolver on each table with a single bullet in the chamber.

 

4. Fall: The Social Dilemma

Like everybody else in the world, I have defaulted to a virtual reality. Almost all of my social interaction is through screens of one kind or another. My laptop and tablet are always on, relentlessly tempting me into the bottomless abyss of doomscrolling.

Even more so than before the pandemic, Facebook has knotted itself into the daily fabric of my life. Here in the Covid Bunker, Facebook offers the persistent illusion of social contact and stimulation – in its compulsive, simulated way, filling the vacuum that forms in the absence of a real world.

It’s hard to separate the good that Facebook sometimes does from its insidious side-effects.

On the one hand, through Facebook I recently recently struck up a correspondence with a dear friend from junior high school I hadn’t spoken to for several years. When she wondered about my near daily #HomeAlone posts, I informed her of my divorce two years ago. We’re in the same boat, so to speak – only 2,000 miles apart.

There is also a group page keeps me connected with my neighborhood out here in West Bumfuque. Early in the lockdown, when the grocery stores ran out of staples, one of those neighbors supplied with me a huge bottle of ketchup.

On the other hand, Facebook is a relentless distraction, never more than a mouse-click away, and the cultural impact of its pernicious surveillance model has been widely documented.

I feel the same way about Facebook that I felt about Scotch and vodka before I quit drinking – but I’ve been saying that for years. For now, though, social media is the easiest place to go when I feel the need to unload some snark and irony – or if I just want people to see that I really – literally! – haven’t gone anywhere.

My “Work-At-Home” Station

My work has gone entirely online. Three-and-a-half days each week, I take calls from people all over the country, usually telling them why they are not going to get the gizmo they want when they want it – and asking sarcastic, rhetorical questions like “you do know we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, don’t you?”

 

Back in October, after one particularly arduous shift, a woman I’d ‘swiped right’ with started sending me text messages, and I just wasn’t in the mood.

That’s when I put a name on the condition that defines my year.

I have been living in an “Isolation Feedback Loop.”

I am alone, and, yes, it gets lonely. Now leave me alone.

 

5: Redux: Winter and Spring – Again

Given my age, the case numbers and the unfathomable death toll over the past year, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that staying healthy has been no mean feat. As fellow Boomer Fran Lebowitz put it it in a recent NPR interview, “I think I’ve been excellent at not getting Covid – because I have not gotten it.”

Staying alive has mostly meant staying #HomeAlone. It’s just me and my screens and Buster the Demon Cat, who showed up over Memorial Day weekend thanks to a (mostly) Facebook friend. See? There’s that whole Facebook conundrum again.

Click the picture  to see all the “Daily Buster”s

Buster is my constant companion, following me all over the house as I make my daily commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the living room and back to the bedroom. Every morning begins with her nestled in my arms, nuzzling my chin and purring her little heart out while I type in my journal.

While friends and acquaintances have turned this year into a period of extraordinary output – writing books, writing and recording songs and posting an infinite stream of Facebook Lives and videos on YouTube – the only thing I have done with any consistency is make photos of Buster and put them on Instagram and Facebook. When my grandkids ask, “Grandpa, what did you do during the pandemic?” I’ll just say “I put cat pictures on the Internet.”

Oh, wait.. I don’t have any grandkids – even though I turned 70 back in November. I had a step-granddaughter for a while, but lost her in the divorce, too.

One upside of all this solitude was rediscovering extended, linear concentration in the form of an ancient information technology called “books” – which I read sitting on my deck, watching the sunset while hummingbirds hovered at the feeders overhead.

Honestly, it hasn’t been all solitude and screens. I’ve had a few lunches with friends – outside, on sunny autumn days. I’ve gone for hikes in the park. I have spoken with neighbors that I hadn’t spoken to since the divorce (“I got the house but she got the neighbors…”). And, speaking of my domicile, I see my housekeeper every other Tuesday. I can’t imagine the squalor I’d be living in were it not for her.

But I can count the total number of hugs I have had since March, 2020 on the fingers of one hand.

From peak-to-trough, minus 30+ lbs

At the end of July, my Wheat-Thins-and-Ice-Cream-Quarantine-Diet peaked the scale at almost 185 lbs, and even the expanded-waist jeans I was wearing were starting to bind. That’s when I decided to try a regimen “Interim Fasting” that I learned about – where else but? – on Facebook. In my case, “fasting” mostly means I stopped eating those honking bowls of ice-cream every night at 10:30.

I walk four to six miles around my neighborhood every day, repeating the route so often that I’m surprised there is no rut in the pavement. I use an app to count my calories, and on March 4 I hit my goal weight of 155 lbs – the first time my weight has had a “150-handle” since I was in my 20s.

As March, 2021 draws to a close, I am – thanks to my advanced age and, at last, a competent Federal government – fully vaccinated.

As the prospect of a return to some semblance of normalcy shines over the horizon, I am beginning to detect the visceral changes that this year has imposed.   I seem to be going through the world very differently. Maybe spending an hour or two nearly every day just walking at three miles an hour has rewired my internal wheel-works.  Maybe that explains why I have found new comfort in books and words on paper and less patience for words on screens.

A few weeks ago, some prophet scrawled on a New York subway wall that “after the plague came the Renaissance.” There is good reason now to shed the gloom of the past year and begin to imagine the world reborn – the bright light that will shine upon us as we emerge from this long, dark tunnel.

When the pandemic is over, I’ll be able to say that I survived. I hung out with my dead parents. I put cat pictures on the Internet. I kept my job and learned new skills. I lost 30 pounds. And I read more books in a year than I read in the five years prior.

I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t die.

Now, where are my shades?

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…

Natural Persons

(In case you’re wondering: for the past several weeks, I have been enrolled in an online class exploring The Future of Constitutional Democracy hosted by Clay Jenkinson, the creator of The Thomas Jefferson Hour radio program and podcast that I have been listening to for the past 20 years.  This week, participants in the class are asked to submit their suggestions for Amendments to the United States Constitution.  Here’s mine:)

*

In his critique of the proposed Constitution that was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, Thomas Jefferson – from his post in Paris as emissary to France – wrote to James Madison on December 20, 1787 about the need to for a Bill of Rights that would limit the new National Government’s powers and protect the Liberties of ‘We The People:’ 

First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly & without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal & unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land & not by the law of Nations

In October 1788 – during the period when the Constitution was being ratified – Madison wrote to Jefferson about the components of a Bill of Rights, which by then several states had insisted be added to the Constitution: 

With regard to Monopolies they are justly classed among the greatest nuisances in Government…. Monopolies are sacrifices of the many to the few. Where the power is in the few it is natural for them to sacrifice the many to their own partialities and corruptions…”

Nevertheless, of the several protections that Jefferson and Madison discussed , the (only?) one that did not make it into the Bill of Rights when it was ratified at the end of 1791 was any provision that would have permitted “restriction against monopolies.” 

When Madison and Jefferson were talking about monopolies, the Industrial Revolution had barely begun, and the monolithic concentrations of wealth with which we are now so familiar were not even a glimmer in their imaginations.  

And yet, here we are, two centuries later,  with multinational corporations superseding the power of sovereign governments, and using their vast wealth to bend those governments to their will – precisely as Madison predicted: sacrificing the welfare of the many to the “partialities and corruptions” of the few. 

Over the course of the past century-and-a-half, one convention that has allowed corporate power to accumulate unfettered is the notion that “corporations are people” – and therefore entitled to the same rights and privileges extended to “persons” the Constitution. This convention has taken on ominous new meaning in the 21st century with 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, wherein money was likened to speech and so could not be restricted under the protections of the First Amendment. 

Accordingly, I propose a Constitutional Amendment that would serve the neat trick neutralizing Citizens United and begin the process of restoring the sovereignty of We The People:

– – – – 

The rights, privileges, and protections embodied in this Constitution, and the laws adopted under its jurisdiction, are intended for the benefit of natural persons only.

[The first iteration of this post ended with the clause: “without regard to gender, race, religion or ethnic origin. I hesitate to add the last clause, which effectively breathes new life into the languishing Equal Rights Amendment.  I am reminded of John Adam’s rejoinder to Abigail, “one revolution at a time” (paraphrasing), but, hey, were just thinking here, right?]

– – – – 

The origins of the “corporations are people” doctrine is vague and mercurial.  What I know on the subject I learned from reading Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann.  As Hartmann tells it, the transferance of Constitutional rights from ‘natural persons’ to ‘artificial persons’ or legal fictions such as corporations was never delivered in an actual decision from the Supreme Court.  

Hartmann traces the origins of “corporations are people” to a relatively obscure 1886 SCOTUS case, Santa Clara County -v- Southern Pacific Railroad – but stresses that the doctrine was not expressed in the decision in that case.  Rather, it was taken for granted prior to the decision being rendered. 

Morrison R. Waite – 7th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

On p. 104 of Unequal Protection, Hartmann describes a statement made from the bench by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite to the attorneys representing both sides in the case: 

The court does not wish to hear arguments on the question of whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are of the opinion that it does. 

[Waite] then turned to Justice Harlan, who delivered the Court’s opinion in the case. 

Thus, according to Hartmann, the matter was never actually decided, it was just taken for granted prior to the delivery of a decision denying the right of Santa Clara County to tax the railroad in a manner unequal to other forms of taxation.  

Waite’s statement was recorded in the ‘headnotes’ to the actual decision by  Court Reporter (J.C. Bancroft Davis) appended to the actual decision in SCC-v-SPRR.

That statement-not-a-decision has been with us ever since – and a Constitutional amendment originally intended to assure the rights of newly emancipated Negroes has been used instead to assure those rights to corporations (so much for “originalism”).

For the sake of this Proposed Amendment, I would argue that Waite’s conclusion was ‘wrongly presumed’ (you can’t use the Justice Speak of ‘wrongly decided’ here because it was not actually “decided”).  Corporations are most decidedly not like actual human persons.  Corporations can 

–live forever
–exist in several places simultaneously
–change their identities at will
–chop of parts of themselves or
–sprout new parts 

Just that first provision – that corporations, unlike “We The People” can live forever – should be enough to disqualify them from enjoying the same rights as natural persons.  

And yet an obscure note, appended to a late 19th century SCOTUS decision, has bestowed the artificial persons called “corporations” with the same constitutional rights and protections accorded to actual persons.  And now those artificial “persons” can spend as much money as they want to influence our political process.

Grover Cleveland (Donald Trump’s inspiration for running again in 2024)

A few pages further into Unequal Protection, Hartmann quotes President Grover Cleveland, who rang an alarm about corporate personhood and monopoly power in his State of the Union Address in December, 1888: 

As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel.  Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.” 

A Constitutional Amendment clarifying the definition of the word “persons” will eliminate the notion that “corporations are people.”

By denying corporations the rights and protections guaranteed to We The People in our Constitution, we can begin to reverse that domination and achieve the freedom from monopoly that Jefferson and Madison  wrote about in 1787.

I agree, Jimmy, but it was never an actual “decision” to begin with!

How Is This Even Possible?

(Reflections on a Numerical Milestone)

by Paul Schatzkin
November 15, 2020 

For the past few months, I have been looking at this photo and thinking I should have something to say about it pertinent to the occasion of my 70th birthday. 

These are “the Schatzkin men.”  In the center, my father, Harvey; on the left, my brother, Arthur; on the right, yours truly.  The photo was taken in our backyard in Rumson, New Jersey in March, 1954 (note the white picket fence in the background).   I was 3.  Arthur was 6, and Harvey… well, we didn’t know it at the time, but Harvey had only a few years left on the planet: multiple myeloma dispatched him in 1958 at the age of 37. 

Arthur died in 2011, just a month shy of his 63rd birthday.   Glioblastoma – the same kind of brain cancer that nicked Ted Kennedy and John McCain.  “Heart disease runs in some families,” my brother’s widow said at the time. “In your family it’s cancer.” 

So here I am, having outlived them all, the only one of “the Schatzkin men” with a first-person need to learn how to spell “septuagenarian.” 

How is this even possible?

Mickey Mantle ca. 1951 (not a Schatzkin)

Before I try to answer that question, let’s talk about Mickey Mantle. (What’s that you say,  you don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Then a) you’re an idiot, and b) Google it.) 

Mickey Mantle’s father died  at age 40 – as did several other men in the Mantle family.  Hell, they all worked in the lead and zinc mines in Oklahoma, so their early demise is not altogether surprising. 

But Mickey, even though he was a strapping athlete who worked in the verdant, sunlit expanses of major league baseball, lived his life like a man who expected to experience a similar fate.  He told anybody who would listen that he had no expectation of living past 40. 

“I’m not gonna be cheated,” Mickey said during the best years of his career, and he conducted himself like a man bound and determined to pack a lifetime of living into half a lifetime. 

When those decades of hard living  and hard drinking finally caught up with him – well after his 40th birthday – Mickey would often say, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Like Mickey Mantle, I grew up expecting I was gonna be dead by 40, too. 

But in my case, the lament is more along the lines of “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I might have planned my life a little better.” 

By which I mean, “I might have planned it at all. 

The really odd, perplexing thing is: even though I averted that Gateway of Doom for more than 30 years ago, I still live in its shadow. 

That’s despite a lifetime of therapy that started in the third grade – the  year after Harvey disappeared from the set.  Despite spending countless hours in the presence of a highly regarded (i.e. Freudian) child psychiatrist, nobody managed to figure out that I’d been traumatized by Harvey’s sudden departure.  

Guess who is going to have (at least) 67 more birthdays!?

Let’s do the math: 

Harvey Schatzkin: dead at 37. 

Arthur Schatzkin: dead at 62.

Mickey Mantle: dead at 63.

Paul Schatzkin:  hearty and hale and now 70 years old! 

How is this even possible? 

Well, for starters, it’s possible because I’m ridiculously healthy.  

Nobody is going to confuse me with Adonis or Apollo, but I get out of bed every morning, put on my sneakers and walk for two miles.  I close the fitness rings on my Apple Watch  and by the time I put it back on the charger each night I’ve walked the requisite 10,000 steps every day.

And, knock wood, in those seven decades the most serious illness I have ever had is the measles when I was a kid and a skin cancer on my leg that was thoroughly excised about 4 years ago.  That’s it.  Knock wood again.   

When I had my annual physical last spring, the doc said my blood-work numbers were nearing the threshold where I might want to start thinking about possibly doing something to bring them down.  That was about two months into Covid 2020: My weight was in the high 170s, but on the rise amid a pandemic spent sitting at home eating fistfuls of Wheat Thins in the afternoons and a hefty bowl of Cookies and Cream with Colbert just before going to bed every night. 

At the end of July I started counting calories and commenced a practice of (daily) intermittent fasting; My weight has gone from a peak in the mid-180s to the mid-160s today.   I’m gonna go see the doc tomorrow and run the numbers again to see if they aren’t below the aforementioned Threshold of Concern. In the meantime my jeans fit a lot better.  

Be it ever so humble…

So if I’ve lived this long and I’m in such good health, why do I feel I should have more to show for my time on Earth than a paid-for house, a muscle-car convertible, an old truck and a crazy cat? 

Others in my age bracket are settling into their retirement now: moving to Florida, setting up rocking chairs, counting their grandkids.  I’m still working at a part-time job and skipped the part about having kids altogether, grand or otherwise. 

Which brings me back to Mickey Mantle:  Mickey said he should have taken better care of himself, and I’m saying I should have planned my life better.  

If I hadn’t expected to be dead, maybe I would have paid more attention in school, gotten a better education and availed myself to one of those “profession” things that I keep hearing about.   

Lahaina, Maui ca. 1984 –What else do I have to do?

Instead, my academic career was most notable for bearing the label of “underachiever.” In the years when my classmates were earning their fortunes – in some cases raking in more money than a croupier at a Vegas craps table – I might have done something more lucrative than smoking vast quantities of dope and taking tourists sailing and snorkeling in Hawaii (it was a tough life, but, dammit, somebody had to do it…).

Despite my academic sloth, I did have one substantial material success in my life.    

The drugs and alcohol wore off in the late 80s. I came to Nashville in the mid 90s and, combining a little bit of knowledge of music with 15 years of experience with personal computers, I started an Internet music business – before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web.  With that enterprise I found a purpose, built a business and became part of a community.  Despite the lack of any formal training, I was  doing good work, making friends and earning the respect of colleagues. 

Ahead of the curve? I was there before there even was a curve.

But I swear to God, the whole time I thought, “I guess this means I’ll be dead soon…” 

That was 20 years ago.  The business has come and gone. I was fortunate that its demise included a “liquidity event” that paid off my mortgage and has kept me  afloat for all of those 20 years.  

Like a scene in a Monty Python movie, “I’m not dead yet…” – but I have struggled mightily to find a similar measure of purpose and commitment in the years since. 

It’s not like I didn’t do things: I wrote a biography of “The Boy Who Invented Television” – a story that his transfixed me since my years on the periphery of the TeeVee business in Hollywood in the 70s.  As that volume went into the world in the fall of 2002, I imagined that I’d embarked on a career as a “biographer of obscure 20th century scientists.” Unfortunately the fabled ‘sophomore effort  went off the rails and took that career idea with it. 

There have been several other fuses lit – that burned off into duds. 

But… wait a minute. I’m not supposed to be finding a second or third career.   I’m supposed to be dead – like my father, like my brother, like Mickey-fucking-Mantle.  

And yet…. here I am. 

How is this even possible? 

I know that part of the answer to that question is a tale of sobriety.  

“I’m not dead yet!” because “The Reverend” Gene Perkins introduced me to AA in 1987

With the help of a friend who 12th stepped me into ‘the program’ in 1987, I stopped smoking, drinking, and snorting just in time to avoid imposing my father’s fate upon myself.  I have not had a sip, a sniff, or a puff since shortly after I turned… wait for it… 37.   I did a lifetime’s worth of drinking, I just stuffed it all into half a lifetime.  Me and Mickey – except, in my case, without the incurable liver disease.

Now I reach the biblically prescribed three-score-years-and-ten wondering “why me?” and “what for?”  

The decades-long inability to find answers to such questions – and make further contributions to the household treasury beyond paying off the mortgage and spending stupid money renovating the place – might be one reason I find myself living alone at age 70.   

When my cozy domestic reality started unraveling, I discovered that I needed to supplement my income with, well…. actual income.  That’s when I discovered that the only thing I was still qualified to do was peddle gizmos at the Trillion Dollar Digital Fruit Stand. 

Like everything else, that situation changed dramatically this year. Where I once got to spend several days each week having occasionally meaningful encounters with actual other humans, for the past several months I’ve just been sitting at a computer terminal staring at a screen and listening to people mumble inaudibly about stuff they need.  A couple of times a day I get to conjure up some useful knowledge and make a modest difference in people’s lives, but mostly it’s been telling  cardholders from the International Bank of Entitlement that they cannot have the thing they want in the minute that they want it.  

Arthur @ 2-1/2, Ellen @ 29, me @ 5 weeks.

That’s when the part about ‘not having a plan’  starts to gnaw at me.  I start to think “this is not what I had in mind…” for this stage of my life.  Then I remember, “Oh yeah, I never really had anything in mind for this stage.  I didn’t expect there would even be a ‘this stage’.” 

Which is when I stop thinking about the male side of the family and wonder if maybe I got a longevity gene from my mother’s side of the family.  She lived until she was 81. In fact, she got married for the third time when she was 73.  

Maybe that’s why, along with all the other thoughts percolating above, I keep circling back to this vague idea that I will (or should?) do something remarkable with my 70s.

“I took the tablets an hour ago. I’ll be gone by midnight.”

Given my continued good health (did I mention knocking on wood?) it’s not unreasonable to surmise that – like my mother – I’ve got a good ten more years before faculties fade and organs start breaking down and I have to face the decision that Ruth Gordon made in “Harold and Maude” (you can Google that, too). 

Then I catch myself, and begin to question this whole fixation, this lingering self-and-social pressure that I am supposed to “do” and “strive” and “accomplish.” 

I recall something Kurt Vonnegut (admittedly, no slouch in the “doing” and “accomplishing” departments) said: “I am a human being, not a human doing.”

And then it dawns on me:  Maybe I’ve finally reached the point where I can stop obsessing on the “doing” part of life and just make the best of the “being” part. 

Maybe, in the eighth decade of my life, that’s enough.  

It’s certainly more than Harvey and Arthur – and Mickey – were doing at this point in their lives.

*

This is 70 (OK, I took it last night, so it’s actually 69+365 (since 2020 is a 366-day leap year)

*

(Care to comment?  I think we’ll gather most of  them here at Facebook; in the space below if you’ve managed to get yourself out of roach motel….)

#HomeAlone Day 105
A Trip to The Dentist

Notes from the Urban Dystopia:

My dentist is in the L&C Tower at 4th & Church, so I went downtown yesterday for the first time in four months. It was truly exciting to be able to put the top down on a beautiful summer day and have an actual place to go.

Once I got off the Interstate… “eerie” doesn’t begin to describe it.

I started to wonder where I was when I turned eastward onto Charlotte Pike and there was not another car in either direction for blocks. I passed a demonstration at Legislative Plaza where somebody was barking something through a bullhorn about the State Police stealing citizens property (hadn’t heard that protest before). I found a place to park right at the entrance to the garage (no circling around floor after floor looking for the one empty space).

The street was basically empty of pedestrians, though I was surprised/pleased to see that even outdoors most were wearing masks.

The lobby of the L&C tower was empty, with social distance markers spaced along the floor leading to the bank of empty elevators. I rode 9 floors to the dentist’s office alone in the elevator.

In the office, the waiting room was empty; The two women behind the desk were wearing masks. I was greeted by a masked young man who pointed a thermometer at my forehead and handed me a Covid Questionaire: “do you have a dry cough? fever? chills? headaches? fatigue?” After checking several boxes “no” I asked “are there any trick questions here or can I just mark them all ‘no’?” I handed the clipboard back and immediately went to the rest room and washed my hands.

The rest of the visit was like all the visits before. Hooray for nitrous – the only buzz I get after 32 years without a sip, a sniff, or a puff. The hygienist agreed with me that, despite all those awkward, adolescent years with braces, my front-lower teeth are “a mess.” She scraped away as best she could. My teeth are clean now. Mission accomplished, now back to solitary…

I drove down 4th Ave to Broadway, past several of the honky-tonks. More eeriness: the streets were empty, though here the few tourists I did see were less enmasked. What was weird was to hear country hits and standards blaring out of the clubs, and look inside to see them mostly empty. The sound echoed around the street in ways I’d never heard before.

Re-reading this before posting it, I realize the most-used word is “empty.”

Surprisingly, there are still scooters parked on the street, but it doesn’t appear that anybody body is using them. I’m surprised that’s still a thing.

You Think You Know Me?

A few things I have written and posted to this website that offer some insight to the the journey I’ve even on over the past few years..,.

Posted November, 2020:

How Is This Even Possible?

 

From January, 2017:

Where’d Paul Go??

From April, 2019:

Are You Done Yet?

 

From September, 2019: 

The Dead Cat Christmas

And a bit of prior personal history:

The Summer of ’62

Posted March, 2017:

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

 

Posted May 2018

Return to Brigadoon

 

Posted May, 2018: 

Trauma, Nostalgia and Closure 

Posted May, 2018:

Whoever Said “You Can’t Go Home Again”…?

I Made A Music

Like the rest or the country/world right now, I’m trying to make meaningful use of the abundance free time that fate and the Coronavirus has bestowed upon me/us.

What to do… what to do…

This morning I picked up my electric guitar for the first time in… well, months.  It’s a Gibson ES-335 – the electric guitar that I had wanted for decades but only finally got about 8 years ago  (but that’s a whole other story.)

It had been so long since I’d played it, it took me a couple of minutes to remember how it all fit together, to get the amp set up and the guitar plugged in and tuned.  Then I tried to recall what I used to play on it – really, it’s been that long.

Then I remembered Albatross.  Except I didn’t really remember it.  I just recalled that it was something I learned from Nashville Guitar Guru David Isaacs when I took a workshop with him a couple of years ago  (January, 2018).

Albatross is a dreamy guitar instrumental first recorded in 1969 by an up-and-coming little band from England called Fleetwood Mac.  Maybe you’ve heard of the them?  Probably so,  but you probably haven’t heard Albatross, which was composed by the band’s lead guitarist at the time, somebody named Peter Green (click the link if you want to know more about his brilliant/tragic story).

OK, I thought, let’s see if I can remember how to play Albatross.  So I went digging around in my hard drive to find the file that Dave had given us for the workshop.

Thinking I had found the original recording, I listened to an MP3 file that I found.  It was the right tune but… it didn’t sound like I remembered the original.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was listening to or who was playing the layered guitar parts.

Until it finally dawned on me:  it was me.

I slowly recalled that I’d been dorking around with GarageBand at the time.  There are a couple of sections of Albatross that feature bendy melodies played on two guitars a third apart.  I’d completely forgotten that I  played and recorded all the parts on my ES-335 over a backing track that Dave had given us to practice with.

And as I’m listening to it for the first time in two years, I’m thinking, “damn, that sounds pretty good!” (except for one slipped-string clam somewhere in the middle).

So here, use this to fill up about 3-1/2 minutes of your quarantine time.  It’s the first music I’ve ever recorded and put online.

It only took 69 years (OK, only 25 years since I got on the Internet…but… that, too… is a whole other story).

The Point of Origin: Santa Cruz, 1973

This is where the story begins, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Santa Cruz California, on a warm afternoon in the late summer of 1973.

The Sony “PortaPak” ca. 1970. All that fits in your pocket now.

I had graduated from a branch of Antioch College near Baltimore, Maryland, in the spring of 1973.  In the course of what passed for my higher education – in between all the joints I rolled and smoked – I was one of an emerging global cadre of long-haired, hippie-radicale “video guerillas.”  My classmates and I  experimented with a new media paradigm, using the very first portable video recorders – the Sony Porta-Pak – to create programming for public access on cable TV.   

Our text book through that era was periodical out of New York called “Radical Software.” 

The 8th edition of Radical Software was published in the spring of 1973, just before I graduated from Antioch. That issue was dubbed the “VideoCity” edition” because – as I learned within its pages    electronic video was invented there in the 1920s.  

And that’s where first I encountered a name which would ultimately become a primary preoccupation of my adult life: Philo T. Farnsworth.  

Cover of the “VideoCity” edition of “Radical Software” ca. 1973

It was in these pages that I first learned of the 14 year old farm boy with the cartoon-character name who figured out in 1921 how to bounce electrons around in a vacuum tube in order to transmit moving pictures through the air.  I learned about his struggles to perfect his invention and his fights with RCA over his patents. I saw images of a pre-history I had never seen before, and wondered then, as I still wonder now, why is his name not more familiar and why his story is not more frequently told. 

After barely qualifying for a Bachelor’s degree (did I mention that I majored in joint-rolling?), I packed my guitar, a 35mm camera, a pair of hiking boots and a few changes of underwear into my Volkswagen Sqareback and spent the better part of the month of August driving across the country, intending to seek my fortune in the actual TeeVee industry in Hollywood.  

When I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of August, I joined up with Tom Klein, my former college roommate, who was a native of LA, and we started working on some public access video projects out of Santa Monica. 

Sometime in mid-September Tom and I took a little road trip up the California coast, to meet a fellow video guerilla  who ran the public access cable channel in Santa Cruz and went by the assumed persona of “Johnny Videotape.” I have no recollection of this character’s actual name, so for the purposes of this story, we’ll just call him “Johnny.” 

“Johnny” knew a fellow named Phil Geitzen, who had edited that “VideoCity” edition of Radical Software.  And Geitzen was acquainted with Philo T. Farnsworth III – the oldest son of the Philo T. Farnsworth who had invented television, who had died in 1971, just a couple of years before all of this was happening.   

Johnny and Tom and I went on a little hike through the Santa Cruz mountains, and stopped on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

As the the three of us sat on a large rock amid the scuffy California brush, Johnny regaled us with stories that Phil Geitzen had heard from Philo T. Farnsworth (the third) about Philo T. Farnsworth (the second).  

And it was there, on this hillside in Santa Cruz, looking out at the blue horizon in the late summer of 1973 that I first heard the expression “nuclear fusion.” 

At a time when conventional nuclear power – what the Eisenhower era reverently extolled as “Atoms for Peace” – was just beginning to encounter  cultural push back for its freshly perceived dangers – in other words, during the time when the expression “meltdown” was just beginning to enter the lexicon – I learned about the most fundamental force in the entire universe. 

Johnny explained that “fusion” is the opposite of the more familiar “fission” that burns in the core of conventional nuclear power plants.  

Albert Einstein, God’s resident mathematician

Fission splits heavy atoms like Uranium or Plutonium into lighter atoms; the combined mass of the split-off, lighter atoms is less than the mass of the original,  heavier atoms, and that difference in mass is released as energy in accordance with Einstein’s famous formula, E=MC2.  

For the record, fission does not exist anywhere in nature; its presence here on Earth is an entirely human fabrication. 

Fusion, on the other hand, is the most natural and common phenomenon is the entire universe.  Fusion is the process burning within our sun and every star in the heavens. 

It seems as if God, when he got bored being God all by himself and set about to create a Universe that could provide some companionship, when he was sifting around for a way to “let there be light,”  he actually started with the idea of fusion.  

In The Beginning… 

God must have said to himself, “First I’ll create hydrogen.  Easy.  One proton, one electron.  Then I’ll add a neutron.  Then I’ll take two of these hydrogen atoms and press them together into an entirely new element. The result will be all the heat and light I need to create an entire universe!  

God clapped his big hands together, and the universe went “bang.” 

That’s all God had to do.  Create hydrogen atoms in infinite abundance and then hang gigantic balls of hydrogen thoughout his new Heavens, compressing those balls of gas with the gravity of their own mass until the atoms fused together into a second element and presto: there was light, and there was heat. 

And God saw that it was good.

Some 14 billion years later, human scientists would name that second element “helium” and a Jewish patent clerk in Germany would calculate the awesome amount of energy released in its forming in the most famous mathematical equation ever written. 

Over eons the stars did the rest of the work: forging an entire atomic chart of other elements, and then condensing those elements into planets. Over the course of several billion years (which might seem a mere six or seven days to a cosmic diety…)  that process would eventually, produce organic, carbon based “life” forms that could carry and transmit that same energy.  

God finally had himself some company, and on the seventh day he threw a party. 

Look out at the night sky, and all you see, as Carl Sagan might have put it, are billions and billions of deep space fusion reactors.  Along with sex, fusion energy is the most natural creative force in the Universe.  

*

OK, back to that bluff overlooking the Pacific in the late summer of 1973. 

Planet Earth: deep space refueling station for fusion-powered spacecraft throughout the Galaxy.

Fusion, as Johnny had learned from Phil Geitzen, as Geitzen had learned from Philo Farnsworth III, offers mankind the promise of a clean and (relatively?) safe source of industrial energy from a virtually infinite fuel source.  The hydrogen isotopes in sea water – the most abundant resource on Earth – store enough fusion fuel to power advanced civilizations for millions of years.  And even though fusion is an atomic reaction, it presents none of the hazards or toxic byproducts that fission plants produce. 

Johnny Videotape explained to Tom Klein and I that modern science has been trying to harness this fusion energy for useful purposes here on Earth for several decades – the obvious assumption being that if we can harness fission to generate electricity, then surely we can harness fusion toward a similar end. 

Or maybe not?

Science has figured out how to harness the very unnatural process of fission into both controlled and explosive devices.  The controlled devices are all those nuclear power plants, all those Three Mile Islands, Chernobyls and Fukushimas – all those meltdowns waiting to happen, and all that radioactive garbage that nobody knows what to do with.  The explosive devices, well, that’s Trinity and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

Uncontrolled nuclear fusion

The only fusion devices mankind has managed to perfect are the explosive ones.  The hydrogen bomb.  The monster of incineration that its architect, Edward Teller, liked to call “The Super.”   Great for wiping out entire cities; not so great for powering them. 

A controlled fusion reaction, one that could produce the same megawatts of electricty that we can get out of a conventional nuclear power plant?  That has proven much more difficult to deliver. 

Because: As a heavenly star is a fusion reaction, so an earthbound fusion reaction is an artificial star – and thus presents a cosmic riddle:   

How do you bottle a star?  

Controlled nuclear fusion

What sort of vessel can you create that is capapble of containing a seething atomic inferno as hot as the sun?  What sort of container could withstand such heat without disintegrating?  Conversely, what sort of bottle could contain a star that would not ultimately extinguish the star simply by coming in contact with it? 

That is the quandary that Johnny Videotape presented that warm  afternoon on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, California in the summer of 1973.

And the reason Johnny was telling us all this was because he  had learned from Phil Geitzen, who had learned from Philo T. Farnsworth III, that Philo T. Farnsworth II – the man who as a boy had invented television – had spent the final decades of his life solving the riddle! 

Philo Farnsworth had figured out how to bottle a star. 

Now the story becomes rather apocryphal.  Here is the story Johnny told, as I recall it 46  years later: 

This is how you bottle a star.

Picture Philo T. Farnsworth working alone in a makeshift basement  laboratory.  

In the doorway, his young son reverently stands by and watches as his father fires up his fantastic ‘star-making machinery.’  Before their eyes, the unthinkable materializes:  the artificial star.  

Together they watch the vibrant, shimmering light, and a knowing gaze passes between father and son.  

When he is satisfied that he has done all that he can do and seen all he needs to see, the father shuts off the machine – and begins to dismantle it.  

He removes a critical piece from the machine, and places it on a high shelf somewhere in the lab where nobody will ever find it – so that the machine will never operate again.  

And then he takes the secret to his grave. 

That story landed like a harpoon in my heart.  

I am hooked on it still.  

And that is why the website fusor.net has been around for more than 20 years.

And why I have been telling this story to anybody who’ll listen for nearly 50 years.

It’s an odd obsession, to put it mildly.

*

Two years after that afternoon in Santa Cruz,  I tracked down the family of Philo T. Farnsworth.  

In the pursuit of the fortune that had lured me to Hollywood, I had landed on the idea of making “a movie for television about the boy who invented it.” 

That project has its own curious origin-and-dead-end story; That the most effective story-telling medium ever devised has yet to tell the story of its own fascinating origins remains its own bizarre mystery.

Pem Farnsworth, ca. 1977, at the dedication of the historic monument at 202 Green Street, where electronic video made its first appearance on Earth on Sept 7, 1927.

For now, suffice it to say that in July of 1975 I  flew to Salt Lake City, where I was greeted in a modest-but-cluttered home by Philo Farnsworth’s widow Pem and two of her skeptical sons – the oldest, the aforememtiomed Philo T. Farnsworth III, born in 1929, and Kent, the youngest who was roughly my age.  That trio of Farmsworths were the primary keepers of the family treasures (they are all deceased now). 

Over the course of the next two days – and the next several years – I began to learn the untold story of the true origins of electronic video, and of the titanic struggles that accompanied its arrival in the world during the 1930s.  

And over the course of those years Philo T. Farnsworth III became one of my best friends.  

There are so. many. stories.  I wish I had time to tell you the story of “The Prince, The Inventor, and The Egg.”  I can only say now that Philo was one of the most unique individuals I have ever had the privilege of knowing until his untimely death in 1987. 

Philo possessed unique insights into his father’s legacy.  Though P3 (as he was often called) lacked his father’s mathematical prowess, he was an inventor in his own right and offered me keen insights into the inventive process that inform my own work to this day. 

But in those first encounters, it became readily apparent that the entire family, and Philo III in particular, were fervently protective of their father’s legacy, and from the outset quite reluctant to discuss the fusion research – the star in a jar – that consumed the final decades of his father’s life.

But over time, time I would earn the family’s trust and learn the truth underlying that apocryphal story. 

Philo T. Farnsworth III ca. 1972

As we got to know and become comfortable with each other, I finally got around to telling Philo the story that Johnny Videotape had told me, the story that he had heard from Phil Geitzen that Phil Geitzen had supposedly heard from the lips of this very same Philo Farnsworth III.

Philo chuckled. 

The story, he said, was indeed apocryphal, and perhaps a bit broadly drawn.  The details were well off – Philo III was hardly a child, he was in his mid 30s during the years when his father was experimenting with fusion.  But he also confirmed its essence when he said, simply, that “the patents are incomplete.” 

Think of a patent as a text book.  A well written patent should instruct somebody skilled in the underlying arts how to build the novel device disclosed therein.  But if critical details are left out of the patent, even the most skilled practitioner will be building a device that falls short of its intended purpose. 

Schematic of the Farnsworth Fusor from US Patent # 3386883.  Something is missing…

In other words, filing an incomplete patent is much like taking a critical piece out of the machine and placing on a high shelf where nobody will ever find it. 

Philo first told me about those incomplete patents sometime in the mid 1970s. But it was another 15 years before  Pem Farnsworth, who had been at her husbands’s side during all the important moments in his career, would confide in me the story that is the climax of his biography.

In the summer of 1989, I returned to Salt Lake to help Pem and youngest son Kent put the finishing touches on “Distant Vision” – the memoir that Pem had begun writing when I first met her in 1975.  

And when we got to the “second chapter” – the decade devoted to fusion energy research – Kent and I could both tell that Pem was withholding something,  a critical detail she was reluctant to divulge. 

Finally, we sat Pem down with a cassette recorder and coaxed from her the story of a night in 1965,  when Philo brought her back to his laboratory that was, in fact, in a basement in Fort Wayne Indiana.  Once past the night watchman and settled in behind the controls, Farnsworth opened the electrical ciruits feeding the reactor and adjusted the controls.  And then the strangest thing happened: he withdrew the electrical current, and the reaction just kept on going.  

Pem and Philo watched as the needles in various gauges pinned at the limits.  And when the needles finally settled down, Pem told us that her husband turned to her and said, “I have seen all I need to see…” 

Weeks later, he filed the patents that his son descibed to me as “incomplete.” 

It is quite common when reading of contemporary fusion research to encounter the skeptical caveat that “fusion energy is 20 years in the future and always will be…” 

But I have met the family of Philo T. Farnsworth – the man who, as a boy, arrived on this planet with the unique insights that delivered electronic video to the world.  I have looked them all in the eye and I have seen and felt the abiding reverence they hold for the legacy they are protecting and the secrets that Philo T. Farnsworth took to his grave.

And I share their conviction:  fusion energy is not 20 years in the future.

The path to fusion energy was found  50 years ago and we missed it. 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Above, “Star Mode” in one of the many amateur and student science projects 
that have kept Farnsworth’s approach to fusion alive for the past 20 years.
This work has been fostered by a website I created in 1998: Fusor.net 

Who knew…

…that a squirrel could be a Spirit Animal? I always thought it had to be exotic animals like Giant Stags or White Wolves or Buffalo. But when I found this little guy on the back deck this morning – patiently waiting for as long as it took me to focus and get a picture – I Googled the possibility: .
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“The squirrel spirit animal highlights the importance of communication and showing respect to the people around you through your words, actions, and behaviors. It encourages you to respect your differences and find a way to work harmoniously together.”
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No wonder that dog in the movie kept chasing squirrels. He knew a good thing when it went zipping by. .

“Free Breathing Restored”

(That’s as line from an old antihistamine commercial, for those too young to recall…)

I do realize that it is totally shallow and materialistic to admit this, but my daily driver – the 2016 Mustang Convertible that I picked up in January –  has been in the shop all week and I have sorely missed it. The Kia Soul that the insurance company arranged for me got me where I needed to go, but

#LifeISBetterWithTheTopDown