Peter Richmond

A Plea: In the Face of a Plague, Can We Rise Above The Petty?

October 13th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

So the director of the National Institute of Health tells HuffPost that budget cuts have hurt our ability to handle ebola…
…resulting in Salon’s Joan Walsh broadsiding Repubs who cut the budget, resulting in widespread name-blame chattering on FB…
and I say: stop.
This epidemic is not about parochial American bickering between blue and red. This isn’t about our own little American civil war between shouters.
This is much, much bigger. This disease is the canary in the coal mine, a plague that hints at coming plagues which, if we don’t start thinking outside the bickering realm in a country which is supposed to set an example, will ensure that our descendants won’t have a political party to defend, or colored states to mock as they blame everyone else; they’ll be eating roots and grubs in the Caucasus with the rest of the tribe.
Can we all take a step back from screaming at each other over who did what on The Hill, in the capital of our sad little greedy, grubby land, and remember that Africa is dying — of HIV/AIDS and Ebola? Instead of expending brain cells at slurring legislators we don’t know, or getting angry at the talking head who disagrees with us, can we take that energy and point it in the right directions, the wider-radar directions? Occupy, or volunteer, or educate, or whatever?
Can’t we all start taking tangible action to help save mankind, instead of deriding someone else’s beliefs? And start acting like human beings — as in humanistic, as in compassion which rises above petty ego and ineffectual I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong thinking? And soon?
I truly do think we are all capable of rising above. Presumably, we haven’t been entrusted with being humans so we can make fun of other humans. Presumably, we are here to show empathy and compassion, and use our short lives with vision, not myopia.

The Canary in the Newsprint Mine? Just Died.

October 1st, 2014
by Peter Richmond

I didn’t recognize the area code on the cell. Never a good thing.

“Mr. Richmond?”

“That’s me.”

“Sir, this is a courtesy call from the Knoxville Sentinel.”

Yep, not a good thing. “Courtesy call” is an oxymoron.

“Unh-hunh?”

“Sir, I’m calling about your digital subscription.”

My digital subscription. To the Knoxville Sentinel.

“My what?”

“Sir, it’s been a year and we wanted to know if you wanted to renew.”

Knoxville…Knoxville…yeah, I might have signed on to get a story or two researching a column…but which? Did I write about the Tennessee Volunteers? Not likely. Never written about college football in my life. NASCAR? Ditto.

“Um, no, I don’t think so. But thanks.”

“Then would you like to settle up the account?”

Settle up? “What’s the balance?”

“Three fifty six.”

Fuck. I must have signed on at a dollar a day. Idiot! That’s a new set of used tires for the 19-year-old Volvo!

“Three-fifty-six?”

“Yessir. Three dollars and fifty-six cents.”

I settled.

And it struck me: the dire economic straits that the Knoxville Sentinel faces are such that they pay someone to chase down less money than a vente soy latte costs.

Good night, Sentinel. And good luck. Too bad you, like the New York Times (which announced a looming 100 newsroom layoffs today) and everyone in between in the print empire, hadn’t had the vision to see it all coming, this blueprint for obsolescence. Because it’s not as if Corporate America hadn’t provided enough previous examples of blind greed. Take the railroads. They bled the public dry and filled their coffers for decades — until the cars and planes showed up in their infancy, at which point, as the lords and professors of the national transportation industry, the railroads were in a painfully logical position to leap into the future of transportation. How obvious was it? Technology had announced the next chapter. The New York Central? The Pennsylvania? The Santa Fe? No brainer: Get into the airlines business. Buy up Ford stock. Use your riches to but the obvious future.

What happened? They laughed at the newcomers, and laughed their way to the….bread line, when, in the late Thirties, FDR pulled the plug on federal subsidies: “Get your hands out of the country’s pockets, barons. Your time has come and gone.”

Flash to 1981, when the San Diego Union, of the profitable Copley chain, essayed its first foray into the web: By putting two computers in a closet near my desk in sports, and hiring two interns. “Go for it,” someone said. “Get us, like, a presence on that thing.” Wait,” I thought (and I really did). There’s this thing where we can connect with computers? Read something the same hour some0ne wrote it?

The moral? Like the railroads, the print giants, from Knight-Ridder to Gannett to the Sulzbergers, controlled the transmission of news and information when Al Gore first invented the world-wide-web. They knew how to distribute The Word (and the image), how to maximize its audience, how to lure advertisers, how to run an info-empire. When the web began to make its first squalls, right out of the crib, and then took its first steps, any news organization with half a brain would have stepped in, seized the technology, put it on a front burner and guaranteed a future as profitable, smoothly running info machine, where the actual print paper existed as nothing more than a billboard for a very profitable on-line empire.

But no. Blinded by the buck, they had no vision. Times, Post, Globe, Trib, USA Today? You got no one to blame but your corporate-minded selves. You always insisted you were in it for The First Amendment. Maybe some of you were. But not the ones who counted. They were in it to sell product.

Not for much longer. Bye, bye, guys. As Trey sings in Phish’s “Down With Disease,” “Waiting’ for the time when I can finally say: `This has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way.’”

How cool is it when a friend blogs about yr book? Cooler than anything.

September 6th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

Sadie and Company

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dear Peter: My Inner Teen Is in Love With Your Inner Teen

Two thirds of the way through Always a Catch, Peter Richmond’s first YA novel, budding prep-school football star Jack Lefferts finally gets up the balls to bare his soul to Caroline Callahan, a brainy eleventh-grader with more literary references at her fingertips than the Library of Congress. So what does the kid do? He suddenly busts out—no more Mr. Shy Guy—and barges into her dorm (strictly off-limits), bounds up the stairs, looks both ways and, seeing the coast is clear, rushes to her door and knocks. The door opens:
She was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants, her hair pulled into a ponytail. “What are you doing here?” she said. “This is stupid, Jack. Booth’s a bitch. If she catches you . . . ” She pulled me in by my sweatshirt and closed the door. “So whatever you have to say couldn’t have waited?”
What did I have to say? Wait, that was easy. “I just wanted to know if . . . if we, you know, are . . . I don’t know . . . ”
“You’re going to have to learn how to finish a sentence, Lefferts, if Jarvis is going to give you an A.”
We stood there, stupidly. Then she reached out both her hands, with her palms up. So I put my hands in hers. And maybe then there was some sort of current. It was definitely electric. For me, anyway. She was just totally cool and relaxed.
“We’re something,” she said. “Why do you have to label it? Now, get out of here. All we need is Booth busting me. Or you.”
I am in love with these two kids. Or maybe I’m in love with Peter, whom I met when we worked together at GQ—our relationship centered on the Chicago Manual of Style. He was way past being a kid, and yet he hadn’t completely shed that vulnerable wiseass persona that defines adolescence. They say that if you want to write YA fiction, you gotta think like a YA. My guess is that for PR this comes naturally, and I mean that as a compliment.

The book isn’t, despite my emphasis, a teen romance. It’s about a lonely kid—a throwaway kid from a family of means—who is trying to figure out who he is while negotiating the horrors peculiar to elite boarding schools. There’s a lot of football in it. Peter wrote it hoping that boys will read it, even though publishing gurus say they won’t because boys don’t read books. I’m recommending it here to mothers of boys. And fathers of boys. And teachers of boys. And anybody else who loves boys. I just hope Jack and Caroline get together before he gets busted for something stupid and Dad packs him off to boot camp.

On what it’s like to shoot an Uzi, or I coulda killed someone

August 29th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

Some years ago,  at the Knob Creek Shootout in West Point Ky., I shot three machine guns, which is what people do every year at the Knob Creek Range, located at one end of a long hollow in the hills: shoot fully automatic weapons down the hollow, at targets. The year I visited the targets included 50-gallon drums of gasoline, which would explode when hit; lots of abandoned appliances (mostly refrigerators and televisions) and the cab of a Peterbilt truck with a poster of Saddam Hussein taped to its grill. (Interestingly, while lots of people stitched some very high-caliber bullets into that cab over the course of the weekend, no one managed to set it aflame.)
Two kinds of people attend the Knob Creek Shootout: Those with guns, who fire them, and those who come to see them be fired. I was a third kind of animal; a journalist covering the event, allowed to hang on the firing line because the organizers felt as if they had nothing to hide, which they don’t, and trusted me to report what I saw.
It would be easy to generalize about the Knob Creek crowd, given that on the Friday of the weekend I visited, one spectator wore a tee-shirt with Hitler’s visage and the legend, “I’m Coming Back, and This Time, No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but the truth was that the majority of people who own fully automatic weapons seemed to be as much historians as gun freaks. They could tell you where their machine gun was used in battle (or crime-fighting in The Prohibition) and who made it, and when. Few seemed to revel in their possessions as being killing machines, but, of course, that’s all a machine-gun is.
Most of the guns at Knob Creek that year dated from the first half of the twentieth century, including the first one I fired: a tripod-mounted, belt-fed, water-cooled .30 caliber Browning M1917 which was capable of firing 600 rounds per minute, or 10 bullets per second. This one weighed 47 pounds, and, its owner explained to me, may have been used in the battle of Flanders Field. He was more than eager to let me shoot it.
So I sat behind it, cross-legged, and pulled the trigger and held it there, and the bullets burst forth at an insane pace, effortlessly. Swerving the barrel right to left, left to right, I tried not to envision what it would have been like to be aiming at German soldiers running, helpless, across a field, preferring to seek refuge in the idea that this was the ultimate video game, for there were no actual stakes; no one was going to die from my shots.
No physical effort was required to shoot the Browning and mow down the imaginary enemy, other than pulling the trigger and holding it, because the gun was mounted. It did strike me that the weightlessness of the effort of operating such an efficient mass-executor sort of made it feel as if I were switching channels on a flat-screen. I can’t recall whether I hit a target; at the time, I was simply marveling at the power I possessed.
The next gun I fired on Friday was a Chinese rip-off of a Russian AK-47 Kalashnikov. But the fake AK-47, since it wasn’t equipped with a fully-automatic modification device, was a semi-automatic, which meant that I had to pull the trigger every time I wanted to fire a bullet. However, most semis have such a fluid and pressure-less trigger action that you can, in fact, fire nearly as many bullets as you can with a fully automatic weapon. An experienced shooter can pull a trigger at least five times per second with a semi-automatic pistol; thus, in ten seconds, fifty bullets can be fired. In a minute, 300. This is why the semi is the preferred munition for school shooters. Getting a fully automatic gun is very difficult, and has been since 1934, when legislation aimed at stopping Tommy-Gun gangsters taxed the full machine guns out of popular existence.
The AK-47 had a slight kick, but since I was able to snap off short bursts before stopping a second later, I never felt as if the gun had control of me. I was also able to hit a refrigerator (I think; it might have been a washing machine) because I could shoot for a second, stop, readjust, and shoot again.
On Saturday, as I roamed the firing line, I saw that there was a new guy in town with an Uzi. Who wouldn’t want to shoot an Uzi? It was developed in Israel in 1948, but today more than ninety nations militaries have them. The name “Uzi” has transcended the genre. When Reagan was shot, the Secret Service guarded his trip to the hospital with Uzis. Bruce Willis probably used Uzis in those movies. Or wishes he had. “Uzi” is hot.
The Uzi guy was cool. “One thing to think about,” he said, as he handed me the gun, “is that you’ll be surprised at the kick.” In a second, I knew why he’d said it: The gun weighed eight pounds. Hefting it felt like rocking a new-born infant. It was so slight of weight that it seemed to be a toy. I knew it to be capable of 600 rounds per minute, but for some reason, it didn’t feel as if it were a serious weapon.
And so, as I raised the Uzi’s stock to my shoulder, and braced my feet as I aimed at some appliance or other, I told myself to be careful. But I also knew that, the day before, I had fired two very deadly weapons without any physical exertion at all. So perhaps, psychologically, I was unprepared for what happened next.
I squeezed the trigger, and before I could even put together another thought, bullets were spraying everywhere — up, and to the right, in a wild hail of firepower. Without letting off the trigger, determined to rein the damned gun in, I tried to level it, but could not. After I stopped firing, I’d fired about 60 bullets in ten seconds, none of them remotely close to any target. All I remember is being relieved that the thing had kicked up, and to the right, and so most of the bullets probably landed off in the woods.
That night, after dark, the highlight of the festival consisted of the firing of a Vietnam-era GE Minigun by a man who had spent years putting one together; after the war, the guns were disassembled, and various parts strewn far and wide; he had tracked them down. The Minigun is a Gatling-style gun, with rotating barrels sparked by an electrical charge, capable of firing 4000 rounds per minute, or 67 rounds per second.
The man hit the switch, and for ten seconds, to the accompaniment of a roar beyond description and a glow of flame from the barrel that seemed to light up the entire darkened hollow, 700 tracer bullets found their way many hundreds of yards down-hollow into the dark in a rainbow of bright-light delight.
When he turned it off, the silence was literally deafening. Then, the applause arose. I think I applauded, in pure awe.
Since the beginning of dawn, we have marveled at the power of power, be it lighting, thunder, gunpowder or the atom. This will never change. It is our duty to harness that lust. To harness that power.
To put that power into the hands of a frail 9-year-old girl? Because at Bullets and Burgers out in Nevada you can have great day of vacation by eating a burger and firing an Uzi — so great that you want your kid to live that thrill?
Is to admit that the power is (literally) now in all the wrong hands. For all the wrong reasons.
If the 9-year-old’s killing of her instructor isn’t a tipping point, there will be none, until those of us who aren’t armed, or open-carrying, will be daily fearing for our lives.

On why I write (it’s really short.)

August 11th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

My wife needed a new book to read, which is a frequent occurrence, given the towers of tomes on her bedside table, so I recommended one that had just come out to good reviews, written by a great guy I used to work with on a magazine staff. I didn’t read it myself because I have always made it a point to steer as far as possible from good books written by people I know if I know they’re going to better than any of mine could ever be. Sue me, I’m juvenile; I write. I do not think that these are mutually exclusive concepts.

The subject matter of my friend’s book, I thought, was right down my wife’s alley: It was a wine book, and she’s run a boutique wine store for seven years. So she downloaded the first chapter, read it and then said, from the next room, “Hey, your friend is a very good writer. Very clear style. Good reporting.”

“You gonna buy it?” I answered. A lot of me — okay, admittedly not enough of me — wanted her to to say “Definitely.” The demonic side, the ever-envious-ego, was, of course, hoping for a reply in the negative.

Several seconds passed. Then she said, “No…no, I don’t think so.” And at that point, I had a true epiphany: So _that’s_ how it happens. _That’s_ how the Fates of publishing operate: in a universe ruled by randomness, wherein someone like my wife downloads the beginning of a pretty good book, then turns to his or her inner literary governor, gets an immediate nod or shake of the head head in return, and that’s it: transaction either green-lighted or cancelled.

My wife had found the next book to buy after ten more minutes of surfing. And my friend had lost a buyer based on as near a whim as you can get.

Remember in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum tries to explain Chaos Theory to Laura Dern by dripping water on his knuckle and theorizing that it could have run down his hand in either direction, but just happened to go in one? That’s how, with my wife’s instant gut decision, it was revealed all too clearly: that capricious micro-moment happens with thousands of potential readers with the publication of every new book.

At first, I was bummed. But I quickly found a silver lining: My Book-Buying Chaos Theory explained why so few people bought my last biography! Clearly, thousands of people had gotten recommendations from friends who knew they liked sports, and many had read the first chapter for free, and then said to themselves, “He sure can write. He’s done the reporting. Man, this is probably really, really good. But…do I really want to read a book about Phil Jackson that isn’t written by Phil Jackson? And didn’t someone tell me Shaq’s book was really good? Let’s go for Shaq.”

Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I didn’t feel compelled to dwell on the real story (wherein…um…perhaps I didn’t write a very good book). What I did feel compelled to examine, after  my wife certified what I’d known all along — that writing is the most illogical profession anyone could ever enter — is why I have, once again, given myself over to the Fates.

My first Young Adult (YA? At your age? Whaddaya, _no-brains?_ ) novel is coming out in the first week of September, and if and when no one notices, despite the logic of my newly found Book-Buying Chaos Theory, I can already see the scenario: I’ll wallow in self-damnation for a few weeks, and then go through a withdrawal period which will include a handful of head-in-hands-three-a.m. soliloquies, “Why in hell do I keep doing this?”

Then, the next day, in sunlight, I’ll answer myself  the same way I’ve answered myself seven books and hundreds or thousands of pieces of journalism later, not to mention the unread blogposts whose content has the half-life of a mayfly: That I do it to stay alive I mean, writing must be sustaining me somehow, right? I do it every day, whether I have to or not. I just do. I can’t not.

So why is it my oxygen? Why do I need to turn thoughts that into letters and words and sentences to get through each day? Because, I think, we are social animals, and we live to reach out to other people with other ideas. In other word, to _act_. If we don’t act, we’re passive, and at the very least, metaphorically we shrivel and die. Now: if by nature you’re not very good socially (or at least you’re not nearly as good ay it as you think you are), then how best to connect with everyone else: those you know, those you know of, those you wish you could meet, those of whom you will never know?

By throwing out words and ideas. Whether anyone hears them or not, you’ve done the best you can, which is never a bad thing — until no one reads them, which is a bad thing…

…until you then get over your had self, turn the laptop on, take a deep breath and start all over again, suddenly feeling a lot better, because you’re re-entering remarkable world that allows you, a scribe, to be a member of the club.

As, of course, I already have. The first chapter needs work, though. Lots.

On the subtle descent into the snarkswamp

August 7th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

I know it’s coincidence that the tone-deaf (at best, insulting at worst) New Yorker website Shouts & Murmurs about Sonny Rollins, written by an Onion writer and prompting viral outrage, ran the same week that a website called Sports on Earth fired 95 percent of its staff, to little outrage, but much mourning. But that doesn’t mean that both events taken together can’t feel like a canary in the coal mine, signaling some sort of a tipping point away from civil discourse on the web and toward the lowest common denominator of cybercommunication.
It’s not that I’m against low common denominators; it’s that when the mainstream moves toward the low end, you will need to establish a lower lowest common denominator. And so on. To a lower place where a Facebook posting today from a site called Wifey ran a piece with the headline “No, F*ckhead, You Are Not a Storyteller” and I didn’t even blink. And some of my friends “liked” it.
The Rollins piece was intended as satire but was remarkably unfunny. The Onion writer purported to be speaking as Sonny at his oblique best, but was so wide of the mark as satire as to make you wonder how in the world it was accepted. Rollins called it “mean,” and many of us who’ve written about jazz thought it in terrible taste, considering the man’s legend.
How did it get through, then? Because the need for snark-tone in our collective webvoice is reaching critical mass.
We’ll leave aside the trend of that magazine over the last few decades to move away from the jazz world in leaps and bounds — as in no longer profiling players and reviewing their work and performances — even while there’s good jazz to be heard all over town — and just chalk it up to the lowering of the bar. But by the New Yorker?…
…Which leads, by a logical connection of dots (stick with me) to Sports on Earth’s demise. It was an important site, and not only for the writing done by a handful of masters; it was only one of three sites that fans of sportswriting could regularly go to, with Grantland and Deadspin, for fun and games. And it stood for anti-snark.
Deadspin, of the Gawker tribe, offers lowest-common-denominator literacy, and is usually hilarious. In terrible taste, but serving a wonderful role. Grantland simply offers up the best sportswriting today, but it does require its writers to have a Klosterman-esque take — or at least try to. It values voice over substance at times, but no matter whose byline is atop a story, it’s usually a great story. It’s the best thing to happen to sportswriting in this decade; it’s the New Yorker of the craft.
Sports on Earth. owned by Gannett and mlb.com, brought up the staid side. It was a refuge for non-attitudinal narratives. No one’s voice mattered more than what they were writing about. Even the humor was innocent. It was sort of like Sports Illustrated when it was great: it did not want to mock sport; no matter what anyone wrote, it came from an innate love of the games. Freed of the need to sound like anyone but themselves, confident that they were producing sports journalism for the kind of readers who wanted insight into the sports, not the writer, or the writer’s culture, Sports on Earth’s writers simply loved what they did because their stories came from the heart of the game.
With its functional demise (two staffers remain while mlb.com now brings in baseball writers from its own staff, essentially ending the old SoE ) the whole discourse shifts, less than subtlely, toward rant and ridicule. Toward the f*ckheads.
I’m not bemoaning the quality of modern writing. Hell, I went to Grantland first each day, before Sports on Earth — and I _wrote_ for S on E. I’m just wondering where it is we bottom out, and when we do, whether there’ll be room for actual analytic thought and expression anywhere. Then, I guess this web really is nothing more than one large conversation, and it’d be folly to expect it to police its civility any more than you can police any mob that’s shouting its own praises (says a card-carrying member). So bad on me for not starting, and ending, today with F. Scott, and steering clear of the cloud altogether.

What the ten best-named players in baseball would have been in a parallel universe.

July 25th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

Zack Cozart

When the precocious teen actor announced in 2012 that he and his Hollywood buddies Brad Peacock and Gerrit Cole (“The Zack Pack”) were shooting a new, darker version of John Hughes’ classic Sixteen Candles, the news was met with widespread skepticism — until Sixteen Vandals, with Mylie Cyrus reprising the Molly Ringwald role, earned $180 million in its first weekend. Next on Cozart’s plate? “We’re already in pre-production for Not so Pretty in Pink,” he told E! “And the Psychedelic Furs are reuniting to do the soundtrack. How cool is that?”

Yordano Ventura

“The most interesting man in the world” is said to be based on the real-life international man of intrigue who, in the 1950s, was seen with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, and Grace Kelly when he wasn’t managing his vineyards in Cyprus or his arms-manufacturing plant in the outskirts of Vladivostok. He was last seen in public in 2002, squiring Kiera Knightley, then 60 years his junior, to the premiere of Bend it Like Beckham, and is rumored to now reside on an island province of Papua New Guinea.

Tanner Roark

The Wyoming ranch owner, named for the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s unpublished novel “Triumphant,” gained brief fame last year by agreeing to allow Phish to headline the largest jam-band festival in history in the southwest corner of his 1,000 acres. 1.2 million kids showed up, and after six days, meteorologists tracked a seven-mile-wide cloud of marijuana smoke as far east as Garden City, Kansas, where within three days, every convenience store in the city was sold out of Doritos and Snickers.

Johnny Cueto

The Los Angeles private eye’s bulldog tenaciousness has earned him many bold-faced industry clients as well as an international reputation as a hall-of-fame sleuth. Cueto is best known for never revealing his uncannily accurate surveillance tactics, leading to rumors that he is possessed of the ability to actually read minds. His legend spawned the long-running eponymous Saturday morning cartoon series, as well as a lucrative merchandising line in conjunction with In ‘N Out Burger.

Noah Syndergaard

The Scandinavian philosopher broke onto the academic scene in 2002 with a bleak tract titled: “Torturous, Existential Angst: Mankind’s God-Given Condition.” Denied tenure at the University of Copenhagen, the “Danish Depressive” went on to found the controversial private boarding school “Hamlet Hall” in Helsingor, Denmark.

Homer Bailey

The once-anonymous Bailey’s words of comic wisdom, at first uttered only to friends and family on his porch in rural Wisconsin, began to attract national attention after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel profiled the loveable old coot in 2009, and his legend as “the next Will Rogers” took off. Bailey shied from the publicity, but did agree to pen, with Mitch Albom, “Homer’s Homilies,” which is entering its fourth year on the bestseller list.

Anthony Swarzak

From his humble beginnings in “The Polish Triangle” neighborhood of Chicago, Swarzak earned a PhD in Political Science at the University of Chicago before rising to the top of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Party of Chicago, which nominated him for the mayoral primary seven consecutive times. He finished last each time. He is currently the night manager of the Superdawg on N. Milwaukee Avenue.

Aroldis Chapman

“The Cuban missile” was born in Holguin Province on the south of the island, where Christopher Columbus was said to have remarked, upon coming ashore, “the most beautiful country human eyes had ever seen.” Chapman defected while the Cuban national team was in The Netherlands, and subsequently, as a Cincinnati Redleg, has been said to have thrown the two fastest pitches in history: 105 and 106. Oh, wait. That’s all true. Never mind.

On Chickens, and Counting on Crows

July 12th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

For the first time in memory, Jill didn’t come home last night. When I went out to close the fence on the coop at dusk, only Coco had returned to the coop. My heart sank. A loose chicken at night is not a safe chicken. Why the hell had our smarter chicken, named for clothing designer Jill Sander because Plymouth Barred Rocks are so cool to look at, decided to spend the night outdoors in the neighborhood?

No way of knowing. Hens’ sense of things is unfathomable to humans, although if you own a hen, you know that her primal wisdom is so far beyond homo sapiens’, there’s no point in comparing.

But I had to make an executive decision: Keep the door to the coop cage open, in hope that Jill would return to Coco (yes, Chanel), but thus endangering them both if a critter were lurking at 3 a.m. looking for a main course? Or lock it, ensuring that Coco lived, even if Jill were to be devoured?  I locked it. I didn’t want to lose Coco, because last month, we almost did.

That had been around dusk, too. Melissa heard Coco screeching, followed by a loud cacophony of crow caws. She made it back to the coop, but something had taken a bite out of her butt, which was now bloodied, and she was missing all the feathers that, you know, covered her butt. The obvious conclusion: Our local crow pack (yeah, it’s called a “murder of crows”) had swooped down and saved her. The increasing literature on the intelligence of crows is hard to ignore. It’s turning out that they are not only the smartest of birds; they might be the smartest animals on earth. They have endured, after all, since the dinosaur days.

And so, happ-ending-wise, at 5:30 this morning, I was awoken by Jill clucking loudly down in the driveway. For whatever reasonm her nighttime adventure was over, and she wanted to tell us, really loudly, that she was home, and if I didn’t mind too much, I could come down and open the coop so she could get an hour of sleep or so after her night doing Ecstacy and listening to Bowie, or whatevs.

So I went down and walked up to her and scolded her. Then I reached down and picked her up (she likes that) — at which point, announcing itself with a loud, angry “caw”, a large crow flew about five feet above us. I saw the whole thing in a flash: The neighborhood crows, knowing Jill should not have been out all night, watched over her the entire night. And then, when I picked her up, one of them swooped down to make sure I wasn’t going to harm her.

Knowing now that my chickens have their own avian Guardian Angels not only brings peace of mind; it makes me wonder if compassion and empathy in the animal brain are as innate as breathing and flying. And if that’s true, how in the hell have we lost ours? Aren’t we supposed to be the smart ones?

New NEA Music Licensing Board Suspends Billy Joel

July 10th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

(WASHINGTON, July 9) — In a 4-1 decision, The National Endowment of the Arts’ newly created “music licensing board” — (NEAMLB) has named singer Billy Joel as the first popular artist to be banned from practicing his craft until, per the agency’s guidelines, “he proves that he makes music that has value to the culture,” said cellist Yo Yo Ma, Obama’s selection to be the first head of the committee, which was created by executive order on Independence Day, to little fanfare.
“Our mandate is to make sure that our nation’s music meets the minimal guidelines of musicianship. I’m afraid that for the last 37 years, Mr. Joel’s songs have been in a steady decline. To his dwindling fans who will no doubt find our ruling harsh, I can only say that, per our bylaws, should he find a way to start writing music with a modicum of depth, he will be able to re-apply for the ability to sing outside of his own home in five years.”
NEAMLB spokesman B.B. King confirmed that the next item on the five-member panel’s agenda is the permanent ban of the song “Horse With No Name,” by the band “America.”

On a Squirrel and the Freefall of Democracy

June 18th, 2014
by Peter Richmond

The first Facebook thing I saw at 7 a.m. this morning was a shared post about an intern for the Republican National Committee who, dressed as a large furry squirrel, wearing a shirt that reads, “Another Clinton in the White House in Nuts,” is stalking Ms. Clinton on her book tour. The post revealed that at one stop, she went over to the squirrel and, noting that said squirrel probably had a lot of time on its hands between book signings, handed it an autographed copy of her book. And said that it was nice that he was making people smiling since he was, you know, large furry squirrel.

Soon thereafter, the squirrel tweeted its thanks to Twitworld, accompanied by a photograph of her autograph and gracious message in the title page: “Thanks!” Squirrel squirreled. “I love to read fiction!”

I bring this up because the night before, my grad-school Education professor had asked: “Why do so many other countries value their teachers…(to be a teacher in Norway is to basically be a hero, with salary and benefits for life) while, over here, teachers are seen as The Help.”

So I slept on it…. and this morning, the squirrel gave me the answer: That in nations like Norway, the sovereign nation values itself as one people striving for a better living for all of the people who live under its flag and will do anything it can to make sure that the sovereign nation remains not only a fine place to live in, but becomes a better one — including paying higher taxes to pay teachers who then ensure that the nation continues to attain that status that any developed nation wants to attain: being a land where those in want need not worry about having to, over the horizon, want even more. Where those who need will be taken care of.

In this, Norway’s citizens — along with those of Brazil, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Portugal, Finland and Spain, to name other lands where teachers are respected — understand that the stronger the teachers, the likelier that the future of their country will be not only stable, but equitable. That those who are currently lacking essential things will not have to, in the future, worry about lacking even more essential things, as is the case in the United States of America. Or, the United States of America Individuals who have long ago decided that they are right, we are wrong, and that’s the end of the discussion.

And this is the dot that the squirrel helped me connect to the dot from the night before in class: That the citizens of the countries which value their teachers also value the name of their country as they value their own family name. That they may have a surname that connects them to a family, but whatever that family believes in, or does, or ascribes to be, it is also underscored by being a member of that nation, no matter their disagreements with whatever party currently holds political sway,

But the squirrel taught me this: that while we USA-ians are eternally waving our flag in strutty smugness,(“What’s with all the fucking flags?” was question No. 1 on another FB posting from a UK visitor a few months ago in his list of questions he wanted to ask Americans after a visit), we are not patriots; we are at war with ourselves. We are a house increasingly and fatally divided, and the chasm will soon be uncrossable.

It’s not just the partisanship of the squirrelly RNC guy who told the intern to stalk Clinton. It’s also the hundreds of my Facebook friends who regularly post slam-dunks of right wing idiocy. When this happens, neither is belonging to one nation; each speaker is speaking as a sovereign omnipotent Self.

The result? When 2,500 years after the people (okay; wealthy well-born males) of Athens could debate with significance in a courtyard, we now have social media that should allow millions, globally, to debate meaningfully? No meaningful discourse; the web is mobbed by nothing but the ranting of people opposed. Of people at war. Volleys of ideology backed by ever-increasing mob-rule hate.

In my college, we’re trying to find out whether America’s lagging students might be better served if students were encouraged to engage in collaborative dialogue, guided by an instructor who has curricular goals in mind, but knows that reaching them might be best achieved by enlisting the help of those trying to achieve them: the learners. Where the teacher cedes his role of chalk-talk lecturer locked into a fixed view of “What has to be taught” and becomes more of a traffic cop, so that the student can learn as s/he is supposed to learn the things that s/he wants to learn, so as to better the world when they graduate into…America. A country which is lagging in not only scholastic scores, but ethical ones.

Showing my partisanship here: I admire Ms. Clinton for giving the squirrel the book. I wish she hadn’t had to. I wish I could laugh at the squirrel’s response, but I can’t. War is never funny. Not only is it not humorous, the sides that are fighting it are inevitably ignoring the gravest of consequences: the correlative damage they’re leaving to a future that, at the moment, is increasingly powerless to prevent that future.