Wednesday, June 12, 2024

What If Your Parents Were Right?

 
“This is horseshit,” I said.

“Can you be more specific?," he asked.

“The vocals are auto-tuned. The backing tracks are electronic – processed loops made on someone’s laptop. God forbid they should pluck a guitar string or take a stick to a drumkit. The vocal melody gives you a sweet morsel to chew on, but then repeats it in an abusive way. As the initial sweetness dies from excessive repetition, it becomes meaningless goo. It’s like audio bubble gum; once you chew on it for a few minutes the flavor’s gone. Someone spent money to record that. Hard to believe.”

"Wow," he said. "You're serious?"

“Let's put it this way... If I ever accidentally ingest rat poison, I’ll listen to this to make me puke.”

For years, that’s how the conversation went any time someone tried to introduce me to a new pop artist. If they persisted, I would eventually threaten violence.

No, I’m just kidding. Sort of.

You know the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy?” That’s a great example. First time I heard it, it caught my ear. After about the fifth time, it started to annoy me. After about ten times – and every time since then – I want to punch him in the face.




Were there occasions in your youth that you’d be in your bedroom cranking something on the stereo loud enough that you parents could hear it down the hall? And they’d pound on your door to get you to turn it down, and then, afterward, at dinner, they’d be sure to let you know how awful that music was?

Surely, I’m not the only one?

Often, they would include something like… “music isn’t as good as it was in the old days” or “today’s music isn’t as good as it used to be.”

"Yeah, mom, yeah. Right, right. Whatever..."

But, you know what? Every time I hear a popular song now, I think, “What if your parents were right? What if music isn’t as good as it was in the old days?”

Well, as it turns out, there’s evidence.

A perceptive chap named Colin Morris published an article in which he looked at compressibility. As MP3 files are created, they’re compressed according to something called the Lempel-Ziv algorithm. That makes MP3’s smaller, and, therefore, easier to share.

Morris explains, “The Lempel-Ziv algorithm works by exploiting repeated sequences. How efficiently LZ can compress a text is directly related to the number and length of the repeated sections in that text.”

So this is a way of measuring repetition in lyrics.

He looked at the compression rate for all 15,000 of the songs that made the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017. His conclusion?

“The songs that reached the top 10 were, on average, more repetitive than the rest in every year from 1960 to 2015!”

Among the prominent recent artists in the 45-55% repetitive range - Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, and Coldplay.

Those above the 55% repetitive range include Justin Bieber, Beyonce, One Direction, Maroon 5, Demi Lovato, and Rihanna.

Please, get me an emesis basin.

Among the top ten most repetitive songs of all time, he listed K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s 1977 hit, “Keep it Comin’ Love.”



Back then, when you were shoveling blow into your nostrils and sweating all over the dance floor at Studio 54, I guess it was only the beat that mattered. Who could hear the lyrics anyway?

By the way, I’m sorry if I’ve now planted that song in your skull.

But, wait. There’s more.

Dan Kopf noted another significant change.  He writes, “Popular music is shrinking. From 2013 to 2018, the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to about 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Six percent of hit songs were 2 minutes 30 seconds or shorter in 2018, up from just 1 percent five years before.”

On the streaming music services that have become so pervasive, artists are paid according to the number of times a song is delivered to a listener via a digital “stream.” So it literally pays better if you have more shorter songs rather than fewer longer ones for your fans to stream.

But, wait. There’s more.

A study by C.N. DeWall and others, published by the American Psychological Association found that lyrics are darker and more self-focused than they used to be. Just what the goth and emo kids need…

But, wait. There’s more. And this is the clincher.

As reported in Scientific American, one study looked at the sonic characteristics of over a million songs – 464,411 of which date from 1955 to 2010. They looked specifically at three aspects; timbre, pitch and loudness.

Here’s how those were defined… Timbre is the sound color, texture, or tone quality. Pitch is the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements.  Loudness is not the listener-controlled volume, it’s the level when the audio signal is recorded and stored.

Here’s what they found: “After peaking in the 1960s, timbral variety has been in steady decline to the present day... That implies a homogenization of the overall timbral palette, which could point to less diversity in instrumentation and recording techniques. Similarly, the pitch content of music has shriveled somewhat. The basic pitch vocabulary has remained unchanged—the same notes and chords that were popular in decades past are popular today—but the syntax has become more restricted. Musicians today seem to be less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, instead following the paths well-trod by their predecessors and contemporaries. But the loudness of recorded music is increasing by about one decibel every eight years.”

There’s only one conclusion we can draw: mainstream music has been getting shittier in every conceivable way. More repetitive. More depressing. More homogenous. Less adventurous. Shorter. And louder.

Your parents were right!

So what do you do?

First of all, if your folks are still around, go to them, maybe take them out to dinner, and admit they were right. I’d suggest giving them a bit of advance notice so they don’t fall down or have a heart attack. It might make for one of those warm, fuzzy moments you’ll always remember.

After that, patronize venues that support original music, not karaoke and cover bands. Look for new artists that suit your existing tastes but also challenge you to accept different approaches. Sometimes it’s dissonant. Often they don’t follow traditional song structure.  But its ok. There’s recent music out there that has moved me just as much as anything I've heard that dates from 1955 to 2010.

But don’t listen to contemporary hit radio. Don’t watch the Grammy’s – at least until they find a way to incorporate more diversity in their telecast. Don’t let anyone shove a popular song down your throat. And if they want to know why you don’t want to listen, tell them – in the nicest way possible - it’s horseshit.

Popular Music

 Many years ago, I had a friend named "Gus."

Gus liked weird music. Some of it was good - he was the one who introduced me to Killing Joke - but some of it was unlistenable.




He was very punk in a post-punk world.

One day, I asked him, "Why do you like this crap?"

I'll never forget his answer.

"Because I know no one else will."

In his mind, the term "popular" meant "bad." Granted, Gus was a man of extremes, but he purposely sought out music that was not popular. I think the logic went something like this... Most people are stupid. So, if too many people like something, it can't be good.

I've often used a slightly less judgmental explanation with musicians who were puzzled by the success of bands they saw as "generic" or operating according to simple songwriting formulas. Creed took much of the brunt of this criticism from rock purists, along with Nickelback.

"Imagine you're a wine connoisseur," I would say. "You have a refined and highly-developed taste in wine. You're horrified by the fact that there are people out there who drink white zinfandel off the grocery store shelf when they could have a Winbirri Bacchus. But, the thing is, there's a lot more white zinfandel drinkers out there than there are connoisseurs."

I would pause a few seconds to let the analogy sink in, and then continue.

"Between them, they've sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million albums. So, Creed and Nickelback are just the white zinfandels of nu rock." (I had to be careful not to say "infidels").

Eventually, I discovered that most people thought the logic behind that explanation was sound. I also discovered that most people are incapable of arguing with you when you've used a wine drinking analogy.

My first job in radio was at a Top 40 (contemporary hits) station. Think back to the popular songs of 1994 (if you were beyond the embryonic phase of life at that point). Some were genuinely good. And some still cause me to retch at the mere thought of them. The fact that I heard each of those songs 10,000 times probably doesn't help.

But that brings us to the key question. Do you choose the music you listen to because you think it's good? Or are you listening just because everyone else seems to be?

We're certainly subject to many influences on our musical taste, especially in our developmental years. Parents, siblings, friends, and various media have a profound effect.

So, do we like some music just because other people do? The answer is... yes. Of course. But we should be careful, shouldn't we? Choosing music based on what's popular is the cultural equivalent of chasing the latest cold virus that's going around. Just because other people have it doesn't mean it's good.

At some point in my early teens, I began developing my own taste. Do you remember the old music clubs - Columbia House and BMG? I started buying albums, and reading the liner notes. I devoured artist interviews from CREEM and Rolling Stone. I made a habit of visiting the local record store.

The first two things I remember saving money for were an import copy of the Who's "Live at Leeds," and an original Capital Records release of "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys.

I explored different types of music, within certain boundaries, and occasionally ventured outside those boundaries. I don't do country music of any sort. Ever.




I'm a rock guy. Although, for me, the term "rock" covers an enormous variety of artists. From Joni Mitchell to Alice in Chains, the Animals to Tame Impala.

Led Zeppelin is the greatest hard rock band that ever was and ever will be. Although they're really good at light rock too. I've seen Sevendust live twenty times. But I love Steely Dan. I'm a huge fan of Fuel's first three albums. I also love the Fixx. I like Rage Against the Machine. And Fiona Apple. And Little Feat.

Despite numerous attempts to convince me otherwise, by people whose opinion I respect, I don't like Janis Joplin's voice. I'd rather hear the sound of kittens being thrown into a wood chipper. I like Bob Dylan's songs. I just don't want to hear him singing them. And, please, Bob, don't play the harmonica. It's not your thing.

I've never been a fan of the Velvet Underground. Or the Clash. Or the Ramones. I never liked Bruce Springsteen. Or Bob Seger. Or Black Sabbath. Or the Smashing Pumpkins. Or Radiohead. Or the White Stripes.

I'm perfectly willing to admit they're good at whatever it is they do. I just don't want to hear it.

If I'm dating myself with my lists of bands, now you know why I've undertaken this quest - to find newer music I can enjoy and appreciate.

The point is... once you've put some thought and effort into exploring and discovering what you like - once you've developed your taste - there must be certain things you don't like, right? I've met people whose taste in music is so broad and eclectic I can't even fathom. To me, it's like having no taste at all. Either you've put no thought and effort into digging beyond the generic horseshit music that is thrown at us every day in huge volumes, or you're a mindless moron.

Now I'm starting to sound like Gus...

But there's a middle ground here, isn't there? You don't have to like things just because you think no one else will, but why not take a chance and stop liking things just because everyone else does?

If you'd like a personal introduction to good music you've probably never heard before, you're welcome to come to my house one evening for a good listening session.

Be sure to stop at the grocery store on the way to pick up a bottle of white zinfandel...

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Pieces of Albert


 

Albert Gallagher and Bobby Lewis joined the recon platoon in the boonies on the same day. As replacements, they would be viewed as outsiders until they proved themselves. They were aware of this. They may have even given some thought to the fact that FNG’s (fucking new guys) wouldn’t be necessary unless the old guys had been killed or wounded. An optimist might have concluded they had served out their enlistment and survived to be sent home.

 

But there wasn’t much use for optimism in the jungles of Vietnam.

 

Albert and Bobby met in a sandbagged tent at a forward fire base the day before a helicopter dropped them into the midst of their new outfit. Overwhelmed, disoriented, and apprehensive, they soon became the most unlikely of friends, no doubt, in part, because of their shared FNG status.

 

Albert was from Connecticut. He’d been a high school nerd, complete with pocket protector and slide rule. His notable activities mostly included calculus or chemistry, and, therefore, involved none of the popular kids. His father made just enough money to disqualify Albert from Federal grant programs, but not enough to pay for the college he hoped to attend. One day, after arriving home from his job as a cashier at the local grocery store, his mother handed him the letter from the draft board. Her eyes were red and teary.

 

Every afternoon until he left, she would pace in the kitchen wringing her hands and then sit down to dinner barely able to hold a knife and fork because of her aching knuckles.

 

During basic training Albert was bullied, at first. But he discovered that the stubborn streak that drove him to spend hours solving mathematical and chemical equations also drove him to conquer obstacle courses and other advanced infantry training problems, once he’d added a little muscle.

 

In the army, he continued to wear thick corrective lenses in the black, plastic regulation frames. He soon discovered that spitting on them helped to keep them from fogging up in the heat and humidity of the dense jungle.

 

Bobby was from Alabama. He was a linebacker and co-captain on his high school football team, second baseman on the baseball squad. His academic pursuits mostly involved desperate measures to stay eligible for sports. He had begun working on the family farm as soon as he was old enough to be helpful. He had built his strength plowing fields, harvesting vegetables, wrangling animals, and tossing bales of hay around like pillows. He had also built his strength defending himself from his three older brothers.

 

He had enlisted because he thought it was the patriotic thing to do, something his parents would expect of him. When his father heard the news, he gave him an attaboy, clapped him on the back and walked away. His mother pretended nothing had happened. He took a cab to the train station the day he departed. After boarding, he sat and stared out the filthy window at other people’s families bidding goodbye to their sons. Bobby left behind a sweetheart who appeared to miss him, and even wrote him letters for a while.

 

Albert had never had a girlfriend.

 

The first night spent in a foxhole was the worst in both of their lives to that point. Bobby, accustomed to bluster and aggressiveness, could do nothing but stay quiet and try to stem the torrent of sweat dripping down on his face. Albert, who preferred to be controlled and analytical, was paralyzed with fear. Every shadow looked like a Viet Cong guerilla creeping up on them. Any leaves that fluttered in a rare, scorching breeze looked like a whole squad.

 

It never got better. But they got used to it.

 

The men of an infantry platoon form close bonds out of necessity, each one fighting for the man next to them, each one expecting to be fought for. This was especially true in recon outfits who were often far from support units or reinforcements. As Albert and Bobby gained combat experience, their sergeant and their platoon leader lieutenant assigned them joint tasks by default. They worked well together.

 

A patrol had to ease its way along narrow jungle trails in single file, spaced nine meters apart for safety. Someone had to guard the tail end of the line. He was the drag. Someone had to lead the front. That first man in the column was known as the point. Right behind him was the slack man, or slack. These were the most vulnerable spots if the unit stumbled into an ambush or failed to detect a booby trap. While it was customary for the men to take turns up front, Lieutenant King wanted Albert and Bobby on point and slack as often as possible.  

 

Albert was methodical and precise. He had the patience necessary to move with stealth and caution, eyes scanning the trail beneath his feet for trip wires and mines while still looking ahead for signs of enemy movement. He communicated using hand signals. He stopped frequently, to take deep breaths, to relieve the tension.

 

To spit on his glasses.

 

Bobby always carried extra ammo and grenades despite the strain of the added weight.  When they spotted the enemy in close proximity, he unleashed a destructive torrent, spraying an entire clip from his M-16 on full auto and then pitching grenades in a matter of seconds. While that was happening, Albert dove for the nearest cover and watched for any return fire while Bobby reloaded, and the rest of the platoon got into position.

 

They became the eyes and ears of the platoon. They were each other's eyes and ears as well. Their effectiveness added to the success of the platoon’s reconnaissance missions. But when success is measured not in terms of territory controlled but in terms of enemy killed, every patrol added to their enormous emotional strain.

 

A reconnaissance force was, by design, lightly armed, sacrificing strength for mobility. In the event of contact with a large enemy force, they would radio for help from artillery or close air support. The effect of these strikes on any NVA left exposed was catastrophic. Afterward, the platoon would ease forward to measure its victory in blood, pulling human remains from holes or tunnel entrances that hadn’t offered quite enough protection. This became normal, assembling corpses like gory puzzles so they could be added to the all-important body count.

 

            It was unusual for the same men to be on point and slack so often. But Bobby and Albert were good at it. They trusted each other. The rest of the platoon trusted them and were happy to avoid point and slack duty themselves. But they wore down, physically and mentally. Their energy drained. Their senses dulled.

 

One day, on a long patrol in the boonies, Albert stopped. He held up his hand to halt the men behind him. He stood still to listen for signs of the enemy and heard none. He took a deep breath, and then another. He pulled the glasses off his face to spit on the lenses and wipe them clean. He dropped one knee to the ground for a quick rest.

 

The concussion hit Bobby with the force of a car crash. He was blown backward by the explosion, landing at the feet of the man who had been standing nine meters behind him. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. Everything hurt.

 

The medic ran forward and stooped to pour water from his canteen over Bobby’s face. The blast had filled his eyes with dirt and debris and burst his eardrums. Blood ran from both ears down the sides of his neck.

 

Albert had kneeled on a booby trap, an artillery shell buried upright in the middle of the trail with a contact fuse so it would detonate when enough pressure was applied. His body had absorbed most of the blast. When Bobby was able to sit up, he looked around the place where his friend had been and saw what was left. Ragged bits of burned flesh, bloody shreds of olive drab fatigues, broken white twigs that might have been bones.

 

Bobby couldn’t hear the radio operator making the call for the medevac. And he couldn’t hear the sound of his own screaming, but he could feel the vibrations in his head. There were no wounds from the blast itself, except the eardrums. In one sense, he’d been lucky. But the volume and frequency of his screams grew until the medic popped a morphine syrette into his leg out of desperation.

 

When the chopper arrived, four men grabbed Bobby and ducked under the downwash from the massive rotors to slide him on to the floor past the door gunner.

 

There was not enough left of Albert to grab.

 

Bobby was dropped at the evac hospital, but they could do nothing for him. He was conscious but not coherent. They sent him on the main support hospital in Danang, then on to the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.

 

Unless he was heavily medicated, he was in a constant state of agitation. During the day, he would fidget in anger and despair, unable to focus or function. At night, sleep escaped him. He could be drugged into a coma that resembled slumber and it was possible that it was sometimes restful, but they couldn't be sure. Whenever they tried to let him drift off naturally, he would wake up screaming.

 

Every time.

 

And these were no normal nightmare reactions. He would kick and writhe in his bed and pull at the restraints that held him with a fierceness fed by some unseen fury.

 

But he never spoke a word. He never looked anyone in the eye. For months. And months. 

 

The army doctors wouldn't allow his parents to visit. They couldn't be sure how - or if - Bobby would respond.


The doctors began experimenting, constantly tweaking and titrating the chemical cocktail in his bloodstream. It was their hope that he could one day return to something resembling functionality.

 

After weeks of hopeless experimentation, weaning and adding, compounding and simplifying, liquefying and solidifying, they decided they were on the verge of a breakthrough. Someone thought there was an occasional twinkle in Bobby's eye. It sometimes appeared that he would glance to the left or right rather than staring vacantly ahead. So, they thought it was time to see if they could determine what it was that churned in his mind and denied his inner peace.

 

What was it, they wanted to know? Where was his mind during all the time he sat in a state of catatonia?

 

His eyelids lifted giving the appearance of awareness. His eyes shifted as if he were in thought. His face showed flashes of emotion no one there had ever seen; horror, anger, and then sadness. Desperate sadness.

 

This was encouraging, they thought. So, they prompted him. They prodded him. How could they help him? What image was so vivid in his mind when he tried to sleep?

 

He turned his gaze forward into the empty distance, the dim light left his eyes, his head tilted forward, and he said, “Pieces of Albert.”

 

Eventually, one of the men carrying a clipboard decided this was a sign of progress. Perhaps they were close to a chemical balance that would revive Bobby and maybe restore some sense of normalcy. Bobby was given stimulants during the day in the hope it would stir him into some mental or physical activity. But he continued to sit motionless in his chair. He would be loaded with intravenous liquids at bedtime and the nights would pass in calm silence.

 

No one stopped to consider what this metabolic roller coaster ride might do to him. They merely hoped he might emerge into a moment of sensibility and utter a few more words. This would be considered success. Then the clipboard carriers would take copious notes and perhaps even publish a journal article and earn praise from their peers.

 

As months passed, he did make progress. He still didn’t speak, but he could swing himself sideways out of bed, stand on his own, and place himself in the wheelchair they used to roll him into the day lounge where he could stare at the TV, or at anything else they placed him in front of. A few times a week, an assistant would roll him outside for a trip around the grounds of the institution. They felt Bobby behaved differently while being pushed around in the fresh air of the gardens – more engaged, more alert. And it was ordered that these outings should occur daily, the assistants smiling and chatting to him cheerfully, mindlessly.

 

Bobby, terrified, gripping the armrests, looking for trip wires.

 

As they made their rounds and talked to Bobby, the white-coated clipboard carriers would smile and scribble. The slightest movement of his head or the twitch of a finger was cause for celebration. To encourage his remarkable recovery, he was given more privileges. An occupational therapist would spend time trying to get him to feed himself. One day, after months with no apparent nightmares, no heaving, screaming fits, they decided he could now be left unrestrained at night.

 

This was a special night. The assistants were almost as pleased as the doctors to see Bobby making progress. To ensure a comfortable night’s sleep, they had Bobby sit in his wheelchair while they changed the bed. They found a complete set of linens with no holes or other evidence of wear; one of the nicer, blue blankets in the fresh laundry bin, a new pillowcase, a fitted sheet and a flat sheet. Pleased with themselves, they helped Bobby into bed, tucked him in, turned out the light and tip-toed down the hall.

 

And it was with that clean, white sheet that Bobby made a noose.

 

 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The Writer

Sat down to write
Nothing in particular
Thought I might have been moved

Involved, in a moment
Inspired, I felt
Genius at my fingertips
Ideas beyond description

And so it was
Or so I thought
Or so I wanted to think

But concepts lost meaning
While thoughts stood still
Ideas faded to nothing
Description beyond words

It is there, I thought
Felt the pounding of my heart
But my mind whispered, no
No, it’s not

And the paper was blank.

Sat down to write
With reason to believe
That I might be moved

Revelation, I wanted
Insight, I hoped
Still searching within
For substance that matters

And so it became
That I tried again
That I wanted to try

But the substance lost its form
While it sank from sight
Revealing nothing
Matter without substance

It is mine, if I want it
Felt the pounding of my heart
But my mind whispered, no
No, it’s not

And then my mind was empty

Sat down to write
For no reason at all
Except for you, I knew

Remembering, tears on my face
Lonely, warmth that I missed
When I see you
You are by my side

And so I gave
My heart if you let me
My life if you let me

But the memories I fear
Cold as they pass
Like a breath from the dying
I am by myself

It is yours, if you take it
Felt the doubt in my heart
And my love whispered, no
No, it’s not

And my heart was broken

Do you remember me?
I said to myself
Crying over nothing
And everything is nothing

Quiet, I said
When there was no noise
But the pounding of my heart

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Birthday Condolences

 I had a birthday not too long ago. Yes, yes, thanks. But, save the hoopla. Early in life, birthdays are cause for celebration, but, once you get to a certain age, observing birthdays becomes an exercise in masochism.

Just what I need. Spend some extra time thinking about the fact that my body and mind are rotting faster than a vegan compost pile. Thanks universe. Thanks for the reminder.

At least it only comes once every twelve months. Oh… to be born on a leap year...

For years, people told me… with old age comes wisdom.  And I have learned some things.

I have learned that, as you age, the simplest tasks become difficult, and the difficult ones become… an endeavor. For a while, my neighbors in the condo next door eyed me with admiration, thinking I had an active morning sex life… without realizing the grunting they heard was just me trying to put on my socks.

I have learned there is a significant risk that merely sleeping with your neck in an awkward position no longer just leaves you with minor temporary stiffness, it feels like someone has hacked you with a machete above your shoulder blade.

That is… if you manage to sleep at all.

I have learned that you can grievously injure yourself just by leaning into the trunk of your car or stepping off a curb.

I have learned that stretching to reach for a can of tomato sauce on the top shelf of the pantry can result in three days of bed rest and two weeks of physical therapy.

I have learned other things about my body as well.  At some point, the substance in my toenails evolved to the point that it now seems as if they’re made of concrete. I used to use nail clippers. I now use a jackhammer.

And I‘m certain I could dramatically impact agricultural productivity worldwide if they could just figure out what makes my fucking nose hairs grow.

I have learned that it eventually becomes necessary to abandon the typical male philosophy of healthcare, which is that there are very few problems that can’t be solved by just ignoring them. (It’s the typical male philosophy of life, really.) At some point, medical intervention is required.

Which means I have learned that today’s general practitioners don’t know shit. If there are any of you in the audience, now might be a good time to go outside. Nobody in our healthcare system really looks after your entire being any more. There are specialists to take care of all the individual body parts and systems, which might work if you were a creation of Frankenstein.  

“Well, you need a new one of these. Come back tomorrow after we dig one up.”

When my doctor tells me to watch my diet, I say, “There isn’t much left to change. For me, the four food groups are fiber supplements, oatmeal, blood pressure medications, and red wine."

The last time at my GP’s office, after the obligatory 47 seconds with the doctor, the nurse came back in pointing at a piece of paper and said, “This lab value here is a bit off. So, we’re ordering an MRI, a CT Scan with contrast and a colonoscopy because… that’s what our protocols say we should do.”

Then with a slight pause to look me directly in the face, she flashed a sly, sadistic grin and said, “Also, we like to see the look on the patient’s face when we tell them."

I could imagine them gathering at the end of the hall after I left and giggling about the various expressions they had witnessed. 

“Oh my god, lol. You should have seen his face when I mentioned the voiding cysto-urethrogram.”

On my way out, I looked at the receptionist and said, “What does this doctor actually do? What  are you good at?”

She said, “Oh, we’re excellent at billing. Everything’s electronic now. Your insurance company will have an invoice before you even leave the building."

I have learned I don’t like doctors…

I’m kidding, of course. But it is a cruel irony that they become more necessary as you get older. Why can’t it be the other way around? Why can’t we have lots of doctors when we’re infants and toddlers, and then after that they just send you on your merry way?

I’m not sure old age brings wisdom, but maybe it brings perseverance. The way things are now, I think If I make it to tomorrow, I’ve won. I try to be pleasantly surprised every morning when I wake up. The English have a saying… Keep buggering on.

I’m trying to not to take it all so seriously. I’m realizing there’s no need to find meaning in every moment. First of all, it’s just not possible. And, when I’m gone, none of it will matter anyway.

None of it.

So, there’s no need to wish me Happy Birthday. It’s ok if you pat me gently on the shoulder and say, “I understand it’s your birthday. My condolences.”

At this point, I’m not celebrating another year. I’m celebrating another day. I’m just going to keep buggering on.

And maybe I’ll consider storing the tomato sauce on a lower shelf.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Back Again

     Danny Petrowski didn’t cry anymore. He had fallen beyond depression, and into something deeper and darker. He had failed with friendships, failed at work, failed at life. Somehow, he still had a relationship with his girlfriend, Diana, but that was failing too.

 

The one thing he could do was sleep. In his dreams, he escaped. In his dreams, he was all of the things he wasn’t when he was awake. He was smart. He was successful. He was courageous. He was… happy.

 

He never had bad dreams. Well, not bad dreams about his life. He was always somewhere else. He liked history, and had read hundreds of books about the Second World War. Once, he dreamed he was on an island somewhere in the Pacific. A banzai charge had broken through, but he had refused to give ground.  He was fighting alone from a foxhole, and he woke just after he had run out of ammunition… just before a Japanese officer skewered him with a samurai sword.

 

He might have died once in his dreams, but he wasn’t sure. They say that shouldn’t happen. Dying in your dreams. Not if you’re normal. 

 

In his dreams he had bulled his way up the bluffs of Omaha Beach, and manned an anti-tank gun against German armor attacks during the Battle of the Bulge. In his dreams he had stomped ashore with General MacArthur upon his return to the Philippines. He was there when the Marines raised the flag on Iwo Jima.

 

“Danny? Danny… We’re out of milk. Can you run to the store?”

 

Diana was in the kitchen. Every day, after work, she made dinner, and the two of them would sit on the couch, pushing piles of food around their plates, waiting for whatever it was that came on the TV.

 

He knew she didn’t love him anymore.  Well… she wasn’t in love with him anymore. She still cared for him, he was pretty sure. She fed him and let him live with her out of loyalty. Or maybe it was just out of habit. He didn’t make things any easier. When he was awake, Danny wasn’t really interested in anything. Including Diana.

 

“Sure. I’ll go, sweetheart. Where’s the keys?”

 

As he idled at a red light, he looked to his right and saw movement reflected on the front passenger window. Some odd combination of colors and shadows created a series of images. Like a movie projected on a transparent screen.

 

It was an action sequence from the point of view of an Oerlikon gunner. And, somehow, he was in his own hallucination. He was the gunner. He could feel his torso pushing against the shoulder supports, and the waist belt wrapped around him, holding him in place. He sensed his adrenaline surging. He could feel the rhythmic pounding as the rapid-fire cannon recoiled against his body. The noise was unbelievable. Overwhelming. He could barely think. And then there was shouting. Someone was shouting.

 

“Wake up, moron.”

 

A reminder from the driver behind him that the light had turned green.

 

When he got home, he told Diana what had happened.

 

“I’ve seen it before,” he said. “In my dreams. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, actually. But not like that. Not so… real.”

 

She never expressed any doubt that he had seen… something, she just said, “Maybe you should stop reading all those books. Try reading some want ads. You know, for people who want a job?”

 

After dinner, he did some reading about Oerlikons, the 20 millimeter cannons originally produced by a Swiss company of the same name. During World War II, they became a standard part of the anti-aircraft defenses aboard U.S. Navy vessels. Usually, they were on a rotating mount atop a fixed pedestal. And they had a flat armored shield meant to protect the gunner.

 

At first, these weapons seemed ideal. They had a high rate of fire, and could swivel and elevate quickly. Heavier guns had difficulty tracking speedy fighters and torpedo planes. When the decision was made to rely on these guns, nobody anticipated the tactic the Japanese would use with such great effect in the latter stages of the war – the kamikaze.

 

That night, the scene returned in Danny’s dreams. Longer, and more vivid. He felt himself in the gunner position. He could see everything as it happened. He was on a catwalk just below the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Part of an eight-gun battery of Oerlikons. He slipped when he tried to follow the path of a Japanese plane diving toward the ship, but the waist belt kept him from falling. As he steadied his footing, he squeezed the firing lever and felt the gun kick. He turned to continue tracking the plane and felt something hit his shoulder.

 

“Danny. Danny. Jesus Christ.” Diana was shaking him. “How can I sleep with you rolling around like that?”

 

“Oh… Sorry." It took a few seconds to realize where he was. “I was back there again. The thing I saw earlier tonight. I was there. It was intense.”

 

“Well, I have to get up early for work. Try dreaming about something peaceful, okay?”

 

The next night, he was back again. Almost as soon as he closed his eyes. Noise... So loud he could feel it. The sound of gunfire and explosions all around him. The sound of screaming motors as enemy planes flashed in front of him or streaked overhead. The sound of men shouting. And smells… The smell of the ocean a hundred feet below. The smell of burnt cordite as dozens of guns fired at targets in the sky, and the targets fired back. The smell of engine exhaust and burning wood from the smashed carrier deck behind him.

 

He looked down to see the name above his shirt pocket.

 

Bickle.

 

 And he saw the name of the ship stenciled on the orange life vest he was wearing.

 

U.S.S. Bunker Hill.

 

He was Bickle. He looked around. No one else was standing. As he turned to track an enemy plane, he slipped. The same scene, repeated. Only this time, he realized why. Blood. He looked down. There was blood everywhere. And bodies. Bloody heaps scattered along the catwalk. Some of them still. Some of them shouting in fear and agony.

 

This time, he woke up on his own. But Diana was laying on her side, looking at him more out of concern than anger.

 

“Again?”

 

“Oh God. Diana… I’ve read about this stuff. All this World War Two stuff. But it’s worse than you can imagine. Muchworse.”

 

“These dreams,” she said. “What’s the deal? Why do they keep coming back?”

 

“I don’t know.” He was confused, still a little bleary-eyed. “I’m sorry. Get some sleep. I’ll go out into the living room.”

 

He sat at the computer and started searching. It didn’t take long to find information. Lots of it. He stayed up all night reading.

 

In the morning, as Diana was leaving for work, she said, “You’re freaking me out with this thing. It’s not normal.”

 

“Diana, I found out about this guy. The guy in my dreams. His name is Bickle. I mean… It was Bickle. Walter Bickle. He was on the Bunker Hill, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He was a hero. He won the Medal of Honor.”

 

“You can tell me when I get home,” she said. “Try to do something useful today. Why not go for a walk, get some exercise? Maybe that will help you sleep. And help me sleep.”

 

“I’ll try,” he said as she left, knowing he wouldn’t.

 

He read everything he could find online about the Bunker Hill. And about Bickle. The Bunker Hill had 32 Oerlikons divided among four separate catwalks, one on each side of the bow, one on each side of the stern. Each gun was served by several men: the gunner, spotters, ammunition runners. They went through thousands of rounds of ammo when under attack. He found pictures of the ship, and descriptions of desperate battles. As the war went on, the 40 millimeter Bofors anti-aircraft gun gained favor over the Oerlikon, which, despite its high rate of fire, didn’t have the stopping power to deter a Japanese plane on a suicide mission.

 

When Diana came home, Danny couldn’t stop talking about it.

 

“This guy Bickle was amazing, Diana. The ship was under heavy attack off of Okinawa. May 11, 1945. Bickle stayed at his post and manned his gun pretty much alone as planes buzzed all around.”

 

“Uh huh,” Diana humored him as she heated some leftover meatloaf and macaroni and cheese.

 

“Two kamikazes dropped bombs onto the deck and then crashed into it within 30 seconds. Everyone around Bickle was killed or injured, but he stood and blazed away at another incoming plane. Diana, he just… stood there. Firing. With this plane diving right at him. And it finally exploded. The debris that rained down and hit the ship wasn’t enough to do much damage. But it killed Bickle.”

 

“Mmhmm. You want ketchup?”

 

“He saved the ship from a third direct hit. There were more than 600 casualties, Diana. It was… It’s awful.”

 

“It sounds awful, Danny. Let’s not talk about it while we eat, okay?”

 

Later, as she flicked the buttons on the remote and scanned the channels looking for something worth watching, he tried to tell her what it felt like.

 

“I’m me, but I become him. It’s hard to explain. I’m aware that I’m me, okay. I mean, I know I was me, but I become him. It’s like we trade places. Do you understand?”

 

“No. Not really.”

 

Danny drew a deep breath as he searched for the right words.

 

“I can see from his point of view. We’re… Like we’re soulmates, but on a molecular level. I don’t know… There’s, like, a mail slot in time where I can slip through and become him for a while.”

 

“Does he become you?”

 

It was an absent-minded question. She was only half listening. But it took Danny by surprise.

 

“I… I don’t know. I never thought about it.”

 

“What would happen if you stayed in the dream until he died?”

 

Danny thought for a minute.

 

“I don’t know that either.”

 

It was a smart question. That was one of the things he liked about Diana. She was sharp. She understood things. Even when she was barely paying attention.

 

That night, and every night for the next few weeks, Danny went back again. Each time, he stayed longer. He re-lived it over and over. He learned to control the points at which he entered the dream and left. He always stopped as the last plane turned toward him.

 

He, or Walter, was the only uninjured man on the catwalk after the first kamikaze succeeded in dropping its bomb and then crashing on the deck. After the initial shock, he shuffled along the catwalk, dragging heavy ammunition canisters to his gun, stumbling over the dead and injured, slipping in puddles of blood. Then the second kamikaze hit. He felt noise and heat. Concussion from the explosion knocked him down. The chaos was so overwhelming he couldn’t even process it.  Surrounded by piles of ammunition, he strapped himself back into his gun and started firing.

 

Diana was touching him. “I have to get up for work, Danny. Want to take a shower?”

 

She hadn’t asked him that in months. A shower usually meant­­­­ she had gotten up a little early and they would end up fooling around. He had noticed that Diana’s behavior had changed. She touched him more. The tone of her voice was softer. She smiled at him.

 

Danny wasn’t sure how to answer. “Not today, sweetheart. I’m still a little tired.”

 

“Suit yourself,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow. I’ll set the alarm a little earlier.”

 

She was teasing him. Having fun. She stepped into the bathroom, and then stuck her head out the door to speak.

 

“I don’t know what’s happened, but this dream thing seems to be waking up the old you. I missed you. The real you. Just touching me when you roll over in your sleep. Kissing my ear sometimes.”

 

She smiled and disappeared. He heard her turn on the water and step into the shower. Danny was confused. He had no idea what she was talking about. That night, after dinner, she snuggled next to him on the couch in front of the TV, and put her head on his shoulder.

 

Soon after Danny went in the bedroom to lay down, he was floating in the central Pacific off the coast of Okinawa. Japanese Zeroes were zooming across the sky like giant killer bees. He stayed in the dream through the two kamikaze strikes, and right up until the moment when the third plane was heading straight toward him. Then he woke himself up.

 

Diana was lying next to him. Looking at him.  “Danny, you haven’t made love to me like that in a while. It was so nice.”

 

“What are you talking about?” he asked. “I don’t remember anything.”

 

“Oh, Danny. Don’t be silly.”

 

She laughed as she went to the bathroom to wash. But the look on his face had surprised her. She was pretty sure he didn’tremember anything. All day at work she thought about that conversation and about the one they had when the dream first started taking over.

 

That next night, in bed, after Danny had kissed and caressed her, and rolled on top of her, she put her hands on his shoulders, and asked, “Walter, is that you?”

 

He froze for a moment, then said, “Yes.”

 

He pulled back and began to move away.

 

“No,” she said. “I don’t want you to stop. I just want to know.”

 

When she went to the kitchen to get a glass of water, she asked him about that day… his last day.

 

“That third Zero,” he said. “The pilot must have seen there was nobody left on those guns. He thought it was a weak spot. I wasn’t trying to be a hero. But I knew as soon as he turned toward me I was a dead man. All I could do was keep firing and hope I could save some of my shipmates. I just aimed at the propeller, pulled the firing lever and closed my eyes.”

 

As he spoke, he looked out the bedroom door at Diana, standing naked at the sink, listening.

 

“And I’m thinking ‘Why me? Why me? I don’t wanna die.’ I screamed and I cried so hard I thought my head would explode.  And then there were these pictures in my head, like a movie. I just kept my eyes closed. I could see my father and mother standing on the porch back home, holding hands and smiling. And then I saw something I had seen so many times…  A woman standing in front of the kitchen sink with her head turned to look at me. There was such love in her eyes. She was beautiful.”

 

He tilted his head back on the pillow, took a deep breath and exhaled before he continued.

 

“It was you. It is you. It must have been something Danny saw at some point. I had seen it often when I was below deck at night, trying to sleep in that hot, noisy ship. It just came to me. A few times, at first. Then… every night.”

 

He looked at her again. Standing at the kitchen sink. Her face. Her eyes.

 

“This is it,” he said. “You. Here. This is what kept me alive. Even when I died.”

 

He closed his eyes for a moment, coughed and shook as if a sudden chill had come over him. When he opened his eyes again, he was annoyed.

 

“Diana, what the hell are you doing up in the middle of the night? Turn off that light, will ya?”

 

“Danny?”

 

“Of course it’s me, who else….?”

 

He saw that she was crying.

 

“Walter’s been here...” It wasn’t really a question, but it seemed like one.

 

“Yes,” said Diana. “I mean, it’s your body. It’s you. But… It’s Walter.”

 

She put her hands on the sides of her head and squeezed, trying to contain everything she was thinking.

 

Through her sobs, she said, “This is so confusing.”

 

“Really?” he said. “I don’t think so. Now it all makes sense.”

 

For two days, Danny didn’t eat or sleep. Walter couldn’t visit if he stayed awake. He spent lots of time thinking, pacing in the living room or outside on the sidewalk. Then, on Saturday, he walked into the kitchen as Diana was figuring out what to make for dinner.

 

“Let’s get some steaks, Diana. Some nice filets. And asparagus. And red wine.”

 

Diana was surprised. “Are we celebrating something?”

 

“Not really, “he said. “I just thought it would be a nice treat. How about baked potatoes? Can we do baked potatoes?”

 

“Sure.”

 

He made a quick trip to the grocery store to buy everything they needed. He even bought two candles for the dinner table. A nice touch, he thought.

 

When Diana had put the potatoes in the oven, Danny said, “I’ve been thinking. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. But am I the best thing that ever happened to you?”

 

“What are you talking about, Danny? How can I answer that?”

 

“I think you just did. And now Walter is everything I used to be, right?”

 

“It’s not that simple,” she said. “You… You’ve changed.”

 

“I know,” he said. “I just… I always wanted to dosomething. Something that made a difference. And I could never figure out what that was.”

 

“You will,” she said.

 

“Yes. I will.”

 

He smiled, but it was a strange smile.

 

Danny unscrewed the cork on the wine, poured a bit into a glass and took a sip.

 

“Mmm. This is good.”

 

He poured two fresh glasses and put them on the dinner table.

 

“You don’t get too many chances to be a hero, you know? I mean… How often does that opportunity come along?”

 

Diana was puzzled, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

 

Danny grabbed a lighter and went out to the patio to light the grill. When he came back in, he lit the candles on the dinner table.

 

“Would you mind doing the steaks, sweetheart? I like the way you cook them. I’m gonna lay down for a few minutes before we eat.”

 

“Okay, Danny.”

 

Diana grabbed the plate and the big cooking fork and walked out the sliding glass door to put the steaks on the grill Then she came back in to start the asparagus.

 

She stood in front of the kitchen sink.

 

Danny went into the bedroom to lay down. He was exhausted. He closed his eyes and was asleep in no time. In his dreams, Danny was back again. At the gun. The last Zero banked and turned toward him. Danny aimed at the propeller, pulled the firing lever and closed his eyes.  He was screaming and crying. Even through all the noise, he could hear the plane get closer and closer. And then there were pictures in his head, like a movie. He could see his father and mother standing on the porch back home, holding hands and smiling. He saw a woman standing in the kitchen looking at him.

 

There was a loud noise and light and heat.

 

And then the movie stopped.

 

The man in the bed woke up screaming. He was crying and breathing so hard his chest hurt, his heart pounding like a sledgehammer. It took him a few seconds to realize where he was. He sat up and looked out the bedroom door at Diana standing frozen in the kitchen.

 

“Danny?” Diana whispered. “Is that you?”

 

“No, sweetheart. It’s Walter.”

 

 

A battery of Oerlikon 20 mm cannons on the USS Hornet
(Photo via Wikipedia)