Archive for the Homage to Blackie Sherrod Category

The Persistence of Memory

Posted in Homage to Blackie Sherrod on September 11, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

“Yeah, I, I know, it’s hard to remember

The people we used to be…” (Maroon 5)

Eleven years ago, I was driving to work (in a purple minivan, of all things), listening to what used to be the normal sports talk fare here — the Rangers were on their way to another pathetic finish, and the Cowboys had not yet entered their December swoon yet (It’s hard to convince anyone under the age of 8 that the Rangers don’t always go to the World Series). Suddenly, one of the hosts broke in with a shocked “Did you see that? Whoa!” They had a television running in the studio, and that was when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a few minutes before 8:00 our time.

And then everything just stopped. I finished driving to work, but the people I work with were crowded around televisions. At the high school where I taught, we followed the story. The towers fell; the Pentagon was hit; the heroism of Todd Beamer and those with him brought the last plane down in a Pennsylvania field.

The President was dragged from reading a children’s book to an elementary class onto Air Force One to await further developments in the air. My dad was in California on business, but it took several hours to find out that everything was OK out there. It might seem silly now, worrying about someone across the nation from the disaster, but we just didn’t know. We expected catastrophe to strike in every city.

Slowly, of course, the country woke up, limb by limb. Just like the cloud of dust that seemed like it would never clear away from the area around the crash site, though, we were all covered with a sense of fear — and a sense of togetherness. There was a sense that we had been harmed deeply; there was also a sense that we would recover, and emerge stronger as a result.

Twelve days later, on September 23, I went to a Rangers game on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. People were smiling rather than laughing, but people seemed to be glad to be out, enjoying themselves. The sunlight that bathed us that afternoon brought us a sense that the shadows of the Twin Towers were not to last forever. When I walked up to the turnstiles, the national anthem began inside the stadium, and the ticket takers turned away from us, took off their hats, and faced where the flag was flying. Everyone quieted, and the voice of the young woman singing inside echoed way out onto Ballpark Way. Slowly, the voices of the audience swelled around hers. When the anthem was over, the applause was long and loud. Alex Rodriguez would break the single-season record for home runs by a shortstop that day, but we barely noticed, because we were so glad to be back to our semi-normal sort of lives.

Baseball would keep pushing us out of the depression into which Osama bin Laden and his crew had tried to bury us. President Bush (“W”) had not yet dragged us into the quagmire of Iraq, and so when he strode out to the pitcher’s mound to throw out a pitch at Yankee Stadium during that World Series, with snipers bristling in every concourse, expecting the worst, the eyes of the world were on him. When he reared back and threw a perfect strike, a sense came through the television that, somehow, everything would be all right.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The long search for a really tall terrorist leader hooked to a dialysis machine in the mountains of South Asia. The war that shredded much of America’s credibility. It took a while, but we forgot that it is hope and optimism that make our country a place like no other. It took strong faith to come across the Atlantic Ocean and settle a new land. It has taken even stronger courage for us to, slowly, undo the bonds of hate and prejudice that used to mark the way that we treated one another in decades and centuries past.

But our national attention span has moved on. While servicemen and servicewomen continue to toil in Afghanistan, we worry more about scandals. While we sit, rapt with attention, focused on the problems of the Real Housewives of Wherever or the patchwork offensive line of our favorite NFL team, our nation moves closer and closer to oblivion.

And so, if you really want to honor the memory of those thousands who died on September 11, 2001, if you really want to remember the brave deeds of those who saved the lives of others, then take the occasion of the day to make your own community a better place. Speak kindly to those around you; see if you can’t spread that same magic friendship that hovered over all of us when we had a shared tragedy.

But more importantly, do something to express your feelings about where our country is going. We don’t have to swirl around the Medicare/Social Security drain forever. We don’t have to twiddle our thumbs while the nation’s educational system teeters on the edge of collapse. We don’t have to spend another night watching television while too many of our fellow citizens scramble around for a place to live.

You don’t have to wrestle a strange man who is holding a box cutter to be a hero. Find your own path to greatness, and take your first steps on September 11, 2012.

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Love Lifted Me…but not Jack Black

Posted in Homage to Blackie Sherrod on May 28, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

If you go north out of Dallas on U.S. 75, or east on Interstate 20 or 30, or even south on Interstate 45, it does not take much for you to notice the scenery changing. In Dallas, only the established wealthy and the poor have large trees in their yards; everywhere else, the subdivisions were put in by leveling the trees first. As you travel from the city, though, you’ll notice the world turning greener, with an increasing number of pine trees. If you roll down the windows, you’ll pick up that scent that trees and grass give off after a warm rain, unless it’s the wintertime. Your allergies might start bothering you, but somewhere down in your bones you will realize, even if only subconsciously, that you are not far from barbecue, from corn on the cob, from a steamy pie with a side of hand-cranked ice cream. You’ll be tempted to stop for a while.

If you do pull off the road and spend some time in an East Texas town, you’ll see that this is not like any other part of the state. Some call this the place in Texas where the Old South begins, and while Louisianans are quite different from East Texans in many ways, with the magic of Cajun and creole, the similarities do pick up again in Tennessee and Arkansas. West of I-45 and U.S. 75, things are different. There are the granola culture in Austin, the desert moonscape of the Rio Grande Valley and southwest Texas, and the culture of Dallas, a place so artificial in so many ways that nature has even responded, giving us the humidity that befits a harbor, even though the sea is 300 miles away.

But in East Texas, you’ll see a region that has coalesced into small towns that are fiercely loyal to their own, that mistrust the outsider and despise the snob. Everyone in your town will know your business, which can be a good thing when you need help, but can be a bad thing when your life turns upside down, because everywhere you go, people know about it. This is not an area in which homeowner’s associations and zoning laws do well, because of the individualism that runs like a high-voltage power line through the area — at least as far as personal rights go.

The church is the hub of the community in East Texas, in ways that larger cities have lost. In other parts of the world, there are synagogues and mosques and churches that have services in multiple languages — but not in East Texas. In larger cities, more and more people are staying away from church, and megachurches and emergent churches and coffeehouse churches are trying to find them and bring them back in, but that movement has not made into the Piney Woods yet. Yes, the church is a place of worship, but it’s also a place to maintain your friends, to hear the latest news, to see and be seen.

When I was a child, my great-uncle was a Baptist pastor who served several of these small churches in Grayson and Fannin Counties. My own family went to one of the largest churches in Dallas, and so when I went to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, things were definitely different. The people in the churches that Uncle Harold served were happy to see me and remembered my name, even if it had been months since I had been there. There were no columns or arches in those churches, and the stained glass was probably plastic, and the organ had no pipes, but the feeling in those churches was warmer in those places, and it seemed like there was no place for anyone who was not genuine.

Of course, if you were different from those around you, you had to work harder to fit in. And that’s where the story of Bernie Tiede comes in.

Bernie was a mortician’s assistant in the town of Carthage, Texas. He was a single man in his late 30’s with what his boss described as an amazing sense of how to design the inside of a funeral home, and how to serve the needs of the bereaved families, especially the elderly widows. He would dote on the elderly women in town after they had lost their husbands, and his singing voice and flair for the preparation of corpses for open-casket funerals made him one of the most beloved people in town. Even if he was seen as “effeminate,” which might mean that people thought he was a closeted homosexual. In a town like that, there is no diversity that will ever be officially recognized; instead, you carry out your affairs privately.

Marjorie Nugent was a prickly widow who was known to be mean before her husband’s death, and she became even more so afterward. Bernie reached out to her, and his warmth caused her to soften and make him her constant companion. However, she became so possessive and emotionally abusive that, in 1996, he shot her in the back and stuffed her body into a freezer in the garage. For nine months, he was able to cover for her absence, because she had alienated her family and her town from her.

The most unusual part of this story, though, is that when the rest of Carthage found out what had happened, no one wanted Bernie to go to jail (that link goes to a well-written article in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth). Everyone in town loved him — and everyone hated the mean old woman who had made his life so miserable. In fact, the trial had to be moved to the tiny town of San Augustine, because the prosecution didn’t think it would get a fair shake from the jury. I dare you to find another example of that.

Fifteen years later, this story has become a major motion picture. Here’s the trailer:

Yes, that’s Jack Black. Many of you may be fans of his body of work, but I was not one. He’s all well and good as the voice of that panda, but Gulliver’s Travels just made me mad. Turning an ignorant curmudgeon into a slacker trying to impress a girl? There are movies that will do that without making Jonathan Swift’s most important work even less understandable. By the way, if Hugh Laurie is looking to change his brand after the end of “House, M.D.,” the role of Lemuel Gulliver in a well-written script would be very interesting. After all, he only has Jack Black and Ted Danson preceding him in the role.

Back to Bernie, though. This movie also stars Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney who must sit in his church pew and hear his pastor call for prayers for Bernie — even though Bernie confessed to shooting a woman who had given him over $3 million in the back. True, Bernie gave most of the money away, or bought things with it and gave those things to people who needed them, but it was hard to argue that a woman who had taken him to Egypt and New York City and Russia — all first class — could have goaded him to murder. So now he’s in prison.

But Jack Black is simply amazing in this film. Instead of being that loud annoying moron that he seems to have played in about 136 other movies, here he has become that portly, effeminate mortician’s assistant. His singing voice and his demeanor just nail, with precision, every oily minister of music who has stepped into a pulpit between Dallas and Shreveport. He oozes sincerity, whether it is comforting the bereaved at a funeral or struggling to handle the increasing meanness with which Marjorie treats him. Her habit of staring right at him, demanding eye contact without saying a word, while she chews each bite of food 25 times (even if it’s refried beans), drives him crazy. And she keeps doing it because she knows it drives him crazy, and she knows she can manipulate him into taking her to lunch every time she wants him to. Her character is a bit too flat to merit attention from the Academy, but there are not many women that you would hate more, after seeing this movie. McConaughey’s flustered, cornbread management of the role of the district attorney is true, from his imitation of the hand motions of the evangelists he’d seen in three-piece suits as a child during his closing arguments to the jury.

No matter what you think of people who live in towns without symphonies or even minor league baseball teams, without Trader Joe’s or the Whole Foods Market, though, the spirit of this East Texas town comes out, ultimately, warm and comforting. People who don’t quite fit in with the mainstream, in terms of lifestyle, are left alone — but not excluded, if they want to be friends with everyone else. It is a real shame that this doesn’t mean that diversity has gained acceptance in this part of the world, but the good intentions are such that it’s hard to believe that won’t change over the coming years. It will just take a little more time, just like it takes more time to crank a case full of peach ice cream than it does to run down to Kroger and buy a half-gallon. You can’t force that ice cream to be ready any faster, but when it is ready, your mouth will remember it when you’re sitting on your front porch, fighting off the trip to the nursing home, wondering why dessert just isn’t good anymore.

The Death of Gregory House

Posted in Homage to Blackie Sherrod on May 22, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

You have to be an addict of some kind to fully appreciate the genius of “House, M.D.” Whether your vice is Vicodin, like House, or alcohol, or porn, or other drugs, you see yourself in the eyes of House. The self-absorption through which he sees the world is evident in the half-shrugs that he gives when baldly confronted with the choice between right and almost-right, and the maddening pauses that keep him from becoming the person that he could.

NOTE: The series finale of “House, M.D.” aired tonight (May 21, 2012). There is information in this post that will reveal the events of that finale, so if you read on, you may find that the episode is “spoiled” for you.

Which speaks to the genius of Hugh Laurie, who has put on the costume of this genius who draws people toward him through the sheer magnetism of his ability, only to drive them away with the thorns of his personality. Many of the barbs that he throws are intentional, as with the insults that he uses to keep his diagnostic team at bay. Other barbs come from deep within, much less superficially, as in the episode in which Cameron confesses her attraction to him, only for him to pause long enough to give her hope before telling her that he does not like her.

The things that House wants in life are not that different from the things that any of us want. He wants love and a family. He wants to love others, and for that affection to be returned. For whatever reason, though, he does not know how. One is sure that therapists could march in to the situation and declare him to be high-functioning Asperger’s, or autistic, or perhaps even irascible. He finds love not once, but twice, but in both instances his behavior drives the women who love him far away, looking back on him with pity even as they decide that a life with him is not going to happen.

Occasionally, House finds mirrors of himself in the patients who end up in Princeton Plainsboro. There is James Sidas, the brilliant physics student who found a way to dull his intellect through a regimen of cough syrup, because he was happier as a dazed deliveryman, on an intellectual level similar to his simple but loving girlfriend, no longer tortured by the whizzing speeds at which his mind operated when not weighed down by the alcohol in his Robitussin (“Polite Dissent,” Episode 8, Season 6). Ultimately, though, House decides that is not a life for him.

After enough time has gone by, House finally wears down his friends. The pain that comes from an old leg injury drives him to Vicodin, which has a far stronger relationship with him than any person can. The strength of his addiction causes him to forge prescriptions for himself, to rummage through the hospital pharmacy, and eventually to capture the attention of the police (by being so rude to a police officer who came into the clinic that he ends up being the target of that officer’s vendetta).

Even after a stint in rehab, even after finally winning Cuddy’s heart, House never leaves his true mistress — his pain medicine. Medication is far easier than dealing with actual people with actual needs, and so even the Russian woman whom House married just to spite Cuddy — and who falls in love with him — ends up fleeing from him, when it is clear that his own weaknesses will consume him.

And so when the final episode begins, House is lying on the floor, in the second story of a burning building, next to a dead man. The dead come to visit him, to spur him out, but Amber can’t shame him into taking his life back up again, and his first love, Stacy, shows him what he can still have — if he will try to live, but he just lies down. It is when Cameron comes to tell him that he deserves the rest that death will bring, even though all that means is that his self-centered disdain for others will have turned out to be right — that dealing with other people simply is not worth the time and effort — that he struggles to his feet, insisting that he can change. That he will change.

Of course, that is when Wilson and Foreman run up to the building, only to see House’s profile against the glass, fire behind him. A beam falls on the shadow, though, and then the building explodes. House is dead, and the funeral immediately follows.

Colleague after colleague (but not Cuddy) gets up at the podium, giving short, superficial tributes to House’s work, and to the way he challenged them. It is when Wilson turns from praising Caesar to killing him, calling him an ass and a jerk, that he gets a text message on the phone that had belonged to his best friend, House, telling him, “Shut up, you idiot.”

The scene shifts and we find Wilson pulling up next to a figure in black on a set of stone stairs, leading up to a brownstone. There is House — legally dead, having switched identities with the dead man who had lain next to him on the floor. It was this man, finally, who had shown House that change was possible, that even a person who had let addiction run its cold fingers around his very heart could commit great sacrifice — if he had nothing left to lose.

And so House realized what he had to do. By leaving behind his medical license, his apartment, his legacy, he truly made himself free. His next gesture as a free man is to spend the next phase of his life being Wilson’s friend. Suffering from terminal cancer, Wilson believes that he has five months to live. House knows this and asks him, “I’m dead. What do you want to do for the next five months?” When Wilson pauses to remind House what might happen when the cancer worsens, House simply responds, “Cancer’s boring.” Then they head down a country road on a pair of motorcycles, fields of green all around them.

In Luke 9:24, Jesus said that “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it..” This comes in a conversation with the disciples in which Jesus predicts his own death; right before this, though, he had sent the disciples out on their own, going around to heal the sick. Then, he had performed the miracle of feeding five thousand people who had shown up to hear him, turning a handful of fish and bread into enough food for this crowd.

While it might be a stretch to find theology in the escape of an atheist from a burning building, the imagery of House, lying in a room surrounded by flames, as he decides whether or not he will rise up and leave the building, does suggest the power of choice that exists for all of us, regardless of our religious persuasion, or lack thereof.

And the choice is this: will we go out into the world and do what we were made to do? Or will the distractions that lie in wait for many of us, whether in the form of syringes, magazines, bottles, or in the simple presence of fear and anxiety, keep us content to survive, rather than to live?

If you want to see what it is to survive, instead of to live, watch any of the first 176 episodes of “House, M.D.” If you want to see the kind of choice that can push you into life, though, watch #177. It’s called “Everybody Dies,” but it will make you want to live — and to laugh. The identity of Gregory House may be officially dead, but the vision of two friends, riding free on a green day, having cast aside their fears and their illusory needs, is a testament of hope.

An Onlooker Slowdown Interview: Back on My Feet’s Jennifer Halabrin Kimble

Posted in Homage to Blackie Sherrod on February 22, 2012 by onlookerslowdown
Occasionally, Onlooker Slowdown will feature interviews with people who fulfill Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion that one should always “write something worth reading, or do something worth writing about.” For our first interview, we caught up with Back On My Feet’s new Program Coordinator for the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter, Jennifer Halabrin Kimble. Back On My Feet is a program that introduces the homeless to running; nationwide, this has worked wonders with many of the now formerly homeless who found discipline and purpose in a pair of running shoes.
Prior to working for Back On My Feet, Jennifer taught school for 12 years and then, after falling in love with running, became certified as a running coach through the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) and as a Level Two Personal Trainer through the Cooper Institute. Formerly the Training Program Coordinator for Run On! Dallas, after volunteering for almost a year with Back On My Feet, she came on board with BOMF as Program Coordinator in December 2011.
Check out Back On My Feet on their website, or you’ll find them at a booth and aid station at the DCFA Form Follows Fitness 5K on Saturday, February 25.
Who first inspired you to start running? 
      I started running in the beginner classes at Run On! as a way to lose weight after my second child was born.  At that time in my life, I was completely absorbed in all things baby. It was refreshing to be around people who were talking about things other than sleepless nights, diapers and teething symptoms.
As a runner, what race do you remember the most? 
       
      My first life changing race experience was my first marathon in Austin.  My coach Will Craven ran the race with our group, and we stayed together until mile 19 when he told us to go on.  I completely hit the wall at about mile 22, and at mile 24 who comes passing by?  Will of course!  He ran me in to the finish line where I was filled with such intense emotion that I bent over and blubbering and sobbing.  It took me 45 min to walk back to my hotel because I was so sore and tired.
Of all of your running accomplishments, which one brings you the most pride? 
      My hardest race so far has been the Big Horn 100 in Wyoming.  I really got behind on my nutrition and at mile 75 I felt so bad that I thought I was going to have to drop.  My pacer and friends fed me about 800 calories at that aid station which helped me to recover and finish the race. 
A close second is the first time I paced my friend Mike at Massanutten Mountain Trail 100.  That course is rocky and tough, and we got caught in a lightning storm striking so close to us that the hairs on my arms were standing up.  I did the last 45 miles of the race with him, and after that adventure I felt like I could truly conquer anything.
Share a story of someone you’ve trained that particularly inspires you. 
      I am inspired everyday by our Back on My Feet team members and the generosity of our volunteers.  Some of our residential team members have faced unfathomable challenges, yet they tell me daily how blessed they are.  Their strength and courage inspires me, and I feel loved unconditionally when I am with the team.
What motivated you to make the move from Run On! to Back On My Feet? 
        
      I loved working for Run On!  They truly have an amazing staff and coaches who work together to help runners achieve their goals.  Working for Back on My Feet allows me to use the skills that I have gained as a coach, teacher and manager; while helping our residential member to move forward toward self-sufficiency.  Quite frankly, while volunteering for BOMF, the team members stole my heart!
Efforts like Back on My Feet are spreading throughout the United States. What is it about running that resonates with the homeless people you serve?  
      Through running, our members develop confidence and self-esteem which resonates into other areas of their life.  At Back on My Feet we hug, we encourage and we promote accountability through positive reinforcement.  Through community and teamwork we establish a forum for success and personal growth.  We are all members who are equally invested in the success of each other and the team. 
What are DFW Back on my Feet’s most significant needs right now?
Homelessness in the United States is projected to increase by 5% in the next year, and it would be awesome if we could expand our efforts throughout DFW and the United States.
It costs about $100 to get a member started in the Back on My Feet program, and $1,800 to support a member in the 6-9 month program, so donations are always welcome.  You can also support BOMF by coming out to run with the teams, Getting your company involved, wearing back on my feet gear, volunteering for events and committees and being a BOMF fundRacer.  To learn more or to sign up, visit backonmyfeet.org or email me at jennifer@backonmyfeet.org.

A Valentine’s Day Thought

Posted in Homage to Blackie Sherrod on February 15, 2012 by onlookerslowdown
Kiss Briseis Painter Louvre G278
Who is she looking at? Isn’t this a painting? Never mind…Happy Valentine’s Day anyway.

On this Valentine’s Day, Onlooker Slowdown would like to turn your attention, just for a minute, from the various love stories gone awry that dominate the media. Let’s set aside Kris Humphries’ 72 days inside Kardashian Hell.

Wait a minute, though. I just have to get this off my chest. What on earth is the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, the WORLD’S GREATEST FREAKING ATHLETE, doing wearing a pair of stud earrings, doing his best imitation of the receptionist from “The Bob Newhart Show”? At what point does (a) the U.S. Olympic Committee step in and say, “Um, Bruce, we’re going to need that medal back. Clearly you didn’t throw that javelin as far as they thought you did, and, yeah, that 1500-meter run finish was Photoshopped, and (b) the Kardashian matriarch trade him in for, say, Mark Phelps? When will it be time to move on to an Olympian of the past ten years?

OK, thank you for humoring me. As someone who spends a good deal of time defending the Olympics as a decent use of television watching time, I’ve been putting this off way too long.

As I was saying, let’s set aside the tragic love stories associated with Gary Giordano and Seal, and put down the headlines about Josh Powell, and focus on a truly wonderful Valentine’s Day story.

Thanks to ABC News, Onlooker Slowdown is able to bring you the story of Grayce and Clarence Dwyer. This couple from Madison, New Jersey, has been married for 71 years. They are both 100 years old.  No midlife decisions to buy a Bugati and date younger. Four kids, 17 grandkids, and 12 great-grandchildren.

What’s their secret? As Grayce puts it, “Life was not meant to be easy, so you surround yourself with good people and always have a strong faith that will help you through the hard times.”

Now, that sort of advice won’t sell magazines, and that sort of life doesn’t make for a thrilling movie, unless one partner ends up with a degenerative condition and the other takes care of him/her (see: The Notebook).

We are entertained by tension and titillated by failure. The next time we’re standing in line at Kroger, we’ll look at the headlines of failure, of scandal, of lives torn apart when relationships suffer. But get this — both of them have recently had hip surgery, and both survived heavy anesthesia and significant physical therapy — unusual at their age. As their daughter says, “We believe [their recovery] is a testament to the love they have for each other.”

Full disclosure — Onlooker Slowdown has been divorced once, and is now closing in on five years of Marriage #2. We still have 66 years to go to catch the Dwyers; when I turn 106, we’ll only have 10 months to go to get to Year 71. But there’s something fine and wondrous about a couple that stays together so long and is so closely attuned to one another.

It’s a note of subtlety — of gestures shared, sentences finished, needs anticipated. It’s the hard work of a partnership built one day, one hour, one minute, one mistake, one instance of grace at a time.

Just for today, for St. Valentine’s Day, let’s forget about Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or reading about Jennifer Aniston’s latest comment about Brangelina.

Also, don’t think about what kind of show Keeping Up with the Dwyers would be. Instead, think about what an amazing achievement it would be.

Happy Valentine’s Day…from Onlooker Slowdown.

Image credit: By English: Briseis Painter Français : Peintre de Briséis (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKiss_Briseis_Painter_Louvre_G278.jpg