The War on Baby Boomers

It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the whole spiel.  The media called them the ’60s Generation, but demographers and advertisers called them the Baby Boomers, because when GIs returned from WWII, it caused a boom in births and a bump in the population.

All during my youth, they were a big deal.  Everybody looked to them to see what the future would look like.  Under their reign, racial barriers came down.  Whites started treating minorities like real people.  Whites started marrying blacks.  Kids started growing their hair long.  They didn’t see the use in raising their pinky while drinking tea or maintaining the perfect lawn.  They wanted to express themselves, find meaning, and gaze at their own navel.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

The generation before them didn’t have a name.  But then Tom Brokaw came along and named them after the fact: The Greatest Generation.  And they were great, because they had real, life-or-death challenges that later generations didn’t really have.  They fought for everything they got.  They cleaned up the corruption that was rife within society throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

But now, those generations are under attack.  A virus has targeted them.  The media talks about the virus targeting the elderly, but let’s not forget that these people were a very big deal in their day.  They won World War II.  They brought us the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Aretha.  They took us to the moon.

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Now, a small slice of American culture is saying that the mass death they are experiencing is just fine.

“Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs, anyway….” Bill O’Reilly said in an appearance on Fox News.  “A simple man tells the truth.”

Simple, yes, although not in the way that he means it.  Truth, no.

What O’Reilly is implying, of course, is that we shouldn’t mourn these generations because they would’ve died soon, anyway.  Well, O’Reilly is going to die soon, anyway, too.  But when that happens, I won’t go around disrespecting his life, because every life deserves dignity and respect.  Some people have no class.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put his foot in it, too, when he said:

“There are things more important than living,” and that those generations of Americans might be “willing to take a chance” on dying for the good of the economy.

Vicious, yes.  Pro life, most certainly no.

Sally and Paula in Paulas kitchen

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

My own mother was a member of that Greatest Generation.  She remembers Pearl Harbor, blackout curtains and air-raid sirens.  She was a mother when Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on the podium.  She worked hard for her Masters Degree, raised two good kids, and received her reward by retiring in a house on the hill.

My mother doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed body and soul so that a serial sexual harasser like Bill O’Reilly can try to goose his stock portfolio, or Dan Patrick can try to service the Texas oil companies by forcing people back into their cars.  They built this country before us.  It’s theirs.  Show a little respect, why doncha.

Love Has a Lot to Do With It

You may think that the story I’m about to tell you has one lesson, but be careful what you conclude that lesson is.  It’s not what you may think.  You may, for example, assume from the photos and the story that you should panic.

The apocalypse is coming!  We’re all going to starve!  We’re all going to turn into cannibals!

You may assume, as well, that you run fast–don’t walk, don’t dawdle–to the nearest grocery store and fight for survival, grab toilet paper out of other customers’ hands, that you growl like a wolf and stockpile loads and loads of grocery items.  That, however, would be a stupid assumption.  Did I mention that it would be imbecilic?  Really, this is the closest thing you’re going to get in your adult life to a valid IQ test.

Let me emphasize, guys: There’s nothing wrong with our food supply.  Taliban bombers haven’t carpet-bombed our farms.  There’s no plague of locusts besetting the land.  No terrorists have blown up all the Vons trucks.  Tomorrow morning, you will still have a great choice of produce, packaged goods, canned goods, frozen dinners, and even all that disgusting junk food that you can stuff into your piehole.

What’s wrong, see, is the people.  Some of the simplest among us are panicking.  Without reason.  Without any reason at all.

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That said, I shopped for two today.  First, I was shopping for my live-in girlfriend and myself.  And secondly, I was shopping for my mother.

Mom, see, is at high risk for death if she contracts COVID-19.  She’s 89 years old, soon to turn 90, and she smoked for 40 years.  Even though she quit in the ’90s, her habit left her with a gift that keeps on giving: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which impairs lung function.  Ever prudent, Mom started isolating herself hard two weeks ago.  She shopped for groceries at 7 am, when nobody was in the stores.  She avoided any other retail stores.  She stayed inside.

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Mom in 2014 admiring a 10th-century castle in Ireland

Then just a week ago, Mom saw the writing on the wall and started isolating even harder.  She decided she was going to stay inside her four-bedroom, two-story suburban house almost completely.  She and her little Shih Tzu Phoebe would shut the world out absolutely.  She wouldn’t even shop for herself.  She wouldn’t go to the bank.  She wouldn’t meet anybody for coffee.

Of course, this strategy only works if you have somebody to shop for you.  That’s me, thank you.  I volunteered to do it because I’m at fairly low risk.  After all, I have exercised about an hour a day for the past 40 years and have terrific lungs.  I’ve never smoked.  I’ve never had anything go even mildly wrong with my body.  I’m as healthy as a hose, even if I can’t always spell.  Plus, I’m doing it because–hello!–she’s my mother.

So this afternoon, I drove down to Albertsons Grocery Store in La Habra.  It’s the nice suburban community in Southern California where I live.  I walked in with three cloth grocery bags, because I didn’t want to put my hands anywhere near any filthy, germ-laden grocery cart.  I would just pile all my groceries into the bags and carry them around the store.

Stepping into the store, I knew there would be shortages, but I had no idea how extensive the shortages would be.  First, I checked out the essentials that everybody is stockpiling: hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper, and water.  Predictably, those products were all cleaned out.

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They were out of rubbing alcohol, and even placed a limit on the number you could buy.

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Predictably, all toilet paper was gone.

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All water was gone, even though there’s no threat to the nation’s water supply.

But I was surprised to find that some related products were cleaned out, as well, including dish detergent, baby wipes, diapers, and various cleaning products.

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Baby wipes were out.

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Many cleaning products were sold out.

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All of the hand dish detergent was sold out.

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Napkins were sold out.

As I strolled around the store, I discovered other more offbeat shortages, as well.  For example, all the tortillas were sold out.  It makes sense, I guess, because the store is right on the edge of a Mexican-American community, but really, can’t you give a guy a break on his beloved tacos and burritos?

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All tortillas were sold out.

There were also no potatoes at all, only yams, and the only onions left were red onions.  Turns out tomatoes and carrots are pretty popular, too, because they were nowhere to be found.

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Albertsons placed a limit on the amount of potatoes you could buy, but by the time I got there, the limit had reached zero.

All the eggs were gone, too.  I love my omelettes!

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Eggs gone.  I guess it’s Cap’n Crunch for breakfast.

And rice, beans, and pasta sauce were gone, too.

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Rice, beans, and pasta were mostly sold out.

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In all, I bought $37 worth of groceries for Claire and I, and $95 worth of groceries for Mom.  By the time I got to the end of our grocery lists, I was lugging around three heavy bags.  I considered going through a regular checkstand, but decided against it because I didn’t want anybody filthy checker’s hands touching my products.  So I decided to do self-checkout.  That was a little dicey, though.  There was a lot of tapping the touchscreen and putting products on scales.  And then whenever I made a mistake, a grocery employee jumped over my shoulder and pushed the right buttons, uncomfortably close.

By the time I got to the car, I immediately jumped into the driver’s seat and slathered gobs of sanitizer onto my hands.  I couldn’t believe I had gotten through that ordeal.  It took me over an hour.

I drove a half-hour to Mom’s house and called her from her driveway.

“I’m here, Mom,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll open the garage door,” she said.

Within moments, the garage door started opening.  I took her two grocery bags out of the trunk and left the bags inside the garage.  Then I walked outside of the garage.  She grabbed the two bags and headed for her kitchen.

“Make sure to wash the bags!” I said.  “Don’t forget to wash the handles of the bags!”

“I won’t,” she said.

“And wash all of the products!”

“I know!”

Within a couple minutes, Mom was back in the garage, washing the cloth grocery bags in a sink.  She used bleach, just to make sure.  Then she dried them.  All the while, I kept a respectful 25 feet away from her.  Finally, she left the bags in the middle of the garage for me.  Once she had moved back a safe distance, I stepped up and grabbed the bags.

“Love you!” I said, and left.

And, in fact, that’s quite true: Love has a lot to do with it.

I Haven’t Touched Anything Yet

As I write this, it’s March 14.  The world has just entered the scary phase of the COVID-19 crisis.  Over 125,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with it.  Over 4,000 worldwide have died from it.  In the United States, nearly 40 people have died, and most people expect many more.  Institutions are closing down.  On grocery shelves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are virtually unobtainable.  It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes.

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My 89-year-old mother has begun to isolate herself.  She smoked for 40 years and has lung disease, so she’s in an even higher risk category than other 89-year-olds.  Not only that, but she lives in Diamond Bar, where 80% of the population is Chinese, many of them Chinese nationals who travel back and forth from China.

Mom rarely goes out.  She shops for groceries only at 7 am, when the aisles are empty.  She uses hand sanitizer when she touches anything–the shopping cart, cans of food, the change she gets back, anything.  She doesn’t shake hands with anybody.  She doesn’t look at anybody.  She just returns to her house and shuts herself in.  She has a gate in her front yard that she keeps locked.  Nobody can even knock on her door.  Safely in her big old house, she has most everything she needs–television, a kitchen, a home office, everything.  She and her little Shih Tzu dog Phoebe are a population of two.

Two days ago, however, Mom realized that she needed to go to the pharmacy soon for refills.  She didn’t want to do it herself, though, so she called me.

“Can you pick up my meds?” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“And shop for my groceries?”

“Okay.”

I am so healthy and exercise so much that I’m a pretty low risk.

After exercise 7 17 10 a

“I’ll call you with a list, and then you can bring it to me without having contact with me,” Mom said.  “Call me from your cell phone when you’re outside and I’ll open the garage door.  You leave the grocery bags in the garage and go.  When you’re gone, I’ll pick it up and sanitize the bag and all the things in it.”

Everybody has to be careful in these Kafkaesque days. We are afraid of shadows because shadows are attacking us.

I’ve been visiting Las Vegas this past week.  I’ve been staying with friends, an eightysomething mother and a fiftysomething daughter, who aren’t paranoid about things.  They have a huge house with lots of rooms.  They do take precautions, but they don’t get crazy about it. I offered to cancel my stay with them, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re fine,” they said.

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I camped out in a lovely bedroom they made up for me.  I spent the week working here on my computer, but had only one all-important in-person meeting.  When I walked into his house, we didn’t shake hands.  We talked from a distance of six feet. We met for three hours, excitedly talking about our exciting ideas for business, and then I left without shaking his hand.  Once back in my car, I slathered my hands with sanitizer.

The next day, I was driving to the park to take a walk.  As I cruised along Pecos Avenue, I thought, “As long as I don’t touch anything, I’m okay.”  Cars were all around me, and people inside, but I wasn’t touching them.  I was happy.

I arrived at lovely Sunset Park and started exercising.  I walked around the lake, past geese, ducks, and even people, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.” People walked past me, but not within six feet of me. Our eyes met, but we didn’t touch. Then I walked away from the lake and into the desert trails, talking to a friend in Seattle on my phone through earbuds while passing desert shrubbery, jackrabbits, and the occasional human organism, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.”

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I didn’t touch anything for a full hour and eight minutes! Then I got into my car and didn’t touch anything that other people had touched, just the door handle and the steering wheel, and drove back to my friends’ house.  I walked inside and had dinner with my friends.  They suggested I go to a Vegas show, take advantage of discount tickets and low crowds, and I thought, “Nawwww.”

At dinner, they talked about one of their friends.  He is a divorced father.  He had a business trip planned for this week, but the event got cancelled.  He decided to use the airline tickets, anyway, to visit his daughter.  He hopped onto the plane and traveled all the way across the country.  When he arrived, his ex-wife said no, you can’t see your daughter.

“You’re a disease risk to her,” she said.  “You’ve just been on a plane!”

It’s been a bitter divorce.

After dinner, I got onto my computer, which nobody else had touched, and started working, because I always need to work.  Every so often, I got onto Facebook and socialized with people, saying hello, how are you, isn’t this weird, without touching them or being around them.

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Later today, I will get into my car and drive the five hours back to Los Angeles without touching anything that anybody else had touched. And if by chance I do, I have lots of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.  I will listen to Beck and Tito Puente and Sam Smith on my Bluetooth speaker and speed back home.  But there’s one nightmare scenario that I’ve thought about.  God forbid this tragedy comes to pass.  Please God, oh please, I beseech you, don’t make it so that I have to go into a public bathroom.

A review of “The Tender Bar”

This book has become one of those memoirs that everybody recommends you read, like The Liars Club. It certainly has things in common with Mary Karr’s classic. Kid grows up in a nowhere family shadowed by liquor. Kid grows up to be a writer. This memoir, however, has a lot more dialogue in it, in fact, it’s driven by dialogue, which certainly makes it more readable and vivid than Karr’s dense and even poetic account.

The Tender Bar is really about nothing else except growing up, which is fine. There’s no central event, like a murder or the discovery of a secret family. It’s just about a son of a single mother growing up. Moehringer’s family makes for an eclectic cast of characters. His mother has all the best intentions but no money because of a deadbeat Dad. His uncle was born with no hair or even eyebrows and is a bookie at the local bar, and ushers him into the world of liquor and alcoholics. His grandfather is a man who lives in a decrepit old house and does everything he can to alienate everyone around him.

What makes this book special is that everything is vivid. The prose is pretty good, although not always. Sometimes his sentences read like a first draft that should have been gone over a few times.  But obviously, he knows something about writing, having won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  At one point, Moehringer writes that “words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word–tangible, present, real–while my father was the spoken word–invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory.” And it is the passages about his father and his longing thereof that form the core of this book.

“My father was an improbable combination of magnetic and repellent qualities. Charismatic, mercurial, sophisticated, suicidal, hilarious, short-tempered–and dangerous from the start. He got into a fistfight at their wedding. Drunk, my father shoved my mother, and when his best man objected to such treatment of the bride, my father decked him. Several guests jumped my father, trying to restrain him, and when the cops arrived they found my father running up and down the sidewalk, assaulting passersby.”

His description of Grandpa was equally illuminating: “Grandpa had a photographic memory, an astounding vocabulary, a firm command of Greek and Latin, but his family wasn’t able to enjoy his intellectual gifts because he never engaged us in actual conversations. He kept us at bay with a ceaseless patter of TV jingles, advertising slogans and non sequiturs. We’d tell him about our day and he’d shout, ‘It’s a free country!’ We’d ask him to pass the beans and he’d say, ‘Tastes good like a cigarette should….’ His private language was a fence he put around himself….”  God, do I know about that particular type of fence.

Fortunately, there is a way out for this narrator. He does so well in school that he is admitted to Yale, and that’s wherefrom hope springs. He doesn’t feel adequate to the task, and neither does his family’s bank account, but he dukes it out.  It made me think about my own struggles at UCLA, where I lamented my inability to read quickly, and marveled at those Wunderkinden who could apprend immediately, as if they were spongi.

I believe that it’s best to begin reviewing a book when you’re about two-thirds into it, and that’s what I’ve done with this review.  I will update it as I finish the book.

 

The Politics of Touching

Joe Biden has been going through a lot of scrutiny lately over his touching of strangers.  It’s the beginning of a campaign, and that is the natural time for such issues to come up.  Some people are quite insistent that Biden has been inappropriate, while others are defending him.

As a teenager, I never hugged people in greeting. I felt that I had a wall around me.  I was lonely and awkward socially.  I didn’t know any way out of this conundrum, because my upbringing hadn’t given me any.

David Groves age 8

Then in college, I met people who hugged. When they saw you, they hugged you. When they said goodbye, they hugged you. It was how things were done in their world. Or maybe it was a moment in history when that changed, the 1970s, when men started wearing colors and gays started coming out of the closet.  Or maybe it was the circles that I suddenly entered, the big city that I had moved to, the sophisticated people, the bohemians and artists, I don’t know. At any rate, I started being more touchy.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

I have never been as touchy as Joe Biden. I have admired how loving he is, how confident, how giving, but I have never been able to pull it off.  It’s a cultural thing, too, like Latin cultures that are more touchy (Italy, Spain, Greece), and look down on Anglo cultures that aren’t as touchy. There is a tradition that glorifies that kind of touching.

In fact, my mother tells me a story about that.  She comes from Mexican culture and my father comes from a German/English tradition–i.e., a white guy married a Mexican girl.  And when I was born, my mother hugged and held me all the time.  My father objected.

“You’re going to smother him,” he said.  “Why are you touching him all the time?”

“Because I love him.”

It was a point of conflict with him, and they never resolved it.  Twenty years later, when I was in college, I came back from school being more touchy, and started hugging him hello and goodbye.  My father was shocked, although he never said anything to me about it.  But in private, my mother tells us, he did talk about it.

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

“When he hugs me,” my father asked my mother, “what am I supposed to do?”

“Hug him back!” my mother said.

There are subcultures that grow out of trauma, such as molestation victims, who freak out when you hug them. And then there are people who seem physiologically averse to touching for whatever brain-chemistry reason. And there are religious subcultures who avoid touching because it might be sexual (cf. Mike Pence, who doesn’t even like to be alone with any woman not his wife, or Muslim subcultures).

I am more aware of personal boundaries than most, probably because my parents taught me to be aware of that. When I was dating, I had problems with the moment when you kiss someone for the first time, for example, because it was an uninvited moment. You had to read the other person, and you could always read wrong.

What I’m saying is that this is not simple.  And before you condemn Joe Biden, ask yourself where you think it comes from: a good place, or a bad place.  That’s the key.

Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

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2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

Paula and Jesus wedding photo 1a smaller

As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

Paula 11a

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

The Train That Is Coming and Will Plough Through You

Now, years later, I remember my seventh summer as an unblemished stretch of pure happiness. I believe this not to be some kind of wishful idealization by a foggy-headed adult, but an accurate memory. The reason is that I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I wish this summer would never end.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

That summer had everything. Unbelievably blue Los Angeles skies. A backyard with a tree. A wiffle ball, a bat, and two best friends, Scott and Gary, to play wiffle ball with every single day.

A sidewalk to run fast down, because running fast made me happy. I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I will always love running.

I was a pitcher on my Little League baseball team, the Beavers. I felt like a king whenever I stood on that pitcher’s mound and commanded the game. I was the cleanup batter, too, and I hit the ball out of the park once, which was a big deal at age 7. Afterwards, we all ate our fill of pepperoni and sausage pizza at Shakey’s and horsed around. The pizza chef liked us and told us his name was Peter Rabbit Cottontail Sunshine Snowball. We all laughed. My teammates and I were all the best of friends.

I will always love cartoons, I would also say to myself.

In time, the subject of movies came up, but I didn’t even want to try them out. I wanted to hang onto that totem of childhood, cartoons. I shunned other adult totems, too, such as coffee, smoking, adult foods such as green olives, and adult words such as accommodation and Plantagenet.

Of course, change is the train that is coming and will one day plough through you. Eventually, a hair sprouted on my chest. Another boy spotted it at the local pool and razzed me for it. I was appalled. It was a distressing development that threatened to end my summers of bliss. I plucked it out. Another soon appeared, and I pulled out that one, too. But you can’t fight forever against the encroachment of that particular forest, so eventually, I gave up fighting altogether on that front.

David Groves age 8

But there were so many other fronts. When I was 11, my parents wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees. They found it awkward to talk about in the first place, but I made it even tougher on them. One day, my mother walked tentatively into my bedroom with a book called For Boys Only, saying that it would tell me everything I needed to know, if I wanted to.

“I don’t want it,” I said, turning away.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BA

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s.

“You’re starting to go through adolescence,” she said, “and you’re going to need to know about this.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll just leave it in your bookshelf,” she said, and walked out of the room.

Over the next couple years, that book was an abomination in my otherwise lovely room. It was offered to me out of love, but on principle, I never touched it. It seemed as if my mother had said something horrible to me.

I’m going to kick you out of paradise.

Paul Simon writes about this transition in his song, “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”:

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

I hesitate to call what happened to me adolescence, or even that uglier word, puberty. In fact, it was an immense tragedy and the world should mark the year with wailing and sackcloth and memorials for the dead. Everything that followed it was more complicated. Suddenly, I stank when I sweated. Girls could wrap me around their little fingers just by wearing a short skirt. I had to choose my own future, which was terribly complicated.
And when I tried out for the high school freshman baseball team, I didn’t even make the cut. All my dreams came crashing down like a Lego skyscraper. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my grace.

What was so wonderful about my childhood isn’t hard to pin down. I had an overprotective mother whose heart was as big as a Barbra Streisand song. Years later, she told me her attitude towards motherhood.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I wished I could just put you inside a big bubble and protect you from the big, bad world.

I was happy to live in that bubble, but it was bound to burst. I came home from kindergarten one day with amazing news.

Did you know, they invented this great thing! I told my mother excitedly. It’s called candy!

019 (2)

My mother had never given me candy, wanting to protect me from cavities and misbehavior.

My father played a big part in my happy childhood, too. I remember him standing a couple steps up from the rest of us, resting his elbows on the railing and watching the family he loved. The phrase that best described him was without guile. To this day, I measure every person I meet against him. Most don’t measure up.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Perhaps my allegiance to childhood arose in part because I’m constitutionally resistant to change. It is an unfortunate character trait. I tend to hang onto things like a bulldog, including places of residence, business cards, to-do lists, anger, old books, and outdated life goals. I sometimes hold onto them until they’re rotted and unrecognizable, and yet still I hang onto them. I remember with great fondness what they once were.

Like clothes. I recently discovered five pairs of Levis that I wore in my twenties. I pulled them out of storage and held them up to examine. They were beautiful, faded and blue. When I gained a few pounds, I put them away and swore I’d fit into them again. I’d work out like crazy. I’d diet. I’d do what it took. I would not throw those Levis out. Years later, I continue to work out daily on my bike, pushing myself mightily up huge hills for an hour or more, rivulets of sweat coursing down my brow and down my nose, never laying back and coasting, but pushing my thighs and glutes to 110%, because, I tell myself, 110% is where it’s at, baby, 110% is a locked door that you throw yourself against and nobody ever thinks about busting through because, goddammit, it’s locked, but hey, I bust through that door, I bust through like a warrior because I’m The 110% Man, because 110% is my solution for everything, dude, it’s the solution that most people never have the courage to try but which is my badge of superiority, and when I was seven, my mother told me I was better than everyone else, well, maybe not told me, more like imparted it to me and I’ve felt it in my bones ever since.

After exercise 7 17 10 a

Perhaps what I’m giving 110% to is getting back, as they say, to where I once belonged. But I don’t belong there anymore. They don’t want me.

There is a simpler explanation for why I clung so tightly to childhood. Maybe it wasn’t a psychological construct at all. Maybe it was indeed a great time in my life. My parents loved me. My father was a coach on my baseball team. Nobody was abusing me. I had been born with a happy disposition. I was well. I was living in the richest country in the world. It was the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Years later, though, I stand on a railway overpass, my elbows on the railing, gazing down on those train tracks. It’s a hot summer day with skies so blue that it hurts just looking up. How I wish I could run.

Kicked out of Vegas

It started with a dim memory from childhood.  I was seven and the Groves family was holding a reunion at a park.  This older man in a stylish suit arrived with a flourish.  He was tall, white-complected, and looked like a variation on my Grandpa Roy.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

Me around age 7

“This is your Uncle John,” my mother said.

It was actually my great-uncle.  I shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, son.”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t say yeah,” my mother prompted, “say ‘Pleased to meet you, too.'”

“Pleased to meet you, too.”

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

Uncle John around 1934

All around at the reunion, there were introductions, handshakes, jokes, laughter, and catching up.

A bit later, in a moment when everyone’s attention was averted, John took me aside.

“I have a gift for you,” he said in low tones, squatting down to my level.

Uncle John took out a maroon velvet cardboard box.  I opened it up.  It contained two new decks of playing cards.

“These are yours,” Uncle John said.  “They’re marked.”

He used the term marked as if it were illicit–that is, prohibited and quite sexy.

“Marked?”

“Yes, you can tell what card it is by looking at the back.”

And so Uncle John proceeded to show me how to read the backs.  Once I understood, I smiled at the deception.  It was like I was one of the few people in the world who had the secret of winning.  It was one of my earliest joys in the art of magic, and to tell you the truth, even now that I’m a professional, learning those secrets is still quite a thrill.

That’s when Uncle John glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening.

“I’ll tell you the secret to winning at cards,” John said.  “The only way to win is to cheat.”

That’s when my mother came over.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” she asked.

“Don’t tell her,” Uncle John said.  “It’s our secret.”

“David, what’s going on?”

“It’s a secret,” I said with a grin.

v

Later, I learned that Uncle John was a professional gambler.  He wasn’t a weekend gambler, but was actually the real thing, my parents said.  He had been kicked out of Vegas for cheating.  He was the proverbial black sheep of the family.  And when I say kicked out, let me emphasize that getting kicked out of Vegas in the 1950s was quite a bit different from getting kicked out today, which is more akin to getting escorted out of Disneyland for smoking marijuana on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  You could sustain bruises.  You could fall down a flight of stairs.  They could make you cry.

Years passed, and as an adult, I eventually became a professional magician.  I learned card sleights, learned to treat 52 as 1, learned how to use gravity to my advantage, worked for 20 years on my double until it got really good, and even once performed an exceedingly difficult card trick 25,000 times over a period of three years to make it really sing.  To this day, it’s my calling card, the trick I do if I really want to impress someone.

There’s a subcategory of card magic that focuses on gambling sleights.  The holy grail in this arena is a trio of sleights that makes people believe you’re dealing off the top of the deck when in fact you’re not.  There’s the second deal, in which you deal the second card down from the top while seeming to deal from the top.  There’s the bottom deal, in which you deal the bottom card while seeming to deal from the top.  And there’s the center deal, which is the holy grail of holy grails, and I can count on one hand the number of people worldwide who can competently pull it off.

Formal promo shot

One of my early promotional shots. Notice I’m holding five aces.

Once, I asked a gambling magician how long it took him to learn the second deal.

“About 20 years,” he said with a sad grin.

I’ve experimented with it, and can clumsily execute something approximating “a second,” as they call it, but I wouldn’t try it under fire.  It’s just not ready for prime time.  And besides, once you’ve mastered it, you can’t really show it off.  It looks like nothing.   It’s designed to look like nothing.  If it looks like something at a poker table, you can come down with a case of lead poisoning.  On top of that, the types of magic tricks you can do with it aren’t that amazing, and you can pull off the same effect with much easier sleights.  The only arena in which they can accomplish miracles is at a real-life poker table, where false deals can earn you loads and loads of money.

A couple years ago, I read a book about the center deal.  The Magician and the Cardsharp is about Dai Vernon, the 20th century’s best closeup magician, who moved to Wichita in 1930 after the Stock Market crashed.  While there, he met a Mexican card cheat named Amador Villasenor, who had been charged with murder and was being held in a local jail.  Vernon met with him because of his prowess with card sleights, and during the conversation, was told that there was a man in the Kansas City area who could deal from the center of the deck.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsDYNz3iCfY

Vernon lit up.  Up to that time, the center deal was merely a theoretical dream for magicians.  The world of gambling cheats was necessarily a secret world.  If people knew they were cheating, nobody would ever again let them sit down at a poker table.  Unfortunately, Villasenor didn’t remember exactly where this man lived.  He knew his name was Allen Kennedy, that he worked crooked card games in the greater KC area, and that he could execute a perfectly undetectable center deal, but that was it.

So Vernon set off on a months-long search.  The book chronicles Vernon’s quest, which ended in the little town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, in a session with this Allen Kennedy, who had worked five years to build up the muscles in his hand well enough to master the sleight.  He died in the early 1950s in obscurity, the Pleasant Hill town drunk who was once the greatest gambling cheat in the world–and only a handful of people ever knew it.

Magicians idolize such characters, for they can borrow from their real-world sleights and tales.  They are exciting.  There are anecdotes involving deception and retribution.  Sometimes, people die.  In fact, there are several magicians today who have staked their reputation on being students of gambling cheats and other con men.

When I became a magician, then, I began to wonder if I could find my Uncle John.

About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy, and one of the first things I did was look up Uncle John.  Unfortunately, I discovered that he had died in 1990.  However, he had a daughter, Carol Ann, and I wondered about her.  I asked my mother about her.

“Oh, she married a rich lawyer in the late ’60s,” Mom said.  “I think they live in Huntington Beach.”

I did some Internet research, and after a few weeks, discovered a disappointing document: her death certificate.  She had died in Broward County, Florida, in 1995.  The trail for my Uncle John went cold.  My mother said that they never had children.  I wondered where the photographs had gone.  I wondered about the stories that I could have been told.

v

Over the next couple years, I continued researching my roots.  It became a true obsession.  Then a couple days ago, I received an astonishing email from a long-lost Groves relative.

“We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards with Carol Ann for the past few decades,” he said.  “Carol Ann is alive.  Here’s her phone number….”

This morning, I called Carol Ann.  She was delighted to hear from me, and at 76, sounded 20 years younger than that.  Her mind was quick, her voice, strong.

“I heard you thought I was dead,” she said wryly.

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, I’m not!”

We talked, and as we did, tears filled my eyes and I worked hard to hide my cracking voice.  We talked about many things.  Their retirement in Hansville, Washington.  My father’s death.  The fact that so many people in our line had died of respiratory ailments.  My life, first as a journalist, and then as a magician.

Carol Ann had never met me.  She’s many years older than me and our family was not particularly close.  That side of the family never had holiday parties, for example.  However, she mentioned that she had always regretted that.  My parents had met her a couple times.  My mother said that she was a statuesque redheaded beauty.  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty smart, too.

As the conversation stretched to 20 minutes and longer, I began to worry whether I should mention her father or not.  After all, children of con men are often filled with anger and shame.  Perhaps her father had been narcissistic and selfish.  Perhaps I shouldn’t mention John until the third or fourth conversation, if there even was one.  I didn’t want her to clam up and close off communication.

Still, as the conversation came to a close, I felt like I had to take the risk.

“Since I’m a professional magician, I do a lot of card magic,” I said, “and I heard growing up that your father was a professional gambler.  He must have been good with cards.”

“I have to tell you up front that he was a card cheat,” Carol said.

And then Carol proceeded to tell me the story of her life.  Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after that, she rarely saw her father.

“He made his living driving a cab in Los Angeles,” she said.  “He would pick up fares and then steer them to a poker game.  He would sit in on the poker game and secretly work with a partner.  Together, they would take the fare’s money by cheating.”

It was a life that sometimes had deleterious consequences, though.  Once, he had a pool cue broken over his head.

“I have a bunch of his marked decks,” she said.  “I’ll give them to you, if you like.”

Carol’s 12-year-old grandson is crazy about magic, and I promised I’d send her a copy of my instructional magic DVD.  It’ll make a great Christmas gift.  By the end of the conversation, Carol invited me to visit her up in Washington, and I look forward to the visit.  At the moment, though, I’m flying high, not just to be reunited with a family member that I thought I had lost, but also, to be exposed to the world of my most colorful relation, the scoundrel who was kicked out of Vegas.

What They’re Selling

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father had been a smoker since he was a teenager, and had never been able to stop. For the previous five years, he had been losing weight, so we knew something was wrong. We tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he refused. He eventually died a horrible death from emphysema and lung disease.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My mother sometimes wondered if she was responsible.  Of course my father held the ultimate responsibility, but she painfully asked herself whether she might have done something that would have allowed him to survive.  Three  years before his death, he lost so much weight that we knew something was wrong.  When we brought up going to the doctor, Dad walked away from us.

“Leave it to me,” my mother said.  “I know the right moment to bring it up.”

She tried.  But Dad’s ability to stonewall unexpectedly exceeded my mother’s ability to manipulate him.  We even tried to trick him into going to the doctor a couple times.  My sister asked him to drive her to the doctor, and then go into the examination room with her, and when the doctor came in, he start talking to Dad about his own health.  He just stood up and walked out.

There were many people on Dad’s side.  Mom, sis, and I.  The Surgeon General when he released his report.  Those commercials on television.  And 49% of my father.

On the other side, working against him, were many people, as well.  Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds.  All those Carolina farmers.  All those Carolina senators and congressmen.  All those 1950s ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that recommended cigarettes “for your health.”  And 51% of my father.

I sometimes wonder what could have convinced that 1% to defect.

Going through my father’s effects after he died, we discovered lots of literature he had received from the tobacco industry. These expensive four-color booklets talked about smoking as a matter of civil rights. You have a right to enjoy a cigarette, the literature said. Fight for your rights, it said. You have the right to smoke next to people, or in restaurants, or at your job, or wherever the hell you want. Don’t let the politically correct liberals take your rights away from you.  (To see some recent versions of this argument, go here.)

The authors of this literature were co-conspirators with the tobacco industry in killing my father.  In the months after he died, I sometimes unexpectedly began to cry.  Once, while standing in line at the grocery store and seeing a headline that reminded me of him.  Once, while driving down Ohio Avenue under the 405 and hearing a song that reminded me of him.  My thoughts were forever bumping into memories of him.  They still are.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Recently, I saw a news item on one of the companies that used to put together that literature, The Center for Individual Freedom. It’s an organization, you understand, that manufactures lies and sells them to an unsuspecting public. And during that election cycle, they were selling lies in nine congressional districts attacking nine different Democrats:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hidden-donors-20101024,0,5753488.story

These days, they’re attacking the ACA and global warming.  See for yourself.

Family 479

They killed my father.  They’re the 1% in more ways than one.  Don’t fall for what they’re selling now.