LB: Live! From Paradise #213 “Tenure, Anybody?”

(The intro to this column in a recently successful incarnation here on the web)

by Larry Brody

Usually, the drive from Paradise to Little Rock National Airport and back is a big pain. Two hours of winding, mostly two-lane roads followed by forty-five minutes of crowded, speeding Interstate. Then the whole thing in reverse, just to pick up or drop off a visitor.

But yesterday, when Gwen the Beautiful and I made the trip, it was worth it. We were picking up Darlene the Philosophy Teacher, a good friend of Gwen’s who’s hanging here on The Mountain for a few days on her way home to San Diego from New York City.

Darlene’s warm, funny, and just insecure enough to make her genius intellect forgivable. She teaches courses like “Aristotelian Logic,” “18th Century Rationalists,” and “Secrets Behind Hegel’s Dialectic” at a major West Coast university but has been looking for a change.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen the different seasons or even been aware of the weather,” Darlene said as we headed out of the airport. “I forgot how much I was missing. But now that I’m divorced, I’m seeing a lot of things that slipped away. Especially things that might take me out into a new way of life.”

“So you’re looking to completely escape the old and teach on the East Coast?” Gwen said.

“‘Looking’ is the right word,” said Darlene. “Things aren’t going to pan out in New York.”

“I thought they were begging you to join the faculty,” Gwen said.

“Well,” Darlene said, “there’s begging and there’s begging. The Department Head called and asked me to tour the school, meet the Dean and the faculty, and keep an open mind about working in Manhattan.

“But when I got there he greeted me a little more warmly than I was comfortable with. It wasn’t just the hug, it was the whole feeling that emanated from him. A kind of ‘Oh, you’re just what I want. I need you so much!'”

“He said that?” said Gwen.

“No, he—I don’t know—he demonstrated it. And it’s not like I’m a hot young thing.”

Hearing this made me feel a little uncomfortable myself. “What about the rest of the faculty?” I said.

“Nice people. Smart people. Highly regarded scholars. I’ve read a number of their articles. They’ve read mine. We had a good time. One of them, though, a woman who’s the Expert On German Existentialism in the 1930s, asked a lot of questions but interrupted every answer I gave.

“I’d reply as honestly as I could about how I feel about, say, the place of traditional philosophical inquiry in our modern world, and she’d gasp and say, ‘Remember, this is an interview. We’re judging everything you say.’ As though I was saying too much.”

“You’re a woman who speaks her mind,” Gwen pointed out.

Darlene shrugged. “The second day there, they asked me to make a presentation to show how I teach a class. If there’s one thing I’m always ready for, it’s holding forth to a class, so I did it like I always do. With all the energy and love I feel for those great old-time thinkers.

“After the class, the Dean told me he was impressed by the way I spoke. That he and the students found me inspiring. Then he told me how unimportant it was to be inspiring because today’s world didn’t really need more philosophy instructors, and certainly couldn’t support more philosophers.

“Everyone looked at me expectantly. As though everything hinged on my response to what he’d just said. All I could do was speak my mind.

“‘This is an interview,’ I said. ‘Just as you’re judging everything I say, so am I judging you. And I’m sorry, but you’ve failed the test.”

“So that’s why you’re here a day early!” I said.

“I’ve been sick about those words since they left my mouth,” Darlene said. “So much for getting the chance for a change.”

Gwen twisted in her seat to hug Darlene. “I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but you passed my test many years ago.”

Darlene burst into tears. Hugged Gwen back.

Me, I kept driving. Teaching college had always seemed an interesting life, and I’d been toying with the idea of looking for a gig like that.

Unlike Darlene and Gwen, I never judge—but still, as I looked into the rear view mirror, I saw my thoughts of teaching college fly off into the past.

They were gone without a trace before we reached the Interstate and sped back home to Paradise.

At least, for now.

LB: Live! From Paradise #212 “Old Billionaire Hell”

(The intro to this column in a recently successful incarnation here on the web)

by Larry Brody

This morning when the telephone rang, I heard a familiar voice over the answer machine.

It belonged to the Old Billionaire.

For the last several years, the O.B. has been a very important part of my life. We were each other’s friend, teacher, and student too, minds meshing as though together we were one.

But the last time I’d talked to my friend he was on a dementia-induced rampage, furious at me for reasons no one could understand. So instead of answering right away I stood and listened to the message he was leaving:

“Hey, Larry B, it’s me. I read what you wrote about not knowing if you were living or dead, and it hits ‘way too close to home for me not to chime in.”

When I heard this I smiled. He sounded like the man I’d known before his illness. Quickly, I snatched up the phone.

“O.B., is it really you?”

“‘Really’ me? Talk about a tough question. We can spend hours chewing on that one, don’t you think?”

“You’re back!” I said.

“Maybe,” the Old Billionaire said. “Don’t know for how long. I’ve got these new meds. They don’t do anything for my memory, but they keep me from getting so mad.

“I’ve been in a fury,” he went on, “about stuff that’s real and stuff that’s not. About not knowing which is which. About remembering my kindergarten girlfriend—Ethel, her name was, and she always wore the same polka-dotted dress—but not my sister who died…well, I don’t remember when she died.”

“I’m sorry about that, O.B.—” I stopped. Couldn’t think of what more to say.

“Not as sorry as I am,” the Old Billionaire said. “But sorry’s better than angry. At least, I think it is. Can’t recall.

“But that’s not what I wanted to say. According to this index card in my hand, I wanted to tell you how you’re onto something, wondering whether this life is real or not.

“I wonder about that too. A lot of folks lose their way now and then. Misplace their values, or their ideals. But I’m in a fog all the time. Not just about what I ate for breakfast, how to put on my sock. About everything. Especially the big stuff.

“I’m sure I stood for something in my life,” the Old Billionaire said, “but I don’t have a clue what it was. And if I’m not what I always believed in, then what am I? Who am I?”

“I don’t have an answer for that one, O.B.”

“Nobody does. But I’m working one out. Way I see it, if I’m not who I was, then it doesn’t matter whether this is life or death or heaven or hell. Because if I’m not who I was, then my soul is gone. Kaput! Not part of me anymore. And I might as well be dead.”

He stopped. I heard him take one breath. Another. The breaths were weak but even. He was steady. He began talking again.

“And if that’s the case, wouldn’t I be better off in my ‘How’re You Doing, Mr. President?’ Suit, the one I wore on all my rich person occasions? Yep, that’s it. I should be in my expensive finery right now, lying in my fancy box six feet underground.

“You’re worried about whether the place you’re in—the psychological place, the spiritual place—is heaven or hell?” he went on. “At least you know it’s you doing the worrying. For me that’d be heaven. But this not knowing, this ache I’ve got inside me that keeps crying, ‘Who are you, old man? Are you you? It’s pure and simple, boy—that’s hell.”

The Old Billionaire’s words reminded me of something. “There’s a play by Jean-Paul Sartre where he said ‘Hell is other people.’ O.B., you ever see that?”

“Can’t say. Don’t know. But I beg to differ with your writer pal. Hell’s got nothing to do with other people. Hell’s all about being alone…and not knowing the first thing about the old gomer you’re alone with.”

Now his words reminded me of something else. “O.B.,” I said, “I don’t know if this’ll mean anything to you, but everything you’re saying, everything you’re wondering–it’s what you’ve always said and wondered. It’s the real you.”

The Old Billionaire’s voice caught. He stammered. Then: “Knew I could count on you, Larry B. Have yourself a great day!” and he hung up with a whoop.

And so here I am, having a great day indeed. My best friend is back.

At least, for now.

LB: Live! From Paradise #211 “The Cloud Creek Gang”

(The intro to this column in a recently successful incarnation here on the web)

by Larry Brody

I love when I learn something.

Especially when it’s completely unexpected.

Today’s case in point comes courtesy of the group of creatures Gwen the Beautiful and I have begun calling “The Cloud Creek Gang.”

Huck the Spotless Appaloosa.

(Let’s hear it for Emmy the Bold!)

Rosie the Romantic Arabian.

Emmy the Bold.

Decker the Giant Hearted.

Belle the Wary.

And Ditsy Dixie, the young yellow Lab who gives not one hint of being anywhere near growing up.

What is it they’ve been ganging up together to do?

Ah, that’s what I’ve just learned.

Thanks to a nifty little gift given to me by Youngest Daughter Amber’s Boyfriend. A strap-on headlight I can wear to see into nooks and crannies in the house and across our property while keeping my hands free.

Yep, I look like an idiot wearing it. Absolutely. But without my headlight I never would’ve known what the Gang was up to when the dogs barked and growled and yowled in the night.

Without it, I would’ve (and did) believe I was saving the dogs from the horses, and the horses from the dogs, when, at two or three in the A.M., their frenzied noise forced me to wake up and stumble downstairs and outside.

There I would see shadowy dog forms leaping at equally shadowy horses whose heads were pushed over the fence separating the backyard from the corral. Worried about the safety of all the creatures involved (and eager to get back to sleep, glorious sleep!), I would call the dogs and they’d come running inside.

Decker and Belle would curl up on the floor of the great room, while Emmy and Dixie bounded upstairs to hog as much space as they could on our not-so-big bed. Secure in the knowledge that I’d prevented at least one if not several veterinary emergencies, I’d get back under the blankets with Gwen and snore away—

Until a couple of hours later, when the dogs would sound off again as though the most life-threatening critters anywhere had appeared on the porch and, with more than a little encouragement from my worried wife, I’d rush down and let them outside again.

It was no easy gig, the Doggy Doorman thing.

Until a couple of nights ago, when I discovered what really was going on. I woke up before the barking started and, driven by my unending curiosity, I strapped on my new headlight and slipped outside to see Huck moseying across the corral to the fence with Rosie right behind.

I’d always thought the horses and dogs spoke separate languages, but in the new illumination, I watched as Huck looked over at Emmy and called out with a whinny. “Emmy? You ready?”

“Absolutely,” Emmy barked.

Huck turned to Rosie. “Ready,” she said.

Emmy whined at the other dogs. “Ready,” they too said.

Ms. The Bold turned back to Huck. “Go for it, my friend.”

Huck made a sound like a laugh, and there went his head, over the fence and then down toward the grass. Immediately, Emmy pounced at him. But Huck was faster than she was. She got nothing but air as he jerked his head up.

Huck nickered, like another laugh. “Missed!”

“Try again, big guy,” said Emmy, and she backed away just a bit to give him room, even as the other dogs moved in closer.

Huck did his head-over-the-fence thing again, and beside him Rosie did the same. Emmy and the other dogs sprang at them—

And the usual wild cacophony ensued, animal voices punctuated by hoofbeats as the horses pounded the turf and bucked and reared, keeping the dogs at bay. Only Dixie came close to either of their faces, by springing up and down like Tigger in the old Disney Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons.

“Stop!” I roared. And, to the dogs: “Get over here! Now!”

Three dogs rushed to me. Only Emmy held back, and that was for just a few seconds, a time so short I wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the headlight. A few seconds in which she turned back to Huck and winked. “Thanks, Hucky,” she said.

“See you in a few,” was Huck’s reply.

But he didn’t see them till after sunrise. Because when the dogs made their “We’ve got to get out of here! Now!” move, neither Gwen nor I responded.

Because now we knew the truth. Danger? Ha!

Nothing was going on out there but the four-legged Cloud Creek Gang having fun.

LB: Live! From Paradise #210 “T-Shirt Electioneering”

(The intro to this column in a recently successful incarnation here on the web)

by Larry Brody

Burl Jr., computer genius turned bluesman turned farmer, just opened his very own recording studio, right in the Paradise Town Square.

“It’s my little den,” Burl Jr. told me, “where I can prove I didn’t give up on my Billboard Top 100 dream.”

We were standing in the middle of the room, a smallish space filled with microphones and lined with sound-proofing. At one end, a window looked into the control room, which was even smaller yet filled with the latest digital audio recording equipment. At the other end of the studio was a door linking Burl Jr. to his old stomping ground, Paradise Music.

“So this is all about recording yourself? Can’t you do that at home?”

“Sure. But there are times, you know, when a man’s got to get away from the house. I wanted to have a place here in town where I could hang out on my own terms. My old haunts aren’t doing it for me anymore.”

He frowned. I know Burl Jr., and I know that look. Something had happened that really bugged him. I didn’t want to push, but, well, not only do I know this kid, I love him, so I wanted to learn what had gone wrong.

“Let’s just say that after all the time I’ve spent away, Harriman’s Mountain Stream Bait & Tackle seems kind of out of it, okay?”

I shook my head. Burl Jr. let out a deep sigh.

“Back before I became a daddy, my own daddy and I fished together whenever he could grab the time. He’d send me to Harriman’s Saturday mornings for supplies. It was kind of like I grew up there. I know everybody, and they’ve all known me from before I could even walk or talk.

“But last year, before the November election, I went in and everything was different. Nobody would speak to me. Frankie Harriman’s my Godfather, but he just looked right through me when I said, ‘Howdy.’ All the boys did. They wouldn’t answer my questions. Acted like I wasn’t even at the counter when I tried to pay for a couple of buckets of worms.

“I couldn’t figure it out. How’d I get invisible? I whined, and then I yelled and made the kind of fuss I’m too ashamed of to even talk about, and went home empty-handed. I wanted to tell my daddy what’d happened but figured it would be better to fight my own battle. If I could just figure out what the battle was.

“A couple of days later, I came back. This time Frankie was all smiles.

“‘Hey, Junior,’ he said, ‘good to see ya. Where ya been?’

“I said, ‘Been right here. Just the day before yesterday. Don’t you remember?’

“Frankie shook his head. ”Course I’d remember,’ he said, ‘if you was here.’ He turned to the rest of the boys. ‘Any of you seen Burl Jr. in the shop recently?’

“They all shook their heads.

“‘No.’

“‘Nope.’

“‘Not for at least a month.’

“And then it hit me. When I came in before I was wearing a campaign T-shirt with a big picture of Obama on the front. And now I was wearing one that said, ‘Arkansas Razorbacks.’

“It was like all of a sudden I was hearing the song from Deliverance. Men who were near family to me had cut me like I was dead ’cause I was voting for a Black man. It was so old-fashioned. More than that, it was so wrong!

“I got as mad as I’d been frustrated before. But I held my temper and left with a lying smile. And decided to put fishing behind me and build a place where nobody could judge me…but me.”

As Burl Jr. spoke, the door connecting the studio to Paradise Music opened, and DW, its owner, peered inside. Heard what Burl Jr. was saying.

“There’s something you don’t remember,” he said.

“What’s that?” Burl Jr. said.

“Frankie Harriman is County Chairman of the Republican Party. Harriman Bait & Tackle’s not just a store, it’s party headquarters. Could be he wasn’t mad because you were voting for a Black man but because he thought you were voting for the wrong man. And throwing it in his face.”

“Why didn’t Frankie just say that?” Burl Jr. said.

DW shrugged. But an answer came to me like a jangly blues chord.

Maybe because he didn’t think he had to. Because Frankie too believed he was absolutely right, and in a place where nobody could judge him…but himself.