Senior reporter grateful to be considered family

“You’re family, Charlie.”

That was Lynn Toller’s reaction when I told her I was leaving the News-Argus to take a position with the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce.

She gave me her sad puppy face. Those of you who know her have probably seen it and know she’s perfected it with help from her cockapoo, Sadie Sue.

In November Lynn celebrates 40 years with the News-Argus. That makes my eight years seem like no time at all.

Reflecting on that eight years, it’s amazing to think of how much has changed since I started in April of 2012. I came in not knowing anyone in this town. I’d visited once and hiked the Lewistown Overlook trail, hopped around Main Street and saw the town’s charm and potential. At the time I was a reporter in Glendive. Knowing the News-Argus was part of the same company (Yellowstone Newspapers) I kept the destination in mind.

That was a good idea.

I didn’t know what my goal was when I first clocked in, but the experience has far exceeded any expectations, whatever they may have been.

The community has embraced me and taught me so much. It’s amazing what you can learn from people when you set your intention to listen, and I’ve enjoyed hearing stories from many different walks of life.

There have been many changes in the office through the years. Editor Deb Hill and I have worked with six different reporters, three different sports editors and five different graphic designers. We’ve weathered many storms and overcome a lot of adversity together, and I’m proud to say we’ve been rewarded for it by winning our division’s coveted “General Excellence” award three years in a row.

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We had a great run at the News-Argus, winning many first-place awards for our local coverage.

“Are you sad?” Lynn asked me the other day, giving me the sad puppy face again.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ll come and see us, won’t you?”

“Of course.”

I’ll miss working with Deb, Lynn, publisher Jacques Rutten and the rest of the gang. There are many fun memories, many of which are inside jokes that are hard to relay here without using up much of my column space for context. We’ve shared a lot of laughs. Believe it or not the newsroom meetings were almost always fun.

It’s never easy to leave a crew you enjoy, but it’s even harder to leave a community you love, so I’m staying put with my wonderful wife, Kari, who I met at an open mic night at the Rising Trout Café shortly after moving here. We’ve been through it all together and I’m continually grateful for encouragement and support.

This will be a big change, but change can be good. It’s not something to fear or avoid. It can be trying, but it’s worth it, because you learn about yourself every time you try something new, and that’s what I’m ready to do here. It will be an interesting adventure at the Chamber and I look forward to working with new director Jo McCauley.

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I’m on a new journey, but I’m not going far, as I’m grateful to stay in central Montana.

Nevertheless, there is much I will miss about sharing the stories of Central Montana. It’s been a pleasure to sit down and learn about your lives and I’m grateful for those times we’ve had together. Thanks for your trust, for your openness and for making this a wonderful place to live.

This is not the end – it just changes our relationship, and I look forward to seeing you around because, like Lynn said to me, I consider you all family, as well.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus June 6, 2020)

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Choosing happiness in a time of uncertainty


Looking for something upbeat?

Based on the novel by French writer Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness” is a fitting watch for the moment, as it takes the viewer on a journey to discover what it means to be happy. Hector (Simon Pegg), a London psychiatrist struggling both personally and professionally, impulsively goes on a happiness-seeking quest, which takes him to Shanghai, the Himalayas, Africa and Los Angeles, where he makes new friends and visits some old ones (including his ex-girlfriend, played by Toni Collette).

Hector was looking to get out of a rut. He felt like a fraud. How can he tell people to be happy if he didn’t know what it means to be happy? The shrink lost sight of what really mattered, something that can happen to any of us. This crisis we’re facing, however, gives us an opportunity to hit the reset button, to reprioritize and refocus. It’s a time to ask some of those difficult questions, such as “Am I happy?” “Am I living the life I want to live?” and “What are some things I love that I have neglected?”

It’s so easy to get overrun with commitments and obligations. We can make ourselves so busy we forget what kind of life we were after in the first place. Personally, I feel like there are a lot of blessings when it comes to our current situation. There is tragedy, yes, and there is fear, but there is also discovery…and self-discovery. Now can be the time to work on that project you’ve dreamed of doing, be it writing a novel, building a deck, building a sports car or something else. It’s obviously not the time to travel, but it can be that time to finally read that book you’ve been putting off. If you’re fortunate enough to be quarantined with your family, even better: play “Scrabble” with your wife. Watch movies with the kids. I can tell you our household is grateful for Disney + and Netflix. Hulu comes in handy, too.

We all have different ideas when it comes to happiness, and far too often it eludes us, but that doesn’t have to be the case. What Hector ultimately decides is that he already has everything he needs to be happy, and I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion. Happiness lies in being present. It lies in listening to others, offering compassion and not focusing so much on yourself. Slow down, be mindful, don’t worry so much about the past or the future. As I read in “The Book of Joy,” “We must try to be conscious about how we live and not get swept away by the modern trance, the relentless march, the anxious accelerator.”

This, of course, is easier said than done. It takes practice. It takes continual reminders, but it can be done with intention. As Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer) says in the aforementioned film, “We should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness but with the happiness of pursuit.”

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Seeking Solace in Song

“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul

I want to get lost in your rock n’ roll and drift away”

I’ve always known this comforting chorus, but I never really connected to Dobie Gray’s 1973 smash hit until recently, when my friend Troy in Glendive requested I play it on my live stream.

I told Troy to pick a song – any song – and I’d play it for him so we could celebrate his recent news of remission.

“I’ve been hearing and feeling it lately,” he said. “There’s something about it.”

Music is the foundation of my friendship with Troy. It all started at Reynold’s grocery store when I complimented him on his Bruce Springsteen “Darkness on the Edge of Town” T-shirt. I told him I was a big Springsteen fan, but Troy was a super fan. He knew every song and every album. Through the years he’d send me iconic live recordings, rarities and underrated albums. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about “The Boss,” a lot about Troy and a lot about life.

So when I asked my friend what song he’d like me to play I was certain it’d be Springsteen. It almost was, as he first suggested “Promised Land,” but he quickly changed his mind.

As I gave “Drift Away” a listen, I tried to think of when I heard it first and couldn’t place it. I feel like it’s always been there, often blaring on oldies radio stations. It’s one of those summertime feel-good jams or wedding reception dance numbers. It’s timeless.

There was one moment that really stuck in my mind, when the song took a new meaning. It was my 21st birthday in Bloomington, Indiana, when the mysterious, always well-dressed Curtis Crawford played a Delta-blues-inspired version of the tune at my party. For the first time I was entranced and captivated by the words. Working on the song for the first time, I thought of Curtis – an older gentleman kind enough to share life experiences and music with– and I thought about why he chose that song that day. I thought about why Troy chose it. What is it about this song?

That’s when the third verse spoke to me.

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me

I want you to know I believe in your song

The rhythm, the rhyme and harmony

You help me along, making me strong

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Playing in Glendive, 2010, freeing my soul

It was music that strengthened Troy as he fought his way free of cancer, it was the music that helped Curtis get through his hard times and it’s music I find strengthening many of us during this trying time for our world. On Sunday night, as I struggled with the loss of my grandfather to the coronavirus, I turned to Casey and Jeff Sanders’ Joy Valley Hymns live stream. As they sang, “Hope has not abandoned me,” my spirits lifted and sorrow subsided. That’s the beauty of music, be it “Drift Away,” Springsteen, the Sanders’ unique contemporary takes on old hymns or something else. If you’re struggling right now, I encourage you to turn on music that brings you joy, something that frees your soul and helps you along. For me, I’ve been turning to Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” and The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine,” but, really, the list is endless. Put on the music that speaks to you. I hope it brings you comfort.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus and Glendive Ranger Review)

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Paying tribute to Grandpa, the most grateful man I’ve known

On Saturday, April 18, my grandfather Marshall Cheek Kidd passed away. He had just turned 97, and, for the first time, was really starting to feel his age. The life of the party was slowing down, both physically and mentally. It was hard to believe, but the man with the gift of gab suddenly had a hard time keeping up with conversation. A man known for his delightful aphorisms (“Giving up procrastination is very difficult,” “Big data allows us to make bigger mistakes with confidence,” “Politics, like religion, is not about logic and reason,” to give you a few) stopped sharing quips and just shared smiles, still just as grateful for each moment.

Gregarious by nature, Grandpa was always a sucker for social interaction, which made this global pandemic extra discouraging for him and those he loved.

“For your grandpa, social distancing is a punishment,” my Aunt Margie told me last week. Margie and my Uncle Steve (Marshall’s eldest son) went to see Marshall at his retirement home in Nashua, New Hampshire over the weekend, but they could only talk to him on the phone and interact with him from outside the building, separated by glass. It’s hard to know how much of this my grandpa understood. He couldn’t eat with his friends anymore. Meals were delivered to him. He couldn’t go out and about to see his plethora of friends and participate in lively discussions. Lockdown was enforced, as residents and employees were testing positive for COVID-19.

Grandpa would also test positive.

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Marshall spending some time with his grandson in the early 90s at his lakehouse in New Hampshire

Listening to Benny Goodman, my grandfather’s favorite composer, I reflect on Marshall. Like Goodman, he was a clarinet player. I got to see him perform with a big band once during a visit to New Hampshire when I was in high school, and he was fantastic. Playing the clarinet was one of his great joys in life, and it was evident when you heard him.

He stayed with the music. At The Huntington – where he spent the last decade and a half of his life – he participated in the Monday sing-a-longs, his clarinet chops still there after all those years.

Grandpa once told me music was the secret to a long life. He was quite certain of this.

“I noticed this at my last high school reunion,” he said. “Most of us from band were still around.”

Although I didn’t have an appreciation for jazz in my adolescence, my grandpa was still able to establish a bond between us through music. He’d always ask what I was into and was almost always willing to listen.

During one visit I played him Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and asked him if he could play it on the clarinet.

“It’s actually pretty easy,” he said, smiling. “Can you play it on guitar? If not, you should try it. You’ll get it.”

 

His self-confidence and constant belief in me never failed to inspire. I came home from that trip and brought “Kashmir” to my guitar teacher. He taught it to me in one lesson, and I came to admire my grandfather even more. He always applied himself and always was a student of life. He couldn’t get enough. I would even share some of my college textbooks with him so we could learn together.

Grandpa’s thirst for knowledge was almost as contagious as his positive attitude, which constantly amazed his family. We’ve often joked about how many times he said, “This is the best day of my life.” How wonderful is that?  It’s like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said, “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

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Grandpa playing piano at the Huntington a few years ago

Benny Goodman plays on, and I can see why Grandpa was so taken by his sound and why he picked up the clarinet in the first place. He was fortunate to be a part of such a remarkable era, and he didn’t take it for granted. One of the only regrets he shared with me was not being able to fight in World War II. He would’ve gone in a heartbeat, but they didn’t take him, so he stayed behind and studied engineering at Ohio State University. He went on to become an electrical engineer, working for RCA and General Electric. He enjoyed his career and was honored to play a part in creating the Lunar Excursion Module for the Apollo program.

Grandpa was always the first to tell you how good he had it. Even during hard times he could seek out the silver lining. I’ll always cherish that about him and aspire to follow in his footsteps that way, especially right now, when we could all use a little more positivity.

I can’t think of a better way to do that than with music, whether it’s performing, writing a song or putting it on and sharing a dance with my wife.

My grandpa once said, “If it weren’t for music, I would’ve been a disaster.” I know the feeling and will always be thankful for his encouraging words that helped instill the confidence I needed to stick with guitar. But, more than that, I will always be grateful for his love, his wisdom and his joyful spirit. Thank you, Grandpa.

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Let laughter and positivity carry you through this difficult time

“Blow up your TV. Throw away your paper.

Go to the country. Build you a home.

Plant a little garden. Eat a lotta peaches.

Try and find Jesus, on your own.” – John Prine, “Spanish Pipedream”

Well, it’s Holy Week, and here we are in the middle of the greatest pandemic of our lifetime. It becomes more real all the time. When I heard legendary singer/songwriter John Prine was put in intensive care after contracting Covid-19 I felt numb.

A man I consider the Kurt Vonnegut of country music, Prine has many songs that capture the beauty and absurdity, the wit and wonder life has to offer. I paid tribute to him last week on my weekly live stream by playing a few of his tunes, including “Spanish Pipedream.” It’s one of those songs that can make you laugh out loud. Prine has a lot of those: “Illegal Smile,” “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” “In Spite of Ourselves” and “When I Get to Heaven,” to name a few). So when I saw the news on Instagram I stopped what I was doing and tried to process this alarming news. Prine passed April 7, joining country singer Joe Diffie, Fountains of Wayne singer Adam Schlesinger and more than 10,000 others killed by the virus in the U.S. thus far.

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John Prine performs “Six O’Clock News” in Milwaukee April 25, 2018, a show I went to with my father and brother-in-law

Among those deceased is Lew Berry, a funny, tough (he held our school’s squatting record), larger-than-life character I graduated from high school with in Indiana.

Famous musicians are one thing, but when it starts taking 37-year-old buddies, it gets personal. There’s no ignoring this. We can’t pretend it’s not coming our way. We can’t pretend the stay-at-home directive doesn’t apply to us. Like Don Thomas wrote in a letter to the editor in last week’s Lewistown News-Argus, “Really, really wanting to believe something will not make it true. It may have worked for Peter Pan, but it will not alter the course of the current epidemic.”

With all this in mind, it’s natural to be scared or anxious, it’s understandable to go to a dark place, but try your best to stay positive. That’s what I’m going to do. It’s something my wife encourages and exemplifies. There is so much to take in. Sometimes I overload myself with news and constant phone calls. It’s good to be informed, yes, but balance is critical. We can’t make information an obsession.

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Prine plays “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” with The Milk Carton Kids in Milwaukee

Sharing music has helped me. So has laughter. The more we can make ourselves laugh the healthier we’ll feel. Motivational speaker Les Brown agrees with this philosophy. His live stream helped me out Monday morning with some jokes that brought levity to the situation: “If you get an email that says, ‘knock, knock,’ don’t answer – it’s a Jehovah’s Witness working from home.”

There is a lot of healing in laughter. This was evident while watching “The Croods” with my stepkids and “Raising Arizona” with my wife. There is also a lot of healing in positivity. Les Brown encourages us to have a “perpetual mindset and attitude that we will get through this.” Yes, there are going to be more deaths. People we know will die. It’s a harsh and uncertain reality, but we are in charge of how we respond to it.

I ask you to follow this advice and find something that makes you laugh. Share what brings you joy with your partner or your children. Use this time to your advantage and avoid panicking, even if you’ve lost your job or are suffering in other ways, be it loneliness, depression, fear or financial strain. Try your best to stay mindful, stay grounded and be purposeful in how you use this time. If you need help, reach out to a family member, a friend, a counselor or a crisis hotline.

One way to improve physical and mental health is by utilizing Lewistown’s walking trails. I can’t believe how many people were on them Sunday, enjoying the beautiful day with their families. We are lucky to have them in our backyard. Take advantage.

As bad as it is, there is still much for which to be grateful. Find those things in your life. Listen to some John Prine, too.

(a previous version of this was published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

 

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Local musicians, artists go “live” to lift spirits

It was February of 2007. I was in New Orleans with my friend Daniel – a native – celebrating his first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the impassioned city, its impact still widely spread. Daniel’s home had significant water damage and some of his friends were still crashing in FEMA trailers.

New Orleans, however, is a resilient place. Hope remained, spirits stayed strong. The community – and thousands of others from all over the nation and the world – united together for the carnival’s return.

The most unforgettable moment of this experience came uptown at Tipitina’s. Trombone Shorty – who had just returned from a tour with Lenny Kravitz – was headlining with a band of local All-Stars, getting funky, the spirit of The Big Easy back intact. As Shorty and his band marched through the crowd, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” everything was electrified. We were all moving and grooving together, marching along.

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Tipitina’s in New Orleans – a historical music venue named after a Professor Longhair classic.

I’d never felt anything quite like it. Music rejuvenated the people and it rejuvenated a city that went to Hell and back. It was soul restoration.

Nothing brings us together like music, and, during this alarming time in history, we need it badly.

Unfortunately, we can’t physically bring people together during this time of crisis, so musicians are taking to live streaming to entertain, to try and bring joy to others who are saddened, sick, stuck at home or all three.

A friend of mine was just streaming live in Austin, Texas, backing up Nikki Lane on keyboards. It was a fun time for him joining a bill with Willie Nelson at the top, but he’s just processing like we all are and trying to find ways where he can contribute.

“It all feels like self-healing to me,” he said. “I’m happy to pass it on.”

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A lot of musicians are taking to live streaming during this crisis, and I’m glad to participate.

That’s what local musicians are doing, too. Last week Chris Hildebrant and I did back-to-back sessions on Facebook live and we’re going to do it every weekend. Dave Rummans, Jeff and Casey Sanders, Christie Aldrich and others are doing the same, and why not? Music offers community and solace.

When I did my live stream last week from my basement, it really felt like I was playing a show. The comments poured in, people were grateful, excited to have the entertainment. Like Jon said, it was a self-healing experience, but it also brought joy to others, and that’s special. That’s what we need. Whether a musician or not, we can all find ways to contribute. Like David Byrne of the Talking Heads said, “we’re all in the same leaky boat.”

It’s inspiring how many musicians are keeping the party going right now. DJ D-Nice (Derrick Jones) kicked this trend into gear a few weeks back through “Homeschool,” the name for his social distancing Instagram live parties he puts on from his kitchen in California. This party has had some A-list viewers, including Will Smith, Jimmy Fallon, Michelle Obama, Magic Johnson and Lenny Kravitz himself.

“We are one,” Kravitz commented during last Saturday’s “Homeschool” session.

The streams might not get as wild as that night at Tipitina’s 13 years ago, but – even when we can’t leave the house – music can continue to lift us up, pacify our problems and set us free. I invite you to join me and the other local musicians, to follow your favorite artists and see what they’re doing because they are likely going to stream, as well. Also, if you want to bring a taste of New Orleans to your living room, check out Jon Cleary’s “Quarantini Hour” from his Facebook music page.

We can get through this, friends. And if you’re having doubts, put on some music. Let your troubles subside.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to proposing

Are you thinking about popping the question?

If so, how do you know you’re ready to make the move?

Do you create the mood or wait for the moment to present itself?

Do you involve others or keep it private?

There is no “one size fits all” here. The best proposal is not about what someone else did – it’s about what’s right for your partner.

If your partner is more private, you probably don’t want to make the big announcement in front of strangers at a restaurant.

If your partner hates surprises, you probably want to ease them into it, give them subtle hints and not get carried away.

Understanding your partner and understanding yourself are the most important elements of a proposal. On this note, if you find yourself more nervous than excited about the action of proposing, have more talks with your partner about the future. Make sure you are on the same page, and don’t stress it. Don’t let anxiety take hold. It’s a fun and exciting time and should be something you look forward to – not something that terrifies you.

That being said, it’s totally common to be nervous. This is a big deal, no matter how long you’ve been together. Asking someone to be your partner for the rest of your life should be the biggest question you ever ask, leading to the biggest question you’ll ever answer.

It’s hard to know exactly when you are ready to take this plunge.

I’d been with my partner for three years before proposing, so I’d obviously had a lot of time to think about it before the big day.

What made it clear to me was the conviction I had that life was better with Kari than it was without her, than I felt completed and comforted by her presence and her endless love. I never wanted to lose her.

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In 2015, we booked Chico Hot Springs for Valentine’s Day (which also happens to be Kari’s birthday) and I packed the engagement ring in my travel bag. There are few things in this world Kari loves more than hot springs, so I figured combining a soak with a proposal would be perfect. Considering she’s not a fan of the spotlight, I had no intention of proposing in the pool or at dinner. I didn’t want to create a moment. Instead, I wanted the opportunity to occur organically, and it did

Was I nervous? Absolutely. It’s a gigantic question. Although I was optimistic, I had some jitters, and, more than anything, I wanted it to be special and wanted it to be a surprise.

Fortunately, she didn’t see it coming.

“You did it!” she said, before giving me an answer.

She gave me a hug, a kiss and then she said, “yes.”

Was it easy? No, but it was perfect for us, a memory we’ll always cherish.

A year and a half after I asked the question, we said our “I dos,” and we’ve been enjoying the journey of a life together. It’s what we hoped for that evening in Chico, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.   

In my opinion, this is what proposing is all about: consider the ultimate answer before you consider asking the question, and, when you’re ready, make the moment something you know your partner will appreciate.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus 2020 Bridal Edition)

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Be pleasant this holiday season

“Years ago my mother used to say, “In this world you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” – Elwood P. Dowd, “Harvey”

Sixty-nine years after its release, there’s still a lot we can learn from “Harvey,” especially Elwood P. Dowd, one of Jimmy Stewart’s most iconic roles.

Dowd always set his intention to be pleasant. Wherever he went he was interested, cordial and kind. He listened. People enjoyed having him around, so much so they didn’t mind that he had an invisible friend: a 6’4” rabbit named Harvey.

Giant pooka aside, Dowd lived his life one social encounter at a time, looking forward to meeting strangers and becoming their friends. What a novel concept.

Perhaps the 1950s was a simpler time. Having talked with some Central Montanans recently about their experience during that decade, it sounds like it was, but that’s no excuse for us to lose sight of being pleasant, especially in rural, small-town America, where we are supposed to take pride in such a trait.

How did we get off track?

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Growing up, my dad would often share a Kurt Vonnegut quote with me: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” As we go throughout our day, who is it we are pretending to be? Who is it we are trying to impress? When we have so many demands, so many commitments, so many relationships, sometimes we forget what we’re after in the first place.

I don’t know what it was like in the ‘50s, but I remember it being easier in the ‘90s and early 2000s, when our lives weren’t our phones. Now we’re always accessible. We’re always busy. It’s hard to stop and enjoy the silence when we won’t allow ourselves to experience it.

This being the case, it’s easier to get irritable. You can let news and work consume you. You can let the divisive political culture become an addiction. Instead of just reading an article or watching a show, you have social media constantly reminding you of the day’s drama, triggering an emotional response. No matter what side you’re on, it’s easy to get defensive, reactionary, even volatile.

Stop. Take a breath. Reset. And say to yourself, “I don’t know what’s in store today, but I’m going to try being pleasant.”

This is, of course, easier said than done, but being pleasant – like anything – takes effort, and, if you pretend for long enough, you might realize it’s not an act anymore.

I’d like to be more like Elwood P. Dowd and focus on the moment, live one interaction at a time, not be so easily distracted. I’d like to be pleasant, be it at home, work or out and about.

This holiday season seems as good a time as any to start pretending.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Reflections on “Joker” and society today

“Wanting people to pay attention, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder. Sometimes you have to hit them in the head with a sledgehammer…then you get their strict attention.” – John Doe, “Seven.”

Kevin Spacey’s role as a serial killer playing out the seven deadly sins in the iconic David Fincher thriller from 1995 has many similarities to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of mentally disturbed Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”

Doe’s actions were meant to protest society’s tolerance of sin, which he believed had reached an apex far beyond healthy, far beyond excusable. He wanted to do something about it by making a graphic statement. Driven by his narcissism, he believed he was chosen to deliver God’s wrath.

Unlike “Joker,” Doe’s actions were orchestrated. Arthur Fleck did not intend to use violence as a way to express himself. The gun he uses to kill three men on the subway was initially meant for self-defense. But once he’s lauded as a vigilante he trades up a failed stand-up comic career to go full-time villain.

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What did you expect? It’s a bad-guy origin film, one with an ending that empowers evil. In the shocking climax, “Joker” is celebrated – even oddly worshipped – for killing fictional TV talk show host Murray Franklin (appropriately played by Robert DeNiro, star of “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”).

In “Taxi Driver,” Travis Bickle (DeNiro) tries to avoid turning into a “Joker.”

“I don’t believe one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” says the lonely narrator struggling to find friends in late-70s New York, a dark and depraved place like the Gotham Todd Phillips creates in “Joker.”

Bickle turns to violence, as well. In the end, he’s a savior for a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster). He has good intentions as a vigilante, but let’s not forget he first attempts to assassinate a political candidate. He feels rejected and tries to take it out on the man who represents everything he can’t have, the man the woman he loves admires.

We pity Bickle, but do we celebrate his murders? Do we root for him? Do we root for Arthur Fleck? Are we supposed to celebrate him as he dances on top of the crashed cop car while Gotham goes up in flames?

These films all glorify evil in some way, but our society is more frightened and fragile now. Violence, sadly, is an option, an escape route, a way to achieve celebrity status for far too many. Death counts are rising.

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Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” came out the year before “Seven.” There was controversy and concern, but nothing like we’re seeing today. If these movies were to come out now, the outrage would certainly be there. The protests would impact the viewing of the film, just as it has with “Joker.” We were told it should scare us, we were warned it could potentially the wrong ideas to the wrong kind of people.

What good were these warnings? And were they legitimate? They certainly worked for DC Films and Village Roadshow Pictures, as “Joker” has grossed more than $700 million worldwide.

Are these warnings merited? Are dark films such as “Joker” to blame for what society has become? Who can say? Four years after John Doe’s rant in the backseat of the police car in “Seven,” two bullied outcasts shot up their school in Littleton, Colorado. Would they have done that if they hadn’t seen “Seven” or “Natural Born Killers,” the latter of which was one of their favorite movies?

People try to blame the media, but aren’t these films reflections of our sick society? These movies are works of fiction. They are art. And they are inspired by the society that breeds them. We’re broken, and one large reason we’re broken is captured by Doe’s self-righteous comment. We’re ego-driven and we don’t feel heard. We’re isolated and desperate. We all want to feel important. Instead, we feel like a pawn in the game, a sheeple, insignificant.

This is more the case now than it was in the ‘70s or the ‘90s. With the prominence of the Internet and social media, we’re all drowned out, leading to more megalomaniacal, bombastic cries for help. Our sledgehammers are AR-15s.   

How do we prevent this?

We start where we are. We listen. We don’t go online to find our friends. We find them in our community. We talk to our neighbors, or at least make an effort. We don’t try to be right all the time. We try to co-exist with those who have differing opinions.

Will this solve everything? No. But it’s a start. Don’t let contempt fuel you, and don’t let ego drive you. Be kind and considerate to others and be compassionate to those who are in need of compassion. If we try harder, perhaps the John Does, the Travis Bickles and the Arthur Flecks won’t feel so alone.

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Magic waters: Hot springs are magnificent for both humans and wildlife

When my wife, Kari, stepped into the natural, 94-degree pool at Days Inn Thermopolis last Labor Day weekend, she was overcome with euphoria. She smiled and let out a big sigh. Completely captivated, she became one with the water.

Such is the salvation in the hot springs of Wyoming. Upon dipping in, your sorrows and troubles melt away. Relaxation becomes you.

A Greek word for “Hot City,” Thermopolis is best-known for Big Horn Hot Springs, one of the largest mineral springs in the world, releasing 2.8 million gallons of 135-degree water daily. For more than a century, Thermopolis’ hot springs have been praised by doctors, practitioners, biologists and people of all ages and all walks of life, from all over the world, to take in Star Plunge Swim Center, Plaza Hotel, Hot Springs Water Park and other hot-spring related jewels the town and state park provide.

What is now revered as a hot spring mecca, Thermopolis was discovered by two frontiersman. In 1884, Joe Sneider and Ed Crapon saw steam rising from a small body of water while passing through the area. At first, they thought it was a hostile Indian camp, but as they got closer, they had located something magical for both people and wildlife: hot springs of “considerable magnitude.”

Purchased from the Shoshone and Arapahoe Indians in 1896 by the Federal Government, this land was presented to the state of Wyoming and turned into destination for soakers.

Local pharmacies used to bottle this water and sell it to patients to treat “a variety of ailments,” according to the Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources. Through the decades, stories have been told of “miracle cures.” In an issue of the Thermopolis Independent Review from Nov. 27, 1952, for example, 79-year-old Jesse Smith reported his gray hair turned black after drinking hot springs water for three months.

A gateway to Hot Springs State Park and the county seat of Hot Springs County, Thermopolis is hot spring heaven, as several hotels and other establishments in the area are supplied by the natural mineral water and even have pools of their own, be it the Days Inn, Best Western or the bath house at Hot Springs State Park.

Hot Springs State Park is to hot springs lovers what Graceland is to Elvis Presley admirers: the hot spring playgrounds, the bath house and the tufa terrace waterfalls, the latter which makes the park reminiscent of Yellowstone’s natural geothermal wonders.

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Taking a walk

After starting our day with a soak, Kari and I took a stroll on walking trails meandering through Thermopolis. We walked over the Bighorn River on a magnificent suspension bridge, passing several ancient travertine terraces formed by mineral springs that used to be much larger and omnipotent. Dying springs, such as the Spirit Hole and Devil’s Punch Bowl, provide a glimpse into what a once-active spring looked like below the water surface. Evidence of the travertine formations can be seen along the Bighorn River and on the hillside across the river. Some springs were still active during the early 1900s, forming today’s rainbow-colored terraces. The Park’s clay mounds stand where hot mineral water once bubbled out of the ground.

The water flowed through these surfaces, bubbling over a ground that looked like white clay and, in some instances, red clay.  On the walkway nearest to the Days Inn, the water reddened from one day to the next. We were fascinated by the transition. Hot springs lovers aren’t alone in their fondness to the area’s steamy paradise.

Kari at Hot Springs

Welcoming for wildlife

“What’s that?” Kari asked, as we passed Star Plunge Swim Center and headed toward Hot Springs Park looking into the Bighorn after seeing a splash. “Did you see that?”

The critter popped his head up and swam away. A mink.

Many other animals were present: ducks, mule deer, snakes, a wide variety of insects and other creatures of land and water. Birds particularly find solace in the area. Sparrows, mourning doves, robins, meadowlarks, red-tailed hawks, Great Blue Herons and others find a home here.

“We are in the middle of the mountain fly way,” Hot Springs State Park Assistant Supervisor John Fish said. “We have literally thousands of birds migrating through here seasonally.”

The water – and its temperature – contribute to Thermopolis being a migratory hot spot.

“We have a micro climate here due to the hot mineral water springs and the Bighorn River that is a tail water from Boysen Reservoir. The river generally does not freeze from the dam all the way down through town.”

Without the water freezing, Fish said birds tend to stay in the area longer.

“We have robins that have been known to stay most of the winter here,” he said. “Belted King Fishers are a regular to our cooling ponds and have been seen perched right next to hot water discharges. Mallards, widgeons, teal, golden eye, mergansers, coots and Canada geese are very common. We do get quite a few shore birds on the terraces, as well. These would be the birds that utilize the hot water the most.”

Retired Yellowstone Park Ranger Katy Duffy agrees with Fish, saying she’s found thermal areas (particularly the geyser basins by Old Faithful) attract a plethora of bird activity year-round.

There are a number of reasons for this, Duffy said, from “potential availability of food” to “preferential climate,” but there is no study Duffy knows that asks what inspired birds to specifically target thermal areas.

“Thermal areas are warm, so water doesn’t freeze,” she said. “They see the open water in the unfamiliar habitat and they think they can drink it and that there likely will be insects. If you are a duck you can find the vegetation you need. I’m not saying it is a fantastic area for birds, but it stays open and has strange geothermal features that may spark an interest for some birds, especially ”

Could the hot water scald them? Perhaps, but there are no statistics available regarding the regularity or rarity of such an occurrence.

“Birds make mistakes,” Duffy said. “So do other animals.”

(as published in the Thermopolis Independent Record, Sept. 12, 2019)

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