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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“Dookie” Lives On: Reflections on Green Day’s breakthrough 25 years later

August 14, 1994

Twenty-five years ago today, Green Day burst onto the scene with a playful, unhinged 8-song performance at Woodstock ’94 that ended in a full-out mud-throwing fight with the audience.

“This isn’t fucking peace, it’s fucking anarchy,” said frontman Billie Joe Armstrong as dirt-drenched festival goers kept making their way onto the stage.

Armstrong paraded around with his guitar, his dark blue hair almost brown from the mud pies people chucked at him. The chaos erupted during “When I Come Around,” and it only escalated from there. As Armstrong ran from the fans, bassist Mike Dirnt laid on the ground, keeping the beat together while slithering in a pile of dirt. Drummer Tré Cool kept it steady, watching the insanity he helped unleash.

Such destructiveness on display may have outraged some members of older generations, but these three young rebels from the Bay Area captured the adolescent struggles felt by so many of America’s youth in the early ’90s.

And they did it by bringing punk to the mainstream.

“Punk has been one of the best kept secrets in the world, and we sort of went and blabbed to everybody about it,” Armstrong said in an interview earlier in ’94.

“Dookie,” their groundbreaking album, had released in February and quickly caught fire, launching the band into the international spotlight, making them one of the biggest bands around. They also hit at the right time, replacing Nirvana as the hottest new power trio.

I was 10 at the time. I didn’t even understand most of the lyrics or emotions associated with Green Day, but I liked their energy and intensity. They were reckless and fun, and I was young and impressionable. I couldn’t get enough.

Again and again, I’d pop the CD in, jam out to “Burnout,” and let it play all the way to F.O.D. (Fuck Off and Die).

I could identify with their self-expression, even if I couldn’t relate to their thoughts on sexual frustration, boredom, poverty and angst. I just like how it made me feel: wild, awake and alive.

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yes, this is my mug

I started playing guitar a few years after “Dookie” came out, and I wanted badly to play along with it. I’d make a lot of noise, but it took a long time before I was able to play songs by myself, let alone with others. My dad – an excellent guitar player – wanted to help light a fire in me to play more and often. He did just that. One day,  while I was having a Green Day listening session, he picked up my Fender Strat and jammed the shit out of “Basket Case.”

Giving me a nod as he set the guitar down, my Presbyterian pastor father said, “I kind of like Green Day. They’re fun.”

At the time I was also listening to Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and other grunge bands, whose lyrics often bothered my dad. The songs were too depressing, he said.

“The Day I Tried To Live? Like Suicide? Give me a break.”

But there was something different about Green Day. They might fit the bill of “complaint rock,” but they did so in a more playful, engaging way. They were extroverts, which set them apart from many other rockers of the era.

Instead of a sob story, Green Day’s hard-driving punk was witty, silly, simple and surprisingly poignant.

They also didn’t sound like anybody else. Sure, they were influenced by the Ramones, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who and a plethora of other bands, but their sound was distinctly them, and Armstrong said that’s how is should be, as punk is meant to be personal

“Punk has always been about doing things your own way,” he said in an interview once. “What it represents for me is ultimate freedom and a sense of individuality.”

I could feel the independence associated with the genre, which in turn empowered me to find my own way to express myself. Once I started getting more disciplined as a guitar player, I learned how to use that self-expression musically.

Today I play out regularly with a band, a duo and as a soloist. This year I added “She” to most set lists as a way to pay tribute to “Dookie.”

As I continue to reflect on Green Day and their iconic Woodstock appearance, I reconnect with my young self and feel inspired to prioritize fun when performing. Young Green Day might be an extreme example, but their shows sparked something in their audience – they elevated them – and that’s what people want from a concert. They want to leave feeling elevated, they want to forget their troubles and release their anxiety.

This goes for a good album, too. Much has changed in the music world since “Dookie,” which only adds to its greatness. The raw, organic nature of the album makes the achievement more notable, and it’s aged remarkably well. It’s a masterpiece worth celebrating half a century later.

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For Brady: Feed Jake

“You gonna play a song or what?”

I was strumming an orange Washburn acoustic the bartender handed me. It was one of several guitars hanging over the bar at the Oasis on Merrill Avenue, in the heart of downtown Glendive. I’d just interviewed for the reporter position at the Ranger Review and wanted to get a feel for the people.

Brady, a heavy-set outlaw close to my age, sat near the end of the bar, wearing a white T-shirt and a baseball cap. He’d been there for a little while, taking it easy, having another. It was a cold, windy day in June, making it more welcoming to take a load off. By the time I got there and was fiddling with the guitar, he was ready for some entertainment.

The bartender, Sean, looked over at Brady, then looked back at me, and smiled, deciding he’d have a little fun with the moment.

“He used to box. I’d say he’s probably been in around 60 fights. If someone starts messing with him we try to hold them back,” Sean told me.

It was clear Brady was respected and his requests were granted.

“Alright, I’ll play something.”

I jumped into “Long Black Veil,” an old traditional about a man who was hung because he couldn’t bare telling a soul (or a judge) that he’d been in the arms of his best friend’s wife the “night a man was killed ‘neath the town hall light.” Brady was familiar with the song, and he liked my version. He asked for another, so I sang Willie Nelson’s “Blue Rock, Montana,” a tune about entering a bar, among other things.

Before the song ended I felt a connection with Brady. He gave me one of those “not bad, man” nods, and we were cool.

That never changed.

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Brady James Smith: 1982-2019

Even though we were never close, Brady and I had a kinship through music. This was further solidified a few months after we met, when Brady signed us up to sing “Feed Jake” by the Pirates of the Mississippi at Oasis Karaoke Night.

It was late in the evening and we were both lit up. I had a friend visiting who confused many in attendance with a heartfelt rendition of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Our House.” Brady and I were up.

I think Brady was surprised I didn’t know the song, but it didn’t really matter. We still made it our own. I had no concept of the vocal melody (or timing), so I started ad-libbing and messing around. I got the concept. Jake needed his food. The request to feed him must be respected. Brady and I enforced this. We even got angry about it, insisting and pleading that Jake not only be fed but also walked and bathed. We even got the audience involved, although I don’t recall how. I just remember everyone was with us. Brady ate it up. We were in it together, laughing our asses off, derailing the train together with hilarity and debauchery.

Performance – even drunken karaoke – can be a beautiful thing. Granted, I don’t have the best recollection of that duet, but I do recall we were locked in. The laughing didn’t really stop, for us or the spectators. The fact that I didn’t know the song provided a comic relief we wouldn’t have had otherwise. The hilarity was healthy, and it became ingrained in our friendship. From then on, almost every time we saw each other, we’d remind the other to feed Jake.

This never left us.

When I heard he passed I was devastated. Although our friendship consisted mainly of drinking buddies who ran into each other while out on the town, it was a friendship with an unbreakable foundation. Music united us, and we remain untied even after his passing.

I miss my friend and I wish him peace in the great beyond. I hope to see him again some day.

In the meantime, I’ll make sure to feed Jake.

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Homecoming: Daniel Bonte returns to Indy

“I bolted, man.”

Daniel Bonte and I hadn’t talked since 2002, when we graduated from Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Indiana. He was calling from Orange County, California, wanting to reconnect before embarking on a tour that includes a date at The Rathskeller in Indianapolis, his first performance in his hometown.

I’d heard he was headed back to our old stomping grounds, but I wouldn’t be there to catch him. I left, as well, moving to Montana 10 years ago. My friend and fellow 2002 HSE grad Mark Munz told me his new group, AM Radio, would be opening for Bonte.

“This is just our third gig, and it’s a real showcase,” he said.

Munz’s bandmate Adam Zoibi, who also graduated with us, couldn’t believe it.

“We put a gig together for St. Paddy’s Day to help my friend out at his new bar and now we’re getting legit,” he said.

Bonte’s been legit for some time now. Five years ago I was at Disneyland with my wife-to-be and her stepchildren. As we walked past the House of Blues on Disney Way, I saw a flyer for Daniel Bonte and The Bona Fide.

“What?” I thought. I didn’t know Bonte had that kind of ambition. I didn’t know he was a performer or even into country music.

What did I know about Daniel Bonte? Nothing, really. What do we really know about each other at that time in life? We would say “hi” here and there, but that was about it. When we talked on the phone the other day, however, he filled me in on what life was like for him back then.

“While you were all listening to ‘Dookie,’ I was listening to Clint Black, Garth and a lot of other country,” he said.

But, after high school, we evolve. We spread our wings. We find our niche.

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And that’s exactly what Bonte’s done. Along with his band, the Bona Fide, Bonte continues to make his way. During his young music career, he’s opened for Billy Currington, Easton Corbin, A Thousand Horses and others, bringing a sound reminiscent of Garth, Travis Tritt, John Mellencamp and Keith Urban.

His sound is ever-evolving, as his “Making My Way Back Home” tour has more of a Texas outlaw country vibe. Recently inspired by upcoming artists such as Cody Jinks, Bonte is adding more depth to each song, telling a story while filling up the dance floor.

Bonte may have bolted, but he’s excited to come home and see family and friends. It will be a happy homecoming for him, and he’d be delighted to see you.

I encourage those of you still in the Indy area to go see him Thursday night. Munz and Zoibi will kick things off with some memorable 90s alternative tunes and some catchy originals. Then Bonte and The Bona Fide will play their hard-drivin’, good-timin’ country.

And, for those of you who remember Bonte’s C + C Music Factory tribute in the seventh grade talent show, you’ll be pleased to see he doesn’t just sing. He’ll be bustin’ some moves.

The free show begins at 7 p.m.

 

 

 

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Supaman unites through hip-hop and positivity

Christian Parrish Takes the Gun doesn’t hide from his identity.

He doesn’t hide that he’s Supaman, nor does he hide where he comes from: the Crow Agency of Big Horn County, Montana.

A decorated and celebrated musician and activist, Supaman’s songs blend contemporary hip-hop with traditional Native American instrumentation and style. He’s been recognized for his originality, winning an Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Award, a North American Indigenous Music Award and an MTV Video Music Award.

Supaman spent some time in Lewistown this week, where he performed and spoke at both Kindness convocations, wearing his fancy dance regalia, and busted out his signature fancy dance outfit at Central Feed Brewing Co. as part of the MIH concert series.

Jason Stephens, a spokesman for MIH, first saw Supaman at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival last summer. It was that show that inspired Jason, Renee Stephens, Chris Hildebrant and other Make It Happen representatives to bring Supaman to Lewistown, where they hoped he’d get a similarly favorable response from non-native Montanans.

Such a reception is heartwarming for Supaman.

“We are still repairing the relationship Montanans have with the Native people,” he said. “We are working toward this, so it’s cool to come to a community like Lewistown where I’m seeing people putting together the Kindness project and the Unreserved program. It’s neat to see students from Hardin and Browning working together because they are old-school enemies. We still joke around about it, saying ‘this is our land,’ or ‘no, we were here first.’ Seeing this all come together – that’s how it should be.”

It takes understanding and an open heart to bridge these gaps, Supaman said. With his platform as a performer, he tries to encourage people who come out to his shows to respect others, learn from others and get a better understanding of differing cultures and identities.

“The platform I’ve been given is huge,” he said. “When I first started doing hip-hop, I was just into hip-hop. I wasn’t preaching ‘power to the people,’ but as I started performing and started maturing more as a human being I started to see there was a truth out there no one was talking about. As Native people, we’re always forgotten, and, seeing that, kind of made me think ‘yo, I have to say something. It’s my duty.’ That’s when I started gearing my music more that direction and using my platform to address those issues, but I wanted to do this in a way that brings people together. I started gearing my music toward positivity, toward bridging the gap.”

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Supaman performing at Fergus High School in April (photo by Miriam Campan)

Supaman was well aware that a hip-hop artist with a positive message was not a popular choice. However, he was determined.

“Mainstream hip-hop is about partying and being crazy, right? But I learned over time – if you have the skill level, the rhyme structure, the witty punch lines, the hip-hop community respects you. They’ll give you a chance.”

Wanting to elevate his game in the hip-hop world, Supaman likes to pull out all the stops. He loops traditional Native American flute, drums and old vocals with contemporary hip-hop beats. He also wears his traditional regalia.

Although his regalia is a big part of his image today, the decision to wear it while performing his hip-hop happened by chance.

“When I started I never put my regalia on when I put on a hip-hop show,” he said. “Where I come from you just don’t do that. It was taboo. There was always a line. I never put them together. But one time I was in Bozeman at the Native American Heritage Day. I was asked to share the culture and do some fancy dancing. We danced, we talked about the history and then the lady organizing the event came over and said, ‘hey, don’t you rap?’ I was like, ‘yeah,’ and then she’s like ‘hey, why don’t you do it?’ So I went to change but she said she needed us now, so we did it in our outfits. When we got done, I saw one of the elders – my grandpa– and I was afraid he was going to scold me, but as he got closer he took his hat off, shook his hand, told me the performance was powerful and applauded me for speaking the students’ language. He applauded me for sharing a positive message about being drug and alcohol free. He told me to keep doing it.”

That was the moment Christian Parrish Takes the Gun became Supaman. He got the permission he needed to carry on and let his heritage be part of his image as a hip-hop artist.

“Hearing my elders say they approve as long as my intentions are good was the major shift for me,” he said. “This was a big step, a huge step. Not everybody would take this step, but I went for it and I’m glad I did.”

Taking this risk solidified Supaman’s identity as a performer and separated him from others in the industry, which was something he’d wanted to do since the beginning.

“An emcee called Ras Kas says ‘everybody can rap…what makes you special?” he said. “I know what makes me different, and I embrace it.”

But ‘Supaman’ is just one part of Takes the Gun, as he’s a husband with three children who is always striving to be the best family man possible. Having their support is what makes it all worthwhile for him.

“I want to do some big things, some great things with music and with my message,” he said. “I want to do some big things with service, but when it comes down to it, I want people to remember me most as a good father and a good husband.”

Supaman said he’s grateful for the opportunity to perform for the Central Montana community.

“It’s been great to be here in Lewistown,” he said. “I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen here. I think we’re headed in a good direction.”

(as published by the Lewistown News-Argus)

 

 

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Set Free By Love

“Where there is love, there is joy.” – Mother Teresa

Kari wore her light blue sundress – the one she wore the first night we went to dinner.

We went to The Mint, a restaurant I’d go to regularly – only this time I didn’t order a drink, which made me uncomfortable.

“Are you sure I can’t get you anything besides water?” the waiter asked.

He wasn’t just a waiter – he was a friend. He’d often join me for a round after finishing a shift.

Trying not to act surprised by my newfound sobriety, he nodded, smiled at both of us and greeted another nearby table, not missing a beat.

That was five years ago.

Now seated in the Carnival Inspiration dining hall – which looked like a Bellagio knock-off – I poured water into our tall, extravagant glasses. We looked out at the Pacific Ocean, once again mesmerized by its vastness just as Montana tourists are captivated by our endless sky.

Little time passed before our Filipino waiter, Richard, politely asked if we’d like to take a look at the wine list. I turned him down, feeling no discomfort.

“We’ll stick with water,” I said.

“Let me know if you change your mind,” he said giddily, looking at us like a boy looks at a puppy.

“You here on honeymoon. Congratulation!”

I looked over at Kari and took her hand, massaging it gently.

“Thank you,” she said, looking down to try and hide her red face. She looked up at me and smiled. It was similar to the one she had after our ceremony. Her natural beauty gave me chills. Sometimes I look at her and lose myself because I can’t believe she’s mine.

“How did I get so lucky?” I ask.

“Yes, you are lucky man,” Richard said, making me realize I’d said it out loud.

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*

When I first saw her standing in the corner of the Rising Trout Cafe during Open Mic Night in May of 2012, I knew there was something special about her.

I was playing an original about being there to “sing you along” when I spotted her in a black shirt and blue jeans. She had one braid in her striking long blond hair. Although she wasn’t smiling,  she had a glow about her, a presence that was undeniable.

I knew we belonged together.

It took almost two months before we were introduced, but from there we took off. When we went to lunch, I was surprisingly nervous, hardly eating my sandwich. She was nervous, too. When I kissed her on the cheek she let out a little laugh and said, “Thank you.”

The next date she kissed me on the lips, and it was my turn to be surprised. I wanted to say “thank you,” but instead I just smiled, bracing myself for love.

Not long after that we were inseparable. Even when we weren’t around each other, we were calling and texting, rarely disconnected.

But as we grew, so did my involvement in the local music scene, which involved a lifestyle I tried to leave behind. I liked to go out and meet with friends at the bars to have a few drinks. A few often led to too many, which led to poor choices.

Despite being sober more than 10 years, Kari tried to not let drinking be an issue in our relationship. Although she feared I could do something hurtful, she didn’t want to be the bad guy to tell me not to drink. She had faith I’d figure it out before it was too late, but mistakes were made. Alcohol became a distraction, a dividing line, a crutch.

With the help of a counselor, several sober friends and Kari, I was able to successfully leave alcohol behind. I no longer felt numb. I got to know myself all over again and refocus on being my best self. This is a promise I’ve made to myself and one I’ve made to Kari. We had our trying times, but we’ve overcome them through faith, trust, sobriety and indestructible love.

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*

“Look!” a little girl at the table next to us yelled, abruptly getting out of her seat and running to the nearest window. We followed her gaze and spotted a few dolphin fins to our right. At a closer glimpse, you could see their bodies flopping and hopping, swimming around with the silliness and innocence a child possesses: dancing like no one is watching. I wondered if they knew they had an audience. Whether they did or not, it didn’t matter: they captured the moment; they were away, unflappable,  in love with life.

Kari laughed at their performance and took my hand.

“That’s happiness,” she said.

“That’s us.”

“Aw, so sweet,” Richard interrupted, speaking loudly, attracting the attention of neighboring tables.

He continued, now more boisterous than ever.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very special announcement for you. We have a happy couple celebrating their honeymoon here on Carnival Inspiration. It gives me great pleasure to sing for them.”

Kari and I expected the cheesy “happy honeymoon” song other servers sang for their tables the night before, but Richard surprised us, serenading Kari with a composition all his own, one that was perhaps interpretive, like he could read our eye contact and understand the adversity we overcame.

“Because of you…my life has changed,” he sang boldly, passionately. “Because of you I’m not the same.”

He went on. By the end, Kari hid her red face behind her water glass.

I stood and clapped. Richard gave me a fist bump and laughed proudly. Like the dolphins, he owned the moment, putting on a show to give us something we’d cherish forever.

Our whole section applauded, Richard bowed, I sat down and we went back to our date. Once we stopped laughing, Kari lifted her water to propose a toast.

“To Richard,” she said, letting out a tiny laugh. “Because of you…”

“To Richard, and to our love. Let’s never forget how it sets us free.”

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Boring But Important: Why Super Bowl LIII is unforgettable

“If you like offensive football, well, too bad…”

That’s what CBS commentator Tony Romo said during the defense-dominated first half of Super Bowl 53 between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

By halftime, the score was Maroon 5, Patriots 3, Rams 0.

Most people commenting on social media – or in text threads with their friends – said they were bored by the lowest scoring Super Bowl game in history.

Cindy Boren of the Washington Post even called it the “Stupor Bowl,” or “Super Bust,” as a friend called it at coffee.

Before the second quarter started, my wife started cooking, happy to have an excuse to step away from the “Groundhog Day” of three-and-outs.

Not even Rams punter Johnny Hekker’s record-breaking 65-yard boot was enough to get us excited, as the teams continued to trade off without more than a field goal each.

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The commercials didn’t help much with the excitement. Some may disagree, but I was pretty surprised with the perception of artificial intelligence. I learned during commercial breaks that Alexa is depressed because she’ll never be able to stack different-flavored Pringles together and robots of the future will be melancholy because – no matter how impressive they are in the gym – they can’t go out and enjoy a cold Michelob Ultra at the bar.

I feel like most of the ads failed to be funny; instead, they were either flat or absurd. A lot of us were eagerly anticipating the return of Jeff Bridges’ in his most iconic role as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. But seeing “The Dude” go up to the bar, decline a White Russian and order a Stella Artois felt unnatural and random.

However, I enjoyed Michael Bublé changing the spelling on bottles of Bubly sparkling water. Bublé doesn’t get enough credit for his sense of humor (when I saw him live he pretty much had a comedy routine between songs). It was also fun to see a lot of NFL Hall of Famers goof off together, recovering a golden football that dropped off a giant cake after at a banquet (celebrating that next year is the NFL’s 100th season). An Indianapolis native, I was happy to see Peyton Manning make an appearance, although it also reminded me of all those years Patriots quarterback Tom Brady defeated the Colts in the AFC Championship game.

Considering how many times Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick had outplayed and outcoached my hometown team, I’ve found it easy to root against them. Chargers fans, Chiefs fans, even Rams fans know this feeling all too well, as Sunday marked the second time the Pats had defeated the Rams for the title.

In 2002, Tom Brady was 24, leading an unproven Patriots team against a Rams team hoping to win their second Super Bowl in two years.

Who would have guessed we’d see Brady and Belichick appear in nine Super Bowls – and win six of them. The NFL has never seen this level of greatness – it’s on par with what Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson did with the Chicago Bulls. They made six NBA Finals appearances, and won them all.

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“Appreciate it while you’ve got it,” said commentator Jim Nantz. “You’ll never see anything like this again.”

Nantz is right. For people outside of New England, it can get a little old for the Patriots to make it to the big game again and again, but it’s a waste of time to get angry about it. When the game ended, I felt nothing but respect for Brady, especially as I watched him go out of his way to congratulate the Rams players. This was a surprisingly difficult task for the greatest quarterback of all time, as he had to navigate through a sea of broadcasters, trying to stay polite and professional while pushing people out of his way. This sight was just as absurd as watching a robot longing for Michelob Ultra. Everyone was so preoccupied on getting a good shot of the legend that they barely let him congratulate his opponents after a hard-fought battle.

And it was indeed hard-fought. Both offenses struggled because the coaches had excellent defensive game plans. Love it or hate it – this was good football, and, like the Patriots dynasty, it should be appreciated.

That being said, when the 100th NFL season kicks off in September, I’ll be rooting for the Colts.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Why “Christmas Vacation” is a Christmas classic

When it comes to holiday movies, what constitutes a “Christmas classic?”

I don’t think there is a right or a wrong answer. Each family has their own favorite holiday movies. Growing up, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was a big one for the Denisons. “The Bishop’s Wife” was also high on the list.

Screwball comedies such as “Home Alone” and Tim Allen’s “The Santa Clause” also became standards in our household, but the movie we couldn’t do without was 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

Even now that I’m 35, with a wife and stepchildren, “Christmas Vacation,” remains a go-to holiday comedy, as it does for thousands of other households. It’s also the one “Christmas classic” my wife and I both grew up watching religiously.

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The plot is simple: Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase), his wife and two kids (14 and 11) host parents, in-laws and other extended family for Christmas. Clark is excited for the holiday and wants to pull out all the stops. What could possibly go wrong?

Just about everything.

The film starts with Clark getting his Taurus stuck under a semi on the way to picking out the Griswold family Christmas tree and things only escalate from here. Soon Clark’s parents and his wife Ellen’s parents join the mix, followed by a surprise guest: Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), who brings his wife and two kids along in their beat-up RV.

Clark does not see this coming.

“If I woke tomorrow with my head sewed to the carpet I couldn’t be more surprised than I am right now,” he tells Eddie.

No matter your age, no matter what your situation, it’s safe to say the more family that gets involved with the Christmas ceremonies, the more complicated everything becomes. This is especially the case when you’re hosting. You want everything to be perfect; the harder you try, the more frustrating it is when you get something wrong. No film captures this aspect of the “most wonderful time of the year” as absurdly or hysterically as “Christmas Vacation.”

Clark doesn’t mean to make a mess of things; he’s genuinely trying to make sure his family has a nice Christmas. By the end of the movie, Clark has about lost it, but when the film reaches its apex, we are reminded that the holidays are a forgiving time and the joys of the season seem to overcome the mayhem that ensues.

Of course, “Christmas Vacation” pushes it to the limits with some truly over-the-top circumstances, however, it serves its purpose of making us laugh out loud and appreciate our own crazy situations.

That’s what makes “Christmas Vacation” a Christmas classic. That’s why so many love it and even adopt the movie into their own holiday traditions, little by little. My parents love the movie so much they use the same reindeer-head glasses for eggnog the Griswolds use in the film. My brother-in-law even got the same Chicago Bears hat Clark wears while they’re looking for a Christmas tree.

I have a greater appreciation for this movie now that I share it with my wife and her family. It’s comforting to know we’ve shared the same laughs so many years and now share them together.

“Christmas Vacation” is often an icebreaker with people at work this time of year. It seems about everyone finds the humor in a squirrel jumping out of a Christmas tree.

There is no scene that tops all others. The squirrel might be a favorite to many, but just about any scene in the movie can be a favorite. The laughs are non-stop.

“Christmas Vacation” is almost 30 years old now, and it has aged well. Like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Miracle on 34th Street,” “White Christmas” and countless others, the movie is timeless, serving its purpose of spreading holiday cheer, be it through Chevy Chase sliding off the roof while putting up Christmas lights, Aunt Bethany reciting the pledge of allegiance when asked to give a blessing at the dinner table or Uncle Lewis blowing up the Christmas tree.

If you haven’t seen the film, I strongly recommend it, and if the film is a tradition in your family, I hope you enjoy watching it again. Perhaps you will find certain scenes even more relatable than in previous years. If nothing else, it will remind you not to take the holidays so seriously.

Thanks, “Christmas Vacation,” and happy holidays to all.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Local concert to reunite lifelong friends

Randy Berry of Lewistown is looking forward to having a childhood friend come back to town this weekend – Kostas Lazarides, a Billings native of Greek descent who is known for writing several chart-topping country songs, including “Timber, I’m Falling In Love,” “The Lonely Side of Love,” “Blame It On Your Heart” and “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.”

The two became friends in the late 1950s during their childhood on the north side of Billings.

“We must have been all of 10 years old, maybe, “Kostas said. “A lot of kids had those butch haircuts back then. Randy had that goin’ on.”

Randy and Kostas were part of what Kostas called a “little rat pack of single digits.”

“We used to get together on a daily basis,” he said. “We each had elaborate forts and we’d battle each other, destroying the forts with dirt wads…then we’d do the same thing all over again.”

“We also sold newspapers together back then,” Randy added. “We had this bar we’d go to and Kostas would sing along to the jukebox. He’d do that every day to make some extra money. He was always trying to make some money. He’d shine shoes and – around St. Patrick’s Day – he’d sell little shamrock pins. I don’t even know where he got those things.”

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Kostas performing at a recent songwriter festival

Through the years, the two kept in touch, meeting up here and there as they went through adolescence.

“I can tell you Randy was much better at playing spin the bottle than I was,” Kostas joked.

In the high school days, music became more and more a central focus.

“We were both in rock and roll bands in high school,” Randy said. “Everybody had a band. Kostas was really good. I remember everybody couldn’t wait to go hear him.”

Kostas started writing his own songs, a craft that would soon become his livelihood. Randy knew his friend was talented, but he didn’t realize the extent of it until Kostas shared a few songs with him while they were living side-by-side on the Bozeman Pass

“Kostas picked up his old Martin guitar that looked like it was about to fall apart and played me two songs: ‘Timber, I’m Falling In Love’ and ‘The Lonely Side of Love,’” Randy said. “He told me one of those songs would be a number-one hit some day. And about 15 years later, that’s exactly what happened.”

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Kostas, left, and Randy Berry December 2009

Kostas remembers those days well. Although there was much inspiration, it was also a challenging time, and he appreciated having a friend like Randy around.

“I wrote a lot of songs in that cabin back there,” he said. “We were all suffering through what we were suffering through. The good came with the bad. We all shared with what we had.”

Better times were ahead. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kostas struck solid country gold, as his songs were picked up by Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Martina McBride, the Mavericks, the Dixie Chicks and many more.

“The stars lined up for him,” Randy said.

Randy’s had good years, as well, doing what he loves: fishing, hunting, cooking and playing guitar.

“I’m glad to hear he’s still cooking, hunting and fishing,” Kostas said. “We had a lot of fun fishing and hunting. I remember one time Randy was outfitting in Lima. There are a lot of big, bald mountains back there and we chased more elk down there and once in a while we got one…maybe that’s why my knees hurt today.”

Despite becoming one of the most popular, successful Nashville songwriters of the era, Randy said Kostas hasn’t changed much.

“I remember a few years back I was headed to Virginia City with my girlfriend, and I called him up to see what he was doing. Since he lives in Belgrade I thought we’d stop by,” Randy said. “When we got there he was sitting on a corner doing a garage sale.”

Kostas remembers this garage sale well and remembers Randy stopping by.

“Randy needs to come back,” Kostas said. “He forgot to buy something…there’s all sorts of stuff here.”

Although Kostas and Randy don’t see each other regularly, they remain good friends, and Berry said he is greatly looking forward to seeing Kostas perform on the second floor of Central Feed Grilling Co. Friday, Dec. 1 with special guests Sean Devine, Kevin Toll and Groove Creek.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played in Lewistown,” Kostas said. “I played in Winifred once with Wade Montgomery, but never Lewistown, so I’m looking forward to coming out to make a joyful noise. And I’m looking forward to seeing Randy. It’s always a pleasure to see him.”

The show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Central Feed Grilling Co.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus and Judith Basin Press)

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