Monday, August 5, 2019

Hideous Moral Cancer

When I was in high school my favorite comic book character was Green Arrow. This was in 1970, way before the character’s current hit TV series on the CW. Green Arrow (AKA Oliver Queen) was DC Comics’ superhero archer who had been around since 1941 as a cheap Batman copycat, right down to his secret identity as a millionaire, his teenage sidekick Speedy, his Arrow Cave and Arrow-Car, and a quiver full of gadget arrows. Holy Yawn, Batman! How original!

But in the late 1960s, Oliver Queen lost his fortune, was forced to live in the slums of the inner city, and his ward became a drug addict. DC wisely radicalized Green Arrow as a social justice liberal with a sleek new costume, and he became the perfect foil to the more conservative Green Lantern, an intergalactic policeman who patrolled Earth’s sector of the galaxy on behalf of the ancient Guardians of the Universe. 

I hope I haven’t lost you. Trust me, this blog will all make sense in a minute. By 1970, Green Arrow was no longer featured in a regular comic book, and Green Lantern was in danger of being cancelled. DC put the two green heroes together by bringing Lantern and a Guardian observer down to Earth so Arrow could educate them on a pickup truck road trip across America, a la John Steinbeck’s   Travels with Charley. Along the way, our heroes tackled not super-villains but the social ills of the day: slumlords, environmental destruction, racism, Manson-esque hippie cults, drug addiction, and even (gasp) the evils of the Nixon administration! BOOM! The newly renamed Green Lantern-Green Arrow mag became the Number One comic book in America! 

I was just a young liberal in 1970, trying to find my way in a bold new decade. Green Arrow became my new role model. He was hot-tempered, got into fights before thinking things through, and argued openly with his buddy Green Lantern. Arrow was not perfect but his heart for social justice was the core of his character. What clinched it for me was when Arrow pleaded for the Guardians to come off their perch and find out for themselves the humanity of the planet their Green Lantern agent was policing on their behalf. This may be the most iconic comic book panel of all-time: 

In 1970, my generation was still reeling from the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, two shining lights who had been snuffed out violently at the hands of crazed gunmen. To see those tragic deaths cited in my then-favorite form of literature was absolutely inspiring!

Alas, it was only a comic book. If there really were a Green Lantern and a Green Arrow, would they not have prevented those assassinations? Superman would have ended the Vietnam War in ten minutes. And Captain America would have rooted out the corruption in the Nixon White House. You can see the absurdity when comic books and reality collide. 

Fast forward to 2019. This summer, crazed gunmen took the lives of innocent men, women and children in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio. In fact, as of August 5, 2019, there have been 255 mass shootings in America – more than there are days in the year, thus far! I grieve, I mourn, and I tremble in fear for our country. And I think back on something Green Arrow said way back in 1970: 

“Something is wrong! Something is killing us all! Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!” 

To paraphrase the famous Pete Seeger song, “When will we ever learn?” 

As I said in my previous blog, I do not know why there is such evil in the world. And it seems to be getting worse in this allegedly enlightened 21st  century. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I can’t shake the feeling that our elected officials have failed us. They have the responsibility to build a safer society in America and they have failed us miserably. Instead of legislating stricter gun laws or providing more effective mental health services for the marginalized, all they do is point fingers at each other, argue along party lines, promise “thoughts and prayers,” and then DO NOTHING. 

I have never felt so powerless, and I know I’m not the only American who feels this way. But when even the President of the United States is fanning the flames of racism and bigotry, then that “hideous moral cancer” has truly sickened us, almost to the point of no return. 

The operative word in that last sentence is “almost.” I still have hope, but that hope is getting slimmer with each passing day. To paraphrase yet another song from my youth: 

“How many deaths will it take ‘til we know that too many people have died?” 

We need new leadership, America. It’s time for us to exert our moral imperative and vote with our conscience. 

Green Lantern-Green Arrow #85 
August-September 1971 
Writer: Dennis O'Neil 
Artist: Neal Adams

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Civil Discourse

I haven’t blogged for several weeks because I’ve been busy traveling this summer and, quite frankly, I ran out of things to say. I strongly feel that if you’re going to blog then it better be worthy of your readers’ attention. 

In the past several days, there have been a number of mass shootings in America: in Dayton, El Paso and Gilroy. The investigation of each incident is ongoing but they are all unified by a lone shooter who had access to assault weapons and apparently had racially-based or personal issues. The continuing escalation of these shootings is alarming and disheartening, and I feel totally helpless. What’s an average citizen of this violent country to do? As a person of faith, I can only turn to prayer. 

With every shooting, it has been my sad custom to post a photo or gif of a lit candle on my Facebook and Instagram and ask for prayers for the victims and their families. This usually generates responses of solidarity, but this morning, after news of the Dayton shootings broke, I entered into the following dialogue with my friend Dennis, an old buddy from high school. I want to share this string in its entirety. 

Ken: Offering Sunday prayers for victims and families affected by mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Will this never end? #LordHaveMercy

Dennis: Thoughts and Prayers.......are what we do.....when we really don't want to do anything....

Ken: Maybe. I’m in the middle of Sunday liturgy right now. Will get back to you.

Ken: (a few hours later) It depends on who is saying “Thoughts and prayers.” You will notice I did not use that phrase, and I agree it rings hallow when spoken by politicians and legislators who have a direct responsibility to take action for public safety by passing stricter gun laws and providing more effective mental health services, among other things. “Thoughts and prayers,” my a$$. They need to get off their comfortable duffs and DO something! And if they don’t then we need to boot them out and elect people who will. (1 of 5)

Ken: Having said that, as a person of faith I refuse to stand by and watch people bash prayer. First, there is a general misunderstanding by many people on what prayer is. It’s NOT a way to “change God’s mind” or influence the Divine into granting a request, as if God were a department store Santa Claus. For me, prayer is entering into God’s presence in solidarity with or on behalf of those who request or need my prayers. Prayer doesn’t change God but perhaps it will change me and how I handle the things life throws at me. (2 of 5)

Ken: As the mass shootings sadly continue to escalate, it occurs to me that those victims had no opportunity to make peace with their God or say goodbye to their loved ones, an opportunity we all hope to have when we die. So I pray on behalf of the victims, that somehow in their abrupt transition from this life they indeed experienced God’s loving mercy. And I pray for strength and comfort for their families and friends. (3 of 5)

Ken: This perhaps does not make any sense to a lot of people. But as a person of faith, it’s all I can cling to at times like this. (4 of 5)

Ken: It’s also tied in with the question of evil. Why does God permit such unspeakable horrors in our world? I don’t have an answer for that. I really don’t. But that’s not going to stop me from believing. (5 of 5)

Ken: Peace be with you, Dennis. 

Dennis: And also with you, Ken. Thank you for your thoughtful and prayerful reflections. I do not bash prayer. I bash empty sympathy – of which I do not accuse you of. "Thoughts and Prayers" for many mean, in essence, "You are on your own. God may help you, but I won't."

Ken: Thanks, Dennis. I did not mean to accuse you of bashing prayer. I know you are a man with a good heart. And your point is well taken about the “you are on your own” attitude.

George: (another Facebook friend) A well-spoken series of comments, Ken. I don’t use the words “thoughts and prayers” either because I have heard them too many times from elected leaders who then shirk their duties to serve their constituents and respond with real action to deal with a horrifying problem in our society. Thanks, Ken.

Ken: Thanks, George. Without bragging, I hope this string serves as an example of how it’s possible to have meaningful civil discourse on social media without resorting to name calling or mean insults.

= = = 

Polite civil discourse on social media. Is it possible? Yes, if we try hard, respect people who disagree with us, and have an open mind. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

I’ve Got Nothing to Say, But It’s Okay

I’m not a great conversationalist, which might seem strange coming from someone who enjoys public speaking before large audiences. But one-on-one or in a small group, it’s a struggle for me to keep the gab going, especially if I have nothing worthwhile to say. For me, words are a precious commodity, and I choose my words carefully. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer. 

I do admire people who can carry a conversation, and I have some friends who never stop talking. In a group situation, I am happy to cede the floor to those who are the life of the party. I’ll nod, I’ll grunt, I’ll throw out an affirming “Cool,” or “Aye-uh” if I’m in Boston. I may even chime in if I feel inspired, or if I can contribute some tangent on the topic. But in the Kingdom of Chatter, the one with the biggest mouth is king. 

I admit that my hearing-impairment plays a big part in my conversational awkwardness. I can see the eyes roll when I repeat something that someone else already said. But I didn’t hear it, so how am I supposed to know it was said before? Restaurant noise also makes conversation difficult for me, and that may explain my preference to eat alone. 

On the other side of the tin-can string, I am a good listener. If a friend comes to me with a problem, or with a need to talk, I won’t be formulating in my head an instant response to everything he or she is saying. I genuinely want to listen, and I might ask a few questions to keep their story going. If you come to me to chat, I will listen and affirm you. I won’t solve your problem but I’ll try and guide you to find your way yourself. I offer advice only when asked. 

One of my favorite scenes from Lincoln, the great 2012 movie by Steven Spielberg, takes place in the telegraph room in the White House. It’s late night during the Civil War and the President is dictating a message to his general in the field, Ulysses S. Grant. But before Sam, the telegraph soldier, can transmit, Lincoln asks a couple of out-of-the-blue questions: “Do you think we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times that we’re born into?” 

Sam is clearly floored by the questions and he tries to deflect them back to his Commander-in-Chief. So then Mr. Lincoln poses the questions to Sam’s friend, who mentions that he’s an engineer. Notice how the President suddenly takes a keen interest in this young man and listens closely to his story. 

This leads to one of the more memorable conversations in the movie as Mr. Lincoln reflects on Euclid’s axiom on equality: “Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” The conversation was relevant to the era's struggle for equality that the President wrestled with, and it led him to amend the message to his general. My point is this: Lincoln was a good listener and that skill only made his decisions stronger. 

Being a listener is a different gift from being a conversationalist but they can be complementary. I think there is room in our world for both. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The New Sound: Growth of the Beatles

I finally made it! Like most schools of the era, Marina del Rey Junior High in Mar Vista (West Los Angeles) had an Honor Society that welcomed into its ranks all students with a 3.5 GPA or higher (I think). In the Fall semester of my 8th Grade, I somehow managed to get only A’s and B’s on my report card, and I was automatically enrolled in the prestigious group. There were some perks and privileges, one of which was the HS pin that I wore proudly on my sweater. The other was the annual Honor Society field trip, and this year’s group was going to college – UC Irvine! 

The University of California, Irvine in Orange County, California was dedicated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, so it was practically brand new when our contingent of eager junior high kids scampered onto the campus in March 1967. I had never been to a college before. Being the oldest in the family, I had no older friends or siblings to show me the ropes or tell me stories about college life. Frankly, I hadn’t even given any thought to college; it was too far away into the future. For me, this field trip was an opportunity to get out of classes for a day with friends and explore a pristine campus that our teachers told us was the shining crown jewel of the UC system. 

I was certainly impressed. I had never before set foot on a school that was so big. There was a lot of walking on that damp and cold March day, and our college student guides explained to us how UC Irvine was designed like spokes on a wheel. The buildings of the various departments – humanities, science, medical sciences, athletics, etc. – sprayed out as advertised, like spokes that emanated from a well planted park as the center of the wheel. Not all the buildings were completed yet, and we could hear the hammering and saws of construction. Our tour guides took us into the student center for snacks. And that’s when I got hit by a hammer of sound that practically transformed my life. 

The student center had a cafeteria, vending machines, coffee stations, Coke machines, and other snack amenities that made our junior high lunch area pale in comparison. It had a state-of-the-art stereo system – a LOUD stereo! And blaring out of those huge speakers was the Number One song in America that week: “Penny Lane” by the Beatles. 

Understand that in early 1967, I wasn’t really paying attention to popular music all that much. A couple of years earlier I was a rabid rock fan and my ear was glued to my trusty little transistor radio as the Beatles cranked out hit after hit: “I Feel Fine;” “Help!” “Ticket to Ride;” “Day Tripper.” But by mid-1966, the Beatlemania craze that once had millions of teenage girls screaming all over the world seemed to have quieted down. The group hadn’t given a live performance since their concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August. There were no new Beatles records that Fall. They had just gotten off a disastrous public relations debacle when John Lennon casually remarked that his band was more popular than Jesus (a British interview statement that was unfortunately taken out of context). And there was another four-guys rock group on television called the Monkees, who looked and sang and joked around just like the Beatles in their fun movies. Yeah, it sure looked like the Beatles’ thunder was stolen. They seemed to be yesterday’s news. Rumors persisted that they had broken up. I was sad to see this decline in my favorite band but I moved on. 

Then, in early 1967, we started hearing some strange new music on the radio. “Strawberry Fields Forever” had lyrics that didn’t make any sense: “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” John Lennon sang lead and he sounded like a zombie from outer space. It wasn’t the bright happy beat of two electric guitars, bass and drums. The main instrument seemed to be some kind of organ, augmented by violins, cello, and trippy sound effects. Ringo’s distinctive drumming was immediately recognizable, but nothing in this new song cried out “Beatles” – at least the Beatles that I grew up with. There were photos of the band that were released with the song and they showed John, Paul, George and Ringo wearing droopy mustaches and weird clothing. What happened to them? 

The flip side of that single featured a bright sounding tune that seemed to be in total contrast to the other song. “Penny Lane” was apparently about some street in Liverpool but, again, there were no rock’n’roll guitars. Piano was the main instrument and the arrangement was filled out with a baroque trumpet and brass band. This was the Beatles?? My 8th grade mind did not know what to make of this. I was completely baffled by this new sound – until I heard their latest Number One single on that excellent stereo in the UCI student center. 

I lived in a sprawling Los Angeles housing project with my family. We listened to our music on a small table radio, on a mono record player, and on our tinny transistor radios. We watched music shows like Where the Action Is on our black-and-white television, but our TV speaker was small. So I had no idea of the true power of rock music until I heard the new Beatles sound in that UCI student center.

I was mesmerized by hearing “Penny Lane” in full-throttle stereo, and I stood there frozen in my tracks. Paul McCartney’s sweet voice and clear diction stood out like never before. That amazing piccolo trumpet reminded me of the Bach we were studying in band class. The Beatles’ trademark harmonies were crisp – “There beneath the blue suburban skies!” And the whole experience was anchored by Ringo’s solid drums and Paul’s loping bass, which I seemed to hear in vivid detail for the very first time through that awesomely loud stereo system. My jaw dropped, my eyes widened, and I plopped myself down on a bright yellow bean bag chair to listen more intensely as the rest of my junior high friends filed out of the student center to continue their tour. 

The music was apparently coming from a juke box and the very next song was “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I lost myself in that bean bag chair and closed my eyes as the ethereal music blasted out. I found out later that the main instrument that I thought was an organ was called a mellotron, an early synthesizer that played tape loops of various instruments, in this case a flute. John did indeed sound like a zombie from outer space, but it didn’t bother me anymore. His lyrics were modern poetry: 

Let me take you down 
‘cause I’m going to 
Strawberry Fields, 
nothing is real. 
Nothing to get hung about 
Strawberry Fields Forever . . . 

I had no idea what the heck Lennon was singing about, but it didn't matter. This was so beyond their earlier "boy meets girl" love songs. I felt as if my mind had expanded, that the Beatles were taking us into a brave new world that no one had dared venture before. I wanted to go there with them! And then I felt a loud kick on the bean bag chair. 

“Hey! Kenny! Wake up! What the heck do you think you’re doing??” Yikes! It was Mr. Dunn, one of our school counselors. He yanked me out of the bean bag and marched me out of the student center, lecturing me as we caught up with our group. And then came the words I would hear frequently whenever I got in trouble. 

“I’m surprised at you!” 

Whenever a teacher or authority figure threw those four words into my face I knew that they were telling me that I had not followed the rules or lived up to expectations. Looking back now, I realize that the whole arc of my life has been a struggle between doing the right thing and doing my own thing. And that internal struggle started on that monumental day when I heard the new Beatles sound in full wall-to-wall stereo. My world was changing. 

1967 would be a major year in popular music. A few months later, the Beatles would release a whole album of their innovative mind-bending music on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The iconic Summer of Love would follow, the summer of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead and the Doors. I would bring home those records, play them on our record player, and my mother would complain loudly. “You call that music?” 

Ah, the Sixties! What a wonderful time to grow up! 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Tumbleweed Connection

Back before he became THE biggest rock star of the 1970s – before the commercial blowout success of “Crocodile Rock” and “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets” – Elton John was a somewhat serious folk-rock artist who happened to play piano instead of guitar. Released in October 1970, Tumbleweed Connection is his third studio album and it’s perfectly in synch with the singer-songwriter movement of the new decade. 

The early 70s saw the emergence of a new trend in singer-songwriters who, arising out of the folk music world of the 60s, captivated music fans with albums that featured a compelling and intimate sound. The troubadours of the new decade included Carole King, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. Each artist had a unique way of expressing personal and revealing lyrics wrapped in a blend of folk, country, or soft-rock. 

-From Mountains High by yours truly, page 21

A concept album whose songs are generally focused on themes from the American West, the splendid conceit of Tumbleweed Connection is that neither Elton John nor his thoughtful lyricist Bernie Taupin had yet set foot in the United States. They were Englishmen whose knowledge of the Old West came from movies and from music. Taupin reflected on the inspiration behind his lyrics. 

Everybody thinks that I was influenced by Americana and by seeing America first hand, but we wrote and recorded the album before we’d even been to the States. It was totally influenced by The Band’s album, Music from Big Pink, and Robbie Robertson’s songs. I’ve always loved Americana, and I loved American Westerns. 

-liner notes, Tumbleweed Connection, 1995 reissue

Much in the same way that the Beatles had regurgitated American rhythm and blues and spit it back out with a uniquely appealing British sensibility, so also did Taupin and John present their U.K. take on the Old West, as symbolized visually by the album’s gatefold album cover, which featured the songwriters loitering at a train station. The sepia tone implies rural Americana, but the photo shoot was at Horsted Keynes railway station, approximately 30 miles south of London. Indeed, the advertisements posted on the station walls amusingly display such British products as the Daily Telegraph newspaper and Cadbury’s Chocolates. 

Interestingly, given the Old West themes, the songs themselves do not have the country & western or even the country rock feel that one might expect. The closest the music comes to Americana is on “Country Comfort” with Elton’s amazing Gospel-piano stylings, and the church revival feel of "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun." But it doesn’t matter. The quality of the songwriting is such that it transcends the need to express the lyrics in traditional C&W trappings, and Elton’s fabulous musicians contribute superb rock realizations. 

Tumbleweed Connection is best enjoyed as an Americana opera, and the inclusion of a lyrics libretto supports that idea, enabling the listener to follow along. I don’t have time to review every song but here are some standout favorites of mine. 

“Come Down in Time” 
Bernie’s wistful tale of unfulfilled love is achingly supported by the way Elton weaves his soulful voice around his lyricist’s raw vulnerability, almost like a chant with arpeggio piano underneath. When this duo first started writing together, it was unclear whether or not the partnership would succeed. Taupin’s lyrics, while filled with imagery and poetry, were perhaps too wordy for pop music, but John somehow found a way to make it work, expressing in his exquisite melodies and passionate vocals what Taupin was feeling in his soul. Has there ever been a classier song about the girl that got away? 

“Country Comfort” 
That piano! I lived and breathed each new Elton John album specifically to learn from him how to play rock piano. Elton’s gift is in two areas: his creative arpeggios, and his phrasing. It’s difficult for me to explain on paper but, like a skilled rock drummer, Elton throws in piano fills after every fourth measure that help to drive the song forward. As mentioned earlier, this song has a Gospel-style flavor that greatly influenced the way I play and compose Gospel music for liturgy. 

Ah, that arpeggio piano riff intro! Back in 1972, I learned this song specifically to play it for my friends and I became very popular at parties because of “Amoreena.” Bernie paints another lovely portrait of a young cowboy away from home, most likely on a cattle run, as he yearns for the girl he left behind. 

“Talking Old Soldiers” 
A standout track on an album of standouts, “Talking Old Soldiers” features Elton accompanying himself solo, with no other band member. A revealing dialogue between a bar patron and an old soldier, perhaps a Civil War veteran, John’s recitative approach to storytelling was unlike anything else heard on rock records at the time. This may arguably be Elton’s finest moment as a vocalist on any record he has ever recorded and, given his enormous volume of work, that’s saying a lot. His phrasing, his sincere rawness, and the poignant way he hits the high notes, especially at the end – “You’ve got your MEM-o-ries . . .” Oh, Lord! What a talent! One can almost picture that rundown bar out in the middle of nowhere with sawdust on the floor as the old soldier shares the bitterness of his life of regret. A masterpiece! 

“Burn Down the Mission” 
This is another song I learned to impress my friends at parties. The piano intro once again totally grabs your attention. And the track’s production is truly impressive, especially the way the band explodes in the middle and at the outro, which makes for an epic  end to the album. The excitement is underscored by arranger Paul Buckmaster’s symphonic orchestra, which was more understated on Tumbleweed, in comparison with the way the strings almost overwhelmed the singer’s previous album, the self-named Elton John  (the one that gave the world the iconic “Your Song.”) 

So many great songs! I do want to mention at least one more: “Love Song” by Leslie Duncan, a friend of Elton whom he generously wanted to showcase. No piano; just simply guitar, which proved to be a good counterpoint to the other songs. “Love Song” became a popular song to perform at weddings in the 1970s. 

Love is the opening door.   
Love is what we came here for. 
No one could offer you more.  
Do you know what I mean?  
Have your eyes really seen?

If you haven’t heard Tumbleweed Connection yet, I encourage you to do so. I’m a big fan of the Rocketman’s 1970s output but, after all is said and done, I think Tumbleweed is probably my favorite Elton John album. It reveals a hungry artist who was on the cusp of fame, doing everything in his power to find his voice and his place in popular music. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Perfection and the Christian Life

We are all mystified and entertained by magicians. We watch them do their tricks and we say, “That’s impossible! How did they do that??” 

And that’s what some people say about the Christian life. Consider Jesus’ challenge from Matthew 22:37: 

You shall love the Lord your God 
with all your heart, 
with all your soul, 
with all your mind, 
and with all your strength. 

And we might think, “That’s impossible! How can we do that?”

The First Greatest Commandment challenges us to make God the center of our lives. Difficult? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No, because the Christian life is not the magic act that some people make it out to be. 

The Christian life seems impossible from two points of view. First, there’s the staunch believer, someone who has tried to be good all through life, or perhaps has had an emotional conversion experience and was moved to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. The problem for such Christians is the failure to take into consideration one’s humanity: We will sometimes fail and disappoint. We will fall to sin. So the Christian life, at one time a matter of joy in finding Christ, becomes a life of guilt and disappointment in not living up to God’s and one’s own expectations. 

On the other side of the coin are the people who shy away from Jesus and anything that smacks of religion, which seems to be only for the goody-two-shoes. It means giving up all the fun and pleasurable and sinful things that one likes to do. “Make God the center of my life?” such a person might say. “Don’t make me laugh!” 

The problem lies in the perception of the Christian life as a life of perfection. If we think that being Christian means being perfect then we are doomed to failure. Like a magic trick, it’s a premise based on deception, however well intentioned. 

The idea that the Christian life is a life of perfection comes from a rigid translation and misinterpretation of Matthew 5:48, which is usually translated as "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." But if we go back to Greek, the earliest language of the New Testament, we find an alternative definition in that original Greek word teleoli:  to be COMPLETE, to be WHOLE. So the passage would be more openly understood as, "Be complete and be whole, as your heavenly Father is whole." 

What a difference! That understanding makes the Christian life more attainable because it means our relationship with Jesus is a process, a means of becoming, a lifetime of growth. It means allowing Jesus to work with me to reach my fullest potential. It means leaving room for the Holy Spirit when it comes to those aspects of my life that might seem wanting or inadequate. Or, as that popular 1970s button said: 

Please Be Patient. God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bodexpress: The Hero America Needs Today

I’m not into horse racing but my father was, and in his loving memory I watch the three races of the Triple Crown every year. Two weeks ago, the Kentucky Derby ended in a controversial first-ever disqualification of the wining horse. Shocking! So was the $1000 mint julep, but I digress. 

But it was last Saturday’s Preakness Stakes that had America jumping up and down in excitement. The gate opened and Bodexpress, a feisty 3-year-old colt, threw his jockey, Hall of Fame veteran John Velasquez. I was at home fixing a sandwich but the sight of the jockey sitting on the ground in disappointment made me drop my mayo knife as the race suddenly grabbed my complete attention. (Velasquez was all right, by the way.)

There was Bodexpress, unencumbered by an annoying whipping jockey, running the race riderless and scott free! Are you kidding me!? Come on, Bodexpress! 

The long-range camera showed how Bodexpress kept pace with his horse buddies. He even seemed to keep a respectful safe distance from them so as not to interfere with their race. But the close-up cameras kept bouncing back and forth between the lead horses and the riderless renegade. Meanwhile, sports bars across the nation suddenly came alive as patrons cheered loudly for the horse that had captured America’s hearts in a matter of seconds. Check out these Twitter tweets: 

Maggie: #Bodexpress is my hero! He raced his own race. 

Rick: I watched one horse the entire trip around… #Bodexpress 

TexasMonkey: It’s great! The bar erupted and everybody stopped cheering for their horse and EVERYBODY in the bar started cheering for #9 Bodexpress after he decided to make the run solo! 

Within minutes, a new Twitter hashtag emerged: #AmericasHorse. And Bodexpress earned it! 

Oh, they tried to rein him in. As you might imagine, the Pimlico Race Course staff was aghast and they dispatched an outrider to catch Bodexpress as the horses galloped around to the final stretch. But the independent colt was having none of that. He increased his speed, evaded the outrider, and even managed to beat two horses to the finish line! And then . . .  Bodexpress kept on going! He took a victory lap, running around the whole track a second time as the Pimlico crowd roared. It took the racing staff two minutes and several outriders before one of them could finally intercept the rebel and tell him, “Whoa!” I’m laughing as I type this! What a horse! 

Why did Bodexpress capture our hearts so quickly? I think there are three reasons. First, Americans are starved for good news. With so much division in politics and social policy, so many mass shootings, plus the rumblings about the looming possibility of war, we are ready for a feel good story. 

Secondly, the horse racing industry has been beset by controversy this past year, with race horses dying at an alarming rate. 24 horses have died since last December at Santa Anita alone! Something is deadly wrong and the industry is doing some serious investigating and soul searching. Bodexpress’s solo run was the ultimate equine statement. Who needs jockeys? Who needs humans? Let me be Bodexpress! Let me be horse! 

Lastly, I think everyone can relate to the idea of casting aside all our excess baggage, letting down our hair, and doing our own thing. I did it, and while my days of care free independence were exhilarating, it took me years to recover as my life settled into a new groove. (Another story that I will perhaps someday share.) But not everybody has the courage or wherewithal to go prodigal. In his renegade race, Bodexpress was running vicariously for anyone who has dreamed of being wild and free! 

So thank you, Bodexpress, for such a thrilling four minutes of elation! You are the hero that America needs today.