Monday, May 29, 2006

Coover's Cockroaches and the Power of a Single Incident

I've never read anything by Robert Coover. From what I understand, he's a fine writer. But whenever I think of Coover, I think of cockroaches. In the fall of 1966, I was living with my mother and younger brother on Hudson Street in Iowa City. My parents had divorced the previous year, and my mother was working as an instructor at Iowa while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts. We weren't financially well-off. Hudson Street, which lay right under the flight path of the Iowa City Airport, was an inexpensive place to live, and seemed to attract single parents. The ex-wife of poet W.D Snodgrass and their daughter lived right across the street. For some reason, our rented house either had no stove, or the existing stove no longer worked. The landlord told my mother to buy a used stove, and she'd be reimbursed.

Robert Coover, a visiting faculty member at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had a stove for sale. I remember that it was a Roper--a brand I had never heard of before. One Saturday he came by with the stove He seemed like a nice guy. My mom bought the stove.

Several days later, we began seeing cockroaches in the kitchen. Hundreds of them. It couldn't have been a coincidence. Robert Coover had sold us a stove with a major roach infestation. To be fair, it's possible Coover didn't realize the stove was full of roach eggs. But because of that one incident, Coover and cockroaches will always be linked in my mind.

Fast forward to the fall of 2002. My daughter Sarah is a senior at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She's at the student health office to get her medications. An attractive, dark-haired woman comes in from the outside. She's left her rented SUV running while she takes care of her daughter's medications. She's very demanding, and expects special treatment. Because she is Demi Moore, she gets it. Her daughter, Rumer Willis, is a freshman. (She's not at Interlochen now, i.e, 2006). Just about everyone has an opinion of Demi Moore. (When Kathleen saw the cover of Cigar Aficianado showing Moore with a cigar and headlined something like "Demi Moore's secret," she said, "Demi Moore has no secrets.") But for Sarah, Demi Moore will always be the pushy woman who fouled the pristine Michigan air with exhaust fumes.

Another fast-forward, to May, 2003. We're back at Interlochen for Sarah's graduation. Bruce Willis, Rumer's father, is there. I'm prepared to dislike him His movies were mostly violent ones. More important, he had been a vocal supporter of the American invasion of Iraq. Virtually no Interlochen student (including Rumer) supportes the war. But for all that I dislike about him, he's far more likeable than his ex-wife. Sarah's roommate, who wears socks with images from Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, says Willis complimented her on her socks. Later we see him at the Melody Freeze (the school's ice cream stand), standing in line with everyone else. No pushing, no asserting his privileges--just another parent. At commencement, when the valedictorian makes a strong antiwar statement, he applauds with everyone else (maybe a little too loudly, but I'll forgive that). And when he has to leave early, he does so as unobtrusively as possible.

Single incidents, like first impressions, are sometimes unfair. But they do have staying power.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Radio Days

In the 1960s the closest thing to surfing the Internet was tuning the radio. There was television, of course, but in eastern Iowa before the advent of public broadcasting, the options were pretty limited. But radio, especially in the late-night hours, had so many possibilities. Clear Channel didn't mean a corporation with a near-monopoly on broadcasting, but certain AM radio stations which were allowed to broadcast at the maximum 50,000 watts.

I had a transistor radio which could pick up AM, FM, and short wave. The short wave was fun, but had a limited range. I could pick up the Voice of America and Radio Havana. Radio Havana would tell of every U.S. helicopter the National Liberation Force shot down. If they weren't exaggerating, it made me wonder whether helicopters were just too vulnerable. Voice of America, on the other hand, celebrated every U.S. victory and multiplied the enemy body count to the point that I wondered how there could be any Vietnamese left. It's interesting to hear propaganda for a while, but it gets tiresome.

The really interesting stuff was on the AM band. Talk radio was just beginning, and the king of talk was Joe Pyne. He was an ex-Marine who had lost a leg fighting in the Pacific. People remember him as a conservative, but he was really a Cold War liberal, who supported the Vietnam War but had absolutely no use for racial bigotry. Unlike Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, he didn't cut off people who were getting the better of him in an argument. He could be loud and abusive--the working-class Philadelphia accent made him sound even more abusive--but he didn't hide. A lot of people listened to Pyne, hoping to hear someone get the better of him. And we sided with him when he had a racist for a guest. I had a grudging respect for the guy.

For a liberal, antiwar alternative to Limbaugh, there was Dale Ulmer, who hosted an evening call-in show on WHO Radio in Des Moines. Unlike Pyne, he didn't yell or insult, but used logic and reason in his arguments. People rarely, if ever, got the better of him. Even though WHO was a clear-channel station which could be heard from the East Coast to the Rockies, few remember Dale Ulmer. His tenure as a talk show host was short, and he wasn't outrageous enough to be memorable, except to me, and perhaps a few others.

There were a lot of religious programs, but the strangest one whas hosted by the Reverend Curtis Springer. "This is the Reverend Curtis Springer, coming to you from the shores of Lake Tunedae, in the beautiful Mojave Desert." He spoke in deep but oily voice, in the manner of Senator Edward Dirksen (The Wizard of Ooze), and pronounced Tunedae something like Too-Wenda-Wee. In between recorded gospel tunes, such as "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb," he'd advertise his miracle remedies and invite people to visit his resort. The resort was called Zzyzyx, which Springer claimed was the last word in the English language. It was clear that Springer was a flim-flam artist, but I wasn't aware of the extent of his rascality. His crimes were certainly not on the scale of many of today's televangelists, but he was surely a scoundrel of the first order. (Check the link on his name for details.)

And late at night on weekends, there was Beaker Street, on the KAAY, "The Mighty 1090," a clear-channel station from Little Rock. I was never a great fan of what people later called "Progressive Rock," but I listened to it more for the atmosphere than the music. "This is Clyde Clifford, from Beaker Street," he'd say in his deep, slow, voice. He always sounded stoned, though I suspect he wan't. "That was 'Astronomy Domine,' by Pink Floyd, from their album, Ummagumma." He often played "Friends of Mine," by the Guess Who, which was not great poetry, but did make you listen. Strangely enough, Beaker Street is back on the air, though not on KAAY, which is now a religious station, but on FM, and downloadable on the Web.

AM Radio, with few exceptions, has become the domain of right-wing ideologues and Christian fundamentalists, while most of FM is niche-marketed and controlled by mega-corporations such as Clear Channel. I haven't follwed the "Net Neutrality" debate closely, but I'm wondering whether there are people in the boardrooms who'd like the Internet to be more like what commercial radio has become.