Uncle Bill

September 28th, 2016

See ya later, Sammy


“Hi Fred.”

Those were the first words I remember my Uncle Bill saying to me.

My name isn’t Fred.

His name wasn’t Bill.

But Uncle Bill died yesterday. His sickness was quick, another goddamn cancer tearing through our family.

We all loved him as if he were our quote/unquote real uncle. He was our second uncle, my mom’s twin’s second husband. Our families melded back in the 1970s, my old cousins getting a new brother and a set of sisters. Half-a-dozen cousins for us; all teens, all polyester. In old pictures we were Fleetwood Mac marrying Wings.

It all started when my aunt began dating a guy named Jim Munson — a teacher at our high school whom my mom sent a now infamous note to, “Jim, I don’t know what your dating situation is right now, but if you’re free, call me.”

Make no mistake, Mom was happily married to a guy we called Dad. But she was asking about Jim for her sister. Whatever or whoever he thought Mom initially meant, he called her right away. My Aunt Janet and Jim Munson instantly hit it off.

All us boy cousins loved sports, namely Detroit and Cincinnati baseball and football. The Lions quarterback at the time was Bill Munson. My cousins wondered if maybe their mom was dating him under a pseudonym. That might not be true, but family lore has a way of distorting itself into mythos. They were probably just joking around as usual.

So we secretly called Aunt Janet’s new boyfriend, “Bill.”

Me being the youngest of all the cousins, I guess it fell on me to reveal the truth. Either that, or I was just being a little brat. Regardless, one day early in their relationship, he showed up at our place — where my cousins and aunt were visiting — and when I answered the door, I said “Hi Bill.”

Without missing a beat, he responded, “Hi Fred.”

To us five cousins — and even to his own son — he’s been known as Bill ever since.

That was a bit awkward when he was my Psychology teacher in High School. He taught Advanced Biology to a few more of us. It was even more awkward as, one-by-one, we grew up, married and tried to explain to our wives and kids that Uncle Jim was really Uncle Bill, or vice versa.

Eventually the next generation won him back his birth name.

For the most part.

Sometimes during family get togethers, younger kids in the family would still point to him and say — you guessed it — Sammy!

Oh Sammy. I thought I’d be able to get through this tribute to my uncle without crying. And then I remembered Sammy the Serpent.

That was his favorite story to tell, Uncle Bill’s (Jim’s).

It was the oddest tale about a little snake who loved to hiss. He hissed and hissed all around his pit until his mother got upset and told him to go to Mrs. Pott’s pit and hiss in it.

There is no way anyone could tell the story like him, to do it justice. So I won’t even try. But man, was it funny, even if I didn’t at first understand the ending. Sammy the Serpent’s mother was scandalized that Mrs. Pott sent him home. “Why, I can remember when Mrs. Pott didn’t have a pit to hiss in.”

It was just awesome to see his wry smile as he repeated the story for the umpteenth time (only once did I ever hear him mess up and say “piss” instead of “hiss.”)

I’m going to miss many things about my uncle; his Canadian cottage, his fantastic dry humor, his kindness to me and my cousins whom he treated exactly like sons. But don’t hiss at me if Sammy is what I’ll miss most.

He might look askance at me from his eyes of science, but in my cosmology, Uncle Bill continues on somehow, somewhere. But hey, wasn’t it Einstein who said “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.”

So in my mind, Sammy the Serpent has just found a new pit to hiss in.

ADDENDUM: After reading this to my cousins, they explained that calling him “Bill” was just their way of calling him Dad.

Believe it or not, there’s a longer version of Sammy the Serpent’s tale on the internet.

I found it here: tinyurl.com/hw3je5h

“Two” of the Best Films of 2016 (so far)

August 14th, 2016

A few hits you may have missed

Sooooo … halfway through the movie year, there are two films I’d like to share and encourage you to see.

“What,” you ask, “August comes eight months into the year, Rodney, how can you say we’re halfway?”

Actually, I’m a bit early. The Academy Awards this year were on February 28th. Everyone knows nothing of note gets released in the new year leading up to the Oscars. (Well, except one of my favorites, but that’s not important right now and it destroys my premise.)

Since the summer blockbuster season has been one of the worst in recent memory, I’d like to restore some hope as I highlight a few of the best movies I’ve seen so far.

Best Films of 2016 so far Where to Invade Next 1920p

Michael Moore writes, directs and stars in Where To Invade Next.

Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next is a wide-ranging, sweeping documentary told in his classic style where he sits himself squarely inside of the narrative. On camera and in voice-over segments, Mr. Moore shows Americans what’s great about other countries and how we can bring those traits back here. There’s a fantastic surprise ending, too. Suffice it to say, the movie exudes hope and encouragement for the United State’s future.

Fans of Michael Moore — and I’m definitely one of them — will love everything about the movie. Detractors will find a lot to like too. If you’re a citizen of America or the world, you’ll probably come away inspired by Where To Invade Next.

I met the man back during the summer of 1987 in Flint, Michigan. He showed up at a few different news events that I was covering as a photographer and it was great chatting with the then largely unknown writer/director/star. He was working on his landmark documentary Roger & Me. Since then, he’s gone on to make many memorable contributions to cinema. His latest is one of his finest. You can rent, stream or buy it anywhere.

Clockwise from 10:00 o'clock: Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key and Tami Sagher star in Don't Think Twice.

Clockwise from 10:00 o’clock: Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key and Tami Sagher star in Don’t Think Twice.

The other fantastic film of 2016 is Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice. The funny and frantic world of improv comedy is viewed through a loving, emotional and seemingly very real-life lens. A New York City band of comedians is thrown into turmoil as some of their members are invited to audition for “Weekend Live,” a fictional Saturday Night Live substitute.

Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci and others react to and deal with the shakeup to their tightly woven team. It’s a fantastic psychological glimpse into group and individual dynamics. Poignant, yet playful, the movie hits lots of different notes: abandonment and contentment; sadness and joy, responsibility to self & group; and — oh yeah — it’s awfully darn funny!

Unfortunately, Don’t Think Twice is still in a limited movie house run. Fortunately it’s playing at my favorite independent theatre — The Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, Michigan. But it’s bound to hit more theaters before it starts its second life streaming or on the DVD rental and retail market.

Oh yeah, there’s one other movie you might want to look for, Sam Neill’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Longtime Jemaine Clement collaborator Taika Waititi wrote and directed the movie about a troubled foster child coming to live with Neill’s character in the wilderness of New Zealand. Look for Rhys Darby, Murray from Flight of the Conchords. It’s still in some theaters, but it hits the rental market next month.

And for now, here’s hoping for a bumper crop of extraordinary films amongst the upcoming fall and winter releases.

My Seven-Year Itch

June 19th, 2016

Moving forward, looking backward

My life-partner left me seven years ago this month. It’s been a difficult time since the breakup, to say the least. Severe health issues and two or three jobs later, I still miss our connection.

We were good together. Sure, we had our quarrels. They were understandable given the passion, the love. But we experienced a whole lot together, traveled to incredible places and were invited to witness the entire gamut of the human condition from the slums of Port au Prince, Haiti, to the opulent mansions and castles of the world’s richest elites.

We spent time with presidential candidates, toured prisons and flew in balloons & helicopters together. It was a great relationship.

But then it ended; I got dumped.

I have to admit, even though I’m not always proud of my efforts, there are times when I’ve tried to rekindle things. When those efforts failed, I thought about other relationships, dabbling in the possibility that maybe this might make me happy, that might make the days more interesting. But so far, nothing meaningful or lasting has come of my attempts.

I still have dreams we’re back together. That’s the weird, sick part of it all. Weirder still, my dreams take me back to just before or just after it all ended. I feel marginalized, diminished in those dreams. Thank goodness I can smile at them when I wake up.

Do I still yearn for and mourn over the past? I do. Do I want things back the way they were? Hmm … sometimes, when nothing seems to be flowing in the right direction. It’s odd, even back then I knew things were going to end and I prepared myself for the inevitability.

So did my wife and family. We got a lower mortgage, pushed the kids through orthodontics, saved money just in case …

But now seven years after the breakup — getting laid off from my journalism career — I find myself inexplicably happier than I was back then. I’ve come to view that time in my life as not always a healthy one. It even felt abusive at times. After I was pushed out the door due to austerity measures, the company’s CEO was given 37.1 million dollars to retire.

If I dwell on it, which is only natural at this annual anniversary, it can bring me down. But if I remind myself how much healthier I am (having survived a shit ton of medical attacks), I find myself breathing easier, happier. Most of the friends I made back then still swirl around me via social media or through actual, physical interactions. What’s missing is the fear, the pit in my tummy, the anxiety.

A smile forces its way across my face.

Seven years into the breakup I look forward to future roles, future positions that fit my skills and talents. The possibilities seem numerous. Will I write for some organization who pays me for my silly insights? Will I take pictures full time for another? Will anyone ever hire a photo editor again? Will I once more teach students how to write or take pictures at another university here or abroad? Or will I continue to perform a fun freelance hybrid of all three (or more)?

And as if by some mystical cue while I’m looking for a conclusion here, several of my former co-workers have begun sharing a photo of me on social media of my last day at my last big newspaper. Grinning in the middle of the group, I see myself wearing a royal cape they crafted for me, hugging someone’s thigh, someone else’s shoulder.

The smile from a couple paragraphs ago is still here.

So am I.

All Rodney's talents

TOP LEFT: photo by Cassidy Johnson — BOTTOM: photo by Dale Parry — MIDDLE: Rodney’s books — RIGHT: Rodney’s videos, photos and blogs

Gun Control: for my brothers, for my sister

June 6th, 2016

When an abusive relationship becomes too much

M&R Photography

A gun convention in Houston. (Photo from M&R via Wikimedia Commons.)

Thank God my brother was working from home when the umpteenth crazy with a gun this year walked into Dean’s usual place of work and shot someone, then killed himself. That was the other day at UCLA. By the time you read this, another gun tragedy (or twenty) will have taken place, guaranteed.

My mom was shaking when she heard the news. So was my brother. So was my friend whose son studies on campus and passes that building every day.

This isn’t the first time my peaceful, loving brother has faced gun violence. A maniac held a shaking gun to his temple many years ago, demanding his wallet and his girlfriend’s purse. No one ever caught the guy.

Nor is this the first time my family has faced unspeakable violence caused by handguns. Before my adopted sister joined our family, she had her own family. While she was lying in bed in a Detroit suburb many years ago, a man calmly walked into her home, shot her mother’s best friend, put a pillow over her mother’s face and shot her—then he shot my sister. Miraculously, the bullet just grazed her head.

She’s part of our family now, so is her husband and incredible daughter. Her birth-brother, not surprisingly, grew up to become a cop. He was still a baby in the home when the shootings took place and was un-touched, at least physically. That tragedy colors almost every part of her life, 35 years later.

And then there’s my other brother who was menaced by an ex-felon who purchased almost an entire gun, piece-by-piece, online. His father bought the last, critical piece and gave it to him, circumventing the flimsy rules supposedly keeping felons away from firearms. The guy also bought thousands of rounds of ammunition, all legally, and boasted around the office that my brother Scott would be one of his first targets. Thankfully people spoke up and he was arrested.

It’s tempting to wring our hands, blame mental illness and say, “There’s nothing we can do about it. If Sandy Hook didn’t change things, nothing will.”

It would be understandable if you felt that way. It’s not your fault. NRA-backed congressmen have made sure no legislation gets passed that might stem the tide of gun violence. These same politicians claim the Constitution allows everyone to carry machine guns, infinite amounts of ammunition and rapid fire handguns. Nope, not even close. Back when the Constitution was written, it took 20 to 30 seconds to load one shot into your gun. Furthermore, the founding fathers also wrote that arms and militias should be “well regulated.”


Bullet holes (1)Until there’s a sea change in Congress — most likely this fall — why don’t we circumvent them and have a national dialog ourselves.

Let’s start with our own stories. Then, let’s put everything on the table — all ideas that could help us control gun violence. 

How have guns affected your family? If we could all sit in a circle, putting politics aside, here are some other questions I’d raise:

Who needs armor piercing bullets?

What about closing loopholes that allow guns to be purchased at gun shows

Where would it make sense to begin the discussion about online weapons sales?

When can we begin talking about an assault weapons ban?

Why don’t we limit the number of bullets a clip can hold?

How about we limit the number of guns you can own?

We need gun control, but let’s start by talking — actually talking with each other and listening to what our friends, families, co-workers and neighbors have to say.

For too long, we’ve simply refused to talk, blaming the U.S. Congress for refusing to act. We have been in this abusive relationship far too long. But, we can change the pattern. 

We must!