Mass Fatality Fatalism

There is a bizarre sense of fatalism that surrounds these horrific mass shootings. Following each one, the cry from one side of the argument is there was nothing this law or that law could have done to prevent it.

In a very narrow sense, they may be right. We don’t like to admit it, but a motivated individual hell-bent on violence, and unconcerned with his (I don’t think we have to worry about the gender of the pronoun here) well-being will be able to do a great deal of damage before he’s stopped. Neither a well-meaning gun regulation from the left, or a well-armed good guy from the right is going to eliminate all of these shootings.

Yes, this isn’t a problem in other countries. But we simply have too many guns in the hands of the public, and the public is simply too heavily invested in the culture of firearms to think we can eradicate them.

But simply because these horrific incidents may still take place is not a reason to throw up our hands and do nothing, which has been the modus operandi for Republicans in Congress for far too long. Or, to believe the only possible solution is MORE GUNS.

Instead of worrying whether we can eliminate them all (which, of course, should be the goal), we should perhaps strive to limit the number that take place. Or mitigate the carnage when one happens. Or try to make a dent in the hundreds of shooting deaths, whether via homicide, suicide or accident, each and every day that aren’t part of a mass event. The Florida tragedy captures our attention and re-triggers the calls for some action, but it’s the everyday gun violence that is the true societal ill.


Perhaps we can take steps to keep the mentally ill from legally obtaining firearms. Or keep them out of the hands of people on the terror watch list. Could we have a better system of regulating gun shows and other sales? Maybe we can do a better job of following the weapons out there, or do a better job tracking the potential risk who begins stockpiling them. Require the owners to demonstrate some minimum of proficiency in handling them, or some understanding of gun safety before selling/licensing them. Possibly certain weapons whose only function is to kill lotsa people, lotsa fast can be reduced in the marketplace. Or maybe, and I know this is crazy talk, we can allow the CDC to study the causes and effects and correlations of gun violence, treating it as the public health issue it most clearly is. You know what they say, the only way to stop a nosy scientist with a slide rule is a well-heeled lobbyist with Congressmen on speed dial.

We don’t do any of these things. Not because Americans are opposed to them. A majority to super-majority of Americans, including gun owners, support many if not all of those things listed above. But we don’t do any of them because we have allowed a major element of public health policy to be written and decided and by the trade group representing gun manufacturers. Washington, D.C. lawmakers have abdicated their responsibility to seek out solutions to the scourge of gun violence to the NRA lobbyists filling their campaign coffers.

Thoughts haven’t worked. Prayers may have eased the pain of the mom who lost her son yesterday, but they haven’t stopped tomorrow’s disaffected high school student or disgruntled worker or angry white supremacist from taking out his rage on unsuspecting Americans tomorrow. And the next citizen good guy with a gun who stops one of these bad guys with a gun in the course of a mass shooting will arguably be the first.

We are the most heavily armed advanced nation in the world, by orders of magnitude. We are also the advanced nation with the highest per capita levels of gun violence, again, by orders of magnitude. Fighting fire with fire simply has not worked.

What will? I don’t know. None of us knows for sure. The problem is, we’re not allowed to even ask all of the damn questions.

Freed from Freeing

For most of the past 22 years, this season was quite the challenge. The weeks before Christmas were filled with shopping and running down items, wrapping and decorating. Christmas Eve required work long into the evening, not starting until after the last of the kids was in bed. And Christmas morning, at least for me, was the worst.

When I was a child, the two instructions most dreaded by my parents were “Some Assembly Required” and “Batteries Not Included.” But the problems associated with those toy-box standards seem quaint compared to the difficulty parents face today: extricating new toys from the packaging web that ensnares them.

You simply can’t purchase a new toy without running into a labyrinth of twist-ties, tape, stitching, wires and other affixation devices, all hermetically sealed to lock in that fresh, polyurethane goodness.

Product tampering? You’d have better odds of carrying your complete collection of Civil War swords onto a United Airlines flight while wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Martyr in Training” than adjusting the hemline of a Nutcracker Barbie before it left the shelves of Toys ‘R Them.

Though the toy makers are just now perfecting the art of elusion, the move towards inaccessibility has been going on for years.

Imaginary research indicates one example of the toy companies’ cryptic packaging practices dates back more than a quarter-century. In 1977, 33-year-old Bob Tolbert of Parsippany, N.J., had just finished his 27th screening of “Star Wars” (retroactively renamed “Star Wars Episode π: Register of the Trademark”). Determining his downstairs bedroom in the basement of his parents’ split-level ranch home was not complete despite the replica Light Saber, Darth Vader Helmet and Princess Leia poster hanging directly above his bed, Tolbert purchased a genuine Luke Skywalker inaction figure. But Tolbert was stumped in his efforts to free Luke and instead left him on his nightstand in the original packaging, launching a mystifying adult trend that continues to this day.

But knowing the origins of this phenomenon is no help when you’ve got a child salivating at a shiny new toy. So you break out the knives, scissors and radial arm saw, which aren’t very good at liberating G.I. Joe from his plastic P.O.W. camp but do a good job of producing nicks, cuts, blisters, bruises and language unfit for this essay, let alone Christmas morning around the tree.

Of course, if after 90 minutes of toil you manage to separate the toy from the chaff, your hard work is rewarded five-fold as your child plays with the bounty with uncontrolled enthusiasm. This euphoria lasts an estimated 12 minutes, at which point your child puts down the toy, forever, and flips on the television to see what trouble Spongebob and Patrick have found themselves in.

And the most perplexing aspect of this entire dance: Absolutely none of these protective measures does anything to prevent someone from LiMeloballing off with the product from the toy store shelf.


The Book that Binds

Through the years, I don’t recall writing a whole lot of Christmas fare, other than a few Christmas song parody sports columns. I’m not really sure why that is. It seems like I must have had ample opportunity, but I don’t recall many columns that touched on the subject.

One of the few I’ve written was one that never appeared anywhere, as far as I can remember. I dropped it in the Pursuit, and I thought I’d drag it out here for the holiday season.

Here’s wishing everyone on the whole ‘Friends’ list a great holiday season.



This was going to be my greatest gift.

It was early 1996 and, after four months, I was still reveling in first-time fatherhood. I was admittedly self-absorbed for the better part of my first 28 years, obsessed with my own interests, accomplishments, and later, career. But that changed with the delivery of my beautiful son. The focus of my life was no longer on what made me happy, but what I could do for him. Thus, shortly after my infant son’s first Christmas, I began plotting a gift for his second.

It couldn’t be an ordinary store-bought or catalogue-ordered present. Mass-produced, tirelessly marketed gadgets might be good enough to give someone else, but it wouldn’t cut it for my first-born. It had to be a one-of-a-kind original from his enraptured dad.

Since I fancied myself a writer, the answer was obvious. I would write a book, with my son in the title role.

The story, imaginary nocturnal tales of merriment with his dog and cat while mom and dad slept peacefully, actually came quite easily, even with the rhymes. But a children’s book without the illustrations will hold a child’s interest no longer than a phone book. I would need drawings to accompany the prose. Since as an artist I make a pretty good bus driver, this was going to require some effort.

With an ample supply of erasers, I plodded forward. And plodded some more. Until, sometime much later, the pages were filled with my son and his pets in cartoon form. Sure, the little lad in the illustrations bore no resemblance to my son, or any other carbon-based life form. But at least the character was consistently poorly drawn. The unrecognizable Ian on Page 2 looked just like the blob who bore no resemblance to the real Ian on Page 4.

Since the project was being undertaken in secrecy, I worked on it only in the absence of my wife. So, it was no surprise that I was only wrapping up my tale as December approached. But my work was only the beginning.

While clear plastic binders would suffice for my 10th grade social studies reports, they would be woefully deficient to hold this tale for my new best pal. This baby needed to be in hardcover.

I contacted a binding company in the summer and asked the owners if they could do this one-time-only job. Sure, was the reply. I never explained there might be a rush order placed.

Apprehensively, I called back after Thanksgiving to explain I was done and was forwarding it on. To my relief, I was assured the company, which was really just a husband and wife family business, could meet my rushed deadline.

A few weeks later _ a week before Christmas _ the book was still not in my possession, so I called again. I reached the owner, who explained she had just finished the binding and had put in the mail. Then she went on with more details than I had expected.

She told me that her husband was ill, and from the tone of her voice, it was an illness from which he might not recover. Consequently, she solicited the help of a friend to finish the job. She told me how important it was for her, since she and her husband had never been blessed with children. I uncomfortably offered my sympathy, my thanks and my Christmas wishes, expecting that was the last I would speak to her.

A few days later, the book arrived, looking fantastic. The bold red cover meant this tale would not be embarrassed on my son’s bookshelf, even resting between the works of actual authors such as Seuss and Sendak. Only one thing was missing.

I called her back and asked for that missing item: the bill.

“Oh, I’m not going to charge you anything. I want to do this for you and your son,” the angelic book binder told me.

I was stunned. Here was a woman I had never met, a woman whose partner in life and business was gravely ill, performing such a magnanimous gesture to a man who seemingly had it all: a great wife, a young son and most of his life in front of him. How could anyone in the middle of such an agonizing ordeal be so generous to an absolute stranger? I didn’t know the answer to that question then, and I still don’t know now. But when I think back on that phone conversation more than 20 years ago, I still feel chills that had nothing to do with the December temperatures.

In the weeks that followed, I wanted to do something to show my deep appreciation for her generosity. But nothing I could conceive could possibly equal hers. I opted to take a photograph of my boy, the book in his hands, and send it off to her. It was the least I could do, and perhaps given the circumstances, also the most.

As I had hoped, the book has become a prized possession of my son. He once took it to school with him for show and tell, filling his dad with a sense of pride he couldn’t possibly fathom. I hope it remains one of the most treasured totems of his childhood, maybe sharing it with his children when they become old enough to read.

But even if that book doesn’t stay with him forever, if it becomes the victim of a basement flood, is lost in a move or is doodled on beyond recognition by his own children, its importance will never be lost on me.

Not as I originally intended, however. I no longer think of that book as the greatest gift I ever bestowed on my son.

Since that day, that book has always been the most remarkable gift I’ve ever received.


75 Percent Less Fat*: No. 50

Since The 200 wrapped up, I thought it was time to turn my attention to my favorite albums, if for no other reason than to once again out myself as a supreme dinosaur.

This time, I’m going to limit the number of entries to 50, but each installment will feature a single album, with some commentary from me and a few You Tube links. For the record, I am not a music critic, nor am I a musician. (I took one year of piano lessons. I sucked). I can’t talk about time signatures or chord progressions or syncopation. In other words, I’m wholly unqualified to be doing this.* Eh, that’s never stopped me before.

I’ll simply write about what I like, and why I like it.

We’ll kick things off with a native Hoosier, South Bend’s Ted Leo. The album choice is his 2003 release, Hearts of Oak.

Ted really hits all my high notes. His music has obvious strong ties to punk even if it can’t really be pigeonholed that way. He’s a literate and highly political fellow, which I appreciate in a songwriter.  And the disc’s songs are brimming with Irishness, which never appealed to my late Irish-American parents, but is welcomed by me. Hell, the cover features Ted and his band in Rx soccer jerseys.

Highlights here are Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone (You Tube), a tribute to pioneering ska act the Specials; Ballad of the Sin Eater (You Tube), which always reminds me of the great Warren Zevon in its global cynicism; and I’m a Ghost (You Tube).

By the way, No. 50 was probably the most difficult choice in the entire list. I did an informal listing of in my favorite albums, and the first 49 came quite naturally, if not necessarily in the proper order. This position was one that had several contenders, and my choice for the Ted Leo disc was a tight call between Heart of Oak and his follow-up, Shake the Sheets.


*In my defense, I suspect the vast majority of music critics share this trait, but they try to disguise it with prose more dense and difficult to claw through than the Amazon Basin.


Important Information:

Name: Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak

Released: 2003

Record Company: Lookout!

Running Time: 54:39

Track Listing:

  1. Building Skyscrapers In The Basement
  2. Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone
  3. I’m A Ghost
  4. The High Party
  5. Hearts of Oak
  6. The Ballad of The Sin Father
  7. Dead Voices
  8. The Anointed One
  9. Bridges, Squares
  10. Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead
  11. 2nd Ave, 11 AM
  12. First to Finish, Last to Start
  13. The Crane Takes Flight

*The big asterisk. The headline for this series borrows its name from a Chris Mars’ solo album after leaving The Replacements. Alas, there will be a Mats album on the list, but the drummer turned everything’s fine effort didn’t make the cut.

The 200: 34-17

Whoops. This was written, but never actually posted. So, we’re a little out of order.

We come to the Second Set of songs from the top, the real meat and potatoes here. Now, you have to pretend I said that last sentence in a historically gravelly voice, since it’s lifted from former WNEW-FM disc jockey Scott Muni when the station used to broadcast its annual Memorial Day Top 1027 songs of all-time.

Unlike the Modern Rock 500, broadcast by WOXY annually over the same weekend, the top of WNEW’s list barely changed from year to year. Stairway to Heaven was always No. 1, followed by Born to Run, Layla and Baba O’Riley. While only Springsteen was represented on my countdown, I like the Who and I can tolerate a lot of Zep. On the other hand, my life has been Clapton-free for a very  long time.


34           Breathe Me   Sia (You Tube)

33           Subdivisions         Rush     

32           Lovecraft In Brooklyn         The Mountain Goats

31           Here’s Where The Story Ends   The Sundays   

30           When Doves Cry    Prince

29           Another Nail In My Heart   Squeeze                             

28           Mighty K.C.   For Squirrels

27           Born To   Jesca Hoop (You Tube)

26           Sultans Of Swing    Dire Straits

25           Ears Ring   Rainer Maria

24           Deeper Into Movies   Yo La Tengo (You Tube)

23           City Of Angels      The Distillers 

22           Pop Goes The World   Men Without Hats

21           New Slang    The Shins 

20           These Days   R.E.M. 

19           Left Of Center      Suzanne Vega Feat. Joe Jackson

18           Ace Of Spades     Motorhead

17           Time After Time   Cyndi Lauper    


33. As alluded to in the intro, there aren’t many holdovers from my high-school era “Classic Rock” fandom period in my musical rotation today, but I’ll always have a soft spot for these Canadian boys.

25. In 2006, I attended a Rainer Maria show at Metro in Chicago, with 10-year-old Ian in tow (it was an all-ages event). It was his first concert. RM was the third of four bands on the bill, and we left midway through the headliner, as he was starting to lag. On our way out, I saw the charming lead vocalist for the three-piece outfit, Caithlin De Marrais, talking to some fans. I walked by, as I was wont to do. Only after I got out did I realize that Ian most certainly would have liked to get the chance to meet her, and she probably would have been amused to meet the only pre-teen in the crowd. When I got home, I sent her an email through the band’s website, and she responded with a nice note to Ian telling him how she saw us at the show, and hoped we’d stop by to talk. He liked that. The band is back together now, and I’d like nothing more than to go see them again, accompanied by a twenty-something Ian.

22. They weren’t one-hit wonders. They had two hits, and this was the much, much better one.

20. Not included on this list, but REM supplied the song for my 1992 nuptials. For our first song, Kem had this cool idea to invite the entire wedding party on the floor for the first dance. The DJ then played about 15 seconds from a sappy love song, before breaking into “It’s the End of the World As We know It (And I Feel Fine). The rest of the wedding party was stunned when it happened, while everyone else at the reception kind of crept closer to see what the heck was going on, including a bunch of little kids dancing just off the floor. It really set the tone. Also, if you give it some thought, it’s not a bad idea for a wedding song.

Oddly, years later I was reading a Chicago Tribune piece of reader-submitted fun wedding reception stories, and a couple mentioned how they had done the exact same thing, and I concluded they had to have heard about it from someone who went to our reception. It was just too damn identical in the details to be a coincidence.

19. I always felt no song did a better job of capturing that all-too common sense of alienation so many teens experience. The song was the highlight of my all-time favorite movie soundtrack, Pretty in Pink.

18. See 166.

Going Grateful


Today seems like a fine time to unleash my inner Anti-LaVar.


I’m thankful I get to spend four unfettered days with my wife. That guy* who came up with the equation that the lack of something produces a direct increase in the warm feelings sensed by the primary organ responsible for circulation sure was on to something.


I’m thankful my wonderful daughter is also here, and that I engaged in spirited conversation with her for most of the four-hour car ride home. That was a truly stunning development considering her preternatural ability to fall asleep the moment a vehicle is shifted into drive, and to remain that way regardless how long the car is moving.


I’m thankful that Cormac and I have managed to avoid any explosions, implosions, collapses, fractures, dislocations, 911 calls or visits from the I-Team 8 news crew since we’ve been on our own. Just one concussion, and that happened while I was out of state. Woo hoo, not my fault.


I’m thankful for my in-laws, who have never once treated me like anything but family.


Yes, they departed this world far, far too early, but I’m thankful I was undeservedly blessed with the two best parents a guy could ask for. I’d swap the 30 years and change I got with Pete and Mary Lou Markham over 60 with any off-the-rack progenitors.


I’m thankful that our house’s vacancies have been partially filled by Erwin, our guest from Guatemala, these past four weeks. His visit to the states will end far too quickly, but we’ll appreciate his presence here long after he’s gone.


I’m thankful for my sister Amanda, No. 2 in the line of Markham children, but a clear No. 1 when ranked in virtually every other way. I wish I got to see her more often.


I’m thankful that 100 or so days into his Latvian expedition, Ian has yet to spark any international incidents. Keeping those fingers crossed.


I’m also thankful that in a month’s time, the entire family will join him in the Baltics for a week. Unlike our globe-trotting son, this will be the first time overseas for the rest of the clan, so I’m hoping we’re not totally embarrassing. I can live with partially.


I’m thankful for good friends, both ones I see regularly and those whose existence is primarily digital.


I’m thankful for the fine makers of heavy equipment, ERP software and steel, aluminum and copper and brass products, and for the work they do in driving America’s manufacturing economy. It’s a shameless plug, sure, but they really do pay my salary.


Happy Thanksgiving.



*His name was Thomas Haynes Bayly, in Isle of Beauty. I bet you didn’t know that. I didn’t, until this morning.







Still Going Stupid

Fifty Years In, I’m Still Going Stupid
The entries in The Pursuit of Mildly Amusing encompass almost 30 years of writing, all but one completed out of professional obligation or simply for my amusement. But one didn’t fit in either category. The oldest entry in the book dates to my college days, an assignment from Professor Jerry Miller’s magazine writing class that somehow managed to stay in my possession after more than a dozen moves.
A quick digression from which you might not return. The aforementioned Prof. Miller was almost certainly the single most significant influence on me as a writer. He taught me the first rule of good writing – there are no rules, a maxim I’ve exploited to its fullest extent in all my capacities. But Professor Jerry Miller is surely not an example of the old saw that those who can’t, teach. For proof, I direct you to his page on this here Book of Faces, where he’s been chronicling an ongoing health issue. Visit his page and follow his journey through entries that deliver, in equal doses, fear, humor, exasperation and wisdom in a delightful brew. You’ll feel bad for enjoying it so much. I urge all who know him, and even those who don’t, to pop on over and read about the ass kicking he’s going to ultimately deliver to cancer.
OK, for those who have bothered to return, we press on. The tale I wrote in the spring of 1988 was a How To story on dealing with absentmindedness, a trait that has plagued me for all of my 50 years. Its presence in the book was not for quality reasons – this was not an example of superior craftsmanship. Rather, its inclusion was more anthropological, a sign of where I once was with the pen. It’s possible to see a decent effort lurking somewhere in that piece, though only if you’re an Olympic-caliber squinter.
In the story, I related my then 20-year struggle with losing items both large and small. It started with my daily failure to remember to replant my retainer after lunch in the second grade, leaving it in a small box on Mrs. Frank’s desk that Pete or Mary Lou Markham would have to retrieve sometime after school. The anecdotes ran up through my first day of college, which had served as the apex of my absentminded ways. On my flight from New York to Indy by way of Detroit, I was stuck in the airport in Motown, and during a phone call to my parents to inform them about my lengthier-than-expected layover, I left my wallet on the top of the pay phone. Not surprising, it was not there when I returned to reclaim it. Moments later, when I called to tell them about losing my wallet, I left my plane ticket atop the exact same pay phone. That was, fortunately, not pilfered during my brief venture away from the now-extinct communication device.
Which brings us to the present. On Tuesday night, I was in a conversation with Erwin, the fine young Guatemalan exchange student staying with us. Prompted by a friend’s text, Erwin asked where his passport was. I was stumped, not recalling ever having his passport in my possession. Erwin reminded me that on the night he arrived from Guatemala, his coordinator passed along an envelope containing the passports belonging to him and Paco, another boy studying at Marquette.
Quickly, panic set in. I had no real memory of such an exchange, though I couldn’t rule it out given that the six-plus hours I’d spent patrolling the terminals of O’Hare awaiting his much-delayed flight had left me thoroughly fried. And I had absolutely no memory of doing anything with such a parcel once we got back home. Over the next two days I scoured and rescoured all the likely places, to no avail. I was convinced that the passports were gone, a significant problem given he’s scheduled to return to Guatemala in a month’s time. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia were not likely to appreciate any forced confinement to the U.S., an unwelcome portation, as it were.
Yesterday, I took Erwin and Cormac to school. Afterward, I stopped to see the woman who handles the foreign exchange program to relate my all-too-familiar tale of woe. I confessed that I couldn’t find the envelope, and was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to. During the course of a spirit-boosting conversation, she offhandedly asked me if I’d paid for parking before leaving the airport. I acknowledged I had. Suddenly, it all made sense, in a supremely pathetic, history-repeating kind of way. On my way out, I stopped at the self-parking machine. I probably placed the envelope atop it and then walked away after completing my transaction. It was, I had to admit, just like me to do that.
On the bright side, if I’d engaged in such otherwise unfathomable boobery, there was hope. Lost passports were occasionally turned in to the TSA. She offered to call the airport to check on them for me while I dashed off to work. A few hours later, I received a text from Cormac explaining that the passports had been found. And yes, my misadventure from 30 years prior had played out again, only this time with a happier ending. The authorities at O’Hare had come through, retrieving the envelope and passing it along to one of the other schools where the traveling Guatemalans were attending. Thank God for the TSA (which, incidentally, is the first time in history that sentence has been written).