Friday, September 27, 2019

Bill Schroeder and the Great Red, White and Blue Calf

On this day when the country is unraveling, when the clay-footed idols strut and sputter, I can't help thinking about Bill Schroeder.

William "Bill" Schroeder was one of four students shot to death at Kent State University in May of 1970. He was a member of the ROTC, an exemplary student, and an Eagle scout. He had the audacity to be walking to class on May 4, 1970, and was more than 100 yards away from the protesters and soldiers. He was carrying a folder. That was his weapon of choice. And he was shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard.

In the weeks and months following Bill Schroeder's death, his parents received over 2,000 threatening/harassing messages. They were called every vile name imaginable. They received death threats.

Think about that. Not one or two hateful nutcases. 2,000 messages.

I was shocked when I read that, and part of me still is. What it suggests to me is that the Great American Civil Religion, which is the real deity of the land, and whose chief symbol is the American flag, and whose faith is based on unquestioned and unquestioning allegiance, is a far more powerful and dangerous idol that I had ever envisioned. As time has passed, and as I've reflected on the many ways the worshipers prostrate themselves before the red, white and blue calf, my convictions have only grown stronger. Richard Nixon, who was guilty as hell, and who absolutely deserved to be impeached, could whip up the idolaters simply by wrapping his lies and denials in patriotic jargon. He was not a crook. He was a good, upstanding patriot. All those naive, idealistic kids and parents and grandparents who marched and carried signs and protested a senseless war in Vietnam were Communists.

And I see similar dynamics at work today. A President can be caught redhanded in blackmailing a foreign nation and then attempting to cover it up, in using $400 million of taxpayer's money in military aid as leverage to pressure a foreign country into damaging a political opponent. And his contributions for re-election can and will go up as a result. All that idealistic malarkey about upholding the Constitution? It's a mirage. Many Americans - perhaps enough to re-elect an admitted crook - don't really give a shit about that stuff. The evidence dates back at least to the spring of 1970, and it can be found as recently as this week. If you were on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970, and you were shot, then you deserved to die. And so did your parents. Damn Communists. And nothing has really changed. It's still all about demonizing "Communists" and/or journalists, waving that flag like a talisman, and reminding idolaters about unquestioned and unquestioning obedience.

It is hard to remember this, and it is hard to watch it happening again. The evidence from 49 years ago. The evidence from this week. It is difficult and demoralizing to be an idealist. And a Christian who tries not to be an idolater.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

What is Country?

One of the great conundrums that Ken Burns’ massive “Country Music” documentary tried to solve, with mixed results, was the very definition of the musical genre itself. Just what was, and is, country music?

“It’s white man’s soul music,” Kris Kristofferson opined in an early episode of Burns’ documentary. Well, not exactly, as Ray Charles demonstrated in the early 1960s with his massively popular album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” and as Charlie Pride refuted with a string of hits in the first half of the 1970s. Rhiannon Giddens (and her former band Carolina Chocolate Drops) would dispute the claim as well, going back to even earlier sources as a tireless champion of the music of early African American string bands; bands, incidentally, that everyone from Stephen Foster to the Carter Family “borrowed” from without credit. But that’s the folk tradition, some might argue. Nah. That’s country music.

Country music is music with a twang, some would argue, a theory refuted by Eddy Arnold, a bland and very much twangless crooner of vapid pop ditties in the 1950s, who was inexplicably marketed to the country audience, and thus became, by default, a singer of country music.

Country music is music performed by people from the southern U.S. and derived from rural or Appalachian musical traditions, say the anthropologists. It is music that consciously hearkens back to the past, sentimental and nostalgic, fundamentally conservative in nature. Not really, said the long-haired hippies, who rocked it up but kept the twang, and earned the ire of the Nashville establishment. Witness the one and only disastrous Grand Ole Opry appearance of The Byrds, who were booed off the stage, and the subject of condescending snark from legendary Nashville DJ Ralph Emery.

The hippies got their revenge in a song co-written by Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons of the Byrds:

Well, he don't like the young folks I know
He told me one night on his radio show
He's got him a medal he won in the War
It weighs five-hundred pounds and it sleeps on his floor

He's a door store truck drivin' man
He's the head of the Ku Klux Klan
When summer rolls around
He'll be lucky if he's not in town

"This one's for you, Ralph," McGuinn sang as the song faded. And you bet, that was country music.

Burns cut if off in 1996 (except for a coda featuring the deaths of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash), so subjects for further debate weren’t available. But they are out there. Here’s a prime example, with thrashing guitars, pedal steel, and the weariest of world-weary lyrics: “This trickle-down theory’s left all these pockets empty/And the bar clock says 3 a.m./Fallout shelter sign above the door/In other words, don’t come here anymore.”

You want my opinion? Oh, yes. Country music.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Country Music, the Gripes

Ken Burns gets a lot right in his exhaustive, but never exhausting, country music documentary. The seven episodes (Episode 8, the finale, airs tonight) have been hugely entertaining and enlightening, admirably encapsulating almost a century of music, highlighting the obvious giants of the genre, and allowing plenty of room for the practitioners to wax nostalgic and/or philosophical on the brilliance of the music and the foibles of the people who made it. Special kudos to Burns for recognizing the genius of Marty Stuart and for allowing him to fill the Shelby Foote (The Civil War)/Buck O’Neil (Baseball) role as resident ranconteur and wag. Favorite moments: a) Stuart recounting the story of meeting beautiful country singer Connie Smith as a starstruck kid: “I told my mama after getting Connie’s autograph that one day I was going to marry her. Twenty-five years later, I did” and b) Stuart reflecting on his career: “The first two albums I ever bought as a kid were by Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. The only two bands I’ve ever played in were led by Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. So that worked out all right.”

I’m going to give it a solid “A” but still scribble a few notes in the margins of the paper. Specifically:

- Yeah, yeah, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Byrds and Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan in Nashville. All hugely significant in terms of roping in the Boomer kids and convincing them that there might be merit in the hillbillies and hopelessly square Nashvillians (Nashvillains?). But aside from a glancing mention of The Eagles, you’d hardly know that country rock – as a musical and cultural movement – even happened. A few mentions of, and few notes from, Poco, Pure Prairie League, and early Linda Ronstadt would have been in order.

- Steve Earle? Where is he? Anyone? Maybe he’ll show up tonight in the final episode, but Steve was certainly around in the timeframe of last night’s episode, and if he goes missing from the entire documentary, I’m gonna cry Foul. Big miss, Ken.

- I appreciate the focus on Austin, and on Willie and Waylon, Guy and Townes, but there was a whole lot more going on as well. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Alejandro Escovedo, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore all deserved at least a passing mention.

- Mickey Newbury, Mickey Newbury, Mickey Newbury. If you’re going to feature Kris Kristofferson (and you should), you have to mention Mickey Newbury in the same literate saloon. Along with Kristofferson, Newbury re-wrote the rules of how a country song could be written. 

It’s all quibbling. Yes, I’d like to see those things, and yes, this documentary is superb.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Big Picture

In the crush of daily outrages (there’s no judgment implied there; as a human being, there are plenty of reasons to be outraged on a daily basis), it’s easy to lose sight of the broader narrative. Here is the broader narrative. There are people who will read this and will deny the overwhelming evidence. There are perhaps other ways to explain this phenomenon, but the best one that I can come up with is that we are living in different and competing versions of reality, of what really happened, of what is objectively true. Truth is almost certainly the most significant casualty of the past half decade in America.
“Sometimes it’s worth stepping back to look at the full picture.
He has pressured a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 American presidential election.
He urged a foreign country to intervene in the 2016 presidential election.
He divulged classified information to foreign officials.
He publicly undermined American intelligence agents while standing next to a hostile foreign autocrat.
He hired a national security adviser whom he knew had secretly worked as a foreign lobbyist.
He encourages foreign leaders to enrich him and his family by staying at his hotels.
He genuflects to murderous dictators.
He has alienated America’s closest allies.
He lied to the American people about his company’s business dealings in Russia.
He tells new lies virtually every week — about the economy, voter fraud, even the weather.
He spends hours on end watching television and days on end staying at resorts.
He often declines to read briefing books or perform other basic functions of a president’s job.
He has aides, as well as members of his own party in Congress, who mock him behind his back as unfit for office.
He has repeatedly denigrated a deceased United States senator who was a war hero.
He insulted a Gold Star family — the survivors of American troops killed in action.
He described a former first lady, not long after she died, as “nasty.”
He described white supremacists as “some very fine people.”
He told four women of color, all citizens and members of Congress, to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
He made a joke about Pocahontas during a ceremony honoring Native American World War II veterans.
He launched his political career by falsely claiming that the first black president was not really American.
He launched his presidential campaign by describing Mexicans as “rapists.”
He has described women, variously, as “a dog,” “a pig” and “horseface,” as well as “bleeding badly from a facelift” and having “blood coming out of her wherever.”
He has been accused of sexual assault or misconduct by multiple women.
He enthusiastically campaigned for a Senate candidate who was accused of molesting multiple teenage girls.
He waved around his arms, while giving a speech, to ridicule a physically disabled person.
He has encouraged his supporters to commit violence against his political opponents.
He has called for his opponents and critics to be investigated and jailed.
He uses a phrase popular with dictators — “the enemy of the people” — to describe journalists.
He attempts to undermine any independent source of information that he does not like, including judges, scientists, journalists, election officials, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Congressional Budget Office and the National Weather Service.
He has tried to harass the chairman of the Federal Reserve into lowering interest rates.
He said that a judge could not be objective because of his Mexican heritage.
He obstructed justice by trying to influence an investigation into his presidential campaign.
He violated federal law by directing his lawyer to pay $280,000 in hush money to cover up two apparent extramarital affairs.
He made his fortune partly through wide-scale financial fraud.
He has refused to release his tax returns.
He falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping him.
He claimed that federal law-enforcement agents and prosecutors regularly fabricated evidence, thereby damaging the credibility of criminal investigations across the country.
He has ordered children to be physically separated from their parents.
He has suggested that America is no different from or better than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
He has called America a “hellhole.”
He is the president of the United States, and he is a threat to virtually everything that the United States should stand for.”
- David Leonhardt, The New York Times

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Roches

Remembering Maggie Roche, who died about this time two years ago.

1979 was a fantastic year for music. Punk had mostly swept away the shards of yacht rock and insufferably upbeat neo-Vegas acts like Tony Orlando and Dawn and The Captain and Tennille, New Wave was in full swing, and a whole new generation of songwriters was ready with sharpened pencils.

Some of the pencils were exceedingly sharp. I'd have a difficult time naming a favorite album from that year, but this one, by the three Roche sisters, is certainly in the running. Maggie, who is in the middle of the album cover photo, had the sharpest pencil. Ostensibly she wrote folk ditties, but these tunes had a bite, and those sweet harmonies belied a world of dysfunction and sadness and a quest for human connection, a quest that was often unfulfilled.

Listen to her masterpiece, an extended dialogue between parents and daughter, where the details are both elliptical and oh, so specific.

I went down to Hammond
I did as I pleased
I ain't the only one
Who's got this disease

The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary didn't write 'em like that. Maggie Roche did.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Doubt is About as Good as a Heart Attack

The quote from the photo comes from someone named Kelly Balarie, a self-proclaimed “Cheerleader of Faith.” Kelly herself looks like a cheerleader, perhaps now a few years removed from shaking pompoms on the sidelines, but still possessing that wholesome, All-American look that inspires superhuman feats of athletic prowess and giving it 110%.

I have nothing against Kelly, but I suspect she will experience life at some point, by which I mean that she will encounter inexplicable and devastating sadness and loss. It comes with the territory. If you haven’t experienced that yet, give it time. You will. And Kelly will experience it as well. When she does, I would like to interview her. Kelly would tell me today that the opposite of faith is doubt. I would tell her that the opposite of doubt is certainty, not faith, and that doubt, in the words of writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, is the ants in the pants of faith. If I didn’t doubt, I wouldn’t need faith.

I think about this because I spent a significant portion of my adult life in churches that exercised Cheerleader Faith. A lot of the rah-rah clapping and general hallooing was intended to drive away doubt. People would wander in after a tough morning of dealing with snot-nosed, sick kids, or wondering how they were going to pay the bills, and they would be hit by half an hour or so of bright, upbeat sentiments like these:

I wandered so aimless, my life filled with sin
I wouldn't let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord, I saw the light

I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light

That’s an old Hank Williams tune, and I believe I’ve sung it in more than half a dozen churches. Hank, of course, ended up dead in the back seat of his car at the ripe old age of 29, which was and is a very sad and devastating loss, but hardly inexplicable. It’s what often happens when you mix morphine and bourbon. Whatever light Hank experienced – and I’ll take him at his word that he experienced the love of God – wasn’t enough to overcome the darkness. No sorrow in sight? Check with the grieving widow and the kids who lost a father.

I understand the sentiments of the song and the desire to provide uplifting words directed to God. To extend the cheerleader/athletic metaphor just a bit, someone should have immediately thrown a flag on the “now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight” line and kicked the songwriter out of the game for heretical bullshittery, but I understand the basic concept of spiritual transformation and why it’s important. But the question of how one gets there, how one arrives at a transformed life, is important as well.

My wife and I had an extended conversation about five years ago that went on for many weeks. It was your basic “Let’s take stock of where we are” dialogue that I enthusiastically, nay, almost happily recommend for married couples. We couldn’t do it anymore. We couldn’t deal with “now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.” I literally couldn’t sing it because it was flatly untrue, and I wasn’t going to pretend that it was true. We were watching the fourth or fifth wave of new people come into our church, and stick around for a bit, and then leave. We were considering our aging bodies and witnessing every other Sunday as Kid’s Sunday, complete with balloons. And we were looking at the toxic changes happening in America and in the Christian Church in America, and connecting the dots, and concluding that we either needed to get the hell out of America or out of the Christian Church or both, and for the good of our souls.

We ended up in the Catholic Church. It’s mostly better than staying home and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle (minus the benefits of building vocabulary), and it’s good for our souls. You don’t have to tell me about the problems of the Catholic Church. I’m aware of them. I’m also well aware that there are wide swaths of the Catholic Church in America where I would be unwelcome, and where I would not want to be present in the first place. It’s a crapshoot, and there’s plenty of crap to go around.

As best I can tell, here is how a transformed life works: show up, confess your sins to God and one another, ask for help to stop sinning, acknowledge the reality of sorrow and loss, express your doubts, and live in hope, faith, and love. I see positive changes in people’s lives, including my own. It’s a quieter, less showy faith, although the pomp and circumstance would lead many people to suspect the opposite. But it is. It’s quieter. It’s less (melo)dramatic. It’s less prone to before and after thinking and more inclined toward process, which includes showing up, confessing your sins, and being forgiven, again and again and again, scraping away at the barnacles of the old, dead life. I’m pretty happy in the Catholic Church, at least the local expression of my parish. At this point (and I’m keeping all options open), I’m thankful I didn’t leave the country, and I’m thankful I didn’t bag it all and focus on crossword puzzles.

I also live with doubts. I like to think of it as being human.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

No America, It's Not Gonna Be Okay

From Christian pastor John Pavlovitz:

"I am a newly retired optimist.

I used to believe that things would be okay: that no matter how bad circumstances seemed in the world, I trusted that people would do the right thing, that goodness would prevail, that the rational center would hold.

I used to believe that our system of checks and balances would protect us from overreaching parties and mentally-unstable presidents and political leaders lacking a working moral compass.

I used to believe that most people were basically decent, and that this decency would win the day, because our shared humanity was something we were all equally interested in protecting.

I no longer believe those things."

I would add that I used to believe that it was a no-brainer that people who identified as Christians would be interested in following Christ, that there would be a well-understood consensus about the beliefs and behaviors that would constitute what that would look like, and that it would be better for people morally and spiritually to join a Christian Church in America than to stay home on Sunday morning and do the New York Times crossword puzzle. I no longer believe these things either, and it saddens me beyond words that I no longer believe these things.

Rex Lex

Francis Schaeffer, onetime Christian leader/guru and author, went to great pains to outline the differences between the way most of the world worked and the way America worked. America, Schaeffer maintained, was based on the notion of Lex Rex – the Law is King. That is, there were certain principles, underlying rules and assumptions, that superseded the whims and opinions of any one individual, no matter how powerful. This was in contrast to the way the rest of the world worked, and indeed how Western Civilization™ had worked up until the establishment of America, the shining beacon on a hill. “L’etat, c’est moi” pronounced Louis XIV of France. I am the state. In the old Latin phrase, Rex Lex. The King IS the law.

Yesterday provided an intimate glimpse of the way America really works. It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1974, even Presidents were assumed to be subject to the laws of the land. Coordinate a burglary and you could be and would be impeached. I didn’t watch the testimony of Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager. But from the transcripts I’ve read, his testimony went something like this:

Hapless Democratic Stooge (HDS): Did Donald Trump authorize you to pay off porn stars so they wouldn’t testify against him and reveal him to be the lecherous sexual predator and serial adulterer that he is?
Lewandowski: The President can do whatever he wants.

HDS: You didn’t answer the question.
Lewandowski: You didn’t answer MY question. What’s for lunch?

HDS: Mr. Lewandowski, are you going to answer the question?
Lewandowski: Nice weather we’re havin’. Maybe cooler this weekend, eh?

Don’t be fooled. Rex Lex. Donald Trump is above the law. Welcome to Amerikkka.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Country Music

The great documentary maker Ken Burns has his shtick, and by now – almost two dozen documentaries into a life’s work – it’s readily apparent. Slowly pan in on a sepia-toned old photograph. Cue the narrator (usually Peter Coyote), who waxes poetic about a bygone era. Cut to a talking head, who brings a contemporary perspective on the old history. Liberally mix with relevant music from the era in question.

The shtick is on full display in “Country Music,” Burns’ mammoth 16-hour love letter that debuted on PBS last night. You know what you’re going to get. This time the subject matter is right in my wheelhouse, and as the proud owner of several thousand country-ish music albums I expected to hear and see a lot of very, very familiar material.

I did, and I didn’t. Last night’s episode, which essentially covered the creation of the world through 1933, offered the expected summaries of the origin of the Grand Ole Opry and the simultaneous discoveries and ensuing careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, both the fortuitous handywork of record producer Ralph Peer, who ventured off to God-haunted Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 and basically launched a musical genre. This is fairly well-known territory to country music fans, but there were still some surprises along the winding mountain road. I particularly enjoyed the tale of the blueblood denizens of Nashville, the “Athens of the South,” who were alarmed by the hillbilly music coming out of their fair and enlightened city. After the bluebloods insisted that an hour of highbrow opera should precede what was then called the Saturday Night Barn Dance radio show on WSM, SNBD emcee George D. Hay gleefully announced as he went on the air, “You’ve just heard opera. And now it’s time for some grand ole opry.” The name stuck. The bluebloods, presumably, went back to sniffing haughtily.

It’s a theme that I suspect will be revisited in the episodes to come. Growing up, I was certainly led to believe that country music was the exclusive domain of inbred cretins and racist rednecks. I still know people who automatically dismiss the genre as music unfit for civilized humanity. But, as Marty Stuart so aptly put it in a talking head appearance last night, “country music is soul music.” And so it is. It is cornpone and bad puns, pickup trucks and long-gone darlins, songwriting by the numbers (there is, in fact, a Music Row where nameless, faceless Bards For Hire churn out the formulaic hits, one cliché at a time). But at its best it touches the deepest of places. I first heard it, really heard it, as a freshman in college when a country poet disguised as a hippie, one Gram Parsons of The Byrds, sang “It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real/In a faraway city with a faraway feel.” That one burrowed deep. I’ve been looking for and finding those connections ever since.

So I’m really psyched about this Ken Burns documentary. My guess is that we’ll get to meet Hank Williams tonight. There’s some soul there, too.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Donald Trump as First Responder

By some calculations, Donald Trump is now approaching 13,000 lies during his tenure as President of the United States. The lies come via flapping lips and tweeting fingers, which is how they come with many people, perhaps most people, some of them the self-proclaimed best people. But nevertheless, they're a problem.

Far be it from me to deny the specks and logs aspect of this. For those of you who may not be familiar what I'm talking about, here is Jesus on how to view this phenomenon: "How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

So, yeah. Ouch. In my defense as a sometimes liar, I'm going to maintain that a) I view lying as a problem, nay, as a sin (see the Ten Commandments for corroboration) and b) I strive not to lie, and when I do, I engage in an old-fashioned Christian practice known as repentance (it was once in vogue among Christians; you can look it up), confess my sin to God and to those I've lied to, and try not to do it anymore.

You can quibble about the 13,000-lie figure if you'd like. Blame it on the Fake Media if it makes you feel better. So, cut it in half. Cut it by 90%. I don't care. But I'd still like to suggest that the frequency and the ridiculousness of the lies uttered by this man is staggering and unprecedented in the annals of American politics.

Last Wednesday was the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a day on which Donald Trump again maintained that he was at Ground Zero shortly after the planes hit, in his words "to try to help in any little way that I could." He has said this before. He says it, in fact, on every anniversary of 9/11.

Except he wasn't there. He wasn't there on 9/11 of 2001. And repeating the same lie in 2002, and 2003, and so on, right up until 9/11 of 2019 doesn't make it true. You may recall that on 9/11 of 2001 there were hundreds of police and firemen at Ground Zero. And the universal witness of the thousands of people who were on the scene and survived is that the police and fire personnel served heroically in ensuring that people got out, moved away, and far away, from Ground Zero. Other than the insistent, repeated word of Donald Trump, there is no one who states that Donald Trump was at Ground Zero on 9/11. This is because he wasn't there. And even if he had been there, the police and fire personnel would have been there doing their jobs, which was to ensure that Donald Trump, and anybody else, stayed far away from Ground Zero. But he wasn't there.

You may ask yourself why Donald Trump feels the need to announce, again and again and again and again, that he was present at Ground Zero on 9/11. It's a reasonable question to ask. You may ask yourself why he feels compelled to state that the crowd at his presidential inauguration was larger than the crowd at Barack Obama's inauguration, even though aerial photographs clearly reveal that it was not. Or why he feels the need to announce not once, not twice, not three times, but four times that his father was born in Germany, even though he was born in the Bronx, New York. What does this say about him? What does it say that some people actually believe such easily disprovable bullshit? These are good questions. I'd encourage you to ask them.

It is worth noting that, according to the Washington Post, Trump has earned the dubious distinction of being the sole recipient of a new category of recognition, a sort of Lifetime Falsehood Achievement award called the "Bottomless Pinnochio." It's given to politicians who repeat the same lie at least twenty times. As of August, 2018, Trump had garnered 14 such Bottomless Pinnochio distinctions. Note that the "I was there at Ground Zero" whopper, assuming it is only repeated on 9/11 anniversaries, doesn't yet qualify for a Bottomless Pinnochio. But give him a couple more years. Better yet, don't.

I would also like to propose, gently, gently, because that damn beam hurts, that a propensity - and let's call 13,000 of them a propensity - to lie is a major character flaw. It's a major character flaw when I engage in that behavior. It's a major character flaw when presidents engage in that behavior. It erodes trust. It's a sign of moral and personal weakness. If you happen to hold to old-fashioned Christian notions, it's sinful. I try not to do it. It would be great if the Evangelical Dream President tried, even a little, not to do it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

We're back after an all-too-short four days. I love New Orleans.

It was an absolute sauna; mid-to-upper nineties, with ridiculously high humidity. In the French Quarter, where we stayed, the smell of weed competes with the smell of vomit, and neither odor ever quite goes away, even though the fine citizens wash down the streets every morning. Musicians - most of them ne'er-do-wells lacking in talent - play on almost every street corner, looking for that one big break. On Bourbon Street, the tourists stumble around, glassy-eyed, and convince themselves they're having a good time. Massage parlors, tarot readers, bars, bars, bars, and some of the finest restaurants in the world compete for your hard-earned dollars. Go Bucks. And they do, quickly.

Nevertheless, I genuinely love New Orleans. Tennessee Williams once wrote, "There are three cities in the U.S. - New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland." Tennessee is an asshole, but I know and understand what he was getting at. In an increasingly homogenized, franchised, big-box world, it's refreshing to come upon an actual place, a few square miles that are unlike anything else you might encounter in a big, big country. And New Orleans is such a place.

We stayed in the French Quarter mainly because it's close to everything; the music clubs on Frenchmen St., Treme - the first African American neighborhood in America, downtown with its museums, the Garden District, with its antebellum mansions and snooty Old Money Republicans. But we mainly walked through the French Quarter on our way to other places. It's the ultimate tourist trap, Disney without the mouse, and with absinthe bars instead of lemonade stands, and with actual as opposed to pre-fab architecture. Still, I'm not much of a fan of the French Quarter. The ironwork was magnificent. Many of the restaurants are fabulous. Go, by all means. But keep going.

I loved Treme, a wondrous, gritty neighborhood known as Backatown to the natives, the place where the Lyft and Uber drivers told us not to go, and where we encountered upraised eyebrows and smirks. It's rundown, more than sketchy, and sometimes downright murderous. It's the equivalent of hanging out in the housing projects on the south side of Chicago. But I'd go back in a heartbeat. My favorite moment involved crashing what appeared to be a party behind Kermit's Lounge. Kermit is Kermit Ruffins, a Grammy-winning trumpet player who runs a seedy bar in the seediest of neighborhoods, where a couple hundred African Americans and about six white people, including, yes, two 60+-year-old white people, listened to the raw, funky, and I do mean raw and funky, sounds of a hybrid brass/hip-hop band. It was a blast. There was a fistfight behind us. There was a thick cloud of weed smoke overhead, and all around us. And people could not have been kinder and more welcoming. It was, honestly, one of the musical highlights of my life, and I've seen more than my share of musical highlights.

Going to the 10 a.m. Jazz mass Sunday morning at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Treme was an absolute highlight. I was there, I kid you not, because I wanted to be at Mass, but yeah, also for the music. The choir was good, but there was one Aretha-level soloist who took it to another level. Holy Ghost Shivers down the spine great.

The soulfood at L'il Dizzy's Cafe was extraordinary. Gumbo. Skip the omelets. Get the fried chicken and the mac and cheese and the gumbo.

Treme, I love you.

And the rest of the time was fine, and fun. We saw the big mansions in the Garden District. They were big, and it was hot. We ate po boys at Johnny's Po Boys, where we stood in line in front of a dive diner for forty-five minutes or so in order to experience the privilege of inhaling wondrous fried food. Yes, the diet took a hit over the past four days.

We went to the big World War II Museum and Multi-Media Extravaganza. As museums go, it was fairly impressive, and we sat through something called a 4D Movie Experience where the big, big screen gave me vertigo and where our seats shook (literally) when the atom bomb detonated. It was kind of like being at Cedar Point in northern Ohio.

And we hung out and talked to people. At church. In restaurants. On the street. On buses. Just walking around. They were, to a person, friendly and helpful. There's such a great vibe to this city. People are understandably proud of it, and they understandably have a bit of a chip on their shoulder after Katrina. To that end, people are crazy, absolutely nuts, about the New Orleans Saints, who played their first game while we were in town. And now I remember why they're crazy. In the weeks after Katrina, a drowned and destroyed city rallied around their football team, which ended up winning the Super Bowl that year. I'm not much of a fan of the NFL. For the most part, I don't really care. But you can mark me down as a fan of the New Orleans Saints because I'm a fan of New Orleans and what the team represents to the city. Who dat.

I want to go back. Tomorrow.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

The Century of Merde

One of the greatest 200-word stretches of the English language you'll ever encounter:

"Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies - my only talent - smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire."
- Walker Percy, from The Moviegoer

I love this man. I love him because he could write that and still show up for Mass every week, which he did all through his life, and because he meant those 200 words and because he meant it when he showed up for Mass, too, and he didn't see any contradictions between them. The Evangelical world would be toting up the "merdes" and the "shits" and clucking disapprovingly, all the while completely missing the point, which is that it's tough to be alive and to stay alive in a world led by dunderheads, and that you need a whole mess of faith to get by. 

Percy didn't spend his entire life in New Orleans, but he loved the city and was formed by it. He wrote:

“New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont St. Michel awash at high tide. One comes upon it, moreover, in the unlikeliest of places, by penetrating the depths of the Bible Belt, running the gauntlet of Klan territory, the pine barrens of South Mississippi, Bogalusa, and the Florida parishes of Louisiana.” 

That's where I'm heading, although I'll miss the build-up by skipping the surrounding Klan territory and flying directly in to Louis Armstrong Airport. I wouldn't mind searching out Percy's old home in Carrollton, making a pilgrimmage to celebrate and honor the man who proclaimed the century of merde. He wasn't wrong. I'm also looking forward to attending the Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Church in Treme. He wasn't wrong about that, either. 

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Intellectual Humility and the Assault on Truth

I change my mind. This happens relatively frequently, and for all kinds of reasons. My wife hands me a dessert that is supposed to taste like chocolate but is made from zucchini and something called goji berries. In my mind I tell myself, “This cannot possibly be any good.” But I take a bite and, to my utter astonishment, it tastes okay. It doesn’t really taste like chocolate, but it’s not bad. It’s edible. It’s more than edible. So I change my mind. The concept “zucchini/goji berry concoctions are bad” undergoes a transformation to something like “zucchini/goji berry concoctions aren’t as good as chocolate, let’s not get crazy here, but they’re okay.”

It happens. I adapt. I change. So I’m wondering what the zucchini/goji berry equivalent might be in modern American political discourse. Here is an article that argues for intellectual humility. And here is a cogent and well-mannered sentence from the article that serves pretty well as a thesis:

“We can similarly view intellectual humility as the wisest balance between, on the one hand, the belief that truth exists and is objective, and on the other, the knowledge that our access to the truth is subjective and therefore partial. Understanding this balance suggests that the search for the truth we revere is best undertaken in recognition of our limitations and in collaboration with others.

Who’s going to disagree with that? Not me. But when I drill down a bit, and when I try to apply the concepts to present-day American life and culture, I get stymied. For instance, I encounter on one side the contention offered by seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies and reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post that Russia directly interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and on the other side the contention offered by Donald Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Intellectual humility, or the sorry version of it that exists in my heart and mind, insists that I don’t really know, that my access to the truth is subjective, colored by biased sources and hampered by my own limited understanding. Also, it insists on noting that I’ve been wrong before, about all kinds of things more important than healthy desserts, and that I could be wrong about present-day American life and culture.

Duly noted, my intellectually prideful side tells my intellectually humble side. But try this on for size, you quivering, prevaricating mass of spineless non-convictions:  while you shrug your shoulders and whimper, there are fundamental tenets of what it means to be an American, and what it means to be an adherent of Truth with a capital T at stake. Seventeen, count ‘em, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies offer remarkably consistent testimony about Russian interference. The New York Times and The Washington Post, winners of multiple Pulitzer Prizes for journalistic integrity and excellence, report the same findings. Against them you have Donald Trump, who literally lies about the most silly and easily disprovable things, including the country where his father was born, the size of the crowd that attended his presidential inauguration, the notion that he won the popular vote in 2016, the belief that Mexico is paying for a border wall, and that somewhere deep in the unrecorded and hidden annals of U.S. history there was something known as “the Bowling Green Massacre.”

It’s not a fair fight. It’s not. I am all in favor of intellectual humility. I am not in favor of turning off one's brain. I am not in favor of denying what can be objectively verified. I am not in favor of calling truth lies or lies truth. I am against those things. I think they’re bad ideas, and I always will think so.

I will try to keep an open mind. Really, I promise. And zucchini/goji berries? Not bad.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Norman Fucking Rockwell

Lana Del Rey's new album "Norman Fucking Rockwell" is the perfect soundtrack for our MAGA times; an instagram of the apocalypse, as vapid and as revealing as a tweet from the presidential commode.

And life couldn't be better, you know?

They're still shootin' 'em up in Texas, boys; little 17-month-old kids, along with assorted men and women, so it was time to pass a new law that means guns for teachers and guns in foster homes and guns in churches. Thoughts and prayers. It had been a couple weeks, so Texas was due.

The hurricane's gonna sink the coast, but Disney's still open, and the stock market is tanking, but college football is underway, and you didn't really count on Social Security and Medicare anyway, did you, and the big election is still open to the highest foreign bidder, and no we don't need to reform a damn thing, and everybody's pro-life until somebody's born, and the Christian Church is in bed with racists, holy fuck indeed, and everywhere there is winning, winning, winning.

God bless Amerikkka. Norman Fucking Rockwell.

I miss Long Beach and I miss you, babe
I miss dancing with you most of all
I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go
Dennis's last stop before Kokomo

Those nights were on fire
We couldn't get higher
We didn't know that we had it all
But nobody warns you before the fall

And I'm wasted
Don't leave, I just need a wake-up call
I'm facing the greatest
The greatest loss of them all
The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess I'm signing off after all

I miss New York and I miss the music
Me and my friends, we miss rock 'n roll
I want shit to feel just like it used to
When, baby, I was doing nothin' most of all

The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess that I'm burned out after all

And I'm wasted
Don't leave, I just need a wake-up call
I'm facing the greatest
The greatest loss of them all
The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess that I'm burned out after all

If this is it, I'm signing off
Miss doing nothin' most of all
Hawaii just missed that fireball
L.A. is in flames, it's getting hot
Kanye West is blonde and gone
"Life on Mars" ain't just a song
I hope the live stream's almost on