Morning in America

Like so many of my friends and allies these days, I wake up every morning with one thought at the front of my mind:

What fresh hell will Trump bring today?

Maybe it will be careless antagonism of one of our long-standing international allies.

We have always been at war with Australia! Bad hombres!

Maybe it will be careless antagonism of one of our long-standing international rivals. What could possibly go wrong with putting Iran “on notice”? Or warning China to steer clear of the South China Sea? Especially when the Pentagon itself had no advance warning that such red lines would appear.

Maybe we will wake up to the news that the new Supreme Court nominee was in fact the founder of the “Fascism Forever Club” at his “elite Georgetown prep school”.<fn>Remember how the Trump voters were all up in arms about those dalgurned elites from Washington ruining the country? Yeah, me either.</fn> Here’s a fellow who can be counted on to give the god botherers dominion over those pesky lady parts and the ladies who think they belong to them. Strict construction!

<fn>To give you an idea of how OCD Your Narrator can be about these things, when the new nominee was announced I immediately wondered if he might be related to Reagan-era EPA director and noted Bircher nutjob Anne Gorsuch. He is, in fact, her son, a man nurtured from birth to become an avenging scourge of ladyparts, clean water, and consumer protection. Here’s to draining the swamp!</fn>

What other fresh hell? The Muslim ban has generated an astonishing amount of spontaneous street protest. The in-fighting at the White House, and all the leaking that goes along with that – plus the preposterous quibble that it isn’t really a ban – is almost comic in scope and content; the knives are out and being sharpened, and if we can avoid getting into WWIII, we will soon be treated to some truly Shakespearean defenestration and ritual disembowelment in the Trump inner circle. Knowing Trump, it will likely be a prime time special event, brought to you by Geico with special guests Amarosa and Scott Baio.

Maybe we will wake up to Trump making a mockery of a sham of the National Prayer Breakfast<fn>Which, truth be told, should be ridiculed into extinction.</fn> with a Trump v Terminator dick measuring, followed by this nearly perfect remark about the Senate Chaplain<fn>Another idea that should be mocked into extinction ffs, but I digress.</fn>:

“I don’t know, chaplain, whether or not that’s an appointed position. Is that an appointed position? I don’t even know if you’re Democrat or if you’re Republican, but I’m appointing you for another year. The hell with it.”

The normally delicate fee fees of the Christianist cult failed to ruffle over this. Of course they did not; Trump promised to get rid of those pesky church-state restrictions that prohibits politicking from the pulpit. He could have said “fuck it” to the chaplain and gotten a pass.

Watching the press secretary slowly lose his mind on a daily basis is another source of pretty swell entertainment. It’s more fun than watching a penis-compensator shoot himself in the foot.

I love this way more than I should.

There are some truly comic elements at play in all this, but it is hard to muster much more than a mordant giggle. Take the tone-deafness of Trump wank fantasy daughter Ivanka posing while the airport protests were at their peak. It would be funny…

$5000 to Look Like a Baked Potato?
$5000 to Look Like a Baked Potato?

..but frankly, I thought this girl wore it better.

I wish this were funny.
I wish this were funny.

I wish this were actually funny. It is not. Darkly comic, yes, and mordant chuckling at (some of) it is damn near necessary to deal with the darkness. But it’s hollow fucking laughter at best.

The pace and severity of the coming fuckery are going to have serious negative consequences for years to come. Consider: if Gorsuch is confirmed, he will still be fucking the world up for my kids for years after I’m dead and buried. Consider: a crack in the Keystone pipeline will foul the Ogallala Aquifer for generations. Consider: people will die needlessly because of cruel decisions on immigration and health care. There’s no reversing that kind of thing.

So what to do? Well, face it: the left has zero power right now beyond the ability to obstruct and raise hell. Senate rules have already been tossed overboard for the sake of expediting the fuckery.<fn>Like Trump, the rest of the ruling GOP sees any agreement or contract (or treaty!) as something to be torn up when it becomes an inconvenience. Why any party would trust this Nation under the current government is a mystery.</fn> They have the power and they are going to do what they want. Because fuck you.

There are still actions we can – and really must – take if we want to turn this around. I visited the office of our local congresscritter on Monday with a group of fierce women. We have a face-to-face scheduled with the congressman later this month only because we refused to leave until we got a commitment for a meeting. I suspect he will be unmoved by anything we have to say. But we’re going to make him listen. Unless he chickens out in the end and cancels the meeting. Any bets?

Tomorrow, I will be visiting the office of The Emptiest Suit in Florida Politics, the diminutive and cowardly Marco Rubio. I doubt we will ever manage a face to face with this little chicken shit, but we can at least make him run and hide.

as far as

We marched. We will march again. We have been calling Reps and Senators daily. We do what we can. But it ain’t much.

I suspect that we aren’t going to see much more than a few dreaded “moral” victories at least until the mid-term elections. Maybe those tiny steps will add up to something resembling counter-momentum by then. But I feel confident that these tiny gestures can accumulate, that the nearly unprecedented taking-to-the-streets we have seen in these first two weeks<fn>Seriously…only two fucking weeks. It’s like time is standing still.</fn> is harbinger of real, sustained resistance.

We are entering a dark a gloomy time. There is no shortcut through the forest. We keep going, one step at a time.

There has to be a clearing out there somewhere.


It Did Happen Here

We took down our Clinton sign yesterday.

I accept what is. I’m beyond denial and bargaining. No Fairy Unicorn is going to swoop in and alter the Electoral College. No White Knight from the FBI is going to clap irons on the Trump cabal for back channel dealing with Russia. There is no miracle in the wings.

President Trump. Get used to it.

But even with acceptance, the anger and depression remain.

I’m angry at those who voted for an obvious fraud, a man of low morals and boundless greed, a man who plays footsie with racists and bigots.

I’m angry with a press corps that enabled this two-bit grifter in their quest for ratings, that spent more time and ink on Clinton’s email server than on every other policy issue combined. And today I am infuriated by exhortations that I should reach out to Trump supporters, to try to understand and respect their reasons for voting the way they did.

Well, I’m trying to understand. The respect part will have to wait for someone to articulate a reason that is not bound up in abject falsehood, logical fallacies, or outright racial animus. So far, not a single Trump voter I’ve listened to has even come close.

I am angry that such a simple choice was shrouded in overthinking and fantasy. It really should not have mattered who the Democratic nominee was. Decent people vote against a racist, misogynist, lying fear monger. Period. How goddam hard is that?

Back in 1991, when David Duke first took off his pointy white cap and ran for governor of Louisiana, convicted felon Edwin Edwards ran against him. The bumper stickers read: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” The voters understood. Anything was better than a Klansman. Edwards won.

This year, David Duke crawled out from his rock and ran for Senate. And endorsed Trump. And crowed that “Trump’s agenda is our agenda”. Trump winked and nodded and claimed to not know who David Duke was. The Klan endorsed Trump. The neo-Nazis, the alt-right, they endorsed Trump. Trump was Taking America Back, just like they have been trying to do all these years.

And the KKK is holding a Trump victory parade this weekend in North Carolina. In 2016. Welcome to Trumpland.

All this country needed to do was vote against the racist and his enthusiastic followers. That was apparently too much to ask. No matter the rationale, this is who the Trump voter endorsed:


And these folks:


I am angry because people I know, and people in my family, voted for these people. The rationale may be gussied up in talk about values, or economic insecurity, or because Obama was coming for their guns. Maybe people just don’t “trust” Hillary Clinton because emails something Benghazi. But that’s all noise masking the real signal: these voters, including many of my friends and family, have given the hate crowd a resounding thumbs up.

Worse: these knuckle draggers know it, and they are ready to act on their long-held and cherished beliefs about their “heritage”. The mask is off. The meanest among us need no longer fear the jackbooted thugs of political correctness, a term that seems to really just mean “don’t be such a dick to people”, but which the throwback crowd finds an intolerable intrusion on their God-given right to “say what they really mean”.


Already, the first glimmers of life in Trumpland are coming into focus. It ain’t pretty. A rough beast has been set loose. School children are chanting “build that wall” in class. Children of color are being told to “start packing [their] bags” to “go back where you came from”. It’s happening right here, in my little island of liberal sanity. It’s happening all over the country.

My anger is impotent. Nothing about it feels empowering or productive. “We” are outnumbered and the balance of power is exaggeratedly against the values we hold dear. It just feels depressing. Their anger has been given license. A savage darkness is upon the land.

“Time” executed its annual “fall back” maneuver over the weekend. Not yet 5 p.m. and dusk is creeping in. The days are shorter. Trees are going bare, plants browning and withdrawing. The weather here in the Panhandle has turned decidedly brisk, dry and dusty with predominant cloudiness.

We are deep into the autumn, the season aka Fall, and there is a heartless winter close on its heels. It is the twilight of a year that has been filled with capricious cruelty from the start, laying low a parade of heroes and legends, a reaper’s roll call that framed this election with an appropriately morbid echo. This week, hope died for millions of people. It is the greatest loss yet.

Today is Veteran’s Day, a day where we thank those who have served for all they have sacrificed for this Nation. It’s a day to remind us that we have, collectively and historically, faced many dark hours and survived – some of us – to tell the tale.

It is also a day to recall that many did not survive, that some events are so benighted that we can be sure people will suffer and die. The calendar will cycle round, but I fear that the political climate is going to get much worse before it gets better. Coming off of eight years of actual progress, this is a bitter damn pill.

I hope I’m just being a drama king here. I hope that some spark of inclusiveness, tolerance, and kindness emerges in the nation’s Trumpian soul, but we know none of that is coming.

Wednesday evening we went out for a bite and found ourselves among friends (and not the Trump-voting kind). It reminded us that we are a part a very fine community, that we are not alone where we are. This is a comfort, not at all small. But it’s not enough to cocoon in our safe zones. Too many people out there do not have this luxury.

It falls upon us to expand our notion of community, to ensure that people who need a safe harbor know where to find one. To do what we can at the local level to work for social justice, to help protect our neighbors from cruelty. To call the powerful to account, and to put ourselves on the line in solidarity with people whose lives are on the line because 49 million people put them there.

This is our call.

I’m pissed.

I’m depressed.

But I am not beaten, motherfuckers. Who’s with me?

Yes or No, But….

How do you solve a problem like The Donald?

From my perspective, the answer is simple: turn out the vote and beat that sociopathic charlatan like a tin drum. Send him scurrying back into the fever swamp that spawned him. Be gone, beast.

But for my Republican friends (stop laughing) and relatives, it is a little trickier. Talking to these folks – in a respectful and civil way (why are you laughing? Stop!) – presents an opportunity for us to find a little common ground

Some of them – call them the #EverTrump crowd – see Big Orange as the answer to their prayers, a knight in Cheetos-colored armor. For them, it’s simple. And I got nothing except to say, “Nice weather we’re having.” Common ground enough.

Then there are the folks Josh Marshall tagged as the “Yes, but…” brigade, people who realize Mister Spray Tan is a disaster on legs, but are going to vote for him anyway. Folks like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who daily have to spin like tops to distance themselves from Trump’s latest nonsense, but still, their support remains unwavering. Rubio. Priebus. McCain. The list goes on. Profiles in triangulating cowardice, they want it both ways: principled opposition to the scourge of Gold Star moms everywhere, but a clean heart about withholding their vote for the only living, non-orange person who might actually become President, the Hildebeast. These are the folks who calculate that party over country is a winning bet. For them, I got nothing beyond a suggestion to check out the latest escapades of Mallard Fillmore. And this: history will not be kind to you. Nice weather, by the way.

Then there are those who know el Trumpo is a know-nothing martinet and a fool, but a lifetime of GOP voting leaves them constitutionally incapable of pulling the lever for the pant-suited she-demon. The “No, but…” brigade. JEB!? I’m looking at you. If you’re in this gaggle, stay with me, because I want you to find your way to the fourth possible path, the one less traveled by.

Here is where I praise Republicans who realize that a Trump presidency would inflict incalculable damage on our Nation, who cannot imagine having to explain to their descendants how they could have supported – even indirectly – the election of a vulgar grifter. People who know that they are going to take fire from other Republicans, know they’ll hear cries of “Traitor!” People who know they are sacrificing future opportunities in the party they have called home for a lifetime. The #NoButs brigade.

We can also call them Patriots.

I recently struck up a friendship with a long-time member of the conservative GOP establishment. (STOP laughing!) Last time we spoke, X was firmly in the “No, but…’ camp, unable to see how she could overcome a lifetime of Clinton-aversion. But today I discover that she has very publicly and definitively joined the #NoButs brigade, proclaiming that if the race is close, she will vote for Hillary Clinton.

I cannot tell you how much I admire her courage. She could have kept quiet and nobody would have known. Except her. And this was a big splash, a very public conversion driven by conscience and rational analysis.
This is what decency looks like. I hope this opens the floodgates.

And I hope those trying to have it both ways realize that, as my Uncle Herschel used to say, “Roll in pig mud, boy, and you get stink on ya.”

I’m not asking that every Republican become a Democrat or vote a straight Dem ticket. I am asking – no, pleading, really – that the people who identify as reasonable Republicans cut the charade of “Yes/No, but…” and take a simple stand. Proclaim your support for Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States. #NoButs

You can vote straight GOP down the ticket from there. You can pledge to do everything you can to ensure that she is a one-term President. As a member of the loyal opposition, you can commit to struggling against any of her policies that strike you as wrong.

What you cannot do – if you want to honestly see yourself as a principled conservative and Patriot – is to sit this out, to let your silence serve as tacit approval of a tiny-fingered, Cheetos-tinted lunatic assuming the power of the Presidency.

Just join the ranks of the sane and repeat after my new pal, who proclaimed, “This is a time when country has to take priority over political parties. Donald Trump cannot be elected president.”
Now that’s some common ground we should be able to agree on.

(Out of respect for her reputation, I won’t quote my pal by name.
She’s getting grief enough without being pegged as a friend of mine.)

It’s Getting There

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
— Bob

I’d love to take a cavalier tone here, deliver a wry slice of the buffoonery that is He, Trump<fn>TM Charlie Pierce</fn>. The man is comedy gold, a walking punch line, from his barely concealed groping of Ivanka, to his hair and skin color, to his inability to let go a grudge, to his Mussolini-esque lip pursing. <fn>Someone wearing my eyeglasses emphasized this last tic during last Mardi Gras.  It was yooge. Way ahead of the curve.</fn>

The Writer as Trump Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee
The Writer as Trump, Friend of da Jieuxs — Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

But mocking Trump is just not enough. Things are just a tad too dire. Face it: one of two people has a non-zero chance of becoming the nation’s 45th president. Neither is named Jill or Gary.<fn>Get over it.</fn> Given the peculiarities of American electoral politics, one of them is named Trump.

I feel like I’m watching some unholy mashup of Seven Days in May, Manchurian Candidate, and The Man in the High Castle. It can’t happen here? This time, I wonder.

His acceptance speech in Cleveland was … was … well, what the hell was that, anyway? He began by saying this:

Friends, delegates and fellow Americans: I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.


It was touted ahead of time as hewing to the model of Nixon’s 1968 acceptance. (My favorite Nixon scholar, Rick Perlstein, explains here how badly Trump missed the mark.) Trump knows that his only hope for winning is to amplify and exaggerate our fears, to scare enough people into welcoming authoritarian rule to save us from threats at home and abroad, threats to our “way of life” and “our values”. Like Nixon in ’68, the litany of horror Trump describes is impressively dire. But unlike Nixon’s list, it is largely fictional. A few examples: crime is down, cop killings are down, employment is up, ACA is working well, and so on. Our scorched Thunderdome? He pretty much just made it up.

Fact checkers at work on Trump's ravings
Fact checkers at work on Trump’s ravings

Even more telling, Nixon understood and acknowledged that these were problems that we would have to solve “together”. Trump had a slightly different perspective:


This theme came around several times, and it is perhaps the most telling component of the whole crazed diatribe. Trump sees himself as a messianic figure, an authoritarian genius who will cure everything that ails us simply by being his awesome self.

On January 20th of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced.

Because right now, and as far as memory can serve, America is a charred hellscape where chaos reigns supreme. And only one man can save us.

More humility, with a hearty dash of spittle-flecked anger
More humility, with a hearty dash of spittle-flecked anger

He yelled. He balled his fists. His face contorted and reddened. He started loud and got louder, more angry.

And then he lowered his tone and said this:


I truly lost my bearings at this point. Is he a con artist, delivering his practiced patter to sting an easy mark? Is it all an act, or does this guy truly believe our world is in the depths of hell and he is the only man who can save us.

It doesn’t really matter. We now have a know-nothing narcissist within hailing distance of the Oval Office. He is clearly unqualified, and unhinged. Whether he’s running a long con or is “just” a demented egomaniac (not that these are mutually exclusive), this is dangerous territory

It’s unlikely, but this tiny fingered schmuck could win. He starts with a reliable ~40% of the vote, people who love them some authoritarianism, along with folks whose tribal affiliation to Republicanism means they just have to vote for him. On the other side, Clinton has a reliable ~40% base who love them some Democratic tribalism. And as always, that leaves the mushy middle of 20 million or so people who are unsure, undecided. These are, for the most part, what the political profession calls low information voters.<fn>Actually, that label applies to a huge portion of the dedicated party folks, too. On both sides.</fn> People who will make up their minds based on their feelings. Who would you rather have a beer with?

A few hours ago, a candidate for state representative knocked on my door.<fn>Really! This is not some Thomas Friedman cab driver gimmick.</fn> Nice guy, friendly. Republican, and in a town this size, basically a neighbor. We got to talking Trump. He’s not a happy guy on this, says there’s no way he can vote for a “looney”, and is pretty sad about the state of his party.<fn>He also had unkind things to say about Little Marco Rubio. I liked him even more then.</fn> I asked him if he would vote for Hillary. He kind of shook his head and said, no, he didn’t think he could do it.

I asked him if, knowing that Trump is a dangerous nut, and that one of two people was going to be President, and that Florida is a tight state electorally, he didn’t think it was his responsibility to do what he could to keep the nut out of office. He was remarkably open to the idea when phrased that way.

I had the same conversation with my fab daughter this morning, a disappointed Bernster who “just isn’t feeling Hillary”.  I get it. It’s her first election, and she wants it to be a righteous experience. And I get that many Bernie supporters are disappointed and feeling left out. Been there.

Much has been said about prominent GOPers refusing to attend the convention. Several big name Republicans have announced that they will absolutely not vote for Trump, but like my new pal and state house candidate, they can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton. And much is made of their integrity, their principled opposition.

I say bullshit. How bad does it have to get to renounce your party’s presidential nominee? Pretty fucking terrible, that’s how. Yet that’s not terrible enough to actually do something to keep him out of the office you already admit that he is unqualified for? What more do you need?

Republicans have a shitty choice, but it has a silver lining. I’m looking for prominent Republicans – come on JEB! – to take a stand and say, “This guy is dangerous, he does not represent the values of our party or our country, and I am voting for his opponent. In four years, I will campaign hard to re-take the White House from Hillary Clinton, but for now, she is the only viable choice.”

This is the way to rebuild a sober and rational party. I know too many Republicans who acknowledge that the party has become extremist. They want it to change. Here’s their chance to chase to tea partiers, the white supremacists, the obstructionists, the bomb throwers.

For Hillary-averse voters who consider themselves liberal, or progressive, or leftist syndicalist whatevers, it’s time to suck it up and support Clinton. Proclaim loudly that Trump is just too dangerous, but dammit Clinton, we’re gonna bulldog you and hold your feet to the fire. Find another Bernie to primary her in 2020 if she let’s you down too badly.

I get that there are people who really, really, really do not like Hillary Clinton. Personally, I’m fine with her; it feels like a continuation of Obama, and I can’t get too outraged over that. I’m fairly certain she will disappoint and outrage me at some point, just like every other president in my lifetime.<fn>Some way more than others, natch.</fn>

But I’m comfortable with that because I know it is inevitable. For some folks, the idea of voting the lesser of two evils is too much to bear, and a principled purity vote is more emotionally satisfying. Or maybe you’re thinking of staying home, like your crestfallen GOP counterparts who didn’t get they nominee the wanted. Above it all.

Whether you’re a disappointed progressive or an disappointed conservative, let me say with utmost respect:

Fuck your feelings. Use your head.

Trump is a clear danger. We cannot afford to indulge in preening and moral purity this year. The stakes are too high. Vote, goddamit. And don’t waste it.

(Full Disclosure: I voted Bernie in the primary, fwiw. And I like Tim Kaine just fine.)


Bored of Education

Having conquered the long-standing challenge of developing our flowering youth into a robust and world-dominating work-force, the nation’s Boards of Education have turned their attention to more pressing concerns.

SALISBURY, NC — High school students will be allowed to carry mace in the 2016-2017 school year after the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education agreed to remove prohibitive language and amend its policy.

Now before we go reflexively shouting “WHAT IN THE NAME OF POO FLINGING MONKEYS IS THAT ABOUT”, let the good burghers of Salisbury explain.

Board member Chuck Hughes was in favor of the sprays on campuses, saying that in his mind, they were purely defensive. He also referenced HB2, saying that the sprays might be useful.

“Depending on how the courts rule on the bathroom issues, it may be a pretty valuable tool to have on the female students if they go to the bathroom, not knowing who may come in,” he said.

What could possibly go wrong?

The board’s lawyer, Ken Soo, said that there have been few cases of a student using Mace against a teacher.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the tears of teachers and administrators. Freedom, bitches!

But stay your outrage. These sober guardians of our youth turned to yet another sharp concern of chin-stroking importance.

Wagner then directed the discussion to razors. The board previously agreed that straight-edge razors should be prohibited, but felt some discussion should be given to disposable razors…“To me it’s absurd for even a student not to have a disposable razor . . . it certainly doesn’t make sense for staff,” Wagner said.

The right to tidy your whiskers shall not be abridged.

Moving along to another hamlet that has apparently solved ALL THE PROBLEMS, let’s look in on the no-doubt-conservative-fiscally denizens of McKinney, TX.

Voters in McKinney, Tex., have given the go ahead to build a nearly $63 million high school football stadium after months of contentious debate in the suburban city north of Dallas.

Since ALL THE PROBLEMS have been solved, it makes sense to handle the other overweening, towering needs of this earnest village of 160,000 souls.

Supporters have acknowledged that the old stadium, the 7,000-seat Ron Poe Stadium built in 1962, has provided more than enough room to accommodate fans, even if the parking lot is too small.

That parking lot sure was a problem, a goddamned embarrassment, really.

In debates and online comment threads, opponents argued that it represented a misplaced priority on sports over academics. Some mentioned concerns about football-related concussions.

Namby pamby latte sipping pinheads, all. Fortunately, the good people of McKinney were not duped by these fifth columnist com-symp feminizers of our nation’s young pigskin warriors.

In a vote on May 7, nearly two-thirds of McKinney residents endorsed a $220 million school bond measure that included plans for the stadium,

And all is right in God’s plan.

It is to despair. As soon as I stop laughing.

The Wheel Turns

At the end of the Civil War, the United States assumed ownership of Robert E. Lee’s family plantation, high on a hill in Arlington, just across the river from the Nation’s – the unified nation’s – capitol. The family home remains, but the grounds of that plantation, a place where hundreds of slaves worked and died, became the final resting place for more than 15,000 dead Union soldiers.<fn>This ranks among the finest and most appropriate nose-rubbings in American history, and dog knows we have a history nose-rubbings both noble and ig.</fn> One hundred fifty years later, the body count approaches half a million.<fn>It is a bitter pill that, as the cemetery expanded to fit all the fallen, a large community or freedmen was evicted to make room for more corpses.</fn>

The first memory I have of Arlington is a Spring Break trip there with my Dad to visit the memorial marker for his younger brother, a Top Gun pilot who died in a training run in 1964. This visit was c. 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War. There was something about the way the geometry of all the grave sites shifted as you moved down the road that made it look infinite. And it occurred to my callow self, all of 14 years old, that every white dot was a dead soldier. A guy just like my dead uncle. And somehow the horror that I had never registered through years of watching Vietnam carnage on teevee landed with a careening thud. And I remember this horrific, engulfing sadness, mingled with a concern that I was going to start crying, sobbing – in front of my dad! – and how could I possibly save myself from such embarrassment, so my horror and fear mixed into this massive spaghetti ball of empathy for the victims and fear of shame for myself, which I managed to escape by stuffing my feelings down the way well raised males of a certain age know all too well.

What I didn’t know is that my dad took my picture while this internal riot was raging. It has hung in his (every) home ever since. Did he know?

Every time I’ve visited since then, the massive horror of the place envelops me. I am angry. I see the grand monuments of the generals and admirals, the ostentatious stones and crosses planted for the men who sent the rest of that half-million mostly forgotten horde to mostly senseless slaughter. I am no fan of war, no admirer of military “might”. Much of what the National Cemetery represents is senseless waste, cock-strutting ego. It is evidence of a madness that is evidently irresistible to many who gain power.

But somehow, there is always an overwhelming sense of awe and serenity, a presence of commitment and memoriam that I’ve experienced only a handful of times.

Nothing rings that bell more than the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Today found me – 43 years after my father brought me to Arlington for the first time – bringing my own son to Arlington. It’s our first day of a Spring Break romp through American History, a subject that we both enjoy. As we walked into the grounds, I felt the tingle. This place just gets to me. We wandered past the Kennedy flame and on up the hill to the historic Lee home. Every few minutes, a thundering boom of commemorative cannon fire or the crack of rifle shots broke the silence. Apparently, there are upwards of two dozen interments every week day. The gravedigger’s job is never finished.

We had time to stroll. The markers were often unintentionally funny. Many higher-ranking officers had their wives buried next to them, their stone reading simply “wife”. This “wife” had a name, that one didn’t. Best monument of all: a Navy Admiral whose stone specified “And His Second Wife”, a last gasp middle-finger extended from the beyond toward wife #1, who must have really been a piece of work to deserve such an enduring “ah fanabla”.

Clouds of gunpowder smoke hung over the hills. And despite the fact that there was a considerable crowd of all-American event-attenders, there was none of the antic quality tourist crowds bring to almost every other “point of interest”. Even the kids we’d watched using the Metro hang straps like monkeys somehow knew to dial it down.

As we approached the Tomb, the silence grew deeper. It was crowded. One small child was crying, but his Dad – a Marine by the looks of his t-shirt and hat – lifted him gently and carried him out. A few minutes later, both were back. Quiet.

The Honor Guard upheld the ritual that has been played out thousands of times. Twenty-one steps to the south. Heel click. Twenty-one second pause. Turn to the east. Click. Twenty-one second pause. Turn north. Click. Twenty-one second pause. Shift rifle from the east shoulder to the west shoulder. Twenty-one steps north. Click. Turn to the east. Repeat.

There is an honor guard on duty 365/24/7. Whatever the weather. Last time I was there, it was New Year’s day c. 1992 or 3. It was very cold, like skin cracking cold. Because my Dad has a family pass, we were able to drive directly to the Tomb. We were the only people there aside from the guard. It was grey, damp, windy. We lasted about 20 minutes, just long enough to watch the Changing of the Guard. It was a solemn, precise ritual. There was no audience for this aside from three of us. It didn’t matter. They do this in the rain, the snow, in the dead of night. Twenty-one steps, twenty-one seconds. Over and over.

Ritual. Commitment. Memoriam.

So as the Changing ritual began today, we – like everyone who witnesses it – we rose to our feet. We held our hands over our hearts whenever active military would offer a full salute. The Changing was immutable, constant, reliable. A few cannon shot echoed from another ceremony.

And then, through no good planning on our part, we found ourselves witnessing an expanded ceremony, this one a wreath-laying ritual with an extra guard and musician. Four high school students “helped” the guard place a new wreath in front of the tomb. Another guard laid the previous wreath at the base of the Tomb.

All this was happening under the stern command of Master Sergeant Calderon, a truly formidable presence with a voice that demanded attention. But where we stood, we heard the other side: a gentle man, a gentleman, who softly explained to the teens exactly what to do and when to do it. The modulation from fierce to tender was precise and – really, the only word I can call up – genuine.

I was feeling misty-eyed, taken by all the sadness and beauty of 150 years worth of dead children – because truly, most of the bodies here never saw two dozen winters. A bugler presented. A robin – the first of the spring? – flew from left to right across the Tomb site. And the first notes of Taps, a crystalline tone borne on angel’s breath, took me. Flow my tears.

In the distance, a formation of fighter jets were coming up the river. I thought it a nice coincidence, here they come, nice coincidence, hey they’re flying right over us and there goes the third jet, peeling away from the formation up into the sky until the clouds swallowed it and it was gone, the traditional tribute to the missing man. I don’t think any of us were even breathing at this point. And then, the extra players marched away, leaving the lone guard with his incessant count of twenty-one, twenty-one.

It turned out the flyover was for another ceremony on the grounds. Life and death go on. Some of the dead are sent away with cannon shot. Some get rifles hoisted and fired. And some, no doubt grandees of military renown, still have the juice to garner a quick flyover of four billion dollar airplanes.

(Ed Note: Pal of i2b DD points out that the flyover was more likely for a deceased pilot, perhaps even a Top Gun like mon oncle, and not (his words) “some brass monkey”. Duly noted.)

As we walked away from the Tomb, we saw a horse-drawn hearse roll by. We followed it for a bit, then realized it had already discharged its coffin load, so we wandered back towards the exit, across the Memorial Bridge that leads to the Lincoln Memorial, a bridge that aspirationally exemplifies the rapprochement of Union and Confederacy that, somehow, remains as salient a divide today as it was that day at Appomattox. Son stopped at one point and wondered if the President might sometimes visit this place after closing, just to get a reminder of the awesome power he holds. All these lives. The weight of responsibility must be – one can only hope – truly terrifying.

We crossed the river and wandered to the front of the Lincoln, one of my favorite places, with the idea that we would read the Gettysburg Address and add some resonance to the day’s experience. But the steps were mobbed with event-attenders in full flight, and Son refused to climb the steps, refused to even look up at the statue of Abe, preferring to wait for a chance to see it when the proper reverence was at play. Smart boy. We’ll go back after dark one night.

The Boy, Considering
The Boy, Considering: I sent this pic to my Dad. My guess is that it made him misty-eyed. Whaddya gonna do?

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street

UPDATED 11/23: Correcting one grammar error that allows me to add a gratuitous Trump insult; correcting one misplaced footnote that made Gwen Graham look worse than she is; and adding one detail that makes Trump look worse, but not quite all the way as bad as he is.

There be dragons, and they’re coming to get you. Hide! Be afraid!

Many nights I wake up,  between 2.30 and 3.30, and endure an hour or so of free floating terror. I’ll never again write a good sentence or play the guitar well. Maybe I’m completely out of ideas. I’ll never get hired again. Or if I am working, they’ll hate what I’m doing and they’ll never hire me again. My children will starve, my wife and I will live in a refrigerator box under a bridge. My dog will die. My dog will get sick, and because I don’t have enough work, I won’t have the money for treatment, and she will die. My kids will….

So you get the idea. After an hour or so, I’m so exhausted with worry and fear that I fall asleep for a couple more hours. Then I wake up, pull on my pants, and set out to find work, do good work, attempt creativity, strive. It’s not that I forget the various terrors that plague me, but I still try. It ain’t over til you quit.

And so, Paris.

People are terrified that it will happen here. A reasonable fear, but one that has been ginned up by various actors who stand to profit from our fears.

Be afraid. And CNN/Fox/MSNBC will be here around the clock to be sure you stay that way.

Be afraid. Only the stalwart leadership of {insert name here} can keep you safe. That other guy is going to let the evil-doers kill you in your sleep. Stalwart leader will keep them out! If only he can figure out how to tell the difference between a good guy and a bad guy.

Be afraid. Buy guns, more guns, and carry them everywhere, because you never know when you need to be a good guy with a gun who needs to stop a bad guy with a gun. As long as everyone can figure out how to tell the difference between a good guy and a bad guy.

Be afraid. Go ahead and assume that everyone is a bad guy until proven otherwise. Stand your ground! Ban everyone who looks/thinks/comes-from-somewhere different. Open fire if you feel threatened by someone who fits your idea of what a threat looks like. Sort out the bodies later. You can’t make an omelet…

And so, Paris. They could come here next! They might be here already! You know that they hate us for our freedoms, so how about you give up a bunch of those freedoms so we can keep you safe.

Lock the doors! Pull up the ladder. You can’t give a 100% guarantee that you can screen out evil-doers? Don’t let anyone in. That’ll fix everything.

Some of the pandering is not so extreme. Some of it is “moderate”. Maybe let in only the refugees who can prove they are Christian. That way we’ll be safe, because Christians never use violence to achieve a goal. Or maybe, as one pundit suggested, only let in the women and children. That’s the compassionate approach, to break up families.

But then we hear from Uber Panders who not only think letting women in would be unsafe (they blow themselves up, too!), but that letting in “orphans under the age of five” is also too risky. You can’t be too careful.

Round ’em up and ship ’em back. Build fences. Bomb the whole dang shebang.<fn>”Trump: “I would bomb the shit out of them.”</fn> All under the guise of “keeping us safe”.

Lots of terrible ideas are floating around, and the goatfuckers of ISIS are laughing their asses off.

Paris. Now we are supposed to be afraid of going to a great city, or to Europe overall. Cafes and concerts? Jesus, a guy could get killed there. Swarthy immigrants who may or may not believe in the god of our fathers? Round em up and ship em back. You can’t be too careful, amirite?

Now we are supposed to refuse basic humanitarian considerations, to abandon our purported national ideals and values. We are asked, in the name of fear, to do exactly what the terrorists hope for: overreaction, cruelty, inchoate violence.

We keep hearing about ISIS being an “existential threat”. It’s a stupid phrase, but people who speak it seem to believe it affords gravitas, a seriousness of purpose. But it’s bullshit. There is no threat to our existence from a ragtag army of lunatics. Sure, they can disrupt, sow fear. And then they rely on us to lose our collective shit. If history is any guide, they will not be disappointed.

ISIS cannot destroy our civilization, our “way of life”, much as they might wish otherwise. But we certainly have the means to do it. They need us to do the dirty work of abandoning the very elements of our society that make it worth protecting. On Saturday, “[a]bout a dozen protesters — most carrying long guns, some masked and one with his mother” marched outside a mosque in Irving, TX. Calling themselves the Bureau of American Islamic Relations, these brave protectors of the Fatherland insisted their guns were not to threaten, but merely a means of protecting themselves from the evil musselman within.

Also on Saturday, at a rally in Birmingham for the increasingly inexcusable Donald Trump, Tribble Top declared, “I want surveillance of certain mosques if that’s OK. We’ve had it before.” A week earlier he had called for shutting down mosques, so perhaps this is Trump being ‘moderate’.

We won’t shut ya down, but we’ve got our eyes on you. And maybe a few yahoos with hunting rifles patrolling the perimeter.

(Also at that rally, a Black Lives Matter protester was beaten, knocked down, and kicked as their Fearless Leader shouted, “get him the hell out of here”, followed by Trump mocking the man as “a loser.” Just another conveniently identifiable other.) UPDATE: In a interview the following day, Trump said the guy deserved to “get roughed up”. Very mid-century retro, nein?

The news is full of stories like these. They all have one, or both, of the key ingredients: ill-informed (and perhaps sincere) people engaging in dangerous and counter-productive behaviors and/or the demagogues using the fear to enhance their own personae and power.

As Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

As usual, the things we end up freaking out about (ebola, immigrants from wherever, terrorism, bacon fat) are typically not that big a threat in the scheme of things. We are all more likely to experience injury or death in these United States due to reckless driving (our own or someone else’s) or falls in the bathtub (around 50,000 deaths or hospital-level injuries per year). Texting while driving claims 6000 lives per year. Shit, 450 people die each year from falling out of bed. Even sleeping in you own bed is more likely to do you in than a terrorist attack.

But there’s no political upside in making you afraid to take a shower or a nap.

Last week, the GOP house – the same group of bedwetters who passed a cruel and useless bill to make it harder for refugees to come to America – attached two riders to the new budget bill that would cut the CDC’s anti-smoking budget in half. Nobody<fn>I think even the tobacco companies have quit fighting this.</fn> disputes the carnage caused by tobacco. Tobacco deaths in the US each year outnumber terrorist related deaths worldwide by a factor of about fifteen. In 2014, almost a half-million people died in the US – more than 40,000 from secondhand smoke. Terror-related deaths in 2014 totaled around 33,000, up from around 18,000 in 2013. That’s a lot of death, and the rising toll is something to be concerned about. But.

Most of those terror deaths occurred in places like Kenya and Mali and other places that most Americans don’t care about. No demagogue worth his salt is going to try to gin up the rubes over a place like that.

But Paris is different. Western. White. So it’s easy to conflate fear of terrorists with generalized fear of dark skin. It also makes them easy to target, to separate them from the core. It’s why we imprisoned Japanese-Americans during WWII, and not German-Americans and other overt Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh.<fn>Or Prescott Bush.</fn>

It’s an easy fissure point for a clever communicator like Trump. In the mouths of less-skilled demagogues, maybe not so much; the execrable David Vitter tried to salvage his gubernatorial campaign over the past weeks with blatant fear mongering and lies<fn>He even threw Catholic Charities under the bus; his wife is their General Counsel. Nice guy.</fn>, but got thumped anyway. But here’s the thing: his loss was because of his other “qualities”, not because he played the racist/terror card. I’m frankly surprised it didn’t work out for him. After all, what are a few tawdry prostitute scandals compared to the good old boogity boogity?

Some of our political figures are keeping their heads on straight in all this. Obama is demonstrating an admirable resolve to not let the hysteria drive his policy over the refugees. (The decision to send more troops back into the desert shitshow is more troublesome, as is the flow of arms we keep pumping into the Middle East.) As far as the vote in the House last week to punish refugees – because reasons – I guess I should be happy that only 47 Dems<fn>Just a few dozen quisling Democrats like our local congresscritter, Gwen Graham.</fn> joined the wannabe revanchists, especially compared to the cowardice on display post-9/11.

Locally, our Governor has predictably pandered to his bible banger base of rubes. In response, our Mayor was asked his thoughts on the refugees, and he admirably said that we should welcome them with open arms. This naturally led the comments section of our local fishwrapper to explode in a veritable orgy of fantasy hypotheticals and nativist bigotry more-or-less openly expressed. It is to weep.

This is not going to get better any time soon. Recall post-9/11, how every rumor led to panic led to changes in the color-coded oh-my-god-we’re-fucking-doomed Official Terror Alert system. It’s back. Last time, it led us into a war that has still not ended. And with a dozen-plus power hungry nitwits trying to win the Republican nomination (not to mention all the House/Senate numbnuts up for re-election), the calls for extremist reaction are not going to slow down. Because, as always, they’re only selling what they know people will buy.

I might crawl under the bed myself. It’s not the terrorists that scare me. It’s us.



The Atticus of My Life

In the book of love’s own dreams
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
Attics of My Life, by Robert Hunter

If you hate spoilers and plan to read Go Set a Watchman, skip this post for now.
But please, come back when you’re done.

A piece of free advice:
If you have not read To Kill a Mockingbird recently, read it before you read
Go Set a Watchman. You’ll be glad you did.

I’m one of those peculiar people who take literature too seriously. I’ve never doubted the power of a good writer to create worlds that are as real as our own and, at the same time, to conjure reflections and echoes of a reality we haven’t quite earned yet.

Characters in books become as real to me as my friends and family, my banes and enemies. I grant that this is a sign of deficient mental health, but I hope I’m not the only one who, for example, bursts into tears when Gavroche Thénardier dies on the barricade or when Edgar Derby is executed for pocketing that damned teapot he found in the rubble. I guess most times for most people, characters remain on the page where they belong and don’t much interfere in our day to day. Lucky them?

But some characters escape the page and grow larger than life, become icons. Some, like Atticus Finch, become moral exemplars and redeemers of collective wrongdoing. And if there’s anything we can’t stand, it’s for someone to reveal the flawed man behind the myth.<fn>See also, Huxtable, Cliff.</fn>

So let’s cut to the chase. Atticus Finch is a standard issue Southern gentleman – a man I recognize well in several of my Deep South forbears – a genteel fellow of manners and decency who also happens to hold racist views that are extreme enough to make the daughter who once idolized her Perfect Father literally throw up when she discovers his true nature.

It’s easy to see why so many long-time Harper Lee fans are outraged.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee created the Great White Father, the man of infinite patience, rectitude, and sense of fairness who could redeem our (White folks, that is) sense of guilt and discomfort over racial injustice. In Go Set a Watchman, she pulls the curtain back to reveal that Atticus, the Great and Powerful, is just another worn out, cranky uncle forwarding conspiracy emails and ranting about Those People.  Once again, hero worship turns out to be a sucker play.

At the end of Mockingbird, we were given permission to tut-tut the horror of Tom Robinson’s predicament and to feel joy at the progress we’ve made, pass the chicken please. The white trash Ewells excelled in the Judas role in this passion play, lowly creatures who took welfare and kept their kids out of school and couldn’t be bothered to shift for themselves. Our own hands were never dirtied like the coarse and common Ewells. They were the evil in our midst, and if only we better whites could follow the shining example of Atticus Finch, the world would be our Nirvana, and hallelujah, pass the gravy, if it’s not too much trouble.

Watchman‘s Chapter 17 is one of the most painful reading experiences I’ve ever suffered. Even knowing ahead of time that Lee was going to reveal a “dark side” of Atticus, I was unprepared for the casual, genteel, typically Southern bigotry coming out of his mouth. And Lee wrote this exchange with no wiggle room: Atticus is basically a disgusting racist. He laughs at Jean Louise’s arguments, he taunts her for her naivete.

There’s no turning away: the Great White Father is a son of a bitch. The revelation of Atticus’s repellent attitudes hits as hard as if a sequel to the gospels revealed that Jesus and Judas were the same character. Everything you know is wrong.

A few days before GSAW hit the stores, I re-read Mockingbird for the first time in years. I was surprised at the extent to which the movie depiction replaced the book itself in my memory.<fn>Like I said: re-read TKAM before you read GSAW.</fn> Mockingbird the movie revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson; everything else that happens travels in orbit around that event. In the book, the trial is critical, but the book as a whole explores the curve of small-town childhood in the South with fondness and wit. (White children, naturally.) As with so many movies/books/tv shows about race, actual black folks are pretty much in the margins.<fn>With the notable and long overdue exception of the movie Selma, though it too has its own issues of Great Father drama and hagiography.</fn> And this gets to one of the key problems with Mockingbird – on the one handit asks us to empathize with the ‘poor, poor Negro’, even while bestowing upon us a glimmering savior to make us all feel okay again. That nice (hell, impossibly perfect) Atticus washes our sins away.

While theories abound as to Watchman’s origin, I readily accept that this was an early shot at Lee’s Maycomb chronicle; after reading Watchman, Lee’s editor told her go back and tell the tale from Young Scout’s perspective. It took her two years to re-write, and the result was the structurally and stylistically superior Mockingbird. The Watchman version is clearly unfinished; it lacks the cohesion that extended editing and re-writing would have instilled.<fn>It is also unmistakably the work of Harper Lee. This is no hoax, and it sure as hell is not Capote.</fn> But I can also see how this might have become, later on, an effective sequel. In fact, it takes great effort to read this as anything other than a sequel or amplification of the original: the same characters, 15 years later on the fictional timeline, in a book published 50+ years later. It’s of a piece, and it provides an essential corrective element that turns the saga into something other than a happy fairy tale, albeit one where that poor Tom Robinson &c., pass the black eyed peas.

Mockingbird gave us a feel-good fantasy. Watchman fills in the blanks and gives us a truth that does not encourage happy mealtime discussion.

Mockingbird is still a great novel. Lee’s depictions of the rhythms and rhymes and smells of Southern life are as good as anybody else, Faulkner, O’Connor, Percy, you name your favorite. But Harper Lee is not a great novelist.<fn> For the same reason the John Kennedy Toole and Joseph Heller are not; the body of work is just not there to justify such a judgement.</fn> She spread a dusting of fiction over the people she knew growing up, the place she knew. She had a story worth telling, and perhaps even recognized that the time had come for white southerners to address race in a different way. But she had one good story, told it, and went silent. Wondering whether she could have become a great novelist is no better than a parlor game along the lines of could Wilt Chamberlain outplay Michael Jordan and such.

While Watchman is not a great novel by any stretch, it’s probably not fair to judge it too harshly given that it never even made it to galleys until its rediscovery. But it is an important piece of work for two key reasons. First off, it sheds light on the author’s struggle, the process of taking a work from idea to paper to woodshed to completion. This alone would make GSAW a worthy curiosity for literary scholars and a fun what-if exercise for Mockingbird devotees. But more important than this: Watchman uses the Freudian/Oedipal device of kill the father to allow Jean Louise to become an adult in her own right. And in so doing, Lee strips the mask from a false idol that has captivated her fans for several generations. And that shit comes with some heavy dues.

So first: The similarities between TKAM and GSAW are evident and plenty, with several paragraphs that describe Maycomb life appearing in both without so much as a comma’s difference. But the divergences are where we get a glimpse at the evolution of a book that has been read by millions of people over the past half century.

Famously, Tom Robinson is convicted and then killed trying to escape prison; everybody knows that. But in Watchman, the “trial” is dealt with in a paragraph or two, with the throwaway reference that Tom was acquitted.<fn>And a more disturbing suggestion that Atticus fought hard for Tom only to sustain the fiction of equality under the law. More later.</fn> In the retelling, the “trial” transformed from a mere trifle to the centerpiece of one of the nation’s great moral fables.

Then there’s the fiance in GSAW, Henry, who Jean Louise describes as her oldest and dearest friend, a boy who lived across the street at the same time the trial and the adventures with Jem and Dill and Boo played out. This character does not exist in Mockingbird. Perhaps even more revealing, Boo Radley does not exist in the Watchman universe, and there is no mention of Bob Ewell’s attack on Jem and Scout, the event that provides the bookend beginning/ending of the entire Mockingbird narrative.

And of course, there is Jean Louise’s discovery and outrage that the Father and her fiance are, if not card carriers, at the very least fellow travellers of the White Citizens Councils who made damned well and sure that Jim Crow remained the law of the land and kept Those People from getting above their station. Not to be outdone, Jean Louise reveals herself to be a states rights fanatic of the first degree, and declared herself angry and outraged that the Supreme Court would force people to do the right thing when they would certainly get around to it in their own good time and why are they rushing things so. Between the two of them, you have the complete package of racial oppression. And they’re both so damned reasonable about it.

The heart of Watchman‘s ultimate importance lies in that last disparity between what might be viewed as the canon of TKAM and the heresy of GSA, lies in Harper Lee’s forcing us to squarely face the myth of the Great Father, to see the truth of the complexity and the ugliness and duplicity, and to, well basically, grow the fuck up. Look, she says – you worshipped this False Idol, you used him to absolve your sins, and you’ve been a dupe the whole time. And by the way, your stand-in Scout ain’t all that either, what with her love of states rights and eventual acceptance of the way things are.<fn>To be sure, the ending of the book feels hurried and undeveloped, something I feel would have been addressed in re-write/editing. But Lee said publish it warts and all, so this is the text we have to unpack, to use a term that I hate but why not at this point, my god, the world is in tatters and the Great Father is dead. Cut me some slack.</fn>

Lee created the Perfect Father, the man who could resolve any argument, cure any scratch or scrape. And Gregory Peck made that character flesh. Go ahead, try to imagine any other actor of the past 100 years in that role. None of them will stick. One stupid internet poll after another has put Atticus near the top of the “perfect father” sweepstakes. People name their children after Atticus. He’s a goddamned monument.

And this is exactly where Watchman delivers the blow that makes it an important contribution to this corner of the literary world: Lee shows us that our Savior is a fraud, tells us to wake up and be adults in our own right. Lee shows us the essential error of putting our faith in mythical heroes and asks us to stand on our own. Sure, it’s tough when we discover that the pleasing fairy tales of our childhoods are fictions that cover up a more complex and disappointing set of truths. Step up and deal.

Watchman comes along at a particularly fraught moment in our 400 year struggle with the wages of America’s original sin. Any pretense to having arrived at a post-racial moment withers with the first serious investigation. No matter how “good” we whites think ourselves, no matter how much we congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come<fn> Guilty as charged. Mea culpa.</fn> – the fact remains that we live in a segregated society, and it is primarily White America’s obligation to ensure that the structural changes necessary to allow this issue to reach resolution are squarely in our own laps. (Like it or not, Blacks have no obligation to make things better; we shit this bed and it’s ours to clean.) Unlike TKAM, Watchman does not offer any bromides to make that pill any less bitter. In fact, by making Atticus’ noble defense of Tom Robinson an act of expedience rather than principle, Lee drives home a disturbing and cynical point: good deeds may not quite be what they appear. Even your own, so stay awake and question, question, question.

Another heartbreaker in Watchman: Jean Louise pays a visit to Calpurnia, the Negro woman who essentially raised her and Jem. In TKAM, Calpurnia was for all intents the only Mother Jem and Scout knew. Now long since retired and removed from the White world, Calpurnia barely acknowledges Jean Louise, and certainly display no affection. Jean Louise is deeply hurt, but also outraged: how dare she not remember me, how dare she turn her back on how good we were to her, how we treated her as though she were just like family, etc. Jean Louise has not found the maturity to accept her own complicity in racial oppression. It’s too much for her to take. In this, she is the perfect representation of too many “enlightened” whites on the question of race, with our plaintive whines of “can’t they see how much we/I have done for them already?”, largely blind to the overwhelming privilege we claim as our birthright without even recognizing it even exists.

In the end, I find myself at this: despite the fact that Mockingbird is likely to remain the preferred version of Lee’s Maycomb tales, it is dishonest to ignore the details of Watchman in our overall view of what Maycomb means in its literary context. Memories are imperfect, and stories told over time shift and morph to reflect new experiences, changed attitudes, or something as simple as wish fulfillment. When Lee wrote Watchman, she told a story of a young woman’s disillusionment about her once revered father; when she rewrote the story from the young Scout perspective, she transformed Atticus into the perfect father, the perfect man.

This is not necessarily a contradiction. But the fuller portrait that emerges from the combined tellings – even though it is a real heartbreaker – brings us closer to an understanding that is probably more useful and true in the long run: we are none of us perfect – even/especially the people you’ve placed on a pedestal – and you can bet there’s a dark side to your own character that needs serious work, some whining cling to privilege that we mostly don’t even see. And there is no Great Father who can fix everything for us; it all depends on our own imperfect efforts. It is surely impossible to bear, to go on without our Great Father; but the alternative – giving up and throwing in the towel – is even worse.

I’m not sure Harper Lee intended anything of the sort. It may be that she truly felt the story delivered in Mockingbird is the “way it is”, and I’ve no doubt many will hold to that reading. But I’ll hold to this one: Harper Lee knew what was in the earlier manuscript, and she allowed its publication as a favor to us all. Watchman delivers a harsh but necessary message: Give up the fantasy and face the world as it is. Shit’s too damned serious for anything else.


Your Electric Picture Radio Box Matters #1

SPOILER ALERT: Mad Men Season 7 spoilers below.

One of the best novels I’ve ever read is almost at an end. This book sits on a list that includes Les MiserablesInfinite JestCatch-22The Sopranos, and The Wire. Yeah, programs from the electric picture radio make the list.<fn>Wanna make something of it?</fn> If I were to include short story collections, I’d mention Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, Chekhov, and Raymond Carver.

Last night I watched the 3rd-to-last episode of Mad Men, and out of seven seasons, that image above is one of the most evocative and cool and resonant and hallucinatory and plain badass moments of the entire book. The bare bones of the abandoned SC&P office; the closest thing left we have to play the grand patriarch, albeit thinly represented; and Peg of our Heart casting it all to the wind, drunk and roller skating through the ruins as Roger plays Hi-Lili, Hi Lo on a cheesy organ – the whole sequence felt like that revelatory acid trip moment where you really, really see, man.

Roger, the Pale King, grants the princess in disguise a token of power from the One True Patriarch in the form of an antique Japanese porn print (Lear and Ran meeting nicely). Peggy recoils; The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is not the kind of art a nice Catholic girl would hang in her office.

Peg is an ace copy writer, or as we prefer to be known, cunning linguists.

And then, the best piece of Roger-Peggy dialog in the whole damn book: 

“You know I need to make men feel at ease,” she says.

“Who the hell told you that?” Roger replies.

Who told her that? Joan, the dethroned Queen Bee, back in the very first episode – 7 years ago in our time, 10 years ago in Mad Men time. Peg takes this advice to heart, this blessing of the dwindling patriarch to go and be as badass as she can muster. And while I thought I’d never enjoy an image of Peg as much as the drunken roller skating, I was wrong. Here we see her here striding the halls of McCann like a colossus, brandishing her cigarette and Asian porno like a sword and shield.

Warrior Princess

This is a woman who has run out of fucks to give, and who has the internal strength to not have to give them anymore. The sequence plays beautifully, rendered in slow-mo as the white collar drones stumble over their feet trying to get out of her way.

Like the best books of my life, I want Mad Men to slow down as we approach the end. I can’t wait to find out how it ends<fn>Though given their history of landing the biggest blows 2-3 episodes before the season finales, we may already know. For example: Joan told Peg in the first episode years ago to defer to men; she now knows she doesn’t need to. I think it means we’ve seen the last of Peggy. She’s done here.</fn>, but I also can’t stand the idea that we won’t get to follow the characters beyond the final page.<fn>Not that I want anything to do with sequels, prequels, spin-offs, board games, Mad Men-labeled scotch or filterless cigs, &c.</fn>

And yeah, it’s a novel. It’s as textured and considered and layered as any great novel. People have derided it<fn>To my face!</fn> as nothing more than a soap opera, as though many of the greatest pieces of literature don’t also fit that description.<fn>Paging Emma Bovary and Countess Olenska.</fn>

There are more fully realized characters here than in most great novels, and more than a few secondary characters rendered with greater depth and sympathy than most books/movies/ tv shows can muster for their central players. The detail accorded fashion and cultural context are damned near encyclopedic, on par with Hugo’s description of the Paris sewers or DeLillo’s shot heard round the world baseball game chapter in Underworld.

One thing Mad Men delivered that’s really striking is the sense that, even when characters are not on-screen for weeks (or years!) at a time, when they re-appear we get the sense that they have actually been living the whole time they were away. This is an impressive achievement, and one that not many of our favorite novels can deliver.<fn>e.g., even the implacable Javert seems to have been sitting on a shelf whenever we are not with him on the page.</fn>

And maybe even more pertinent to Your Narrator: I know these people. I lived in the NY suburbs during this period. My Dad was a marketing exec, right at the edge of the Madison Avenue gaggle. I recognize the bosses, the underlings, the sycophants. I know the secretaries whose job description included remembering the boss’s kids’ birthdays; to recognize their voice on the phone; to ‘take care’ of us when we visited the skyscrapers at inconvenient moments. I wore the pajamas that kid wore, and I had some of the same toys, and the houses looked that way, and the moms and dads acted that way. The clothes and cars and hairstyles and music all changed the way we see it unfold in this book.

And then one day, they sit you down and tell you that mommy and daddy aren’t going to live together anymore, but don’t worry because nothing really is going to change and they both still love you very much and the earth opens up because you know it’s sugar-coated bullshit even if you’re too young to even know that word.

That’s me, second from the left. I swear I had that same shirt.

Don: “I’m not going, I’ll just be living elsewhere…”

Sally: “That’s GOING, you say things and you don’t mean them, you can’t just do that!

I can attest to the veracity of the dialogue, the setting, the emotion, the whole package. No cluster of words on a page has ever devastated me more than watching this scene of this “soap opera” on the idiot box. I don’t remember any printed words causing me to explode into broken-hearted sobbing like this one.<fn>The death of Gavroche Thénardier on the barricades caused me to burst into tears. But no heart-tearing sobs.</fn> (For that matter, I rarely laugh out loud while reading, but often do so while watching tv or movies.<fn>That Your Narrator may be an unwashed Philistine is a question disposed of quickly. He most certainly washes.</fn>)

So does the electric picture radio matter? Since I casually name-dropped Emma earlier, let’s hear from her on the delights of reading:

“You forget everything. The hours slip by. You travel in your chair through centuries you seem to see before you, your thoughts are caught up in the story, dallying with the details or following the course of the plot, you enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.”

Television at its best delivers the same experience. Sure, it serves up some weak sauce, but we don’t let Bulwer-Lytton or 50 Shades of Grisham keep us from the pleasures of [insert your favorites here]. The long-form format – especially on cable – enables stories that can contain Tony Soprano and Omar and Al Swearingen and Frank Pembleton, with characters and storylines that put to rest any argument that television cannot be as profound and literary as books.

It’s a fair bet that I’ll write more about Mad Men as time goes by. I’m going to take a break for a while and then re-read it, just like my other favorite novels.

Material. Timing. Delivery. And the beauty of random disregard.

Life is busy and such, mostly in ways good. But one must never disregard the wisdom of Miss Latella Rosannadana.

(Ed Note: Eagle-eyed reader Popopopopovich correctly points out that it was in fact Rosanna Rosanadanna who made famous the “It’s always something” catchphrase. The management apologizes for any inconvenience and begs forbearance of the litigious demons of the Gilda Radner Estate.<fn>Worse than Disney, I hear.</fn> The Writer has been put on a strict diet of gruel made from the ground up bones of our recently departed fact-checker. We regret the error.)

It’s always something.

In the past two weeks…two biopsies to try and figure out why my aching Studebaker of a body continues to drop parts despite the mechanics’ best efforts. The first: mostly negative (yay!) but inconclusive as to another one of those melodramatic ‘C’ word diagnoses. Results of the latest test due Friday. I expect good news, as most of my symptoms have disappeared untreated. Go figger.<fn>And I still cannot grip a guitar, and fk that shit, Rupert.</fn>

In the meantime, Awesome Daughter is expecting news about whether her first choice college welcomes her with open arms. Decision day is Friday. Well.

Yesterday, as she was asking for a favor, she demurred at pushing too hard, because (her words) “you’re dealing with that whole cancer thing.” I laughed so hard I thought I’d plotz. And of course, she won her request. Comedy is all about material, timing, and delivery. A-plus on all fronts.

This evening, we were all laughing about her remark.<fn>Graveyard whistling and disregard for solemnity being big around these parts.</fn> Son declared her horrible. I declared him my favorite, as one is always well-advised to encourage sycophancy from the underlings.

Then it struck me: a thought experiment!<fn>I’ve been reading the latest Daniel Dennett. My puzzlers are not nearly as profound, but I aver to the inspiration.</fn>

A family awaits two pieces of news of critical importance. Only one response can be positive. Do you, daughter, wish me to be cancer-free, or do you wish to be accepted to your dream school?

Zero hesitation from my (truly) loving and wonderful child:

College acceptance. Cancer is treatable.

A moment of WTF was that pause, and then we all fell down laughing.

Material was a tad off center, but the timing and delivery was pure Coltrane. Brava.

Also, too, in the realm of casual disregard….

The bloggy vineyard of i2b attracts a steady parade of eyeballs, but few of the humans bother to leave comments. This makes me very sad.<fn>Try to hear that phrase in the icy teutonic accent of Heidi Klum dismissing a Project Runway contestant for bad taste.</fn>

So, dear reader, your random disregard leads me to bask in the warming glow of nothing but spambot generated comments intended to entice me to purchase sports jerseys, weight loss supplements, and penis enhancers.<fn>Aside from the jerseys, none of that stuff is for real. Believe me.</fn> But I’ve come to love some of these simplistic machine friends, as their comments serve to encourage continued blogularity.<fn>And to stimulate my tumescence for under the medically recommended four-hour maximum.</fn> To wit:

What i don’t understood is in reality how you are not actually a lot more neatly-appreciated than you may be right now. You are so intelligent. You know therefore significantly in terms of this subject, made me in my view consider it from a lot of various angles. Its like men and women are not fascinated except it is something to accomplish with Girl gaga! Your individual stuffs excellent. At all times care for it up!

Damn right, registered user Tanya3756dc from Uzbekistan. And thanks for the shout out.

There are two kinds of these auto-messages. One is dry, written in impeccably poor language, and offering nothing but commercial enticement. But such feeble witterings are not sufficient for my dear Tanya3765dc. These comments find art in the strangest places.

You know therefore significantly in terms of this subject, made me in my view consider it from a lot of various angles. Its like men and women are not fascinated except it is something to accomplish with Girl gaga!

A shrewd judge of literary merit is my Tanya3765. Indeed, does not Girl Gaga make the world go ’round? Mais bien sur!  Even Cole Porter knew that!

Your individual stuffs excellent. At all times care for it up!

You bet your sweet Uzbekian bippy, Tanya. My individual stuffs excellent, as legions far and wide will attest.

But more critically, my beloved Tanya3765, despite her automated disposition and limited linguistic facility, has arrived at the existential core of Immune to Boredom:

At all times care for it up.

Amen, Sister Tanya3765. Amen.

And one last thing….

I watched Casablanca for around the 75th time last night. I was really just going to watch for a minute, but one thing led to Sam and Ilsa and Les Marseilles and “Shocked, shocked I say!” and I was done for. And while I always choke up at the big moments and miss subtleties because goddammit the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world and we’ll always have Paris, and therefore I’m a helpless heap incapable of critical scrutiny…what I realized in watching this time was: there is not one wasted word, frame, musical note in this movie. Every cut, every aside, every casual glance at the side of the scene contributes to a deeper story.

Try to think of more than a few works of art that achieve this superb economy.

You think the great works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy might not have benefited from a little judicious pruning? How about Lawrence of Arabia, or even Billy the Bard’s plays? Oh, how they do go on!

Even my favorite book of ever, the infinite Infinite Jest…even that epic could probably have lost a word or 5000 and suffered nothing from the loss.<fn>Though I would not be the one to cut even a punctuation mark from that one.</fn>

I bring this point to bear for two reasons.

One, Casablanca may just be a perfect piece of art. Consider it. The story is timeless. The material is poetry. The delivery and timing, utterly majestic.

Two: however perfect the movie may be as an example of aesthetic precision and efficiency, this blog post stakes out the opposite pole as an exemplar of free-floating random and discursive disregard.

Mea culpa. This shit don’t write itself.

Here’s looking at you, kid.