Kenosha Broke Me

It wasn’t the shooting of James Blake, mundanely horrifying as that was.  It’s become all too familiar and the roar of defenses of the cops’ actions along with the blame showered on Blake were completely predictable.  It changed nothing (except for Blake and his family, for whom it changed everything).

It wasn’t the pathetic stupidity of cop wannabe Kyle Rittenhouse.  That was predictable too. 

It was the cop tossing the water bottle to the vigilantes that made my spirit crack (“we appreciate you,” he shouts).  And then it was the kid trying to surrender and being ignored by the cops as they race off to protect and defend.  That broke my heart wide open.

Because a distraught unarmed Black man who might be trying to get a knife is clearly a deadly threat and a white kid with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle must be one of the good guys with a gun.

Has the contrast ever been presented in such stark terms?  But Coulter says she wants him as her president (she gave up on Trump years ago).  A congressional candidate in Arizona calls it “100% justified self-defense.”  An evangelical site raises money for his defense fund when GoFundMe and Facebook refuse.  He’s a “national treasure,” he did nothing wrong, he’s filling the void left by incompetent (or worse) Democratic politicians.  And how do you even choose which to get among the many celebratory Kyle t-shirts?

In Intimations, her brilliant little book of coronaquarantine essays, Zadie Smith says she used to believe that if enough evidence was presented to white people about what Black people actually deal with every day, enough of them would finally get it that we could begin to change things.  She says she doesn’t believe that anymore.  When I read that section three weeks ago, the note that I wrote next to it said that I hadn’t quite reached that point yet.  When I re-read it on Thursday I added a note that said I had.

I have been trying to be empathetic to the middle class and working class white people who cleave to Donald Trump because they feel their way of life is under threat and that he is the only one willing to stand up to the powerful elites and protect them.  I’ve been clinging to my imagined America where they finally begin to see that giving up just a bit of some of that privilege doesn’t mean losing everything.  That it means an even more vibrant and healthy life for them and their kids and grandkids.  That their way of life might need to change just a little bit, but it isn't under attack after all.  But their fear is too great.  Their unwillingness to give even an inch is too deep. 

The greatness of the United States that I grew up loving so passionately was in its aspirations.  Every other nation in history boasted of what it was, what it had been, what it would always be.  The greatness of the United States was in what it intended to be.  That it was founded, not on shared tribal histories, but on an idea.  That everyone is of equal worth and that the role of government – government being the mechanism by which we band together for the benefit of all – is to insure that everyone has an equal shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Such a crazily bold aspiration.  Greater than the men who formulated it -- that's how powerful those ideas are!  So many missteps along the way.  But by the middle of the 20th century, people here and all around the world believed in the promise enough to make the United States the exemplar of freedom and democracy, the place where every suffering person wanted to be, because this was the land of justice and opportunity.

I believed that we were building a country with room for everybody, where everyone, coming from all of their various religious and cultural traditions, could be welcomed and cherished and respected and made to feel safe.

Of course it wasn’t going to be easy, but I never stopped believing that we would get there.  There was a political component, there was an education component, there was a cultural component.  It would take endless effort on the part of millions of daily heroes.  But eventually, all but the most twisted fearful holdouts would come to understand that bending a little, opening up a little, being just a little more welcoming and tolerant, would blossom us into a nation whose gifts would more than compensate for what they’d have to give up.

The backlash from Obama’s election didn’t surprise me and it didn’t weaken that faith.  Trump’s election (through the fluke of the electoral college) shocked me, but the fervor of his supporters didn't frighten me.  I still believed that enough of them would turn.

After George Floyd was murdered, there was reason to hope.  This time the killing was so blatant, the expression on the cop’s face so brutally nonchalant, it seemed impossible that people would find ways to ignore or explain or turn away.  White people marched like never before.  Politicians promised real change. 

But the miserable summer wore on.  Among the marchers were those whose patience was gone.  Not many.  But enough that the sympathetic kumbaya white people on the sidelines who were willing to acknowledge that maybe Black people had been systematically poorly treated had to draw the line at the destruction of property.  Addressing structural racism and economic inequity is complicated.  Focusing outrage at a burning building is simple and clear.  It makes one feel pure and righteous.

You can tell a very scary story with just a few well-chosen videos.  Carnage in America.  Riots and looting and lawlessness.  Cities in flames.  But do you know what it means for the police in Portland to declare a riot?  They’re required to say they’ve observed six people behaving in such a way as to “intentionally or recklessly create a grave risk of causing public alarm.”  This is important because the law requires a riot declaration for the cops to use tear gas.  So now there’s a riot declaration in Portland almost every night.  Imagine that.

Which gives the President and his minions the visuals they need to inflame the fears of those middle class and working class white people who believe their way of life is under attack.  Which led young pathetic wannabe Kyle to drive to Kenosha to protect the city from the rioters, which led him to kill two people while the police looked aside, which led the right wing commentariat to lionize and defend him.  Which led to my heart being broken against my dream of America.


The Bridge

Tom Ekin grabbed my hand and my shoulder when he found out where I was from.  “Birmingham!” he said.  “I’ve been to Birmingham. I’ve been to Selma. I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”

It was September of 2004 and I was the guest of honor at a library conference in Belfast.  The elaborate opening reception was held at Belfast City Hall and I was being presented to the Lord Mayor.  Short, portly, white haired, ruddy faced, wearing the heavy ornate medallion of his office, smiling as he greeted the guests,  he looked every bit how I would’ve pictured the Lord Mayor of an Irish city.  But I hadn’t expected his reaction on being introduced to me.

Ekin told me that he was the first Lord Mayor of Belfast to come from the Alliance party, which was dedicated to finding non-sectarian solutions to the Troubles.  Neither Unionist nor Irish Nationalist, the Alliance Party sought to bridge the divides between Protestant and Catholic.  They took inspiration from the American civil rights movement.  A couple years earlier he’d made a pilgrimage to Alabama with his family so they could go to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the other important sites in Birmingham and join the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Right before my eyes he shifted from being just a jolly little businessman and local politician.  I saw he was a hero, risking his life every day, trying to help heal the divides in his hometown and country.

“I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”  Words have power.  A phrase can become an incantation.  When the Lord Mayor of Belfast said those words he wasn’t just referring to a beat up old bridge in a small town in Alabama.  He was invoking something much greater than a single place and time.  To march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is to be a part of the greatest movement for human dignity that the world has ever seen.  

History isn’t just a set of facts, it’s a story.  It’s a story about the present and the future as much as it is about the past.  The story of Edmund Pettus, the man, doesn’t end with the bridge being named after him.  You could hardly find a better representative of the need to march than Edmund Pettus.  Delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention, senior officer in the Confederate Army, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, U.S. Senator following the failure of Reconstruction.  Linger a moment on that last title.  Thirty years after the defeat of the Confederacy, Alabama made Pettus a Senator.  Forty years after that, when the city fathers named a bridge after him, they were sure they’d won.  Lee’s army might have been defeated, but the cause of white supremacy was secure.

But the story didn’t end there.  John Lewis wouldn’t let it end there.  Lewis, and so many others, who’ve been willing to put their lives on the line to defeat everything that Edmund Pettus stood for.  And now, whenever the words “the Edmund Pettus Bridge” are uttered, they don’t honor a misbegotten man who personifies all of the racial failures of America, they honor all the thousands whose lives will not be denied. 

John Lewis wasn’t just a hero that day he first marched across the bridge.  Lewis marched every single day of his life.  And that gave courage to so many others.  Maybe my favorite John Lewis story is the one from Comic-con just a few years ago – 2015.  Lewis was being celebrated there on the publication of the 2nd volume of his graphic novel, March.  He decided to cosplay himself; scrounged up a trench coat like the one he wore in 1965, found a similar backpack, loaded it with the same items he’d carried back then.  He went into the convention hall in San Diego and was surrounded by little kids.  They were awed to be in the presence of a real life superhero.  He held their hands, and they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I favor keeping Pettus’s name on the bridge.  Maybe History has a sense of humor, too.  Let his name stand in for all those who believe they can’t succeed without beating somebody else down.  Every time his name is uttered, the echo comes back from a million voices, “We shall overcome.”

When Kaepernick took a knee, he was marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The women who founded Black Lives Matter are marching cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  When the Moms linked arms in Portland, they were marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Every day this summer, in big cities and small towns, across America and around the world, people are marching with John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  And they’re going to keep marching.

Words have power.  Say it.  Think of John Lewis and say it.  “Today I am marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”  March.


White Guilt

You’re not being asked to feel guilty over things that you haven’t done.  No need to get your back up.  You're hollering that your ancestors came from Europe after the Civil War.  They never enslaved anybody.  I get it.  They were immigrants who worked hard to pull themselves up.  You’re grateful for their sacrifice.  You’re a good guy and you’ve always tried to play fair with everybody.  It’s not your fault!  I get it.

“To whom much is given, much shall be required.”  You’re not being asked to feel guilty.  You’re being asked to make a difference.  Well, okay, the demand from the street is stronger than that.  You are required to make a difference.  It’s an old biblical maxim, repeated again and again throughout history.  Nobody makes it on their own.  Everybody has an obligation to lend a hand up.  Why so defensive?

The street isn’t saying that everything bad is the fault of every individual white person.  But you can’t shirk your responsibility by claiming it’s not your fault.  That’s not the point.  If you are white, you benefit from a society that has been designed, in some cases very explicitly, to maintain white supremacy in economic, political, and social matters (check out the 1901 constitution of the state of Alabama, among others – the documentary trail is exhaustingly long).  Maybe you don’t feel that you benefit very much, but ask yourself this (and try to be honest), would you readily change your white skin for a black skin if it came with a 50% increase in your income?  Would the extra burdens of being Black be worth the tradeoff?  You seem to be squirming.  Is this making you uncomfortable?  That’s good.  It should make you uncomfortable. 

Those feelings of guilt that you have (if you didn’t have them you wouldn’t be protesting so strongly) aren’t arising from something you didn’t do a century and a half ago.  They’re the faint stirrings of your conscience telling you that you’re not doing enough right now.  That’s your better nature tugging at your own complacency.  Better listen.

It’s Huck Finn lying to the men in the skiff when he has a chance to give Jim up (chapter 16).  He feels terrible about it.  He lies in order to help a runaway slave!  He’s “feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong.”  But he just can’t help himself.  He knows he should turn Jim in, he knows he shouldn’t’ve lied.  Have all of Miss Watson’s efforts to teach him right from wrong been a miserable failure?  But he realizes that doing what he’s been taught was right wouldn’t make him feel any better.  He’s too young to make sense of it, so he decides he’ll just follow his innocent American heart.  He doesn't know he's a hero.

Nobody is telling you to feel guilty over the things that were done by others in the past.  What matters is how you live up to being an American right now, here on the raft that's carrying us all down the river somewhere there might be freedom.  You don't have to atone for what people did that was wrong; you have to live up to how much they did that was right.  We hold these truths…

 


The problem isn't bad cops

For a few minutes, Rayshard Brooks might have thought he was going to make it, that the cops were going to let him go to his sister’s house, pick up his car the next morning.  There’d be hell to pay and he’d have to deal with that, but he knew it was his own damn fault.  At that moment, the cops could've walked him to the sister’s house.  They could have given him a ride.  But they brought out the cuffs.  And he panicked.  We can’t know what he was thinking, he’d been in trouble before and it’s no stretch to imagine him thinking of other black men beaten and killed once they were handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car.  So he panicked, he fought back, he grabbed the taser.  And he ran.  At that moment, he was done for.

Former DC cop Ted Williams was interviewed on Fox explaining why this was a pretty clear cut case for the justification of the use of deadly force.  I am very much afraid that he’s right.  Suppose that Rolfe isn’t a bad apple, isn’t a rogue cop.  He did what he was trained to do.  He started to arrest someone for a misdemeanor.  That person resisted, took one of his weapons, struggled, ran, fired the weapon at him, and at that point everything in Rolfe’s training said to take him down.  He did what he was trained to do.

This is why the entire edifice of standard policing in the United States has to come down.  No amount of additional training, no body cameras, no transparency in disciplinary reports, no banning of choke holds would have changed this.  We sent heavily armed men, whose primary tool is the use of force, to address a minor problem.  Subdue and arrest.  Dominate the situation.  The system worked exactly as designed.

Then Rolfe is fired and the police chief resigns.  Why fire Rolfe?  Immediate scapegoat.  A clear signal to the community that this was only a case of bad cop.  The chief resigns because she hasn't done a good enough job of weeding out bad cops.  

There’s no way to tell if the outcome would’ve been different if Brooks had been white, but it’s hard not to imagine so when there are so many cases on record where a white perpetrator is subdued without grievous harm and so many cases where a black person dies. But the racism that pits the edifice of policing against the community isn’t a problem of rabidly racist cops hating black people.  The structural racism that insists on using force to dominate and control will always result in the deaths of those we keep at the margins.

The images of impassive Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd was the spark that ignited simmering rage and protest around the world.  It should outrage you.  But what should engage your determination, what should make you join cause to insist that we rethink what we pathetically refer to as “public safety” are the two bullet holes in Rayshard Brooks’ back.


Imagine

It was my early teens, and I was reading a pulpy science fiction space opera.  There’s a scene that describes the protagonist looking at himself in the mirror and you realize that he’s black.  I felt the ground wobble (this was the author’s intention).  I’d pictured him white.  Of course I did.   I always did, whenever I pictured the person I was reading about.  To have that truth about myself slapped at me so effectively unmoored me.  Even more unsettling and chilling was realizing that it was likely that a black kid my age, reading the same book, would have made the same assumption.  Because books, like everything else, assume white men as the default human.  To be black is to be an exception.  To know that this world was not made for you, and the very best you can hope for is to be tolerated.  What does that knowledge do to a kid?  Imagine.

In our country, here in the 21st century, there is ample evidence that if you are black, and particularly if you are a black male, you are seen by so many as so threatening, that your life is in danger at all times.  There is no protection.  You’re not safe in your own home.  You’re not safe from the police.  The courts won’t protect you.  Rationally, you might believe that every cop isn’t out to get you.  You may even believe that most cops are hardworking and honest and as dedicated to being on your side as they are to anyone else’s.  But the cop who pulled you over yesterday and you’re not sure why?  You don’t know that about him.  Or just now, when you were crossing the park, doing what people do, you might know, rationally,  that most of the people you pass are going to treat you fairly and fine, or at least ignore you.  But you don’t know for sure about that one, who’s moved a little further to the side of the path, watching you.  You don’t know which gesture of yours will set that one off and who they’ll call and who’ll come running and what they’ll do.  You're always on alert.  At least, you'd better be.  You aren’t ever safe.  Not ever.  Not anywhere.  You are always the scary other.  I can imagine that.  It opens a hole in the pit of my stomach.  But I have the luxury of being able to stop imagining.  “Privilege” is the word we use.

And I still make those assumptions when I read.  It astounds me how hard wired they are.  If the byline is ambiguous, until I get a clue otherwise, my laziness will picture the writer of the essay I’m reading as a white male.  At least now I know that’s fucked up and I can push back at it.  I can look harder for those clues, I can make that image in my mind blurrier and more androgynous and more multi-hued until a real person emerges.  But even after all this time, a full half century, it requires a conscious effort. Every goddamn time.

I don’t have the lived experience.  Imagining the fear isn’t the same as living the fear.  I can set it aside.  The gap between imagining and the lived experience is vast.  But human beings keep reaching across it.  That's partly what art is for.

I read a lot of novels from a very early age.  I may not be able to undo the psychological grounding that establishes the white male as the default, but I know it’s an illusion, a constructed illusion established by power.  Imagining is a skill.  Novels are dangerous.  Novels helped me spend my formative years exploring the minds of the powerless as well as the powerful.  Enabled me to take on different skins, to see the world through different eyes, and experience the wonders and horrors of the world through the emotions of people very unlike me.  Who turn out, of course, to be very much like me in all the most important ways.

I’ve been encouraged to see how multiracial the demonstrations have been.  White people listening with humility.  Marching alongside.  Sharing articles and books that can deepen understanding and enrich the imagination.  Asking, “What can I do?” and acting on the answers.  My sister says it’s different this time. 

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”  This is something white people might say when they’re trying to come to grips with the lived experience of black men in America.  It’s intended to acknowledge that the experience is something horrible, something that white people don’t have.  When said with its usual intention, it’s an attempt to bridge the divide.  It’s an attempt to exhibit humility and say, I’m not going to try to tell you how to feel.  That’s all a step in the right direction.  It isn’t nearly enough.

Because you can imagine what it’s like.  You must.  It’s hard and scary and then it lays a heavy obligation on you.  Small wonder that people turn their imagining away.  But our imaginations have to be tougher than that.  Where does empathy come from?  What does it take to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin?  The times demand that you make the effort.  And when you've made it, when you're breathless because you've imagined the soul-crushing weight of it, and you've shed some tears over the echo of a pain that you know you can't feel for real, start imagining what you'll do to make sure that this time it is different.  

 


Remember Becket

I wasn’t surprised when the carrier captain was fired.  Sure seemed like a hasty, knee-jerk response, but we should be used to that.  But I was shocked by the diatribe that Acting Secretary Modly flew 8,000 miles to deliver.  I’ve never served in the military so I hesitate to critique military decisions, but leadership is something I do know something about.  Such a glaring lack of it startled me.

I'd been moved by the video clips of the crew seeing their Captain off.  Apparently Modly was as well.  How long does the flight from DC to Guam take?  Picture Modly, with his Eraserhead hair, seething that entire time.  How dare they!  He’d show 'em.  Question his decision, do they?  His anger simmers.  Next to it, his fear.  All during the flight, he’s checking his twitter feed.  The President backed him up right away, so that was good.  But the winds can shift.  He needs to show the boss that he’s tough.  Not going to put up with insubordination.  “Cap-tain, Cro-zier!  Cap-tain, Cro-zier!” the sailors chanted as he walked down the gangway.   Modly can’t get the sound out of his head.

Trump’s critics often accuse him of actively being behind every loathsome decision, as if he'd called Modly himself and told him to fire that damned captain.  He doesn’t need to do that.  Once the bus is running and a few high-profile minions have been ground under the wheels, the problems take care of themselves.  “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” says Henry.  Becket dies.  Modly himself told WaPo’s David Ignatius that he was thinking about his predecessor who’d been fired because he “got crossways with the president … I didn’t want that to happen again.”

Survival in Trumpland requires demonstrating unending loyalty to the boss, the ability to anticipate what might set him off, and then take care of it.  There’s a little room for missteps because, ironically, Trump actually hates to fire people straight out.  He’d rather belittle and insult them.  Eventually someone else will pick up the hint.

Trump has many people who are now in “acting” positions (the jokes write themselves).  He says he likes “acting.”  He doesn’t have to send them to the Senate for confirmation and they’re easier to get rid of when he tires of them.  So they’re all dancing on thin ice, anxious to please the audience of one.

The role model is VP Pence, who understands that whatever he’s talking about, every other sentence needs to praise the President.  Pence is lucky though; as VP, he doesn’t really have responsibility for anything.  The various secretaries and under-secretaries have actual jobs to do, decisions with consequences.  You can use pleasing the boss as your lodestar for decision-making, but what happens when you guess wrong?

Poor Modly overreached.  He’d probably have kept his job if he’d just stayed home and ridden it out.  But he was afraid his decisive firing of the captain might not be enough.  That chanting!  So he had to go and berate the crew in person.  Show Trump just how tough he can be. 

Defense Secretary Esper tried to save him by giving him a chance to apologize.  And then he mucked that up as well. “I believe, precisely because he [Crozier] is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship. I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”  Nobody hearing it was confused.

It was over by then anyway.  Trump was backtracking from his initial support.  He’d heard good things about Crozier.  “So, I'm going to get involved and see what is going on there because I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”  He hates it when he sees somebody being treated badly.  He didn’t need to say anything else. 

 


Who is that (un)masked man?

I was sure that the holdup on the mask recommendation was because Trump didn’t want to wear one.  Sure enough.  “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I don’t know.  Somehow, I just don’t see it for myself.”  Erratic his judgment may be, but his narcissistic vanity is unwaveringly consistent. 

It’s not as if he’s got a steady stream of dignitaries coming through the White House these days.  But it could happen.  And one wants to look one’s best for the dictators of the world.

Seems to me it would’ve been a great opportunity to start up a cottage industry in red MAGA masks.  Put your MAGA where your mouth is.  A counterpoint to all those pussy hats that infuriated him so. 

He soothes his annoyance at being talked into allowing the mask recommendation by firing a couple of inspectors general.  Rooting out disloyalists always makes him feel better. 

The language on the Strategic National Stockpile website was quickly changed to reflect the nonsense that Jared was spouting about “our” stockpile.  And people say that this administration isn’t efficient. 

Here in Alabama the governor finally issued a stay at home order.  I don’t expect to see her wearing a mask either.  Her explanations for waiting were pretty vague.  “We’re not California.  We’re not New York.”  Quite true.  But we could be! Give it another week or so.  She was one of the last holdouts.  Even the governor of Georgia beat her to it and he had the excuse of not knowing asymptomatic people could be contagious.  When he found that out on Tuesday of this week, he said it was a game changer and issued the order.  Then yesterday he overruled some of the local jurisdictions and re-opened the beaches.  He’s confident people will follow the social distancing guidelines.  Of course.  Because that’s so obviously what people have been doing in the absence of the stay at home orders.

I completely understand that in the press of their daily lives many people don’t have time to keep up with the latest expertise on this fast moving crisis.  Alexandra Petri does an excellent job of explaining why so many people are willing to believe Trump’s statements that he always knew this would be a pandemic and he was just trying to give people hope.  There’s a lot going on in our lives!  But I’d’ve thought (speaking of hope) that a governor would’ve been paying enough attention to what the public health experts were saying two months ago to know a little more about the mechanics of the spread. 

Now that Trump has undercut his own recommendation I don’t expect to see a lot of mask wearing down here.  That’s the whole point of leading by example, but he doesn’t quite get it.  You can tell that the people around him have been trying to feed him the right lines, get him to make the right gestures.  Exercise leadership in a time of crisis.  And he tries.  But the words don’t feel right in his mouth.  It’s an effort for him to say that Cuomo’s latest comments were “okay.”  But he can’t keep himself from saying, “But they weren’t gracious.”  It enrages him that some of the governors aren’t as appreciative as he feels they ought to be.

We had drinks over FaceTime earlier today with our friends in Cyprus.  We had bloody marys before brunch while they were having wine after dinner.  They go out twice a week now for groceries and essential healthcare.  They need to text the local authorities to let them know they’re leaving and where they’re going and when they’ll be back.  Imagine how that’d be received here.  There’s a vocal subset of Americans, particularly here in the South, who are already screaming about the unconstitutional assault on their civil liberties. The luxuries of ignorance.

Have no fear.  Your President will not force you to wear a mask.  He’s made sure that the gun shops are essential services.  He’s still encouraging people to go to the churches next Sunday.  Other than that, he’ll leave it to the governors.

If I were the praying kind, I’d just as soon do it from home.  A church full of evangelicals with guns scares me much more than the coronavirus.  

 


Mercy

Yes, I was feeling cranky about Facebook the other day.  I’m not taking anything back, but of course it’s not the whole story.  The other night I had a brief exchange with the guy who sold me the Takamine that I’ve travelled around the world with.  It was 25 years ago and I haven’t seen him or talked with him since, but FB let's me see some of what he's up to.  I was gratified to be able to tell him a bit of what that guitar's meant to me.  No doubt social media brings out the worst in people, but then it enables moments like that.  What a gift!  It’s what Zuck imagined it could be.

Lynn’s not on Facebook.  Marian and I try to remember to let her know when we see something from a friend or a family member that we think she ought to know.  Or something cute or funny we think she’d get a kick out of.

It’s those connections, those cute and funny moments that are helpful now.  But you have to choose to lean into them, rather than going the other way.

Everybody’s on edge.  Hair triggers.  I had a colleague once who was very good at many things, and because of that, she was very impatient with people.  They rarely measured up to her standards.  And when something went wrong, the main thing she wanted to know was who to blame.  Who was the deserving target of her anger. 

A lot of the internet is like that now.  But I’m trying to stay away  from the anger button.  I don’t think it’s good for me. 

I’m not saying there’s not plenty to be angry about.  The President let the country down badly.  If you’re just now tuning in, maybe you can accept that “nobody could have imagined this.”  But that’s if you don’t know that his administration was running simulations through most of 2019 imagining exactly this.  We could go on.

Raging at him and his supporters on Facebook isn’t going to help me get through it, though.  Maybe that’s just me.  I don’t know what kinds of catharsis other people need. 

I bought a t-shirt from Mary Gauthier.  It says “Mercy Now”, the title of one of her greatest songs.

The song ends this way:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now

I know we don't deserve it but we need it anyhow

We hang in the balance dangle 'tween hell and hallowed ground

And every single one of us could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

I’m trying to keep my hand away from the anger button.  Mercy, now.


Sing

I’d just been playing Angel From Montgomery on guitar when I got the news that John Prine was in critical condition with Covid-19.  Thankfully, the news is a little better now.  The most recent word from his wife is that he’s stable.  This is good. The world needs more John Prine songs.  Wouldn’t you love to hear his funny but deeply moving version of coronavirus blues?  I can’t wait.

It’s no coincidence that I was playing that song at that time.  It’s one of the about five songs I can make my way through these days so whenever I pick up the guitar for a music therapy session (which I try to do several times a week), I give it a try.  Still having trouble with the F chord, but the rest doesn’t come out too badly.

Just like everybody else who’s picked up an acoustic guitar in the last fifty years, I’ve been playing it for just about my entire musical life.  You don’t ask a guitar player if they know it.  Of course they know it.  At every Bearded Pigs gig it was the song we started the first set with.  When Ranger Dave and I played at the Venice Café as The Prairie Dogs it was a highlight, and I loved listening to his elegant lead lines during the instrumental break, particularly when we went into the chorus (the way he handled that F chord).  I was at a remote mountain resort in Korea, leading a workshop for a bunch of bright young librarians, Banquet 001and somebody found a guitar so I could play after dinner one night.  I did three songs and of course that was one of them.  I told the story of it first, so that my translator could relay it in Korean before I played, but I’m sure that many of them already knew it, too.

People have been posting their own versions of it lately, even before we heard he was sick.  TomCat put one up on Facebook a couple of days before.  I played along on harmonica while I watched and listened.  (He put up a nice rendition of Paradise as well).  Now, of course, there’s been a flood of them.  What can musicians do in hard times, but play and sing? 

Social distancing is tough on performing artists.  And while I’m not a sports fan I’ll say I was completely sympathetic to LeBron saying that he wasn’t going to play if the league was going to try to continue the season in empty arenas.  Asinine idea.  The fans are where the power comes from.

So musicians and actors and dancers, professional and amateur, are posting themselves from home.  Paul Simon put up an achingly beautiful American Tune.  I saw that he’s now put up The Boxer but I haven’t had the courage to watch it yet.  I’ll cry.*  Dolly Parton is reading bedtime stories for children.  Trent Reznor just released two Nine Inch Nails albums for free download.  Families who are quarantined together are posting amateur theatricals.  Museums are mounting online exhibits, with narrated walk-throughs of the blockbuster shows they’ve spent years curating, that now hang in empty halls.  The late night comics are doing their shows from home.  There’s I So Lounging w/ Amanda Shires every afternoon at 5. 

The internet is stressed.  I see reports from people using Zoom for conferencing that sometimes it’s flaking out on them.  I’m getting occasional DNS errors, but nothing too disruptive.  For a long time now it’s been hard to imagine what our daily lives would be like without that technology.  I try, occasionally, to tell Josie what it was like and she can’t wrap her 15 year old mind around it.  Now we’re seeing what a lifeline it truly is.

I see there’s a petition asking the networks to quit broadcasting the daily coronavirus briefings.  Too little new and useful information and too much misinformation that then needs to walked back.  I’m thinking, “But nobody is required to watch.”  Spend too much time with coronavirus news and you’ll ratchet your anxiety up to unhealthy levels. 

Dylan’s utterly astonishing Murder Most Foul tells us that music is the essential balm the nation needs in desperate times.  Now is when we need the arts more than ever.  See what your favorites are doing.  Find some news ones.  If you can spare it, send a contribution.  Buy a tour shirt for the tour that got cancelled.  And join in.  Paint a picture and put it up.  Write a short story.  Sing.

 

(*Just watched it now as I was getting ready to post this.  Yep.  I cried.  It was good.)


For the sake of argument

There was an argument about keeping libraries open.  Kids who didn’t have computers at home could do their schoolwork.  People could use the computers to look for jobs or apply for unemployment.  This led to arguments about putting library workers at risk.  And whether you could apply for unemployment or do your schoolwork on a cell phone.  Which led to arguments about whether everybody has a cell phone. Or almost everybody.  But was it a smart phone?  And what about wi-fi?  And haven’t you heard about the digital divide?  And then it got insulting.  As it does.  Pretty soon people are throwing things.

This was all on Facebook, of course.  I’m trying to include Facebook in my social distancing regime – no more than six minutes, once or twice a day. But it’s tough.  It’s like the comment threads in the New York Times.  I tell myself not to look, but then I can’t help it.  Predictable and unilluminating, but so unsatisfyingly addictive.  ("If only Bernie..." "How could anybody have voted for..." "You libtards will never learn..."  "Just wait until November..." "No open borders..." "But... her emails!")  For years we’ve been using “virus” to describe how things move through the internet.  Now we discover how apt the metaphor is.  Insidious infection of the mind.  Symptoms include: Inventing spurious arguments to fling balefully at people we’ve never met, but who have opinions that are different from our own.  Imagining monsters because of one thoughtless remark, weapons at the ready.  Squabbling over who owes what to whom, which of us are the righteous and who are despicable.

I put the phone down and pick up the book I’ve been trying to read.  Don Quixote.  I left off just as the beautiful Dorotea is telling her #metoo story.  Distrustful at first of Don Fernando’s passionate promises of marriage and everlasting bliss, she argues with herself, finally persuades herself that he’s telling the truth and it’ll be a match she never would have imagined possible.  She gives herself to him.  Next thing you know, having satisfied his passion, he’s gone off to marry Lucinda, who then threatens to kill herself at the altar because she’s still in love with Cardenio.  Cardenio, not realizing her devotion, thinks he’s been betrayed and has been wailing out his misfortunes and misery.  Then, at the urging of the priest and the barber (hang in there with me), Dorotea pretends to be the Princess Micomiconia in order to trick Quixote into going back home, once he’s eviscerated the wineskin that he believes is the giant who’s been threatening her.  Wine all over the floor, Don Quixote triumphant.

I haven’t read Quixote since college.  The only reason I picked it up a week or so ago is that I'd been writing about some of the books that have been totems for me.  I mean the actual individual physical volumes that have come my way through the years, that have meaning for me as the objects they are as much as for the words they contain.  This one is a 1947 edition that I found in a used bookstore in Milwaukee many years ago.  Illustrated by Salvador Dali.  I even remembered where it was among the greatly disordered bookshelves that line half the walls of our house.  Browsed the marvelous drawings and colored plates and decided to give it a read.

I’ve been spending an hour or two a day with it (when I can pull myself from the screens).  It’s so weirdly contemporary.  I can’t decide if I’m encouraged by that (civilization has survived the loss of its illusions before) or just depressed (have we learned nothing in 400 years?). 

It’s not all that different from Facebook.  The tilting at windmills.  Fantasizing wineskins into lascivious giants.  Alternate facts.  Characters trapped in their delusions.  And then getting into fights that resolve nothing and leave the protagonists with aching heads.  Whose truth will prevail?  Is that a princess or a peasant?  A warrior or a fool?  At least there’s not a comment thread.