Complexity

"This has nothing to do with concern for babies.  It has to do with power over women."  The second sentence (from a letter to the New York Times) is clearly true, the first sentence is demonstrably false – just talk to some of those passionate, committed women on the picket lines outside abortion clinics.  Their concerns may be sentimental, biologically incoherent, and often rooted in an unquestioning religious faith, but they’re genuine.  What purpose is served by blurring them to nothing but a rigid patriarchal intent?  Or does the rhetoric of power become a mechanism for erasing them from the debate altogether?

"The Republicans don't give a hoot about what happens to an unwanted baby after it is born.  They don't give any thought to a young woman's life being entirely derailed by a forced birth."  Also demonstrably untrue.  Witness the various organizations and people devoting time and resources to pregnancy centers that purport to supply pre- and post-natal care to mother and child.  These efforts are pathetic, inadequate, stupidly idealistic, and have next to no useful political backing.  But they are part of the complexity of the people who are committed to the anti-abortion cause.  Why deny it?

Kathryn Janus, the letter writer I've been quoting, ends her piece "If women don't turn out in droves to vote these people out, then we deserve what we get."  She is surely correct about that and her anger is surely a much better motivator than my musings about the worldviews of the heartsick women tramping around outside the abortion clinics harassing other women who are likely even more heartsick than they.

Why does it matter to me?  Surely any political strategist would school me on the necessity of crisp and compelling messaging.  But I'm not campaigning here.  I'm trying to understand why people believe the things that they do, particularly when those beliefs are so contrary to my own. 

That the sole intent of the anti-abortion movement is to exert control over women has been a standard rhetorical trope for decades.  Certainly the image of elderly white guy politicians piously declaring that they know best what should be done for all women in all cases exemplifies this.  And perhaps it’s only these politicians that Janus has in mind when she rails against “the Republicans” (but I hope she’s not forgetting the very many women who echo them).  Maybe she’s not thinking at all about the rank-and-file who actually make up the movement.  But if it weren’t for the muscle, the voices, and the boots on the ground provided by those who are passionately devoted to protecting the innocent babies, those politicians wouldn’t have anyone they’d feel the need to pander to.

There’s a little more traction to the claim that the anti-abortion forces don’t care what happens to the babies after they’re born.  Let's say they don't seem to care enough.  In the wake of Dobbs there was a brief flurry of articles by anti-abortion activists about the need to expand pre- and post-natal care and to do a better job of providing safe alternatives to abortion, but those people are a faint minority within the movement.  Their efforts are hamstrung by the fact that marshaling the resources required to do those things well conflicts with conservative anti-government views.  It’s one thing to use government to make abortion illegal, it’s quite another to use government funding to expand financial assistance to poor women.  So the efforts that exist are community and church based, without sufficient financial backing, and rife with manipulation and deceit.  Judge Coney Barrett’s belief that all these unwanted babies can be happily adopted may be grotesquely ignorant of the facts and those pregnancy centers may provide just a pale shadow of the support that many pregnant women actually need, but some degree of worry for the well-being of mother and child is undeniably a part of the psychological complexity of those who would still willingly force both into lives of misery and regret. 

Why do these nuances matter to me?  Is there any practical benefit?  The immediate, practical need is to motivate enough people to get to the polls in key races to insure that the Senate, at least, remains in Democratic hands after the midterms.  Lindsey Graham’s ham-fisted attempt at pandering was a welcome gift,  highlighting the dangers that a Republican majority in the Senate will bring.  Surely nit-picking about the varied motivations driving those in the anti-abortion movement is a waste of energy and effort?

But I don’t seem to be able to help it.  It’s not that I think recognizing and acknowledging these complexities will lead to some tactical advantage in the fight.  Maybe even the opposite – if  we grant that some of our antagonists are motivated by other desires than simply crushing women, does that make it harder to get the voter turnout that, at this particularly critical moment, is the thing that matters most?  We don’t need to change anybody’s minds (at least in the short run).  Poll after survey after poll after survey consistently show that the majority believes that abortion must remain available.  Protecting that right isn’t a matter of persuading the electorate; it is entirely a matter of getting people out to vote.

Nonetheless, there is something corrosive in burnishing away the complexities of the arguments of our political opponents.  It might feel like clarifying the issues, cutting away the extraneous material and getting to the heart of what’s most important. The abstraction creates a clearer target, one that’s easier to strike.  But it’s not the truth.  We demean those we disagree with when we turn them into caricatures and we weaken the force of our own arguments.  I'm not willing to go there.  I’m not trying to understand those people because I think that’ll make me feel more kindly to them.  I just want to see things as they really are.  So I cringe when I read pieces that engage in that over-simplification.  Those on the right and the far right and the fringe right have always been so good at demonizing their opponents through caricature.  How can those on my side of the fight justly revile those excesses if we fall into them ourselves?

The inescapable dilemma of the abortion question is the lack of a shared understanding of what moral and legal rights the fetus has and how those rights develop during the period of fertilization to birth.  The anti-abortion forces, in their aversion to ambiguity, have decided that those rights are fully inherent from the moment of conception.  Dilemma solved.  But there is at least as much logic and science and history in the position that those rights are not fully in place until birth (or at least, viability).  In the absence of any consensus about which of these views is “correct”, the state has to stay neutral.  It may not be the most comfortable position, but it’s the only one that obeys the principle of not privileging one particular religious or ethical point of view.  That this is completely unacceptable to those who “know” in the core of their being that the zygote is a full human being is no surprise.  They’ve simplified all the ambiguity out of their position.  It leaves them no choice but to act as they do.

Insisting that the issue is entirely one of maintaining power over women is an equivalent simplification.  It scrapes away the difficulties around handling competing rights in a secular society.  Those complexities make the pro-choice position a challenging one.  In every individual case the choice to have an abortion requires making predictions about likely futures, balancing rights and potential outcomes.  It’s serious stuff, very different from the satisfying simplicity of those who claim to be pro-life.  It’s not always a difficult decision – often the circumstances make the right choice very clear.  But whether she agonizes over it or not, the choice requires a series of judgment calls that have to be made in full consideration of the impact that the decision will have on the mother and everyone in the mother’s orbit.   Only she has the ethical standing to make those calls.  When the state interferes, it takes a side, imposing the frightening moral certainty of the abortion foe.  The ethics of our Constitution demand that we resist.  Fortunately, most Americans agree.  Now those same ethical imperatives require that they vote.  If not, as Janus writes, "then we deserve what we get!"


Agonistes

Trump has done so much damage and is such a loathsome human being that it's easy to justify the anger and hatred that so many feel towards him.  But some days I find myself feeling more pity than hatred.  Such a miserably insecure wannabe.  A hollow man. Pathetic, the way he's wrapped his arms around those boxes of files. "Mine!" he whimpers.  Proof that he really is important after all.

Haberman has a great piece in the NYT speculating about his reasons for being so resistant to giving up the documents.  The likeliest is just that he loved having them.  They're evidence of his specialness, the mementos that he can show off, the way he used to show off a discarded basketball shoe from Shaquille O'Neal in his office in Trump Tower.  "Look at this beautiful letter from Kim Jong-il!" he wants to boast.  "Nobody has a more beautiful letter [from a blood-thirsty dictator] than this!"

Those who've followed his quest for celebrity since he first emerged in New York society, an overfed hounddog panting for approval, know that he's always been driven by the need to prove that he's better than all those elite NY snobs making fun of him.  Now he holds the state secrets!  He can classify or declassify with a snap of the fingers!  That's real power!  But they're still making fun of him!  He rages.  Ketchup drips from the walls.  You want to turn away from the tantrum out of sheer embarrassment.

Many of the article's commenters will have none of it, of course.  Haberman probably understands Trump better than any other reporter alive, but they're sure she's got it wrong this time.  He's copying the documents for Putin!  He's going to sell them to our enemies!  He wants to use them to blackmail his political enemies!  Follow the money!  They'd much rather believe he's deviously evil than the sorry pathetic whimperer still trying to prove he's the coolest kid on the block.  Sad.

He never did understand the nature of the Presidency, the institutional limits and boundaries.  The US President is sometimes referred to as the world's most powerful man.  Trump took this far too literally.  He thought he could run the country the way he did his businesses -- demand complete loyalty and obeisance and count on an army of lawyers to keep the law off his back.  But the Presidency doesn't work that way and now he's having trouble finding competent lawyers still willing to take him on.  The comical fumbling of this latest group as they attempt to exert some kind of executive privilege makes you want to snigger behind your hand. He's no longer the President, he has no executive privilege anymore. (I love that the judge, with some irritation, directed them to a template for making a motion that is on the Court's website).  Or consider his risible claim that anything he moved into the White House residence was automatically declassified.   The President does not rule by fiat and whim.  This makes no sense to him.  His solipsism is such that he was never able to separate the role of President from his sense of self. L'etat, c'est moi!  Which is certainly a factor in his inability to let go once he lost the election.

Is the noose finally tightening?  Hell, I don't know.  But the MAGA crowd continues to shrink, bit by bit.  Of course the archivists will get the documents back (do NOT mess with librarians).  Maybe he'll be indicted for something.  He'll continue to rage and whimper.  He'll always have his sycophants, eager to reassure him that he really is still the President.  There'll always be another couple of two-bit lawyers ready to file another frivolous motion.  But nothing will ever fill the vacancy inside.  The whining will never stop.  You could almost feel sorry for the slob.  Almost.

 

 


Age Appropriate

Josie was six when she met Mark and Philly.  Was it too soon?

Lynn and her daughter Marian (Josie’s mom) had a conference in Maui.  Josie and I tagged along. It was our usual arrangement, me tending to the grandkid while they took care of whatever the business required.  Mark and Philly were living on the Big Island in those days.  We took a puddle jumper over and stayed with them for a couple of nights.  Mark met us at the airport, we had lunch, then swung by to pick up Philly for some sightseeing.  Josie’s always been an open and friendly kid, but you’d’ve thought she’d known Philly forever.  We stopped at a Quick Mart so he could pick up snacks and bottled water.  Josie said, “I’ll go!” and we watched them walk in hand in hand.  Mark said wryly, “Looks like your six year old and my six year old are getting along just fine”.  Philly was genuinely interested in Josie, no condescension. Treated her like the full human being she was. Some adults have a hard time doing that.  Josie recognized a kindred soul.

Mark and Philly had been married seven years by then (I’d been the best man, back in Boston) and together nearly ten years before that.  They had a pretty little house on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano.  There were feral kittens in the yard and we talked with Josie about what their names might be.  One night we all went outside and watched the Perseid meteor shower, an explosion of lights and drama that we’d never be able to see in Alabama.  We looked into the caldera of Kilauea and went swimming with the sea turtles at Waikōloa Beach. 

I think Philly’d had some sort of high-powered job when I first met him (insurance? finance? something lawyerly? I never paid it much attention), but on Hawai’i he’d settled into early retirement and domesticity.  He and Mark had an easy, teasing rapport, the patterned rhythms of two quite different people who’ve been making a life together for a long time; Mark, the entrepreneur, the instigator, the innovator, the adventurer, the social director; Philly, a little shy, perpetually bemused smile, alert to the sensibilities and sensitivities of the people around him.  It was easy to be there.  They liked having guests, knew how to tend to their comfort without any undue fuss.  One night Philly fixed a fabulously elaborate dinner while Josie followed him around, ostensibly helping.  He gave her little tasks, praised her, listened to her.  She was content, happy, secure and at home.  When Mark drove us to the airport, Philly stood on the doorstep sobbing while Josie waved goodbye out the back window snurfling her tears.

A year later (2012), Mike Huckabee organized “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and Josie’s dad & step-mom (she was spending every other weekend with them) were eager to show their support for the corporation’s anti-marriage equality stance by joining the throngs getting sandwiches.  Chick-fil-A was one of Josie's favorites and they offered to take her even though it was mid-week.  Marian asked her, “Do you know why they’re having a special day to buy Chick-fil-A?”  “Because they love the food?” said Josie, a little puzzled by the question.  “No, it’s because they don’t think people like Mark & Philly should be able to get married because they’re both men.”

Josie was shocked.  “But they love each other!  They belong together!” she sputtered, outraged at the wrongness of it.

She was in 2nd grade.  Imagine, if you will, that Alabama’s HB322, signed into law in the spring of 2022, was in place back then.  It commands that teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade “shall not engage in classroom discussion ... regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate...”

Picture her talking with her friend Troy, expressing her outrage, but to her surprise, Troy says, “Two guys can’t be married!  Jesus says so!”  “Does not!” says Josie, stung, although now she’s not sure.  They go running to the teacher.  “Miss Emily!” says Josie.  “Troy says my friends Mark and Philly can’t be married, but they love each other!”  Troy interrupts.  “Tell her it’s bad, Miss Emily!  My Dad told me!”

What is poor Miss Emily to do?  What can she say that’s “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate”?  She’s diligently combed through the Alabama Core Teaching Standards and the Alabama Educator Code of Ethics as instructed by the State Board of Education. No clear guidance there.  What she knows very well, however, is that if a parent complains, disciplinary action with the very real possibility of being fired is likely.  Perhaps it’s safest to derail the topic entirely.  “That’s not something we talk about in school.”  Maybe that’s the best she can do.  Maybe it’s what she believes anyway.

The kids will talk, of course.  They’ll fill in the gaps as best they can, aware they’ve touched on something forbidden and not quite sure what to make of it.  Josie’s confused now.  Has she done something wrong?  How is it possible that her teacher could think there was something wrong about Mark & Philly, something so bad that it can’t even be talked about?

These laws (Alabama’s is based on Florida’s) are billed as protecting parents’ rights, but which parent’s rights being violated now?  Marian wants her daughter to grow up to be loving and accepting and supportive of people who are trying to make their way through a complicated world.  Doesn’t she have a right to expect the public schools to reinforce this?  Why are the rights of the parents who want to shield their children from even knowing about the existence of homosexuality more important and worthy of being enshrined in law than Marian’s? 

Was it developmentally inappropriate for Josie to get to know a married gay couple when she was in the first grade?  It’s true that this exposure had a big impact on her.  Having spent a couple of days in Mark and Philly’s company, for ever after it will be impossible to convince her that there’s something wrong about two men who love each other being married.  Is this what the law is trying to prevent?  Is this what those parents are afraid of?

“Age Appropriate”.  Such a loaded phrase.  What does it mean?  Educators spend a lot of time examining the research on child development, psychological and physical, to make recommendations about what sorts of material across all subjects is “appropriate” for kids at different ages.  But the freaked out parents and the politicians who pander to them aren’t looking at research and they certainly don’t trust education experts.  Who knows better than me what’s best for my kid? 

The fundamentalist Christian belief train runs something like this:  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Children are impressionable, easily tempted to do the wrong thing.  Tell them not to do something and that’s what they’ll want to do.  Tell them about sex at all, and about deviant sex in particular, and they’ll want to try it out.  It’s the wickedness in their natures.  At home, the parent can at least try to control what they hear and see.  (For digital natives in 21st century America this is, of course, impossible, but parents have always been good at fooling themselves about the control they have over what their children know).

Is the fear that if a teacher speaks approvingly of a homosexual relationship it will somehow entice the child to become gay?   Or is it more insidious – that the teacher secretly wants to turn the kids gay and is seductively nudging them into it. They’re groomers!  It’s the homosexual agenda.  They can’t have kids of  their own so they have to take ours!  Groomers are everywhere!  (Three years ago, Twitter averaged 940 “groomer” mentions a day; by the time the Governor of Florida signed his version of the bill it was up to 11,000; a week later, 80,000.)  Does it seem strange that these parents have so little confidence in their children’s sexuality that they believe the kids can so easily be turned?  If you need to try that hard to keep the kids properly rooted in their assigned gender with the proper opposite sex attraction, doesn’t that imply it’s not all that hard-wired to begin with? 

There’s a bit of sleight of hand in the way the law is phrased.  It seems to say that discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity is allowed, as long as it’s done in an age appropriate or developmentally appropriate way.  Isn’t that reasonable?  But the people behind the law are more straightforward – Senator  Shelnutt, who introduced the amendment, said, “We don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about homosexuality and gender identity in schools, they should be learning about math.”  Not appropriate ever.  Which keeps the decision making easy and unambiguous.

The only sex education that Alabama’s ever required is that at some point between 5th and 12th grade kids have to be told about HIV/AIDS, presumably for the purpose of terrifying them that sex equals death.  Beyond that individual school systems are on their own.  Up until 2021 it was required that if there was any sex education it must emphasize abstinence and stress that homosexuality is socially unacceptable and illegal in the state.  That latter point has not been true since the Supreme Court ruling in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas) but the law stayed on the books.  The clause about homosexuality was finally removed when the law was revised to require students to use the restrooms of their assigned birth gender.  Grandmotherly Kay Ivey, who’d been Lt. Governor before being propelled to the Governor’s chair when the previous occupant was kicked out due to a sex scandal, said, “There are very real challenges facing our young people, especially with today’s societal pressures and modern culture. I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”  It’s that revised law to which Senator Shelnutt attached his amendment.

All of which makes me think I’ve been asking the wrong question.  I wanted to understand better what these parents are so afraid of, but maybe that’s not it at all.  These parents aren’t just motivated by an irrational fear of what might happen to their darling children, they’re responding to an unquenchable determination to do what’s right.  And not just for their kids, but for all kids.  For the good of the nation.

The Christianist (Christian nationalist) tendency has always been strong in this country, particularly here in the South, but it is now in the ascendent nationwide, more overt than ever.  Here’s Colorado Representative Boebert, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk. ... The church is supposed to direct the government.  The government is not supposed to direct the church.  That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it." 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," says the Constitution, and how very difficult this has turned out to be in practice.  The Christian High School coach who performatively prays on the 50-yard line after each game and invites any student who wishes to join him is ostracizing those who refuse the invitation, but the Supreme Court ignores what that does to their right of free exercise. The secular humanist expects the state to be neutral.  It expects that the governor should not let her very strong belief on the nature of boys and girls lead her to sign laws infringing on the rights of those who believe differently.  The Christianist thinks such neutrality is absurd, ungodly, dangerous.  There can only be one truth.

In Miami-Dade County the County Citizens Defending Freedom has successfully led the drive to revoke the approval of two sex ed textbooks for middle & high school.  The CCDF is a fledgling Christianist organization determined to “empower citizens to defend their freedom and liberty, and place local government back into the hands of the people.”  The sentiments sound lofty, but in practice it's all about sex and what kids are exposed to in schools and libraries.  Particularly critical is making sure there is no mention of abortion or homosexuality.  What is especially chilling, and revealing, is that the CCDF leadership either homeschool or put their kids in private school.  So they’ve already got their own kids protected.  Miami-Dade has an opt-out policy for any parent who is uncomfortable with any portion of the approved sex ed curriculum, but CCDF’s defense of liberty and freedom does not extend to empowering parents who want their children to get an education the CCDF leadership disapproves of.  They’re determined to protect all the children even if the kids’ own parents won’t.  Similar actions are occurring all across the country as Christianist activists take over local school boards.

There was an essay recently in the NYT about the importance of good sex education throughout grade school.  The authors describe the research, all the data showing how teen pregnancy is reduced, domestic violence and bullying are less frequent, people are happier and healthier, society as a whole is improved.  They’re not wrong, but they're missing the point.  They’re presuming a shared interest in the outcomes.  The Christianist is focused on keeping their child (and yours) from sin.  All that other stuff is distraction.

People like me want Miss Emily to say that what Mark and Philly share is just as good and valuable as what any other happily married couple have.  That’s all.  But Troy’s father is determined to see that Troy grows up believing the opposite.  He can’t protect Troy forever from “today’s societal pressures and modern culture” but he is damned well going to try.  That’s his job as a good dad.

Every parent wants to protect their kid, wants them to grow up to do what’s right.  Troy’s father wants him to be a good Christian.  Marian wants to protect Josie from the meanness that comes from intolerance.  They both know that homosexuality exists.  Troy’s father wants to protect him from that knowledge as long as possible.  Marian wants her daughter to know it’s okay.

There isn’t any way to reconcile these.  A more modest Christianity remembers Jesus’ admonition to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the thing that are God’s” and thinks it means being mindful of the two separate realms (this is how I was taught it in Catholic grade school).  The Christianist rejects this interpretation utterly.  There can be no compromise on the things that are God’s.

In the world the Christianists are trying to create there are no blurry edges at the borders of a binary sexuality.  There is no ambiguity about right and wrong.  People understand what their place is and the only legitimate use of government is to enforce the rules of behavior.  Troy’s dad wants his son to grow up straight and true.  But much sooner than he imagines, the boy will see the disconnect between the real world he lives in and the world his parents wish it to be.  The books he’s not supposed to read, the videos he’s not supposed to watch, the people he’s not supposed to meet, all will show him a real world that is far more complex, strange, and wonderful than the narrow world of his father, tightly bounded as it is by fear, anger, self-loathing and hate.  He’ll have to learn to deny one or the other. What will that do to his sense of self, of family, of how he ought to behave with other people?  How will he try to protect his own kids, if that time ever comes?  And from what?

Josie is a senior now and encouragingly sane.  She’s been doing some work for me afternoons this summer, so we talk.  “Are you sure you’re not hiding some deep trauma,” I tease?  She laughs and assures me she’s fine.  Asked how she’d like to be described she says, “optimistic”.  She prides herself on being a good friend.  She’s the peacemaker among her group of Southern girls.  She tells me how she and her friends use social media, as an enhancement of their IRL relationships, not a substitute.  They stay away from the drama and the hateful stuff.  She keeps her phone nearby but never makes me feel I’m competing  for her attention.  I ask what kind of sex ed she’s gotten, and she says, “The basics, in 5th grade.”  A bit in a hygiene class when she was a freshman and there’ll be a bit more this year.  Never a mention of contraception or homosexuality.  But in a world awash in sex and romance and pornography she thinks that she and her friends – male and female – have a pretty accurate and healthy knowledge about sex, “about how people ought to treat each other.”  She has high standards for relationships, won’t put up with disrespect or deceit from the boys she’s been involved with.  Where did this knowledge come from?  She’s thoughtful.  “I don’t really know.  It’s just... there.”

A great deal from her Mom, for sure.  Some from me and Lynn, who’ve been with her since the day she was born.  And certainly some has roots in a pretty little house on the slope of a volcano where she met her friends Mark and Philly at such a terribly inappropriate age.


4th of July Pledge

On this Fourth of July, I'm pledging my allegiance once again to the idea of a country endlessly in a state of becoming.   It’s a country that ceaselessly measures its actions, achievements, and failures against the remarkable ideals embedded in the founding documents.  It’s a country that understands that “government” comprises the tools we use when we work together to improve the lives of all the people.  It’s a country that is clear-eyed about its failures and determined to do better.

That idea is symbolized in a flag that shows these 50 states bound together into one nation, each of us responsible for protecting each other and lifting each other up.  My flag doesn’t call to some mythical lost “greatness”.  It calls to the Freedom Riders, Brown vs Board of Education, the Great Society.  It represents a country of rainbow flags, ranches, bodegas, truck stops, temples, mosques, and churches.  It flies for a country that practiced genocide against its indigenous populations but now has a Pueblo woman as the Secretary of the Interior; a country still grappling with the poison of slavery but which now has a woman of color as the Vice President and a Black woman newly installed as a justice of the Supreme Court.  Pick your own set of inspiring examples – there’s dozens right in your own town.

The forces of reaction are in the ascendent these days.  These foundational ideas are under attack from many who hold elective office.  In order to protect those ideals and the journey that we must be on, the most important thing to be done now is to insure that Congress remains with the Democrats.  To that I end, I'm also pledging a minimum of $5,000 in this election cycle, given to key races that can make the difference.  I can’t do anything about Alabama, but I can help defeat Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, re-elect Mark Kelly in Arizona, support John Fetterman in Pennsylvania.  Over the next month, as the primaries finish up, I’ll be watching closely to try to identify those races where I think my contributions can do the most good.  If you have money, give money.  If you are in a state where there are critical elections and you have time, give time.  Getting the vote out in those states is essential and the candidates can always use more volunteers.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s when even though I knew how often my country fell short of its ideals I never really thought those ideas could fail.  The last five years has shown us just how fragile the American experiment is.  I know that many people who have loved the America that I love feel shell-shocked and hopeless.  But we don’t have time to be discouraged.  The fight isn’t over.  I’m not giving up.


This Deadly Simplicity

Ambiguity is tough for a lot of people.  They crave the bright lines that separate good and evil.  Wrestling with moral questions is frightening and hard and you’re never sure you’ve gotten it right.  Who’d want that?  Much more reassuring to have simple and unambiguous principles to determine your decisions.  Hence the moral rectitude of the anti-abortion activists.

It is only when we inject into the issue questions of subjectivity (like wantedness) or religions (like ensoulment), existential ones (like sentience), theological ones (like human dignity) or sociological ones (like quality of life), that we find ample room for uncertainty and disagreement. These are important, enduring questions. But they are not questions upon which the basic, inalienable right of an individual life should depend.

But why not?  This is from an NYT opinion piece celebrating the downfall of Roe v. Wade.  The writer (a research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary),  believes “that abortion unjustly ends the life of a being that is fully human, a life that exists independently of the will of the mother, is self-organizing and unique, developing yet complete in itself...”  She comes to this belief by explicitly refusing to consider any of those subjective, religious, existential, theological, or sociological questions that she rightly says might cause uncertainty.  On what does this “basic, inalienable right of an individual life” depend?  She doesn’t feel the need to say.  For her, it is so clearly and comfortingly obvious that it completely eliminates any need to consider those challenging questions (important and enduring though they be).

What fascinates me even more than the incoherence is the blinding arrogance.  Having clarified that her belief is not subject to questions subjective, religious, existential, theological, or sociological, she is nonetheless so committed to the truth of it that she has no hesitation in calling on the full weight of the secular state to enforce the consequences of her belief upon the majority of people who do not share it.  What a comfort it must be to have such an unassailable moral core.  But how intellectually weird.

“If you believe as I do...” she says, the chain of consequent actions is clear.  But what if we don’t believe as you do?  On what basis does your belief carry greater moral weight than mine?  She doesn’t appear to grasp that this could even be an issue.  She’s been liberated from ambiguity.

Their opponents accuse the anti-abortion activists of hypocrisy.  “If your dedication to the sanctity of life were as fundamental as you say it is, you’d be objecting to capital punishment and war and advocating for more comprehensive gun control with just as much passion as you bring to marching back and forth in front of abortion clinics.”  They smugly think they’ve won a point.  But I understand why the activists won’t take those issues on.  They don’t provide the clear freedom from ambiguity that saving those innocent babies does.

The woman who chooses abortion also chooses to accept the moral responsibility for the consequences of ending the potential of that human life.  She accepts responsibility for weighing the difficult questions and making the best moral choice she can.  Does the anti-abortion crusader accept responsibility for the wrecked lives her successful campaign will result in?  More women will die.  More children will be born into poverty and misery.  More will spend their blighted childhoods in the over-burdened foster care pipeline.  More healthy, happy babies will not be born because an abortion that would have given a young woman a chance for a secure and successful life was denied her.  The crusader chooses not to live with any of those consequences.  She can lay the responsibility off on the poor choices the woman made in the first place, or the family that didn’t step up, or, if all else fails, the surety that “God has a plan”. 

She's absolved herself from considering those uncomfortable subjective, religious, existential, theological, and sociological questions.  She keeps her thought processes clear.  She keeps her focus narrow.  She’s saving babies.  That’s what matters.  God will sort the rest out.  It is all so unambiguously clear.


The Scholarly Publishing Roundtable

Of the various projects I've been involved with over the years, the one that perhaps I'm the proudest of is my participation in the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable.  The Roundtable's report, delivered to Congress and the White House in 2010, had a significant impact on the Holdren memo, which was the basis for the US government's policies for making peer reviewed articles resulting from federally funded research available without a subscription.  The story of the Roundtable, how it came to be and the impact it had, has now been detailed in an article in the journal Learned Publishing, written by myself and three other Roundtable members.

The article has just come out as early view, so it doesn't have a volume and issue yet (I'll try to remember to update this post when it does).  If you have access to the journal, you can get to it here.   If you don't, I've uploaded the final manuscript version which you can access here: Public Access Policy in the United States: Impact of the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable.

For those of you who've been involved in the OA wars, it'll be a fine trip down memory lane, with perhaps a few surprises.  For me, working on the article reminded me again what an amazing group of people were involved with the Roundtable and how lucky I was to be able to be a part of it.

 


"You're That Guy!"

May, 2000.  The French Quarter. Four of us staying at The Audubon Cottages, celebrating Lynn’s 50th.  Bloody Marys to start the day, martini lunch, dinner at Maximo’s, Ray Brown w/ Nicholas Payton at Snug Harbor.  Now it’s an hour after midnight and we’ve stopped at the corner of Royal and St. Peters, Rouses market, for snacks and bottles of water before heading back to the Cottages for a swim before bed.  My companions are inside, I’m leaning against the post, watching the Saturday scene.  I’m in my usual all black except for the oxblood cowboy boots.  Black sportcoat, stylish black Stetson, black sunglasses.  Two young women approach hesitantly.  They might be even more lit than I am.  One says to me, “You play guitar, don’t you?”  “I do,” I answer truthfully.  She turns excitedly to her friend, “I told you!  He’s that guy!”  Back to me, “Can we have your autograph?” “Sorry, no autographs.” This pisses them off.  “But why?” she wails.  “Sorry, I’m on vacation.”  This is a non sequitur, but it’s still a true statement.  I always try to stay truthful.  The girls wander off in disgust.  I imagine one of them tearing the poster of “that guy” off her bedroom wall.  Who do they think I am?

This had been happening to me for several years.  “You’re that guy” had become the tagline for a long unspooling of mistaken identity events.

Fifteen years earlier it certainly wouldn’t’ve happened.  There’s a picture of me in DC.  All my earlier edges had been smoothed.  Responsible guy.  Trim beard.  Sensible hair, just starting to thin on top.  No visible hint remaining of the long-haired teenager, his raggedy jeans (patches sewn by a sequence of girlfriends), his wispy beard and poet's shirts.  Just responsible guy in chinos and a red sweater.  I think I look lost.  Struggling to be what I believed I needed to be.  Guitar in its case under the bed.

In photos from the teenage years you can see my hair growing longer, by senior year longest of any of the boys.  John Lennon glasses.  At 15, I was living the counterculture.  Sex, drugs, rock and roll.  By 17, I looked it.  I wasn’t wild, though.  I wasn’t reckless.  I was an excellent student and I loved schoolwork.  Loved studying literature and philosophy and music.  I was teenage stupid, but managed just enough caution to avoid getting into serious trouble.  I embraced psychedelics, smoked marijuana every day, took some pills, but avoided needles and drugs that risked addiction.  I was promiscuous, but I was a romantic and craved the infatuation as much as the sex.  I cared very much what the girls I was involved with wanted or didn’t want.  I was terrified of offending and being rejected, so I’m sure I was less forward sometimes than my potential partner might have wanted me to be.

So I was responsible studious guy and pot-smoking poetry-writing guitar-playing hippie as well.  I didn’t feel conflicted about it.  But as I aged into adulthood it seemed I had to choose.  In my 20s, married, I had a serious job that required “making a good impression”.  There were so many subtle rules about what that involved.  I tried.  Figured the guitar and the poetry had just been the toys of adolescence, as they were for so many others.  I lasted ten years, and it nearly broke me.  But the pull of poetry was strong, and the marriage that I’d been making the responsible choices for imploded.  An ugly time, but it saved me.

There's a picture of me age four.  On my rocking horse, cowboy boots, vest, and hat, brandishing my six guns.  You can see that I took it very seriously.  So call it a return to style in the early 90s when I dusted off the guitar, bought the boots, started singing with Liquid Prairie every Saturday happy hour at the Venice Café.  When I went to Birmingham, fresh in love with Lynn, I bought the first black hat.  The band was post-punk country, so the boots, the hat.  And while the whim may have been to have props for the performance I found they suited me. They were comfortable.  I looked in mirrors and recognized myself and that hadn’t been the case for a very long time.  It’s around then that I started being mistaken for “that guy”.

Making the right impression still mattered though; I still had a serious job.  I remember Neil telling me how Lyders had advised him, “An academic medical center is a hierarchy.  You need to dress just a little better than the people you need to impress.”  So on campus it was bespoke suits, elegant ties.  Always appropriate to the setting.  But when I travelled, including to professional meetings, I would loosen it up.  The dark palette.  The boots and hat.  Still responsible guy, but the edges weren’t smooth.  I was learning the value of eccentricity.

By the late 90s I’d gotten used to it.  There was the time I’d gone to Asheville to sequester myself for a few days at a fine old inn (I stayed in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room) while I worked on a grant proposal.  I saw that Bruce Cockburn was in town.  The show’s sold out, but he’s a favorite of mine so I go anyway.  The venue’s on the 2nd story of an old building and the line of waiting ticket holders stretches down the narrow stairs to the street.  I walk up past the line to the guy who’s checking IDs and taking tickets.  I’m all in black, except for my boots and my Parisian red scarf.  The hat, the long black coat.  I see the familiar flicker in the guy’s eyes as he takes it in.  “I know you’re sold out,” I say, softly and very politely.  “But is there any chance you could squeeze me in?”  “Um, yeah,” he says, looking down the line of ticket holders and then back at me.  “If you don’t mind sitting at the bar?”  “That’d be great,” I tell him.  He takes me in, shows me a spot from where I can look across the room to the stage.  “Is this okay?” he’s still a touch uncertain.  I assure him that it’s perfect, thank him again.  He doesn’t ask for money.  I’m not surprised, although every time something like this happens I’m still puzzled.  Maybe they think it’s safer to do what I ask, just in case I really am that guy.

I used my eccentricities as deflection.  Not a disguise exactly; more like some shelter and shielding that I could hide within and behind.  As if the self I was calling attention to was actually standing a handful of inches to the side of the truer self I was unwilling to allow most people to see.  Someone asked me once, in the days when I was blogging a couple of times a week, “What is it like revealing so much of yourself so publicly?” I laughed.  “There is so much more that I don’t reveal.  You only see what I choose.  It’s hiding in plain sight.”

Eventually it became apparent that people were going to cling to their belief in that guy no matter what I might say.  I never claimed anything that wasn't true, but even my flat denials just slotted into what people wanted to believe. 

I'm sitting bar side at the Underground Wonderbar in Chicago, gently telling the guy I'm talking with that I am not a bass player and he is misremembering how great I was that day I sat in.  Yeah, sure, he seems to be saying, I know you're not mostly a bass player, but you can really go on that thing can't you?  No, I really can't, I laugh.  He thinks I'm just being modest.  'Cause, you know, I'm that guy.

Another town.  Another bar.  "You're in a band," she says.  "I am."  "Where would I have seen you play?" "Not likely."  "I'm sure I have." 

Maybe the eccentricities were a way for me to get some of the rush of being that guy without having to bear all the burdens of really being “that guy”.  Act like a Rockstar.  Feel like a Rockstar.  Get treated like one.

There’s a picture of me in Korea.  2007.  I’m at the Lake Hills Hotel on the edge of Songnisan National Park.  I’m here for a three day workshop where I’m the keynote speaker and the judge of a project competition among three teams of some of the sharpest young librarians Korea has produced – there was a national competition to get to attend this event.  At dinner the previous night, Mr. Choi had been regaling me with tales of the Korean love of drinking and singing.  “Mr. Scott sings,” says one of the young librarians.  “He’s in a rock band.” “You must sing for us!” says Mr. Choi.  I demur, “I’d need a guitar for that.” “But if we get a guitar you’ll sing?”  “Sure.”  We’re three and a half hours from Seoul in a little resort town.  Where are they going to get a guitar?  But by lunch the next day they've found one.  After dinner I have my translator tell them the story of the lonely old woman, unable to leave her dreams, pleading for transformation.  I sing Angel From Montgomery.  I tell them about the years I was in St. Louis and Lynn was in Birmingham and what it was like to drive the eight hours from my house to hers, powered by love and longing.  I sing Little Black Car.  We stand for a picture, the young librarians on either side, me in the middle with the guitar.  Boots, black jeans, black t-shirt, black hat.  The picture floats in the internet forever.  The next day they do their presentations and I declare the winner.  In the evaluations they call me inspiring. 

I rebelled at the obsession with work/life balance. All the pontificating self-help advice.  Absurd to imagine them separable.  I wanted an interwoven life, not one of “balance”.  I was a librarian full-time, a grandfather full-time, an amateur musician full-time, a husband full-time.  I wasn’t weighing these selves on a scale, trying to make sure no persona took more than its fair share of my time.  My "work", my responsibilities as Director LHL, required a 24/7 mindset, but that didn’t mean I was doing library work 24/7.  There was almost always time in any given day for me to shift from one facet of my life to another.  The technology made it possible for me to travel the world, and still be on the job whenever (wherever) I was needed.

The Doe Lecture, given annually at the Medical Library Association convention, is a big deal.  To be selected to give it is one of the Association’s highest honors.  I assumed I’d be chosen at some point.  I don’t think this was just ego.  The lecturer is expected to make a major statement about the history and/or philosophy of medical librarianship.  Wasn’t that my very brand?  My reputation was built around the editorials in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, the postings on my blog, the presentations I gave.  When I went out for my morning walks, I’d imagine the themes in the lecture I would give.  Over the years those themes shifted to suit the changing times, but when the call finally came, I was ready.  It’s a tradition among Doe Lecturers to comment on how intimidated they were by it.  Not me.  I’d been preparing for years.

By 2011, the year of my Doe, the annual migration of the Bearded Pigs had become a significant conference event. The band had gone from the few of us frolleagues getting together in an empty conference room to jam for an evening to a full-blown rock and roll event.  Every year the crowd was bigger.  There were posters, t-shirts, buttons. And the schedule being what it was the gig that year was the night before the lecture.  I was happy about that. 

I walked into the ballroom at eight in the morning for soundcheck.  Impeccably dressed.  Ostrich skin dress boots, black button fly Levi’s, tailored black shirt and sportcoat, the Nicole Miller magazine tie, the Stetson.  Carrying a guitar case.  Definitely that guy.  We’d finished playing around 11, took an hour to tear down, went back to the room for a couple hours of whiskey winddown.  I’d managed four hours of sleep, a refreshing shower.  I had a buzzy hangover and was feeling fueled by adrenalin.  I was excited.  I was eager.  I’d never been so prepared for a performance.

I like professional sound guys.  They’re easy to work with.  They looked askance at the guitar case, but I said, “I’m not going to play it – I’m just using it for a prop.”  We went through the cues so that we all knew what to expect. 

It was important to me that there be people who’d been to the gig the night before seeing me now delivering this lecture.  I wanted newer librarians in particular to see it.  That the music wasn’t some kind of side hustle that was a hobbyistic diversion from my more important life work.  That I could give myself completely to performing with my band one night and give a completely different and thoroughly committed solo performance the next day.  That one was not more important to my life than the other.  That we can all contain multitudes.

Ana (last year’s lecturer) did the introduction.  I walked out, put my hat on the podium. Signaled to Bruce, waiting in the wings.  He came out with my guitar and a stand, set it down next to me.  “I’m not going to play it,” I said to the giggles in the crowd.  “I’m just more comfortable when I’ve got it nearby.”  As if I could make it any clearer that this guy, about to give a lecture to a ballroom of a couple thousand people, was the exact same guy as that guy, who’d been playing guitar and singing to a couple hundred people just ten hours before.  It went off without a hitch.  I was very good.

Most people are flabbergasted when I tell them I’m very shy and extremely introverted.  “But...  but...  how do you...?”

It’s all just performance, I tell them.  As long as I have a role to play, and a persona to suit that role, as long as the constraints are just right, I can play the part.

“But how did you get over your stage fright?”

“Never did.”

It’s true.  Over the top anxiety before every performance, whether with the band, or doing a talk to a thousand people, or running a meeting of a dozen colleagues.  What I eventually learned was that I was good at it anyway.  It might feel as if the ground was going to open up before my feet and swallow me, but in fact that never happened and was almost certainly not going to happen this time.  Knowing that didn’t change the anxiety I felt about it.  But it enabled me to keep doing it.

My hands might tremble as I approached the mic, but once I uttered the first sentence of my talk, or brought my arm down for the first guitar chord, the anxiety shifted.  No longer driving fear, it was energy.  It was energy I could tap into and use.  I could be that guy.

I was good onstage, but informal situations were always rough.  Cocktail parties, lunches, receptions.  I did a lot of those during the years I was Director LHL, and I was very bad at it.  I knew how to do it – knew how to ask questions that would get someone talking about themselves in ways that made me seem like a great conversationalist, but I could rarely get myself to do it.  To ask questions like that of someone I didn’t know or barely knew felt intrusive, rude.  I knew that it wasn’t, under the circumstances; knew that most people would welcome it, knew that it showed I was taking an interest in them.  But it was still almost impossibly hard for me to manage.

For example, checking my calendar one evening I saw I was booked for a lunch reception at the alumni house.  There were events like this at least once a month, chances for people in the community to mingle with University leadership in hopes of attaining some mutual benefit.  I couldn’t remember the specifics of this one.  I looked up the invite/command from the President’s office inviting/instructing me to attend.  It was a gathering of local estate planners who were coming to get an update on some of the fantastic things we were doing at the University.

Okay, I get it.  My job, then, at lunch, will be to make sparkling conversation about what we’re doing, drawing out the interests of my tablemates, in hopes that when they’re discussing wills with their clients they’ll suggest including UAB as a beneficiary.  Like I said, I knew how to do this.  I was just uncomfortable with it.  Hated it, in fact.  But as I drove to the alumni house I decided that I would try pretending to be the kind of guy who enjoyed this sort of thing.  After all, I knew how that guy would act.  I even knew how they would feel about it.  The rush of pleasure they’d get from connecting with people, from getting to know new people, from representing their institution well.  I’d seen those men and women in action many times, envied their confidence and poise.  Maybe they were just acting as well?

I did a good job with that one, which is why it sticks in memory.  I even kinda enjoyed it, but that may just have been the feeling of relief that I’d pulled it off.  But it was exhausting.  It was by no means “fun”.  I couldn’t manage it very often.

And so I bumbled my way through the years of my career.  Not exactly faking it.  What does it mean to be one’s authentic self?  Frisse said that Lynn has whole cities inside her.  She told me once that she managed her relationships by just giving people those parts of herself she thought they could handle.  Always authentic, but (until me) never revealing too much.  She might be more intentional about it than most, but isn’t it what we all do?

People are complicated.  Bundles of contradictory selves, passions and promises pulling us in different directions.  It’s funny how we demand such consistency in the people that we’re judging, as if the self that caught our attention is the only self that person has, and how we feel about just a few of that self’s actions gives us leave to pronounce judgment on their entire life.  Never thinking how outraged we’d be if someone judged us with that same cruel simplicity.

Our complexities can frighten and confuse us.  Our desires can cause damage, regret.  I wanted to learn to live a life in which the best of me was upfront, where my strengths could compensate for my weaknesses, where I could do more good than harm.  Where I could find safety and boldness in equal measure.  Where there could be room for the best of all of the guys I might ever be.  Where I could hide my terrors in plain sight.

New Orleans again.  Different year.  A pretty fall afternoon.  Royal is blocked off and there’s a very good street band playing.  Pretty good crowd.  I’m standing off to the side, watching, listening.  The bass player notices me, gives a little nod.  I nod back.  I can tell he thinks I’m somebody he should know.  When they take a break I go up and drop a 20 in the tip bucket.  “Thanks!” says the singer as I start to turn away.  “Wait,” she says.  “You’re a guitar player!”

“I am,” I bow slightly in acknowledgment but keep turning. 

“I know you!” says someone in the crowd.

“Probably not,” I laugh and keep walking.  I wave without turning around.  Later, they’ll be sitting around the bar, talking with friends.  “And that guy – I just can’t place him – he dropped a twenty dollar bill in the bucket and just walked away!”  “Pretty cool,” says the friend, raising a glass.  “Here’s to that guy.”

Years ago I quit wearing the boots when they became too heavy for my crippled legs.  But the rest of the outfit remains.  We were out for dinner during our Door County vacation a few months ago.  We were nearing the end of the meal when our waiter handed me a note someone had given him for me.  “Sir, what instrument do you play? -- Dan”  I look around the room, baffled.  Lynn just laughs, “You’re that guy!”  Man at a nearby table fesses up that the note’s from him.  “Guitar and harmonica,” I tell him.  He’s a guitar fan, looks like a businessman.  He wants to know, “What’s your #1?”  I tell him it’s the ’52 Telecaster.  That’s not entirely true, but it impresses guitar nerds.  I tell him about the Telecasters all being gifts from Lynn, how when she looked askance as I kept shopping guitars after she gave me the engagement present Thinline I pointed at the ring on her finger and said, “you think that’s the last piece of jewelry I’m ever going to give you?” He laughs, thanks me, leaves.  Lynn is delighted.  I’m just amused.

Y’know that game, “if you could be anybody else...” “if you could be living at any other time...”? Never made sense to me.  I could never come up with anybody I’d rather be or any time I’d rather be living.  I’ve never wanted to be anybody that I’m not.  I’m still trying to work it out.  Being me.  I glance again at the mirror.  That guy.

 


There was a tree in the garden...

What are these people trying to protect their children from?

As Pratchett tells it, when the headmistress accused Susan Sto Helit of teaching her elementary school students about the occult, Susan calmly said, "Of course".  "But why?" the headmistress wails. "So they won't be shocked,"  Susan sensibly replies.  Reality is shocking enough without sending them into the world unprepared.

The latest idiocy is the school board in Tennessee that has banned Maus from the eighth grade curriculum.  Maus, one of the greatest of all novels, a singular work of art and compassion, recounting one of the most important stories of the 20th century.  The board members object to some foul language and nudity.  Yes, yes, they say, we know it’s important to teach about the state-sponsored murder of 10,000,000 – count the zeros – men, women, and children, but do we have to be so ugly about it?  Can’t we find books that our tender babes can learn from without being exposed to indecent language and naked bodies?  Holocaust-lite?

Can it be true that these ten fine upstanding citizens actually believe that these young teens have so far not been exposed to the ways that people actually talk?  That they haven’t already been searching for, and easily finding, naked bodies on the internet?  I could almost be sympathetic to their quest to preserve childhood innocence if it wasn’t such obvious evidence of how estranged from their children’s lives they already are.

Sometimes the bans are more blatantly ideological.  A pandering state senator in Oklahoma puts forth a bill banning books related to "the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature" from school libraries. He says, “our education system is not the place to teach moral lessons that should instead be left up to parents and families."  The fear seems to be that these books might lead the unsuspecting child to discover that some people believe that being gay is not evil.  How can a parent be expected to inculcate the appropriate revulsion in their children if there are school-sanctioned books emphasizing acceptance and love?

Most pathetic was the story that resurfaced during the recent gubernatorial campaign in Virginia about the mother outraged to find that her 17 year old was assigned Beloved in his AP English class.  The kid said the book was disgusting and gave him night terrors.  So he quit reading it.  His mother turned his discomfort into a crusade.  According to the 2013 WaPo article, the mother believed the content “could be too intense for teenage readers.”  What does this even mean?  Life can be too intense for teenagers!  Shouldn’t we be emulating Susan Sto Helit and helping them learn how to deal with it?  Pratchett’s character is riffing off G.K. Chesterton (a fine Christian gentleman, by the way).  Children learn early that there are monsters.  Stories teach them monstrosities can be overcome.

I was fortunate that I was nearly 50 when I entered into shared responsibility for the well-being and upbringing of JosieBug.  I had no illusions about what we could protect her from.  Better to put all of my effort into loving her and helping her learn to use her powers for good. 

The all-powerful god of the Abrahamic religions couldn’t keep his children from eating the apple.  We certainly can’t.  Can we at least help them make good choices now that they’ve tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil?


"all of them have something special"

When the news broke, 18 months back, that Rick Anderson had been named University Librarian at Brigham Young, his many friends and admirers cheered.  An excellent move for him as well as for BYU.  But some among us were also alarmed.  If his new responsibilities were going to require Rick to cut back on some of his many extracurriculars, what would be the fate of his most important contribution to the cultural zeitgeist, the CD HotList?

Rick's been compiling his monthly set of recommendations for many years.  Every time it shows up among my feeds I’ve turned to it eagerly, anticipating the familiar rush of astonishment, intrigue, fascination, excitement, and annoyance it'll bring.  Fortunately, he's keeping it going, although he claims he's cutting back on the number of reviews (January 2019 had 27 entries, this month's has 17).  

The astonishment comes from the breadth of coverage.  His ears are big, his embrace is vast.  His erudition is fascinating as he draws from an apparently bottomless well of context and background.  Here he is in December, describing a disc by Rob Garza, “Now breaking out as a solo artist, Garza has put together a wide-ranging album of club and dreampop tunes in collaboration with vocalists including Enemy Planes, Racquel Jones, and EMELINE. None of the music here will shock or startle a Thievery Corporation fan, but Garza is definitely charting his own territory here: you might expect a song titled “We Want Blood” to be somewhat aggro, but in fact it’s gently bumping dream-house...”  A few entries above that one, he’s championing a recording of tunes by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, a “little-known” student of the early 18th century “king of the viol”, Marin Marais.  “This program consists primarily of suites written for viol and continuo (the latter played by varying combinations of bass viol, theorbed lute, and harpsichord) plus one suite for traverso and continuo and several brief transcriptions for viol and for solo lute and guitar. This is gentle music, elegant in a rather self-effacing way, but quite inventive and beautifully played.”

Note that last sentence.  What's annoying is how damn good the writing is.  I so envy his ability to encapsulate the essence of a performance in just a sentence or two.  Reviewing a recording led by the jazz drummer Mareike Wiening, he writes “her progressions are intriguingly impressionistic, often following unusual paths that slip and slide and leave you unsure where she’ll go next. She and her sidemen play with such confident communication, though, that you’ll never be left feeling lost or confused...”

But what most has me excitedly pouring through his monthly selections is the knowledge that there will inevitably be intriguing discoveries new to me that’ll knock me out.  From last June there’s “Strata” by Skúli Sverrisson with Bill Frisell.  I'm a Frisell fan of many years, but hadn't come across this one.  Rick writes, “What happens here ... is that Frisell and Skerrisson play interlocking parts, melodies weaving in and around each other, defining chord progressions collaboratively as they go. The music is quiet and beautiful, but also complex. Skerrisson writes utterly unique bass parts, and Frisell’s tone, which at this point he could probably get a patent for, bathes everything in a golden light.”  A perfect description. 

This month, the jaw dropper is Eva Cassidy, a “hair-raisingly talented singer” who “glides, shouts, and croons her way through jazz standards (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Autumn Leaves,” “What a Wonderful World”), blues burners (“Stormy Monday”), R&B (“Take Me to the River”) and pop (jaw-dropping versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Fields of Gold”), leaving her personal stamp on every familiar tune.”  I can’t get enough of it.

Cassidy died of melanoma in 1996, just 33 years old.  Although lauded in her hometown of Washington DC, her work didn’t achieve wider renown until several years after her death.  Her resistance to being channeled into a single genre made it impossible to market her in the mid-90s.  It seems that she was okay with that – she loved too much music too much to give any of it up.

Rick’s CD Hotlist reflects that sensibility.  He categorizes his reviews by Classical, Jazz, Folk/Country, Rock/Pop, World/Ethnic for convenience, even though he knows many of the pieces sit somewhat uncomfortably in their box.  He treats them all with gratitude and respect.  Ellington would certainly approve.

It baffles me that most adults tend to age out of listening to new music, settling for whatever they loved as teenagers, proclaiming everything since then is junk and no way as good as the old stuff.  For those of us who know that the vast world of recorded music blossoms anew every single day with vibrant genius, life-affirming and -changing work, the CD Hotlist is a gift. 

Thank goodness Rick has that library gig to support him so he can keep on doing the very important work that he was meant for.


"I'm Not Dead Yet!" -- Monty Python

I was a little hesitant about putting up that last post, and I see that I had cause.  All of the hugs and messages of support have been wonderful, but I’m very sorry for causing distress to people who care about me.  That essay is as truthful as I could make it, but of course it’s not the whole truth about my life these days which, in general, continues to be very good.  I get grumpy sometimes (as do you, I’m sure!) but I’m never depressed.  I have a wonderful life. 

The essay came about because I’ve got these couple of non-TM related appointments coming up to see what might be done about what I referred to as these new, mundane pains.  I’d been thinking about how best to explain how my pain perception is scrambled to doctors I haven’t met before, who may not have much experience with people with similar conditions.  A few days ago, our unseasonable warm spell ended suddenly – temperatures dropped overnight from highs close to 80 to highs around 40.  Thinking about how my body responds to cold, I realized that it was very similar to how I was trying to understand the effects of the pain on my leg muscles.  When that realization bloomed, I knew I had the seed for a short essay.  I spent the next two days working on it and when it was done I felt it was truthful and well written (I particularly liked the bit where the signal messenger expires after valiantly making their way to the brain).  So I did what I do when I write something I like, and posted it.

I can certainly see how someone looking at my description and trying to imagine themselves in that situation would see it as a horrifying nightmare.  For many people struggling with this and other rare neuroimmune disorders it certainly is.  But I’ve always felt myself to be an incredibly lucky person, and I continue to feel that way.  I am fortunate to have a disposition that leans towards gratitude rather than depression.  I can’t take any credit for that.  Just as some people’s brain chemistry drags them into the dark of clinical depression, mine turns towards joy.  The delight in small things.  When I think about the long walks in strange cities that I’ll never take again, instead of feeling anguish at the loss, I feel deeply grateful for all of the fantastic experiences I’ve had.  The same with all of the other losses.  I wish, wish, wish that I knew how to help other people, with similar challenges, feel the same, but I don’t.  It’s just the way I’m wired.

And then there’s the amazing Lynn.  Anybody who knows anything about dealing with people with chronic conditions knows that the burden on the caregiver is at least as heavy as the burden on the patient, in some ways far worse.  It can break relationships.  But ours was strong to begin with and while we had some serious struggles in the earlier years of my diagnosis, we weathered them.  Sparks still fly, of course, but I’m willing to bet we squabble less than the majority of people in quarter century plus marriages.  She lets me push myself as hard as I can, even though I know it sometimes terrifies her.  The balance between doing for me and enabling me to do for myself is a delicate one and shifts a little day by day.  She is keenly attuned to it.  We continue to have wonderful times together.  There simply isn’t anyone I’d rather spend time with or who I find more interesting.  The fact that we find ourselves in this place at this time in our lives in astonishing.  How can I not be grateful?

Marian & Josie, of course.  Marian, the great unexpected joy of my life, 13 when her mother and I got together, who I bonded with quickly, grown into a marvelous, strong, generous, kind, and smart adult.  Her daughter, born when I was 49, giving me a taste of parenthood and making me a much better person than I would have been without her.  Grateful (again!) that on the cusp of 17, she still wants to spend some time with us and is as fascinating to me as she was when she was a toddler and we explored growing up together.

Yes, the pain and the frustrations of the physical challenges are my constant companions, but I know that so many people struggle with far worse.  And I can still do a lot.  I spent my usual five hours in the kitchen on Christmas Eve preparing the spaghetti and meatballs sauce that we ate on Christmas night after I fixed our traditional Christmas brunch of potato pancakes and champagne.  I make my own lunch everyday and fix our suppers three or four nights a week.  I do the kitchen cleanup every night (except for the wine glasses, which we agree aren't safe with me).  I pick up the guitar for 20 or 30 minutes most days, learning how to rearrange things to accommodate my limitations.  Because I have more loss to work with (to quote Jessica Lange) my singing has become more expressive than ever.  I play harmonica now, thanks to, and in honor of, the late, lamented Dan Boutchie.

I have time to write, which has forever been my passion.  The legend says that in Renoir’s old age, when his arthritis prevented him from holding a brush, his assistants strapped the brushes to his hands, and that accounts for the luminous, shimmery quality of the late paintings.  I’m not there yet.  I can still type.  I can still hold a pen.  What could I have to complain about?

Stipe sings, “Everybody hurts... so hold on... you are not alone...”

We all hurt.  We all suffer.  We all struggle.  And even so, every day brings countless stories of people doing such magnificent things that my heart swells with joy and wonder.  Gratitude.