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.  



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.


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.


As things shift

As retired introverts, Lynn and I have made a lifestyle out of social distancing.  So our days' routines haven't changed much.  Even though we're both in the house, we're scarcely within six feet of each other until suppertime anyway.  I'm mostly in my study.  I go down to fix my lunch about the time she takes Jemma for a walk.  By the time she fixes something for herself, I'm heading back upstairs.  We've been doing this for years.  Only come evening, after whichever of us has made dinner, do we sit within reach of each other and have our first long conversations of the day.  That much feels normal.

But there are fewer reasons to leave the house now.  No physical therapy appointments, no trips to the pool.  No book club for Lynn.  My follow-up visit from cataract surgery was considered essential so I went for that, having my temperature taken by the masked people at the door to the clinic, filling out the form that testified that I didn't have a sore throat or a bad cough and hadn't been hanging out with anybody who'd been exposed.  As far as I know.

Afterwards, I stopped at the grocery store, where one of the staff was wiping down the handles of the shopping carts before every use.  The place was busy, but not crowded.  There were some stretches of empty shelves -- bread, frozen entrées, jars of pasta sauce.  A trio of middle-aged women were partially blocking the end of one aisle, chattering away.  Miss Manners suggests that one might say, in a commiserating tone, "It is hard to stay six feet apart, isn't it?"  The staff are as friendly and helpful as ever, looking only slightly haunted.

What I’m missing most are the weekly family dinners with Marian and Josie.  They'd just come back from a big Cheer competition two weeks ago, when all of the seriousness hit Alabama.   We thought it best to limit contact for a bit.  We're all still symptom free, though, so maybe we can have them over some time soon.

Since we're not doing our usual weekly restaurant trip, I had dinner delivered to them a few nights ago and did the same for us last night.  I've been tipping about 40%.  I worry about the people in the restaurant and bar business.  The margins are so small, the savings non-existent.  Our favorite pub decided not to do curbside, so I bought a bunch of gift certificates, hoping it'll help them bridge to re-opening.  Amanda Shires is doing a daily live show from the barn she shares with Jason Isbell.   She uses the occasion to raise money for MusiCares, so I made a contribution there.  I'm trying to donate a little something somewhere every couple of days.  The need is overwhelming.

Grocery clerks are now considered essential. It took this for us to realize that? Does this mean we're going to restructure the economy so that they get a living wage?  Sick leave?  Health benefits?  I'm not optimistic. 

Solnit has an essay in the NYT asking what kind of country we’ll make as we work our way out of this.  She writes about past crises and the changes they wrought.  Will we become more authoritarian or more humane?   There are strong impulses pulling in each direction.  Do we go with fear or compassion?

Grover's Basement

“I’ve got some guitar players coming over tomorrow afternoon.  I’d love it if you could join us,” said the message from Grover.  I thought, “I used to be a guitar player.”  I breathed dread, but I’d disappoint myself if I didn’t go.

I left my walker in the upper hall.  Held on to the rail, steadied myself with Bobk, the Ukrainian cane, gingerly made my way to the basement.  Buzz was working out the chords to a Django Reinhardt tune.  Jazz manouche.  Swing.  Joe was playing clean melody lines over the rhythm that Buzz set up.  They paused while Grover introduced us.  “Scott’s a guitar player -- although I don’t know if you still play much…”. “Just a bit,” I said.  I had a couple of Josie picks in my pocket.  “But I brought some harmonicas.”  I gave the thirty second explanation of how the short circuit in my spinal cord had messed up my hands.  They’d just seen what it’s done to my legs.

I sat across from Buzz.  Watched, listened.  Grover’d moved in four houses down when he married the widow Doreen.  I’d met him a year before, at the wedding reception.  We’d talked briefly about guitars and maybe getting together sometime, but it hadn’t happened.  Then, a couple of weeks earlier, Doreen invited us to go see him play at Joe’s Pizza.   He did some James Taylor, a Billy Joel song.  Some Jim Croce.  Hank Williams with a few jazzy flourishes.  Other than The Weight  and one or two others, they weren’t songs that I’d played, but they might’ve been.  Lynn said that his setlist intersected ours.  He sang in a smooth, comfortable tenor.  I went to his basement expecting more like that.  Songs I was familiar with.  Guitar players who did the kind of stuff I knew.  It wasn’t like that.

Grover picked another tune from Buzz’s fat book of jazz guitar.  They worked out more chords.  Lots of chords.  Chords with 9ths and 13ths and flatted 5ths.  Diminished and augmented chords.  Chords I knew about, but had never attempted to play.  My genres were “three chords and the truth.”  I was decent at fingerpicking, but I’d never improvised lead or played the jazzy tunes where each beat takes a different chord.  They were comparing different fingerings and moving rapidly up and down the necks of their guitars.  I could follow what they were talking about, but I had nothing to contribute.

We were going around the circle and it was my turn to call the next tune.  I said I’d pass for a bit and listen.  I liked what they were doing, but I couldn’t see a place for me in it.  I wondered how long I should stay before making a graceful exit.  But when it came back round to Grover he picked It’s A Wonderful World.  That was familiar so I tried singing it.  The key fit. “Can we run through that one again?”  I sang stronger, starting to feel a little confidence.  Buzz went into Ain’t Misbehavin',  and I picked up a harmonica and found some space for it.  Nothing fancy, but it worked.  When we were done, the others grinned and nodded encouragingly.

When the turn came back to me, Grover asked if I was ready to pick one.  “Okay, but I’ll have to go in a different direction.  More along the lines of what you were doing at the pizza joint.”  “Sixties and seventies?” Grover asked.  “Sure.  Let’s try something simple.  Neil Young’s Helpless?”  Grover nodded and explained to Buzz who Neil Young was.  Buzz is 87.  I picked the tempo.  Joe played lead.  Buzz found some fancy chord variations.  I sang, played some harmonica.

Joe did a jazzy instrumental version of a Beatles tune.  Buzz went back to Django and I fit a bit more harmonica.  We did some Billie Holliday.  Grover backed me while I sang Angel From Montgomery and my slow, dark version of All Along The Watchtower.  He noticed that I’d rewritten some of the lines.  I shrugged.  “Dylan changes it every time he sings it.  I just made some updates.”

Here’s the thing.  Even at my best as a guitar player, I’d never have been able to keep up with them.  I’d’ve gone over, seen what they were doing, been completely intimidated, never even taken my guitar out of the case, never gone back, and felt miserable about the whole thing.  But Boutch had given me his harmonica and said, “You may not be able to play guitar again, but don’t ever stop playing music.”  Josie had given me the guitar picks with her picture on 'em to push me to keep struggling with the Telecaster.  So up in my study I strum rough chords and sing, finding ways to compensate for my weakened diaphragm.  I record those rough chords into GarageBand and play harmonica.  Boutch died, so I’m obligated.  The Josie picks obligate me, too.

We tried more songs I didn’t know, or barely knew, and finding harmonica lines was exhilarating.  I was way outside my comfort zone and it was good.

Django Reinhardt Django had only two good fingers on his left hand, the others badly damaged in a fire when he was eighteen.  So he invented a new way of playing jazz guitar that has influenced every player since.  When 493px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_036Renoir’s hands became so arthritic that he couldn’t hold his brushes, his assistants tied them on and he created the late, burnished paintings, full of joy and grace and light.  When Wilma Rudolph was five and stricken with polio, the doctors said she probably wouldn’t ever walk without the leg brace.  Her mother said she would.  Rudolph said, “I chose to believe my mother Rudolph,” and won three Olympic gold medals in track at the age of twenty.

I’m not quite willing to say that my sense of gratitude extends to the fact of my transverse myelitis.  And yet.  And yet.  Without it, I would’ve left Grover’s basement feeling intimidated and embarrassed and I wouldn’t have gone back.  This is better.

Django played.  Renoir painted.  Wilma Rudolph ran.














The Virtues of a Tiny Desk

(A version of this piece appeared a few days ago in the email newsletter Mad About Music.  The editor rearranged the order of paragraphs, so I'm posting it here in the way it was intended.)

The intimacy of NPR’s Tiny Desk pressures the musicians in a way that can be revelatory.  Lyle Lovett is endearingly nervous and twitchy as he cracks jokes and tries to deflect your attention to Luke Bulla, the young fiddle player he’s brought with him.  Dolores O’Riordan is joyful, singing with abandon as if she’s on an arena stage in front of thousands or maybe just at home, twirling in her living room.  When someone off camera asks for “Zombie” she’s happy to comply, but only if they can bring her a guitar so she can play the signature lick.  The rest of the Cranberries are somber and brilliant, eyes never leaving their live wire.  

Josh Ritter’s eyes are shut tight as he sings the passion, frustration and fear of lost hope he feels for his country.  “Was it all just a dream?”  Jason Isbell plays biting lead guitar on one side of him as Amanda Shires fiddles angrily on the other.  Amanda wears a t-shirt with a Leonard Cohen line: “Dance me to the end of love.”

Who the musicians bring with them colors the story.  John Prine’s full band never quite gets liftoff,  too uncomfortably cramped in the small space.  Annie Clark, on the other hand, confounds expectations, appearing with just an acoustic guitar.  She’s St. Vincent as urban cool in a red beret, houndstooth suit, and big dark glasses.  With an Elvis twist to her lip she reveals the ache in “New York” in a version just as complete as the radically produced album original.  It shines. She knows exactly how to fit her art into that room.

The story goes that Bob Boilen, NPR’s musical guru, went to a club with a friend one night and was annoyed that they couldn’t hear the singer over the crowd. So they invited her to come to the studio and play at Bob’s desk.   Over the past eleven years, he and his team have recorded hundreds of these little miracles.  Three or four songs each, fifteen minutes to half an hour.  Tower of Power, Erykah Badu, Mac Miller, Wu-Tang Clan, Ravi Coltrane.  Taylor Swift, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Yo-Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens.  Boilen’s desk may be tiny, but he has very big ears.



Thoughts and Prayers

Apparently the New York Times was relying on interns to handle headline writing duties over the Labor Day weekend.  Surely only an over-enthusiastic youngster fresh out of journalism school could have written, with a straight face, "Texas Shooting Brings New Urgency to Gun Debate in Congress."  

But no, I shouldn't poke fun at the hapless headline wrangler.  The writer of the piece has been at the NYT for 20 years, on a variety of beats, now covering Congress.  In her first paragraph she says the latest spree (latest as of last Sunday; there may be another by the time I get this posted) "has intensified pressure on congressional Republicans ... giving fresh urgency to [the] debate..."  Really?  You'd think she'd know better.

By mid-week it was clear that the Republicans were barricading themselves behind the mental health misdirection and the only urgency the President was feeling was to convince people that Alabama was too in the path of the hurricane.  Just look at this official map I have right here...

That left it to the CEO of Walmart to take a few tentative steps towards possibly reducing the odds of future massacres on his turf.  I particularly like the part about, "Would you please not be waving your gun around while you're shopping in our stores?  It makes the other customers nervous."  It's hard to tell the good guy with the gun from the bad guy with the gun until the shooting starts.

As a country, we decided after Sandy Hook that between the consequences of doing something substantive and the consequences of doing nothing, the murder of twenty children was the more bearable.  If the latest deaths are creating any urgency among the majority of Congresspeople it's for how quickly they can get the issue to recede once again.

Beto O'Rourke has been refreshingly forthright about what needs to be done -- when a reporter asked how he would address fears about the government banning and confiscating assault weapons he said, "I want to be very clear, that that's exactly what we're going to do."  But this is an America that considers the murder of children by assault weapon to be an acceptable price for...  for what, exactly?

That's what's hard for me to figure out.  What is being protected by squelching any moves towards background checks or bans on particularly brutal weapons?  What is so sacred here that we just have to put up with all these murders?  It can't just be "protecting the 2nd amendment."  Even the Supreme Court decision upholding the individual right to a handgun admits that gun ownership can be regulated.  And even the most conservative of legislators will opine that they could support reasonable and sensible regulations.  It's just every actual draft of proposed legislation that they feel compelled to oppose.  Something more visceral and alogical is at work here.

In These Truths Jill Lepore makes the brilliant point that gun control and abortion have become the signature issues of our time.  One of them represents freedom and one of them represents murder.  Which is which depends on which end of the political spectrum you occupy.

Sure, the NRA money neatly massages the cravenness and personal ambition of politicians.  But the emotional uproar around the issue is much bigger than that.  Maybe Congressman Crenshaw is being cynical and disingenuous when he says he's opposed to universal background checks because they would prevent him from lending his handgun to a friend who wanted to borrow it for protection while traveling.  But for plenty of his constituents he's speaking their truth.

"Fresh urgency?"  Hardly.  A mere seven more Texas funerals isn't going to change a thing.


There Is Only This Life

My Dad rejected the notion that he was “battling” cancer.  He was pragmatic.  If it was a fight, it wasn’t one he could win.  But he wouldn’t let himself be beat, either.  I asked my Mom once, during that last year, after the doctor told us the surgery hadn’t been successful, how they managed.  She said, “We figured out there’s only now and not now.  If now is being a good day, we don’t think about not now.”

Seems that once a week or so, someone will post in the Facebook/Transverse Myelitis group, “I miss my old life.”  “Every day,” someone agrees.  “This isn’t the life I envisioned for myself,” someone else chimes in.  No, I suppose not.

I’m sympathetic to a point.  I get the sense of loss.  The things that I loved most to do with my body I can’t do anymore.  Getting my body to do those things it still can is a painful struggle, filled with frustrations, every day.

But my “old life” had struggles, too.  And which “old life” am I supposed to be mourning?  Sixteen year old me spending the summer in my small town with my bare feet and my long hair and my cigarettes and marijuana and guitar playing in the park and girls as curious and frightened and hungry about sex as I was?  That was a wonderful old life.  But I properly grew past it and while I cherish the memories of it (and the luck that helped me survive it), I don’t miss it.  Or was it the life I lived in DC, learning my trade, hanging out with the artists, being in love with my wife, exploring the museums, writing a poem each morning before putting on a jacket and tie and taking the bus to work?  That was a great life, too.  Left it behind decades ago.  Surely it’s not the life when that marriage crumbled and what I thought was secure turned out to be illusion and I had to confront my own hubris and arrogance and blindness in excruciating detail.  I’m a better man for having made my way through, but please don’t make me live that old life again!

When you were envisioning the life that you’re not living after all, did it include the depredations of age?  The untimely deaths of friends or family?  The inevitable disappointments that nestle themselves snugly alongside the joys and victories of even a successful career or a job you did well and loved?  Or did you think your destiny was to be free of tragedy and sorrow?

Or do you just mean the “old life” you had on the day before the short circuit in your spinal cord rattled and rearranged your life plans, as if you could’ve continued living the life of that day for decades to come, as if the daily movement that makes each past day an unrecoverable old life had magically come to a halt?

There is no “old life.”  There is only this life.  Maybe I just never envisioned that it could be this good. When I was a boy the future terrified me.  Maybe it’s the power of low expectations that makes my daily pleasures feel so undeservedly rich.  If you’re taking time every day to miss your old life might you also be missing what’s glorious in the only one you’ve actually got?

I know it’s not fair of me to question what it takes for anyone to make their way through the world.  People use the FB posts to vent and get emotional support.  We each have our own cross to bear, or so I’ve been told.  The cross that Jesus bore up Calvary carried the weight of all the sins of the world.  He was God and still it nearly broke him.  Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani.  We puny mortals have only our own sins to carry and that’s still too much for many.  Anyone who manages to walk their path carrying their sins and not doing too much damage to the people around them deserves admiration and applause, no matter what they might’ve leaned on for help.

I’m not a Christian, although I was raised Catholic.  By the time I reached my early teens I’d judged the God of Christianity too limited for my allegiance.  I never found faith, although I like the idea of it.  I respect it, but I’ve never missed it.  I don’t believe God has a plan.  I don’t believe everything happens for a reason.  I don’t believe I was put here for a purpose.

I’m a human, though.  And humans need purpose.  We need meaning.  We need connection.  We need respect and we need love.  We need to give it just as much as we need to receive it.  For me, it turns out that the daily work of becoming the best human I can places me where I need to be.  The way of Lao Tzu.  I see the interconnected now-ness of the world the way the mystics among the Lakota do.  I keep a slip of paper on my desk that says, “When you believe the stones are sacred, you’re careful about where you put your feet.”

I’m not at war with transverse myelitis.  That’s not my battle.  I don’t expect to beat it.  I don’t need to.  But I won’t be beat by it, either.  And spending each day missing a life that was never guaranteed to me in the first place feels like trembling at the edge of defeat.

Chop the wood.  Carry water.  Walk the path.  Make every step the very best step, even if it takes a cane and a walker and a wheelchair to get me there.  Behind me the long winding trail of my footprints, plenty of them crooked or wayward.  Some have been pretty damn fine.  Ahead, only more path, farther into the shimmery distance than I can see.  That suits me.  Maybe it’s meaningless.  It’s kinda glorious all the same.