31 January, 2017

Letters from Trumplandia: laying the groundwork

Self-erasure is a harsh religion. - from travel journal


I have to remind myself sometimes that in spite of what I think of my general sense of discontent, my own life is pretty good.

When I was younger, and probably smarter though not as wise*, I told myself that my sense of discontent was what drove my writing.  I blamed a small town childhood filled with social isolation and religion. I blamed the death of my father. I eventually cast wider nets and blamed my discontent on the state of the world, the sense of decay I saw in everything around me. I blamed my high school guidance counselor for the Three Card Monte fashion in which she preached about the importance of a college degree to achieving the American Dream. I blamed the American Dream for being fake.

Something in me when I was younger insisted on seeing the worst in things, and I would silently condemn my elders for acting as though nothing was wrong when everything seemed ravaged, burned, and abandoned. I wrapped myself in anger and discontent and I wrote about it. When I was writing about how angry and discontent I was, I would drink and think about how I'd somehow missed the train that every American boy was supposed to catch. At times, I blamed my father for having the audacity to die before imparting any of the wisdom I thought I was entitled to before being pushed into the world.

Yes, pushed. I was pushed. 

Because left to my own devices, I would have cloistered myself off years ago, wrapped in my self-righteous blanket of anger and discontent, ranting to the silence for its own sake. I would not have faced the world on my own because I'd drawn such a dim view of it that it I would have dismissed it out of hand.

Next month I turn 44 years old, and the world has become the world of monsters I imagined it was when I was young.  The culture wars are on fire, thanks to the gasoline poured on by our Fascist-in-Chief.  His supporters are loving him now because he has moved on pretty much every single campaign promise he made. To be fair, I don't know if he's signing more executive orders in the first 100 days than any of his predecessors or if he just signs them in front of television cameras. But I do know that politics is a three ring circus and Trump is the Ringmaster of all Ringmasters; and whatever is going on, I feel like making him roll up his sleeves to check for an arm full of aces.

The art of the deal is pretty much the same thing as the art of the con. It's all slight of hand and misdirection. And while Trump and his lackeys embolden the Proud Boys and Alt-Reich Evangelists to do the dirty work of cultural purification, he is slowly whitewashing America with one hand and jerking off with the other.

In spite of all this, however, I think it's important to remind myself that even as monsters walk the earth in human skin suits, that my life is pretty good. My primary goals have pretty much always been the same since I was 19 or 20:

  • write,
  • reject workaday time clocks and the masters behind them,
  • walk through the world at my own rhythm,
  • try to be useful,
  • work to be honorable, and
  • stand up for what I believe.

Along the way I've also found the love of my life and figured out how to be an ok father.

One of the most challenging parts of it all is to accept that while I could easily cloister myself and ignore the world, that my desire to do so is fueled by ego. To turn away and dismiss everything would mean that I have it all figured out. There's an arrogance to that notion which is toxic to not only the world, but to myself and to the life I am continuing to build.

The internal workings of my life are actually pretty good, and I'm grateful for that. I am lucky to be married to someone who loves me as I am and who I adore with all my strength and the marrow in my bones. I'm still writing.  I have clients and deadlines, but these are things I establish and set for myself. I am trying to be useful and I work to be live an honorable life (although it's more challenging for me than maybe for some other people I know).  Because the internal workings of my life are what they are, I have the ability to stand up for what I believe and do what I think is right.

These are the rights and privileges of a free person, and I have taken my freedom back from those who would take it from me -- bosses, politicians, punks, thugs, and lackeys of powermongers. And it's only because I understand that freedom is something we must take back -- not something that is conferred upon by the high offices of human institutions -- that I know it's not just about me, and never has been.

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*Not that I'm all that wise now. Most days I vacillate
between feeling incredibly stupid and three steps behind enlightenment.

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24 January, 2017

The (not so) fine art of living dangerously: recording the age of ignorance

People are always wondering if I am an artist or political activist or politician. Maybe I'll just clearly tell you: Whatever I do is not art. Let's say it is just objects or materials, movies or writing, but not art, OK?  -- Ai Weiwei

 Last Wednesday, while some people I know and one or two people I count as friends were protesting a meeting by Louisville's Chamber of Commerce -- I mean, by Greater Louisville, Inc* -- focused on helping businesses union free, I was a sitting in a half-day orientation meeting for people who met the minimum requirements to be a substitute teacher.

Most orientations could be completed in a 20 minute conversation and a decently composed email; but I understood what the reason was behind the orientation. It had nothing to do with me and everything to with the school system. Making me sit in a half a day long meeting** just so they could reiterate two main points is about them trying to avoid potential future litigation. And just in case you're wondering, Dear Readers, what the two main points were:

  1. Don't.***
  2. We're all in this together.^
I made it to this meeting after being up in Cincinnati the night before, where I read as part of the Writer's Night at the MOTR pub. I keep hoping to find open mics here in River City, but it seems that you either have to show up 6 hours early to get one of 5 open spots or hump the leg of a local literati to get a shot.

Originally, I had planned to go to the rally outside the GLI cabal, but I put in to be a substitute teacher before the holidays and I didn't want to take the chance of trying to reschedule.

There are times when I am at odds with my own life. I don't think I'm unique in this; I think many, if not most people, are. I'm at odds with my need to write, because the necessity to work almost always gets in the way, even when I have the greatest amount of schedule flexibility possible. I'm at odds with my desire be an active activist because I'm skeptical of other people's resolve. It's hard for me to trust people who aren't my friends to have my back. I could go into the reasons for this, but feel free to flip back and read about my experience with JCTC to get a reminder.

Although I realize there isn't much to be done about the past, it takes a little time for me to shake some of the negativity. Then there's the other problem.

Being a writer means, to some degree or another, being separated from the life going on around you. There is always an otherness when you give yourself over to writing, mostly because in order to write about life the writer has to, at some point, stop being around other people.  But more than that, being a writer means there is some part of you that you never share; that part of you that hangs back to record and remember.

This is probably the most crucial function that literature serves. Literature, like music and all the arts is cultural memory. And if there is ever a time that writer, musicians, painters, and other like us to spend time at our craft, it is now. It's true that art is not created in a vacuum. But it's also true that, even inside a community where we are all connected and all responsible for one another, we each have different tasks, different areas where our skills are best used for the common good. I applaud and support my friends and others who were able to go protest outside the Chamber of Commerce event in Louisville. I am looking forward to the songs and stories that will come from it and on that basis alone, I wish I could have been there. But the thing to remember is this: the most dangerous place for a writer to be is at the desk. That is where we do our work, putting it all down in stories and in verse so that as the barbarians overtake the gate^^, the most important part of it all will be saved, and hopefully passed on and preserved.
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*The only thing a Chamber of Commerce meeting is good for is to get an idea of who is trying to screw you on the local level other than elected officials and bureaucrats.
**If you're unfamiliar with the education system, let me assure you... there are always meetings of some kind or another that could be reduced to a 20 minute conversation and an email. Seriously.
*** Don't. This covers a list of things that anyone smarter than a baked potato would know not to do. Then again, all my presence at the meeting meant was that I had met the "minimum requirements." 
^I rarely trust any institution that tries to create a sense of ownership in me by insisting that it takes a village to do anything. What this means in real life is: "We're all in this together, until you screw up. Then it's all on you, pal." 
^^By the time this blog goes live, Donald Trump will have been sworn in as President. He is making plans to get the National Endowment for the Arts, which will probably kill the Kentucky Arts Council and other organizations just like it. The argument will be made that art, like any other commodity, should be able to survive in "the market."   I disagree with this fundamentally, but if you're reading this you probably knew that already.  As the creators, collectors, curators, and keepers of cultural memory, we will have find our way forward. 


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20 January, 2017

Il est Trumplandia: No quarter given

With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.  -- William Lloyd Garrison

I should have taken that bet with Kenny Rose, a former colleague at U of L who I shared office space with in the basement. I should have taken the bet, but I didn't want some messed karmic consequence for calling the election a year ahead.

I should have that kind of luck with the horses.

Back when people -- mainly centrist liberals and conservatives --  were insisting that Donald Trump could never win a presidential election I pointed out that national elections are, for the most part, popularity contests. I also pointed out that Trump had made a career of selling everything from overpriced real estate to himself.

Still, I was told: it would never happen.

Well, we're here now, working on how to move forward in this, the Grand Republic of Trumplandia.

I have friends, comrades, and former colleagues who have taken to the streets today in Washington,
From Reuters
D.C. I wonder why I'm not there with them. When I'm being honest, I'm not sure I have much faith in the actual impact of street protests. I do believe that direct action works best, and sometimes that many require taking to the streets.  For me, though, the work is here. I don't know what kind of impact I could have on the street in D.C.  I do know what kind of things there are here in River City to do. We have our own little fascistas here. We have people who will be targeted by them after being emboldened by a new President who cares nothing for already targeted communities. We have mountains and trees and already polluted rivers that will need stewardship in the wake of President Trump's disdain for climate change science.

We have the poor. We have the homeless. There are battles here.

And if the early reports are true and Trump intends to eliminate The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, then I really have work to do.

And so does everyone else who writes, who plays music, who creates art of any kind. The work is wherever you are.

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17 January, 2017

In walked the dog-headed baboon, carrying a notebook


from The Nuremberg Chronicles. Note: how I feel most days.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Christopher (the patron saint of travelers) is sometimes portrayed as a dog-headed man. Having done a fair amount of traveling myself, I can testify to the once being mistaken for a Mexican in the Dallas Greyhound station, and in grad school I was famous for (among other things) expounding in great detail, while I was drunk, about how men are dogs -- which means, among other things, that I owe the whole canine species a deep and heart felt apology.

I pair those two instances together only to point out two things. First, living on the road it challenging to bathe frequently enough for so-called "civilized" people.   I did note that as soon as I identified as a plain old dirty white boy, the older white man who approached me in the bus station to inquire about my racial and ethnic background quickly darted off in search of others who might look vaguely not Anglo on whatever quest he was on. The tone of his voice when he asked wasn't exactly aggressive, but it wasn't friendly or concerned, either. I didn't think he was packing, but to be honest I wasn't paying attention, either. And, having been approached over the years by all kinds of people, from panhandlers to Mormon missionaries, I feel like I have a pretty idea when someone talks to me out of concern for my welfare.

The second thing I'd like to point out is that only an idiot would confuse a pasty, German Irish mutt like me for a Mexican. 

I woke up this morning thinking of  Mr. Ibis from Neil Gaiman's masterpiece, American Gods. Mr. Ibis was, in fact, Thoth, the Egyptian god of the moon and writing. In addition to running the best funeral home in the country -- though no one but him and his partner Jackal -- Ibis also wrote stories. Not stories anyone ever read, of course. Just stories for himself.

In other incarnations and traditions, Thoth is also depicted as a dog-headed baboon, because not only were they nocturnal, but they were considered very intelligent.

I bring all of this up because, well... regardless of whatever incarnation I happen to be in at any given moment ... teacher, journalist, podcaster, activist/agitator, dishwasher, bum... I always end up writing stuff down. I either scribble it down in my field notebook* or I make a mental note and write it down later.  Two ex-wives and multiple ex-girlfriends have told me over the years that my "fiction" is thinly veiled auto-biography. I neither confirm nor deny this because fiction is just a filter that reality pours through. In this sense, it's perfectly reasonable for there to be dog-headed men, or baboons taking notes. Shakespeare could still be a room full of monkeys who also wrote under the pseudonym Christopher Marlowe.  What is real is sometimes less important than how it's described, remembered, or written down. Truth, I maintain, is in the way a story is told, not in the details.


from WDRB. Note: not a smart baboon
I recently sat in a room with a bunch of people who are hoping to be able to create a coalition of labor and community organizations to mount a defense against Kentucky's little fascista, Matt Bevin,  and his full frontal attack on working people. I remember trying to go to the Central Labor Council right after the election, hoping to convince them that we all need to get together to mount an organized defense/offense against what Bevin said he would do. I went to artists who were worried about Bevin gutting the Kentucky Arts Council. I spoke with adjunct instructors about the need to organize when he started going after university budgets. Each group pretty much told me the same thing:

"We need to be reasonable. There's no way the GOP will take control of the Kentucky Legislature. We need to vote, not organize."

Well, these very same people have spent the last few months since the election mourning. Liberals act like they're shell-shocked. The Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to grow a spine. Hard core unionists and those who generally ignored me when the Democratic Party hoisted a piece of cardboard to be governor and lost are NOW calling for unity. NOW they call for a coalition.   I find myself going to a lot of meetings. I will go to more. I'm going to listen, and I am listening for a very specific set of words.  I have high hopes.

For those of you inclined to prayer, I offer this image of Saint Christopher, the dog-headed saint. Pin ye, therefore, your hopes upon the love of travelers and dogs. Because we don't have time to wait for the sweet by and by.


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*Writers are all anthropologists at heart.

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10 January, 2017

A question of faith and the problem of a proportional response

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. - John Adams

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be! - Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

 

Lately I've been thinking about my father, and what he would say if he were still alive to see the state of the world... or if he would say anything at all.

He was a retired Air Force Master Sargent. When I talk to people about him, I most often begin with that detail. This sometimes gives people the impression that I grew up a military brat. But I did not. It would be incorrect to assume, however, that just because the old man managed to get his walking papers* that his 20 years of military service had no impact on him or his family.

He was also 16 years older than my mother. He was born in 1935, and grew up in a very different America than the America most of the parents of most of my school mates grew up in. He grew up during the end of the Great Depression World War II. He entered the military -- the Navy first -- when he was 17 years old, during the Korean War.** He entered the Air Force in time for Vietnam.

The Old Man never really talked about his military experience, except for a few funny stories. He didn't talk about a lot of things. He was waiting for his sons to be older, I think.

He never said much about his politics, either. I did ask him once about how he voted and he told me he was a Republican but didn't always vote that way. Another time, during an intensely religious phase of my life***, we spoke about abortion. He posed a question to me that has continued to inform my thoughts on the matter. That question was "How many women AND children died from back alley abortions?"

My father believed in a nation of laws. He believed that democracy meant something and it was worth defending. He believed that you didn't have to be the loudest in order to stand up for what is right. And even though he took a very practical approach to the world, he believed that some things were right and some things were wrong.

I try very hard not to paint him into what I would prefer him to be. He was not, in a way, a radical. He was not a simple man, either, because he understood that life could be very complex. He strove to be a simple man, I think. He lived based on a set of ideals, and he lived quietly in as much as his large personality and his considerable vanity would allow. He loved his family. He did what he thought was right.

The most difficult part of being a son is forging yourself away from your father's shadow.  As a son, I want to live in such a way that were he still alive, he would be proud of me. This takes me down some interesting paths. I may never know if the Old Man would like who I am now and the ideals I strive to live my life by. Like him, I strive to be a simple man. A man of substance. A man of use. A man who holds certain principles as absolute, but is willing to embrace the idea that life is rarely as absolute as our ideals.

I find myself looking the America I am living in now and I cannot help but think the core ideas my father lived by have no place here. I live in a state where its elected officials have proven they have no regard for people's lives, people's safety, or people's health. I live in a country that has embraced a cynical lack of faith in democracy and our natural rights by electing a egotistical megalomaniac that has set his sights on fighting personal vendettas, fueling hate, and pushing people on with pyrite delusions and calling them the golden future.

I find myself in place where I am worried about my family, my community, and my country.  If I were a solider, I would fight. But I am not a soldier. I am an artist and a a dreamer.

These are fronts I understand.

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* It took him a long time to get released from the reserves after he left active service. 1975, if  I am remembering from his records correctly. Apparently the military didn't want to let him go.
** He was "asked" by his high school principle to leave.
*** To paraphrase, I was far more interested in the letter of the law than the spirit of it. 


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06 January, 2017

A word about Patreon -- thanks for your support!

video


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05 January, 2017

Beauty is a monster, but it's still worth the search

Let the beauty you seek be what you do. -Rumi

Left to my own devices, I am a baboon wandering the wilderness. I would rather be either 1) at my desk writing or 2) on a barstool drinking than engaged in any other activity.  These two truths about me have been constant for roughly 20 years. I don't expect either of those things to change any time soon.  Both of those predilections have led me have both a ceaseless need to wander and a deep-rooted desire for love and stability. If all of these things seem to be contradictions, then you are correct. This is nothing more than a condensed explanation of the human condition. In spite of our desire to be utterly, drudgingly consistent through and through, human beings are driven by natural and contradictory needs.

A man who does not recognize he is beast with a thin veneer of manufactured civility is lying to himself. I've come around to the idea over the last few years that even admitting this falls short of enough. It's not enough to simply identify the beast. If the focus of a life is to embrace beauty, to seek enlightenment, to live as one with a higher ethic and moral conscious -- indeed, to eventually return to God -- a man has to, to a certain degree, accept and embrace the beast. If we accept Keats' poetic dictum: Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty'*, we must also accept that beauty is not always a comforting or comfortable thing. Beauty can be terrifying.

The weight on the other end of the fulcrum are my obligations -- to those I love, to those who love me, and to that short list of people whose opinions matter.

Lately I've been writing about the Grand Experiment -- my attempt to both hold down a job and pursue Beauty.  Like every other round of the Grand Experiment, this last round ended in failure. I allowed myself to get absorbed into the work I was doing, scribbling along the way, but ultimately I was chasing something other beauty, other than art. Something other. When this happens, the beast that is me gets surly. My temper -- which I have managed to meticulously starve and bury in the back of my psyche -- starts to taste the air.

I've decided to stop trying to restrain my temper as much as work it like hot steel. It's not so much that I want to fly off the handle, but I want to stop feeling guilty because I sometimes do. Anger, like any other emotion, can have justified roots. Anger, like any other impulse, will be misused and abused if I don't get used to it.





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* "Ode to a Grecian Urn"
 
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