More Doors

(Robin Trower is jamming on the stereo as I write this.  Just sayin’.)

I feel the urge to write something, but no one topic presents itself with sufficient weight to dominate a whole entry.  What to talk about, that is the question.  That poor guy who got tied to a tree in Kentucky was on my mind last week.

Census takers have, in certain parts of the country, been lumped in with so-called “revenooers” (to use Snuffy Smith jargon) and generally threatened, shot at, occasionally killed by folks exercising their right to be separate.  So they assume.  Appalachia, the Ozarks, parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, Texas…a lot of pockets, populated by people who have, for many reasons, acquired a sense of identity apart from the mainstream, and who feel imposed upon if the gov’ment so much as notices their existence.  They’d have a point if they truly did maintain a separate existence, but they don’t, and hypocrisy is the least amenable vice to reason.  At one time it was bootlegging, today it’s drugs, either marijuana or meth.  They don’t seem to get it that if they contribute to the erosion of the public weal then they forfeit the “right” to be left alone.  I really believe they don’t understand this simple equation.

But do I believe that poor man was killed over some disagreement over politic hegemony?  No.  He knocked on the wrong door at the wrong time and asked the wrong question and some good ol’ boys killed him.  Scrawling “Fed” on his chest was probably an afterthought, and means about as much as had they written “Cop” or “Fag” or “Stranger.”  Whoever did it probably thought he was being cute.

I would point to this and say that anyone who thinks America is free of its terrorists, its fundamentalist jihadists, its unreconstructed semi-literate hate-mongers, its pockets of intolerance where just walking down the street wearing the wrong clothes can get one hurt or killed, then a closer look is necessary.  Like such groups and people in foreign climes, the motivations for these folks are many and varied, from religion and political purity to money or sex or just bitter resentments.  The binding characteristic is that they hate—not with a red-hot, spikey, enraged hate, but with the harsher, tamped-ash, slow-burn deep hatred of constant gauging, you to them, ranking those who belong against those who don’t, an ever-present, seething, low-grade fever of hate that informs every single thought and action.  It’s not so much that something triggers it at the moment, causing an aberrant act of outrage as that they start from a coal-bed of resentment and rejection that they take as “normal.”  That makes them harder to understand for most people.  The default position for these folks is to despise you because you aren’t like them, and may the ‘verse help you if you have any education, erudition, any sense of a larger civic ecology, and grasp that reality is more than the pathetic network of familial connections that hoards sentiment and incubates the drowning phobias of in-group solidarity and guarantees a cyclic affirmation of hopelessness.

From this, though, I would point out one thing that we tend to forget in America, in the West, that open-mindedness is always based on resources.  There must be enough, more than enough, to make people comfortable.  Apocalyptic fiction is frightening not so much because the physical world crumbles, but because everyone accepts in the absence of Enough that the small bits and pieces, an apple, a loaf of bread, a piece of sheeting to cover your from rain, a drink of water, is always sufficient reason to throw Plato on the fire and give up on solving problems.  People, it suggests, lose morality, even love, when they’re hungry and frightened enough.

I have a house-full of books.  I just got a few more yesterday.  The pile of unread tomes grows, and it makes me feel rich.

Many years ago, a cousin of mine had to live upstairs from us, with my grandparents, because his mother and father had moved to a county where this cousin did not meet the local school standards.  He would have entered their high school a grade behind instead of graduating that year.  So he lived upstairs and attended his alma mater so he could graduate.

I ended up having to look out for him.  He was stupid.  Not in that he lacked intelligence, but he had no concept of how to apply it.  He reacted.  He did things without forethought.  He got in trouble.  Consequently, he got me into some trouble.  I was not stupid, so the degree of trouble for me was minimized, confined to the problem of what to do with this kid.  I quickly reached a point of wanting him out of the house.  Which meant that sometimes I did his homework.

I hadn’t had much contact with my cousins for years.  There were many reasons for this I won’t go into, but basically they were strangers to me.  They were cousins.  Fine.  Big deal.  So what?  This is perhaps a blindspot with me, but frankly family as a concept doesn’t mean much to me.  I was raised to earn friendship, regardless, and I expected it to be earned in turn.  The conditions are immaterial and vary wildly, but just laying a claim on one’s affections simply because you happen to be related is not an idea I subscribe to.

So this kid was, while I “knew” him, pretty much a stranger.  One evening we’re conversing about this and that and we got onto the topic of sacrifice.  He proudly declared that he’d risk his life for me.

“Why?” I asked.

“You’re my cousin.  You’re family.”

“So?”  He looked puzzled so I elaborated.  “Okay, say you find out that I’m a drug dealer.  The police get onto me and it looks like I might be arrested or killed by a rival.  You’d fight both for me because we’re family?”


“You’d stand between me and the police.”


“You’re an idiot,” I said.

He looked hurt.  After a couple minutes, he asked,  “You wouldn’t do it for me?”

“If you were a drug dealer and I found out, I’d turn your ass in.”

“But I’m family!”

“And if I’d never met you before?  You grew up on the east coast and you’ve just come here and looked me up for the first time.  We don’t know each other from Adam.”

“We’d be family.”

“That’s nuts.  You don’t know me.  I could be the worst person on the planet and you’re telling me you’d risk your life for me.  Would you do it for____?”  I named someone we both knew, unrelated.


“What if he was the one who’d become the scientist who cured cancer?”

He shrugged.  This was getting beyond his personal calculus.

No, I don’t actually think consanguinity is sufficient reason to extend any more consideration than you would to a casual acquaintance, certainly not to someone who has become a close friend.  One of the reasons, I suppose, I have no children.  Blood is probably an evolutionary trait to guarantee the success of a given DNA, but in society it is often turned to abuse, an excuse to overlook all sorts of shortfalls.  I might have felt different had I had brothers and sisters, but I hope not.

I recently read a novel called Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.  It’s a harsh, unpleasant story of Ozark backwoods familial tyranny.  I understand it’s about to be released as a film.  It portrays the kind of chains family imposes under the most obscene kind of filial blackmail, the way it is used as an excuse to not only forgive but defend criminality, brutality, ignorance, and the perpetuation of a siege mentality that cannot afford to embrace anything genuinely moral.  It is at core an argument against a concept of family that holds sway over so much of the human race.

But it also shows what I mean when I say all moral behavior rests on resource.  Having enough.  Having, perhaps, more than enough.  The irony, of course, is that the mindset that such entrenched poverty and the oppressive familial code that seems to emerge in its depths pretty much guarantees that those so trapped will never step outside to find a way to cure their condition.  Entropy.  Energy always ebbs in a closed system.  For growth you need outside energy.

Sometimes the best way to help a situation is to leave it.  Perhaps what the world needs are more doors.  Open.  We have, perhaps, enough rooms.  We need more doors.

The Keyboard I Didn’t Buy

I came within a few synapses of buying a keyboard today.  An old Yamaha, double-manual, polyphonic ensemble—portable, with a stand.  No amplifier.  There was a time I would have fallen all over myself to get one of these for under five hundred bucks.  This one—sitting on the grass in someone’s back yard, part of the swag obtainable at the annual neighborhood yard sale we attend—was going for twenty-five bucks.

And I passed.

Couldn’t change my mind, either, a young fellow was right behind us and snatched it up.

Now, I could say that I passed on it because I never buy a keyboard without trying it out, to see if all the notes and pots work, to see, basically, if it both sounds good and feels right.  Feel is very important in these matters.

But that would be waffling, really.  I didn’t buy because…well, why?  I’m going to be 55 in a few weeks and my days of gigging are more than thirty years past.  I do not play well enough anymore to justify having more than the one piano I have—an instrument, by the way, the capacities of which I have yet to max out.

I play at playing music.  Way, way back in the distant past, there was a period of a couple of years when I could sit in with other bands, could do a reasonably good evening of rock-n-roll with some classical stuff thrown in for the oohs and ahhs.  I played every day, usually for three hours, often more.  I wanted to be Keith Emerson.  I could do a couple of the less complex ELP tunes.

But I did not have all the other requisite drives to make it as a professional musician.  I hate dealing with the business side, for one thing, something I confess to still dislike.   I am not constitutionally equipped to make money.  I wanted to play music.

But I also wanted to play the music I wanted to play and the fact is that as in everything else one does to make a living, you don’t really often get to do what you want to do—you have to please the customer.  And I lost patience with the pathetic musical taste of my so-called audience back then.  I—and the guys playing with me—would break our backs learning some really cool piece of choice music (something by Genesis, say, or Yes or, one time I remember, something by Premiata Forneria Marconi—and if you do not know who they were, go check them out, for your musical education is lacking) and put it out there at a gig and receive lukewarm response and a request for something from the Doobie Brothers.  Not that I dislike the Doobies, mind you, but it just wasn’t up there, in my opinion.  Actually the audience just wasn’t up there.

So I walked away.  I sold all my equipment and said to hell with it.  Didn’t play for several years.

We bought a piano in 1989.  The last gig I’d done was about 1977 or 78.  I had forgotten damn near everything.

But I hadn’t bought the thing to relive glory days or revisit tunes I could enjoy easily on the stereo—I’d bought it to do what I wanted to do.  So I wrote a few pieces, played in the mornings just to reset my mood for the day, jammed, really.  Over the years, I have occasionally picked up a piece of sheet music and worked at it, but basically I play a kind of pretend music.  In my mind it is.  It’s kind of like Keith Jarrett, who improvises everything he does.  Of course, Jarrett is marvelously skilled and educated so his improvisations are fascinating, intricate.  Mine are a bit redundant.  I’ve developed a suite of a couple dozen motifs that I can mix and match and then just sit down and rip on them.

People listening, when I’m in a groove, think it’s amazing, and the structure is such that most of them think I’m playing something they just can’t quite recognize.  But it’s a rudimentary form of jazz freeform.  Middle-level musicians enjoy what I’m doing but know it’s more or less fake.

Oddly enough, the few really good musicians I know love listening, because to them it’s just spontaneous composition and they’ve worked very hard to get to a point where they can do the same thing.  As long as I don’t play too long, they’re actually impressed.

About once a month, if I’m not doing anything else, I play at a small church open mic from January to August.  The audience is small, they never have requests, and they think I’m pretty good.  At least, they clearly enjoy themselves when I play.

And that’s enough.  I’m playing.  I’m playing from the heart.  I’m playing what I want.  I don’t really need much more, though sometimes I’d like more.

So why did I pass on the yard sale keyboard?  Because two keyboards means more discipline.  It means I’m getting serious about doing music that I no longer do.  It means—to me, from inside my skull—that I have to knuckle down and practice and prove I deserve to be playing.  It means pressure.

There might come a time I decide, because I really want to, that I need to get my chops back in a serious way.  But not now.  I’m concentrating on my writing.  That’s the work that needs the lion’s share of my attention.  If I start playing music three or four hours a day again, I’ll short-change the important stuff.  So I passed.  I don’t need it.  I’m okay with where I’m at with what I do with the music I make.

Besides…where the hell would I put it?

Some Art

Time for a little art.

Once upon a time, in the distant past, I had ambitions to become a comic book artist.  I wrote and drew my own.  My models…well, I am very much a fan of extreme realism, so some of the less mimetic, more representational comic art leaves me unimpressed.  My idol when I was a kid, trying to do this, was Russ Manning.  He was the ne plus ultra of comics technicians, and not only because of his superb style, but for the substance of the comics he did.  Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. was just about everything I ever wanted in a comic book, along with its spin-off, The Aliens, which did not last very many issues.

There were others I liked.  Dan Spiegle,  who did Lost In Space (before the lamebrained television series and long after it) among other things.  And of course the wonderful Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon fame.

There was a time, when I was drawing every day, that I got fairly good.  But then photography came along, then I went back to writing, and the rest, as they say….

But I still do art occasionally.  Now I think that rather than doing comics, if I’d stuck with it, I’d do illustrations.  That leads to a whole other pantheon of greats.  In the last couple decades, I sit down to doodle or sketch when I need a break.  It’s fun and relaxing and I feel no pressure to accomplish anything beyond satisfying my desire to create something cool.

Below you’ll find a new drawing.  You may be able to tell from the technique that I’m a Virgil Finlay fan, though nowhere near his legendary abilities. Below the main, finished, illustration are thumbnails of the work-in-progress.  I posted these as they were done on my Facebook page, but I thought I’d put them all up here.  (Click on the thumbnail and you can get a larger view.)

I’m going to hang several pieces this year in the Archon art show.  I don’t have room to keep everything, but I’ve scanned the pieces into the computer and I can print them out later if I want.

Anyway, enjoy.


Thumbnails of the process below.


Comparisons of the disaster of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor break down in the aftermath.  What I remember is getting a phone call from my wife to turn on the news, any news, and then seeing the images on CNN.  I then called several people, including some on the west coast, early as it was.

It was a binding experience.

Then the silence of the skies for next few days.  All planes grounded.  We don’t pay attention to all that background noise until it disappears.

And I remember wanting to strike back.

But at who?

I am not a reflex pacifist.  I do not believe in turning the other cheek as an automatic gesture.  The world, in aggregate, does not yield to such gestures until much blood is spent, and disgust comes to the aid of the peaceful intent.  Strike at me,  hurt my family and friends, threaten my home, I have no compunction about the use of violence.

But not thoughtless lashing out, flailing, blind retaliation.  That does less good than the habitual use of peaceful surrender.  If we were to find these people, we needed to be smart about it, and move carefully.  When caught, punishment must be determined accordingly.

That was not to be.  I watched our so-called leaders turn this event into a justification for major abuse globally.  The sympathy we had from the entire world evaporated as the United States began stomping around acting like a pissed off child whose lunch money had been taken by a bully.  But we were not small and weak, so embracing the automatic response of schoolyard tactics resulted in calamity.  I was horrified by the unfolding nightmare of the Bush years, all done supposedly in my name as a citizen.

The aftermath of Pearl Harbor was horrible but not cause for self-loathing and shame.  We rose to an occasion that demanded sacrifice and we came to the aid of a  world gone mad.  The enemy was clear, the stakes enormous, the calculations easy enough.  Ugly as WWII was, our response was as close to noble as war can bestow, and we have carried ourselves with pride born out of that period for going on 70 years now.

Not so after 9/11.

We were struck in 1941 by a nation that officially declared war upon us.  We knew who they were, what they stood for, and where to find them.  It was a conflict of clear adversaries fighting as nations.

The 9/11 aggressors were a band of people more like the mafia, with no nation, no formal declaration of war, and no clear face.  We had a few names, a few associations.  We didn’t know how to deal with this, so we pretended it was just like any other war, shoved the awkward details into the box called War, and attacked as if nations could be blamed.

After WWII we could expect and received formal surrenders from nations authorized to sign such instruments.  Rebuilding began, and it could be argued that THAT was the real victory.

Who will sign a surrender in this conflict?  Who can?  What would it look like?  And how do you rebuild something these very same enemies keep knocking down and by so doing make us knock them down as well, along with all the innocent people who just get in the way?

There was a time hatred could not act on its own in such a vast theater—it required nations to enable it and give it reach.  That’s changed.

It seems to me we need to start figuring out how to rid ourselves of hate.  We can’t do that if we keep hurting the very people we need to help.

Our job has been made infinitely harder because of the schoolyard bully mentality of the administration that dragged us into this fray in the aftermath of national tragedy.  We may never regain the credibility needed to address the real issues.  That is the loss I continue to mourn on this day.

The dead cannot be blamed for the acts of the living, and revenge is a cold legacy for the sacrifice of the honorable.

Quote of the Day

It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made. This method of handling the subject cannot impose on the good sense of the people of America. It may display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.

from Federalist # 41, by James Madison

Poor Misunderstood Right Wing Nut Job

Some people seem to dissolve into their worst attributes over time.  There is a seige mentality that develops, it seems, and from within the bastions and barricades the fever dreams of the misunderstood and disillusioned take root and grow into horrible, twisted things.

I don’t care much for people who are constantly running around trying to scare the rest of us with apocalyptic prognostications.  The sky is falling, yes it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Who can hold up the sky or keep the stars from falling?  Not me and it would appear a waste of what life might be left to spend my time fretting over it and ruining other people’s day telling them to not enjoy themselves because the impending catastrophe is of such significance that to ignore it in any way is to cheapen all human history.  Having a good time in the face of Doom is being, somehow, rude to the awesome relevance of said Doom.

Everyone needs a hobby.

Conspiracy theorists have found the X-Box of their desires within the serpentine confines of a world delimited by the constant back-stabbing one-up-manship of imagined black ops, coups, assassinations, and creeping ideological subversion.  I wish them good times playing with their toys.

But occasionally they decide to rewrite history to justify their paranoia and depending on what it is they’re trying to sell by doing so, I get a bit less tolerant.

A grand master of New Spin is Pat Buchanan.  He’s been misinterpreting reality since before his failed bid for the presidency.  In retrospect he is the ideal speech writer for Richard Nixon, for he must have shared Nixon’s conviction that the game is rigged and the Lefties are out to get us all from the beginning.  Do right by all those bleeding heart liberals and all they do is spit on you.  Open up China, establish the EPA, expand health care, and what do you get for all your efforts?  They pillory you for a little wire tap and the construction of a shadow government that could do end runs around Congress.  Ingrates!

Pat has become more strident and marginalized since Reagan took office.  The tough American school of foreign diplomacy combined with the Minute Man ideal of self-sufficiency and rugged independence came to the fore, nurtured by an age that declared that all victims were just whiners and the only difference between a rich man and a poor man is plain hard work.  Pat blossomed.

What fruit has this mutant liberty tree borne?  Well, he’s now ready to revisit Hitler and tell us how Adolph was just misunderstood after all, that he didn’t want world conquest (which is possible—he mainly wanted Europe and Russia) but peace and a strong Germany.  He makes his argument here.

It is one of those things which one reads with  awe at the sheer balls of the premise. Clearly, Pat has taken Mein Kampf to heart as the heart-warming, desperate revelation of a tortured peacemaker who has been maligned and misunderstood by any and all.

He claims in this article that Hitler sued for peace with Britain two years before the first trains rolled toward the concentration camps.  This is a deceptive claim.  But the specifics are less important than the overall argument.  Pat claims Germany invaded Poland in a dispute over Danzig.  One must then ask why one of the first acts after Poland fell was the construction of the camps.

But the actual problem here is a complete and utterly ridiculous misreading of Hitler himself.  Hitler made it clear in many speeches, and in Mein Kampf, that his aims were for a militantly ascendent Germany.  The Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935.  People were already leaving the country because they understood what Hitler was.  Berlin in 1936 had to be “made over” for the Olympics—antisemitic posters taken down, the presence of brown shirts and their ilk removed, and the camps placed off-limits for even official visits.  Oh, yes, there were camps them, around the major cities, but they had not quite yet become the exclusive depository of Jews—gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs of various ethnic backgrounds, and certainly politically questionable types filled them in stinking, horrid conditions that only foretold of what was to come.

Hitler’s Reich in fact violated every single treaty it signed but one: its treaty with Japan that demanded it declare war on the United States in the event of war between the U.S. and Japan.

I don’t follow the logic behind Buchanan’s reinterpretation.  I don’t know what he’s doing here unless there’s a latent holocaust denier lurking beneath all the other reactionary dross he’s acquired over the years.

There is, however, an interesting point brought out in some of the comments appended to Buchanan’s post—that of Stalin’s somewhat “lighter” treatment at the hands of posterity.  As if by claiming that we don’t hold Stalin to the same standard of denunciation of revulsion, that somehow the opprobrium heaped upon Herr Hitler is, well, unfair.

Well.  Stalin was as big a monster, perhaps bigger, than Hitler.  The only thing that makes them different is their nationalist aims.  Stalin seemed content to remain within the borders of the Soviet Union.  He slaughtered his own people, and he played no favorites in that regard—he was an equal opportunity murderer.  He did not invade Poland.  He did not start a world war.  Considering the wall of silence placed around his regime, without that war we might still not know what was going on inside the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s sociopathology was constrained, methodical, even in some sense rational insofar as he recognized limits.  Hitler was different.  Hitler was more than just a sociopath and as the war progressed it became more obvious.  It is appropriate that Hitler’s favorite composer was Wagner, for what do most of Wagner’s operas end with?  Gotterdammerung!  The end of everything.

We’re catching up with regards to Uncle Joe, as Truman called him.  We’re finding out.  His atrocities were on such a scale, though, as to almost dwarf what the Nazis did.  But that’s a deceptive way to look at it as well.  What difference the numbers?  Eleven or eleven million?

Even so, I don’t quite grasp the point of trying to rehabilitate Hitler.  Is Buchanan trying to lay blame on the Brits for jumping the gun?  Is he trying to point out the flaws in systems and networks of treaties that seem to draw us into disaster time and again?  Is he practicing moral relativism?  That would be a first for him.

Whatever is going on, I think it behooves us to pay attention to the Nut Jobbery going on in our midst.

We do live in interesting times.