Passing of Giants

I cannot adequately tell you how I feel right now.  My insides are being roiled by a gigantic spoon.

Chris Squire, bass player, co-founder of in my estimate one of the greatest musical groups to ever grace a stage, has died.

A brief report of the particulars can be read here.

I have been listening to, following, collecting, and appreciating YES since I first heard them late one night on my first stereo, a track being played as representative of an “underappreciated” band.  That status did not last long.  A year or two later, they were a major force in what has been called Progressive Rock, a label with some degree of oxymoronicalness in that, not a decade before their advent, all rock was progressive.

Rather it was transgressive and altered the landscape of popular music.  By the time YES came along, divisions, subdivisions, turf wars of various arcane dimensions had become part and parcel of the scene, and there were those who found YES and others like them a transgression to some presumed “purity” of rock music that seemed to require simplistic chord progressions, banal lyrics, and sub par instrumental prowess.  As Tom Petty once said, “Well, it was never supposed to be good.

Well, I and many of my friends and millions of others, across generations, thought that was bullshit, and embraced their deep musicality, classical influences, and superb craftsmanship. They were a revelation of what could be done with four instruments and a superior compositional approach and as far as I’m concerned, Punk, which began as an intentional repudiation of actual musical ability, was a desecration of the possibilities in the form.

Chris Squire and Jon Anderson met and created a group that has since become an institution, with many alumni, that challenged the tendency of rock to feed a lowest-common-denominator machine.  Nothing they did was common, expected, or dull.  Some of it failed, most of it elevated the form, and all of it filled my life with magic.

The ache felt by many at the loss of George Harrison is the ache I now feel at the loss of Chris Squire.  He was brilliant.

There may be more later, but for now, here is an old piece I wrote about YES.

Much To My Pleasant Surprise…

The Supreme Court, in a (predictably) five-to-four vote, has declared that people can get married.

Barriers to marriage based on the criteria that the involved participants must fit a predetermined template having to do with gender are no longer viable or, more importantly, legal.

No, I didn’t expect this.  I am delighted to be wrong.

This also means that we can perhaps start moving forward on a slew of other reforms that are long overdue.  I know there are people who are doubtless going apoplectic about this, predicting the end of all things, the demise of civilization, the collapse of our republic, yada yada yada.

As if any of that could be determined by what two people do to make a home together.

Well, I suppose it could, but letting more people participate in an already-established system which has been held up to be the foundation of that very civilization?  It never made sense, but bigotry rarely does make sense.  This has always been about social control, stigmatizing certain groups for the purposes of preserving privilege and power, and dictating codes of conduct which we have learned the loudest proponents of don’t obey anyway.  At a minimum this takes away the ability of certain people to misrepresent themselves at other people’s expense.

So, two wins in one week.  The ACA still passes constitutional muster, much to the dismay of those who thought any attempt to provide publicly-subsidized health care would also bring about the End Times, and now gender is no longer a legal consideration in who gets to marry whom.

(And for all those who for some reason feel marriage is strictly about procreation—yes, you Mr. Santorum—well, no, that has never been either the sole purpose or even the primary reason, and maybe now we can start having a more rational dialogue about that issue.)

So, all in all, this would seem to be a pretty positive week for a whole lot of folks.

A Few Words About Unpleasant Realities

First off, I would like to say that I work with some amazing people.  I will address just how amazing they are in a different post.  The reason I mention it here is that this morning I attended a meeting wherein we all discussed an extremely delicate, profoundly important issue in order to establish a protocol for a specific event and it was one of the most trenchant and moving experiences in which I’ve been involved.

In mid-July, Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set A Watchman, will be released.  That I am working at a bookstore when this is happening is incredible.  That I am working at a bookstore with the commitment to social justice and awareness that Left Bank Books brings to the table is doubly so, and one of the reasons I feel privileged is the discussion we engaged this morning.

It concerned a particular word and its use, both in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird and in the larger community of which we are all a part. Necessarily, it was about racism.

I’ve written about my experiences with racism previously. One of the startling and dismaying aspects of the present is the resurgence of arguments which some may believe were engaged decades ago and settled but which we can now see have simply gone subterranean.  At least for many people.  For others, obviously nothing has gone underground, their daily lives are exercises in rehashing the same old debates over and over again.  Lately it has been all over the news and it feels like Freedom Summer all over again when for a large part of the country the images of what actually went on in so many communities, events that had gone on out of sight until television news crews went to Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia and the images ended up in everyone’s living rooms often enough to prick the conscience of the majority culture and cause Something To Be Done.

What was done was tremendous.  That an old Southerner like Lyndon Johnson would be the one to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law is one of the mind-bending facts of our history that denies any attempt to reduce that history to simple, sound-bite-size capsules and forces reconsideration, assessment, and studied understanding that reality is never homogeneous, simplistic, or, more importantly, finished.

It became unacceptable for the culture to overtly treat minorities as inferior and allocate special conditions for their continued existence among us.

Those who objected to reform almost immediately began a counternarrative that the legal and social reforms were themselves the “special conditions” which were supposed to be done away with, conveniently forgetting that the level playing field such objections implied had never existed and that the “special conditions” that should have been done away with were the apartheid style separations and isolations these new laws were intended to end and redress.  Pretending that you have not stepped on someone for so long that they no longer know how to walk and then claiming that they are getting unwarranted special treatment when you provide a wheelchair is about as disingenuous and self-serving as one can get, even before the active attempt to deny access to the very things that will allow that person to walk again.

Some of this was ignorance. Documentary films of southern high school students angry that blacks would be coming into their schools when they had schools “just as good as ours” can only be seen as ignorance.  Spoon fed and willingly swallowed, certainly, but the cultural reinforcements were powerful.  The idea that a white teenager and his or her friends might have gone to black neighborhoods to see for themselves whether or not things were “just as good” would have been virtually unthinkable back then.  Not just peer pressure and adult censure would have come in play but the civic machinery might, had their intentions been discovered, have actively prevented the expedition.

But it is ignorance that is required to reinforce stereotypes and assert privilege where it ought not exist.

Bringing us to the present day, where one may quite honestly say that things have improved.  That African-Americans are better off than they could have been in 1964.  That for many so much has changed in two generations that it is possible for both sides to look at certain things and say, “hey, this is way better!”

Which prompts some to say—and believe—that the fight is over.

And the fact that it is not and that the arguments continue prompts some to believe it is a war and that the purpose of at least one side is hegemony over the other.

Which leads to events like that in Charleston and Dylann Roof’s savage attack.  He’s fighting a war.

The fact that so many people have leapt to excuse his behavior demonstrates that the struggle is ongoing.  I say excuse rather than defend, because with a few fringe exceptions I don’t see anybody hastening to defend his actions.  What I see, though, are people taking pains to explain his actions in contexts that mitigate the simple hatred in evidence.  For once, though, that has proven impossible because of Roof’s own words.  He was very clear as to why he was doing what he did.

He is terrified of black people.

Irrational? Certainly. Does that mean he is mentally ill?  Not in any legal sense.  He has strong beliefs.  Unless we’re willing to say strong beliefs per se are indicative of mental illness, that’s insufficient.  That he is operating out of a model of reality not supported by the larger reality…?

Now we get into dicey areas.  Because now we’re talking about what is or is not intrinsic to our culture.

Without re-examining a host of examples and arguments that go to one side or the other of this proposition, let me just bring up one aspect of this that came out of our morning staff meeting and the discussions around a particular word.

After the Sixties, it became unacceptable in the majority culture to use racial epithets, especially what we now refer to as The N Word.  We’ve enforced social restrictions sufficient to make most of us uncomfortable in its use.  In what one might term Polite Society it is not heard and we take steps to avoid it and render it unspoken most of the time.

To what extent, however, have we failed to point out that this does not mean you or I are not racists.  Just because we never and would never use that word, does that mean we’ve conquered that beast in ourselves or in our culture?

Because we can point to everything from incarceration rates all the way up to how President Obama is treated to show the opposite.  But because “race” is never the main cause, we claim these things have nothing to do with it.  We have arranged things, or allowed them to be so arranged, that we can conduct discriminatory behavior on several other bases without ever conceding to racism, and yet have much the same effect.

Because in populist media we have focused so heavily on That Word and its immediate social improprieties, we have allowed many people to assume, perhaps, because they’ve signed on to that program that they have matriculated out of their own racism and by extension have created a non-racist community.

That’s one problem, the blindness of a convenient excuse.  Put a label on something then agree that label represents everything bad about the subject, then agree to stop using the label, and presto change-o, the problem is gone.  Like sympathetic magic.  Except, deep down, we know it’s not so.

The deeper problem, I think, comes out of the commitment, made decades ago, to try to achieve a so-called “colorblind society.”  I know what was meant, it was the desire to exclude race as a factor in what ought to be merit-based judgments.  No such consideration should be present in education, jobs, where to live, where to shop.  We are all Americans and essentially the same amalgamated shade of red, white, and blue.  (Or, a bit crasser, what Jesse Jackson once said, that no one in America is black or white, we’re all Green, i.e. all classifications are based on money. He was wrong.)

While there is a certain naïve appeal to the idea, it was a wrongheaded approach for a number of reasons, chief of which it tended to negate lived experience.  Because on the street, in homes, people live their heritage, their family, their history, and if those things are based, positively or negatively, on color, then to say that as a society we should pretend color does not exist is to erase a substantial part of identity.

But worse than that, it offers another dodge, a way for people who have no intention (or ability) of getting over their bigotry to construct matters in such a way that all the barriers can still be put in place but based on factors which avoid race and hence appear “neutral.”

Demographics, income level, residence, occupation, education…all these can be used to excuse discriminatory behaviors as judgments based on presumably objective standards.

This has allowed for the problem to remain, for many people, unaddressed, and to fester.  It’s the drug war, not the race war.  It’s a problem with the educational system, not a cultural divide.  Crime stats have nothing to do with color.  Given a good rhetorician, we can talk around this for hours, days, years and avoid ever discussing the issue which Mr. Roof just dumped into our living rooms in the one color we all share without any possibility of quibbling—red.

We’ve had a century or more of practice dissembling over a related issue which is also now getting an airing that is long overdue.  The Confederate flag.  And likewise there are those trying to excuse it—that there never was a single flag for the entire Confederacy is in no way the issue, because generations of Lost Cause romantics thought there was and acted as if that were the case, using Lee’s battleflag to represent their conception of the South and the whole Gone With The Wind æsthetic.  We’ve been exercising that issue in our history since it happened, with even people who thought the North was right bowing the sophistry that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Lincoln steadfastly refused to accept a retributive agenda because he knew, must have known, that punishment would only entrench the very thing the country had to be done with. He did not live to see his convictions survive the reality of Reconstruction.

So we entered this discussion about the use of a word and its power to hurt and its place in art.  My own personal belief is that art, to be worthwhile at all, must be the place where the unsayable can be said, the unthinkable broached, the unpalatable examined, and the unseeable shown.  People who strive for the word under consideration to be expunged from a book, like, say, Huckleberry Finn, misunderstand this essential function of art.

For the word to lose valence in society, in public, in interactions both personal and political, it is not enough to simply ban it from use.  The reasons it has what potency it does must be worked through and our own selves examined for the nerves so jangled by its utterance.  That requires something many of us seem either unwilling or unable to do—reassess our inner selves, continually.  Examine what makes us respond to the world.  Socrates’ charge to live a life worth living is not a mere academic exercise but a radical act of self-reconstruction, sometimes on a daily basis.

Which requires that we pay attention and stop making excuses for the things we just don’t want to deal with.


“That Guy”

Confession time.  I have never assumed that I am a good writer.  I have never taken the position that I know what I’m doing, that I deserve respect, or that I am in any way special as a writer.  My default sense of self is that I’m still trying, still learning, still reaching, and I haven’t “got there” yet. If, therefore, I write something that touches a reader, that evokes a positive response, that, given the opportunity, causes them to tell me how much they liked that story or novel of mine they read, I am always surprised and quietly pleased and a bit more hopeful that one of these days I might fully allow myself to acknowledge my own talent.

But I never let myself believe I deserve anything like that. Ever.

Initially, this came out of an inborn reticence characteristic of the fatally shy and an aversion to being the center of anyone’s attention. But you grow out of that eventually, or at least I did, because you come to realize you have nothing special about which to be shy.  Also, that shyness is detrimental to your happiness when it causes you to pass up opportunities you might desperately want to embrace. It’s replaced, then, by a gradual sense of politesse, of what you might consider good manners, and a deep desire to be liked.  Braggards are generally not liked, so you hide your light so you don’t become That Guy.

Too early success can derail your journey to becoming someone you might wish to be by replacing a perfectly natural humility with the idea that, hey, you really are something special!  Nastiness can ensue.

I am very aware of my potential for being That Guy, the boor, the boaster, the “all about me” asshole.  Part of me wants to be all of that, or at least have all the attention that leads to that.  Why else would I have always been involved in work that has such a public aspect?  Art, music, theater (very briefly), and writing.  All of it has a Dig Me facet, especially if you have any ambition to make a living at any of it.  You have to put the work out there, you have to take credit, you’re the one people have to identify with something they like in order for you to get paid.  It’s all a recipe for assholedom, because you can so easily believe the hype that comes with success, and start acting like you deserve it all.

You don’t.  You’ve earned it, perhaps, but you don’t deserve it.

If you don’t see the difference, then try harder.  Deserving something in this instance implies believing it’s your due, regardless.  Just by existing in the world, certain accommodations ought to accrue, whether you have done the work or not.  We do have a category of things which fit that description—they’re called rights and everyone deserves them, they are not commodities to be dolled out according to some kind of intrinsic worth meter that suggests some people are better or more important than others.  For the special stuff, we work and earn regard.  It’s not “due” us by virtue of who we are.

But even in that, it’s not necessarily we who merit the regard but the work.  If it has our name on it, then we get to accept the award when it’s handed out, but it’s the work that’s being honored.

We are in no way in charge of that process.

This is hard, I admit. How is the work to be separated from the one who does it? You can’t do it, really, but that’s not the point.  The point is how what you put into the world impacts others and creates a space wherein honor and respect are given and received.  It’s a condition of regard, one that acknowledges distinctions, sometimes fine ones, in which the work may well deserve an honor but, if given, the creator can only be said to have earned it.

That’s a negotiation and depends entirely on the relationship between creator and audience.

That Guy forgets or never understands that the relationship is what matters here.  That in fact when respect and honor are given, it must be returned. Without that relationship, that process, there is no honor and awards are empty gestures.

So, all by accident, because I arrived here without a clear intent, I confess that I have never felt myself to be deserving of special consideration.  I don’t think of myself as a good writer, even though I would very much like to be and hope that maybe I am.  When one of my stories (or photographs or a musical performance) is praised, I am always surprised—and pleased—because it’s always unexpected.

It’s possible that, in terms of career, I have this all bassackwards, that I really ought to be pushing myself on people and, in the absence of praise, making scenes and telling people how ignorant or biased they are because they don’t like my work.  Maybe I should be actively campaigning for honors, prodding, coaxing, cajoling, hard-selling myself and insisting on my worth, letting people know that I deserve something which they seem to be denying me.  My sales might go up.

But I’d be That Guy and I don’t want to live with him.

One of the givens I practice in my dealings with readers is to never ask what they thought of the story.  Never.  That invites the potential for embarrassment.  You put them on the spot and you open yourself for criticism.  The common solution to that awkward exchange is dissimulation.  Certainly honesty is unlikely and perhaps unwelcome.  Never ask.  If the praise is not forthcoming without prompt, leave it alone.  Asking is fraught with pitfalls, the first of which is that comparisons are inevitably made.  Praise, like all courtesies, cannot be demanded, even politely, because the expectation subverts it.

And you then become That Guy.

Especially if you ask in public.

I’m being circumspect in this. I trust some folks will understand what this is, in part, about.  For everyone else, let it be the confession offered above, an explanation and description of one of the peculiarities of trying to be an artist in a public practice, a peak inside, as it were.

I never think of myself as a good writer.  And I hope I’m not That Guy.

Thank you for your time and attention.