Romney’s Testament

Mitt Romney has made it clear that he intends to serve the law first, his religion second. That he feels he ought not to have to justify his religious beliefs in order to run for president of the United States. The parallels to John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech are dripping with relevance and poignancy.

As far as it goes, I agree with him. This question ought to be utterly irrelevant. What matters are policy positions, the ability to function under stress, a certain eloquence, all the quite Earth-bound concerns that, regardless of our spiritual dispositions, really do bind us all.

But after Reagan, religion has become more and more a policy issue. Little by little, until our current president, organized religions have become part and parcel of a president’s campaign stance and now inextricably linked to policy. Bush has breeched the assumed wall of separation. Hard to really blame him for it, he told us he would, and he made good on his promises in that respect. Reagan toyed with the religious right in order to gather votes, but for all the smoke and thunder he never really did anything toward giving them something concrete (other than recognition, which was bad enough). Once the alliance was made, though, it became harder and harder for a presidential candidate to sidestep questions of faith. Even the Democrats have to deal with the legacy of the what I call the Reagan Compact.

Up till Reagan, most fundamentalist groups eschewed politics. Most didn’t even vote. They saw it as pointless. Why be concerned about This World when it will soon pass away in the Second Coming? Why be bothered by petty politics when it is all mere vanity and could distract from the important work of praying to a god that can grant reward and punishment based on a scale that has nothing to do with nuclear disarmament, or farm bills, or social security, or…

But wait. The world must be in a particular condition before Jesus will return. It seems to be lurching in that direction (rough beast-wise) but it’s taking so damn long! Maybe politics can be used to move us along that path faster.

In fact, it becomes clear that all this effort to create a Palestinian state and get the Middle East settled peacefully and willing to accommodate Israel is, in fact, the precise opposite of what Must Be for the stage to be set for the Rapture. These politicians must be stopped!

There were many groups who bought this argument and brought it to the table when they supported Dubya, and even if he publicly thought it was stupid and claimed not to know anything about it, a lot of his campaign supporters knew all about it and pushed it into the debate that went on inside the White House. Not overtly–these folks are not so guileless–but couched in the language of policy decisions. Hence we’re in Iraq in a bad way. Hence we irritated a lot of Palestinians by rejecting the election of Hamas (making ourselves look once again like anti-democrats). Hence we never call Israel to task for boneheaded bad policies which exacerbate the rifts between them and, well, everyone else in the Middle East.

Belatedly, Bush seems to have realized that some of his earlier policy decisions have led to worse problems, not solutions.

But, aside from corporate interests, the people funneling advice and policy papers into his administration have been those interested in certain religious outcomes.

The questions aimed at Romney come from a growing discomfort on the part of the rest of us about overtly religious mindsets inhabiting the Oval Office. Which means that while the sentiment Romney espouses is perfectly correct (religion shouldn’t matter), he is expressing them at a time when his predecessors have made it matter.

There is a huge difference between what Kennedy said and what Romney is saying. Kennedy wanted to move religion off the table. Religion, he suggested, has no place in policy. That regardless of what one may wish the world to be like as dictated by a particular religious viewpoint, the world is what it is and needs to be dealt with based on the commonality of that experience–which is secular. Kennedy didn’t use that term, to be sure, but that’s what he meant. And he vowed to be a secular president. Romney isn’t saying that at all. He’s promising to be a religious president—just not of any particular stripe. In other words, he believes that religion has a place in politics and he intends bringing that viewpoint to the office.

Two things: the first is, everyone brings who they are to that office. I do not believe we ever elected an atheist president. Hard to know, really, but it’s a safe bet. In that sense, how can anyone not bring something so centrally important to their lives into the job they hold? It really is like trying to ban prayer in schools—you really can’t because you can never tell when someone is praying, unless they make a big show of it.

The other is, one’s religion obligates one to a certain code of conduct and colors the way they see the world. This is nothing revolutionary–any philosophy does that, including all the varieties of secular thinking. It only becomes a problem when a decision must be made based on information that runs counter to a religiously-held belief. (Evolution, stem cell research, peace in the Middle East, welfare…)

How serious of an issue is this? Well, let’s see. Kennedy does not seem to have made any decisions that could be defined as Catholic. Nixon was a Quaker, but you’d never have been able to tell from the way he conducted his presidency. Jimmy Carter was a self-professed Born Again Christian, but aside from an admission of secret lust and seeing a UFO there seemed to be no overtly fundamentalist decisions he made. Reagan…not sure what he was, but his use of the term Evil Empire had apocalyptic overtones, and his antipathy toward homosexuals vis-a-vis AIDS research and the funding of related CDC programs strongly suggest a religious take on the world. Bush the First is an unfortunate case. He was wedded to the Religious Right by virtue of Reagan’s election and I think he walked a fine line between lip-service and increasing pressure to radicalize policy. A shame, really, because without that monkey on his back he might have been a far better president. We’ll never know. But the about-face he made on social issues between his positions when in Congress and his ascension to the White House are clearly concessions to the religious wing of the party. Clinton is a Baptist, but he ran the most secularized administration possible. GWB is…

Well, we know what he is.

Romney’s smarter than Bush. I doubt his vice president will run anything, whoever it might be. And as far as it goes, his speech is based on a solid ground. He did make one statement that can be construed as religious partisanship, namely that religion and freedom go together or fall separately. What about secularists? Given that most fundamentalists and many fringe christians have tended to see secularism as a religion (albeit one they detest), I don’t think he intended to shut atheists or agnositics out. In the vocabulary of the religious, we secularists adhere to a faith, we serve a religion–a poor, headless, ignorant religion, according to them, but still–and therefore we can be included, too.

So where’s the problem? Most people, whether they admit it or not, already put a wall between their religion and the way they deal with the world at large. If they didn’t, frankly, they wouldn’t try to make things better in this life for anyone. It only follows that if the world is going to end or if the most important thing is the afterlife, then any effort put into making better homes, developing better health care, solving environmental problems, trying to get better educations for our children are all wastes of time and energy. But while many people claim to believe in the promises of their religions, they act as if the world isn’t going anywhere and that this life is the only one they’re going to get, so we better make it as good as we can.

A politician, though, has a higher responsibility–to reflect the concerns of a constituency. So who is Romney’s constituency?

Fundamentalists don’t trust Mormonism. It ain’t, to them, christian. So if he gets elected, will he have their support? Will he understand their needs? Do they even speak the same language?

(Just as a side issue, here. It’s easy to take potshots at Mormonism. Its beginnings are recent enough to be well-documented. Joseph Smith was a dowser who wasn’t very good at it and there were a number of clients who sued him for misrepresentations and failure to deliver. He “discovered” a new version of christianity, founded a movement, and left New York. To many people, it’s obvious he was a smooth-talking charlatan with a gimmick. In that regard, he was not at all unusual in that time or place. It is, however, difficult to understand why it took root the way it did. But success is attractive and, for better or worse, Mormonism survived and prospered. It’s much harder to poke holes in the founding of christianity, although one reading of the conversion of Paul–and it’s very clear in the text to modern eyes–is that he suffered an epileptic seizure and heard voices, a phenomenon well-documented today, but for some reason unpersuasive to Believers. Nevertheless, the same questions apply–why would anyone buy into either religious movement?)

At the end of the day, when we go to the polls to elect a new president, Romney is right—his religious should not be a barrier to his running or being elected. Other things should guide us. Policy things. And on that basis, I certainly won’t vote for him. If he holds these policy opinions because of his religion, so be it. My problem with him is that he indeed holds those opinions. It doesn’t matter why.

The question we really have to ask of people like Romney is this: if you discover that you were wrong in your policy decisions, will you–can you–change your mind?

Someone who is profoundly committed to a religious view of the world, and has declared that religion is to be part of his administration, may find that he cannot say Yes to that. And that is a far more serious problem than the specifics of whatever religious creed one might profess.

Devil In Memphis and the Idiocy of Our Times

I received the following from a friend of mine, who sent it to his local paper as well. I’ve asked his permission to post it here, in its entirety. It concerns an issue which, while we may hope represents an unfortunate part of our history long outgrown, still rears its viperous and virulent heads in the present day.

Why are the West Memphis Three Still in Prison?
by Brooks Caruthers

Fourteen years ago Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, the notorious West Memphis Three, were convicted of murdering three eight year old boys: Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers.

Almost immediately, the case against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley was exposed as a hollow sham, a travesty of justice. But after numerous appeals, careful examinations of evidence old and new, and international attention brought about by hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, two documentary films, and at least one very well-researched book, the West Memphis Three are still in prison. Why?

I’ve only heard vague answers. Third hand rumors. (My friend says there’s stuff that wasn’t reported, stuff that wasn’t in the trial…My friend knows someone who has seen things…My brother knows someone who heard things…my sister knows someone who was there, who knows things, who is positive Echols and them are guilty.)

What “things”? I have yet to hear one. So far the only tangible “thing” I’ve heard was, “I know a lawyer who says the bite marks on the body matched their teeth.”

Which is interesting because the exact opposite is true. The teeth marks found on the bodies DO NOT match the teeth of Miskelley, Echols, or Baldwin. That’s been known since 1998.

Now, in 2007, as announced in a press conference given by Damien Echols’s defense team, it has been shown that the teeth marks found on the bodies were not even human. This is the opinion of more than a half dozen forensic pathologists and forensic odontologists. In their opinion, almost all of the horrible wounds found on the three victims, including the genital mutilations, were the result of post-mortem animal predation, i.e., animals trying to eat the dead bodies. Furthermore, it is the opinion of the experts that none of the wounds on the bodies was caused by a knife. This is important, because in the original case the prosecution tried very hard to convince the jury that the body wounds were made by a serrated knife…a knife just like one found in the watery area behind Jason Baldwin’s house.

Three of the forensic consultants were at the November 2nd press conference. The odontologist, Dr. Richard Souviron and the pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, stated clearly that none of the marks on the bodies were made by a serrated knife and that none of the wounds were consistent with any kind of knife. (There was also no evidence of sodomy or forced oral sex, another part of the prosecution’s narrative that has been disproven for some time.)

New DNA evidence was also revealed at the press conference. Forensic serologist Thomas Fedor stated that none of the DNA found at the crime scene matches the DNA of Baldwin, Echols or Misskelley. However, the DNA of a hair found in one of the ligatures that bound Michael Moore roughly matches DNA of Steven Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs. Another hair found on the crime scene matches a friend that had been hanging around with Hobbs on the day of the murder.

It may not be Hobbs’s hair. And even if it is, that doesn’t mean he’s the murderer. But even back in 1993, without the DNA evidence, Hobbs, a family member, would have been a far more likely suspect than three teenage strangers.

But almost from very start of the investigation, the Crittenden county authorities were convinced they were looking at some sort of ritual Satanic human sacrifice. All the evidence they found was viewed through that filter. If any promising lead or piece of evidence didn’t fit the narrative of Satanists doing evil in our midst, it was ignored.

The local media fueled this frenzy, reporting damn near any crazed, unsubstantiated rumor. Then the coerced and contradictory “confession” of Jessie Misskelley was made public, and newspapers fell all over each other to report all the lurid details of Satanic ritual sodomy and murder.

Misskelley was a borderline retarded teenager who had been a casual friend of Echols and Baldwin. His confession was the result of hours upon hours of abusive interrogation by Crittenden County’s finest. The full text of his two “confessions” is riddled with contradictions and factual errors that reveal his story to be a complete fabrication. But the media didn’t report any of that. They only reported the “good” parts. (For an in depth look at how the “Satanic Ritual” theory was developed and how the Misskelley “confession” was created, see Mara Leveritt’s book THE DEVIL’S KNOT.)

This brings us to another revelation of the November 2nd press conference: the discovery of private notes by jury members indicating that Misskelley’s “confession” was a major consideration in their guilty verdict. That’s a problem because the confession was never officially entered as evidence. Jurors never got to see the whole thing in all its absurd contradictory glory. Instead, they were considering only the lurid confession highlights presented in the media.

Sound like a fair trial to you?

The focus of all this attention was the alarmingly named Damien Echols. He looked and acted like everyone’s ultimate nightmare of a teenager. He was the perfect villain for a “satanic panic”. It was easy to sentence him to death and lock him away where the sun doesn’t shine.

I mean that quite literally. Since 2004, when Echols was moved to Varner SuperMax, he has not seen the sun.

I’ve never met Echols. I’ve met his wife, Lorri Davis, and I know people who have corresponded with him and and even visited him in person. If you knew the things I knew, if you’d heard the things I’ve heard…you might decide he’s a pretty nice guy. Smart. Quiet. Buddhist.

Still, I was a bit reluctant when my wife handed me a book called ALMOST HOME: MY LIFE STORY, VOL. 1 by Damien Echols and told me I should read it. I mean, I still had the mental image of the teenage heavy metal villain in my head. And the book was printed by iUniverse…which means that it’s self published.

To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one day. Dude can write! His style is clean and matter-of-fact, with a nice undercurrent of ironic humor and occasional poetic turns of phrase that lightly ornament his prose but never become overbearing. Echols has lived a life of dirt-poor poverty with long periods of dead end despair, but he never wallows in it. Instead he gives us a series of vivid, emotional snapshots: some dark, some light, some funny, some strangely ecstatic.

Now here you might argue that the fact that Echols can write doesn’t mean that he’s innocent. And you’d be right.

And you might argue just because celebrities like Margaret Cho and Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines think that the West Memphis Three are innocent, that doesn’t make it so.

And you’d be right.

And you might mention that the out-of-town producers of the PARADISE LOST documentaries had an agenda, and part of that agenda was making us look like a bunch of redneck idiots.

And I’d say, “Point well taken.”

But none of this changes the fact that the West Memphis Three were convicted on little more than an arbitrarily concocted story about a Satanic sacrifice, and that now we have evidence that directly contradicts this story, exposing it as a lie.

The official reason for the November 2nd press conference was to announce that on October 29th Damien Echols’s defense team filed a Second Amended Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. In plain English, the team is asking, in light of all the new evidence, for a federal court to either overturn Echols’s conviction or give him a new trial.

The presentation made by the lawyers was very powerful. You can watch it online at the Free the West Memphis Three website: (A site well worth exploring.) Or, if you read this in time, you can watch the press conference on a big screen at Market Street Cinema, along with 20 minutes of highlights from from the first PARADISE LOST movie. This event will take place on December 11th, at 7:00 PM. It is presented by the WM3 support group Arkansas Take Action!, which will also host a live Q & A.

And if you want to demonstrate that freeing the West Memphis Three is something that native Arkansans believe in, as opposed to all them crazy out-of-town Hollywood types, write letters to Governor Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel asking them to overturn the conviction of Damien Echols and expedite the exonerations of Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley. If you write the letters before December 15th and send them to Arkansas Take Action!, P.O. Box 17788, Little Rock, AR 72222-7788, they will be presented en masse to the Governor and the Attorney General on December 18th.

So far McDaniel’s response to the writ has been: “…we can say with confidence that these three men are, in fact, guilty…”

Good. Let us hear why, openly, in court if necessary.

Open up everything. Let Damien Echols see the sun again.

Can you guess the issue to which I allude?

Person in the back row, there, with both hands raised, yes? Modern witch hunts! Right on the first try.

Since the Salem Affair, we’ve wrestled with an uneasy accommodation with religious perceptions in our public life, specifically in regard to law and jurisprudence. Not that we need the presence of Satan in order to make boneheaded mistakes—sometimes all you need is a media frenzy. Combine the two, though, and we have cause number one for keeping religion out of our politics, our law, our government.

Once someone makes the claim that Satanism is involved and the general public accepts it, reason goes out the window. The explanation? Well, how can anyone rely on rules of evidence when the devil is involved, with his supernatural (or, as Ann Druyan is currently insisting, subnatural) ability to deceive? What? The maze of tunnels supposed to exist beneath the pre-school couldn’t be found when authorities dug it up? What can you expect when Satan probably filled them all in! What? The perpetrators can prove they were nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred? What can you expect when Satan can instantly transport them from point A to point B and erase memories? Once Satan gets involved, all our highly-regarded investigatory capacities mean nothing!

This is foolishness of a high order. But we fall for it from time to time, in various places. No one is immune, it seems, and those who insist that law enforcement is somehow violating its own rules and denying its own abilities are cast as witting or unwitting collaborators with the Master of Lies. How dare anyone suggest the police would deceive us? That district attorneys would hide evidence or misrepresent a case? Surely that never happens!

Unless Satan is involved.

Curious that no one ever seems to suggest that Satan might be working his wiles from the other end, by duping law enforcement and corrupting our own system so that we end up sending innocent people to prison. That the deception has to do with manipulating our own fears rather than causing someone to commit a crime. Better, isn’t it, that we be made to attack ourselves from a misplaced sense of righteousness, born out of terror at the boogie man we have not quite managed to deny? Why is it that no one steps forward to suggest that Satan may be working through children (who, in these instances, we are told NEVER lie) to cast a pall over the perfectly innocent adults around them, setting us at each others’ throats using the tools of our own legal system to do damage to our sense of security, our faith in reason, and disrupt the equitable flow of justice? How come Satan only ever can be seen present in the form of the accused?

We’ve been going though another one of those absurd “They’re trying to destroy Christmas!” things, with that issue in Fort Collins. We just can’t bring ourselves to draw a hard and fast line. And it does seem ridiculous when it comes to a holiday. What’s wrong with a little nod to an informing cultural myth? What harm can it do to make a small accommodation to a traditional belief?

We ask this question legitimately, and perhaps some people do go too far in their quest to be rid of the religious in our public lives. These zealots seem like crackpots to most people. Grinches.

But then something like this happens. This is the flip side of that same coin.

It’s not the subject of the belief that’s the problem—it’s that we don’t seem able to defend ourselves from the insanity of our own embrace of that belief.

Admitting to this, though, means that maybe there’s a very good reason to separate out the religious from the civic. And if there’s a very good reason for that, maybe there’s a very good reason to rethink the whole thing.

Being rid of Christmas decorations in state buildings and so forth may mean a little less holiday cheer for a lot of people, and that’s curmudgeonly.

On the other hand, it might also mean we never let Satan be a cause for wrongly imprisoning innocent people. Hmm. I’m having a hard time seeing that as a bad thing.

On Values And Victims

Listening to a talk show at work yesterday, I heard some fall-out from the recent suicide of the young girl who had been “duped” on MySpace.  When I first learned of this tragedy, I ran through a series of thoughts about the dangers posed by the interfaces we use these days, which put us often too early and unprepared into contact with things in another era we would simply have had no opportunity to encounter.  This girl was a casualty of the wavefront of experience that comes now in new forms and through media that never before existed.

I never once thought it was her fault.

How could you?  She’d been deceived.  Inexperienced, unwitting, she invested a bit too much, and it put her over the edge to discover that what she thought was “real” was in fact a deception.

History is full of examples of people committing suicide over things with only marginal reality.  Especially among adolescents.  We’ve learned in the last decade a great deal more about brain development than ever before, and one of those things is that adolescence is the time of some of the most intricate and fragile growth–physically–within the brain.  The hormone storm that is unleashed at the onset of puberty, the growth spurts visible in every other part of the body, the physiological changes of emergent sexuality and secondary sexual characteristics, all have their equivalent in cognitive development.  It makes perfect sense after the fact, but for a long, long time we blithely assumed that adolescents were more or less just like adults.  Instead we find that, because of the rapid and complex changes they are going through, teen-agers who appear out-of-control, impulsive, overly-sensitive, clueless, clumsy–in short, borderline insane–really are all those things and it is the responsibility of the adults around them to set guidelines and provide aid to get them through this period to the other side and (hopefully) “normality” and sanity.  (When this fails, we have all manner of screwed up adult.)

Which is why holding a teenager responsible for not behaving like an adult is absurd on its face.

And consequences of this journey can run the gamut from perpetual clumsiness to neuroses to schizophrenia to manic-depression to suicide.

It is one of the challenges of our new awareness of these things to take actions to mitigate the worst effects and to do what we can to ensure a healthy mind in the emergent adult.

Something like this tragic suicide occurs, though, and when we listen to what comes after we discover how unlikely that is for some people.  Many people emailed this talk show to express their opinion that the dead girl “got what was coming to her.”  It was somehow her fault.

When we tease through this senseless reaction, we come to the bottom line opinion that what she was doing on MySpace was something she shouldn’t have been doing, something that is to some people Bad.  In fact immoral.  Evil.  That she reaped the rewards of an inappropriate indulgence.

This is pathetic.  But rather than condemn it outright, maybe we ought to take a look at this and see where it comes from.  This echoes similar responses to other events, like rape.  “She shouldn’t have been out that late, she shouldn’t have been with Those People, she shouldn’t have been dressed Like That.”  We’ve heard all this.  After enough of it, you’d think the poor rapist had absolutely no choice but to attack That Female.  It was all her fault, she brought it on herself.

Blaming the victim.

This happens to men, too, but in less obvious ways.  Job situations, traffic incidents, fights in school or elsewhere…if a negative consequence results, somehow, for some people, it is the victim’s fault.  (One of the most frustrating comments I used to hear during the heyday of student demonstrations in the Sixties and Seventies was, in the aftermath of police crackdowns, “if they’d all been in class studying where they were supposed to be, none of them would have been hurt.”)

Take this line of reasoning far enough and the perpetrators of crimes should get off scott free, since they themselves were the dupes of the seductive and taunting actions of morally suspect victims.

Partly, this kind of thinking seems to come from the way in which our public discourse is driven by value judgments.  Nothing seems to be value-null, that is without a moral aspect.   Back in the Fifties there were people who condemned hoola-hoops because they were immoral.  That hip-movement, especially in young girls, was licentious.

But especially when bad results.  MySpace must be immoral because its use by this girl resulted in her suicide.  We don’t seem to know how to just take things at face value in the “Shit Happens” mode of value judgment.

A meteor falls out of the sky and crushes the house of someone certain people don’t like.  Judgment from god?  How dare the man put his house right there.  He had it coming.

Silly?  Perhaps, but we probably all know people who would pass such judgments.

The other aspect of this is that we humans, even when we don’t know how to do it, try to find reasons for everything.  Things don’t “just happen.”  There must be a reason.  The entire Why Me? ethic is based on this quest for causality.  As if at some point along the way we might have done something to avoid the tragedy.

What complicates this is that in some instances it’s true.  Prophylactic living is not a stupid idea.  If she had stopped smoking she might not have gotten cancer.  If he had stopped drinking he might still have a liver.  If they had kept up their insurance premiums, when the meteor hit the house it might not have cost them all they had.

But there are things that go beyond the power of anyone.  If he hadn’t driven down that street at  that hour, he might have missed being hit by that bus.

Reason, as much as I value it, only extends so far.  Sometimes bad things just happen.

And it is never the victim’s fault.

A woman should be able to walk naked down any street anywhere and be free of the threat of molestation.  Anyone ought be able to park their expensive new car in any neighborhood and not worry about it being stolen.  We should be able to leave our doors unlocked and windows open and not be victim to unwanted invasion, robbery.  If we suffer harm as a consequence of any of these things, it is not our fault.

However.  If you goad the dog behind the fence with the Beware sign on it and it bites you when you stick your hand in, that’s on you.  The owner of the dog should not be made to compensate you for your stupidity (or cupidity).  If you make that upcoming curve at 20 or 30 miles over the recommended speed limit and total your vehicle and maybe kill someone, that’s on you.  If you break into someone’s home to rob it and get shot by the owner, that’s on you.  The owner should not be made to compensate you for your hospital time or be sued by your family should you die.

Between those two sets of examples, however, is a whole range of actions which do not lend themselves easily to value judgments, and the only thing that can be done is to perhaps pay more attention to each other and what we do and how we respond.  Especially kids, who are still learning about the cruelties and senseless perversity of the world.

I think it is safe to say that the unfortunate suicide of a young girl, triggered by the revelation of a deception against which she had no defense, was not the consequence of one thing.  For her to have been that fragile, that susceptible, other factors must have been involved, and the only tragedy there would be that she never told anyone she was having trouble, that she was confused or frustrated or in pain, and no one got the chance to intervene before the triggering event pushed her too far.

But it was not, in any formulation I can think of, justice.  She did not “have it coming” as some ignorant, intolerant–and probably frightened–people would claim.

The future is frightening.  But it is also inevitable.  It’s like the front line of a battle.  You can drop down and bury your head in the dirt if you want, but when you look up and find that the person next to you took a bullet, you can’t blame him or her for looking into that future.

In Charge

What if I were In Charge?

Dangerous idea, that.

If you were in charge–if you were King–what would do? What would you fix? What would you ignore?

The Socratic ideal is the philosopher king, whose first act upon accession to the throne is to abdicate. The idea being that a truly ethical thinker would refuse to accept the responsibility to rule a nation.

Pity the world doesn’t work that way.

The problem with such systems (though I use the term “system” lightly, since abdication implies there would be a lack of any system)–and there are many, including those proposed by certain self-proclaimed Libertarians–is that human nature refuses to cooperate. There’s a kind of Malthusian coefficient involved–population growth always outstrips the potential for ideal behavior. All such utopian systems are based on one fallacy that keeps gumming up all the works of any system anyone cares to name.

The fallacy is that We’re All Alike.

It’s a widely touted formula–the things that we have in common outnumber those that divide us; underneath we’re all the same; people are people. The Libertarians believe as an article of faith that if government got out of everybody’s way, we’d all be fine because people basically know what’s best for themselves and their immediate circle of intimates. Socialists believe (mostly) that without class structures, everyone would get along quite nicely. Communists like to assume avarice is an aberration that can somehow be bred out of the species.

If only.

The fact is, we come in all shapes, sizes, talents, capacities, points of view, prejudices, and predilections. The closest we get (for the purposes of this essay) to being alike is that we seem to be different in exactly the same ways. We’re not the same in precisely those areas that make such blue sky hopes for the self-responsible, self-actualized, self-controlling individual a reality. Government ends up becoming a default necessity to keep us from each others’ throats as much as keeping the whole thing working in something resembling order.

Do governments go too far? Sure, often. Government is an imprecise tool, a blunt instrument. It’s reactive more than proactive. It makes huge blunders, overlooks details, stumbles along an ill-perceived path. In frustration–or under the same illusion that people are all basically the same (or should be)–many governments become autocratic, despotic, fascistic, tyrannical, brutal. They squeeze tighter on the reins in the futile attempt to force a population to conform to certain standards. Combined with a fervent belief that only They know what’s best for their country, you have all the ingredients for classic botched jobs.

Then there are those times and places where someone–a Hussein, a Khaddafy, a Stalin, a Hitler–does end up In Charge and sets about actually remaking the country according to their ideas. From the outside, occasionally, things look like they’re working quite well.

There is Order.

Misery doesn’t have to be loud to be real.

But the hypothetical I put as the title applies to us all to some degree, because it is true that rulers rule by the consent of the ruled.

Ultimately, when people–the euphemistic, legendary, all-but-mythical The People–have had enough, a ruler or ruling class just can’t keep them on the farm no more. France boasted one of the most autocratic, absolute despotism in modern history and look what happened to poor Louis XVI. Bad haircut day, one where the barber missed by several inches.

So. If I were in charge, what would I do differently?

First off, being an American, I would declare one day a year in which all classified documents would be declassified. For a day. Let the free-for-all start. Get in there and find what you think is there (or not) and gloat over being right or crawl back into your niche when you find you’re wrong. Whatever slipped through the fingers of those hungry conspiracy theorists, the press, the general run-of-the-mill paranoiac–tough. Gotta wait till next year.

This would allow for release, for breathing space. Illegal, hidden things would still go on, but imagine the safety valve such a day would have! Miss your chance one year, just wait till next year. It would provide a format in which those who openly distrust the system would have their say. Of course, it could not be a cheat. It would have to be real. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. I give as an example–an outre one, to be sure, but classic–Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s program to deal with UFOs. A look at the history of it shows that they shot themselves perpetually in the foot by not declassifying everything. The fringe maniacs who really believed they were hiding something could continually point to the things not revealed and make a quasi-legitimate claim that there, indeed, were the relevant revealing documents. As it has turned out, there never was anything that actually threatened national security, but because of the habitual inability of government to let go, they created (or at least provided unlimited fuel for) the present day UFO frenzy–and its related groups, like those folks who believe the UN has a clandestine bunch of storm troopers who can kidnap people…

Anyway. That would be the first thing.

Second thing, I would feed people. America has always grown a surplus. Food prices are kept high artificially. We can sell to other countries, but Americans should eat. Give it to them. Not candy, but real food. (I would also make this a part of welfare–no food stamps and no exceptions for the junk people buy. You come into the supermarket with foodstamps and then produce cash for alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, and so forth, the food stamps are not to be accepted.) Give it to everyone, though, not just welfare recipients. The guy in the mansion should have access as well as the single mom laid off from her job and living hand-to-mouth. (I guarantee the guy in the mansion won’t use it–too embarrassing. That’s why you rarely see people from rich counties shopping at Save-A-Bunch–they prefer spending more at an upscale store because it keeps them apart from the scruffy and impoverished.)

Third thing, I would federally fund schools at the primary and secondary level and keep them open 24/7. Classes would go on all day long, all night, all week, all year, for students to attend when they chose. They would also be staffed in such a way as to provide safe havens for children. Yeah, you’re doing the physics class with Dr. So-N-So, the experiment will take three months, you can sleep over. They would also have clinics attached to provide everything from first-aid to birth control to psych counseling. School should be the place where you mature, get healthy, learn, become what you want to become.

Fourth, taxes would be changed from income tax to purchase (or sales) tax, with exemptions for food, clothing, medicine, and books. Property tax should be assessed purely on a square-foot basis, regardless what’s built on it. (Second floor, more square feet, and so on, but the “improvement” of the property would have no bearing.) Business taxes would be altered to an annual licensing fee–your business does X dollars per year gross income, this is how much the license is. Period. Adjustments could be made over time, but I really do agree with Libertarians on this–a tax just because you make a certain amount of income is unethical, probably immoral, and retrograde. Tax what people spend, that’s different–except for necessities.

And retired people should be exempt from taxes. You hit retirement, leave the work force, taxes end. Period.

Between high school and college, there will be a year to two year long program everyone will participate in of public service, what the courts now term community service.

Everyone. Rich, poor, whoever. If you want to avoid it, join the military, which will be exempt from conscription. Everyone will give a year or two to helping the poor, forest management, urban renewal, charity work. The time will count toward student loans to underwrite college. But for one or two years, everyone will be part of a Peace Corps type program, working in communities that need help, doing all the stuff that needs doing, learning what it means to be a part of the community at the most basic level. Essentially getting your face rubbed in the real world so we can begin to minimize the myths surrounding poverty and work which poison so much political discourse in this country.

I would issue stringent requirements for people wanting to get married. It should be hard to get married. People do it for all the wrong reasons, all the time, and make a mess of it, and all it does is make money for lawyers, courts, and, at a certain level, the yellow press/tabloid market. It should be hard to get married, easy to get divorced. (Certainly you can live together, but there would be no palimony suits allowed and whatever legal arrangements a couple–or more–would want would have to be done through a lawyer via legal instrument. Marriage is a whole ‘nother ballgame.)

No children except for those willing to go through the byzantine machinations of getting married.

Which leads me to possibly the most controversial program.

Upon puberty, all boys would have a quantity of sperm harvested, all girls would have eggs harvested upon menarche. Once banked and filed, boys and girls would be “fixed”. No more teen pregnancy, no more pregnancies to blackmail people into relationships, no more unwanted babies. Later, after maturity, if two people really want a child, they have to make a CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO DO SO–because it will be done not in the heat of sexual congress, but thoughtfully, with the aid of a councilor, at the clinic, when they sign off to withdraw sperm and egg and actually MAKE A BABY. I fervently believe that too many children are born unwanted, even if from the outside they seem to have good home lives. People do things for reasons having nothing to do with the requirements of the thing done and I’m sorry, but just “But I want it!” is insufficient reason to be allowed the opportunity to fuck up another human being’s life.

That’s some of what I’d do if I were In Charge. Doubtless everyone has a list, but I thought I’d offer mine just for the sake of discussion.

Probably a good thing I’m not In Charge. Or likely to be.

Still, it kinda makes you wonder.

Doesn’t it?


The above is intended purely for the purposes of a Thought Experiment and are not intended to be taken as anything more than that.  I am not, nor would I ever wish to be, In Charge.

A Poet Laureate For Missouri…

The state of Missouri has never had an official poet laureate.  Like many people, I didn’t know that, although unlike many of those many people, I should have.  One of the hats I wear is as the president of the Missouri Center for the Book.

What, you may ask, is the Missouri Center for the Book and what, furthermore, does it have to do with state poets laureate?

I’m so glad you asked.  The Missouri Center for the Book (hereafter known as MCB) is the state affiliate to the Library of Congress Center for the Book.  All 50 states have such an institution now, and we are all as different in our structure and specific goals as those states.  The common thread is that we are all dedicated to promoting what we call the Culture of the Book.  This includes authors, certainly, but also publishers, editors, reviewers, literature teachers, schools.  We see all these things as inextricably part and parcel of that culture, though obviously authors are the most visible part.

We do not do remedial reading work.  There are other agencies that do that and do it far better than we could.  That’s not our mandate.

In our heyday, the first several years after our founding in 1993, we did all sorts of things to promote the idea of books and reading, mostly through the mechanism of conferences which addressed certain themes.  We had notable guests, lots of writers and publishers, an open forum.

And then, as happens in such things, funding slipped away and we did smaller and smaller programs.

Among the things we do is administer the state Letters About Literature contest, which is a very cool program for three levels of students, primary to secondary, in which a student writes a letter to the author of a book that has had a significant impact on that student.  We select the best, the winners go on to a national contest.  Some of these letters, even from very young students, are tremendous.  They give me hope for the future.  Quiet hope, a confidence that we have a chance, that the young are not dumber than their parents or grandparents, but are generally smarter.

As president for the past three years, I’ve been reorganizing and rebuilding the MCB.  We have plans to relaunch the conferences.  We intend to rebuild our website, which contains an author database which was, when it was instituted, the first of its kind in the nation.  We intend that it be made interactive.  That’s going to be a bit pricey, but once done it will be a great tool.

There are other programs we’d like to do.

But one thing we’ve been working at for the last eight years, doggedly and consistently, is the creation of a state poet laureate.  I won’t go into the details of that effort, they would bore you.  Mostly the work consisted of letter writing, long conversations with “influential” people, planning the structure of the post, often just being a pest.  MCB itself could not do this—for it to be “official” it must come from either the governor or the legislature.  Most states, it is an appointment of the governor.  It boils down to convincing the governor to do it.

Governor Blunt has decided to do it.  Last month we received word that the position would be created and the first poet laureate will be named in mid-December.  MCB has been named the agency which will administer the post and work on selection.

Warning:  what follows is an unapologetic promotional request for financial support.

I canvassed a number of states about their poet laureate programs.  There are about 8 or 9 states that do not have the position.  Among the others, the post is largely honorary, with no funding.  From the beginning, we thought the post should have some money behind.  It is incredibly difficult to make a living as a writer, triply so as a writer of poetry.  Besides, we intend for our laureates to travel the state, speaking on the matter of the literary arts.  That shouldn’t come out of the laureate’s own pocket.  But we’ve already learned that Missouri’s laureate post will also, as far as the state government is concerned, be honorary.

So I am asking for donations.  MCB’s future programming efforts will be built around the poet laureate–not specifically so much as thematically.  Missouri is stepping up to the plate, symbolically, to declare that literature, that reading, that authors are actually important.  In order to move forward and take advantage of the very public opportunity this is giving the Culture of the Book, we want to put some teeth behind it.

You can go to our website– –and read a bit more about us.  Mind you, the site as it stands is going to be changed in a year or so, but there’s still worthwhile content.  If given the chance and the support, we intend doing a job of elevating the stature of the written word in Missouri.  So if you are so inclined, please send your tax deductible donations to:

Missouri Center for the Book
600 West Main,
P.O. Box 2075
Jefferson City, MO 65102-2075,

or call 573-751-1821

MCB is a 501c3 nonprofit organization (which receives no money from state or federal sources).

As I said, I am unapologetically, unabashedly, unashamedly asking for money.  We want to pay our poets laureate a reasonable honorarium and we want to fund programs that will do for books what PBS does for documentary film or NPR does for radio broadcasting.  Granted, on a more modest scale, but still.

The governor has decided to announce this before Christmas.  Seems like a good time to give a present to the state and to make a stab at doing better for one of the things we all love and need so much—good books.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Temporizing, Doodling, Pacing, Wasting Time

It’s Hallowe’en.  It was supposed to be cloudy today, but the morning light is beautiful.

I have an office in the basement of my house, with three windows at ground level, situated in such a way that a great deal of daylight floods in.  Three walls are covered by books.  My work area contains three computers—this one on which I’m writing a Distal Muse entry, my main writing computer (which is attached to the internet in no way), and my old 386, which had been my writing computer for years.  The only reason I replaced it was because my old HP printer died and all the new ones use USB ports instead of the massive pin-register cables.  It made less sense to spend the money on an adaptor which might or might not have worked.  Besides, it was time.  I needed some more sophisticated word processing options than good old WordPerfect 5.0 offered–though for straight composition, I still think it was unbeatable.  I use WP 10 now and it has more bells and whistles, but also a couple of things I don’t like.  It is not really any better for writing than 5.0, but 5.0–or even 7.0–would not run the new printer.

I am not a software geek.  All I know is when something doesn’t work.

But things work well enough and I can be productive, if occasionally annoyed.  I recently had to change internet software.  I am now a fan of Firefox.

Also in my office I have a futon which serves mainly as a couch, a drafting table (now cluttered) and an old but very decent stereo, on which just now Mendelssohn  is playing (Von Karajan, complete symphonies).  It is a cozy space.  If I had a coffeemaker down here I would never have to go back upstairs while working, which I intend to make so once I have sold some new novels and divested myself of the Day Job.

This is an ongoing struggle.

I’ve been working toward being a full-time fiction writer for about 25 years now.  It would seem that I either should have achieved it or given up.  I admit the problems are daunting.  Not knowing what to write next that would facilitate success is a biggie.  Which is why, when students ask, I tell them they might as well write what they want, what they love, because it has the same chance of success (or better, since the writing will probably be more sincere) as whoring by writing to demand.  Perhaps that’s harsh.  But I’ve done four franchise novels and they gave me no more freedom than my own work.

I am currently working on a historical murder mystery.  I finally (I think) have a good handle on it and am proceeding on the (I hope) final draft.

But I am also wasting time doing this.

Which means I am not sure what sentence comes next and I’m trying to distract my interior critic.  To do this, I usually write in the morning, before I am fully awake.  This works fine for first draft.  Not so good for rewrites, when that critical faculty is indispensible.  Last night, I came home from work with a clear notion of what to do next, came down here, and did it.  This morning I look at what I did and, behold, it is not so bad.  So I’m fiddling.  Technical term, that.  Noodling with a sentence here, a word there, a paragraph or two.  Cutting and hacking occasionally.  And pacing a lot.

And doing something other than what I should be doing.

Frederik Pohl wrote in his autobiography, The Way The Future Was, that some young student wanted to watch him work.  He said the poor fellow was bored to tears because for the most part all he saw was Pohl staring at his typewriter.  Long stretches of Nothing Happening.

(Sorry….just slipped over to the other computer to write a new sentence–see? it works.  Sometimes.)

The hardest thing for me, with a novel, is to know where to start.  Often I end up junking the first chapter, sometimes the first two chapters.  On the last novel I finished, this wasn’t entirely necessary, but I had to write two brand new chapters to precede the original chapter one.  Asimov, in one of his essays on fiction writing, said that if the story is going nowhere fast, likely as not you started it in the wrong place.  I have found this to be true more often than not.  Sometimes, though, you have picked the wrong main character.  Far less often, the setting is wrong.  Most depressing is when you simply have a bad idea for a story.

This novel–called The Spanish Bride–is not a bad idea.  In fact, I have an entire draft done and two of my readers like the general idea.  What I’m trying to do now is find the right form.

And in so doing, I find myself distracted, and doing other things.  Like this.

Just to let you know.

Strange Tongues and New Sales

The other day I received an email from Delos Books, an Italian publisher, informing me that they have accepted a short story of mine. This is a resale and is, in fact, the first such I’ve made to a foreign market on my own. The story in question is Flesh Trades which appeared originally in Tales of the Unanticipated, the fall/winter 95/96 issue. Ten years later I’ve managed to resell it.

I should have been pursuing foreign sales all along, but it’s one of those details that, until you get comfortable with it, you just tend to neglect. Besides, it can be confusing. Foreign magazines are often worse than American magazines, like mushrooms after a spring rain, popping up everywhere and fading almost as quickly. Going through the market reports, gazing at the submission requirements, can be daunting. Until the advent of email submissions, you had to deal with odd postal rates and so forth, and you could never be really sure it would be handled the way you want.

But a couple years ago I bit the bullet and sent out a score of second-rights submissions. A couple of years. This is the first one to strike any kind of gold. I’m pleased. It will be in issue # 55 of Robot Magazine.

I do have other foreign offerings. Mirage is available in Hungary and I’ve been told there is a Russian edition of Compass Reach. But I have done rather poorly in foreign markets. This is a lapse entirely on my part, a breakdown in discipline. I can make excuses, but to what end? They aren’t buying because I’m not submitting. This will change now. This has inspired me.

I have 55 short stories published. If I sold each one two or three times to a foreign markets I could make a fair amount of change. Not huge, but nothing to sneeze at. And, more importantly, I’d grow my audience. That’s the grail quest. More readers.

So–to work.

Miss Moneypenny, R.I.P.

Lois Maxwell has died. The parentheses of our eras appear unexpectedly and sometimes painfully. Of the original James Bond cast, who’s left? Connery, I believe. Bernard Lee is gone, as is Desmond Llewelyn, even most of the villains. I believe all the Bond Girls (of which Lois was often exempted) are still alive. Certain things, certain losses, just bother me more than others.

Lois was never seen in a Bond film in a bikini, an evening gown, or anything other than her office attire, and the scene at the end of On Her Majestie’s Secret Service is almost heartbreaking when Moneypenny has to wish Bond and his new bride happiness. At least they did not continue this unfair trope when Samantha Bond took over the part— Moneypenny had a private life, presumably with sex, and gave innuendo for innuendo in her repartee with 007.

She was 80, which is a good long life, but it reminds me how old I am. I saw Dr. No as a first-run release with my parents. I was not old enough to understand any of the sexual tension going on, but I did come of age with James Bond. That could have been disastrous for me if not for the equally important presence of Emma Peel in The Avengers who I credit with providing me a solid feminist notion, if not philosophy.

The new Bond, Daniel Craig, is very different. In fact, he is very much closer to Ian Fleming’s conception than even Sean Connery. Casino Royale had no Moneypenny. It will be interesting to see what they do in future films, now that they had apparently decided to hue closer to the original character.

But I shall miss Miss Moneypenny. She waited valiantly, provided moral support, and was often unfairly left out of most of the fun.

What’s Been Happening

Tomorrow morning at a little after seven in the morning I will be getting on a plane and a couple hours later getting off it at Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C. As president of the Missouri Center for the Book I’ll be attending the National Book Festival this weekend. The following weekend, I’ll be back in town at The Big Read in downtown Clayton Missouri, also with the MCB.

I thought I’d take a few moments here to let you (my hidden and presumed Reader) know what’s been going on. At least two people who have signed the new Guestbook asked about future book projects, so…

Right at the moment, Nothing Is Happening.

Let me explain. In 2003, Peace & Memory came out from Meisha Merlin Publishing, the third in my Secantis Sequence. No, there’s no link to Meisha Merlin. They no longer exist, at least not as a viable publishing company. A part of them is still putting out the Virginia Edition of the Heinlein Collection, but for all intents and purposes Meisha Merlin is defunct. I have reacquired all the rights to the three novels of mine they published, which include Compass Reach, Metal of Night, and the aforementioned Peace & Memory.

In 2004, ibooks, the publishing arm of Byron Preiss Visual Publications, released a media tie-in I wrote, a Terminator 2 novel called Hour of the Wolf. After that, I began some talks with the company for any number of new projects—a new Asimovian robot novel, a novel or two in The Prisoner series, other ideas. Byron Preiss died in 2005. My editor there (though he had gone freelance by then) Steve Roman called me on a Sunday to tell me and I thought for a few seconds that it was a joke, but no, Byron had been struck and killed in his car by a bus on Long Island. The company limped on for a few months, but finally shut down.

This was shortly after my last novel, Remains, came out from BenBella Publishing.

Remains is my favorite novel to date. I worked very hard on it and I had excellent editorial help at BenBella. It was shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which precipitated a visit to WisCon, a convention I had always intended going to but till then had never gotten a chance.

With the publication, also in 2005 of Of Stars & Shadows, a novella packaged as a double from Yard Dog Press, the year closed with what I considered my tenth book. Ten novels, all published since 2000. That and the 55 or so short stories constitutes a career. That’s a lot of work, a lot of words, and I am very proud of it all.

Like other aspects of the entertainment industry, though, you are only as viable as your current or next project. So what’s been happening?

I’ve been writing and searching for a new publisher. I joined the Missouri Center for the Book in 2002 and in 2005 they elected me president. I’ve been working part time at a fading job as a lab tech (photographic).

I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next.

The vicisitudes of the publishing industry are daunting and byzantine enough that one need not attribute malice to anyone or anything to explain problems. It’s big and complex and things Just Happen.

So. Here’s what I’ve been working on.

There likely won’t be anymore robot novels. With the demise of Byron Preiss, that franchise has been all but shut down. Should the opportunity ever arise for me to revisit the three novels I wrote in Asimov’s vast and accommodating sand box, I shall be glad to.

There is a fourth Secantis novel currently knocking on doors, looking for a home. I have plans for at least two more.

I wrote an alternate history, the first volume of what I hope will be a trilogy, which is also trying to find room at the inn.

I am working on a quite different science fiction novel (apart from the Secantis Sequence) and just sent the first third to my agent with a synopsis.

Because of the alternate history, my interest turned to a more or less straight historical idea, and I am working on it. I have a full draft of it, which now needs rewriting. Since it is a “straight” historical, a genre I’m not used to working in, it will require more revision than I expected. Some time in the spring, it ought to be ready.

Interestingly and annoyingly, my short fiction production has gone right down the drain. I had a short story published in the program book for this past NaSFic (Tuckercon) and now and then I get a notion and start, in anticipation and hope, a new short story, but I’ve been doing novels steadily since 1999 and I’m having trouble shrinking my efforts down to such a small package.

Back in May I was a guest at the annual Missouri Writers’ Guild conference and I gave an address and taught a workshop. I discovered that I loved it. So I’m open now to doing workshops and certainly to lecturing. Soon I’ll have contact information here on the website for anyone wanting to discuss that with me.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I thought it was time to update the website and with that in mind I found a new webmaster who has done a marvelous job. At his suggestion I’ve decided to use the Distal Muse as a kind of blog. I do blog at two other sites, mentioned in the Bio, so I may reserve this for news and occasional long rambles like the previous piece on YES.

You might wonder at my state of mind after reading this. Let’s just say I’m optimistic. I’ll be 53 soon. I’ve been working at 110% for a long time and it’s taken a toll, but nothing a six month long vacation wouldn’t cure completely.

Anyway, when I get back from Washington D.C. I’ll have a few remarks. Till then…

Most Definitely…YES

I’d like to start this new version of the Distal Muse with a few words on the band that has been the center of my musical aesthetic for over 35 years.

How do you explain the connection made between audience and artist that is instant and somehow never fades?  I don’t know.  It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to magic (with the single exception of falling in love…but, I suppose, they are related experiences).

I’ve been listening to YES since I was fifteen, maybe sixteen.  It’s difficult to remember exactly now.  It was shortly after I got my first stereo.  I remember that stereo.  A Panasonic combination receiver/turntable.  The turntable rose up out of the body when you flipped the lid up.  It was not, in my estimation, a bad turntable and I later fitted the tone arm with a cartridge and needle way better than the rest of the unit.  I bought a pair of Radio Shack speakers which, quite fortuitously, were the perfect size for my small room.  (Like most teenagers’ rooms, mine functioned something like Doctor Who’s tardis, containing far more than it possibly could under normal space-time conditions.)


Because our house was small–first floor apartment of a two-family flat, maybe 700 square feet total— sound traveled easily.  Loudness was to be eschewed.  Eventually, I acquired headphones to get a proper volume fix, but before that it was a classic contest between parental desires for decorous quiet and my “need” to crank it up.  I would listen to the radio at night, after bedtime.  I remember the green glow of the stereo panel suffusing the room with the perfect night light ambience my science fiction saturated brain required.  Had to keep the volume way down, but this was rock’n’roll, so how hard was that?  Not like listening to classical, where some parts would vanish from audibility on a regular basis, only to have the orchestra thunder back when least expected.


I slept that way for years.  When I finally got my own “place” in the basement, isolated and insulated from the rest of the house, I’d leave the radio on all night long.  But somewhere around one in the morning, those first couple years, I’d somehow rouse long enough to switch it off.  Better than letting my parents discover come morning that I still had it on.  They were concerned enough about me as it was, and they were the sort to take things away when they suspected obsession encroaching on their son’s psyche.


I heard a lot of really good music those nights.  We had a local station, which back then was in the throes of becoming “commercial” but for the time being still retained a great deal of its “underground” sensibility, that was more like a college station than anything else.  FM broadcasting was still relatively new and apparently cheap enough that the dollar requirements that had turned AM into a musical wasteland had yet to apply.  I remember the freedom the DJs had and that meant the listener would be treated to music that those still wedded to the bubblegum AM stations would never hear.  Sure, there was some elitism involved, but in retrospect the musical offerings were indeed superior, if for no other reason than the FM rock stations of the late Sixties, early Seventies had broken with the AM constraint of the three-minute tune and the “rotation” list.  For the most part, you only get that from small, underpowered college stations now.


Between ten and one or two in the morning, though, sort of when “no one was paying attention”, the DJs would play music radical even for the bulk of the station’s broadcast choices.  I heard Family, a band which has sunk out of sight.  Gentle Giant.  Early Genesis.  King Crimson (other than the first album).  The DJ at the time, right around midnight, would play his “underappreciated artist” of the week on Friday or Saturday nights.  A lot of obscure stuff got aired.


One night, though, as I was on the cusp of fading to sleep, he put on YES.  The track was Sweet Dreams, which can be found on the band’s second album, Time And A Word.


Something about it…

There are many things to which that line may be applied in our lives.  “Something about it…”  The look, the feel, the sound, the chemistry. 


The connection.  My eyes snapped open and I listened intently.  It was, to say the least, unusual in many respects.  The bass playing, the harmonic structure, the major key that still managed not to be saccharine.  But mostly, Jon Anderson’s voice, which was high, almost childish, and still managed to be powerful.  Had I been reading Tolkein at the time I might have said that he sang the way a hobbit might sing, but I had yet to read any of that, so comparisons eluded me.  It was certainly alien, but in the best sense of the word.  As an avid SF fan, “alien” to me connoted, often, something superior, something aspirational, and certainly something to be embraced.  Through the alien we might find our humanity.


I was not then a very savvy record buyer.  I had yet to discover the worthwhile record stores in town.  I was, simply, pretty geeky and a bit of a dork.  People didn’t tell me things because, first, I tended not to ask–I hated being stupid and I really did indulge in pretending not to be by never admitting I didn’t know something, hoping I’d find out somehow later without having to reveal my ignorance; secondly, probably because my charade fooled no one, people tended not to want me to know the really cool stuff, preferring to keep me at arm’s length.  Sad, really.  But I was smart, even if I used my intelligence stupidly, and eventually I learned everything I thought I needed to know.


Since the DJ did not bother to say which album that track was on, I ended up buying two other YES albums before finding the one on which Sweet Dreams was on.  But that didn’t matter, because the two albums I did buy–in the vernacular–blew me away.  They were The Yes Album and Fragile.


First off, the only other bands of my acquaintance up to that point with ten-minute tracks were Chicago, the Nice,  and live Cream.  Very, very different kind of music than this.  Even the bands I really loved still hewed closely to the AM time limits, few exceeding five minutes.  This seemed somehow extremely significant to me.  The longer tracks gave the band room to really indulge the unique sound they were developing.  YES was far more structured than Cream, not at all derivative of earlier-period music like Chicago, and most of the Nice was classical cover work–their original pieces, except for The Five Bridges Suite, were still short.


Now that I think of this, it had to have been in ‘71 or ‘72.  Certainly ‘72 when I bought Fragile, that was the year it came out.  But very quickly after finding The Yes Album, I found–because I had found one of the “cool” record shops–ELP, Genesis, a number of other bands that were all breaking many of the same boundaries then.  By late ‘72 I was very much a progressive rock fan, and pretty much “in the know” about what was happening.


But I want to talk about those two YES albums.


The Yes Album was alien to my ear.  The opening bars of Yours Is No Disgrace, the crystal clarity of Squire’s bass line underlining the punctuated guitar chords, then the growly Hammond of Tony Kaye, all leading to that unexpected walking bass line over which the vocals sort of saunter in…I didn’t know song writing like this, I didn’t know it could be done that way.  It was all so casual until the next bridge, when everything explodes back in, loud but with nothing mushed together as was the case with so many bands.


On that album it was Steve Howe’s guitar playing that finally kept me listening to it over and over.  It was delicate.  He played electric more like an acoustic guitar, and yet when it needed to slice air the power was not lacking.  It reminded my most of Les Paul, only not as “cute” as that.  And then there was the live track, Howe’s acoustic solo piece Clap.


To this day, though, one of my favorite songs of all time is from that album.  Starship Trooper.  Perhaps a bit obvious, yes, the title had me even before I heard the music, but the music still stands up.  It is very much in my mind “future” music.  Now, imagine, it’s 1972, and the most sophisticated thing in rock’n’roll you have heard to that point is a couple Beatles tracks, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, mainly the Abraxas album.  The Beatles, for all their genius, were doing mainstream rock’n’roll.  Even Abby Road is pretty much standard rock, derived from AM radio sensibilities, some good blues, and a dash of classical thrown in probably by George Martin.  Hendrix was pyrotechnic blues—brilliant, yes, propulsive, certainly, but blues.  Santana possessed a kind of “old world” quality to it from the Latin rhythms and the romance sensibilities, but wedded to the blues and hard rock.  Santana’s guitar work raised it above the level of dance music and to this day it is Carlos’ playing that makes Santana music anything more than rhythmically interesting.  Compositionally-speaking, all this material is very conservative.


Now enter the third YES album.  You have four long tracks that are broken down into “movements” of sorts.  Not just key or time changes, but actual complimentary but different thematic movements.  The sensibility comes distantly from a little English folksong, but mostly it comes from a sensibility derived from Stravinsky and Ravel.  You can hear Ravel and Debussy in some of whole tone improvisation and in the major key modulations.  But neither of those composers did “songs” as such.  They did landscape with their music, and landscape is possibly the best way to describe the effect of YES’s longer pieces.  They are doorways into alternate realities where the day-to-day elements of life are different.  Electric meadows, with antigravity trains overarching them under a daytime-visible moon fifty thousand miles closer so that you can see the campfires of the settlers living in the great Mares.


But not so different that you can’t connect the traditions up with recognizable predecessors.  Listen to Perpetual Change and you can hear stride piano themes paired to swing era three and four-part harmony, with a taste of Sixties era television theme music in the connective tissue.  It’s a weird mix that, to a certain ear, is immediately recognizable. 


YES has never been a universal taste.  The music speaks to a certain mindset.  I’ll pass on describing that mind, but I have one.  YES was an immediate soundtrack to the Roger Zelazny, Gordon Dickson, Alfred Bester novels and stories I was reading at the time.  It clicked into place for me, the way Maxfield Parish clicked as well as Escher and Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. all clicked.  And the substantive element, the aspect that continued to make it work, was that slightly askew of present reality approach to the soundscaping.


Which is what they did, and very clearly so, on Fragile, which was a showcase of what they intended.


Once more, one has to put this into the context of the day.  1972, the country, the world, was obsessed with Vietnam; Nixon was about to be reelected; the Culture Wars were well under way; in music, we had Paul McCartney’s band Wings hitting the airwaves with songs like Wildlife and Uncle Albert, John Lennon was singing about imagining no heaven, prom dances across the country were just beginning to experience of numbing banality of Chicago’s Color My World, and sides had been drawn up between the Top 40 lovers and those who were abandoning AM radio by the droves, searching for “real music.”  The Who was making thunderous music, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were teaching children, Janis Joplin was dead and martyred, and Elton John was launching into the early stages of what would become glamor rock.  Protest music had gone hard, Deep Purple was breaking eardrums, Jesus Christ Superstar had come out and created a cultural stir with its rock’n’roll Christ image….


In the middle of all this, a band releases an album of music that is wholly involved with metaphorical imagery suggesting an alternative consciousness that one doesn’t need drugs to attain because the music will carry you.  In fact, if you’re stoned it probably won’t work as well.  It’s orchestral, dynamically positive, and an embrace of the unembarrassed grandeur of magnificently skilled musicianship., In other words, these guys were showing off.  Fragile is nothing if not an epic of “Hey, listen to what we can do!” showmanship.  And if it wouldn’t have been clear enough through the main pieces on the album, they structured in to make sure you knew what they were doing by giving each individual member his own track to strut on.


They had replaced their original keyboard player, Tony Kaye, with Rick Wakeman.  What can one say about Wakeman that doesn’t sound sycophantic?  He was, at that time, light years ahead of other keyboardists, with the single exception of Keith Emerson.  In fact, it’s worth comparing the two to see how completely distinctive their aesthetic approaches to music were while still being essentially equals in technique.  Emerson was far more influenced by jazz, though his classical grounding is indisputable, while Wakeman is predominantly a classical musician influenced by rock’n’roll and ragtime.  Ability, though, is not the story–what counted was how YES used that ability.


The advancement in musical adventurism was instantly apparent in the opening track, Roundabout.  All due respect to Mr. Kaye, YES could never have done this kind of music with him.  In the 80s Kaye rejoined the band and it was evident he couldn’t copy Wakeman’s chops.  Kaye, to be fair, is a very accomplished rock keyboardist, and if you listen to all he did after leaving YES, you can’t take anything away from him.  In bands like Flash, Detective, with David Bowie, and Badger, Kaye is a damn good player.  But YES, collectively, was going somewhere else, and the band needed a Wakeman.  (Wakeman has been successfully replaced only twice, and for short periods.  Patrick Moraz, who later became a member of the Moody Blues, was every bit as good as Wakeman, although far more jazz influenced, and more recently a Russian player named Igor Korasev admirably filled the bill.  But among Wakeman’s contemporaries at the time, there just weren’t any who could do what he did.)


YES was one of the cause celebres of a movement decrying quality musicianship, as if there were a kind of bizarre Marxist class consciousness about playing really well that violated some basic tenet of rock music.  The ultimate flower of that movement was punk rock, wherein playing badly became a badge of honor.  It’s perverse, but one of the evidences that music is a social phenomenon as much as anything to do with the artist.  YES hit its stride at the same time as many bands that later were tagged by the label “Art Rock” which was used as much as epithet as praise.  (Once I heard an argument that I sort of agreed with on this topic, in which the critic said that bands like YES just struck his as essentially “operatic”–the show, the elegance, the glitter, the ostentation being as important as the music, but since the music was inextricably tied to those elements, they reinforced each other.  I don’t care for opera.  I could almost see this.  But I do care for classical music as a whole, and I really detest bad playing.)  At the time, ELP, Genesis, Mike Quatro, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, and many others were beginning or were at the top of their game presenting music that loosely fit the rock category but which had expanded the possible range of the music far beyond anything envisaged by the Rolling Stones and their ilk.


The test of any music is its staying power.


I said Fragile was nothing if not showing off.  What was it showing off for?  In 1973, what may arguably be YES’s masterpiece came out.  Close To The Edge.


What Fragile did was set listeners up for the experience of Close To The Edge, which was unique to that date in structure and sensibility–at least in the rock idiom.  Mind you, many other artists were moving toward something like this–certainly Keith Emerson with his Tarkus suite had something like this in mind, but Tarkus is really a number of separate pieces stitched together into the semblence of a whole work.  Symbolic theme is carried through, but not musical theme, except in the framing devices.  Emerson didn’t achieve his own symphonic exegesis till Karn Evil 9 on the Brain Salad Surgery album.  YES, in the title track of the album, produced a rock symphony.  Four movements, clear and distinct, each one playing off the others musically as well as thematically, and it is one cohesive piece, almost 19 minutes long–which is short for a symphony, of course, but monumental for a piece of rock music.


There are only two other tracks on the album, and both are revolutionary in sensibility and execution–and in the fact that they “feel” complementary to the title track.  So in total effect, the entire album seems to be one musical statement, even though in concert the three pieces were usually played separately and effectively.


Of minor significance, this was also the album which debuted the now-iconic YES logo, designed by artist Roger Dean.  Even when Roger Dean did not do later YES covers, they kept the trademark logo, at least until their 80s incarnation with Trevor Rabin on guitar.  The softly-contoured interweaving of that logo became a visual cue for what the band was all about.  Simple on the surface, intricate in execution.


Roger Dean did the cover for Fragile as well, but it was clearly an aesthetic in progress.  The logo is different, but heading in the direction that became the trademark.  Dean’s distinctive cover work and, later, set designs for the stage shows were every bit as important in the long run as the music.  YES was creating an alternate world in their visual as well as musical presentations.  Dean became part of the band in this sense.  It was with Close To The Edge that his stage sets began to appear, sets which hit their peak with the Tales From Togographic Oceans and Relayer tours.


YES released a three record live album in the wake of Close To The Edge.  The stage show cohered into an event, the musical sets dovetailing with the special effects on stage to create a threatrical experience making these concerts more than just a good band playings its tunes.  The first of these seem thin and crude compared to what was to come later in the 70s, but like everything else about YES it was a progression. 


That live set captured the tour in which another new member replaced a departing player.  Bill Bruford had been their drummer from the start.  He claims to have been a jazz drummer and thought where YES was going would give him opportunity to do “interesting” percussion.  He experimented a lot with polyrhythms, but quite frankly in those albums it seemed his reach exceeded his grasp.  He did bring it all together on Close To The Edge, which makes it all the more ironic that he chose that tour to leave the band.  He joined King Crimson after that, where Bruford’s drumming achieved polish and style and enviable musicality.  YES gave him the chance to experiment, and not all of it was successful.  His replacement, Alan White, was a more traditional rock drummer, very solid but not flashy.  In fact, his approach is deceptive–what he does sounds simple, until one realizes what kind of extraordinary rhythmic environments he is drumming in.  He is an engine for the band and may sometimes be underrated, but only by those not listening closely.  White remains with YES to this day, and with his addition the so-called “classic” line-up was achieved.


Other musicians have entered and left YES, but it is these five musicians who formed the essence of the band–Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, and White.  And they keep coming back together in various incarnartions to recapture the brilliance of the band.


After Close To The Edge, and the live album, came a double album of four tracks which clearly were intended to stretch the boundaries of the symphonic form achieved in that album.  Tales From Togographic Oceans is a masterpiece built on the aesthetic template of Close To The Edge.  YES successfully created a soundscape which captured the idea of another world in musical terms.


Critically, people saw this album as self-indulgent.  As far as it goes, this is true.  These people were insulated in a creative pocket and doing what they now knew how to do for no other reason than the pure artistry of the process.  If it cut some listeners off, if it left critics with too little to compare it to, if it seemed that YES was going places only a few might follow, well, they joined a long list of composers of whom the same thing could be said–Beethoven, Schubert, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Parker, Coltrane, Coleman…they left the precincts of what might be called popular idiom and did something else.


In point of fact, they did not lose audience.  The concerts were selling out, the albums were going platinum, the following they had built up did not dwindle.  But perception is a funny thing, and something in the feedback they received must have tapped a problem.  After Tales… Wakeman left.  He wanted to pursue a solo career, and a prolific one it has been.  Patrick Moraz replaced him, after a European tour with Greek synthesizer wizard Vangelis sitting in with the band.  (Jon Anderson had sung on one of Vangelis’s albums, Heaven and Hell, foreshadowing a collaboration that would produce four unique albums.) 


Moraz.  Swiss, a keyboard master, he had the year before produced an album with the two musicians Keith Emerson had cut loose when he ditched The Nice and formed ELP.  The band was called Refugee and they only did one record, but it was magnificent (despite Jackson’s insufferable vocals).  Then YES drafted him and the next album was Relayer


Relayer was another three-track album, with one long piece on one side--The Gates of Delirium.  Clearly, the band thought it had something with the longer form, and musically this was every bit as daring and ambitious and deft as the previous two studio albums.  Moraz’s keyboard work was frenetic, seemingly on the edge of control, more jazz influenced that Wakeman, yet thunderously powerful.  There was a darkness to this work as well that had not been in the previous work.


Perhaps they exhausted themselves with this one.  It seemed they broke against a shore and shattered.  The experience perhaps dazed them.  Whatever happened, they all went off to do solo albums.  Jon Anderson did Olias of Sunhillow, Chris Squire did Fish Out of Water, Moraz did a strange thing called !…they were all distinctive and you could hear what each brought to the whole very clearly.


It was a worrisome period as well.  Other bands had reached points of discontent or exhaustion, and the members went off to do solo work, and then never reformed.  Or, when they did come back together, something had been lost, and their previous magic was absent.


When YES did come back together in 1978, the result was unexpected and relieving.  Wakeman returned and the album they produced was Going For the One.  It was more traditional.  Several tracks, couple of them airable even on AM.  They had clearly taken what they had developed during the time of the epic compositions and applied it to more conventional songwriting.  More conventional, I say, but still outside any kind of norm for what might be the order for a rock tune.


I went to all but one of their concerts during this period.  They just kept getting better on stage.  They had the ability to hold an audience in the palm of their metaphysical hands and imbue emotional reverie, joy, exhiliration.  They worked together syncretically, utterly in step with each other.


And they were still building that other world.


Time passes, movements end, appreciation shifts.  I don’t believe YES ever lost its edge, although it did become insular, and sometimes the work seemed to possess a disregard for whoever else might be listening.  Never less than wonderful, but removed from more common sensibilities sometimes to the extent of putting up a wall between artist and audience.  Not for long, never a whole album.  And while other bands of that period found that their ability to fill large venues faded, YES still manages to pack a stadium, although they took to doing smaller venues in the 90s.


None of which particularly interests me in terms of what the music does for me.  I don’t care if a hundred or a hundred million other people like something.  It is the way it touches me that counts, and YES continues to possess an aural approach that draws me.  I like their idea of where music ought to have gone.


Going For The One represents for me one parenthetical marker of a principle period for YES, the other one being The Yes Album.  Between these two recordings, the band established a comprehensive aesthetic that can be listened to as a continuum, a progression from the grasp of an idea to its ultimate flowering, to the point at which, now achieved, the band made a change in approach.  The palette developed and employed through these seven albums continues to be used today, but in very different compositional approaches.  I dislike the cliche-ridden notion of A Golden Age, but most artists have expressive periods which, at least to their audience, seem to represent an ideal.  Going For The One marked the point at which YES left the arena of “epic” compositional experiment and reduced what they had learned to what at first glance seems to be traditional song writing.  If by that, one recognizes “traditional” and “songwriting” to mean a specific format which has dominated American (and by cross-pollination European) popular music throughout much of the 20th Century, then the description is deceptive.  Bar for bar, the notion of “tune-smithing” has been consistently and continually subverted by YES, even within the context of pieces that hew to that traditional format.  They are not writing “songs” per se, but composing set pieces wherein experiment is most important–not experiment for the sake of being different, but experiment in the service of creating a moment or two of unique experience.  They are as much concerned with the afterimage of each piece as with its initial impact, something most popular music doesn’t bother with because the idea that the listener should carry something more than the beat and the hook away from a single listen is foreign to the industry.  (This is also what separates good literature from “popular fiction”–the chief experience of a potboiler is exhausted in the process of reading, while “literature” creates impressions that linger and influence long after the book has been finished and put away.  So, too, with great music, but the hurry-up-and-move-to-the-next-distraction aesthetic of popular culture doesn’t allow for contemplative after-considerations.  Hence artists whose chief quality is that deep listening–or reading–produces secondary or tertiary effects as significant as the initial impact tend to be underappreciated or overlooked expressly because such qualities require deep attention.)


After Going For The One, the band seemed to hit a period of crippling reassessment.  The next album–still with the “classic” line-up–Tormato was a disjointed production.  Not that the individual tracks were any less than fine, but the totality failed to cohere.  It seemed that these songs belonged on some other albums which were never released (leaving one to wonder what other songs unwritten or simply unrecorded might have gone with them).  It felt like a collection of “extras” from previous recordings.  (To be clear, YES had lost nothing in their ability to do what they had been doing since The Yes Album, as witnessed by the transcendent heights of On The Silent Wings of Freedom, one of the finest “short” pieces since Starship Trooper.)  The members of the band seemed to sense it as well, since the next album marked drastic, almost cataclysmic changes in personel.  Wakeman left again, but so too did Jon Anderson.  The hallmark vocalist went elsewhere, to pursue other interests.  That album–Drama–is an odd object. It is perhaps better regarded from the vantage of history than it was when it came out.  While the band that did called itself YES, and there were still the profound ideas that had always informed YES’s music present, it is not, really, YES.  While excellent, it proved too much a departure.


Jon Anderson went on to a prolific solo career, and, as noted above, made four superb recording with Vangelis.  Wakeman had never stopped making solo albums, and Steve Howe began to record on his own.  Chris Squire and Alan White, however, kept experimenting with new bands, unwilling or disinterested in solo efforts.  Through them, eventually, a new formation of YES gelled in the early 80s. Incorporating their original keyboardist, Tony Kaye, and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin.  Initially called CINEMA, once Squire asked Anderson to sing lead it inevitably became YES.


Since the release of 90125, YES has become something of a workshop, with members joining, leaving, sitting in, going in unique directions.  During this period one of the most distinctively “yessish” albums released was not even by YES—ANDERSON BRUFORD WAKEMAN & HOWE, which reintroduced Bill Bruford (who had become the drummer YES had always needed) and but for the absence of Chris Squire was pretty much classic YES.   (The “classic” line-up did get back together for two albums which, in the original compositions, revisited the Epic compositional techniques of the 70s–the Keys To Ascencsion discs, which include what may be the definitive “live” sets of the band, plus studio recordings made during the same period, and are magnificent examples of the musical landscaping that set them apart in Close To The Edge.)


Sometime during the late 70s I finally found the album on which was Sweet Dreams, the track that first drew me to this band.  It was their second release, called Time And A Word.  I found their first album, simply called Yes, at the same time.  I’m happy to have them, but I am very glad they were not the first YES albums I owned.  The two records contain pretty traditional songwriting.  The sonic motifs that were to become YES are there in snippets, but they had not yet found their radical expression, and there was actually little to recommend them above many other bands at the time.  Perhaps a comparable experience would be for someone who discovered the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, followed them through everything that followed, and only then, after Abby Road, found the first two or three Beatles records.  There would have been a bit of a shock and some puzzlement as to how the band you had fallen in love with had come from what seemed such unoriginal beginnings. 


But on close listening you can hear the genius even then…


Critics have hated YES from time to time, because, damnit, they don’t follow trends, and they don’t write music to meet the expectations of fashionistas.  Sometimes where they went musically seemed strange even to those who did love them, but they were, first and foremost, very serious about music as music–not as show or entertainment or pop culture or anything outside of the aesthetic concerns of a given soundscape.  Such music implicitly instructs the listener to “pay attention” and, in some cases, to catch up.