Hall Monitors, Nixon, Thought Crimes, Real Problems

Here it is, it’s 2018 and we are in the grips of the worst fear-mongering, rabid-dog-barking-at-his-own-fleas style, over-hyped, social terror market we’ve seen this side of your invalided grand-auntie who watches Fox News all day and expects Muslims (re: Mexicans or Indians) to storm her living room and get the carpet out of place. When the peoples are afraid, the peoples turn to authority figures. And so rises the age of hall monitors and corporate-trained cafe management. They have been waiting to unleash their expertly tuned brakes on your progressiveness for decades, and finally they have their chance, all of it in the name of safety. You can’t argue with safety, it’s for the children. And instead of lobbying for gun control or some sort of love-thy-neighbor tolerance of multi-ethnicity, they arrive with 10 Commandments posters and rape kits.

Yes folks, there are real terrors out there. There are things like traffic accidents, obesity induced heart-disease, and the wickedness of irrationalism bred from teaching children that going to church and praying for white neighbors is a kind of virtue, but we are only concerned with television terrors. The sorts that make for good viewing. The white woman, streaming blood, chased by knife-wielding psychopaths of color. And OK I’m getting off topic, but the point is that this and things like child abduction are as rare as crocodile attacks, but because of their rarity and stunning exhibition, they never leave our consciousness. We are manipulated and played for the fools we are wired to be. But again, I’m off topic. My main angry thrust here is about the stages we intend to provide the little Nixons of the world. Those kids back in school who ratted you out for having a comic book in your desk. Those anti-social dolts who want some kind of power so badly that they accept the role of Junior Police Officer so that they could wield their weird obsession with rules and regulations over everyone else. Licking their lips and carrying their whips, they sport their minor authority with all the import of a Mars mission back-up systems tester. These people, who have been waiting for this moment in history to arrive, have finally gotten their day. They are going to unleash every bit of their gallons of collective indignation on every man, woman and child for their rapist tendencies, and variety of thought crimes. Their interest in preserving your pleasant day is nil. Never mind that you find the thunderstorm a beautiful natural phenomenon to the safety patrol you are risking the lives of your children if you haven’t unplugged every item in your house and spent the hour cowering in your shower. These are the guard-rail folks who imagine that without the loopy English spelling rules the whole universe would collapse. Hell, they imagine the universe is orderly and sensible and that all you have to do is follow the rules and regulations and everything will be just fine. They are people who hate and fear improvisation. And yes, I agree we need a few of these people as soldiers and food service folks, but outside of that they should not be running the show. They should not be reminding us masses of non-rapists, non-murderers and non-psychopaths that we had better temper our inclinations because they’re on the job watching us. The truth is in the statistics, but our primitive brains don’t digest statistics well. If one lady walks by the river and gets gulped by a crocodile, the guard-rails and warning signs will be going up, and every one of us will have those images seared into our brains more vividly than the Hindenburg going down.

Is the world a scary place? Sure it is. Driving on the highway never ceases to be a white-knuckle danger despite the fact that few of us who have been at it for more than a year recognize it as such, we barely pay attention and regularly give about twelve inches of cushion at eighty miles an hour. Every mouthful of food is a potential choking hazard. Every staircase or wet shower is a potential increase hip injuries and insurance claims. Nearly three quarters of a million people die every year due to Malaria. Did you know that the Black Plague is still out there? It is. It is and it is still deadly in the pneumonic form. Salads from one of the world’s most popular restaurants just made a couple of hundred people sick with a parasite just today! There’s only so much you can do. The point is, there are things to fix and regulate. We have a tendency to spend too much of our time regulating nothing but harmless nonsense. If I have to watch one more social media PSA informing me about my ferocious thoughts rather than taking into account my non-ferocious deeds, or listen to some jackass explain to me that my disinterest in the pathetic bigotry of some lout drunkenly yelling slurs at a Latin lady in a popular video is dangerous acceptance of racism I’m going to get defensive. It is not conservatism to protect one’s freedom, it is natural to do so. And hey, believe me if I’m wrong I’m ready to change. I’ve done my best to purge some stupid slurs we grew up with (kids are stupid! And if you don’t realize that most of your young life was ignorant, then you’ve got some maturing to do).

However, to wrap this up, I’m done kow-towing to indignation for indignation’s sake. I’m done ceding the right of way to little Nixons bent on authoritatively correcting me. I’m not impressed with people whose only purpose is minding my business when I can see that they’ve spent their lives without a Dostoevsky novel and head bent in prayer to imaginary beings.

I get the power desire, it’s something we all crave as children. But we’re not children anymore, and it’s time to stop wishing we were.

Adulthood, Religious Belief, Correct Argument Style, Power

Heading into a restaurant the other afternoon, meeting up with some friends, and one friend’s young son, I mentioned to the waitress in passing, as she gathered up the kid coloring sheet and crayons to provide, that it’d be nice to be able to get that excited about simple things again. I meant this in a kind of grouchy old man way—after all, it’s been a long time since I could be satisfied with a dot-to-dot of a frog. I was a little taken aback by the reaction of the waitress, she near swooned as she got this faraway look in her eyes and gushed, “Oh my god, I’d do anything to be a kid again.”
I shouldn’t be surprised by this, I suspect that many people have this same fantasy, and I’ve been rather surprised to see so many Youtube videos and behaviors at a wide variety of events seeming to celebrate nothing more than adults desperately behaving like babies. I was informed by an adult friend, though a good number of years junior to me, that everyone wants to be a kid. So it turns out I’m in a deep minority when it comes to this simple lifetime occupation: I’ve been seeking to be an adult my whole life. Not only that, I’ve been seeking other adults to do adult things with. No wonder I’m frustrated, I live in a culture devoted to maintaining perpetual childhood.

I was reminded of this recently as I saw a kind of Norman Rockwell style illustration of a plump tot kneeling at some sort of alter with hands steepled in prayer, eyes shut, lips a bit fish-pursed. People in my range of friends on social media, perhaps two or three times separated were gushing about it. I dismissed it as a mommy’s unshakable affection for the tot, but I swoon twisted around it and realized that this isn’t a cute image of a child that all adults can relate to as offspring, inspiring love and caring in normal adults, but, that insidious desire to be that child. And moreso, to identify as that innocent, know-nothing at the feet of the presumed granddaddy of us all, God, or Jesus, or Allah, or whatever these folks prefer to think of as their great sky-lord / daddy. And I have to say I find the idea disgusting as well as potentially harmful to all of us. Granted I may be over-blowing the whole “I’d do anything to be a kid again” motif, but we don’t need a world of kids. We need a world of sober, sagacious adults. I can’t help but see the scuttling out of the light to hide under a blanket of baby-dom as a sign of futility and copping out. Not to mention that the actual children occupying the world right now need us to act like wise elders to preserve for them a chance to . . . well, hopefully not fuck things up royally, though there’s little reason to be terribly optimistic about it even if we all did pitch in as grown ups and do our part to pass on a better world.

Two things occupy my bitter brain, 1. belief in an omniscient and personal god has the potential to spoil adulthood by removing the believer from responsibility. Responsibility is a key feature of adults. As a child explores and learns, the little ones are running back to the safety and wisdom of the parents. If those parents are little more than aged babies themselves, I see nothing but a perpetuation of fear and loathing as prevalent as the flu. 2. belief in a god, or gods has the potential to create in us a worldview that our activities are not damaging to the world. Most of our climate change deniers are either in the business of polluting the Earth, or are folks who want to imagine that their god would not let such a thing happen. Both outlooks are potentially dangerous. Lastly, and I won’t travel far down this road, religion in general is a tribalism. While the best of the philosophy has been presented as uniting all people in love and understanding, most often religion in practice actually encourages ferocity and exclusion. A poll on an NPR show this morning discussed how religious folks only want same religion immigrants (as if that were possible, there’s some 4600 or so documented different denominations of just Christianity! And as far as sects below that, good luck getting a count.) While I’ve heard of liberal Christians, I’m still not so sure I’ve ever encountered them, nor seen much of their influence.

Being an adult is tough. It hurts. It means admitting errors, and taking the responsibility to fix such things. Ovid pointed out that worry is a terribly destructive occupation, and that instead of worry we should endeavor to be patient and very tough. We can’t control everything, but we can respond as best as possible. We can’t fix the past errors and horrors of our world, but we can seek to do better moving forward. Which is why when so many progressive fixes get undone by a growing mean underbelly of a culture, it becomes a menace and a concern (patience, toughness). None of us want to see racism and a winding back of the clock to a period in our history that embarrasses us and potentially harms others. The idea that a know-nothing clod is “shaking-up” the staid and lousy political system, by being an outsider, is a popular mythology. We have piles of senators and representatives who are basically children. We have huge swaths of people preferring ignorance to understanding. We have fear instead of knowledge. We have an industry of rapid and in our faces media dedicated to bringing us every last scrap of bad news possible. Even when, in reality, a single buffoon screaming at someone, or getting into a fist-fight affects almost no one. When the video is going to be a fire, or a piece of paper with legislation on it that potentially changes our society—bet on the fire being broadcast. Media knows what we want to see, and manipulates us emotionally despite the fact that it is purely without a wider meaning.

We are animals who get excited by violence, conflict, sex and babies. Even when these items are of little influence in the overall scope of how we live our daily lives you can be sure the information generated for you will be based on those items.
A woman I worked with years ago explained to me that she loved eating those little snack trays you get at Walmart (and other places) that have the fake cheese and crackers and little bit of processed sandwich meats because it brought her back to playing video games on the sofa with her grandma. Another buddy of mine hates all fruits (and likes damned few vegetables too) except he’ll sometimes force himself to eat a pear, because his grandpa suffered him to eat a pear, and it was a good memory to hang with grandpa. I enjoy adult time with my folks. I suppose I’m lucky (and sometimes unlucky) to have them as a grown man, so that I can both enjoy them in the light of adulthood, as well as enjoy the mild bickering that arises from philosophical differences. Perhaps that’s part of adulthood in that we should enjoy the differences, and that like Socrates, as presented by Plato, we should adult in smart discourse. Smart discourse is not always easy to get, however, as most folks are not trained in the art of stating a proposition and backing it with evidence and merits. Instead, they tend to state obvious opinions (mostly half-baked) and expect you to agree through a process of badgering and anger. This too is something we should appreciate, and learn to correct, and smilingly do so. Just responding with crotch kicks is unlikely to cause us any real rise in societal skill level-up.
In closing I’d just like to remark that my childhood was fine. I even had a pony for a while! And a cool .22 caliber rifle. I had miles of country, forests, and streams to wander, and bugs, salamanders, and turtles to play with. What I suffered from was a strong frustration with powerlessness. I was keenly aware that choices were not mine, and that things I wanted were forever out of reach. I felt the dominance of parents as a kind of over-lording force that I didn’t appreciate. My dad’s method of convincing you of his rightness was just to threaten you. I always despised that, and grew up with a strong sense of injustice in it. That injustice sense is alive and vibrant to this day. No authoritarian gets to make case based on position or threats.
So its time to buck up and dump the magical irresponsible world of childhood and embrace the power and wisdom of being grown people. I realize it’s hard, and that it’s tragic, and that it’s worrisome. But it is also beautiful, sexy, and full of capacity for participation if you can keep yourself awake late enough!

Donovan, Butthole Surfers, Transcendence, the Perfect Woman

While listening to some old Donovan tunes, it occurred to me that God parting the Red Sea was a pretty good miracle, but still within the thinking caps of the ancients. What would really have impressed me, and Pharaoh I think, after all the stick snakes and deluge of frog nonsense, would have been a Carnival Cruise Lines ship there picking the Jews up and taking them off on an all expenses paid vacation. I don’t care how hardened Pharaoh’s heart had been then, that’d have been a winner.

So Donovan is a kind of mind-bender, Mellow Yellow, while at times obviously overproduced and welded inexorably to the middle-aged producer expectations of music of the mid-sixties, or as Zappa would call them, the cigar-chomping guys in suits, has a lot of carnival pablum interspersed with some very clever and catchy folk style songs. Those cigar-chomping guys grew up with twenties arts, and so we ended up–in the sixties–with strange throw-backs to an era no one alive now has a connection to with things like “Winchester Cathedral”, and the Beatles doing absolutely non-rock pieces like “When I’m Sixty-four”. It’s an interesting leap from the rockabilly of Chuck Berry and Link Wray, which launched all those British Invasion kids, to the sounds of Cole Porter who would be dead in 1964 as the invasion got underway and I was born!

There’s this old theory of fashion and psychology that states whatever was going on when you were a tot becomes the mythic “good stuff” of culture, it becomes your preferred culture. Many of my favorite things do indeed reflect that precision, the giant-eye-lashed girls in go-go boots and sack dresses doing the Mashed Potato behind lip-syncing bands on television broadcasts. The artistic aesthetic of Lava Lamps and black and white Godzilla (or any monster) movies. I love movies with Jean-Paul Belmondo or Lee Marvin driving Renaults around dangerous curves. And I’ve still never really gotten over the calculus in my mind that the ideal woman is Goldie Hawn from the film version of Butterflies Are Free.

As I time travel forward from this era, however, into my twenties in the mid-eighties I become an aficionado of the Punk Rock. To do so, I all but become exclusive about it. I relegate my Psychedelic Rock, my old British Invasion disks, and even my Creedence to the back of the stacks. Records were my lifeblood, I lived, ate, and breathed albums. I didn’t see the point to any other artistic expression, at the time, and I had strong, possibly testosterone induced officious opinions about all of it. I could rail at you for an hour about why you should be in awe of Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, X and the Minutemen and forget your Tull and Doors and Hendrix. The sophistry included a lot about realism, and dedication to the art of the everyman rather than the haughty overproduced wealth and glut of the Led Zeppelins and Bostons. This was as much taught directly to me a few years before by The Sex Pistols themselves, it was their argument as well. Music should be in our own hands, it’s a participation “sport”. And join in that sport I did, with my group of disaffected young men who basically argued with each other until we created these lock-step, four or five minute riffs with a teen angst lyric plastered over. It was fine, but never satisfied me. I keep needing it to take another step, be something a bit more exhaustive. I couldn’t tell you at the time but the niggling answer to the problem was something along the line of our lack of musicianship x my testosterone frustration (lack of sex, and a desire to somehow achieve manliness through the power of music) all divided by the four lonesome souls that made up the corners of this cellar rock band wound up producing in me a greater lack of satisfaction than the earnings I blew on some broken used amplifiers when my pre-CBS Princeton couldn’t cut through the din of our shit P.A. system.

The singer, as is usually the case, always had a girlfriend, and we would all roll our eyes and suffer a bit inwardly when he changed them as frequently as sneakers. A good part of punk, at least as I saw it, was that nothing–not effort nor money—need be invested in a look or style. Punk was what you had. Of course, not everyone felt this way and millions were made selling so-called punks their style, which baffled me.
Years later, after all of this was just kind of an embarrassing youthful mess of expectations unmet, arguments undead, and relationships crotch-kicked too many times we finally called it quits after expanding the band into a larger unit that, while having more musical potential couldn’t get out of its own way long enough to keep me from arrogantly treating the whole enterprise like it was a joke. I didn’t mean it guys! I was just stupid.

I don’t remember how it happened but around this era I got my hands on a Butthole Surfers record. I think it was Rembrandt Pussyhorse, which has some of the darkest and most singable tunes on it. I must have spun that disk 1000 times and thought to myself, this is it. I developed my passion (which is what passion is, not found, but developed) for the guitar styling of Paul Leary, and fell head-over-heels in love with the irreverent wildness of one Gibson Haynes. It wasn’t long before I also had Locust Abortion Technician and the one with the horrible image of what looked like a rotting corpse on the cover, as well as a couple of expanded twelve inch disks with pieces that were evidently jams and other psychic weirdness like “Moving to Florida”, a one tone beat-bash with Gibby sounding like an aged drunk explaining to us that “LBJ was a soviet Jew” and that “they be makin’ tadpoles the size of Mercurys down in Florida that be telling Julio Iglesias what to sing”. I was enthralled with this irreverent weirdness. When I saw them live, I went alone, I couldn’t interest anyone else in the value of this band, despite the venue (the old Living Room in Providence) being packed. They were loud, and at times didn’t even seem to be playing a song. Gibby lit his hand on fire and offered it to the audience. He ran about looking totally like a drug-addled street person and while on the face of it I didn’t know how to express what I as getting, the man was more entertaining than anything I’d ever seen or heard previously. He was just what I needed when I needed it. They ran disturbing films on a sixteen mm projector directly over themselves and the entire experience was something transcendent. Later I understood that it was nothing less than a full on sensory abolishment. I’d had a transcendent experience. When I got back to my cellar band I couldn’t explain it. Each example I gave of the thrill I got from the show left my guys looking concerned or just unaffected. “I wouldn’t think you’d like that kind of thing,” my bassist and best friend said. “You gotta go next time they come, you just gotta see it.” I gushed like a believer. And, of course, nothing I could do with my band, playing the same tunes we’d been working on for years, our repetitive one riff blasts, could no longer surprise or satisfy me.

I had always been disinterested in covering songs. I was sort of a hard-ass when it came to who we were and who we should be. But then, even the Sex Pistols covered songs (though not PiL). But the Butthole Surfers covered several. High on the list was their amazing blast of “American Woman” by the Guess Who. In all honesty it’s a fairly raucous and straight jam of the song. Gibby doesn’t stay true to the lyrics at all, he invents his own rather bizarre scenes of police and loudspeakers, but the song is wonderful. The same with Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”, transformed into “Sweat Loaf”, which when done live had Gibby riffing from the Doors’ “The End”. All of a sudden my having grown up with the older rock was making sense. The Butthole Surfers weren’t shitting on anything, they were celebrating all of it in their own wild and some might say Texan way. Then came their cover of Donovan. I didn’t even know what a Donovan was. I’d been all through Bob Dylan and even had a good feel for many of the old folk and blues guys that were referenced by Captain Beefheart through to Zeppelin but, Donovan had slipped by. When the Butthole Surfers did “Hurdy Gurdy Man” I could not imagine that I was listening to a psychedelic rock song by a cute, beloved sixties troubadour. But there it was, in all its glory, Donovan was done true. The Butthole Surfers barely fuck around. Maybe I misread the irreverence! Imagine calling your band the Butthole Surfers. Who could be that brave?
During the 90s Stereolab got me fully into Krautrock, and Beefheart’s introduction to Ornette Coleman took me down that long freejazz warren informing me of the “punk rock” of Coltrane and Ayers. I’m no longer an exclusivist, I’ve grown up and embrace all the milestones and all the great musicians.

In picking up a recently released (just weeks ago) book about Can (All Gates Open: The Story of Can by Young and Schmidt, 2018) I have been transported once again to the sixties and seventies to find out that these legends, these musical heroes of mine, were once again regular folk. They were full of arguments and expectations and efforts that failed and others that unexpectedly took off. It always blows my mind that people who do admirable things are just like everyone else. They’re dedicated workers, building passion and hoping for the best. It shouldn’t be something that surprises us, but almost everything in our culture points away from this truth. We love a genius myth. A genius myth also exonerates us of blame when we don’t succeed. But it’s wholly unnecessary, there’s a lot of good luck involved in success. And we need to recognize it and be kind in the meantime.

Flags, Pride, Dukes of Hazard, Patriotism, Masturbation

Good evening, cruel world. I was thinking recently of a friend from the 80s in western Rhode Island, where I come from originally, who jumped onto his drum riser and plastered a big ass rebel flag on the wall behind his brand new set of black Tamas. Seeing the crossed bars and stars I was immediately put in the mind of Bo and Luke Duke, the Dukes of Hazard County and their quarrels with Boss Hogg and his ridiculous deputies. Daisy Duke, of course, took must of my attention since I was a burgeoning youth finding the pleasures of self manipulation in the shameful addicts manner (Space 1999‘s Sandra really did for me!) of sticky hot and itchy summers and wads of tissue needing to be collected before Mom discovered so many of them. The popular association of the confederate flag, back then, was a quaint and tired reminder of some kind of roguish outlawism. Something about bucking authority, but for the correct reasons. Bo and Luke Duke were never pushing heroin or running guns to gangs, in fact I can’t remember much of what they were doing except driving the silly car around and firing off arrows with dynamite taped to them. Just the same that day, when Jerry, my new drummer, grinned wickedly at his confederate flag antics ready to be challenged—we didn’t challenge him—the only thing I thought was, huh, he likes Dukes of Hazard. He was a new friend, and a couple of years older than myself, and I wasn’t about to grill him about the meaning of said musty old flag. It looked good there, it brightened up the room a bit. It was promptly forgotten. I have no idea what became of it. It never made it on-stage with us. I’m not sure if I’d have thought much about it if it had.

In reading about post-WW2 bikers I was taken a bit by surprise to find that many of those old vets who adopted a renegade lifestyle on their various road machines were sometimes party to wearing a swastika or two. As a youth it was popular in school to make graphite tattoos of them and lick your hand or arm, and plaster them to yourself. One day my maternal grandfather, who had mapped bombing routes during the war (and driven a taxi for money) asked me what I thought an old timer would do if he saw me wearing such. My sixth grade brain was obsessed with war, and the only thing that came to mind was shooting. I figured an old veteran would shoot me. My ever polite grandfather dismissed me, had no more to say on the subject, but I could tell I’d disappointed him and I ceased making further swastikas which for some reason were the easiest and most obvious symbol a twelve year old boy would make in those days. Maybe it was all the World At War television I’d been steeped in.

About the old vets I’d been shocked to stupefaction to hear one, who haunted the shop I worked at in the late eighties, spout such energetic anti-semitism (Hitler was right about one thing, he’d said, kill the Jews!) that I wondered what he fought that war for. But it’s obvious, we just would rather not see it that way. In retrospect, I realize that so many of those old vets were kids, children really, as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in Slaughter-house Five, and really were only fighting because they were told to. They were right because they were American (team America), and that was that. Only later would they mature, and possibly get some idea of what the story was and what the world was built around, and that Roosevelt couldn’t walk at the end, and maybe getting off the farm, or out of the docks was the greatest adventure they’d ever had, but only would they understand the immense sacrifice when they were mature enough to do so. Go back in time and maturity becomes rarer. People died younger, had families younger, but their chances for self-examination and criticism were likely as rare as bags of money on the street. Hitler had that one thing right, the old vet wanted me to know. Me, a fella he barely knew, but could see by my youth that when he was my age he’d been in Europe (possibly in lands he couldn’t find on a map) fighting and struggling with people who “talked funny”. And the reason was probably more along the lines of them dirty Japs attacked us.

My friends want to go even further back, tossing the world wars aside, the second and then the first, the so-called Great War. Lurching even further back, across the turn of the century, scrambling over the Spanish-American spats and the Native American wars and back to a time when our nation alone fought over slavery. There are no veterans left of this ridiculously old mess. They were all ancient geezers by the time film equipment became common. However, it has been shown that this period of our history still reverberates and historians far and wide point out deftly that America probably can’t really be understood without a firm grasp of the politics leading up to and becoming that immense fuck-up known as the Civil War.

Shelby Foote points out that there were a thick bunch of problems involved. Some of those issues had to do with the very same concerns that embitter people today. Can a group of East Coast situated elites really properly govern such a huge nation? Apparently Lincoln won the office with about 40% of the popular vote, and his name didn’t appear on many ballots in various regions of the South. It is in fact rather understandable that so many people thought the nation too big to manage as it was. Hell, I’m wishing I could secede now, watching our current administration bluster and bully and bullshit its way to shaming us all. And maybe secession wasn’t such a bad idea. Who’s to say that it would have been a terrible happenstance, and hell, maybe we should have left the West to Mexico as well, instead of exercising our expansionist whims. But, this is all fantasy, we have the world we made, and digging up the dead, heroes and cowards, traitors and revered statesmen and pretending we can kick some of them in the crotch and give others postmortem executions (a la Cromwell, who’s head – stuck on a pike on the Tower Bridge, and later falling down in a storm, became a polite parlor curiosity). Oooh, some of my friends are saying with rage, if only Robert E. Lee were here now, I’d kick his damned ass. And, of course, the reason why is slavery.
Some years ago I had a short-lived fling with a lovely girl who was born in the south, but most raised in educated in New York. She still remembers being taunted by the school kids about slavery. Make no mistake NYC had not been good to blacks either. It’s not like the North was the land of equality and progressive race relations. It was not, and the fact is we are still struggling with this issue. The Civil War in some version seems to continue.

It continues in the idea that stupid soldier children (and I’ve just read Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer) who march off with their weapons are fighting about our modern concepts of social justice. And this is folly as much as my friendly neighborhood WW2 vet was fighting to free the world from the tyranny of Nazism. He was not. The children we call up and arm and teach to shoot and march are mostly dumb as ax handles. Honorable perhaps, eager, no doubt, but largely equipped only with a gang’s mentality of hating whatever isn’t familiar. Robert E. Lee was offered the command of the Northern Army by Lincoln. Lee refused and ran to Virginia. His home. Because that’s where a boy wants to fight. He wants to fight with his friends against the invasion of the “holy land” that he grew up on. Where his ancestors (possibly) are buried. The children called up and armed for this crusade were the same as all such ignorant young men, and exhuming them and crotch kicking them is about as sane as imagining the Legions following Caesar should have figured out that Roman imperialism was a vicious cycle of oppression and slaughter and they should have voted Julius out of office. He was, in fact, stabbed out of office, but that’s another story, and it didn’t slow the next several centuries of Roman evil on the European continent and elsewhere.

Today the confederate stars and cross seem to be mostly associated with patriotic morons who hate society. They hate learning, they hate science, they hate arts, they hate anyone who doesn’t look exactly like them and behave exactly like them. They seem to be fixated only a few very dull topics. Mostly a cynical and cerebrally lethargic addiction to one of the many forms of Christianity available in their hometowns, and firearms. I say they are lethargic because they mostly aren’t too uninterested in knowing what their old books actually have to say. It’s more a team adherence. It is part of their birth piety, and having very little else going on in their lives the accidents of their birth, the basic cultural items surrounding them become matters of irrational pride. These people will kill you for what they believe to be the rightness of their accidental lives. Let that sink in. Most folks are too permanently juvenile to learn how to be introspective about their lives and beliefs, and instead are more likely to fight you to the death about the rightness of them. Like a deadly sports team fandom the reasoning is entirely missing. I have a friend who raves about one of his favorite children’s books, Little Black Sambo. Simply because he was raised with it, he presumes it to be untouchable and unimpeachable heritage. Religion often comes fully equipped for battle. Questioning a believer about belief, for many, is the same as violent attack. This outlook maintained is pure senselessness. You are not insulted by people trying to understand you. If you are unable to explain yourself, that’s on you. Are they even reachable with reasonable argument?

The crotch-kicking, in my view, is unlikely to convince anyone of your vital argument. It might feel good, but then so do most drugs.

In my view, jumping to the punchline here, paying your taxes is patriotic. Dedicating to a career of service of some sort, construction, teaching, banking, maintenance of infrastructure . . . are all patriotic. So is creating small businesses that serve a public good, even if it’s basically just recreational. Patriots dedicate to adding to the nation, being of use, and contributing to the common good. That’s patriotism. Because a nation isn’t some intangible thing with a flag waving over it, it is, in fact, people. And it’s time for a new national anthem that celebrates that, instead of war and slavery. And it’s time to stop pledging to flags and instead pledge to one another. And it’s probably time to reexamine pride, and perhaps lose some of that august indignant bullshit attitude. We’re just people after all, most of us just trying to get by.

The Curse of Grown Babies, and the Good Things that Need Our Support

Too many of our people are grown babies. They look like adults but they behave like children. Their only concern is a pragmatic self-interest. Others cost precious time not thinking of themselves. Such folks don’t engage in empathy. They look for excuses around responsibility. They maintain and live in bubbles of limited exposure to world events and culture. Like rabbits they only poke their noses out enough to whiff at the air and presume dangerous forces are at work, and rush back to the comforts of their cocoons.
Babies explore the world like this. Mom and Dad are kept in view, baby ventures away, tries kicking some sand, or balancing on the teeter-totter. When things go unexpectedly, a bug, another kid, a need to pee, baby runs back to parents for comfort.
Many people are some variation of a similar behavior. Mommy and Daddy may or may not be gone, but that’s OK because their presence is preserved in familiar comforts. Many of those comforts are in the form of baby foods, baby entertainments, and baby rituals. At the post hospital care facility my paralyzed friend was housed at the cable station was the one with endless sixties comedies running. There was always a hoard of broken people arrayed in front of the Andy Griffith, or Leave it to Beaver.
A baby can only see the world from his or her own perspective. A child covers up his or her face and you’re invisible, it is also presumed that you can’t see them. Soon enough a boy will be annoyed that the strange rule is that we hold doors for ladies. He might stubbornly cry out, “Why don’t they hold doors for me!” The answer isn’t clear, but it is culture, and culture is something that has to be taught. And it is hard to learn. It is hard to have your preferences and desires curbed. Why shouldn’t we sleep whenever we want? Why shouldn’t we eat whatever we want? Why can’t we watch as much TV as we want? Why don’t you clean up after me? It is an effort to curb, and many people never do get curbed much. Mothers may come in extreme varieties, those that dote and care-take too much, and those that barely do at all (or might be entirely missing). Both can create problems.
So grown babies want the world to kow-tow to them. They imagine that they’re at least on the right team and no one can take that away from them. But then immigrants come and liberals give them services. Those services belong to babies. Giving away those services means that there may be less services. If the service is say, petting. Well that petting should be done on baby’s head, not some Johnny come lately’s head. Someone might hold the door for Mrs. Immigrant and she’s got some weird accent and smells of spices baby has never tasted, also she dresses funny. Well, that door should be held for baby! Not for Mrs. Immigrant. And so on.
Baby’s rituals are wrapped up in religion and the famous Bible. The deadly ponderous church singing, and the looking pretty for the neighbors. Baby doesn’t really read the Bible. Baby listens to what others have to say and follow along. That’s the best. It’s easy and comfortable to fit in. If Pastor John says Rush Limbaugh is right, well that for sure is the right thing. And if Pastor John says gays are bad, well sure as bears poop in the woods, gays are bad. See? Easy! If the congregation is going to be out there protesting a movie, or a clinic, or a funeral then baby will be there because that’s baby’s familiarity.
By the way, life is difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to get a job. People in the bubble know you and treat you like a valuable player. They even listen when you talk and sometimes they pat your back and say “You’re right!” and “You’re smart!” While people outside the bubble are much less impressed. They might totally ignore or even laugh when baby speaks. Sometimes people outside the bubble disagree and even make you feel like you don’t know much. This infuriates baby and baby screams about oppression and bias. No one rushes to comfort baby at work, and work sucks.
Why isn’t baby an adult? Because no one required it.
Incidentally much of tribalism is about maintaining these bubbles of identity and comfort. Not many people are ready to let go of identity and aren’t really willing to be uncomfortable. Hell you’ll be lucky if you can get them to try Indian food.
Here is a small list of reasons why I think our place in the world is a great place. I’m not sure it needs to be called patriotism or thought of as necessary. As Americans we have terrific access to metropolitan areas that are loaded with food and culture from the world over. We can travel freely from state to state and visit friends and sample foods and arts from every corner. Speaking of arts, we have tremendous access to accomplished musicians of many kinds of old and new music from old blues and jazz to the most experimental of rock and electronica. We have writers from Faulkner to Vonnegut to Dorn and beyond to challenge and inspire us. We have indigenous people with amazing languages and religions and a long history with the land. We also have Spanish, French, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, Italians, and many more all calling themselves Americans and proving us powerful for diversity. We also respect a certain individuality of spirit. We are not terribly interested in a conformity of tribalism, but instead directly encourage our students and people to adopt far reaching ideas and ideals, and be progressive, and create new inventions and argue for better ways to do things. We can live in the trees, or the cities. We can shop at the supermarket and forage for mushrooms. And we can read whatever we want. We can celebrate Henry Miller. We can ascribe to Adbusters. We can protest war and we can thank our soldiers. And we have sciences and researchers of all makes and styles. We have research universities second to none.
We have problems too. For example, we have too many grown babies. We’re trying to solve these difficulties. It’s not easy as we’ve never quite been here before. We’ll do our best, but if the world of nations comes to an end, NONE of the great things I’ve stipulated need come to an end, because these things are made by people. And people make and support nations. But, only if those institutions created by the people are also for the people, and take care of the people as well.

An Ode to Sincerity

Sincerity Mc Sincerityface how we grieve for the loss of you. Reagan became the great communicator and we all laughed, and then Trump started hunting the Nobel Prize and we started to give up in resignation. A young fan of a middle-aged rock band lobbied to get them to play one of the world’s shittiest rock songs and they did on national TV. Of course there’s no accounting for taste unless that taste is purely a function of a marketing industry that produced not only the marketing but the product in such demand. Then taste is nothing more than manufactured. And everything we care about is really just products of corporations, including our ideals of love and accomplishment.
Watch enough blockbuster films, and absorb enough advertising at the gas pump, and soon enough you won’t know the difference between your life and whatever cliché of the day we have on hand to describe the brainless metropolis, hive-mind, or cult we all ascribe to.
Wouldn’t it be something if instead of being exactly the same idiots we’ve been since history has been recorded that we actually outgrew some of our more ludicrous activities and moronic beliefs? If you read the books of the Old Testament and read Herodotus and Homer you find yourself immersed in an ignorant and fractioned world. Little of it is about understanding or grand achievements attained through cooperation. It is largely about war and deception, and it seems that our lives are universally plagued by these same problems even two or three millennia after the description of events in this ancient literature. And then even modern people who should know better flow downhill like those before them and learn very little about how to think or be critical. They imagine they know what an argument is because they’re superbly stubborn and behave as if they’re playing some kind of team sport that they’ll get a trophy for if they just continue to claim to be unconvinced. And why should anyone be convinced, most of our most popular stories are about a kind of righteous stubbornness that leads to terrifying violence and we mostly want to reward the courageous murderers and dead for their desire to kill and die for something they imagine is worth killing and dying over (though they are mostly children who are sent into these battles, without the wits to really think for themselves). For many folks this righteous violence might be inspired by almost anything—breakfast cereals, neighborhood superiority, sexual inclinations, random places of birth, differences in skin tone . . . the list of things people will kill and die over is amazing. And it is as if there are no other human activities that we can be proud of. No works of art, infrastructure, or preservation, no reversal of destruction, no act of teaching, no achievement of freedom unattached to violence seems to create in folks a point of pride. If in fact love isn’t something we can be proud of how are we so obsessed with it?
It occurs to me that many people salve the fact that they accomplished little and have nothing to crow about by pushing their children into doing things. Somehow through family, friends, or sports affiliation people are able to imagine other people’s skills or achievements reflect positively on themselves. Some people rub elbows with wealthy people in hopes of that connection proving lucrative.
At some point people with children retire from life. Their lives with you have come to an end, they aren’t interested in doing art or going camping or playing in a band or some sports thing with you anymore. What they are interested in is creating that world for their children. Instead of the videos of your friend catching a big fish at some favorite fishing hole you experienced together, you get the video of a toddler fishing there and you’re supposed to absorb that as a kind of replacement of your own life. I’m not interested in people’s kids. I am interested in my friends and my life, not the process of retiring my life so that I can watch kids grow up. I know this sounds dastardly. But the reality is none of us should retire our lives so that we can watch kids grow. It is my extreme position that life and skills and experience should be shared, but should not stop happening because there are children involved. And what are you raising those kids for anyway? So they can turn around and raise kids? Is that perpetuation of a reproduction cycle that satisfying?
Some years ago Harvard smartypants, neurologist, and cultural critic Sam Harris was suggesting we shouldn’t lie. His essay came across as extremely naive. Like, Dr. Harris haven’t you ever worked for anyone? Lying is essential to survival. What he should have written was: it would be very nice if we didn’t have to lie. I could be on board with that. But most of us lie because lying keeps operations rolling smoothly and keeps people you don’t want in your house out of it. There are times I wish we didn’t have to lie so much. For example, why do we continually play games with relationships and reproduction? We seem overly fascinated with other people’s sex lives. Some young fellow at work with four or five kids already just fathered a pair of premature twins. They were not prepared for twins nor premature births. The situation is dire. He was poor to begin with, and now is bankrupt. Most of the folks interacting with him seemed incapable of grasping his concerns. But this isn’t a new thing, we’re all pretty terrible at grasping, or even caring to grasp, other people’s despair and conundrum. We tend to want to just paste over it with happiness and unconcern. We mentally glue a smiley face on our friends and move on. It’s a kind of triage. Imagine being a cardiologist, all day every day, dealing with dying people, their faulty tickers. You are providing a real and sincere service, that is granted, but there’s no chance you could possibly process every patient’s needs, horrors, and fears in any meaningful way. What you do is rapidly move from one to the next accomplishing some necessary duty for each.
And so, sincerity in this context comes to me from great distances. We now live in a humorless age, because we’re watching our government brutally treat immigrants. We’re watching our people transform into a great hate machine of the sort Nazi Germany manipulated into being. The “how does it happen” is no longer a difficult question, all you need is a little trumped up fear and an obsession with extremism and you can produce a cadre of idiots willing to kill and die for preposterous platitudes that they can barely pronounce. Our extremism allows for no subtle ground—drop bombs or shut up.
The legions of “don’t give a fucks” are on the march, and while they aren’t worth listening to, they manage to look compelling. They build their richass church and block traffic on Sundays, getting their luxury cars into the massive parking lot, and go pray for Trump while the itinerant workers sweat on their lawn underpaid in cash by the scumbag landscapers who will rail about their small business concerns. Ever tried slavery?
Yes I want some sincerity, but it’s been tricky in this age of fake news and cult of personality. I’m not interested in hipster irony anymore. I’ve been begging for one actual honest hippy for years. Possibly it’s Pollan and his survey of the psychedlics. That might be the best I get for a while. Or maybe it’s the Japrock I’ve been able to set my teeth into of late, Minami Deutsch have been rocking my rental house well for a few months now. At least there are a few still trying, still fighting back the tide of the “don’t give a fucks”.

What’s Your Five Year Plan

Blogging I think, for me, is just a kind of diary that a few friends can read along with you. Perhaps suggest new ideas or thoughts to excite your mind and send you off on more pondering. There is something of an exercise in it. A writing, and introspection exercise that I believe is good for us. But, if you’re expecting readership and kudos, you really shouldn’t do it. It’s a diary task, it’s mainly only going to be yourself.

Recently I was thinking about how my career plans and life derailed some years ago. And now looking back on it I wonder if I was just foolish and my expectations were too high, or if I really did somehow derail my career plans.
A popular interview question is “What is your five year plan.” I can say I definitely had these sorts of plans years ago, back when I thought I’d be in academia working on exciting species questions (though, my focus had shifted from my aquatic insect fervor when I got about midway through my PhD (which was about systematics—classification–of species)). I wanted to know about hybridization and I wanted to know how robust these phylogenetics studies were that we were revising all sorts of species groups over—changing names faster than the rest of the world could learn them. Modern systematics is dizzying, and we’ve rapidly reached the point where the scientific names (the Latin binomials) are less stable than common names. No one working in modern systematics, that I met, seemed at all uncomfortable about the ever-changing mess. After all it’s not like names weren’t changed before. Of course they were. But it’s never been done on on the scale we’ve got it on now. Based on tiny snippets of DNA (or mRNA) evidence of which we have little knowledge about we’ve swapped names around to different genera or other groups with an almost sportive panache. For a while researchers did a lot to tie some morphology to the changes, but the latest pragmatic grad students aren’t concerned. The computer gives a result and they are ready to publish as “truth”. They want their publications and their kudos and they aren’t worried about introspection or concerned about creating problems for anyone. What happens when we have more molecular evidence? What happens when our tools (computers and software) work better? Change is a good thing, after all, science isn’t a dogma . . . this is true, but is it also true that the way science operates drives a needless cohort of young researchers into the fray to use the existing, and working, binomial naming system (a unique name for each organism is the plan) to fuel their research goals and pad their academic resumes with endless papers. Shoving the deck chairs of the Titanic around while the entire enterprise sinks in value and usefulness. I suppose the metaphor of the Titanic is pretty clear there if a bit heavy-handed. Unique names need not also reflect an ever-changing understanding of the evolutionary relationships of organisms, is all I’m saying. We can understand the relationships without the psychotic mess of renaming everything we once knew the names of.

And so if you got through that, you understand my life ten years ago. I rejected some computational results I got on my leafhopper project as unworkable. I leaned on making the classification as easy and useful as possible and the truth was the old timers who had already worked on my group did a good job. The new evidence, the molecules (DNA mRNA) didn’t give me slick answers that I thought would help our situation. And once I said that, the game was over. At least one of my advisers no longer knew how to talk to me. I could not understand what his “spin” was. He wanted me to tell a “story”. He wanted me to somehow work the fact that the morphology and the molecules did not correspond in any way shape or form and that I was rejecting the molecules as being too naive (not enough evidence) to base a reclassification on. I didn’t know it then, but that was pretty much my end point in that field.
I didn’t think it would matter that much, my life had been about doing various projects. Learning new things is what gets me excited. I’d gone from an IPM weed control project to the systematics project via an aquatic insect inventory project I’d done for the Nature Conservancy. What I gave them was a nice survey of the common aquatic insects of the area. It wasn’t exactly what they wanted, but it was good stuff, and cost them only 2000 dollars. Yeah we undergrads work cheap.
My hopes once I got my PhD were to move on to a cool project about species concepts and maybe hybridization studies. In the meantime I ended up working in a medvet lab with a terrific professor who encouraged me at every turn and tried hard to get me hired. Instead I ran him out of money, though we produced a couple of interesting papers. Then I moved onto another lab that rekindled my Integrated Pest Control background and I ended up doing a very neat survey of carabid beetles (ground beetles: Carabidae, and Ciccindellidae (which are the tiger beetles)) on local farming grounds. Then, we tried to get me an actual postdoc position and failed.

Working as a temp in university life means you get fired every so many months for a month and a half and then you have to reapply for your job. I’d already done this a number of times and it was getting harder to get the job back as the professors were being given less leeway with being able to ask for particular students / workers back. Around 2011 I just decided not to come back and instead focus on building a business with my martial arts experience.
Trying to build a business without celebrity in anything is rough. Marketing requires money. And I just presumed I’d get some other job eventually. But after loads of applications and a fair number of interviews I’ve never landed anything really supportive. I’ve been lucky to have good friends who’ve helped me out. Even with part time positions at their own companies. But, in the end, I can’t afford tires for the (2002 that replaced last year’s 1998) Jeep (bought by my jiu-jitsu students) or even sneakers (I just tossed out the pair I bought several years ago to replace the older pair I’ve been forced to switch back to!).

I did have plans. The plans fell apart. It’s been a painful decade since graduating with my PhD. Maddening sleepless nights staring into an abyss of wondering how to solve the problem. I now have a bunch of young friends who scoff at education. How can I recommend it to them. I still say it’s a good thing, it just didn’t pay off for me. Young men roll their eyes, they haven’t got time for that shit. In the end, I don’t know what my plan is. The question of what your five or ten year plan is reveals a definite disconnect from the economics of real world job hunting and suffering without means. It’s a kind of insult to the struggle people like myself have undertaken. At this point, my plan is to land any job that will give me a middle class living with which I can begin to pay back what I owe in student debt and actually get health care (North Carolina did not expand the medicaid with obama care- not that the GOP plans to take care of that with Trumps “amazing and awesome health care plans”).

In the meantime there have also been health issues. I won’t stipulate here, but there have been a couple of hospital stays, and I got very lucky in meeting a dentist who pulled the three rotten teeth out and treated me for the massive infection I had in my mouth three years ago all pro bono. He likes jiu-jitsu.

Interviews are strange things. On the one hand there’s really only three things you want to know and the interview isn’t going to tell you them. The first is are you able to do the job. This can possibly be gleaned from recommendations and resume. But just the same most jobs have to be learned on the job. And so, it’s your willingness to do the job that matters, and that is number two. Do you want the job? The last bit is the trickiest. Do you fit in? Are you going to be easy or at least reasonable to work with? It’s a social evaluation that is always going to be tricky with hulking men with graying hair. I was once told I needed to slouch more so that I’m less imposing.

I’ve also been told that I should dye my gray. Ladies do it all the time and they don’t think much of it but it irked me. I couldn’t do it. If I’m not getting hired because I’ve got gray hair—and I suppose it’s possible—I’m just not going to get a job. If I’m not getting a job because of some quirky discomfort with my size or shape or vocal style—and again, it’s possible—I’m just not going to have a job. But if in fact I’m not hired because of these things I can feel nothing but severely disappointed about the trifling senselessness of it. I’ve been on hiring committees. I’ve watched people interview. They don’t do anything special to get hired. I’ve done as well or even better. My knowledge base is generally strong, but I don’t pretend to know the job before I’ve done it, and I honestly say so. I’m not a bullshit artist and I don’t think anyone serious is looking for that. Also, I hate canned answers. You can go on youtube and learn lots of canned answers to the most popular interview questions, including the five or ten year plan question.

The truth is not a sell. My plan is to land an income so that I can survive. Whatever job I get, that’s where I will dedicate myself for as long as they’ll have me. At this stage of my life there will be no retirement, nor any social security money. Forgive me if I sound grim and practical about this. None of this is my plan. And I get it, sure, retool, think outside the box, reapply your skill set–Churchill and Roosevelt, and economic national disaster, this isn’t that bad, right?

I read Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, E. O. Wilson, they all told me to do this. They all worried about the lack of technically trained people the world was definitely going to need (right about now). And I got my PhD money from a grant called P.E.E.T. (Partnership for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy) that argued that there weren’t going to be enough taxonomists in a few years, and that a disaster was on the horizon where we wouldn’t have people who know what organisms were because we weren’t training them. In the end, it’s me and I’m standing on the roadside with my thumb out. There isn’t a person in America who needs my enhanced expertise.

How can you begin to understand what my plan was?

Over-Saturation, the Mean of Coltrane and Wire, Vienna Sausages

Over-saturation is deadly. It kills me. Devastates my interest and forces me into depression. Social media is largely a system of netting your interests through your clicks and visits and then ushering all such similar into a corral to constantly feed to you. It wants you to love it for finding you the familiar. The brains behind the robots that serve you this menagerie of shit suppose they’ve tapped into your desires. They think because you like tacos or cars or women or Frank Zappa albums that you’ll be pleased with an endless parade of tacos, cars, women, and Frank Zappa albums. Maybe that works for you, but for me it’s an annoyance because I’m an aficionado. It’s not every possible individual specimen of my favorite things that I want to have contact with. My ex-wife used to like to deliver tomatoes to my plate at restaurants. When I’d get annoyed with her constant redistribution of her dreaded tomatoes she’d gaily sing, “But you like tomatoes!” I do like tomatoes but I don’t need every goddamned tomato available on my plate. Thank you.
How much of a good thing is enough? The old adage of even a steak every day being tiring has often been applied to relationships, where we look at the most beautiful human specimens around us and imagine a partner or spouse somewhere totally fed up with them. The darkly humorous version of this idea taken to the extreme is the old story of Bluebeard who so rapidly tired of the most beautiful wives (it might be said he was hard to please) he offed them in variously complex ways.
Can a machine actually locate your favorite things for you? On Pandora if I put in Wire and Coltrane (punk and free jazz, things I don’t think of as that dissimilar because of the edginess of the playing) the most usual artists that are selected for me are Nico and Johnny Cash. I suppose there’s an idea of a middle ground there someplace but I feel like there’s an unwritten understanding that those artists are the correct hipness for for basically everyone. I would never have imagined that John Densmore, the drummer for the Doors, was such a fan of free jazz, but it’s the case. And so I suppose somewhere in the mix that association could be included. Maybe “Riders on the Storm” could bounce up between my punk rock and wailing saxophone records.
My ex-wife’s mother was a collector of a few special brands of tea pots. She rarely used them for tea but had them strategically displayed around her home. These were generally expensive and fancy things that were hand cast from clay or other materials and artistry was important. One Christmas my ex spent hours on the old Ebay bidding on a particular expensive pot that she knew her mother would flip over. In those days it took vigilance to acquire items on that service, I’m not sure the bidding robots even existed yet. The funny part was that she did get this gift and give it to her mother who enjoyed it very much, but the daughter-in-law who also had the idea to chase the fancy tea pots had bought an entire collection of various pots large and small, however, she had missed a key element of the occupation and that was basically that the old lady really wasn’t interested in vast numbers of tea pots. Of course politeness reigned and everyone was happy, but the expression was clearly gormless.
Facebook is perhaps the best known active culprit for spitting out piles of things that algorithms assume I should be interested in. This is tricky business because, one, I don’t want every tomato in the world because I happen to like some tomatoes, and two, there are difficult nuances within what we love that aren’t easily registered even by clever human minds, as the discussions above entail.
So how do we survive the onslaught of saturation? How do we maintain the zeal of freshness in our romance (with all things)? It is the trick of maintaining the effect of something being a “treat” with the things we love. Keep it a treat. Let’s not over-indulge. It does sound like a diet book but the fact is eating is a fairly good metaphor for many aspects of life. One of the reasons we get fat easily is that having a meal, a special meal, one of favorite items is an easy way to get that satisfied feeling. You don’t need any help or complicity. You go buy the materials, you sit and you stuff yourself on the treats, or you do it at a favorite location. It is genuinely a kind of masturbation. Unfortunately over-indulgence can lead to catastrophic problems. And so we must learn to self-regulate. At least if we care to live longer healthier and more satisfying lives. On the other hand, well . . . it is your choice.
Luckily the world is a big place and we can shift our attentions and loves with capricious whimsy, at least, if we can afford to! Though even on the bottom end of the living economics there are some treats to be had. No doubt about it. Remarque had a character in one of his books state it flatly: don’t refine your tastes too much, you can enjoy more in life that way. I think about this when I pop a can of Vienna sausages.

NEAR DO WELL (excerpt) Listening Stops with the Ear . . .

Confucius once said that listening stops with the ear and the mind stops with recognition. And I think this is absolutely correct.
Most people don’t listen to music. I’m talking about really listening, not just singing along or tapping a foot in time to some moronic stadium anthem. I mean something about deep perception, a sort of state of enhanced-consciousness, taking in the tones and styles of the instruments and musicians and their creative processes. I’m talking about listening to the specifics of the poetry, reaching a kind of self-transcendence that lets you go entirely inside the collective bits that comprise that wavy signal, that sinusoidal form that a stereo nearly magically picks up through a needle and pushes out to the paper cones. Most people have never bothered to look at it, study it, or wonder about it.
I suppose most just take it for granted, the way we accept our collective obsession with blue jeans or cheeseburgers. Music just is. But it’s madness (like Killing Joke stomps out) that it actually works. Madness that the differences between horns and strings and percussion are nuances that can be identified.
You might say, so what? You might say, people have more important things to do, more important things to think about.
But I doubt it.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Top five albums by The Fall in descending order of greatness:
Slates, Etc.
Live At the Witch Trials
The Hex Enduction Hour
The Wonderful and Frightening World of . . .

When the boss comes back, roaring up in his newly traded-in for Dodge pick-up, he’s soused of course, and we’re busy. I’m cleaning out a sod aerator, tapping a flat-headed screwdriver into each of the sharp steel plug pullers to knock out the packed-in dirt. The boss saunters over to the mechanic’s bench behind me and belches gently. He pulls out his pistol—a little .25 caliber auto thing he likes to carry around in his pocket—and unloads it into the stained wood top of the mechanic’s work-bench while laughing in a wheezy smoker’s cough, his legs splayed to steady himself. The mechanic’s busy up front with a landscaper, so there’s no one to appreciate the bullets drilling into the dirty hardwood of the workbench but me. Tack! Tack! Tack-Tack-Tack! By shop standards, this isn’t much noise but it is rather unsettling just the same. He looks over at me through his boozy grin and I nod at him with a half smile. I add it to a mental list of the earned privileges of the working man. Something to look forward to perhaps.
The boss had been gone all day at his girly show hang-out, one of those masturbation facilities that has girls shake their stuff while men drink and make ridiculous remarks to them, sometimes even over breakfast with the “Legs and Eggs” show.
“Goddamned Monigs,” the boss laughs, poised for my response.
“What’s a Monig?”
“It’s a Narragansett Indian, only they’re more nigger than Indian! Ha ha ha!”
“Ah, I see.” That’s about the speed of it after lunch. At least it wasn’t another “That’s what she said!” joke. Often enough used when there wasn’t a hint of it being properly humorous. Man, traffic was awful this morning. That’s what she said!
This morning, idling behind his paper, under his Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour, streaked with silver, he’d held forth about his solution to the Irish problem, which was, inexplicably, to give Ireland to Scotland.
“Har har har, that’ll teach ’em.”
“What makes you think Scotland wants ’em?” I shrug, not being entirely facile on the topic, but also finding his idea entirely nonsensical. Of course, later on I find out that he’s got some kind of remote ancestry in Scotland.
I’m stuck in the back room with him, washing rental dishes in a small industrial washer that produces a lot of heat and steam. The dishes stink, rammed into green, wire racks, greasy with food residue. But he’s already on to his next topic, knowing I’m a music fan he’s dropped the paper and points out a story about 2 Live Crew. “You know about these pieces of shit?”
“Not my thing,” I say quickly looking at the paper and then away. Though I can’t deny the purest desire to indulge in fantasy about those ladies’ beautiful asses on the cover of that record, the cover image published in a tiny black and white photo in the paper, as if to suggest we should be offended by their bathing suit clad gorgeousness, the smallest one, her hair flying in the beach breeze catches my eye. As Nasty As They Wanna Be . . . as if to suggest that they’re kind of trying. Of course, the ladies face away from the camera, which, you know, objectifies them, and we’re supposed to . . .
“Niggers. These are niggers pure and simple, I’m not saying there aren’t white niggers, there are,” he peeks over his glasses rims at me, making sure I’m paying attention to his high dudgeon, “trust me, but these fuckers are niggers,” his finger thumps in a kind of time with his offensive rant.
He, of course, is much more offensive, as far as I can tell, than anything 2 Live Crew produced. “Me So Horny” is just trashy musical porn from all I can gather. The hooker, the Vietnamese one, ripped off from the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket saying “me so horny” over and over. I’m not sure I understand the boss’s outrage beyond the fact that they are bold black men making money with porn-influenced rap. There is a stack of trashy and somewhat gooey porn right behind the boss that’s been salvaged out of the dumpster behind the adult bookshop stationed right next door, no less, by his chain-smoking son Kyle. Porn salvaged from a dumpster. So I’m kind of phlegmatic about it. It’s a meaningless outrage, like so much of the boss’s grandstanding. That’s what she said!
But then, I’m also instantly reminded of my own paternal grandad, a typical card-playing, beer-quaffing good-fellow of Providence, spent most of his life at the Narragansett brewery, saying to me one fine afternoon on the parent’s porch, “Take that Bill Cosby, now he’s a nigger, but he’s done well for hisself”. Grandpa’s lesson, was apparently, that in our land of plenty even a man as handicapped with darker skin color as Bill Cosby has opportunity. So what was my excuse?
“These pieces-of-shit should just be lined up and shot!” the boss blusters. This is his favorite solution, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds it the way a ball-bearing rolling the steep sides of a bowl eventually settles in the bottom—he’s attracted to it. This is his gun-toting tough-guy version of “Amen”. Everything he disagrees with or feels offended by should have a bullet put between its collective eyes, and he relishes the opportunity to ejaculate this hot little sermon. You can almost see him fantasizing it behind his steel rims.
“Why? They’re just havin’ fun, you don’t have ta listen to it,” ill-advised, never give the boss a chance to wage his lazy-ass, table-side war against you. You’re handy after all. He doesn’t even have to get up to get himself sufficiently riled. “Plus, they’re making butt-loads of money off it, even banned, maybe because it was banned . . .”
The finger returns to stabbing out his points, “Let me tell you something, you didn’t grow up with these people! You grew up in a kind of Disneyland compared to what I went through. These people are worthless shits, they’ve never accomplished anything, no nigger ever discovered electricity, or invented the lightbulb—these bastids should be shot!” A bit of spittle on his lips, his eyes gleaming over his rims.
I probably could have mouthed this last bit along with him. I even sometimes start repeating it in my own macho-bullshit way, “Shoot the bastids!”, about the Quayle in the Bush, especially. I nod solemnly, he signs my check after all, Richard Morrill.
Boss Morrill often demands you behave the way he imagines he would in your position. Which is most often ludicrously. He loves to cajole you into turning against the red light, or pressure you to take the illegal left across the oncoming lane to pick up the Route 95 on-ramp. When you’re on the phone with people, he’s in your other ear telling you what to say to them, and it’s not friendly, even if you could effectively listen to him lecture you aggressively in one ear and a customer complaining in the other.
“You tell that spic es-oh-bee that we’re gonna call the police and you’ll see how fast they suddenly recall who Ramone is, ees not hee-er, bullshit!” he’s glaring at you, you’ve become the object of his rage.
He wants you to wrap some tape around the chewed up cord on the trap snake and send it back out for rental. People are forever cutting the ground posts off the electrical plugs, because the old houses don’t have ground outlets. We are supposed to put new plugs on them, mention to the customer that we can give them an adapter. But he has you send it out on the next rental anyway.
He laughs about you paying the three dollar disposal charge the garages put on your bill to throw away your old tires, but his old tires are stacked up in the back of the rental facility. He’s getting a pretty good collection of them back there. Better there at least then on the sides of the road where they usually end up dumped by those folks who refuse to be “suckers”.
We’re always counting the numbers of pressure washer spray tips. I have dreams about these tips. They are always getting lost (the quick-disconnect collars don’t always snap right back into locking place, customers pull the trigger and 4000psi of water shoots the tip off the end of the wand—gone!), customers argue they didn’t have all five when they left the shop. Too often, we don’t have all of them, and we send out the units with three or four nozzle tips (someone is supposed to record this on the contract). The boss flips his lid every time they come back with less than five tips. You’d think this would be an easy thing to keep track of, but for some reason, pressure washer spray tips are a never depleting source of the boss’s rage. He both doesn’t care on the front end of the rental, and cares too much about four or five dollar parts on the return.
Then, when he finally cajoles you into behaving the way he demands, becoming the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is, he then presumes you’re the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is!
“I know what you’re thinking, kid.”
But he’s terribly off the mark. I am never thinking the nasty sociopath crap he’s thinking. His thoughts are abysmal. But it isn’t hard to mimic it and I soon learn how to appear as one of the crew, “Monigs! Ha ha ha!”

The main trick to being a really tough-guy, is to affect being unmoved by anything, vileness never surprises, no beauty awes. The idea is to desensitize yourself so much that you kind of shrug off just about everything as exactly what you anticipated. Tough-guys anticipate everything. It’s basically a back-of-the-school-bus skill honed by the kids practicing one-upmanship, starting each rejoinder with the words “That’s nuthin’!” The murder of Kitty Genovese on the streets of New York City, occurring while citizens refused to assist her, pulled their curtains, horribly ignored her pleas, should elicit no more than a shrug and perhaps, “What did she expect?” from the tough guy. Perhaps a few remarks like, “You don’t walk around like that, New Yawk City? Alone? C’mon! A pretty girl—what was she thinking about?”
We have our own pretty Warwick girl, Michelle St. Pierre, recently strangled to death, or bludgeoned, perhaps both, left in an industrial park not far away from this humid, smelly, dish-washing steam bath. I feel like I knew her, but then I get them confused. Those newspaper reproductions of their graduation photos make them all look like a girl you knew from high school—the fluffy hair and the faraway dreamy gaze. The tough-guy attitude on these things is that they brought it on themselves. That St. Pierre girl was not behaving properly. Friends warned her to stay away from the jackasses she was hanging out with, plus cocaine probably.
After reading Das Boot and finally seeing the movie on a double VHS, for a while everything I thought about related to it: the almost childlike pleasure of the hunt, the gruesome futility of warfare, the terror of horrible death those young men endured in that goddamned bubble of air under the sea—of course, not too far under the sea, because the u-boat had limited depth capacity, safely only at a maximum depth of around 160 meters—that really surprised me. Old submarines were not really much in the way of sub marine.
“Tell me, why should I care about a German u-boat?” Boss Morrill turned on me one morning as I was telling him about the movie, which I thought did the book serious justice, “those fucking Nazis killed millions of people, and you’re telling me I’m supposed to care about a handful of them on their goddamned submarine?”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it as a story about Nazis just as a story of young soldiers who were expected to sacrifice all for their nation. But I just smiled. My interest was getting at the core of humanity. I’d allowed myself to be moved by it and that was, of course, irrefutably gay. Empathy was something no tough-guy expressed.
“Let me tell you something, my uncles fought those sonsofbitches . . . the problem with you people is that you have no memory—you’re there cheering for the enemy, trying to convince the world that it was just some kind of point-of-view, . . .” he lumbers on, filling the air with his diatribe, hating the film sight-unseen, ready to burn books he’s never read. Perhaps it’s my fault though, I did a poor job explaining it to him. I didn’t anticipate his reaction, somehow, again.
I’m continually writing my mental notes, my stories, my novels for no one, . . . no one wants this stuff, no one asks for it, but, it all goes in my notebook anyway. . . .
To be a proper tough-guy you have to find other people’s misfortune funny. Not just their poverty, or their house fires, but also their diseases are hilarious, because, obviously, sensibly—let’s be reasonable here—you’d never let anything like that happen to yourself. You have a plan, a mission, God on your side, a stack of porn you pulled out of a dumpster. . . .
The tough-guy is just like the old joke about the new army recruit who, when the sergeant says “Two out of every three of you are not coming back from this mission.”, looks at the guy on the right, looks at the guy on the left and thinks, “Ah, those poor bastards.” That’s one of my favorite jokes, seems to wrap up the condition nicely. That seems to me to actually be what gets us through our lives from day to day.
I yank the dishwasher open, pull the steaming hot dishes out of the racks and re-stack them in their green wire holders. Stack them where they can cool and dry on the wooden shelving. I’m sweating terribly. The boss won’t move. As he reads he’s shaking his head slowly in that way that seems to impart he’s imagining how deranged the world “out there” is. I remember reading someplace that the Rolling Stones got arrested for pissing on a wall in the mid-sixties maybe. They were considered very nearly something like a public enemy. Nixon even had it in for John Lennon, saw him as a serious enemy of the country. Some people saw a kind of decline of civilization based around kids with guitars.
Boss Morrill’s eyeglasses are perched about halfway down his nose. He juts his chin out and back choosing when to use them, or not, kind of like the way an old world chameleon might gauge its distance to a cricket. He is always pissed off. It’s basically his hobby. What he’s doing right now is looking for more things to fuel his rage pastime, more junk from the ProJo.
The wine glasses I can leave right in their wire racks and put the entire arrangement into the washer as is. Glasses and wire rack washed in one cycle. A blast of semi-rank steam billows out of the machine each time I open it, adding to the overall state of humidity in this slippery back room, beginning to need a hatch opened, air exchanged, a re-breather pack worn.
I’ve learned to cultivate my hate. I justify it daily. I work myself into that rage frenzy, foaming-at-the-mouth about some outrage or other. For example, a customer who comes into the shop regularly is a small elderly Hungarian Jewish fellow named Imre. Imre drives Kurt—the mechanic—crazy with his specific demands, at least once about how he wants his lawnmower blade sharpened. He only wants Kurt to do it. Imre is convinced the rest of us aren’t doing it properly, aren’t putting the proper amount of care into applying just the right shining razor’s edge on this thing he’s going to roll through his lawn and dirt. When he’s talking to Kurt about this, Kurt is at first polite, but soon he realizes his time is being wasted. Imre plans to spend the day haranguing Kurt about the sharpness of his lawnmower blade. A blade I actually sharpened.
“Kooert, Kooert!” Imre moans, and waddles over to Kurt’s bench looking like Humpty-Dumpty.
I am amazed by the fact he’s actually got a number stamped on his forearm, a relic of the fucking Holocaust.
“Da boyz, dey don’t take da time, Kooert.” It’s fine, Kurt explains to him, it’s just a lawnmower blade. That pretty razor’s edge will be gone as soon as you start cutting with it.
“No Kooert,” and here Imre does something very odd, he hooks the index finger of his pudgy right hand into the top of Kurt’s pants, right behind the belt buckle, and begins tugging, like a child pulling at his mother’s skirt. Kurt disentangles himself from the strange little man who stares through huge bottle-bottom glasses. At this point Imre has not only upset Kurt, but he’s also managed to cut himself on the lawnmower blade. “You see how sharp it is!” Kurt points out to him. Imre is unmoved, “No Kooert, iz not sharp!”
And now, of course, I’m angry at the fussy bastard. When I think about Imre I can conjure up that desire to punish the public. Imre is a Holocaust survivor, and I can’t stand him.
After an hour or so, the boss has switched to flipping through a gun magazine, settling on an article about the relative merits of 0.223 caliber as opposed to 7.65 millimeter ammunition. I prefer this quietude to when he’s reading those goofball home-invasion fantasies that always seem to be packed into these rags the way Playboy has a dubious sex forum, clearly a form of porn. They are always written in a self-congratulatory style, and Boss Morrill takes them at face value. Old folks’ homes are invaded. Patriotic, former veteran, elderly homeowners, pull out their Peacekeepers and rid the world of thugs. I can picture Rooster Cogburn in every such story. But the stories don’t end there. In another popular tale someone has stolen a JATO and attached it to his car. I didn’t know what that meant, so Boss Morrill explained that it’s a rocket attached to overloaded aircraft to help them get into the air. The story continued by describing how this fellow somehow stole one, somehow attached it to his car, and somehow fired it up. The rest of the story was a humorous description of the tires burning off the car and the car being slammed into the side of a mountain. It sounded pretty suspect, especially as the narration was having so much comic fun with it, calling the foolhardy adventurer “Swifty” and discussing how his last moments must have been spent trying to reverse the course of actions that were rapidly to end his life. I wondered aloud if it were possible. Boss Morrill just glared at me over his glasses his good humor now interrupted.
The guys also love the rage they feel when they recount this other story, too many times. You might hear this thing every day for a month. It’s about the Hispanic man who rents a lawnmower and decides to trim his hedges with it. “He sticks his goddamned finguhs unduh the thing and picks it up and trims ‘is fuckin’ hedges!” Kyle is impersonating the action, squatting down, pretending to lift a mower, mimes using it as a hedge trimmer (an awkward idea at best) “It even works for a while, but then, brrrrrzt! He loses his finguhs!” The punchline is he sued the rental company for not having a warning label in Spanish, telling him not to cut his hedges with it, and the kicker, of course, is he won! The guys stare at their audience wide-eyed, waiting for the outrage. “Crazy fucking world!” They tell this story, this obvious urban legend, which contains so many tough-guy axes to grind, as a kind of warning, not just about the untrustworthiness of foreigners, but of the unknowable legal miasma that is, more likely than not, to screw the good hard-working American. And lastly because our liberal society does not require English to be a requirement, and on and on.
Then the guilt sets in, guilt I can’t do anything about. Problems I can’t fix, people in the world, I know, who would kill to just have the water I get to drink every day. So, how dare I complain. I have a job, I have an income! There are seriously poor people in the world. I feel sorry that I, through some cryptic process of random, Brownian-like motion, ended up over here and they over there. I have a rattle-trap of a vehicle, a 1976 Chevy sport van, red, flipped once. I have a second story apartment I share in West Warwick with two mates. My own bedroom is tiny but nice enough, a twin futon, a book pile, a boombox and a turntable, a Sansui—I was talked into buying even though it’s a weird linear-tracking turntable and often has difficulties playing albums that have sides longer than the usual eighteen minutes or so. Maybe I should stop complaining so much, I’m lucky. Though I did get that stinking speeding ticket on the connector to Apponaug, cop was rude too, assuming me a thug. I’m just trying to get by, just trying to get to class. Another fantasy, trying to climb the ladder through the education system.
I load another set of dishes in the steam and greasy chemical stench of the washer. I wish the boss would get the fuck out so I can put the radio on. So I can relax a bit. So I can maybe look over the paper. Monday morning dish-washing is a chore, but I don’t mind it if I’m left alone. There’s not a lot of pressure about keeping busy as long as the dishes are getting done. Kyle and Kurt hate doing the dishes and will stay away from the back room as long as I’m taking care of it.
So keep the mouth shut and do the dishes, don’t argue with the boss. Don’t encourage his hanging around. It is the best job I’ve had so far, hell, I can sleep at night, . . . there are even some benefits. And considering what it costs to pay rent and feed the gas tank, back and forth to the university, (I put courses on credit cards!). . .
I return to my mental notes, these ideas and feelings I scribble in notebooks. These become ranting letters to friends, or superbly self-indulgent poetry and ludicrous missives to girls I really like, who, I no doubt, bewilder. . . .
Frankly, the fast food starts to lose its flavor, and the “freedom” we’re all supposed to be so grandly infused with, so we don’t forget how special it is, like soft-serve dropped straight from heaven into our wide-open, fat mouths, well, it doesn’t seem like much in the way of a life. But, we do get compensated for it. That’s why they call it work, right? And, we kind of allow this, right? We kind of agree to be working our way toward a middle-class. Not just being slaves, but living lives worth living, or at least, maybe looking forward to that down the road. Living lives with value, if we just put the hours in. . . .

More about Insult, Heritage, and Identity

I had already prepared myself for what I knew would be a particular old fella’s outlook on the world. A salt-of-the-Earth type, hard-working, doing it the right way the first time, former prison guard captain and tobacco farmer’s son (pulled tobacco from when he was six to nineteen). He was well in his seventies and looked every day of it, lots of miles. He grew up just a few miles outside the tiny brick town of Benson, North Carolina. He married a girl right down the road and traveled to the big city of Raleigh for work for thirty odd years until he took up painting houses and then he ended up all over the triangle area. I did not ask but I am sure he is a stalwart church-goer, likely proud to the core of having spent his life and times in the limited fishbowl of small town life. He likely considers even bagels communist and only missed one or two days of shaving in fifty years. He was quite likable despite his attitudes and predictable rants. I only asked him the leadership style questions, “Do you recommend corrections as an occupation?” No he does not, because “Them prisoners got it better than we do.” “How do you keep from getting drips when you roll that paint?” After a long discussion of technique he added, “not like them Mexicans.” I had NPR on with 1A talking a bit about Paul Ryan saying he is leaving his Speaker of the House position to be with his family. One of the panelists happened to be a lady who took Ryan to task a bit about the timing and possibility of the GOP losing grip on the government, and our old feller took some umbrage at the lady, not so much against her point, but that he was offended by her voice. Women don’t need to be making such comments (undoubtedly a Southern Baptist). And it lead rapidly into a defense of men (none mentioned by name) in sexual abuse cases. I am ashamed to say I merely nodded along. I can’t imagine there’s much sense in picking a fight with a senior citizen I’ll likely never meet again, but it does irk me that I’m stuck listening to hate and uber conservatism through my politeness and desire to maintain peace and a job. Why can’t folks just stick to their base of knowledge. Our elderly friend knows a lot about prepping walls and applying paint. He is in no hurry, and sands the walls by hand for several days, collecting every scrap of dust in a dustpan held in his left hand. Occasionally he hums to himself some sparky tune which made him seem like he might be an upbeat sort of fellow, and he occasionally was. But after knowing me only for a few minutes he was sharing his angst about foreigners and the terrible work ethic of young people. At one point some of the fellows on one of the job sites called me to have me deliver some parts they required, and I hung up the phone after getting the address and joked, “Well I’ve got something to do!” He piped up, “It won’t hurt ya!” I didn’t raise my eyebrows, nor incline my head. I merely chuckled and headed to the door with the parts.

This is the regular level of hate and anxiety that fills the heart of a tribalistic being. We aren’t alone in this, nor are we especially rancorous about it. I’ve seen it everywhere. I’ve seen the pride (pride not for accomplishments but instead for the base level of geographic birth, skin color and patriotism–the least of qualities) and I’ve seen the lack of reason and humanity. I’ve heard the phrase, “You want me to tell you what’s really going on?” along with the more forceful, “Let me tell you something . . . “ most often followed by a rant of tripe so useless and slovenly a KKK march will easily manifest itself before your eyes. Would it be useful to abuse would be KKK grand wizards in the ways of such racists? I doubt it. People see themselves as utterly righteous and no amount of well reasoned argument contrary to their views is likely to dispel that. So how do we convince a lout, or a movement of them, that hate is undeserved and also shockingly heinous? Our most apparent method is sarcasm and vitriol. And, of course, no one is going to learn to be properly introspective when they are on that sort of noisy and challenging defense. Therefor the opposition to hate, and the opposition to parochialism that feeds generalizations from isolated incidents, cannot simply be shaming. For example it does no good to call trump voters, “assholes”. Some may very well be “assholes”, but it’s not a useful clarification nor correctable quality.

In line with this thought, back in the 80s I used to run a little skeptics chatroom on a local dial-up Bulletin Board System. Despite the fact that the BBS really only serviced a tiny area of the tiny state of Rhode Island, I was often deep in discussions with religious faithful as well as a wide range of pseudoscientific bullshit. I was young and energetic at the time and I think the fact that I, and my few friends of science, utterly failing to convince anyone of much of anything, didn’t quite reach me. I was happily typing away for hours, long-winded and citation laden essays, debunking everything from ghosts to bigfoot to a personal and active god in our lives. All of it largely for nothing. And when I say I did this tirelessly I mean like I was going to get a Master’s degree for it. I worked at this, like it was a kind of beloved job. And I literally was getting nothing for it. Why did I do it? Because I wanted to champion reason and science over nonsense and faith-based beliefs. It took me years to realize that I had had absolutely no effect on anyone that I aimed my diatribes at. I collected Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, I talked to Phil Klass about UFOs, I talked to James Randi about all manner of goofball beliefs. I had sort of hobnobbed with my heroes at the time, but they also didn’t discourage me. I must admit that my interest was a kind of identification with heroes. I became somewhat obsessed. I went back to school because Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (both skeptics) separately recommended it.

The Amazing Randi had just offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove dowsing worked. Self proclaimed “never-fail” dowsers showed up and were unable to mark the buried pipe with running water in it. Excuses flew, but the fact remained, they failed the test. Has it gone away? Absolutely not. I will admit I haven’t seen a good ESP, channeling, key-bending, or hypnosis demonstration in a long while. They’ve gone out of fashion in more recent years, but are likely to return someday when some charismatic celebrity picks it up. And the fact that UFOs are still best known from very old photographs and these days even meteors are caught on digital cameras burning up in the atmosphere you’d think would put a hole in the whole wacky, shitty, blurry-thing-on-a-picture UFO shtick, but that’s also bound to keep going. Most recently belief in a flat Earth is on the rise. Do people really believe such nonsense, or do they identify with the counter-culture, distrustful outlook that is so prevalent in certain stubbornly antagonistic folks?

It certainly isn’t just a matter of being stubbornly antagonistic though, it has a lot to do with identity. Many southern folk who know almost nothing about actual history, and couldn’t give a shit less about reading a Shelby Foote tome are nonetheless dedicated to the premise that their geographic forebears need their defense. People love a good challenge to a presumed “heritage” (as if it were heritage only a few owned). Few things can raise the ire more than an insult to a beloved—if mostly forgotten or entirely unknown—history. In fact, I’d argue that that’s more what the war was about. That’s what drew the soldiers, and that’s what motivates young people to take up arms and suffer tremendous hardships , the insult to identity and heritage (it gets them off the farm!). The North expected the war to be over rapidly, portrayed the Southerners as disease ridden and limp, and promulgated the idea that they’d walk right over the hookworm ridden Confederate soldiers.

It ain’t about the politics or the social argument. It’s about an emotional attachment, regardless of how irrational, to an identity. It also provides a solid chance to exercise indignation. Indignation is at least as powerful a pleasure as sex. Few of us can resist the opportunity to wield the righteousness of having been improperly wronged.
So what if dehumanizing insult were not part of a prelude to serious discussion and attempts at progressive change? Is it that hard to turn an economy away from heinous activities without the ridiculous old saw of personal attack? Could war possibly be avoided with a clever turn of negotiations that didn’t require so much fundamental antagonism? In the US, in Ireland, in the Middle East? Is it too much to ask to be aware of the emotional attachment to identity and avoid the potential of rubbing faces raw with childish insult? Probably not, it’s possibly too much to ask to expect human beings to not pounce directly on one another’s most vulnerable aspects. So we reap what we sow every time.