Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Letter to an Old Friend

            Wow, it was great to get your card, man. Years been slipping by, right?
            Anyhooby, we’re all good here. Ruthie pulled a twofer this summer—finished school and married Ben, pretty much on the same day. You’ll be happy to hear that Ben has accepted the responsibility of keeping music at the center of our little family. What about Jakob? Looked like the Wallflowers’ reunion album did well. And touring with Clapton? Helloooo. Of course, none of that changes the fact that you have a child who’s 45 years old.
            So I was just recently watching that YouTube video of “Forever Young” and you know how it has that clip of you meeting the Pope? I get such a kick out of that. Just wish my parents could’ve been around to see it. “I can’t believe you listen to that whining.” Lordy. How many of us kids had to hear their parents utter that galling pronouncement. Well, they’re all gone, and here you are, still rocking the free world, and while you’re at it, meeting popes and presidents and collecting all manner of medals and shit. Thank you. Our vindication has been complete.
            But it was never really about the fame and fanciness, was it, Bob? At least not entirely, right? I don’t want to get all sentimental on you, but you were singing songs in the ‘60s that made a difference in how a generation—my generation—saw the world. Still sees the world.
            Remember “Oxford Town”?
                        Oxford town just about noon
                        Everybody singing a sad tune
                        Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
                        Somebody better investigate soon
Nineteen sixty-three, Bob. You and Suze on the cover of Freewheelin’. I was in tenth grade, man. Did not know shit. Or off the same album, dropped in the middle of one of your funniest songs:
                        I was out there paintin’ on the old wood shed
                        When a can of black paint it fell on my head
                        I went down to scrub and rub
                        But I had to sit in back of the tub
            Then, just a year later, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”? Bob, that was deep. I don’t think there were a whole lot of people looking at Medgar Evers’ murder in just that way. (I’m tempted to observe that the song is even more relevant today, but (a) you know that and (b) no need to get started.)
            And with Kennedy deciding keep the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, here you came with beauts like “Masters of War” and “With God on Our Side.” Tell you what: if all those parents had ever actually listened, they really would’ve been horrified. But at the same time we got songs like the hilarious “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” with another one of your timeless—and increasingly unheeded—messages: People, stop taking yourselves, and me, so damn seriously.
            Okay, okay. I know I’m just embarrassing you. But it’s Christmas, Bob, and I’m in the mood to count blessings. Fifty years’ worth.
            Thanks again for the card. So great to hear from you. And next time you come through Atlanta, you better come out here and spend the night.

Cheers, John 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Brief Treatise on Hating

Sure, it can be fun. Dede, for instance, is a terrific hater. Her favorite verb is “hate.” I hate winter. I hate the Falcons (not just this year). I hate this sink. I hate all the fiction in The New Yorker. But none of this hating amounts to anything. It’s just her vivacious way of expressing herself.
            My guess is that most of us take our hating a little more seriously, a little more warily. We’ve seen the power and the glory, you might say. I hated a guy I was in graduate school with. No reason. I just did. And I mean I really did. Hated his clothes, his hair, his voice, his face, his walk—maybe especially his walk, since our entire relationship consisted of occasionally passing one another in the hallway. I absolutely loved hating this guy. Why? The dark god was speaking to me, telling me how beautiful I was.
            I’ve probably failed to convey just how harrowing this experience was. But, then, who hasn’t been there? What we all have to learn is how to manage our hating.
            Me, for example—I’m trying to be careful about how much I hate the process of “logging in.” I hate it, certainly, just as I hate the words, “your account.” And it’s not just because I’m less than perfect at keeping track of my passwords. (Really, really hate passwords.) It’s because I don’t want to log in. I don’t want to have an account. I don’t want to come up with another goddamn password. I’m sixty-six years old, and I just want to do what I want to do without having to do a thousand other goddamn things first.
            But you see how I’m managing. This is rational, well-regulated, and justifiable hating. Just never assume that it’s over, that you’ve won. A thousand times a day I hear her sweet whisper: Throw it, John, throw it!  You don’t have to be a wienie-butt all your life. But that would be irrational, my better self reminds me, especially since I would have to drive straight to Staples and get a new one. It won’t happen. I’m good.
            We all have things we hate—airline travel, the Aflac duck, Atlanta traffic (still in the A’s, you notice). . . .  But let’s don’t hate ourselves for hating these things. This kind of hating is doable. Who doesn’t resent the tedium and indignity of the airport security line? Who hasn’t wanted to hurt people who have 40 things to put in the overhead bins? Who doesn’t despise the corporate thugs that designed the spine-killing seats and then crammed them on top of one another? Or felt the old blood pressure spike at having to breathe the toxic air circulating and recirculating throughout the cabin? The important thing to remember is that you are experiencing—and therefore releasing—these feelings in a safe environment: a pressurized cabin 35,000 feet above the ground.
            OK. Full disclosure. There’s one thing in my life I hate without control, and it’s probably destroying me. It’s an evil that affords such pleasure that all the rage and frustration I endure in its pursuit are suddenly forgotten. Then I realize that the rage and frustration are sniggering behind my back. It’s a siren that calls me to make the same mistakes, over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year. When I do make these mistakes, she laughs at me and humiliates me in my anguish. The more I hate, of course, the more it holds me in thrall.
            Here’s what worries me: That when my last day is done, the author of my obituary will choose to overlook all of my remarkable achievements but will record instead for all posterity that “he loved ****.”
            Man. I'm really gonna hate that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

All Kneel!

Early Sunday I walked outside to dump the compost and ran smack dab into one of those perfect December mornings—the world awash in new yellow light, deep blue sky through leafless branches. My anxious mind was reassured: It’s still here. I can still touch it.
            I poured myself a cup of coffee and settled down with my e-paper, only to read that America’s nuttiest nutbar, Wayne LaPierre, is still on the loose. Talk about transcendencekill.
            Not to blame the messenger, but it was the AJC’s Alan Judd who took the opportunity—two years after the Newtown shootings—to analyze the NRA’s confusing attitude toward the mentally ill. It appears that while NRA frontman LaPierre blames mental illness, rather than the ubiquity of firearms, for mass killings like the one in Newtown, his organization recognizes that crazy people constitute a key segment of the gun market. Really. In the two years since Sandy Hook, LaPierre has been ranting about maniacs running loose and pushing for a nationwide database  of the mentally ill, while the NRA has been lobbying state legislatures, like Georgia’s, to expand the gun industry’s customer base by making sure that the mentally ill can get guns too.
            Once you hack your way through the jungle of irony, you see that it makes perfectly callous sense. LaPierre gets to pretend that he cares and his organization gets to push product.
            Now, back to the irony. LaPierre’s constant message is the danger that lurks, the “maniacs,” the “lunatics,” “the unknown number of genuine monsters” walking our streets. He means to scare the hell out of us and apparently does a fine job of it—even without having to add that all these crazies looking to light up a schoolroom or shopping mall are in fact armed to the teeth, thanks to the NRA. About the only thing a sensible person can do is buy a gun, or two.
            More irony? I am scared. I’m scared of Wayne LaPierre. Not just because he’s crazy, but because he’s so good at it. On Meet the Press, just nine days after the Sandy Hook shootings, LaPierre came across as a college professor at the end of a long day, exhausted from having to repeat the same obvious truths to dull-witted students. Interviewer David Gregory played his role well, insisting on wandering down the same irrelevant pig path: So guns don’t figure into your thinking at all? David, David, let me tell you what the American people want. . . .
            I found the Meet the Press clip, but my quick browse through the digisphere failed to turn up anything juicy about LaPierre. He was born in New York and grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. His father was an accountant; the family was Roman Catholic. He’s been a career lobbyist for and officer of various conservative organizations, and in 1991 he became CEO and Executive Vice President of the NRA.
                What had I hoped to find? How about an advanced degree in necromancy—or psychology at least. Because, friends, this guy has pulled a mighty mindfuck on America. He has turned the standard misreading of the Second Amendment into sacred text: Shoot anything that stands between you and all the guns you want. And he’s apparently convinced an inordinate number of people that a reversion to barbarism (good guys with guns v. bad guys with guns) is the rational way forward.
            It’s crazy. It’s scary. And, for reasons easily divined, our elected representatives eat it up like a hot fudge sundae. Judd reminds us that after those 26 deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary, gun-control advocates and at least a brave handful of public officials, including President Obama, figured it was time to push back. Gently. Just the easy stuff—some restrictions on assault rifles maybe, or background checks on gun buyers? No and no. The NRA wagged its finger, and not a single gun-control measure was taken up by Congress.
            Which makes me rethink the whole deal. Yes, the gun fetish is crazy. The violence that shapes our culture is crazy. But the dapper guy in the gray suit and wire-rimmed glasses, the guy with the million-dollar salary and more power than a whole capitol city full of politicians? Hey, Wayne LaPierre is living the dream.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Nap Reconsidered

I come from a long line of accomplished nappers. My grandfather, after presiding over his generations at the family lunch on Saturday, would take to the couch at the far end of the one big room and, while the adults talked their loud talk and grandchildren one after the other let the screen door slam shut behind them on their way outside, would stretch himself out and immediately settle into a gentle snore.
            My mother raised five children. For her the nap was an elusive dream, her pursuit of it a furtive obsession—then, later, luxurious reward for the hard-won empty nest.
            So I've had ample opportunity to study the nap, to appreciate its subtleties and to try to clarify the several misconceptions that cloud our understanding of the thing.
            First, who should nap? I would lay it down as a general rule that anybody who can nap should nap. Notice that lets out all type-A people—people who wouldn't know a nap if it walked up and caressed their tension-wrung neck and shoulders, people whose apparent contempt for the nap (I don’t have time for that) actually masks a sad failure to contemplate the full-dimensional life.
            It lets in all the rest of us, we who knew the meaning of balance long before the concept was coopted by our consumerist culture. Take me, for example. I play golf, write a blog, and pet the dog. Sure, there’s a certain urgency about that kind of day, but I refuse to let any of those pursuits become so important that I can’t squeeze in a short one at some point during the afternoon.
            So is that the best time to nap—the afternoon? There are no rules here. Many a mid-morning, when the caffeine buzz has calmed and the discordant jangle of the creative process has momentarily quieted, I have heard the sweet song of the nap. But remember—and this is a rule—you only get one nap a day. And since eating lunch is pretty much an irresistible inducement to nap, it's wise to think twice about the prudence of the morning nap.
            Any other rules we should know about? Yes, the nap is of a certain duration. It can work its magic in 20 minutes or less, but even at 40 minutes you’re still legal. Longer than that, no.  A friend of my daughter’s once told me that his naps lasted for three or four hours. I had to explain that that wasn’t napping; that was going back to bed, a far different kettle of fish.
            Other rules follow from that one, and on the same principle. One, you’re not allowed to get under the covers to take a nap. If the room is chilly, throw a robe or light blanket over yourself, but understand that the nap is not something to be snuggled into. Along the same lines, it’s best to take your nap lying on your back. That way, you’ll snore yourself awake before you cross the line.
            Don’t get me wrong. There are good reasons for going back to bed, chief among which is the hangover. We’ve all been there. We have to go to work. We get up. We try a little coffee and toast. We vomit. We go back to bed. Other, less devastating illnesses, like pneumonia, can also be reason enough to surrender for the day.
            But under anything less than dire circumstances, going back to bed is unhealthy. It suggests depression. It suggests that . . . well, it suggests that you have no reason to be out of bed, nothing to do, nothing to live for. We all know people like this, people for whom the condition of being out of bed is a dark emptiness.

            I wouldn’t presume to advise, but I’ve got four words: Golf. Blog. Dog. Nap. You talk about meaning.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When Dollars Won't Quite Do

A couple of weeks ago I cited some comments by Big Oil shill Anastasia Swearingen to the effect that, basically, there’s just no downside to drilling for oil. Whenever, wherever—it’s all good. She was excoriating the federal government for its stubborn unwillingness (so far) to grant drilling leases along the Atlantic Coast to the oil giants standing in line. What’s the hold-up, guys? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Just look at the Gulf, says Swearingen, where pessimists predicted an “uninhabitable wasteland.” But thanks to all the time and money BP has put into restoration, today the Gulf is faring “better than expected by most accounts” and “permanent damage seems less likely.”
You know what? That is some lame shit.
About the same time Swearingen’s column appeared, Huff Post splashed up the arresting headline “Gulf Oil Spill Left Rhode Island-Sized Oily ‘Bathtub Ring’ On Seafloor” (Oct. 27). AP writer Seth Borenstein had laid hands on a new study just out from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, arguing that roughly 10 million gallons of oil coagulated over a 1,200-square-mile area surrounding the Macondo well. Oil levels inside the “bathtub ring” registered as much as 10,000 times higher than outside it.
The study also notes that the oil is too degraded to still have its chemical signature. Which means that, you know, it might have come from any spill anywhere and just happened out of sheer coincidence to settle right there around that blown-out BP well. At least that’s what BP spokesman Jason Ryan said: “The authors failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found.”
A year ago, you might remember, a 40,000-pound “tar mat” was pulled from beneath the surf off Isle Grand Terre, 90 miles south of New Orleans. The huge mat—about 165 feet long by 65 feet wide—was actually 85 percent sand, shells, and water, so you could say that the 15 percent of oil residue (a measly 6,000 pounds) was insignificant, unless you happened to be part of the web of life on that oil-infused swath of ocean floor. Oh quit whining!—Jason Ryan again, slightly paraphrased—Look at the big picture: BP has recovered more than 2.7 million pounds of waste from Louisiana shores in 2013 alone, and only like 5 to 15 percent of that had anything to do with oil residue. Don’t you see? BP is cleaning up Louisiana!
And, frankly, BP’s getting a little tired of the lack of love. After all it’s done and continues to do, now some job-killing judge in Louisiana has ruled that the company is guilty of “gross negligence” in the spill, upping the civil penalty—under the  Clean Water Act—from $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil to $4,300 per barrel!!!  Which could mean as much as an extra $18 billion in fines!!! Sheeeesh. Comforting to know that BP will appeal, and in the years it takes for the case to be resolved, given the going rate of $24 billion in profit per year, it will rake in more than enough cash to cover the cost.
            In “The BP Oil Spill and the End of Empire, Louisiana,” recently published in the UNC Press journal Southern Cultures, Tulane historian Andy Horowitz does something Jason Ryan probably didn’t do. He talked to the people who live in coastal Louisiana. People like Karen Hopkins, manager of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, who recalled the time “before offshore drilling really started here,” before the erosion of the coastline and the destruction of the barrier islands: “This place was covered with huge oak trees. It was a paradise, and it still was a paradise before [the BP spill], but I feel it’s over now and the worst is yet to come.”
            Horowitz points out that Louisiana has the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States, as well as some of the highest rates of cancer, that oil companies like BP earn billions while Louisiana ranks third in the nation for the percentage of citizens who live below the poverty line.
            It’s in that context—of a people in bondage to an economic system that oppresses them and degrades their land and sea—that the BP damage needs to be but never will be calculated. As Horowitz writes, “Silencing work along the coast, making people fear that the food they eat is poisoned, that their very bodies may be poisoned, and that they have no recourse to the industry that caused the harm or the government that was supposed to protect them from it . . . these lessons will be difficult to unlearn and their costs will be hard to measure.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The 25 Percent

I’m not going anywhere. I got a lot of family in Georgia, and besides, there’s plenty to love here—mountains, sea coasts, the change of seasons, not to mention all those wonderful things about the South as a whole, like collard greens.
            But dang—sometimes you just have to yearn for bluer pastures. The election returns have been officially dissected, and it turns out that our two bright young Democratic standard-bearers, Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, received “25 percent or less of the white vote.”
            Twenty-five percent or less. This is the great triumph of the Republicans—and all the greater because it absolutely defies comprehension. Somehow three-fourths of white voters in Georgia have become convinced that the Republican Party has their interests at heart. I’m calling it gullibility, pure and simple. These voters don’t know what the Republican agenda is; they’ve only listened to what the Republicans—and all the howler monkeys on Fox News—have said about Obama and those job-killing Democrats.
            Point is: Georgia’s politics, and politicians, are so damn depressing. (Thank you, General Assembly, for overwhelmingly passing Georgia’s “guns everywhere” bill this last session.) But as I look around, wondering where to run, I have to concede: it could be worse.
Wait. Let me clarify: the ideas, beliefs, opinions of Georgia’s politicians couldn’t be any worse. You don’t get any more benighted than a Tea Party trio like Congressmen Tom Graves, Phil Gingrey, and Paul Broun. It’s also true that when you declare that the theory of evolution is nothing but “lies straight from the pit of hell,” as Broun, a physician, did, you’re going to get a couple of mentions in the national media.
            For the most part, though, Georgia’s leaders have refrained from becoming nationally recognized emblems of Republican inanity. Not every state is so lucky. You’ve got Kentucky, for example, where beleaguered lefties have to watch Mr. Coal himself, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, heap jowly scorn on the new climate agreement between the U.S. and China.
            Or Minnesota, which like Georgia has a lot going for it, but also has Michele Bachmann. Actually, Bachmann has decided to step away after eight years in Congress, but the damage to Minnesota, I’m afraid, is irreparable. Bachmann was in Washington plenty long to set a new record for Most Incredibly Stupid Things a Single Congressperson Could Possibly Utter Regardless of Tenure in Office. (“There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.”)
Texas has got Ted Cruz, whose TV face time is out of all proportion to his predictable Tea Party dogma: anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, pro-deportation, anti-Obamacare, blah, blah, blah. But, then, Cruz wants to be president, so he needs to be using up a lot of oxygen, "energizing the base," etc. (I’m actually worried about Cruz. He’s got the face of a Baptist preacher with the smile of a snake-oil salesman . . . oh, well, you get my point.)
            Cruz is reason enough to keep out of Texas, but he’s not a complete crackpot. For that, we have to look to Oklahoma and Republican senator Jim Inhofe, who, incidentally, will take control of the Environment and Public Works Committee in January. His plan upon ascension? “I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.”
            Staking his claim to the title of World’s No. 1 Climate Change Denier, Inhofe wrote a book in 2012 called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. You don’t have to read the whole thing; he offered a condensed version on a Christian radio program that same year: “God’s still up there. The arrogance of some people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is outrageous.”
            Yikes. Think I’ll just stay put.