Pet Peeve of the Month

640px-Poster_for_Quo_Vadis_(1913_silent_film)

I’ve decided to designate the 20th of each month as the day I’ll publish a recurring post called “Pet Peeve of the Month.”

Yes, I’m aware that the Republic is burning, that Bill Barr is making John Mitchell look like Atticus Finch, that police throughout the nation are reprising the Chicago Democratic Convention of ’68 while idiotic anarchists topple and deface statues of Ulysses S Grant because they hate the Confederacy. Not to mention a global pandemic dispatching hundreds of thousands of human beings and laying waste to world economies. Given all this, my carping about minutiae might strike some as self-indulgent, Nero picking up his Stratocaster to lay down some riffs as flames devour the nation.

Well, what do you expect?  I’m a boomer, born in the waning days of the Truman Administration, the beneficiary of parents striving to provide a better life than the ones they suffered during their Depression Era childhoods when dressed in rags they scoured the Dickensian streets of their sepia-tinted cities looking for coppers, someone just a bit too young to go to Nam, someone pampered by indulgent college professors who inflated grades to the proportion of Macy Thanksgiving Parade cartoon balloons, someone who spent his working years at an posh independent school where the only fight he ever witnessed ended abruptly when a bell signaling the end of lunch rang. Of course, with a bio like that, I’m bound to be self-indulgent.

Anyway, let’s get to the main feature, the petty thing that this month irks the hell out of me.

June’s Pet Peeve

It really, really bugs me when I’m watching a PBS nature series and the narrator says stuff like the panther chameleon’s eyes have been engineered by nature to rotate independently as they stalk their prey.

Panther chameleon, in red + yellow stress colors

Panther Chameleon (photo by Robbie Labanowski)

Really?  Engineered?  Does the creature depicted above seem to you to be the product of a drawing board?

Note to the science writers at Nature: check out Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species.  Natural Selection ≠ Engineering.  Natural Selection is a horrifically random process that includes genetic mutations, asteroids colliding with the Earth, etc.  Your use of the word engineering suggests the decrepit teleological intelligent-design argument (as if having an asteroid smack into the planet is a nifty way for an engineer to facilitate the rise of mammals).

I’ll give Robert Frost the last word on this topic:

Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

 

Now, that’s what I call engineering: a Petrarchan sonnet that through pattern debunks the argument from design.

 

 

Infectus

 

 

 

Infectus

With apologies to William Ernest Henley

 

Behind the mask that covers me

As I wander from store to store,

I mutter a curse to the gods that be

For this panicky pandemic bore.

 

In the fell clutch of quarantine

I’ve winced and whined and moaned.

Stuffed my face with fattening cuisine

And spent my days and nights dead-stoned.

 

In the paper towel aisle,

An empty shelf stretches forth.

Looks like it’s going to be a while

Before the Bounty comes to port.

 

I can’t go see the Rolling Stones

Or watch the Braves on Fox Sports South.

Nothing but Twitter on the ol’ iPhone

Where you-know-who is running his mouth.

 

Surveillance, Non-Adventures in Paradise

Banksy Cheltenham

During the Easter Break of 1971, my senior year in high school, I accompanied my compadre Tim Miskel on a 400-mile excursion to Cocoa Beach in his red TR4 convertible.  The deal was that I would provide gas with my mother’s Citco credit card, which she had generously lent me for the trip – though I had told her our destination was Myrtle, not Cocoa, Beach.  Her receiving credit card bills later from exotic locations like Sebastian’s Inlet, Florida, was troubling, but that would be a month away, and back then a month was an eternity. Cocoa was a surfing mecca. It would be Kerouac, On the Road, Easy Rider, and all that be-bop.

TR4

Except for fueling in Summerville on the way out and in Walterboro on the way back, I was able to use cash for gas in Georgia and Florida and thus managed to escape detection, a feat impossible for contemporary miscreants, at least for miscreants with vigilant parents equipped with the latest technology.  In 2020, moms and dads can trace in real time on computer screens blinking blips that pinpoint their offspring’s progress as they make their way to those unsupervised parties.  

Perhaps because of my parents’ childrearing liberality, I, too, provided our two sons with lots of space, with such long leashes that when Ned was in high school, he accompanied his college-aged brother Harrison on a spring break trip to Munich.  

Did underage Ned drink beer at the Hofbrauhaus?  Did we speak only once via cellphones that weekend? Has Kellyanne Conway undergone plastic surgery?

The answer to all three questions is yes.

I also remember when Ned served as a host for one of the new 9th graders of Porter-Gaud School’s class of 2008, a well-meaning woman approached me at a welcoming get-together to ask if my wife and I would like to join a group they had formed to meet regularly to discuss their children’s activities.

“Absolutely not,”  I said, with perhaps too much emphasis.

She seemed truly surprised.  “Why not?”

“I don’t really want to know what they’re up to.”

She seemed incredulous.

“Didn’t you sneak out of the house and drink beer and make-out in the backseats of cars in high school?” I asked.

“Things were different then,”  she said.  “Safer.”

Actually, I disagree about the safety factor, about the South Carolina lowcountry of the 2000s being more dangerous than it was in 1970, but I didn’t feel like describing the chain fight I witnessed outside of the stadium after a Summerville football game or my hitchhiking encounter with mass murderer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins or the murders committed by Richard Valenti on Folly Beach in 1973.

Unfortunately, this parental surveillance now includes 24/7 access to their children’s grades.  Today, if little Mason or Madison blows off a reading assignment and gets a 0 on a pop quiz, parents Karen and Bob can log onto Net Classroom and check their weekly progress.  Some of our more neurotic ambitious parents check Net Classroom as often as day-traders do stock quotes.  Seasoned political junkie that I am, when I taught, I waited until Friday afternoons to post grades the way political campaigns release damaging information after the evening news on Friday nights, in their case to bypass the news cycle, in my case to make Bob and Karen less likely to contact me on the weekend.

If this system had been in place when I was in high school and my parents employed it,  I would have spent those turbulent four years caged in my room.  Chances are, though, they wouldn’t have.  I think my father went three years without ever seeing any of our report cards, thanks to my mother’s wise discretion.

Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man Studying

Obviously, in this age of celebrity, people don’t value their privacy as they once did, a reclusive Garbo being the exception to the full-exposure Kardashian rule.  Not only are our backyards available for anyone to peek into from above via Google Maps or low flying drones, but on sidewalks and in hallways, parking lots, and supermarkets, our movements are being constantly monitored.  Indeed, a restroom may – and I stress the subjunctive – may be the only place in public where we’re not being spied on with surveillance cameras.  

I wonder if nowadays Tim and I would have dared to make the trip.  If we had, a complicated web of lies would have been necessary, as parent and child would be linked via a cell phone, and I’ve never been good at lying and have always tried to avoid mendacity unless absolutely necessary – this trip to Cocoa an exception. As my unrelenting bad luck would have it, there happened to be a podunk rock festival in Myrtle Beach that weekend.

“How was the rock festival?” my mother asked sarcastically when I got home.

“Rock festival? What are you talking about? There wasn’t any rock festival.”

And there hadn’t been – in Cocoa Beach. She got out the paper and slapped it down on the kitchen table. On the front page screamed an above-the-fold photograph of mass cavorting.

Damn, maybe we should have gone to Myrtle Beach instead. I don’t in fact recall much about the trip to Cocoa.  I remember the wind whipping our long locks as we drove with the top down through Georgia and Florida on Highway 17S. I remember our hooking up with Adam Jacobs, Robbie Summerset, and the surfing Kowalski brothers from West Ashley.  We saw Gimme Shelter at a Cocoa Beach theater.  I remember choppy waves breaking at low tide at Sebastian Inlet and envying the surfer asleep with a girl in a van the first night when I froze my ass off trying to lose consciousness in the uncomfortable confines of Tim’s car.  

In fact, we decided to split the second night, and heroically, Tim drove through the wee hours for a predawn arrival home.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we were free enough to make the trip because it was, if not an adventure, out of the ordinary, something I can write about as opposed to the blurred repetition of the days before and after the trip, those days having tumbled through the hourglass of my life into oblivion.

Tim Miskell, circa 1970

All the Disconnected Connected People

Do you know the TS Eliot poem “Preludes?”  It’s one of those early 20th century extended sighs where the sum of disjointed parts equals alienation. Walking through smoky London, we encounter a progression of fragmented images: “grimy scraps of withered leaves,” “broken blinds and chimney pots,” “faint stale smells of beer from the sawdust-trampled street.”  

At one point, Eliot writes

One thinks of all the hands

That are raising dingy shades

In a thousand furnished rooms

Oddly enough, Eliot’s lines came wafting up from the mental basement I had stashed them in as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday. 

Before I wax unkind, let me say that I find Twitter a useful tool in information gathering. On election nights, it’s invaluable, providing returns much faster and more eclectically than broadcast television. 

I follow mostly journalists and writers I admire, who hook me up (as we heroin addicts say) with links to The GuardianThe EconomistMother Jones, etc. 

And some of the personal stuff is cool. Yesterday, Emily Nussbaum and her husband Clive were drunk on Scotch wondering if they could pay people not to do podcasts.

On the other hand, some of the people I follow retweet “fellow resistors,” as they call themselves, seem needy as they plead for more followers (“I only need 650 more to hit 10K”) or whine about their lack of a birthday party during the quarantine or announce to the world that their parent or spouse or Pekinese has just died and that they are devastated.  What they want, I assume, is an astronomical number of hearts illuminating their posts, equating quantity with quality. What do you say to a stranger who’s grieving?  There’s, in fact, little you can say to a loved one. Hugs help, but I doubt that virtual hugs do much good. 

Still others cultivate a cult following, young cynical clever know-it-alls who consider not wearing a mask the equivalent of assault and battery, the flip side of those who consider wearing a mask an act of ovine cowardice. You rarely meet anyone in the middle who might wear a mask indoors but eschews one sitting on a park bench by himself. 

Anyway, it seems that many of these people spend the majority of their days and nights on Twitter, which to me conjures the lines above, though I should probably update them:

One thinks of all the thumbs

Keying internet messages

In ten-thousand domestic settings.


Not Among School Children

For whatever reason, in the second half of my teaching career, the last fifteen years or so, I became much more lenient.  In fact, one of the reasons I decided to retire was that I thought I was becoming too lackadaisical. When colleagues complained about slacker advisees from my homeroom, I didn’t rebuke the advisees. After asking them if everything was okay, I informed them that Mr.or Ms so-and-so was complaining to me about undone homework or subpar test performances, so they needed to talk to the teacher and rectify the situation. I rarely if ever called their parents myself.

In the olden days of the previous century, I would have warned the underachiever that in China or India youthful competitors were going to school eight hours a day year-round and would be competing with them economically on a global scale. “Why pay top dollar for an American CPA,” I would ask rhetorically, “when I can electronically send my taxes to Mumbai for a fraction of the cost?”  I’d point out that their parents’ wealth (I taught at an independent school) would be divided among their siblings, that the moment they graduated from college, they’d need health insurance,[1]that they were very likely as adults to suffer a lower standard of living than they’re accustomed unless they put their all in all into their studies. Then I might wax more spiritual by pointing out the cultural riches they were squandering – the elegance of algebraic formulae, the grand sweep of history, the thunder of Milton, the dirges of Keats. The more you know the more interesting you are, I’d tell them. “You don’t want to be an ignoramus, do you? Ignoramuses are boring.”

The older I got, though, the more I remembered what a slacker I had been in high school.  I mostly read my English assignments and history assignments, scratched out my papers on time, but I hardly gave math or science the time of day (or night, to be more exact). In my last few years as a teacher, when worn out Bennington (male) or Mason (female) laid their sleepy heads on their desks, I’d let them snooze. If they were that exhausted, I figured sleep was more beneficial to them that morning than the smug, self-righteous proclamations of Henry David Thoreau. Sometimes, if students were talking in class, I’d say.”Shhhhh, Bennington’s trying to sleep.”

My classes were still challenging, my tests still demanding, but I was less draconian in grading essays. 

Given that late mellowness, why then, now that I’m retired, do I find myself getting so easily irked by the petty transgressions of the people I encounter on the small bohemian barrier island I call home? 

This morning, for example, as I was walking my dog, I felt the hall monitor’s self-righteousness, felt like suggesting to pedestrians they walk on the left facing traffic and to cyclists that they ride on the right with the flow of traffic. “And while you’re at it, stand up straight!” I felt like bellowing.

And, oh, these just beyond toddlers, wearing their colorful little helmets, wobbling on their tiny bikes in the middle of Hudson Street. Haven’t their parents heard of natural selection? Don’t they realize that texting teens barrel up and down these thoroughfares?  Have they not noticed the memorial cross on the corner of 2nd and Cooper where some drunkard ran the stop sign and snuffed out another’s life?

But, of course, I keep my mouth shut. I don’t even bother to shake my head sadly. As Yeats put it:

Better to smile on all that smile, and show

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


[1] Obamacare didn’t exist.

An Aged Punk Is But a Paltry Thing: To Rage or Not to Rage

I remember going to a Warren Zevon show at a bar in 1992[1] and overhearing some kid say, “There’s nothing but old people here.”  He was talking about people like me, an overripe just turned 39.  As it turns out, coincidentally, the show took place a day after Zevon’s 45th birthday, and despite his semi-elderly status, he put on one helluva show. His encore cover of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin,” actually stirred for an n-second the dead embers of my long extinguished revolutionary zeal. 

Of course, 39 or 45 might seem ancient to a 20-something, but to my mother, 60 at the time, or to my 92-year-old grandmother-in-law, I was only on the second leg of my TWC[2] flight to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no tourist returns.

[montage of calendar pages flapping and tearing off in a really stiff breeze][3]

Yikes! Seems just yesterday being a boomer meant you were young; now it’s a term of derision, a descriptor of someone in the market for a walk-in tub, someone whose gauze-wrapped brain is incapable of gazing beyond his own limited experience. In fact, aging is such an obsession that our local paper has a weekly column on how to handle encroaching decrepitude. 

I don’t usually read the column, but glancing at this week’s edition, I did a double take when I saw this headline: 

Aging for Amateurs: King Lear shows how to find freedom in limitations

WTF, my inner keyboard typed. Lear as role model? He ends up In Act 3 evicted by his fiendish daughters onto a heath during a hurricane. Earlier, the doddering king had disinherited his one decent child, Cordelia, and at the end of the play (spoiler alert) he carries her corpse in his arms as he intones, “Never, never, never, never, never?”

So I read the article, and what the author cites is a brief moment in Act 5 when Lear mistakenly thinks he and soon-to-be-hanged Cordelia are headed to prison. 

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

The author of the article on aging, Bert Keller, concludes

The old king acknowledges the reality of his inevitable imprisonment. Looking beyond the literal, we know what the deeper meaning here is for us: not dungeon or detention center but the limitations and losses of advanced age. Our bodies weaken, our minds slow down, hearing fails and we move around with effort. And on top of all that, now we’re shut in by COVID-19. Yet here is 80-year-old Lear, saying “Let’s away to prison” with a willing heart! That is the amazing thing. He interprets unavoidable withdrawal in terms of inner freedom.

Then again, on the other side of the poetic ledger, there is Dylan Thomas, who suggests “[w]e rage, rage, against the dying of the light,”  like my man WB Yeats who asks:

Did all old men and women, rich and poor,
Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door,
Whether in public or in secret rage
As I do now against old age?

Well, all of this is a long-winded way to introduce a clever music video on the subject, which features for a second or two my brother, the musician and actor Fleming Moore, playing a punk who has made it to his golden years.” [4]  The songwriter Killjoy says, “The song is about growing old, obsolete, irrelevant, dying, nostalgia, and being OK with all of that.”

The band is Killjoy & the Cutthroats, and the song is “Golden Years for a Gutter Punk.”  


[1] 23 January, the Music Farm, Charleston, SC

[2] Time’s Winged Chariot

[3] I prefer this cliché to the fast-forwarding of clock hands doing the dervish, spinning like crazy as the sun rises-sets outside the window.

[4] He’s the bald guy with the rake.

A Man Called Adam, a Mensch Called Satchmo

Last night on TCM, Caroline and I watched the 1966 film A Man Called Adam. In the introduction, host Eddie Muller mentioned that the film’s protagonist Adam Johnston, played by Sammy Davis, Jr., was based “very loosely” on Miles Davis. Muller didn’t mention that in 1966 Miles Davis was alive (if not well)[1] and had started a relationship with Cicely Tyson, who interestingly enough, plays Adam Johnson’s love interest.

The movie features Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong portraying a fictional character, Willie “Sweet Daddy” Ferguson. Ossie Davis, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. also co-star. In addition, Mel Tormé bops in for a number, which, for me, is the highlight of several superb musical performances, including one featuring Satchmo himself. Benny Carter composed songs for the movie and served as musical director and conductor.

Although some of the acting isn’t exactly topnotch (Frank Sinatra, Jr. was not nominated for an academy award), those above-mentioned performances, interesting racial dynamics, and its pivotal place in the timeline of civil right make the movie worth watching.  It’s a period of transition: some characters look ‘50s with their skinny black ties, others ‘70s with afros and pointy sideburns. For the most part, white and blacks dig each other, whether they be musicians or audience members in the jazz clubs.

Adam, like Miles himself, is a demon-haunted trumpeter. Years before, he drunkenly crashed his car, killing his wife and child. In addition, society’s underlying racial injustice stokes his anger.  He alchemizes this heartache and rage, blows them out of his horn in soaring, anguished, increasingly frenetic solos, syncopated banshee wails that can raise the hair on your arms (if you haven’t waxed them away).

Oh yes, he’s harassed by the police who want to see his arms, because, after all, being black is a sure sign of heroin addiction. Adam doesn’t take shit from anyone – though he does dump bulldozer loads on his agents, friends, and fellow musicians  –  and for a diminutive man gives the cops a fairly good fight.[2]

Ultimately, though, I don’t dig Adam. Genius, in my book, doesn’t excuse you from treating non-geniuses like lesser beings, doesn’t give you a license to shatter time-honored traditions of civilized decorum, not to mention nearly full whiskey bottles.

No, give me Louis Armstrong, who rose from poverty, did delinquent time at the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans, rose to prominence, became an international ambassador for jazz, but was no Uncle Tom. He called President Eisenhower “two-faced” and gutless” during Little Rock’s desegregation and cancelled a State Department tour to the Soviet Union. “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said as he pulled out of the show.

Anyway, if you’re into jazz or civil rights history, check it out. 


[1] In ’66 Miles spent three months in a hospital because of a liver infection. 

[2] Perhaps not coincidentally, Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of the noir 1953 novel I’m now reading, also gets worked over by the cops. Hmmmmm. 

Philip Marlowe Gives Donald Trump a Metaphysical Talking To

When I think of tough guys, I think of fictional private eyes, like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe,[1] hard-drinking stoics whose view of the world is as unmisted as the Kalahari Desert. 

Donald Trump would like to think of himself as a tough guy, and he certainly talks the talk, blusters and threatens, but when it comes to walking the walk, for him it takes something more than a village – it takes a phalanx of police peppering unarmed protesters – including clergy – with rubber bullets and spraying them with some species of airborne irritant we dare not call tear gas. These citizens needed to be cleared away so the President and his coterie could swagger up in front of a church for a photo op. 

Here he is, holding a Bible upside down, Charles Bronson in a platinum wig playing Cotton Mather.

What may have prompted this “show of strength” is Trump’s ire over the news that he had been ushered into the White House’s underground bunker during protests the previous Friday.[2] The Twitter hashtags #BunkerBitch and #BunkerBoy started making the rounds as did the low-hanging analogies of Ava and Adolph’s last days in bombed out Berlin. 

Alas, it would seem, at least from the lamestream news sources I rely on, the PR stunt was an Ishtar grade failure, the brutalizing of the protesters prompting Generals Mattis and Mullen to speak out against the president, which provided cover for Republic Senator Lisa Murkowski to chime in with her own tsk-tsk. 

Oh, if there were only some good news, some ray of sunshine striking a shiny object to distract us from our dystopia! 

And then, like an answered prayer, the blessed news: Friday’s release of economic data indicating the unemployment rate had dropped to 13.3%, a “surprising turnaround” that “suggested the economy was stabilizing.”[3]  

To cash in, Trump summoned the media for what he called a news conference[4] and then doused that tiny spark of sunshine with this obscene and absurd observation:

“Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. This is a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody. This is a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”

Oh, how would love to have Trump cornered in some black-and-white L.A. motel room alone with Philip Marlowe, that shamus extraordinaire, who hearing such self-serving bullshit would backhand him and snarl, “[When you are] dead, you [are] sleeping the big sleep, you [are] not bothered by things like that, oil and water [are] the same as wind and air to you. You just [sleep] the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”

In other words, George Floyd has nothing on his mind, Michael Brown has nothing on his mind, Atatiana Jefferson as nothing on her mind. 

As Flannery O’Connor said, “You can’t be any poorer than dead.”

Perhaps Trump should take a page out of Joe Biden’s playbook and STFU, and perhaps Biden should return to that strategy. Biden’s estimation the other day that ten to fifteen percent of Americans are not “good people” adds up to a lot of votes, smacks of Hillary’s “deplorables” snark. 

We need to a stop to the carnage and rebuild our Smoldering City on the Hill before there’s nothing left to rebuild.


[1] Humphrey Bogart played both in film adaptations of Dashielle Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels.  

[2] Note, budding writers, my conscious employment of passive voice.

[3] Alas, this morning’s Washington Post reports there “had been a ‘major’ error indicating” that “the overall unemployment rate would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported.”

[4] He took no questions from reporters.

James Baldwin’s Take

A friend of mine, Tom Westerman, an incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable, and articulate history teacher posted these words on Facebook the day before yesterday, the morning after the riots in Minneapolis erupted: 

I have few words for this moment. I can only say I’m sorry, and that I want to console those who are hurting and to work harder with whatever tools I have to make change. 

This moment is 1918 + 1929 + 1968 all rolled into one. 

As James Baldwin said: “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.

In my last two years of teaching high school, I taught an elective history course called “America in the 60s.”  Our history chair had approached me, an English teacher, and asked if I might be interested in teaching the semester course.  He thought that my having lived through all that trauma, having seen the unleashed dogs, Huey choppers, and assassinations on my family’s black-and-white television might compensate for my lack of formal training, so I thought, well, yes, something new, why not?

I needed, though, to educate myself in a hurry, so I spent the summer after the invitation in a sort of jazz riff crash course in civil rights, Viet Nam, the Great Society, feminism, op and pop art. When it came to music and the counterculture, I felt more confident, but, still, I had gaps to fill — the Grateful Dead’s role in Kesey’s Acid Tests, doo wop’s contributions to the Motown sound, the paucity of Billboard hits from the UK prior to the British invasion.

In preparation for civil rights, I reread James Baldwin’s 1962 New Yorker essay “A Letter from a Region of my Mind,” and in doing so, I came to realize that not all that much has changed, especially when it comes to white police officers and black citizens. As I’m writing this, cities are burning, and the President of the United is stoking the flames, echoing George Wallace’s threat, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”[1] It is somewhat disconcerting that the president, who had not heard of Frederick Douglas before his inauguration, is so handy with a George Wallace quote, disappointing that he’s not trying to bring us together, not suggesting we all calm down and take a deep breath.

Anyway, Baldwin begins his essay reminiscing about his youth in Harlem.  At the age of ten he was frisked by two cops who “amused themselves with [him] by frisking [him], making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning [his] ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving [him] flat on [his] back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.”  He goes on to say, “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.”

(I, myself, witnessed something like this in the poolhall I hung out at as a teenager. A cop, for fun, handcuffed one of the African American rack boys to one of the poles supporting the ceiling.)

Baldwin continues the essay, describing his coming of age, acquiring an education, and spending some time with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, who had become impatient with peaceful protest. Baldwin refers to Malcolm X’s observation that “the cry of ‘violence’ was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights.”  

After leaving a dinner hosted by Elijah, Baldwin realizes that “the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought. How can the American Negro’s past be used? The unprecedented price demanded—and at this embattled hour of the world’s history—is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.”

The essay’s last paragraph:

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s—or Allah’s—vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable—a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time! 

It’s been fifty-eight years since the essay’s publication, we’ve had a bi-racial president, but, obviously, deep-seated animus still lingers in many a breast.

As a black man I follow on Twitter put it, “I just wish whites loved black people as much as they love black culture.”    

Amen.


[1] Wallace was quoting Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who coined the unfortunate phrase.

A Confession

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Despite my lower-middle to middle-middle class background, despite my mediocre education, despite my all-too-average IQ, I have somehow become an elitist.

Yes, I confess that I’m one of those insufferable aesthetes who find Forrest Gump, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Dave Matthews tedious, one of those arrogant, pretentious, overbearing know-it-alls who roil the stomach acid of the vulgarians at Fox News, one of those liberals Trumpsters want “to own.”  In fact, now that I’ve passed through the gateway of old age, suspending my disbelief has become a mission worthy of NASA.   I’m as disdainful of middle brow art and dogmatic ideology as today’s teenagers are of pre-digital special effects.

For example, even though I adore Ray Charles and admire Johnny Cash, I found both of their critically acclaimed biopics unbelievable, not because I doubted the veracity of the depicted events of their lives, but because everything seemed ersatz. I kept looking in vain for some scrap of atmospheric imperfection – a balled-up napkin on the counter, dead moths in a light fixture, a shitty haircut, anything that suggested that I wasn’t consuming a product manufactured in Hollywood.

Oh, to be able to enjoy a mainstream movie!  Oh, to be able to finish a John Clancy novel!   Oh to be Rupert Murdock!

The tragic truth is that once you become an elitist, it’s virtually impossible to go back.  After strolling around Dublin with Leopold Bloom and acquiring a sense of wonder at  Joyce’s magnificent mastery of language, seventy pages of ventriloquist dummy John Galt’s lip-synching of Ayn Rand’s theory of Objectivism ain’t gonna cut it.  After forty years of listening to Lester Young, you’re not going to find Yanni interesting.  Going back would be like trading in your Austin Healey for a Honda Accord.

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Lester Young