Edited by Peggy Shaw
HOW AN ALIAS IS BORN: THE HOWARD BELKAMP STORY
Back in the early 80s, I understood there was a story that needed to be told, and I would have to be the one to do it. This story was called Redleg Boogie Blues and was originally published as a special issue of the AVA in 1997. For anyone that may still be interested, it can be found on theredlegs.com.
The decision to write the story came after a reading binge in which I devoured everything Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson had written.
I was living in Kona, Hawaii, with my drinking buddy Joe Bloss, a self-professed football fan. Late one night, we had run out of booze and Bloss couldn’t sleep, so he stayed up watching infomercials on TV. He found one with former football star Fran Tark enton pitching insurance. (A few years later, the 49ers’ Joe Montana could be found selling suits on TV in San Francisco). Bloss, sensing possibility of a scam, got on the phone and ordered an insurance card “from Fran Tarkenton.” Since his intentions were dishonorable, he would use a fake name.
But what fake name? Bloss needed to think. He went to the kitchen and ravaged the cabinets, looking for a forgotten bottle of cooking sherry, anything alcoholic that might bring his brain back to function ality. But of course, no luck. There wasn’t even much food other than a forlorn-looking can of Campbell’s soup. In his booze-deprived state, he read the label on the can as a dyslexic might: BellCamp. He came up with “Howard” and ordered his insurance card. When the card arrived, he showed it to me, with the fake name: “Howard Belcamp.” I liked it, thought it would be a fun writing alias. My friend, with good humor and a bit of mock ceremony, handed the card to me, saying “It’s yours.”
In the 7th grade, I happened on the obscure fact that it is not illegal to use any name you want, any time. Another one was that it is not illegal to drive a car on the sidewalk in Connecticut. It is, however illegal to sit on the curb. Probably a good thing under the circumstances. Having discovered this non-law, I began using a different name on my school papers every day and annoyed the teacher, who expressed his displeasure by means of cold, steely looks in my direc tion. One of the names I used was Ignatz Weiner schnitzel.
I first encountered the AVA in 1988, at Jim Gib bons’ house in Willits, and understood it was a news paper published by and for human beings, already a rare commodity those 22 years ago. Gibbons and I had just gone to eat at McDonald’s, a deliberate move on our part to “do something perverted.” While there, we saw two morbidly obese women ordering Big Macs, double fries, those hideous little deep-fried “apple pies,” “shakes” (composed of powdered marshmal lows) and diet cokes. That was the beginning of the dialog that became the Fat Letters. Back at the house, I wrote my first letter to the Editor of the AVA, a comment on Miss Mendocino and her “few extra pounds.” As a lark, I decided to use the name on the card Bloss had given me back in Kona, “Howard Belcamp.” I changed the spelling to Belkamp and the joke has stuck all this time.
If there ever was a notion of secrecy or hiding behind the fake name, it was dispelled when upon the publication of the Redlegs story, our Fearless Editor announced in his column that Howard Belkamp and I were one and the same. If there was ever a cat in the bag, it was let out a long time ago. After that, I con sidered Howard to be merely the name of the voice in which I wrote my sometimes prickly pieces. If asked, “Why can’t you be nice,” I might paraphrase Gibbons by saying, “Because there is so much to be not nice about.”
So for now, I’m putting Howard out to pasture, but he may be back.
A VISIT TO THE COUNTRY DOCTOR
The Country Doctor--sounds like a kindly old man with a black bag, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. The Country Doctor is the name of a clinic on Capitol Hill in Seattle which actually has some of the spirit of the old-time rural doc. They operate on a sliding scale, which means if you can’t afford to pay anything, you don’t have to.
Brain damage, insanity and other relatively abstract things aside, the purely physiological, demonstrable damage from my drinking and drug days is coming to the fore. My last blood test suggests the possible presence of hepatitis-C. But I’m not really here to warn anybody about the dangers of excess, or talk about my ailments (as aging Americans so enjoy doing). It’s your life and you can do what you want.
Capitol Hill is Seattle’s true melting pot, and the clinic is its perfect microcosm. Black & white gay couples, strung-out single white mothers, Hispanic families, journalists with ulcers, they’re all here.
This morning there’s been a bit of a disturbance in the waiting room. A man with a heavy German accent is reading news magazines and complaining very loudly about the state of the world. His girlfriend, the one in for treatment, smiles indulgently at the other patients who are beginning to stare. Obviously, she’s used to this. The man is overweight and wearing an undersized Mexican sombrero made of straw. Around his neck are a metal dog leash and several other chains. He’s carrying a wooden cane, a gnarly thing with a metal tip that looks like something from an old Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman movie. One gets the impression that if asked, the man with the German accent would tell you he’d already beaned a few werewolves with it.
A receptionist walks over to him and says, “Are you being helped?” He explains that his companion is the sick one.
A Mexican couple with a small child is laughing at the man with the sombrero, who is talking to their little boy.
“I’m crazy, boy.” He takes off the sombrero, points at his head, and in deference to the family’s nationality says, “That’s right folks, I’m loco in the coco.”
Now, with the boy’s full attention he rolls up his sleeves, exposing at least three watches on each wrist. “I’m watch crazy,” he says. “This one runs on an electronic tuning fork...” The Mexicans keep laughing, thoroughly enjoying the show. A gay man in black leather is mildly amused.
A fat white woman seated near the watch man is beginning to sweat and fidget. I realize that she’s terrified of this harmless nut. She looks at me for some kind of reassurance. Her eyes say, “Oh my god, this man is dangerous.” I give her a blank look and restrain myself from saying, “He might be crazy, lady, but he’s free and you are not.”
SAUSAGE OR NO SAUSAGE
A Russian immigrant and his wife came into the record (you know, CD and tape) store where I was chatting up my friend Mike who works behind the counter. This was a few years ago, before the demise of the Soviet Union made the world safe for democracy and happy meals. The man spoke very little English, and the woman apparently none at all, but we managed to communicate through gestures and his small amount of English. Are we Americans (and the British) the only people in the world arrogant enough to know only one language and expect all others to “come to us” linguistically?
The Russians weren’t interested in music; they were looking for directions to a certain mechanic’s shop. After this information was imparted, Mike asked the man if he was enjoying life in these here United States. His name was Vladimir, but I guess the woman had no name, because he just pointed at her and said, “my wife.” The wife, who fit perfectly the standard Russian-woman stereotype--dumpling-shaped with peasant cloth dress and hair in a bun-- just smiled and looked away.
Vladimir lit up at being asked about living in America, and put his whole story in a nutshell: “In Russia, no sausage. Here, sausage everywhere!” From the looks of them, it certainly seemed he and his wife had not denied themselves any sausage since landing on these golden shores, where your labor will earn you money to buy all the fattening, artery-clogging spiced grease you can stuff down your gullet.
Well, sure. The sausage was a metaphor. They were talking about having enough to eat. Or consume, and there’s the problem. How many people all over the world are dying to come to America and live the glorious-looking but shallow life of a consumer? What will Vladimir and the wife do after they’re bursting with kielbasa, chorizo and hot boudin? Will they have found the meaning of life? Or is that not important as long as your larder is stocked with knockwurst, bratwurst and linguica? I suppose they can get in their Toyota, drive to Mount Rushmore and admire the faces of the Great White Fathers in the Black Hills (carved by a Hungarian immigrant named Gutzon Borglum, probably in gratitude for hot links). Naturally, they’d see no similarity between George Washington on-the-mount and Lenin in Red Square, since Washington gives them sausage and Bud while Lenin gave them only potatoes and vodka.
After that, they can go to Wal-Mart and buy plastic lawn chairs to sit in while the wienies sizzle on the barbecue. Isn’t life grand in America?
GEORGE WILL VS. THE SIXTIES
My friend Brundage wrote to get on my case for attacking George Will in the AVA again. I really wish I hadn’t thrown away yesterday’s Sunday paper with the Will column on the fifties. The pundit has been pounding away at the sixties for years now; he seems obsessed with debunking the entire decade. No matter what Will or anyone else thinks, something happened in the sixties--if nothing else, a lot of people became aware that there was more to life than a job, family, church and tract house, and choosing between coke and pepsi. We all may have different words for it, and it expressed itself in many different ways, but it was there, it was real, and it happened. But not to everybody. Not to those who managed to keep their minds closed, due to fear, inflexibility or whatever else. To those people, the sixties was a silly carnival of silly people in silly clothes taking dangerous drugs that made them crazy, and gullible college students being duped into political and anti-war demonstrations by communists from the KBG. George Will is one of those people. He resents, hates the sixties because nothing happened to him. You know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, George?
In the Sunday column, Will praises the fifties for all the reasons you’d expect from a rightwing extremist, big-business establishment cheerleader--suburban development, industrial production, miltary might--and stops just short of praising the H-bomb as man’s greatest achievement. I believe the man actually gets upset when he hears the word “consciousness.” But maybe not, because he has a form of “consciousness” and surely cannot conceive, would not consider the possibility, of any person with a higher level of it. Or let’s call it a sharper form of perception. Will recognizes only the phonies--the crystal stroking New Age gurus, self-improvement hustlers and other types who have made words like “consciousness” and “vision” into bad jokes. Like my old friend Joe Moss said, the hippies gave us a bad name.
Will ends the piece by saying, “The only flaw of the fifties was that they were pregnant with the sixties.” The only thing wrong with my attacking Will is that it’s probably a waste of energy.
Been thinking about this nastiness business; why don’t I just be a nice person with nice things to say? For one thing, the literary/media world is full up to here with fond remembrances, gentle recollections... In the Seattle area, every weekday from 3:30 to 7:00 pm, PBS radio has talk, commentary and ‘features’ interspersed with news. Two of the shows are called “Fresh Air” and “All Things Considered.” Every day, at least one feature is some writer reading his or her material out loud on the air. And it’s usually some form of fond remembrance or gentle character sketch. And it’s usually insipid. Not always, I’ll give you that. A recent piece was pretty good, a guy from Cape Cod on the subject of longing for the fast lane, Hollywood style, seeing his life as lusterless.... then he goes to L.A., gets excited, wonders if could really fit in, goes home to again “marvel at the ordinary.” This, however, was an exception.
If there’s a point here, it’s that someone has to break the mold...let’s face it, every writing professor in the world probably instructs the students to do fond remembrances and gentle recollections, or other ways how to write in a safe way, how not to go too far and make waves. Bukowski, Hunter Thompson... Bukowski especially is attacked by Nice People all the time for being too this, too that-- the poor dears are offended by something, and what is it? It’s honesty, and it’s also talent. There’s always some John who can’t take it when someone really “gifted” uses “the gift” the “wrong way,” that is, does something to upset one of John’s little illusions, or disagree’s with John’s little philosophy--and does it brilliantly: that’s what really gets the old goat for little John. Out of some corner of my brain comes an image from Alice In Wonderland, the queen running around screaming “off with her head, off with her head,” when Alice realizes, “wait a minute, you’re nothing but a pack of playing cards..”
Do I, or anyone else, owe it to the world to fall into line, behave (and write) acceptably and not make waves? While I’m at it, another bit from the 60s-bashing Will column was that the fifties produced Elvis Presley. What outrageous hypocrisy--where was George Will and others like him when Presley first appeared? They were calling Elvis evil incarnate--a communist plot, and listening to Lawrence Welk. Now, sixteen years after Presley’s death and thirty-five years after his heyday, Will has admitted that something was going on. This will just not do coming from a man who is read and believed by millions.
MEDIA POISONING (1992)
I don’t know about you, but whenever I watch TV there’s a certain amount of self-loathing involved. What a monumental waste of time. Still, it’s a part of me; I was born in 1946, the same year as Clinton--the same month in fact--which means I’m an aging baby boomer and a member of the very first generation to be raised on television. And since my father was an electronics engineer and connected to the industry, we were among the first ‘average famlies’ to own a set.
It had a round screen, and my father made fun of the fact that my grandfather thought the people in the TV could see and hear him. There was joking about the old man waving and talking back to Arthur Godfrey. My father bitched because my mother and I wanted to watch “that asshole Milton Berle.” It was 1948, the dawn of the television era, and most programming was already crap and advertising. “Trust your car to the man with the star,” and “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”
Now, it’s still crap with lots more advertising. I try to tell myself I’m “keeping up with current events,” or “putting my finger on the pulse of the general public,” but really, when I watch TV it’s because at that moment I’m too stupid and uncreative to do anything real.
The other night I was stupid and uncreative enough to watch “Nightline,” and there was Michael Jackson being accused of child molestation. But Ted Koppel and the people he interviewed were not concerned at all about whether Jackson was guilty, the welfare of the child involved or any such thing. They were very animatedly discussing the marketing implications of the case--specifically, whether Pepsi would drop Michael Jackson as an advertising shill.
If you’re one of those people who bought a computer and consequently became at least mildly interested in the goings-on of the computer industry, you may be familiar with the following anecdote: When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs approached PepsiCo bigshot John Sculley about taking over the reins of the Macintosh maker, he taunted Sculley by saying, “Do you want to to sell sugar water for the rest of your life?”
Sugar water, with a few added chemicals. That’s Pepsi, the makers of which have at least one TV network, two multi-million dollar marketing execs and utterly silly but apparently highly regarded gossip columnist Liz Smith, shaking in their boots over the possible economic ramifications of the case against Michael Jackson.
One of the big advertising muckymucks stated unequivocally that Pepsi and Sony (the parent company of Jackson’s record label and along with Pepsi, his co-owner) would drop the entertainer like a hot potato, guilty or not. The other, obviously a Michael Jackson employee, insisted that was nonsense, that the two corporations would stand by their man.
Nowhere in these discussions was a mention of the 35-year old Jackson’s rather odd attachment to children. Also not questioned was the god-like omnipotence of Pepsi, nor the absurdity of its $50 million dollar-plus advertising budget for Jackson alone, never mind Ray Charles or all those Alzheimer’s patients who suddenly become teenagers when they drink the magic sugar water.
Meanwhile, one can only wonder what’s going on over at Coca-Cola, the rival sugar water manufacturer that owns Bill Cosby, the only entertainer in the world who makes more money than Michael Jackson. Has Cosby done anything wrong besides not being funny? Or is he just sucking on a pudding-pop and counting money?
Does any of this really matter, or is a head full of this crap just what I deserve for watching TV?
LONE NUTS AND PUNDITS
I am not a “pundit.” A pundit is by definition a “Brahmanic scholar,” or “a learned man.” Brahmanic scholars are generally Hindus from India. “Learned man” is only a secondary definition, but since I am a high school dropout, by conventional wisdom I cannot be a “pundit” either way. This is not to suggest any desire on my part to be considered as such.
Writers and journalists such as George Will, Patrick Buchanan, William F. Buckley, and their counterparts on the left, none of them Brahmanic scholars but all of them to some degree learned men, publish millions of words on the subject of politics. I am not in their league, nor do I wish to be. For one thing, I do not care at all for “politics.” The above men, their peers and their readers apparently subscribe to the notion that it makes a difference, for example, who wins elections. And it has become clear to me, after decades of observation, that it does not.
But what do I, without so much as a high school diploma, know? Well for one thing, there are college graduates all over the place who are barely literate, and even some graduates, football players for instance, who are absolutely illiterate. Name one? Dexter Manley, Washington Redskins. But still, I have no credibility in most “learned” circles because I have no piece of paper stamped with the certification of an institution.
So if I venture to state an opinion on a much-researched topic such as the Kennedy assassination, my lack of credentials will assure my not being taken seriously.
Relax, I’m not going to add to the blather on that subject. I just want to complain about something that’s come up in the big news media since the Israel-PLO thing, which, like elections, I care nothing about--never have. This week, the big papers have all had headlines using the phrase “give peace a chance,” popularized twenty years ago by an English songwriter named John Lennon.
Now since I’m not a learned‘pundit, I don’t know for sure, but I think that J. Edgar Hoover was still alive and head of the FBI IN THE 70’s. No doubt an alert and learned reader will correct me if I’m wrong. Anyway, John Lennon, the naively idealistic musician, was using his power as an entertainer to promote an anti-war sentiment. Give Peace A Chance. And for this, he was placed under investigation by the US Government -- specifically, the FBI. Lennon didn’t say anything incendiary, “go bomb a government building, Beatles fans.” He said Give Peace A Chance. And this made him a subversive. Now, hearing newscasters and government officials use that phrase, well, it pisses me off.
As everyone knows, Lennon was eventually assassinated by “ a lone nut.” And here we go off half-cocked, with no college degree or careful, tedious research to back this up, but is it not true that JFK, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr. were also: out of favor with J. Edgar Hoover, being monitored by the FBI and killed by lone nuts? According to run-of-the-mill pundit wisdom, this sort of thinking is equivalent to that of UFO goofballs and astrology weirdos.
Maybe, but there must be a lot of lone nuts out there with extensive background in clandestine operations and marksmanship, and either a seething patriotic fervor or very serious need to eliminate anyone whose message threatens the well-being of... well, you get the idea.
THE WINE TASTING
It was around 1978 when I had my first and only Northern California “wine-tasting” experience. We were driving north to Willits, to visit Jim Gibbons, the poet, athlete, sportswriter and all-around not-very-nice person who was busy becoming famous for being able to run long distances without dropping dead, and for writing stories offensive enough to get him fired from certain positions in the local education establishment.
We got as far as northern Sonoma or southern Mendocino, I can’t remember which, when, having recently switched from amphetamine addiction to alcoholism, I realized it was time for a drink. No bars or liquor stores were in sight, but just around the next curve a winery appeared. The sign said, “Tasting Room.” My wife rolled her eyeballs when I said, “Let’s drop in for a taste,” but she didn’t hesitate to join me. In the parking lot, I combed my hair and straightened my clothes in hopes of creating the illusion that I was a sophisticated, classy sort of person, the kind who discriminates carefully in matters such as wine selection.
The winery itself was an impressive building--very large and very clean, and occupying some very expensive real estate--obviously designed for the sophisticated, classy sort of person... No doubt about it, our car, a beat-up ‘65 Valiant, was the crummiest one there and looked cheap indeed next to the shiny new Winnebagos and luxury sedans.
The Tasting Room looked more like a bar than I’d expected, but a classy bar, lined with well-dressed people from the shiny cars. Nervously, thinking someone would spot me for a freeloading drunk, I eased up to the bar and in a discriminating manner read the labels on the bottles available for “tasting.” The bored-looking bartender walked over, looked at me and said nothing.
I now noticed that of all the available wines, none had a date, a vintage, or a recognizable wine-snob name. Picking one at random, I said, “I’d like to try this one, please,” as if really caring about anything but a free drink. The bartender produced a very small glass and poured my selection. I took a sip. It was junk, barely better than Thunderbird, Annie G-Strings or Night Train Express. Now there’s a powerful potion. My friend Buck drank a bottle of Night Train once and proceeded to get a can of gasoline and set his mattress on fire. At least he got it out of the house first.
Finishing the small glass of swill quickly, I scanned the other bottles and realized they were all equally low-grade material, but if I “tasted” all of them I might get a decent buzz on. The bartender did his duty as I moved down the line. Eventually I began to see the other “tasters” more clearly. Their new clothes and shiny vehicles were one thing, but their faces were a whole other story. They were a bunch of sots--wheezy, watery-eyed inebriates--here for the exact same reason as I was, a free dose of their drug of choice, and despite their expensive possessions, closer in mind and spirit to skid-row bums than wine connoisseurs.
I laughed out loud, realizing that unlike upper-class wine tasting sessions, there was really not much pretense going on here at all. This was all about nothing but drinking for free.
After sampling every bottle, we hit the road again. My wife drove, having imbibed only moderately. Leaving our tourist friends inside to repeat their samplings again and again, we knew we’d never view a retired couple in an RV or a northern California Wine Tasting room in quite the same light again.
Stuck here at the The Ranch (euphemism for my trailer in a junkyard); I’d decided it would be home improvement time, a little Spring cleaning. But here I am instead at the computer, the TV on in background droning on and on about Oklahoma City. You know, I can’t imagine Edward R. Murrow, in every other sentence, repeating words like “heart-wrenching,” tragic,” “miracle,” “evil,” etc.
These militia guys... they’re so much like the law-enforcement establishment they claim to hate. And the government is playing right into their hands by promising swift and severe retaliation. Reminds me of guys who like to fight in bars -- they always manage to find each other.
I don’t suppose we’re going to have some government official coming out anytime soon to say something like, “Gosh, with all this bombing and killing and anti-government sentiment, we’ve decided to rethink this thing. Maybe the government is wrong in trying to keep clamping down more and more on people; maybe we ought to start thinking of something besides more severe laws, more police, more prisons, more punishment, more fear of others. Maybe if the government could be more human and understanding, everyone wouldn’t hate us so much....” As Eliza Doolittle said, “Not bloody likely.”
....A large, institutional building which could have been built only by government. The spirit plummets at the sight of such places.
-- H. F. Saint
Getting rid of books, leaving the good ones with friends. Donated a huge pile of computer magazines and a couple of related paperbacks to the library. Yesterday I gave away some blankets. Today, took some stuff to the recyclers and burned a large shopping bag full of old unpaid telephone bills and other papers. Been waking up earlier, which is somewhat out of character for me. Jim Gibbons, my healthy runner friend in Willits with the 50 year-old face sitting on the 25 year-old body, says we need less sleep as we get older. Fine, but that doesn’t make it any easier to relate meaningfully to the world and those who populate it in the morning. The conversations one can’t help overhearing, for instance, at breakfast time in a diner full of fishermen or mill workers can make one lose any hope one might have had left for the human race. Speaking of which, my friend Pete has a unique theory concerning the Missing Link. Says it appeared fully enlightened millions of years ago, foresaw the advent of “Man” and got the hell off the planet.
I keeping hearing people say they want to change the system from within, to “unfuck the establishment.” Well, the establishment cannot be unfucked, and those who try to unfuck it only succeed in getting fucked themselves.
The continuing discussion about “meaningful work”: If there’s an issue it’s in how we define “meaningful.”
Making a handle for my knife -- finding a good piece of hardwood, going to the boatyard to use a bandsaw, finding copper rivets, fastening and shaping the handle.
Learning a difficult piece of music.
Repairing and painting (toxic but necessary) the bottom of my own boat (when I had a boat).
Typing out a friend’s manuscript.
Getting back to cleaning the trailer.....
Delivering pizza to obese people and enduring the boss’s irrational moods and fits.
Stocking counters with junk consumer items at a discount store.
Painting the bottom of someone else’s boat, breathing poisonous fumes, for ten dollars an hour.
“Work Ethic” also needs definition. There are things that need to be done, that I want to do, and it feels good to get them done. There is gratification in a task well done. I’m deliberately avoiding the word “pride.” The phrase “work ethic” brings to my mind the image of a stern Puritan patriarch, dressed in black, threatening eternal damnation to the lazy ne’er-do-well. I’ve written previously in this column about watching my musician friends back east drop away one by one, falling prey to the idea that they must forget this frivolous idea of being an artist and get a real, that is, miserable, job.
Maybe where the human race, at least in western civilization as we know it, has gone wrong is in the abolition of the tribal or communal way of life... by means of suburbs, profit motivation, deification of business, promulgation and celebration of uptightess, suspicion of our fellows, and false values. Even the word “community” has been cheapened, rendered meaningless by the Institution. The black community. The gay community. The law-enforcement community. The business community (that’s a good one). Demographic segments, not communities at all, these terms help to further separate people.
We relate to different people on different levels, all of equal and necessary value -- we need these different relations -- and this might explain why monogamy, with its jealousy and restrictions, its tyranny of habituation, so often fails, at least among those of us with the idea that’s more to life than kinder, kirch und küchen. Some of these computer geeks puzzle me. They get all exciting about “networking,” because for the first time in lives, they’ve attained something resembling a sense of community, but it’s through the computers, over the phone lines, and they’re still enclosed in their respective cubicles.
In the ‘good old’ days, the best of the sixties, that tribal sense was there. But then came the drug deals, the money, the phonies, then the uptightness and separation. Quid pro quo, everything a business transaction, all in the assumption that the other guy is out to screw you. The American business ethic.
Got rid of more clothes and books, defrosted and scrubbed the refrigerator with hot water and vinegar, murdering millions of microbes. Bosnia’s heating up again, the invaders are calling themselves “peacekeepers,” and republicans are suddenly becoming indignant pacifists. Can it get any more absurd?
THE BUSINESS OF BUSINESS
I went into the local Safeway market yesterday, and encountered not human beings but automatons, robots in human suits who could speak only pre-programmed Safeway-talk.
“What happened to the salad bar?” I asked a biped in a red Safeway apron. Out of its mouth came the response: “Safeway does not have salad bars any more.”
So, I went to the deli section and got a pint of cole slaw and some wretched, drowning-in-mayonnaise potato salad. At the checkout counter, the humanoid at the cash register (bar code scanner) said in a frightening monotone, “What kind of bag for you today, paper or plastic?” He looked at me and I was reminded of a bad monster movie from the ‘50’s, where the evil aliens looked so fake even the kids were laughing. Only this was supposed to be an actual living person. His eyes showed no life at all. It would not be enough to merely say there was “nobody home.” In this house, the windows had long ago been boarded up. When I answered his question by looking at my tiny purchase and saying “I don’t need a bag,” he just stared blankly away. Apparently there is not an official Safeway policy for dealing with a “no bag” customer. The guy was unable to respond.
But gosh, the man has a job, doesn’t he, and isn’t that what life in America is all about? Hmmm?
Well, it’s impossible for me to believe that any human creature is born without at least the potential to have a personality and a life that is somehow interesting. The business of business seems to be to eliminate that potential.
I was at a small dinner party in the home of friend recently. My friend works for one of the local merchants, sells stuff from behind the counter. (One of the ongoing jokes in this town is employers who pay five dollars an hour and then complain because the locals go to the next county, out of the high-priced tourist zone, to buy necessary items.) My friend’s boss, the store owner, and his wife were there, and I felt like some kind of undercover spy infiltrating the merchant zone. I was complaining about the tourists, how annoying it is to go downtown for a bottle of aspirin or some underwear and get stuck in traffic among a bunch of huge RVs towing cars, boats and motorcycles. The boss’s wife hears this, walks over to me and says, “Oh, but they come to shop.” Oh, well then, there you have it, I think -- if they come to shop, then anything is forgivable. What the hell, let them come in carrying bubonic plague or typhoid fever, if they’ve got money to spend.
Remember when there used to be a game called baseball, and groups of players called “teams?” Now they’re “franchises” consisting of “free agents,” lawyers, and “mediators.”
Who was it -- Calvin Coolidge?-- who said, “The business of America is business”? If that’s true, if this country is really “about” the thing called “business,” then there isn’t much point in doing anything around here except jump on the ‘all for me and more for me’ bandwagon, and get on with it.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
My high school song popped into my head today.
Dear old Farmington High School, we’ll be true to thee
Maroon and gray our colors,
may they always float to the sky, so
Praise our great victories, and may they always say
That if you ever will be loyal,
‘twould be thee Farmington High
“Farmington” is in Connecticut. It’s the town that boasts Miss Porter’s School for Girls, where young Jacqueline Bouvier learned the social graces that made her the ideal president’s wife: how to behave in an appropriately deferential and vapid manner in the presence of powerful suited men while looking perfect. They even had a place called the Gundy Tea Room, an important fixture where the daughters of old money learned to demurely serve tea in the really good china.
Local kids like me, “townies,” were kept at a distance from these heavily-guarded WASP princesses. Word on the street was that you could get arrested for speaking to them. (Lest anyone get the wrong idea, let me assure you that Farmington, Connecticut had a “wrong side of the tracks” called Unionville, with real poor people, down-and-out alcoholics and textile-factory wage slaves, and that is where I lived.)
Farmington High School was equal parts “good,” would-be rich preppy kids wearing penny loafers, who listened to the New Christy Minstrels and Peter Paul and Mary, and us “bad” greasers with pointy shoes (PFC’s, or ‘Puerto Rican Fence-Climbers’ as the preps called them), who listened to the Coasters, the Five Satins, and Link Wray and Wraymen. If a kid like me wore a bright-colored shirt to school, some future lawyer or executive in blue button-down would always say, “How far did you have to chase the nigger to get that shirt off him?”
I knew something was wrong with high school, I just didn’t yet have the words for it. The words are “social conditioning.” Essentially, it was wrong to be yourself. Whenever a kid got in trouble it was because he or she wasn’t submitting properly to authority, even if the violated rule was ridiculous, like keeping one’s shirt tucked in. This was a serious offense at Farmington High School.
Doing physical harm to other students, however, was barely if at all frowned upon, in fact it was encouraged in Gym class with a game called Dodgeball, in which you were supposed to throw an over-inflated basketball, as hard as you could, at boys on the other team. It hurt like hell, and the dumbest, nastiest guys were always the heroes in Physical Education.
The high school song always bugged me. Even then I knew the words were stupid -- maroon and gray our colors, may they always float to the sky -- what the hell did that mean? The melody was stilted, vaguely miltary-sounding, the kind of tune you might hear from a tired, dusty old piano teacher who hates her students as much as her life and music itself. But now I realize the words are nearly straight out of Orwell, or Mein Kampf. “Praise our great victories”...... And that bit about “loyalty” -- not to your friends or family, but to the school, and the school was the state.
Am I still harboring a resentment, at my age, against high school? I suppose so -- in fact I hope a copy of this finds its way into my dear old alma mater -- but since high school turned out to be merely the first in a series of institutions whose main purpose is to rob human beings of their creativity and individuality, it’s what could be called justifiable anger.
SMIRKING REPUBLICANS, AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON HIGHWAY 101
This was going to be an apolitical trip, disconnected from all but personal and family matters. Yeah, sure. First thing that happens when I get there is the election. To me it’s 1972 all over again -- everyone I know, everyone they know and so on, has voted on the (relatively) reasonable, human side of things. But in ‘72 Nixon won “by a landslide” and now, well, you know.
My daughter, who read the “AVA recommends” candidate list and took it seriously, lives in a co-op apartment that happens to be smack in the middle of a light industrial operation that employs mostly Mexicans. One can only guess whether these guys are “legal” or not not. Excuse me, senor, but I’m writing an article for a newspaper and I’d like to know if you are an illegal alien. Don’t worry, I’m on your side.... No, I don’t think so. But it did seem that the day after the election, the looks we gringos were getting from them were just a little different. Maybe someone should put out a bumper sticker saying, “I voted no on 187.” Never mind, in some cases it pays not to advertise.
On the way back north, I stopped at the Surf Motel in Eureka. In the next room, a bunch of nasty-looking characters were apparently dealing crank and one of them was making a big show of beating up his girlfriend in the parking lot. None of this was related to the election -- it was just one of many signs that the country is in an increasingly ugly mood.
In Cave Junction, I stopped to visit former AVA correspondent Kelpie Wilson at the Siskiyou Project. These people are full-time environmental activists and are doing good work. We discussed the lamentable “state of the left.” While the extreme right is solidly unified behind the bible and the death penalty and a progressive third party is needed more desperately than ever, the left continues to squabble with itself over trivial differences.
On to Eugene, where I missed connection with a friend and had to get another cheap motel room. Nothing disturbing here until the morning, when I turned the TV on to CNN and caught a live news conference with the republican senate transition committee. There was a smirking Bob Dole, laughing so hard he had to walk off camera. (My ex-wife in Mill Valley had been saying, “What the hell do these pudgy fuckers like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh have to complain about, anyway? That someone else might get something?”) It’s creepy how they scream about being against big government, which makes the rednecks happy, and then keep enlarging the police forces. If I had to make a choice, I think I’d rather see more bureaucrats than storm troopers.
But the creepiest thing at the news conference, maybe the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard on national media, came from mouth of one Thad Cochran, a republican senator. What state is he from? What does it matter? What matters is that when a reporter asked him what his part in the transition process was, he said, “We’ll just be doing what’s best for the institution.” This guy-in-a-suit has admitted to the world that he and his mates are serving not “the people” but the “institution.” This is science fiction stuff, folks, except it’s real.
From Eugene I cut back over to the coast, heading for the bridge to Washington, intending to see the west side of the Olympic peninsula for the first time.
The second domestic violence incident of my trip was going on at the Texaco station in Yachats. Since you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon, I pulled up and waited for the attendant. And waited, and waited. There was a police car there. Finally, the guy came and pumped the gas, looking apologetic. I paid him and pulled off to side and parked, needing to use the phone and the toilet. The police officer was talking to a young man, another buttrocker, in a baseball cap (“I.Q. reducer”). In the rest room, through the wall I could hear a woman yelling, “You’re not my fuckin’ daughter. Get the hell out of my life...” etc., etc. The guy in the hat had been beating the daughter, and here was the mother yelling at her for it. A nice American family-owned business...
In Astoria, my friend Ebeneezer told me how the bridge used to cost money to cross, but when the bridge was paid for, they tore down the toll booths and the ride is free now. “Can you imagine that happening with the Golden Gate bridge?” he said.
Last leg of the trip, up the peninsula through Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Forks and Port Angeles, serious logging country. Forks is the first place where a logging truck driver hung an effigy of a spotted owl from his cab, and where “spotted owl helper,” a box of sawdust packaged to look like “hamburger helper” is produced.
This is route 101, don’t forget, one of the prime tourist roads in the United States. Plenty of scenic beauty, right? Right, except for the clearcuts. I thought I knew what clearcuts looked like, and I may be the last guy on the block to drive this route, but the ugliness of the land on this road shocked me. When Mussorgsky wrote “Night on Bald Mountain,” he had no idea. And the timber industry has signs all along the route congratulating itself on the “managed forests.” Along much of this road, there isn’t even a phony hedge of scrawny second-growth. Just mile after mile of what looks like nuclear devastation or the volcanic wastelands of the Big Island.
A tour bus comes the other way, going south. What can the driver be saying to the passengers? “And here on the right is a particularly grlorious example of corporate triumph over nature...” or, “Weyerhaueser, turning America’s forests into Christmas tree farms....”
Five hundred dollar fine for littering, and people are getting paid to do this? I opened the window and began flinging my accumulated road garbage out onto the clearcut sights. This feeble, pathetic protest of mine at least made me feel better for a few minutes, and I envisioned a convoy of protesters, all merrily tossing trash onto roadside clearcuts. I’ve always been pro-littering. Do a few styrofoam cups and aluminum cans really constitute pollution compared to the road itself and the cars on it, not to mention large-scale devastation by the timber industry?
Next time you’re driving past a clearcut, throw out some garbage for me, will you?
ASSUMED TO BE IDIOTS
My friend knows better than to eat at McDonald’s, but her teenage son still pressures her into going there once in a while. They drive through. She comes back pissed off.
“What do they think I am, an idiot?” she fumes. “The way they tell you to go to the next window, as if you had a choice. It’s insulting.”
The only thing I could say to this was, “Of course they assume you’re an idiot. You’re going to McDonald’s, aren’t you?”
A couple of years ago it was noted in this paper that newscasters were accenting prepositions in a stiff-sounding, unnatural way. At the courthouse. In the senate. To the asylum.... This has gotten worse. Real people are doing it, not just the haircuts on news shows, and it’s a little frightening. Even though it can be thus demonstrated that TV watchers imitate the way the images talk, the network suits deny that viewers imitate how the images are always killing each other. And they keep getting away with it, which validates the assumption that the country is populated by idiots.
Even though I’m monitoring the news less than ever, I can’t help but notice the Orwellian creeping Newt factor. It’s as if evil aliens have invaded the planet, taking the suited form of politicians and corporate executives. And they’re getting bolder, because there’s no evidence that they’re wrong in assuming Earth people are idiots.
Announcers on one Canadian broadcast mentioned with some gravity that one of the gassed Japanese subways ran under the parliament building and the financial district. How many listeners besides me bristled -- why wasn’t there a riot at the suggestion that legislators and stockbrokers are more important than anyone else? That parliament or Tokyo’s version of Wall Street coming under terrorist attack would be worse than having some random selection of people on the train murdered?
Reminds me of a California brush fire story in which the newscaster said with some alarm that wealthy homes were being threatened by the blaze. Let those everyday schleps burn! Save the expensive real estate! What happened to the Neutron Bomb, anyway? Assumed to be idiots.
The saddest case of capitulation to the Institution came on tonight’s local Seattle news. A man was stabbed to death by a teenager while walking on his favorite park trail. The teenager, it is assumed, could not have been influenced to do this by TV or movies. The victim’s parents came on, saying they now realize how precious life is. So far so good, but then they added “How precious this country is,” and degenerated into total NewtSpeak by expressing their new and profound faith in the System of Justice. Huh? What has happened to a human being who can use the death of a loved one to kick off an almost evangelistic patriotism spiel?
ASSUMED TO BE IDIOTS, cont.
The following are actual news items heard on local telecasts within a two-hour period..
* Everybody’s into recycling, including a pig from Texas. Find out how Buford is doing his part.
* Tom’s Laundromat in Hayward, California has been named “Most Beautiful Laundromat in the World.” It has fifteen TV sets and Nintendo for the kids.
* Yuppie Puppy Day Care, where a guy sits there plunking on a guitar, singing for dogs.
* M & M’s have a new color! It’s blue, chosen in a national poll over pink and purple. The tan ones will be replaced by blue ones by September.
* During an item about DNA and cloning, the movie “Jurassic Park” was mentioned twice. Cloning dinosaurs from blood samples in prehistoric mosquitoes was discussed as if the Spielberg blockbuster was a documentary.
Dream (May 7, 1985, 5 a.m.)
MEMO To the Mayor, City Council, and citizens of the fair city and farming community of Dovetail, Iowa:
I, John L. Brashears, president of the Dovetail Savings and Loan Association, Chairman of the Farmer’s Federal Credit Union, advisor to the Dovetail Chamber of Commerce, member in good standing of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, and in general a fine, upstanding pillar of the community and model citizen, have made my final business transaction in Dovetail. By the time this letter is discovered and opened on Monday morning, I will be gone without a trace, having taken with me all your money, securities, stocks, bonds, even the better jewelry from your safe deposit boxes.
Over the years, over dinner and drinks, I have had earnest, neighborly discussions with most of you. Always I was impressed, even touched, by the sincerity of your belief in the virtue of hard work, modest living, Christian morality and patriotic convictions. You are morons. Now, you will have the chance to work harder, live more modestly, pray more fervently, and use the power of your votes to elect legislators and law enforcement officials who are sure to promise you such a thing as this will never happen again.
God Bless America, Land of Opportunity.
“FUCK THE IRONWORKERS”
Recently I entered (temporarily) the “labor force” again, as an assistant, or tender, to my friend Pete the diver. Pete just regained the small tugboat he had to sell a few years back, and he’s using now it to dive for sea cucumbers. In winter he’ll be going for sea urchins and pink scallops.
The diver does the hard work -- swimming against currents, dragging the “umbilical” line across rocks (these guys don’t carry scuba tanks), carrying a bag full of slug-like creatures destined for Chinese dinner tables. The tender monitors the gauge on the air compressor, and works the umbilical as the diver moves around on the bottom. It’s not bad work as long as you get along with your partner. The asshole factor in commercial fishing can be very significant.... The state sets a quota on the catch, and when the quota is reached, the season is over. The cucumber season may or may not have ended this week, but we had to stop anyway because of Pete’s eardrum problem.
This morning at the post office I ran into Chris, a salmon fisherman and sometime clam digger. One thing about this place, it’s stinking with seafood. Chris and I usually have similar views on politics and bureaucracy. He especially loves to rant and rave about the state’s ineptitude when it comes to regulation of fisheries. And he’s right -- a bunch of suited landlubbers, who think water comes from a faucet, sit around and decide what’s what in the ocean.
“So what are you up to?” Chris asks.
“I’ve been out for cukes with Pete, tending for him.”
“Oh, you’re hanging with the bubbleheads.”
“Yeah. You know, divers. They’re all bubbleheads, literally. They get nitrogen in their brains. They’re all fuckin’ crazy.”
From his tone, it wasn’t hard to see that Chris didn’t like divers. Reminded me of something I’d heard a long time ago, and I said, “When I was a teenager, I hung out with two brothers from a Catholic, blue-collar family -- glaziers and painters. Union men all the way and proud of it. One of the brothers, an apprentice glazier, told me about a Union meeting where they were discussing a conflict with ironworkers. As soon as the word “ironworker” was mentioned, all the glaziers began to chant, “Fuck the ironworkers, Fuck the ironworkers!”
Chris got my point, but continued: “And another thing: those bastards fuck things up for us, messing up the bottom. I can’t stand them.” Funny thing is, Pete the diver had just been telling me how the gillnetters and purse seiners leave nets, or pieces of them, all over the Sound, and how all kinds of marine life get tangled in them and die. In fact, he’s getting ready to quit the seafood trade, get some video equipment and document some of this damage. Underwater environmentalism.
In response to Chris’s further anti-diver tirade, I just said, “Fuck the ironworkers.” He was pissed off now, and stomped away to his car, saying, “It’s not the same. It’s not the same.”
“Yes it is,” I said, but he didn’t hear me.
How can working people effectively be heard or respected if this is how they regard each other? The idea of meaningful solidarity among American workers seems to be a cruel joke when the people who are drawn to these trades are unwilling or unable to see past their own small, immediate concerns.
Oh well, I’m back out of the game, anyway. Got a new gig as one of a group of four ghostwriters, and I’ve been waiting for years to unleash this terrible pun on someone ..... coming soon, the chronicles: “Ghostwriters in Disguise.”
Fuck the ironworkers.
RECORD REVIEW circa 1991
WHITEWASH: A MUSICAL REVUE OF THE JFK ASSASSINATION COVERUP
I was in high school, walking down the hallway from the boys’ room back to an 11th grade art class. Mark Towle, a fat boy who always wore a suit and tie with a vest -- everyone called him “Penguin” -- was also in the corridor. He walked straight to up me and announced, “The president’s been shot.”
“Yeah, sure, Penguin,” I said, and returned to the classroom. The principal came on the P.A. system and there it was. The kid was right, the president had been shot. Every time I read or hear something about the JFK assassination, I’m back in that high school hallway with the Penguin.
According to Paul Kangas, there are two American men, one dead and one living (I think), who claimed they couldn’t remember where they were at that moment: Richard Nixon and George Bush. Well, they were both in Dallas.
Kangas is a private investigator with a radio show on KPOO. At the time of the assassination he was in the U.S. Navy, assigned as a personal bodyguard to the president of the United States. He, along with Fletcher Prouty (“Mr. X” in the Oliver Stone movie) and other known leftist personnel in the military at the time, were given foreign duty in November 1963. Kangas was sent to Iceland, Prouty to Antarctica.
I asked Kangas if he was an unrepentant conspiracy theorist. “No,” he said, “I’m an investigator.” Next question: “Did the CIA in fact kill JFK?”
Six months before the release of the Stone movie, it began receiving attacks from the mainstream media. Kangas decided to go on the air with readings from the Jim Garrison book, “On the Trail of the Assassins,” on which the movie is based. Around the same time, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was doing a show about Bush’s role in the assassination, which was given a bad review by KPFA but a good one by the Chronicle.
Kangas, continuing to stir things up at KPOO, received a tape - a song by Texas musician J.R. Ryan. The song was called “Prosecute Bush.” He played it on the air, and more songs started coming in.
So Paul Kangas became a record producer. The first collection of these songs, “Whitewash: A Musical Revue of the JFK Assassination Cover-up,” is being released this President’s Day. Corny but effective, I guess.
There are no famous or “popular” musicians on the tape, unless you count “Mr. X,” which Kangas says is a known San Francisco-based group currently on MTV who chose to remain anonymous on this project. I’m not going to attempt to determine for anyone if the music is “good” or not, but I will say it’s interesting and let’s face it, the discussion of the subject is not going to stop. For the first time there’s an aspect of the JFK issue you can dance to. This thing has definite “collector’s” potential.
Different musical styles are represented, from solo singer with acoustic guitar (“You’ve Got to be Kidding” by Rabia) to a sort of techno-reggae (“Three Little Tramps” by Mr. X), or techno-drone (“Uncle Sam’s Hit Man,” also by Mr. X.). “Whitewash” by Joe Tate could be called retro-Rhythm and Blues.
Other song titles include “Public Execution,” and “It All Goes Back to Jack” (The Bongos), “Kuwait City” (Tate), and the aforementioned “Prosecute Bush.” Not surprisingly, Oliver Stone has endorsed the project, hence the “Great Job” quote from him on the cover.
For those with a profound distaste for any music, there’s even a cut of plain talking by Kangas, probably taken from a radio broadcast.
Anyone interested in this odd synthesis of music and “politics” can contact Kangas at PO Box 422644, San Francisco CA 94142.
THE PUBLISHING LESSON
It was a Friday night, and I was just doing my gig. Same gig, same joint I've been playing on and off for the last year and a half. Carrying the equipment in, and there it is, the sign in the front window: “Fri. and Sat Night -- ...........” It’s been a few months since I last worked there, and the first thing I noticed, after the sign, is that the restaurant manager, a rather snooty woman, has sprouted a significantly large gray streak on each side of her head, rather like the Bride of Frankenstein. If she loosened up, and someone remembered my name, and they stopped raising the price of dinners every week and stopped letting the inbred morons from the countryside into the bar, and the owner wouldn’t keep firing the waitresses who won’t go to bed with him, shit -- the place would be happening.
I, “...............”, arrived at the usual time, quarter to seven, to set up for the night. It was January, and Port Townsend, the quaint Victorian tourist trap, was in hibernation. Betty MacDonald (The Egg and I) called it “the world’s only lighted cemetery.”
The bar where I play is a downstairs holding area for people waiting to be called for dinner. The musicians are retained in winter even though there are far fewer customers. Naturally, there are a always a few local regulars, usually serious drinkers, since it's one of only two places in town where you can get hard liquor. Last night there was one customer when I arrived -- an elderly British expatriate with a serious whisky habit. I had met him once before, and he had told me he was a writer. His name is Bill. He was astonished that I remembered his name and, as drunks will do, took it as a sign of eternal friendship and confidence.
“How's the writing going, Bill?”
“Quite well, old boy.”
Right away I made the mistake: “Have you got a publisher?”
He got a sour look and ordered another drink. “I’ve been drinking all day at the American Legion. They like me there because I’m a bloody Brit. RAF, World War Two. You want to know about publishing? You've touched a nerve, my boy. I want to tell you something. Are you LISTENING? I was in a bar one time when I had an inspiration. I asked the bartender for some paper and all he had was a brown paper sack. When I had written my little piece on it, the guy next to me said, ‘What’s that you're writing, can I have a look at it?’ When he was through reading, he gave me a hundred dollars. Then he passed it on to the next guy, and the next, and so forth -- six in all. Each one passed me a hundred dollars. Six hundred dollars for that little thing I wrote. THAT, my boy is publishing.”
Oxymoron of the year: Senate Ethics Committee
Lately I’ve been exploring my prejudices, and complaining about Nordic-Germanic types: Hitler Youth and all that. If I never meet another Heidi or Kristin, or Klaus or Gunnar again, it will be too soon. The Northwest has perhaps this country’s greatest concentration of neo-nazis and otherwise ultra-white people. To the immediate north and southeast of here are counties famous for concentrations of US Navy and cross-burnings in the yards of blacks.
I’m also not at all fond of the Irish. What these people have to be so proud of eludes me completely. And I have Irish and German in my own blood.
If a culture were judged by its food, then I would say the best people are the Italians. (And the British, Irish and Scots would be the worst.) I was born in New York, and identify more closely with Italians and Jews than my so-called “fellow” Irish, Scottish, Dutch and Germans.
Oh, well. We’re all “Americans” now, or at least human beings, anyway. Or are we? For the first and only time, I went to the huge mall in Silverdale, Washington recently. I was tired from driving and needed to stretch my legs. There was almost nothing in all those stores that anyone could call vital or necessary, or even interesting. I’d heard almost all the businesses advertised on TV or radio, and it was all crap, including the food -- yet there was an endless stream of humanity lining up to eat the crap, and walking out of the place with bags and bags of it.
Remember in the first Castaneda book, when the teacher told him that the figures approaching on the road were not human beings, even though they looked exactly like human beings? Come to think of it, have you ever played Trivial Pursuit with people who had simple, general knowledge so screwed up you wondered how they could have gotten through life this far? I’m thinking of those spy movies where they send in a substitute for a captured or dead person, the imposter trained as well as possible in the details of that person’s life, but there’s always a hole, like when they don’t know who won the World Series....
My ex-wife, still a good friend and one of the most pragmatic, sensible and capable women I’ve ever known, is now seriously entertaining the idea that “businessmen” and other suited (uniformed) types, the corporate executives, yuppies, legislators and the like, are in fact, literally, agents of aliens (doing business with them) here to conquer and exploit the planet’s resources through the political and economic systems. In other words, they’re buying the earth. The logic is, would a genuine native of this planet, one with children and grandchildren, deliberately destroy it with industrial pollution and absurdly over-powerful weapons? But an alien, used to a Carbon Monoxide, Dioxin and Strontium-90 atmosphere for example....
Fanciful paranoia? Maybe, but what would you have thought ten years ago if someone told you that in 1995 Candlestick Park would be renamed for a business with the decidedly un-human name of “3-Com”? Carrying this ‘alien’ speculation (or let’s call it metaphor if you like) a little further, there’s something creepy about an awful lot of corporate names and logos. The double-X’s especially: EXXon, MaXXam, XeroX. Did human beings think these up? Another thing is the general deportment, behavior and appearance of those who serve as drones for the corporations. To say they seem to be walking around with sticks up their asses is to understate the observation. Not human. These are the characters in the four-wheel-drive vehicle ads who, as if working all week to use up and pollute as much of the planet as possible wasn’t enough, want to go out in the woods on the weekend and rip up a few streams in the new Bronco while making deals on the cell-phone. Or go the beach and drive a few hundred people on shore into murderous rages with the ultra-annoying sound of those floating chainsaws called jet-skis.
DOWN TO THE LOCAL LEVEL
Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room last week, I picked up a three or four month-old Time magazine. There is much to be annoyed about in these publications, including the fact that Time-Life is now hustling a series of rock and roll recordings -- Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like. This makes me feel old; rather, it forces me to recognize that I’m now at an age where the music that excited me as a teenager is ancient history. This is unsettling, but what’s worse is the mainstream repackaging and singing the praises of this once-“radical” music now that it’s dead or nearly dead, no longer perceived as a threat, forty years after the fact. (That this institution now consists largely of people in my age group is another disturbing matter.) That’s the “liberal” media at work. The “conservative” equivalent is Reader’s Digest selling jazz records. The only difference is twenty years of cultural ferment.
Thumbing idly through the magazine, I found an article whose title stopped me dead: “Whither Liberalism?”. What better evidence of constipated old guard stodginess than this dusty eighteenth-century language? Might as well say “thee” and “thou,” too. I got only as far as the first paragraph, in which the writer gave his definitions of liberalism and conservatism. It was the same old drool about taxes and bureaucracy and budget balancing, but in the definition of liberalism was included a sentence about “government taking care of its citizens.” Did the millions of readers of this publication just read through this phrase in total acceptance of its implication -- its statement --that citizens (human beings) are property of the government, regarded by the institution as something on the level of cattle, expendable and practically meaningless? This point is no revelation, hardly earth-shaking news, but the quote, in or out of context, is a fine example of how the “liberal” media are nothing more than alto and soprano choir voices of the corporate state, while the bass and baritone parts are sung by their right-wing counterparts.
IN TERMS OF A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Only on NPR...
Not even TV sitcoms have demonstrated contempt for their audience on a par with what I heard on “public” radio the other day. Two men -- I (thankfully) can’t remember their names, but they were oozing with the inflated self-importance of media pundits -- were discussing some kind of third political party which might be comprised of certain liberal politicians like Bill Bradley of New Jersey. At the mention of these names, a snicker went up from the pundits and they went on to say how none of these guys had any charisma, and how the only appeal they could possibly have was to the “Nantucket to Aspen Volvo crowd.” Excuse me, but is that not precisely the demographic profile of the NPR listener?
In Terms Of....
This column has tried to keep tabs on media language and how it affects the speaking habits and thinking patterns of real people. The accentuated preposition (ON the table, INTO the outhouse) is going strong, I hear it creeping into conversations everywhere. Newscasters started doing it some years back, apparently in an attempt to make themselves sound more important.
The latest annoying media language item coming directly from NPR is “in terms of.” Listen to any interview they do. In terms of this, in terms of that.. And to my horror, I heard a real person say it just yesterday.
....A Level Playing Field
This sports metaphor has been bothering me for a long time. If one believes the politicians and corporate media, everything would be fine if only someone would “level the playing field.” First, the owners of this “field” are never going to allow it to be leveled. But more significantly, people who use this phrase, especially earnest well-intentioned liberals, are missing the point entirely. The playing field will never be leveled, but even if it were, you’d still be PLAYING THE GAME. Anyone willing to get out on the metaphorical playing field of business, elected politics, media and such has, as Chomsky says, internalized the values of the system that owns the field. The Field needs to be ripped up at the roots. Maybe a vegetable garden instead...
HELP FOR THE UNWEALTHY
Seattle, Jan. 11 -- Newt was in town yesterday, blaming Clinton for everything, just as Clinton was. wherever he was, blaming Newt for everything. I sat here wistfully hoping someone would shoot Gingrich, until I remembered that these politicians are like the human flesh-gnawing zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” -- knock one down and ten more just keep coming. At least there was a pretty good demonstration outside the Westin hotel, where the GOP fundraiser (oxymoron?) was being held, and one young woman held a sign that said “Nuke Newt.” I liked that, but maybe the best, most horrible thing to do to someone like Newt is lock him permenently in a small room with Don Rickles. Two fat, pompous, prickly bozos, each giving the other exactly what he dishes out....
NPR Does it Again
Monitoring NPR occasionally can produce some real gems. I turned it on the other morning and heard a woman talking about beans. Like all mainstream media, NPR is just now, some thirty years after the food revelations of the sixties, cautiously presenting the idea of people eating a healthier diet. “Vegetarianism” is a new buzzword here, and NPR, regarding itself as avante-garde, was daring to present the possibility of eating a meal that did not contain animal flesh.
So here’s this woman talking about beans saying, “...And you know, people all over the world, you know, unwealthy people (I’m trying to be politically correct here), have been getting their protein from beans for a long time...” I’m not kidding. She actually said “UNWEALTHY.”
THE DING-DING MAN
A few months ago, in the Peninsula Daily News of Port Angeles, Washington, there was a letter to the editor from a man who blamed all the problems of his state on “ding-dings.” For a second I thought he meant some sort of junk food cake, like twinkies--remember Dan White, the ex-cop who murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the gay member of the Board of Supervisors? His lawyer got him off by saying he had eaten a Hostess Twinkie that day and was therefore not responsible for his actions.
But as I read on, it became clear that the letter writer wasn’t condemning junk food or trying to be funny at all. This man’s ding-dings were people--people who supported the state’s pro-choice and right-to-die initiatives, environmentalists, hippies, anyone who didn’t fly a flag and yellow ribbon for the Gulf War. In other words, anyone not in the white American mainstream whose irrational fear of “others” is so well manipulated and exploited by men such as Patrick Buchanan, David Duke, and George Bush.
It wasn’t hard to form a mental picture of the ding-ding man. White, early sixties, Elks, drives around with his unhappy-looking wife in a Winnebago all summer, complaining about everything and moving on in hopes that the next place might be more satisfactory, might be less full of ding-dings. He’s retired from his life’s work of selling crap to people who don’t need it, and he’s bitter because his new life of leisure isn’t doing much for him. Despite this, he still fully believes himself above foreigners and other ding-dings for reasons like, “Well, I’m an American, damn it.” To him, feminists are “women's libbers,” ugly broads who turned into angry lesbians because they couldn’t find a husband like him, and environmentalists are nothing but loony-bin candidates who want to bring about the downfall of all industry, just for the sheer thrill of destruction. Ding-Dings.
In all this flap over AIDS and condoms the ding-ding man screams, “Abstinence!” and “Bad Morals!” I wonder, if a study was done, what the links would be between family abuse and the “say no to sex” sentiment.
If these people think sex is dirty, which many apparently do, then that might explain a lot of domestic abuse. A man beats his wife because she did that dirty thing with him. And the children? Why they’re the PRODUCT of the unmentionable act. “Sure,” says our ding-ding man, “I gave the kids the strap, they NEED discipline. My father beat me, and look how I turned out.”
GOOD NEWS ON THE JOB FRONT
So--NASA, an agency of the government, the United States government, the one headed by George Bush, the environmental president, has sent a U2 spy plane into the stratosphere to measure ozone depletion. The researchers aboard that plane found “enough chlorine chemicals to reduce the ozone layer by one or two per cent a day during the winter months.” Was this over Antarctica? No, this was between latitudes 40° and 50° N., over the northeast U.S., southeastern Canada, and Europe.
Meanwhile, that smiling can of hairspray known as the weatherman grins and says, “...and today (Seattle, Feb. 3, 1992) we have new record high by five degrees.” That’s nice weather, not global warming.
What will Bush do with this information? What will the captains of industry do with it? Well--if the temperature is going up and ultraviolet radiation is increasing, there’s only one thing to do: Crank out more CFC-powered air conditioners and refrigerators, more sunglasses and sunscreen goop. And big Panama hats. Consumer goods! Products. That way, we boost the economy and promote jobs, jobs, jobs. We’ll work, work, work, and produce, produce, produce. Then, everyone will have enough money to buy the appliances and accessories necessary to protect them from killer UV rays and freakishly warm air. And when the ice caps start melting, there’ll be a fabulous boom in brand new waterfront real estate. We’ll show those uppity Japanese what a work ethic is.
It’s clever, when you think about it. How many people in Maine or Nova Scotia have air conditioners? At first you might be tempted to think the U2 flight was an environmental survey. No! It was a MARKETING ANALYSIS.
HIPPIES GAVE US A BAD NAME
When I first got my computer, I let the teenagers play games on it. That deal ended when my living room/office nearly became a video arcade. It was one kid that changed my mind about the games, but before I threw him out he said something I’m still thinking about two years later.
“You know Dan’s mom? She shops at the Co-op,” he said to my girlfriend’s son. With that he let out a mean little snigger to let everyone know how lame the hippie health food store was. He turned back to the computer, said “I’m AWESOME at this game,” and choked out in thirty seconds.
Here, I thought, is The American Citizen: full of false self-confidence and disdain for anyone “different.” At the age of fifteen, he was already solidly imprinted with an image of “hippies” as crystal-toting wimps with long stringy hair and wispy beards, and women in floor-length velvet dresses and combat boots, who eat nothing but seeds. The kid had never been inside the health food store, but he’d seen a few odd-looking people standing around outside it.
Back in the 60’s we were convinced that the human race was evolving into a higher, more cooperative, unified state of being. Long hair and sloppy clothes were a sign of radical departure from a stultifying norm, but it wasn’t long before we realized that anybody could grow their hair and wear ratty jeans. The cops realized it, too. The whole long hair phenomenon became meaningless, but the hippie look caught on with certain people. Every time I see a guy caressing his ponytail, with that “aren’t I beautiful” look in his eye and a pound or two of turquoise hanging on him, I wince.
Remember when “hip” meant aware of something, having an intuitive grasp of something beyond the ordinary, something that told you there was more to life than grow up, get a job, get married, reproduce, and die?
Not long ago I saw Dixy Lee Ray, former governor of Washington, on CNN. She was pushing her book, part of her campaign to ridicule environmentalists. Even as eastern Washington and Oakland burned due to freak high temperatures and drought, Ray said there’s no such thing as global warming. I couldn’t help noticing that Dixy Lee Ray doesn’t look very healthy. In fact she looks like a fat pig. Would she have us treat the planet the way she treats her own body? No doubt.
You can be sure she doesn’t buy food from any “hippie” health food store. She knows the type of people who shop in such places, and she knows they are the enemy. Besides, you can’t get pork chops and cream-filled donuts in those places. The joke is, health food stores were around way before hippies, just as progressive, radical, and spiritually evolved people have always been there on the fringe, not paying much attention to fashion or consumer trends at all.
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
-- Leonard Cohen
“So you’re writing political commentary?” asked my old friend.
“Not really political...”
“Are you right wing or left wing?”
“No wing. The right and left wings are attached to the same bird, and the bird needs both of them to fly.”
“You’re an anarchist, then.”
“Well maybe, but the conventional idea of an anarchist is some idiot running through the streets with a mob, waving torches. Real anarchy is nothing but people getting along without some official goon holding a club over their heads, collecting taxes, and telling them what their rights are.”
“Then what do you advocate?”
“I’m not advocating anything. Anyone with an agenda is involved in a campaign of some sort. As long you as you have a campaign, the System understands the language you’re speaking and knows how to deal with you.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“My suggestion is, don’t feed the bird. There’s button around that really annoys me. It says ‘Question Authority.’ I’d like to see one like this: Fuck Authority.
“But wouldn’t people go nuts and kill each other without some form of authority or fear of punishment?”
“Yeah, right. We’d probably have serial killers and cannibals. People would have to lock their doors against burglars and be afraid of strangers on the street. Paranoid bullies would put on uniforms and go around clubbing people just for the fun of it. I guess we’re lucky to have government and police to protect us from that sort of thing”
“So -- are you a republican or a democrat?”
NOTES FROM A SMALL TOWN CAUCUS (I Came, I Saw, I Caucused)
It was a desperate need of something to do, along with a little journalistic curiosity, that sent me to the local Democratic caucus. (My fingers keep trying to type “couscous” or “Caucasian” or “Ceaucescu”) As I stood in line waiting to commit perjury by signing a paper swearing allegiance to the Democratic Party, a very politically correct-looking man (neatly trimmed beard, wire-rim glasses) eyed me suspiciously as I jotted down random thoughts in my notebook. Maybe he thought I was a Republican, there to spy on the enemy.
On the sign-in sheet, I wrote “Brown” in the “candidate preference” box. Next to that was the category, “Ethnic Origin,” where I wrote “Earth”— just what would be expected here in the Aryan Nations Northwest of any Brown-supporter from California, where everyone is thought to be a tanned vegetarian phony named Biff or Muffy .
There were only two baseball caps in the place, and none of the older women had teased hair; they’d all pretty much retained the college look. This definitely wasn’t the Garth Brooks and yellow ribbon crowd. As I watched one man jealously guard the empty chair next to him, he nervously avoided eye contact, and I reasoned that a Republican in the same position would have looked me in the eye and hoped for a challenge.
When the preliminary announcements and inevitable lamebrain question-and-answer session were over, each district was shuffled off to a corner to elect delegates and discuss the issues. Here it became difficult to stay awake. The complimentary coffee wasn’t doing the the trick. As Hunter Thompson knows, one needs serious stimulants to stay alert through these events.
Having already identified myself as a nut case in the “ethnic origin” department, I said nothing as my district-mates droned on about the tiny differences in the various candidates’ approaches to the problems — Do you prefer the Canadian health care model, or the Oregon “Pay and Play” plan? What about the all-important Capital Gains Tax issue? Shall we give the middle class a tax break? And impose heavier taxes on the rich? Do we agree that the economy is the major issue?
We had three Tsongases, three Clintons, three Browns, and four undecided, giving the district one delegate for each candidate. The chairwoman herself had favored Cuomo but said she could be talked into switching to Brown or Clinton. At this point I realized I had to get out of there before I went nuts and indelibly justified Jerry’s California Fruitcake label. Luckily, one of the other Brown guys said he “felt like punishing himself” and volunteered to be the official delegate to the county caucus. I wondered if he might then go to the state convention. And continue on to the national, where a delegate reaps the final reward of being one of a faceless mob — wearing a straw boater, carrying a sign and chanting the name of his candidate as the confetti flies and TV cameras pan across the crowd at a sickening pace.
On the way out, I lit a cigarette and encountered the only other smoker at the caucus, an obviously drunk older woman with a baritone voice who was saying, “...Holier-than-thou bastards. What the hell ever happened to the smoke-filled room? Now that was politics.”
I left, thinking maybe she should try the Republicans....
THE FACT IS, YOU CAN’T POLISH A TURD.
Back in 1987, I did something I’d sworn never to do again. Desperately broke and drunk on vodka and cranberry juice, I agreed to play guitar behind a country-western singer. The guy was strictly small-time and had pathetic delusions about his talent and about his potential as an entertainer, but he was paying me well, so I didn’t care. He was extremely enamored of western lore and legend, and to prove it he gave himself what he thought was an appropriate stage name--Fred Remington.
Fred Remington had an adequate singing voice, but about as much personality as a dried turd. He seemed to know this, but assured me that with polish, the act would be a hit. I thought of a phrase I’d heard somewhere: You can’t polish a turd.
One afternoon on the way to rehearsal, I noticed a small brown drug store-type jar on his car seat. Not being one to ignore the possible presence of drugs, I picked up the jar and read the label. It was synthetic testosterone--male hormone. I asked if he took it. Yes, he said, he took the stuff because he’d had his testicles crushed by a horse’s kick when he was a teenager. I was wondering how this related to his dull personality and non-existent stage presence when he revealed to me his big secret, his ace in the hole.
“I’ve taken the Dale Carnegie course,” he announced, “And I know how to charm people.”
On the night of the first gig, he stood by his picture at the entrance to the club and greeted every customer with the same straight-out-of-the Dale Carnegie-course rap -- “Hi, I’m Fred Remington. I’m glad you came and I sure hope you enjoy the show...” He had no idea how badly he was coming across with this spiel; nothing in his brain told him that anyone could see right through it. The gig lasted four nights, and he wasn’t asked back. I took the money and ran.
Oblivious to his failings, Fred Remington set out after more bookings. Last I heard he’d made a record. I can see him hustling it around to the radio stations -- “Hi, I’m Fred Remington, and...”
You know who reminds me of Fred Remington? Bill Clinton. And for that matter, so did the now-defunct Tsongas, Kerrey, and Harkin. And Pat Buchanan, and George Bush, and Dan Quayle, and every single person who appears on “Crossfire.” There must be some guys, some minor Dale Carnegie types who studied debating and semantics somewhere along the line, going around Washington D.C. and anywhere else politicians seek recognition, selling buzzwords and phrases to power-seekers who want the public to think they have integrity. “Hi, I’m Bill Clinton, and...”
The number one hit phrase coming out of every political and media mouth this election season is “The Fact Is...” Just like Fred Remington thought his opening lines would endear him to the customers, all the candidates and whining, arguing “pundits” are prefacing every statement with “The Fact Is...” in hopes that the public will think they’re telling the truth. When Tsongas and Clinton were going at it on one of the early debates, each of them said “The Fact Is...” before countless, obviously false and contradictory statements, and contributed mightily to the obliteration of the meaningful, implied authority of the word “fact.” And it seems the deader the phrase gets, the more comfortable these guys feel using it. Like Fred Remington, they probably think they’re polishing their images.
The Fact Is, you can’t polish a turd.
BIZARRE NEWS, DRUG WEIRDNESS, AND BURNING LIQUOR STORES
April 9, 1992 --a bizarre day for news, more absurd than usual. First, the pope issued a statement condemning sexual discrimination as “morally wrong,” then went on to say the Catholic church would maintain its policy of an all-male priesthood. Okay....
Next, the Jerry Brown Laurel Canyon drug scandal, followed immediately by the announcement that Gulf War fighter pilots were given amphetamines (by doctors, of course) “to keep them alert.” Yeah. Well, I used to to get amphetamine from a doctor, too. And the prescription said it was for “keeping alert.” Of course, my doctor was a south Oakland croaker who wore platform shoes and gave injections but only to women... Still, the only difference is that the pilots and their doctors had the federal government’s blessing. Speed is considered a dangerous drug, but apparently it’s okay as long as you’re on your way to kill somebody when you use it.
And in The Seattle Times, the first hard evidence of Elvis Presley’s ascent to godhood. On page 4, Section B, is a photograph of a women kneeling before an altar filled with an impressive array of Elvis doodads, pictures and memorabilia. This is significant because it sheds light on how the Jesus phenomenon probably got going. You have a guy who started out as a rebel, got a following, was seen as a threat to the establishment, and died in peculiar circumstances. Sure there was Lenny Bruce, but he wasn’t cute. Actually Bruce was more like Jesus than Elvis in that he was a Jew, and wasn’t co-opted by Hollywood and Vegas but that’s not the point.
Everyone knows that Presley was a drug addict, but...remember the picture of him with Nixon giving him an honorary nark badge? Jesus drank, and who knows what kind of mushrooms or cactus he may have been chewing on? John F. Kennedy got regular injections of amphetamine and vitamins. None of these guys were experimenting with drugs; they were serious about getting high.
What I want to know is, exactly who is it out there getting all bent out of shape over public figures using or not using drugs? Make fun of the sixties all you want, but something happened back then, and drugs were a big part of it. Is there anyone reading this paper who never got high? Did you think of it as experimenting? Was it immoral? Do you regret it?
Jerry Brown probably took drugs. I hope he took drugs. Of course, one of the ways he blew it was suggesting there was more to life than acquisition of material goods (a pretty un-American thing to say). It isn’t necessary to get high to have such a revelation, but a lot of people did have it when they were on something.
Would I vote for a candidate who has never so much as smoked a joint, let alone taken LSD, and therefore cannot possibly know how I, and most people I know and respect, think and perceive the world? No.
EXPERIMENTING WITH DRUGS
Did you ever experiment with drugs? Hordes of aging hippies-turned-executives, stockbrokers, politicians, schoolteachers and other “respectable” types are now graciously allowing that they “experimented” with drugs “in the sixties.” I can just see them all in sterile laboratory settings, being attended to by austere medical professionals wearing starched white smocks and scurrying around with notepads and test tubes in their freshly boiled hands. Everything under rigid control and presided over by certified authority figures.
SOME QUOTES on FAMILY VALUES
The family is the ultimate American fascism. -- Paul Goodman
A married man with a family will do anything for money.
-- Charles De Tallyrand
A family is but too often a commonwealth of malignants.
-- Alexander Pope
Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.
-- Martin Mull
Sacred family! ... The supposed home of all the virtues, where innocent children are tortured into their first falsehoods, where wills are broken by parental tyranny, and self-respect is smothered by crowded, jostling egos.
-- August Strindberg
Home life as we know it is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo.
-- George Bernard Shaw
WHAT GOES THROUGH A SENSITIVE MAN’S MIND WHEN HE INVOLUNTARILY EXPERIENCES CHAUVINIST BACKLASH
Actual verbatim news item from Vancouver B.C. TV station: “Evelyn D. Green was on her way to a meeting of the Injured Motorcyclist’s Association when her bike was hit by a truck.”
So--what do women want? Maybe Freud was the first to write that down, but surely he wasn’t the first to ask it. My old friend Penny Woodstock says it’s satisfaction that they want. I now consult my growing collection of quote books:
What this woman wants, with all due respect to S. Freud, is for men to stop asking that question and to realize that women are human beings, not some alien species. They want the same things men want.
(My response: Well then, how do you explain the shopping thing?)
Different things, mostly. What’s more, they are kind enough to tell you.
-- Norman Cousins
(My response: Yes, as long as you’re telepathic.)
Tenderness, sensitivity, caring and security.
-- Liz Smith
(My response: This security business really bothers me. Is there really such a thing? We’re all going to die.)
Attention. -- Ian Shoales
Men. -- Malcom Forbes.
(My response: And then...?)
Money, power, love, sex (until they get married), adulation, children, and control......
-- Larry King
(My response: That’s nice, Larry, but how can I take seriously anyone who ends a column with a statement like “God, I love sports” ?
...a family life that glitters and is stable... -- Carolyn See
(My response: And I want a car that runs on water.)
None of your business. -- Ursula K. LeGuin
(My response: Good, then I can stop worrying about it.)
What do I want? A decent automobile, money for gas, and enlightenment as to the nature of existence in the universe. That may be as impossible to attain as “security,” but if you want something hard to get, why not make it something not so, well, mundane. Doesn’t it sometimes seem as if women think we should be content with a nice comfy house, and a loving monogamous relationship with flowers on the table? Maybe they know that anything else is futile and are merely waiting for us to come to our senses and mow the lawn...
Maybe I’ll read “ The Female Eunuch” again.
Maybe Hunter Thompson was right: ...the only answer is round-the-clock TV and relentless masturbation.
But seriously... What the hell do I know?
Did I ever tell you about the guy who offered to pay me fifteen thousand dollars to carry a suitcase full of cobras to Hawaii and turn them loose?
CALL ME PARANOID IF YOU LIKE
Okay, I admit it--I watch too much TV, but for someone with an addictive nature and a fascination with the absurd it’s pretty hard to resist. So the other night I wound up watching “Frontline” on PBS, and it was about the Matsushita Corporation, who came to the U.S. to make what else, TV sets and VCRs. There was a lot of whining by white American Matsushita executives who were excluded from decision making, or fired because they weren’t Japanese. I love it when white people snivel about being discriminated against. There was also whining by the Japanese narrator about how the Americans don’t appreciate how terribly rigid and conformist the Japanese corporate structure is, and how unhappy and isolated their executives can be. Poor babies, all. But if you listened carefully, it wasn’t really about Japanese vs. American business methods, or racial discrimination.
It‘s clear the Japanese are beating us at our own game, but what exactly is the game, who’s running it, and why? One little statement from that film contains a significant clue: “Matsushita Corporaton has a two hundred and fifty year plan.” Are we to think this is for the benefit of human beings? Was the big plan implemented for the sake of employment security and good living standards ten generations into the future? Or is this just plain proof of Institution as an End in Itself, taking on a life of its own, or worse? And how many other mega-corporations, Japanese, American or international, have such agendas and aren’t talking?
Why does this make me think of the neutron bomb--you know, the one that kills biological life forms but leaves buildings, and presumably other material objects (like TV sets) intact? Or the Egyptian pyramids, or any other “monumental accomplishment” praised as a “great achievement of man’s spirit” while killing thousands of lowly individual humans.
The first time I heard the phrase “business as usual” was in 1969, the day after the astronauts landed on the moon. These days, space travel is pretty ho-hum and there may be good reason to question the wisdom of it, but back then, that day, it was a big deal, and undeniably interesting to everyone. Or so I thought. I was playing in a rock and roll band at a dive called the Airport Inn in Lake George, N.Y., a small tourist trap where merchants prey on vacationing college students every summer. The clubowner, who eerily resembled a young Henry Kissinger, was complaining to my agent about the moon landing because his profits decreased while it was being televised.
“...But thank God it was over soon and that night it was business as usual,” he was saying with a nasty little smirk.
I wonder if he’s been assimilated into something like Matsushita yet.
Fishermen harvest fish.
Loggers harvest old-growth trees.
Cops recover drugs.
These subtle bits of word mis-usage conveniently create the impression that the fishermen planted the fish in the first place, that the timber industry created the old-growth trees; that police officers were the original owners of confiscated drugs and are merely taking back what was theirs in the first place. Some hippie spends all summer digging, hauling water, carrying chicken shit and living in fear in order to feed his family, and the cops come along with Gulf War technology and recover his plants.
Actually “recovery” is sometimes the correct term with heroin and cocaine, since any authority figure worth his salt knows that a strung-out person is either incapacitated, rendered harmless, or a ripe candidate for incarceration, and there’s never a shortage of hard drugs. Let’s build build more jails now and avoid the rush. How long before we hear about DEA thugs “harvesting” drug offenders?
This corrupted language slips through easily on the evening news, and the terms enter the popular vocabulary with hardly anyone noticing, like the poisonous phrase “bottom line,” which reduces any situation to a matter of profit or loss. Personally, I tend to trust no one who uses it.
It’s called “The Rapture,” starring Mimi Rogers as a bored telephone operator named Sharon. She and her boyfriend like to pick up other couples at airport bars and have sexual tag-team matches. But one day a couple of Jehovah’s Witness-type guys knock on her door and tell her about God, Jesus, and the Final Days. Pretty soon she’s married with a kid and going to a church where everybody dreams about a giant pearl and a young boy unveils God’s plan.
After a disgruntled employee murders her husband, the boy in the church tells Sharon to go into the desert and wait for God. She does, and when God doesn’t come she shoots her daughter and loses the faith. In jail she meets a former swap-mate who has seen the Pearl and learned to love God.
Up to this point I’m thinking, they’ve done a pretty good job on these glassy-eyed zealots. Shooting your kid over God--that’s a good one, right? But now it starts taking a bizarre twist, and I’ll resist the temptation to reveal the ending.
I have to admit I’m not sure where the people who made this film are coming from, but whatever the case, it’s insidiously creepy and well written.
THE DEATH OF HENRY MILLER and ROAD NOTES, PART THREE
Tue, Dec 29, 1992
I’m literally snowed in. The roads are clear but the driveway here at the “ranch” is not. No snow tires, no traction. Enough food for a few days and if necessary I could catch a ride out with Dave, who is one of those guys who always has it together when it comes to the practical, nuts and bolts aspects of life. Unlike myself. On the positive side, the computer is running again after a crash.
My friend Brundage in Hawaii wants to discuss his main man Henry Miller again, and I had to tell him the truth. For years I’d heard of Miller--sex, banned books, dirty words, sex. When I finally got around to reading him in 1980, the sex parts were only a tiny portion and not the best of his writing. Here was a guy just writing about his life,--not an especially remarkable life, but he made it interesting. In numerous discussions since then, however, no female has budged an inch in her condemnation of Henry’s chauvinism and objectification of women, and their points were well taken. As a literary icon, Miller was dead for me.
Brundage brought up Henry’s “putting the touch” on people for money and mentions my own “shameless, similar practice.” Whenever someone uses the term “shameless,” I’m thrown into a semantic confusion. Every time the term is used, it’s said as if shame were a good thing, as if it were the very thread that holds the fabric of human civilization together. Shameless hussies! Excuse me, Johnny, but I don’t think you’re exhibiting enough shame today. Now go to your room and hate yourself for a while. Think about what a piece of shit you are. Then, come out and show us some really shameful behavior, so we know you’re becoming a good citizen. Shamelessness aside, when it comes to dialing for dollars on the road, there is sometimes no choice. What does one do when one’s car dies in Newport Beach, California (not exactly a friendly, understanding place), in front of a motel, the motel costs $35.00, and you have exactly $35.00 in your pocket? One gets the room, settles in and tries to think. No money for food or cigarettes. Okay, ration the remaining smokes, and a night of fasting can’t hurt. But what happens tomorrow? Thanks to a $37.00 investment in Triple A before leaving, I know I can get a free jump start, so there’s one shot at getting somewhere (not too far) with my dead alternator. But where? Simple logic demands that it be an auto parts store, but they’re not going to be understanding and give me an alternator on credit. The only answer is Western Union. What else can I do? Get a job and live in my car for the first week with nothing to eat? But who to call? Well, there’s Joe Moss, whom I sent fifty bucks last year to help him get out of New Mexico, and in fact I’ve already been on the phone with him from four states and he’s promised some money but all I get is an answering machine and Western Union shows no money from him. My other big asset is a telephone calling card, which allows calls anywhere without so much as a quarter. A huge bill, but I’ll deal with that later.
With the second call, a friend in New York comes through with $150. Now we start calling auto parts stores. There’s one just a few blocks down Highway One, but first there’s the matter of Western Union. It’s a few miles up the hill in Costa Mesa, and no matter what, I can’t shut off the engine. I get there and it’s a Mexican neighborhood. All my radical, hip, non-racist sensibilities cannot overcome my conditioning, as an Anglo brought up in the suburbs of Connecticut, to be afraid that one of these brown people is going to steal my car, which must necessarily be left running outside the store and is full of musical equipment. So to make a show of courage, or solidarity or whatever it was, I left the doors of the running car unlocked and the windows open in a Southern California Mexican neighborbood where I had never been before.
The Spanish-speaking people in the religious icon store that housed the Western Union office were going about their business at a very relaxed pace, chatting each other up and going to great pains to help one pregnant woman with a telegram to Mexico City. The more I fidgeted and stole looks outside at the car, the slower they got around to waiting on me. Mexicans are who gave California the term “laid back.” The siesta ethic. The money is there, the car is not stolen. These are not the vicious, thieving non-white people one sees on TV, they’re just folks out with their families buying groceries and plastic Jesuses.
Down the hill to the auto parts store, where, with a slightly ominous sense of finality, I shut off the engine. Ninety-two bucks buys the new alternator and a battery charge. Out comes the set of socket wrenches and shop manual. I’m no mechanic, but I can read. The new unit goes in without a problem. and I learn a new term: pivot bolt. After a gas fill-up and breakfast I’m on the road again, only 1400 miles to go and forty-five dollars in my pocket.
Next stop is Burbank, where I will try and collect all or part of the hundred dollars my friend Bob owes me from when I fronted him an ounce of Hawaiian pakalolo eight years ago in Sausalito. To get to Burbank from Newport Beach, I drove through Long Beach (itself one of the great southern California nightmares) to catch the 710 freeway. In L.A. it’s the 710, the 101, etc. Naturally, since I am often, for better or worse, destined to have the full experience of whatever it is I’m experiencing, this route put me at the 710-5 interchange just about at 5:00 p.m. rush hour. I sat through the bumper-to-bumper mess with an amazing calm, ever mindful of the miraculous fact that the car kept working. When I got to Bob’s he asked if I taken “the 5.” Yes. Had I seen or heard the shooting at the 710-5 interchange around 5:00? No, I hadn’t. He came up with forty dollars, and on this I made it to Sausalito, where I collected two $50 contributions and Moss finally came through on the wire with his fifty.
To travel like this, one must be shameless--or have a lot of friends, or both.
ROAD NOTES -- HERE COMES AMERICA
Graffiti on one of the Seattle ferries: Are you a Republican or just an asshole? In different handwriting, underneath: Are you a Democrat or just a moron? By this reckoning, I am an asshole and a moron. I voted for the lesser evil and was shocked to see it win, but it gives me the creeps to think of anyone running around with little party buttons, affiliations and agendas.
There was no joy in Wimberley, Texas, on Nov. 4, the day after the election. This is heavy conservative country, full of realtors and retirees--a generally dour place, even though it hypes itself as a vacation haven. Forty miles east in Austin, the sole oasis of relatively progressive thinking in Texas, there was some celebration after the Clinton victory, but out in the“hill country” nobody said much of anything.
Watching the election returns on TV, I felt nothing. After voting for the first time since 1972 I still didn’t feel like “part of the process,” which was something of a relief considering the true nature of the process. Political concerns just don’t seem to matter here, and even the murders that comprise the lead stories every day on San Antonio TV news quickly become ho-hum. After all this is Texas, the Gun State. You’re weird if you don’t have at least one. It’s a matter of routine for many people to put a loaded pistol in the car when going out for the evening. But this is nothing new. Firearms are taken for granted here, just like rattlesnakes, country dancing, fistfighting and barbecue beef. Sign outside a restaurant in Blanco: “World’s Best Barbecue -- Make You Slap Yo’ Pappy.”
Two good things about Texas: 1. Cheap gas. 2. Politeness--lots of please and thank you, sir and ma’am. One does tend to be polite as possible to someone packing a Colt .45. But under all that outward courtesy there’s a suppressed rage, boiling and stewing, eager to bust out and kick some ass, preferably Yankee ass.
Traveler’s warning: On Highway Ten in West Texas somewhere east of Van Horn, there’s a hundred-mile Stink Zone. The area is loaded with natural gas outlets spewing earth-farts among the desert scrub. This area also boasts dead skunks and armadillos on the road in alarming numbers, probably because the poor creatures are trying to escape the gas smell. The effect of the combined odors can be rather unpleasant.
Anyway, it’s still out there--America, that is. It must be some sort of protective device that makes me refer to America as “out there,” because if I thought it was “here,” I’d go nuts.
After being iced in for more than a week, my car was finally able to get out and I headed into town for a dose of whatever reality Port Townsend has to offer.
Had a good talk with a friend about all the American writers and musicians who have gone to Europe after starving and being either unrecognized, ostracized, or institutionalized in the Land of the Free, and how they got respect over there, and how maybe they didn’t get rich but they ate well and had decent shelter. He was also saying how Port Townsend used to be a real place with a vital art community, but the people who did things like create the Wooden Boat Festival were driven out by high rents due to the influx of “bottom line” people like realtors and merchants--in whose interest it is to have the illusion of an “artistic,” or at least interesting, town to lure consumers. Sound familiar, northern California? This is the further and final encroachment of “America” into the last, western outposts of free thought and cultural vitality.
My friend mentioned one woman artist he knew who spoke of the situation in terms of “sexual energy.” “There’s no sexual energy in Port Townsend,” she said. I know what she meant, although I wouldn’t have used that term. I’ve known others who used it; it was their way of saying “life force,” and wasn’t meant to imply any sort of orgiastic immorality. This theory might explain what I call the overcautiousness of the people here (overbuilt boundaries?), the deliberately-maintained superficiality of most relationships. Others agree with me on this. And where does this “sexual energy” or “life force” go? Maybe the original artists took some of it with them, but in my view, the merchants and promoters suck it up and twist it into condos, real estate agencies and “growth management” arguments at City Hall. Anytime you hear someone talking about preserving the character of a place, you can bet the “character” left town a long time ago.
ROAD NOTES: THE COSMIC MYSTERY CONTINUED
It’s smoky in here. I’m cooking a Gamish Corn Hen in the oven, which operates only on full throttle. So I have to keep opening the oven door to let some heat and smoke out. I’ve mastered this method, however, and the chicken will come out perfect. I just happened across some letters from Brundage while cleaning out the car. I received them on the road and didn’t give them a real reading. They’re largely about UFOs and the attempt to fit the phenomenon into a format that is understandable to “rational” thinkers. This won’t be the first time I’ve mentioned this, but I’m urging him again to read “The Cosmic Trigger” by Robert Anton Wilson. It provides some good perspective on the stuff he’s talking about.
And then there’s the matter of Paul Dixon, who was canned in the early 80’s from the faculty of UH Hilo because they thought he was nuts. Dixon was trying to publish a paper he had written about the potential for the particle accelerator at Livermore Labs to explode and create a supernova, which would wipe out not only the earth but probably the entire solar system as we know it. Dixon came and “spoke” to our writer’s (drinking) group in the wilds of Puna, an area better known for marijuana growing than intellectual pursuits. As lecture circuits go, it was either the very bottom or very top of the heap.
A few years later, I showed a copy of Dixon’s paper to Joe Tate (Ambient Reasearch, Sausalito) a man of some scientific accomplishment who is interested in UFOs, besides having had some trouble himself with being considered a crank by the straight science world, but through his work on earthquake prediction has finally gotten some begrudging recognition. Dixon’s theory was dependent on something called a “false DeSitter Vacuum.” When Tate read the piece, he’d never heard of such a thing. So he went looking, and turned up nothing. If he wants to be believed, Dixon will have to demonstrate the existence of a “DeSitter Vacuum.” [2009 note: DeSitter vacuum exists, at least on google].
He could very well be correct. If one thinks about these matters at all, the facts are too strange for mere UFO or other “nut” theories to explain them. And it’s funny to see all these “rational” academic science types pooh-poohing anything that doesn’t into their little world of mathematical cause-and-effect. It’s no better than the pope or Christian fundamentalism. MINE IS THE ONLY TRUE PATH... This is where “The Cosmic Trigger” comes in. Wilson is working without the burden of dogma.
All this cosmic weirdness reminded me of something my old pal Ginsburg said to me one night in the ‘60s when I was on acid and extremely vulnerable to suggestion. Another semantic, or perhaps connotative problem: if we say we’re “vulnerable to suggestion,” we’re implying that the whatever the suggestion is, it will be bad. Anyway, what Ginsburg said did have an enormous influence on me, and I think that ultimately the effect was good, or at least illuminating. He said that we were “trapped in existence.” And really, he was right. I may be stuck in Port Townsend, you may be marooned wherever you happen to be, but if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’re just not entirely comfortable with our own rather weird presence as “human beings” on a “planet” in a “universe,” etc. Hey--I was just in Texas, a really big place, and I felt really trapped there. I could only stand it for eight days. You know, they have tornadoes there, and some considerable floods. If the earth is blowing up, well, fuck it--either it’s too late or it’s not, and it could be that if you’re not on the front lines with EarthFirst! you’re part of the problem.
There are two kinds of people in the world--in WWII Europe they were neatly divided into those who were sent to the camps, and those who sent them. I can say with some certainty that I would have been sent. No, I’m not Jewish, but I look Jewish, at least to one blond, blue-eyed kid at camp back in Connecticut, the one who threw rocks at me while yelling, “Jew! Dirty fuckin’ Jew!” That was my introduction to the word “Jew.”
No place is safe. And now Clinton is president, possible evidence that even in a place like in Arkansas everyone is not necessarily a drooling, inbred moron. Of course, he does like to eat at McDonald’s, or Jack-in-the Box...
Correction: Dixon was not canned from UH. The accelerator in question is at Fermilab.
THE WALLA WALLA WINGDING
Mon, Jan 4, 1993
The execution of Westley Allan Dodd is being covered by the local news media as if it were the grandest sporting event of the year, surpassing even the Super Bowl. The TV stations have reporters at various locations, some at the prison in Walla Walla (home of sweet onions and death row), and others at the courthouse where at this moment anti-death penalty activists are still trying to halt the hanging. Since the reporters don’t really have much to work with besides the basic fact that Dodd will be killed at one minute after midnight, they’re reduced to inane discussions between themselves.
From outside the prison: “Dan, What if the governor changes his mind, what would happen then?”
To Dan, in the studio: “I don’t know, Kerry, but ...the execution will be a landmark in our state’s history.”
Cut to prepared filler, a teaser called “THE FINAL FIFTEEN MINUTES” -- complete with digital clock read-out on the lower right of the screen, just like a football game. “....And at 11:57, Dan, the hood will be placed over his head as the trap door is made ready...”
The Dodd case has been in and out of the local news in Seattle all year, but it started hitting the networks around the first of November. Now, as the “countdown” (no kidding, that’s what they’re calling it), progresses, the impending execution is on all the network news shows. The local stations, including Vancouver, B.C., are running intermittent spots exhorting the viewing audience to “join us starting at nine for the Countdown Special.”
“..And in a moment, we’ll let you know how the people of that little western Washington town are reacting to all the attention.”
“Don’t forget, we have the execution coming up later...”
“Not too many hours now, Dan..”
“That’s right, David.”
“More people are expected to arrive here at the prison over the next few hours, Kerry.”
“And the autopsy photo will be in color, not black and white, Dan.”
These are the standard-variety “hairdo” newspeople, the kind who usually end a piece by looking at each other and saying something like, “Gosh, that’s really tragic, isn’t it?” or, “Gee, that’s terrific.”
In a bizarre twist on the yellow ribbon theme, one reporter noted “a yellow noose hanging from a tree near the prison.” The ongoing dispute about whether to videotape the hanging was summed up best by someone who said it shouldn’t be taped because “the tape might fall into the wrong hands.” And whose hands, we might wonder, would be the right ones? Guess what phrase the reporters used to describe the prison parking lot, clogged up with TV and other media people, satellite dishes and vans. For the originality prize, can you say “media circus?” Let’s try another station.
“Members of the media will draw lots to see who gets to witness the execution, Jean...” And the winner is...
“....A psycholgical impact on our society, Mike.”
Why do the pro-death people always wear baseball caps? “He deserves to hang... he should die, as a deterrent...” These guys have only their caps and light jackets on. Their counterparts, those demonstrating against the death penalty (pro-life?) are dressed appropriately for the weather (18 degrees F., 20 mph wind, and snow) -- parkas, wool hats, etc. This seems to suggest something about levels of awareness, or at least differing ideas about mortality.
“Tonight at eleven, the death watch at Walla Walla... And in hockey, Wayne Gretzky is back...”
“Dodd’s last meal will be salmon...”
Speaking of Northwest notables, how about that Bob Packwood? I have a nasty little chuckle every time I consider his name. If you don’t know what I mean, go to any bar in south central Texas and ask about the Port Aransas Indoor Backpacking Club.
DEADLY TREES AND BURGERS
Cruisin’ for burgers and fries? Let’s go to Jack-in-the-Box. Drive up and Jack will speak to you.
The death toll came in from the so-called Inauguration Day Storm --five killed directly by falling trees. Immediately, the local news media had an angle. Five killed by nature’s rage. Wealthy homes damaged. Deadly trees crush people and houses. In true white-man fashion, they played nature as the enemy, and trees were the latest weapons in its vicious campaign against the human race and valuable property. Weyerhaeuser to the rescue! We’ll rescue the hapless citizenry from those horrible dangerous trees! We’ll cut the bastards down, all of them!
It wasn’t long before a new set of figures took precendence on the news. Two child deaths, and over three hundred cases in western Washington, of E. coli poisoning from Jack-in-the-Box burgers. Before anyone died, Jack-in-the-Box president Robert Nugent came on, looking like a Las Vegas mafia nightclub owner, and made a hesitant “acceptance of responsibility” statement, trying half-heartedly to appear as if he cared. His strongest words, of course, came when he put the blame on a certain distributor in Arcadia, California, probably figuring that Seattle could feel comfortable with that, since California is the source of all evil. But once death was involved, another Jack-in-the-Box official, vice-president Paul Schultz, backed off from the responsibility rap, saying that “certain links in the chain have not been fully examined,” and “We have to be careful to define moral responsibility.” Translation: A scapegoat will be created. Nugent was also quick to reprimand the state government of Washington for not informing Jack-in-the-Box of its new law requiring a minimum cooked temperature for the burger patties of 155 degrees rather than 140. Translation: We get away with whatever we can. The latest TV ads have another Jack-in-the-Box official expressing his concern, “as a parent and grandparent,” and assuring the burger-addicted public that they are “doing everything in our power to keep your trust.”
What nobody’s saying is that the whole concept of Jack-in-the-Box, MacDonald’s and all the rest, is wrong. Could you possibly get through a day without a fast-food dose of grease and salt? The food is crap, and they get their business from a constant barrage of insidious advertising. You’re a bad parent if you don’t buy your kid a happy meal, and if you don’t eat cheeseburgers your patriotism is in question.
We’re learning a lot about the E coli bacteria, which likes to live in the feces of cattle. It’s those darn germs, that’s the problem. All we have to do is get rid of the germs, just like we’re getting rid of those dangerous trees. All these damn living things are getting in the way of business.
If any of these “restaurant” chains spent the same amount of money on improving their products as they did on promotion, the food might be decent, but that’s not the point, is it? Their food has always been dangerous to health, and I’m surprised that more people haven’t keeled over from eating it. Actually, they probably do; this is just the first time it’s been proven.
Gays in the military? Who cares? I cannot respect anyone who wants to be in the military.
Belkamp Media Awards
The Spineless Toadying Award to the TV networks for allowing Norman Schwarzkopf to come on the talk shows and portray himself as a kindly grandfather, and
The Ass Kisser of the Year Award to Jay Leno for fawning over Schwarzkopf almost to the point of kneeling and begging the fat general to bend over.
The Mindless, Unquestioning Acceptance and Imitation of Government Duckspeak Award to the media in general for their continuing daily use of phrases like “at that point in time” “send a message,” “bottom line,” and “infrastructure.”
The Dumb Sheep Award to that hallowed group, The American People, for parroting the above phrases in their daily speech, forgetting, for instance, that “at that point in time” came from Nixon’s Watergate conspirators and was part of their deliberate plan to waste time and confuse the trial proceedings while somehow still sounding official and important.
The Further Devolution Of The Language by Desperately Attempting To Sound Official And Important Award to all national and local broadcasters for the wildly popular tendency to push and accentuate prepositions (listen for it):
getting the ball by the linebackers
hitting targets in Iraq
waiting for the announcement to come
awaiting word from the White House
several sexual harrassment allegations at the facility
The Exposing The True Nature of Government Award to the “official spokespeople” for blatantly using schoolyard bully-boy language in reference to Iraq. Direct quotes: “We’re going to punish Saddam.” “Were going to teach him a lesson” “He needs to be disciplined.” “We’ll show him who’s boss.”
The Phony Liberal Award to Phil Donahue for acting as if he questions and disapproves of the attacks on Iraq. And to anyone else who argues that “patriotism” can be expressed by protesting government action.
The Fear of Offending Anyone in Power Award to the KING 5 TV, Seattle, news department for consistency in treating anti-war demonstrators as a tiny minority of misguided nut cases.
The Rodney Dangerfield Lookalike Grand Prize to Mike Lowry, the newly elected governor of Washington.
The Journalistic Integrity Except for Failing to Pay the Starving Writers--Hey--Wait a Minute, You Couldn’t Get Away With Not Paying the Printer Award to Bruce Anderson.
I’ve come to realize that almost all the mischief I got into as a kid was of a revolutionary, anarchistic or heretic nature. I destroyed heavy earth-moving equipment, and twenty years later the practice was named “monkey-wrenching” by Edward Abbey and taken up by serious environmentalists. I stole religious icons and defaced the front entrance to the high school with them, and tore up golf courses with cars. All these, it turns out, were either symbols or actual implements of class oppression, destruction of the earth, or brainwashing. I was right.
A FRIENDLY EXCHANGE--The Fat Letters
HOWARD BELKAMP AND JIM GIBBONS
Yesterday, I was pissed off at the Willits Fitness World because some fat person was walking on the treadmill. I think walking is about the best thing a fat person can do, unless it’s on the only decent treadmill in the place, and some fat person signed up for one whole hour of walking at 20-mile pace when I want to run for twenty minutes.
So it occurs to me that the heavy duty treadmill should be reserved for runners, and the two cheaper machines for walkers. But then I’m told by one of the staff members that the “fat people” -- her words this time -- break the cheaper machines. Hell with it, I ran outside in the rain; I’d rather run outside anyway, but it just pisses me off. On my way out I decided to use the suggestion box that has been siting on the counter for months, never with any suggestions inside, of course. Well, to make a short story even longer, my first suggestion was to keep the walkers on the cheaper machines. Walking on them is no problem for a normal person, it’s only when you try running that you have to be careful where you place your foot each time on the short, narrow treadmill. If you miss a beat--BAM!--your foot hits the floor and may lose your balance and fall, possibly get a finger or two jammed in the belt. It’s downright dangerous. It’s pretty obvious they should replace the two cheaper machines with the updated models, but the owner has told me more than once that she’s broke, and Willits should be lucky they even have a health club. Members do appreciate it, including my extended family of five, in fact, we appreciate it to the tune of $80 per month. Then, as a joke, I also suggested a “fat tax.” Hey, If the fat people break the machines, I reasoned, why should the skinny people have to pay for it? Fat people use more soap and water in the shower, too, and take up more space in the locker room. Why should we skinny people have to pay for those fat people?
Which brings me to my third suggestion: pay by the pound. Why should a 130-pound guy like me have to pay as much as some overweight 250-pounder? I pump less weight, I displace less water in the pool and spa, yet I’m charged the same dues. Does that seem fair? Don’t mean to get carried away, but the part that really pisses me off is that the owner called my suggestions, quote, RUDE RUDE RUDE! Unquote. Where’s her sense of humor? Maybe, to her, saying FAT in public is like saying Faggot or Nigger. She’s why I refer to the place as the Willits Witless world in the first place. It actually pains me to upset people. I was brought up to be polite and mind my manners. Yet, I keep offending people. It’s like every so often I need my fair share of (what the liberals like to call) negative attention. I wanted to tell her, “From YOU that’s a compliment!” Or better yet, “Eat shit and die, fuckface!” but there were too many people around, and so in keeping with my good upbringing, I said nothing. I think our letters shoud be in the AVA. I’m way past bored of letters to that chick about child abuse. You know what I would say to your girlfriend, don’t you? Hey honey, get over it! Let’s talk about real wounds, not the silly baggage privileged upper-middle class first world white women (or men, of course)
keep whining about. I better quit before I offend even you.
What? You offend me?
Lenny Bruce was once asked exactly how long he had been offensive, like Doug Williams, formerly of the Washington Redskins, was asked how long he had been a black quarterback. He replied, “Well, I’ve always been black...”
This fitness thing...get over it. I mean, Bush and Clinton jogging. Doesn’t that give you some kind of clue? You know what’s a little weird? Talking to a person, a person your age, and you’re talking to their face, but then you can’t help but notice their body, and something’s wrong. And then you figure out what it is. Your friend’s 5O year-old face is sitting on top of a twenty-five year-old body, and it’s like looking at Frankenstein. Or the Bride of Frankenstein, except that she still had breasts, because titties are made of fat. Did you ever see a movie called “The Man Who Could Cheat Death?” In the end, he didn’t.
Fitness clubs are for fat people. The whole idea is that they can belong to something with the word “fitness” in it, and be seen twiddling around on a bunch of phony machines in a nice, clean, shiny safe indoor place with a nice clean shiny hardwood floor while they talk business and recipes. But seriously, how about that Joe Montana?
No fitness clubs in Somalia, no fat people either. Maybe it’s like this: White middle class Americans have the privilege of going to fitness clubs while in real life they sit around on their asses and drink beer. The physical fitness problem is real, but it’s a symptom of white middle classness. Some poor schmuck in Ethiopia or Viet Nam, if he’s lucky, can get a job working like a horse for two cents an hour and that will put him in good physical condition, although he probably doesn’t have a coin-operated heart rate meter in his living room. In other words, out of the middle class first world, most people don’t have the luxury or likely even the notion of being concerned with their muscle tone. It’s not in their vocabulary.
Well -- You, being an intelligent white middle class American, can probably figure out where I’m going with this. But if you need help, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll tell you anyway: it is no more or less fucked up, sick, obsessive or lame to go to abuse treatment, or Alcoholics Anonymous for instance, than it is to go to Willits Fitness World. Are you offended? Get over it, and let’s try to remember the immortal words of Bob Seal : DON’T LET YOUR ALLIGATOR MOUTH OVERLOAD YOUR TADPOLE ASS.
OUT IN THE WOODS TOO LONG
I’ve been out in the woods too long.
Common sense, as well as various indisputable facts, tells us that a more natural, rural life is not only healthier than city life, it’s more conducive to mental and spiritual well-being, too. Who wouldn’t want to live among trees and flowers and birds, breathe fresh clean air and walk around barefoot or naked if they chose, without fear of drive-by shootings and muggings, without constant harrassment by panhandlers, without traffic jams or neighbors who make noise or complain because you do.
The problem with this idyllic little reverie is that unpleasant things happen out in the sticks, too. Take air pollution, for instance. Okay, so we don’t have smog here. We have something worse. Right on the beautiful shore of Port Townsend Bay, just two miles south of town, is The Mill. A paper mill which you can see, if you wish, in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.” You can drive down there and look at the bleaching ponds where pulp is turned paper-white and the dioxin is produced. But that’s something you have to know about to appreciate. It’s the smell of the place that makes it famous. Depending on the wind direction, various sections of Port Townsend and the surrounding area are intermittently drenched in a sulfurous stink that literally makes some people sick. If you want to know what it’s like, try burning an automobile battery. The Mill has a free car wash for its employees because at that proximity to the chimneys, the effluent will eat the paint off cars.
We don’t have ‘drive-by shootings.’ Up here we have the good old regular kind. Recently the body of a teenage girl was found in a stream in the forest. I suppose that’s more natural than finding the body of a teenage girl in a dumpster.
Hardly any gays or blacks around these parts; in fact, right across the beautiful Strait of Juan de Fuca, on scenic Whidbey Island, is not only a Naval air base from which bombers and jet fighters are sent all over the world, but a large and influential concentration of Aryan Nations neo-nazis. At least in cities, straight white people encounter ‘minorities’ of all kinds and learn to develop some form of acceptance.
Corrupt politics? No better example than small towns. This county just elected as commissioner an ex-police chief with a history of sexual harassment and abuse (“come sit on Uncle Bob’s lap...”), cocaine dealing, public drunkenness, and a failed ‘sting’ operation in which he tried to get one of his political opponents busted on a bogus marijuana charge.
I was raised in the worst possible situation for a ‘creative’ person--the newly burgeoning American phenomenon of suburbia in the fifties. We moved there when I was eight. Not city but not country, it had the advantages of neither. I couldn’t walk to the Saturday matinee, or to the five-and-dime to look at the toys, or to the ice cream shop--or even school or the barber, like I was used to. There was one ‘country’ advantage--fishing. BUT.... it wasn’t a natural lake, it was a stone quarry, and forbidden. I couldn’t go there without fear of getting caught, and by the time I was fifteen it was destroyed for yet another housing development.
What most got to me about the suburbs was the constant, suffocating conformity. Tiny minds creating a tiny world. The so and so’s paint their house, and everyone paints their house. The worst thing in the world was to be different. Eventually I met real country kids and I thought they were idiots. I could have been perfectly correct about that. It turned out that in the fresh air and healthy farm country, incest was the regular thing. Not enough stimulation for the mind. This county in Washington is famous for its inbreds.
What’s good about big cities is that it’s okay to be different. If a black person comes to Port Townsend, everybody knows it. Everybody. As a first grader in Hartford, Connecticut, I had black and Puerto Rican friends. When we moved out to Farmington, there wasn’t a black kid in school until senior year. One. I remember everything about him. His name was Genoa Montgomery. He was smart and got good grades. He could not sing, dance or play basketball. He got Nancy Gear, a preppy cheerleader, pregnant. The first pregnancy in the school’s history and by a black boy. I needn’t go on about the scandal. Genoa Montgomery screwed up badly in the suburbs by being different in more ways than one.
If the cities are starting to go out of control, let them. To a large extent, the people who work in the city live in the suburbs. That means all the squares are trapped in offices and go home at night anyway. In Seattle, I see vital, creative things everywhere. There’s energy in the air. Fashion designers have imitated Seattle street kids’ clothes and sell it around the world as “grunge.” People are buying cheap houses in crummy neighborhoods and fixing them up. Where my girlfriend lives, Capitol Hill, straights and gays of all colors and shapes exist in relative peace. She likes to walk and jog in Volunteer Park because it’s gay “territory” and the risk of rape is nil. Most of the rapes and serial killings around here happen the country, anyway.
Sure, there’s crime in the city but if you studied it and averaged it out by population, I’ll bet the the ratio in the country isn’t much better. Big cities have been ‘civilized’ and developed to death. They can only go the other way.
I’M NOT HERE FOR THE VIEW
It certainly is very hard to write about sex in English without making it unattractive. -- Edmund Wilson
It’s also difficult to write about anything “metaphysical” without sounding crazy. That’s why “real men” talk about “real” things like carburetors, construction techniques or the economy. We are trained to believe that the more intensely vital or interesting something is, the more dangerous it must be, and anyone openly involved with it is immoral, a criminal, or downright insane.
Sanity--the word must certainly come from the same root as “sanitation.” A clean mind. So--is that what brainwashing does--make people sane? You can’t read a book like the “Cuckoo’s Nest” and not wonder who’s really crazy. How many political prisoners have been committed to the asylum and rendered harmless to the state? How much shock or drug therapy does it take to bring the lunatic into control... Let’s see, 15OO volts might bring us into the range of liberal/radical (loud but no longer dangerous, perhaps a “heavy metal” musician who dishes out bogus rebellion to stoned kids while on the corporate payroll). 25OO volts plus 5OO milligrams of thorazine might be the key to a “moderate” or “centrist” political stance. 1O,OOO volts and 1O,OOO milligrams could give us a nice fresh Christian Republican--a complete hypocrite and model citizen who will question nothing and trust the preacher to deal with the existential question. As John Gatto wrote, American education teaches people to be “addicted to distraction,” and nothing proves it better than the tourist industry. I realize now, after living in tourist traps most of my life, that anybody can appreciate natural beauty. And they do. They come in droves to gawk at the mountains and trees, the water. The realtors know it, and chamber of commerce knows it, and naturally they encourage it. Somehow, when a car salesman from Idaho is there taking snapshots of the lovely landscape, something is ruined for me. Natural scenery is so BIG, so obvious that a person need not possess a single iota of subtlety or imagination to appreciate it. And they just keep on coming.
It’s a good thing the white men built all those motels and hot dog stands in the Black Hills. Otherwise, all that perfectly good real estate would have gone to waste... --
-- Lame Deer
I went to the Black Hills once. A beautiful place, but full enough of lame-brain tourists in huge RVs, hot dog stands and phony “attractions” to make me feel ashamed to be there. Mount Rushmore is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. The Sioux medicine man Lame Deer pointed out that the faces of the Great White Fathers are carved into the Indians’ most sacred mountain. And, if you go there and look at it, you’ll see that the chipped-away rubble was never cleaned up, and that it looks like a dump at the bottom of the mountain.
I’m not here for the view.
THE RELUCTANT CONSUMER
My father was an anarchist and didn’t know it. When the Connecticut State Police first made the announcement that “driving is not a right, it is a privilege” sometime around 1960, he fumed and grumbled. He spat. He got in the car, drove to his favorite gin mill and got stinking drunk.
This was also the time when JFK, the young and handsome president with the Harvard haircut and fashionable wife, was exhorting the populace to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” My father was not elated by this, either.
I can’t say for sure when Jack Belkamp first realized something was wrong, but it was too late by the time he did. His brain had been co-opted in World War Two, when as a young electronics whiz he was exempted from the draft to work as a civilian technician for the Navy at the Chincoteague, Virginia radar installation. After the war he moved the little family north to Hartford, Connecticut, and worked for various government contractors, designing electronic circuits.
In 1955 we moved again to Farmington, 12 miles west of Hartford--this is where we attained The American Dream and things really began to deteriorate. Our new house was one of four or five hundred identical boxes in a “development” called The Highlands. My father was now a “commuter,” driving nine miles every day to his new job at Anderson Laboratories in West Hartford. My mother, having quit her job as a bank teller, was now living the empty life of a suburban housewife. My father was drinking more and more.
One night he told me exactly what he did at Anderson Labs. I was only nine years old, but for some reason he felt I should know.
“I design delay lines for guided missiles.” He poured another drink.
Well, that sounded pretty important to me. Why did he seem unhappy? I started bragging to my little friends. “My father designs delay lines for guided missiles.” That didn’t do much good. They usually responded by saying “My father can beat up your father.”
All the fathers in The Highlands commuted to work. I don’t know what they all did, but my friend Kenny’s dad worked at the Travelers Insurance Co. And that was a very important job.
All the mothers of my friends stayed home and were crabby most or all of the time. The American Dream apparently wasn’t working for them, either.
What I didn’t know was that Jack Belkamp was going through a painful process. As a boy of twelve he had seen through the cruel deceptions of the Catholic church and escaped with his mind intact, but now he was realizing he hadn’t escaped completely--that he had been fooled and used, that he had been fucked over, and royally, by something I would later in the 60’s call The Establishment. His brilliant circuit designs were being used in missiles carrying nuclear warheads aimed at the Soviet Union, while his nine-year old son was in school being taught the “duck and cover” method of diving under a desk to protect himself from a hydrogen bomb blast.
When the 1960 “compact” cars appeared, I was 14 and very interested in automobiles. After a careful reading of all the automotive periodicals, I announced to my father that the Plymouth Valiant was the car to have. To my immense surprise he actually bought one. On time payments, of course, like a good citizen does. It was his last act as a “consumer.” I had no way of knowing he was about to quit the missile job to drink full time and then die, or that he was really getting the car for me, as if to make up for the horror of helping build the missiles. By this time he was almost totally disgusted and embittered. The State Police “driving is a privilege” announcement, the Kennedy “ask not” speech, the missile and other industries, the rigid conformity of the suburbs... He had figured out The Big Lie. Contrary to what everyone had been taught--what very reasonably seemed to be the truth, the important thing was the State; the individual human being had no value except to serve the needs of institutions and was therefore expendable. Even the simple acts of voting and paying taxes were, in the final analysis, submissions to the petty vanity of authority figures large and small; and he had bitten on it, innocently enough like millions of others, in the name of using his intelligence and skills to sustain his life and support a family.
Son Of The Reluctant Consumer
HIGH SCHOOL TROUBLEMAKER
“What did you learn in school today?” In the 50s, every kid was asked this question sooner or later either by genuinely curious, well-meaning parents, or by other adults, as one of the three things they could think of to say to children, another being, “And how are you?” Whereupon the kid would say either “nothing” or “fine.” The third question was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Most boys said “a cowboy” or “a fireman” or something like that. The adults would smile indulgently and nod, knowing that the little fools would really grow up to factory drones or insurance adjusters. I don’t know what the girls said; actually I don’t even know if they were asked. For all I can tell it was just assumed they were going to be housewives.
The German word treppenwitz refers to the snappy retort you thought of after it was too late. In that spirit, I sometimes wish I could be a kid again so I tell adults what I learned in school. One thing I could tell them is that bats are birds.
The “coach” at my high school was Mr. Grocki. He’s the one who had us playing the violent dodgeball game which was the final straw for my Phys. Ed. career. Coach Grocki believed that if you could grasp a man’s or boy’s hair, even pinch any at all, it was too long and his masculinity was in serious doubt. He also taught “Health” class--usually first aid and diet (the four food groups etc.) This was 1959 and sex education was something you got from dirty magazines or lurid accounts from older boys who claimed to have scored.
Remember the bat-rabies scare? There was a film going around that showed terrifying images of bats getting caught in people’s hair (another reason to have a crew cut) and biting them--frothing at the mouth--and huge clouds of the little buggers flying around in broad daylight looking for human victims. It was during this period of media-generated panic that coach Grocki decided to lecture us on bats in Health class.
“Most bats are small, like mice or rats with wings,” he said, “But in South America they have these huge vampire bats that can kill cows. These big birds are also known as vultures.” I looked around. Not one boy in the class was even raising his eyebrows at this outrageously ignorant statement. Was I the only one who knew that bats were mammals and birds were not, or was I the only one listening? Or did the others just not want to make waves? I couldn’t stand it. Up went my hand.
“What is it, Belkamp?”
“Bats are not birds, coach. Bats are mammals. They’re warm blooded, have fur and give live birth. Birds are cold-blooded, have feathers, and lay eggs. “Vulture” and “vampire” both start with a “V” and maybe that’s why you’re confused.”
“I’m not confused, Belkamp. Are you disputing what I’m teaching in this class? Are telling me I’m WRONG?”
“I’m just telling you what the facts are. Bats are not birds. Why don’t you look it up yourself before you teach false information?”
“I’m sick of your troublemaking, Belkamp. You’re just trying to disrupt my class. Get down to the office.”
The principal didn’t even give me a chance to argue my case. Mine was an all too familiar face in the office, and I was guilty even if proven innocent.
“Since when do you know more than the teachers here, Belkamp? Two weeks’ suspension, and if you don’t make up the work for the suspension period, you might flunk the semester.”
Two weeks’ vacation was fine with me. Usually they gave me detention, which naturally made school seem even more prison-like than usual. Somewhere in the northeast there are thirty or forty adult males who very possibly told their children about the giant vampire vultures of South America.
Another fascinating lesson I could relate: “If you don’t think you’re better than everyone else, something is wrong with you.” This is a statement from my ninth grade Civics teacher, Mr. Dick Dillon, a chubby, crew-cutted fellow with horn-rimmed glasses who lived with his mother just down the street from me in the ultra-conformist suburban housing development, where adults probably spent many hours concocting reasons why they were “better” than their alarmingly similar and terribly uninteresting neighbors.
But there’s one thing I heard from a high school teacher that really affected my life; after all it related directly to two of the three big questions: “What did you learn in school today?” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In my senior year there was a teacher named Mr. Fries (appropriately pronounced “freeze”-- he was widely regarded as a cold-hearted bastard, a prick) who taught a class called “Problems of Democracy,” a direct indoctrination into the workings of government-as-usual. I was failing this class. One day he took me aside after school and said, “Belkamp, if you don’t straighten out now, buckle down and improve your attitude, you’re going to wind up in jail, a criminal.”
I would like to go back in time and say to him, “Mr. Fries, thank you--you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve never known what to say when people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, but thanks to you, now I can say “a career criminal. I want to live outside the system and do everything I can to undermine everything you teach, to expose or destroy everything you represent, because your job is to frighten and bore kids into submission.”
In all fairness, I have to say that I did learn some good things in high school, due to an unusually perceptive and good-humored teacher named Walter McMullen, who, in apparent defiance of an unwritten school code, chose to ignore my budding anarchistic tendencies, my improper attitude, and helped me learn to develop my language skills.
Thank you, Mr. McMullen, wherever you are.
Just like any mental hospital, the loony bin of corporate-government media treats its inmates (the public) with alternating stimulation and sedation, leaving the patient never knowing whether he’s coming or going--a perpetually befuddled state of mind. This of course is the goal of the administrators, as it keeps the patients well in control.
Buzzwords are government-media equivalents of electric shock therapy, a quick, strong jolt of current to fire up the brain. However the men in the white coats (or White House, if you will), know that the mentally deficient subject (the average citizen, excuse me, consumer) cannot handle the stimulation for too long.
That why we have snoozewords, the thorazine of media-speak. Just when a buzzword has you all worked up and ready to argue or throw a bomb, they’ll throw a heavy snoozer at you. This is to prevent clear thoughts from forming and crystallizing into action.
DRUGS PRIVATE SECTOR
AIDS HEALTH CARE
BEYOND SNOOZEWORDS: A Quick Look at Political and Media Language
DOWN IN THE COURTS: The decision, usually by the judge, always comes “down.” The honorable judge so-and-so handed down his decision... This little word sets up the undisputed premise that the black-robed judge is a Higher Being, sitting on his lofty throne behind an imposing barrier, a hammer at his right hand, stern and ready to decide the fate of the low-down common rabble parading pitifully through his domain day after day. Even the jury, a carefully screened (you don’t have any feelings or opinions about anything, do you?) so-called cross-section of everyday people, is temporarily elevated to a level, not as high as the judge, but still high enough that their decision comes “down.”
RHETORIC: A snoozeword with multiple meanings. In campaign politics it usually means exaggerated, affected, inflated, unsupported discourse. Candidates use it to describe what the other guy is saying, to imply that the opponent is a transparent phony, an empty puffed-up gasbag--one given to flatulent talk. And by extension, to intimate that he, on the other hand, is entirely sincere and that his words are unquestionably meaningful and important. This is the odd instance of all candidates in any election (since they always accuse the others of empty rhetoric), being right.
George Will, the stodgy right-wing TV and newspaper pundit whose fondest memory is having lunch with Nancy Reagan, often starts off his little debates with liberals by saying, “...In some of your recent rhetoric, you’ve said...” This is an effective blow, implying that nothing the opponent has to say could possibly have any substance.
AMERICA AT ITS SILLY BEST
Port Townsend May 15, 1993
Big doin’s in town today. The weekend-long Rhododendron Festival is the Event of the Year, and today’s “Rhody” parade is the biggest yet, with about a hundred units participating. High School marching bands from places like Sedro Wooley, Chimacum, and Sequim (pronounced ‘Squim’), professional bagpipe outfits, floats with varying themes, old firetrucks and antique cars, politicians in convertibles--you know the routine.
I had half-forgotten about the parade when I drove into town to send a fax to the AVA and return a box of defective computer paper (no perf) to the office supply store. It didn’t take long to see I’d made a mistake. There wasn’t a parking place anywhere and half the downtown businesses, including the office store, were closed. So I took the long way around and went uptown, where my friend Charlie has a fax machine. Charlie lives in the area where the parade units line up and get started, and I figured what the hell, I’m here, let’s check it out.
After some chitchat with a few friends along the parade route, I walked a few blocks more to get a sandwich at the corner grocery. Here I ran into an old friend from northern California.
“Is this American culture at its peak, or what?” I asked.
“Well,” she replied, “I was just thinking, what if somebody from another planet landed right now and saw this? Those pom-pom girls, for instance, look at them. What the hell is that about, anyway? It’s silly.”
I looked at the pom-pom girls; they were with some high school band in blue and silver cowboy suits. School spirit, I guess--something I didn’t want to think about right then because a little further thought would bring me right to Hitler Youth. For a change, I was innocently enjoying something (the band was actually in tune) and someone else was pointing out the absurdity of it.
She went on. “The aliens would probably think the pom-poms are part of some dreadfully serious religious ritual.”
“Maybe,” I said, “But you’re putting Earth minds into the aliens’ heads. We’re the ones who put a serious ritualistic significance into things like archaeological finds. Did you read that piece in the paper about the archaeologist in Oregon who was all fired up about kids putting graffiti on some rock walls because they were covering up some old markings made by Indians? Does anyone ever consider that the old markings got there exactly the same way, in exactly the same spirit, except that there was no spray paint back then?”
“Of course not,” said my friend. “Anything done in the past was for sacred ritual, and anything done now is vandalism.”
At any rate, my little bubble was burst, and the utter silliness of the parade struck me. Some of the girls had no pom-poms at all, they just stiffly moved their arms about in meaningless synchronized cadence. A float went by with three local barbie-doll beauty queens aboard, surrounded by vague glittering shapes and huge letters spelling out the phrase “Somewhere In Time.” Hello?
After that, a Corvette club, about fifteen people in their shiny Stingrays just pleased as punch with themselves, looking at the crowd, smiling and waving, blissfully proud of their cars and thinking, as Corvette owners invariably must, “God, I’m so cool.”
Another high school band, this one playing a marching band arrangement of the surf tune “Wipe Out,” drum roll and all. I’m wishing I had a tape recorder so I could send a cassette of this to Merrell Fankhauser, the guy who wrote “Wipe Out,” but it would probably just irritate him because the rights to the tune were stolen by a record biz shyster before the hit version even came out. By now that one song has probably made somebody millions in royalties. Merrell doesn’t really let it bother him any more, but he knows that black blues musicians weren’t the only ones ripped off in the fifties and sixties.
Next, the veterans in their little hats, with their flags and medals and grumpy, boozy patriotism. A thoroughly depressing sight.
The final straw for me is the Safeway contingent--eight or nine miniature battery-powered trucks, all emblazoned with the big “S” corporate logo and driven by little kids. The local Safeway store and the McDonald’s right next to it were bitterly opposed by a large portion of this town’s population, but by now we all know that this “progress” is inevitable. Wal-Mart creeps ever closer.
On the way back to Charlie’s to get the car, I bump into another guy I know. “Where are you going?” he asks.
“I’ve had enough, I need a nap.”
“But it’s your civic duty to sit through the whole thing...” he calls after me as I keep walking. He’s only joking, but what if some aliens in a flying saucer heard him?
This morning, for no rational reason at all, I have spent more than an hour watching TV preachers. The first hour, a perfectly good hour of my life down the drain, was spent watching Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power.” This one is broadcast from the “Crystal Cathedral” in Orange County, an architectural monstrosity equal to the Mormon tabernacle in its wretched excess and apparent power to awe the hell out of the faithful.
Schuller is like Billy Graham in that (1), he doesn’t let himself get too carried away like many of his southern counterparts, and (2), he’s never been caught at anything. It’s this calm exterior, this ultra-white man demeanor that fools his huge audience of (relatively) sophisticated suburbanites. Remember, this is not Alabama--this is Southern California, and to prove it there’s a celebrity guest.
This week it’s macho martial-arts formula flick star Chuck Norris, here to promote his new movie, “Sidekicks,” in which he plays a guardian angel-type character who happens to a movie star named Chuck Norris. But even Norris is not really smarmy enough to pull this promo appearance off smoothly. Robert Schuller Jr., a sort Christopher Reeve-as-Superman lookalike gradually replacing his aging father, is turgid with the kind of energy that only a surplus of testosterone directed into self-righteous piety can produce. He towers over Norris with his arms folded in front and a merciless smirk on face as if he’s daring Chuck to be good and pure enough to please God-Him-Self. Norris is stumbling over his words, clearly intimidated. After the movie clip is shown, Superman-in-robes glares at the karate-man even harder, because it’s time for the payoff. Norris clears his throat and delivers the promised spiel: “....And yes, I believe in God, and I know that only through devotion to Jesus that children can attain the kind of self-esteem and confidence that Barry [the child character in the movie] learns...”
“Jesus loves you and we love you,” says the Man of Steel, turning to indicate the huge, stern but adoring audience. Norris manages to sputter, “I love you, too,” and hurries offstage.
A couple of singers named Barb and Toby come on and sing a song. They’re so stiff, syrupy and phony, and the song is so bad, they make Lawrence Welk look like Muddy Waters. After this, Schuller Sr. comes on with the pitch. For a “gift” of only $150.00, he will send you a cheesy porcelain bird, which he describes in such terms as to make you think the cheap knick-knack is worthy of Michelangelo. But his followers know they’re not really buying a bird, don’t they? They’re buying eternal salvation.
Before closing, Schuller gives us a little lecture on the “moral war” going on in America. It’s nothing but Pat Buchanan’s Republican convention speech, reworded a little. The message is clear--the bad people (non-white, non-straight, non-Republican) must be eliminated, or at least silenced.
Next up is my personal favorite, a slimy little weasel name Ernest Angely (that’s right, it’s pronounced “angel” with a “y”) who operates out of Akron, Ohio. This guy is pathetically transparent, right down to his embarrassingly obvious toupee. He doesn’t even seem to draw a crowd. The camera never shows anything but him at the pulpit with some empty chairs on each side. Once in a while there’s a crowd shot but it’s edited in--you never see him and the room looks entirely different.
Ernest has the southern accent and habit of adding an extra syllable to words -- “you must-a heed-a, god’s message-a, and worship Hiyum-a), but amazingly, the twerp has no charisma at all. He’s like a negative energy field. Hence, the empty room. But he’s there on TV, and that’s enough. This is the guy who makes his money from sick, bedridden lonely old ladies who never found out that orgasms or any other forms of pleasure even exist.
To push this angle, he preaches chastity and berates the sinners.
Lust, lust, lust, lust. Solomon had more than seven hundred wives. Demons lust for sex, and they can’t have sex, so they defile human beings and make them have sex... See-yun will destroy you, see-yun will make you ugly in the eyes of god... and Solomon worshipped the gods of those nations that god hated-a, that god couldn’t sta-yund-a.
Jezzybel, a huzzy.... you could sure make god happy by using that word on her.. He’s a vengeful god-a... I tell you, when god gets ma-yud, he sure gets angry....
I’ll leave you with a hymn to sing next Sunday. It was written by my late friend John Stephens, and is sung to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers”......
ONWARD SOLD-OUT CHRISTIANS
Onward Sold-out Christians, praying for a war
While you hide your drug use at the corner bar
Jesus gets a bad name every time you preach
With bombs and guns in megatons
Death is all you teach
Onward Sold-out Christians, lock-step, march to On High
Pay your TV preacher, kiss your ass good-bye.
Onward Sold-out Christians, Oral says it’s for real
Even William Buckley knows just how you feel
Malcolm, Martin, murder, execution’s fine
Right wing will fly you to your heaven
Thank god it’s not mine
Onward Sold-out Christians, praying that Jesus lives
If you’re smart you’ll change your heart
And pray that he forgives.
Seattle, May 2, 1993
There’s been a bit of discussion in the AVA recently about the Mormons, and I didn’t pay much attention, having never cared too much about any of the Christian religions. A few things I’d heard about the Mormons: They believe in polygamy but backed off it in recent years for reasons of public relations.
They are survivalists--Mormon cellars are full of enough emergency supplies to get a family through any natural disaster or war. They don’t consume alcohol or drugs, not even coffee, tea or nicotine. This all seemed pretty innocuous to me. What do I care if somebody has four wives (hey, the women went for it, didn’t they?), a basement full of canned food and doesn’t smoke or drink? Let and let live, right?
Wrong. Last week I inadvertently stumbled across a copy of the Book of Mormon. So I opened it. Inside the front cover there’s a glued-on photo of a Mormon missionary family (missionaries--definitely not live-and-let-live types) and right away something is creepy. There’s a husband, a wife, and four children--an ordinary family portrait except that the woman is down on her knees, the top of her head at the level of the man’s navel. We see immediately the woman’s place. The picture suggests that the wife has approximately half the value of the man, and slightly less value than the oldest son, whose head is a couple of strategic inches above his mother’s. The hierarchy is clear. It’s also worth noting that all the children are boys. One is reminded of the Osmond Brothers (See Donny as “Joseph!”), and consequently wonders what happens to girl babies. Is the woman in the picture with her mouth at the man’s crotch level a good, obedient wife? One certainly thinks she must be.
Opening the book at random, one sees that the thing is quite poorly written. A sample: ...now the number of the slain were not numbered because of the greatness of their number... Well hey--so what? Bad writing is everywhere. But what does this bad writing have to say; what is the message here? For one thing, there may a lot of “slaying” in the bible, but it’s a veritable pacifist document compared to the Mormon book.
Reading on, we find that this book is supposed to be an adjunct to the regular bible, only this one is about this hemisphere, about ancient America, the righteous white good guys having arrived by ship from the holy land in 400-something A.D. It was “translated” by a “prophet” named Joe Smith in the 1820’s, from “gold plates” given him by a “glorified, resurrected being” named “Moroni.” From these we learn about the different civilizations that preceded the native Americans on this continent. Like I said, lots of slaying. All pretty boring quasi-biblical stuff until you read about the “Lamanites.” From the book: ...And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren...who were just and holy men......And their brethren sought to destroy them, therefore they were cursed......And this was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren... that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions... And it came to pass that whosoever did mix his seed with that of the Lamanites did bring the same curse upon his seed....
How convenient, and what perfect timing for the early 1800’s--a religious justification and blanket pardon for white people heading west to slaughter Indians at will, without guilt. And who’s to say what that meant for enslaved Africans on the continent...
Having read this stuff, I needed to talk about it, so I went to my favorite espresso stand for a double latté and started yapping about the insane racist wacko Mormon cult to the woman behind the counter. She gives me a strange look.
“Don’t tell me,” I said, “You come from a Mormon family.”
“Yes,” she answered.
Well of course, it’s perfectly logical. Deny someone coffee all her life and when she escapes the cult she opens an espresso stand. “A lot of Mormons are fat,” she remarks, “Because sugar is the only drug they can have. You ought to see them wolf the donuts.”
“It’s pretty bad, worse than you probably think,” she tells me. “Did you know that Joseph Smith was killed by a mob?” Hmm, just like David Koresh.
“Also,” she goes on, “The book was ‘channeled’ text, yet they teach now that channeling or anything ‘occult’ is the work of the devil.” Oh boy. But there’s more.
“I know a woman who ran away with her children from the Mormons in Utah, and she’s still in hiding. They’re after her. She’s terrified.” Running from a cult that doesn’t like to let people out, a cult like any other, except that it can’t be blamed on LSD or electronic media (if it weren’t for drugs and TV, in a hundred years there might have been a Book of Manson).
They own TV stations--KIRO, the CBS affiliate in Seattle, for instance, where newscasters “fervently believe” things, and shows that deal with AIDS or abortion are pre-empted by infomercials.
You’ve got hand it to them, they’re getting away with it.
NOTES ON THE PAYOLA SYNDROME
In 1959 there was a national scandal about disk jockeys getting paid off by music promoters to play certain records. A few DJs were busted, and a few record companies reprimanded. The matter was forgotten and the public assumed that Payola was over. Everything would be on the up and up from now on. Considering that hundreds of new records are released every week, and that maybe ten of these get on the air, it’s laughable to think those few are chosen strictly for their artistic merits. Especially if you listen to the radio or watch MTV.
Every time another corrupt politician gets caught, it’s treated as an isolated incident, and the media go after the individual. Then the “criminal” fades into obscurity, or does a month or two in a country club joint like Lompoc and writes a best-selling book, or like Liddy, becomes a celebrity. All you have to do in America is make an asshole of yourself on TV and all is forgiven.
Whenever Keith Richards goes to Canada for another total blood transfusion to ease his heroin habit, the media treat it as if he’s really cleaned up this time. Rolling Stones fans might be disappointed if this were true, but they know it isn’t.
It’s not really the fault of the media that the public is dim-witted enough to believe that all the bullshit, evil, and corruption in politics, business, and religion are the doing of a few twisted individuals who snivel and squirm on TV when the jig is up.
MORE NOTES ON THE PAYOLA SYNDROME
“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it” -- G.B. SHAW
In 1969 I was working as a guitar player with a well known popular singing group. Out of five members, four were L.A. ex-cops. They were all on drugs. They told me matter-or-factly that when they were on the force, they regularly kept and used or sold most of the material confiscated in drug raids. It was the standard practice, they said. Every once in while some drug-crazed police officer (“Bad Apple”) got out of hand and received a public chastising.
I recently made the acquaintance of another ex-cop, who happened to be writing about police corruption when his own son was killed in a “drive-by gang shooting.” After that he quit the force and took a writing class at a large university. Undercover police monitored every class.
When police corruption is exposed from time to time, the Payola syndrome comes into play as the Bad Apple syndrome. The offending officers, we are told, are “investigated,” “reprimanded,” or “suspended.” Police bureaucracy makes a public announcement of “shock” or “regret” when a cop murders some “low-life scum” for kicks or gets caught making a drug deal. The “bad” cop is publicly shamed and retires from the force or is transferred to another county or state. We shake our heads in dismay and are thankful that most cops are good clean Defenders of the Innocent, just as DJ’s don’t take money for playing bad music anymore, Keith Richards has really kicked heroin this time, and George Bush turned out to be a man of integrity after all.
Military And Police Quotes
Next time you’re watching TV and being bombarded with inspiring army recruitment ads and crime shows where the cops are always the good guys, even refer to themselves as the good guys; or read in the papers about the heroic deeds of officer so-and-so, remember these quotes from actual ex-cops and war veterans:
”Life in the Army is vicious, violent antagonism...anyone who tells you about comraderie and brotherhood in the foxholes was in a different army than I was.”
”When I was a cop I used to beat the shit out of ’em, throw ’em in jail, take their drugs home and get high myself. I couldn’t wait to kick ass.”
”I was in the M.P.’s...we were the biggest crooks on the base.”
”I wrote DUI tickets drunk all the time...by the end of some nights I’d have a patrol car full of booze for myself...I was in blackouts on duty...I’m still afraid there’ll be an investigation and it’ll come out that I killed somebody...”
”It was the regular thing to take at least some of the drugs--any drugs--from busts and use them, sell them, or both.”
Are these guys just bad apples, some sort of minority? Maybe, but of the seven men I spoke with, six told stories like this, and one said nothing.
Some thoughts on the Fourth of July
Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it -- Shaw
The only house displaying the flag on our street is the one where the woman screams and beats her children. I know this because the house is right next door. We get along with them on a shallow neighborly level. I have borrowed their tools, and they were using our phone for a while when theirs didn’t work, but there will be no mention of politics or religion, because, well, that just isn’t done. The husband is a veteran and a sports fan. He wears his Seattle Seahawks T-shirt as proudly as he displays his flag. I wouldn’t want this man to question my patriotism.
With everybody questioning each other’s patriotism these days, maybe some of those in doubt will come around to questioning the notion of patriotism itself. What is a patriot but a xenophobe who thoroughly believes that he and his countrymen are better--more noble, more righteous, more virtuous, just plain better than everyone else in the world? I think the probability of all the best people being concentrated in one area on the planet must be pretty small.
There are plenty of generally unwelcome immigrants who have apparently been bamboozled into thinking we have a Wonderland here in America. I saw a film from the 50’s of Latvian immigrants taking the oath of citizenship. Many of them didn’t seem sure of what they were saying, which was probably best, because in effect they were signing away their souls. In time they could come to be good patriotic Americans and learn to hate foreigners. Go to war and kill them if necessary.
In the South there is always some white man saying, “Ah think the niggers all ought to go back to Africa.” I don’t recall any historical record of black Africans shoving each other out of the way to get on any America-bound ships. Perhaps these Good Ole Boys could just give the black folks a nice ride back to Africa on the same ships their white grandfathers brought the black grandfathers over on in the first place.
Never mind, it’s too late for that--we have black patriots now. They’re not, you know, as GOOD as white patriots, but hell, we let them join the army, don’t we? White people have other important things to do now, like making sure Indians aren’t allowed to catch fish because we have white patriotic Americans who pay good money for licenses to catch those fish so they can sell them to markets where the Indians can buy them with food stamps.
Well, fuck it. It’s the Fourth of July, so let’s all go to the parade and watch the veterans carry the flag down the street, then to the park to eat hot dogs and maybe play a little baseball, and dig the fireworks show, that nifty little model of war--“the Bombs Bursting in Air....Proof Through the Night that our Flag was Still There...” The Flag--it marks our Territory, right? Kind of like a dog pissing on his turf.
Diet For Pro-Lifers
If all these “pro-life” anti-abortion people believe, as they claim, that life is sacred, what do they eat? Certainly not eggs. What a ghastly idea--eating chicken embryos. And what are beans and grains but seeds, little Miracles of Life. You can eat fruit without killing anything, but most people just throw away the seeds inside, robbing potential trees of life, and meat, of course, is out of the question. With one exception.
There is one kind of meat you can eat that hasn’t been killed. It’s high quality protein, rich in vitamins and minerals, with no fat or cholesterol. What is this marvelous food? Placenta, or afterbirth, the temporary organ that feeds a developing fetus. It is well known that the placenta contains the exact nutrients the mother needs to regain her strength after delivery.
So why don’t most people, “pro-lifers” in particular, eat this perfect food? Is the idea of eating pieces of a hacked-up cow or pig any less disgusting? If we’re going to make abortion illegal because life is sacred, let’s practice what we preach and leave the animals and vegetables alone, too.
My new book, “Pro-Life Cooking with Placenta” will be available soon.
With the Supreme Court’s new ruling against abortion for the poor, Bush’s New World Order is looking more like a Final Solution. After all, the children of the “better” people don’t sign up for a volunteer military, but those who grow up in poverty will do so out of desperation. What better way to provide a steady source of cannon fodder for the nasty little wars necessary to keep the president’s corporate sponsors at the top of the heap?
Racism In the Safeway
Every time I go into a Safeway store, I get a kick out of seeing their little “bargain” brand, “Scotch Buy.” There exists, of course, a popular myth or stereotype of Scottish people as being “thrifty,” a euphemism for “stingy” or “cheap.”
I have some Scots blood in me, and I’m not particularly proud or ashamed of it; we are what we are, and I’m not going to take Safeway to court or boycott them. “Scotch Buy” is a racial slur of sorts, and they’re getting away with it, but there is another ethnic group stereotyped as “cheap” and “stingy,” and I wonder what would happen if Safeway or some other chain store introduced a line of bargain products called “Jew Buy.”
Time To Jump Again
Remember the stories of men leaping to their deaths when the stock market crashed in ’29? Committing suicide because they lost their fortunes, their money? Imagine--putting money before life itself. As a kid I thought, “Wow, that’s really lame,” and thought it strange that such people even existed. Now that I’m grown up, putting money before life seems stupider than ever.
We have a problem. People who put money before life are in charge of things. Their profit-making industries are ruining the planet. Apparently, those who put life before money are in the minority because “environmentalist” in many circles is a term of derision suggesting “subversive crackpot.”
It’s time for a return to the good old days of ’29; time for the guys in the suits to think about what they’re doing, and why, and either change their tune or start jumping out of windows again.
We live in a time when NATURAL childbirth is suspect--an oddity practiced by hippies and weirdos, NATURAL food is eaten by health NUTS and fanatics, ANTI-WAR demonstrators are considered DANGEROUS and called peace creeps, people who work for the continuation of life on Earth are environmentalist pests, those who oppose the death-dealing activities of the military are TRAITORS, and the word “liberal,” which means favoring freedom and tolerant of the ideas of others, has, in the land of the statue of LIBERTY, become a dirty word--a campaign insult used successfully by the man who is now president of the United States.
Who’s really in charge here, how did they get there, and when did nature, peace, and liberty become the enemies?
INVADERS FROM ANOTHER PLANET
Monsters from outer space. Strange beings from another world. They come to explore, conquer, colonize. They’re evil, concerned only with their own selfish, inhuman motives. Their own planet dying, they must find another source of food, water, or minerals. Interplanetary vampires.
Hollywood fantasies, imaginative creations of science fiction writers? Dripping, scaly, unspeakable horrors? Maybe, but here on Earth we call them astronauts . They’re considered national heroes. They’ve already been to the moon and Mars is next. The robots have already been there. Robots from another world.
The big governments and industries are no doubt very interested in the potential mineral wealth on the other planets in our solar system. Consider what the human race has already done to this planet (and the results are only beginning to come in), and imagine the ecological disaster that could be set in motion on an interplanetary scale.
With everyone screaming obscenity and censorship over photos of homosexuals, religious icons in jars of urine and other “offensive” art funded by the NEA, I discover that the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington D.C. was NEA-bankrolled. My tax dollars supported a project meant to glorify war and perpetuate the cruel lie that those soldiers died for our freedom? Now that’s obscene, and offensive.
Anything done in the name of patriotism can’t be questioned, can it? After all, without patriotism we wouldn’t have war and without war what would we do?
What do the religious leaders have to lose if a few artists mock their teachings? Are these teachings not the Absolute Truth of an all-powerful God and therefore invulnerable? Will a photograph lead the faithful away from the church and collection box?
What’s being threatened in these cases--spiritual and ethical values, or someone’s cash flow?
PREDICTIONS FOR THE 21st century
Drug use will not only be legalized, but mandatory. Small enclaves of non-using rebels will be hounded by government goons called narks.
The Reagan-Bush-Quayle trend will continue with a two-dimensional cartoon character, perhaps Donald Duck, elected president.
The evolution of the English language will continue on its present course. Dictionaries will follow suit. Some of the new definitions:
Intelligence--the inability to assimilate and process knowledge for the purpose of reaching logical conclusions. The quality of not being able to tell shit from Shinola; stupidity.
Hip--unaware, narrow-minded. Conforming to cultural trends and government-sanctioned thinking.
Natural--contrived, artificial, inorganic, poisonous.
Genuine--not true, shrouded in pretense, phony.
Peace--a condition of hostility characterized by the deployment of armies and weapons. Mayhem and genocide for the gain of territory and wealth.
Freedom--A state of existence derived from diligent obedience of laws. Confinement.
Corruption--purity of heart and mind. The highest degree of integrity.
Politician--a person who is pure in heart and mind. One who maintains the highest degree of integrity.
Let Them Have It!
Stiffer drug laws. The president pushing for a constitutional amendment against flag burning. Legislators relentlessly persecuting each other over ethics. Politicians everywhere, including Dianne Feinstein apparently abandoning her maternal instincts, are falling all over themselves in a rush to jump on the death penalty bandwagon. The people of the United States seem to be foaming at the mouth in a manic desire to punish.
Keep it up, everybody. Let those so and so’s have it. Throw the book at them, put them behind bars, send them to the electric chair. That’ll show ’em. But be careful. They’re making more laws all the time. Pull your shades down at night and watch what you say because you never know who’s around, and you might be next.
Nine Reasons Why Rock and Roll is Dead
1. Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee and blues guitarist, is getting ready to release his first album, an R & B number called “Red, Hot and Blue.”
-- Jan. 12, 1990
2. The U.S. Army blasted Rock and Heavy Metal music as “psychological warfare” against Noriega at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City.
--Tom Brokaw, NBC news
3. Michael Jackson
4. Ronald Reagan and George Bush like the Beach Boys.
5. Corporations such as Annheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing sponsored multimillion dollar tours by the Rolling Stones and The Who.
6. Television commercials use “golden oldies” to advertise consumer junk.
8. A “Rock and Roll University” now exists in Los Angeles. Students learn how to play instruments, make their hair look right, and most important, the correct stage positions, stances and moves.
Note: This concept was pioneered by Family Light Music School in Sausalito, where the phony-baloney band Journey learned their moves and style.
9. “Rock and Roll just isn’t fun like it used to be.” --Tim Bogert, former bass player of Vanilla Fudge and “professor” at Rock and Roll University.
Anarchists are born, not made. At a very early age, I knew something was wrong. I wondered why the other kids followed all the rules without question. I’m still wondering.
In the fourth grade, I generated my first uncomfortable silence with my definition of “society” as “a bunch of snobs in tuxedos.”
I knew a kid down the street named Bobby Stevenson. His parents were humorless, dull-witted Scottish immigrants, and although I didn’t know those words yet, I knew something was wrong.
Eddie Haskell might have been patterned after Bobby Stevenson. He was sickeningly polite and correct in front of adults, and hung around with younger kids so he could bully them without fear of reprisal. One of his favorite kicks was getting a smaller kid pinned to the ground and farting in his face. He had the nerve to do that, but he wouldn’t skip school and go fishing. I don’t remember where I picked up the word, but I told him he was too conservative, meaning it as a putdown. His parents assured him that conservative was a wonderful thing to be.
The height of glory and achievement in his family was the military. Like his older brothers, Bobby Stevenson wound up in the Navy, where everyone is polite and correct in the presence of authority and farts in little guys’ faces.
Bobby Stevenson is probably still following orders, or giving them, and farting in the faces of smaller, less powerful people. No doubt he’s a good solid American citizen, a conservative, and like his peers, despises imagination and creativity, believes the senile nationalistic gibberish of William Randolph Hearst, and knows that we need to protect ourselves from anyone who thinks there’s something wrong with the way things are.
Letter To The News Dept.
News Director, KSTW-TV
P.O. Box 11411
Tacoma, Wa 98411
Dear Mr. Eddy,
While I realize it is not in your best interest to demonstrate a clear editorial view on controversial issues such as environment, it might be to your advantage if your announcers at least seemed to have some sort of understanding of the content of the stories they read.
Last night (Aug. 14) on the ten o’clock news, there was an item on “tree-sitters” protesting logging of old-growth timber. In one clip, a young man clearly explained that “The spotted owl is not the issue here. We are concerned with the entire ecosystem and want to show the importance of the interrelation of animal species and timber...,” etc, whereupon the newscaster, a young woman, back on camera, said, “Demonstrators in other areas also sat in trees to protest the plight of the spotted owl.”
I don’t know whether this closing comment was made out of ignorance, or to deliberately lessen the impact of the young man’s statement, but in either case, I consider it a serious blow to the credibility of your news department.
Real Men, stand rigid.
You must not give an inch.
Adhere to your tradition,
Let no one make you flinch.
Onward sold-out Christians,
Americans for God.
Flex your muscles, patriots,
Display your mighty Rod.
Abortion--we won’t have it,
Let them grow up to be soldiers,
THEN send them off to die.
God is on Our Side, you see.
Real men, Proud and Strong.
With monuments to honor,
The great Almighty Dong.
Traitor! This is Treason!
We’ll hang you by the balls!
For the Flag and Masculinity,
And the Montezuma Halls!
You Commie Pinko Faggot!
You dirty little prick!
How dare you mock the Sacred Cock--
The Great and Powerful Dick?
A mighty crash of thunder,
A blinding flash of light.
God’s angry in Her heaven,
and the axe could fall tonight.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM -- False information. If it’s conventional, it ain’t wisdom.
DENIAL -- Government term for affirmation.
THE SUPERMARKET -- Great place for applied class consciousness. It never fails--I’m in line, wearing my ragged sneakers, counting the change to cover the bill, and there’s a well-dressed obviously well-to-do woman behind me, just oozing disgust and impatience. “Aren’t there places for these people to get food?” It’s even more fun to observe from a distance. Try it sometime. Watch rich peoples’ reactions to the concerns of the cheaply dressed over whether they’ve got enough change or food stamps to pay for the groceries. You’ll know who believed Reagan when he said, “Some people just prefer to be homeless.”
HOW ESTABLISHMENT WORKS -- India’s caste system started out as a spiritual rather than economic hierarchy --a perfect illustration of how when something becomes established it’s necessarily corrupted and usually turned upside down. That’s why we have George Bush out there raving about the glories of our freedom while his soldiers and cops and legislators work night and day to eliminate freedom on any and all fronts. Or Christians screaming in ecstasy over the war instead of saying “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”
THE BILL OF RIGHTS -- Philip Morris Tobacco Co. has been waging a pro-smoking campaign in the name of free speech by offering replicas of the Bill of Rights. I ordered one, curious to see this much-revered document for myself. Curious because recently it occurred to me how it came about: A small group of rich white men sat around and decided exactly what everyone else’s rights would be. This may be worth some contemplation.
COMMUNISM AND ANARCHY -- Old Karl, the unfunniest Marx brother, had the right idea, but anyone in touch with his/her real nature doesn’t do alienated labor anyway. As soon as Marx published his ideas, some publicist from the Department Of Rigid Institutionalization twisted and skewed them into another meaning, and they wound up with Communism, the equally evil counterpart of Capitalism. The masses embraced the new ideology and actually glorified the alienated worker, having missed the point entirely.
If everyone did what they like and are good at, if people were to stop fighting nature, be themselves, society would be healed. That state of affairs is what I mean by “anarchy”-- people getting along, living in cooperative symbiosis instead of stomping and kicking each other out of the way while clawing and scratching their way to the top.
The human race needs to be cured of the “aren’t we wonderful and better than everybody else” attitude, from nationalism and patriotism to male chauvinism, racism and cult dogma, maybe even monogamous marriage--all forms of isolationism and contrary to nature, the global organism. As to how we’re going to accomplish this without sounding like sappy peace-hippies or radical weirdos, I haven’t a clue.
JAPAN --What kind of ignorance does it take to think that the use of nuclear bombs on large population centers would not produce an equal and opposite reaction of some kind? And what about that old horror movie staple, atomic mutation? In the movies it always had disgusting physical manifestations, but what if Japanese brains are mutating, evolving so quickly they could buy out the Western Hemisphere before anyone realizes it, enter universities here, outperform all the other students by a mile and grab the best jobs, and eventually political power? Funny, but isn’t it the same people who love war and justify the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who are so alarmed about Japan’s emergence now?
WHAT’S OKAY AND WHAT’S NOT -- An artist was on TV recently saying, “We live in a society where it’s not OK to be an artist. When I tell people I’m an artist they say, ’yeah, that’s nice, but what do you REALLY do?’”
It’s not OK to be an artist because...they don’t work for a living...like we do. On the other hand, it is sometimes not OK to be straightforward and not mince words or walk on eggs when you are in the company of some members of the intelligentsia, or academic or artistic communities. It is not OK to be an artist unless you are suitably, demonstrably, sensitive.
It’s not OK to be an environmentalist because that means you don’t appreciate how important jobs are, like we do.
It’s not OK to marry a black person because that means you’re not afraid of them...like we are. “He didn’t like anyone who wasn’t pretty much like him,” says a friend, referring to his father, who disinherited him for marrying a black woman.
It’s OK for “Air” Jordan to be such a great basketball player because he’s not playing on the neighborhood team. It’s OK for those hilarious comedians to be foul-mouthed and black, or witty and Jewish because they’re on TV, not at the neighborhood party taking all the attention away from regular folks and their regular, mediocre jokes and conversation.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC -- Nice pictures, patrician editorial slant. Try inserting this sentence at the end of any National Geographic article: “And if properly housebroken, they make wonderful pets.”
The trouble with writing anything based even loosely on current events is that so much media coverage presented as fact isn’t even close to being accurate. Reporters arrive on the scene with little or no background info and no real interest. For one thing, media people seem to have an uncanny knack for finding the least knowledgeable or most blatantly biased people to interview.
In the Sausalito “Houseboat Wars” of the 70’s, I watched news people come and go, noted who they talked to and what they saw. When the stories appeared it didn’t seem possible that they were about the same events I had witnessed and been part of. Nearly everything was wrong. Just three years ago in Sausalito, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since 1966. When I told him about living on a boat in Richardson Bay, he said, “So--you shit in the water.” This is the only thing the world outside the waterfront hears about it. First it was “sewers,” then “building codes,” then “underwater streets,” then back to sewers, etc., but what the Marin County government and media really meant was, “Those damn hippies are too free, they’re having too much fun, and we’re going to stop it.” And they have pretty much stopped it.
So, in order to write commentary on current events, one must develop an ability to read between the lines, to see past the reporter’s often narrow viewpoint. In TV news, the thing to do watch is body language, and listen to voice tone--not of the reporters or “anchors,” they’re extensively conditioned for inexpressiveness--but the subjects of the stories and witnesses of the events.
Another Father’s Day has come and gone, and with it another barrage of necktie hype. Necktie ads in the papers, TV news and magazine items on ties for Dad. They make jokes about fathers everywhere and the neckwear their wives and children get them as gifts. Does Dad need or want another tie? What about these really wild ones, with the unconventional designs? Is our Pop daring enough to wear the one with the tropical fish or the naked girl on it?
All this is done with the presumption that men wear neckties, that they must wear them, and that the only deviation, the only departure allowed from the norm of necktie-wearing is a once-a-year gag -- a wild, wacky, zany tie of unusual material with bright colors or an unusual illustration. One TV show went so far as to say, “Attempts have been made to do away with neckties, with disastrous fashion results.” To prove this, a man was shown in a polyester leisure suit with his shirt collar outside the jacket. And around his neck was a gold medallion, an odd but definite substitute for a necktie.
The point is, you have to have something around your neck. Why? A team of oxen have yokes around their necks attached to reins. Domestic animals wear collars around theirs, often attached to leashes. What is a man’s necktie if not a symbolic yoke or leash -- an indication that he is owned and controlled by something larger and more powerful? Dad may have the nerve to wear a tie with fish on it if he’s willing to take some good-natured ribbing at the office, but with few exceptions, nowhere in that world is the notion of not wearing a tie even considered.
Remember yuppie “power” ties? What a brilliant stroke. Someone with a surplus of red and yellow neckties started calling them “power ties” and sold them to hordes of middle management and marketing types who actually believed these colors would give them some kind of leverage with The Firm. Of course, even if red and yellow did have mystical properties, they couldn’t have given anyone in the financial district much of an edge in a sea of gray suits, all adorned in front with yellow and red neckties.
And then we have the issue of comfort. Neckties are uncomfortable. They restrict blood flow and inhibit breathing. Who hasn’t see a movie in which the hero indicates that he’s really getting down to business by loosening his tie. He’s angry now, and by God he’s going to cut loose and give his brain the oxygen it’s been deprived of all day. But the corporate world can’t have much of that going on. If men in the white collar work force took off their ties and allowed their brains adequate oxygen, they might wake up and quit.
David Letterman has a tie routine on his Late Night TV show. Every once in a while he cuts off the end of his necktie with scissors. This little iconoclastic joke, this toying with the symbolic yoke of authority always gets a big cheer from the men in the audience, who will put on their ties and go back to work the next day. People seem content with letting entertainers doing their rebelling, or even their thinking, for them. At the end of the country song, “Take This Job And Shove It,” the singer admits he hasn’t really “got the guts” to say such a thing. Still, the audiences cheer at the title phrase.
Next Christmas or Father’s Day, do the old man a favor and don’t get him a tie. Give him scissors.
More Quick Notes
Spirituality--a popular buzzword. You don’t get it from school or books or church. Most ministers and priests are as far removed from spirituality as insurance salesmen, who are basically in the same business.
”He calls a spade a spade.” -- A commonly used phrase, usually referring to cynics, curmudgeons and iconoclasts. Those who call a spade a spade are considered dangerous cranks or something. How did it come to be that the normal, socially acceptable thing to do is call a spade something else: a diamond, or club, or heart? Is it not a spade? Should a spade not be a spade?
Euphemism -- What is the purpose of euphemism? To protect peoples’ delicate sensibilities, to help them maintain their illusions, their basic beliefs and justifications for living, which are usually based on the false premises that constitute the basis of proper society. Euphemism is a gentle form of lying, to protect the poor darlings from the truth.
Collar Color -- To some extent, the white-collars are intimidated by blue-collars, not necessarily because they’re thugs, but because they actually do things, they know how stuff works. Fear of Competence. And then, some working stiffs might be intimidated by the yuppies’ intelligence, although my experience tells me that’s less likel
You Are What You Have? -- I know a guy who has a musical instrument (mandolin) and so far has been able to delude himself that some day he’ll learn to play it. I get annoyed when some jerk wants to show off his instrument off to me. “I own this” -- AS IF THAT MAKES HIM A MUSICIAN. If I had a set of scalpels, that wouldn’t make me a brain surgeon. Maybe I could use them for wood carving or something, but how ridiculous would it be if you were a brain surgeon and came to my house, and I said, “Look at my tools, aren’t they wonderful? One of these days I’ll learn to use them.”
If words can do harm, none have ever done more damage than these two: “politically correct.” Innocent use of this phrase by well-meaning but ignorant liberals has caught the attention of savvy, big-time conservatives who have seized and exploited it to maximum advantage. “Politically correct” has quickly come to signify nothing more than the meaningless chatter of the espresso set -- people who think recycling their mineral water bottles is going to save the planet.
Politically correct people still think the system can be changed from within, and that’s just what they system wants them to think. Hence, “political correctness,” i.e., wishy-washy liberalism, is being encouraged for non-conservatives by the Powers That Be in the citadels of authority.
Political correctness quickly became nothing more than another rigid dogmatic agenda, and a welcome one to those who benefit from the public’s continuing and appalling lack of independent thought and reasoning.
Whoever is pulling the strings of political correctness could change the program at any time. As a result civil rights, the environment, freedom of speech and other causes big with the liberal set would go out of fashion, and fade from genteel coffee table conversation, and clear an even wider path for the white male military industrial death cult to continue their race to planetary oblivion.
”Why do you think these gay people shouldn’t be allowed to live in peace?” asked Donahue. The angry-looking man in the business suit replied, “because it’s not the NORM.”
”What is your objection to interracial marriage?” queried Oprah Winfrey.”It’s not the NORM,” said the indignant white Midwestern housewife.
How often do you hear some white middle-class WASP object to the existence of homosexuals, transvestites, interracial marriage, or anyone not dull and average by saying, “Well, it’s not the NORM.” Larry King had a lesbian Episcopal minister, a gay Catholic priest, and a straight Catholic priest. The straight priest’s objection to the others? “It’s not the NORM.”
Because they’re not the the NORM. What is this NORM? Where did it come from?
Upstate New York, 1966--Five young traveling musicians are eating in a diner. Their hair is long. A local couple enters. The husband looks like a logger or construction worker. He says loudly, “Jesus Christ, look what you see when you ain’t got a gun!” The wife, whose face suggests she has spent most of her life smelling an unpleasant odor, says matter-of-factly, “People who are different should be put in jail.”
In a book about the Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder, a group of white suburban college students eats breakfast at a diner with the healer. They carefully note what he eats: “...eggs, bacon, potatoes, pancakes, syrup and a slice of raw onion.” The students are astounded by Rolling Thunder’s choice of raw onion with his meal. “...Rolling Thunder is certainly a man who knows what he wants,” writes the author.
It wasn’t so much the onion that violated the NORM, but the fact that the medicine man knew what he wanted.
Alan Watts wrote a book called “THE BOOK on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.” Why is there a taboo? Why is not knowing who you are the NORM?
Maybe if the logger knew who he really was, he’d stop cutting down trees and plant some food. If that happened, there wouldn’t be two-by-fours and plywood to build condos for the marketing analysts and middle management suits. If the yuppies had to get creative and provide themselves some shelter, they might find the work stimulating and quit their jobs. People might even revert to making things by hand and bartering, and having parties and dances with home-made beer and home-made music, just for fun, not to set up deals. With enough self-discovery going around, corporations and governments might eventually dissolve.
Where did the NORM come from? Maybe it’s a virus from outer space, or one of Colin Wilson’s Mind Parasites--intangible evil entities which came to Earth and entered human minds just before the Industrial Revolution.
Why do people always seem to go to such great lengths to reassure each other that they’re the same?
The famous L.A. video had police brutality victims coming out of the closet everywhere. Three cases were in the Seattle news. Like rape victims, they’re often afraid to say anything because sooner or later the perpetrators are likely to find them again. But this time it was right there on TV for all to see and innocent people who have taken the billyclub were speaking out. Naturally, police organizations issued denials at a record pace, while assuring us at the same time that the offending officers, the bad apples, will be punished. One might even think something good will come of all this, but what?
A few cops will be suspended, maybe one or two will even go to jail, but nothing will really change. The police are a national institution, and an institution is by its very nature an immovable object. When an incorrigible criminal resigns himself to a life in prison, he’s said to be institutionalized, which means it’s too late, he cannot change. So it goes with the police.
It might be interesting to take a look at the kind of individual who wants to become a policeman in the first place. I offer as an example Pete Flynn, a kid from my Connecticut home town .
He didn’t seem to have many friends, but he knew most everybody by name. In high school Flynn already had the barrel-bellied midsection of the stereotypical Irish cop. I never paid much attention to him until the night in the drug store when he interrogated me.
The drug store was the only teenage hangout in town, and I was a regular. I was a greaser, part of the “wrong crowd,” and to top it off I was putting together the town’s first rock & roll band. I was being watched.
One night I was sitting alone at the counter drinking a milkshake when Pete Flynn walked in and sat two stools away. He spoke to me and right away I noticed something I didn’t like. His tone was condescending and paternal, even though he was only a year or two older.
”So how’s your band coming?”
”Not bad, we’re going to have a dance at the K of C Hall.”
I looked away and drank my milkshake, trying to indicate a lack of interest in speaking with him.
”How’s your home life? You know, since your mother died.”
”What?” My home life, I reasoned, was none of his business.
”I was just wondering. Doesn’t your father drink a lot?”
He went on in this fashion, trying to probe as deep as he could. My mother had died a few years before, and my father drank. It was a small town and people knew things like this, but no seventeen year old kid had ever interrogated me about it before. Even after I refused to go along with his questioning, he kept at it. There was a quality about him I couldn’t describe until I learned the word sadistic.
About five years later I was living in Boston when some guys from the home town came to visit.
”Remember Pete Flynn?” asked one of them.
”Yeah, what about him?”
”He’s a cop now, and he hounds everybody he didn’t like in school. He planted some dope in Bill Flaherty’s car and sent him up for five years.”
Was Pete Flynn another odd case, a maverick, a bad apple? Are most cops kind protectors, or is the very nature of the job what attracts the Pete Flynns, the guys in the Rodney King video? And what effect does the police institution have, even on cops who start out with the best intentions?
I’ve never been what could be called a model citizen. Like many other baby boomers, my outlook was changed in the 6O’s and as a result I’ve run afoul of the law a few times. But I’ve never been involved in violence, never even really had a fistfight, and not because of any religious or moral convictions. It’s strictly self-preservation, and I’ve had to develop some tricks to throw would-be attackers off the track. As it turns out, I’ve had to use these methods against cops as much as against drunken rednecks. In my experience, a much greater percentage of police officers than drunken rednecks is genuinely belligerent or sadistic.
In 1972 the state of New York enacted a drug law that made possible a 20-year sentence for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, even a single joint. I had the misfortune to be there shortly after that law went into effect. A state trooper in Fishkill, N.Y stopped me for a suspicious-looking license plate on a car I had just bought, and the plate turned out to be bogus. I went into my total-cooperation-with-an-officer-of-the-law mode, knowing that one wrong word could start the club flying. I had long hair and was dressed pretty much like a hippie.
After the tow truck came to impound the car, I rode to the courthouse with the trooper. He had a weird grin on his face, like the cat who ate the canary even though he hadn’t eaten me yet.
”You’re from California, huh?”
”I bet you’ve got some weed on you or in the car. I can’t wait til we do the search.”
I had no marijuana. “You’re going to be disappointed,” I said.
And he was. They had to let me go with only a ten dollar fine. The judge was apparently quite impressed, given my appearance, that I had no pot. Of course they got a free car, but the cop had been drooling for a big drug bust. Okay, so this one wasn’t violent, but he made up for it with a subtler kind of meanness and blatant bigotry. And I was just a white hippie.
COLA, MAYONNAISE AND POLITICS
In case you don’t watch enough TV, I want to remind you that as an American citizen you are entitled to choose between two soft drinks -- Coke and Pepsi.
The human body requires a certain minimum amount of sugar, caffeine, and phosphoric acid (the key ingredients of Coke and Pepsi) daily--sugar for properly imbalanced blood glucose levels, caffeine to prevent us from becoming relaxed and unproductive. The nutritive value of phosphoric acid may not be clear, but any compound undesirable as a laundry detergent ingredient because it pollutes rivers has to be good food for American consumers. Our leaders, in their beneficent wisdom, have allowed us to choose our source of these vital nutrients. This is a shining example of our constitutional freedom at work.
In like fashion, Americans are allowed to choose between Republicans and Democrats. Each is made of exactly the same ingredients, but the proportions are slightly different: white men in suits, with slightly varying amounts of token women and “minorities.” Democrats make a bigger pretense of concern for those less fortunate, while Republicans are louder about flag-waving patriotism and your sacred right to step on the toes of others for personal gain. And so on.
Since it’s the older and more established beverage, Coca-Cola would be the preferred soft drink of the Republicans, while Pepsi, with its (subversive) Hollywood show-business ties, comes up as the Democratic pop of choice.
Next time you step into the voting booth, will you choose Coke or Pepsi?
The food product most representative of pure Americana, despite its French name, is mayonnaise. This white, bland substance, reminiscent of certain occasional bodily fluids, can be found in nearly every refrigerator in every home in the United States, Republican and Democrat alike. Americans are so conditioned to eating mayonnaise that fake mayonnaise substitutes for people afraid of cholesterol are nearly as popular as the real thing. No matter that the fake stuff has little of the ingredients of real mayonnaise. It’s just necessary to have some goopy white stuff on your sandwich.
Once, as I made lunch for a work crew, one of the men sent his sandwich back because it didn’t have mayonnaise on both slices of bread.
”Why do you need so much mayonnaise?” I asked.
”What? Well, because.”
Americans have accepted the necessity of mayonnaise just as they have accepted the Coke-Pepsi challenge. Similarly, our bland, mostly white executives and other leaders go unquestioned by the majority who choose the safe illusion of choice over genuine taste. Millions of cola-drinking mayonnaise eaters will go to the polls in ’92 and think they’re making a difference.
Do it by the book, follow the rules--eat your mayonnaise and vote for the (Coke or Pepsi) candidate of your choice. Play it safe, don’t question the system, believe what the bosses say. If you find yourself up to your lower lip in mayonnaise, just keep saying “don’t make waves.”
A man and a woman are sitting in a fine eating establishment, dressed in fancy clothes, behaving in the most genteel and proper fashion. They place their order, sit back and enjoy a bottle of good French wine. After a while the waitress brings the order--ribs. Now, this most civilized lady and gentleman proceed to grabbing large chunks of a dead animal, tear the flesh off with their teeth, and gnaw on the bones.
”You can’t yell ’Fire’ in a crowded theater.”
With that homey piece of wisdom, George H. W. Bush bamboozled the American public into not only accepting the oppression of free speech, but believing that freedom of speech is a bad thing.
After all, the rationalization went, we couldn’t very well have had Saddam Hussein’s army privy to our gulf war strategy, could we now? And those darn media people--whose side were they on, anyway?
The next move in this little game was made by General Schwartzkopf when he said, “I have a problem with the Bill Of Rights.”
The big blustery general, along with Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, was grand marshal of the biggest, phoniest parade in history, the “Canyon Of Heroes” in New York, where war protesters were openly denounced as traitors and arrested. That was the third move--concrete, violent action against people in disagreement with the administration’s war policy.
You can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater because the people inside will panic and trample each other to death, whether there’s really a fire or not, or so the conventional wisdom goes. We could just as easily say the little boy who cried “wolf” was eaten because of free speech.
So little oil-rich Kuwait cries “Iraq” and a whole crowded theater full of national leaders and military personnel pours into the Middle East and tramples a nation to death. Our military can go anywhere and murder anyone for any reason and the president goes on TV and calls it “fighting for freedom.” Some believe it, and some don’t, but if those who don’t say anything, they become suspect.
It’s looking more and more like free speech is the prerogative of a select few, and among the general populace, only those with nothing to say will be allowed to say it.
WEEKEND WARRIORS, HARVESTERS AND POACHERS
Illegal fishing in Puget Sound, duck poachers in Louisiana. There seems to be a lot of energy spent lately rooting out and prosecuting illicit wildlife “harvesters.” It’s as if buying a license to kill animals makes them less dead.
` The poachers are portrayed as morally corrupt and unconcerned about ecological matters, yet at the same time game wardens admit that the outlaws are more skilled and experienced than license buyers. Actually, since illegal “poaching” requires these hunters and fishermen to leave as little evidence as possible, we can probably say they’re environmentally sound. An Indian named Sohappy was busted recently for dipping a net into the Columbia river. This guy, going after one fish at a time, was arrested by wardens whose salaries come from licenses sold to jerks with Boston Whalers, as well as (white) commercial purse seiners who scoop up tons of salmon wherever and whenever they can.
So game wardens are cops whose job it is to protect wildlife. But for whom? Aren’t they there to protect the rights of the licensed hunters and sport fishermen, who in many cases are incompetent “weekend warriors?” That “hunter” in Maine who killed a woman in her own back yard, thinking she was a deer (”Hey, I saw something move”) was some kind of corporate executive or insurance salesman. He had no business being out in the woods with a gun, but he had a license.
A friend of mine is a licensed sportfishing charter captain in Kona. Every day, corporate executives, doctors, marketing analysts and others pay up to a thousand dollars to be taken out into the ocean and try for big game fish, preferably blue marlin. As in any hunting or fishing expedition, the object is to get the biggest animal possible. The bigger the catch, the bigger the man you are. The reward is a color photograph of you, for the moment a big tough man, with your prize, a big dead fish. You go back to the hotel and get drunk, the fish goes to the processing plant. At least someone winds up eating it.
So what good does the sale of hunting and fishing licenses do? For one thing, it gives anyone the right to go out and kill things and have the law on their side, regardless of their level of experience and competence, as long they pay the fee. It also maintains the government’s control over who kills what and when. The government isn’t averse to killing as long as it’s done under its direct supervision and with its consent. Consent is what you buy when you get a license, and supervision is done by the game wardens.
To get a driver’s license, you need to demonstrate at least a minimal ability to operate a vehicle. Oddly enough, anyone can buy a boat, put it in the water and go without the slightest idea of how to handle it, yet handling a boat requires more skill than driving a car. And anyone can legally buy a gun. So what if there’s a seven day waiting period? We’re not talking about serial killers here, but there’s something seriously frightening about a drunken car salesman loose in the woods with a .30-06.
I don’t eat much meat, and I don’t hunt, but if forced to make a choice, I’ll take my chances with the guy who grew up in the outdoors shooting or otherwise catching his own meat, might not have the money for a license and who knows better than to be anywhere around on Opening Day.
IN WHOSE INTEREST?
In whose interest is it to have a legislature enacting more laws every day, and as a consequence, to have more police getting “tougher on crime,” even though more and tougher laws, and stiffer penalties do nothing to prevent anyone from doing anything.
In whose interest is it for us to believe everyone would run amok killing and raping each other without The Law holding fear of punishment over our heads?
In whose interest, really, is it to have a War On Drugs?
In whose interest is it to have building codes so rigid yet so crooked that the California building code, at least back in 1978 when I looked at a copy for a specific size of house, that actual brand names of products were mentioned?
In whose interest is it to have people slaving away at minimum wage in factories or fast food joints? In whose interest is it for these poor slobs to be grateful for a starvation wage?
Exactly who benefits from the requirement that “businessmen” wear nearly identical uniforms (suits and ties)?
Who will be blamed for the world’s evils now that communism is dead?
In whose interest is it for Americans to cheer the fall of the KGB while the CIA, FBI, and the National Security Council continue doing the same things the evil Soviets did?
In whose interest is it for people to live in suburban nightmares where they have little or nothing in common with their neighbors, don’t like and barely trust them?
In whose interest is it to have these people spend most of their spare time watching TV, absorbing bombardments of programs and commercials telling them every stranger is a burglar or rapist, or murderous drug fiend--reassuring them that it is not only okay to see things that way, it’s GOOD, and that it’s also good and NORMAL to be STUPID, as well as fearful of other humans?
In whose interest is it for people to think communism, that hapless failure of an economic system, is proof that humans must not have cooperative, harmonious relationships with each other, that they must stand apart and COMPETE, beating each other out of the way if necessary to get a bigger piece of whatever pie is on the officially approved menu?
In whose interest is it for “conventional wisdom” to be that the economy, that money, authority and law and order are more important than the lives and evolution of humans, animals, trees, the oceans, the planet itself?
Well, it ain’t you or me.
NATURE ABHORS AN ECONOMY.
Smoking The Bill Of Rights
Philip Morris has been waging a pro-smoking campaign in name of free speech by offering replicas of the Bill of Rights. I ordered one because I was curious to see this much-revered “sacred” document for myself. Curious because recently it occurred to me how it came about: A small group of rich white men sat around and decided exactly what everyone else’s rights would be. This may be worth some contemplation.
NOTES OF A DANGEROUS NUT
Hello. Let me introduce myself. My name is Howard, and I am a dangerous nut. I am a threat to most traditional values, without much respect for money or property, religion, industry or government.
I am not patriotic -- I don’t believe myself superior to others because I am American. I don’t agree that dropping bombs on people makes anyone a hero. When I mention that our president is a liar with a proven record, you rave about our glorious victory in Iraq, as if creating an artificial war makes up for a lack of character and integrity. So I protest the war and you call me a traitor.
I don’t like the idea of industry polluting the air, water and ground, and getting away with it by paying fines. I can’t believe it when I hear people say, “This environmental stuff is okay, as long as the economy is healthy.” It looks like we’ll end up with plenty of money and credit on a planet devoid of life.
The big corporations and government have people like loggers and other workers all fired up over the possible loss of their jobs, and angry with the people (with nothing to lose except the world they live in) who are trying to stop the madness before it’s too late, but if I say something about it, you call me a “radical” and dismiss me as insane.
I’m definitely not the type you’d want your daughter to marry, but you don’t have to worry about that. I’m not interested in marrying anybody, because I don’t see why any relationship should have to be approved by the church and state. Yes, I am irreverent. I have no reverence for a religious leader who rides around in bullet-proof limousines, dressed in gold and jewel-encrusted robes exhorting the starving faithful to shun birth control and produce more worshippers, or anyone who falsely claims to speak for God and asks for money. And I maintain that all such claims are false. So you call me a heathen, or a devil.
When I point out that more and stiffer laws, more police and more prisons have done nothing to stop people from doing horrible things to each other, you say, “We need more laws and prisons,” and vote for a candidate who promises these things. If I suggest the candidate has less than pure motives, you say, “This one’s different.” When he turns out to be the same as the rest, you only resent me.
If I mention the curious fact that the established order accepts stories such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as “literature,” but that anyone pointing out the same sort of awful truth in the present is imprisoned, or at least labeled a psycho, you’re likely to laugh.
If I remind you that Galileo was persecuted by the scientific establishment of his time, you just say, “Yes, but that was a long time ago. Things are different now.”
If any of these ideas make you uncomfortable or defensive, it could be that you also have something to hide, and it might be in your interest to get me out of the way.
When I say the entire system is hopelessly corrupt and can’t be changed from within, you call me a cynic, or worse, an anarchist. And when I try to explain that real anarchy is not bloody rioting in the streets, but merely people getting along and cooperating without intimidating authority figures holding bludgeons over their heads, and that the way to get rid of those figures is not by violent revolution but by boycott, simple refusal to participate, you’re headed nervously for the door.
If I go so far as to suggest something like all the children everywhere going on strike, refusing to go to school until war is completely abolished and all the bombs are dismantled, you’re ready to call for the men in the white coats to come and take away the dangerous nut.
Patrick Buchanan wants to “lock up” the homeless? Women, even those of a conservative political disposition, might want to note that in Buchanan’s appeal to the white mainstream’s irrational fear of “others,” he said homeless people were out there “stabbing [both] people AND women.”
There’s been a lot of talk about “backlash” lately, and the conservative columnists are having a field day. These pundits have done a clever and effective job of turning “liberal” and “radical” terms such as “narrow-minded bigot” back on the “politically correct.”
However, anyone can play this game. In light of Buchanan’s statement on the McNeil-Lehrer show that the ACLU and others are “violating the spirit of the Bill Of Rights” in their fight against attempted suppression of that document’s stated rights (by people such as Buchanan, Duke and even Bush), we can easily say that these men and others of their persuasion are “subversives” in the truest sense of the word, maybe even traitors.
AMERICA EATS AND GETS SICK
Dog Food and Videos
A friend and I went to the video store the other night. I wanted to get a “food” movie. I like food movies -- “Babette’s Feast,” “My Dinner with André,” “Like Water For Chocolate,” etc. We rented one called “Eating,” about a bunch of women who get together and eat and talk, or so I thought, and another, French-Vietnamese film called “The Scent of Green Papaya.” Okay. Two movies. At the counter, the woman tells me it’s “special” night and I can get two more movies for free and keep them all for four days. This is a dilemma of sorts because I can go nuts trying to find a video when I haven’t got something specific in mind. But back into the bowels of the store we go. Five minutes go by and not a clue, nothing looks good. Finally I find something called “Delicatessen”-- a food movie, right? -- so I pick it up.
Suddenly I smell something. Something unpleasant. For a minute I can’t identify it, but then it hits me: Dog food. It smells like someone has come into the store, opened ten cans of Kennel-Ration, and dumped them on the heater.
I ask my friend, “Do you smell dog food?”
She replies, “Is that what it is?”
I’m close to gagging on this odor.
I think of another movie they might have -- “Shirley Valentine”-- about an Englishwoman who goes to Greece and has an affair because her life is a dull routine and her husband is an inconsiderate bore. And there’s food in the plot. I approach the counter and ask for it. They have it. Now we can get out of here, away from the dog food smell. While I’m paying for the videos my friend comes up and says, “I found the smell. Look over there.” Over there is a woman eating a McDonald’s hamburger and fries.
The movie, “Eating,” was awful. Couldn’t stand more than ten minutes of it. Badly acted, badly directed. But the big surprise was the French movie, “Delicatessen.” It was not, strictly speaking, a food movie, but it was extremely bizarre and very funny. I recommend it.
But you can’t escape the brutal reality of the mainstream American diet by wiping McDonald’s off your list. All you have to do is be reasonably conscious of your surroundings at the supermarket check-out counter. It never fails: the sickest and unhappiest-looking, pale, squishy, blotchy, mostly overweight people all have the same stuff in their carts -- hot dogs, wonder bread, marshmallows, Kraft macaroni and cheese “dinner”-in-a-box, pop-tarts, big jars of mayonnaise, baloney, six-packs of diet Coke and Pepsi, Captain Crunch and Froot Loops-types cereals, cake mixes and canned frosting made with nothing but sugar and lard. Twinkies, ding-dongs, ho-hos and other such non-perishable chemical concoctions that one observant friend puts under the general category of “shit-pie doodles”; cool-whip, fake cheese in individually-wrapped slices (better suited to patching the roof than to eating) , and quite often sausages -- not just any sausages, but those large-variety, shrink-wrapped grease-and-salt bombs with wholesome-sounding names like Grandma’s Favorite, Friendly Farms or Paradise Valley, the size and shape of which bring to mind a couple of things I wouldn’t exactly call appetizing...
All this amounts to media-fed abuse of the public, a continuing and successfully-orchestrated corporate campaign to maintain huge profits on relentlessly advertised crap, promoting and maintaining feeble physical and mental health in large portions of the public.
As the late jazz musician and writer John Stephens said twenty-five years ago, “The plan is to have the entire population ill or mediocre by the year 2000, and they’re already way ahead of schedule.”
As a kid I loved carnivals. They were bright, flashy and noisy, and everywhere you looked there was a promise of instant gratification: eat this, throw this, win this, ride this, all designed to extract money from children. They hit hard and fast, then move on to the next town full of suckers. The experience was something like Christmas morning in the suburbs. When it was over you still weren’t satisfied, nevertheless you couldn’t wait until next time.
Having been conditioned by our national culture to want instant gratification all the time -- I’m a card-carrying member of the first generation to grow up with television -- it was only natural that I took drugs in the sixties, and only slightly less natural that by the mid-seventies I was a hard-core addict. Drugs can take one into some strange worlds, and for me one of the more interesting ones was after-hours at the carnival. The word “carnival” is derived from a Latin phrase meaning to remove meat, and that suggestion of a not-so-pretty underlying picture of the brightly-lit midway is pretty close to the mark.
I’ve been away for twenty years, but the Marin County Fair used to be held on the grounds of the pink, futuristic Civic Center in San Rafael, a delightful place where we used to apply for food stamps and go to jail. It was there, within sight of the Sheriff’s Department, that a cohort and I sold drugs to carnies. Our man at the carnival was, no joke, the guy who ran the shooting gallery. He in turn re-sold the methamphetamine and hashish to the guys who ran the other concessions and of course, the rides. This one fellow, who put live .22-caliber rifles into the hands of strangers all day, was constantly loaded on crank and hash, as well as Southern Comfort. (I never took my own kids to a carnival after that).
The last night of the Fair that year, we delivered a sizable packet of drugs to our shooting-gallery friend. They were breaking it all down, and after the transaction I wandered around the grounds to observe the Morlock-like activity. The rides hadn’t all been dismantled yet and at one point I found myself under the Octopus. On the ground, in amazing quantity, were combs. Pocket combs, hair combs, whatever you want to call them, all varieties of them. More than a hundred combs, there on the ground under the Octopus ride. And there I had a minor revelation: If this ride could cause combs to fly out of pockets and handbags, what about loose money and wallets? These rides are designed to literally and directly extract money and other valuables from the people sitting in them. Needless to say, there wasn’t so much as a single coin among the combs. These people worked fast, and I was helping them do it.
The carnival that comes to town here every year just packed it out, but while it was running I couldn’t resist walking through it once. Same concessions, same worthless prizes, same rides -- including the Octopus and a newer improvement on the concept called The Zipper -- same junk food, same eager faces everywhere. But for the first time I noticed a disclaimer on one of the rides: “Not Responsible for Lost Valuables or Other Items. Ride Keepers Not Allowed to Hold Your Possessions.”
Not until you’ve gone home, that is.
MARGARET ATWOOD AND THE RULES OF WRITING
I haven’t read a novel for three or four years. It came to a point where I’d get halfway through a book, see the formula at work and lose interest. What happened is that I’d encountered a bunch of lousy novels. There are plenty of them out there.
There was a time when I could read almost anything, even supermarket trash novels with embossed covers, knowing it was at least a little better than watching television. During a really slow period I even read Merv Griffin’s autobiography, just because it was there. There’s a funny story in it about how he offended an Italian booking agent by singing a song called “Never Let A Day Go By.” Detective stories. Or vampire stuff. There was a pretty good variation on the Dracula theme, with a modern twist, called “Children of the Night.” The vampires had an extra organ containing a substance that could cure AIDS. Page after page was filled with blood-biology words like “lymphocytes” and leukocytes.” But the story’s hope of a miracle cure is never realized because the big chase has to begin. At least the formula didn’t kick in on this one until about two-thirds of the way through, and I made it all the way to the end only to be appalled at the made-for-the-movies finale, the ultra-clichéd shot of a helicopter rising into sight over the castle wall. Oh, well.
And I’m noticing that Margaret Atwood’s writing wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school English class. Incomplete sentences. Improper case usage of personal pronouns... (It was her, I tell you. She did it.) Come to think of it, most of the writers I like write (or wrote) incorrectly. Henry Miller, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson... There’s a writer called Richard Hell, from New York. I only saw an excerpt from one of his stories but it was exceptionally good, stylistically somewhere between Bukowski and Margaret Atwood.
So maybe this is a stupid question, but if, generally speaking, all the “great” modern writers or should I say the ˜interesting˜ writers -- the ones who really have something worthwhile to say about the human condition or anything else that really matters -- if these writers “break the rules” or better yet just ignore them, then why does the education establishment continue to teach the rules? Or is it, as I suspect, that the goal of the education establishment is to deliberately foster mediocrity, not to stimulate creative thinking but to condition young minds for the “professional,” business/government world or failing that, an academic career. After all, more professors will be needed...
I went to a university writing class once, a ten-week “fiction manuscript workshop” given by a published novelist of some renown here in the Seattle area. It was a brutal affair; we passed copies of our stories to everyone else, and then we all proceeded to rip each other apart. That part I enjoyed, but this class, like all classes, had rules. There was even a diagram on the blackboard of how a story is supposed to be constructed. Six or seven of the eighteen people in the class dropped out, couldn’t take it. Well, they couldn’t write, either...
I was reminded of a line from one of my favorite books, “Anybody Can Do Anything” by Betty MacDonald. Betty goes to night school, a writing class, and she’s about the only one in there who can write. The instructor confides to her that “trying to teach people with nothing to say how to write it down can be a tedious business.”
A musician friend of mine is posting his jazz trio’s gig schedule on the Net. I asked if he really thought any web geeks were about to leave the computer screen, let alone the house, to go hear flesh-and-blood humans play music on wooden, acoustic, god-forbid, analog instruments. He didn’t know.
I like Margaret Atwood, and the opinion stands, but I do think her “autobiographical” material is far better than her third-person fiction. There’s been a lot of Margaret Atwood-related stuff crashing and flopping around here lately...
First, there was an article in The Stranger (a Seattle tabloid) called “Saint Margaret of Atwood -- Publishing’s Star System...” by Katherine Beck. It was a good commentary on the corruption of mainstream publishing, but also a vicious hit piece on Atwood, accusing the Canadian author of having an “agenda” promoting Canadian writers, and pretty much anything Canadian. Atwood also tends to dismiss young strident feminists as merely annoying.
So yours truly wrote a letter-to-the-editor: “Katherine Beck’s hit piece on Margaret Atwood almost had me convinced until she accused Atwood of having an agenda. I’ve never seen anyone point a finger and yell “Agenda” who didn’t have one themselves and besides, isn’t that more Newt Gingrich’s style?...” No response.
The second, and rather odd, thing is an envelope that came in the mail containing three pages printed off the internet, through America On Line, on guess who -- Margaret Atwood. At the top of page 2 was a piece of info that almost knocked me to the floor: “AOL NetFind found 2,195,228 documents about margret [sic] atwood.” (The word “Margaret” is thus misspelled three of the five times it appears. Maybe we can watch literacy die right there on the Web.) Over TWO MILLION documents on Atwood. What’s going on?
Summary: "Sponsored by the Margaret Atwood Society, international association of scholars, teachers, students, and others who share an interest in the work of Margaret Atwood, this list seeks to provide an electronic forum for the exchange of ideas, opinions and information related to Atwood with the aim of encouraging the teaching and reading of Atwood’s works.”
No wonder Beck was fired up, but Atwood didn’t put herself on that pedestal, why not go after those who put her there ? Another morsel from the Net: “....Here Atwood makes us realize that we may think our own personal dichotomies are unique, but really they are multiple, uni-versal. Clear, direct, wry, unrelenting Atwood’s poetic powers are honed to perfection in this early work [sic] .”
This is beyond the “groupie” syndrome. Now we’re almost ready to start a cult. Who are these people who need someone to tell them that their “personal dichotomies” are “uni-versal” [sic], that they are not, after all, ever-so-special? And then, make a god out that person? Jim Jones, are you listening?
Would some World War II buff out there write in and tell me if I’m correct in thinking George Will greatly resembles famous Nazi Heinrich Himmler?
Actually what I want to know is, since I’m a “baby boomer” born in 1946, where is my stock portfolio? Where is my six-figure salary? Where are my Porches and BMWs, my sport-utilities with the cell phones, and all that stuff from the Sharper Image and Real Goods Catalogs? Where is my “realistic” pro-growth political stance, my sentimental loyalty to Bill Clinton and the nudge-nudge-wink-wink “liberal” philosophy of the Democratic party? Where’s my redwood deck with hot tub, stocked with white wine and Sonoma cheese, overlooking the lower elevations? My Armani, my Calvin Klein, my Gucci. My goodness.
Who are these pundits who write the snide articles about the fatuousness of the sixties, and all the Baby Boomers with shallow “I’ve Got Mine” outlooks and irrational fear of aging? Are they right? If so, it’s no wonder the George Will and Christopher Hitchens types (living very comfortably themselves, natch) go off so roundly about the self-absorbed ambition of “us,” the baby boomers.
It disturbs me that Bill Clinton and I were born in the same month of the same year, in the same country. In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter Thompson talks about a “wave” you could “almost see” from the Nevada desert, cresting and then falling back and fading into the sea. The wave was the promise and potential of the sixties decade. Its promise was the end of war, the beginning of environmental and political sanity, its potential a new phase of human evolution in which human ego and hubris moved aside to make way for unprecedented levels of mutual cooperation and, to yank a phrase out of the Cold War fifties, “peaceful co-existence.”
Drugs were part of this, and ideally they might have served as a temporary tool to illustrate the possibility of alternate states of mind. Ideally. The unfortunate legacy of drugs is now all too evident, but when a man my age is president and can look into the eyes of a congressional committee and a TV camera and swear that he didn’t inhale, let alone swear under oath that having his unit orally serviced by a young intern does not constitute a sexual experience, then this man cannot have any understanding of Thompson’s “wave.” Because, and you can laugh if you like, to my mind the greatest promise of the sixties was going to be honesty. People were going to stop fighting, stop clawing and scratching their way up the career ladder, and best of all, stop bullshitting each other.
To the Mayor, City Council, and citizens of the fair city and farming community of Dovetail, Iowa:
I, John L. Brashears, president of the Dovetail Savings and Loan Association, Chairman of the Farmer’s Federal Credit Union, advisor to the Dovetail Chamber of Commerce, member in good standing of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, and in general a fine, upstanding pillar of the community and model citizen, have made my final business transaction in Dovetail. By the time this letter is discovered and opened on Monday morning, I will be gone without a trace, having taken with me all your money, securities, stocks, bonds, even the better jewelry from your safe deposit boxes.
Over the years, over dinner and drinks, I have had earnest, neighborly discussions with most of you. Always I was impressed, even touched, by the sincerity of your belief in the virtue of hard work, modest living, Christian morality and patriotic convictions. You are morons. Now, you will have the chance to work harder, live more modestly, pray more fervently, and use the power of your votes to elect legislators and law enforcement officials who are sure to promise you such a thing as this will never happen again.
God Bless America, Land of Opportunity.
“Straight Man” by Richard Russo
Beware of books recommended by anyone you don’t know really well. I say this even though I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage anyone to read HST’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” or Henry Miller’s “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy.
“Straight Man” was touted to me by a trombone player named Rex, who is a voracious reader -- a fact I might have taken as cautionary, since voracity implies a certain lack of discrimination... Another warning might have been that Russo is currently a “hot property,” with a recent movie (starring Paul Newman) of “Nobody’s Fool,” a previous novel of his. But Rex went on and on about it, and earlier we had agreed enthusiastically on the merits of Betty MacDonald’s “Anybody Can Do Anything,” another book I’d recommend, especially to someone who needs a good laugh, so I went to the library and took out “Straight Man.”
It’s a novel about an English professor, a teacher of writing who has himself written only one novel, and a few newspaper columns about life on campus. Immediately, I was reminded of my ex-father-in-law, a former department head at a major midwestern university, who spent his life in the Ivory Tower, surrounded by tiny groups of students who adored him and his chosen field. Now retired, he’s astoundingly inept at the most basic levels -- can’t function socially and whines to anyone who’ll listen that no one pays any attention to him. His life has been so narrow and limited that the awareness of exactly how narrow and limited is beyond his grasp.
But what really annoys me about this book is the author’s apparent assumption that these characters, with their smug, insulated upper-middle class lives and petty problems, are somehow fascinating.When the main character built his house in a new subdivision, he also bought both adjacent lots, in order “to prevent neighbors.” This is writing by and for the sport-utility and Prozac crowd, stereotyped right down to the white wine they drink. I’ve known people like that, but I certainly don’t spend time with them, so why should I spend time reading about them? That’s right, I’m not finishing the book, and I’m not recommending it. Competently crafted and academically correct is not enough.
“TUBE: The Invention of Television” by David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher
No one recommended this one; I was at the library and it jumped at me all by itself. The subject is a personal matter. My father was an electronics engineer and I’m still kicking myself in the ass for not letting him teach me, as was his wish. Also, since he was active in the industry, we had a round-screen TV set before most other people did. He was not interested in the shows that were available in the late forties -- he correctly declared them crap -- it was how the thing worked
that fascinated him. And he understood how it worked, and how electrons could be made to do all sorts of incredible things.
Television had many inventors and developers, many of whom truthfully claimed “world’s first” this and “world’s first” that. Do you recognize any of these names? Paul Nipkow, Max Dieckmann, Vladimir Zworykin, John Logie Baird, Philo T. Farnsworth. No? Some of the many inventors of television technology. Okay, how about this name: David Sarnoff. Familiar? Sarnoff -- The American Success Story personified, an immigrant who started at the bottom and bulldozed his way to the top of RCA through silver-tongued PR, ruthless deal-making and uncanny ability to use people up and cast them aside -- not a technician himself, but generally recognized as the Man Who Brought the World Television. His business methods directly caused at least one suicide, one Major Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio. Sarnoff set him up, then dumped him without notice to make way for TV.
“Tube” is a history of the invention of television, from discovery of the photoelectric sensitivity of selenium in 1872 and first proposal to send pictures by telegraphy in 1878, to modern digital TV, but it’s much more than that. Right alongside the story of TV’s long and complex development is a graphic depiction of capitalism, big business, rank ambition and human ruin. The race to perfect television was every bit as ugly as most TV content today. In nearly every phase of television development, business triumphed over the human spirit. Charles Francis Jenkins, one of the early TV experimenters, had a movie projector design stolen and later saw it marketed as the “Edison Vitaphone.” The lesson? “The inventor gets the experience and the capitalist gets the invention.”
“Tube” is an excellent and easily understood history of a technology and its human costs, has a lot of unpleasant truth to say about the nature of capitalism, and reads like a good novel.
THE DARK ALLEY SWEEPSTAKES
“I wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley.”
Could anyone possibly count the number of times they’ve heard or said this? It doesn’t take much to understand what it means; the person in question is some kind of tough, threatening character. In grade school, the sentence was uttered in awe when one of the “big guys” or bullies came into sight.
The United States of America is precisely who no one else on earth would like to run into in a dark alley. We’ve learned our grade school lessons well: the bully gets the respect, or at least the pretense of it.
Not every “big guy” is enough of a moron to believe his size makes him a superior being. There was a young man in my home town named Bill Langley, who was supposed to be the “toughest, meanest” guy around. Not only was he large and muscular, he was a “greaser” with slicked back hair, and he rode a motorcycle. The name “Bill Langley” was whispered in fear by all the punks in town. Fortunately for me, I played rock and roll music and therefore had a head start running with the “wrong” crowd. (I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d listened to my high school teachers, become a “good boy,” changed my style and continued my education. Instead of writing this piece for the AVA I might be sitting in some corporate office saying “yes” to bad ideas and wearing Dockers).
What’s always bothered me is the assumption, the implication that big, fearsome-looking people deserve more respect than anyone else. Our culture promotes this idea everywhere you look. Football stars are “role models,” intelligent, insightful individuals are “nerds” or “wimps” or “pointy-headed intellectuals.” Some, like Einstein, a short, frumpy-looking man, or Stephen Hawking, confined to a wheelchair and dependent upon a computer to talk for him, are called intellectual “giants.” Even here the metaphor serves to perpetuate the idea of “biggest is best.”
Actually, before Bill Langley become my friend he had gotten to know, of all people, my father. The old man was in the process of drinking himself to death and had gone from designing guided-missile circuits to repairing TV sets to slinging hash at the local drug-store lunch counter. My father was not a man you’d be afraid of in a dark alley. He was short, thin and unhealthy. Despite his advanced alcoholism, he still had a sense of humor and a sharp wit. He was old and smart enough not to be intimidated by a person’s size, was not shy about expressing his opinions, and Langley appreciated his candor. Langley was also a friend of the singer in my band. No one messed with a friend of Langley’s. The funny thing is, I never saw him hit or even threaten anyone. Langley was a genuinely nice guy who just happened to fit some Hollywood stereotype of a tough guy. Sometimes I wonder what happened to him; I just hope he wasn’t killed in Viet Nam.
Here Lies the Good Citizen. He Died Bitter and Frustrated but He Obeyed the Rules, Damn It.
Even if I’m wrong in assuming that yet another out-of town, laugh-all-the-way-to-the-bank consulting firm is involved with the currently circulating survey on “disorderly conduct” in Port Townsend, the concept is still ludicrous. This is the only place I’ve ever lived where beady-eyed, money-grubbing merchants and half-wit fuddy-duddies team up, right out in public, to wage war against youth. Teenagers here, like everywhere, dress “oddly” and hang out. And like everywhere, we have the occasional transients. The new crop, called “beer punks” or “death hippies,” dress exclusively in black and camo, and often have ratty dogs on clothesline leashes. I’m 51 years old and neither these nor the regular local kids have ever bothered me. Sure, I’ve been panhandled a few times. They were always painfully polite, almost obsequious about it. Once I gave a beer-punk girl a few bucks and watched from a distance what she did with it. She went into a grocery store and came out with food, which she shared with two or three others.
It’s the latter, half-dead group who are in league with Main Street, the association of downtown business owners, in this business of surveying the local population about how to deal with “disorderly conduct.” This whole nasty little affair is indicative of much greater ills than oddly-dressed youth behaving in ways that do not meet the approval of the priggish. Domestic violence is rampant here, and I wonder how many “pillars of the community” who complain about “street kids scaring away tourists” go home and beat their own children and wives. This is a “Victorian” town and it’s very Victorian to do unspeakable things in private and then do something like punish kids for loitering.
An odd thing is that politically conservative elements are behind all this, the same types that make all the noise about “family values.” Well, all this anti-youth business seems to me to run contrary to family values...
I’ve come to the conclusion that are two kinds of elderly people. The kind who remember their youth, who have had some fun in their life and are still alive in the best sense of the word; and the kind who don’t remember their youth, probably because they never had any fun even then, and are the ones you see doddering cluelessly about, pinching their checkbooks and looking suspiciously at you in the supermarket, or tailgating you in their Lincoln Town Cars, their unhappy half-dead Republican faces glowering like trapped animals in your rear-view mirror. Maybe the street kids smell the fear on these people and that may be where the “abusive language” in the survey comes from, but it’s equally likely they’re so insulting in their condescension towards the kids that they force a reaction.
SHOWBIZ: THE REALLY SMALL TIME
It was summer of ‘79 when I was a “homeless person” in Lahaina, although the term “guitar-playing vagrant” is more to my liking. I had come to Maui on a one-way ticket bought with the proceeds from selling my Sausalito houseboat (Gate 5 pirate variety, not like the floating yuppie condos one sees now from Highway 101), and managed to find enough gigs on the island to keep me in booze and cigarettes.
Doc Fingers, the Canadian piano player, had hired me to play a duo gig with him, and even let me sleep on his couch. But life on the Couch Circuit requires sensitivity to when enough is enough, and I made myself scarce from time to time.
Naturally, not all Hawaiians locals are friendly to haoles; just like everywhere else, white people and their business interests, starting with Captain Cooke, arrived here and started right in doing their nasty job on the indigenous population. Much resentment remains, as do the opportunists and gold diggers, multi-level marketing yuppies, New Age feather merchants, real estate agents and such who figure they might as well pursue their rampant and oblivious self-interest in a pleasant climate.
One night I was hanging out near the Pioneer Inn, sitting on the rock wall that faces the harbor where the marlin-charter and other tourist-hustle boats are docked. I’ve never been able to bring myself to “busking,” which is the official term for playing music in the streets with your instrument case open for “contributions” -- a euphemism for begging. But playing music could go a long way in establishing friendly relations with strangers who, for example, might be having a family cookout at a beach park. Local Hawaiians are generally easy-going folks and at most family gatherings there will be music. If you’re in the vicinity with an instrument it’s likely you’ll be invited to play along with them, and eat and drink as well. This kept me from starvation on more than a few occasions
On this particular night I was carrying a guitar, one of those chrome-plated Dobro brand “resophonic” jobs that look terrific but when it comes down to it, don’t actually sound that good. Kind of harsh and biting, but loud. As I sat on the seawall wondering where to crash for the night, a large, perhaps 250-lb. drunk local walked by. He looked to be maybe part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, but it’s all so mixed in the islands it’s hard to tell...
“Hey Haole,” he grumbled, “What you got in that case there?”
“Oh yeah, you can play it?”
“I suppose so.”
“Why don’ you play it now?”
“I’m trying to think where to sleep tonight.”
“Bust ‘em out, brah. I like hear a song.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Tell you what, brah. If you don’t get out that guitar, I’m gonna break your face. And if you can’t play it, I’m gonna break your hands.”
Well. There it was. I might have run but not carrying a metal guitar. It was showtime. Out of the case, the appearance of the Dobro knocked the guy for a momentary loop and that seemed to make things a bit worse, because with such a flashy instrument in my possession it was now imperative that I deliver.
What do you play for an audience that threatens to cripple you? Well, not a happy song, I thought -- better stick with my mood. Blues would be the thing, so I sang this song, written in 12-bar blues format by my late friend John Stephens:
Some beat on fenders, of whiplash rear-enders
While others lay down for their dime
There are those who will wake up and put on their makeup
And find things to take up their time
While all this astounds me and madness surrounds me
I drink up my bottle of wine
Nobody wants out of the trap, they've put a high price on the crap
They all think of goals while they pray for their souls
And the lips of the guru still flap
Some tell of all the gory details or start a new project that failsI've heard of some bums who smoke shit with their chums
and wait for their turn in the jails
But someday we'll all be alone, not even a dime for the phone
It's my personal plan to have fun while I can
And buy a new dog for my bone.
(© 1989 estate of John Stephens)
From a musician’s standpoint, drunks are usually either impossible or easy to please, and luckily for me this one was easy. By the third line of the tune, my inebriated tormentor was dancing. By the end he had fallen down twice and was inviting me to come play at a party. Of course there was no party, but there would be no broken bones, either. He wandered away, mumbling. I had gained nothing, only retained my teeth. At the moment it was a raving success.
ROAD NOTES '98
I hate to sink to the level of scatological humor, but there might be someone else who thinks this is funny: In the town of Weed on Interstate 5 in Shasta County, there is a little health food store/cafe called New Horizons. In the rest room, a sign near the toilet reads, “Please Flush Only Toilet Paper.” This led me to some speculation that sooner or later someone would take this notice literally and leave a surprise on the floor for the clean-up person...
2 Days at the AVA
The plan had been to stay a week, immersing myself in journalism of the Boonville variety. The schedule was changed by a clutch failure in San Rafael. There I waited three days at a friend’s house for delivery of two hydraulic cylinders, and had the good fortune to spend some time with Art Boericke, the author of “The Woodbutcher’s Art,” a photograph-and-text document of notable hippie architecture of the 60’s and 70’s. Art was one of the original San Francisco hippies, a Digger, a Tamalpais High graduate who’s got a story about nearly everyone who passed through the City or Marin County in those heady times, sort of a living history book of Bay Area counterculture. He’s a guy who doesn’t quite know when to stop talking, but it’s okay because ninety per cent of what he has to say is interesting.
For those old enough to remember the band Quicksilver Messenger Service, Art relates that guitarist John Cipollina’s father, Gino, told him excitedly that his son had finally gotten a real job, working for the “Quicksilver Mining Company...”
Art was familiar with the AVA and spoke of Bruce Anderson as if he were an old friend -- the price of celebrity, right? The Editor, after some prodding, did remember Art, or his book at least.
Hoping to get in some work on the nuts-and-bolts production process, my hardest task was to stay out of the way. I was able to do a little proofreading and deliver a bundle of AVAs to the newly unionized wine workers at their victory party, but that’s about it.
On Tuesday night, production rolls into high gear. Faxes are rolling in, locals bring last-minute ads. Major Scaramella does all the typesetting, and Ling handles phone calls and does the paste-up. Bruce is in the Ivory Tower whacking away at the keyboard, composing late news stories and Off the Top items. Mark and Sara come by for last-minute proofing, Mark finds a glaring redundancy that everyone else missed. Ling cooks dinner for everyone and gets back to paste-up without missing a beat. A discussion arises about candidate Wes Chesbro and the question on everyone’s mind is, “Are this guy’s incredibly smarmy and totally empty campaign slogans a cheap manipulative ploy, or is he really that feeble?” Cockburn calls in with last-minute changes and the Major, needing to take dictation, pleads for quiet. Amazingly, he gets it. Bruce gives me a news item to proof and I have the honor of editing the Editor.
POLICE HARASSMENT ADVISORY
Tinted car windows are illegal in California, as I learned while driving south on 101 through Novato. I was going 5 mph under the speed limit, my tabs were current and all my lights worked properly. Yet, when the CHP car pulled out of the median strip quickly and obviously in “pursuit” mode, despite the heavy traffic I knew he was coming after me. Sure enough, there he was, right behind, flashing me over to the side. Problem was, we were in the middle of five lanes and I had to invent hand signals to tell the cop to cut off the cars in the far right lanes. I wasn’t about to pull over and cut them off with my little car. He got the message and did it.
Off the road, he told me, “I stopped you because of your tinted windows. Tinted windows are illegal in California.”
“But you can see by my plates I’m from out-of-state.”
“Yeah, well, we have a lot of trouble with people registering their cars in other states...”
So they can have tinted windows?
Out comes my Washington license and Washington Registration to go with my Washington plates.
“Officer, I’ve been driving down to California to visit my family at least once a year for six years in this car and I’ve never been stopped for my windows before.”
“You have family here?”
“Where do they live?” (Now we’re getting a little intrusive.)
“What do you do for a living?” (Now we’re getting more than a little intrusive. Why doesn’t he just say, “I think you’re a drug dealer or child molester?”)
“I’m a musician.” (Bad enough.)
He walks away silently, obviously disappointed. Between there and Mill Valley I was passed by three SUVs with tinted windows, all with California plates.
ROCK ROLLS OVER IN THE HIPPIE BIG TIME
Rock & Roll is dead, and it’s been a while since anyone’s been much concerned about it. Nonetheless, for any nostalgic, aging delinquents and hippies that might still care or be interested, I’d like to reveal the approximate time and place of the murder, and the name of the killer.
My hair was long by 1965 because the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 “needing a haircut” and got away with it. It dawned on me that I too could go without haircuts, that there was no law about it, just a rigid tradition which was now being exposed as nothing but a deck of cards. I suspect this was the starting point for many a head of “hippie” hair.
At first, I devoured every word in the new, hip music paper. But soon, little things began to bother me. The first was an article by Ralph J. Gleason called “Stop This Shuck, Mike Bloomfield.” Gleason, an established jazz critic, was now crossing over to the rock world and “legitimizing” it. Bloomfield played guitar for the Paul Butterfield Blues band, a racially mixed group out of Chicago that was getting popular with the hippie element. The essence of the article was that white boys can’t play the blues and that Bloomfield was therefore a fake.
Rolling Stone printed a counter-article by Bloomfield called “Stop This Shuck, Ralph Gleason,” in which the guitarist let Gleason, a booster of the Jefferson Airplane, have it in street language that was no doubt at least partly unfamiliar to the distinguished, pipe-smoking critic. (Bloomfield had said in his reply that the Jefferson Airplane --starring upper-class finishing school girl Grace Slick -- were “shit” and that “no matter how much you love it and fondle it and rub it on your face, it’s still shit.” He also correctly questioned the wisdom of a snob-appeal jazz critic stepping in rock territory.) That was the first and last serious rebuttal in Rolling Stone. From then on Ralph Gleason and the Jefferson Airplane could do no wrong; the publication’s founder and editor Jann Wenner had quickly learned on which side his bread was buttered.
Meanwhile, a few music promoters, seeing the success of the San Francisco bands, were busy slapping together a record deal with MGM. The record label was told that a new Boston-based music wave was poised to sweep over the country just like the one from out west had, and make millions. MGM bit on the hype, and albums were released by three absolutely terrible bands called Orpheus, The Beacon Street Union, and the Ultimate Spinach. They were all hyped under the banner of “The Bosstown Sound.”
Orpheus was an electrified folk group who were known on the street as “The Kingston Trio on Speed.” The Beacon Street Union were a pathetic imitation of the Rolling Stones, and the worst possible example of a “white blues band.” It was the Ultimate Spinach, however, who were a definitive early sign of rock and roll music gone to hell in a handbasket. (Bobby Hearne, a chicken farmer from York, Maine and one of the world’s great unknown guitar players, just shook his head and said, “The Beacon Street Shithouse and the Ultimate Garbage.”)
Sometime before the Woodstock event in 1969, Rolling Stone introduced two new words into “rock” journalism (already the “...and Roll” was disappearing), and I place the primary death rattle right there, with the application of the adjectives “pretentious” and “important” to guitar bands and their music. Rolling Stone was becoming the “bible” of the new rock era, attracting new fans and readers like the bright-eyed college boy who in 1968 asked me if I “ever heard of Chuck Berry.” In his new job as assistant manager of the Boston Tea Party rock venue, this sheltered innocent had just learned of Berry’s existence.
Science and Spirit
Take the bible literally and you wind up with TV preachers.
Take science literally and you wind up with the atom bomb.
What is the mathematical formula for conscience?
SEPARATING THE SHEEP FROM THE GOATS
Us and Them. Is there such a thing? Of course there is. Everyone has a different idea of who Us and Them are. Democrats and republicans, black and white, male and female, workers and welfare bums, it goes on forever. Hip and square... These are terms I once used but they’re no longer relevant thanks to the incessant co-opting of language by commercial interests. Thanks to television, the most painfully “square” people are using the word “hip” to describe things they just bought at the mall. “Oh, Tiffany, those are very hip shoes.”
The AVA has been stating, for years now, the very plain and substantial fact that the only difference that really means anything, when it comes to American society and its ills, is economic. You either have money or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re screwed. A wealthy black woman is as likely to look with contempt (or fear) upon a penniless black woman as a rich white man is to look with disgust at poor white man. It’s astounding how differently people will treat you even if they think you have money. Legions of phonies are running around out there trying to convince each other they’re “somebody."
I’ve lived in this town for nine years, and just recently a 25 year-old movie I have a small part in showed up at the local video store. People I’ve seen all this time on the street, in stores, in restaurants, and never spoken with, all of a sudden want to check me out and I’m reminded of a line from the movie To Die For : “You’re nobody in America unless you’re on TV.” I could save them some trouble by telling them I didn’t even get paid the small amount promised for that film. I could name-drop, though. A now-famous movie actor used to sell me ounces of methamphetamine. I saw him once after he’d begun to be successful and guess what, let’s just say he didn’t run over to give me a big hug. Whether it was the drug history or the fact that I was still poor that put him off, I can’t say.
But I wanted to talk about shoes. A long time ago I discovered there are two types of women: Those who check out a man’s shoes, and those who are actually human beings. Shoes apparently are an important key to someone’s economic status, and if a man is wearing shabby or inexpensive shoes it’s evidence for immediate dismissal in the minds of properly opportunistic women. (Generally, even the most deeply-closeted rich person who makes it a point to “dress down” and drive a modest-looking car cannot bear to wear cheap shoes.) Every time, and it continues to happen, I encounter one of these shoe-observers I fail the test. My worn, comfortable, “un-hip” shoes say, “no money” and the upwardly-mobile are up and moving. And, I have been spared time-wasting contact with another bimbo.
Anyone who still doubts that corporations and/or other institutions have taken taken over control of the planet need only listen to NPR for a day. Here we learn that “The World is brought to you by PRI with a grant from Merck,” or “Nature is made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.”
Ever notice how corporations, or the media outlets speaking on their behalf, never say the word “corporation”? It’s always “companies,” which is a much warmer, friendlier-sounding word with pleasant connotations:
In the company of friends.
We’re having company tonight.
Come over and keep me company.
Try substituting “corporation” in the above phrases; it doesn’t go both ways.
I recall a classroom discussion about factories back in the 50’s. The physical building and equipment were the “plant,” the “company” meant the people who worked there. Now, the corporation refers to itself as a “company,” and the people, as R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural might have said, “don’t mean shit.”
A professional linguist was on NPR the other day dismissing critics of current language trends as grumpy old curmudgeons who just can’t handle change. As one of those grumpy old curmudgeons I’d like to offer the suggestion that today’s language trends are not merely the result of natural change, but of a (perhaps subconscious) but definite conspiratorial agenda on the part of business and institutional interests.
We’re not talking about street talk or youth trends; these are the sources of real language evolution. For example, the surfing crowd plays quite creatively with words. California surfers some time back started using the word “sick” to mean “good” in the sense that a person’s moves on a surfboard could be slick and agile almost to the point of being perverted, or “sick.” The use of this word has made it as far as televised coverage of surf events in Hawaii. Surfers even have a term for their own word-mangling: ˜lingosis˜.
The NPR linguist was likely unaware of current street or surf talk; he was talking about stilted, lyrically awkward business and academic-based lingual trends such as “office” and “target” as verbs, and the ubiquitous “in terms of,” “if you will,” and such. People no longer “relate,” they “interface.” This is the opposite of anthropomorphism, it’s application of machine terms to humans.
And it is in the interest of corporations (not companies) and other unnaturally structured institutions for humans to become more stilted and machine-like in their behavior.What better place to start than language?