Trigger Warning

I rarely post overtly political content here, since our modern media space is already so rife with whatever flavor of partisan zealotry you might want to wallow in, 24/7/365, that I don’t wish to add to the constant fire hose to the face that most of us experience anytime we’re near a computer or a television or a radio or a magazine. That’s a conscious, active choice for me to manage my personal website that way, despite my professional and academic backgrounds in political science and public policy, which ostensibly support me having some informed thoughts on the subject of governance. I mean, I also have some strong and well-formed thoughts on religion and sex, but having been raised properly in a good Southern household, I know those are also not things that should be discussed at the (virtual) dinner table.

That said: like most folks in the country, I’m not really able to crawl into my shell of solitude or to stick my fingers in my ears and make “la la la la la la” noises to drown out the horrible stories about mass shootings that have so dominated our discourse in recent days. Or weeks. Or months. Or years. Or decades. Utter tragedies, all of them. And while it seems like the folks we elect to represent us might want to do something about it, we know that entrenched monetary and political interests are virulently opposed to any efforts to legislate limits and improvements on gun ownership and deployment, often suggesting that the solution to too many shootings is just to inject more guns, more freely brandished, into the national ecosystem.

In the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings (and the dozens that have happened between and since them, but weren’t “big enough” to make national news), the usual suspects are working to implement changes to Federal gun policy, and the other usual suspects are working the thwart them. (We know who we’re talking about on each side, right?) As has become standard in these cases, the usual “freedom and liberty” arguments have been passionately made by the guns-guns-and-more-guns team, after the usual “thoughts and prayers” sentiments were expressed, of course. But as national dismay about this state of affairs steadily grows — polling indicates that a sizable majority of Americans seek some changes to the ways in which we can access and deploy high-powered weaponry, be it an increased age for purchase, banning particular weapons, implementing “red flag rules” or universal background checks, etc. — more pro-gun politicians are being pointedly asked by journalists and constituents: “Why can’t  we do something?”

It has been a head-spinning exercise to process their responses. At bottom line: the gun lobby and its clients (political, corporate, community, and individual) argue that we don’t need to do anything about Federal gun laws, because it’s not the guns that are the problem. So the obvious second question is: “Well, why are we having all of these mass killings if it’s not because of the guns?” It’s been a real media hot take in recent weeks to report on the answers given by various elected and aspiring government officials, in terms of who and what they blame for the problem.

After reading a few of those articles, I decided to see if I could make a complete list of the many theories being posited by Team Elephant (if you can find a Democrat making such arguments, please share), so I did a Google search for articles posted in the past two weeks using the search terms “GOP Lawmaker Blames” and “GOP Candidate Blames.”

Here’s what I came up with, on the topic “who or what is to blame for the current epidemic of gun violence,” posited by various Republican legislators or candidates, and presented in alphabetical order:

  • Abortion
  • Black People
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Decline in Moral Values
  • Decline of the “Traditional American Family”
  • Declining Church Attendance
  • Democrats
  • “Drag Queen Advocates”
  • “False Flag” operations by the FBI, CIA and/or White House
  • Fatherlessness
  • Feminism
  • Gangs
  • Gay Marriage
  • Hatred of Veterans
  • Lack of corporal punishment in schools
  • Lack of faith
  • Lack of prayer in schools
  • Legalized marijuana
  • Liberal teachers
  • Mental Illness Epidemic
  • “Mexicans”
  • Open borders
  • Pornography
  • President Obama
  • Public school teachers
  • Rap Music
  • Single mothers
  • Smartphones
  • Snowflakes
  • Social Media
  • Too many doors in buildings
  • Trans People
  • Video Games
  • Wokeness
  • Women in the Workplace

Very few of these targets of blame were explained with any sort of lucid causation or correlation analysis, but were instead seemingly offered simply to distract readers and citizens from exploring any meaningful underlying causes for the tragedies caused by our out-of-control national gun culture.  Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s hard. But, yes, we really do need to do something other than nothing, and soon. Even incremental change matters: if pragmatic public policy could reduce the number of innocent victims of mass and other criminal shootings by just 20% annually, that’s thousands of American lives spared each year from awful, violent ends, never mind the collateral damage victims who don’t die, but are maimed with life-altering injuries. Isn’t that worth something? Isn’t that a good outcome?

I don’t have the answers, of course. And if I did, I don’t have the power to implement them. But one thing I do know is that we must not accept the sorts of bullshit being spewed in the list above, from anybody, ever. Assigning blame to those targets does not fix the problem, and it actually increases the likelihood of additional violence against those people who are being tagged as menaces and dangers, without just cause. Here’s hoping that enough people of all political stripes have had enough of the carnage, and enough of the finger-pointing in random directions, so that reasonable politicians representing reasonable citizens can come together to take steps that demonstrate that we’re not simply sighing a big collective sigh and accepting that this is the way that things must be. They don’t have to be this way. They shouldn’t be this way. They can’t stay this way.

In closing, let me note that if your reaction to this piece is to send me a scathing comment about being a libtard snowflake coastal socialist who wants to repeal your Second Amendment rights, you should really hold your tongue on that point, since none of those descriptors are accurate. I’m patriotic, without having to fly a flag of convenience to prove it. I’ve fired a wide variety of handguns, rifles, and various heavier ordinance pieces over the years, and was well-trained on the proper use and care of them all. I come from a long line of warriors, raised in an Evangelical Southern household. I attended a Federal service academy, served in the military, and worked on in the defense sector as a civilian after my active duty time was done, negotiating deals for some of the most formidable equipment in the Nation’s arsenal, and also supervising the acquisition of the firearms used by the well-trained security inspectors who guarded the sensitive nuclear site where I worked.  And when I no longer needed to do those things to satisfy my professional obligations, and given that I am not part of a well-regulated militia, I’ve not seen fit to own or fire a weapon since that period of my life came to its conclusion.

Shooting guns is just not my idea of fun. Nor is continually reading about my fellow Americans being gunned down when they’re just trying to pursue their own lives, liberty, and happiness. We deserve better. And to get what we deserve, we truly need to identify, vet, and elect better politicians who will smartly pursue policies that hold the social contracts that bind us first and foremost, and not the wishes of the most extremely partisan benefactors who fund their campaigns and shape their agendas. There was a time in our not-so-distant past when electoral offices were typically pursued adjacent to a sense of public service and common good from candidates, who were expected to have a least some modicum of experience related to the jobs of governance. These days, though, it seems ever more of our elected officials are in it for personal financial gain or just because they crave attention. And with no well-formulated beliefs and little professional training for their jobs, they end up just being shills and mouthpieces for whatever lobbyists brought them to the big ball as useful idiot dance partners.

Enough. Really. Just enough.

Another GOP lawmaker noted we need to have high-powered semi-automatic weapons to protect our chickens from raccoons. I guess I’ll buy that when the masked bandits start to show up like this . . .

What Should Be Done

1. Marcia and I have been getting our healthcare insurance coverage for the past 18 months via the COBRA program, which allowed us to receive benefits as part of the last healthcare policy group she’d been a member of at the point when she retired from full-time work. But as our eligibility for that program came to its end, we visited the Federal Healthcare Website to see what our options were for the year(s) to come. We found a very good plan at a very reasonable price with a very nice Federal tax subsidy associated with it, and enrolled in said program accordingly this week. Thank you, President Obama, for that. We appreciate you, always. And we miss you!

2. Bauhaus were a tremendously influential and much appreciated band for me through most of the 1980s, and their successor bands (Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail, and solo projects by members Daniel Ash, David J, and Peter Murphy) kept me rolling in good music for years-to-decades after their original collective creative run petered out. I had read that the original quartet were on tour again this year, but was surprised when they issued a new single (the first new music they’ve released in 14 years) a couple of weeks ago, called “Drink The New Wine:”

The music media have been much impressed by the song’s origins, created via the surrealists’ game trope “exquisite corpse,” in which each of the group’s four members recorded their segments of the song independently, without having heard the other three members’ contributions. The results are shockingly coherent, but, then, that’s the point of the game, in that brilliant collaborative newness may (and in this case, does) emerge from the chaotic creative process behind the work.

But I’ve not seen (m)any members of the critical community recognizing that this is not the first time that Bauhaus have hoed this row, with one of the best songs from one of their best albums (The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982) being titled “Exquisite Corpse,” and being created under the same rubric. Here’s how that one sounded; it’s a personal fave:

Note well that the title of the new song makes it something of a sequel to the title of the earlier song, as they evoke the original surrealist quote penned by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy: “Le cadaver exquisite boar le vin nouveau,” which translates in English to “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” Bauhaus (the group) also deployed this creative technique on a fairly rare b-side, where they titled the track with the band members’ names and the order in which said members created their contributions to the cut in question:

Always happy when artists I admire and respect return from long hiatuses with works that are challenging, yet anchored in their core creative values. Here’s hoping that Messrs Ash, J, Haskins and Murphy continue to make new music under their Bauhaus imprimatur. It’s a good one. I miss it.

3. We finished watching the first season of Our Flag Means Death last night. I’m all in behind the brilliant Taika Waititi, and will pretty much happily watch anything and everything that he does (except for his Marvel Universe Movies, because I boycott superhero and Marvel Universe Movies as a point of principle, as I think them a tired and sore blight on our modern culture) (but I don’t mind Taika making them, if they fund his original work), but even with that expectation for excellence, this series went in ways and places that I’d not imagined it going, and it was all fantastic. Here’s the trailer, as a tease, and I most emphatically recommend it to you:

I’ve read a lot of reviews and analysis of the series over the past few weeks, but few writers seem to have picked up on something that I knew going in, as a fan of the sorts of “tales of human suffering” books that tell stories like this one: lead character Stede Bonnett (played by Rhys Darby) was a real, historical character, who did indeed serve with the legendary Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) for a period of time. Because my brain is somewhat broken, I found myself playing this musical version of the Blackbeard story on my internal mental jukebox for hours on end, the ear-worm factor in full, florid display:

4. I’ve written at length here over the past 18 months or so about the amazing natural beauty of our home region in Northern Arizona, and its exceptional geological history. I’ve written less often about the human history of the region, but it’s fairly incredible in its own ways. One of the cooler factors about rambling about this part of the country is finding petroglyph sites, where ancient humans left their marks by carving both decorative and utilitarian works of art in the region’s red rocks, often darkened black by microbial growth and aged lichens. I paid a second visit to one of the less known, but visually spectacular, petroglyph sites in our area this week, deeply enjoying these most cool art works, all by my lonesome:

When we’ve read or heard talks about the ancient cultures of our region (most notably the Sinagua People, who left the area en masse around 1400 AD), the writers or park docents do tend to focus heavily on the practical aspects of the places where the Sinagua settlements were developed, but I believe deeply that our ancestors were just as attuned to aesthetic “location, location, location” concerns in their own ways as we are in ours. Yeah, you needed safety and food and shelter and water back then when you decided to pitch camp or develop a settlement, sure, but I’d bet good money that the folks who carved these figures, and others in the area, also sat down at the end of the day, looked out before them, and said “Dang, this sure is a nice spot!” Here’s the view of this site, just before arriving at the rock carvings. Nice spot? Yeah, it is. Definitely.

Been Away Too Long

1. My three weeks as a juror at the Yavapai County Superior Court came to an end last week. We, the jury, found the defendant guilty of Second Degree Murder and 20+ related charges of property theft, forgery, credit card fraud, and identity theft. Here’s one of the many news articles I saw about the case once our deliberations concluded. I’d be lying if I said that the process was not onerous (especially given my 60+ mile drive one way to the Court House), but I will admit that it provided an interesting deep dig into a variety of subcultures resident here in Arizona. It also felt right and good to do my own small part as a contributing citizen in our State and Nation at a time when personal and institutional selfishness and anti-government sentiments and actions are running rampant, to our collective detriment. I’ve got a two-year “get out of jury duty free” pass now, and I certainly won’t be clamoring for my next jury stint when that time runs out. But if called, I will serve. Because that’s how I roll.

2. As soon as my jury service was done, Marcia and I headed over to Las Vegas to visit our daughter Katelin and son-in-law John in the new house they bought in January. It was a wonderful visit, including the celebration of Marcia and Katelin’s shared birthday on Tuesday. The house was spectacular, and the work that Katelin and John have done on it over their couple of months of ownership made it even more so. We brought some small decorative items with us in various storage baskets, which we left behind should Katelin and John need them. But then we soon realized that Katelin’s and John’s needs did not matter with regard to the baskets, because the proper owner of the baskets (Lily the Cat) had staked her claim, and would not yield same:

3. This was the first visit we’ve made since Katelin and John moved to Las Vegas where most of the stereotypical entertainment options of the Las Vegas Strip were open and available and (nominally) safe, due to the various COVID restrictions that have been (rightly, correctly) in place there for most of the past two years. So we took advantage of both the outdoor options (which we’ve always done when visiting) and the indoor options (which we’ve not experienced in quite some time) while we were there. Highlights included:

Simply walking the Strip and gawking at the usual nonsense there:

Eating at a variety of great restaurants, most especially our second visit to Sparrow + Wolf, where we had also done Katelin and John’s wedding dinner last year. I cannot speak highly enough about the quality of the dining experience there. Should you visit Las Vegas, it is well worth your while to leave the Strip to dine there. I recommend that you ask your server to curate a meal for your table, as we’ve done both times we were there. Plentiful food, arriving at a proper cadence, interesting varieties and tastes and flavors and aromas, all of the highest quality. It’s world class, at bottom line. We also had lunch on the Strip one day, at The Venetian, one of me and Marcia’s favorite Las Vegas casino areas to ramble and roam:

We then played the KISS Miniature Golf Course at the Rio Casino. It was big, dumb fun, just like the band:

For outdoors fun, we did an exceptional hike at Lovell Canyon, just to the west of Las Vegas in the Spring Mountains. Obviously the tacky Strip elements of Las Vegas are what draw the greatest percentage of tourism traffic, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note just how amazing many of the natural regions around Sin City are, if you’re willing to strap on your boots and do a bit of mudding and scrambling and climbing and rambling:

And finally, we went to see the West Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Championship game, pitting National #1 Gonzaga against National #19 St. Mary’s. The Zags won by 13 points, but for most of the game, before a final scoring explosion, it was much closer than that, and a good example of college hoops played at the highest level. Of course, because we can’t have nice things, we ended up with an absolute idiot sitting and screaming (and drinking and drinking) behind us on behalf of her Gonzaga team, when she wasn’t coughing up various organs due to the smoker’s hack that made her voice even more finger-nails-on-blackboard than it would have been otherwise. The meanness of her spew was really dismaying, especially when directed toward a group of college-aged kids (big kids, yeah, some of them soon to be rich, big kids, but still). I totally get the student bodies at college basketball games engaging in various ritual chants and activities, but I’m always somewhat surprised and mostly appalled when adults, in this case even older than me, feel compelled to yell in a nasty fashion at kids at sporting events in ways that would get them locked up or punched if they did it on the street. She was an awful human being, at bottom line, and she marred what would have been quite a nice evening otherwise. That annoyance aside, we did have good seats, and we got a great view of a great game, even if we all ended up rooting for (losing) St. Mary’s just to spite the human garbage sitting behind us:

4. After the game, we walked over to the adjacent casino (everything in Las Vegas has an adjacent casino) and put bets down on the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Last summer, we had placed pre-season bets on Houston and Michigan State to win the Men’s Basketball Championship. We added new bets for Gonzaga and Southern California. I also turned $35 into $240 on a poker machine. Not a bad night, compared to most of my other casino experiences.

5. A few posts back, I enthused about a new EP from the brilliant Buggy Jive, one of my all-time favorite songwriters and musical artists. Buggy also makes incredibly brilliant videos, and I’m pleased to report that he’s recently added a new one to his catalog with this tune from I Don’t Understand How the World Works:

Words in the Distance

1. My civic duty as a juror continues. Two weeks down, hopefully one more week to go. I can’t say much more than that here, now, but will advise and report further once the whole thing’s run its course.

2. I’ve written at length over the years here about my love for King Crimson. Related to that: the general consensus is that the recently-concluded Crimson tour is the end of the road for the group as a live entity. Also, general consensus is that their song “Starless” is one of their best and most emblematic songs ever. Marcia and I have seen the current (final?) version of Crimson three times, and “Starless” is one of only a few songs that they played at every show. The official King Crimson website posted an update this week titled “The Last Starless,” a pro-shot video from the last show of the last tour in Japan. It’s outstanding, it seems to affirm that this is the end of the road, and I most heartily recommend it to you:

3. I’m saddened, horrified, annoyed, and appalled by the news associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, and I wish Vladimir Putin as much karmic ill will as I can muster. But as a trained political scientist, I’ve also been irritated by some of the major media coverage I’ve read about the historical basis for this current invasion, and about the cultural and political relationships between the Russians and the Ukrainians. (Never mind the narrative that finds a majority of members of the modern Republican Party having a higher opinion of Putin than they have of our own President, ugh!) Whenever matters of Russian import emerge online or in conversation, I routinely cite one of the very best books that I’ve ever read on that topic, so today seems to be a good day to share that recommendation again, for Nicholas Riasonovsky’s A History of Russia. The version I have was written before the fall of the Soviet Union, so it’s not a valuable resource in terms of understanding the latest era(s), but it’s utterly brilliant in terms of explaining and documenting the deep, long, potent, and (to American eyes and minds) weird history of the people who “emerged from the Pripet Marshes,” and who first made their mark on a continental scene as a nation known as Kievan Rus. That history certainly does not justify Putin over-turning nearly eight decades’ worth of continental stability, but I think it does explain why he thinks that his current actions make sense through the lens of deep history.

4. Speaking of history, after waiting for a few last images and photo clearances, I uploaded to the publisher’s site the final manuscript and supporting files for the book I’ve been working on for the past year, along with my collaborator, Jim McNeal.  Very satisfying to see it fly away through the ether. We’ll have to review and edit the type-set layout when it’s ready, and I’ll have to prepare an index once the final pagination is complete, but after that, it’s just a matter of meeting production and publishing schedules before it’s ready to land in your hands, should you be interested in it. I will advise further here when I have news. Because of course I will.

5. During my drive home from jury duty yesterday (63 miles from my home per item #2 here, bleh!), my iPod randomizer queued up the songs “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After, followed by “Hocus Pocus (Reprise)” (Live) by Focus. It occurred to me that I first heard both of those songs when I checked out their source albums (Cricklewood Green and At the Rainbow, respectively) from the lending library at Nassau Community College on Long Island’s Mitchel Field, sometime in the late 1970s. And that got me to thinking what a deeply important resource that was to me between 1976 and 1980, when I was still in middle/high school, but because of my base residency, had access to the college’s stacks and shelves. I first borrowed and read The Gormenghast Trilogy there, along with a variety of other seminal tomes in my intellectual development. I would generally go to the magazine room at least once a week to read the latest Billboard or Rolling Stone editions, getting tuned into what was happening in real time in the music world, beyond what I could readily access via local record stores and trips into New York City at the height of the CBGB era. So many things that still mean so much to me today first crossed my horizons via my many visits to that great lending library. And, therefore, to wrap up this post, I share a “Five Songs You Need to Hear” sequence, celebrating representative cuts from a quintet of albums that all appear of my Top 200 Albums of All Time list, and which I first heard courtesy of the librarians at Nassau Community College.

“50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After

“Hocus Pocus (Reprise),” by Focus

“Bitches Crystal,” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

“I Just Want to See His Face,” by The Rolling Stones

“African Night Flight,” by David Bowie

Something or Nothing

1. As if all the whithering here wasn’t bad enough in terms of website productivity, my free writing time has been dramatically curtailed after I was seated on a jury earlier this week. I can’t say anything about that situation other than (1) I’m on a jury, and (2) I’m likely to be on a jury until March 4th. So if I’m slower than usual to reply to anything sent my way, here or elsewhere, that’s likely why.

2. Some years back, I wrote a piece here called A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley. The gist of the narrative was that my then-home State of Iowa had way too many counties (99) given its population and its geographic size, and that since county seats don’t need to be closer than one day’s ride (round trip) by horseback in these our modern times, culling that unruly map would be a great boon to the State. Reader and cartographer Liz Cruz actually took me up on my request to draw a more sensible map, and I shared her brilliant work here. Tragically, Iowa’s elected leaders have not acted on her sound recommendation. I guess that’s understandable, given how busy they’ve been in recent years empowering authoritarians and dehumanizing meat-plant workers and poisoning the drinking water and trying to make people sick in the name of freedoms and liberties and such. That’s hard work, for sure!

Anyway, I bring this up today because, interestingly enough, I now find myself living in the State of Arizona, which has exactly the opposite problem. Among the Lower 48 States (and excluding the District of Columbia), Arizona is the fifth largest state by area and the 14th largest state by population. But we have only 15 counties! That gives us the highest average county area in the Lower 48, by a long-shot, and the third highest average county population (trailing only California and Massachusetts). My jury duty highlights the challenges this creates: I have a 63 mile one-way drive every day to my county seat. Others in other parts of the state likely have even longer drives. My initial reaction to that situation was to say “A-ha! Time for Another Modest Proposal: Double the Full Goldwater!” But then I read about this immodest and immoral proposal, this week, in the real world. Which makes it clear that such county subdivisions in Arizona would be used to advance partisan electoral outcomes via carefully gerrymandering county lines, and that those currently empowered to enact such proposals would do so to advance mostly loathsome (to me) social and political objectives. So I guess in this case, I just conclude “It is what it is,” suck it up, and drive a long way to do county business, thankful that I don’t have to use a horse.

3. I have had an interesting view on my way to jury duty over the past two mornings, with a nearly full moon setting by daylight right over the roadway before me. Phone cameras do terrible jobs of capturing the moon, as most know from frustrated experience, but this is the general gist of the view, as best I could capture it . . . it’s quite mesmerizing in real time . . .

4. And then, what’s this?

The blue binder at the bottom of the pile is the complete manuscript of the book I’ve been writing with a collaborator over the past year. We are awaiting one additional photo, and I expect to be able to upload all of the materials to the publisher this weekend for editing, type-setting and layout. Exciting! The two black folders are two other book length manuscripts that I’ve written over recent years, one short fiction, one a philosophical treatise. Once the current book flies away (and jury duty ends), I’m going to get to work on trying to place those other two pieces with a publisher. If anyone has any good leads on publishing houses or creative representation, you know where to holla, even if I’m slow to respond due to my duly-sworn duties as a law-abiding citizen of my County, State and Nation.

5. I wrote an obituary for Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher) a couple of months back after his untimely death from cancer. Just after he flew away from us, a tremendous career-spanning compilation of his work called Dr Cholmondely Repents came out, and it was a bittersweet joy to hear so many great singles and B-sides and “seasides” (as he dubbed the deeper cuts) from years long gone. Last week, the Butcher’s final studio efforts were released as a new album called The Highest in the Land. It is also a bittersweet joy, a lovely collection of songs played and sung well by Butch and a crew of long-time collaborators, most notably the great Max Eider. I highly recommend the new studio disc and the career-spanning retrospective for your consideration. There’s brilliance there, by the bucketfuls.

Anno Virum: One Year On

A year ago today, Marcia and I were fleeing the Iowa cold and staying in a rental tiny house in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida. The weather was nice, the tiny house was quaint and charming, and it all looked like this, had you been peeking in on us (click the image of our cottage for the photo album of the trip):

In pretty much any year other than 2020, my blog posts for March 14 would have noted this as a nice vacation, and maybe would have detailed some of our hikes, or explorations, or adventures. But March 14, 2020 was not a normal day on a normal trip in a normal year, so what I actually wrote about one year ago today was a bit different from my usual trip reports, and you can read (or re-read) it here if you’re interested: Florida Man (And Woman).

That was the first day that I wrote at any length on this blog about the COVID pandemic and the ways that it was impacting our lives. During a walk a couple of days ago, Marcia noted that she had recently read a New York Times article in which readers were asked when they realized that COVID was for real, and was going to change their lives, perhaps for a long, long time. If I had to answer that question, I’d certainly refer back to that Tampa Bay trip, and if there was one specific moment for me when my brain went “Whoaaaaaaa . . . . dude . . . . braj . . . . WTF, yo???” about the exploding pandemic, it would have been when the NCAA cancelled the “March Madness” Men’s Basketball Tournament, which happened while we were in Florida. Sports and money are kings in American culture, and the loss of one of the greatest annual events in our national sports economy truly hammered home that this was, no shit, for reals, massive, and scary, and bad. (Yeah, I know, that’s probably a shallow answer, but it’s honest).

Marcia’s answer to the question of “When did you know this was going to be bad?” was a bit different than mine, and took place a few days later. By the time we had to fly back from Tampa to Des Moines, things had clearly taken a turn for the worse, and maybe for the worst. When we boarded and were seating on our flight home, a woman sat down directly in front of us, wearing a mask (which most people were not doing), but just absolutely hacking and heaving and snorting and wheezing and oozing and spewing to beat the band, the whole way home. If she had the virus, then there was no doubt in our minds that we now did, too. So we got home, unpacked, and I masked up and headed off to the grocery store to get a couple of weeks worth of provisions, completely at odds with our normal “go to the store every day, get what you need right now” approach to shopping. I got home, we unpacked my (many bags), and we went into a two-week period of hard quarantine, which was difficult and sad, since Katelin and John lived in the next building over, and we knew we could not, should not, would not see them, until we had some sense that we and they were not actively contagious.

Of all the places in which Marcia and I have shared our home in our 35-ish years together, I would honestly say that our apartment in Des Moines, Iowa, in March 2020 was, without question, the worst possible place we could have lived when things were going to hell in a hand-basket with regard to a global pandemic. The city’s response and the state’s response were beyond terrible (and, for the most part, have remained so for the past year), and we were surrounded with mostly younger folks who on some plane seemed to embrace the “Boomer Remover” view of COVID, and refused to wear masks, and refused to give people space, and refused to stop congregating in our apartment complex’s common spaces. We older folk just had to skulk about and try to avoid and ignore them and their selfish and entitled behavior patterns.

Given that background, simple tasks like taking the trash down to the dumpster each night began to feel like exercises in risk management. It was always hard to make it from our safe haven to the trash bins or the mail boxes or the rental office, and then quickly back home, without encountering some blithering idiot(s) prancing down our hallways, unmasked, oblivious to any responsibility for protecting themselves, or us, in such a communal living situation. No surprise that we had multiple outbreaks in our apartment building, and in Katelin and John’s next-door apartment building in the weeks and months ahead, as Iowa’s leaders did their very damnedest to top the national charts in terms of per capita infections and deaths. I guess the State government should be thankful on some plane that the Dakotas were even more obscene in their disregard for the lives and health of their citizens, so Iowa never managed to get higher than third place on any of the “We Are The Most Irresponsible State in the Nation” metrics and rubrics. But even that bronze award status felt awful when we were living in the middle of it, and that sense of governance irresponsibility played a direct role in our decisions to leave Iowa, and our emotional responses (Very Happy!) when we drove out of it for the last time. Ugh.

And, then, here we are, one year on. More than half-a-million of our fellow citizens are dead, and 30 million country-folks have been confirmed to have been sickened by the virus, with outcomes ranging from the moderate and mild to the catastrophic and life-altering. Tens of millions of other have certainly been sickened, in many cases with likely long-term ramifications, even if they never managed to make it to a doctor’s office or pharmacy to get an actual test result.

Some large portion of those infections and deaths must objectively be attributed to inept and science-denying policy and practice by the prior Presidential administration and State governments which aligned themselves with said idiocy, that lunatic cabal somehow managing to make basic protective steps (e.g. mask-wearing) into Culture War battlegrounds where libs could be pwned, which is what really matters in the end game, right? (A: No. And if you thought “Yes” when presented with that question, then you might need to find another website to read. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out).

It’s been nice(r) over the past couple of months to have a Federal administration that acknowledges fact-based analysis, and values human life and dignity above grift and profiteering and idiot media sensationalism. Marcia and I are hopeful that we will be able to get our vaccines in the next month or so, and that with that step completed, we can finally, gently, slowly, hopefully begin to look toward the “After Times,” when we can shop, and travel, and live without constant fear of infection when we’re in public places. We certainly count ourselves as fortunate in how the past year has impacted us and our families, primarily because we’ve not lost anybody close, even though we’ve had several family members sickened by the virus. That’s getting off easy, and we know it. We grieve for those who were not so lucky. And we truly thank those who have put themselves in harm’s way over the past year to keep so many of us alive, if not exactly safe or healthy.

I’m not quite sure when Post Anno Virum will begin, but I look forward to it, both selfishly and selflessly. It’s been a long year. And a strange and sad one. I don’t think that the “new normal” will ever quite look and feel like the “old normal” did, but I’m ready to experience it, however it manifests, sooner rather than later.

By September 2020, this seemed like a perfectly normal and reasonable look for an out-and-about experience. We adapt, we surely do.

Flag of Convenience

I was raised in a military household and went on to serve in the Navy myself, the latest in a long line of veterans easily documented back to Revolutionary War times, and likely before. One facet of this upbringing was being properly trained, very early on, in Flag Etiquette and the U.S. Flag Code. I know how to fold a flag, how to hang a flag (and when to do so, equally importantly), how to treat a flag, how to dispose of a flag, and how to respect a flag. Those rules were just sort of ambient background to the way I was raised, and to the ways my peers were raised around me. I followed, and follow, those rules, because they’re the rules.

While living on various military bases around the country over my formative years, the end of the duty day was usually marked by the retreat bugle call being broadcast over the base public announcement system, and even as little kids and surly teenagers, when we were outdoors and heard this, we stopped what we were doing, faced the closest flag (or the source of the music) in a posture of respect, and were quiet and still until the bugle call was complete. Not a big deal. Not a burden. Just something we did. As an adult, I’ve never chosen to hang or display a flag on my own property, in large part because I would feel an obligation to follow all of the rules, every day, associated with raising, caring for, lowering and disposing of said flag, and the benefits I would have received from flying said flag would not outweigh the costs associated with its respectful maintenance. That said, I still have my grandfather’s memorial flag, and my mother has my father’s memorial flag, both properly folded with cartridges tucked within from the rifle rounds fired at their funerals. They’re fitting mementos.

So, yes, the American flag can certainly be a powerful public symbol and statement, but for me, personally, it’s also simply the objectification of some basic rules and rituals for doing certain things, and for not doing certain other things. Those rules and rituals are deeply embedded and imprinted in my mental and emotional coding, by virtue of my upbringing. As an adult, I react to the use and misuse of the flag at a nearly subconscious level accordingly, emotionally responding in set and predictable ways, even if I don’t intellectually process those responses, or even if they don’t really make sense within my adult life and worldview. They’re hard-wired into my operating system. Another example of that type of hard-wiring has to do with the Christian rules under which my childhood household was strictly governed, where taking the LORD’s name in vain was a deep affront that would elicit a sharp negative response from the adults around me. Because of this, I have stronger emotional reactions (but not logical ones) to someone shrieking “Oh My GAWWWWDDDD!!!” around me today than I do to someone dropping an F-Bomb or other stronger profanity. Doesn’t make sense, I know. But that’s how I’m built.

My gut reactions to improper displays or uses of the American flag tend to be equivalent in cases of both intentional and ignorant abuse of the object. It’s annoying to me to see an improperly hung flag at some sporting, political, or cultural event, or to see a flag flapping, unlit, at night, in the rain. It’s also annoying to me to see people trying to make statements or elicit responses by overt desecration of a flag, e.g. burning one in public. I’m certainly not in favor of a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution criminalizing that act, but I’d still prefer that people not do it. There’s a powerful scene in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength where the novel’s nominal protagonist is asked to stomp on and curse at an image of Jesus on the cross to demonstrate his absolute objectivity to the rationalist cabal that employs him. He refuses to do so, not out of any belief in what the Crucifix actually means, but because the act seems childish, pointless, petulant and unimaginative, a physical punishment of an inanimate object. That’s how I feel about people who burn flags. It’s a lazy way to make a statement. There are many more powerful, creative, and impactful ways to express protest than that. I’d choose those.

For most of my life, these responses and feelings have been essentially value-neutral. It wasn’t like the Republican kids on the military bases where I was raised stopped playing when the retreat bugle call was sounded, while the Democratic kids romped on. It wasn’t about civilians vs military, nor North vs South, nor rural vs urban, nor white vs black, nor any other sort of dichotomy. One can certainly question the weird cultural veneration we have for our flag (I know many of my European friends find it bizarre that we ask our children to pledge allegiance to the flag, before they pledge allegiance to the Republic for which it stands), but the symbol always seemed to me to reasonably represent us all, and my default sense was that most people felt that way, if they actually ever bothered to think about it.

(Note well: In all cases here, I’m speaking about the flying of our flag on our own national soil. I certainly understand and appreciate that folks abroad will have understandably different and valid thoughts, feelings and reactions to seeing it flown on theirs. I also note and understand that my feelings and experiences with regard to flag iconography are based on being an economically-secure white male in a country that skews temperamentally toward patriarchy, income inequity, and white supremacy, so others’ mileage may certainly vary on this particular hot take).

I’m writing this post today, after thinking about the topic for a while, because that long-time sense of value-neutrality (subject to the previous paragraph’s caveats) associated with the American flag being displayed in domestic spaces has changed dramatically for me in recent years. That evolution has seemed most pronounced through the last couple of Presidential election cycles and their aftermaths. It has been fueled and stoked by the right-wing traditional and social media’s forceful and unilateral appropriation of our national symbols to represent their values and interests, and only their values and interests. I wish it weren’t the case, but when I’m out driving around and a pick-up truck passes me with four American flags flapping on posts jammed into the corners of its hauling bed, I know exactly what party that driver votes for, and what ex-President he or she is likely a fan of.

For the extreme right-wing and its various mouthpieces, over-use of the American flag has become a key tool to publicly demonstrating that they are somehow more American than all the other Americans, of whom they disapprove. This bothers me on a variety of planes, perhaps most especially related to the fact that I once took an oath and actually served the country the flag represents, for better or for worse, while many of those who hug the flag closest today never made such a commitment, and yet question my patriotism because I don’t share their political views. The right-wing does not own the historical imagery and iconography of our Nation, as much as many of their loudest voices want to claim said rights, and punish and pummel those who do not perceive and use them in similar fashions.

But even beyond that point, here’s the key rub to me: the loudest factions of the right-wing have appropriated the American flag for their own purposes, but very, very few of them seem to have bothered to understand the proper ways in which said object and symbol are to be displayed and respected. In claiming their deep, abiding and “patriotic” love for the flag, they routinely debase and desecrate it, in how they fly it, where they fly it, when they fly it, how they use it, and (most offensively) how they modify it. Putting Donald Trump’s name or likeness on an American flag? That’s desecration. The “blue lives matter” flag? Regardless of how you feel about the police and your support thereof, that’s desecration. Carrying and flying the American flag as a co-equal standard to a Trump flag, or a “Don’t Tread of Me” flag, or (worst of all) a Confederate flag? That’s desecration. Using an American flag still on its staff to beat and bludgeon police officers in the United States Capitol? Desecration. And insurrection.

In our modern culture wars and the political frays that define them, I know that the issue of flags is certainly nowhere near the top of the heap in terms of its meaning and impact. But in the same ways that people burning flags for attention are making lazy and offensive statements, people waving, wearing, or displaying flags for attention in incorrect and improper fashions are making equally lazy and offensive statements, with some little extra dollops of ignorance and hypocrisy tossed in for good measure.

So how has it come to pass that the people who make the most histrionic public statements and displays of adoration and admiration for the American flag seem incapable of properly presenting and caring for it? Anecdotally, I’d note that the modern American far right-wing just seems to love its flags in general, while the left-wing tends to prefer bumper stickers and placards and signs. I’d like to see a cultural study on if and why that’s actually the case. I believe it contributes to the right’s lack of respect for the American flag because many of those folks just see that one flag as part of their set of multiple flags, each one making a statement, all of those statements seen as equal in value and heft. And the cynic in me also believes that the right-wing is better at the grift and greed aspects of things than the left-wing is, and there’s more money to be made in flags than there is in bumper stickers, so that’s what they push, and that’s what they pimp, and their market eats it up, yum.

Given how I was raised, I find it sad to reach a point where my basic and immediate reaction to seeing American flags being prominently flown on private property (homes, barns, vehicles, boats, etc.) is to presume the flag-waver’s intent is one that I don’t like, or that I disagree with. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. And having put that out there, I don’t really have a conclusion or a recommendation with which to end this post, other than to observe the current state of affairs, state my personal reactions thereto, and wish that the adults around me would be as respectful of the American flag as I was taught and expected to be as a child. It’s not hard, really. Especially if you actually believe in the tenets and concepts that the flag represents, rather than just considering it as a weaponized asset in your efforts to proudly own the libs.

Proper display of the flag? Click the link, and you can be the judge.

21 Wishes for ’21

Pete Townsend’s song “1921” from The Who’s epic Tommy album opens with the line “I’ve got a feeling ’21 is going to be a good year.” I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard or seen many music media folks mention or riff on that fact, given how awful ’20 has been, and given humanity’s generally hopeful nature. Of course, given that the rest of the song details a murder witnessed by a child who is rendered deaf, dumb and blind by that emotional trauma, maybe it’s not the best anthem for our Second Anno Virum. Though I suppose there are likely some accurate metaphors in that narrative for what 2021 may bring, if it doesn’t turn out to be as good as we might feel and wish it may be.

I tend to function within a worldview built on pessimism, because pessimists are never disappointed. But while I expect things to be rotten much of the time on a macro basis, I do believe in the importance of acting optimistically and positively on a personal front, making changes for the better within the circles of my own influence, limited as they may be. I also believe in the importance of hope, seeing a future within which big things and little things align and fall into place in pleasing fashions, for me, for those close to me, for those less fortunate than me, and for those in positions of power with the ability to legislate, litigate, create, govern, mediate and manage actions and activities that create social and civic good for the greatest number of people.

So on the cusp of that conflicted personal dialectic, there are some big picture things I’d like to see happen in the twelve months before us, and some specific things that would give me particular pleasure, should they come to pass. I’m not generally much of a prognosticator and futurist, but as a first post here on the blog in the new year, I’m moved to offer the following 21 wishes for ’21. That may be a greedy number, but hey, we all likely under-performed on our wish lists for ’20, so I think we’re entitled to swing big at the plate this time around. I’ll circle back in December and we’ll see how I did. And I’ll welcome your own wish lists, if you choose to share them. That’s what the comment section is for, yo.

1. The obvious one first: that everyone near and dear to me remains happy, healthy, and hearty, hopefully as we’re able to come out of our COVID shells and gather again to mark important events, little victories, and whatever other excuses we can muster for hugs, love and laughs.

2. That the Democratic Party candidates win the two special Senate elections in Georgia, giving our new President the opportunity to govern effectively, even if just for two years. That will be such a refreshing change of pace.

3. That any and all of the traitorous creeps who vote to overturn the results of the Electoral College this week, facilitating and/or placating an authoritarian clown in the process, are somehow held accountable for their malfeasance. This year would be fine for that, but if it takes longer in this case, that’s okay too. Patience is a virtue when it comes to grudges and vindication.

4. That the new administration is able to quickly deploy skilled professionals in non-political ways to address the virus, quickly, thoroughly, with scientific rigor and military precision on the logistics front of vaccinations and protective measures. Let’s have the grownups handle this for a year, and get the partisan amateurs out of the way. Please.

5. That having a smart career public servant in the White House, instead of a dim-bulb reality television celebrity, will reduce the volume of “news as entertainment” noise that has made the words we read and the air we breathe (metaphorically speaking) so very noxious for the past four years. I’m ready to be bored by my elected leaders again. Seriously. When I worked at Naval Reactors, we used to say that our public relations policy was “Put the sum’bitches in and don’t talk about it.” I’d like that approach to governance. Do the jobs you were elected or appointed to do. Do them well. And don’t freakin’ tweet about them all the goddamn time.

6. That Butthole Surfers release a new album this year. My long-time favorite band were reportedly back in the studio in 2018 for the first time in decades, but since then, it’s been radio silence. Let’s get that new rekkid out, Gibby, Paul, King and Jeffrey. We need it. Pass me some of that dumbass over there, yeah buddy!

7. That First Cow, Da Five Bloods, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Soul win all the major Oscars for 2020, whenever the Academy gets around to awarding them.

8. That the overdue new films from Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch) and Taika Waititi (Next Goal Wins) are as good as those they made before them, becoming early clear contenders for the next year’s Oscars.

9. That film studios and distributors recognize that the quick streaming markets that emerged from necessity during COVID time are a perfectly fine new normal, as I’ve been happier watching films at home as I ever have been going to theaters to see them. I’ve also watched more movies this year than I normally do, in large part because they were readily available, and the cost was lower. There’s a good supply-demand lesson in there somewhere, greedheads.

10. That I get to see at least one live music event in 2021. Ideally featuring King Crimson, Napalm Death, or The Who. (The last show we saw pre-COVID was the Crim, and we had tickets for Napalm and The Who in hand in 2020, only to see the shows cancelled).

11. That the Super Bowl is played between Tampa Bay and Baltimore, as we made preseason bets in Las Vegas on those two teams. It’s nice to know you’re a winner, no matter which team wins. Absent that impetus, I’m down for the Chiefs to take it all again. Otherwise, mostly meh.

12. That the NCAA learns from the COVID year that academics are more important than athletics in the grand scheme of things, perhaps shortening seasons on a permanent basis and otherwise allowing unpaid student athletes to supplement their educations with sports, and not the other way around.

13. That international travel becomes safe again. As much as I love our new home in Arizona, I’d gladly welcome 2022 in Europe.

14. That our local internet provider delivers promised system upgrades in the months ahead, as this small town rural network was not built for students and workers doing all-day video calls from home. Slooooooooooowwwwwww . . . .

15. That my Naval Academy class is able to mark our 35th reunion in person this year. Whether I’m there or not, it’s an important part of our collective culture. Our 15th was largely undone as it fell immediately after 9/11. It’d be nice to not lose another major one two decades later.

16. That the charitable sector bounces back in 2021; it’s bothersome to see corporate stock levels (and related IRA’s and 401k’s and such) maintaining robust balances through the plague, while giving to nonprofits evaporated.

17. That Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are disemboweled and disempowered, removing a vast source of malefic and ugly social evil from our ever-more-connected world. Oh, what the heck, let’s try to get rid of FOX News this year too, while we’re at it. Imagine an information spectrum where truth and facts prevailed, neutrally. Glory be! Such larks! (Yeah, I know, this one’s probably the biggest fantasia on the list).

18. That we’re able to do some sort of endurance physical event this year, like a hike/camp trip into the Grand Canyon, or a multi-day walkabout pilgrimage, or a long bike trek. It’s good physically, mentally, and spiritually to have days on end dedicated to exerting the body, without constant connection to the world beyond one’s next foot-fall.

19. That Thoughts on the Dead keeps on keeping on, despite his formidable recent health challenges. He makes the world a brighter, smarter, and much funnier place. Every day he posts is a little better than every day when he doesn’t.

20. That I’m able to hike every formally marked trail within 20 miles of our house (that’s a lot of trails), and that I’m able to find and explore every unmarked “social trail” that’s hidden between the official bits. Some of the best things I’ve found here have been on paths known only to the locals. I’m doing my part to be one of them on that front.

21. That we’re able to occasionally dine out, indoors. I’ve gotten used to picnics and carryout and masked patio food, but I’d be okay with celebrating some important event or another over white linen and good china in 2021, and there’s loads of interesting places hereabouts that we’ve not felt comfortable entering. Yet. But we will. Hopefully this year. Hopefully hopefully hopefully . . .

Mysterious abandoned dam on a “social trail” less than half a mile from our house. What other coolness awaits on the unmarked and unheralded spaces between the spaces here? We’ll soon find out, hopefully . . .