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 . . .

A Special Election Selection

So here we are, on the Big, Big Day. Marcia and I cast our votes in Iowa, which technically remains our home state as we’re in a rental transition period in Arizona for the month, and could not have confidently registered to vote here. Both states are potential squeakers, so we figure we’re helping Team Tiny Blue Isle either way.

We know it’s going to be a stressful, painful day. Or more likely days. Or weeks. So much at stake, and so many incredible structural challenges to the spirit and the letter of the laws of the land. When a major party’s campaign tactics are based on disenfranchisement, intimidation and outright cheating, you know something’s bad wrong. And when there’s a high probability that such tactics may be successful in some states or precincts, it raises the wrongness levels to intolerable proportions.

So we’ll be working to distract ourselves for much of the day, rather than getting sucked into the soul-destroying morass of sensational media coverage of horse-race outliers and the flat-out stupidity of political social media. We’ll get a nice hike in, work a bit, maybe read some, have a nice dinner, and keep the music playing instead of the news while we’re around the house, at least until the meaningful reportage begins later tonight.

On that music front, if you need something to distract you from the details of the day, while hewing to what we’re up to as a nation thematically, I offer a special selection of election songs below to prime your jukebox. Some of the themes and lyrics of this baker’s dozen pile of tunes are explicit, some perhaps more subtle, but the rationale behind my choices should be evident, I think. Should be an hour or so of music. Load ’em up on your portable playlist machine and maybe they’ll keep you rocking and bopping while you stand in line (safely, distantly, masked, please) at your polling place. Hopefully you don’t have to repeat the list too many times while you wait . . .

#1. Alice Cooper, “Elected”

#2. The Specials, “Vote For Me”

#3. Clutch, “How To Shake Hands”

#4. Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Put It In The Hands of Fate”

#5. The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion”

#6. The The, “This Is The Day”

#7. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

#8. Culture, “Election”

#9. Sha Na Na, “The Vote Song”

#10. Canned Heat, “Election Blues”

#11. The Move, “Vote For Me”

#12. Cream, “Politician”

#13. The Spooky Men’s Chorale, “Vote The Bastards Out”

Done My Part

Marcia and I ordered our absentee ballots as soon as we were able, received them in reasonably prompt fashion after they were mailed out, filled them in, and hand-carried them to our county auditor’s office last Friday. We received the postcard confirmations posted above today, but had already checked on the status of our ballots online, so knew they had been processed. We want to make sure our votes are counted, for sure.

There’s just so very much at stake this year. It makes my heart hurt and my head throb and my soul shudder when I consider it too hard, too long. Please LORD, Buddha, FSM, Allah, Cthulhu, Shiva, Ahura Mazda, Zeus, Karora, and all of your other unseen and unseeable allies, let this horrific era of grift, crime and hatred end soon. And without bloodshed. Amen.

I hope you’ve either done your part in the process already, or have an active plan for doing so — even as I recognize that your paths might be blocked or hidden by people whose primary approach to their own empowerment is through disenfranchising and discouraging others from freely and fairly participating in the electoral process. It’ll be worth the fight if enough of us turn out to overwhelm the cheating and chicanery. Get it done, as soon and as safely as you can, please please please!

(Note: You can click on the image above for information on the voting paths available to you in your own place and State, if you need such a resource).

Mask Music

It has been an annoying week in Iowa since Marcia and I returned from our wonderful trip to Minnesota. The weather has been mostly disgusting, with hot winds and high humidity making our daily walks a sweaty slog. Our Governor and junior Senator were among the cast of clowns dancing in center ring at the Von Trump Family Circus, both of them spewing the half-truths and nonsense required as acts of fealty to their ignorant overlord. Diligent and persistent community watchdogs pressed the state to admit that it has been miscalculating, doctoring and/or misrepresenting our COVID case numbers. (I’d long been observing that Iowa’s official outcomes and trends seemed improbable compared to neighboring states and other states of similar sizes, so this did not surprise me). Once adjustments were made, Iowa immediately moved into the number one national position of new case incidence by state over the past seven days.

Which also isn’t really surprising, given our proximity to several major access highways for the Sturgis Coronapalooza, the fact that we are in the bottom ten states in the nation for mask usage, and in the bottom three for social distancing. Which I experience every freaking day in our apartment building, where I swear that Marcia and I are the only people I see who conscientiously wear masks whenever we step out of our unit. Polk County (where we live) leads the state in case load, about three times higher than the second-placed county, and over 50% of cases reported are in the 18-40 year old demographic, which overwhelmingly defines the East Village neighborhood where we live. To give credit where it’s due, the Mayor of Des Moines did issue a mask mandate this week, which I appreciate, though I haven’t seen any changes to the behaviors among our neighbors. On the flip-side, after returning home from her circus performance, our Governor made a relatively short-term proclamation closing bars and making other minor concessions in only six of Iowa’s 99 counties, but still refused to make masks mandatory, because freedoms and liberties.

It’s just exhausting and sad, at bottom line. And it’s lethal. If the Governor would impose a mandatory State-wide mask requirement, and people would abide by it, the projection for cumulative COVID deaths in Iowa by December 1 would be about 1,900. (We’re at about 1,100 deaths now, officially, though I believe the state is fiddling with the reports there, too). If things just continue as they are in terms of required protective measures now, then that cumulative death prediction rises to about 3,100. And if the limited restrictions in place are lifted or reduced (which the state has done every time it has the chance to do so), then the death count is forecast to rise to 4,700. So we’re looking at a situation where our elected officials have been and will (likely) be making policy decisions that will result in killing a couple of thousand Iowans, for no lucid or cogent reason beyond currying political favor with racist rich people, most of whom don’t live here, and who don’t believe in science and social justice. Ugh! Marcia and I are (safely, distantly) counting the days until our next out-of-State trips, and until October 22, 2020, when our household goods will be packed and picked up and we will leave Iowa for good. It’s been a nice run here since we first arrived in 2011, positive for a variety of reasons at different times, but at this point, enough is enough. Stick an ethanol-subsidy-powered fork in us. We’re done.

I don’t normally rant like this here on Ye Olde Blog, but I put all of that forward just to give you a sense of my head-space as I was out driving between errands this morning, and this song queued up on the car stereo:

It’s a beautiful song by a favorite artist. Like most great art, its complexity and layers of meaning made me feel better and worse at the same time while it spun, and in the quiet afterward. The lyrics are adapted from the poem of the same title, by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The author wasn’t writing about protecting himself and his neighbors from infection, but rather about the experience of being Black in America in the post-Civil War years, and the ways in which people are forced to wear happy and harmless masks to cover their real faces, which may be wrenched in suffering and pain by their own circumstances, internal and external. So it works on many levels today, with pandemic and institutional racism vying for top-billing in the Nation’s news feeds, between the steady stream of malformed blurts that our Grifter-in-Chief barfs upon us throughout his waking hours, with no mask worn (and none strong enough anyway) to filter the infectious virality of his awful words and sentiments.

Me being me, listening to “We Wear The Mask” got me to thinking about what other mask-related songs might be found in my collection, and whether they carry explicit or implicit resonance with the spirits of our age, malign, benign and/or sublime. I came up with the following playlist about masks, veils, and other face coverings, literal and figurative. Maybe if I crank it off of my apartment balcony it might subliminally inspire my oblivious neighbors to cover their faces before they go bumbling into the hallways which we all share. Probably not, though. I guess I’ll just have to enjoy it here in my home office. Do you have some other good recommended mask songs for me to add to the mix?

Update: The Full Grassley Reimagined

Iowans love a lot of weird things. Food on a stick, for example. Or bacon, Maytag Blue Cheese, de Burgo sauce, and/or La Quercia prosciutto being included in staple dishes that absolutely do not warrant or require them. Iowans love humble-bragging about how modest and friendly they are. The most modest and friendly, in fact. And by golly, they’ve got the stats to prove it. Though they’re too modest and friendly to rub your noses in them. Much. Daytime drinking is also quite well-loved in Iowa, as are unique regional wines and cocktails. The fetishes about the two major state universities’ sports teams are mind-boggling and absurd in their intensity and frequency of expression, and I say that as someone raised in the sports-mad Cocks vs Tigers and Heels vs Pack parts of the country. (There are some other unique sporting events hereabouts too). Pork tenderloin sandwiches, Federal subsidies, caucus miscounts, and biking while blasting boomboxes (grrrr!) on the way to daytime drinking are also well-loved by Iowans.

Perhaps particularly odd among Iowa’s greatest loves are its array of tiny counties (99 of them!), and the widely-held expectation that Presidential wannabes and State-wide politicians must visit them all. Completing that circuit is known as “The Full Grassley,” after our senior citizen senior Senator’s oft-stated annual habit. I completed my own Full Grassley in 2011-2012, just because. Following that grueling exercise in road trippery, I had written a piece noting that the sizes and populations of Iowa’s counties were well out-of-line with national norms, and I made a modest proposal regarding a possible fix for that situation. In short, I deemed 17 counties to be “keepers” for a variety of reasons, and then suggested combining the other 82 into 41 to reduce governmental expense and redundancy in parts of the state where the interests and concerns of neighboring counties are virtually indistinguishable one from the other.

I re-ran that article a couple of weeks back to mark the occasion of COVID-19 completing its own Full Grassley. I ended it with this open appeal: “I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?”

I’m pleased to report today that I’ve had a taker for that request, and I love the outcome she sent me. Long-time reader Liz Cruz is also a long-time cartographer, and is married to a native Iowan, so she clearly possesses the chops and perspective to tackle the job. Here’s what she came up with (click the image for a larger PDF version of the map):

It’s an elegant and aesthetically pleasing solution to the exercise. The counties in red are the 17 that I deemed worthy of preservation as they currently stand. The other county combos are built around a mix of vertical, horizontal and diagonal pairings that effectively break up the monotonous box culture of the current map. The merged populations of the counties are also very helpful to see, as none of the newly configured counties would break into the Top Ten by population, affirming my sense that there’s a fundamental difference in that current most-populous roster (all included in the red counties) and the rest of the state. Also noteworthy: the smallest new county would have just a hair under 10,000 residents; right now there are 25 counties below that threshold.

I do note that Iowa is not completely homogeneous, and that there are subtle cultural, industrial, religious, and agricultural differences in various regions of the State, but (again) having visited all 99 of the current counties, I see none of the proposed pairings that would dramatically cross any of those regional barriers in ways that would make such pairings ineffective or inefficient. The options for new county seats are also interesting: in many of the paired counties, there’s clearly one of the two current seats of government that’s larger than the other and could effectively continue to serve its leadership role, while its sister former-seat’s municipal facilities could be used for other value-added community purposes.

Good stuff, on all levels! Thanks to Liz for taking a stab at it! I guess now I just need to convince the Governor and the State Legislature to get this done. (Iowa’s State and Federal legislative districts are not tied to county lines, meaning their own seats would not necessarily change in any ways beyond normal ten-year redistricting). So who knows a good lobbyist who doubles as a map nerd and is a fan of tilting at windmills? (The metaphorical ones, I mean. Not the ubiquitous Iowa wind turbines, that harvest the never-ending breezes hereabouts, and generate nice rental income for farmers). We’ve got a concept, we’ve got a map, we’ve got a cause, now we just need to get a political patron. I can state with certainty that this undertaking is less absurd than countless others that lobbying interests represent, in Iowa and elsewhere!

Fight The Power: Protest in Song

As I sit alone at home working at my computer tonight, public protests against institutional racism across the country continue to swell, in both size and number. It’s extremely powerful to see that energy unleashed, yet tragic to consider what motivates it. I understand and appreciate the empowerment that comes from taking to the streets on behalf of social justice causes held dear. Marcia and I marched numerous times when we lived in Chicago, in some immense gatherings of people, and it did heart and mind and soul good to know that we were not alone in our outrage at public policy and pronouncements that were hateful and loathsome to us both.

There have been recurring rallies and marches (and, alas, attendant violence likely perpetrated by those seeking to undermine the credibility of the cause) in our Des Moines neighborhood over the past week-plus, although we have largely steered clear of the crowds out of COVID-19 concerns. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not supportive of the causes in question, and willing to apply resources, thought, encouragement, time and the power of our votes on behalf of social justice and equity, here and elsewhere. Change is necessary, both structurally and politically. Hopefully the magnitude of the national gatherings communicates that clearly, convincing those in power to accede that “we’ve always done it that way” is not a viable long-term response, or forcing them from office if they’re unwilling to respond, adapt and lead.

Given who I am and what I do, I will note that one thing that I miss from being a part of that large crowd energy in person, up close and personal, is hearing the ways in which music can be deployed to educate, inspire, motivate, rally and energize. Having recently posted articles about my jazz, gospel and international listening during these our diseased days of late, Marcia suggested that I also share a playlist of my favorite protest music as a small statement of solidarity with those out on the streets today, and those cheering them on from home. Great idea! Always happy to make a list, especially a musical one!

As per my normal practice in such little projects, I did some research to frame my argument on what, exactly, defines the genre of “protest songs.” One surprising thing that emerged from my reading was that the way in which we use the word “protest” is a surprisingly modern one, per this definition from the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary (italics are mine for emphasis):

protest (n.)

c. 1400, “avowal, pledge, solemn declaration,” from Old French protest (Modern French prôtet), from preotester, and directly from Latin protestari “declare publicly, testify, protest,” from pro- “forth, before” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward,” hence “in front of, before”) + testari “testify,” from testis “witness” (see testament). Meaning “statement of disapproval” first recorded 1751; adjectival sense of “expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores” is from 1953, in reference to U.S. civil rights movement. First record of “protest march” is from 1959.

Using that modern civil rights definition as a guide, I started jotting down obvious favorites, and the list quickly swelled well beyond the normal 10-12 song videos that I would share for such an article. But having developed the long list, I didn’t feel like cutting it. They’re all important songs. Well worth spinning, well worth hearing, well worth considering and well worth acting upon. Every song I included does indeed express “dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores,” with varying degrees of explicitness. Many offer alternative courses of action, while others simply seek to frame thought and discussion via a documentary approach to explaining the nature of the injustices in question. Some work well as simple singalongs in the moment of rally, some are definitely too dense for that, but instead seek to motivate and inspire when we’re not all together, chanting as one.

While our current national convulsion hinges on issues of racial injustice, there are also obviously a collection of tremendous protest songs decrying the plights of workers, women, immigrants, the poor, victims of colonialism, and many other socially and economically oppressed communities, while also overtly challenging the societal and political conventions that foster that oppression. I’ve included a fair number of those as well. There’s lot of power in these types of songs, at bottom line. They can, have and hopefully will help to continue moving the needle.

That preamble complete, below I present 50 of my favorite protest songs, few of which ever bothered the canonical lists of the Nation’s most popular tunes in real time. We might be a better, more functional society in 2020 if they had. Not from a cause-effect standpoint, mind, but rather just because if more people were more actively interested in hearing about social injustice and how other people react and respond to it, that would be indicative of a deeper sense of acceptance of the rightness of these messages, and a deeper respect for the artists who created them. As always, I’m happy to hear from readers with your own suggestions and/or reactions to the list. I’ll certainly not complain about having some good new anthems to rock my mind and body in the days ahead of us.