Thursday, March 31, 2005

Musical Coincidences

I'm an agnostic, but hopeful polytheist. I don't know if there are any gods, but I hope so. I hope the world is full of mysteries, seen and unseen. I hope, when my ancestors hung their enemies on the big tree in front of the great temple in Uppsala to please the Old Man, that it did. I hope, when my dad heard a voice in an empty church telling him to be a minister, that it was really his God and not my uncle trying to get him out of the house. One of the reasons I remain hopeful is that the world is filled with bizarre coincidences that make you wonder if things aren't deliberately organized in an aesthetically delightful way. Take musical coincidences. On Saturday morning, I was in the shower singing "I've Got Spurs that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle" and making up words to the verses, because, though I love the chorus, I can't ever remember if it's Mary Ann or Betty Sue or who that I'm leaving behind or why, so I just leave all the people I can think of for all the inane reasons I can come up with. But really, when was the last time you heard that song? So, there we are at dinner that night at Ted's Big Game Grill, eating our bison and oxen and giant squid, when what song starts playing in the background? Then, yesterday, I've got some old tape from Elias playing in the car (labeled helpfully, "JR told me to make this for you.") and listening over and over to Ry Cooder singing "Going to Brownsville" which has this awesome verse that goes, "The girl I love, she's got great long curly hair" and this kind of drunken swagger of a guitar line, like how a jar of moonshine means you only get four well-paced steps between reels. "No (step), I've (step) got (step) it (step), oh wait, no I don't (stumble all around)." So, the song has all these layers, this kind of low steady stomp at the bottom, this crazy, drunken guitar part, and Cooder over top singing about a woman with great long curly hair. It's enough to make a curly-haired woman want to grow it out. But I go back again last night to listen to Wil Haygood and Robert Gordon read some from their work, and Robert Gordon has this video clip of Furry Lewis playing guitar in his living room (Furry's not Robert's) and Lewis is mumbling and plucking and not really playing much of anything and then he starts into "Going to Brownsville, take that right hand road" and I was like, "what the fuck? No." but then he's singing, "the girl I love, she's got great long, curly hair." Maybe it's the new office, responsible for all the mystical things. As I've bitched about before, I don't have a window, so I went to great lengths to try to make the room a happy place to live, even without an outside view. I made this sun catcher out of old beach glass, chunks of stained glass and floral wire, and I was going to hang it on the wall. But I couldn't find a place in the office where it fit and looked good. So, the Professor came over and helped me take it apart, and she climbed up on a footstool on top of a chair and I handed her up chunks of my sun catcher and she hung them from the ceiling. It looks awesome. The other day, a guy poked his head in, looked up at my ceiling, and said, "Wow, this is really beautiful. I can tell this has some sacred significance for you. What does it mean?" It doesn't mean anything, except that I choose to accept and foster aesthetic delight. But it tickles me that someone would think it had sacred significance.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Nat Hentoff Comes Out in Favor of the Patriarchy

Nat Hentoff. Terri Schiavo. Mike the Headless Chicken. I had a whole rant worked up, but I just can't stand it. If the media and the protesters and the congress and the president and his doughy brother can't see that this is none of their business, then fuck them. People die every day. People die this way every day. To swoop in at the last minute and second-guess this woman's wishes is galling. To prop her up and put her on display like some kind of half-charged Frankenstein's monster is disgusting. And, Nat Hentoff, you jackass, if you honestly think that dying, even dying this way is the worst thing that can happen to a person, the Village Voice should fire you, because that makes you, sir, a lax journalist. And for you to buy into the "pro-life" argument, to say that "Many readers of this column are pro-choice, pro-abortion rights. But what choice did Terri Schiavo have under our vaunted rule of law--which the president is eagerly trying to export to the rest of the world? She had not left a living will or a durable power of attorney, and so could not speak for herself. But the American system of justice would not slake her thirst as she, on television, was dying in front of us all." is disgusting. No, she didn't leave a living will or a durable power of attorney, but the courts have found repeatedly that this is what she would have wanted. Not what her husband wanted, but what she wanted. But damn you, motherfucker, for being a journalist I like, and for selling us women out, for using your whole column to promote the position of her parents and to attack her husband. You want to talk pro-choice? Here's pro-choice for you, buddy. It doesn't matter if Michael Schiavo is the biggest jackass on the face of the planet. It doesn't matter if he has three girlfriends now and children by each of them. It doesn't matter if he tried to do right by her and then decided, "fuck it," and left her to rot on the side of the road. It doesn't matter, because he's who Terri chose to make her adult life with, not her parents, not the government, not you, and not me. If she chose poorly, that's a tragedy, but you know what? It's not any of our business. It was her choice to marry him and her choice to tie herself to him legally and she made that choice as a consenting, rational adult. Do you see what I'm getting at? This is not about "protecting" Terri from an uncaring judiciary or a cruel husband. This is about undermining a competent woman's decision about her life because we don't like how it turned out. For you to turn this into something that makes her a victim in need of the protection and care of her parents and the government, and for you to trot out your list of "convincing" experts--Bill Frist, David Gibbs, Wesley Smith, William Burke, William Anderson, Ralph Nader, and finally, one woman, Cathy Cleaver Ruse--as if strangers, primarily strange men, ought to get together and reach a consensus on whether we have to respect Terri's choices, it's sick. This must be like porn for guys like you, Hentoff, to get to pretend to be all bothered by this poor woman doing what all of us do--die--, while at the same time getting to project all your fantasies about what "womanhood" means and who has the right to choose for a grown woman what kind of life, or lack thereof, she should have. Shit, even Mike the Headless Chicken was treated with more respect.

My Aunt B.

Yes, even your beloved Aunt B. has an Aunt B. of her very own and I had the great fun of spending the whole evening with her. First, we went to the library, where we helped my cousin find lots of books about witchcraft. Then, we went to eat at BB King's, which has a free band at 5 o'clock that is so good we had a big fight at the table about whether it was a CD or a band that we were hearing. Then, my uncle and the Butcher and my cousins all went back to the hotel to swim and Aunt B. and I went to hear Peter Guralnick, Robert Gordon, and Wil Haygood talk about their experiences writing biographies of famous musicians. It was incredible. Cowboy Jack Clement sat right in front of us. Bill Friskics-Warren snuck in late and out early, but I saw him leaning against a wall. Peter Cooper MCd the event and he was funny and self-deprecating and stayed out of the way, which was nice. The folks from the Hall of Fame sat behind us and a bunch of people from the committees I'm on at work were there and they were the people from those committees that I really like. Tony Early was there as well, walking back and forth like the whole thing was giving him mad energy--to have that many writers in one room--and I wished, for a second, I could follow him home and see what notes he jotted down about the evening. He was not the only one. There were a bunch of creative writers from the English department there--students and faculty--and I saw a bunch of them scribbling things down. Two things struck me from the evening. 1. You could not have three more generous authors in one spot. Peter Guralnick made two of the kindest gestures to young writers I've ever seen. He explained how he once had to interview someone with another writer and how both of then ended up using the interview in their books, but that you wouldn't know, based on what each of them took from it, that it was the same interview and he was enthusiastic about the fact that he could not capture every facet of someone and that other writers would come along and help flesh out our understanding. What I took from that was that he thought there was more than enough life in any subject and that young writers should not be afraid that all there is to say on a subject has been said. 2. They love people, the people they're writing about and the people who tell them things about the people they're writing about, and people in general. My nieces and nephews, I wish you could have been there, to see this room full of fragile people, each weighed down by his or her hopes and fears and peculiarities, sharing with each other the ways he or she works to understand other people's hopes and fears and peculiarities, in order to tell a particular, specific story, that somehow ends up being larger than that. It made me proud. My Aunt B. kept talking the whole way home about how awesome it was that everyone could come together to support each other and to share with each other and to have a good time. You know, people slag on Nashville, and deservedly so, in some cases. But shit like this, it makes me feel like I'm a part of a rich and fun creative community.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

What'll Three Years of Russian Get You?

So, when I went to college, you had to take at least two years of a foreign language. Being that I'd changed high schools and graduated from a school so small. . . How small was it? The school that I graduated from was so small that, in order to meet my physical education requirement and have room for all my other classes, I was in 1st grade PE my junior year. I walked down to the other end of the school, to the small gym, and had PE with two sets of first graders. How small was it? I graduated fourth out of forty-seven. How small was it? My calculus class was once cancelled on account of hunting season. Anyway, I'd had 18 weeks of French and 9 weeks of Spanish when I got to college and I didn't believe that there'd be anybody in the intro classes to either of those languages who knew less about them than I do. (Here's the whole sum total of what I learned in French: "vent" is wind and the kid with the French name of Guy will stab a girl in the face with a pen if she tries to take his seat. Guy, if you are reading this, through some strange coincidence, though I've forgiven you and the scar is not that noticeable any more, I still think that was a strange and shitty thing to do. You might want to cut back on the caffeine.) So, I enrolled in Russian. Yes, for some reason, I thought that, even though eighteen weeks of French had taught me one word and a new-found respect for personal boundaries, I could pick up a whole new alphabet along with many new words and be queen of Slavic languages. I stuck it out for three years. And, boy howdy, do I suck. Do you know what Russians you can communicate with after three years of Russian and no inherent language talent? Three year olds. But the Professor has a friend who speaks fluent Russian, who went to Russia and wrestled drunken Russians, and, for some reason, when I get drunk, I feel the need to try to talk to him in Russian and recite snippits of Pushkin to him that I can't remember while sober, but that seem to come rushing back to me without the least bit of provocation after a couple of beers. Thus it occurs to me that, probably, the Russians that I can communicate with are even fewer than "three year olds." No, if I ever find myself in Russia, I'll be stuck talking to the drunken three year olds. We can discuss milk--moloko, vodka--vodka, beer--pivo; water--voda; cows--corova; god--bog; pomegranate--granat; good things--horoshow; small things--malinki; and dogs--coboka. Hmm. Now that I think about it, that's not much different than what I normally discuss on Tiny Cat Pants. . .

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Greenman

I was pretty bummed yesterday, after the Professor tried to kill me off--first by making three gallons of sangria and pouring it into cups that looked suspiciously like the cups containing the egg dye (at one point, someone looked up from the eggs and said, sadly, "I drank the yellow," but it wasn't me) on Friday night, and then by hopping me up on jelly beans and egg-shaped M&Ms until I was in a sugar stupor, loading me up with more sangria, and then packing us all into a tiny car in such a way that I ended up laying across three people with one of my knees bent askew and my head tilted up under the Sheik's arm. One bump, hit wrong, and I would have been ejected from the car onto the big naked statue. (Weep for the poor Southern Baptists, in that case. Would they have been more outraged at my public drunkenness, as I slept off the evening in the outstretched arms of a three story tall naked man, or at the naked man's public nudity? Decisions, decision.) But on my way to and from work, I spent it with XTC's song, "The Greenman," which is the best non-Christian Easter song there is: all about love and rebirth and the way the things we love get hidden and carried along with us, even after we're supposed to be done with them. Why put a head up high on the church wall, even a leafy green one? When Bendigeid Fran, the son of Llyr, king of his land, went to rescue his sister, Branwen, he was mortally wounded and knew he was dying. "Cut off my head, and take it with you to Harlech," he said to his friends, "And while you remain there, my head will be as good a company to you as it ever way when it was on my body." The gift he gave these weary warriors, who had defeated the Irish, but at tremendous cost, was seven years of forgetfulness. They didn't remember their fallen comrades or any other sorrows. Bendigeid Fran's head was great company to them and they enjoyed his company without grieving his death. One day, Heilyn, the son of Gwynn, opened a door Bendigeid Fran told his friends to keep shut, and, as Lady Charlotte Guest so eloquently puts it, "when they had looked [out the door], they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot." Maybe there isn't a direct connection, but hanging heads on walls in places set aside from the rest of the world that bring luck and joy. . . that seems to be a mighty big coincidence, if they don't have anything to do with each other. And I like to imagine that there's a god, who's name we've now forgotten, who whispered in the ear of one of his last followers, "cut off my head, and take it with you to church and there it will be as good a company to you as it ever was when it was on my body."

My Retirement Plan

When I retire, I'm going to go to work for Jack Daniel's. I want to be one of their tour guides. I want to walk down a beautiful gently sloping hill all day. I'm working right now on my mumbly grunty way of talking. I'm practicing saying slightly crude things to folks I think might giggle and then smiling as if I have no idea why they might have thought I was being suggestive. I'm going to dig a little at the EPA and rail against the tax code. I'm going to be a part of the best performance art project ever. I'm going to give those tourists the hillbilly they want to see and I'm going to laugh as they shell out $114.57 for my product. How brilliant is Jack Daniel's? Somehow, they convinced the state legislature to let them sell Jack at the distillery. Since Lynchburg is in a dry county, that means that the only liquor story in the county is at the distillery and the only thing they sell is Jack. Brilliant. Of course, I'd probably get fired for spending the hot days hiding out in the barrel houses, where it is cool and dark and smells like wood and water and corn. That's my favorite place on the whole tour.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Nobody's Fault But Mine

Right now, on VH1 classic, they're playing some Celtic/Plant & Page event. Plant's stomping around this giant pile of rocks singing "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Nobody's Fault but Mine Nobody's Fault but Mine If I don't raise my soul [something: to the light, delight] I have an old version of this on a tape some place, probably from Elias, that is a whole lot different. It goes: Nobody's Fault but Mine Nobody's Fault but Mine If I don't read and my soul be lost Ain't nobody's fault but mine The first verse is something like Sister, she taught me how to read Sister, she taught me how to read [this one might be "write"] If I don't read and my soul be lost Ain't nobody's fault but mine And the second verse is I got a Bible in my home I got a Bible in my home If I don't read and my soul be lost Aint nobody's fault but mine. Sadly, for Plant, I like the old one better. I think it resonates on a lot more levels. But listening to Plant got me thinking, maybe I've been mis-hearing the old version all this time. It's kind of a crappy recording from a crappy original, and maybe I've just constructed a blues song all about the anxiety of knowing that there's important information you might need that you lack the skills and patience to access. Hmm...

Kris Kristofferson

Right when Kris Kristofferson found out he was going in the Hall of Fame, I saw him down to the Hall of Fame at an event Earl Scruggs hosted. They had a "pickin' party" where there were eight or ten guys who were sitting around singing their own songs, each other's songs, and laughing and telling stories. Kristofferson was one of them. Obviously, I don't know what he's like in real life, but he came across as very generous to the other musicians. He seemed genuinely delighted to be there and honored to be with them. Anyway, it's raining on a Sunday morning that I usually spend with my family and there's no one home but me and the dog. And it's got me thinking about Kris Kristofferson, who, I think, writes the best songs about being lonely. Here's something the Butcher doesn't know I know: every Sunday morning, he plays "Sunday Morning Coming Down" either before he leaves the house or on his way to work. It's a little ritualized loneliness. My favorite lonely Kristofferson song is "Me and Bobby McGee," of course. It's got everything I love--traveling, truckers, singing, nostalgia, and the loss of someone you care about. Anyway, one of the things I appreciate about him is the way he gets that lonely doesn't have anything to do with other people, that it's just the problem with being one sack of blood and guts among many others. You have this internal life that seems so broad and rich (at least I hope you do), but there's no one to share it with you. Maybe that's what we need our gods for, to feel like there's someone else knocking around in here with us... Anyway, back to Kristofferson, I think that the songs of his we like in our house get at the way that lonely might be the base state of folks and how, usually, surrounding ourselves with the noise and company of other people allows us to ignore it, and sometimes, being around other people brings that loneliness out into the open in a way you just can't stand.

Hurray! My dog is scary

So, they've not yet caught the guy who's breaking into people's houses in the neighborhood and so even the Butcher is locking our doors consistently. Last night, as I was stumbling to the door, drunk and pissed off, I could find the 4 tampons that magically disappear whenever I fucking need them, a Christmas card from the Shill and her husband, and a bottle of Tylenol I'd forgotten about, but I could not find my car keys in my giant purse of annoyance. So, I had to break into the house. This is pretty easily achieved with a credit card, which is distressing, when you think about it. But, as I'm jimmying the lock, from the other side of the door, I hear this low, deep growl, that's slowly getting louder and louder. I knew it was Mrs. Wigglebottom on the other side of the door, and even I was a little nervous about opening the door for fear she'd be in mid-pounce. A dog is definitely the best theft-deterrence one can have in this neighborhood.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Dead Speak to Me and I Don't Listen

I'm working on this project that has been my almost-all consuming passion for a little over a year. I'm not yet free to talk about it too much, but the gist of it is this: some scholars and students from one of our local universities went down to Coahoma County, Mississippi to collect folklore from the residents there in the early 1940s. This project will make available the results of their work, finally, after sixty years. The three men from the university who left written documentation of the trip are dead. The original materials have been, in some cases, lost or destroyed. This includes the hand-written transcriptions of many of the songs the music scholar heard while he was down there. Luckily, someone at the university put the transcriptions on microfilm. Unfortunately, the university's microfilm machine doesn't work. This means that there are, maybe, 10 copies of these transcriptions in the whole world. At least half of them are sitting in my office. When I'm feeling low about my life, like I lack purpose and direction, I take out one of those transcripts, usually one of the moans or hollers the singer from the Stovall plantation band performed--something that's never ended up on a record--and I indulge myself in the feeling that I'm sharing a secret just between that singer, the man with the lined paper, and me, something no one else in the world knows, yet. In preparing the scholarship for publication, I came across a note from the man with the lined paper to his editor. I'm sure when he wrote the note, he figured, though he didn't yet know who would edit his work, that he would. But here it is, sixty years and six feet of dirt later, and I'm it--a girl who will remain a stranger to him. That note is addressed to me. I feel honored and sad and proud. It says, "Note for editor: Titles in parentheses are for reference purposes only and are not to be included in the printed essay." Like all editors, I'm ignoring my author's wishes. We're putting the titles in.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Professional Sports and Oprah Give Me an Idea

Sometimes, when I'm out walking Mrs. Wigglebottom, I come up with such stunningly brilliant ideas that I can't believe I've not yet been crowned supreme ruler of the world. Here's what occurred to me this morning. Congress. It's full of out-of-touch ghouls and political insiders and beltway politics. In a perfect world, we might be elected to Congress through means similar to how one is summoned for jury duty. But as it is now, people go to Washington and back home to their local districts and live myopically, but they're making decisions for all of us. The rest of us. With rising gas prices, it's going to be harder for ordinary folks to afford to travel. The State Capitol. Most state legislatures are not constantly in session and so many state capitols are empty most of the time. Oprah. She's moving into public housing to see for herself what's going on. Professional Sports. They regularly have exhibition games and, occasionally, real games at places other than their home stadiums. Mexico, Japan, Russia--professional sports teams get around in order to provide their fans an opportunity to see them up close. Theme Parks. Someone in theme park land has some system for figuring out where to put theme parks so that they are close to enough people to support the parks, but far enough from each other. See where I'm going? Congress should hit the road. Pick up the whole legislative body and play some away games. No, obviously, they couldn't go to all 50 states or they'd spend more time traveling than they would legislating--though that might not be a bad thing--but they could take a hint from the theme park industry and pick places that draw on large populations. If they met in Nashville for a few weeks, citizens could easily come from all over the mid-South--Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Mississippi, northern Alabama, Northern Georgia, the western Carolinas and western Virginia; the lower Midwest--southern Illinois, southern Indiana, southern Ohio, eastern Missouri; and whatever the hell region Arkansas is. Think of the boon for democracy that would be, for folks to have the opportunity to see how the government works. Think of the boon for local economies. And, we have those capitol buildings that stand empty most of the time, so there'd be a place to hold it. It'd be great. Also, I was thinking how awesome it would be to then host a big dinner for Congress, invite them over to the apartment, let Tom DeLay spend some quality time on the couch cowering from the dog. Hell, I bet you $100 they'd find that crackhead who's been wandering the railroad tracks, breaking into people's houses and robbing them right quick if I were going to have 535 members of Congress hanging out between the railroad tracks and the interstate. I'd ask Bill Frist to stand in the kitchen and explain to the cats why he thought it was okay for him to adopt kittens from shelters in order to kill them. And I'd get up on the chair at various times throughout the evening and toast Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who seems imbued with such smarts, common sense, and plain-spokenness that I can't believe she's really in Congress.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What Should Happen for Women's History Month

One of the most fundamental criticisms of feminism is that it's anti-man, that it installs in women a lens through which they see all men as perpetrators and all women as victims. My grandma D. is not a feminist. She's spent a great deal of my life trying to teach me how to walk in high heels. She also stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and raised my mom and my aunts. My grandma's house is full of delicate porcelain things that mean that no kid feels welcome there. There's nothing you can touch, nothing you can play with. You may sit and look around. And that's what women do, they sit and look pretty. My grandma went down to Normal to ISU because she wanted to be a history teacher. When she got there, they told her that there was no room in the history department, that they had all the girls they needed and had to leave space open for the men. "What men?" my grandma asked me, when she told me about it, as she sat in my parents' dining room, still clenching her fists, still blinking back tears. "What men? All the men were at war. I wouldn't have taken anyone's spot." We white Midwesterners really do segregate by gender--women in the kitchen, men on the couch in front of the TV. In the kitchen, crowded around sinks or hunched over luke-warm coffee, you learn more about the ways that men do women wrong than you can bear. As we're talking around things, in our typical way, you learn which silences mean rape, which mean abuse, which mean infidelity, and which mean the marriage is over. You learn the quiet ways women warn each other about which coaches must be watched and which Sunday School teachers need "help" with their classes. You learn a lot about sucking it up and taking it. You learn a lot about being trapped. You learn to feel lucky with your limited options. Critics of feminism act like women were content with their lives until the women's libbers ruined it. But I'm here to tell you that in places where feminists are casually dismissed as angry dykes, women are quietly seething. In contrast, I loved to listen to the men talk. If I was quiet, I could sit on the couch next to my dad and listen as they went over baseball stats and crop prices and construction projects. I wanted so much to share their ease and their hearty laughter. Many of them had been in the military, so they'd traveled more and to places most of us had never even heard of. Some of them had been farmers their whole lives and lost fingers and hands to augers. My childhood was full of men with hands sacrificed to their jobs. Men who were always gentle and respectful of me, but awkward around other girls and women. In part, I think, this is because we, my family and I, never were from there. We'd always just moved to that place and would, in a couple of years, pack up and move again. I had a great deal of freedom because I didn't belong (but, sweet Jesus, how I wanted to). So, yes, men do shitty, shitty things to women,even now. And before now, when you kept us out of classrooms and in kitchens and out of the workforce, that was crappy. And when you owned us and could beat us and keep us pregnant until our bodies gave out and could kill us and keep us from reading and writing and owning property, that sucked. And when you went into the temples and smashed the statues of the gods that we resembled and took their stories and twisted them so that any god who enjoyed her body became a demon and all our holy women witches, that hurt and still does. But, my nephews, Women's History Month is not yet for you. As long as we're still commiserating in the kitchen and you're laughing in the living room, Women's History Month is not yet for you. If you want to come into the kitchen and sit quietly and openly and listen, that's okay. If you want to fix things between men and women, straighten up. But what really needs to happen during Women's History Month, and throughout the year, is that we need to stop with the endless talk about you. We know all we need to know about you and more, what music you like, what turns you on, what things make you mad, what you like to eat, how good you are to your dog. Enough. All this talk about you, this constant worry about you and what you might do to us is making us pissy and bitter and fragile and off-kilter. We're like those yippy little dogs Paris Hilton keeps in her purse (fittingly enough) bred down to decorative size, helpless, and useless. We've cultivated small, frail bonzai souls, perfectly shaped to anticipate the form you want us to take. But, nieces, here we are, chance culminations of the history of the universe until now. Put down some real roots, in good, fertile soil. Let yourself grow to your rightful shape. Take up the space that's due you. Read and write and dance and play, because you can. Laugh because it unsettles the powerful. Do you want a lover who is good to you? Stop rewarding jackasses with the gift of your holy heart. Do you get what I'm saying to you? This is all we have, this is all the time we have, and you, who are as blessed and sacred as anyone, are wasting time hesitating. Here's what I know: no one will give you the life you deserve. You have to just start living it. You have no obligations to any person or institution who wastes your time with nonsense that kills your soul. Sure, I'd love it if every woman decided on March 31st that she was going to embrace feminism; I think feminists are smart, funny, and engaged with the world in interesting ways. But if even a few of us decided to be too something--too loud, too fat, too silly--too anything that makes us happy, that would be something.

Six Whole Months. Who knew I had that much to say?

I just realized that yesterday was the six month anniversary of Tiny Cat Pants. I should have bought the site a present. Well, maybe next time. Anyway, I'm unclear how one judges blogging success. On the one hand, I have y'all, who are smart and funny and great. So, in that regard, I feel like things are going very well. On the other hand, I've not once been blamed for the downfall of the mainstream media and I've not ruined the political aspirations of any politician (though, if anyone needs them ruined, it's my senator, Bill Frist). I've not uncovered any forged documents and the closest I've come to discovering deep secrets is that I've learned that some folks in the music industry call Brad Paisley Brad Praise-me. (Whatever. If the man has a healthy ego, it's well deserved, unlike some folks--Toby Keith. Who gossips about Brad Paisley anyway? It's like gossiping about Willie Nelson; it makes no sense.) Still, I don't view these things as setbacks, just opportunities. As is my way, I have no longterm goals for Tiny Cat Pants. I'm hoping to spend a day with the rap channel on digital cable and intend to discover how many of the signs of serial killer-dom Senator Frist exhibits, and I'll be sure to let you know how that goes. But otherwise, if y'all have any suggestions, comments,or questions you want answered, I promise to read, consider, and disregard them as appropriate. Love, Aunt B.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Jesus Would Blog

One suspicion I carry with me from my church days is that the importance American Christians place on Jesus' divinity does some crucial unacknowledged work. One of the things that really stuck with my dad from seminary was a belief that whether Biblical events were factual is completely beside the point. (If you had any wonder how I ended up an English major, stop now. It ought to be clear I was brought up that way.) What is important is the story. He asked three questions about every story in the Bible. What does this tell us about God? What does this tell us about man? What does this tell us about God's relationship to man? So, what does it tell us about us that we so firmly insist on the complete inhuman divinity of Jesus? (Let's get at this from another way. What are folks trying to accomplish when they haul out Martin Luther King's infidelities or his plagiarism? Why would anyone think that was a meaningful indictment of his work?) Here's what I think it is. It is important that we feel justified in our sloth. If we see something we know is wrong, we need to feel excused from having to be affected by it. We need to leave things to the good folks, and, when they turn out to be as ordinary as us, we need to revel in them thinking they were better than us and being taught that they weren't. This, America, is fucked up. It's fucked up because it allows the people in power to remain in power, because it's an unspoken assumption of merit. The people motivated enough or crazy enough or egomanical enough to run for office (or become famous or whatever) are voted into office on the unspoken assumption that they somehow, more than you or I, deserve to be there. Do you see what I'm getting at? If people in the United States really knew that, that it just takes motivation, determination, and a certain amount of craziness and ego to do things, it'd be revolutionary. Not because we'd all run out and "take back our country" or some other slogan-like goal, but because we might stop passively playing our role. What is our role, you ask? One, to do nothing. To stay out of the way of the people in power and to accept that they have power because they deserve it and that we don't have power because we don't. Two, to knock down the folks like us who would presume to do anything, despite being from the group of people who do nothing. If we wait around for the perfect people to show up to do something, nothing gets done. Folks benefit from that, from most of us thinking that it's just not our place to give a damn, because, if we do, if we aren't above reproach, we'll be torn apart, and rightfully so. So, it's important for some Christians to insist on the divinity of Jesus--because, if he was perfect, we cannot measure up--and it's important for some secularists to insist that Jesus didn't even exist--so he's no example at all. Both positions serve the same ends, to reaffirm our belief that most ordinary people can't really be perfect enough to do anything. Look at even how the media has started to talk about Ashley Smith. Last week, she was a hero acting on the courage of her convictions. But now, it's the book she read to Nichols from--The Purpose Driven Life that's become the real story. Never mind that it's one of the most successful hardcover books ever, which means it's in the homes of a lot more people than just Smith, the story is now less about her and more about that book, as if she could not have done something brave without help from the folks who do stuff--in this case, the author, Rick Warren. But the truth remains that we are all ordinary. The Professor says that, in the face of the ills of humanity, she feels "expendable and insignificant," and, as she says, that "just as I get myself out of the slump and feel not only that I am capable of saying something clearly but further that I might have something worthwhile to say, you remind me that I might just be insignificant and easily interchanged with anyone else. " But these things are not opposite ideas. It's precisely because we're each insignificant and easily interchangable that we each are capable of saying something worthwhile in a clear manner. In fact, it's precisely because we're all insignificant, even the people who've managed to construct lives of deserved or imagined significance, that we must try to speak clearly our worthwhile ideas. The writer over at Now I'm Pissed (thanks for the link!) says something interesting and pertinent to this. (For the sake of making my life easier and not assuming gender where none is clear, let's call the writer Pissed.) Pissed is talking about blogging, about whether we'll have to go in to work in the future or if we can all sit at home in our underwear on the couch, when Pissed goes of on an interesting tangent. Pissed starts talking about the "progression of the 'elites,'" from industrial, to technological, to the creative class. As Pissed says, "The power to mold and alter the course of history is changing hands. For many, it appears to be a rather uncomfortable change. Politics has always been the friend of business and technology, but the artist? the intellect." Pissed goes on:
Those who before felt as if there was no way to be heard, now have an avenue - and the audience is growing. Growth, the magnitude of which demands an audience. An audience, not only of the casual browser or researcher, but of those currently wielding power. The thrust to inhibit (censor, control, manage, insert other appropriate suppressive verb here) by government “for the good of the children / people” is nothing more than a grab for the power that is emerging. It’s a power that is self-developing and self-organizing. Most importantly, it’s a power than cannot be placed at a comfortable level in the current power structure, but will place itself at all levels of that structure.
This is great. We're in a moment of possibility. A brief window of change has opened up and we're all able to participate. If the dominate paradigm can't figure out how to comfortably incorporate the creative class (and signs point to this being true), the creative class will "taint" every aspect of the current power structure. Creative folks as a kind of societal virus. I love it. Did I have a point originally? Yes, yes I did. I'm not going to reiterate it here. Instead, I'll just end with Uncle Walt, another ordinary person who spoke clearly his worthwhile ideas. Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged; Missing me one place, search another; I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Healthy Food Can Suck my Butt

Peanut butter and jelly on brown bread. Carrots. An apple. A diet Dr Pepper. I swear to god--some big fat god of decadence, maybe Dionysus--I swear to Dionysus, if this crap is supposed to make me feel better about myself, it's not working. I need a carefully balanced diet of junk food to keep from being given a nickname like "The Office Bitch." As soon as I get a chance, I'm sneaking over to the old office and raiding the candy machine.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Tarot Cards

I taught myself how to read tarot cards in college. I went out to Barnes & Noble and got myself the Ryder-Waite deck and earnestly consulted the little book and read for my friends. I'm the type of girl who never met a dead person she didn't talk to and I spent much of my teenage years holding seances, (not) moving planchettes towards various letters and numbers, and carting my friends off to all kinds of supposedly haunted spots. The trips to haunted places have already been well-documented here, so I'll just say that the seances and other dead-harassing projects went just about as well, which is to say, they went very poorly indeed. Which is no proof one way or another that we survive death, but more a testament to my piss-poor necromancy skills. The tarot card reading, on the other hand, went surprisingly well. I think I'm about as good as a non-con-artist can get at it and I find that, overall, I'm pretty accurate. Still, I'd rather know for sure that my grandpa is still around than to be tarot-ly gifted, because, the thing is, the better I get at card-reading, the less I think there's anything "occult" to it. It doesn't answer any supernatural mysteries and it doesn't soothe my anxiety about only having fifty or sixty good years left. What makes me so good? Sure, there's the cold-reading aspect. I'm not intentionally cold-reading the folks I do readings for, but I'm completely sure that I'm doing it subconsciously. I think any member of a group that is in constant regular danger of being victimized can learn how to read even very subtle signals from others in order to anticipate whether or not the conversation is going in a proper direction. Without being aware of it, I can tell when I'm hitting the right marks and modify my reading based on that. But here's the other reason: there are only so many things that people care about. As much as we all are lead to believe that we are unique individuals, the truth is that we are not so different. I want to be treated with respect, to be taken seriously, to be paid what I'm worth, to be loved, and to have my loved one's well-being assured. I bet you do, too. Seventy-eight cards, all rich in meaning and culturally resonate, are enough to tell the story of anyone's present circumstances. Italo Calvino has this book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which the protagonist ends up at a castle that used to be an inn or an inn that used to be a castle, and finds himself at dinner with a table full of fellow travelers, none of whom speak. The host gives them a deck of tarot cards, and, in turn, they lay out the cards in a way that tells a story about themselves. Calvino is, of course, right. We're narrative-driven animals and the bits and pieces of things that have meaning to me in particular probably have meaning to the rest of us. Those sacred chunks of story have been honed and tested over thousands of years. We know they resonate. How they'll resonate to each person is ultimately surprising, but that they'll resonate is not. So, I don't read very often any more, because I find it depressing. My things, whatever they may be--insecurities, deep dark secrets, quiet joys--are important to me and I want to believe unique to me. I don't like the idea that I could, say, draw three cards. Let's say, one for past, one for present, and one for future: the three of swords, the hanged man, and the hermit. I look up at you and say only this much, "The three of swords has to do with heartache and betrayal--this is your past. The hanged man symbolizes great sacrifice and change in perspective--this is your present. The hermit means a withdrawal from the world in order to regroup--this is your future." It's bad enough that this could generically apply to all of us. We've all had our hearts broken. We all feel that a change in perspective could be interesting. And we'll all throw up our hands and say, fuck it, in the near future. No, what I don't like is that it's not like I went and actually pulled those cards. I just made it up. And yet, even as I was typing it, I remembered a specific instance of heartache. I knew just what I needed to get perspective on but was avoiding. And, well, I am a hermit. Do you see what I'm saying? It's not just that any cards apply to anyone, it's that every card applies in very specific ways to you. There's nothing occult about it. We're just so damn ordinary.

For the Ladies

Ladies, Is it getting harder and harder in today's America to figure out when you can make your own decisions about yourself? Do you long for a way to know easily when you have to consult with others and who those others are? Lucky for you, I've now created this handy-dandy guide to the people and institutions you must defer to before you can make a decision. Print out and pass around as many copies as you need. I'm sure you'll find it useful in many circumstances. The Guide 1. Your god--Does your god have a discernible opinion on the activity in which you are about to partake? 2. Other people's god(s)--Is there a large segment of the voting public recognizable by its religion that gets regularly kowtowed to by elected officials? Would their god(s) approve of your activity? 3. The government--Does the government have an opinion about your activity? If you're really lucky, they've just passed a law that pertains only to you. That'll make it much easier for you. 4. Your doctor--Does your doctor have a moral position on the activity your want to partake in? This is especially important if you are poor or live in rural areas where you are limited in your choice of medical professionals. 5. Other medical professionals--Even if your doctor condones your activity, if something goes wrong, can you count on the other medical professionals--other doctors, nurses, techs, pharmacists--to go along with your doctor? It's important to know ahead of time if some of them might disapprove of your activity. 6. Your family--For your convenience, I've divided your family up into two parts. In most circumstances, you should defer to your husband (You do have a husband, don't you? If not, get on that right away.), but, if your parents and your husband disagree about what you should do, and your parents agree with people higher up on the list than your husband, you must defer to them. 7. Your neighbors--What will the neighbors think? 8. The American public--If the news networks held polls on your activity, would a bunch of people you don't know and never will know, indicate that they thought your behavior was okay? 9. You--Happily, if you follow this guide, most decisions have already been made for you, so you'll only rarely get trapped having to figure out for yourself what the right thing to do is. That means plenty of time for being pretty, shoe shopping, and doing dishes!

Saturday, March 19, 2005

My Stomach is Full and My Soul is Happy

A car, a brother, a sister, a dog, the mountains, a hawk at eye level. Six burly bikers that set the dog to barking. A road that folds back on it self two or three times. The sun shining through the clouds. Chickens huddled near an old white dog. Always the yellow line, solid and breaking, solid and breaking. There's never anyone coming. Pass or don't; it's your choice.

The Men in IT

We have in our IT department what is snidely called The Wall of Skirts, a group of five or six women who know very little about technology, but are there to either protect the techs from the rest of us or, perhaps, to protect the rest of us from them. Anyone who's ever needed help with computers at work will tell you, when they think no one is listening, that, if you want real help, you have to get past the Wall of Skirts. They only tell you that when they think no one is listening because there's some sense that calling those women "The Wall of Skirts" is un-PC. On such occasions, I reflect on what a difficult thing it sometimes is, to try to chart the right course of action. Yes, dismissing those women as merely a barrier to the folks, mostly men, who can help you is probably wrong. But what's with hiring a bunch of women who don't know much about IT to take my questions and relay them to the tech people? Why can't I just talk to the tech guys myself? And, isn't it sexist to assume that it's better to have women answering the phones than men, even if the women don't know anything about IT? In other words, I don't think the problem is that folks talk dismissively about The Wall of Skirts. I think the problem is that a group of people were hired to help with my IT problems because someone feels that women are better communicators than men, even if the women don't know what they're communicating about. Hire people, men and women, who know about IT stuff and who have phone skills. But yesterday, almost all of the men from IT were over at our new office and I am even more confused about why everyone at work needs protection from them. They are a riot. One of them was up in the ceiling, checking something. Two more were in one of the rooms trying to figure out where some wires went. Another one was trying to get the phones to work. Others kept coming in and out to do something or other and tease the guy in the ceiling. They were just having a great time and I was having a great time hanging out with them. Finally, one said, "Your phone is working. You can call your boyfriend." And I said, "I don't have a boyfriend." And they all said, "What? No way. Of course you do." And I said, "Y'all saw how obnoxious I am." "No, no," another one said, "You're feisty and we like feisty women." That made my day. Feisty.

Friday, March 18, 2005

St. Patty's Day Gone Wrong [Madlibs version]

When we walked in the bar and say all our friends sitting right by the front door, huddled together like a group of refugees, we should have just turned around and walked back out. But there they were, perched around a crappy wooden table, turning towards the door every so often as if salvation would soon arrive. And there we were. Unfortunately, even the cute neighbor and I couldn't salvage the evening. This is a group of people that, usually, will get some alcohol in their systems and something happens--Twister, dancing, fights, something--and there they were playing quarters in an effort to keep themselves entertained. The problem--and oh how I wish I were kidding--was that the evening's entertainment was a rehash [reggae] band. A rehash [reggae] band so terrible that it put the "B-oh" [B-oo] in bonnier [Bonnaroo]. Seriously, if I wanted to watch a bunch of unwashed hippies swaying to the noises made by some tiny chick who's somehow managed to escape the realization that she's in the wrong genre, if not the wrong line of work, I'd. . . Well, I'd have to be doing some serious drugs before I ever wanted to intentionally spend an evening that way. I kept trying to convince someone to storm the stage and steal a MIS [mic] and lead us all in a rousing rendition of "The Wild Rover," but no one at my table claimed to know the song. So, the whole thing was a waste in terms of trying to celebrate the Irish. Instead, I went home and practiced turning from goddess to saint and back again in honor of bright [Brigid]. [Who the fuck knows what's up with Blogger? I've never had it automatically spell-check my posts before, but who knows? Anyway, for the sake of history, I've left Blogger's idea of what I wanted and put what I intended in brackets. -B.]

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Lunch at the Tin Roof

The Tin Roof is a bar/restaurant down on Demonbreun Street that I love because they have wrinkly fries. The folks down the hall took me there for lunch today and sitting on one side of us was Phil Vassar and on the other side was Cledus T. Judd. Luckily, we had someone at our table who recognized all these folks, because I'm oblivious to the famous. Let me tell you my Brad Paisley story. We used to live out near the airport and our neighborhood grocery store was particularly neighborhoody, the kind of place where you get to know the bag boy and help his mom, the manager, make fun of him. The kind of place where they seem genuinely happy to see you and friendly. So, once the Butcher, one of our friends, and I are at Granite Falls, another restaurant I love, back when they had the Patio Burger, which was, frankly, the best burger in town. They'd pepper-encrust the meat and then throw on some sour cream, onion, and baby spinach. It was awesome. They don't have it any more and so I don't go there as often. But, back to my story. So, we get done eating and we're walking out and sitting at the table by the door are three guys. One looks at the Butcher's Beatles hat and gives him a thumb's up. The kid in the middle looks very familiar and he's smiling in that "yes, you know who I am" way that's supposed to let you know that it's okay for you to approach a famous person, I guess. But I'm still not used to seeing famous people in real life, just out at restaurants and such, so I figure, if I recognize you, it must be because I know you. So, I'm wracking my brain, trying to figure out where I'd know some young kid like this from. And, voila! I think he's my bag boy. So, I say, "Hey, how you doing? Tell your mom I said 'hi'" and I walk out of the restaurant. The Butcher turns to me and says, "So, you know Brad Paisley's mom?"

Five Songs You Aren't Listening to But Should

Oops. It's Women's History Month. I've done nothing to celebrate except slag on Anne Coulter. To rectify that, I'm giving you a list of five songs you aren't listening to, but should, all by women. 1. "Turn Da Lights Off" by Tweet. I loved Tweet's other song, which was about all kinds of self-love. That one made the list of awesomely bad songs because the nitwits at Blender and VH1 still think women being frank and excited about their sexuality is something to titter about. This one's also about sex, and it's got this groovy sample. Also, the video features the latest video accoutrement--the record player. Tweet doesn't have the greatest voice or the most innovative lyrics, but this is a song you find yourself dancing around the living room to, even when the radio is off. 2. "Country Boys" by Tyra. This is my "drive around with the windows down" anthem of the moment. I love it, especially the way she kind of half sings, half growls "dirty, dirty South." I'm so unhip I don't know the difference between rap and hip-hop and I have no idea what being from the dirty, dirty South means, but if it involves the hot men in her video and growling like that. . . I'm all for it. 3. "Fist City" by Loretta Lynn. This is an old song, one that I've been kind of listening to all my life, but it's the joy of digital cable and the awesome classic country channel that let me rehear this song. It's awesome. Your first time through should be listening to the lyrics. Yes, on the one hand, it is a woman threatening to beat up another woman over a cheating man, which is not very empowering. But I can't think of another song that got played on the radio, except "Goodbye Earl," in which you hear a woman enjoying being unapologetically violent. The second time through, pay close attention to how she delivers those words, how they lay up against the music. She has this really interesting way of fucking with the tempo to serve the lyrics. She starts out kind of slow and smooth at the beginning of both of her verses, to lure both the listener and the subject of her hatred in: "Well, you've been a-makin' your brags around town, that you've been a-lovin' my man." Then, in the second couple of lines, she picks up speed, just a little big, so that the insult really stands out: "But the man I love when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can." And then it gets faster for the rest of the verse, until the end, when she slows it back down to "If you don't want to go to Fist City." The best part is that she's got all these sharp little "I"s and "t"s all over the song that she spits out like machine gun fire: "I'm not saying my baby's a saint, 'cause he ain't, and that he won't cat around with a kitty. I'm here to tell you, gal, to lay off of my man, if you don't want to go to Fist City." God, it's great. 4. "Get Right" by Jennifer Lopez. I don't know why I love this song, but I do. I think it's the killer oboe hook--fine, killer sax hook--and the fact that her crappy voice kind of blends into the rest of what's going on in the song and so it's more about the music and the beat. 5. "Dracula Moon" by Joan Osbourne. The Corporate Shill lent be Osbourne's first album when we were in college and I remember being up in my dorm room and pressing "play" on the CD player and not being very excited because I didn't really like "What if God Were One of Us?" and not quite trusting the Shill when she said that the rest of the album wasn't like that. But, egad, she was right! The whole album, except for that song, is so great. And this, I think, is the best song off it. "Don't feel sorry for me. I hate that look on your face. You say just let go. You say come back home. I say I'm just falling from grace."

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Atlanta is Not Far Enough Away

I'm afraid of my brothers doing something they can't come back from. Not as afraid as I was when we were younger and they were--allegedly--dealing drugs and robbing bars and stealing from each other, and basically living like the James Gang. I didn't think they'd kill anyone intentionally, but I worried all the time that they'd do something stupid and end up killing someone or themselves on accident. But their newfound sanity and law-abiding-ness still feels too tentative to me, too fragile. And I worry that neither of them have a good enough reason to keep doing things the hard way, when the easy way is so much fun and, as long as you don't get caught, lucrative. Because, it's hard in ways we don't often acknowledge, to be good, to defer our own gratification for the safety and happiness of others. And it's so easy to do wrong and go wrong and, once you go, to keep on going. You have to care about something--your family, your god or whatever--or fear something--getting stuck in rural Illinois, going to prison, dying, whatever--so much that you're willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how boring, in order to keep from self-destructing. I don't think people are inherently evil, but I know they are inherently selfish and that selfishness is easily corrupted into evil. This morning, on Headline News, they showed a brief clip of Mark Nichols on Larry King Live talking about how weird this all was and how he always thought of his brother, Brian, as the stable one and how they'd stay up all night and play Madden. It broke my heart, it sounded so ordinary. Last night on Dan Abrams, Dan was reading letters from people and one of them was criticizing Ashley Smith--Brian Nichols' hostage--for not fleeing earlier in the morning, as if everyone knows exactly what to do when being held hostage and she was remiss for not doing it. They'd shown Ashley Smith earlier, talking about her ordeal and how she felt that her god had put her in the path of Nichols for a reason. Her two guesses for that reason were the widely reported "so that he wouldn't kill anyone else" and the "so that he can experience God's love and share it in prison." In other words, she felt he was so profoundly changed by his experience with her, that he'd been saved. I don't want to spend too long talking about this, except to say that this is, yet again, another reason why Christianity and our form of government are uneasy bedfellows. She, acting on her beliefs, feels profound compassion for the man that could have very easily killed her. She's going to visit him in prison. She's already forgiven him. That kind of compassion is almost unbelievable. (And I think that's why the letter-writer was compelled to criticize her. Who can stand to see ordinary people, people with flaws as terrible as our own, being heroic in ways we don't think we can?) And her response to her ordeal argues for something savable in even the most violent killers, which is incompatible with killing them in return. The grief of the families of his victims, though, is unbearable. The AP has photos from the memorial service up and they are heartbreaking. What kind of person, when presented with a chance to escape, takes a gun and goes into the courtroom and starts killing people instead? They were talking last night on one of the news shows about how Smith is going to be set for life because someone will want to take her story and make it into a movie. It seems like they'll have to turn it into a narrative of some sort, to give it a plot arc, and clear more-than-human heroes and a clear less-than-human villain. Right now, it's unbearable. Here's a man who was loved by his brother but who savaged his girlfriend, who wanted to hang curtains for his hostage, but killed a court clerk. It'd be a lot easier to see him as a Hollywood villain than it is to see him as someone like any of us. And there's a woman, whose life had gone wrong in the ways all our lives turn out a little sadder and harder than we'd hoped, who ends up being a hero. And there are the ordinary families and friends of ordinary people who are now dead for no good reason. If Hollywood takes this over, it won't be us anymore. They'll have instantly recognizable stars who are better-looking and flashier than us in all the important roles. The story will be condensed and simplified into something we can understand without agonizing over it. Atlanta will be reduced to five or six good establishing shots and the courthouse will be spiffed up or dirtied down to set the proper mood. The experience will be taken out of our neighborhoods and worked over until it's molten and moldable and then sold back to us in a form that's no longer too familiar. Then, it'll follow the usual scripts, with people outraged that the movie glorifies violence, or thrilled that it delivers their political or religious message, and there will be the usual red carpet coverage of the film's opening, and the interviews with the stars. It'll be Hollywood. Frankly, I can't wait for that. Right now, it's too real, the feeling that this is the kind of thing that could happen to any of us, that we're all just one wrong choice away from sitting on Larry King Live trying to explain, to understand, how the brother we love is that man who did those horrible things.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I Love You, Anonymous Woman

Dear Anonymous Woman who came to our house last night, I don't know who you are, but you inspired the Butcher to clean the house more thoroughly than he's ever done before. Thanks, Aunt B.

Thanks, Grandma

So, my parents have the youngest nephew again, for a while, as usual. I got a plaintive call on Sunday night from my dad asking me to drive up there for Easter to go to church with them and watch the kid. It's hard, nearly impossible, for me to tell my dad "no" when he asks me for a favor. That's why I have the dog--who was a failed attempt by my brother and sister-in-law to prove to the world how bad-ass they are (though how one can be bad-ass when one lives with a minister, who knows?) and The Butcher--who once fucked up in life so bad that the return to my parents' house of the recalcitrant brother would have meant an automatic return to jail for the Butcher had he stayed at my parents' as well. I was telling the Professor the other day about this shocking realization I had while walking the dog: I'm not a feminist in spite of my patriarchal bullshit upbringing; I'm a feminist because of it. Oh how I loved to tell the story of my grandma's basement when I was a young feminist, about how we'd all go down there to play and the girls would emulate Grandma A. and play "office" at the big desks down there while the boys all sat around and drank Faygo and played pool. This, I'd say, is where I got the idea that women made their own money and bought their own things and took care of their own selves. But the other day, I realized, the reason my grandma worked, even while she had five young kids at home, is that, in my family, the patriarchal bullshit line isn't that women are delicate flowers who must be carefully protected from the outside world, but that women take care of men. Period. Women cook and clean and raise the children and even hold outside jobs. They do whatever they must to take care of the men. Men in my family, then, have a lot of free time to do things that we don't think of as typical patriarchal nonsense, like play with their kids. My dad spent a lot of time with us when we were younger. When we got sick at school, he'd come and get us and we'd go sleep on the couch in his office while he worked. Sometimes, we'd ditch school and go to the zoo with him. My dad was always there for us. Even now, he's always there for us. That's why he has the littlest nephew. That's why he's constantly driving down here to make sure the Butcher has enough money or self-esteem or whatever. I mean, if I ever got lost in the woods in the middle of Belize, my dad would be camped out in a hotel there until they dragged out my carcass living or dead. But he can do all this stuff because my mom works. So, this realization, that being a feminist and wanting to take care of myself and provide for myself and not have to be dependent on anyone else for my own security, is not the act of rebellion and awakening I thought it was when I was twenty, but just the logical outgrowth of the kind of roll I was brought up to assume and having a brain. So, I've got the "take care of myself" part down well. I have not overcome the "take care of everyone else" part yet. But I'm trying, slowly, to learn how to say no. After I learn how to say no, I will practice learning how to say no without feeling soul-crushing guilt. But, first, just saying no. So, my dad asked me to drive twelve hours over the course of two days to attend services for a religion I don't have any more in order to babysit for a kid who has two parents who are not dead and not me. I said no. It about did me in, but I said no. No explanation, no excuses, just no. He didn't hear me. I mean, he heard me, but it was incomprehensible to him that I'd say "no" to such a little thing, so he said we'd talk about it later. But I said no anyway. And now, I learn, that my Grandma D. is going to their house for Easter and the littlest nephew, her great-grandson, will sit with her, so my services will not be needed. That makes me very happy.


When I was talking about luck, I mentioned that some folks translate Urd's name as "debt or obligation." I find this notion useful. It means that none of us are born with a blank slate, but all are born with certain debts already incurred, certain obligations already waiting to be met. No one has to meet the obligations they have; they don't have to pay the debts. But if you don't take care of things, they sit out there, waiting for someone to deal with them. And your unmet obligations are handed down to the next generation and the next and the next. They don't go away, they just grow and fester. I spent my lunch hour today looking through the photos at Under Mars. If you haven't seen them, they're worth taking a look at. There are photos of soldiers dancing and laughing and playing drums. There are a lot of photos of landscapes and buildings and skies. There are also photos of dead people and body parts. Some of them have captions. Some of the captions might seem inappropriately callous or funny, but people deal with death in different ways. Anyway, the photos had me thinking about Urd again, about the debts being run up in our names over there. It's not just what we're doing to the Iraqis that concerns me, though that concerns me. It's what we're doing to ourselves. Someday, the soldiers who took photos of tanks running over dead bodies are going to come home. And they're never going to be able to unsee those things, to undo what we've asked them to do. We will have obligations to them. I hope we can meet them.

Monday, March 14, 2005


I just finished up Bird by Bird. I can't promise it will make me a better writer or make it easier for you to enjoy reading Tiny Cat Pants, because it wasn't until the very end of the book that I realized I'd read it before. So, obviously, the chances of any advice in there sinking in and doing any good is somewhere between slim and none. That being said, Anne Lamott advises that we should not be afraid to confront the things that cut us most deeply and expose them through our writing. That's probably because the things that cut her most deeply are great injustices like hunger and poverty and war. The thing that cuts me most deeply is Walmart. Going to Walmart, having to shop at Walmart, makes me feel like shit. Partly, it has to do with the overwhelmingness of the whole thing, the aisles upon aisles of everything you could possibly want--as long as it's not too unique--brought to you as cheaply as possible through the exploitation of your neighbors. God, it's unbearable. If you see me at Walmart, look down the aisle and see my Dad. I'm there because of him, either he needed to buy some thing that he just couldn't do without while I was visiting or he had to check to see if the inventory had changed since the last time he was at Walmart, approximately twelve hours ago, or he's finally lost his mind, wandered off, and I've come to retrieve him. I'd like to have a good, liberal "they exploit the workers and ruin small town downtowns" argument against Walmart, but I don't. Maybe because I grew up in towns where the town squares were populated by a VFW Hall, a drug store, and five bars, it seemed like the downtowns were already pretty dead before Walmart showed up. And it's not like rural folks aren't already used to shopping out of big boxes. We shopped at Pamada, Jack's, and my beloved Farm and Fleet for all sorts of stuff before Walmart moved in. It's true enough that they exploit their workers, but at least Walmart provides people jobs close to their homes. Also, usually Walmarts go in near strip malls or strip malls spring up near them, so with them comes conveniences like McDonald's and the Hallmark store. So, I don't believe it's easy enough to say that Walmart has ruined small town living. It seems to me that they just saw an opportunity and took it. And I hate that folks talk about Walmart like it's some cancer spread out across the heartland burrowing its way into even urban areas. Seriously, if a Walmart opened up in East Nashville or in the Bronx, what's the worst that could happen? It's like they think being rural and poor is contagious and if you go into Walmart to pick up some detergent, chips, and a bean bag, you're going to come out with a gun rack, a hunting cap, and the uncontrollable urge to beat your children in public. Or maybe it's like they think Walmart is some symbol of everything that's wrong with America and by keeping it out of their communities, they're somehow making a stand for decency and a living wage. I don't know. But I don't like feeling like the war against Walmart is indirectly a war against people like me (and I don't like that I feel that so viscerally that I don't quite know what I mean by it.) But, all that being said, I don't shop there. I'd rather go without things than shop there. I'd rather pay more at Target or Walgreen's than shop there. I don't like that there's so much stuff, so many choices and then so many individual units of whatever it is that they have. I am paralyzed by that. I don't like that the floors always look dirty, even at brand new Walmarts. I don't like that there's never enough check out lanes open, so you end up standing for what seems like hours behind some woman trying to herd her kids while her husband reads the back of his deer-urine scented hunting spray and ignores her. I don't like that you can't buy any cold medicine that might be used to make meth without going up to the pharmacist and everyone just accepts this as if it's just how things go, that we all have to be treated like children because some dumb-asses cannot refrain from poisoning themselves and their communities. I hate the jewelry at Walmart, especially, because it's so flimsy and fake looking, like anyone who shops at Walmart ought to be just fine with a cross pendant with her imitation birthstone attached to it and the arms so flimsy that they bend almost immediately once she starts wearing it. And all the watches, like all people who go to Walmart have is time and the time to watch time pass. Which is true, in some respects, as we're all herded through the store and up and down the aisles and queued up in line to pay to leave. But most of all, I don't like that the whole store seems set up to deliver to you everything you really need, as if this is the official store of America, the place to get everything you need to have "real life." As if your inability to find what you want there is not some fault of the store, but of you for over-reaching, for being extravagant and unreasonable, for you not fitting in and understanding your proper place.

MTV, All is Forgiven

During the first season of Ashlee Simpson's show, the copyright notice read "Copywrite 2004." God, that made me laugh. And they left it that way for the whole season. It's fixed now, but it's the kind of thing that just summed up for me the whole Ashlee Simpson phenomenon: that everything about her career is not quite thought through, not quite checked for obvious errors, and that the mistakes are inconsequential anyway, because no one will notice or really give a shit if they do catch it. It's fixed now, which makes me a little sad. This weekend, though, I caught both the new Making the Band and Lizzie Grubman's show and I am happy with MTV once again. There is an old story that, if you watch the Sopranos, you have heard. It goes like this: a woman is walking through the forest and she comes to a river that she needs to cross. Also at the edge of the river is a snake (or a scorpion) and the snake asks her to carry him across the river, because it's too far for him to swim. She refuses. "You'll bite me," she says. "No," he assures her. If you take me across the river, I won't bite you." This goes on for some time, her saying that he'll bite her and him insisting that he won't. Finally, she decides to be nice and take him across. When they get to the other side, he bites her. As she's dying from his venom, she says, "You said you wouldn't bite me!" and he says, "But you knew I was a snake when you picked me up." Watching both Making the Band and Power Girls reminds me of that story. If ever two shows revealed everything unseemly about celebrity, it's those two. The arbitrary decisions, the egos, the butt-kissing, the general stupidity, it's all out there on full display. And yet, the only way I can understand the popularity of these shows is if most of the viewing public is willfully blind to what's actually going on and caught up in the "glamour" of it all. Take Lizzie Grubman's show, for instance. If you have two ounces of common sense, you can see that working for Grubman would be a nightmare. Everything about her is forced. She's failing at fake pretty. She's failing at cool boss. She's yelling at her "girls" about being too caught up with wanting to be a celebrity, and yet she's walking the red carpet. She's taking credit for launching people's careers, at the same time she's passing those people off to her peons. Her employees have to work long hours for little pay (most of them seem to have two jobs) and they have to work with and for people with enormous senses of entitlement. But are these girls bitter? No. And why not? Clearly, because they're idiots. In the episode I saw, two of them lied to Grubman on camera. Dude, everyone knows that if you're going to lie to your boss, do not leave film evidence that proves otherwise. So, working long hours at a thankless job with a woman whose sole joy seems to be reminding the world what favors she's done for it, while also working other jobs because she's not paying you enough to live on, is okay because you get to hang out with stars. And what are these stars like? Are they smarter, better, more talented, prettier than the rest of us? To judge by the cast of Making the Band, the answer is a resounding 'no.' In face, they all appear to have come out of whatever Frankenstein's lab gave us Ciera and Ashanti. They all have that same look, the long, straight hair, the low pants, the pretty, but unremarkable faces. But more than that, they all seem to think that they'll just magically become stars without having unique talent. What's most telling is that many of them seem to get that they need to stand out in some way. But rather than being the best singers they can or the best dancers or best team leaders or whatever, they seem to be trying to make sure that their "character" is well-defined. One is "the girl whose mom is dying." Another is "the girl who can't dance." A third is "the girl who'd rather be a solo artist." And the thing is, if any of them had watched the last couple seasons, they'd know that the character Puffy is most looking for is "talented, humble, grateful, and self-possessed." In other words, people who remind him of what he thinks of himself. This, I think is the most hilarious unintended consequence of MTV's brand of reality tv: that there is now a generation of people who think that it's not just that everyone will get his 15 minutes of fame, but that everyone, no matter how unremarkable, deserves that 15 minutes of fame--me included. Yesterday, I was trying to talk the Man from GM into quitting his job and going into the custom vehicle business. I was telling him how Jesse James only had to get a show on the Discovery Channel to see the price of his bikes sky-rocket. If the Man from GM went into, say, custom SUV-building and got a show on Discovery, I volunteered to be responsible for stirring up trouble and giving him someone to fight with. He thinks that the things we fight about are too obscure for most people to give a shit about. I don't know. Our three longest fights have been pretty ordinary. He's still pissed that I told him I was a vegetarian the first time I met him (fourteen years ago), even though I'm not. I'm unhappy that he tries to play grab-ass with all of my friends. But the thing we fight about most often is my propensity to tell everyone about the time he came to visit me in North Carolina and how I gave him a stack of towels to use during his stay, one for every day, if he wanted, with the only rule being that he could not use the pink towel in the bathroom. On the last day of his visit, he came out of the bathroom, with my pink towel wrapped around his waist. I was at the kitchen table, and the roommate he'd been hitting on all weekend was at the sink, but turned towards me. The Man from GM walked into the kitchen. "Is that my towel, you motherfucker?" I asked (see, how is this not good reality tv drama?). "I gave you three fucking towels of your own." "God damned," he said, "Do you have to be a bitch about everything? You want it back? Here." And he whooped off the towel and handed it over to me. My roommate's eyes got very wide and then she started to shriek. Then, she threw her hands over her face and turned towards the sink, still shrieking. At this point, I start to laugh, and the poor Man from GM is standing there, arm outstretched, towel in hand, buck naked and turning bright red, because the last thing anyone wants is for a person he thinks is nifty to start shrieking and hiding her face when he gets naked. Still, I think he handled it as gracefully as one can, wrapping the towel back around him, and heading off down the hall. Yes, we're too old to fit MTV's demographic, but I'm thinking that Discovery might be right up our alley: The Engineer and the Hermit who Antagonizes him.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Clearly, I'm No Artist

As I've said, I'm always stumbling across weird shit in our apartment that leads me to have to ask such questions as "Why is there a pile of broken mirror on our back porch?" or "Why is there a huge roll of telephone wire behind the couch?" The answers to these questions are always "It's for something I'm making." Well, I'm proud to report that today, when my brother, the dear Butcher, went into the bathroom, he yelled down, "Why are there a bunch of copper pyramids in the shower?" And I was able to holler back, "It's for something I'm making." Here's the deal. We're about to move offices and I will, yet again, not be getting a window. I will, however, be getting a real room that is not just a wide spot in the hallway, so I am excited about that. But I need something to liven up the place, something that isn't too distracting when I need to concentrate, but something that will slowly change over time, as would the scenery out the window. So, I had this idea of starting copper to patina and hanging that on my wall, where it would be shiny and add some light to the room, but slowly change to green. I thought this would be an easy-enough transformation, as I've spent a great deal of my childhood trying to clean green off of my dad's penny collection, which led me to believe that copper would turn green without much prodding, but there were obstacles and disappointments at every turn. So, of course, I had to haul the Professor along. I promised her that, at the end of it all, we would drink, profusely. We did not. This is the story of how two people, wanting only to get drunk and sit in my front yard (using 'yard' in the same loose sense that convicts do, when they talk about the prison yard, which is concrete and the threat of death) while staring at beautifully patina-ing copper, failed in even that small goal. The first disappointment of the day was that it was so beautiful here yesterday that everyone in Nashville was at the park. Our usual route was clogged with joggers and so we decided to go around to the other side of the park where every jackass in town was letting his dog run off-leash. Nashville, is it too much to ask for you to put your god-damned dog back on the leash when you see me coming? I don't let my dog off her leash. I don't let her come bounding up to you--though she would like nothing better--and lick your children--though she loves to lick children. Start extending me that same courtesy or I swear to god, I'm going to get a paintball gun and shoot it at your dog so that it will back the fuck off my dog and everyone else at the park has fair warning that your an inconsiderate jackass who thinks that half-heartedly saying "Spot, come back here" and having your dog look over at you and roll its eyes constitutes having your dog under control. Okay, back on point, we had lunch at this place we'd both been meaning to try and I had this fabulous Greek sandwich which was full of awesome stuff, especially these really fresh cucumbers. Then we went to the pet shop to tempt the Professor, but it was closed, so all we could do is stare in the window and dream. There was this darling, darling beagle/coonhound mix and I was in love with it. The Professor preferred a boxer mix that kept sitting on its toy. Then, we went out to Home Depot to get copper post toppers. No luck. Then, we drove and drove to the next Home Depot. No luck. Finally, we went to Lowe's. We're going up and down all the aisles and getting more despondent and thinking maybe we're going to have to find a place that sells copper roofing. And the Professor gets on the phone with the Sheik and asks him where we can get some copper. Just as a side note, I must say that one of the things that cracks me up about the Professor--and I do it to, in all honesty--is that we call people who do not live here for advice on where we might find things here in town. Before she'd called her brother, I'd already been on the phone with my dad and he was all like, "Check the Hobby Lobby" and I thought that was a brilliant idea except that I've never seen a Hobby Lobby here in Nashville. But as she's talking to her brother, I turned the corner and there, on a shelf, were the copper post toppers. Armed with them, some sandpaper, and some copper patina-ing crap we got from Michael's, we started the long trek home. On the way, the Professor was trying to convince me that I needed to have a scandalous affair. The Professor is, right now, having seventeen scandalous affairs. I suspect that, if you checked her pockets, you'd find a piece of paper with the names of all of her scandalous affair-ees and notes next to each name so that when one of them calls her, she can check and make sure she remembers some discerning feature about him or her, so that he or she feels properly loved, or at least remembered. So, easy enough for her to say, but I'm mostly a hermit, so scandalous affairs are harder to come by. I did, however, promise her that should someone come by the house, looking to have one, I'd at least consider it. Once we got back here, we set up in the front yard with all our little copper pyramids and some brushes. We scuffed up the copper, wiped on the patina crap, and waited for something to happen. And waited... and waited... Finally, some of the patina crap dried to the copper pyramids, but that was about it in terms of exciting transformations. And, we didn't even drink because the Professor had to drive back out to the airport and I was just feeling tired and disappointed. It was funny, but not funny enough to balance out my bitterness at not being able to just whoop something up for my office with the same ease that the Butcher whoops up art for the house. But then, I got to thinking that it's weather that makes copper patina naturally. So, I picked up all my pyramids and took them upstairs and distributed them throughout the shower. And what do you know? They've started to turn green.

Friday, March 11, 2005

If that's all it takes, don't be surprised when I start writing for the New York Times

Today, I open up the New York Times (electronic version) and see that there's an Op-Ed piece about Rap and the Blues. Fresh off my triumphant trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, I was ready to read something about 20th century American Music. Dear reader, it's with both disappointment and delight that I inform you that it was dreadful! If I subscribed to The New Republic, I'd have to cancel my subscription based solely on the stupidity of David Hajdu's performance here in the NYTimes. Who can trust him as a music critic? Let's start with his basic premise: "In its bloodlust, hip-hop is more old school than many of its fans and critics may realize; in fact, the music is carrying on a tradition as old as the blues." Yes, "as old as the blues." Before the blues, apparently, no one sang songs about murder or the assorted other ways folks have of hurting each other. This will be of great relief to Barbara Allen who's been tormenting herself for hundreds of years over the death of poor William. Apparently, he just died of boredom, living as he did, in the times before anything happened. Then, let's dwell for a second on the next little bit. I'm going to make a convoluted point about how part of the problem with any white folks talking about the blues is the ways in which white fantasies about the black musicians--especially black men--, the secret meanings of the music, and the kinds of legends white folks wish were true all tend to cloud what are fascinating stories in their own right. You can ponder the irony of that while I do it. He lets you know right off the bat that he thinks the blues were "were created by and for indigent African-American sharecroppers." This is one of those things that is true enough, but lets you know immediately that you're going to hear a little story about masculinity and struggle and lone guitarists out there at the crossroads selling their souls to the devil and not one about traveling shows and jug bands and fife and drum music and the women who got rich, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, at a time when hardly any black people had money. And just after he says that the blues were "coded in language about domestic matters, to throw off any eavesdropping whites"--thank god that Hajdu is more advanced than those white folks and able to decipher the language of the blues!--he trots out the legend of Robert Johnson, right on schedule: "Robert Johnson, the iconic early master of country blues, whose legend tells how he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his enigmatic guitar style..." Whose legend? I've never seen convincing evidence that any black person who knew Robert Johnson ever knew this legend or even heard about this supposed soul-selling until white blues collectors started asking folks in Mississippi about it. Tommy Johnson cultivated such a legend about himself (much like Peetie Wheatstraw, from St. Louis, called himself "the Devil's Son-in-Law") and Tommy's brother-in-law did much to further the idea that Tommy had sold his soul to the Devil. Both Johnsons spent time around Crystal Springs and it may be that some white blues collector heard someone talking about that Johnson boy who sold his soul at the cross roads down by Crystal Springs, and, not having heard of Tommy, assumed it was Robert. But we know better now. Robert never claimed to have sold his soul to anyone. Tommy did. This is widely-available knowledge. Why do white blues enthusiast continue to ascribe the legend to Robert? Here are my guesses: 1. Robert is now more famous than Tommy. 2. Tommy was obviously creating an over-the-top public persona in order to get people to go to his shows. That's not nearly as exciting as someone secretly selling their soul. 3. Racism in two ways: 1. The ingrained and unexamined assumption that black people are magical (see Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc.) and, 2. that Robert Johnson was not capable of perfecting his craft, but instead had to make some kind of occult deal in order to enhance his "gift." 4. Robert died "mysteriously," while Tommy died of a heart attack. Okay, onward through Hajdu's piece. Next, he has an awkward paragraph that attempts to cover all musical genres from blues to hip-hop which gives the impression that the blues "gave us innumberable musical styles from jazz to rock." Jazz was born out of the blues? I thought jazz was born out of ragtime and other New Orleans musical experiments older than the blues. But no matter. Getting things in chronological order would take away from his weird desire to link black blues musicians with "authentic" violence and white musicians with posturing and anti-roguishness--such as poor tuburcular Jimmie Rodgers, one-day-in-jail-serving Johnny Cash, and Bennie Goodman, who apparently sucked all of the violence right out of swing music with his mere presence. Which leads us to his complaint about hip-hop: "How does hip-hop fit into this legacy? Awkwardly. While it too has at its heart the fury of profoundly frustrated, often desperate, souls, gunfire-for-show like the Lil' Kim incident and the recent altercation over 50 Cent demean that history through pettiness, self-consciousness and off-handedness." What the fuck? His complaint about hip-hop violence is that it's too petty, self-conscious, and off-handed? Again, what the fuck? Is there some proud history of violence? Seriously, is he proposing some universally accepted standard for judging the aesthetics of violence that contemporary hip-hop violates? These young whippersnappers just don't know how to "shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs" like they did back in the old days. Because lord knows there's nothing petty or off-handed about "I'm going to old Mexico, where there's long, long reaching guns/ When they want real excitement, they kill each other one by one." Whatever. He says, "In blues, the reasons (or rationales) for the violence were ostensibly amatory or otherwise personal, though societal by extension: a broken heart, wounded pride [emphasis mine], maltreatment by the boss (standing in for white society). But what was the shooting on Hudson Street about?" Folks, you can't make shit like this us. He asks the question, but fails to see that he's provided his own answer. The shooting on Hudson Street was about wounded pride. The 50 Cent/the Game beef is about wounded pride and maltreatment by the boss; 50 being, in effect, the Game's boss. He makes one insightful point--"shootings like these seem conducted mainly for image-making, for reinforcing the street cred that rap stars' rapidly acquired wealth inevitably threatens"--and then he starts in with how rap stars are scarcely marginalized in comparison to their ancestors in the blues, with their lives of privilege and conspicuous opulence. Again, which ancestors? Smith and Rainey were plenty conspicuously opulent and could have still told you a story or two about being marginalized. Then, Hajdu ends with his own petty, off-handed violence: "In a sense, the shootouts on Hudson Street were business ventures--investments without much risk, since arrest, conviction, imprisonment and even death all confer status in hip-hop society." Yes, being jailed or dying doesn't matter to hip-hop artists the same way it does to us regular folks. But stunningly that's less offensive--the notion that death doesn't mean that much to these artists--than the overall theme of the piece, which seems to be that Hajdu likes old, dead, mythologized-and-only-understood-by-white-folks black men who can mean whatever he wants them to mean better than he likes living artists. How can someone with that attitude be a good music critic?

The Hall of Fame & Museum

So, I've been thinking more about my growing love for the Hall of Fame & Museum and I think it's largely for two reasons. One is that we have these music channels on our digital cable and I've been turning on "classic country" and just letting it play in the background as I do shit around the house. (They used to have one for, but I think they discovered the sorry truth, which is, most of it sounds exactly the same--bad. Flame on, folks, about how Nashville I am. Whatever, you and I both know I'll see you down to the Bluegrass Inn soon enough.) It helps a great deal to actually know old country music before you start wandering around a museum devoted to it. But the second thing I love about it, and this love grows more every time I go there, is the music in the museum. Every place you turn, there's more music. Yes, the displays are just as cheesy as they were over at the old place. Yes, it does seem strange to go and look at people's boots (though, sweet Jesus, there are some awesome men's shoes in the place). And yes, it feels kind of weirdly spread out. But don't go to look at things. Go to listen. And, wow, then the museum springs to life like no other museum I've ever been to. It literally takes on a whole other shape, once you shut your eyes. They have these strange, seashelled shaped listening booths, and the first one you walk around brings you up to speed on what was going on in Southern music in general when "country" music started to coalesce. You stand in front of it, and you're hearing old timey mountain music; you step to the side and the mountain music fades from hearing, replaced by old Bob Johnson, and as you turn fully into the booth, there's church singing. I don't know how they do it, but it's like this all over the museum. You'd expect it to degrade into cacophony, with sounds from one part leaking into the sounds from another, until it's all just noise. But somehow they keep the sound spaces distinct. But, most awesomely, the museum constantly reaffirms my faith in country music. All along one wall, there are all these gold and platinum records. Some of them swing open and, when they open, you can hear the music from the record that won the award. I don't know who picked which ones should open, but it's the Outlaws and Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline and all the folks you know by heart and love. Unlike pop or rap or rock, where you feel like the best those genres has to offer is constantly getting lost--like there's some secret cannon that only the hipsters are onto that is filled with all the "really" good stuff--listening to the biggest country music records renews your faith in the taste of ordinary folks. Sure, crap is rewarded in country, the same way it's rewarded in other genres. But there we were, in a mostly empty space, listening to Cash sing and knowing that was good, just the same as the museum knows he's good, the same as the people who bought his albums know he's good, the same as the folks who cheer when his songs get sung in honky-tonks know he's good, the same as the men in Folsom prison knew he was good. It's pretty amazing. How can you not dance to that?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Scruggs Style

The Butcher and I went over to the opening of Earl Scruggs's exhibit at the Hall of Fame tonight. It was pretty cool because we got to wander through the museum. The museum is weird in that the first time you go through it, it seems like a total waste of money, like there's not enough there to justify the amount you spent. It feels kind of sparse. But the more times you go through it, the cooler it gets. You start to linger on exhibits and notice the little details. If you're not too self-conscious, you can spend a great deal of time dancing around to the music that's playing all over the museum. We ate dinner in the Hall of Fame itself, next to the Willie Nelson plaque. I had this brilliant idea that we should make a giant chocolate bar/fake Hall of Fame plaque with, say, me on it and place it in the Hall and then see if anyone noticed before it started to melt. I also had this great idea. What if someone hacked into an online dictionary and slightly changed word definitions? Would it throw English majors everywhere into fits? The last great idea was that they should totally put a giant slide in the Museum that would go from the third floor all the way down to the gift shop, a big slowly circling slide for grown folks.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


A thousand years ago, when the poet, Egil Skallagrimson lost his son to the sea, he wrote this: Most woeful the breach, Where the wave in-brake On the fenced hold Of my father's kin. Unfilled, as I wot, And open doth stand The gap of son rent By the greedy surge. Of course, he didn't write it in English, and we aren't obliged to treat the translation available in the public domain as inviolate. We might, instead, rephrase it like this: The breach the wave made in the fence of my father's kin, is unfilled--I know--and a son-shaped hole, torn by the greedy sea, stands open. I find that imagery both beautiful and heartbreaking: the gap of son in his family's kin fence. To see your family as your first line of protection against the world, that web of relationships keeping you from harm, coupled with the grief at losing a son, it's pretty moving. Let's come back to this. One of the unexpected things that's been sticking in my craw from my exchange with the Legal Eagle is the issue of the role of the university. Is the university a forum for the free exchange of ideas? Is the university's primary role that of the shaper of young minds? If I believed those things, I think I'd have to rethink my position on Ann Coulter. But I don't think the university's first obligation is to ideas or students. I had to go digging around in the attic of the English language to find a word that gets at what I think the university's first obligation is, but I finally found it, in a box marked "Common Teutonic," the word Frith. I think the university's first obligation is to maintain the frith of the community. Frith is in the OED, and Oxford defines it as "peace, freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security," and as a verb, "to keep in peace, make peace with; to secure from disturbance, help, preserve, protect." In its Anglo Saxon form--freod--it has to do with peace, friendship, good will and affection. In Old English, the word was "freo," which means "free." It comes from the Indo-European root "pri," which means to love. In another Germanic form, it is *frijaz--beloved and, interestingly, "belonging to the loved ones." As well as free, it's related to filibuster, afraid, and Friday (from the Germanic compound *frije-dagaz or "day of Frigg," who is, of course, Odin's beloved.) Here we get a sense of the true scope of Egil's grief. Freedom for him is not an absence of responsibility to anyone but himself. Freedom--his peace, safety, and security--is bound up in his belonging to the people who love him and who he loves. The loss of his son to the sea, leaving no body to put in the family grave, is a personal loss and a loss to everyone in frith with him. To circle back to the university and maintaining the frith of the university community, I'm not arguing that everyone at the university has to love each other. In fact, I'd argue that it's precisely because the opposite is true--that you have all different kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds who all aren't going to get along under normal circumstances--that the university has an obligation to establish and maintain frith. Under this paradigm, everyone who is a member of the university community--faculty, staff, and students--has a right and an obligation to expect maintained peace and safety and to contribute to that atmosphere. With the maintenance of frith as the goal, a student has a right and obligation to sit in the classroom and learn what his or her instructor has to teach. An instructor has a right and an obligation to teach his or her students the intended materials. Discussions and even disagreements are to be encouraged, because they further the goal of learning and teaching the materials, but personal attacks, disruptive and disrespectful behavior, and idiocy that wastes the class's time don't have to be tolerated, because they break frith. Staff members have a right and an obligation to insist on respectful behavior from the administration and faculty. And though academia is full of rugged individuals and their oversized egos, for the sake of the university community, these egos are kept in check. And, if they're not, for the health of the community, the egos are encouraged to be someone else's problem. The lively exchange of ideas among members of the university community is exceedingly important to the well-being of the community, but also fraught with danger, because attacks on ideas so quickly become attacks on people. Establishing and maintaining frith allows for disagreements, even raucous ones, because everyone involved has the assurance that everyone is working towards the same goal--right relationship with each other. True enough that no one in the university as it is right now gives a shit about establishing and maintaining frith. And so it's probably true that my objection to inviting Ann Coulter to campus is not only antique, it's beside the point. But, I think giving her a forum breaks frith. It doesn't put the health and well-being of the community first, because she doesn't merely disagree with ideas, she viciously attacks people. It doesn't encourage thoughtful discussion, because she's a sloppy thinker. And though I'm sure some campus conservatives feel that her speaking on campus will give voice to their concerns in a way that cannot be ignored, I don't believe she's in right-relation with other conservatives, so I have my doubts about whether their concerns are her concerns. Discussions had in frith, such as the Legal Eagle's and my longwinded argument, can change people's minds--in some cases, though not ours--or they can provide a useful tool for helping each person understand the shape and contour of her beliefs. Both are important potential outcomes. It's rare, on the other hand, that any good comes from any activity which deliberate breaks frith.