please stop tickling me

In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Location: Portland, Oregon

Otium cum Dignitatae

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Can't Hear It On The Radio

It's almost impossible to sum up how important R.E.M. once was, as opposed to the nostalgia show/alternative muzik While-U-Shop thing they are now. Long ago, back when Michael Stipe had hair, didn't look like Moby, didn't whine, for fuck's sake.

I'm talking about the entire period that is eulogized in the song "Nightswimming": I don't think all these people un-der-stannnd...Hell, even that sounded whiny, but it was referring to a specific time and place. He was talking about that dim and distant time when no reasonable radio programmer outside of the college radio ghetto would even think of putting The Only Band That Mutters on their playlist. That long ago and far away place where all these people who would, not long after, become quite famous played for small crowds of their friends and their friends friends in each others' basements, later -drunk!- goin' swimmin' in the Georgia night.

I need to say a little something about all that too. Just the music, though. That's all I can really take on here. That, and two of the greatest albums of the 1980's, which both happen to be by the formerly greatest band in Alterna-America, R.E.M.

It is a matter of some debate as to when they sold out. Many said it was 'Green' (true purists had said it was 'Document'), I personally date it to 'Out of Time'. Despite the great and wistful "Shiny Happy People" and the underrated "Near Wild Heaven", it was the album where they clearly did that thing successful bands do: they note what has worked well in the past, and determine to do it over and over again ad infinitum for the rest of their career.
What had started this process though, was 'Life's Rich Pageant'. It was the first album where they literally sang in a voice clear enough to be understood. I finally started to get it, young as I was. I hadn't really been able to get it before.

So that's just it; they sold out, which is to say the music had become explicable to young teenagers like myself. This is the paradox that we who dwell in the bargain basement of hometown heroes and Special Children get to live with: craft your message, you're pandering. Fail to be cohesive, you're engaging in willful obscurantism, and therefore can be dismissed.

What then might be those two best albums I was crowing about a minute ago? That would be R.E.M.'s 'Reckoning'(1984), which was their second full length album, and 'Life's Rich Pageant'(1986). Somewhere in those two years, they went from those people we knew, liked and wanted to see do well to those bastards who signed with a major label.
Way more importantly, they went from a weirdly organic, strongly personal point of narrative to a broader type of appeal that sounded not unlike a call to arms.

'Reckoning' is muddy where 'Life's Rich Pageant' is clear, strictly in terms of production values. Besides, Michael Stipe literally mutters throughout the damn thing, but that actually makes you want to pay more attention. The music is the sort of thing that infuriated classic rock enthusiasts back in the day, and now that seems so fucking silly. It's strongly anchored in the basic American rock idiom: it sounds like country rock, but several steps forward.

The lyrical point of view is rooted in the personal mythology of someone who is asking you to step inside and check it out with them. What's a "Harborcoat"? Well, you'd know if you owned one..."Don't Go Back To Rockville" is what Tom Petty would write if he was much smarter and ten times more original. "South Central Rain" is a parenthetical story you keep writing in your head, but never get down on paper. Its first line is, But you never called...

(Actually, the folks at give that as being,
Did you never call? I waited for your call
These rivers of suggestion are driving me away

Which is maybe the better line, but here we get from the private dreams of the narrator into the private interpretations of -and connections drawn by- the listener.)

Pretty much all of these songs are sing-alongs, which is weird for an album where you can't clearly make out most of the lyrics. There's this certain ritualized nature at work here in these songs of love and confusion: Here we are...Here we are...Here we aaaaarrre...
But beyond that, there's these quasi-political statements, ala
The biggest wagon is the empty wagon is the noisiest
the Conestoga horse
Jefferson, I think we lost

Which could be or mean lots of things, I guess. Might not mean a damn thing, too.

(And again, I maintain that online song lyric sites are mondegreen generators. They give that line above as 'the consul, a horse', which it certainly might be, but when you're muttering for a living, it has lots more to do with what some teenager somewhere thinks it is, and I believe you're giving up interpretation to that.)

The music is restrained, yet earthy. The lyrics have to do with the editorial You and Me that the majority of rock n' roll is about. It namechecks Chinese folk tales, and the final song is an incoherent edit from what sounds like the middle of a jam they got into, but never quite made a song out of. It sounds like it was recorded in one of Athens, Ga.'s finer basements.

'Life's Rich Pageant', by complete contrast, even begins loud and clear. "Begin The Begin" is the first song by them I noticed that rocked. It is dealing in the subjective still, but also...
Well, it's like they signed with a major record label and decided that this implied a certain duty. If we're going to be making more money and reaching more people, this means we have to talk about the world at large, and encourage right action, good behaviors.

At least that's the way I interpret it:

Bir-die in the hand
for life's rich demand
the insurgency began
and you missed it...


Silence means security
silence means approval
I seen it on the teevee
tiger run around the tree
follow the leader
run and turn into butter

The '80's, as the legend goes, was a great time for activism. This tends to be the revisionist view of pretty much any decade where the prevailing norm was restraint and control. So in the sense of, "well, there was a lot to protest about," yes, it was. And the case could be made that, after the lazy '70's, people woke back up again.

The music reflects this. "These Days" is the second song off of 'Life's Rich Pageant', and is a stirring anthem that could easily apply to pretty much any cause you wanted to append it to:

All the people gather...
Fly to carry each his burden
we are young despite the years
we are concerned
we have hope despite the times...

I wanted to tell Howard Dean to adopt that as his song, once. The obliqueness of difficulty, danger and life is addressed in "Fall On Me", which basically is a big long prayer to ask the sky not to fall on one. But in the video, and the liner notes, the phrase "bury magnets" keeps popping up.
The next song is another barn burner. "Cuyahoga" is the name of one of those rivers that was so polluted it actually caught fire (the Willamette being another, natch), and it was also the name of a tribe. The lyrical conceit here is...If we were that tribe, and looking at the world as it is now, what would our reaction be?

Let's put our heads together
and start a new country up
the father's father's father tried
erased the part he didn't like...

and, ominously

This land is the land of ours
this river runs red over it
we are not your allies
we can not defend...

So maybe it's time we stopped behaving stupidly with the earth, too, huh? This was a newer idea in political discourse at the time.

"Hyena" is kind of a throwaway song, but it rocks, and it always makes me glad to hear it. Same goes for the largely instrumental "Underneath The Bunker", which is a kitschy faux-middle-eastern spy theme.

"The Flowers of Guatemala" is the resident tearjerker of the album. But it comes at it sideways. It doesn't write itself a nice easy anti-death-squad rant, it instead is all about setting the scene for what potentially is lost.
And by the time the chorus of flow-ers co-ver everything...You hear it as both 'this is a beautiful place' and 'flowers are blood'...It's awesome, and a perfect blending of R.E.M. classic and R.E.M. the sell out years.

But musically, I like the anthems here better. "I Believe" is exactly what it sounds like: a statement of of basic belief.

Trust in your calling, make sure your calling's true
Think of others, the others think of you
Silly rule golden words make, practice, practice makes perfect,
Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change


I believe in example
I believe my throat hurts
Example is the checker to the key

I believe my humor's wearing thin
And I believe the poles are shifting

I believe my shirt is wearing thin
And change is what I believe in

Right? Seems naive now, don't it? Or does it? Seems to me that someone recently got elected President promising something as simple and vague as 'change'.

"What If We Give It Away" sounds like a pretty straightforward song; no mistaking what something so simply named is about, right? Well, wrong. I have no idea what the fucking thing is trying to say.
Although I do occasionally say, here's the trailer, Tom for no really good reason.

Another anthem. "Just A Touch" was, I thought, about the new world openin' up for your small quirky bands, and how one day they might just change the face of popular music, including the iconic phrase, can't hear it on the radio...
But a look at what some guy on some lyrics website has to say puts me in doubt. For one thing, apparently it's 'Kevin heard it on the radio'...Which I doubt, and...

Well what in the world? Women in black
Don't you remember, Sonny's, Tyrone's, packed, packed
A day in the life well nobody laughed
Look to the days how long can this last

I can't see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green,
I can't see, I'm so young, I'm so god damn young

Um, yeah. And it isn't 'set it off, just a touch', either. Good lord, I'm confused.

"Swan Swan H" is a nice little ditty that would work well with some knowingly anachronistic band like The Decembrists playing it. I like the fact that the word 'hummingbird' is chopped down to 'H' in the title, like it's part of an old sign on the side of a building that is partially obscured by plaster and decades of grime.

Swan, swan hummingbird
hurrah, we're all free now
what noisy cats are we...


A pistol hot cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb, what's the price of heroes?

(I maintain that that's actually 'cup of brine', by the way.)

They end off with "Superman", which is a cover of a minor hit by an obscure '60's band called The Clique. I'm not sure why they did it, but I'm glad they did.

(By the way, for fans of lingering questions, that speeded-up tape thing at the beginning? gives it as:
(Godzilla doll opens in Japanese with "This is a special news report. Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on it by the Self-Defense Force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. AAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!!!")

Which is nice. Anyway, I love 'em both, that's why they're here, these two albums, in a tie, which is rare for the Periodic Table.
One couldn't be without the other, I suppose?


Monday, July 20, 2009

A Place in Time

Here is the stage set for The Decembrists, Andrew Bird and Blind Pilot. I realized then that I should have taken pictures of the actual musicians, later that evening, but everybody does that.
Seriously though; I should have shot the Decembrists at least. It was probably the most visually stunning show I've seen so far this year, with David Byrne being a close second.

(Taylor Swift gets an honorable mention third place, though, for the water gag. I'm sure it will be industry standard in a year or so, but for now it's novelty to have a machine that spells out words in falling drops of water. She'd sing, "oh," and the word 'OH' would appear amidst the waterfall. So this means that there's what amounts to a sprinkler up there that is controlled by a computer program that strictly polices each and every spout so that it shoots the exact amount at the exact moment.
Like I say, once upon a time not everybody had a video wall, either. I notice that the Jonas Bros. already have a water gag too, so get ready.)

I was getting ready to dismiss this entire two-day event as Twee Fest '09, and to be sure, it kind of is. But it was still good, goddamn it, and I appreciate that people working this particular angle can make money this way.
And that angle would be: pretty music, played on quirky instruments. Vaguely perverse lyrics and knowing archaism, but the general vibe being that everything's just fine. Ladies in pretty dresses and the men cleaned up just nicely enough. Whistling is allowed here, and the occasional weird breaks of classic rock are both ironic and one hundred per cent serious homage.

At first, I was sighing to my cynical ass self, noting that Andrew Bird's road guy was a hipster charicature right down to the Bianchi single speed he brought with him. Also, a light blue terrycloth shirt with enormous collar, turqoise belt buckle, feathered hair and cookie-duster moustache. I think I can actually be forgiven for rolling my eyes and saying, look at this fucking hipster...
On another level, I was kind of thinking of rock journalism of the past, and how so often the writer is right there at the right time; it's clear that they're right in the middle of a pivotal point in history. I was thinking; maybe ten years ago. Maybe when it was a bit harder -well, impossible- to envision that orchestral pop with strong countrypolitan tinges might sell out small outdoor venues.

But really, this is the moment. Colin Meloy is a total hipster superstar. He is exactly what those who sell things might very well enjoy selling you. His songs will be in quirky rom-coms. They may very well show up in a televised attempt to sell you a certain brand of beer. He writes really catchy songs, and knows when to get the crowd to sing along. He also will awkwardly sandwich in a plea for health care reform, and how we all oughta bug Ron Wyden about it. It was charming, as opposed to annoying.
And the fans worship him/them. The whole thing had a decidedly revivalist vibe to it. On one hand, they were singing most of a song cycle/concept album, so the theatrical elements had to be there, but I get the feeling that this is the way it always is. Certainly for home town heroes come back to roost.

They did a stunning version of "Crazy On You" by Heart as one of the encores. It was sung by the two lady guest-vocalists, who were undulating and pointing at the audience, drawing them in. It was the moment -hardly the first- where we crossed right over irony and into appreciating a kickass song that, y'know, I always did like...
And there even was The Crazy. That nice little piece between outright clinical insanity and where the rest of us live. Where we are in the mysteries, feelin' the magic. This tends to be a collective thing.

These are hipsters growing up and having kids; the audience certainly reflected this. These are the people with the day jobs, and for the first time in pretty much all of our lives, they were watching people on the stage who were the same age, and had managed to quit theirs, to just do this for a living.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Visit to scenic, historic, downtown Bureaucratic Hell

So...You call 'em "processing fees"; I call 'em "bribes". Wait. Back up.

After Steve Miller was done rocking (us) baby, on Sunday night, we had a couple hours worth of running around in the rain. After this, I was doin' my usual and flying back down Marine Drive.
One headlight, yeah I know. Windshield fogged up due to faulty defrost system? Certainly! Speeding? Well, probably, but not as rash as it may appear.
In any case, this caught the attention of a Port of Portland police officer, who gave chase.

When I saw the lights in my rearview, I thought I was just going to be getting out of his way. When it became clear that his lights were for me, I got ready to sit there a while.
But then I thought: oh shit. Tygh Ridge, a year ago!

Yeah crap; now here was where I thought I might very well be goin' to jail. Just south of The Dalles, on our way up to Sherar's Bridge and ultimately to Shaniko and Antelope, we were stopped on the crest just above Tygh Valley by some Wasco County deputy. I was roaring to the top of that hill in the neighborhood of 90, since I was in the middle of nowhere and all. Also, I saw him immediately and pulled over. He did a thankful u-turn in the middle of the highway.

So the problem ultimately came down to us not really having up-to-date proof of insurance. We had the actual insurance, but the piece of paper validating this claim was not readily available. The officer gave me a ticket, with a court date.

When I called the county courthouse to try to change the date, the hescher piece of shit old lady who answered the phone immediately took umbrage to the idea that I'd actually go to trial in her town: "That's what we put the phone number on the back of the ticket for!" she yelled.
She explained (bitchily, pointlessly vindictive, in a manner that was hostile far beyond any possible explanation) that really what needed to happen was that I needed to fill out a form that the nice old redneck lady was about to send me, putting her out to a great extent as she made quite clear, that 'proved' that we had, in fact had valid insurance as of that day, and now all we needed to do was pay the fine that Wasco County had decided we needed to pay.

I did it. After this, nothing. No word on how much was to be paid, or why, for that matter.
I went through the months that followed with a vague suspicion at the back of my mind that something terrible would no doubt come of this, as we had the twin forces of bureaucracy and small-towny bullshit at work. I was right.

So I explained to the Port cop that I was on my way home, explained that 'home' was St. Johns, and that I'd been working at Edgefield that night. And he took my license and registration, went back to his car, staying there so very damn long that it was clear something bad was about to happen.
This was further confirmed by the arrival of a second cop. In my right-hand side-view, I could see the furtive approach of a uniformed lady who had a flashlight that may or may not have also concealed a gun. I tried not to stare openly at her.

After an eternity, the first cop returned and asked me to step out of the car. For my part, I was waiting to be arrested, and was already turning my back to the guy. No, he said, not that, but did I have any weapons? As always, my pockets were stuffed with tools that could potentially be used as weapons, but no...We talked.
"You seem like a stand-up guy," he said, "but..." 'But' was that apparently I'd been driving around with a suspended license since April. And the law said he had to impound my vehicle, take away my license.

He also said that if I pled guilty and showed up to the court date with proof of having my license reinstated, he'd recommend that all charges be dropped. The two cops and I stood there waiting for the tow truck, making nervous conversation about the upcoming shows at Edgefield. The man of the two is quite fond of the Gipsy Kings.

They did not offer me a ride home. Bee sleeps like a series E government bond, but I tried...It was now 1:30 A.M., and...She was asleep. I tried Fergie, who I knew would be up, relatively sober and in possession of a vehicle. He came and got me, and I thank him.

All right, so this meant:

A trip to the Port of Portland Police Bureau, which is a hole in the wall on the third floor of the airport. This was to find out where my car was. $20.00.

A trip to an impound lot that, thankfully, wasn't all that far from the airport. Shitty, needlessly hostile hescher woman behind the counter refuses to conduct business with anyone but Bee, who will be driving my car back.
"Fuckin' heschers. Everything's gotta be a problem," I tell Fergie as we stand outside. This costs me $148.00.

To the DMV, where it is pointed out that I still owe Wasco County $219.oo. After this gets paid, we need to give the DMV $75.00...For some reason. At this point, they indicate that I need a copy of my birth certificate to prove that I'm really me.

This necessitates a trip to the Bureau of Vital Records, armed with an actual stack of valid proof that I am who I am. What they really want is $20.00.

Back to the DMV, who would like $25.50. My picture is taken, which is transferred to a piece of paper that most businesses I know would not accept. I apparently will be getting the actual license in two to three weeks, unlike other people renewing their licenses, who received them on the spot.

That would be an accumulated $507.50, as it currently stands. If I end up also having to pay a fine for the burned out license plate light, that will tack on an additional $145.oo.

I'm well aware that I should have kept on calling The Dalles and asking what the hell they actually wanted, and who should I shovel my money at...But I guess I kind of hoped for that rare thing that does occasionally happen; bureaucracy's inherent ineptitude causes them to forget you.

It did the opposite, and in spades. The letter -if any- informing me of legal action being taken for non-payment of the ticket would have been sent to my last address, which we vacated in February. The letter that supposedly informed me that my license had been suspended was apparently sent to my old apartment over The Troika, where I haven't lived for three years.

But that's my fault too, as I have failed to consistently update the DMV as to my address change status over the last three years. Everybody else seems to be able to find me; my bank, whatever creditors I have, my many employers. So I need to assume in advance that a state bureau will not be able to do what pretty much every other entity in society can?

Like I say, I understand that people like money, and it's noteworthy how many of these governmental bodies (The Port P.D., DMV, Vital Records) would only take cash, which anyone will tell you is easily embezzled.
I understand that ya' gotta pay to play, and we all hold our noses and do this. But the DMV in particular asked money for something that looked like a redundancy. Twice.

I don't have some whiny anti-gummint screed here for you; I even don't mind paying taxes. However, this one is beyond stupid, and I seem to have no real redress, and I just wanted to say so.

Had I not been a relatively polite person by nature, no doubt it would have been worse.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

No Time Is A Good Time For Sarah

The day before Sarah Palin resigned -or whatever that really was- Jonah Goldberg wrote a column more or less telling her to shut up.


Dear Governor Palin,

You’re blowing it.

Hm. Gee, but you seemed to like her so much. What could possibly...

There’s a reason why the Left and much of the media establishment hated you from day one. Some hated you out of the fear that you might stop Barack Obama’s unfolding coronation. Others because you seemed to expose the snobbery, arrogance, and ideological pieties of elite feminism. Your beauty, your status as a working mom, your blue-collar husband, your bravery in taking on the political establishment in Alaska, your proud status as a pro-lifer and mother of a special-needs child: All of these things were — and are — deeply threatening to a secular left-wing cultural elite.

Although your being an idiot, on the other hand: that we found helpful.

He then points out that she has become a laughingstock (all one word, by the way, which I'm pretty sure it isn't), and even though she has a large appeal to the base...People like Jonah can see how 'the base' is fucking the Republican party.

Having said that, he really, really likes her, but...

...peddling a few platitudes and truisms about free markets and limited government is no substitute for really knowing what you’re talking about. Yes, you can talk well about the stuff you know — oil drilling, energy, etc. — but beyond your comfort zone, you fall back on bumper-sticker language that sounds fine to the people who already agree with you but is useless in winning over skeptics.

But he is forced to admit that she really has no business holding elected office. Yes, Republicans: these are your deeper thinkers, and the kind of candidates they dream up.

Then again, this is from National Review Online, which thinks that this is an example of advertising that will really bring in the dollars:

("Catch The Burning Flag"? Who the fuck allowed that one to see the light of day?)

So, all she ever had was charm and charisma. They all admit it now. And as it happens, even the ol' c&c is getting a bit stale, as she seems increasingly charmless, charisma-neutral.

And whiny. Hey, speaking of whiny,

President Bush had the same problem you do, which is why there’s a hunger for Republicans who can effectively articulate and sell our policies and philosophy. That’s why the wonks have the upper hand. Mitt Romney, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and other hands-on types are what the party wants and, frankly, needs.

Wow. Bobby Jindal as an example of 'articulate'. Amazing. And yes please Republicans: please let Things-That-Should-Not-Be like Mitt Romney try to explain things to people. Our national comedy hour is always the richer for it.

So here’s my advice. Stay home and do your job and your homework. You’ll still be a national figure come the primaries. But if you can’t surprise your detractors with your grasp of policy when you re-emerge on the national stage, you won’t win the nomination. More important, you won’t deserve to.

And the next day, she quit.

I am unaware of how to pronounce Ross Douthat's name. I'm thinking our options here are 'do whut?' or 'douche-hat', and I'm goin' with the second one. Try n' stop me.
Anyway, he's one of those people who is for some reason still trying to make me like Sarah Palin. And uh...

I'M SORRY! I JUST CAN'T QUIT LAUGHING AT THAT FUCKING PICTURE! I mean, look at the guy! The look of deep insecurity that has morphed over the years into automatic defensiveness! The soulful, probing "serious" look! The neck beard ? The jokes write themselves!

So anyway, he...ARE YOU TRYING TO FUCKING KILL ME? JE-SUS! KNOCK IT OFF! He would like you to know that you really, really owe Sarah an apology.

Had she refused John McCain, Palin would still be a popular female governor in a Republican Party starved for future stars. Her scandals would be the stuff of local politics, her daughter’s pregnancy a minor story in the Lower 48, her son Trig’s parentage a nonissue even for conspiracy theorists. There would still be plenty of time to ease into the national spotlight, to bone up on the issues, and to craft a persona more appealing than the Mrs. Spiro Agnew role the McCain campaign assigned to her.

Well hey Ross: if you're going to go that far, why don't you add 'and the Republican party would have done a better job finding someone who is actually qualified'?
And what's your problem with Judy Agnew? I'm askin'.

A Sarah Palin who stepped down for the sake of her family and her media-swarmed state deserves sympathy even from the millions of Americans who despise her. A Sarah Palin who resigned in the delusional belief that it would give her a better shot at the presidency in 2012 warrants no such kindness.

I had a Sarah Palin once. Turns out I was allergic, and had to get rid of it. Anyway, no I don't really have to have any sympathy for someone who consciously sought the spotlight, and yes, used her family as human shields at every opportunity. So what else ya' got, Douchehat?

In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

That last statistic is a crucial one.

Yes; the stupid have been tragically underrepresented up to now. Wait; I don't have a college education...

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

"And then do absolutely nothing substantive beyond there..." Besides: merit's bad now? In what way could she be considered a success story?

With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

Those are damn fine comparisons, actually: a nutsack redneck who is remembered as the author of the Trail of Tears, and a crooked machine politician who grew up to sell all our asses to the National Security Administration.

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Oh. Science! I need to do a little research maybe, but I'm not at all comfortable with a quick, categorical denial like that.
And again: she forced said family into the spotlight, and when we all failed to love her for doing so, reacted with a sharp whine about how mean we all were. Fuck that. Grow up.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

That 'anyone' can is indeed inspiring. That 'someone who doesn't have a fucking clue' can is terrifying.

Stop that!

Now we hear the plaintive harmonica from Starship's "Sara", and their disappointed observation that "no time is a good time for goodbye". But also, toward the end of the song, how -due to a lyrical conceit given in a round- they seem to suggest that "no time is a good time for Sa-ra...Sa-a-a-ara!"

Well, no shit. I coulda told you that ten months ago.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fog and Drums

Robert McNamara, subject of the Simon and Garfunkel song "A Simple Desultory Phillipic, or How I was McNamara'd into Submission"*, is dead. He also, in his time, was head of the World Bank, president of Ford Motor Company, and Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson.

On the Fourth of July, I was listening to an old mix I made, years and years ago. It had The Clash's "Sean Flynn" on it, which may very well be my favorite song by them. The song is about the son of Errol Flynn, who went to Vietnam during the war, and was last seen riding his motorcycle toward enemy lines. Whatever became of him remains unclear to this day.
A nice metaphor for the confusion and general psychedelic hell the whole enterprise seems to have been. The song itself sounds like a memory: all dub guitar wandering away into oblivion, echoing eternally. It sounds like something or someone that you're forgetting, with its repeated refrain of "The past is always a closing door..."

"You know he heard the drums of war/ each man knows what he's looking for..."

Did we maybe go there seeking oblivion? Knowing damn well we were seeking it? No: we were entirely rational and mathematical about it, only to realize later that maybe our entire thing was going away.
Or as Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon put it: "If the Twentieth Century has taught us anything, it's that the white man is through in Asia."

I've compared McNamara to William Tecumseh Sherman before. Both were businessmen who were called to duty specifically to quickly finish a war. Sherman responded by going the absurdly reductive route: he destroyed and burned everything in his path until he hit the sea. Then he went back and did it all over again.
McNamara was a little different. He wanted to inject a lot more in the way of calm, cool analysis into the entire war thing, and thought that there was no reason why science couldn't conquer a guerrilla force. The generals who reported to him would have preferred a Sherman-like option, and soon learned that lying to the Secretary was the easiest way to go.

That was McNamara's excuse for the rest of his life: they lied to me. But if he was so damn smart, why does he seem to have suddenly lost his objectivity and incisiveness on this one subject? If you're very, very good at examining all angles of a problem, you also can tell who isn't being straight with you.
And indeed, he did have an adversarial relationship with the Pentagon. Pretty much a weird mirror image of what Donald Rumsfeld had going on later, except that Rumsfeld was the one that wasn't thinking clearly, and the generals have sort of proved themselves to be the sane ones lately.

And he made the entirely valid point that morality takes on a rather different face in wartime. If killing is traditionally viewed as wrong, but war and conquest are the rule rather than the exception in history, you have yourself a sticky philosophical dilemma right out of the gate. The same holds true for the doctrine of killing as many people as possible to effect a quick end to the killing.
So now you have a question for your fine, fine mind: how to kill as many people as possible, but quickly, so as to lessen the general horror for humanity at large?
And there's that other piece of history coming back to intrude: McNamara's relationship with General Curtis LeMay.

LeMay was McNamara's superior in World War Two. LeMay was also concerned with ending a war quickly. He felt that the easiest way to achieve this was by more or less making it impossible to be alive in Japan until such time as they surrendered. Endless amounts of incendiary bombs on all the major population centers. Constant fire from above on a society largely built out of wood. It worked.
Now, later on, LeMay had the same idea for Vietnam. McNamara thought it a bad idea. Ultimately, LeMay left, and later tried to become Vice-President. He also is often quoted as saying that had the U.S. lost WWII, he and his staff would have been prosecuted as war criminals.

But they weren't, because they won. The U.S., strangely, was not winning in Vietnam. They just kept shovelling more and more troops at it, but to no avail. There was a creeping surrealism: how could this happen? The further into the thing they all got, the less it made sense, and the more the military establishment and especially the military contractors wanted total war. The nature of the mission became unclear to the point of incoherence.

The Clash, again:
"Rain on the leaves and the soldiers sing
you never ever hear anything..."

This became McNamara's nightmare as it became everybody else's. He later came to see that whole Domino Theory was idiotic, but by then the whole thing had taken on a life of its own. He knew the thing was wrong, and knew it was un-winnable. He said nothing, was soon to be gone.
Later on, he saw the same thing happening with Iraq. He said nothing publicly, though was candid about it to some interviewers, off the record.

The "Surge" in Iraq was a fantastic shadow of "Vietnamization", in that it was widely credited with winning a war that had not yet been won. The generals -in the case of the Surge- had quietly decided that while military objectives were still important, all that "hearts and minds" shit might just be more important. That building a working relationship with what community remains is the true job of those who are forced to go kill by silly goddamn theorists and politicians who know that the only thing their polity asks for is more blood.

So maybe there's hope. Maybe people do actually learn from history. Not like I've seen much evidence of it, but...

In any case, "The Fog of War" still stands as the final word on this. Watch Robert McNamara crumbling, physically, as he belatedly says what he really thinks. Hell, check this:

As he crumbled, toward the end of his life, he saw what remained of the edifice of his self-delusion crumbling, too. Not just the things he knew were bullshit but he couldn't contradict; but the things he had told himself, to keep himself sane. People always apologize too late.

*(The S&G song is actually making fun of Bob Dylan, and all who would make lame stabs at being political while also being under-informed. Doesn't really have shit to do with Bob McNamara at all.)


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Attack of the Meme, again

George has hit me again with a list of questions. Many, many other people got this one too.
I like the fact that he included a list of "mandatory freedoms", which allow the respondent to mutate the question to their liking. It would play hell with the coding process were this actual research, but the human face of the thing shows so much more easily through.

So, let's answer...

25 Very Specific Questions

1. Greatest peak experience/s? (That is to say a positive or ecstatic experience/s that fundamentally influenced your life.)
Sheeit. They just keep getting higher and higher. I've learned lots, seen lots, and my advice is generally: do as many things as you possibly can before you die. Past a certain point, they're all peak experiences.

2. Nadir experience/s? (That is, a negative experience/s that fundamentally influenced your life.)
Well, I've spent a lot of my life alienating entire groups of people. Or being collectively shunned by them. Sometimes it was entirely my fault, sometimes entirely theirs, often a mixture of the two. And it learned me how? Be your own best friend, be at home with yourself. Don't think you're gonna do all that living and being yourself later. You can't not be yourself. People are either going to like you or not like you, and there's often fuck-all you can do about it. Be your own entertainment.

3. Had any paranormal experiences?
Yes, although I am often -even in the moment- noting to myself that this is still something that is happening due to my mind disagreeing with itself, or is the product of something that I don't understand yet.

4. Biggest irrational fear?
Not sure I have one. Can't think of one, in any case.

5. Biggest completely reasonable fear?
I really worry that I'll be brain-damaged in a completely random way. I fear this far worse than I fear death or even being crippled.

6. Biggest irrational aversion? (This is not the same as your biggest irrational fear.)
Which is to say a dislike, eh? Video games. I think they're stupid.

7. What are your core metaphysical belief/s? (N.B. By metaphysical belief I mean any principle that you think is true and live your life by but cannot be empirically or scientifically proven to others who don't believe it.)
Nice to see somebody finally define that one. I don't have one/those as such; I'm more of a "you're living in it" kind of a guy. Every time I've ever tried to codify it, it collapses on me. There are some key tenets, but that's all they'll ever be: I've found that it's safer that way.

8. What do you think is the ultimate fate of humanity?
To finally make this fine place somewhere that can no longer sustain humanity, I fear and strongly suspect.

9. What do you believe will happen to you after you die?
Dirtin' in th' ground, to quote the nice Mr. Waits there. And this belief, as I've said before, comforts me in what I suspect is exactly the same way someone who believes in an afterlife is comforted by their belief.

10. Which do you trust more, science or religion?
Science. Although -and this is a big one- science can also be dogmatic at times, and that is where/when it (and its pal Rationality) fail.
Religion though; I understand the comfort it apparently provides to lots and lots of other people, but I just think it's disgusting and wrong, and brings out the worst in a species that doesn't need any further justifications for the rank inhumanity in its ranks.

Now, it wouldn't be inaccurate to point out some hypocrisy on my part here: I'm willing to dismiss good works done by religious people and organizations as being more due to the innate goodness of people, and the manifold atrocities attributable to religion as being all religion's fault. I don't really think that people are innately good, although their self-interest coincides with the well-being of others, and that usually is motivation enough. Heh. There's a lot to this subject, of course...

11. Favorite book (fiction or non-fiction) written between 2500 BCE and 1 BCE?
I wanna say the Tao Te Ching, but I'm not sure. Surely somebody Greek belongs here...

12. Favorite book (fiction or non-fiction) written between 1 BCE and 1000 AD?
Probably Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars.

13. Favorite book (fiction or non-fiction) written between 1000 AD and 1800 AD? (There have been enough lists of favorite books that were composed mostly of things written between 1800 and the present so we'll skip that.)
This is a rough one. Most of the really good Sufi parables were written in this time, and we just narrowly miss being able to include Mark Twain. All the great Enlightenment thinkers fall in here, plus lots and lots of fantastic political treatises.
So anyway, I don't know.

14. What is your philosophical grounding? (If this is the same as your metaphysical beliefs then give your core ethical principles.)
I tend to be sharply reductionist, and I recognize that this often makes me a pain in the ass to deal with. Sorry, everybody. Actually, for a quick intro, see my answer to #2.

15. What political opinion do you hold that is most inconsistent with your other political opinions?
Well, the death penalty does no good in the area of deterrence, and we have decades worth of data to prove this. It is vindictive, pointless and often guided by shit reasoning regarding what our lesser minds insist on calling "race". However, the outlet it provides the victims' families seems to have some kind of closure effect, and I can think of far greater injustices being perpetrated in greater numbers...So yeah, it's dumb and unnecessary, but I'm not per se against it.

16. What makes a good person good?
I often boil it down to 'a quality of easygoing sanity'.

17. Aesthetically speaking which is more important, audience reception or creator satisfaction?
They're of equal importance, and take on or lose value dependent upon what you're trying to achieve.

18. Favorite painting/s?
Probably 'View of Toledo' by El Greco. Turns out The Greek there had something seriously wrong with him, and he really actually saw things that way, and we're all the richer for it.

The thing is, there's plenty of Impressionists and early Asians and Caravaggio in general I'd like to throw in here. Turner. Bierstadt. I can't really pick. And you should go do an image search of James Lavadour. He's an Eastern Oregonian by birth, lives here now. He does masterful pairings of the completely abstract with the wholly organic. Listen at me: I sound like an asshole!

19. Favorite living hero/heroine?
I'm not being flippant or dismissive when I say that I honestly don't have any.

20. Favorite dead hero/heroine?
Clarence Darrow?

21. Most important goal/s in life?
Is to be happy with the life I lead, which I am.

22. Details or big picture? (I know both are important. What I want to know is your overall leaning and if you consider that leaning a strength or a weakness.)
Well, big picture, although my big picture includes an encyclopedic overview of the details. It's like an aerial view of the freeway system encircling a city: you can see the overall pattern, but also the individual vehicles.

23. Depressive or anxious?
I tend toward the depressive. (Cue Bob Hoskins as the evil manager guy in "Pink Floyd's The Wall" movie, shaking the uptight hotel manager and screaming, "HE'S AN AHHHTIST!" over Bob Geldof's slumped, o.d.'d form.) It's more romantic.

24. Pick a super power, you only get one.
Invisibility. I already have other super powers, but most of them do me no good in my current form.

25. What would your diet look like if there were no physical or nutritional consequences?
More or less what it looks like right now.

That was satisfying. For as much shit as I talk about these things, they serve as awesome jumping-off points. I was gonna do my usual and write a Fourth o' July essay, but no. The lady of the house and I have sat here all damn morning doing this. Thanks, George.