Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Happy Holidays

It is confusing at year's end, Christmas upon us, married and therefore apparently institutionalized, to find everywhere the consternation of the ecclesiastics, beating their frocks in jumping-jack frenzy like flocks of seagulls descending on crackerjack crumbs--don't go round hungry now, y'all. Standing the other day in the Wake County Court House, in a line of 500 or so of our fellow citizens, waiting to be blessed by the junior DA: "You are free to leave, go and sin no more," my wife and I then went shopping and I bought at her loving encouragement a pair of new dress shoes from China. Then we drove home in our little plastic truck, out to the country at the edge of the Research Triangle. We had taken communion, yet we heard around us in the coming weeks a quickening rant concerning the alleged hijacking of Christmas. But I bought my Chinese shoes, I thought. I have spent. We also cut down a little cedar from the former pasture--wait and don't mow and they will come, and so they did. We hauled it into the TV room with the wood stove, covered it with tiny Chinese lights and the old ornaments from 20 years of marriage, and Libby put a little stuffed bird at the very top. There are presents underneath as well, and it makes both of us very happy to look at it, lights on or off. And two days hence, Christmas Itself "arrives," the earth in actuality turning into it as it sits there in its empty box, we enter and enjoy the ambience, the beautiful walls, the sun and sky, and then we leave, the starry drive home, feeding the neighbor dogs while the neighbors are up in DC, a warm late shot of The Macallan and then off to a snuggly bed.

Libby got a nice gift from Michael Kelsh, his new CD, "Well of Mercy," which I then managed to garble in an email to him as "Wall of Mercy," but it's a good CD and as I said to him, mercy is surely the central thing in this universe at least where the living are concerned. Fire, this little spark, this breath, this flicker, this will. And with that must come mercy, or otherwise there is only death and destruction. That's the choice. Michael's got it right. The best song on the disk is, I think, "Homeless Man." It's easy to pretend that the homeless have become cliches. That's what Rush and the rest of the puffed up hypocrites want us to think. They're so dirty and annoying. They're actually, a lot of them, the lint that's left from our last wonderful Adventure, Vietnam, oh so long long ago now that it's getting like the Civil War, who really remembers any of that shit, it's just faded pictures and funny old unhip helmets and guns, a time just before computers, when all they had was napalm.

I met a guy in the laundromat a couple of years ago. Ten AM and he's a little buzzed and he opens this lunch box he's got and out flies a big black crow. The bird circles the room, the ladies ducking, annoyed, by their machines, and then he comes back and lands on the box and the guy opens it and he hops inside. I went over and he opens the box and the crow hops out, and I look in there and there's a bottle of Old Crow. Some left, some gone. The guy's riding a scooter, and he's come about 20 miles to the laundro. He's crashing with some buddy from Nam and helping him build a carport. He was a chopper pilot in the war, and told me they sent him in to some river place near Cambodia and he was to maintain radio silence at all cost, and he and his buddies crashed and he spent a chunk of time as a POW and some of the guys didn't make it. He had before Nam been an engineer. He was an officer and a gentleman, with style and a pet crow and a Cushman to go with his broken, broken heart.

So who writes songs about that, it's so depressing. Like the Marines say, we kill people and break things, it's our job. And who can even write anything when today we have a guy running things who is ok with sending a whole lot of people into that very same black hole again just because some other people he thinks are real smart make a lot of rosy predictions which haven't turned out. No let's not even think about going there, let's not even think about anything, let's watch more football and if there's some problem let's get on the case and protect the twin Institutions of Christmas and Marriage. I'll keep an eye on the tree till I take it down. I'll keep an eye on the marriage too.

Michael's there on the CD cover looking a little like Christ, a little like the homeless guy, little beard, little scruffy, headphones, singing into the mike ('40s Neumann he says). His voice is gentle. There's a good steel player, a light snare here and there, a few solid Tele breaks, and some tasty fem vocal backup when it's needed. Rodney Crowell, who played with Emmylou and wrote for her as well, produced the CD. Back when I was in the Ramblers I played for Rodney's wedding to Rosanne Cash, which was a great party and I'm sure those two tried their best to make it work but I heard it just didn't. The best thing about the CD is just that it's here on my kitchen table, that Michael, who started singing his songs in Chapel Hill way back when kept at it, kept blowing that little ember, and eventually took off to Nashville, and eventually must have run into Rodney, who liked his stuff enough to get involved.

They may not give Michael air on the Clear Channel. Over there they put up big billboards to "Our Leader" like it's North Korea or something and push the Dixie Chicks off the plank and into the cold green sea. Michael's not a guy who's selling Fords or Chevys, not even a guy who wishes a Ford and a Chevy would still last ten years like they should. He's singing about a woman who tells his story so different he can't even recognize himself in it, and about a guy in rags from Nam, who wants a dollar to spend, "and don't bother your mind about where." I'll admit that I can't listen to a Clear Channel station long enough to really know what they'll play. Kelsh at least won't sneak in a "fuck" like Ms Welsh did, and he does write about broken hearts of the domestic variety, and there's even a song about redemption, which might snag the monkey who programs the late hours.

I'm thinking, at any rate, that it might be time to just let these Xianfascistas have the twin Institutions and the rest of us just go on living, blowing on the flame, keeping the fingers warm against the icy wind that blows in from a place where there's no mercy at all, where there's nothing but nothing itself, cold and black, with nothing but a shining Idea of its hip pocket, looking sort of like a cold .45. How many Institutions can fit on the head of a pin anyway? That's where this shit comes from, and it'll take mercy to melt it. So an irony meets a pustulating contradiction. The Xians rant at Christmas on the radio about how the "gays" are pure-T evil--that's ok with the FCC, to single out a whole big bunch of people and cast dispursion on them--while Kelsh finds enough mercy to include even that ragged shaking old vet around the fire, no matter what he does with that dollar. That could maybe melt even a neocon's icicle heart, to actually see the steam coming off the pile of rags dancing around that bonfire under the bridge. But--here's the twist--if their darkness really falls, their radios may not play that channel any more. A holiday best.

--Fiddlin' Bill, Xmas, '04 [Michael Kelsh's CD is distributed by Redeyemusic]

Monday, December 6, 2004

Real Money

It's seemed to me for a long time that from the point of view of the IRS, money is a huge pain in the ass. That's ironic, since the government issues the money. Nonetheless, that's the deal. If we did all our financial transactions using credit cards, debit cards, and other electronic transfer methods, we would have at the same time a perfect record of income for the taxman. No more working for a little cash under the table. Unlike everything else, money itself is anonymous.

My guess is that the moral majority or near majority would be fairly upset with the idea of a cashless society. There's a lot of those folks who have a can-o-cash back in the side yard, and even those that don't probably don't cotton to a collection plate equipped with a card slider sliding down the aisle every Sunday morning. All that clack-clack. And surely the moral whatevers would be highly inclinated to pay the hard cold for those delicate situations that they, even they, sometimes find themselves enmeshed. Little Lucy, always the wild one, seems to be a little preggo and she's only 15 and we're really hoping she'll straighten up and get herself a good credential in accounting from the community college--perhaps just this once and no one will ever ever talk about it again.

Ok, you get my drift here. We probably all agree, no matter if we're red or blue, that we want to keep money in our lives. A banking mistake in our favor is fine, but not so fine is one that goes the other way, and if it's just data entry, well it might be kinda hard to unravel in some circumstances.

Let me tell you, friends, a ballot is the same thing as a dollar bill. A regular old hand-marked piece of paper, that is. It's exactly the same thing. In fact, a democracy is basically an idea that as far as politics go, as far as who gets to govern us all, here in this great land of ours, we each get just one dollar to spend, anonymously. Straightening out the economics, that's another deal. Some folks gots, and some don't. Mamma may have, papa may have, but God bless the child who's got his own. And for damn sure, running for President isn't for the poor man--this time around it cost about $200 million for each of them the way I read it. And yes, we do know that the feller that gives John Kerry a couple of Gs is probably going to at least get a chance to shake his hand if he wants, and to say a few words about the potholes out in front of his house. Yes, yes, yes. But still, we do each, all of us, get to spend that one dollar, and that's what they count up on Election Night.

But not these days. These days the Republicans seem to have convinced all of us that when it comes to ballots, an electronic machine is better than cold hard cash. Someone working for one of the machine companies--all of which are owned by Republicans, by the way--even claims that "the electronic machine, unlike the paper ballot, gives the voter a second chance to check what he just did."

Huh?????? If you check a box, or draw a solid line between two short lines, you can stand there and look at that piece of paper as long as you want, you can quintuple check that sucker, before you drop it in the box. And when some human being unlocks that box later, they can look at your ballot, your one democratic dollar, take as long as they need, and then count it. "Four hunnerd thirty seven, Bush; twelve, Kerry."

This is just not the situation with electronic ballots. In fact, there is no ballot, it's been turned into a verb, electronic balloting or something. Some buttons get pressed, which the software hopefully transfers into a vote for the correct candidate, and then later and probably somewhere else, a server blinks up a total. If there's a problem with this somewhere, there's nothing to count, nothing to check. The central server, moreover, is connected by phone lines to all the precincts, and to more central computers, perhaps in other states. As we know from the Internet, all the computers are really connected, at least all the computers that are on line at a given moment. That's why you can have an adware program start up on your screen while you're reading an article on the virtues of corporal punishment in the arena of child rearing and find yourself suddenly transported to a website called Madam Switch.

Our election machinery is tiring and old fashioned. It's no wonder that the people who mostly volunteer to run it every election day are delighted when some Bible salesman in a shiny suit explains how touch screen voting is faster and more accurate, how it's all counted "in house," and if a technician is needed then one will be instantly provided by contract, just part of the deal if you buy, now, at our special introductory rate. Moreover, these fine volunteers have to go back to work--or to the rest home--at some point, and there's no county money to pay them any more than what you might pay a juror, and anyway, they rioted down in Florida in 2000 when they were trying to recount--does any one want some red-faced asshole with a baseball bat standing over their head??? Get the damn machines, hell yes.

But what we're doing, what we've done, is traded in our one democratic dollar for a credit card. And have you noticed how funny the exit polls are now? Is it really very likely that people in significant numbers are actually lying to the pollsters? For that matter, have you noticed that the only thing being dismissed in the exit poll information is the apparent conclusion that Kerry won? The talking heads are fine with the percentages on moral values and terrorism, they'll analyse that for two more weeks before the casualties in Fallauja get to be the big deal, but they are mostly averting their eyes when it comes to the other number: Kerry beats Bush. But Kerry himself wouldn't go there, so basically, that's over. We have Bush. Ok. We can still look at the machinery. And although half of us will argue about the outcome, almost all of us really are in agreement about the machinery. Only a tiny fraction of people who voted want it crooked.

I saw a movie about Mick Jagger the other day, just sort of a documentary on how the lad is living at the age of 61, a man of wealth and taste. And one thing he did in this movie, as well as recording a song and playing with his kids and going to a party with celebs, was vote. And damn if it wasn't a regular old piece of paper. If it's good enough for Mick, isn't it good enough for us, Reds, Blues, whatevers? Mick is one of those rich elites. Hell, he could get his butler to vote for him. He bothered to go do it.

The only people who really benefit from cooked elections are the people running. The rest of us, the voters, the citizens, benefit from having the power to choose who's governing us. I'm a Blue and right now I think that the Reds are being sold a bill of goods with regards to W and company. The Reds are apparently convinced otherwise, but with this machinery we use, who knows. Anyway, fine if they are. But one day they might actually begin to wonder, and if and when that happens, are they going to be happy with a system that doesn't allow for anything but a glowing magic box? Everyone understands the aphorism about computers: garbage in, garbage out. If electronic votes disappear, they are just solid gone. They won't turn up in some dumpster out by City Hall. Not even an off chance. This isn't just paranoia. In Carteret County, NC, where I'm playing fiddle for a dance tomorrow night, 4500 votes have plumb disappeared because some techie says the machines just didn't have the memory. They're gone, gone, gone, and they won't be coming back. They are not misplaced, they are not in a bag in a dumpster, on in the closet of the third commissioner from the left, facing the dais.

Faith is fine. I studied Wittgenstein a long while back and he has a pretty good argument that without faith you really can't even walk out your front door. Somewhere there's faith. But it sure is a lot simpler to make that mark on the piece of paper and, like old Santa, check it twice before dropping it in the box. They call computer voting "black box voting" because we really don't have a clue what's going on behind those screens and buttons. We are putting our whole democracy in the hands of strangers, giving them all our democratic dollars and trusting that they'll do exactly what we want them to do with them. If we won't do it with our currency--and we won't--why in the world do it with our votes? It's the government, after all, that protects the money. Once the government is corrupted the money probably won't be worth the paper it's printed on. Before this imperialistic administration spends all the money on its follies, let's get some real nonpartisan election reform in place. It starts with a paper ballot and a sharpie.


Sunday, December 5, 2004

Onion Made: A Feux in Email Form

I probably told you about working for this "real" old-fashioned blue-collar masonry crew in Asheboro. It was how I got to a decent level in the trade where I knew enough about what I was doing to still be doing it deep into geezerhood. I loved the job, tho it was hard as hell. It got snarly when they found out I'd gone to college--the gap there is part of the reason the Rs are in. Bush, the rich prick, talks redneck and that seems to be convincing on the gut level where most of these folks live constantly. The characters and lives on this crew were something tho--worth really writing up actually, one o those things I should do when it starts to snow and rain around here. A guy named Shorty who drove a truck with big long horns on the hood, drank a 12 pack of Blue Ribbon every day, was about 70, eventually got fired for building a whole wall crooked, and said, one day, that the only thing he wanted to hear from Nelson Mandela was the "uhhhh" when the bullet hit him. All these guys were of course Jesse Helms all the way. The boss hollered at secretaries when we would go out to lunch in the company truck (the boss was a young strapping handsome redneck who'd been the pupil of the younger brother of Shorty, whose name was Bill).

I was "assigned" to Bill when they realized I wasn't good enough to just jump into the line--I'd been doing stone work, not serious brick and block work that had to be perfect. I worked with Bill (and talked) for 6 weeks or so, as his assistant. Great great education. Bill had taught shop till he was beat up by some kids, his students. Said he broke his level over one of their heads. Said he wished he'd grabbed his hammer. He sort of sold the bidness to the boss, Randall, so he could build up his social security. He was 58 then--1986-- and pondered the strange fact that he once was in a good union, had benefits, health, etc.... now it was all gone. But by gawd he wasn't voting for no nigger-loving democrat. I worked with these bozos for about 8 months. The jobs were huge. Finally they got to a smaller job and laid off several of the new hands, including me. I went back to UNC and got my teacher's certificate, but student teaching was far worse than masonry and that's another story.

So here I am. Older than Bill Underwood, about ready to sign up for social security myself. Randall got drunk after work a couple of weeks before I quit, climbed a tree at work, fell out and nearly broke his neck. There was another guy who had shot two people, was on parole. He told me one day "I'd never rob someone who was friends." He also was proud of the fact that he'd never bought a wheelbarrow in his life. Another guy named "Snake" had been in prison, was married with a little kid, every day his wife would come by and they'd fight at lunch break. Another guy, the best younger mason, offered to let me "do" his wife if he could watch. He seemed serious. Another guy, the old man who mixed the mud, was 76 and had been in prison for murder. "All my family won't talk to me any more," he said. He would climb the scaffold every day with a cast on one arm, the arm holding a bucket of water. After work he'd mow lawns for a little more dough. We'd see him sometimes driving out of Randleman on the way home. Then they hired an Indian from Troy who came to work (probably an hour and half each way), driving an old huge Chevrolet station wagon banger. He'd always be vaguely drunk, and would ride up and down in the forklift full of mud, shoveling it into our pans. Everyone always called him "Tonto." The fork lift operator seemed straighter than most of them, but then I noticed he and Randall would get stoned every morning before things started up, at 6:30. The stories went on and on. I carpooled with some of the younger guys till Stevie, the driver, started throwing wine cooler empties over the top of the truck at signs as we sped down the highway at 60. This was at 3:30 in the afternoon. He was a good shot too, but I figured eventually some trooper would be coming up behind so I started driving myself to and from. They saw me as seriously uppity after that, but I was on the homestrech by then and the layoff was coming.

These were the guys building the buildings of this great land of ours. They are the soldiers too, the guys you were with at LeJeune I'd guess, at least before war. The best of them were the old guys, in their 60s. I always thought Randall was pretty amazing, to hire parolees--he told me that they had to show up or he'd turn them in. But politically, every damn one of them should be a Yaller Dawg democrat. Instead, the "race card" divides them all. Randall told me once, "A nigger can't even push a wheelbarrow." He said this as, next to our construction site, an all-black crew was building a similar factory building to ours. And--final oddity in the world of NAFTA and all--we were building a damn textile mill. Huh??? I wonder if it's still running, the last factory standing in the Piedmont. Re Bush and all, it looks like Iraq might not cooperate with the SOB and just drift out of the news. Did you hear that Limbaugh had the unsurprising gall to say that what the hell, a thousand dead, that's just a couple of weeks on the US highways. I think ole Rushbo should experience the moment of truth that Brando commemorates in One Eyed Jacks, when he fools Lon (Slim Pickins) into unlocking his cell with an empty derringer, gets him on his knees, and says, with Lon's own very loaded revolver at his head, "Lookee here Lon; wasn't loaded." Well, I'm going to go lay up some rocks for a nice couple who are going to soon be unconsititutional if the Christian Fascists have their way. Onward.

PS. Oh, and there's a nice note re this week's VP debate--turns out unsurprisingly that Cheney voted against a Sense of the Congress Resolution calling on Nelson Mandela's release from jail in South Africa. Can't you just see him saying that "uhhhhhhhhh" line from Shorty? This is the resonance. It's still here, it never seems to die. I drove into my nice masonry suppliers' place of bidness last week with my shiny "ReDefeat Bush in '04" bumper sticker. The owner there is about ten years younger than me and went to the same high school as John Edwards. He was as hardcore Bush as you could find, gave me all the "arguments." "They are going to take away our guns," "Bush stands for the moral path," "Clinton lied to us" (that's a real good one!!), etc. etc. I said well John Edwards is from NC so that should be good for the state. "He always wanted to talk in high school, got out of there as fast as he could, nobody in Robbins is for him except the ones who want to be in front of a camera." The conversation was sad and depressing and I was sorry we had it. The guy's a nice feller who skeet shoots for a hobby and a month ago he went down to San Antonio for a big skeet shoot contest and he and the missus went to the Alamo, and when he got back he showed me all his pictures of the trip. Now we have this sad and profound disagreement. We live in two different worlds, and very unparallel they are. In his world the black choppers are coming any day for his skeet gun, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that if they want that firearm they'll just put a couple of missiles into his bedroom window like they did with Uday and Xnay over in Iraq. As far as Iraq goes, he said "the military loses a thousand every year and no one cares, what's the difference." "They went in for oil," he said. I guess he figures we need the oil, we take the oil. That's imperialism. That's how this great land of ours was "built," just google the Right Reverand Chivington or the Sand Creek Massacre on the ole web. Tonto's probably dead by now from a poisoned liver, but this guy would be glad to have him sweeping up the yard for $5 an hour, and Tonto would be glad to take the job.