Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas Day at the Old Vet's

The boy in the center is my nephew. He's playing a game on one of the gaming devices I know nothing at all about. The moment makes me think of my own experiences of Christmases at my grandmother's during that time of my life. I spent much of the day watching a little black and white tv and pretty much tuning out the conversation and hubbub around me. The old vet is just out of view to the right. That's his son ministering to him as he sits in a recliner, fairly oblivious to the proceedings. We all brought various delicious dishes to his room in the late afternoon and had our more or less traditional Christmas feast with him, then exchanged gifts with each other. It was a poignant day. After Libby and I saw him to bed we came home and shared a few gifts with each other as Christmas Day 2016 came to a close. Today's the day to deal with all the crumpled wrapping paper, and perhaps a trip to the laundromat in Liberty. It's a pretty typical NC Christmas--gray and in the high 50s. There are deer ghosting the woods.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Happy Christmas

This song was the number one Christmas song in Ireland in 1988 (more or less). It's certainly the number one adult Christmas song of our time. Once you get over all the sugar canes and chestnuts roasting and all that. Given America's Christmas Present to the World this year, Shane and Kirsty nailed it pretty fine. I find the song wonderful and heartbreaking. Here's the heartbreaking part:

I could have been someone
Well, so could anyone
You took my dreams
From me when I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

As MacGowan says, it's a duet aria. The man lies. The woman tells the truth.

Have another drink. It's almost Christmas Eve around here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Philadelphia Lawyers from North Carolina

Woody Guthrie wrote this song, which reminds me a lot of one we used to do (featuring Tommy Thompson singing the lead as I recall) called The Frozen Logger. The logger song is funny, one of those stories about a woodsman (hmmm, pun perhaps?) so tough that he never shaves, but drives his "whiskers in with a hammer and bites them off inside." He also stirs his coffee with his thumb, a trait that causes the barmaid who relates the story (Tommy allus liked those cross-dressing parts) to fall head over heels. Sadly, the logger goes out one cold night without his mackinaw. When it drops down to a thousand degrees below zero, the logger keels over, a victim of his own sense of invincibility and perhaps the practical length of such a ballad when presented in a joint that serves cold beer and has a strictly enforced cut off time.

The Philadelphia Lawyer is also prideful, but his sad tale is more straight-forward. Sung here by the great Rose Maddox, the lawyer's basically a smooth talking cad who figures he can put anything over on anyone. In this respect he is much like the Republican side of the NC Legislature. I wish Roy Cooper had just waited till he was in office, then made a straight ahead effort to get this obnoxious HB-2 law repealed. But perhaps that was part of the Philadelphia hoodoo. At any rate, repeal seems to have crumpled itself into a heap just before Christmas, with perhaps and perhaps not an overly slick effort to pass some sort of ban on any more such civil rights legislation for at least a year into Mr. Cooper's term. I hope so. The repeal sounded even worse that the law itself. Meanwhile, nice people who are NC citizens remain in a mean place due entirely to their perceived status as convenient scapegoats.

One would hope that at some point, and soon, people will start seeing through the smoke and mirrors. It's hard to be hopeful. When I think about this dreadful Presidential election just past I keep running into the same conclusion. While there are all sorts of details to be sorted out, the plain fact to me is that the voting public should have easily seen how unsuited to being President Mr. Trump is. After all, he ran on exactly that--he was the opposite of reticent. As we watch things unfold, day after day, there are few surprises. We're just ducking at the next concussion. It's all you can expect from a Philadelphia lawyer.

More details:


One of the worst features of this is the arrogant stubborn. Gov. McCrory lost in an election that Trump won, almost certainly on the basis of this bill, which McCrory sponsored and battled for all year. Buck Newton also lost. A bill sponsor, Rep. Stam of Wake County, said the problem wasn't the bill but the way it was described by the news media.

It was simple. Get rid of this bill. The NC GOP couldn't manage to do that yesterday. Instead they tried a slick game of bait and switch, hoping to hamstring cities that want to pass their own anti-discrimination ordinances even more than they already are. They think the voters are stupid rubes.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Six Guns or Fountain Pens, Mr. Floyd?

It is understandable that in the concern about Russian meddling in our election process almost all conversation has ranged between the overly defensive denials of Mr. Trump and his spokesmen (the guy on PBS's News Hour last night, interviewed by Judy Woodruff, was particularly aggressive in his denials, tossing in all the old kitchen sinks like "the leftist press" when ever he could)and the reassurances by even the CIA spokesmen and the Obama Administration that no one suspects or has evidence of actual Russian hacking of actual voting machines, particularly in the critical so-called swing states formerly thought by all the pundits to be "safe" for Clinton. To suggest that the actual voting process was hacked is pure nitroglycerin. Such a fact would immediately imply that Mr. Trump's apparent election is, indeed, illegitimate. No one really wants to go there. If Trump's election were proven illegitimate, what then would happen? Would another Supreme Court judgement do the trick this time? Oh, wait, the court is now tied 4/4, because the Republican Senate refused to even consider an obviously qualified and very moderate nominee offered by Mr. Obama back in the Spring, after Mr. Scalia had died.

So everyone is simply not looking at the possibility that actual machines were meddled with. Or maybe--one would hope--the intelligence services are looking, but quietly, and do not want to raise even the possibility unless they have real proof. I'd put my money on that idea, actually, as long as the agencies are being run by competent people without an agenda. Hopefully Mr. Obama's directive, to give him a full report as quickly as possible and while he is in office, is being followed with due speed. Obviously if there is a worst-case situation--namely, that Mr. Trump sits on the soft pillows of actual Russian direct interference in the vote, and knows it--we can expect an end to all inquiries on January 20. Trump's first order of the day will be not "Mexico, Build That Wall," but "Gentlemen, Move Along."

There is something to the old Shakespearean caution, "He doth protest too much." The Trump camp is out in the internet as well. Yesterday Marcy Wheeler had a piece up which generated more snarky troll comments than anything I've ever seen on her site. Most of the articles there are so technical and dry that a troll would dry up and blow away before he got to the end. As Robert Gates said last night on the Charlie Rose show, the Trump camp is extremely concerned that their election be somehow devalued. (Possibly they're quite aware of how that works, since Mr. Trump build his brand during the Obama years by working towards that precise goal via the birther malarkey.) Still and all, there are a variety of ways Russia "wins" in this election situation. The most obvious way to achieve victory would be to fool with the actual machines. And it is possible, and it has been known to be possible ever since 2000, when electronic voting machines with internet capability became the machine of choice in many voting districts around the country. It's still possible. But being obvious is not the mark of a good chess player.

You will note that in this brief acknowledgement of the possibility that the machines were directly hacked (a possibility I've not seen acknowledged on any news program), there are evidences to be found after the fact, such as unusual phone traffic from unusual places around the world. No doubt there's a lot of detail, if you're working this beat on the inside, and one of Mr. Trump's worst gaffs in the whole matter is his false assertion that if you don't catch hackers "in the act" you can't catch them at all. I hope we'll see. This would, as Michael Morell, former acting head of the CIA said last night, be the cyber equivalent of 9/11.

But as Morell said as well--actual proof of direct voting machine hacking is by no means required to constitute a Russian victory in this espionage. In all of Mr. Trump's appointments Russia is gaining leverage, because as Trump betrays huge swaths of the American citizenship, he creates more and more disillusionment and worse in the electorate-in the American public. The police already seem to believe that Black Lives Matter is an organization aimed at undercutting their authority, an authority they apparently believe must be absolute. For the Attorney General to take this view is folly, and Jefferson Sessions will take this view, because he already has. Just go down the list. As someone wrote, "Carson at HUD? Sure, he knows how to use a doorknob." Robert Gates brief for Mr. Tillerson as Secretary of State was proof that Gates has always been a remarkable diplomat. He never even mentioned the enormous financial conflict of interest Tillerson will have as Secretary of State, and Charlie Rose didn't really bring it up in their conversation last night. That is major league diplomacy in action. And indeed, I was at least convinced by Gates that Tillerson was probably the best appointment Trump has made. But of course this is like the whole "we need change" argument, isn't it.

The Russians will have a friend in the Trump Administration. There is no doubt of that. And if America and the world thinks that Trump is somehow a product of a faulty election process, Russia wins again, because Russia wants the world to distrust democracy. Indeed, most of all Russia probably wants Russians to distrust democracy, and to appreciate the strong, manly, authoritarian leader they most certainly now possess, a man who can brush aside the various legal details whenever important matters are at stake.

Here's Woody Guthrie's monument, the trunk of a dead tree carved by an unknown hand that stands on the lot where his house used to be. Libby and I stopped there in 2003, about the time the Iraq invasion was producing it's first American casualties, which happened to be a Mexican American from Pecos, TX, and a Native American from Tuba City, AZ. For a while they renamed the hill outside of Phoenix that had been called Squaw Peak Piestewa Mountain after her, but I noticed they're back to calling it Squaw Peak at least over on the NASCAR coverage of the Phoenix race a few weeks back. Easier to say no doubt. The counter-revolution is incremental.

For other reasons Trump might be seen as Putin's man:

Update: Radio talker Andy Dean appeared last night (12/15) on CNN with Don Lemmon. He was a 7-year employee of Donald Trump, and opined that since Trump spent $70 M on his campaign there was no possibility that Trump could have a financial conflict of interest as President; he's down, so what's a few hotel bookings by foreign persons of Presidential note. Dean also argued that since ISIS is the world's biggest concern, and since Putin is a stone cold killer of radical Islamists, it was obvious and natural for our President to be and Mr. Putin to be allies. Dean also noted that Putin's security agency has changed its initials; it's no longer the KGB. I didn't get what position Dean held in his days in Trump Tower. Possibly food taster?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Mr. Peabody's Coal Train

Back in the '60s a poet/singer named John Prine was so boiled up with his passions that the first record he finally got out was filled with nothing but perfect songs, however many would at that time fit on an LP (about 45 minutes or so was the physical limit as I recall). He wrote more great songs as time went on, and is these days a notable elder in that vanishing world where songs had something to do with deep truths. One of the best songs he wrote back then was one he called "Paradise." It's been covered by many. I'm pretty sure the late David Morris did a version in his shows; that's probably where I heard the song the first time.

The postmortems of this wretched election--possibly a kind of legal coup that will--again possibly--end democracy in the United States, continue. As with any election there are many many "reasons." The Republican Party, which has over the decades become more and more committed to representing the interests of big money, did a masterful job of feigning the fainting couch while keeping its money on the dark horse whose lead kept expanding. "At least he's not Hillary," they all said, shaking their heads like characters out of The Looking Glass. Yesterday Trump was introduced in Louisiana by David Vitters, who was campaigning for his Republican replacement in the Senate, a man leading his Democratic opponent by nearly 20 points. Apparently big oil won this election, and will win Louisiana. The front runner for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, has big leases in the Gulf, some shared jointly with the Russian state oil company according to reports I've read. The theory of trickle-down is alive and well. Plus, according to an AP story Tillerson has background cred with the vast, silent middle: "A former Eagle Scout, Tillerson also served as the National President of the Boy Scouts of America."

Looks like Mr. Trump isn't going to waste his time with a victory visit to West Virginia or Kentucky. He got those votes for free so to speak, and like another song from those misty days of youth opined, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

There's been little left to lose in a lot of those coal towns for a very long time. Paradise was gone when Prine wrote that song. It wasn't Mexicans that took the coal and the timber. They just showed up, a handful of them, to work on Mr. Peabody's lawn and fix the old firewood pickups that were still running the back roads that the dump trucks had already beaten back to potholes and gravel. The Mexicans didn't take the pretty girls either, no matter what Mr. LePage said. But now we'll have a 4-star general to help do the rounding up, assuming the Secretary of Labor doesn't point out that burger-flippers work cheaper and longer when they ain't got no papers.

Jean Ritchie told the truth about Paradise, and Merle Travis, Hazel Dickens and Prine. Mr. Trump is really East Texas Red, or worse, his employer. He's going to kick all those stew pots into the campfires and walk away laughing into the night. He's got a nice bed, a pretty wife, and all the money in the world. Maybe one day Red'll come walking back and find those same guys sitting there, grinning. That would be a pretty nice moment to see. You have to wonder if the folks from the burned out holes that used to be paradise have the gumption any more. Personally, I kinda doubt it. The steel backbones that Woody Guthrie was talking about were gone before the coal trains finished their work. Still, it's a nice moment to imagine.

For further reading:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cabbages and Kings

We got back from our visit with the old vet last night to notice that the dish box's red light was on. One of us had set it to record something or other. I'd been thinking I'd watch the UNC basketball game, an early-season contest with Indiana, once and famously coached by the excitable Bobby Knight, who threw a chair across the court one night after a call went awry. Knight, of course, was a notable Trump supporter and will surely get a job if he wants one in the Ministry of Sport. Bobby Knight, Sports Czar. Has a fine ring to it. Knight can use the money no doubt.

What was being recorded was Ross McElwee's 1986 documentary, "Sherman's March." I decided to just watch that, since I couldn't change the channel anyways without losing the recording. The film has aged well, 30 years in. There is no better portrait of life in the middle-class, white South in the middle of the Reagan era. Like Almondovar, McElwee tells his story almost exclusively through women. Like Homer, he carries us from island episode to island episode, and returns in the end to whence he began. The islands in this case are cultural, not literal. Except for one of them, which is both. The various women he encounters all have their various stories. Some turn out to be religious, others muddled in various stages of romance with various people, sometimes including McElwee. There is a great deal of very particular life. It isn't hard to imagine several of the people in the film voting for Trump for their own personal reasons. There are a few who likely did not vote for Trump, again, for their own reasons. Everyone has their reasons.

When we were driving down the driveway I had the thought that we are, all us ordinary people living our lives, now chum in the water. A lot of the chum voted for the sharks. They thought, perhaps, that sharks being big, impressive animals, there would be some sort of trade off, perhaps gratitude for protection. Some of us chum didn't think that was a good idea. We didn't vote for the sharks. We're all, now, chum in the water.

Lewis Carroll wrote a poem about this over a century ago, this ghastly predicament. Here it is:

"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun."

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,'
They said, it would be grand!'

If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?'
I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!'
The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.'

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.'

But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!'
No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.'

But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!'
The night is fine,' the Walrus said.
Do you admire the view?

It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
I've had to ask you twice!'

It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
The butter's spread too thick!'

I weep for you,' the Walrus said:
I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one."

I'm reminded of the jocular survivalists who make a fairly brief appearance in "Sherman's March." Some guys who look like middle-aged car salesmen have bought some land up in the NC foothills. They're building a redoubt. One of them says, "we just want the government to LEAVE US ALONE." They've stocked up on food, water, and dynamite. At the end of the section on them they're shooting sticks of dynamite, set up on targets a safe distance away, from the comfort of their porch. They have rifles with scopes. They look like old-fashioned hunting rifles. At least there aren't any AR-47s. The spirit of the NRA is there, but not the obscene proliferation of subsequent years. We hadn't even arrived, in 1986, at the First Gulf War. Nobody had heard of Iran-Contra.

I saw this morning that charter airlines are expecting to do big government business in 2017 transporting the undocumented. It is also expected that private prison corporations will experience a big up-tick in business. Oddly, I was hard at work on a stone profile for a fireplace in the home of one of the women in McElwee's film on the morning of 9/11. There was a guy doing tile work in the bathroom upstairs, we were the only two people in the house. Every few minutes there would be new, shocking information coming in on the radio, and we'd yell to each other about it. Finally, after the last plane had hit, we just decided to hang it up and go home. It was too distracting.

The photo at the top of this post is from a wall I built back in the late '80s as the entrance to a development in Carrboro, NC, called Morgan Glen. The development was the project of the son of Charleen Swansea, who also appears in McElwee's film. The wall has weathered nicely over the years since, and I enjoy seeing it if I drive that way home.