November 22, 2013: Servants

William Hogarth, detail of "Beer Street" (1751)

I had lingering doubts about keeping Pavel on as butler and manservant this winter. He has been like a wild dog these past few months. My greatest weakness has always been a grim loyalty to the help, and Pavel, my shopworn inheritance, is no exception. The central problem has hung about our heads, unacknowledged, staining the wallpaper; let us just say that it wasn't the frigid air of Pavel's native steppes that turned his nose red. Without fail, my toleration for the odd tipple has, over the past months, been run roughshod, as Pavel suddenly degenerated into a sick parody of man, drinking his life away on Gin Lane. Why now?

Each morning for seventeen years, as Pavel trudges up from the cellar into the dinette, I have held up my paper to obscure his unsightly shambling. But it has only been for the past few months that I have done so out of necessity, lest I see a still-drunk shaking wretch. He is a dipsomaniac of the basest form, and his transformation is as breathtaking as it is inexplicable:
  • He appears and serves breakfast covered in strange bruises of unknown provenance. Not all of them can be explained away by his long-standing choice of sleeping in the coal chute. He claims he earned them playing sports, but it's winter. The breakfasts he serves are slovenly, the "bacon" a thin putrescent material shaved off the pig's back, the milk served in plastic bags.
  • His quarters are packed to bursting with these bottles. His bingeing is nearly always accompanied by a positively demonic soundtrack.
  • He is churlish with the boy who brings by the newspaper. Last week, he drunkenly woke me, shouting "maggot" and "prick" and "pinko" and numerous Slavic oaths and flat vowels at the poor urchin as he tried to tuck the Sunday edition under the front step. He leered at even me, screaming at the top of his lungs that football is meant to be played on a one hundred and ten yard field.
I could not understand his strange and convulsive behavior. As I reeled around the shambolic serf, picking up my paper, I finally identified the wellspring of the issue. Pavel is nothing if not a striver, and it appears that as the first thing that greeted him each morning was the front page of my paper, he got some ideas. I dropped my mug of coffee as all the pieces suddenly fell into place - the boisterous invective against public-sector unions, the unlikely fondness for smoking cocaine, the slathering of hot dogs with mayonnaise.
It appears that Toronto city officials were right - the very sighting of Mayor Rob Ford's antics can have an immediately deleterious effect on the behavior of children. And just as my servants are my children, so too did my manservant immediately embrace the Mayor's front-page antics with a verve and gusto normally reserved for addicts of the lowest gutter class. 
Those fools in the newspaper industry! Are you happy? Can't these guttersnipes see that by elevating this titanic, as-yet-still-employed, and highly visible slob to above-the-fold stature, they are inculcating a dangerous desire in our immigrant class - to join the ranks of rich, drug-addicted politicians who are forever above the law? I am a conservative, but the carefree life of Rob Ford, able to snort or drink any substance and retain a forty percent approval rating as some sort of elected wizard - this is far too appealing a prospect. The poor are going to think they're allowed to do this sort of thing.
It is all very dispiriting. I am in a desperate state. Pavel beams confidence in his NFL-themed tie and baggy suit. He has filed papers for an exploratory committee and is trying to "begin a conversation about deficit spending" on local talk radio. I am doctoring the front pages of my newspapers to no avail. I fear for my country.

General Gandhi

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November 11, 2013: Green Grass of Home

The Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.

The Country Music Awards were last week. Boy, what a hoot. The hosts, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, came out, and they pretended to fight each other, like brother and sister (they weren't actually angry). They had some jokes. Then, Brad tried to enroll in Obamacare on-stage. That didn't go so well. The computer started smoking and spinning. That's how much trouble they had signing up for healthcare.

The CMA Awards are a nice thing, I told myself, morosely watching in the darkness of my carriage house (the only electrified part of my estate). The CMA Awards are a nice thing, designed to make nice people feel nice. It is candy that melts in your mouth so quickly, you don't even need to bite. It recalls very little of the music that marked my introduction to the country sound. (It was the spring of '68, and I was attempting to gain the trust and business of a leading open-pit mine concern, but that is a story for another time). So it was no surprise that from the outset, any darkness bordering on the edges of Bridgestone Arena was dealt with nicely.  

In August, Tom Petty got in trouble for calling modern country music "bad rock with fiddle," which besides being accurate, incensed those syrupy mainstream A&R men who recently transmogrified Hootie into a country musician. That can be dealt with easily enough—the CMA hosts made a joke out of it—but there are some things that can't be glossed out. No hook or layer, no cornpone gags and straight-tooth grins, can really hide the falsity: this music—when it's good, and true—is pain that can't be otherwise expressed.

Don't believe me? Fine then, I thought, watching Taylor Swift—feted on-stage as if she had discovered the AIDS vaccine in her purse—suck the saccharine out of the trough. Nashville needs their pop ingenues, too. Mindy McCready had been one. Until the bloom faded. In the interceding years, she had been beaten and nearly killed by an abusive ex, buffeted by the sundry humiliations and the convulsive pains of drug abuse. She shot herself last February.

Some more people came on and sang some more lies. When a heart gets bigger, this is not always the stuff of a love song. Poor Randy Travis, a fine country singer with a fine voice, has been hospitalized for months, suffering from the effects of a stroke and viral cardiomyopathy. The enlarged and damaged heart that is symptomatic of the second condition is usually the result of alcoholism, a disease that has wracked Travis for years, consigning him to a series of tabloid punchlines. He may never sing again.

There doesn't seem much good in things, at the bitter root of them. Whatever romance there is in this music seems to be in either losing at love or dying in drink. Yet a funny thing happened, as I was starting to drift off in front of the TV. That chucklehead Paisley came on stage, a little more serious, to offer his condolences to the widow of George Jones. I practically hissed, hearing as great and glorious a personage as Jones invoked by this muppet, but, he was at least sincere. And he said something that struck me, thanking Mrs. Jones: that without this woman, we would have lost the Possum much sooner.

Well, I had to sit up in my anchor chair a bit, as George Strait and Alan Jackson launched into a decent rendition of "He Stopped Loving Her Today." I find I tend to think of what I don't have, rather than what I do. In George Jones's case, I had my favorite country singer about three decades longer than he had any business living. 

Whatever plague killed Keith Whitley or Gram Parsons didn't kill him, even though it, by all rights, should have. We can't even be sure why. That's a truly nice thing. Someone should give out awards for it.

General Gandhi

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November 1, 2013: All Saints Day

John Henry Fuseli, detail of "The Nightmare" (1781)

"What can be more appalling than the thought that there is a being in human shape stealthily moving about a great city, burning with the thirst for human blood, and endowed with such diabolical astuteness, as to enable him to gratify his fiendish lust with absolute impunity?"


The past is a very strange quantity. Most of my memories of it are somewhat diluted, like mid-morning coffee. Thinking about them is like thinking about somebody else's dream, as it was told to you a while ago. But some points in the past remain as sharp as a diamond, crystalline, impervious to the normal dulling effects of time. When the dog tried and failed to swim in a riverbed, watching the snow fall when you were seven, the first time you saw a tire changed. You might remember all of these things, down to minute details — that a lawnmower could be heard, that you were eating a Flintstones Push-Pop, etcetera. But you cannot fix a date to any of these memories. You cannot place almost any of these moments between those preceding and following with any certainty.

The exception, for me, is Halloween.
I do not remember most Christmas mornings or Thanksgiving dinners with much clarity. I think I can remember almost every Halloween, and, tracing the concatenations, I can remember my younger self, at the exact time, place and date I felt most happy. John Dolan once wrote, "The last time I'd been allowed to dress the way I actually wanted was Halloween at age ten." Some vestigial survival instinct within me agrees, my brain having the foresight to safely store those wonderful memories — a be-furred junior werewolf howling at the moon and scratching at the neighbor's tree, a snaggle-toothed Phantom of the Opera brawling with the neighborhood bully — for lean years. Like this one.

Survival instinct; there's something in those stories we read on Halloween. Rustic gloaming, dark castles, howling beasts — these aren't trifles. Why, for example, did the legend of vampires independently gestate in multiple, distinct cultures for a few centuries, before ravishing Europe at the height of modernity? I'll tell you why — because psychopaths and thieves are a human fact of life, and always will be. The good peasants of 16th century Transylvania didn't have a helpful behavioral psychologist to explain to them why Vlad, the serf two doors down, was a serial rapist and murderer. So they crafted a mythology to make some sense of the inexplicable. The Victorian prigs getting hot under the collar reading Bram Stoker recognized, in this resurrected myth, the reflection of their own criminalized sexuality. And today, in America, with its snarfing down of whatever latest dewy-eyed "Twilight" schlock is on offer, we see exposed the incredible loneliness and thirst for romance that is endemic in the richest country in the history of the planet.

Oh, things happened this week, more lives were lost, more countries totaled. I can read about them in any paper or on any website. And that is what horror stories and spooky tales are for; they can, in the words of one critic, "transform an unbearable reality into a kind of thick black dream."

I prefer the dream.


General Gandhi

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October 25th, 2013: Trafficking

Francisco Goya, Los caprichos (Caprices), detail of plate 40, "¿De que mal morira?" (1796-97)

The heavy-lidded months leading into winter should be conducive to sleep. They're not, not for me. It's been hard to tell, lying there - my eyes endlessly tracing the ornate Georgian crown molding from one end of the room, down, then across, then back up, then back down - when I'm dreaming and when I'm only dreaming. That is to say, when I'm seeing what I need to be, in some phantasmagoria the deepest part of me screams is true, or the wakeful hours when I can only imagine what that might be.

Well. Well, well. Funny, I think, as I pull the astrakhan up to my chin, how light sleepers are all over the place, and yet each of them is ineffably alone, inured as they are to what society's supposed to be. My experiments with hydrogen fuel cell dirigibles force me me to keep odd hours, which for an inquiring hermit like myself, is no sacrifice; I do not seek company, but do not wish to invite it during daylight hours, and from a police cruiser. Nevertheless, I will admit, I am sometimes shocked that less extraordinary people can live this way. The doorman I pass without a word, the train driver behind the tinted window, the solitary clerk at the Citgo near my airfield - who would they even have to discuss it with?
A prostitute? A vulgar word, I know, not empowering. But I'm only borrowing the language of one of our society's great men - one of our good guys - Nicholas Kristof. I read his heartfelt missives every so often, taking my brief repast of some cheese and bread around four A.M. in the radio tower, leafing through the paper. With everything else in the world for sale, it doesn't seem to me so objectionable that two adults might meet, where, when or for however much it's amenable to both.  
This is wrong - and not just wrong, I found, but amoral. There doesn't seem to be such a thing as a sex trade in which consent is given - it is "trafficked." Kristof loves that word, "trafficked." Sex workers are only ever trafficked, enslaved, their plight typified by only the most depraved sexual violence imaginable. Kristof never seems to mention adult women (or men) who work in the sex trade without coercion, so I have to imagine they must not exist. Likewise, I have only ever heard of my peers buying drugs directly from Mexican drug lords & cartel hitmen; the stereotype of the dopey high-school classmate selling weed out of the Dairy Queen is a pernicious stereotype fostered by the media. Both truths cannot exist. To admit grays in place of black-and-white might stagger the Swiss-clock precision of too many New York Times op-eds.  
But don't take my word for it - who am I ultimately? I've never clapped a luckless woman in irons for the crime of sex. Kristof doesn't seem like much of a night owl to me - he seems to sweat wholesomeness out of his pores, a real butter-and-egg man who probably kayaks or something before dawn. Yet, here he is, scouring nighttown in an ominous & unnamed "southern US city," rolling with a crew of hooker-busting, trinket-bedecked bubba cops, who I'm sure have only the women's best interests at heart (that's why they're being thrown into the safety of a jail cell).
The safety of a jail cell. I feel jaundiced and hot under my sheets, no closer to sleep, but at least I don't know that loneliness. I hear it's good for people who deserve it though. That's what the good people say. I bet Nicholas Kristof sleeps very well.


General Gandhi

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October 11th, 2013: Blackout

The Bridge at Remagen.

I have done my part. Austerity has been demanded; austerity has been enacted. This is what responsible people do - no more debt hikes, no more irresponsibility. No more pushing things off. We're on a downward course and need to go uphill. I'm watering my horses in puddles and shooting squirrels with my .22. I am tightening my belt.

So I tell myself, in the unheated ardor of my drawing room in October. My grandfather's face looks down on me from atop the mantle, in the photo he had taken on a lark in Paris, what - sixty-seven? Sixty-eight years ago? A twenty year-old in the uniform of the First Army - first over the Rhine at Remagen, chasing Jerry back and foreclosing the anschluss. I'm sure he knew what hard times were like, a skinny Irishman with the Great Depression for a nanny. Yes, I'm sure he'd be sickened, sickened as I was, by the Democratic assault on America's fiscal future.
After all, the only true contribution of World War II veterans was that we could have exactly the kind of lives men like John Boehner and Lloyd Blankfein and Ted Cruz think we should have. This rolling blackout clapping its way across the country, along the power lines, into the heart of every community in America, is necessary. No, it does not speak to some sick selfishness at the heart of the American dream, some churlish disregard for community and sacrifice and child cancer patients which might indicate to some sane diagnostician that something has gone terribly wrong in this country. What other symptoms could there be?
The sickness is literally washing up on the doorstep from which our corrupt, repulsive rulers pontificate. In most cases, it can be ignored, so we can focus on the things that count, like keeping the Congressional Gym open. On that same National Mall which the Indian Summer Patriots are fighting to both defund and keep open, a man doused himself with gasoline and lit a match. John Constantino battled mental illness all of his sixty-four years, and it finally claimed his life, in a shocking and saddening final burst. This might seem like a noteworthy story, but, it wasn't. Barely stuck around. Better to descant on how the shutdown "saved the world," like Very Important Person Ezra Klein did.
Yes, the shutdown saved the world, but maybe not all the people in it. The great world turned on a dime the moment a mentally ill woman battling postpartum depression rammed her car into the White House gates, convinced as she was that Obama was jamming her mind with radio signals. She hurt a policeman on foot and rammed into a cruiser before our police gunned her down in her car in front of her toddler. And they were praised, even after their story changed.
You always praise the termination of the sickness - not its prevention. You can spend as much money as possible to scrape the dead off the sidewalk, but don't you dare say this is a country that breeds unhappiness like mosquitoes in a swamp. Some countries would hang our four hundred and thirty-five members of Congress from the Potomac Basin's cherry trees as a warning to any fresh carpetbaggers. Here - we make a fuss, and the squishy establishment liberals tut-tut, and the hard-right drives the jackboot deeper.
Yes, there's much to be angry about. As I sit here, I'm sure my patrimony is anger at the unthinkable prospect that furloughed National Park Service workers wouldn't be able to patrol the National World War II memorial - not that the poor guys weren't being paid, but that World War II vets couldn't be a living prop for patriots like Michele Bachmann and Steve King. 
Eh, I wouldn't get too mad. It's their country. We just live in it.


General Gandhi

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