Yule See

DSC09098.JPG

There was no moon that night but for some reason our eyes adapted to the dark enough to pick out not only one perfect Christmas tree but two.

My friend Jim phoned me a little after dinnertime.  I was playing a Johnny Rivers album of Jim Webb songs on my old Phonola and reading Playboy, nobody home.  He said Sister Fernanda called him and wanted to know if he could hustle up a crew like me and Homer to take the convent car out to Mosinee to pick up a Christmas tree.  Jim didn’t have a drivers license, so I’d have to drive, at least until we picked up Homer.  Would I meet him at the convent in half an hour?

I was having a strange week.  I was living with my dad and he had just lost his job as general manager of the local Chevy dealership, accused of embezzlement.  He revealed to me and my sister Bernadette that his latest girlfriend, at least ten years his junior, was six months pregnant, and they had decided to pack up and move to San Diego, California before the end of the year.  And I turned eighteen that week too.  My car, a 1962 Chevy Bel Air, was repossessed from the school parking lot by a tow truck from the dealership during school the day my dad got fired — apparently it wasn’t paid for yet — and the finance company came to the house to repo our couch, dining room table and chairs, some end tables and a coffee table and our TV my dad bought on credit from Prange’s, word spreading fast that his credit was no good.

And about a foot of snow fell that week.  It glistened under the streetlamps and squeaked under my boots as I walked in the plowed street with the ridges piled to the curbs like miniature sierra cordilleras.

I lived two blocks from the convent, which was next door to Newman, the Catholic high school, which amazed anybody who knew where I lived because I was notoriously tardy for the first bell — there were kids who came all the way from Antigo who made it on time, and yet yours truly couldn’t make it two blocks.

Jim, whose full name was Getchmis James Olsen, lived maybe six blocks from school, but he notoriously walked everywhere, never tardy.  He was the smartest boy in our senior class by GPA and had a perfect attendance record.  His dad served on the Newman school board and his mom taught fourth grade at St Matthew’s.  The nuns trusted Jim and trusted me because Jim vouched for me.  Everybody called him Jim except the nuns, who were obliged to call us students by our real names, not nicknames.  I arrived at the convent’s front door a few minutes after Jim.

Sister Fernanda taught maths at Newman and served as the convent treasurer.  Jim did all the communicating except where she gave me the car keys and made me promise to be careful.  She gave Jim custody of a hefty bow saw with an orange elbow-frame handle and sharp teeth.  Their blue late model Oldsmobile station wagon was parked on the driveway.  She said we wouldn’t need gas money because the tank was full.

It wasn’t the first time for me behind this wheel, the nuns had supplied it for our transportation the prior spring when Jim herded up the school speech forensics team to compete in Madison at the state tournament and Jim’s small one act play he wrote under the pseudonym Yndian Sommers competed at State.  Jim admired Samuel Becket.  I had a part as a sulking skulking jeremiad.  We took third, though one judge said later she would have given us a higher score had she known it was an original production.

Not halfway backed out on 28th Avenue Jim was playing with the radio trying to tune KAAY Little Rock, though it was too early to get Bleeker Street.  Instead he found WLS Chicago.  Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Goodbye.

Homer Joe O’Leary lived outside the Wausau city limits on a steep hill in a woods down a long gravel driveway off the main road.  His dad was a dentist and Homer was the fourth of nine kids, the elder three more or less grown — a sister married and out of college, another sister currently at UW LaCrosse, and a brother — the younger ones mostly brothers and a baby sister about ten.  Doc Leary — most people who spoke of the family in the third person dropped the O — bought the house about five years back, a big Victorian style structure that stood near the old Wausau railroad station that used to be the logo of an internationally known insurance firm but lately fell idle and discarded in a part of town abandoned to decline at the foot of East Hill.  Legends said the old house was once a convent, or it was a bordello, perhaps both.  Doc Leary bought it for its bones and arranged to have the structure uprooted and hauled up Bridge Street all the way up the hill to his new property, where he tore it apart and rebuilt it to suit his big family, an undertaking still unfinished with electrical switchplates missing and some rough patches in the sheetrock and a little incomplete molding, but by and large a completed project bearing no resemblance to an antique Victorian mansion whatsoever but rather a spacious modern and efficient home designed in situ for his family.

Jim and Homer Joe were lifelong friends from the old neighborhood on the east side of town not far from the train station.  They played together as kids.  About the same time as the O’Learys, Jim’s family also left the old neighborhood and moved to the thriving new west side just beyond the city limits, albeit Jim’s family lived in a regular neighborhood on grid streets whereas Homer’s family situated a little more on the fringe of land still considered country.

The driveway stretched through what could have been pasture and came to a loop where the house nested amid a grove of mature oaks, maples and tamaracks.  We parked at the door to the three car garage and hiked up the stairs to the wide deck overlooking an undeveloped forest downhill.  The deck framed the main entrance to the house through a sturdy sliding glass doorway into an entryway towards the family dining area, between the kitchen and the living room.  The ceilings were high and the passages between rooms open and airy, and there was a skylight in the spacious living room, where I noticed a long black leather couch.  It was Homer’s night to do the dinner dishes so we hung out at the dining room table until he got done, talking small talk with his mom and one of his younger brothers and his little sister, whose name happened to be Kelly, like my surname.  We engaged in a ritual Jim called Say Hello and Pet the Dog.  The O’Learys actually had a dog, a burly woolly bear of a beast named Schlotsky.

Doc Leary had a voice like a trombone.  He was in his easy chair in a discreet corner of the living room reading the Daily Record Herald or the Milwaukee Journal, and he called out to me from where I didn’t see him.  “Mr Buffalo Kelly, c’mere a minute.  Present yourself.”  At that same time Homer’s little brother said their dad wanted to see me.  My boots were already off by the door and I unhesitantly excused myself from Jim, explaining our mission from the convent to Homer’s mom, and stepped up into the carpeted living room, which was more like a loft.  Doc rose from his chair to shake my hand.  He had a precise grip and farsighted brown eyes that expressed graciousness, sincerity and mirth.  He tipped his reading glasses atop his gray crewcut flattop he still wore since his days as a Navy pilot during World War II, and I may have been taller than he was but he stood solid and yet not rigid, not like the usual military man, impressive but not imposing.  Not like I expected of a dentist, either, but an informal politeness more like an educated teamster.  He wore a cardigan sweater with a hole in one elbow.

He said, “I hear your dad is undergoing some troubles of his own and plans to relocate to California.”

“Yes, he’s got friends out there in the car business.  He’ll make out okay.”

“So what about you?”

“I don’t know.”

“How do you feel about giving it up and not finishing your senior year at Newman?  Are you excited about following after your dad?”

That was an odd way of putting it.  “Not really,” I honestly replied.

“Then I wonder if you might consider living here through graduation.  I talked with Grace and we talked with the kids and we’ve got room, you can bunk with Homer and Mickey.  You wouldn’t be the first orphan kid we’ve adopted.  You’d help out around the house, of course.  Think about it.  Have your dad give me a call.  We’ll work it out.  You can finish your senior year here and then figure out what you’re going to do.  Seems your dad has enough on his plate.  And personally, I wish him luck where he’s going — if Florida is the armpit of this country, California is the crotch.  Think about it.”

It didn’t surprise me that Jim had been scheming with Homer to figure a way I could stay in Wausau.  Jim had even gone to the Newman vice principal, Father Kulovits, and sketched a plan by which I might occupy a small apartment on the top floor in the wing near the band room in an empty office next to the guidance counselor, with full access to lockers and showers, and the kitchen, be Newman’s hunchback phantom, but Father Kulovits wisely cited insurance and liability issues and ducked the true issue of literally turning over the keys of the school to me, a notoriously suspect personality.

My friends earnestly assumed I would rather stay with them through the bitter end of high school in Wausau, Wisconsin than take off into the great unknown of Southern California with my fuckup father and his pregnant girlfriend.  They didn’t realize how tempting it was to start over, kiss this dead end fartsniffing dumbshit town goodbye and go off to the forevereverland of grass and ass.  I had a fresh opportunity to go to a public school.  What no one else took into account, my third available choice (which Doc Leary didn’t know about at the time) which was to return to my dysfunctional, anarchic and semi-barbaric mother’s household in the Twin Cities, which seemed to me a worst-case outcome, worse than remaining in Wausau, although it still meant I could attend a public school.  Now my friends, behind my back, had engineered for me a safe and above board means for me to keep going to Newman, and I was touched to realize I had such friends who needed me and believed I needed them to get through the next six months together.  We had unfinished business.  My friends persuaded me to stay.  Those bastards.

We took the freeway — funway, as Jim and Homer called it — the US 51 bypass as it was known — which ran along the east side of the Wisconsin River along the foothills of Rib Mountain in a beeline more or less between West Wausau and the paper mill towns just south of the city.  Most nights to get to the same destination we would likely cruise through town on Grand Avenue, Business 51, look around at what’s happening (nothing) and who else might be cruising (usually nobody) but this night we had a mission, plus we were uncertain whether it was cool to be seen cruising in an Oldsmobile station wagon.  Our destination was a tree farm somewhere in Mosinee township off an ABC county road off Hwy 29 and 51.  The farm was owned by a Catholic family with a freshman and a junior at Newman, and they sold pre-cut Christmas trees or you could go wander the rows of stands and cut your own.  The place was easy to find from signs with arrows at every intersection from the main highway.  Bare-bulbs lighting decked the pre-cut lot and spotlights lit the barnyard and the surrounding forest of pines and firs.  The place was busy.  Lots of families shopping for Christmas trees.

We rolled through the lane cautiously avoiding customers on foot and found a place to park near someone with authority, a guy in a snowmobile suit and duck boots.  Jim explained who we were.  The guy pointed to another guy who stood in the doorway to the pole barn, who turned out to be the patriarch of the farm.  Jim talked to the patriarch.  He pointed off yonder down the lane towards a deep corner of the property and told us we could cut anything we liked way back there.  We got back in the car and rolled down the plowed lane to the corner where the boss indicated.  The way was lit by a string of white bulbs.  At the end of the property we halted, put it in park and got out to survey the available trees.  The convent’s central living room had a high ceiling, so Sister Fernanda said not to get stingy with height, we could go twenty feet.  The trees before us were easily that tall.  Height would be no problem.

“You gotta be shittin’ me,” said Homer, the first to speak.  Jim shook his head and lit his briar pipe.  I lit up a Camel and Homer gestured for a hit.  We agreed these were the ugliest Christmas trees in life.  Asymmetrical and flagged, crooked, partially limbless and ratty with bare branches and patchy needles, there was not one tree from all of this pre-selection we could in good conscience bring home to the nuns.  To select any one of them we agreed would disrespect the sisters.  We said a few words about the integrity of the donor patriarch to pawn off such crappy Christmas trees on our nuns and finished our smokes, got back in the car.  “We can do better,” summed Homer and we agreed.

We drove off the property the back way without checking out, and without any distinct plan I took country roads toward Rib Mountain.  The great landmark, lit with ski slopes like an ice cream sundae, its cherry transmitter tower up top, rose apart from the valley in the night like an electrified Mt Fuji.  Being I just turned eighteen it would have been customary to go with my buddies to a beer bar and treat them to a couple 15 cent Pabsts on tap.  There were several such beer bars in the valley along the river, including one on Lake Wausau, formerly known as Johnny’s, purchased that fall by the ex service manager of the dealership where my dad used to work.  My dad told me this ex service manager was the real embezzler, somehow simultaneously charging shop customers and General Motors for work done under warranty and pocketing the cash.  Somehow he framed my dad, though it was a thin case the Chevy dealer’s owner declined to prosecute, happy enough to ruin my dad’s name.  I believed my dad.  He wore nice suits, drank a lot socially and rarely ate at home, but I never saw signs of the kind of money alleged embezzled, enough maybe to buy a going beer bar and quit a day job.  I wasn’t inclined to bring my friends to this beer bar, though I recognized the road along the lake.  Besides, Jim and Homer weren’t eighteen yet, which seemed ironic to me because the whole year or so before this while I lived in Wisconsin I regularly hung out at the beer bars with my eighteen year old and older friends without ever being asked for my ID.

DSC09094.JPG

I just seemed we should be going someplace to hold a sit down meeting.  It turned out the meeting occurred in the car as we cruised the county trunk roads around the base of the mountain, listening to the Big 89 on the radio and musing about our alternatives to bring the nuns a Christmas tree.  Snubbing the donor family tree farm put us in a peculiar situation to make good on our resolution to do better.  Jim actually had a part time job and a checkbook but it seemed outlandish to pay money to a Christmas tree lot in town just to prove a principle, even if the lot were operated by the Y, Scouts, or of all things the Knights of Columbus.  No.  Not when the whole river valley at the floor of the mountain was forested and woodsy.  This was the town of timber and lumber and pulp built by guys named Rothchild and DC Everest.  We would find the nuns a tree.  Somewhere.

We brought up a debate about longhair trees vs shorthairs.  We agreed on behalf of the nuns we preferred shorthairs.  What was wrong with the family donor’s trees from the get-go was they were all longhair pines to begin with and after that were so scraggly and mis-shapen they looked more like saguaro cactuses than white or red pines..  Homer said he saw some rows of nice shorthair spruces and firs back at the donor farm and found it hard to get past the concept that the patriarch was too cheap to offer “One freakin spruce.  Just one freakin fir.”

LS came in clearer the deeper we got into the country.  They played a hit from the past summer by Three Dog Night, “Easy to be Hard” from the hot new play called Hair.  It was kind of a sad song that questioned evil and social injustice.  Jim and I were still kicking ourselves for not hitting the road to Woodstock that past August.

The valley was a wallow in trees, all right, but every prospective grove seemed to have houses nearby, too close to risk a heist.  Further off on the backroads — arbitrarily Homer said turn right at a crossroads, so I did — the houses became more sparse, but so did the trees.  The only vehicle on the road, we cruised between plains of pasture land, or maybe crop land, it was all fenced and white in the dark.  There seemed to be more deciduous woods now, bare trees with no leaves sticking up like spears and ptchforks.  At another crossroads Jim suggested we go left, back towards the Little Rib River.  There were crossroads about every mile.  Off across an open plain you couldn’t make out the backside profile of the mountain but you could see the red cherry transmitter.  It never occurred to us we could be lost.  For us there was no lost.

Off to the right a bare field crossed over to a plantation of Christmas trees.  Acres as far as we could see across the night, at least a mile along the road, rows and rows of pines and firs.  Nearer the road the trees looked too small for our desires but deeper away from the road looked promising.  We drove until we finally found a small house set off the road a hundred yards into the trees with a yard light, a big shed, a car and a truck, colored Christmas lights on the porch and smoke from the chimney.  We u-turned around down the road at the next crossroads, cruised by the driveway to the house again and observed no change and kept going until we were confident that the car motor was well out of earshot of the house.

There was no fence to keep us away, and no signs warning against trespass.  That meant they couldn’t shoot us, legally.  I parked the wagon as tight to the plowed shoulder as I could and still be on a steady road surface to make a clean getaway.  Homer collapsed the back seat to expand the station wagon’s carrying capacity and Jim carried the bow saw.  For a moment we paused in the road to savor the succulent silence.

We crossed over the plowed cordillera and descended into a ditch, then rose into the tree plantation and entered three abreast into the grid of trees.  The virgin snow was knee deep with evidence of wild grasses under our boot soles.  There was no moon — the very moon we had visited by proxy with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that past summer was nowhere to light our way.  Instead the stars of the Milky Way dazzled overhead.  The pristine snow looked gray in the perpetual shadow, yet seemed somehow to generate enough ambience for us to see.  We were among the shorthairs — who could tell if they were fir or spruce? — and now it was a matter of which one.  They seemed tall enough.  Jim split from the group and trudged a figure eight around a pair of likely specimens.  Homer followed him around one of them and patted the boughs.  “Okay?” Jim whispered, the first word said since we parked the car.  “Bonum,” Homer replied, and I assented with a sense of relief we were half done with our caper.

Jim got down on his knees and pressed the saw teeth to the trunk.  “No looking back,” he said and began to cut the bark.  Homer for a moment wandered away amid the trees and when he returned he said in a normal voice, “No worries.  You can’t hear nothin’ beyond the next two trees.”  After about fifty saw strokes I took over for Jim.  It took about a hundred and sixty strokes — I subconsciously counted them off by tens.  Homer held it steady through the final stroke and let it fall gently to the snow.  We stood still and listened.  No sound anywhere except our own breathing, steaming in the night.

Jim and I grabbed the base branches, Homer took the top end and we half carried and half dragged our loot back through the grid following our trudge marks in the snow.  There was no way to cover our tracks.  Once more we paused before emerging from the tree farm and we listened to the quiet.  We looked around.  No one behind us.  Nobody waiting for us at the car.  (It was an unspoken great relief to find the car still there.)  We dropped the tailgate and loaded it into the station wagon butt first and it was so tall we had to roll down the rear window for the tip top to stick out.  There was no time to admire the tree in the dome light but at a glance we shared a sense we had outdone ourselves.  With the tree occupying the whole back we had to all three sit in the front, but it was a wide car with a bench seat.  I pulled away cautiously, turned on the headlights and we drove back towards the faint silvery light pollution of the city.

DSC09089.JPG

On the way we chatted nervously, rolled down the windows as long as the rear window was open, and smoked.  The car smelled like coniferus sap and aromatic tobacco.  For the first time we seemed to notice how cold were our fingers and feet and we cranked up the heater.  The Big 89, WLS still played clear.  It was Yvonne Daniels, the first female deejay we ever heard, and she touted the new number one song, “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Peter Paul and Mary.  It bugged us that none of us could name who wrote the song.  We agreed it wasn’t Bob Dylan — he already did “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, and this song wasn’t cryptic enough or sardonic.  Homer questioned if it might be Gordon Lightfoot but Jim and I thought it wasn’t Lightfoot’s attitude, not pitiable enough, and he’s already covered the topic with “Early Morning Rain”.  We knew Paul Simon would never give away such a song.  Jim knew it wasn’t Phil Ochs, not cynical enough.  Same with Randy Newman.  It wasn’t Leonard Cohen — too sentimental and not wry enough.  Homer said for sure it wasn’t Muddy Waters.  We just somehow knew it wasn’t written by Peter, Paul, or Mary.  Jim figured we could ask John McCutcheon, our classmate who was a folk singer, or if nothing else he could call the public library reference desk, or he might walk uptown to Bob’s Musical Isle and read the name off the record label, all tomorrow.

This was fifty years ago.  1969.  Today one of us would have pulled out a smartphone and googled the answer before you could say John Denver.

Today a laser security surveillance system would have detected us in the trees, snapped a picture of us from a satellite, relayed an alert to law enforcement and we would be nabbed within a mile.

I remember vividly the starry sky, the endless trudge with the arbor corpus back to the car in the knee deep snow, and most of all the exhilaration — almost ecstasy — of pulling the car around the corner on Bridge Street where the convent put up a life size nativity scene and easing the Olds into the nun’s driveway without being pursued by a police car.  All the way home I feared an Alice’s Restaurant ending.

We presented the tree horizontally at the front door.  Sister Fernanda led us to their main living room where the other nuns were decorating and unpacking lights and ornaments.  I have never seen nuns acting so spontaneously ecstatic and utterly enraptured.  The moment we hauled in the tree all the sisters raved and sighed.  Even Sister Sardinia, the crusty old nun who taught chemistry and still wore the old style habit, practically giddy, cracked such a big smile I didn’t recognize her face.  Sister Fernanda was delirious with joy.  Sister Mark the literary nun sat amused on the sofa in a corner nursing a smoke and a beer and gave us the high sign while we propped the tree into the tree stand waiting in the middle of the room.  Besides the nuns who taught at Newman, the convent housed nuns who taught grade school at nearby St Ann’s and St Matthew’s, so this convent had a couple dozen nuns, most of whom I’d never met.  They called us heroes.  They plied us with Irish hot cocoa and thanked us profusely.  They called it the most beautiful Christmas tree they’d ever seen.  Sister Fernanda proposed a toast and called us her boys.  They couldn’t wait to decorate it.

Then in the midst of the fun — this convent of light and modern ceilings was far different from the dark and gothic sobriety of the convent of the Academy of the Guardian Angels in the parish where I grew up, especially this night — Sister Fernanda took us aside and asked if we would mind going back out to get a tree for the high school, the official Christmas tree for the Newman rotunda.

Sure, said Jim as nonchalant as a moviehouse usher, and before either Homer or I could come up with a rationale not to do it we were back on the road heading somewhere vaguely west of town in the nuns’ Oldsmobile.

This time Jim dialed up KAAY Little Rock, a 50,000 watt clear channel station, meaning no other radio station in America could broadcast on the same channel.  It was time for its Bleeker Street show, when this rock station featured music considered avant garde or underground.  The first song we heard was “Eli’s Coming” by Three Dog Night.  Jim suggested it was some kind of sign that it was the second song by Three Dog Night we heard on the radio that night.  Homer said it might be a sign it was going to get colder.  I suggested its meaning might be related to the songwriter, Laura Nyro, who had an album coming out called Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat — just showing Jim wasn’t the only one who hung out at the record shop reading album covers, and I read Billboard magazine.  I was trying to sound scriptural and prophetic.  Though we all knew who Laura Nyro was, none of us had ever heard her sing.  We thought she might be a girl Leonard Cohen, and for all we knew she wrote “Leaving On A Jet Plane”.

Then there was this song called “Venus” by some new group called Shocking Blue.  I’m your Venus, I’m your fire, What’s your desire.  Hard chords.  Singer with an attitude.  Jim called it banal.

What we avoided for a few miles was talking about what kind of karma we were courting to pull off our first heist and now going back a second time.  If we pulled it off, the original tree farm donor family was going to get a lot of credit — which could cast suspicion on us if they ever found out that’s not where we got the trees.  Homer assured us it would never get that far.  He was certain the original donor would gobble the credit and his kids would feel good, and our unsuspecting true benefactor would earn all the cosmic grace.  We agreed no matter what, if we got away with the second tree there was no way we would go back for a third.  It was almost a pact presented to God on God’s terms.

It was easier than I anticipated to find our way back.  Our collective memory and sense of direction led us back to the exact location.  We cruised past the farm house and everything was as it had been before.  We parked at the same location, more or less.  We found the same route into the tree farm grid.  We followed our path to our stump, chose a tree nearby and set about sawing it down.  There was no sense of adventure this time, no savoring the moment, but rather an anxious desire to get it overwith.  On the way out of the grid we stopped more to audit the atmosphere, hypersensitive to the sounds of our own breaths and footfalls.

We loaded the tree, slightly larger than the first one, and shut the tailgate as firmly and quietly as possible and collectively exhaled and looked up at the starry sky, thankful no one was around, no one followed us, no one saw us and no one else was driving along this road.

Suddenly the sky rippled with ribbons of magenta and green shimmers coming from the northern horizon.  Like electrified cirrus clouds blown by a hurricane wind these reams of ribbons crossed halfway across the sky and then retreated away into the darkness like an ocean wave leaving the stars to fend for themselves like a beach.

All three of us said something of a variation of Holy Jesus, Holy God and Holy Sheist.

Aurora Borealis.  The northern lights.  We stood in the road staring, waiting for it to come back.  After about a minute when it didn’t I said I didn’t want to be a downer but we gotta go.

We were so blown away we had nothing to say as we headed towards the red transmitter of Rib Mountain.  When we did resume conversation it centered on reflection on luckiness and living a charmed life.  In truth I was having a life changing feeling.  I paid attention to the side mirrors and watching our speed but I began thinking this night, if it ends well, could mark another start of a whole new life.  What Doc Leary said to me about giving up made me reconsider giving my senior year a serious reevaluation.  This night could be a symbol of the possibilities — not of criminal behavior but adventurous living.  I didn’t need to be a middleman and a buffer between my dad and his pregnant girlfriend while they found their Route 66 to California — man, I had my own problems.  I was between girlfriends and drowning in a sea of celibacy, but that too should pass.  Bleeker Street played a new song by a new band called Led Zeppelin.  It ripped with stuttered, raunchy guitar and drums and the singer was a screamer.  Whole Lotta Love.  Could be.

DSC09096.JPG

Then talk between Jim and Homer took a conspiratorial tone so I turned down the radio and asked what’s up.  “You don’t want to know,” they both said.  I pried.

“You probably didn’t notice when we drove by,” Jim began, “but somebody took the Baby Jesus from the manger at the Newman creche scene.”

“Somebody?” I pressed.  They knew more than they were willing to confide, this I could plainly tell.

“You’re better off not knowing,” said Homer.  “Trust us.”

“They’re keeping it hush hush for now while they conduct an investigation,” Jim explained, he privy to deliberations of the school board.  “Forget what we’re telling you.  They’ve got a few suspects, and let’s just say you might get called in for questioning.  The less you know the better.”

“What?  Who?  When?”

“That’s right,” said Homer, “act just as shocked as you are right now.”

“And appalled,” said Jim.  “They’re going to offer amnesty and mercy if the perpetrator just turns over the little Bethlehem Bambino, like leaves Him on the doorstep of the rectory at St Matt’s.  Personally I think the Kid’ll turn up reunited with Mary and Joe.”

“Christ,” added Homer, “He’s not even due to be born for two weeks.”

“When you look at it,” Jim continued, “Advent just started.  Suspense should be building.  It’s not kosher to put Him out there prematurely.  He’ll show up on time.”

“Thank you Isaiah,” I conceded, “but when it all comes to pass I want to hear the true story.”  I actually never did.

Homer asked if he could be let off at the end of his driveway and he would walk in to House of O’Leary rather than trek all the way back uphill from the convent.  He said he’d had enough hero stuff for one night anyway and we should wish the nuns Merry Christmas on his behalf.  He reminded me to have my dad call his dad.  We dropped him off and left him gazing at the sky watching for the northern lights to return.

Down at the convent the nuns were virtually giddy drinking cocoa and cider and beer and decking out the tree with lights, the gradeschool nuns on ladders, Frank Sinatra singing his Christmas album on the record player, certain nuns singing along in harmony.  A little exhausted from the caper and a little wet and chilled from snow on our jeans, Jim and I were somewhat freaked out and humbled by our fortunate karma and a glimpse of the northern lights.  We agreed to Say Hi and Pet the Dog and get out of there (even though the nuns didn’t have a dog) and not stick around to Play the Role.  When the nuns raved about the new tree, even insofar as kidding about swapping their own for this one, we modestly credited Homer Joe for its selection, turned over the car keys, handed back their bow saw and chugged down our hot cider.  We asked where we might stash the new tree for the night and Sister Fernanda said to just leave it on the porch, no one would steal it, Mr Wilson the custodian would arrange to take it to the school in the morning.  Heralded by joyous thanks we exited as discreetly and unceremoniously as we could.

As vividly as I remember that night, like a lot of my memoir essays I am not comfortable telling this tale to my grand daughters, at least until they themselves turn eighteen.  I never even told this story to my kids, and they’re both around forty.

Jim walked me about halfway home and then split off to get to his house.  In our conversation he used the word catharsis.  It gave me something to ponder after we split up.  In Jim and Homer’s mind my residence at House O’Leary was foregone.  My mind wasn’t so made up.  Somewhere in the back of my mind the Animals were singing We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.  Coming to live with my dad in Wausau was supposed to be my fresh start, and it was, but the way things went just proved you can start out fresh anytime but it doesn’t mean the outcome won’t go stale, sour or downright rotten.

Dad sincerely tried to make a home for me and my sister Bernadette, who both needed to get away from our mother.  He even married his then girlfriend to give us stable guidance of a stepmom, a brutal mistake — she turned out a severely mean drunk whose evenings spent stewing prone to midnight tirades meant to drive us away so she could have Dad to herself again.  Violent outbursts when she threw things.  Not at all funny it was unbearably sad.  One night she put broken glass in my bed.  It didn’t last past Christmas but set the tone for my junior year, my first year at Newman.  I don’t know how Bernadette got such good grades — she went to the public school junior high — but I could barely keep up.  At a time most critical for me to reform my study habits, after just about flunking out of St Bernard’s Academy sophomore year, an academic fresh start at Newman junior year (how hard can it be?) was supposed to stabilize my life and help me fit in.  Instead I could barely think.  There was no place at home stable and quiet enough to study.  I studied on the fly.  Jim and I bonded hanging out nights at the public library.  I read and wrote theme papers at coffee shops.  It helped a little but I was easily distracted in public places.  It was hard to concentrate.

Fresh Start take two after the eviction of Dad’s eventual next ex-wife provided a serenity I didn’t quite know what to do with because with it came the catharsis of freedom.  I substituted my study time with a flourishing social life, especially among the senior class, and with graduates I would meet who were members of the senior classes before that.  I sneaked into the beer bars like Johnny’s and the Shindig and hung out like I always belonged.  I met up with guys for coffee at the Ponderosa on the Avenue.  From the new kid in town in the fall, and a fair target for bullies, by springtime I was a popular guy.  With the sway of a charismatic classmate named Kenny who volunteered to be my campaign manager, the smiles of the girls I flirted with, and a lucky glib speech I gave to the student body at an assembly, I was elected to be Student Council President the following, my senior year.  Immediately when I learned I won I regretted it.  All that summer vacation I mentally reconciled my guilt for my ego trip with accepting the responsibility to be an appropriate elected leader of a high school.  All my graduated friends told me to just be myself.  Somehow I knew that was going to be my undoing.

Was I a students’ rights activist?  A radical?  An agitator?  From the outset of the short one week campaign I was warned that the school administration was none too pleased to see my name on the ballot.  My backers hoped I would shake things up, whatever that was supposed to mean — maybe to challenge authority by agitating for meaningful participation of the students in their school government, or just for the sake of stirring up trouble to wig out the establishment.  It was such a simpleton environment, what issues could there be?  I was a known opponent to the Vietnam War, and it was fair to suspect I could potentially infuse the student body of this closely held traditional Catholic high school with inconvenient real world politics.  Given the times, it was inevitable, and I could not help that without denying what precious little I actually believed in, and maybe I was naive and not cautious enough about wearing my beliefs and my disbeliefs on my sleeves.

At home alone again the night of the Christmas tree heists — Bernadette called to say she was staying overnight at her friend Kimberly’s and would go straight to school from there in the morning, and I already knew my dad would be staying at his girlfriend’s — I pondered these things in terms of Fresh Start number what — eighteen?  I was expected to stop by and register with the Selective Service very soon.  The Draft.  At Newman I’d have an automatic high school deferment.  I was considering not registering, of course, and risking prison — it seemed an unnecessary risk.  I was seriously contemplating filing as a conscientious objector, and if that didn’t work there was always asylum in Canada — those things could wait until summer.  The immediate existential plan seemed to call for me to attract as little attention to myself as possible if I were to survive another six months in Wausau.  I could see in retrospect the irony of getting busted for stealing those trees and getting one of those classic sentences for things as petty as stealing traffic cones, jail time or join the army.

The school principal never called me into his office to interrogate me about the missing Baby Jesus, but I recalled the last time he did call me into his office to give me a lecture.  It was just after I’d won the election and he wanted to remind me of the responsibilities of the high office and its obligations to right leadership.  His name was Father Francis and my friends and I referred to him as Frankie Lee, after the Bob Dylan song The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.  I can’t say enough about how much he detested me and made me wonder why, from my first interview in his office, he ever allowed me to go to his high school.  He made a point of my transcripts from St Bernard’s showing unfulfilled potential and slack self-discipline.  In his office again eight months later after winning the election he reminded me of the primacy of the Newman Family and made it clear he would not tolerate acts that caused disruption to the Newman House — practically his exact words.  He had a scary look in his eye as he asked if he made himself clear.

The last time I went voluntarily to Frankie Lee’s office was in May my junior year, after the election but just before summer break.  I was asking him to sign off on my application to take an English class at the local UW extension (The Stench) that summer.  Since I was still in high school I needed my principal’s recommendation to take a college course.  Father Francis wouldn’t sign.  He said I wasn’t academically ready to take a college course, pointing out my junior year grades had barely improved over my sophomore transcripts from St Bernard’s.  The bad part about it was I went away agreeing with him, I doubted I was ready to take a college English class.

For about twenty four hours.  But instead of standing up for myself and fighting to prove him wrong and assert my right to get educated, I just let it slide.

And here I was, on the verge of putting Frankie Lee and the whole Newman experience behind me to go off to the promised land of southern California for a fresh Fresh Start, probably even go to public school, maybe learn some conversational Spanish and get to go to the beach in January.

Dad meant well when he sent me to Newman.  He thought I would fit in with the Newman curriculum (from what he heard) since I had already been schooled in private Catholic education and was accustomed to it.  I figured at least Newman was a co-ed school, a step in the right direction — St Bernard’s was an all-male school.

I could say adios to Frankie Lee and consider a Christmas tree his going away present.  Get in the car with Dad and his girlfriend — she had a name, Joyce, which Dad would sometimes pronounce Jerce when he was imitating a Las Vegas mobster from New Jersey — ride cross country in Joyce’s Impala pulling a U-Haul trailer setting off into the sunset with my sister into a complete unknown, it was my choice.

It came back to what Doc Leary said about not finishing.  Fresh Start for Fresh Start, there had to be a clean finish before starting again.  I even thought I owed it to my dad to stay behind, to give him some privacy, some room to get his own life together without worrying about me.  It might do me some good to live in a regular household with a normal family, doing chores, peeling potatoes and eating home cooking.  I was touched that my friends cared about me.  I felt I owed them loyalty.  They needed me, more than my dad or Joyce or my sister, though I could not figure out why.

Eventually we would go our separate ways when high school was over.

Now we shared a bond compacted by the nuns’ Christmas trees, a good deed done committing a bad deed, something we could never brag about, something that canceled itself out like both sides of one of Sister Fernanda’s math equations.

If I stayed to finish the school year I could still plan to go out to California after graduation, after the new baby was born and Dad and Joyce and Bernadette got settled.

I could get revenge on Frankie Lee, kill him with kindness, be a respectable representative of the student body, prove him wrong about me and straighten out my transcripts, my permanent record.  Community college was free in California.

As I mused to sleep that night I drifted into mental Christmas songs.  Not so much the ones the nuns played by Frank Sinatra on their stereo, but sung by a full-lunged choir.  I liked Silent Night, Holy Night except the line that goes Holy Infant so tender and mild — it sounded like a line from a cigarette commercial, or worse, suggested that the baby would taste good to cannibals.

So I turned to that song about comfort and joy.  Comfort and joy!  Comfort and joy!  Tidings of comfort and joy.

Just before I fell asleep, though, my mind lapsed into Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Good Bye.

DSC09123.JPG

BK

Trump’s Devils Advocate

President-Trump-saudi-arabia-orb.jpg

We love President Donald J Trump.

It’s okay that he lies.  Lies strengthen our national security.  Lies boost the economy.  Every lie he tells is really a parable for all the myths everyday people believe to get through the day.  He lies to cover up the corruption required to sustain the lavish lifestyles envied by all of us who want to be like him.  He lies like everybody wants him to lie so everybody can lie and get away with it.  If real events can be fake news then lies can be true.  Every great leader lies in his own time for the sake of posterity.

We approve his collusion with Russia.  America has been a needless adversary far too long.  Both countries share white cultures and an abundance of gas and oil.  If our armies merged we would be a force to reckon with.  Russians have rich traditions Americans should respect.  There is nothing wrong with oligarchy if it uplifts society.  Authoritarianism keeps order in an undisciplined world.  Meddling in our elections?  America’s been messing with Russian politics for decades with Voice of America and Radio Free Europe stirring dissent.  Russians have explained there is no such thing as democracy.  Freedom of speech under the First Amendment applies.

He did nothing wrong with Ukraine.  Crimea and Ukraine are breakaway provinces of natural Russia.  The core hoax here is the Deep State Trump is disassembling is propping up the wrong side, and this is how he will remake the State in his image when he righteously ends funding for the corrupt Ukraine regime against reformist Russia.  As President of the United States, Trump is empowered by the Constitution to set foreign policy.  He can’t be impeached for doing his job.

Climate change and global warming are all part of God’s Plan, and politicians and government bureaucrats got no business trying to interfere.  America is blessed with natural resources that should be utilized for man’s pursuit of happiness, as our national creed so says.  Carbon keeps the lights on.  Trump understands the modern industrial age and refuses to sacrifice our exceptional standard of living to keep coal in the ground or regulating natural spillways.

We admire his aggression with the opposite sex.  We want a man in charge who isn’t shy about ripping a bodice to take what he wants.

We love the First Lady.  She is the sluttiest girl in the White House since Marilyn Monroe.  Son Barron isn’t in the public eye because he isn’t really Trump’s kid.  He’ll soon disappear, adopted by his real (Russian) father as soon as the public forgets he exists.

Trade wars are vital to balancing the power of global commerce.  Inflicting economic pain on competitors is what trade is all about.  In America it will accrue efficiencies in production and delivery in cutthroat global trade as American firms gear up.  First, Americans have to believe they will not pay tariffs on imported goods, and then when the tariffs show up on the price tag they will have to demand non-tariff goods produced in America, and that’s where more American workers get jobs.  More jobless will have no choice but get jobs or get cut off welfare.  Small inefficient farms will have to consolidate, band into corporations or cease operation as the agricultural subsidies go away and agribusinesses adjust to the new world markets.  Inefficient farmers should find other professions.  Unemployment is the lowest in fifty years.  President Trump makes sure the working class knows its place and he’ll keep them in their place as long as he’s in charge.

The border wall is a wonderful idea.  Migrants illegally trespass on our sovereign soil.  They are squatters on our sacred land.  They steal our jobs and commit crimes, spread drugs, taint our census, corrupt our culture and fraudulently vote in our elections.  Their claims of asylum are bogus ploys to grab our purses and take liberties they did not earn and don’t deserve.  Just like prisons should be hellholes nobody should want to end up, our illegal immigrant detention centers should be designed to make offenders wish they never left home.  Trump’s wall tells intruders to stop right there and turn back.  It keeps out the riffraff.  They affect our gene pool and Trump recognizes the need to rebalance our population with citizens compatible with American born values.  We shall not be replaced.

The Republican Party needs him because without him they have nothing credible to offer as the alternative to permissive liberal philosophy.  Without Donald Trump they’re sissies, they have no courage.  They cannot articulate coherent arguments to debate liberals on the merits of public policy.  Without Donald Trump they don’t know what they’re doing.

Donald Trump is the most savvy man on the planet, the most suitable leader of the century.  He has vision and he sees himself as the avatar of his vision.  He envisions America the champion of the world in all things mighty and righteous.  He sets the example of the strong man who takes charge.  He inspires men to be like him and admires men like himself who also recognize the need to assert leadership over nations in chaos, or would be in chaos if not for strong authority.  He is a gifted orator.  His financial acumen makes him a business genius.  He knows how to apply tax laws and leverage assets, and how to use bankruptcy as a means to make more money, and thus entitles him to negotiate against the world for trade in commodities, equities, technology, agricultural products, cosmetics and fashion, gas and petroleum, mining and chemistry, aviation, steel and real estate.  He knows how to move money where it counts.  In the world of diplomacy he has made allies of former enemies.  He has embraced the Arab Muslim world with the royal family of Saudi Arabia and the president of Egypt.  He talks turkey with Turkey.  (The Kurds are in the way.)  He got serious with Syria.  He promises to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute with a real estate development plan.  He taught the dictator of North Korea civil manners.  He has earned greater respect from China.  He has made the Ayatollah of Iran know there’s no room for doubt.  And Trump has at long last reached across the Bering Strait and over the squabbles of Europe to make peace with an ex enemy we coexist with like long lost brothers, whose future partnership should guide future history of the human race, our new friend with whom we have more in common than most people think, Russia.  Donald Trump knows.

Christian evangelical voters most of all should recognize Donald Trump as an enabler to the work of the Hand of God.  It’s only a matter of time when he can pack the Supreme Court with justices who will put the Ten Commandments and other historical monuments back on the courthouse lawns and allow states rights again to legislate reproduction and God’s Word.  If it’s God’s Will that America prospers at the behest of its abundant natural resources then there’s no one more in favor to go at it than President Donald J Trump.  If climate change and global warming are part of God’s Plan, then mankind is not meant to interfere.  If natural disasters occur more frequently and more severely, causing famines, floods and wildfires, there’s nothing science can do to change it.  If small local wars and feuds, along with natural disasters, disrupt populations and strand migrants, you can look it up in Scripture, the poor will always be with us.  Add this up with the intense frequency of social unrest all around the world, and look at volcanoes erupting, and earthquakes burying towns, viral plagues, starvations, drug addictions and overdoses, all the air strikes, missile launches, terrorist bombs, the brink of nuclear war, when you add it up we could be looking at the End Times.

Either way, you only get one life so you might as well get all you can out of it while you can, and that’s Donald Trump’s philosophy for America.  He’s done nothing wrong.  He knows how to evade the law.  He expects the same for every man.  He justifiably superseded military command as commander in chief to pardon unjust military convictions to tell the rank and file troops he will support them if they must break ranks to support him in the event of insurrection.  He will not be convicted of Impeachment because America needs him to run for re-election.  If you look forward to the End Times, when the planet virtually implodes and Judgement Day comes and the woes of this world cease, and mankind emerges in eternal resurrection, then Donald J Trump is your elected Antichrist.

 

 

 

BK

Life on Erf

Buffalo Shadow.jpg

Sometimes I lose sight there’s around eight billion people in this world.  Only about five and a half million reside within my geographic region, somewhere in the central northern midsection of North America, a small and obscure territory equally colonized by eastern assets and west coast mass media.  The city where I live, which has a 19th Century made-up name, has barely a population of half a million, but the metropolitan area all around makes up about three and a half million residents.  I have to stop and think, that’s peanuts compared to Mexico City.

There’s estimated to be 258 million people classified as migrants on the planet right now, people not living in the country where they were born, about 3.2 percent of the world’s population.  That’s about 29 Mexico Citys.  Or 28 Tokyos.  30 New York Citys.  516 times the size of my home town.

We talk about a small world.  That’s a lot of people, and if they ever got together in one territory they would make up a formidable force.  Like a big fierce mondo mega Israel.

From my perspective, an American baby boomer from the virtual boomdocks, there”s always an elegant solution to things hiding in plain sight.  Common sense is supposed to dictate a reasonable outcome.  Where I come from we try to learn from mistakes, and we learn to try not to make mistakes.  Maybe we are less risky, or just less frisky.

The culture where I live has learned from historical mistakes such as slavery and aboriginal genocide and come out a 21st Century hybrid of restorative backlash and no true forgiveness, but it can be a start towards healing and creating a just tomorrow.

In some ways, my culture employs doubletalk to avoid confrontation and at the same time uses it to make a point passive aggressively.  This is how we get along around here where I live.

The world all around generates frightful news.  Does this mean information is now being known and communicated around the planet more comprehensively than at any other time in human history, allowing that upheavals, mayhem and catastrophe, evil and injustice occurred all the time, all along, as they say largely unreported?  Underreported.  Global media truly democratizes information even as it spreads misinformation and disinformation at the same time, it offers equal opportunity storytelling and factual assertions into the atmosphere of knowledge.  Facts can be verified.

News of the battles of the Greco-Persian War probably never crossed the minds of citizens within the Wall of China or living under the Gupta Empire of India.  It took almost two millennia to uncover forgotten Pompeii.  It used to take years and years of anthropology and archaeology to uncover and piece together the past history of humans on this planet in the context of the planet’s own age, when nobody we know was around to witness dynamic cataclysms forming the earth before people had language to describe its beauty and its terrors.

Now practically every soul on earth can know about an earthquake in Japan, or even near Tehran.  The wildfires of Australia and California.  The flood of Venice.  Hurricanes.  Where disaster strikes somebody records and reports it.  It gets repeated and everybody knows.  If they want.  Some Chinese couldn’t still care less about the Greco-Persian War, but they might be interested in contemporary events occurring in that region of the world.  It’s amazing how much access people have to information in real time.  It’s hard to believe today that Hitler’s Nazi regime was able to keep the Holocaust hush hush only eighty years ago.  A hundred years and on, Armenians grieve genocide at the hands of the Ottomans.  Rohingya perish in Burma.

Today everyone’s smart phone records and transmits dispatches sent from around the world.  We’re seeing riots in Hong Kong, Baghdad and La Paz over unfulfilled political expectations.  It’s as though people have more democracy than they know what to do with, like guns in America, more freedom than they can handle.  I’m being facetious.  Watching countries fall, collapsing from within from civil discord over fundamental rights and basic needs, is a sad sight.  It was horrifying to be able to witness ISIS atrocities proudly touted on social media, or the massacre at the mosque at a place named, of all things, Christchurch.  Ironies abound.

Mass communication exposes secret detention/reeducation campuses for Uigars in western China.  Contradictions between authoritarians and libertarians govern traffic on the information super highway.  What a Middle American pedestrian observer might interpret as the End Times, Antichrists abundant.  Except that’s been said before.

What you can say and get away with in this world relies on who isn’t listening.  Audience prevention poses a significant challenge.  It’s hard enough to come up with something interesting to read much less squeeze between censors and curators, moderators, compliance auditors, trolls and squealers, between the lines.  This comes from an American blogger who writes from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  It ain’t easy being free or brave.  Our Constitution guarantees our right to remain silent or anything we say may be used against us in a court of law.  That seems fair.  I enjoy this space on the internet by the grace of the worldwide web and don’t take for granted this risk.

There’s this local woman who runs a shelter and soup kitchen called Sharing and Caring Hands.  Her name is Mary Jo Copeland and she finances the place without any government assistance.  This time of year they run their fundraising spiel on TV and radio with her narration, and she says, “To the world you might be only one person.  But to that person you might be the world.”

That makes no sense.  And yes it does.

It amazes me whenever this website gets hits from outside North America.  I think of my work as colloquial.  Neoprovincial.  Quasi-primitive.  Its quality hardly qualifies for national attention, although 77% of my readers are in the United States.  Beyond the borders, Canada and Mexico account for around 6% each, not surprising, being neighbors, as I’ve written specifically about Mexico’s hospitality and Canadians who winter down there.  What shocks me is that almost 2% of my readers are in China.  It isn’t so much my doubt that Chinese readers might care about the musings of a proletarian shlub seven thousand miles away, it’s more a wonder that my content gets past their censors, given at any time in any essay I might sympathize with citizens of Hong Kong, criticize President Xi or Chairman Mao, or grieve for Tiananmen Square, or as I mentioned earlier the roundup and detention of Uighurs.  2% of all readers to me is much more than a few assigned moderators just checking me out on behalf of the Central Committee.  This leaves me both amazed to get through the Chinese Firewall and to have actually interested a bunch of Chinese readers.

More readers than in the UK, which surprises me because I have higher readership expectations, or wishes, from the land of my language than a meager 1.4%, even when you throw in a handful of hits from Ireland.  Not that I’ve ever written more than a few lines about John Lennon, or argued against Brexit, marveled at Stonehenge, praised the National Gallery or testified to kicking the wall at Galway Bay.

Astonishing to me are the numbers from Brazil and India, which rank sixth and seventh in readers.  One is the biggest single entity of South America and the other the most populous democracy in the world, both nearly inscrutable to my neocolonial education, and both critical crucibles of social, political, economic and environmental conditions in the 21st Century.  What am I saying that would possibly interest them?

More than France and Spain, which round off the top 9 at nine.  France I get because they are French and not beholding to anyone, and guys who think they love Paris are a europenny a dozen.  Lately they’ve been reading the essays about Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, so maybe they’ll turn up in Mexico this winter with the Quebecois — who needs another rhapsody in English about how cool is the Musee D’Orsay?  As for Spain, anyplace in the world with Madrid and Barcelona both in the same country though miles and miles apart can be excused for ignoring the naive gibberish of an American tourist facing Guernica, Las Meninas, and Sagrada Familia for the first time, but there are readers of mine by the dozens.

The top ten is closed by Indonesia, almost half of one percent of the total, just less than Spain.  This really intrigues me.  Why Indonesia?  What appeal does a confessional white American urban senior citizen ranting about newspaper delivery have for somebody living in the South Seas 9,000 miles away?

The analytics provided by my platform host tell me what country my readers come from but can’t tell me exactly where or who they are.  Some search criteria used to find me is available but sometimes not.  I see what gets read — or at least viewed.  I know nothing about the visitors except if they comment or make contact.  To date I have been read in 50 countries.

Several of those countries are onesies and twosies.  There are curious smatterings from places like Israel, Pakistan, Germany, Sweden, South Africa, the Netherlands, Italy, Uganda, Russia, South Korea and Singapore.  Among the one-timers are Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and Poland — what attracted them in the first place and why they haven’t returned I don’t know.

With 195 countries in this world, my blog has made an impression in at least a quarter of them.  Not bad for a nobody from nowhere.  (With nothing to say, you might add.)  By the numbers most are from the rich world, but there is no way to know if they are in fact rich, and of the economically marginal countries whether the readers are, but I hope you all enjoy rich imaginations.

Most of the countries you can think of where no one has read this blog are places preoccupied with other issues such as daily survival, even among the country’s elite.  This man’s message resonates not at all to a citizen of Congo, I imagine.  Then again, I’m amazed somebody in Tajikistan found me.  Somebody from Bangladesh.  Azerbaijan.  There are issues with access to the worldwide web in places my blog has never been — either sparse networks, little mass technology (if you can imagine) and prioritized usage — or else content is regulated and blocked.  It’s no surprise to see no readers from Syria or Iran.  Burma or North Korea.  It hurts my feelings there’s never been a reader from Switzerland; the country is a cute little benevolent police state, but I don’t think I’m being blocked, just ignored.  There’s never been a reader from Latvia either and I don’t take it personally.  Same with Norway, a place where a significant number of migrants who settled my region came from.  I’ve never had a reader in Somalia even though the largest Somali refugee migrant population in the United States is literally in my neighborhood, so it’s possible a Somali might be a reader here in my home town, where a Somali refugee immigrant naturalized citizen represents us in the US House of Representatives.

Small world.

In the time it took Philippides, the messenger who ran the 26.2 miles to Athens to deliver the news the Persians lost the battle at Marathon and the Greeks won, about 24 billion messages course the worldwide web.  In the time it took Roland to carry the good news from Ghent to Aix, all the cable networks and news apps, blogs and even some print media will have reported the news, discussed it, analyzed it, investigated it and several You Tube and podcast productions will ensue.  And in the time it took Sheridan’s ride to Cedar Creek, by the time Sheridan was twenty miles away a joint air strike and infantry counterattack inspired by satellite and drone imagery, delivered with surgical precision, would have rendered the rebels toast, and by Sheridan’s arrival he would be briefed about the battle’s aftermath and mop up operations.  Paul Revere’s Ride?  They’re coming.  Click.

We live in interesting times.  Interesting long as I can remember.  Those who decried, history is finished — what a terrible conceit.  We live on the cuttingest edge of history.  The blade is a sharp laser and we seem to wield it like a guillotine.  Like a stone axe.

Every epic Greek play, all the dramas of Shakespeare, the plots of great literature and themes of classic cinema are taking place every day in real life on this planet.  All the world’s classical expressions of cultural foment and honor are simultaneously occurring in the societies of humans abundant in this world.  Even the origin stories play themselves over and over.

For all we know, and all we don’t know, for all the knowledge collected over millennia and by the minute, humanity has no excuse for its behavior towards itself in the furtherance of life on this planet.  In this age of interesting times we should all know better than to corrupt our survival with mutually destructive acts of war, inhumanity and flagrant demolition of the environment, engaging in practices sure to kill us all.

Maybe all at once, but most likely we’ll snuff out slowly over agonized generations unless the consensus of power that determines the socioeconomic systems employed by human institutions pays attention to the trends it is creating now for its future generations.  It could begin with consideration of the 250 or so million migrants, the ones in camps and the diasporas on the fringes of the rich world, and those millions of lives disrupted by violence, terror, war, persecution and the threat of death, who chose escape instead.  They live among us in the shadows, the ones who get prayed for on Sundays, sometimes Saturdays.  Our criminally homeless.  Our refugees.  If these people are created out of the conditions manufactured by our power structure, then the power structure owes itself accountable to address the causes as well as humanely remedy the effects of migration.  The young adults and the kids, what is to become of their lives if they ever get out?  With their homelands destroyed there may be no reason to go back.  Will they find homes and community, jobs and trades or remain outcasts and shadows in our slums?  A generation of insurgents or new leaders towards better society?

When one addresses these, the least of the well off of the human race, one sees straight into these interesting times.  The wars in the Middle East, western Asia and all over Africa push migrants towards Europe.  Why not dream big?  Central Americans chased from their homelands by gangster cartels as ruthless as ISIS or persecuted by a government as repressive as Assad like to come to the USA for the same reason.  These refugees are poor but they’re not dumb.  They see Hollywood.  Bollywood.  Disney World Orlando.  Disney Paris.  Most refugees end up encamped in nearby countries as poor as their own or face segregation from any mainstream societies in compounds away from the capitals of the EU, but they have found a form of safety and now depend on hope that this camp might be one step into a good life and not the end of the line permanently.

It isn’t always war and political persecution.  Sometimes it’s natural disaster and famine.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, monsoons, floods and wildfires drive migration, and for the most part there’s little human societies can do but have contingency plans.  Bad governments can make matters worse, both with indifferent response and malfeasant resource management.

Whatever the reason, these castaways of civilization personify the disparity of living conditions on this planet.  It’s not helpful when societies block their own gateways into the good life, one of the lessons learned by now.

Thus poverty is perpetuated through stigma.  Revolt under such circumstances is inevitable.  And violent resistance is futile.  Eventually the conflicts prove fatal.  Time and again young students take up the voices of the stigmatized and are shut down by the power of the state.  There’s no sign yet that the autocrats, oligarchs and plutocrats are thinking through their approach to governing masses of people and designing democratic institutions and rules of law to be justly applied to everyone so the institutions live on to serve and protect future generations.  No sign of dictators stepping aside anytime soon.  Signs of more Tiananmen  Squares appear more likely.

This observation comes from an American participant in the era of social unrest known as the Sixties, the mommy of all modern social disruption and the template for every contemporary mass movement worldwide that involves public demonstrations and civil disobedience.  Sometimes I think the rest of the world is having its Sixties.  In America we had race riots burning whole sections of cities, and antiwar protests that got out of hand and ended up not so peaceful.  Historians attribute the source of the protest attitude of the Sixties to French radicals at universities in Paris, but the American black civil rights marches actually set the protocol for every mass demonstration in this world ever since.  That there’s ample evidence the civil rights rallies and peace marches actually worked, or at least had an effect on the outcomes desired, can only offer hope to citizens everywhere who want to made themselves seen and heard taking a stand for democracy, human rights and justice.  From an insider’s view, however, after half a century pondering results measured by social change, mass outpourings of mobs in the streets, day after day, will eventually push any regime past its tipping point and it will do whatever is necessary to restore order and enforce its will.  Since the 1960s in America more profound means of communication have been devised to demonstrate outrage and influence public opinion.

Yes, it’s a beautiful thing when millions of people assemble in peace at places like the Mall in Washington DC on a special day to praise virtues, extol liberty and justice and brag about the exceptional qualities of democratic ideals.  Then everybody has to back to work, back to school, back to friends and families, back into the day to day stuff of their communities and practice what it is they hold so dear they spent a day at a public square celebrating with a bunch of like minded people.

Angry mobs don’t bode well for anybody within miles of the epicenter of the anger.  Mobs who create riots and wreck property and bait the police have no business asserting political demands in the name of others who may even express similar opinions.  What is it this fascination with setting tires on fire?  Inciting riots isn’t leadership.  It surrenders all negotiating collateral.  It breaches terrorism.

Of course you have to have at least a semblance of civil society to experience civil protests and demonstrations.  There are outlying regions of the world where a band of rogues with guns determines who says what and how much.  There isn’t much internet there, and whoever might have it probably are the ones with the guns.  In denser outlying societies where you don’t see mass demonstrations it’s because there is no coherent government to protest against.  In many places the territory is contested between this or that militia, or this or that cartel.  You protest these dudes you disappear.  It’s when thugs like these take over mobs in the cities who are parts of organized protests against government policies and turn the public campaign into armed insurrection with car bombs and suicide vests that all hell breaks loose.  There are a lot of civil wars going on in this world right now.

Small world indeed.

The contagion of armed conflict contradicts assertions attributed to the Better Angels of human nature that global violence is declining.  (Steven Pinker.)  Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate with an elitist pose to pessimize.   With the speed of light on the wordwide web incitement to commit mass homicide spreads faster than can be rationally contained.  The means of mass destruction are within the grasp of bathtub chemists.  There may not be enough good will in this world to deter a podge of zealots from sacrificing lives like yours and mine to project their domination.  Where’s the democracy in that?

Gradually undermining even the most elected regimes and furtively sabotaging the most fiendish authoritarian is the human impact on the planet’s ecology and effects on climate change.  Notable for its deplorable exceptionalism, the government of the United States backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016 which commits nations to reduce the atmospheric release of carbon emissions to forestall global warming.  America in effect is saying to the rest of the world’s 194 countries who signed the agreement, nope, it can’t be done, don’t bother to try.  America, who used to pride itself leader of the free world, now admits to leading the way for perfectly unrestrained carbon waste, as if pledging to do the exact opposite of the Paris goals.  The president calls climate change due to global warming a hoax perpetrated by the fake news media who are the enemies of the people, and people believe him.  It seems so Soviet.  None of his followers seems to care about the consequences of ignoring the scientific data and instead of continuing to regulate and restrict emissions go ahead and loosen existing limits as if to double down on the right to pollute.  If America doesn’t care, why should India, or Ghana?

Official policy favors the coal, oil and gas — fossil resource — industries, as well as heavy metal extraction.  From petroleum we get plastics, and from plastics the oceans are forming small continents of accumulated waste.  The results of anybody who guiltlessly tossed a Bic lighter overboard thinking, oh well, it’s just one.  We who heat our homes with natural gas really have little choice in the market for fuel except perhaps electricity often generated with the assistance of fossil fuel.  For the sake of the planet would you believe it if the coal, oil and gas industries divested in extraction to invest in futuristic energy technology and gradually put itself out of business?  Proven fossil fuel reserves prove irresistible to dig, tap and pump.  Whole corrupt oligarchies control the supplies, and you and I are the demand.

In Minnesota, the state where I live, a couple of international mining conglomerates want to operate copper and nickel mines.  This region is famous for iron ore mining that made steel mills rich the past century, and today there are immense proven seams of copper and nickel under the dense woods.  The problem is, the mining of copper and nickel pollutes the soil all around the mines and will poison the surrounding lakes and rivers of a pristine wilderness watershed along the border with Canada and other waterways leading to Lake Superior.  Besides the mining companies who want the copper and nickel and other associated rare metals, there are towns in the vicinity of a few thousand residents each who want mining jobs at all cost.  Opponents of the mines favor the environmental impact.  The federal deregulators are pushing mining.  The state is delaying the permits pending further impact studies.  Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, and thanks to urbanization and agriculture there are several bodies of water less than pure, shall we say.  Exceptions of purity are found in the far northern reaches like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which will be ruined by mining.  The trickle down effect will flow through the whole St Lawrence Seaway eventually.  This may not matter at all to residents of Cleveland or Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie, but Superior is still the cleanest of the North American Great Lakes, and that matters to Canada and should matter to everybody.

When my wife and I travel we get asked where we’re from, and when we tell them, hardly anybody who isn’t American (or Canadian) seems to be able to visualize where it is on a map.  Is it near Orlando, Florida?  I place us in the middle of the US, up north near the border with Canada.  The source of the Mississippi River, if that helps.  The western shore of Lake Superior, if anybody knows the Great Lakes.

From this vantage I worry about the fate of the world.  The future relies on courageous leaders who can articulate the sense of doing the right thing and persuade people to support actions to make the right things prevail.  Ideas need to keep flowing freely so the good ones catch on.  Ideologies need to be questioned, merged and transcended for the greater good.  Laws must be just and justly applied.  Democracy must be the lifeblood of human rights.  War and crime must be abolished.  Global trade should be free.  Public health is a human right, along with public education.  Shelter — gimme shelter.  And every means necessary should be directed towards mitigating global warming, climate change and the adverse impact human civilizations have on the ecosphere.  It’s complicated.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said the other day he expects deforestation of the Amazon rain forest to continue.  “Deforestation and fires will never end,” he said.  “It’s cultural.”

O que?  What?  Whose culture is it promotes the destruction of its own habitat?  And if there is something cultural about Amazon deforestation, it’s the duty of the cultural leaders to change that aspect of the culture.  No, more than likely Senhor Bolsonaro sides with interests who don’t give a shit about the Amazon forest except to generate fast cash in the here and now, and there’s a culture for that too.

Sorrier yet, if Bolsonaro is right then it’s almost genetic proof that humanity is ultimately self-destructive.  If enough people accept that then it’s really all a countdown to catastrophe.  If all we can expect of our political leaders is crashes and clashes it’s a hopeless loop to a death spiral.  Even a president who believes climate change from global warming is bullshit ought to at least wink the other way and go along with the Paris Accords just to play along just in case it works.

In reality, as the warming of the globe continues and the weather and effects of natural elements get nastier, the poor will suffer first and suffer the worst.  They already live in some of the world’s crappiest neighborhoods, they’ll be the first swallowed when the tides rise, burned when the fires ignite and buried in the landslides.  The poor already live near garbage piles and rivers of open sewage, they will be the first to be sickened by toxins awash in floods.  When the land cracks from drought they will be the first to starve from the famines.  They’ll be the most killed when the factions take up arms to grab the nice real estate and seize resources.  Eventually the poor who want to migrate will have nowhere to go, stranded.

And believe it or not, even the not-poor will be inconvenienced.

Eight billion of us.  On Planet Earth.  Spread around the globe.  Densely populated in places, and some places sparse.  195 nations.  Over six thousand spoken languages.  Eight billion individuals.  Members of families.  Neighborhoods.  Towns.  Cities.  Everybody part of a region.  Eight billion human beings, all as conscious as you and me.  People.

Somehow in the six to twelve thousand years of evolving consciousness, the human race has developed the will to employ communications skills to establish social treaties to bond populations who hardly know each other with philosophies instead of coercion.  Never before have the world’s people been linked intellectually.  This is why I say we know better than to behave otherwise.  As we say in America, ignorance of the law is no excuse.  Everybody in this world can know everything there is to know.  Can know.  The encyclopedia of the universe is everywhere.  Yes, there are several reaches of the planet without broadband but these places are identifiable and will infill its technology sooner than later and even today can access satellites.  2.45 billion people — roughly 30% of the world’s people — use Facebook.  Alibaba has 617 million customers, Amazon 310 million.  Google gets 5.6 billion searches per day.  This day and age is a knowledge junkie’s dream.  Interesting times?  And yes, my vantage is from an obscure and prosperous ivy tower sheltered in the rich world of freedom and democracy, whereas there are places where the internet and its content is restricted, denied, blocked and shut down, not exactly the worldwide web.  This is an era of murdered journalists, arrests of publishers and shutdowns of newsrooms among mainstream information carriers to control information, and even in my USA the mass media gets called the enemies of the people and their reporting called fake by the nation’s president.  Meanwhile the permissible open channels of internet communication are manipulated to offer misinformation.  Yet, as the X Files used to say, the truth is out there.

Way back in the Sixties, people of my generation took on the establishment to end war, hunger, racism, sexism and pollution of the natural environment, and to promote peace, justice and democracy in the world.  And legalize marijuana.  It feels wrong to admit we lost.  After all, if it’s not a zero sum game the game isn’t over.  OK Boomer, you might say.  Hope you mean it because it’s hard not to feel bad that my generation didn’t all by itself accomplish every single solution it set out for, making a world worth bringing new generations of people.  It isn’t fair to pass this world to a new generation without some preparatory guidance, like passing the queen of spades without at least one other spade.  It is fair to accept and take seriously young emerging leaders.  Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, is around the same age as two of my granddaughters, to whom I have to answer for their cultural inheritance.  I’d like them to see I agreed with Greta Thunberg long before she was even born and this awareness of environmental concern is not sudden and new, not granpa being hip and fitting in.  Stylin’.

Wherever, whenever in this world they have a Sixties I hope it goes well.  So many times, like with the Arab Spring and Tiananmen, things turn out the opposite.  It helps when demonstrators demonstrate the responsibility to govern themselves with civil behavior, even in the face of taunts and especially under pressure from radical tempers.  Don’t fall for the old We Want The World And We Want It Now, especially if it’s in ALL CAPS.  It shows commitment to want something bad enough to want it right away, and changes and trends can happen in a minute, yet democracy and liberty are a long outlook.  Short and finite outcomes of behavior lead into threads and networks involving long lasting outcomes, affecting social change organically and not by rule of gun or guillotine.  Anarchy is like a vacuum in physics, and nature abhors a vacuum.

For my part I am sorry my generation didn’t solve all the world’s problems so the next generations couldn’t inherit the Earth on cruise control, all wrapped in a blanket and a bow, nothing to do but enjoy this beautiful planet, eat apples and pray thanks.  We tried.  We gave you MTV and the Eagles.  Sorry.  Bush and Cheney instead of Al Gore.  Alas but don’t tell me you resent handheld computers.

More than half the world’s people have access to a mobile device, pad or smartphone.  That includes children.  66%.  In theory that’s a lot of democracy.  A lot of informed citizens.  Social literacy.  This is what will drive future human interaction to get along for the sake of the planet, the greater good.

What has always bothered me about the Star Wars movies is the wars never end, the evil empire always seems to dominate the universe and the good guys and the jedi forever fight for survival.  It was long long ago and far far away, and here we are on Earth still blowing each other up.

Widespread personal communication made possible by the worldwide web is the next way towards international understanding, the spreading of the stories of the human condition.  Some of the stories are going to be lies.  Self-serving lies.  The answers back will bespeak truth.  Sometimes the lies awaken awareness of the liars.  Nobody knows if there’s enough intellectual savvy among users of social media to tell real hoaxes from fake ones.  There’s a learning curve in all this, but it seems that a lot of good can come from watching You Tube to learn how to repair your own wash machine.  Freedom of access both ways on the worldwide web in theory should never be denied on the grounds of the same as the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, freedom of speech.  In practice there is a slippery slope of exceptions which only specially interested fringe groups support but most of society don’t mind seeing banned, like child pornography, human trafficking, terrorism and hate crime.  The censorship and banning of ideas is wrong.  The trafficking of humans via the internet is wrong but discussing the ideas of human trafficking on the internet might be right but isn’t wrong.

Governing regimes who block internet access have something to hide.  In Iran I can’t believe it’s only about gasoline subsidies that citizens have taken to the streets for.  My mind says there’s something more on their minds, but the internet has been shut down, no word out or in about their civil condition.

There are some longtime international and internecine feuds that someday will have to be set aside for the greater good of the world order.  The place to argue, accuse and reconcile is on the internet.

The species has a great chance right now to own up to its obligation to steward the planet, as it claims, and to gin up enthusiasm among its people to take measures to stabilize the temperature from warming due to human carbon pollution, just for starters.

The meeting place of the minds is the internet.  One of the characteristics of intelligence in our species is that we don’t just have brains, we have minds.  If allowed to think our way through these interesting times we could confront the eternal demons which torment the human race and examine the mysteries of our hearts searching for something we already belong to bigger than ourselves, a world we can barely pronounce.

photochrome24.jpg

BK

 

Trump Tower Looks Like Shit on TV

250px-Trump_Tower_(7181836700)_(cropped).jpg

A few years ago — it seems longer — before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, I happened to visit Trump Tower.  My great nephew Hogan’s high school choir toured New York City and sang at various public venues, including the vast pink marble atrium at Trump Tower Fifth Avenue, Manhattan.  Hogan’s mother, a couple of my sisters, Roxanne and I all went to New York to hang out and to catch the choir at some of their gigs.

If not for Hogan’s choir I would have never thought to set foot in Trump’s Tower.  Years before he was president he accrued a reputation as a sheister, cheater, deadbeat con man, and this 58 story monument to the guy’s overpimped ego seemed like a waste of valuable Manhattan time.  There’s so much else to dig about New York City, why not walk the Brooklyn Bridge, visit the Metropolitan Museum or ramble through Central Park instead.  The idea of paying any tribute to a man I knew to be a moral dirtball by gracing his headquarters seemed like endorsing a temple to the devil.

I was especially peeved with the place from one of the legends of how it got built on the site of an old-timey family owned department store, Bonwit Teller, which had to be torn down.  Trump had originally agreed to remove and preserve architectural artwork from the old building, giving it over to the Metropolitan Museum for preservation, but he reneged in the end.  To cut construction costs he had the demolition crew lose or destroy the artwork, saying he got a lowball appraisal for their value and made the decision they weren’t worth preserving.  Without anything in writing having anything to do with the Metropolitan, the artworks disappeared.  Not saying the quality was on par with the Elgin Marbles, but the loss to New York seemed cruel at the time and I carried that grudge among many against Donald Trump.  I always wondered who eventually took possession of the Bonwit Teller artwork, or if like some nazi fuhrer and final arbiter of taste he really did have them destroyed.

So when we learned Hogan would be singing at Trump Tower, the power of family trumped any trepidation I or the others had about the guy or his place of headquarters, we had a legitimate reason to be there.  We arrived way early to scope the place out and get good seats.  We came in at street level Fifth Avenue — you know, that avenue Trump said he could shoot somebody and get away with it — and I have to say the first impression of the lobby inside the door truly blew me away.  The height and grandeur of gold and glass and sleek pink marble immediately resolutes the sublime.  The towering walls of the sunken and rising eight story atrium resound in rosy pink marble with white veins, the stonework like a luxury fortress of sweet candy pinkness, a little waterfall at one wall.  We found the Trump Bar not crowded and got seats on a balcony overlooking the floor of the atrium where the kids would assemble.  To our utter shock the drink prices were reasonable and we ordered some cabernets and sodas.  Parents and friends of the kids in the choir who were also following them around showed up at the bar and we watched as the kids showed up in their tidy uniforms, set themselves up on the risers and arranged their little orchestra while the adults in their troop coordinated their whereabouts while we sipped our wines and cokes and looked on from above in our celestial pink opera boxes.

240px-Waterfall_in_Trump_Tower.jpg

The choir sang like angels.  Enhanced by the acoustics of the pink marble their voices literally shone like gold.  Passersby stopped to watch and listen.  The friends and family with the bar’s eye view were enthralled and proud of their kids stopping foot traffic in New York.  We were proud of our Hogan.

I came away from that experience rather amazed at the effect Trump Tower had on me.  The ethereal feeling those rosy pink atrium walls had on me had me spooked with a kind of voodoo rush of pleasure and polysymmetry I could not forget.

Years later the Trump organization held a news conference on TV from the Trump Tower atrium.  TV cameras don’t see light the same as the human eye.  We see light and color and reconcile it in our brains as to how it should appear, all in real time so to speak.  TV sees light and color calibrated to the light source — sunlight, tungsten, florescent, LED, halogen for example.  Colors are calibrated for TV to coordinate primarily to normalize skin tone.  Where that affects a punkin-faced subject continues to challenge production engineers to this day.

What I saw at the press conference were the walls in the background.  What I remembered as vibrantly joyful pink walls looked instead like shit.  The marbled pattern on TV looked like the walls were smeared with feces.  The color of brown poop.  The rich textural pattern of the marble looked caked with crap.  Excrement.  Smeared with it.  Dripping with diarrhea.

I’m sure this evident perception is not lost on Donald Trump, who is so savvy about television.  It’s ironic that his iconic tower so cleverly designed to look so cool in real life looks like a shit hole on TV.  His organization doesn’t do news conferences from the Trump Tower atrium anymore because the walls look like doodoo on TV, and they know it.

Technically the color could be corrected but the resulting skin tones would really freak you out.

330px-Trump_Tower_Entrance_(48064047178).jpg

BK

 

 

 

 

 

Staring at the Truth

roxanne.jpg

My worst trait, biggest fault, most flawed characteristic, is that I stare.

It makes people uncomfortable.  I get it.  I understand.  It’s rude.  I apologize.  I’m sorry.

It’s like I got x-ray vision.  I get fascinated by what I look at and I obsessively observe what I see.  This is harmless and blameless when it comes to landscapes like Grand Canyon and Devil’s Tower, or monuments like Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame de Paris, or paintings like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, unless I linger too long at a prime vantage where someone else would like to view and I inadvertently inconvenience a fellow gazer.  The beauty of nature compels me to contemplate what it is that makes a view a vision, just as art inspires visual fixation for the sake of beauty.  It’s when real people come into my fascinated line of sight my habit can be considered intimidating and even provocative.  Offensive, especially to women.

I objectify what I see, you might say.  I used to justify my staring as subjectifying, as if the semantics legitimized my defense.  I acted defensive when I was younger, as if the Right to Look were written into the Constitution.  Now I accept criticism as advice and concede an observer of me could feel watched and not like it.  This does not usually stop me from looking, I just adopt a more furtive technique.  Unless, of course, I want to get caught.

I have always looked people in the eye.  This is because I not only stare at people to study their physical attributes and features but also to examine their character, and no other feature projects character than eyes.  If you and I were face to face sharing a conversation right now I would be studying you, your face, your eyes as much or more than listening to your voice.  So you would feel at ease I might glance away at the room furnishings, another person in the room, a video screen on the wall.  I might look at your hands, your coat or your ear, but unless I’ve seen enough of you I will return to you and resume my study, eye to eye.  I blink, of course.

My eyes are penetrating blue.  Like beacons.  To help conceal my conspicuous stare I like to wear sunglasses.  As the song says, future’s so bright…  I’m very nearsighted, so I wear prescription shades.  I like to think of myself as that emoji of the smiley face in shades.  Nonthreatening and kind.  Maybe it makes me all the more sinister.  Without corrective lenses what I see is very much like Impressionist paintings, and for the most I like that, the details only matter when I’m driving, my mind can assemble a coherent vision of what I see.  Not wearing glasses may cut down on instances of blatant staring because I have become more self-conscious — self aware — at my advanced age of the effect my naked eyes can have on another self-consciously aware subject who feels treated as an object.  That and without glasses I can’t see far enough to distinguish individual faces, though that does not stop me from looking.

Up close my vision is very good, which means I prefer no lenses at all when reading, especially fine print, or when I’m studying pictures, like Impressionist paintings.

In intimacy especially.

Anyway, I cannot trace back to the origin of my staring.  I cannot help what my eyes are, I was born this way.  Somehow, however, I learned to use these eyes to maximize my visual gratification.  Early on I was drilled to pay attention, so maybe I grew driven to keep observing to keep from being punished for failing to see and to figure things out.  My parents and teachers expected a lot from me so I felt compelled to stay alert for their expectations.  I say to them now, in severe retrospect, be careful what you wish for, it isn’t all innocent fun to produce a precocious kid.  The American culture of the 1950s provided primal earth to grow and nurture a visual attraction for beauty, and girls and women were powerfully beautiful.

Orkin.AmericanGirl_kpf-300x198.jpg

In 1951, the year I was born, an American photographer named Ruth Orkin framed her camera and made a picture called American Girl in Italy, 1951, a candid shot of one Ninalee Craig, age 23, dressed in a modest calf length dress, sandals, clutching a shawl over one shoulder and a sac purse in her other hand, walking to the corner curb of a street in Florence at the foot of a formidable classical building where the sidewalk for half a block is populated by fifteen men, all but one (and he’s obscure) looking her direction.  One old guy in the foreground is absolutely transfixed.  The guys down the block in the background (except the one tall swarthy guy in the middle of the shadow arch of the first doorway) gaze after her from behind, still parted on both sides of the sidewalk from where she came, savoring her fleeting presence.  She is beautiful and this is after all Florence.  Nearer to Ninalee Craig in the center of the picture approaching the curb, the guys are identifiable and leering.  Young, about Ninalee’s age or so, they are dressed for business, nobody looking like thugs or degenerates.  This is Italy, after all, the birthplace of sharp clothes on average men.  Check out the shoes.  One guy straddling a motor scooter leers after her with hideous lust, and another juxtaposed by her and the corner of the building at the edge of a sidewalk cafe in a suit and tie grabs at his crotch and you can practically read his lips saying whatever it was in Italian for I’ll give you some a this.  Ninalee walks by with her head up, keeps her eyes to herself, takes a full stride, confident, modest, absolutely aware of her surroundings.

I bring Ninalee Craig and Ruth Orkin into this because it was photographed the year I was born, which is as good as any turning point in history, and as good a reference point as any to benchmark the tide of women.  There are no other women in the picture, just Ninalee, and no other woman’s presence on the street scene but Ruth, behind the camera.  Critics who suggest it was staged fail to deconstruct it enough to realize the variables of the fifteen other personalities in the frame are way too random to stage, even if Ruth knew the territory enough to virtually predict what would happen.  Ninalee for her part must have known what she was in for and she keeps her expression sincere and serene.  The result is a classic photograph of black and white elegance and a prophecy of the century to come.

Testimony to centuries and millennia gone by.

I only rather lately came across this photo and it’s now one of my favorite images of all time.  I am there.  I want to look her in the eye to acknowledge the power of her beauty.  It’s as if she’s been coming towards me my whole life.

It’s the essence of “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison — not at all the stupid movie, but the song.  The man sings his heart out in admiration of the beauty of a woman he sees walking down the street, someone he would like to meet.  A man with bad eyesight, prescription lenses and shades.  He sings, I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth, no one could look as good as you.  Mercy.

That’s right.  Mercy.

I’m a cisgender hetero male guy from the middle of America in the middle of the 20th Century, a man by admission and by definition.  At some young age I found an attraction to girls — women, ladies, female people.  Perhaps it was early exposure to Wonder Woman comics.  My mother was a beauty and worked as a local fashion model.  My mom had younger sisters, my aunties who babysat me, who had girl friends.  Ultimately my mom blessed me with seven younger sisters.  Maybe you would think all that would have numbed me or inured me to the feminine side of life but I guess it actually unwittingly may have sparked my lifelong fascination.  My younger brothers were seven and fifteen years behind me.  I hung with guys, knew crotch grabbers and motorbike sex hecklers among decent dudes trying to find our way in a world of Doublemint gum and Juicy Fruit.  I watched American Bandstand after school live from Philadelphia.  Girls dancing in their swirling skirts and tight sweaters.  As a little kid I wanted to grow up and be a teenager.  I imagined having a girlfriend like Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s secret identity.  I noticed breasts, nose cone, pointed bra breasts — the likes of what Madonna caricaturized thirty years later were high style when I was a kid, I know because my mom modeled them and wore them.  At a young age I was familiar with the vocabulary of lingerie, and for a while as a grown-up I subscribed to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.  As a boy I liked to look at cleavage whenever we went downtown or to church, wherever ladies dressed up.

I knew guys who knew guys who sold second and third hand Playboy magazines, sometimes over a year old.  It didn’t matter as long as the pictures were intact, the centerfold unadulterated.  In my life there was nothing more beautiful in this world than the naked female human body, photographed, or drawn by that Vargas guy, and I would have collected at least the pictures if I would have had any privacy to hide them long term.  Alas, at least until high school age.

Yes, surely the easy access to pornography incepted the allure to my passion for naked women.  This was before the internet, and so I can only imagine the scores of naked babes out there on line I can gawk at if that’s how I want to spend my cookies and attract spam and phishies, and I’d rather not.  Truly, there’s enough true beauty in everyday life to look at even if it isn’t always the naked truth.

Even so, Playboy and other photo magazines served as gateways to other prurient interests.  Culturally it was a time of shedding inhibitions that kept people uptight.  It seemed to be in my interest to side against shame of the human body when it meant more nudity for me.  More exacerbation.  I graduated to harder stuff:  Fine Arts.

Art history classes gave me permission to formally study pictures of naked women.  Art enabled me to stare without guilt and admire without shame.  The education of history gave context to the genre.  Education raised more and more curiosities and questions about the very structure of reality and the mediating roles of symbolism.  It was an exciting time to get educated.  I never knew how much I didn’t know.  Art enabled me to see what I was seeing.

Slides, color plates in books and in films acquainted me with the classics.  My home town museums and galleries offered good examples of marble sculpted breasts and hips, paintings of elegant poses, Egyptian glyphs of stony tits, and bronzes of goddesses from the Renaissance in the local collections, if not any big name nudes like Renoir.  I wrote a paper on an oval 1799 French oil on canvas at the Institute of Art by a guy named Anne-Louis Girodet called Portrait of Mlle Lange as Danae which inasmuch accused the artist of sexual blackmail for rejecting his advances by characterizing a popular entertainer, Anne Francioise Elisabeth Lange, as a slut for gold, while all in all painting her as an immortally gorgeous nude.  I got a job at the Institute giving me unfettered access to view not only its art collection but also its libraries, including its immense and comprehensive slide library of 35mm slide photos of works of art in other museums all over the world.

212px-Anne-Louis_Girodet_de_Roussy-Trioson_-_Portrait_of_Mlle._Lange_as_Danae_-_69.22_-_Minneapolis_Institute_of_Arts.jpg

This before the internet, with help of a Kodak projector and a crisp screen I could stare and study paintings and sculpture housed in collections thousands of miles away, where I could just dream of ever going to look at in person.  Botticelli.  Bernini.  Ingres.  Rembrandt.  Velazquez.  Titian.  Goya.  Manet.  Picasso.

I learned a new word, odalisque.  A French word, of course, it derives from a Turkish term for a harem sex slave or concubine.  French painter Henri Matisse called the Turkish meaning obsolete and redefined it to mean any full portrait of a reclining nude woman, after La Grande Odalisque, an 1814 painting by a guy named Dominique Ingres.  Odalisque paintings would include Venus of Urbino, 1538 by Titian, Olympia, 1863 by Edouard Manet, Naked Maja, 1797 by Francisco Goya and the Toilet of Venus, 1647 by Diego Velazquez, just to name drop a few of the most famous enduring images of the form according to Matisse’s definition.  Girodet’s Mademoiselle Lange would qualify, along with another French painting at the MIA called Nude on a Couch, ca 1880 by Gustave Caillebotte, although the couch all but dominates the picture.

800px-Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Nude_on_a_Couch_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

I married an odalisque, Roxanne, my wife, beautiful reclining nude, together 46 years.

She’s no concubine.  And if you wonder how she’s coped with my propensity to stare at people in public, she’s endured a life guiding my light away from boundaries of impropriety and inappropriate acts, insinuations and embarrassments.  She keeps me under-the-top.  She knows I like to people watch but she’s wary when I give the hairy eyeball and she’ll catch me before she thinks somebody sees me giving the stink eye.  She knows me.  She knows I’m not a stalker.

I’m not sexist, I used to say, I’m a sensualist.  I’m not judging a woman against her intellect or professional integrity, I would say.  I don’t discount women as inferior people or deny their human rights.  I support feminist principles and stand up with respect for equality.  Some of my best friends are women.  I belong to the YWCA.  Nine out of the top ten students — let’s just say the top nine — in my high school graduation class of 1970 were girls.  Since then I have had countless women bosses.  I am not prejudiced against women, I would insist, and vigorously defend myself against sexism citing all kinds of lame proof just to insinuate myself on the right side of history and the bend of justice.

In my persistent defense I would confess instead to being a sensualist, like pleading guilty to a lesser charge.  I freely admit I take sensual pleasure from admiring female form, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.  It’s not all I look at and it’s not all I see.  It’s not all I am.  And I would deny my staring studies treated women as objects.  To me they were subjects.  All with personalities, back stories, histories, responsibilities, real lives beyond a fleeting vision.  And here I would add that not only did I not view women as sex objects but as sensual subjects, it was not true I undressed them with my eyes.  I see women as they are and neither strip them down nor dress them up in my imagination.  At least not always.

Go ahead several decades and I’ve given up arguing defensive excuses, but I seem to keep mansplaining why.  I haven’t been to a strip joint in a long long time.  I used to find them very very sad, like casinos.  I’ve never engaged sex through prostitution but I used to think it was a victimless crime of lonely people until backstories came out about the sex slave trafficking of the women.  The biographies of most strip club dancers aren’t probably any more romantic.  These odalisques of underground sensualism.  What remains of first amendment right to vice.

There was a song on the radio in the 1980s with a catchy chorus of Na-na na-na-na-na na na na na-na-na-na-na by J Geils Band that outs a home town girl named Angel as a Playboy centerfold.  I could once appreciate the young woman’s utter self-confidence and lack of shame in her body to offer herself nude to a Playboy camera.  It’s a shame J Geils calls her out like the guy on the scooter to Ninalee Craig, not like a gentleman such as Roy Orbison would sing.

It makes me think of the models who posed for Titian, Velazquez, Goya, Manet.  Picasso.  I thought of them on Mediterranean beaches where some women bathe bare breasted as naturally proud as the Birth of Venus.  The past fifteen years, mostly the past ten, Roxanne and I have gone to Europe several times.  All those slide pictures and color plates from art history books?  I’ve said before, when I go places I like to go to art museums to see what the community holds dear.  I hold myself to this and have spent ages wandering and meandering through the most fabulous art collections in the western world, seeing in person and up close where I can take off my glasses and look at the strokes on the surface of the canvasses, the paintings I’ve adored from afar.

I’ve come across some truly awesome obscure treasures I didn’t expect to see or wasn’t looking for.  At the fine art museum in Dijon, France in the old Duke of Burgundy’s palace, the collection is rather bland and predictably French neoclassical until you round a corner of the chateau and gaze down the corridor to a wall at the end where there’s a startling large nude painting by James Tissot called La Japonaise au Bain, an 1864 canvas almost seven feet high and four feet wide, of a naked lady of vague oriental face with a classical Tissot expression of dubious bemusement, wearing red flowers in her lavish hair and a gregariously oversized lavish embroidered floral bath gown, open up and down the front.  Totally floored and unprepared for this, I felt so self-conscious whenever somebody else came into this gallery I walked all the way around the floor several times to break up my viewings so nobody would accuse me of fixated perversion.

I still feel shy at Musee d’Orsay in Paris standing in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, the origin of the world, which is a glorious study in gynecology.

In the European painting tradition, nudity was taboo except for depicting classical myth figures or religious themes, presuming I guess, in heaven nobody needs clothing and the divine are perpetually shameless.  Call a nude female subject Aphrodite or Venus and an artist could produce a figure erotic and prurient and get away with defiance of moral codes of chastity and modesty promoted and enforced by popes and kings.  Paintings illustrating the Old Testament treated naked views of figures such as Judith, Salome, Ruth, and of course, Eve.  Hence the Vatican instituted the fig leaf to cover the taboo body parts of secular figures after the Renaissance to try to cover up a rampant popularity of nakedness seen as a revival of amoral paganism.

Michelangelo in his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel not only portrayed mortals nude but God too.  God of course is male.  Michelangelo’s female nudes are remarkable for their stockiness, seriousness or sadness and not at all for profound erotic emotiveness.  His genius for constructing human anatomy in his art is unsurpassed in its audacious frankness.  Nothing in his canon can be called cute, except perhaps God’s Heinie in the Sistine ceiling.

Michelangelo supported the Church, its core teachings and philosophies regardless of avante garde revolutionary trends stirring in his Renaissance times, so he can be named among the hard core male establishment.  A full wall giant fresco mural in the Vatican painted by Raphael (another ninja turtle namesake) portrays a vast vaulted room of twenty one individuals considered a pantheon of great minds of the day, 1511.  All men.  Raphael, a mere painter, adored Michelangelo, architect, sculptor and painter, and there in the School of Athens, front and just enough off center to create a pathway to the guys in the middle is Raphael’s hero, reclining on a step at some random platform, drawing on a sketch pad, unconcerned with the activities of the other twenty guys in the vast room, creatively painted on a real Vatican wall looking like an extension of the real room, a scene that centers on a walk-in chat between Plato and Aristotle — Plato painted as the visage of another of Raphael’s heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci — and Michelangelo, crayon in hand, jots away in his own mind, is the only one in the picture wearing boots, everyone else wears sandals.

Michelangelo in his day was considered a man among men.  A pillar of Rome, he designed the very pillars supporting St Peter’s cathedral.  Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo in 1508 to decorate the ceiling of this vast seemingly-windowless inner private papal chapel, and much as he preferred sculptural work to mere painting, he took on this commission with intense professionalism and dedicated four years of intense perfectionism to paint this monumental fresco illuminating a pageant of Genesis, creation through the near destruction of creation through the flood survived by a drunken Noah.  Michelangelo filled the ceiling, every vault and arch, with bible visions as he saw them.  Mostly the visions conformed to scripture, and where Michelangelo’s interpretation orbited towards fantasy it was tolerated for aesthetic purposes or because Michelangelo insisted it be so.  In the ceiling panel illustrating the creation of the sun and the moon, God is pictured twice, coming and going, on the right of a great orange ball of sun advancing into the blue sky, and on the left flying away in retreat, the robes of clothes parting from the back to the thigh plainly exposing God’s Hinder.  Michelangelo’s symbol of the moon.

Legend says one of the pope’s Cardinal henchmen objected to God’s exposed butt as sacrilege and asked Pope Julius to order Michelangelo to cover it up.  Michelangelo refused to do so saying the bible says man was created in God’s own image and likeness.

About twenty five years later Pope Clement VII enticed Michelangelo to come back to the Sistine Chapel to paint the Last Judgement mural fresco on the front altar wall.  The vast mural shows a tableau of all kinds of anguish and turmoil among throngs and throngs of nudes, many of which were fig-leafed years after.  It’s a grand finale to the previous ceiling, the wall completed when Michelangelo was my age.

We call Michelangelo a Renaissance Man.  As was Leonardo Da Vinci.  It is interesting to observe Leonardo devoted copious calculations, sketches and drawings to the study of human anatomy, and yet he produced no nude paintings.  As much if not more than his contemporaries and succeeding artists who study the human form to record how fabric drapes and falls along with poses of the body, Leonardo painted some of the most compelling fully clothed portraits of women ever seen, including Mona Lisa Joconde, and the lady with the ermine, Milanese entertainer Cecilia Gallerani.

lady-with-an-ermine.jpg

Note neither Mona Lisa nor the Ermine Lady are purported to be Venus or any biblical character, both private commissions though Mona Lisa never left Leonardo’s possession in his lifetime.  Mona Lisa is enshrined in the Louvre in Paris while the Ermine Lady resides as a national treasure in Krakow, Poland.  They are both anonymous beauties recorded for beauty’s sake and not for selling a message.  Leonardo’s innocence sets him apart from artists sublimating grand scale with morality pageants featuring Venus or the cult of the Virgin Mary.

On a walk with my grand daughter Clara through the Impressionist gallery at the MIA she looked at the Caillebotte nude on the couch and said, “Grandpa, why are there so many pictures of women naked by men artists?  Why are all these artists men?”  She was about ten years old, about five years ago.

I explained then that throughout most of history art was controlled by men, just like every other thing in human activity.  That seemed wrong to her, and I totally agreed.  It wasn’t her first awareness of girl power overdue or my first endorsement of her inquiry into gender justice.  The part that confuses her the most is that all her short life she’s been convinced by examples of successful women and girls and the positive attitudes of her supporting culture that girls and women have it equal to boys and men, and it is a paradigm shift of a major mind comprehension for her to think there was a time until recently when women and girls were not certain of equality and were oppressed beneath men.  Her limited concept of history acknowledges endless, continuous, nameless wars, a holocaust, a time before inventions such as the iPhone and television, an era when African Americans were slaves and Native Americans were chased off their land, but it’s hard for her to accept there was a time just a few generations ago when women could not vote or run for President of the United States.

It’s unthinkable to her that men controlled civilization for so long, but she’s slowly learning.  How she processes and what she’ll do with this knowledge as she matures will somewhat rely on me and the example I set as my generation sunsets the planet.  For the day Clara laments to me the overwhelming list of famous artists who are men, I am compiling a list of known women artists and thus far I have 79 names.  They range from sculptors to architects to photographers but most are painters.  I have found them in museums and galleries in America and Europe.  Some like Frida Kahlo are famous and popular.  Most of them are obscure.  The vast numbers are modern, reflecting the boldness and transformation of this age since about 1901, but I found at least two who overlapped the turn of the 1600s, Sofonisba Anguissola of the late Renaissance, and Artemisia Gentileschi of the Baroque, both exceptionally gifted at rendering human figures.  And even if Clara doesn’t need my list to help her feel confident that women and girls are not fairly counted in world history but from now on they matter very much, I keep the list to remind myself to keep growing the list.

I am grandfather of three girls, two teen and tween age, the third an infant.  I have a daughter, a wife, seven sisters, at least fifteen nieces, far flung cousins and so on, and friends, and in-laws, and co-workers, and I used to have aunts and grandmas and a mom, lots of women whom I owe respect and support.  My daughter Michel grew up doing whatever she wanted in the world and I never said she couldn’t.  The teen and tween grandchild sisters suffer me as an overachiever granpa who dotes and indulges in delusions of exceptionalism.  And the poor baby, she’ll grow up alongside this weird doddering old fanboy who remembers nothing if not her birthday.

My legacy to them, to all women in my world but especially to Michel, Clara, Tess and Neko, seeks a reverent balance and serenity in a world of perpetual tension and strife.  This knowing I’ll never solve all the world issues for them to inherit sublime bliss, much as I wish I had that kind of power.  I owe them to stay out of their way and not embarrass them for posterity and not leave them with messes I am empowered to prevent, so they can all progress in this life and not have to turn around to solve something my fault.

Rockwell_1954_Girl-at-the-mirror.jpg

While they are left to make up their own minds about shame, modesty, excess and appropriate regard for the human figure, I have my own issues to reconcile with the truth — the naked truth — about beauty.

Faced with a lifetime of hindsight I’m seeing an opportunity to get pious about my false humility.  For me the past is not past.  In my mind’s eye I can see me peeking down the blouses and between the buttons of the uniforms of my favorite girl schoolmates at St Simon of Cyrene.  In eighth grade there was a nun who taught music and math who had oversized breasts such that they pressed the bib of her nun’s habit up like a convex dome her heavy crucifix could not weigh down.  I never reported any of this within the confessional — I didn’t trust the priests, and even then I had a cynical view of common sin.  Thinking impure thoughts?  Not really, not really thinking at all, mostly looking.

If it’s a sin to look then why did God create sight?  It’s a lot more than just sensing and sorting light.

Some cultures deal with the matter of men ogling women by disappearing women.  Women in public wear shrouded gowns to cover their skin and to obliterate their shape and figure and cover their hair with veils and sometimes their entire faces, and thus deprive men from looking at them to stimulate their sinful male lust.  That’s one way to deal with it, surprisingly effective.  Women in a paternally protected society may enjoy certain benefits a more liberal minded society might not see, but most modern societies rely on freedoms and rights most women prefer not to surrender or trade off for phony protection.

If they weren’t so good looking I wouldn’t look.  My crude philosophy all these years is if a woman is beautiful in any way she will be seen no matter what she wears.  I feel sad for women uncomfortable with their beauty and sympathize with their attempts to hide or deflect attention, even as I find them.  A beautiful woman in public always knows she is watched, has learned to sense it all her life, and comes to any scene prepared to be noticed.  It’s not my fault they’re beautiful.  It’s not my inclination to look away.  There they are.  I prefer they act like they are unaware I know they are in the room, at the plaza, school, church, wherever, and another moment passes, a vision of beauty seen, no kismet, no destiny, simply au revoir, adios, have a nice life.  Nice seeing you.  If our eyes meet we’ll look away, both aware more or less of what I’m up to, and maybe there will be a teaching moment for at least one of us, but as events go, once again an encounter like this goes by, maybe repeats itself a little, and passes into that subether of nice memories that keeps a serious mind amused amid the chaos of everyday reality.  My friends used to tease me about staring at waitresses, and they were right, I would follow them with my eyes as they worked the room.    I like to observe women as they work.  I found Roxanne working at a Target store, the prettiest girl I ever saw.

1280px-Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Birth_of_Venus_-_Google_Art_Project_2.jpg

Venus was born from the misty foam of the sea.  It’s an origin metaphor as dreamy and vague as the male libido.  Venus was the original cover story for nude women in art.  Men sublimated their adoration of the female body by creating images of veneration of their favorite anonymous females under the classical alias of immortal moral exemption.  Venus got a free pass in the Christian era because she was a virtual brand name of a fantasy figure from antiquity who pre-dated baptism and chaste behavior, tolerated in some circles as an example of what to ignore.

As art became more secular, and away from censorship by the churches, and then less under the sway of royal patronage, more democratic, pretense of tried and true pagan mythology gave way to contemporaneous views of undisguised mortals such as Olympia and the odalisques.  French painter Edouard Manet in 1863 gets credit for exposing the hypocrisy of sexism in nude painting with Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, Luncheon on the Grass, a big almost 7 by 9 foot oil on canvas painting of two nicely dressed, fully dressed guys in coats and ties, of a mature age by their manicured beards, engaged in a serious manly discussion at barely arms length over a picnic in the shade of a forest glen near a pond, in the company of two women, one wading and dipping her hand in the pond wearing a greco-roman tunic like a nightgown, the other woman, in close company of the men, is all naked.  The naked woman, calm as can be, sits full profile, legs reclined, upright with her elbow resting against her knee and her chin resting against her fingers, she looks this way and she alone meets the eye of the viewer.

The picnic basket is spilled of croissants, plums and red grapes.  A glass decanter is empty.  A rumpled blue dress lies under the basket on the grass, with a blue sash and a woman’s straw hat and blue bow alongside on the ground.  The naked woman sits on a rumpled blue cloth, her dress or the picnic cloth maybe, alongside one man and facing the other, looking at neither, looking at the viewer.  Her mouth looks a little bemused.  Her face and hair resembles Ninalee Craig in Italy, 1951.

Manet’s painting, so large on the wall in person in Paris, stuns the eye for its forceful photorealistic precision conveying a scene so frankly inexcusably erotic as if it were another day at the academy.

It is so much more in person than what it looks like from a slide or a color plate in a book.

1280px-Edouard_Manet_-_Luncheon_on_the_Grass_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

They say it caused a sensation when he exhibited.  Art historians tell us this work marks a turning point in modern art because after this no artist could argue seriously that pictures of naked women were inspired by anything more symbolic of a higher meaning than any excuse to put a naked woman in a picture.

Art for art’s sake.  I come along about a hundred years later but never too late.  Privy to thousands of years of scholarship and preservation, with an educated eye and a privileged view, Supreme Court decisions upholding my right to look at about anything I would want to see — drawing a line at child pornography, but I’m not that interested in cherub art — it’s been a golden age of opportunity to study nude women.  Studies usually lead to conclusions, but I still don’t think I’ve seen enough to conclude.

My self-conscious observations lead me to be aware of being on the periphery of popular taste in my personal verve for nudes of women.  Grace has come to feminism in my lifetime and with it illumination of real no-kidding-around-it sexism everywhere you look.  There’s a palpable transformation going on in describing what is sexist and what is sexy, or sensual as I used to say, and styles reflect trends of modesty of the body.  Cleavage covered or slightly accidental.  It’s no longer shocking to show full frontal nudity but sometimes very mundane, too common.  Literally vulgar.  Those who preach against naked pictures have a point when it’s said they are used to exploit and oppress women.  Nudie pictures aren’t politically correct.

It takes away some of the joy when there’s no one around to share the verve.

In truth the production of quality nude images of any originality has declined since its exposure to mass audiences the past 150 years.  An abstract colorist painter I admired from the pop op 1960s named Hollis MacDonald never painted a human figure I ever saw.  In a 1965 interview he was asked about nudes in art.  “They’re over worked,” he said.  “Everybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”

Another sign of the demise of the genre could have been foreseen in the career of Jerry Ott, a photorealist painter who, like MacDonald, happens to be from Minnesota, where I come from.  Jerry Ott painted two of the most gorgeous nudes I ever saw.  Both are huge canvasses boldly holding presence like murals.  One is owned by the MIA as part of its contemporary collection.  The other is owned by the Walker Art Center, the other big time art museum hereabouts.

The one the MIA acquired in the 1970s at the height of Jerry Ott’s fame.  The Institute, known for its great collection of all past eras, acquired the Jerry Ott to herald its vision of contemporary in the future continuum.  Airbrushed acrylic on canvas, it’s called (Untitled) Blood on my Hands and it shows a beautiful, graciously endowed woman, fully nude, in a studio setting against a wall of sheer plastic where a poster sized sheet of coarse paper is held in place by one of the woman’s hands, and on this paper is a reddish handprint matching the size of the woman’s hand.

In the lower right quadrant of the scene is a poster sized self-portrait of Jerry Ott, shirtless and holding a camera like he’s looking above a mirror.

My favorite Jerry Ott nude is the other one, owned by the Walker, Carol and the Paradise Wall, also acrylic on canvas, of a reclining odalisque across a richly upholstered brocaded chair horizontal against a photographer’s studio background of woods and trees.  I think I like it better than the one at the Institute because it’s a more dynamic composition with straightforward impact whereas Blood on My Hands loses its visual narrative with ambiguous testimonial symbols until the viewer rests upon the naked woman and gives up on guessing what the title means.

Today neither museum exhibits either painting.

740x571.jpeg

The Byzantine ways these institutions keep their secrets, it’s hard to know if it’s due to an undergroundswell of public protest against conspicuous displays of gratuitous nudes in contemporary art, or a curatorial decision to protect the public from being offended at a time when even university students get easily upset by perceived microaggressions.  Minneapolis may be a city mobilized to proactively defend itself from snowflakes of all weather.  In any case this disappearances of the Jerry Ott nudes coincides with the decline of the utility of the nude in art.  Ten years prior to Ott’s Paradise Wall and Hands, the abstractionist and fellow Minnesotan Hollis MacDonald had said all that could be said with a nude has been said, so Hollis was a bit wrong by at least ten years.  Jerry Ott seemed to himself sense what Hollis had meant.  Ott continued to paint large airbrushed photorealistic canvasses, exploring vivid tints but no more nudes.

I recall seeing an Ott painted later than the two 1970s nudes, of goldfish in tied-up little plastic bags for sale and shipment on a countertop, and I remember thinking to myself at the time, it’s come to this, to survive Jerry Ott has given up tits to paint goldfish.  To his credit he never gave up visual art.

The desensualization of the nude in graphic art, as I said, came of age in the 20th Century along with all the great decadent practices brought about through technological transmission and reproduction.  Pablo Picasso broke the picture plane with cubist boobs and vaginas that didn’t look realistic enough to embrace and call honey.  Picasso denuded everybody enough to say this is how we clothe ourselves with canvas.

Picasso cracked the visual plane.  Guys like Matisse turned skin wild and blue and red and yellow.  Guys like Salvadore Dali melted her.  Guys like Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Charles Biederman, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Hollis MacDonald, Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and Marsden Hartley skipped past altogether.

The nude medium was shattered beyond reassembly when Nude Descending a Staircase 2 by Marcel Duchamp came out at the Armory show in New York in 1913.  As unsexual as a crash test dummy it is viscerally sensual in its technological grace, dependent fully on the hard-wired human response to the retina and the optic nerve.  It’s a sucker punch to the gut and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  Like Manet’s picnic picture it was heralded as prophetic, which means at the time of its first exhibition it was reviled.  Now it’s the Eiffel Tower of nudes.

Of the privacy of others there is a censorship we all practice to keep ourselves from seeing more than what we deserve to know if we can help it.  It’s hard to accept that Ingres’ The Source inspired the rape and murder of a lonely French girl, but if it had would we be surprised to learn that the painting had a bad effect on a bad man’s tormented mind, and is that the tolerance a free society has and the risks we accept to guaranty free rights?

Perhaps an algorithm calculated by Millennial generation actuaries will predict future liabilities caused by what people see.  This could determine future limits of exposure to proven prurients, governed by insurance not by government.

Before that time comes I mean to keep looking.  It serves no point to renounce or regret what I’ve looked at or seen.  Somehow I think it’s all added up to a montage of experiences comprising a charmed life.  In the autumn Roxanne and I plan to return to the Old Country — to us the whole continent of Europe is the Old Country — where we’ll cruise the Aegean and Adriatic seas on a large tour.  It will be interesting to have my first look at the greco-ancient world in this context.  I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but it makes sense to me that if I have spent so much energy and time in my life to looking I must be looking for something.  I must not have found it or I would not continue to look.  If I find it I would know it, and then I hope I would go on to look for something more else undefined.

Like finding Roxanne.

nude-descending-a-staircase-no-2-1912.jpg

BK

also see buffalokelly.com/2016/11/23/hollis-macdonald-missing-from-the-mia/

Zihuatanejo Ixtapa Continued

DSC06318.JPG

A lot of you have been drawn to my story (Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico, 4/25/18) about this place on the Pacific coast of Mexico, so it seems right to offer an update.

Americans are scared to vacation here.  The Trump administration’s state department stigma of Mexico as dangerous as Syria, along with Trump’s own vicious characterization of Mexicans, have alienated all but the most ardent Mexiphiles and turned the rest into Mexiphobes.

Not Roxanne and me.  We’ve been coming here almost twenty years with no fear.  We stay at the Krystal Hotel, where the hospitality is as gracious as the sky is blue.  We use public transportation, bus or taxi.  We walk the public streets and trails.  We hang out at the beaches.  We’re careful but not too self-conscious.  It’s one thing to be aware of your surroundings but there’s no sense getting over-paranoid, there’s no reason to expect sinister encounters.

No one, of course, can guarantee your safety.  The Krystal provides security that is comprehensive but not creepy.  As much can be said about the other resorts and the atmosphere of the coastal community in general.  Hospitality is so vital to the livelihood of the people here, they protect you, look out for you, and show you a good time.  All in good faith.  It would do them great dishonor for word to go around that harm came to innocent tourists in their midst.

No one pretends Mexico is innocent of criminal behavior and violence.  Drug cartels finance an underworld of exploitation and corruption that reveals itself with gang murders.  Political murders.  Murders of vice.  A visible police presence, discreet and chivalrous, patrols the public thoroughfares.  There is a navy base at Zihuatanejo Bay.  If you travel out of town you might encounter federal police checkpoints on the highways.  On la playa you might see three guys in shades wearing beige cargo shorts, wide brimmed hats and white polo shirts that say TURISTA POLICIA on their backs, wearing sidearms, walking the beach.  None of this should worry vacationers who don’t traffic with the underworld.  Dangerous events hardly ever involve tourists except when the tourist is engaged in shady activity, and even so, reported incidents are quite rare.

Tourists are in greater danger of being swallowed by the surf at Playa Palmar than being roughed up on the streets of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  There are several drownings per year involving tourists carelessly defying riptide warnings, getting knocked silly by the surf and getting sucked out of their depth into the sea.  The hotel and beach lifeguards — the Salvavidas — rescue scores more.  It’s part of the drama of la playa at the theater of the beach.  Sometimes it’s not safe to swim in the ocean.  Or boogie board surf.

But people do it anyway.

There’s pleasure in swimming in the sea.

DSC08127.JPG

As I’ve said, we go there every year from around mid-January to mid-February to escape winter in Minnesota.  The weather in Ixtapa is always consistently predictable: sunny and hot.  We more or less establish residence at the Krystal in an upper floor room facing the ocean towards the southeast, overlooking the pool, the garden and the restaurant they call Las Velas, which has a palm thatch roof.  There are palm trees everywhere on the hotel grounds and beyond.  Every room has a balcony with a view.  (There is also a nice view to the Amara condo high rise next door too if you want to look.)  From our balcony we can watch the evening shows and fiestas put on stage in the hotel garden at night, or listen to karaoke down by the pool bar on Tuesdays.  It’s a modest room with a table, chairs, dresser and king size bed, desk, night tables, TV and good lighting.  The bathroom is up to date and the water pressure very good, hot water almost always available on demand.  Adequate closet with a safe.  There’s an iron and a hair dryer.  And coffee pot.  It’s all we need, a nice place to retreat.

Most of our time is spent out and about.  We get a palm thatched palapa and a couple of chaises on the beach below the hotel and read.  We swim in the pool.  We walk the beach.  Talk with friends we’ve known for years, mutual tourists, local vendors, new people we meet.  Dip in the ocean where the surf isn’t so rough.  Get a massage from one of the beach salons.  Recline and repeat.

An all-inclusive itinerary is offered at the Krystal but we choose to lodge, eat and drink a la cart.  Both restaurants at the hotel are very good and we breakfast and lunch there frequently.  The service is exquisite.  Good food is just about everywhere, so we dine off-campus a lot, frequently in company with friends.  For a nominal fare a taxi to Zihuatanejo can get you to any of an array of welcoming places with great food, some elegant like Il Mare high on the hill overlooking the bay and Coconuts in the middle of el centro, some casual like Lety’s place near the embarcadero and Sirena Gorda and Casa Elvira on the boardwalk, and others a combination of both like La Perla and Daniel’s on the beach, or Bandidos near the old Spanish church.

Within walking distance from the Krystal are at least two dozen good dining options in Ixtapa, again ranging from fine dining at the yacht marina, Mediterranean cuisine with a French singer at Soleiado on the boulevard, or the trappings of Morocco at Bogart’s next door to the Krystal.  Casual places include Ruben’s specializing in hamburgers with New Zealand cheese, the seafood platter at Calabozo, Italian at Toscano’s, enchiladas at Martin’s and ribs at Tequila y Sal.  Most places blend the fine with the casual.  El Tiburen at the Palace Hotel serves huachinango — red snapper — with Vera Cruz sauce.  The General’s sports bar serves everything from steak to fajitas.  El Cameron Azul — the Blue Shrimp — offers a shrimp flambe created by renown chef Lalo, who passed away last year.  Deborah’s place also offers a version of Lalo’s Shrimp expertly prepared at your table by souchef Ayani, though Deborah also offers an Alfredo sauce so rich and delicious you will crave it when you get home.

Roxanne asked Deborah for the Alfredo recipe.  She demurred politely, saying, “I cook it to order.”  A ginger haired Canadian expat who resembles the singer-songwriter Neko Case, she is likely the canniest restaurateur in town.  As a very young woman she apprenticed for Ixtapa’s legendary chef Mama Norma and kept the doors open after the iconic Mama passed away.  The young souchef Ayani could have a bright future in the culinary business if she were to follow such a mentor.  Deborah is exacting with her staff, most comfortable in her kitchen and can sometimes seem brusque in public with her guests, though she’s never without charm.  As if to soften her decline to give Roxanne the sauce recipe she added, “I think about food the way men think about sex.”

Ixtapa’s most popular host is Genaro Salinas, known as the General.  Not a chef but an entertainer, he’s a logistics maestro, an orchestrator, an impresario of hospitality as pageantry and hustle.  His staff are the most enthusiastic and energetic and among the most polite and punctual servers in the trade.  The General paid his dues and knows how to run an operation so busy at times the activity all around looks and feels like chaos — it’s not a place for a quiet cozy meal — when in fact it’s all a mix of quick service, abundant clientele of the lively persuasion, a quality kitchen and bar, and a festive atmosphere boosted by about a dozen video screens all over the interior building, where every inch of ceiling and pillar and wall is bedecked with sports teams logos, pennants, sweaters, posters, pictures and paraphernalia from the NHL, NFL, NBA, FIFA, CFL, the Big Ten and other American college conferences, and even a couple of high school hockey teams from British Columbia.  Every night is hockey night so any and all NHL televised games are featured on most if not all the TV screens, with a few devoted to college or NBA hoops, or soccer, and the NFL on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays.  Super Bowl is a big deal, when they sell reserved seats, put extra tables as far into the plaza as they can, offer bar food specials, put up extra big screens and sell commemorative t-shirts.

DSC08196.JPG

 

 

The General is a local guy who worked across the US in his youth, where he developed a fondness for cheddar cheese and the Green Bay Packers.  Back home he settled down with wife and kids and dove into the hospitality trade as a guide and restaurant manager in Zihuatanejo and eventually Ixtapa, where he earned his moniker.  He saved his dinero, envisioned his plan, found a couple of Canadian partners and opened his namesake bar and restaurant in the vacated site of a failed tiki bar.  It was a smash success from the get go.  People come just to watch Genaro boss the place and take a moment to greet his guests.  He’s fun and funny.  Likes to pepper slow nights like the NHL all star break with music videos, karaoke or setting up a dance floor on the patio next door to stage local acts like one-man band Jimi Mamou playing old time rock and roll.

One morning we ran into Genaro picking produce at the Bodega market and we asked him about some of the new cafes we’ve seen setting up around the Ixtapa plaza which have abundant empty tables.  “Yeah, a lot of these new guys,” he said, “think they can put up a kitchen and set up some tables and the tourists are just going to fly in, but they have a hard time serving just one customer the right way and they won’t come back.”

So true.  Roxanne and I can think of a few places we would avoid if they were still in business.  Yet we like to be on the lookout for places to try.  Recommendations from fellow travelers help.  That’s how we found Bandidos.  I avoided the place because the name of the place sounded cheezy and expected as much, but our frequent accomplice and friend Bob insisted it was a classy place.  We discovered their signature dish known on the menu as Molcajete, a kind of gumbo stew named for the vessel in which it’s prepared and served, a heavy mortar pot carved of lava rock, served right there at your table.  Their seafood is excellent as well.  And they feature a splendid lounge singer named Michele who knows all the standards and solicits requests.  She likes to be asked obscure songs she knows.

Itinerant singers and musicians play in the plazas, malls and streets for hat money.  At a semi-derelict fountain plaza between Ruben’s, Toscano’s and the Blue Shrimp they take turns playing sets of three or four songs and then go around the outdoor tables of all three restaurants collecting pesos, or preferably dollar bills.  Nobody is obliged to kick in.  Most restaurants have open air seating and there’s unspoken permission for song buskers (and little kids selling toys) to approach their diners as long as they are polite and respect when people say no.

Several cafes and restaurants employ their own in-house musicians like Bandidos with Michele.  There seems to be no end to the talent among the locals.

Like there’s no end to the quality of the seafood.  Fresh mahi mahi tops the menu everywhere.  At the Blue Shrimp — El Camaron Azul — the huachinango a ajo, whole red snapper grilled with garlic, simple and elegante, is to fish what is a butter knife steak at Murray’s in Minneapolis.  They will serve it fileted if you ask, but I recommend the whole fish, the flavor is richer and it’s a useful skill to know how to comb a fish skeleton.

Shrimp is fresh and plentiful, served every which way.  Coconut shrimp is more than a fad.  And the size of the shrimp are not shrimpy.  What inland menus where I live call scampi are the normal size of shrimp at Ixtapa, and what we call jumbo shrimp at home they just call shrimps.  On at least ten percent of all the menus of the cantinas and cafes and restaurants in the region, a district named for Jose Azueta that includes Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, like a county, all along the Pacific coast between Acapulco and Manzanillo, you will find the English translations on the menus will feature shrimps, plural.  It would seem that a culture which uses a singular word for clothes — ropa — would grasp that plural for shrimp is shrimp, and by and large they do.

One place that gets it is the Blue Shrimp at the north back end of the plaza — Camaron Azul.  In a region where seafood reigns — rains — their kitchen features the widest varieties of crustacean recipes, including lobster.  This is the patio where young Lalo invented his three cheese shrimp flambe, made of worcestershire sauce (which Mexicans call english sauce) and soy sauce, white wine, onion, mushrooms, brandy, garlic and shrimp, known on the menu as Lalo’s Shrimp, or Camarones de Lalo (yes, shrimp in Spanish is a plural noun, camarones, with an s.)  It was like watching a magic act when Lalo wokked and flamed it up before you at your table.  Lalo passed away last year from kidney failure complicated by diabetes.  They say Lalo was a chef genius, and at the Blue Shrimp they keep his memory alive with his namesake shrimp flambe.  Over rice it is so rich and delicious you will order bread to sop up the gravy.  Then you’ll kick back in your chair and go wow.

You’ll walk back to your hotel or take a taxi to your abode thinking nobody treats you nicer or feeds you better than the people of Zihuatanejo Ixtapa.

This brings me back to the politics behind the US state department travel advisory scaring Americans away from vacationing in Mexico.  President Donald Trump, you may have observed, likes to taunt and scorn Mexico and Mexicans.  The origin of his grudge, I do not know.  It must be deep seated.  Deeply rooted.  An unforgiven trauma.  Maybe a Mexican nanny slapped him as a child.  Maybe he’s sore about protectionist Mexican real estate laws keeping him out of the Mexican resort and condo business.  Cemex, the Mexican concrete cement company, among the world’s premier building supplies companies, might have slighted him somewhere along the way, refused him sweetheart deals, maybe even sued him for nonpayment.  Whatever the core source of Trump’s pathological antipathy to all things Mexican, whether ego driven, economical or schizosociopolitical, he has directed a proportion of his power to undermine, embarrass, criminalize, dehumanize, demonize, destabilize and demoralize a whole people with a big say in the future of the western hemisphere and the planet.

When I say power, I don’t just mean his governmental position, which he exercises like a fuhrer.  I mean his commanding media presence, his near godlike ever-presence, his obsessive projection into mass media and the undeniable appetite of the public for his quips, taunts, proclamations and shenanigans, like a fuhrer.

IMG_6863.jpg

He says he has the power to shut down the border of Mexico, and Canada too if he feels like it.  He says he’s got the power to stop all traffic and all trade between the US and Mexico just to stifle migration into the United States.  He says he has the power to create tariffs on Mexican goods as punishment for allowing migrants to try to enter the US via Mexico.  He says he has the power to declare national emergencies to fund the building of a wall along the entire border with Mexico to keep migrants from entering the US.  He has all that power, but no power to allocate funds for soap and toothbrushes for little kids in the concentration camps where they are being processed after being caught migrating into the US.  He acknowledges a humanitarian crisis at the border, and it is, a crisis of his own making.  Instead of responding with humanitarian compassion he treats them worse than the conditions they endured and escaped, by which he plans to deter future migrants, the message being don’t come to the United States, they will cage you, take away your kids and let you rot and stink with the lights on all night long.

This is a classic term paper example of the theme they used to call when I was in high school Man’s Inhumanity to Man.

But if we don’t stop them from coming here they’ll just keep coming!

In the face of diaspora the reaction is to create lawbreakers by criminalizing residency.

The fuhrer says he has the power to order rounding up and deporting illegal aliens — his term, not mine.  And he will do that unless the US Congress legislates new immigration laws he will sign, and that won’t happen.  His goal is to eradicate immigration and kick out immigrants.  This will be a campaign focus of his for his reelection.

Among the lives at stake are the ones they call the Dreamers, the DACA migrants, people brought into the US illegally as children who have nonetheless grown up in American society and know no other country, who are now grown up taxpaying adults with degrees, careers, lives and families and now face mass deportation, mostly to Mexico, because they were brought to the US when they were little kids.  I can see them being bused in orange school buses to border crossings like Matamoros, Juarez, Las Cruces and Tiajuana, the Mexican authorities checking out the paperwork and looking over all the deportees one by one and saying to ICE, Lo siento, these people all appear to be yours.  We’re not taking them back.

Okay, break out the cages again.

Actually, Mexico would likely love to have them back, especially if they speak Spanish.  The resentment such reverse diaspora would create would result in terrible damage to the osmotic alliance that exists in reality between Mexico and the US, and that seems to be the fuhrer’s design.

I take it personally because it’s like he’s deliberately trying to ruin my winter vacation.

Last year it was the tale of the caravan of invaders of not so nice people (he didn’t even equivocate there were decent people on both sides in the caravan) coming directly towards the heartland of the United States to harm us.  He characterized these migrants as killers.  Invaders.  Marching through Mexico from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  Mean dudes.  Predators.  Trump wanted them met at the border with his Wall.  His Wall was supposed to be a big U-turn for migrants — don’t even dream.  That’s when he came up with the idea he could create emergencies so he can invoke the Emergency Powers Act to reappropriate money to build a Wall but not of course to humanely shelter migrants who somehow got through the existing dragnet at the border and surrendered or got caught seeking asylum in US territory.

Because the land route of migration from Central America goes through Mexico, Trump ordered tariffs and threatened an entire border shutdown to castigate Mexico for not doing enough to prevent migrants from invading the US.  Instead of a blue ribbon commission to look at the conditions causing people to uproot their lives and travel thousands of miles to the Land of Milk and Honey, the Pastures of Plenty, Trump proclaims he will withhold foreign aid from Central America unless they stop their own emigration.  That’s just what these communities need right now, captive repression.

Mexico and Mexicans for their part have been tolerant and easy going in response to the provocations.  Trump tried to badger their last President Nieto into agreeing to pay for the Wall and Nieto would have none of it.  Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, a white haired genial guy around my age who seems to think things through rather than react fast, a methodical but not radical reformer and anti-corruption populist, has parlayed civil restraint and modest self-confidence thus far to absorb the hyperbolic insults and negotiate for the future, the long haul.  AMLO was born in the Mexican state of Tobasco, home of the spicy sauce, but unlike the fiery salsa he keeps a cool tongue and does not let relations with the US distract him from governance at home.

Venezuela and Cuba can rant about their miseries caused by America, but Mexico has good cause to speak kindly about our relationships and deserves far better than the low and vile reputation characterized by President Trump.  For this I wonder at the grace and hospitality we receive from the Mexicans.  If the president called my home town the equivalent of a shithole, I would certainly resent it and anyone who shared his opinions — oh that’s right, he already did, citing the large Somali migrant population as well as my city’s status as a sanctuary city.  The Mexicans for the most part express no recrimination or resentment to us for the seeming official designation of their country and citizens as Bad News.

They are aware and don’t need to be reminded of the reputations of drug lords and the legacies of official corruption — perceptions they would prefer to live down and amend through continuous social and political progress.  It does them no good to be known as a crime infested, radically violent zone of terror.  This place is not lawless.  In fact Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is sometimes described as too boring and tame for tourists who seek thrills and decadent party life because the tourists by and large behave themselves and don’t dwell on seeking vice or raising hell.

DSC08208.JPG

Because Zihuatanejo Ixtapa lacks a Spring Break intensity we rather like the nuanced atmosphere of being pleasantly Under the Top.  It’s like the predictability of the weather January through March, the chance you will have an unspoiled vacation is almost certain if you care enough to go there.  My feelings are mixed about the decline of fellow travelers from the US.  There’s a more for me delight about it.  Fewer gringos from the States reduces the incidents of Ugly Americanos acting rudely, sometimes out of ignorance but sometimes out of cold malice, casting aspersions on us all in fresh, scathing ways Donald Trump only seems far away and abstract.  The decline in numbers of Americanos has not really depreciated the total occupancy rate of tourists.  Mainly the drop in tourists from the US is largely being made up by Mexicans.  The emerging, rising Mexican middle class likes to vacation and they come from cities like Guadalajara, Zamora and Mexico City with their kids and sometimes their parents for a week at the beach, or sometimes a long weekend.  It’s like people where I live go up north to the lake.  More Mexicans on vacation means more Latino music and less redundant classic rock or pop country, though some of the decline of American gringo tourists is also made up for by more and more gringo Canadians, which accounts for a mishmash of tastes and the popularity of ice hockey on the video screens in this tropical paradise.  Compounding the exotic atmosphere, not only are Canadians replacing Americans among the guest population, more and more of them hail from Quebec Province, where they mostly speak French.

So this makes for a quaintly thriving international village in its peak time, the dead of North American winter.  Three winters ago we rode with a tour guide to the town of Petatlan, not far from Zihua, and I noticed he carried with him a French language textbook.  He explained to me he was meeting more French speakers and wanted to keep up.  It appears he saw a trend.  I did not foresee that my college French classes would count at the beach in Ixtapa.

As long as we are welcomed we will abide at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo at least a month of our homeland’s harsh winter.  It is a place where we trust to good fortune.  Farm to table cuisine — ocean to table.  Relaxation on the beach.  Latin music.  A place to recharge and reenergize body and soul at the beginning of each new year.  To commune with the soul of the ocean.  A place where we can be sincere, be ourselves away from home and feel so much at home and not at all alien.  Where I can observe the Southern Cross constellation, never visible at my home latitude.  Someplace rather obscure and unglamorous in a shabby chic romantic sort of way.  Not a Potemkin village but a real and vital community.  It’s nice to be their guests and to be confided the freedom to hang out unmolested in an exotic land.

Oscar Romero is the GM of the Krystal Hotel.  About 260 people work there, with 255 rooms.  His goal is to raise it to a 5 star hotel, which should make me worry he will price me out of the market except I know what he really means.  His business model is based on exemplary service.

When asked about public safety he refers to the American city Chicago as far more dangerous than Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, and yet people go there for edification and avoid trouble.  Senor Romero is an educated and worldly man aware that his hotel brand is on the line every single day and he likes to entertain long time guests at a cocktail party just past sunset to introduce his management team and solicit feedback from the guests.  Since I rather love the place I give praise where praise is due, which I hope balances off the whiners and complainers who like to confront managers and get beefs off their chests.  Bless their hearts.

Speaking of hearts, I heard word somebody staying at the Bayview Grand condo died of a heart attack on the beach the other day, and I asked Senor Romero if the Krystal had a portable AED defibrillator on its premises.  Yes, he told me, saying the Krystal was a primary hot spot for emergency response within a consortium of safety efforts among the four adjoining condos and hotels, the whole beach if needed, a network linked by radio.  The Krystal had its own AED ready to share if called upon, he said, and introduced me to Maricio of the night watch of bellman security, one of the trained AED operators always on duty.

Oscar Romero knows the proportion of hospitality that goes on behind the scenes.  I am always amazed at having my bed remade every day and they don’t even use fitted sheets.  Even more, the housekeepers — camaristas — invariably female — frequently leave behind an origami figure of a bird, puppy, cat or a monkey fashioned like sculpture out of a bath towel detailed with flower petals.  This year her name was Vianay.  For these things and sweeping up the beach sand, of course we tip them.

DSC08213.jpg

Their livelihood relies on serving guests, and when the service is gracious we tip generously.  We are aware of the daily wage of these servants and it’s appallingly low by our American standards.  Even when we might factor the difference in the national economies and relative costs of living, we come out looking like wealthy aristocrats — and there are others much richer than we are, witness the yachts and luxury condos.  At home in Minneapolis we are a modest middle class couple of empty nest grandparents, retired from our middle-level careers and getting along on Social Security and what we saved in our working years to be able to live comfortably enough to travel and go on winter vacation as long as we are physically and mentally able.  In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa we might as well be zillionaires.

The contrast — disparity — stuns us sometimes.  We realize, of course, we have nothing to feel ashamed of or to feel guilty about because we are American middle class — what the French called the bourgeoisie — a rather enviable status on this planet based on merit and luck but rarely predestined the way it is with the filthy rich.  We see ourselves less as entitled, privileged and exceptional as we see us as competent, moral, paranoid and educated enough to get by.  We see ourselves invisible, anonymous and relatively autonomous, and at our stage of life rather lucky things seem to have turned out fortunate so far, a charmed life compared to any metric.  We have a lot going for us, but we don’t have any money — or at least we don’t think we do.

Until we live in Mexico for a month or so and take a moment to observe what we’re doing here.  It’s been about twenty years, and in that time we have formed recurring relationships with the servants.  Maybe we have crossed a taboo line somewhere by getting to know them, learn their histories, meet their families, visit their homes, take them out for dinner — cena — at a restaurant on their nights off.  If we crossed a line we never really saw the boundaries of the frontiers when we crossed over.  It was somewhere in the midst of being nice, and sincere.  Both ways.  And now we really can’t cross back.  Once we have left the friendly confines of the Hotel Zone you end up returning to the hotel and the beach with a deeper connection with the larger community.  You realize the people at the hotel serving us actually live here all year long.  They grew up here.  Their kids grow up here.  This is their home town.  This is not their hobby.  These are not summer camp jobs and then they go back to school to get their doctorates.  This is everyday life, and over time if we have been granted privy to see what it’s like the the experience should mean something, and we should treasure that meaning, the understanding, and feel charmed for knowing.

There is no way we can go home without knowing our material luxury seems obscene compared to the simple domestic lives of the families who live on the eastern side of the mountain above Zihuatanejo.  These people are poor, decked and zig-zagged on top of one another, humble cement and cinderblock plots stacked up the hillside just one earthquake, mudslide or hurricane away from disaster, a neighborhood clinging to a cliff over the commercial boulevard of the city, a hive of adobe homesteaders all wired into the electric power grid strung like chicken wire through the scrub trees, mesquite and occasional banana trees on this side of the mountain that does not face the ocean.  Here our friends cook us fresh huachinango a ajo on the wood fire at their dirt floor patio and serve us first because we are guests.

None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco…”

I have white hair, what hair I have.  Mexicans seem to revere white haired elders, although they don’t know what to make of baldness.  I am a white caucasian gringo.  There is a mystical legend of a White Buffalo, known as Bufalo Blanco, and somewhat because of my name, in jest, and they don’t call me Senor Kelly, somebody nicknamed me Bufalo Blanco, or just Blanco.

None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco, if I show up in Minneapolis next month can you help me get a job and a place to crash?”

El General did a stint working in the USA, and whether he was legal or not I really don’t care.  A massage giver — masajista — named Anna who Roxanne likes tells us she used to live in San Diego until she got caught in a roundup eight or so years ago.  She wouldn’t mind going back if she could.  She has a tween-age daughter with her who was born there and is a US citizen.  A young guy named Marco who serves breakfasts at Deborah’s was born in Arizona but came back to Zihuatanejo with his mother when she got caught and sent back.  They are all very content not living in the USA.

While we were down there last winter we looked around for any sign of that Caravan surging north, supposedly closing in on Mexico City around that time.  Granted, Ixtapa is a ways off the beeline from Nicaragua to Mexico City, but the route supposedly passed through the state of Guerrero, and that’s the state Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa are in.  We saw no signs of migrants, though I had read some of them had dropped off the march in Mexico and found work along the way, already knowing Spanish.

The effect of the American reaction to Central American migration on Mexico does concern me.  How much of the diaspora they can absorb before their infrastructure buckles, compassion and hospitality wear thin and society questions how come the United States isn’t paying its fair share, all puts a heavy burden on Mexicans to hold the political middle of Central and South America.  They have taken on brave roles for keeping peace at both their southern and northern borders, the beginning and endpoint of migrant journeys.  Seekers of asylum — the biggest reason to have when crashing the door to the USA — asylum — seeking basic elementary safety from specific harm — are not allowed to apply from within the US border and cannot wait within the US border and walk around free waiting for a hearing of the asylum petition.

People who enter the US first and then turn themselves in or get caught are held in detention camps for lawbreaking, which doesn’t look favorable for an asylum seeker not looking forward to being sent back.  The detention camp brutality is a calculated policy by the Trump administration to make the word go out far and wide down the spine of the Sierra Madre to the Isthmus and Caribbean and down the Andes and throughout the Amazon, don’t come here and wade across the Rio Grande and don’t come here to sneak into the US because, asylum phylum, they will put you in an overcrowded pen like in a turkey barn, disappear your kids, scare your ass off like you might die then and there, keep you in caged concrete cells in the hottest region of the United States during the hottest season, feed you crappy food if feed you at all, deny you showers, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, encourage you to drink toilet water, let you sleep under a shiny foil blanket with the lights on all night, won’t help you get legal representation and may leave you there to rot until you agree to deportation.

Or you can stay in Mexico pending a hearing with an American official to plead the asylum claim calmly in front of an immigration judge — maybe within maybe three to five years.  That’s a lot of people from Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua hanging out in Mexico three to five years.  Meanwhile there are Mexicans who would like to migrate in and out of the United States.  Mexicans thus far have shown valor and distinguished compassion for their absorption of this humanitarian crisis and continually seeing what they can do and working things out for the greater good and not making excuses.

There is much cause for resentment of Americans and America but Mexicans would rather so far take an attitude above the fray.  Our conversations skirt the most obvious political memes.  Being a tourist is designed to transcend ideology.  It’s amnesty, asylum and armistice.  Tourists live under truce.  Immunity.  For this we agree not to get too snooty and invoke our superiority of culture, and our hosts agree not to shame us with our own hypocrisy.

Only sincerity survives when you go outside the hotel zone.  There are many nice fakes on both sides but only the sincere enjoy the most benefits of the freedom to wander the localities.  The Bay of Zihuatanejo alone is a hike through time and culture.  The walk begins at the pier in the middle of the marina, the embarcadero, the place where the boats dock.  The walk technically should begin at a couple of haciendas on the cliffs at the edge of the bay, but people aren’t allowed to hike on the property, it’s under guard.  Also in that corner of the harbor the Mexican navy has a base.  So the long day’s trek all the way around Zihuatanejo Bay can begin at the pier.  From the Embarcadero you can follow the waterfront on a promenade for blocks and blocks of shops and places to eat.  Every block connects to a street deeper into town which leads to more shops layered parallel to the water.  Offshore in the bay’s calm water are moored the sailboats and the rowboats.  The promenade leads you to temporarily end the shops and restaurants at an open plaza with a pavilion and a central basketball court where somebody’s always playing.  Along this stretch of promenade from the embarcadero to the basketball court you can find your meal.  A hand made rug.  Vanilla.  It’s the gateway to the commercial city inside the harbor town, the residences, the food market, surprising galleries and joyerias (crafted jewelry stores) and other shops, cafes and restaurants with interesting proprietors.

Continuing along the bay from the plaza the promenade encounters the first public beach, Playa Principal.  From there the restaurants get a little more fancy, they’ll serve tables on the sand, and still the prices are under Ixtapa prices which are always a good deal, so it’s often worth the cab fare to the plaza, tips included.

After Playa Principal the hike along the waterfront leaves the edges of downtown Zihua for a series of beaches and stretches of rugged shoreline linked by a public walkway including some steps to navigate small stretches of rocky coastline between these beaches and the aging hotels from the 20th Century Fox back lots.  Check out the Hotel Irma sometime for its mosaic inlays.  The beaches are calmer than Ixtapa because the bay is more sheltered, so it has always been ideal for waders and swimmers.  Playa Madeira is famous as a Spanish launch point for shipping timber harvested from the hills.  Playa Ropa is the most famous for being the site of a cargo of fine clothes from the Far East washed ashore from a storm that wrecked a ship, making the people of Zihuatanejo — a Nahuatl word meaning the Place of Women — the best dressed people in the western hemisphere in the 16th Century.

16999178_1875830406009261_5090847003733027289_n.jpg

Once you have reached Playa Ropa straight along the sea from the embarcadero, you may consider heading back and calling it a day.  You would doubtless be hiking by day and the day’s heat would beckon you to siesta, and even at night in the romantic moonlight it would serve no point to go further than Playa Ropa on foot.  You can get a taxi from any of the venerable hotels — you might consider staying at one in the future, for the charm — to return to Ixtapa.  Beyond Playa Ropa the coastline along the bay borders on jungle, much as it does the five miles of ocean between Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, only here the rugged coastline exists within the bay and very visible to the rest of the city.  Mansions carved out of rock and luxury hotels ascend into the cactus, palms and mesquite, their sailboats moored in calm waters.

This next stretch of hike if pursued to the very end of the bay would involve rugged terrain on the fringe of private property, and more jungle, but there is a legend of a foot path.  The most arduous jungle trek, when viewed from a boat, through the space least inhabited which is really a peninsula where there is no road for vehicles to get there, no matter how rich.  When you arrive at the very end of the peninsula which is the door to closing the bay, you arrive at a place they call an island because there is no road by land, the foot path is treacherous, and everybody comes and goes there by boat, primarily the water taxis from the embarcadero pier, where the day hike began.

This end point is called Isla Las Gatas, or Las Gatas Island.  It’s a strand of beach curved back to a distant view of the city, and all the boats in between, where the sandy beach is a promenade of open air cantinas, places to take a table beneath an awning, get a beach chair and sit in the shallow, calm water of the bay, get lunch and watch the sea crash upon the lava rock breakwaters.  It’s like going to an extra resort, a day trip away from your resort, where the cantina’s groceries for the kitchen and the bar arrive by motorboat an hour after you do and since you arrived early you can stake out a keen vantage for people-watching on the beach promenade.

Las Gatas not only translates as The Cats, Isla Las Gatas literally translates as Island of Female Cats, or literally Pussycat Island.  This is consistent with the town being named Place of Women before the Spanish arrived.  Whether by power of suggestion or matter of fact, there is a strong feminist presence in the Mexican demographics.  Women in the workplace.  Shopkeepers.  Proprietors.  Among the Mexican tourists.  It would not be surprising to find statistics showing Mexico leading at a world level in women regularly participating in the decisions and the professions.  Except taxi drivers — still an all male job.

Genaro El General Salinas was one of the first restaurateurs I noticed hiring women waiters.  Twenty years ago being a restaurant waiter was only a job for men.  The Krystal hotel hired a few women.  It didn’t seem to wreck the esteem of any male breadwinners.  Genaro himself has two daughters who will be adults not long from now and who are born of a generation like my own grandchildren who have enough to think about in this life without second-guessing the rights of women.

There’s still a lot of machismo in Mexican men, they just learn to adjust and express manliness in more enlightened ways.  Witness singers like Romeo Santos and Prince Royce.

At the Krystal main restaurant called the Aquamarine we opt for the breakfast buffet.  I enlisted our waiter Jose to give a deciding opinion whether another waiter on the staff, Toribio, resembled as a dead-ringer the portrait of Benito Juarez on the twenty MX peso bill, the first Mexican born president elected to the republic.  I meant no disrespect, so that’s why I asked Jose, and Jose agreed, Toribio looked exactly like Benito Juarez, his face, his eyes, his hair, and he consulted Martin, who concurred.  I was given the okay to break the news to Toribio.  Come to think of it, Martin bore a striking resemblance to Jose Maria Morelos, the face of the 50 peso bill, an independence fighter.  Pretty soon we’re all looking around for faces in the crowd like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  Then Jose subtly pointed out a guest at breakfast with his family he said could be past Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and since he wasn’t on the face of any currency I dropped out of the game.  It was getting over my head.

It doesn’t seem long ago when Jose was the new guy, a cute young punk shlepping the sand hustling drinks to the beach palapas.  Now he’s a senior servant like his mentors, Raphael, Toribio, Gloria, Anabel and the maestro himself, Jesus.  Jose has children and they will grow to maturity, like Anabel’s kids, and El General’s, within the reality of their parents’ existential choices and their own perceptions of their own opportunities originating in their home town.  They are the future of Mexico.  All the years we relied on Zihuatanejo Ixtapa to serve us, feed us, comfort us and allow us to freely pursue our leisure escape from treacherous winter, year by year we notice the kids.  Not just the little semi-beggars selling miniature toys from table to table during the dining hours but the school kids during weekdays.  Kids of the guests at the hotels and on the beach, invariably Mexican families.  Kids like the daughter of Roxanne’s favorite masajista Anna, who comes to work with her mom on days she doesn’t have school and likes to practice English with the massage customers from the US while we wait for our appointments.  Kids like the teenage boys I call mozos who practice surfing after school on the waves at the more isolated edge of Playa Palmar.  Kids starting out in the workforce serving burgers and malteds at Ruben’s.  Kids hanging out with smart phones at the plaza.  Kids doing dishes at the hotel.  Kids performing at the nightly stage shows put on at the hotel garden.

By kids I mean young people, everybody at least two generations younger than me.  The fresh talent.  The ones who will take charge of the future of the Earth when the generation of me and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador passes on.

17498877_1889172388008396_2106625410603573569_n.jpg

I wonder about these kids and what they make of this world.  Technologically worldly,  Mexico sports a very high literacy rate, so one can extrapolate probability that people have a lot of opportunity to be aware of what’s going on.  Its government and sociopolitical economic system functions as a liberal democracy — if it has flaws, aches and pains, it too struggles in its way to be a more perfect union — it is far from a failed state.  I look around to the young Mexicans and wonder what they think.

What is it like to grow up born in the Third World and raised in the age of Google, I wonder.  Ponder.  I have a young pen pal named Ariel who is nineteen.  He recommends books by Chinua Achebe and John Katzenbach.  He has a younger brother Uriel, seventeen, who is a dancer, a member of a traditional Mexican dancing troupe that has won competitions at festivals.  They are sons of Anabel, who works at the hotel, whom we’ve come to know from our years at the Krystal.  Ariel now works the night shift in the kitchen.  Uriel is in high school.  The primary question in my mind right now is how much do I want to know, to get inside their heads and souls and hearts, how much do I get involved, how much responsibility do I take on for the outcomes of their lives by befriending them?

It’s not possible to un-befriend them now, not without creating hurt feelings and confirming perhaps the worst ugly-Americanisms.  I wish I could scholarship the whole bunch and dream dreams of winning the Powerball lottery and getting with our estate lawyers Steve and Jodie and researching the most efficient and totally legal way to give money to our friends in Mexico.  As it is, as wealthy as we are compared to Anabel’s family, back home in our real life in America we’re just getting by.  Part of that annual budget includes a month of winter in Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, tipping generously.  Even so, back home we are just getting by — comfortably.  In Mexico we are rich.

How Mexicans eye the disparity might be the key to future attitudes toward the United States.  This is no time for gringos to get stingy with trade dollars when Mexico can look elsewhere in the world to export its agricultural products, chemical, mechanical and industrial technologies if the US cuts off the border for trade.  The US has been Mexico’s Genie Friend for at least fifty years and should act with pride to sponsor its mature status among western nations and not patronize them as if they were children of a different species raised by foster parents.

In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa the influence of the American middle class gringo is fading slowly along generational lines.  We are aging out of the demographics with less and less younger replacements — baby boomer American vacationers are frankly dying off, getting hips replaced and entering memory care while fewer of their children and grandchildren care to risk a sunny beachy vacation way down south in the middle of wild west Mexico.  Jipes!

Gradually the Americans are being replaced by more and more Canadians, who suffer winters so ungodly severe it’s almost a law that their worker pensions guaranty a one week vacation a year in the tropics as compensation for being located along the Arctic Circle.  (In Minnesota it’s not almost a law but some people treat winter vacations as like a 401.K or an IRA, independent retirement account.)  The Canadians are unafraid of the latino armageddon warned by the American state department.  Though not worth as much as the US dollar, Canadian money exchanges favorably to the Mexican peso so they can enjoy luxury at bargain prices compared to Florida, Hawaii or some of the southern United States.  They have discovered a winter resting place and laid claim with their red maple leaf beach towels.

Among the Canadians the Mexicans make up for the diminishing Americans.  They come by tour bus on the weekends.  They come in their SUV and crossover cars from Jalisco and Mexico City.  The fly in and out on Interjet.  Mexicans taking advantage of their own Mexico, days and weeks at the seashore.  Families.  Couples.  Multigenerations.  The hospitality marketing to the upwardly mobile Mexican middle class has struck lightning in a bottle appealing to the home market for leisure time at the beach.  In the enthusiasm of Mexicans to embrace Zihuatanejo Ixtapa as a vacation destination what I see is no fear.  This assures me.  It’s one thing to understand Canadians are naive and think only Americans should worry about their safety because they stick out by the way they pronounce their A’s, and still another thing to trust the Mexican fellow travelers for their calm understanding of themselves to expect no harm.

It’s what I said before as a sense the Mexicans are looking out for us, like guardian angels.  Sometimes, but rarely, we’ve encountered hard stares right through us by Mexican fellow guests who don’t seem to want anything to do with us.  This reminds me of the zombie stares I felt in public in Grenada, Mississippi from people who see you hanging with black people.  It seems most Mexicans like Americans and treat us nicely, but some probably don’t like us and don’t express it, while some others express their resentment with cold indifference.  These are not in the hospitality trade, but they are not people who would like to kill you.  They just wish you weren’t there taking up Mexican vacation space.  They know you aren’t Canadian.

How the Canadians are flying down there I’d like to know.  The Mexicans I understand, they live in the region and drive a few hours by car or fly Mexican airlines.  Some Canadians, I am told, drive their cars to Zihuatanejo from places like Calgary and Saskatoon, not only down through the whole body of the USA but all the way down about as far through the heart of Mexico.  But most of them fly in and out of Zihuatanejo International, ZIH.  I don’t know about their airports, but the past few years it’s been getting harder and harder to find nonstop flights to ZIH from MSP.

Minneapolis-St Paul used to feature routinely competitive nonstop service to Zihuatanejo several times a week.  No more.  Northwest Orient Airlines, based at MSP, then our home town airlines, owned a travel service named MLT which touted Worry Free Vacations offering air and lodging packages in an out of ZIH two or three times a week via Northwest.  Charter fliers like Ryan Air and bargain airlines like Sun Country competed for passengers between MSP and ZIH offering direct non-stop service almost any day of the week from January through April, often on sale.

Roxanne and I first came to the Krystal Ixtapa on Worry Free MLT auspices, the best deal at the time.  We’ve since learned to book our own.  We’ve seen a vast drop in direct flights offered by air carriers serving MSP to ZIH with limited availability, strict choices and a leap in price.  Delta Airlines acquired Northwest and in the merger divested its Northwest hub headquarters at Eagan, Minnesota, suburban Minneapolis-St Paul, in favor of Delta’s existing world headquarters at Atlanta, Georgia and its hub at the busiest airport in the world.  To be sure, Delta still flies a lot of planes in and out of MSP, nonstops between a lot of world destinations through its affiliations with KLM and Air France.  Delta competes with United and Spirit and Aer Lingus and Alaska and Frontier and other airline carriers for the domestic and international traveler via the Twin Cities airport.  Delta still flies to Zihuatanejo.  Round trip direct nonstop from MSP from a Saturday to a Saturday could cost a couple thousand dollars USD.  No flexibility for a ten day trip.  Otherwise Delta from MSP connects to Zihuatanejo through Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles or Mexico City, and still not much cheaper.

Sun Country, now the Twin Cities only home town airline, still provides twice-weekly direct nonstop service from MSP to Zihuatanejo, but don’t wait for a fire sale.  The fare you see today is going up a few bucks tomorrow.

With fewer flights and higher fares that means even fewer connecting flights demanding routes through MSP to ZIH.  With Delta making the trip an expensive all day hassle and Sun Country jacking the price and squeezing availability, it feels a lot like the airlines themselves are discouraging travelers against Mexico.

From Minneapolis it’s less than five hours away.

The mid-January outdoor temperature differential can be more than 80F degrees.

I don’t know of any conspiracy to wreck my winter vacation but the situation tests my patience.  I figure if in the future we are forced to fly through Mexico City, then que sera, time to visit the Zocalo and Teotihuacan if we need to go the extra mile.  If American politics harden the border for us to transcend the Wall, we’ll keep going unless it becomes impossible.

What would stop us would have to be traumatic, shocking and sad.  We would have to be told we are no longer welcome guests of Mexico.

The General would never turn us away.

This past year a visitor from Iowa, a place called Okoboji, offered to paint a mural on a blank wall facing into the General’s flank from a little mini-mall around the back of the plaza.  The Okoboji artist insisted, offered to paint it for free, showed sketches, demonstrated he had skills.  Another wall next to this one already had a mural of sorts, promoting the General’s sports bar as a Husband Day Care Center.  The Okoboji guy proposed a political cartoon of a wall across the desert with cacti and sand and the White House on the far side.  On the near side are some Mexican guys looking past the wall.  The wall is all cinderblocks and barbed wire and it loops back all along the horizon and behind the White House.  In the foreground another Mexican (you can tell they’re Mexicans because they wear sombreros and moustaches and pancho vests) is either digging a hole or patching a hole at the base of the wall.  (Could it be a shithole?  Hmm.)  And standing with his back to the wall across the hole from the guy with the shovel is the smiling figure of Speedy Gonzales the cartoon mouse — full copyright infringement no doubt, but defensible as satire — standing guard over the hole in the near foreground, drawn to scale against the cinder bricks to be about three feet tall, dressed in classic sombrero and his shirt adorned with promotion of The General’s Sports Bar.

By the time Roxanne and I saw it the mural was all the gringo gossip up and down the playa.  It’s very unusual for someone to express a public stance on a political subject, much less express it in such a permanent fashion.  Wherever the Okoboji guy is now, Geraro Salinas is on the hook for the mural and whatever it means.  Obviously the subject is the Wall juxtaposed to the White House.  The White House is isolated in the desert beyond an everlasting wall.  Beyond that the whole scene is surreal.  All the cactus are saguaro with their arms in the air.  The sand is yellow.  The figures are so stereotypical one questions if the imagery is racist, symbolic, parabolic, or gibberish.

It’s satire, I assured the General.  Speedy Gonzales says it’s meant to be funny.  I think.

Yeah, said the General, but I told the guy, if my next application for a guest visa gets turned down I’m holding him responsible.

DSC08198.JPG

 

BK

Temperate Zone

DSC05787.JPG

Life’s good here.  Maybe some people don’t realize it.  Others might say, too good, undeserved, and conspire to take it away.

Commies.  Commies would admit, though, life’s good here for commies.  Long as they don’t break the law, even commies can rag and nag and denounce and protest their living hearts out.  I use commies here as a metaphorical example, you may insert any radical antiestablishment group you want.  Take your pick among the unenfranchised and the disenchanted, or start your own.

Say something nasty and clever and get your Andy Warhol’s worth before they shut you down.  Who they?  They who?  You know.

It’s considered illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater, but only if there’s no fire.  It’s a ruling under the so-called Espionage Act, I think.  Even so, in America we never experienced a social order where typewriters and Xerox copy machines could be evidence of transmission of unauthorized information dangerous to the state.  Samizdat?  Say what?  Out front of any crowded theater on Hennepin Avenue any given night somebody might be preaching about the End of the World, some way or other, and that’s free speech.  Until or unless it incites a stampede among ticketholders inside the theater, hard to do without hardwiring the preacher outside to the crowd inside, a very deliberate event to which the preacher would be held culpable.  Neat trick but not likely to happen, even in Minneapolis.

When I say life is good, I speak to a greater good.  There’s no denial bad exists.  Bad people.  Bad trips.  Bad omens.  Bad luck.  Bad relationships.  Bad outcomes.  There’s bad stuff all around us.  Bad deeds are done.  Bad stuff happens.  And there is evil.  Everywhere.

When I look for the good I don’t ignore, trivialize or overlook the bad stuff.  Sometimes that’s all I can think about.  Perhaps it’s an ancient obsession illustrated by the Greek playwrights and Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare and Stephen King — evil is much more interesting than good.  I am so blessed by such a charmed life I feel compelled to brood over all the disparities and inequities between my life and the less fortunate.  I get depressed contemplating injustice, inhumanity and misfortune.  I seek serenity sorting the things I can change from the things I cannot.  I seek ways I can change things I’d like to change, if I can, how I can, if I care so much.  It’s hard to accept things cannot be changed.  Sometimes it’s hard to accept serenity.

What helps is the five minute rule, which I learned from my daughter Michel.  It’s okay to dwell and ruminate over something that really bothers you, but if it’s not resolved in five minutes it’s time to move on and think about other things.  Important things always come back anyway, but it’s no good to obsess.  You may even find caution thinking about happiness too much.  Living existentially is a fluid soundtrack, voicetrack, movie within a movie.  That it’s Real Life, as my granddaughter Tess calls it, then all the more lucid these experiences go mixed in the milieu of life, and the more serious.  The more sincere.

An advantage is my age, an accumulation of trips around the sun and an awareness of awareness of trying not to be caught unawares.  As I keep saying, mine is the perspective of a charmed life.  Born privileged in the heart of the United States of America in the middle of the 20th Century, I got nothing to cry about from lack of opportunity at any level in my lifetime.  Not born rich per se, but middle class bourgeousie, availed to all the niceties of life in modern America at a time when our culture prized itself as highly civilized.  Such an upbringing leads, as you have seen, to a sense of exceptionalism, in a way not undeserved if not entitled.  (See Untitled essay, 29 May, 2017.)  I do blame my parents for several events in my life that changed trajectories of my history which I could not control, but not for the outcomes.  For good or not I inherited their genes, but not their destinies.  My life is a product of mostly unrestricted choices of my own in a universe of exponential possibilities.  I made my own mistakes.  I accept responsibility.  If I enjoy no serenity it’s my own fault.

Arlo Guthrie had a talking blues about the Last Guy.  It was a parable about the hierarchy.  At the top he might group the ones we call the One Percent.  Down under are various levels of the rest of us.  And there we look down and down, those who don’t have it as good as we do.  But don’t worry, even they can look down at somebody who’s got it worse.  And they can look down at somebody even worse off than they.  Then Arlo stops playing guitar and asks, but what about the Last Guy?

What if the last guy was a woman?  Probably.  Or a child.

Look at world migration this way and you see people trying to catch on to the bottom rung.  They risk all kinds of unknown doom to escape a sucking abyss of torment for the slimmest, tiniest chance at a sliver, a grain, a crumb of a life I and my peers are born into.  Everybody above them, ahead of them are the same way, looking up.  Looking to better their place, their situation.  Sometimes we fall.  Sometimes we get back up.  Some keep falling and falling, right off the earth.

Where I live, in the middle of the northern hemisphere and the western hemisphere, where life is good, there is no shortage of sad stories of stuff gone wrong.  There’s no shortage of humanity, so there’s daily evidence of best laid plans and worst laid plans going awry.  Insurance actuaries make a living calculating these things.  The costs get built into the prices.  The price of a good life is subsidizing the ones who have a bad life.  Prisons, for example.  The chronically sick.  The homeless.

And on up the ladder we subsidize each other, the charities and foundations, entry level employment, the service industries, the manufacturing jobs, the professions and the trades, traders, the entrepreneurs, capitalists, entertainers and artists, scientists, farmers and tycoons.  This constant flow of subsidies is the basic economic climate of a free society.  When somebody perceives the subsidies are getting out of hand, the flow changes.  When somebody sabotages the flow, the disruptions are challenged.  A greater good is achieved.

It’s no good to enact policies to knock the bottom rung off the ladder.

It’s fashionable among some people to hail America First.  They know the good life when they see it and want to preserve its history and carry it forward to the next generation.  They express resentment to immigrants as intruders, invaders.  Some resent legal immigration as much as illegal.  I can see descendant Native Americans rolling their eyes.  Imagine seeing all these waves of white people, some with black slaves, all claiming land, just six, seven generations ago.  See how far we have all come.  To build a wall around that, arm the moat, crank up the drawbridge and not let anybody else in is like a religion saying there is no more room in heaven, that’s all the souls we can take, no more baptisms.  It’s more than knocking off the bottom rung of the social ladder, it’s pulling the ladder out of reach.  It’s saying, sorry, no more Promised Land.

You could argue, who promised what?  The facts exist that the American Dream all came true here despite the dodgy white man’s ways.  Somehow the Twin Cities on the upper Mississippi River evolved from scratch into prototypical urban modern metropolis amid vast grids of quasi-non urban populations.  The tribes of European immigrants who settled in Minnesota the past two centuries all seemed to learn how to make nice among one another here in the New Country.  As much so that people of color got a hind start in the social ladder, a factor today in the disparities calculation and worth mentioning in today’s comparisons about the good life.

It could be trendy to be color blind but to miss the subtle shades of individual features is to miss the beauty of each individual face.

Pity to people who hide their faces.

Who avert their eyes.

Assimilation works both ways.  What worries the worriers is that we might feel compelled to be more like them.  It begins with their food, when it enters the mainstream.  Long ago it was Chinese.  Pizza and spaghetti.  Goulash.  Enchiladas, tacos and fajitas.  Indian curry.  Not to forget ribs, fried chicken and mac and cheese.  What could be next?  Intermarriage.  Interracial children.

We forget we are the first ever multiracial democracy on the planet, however it came to be so.  We proudly called ourselves a melting pot, a mosaic.  For all our stupid and tragic mistakes there are episodes of brilliance where America, as they call us around the world, showed how to become a more perfect union of We the People, and not just by its government but in the daily dumbass everyday relationships and interactions of everyday life.

Today America is looked upon as a crucible of incivility.  A forge of dissolution.  With or without Russian assistance, the squabbling memes and tropes are shattering the mosaic society into venal and selfish conflicts of identity.  Identities.  Less perfect union.  Segregated outlooks.  Jealousy of those perceived to be getting better attention.  Outrage at feeling left out.  Outbursts of We Will Not Be Replaced, whatever that really means.  A president who pits the screwed against the shafted.  Everybody’s got their own class action suit.  Blame globalism.  GMOs.  Blame The Man.  Whitey.  Blame affirmative action.  Robotics.  Welfare fraud.  Immigration.  Blame somebody else for not living right.  Feel righteously deprived and forgotten, no matter who you are.  Disenfranchised.  Disrespected.  Disgruntled.  Displaced.  Deplored.

Cultural Road Rage.

We’re setting a bad example for the rest of the world.  We’re misusing our superpowers.  We’re disproving democracy.

If we don’t sort things out among ourselves, somebody will step in and sort it out for us.  Censorship of the internet already is invoked to keep the peace.  The worldwide web is policed.  There’s a dragnet of metadata and cyber digitalysis every minute.  We leave indelible prints in the Cloud every day.  Privacy is surrendered at the door.  Hate may be expressed in private, one supposes, but when expressed publicly there is the responsibility of attribution.  Is it free speech to simulcast a massacre?  To show videos of beheadings?  These kinds of suicide missions on the web beg for attribution, there’s nothing stopping the Christchurch and ISIS types except where they might reveal themselves, expose themselves on line.  What then of the dispensers of just plain old lies?  What authority says what is true and what is fake?  Are true examples of hate the sum of something truly fake about the motives of haters?

President Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the clash riot in Charlottesville, equivocating the nastiness of the White Nationalists and Antifa belligerents at the core of the violence.  He said he supported the peaceful demonstrators who came to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, top general of the Confederate army in the American Civil War.  He expressed admiration for Robert E Lee, which is odd for him, because Lee was a loser, and Trump disrespects losers.  Lee commanded the army of rebellion defending the Lost Cause, slavery.  Trump expresses a lot of attitudes sympathetic to the old Confederacy.  Sometime you’d think he’d like to start the Civil War back up again, just to mess with history and make guys like Lee winners.

Where are our leaders guiding us?  Are they goading us?  What is the endgame of getting everybody pissed off at one another?  Everybody shaming the next one?  Where does the endurance of criticism endanger free speech?

This trend of cleaning up the worldwide web from the troll vigilantes who exploit the chaos of ideas with scurrilous and violent propaganda exposes a need to mind both intent and content of all the spectral messages we all send and receive every day because in cyberspace it never goes away, we are all publishing our histories.  We all have forums to persuade others, which are linked to other forums.  We can grouse our hearts out and be shared around the planet, maybe not everywhere but enough uncensored places to find company for our miseries.

Don’t think this isn’t overlooked by brain trusts who would exploit our naivete of opinion.  Somewhere in Russia a guy named Edward Snowden might shed some light on just how sensitively and granular the powers that be pay attention to what people think and can be persuaded to think.  It might be guessed that as much effort is being made to confuse and distract you and me as is made to conceal and reveal pertinent facts of life.

If the melting pot is boiling over and the mosaic is shedding stones it’s time to stir the pot, reduce the heat and restore the masonry.

There should be a cultural baseline by which we can measure a consensus of progression or regression of what constitutes the good life.  Set the baseline whenever, wherever — 1865, 1965, 2015 — USA, Europe, Ukraine — and measure the qualities from before and after, and see what net values pertain to you, your family, community, region, state and so on.  Is it really all that bad?

All the attempts of humankind to perfect itself and universalize the good life have not been in vain.  It’s in the eyes of the Syrian families begging for alms and mercy on the street corners of Paris or the Bangladeshi street vendors hawking selfie-sticks around the train station at Milan.  It’s why weary Hondurans and Salvadorans trudge through Mexico to get caught crossing into the United States for a chance to become the next Last Guy in America.  Why migrants risk death and great unknowns to live in poverty and squalor at the very bottom of the rich world rather than endure one more day in the home town of their homeland.

Migration, of course, is nothing new, not to nature and not to the human race.  The notion that people vote with their feet is just a modern meme to put a democratic spin on migration as a historic pattern of humanity.  It could be inevitable, a part of human nature in keeping with its species evolution.  It’s almost absurdly late to become so self-aware of this characteristic just now.

The latest humanitarian pattern clashes with the American government policy to restrict all entry into the country in order to restrict employment and economic benefits to citizens and authorized foreigners.  It also is supposed to vet foreigners for threats to national security.  Mostly the policy is meant to reserve menial jobs for unemployed citizens still not working in this current economy featuring very low unemployment, both of the skilled and unskilled variety.  The argument that immigrants take away jobs from born citizens is almost like saying slaves took away jobs from free people back in the day.  The entry-level labor force of people just starting out at the bottom is not all teenagers working at the Dairy Queen.  The pressure in the labor market falls backwards into unfilled jobs at the lower rungs, and policy drives the unemployed and under-employed to take jobs formerly held by immigrants, this to satisfy a political base to placate Americans First.  Tariffs and the trade war are meant to ramp up American mining and manufacturing, all to net jobs for all the forgotten and aggrieved bluecollar rednecks howling out there for Trump to give them back a slice of the pie.  Will they accept this?  More to my point, how forlorn and aggrieved were these people to begin with?  Was it really so bad?

Compared to the next guy.  All the way up and down.  Perhaps the thinking is, stop coddling refugees and they’ll go away.  In that case we should stop advertising the good life, it only teases the underclasses and promotes jealousy and despair.  As long as hope exists, however, people tend to learn a way to rise.  There’s no reason the human survival instinct is any less acute than a common fish or bird or reptile or mammal.  Somebody will always seek and find ways to get better than their baseline.

This is a real world example of that abstract thing called freedom, one of the components of how life is good.  Like democracy and justice.  Happiness.  “Freedom”, as sung by Janis Joplin, Roger Miller, according to Kris Kristofferson, “is just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even a white bum can choose the hobo life even as migrants seek destitution as a means to plant roots in new lands.  Rather than die out, the migrants go somewhere they hope to be free to live a life without constant threat of death.  Sleeping under a railroad bridge in Minneapolis is considered a better life than hiding from gangs in San Salvador.

To characterize the migrants as invaders invites adversarial pejoratives dehumanizing the outsiders, memes and tropes to make your head spin.  The president warns us of some pretty mean dudes in the caravans from Central America.  Over in Europe Viktor Orban of Hungary is accused of harboring migrant Syrians in cages to encourage them to go home.  The attitude persuades that migrants from foreign subcultures — in America the people of the tropics, and in Europe coming from the middle east or Africa — pose a threat to cultural sovereignty.  This smacks of the old Nazi Master Race ethnic purity philosophy.  At best it’s a white Christian nationalism.  In the middle it questions whether migrants corrupt or contaminate an established culture and leans to a fear that the immigrants might someday dominate.  Fear of reverse assimilation.  Fear of conquest.

The current xenophobia in America has such narrow vision it might suffer from its own success.  The trickle-down theory of deprivation could squeeze immigrants out of the labor market enough to raise wages at enough low paying jobs to scare up prices and require higher tariffs to keep foreign products from costing less.  Agricultural workers, hotel housekeeping and sanitation jobs could be the earliest vacancies unfilled, and it could work its way up.  The servants will disappear.  People would cry, it’s so hard to find good help these days.

The straits need not get dire.  If people are seriously looking at their cultural legacy they need a positive vision that accounts for the inevitable tides of the humanitarian condition.  These refugees cannot remain stranded.  Just as good people who foresee the steps leading to global warming and act to prevent the steps, good just people who recognize the human migration patterns and make ready to accept the future shifts of population should step up to persuade policies to accommodate these inevitable strangers and put them to work.  Give them a chance.  Opportunity.

These people today and their children are the future of the human race and cannot be denied a share of the planet’s bounty.  America talks big about universal rights, equal opportunity, freedom and innovation, things that drove the motives to found a political, social and economic system for a greater good.  A virtuous system like ours should not be hoarded, as if liberal democracy is only peculiar to America and can’t possibly happen anywhere else and cannot be understood by any other people.  Treating people as ineligibles, excluding them into incarceration, walling them off from hope betrays the moral high ground and leaves our principles in a ditch, digs our society a mass grave.

The late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Just because our union is imperfect we should not flinch from trying to perfect it.  The right way.  Stop the persecution of refugees and recognize international rights to asylum.  Recognize the origination of migration and keep working toward the alleviation of misery.  Liberate the refugee camps and enable migrants to join communities in societies.  Stop wars and terrorism.  Repatriate the displaced.  Respect the dignity of these asylum seekers because these are the ones who come in peace and stand between the rule of law and the rule of terror.  Mistreatment of migrants creates enduring resentments.  Excluding migrants altogether creates an adversarial order.  Migrants will either find their way in or be aggressively kept out.  An open free society cannot sustain mass forced deportation of its population.  Putting them in detention centers makes it worse.

Humane treatment of migrants is future terrorist prevention.  Look at Gaza.

Where they will come from and where they will go, the next generation of people who vote with their feet, no predictions are overheard about the next diaspora.  If indeed first humans walked out of Africa all the way to the Bering Strait and crossed to inhabit the land masses of the Western Hemisphere, the trend since reaching Patagonia has been a U turn back across the Isthmus of Panama to walk back north to settle in a geographic zone above the Texas border.

In Minnesota, where I live, the Land of Sky Blue Waters, somewhere in the middle of North America, all the recorded human history is a story of migrations.  The known people of the Ojibwe and Dakota meandered back and forth between the plains and the forests amid the lakes and rivers.  It’s a toss between Norse and French explorers who first tramped through the region from across the Atlantic.  French names prevail.  The next cycle of migrants from the American east brought pioneers and soldiers to stake out the northern territory of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon.  As the indigenous people were chased out or sequestered, immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland, undeterred by the cold winters, homesteaded and farmed the open acres.  Then from Germany.  Ireland.  They founded towns and swelled the new cities.  Migrants from the Balkans came to work the iron mines.  Czechs worked the brickyards.  In one hundred years Minneapolis went from a scenic waterfall in the wilderness to a fancy sophisticated little model of Europe transposed via the American east coast.

Europeans, and other old world cultures, and Canada, make fun of America because it has such little history.  It’s true, we’ve only been on the map a few hundred years.  In that short time we’ve created quite an impact, yet micro places like Minnesota reveal what impact the rest of the world has made on America.

In less than two hundred years Minneapolis has gone from that scenic pristine waterfall on the Mississippi River to a cosmopolitan haven of international tastes and world markets.  It’s jumped from pioneers in sod houses to smart houses almost overnight.  The French can laugh at us because our grandest cathedrals are barely a hundred years old and are renderings of copies of original old world monuments.  It’s okay.  For some of us bumpkins it’s as close as they’ll get to baroque architecture.

This is not to justify the invasion of this land in the first place, but what’s done is done.  We are eight generations deep.  I cannot idealize the process either.  Successive generations of migrants have faced conflicts of acceptance by settlers born here — the arrival of white people must have been the Native American’s worst nightmare come true.  Like the African American migrations up here from the Deep South after emancipation, Jim Crow, after the two world wars and again in the 1960s, the black migrants worried the established descendants of migrant Europeans, who fretted time and again, there goes the neighborhood.

Minnesota is residence to waves of migrants for as long as recorded history and well into modern times.  Both world wars brought displaced persons and refugees — my daughter’s father in law was a child born in a Nazi work camp of Polish parents, who as a family survived the war and came to the United States rather than go back to Poland, but had to wait a dozen years in Morocco first.  The Korean War brought war orphans adopted en masse, some of the first Asian looking kids my generation grew up with.  Romanian orphans became popular when the Iron Curtain collapsed.  The Vietnam War brought a wave of refugee families seeking asylum from the North Vietnamese takeover. The same conflict in Laos brought Hmong refugees from camps in Thailand.  Cambodians.  Then Karen from Myanmar and Tibetans from Tibet.  Liberians in exile from a nasty civil war.  Same with East Africans, refugees from civil war.  Ethiopes.  Adoption of Central American guerrilla war orphans got popular in the Reagan era.  Then Somalia failed as a state and its civil war drove some two million people from their homes, and tens of thousands ended up here in Minnesota.  And all the while the Latino presence kept swelling in the community like panaderia dough.

Meantime the Ojibwe and the Dakota keep crisscrossing the landscape like shadows.

Suffice to say the puny history of my home state is writ large of human migration and integration of ethnic — shall we say — diversity.  Along with the more high profile waves and tides mentioned above are many more examples of visitors and scholars and exiles and romantics and the lost and found from somewhere else found their way into the roots of this place — for example, I have not mentioned the Italians because everybody knows that like the Irish if there’s a town anywhere with any taste at all there are always Italians — frequently Greeks but always Italians, it’s a given.  My home town is graced by all the diasporas of the globe.

And every winter I ask why anybody in this world would choose to live here if he or she were not born here.  There must be something that fends off extremes.  That something-something that makes things flow.  Perhaps, as I suggested, it starts with the food.  Soul food.  Delicatessen.  Chow mein.  Pizza.  Shepherds pie.  Gyro.  Subway foot long sub.  Tacos.

So many choices.  So many grocery stores.  These are the meeting halls of humanity, the aisles of democracy, the chambers of the good life.  The place where all the ingredients of the good life are available.  The chapel where an EBT card can get a bite to eat — spend it well, like a votive prayer.  The shelves are like stained glass windows of logos and brand names.  Bins of fresh produce are like choirs.  This is exactly what Woody Guthrie meant by Pastures of Plenty.  At every Aldi and Cub there is shared space of security and well being.  A grocery store is the ultimate town hall of peace, freedom and prosperity.  Even in the moments preceding an April blizzard there is no panic.  There is a general sense there is enough for everybody.

There’s no reason to hoard opportunities for the good life, no justification to restrict access to mobility, and no excuse for making life worse for the refugees than if they stayed home.  Migration is a fact.  To lock people out is to lock people in.  Consideration of greater good should prevail against criminalization of seekers of asylum.  Such claims take time to evaluate but the answer can’t always be no.

Laws that can be respected are legislated by elected bodies who represent the temperate volition of citizens who agree to abide by rule of law.  This is the continuing effort to build a more perfect union so said in the US Constitution.  America has to codify its tolerance for the reality of global migration in light of its own success in promoting itself as a beacon of liberty.

Where I live there is a preponderance of evidence of good things contributed to the community by migrant cultures, including the original indigenous ones.  If the human footprint has sometimes trod upon itself and tripped in its own tracks, the pathways to resolution and even redemption have been found and trails to more prosperous progeny tend to prevail.  Here a girl from Somalia from a refugee camp in Kenya grew up to get elected to the US House of Representatives from a neighborhood district once settled by Finnish homesteaders.  Prince grew up in a neighborhood used to be Jewish.  Bob Dylan is Jewish.  Hubert Humphrey came here from South Dakota.  A lot of respected leaders come from Minnesota, which borders Canada.

Minnesota is a nice place.  Life is good.  Summer is taking hold and the trees are green again.  Maybe too much mud for the farmers right now, but maybe the rain will hold off.  A lot of sky blue water this spring.

Common cause is as common as common sense these days as we fend through daily bombardments of hype and breaking news.  We rely on each other to remain grounded against brainwashing and gaslighting.  It’s a conceit to the belief we can make consensus beyond identity politics to make a coherent case for liberal democracy.

That’s what it takes, though.  Against demonizing propaganda a clear persuasive argument for the greater good is what it will take to un-inaugurate the current president, who will not go quietly unless he gives himself a stroke.

It’s one thing to hue and cry about the plight of the poor refugee (or just the plight of the poor) and blame reactionary rhetoric and nationalistic ult-right policies for inhumane treatment, and yet another thing to get lawmakers to write comprehensive legislation to establish a fresh immigration code and to elect an executive branch more interested in mitigating the causes of diaspora than punishing migrants.  It’s a bleeding heart cause but the eventual will meet the inevitable and America faces vast incarceration and/or deportation of a significant percentage of its population, many of them born here, and almost all persons of color.

Not just in Washington, DC but at the United Nations, America could lead in promoting fair passage of refugee populations and in participating in stabilizing factors to prevent or repatriate diaspora, if there were an administration interested at all in guiding the future of the world, engaged in real world issues.  Instead the president dismisses these distressed places as shitholes.  He won’t even rebuild Puerto Rico since the hurricanes.  He thinks he’s cute.

Until Donald Trump is repudiated at the box office — unelected at the polls — and uninaugurated, the United States Congress does not need him to craft legislation to govern America.  If out of spite he vetoes sensible bills passed behind his back, he risks further exposing himself as a fraud more dedicated to his own glory than to Old Glory.

Whatever happens next, don’t be confused that life is good because Trump is in the White House.  His administration is an extreme stress test of the resilience of American character.  He has no character.  No ethos.  Those who put him in power and support his regime have nefarious motives.  They are like him, dishonest, devious, deceptive and willing to go to extremes to advance their agendas and impose their will.  It’s not an economic profit motive so much as a political monopoly campaign to wear out our minds and brainwash us (like George Romney) to hassle among ourselves with unresolved identity issues and contradictory beliefs, giving them the high ground of relentless moral certainty.  Don’t be fooled.  It’s iron pyrite.

The greater good will come from examples set by people who can envision a world beyond this century and keep sight of existential resolutions in the present tense.  Who keep hope alive instead of pandering despair.  Who can take criticism and turn it into advice.  Who take integrity seriously and ask only honest effort from their fellow human beings.  Who reject hate and hatred and persevere with love.  Who keep paying attention and don’t get bored.

image1.JPG

 

BK