If you could plant
neat rows of
in red East Texas soil,
it would grow
full vocal chords and
lips to whisper at night
about gators and
in the damp bottom lands.
They would be Brenda’s lips.
The voice would be low and
husky from whiskey.
It came to me in a flash this morning. I know exactly what formative experience I’m tapping every time I feel enraged by this Clown Administration, this collection of nodding mimes in the Senate and the House, or the cadre of lunatic robber barons called Governors across our land. And weirdly, it’s not exactly what is being said, although what is being said is disgusting and offensive in any age. It is more how it is being said. And how pitifully smug they think they are appearing while they deal below the table right in front of us. We are supposed to just smile and be grateful for whatever scrap is tossed our way and not only, NOT report them for outright crimes, but to ADMIRE them for their cleverness in dealing with a corrupt system. “I’m a great businessman.”
When I was fifteen, I worked as a busboy and dishwasher at the local country club. It only had a 9-hole course, but it was well-maintained. Our small town had about 10,000 people back then, so I’m guessing membership in the club was not strictly limited to the 1%ers, but generally, it is unlikely there were many outside of the top 5% of the social strata who could claim inclusion. And from my experience in the lower third of that system, it was clear that members wanted a bright and shining line between Members and help. Even inside the “help” categories, there was stratification. Top guy was the Club Manager, and oddly, the Number Two was the greens-keeper. He and his staff of one were on the payroll. All the golf-related jobs were off payroll. The Members contracted with the Pro for lessons and help and he supplemented that with a commission on whatever was sold in the pro shop. Caddies worked on tips and below them were the guys who worked in the fitness and shower areas. They worked on tips too. Odd thing. A caddie might get a $1 tip on nine holes of bad golf, or he might score $50 when your dad’s boss had a good round. Caddies were almost always the sons of Members and/or players on the high school golf team. Guys in the locker room were related to the cooks in the kitchen.
Those of us on the other side had a hierarchy too. Kitchen Manager (not chef!) was the boss. He was salaried. He worked in the kitchen. The bartender worked below him for minimum wage and tips. Waitresses, almost always came from among the popular girls in school but not often the daughters of Members. They were inevitably “cute and perky.” Those who cooked were, oddly for our nearly completely white community, usually Mexican, many of whom shared surnames with those in the locker room. Some of these men were so recently from Mexico as to be without much working use of English. I’m sure they were simply paid in cash, and not very much. Below all of the above was me. The busboy/dishwasher was the bottom of the heap. I could have done the job all summer, nonetheless, if I wanted to.
My pay was the lowest, minimum wage and no tips. I had to punch in and out. On Thursday (Friday was too busy), the Club Manager would hand me a check. As a “convenience” to me (and the cooks, I suppose) he would cash my check on the spot. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was kind of convenient to get cash on my way out the door. (In fact, my next job in town paid in cash too.) Not until years later did I come to understand that if the check showed the deductions to me and I cashed the check with him for the remaining cash, all he had to do was to destroy the check, void it out of the check register and it would be like paying me in cash below the minimum wage. I don’t know if he did that or not. But back then, not a lot of 15-year-olds made enough money in a year to have to file taxes. I didn’t know of any.
Fridays were the busy nights in the restaurant and bar. And it only took a couple of Friday nights to figure out the patterns that had probably been repeated since the place opened. Husbands bring the family in. It is not exactly subdued in tone. I have been in the kitchen for about an hour already making sure every glass, plate and piece of tableware is clean, dry and ready for delivery. When the first Members arrive, I am ready. I keep watch to see when to clear the first round of dishes. I have an appropriate looking outfit, complete with a white long-sleeved shirt and a bleached white folded towel tucked into the front of my belt. From that first clearing it was a steady rise in intensity in the busboy/dishwasher business. Clear, haul, spray, load, unload, stack…clear, haul, spray…. without a break until the dining room began to clear. The ones who lingered were always the ones who kept you from punching out for the night. And they were the ones who usually lingered over drinks. If they started on drinks before dinner too, well, there was no telling how long they’d hang around. And, they were Members so no one was about to tell them to go home.
Through the course of the night, my white shirt and bleached, folded towel always accumulated the detritus of the table as well as the splattering of the dishwasher. It’s why most respectable places won’t let dishwashers clear the tables. Some nights I would swap out the folded towel half way through my shift just to try to uphold some air of appearances. I didn’t on this particular night.
The guy at the table had a name. I don’t need to name him now. He’s dead and I’ve gotten over most of it. But this guy happened to be an officer in the local savings and loan. And he was a drunk. He had come in and sat at the bar for a few with a couple of his work buddies while I did my kitchen prep late in the afternoon, left for a little while and came back with his wife. They sat at a table and had a couple before the meal, ate pro forma with a bottle of wine and then lingered over Manhattans until the room was empty. All the dishes were done in the kitchen. The cooks had shut down and left. The only staff left were the bartender, the waitress and me. So, I approached the table and asked if I might clear it for them. I suppose it was a clumsy way to try to prod them into leaving, but at 15 I had no better tactic.
When I asked, Mr. S&L froze in place. Visibly froze and held still for about 2 or 3 seconds just staring at the table. I saw a look in Mrs. S&L’s eyes as she waited for what she knew was coming. I didn’t know.
Mr. S&L turned toward me and it was the first time I had ever seen a grown man with fury in his face. I had seen plenty of men and boys and women and girls angry. Some angrier that others, but this was fury. And a look I cannot logically explain. I was standing by his right shoulder, he was still seated but somehow he was able to look down his nose at me with contempt and said: “If you interrupt me again, I will see that you are fired. I am a Member of this club and I sit on its Board of Directors. You will treat me with respect.”
I was dumbstruck. I finally sort of stammered something like, “Of course, Mr. S&L, I was only trying…”
“Enough! Go back to the kitchen and wait until we are finished here.”
I did. I didn’t say anything. I was embarrassed. These years later, I speculate that his wife may have been more embarrassed than he. Maybe not. Maybe she was used to speaking to the help that way. I wasn’t used to it. I wish I could tell you that I quit that job that night. Or that I thought about it overnight and I came in to quit the next day. What actually happened was I showed up for my shift on Saturday and the Club Manager informed me that I had been fired. Fired from my first job. That didn’t speak highly for my future. Clearly I was destined to live out my life on those lower rungs of the social and financial ladder. There was to be no “bootstrap” operation from busboy/dishwasher to Member in America.
This is precisely what I am feeling today on the national political scale. I feel like we have somehow awarded all the power and glory, all the money and voice to a bunch Mr. S&Ls with long noses and fury who can and will lash out at others under any provocation, real or imagined. Who will say anything they wish, whether it is true, or based on a story they heard, or a made-up narrative erupting like a boil from their fetid imaginations, or someone else’s fetid imagination in alt-right publishing.
Mr. S&L, I see your Mrs. with her eyes carefully shielded so as not to disclose any tic of emotion or even a shade of compassion. I see brief flashes of real fear in the faces of those around you. And I think I know what that reveals about your character.
I see your knowing looks and your secret handshakes with your cohorts. I see how you use coded language between each other so that you can claim that those of us drawing the sheet off the corpse of democracy can be dismissed as having misunderstood or misquoted or taken your words out of context. I hear you telling the people in the kitchen that the only people they can trust to tell them the truth are the people writing and cashing checks.
I see the look of desperate ambition upon those who are now in your elite club but whose starts were somewhere closer to the clubhouse kitchen. All of those men who have something to prove. In America we love drive, guts and determination. You see those traits in a few of your sycophants and nod in their direction to trigger actions that shape the lives (or the deaths) of hundreds or thousands. When they act, you praise. If they fail to act, you excoriate them. This is not the America I know. It is not the America I want to leave for my kids and grandkids.
In my America, drive, guts and determination are admirable character traits but they are not the goal of character development. In my America, a stronger union is formed on the back of ambition. Ambition is not best used in service to the self. It will take many ambitious Americans to stand up to the divisive politics used cleverly, if nefariously, by those in the National Country Club. We have found our ambition in resistance. We will resist your personal ambitions to transfer all of the wealth to the Membership. We will resist your narrow and very white version of a national culture. And we will keep spitting in your soup until it is over.
I hold James Lee Burke’s abilities to weave a story with style in the highest of esteem. I’ll give this novel 4.5/5 based on the Burke Scale. If it is on the scale of all of what I read, it’s a solid 5. And that silly half-point deduction is probably because it is a new character.
I like this new guy, Weldon Holland. He’s a man’s man. If you are a fan of Burke’s you might recognize the surname as related to Hackberry Holland and Billy Bob Holland. Those characters are cousins of this Holland and strength of character seems to be a family trait. In the real world, the dedication is to Burke’s cousin, Weldon Benbow “Buddy” Mallette. It’s not hard to see what Burke has been doing with his family history these past decades.
This novel gets its juice from a long remembered experience of the main character as a child when he encounters Bonnie and Clyde in a rural woods. That experience floats in and out of the entirety of this 444 page novel which starts in a dust bowl era pecan grove and winds its way through WWII in Europe and finishes out in the oil fields of Texas and gossip pages of Hollywood in the 50s. As is always the case with Burke, the pure descriptive strength of his prose is powerful in this broad sweep of landscape and history.
And that prose…oh, my, God…I would give treasured, even intimate parts of my body to be able to write prose like his. A chapter (6) in a TB Sanitarium is among the best writing I’ve seen. If you want to argue this in the comments, I have about a dozen examples that will melt your resistance to the prospect. But in this novel, he does the absolute best work with what I consider to be the hardest part of writing from the senses: the use of the sense of smell. Let me give you just two short examples. 1) At the sanitarium, “I was inside a chemical environment that was warm and cool at the same time; the air smelled of flowers and rain spotting on warm stone.” I hear you that “rain spotting on warm stone” says nothing of scent, but you are so, so wrong. You know in your soul that those flowers smell one way by themselves and a different way in the presence of “rain spotting on warm stone.” 2) On a stop at a Texas gas station in the ’50s: “The evening sun was red inside the dust from the fields, the cotton leaves wilted in the heat, the air close with the odor of herbicide and hot tar.” As a wayfaring stranger myself, I spent a good portion of my youth hitchhiking all over this country. I KNOW that smell by the side of a Texas road.
Characters, let Burke draw you a picture: At an outdoor cocktail party– “I saw a man in a checkered sport coat and a loud tie pick up a drink from a tray and hand it to a woman in a strapless silver evening dress that exposed the tops of her breasts and was as tight as tin on the rest of her.” Or, describing a character named McQueen. “He was a large man, with craggy good looks and no fat on his body and a voice that was like a dull saw cutting through a dry board.”
What of the political context of Burke’s novels? I love this easily understood expression of how Fascism started to come to America. Remember, this was in description of a time before Ike warned us all about the “Industrial-Military complex.” It speaks to the perception of the American Dream and the lure of acquiring more. Weldon, who is becoming a successful business man as a pipeline provider during the oil rushes, is in conversation about a man much more wealthy, connected and dangerous than himself. Weldon wants him in jail.
The dangerous man’s son, Roy says, “…you have it all, Weldon, but you don’t realize it. Others covet what you take for granted. You’re an honorable man. Your wife loves you. You’re the captain of your soul. With time, others will take all that away from you. That’s what you fail to understand. They want your soul.”
“And how will they take that from me?”
“They’ll turn you into one of them. You’ll wake up one morning and look at your reflection in the mirror and wonder what happened to the little boy in his white First Communion suit. See you around, Buster Brown!”
If that is not a clarion call for our times, I don’t know what is. There are other, maybe greater ramifications of this particular conversation, but ultimately this entire section of the novel is designed to reveal that “ambition,” while lauded in our bootstraps mythology, is too easily perverted into “greed.” In Burke’s mind, it takes a man of honor to maintain the balance to walk that line. He shows us several more times in ensuing plot elements.
The struggle between the civilized, ambitious man and the greedy animal within becomes terribly obvious when Weldon is forced to defend himself from a very bad cop. If we are honest, Weldon went to the cop’s house armed in anticipation, but at some point he “chooses” to act. After it is over: “Let no man tell you our simian ancestor is not alive and well waiting for his moment to come aborning again.” Well, ain’t that some truth?
I’m not going to tell you if the good guy gets the girl and rides off into the sunset at the end. I will tell you that, as I approach my 67th year, I hope one of the things people will be able to say at the end of my road trip is, “He was honorable.” Oh, yeah, and “not a fascist.”
(Today is “Defining the Problem.” Later this week is “What to Do About It.”)
The images are not my images. If you own them and want them taken down, let me know. If you want credit only, let me know. No offense is meant by using them.
This is commentary by Steve Marsh. Nobody else is responsible for it. You may leave moderated comments here or look me up on facebook.
The Oxford Dictionaries define fascism as “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.”
This is a little misnomer in terms of current American politics. It says “right wing” and automatically Americans say “Republican.” Sadly, that is no longer historically accurate. Bill Clinton broke the traditional concept of right/left last century with his “triangulation” of the middle. That was after Reagan broke the traditional concept of “Right” in the ‘80s with his Reagan Democrats and hard turn toward conservatism.
Famously, Jimmy Carter pronounced the American system of politics to be “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery…” Rolling Stone Magazine quoted him as saying, “The same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
Many of us who have been around in both centuries were heard to say, “Well, duh.”
But, as much as I’d like to bask in Carter’s courage to say so, and my beautiful, prescient mind for perceiving it, I’m stuck with acknowledging that this observation alone is not enough. In my estimation, the confluence of oligarchy in America with the populist wave that put Donald Trump in the most dangerous chair in the world means we have now passed on to full Fascism. I do not blame Trump alone. And not even those who voted for him, although any number of them would be happy to put on jackboots. What is left of Democratic voters have been as guilty. I hear my liberal friends recoiling in horror and denial. So let’s take this kind of slow.
It seems that you can find a definition of fascism that will say almost anything you want it to say. Or you can confound a definition with a lot of political language designed to obfuscate. So, how do I know we are in a Fascist Oligarchy instead of just a regular old oligarchy? I found a website that identifies what fascist states do: http://www.fascismusa.com/ The thing this website attempts to do is to define what has been undefinable and implies that we should define the cheetah by her spots.
What does a fascist state do? This site identifies fourteen Cheetah Spots. Here we go.
1. Is America currently affected by Powerful and Continuing nationalism? Well, of course she is and before you get all excited about how we are now going to bash the Trumpsters (and we should) think back to summer 2016 and the images, especially on the closing night of the Democratic National Convention. Do you remember the multi-screen projections of HRC, dressed in stark white, parading in front of dozens of American flags, calling on neo-con General John Allen to assure “our enemies” that “we will pursue you as only Americans can.” Later that night she was joined on stage by Bill in a blue suit, white shirt and red tie and her VP candidate (what was his name again) in a blue suit, white shirt and a red tie and Chelsea in a red dress of the exact same hue as Bill’s and VP Whatsisname’s ties? Mrs. Whatshisname was dressed in blue, same as the suits, same as the balloons. And down came seemingly millions of balloons, all red, white or blue or big blue ones with white stars. And some big white ones and big red ones too. That is not a party issue. Republicans were weeping that night, discovering aghast that the Democratic party had staked out the patriotism corner for itself in this voting cycle. There was, apparently, enough American Exceptionalism for us all. Nationalism? Check.
2. Disdain for the recognition of human rights. That has been true of America since President W decided that it was appropriate for us to engage in prophylactic warfare and fed us all the false data necessary to whip America into a blood lust unimaginable even ten years before when his daddy was the boss. Gone were the restraints against torture, preemptive assassination, striking families and neighborhoods with the most amazingly destructive weapons possible. Back home, the stroke of a pen was all it took after Congress capitulated on the frighteningly Nazi-sounding creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Trumpsters say bring back torture. Trump himself is quoted by CNN on December 3, 2015 as saying: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” But further, did Obama prosecute anyone for water-boarding, even as he stopped its use? No. Did we ever get out of Guantanamo? Lack of human rights? Check.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. Al-Qaeda, ISIS and bad hombres. 9/11, Iraqi attacks (even though the vast majority of participants were Saudi), add Afghanistan to get Osama, add Pakistan because they were hiding Osama, add Syria, Lebanon, Yemen. Immigrants = Mexicans but Immigrants also = Refugees from the wars on Al-Qaeda and ISIS. And then….and then… home-grown terrorists. Self-radicalized individuals. Now the enemies are everywhere and they are brown. Muslims are proudly hated by at least a large plurality of Americans. And now Mexicans, and it spills out to Sikhs and…just Google “mistaken for terrorists in US.” Enemies named and pointed at? Check.
4. Supremacy of the military. Let me parse this one out a little. It says supremacy of the military. It does not say support for military families. It does not say health care for wounded veterans. It’s all about active military and missions. Look at T’s proposed budget. Military +$54 billion, Department of Homeland Security +6.8%, Department of Veterans Affairs +5.9%, National Nuclear Security Administration +11.3%. And literally, just about everything else is cut, including the chief tool for diplomacy, the Department of State -28%. Yup, that is an intentional hard-power budget. Supremacy of the military? Check.
5. Rampant sexism. Beyond normalizing the word “pussy” and demonizing all of women’s health care on the back of “abortion,” the number of women in the cabinet is self-evident. Even his supporters can find a quote or two they are happy to chant denigrating women. Every day, every newspaper in America carries this story or worse, exhibits this story. Rampant sexism? Check.
6. Controlled mass media. How many supporters of T are now firmly convinced that CNN stands for “Clinton’s News Network?” How many say “fake news” about any article with a headline that even obliquely challenges their world view. All sources of news are false, except the two or three sources the central personality deems to be “not fake.” This has been underway since Roger Ailes (ahem, speaking of rampant sexism) opened Fox News for business but now we have reached a new vista in media denial. The Executive Branch Press Secretary has taken to isolating the news source they approve of to hold conferences and to go on lengthy defensive rants if anyone asks a question perceived as offensive. Control the mass media? Check. (at least well on the way.)
7. Obsession with national security. ISIS and illegal immigrants. These stories continue to cycle at the top of lists. They get conflated and mixed up too. Don’t let in any refugees fleeing the chaos created by our enemy ISIS because those people could be ISIS disguised as refugees. Don’t let Mexican (rapists and murderers) come in because they are “bad hombres” and ISIS is probably coming into the country by smuggling themselves into Mexico too. Let’s look at Iran next month and N. Korea this week. National security, keeping you safe from all the danger, danger, danger. Obsession with National Security? Check.
8. Religion and government are intertwined. Fascists use the most common religion to manipulate opinions. If there were more Catholics in the USA, we would see a slightly different version of what is going on. This movement has come and gone over the course of our history but got its biggest burst of power under Reagan. The emergence of the religious right under the moniker of “Moral Majority” has now twisted itself into something far more insidious. What is the advantage to them? LOTS. Normalizing home schooling and getting federal education dollars for religious schools via vouchers and similar programs. That insures the concepts are self-perpetuating through another generation. It makes it easy to demonize the political opponent. Obama, for example was both non-American and non-Christian. Those are long tentacles. And remember it was the religious right who impeached Clinton. Not for a blowjob but for a lie. Religion and government intertwined? Check.
9. Corporate power is protected. Citizens United (what a great lie right in the title), “Corporations are people, my friend.” Gut the EPA, deregulate Wall Street, roll back 40 years of auto emissions regulations, states deferring taxes on corporate owned property, and restrictions on labor is outlined below. But this is the most dangerous trend in my lifetime. There used to be a time when corporations had natural restraints too. To get access to the American market, corporations had to use American labor. Well, just like those two big oceans don’t protect us militarily any longer, they also don’t protect us economically. Many corporations are larger than many countries. That is not hyperbole any longer. Add to the power to do what they want to the power to avoid taxes on the profits they secure in our markets and you have a pretty perfect storm. Corporate power? Check.
10. Labor power is suppressed. Right to Work (another great title lie), opposition of raising the minimum wage, demonize public servants (except cops and firemen…you need them for the riots), permitting two tiered hiring practices, gutting union shop laws, and importantly, long term economic downturns to erode stability and expectations in the work force. Depress the markets for young people generally and black young people specifically and you now have a ready market for people to be recruited into the military. Labor power suppression? Check.
11. Disdain for intellectuals and artists. Gut the NEA, gut PBS, pass laws forcing teaching creationism as alternative to evolution (see #8 above), the culture wars of 20 years ago has “leveled up.” Schools are now deficient if they don’t teach “marketable skills in the work marketplace.” Let’s add some more catch phrases: “I know more than the generals.” Active scrubbing of federal websites in regard to climate change and other scientific research. Fox News says global warming research is a con to get federal dollars for false research. Tweet: “Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big.” Schwarzenegger. Disdain for intellectuals and artists? Check.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment. First, think of what he, the T, wants to do with “leakers.” Second, as the states move to legalize the use of medical and recreational cannabis, the new Attorney General says, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Trump notoriously says the murder rate is the highest in 48 years while in fact it is less than ½ of what it was 48 years ago. Crime, both violent and non-violent are actually down in the nation, but the administration is fundamentally invested in scaring people to make them think they are not safe, that they can blame some other kind of people and that we should lock those “others” up in for-profit prisons. Crime and punishment? Check.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Why are so many former executives of Goldman Sachs in the cabinet? It is hard to keep track of that number. Connections to Russia and the political oligarchy there? Plenty. Only took days to start booting folks out of the cabinet for obvious cons involving receiving huge sums of money from Russia and Turkey. How many? Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court? Sure, his mom was the EPA head from ’81-’83 under Reagan. What did she try to do? Slashed its budget 22%, rolled back clean air and clean water standards, prevented the EPA from bringing protection suits to the DOJ. Then she resigned. Why? Mismanagement (you put your own word in here, what does “mismanagement” mean, anyway?) of the Superfund program. This is not a new thing. More on that later. Or this from yesterday: Kellyanne Conway’s husband will be tapped to lead the Justice Department’s civil division. Another import from the Wall Street law firms. Cronyism and corruption? Check.
14. Fraudulent elections. This one scares me deeply. I think it has been going on for a long time. Both political parties are claiming it is ongoing. I think Republican redistricting efforts at the state level have effectively eliminated the democratic concept of “one man–one vote.” The number of federal elections and state elections affected has skyrocketed. And now Trump is blowing smoke over his trail by claiming that millions of illegal aliens voted against him and cost him the popular vote. I have never seen the winner of an election claim it was fraudulent before! The institution of the Electoral College has played into this strategy by the Fascists too. Smear campaigns, armed “poll watchers,” the list goes on. Courts are supposed to be the check here. HEY, COURTS! HELP. We are hanging by a fine thread. Fraudulent elections? Not 100% certain yet but something smells very bad about Russia and the unconscionable voter restrictions going on in communities of color. I’m not willing to put a check here yet, but reconnect with me next week.
So, that’s all fourteen functions, or at least 13 and a half. Do you think we are a Fascist Oligarchy? Well, look at that thing waddling and quacking down the road. I do believe it some kind of waterfowl.
It is fair to say I have a favorable bias toward this material. I taught Mythology in high school for several years. I enjoyed it too, until we started eliminating all those superfluous subjects and ended up with Vanilla English 9, 10, 11 and 12.
Like most teachers of the time, I spent a lot of time talking about what a mythology was, how it supported the population and telling the long-told lie that the most important of the myths came from the Greeks who then had their stories stolen by the Romans. Then, we spent the last couple of weeks of the course looking at the “others,” with most of the others being the Norse.
This book suffers a little from that ideology too, although not to the point where it is a flaw necessarily. What Gaiman attempts to do is to put some of the stories into a kind of novelistic arc of storytelling. More or less he tells some of the creation myth, several of the stories unique to the personalities of the major players and then a representation of the end of times in Norse myth. He even poses the question of whether the end times tales are stories of what has already happened or whether it is a tale of what is yet to come.
I love the selections he has chosen to illuminate. We get a good sense of Odin, wisest of the wise but only because he has been willing to make literal mythic sacrifices in exchange for knowing. What a great and lasting tale for all who still care about knowing. Not an alt-fact anywhere in sight for Odin’s single eye.
Gaiman gives us some good tales about Odin’s son, Thor. He is, of course, the hero’s hero but depicted as not the brightest flame in Valhalla. Thor shows us the worth of lots of other characteristics, including strength, bravery, determination.
There are also stories about Loki, who isn’t technically a god as he is the son of a giant. But his association with Odin has always set him up for preferential treatment in Asgard, as well as the jealousy and, in some cases, outright hostility of the other gods and goddesses.
Two stories strike me as the best of the bunch, although it is difficult to tease the threads of one or two stories out of the beautiful tapestry Gaiman presents. I like particularly the story he calls, “The Mead of Poets.” I am a home winemaker and I have made several batches of mead. It is predominantly wine made from honey, but modern mead has little resemblance to the drink of the Vikings. They did quick and dirty fermentations and added a veritable cornucopia of adjunct ingredients. The mead you would drink in one village was likely to bear little resemblance to what you might encounter in another. The mead of this story is very much like that.
Ultimately, the mead is made from honey and the blood of a divine poet and drinking it sets the muse loose from one’s heart. For the sake of brevity, and to keep you interested when you get your copy of this book, here is a little synopsis of the end of the tale. Odin steals the mead by drinking it, changing into an eagle and flying back to Asgard to deliver the goods to the gods, where, like a father bird, he will spit it out for his underlings. This is the magic mead that makes wonderful poets. Great poets have tasted Odin’s gift. And that is the end of the story…except it is not.
There is another kind of poetry anyone who has ever attended an open mic has heard. Like any good myth, there has to be an explanation for bad poetry too. And the Norsemen provided a fine one.
Odin is flying back to Asgard as fast as he can with the stolen mead in his belly and Suttung, the one from whom Odin has stolen, has also changed into eagle form and is chasing Odin, actually nipping at his tail feathers as they approach. At this point, Gaiman, interrupts his story to speak directly to the reader, saying, “The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.” And yet, two paragraphs remain.
With Suttung literally hot on his tail, “…Odin blew some of the mead out his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail. No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.”
I love a myth that explains both the good and the bad, don’t you?
The other individual story I loved in this collection is because of its obvious relation to our own life and times. The gods are perpetually at war, usually with the giants and they decide they need protection in the form of a wall. But they don’t want to actually invest in the actual building of a wall so they find a guy, an immigrant stranger actually, who will build the wall for them. (BTW, Loki figures out a way to enter a contract. It is a fine, binding deal until Loki figures out a way to cheat.) Mythology often serves the purpose of providing morality lessons.
“I can build you a wall,” said the stranger. “Build it so high that the tallest giant could not climb it, so thick that the strongest troll could not batter through it. I can build it so well, by placing stone upon stone, that not an ant could find space enough to crawl through it. I will build you a wall that will last for a thousand thousand years.”
“Such a wall would take a very long time to build,” said Loki.
“Not at all,” said the stranger. “I can build it in three seasons. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. It would only take me a winter, a summer and another winter to build.”
Of course, like in all myths and tales of super-human feats of strength and engineering, there are elements of subterfuge, trickery, treachery and falsity. In this story you’ll find a lot of those things, but in this case, the guy who has everything ends up with more and the guy doing the building gets screwed. Huh, imagine that.
Anyway, great book, fast read. It only took me a couple of days but you will do it in one. Buy a copy in hardbound for your library and then buy one for each of your grandchildren (no matter how many you are going to end up with.) Five out of Five, Neil.
When I was about 13, I remember distinctly trying to impress a girl with my ability to do a pratfall. We were in Bennett Park in my home town. There were several 500 pound cement blocks with heavy anchor chain strung between them to indicate the parking area. To prove my prowess, I hurled myself forward over the chain in a manner that showed I had “tripped” and landed on my front. I really did kind of understand what I was doing. If you spread the impact of the fall over enough of your body surface, it hurts very little and you get a great reaction from your audience. She asked me if I was okay and I jumped to my feet and pretended to stumble backwards over the same chain and landed flat on my back, using the same technique. She didn’t “fall” for me despite my demonstration of such a high class skill. Later in our lives she ended up going out with a football lineman, so maybe I set that up inadvertently. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I was young, invulnerable and impervious to injury. Something changed over the next 50+ years.
I took a serious fall two days ago. I was coming up the stairs from the basement and as I was closing the door I stepped back onto a rubber toy my dog had left on the floor. Without seeing it, I was certain I was stepping on the dog. It felt just the right size and softness to be one of her paws. I tried to lift pressure off that foot and put it on my other foot but it landed on the toy too and I thought I was on top of her again. By then, I was completely out of control, I had no balance and the top half of me continued backward while the lower half tried to save the dog. (The dog, by the way, was in the master bathroom bugging my wife, nowhere near me.) As I fell backwards, my old impervious brain knew exactly what to do. I threw both arms backward and out to maximize the surface area on my body as I would strike the wall in the hallway. And it would have worked too….if I hadn’t fallen directly into the doorway to the half-bath instead. So, when my hips and spine expected to absorb the blow and nothing came because the half-bath door was open, I stiffened my arms. I struck just the sides of the doorjamb with the backs of both upper arms, concentrating the impact onto a few square inches.
I am not writing this so you will say how sorry you are that I hurt myself in a fall. It’s about something much more personal than that. In that miniscule moment between when my hips should have struck the wall and when the backs of my arms took the entirety of the blow, I realized I was falling through the doorway and I also knew I was completely off balance. I saw me falling all the way back and striking my skull on the toilet or the edge of the sink. I saw blood and a cracking skull. I did see aftermath. I knew my wife needed to hear that I was in trouble so I made some sounds come out of my mouth. It was not an articulate sound. I’m not sure what I “said.” It may have been, “woah, woah, woah.” I don’t know. Later she said it sounded just like a cartoon. Today she told me it more the sound of my feet. I guess it was a Fred Flintstone yabba dabba do moment.
Anyway, the pic shows you the damage. I have one on each arm. I have shown you the worst one, of course. Yes, ouch. But really so much more. The actual damage is more impressive today. It has now gotten a good, deep wine grape purple. It has little runners out into the rest of my upper arm.
Getting old really sucks. On the day of this realization I was 66 years, 5 months and 8 days. Maybe I can draw in a big black line through the calendar of my life. Before that line, I was still a whole man. I was a man with skills and abilities and wisdom and experience. After that line, I am an old man. No, again, you are not supposed to feel sympathy. An artist is supposed to confront his or her times and describe them honestly, even at the cost of personal pain. So, there it is; I’m an old man (and it sucks!)
I have had hints of this coming day for a while. The first time I suspected such a thing, I was 35, playing volleyball. I was always pretty good at it despite not being overly athletic. But in playing a 2 on 2 set, best out of three games one afternoon, my partner and I had taken it to 1-1 and I had to dig down deep for that third game and whatever I was looking for had flown the coop. It just wasn’t there any more. I didn’t play volleyball much after that, at least not competitively. Sometime around 40, I realized it was much harder to run three miles than it had been. At 50, the cold started bothering me and altitude made it very hard to breathe. At 60, my rheumatoid arthritis was in full swing, but I was handling it (I said determinedly) with meds and exercise. And even though arthritis is an old person’s disease, I still didn’t see myself as old, not really. This fall changed that.
It is rare that a person is given the kind of clarity of thought and realization I was awarded in that one second between stepping on the dog toy and crashing into the doorjamb. But I literally saw things in that brief moment. (Not my life passing before me, but more like losing my grip on all of life.) It is humbling. And liberating.
Warren Zevon, the lowliest rock star, was given advance warning of his passing. He used that time exceedingly well. I don’t have his advantage of knowing that I have 1-2 years remaining. Hell, I could have twenty or more. (I hope not.) But I am pledging myself at this point to “enjoy every sandwich.” And to try to tell the truth of my times as I know it. I mean, what’s the alternative? And you can take that to the bank. An old man told you so.
I don’t want anyone to think I have any sympathies toward the new Administration, I don’t. But I get how they got elected. (I’m more than a little concerned that the Party of “Left” is still seeking insight.)
Do you want to peek inside the mind of a guy who voted for the Blowhard in Chief? No, really, do you want a peek in there or just stand here outside and project what you fear is in there? If you want in, you have to promise to remember you are a guest in there and you should act like one. I don’t want to hear any negative judgment or watch your side eye. Listen to his memories and feelings. Feel the sounds of his life and the music on the radio in the truck. Take in the smells of two-lane highways and the ways you have to take care of your kids. Shiver with the lack of cash. There’s never enough cash.
You folks on the coasts kinda came back pretty well from 2008. Not so much out here in the Red parts of the states. In fact, the folks that screwed us all back then ended up in great shape and we didn’t get very much. We’re kind of still trying to see the other side of that hole in the ground. I mean, the guys who did it didn’t lose their houses, or their vehicles or their self-respect. They didn’t lose anything. So, why should it surprise you when I say I want someone to shake it up. It sure as shit ain’t getting any worse for me.
But do you know who gets it? No, I mean he’s been getting it for a long time: James McMurtry. The guy McMurtry writes and sings about is the guy who would vote for Joe Biden but wouldn’t cross the street to shake Chuck Schumer’s hand. A piece of me gets that too. So, here’s the deal, I want you to read this article and to listen to McMurtry’s latest album, Complicated Game. You can stream it for free at the bottom of the page. That’s your homework. We can figure out a way to use that insight down the road. But we better get it figured out before 2018.
Speculation on my FaceBook page is that the Trumpster is thinking of pre Voting Rights Act, Pre Civil Rights Act when he thinks of the America he wants to take us back to. I tend to think it might specifically be the years 1956-1964. Those would have been very formative years for The Donald. Pre-civil rights, pre-womens’ liberation, pre-Vietnam War protests. you know, back when it was a White man’s world.
Consequently, I believe we should try to communicate with him and his Trumpsters via those images and appeals. They aren’t very good at doing the 21st Century. So, here’s my first appeal.
Eddie Cochran co-wrote and performed this song, originally released in August of 1958. I have only changed a little of it so as to not shock his system too drastically. Think of me as a pacemaker. He has been a little erratic lately, so I’m the pacemaker. Bzzt! Straighten up, Donald.
Feel free to play the Eddie Cochran video below and substitute the lyrics below. Kind of karaoke-style. If you play the guitar, make a video and I’ll link to it too.
I give you, Ain’t No Cure for the Trumpertime Blues.
I’m gonna raise a fuss, I’m gonna raise a holler
About a-workin’ all summer just to end up with the Donald.
Every time I call my baby, and ask him for a date
“No dice,” Trumpster said, “you need a lady mate.”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do,
But there ain’t no cure for the Trumpertime blues.
Well my mom and poppa told me, “Son, you gotta make some money,
“Cuz there’s no pensions left, now ain’t that funny?”
Well I didn’t go to work, I was too damned sick
“You’re fired!” Trumpster said, “cuz you didn’t work a lick.”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the Trumpertime blues
I’m gonna take two weeks, gonna learn me some knowledge
‘Bout the kinda damn fools in the ‘Lectoral College.
Well, I called my congressman and he said “Whoa!
“I’d like to help you son but you’re too broke to vote.”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do,
But there ain’t no cure for the Trumpertime blues.
This is the twentieth novel in the Dave Robicheaux series. If you have read and enjoyed the earlier ones, you will enjoy this one too. And if you have not read any of the earlier efforts by Burke in the series, this is not the place to start. Start with Creole Belle. This series and this character have both grown over their career-long development. I do hope there is at least one more Robicheaux novel set in Louisiana.
All of our favorite characters are present and accounted for: Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, Dave’s daughter Alafair Robicheaux, Clete’s daughter Gretchen Horowitz. And bad guys. No one paints better bad guys than Burke. In this case, Asa Surrette is an asshole, a first class asshole. He even stinks of shit, literally. Kidnapper, rapist, murderer, mass murderer, torturer. More. A deeply committed asshole…with skills.
The first third of the novel goes to great lengths to set up tension between Dave and Clete on one side and the official law enforcers of a rural Montana County on the other. That is what Clete is for. Everyone knows Clete just wants to get stuff done and he doesn’t care too much about the bright line of the law. He is a P.I. after all. Dave’s job is to keep Clete just on this side of legal. He often fails.
As usual, Burke’s general themes play out at length. What is the source of evil? What are “good” men to do about the problem of evil? Can we get in the ring with evil and get out without its stink clinging to us? Toward that purpose, we get passages like this: “The evil in our lives comes from men’s greed, and the manifestation of that greed is in the corporations that cause the wars.” (252)
At least we can agree on politics.
But what of mortality? How long should a man live in the face of evil? When have we had enough? Albert is a teacher of creative writing who has lived longer than he thought and longer than his wife. He also had Asa Surrette as a student at some time in the past. How does Robicheaux feel about Albert? “I loved Albert and felt bad for him. I hadn’t meant to hurt him or remind him of the loss of his wife or call up the feelings of loneliness and mortality that beset all of us when we live longer than perhaps we should.” (252) In short, Burke is reaching for an elusive thread that reveals that “good guys” and “bad guys,” if they live long enough, are not very clearly different from each other. Some pessimism, I suppose. But the older I get, the truer it feels to me.
And later, one more distinction to draw: malevolence as it relates to evil. There are lots of cruel people. But even in understanding that, Burke offers this apologia. Robicheaux says, “I have known many cruel people in my life. Their cruelty, in my opinion, was the mask for their fear. It’s as simple as that.” (280) I must concur. I’ve never known a bully who wasn’t a coward; I’ve never known a cruel person who wasn’t fearful of someone being cruel to them first. Can we still love humanity if we know these things?
If all of this existential dourness is true, what is the point of reading a Dave Robicheaux novel? Or reading at all? Or breathing?
“I have never set much store in psychological stability or what we refer to as normalcy. I don’t believe the world is a rational place; nor do I believe that either science or the study of metaphysics can explain any of the great mysteries. I have always fled the presence of those who claim they know the truth about anything. I agree with George Bernard Shaw’s statement that we learn little or nothing from rational people, because rational people adapt themselves to the world and, consequently, are seldom visionary.” (604)
And so, throughout history, the artists have thrown in with the crazy, the deluded, the drunkards, the addicts, the other artists.
Whether we like it or not, we are approaching the end of the life of Burke. He has written a shelf-full of fiction and what does a writer like that generate after a lifetime of examining the human condition? How about this pearl?
From the epilogue, Dave Robicheaux says:
“I have never bought into the notion that time is linear, in the same way I feel that straight lines are a superimposition on the natural world and contravene the impetus that drives it. All matter aspires to roundness and symmetry, in the same way that seasons are cyclical and that God in His way slays Himself with every leaf that flies. In other words, inside eternity, the alpha and omega meet and end at the same place. I guess a simpler way of saying it is that things are often not as they appear.” (627)