When Farmers Plant Cadillacs

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Um… hello (Moni Pic)

I was so happy with what my girlfriend gave me for a post about Monument Valley, that I asked her to write this post about Cadillac Ranch, which we also visited this December. This is what she said;

No!

…sometimes the magic works. Sometimes she says ‘no’.

Anyway, she did send me a couple of her pics to add to the post, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

…but I still do.

We did stop by Cadillac Ranch this December. Arrived just at the golden hour and got a few pics. As this is basically a picture post, anyway, I think we’ll just get right to it.

(Click to embiggen)

Added a couple pics from other parts of Texas as well.

(You know the drill!)

Monument Valley

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16143701_10211829276472421_7117143568644666373_oSo my girlfriend and I were talking the other night and she’s asking me about my blog. I told her I should write something about our visit to Monument Valley this December, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about it. I mean, I could say the usual stuff about it, …Blah, blah, …John Wayne, …blah blah Roadrunner cartoons – all very done-before. But I tell Moni I don’t have anything inspiring to put in with our pictures. So, I tell her she should write the post for me. Moni says she can’t write. I know she’s lying. So, I keep telling her she’s going to have to write the post for me, because I’m mean like that. Finally she says something like “you know what I think of Monument Valley?”

…and I’m like “got her!”

“What do you think of Monument Valley?”

She tells me it’s too stupid; she doesn’t want to say it.

I insist.

We repeat this about 3 times.

Finally, she starts talking. I grab a sheet of paper and start scribbling as fast as I can. These aren’t quite her exact words, but they are pretty close:

mac9gpvwTo me, it was a go deal to go to those places, because that’s what America was to me when I was living in Mexico City. That’s the picture that I saw when I thought about America. It’s been a very long time, but it was still a very big deal for me. It took me back to when I was a kid and I was just thinking about coming to America.

I think Moni needs to write more of my blog posts.

(Click to embiggen)

 

A Cosmogony of Gambling

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What to make of Indian casinos? I expect a lot of non-natives still don’t quite know how to answer that question. Maybe some Native Americans don’t either. But it’s an interesting question just the same, not the least of reasons being that anyone trying to answer it will have to struggle a bit with the larger questions about the politics of Indian-white relations. Some people handle that better than others of course. I’ve known some folks that seem to think of gambling as a kind of racial entitlement. These same folks don’t seem to think of Las Vegas or Atlantic City as a form of racial entitlement, but all foolishness aside, the topic does raise a number of interesting questions about jurisdiction and the economic impact of gaming in such distinctive communities.

miz3ezrd

The impact of Indian gaming on different tribes isn’t uniform. We’ve all heard the stories of wild success of certain tribes whose members became rich overnight. Most of us have heard speculation about the membership of certain tribes. Our incoming President had some words about Indian casinos back in the day. They weren’t any more thoughtful than the crap he’s spewing now. But of course these wild success stories are hardly typical of the many tribal casinos out there. There have been some disasters, or at least some scandals, as well. I recall once listening to Ron His Horse is Thunder, former Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe explain the significance of casinos in his own community. They provided a certain number of jobs, he told us. That was it. No miracle. No disaster. Just a steady livelihood for a certain number of people. That was his experience with Indian gaming. I hope I remember him correctly on this, because I reckon that’s a fairly common account of the issue. But of course all of these stories come with the benefit of hindsight.

It wasn’t too long ago that the entire subject of Indian gaming was uncharted territory, that the mention of reservation casinos raised all sorts of possibilities and few people had any real experience to bring to bear on the issue. It was around that time (the mid 90s) that I arrived in Navajo country. Numerous tribes had casinos at that point. The Navajo Nation was not among them. Some out there wanted casinos. Others didn’t. Folks kept a wary eye on the operations of other tribes, looking for some sign to help assess the prospects for gaming in their own community. In 1997 the Navajo General Council called for a referendum on the prospect of gambling on their lands. It was the second such referendum (a third would follow in 2004). It set the stage for a interesting debate which I followed as best I could.

Today, you can find a few casinos on the borders of the Navajo Nation, but in 1997 the answer was no. In some quarters, it was Hell No. The reasoning still interests me.

gambler10-2-97One of the most fascinating things about the debate over Navajo gambling in 1997 has to do with an aspect of Navajo origin legends. One of the greatest villains in these stories was a character, named Noqoìlpi, The Gambler. You can read more about him by clicking that link I attached to his name, but to put it briefly, this fellow just about wins the world and everyone in it by gambling. Frankly, I think there’s a lesson about the economic effects of modern financialization schemes and the growth of income inequality there in that story (seriously), but I’ll save that for another day. In 1997, the connection drawn by many on the Navajo Nation was a lesson about the evils of opening up casinos on the reservation. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this argument, it certainly added a rich layer of meaning to an already interesting subject.

Of those working references to The Gambler into their arguments on the topic of casinos on the Navajo Nation, my favorite was the late Vincent Craig who ran an extended series of Mutton Man cartoons addressing this and several other issues in the Navajo Times. He really blended his own critique of gambling with a broad range of (extremely ironic) social commentary.

It all begins with a culture pill. .

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have copies of all the cartoons he ran on this topic. I don’t know that he got a cartoon in every edition of the Navajo Times, but I definitely have gaps in my own collection. Anyway, I collected enough to get the gist of his argument down. I’ll let Vincent and some of his colleagues tell the story from here.

Vincent Craig’s work (Click to embiggen):

A bit more on the subject, also from the Navajo Times (again, click to embiggen):

Pluto Stalks Our Travels

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cn5zi2gvuaaawqfThis summer my gal and I paid a brief visit to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff where we saw this little beauty here up above. It’s the telescope first used in the discovery of Pluto. Last month, we took a long road trip from Los Angeles to Freeport, Texas, and it really was Los Angeles.

Don’t let my girlfriend fool you with any business about Glendora or Azusa. Just different ways of pronouncing Los Angeles, as far as I’m concerned.

Harrumph!

Anyway, she and I took a trip, starting in some place Losangelish and ending at some place Freeportish. Along the way, we stopped at Cadillac ranch in Amarillo where we found this message…

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Coincidence?

I think not!

…okay, maybe, but I still think it’s amusing.

When Culture Appropriates You

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15871703_10211699926478752_5551079935863716489_nTo the left is one of my favorite images from a mural painted by Shonto Begay and Mike Scovel at the Fort Sumner Memorial in New Mexico. What’s to be memorialized at Fort Sumner, you might ask? It was the site of an internment camp, one which held the Navajo people for roughly 4 years (about 1864-1868). It also held Mescalero Apaches, but Begay’s and Scovel’s  mural is about the Navajo end of this story. Specifically, it is about “the long walk” to this place, still called Hwéeldi out in Navajo country.

What fascinates me about the image is a trick of context. It’s just one part of a rather breathtaking piece of art, but to me it’s definitely the most interesting. The larger mural wraps around the wall on both sides of a hallway at the memorial. If you follow the hallway, you come to a small movie theater where you an watch a short film about the long walk and the Navajo experience at Hwéeldi. The images are striking. Devastating. They depict a national disgrace, and in surrounding us with the images, this mural invites us to see that disgrace, not from the standpoint of objective observer, but from the standpoint of someone in the midst of it. Walking down that hallway, one is surrounded on both sides by images of people (Navajos) herded along by soldiers and scouts. The mural depicts a great deal of suffering, and it places that suffering all around us. Begay’s and Scovel’s work seems denies us the chance to step outside the event and view it as a disinterested party.

But when you come to this image, the immersion takes on a different significance. Suddenly, it becomes clear why all the solders seem to be facing us. The Navajo figures simply plod along, mostly looking in other directions, but the soldiers, they look right at us as we stand in that hallway.

It’s an interesting effect to begin with, but when you walk down that hallway, at some point that soldier’s rifle is pointed at you. The soldier in that painting doesn’t care who you are, what your ethnicity is. He doesn’t even care what your plans are later in the day. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his rifle seems to follow your movements a bit, at least for a step or two. (I swear it does!) It’s a rather brilliant move on Begay’s part, because it places his viewers in the scene more effectively than anything else. More than placing the viewers in the scene, it confers a specific role on the viewer, as one of those forced along the walk.

It’s just art of course. We will at some point walk on to other parts of the exhibit, and many of us will no doubt shake off the effect of the image a bit quicker than those whose family histories include stories of those lost along the way. Still it’s an interesting contrast with the many times non-natives have chosen ourselves to assume some aspect of a native identity. Whether playing Indian as school-children, wearing a headdress at some music festival, or aping the Tonto-speak of Indian characters in countless westerns, many of us have done it at one time or another. Hell, some people have made a life out of it! Countless non-Indian actors have played Indian on screen, and countless non-Indian characters have become Indians in the story-arc of a common movie theme. And of course there is the Washington football team! What all of these other examples have in common, is a choice to assume some part of native identity, if only for a moment. They also have in common that the identity assumed is positive. When we non-natives play at being Indian, we get something out of it. It may not be much, often little more than a momentary source of amusement, but the choice is ours, and when choose it, we do so to our own advantage.

That’s the genius of this particular image. It forces that same transformation on anyone walking through the memorial. For just a moment, it makes us play Indian, and to do so on terms we didn’t choose for ourselves. On terms no-one would choose for themselves! We will survive that moment of course, perhaps even without really learning much from it. Still, it’s an interesting twist in the narrative.

That moment, when the business end of a rifle points you right into the story.

***

Here are a few more images from the mural (click to embiggen)!

Christmas is What Christmas Ain’t

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Yep, me with hair, decorating a tree.

What makes a Christmas story?

Is it the threat? There always seems to be some threat to Christmas. Someone won’t make it home. Somebody else stole the presents, or maybe someone is going to stop Santa from spreading the presents. Perhaps someone is broke and thinking of taking the short route off a bridge just before the happy holiday. Whether it be a fantasy grinch, a real worldish villain, or simply a natural disaster of some kind, I’d be hard pressed to think of a Christmas story that didn’t feature some threat to Christmas.

Or is it the lesson? Christmas tales always have a lesson. Someone must learn something about the true meaning of Christmas. That true meaning always involves something about giving and/or grasping the value of our loved ones. Not uncommonly, someone in the story learns to shift their attention from material objections (i.e. Christmas gifts) to the other people in their lives (or perhaps the other whos in whoville). It’s a pretty heart-warming lesson.

Makes you want to go ‘awe’!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as likely to go ‘awe’ as anyone if the story is told well, but there is always something a little too pat about these stories. They can be damned formulaic, and damned trite. And when you consider their connection to one of the most overtly commercial rituals of the modern western calendar, it ought to raise all manner of red flags. Somehow, this holiday, which has been driven by commercial interests for the better part of at least a century keeps generating stories about how the stuff we are supposed to buy on account of it isn’t really what the holiday is all about.

Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance’?

I knew that you could.

(Of course I say it myself having just snuck a few presents under a tree.)

So, anyway, hoisting myself on my own petard here, I still can’t help thinking this particular profundity game is a bit more toxic than most of us care to admit. If it weren’t, then perhaps we could all enjoy a story where the main character suddenly realizes the true value of Christmas really is commerce. He could praise the virtues of conspicuous consumption and even acknowledge the often-competitive nature of gift-giving. He could see in the countless gifts nobody wants a kind of sacrifice to the invisible hand, telling us these white elephants are the price of keeping mom&pop stores going for another year. If the Market is well pleased with our pointless gifts, he allows the stores to stay in business, but if we fail to pay this tribute many tears will follow. Our fabulous Christmas protagonist could fairly acknowledge all of this in a toast before drinking his eggnog. Money is the reason for this damned season. Surely, there ought to be room for at least Christmas story with this as its moral.

But no. That kind of theme is always at best a artifact of conflict, a viewpoint to be overcome by the end of the story. However important money may be to this holiday, it seems to be equally important that we find something else more important in the whole thing after all.

And with that, we get our Christmas tragedies. Scrooge loses his edge. The Grinch rejoins civilization. And how many sitcoms end their holiday episode in bad sweaters and milquetoast grins. It’s enough to make a grown man want to groan.

So be it!

Even so, the money story may be a bit more profound than simple materialism would have it. In the end what makes money so central to Christmas isn’t the gifts we hope to get. It isn’t even the ones we hope to give. It’s the lives that continue to function because a good chunk of the yearly profits actually did happen after all. So, business owners get paid, and because they get paid, so do their employees, and so on, and so on. We can sneer at the crass commercialism of it all, but if Christmas doesn’t happen, some people really do suffer (and not because they didn’t get what they wanted under the tree.) Money may be a lot more central to this ritual than our typical Christmas story would have it, but then again money is itself a lot more profound than most of us would care to admit. So, perhaps it’s not so bad to see through that crass commercialism of Christmas to something a bit more humane. It’s almost as if all this smarminess is an attempt to work out the actual significance of what we all do to put food on the table.

Of course that just lands us in a new mess. The celebration of love and togetherness that we are left with in just about every Christmas story is of course idealized in the extreme. So, the love celebrated in all these Christmas stories always comes across a bit too pure, at least in the final joyous scenes. But how often does this have anything to do with Christmas as we live it? If for no other reason than the threat of politics at the dinner table, we should all be a little wary of the promise these stories hold out. And if the celebration of togetherness and caring ever jumps out of these stories and into our real lives it often brings a bit of a mess with it.

If Hell is other people – and it is – then Christmas (with its themes of love and togetherness) can’t help but bring a little horror into our lives. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Christmas is so rich. It’s full of contradictions, and those give rise to countless real-life Christmas stories every year. Sometimes they end well and sometimes they end badly. Mostly, our Christmas lives are as mixed as our Christmas narratives aren’t.

Ah well, horror too has its place in the grand scheme of things.

How else to explain fruit cake!

***

I recall as a child, my mother always planned week’s worth of work. She would bake every cookie imaginable. She would buy enormous quantities of gifts which she would wrap in all manner of beautiful ways. We would decorate the whole house in the most elaborate manner. We would sing carols, this year at least. And so on.

…She usually ended up scrambling to do as much as she could in the last day or three. It was never enough, especially not for her, and that meant Christmas Eve was an especially difficult evening. She was angry and depressed, and for me that meant at least a little phase where I would have wished the whole thing away. That moment always vanished by morning, but it was there.

Mom had one brother. He died on Christmas Eve while building the Burma Road during World War II. He had joined the military after getting kicked out of the house over drinking a single beer, so his death left a special kind of rift in her life, and presumably that of her parents. I can’t imagine how hard that holiday must have been to her. As a kid I really couldn’t.

For my mother at least, Christmas would always be a source of ambivalence.

***

I once got to play Scrooge in my Jr. High Christmas Production. I rather liked that Christmas. Seriously though, the opening scenes were way more fun than the closing ones.

***

In recent years, talk of a war on Christmas has me both amused and irritated. If there is anyone out there who genuinely objects to being told ‘Merry Christmas’, he or she is fairly outnumbered by those clearly upset by the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’.

Much like a horse, I reckon one shouldn’t look a well-wisher in the mouth. Those who keep congratulating themselves on saying ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’ do little but show the insincerity of either wish coming from their own mouths.

When thinking about this one, I am often reminded of the year I spent teaching at an orthodox Jewish private school. The folks at that school said ‘Happy Holidays’, and yes, that was a generous choice of wording on their part.

You never really know when you are the one to be tolerated.

***

I still remember the year my older sister made up a decoration that said “Pax et bonum” (Peace and Salvation)  This was to go at the top of our tree instead of our star. We had a really great star that projected all these cool colors all around the room. I really loved that star.

I was a bit of a shit about the whole thing.

More than a bit actually.

***

One of my favorite Christmases ever was the one we celebrated on Easter Sunday. My nephew was serving in Iraq that year, and no-one in the family was the least bit interested in celebrating the holidays until he came home. So, we literally gathered around a Christmas tree and unwrapped presents on Easter Sunday.

***

I’m even a bit more fond of the Christmas we all agreed to forgo presents entirely and went as a group to Molokai instead. I wish every Christmas could be like that. Oh there was plenty of drama that Christmas, but it was drama that played out in Molokai.

Molokai makes everything better.

***

When I worked at an animal shelter, I recall that we tried to discourage people from getting pets as Christmas presents, at least not without giving the recipient a chance to choose the pet. Too often, pets given sight-unseen on Christmas day ended up back at the shelter not long afterward.

No-one is surprised when a blind date goes badly. Think about that next time you hand someone a puppy and expect them to bond for life.

***

Speaking of my time at an animal shelter, I once had to dress up as Santa Clause at a Petsmart. The idea here was to pose with people’s pets for pictures. This is a pretty regular thing as I recall, but I always thought it a very bad idea. These animals are already in a strange environment. Now you want them to sit on the lap of a guy with a fake beard and fake hair, gloves, and a wild outfit?

Damned lucky I didn’t come away with scars!

***

Speaking of the war on Christmas, people sometimes wonder what atheists say instead of Merry Christmas? This one mostly says ‘Merry Christmas’. Some folks think it odd to say ‘Merry Christmas’ when you don’t literally believe in Christ. They oughtta love Thursdays.

***

My girlfriend tells me there is a benefit to dating a gringo. Her (Mexican) family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. We typically celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day. This makes it possible to be with both her family and that of her boyfriend when the actual celebrations take place. This doesn’t work so well when her family is in Los Angeles and mine is in Freeport, Texas.

She is an extraordinarily patient woman.

Her boyfriend can be a bit of a shit though.

More than a bit, actually.

***

Ah well. That’s enough random Christmas stories. Someone recently asked me about my favorite Christmas songs, so I’ve attached a few videos. All that said…

Merry Christmas everyone!

The Difference Between Being Drunk and Being a Drunk

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15168788_10211285138429310_1895936641296381200_oI just walked into my hotel. Its almost 3:00am here in Anchorage. I immediately walked into the gift shop and grabbed two sodas, a bag of Cheetos and package of skittles. Perhaps it was my clumsy movements. Perhaps it was the hour. My tunnel-vision stare, perhaps? Either way, I’m sober enough to know the night clerk had me pegged for drunk. He had that particular air of one who is humoring the completely addled for just so long as it takes to get them on their way. Fair enough, I thought. Yes, indeed, I did just close down a bar, and I’m at least 2 sheets (if not 3) to the wind. Perhaps I deserve the condescension.

Fair enough.

I recall once, when I briefly worked at a cabin resort, a particular school teacher used to come and stay with us. She would down a fair bit of wine and then fail to use out one pay-phone correctly. We were in the middle of Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, and Cell Phones simply didn’t work there, so that pay-phone was her only option. Having been told that the pay-phone wasn’t working, I would ask her what message she received on trying to dial out. If she could remember it accurately, I could tell what the problem was; whether it was her card,  a wrong number, or something else entirely. I knew the messages, and I knew what they meant. What I didn’t know what how to get her to take the message seriously in her state. She would just tell me the card didn’t work. When I asked what the specific wording of the message had been, she would look at me, weaving a little, and say; “It says it didn’t work.” In the end I let her use the house phone, because I just couldn’t unscramble the problem she had without her at least telling me what the message had been. I could clearly see that she thought me an illiterate ass for asking her questions she thought she had already answered. I, for my own part, wondered if should would even understand me when she was sober.

Mutual contempt is a mutal solace, I suppose.

Anyway, I reckon I thought about her much as the man at the hotel desk must have thought about me.

But I’m not just a drunkard! I’m so much more!

So, must many people have thought to themselves as they were treated as just another drunk by someone somewhere. It’s easy to consider yourself worth more than your own slurred speech and your blurred vision, but it’s a bit more difficult to think of a complete stranger who is clearly exhibiting such conditions as anything more than the sum total of his drunken idiocies.

It’s an odd thing. Those of us that do drink are bound to drink to excess at some point in our lives. And drinking in excess, none of us are particularly dignified. Yet some get pass, and others don’t. What makes the difference?

I can think of nights playing beer frizbee in grad school, vomitting in the sink of the basement beneath my friends apartment complex. Or was that another friend that did that? I don’t remember really. It’s been 20+ years and quite a few amber ale’s since that night. Still everyone was a friend there that morning. We were drunk, yes, but we were human. We saw each other home and we called to make sure everyone was okay the next day. We would never have mistaken each other for mere drunks.

My Dad drank a glass or three of Christian Brothers’ Brandy every night since pretty much the age at which I was old enough to notice (Okay, sometimes it was E&J). I never thought of him as a drunk, net even the night that he drove home at the wee hours of the morning and sat in the car inexplicably as I waited for him to come in. I finally went out to find him crying. He’d blown a bit more on the slot machines than either he or Mom normally allowed themselves to do that evening, and it bothered him a great deal. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he said. I could hardly believe my ears. It was a couple hundred dollars he’d lost that night, hardly enough to blow the mortgage, but Dad was genuinely disturbed by the night’s events. That he’d driven home was another cause for concern, but I never could tell just how far under the influence he had been that night. Perhaps I didn’t want to. I can still count on one hand the number of times I thought my father was actually drunk, and I never thought of him as a drunk, but that night he called it himself. Perhaps, the nightly brandy mattered more than any of us thought it did.

…at least until the next day when the conversation that night was simply forgotten.

Whatever the damage done to our bank accounts, father had worked out a solution. Whatever had frightened him about his own drinking, he had worked out a solution to that too. He was prepared to face the day squarely, and I saw none of the doubt from the night before. I think I talked to him about it, but I don’t remember the details of the conversation. I suspect I was all too happy to find my way past the memory of that night. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him drunk again.

Though I certainly did see the brandy. Just a glass or two every night.

If I cut my father an ounce of slack, I certainly didn’t cut that same slack for my neighbor. She too had a glass of something on the rocks every night after work. I recall her telling me about how her ex-husband stank of alcohol even when he was sober. She added this to the list of complaints about his abusiveness and general worthlessness. She told me all of this as she drank her own nightly glass of hard liquor, and you bet your ass I noticed. I thought of her as a worthless drunk, someone who buried herself in a glass every night.

Harsh, I know.

A double standard, I also  know.

I knew my father. I knew his goals and his values as well as his frustrations, and I knew his weaknesses as anyone who has ever loved another knew them of those they loved. Falling down drunk, he would always be the man I most admired in life. Of my neighbor, I knew mostly frustrations. I knew her to be a pain in the ass at best and a complete fuck-up at worst. I of course knew this mostly from the talk of my parents, and from my own encounters with her. It was easy to think of her as a mere drunk

I also knew that she had a Masters Degree in Archaeology, that she had raised two daughters despite an ugly divorce and who knows what else the woman had dealt with in her life. I think about that now and realize I should probably have found my way to giving her a little more credit than I did at the time. That she was capable of serious study was a mystery to me, and I never saw any of her struggles with a trace of empathy. She would always be a drunk to my eyes, even if she were sober, and my father never would be, not even when he was in fact quite drunk.

So what makes the difference between a drunk and a person?

I reckon that’s a good deal of the distinction itself, knowing the person in the first place, or at least having enough in common to imagine the person in the first place. Without that, it’s all too easy to think of someone who is actually drunk as someone whose drunkenness is a fairly complete personal account.

My neighbor in Fort Defiance always struck me as a drunk. I could recount the many irritations he inflicted upon me during my time on the Navajo Nation, not the least of them being his threats one afternoon to burn down the house with me in it. I learned of these the next day when his brother forced him to apologize to me. All I had noticed was that he was shouting something at me from outside. I had already written him off that day. Didn’t even realize the drama that was unfolding out there.

That same neighbor once told me that he was going to hitchhike to Flagstaff and get a job. This was well into the morning. He had awoken me on a work night, quite drunk and very depressed, and somewhere in the midst of telling me all his woes, this neighbor announced his great plan for turning his life around. I can’t remember what I said, but apparently I did express some doubt. He was quite offended. Asked what I meant by that,I felt fairly flat-footed for a moment. I fished around in my brain and finally came up with one thing which while very true was not nearly as judgemental as the thought that probably led to the comment in the first place. I knew that strategy wouldn’t have worked for me. I wouldn’t be able to just hitchhike into a town, totally broke, and land a job just like that. So, I said so. My neighbor was happy with that response. He took it as a sign of respect, and in a sense it was, albeit one which was quite consistent with the disrespect that had triggered my skeptical comment to begin with.

I did notice that he never actually hitch-hiked into Flagstaff and got a job.

Neither did I.

Not like that anyway.

I always thought of that neighbor as a drunk. I knew him to be a person, even cared about him, I suppose, but I never quite shook the sense that his life had been claimed by liquor. That neighbor used to sober up from time to time, and then he’d REALLY be a pain the ass. Mostly, he’d need a ride to work, because when he was sober he would inevitably get a job. When his brother (who lived next door) stopped giving him rides, the man would turn to me. I remember one summer, I would return from an effectively 16 hour day, starving, with a couple chapters yet to read so I could teach the next day and sure enough he wanted a ride to work. Oh how I wished his brother would give him a ride.

…or that he would go back to being a drunk.

Now there is a damning thought!

But I had it just the same.

And sadly, that wish did come true.

Damn me anyhow for wishing it!

Years later, I lived in Flagstaff. I used to go to a bar named Charlie’s once every week or two, mostly to watch a bluegrass band named Second Harvest. Loved their music! A friend of a friend once sneered at the place, describing it as a gay bar. I always figured it was a place where gay people would be welcomed, but not so much a dedicated gay bar. Just the same, it was my drinking establishment of choice.

I recall one night watching as a brand-new security guy glowered at two men dancing together. It was a spectacular display. Not them. HIM. The look on his face was one of utter contempt. I could just imagine him thinking of reasons to eject them, reasons he never quite acted upon. He did, however, find cause to eject one elderly Navajo man, an individual who though quite drunk had been sitting harmlessly in a corner. As the ‘drunk’ was escorted out and onto the street, I couldn’t help but wonder at the numerous college students boisterously enjoying their own states of inebriation throughout the bar. Some of them were even native, but they were dressed as college kids. They fit, so to speak. Many of those still in the bar were well past the drunkenness of the man put outside, but they were young and they were middle class.

They weren’t drunks. They were just drunk.

He was a drunk, at least as far as security was concerned that night.

They would probably think of him the same way if he had been sober.

Years earlier, I had already encountered that same privilege one weekend when I was doing research in Farmington, New Mexico. I came out of an Arby’s one afternoon to find an empty six-pack of beer in the back of my ‘tribee’ (tribal vehicle). It was a good thing I noticed before someone else did, but I couldn’t help wondering at the thought process of whoever put it there. Did he think he was going to get a Navajo in trouble? Would he have done it had he realized it was a white guy driving the truck? Or maybe it was someone who noticed the white driver, and thought to generate some trouble for the guy clearly out of place. I believe this was the same weekend a waitress invited me to a bar. She made a point to tell me it was where “our kind of people” hung out. I still wonder if she would have invited me had she knew where I lived, where I worked, or what kind of vehicle I was driving?

On a side note, I once walked into a random bar in Farmington. It was a short walk from my hotel, so I thought I’d skip over and drink a beer or three before going back for the evening. No sooner than I entered when I realized I was the only white guy in there, and several people where staring at me in not so friendly ways. Had I been with someone it would have been different. I would still have been a white guy, yes, but I would have been their white guy. I’d done that once or twice before. It works. In this instance I was alone and feeling very much like an intruder at that particular moment. What was I to do? Try to tell people I’m one of the good guys? Hell, I wouldn’t have listened to me. Why should they?  I also figured if I turned around and headed out immediately that would set off all kinds of red flags. If I stayed too long I figured someone would cause trouble. Maybe I could talk my way out of it; maybe I couldn’t. So, I sat down and ordered one beer.I drank it and left. As I headed out, I could swear I saw the bartender nodding, as if to tell me I played that one right.

Okay, that last story is probably all manner of confirmation bias, but anyway, that’s how I felt at the time. And I’m still feeling a little buzzed, so I’m leaving it on the page, against my better judgement of course.

My better judgement begins on the other end of a long sleep.

I lived briefly on the south-side of Chicago. By briefly, I mean 3 years, minus the summers. In any event, it was long enough to begin to recognize some of the homeless people in the area. Maybe it was my long hair but one fellow always insisted on trying to sell me incense. I bought a pack. (Think I gave it to a friend of mine.) It should come as no surprise of course  that many of these people appeared quite often to be under the influence of something or other. It would be easy to think of them as mere drunks.

One moment stands out particularly in my mind. Some young men in their twenties were talking to one of the homeless individuals. This one was often very drunk. In fact, he was often incapable even of asking for change. When he was that far into his liquor, the man would simply hold out his hand and groan, or mumble something he might have thought of as speech but which no-one but him could really parse. Anyway, the young men, were chatting and laughing. It was almost friendly, but not quite.

One of the young men asked quite loudly; “Do you remember me?”

Swaying a bit, the man slurred out a ‘yes’.

“Who am I.”

His answer? “YOU!”

Now THAT was a mike drop if I ever saw one.

So, what do all these stories add up to? Hell, they probably add up to porridge as far as I can tell. I’ve been drinking. Remember! But if I may take a moment to try and sense the make of the matter, I would guess they start with one obvious fact that drinking begets all manner of foolishness. All manner of terrible things happen once people start tipping those damned bottles. I’m fortunate enough to be one of those people who can stop after 2 or 3 beers and simply call it a night (many can’t), else I might have a lot more interesting stories.

…or perhaps others would have the stories about me.

More to the point, I’m often struck by the perception of drunkenness. Where drunken behavior is concerned, we can tolerate an awful lot from our own kind, however we choose to identify them. Strangers get far less patience. Cross a few social boundaries and the benefit of the doubt wears thin very quickly. Often as not, race and class can provide all the boundary one needs to think of someone not just as a drunk person but as nothing but a drunk, someone whose total value as a human being can be summed up in their smell, their slurred speech, and in whatever other foolishness they have brought with them.

Sometimes, you don’t even need that kind of boundary.

A few hours ago, I sat next to a man about my age, my ethnicity, and near as I can tell about the same economic status as my own. He was eating soup and struggling to get his head under control while the house band at Humpy’s played its last tune of the night. He was chatting quite a bit, though I couldn’t make any sense of it. Nobody else was in ear-shot. I still don’t know is he meant to be talking to me, or if he was talking to an old love, an imaginary adversary, or perhaps even his own guardian angel. Either way I thought of the man as a drunk. He was a bit further into his cups than me, to be sure, but I don’t figure that quite explains the distinction. To me, meeting the man under such circumstances, he was simply a drunk, no more and no less. I on the other hand was just drunk, and there was a difference.

At least until I hit the hotel desk.

 

The Ocean Wants to Be More Firm

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15055704_10211157809206159_5684896551570056852_nThe sunrise brought a couple sun-dogs with it this morning. By this morning, I actually mean almost noon, but the point is I went out with a camera to see if I could get some nice doggie pics. I wouldn’t say the picture does it justice, but anyway, here is what I got.

Cute little puppies, aren’t they?

Afterwards, I remembered that the ocean has been flirting with solid form lately, so after playing with the sun dogs I turned around and headed the other way for a block or two. Kinda slushy right now, but definitely not my flavor. I expect it will get properly solid soon. In the interim, my hand has suffered enough for my amateur camera games. I think I’ll stay inside and write a bit now.

Might as well add a few more pics from the last month or two. As always, you may click to embiggen.

A Milagro Bagpipe War?

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mv5bmjizmje3mdcwm15bml5banbnxkftztcwmjk0mjg4ng-_v1_sy1000_cr007071000_al_John Nichols, the author of Milagro Beanfield War once gave the keynote speech at a conference I attended in Colorado. If I recall correctly the name of his presentation was; “Everything I know about the West I Learned in New York.”

…something like that.

Anyway, the point of the speech was that the sort of problems he wrote about in work like Milagro Beanfield War simply weren’t really unique to the western states. They were much the  same as they were anywhere else. Big money can be a terrible danger to small communities. That is as true of an inner city neighborhood facing gentrification as it is a small town in northern New Mexico facing a major development project.

I thought about this last night as I watched You’ve Been Trumped (2011), the story of Donald Trump’s efforts to develop a golf course in the community of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Conflict between Trump and his team, on the one hand, and a small group of locals who want to hold onto their own homes and their own community provide the central theme of the film. At least one Youtube channel describes this film as a David and Goliath story, which seems fair enough to me. Perhaps, that’s Milagro Beanfield War was too, a David and Goliath Story. The same could be said of Local Hero (a film referenced in You’ve Been Trumped). We could certainly find other such stories if we looked, but whats most striking about this one is that it’s real. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking it was as if someone had taken Nichols book and reworked into a movie script based in Scotland. That someone would have to be Donald Trump himself. It’s almost as if he took that former story of a heartless developer stomping all over a local community and said; “Yep! That villain is what I want to be.” The rest of the plot seems to flow smoothly from there.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not the most balanced documentary I’ve ever seen. If there are arguments in favor of Trump’s development, this film makes little effort to present them. The story-line focuses squarely on the conflicts with those living near Trump’s development project.I do wonder just how representative those individuals may be, and just what the overall balance of support and opposition to Trump may have been in the local community. The movie leaves a definite impression  regarding such matters, but it doesn’t answer them squarely. That said, what this film does show is damning enough in its own terms. Within the narrow scope of Trump’s relationship to those resisting his project, the film reveals enough to condemn the man. Whatever might be said in favor of Trump’s development, the actions covered in this film are truly abysmal in their own right.

It’s fascinating to see how much of the ugliness we’ve seen from this man during his presidential campaign appears in this film from 2011. His abusiveness is on full display as Trump repeatedly describes one hold out (Michael Forbes) as a filthy man living a disgusting life amidst his own trash. His penchant for simply telling the most convenient story regardless of the facts at hand can easily be seen as Trump brags about his wonderful contributions to the environment by stabilizing local dunes even as the film repeatedly shows construction tearing up the land, diverting waterways, and disrupting the natural cycles of the local ecosystem. It’s also present in Trump’s claims to be serving the people of Scotland even as he wages a heavy-handed campaign of harassment against those Scots interfering with his plans for a business clearly aimed at tourists. And of course his easy dismissal of journalism can be seen in his demands for questions from ‘real journalists’ at a press conference, effectively dismissing those who might not support his business. We here in America have seen all this time and again over the last year. The people of Aberdeen had already seen plenty of it by 2011.

Of course others have seen similar treatment in countless places where Donald Trump has done business. This is just one of many instances in which one of Donald Trump’s grand schemes for development fell like a boot-stomp of a local community.

…which brings me to another interesting feature of this film. It helps to illustrate some of the foibles of popular right wing theories about the power-relations between government and big business. As with other populist candidates, much of Donald Trump’s appeal seems to be rooted popular resentment about elites. How such resentment could lead to support for a man who so clearly asserts aristocratic privilege over the mere peasantry is something of a mystery to me. Still, he does draw a great deal of his appeal from messages systematically distorting  the modern political economy all across the media. At least a portion of this can be seen in the movie.

Let us start with libertarianism! This school of thought generally counsels us to avoid government entanglement with business, and with people’s personal lives. In principle this applies to any number of things, but in practice, the message is more likely to carry the day when the issues at stake are progressive taxation, welfare programs, or any number of government regulations tying the hands of big business. It’s a school of thought that consistently tells us we should not look to government to resolve questions of economic inequality. Central to the force of this message is a vision of equity in which government officials treat all people with equal regard and government programs afford equal rights to all of us. You’ve Been Trumped presents us with countless situations in which the Trump organization uses  official power to defeat the mere peasants who stand in his plans. Those people suffer loss of electricity, water, and destruction of their property, to say nothing of a deliberate effort to block their view of the sea for the sake of doing just that. At each stage in this process officials are slow to listen to complains or respond to requests for assistance and quick to enforce rights claimed by Trump. It might be that particular disputes can be sorted out in the courts, but Trump’s organization clearly has the upper hand at stage in this process. The notion that this system is consistent with any formal sense of fairness is at best a laughable proposition.

Libertarians might object that they too wouldn’t support Trump’s use of municipal authorities to abuse local enemies, assuming of course that the abuses shown in this film stand up to critical scrutiny, but that hardly addresses the problem. What this film shows is the leverage that monied interests do get over every level of government authority in existence. It isn’t enough to moralize the issue, to stand on the sidelines and shout; “Hey stop, don’t do that.” The point is that this is exactly what happens when we allow substantial disparities in the distribution of economic resources. Those with more at their disposal WILL use those resources to skew government authority (something Donald Trump appears to have done throughout his long career as a public menace). Despite this fact, libertarian narratives continue to focus on the problems of aid to the poor. They offer no solution whatsoever to the sorts of problems shown in this film, but libertarians continually present themselves as underdogs hard at work fighting against ‘statist’ power. In practice that fight is virtually always a fight to take away what little help and what little protections those in need may have.When an actual aristocrat takes it upon himself to destroy the life of a man he deems to filthy to accord even the most minimal respect, libertarians are simply silent on the matter.

Anti-globalists provide one of the more consistent sources of support for Donald Trump in this election campaign. Alex Jones of Info Wars would have to be counted among his most visible supporters.  He and his own fans often speak of Trump’s detractors as globalists, thus framing the whole election in terms of support for, or opposition globalism. Trump’s support for Brexit, combined with promise to build a wall on the southern U.S. border would seem to have earned him a great deal of points with this crowd. But of course this only counts if you have a really myopic view of globalism. It is one thing to stop people at your borders, which is what Trump is happy to offer the anti-globalist crowd, but of course money and power can easily flow right over those same borders. Yes, Trump has also declared his opposition to a number of international trade deals, but this is a man who has also taken advantage of opportunities on the other side of the border throughout his career. Simply put, big money doesn’t need a special trade deal to take advantage of foreign workers and foreign markets, and this movie illustrates that very clearly. It is Donald Trump’s wealth that enables him to go to a foreign country and simply have his way with a small local community. Nothing in Trump’s political agenda suggest that he intends to stop such things, and a good deal suggests that he intends to continue them.

Trump is happy to control borders, precisely because restricting the movement of workers is critical to optimizing profits under global market conditions. A world in which cheep labor can be found to the left and rich buyers are over to the right is not a bad deal for people like Donald Trump. In this respect, he is the perfect candidate for the anti-globalists. He will make a show of national boundaries, one they can be proud of, but he will never actually challenge the power relations at stake in the global economy. Neither Donald Trump nor Alex Jones really want to see anything truly revolutionary happen there. That might disrupt Jones’ sale of dietary supplements or keep Donald from demolishing coastal communities for his jet-set customers.

In the end, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that Donald Trump could run as a populist candidate. He isn’t the first pampered elitist to pose as the hope of the common man. Still, he does seem to be one of the most clueless, and it does scare me that he could easily become our President. I’m not a fan of Hillary either, to be honest, but I worry that the whole nation may soon hand the keys to a problem child with a history of wrecking most everything he touches. More than that, his candidacy helps to illustrate precisely why the underdog themes of those on the right always ring so hollow for me. Time and again, they consistently seem David for Goliath, or perhaps the David of later years, the one who steals another man’s wife at the height of his own wealth and power for the David of David and Goliath, the one who actually does face down a more powerful opponent. Time and again, the right wing plays the underdog to government power, all the while ignoring real questions about who is really putting one over on whom. It’s a bad habit that some have fallen into. It’s a habit that may soon cost us all.

Just ask the people of Aberdeenshire.

 

On Chick Tracts

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I still remember the first time I encountered a Chick tract, but I can’t remember if it was the 4th or the 5th grade. I think I might have been hanging around after school for some reason. I do remember quite clearly that it was one of several that had been left scattered about the boy’s bathroom at my school.

This particular pamphlet contained a pretty generic story of a sinner who died and went to Hell. The pamphlet ended, as always, with a message of hope; we didn’t have to end as the character in the story did. Through Jesus we could be saved. In my charitable moments, I like to think that message of hope is the real point of these pamphlets, but frankly I think that might be giving a little too much benefit of the doubt. On that day it was clearly the message of fear that left its biggest impression on me. I remember the feeling of horror coursing up and down my spine as I read about the suffering of sinners damned to a lake of fire. The mere thought that this could be the world I was born into was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck and keep it there. The suffering itself and the cruelty of the being who would inflict it stuck with me for days, as did the cruelty of anyone who could say of such a thing that the source of it was good and worthy of praise.

It’s more than a little fitting that my first encounter with a Chick Tract was in a bathroom, because my whole world got a little creepier that day and I don’t think it’s recovered since.

I grew up in a household filled with the ideas of Spiritualism and Theosophy, essentially the forerunners of modern day New Age thinking. I’d heard of people who believed in Satan. I’d heard of people who believed in Hell. In retrospect, I must certainly have known many who believed in the things talked about in that pamphlet, but I hadn’t ever really talked to any of them about it. What I heard of God and Jesus was all love and kindness, and so those who literally believed in Hell were (much like Hell itself) a remote possibility to me. To my family, such people were largely a whipping boy, an image of someone who gets it wrong conjured up mostly for the purpose of telling a story about how more enlightened souls get it right.

The Chick tract was the first time such people became real to me. They became real to me in the most caricatured form imaginable. On that day, the worst things said of organized religion by the adults around me had not come close to the pure malice of the story I held in my hands. Someone had left this with the intent that children would find it and read about it. Whoever that person was believed quite firmly in Hell, and they believed in it strongly enough to want to share that message with others.

…with children.

It didn’t escape me that the chosen mode of delivery was less than honest. Leaving pamphlets in a children’s bathroom is more than a little underhanded, and this fact was the icky icing on a whole cake of ugly. So, there I sat with this pamphlet, trying to wrap my mind around the twin horrors of this vengeful God and the fact that some people actually do believe in Him, and whats more that they love him. Suffice to say those horrors outweighed the significance of any hope the pamphlet might have had to offer. The vision of Jesus might have been the end of the story, but it’s most memorable moment for me (and I suspect others) had clearly been the lake of fire.

Could the world really be so perverse? Could people really be so morbid as to think this way? Those are the questions I kept asking myself after encountering that first Chick Tract. It’s all I could think of for some time afterwards. Eventually, I managed to put the whole thing behind me, but not entirely. It was a bit like some of the dirty stories my friends were beginning to tell at that age, or images of odd porn that somehow crossed my path. I hoped one day to make sense of all these things, but for the time being I found them simply disturbing and I preferred not to think about them much. To me, that pamphlet had always been a kind of pornography.

It still is.

I understand the author of that pamphlet, Jack Chick, has recently passed away, and it reminded me of that day back in school. I don’t wish to celebrate his death, but I’m also quite aware that his passing will stimulate a surge in public interest regarding the man and his work. I take no pleasure in his passing, but I do think his life’s work is worthy of a comment or two, critical as mine most certainly will be.

The next time I had cause to consider Jack Chick’s particular brand of pornography came in the mid 80s when I and my friends took to playing Dungeons and Dragons. “Dark Dungeons” would be Jack Chick’s main contribution to the Satanic panic of the era. I don’t recall when I first became aware of it, but the story-line always struck me as both laughable and deceitful. I didn’t really become fully aware of Jack Chick himself (or of his operation) until I joined a few discussion boards back in the early 2000s. It was odd to me, a bit like learning the name of a creepy caller. This was the man who had written that story from back in my childhood. He was the author of those morbid images, and he was the source of that sick feeling I had upon seeing them.

Good to know.

…but also a little disconcerting.

I recall only one other Chick tract with any degree of significance to me. It was about Navajo Medicine Men. Chick portrayed them as Skinwalkers, thus conflating healers with monsters, and of course ending the whole matter with a familiar pitch to Jesus. It was no more insightful than the hack job Chick did on D&D.

I’ve encountered a few more of Chick’s pieces over the years, but not many have really stuck in my memory. The formula is simple. Some worldly interest will lead a person down a very dark path toward Satan, death, and Hell itself, but Christians will offer them salvation. In the end, the reader is invited to accept Jesus and be saved. I understand others have been doing the work for sometime now, but the essential formula remains largely unchanged. I always wonder at the choices Chick and his successors make in these stories. Do they really believe the details of their claims? It’s one thing, for example, to believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a bad influence on kids, and quite another to believe that it is literally run by a cult as a means of initiating children into arcane magical rites. This is what fascinates me most about such work today. It isn’t testimony to faith, but rather the myopic interest in sordid stories about actual people real world world institutions. What kind of mind spreads stories like this? And how did they decide to produce them? With or without evidence, I can’t help thinking the bottom line is the same. Someone is getting off on these narratives. Whatever their interest in selling the hope of Jesus, someone is reveling in the vision of sinfulness a little too much.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no particular reason to condemn anyone for pursuing their prurient interests, at least if you can do it without harming anyone. What bothers me in this instance is the bad faith and the lack of self-awareness, the sense that someone could play so happily in the very imagery they seek to condemn in others. Perhaps more to the point, what bothers me about Chick Tracts is the sense that this is a pleasure taken in sordidness of others’ lives, a kind of hope that other people might really be worse than you could possibly know, and of course a hope that they will suffer in the end. This sort of thing is not unique to Chick publications, unfortunately, and one can often find preachers indulging in a kind of proxy porn. I suppose that was Chick’s particular genius. He found a particularly vivid way to present that kind of material. Whether that is to his shame or his credit is of course another question. For me the answer is clear enough.

I wish I could find something better to say about Jack Chick than this. It is of course tempting to follow an age old wisdom and say nothing at all, but Chick’s passing reminds me of that moment all those many years ago in which I first found one of his publications. Don’t get me wrong. Worse things have happened to me than the discovery of that creepy pamphlet. Even still, I can’t help thinking it wasn’t a particularly positive experience. For me, that will always be Jack Chick’s legacy.

It isn’t a good one.