29 June 2008

Fest 2008

Another year, another Fest, my voice is shot and my muscles are aching all over. What a weekend. What a life. Yes, I could have done more, talked to more people, seen more bands, helped out more, but hey, I think all things considered, I did my Fest best. There were times – moments, anyway – when exhaustion threatened to overcome exhilaration, and times when I caught myself wishing for the smaller, simpler Fests of yesteryear – 2006 and 2007 seem like ancient history now – but by the time Saturday night spilled over into Sunday morning and several hundred of us had been decanted into the steamy midsummer Baltimore night, where we milled about and began our series of dazed, happy and wistfully exuberant goodbyes, there was no doubt about it: the Fest had worked its inexorable magic again.

Some had carped – and I had quietly thought, though keeping those thoughts to myself – that this year’s lineup of bands was not quite as strong as last year’s, but the absence of an undisputed superstar like Ben Weasel – who for reasons known only to himself declined to play this year’s Fest – seemed to have caused people to overlook just how many insanely great bands were playing. And also to overlook the fact that while the Fest is about the music, it’s also not so much about the music as it is about the fellowship and camaraderie of people from all over this country and half a dozen others whose cooperation and inspiration has created - out of very thin air indeed – an event that has grown into the high holy days of the punk rock universe.

All those sessions at the gym had paid off, I found myself thinking more than once, especially in the waning hours of Saturday’s 14-hour marathon. If I hadn’t been in shape, there’s no way I would have still been dancing like a dervish and singing like a possessed banshee hours – some would say years, or decades - after any sensible person would have taken to his recliner and/or bed. By the time I’d watched a succession of exhausted and sweaty musicians pile off stage and into the cool of the dressing rooms, I caught myself mentally asking them, “What are you looking so tired for? You only had to play one set.”

People kept asking me which bands I was most looking forward to and I kept answering evasively because my experience from Fests past is that the most amazing experiences are often the ones that no one was expecting. But there was no denying – especially since I’d written it in the Fest zine compiled by Jenna and Adam Alive – that I had a very intense personal investment – an emotional rather than a financial one, I hasten to add – in at least two bands whose very appearance on the Fest stage was the realization of a long-cherished dream.

The first was the Zatopeks, who I’ve known since their first days back in London and who I’ve been singing the praises of ever since. While I’ve long thought they’re one of the best bands around these days, they haven’t – yet, anyway – achieved the kind of commercial success that would make transatlantic gigs a viable proposition financially. Yet there were, 3000 miles from, getting a rapturous reception from a crowd that already knew their songs well enough to lustily sing along. I can only imagine what that must have felt like from their point of view, but based on my own experience as a touring musician – when meeting someone two cities away from our own who’d actually heard of us was usually cause for great joy – I think I’ve got some idea.

Then there was Sweet Baby. My band played with them once or twice back in 1986 when they were first starting out; the last time I saw them – or that they played a show at all – was in 1989. “We never considered it before now, singer Dallas Denery told me, “because no one had ever asked us.” It took some convincing, in fact, to persuade him and guitarist/vocalist Matt that in 2008 there’d be more than a handful of people who’d even heard of them, let alone wanted to see them play.

By the time they’d made it through a couple songs, however, when the realization had sunk in that the crowd – some of whom weren’t even born when Sweet Baby last graced a stage – not only knew the songs, but was also prepared to outsing the band if given half a chance, a enormous smile spread across Dallas’s face and he and Matt – joined by old school East Bay luminaries Richie Bucher on bass and Aaron Cometbus on drums – proceeded to give the performance of a lifetime to an audience that could have been, as Matt later surmised, “bigger than the combined total of every audience we ever played to.”

It wouldn’t have been the Fest, of course, without the Steinways, who played just before the Zatopeks, and as much as I was looking forward to them, I’ll admit to being a little fearful about how they’d handle the biggest stage I’d ever seen them on.

No need to fear. Grath, I suspect because he knew he was being filmed for a DVD, swore up a storm, before, after and during pretty much every song (“Try and edit that,” he challenged the sound engineer at one point”), but unless you’re squeamish about that sort of thing, there was nothing not to love about a Steinways set that featured a generous sprinkling of new songs and wound up with an impassioned renderings of “the classics” that had the New York crew in particular beaming like proud mamas and papas over their hometown heroes.

“Best Steinways show yet,” I opined, only to be rather forcefully told, “No, that was last week, when you were out of town.” Well, whatever. I love this band. And another band I love, but who weren’t even on the bill until some last minute string-pulling, is the Max Levine Ensemble, who staged a lightning-quick guerrilla raid on the back bar, aka The Third Stage, thrilling the 100 or so in-the-know Festers who managed to cram in there with one of the most dazzling performances of the day, and were gone again to their next gig before most people even knew they’d been there. By all accounts, they’ll be back for next year’s Fest in a more prominent position on the bill.

Can’t forget the Copyrights, who were undoubtedly one of Friday’s highlights, as were their sister (brother?) band, Dear Landlord, and the Dopamines. I last saw each of these bands in a basement in Indianapolis (“And we’ll be back in the basement next week,” promised the Copyrights’ Adam Fletcher), but they all looked totally at home on the big stage, and to actually hear the music and the vocals through a first class PA left me saying whoa, so this is what it’s meant to sound like.

There were too many, way too many other highlights to mention them all here, and of course a couple dozen that I didn’t get to see it all because of schedule conflicts. Can’t forget the Leftovers and the Guts, of course, nor Short Attention, who at 1 in the afternoon managed to pack the Second Stage to far, far beyond its putative capacity. I got there about five minutes – i.e., about a dozen songs – too late and could barely force my way in the door. But a special tribute needs to go out to the Queers. There’s been plenty of criticism – some of it from me – that their shows had become too samey-samey, catering mainly to the bonehead crew to whom punk rock will always be frozen in the testosterone-fueled, beat-the-hell-out-of-each-other era, and predicting that Joe Queer would never have the balls or the sense to put together a set list that showcased his real talents as a pop punk singer and songwriter.

But the critics – again myself included – were wrong. Augmented by guest appearances from the spectacularly gifted Joel Reader of MTX/Plus Ones/Avengers/Pansy Division fame and longtime if occasional collaborator Lisa Marr (cub/Buck/Lisa Marr Experience), the Queers finally delivered the goods for which their fans have been devoutly praying for lo these many years. Thanks to the idiot/thug contingent, I’d pretty much given up trying to watch the Queers from anywhere near the stage, this was an entirely different crowd, one almost entirely devoted to dancing and singing at the top of its lungs. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that this is where my voice finally reached its limits; my usual dulcet tones have been replaced by a raspy croak ever since.

So the Queers – contrary to quite a few expectations – turned out to be a perfect headliner/Fest closer after all. And as the house lights went up and the realization that it was all over for another year began to sink in, my exhaustion began to be overcome by a much stronger emotion that I can only describe as, well, gratitude. Gratitude that after all these years I can still get so excited over the music and the people associated with it, gratitude that I still have the physical and emotional capacity to throw myself into it with the unbridled enthusiasm of an unabashed adolescent.

I haven’t had a drink in nearly seven years, but I suspect I looked like a drunken lunatic to some people, especially in the milling-about aftermath of the Fest, as I sprinted through the crowd saying goodbyes, breaking into spontaneous dances to no music at all, and screaming like, well, like a person having the time of his life.

And extra-special thanks have to go out to Mark Enoch, Chris Thacker, Pat and Reggie Termite for all their work in creating the Fest and turning it into what it’s become, to Adam and Jenna Alive for putting together the official Fest zine, to Matt Lame for being, despite the attempt by some people to hang the title on me, the real Mr. Fest, and to all the bands and all the people: for three all too brief and shining days, we were friends and we were equals. The Fest is over, long live the Fest. See you in 2009!

That's What I Love About Frisco

The many complaints about San Francisco's declining quality of life notwithstanding, city officials have been taking bold measures to ensure that you'll never have a problem finding a conveniently located crack dealer when you're jonesing for a hit.

Despite the city's best efforts to protect its large population of undocumented street entrepreneurs (in non-SF-speak, illegal immigrant drug dealers), from time to time a few of these enterprising individuals do get caught up in a police sweep (most likely one conducted by the Parking Division, which seems to be the only arm of law enforcement actively seeking out criminal conduct) and are subsequently convicted of selling drugs.

Which in turn not only makes them liable for substantial prison sentences, but also requires that they be deported to their home countries and permanently banned from returning to the USA. Worried that San Francisco's homegrown criminal culture might be unable to generate sufficient numbers of crack dealers to meet demand, the city has spent a small fortune and broken a few laws of its own (hey, it's only money, and everyone knows that normal laws don't apply in SF) to hide its convicted crack dealers from the federal officials who handle deportations.

It's "not fair to bar them from ever becoming citizens," said one San Francisco official, who rather judiciously preferred to remain unnamed. The sheriff of San Bernardino County, where San Francisco had been hiding its fugitive felons in a taxpayer-financed ($7,000 a month per perp) safehouse, was not so sanguine, especially in light of the fact that SF's city-sponsored crims usually end up taking a hike and slanging rocks on his patch.

25 June 2008

Farmer Party At The Old Folks Home

We made it down to Detroit in no time at all, stopping only for $5 subs at a Subway that was built into a gas station and truck stop somewhere out in the wilds of the central/northern Lower Peninsula. The piped-in pseudo-country music reminded me of my old stomping grounds in Mendocino County, Willits in particular, and I briefly shed a psychic tear for my own country days, but then we were racing down the highway again and hit Detroit's northern suburbs just as the rush hour (what there is of it in that depressed and depressing city) was winding up.

It was early enough that we could have gone on to our destination in Canada, but we'd already decided to stop for the night and cross the border in the morning for a couple reasons. One was that my mother has what could be seen as an irregular status, citizenship-wise. She was born in Canada, but emigrated to the US with her family in 1926, when she was eight years old. She's lived in the USA ever since, has voted in every election since 1940, at one time held a US passport, but for some reason never quite got around to finalizing her naturalization papers (in case you wondered where I got my procrastinating tendencies), having assumed that she had automatically become a citizen when her father did.

Which may or may not be the case, but if we were going to have to argue about it with the border guards, I preferred to do it bright and early in the morning when we'd had a full night's rest rather than at the end of a 450 mile drive. (The whole issue could have been neatly avoided if Mom had only been willing to fork out the $100 for a new passport, but according to her reasoning, which is probably pretty sound, "Chances are I'll never leave the country again? Why should I pay all that money just to cross the border once?")

Both of us, of course, are used to a much more relaxed border regime; the entire time I was growing up, we routinely crossed back and forth from Canada with no more interrogation than a perfunctory "Where were you born?/Where are you going?" and often not even that much.

The other reason for staying on the Detroit side was that the declining value of the American dollar has been turning us into third worlders vis-à-vis the cost of living in Canada. Most Canadian prices were set back in the days when the US dollar was worth 10 or 20% more than the Canadian currency. Now the prices are the same or higher, but our puny greenback has dwindled to a shadow of its former self in terms of purchasing power.

It was readily apparent just how much America has come down in the world as soon as we crossed the border the next morning (with no trouble whatsoever, despite my mother's trepidations). Things were newer, nicer, better kept, and gas was more than five bucks a gallon. Which may seem steep to Americans who are still bitching about the four dollar gallon, but when you see the quality of life that extra dollar (most if not all of it tax) buys for Canadians, it doesn't seem like a bad bargain at all.

For instance, the nursing home where our centenarian cousin was living and would celebrate her birthday: it was like a resort hotel, especially when compared with the squalid slice of bedlam where my father was compelled to spend his last days. And yet the price - totally subsidized by the government, of course - was only a quarter of what my father had to pay. If dad had lived a couple years longer, he would have been bankrupt (as would my mother); our Canadian cousin can live another 100 years secure in the knowledge that she'll always have a comfortable home.

But enough politicking; we're here to party like only a packed house of 80 and 90 year old farmers and farmers' wives can! All right, I exaggerate; although we were celebrating in a very rural community, and although I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time hearing about tractors, combines, the prospects of rain and the likely effects of said rain on this year's corn crop, there were plenty of non-farmers, too, including the younger cousins (i.e., my age) who organized the shindig. He's part-Newfie, she's farm-born and raised, only a couple miles from where they live today, but in the interim they've been all over the world, first with the Navy and then with the Foreign Service. I didn't have the nerve to ask him straight out if he was a "spy," but have you ever seen Meet The Fokkers? Remember Robert DeNiro's secret room full of electronic devices and monitoring equipment? Cuz has got one just like it.

Cousin Harold, on the other hand, is a lifelong farmer, and only gave up plowing a few years ago, when he was 92. He's 96 now, and apparently isn't supposed to be driving a car any more, but nobody told me about that, so when he asked me to give him a ride to his car, which was parked way out back (there was some major thunderstorm action going on), I readily consented. I dropped him off, then watched, amazed, as he not only drove the wrong way up the road to the nursing home, sending several other cars fleeing for cover, but then mounted the sidewalk and drove to within a few feet of the front door, looking for all the world as though he were going to drive right inside. His wife hardly batted an eye as she stepped outside and into the car; apparently she's well used to this sort of thing.

But driving habits aside, Cousin Harold's a pretty sharp old dude, cracking the dry sort of jokes that leave you never completely sure as to whether he's joking. Cousin Lottie, on the other hand, whose birthday it is, is downright majestic as she presides over the afternoon. Dressed in a long white satin gown and wearing a jewel-bedecked tiara, she resembles a taller, thinner version of the Queen of England, who incidentally has sent her greetings, as has the Governor General and Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Ontario, and a host of lesser luminaries. Lottie can no longer walk, so she held court from a wheelchair, but her mind is still sharp as a tack, and we sat talking and gossiping for much of the afternoon. Her hearing is still good, too, but her voice has gone a little wonky in the past couple years, causing her to sound uncannily like Marge Simpson, an effect heightened by Cousin Tom, who when he chortles enthusiastically over something - which he often does - bears a strong resemblance, vocally at least, to Homer.

Tom also rather enthusiastically plays the bagpipes, and did so for us the following morning before we set off down the road to Kitchener. Oh, but first we made our usual detour to the graveyard where we fended off mosquitoes while studying several sets of family headstones dating back to the mid-19th century. I find it strangely restful and only slightly unsettling when I see the names and birthdates carved on as the as yet unused headstones that await our many cousins who are still very much alive. Then we hopped onto the 401, the expressway that lopped off the back end of Uncle Will's farm when they put it in sometime in the 1950s or 60s, and headed east. A whole other passel of city slicker cousins awaited us there, but that will have to be a story for tomorrow. Now it's time to write a few thank you notes and then throw three t-shirts in a bag and call myself packed for Baltimore and the Fest!

With A Song In My Heart

As some of you will know, I used to be in a couple of bands and have tried my hand at songwriting on a few occasions. However, whether it was because I got tired, or just lazy, not a single new song has emanated from my pen, piano, guitar, or vocal cords in nigh on seven years.

Until now, that is. A local band, Short Attention, about whom I must admit I've been the teensiest bit disdainful at times, did me the enormous honor of asking me to write a song for their new record. True, they asked about 23 other people, too, but that's about how many songs it takes them to fill up a (7") record. And it's worth noting that many of them are punk rock celebrities and recognized geniuses in the art of song sculpting, people, for example, like Joe Steinhardt, Christian Tattletale, Zack and Brad from Dear Landlord, The Dopamines, Miranda Hunchback O'Fancy, Jim Testa, James Cahill, Tom Stray, Lucas Festipal, Ace Steinway, Matt Lame, Chris Pierce, Bill Florio, Lauren Measure, John Denery, Ben Weasel, Eric Peabody, Chris Grivet, The Jerkingtons, Bort and Jesse Luscious.

So I'm in some pretty heady company, and I was really nervous about whether my feeble little effort would be accepted. But it was, and now it's been recorded, and is available right here for your listening pleasure (or not, as the case may be). It's the one about the G train, a local mode of transportation about which you may have heard me complain on occasion, and just in case you don't like it, bear in mind that it's only about 19 seconds long, so you won't have wasted too much of your life checking it out. But let me know what you think, and if the response is positive, I just might write another one sometime in the next seven years!

Up Da Yoopers!

Wow, it's been a long time. Hope you missed me. But not too much, because I wouldn't want to be the cause of your life seeming more empty or meaningless than usual.

I've been on hejira with my mom, a pilgrimage to the ancestral lands of Michigan and Ontario, where we mingled and kicked it with a host of bizarre and wonderful (or wonderfully bizarre?) relatives and in-laws. So many, in fact, that it's going to take several posts to tell about them all. And to complicate things further, I'm only back in New York (just got in late tonight) for one day before it's time to take off again on the biggest pilgrimage of all, to Baltimore for The Fest.

Some people thought it was kind of crazy to go on a 1500 mile journey (not counting several thousand miles more of plane riding to get both of us to the Midwest) with a nearly 90 year old lady (not that I'm getting any younger myself, either), but when you consider that the focal point of the trip was a 100th birthday party for Mom's favorite cousin, well, what's the big deal, right?

Last time we went on a trip, Mom and I flew out from the West Coast together, but this time she and I were coming from opposite coasts, so she had to make that part of the trip on her own, which was probably the scariest part of the deal for her, but she came through it like a trooper. We met up in Detroit at about 9 pm and started driving. Yeah, it would have been nicer to spend the night near Metro Airport and get an early start in the morning, but as it happened, we had nearly 600 miles to cover in less than 24 hours, so we had to knock off at least a hundred or so the first night.

Which would have been no trouble if Michigan's highways, at least the ones we were on, didn't bear a striking resemblance to the permanent state of disrepair I found in a trip to East Germany just prior to the fall of Communism. Oh, plus the fact that I got lost three times trying to match Google map directions to actual road signs. The deal was that we had to get to Traverse City, which is in the upper northwest corner (Detroit's in the lower southeast corner) by lunchtime for a flying visit to one of the last remaining cousins from my dad's family, then up to the top of the state, over the mighty Mackinac Bridge, and deep into the heart of Michigan's mysterious Upper Peninsula in time for dinner.

My mom's brother and his wife are not native Yoopers (Upper Peninsula = U.P. = Yoop, etc.), but they migrated up to the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie) back in the mid-50s, when the bridge had yet to be built and you could still travel north via train, but had to hop off and take a ferry when you got to the Straits of Mackinac. After a few years they moved over to Marquette, the U.P.'s principal city (population approximately 25,000, i.e., similar to that of certain city blocks in Manhattan) and have been there ever since. At the time they built their house, it was not uncommon for bears to come wandering through the yard, but apparently it's been a couple years since one has been sighted, which might be just as well, since my aunt and uncle are now in their 80s, and though they've been keen hunters all their lives, she's now nearly blind and he's partially deaf, so you don't necessarily want them whipping out the rifles or shotguns, especially now that a few other houses have been built in the vicinity.

But my uncle still gets out on a regular basis to deal with the ten or so feet of snow that falls each winter, beginning in October and usually lasting until April (or sometimes May). He used to have his own snowplow, but now he relies on a snowblower, which sends drifts flying over a 20 foot area instead of piling up all in one place. And if you think that's a bit too much physical activity for a man in his 80s, bear in mind that both he and his wife took up long distance running when they were in their 70s (this was after the heart attack he suffered when he was my age.

Although they're passionately devoted to the U.P. and its way of life, they're rather low-key compared with dyed-in-the-wool Yoopers, who can best be described, if at all, as being somewhat akin to... well, actually, I don't think they can be described. Perhaps you'd be better off examining the creative output of Da Yoopers, who also hail from the Greater Marquette area.

But while Da Yoopers take the eccentricities and foibles of the U.P. and turn them into burlesque, Lakenen Land , located not much more than a hop, skip and shuffle down the highway from my uncle's place, showcases the fiercely independent U.P. spirit on a more sublime albeit still reasonably hilarious level. Tom Lakenen is a local ironworker who likes to collect and cut up scraps of iron and other industrial detritus to make giant sculptures that range from whimsical to beautiful to just plain out there in a world of their own.

And feeling that his sculptures not only represented, but also deserved a world of their own, Tom created one, putting them on display on several acres of wooded land he owns along Highway 28 and inviting the public in to explore (for free) his Jurassic (there's a huge green dinosaur clearly visible from the road) Sculpture Park.

Local authorities have been hounding him ever since, outraged at the idea that a citizen could take it upon himself to set up a public park (he's also put in a couple ponds, outhouse facilities, benches and tables, and an information center/shelter) that clearly outdoes most of the efforts of the city and county fathers, but so far Tom has adroitly fended off all efforts to shut him down, thanks to a growing reservoir of support from both locals and tourists. And for the handful of you who may actually journey down M-28 one of these days: don't miss it. 10 or 15 miles east of Marquette; watch for the dinosaur.

What else? We stayed a couple days, went walking on the sand and dipped a toe into Lake Superior while fending off flies (another reason that so few people live in the U.P. is that the place is, as already mentioned, beset by massive amounts of snow for six months of the year, and massive amounts of insects, black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies being among the most pestilential) for another four, leaving the inhabitants approximately one month in the spring and fall respectively to rest up from shoveling and swatting. We dined at what has to be the most amazing and well-appointed Perkins Restaurant (this is the same chain that used to be known as Perkins Pancake House, right?) in the world. Rather than the usual plastic-and-neon dismalness, this place was all hand-hewn lumber with cathedral ceilings and chandeliers made out of antlers, not to mention the elk head the size of a refrigerato and the moose head the size of a Volkswagen that hung over the dual fireplaces. Oh, and the food was good, too.

So yeah, the Upper Peninsula was rad, and it goes without saying that my uncle and aunt are, too, but after two and a half days we had to head back down to the land of the apple knockers and trolls, both of which are derisory names bestowed by the Yoopers on Lower Peninsulans. Apple knockers, I don't know why, except they grow a lot of the fruit down there, but trolls, well, it's because they live below the bridge, get it? Yoopers, by the way, are called stump jumpers, among other less printable things, by those who are less than admiring of their way of life. It was a 450 mile jaunt back to Detroit, but we'll get on to that tomorrow; for now, we'll have to bid a fond farewell to the U.P. and all its weird and wonderful denizens. Next stop: 100th birthday party time!!

07 June 2008

Hentoff: An Old Pacifist Comes Around

Nat Hentoff, who's often about as far removed from me on the ideological spectrum as it's possible to be, makes essentially the same point I was about Myanmar, Darfur, and Zimbabwe, and does so more articulately than I could manage. He also addresses the Zimbabwe issue in the previous week's column. Both are well worth reading.

Ironically, Hentoff is one of those Voiceniks I frequently accuse of "liberal racism" when it comes to intervention in the black communities of our own cities.

06 June 2008

Liberal Racism

During my years in London I became quite familiar with the plight of Zimbabwe, not only because the British media pay considerable attention to African affairs (particularly when a former colony is involved), but also because I met a number of Zimbabwean exiles, both black and white, who'd been driven from their country by poverty, racism or political repression.

And that was back when Zimbabwe was still a more or less functioning country, before its mad dictator Robert Mugabe turned it into one of the planet's more tragic hellholes in the name of... what? Nobody seems to know if Mugabe is simply drunk with power, completely insane, or still in thrall to the quasi-Marxist ideology acquired in the 1960s and 70s, when Western bien pensants were excitedly cheering on the prospect of guerrilla warfare and communist insurgency all over Africa. True, they might not have wished such a thing on their own countries, but hey, it's only Africa, right? Perfect place to try out all our cockamamie New Left theories.

Unfortunately, Mugabe, not unlike most of Africa's self-styled "liberators," turned out to be far worse than the colonialism he overthrew. 28 years of his disastrous rule have turned Zimbabwe from one of the most successful and prosperous African countries into an absolute basket case. Life expectancy has been cut in half, unemployment is almost universal, a country that once exported food is now literally starving. And now, faced with being driven from office by his long-suffering people, Mugabe is doing away with the last vestiges of democracy in a desperate attempt to rig the election now in progress.

True, it's not the only country facing mass suffering as a result of a tyrant or tyrants run amok. Up at the other end of the continent, we have the ongoing obscenity of Darfur, where wholesale murder has been a matter of government policy for years already. And then there's the recent events in Burma/Myanmar, where the ruling junta has shown itself willing to starve its own people to death rather than allow foreign aid workers into their fiefdom.

In each of these cases - and these are only the most flagrant at the moment - there's a common thread: Western liberals and do-gooders wring their hands and make vague, clucking noises of sympathy, then conclude by saying, "But what can we do? It's their country, after all." Underlying this is an almost transparent unwillingness to suggest that Westerners have a right - let alone and obligation - to interfere with the "sovereignty" of these murderous dictatorships. It's the very antithesis of colonialism, but that doesn't make it any less evil.

One has to wonder if there'd be such reticence to act if similar events were unfolding in a European country. Well, one actually doesn't have to wonder; we have a fairly recent illustration, that of the Balkan wars. There was a lot of hand-wringing over that, too, no doubt because the people involved seemed, well, not quite as European as, say Frenchmen or Germans (the fact that many of them were Muslims may have had even more to do with it). But eventually decisive military action was taken, on the very reasonable grounds that when a people showed itself no longer capable of maintaining a basic civil or social structure, then it was incumbent upon its neighbors in the world to take responsibility for doing so.

Granted, this is disturbingly close to at least one of the reasons used to justify colonialism in the first place, but the fact that things have previously been done for the wrong reason doesn't obviate the need for doing them at a different time and place for the right reason. But what, you might ask, can the West do about Zimbabwe, Darfur or Myanmar? In the case of the latter, there's at least one easy answer: just the other day American troops, who'd been stationed at the border waiting for the OK to truck in food and supplies to cyclone victims, abandoned their positions because, as their commander said, "We just couldn't get permission to enter the country." The mightiest army in the history of the planet has to sit there humbly begging a handful of tinpot generals to allow them to carry out lifesaving missions? The Burmese army is going to seriously be able to prevent them from doing so?

The situation is a little more complicated in Zimbabwe and Darfur. There the only successful course would probably involve occupying the countries, installing new governments, and hanging around for a few years until those governments were able to function on their own. And yes, people, both in neighboring African countries and among our own isolationists on both the left and the right, would scream bloody murder over this alleged "imperialism." But was it imperialism, or simply common sense, when American and European troops occupied Germany and Japan and provided them with new, democratic governments? Is the world not far better off for this having been done?

Ah, but that's different, you say. Those countries had invaded their neighbors and unleashed unspeakable havoc on the world. Cruel as the situations may be in Zimbabwe et al., at least they're keeping it to themselves. And perhaps there's some validity to this point - if, that is, you're prepared to turn a blind eye to the suffering, oppression, and starvation of millions of people.

But it's a slippery slope, you say. What's to stop a Western government from using force to replace any government that's not doing as good a job as we might like it to? Hell, for that matter, some Western governments are not exactly covering themselves with glory at the moment. So where do you - can you - draw the line?

I suppose it really comes down to the democratic consent of the people. As we've seen in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, even when our government can muster enough support to invade another country, it has a terribly difficult time maintaining that support the minute things don't go so well. And trying to occupy a failing African state is pretty much a guaranteed recipe for things not going well, so chances that we'll actually ever do something about the disasters in Zimbabwe or Darfur are about as great as were those of our doing something to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

But even as I recognize that nothing is likely to be done, that perhaps there's nothing that can be done, it still galls me to hear people dismiss the problem as though it were the natural state of affairs for "those people" and that it's really none of our business. Why do I suspect that there's no small amount of racism involved in this attitude? Because I see a similar hands-off approach to our failing inner cities, where liberal elites are quick to attack the police for attempting to restore order but have little or nothing to say about the thugs who hold the ghettos hostage. Run a successful crackdown on street crime and you'll inevitably have ACLU types - most of whom never set foot in the hood themselves - bellyaching about the "criminalization of black youth," with its insidious implication that common street thuggery is normal behavior for young black people, so normal, in fact, that to attempt to stop it would be attacking the very fabric of the black community.

Say what you will about Rudy Giuliani - and I know many of you will take me up on that offer and say some very vile things indeed - one area where he undeniably deserves praise is the way he wasn't willing to write off any area of the city, regardless of its racial composition, as a no-go zone. Under previous mayors, "difficult" neighborhoods were virtually abandoned, to the point where the police only ventured in for major emergencies. "Let those people kill each other, it's not our problem," seemed to be the prevailing philosophy. Even today, despite vast swathes of the city having been reclaimed from decay and anarchy, despite a 75% fall in the murder rate that's saved literally thousands of lives, the majority of them nonwhite, there are still voices - much of the editorial staff of the Village Voice, for example - accusing the NYPD of racism for simply enforcing the law, and demanding that we return to a policy of accepting and tolerating the unacceptable and intolerable.

From Zimbabwe to the backstreets of Brooklyn: too big a stretch? I don't think so; the principle remains the same. Justice needs to be colorblind, yet there are always those who, for their own personal or ideological grounds, are so determined to stop it being so that they are willing to visit untold suffering and misery on the very people they claim to care for.

Money, Time, Life, Teeth

Propped up in the dentist's chair a couple weeks ago as he began chopping and sawing away at a couple of my back teeth, my mental calculator, as it's wont to do, began adding up the total cost of all the work that was being undertaken. When I reached the end of my sums and realized that the price of my new and/or improved teeth was only slightly less than my parents paid for their two-bedroom house back in 1951, I came close to jumping out of my seat and tearing down the street with the various accoutrements of the dentist's trade trailing behind me.

I may have mentioned it here at one time or another, but in case you weren't aware, I've been missing an upper right molar, tooth #3 in dental parlance, for some 36 years, ever since it split in half as I bit into a piece of especially rough hippie bread in April of 1972. At the time I barely had enough money to have the remains of the broken tooth excavated and the fissure left behind sewn up, so I never gave much thought to how or if it should be replaced. After all, I still had plenty of other teeth, so how much difference could one missing one make?

Well, quite a bit, as it happened. Oh, it was no big problem to accustom myself to chewing with other parts of my mouth, to the point where for a long time I barely even remembered that one blank spot was there. But unbeknown to me, stuff was happening in there: without the missing molar to hold them in place, other teeth started drifting, leaving gaps that trapped bits of food and became a happy breeding ground for tooth decay-causing bacteria. Eventually both of my back teeth reached the end of their useful lives and had to be capped and in one case root canaled, and, recognizing that I was going to continue to have problems until the missing tooth was replaced, I was faced with choosing between a temporary fix (good for 10-20 years, but still...) that would involve destroying part of a good tooth and would cost about three grand, or a permanent implant that would cost even more.

It was going over these numbers that caused me so much disquiet: what, I wondered, if I invested all this money in my teeth only to walk out of the dentist's office and in front of a truck? At my age, I wondered, could I be sure that I'd get enough usage out of my new teeth to justify the expenditure?

It didn't take too long - no more than a couple minutes, at any rate - for the countervailing proposition to assert itself: while it might seem like a waste of money to get my teeth fixed and then die shortly thereafter, the money I'd save by not getting them fixed would be of little use since I'd be, as it were, dead. For some reason I found this hilarious enough that I almost burst out laughing at a most inopportune moment, and then in an effort to restrain myself, nearly bit down on the hammer and chisel the dentist was using to rearrange or disassemble my pearly whites (actually, do they make yellow pearls? because that would be a more accurate metaphor).

Having had this realization, I came away feeling a bit more light-hearted, but still not free from worry. What if, for example, I lived another 40 years, i.e., getting full use of my new teeth, but because of the money I'd spent on them, had to go without eating for the last year or two? A lot of good my top-of-the-line teeth would do me then! Apparently I'm not the only one with worries like this: my mother, who's nearly 90 and has enough savings and pension benefits to live comfortably until she's at least 120, still agonizes about spending $59 on a new coat (she lives near San Francisco, where you need a coat, even in June, even, sometimes, when you stay indoors).

No matter how many times I add up her assets for her and point out that unless she were to take up gambling or cocaine it would be almost impossible to run out of money before she dies, she continues to worry, and now I catch myself doing the same thing. It's bizarre: apart from a brief stint of homelessness and dire poverty in my late teens/early 20s, I've always had a place to live, food to eat, and more often than not, a few luxuries as well, but let me go more than a few weeks without earning any money and I'm right back to being convinced - as I was during most of my adolescence and early adulthood - that I'll never be able to support myself, that I have absolutely no marketable skills, that there's no point even in applying for a job because nobody would ever want me working for them.

Well, the latter part might be true: apart from a few years on the assembly line and in the steel mills, I never have worked for anyone other than myself, leaving me rather lacking in items to put on my nonexistent résumé. It's true; apart from a mock résumé that I had to do as part of a class in high school, I've never written or had one. To some, this might appear as one of life's minor victories, and for a long time I saw it that way, too, but of late I've been feeling as though I'd like to be a little more, oh, I don't know, normal?

A bit late for that now, you say? I fear you're right, and barring anyone else being willing to take responsibility for my career and/or creative life, I suppose I'm stuck with it. No, I still have no idea what I can or ought to be doing with myself, which, with occasional brief exceptions, has been my default position since I was about 16, but at least (provided I can come up with enough cash to pay the remainder of the bill) I'll be facing the future with a snappy set of teeth. Never again will anybody guess that I used to live in England.

Later Thursday Afternoon

The "Onward, Christian Soldiers" marching band came past my window again, still playing the same tune, albeit a bit more bedraggledly after an hour's trek through the streets of Williamsburg.

This time I was able to catch sight of their trailing banner, desultorily held aloft by two adolescents who looked as though, all things being equal, they'd have rather been somewhere else. Apparently I was witnessing the "Brooklyn Sunday School Anniversary Day Parade," a very Protestant-sounding operation for our very Catholic neighborhood. I should have known; usually religious parades in these parts involve flower-bedecked statues of the Blessed Virgin and/or substantial crucifixes. Still a catchy tune, though, that "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Definitely added a bit of pizazz to an otherwise torpid afternoon.

Obama And The Dead Kennedys

I generally think of myself as a relatively new Brooklynite, but 40 years ago I briefly lived on State Street, not far from downtown. I don't remember when I moved there, though I think it must have been in May, or when exactly I left, though I know it was before the end of June, or even why I moved there, since I'd been living rent-free in an abandoned Lower East Side building that was quite comfortable - with electricity and running water, no less - by abandoned building standards.

I do recall why I left: I was unceremoniously booted out, with about ten minutes notice, by the landlord, a previously pleasant queen who took rather violent exception to the discovery that I had brought a girl onto the premises. Not having a lot of possessions, I bundled what I did have into a bedsheet - belonging, I'm pretty sure, to the irate landlord - and returned to the squat, where my friends and I marveled anew at the weird ways of bourgeois homeowners.

I'd stayed up late the night before, listening to the election results from the California primary; although this was deep in my waiting-for-the-revolution phase (the revolution being my anticipated salvation from the drug and interstate flight charges that had me holed up in New York in the first place), I still had an avid - ok, let's be straightforward here: geeklike - interest in all things political. Having heard that McCarthy, my favorite - or least unfavorite, anyway - had lost, I drifted disconsolately off to sleep with the radio still on in the background, only to be awakened by the news that the winner, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated.

I didn't sleep any more after that, so when I drifted downstairs around 9 am to receive my summary eviction notice, I was looking and feeling especially bleary-eyed. Although I understood that the real villain of the piece was my capriciously vindictive landlord, I couldn't help attaching a bit of the blame to Bobby Kennedy as well; if, I reasoned, he'd stayed out of the presidential race as he should have, then there'd have been no assassination, I'd have got a decent night's sleep, and I'd be far better equipped to deal with the present crisis.

And there you have an reasonably incisive insight into the workings of my 20 year old mind. Not the prettiest of pictures, I'll concede, but all silliness aside, I must confess to never having been particularly enamored of the middle Kennedy brother. I was not impressed with the way he crashed the party and snatched the presidential nomination away from Eugene McCarthy, I was not impressed with his specious and fatuous reasoning for doing so, and I'm bewildered at how he seems with the passage of time to acquire an ever nobler stature in the rear-view memories of my fellow baby boomers.

I was and continue to be a great admirer of John F. Kennedy, but Robert did little or nothing for me. He came across as a pale shadow of his older brother in nearly every respect, yet many of today's dewy-eyed aging lefties have canonized Bobby as the true standard-bearer of the Kennedy legacy (whatever that may be). Never mind that for all his pretty rhetoric, Bobby Kennedy's ambitions and ego very possibly lost the 1968 election for the Democrats and opened the door for another 7 years of war in Vietnam. There was no need - apart from the aforementioned ambition and ego - for him to enter the presidential race at all; McCarthy was doing just fine on his own. And what exactly did Kennedy have to offer apart from conventional lefty platitudes delivered in a thinner, more nasal version of JFK's legendarily evocative accent?

Maybe I'm missing something, but RFK's main appeal seems both then and now to have been a matter of image over substance. In looks as well as accent and manner, he provided the voters with an adequate simulacrum of his fallen brother. An adequate simulacrum, but not much else.

Am I missing something? Perhaps; it's hard to imagine that so many could see such merit in the man without there being something to it. And perhaps the 40th anniversary of his assassination is the wrong time to question his character or importance. It's just that the weeping and wailing seems to get louder each year, to the point where substantive analysis of his worth as a political leader becomes all but impossible.

It might be tackier still to challenge the RFK mystique at a time when the last of the Kennedys is facing a terminal illness, but with the accession of Barack Obama, easily the most Kennedy-esque politician we've seen since the 1960s, I can't help but wonder which Kennedy Obama is channeling: Jack or Bobby? If the former, I'm cautiously optimistic; if the latter, well, I'd almost rather see McCain win.

05 June 2008

Thursday Afternoon

A marching band, with police escort, just passed by under my window while playing "Onward, Christian Soldiers." This sort of thing is not at all as unusual as you might expect, though it's the first time I've heard that particular tune.