Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I visited the Mark Twain 'Museum' in Virginia City (which is in Nevada, not Virginia) a few months back. It is housed in the former offices of the Territorial Enterprise and the major drawing card is Mark Twain's original desk that miraculously survived the fire of 1875 that destroyed the offices of the Territorial Enterprise, where Twain worked as a reporter, and much of the town in the waning months of the decade long mania surrounding the discovery of the Comstock lode. Supposedly, when he was not meandering around the countryside, he had worked in the basement, so I was told by the kindly, red-haired lady that charged me the five-dollar admission fee and so, his desk was miraculously spared the depredations of the general blaze that took the three floors above. That the desk had been found and recovered from the charred rubble of the building. This immediately sounded a little suspicious to me and but then again, certainly in harmony with Twain's own talent for manufacturing serendipitous and miraculous circumstances in pursuit of readership and liquidity. So, whether or not the desk was in fact his original desk or one that the proprietors of the Emporioum on the floor above that was hawking candy and other tourist kitsch had picked up at a yard sale, I happily took my tourist pictures and bought my postcards, content in the knowledge that it was, if not his actual desk, a close facsimile and I had the same warm feeling about the portable toilet, regarding which a similar claim was made courtesy of a placard saying 'Mark Twain's ass was here' (though we are not similarly heir to its contents) and I assume they were not talking about his donkey.

Later in this same trip, on the way to visit a friend, I stopped a diner in Nevada City (which is in California, not Nevada). The diner was owned and operated by a French woman Genevieve and her husband Tom and as I read the history of the establishment printed on the back of the menu, I learned that her husband was a former aerospace engineer who had retired here to what has become something of a mecca for the heirs to 'the beat poets', and haunt of such epic poets as Gary Snyder and apparently Tom Cruise to open this aromatic establishment known as the Classic Cafe. Well it so happened that her husband (whom I had not recognized immediately from the picture on the menu which was of a much younger man) was sitting right next to me. (I had mistaken him for a general issue retiree killing time at the local diner). I explained to him that I was on the way to visit a friend in Grass Valley and that I had come out west to research a novel I had already written called 'monoville'. I thought he would be pleased that someone had taken such a lively, if overdue, literary interest in what essentially is an overlooked and ignored parched segment of the the Western Sierras,-- well let's not go into that. Anyway, he in particular seemed vaguely unhappy at this news.
"You guys come out here trying to make a buck off of our history and our stories." he admonished me scowling.

Well, since a buck was about all I had made to date of 'his history" I just nodded, and added "Hopefully".
This is the conundrum of California life, the vast and iconic scope of the landscape, the people and the history and the peculiar proprietariness of those people when they feel they have been cut out of the profits. I would very much like to write my next book set in that diner. As Spock would say 'Fascinating'

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Grazing Mace

I am going to talk about race and racism now,-- for two reasons: firstly I think it finally may be possible to have an honest and serious discussion about race in America, and secondly it is raining, and I, a 'for all intents and purposes' white person in a 'for all intents and purposes' predominantly white society, (and not to diminish the importance and horror of recent events), find, that having nothing else to do, this is the only time I voluntarily give serious consideration to the subject of race (which is why I also think black people should give us back that is the month it is least likely to rain.).

Joking aside,--why has it been so extraordinarily difficult til now to have a serious and rational conversation on the topic of race. Words can be a bludgeon or they can be a scalpel. I would think therefore it has a lot to do with the fact that in this context, they have long been used mostly as bludgeons,-- all or most the words conscripted became immediately intensely and highly charged, and what is more, facilely capable of conveying different meanings to different people even in the same context in a way that is more conducive to conveying emotion than meaning. Take the word 'racist' most 'normal' people, on the surface it is unambiguously bad and to some extent has become a synonym for 'bad character', at least until they find by some definitions they themselves may be included under it. Stephen Colbert's dealt with this possible 'double edgedness' of the word by declaring. 'I do not see race!'  This is the big lie method of dealing with the problem,-- of course we all see (and hear) race, but as in all effective 'big lies' there is a convoluted kernel of truth. The big lie is a method of dealing with the convolutedness of real explanation by distraction. To look at that inconvenient kernel,-- what defines, (for me at least) someone as a racist, is someone who sees race first.  It is for them the only defining and therefore, least subject to revision assumption they can make about a person. All other assumptions become either subordinate or non-existent to it. We hate the idea first and the person second. This is of course the most pernicious form of racism leading to stereotyping all all the other 'de-individualizing' and 'brutalizing' mindsets that characterized for example, Nazi Germany.  One group or set of people arrogates to themselves totally the idea of the 'individual'.

I say this is the definition of 'racism' because if we strip this idea of 'primacy of perception' from the meaning of the word then we strip the word of meaning and it is therefore 'by definition', its definition. However, we have a niggling feeling that this does not do full and ample justice to the 'double edged' nature of the term. For example,--employing this definition, one would have to admit, (since we are being honest here) that Affirmative Action was a racist policy,--Why? Simply because it was a social policy that considered race first and foremost. Well, that may be true and we may have to admit that Affirmative Action is racist, and this is a rather uncomfortable and inconvenient fact for those of us who promoted it or support it,-- but it also is a case of using fire to fight fire! It was a policy that was instituted and adopted to correct a grave and longstanding historical injustice and therefore, while it may be 'racist' in the definitional sense,--it was also just and beneficial. So, in this case, the complex and inconvenient truth is that 'racism' per-sae was used for a good end. That still does not make racism itself good--not by a long shot. (No wonder this subject has been so difficult to discuss!) but while racism itself may be evil, not all racist policies may necessarily be bad.  That is just the riddle we need to live with. All of which brings us to an even more uncomfortably complex idea,--that of 'institutional racism'.

While it is clear that peoples attitudes (for the most part--except for a hopefully diminishing number of crazies) have changed their mindsets in their daily interactions (no more Jim Crow), it is equally true that the racism that was embedded in our political, economic and legal institutions both in the South and the North is alive and well.  While this fact rolls off the tongue facilely and easily, what does this really mean and is something increasingly heard on talk shows in post-Obama America?  In practice it means that institutions used and still do provide justification and context and give encouragement and play to the dregs of racism that, while no longer approved by society in general, still lurk in the depths of our psyches.  In closed 'sub-societies', like law enforcement,--a different standard may de-facto prevail than in society at large and this double standard is then, more often than not for convenience sake overlooked. Unshakeable bonds of mutual benefit secure its continuance within the context of the legal system. It is self-perpetuating... Prosecutors depend on police, courts depend on prosecutors prisons depend on courts etc. a hand in glove relationship that facilitates swift justice but also (in the case of black individuals) often facilitates swift injustice--what is important is that there is nothing in it which requires a fundamental change of attitude from the other--it is a web of marriages of necessity,-- a complex web of inter-dependencies that no party is willing to tip in part, for fear of tipping the whole--in short, American justice functions on a sort of American version of the old European Aristocratic ideal of expediency in personal relations.

So, however, in the context of this discussion, even faced with the reality, we must consider this idea: is institutional racism a real thing?  Certainly its effects and outcomes are real and evident to anyone who care to look. (Most of us do not until something like Ferguson shows up,--or it starts raining). However if we can ascribe racism to an institution than why cannot we ascribe thought and opinion, and if institutions have thoughts and opinions than rationally speaking perhaps private institutions like corporations cannot be granted a lesser status and so we have been led down the slippery slope that led to the absurdity of a Citizens United.

So, to deny that institutional racism exists is an absurdity that flies in face of evident facts and to admit it exists within a legal context (which it itself defines) leads to yet another absurdity which is that of institutions having values and opinions that themselves need to be protected under the law. By admitting to the existence of institutional racism somehow this is a means for institutions to themselves achieve 'personhood so,--by definition,--their very existence depends upon its continued existence. This is not mere sophistry rather it is a false equality of the kind that any society generally uses to convince the most useful of citizens that they are valued when in fact though their contributions are valued, they themselves are not--in other words--in its most 'honest' form,--slavery. (And not to get all weepy about the founders'--something which they, in their wisdom foresaw as the most pernicious form of governmental arrogance)  So,--I am already mentally exhausted,--and we have not even scratched the surface or attempted to address the use of the 'n' word,-- or examined the fact that we finally have a commander-in-chief (again not to make light of recent events) who can almost carry a tune. But having pointed out the fact that words must first be 'unhijacked' if they are to serve any useful function in future conversations, I consider at least part of my part of the task done for now and so will leave it at that. 


Saturday, February 28, 2015

No Exit

I manage a page on facebook called 'facebook still sucks dot com' (which really nobody posts to except me); (and really, what has facebook done for me lately). It points out (somewhat gratuitously how I am feeling assailed and regularly nauseated by the misdirected endless stream of cardboard cutout political sentiment, the self-congratulatory vacation and dinner photos, the baseless snarkiness of the pseudo-intellectuals that inhabit the ad festooned pages of this virtual tête-à-tête,-- need I go on, (the cat photos),-- now, if you will, let me explain why I love facebook, and this particular realization came to me in one of the two places where all realizations come to me (either in the diner or in the shower),

--I was sitting eating this ham and egg sandwich (not in the shower) (quite a good ham and egg sandwich, in a booth facing the door, (actually in a state of semi-rapture because, I had just found out I could actually move the seat back a few inches further from the table--I may be a few pounds overweight) when a young man, relatively good-looking of about thirty five, with a scraggly/curly kind of beard and moustache of the kind you find in colder weather climes where shaving is a form of excessive self-congratulation,--anyway, he was flinging his arms and legs about randomly in different directions, as he entered the diner, in a manner that would have been alarming were it not immediately evident that he suffered from some kind of palsy that made these motions involuntary--anyway, I must tell you a little about myself at this point,--for some reason, whenever I see a person like this, someone afflicted in this manner, I invariably experience this intense upwelling of affection,--it is totally irrational and involuntary, I know,--the person in front of me could in fact be a serial-killer-rapist-grandmother-abuser-horse-sodomist but to me at least, they immediately take on the aspect of sainthood, and it is as if I am overpowered by what theologians have noted as the distinctive odor of sainthood, conveying as it were instantly that this person was the source of this upwelling of feeling and in other words really can do no wrong,

--now this is, as I mentioned, I am aware, totally irrational but, as I said, I really have no control over it,--so as the young man walks in and up the aisle toward me and the pasty, glum, semi-toothless, 280 bowler waitress standing at the counter greets him warmly, "Hello Wally".

Full stop--
That was when the realization hit me,--the reason I had experience this immediate emotional response had nothing to do with the qualities of this individual but was because some part of me had interpreted the wild limb waving as a kind of greeting, as if he were frantically trying to capture my attention (and perhaps only my attention),--,the situation in my warped consciousness had been transformed and it was not that he suffered a debilitating illness but rather that he was at that moment in fact, so overjoyed to see me that he had lost total control of his limbs--this is the simplest explanation but of course totally irrational, yet, I will not apologize becuase this is just the way I interpret these things,
Half stop
-- I have always been this way for as long as I can remember,--for years I remember walking down the street hoping to hear my name yelled out by some random stranger, hoping he or she was a long lost friend or brother or sister or lover, that is just the shape of my emotional architecture, I long for this abrupt and public connection with another person that will bathe me and them in the joy of mutual recognition,--and here it seems it was at last, in (of course) the unlikeliest of places,  when this young man walked into the diner so,

To get back to my original point, this is why I love facebook, it is it seems constantly waving its limbs uncontrollably in this palsied frenzy to grab my attention and mine alone,--the content or character behind the facade is irrelevant,--I just crave the mutual instant recognition it affords. This may be as shallow and irrational as posting cat pictures or last night's dinner, but I swear it is the truth. So, at the point where I find myself walking down the street or into a diner having lost control of my limbs, I only hope you, dear reader, are the one sitting there, waiting to receive this entirely
involuntary impersonal and somewhat abstract embrace.