Words on Music: ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’

Rotten Singing


“Anarchy in the U.K.,” by the Sex Pistols (1977)

So, there are about six of us, if I’m remembering right. It’s Saturday night – could be 1983 or ’84 – and we show up at what’s probably a church basement or middle-school rec room. There aren’t a lot of people here, a couple of dozen at most. There may be a disco ball. The music is Boy George or some such abomination popular at the time. This is what passes for a party in my college town.

But we know the DJ at this particular party and, earlier, in an effort to get us interested, he promised to play the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones if we showed.

Are we punks? Only a couple of us look the part, with the spiked hair and torn clothing. One of those is the girl I’m with. But me, I’m in an army surplus jacket. My fashion aspiration is Zonker from Doonesbury.

Fifteen minutes in, or so, the DJ comes through. The first sonic crunch of “Anarchy in the U.K.” clears the room, and the effect on us is immediate. It’s like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. In an instant, we go from scowling spectators to manic dervishes.

We run onto the suddenly empty dance floor just as Johnny Rotten spits the explosive opening line – “I am an anti-christ-TAH!”

The Sex Pistols had long since imploded by this time, but I’m in the mountains of North Carolina deep in the Reagan years and a song like “Anarchy in the U.K.,” in that place and time, is still cultural dynamite. And, in that musty church basement, we feel the detonation that night.

We swirl around a bit and then shoot across the floor like billiard balls, arms helicoptering. I slam into my buddy Dave, who sings in a punk band and is 20 pounds heavier than I am. His shoulder meets my jaw but I’m soon ricocheting off Dave and crashing into Stevie, his swinging arm catching me in the back of the head.

Do we have any clue about the context in which this song was written? Do we have any political commonality with the yobs of industrial, working-class England? Not a bit. We’re a bunch of soft suburban American mooches who’ve seen “A Clockwork Orange” a few too many times. We think we’re dangerous.

If “Anarchy in the U.K.” had been any longer than three and a half minutes, I probably would have ended up in the ER that night. I remember Stevie having a bloody mouth, yet grinning through it all, then theatrically snarling at the other kids, holding their red plastic cups, looking at us in horror.

Stevie was an idiot then, and so was I. He’s probably a slightly seedy middle-aged coffee-snob dad now, just as I am, just as the others are. Today I would no sooner slam dance to the Sex Pistols than stick my arm in a band saw. But when I hear Johnny Rotten choke out that opening line, something inside still flutters. It’s faint, but it’s there.

Downsizing the ABCs?



The announcement of cutbacks in the Latin alphabet came as a shock to all 26 letters. Sure, the practice of texting and the emergence of Twitter were both big blows to the language, but lay-offs? It just didn’t seem plausible.

Still, there it was – the word came down from management that linguistic times were tough, and that there was no choice but to “eliminate redundancies,” as the ominous e-mail memo put it.

But which letters would go? No one could remember the last time there was a reduction in the letters of the alphabet – no one, that is, expect W, which came into being after six other runic characters were pink-slipped back during medieval times. W was always a bit sensitive to its place in the alphabet, being the only letter not to have its own distinct name – “double-u” was supposed to be a placeholder until a proper name came along, which never happened.

Brooding on the common practice of “last hired, first fired,” W worried that it was the first letter on the chopping block. But it was Q that got sacked first. The other letters liked Q; it was eccentric and lovable, but its low usage rate (.1 percent) doomed it. The others worried what Q would do without its constant companion U, and on the day after Q cleared out its desk and disappeared, U tried to assuage the guilt of the other letters by explaining that the two letters would still work together in other contexts.

“We’ll always have Spanish,” said U, looking forlornly at Q’s empty work station.

W soon realized that it and K would be asked to take on Q’s workload. But then came the next hammer blow, the announcement that K was next out the door.

Everyone was shocked at this development. Surely, the thinking went, C was more vulnerable, having borrowed its sound from K and sometimes S, without a natural sound of its own. But, said management, C would abandon its S uses and take on all of K’s duties. Some speculated that C was saved because of the copyright symbol – money trumps fairness in all things – or because comic Stephen Colbert, whose TV desk was in the shape of a giant C, had too much undue influence. Some, though, were fine with the decision. “We can’t have children reciting their ‘ABDs,’” said L.

While the remaining letters mourned the loss of K, the next shoe dropped – Y was gone.

This development flummoxed the vowels, which had smugly assumed that they were untouchables, even a “sometimes” vowel like Y. I and E felt guilty for assuming many of Y’s end-of-word diminutive duties – why couldn’t they have allowed Y to have “selfie”? – and U tried to deflect responsibility for Y’s demise. “Hey, it wasn’t me that decided to spell ‘you’ as ‘u,’” said U.

By the end, X, J and even Z, the coolest of all letters, had been shown the door, causing the Scrabble community to explode in outrage. But instead of protesting to management, the letters only complained among themselves. P, always the peacemaker, asked if there might be room in the budget for a few diacritical marks to help the letters with their workload. “An accent or tilde wouldn’t cost that much, would it?” asked P.

Some insinuated that A, being first, should file a formal protest to someone. But that only brought up the injustices of alphabetical order, a very sore subject with this crowd. A said, with obvious jealousy, that E, with its gaudy 12.7 percent usage rate, was the only one with the juice to stop further lay-offs. E just shrugged and went about its business.

H was the only letter that explicitly considered resignation. It was already working with S, C and W to form unique sounds and now it was being asked to team up with D to simulate J’s sounds. “It’s just so unfair,” H moaned. “Just because my sound is the softest doesn’t mean I’m not working hard.”

Management, of course, gave no explanation and neither was it responding to any complaints. When it announced that the silent E at the end of words would also be phased out, a chill ran through the office. Even mighty E was not above the squeeze.

This must be serious.

Now it’s our turn … to live courageously


On Tuesday, Feb. 26, I had a mid-day appointment in the Seabright neighborhood of Santa Cruz. It was a little after 91e9c6d756ee8dc3e9d14c0d2554c4a712 p.m. when I left that interview, after which I stopped in at Shopper’s Corner where I bought a pastrami sandwich. It was a warm, sunny day, so I had my lunch sitting in my car, which was parked on N. Branciforte Avenue.

Less than a hour later, I started my car and cruised up N. B40 on my way to Glen Canyon Road and the back way to Scotts Valley, unwittingly driving past a house inside of which was an armed man wearing body armor who was about to unleash one of the most horrifying episodes of violence in Santa Cruz’s history.

But it would be grotesque vanity to claim that I had had a close call with fate that afternoon. I did not, no more than anyone else who happened to be in the area at that time. That’s because on that day, just like every day, there was a line that separated me and you from violence and chaos, a thin blue line.

The unprecedented outpouring of grief and compassion since the shooting deaths of SCPD officers Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler has been a searing experience for the community and convincing proof that cops won’t be taken for granted in Santa Cruz for the foreseeable future.

Law enforcement officers and civilians alike turned out by the hundreds to honor fallen Santa Cruz police officers Elizabeth Butler and Butch Baker March 7. Photo by Dan Coyro.

Law enforcement officers and civilians alike turned out by the hundreds to honor fallen Santa Cruz police officers Elizabeth Butler and Butch Baker March 7. Photo by Dan Coyro.

It’s also been a reminder that the death of a police officer in the line of duty is an entirely different thing than the sudden or violent death of anyone else. The latter is mostly about bad luck, bad choices, tragic circumstances or a combination thereof, in every instance worthy of our grief and sorrow.

But when a cop dies, we have to face the ramifications of the implicit social contract we have with police, firefighters and first responders, and that kind of grief is leavened by equal parts gratitude and guilt.

One of the most profound lessons all of us learn as we grow up is that civilization – the rules and agreements that allow us to live in freedom and safety – doesn’t just happen. It rises out of a primal yearning to live beyond our animal nature, in which brute strength and power are the only virtues and violence, or the threat of it, the only law.

In this sense, our humanity itself depends upon a self-selected handful of people to stand at the edge between civilization and chaos. Without them, the jungle would consume us.

We all have our place in society and we all make our contributions. But the vast majority of us live in an enormous circle, on the perimeter of which stands the men and women of law enforcement.

And we are grateful. On Thursday, you could see that gratitude in the crowds lining the streets and the overpasses for the procession to the memorial in San Jose for the fallen officers, and in the people watching it live on TV in the Del Mar and the new downtown basketball arena – inside of which were dozens of strategically placed boxes of tissues. This has been a traumatic experience and people everywhere are seeking solace in connection with the slain officers, their surviving fellow officers and in each other.

Very few lining the streets or watching the memorial knew Sgt. Baker or Detective Butler very well, if at all. But after Thursday, they were, to everyone, “Butch and Beth.”

We owe them a prayer, a eulogy, a lapel ribbon. We owe them roadside tributes and tears of empathy for their families. But we owe them something else too.

Exactly a week after the shootings, Santa Cruz painter Andrew Purchin set up an easel at the corner of N. Branciforte and Doyle Street, at the scene of the tragedy. He lingered all afternoon painting on his canvas, engaging local residents and passersby. It was his way of, you might say, re-santicifying a place of violence, applying balm to a wound.

And in the symbolism of that act is the debt we owe to Butch and Beth and every man and woman in blue. If you paint, paint for them. If you dance, dance for them. If you surf, go to Woodies on the Wharf, listen to the Giants on the car radio, take cooking classes, write short stories in hip downtown cafes, do it for them.

Because if we succumb to fear and paranoia, if we barricade ourselves in our homes, if we change the way we live based on some pet theory that this town, this state, this country is turning into some kind of criminal killing field, then we’ve tarnished their sacrifice. Policemen, fire fighters, paramedics – not to mention those in the military – do what they do as a service to you, to allow you to live as free as you imagine yourself to be. If you stop doing that, then what’s the point of their service?

You may remember the climactic scene of the 1986 film “The Mission.” Jeremy Irons is a Jesuit priest who takes it on himself to protect a South American Indian tribe from Portuguese invaders. The moment the Portuguese attack the remote mission, Irons, knowing the end is near, marches out into the open carrying a cross. When he is shot down, someone marching behind him pauses, then reaches down and picks up the same cross and continues marching forward to his doom.

The analogy fits the challenge of the police in these dark days; You and I will never know the courage it takes to wear the uniform and the badge.

But the good news for the rest of us is that to live courageously means to live as you always have, to occupy the public spaces in your town, secure in the protection they give you. It’s no inoculation against random tragedy. If it were, where’s the courage in that?

The courage is in trusting that the thin blue line will continue to keep the circle safe and intact. More so than the flowers and cards, that’s what you owe those who wear the badge, the trust that the circle remains unbroken.

Meet me on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’


When the Overlords of the Universe finally get around to visiting us here on Earth to demand the human race justify itself or face oblivion, I’ll be ready for them.

I’ll be the one standing by with an iPod and a variety of retro-fitted ear buds – just in case the Overloads have more than two hearing orifices. So armed, I’ll be able to demonstrate the mind-blowing awesomeness of the human species in just under 45 minutes.

I’ll play for them Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Of course, they might kidnap the surviving members of Pink Floyd to take with them, but they’ll go away satisfied that any species that can produce an album like that can’t be completely worthless.

To me, one of the confounding mysteries of existence is how there could be anyone in the English-speaking world with functioning ears who has never, or does not now own, a copy of “Dark Side of the Moon.” It’s like going through life without ever having tasted chocolate or seen a baby smile.

OK, so I’m overselling it a bit, but that’s what you do at a big birthday celebration , right?

Indeed, March 1 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the landmark Pink Floyd album that first showed mainstream audiences that the recording of an album was a work of art in itself, above and beyond the artistry of songwriting and musicianship. Before “Dark Side,” people were satisfied with the hi-fi in the living room. But “Dark Side” ushered in the audiophile age, an arms race to bring more and bigger and better stereo equipment into the home. It was, in many ways, the first great headphones album.

It is tempting, yes, to mark “Dark Side of the Moon” as yet another tiresome chapter in the Baby Boomers’ ongoing catalogue of “How Everything Was Better Back In Our Day.” But I didn’t discover it until I was in college in the Reagan years, and I’ve talked to musicians who weren’t even born when the album was released who readily agree it ranks as one of the greatest achievements of the rock age. Sometimes those insufferable Boomers are right.

And let’s not forget the chart muscle of “Dark Side,” a psychedelic rock album that lingered on the Billboard album charts alongside all the ephemeral pop glop of the times for an astounding 773 consecutive weeks – that’s more that 15 years! Once it finally slipped off the Billboard 200 charts, it popped up on something called the “Top Pop Catalog Albums” – a chart for old but still popular albums – for another 750-plus weeks.

But there’s more: It re-emerged on the Billboard 200 in 2009 and has been on and off that chart ever since, hitting the milestone of 800 weeks on the chart last year. In second place is Johnny Mathis’s “Greatest Hits” at 490 weeks. “Dark Side of the Moon” has been on one Billboard chart or the other for close to 30 years. It still sells between 8,000 and 9,000 copies a week. It’s a classic-rock zombie monster.

Somewhere, right this very moment, a 17-year-old boy is hearing the album for the first time and his bio-chemistry is being changed forever.

It is here where we must rise to the defense of “Dark Side of the Moon,” often thought of as a “druggy” album, thanks to its ravishing sonic textures, spooky sound effects and overall pillowy lushness. The ignorant and hostile will too easily think “Dark Side” is to the ears what giant bags of Cheez Doodles are to the tongue, a banality designed to reward the stoner for being stoned.

This is an ugly slander. You don’t have to be baked to enjoy “Dark Side” – though with Pink Floyd’s later album “Animals,” I’m afraid it’s a prerequisite.

For years, the album has been saddled with this silly myth that is actually a commentary on “The Wizard of Oz” and if you play “Oz” and “Dark Side” at the same time, the action and the music sync perfectly.

Well, OK. I guess there is some synchronicity there. But, I tried it with “Bowling for Columbine,” “Silence of the Lambs” and a couple of “Die Hard” sequels and it lined up with those too. That’s just part of the album’s genius.

The “Oz” thing is just a way to snicker about a work of genius from people who prefer their pop music less demanding. What’s really remarkable about “Dark Side of the Moon” is that, unlikely almost all its neighbors on the Billboard charts over the decades, it’s not a dance record, it’s not soaked in sentimentality and it’s not about sex. It’s about mortality, war, greed and the supreme weirdness of being alive.

And though it’s now 40 years old and though it was designed for the joys of stereophonic home listening, “Dark Side of the Moon” is still relevant as an artifact of today.

Don’t believe it? Load it on to your device, take a walk on a cloudless night, find your favorite contemplative spot – with or without consciousness enhancements – and skip ahead to “The Great Gig in the Sky.” That’s the one with the wistful and haunting piano accompanying the otherworldly wordless vocalizing that sounds like a woman being dragged through the heavens by a giant white bird to sit at the right hand of God.

I dare you not to be moved by that piece. I dare you to live with this album for a while and not trot out the m-word once you’ve absorbed its rhythms and textures into your body, to come to the conclusion most of the rest of the record-buying public has already arrived at:

This one’s a masterpiece.

The end of ‘Significant Other’: What do you call the One You Love?

huswife no words

This is the moment, people. This is the time to act.

As legal marriage between gay people becomes more common, as the whole notion of marriage shifts with contemporary values, a door is opening and we must walk through it.

I’m talking here about nomenclature – It’s time to come up with better language for the person we love.

In the last couple of years, certain gender pronouns have become attached to certain nouns in a way that has never happened before. Contemporary English is making way for the phrases “her wife” and “his husband,” triggering acid reflux in many social conservatives – I think they were the real reason the pope resigned.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on California’s notorious Proposition 8, and one possible outcome is that the Court will remove legal barriers for gays to marry all over the country. In that case, this new language will become normalized pretty quickly.

You can’t really blame gay Americans for embracing the labels that have always been legally withheld from them and reveling in the comfort and legitimacy of those words. I have a recently married gay male friend who admitted to falling in love with just saying “my husband.”

But just as gays are rushing to the titles “husband” and “wife,” straights may be moving away from them. A straight married woman I listen to regularly on a podcast once said that, in contrast to my friend, she can’t bring herself to utter the word “husband” when referring to the man she married and she’s even more horrified of referring to herself as a wife.

For close to 50 years now, “husband” and “wife” have been loaded words. Many feminists found “wife” to be a dreary, oppressive term but the real etymological landmine is “husband,” which came from the Old Norse for “master of the house” or “house owner.” The word had survived in verb form as a synonym for managing or cultivating. So buried in the very language was the idea that the man in a heterosexual relationship was the homeowner and the house manager. And the wife – the word is from the Germanic meaning “woman” – was simply … the woman. Well, that’s not how my marriage works and it’s probably not how yours works either.

This notion of the husband as the shepherd and the wife as the sheep may have once fit traditional gender roles but are today clearly at odds with modern relationships. Gender equality is hard to come by if the very words we use undermine that equality.

Of course, gays and unmarrieds know all about the awkward groping about for the comfortable term for their monogamous relationships. Both groups have, for generations, defaulted to “boyfriend/girlfriend,” which are terms that came about back when people typically married at 20 and the only times when they were unmarried were literally when they were boys and girls, or close to it. Now, we have grown adults – sometimes even middle-aged or elderly adults – calling each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” only because our language has failed to come up with alternatives.

Not that there aren’t alternatives; they’re just awful ones.

“Lover”? Seriously? First of all, there’s a too-much-information issue with that term. But it’s also more than a little bit decadent and ridiculous. A lover is something Sophia Loren might have, not you and me.

“Partner” is accurate, I suppose. But it’s prissy and uptight and sounds like a euphemism used for the benefit of whoever in the room might be in denial that anyone outside a heterosexual marriage could physically love another person. It’s also slippery and vague. You can have a business partner, a musical partner. You can even make partner at your law firm. Why is a word like that applied to the one true love of your life?

“Significant Other,” or worse, “S.O.,” is a hideous term, devoid of life, scared to death of intimacy. It’s like something that the family in the old “Saturday Night Live” skit “The Coneheads” might call each other. It’s just a step up from “Domestic Unit.”

“Soulmate” sounds good … in the bedroom, or snuggling on the couch. It’s not so useful at a business function where no one wants to acknowledge anyone else has a soul. Besides there’s a permanence about “soulmate” that can be intimidating. You might be cool with calling some decent guy you’ve been dating for three months your boyfriend, but “soulmate”? That kind of ratchets up the intensity to a high level.

“Sweety” or “sweetheart” are nice terms, but they’re way too grandmotherly. “Manfriend” or “Ladyfriend” cannot be uttered with a straight face. “Paramour” sounds like a defunct car model – I think my dad had a Buick Paramour. “Spouse” is a sexless census word that makes anyone who says it sound like a walking insurance form. “Escort” is code for hooker and “special friend” just gives everybody the creeps.

Pop culture occasionally provides us with more, uh, colorful alternatives. “Baby Daddy” or “Baby Mamma” are not references to “Baby,” as in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s a reference to a literal baby and really means, “this annoying person that I had a baby with.” In hip-hop circles, some rappers have taken to referring to their girlfriends as their “shorties.” They would so not work in my house.

So, where do we go then, when husband/wife have outlived their usefulness and the alternatives are all bad? I say to turn to another language. Spanish is great for words that are gendered but equitable, words that work for marrieds and unmarrieds, gay or straight, words not saddled with all the bad connotations of the English words we’re used to.

By the way, have you met my “compañera”? She’s as beautiful as the word, even more so.



Remembering the first Obama inaugural


The following is my three-part of account of attending the first Obama Inaugural in January 2009.

This is what happens when your mouth sometimes tends to work faster than your brain, when you see on TV a scrawny politician with dark skin and a weird name announce that he’s running for president, and you can’t fight the impulse to smirk. “Sure, buddy,” you say to the TV for the benefit of anyone who is within earshot. “If you win this thing, I’ll be there at the inaugural.”

You say it as a joke, a commentary on the absurdity of such a thing. In fact, you might have added that you would arrive at Dulles International Airport upon the back of a blue-ribbon Saddleback hog since surely the day Barack Hussein Obama moves into the White House would only follow the day that pigs learned to fly.

You think you know this country and how it acts. If there’s one thing that has never let you down, it’s your hard-earned cynicism about the American electorate. Then, this happens and you’re on the hook. Nobody remembers your facetious pledge back in the winter of ’07, but the word of the season is “audacity.” And, even in the face of a considerable logistical anxiety that has taken on the form of night sweats and serious ibuprofen abuse, you’re ready to do something audacious.

I can’t say with any kind of precision where I’ll be on the morning of January 20, but wherever I’ll be – gazing at the Capitol Dome in the bright winter sunshine, marooned on a freezing subway platform or offering a fistful of greenback dollars for access to a gas-station bathroom in suburban Virginia – it’s safe to say I won’t be alone. With my Obama-warrior brother Michael and my 16-year-old daughter Quinlyn, I’m making the trip to Washington, D.C. to take part in what is surely to be one of the most significant political moments of American – scratch that – world history.

I go of my own accord, on my own dime, not on assignment per se, not as part of the privileged news media. I’ll be among the estimated four million souls that will converge on the nation’s capitol, pushing my way through the subways and the streets alongside the rest of the Great Unwashed on the way to the Washington Mall. It’s my purpose to experience the event the way everyday people experience it, which is to say, I won’t be sharing bran muffins and French roast with Wolf Blitzer, nor catching a ride with Al Franken’s entourage. I am ready for suffering and deprivation.

Is the strict no-refund policy of American Airlines the only thing stopping me from backing out of this insane notion? Maybe. I’m not really cut out for this kind of thing. My waiting tolerance is taxed by iTunes downloads. I avoid shopping malls in December like Karl Rove avoids the Castro. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker who once cracked “I hate writing; I love having written,” I’m looking forward more to the afterglow of having experienced the inauguration than the experience itself.

But, like millions of Americans – and millions more who wish they were, or aspire to be, Americans – I have for most of my life been captivated by the idealism spelled out in this country’s founding documents and remain a true believer in the American Story, despite the cascade of evidence that suggests it all may be a pretty lie. This event, to me, suggests that moment when Idealism, pummeled and bloodied, finally rose up off the mat to flatten Cynicism, however temporarily, with one well-aimed and devastating blow (a left hook, surely).

I do not go to Washington, as some of my conservative friends might believe, bearing frankincense and myrrh. The rapture accompanying the election of Obama is bound to exact a price sooner or later. In fact, my cynical side asserts, the inauguration may turn out to be the highlight of the Obama presidency. We really haven’t seen this kind of hubbub around one ritualistic event since the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di, and we all know how that one turned out.

Yet, even if Obama turns out to be Millard Fillmore Jr. – or worse – that’s all really beside the point, isn’t it? This event is symbolic of what we’ve all been led to believe about this country as schoolchildren – that your future is not bound by your past, that your upbringing does not necessarily determine your destiny. In almost every other country in the world, that’s just not true. But here, men like Carter, Reagan and Clinton – all of whom came from obscurity and/or poverty – prove American exceptionalism.

Obviously, Obama breaks a barrier that his predecessors didn’t have to worry about, and that matters, in a big and important way. Just a few years ago, a divided country could still agree on one thing: a mixed-race kid with an African name whose mother once took food stamps had no chance at becoming president. Up until Nov. 3, 2008, there were still those holding on to that belief. No more. Obama’s election means, for good or ill, that America is still open to anyone.

On a personal level, my trip to the inauguration feels like the opening moments of a cute indie film, a kind of Sundance-friendly comedy that might work well as a double feature with “Little Miss Sunshine.” I will carry with me the best wishes and a few good-luck mementos from friends in California radiating hope and envy. Conversely, I will see red-state relatives who take a dim view of Obama and all he represents. I suspect I will get to know my brother and my daughter on a deeper level than I do now, and that we will have random experiences – absurd, profound, disorienting or a combination of the three – that we can not now quite imagine.

But the real reason I’m doing this? Like almost every one I know, my experience of the country where I was born is too often mediated through TV, the Internet, newspapers, etc. Of course, media technology is one of the greatest things about being alive today, but there’s no hi-def digital big-screen TV that can ever equate with being in a place in body and soul, witnessing history outside the lens of a camera.

Because what the camera won’t capture is the breathtaking electricity in the air, that feeling you get in enormous crowds that you’re a cell in a giant organism, that indefinable spirit that there are ghosts around you, envying you being alive at this time. I can do something that Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer and Thurgood Marshall can’t do. I can see something that they and millions more long-dead souls paid for in blood, sweat and tears.

Lincoln can only witness this in marble. What would Walt Whitman give to be in my shoes this week? Man, I would love to conjure up that slave-owning idealist Thomas Jefferson to stand beside me, just to watch his head explode with cognitive dissonance.

The idea of America is something that grows and matures with every American as he or she gets older. This event gives me a chance to stand beside two people I love and literally millions of others with whom I share a less immediate kinship, and meditate on my own rocky relationship with those old notions of patriotism – the “sweet land of liberty” as the song says – and do so without irony or detachment, and with a heart glowing with pride – even if it is on a freezing subway platform.

If I had been a Boy Scout – if I had not, in fact, been waylaid by the onerous demands of the Webelos – this week might be a bit easier. But the whole notion to “Be Prepared,” as the Scout motto goes, is still a work in progress for me.

The trouble is that the two people who are accompanying me to Washington, D.C., to experience the inauguration of Barack Obama – my brother Michael and my daughter Quinlyn – have similarly sketchy histories with the Scouts. As a result, we are setting out for Washington with somewhat less preparation than, say, the Allies had in the liberation of Normandy.

Though, we do have a plan. With maps of the area laid out before me, and Google Earth at my fingertips on the laptop, we sat at a table dreaming up a suitable strategy to slip into the nation’s capital. I felt like Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” and waited for Mike to take on the role of George C. Scott. But he was agreeable to everything.

Our plan, approaching the city from the south is to swing west, away from the core of madness at the Capitol steps where the swearing-in is to take place. We’ll find some way to park at the outermost subway station on the southwest corner of the metropolitan area, where we will join the queue to board the train.

We’ll disembark at Arlington National Cemetery – maybe pay our respects to JFK – and walk across the bridge closed to cars into D.C., sneaking up behind the Lincoln Memorial. We’ll wander, gawk, dance in the streets, high-five the new president, make several new friends-for-life, breeze through the Smithsonian and be chilling at a convivial D.C. brew pub by nightfall. Easy as pie.

I’m trying to exude confidence, but I feel a bit like that wretch who convinced the Donner Party to take a shortcut. Michael sees through my desperately manufactured equanimity, and suggests we could be marching to our doom, referencing that 1979 Who concert in which people were trampled to death by a panicked crowd.

Getting trampled? Thanks, bro. I was just thinking that the list of things to get freaked out about – weather, toilets, traffic, lines, food, thieves, toilets, cell phone outages, exhaustion, cheesed-off Secret Service agents, did I mention toilets? – was just not quite sufficient.

My problem is that I don’t know how to find the right measure of preparation. My efforts to be prepared are largely mocked by my 16-year-old offspring in whose eyes I am half-insane with irrational worry. I packed so many winter clothes for my flight that my bag was too heavy to check, and suddenly, I was in the middle of a “Seinfeld” episode, having to board wearing four shirts and two jackets pulled from my suitcase right there in front of God and American Airlines.

I bought a big bag of hard candies made from coffee, so we’ll able to meet our caffeine intake requirements without the burden of extra fluids, since the idea is to concentrate on Obama Nation, not urination. I crawled all around 70-degree Santa Cruz in search of thermal long underwear, and what did I get for it? What anyone who spends any time around a teenager gets – that baleful half-smirk that is universal non-verbal communication for “I’m in the presence of a world-class idiot.”

My unease is only inflamed by the wall-to-wall media coverage of the inauguration. I know it’s historic and all, but wouldn’t it be nice if the celebs would just stay at home and let us normal folks celebrate for once?

Maybe if Bruce Springsteen and Denzel Washington and Jessica Alba and their substantial entourages and bodyguards weren’t around to push the radius of the crowd further into Virginia maybe even West Virginia, then maybe more of those anonymous working-class heroes the Democratic Party loves to evoke wouldn’t have to experience the event on the outside looking in.

As for our intrepid trio, we go to today’s epoch-making inaugural actually hoping to encounter some difficulties. An experience like this feels like it should be earned with sore feet, cold bones and over-stressed bladders. To all those who paid for Barack Obama’s ascendance to the White House at the blunt end of repression, violence and bondage – whatever discomfort we experience? That’s a day at the beach.

On the day that Barack Obama became President of the United States, the Potomac River was frozen. In the dark, pre-dawn hours, the river ice reflected a gray and ominous sheen. But in the afternoon, after Obama had taken the oath of office in front of an immense crowd still astonished that such a thing was actually happening in front of their eyes, the Potomac’s ice changed character. Almost as if Obama’s inaugural committee had planned it, the river turned into a sparkling expanse of what looked like crushed diamonds. Now, that’s a president who knows how to make an entrance.

Was it cold on this particularly historic event? Oh, no colder than the seventh moon of Saturn. It was cold enough – particularly with a wind that could peel the paint off an oil tanker – to make a person renounce the religion of his ancestors in exchange for a lukewarm cup of coffee.

It was the kind of cold that I and my traveling companions – my daughter Quinlyn and my brother Michael – will be boring our loved ones with for decades ahead. And what’s more, we lingered in that cold for eight hours, either walking or standing just about the whole time. At the end of the day, my feet were hamburger, my back had seized up, my face had turned into a rubber mask, and my kid was contacting a lawyer.

Still, going to the first ever inauguration of a non-white person in U.S. history was worth every torment – though, don’t put me under oath and ask me if I would do it all over again.

What made the day magical was the unexpected. To get a jump on the crowds, we went absurdly early. That meant our first experience of the event everyone has been wringing their hands over for weeks – Four million! No, five million! – was as a ghost town.

We arrived from our subway stop at around 4 a.m. and walked the bridge across the Potomac virtually alone, giving a certain dizzying surrealism to the whole event. And I’m left with moments I’m sure I’ll die with.

At the Lincoln Memorial, in the wee hours before dawn, only a handful of visitors moved in and out of the great marble chamber where Abe sat on his throne. A few wandered away, and suddenly it struck me with a sense of crippling awe, that I was, for a few minutes, utterly alone with Abraham Lincoln’s iconic likeness on the one and only day an African-American had ever become president.

We had assumed that even at this ungodly hour, people would be carpeting the National Mall, but we virtually had the thing to ourselves for a couple of hours. We saw the black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the blackness, but the numbing cold had robbed Quinlyn of proper daughterly curiosity about American history. As the sun rose we found ourselves with the Washington Monument at our back and the majestic tableau of the U.S. Capitol before us.

It was an astounding ritual as we watched the world’s strongest nation exercise peaceful transfer of power while our extremities went numb. After Aretha Franklin’s arresting version of “My Country Tis of Thee,” my usually blasé brother pointed silently to his eye, where he had managed to squeeze out an already half-frozen tear.

After Obama’s address, we adjourned into a maze of madness trying to escape the Mall, only to be driven well to the south against our will. But even that had its pleasures.

We looked up in time to see Marine One, the helicopter now transporting former President George W. Bush out of Washington D.C., hover above the Capitol and circle the crowd. Most of us on the ground, even many experiencing cold-induced organ failure, knew who was in the bird. Thus, thousands of people were afforded the satisfying thrill of saluting an outgoing president as he flies into history. Sadly, there were very few “atta boys” directed at him, and I indulged in the fantasy that Bush’s final experience of Washington D.C. was looking down at me, though he was more likely gazing out at the Potomac and its crystallized icy surface, ringing the city like God’s own diamond necklace. (Jan. 21, 2009)

The myth of the ‘slippery slope’


Since we’re now in ski season, I suppose it makes sense that we take a minute to celebrate this thing called a “slippery slope.” With apologies to the masochists known as cross-country skiers, skiing wouldn’t be much fun without some kind of slope, slippery or otherwise.

So, as a literal thing in the world, you have to love it. As a metaphor, though?  Ugh, the slippery slope is crippling us.

I refer, of course, to the slippery-slope argument, a rhetorical device you hear over and over again, particularly in political or social debates. It sounds cogent and rational. And it’s many times difficult to counter. But it’s almost always bogus.

The slippery slope argument can be used to marshal resistance against some form of permissiveness, or against its opposite, some kind of limit.

In the former category, we have the counter argument against gay marriage that states if we allow men to marry men, or women to marry other women, what’s to stop polygamy? What’s to stop a person from marrying his dog or her horse or his car? If we allow anyone to marry any person, persons or thing, what the heck will marriage even mean anymore?

In the latter column is the argument against limits, now being employed with ferocious combativeness by the gun lobby and Second Amendment purists who contend that legislation to control, say, banana-clip magazines that allow you to shoot 100 rounds a minute leads inevitably and inexorably to law-abiding citizens being picked clean of any means to defend themselves including kitchen knives by chrome-helmeted government thugs.

Not to pick on the right wing on this score. You hear plenty of slippery-slope nonsense on the left as well. There are some atheists, for instance, under the impression that a nativity scene in a public park is the first step toward  a theocratic state with Pat Robertson making all the rules. Civil liberatarians often resort to the slippery slope on such subjects as government surveillance and wire-tapping.

In most cases, right or left, people trotting out the slippery slope are not talking about the thing itself, but about some lurid nightmare fantasy they’ve convinced themselves is possible without absolutist diligence. What might sound absurd to you sounds just as absurd to the slippery sloper, but in a Kafka-esque, it-could-happen way.

This is, in many ways, a very American problem. Our Constitution creates absolutes when it comes to things like free speech, freedom of religion and, many believe, the right to bear arms. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say, “Well, that’s a gray area. Use your best judgment, but be smart about it.” The Constitution invites us to draw lines in the sand, to use a similar cliché.

But absolutist thinking should be regarded with great heaps of skepticism. Free speech is about as close to an absolute right as we have, but even that has limits. The Supreme Court has decided that you have no right to deliberately scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, or its metaphorical equivalent.

That case dates back almost a hundred years, yet the slippery slope from that decision should have delivered us by now to prisons full of people jailed for nothing other than saying illegal things. The 26th Amendment, to cite another example, granted the right to vote to anyone over the age of 18 more than 40 years ago. Slippery-slope arguments at the time insisted that the pressure would continue to push that age every lower, which means by now, first-graders should have the vote. It was argued a century ago that allowing women to vote would inevitably result in a government made up entirely of women. Yeah, how’s that working out?

The maddening thing is that slippery slopes do exist, in everything from sports-star salaries to Internet usage. The U.S. Senate’s current crisis in the use of the filibuster is an example of dealing with an especially pernicious slippery slope.

Every public decision to limit or permit rights or privileges has some kind of natural equilibrium in the real world. But few of us are wise enough to know what that level is beforehand.

Which is exactly why the slippery slope argument – which is rarely accompanied by any real evidence – is almost always a fallacy. If we allow A to happen, then B,C,D and E will follow with ever accelerating force until we come to rest in some hellish situation that we had not foreseen.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia employed the slippery slope argument against the health-care law last summer, stating that individual mandates to buy insurance on the free market could lead to the government legally forcing Americans to eat broccoli, which is a particularly weird kind of tyranny, if you ask me.

The point is not that the idea of mandatory broccoli intake is several degrees beyond ridiculous – though, I should add, I’m already on board with broccoli (yummy).

The point is that if anyone should be wary of slippery-slope thinking, you would think it would be someone sitting on the Supreme Court. And if the Supreme Court is engaging in this particularly persistant form of irrationality, then what hope do the rest of us have in combatting it.

The slippery slope is an illusion but it will remain a favorite tool for dishonest and deluded people until someone puts their foot down, and discovers that that foot is not sliding after all.


Christmas morning, blow by blow


Welcome to the first ever live blogging of the Baine family Christmas morning – which should also be the last ever blog post created on this beat-up old laptop I’m using. Let’s just say I see a new dual-core MacBook Pro in my immediate future, unless Santa is a total flake, which certainly can’t happen two years in a row. C’mon, I’ve been good! At least, relative to my relatives.

8:32 a.m. – We’re still waiting for Passive-Aggressive Teenager to wake up. She made an announcement last night that she had figured out that Christmas was a “lurid orgy of materialism” and that her conscience was too tender to participate  as anything other than an “anthropologist,” whatever that means. She can Occupy her bedroom all day, for all I care.

8:34 a.m. – Hyperactive 8-Year-Old Nephew is jumping around like he’s got Mountain Dew in his veins. There’s no lobbyist in Washington that works the floor harder than this kid is working it right now, going from adult to adult looking for any hint of a green light to attack the mountain of presents. The kitchen smells like that kind of coffee you can only buy in December. Christmas or not, there’s going to be an uncomfortable scene if there isn’t an alternative to Pumpkin Spice Egg Nog Decaf.

8:36 a.m. – The dam of tasteful adult restraint bursts and the kids descend on the tree like hyenas on a wounded antelope. The Wife is in the middle of it all, trying to maintain some kind of order, which is difficult without an airhorn. I offer to pass her the fireplace poker. She’s got a notepad in hand, determined to catalogue who got what from whom. I don’t see this an ideal occasion for bookkeeping myself.

8:51 a.m – The first gift of the day for your correspondent and it’s … a San Francisco Giants World Series Championship T-shirt, a hot item from Christmas 2010 which is, I figure, stale enough now to be had for $5 on a Target clearance table. Hey, there’s a recession going on. I’ll take it. Last year, I got a Mardi Gras 2006 T-shirt. It’s better than that, right?

8:56 a.m. – Hipster Younger Brother and Sentimental Mom are having the first loud confrontation of the day. Bro has put on some insufferable re-mix of Christmas songs he found on the Internet that just sounds like musical vandalism to me. Mom just wants some nice Nat King Cole. Bro’s looking for some support, but Mom plays the trump card. “You can play that stuff all day long after I’m dead and buried.” Is it too early for the rum?

9:06 a.m. – Devout Sister-In-Law is dressed for services and standing out in the driveway talking to Single Neighbor Lady who is holding a pie. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but it’s clear from Neighbor Lady’s expression that Sister is reminding her how the rest of us have forgotten the Reason for the Season. No argument here.

9:12 a.m. – Passive-Aggressive Teen shows up, stands in the doorway with a sneer and goes back to her room. We won’t see her until Wednesday.

9:17 a.m. – The Wife didn’t respond to her gift from me as I had hoped. She probably didn’t even know she needed jumper cables. She’ll thank me the next time she leaves her headlights on at work.

9:31 a.m. – I get a lot of dirty looks when I decide to start up my brand-new leaf blower in the living room. Thought it would be a good way to get on top of this wrapping-paper situation. At least, Nephew likes it, especially when I aim it as his face. Man, I’m going to have some fun with this baby.

9:35 a.m. – There’s a guy in the kitchen I’ve never seen before.

9:42 a.m. – “Little Drummer Boy,” beautiful song of devotion or wretched ear torture? The opinion seems about 50/50. There are no fence sitters on this one.

9:48 a.m. – Someone holds up a truly ugly sweater from a gift box. There could conceivably be times, I suppose, when you want to be truly repellant to the opposite sex. I share my theory that there are only six ugly sweaters in existence and they’re all in constant Christmas-gift circulation.

9:59 a.m. – Nephew and I eat a whole jar of maraschino cherries together. He eats three quarters of them. We have to do it quickly before his mother sees. This is what Christmas is all about. Red-toothed Nephew apparently agrees.

10:07 a.m. – The Wife wants the Christmas lights turned on. It’s broad daylight, I tell her. What’s the point? She says it’s just the right thing to do. I again point to the sun in the sky. We could go on all day like this. I do what I’m told.

10:13 a.m. – The painful truth is becoming apparent. There is no MacBook Pro in this house. Santa blows it again. Funny, when I was a kid, you wrote a letter to Santa, dropped in the mail and, bam, he delivered. Every year. Now, even with e-mail and Twitter and texting, the guy never seems to get the message.

11:02 a.m. – Nephew is in the throes of sugar-induced ecstasy, dancing around like some Sufi mystic. Someone dragged a finger through the bean dip. I picked up what I thought was coffee, which turned out to be root beer from last night. The Wife is asking about the empty jar of maraschino cherries. The stereo is playing what sounds like a Johnny Mathis song, if he were drunk and underwater. I grab the ugly sweater and put it on. Mom hands me the phone and demands I speak to Dotty Hard-of-Hearing Aunt. And I do.

God, I love this holiday.

Never-ending American violence — React. Reflect. Repeat.



This is what we do in America. Whenever we are confronted with a despicable act of violence against innocent people like what happened Friday morning in Newtown, Conn., we play out a mass response as ritualized and predictable as kabuki theater.

Horror and heartbreak filtered through contemporary media culture manifests every time in grab-the-lapels news coverage, sidebars about the accessibility of guns and a cascade of “thoughts and prayers” statements by celebrities and public officials, the more daring of them mixed with an enough-is-enough broadside against guns.

I’m certainly not cynical enough to believe that such a response is done with calculation or self-justification by anyone, regardless of their stance on the gun issue. It is, instead, the path of least resistance to those deeply troubled and/or outraged by such acts. How else do you express a sense of anguish and empathy this overwhelming?

But somehow we have to find another way to talk about these kinds of tragedies, because our responses to them are becoming rote and commonplace, a thought that should be nearly as disturbing as the original act of violence itself.

This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t talk about guns. Count me on the side of those who believe we should talk about guns loudly and forcefully.

But let’s for a moment leave the gun-control debate to others. There are two factors at play in these quintessentially American horrors and only one of them has to do with firearms. That’s the how. But we need to address the why.

I think most Americans – left, right and center – can at least agree that there is something disquieting happening at the core of American public culture these days. It’s something that often pops up as public displays of anger and vitriol that many times flirts with paranoid delusion. Maybe it’s always been there and we just never were exposed to it on a mass scale before the Twitterverse.  Regardless, we live in a culture where violent rampages against strangers, though never condoned, are now simply not beyond the pale of American daily life. We call such acts unacceptable, and then by our continuing inability to address how to stop them, we quietly accept them.

Yeah so, humans are occasionally capable of unspeakable violence. News flash. Still, the nature of these incidents and their commonality suggest that this is an American thing, a revelation that puts an ugly stain on that old trope of American exceptionalism.

A political culture held hostage by the NRA is only one way into this thorny existential dilemma. In the history of inhabiting the North American continent, violence, particularly at the end of a gun, is deeply ingrained in the American DNA. But instead of facing up to that violent impulse, Americans tend to romanticize and glorify the more Wild West aspects of American life, and translate those aspects into the way we act day to day.

We’ve come to believe that competition in a free-enterprise system has to be ruthless to be effective, that individual effort and initiative is the primary factor in who succeeds and who fails, that respect is only truly earned with menace. “The Lord helps him who helps himself”; “Speak softly and carry a big stick”; “Trust the Lord and keep your powder dry” – these are the songs in the American hymnal that we’ve all internalized.

Lurid revenge fantasies of one man against the system – it’s always a man, it seems – find a warm, hospitable place in the American psyche. Even arguments in favor of the Second Amendment suggest that vigilante violence lurks just beneath the veneer of American life, ready to be revived at the first sign of government tyranny.

Pop culture is dotted with myths and stories, the first assumption of which is that nobody has your back, least of all institutions such as government, education or big business. Reality shows celebrate dog-eat-dog justifications to win. The most critically praised TV show of the era, “Breaking Bad,” is, at its heart, about a decent man pushed into the illegal drug economy by a system that didn’t value his talents.

Add to that legacy deep economic insecurities, unprecedented wealth inequality, political figures not above scapegoating an indistinct “them” – immigrants, politicians, hedge-fund traders – as the source of your problems and what we have is a culture that acts as an incubation chamber for angry, alienated people to give in to the impulse to “go out in a blaze of glory,” to point to one particularly odious and fundamentally American cliché.

Like most Americans, I don’t want to ever get “used to” the kinds of devastating events like the one that took place Friday in Connecticut. But the alternative is painful, difficult, costly and requires millions of small and large acts of courage over generations – to face squarely the American propensity to violence and its spiritual component, the absence of empathy and respect for others.

There is something frightening unfolding in our larger culture. More and more people are beginning to feel that they’re being exploited and/or abandoned, yet they don’t have a way to know by what or by whom.

We keep calling these kinds of tragedies “senseless,” and therein lies the dynamic that perpetuates them. We are sense-making animals. We better start applying some sense to random violence and our cultural responsibility for it, or these things will continue to shatter our otherwise quiet routine mornings … again and again and again.



The People Vs. the Rolling Stones

Help me out with something here, readers.

Is hating the Rolling Stones a dangerous and contrarian “emperor-has-no-clothes” kind of stance? Or is it obvious and tiresome, like declaring “Y’know, I really hate flying coach”?

Because I have recently had yet another flare-up of a lifelong disdain for the aged bad boys of rock ’n’ roll and I just need to know: In terms of hatred for the Stones, am I part of the 1 percent, or the 99 percent?

If you haven’t heard, I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but the Stones recently announced that they’re getting back together for a series of concerts to mark their 50th anniversary as a band.

The first of those concerts, in fact, is set to take place today in London with a few follow-ups shows in early December in New York and New Jersey. The big news this time is that former Stones Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor will join the band for a reunion that I can find no evidence that anyone was even asking for.

In the news items about the new tour, I looked in vain for that word “farewell,” but alas found nothing of the kind. The Stones have apparently just turned the corner on the way to 60.

Hey, it’s no skin off my nose – or maybe I should say lips – if audiences still want to see a bunch of scrawny old guys plow through “Honky Tonk Women” for 10-millionth time. But, to quote a Stones song from the disco era, how are we ever going to “Miss You” if you won’t go away?

I’m not here to argue that “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile on Main Street” weren’t groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll records. Of course, the Rolling Stones of that first decade were giants of the genre. If rock ’n’ roll was invented to give voice to teenage alienation, then no song has ever topped “Satisfaction” in that category.

And I’m not declaring that all aged rockers need to do the world a favor and disappear. Bob Dylan has been touring and recording longer than the Stones, but the obvious difference is that Dylan has gone through several wholly distinct creative periods – many of them weird and awful, but that just underscores his artistic integrity. Dylan is still, even at 71, capable of surprises.

The Stones, by contrast, are the world’s most expensive jukebox. Put in a quarter – or, to be more accurate, $830, which is the general admission price for the New York show – and out comes “Brown Sugar.”

I’m a kid of the ’70s, so it’s true that the Stones’ greatest period of creativity was already in decline when I started buying records. But, in terms of image and career arc, I can’t resist a comparison to a band of my era. When KISS first emerged in the mid ’70s, they also were a dangerous band that scared the wits out of parents. Yes, it’s a comparison likely to give a Stones fan an aneurysm. But in both cases, a transgressive teenage rock sound has become a pitiless and cynical corporate brand.

With more than a half century of rock music behind us, we fans have learned a few overarching truths about the rock revolution. And one of them is that bands have a lifespan, at least good ones do. The Beatles’ break-up was shattering for millions back in 1970, but looking back, who can doubt such a thing was inevitable? Up until the moment when John Lennon was killed, the pressures for a Beatles reunion were building to a “Day in the Life” kind of crescendo. Maybe, the Fab Four would have succumbed to the pressure and re-united for a few shows just for the paycheck. But can you imagine the intact Beatles in their 70s playing shows today? Lennon never would have allowed that to happen. Just imagine what John would have to say about Jagger and the Stones today? There’s a tweet I want to read.

Those of us who love rock ’n’ roll, from Chuck Berry to the White Stripes, like to think of great rock music as a kind of untamable buckin’ bronco on which very few can ride for long. The Sex Pistols, the best bad rock band in history, came together for one brilliant album and one insane besotted American tour, before dissolving before the world on stage in San Francisco. That’s an extreme case, sure, but man, what a shooting star that was. Try to imagine the Sex Pistols playing in 2012. It would be like eating a great meal you ordered 30 years ago.

A band’s lifespan doesn’t have to be short. REM, for instance, bowed to the inevitable a couple of years ago after a long and magnificent career that I’m sure has set up all the great grandchildren of the band for life. Perhaps the dreams of U2’s Bono is troubled by such thoughts right about now too.

The point is that the Rolling Stones have transcended that natural lifespan for a rock band at a terrible price. These guys are a zombie band now, a cynical oldies act with nothing new to say to the world except, “pay me.”

For any true music fan, the ironies are almost too bitter to contemplate. The band who said “I can’t get no satisfaction” are the very definition of “satisfied.” The band who said, “You can’t always get what you want,” continues to get everything they want by ransacking their legacy.

But, in one surely unintended way, Mick and Keith and the boys are right. For those of us immune to the charms of the Stones, we can’t ever get what we want.