Friday, June 29, 2007

Strange Fruit

The analogy of a tree bearing fruit as an image of a man and his works is quite common in the Bible. Matthew 7:15-20 for instance:

'...Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits...'

As time passes on and the time left for the present administration fades away, I've had my mind wander over what lasting results will occur from the catastrophe of the last six years. It will take a generation to repair some of the damage done to government institutions and to our standing in the world. Other things could take far longer to fix, if they ever can be. But it is starting to feel that the President's choices for the Supreme Court will be among the worst problems we will have to deal with.

This morning I read of the latest Supreme Court Rulings, including the one that essentially overturns any possible enforcement of Brown. There are a lot of unpleasant undercurrents in our country that can be hard to pin down, but the memes tend to run along the lines of "Brown was useful once (like unions) but it isn't really relevant any more" and "Racism isn't the kind of problem that it used to be." They're the sort of things that you can chat about at parties and sound wonderfully moderate and even-tempered. So it can be hard to get worked up about a Supreme Court case that, in one way of looking at it, seems to indicate that we have solved these 1960's problems of racism and segregation, and so let's get on with solving the problems of the 21st century.

Except of course, one would be utterly full of shit to argue that.

In an odd timing, the Jena case in Louisiana got resolved today. No, I hadn't heard much about it either. The press coverage has been minimal, probably because it's not the kind of story to make us feel very good about ourselves. Some background here:

'...In September 2006, a group of African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana, asked the school for permission to sit beneath a "whites only" shade tree. There was an unwritten rule that blacks couldn't sit beneath the tree. The school said they didn't care where students sat. The next day, students arrived at school to see three nooses (in school colors) hanging from the tree....

The boys who hung the nooses were suspended from school for a few days. The school administration chalked it up as a harmless prank, but Jena's black population didn't take it so lightly. Fights and unrest started breaking out at school. The District Attorney, Reed Walters, was called in to directly address black students at the school and told them all he could "end their life with a stroke of the pen."

Black students were assaulted at white parties. A white man drew a loaded rifle on three black teens at a local convenience store. (They wrestled it from him and ran away.) Someone tried to burn down the school, and on December 4th, a fight broke out that led to six black students being charged with attempted murder. To his word, the D.A. pushed for maximum charges, which carry sentences of eighty years. Four of the six are being tried as adults (ages 17 & 18) and two are juveniles....'

Today the first verdict was handed out:

'...An all-White jury in a tiny central Louisiana town found a Black teen guilty of assault and conspiracy in a racially charged drama involving the beating of a White schoolmate....'

So we can thank the President for the Strange Fruit of his tree. Normally I would end with a quote from the famous song, but I think that the Rude Pundit nailed it our of the park today:

'...Fuck you, Sandra Day O'Connor. Fuck you, fuck you, and, uh, oh, fuck you. Fuck you for stepping down, yet still being able to do work like for the Iraq Study Group. Fuck you for putting yourself and your family above the good of the country. And fuck you because, even though you're a conservative who allowed George W. Bush to take office, we have to wish you were still on the court. Fuck you because you probably would have voted differently than Justice Alito on both desegregation and late-term abortion, maybe even on the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case. Fuck you, and, hey, by the way, fuck you, Senate Democrats, for not having the balls to filibuster John Roberts or Samuel Alito. Don't fuckin' crow about how you voted against them. You could have stopped them...'

Monday, June 11, 2007

Streetlight People

The story is that when you die, you relive your life episodically. Or at least right before you die. Like when you're hit by a bus, or having your skull crushed by an SUV filled with your grandchildren after being shot in the head.

In most of our cultural references, replaying your life involves a series of scenes, rather than a coherent narrative. And though its never, ever, mentioned or referred to, one living in our culture constantly judges his or her own life in reference to that - will that last experience I had make it to the 'top ten' that I relive in that moment of death? Or maybe not - I maybe just patterning. But, still, it's not a bad way to organize one's experiences.

Don't you agree?

Growing up in the twentieth century has also introduced another aspect to our lives that is almost never mentioned - the concept of soundtrack. Each one of those episodes has its own tune to go along with it. One struggles to imagine it otherwise. Sometimes the music makes one glad to be alive; sometimes the music is an embarrassment - a song that haunts you from the very beginning of its release, confounding you as to why it gnaws at you so. Dear God, please make it stop. But, no, it still plays on and on and on and on...And eventually marks an episode, usually one that will make the top ten for no damn good reason other than God foresaw it (or at least Augustine would have said so)

In the spring of 1984, it was time for me to visit colleges. I visited two. The second was the one I went to, the one that sang to me, Washington University. A good choice, looking back on it a generation later. But I did visit one other.

In the spring of 1984 I visited UC Berkeley. Just me and my dad. Pretty much just a day or two. And I only have two memories of the trip - the first was a visit with a faculty member in the administration. She went on and on and on and on about how the department was amazing, because the first project was to draw the absence of a chair. And I had no problem in getting in, as all I had to provide was my portfolio.

Not even knowing, yet alone giving a shit, about what the 'absence of a chair' was, I certainly wasn't going to put together a non existent portfolio to apply to the place. So I gave up on Berkeley about an hour after arriving.

The next day, I got up with my dad and we went to have breakfast at a place on one of the main streets of the city - I couldn't locate it today with a gun at my head. We walked in, and ordered...well I completely forget what we ordered, other than it included a massive glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. And that's when the memory began.

I'm sitting in this cafe with my dad, drinking a tall glass of the finest orange juice squeezed by mankind (which I can still taste to this day - nothing ever has compared) and suddeny this song comes on the juke box. Yes a juke box at nine fucking in the morning.

And it's by fucking Journey. 'Don't Stop Believing.'

And everything in my life slid into place at that moment. I have a few more months to live with my parents and then I'm on my own. I had just made my first real life decision, on my own, that the next step of my life, the first I would be taking without my parents, I had just made the afternoon before: that I wouldn't be going to Berkeley, that architecture school run by hippie idiots. My first big decision of my life and I had already made it without realizing it. But I realized it suddenly then, in the company of Journey, a crappy band, and my father, one of the most under appreciated people who ever lived on this planet.

And to the day I die, that moment will be one of the top ten of my life. And the soundtrack is a Journey song.

We can't pick the songs for our life - they just happen to us; although we get warning of it in advance. When we first hear a song that will leave a mark, we know it instinctively, even though the 'main event' hasn't happened yet. Often the song needs to build up first before it hammers itself in. Or at least, that's how it seems.

The memory triggers for all of this are rather obvious - the final episode of The Sopranos. The last scene's soundtrack is the same song - 'Don't Stop Believing'. And either Tony's Family sits down in that divey diner and has a lovely meal, or they get rubbed out by the guy heading into the bathroom. The show has always been a bit of a Rorschach test. What happens is up to the viewer - sort of like the ending to the Gospel of Mark. 'And they were afraid.'

I also remember the first time I saw an episode of the Sopranos. Season Two was about to start on HBO, and I was on my own for the first time in years - I had just moved into my own apartment. I had subscribed to HBO for the first time, and I needed to catch up before the show began anew. So I went to the video store on a Friday night to pick up the episodes of Season 1. Of course, it being a Friday night, the DVD copies were all checked out, so I had to settle for a VHS copy that had episodes 1 and 2 on them. I rented it out, took the tape home and plopped it in, cats on my lap, and a bowl of Mac and Cheese for dinner.

I pressed play.

After the opening credits (which, if there is any justice in the world, will become the official film of the state of New Jersey) Tony walks into his shrink's office and starts talking about his day. He's in waste management, you see, and he had a problem with some guy who owed him some money. They sat down to talk about it over coffee, like reasonable people. And then the show cuts to Tony trying to drive the guy down on a college campus, plowing up flowers with his SUV, with nary a care about the rest of the world. And I immediately ejected the tape, returned it to the store, and bought the entire first season on DVD; the first time I ever purchased a TV show.

Years have passed since then. And I have never missed an episode. I will miss them now. For I feel that it is the last show that will sing to me. HBO, in its marketing wisdom, followed the last episode of the Sopranos with the first episode of its new show, 'John from Cincinnati'. And what a show it was - amazing to watch, crazy shit going on. And I don't give a damn. Not a single damn.

TV has changed, for me at least. It's miles better than it was when I was growing up - the only aspect of our culture that has measurably improved over the past 30 years. But I think that we're done now. It's all just a matter of playing catch-up. Miltch gave up on Deadwood to produce 'John,' a show with a terrific cast and interesting things to see which is all just a bunch of sound and fury. But it reminds me of what a friend of mine, Heather, said to me in high school when 'Don't Stop Believing' hit the charts in 1981, two years before I went to Berkley.

'You'd think that musicians with that kind of money would know how to dress better.'