Adulthood, Religious Belief, Correct Argument Style, Power

Heading into a restaurant the other afternoon, meeting up with some friends, and one friend’s young son, I mentioned to the waitress in passing, as she gathered up the kid coloring sheet and crayons to provide, that it’d be nice to be able to get that excited about simple things again. I meant this in a kind of grouchy old man way—after all, it’s been a long time since I could be satisfied with a dot-to-dot of a frog. I was a little taken aback by the reaction of the waitress, she near swooned as she got this faraway look in her eyes and gushed, “Oh my god, I’d do anything to be a kid again.”
I shouldn’t be surprised by this, I suspect that many people have this same fantasy, and I’ve been rather surprised to see so many Youtube videos and behaviors at a wide variety of events seeming to celebrate nothing more than adults desperately behaving like babies. I was informed by an adult friend, though a good number of years junior to me, that everyone wants to be a kid. So it turns out I’m in a deep minority when it comes to this simple lifetime occupation: I’ve been seeking to be an adult my whole life. Not only that, I’ve been seeking other adults to do adult things with. No wonder I’m frustrated, I live in a culture devoted to maintaining perpetual childhood.

I was reminded of this recently as I saw a kind of Norman Rockwell style illustration of a plump tot kneeling at some sort of alter with hands steepled in prayer, eyes shut, lips a bit fish-pursed. People in my range of friends on social media, perhaps two or three times separated were gushing about it. I dismissed it as a mommy’s unshakable affection for the tot, but I swoon twisted around it and realized that this isn’t a cute image of a child that all adults can relate to as offspring, inspiring love and caring in normal adults, but, that insidious desire to be that child. And moreso, to identify as that innocent, know-nothing at the feet of the presumed granddaddy of us all, God, or Jesus, or Allah, or whatever these folks prefer to think of as their great sky-lord / daddy. And I have to say I find the idea disgusting as well as potentially harmful to all of us. Granted I may be over-blowing the whole “I’d do anything to be a kid again” motif, but we don’t need a world of kids. We need a world of sober, sagacious adults. I can’t help but see the scuttling out of the light to hide under a blanket of baby-dom as a sign of futility and copping out. Not to mention that the actual children occupying the world right now need us to act like wise elders to preserve for them a chance to . . . well, hopefully not fuck things up royally, though there’s little reason to be terribly optimistic about it even if we all did pitch in as grown ups and do our part to pass on a better world.

Two things occupy my bitter brain, 1. belief in an omniscient and personal god has the potential to spoil adulthood by removing the believer from responsibility. Responsibility is a key feature of adults. As a child explores and learns, the little ones are running back to the safety and wisdom of the parents. If those parents are little more than aged babies themselves, I see nothing but a perpetuation of fear and loathing as prevalent as the flu. 2. belief in a god, or gods has the potential to create in us a worldview that our activities are not damaging to the world. Most of our climate change deniers are either in the business of polluting the Earth, or are folks who want to imagine that their god would not let such a thing happen. Both outlooks are potentially dangerous. Lastly, and I won’t travel far down this road, religion in general is a tribalism. While the best of the philosophy has been presented as uniting all people in love and understanding, most often religion in practice actually encourages ferocity and exclusion. A poll on an NPR show this morning discussed how religious folks only want same religion immigrants (as if that were possible, there’s some 4600 or so documented different denominations of just Christianity! And as far as sects below that, good luck getting a count.) While I’ve heard of liberal Christians, I’m still not so sure I’ve ever encountered them, nor seen much of their influence.

Being an adult is tough. It hurts. It means admitting errors, and taking the responsibility to fix such things. Ovid pointed out that worry is a terribly destructive occupation, and that instead of worry we should endeavor to be patient and very tough. We can’t control everything, but we can respond as best as possible. We can’t fix the past errors and horrors of our world, but we can seek to do better moving forward. Which is why when so many progressive fixes get undone by a growing mean underbelly of a culture, it becomes a menace and a concern (patience, toughness). None of us want to see racism and a winding back of the clock to a period in our history that embarrasses us and potentially harms others. The idea that a know-nothing clod is “shaking-up” the staid and lousy political system, by being an outsider, is a popular mythology. We have piles of senators and representatives who are basically children. We have huge swaths of people preferring ignorance to understanding. We have fear instead of knowledge. We have an industry of rapid and in our faces media dedicated to bringing us every last scrap of bad news possible. Even when, in reality, a single buffoon screaming at someone, or getting into a fist-fight affects almost no one. When the video is going to be a fire, or a piece of paper with legislation on it that potentially changes our society—bet on the fire being broadcast. Media knows what we want to see, and manipulates us emotionally despite the fact that it is purely without a wider meaning.

We are animals who get excited by violence, conflict, sex and babies. Even when these items are of little influence in the overall scope of how we live our daily lives you can be sure the information generated for you will be based on those items.
A woman I worked with years ago explained to me that she loved eating those little snack trays you get at Walmart (and other places) that have the fake cheese and crackers and little bit of processed sandwich meats because it brought her back to playing video games on the sofa with her grandma. Another buddy of mine hates all fruits (and likes damned few vegetables too) except he’ll sometimes force himself to eat a pear, because his grandpa suffered him to eat a pear, and it was a good memory to hang with grandpa. I enjoy adult time with my folks. I suppose I’m lucky (and sometimes unlucky) to have them as a grown man, so that I can both enjoy them in the light of adulthood, as well as enjoy the mild bickering that arises from philosophical differences. Perhaps that’s part of adulthood in that we should enjoy the differences, and that like Socrates, as presented by Plato, we should adult in smart discourse. Smart discourse is not always easy to get, however, as most folks are not trained in the art of stating a proposition and backing it with evidence and merits. Instead, they tend to state obvious opinions (mostly half-baked) and expect you to agree through a process of badgering and anger. This too is something we should appreciate, and learn to correct, and smilingly do so. Just responding with crotch kicks is unlikely to cause us any real rise in societal skill level-up.
In closing I’d just like to remark that my childhood was fine. I even had a pony for a while! And a cool .22 caliber rifle. I had miles of country, forests, and streams to wander, and bugs, salamanders, and turtles to play with. What I suffered from was a strong frustration with powerlessness. I was keenly aware that choices were not mine, and that things I wanted were forever out of reach. I felt the dominance of parents as a kind of over-lording force that I didn’t appreciate. My dad’s method of convincing you of his rightness was just to threaten you. I always despised that, and grew up with a strong sense of injustice in it. That injustice sense is alive and vibrant to this day. No authoritarian gets to make case based on position or threats.
So its time to buck up and dump the magical irresponsible world of childhood and embrace the power and wisdom of being grown people. I realize it’s hard, and that it’s tragic, and that it’s worrisome. But it is also beautiful, sexy, and full of capacity for participation if you can keep yourself awake late enough!

Donovan, Butthole Surfers, Transcendence, the Perfect Woman

While listening to some old Donovan tunes, it occurred to me that God parting the Red Sea was a pretty good miracle, but still within the thinking caps of the ancients. What would really have impressed me, and Pharaoh I think, after all the stick snakes and deluge of frog nonsense, would have been a Carnival Cruise Lines ship there picking the Jews up and taking them off on an all expenses paid vacation. I don’t care how hardened Pharaoh’s heart had been then, that’d have been a winner.

So Donovan is a kind of mind-bender, Mellow Yellow, while at times obviously overproduced and welded inexorably to the middle-aged producer expectations of music of the mid-sixties, or as Zappa would call them, the cigar-chomping guys in suits, has a lot of carnival pablum interspersed with some very clever and catchy folk style songs. Those cigar-chomping guys grew up with twenties arts, and so we ended up–in the sixties–with strange throw-backs to an era no one alive now has a connection to with things like “Winchester Cathedral”, and the Beatles doing absolutely non-rock pieces like “When I’m Sixty-four”. It’s an interesting leap from the rockabilly of Chuck Berry and Link Wray, which launched all those British Invasion kids, to the sounds of Cole Porter who would be dead in 1964 as the invasion got underway and I was born!

There’s this old theory of fashion and psychology that states whatever was going on when you were a tot becomes the mythic “good stuff” of culture, it becomes your preferred culture. Many of my favorite things do indeed reflect that precision, the giant-eye-lashed girls in go-go boots and sack dresses doing the Mashed Potato behind lip-syncing bands on television broadcasts. The artistic aesthetic of Lava Lamps and black and white Godzilla (or any monster) movies. I love movies with Jean-Paul Belmondo or Lee Marvin driving Renaults around dangerous curves. And I’ve still never really gotten over the calculus in my mind that the ideal woman is Goldie Hawn from the film version of Butterflies Are Free.

As I time travel forward from this era, however, into my twenties in the mid-eighties I become an aficionado of the Punk Rock. To do so, I all but become exclusive about it. I relegate my Psychedelic Rock, my old British Invasion disks, and even my Creedence to the back of the stacks. Records were my lifeblood, I lived, ate, and breathed albums. I didn’t see the point to any other artistic expression, at the time, and I had strong, possibly testosterone induced officious opinions about all of it. I could rail at you for an hour about why you should be in awe of Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, X and the Minutemen and forget your Tull and Doors and Hendrix. The sophistry included a lot about realism, and dedication to the art of the everyman rather than the haughty overproduced wealth and glut of the Led Zeppelins and Bostons. This was as much taught directly to me a few years before by The Sex Pistols themselves, it was their argument as well. Music should be in our own hands, it’s a participation “sport”. And join in that sport I did, with my group of disaffected young men who basically argued with each other until we created these lock-step, four or five minute riffs with a teen angst lyric plastered over. It was fine, but never satisfied me. I keep needing it to take another step, be something a bit more exhaustive. I couldn’t tell you at the time but the niggling answer to the problem was something along the line of our lack of musicianship x my testosterone frustration (lack of sex, and a desire to somehow achieve manliness through the power of music) all divided by the four lonesome souls that made up the corners of this cellar rock band wound up producing in me a greater lack of satisfaction than the earnings I blew on some broken used amplifiers when my pre-CBS Princeton couldn’t cut through the din of our shit P.A. system.

The singer, as is usually the case, always had a girlfriend, and we would all roll our eyes and suffer a bit inwardly when he changed them as frequently as sneakers. A good part of punk, at least as I saw it, was that nothing–not effort nor money—need be invested in a look or style. Punk was what you had. Of course, not everyone felt this way and millions were made selling so-called punks their style, which baffled me.
Years later, after all of this was just kind of an embarrassing youthful mess of expectations unmet, arguments undead, and relationships crotch-kicked too many times we finally called it quits after expanding the band into a larger unit that, while having more musical potential couldn’t get out of its own way long enough to keep me from arrogantly treating the whole enterprise like it was a joke. I didn’t mean it guys! I was just stupid.

I don’t remember how it happened but around this era I got my hands on a Butthole Surfers record. I think it was Rembrandt Pussyhorse, which has some of the darkest and most singable tunes on it. I must have spun that disk 1000 times and thought to myself, this is it. I developed my passion (which is what passion is, not found, but developed) for the guitar styling of Paul Leary, and fell head-over-heels in love with the irreverent wildness of one Gibson Haynes. It wasn’t long before I also had Locust Abortion Technician and the one with the horrible image of what looked like a rotting corpse on the cover, as well as a couple of expanded twelve inch disks with pieces that were evidently jams and other psychic weirdness like “Moving to Florida”, a one tone beat-bash with Gibby sounding like an aged drunk explaining to us that “LBJ was a soviet Jew” and that “they be makin’ tadpoles the size of Mercurys down in Florida that be telling Julio Iglesias what to sing”. I was enthralled with this irreverent weirdness. When I saw them live, I went alone, I couldn’t interest anyone else in the value of this band, despite the venue (the old Living Room in Providence) being packed. They were loud, and at times didn’t even seem to be playing a song. Gibby lit his hand on fire and offered it to the audience. He ran about looking totally like a drug-addled street person and while on the face of it I didn’t know how to express what I as getting, the man was more entertaining than anything I’d ever seen or heard previously. He was just what I needed when I needed it. They ran disturbing films on a sixteen mm projector directly over themselves and the entire experience was something transcendent. Later I understood that it was nothing less than a full on sensory abolishment. I’d had a transcendent experience. When I got back to my cellar band I couldn’t explain it. Each example I gave of the thrill I got from the show left my guys looking concerned or just unaffected. “I wouldn’t think you’d like that kind of thing,” my bassist and best friend said. “You gotta go next time they come, you just gotta see it.” I gushed like a believer. And, of course, nothing I could do with my band, playing the same tunes we’d been working on for years, our repetitive one riff blasts, could no longer surprise or satisfy me.

I had always been disinterested in covering songs. I was sort of a hard-ass when it came to who we were and who we should be. But then, even the Sex Pistols covered songs (though not PiL). But the Butthole Surfers covered several. High on the list was their amazing blast of “American Woman” by the Guess Who. In all honesty it’s a fairly raucous and straight jam of the song. Gibby doesn’t stay true to the lyrics at all, he invents his own rather bizarre scenes of police and loudspeakers, but the song is wonderful. The same with Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”, transformed into “Sweat Loaf”, which when done live had Gibby riffing from the Doors’ “The End”. All of a sudden my having grown up with the older rock was making sense. The Butthole Surfers weren’t shitting on anything, they were celebrating all of it in their own wild and some might say Texan way. Then came their cover of Donovan. I didn’t even know what a Donovan was. I’d been all through Bob Dylan and even had a good feel for many of the old folk and blues guys that were referenced by Captain Beefheart through to Zeppelin but, Donovan had slipped by. When the Butthole Surfers did “Hurdy Gurdy Man” I could not imagine that I was listening to a psychedelic rock song by a cute, beloved sixties troubadour. But there it was, in all its glory, Donovan was done true. The Butthole Surfers barely fuck around. Maybe I misread the irreverence! Imagine calling your band the Butthole Surfers. Who could be that brave?
During the 90s Stereolab got me fully into Krautrock, and Beefheart’s introduction to Ornette Coleman took me down that long freejazz warren informing me of the “punk rock” of Coltrane and Ayers. I’m no longer an exclusivist, I’ve grown up and embrace all the milestones and all the great musicians.

In picking up a recently released (just weeks ago) book about Can (All Gates Open: The Story of Can by Young and Schmidt, 2018) I have been transported once again to the sixties and seventies to find out that these legends, these musical heroes of mine, were once again regular folk. They were full of arguments and expectations and efforts that failed and others that unexpectedly took off. It always blows my mind that people who do admirable things are just like everyone else. They’re dedicated workers, building passion and hoping for the best. It shouldn’t be something that surprises us, but almost everything in our culture points away from this truth. We love a genius myth. A genius myth also exonerates us of blame when we don’t succeed. But it’s wholly unnecessary, there’s a lot of good luck involved in success. And we need to recognize it and be kind in the meantime.

Flags, Pride, Dukes of Hazard, Patriotism, Masturbation


Good evening, cruel world. I was thinking recently of a friend from the 80s in western Rhode Island, where I come from originally, who jumped onto his drum riser and plastered a big ass rebel flag on the wall behind his brand new set of black Tamas. Seeing the crossed bars and stars I was immediately put in the mind of Bo and Luke Duke, the Dukes of Hazard County and their quarrels with Boss Hogg and his ridiculous deputies. Daisy Duke, of course, took must of my attention since I was a burgeoning youth finding the pleasures of self manipulation in the shameful addicts manner (Space 1999‘s Sandra really did for me!) of sticky hot and itchy summers and wads of tissue needing to be collected before Mom discovered so many of them. The popular association of the confederate flag, back then, was a quaint and tired reminder of some kind of roguish outlawism. Something about bucking authority, but for the correct reasons. Bo and Luke Duke were never pushing heroin or running guns to gangs, in fact I can’t remember much of what they were doing except driving the silly car around and firing off arrows with dynamite taped to them. Just the same that day, when Jerry, my new drummer, grinned wickedly at his confederate flag antics ready to be challenged—we didn’t challenge him—the only thing I thought was, huh, he likes Dukes of Hazard. He was a new friend, and a couple of years older than myself, and I wasn’t about to grill him about the meaning of said musty old flag. It looked good there, it brightened up the room a bit. It was promptly forgotten. I have no idea what became of it. It never made it on-stage with us. I’m not sure if I’d have thought much about it if it had.

In reading about post-WW2 bikers I was taken a bit by surprise to find that many of those old vets who adopted a renegade lifestyle on their various road machines were sometimes party to wearing a swastika or two. As a youth it was popular in school to make graphite tattoos of them and lick your hand or arm, and plaster them to yourself. One day my maternal grandfather, who had mapped bombing routes during the war (and driven a taxi for money) asked me what I thought an old timer would do if he saw me wearing such. My sixth grade brain was obsessed with war, and the only thing that came to mind was shooting. I figured an old veteran would shoot me. My ever polite grandfather dismissed me, had no more to say on the subject, but I could tell I’d disappointed him and I ceased making further swastikas which for some reason were the easiest and most obvious symbol a twelve year old boy would make in those days. Maybe it was all the World At War television I’d been steeped in.

About the old vets I’d been shocked to stupefaction to hear one, who haunted the shop I worked at in the late eighties, spout such energetic anti-semitism (Hitler was right about one thing, he’d said, kill the Jews!) that I wondered what he fought that war for. But it’s obvious, we just would rather not see it that way. In retrospect, I realize that so many of those old vets were kids, children really, as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in Slaughter-house Five, and really were only fighting because they were told to. They were right because they were American (team America), and that was that. Only later would they mature, and possibly get some idea of what the story was and what the world was built around, and that Roosevelt couldn’t walk at the end, and maybe getting off the farm, or out of the docks was the greatest adventure they’d ever had, but only would they understand the immense sacrifice when they were mature enough to do so. Go back in time and maturity becomes rarer. People died younger, had families younger, but their chances for self-examination and criticism were likely as rare as bags of money on the street. Hitler had that one thing right, the old vet wanted me to know. Me, a fella he barely knew, but could see by my youth that when he was my age he’d been in Europe (possibly in lands he couldn’t find on a map) fighting and struggling with people who “talked funny”. And the reason was probably more along the lines of them dirty Japs attacked us.

My friends want to go even further back, tossing the world wars aside, the second and then the first, the so-called Great War. Lurching even further back, across the turn of the century, scrambling over the Spanish-American spats and the Native American wars and back to a time when our nation alone fought over slavery. There are no veterans left of this ridiculously old mess. They were all ancient geezers by the time film equipment became common. However, it has been shown that this period of our history still reverberates and historians far and wide point out deftly that America probably can’t really be understood without a firm grasp of the politics leading up to and becoming that immense fuck-up known as the Civil War.

Shelby Foote points out that there were a thick bunch of problems involved. Some of those issues had to do with the very same concerns that embitter people today. Can a group of East Coast situated elites really properly govern such a huge nation? Apparently Lincoln won the office with about 40% of the popular vote, and his name didn’t appear on many ballots in various regions of the South. It is in fact rather understandable that so many people thought the nation too big to manage as it was. Hell, I’m wishing I could secede now, watching our current administration bluster and bully and bullshit its way to shaming us all. And maybe secession wasn’t such a bad idea. Who’s to say that it would have been a terrible happenstance, and hell, maybe we should have left the West to Mexico as well, instead of exercising our expansionist whims. But, this is all fantasy, we have the world we made, and digging up the dead, heroes and cowards, traitors and revered statesmen and pretending we can kick some of them in the crotch and give others postmortem executions (a la Cromwell, who’s head – stuck on a pike on the Tower Bridge, and later falling down in a storm, became a polite parlor curiosity). Oooh, some of my friends are saying with rage, if only Robert E. Lee were here now, I’d kick his damned ass. And, of course, the reason why is slavery.
Some years ago I had a short-lived fling with a lovely girl who was born in the south, but most raised in educated in New York. She still remembers being taunted by the school kids about slavery. Make no mistake NYC had not been good to blacks either. It’s not like the North was the land of equality and progressive race relations. It was not, and the fact is we are still struggling with this issue. The Civil War in some version seems to continue.

It continues in the idea that stupid soldier children (and I’ve just read Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer) who march off with their weapons are fighting about our modern concepts of social justice. And this is folly as much as my friendly neighborhood WW2 vet was fighting to free the world from the tyranny of Nazism. He was not. The children we call up and arm and teach to shoot and march are mostly dumb as ax handles. Honorable perhaps, eager, no doubt, but largely equipped only with a gang’s mentality of hating whatever isn’t familiar. Robert E. Lee was offered the command of the Northern Army by Lincoln. Lee refused and ran to Virginia. His home. Because that’s where a boy wants to fight. He wants to fight with his friends against the invasion of the “holy land” that he grew up on. Where his ancestors (possibly) are buried. The children called up and armed for this crusade were the same as all such ignorant young men, and exhuming them and crotch kicking them is about as sane as imagining the Legions following Caesar should have figured out that Roman imperialism was a vicious cycle of oppression and slaughter and they should have voted Julius out of office. He was, in fact, stabbed out of office, but that’s another story, and it didn’t slow the next several centuries of Roman evil on the European continent and elsewhere.

Today the confederate stars and cross seem to be mostly associated with patriotic morons who hate society. They hate learning, they hate science, they hate arts, they hate anyone who doesn’t look exactly like them and behave exactly like them. They seem to be fixated only a few very dull topics. Mostly a cynical and cerebrally lethargic addiction to one of the many forms of Christianity available in their hometowns, and firearms. I say they are lethargic because they mostly aren’t too uninterested in knowing what their old books actually have to say. It’s more a team adherence. It is part of their birth piety, and having very little else going on in their lives the accidents of their birth, the basic cultural items surrounding them become matters of irrational pride. These people will kill you for what they believe to be the rightness of their accidental lives. Let that sink in. Most folks are too permanently juvenile to learn how to be introspective about their lives and beliefs, and instead are more likely to fight you to the death about the rightness of them. Like a deadly sports team fandom the reasoning is entirely missing. I have a friend who raves about one of his favorite children’s books, Little Black Sambo. Simply because he was raised with it, he presumes it to be untouchable and unimpeachable heritage. Religion often comes fully equipped for battle. Questioning a believer about belief, for many, is the same as violent attack. This outlook maintained is pure senselessness. You are not insulted by people trying to understand you. If you are unable to explain yourself, that’s on you. Are they even reachable with reasonable argument?

The crotch-kicking, in my view, is unlikely to convince anyone of your vital argument. It might feel good, but then so do most drugs.

In my view, jumping to the punchline here, paying your taxes is patriotic. Dedicating to a career of service of some sort, construction, teaching, banking, maintenance of infrastructure . . . are all patriotic. So is creating small businesses that serve a public good, even if it’s basically just recreational. Patriots dedicate to adding to the nation, being of use, and contributing to the common good. That’s patriotism. Because a nation isn’t some intangible thing with a flag waving over it, it is, in fact, people. And it’s time for a new national anthem that celebrates that, instead of war and slavery. And it’s time to stop pledging to flags and instead pledge to one another. And it’s probably time to reexamine pride, and perhaps lose some of that august indignant bullshit attitude. We’re just people after all, most of us just trying to get by.