Washing Dishes as Antidote for Apathy

Help wanted sign on the Mexican border.

Tom Sietsema, the excellent food critic for The Washington Post, wrote a fantastic piece about dishwashers (in general) and his experience, as a dishwasher, on 8/7/17.

I highly recommend this piece to anyone, but to be certain, anyone who has never worked in the service industry will be enlightened.

Long and short: Sietsema volunteered to go inside a busy restaurant to see, and feel, firsthand, what it’s like. Why?

Because I wanted to experience firsthand the job that CNN star Anthony Bourdain says taught him “every important lesson of my life,” the one New York chef Daniel Boulud calls “the best way to enter the business.”

There are several illuminating observations, and here’s a short history of why, inside successful restaurants, reliable dishwashers are not only appreciated, but celebrated:

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

Without them, “everything would break down.”

“We don’t call them dishwashers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.

When I start my shift at Caracol, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, Keller’s words are echoing in my head: “Everyone in the restaurant depends on you,” he told me. “If there are no glasses, drinks don’t get served. If there is no silverware, tables can’t get set. If there are no pots or pans, food doesn’t get cooked.”

I couldn’t help, reading this piece, hoping a handful of ignorant or apathetic folks might gain an otherwise unobtainable appreciation for how difficult this work is, how important, and how anonymous. With my own considerable experience in the service industry, I never need to be reminded that the most challenging job is done by those who are paid the least. That our restaurants and, not for nothing, our economy, rely on the efficiency of these folks, many millions of whom are casually derided as “illegal immigrants,” is one of the obscene ironies of a uniquely American cognitive dissonance, one that has been utilized to cynical effect by our current president and the imbeciles who support him.

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Why bring politics into it? Short answer, duh. Longer answer, courtesy of the ever-reliable (and prescient) George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Speaking of Orwell, it was his seminal memoir Down and Out in Paris and London that helped me understand, appreciate and articulate the historical and sociological interstices of injustice. As important, he was the first great writer I encountered who described the marginalized with both empathy and rigor. The typical authority of his observations satisfy on literal and artistic levels:

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendor –spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth…There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food…the room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat…This washing up was a thoroughly odious job –not hard, but boring and silly beyond words. It is dreadful to think that some people spend their whole decades at such occupations. The woman whom I replaced was quite sixty years old, and she stood at the sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, the year round.

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Check this out:

A dishwasher in a busy restaurant is a modern-day Sisyphus, sending his load of clean plates, cups, glasses and utensils steaming and shiny up the hill to hungry patrons, only to have a fresh batch of soiled work come back to him, over and over until that last cycle has gone through the long-suffering machine. And yet there’s a satisfaction in this. While it’s repetitious, by the end of the evening there’s an end, an immutable sense of accomplishment, having ensured all the dirty objects have become clean. There’s a cause and effect, a purpose served, that makes even the most demeaning and thankless work rewarding in its way. It’s an occupation everyone should be required to try at point or another, but a job no person should suffer through for more than a few years.

That’s an excerpt from my as-yet unpublished novel, The American Dream of Don Giovanni. Inspired in large part by actual events experienced by the author during his times in “the industry,” it presents, I hope, as accurate a portrayal as possible of this world.

More politics? Definitely.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like Down and Out in Paris and London changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions (and the immigrants providing so much of this industry, and revenue) are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

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Here’s, well, an excerpt from an excerpt. My short story, “No Tengo a Nadie“, is an excerpt of sorts from the novel. (I’ll embed the link to the published piece, below.)

Washing dishes, for instance, is a good job, particularly in light of the alternative options, such as the uncertainties involved with construction work, or moving furniture, or washing windows two hundred feet above the ground, all outdoors, all day, in summer and winter.

Two jobs, the same job. The same work at two workplaces. A necessary and normal routine, because none of the employers are interested in paying overtime. The better jobs, in the better restaurants (where they will provide you with plastic gloves, apron and a free meal each shift) do not come easily. Even if you are fortunate enough to find one, or make the connections necessary to get considered for one, there is always the fear of being replaced: you are easily expendable since the supply considerably outweighs the demand. So, you work.

***

From his cramped corner in the sweltering kitchen, he grabs another steel pan—the same one might get scrubbed clean thirty times in a single evening—and gently places it in the sanitizing solution, always a numbing, not unpleasant sensation after the steaming mess of filthy water. It does not take long for the feeling to leave your hands if you left them too long in the cold, deceptively soothing water, as he discovered once while emptying a drain clogged with broken glass. He didn’t feel a thing until he pulled his shredded hands out into the warm air and saw the blood bubbling through the holes in his rubber gloves.

 

 Read the rest, via the link below.

No Tengo a Nadie (Pushcart Prize Nominated Fiction)

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How to Kill a Cliché: Celebrating Sam Shepard

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Lee: …That’s stupid. That’s one a’ those?—?whadya’ call it? Whadya’ call that?
Austin: What?
Lee: Whadya’ call it when somethin’s been said a thousand times before. Whadya’ call that?
Austin: Um?—?a cliché?
Lee: Yeah. That’s right. Cliché. That’s what that is. A cliché… that’s stupid.

True West (1980)

My personal mantra, for more than two decades, has been doing everything humanly possible to make my life more artistic. That doesn’t merely extend to pursuing creative goals, but actually striving to some sublime, evanescent sweet spot where the lines blur: art as life and life through and in art.

From my own experience and what I’ve seen, read and heard, even our best literary practitioners have had a difficult time doing this with success. Most writers are on record, with equal parts regret and impunity, confessing that in order to fully dedicate themselves, it was inexorably at the expense of friends, family, life itself. Conversely, the inimitable Oscar Wilde lamented “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
The moral? Artists, too, are only human. Even the best of the best can only do so much, and something has to give.

This is one of the many reasons Sam Shepard has long been both idol and inspiration, as a writer and person. Off the top of my head, I’m not certain I can pinpoint anyone from the 20th Century who more fully realized his potential, as individual and artist. Like Wilde, he was blessed with talent and charm (not to mince words, he was a beautiful man), and he somehow managed to incorporate virtually every cliché of Americana, distilling it into his own, unique persona.

Semi-tortured artist, channeling our pathologies via works that were, on arrival, sui generis? Yes. Prototypical rugged individual, who mostly shunned the hackneyed trappings of fame, preserving both his integrity and his soul? Yes. Man’s man comfortable in the outdoors, and adept at working with either animals or his bare hands? (Quick: think of how many playwrights you’d actually be able to hunt with, get shitfaced with, talk books and music with, and with whom you’d hope to have by your side if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most contemporary men of the pen, Shepard could change his own oil, literally and figuratively.) The dude who got to spend quality time with Jessica Lange? Yeah, he did that too.

Oh, he was a pretty good actor, as well. A leading man who, like Neil Young, preferred heading into ditches of his own design.

As I said, clichés abound, but Shepard somehow wore them like rented tuxedos, suitable for the occasion. Actually, that’s not accurate; Shepard never rented or borrowed anything. That was the point of him.

Shepard managed to be his own man while inhabiting what we talk about when we talk about masculinity?—?both the manufactured and instinctive types. He was, in short, the real deal. Jim Harrison came close, Charles Bukowski, in his way, was a kind of poor man’s everyman; Ernest Hemingway was a legend in his own tortured mind (but, in fairness, he could walk the walk on a fishing boat or in a bar brawl). I’m still not certain there has been a superstar who stayed at the top of his game, on so many levels, for so long. To invoke the overused parlance of our time, Shepard acted like he’d been there before, even though he was continually exploring previously unmapped territory. Perhaps he’d appreciate the irony of using clichés to describe an iconoclast who obliterated cliché.

My favorite fact about Shepard, which has been confirmed in myriad interviews and features over the years, is that he could?—?and regularly did?—?just get in his car and drive. Anywhere, nowhere. He wasn’t running away, and this never seemed like some half-ass Jack Kerouac trip (In fact, I can’t recall a writer who more convincingly invoked nostalgia without being cranky; who could articulate what we’ve lost or are losing, sans sentimentality).

Check this out:

So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin’ down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.

That’s from True West, arguably his best play, and probably his most autobiographical. It contains multitudes in ways that would make Whitman blush; it’s about nothing in ways that make Seinfeld seem like even less ado about little; it’s about everything (or at least identity, men and America) in ways that manage to make even DeLillo seem inadequate, or at least academic. Like a much less loquacious David Mamet, it captures and celebrates the drunk poetry of passive-aggressive male dialogue (not to mention the poetry of drunken men not being poetic) and nails both violence and ritual in ways that recall?—?and rival?—?the best work of Flannery O’Connor and Martin Scorsese.

In this one play, Shepard somehow manages to diagnose and deconstruct what it means to strive: as an artist, as a man, as a son, brother, father and failure. There’s plenty of humor, of course, but there’s also an unblinking desolation that Cormac McCarthy has made a career out of: we can attempt to outrun or outgun fate, or reality, or even cliché, but it’ll find us, eventually, alone and vulnerable. Go West, young man, the cliché says, and many men?—?famous and infamous?—?have died trying.

Did any writer go as deep and dark, so far and insightfully, into the machinations of mythologization and destruction inherent in our American Dream mythos, as Shepard? Plays like Buried Child (1978) and Curse of the Starving Class (1978) lay bare the hard scars of family dysfunction, the near-impossibility of self-invention (or reinvention), and the unappeasable thirst for something sweeter, better, different.

Shepard, with a historian’s appreciation for, and understanding of, a less complicated but more complex era, became a custodian for posterity. His ability to translate archetypal dreads for audiences without his acuity make him preternaturally modern. Time won’t touch his work, because his characters, and their concerns, are never here nor there; they might hope or need to be anywhere but in the present tense, but the forces compelling their motion (forward or backward) are infinite, and immutable.

Shepard needed to be everywhere, and nowhere, in order to write the way he lived, and vice versa. Self-aware but not above some old-fashioned existential angst, his art didn’t reflect his life so much as subsume it. Above all, he understood that conformity is the biggest cliché of them all. Even when he lit out for the lower frequencies, he always knew where he was going.

*This tribute originally appeared in PopMatters on 8/8/17.

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Celebrating Sam Shepard and the Artistic Life

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First off, before reading anything I have to say, do yourself a favor and check out this beautiful, eloquent tribute from Patti Smith.

Sam Shepard is one of my literary heroes, and it can suffice to say that my development –as a writer– would be incomplete without his positive influence. And, perhaps more importantly, my personality, such as it is, would be less happy and less, period, without his masterpiece, True West. I’ve been on record, literally for decades, wondering if and when smarter minds will prevail and make the production (recorded for PBS in the early ’80s) available to the public. Inexplicably, it never has been. That we live in an era of 24/7 everything, for free, and this performance, featuring the lean, hungry and brilliant John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise, before idiocy set in, survives only on old VHS cassettes and (thankfully) YouTube is a travesty.

Anyway, I could say a lot about what Shepard’s writing has meant to me, but a picture speaks proverbial volumes, right? Check this out:

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That’s, obviously, from a journal, circa 1990-something.

Sure, I’m embarrassed by how breathless and adolescent it seems. But that’s what young crushes are all about, right?

And I was young, and I was smitten.

If I’m older now, I hope I’ve learned a bit about both writing and life. But that initial enthusiasm remains, only now, having gotten a decade or two experience under my belt, my reaction to Sam Shepard is more like awe. That type of originality and brilliance is not something you can imitate or necessarily aspire to; it’s sui generis. But in addition to standing alone as superlative art, it also is a touchstone of inspiration. If you can’t at least attempt something unique and moving, why bother?

For that alone, I’ll remain grateful to have discovered Sam Shepard early, and ensuring he was never far from my eager eyes.

It’s 2017, which means (among many other things) that an increasing number of icons from the 2oth Century are going to be leaving us. That they’re irreplaceable is obvious; but some icons are more iconoclastic and inimitable than others. There should be a special place in our hearts, as writers, readers, Americans, humans, for role models like Sam Shepard.

 

 

 

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July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

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If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

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(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

 

This is old school, I say

to my niece who, at five years old, is now

the same age her uncle was when his parents

transported him to this place—new then, old now.

 

Old school, she repeats, repeating things

I say because I’m older, because I’m still

interesting, because I am…old school.

Even I can see that.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again,

someone once wrote and he was wrong.

 

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.

Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.

(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child

who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,

in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—

to the old streets that I came to outgrow,

the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,

exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

 

You can always go home, and you need to go home.

It’s only when you want to go home that you should

start asking yourself some serious questions.

 

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.

She also doesn’t ask if I ever played

Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.

Those games got neglected, or else we learned

to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.

And I wonder if we are better off:

Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is

queer and no enjoys being…over.

 

I put away childish things each time I think

about them, storing them safely inside my heart

where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

 

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.

(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows

enough to understand her uncle was never young,

the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and

far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

 

Question: Can you play?

Remember when that’s all we used to say?

Summers summarized in a phrase we learned

eventually to overlook.

 

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)

was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat

we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where

Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,

and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway

those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

 

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,

this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember

block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes

and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything

but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)

I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:

If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;

That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

 

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball

anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

 

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it

ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,

We were old school). Without a second thought

we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

 

We never thought twice about it—we were young.

The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.

(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole

for all the allowance money I never earned.

I know there are rats and who knows what else

down there: the things our parents never realized

they should warn us about.)

 

We never worried about the things that weren’t

waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

 

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,

just in time, before I can call attention to it,

two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.

That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about

my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

 

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).

That’s how it happens.

This would never have happened, then.

 

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats

did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

 

But this is what happens when you go away.

Back then, in our close and cloistered community

even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

 

Or maybe they were mortified, because

bent over with booze or barbiturates they were

silently screeching behind closed doors,

all of us, unknowingly, out in the light

winning the World Series, while wicked women

garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind

the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

 

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.

Please allow them to have been happy,

in our memories if not in their actual lives.

 

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if

I think hard enough, I will recall things

never said and therefore never forgotten.

 

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,

which tastes unlike anything other than

what it is: freedom.

 

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),

with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs

we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

 

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.

It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes

like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,

a manufactured feeling, just like in school

it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

 

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:

That they never tell you about until you’re old enough

to know better: that’s what freedom is.

 

Curiosity killed the cat,

someone once said and they were right.

 

But something’s going to get all of us

eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

 

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home

(they can always go home), back to their families and

those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

 

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,

and everyone present around the table when

dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?

I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

 

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—

dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—

Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,

keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

 

Curious or content, we know enough to take

whatever it is that life offers up.

 

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:

Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,

unconcerned about so many things

older people were kind enough to never…say.

 

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.

Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.

Old school, I don’t say, reticent

because I do remember it (all).

 

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

 

How did we go down there, then?

How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

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July 20, 1969 or, One Small Step for Man’s Mind

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Listen: there are people who actually believe that the moon landing never happened. Lots of people. Not that it didn’t happen, necessarily, but that it was an elaborate, carefully staged scam; that it happened out in the desert, secret film crews capturing the entire thing. Unfortunately, most of the people who agreed to be interviewed all happen to live in trailer parks, which tends to undermine their credibility.

But I’ll be damned if, fifteen minutes in, I’m on board, buying just about every argument. After twenty minutes I’m talking in increasingly agitated tones to my TV. A half hour later I’m ready to make a down payment on a used trailer.

Listen to them: these people might not be crazy, but they are playing the part to perfection. Wide eyes working to wash away the one-two punch of alarm and indignation, creased foreheads wet with the weight of their weird worlds, the insistent outlook of the converted Christian or polished politician, the unburdened body language of a puppet who has finally plucked the wires from its back.

And, I think: Please!

Please let this be true. Imagine: all the churchgoing, flag-waving, right wing radio listening, free market following, see-no-evil simpletons (and that’s just Whitey) if they found out?

And then, this: No!

Nothing, it eventually occurs to me, could conceivably be worse than if those astronauts actually landed on Earth. Because it is marginally acceptable, or at least comprehensible, that in a time when millions of people are starving and dying of decades-old diseases, we’d have the effrontery to float billion dollar babies in space—that is enough, that confirms all we need to know about priorities and good and evil and the fact that there is, of course, at the end of the night, no chance whatsoever that God is watching over all this. But to think that the suits who call the shots arrived at the decision that it was ultimately to their advantage to take the time and imagination to choreograph a made-for-TV miracle to propagate compliance, or boost morale, or whatever mendacious busywork those men who don’t work for a living get up to when they are hard at work behind those fortified doors.

If that is even a possibility, then all bets are off. Then suddenly even the cynics are shit out of luck, and things like fake wars and flying planes into buildings begin to seem like a rather ingenuous part of the program. See: it is conceivable that money gets spent every day on scientific charades that serve no practical purpose. Or conceding that God obviously does not exist, so it can’t be His fault (because He never existed). But finding out that we are capable—and worse, willing—to pull off that kind of crap? It is almost enough to make you join a militia. It’s almost enough to cause you to cash it all in and start looking for the alien transmissions in your fillings. Or hunker down in a trailer park on the outskirts of Area 51.

*Excerpt from the novel Not To Mention a Nice Life.

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Life Imitating Art: The Russiagate Floodgates

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Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That’s big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

There’s another scene that succinctly summarizes the film’s central conflict, and how close Serpico is to snapping (also featuring an early and authentic example of Pacino’s peerless ability to explode and implode, simultaneously). He’s already on edge for understandable reasons, but when he discovers the scumbag he just busted (so infuriatingly calm and cocky) is, in fact, a cop killer.

Here he is, an honest cop in a room full of men who’d just as soon drop him off the Empire State Building, unable to elicit the slightest emotion from any of them. Of course, it’s because this slippery felon has bought off practically the entire precinct. They just stand there. Probably embarrassed, maybe even mortified but mostly culpable. They’re in too deep, the money’s too good and plus, this guy’s got the goods on them.

This is how it’s getting to be with the now daily drop of all-things Russia (as the invaluable Charles Pierce memorably puts it, “Right now, there are more Russians involved in this story than there are in War and Peace.”). We hear another unbelievable development, something that the key players?—?following the inexorable script?—?at first deny, then pretend to have forgotten and then, with the assistance of the usual suspects at Fox News, insist, indignantly, is, in any event, not illegal. And each day, the entire Republican party stands mute, impotent. Not because they can’t or don’t want to believe it (if their eyes or actual memories fail them, there’s a trusty paper trail that now resembles a relay race between moist slugs), but because they’re in. Deep. They made their deal and are now obliged to ride shotgun in this clown car.

And just like Serpico’s corrupt brethren, it’s all about money. But at least in the movie (based, by the way, on a true story), the money is coming from illicit activity, mostly drugs and gambling. What we have today is much worse. Republicans are colluding and covering and denying (and, probably at this point, sweating) not so they can merely get a slice of this contaminated pie. No, their motivation, at once more complicated and disgraceful, consists mainly of poaching funds designed for poor people to give to rich people. Oh, and take away millions of Americans’ health care.

You couldn’t make a movie about this. It’s too implausible. Too depressing.

And too real.

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Cruel DeVos

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I.

TRUE STORY. MY WIFE teaches grade school. In addition to the stories I can tell, and the ones my many friends who teach or are married to teachers can tell, during the school year, I hear a new one practically every day.

Here’s one: several teachers noticed that three siblings (third grade and younger) were digging through the garbage at school. Turns out they were looking for food to take home for the weekend since there would not otherwise be enough.

Here’s another: one of my wife’s fifth grade students broke down in class one day, and explained she was having trouble studying for the standardized test—a whole other topic—because she hadn’t eaten and was hungry. A few teachers pitched in to get her fed, and take some snacks home. Turns out her family was homeless and living in a motel.

My wife, a veteran with more than a decade’s experience in public schools, is not easily upset: it’s been her practice for years to keep extra non-perishables in her desk for the kids who can’t concentrate on empty stomachs.

This is not Appalachia, or even the most desperate inner city; it’s a county less than thirty minutes from the nation’s capital (the state of which is itself a never-ending metaphor for all we need know when it comes to equality, opportunity and our collective genius at hurting the most innocent and vulnerable amongst us).

Another story. Several years ago, she noticed one her students hoarding ketchup packets from the cafeteria. He was bringing them home in case there was nothing to eat.

(The Swiftian irony of this last anecdote is one that surely would have Reagan smirking in his grave.)

The worst one? For me, it’s the story of the student who claimed he wasn’t hungry at lunch time. Because he was embarrassed. He didn’t want to admit he had no money. My wife could literally hear his stomach rumbling as he pretended he wasn’t famished the same way Republicans pretend they care about people.

ii.

Never mind Trump. One need look no further than Betsy DeVos to understand the true depravity of the contemporary state of all-things GOP.

(Yes, Trump is the oozing pus from the Id of America’s underbelly, but if there’s any silver lining, it’s that light does expose the rot. Our Toddler-in-Chief has emboldened an element of our society we thought had either fizzled out or at least was content to spew its spleen safely—and anonymously—online. The smart money says this is not a fad or a trend; it’s a virus that’s required centuries to fester and one megalomaniacal half-fascist to bring to a feverish boil. It will, nevertheless, be flushed out and retired to the sewers of our lower frequencies, hopefully forever and sooner than later. Or, even more optimistically, Trump continues to do damage to the “brand” we figured George W. Bush had so indelibly done, and our next contender can do what Obama never had the heart or stomach to bother with: making a compelling case for Democratic politics with a heavy side dish of populism. As we know, first the Tea Party, and then The Donald wormed into the post-2008 vacuum and stole all the oxygen, which halfway explains why we’re where we are, today.)

But to fully understand the next-level sociopathy of our present administration, we must look at DeVos. Unqualified? Duh. Ignorant? Yes. Not only wealthy, but married to the King of Pyramid schemes that prey upon the poor and gullible? Even Dickens at his most heavy-handed would throw this away as clichéd opportunism. But there it is; only in America can we have and know so much and insist on making it worse for everyone but the .01%

iii.

Did you catch any footage of DeVos’s hearing? If you have a strong stomach, you should, especially if you think the criticism of her has been over the top.

How about the footage of her speed-walking away from a group of protestors?

These fanatics have been insulated by their money and blissful ignorance so long they’re flummoxed (and genuinely frightened) by the slightest resistance. And all of them (look at ongoing embarrassment of Republicans scurrying away from their own town halls, or The King of the Cowardly Cretins, Mitch McConnell, doing everything possible to avoid any public scrutiny of his healthcare bill) have no means to debate or defend themselves when challenged. Classic bullies.

Take DeVos’s brief confrontation with some citizens who dared oppose her, on principle. What an opportunity: she was on camera and could have totally owned the moment, engaged these people in conversation and made them look unreasonable if they shouted her down. Instead, she retreated like the rat she is. (By the way, this isn’t just normal political resistance from one party to another; that Trump even appointed her—and she accepted the gig—is an act of aggression, a calculated outrage to dismantle the very department she’s long had her sights on, and intended to demoralize opponents.)

iv.

How is any of this different from the way Republicans have rolled since the day Reagan declared government our enemy? It’s pretty much the same, only more so. And that’s where things have crossed all lines of normalcy and decency. Circa 2017, it’s no longer sufficient to merely reinforce the wealthiest and most powerful; the GOP, with virtually no internal dissension, is on the public record (with votes, statements and, importantly, no comments to the contrary) advocating policy that literally takes away the (drastically underfunded) funds from those with the least, and disguise it as “choice”. Indeed, in another moment that Dickens, Orwell and Kafka, tag-teaming with three typewriters and ten bottles of tequila, couldn’t muster the imagination to invent, DeVos invoked segregated schools as a testament to the empowering benefits of “choice”. (No, seriously.)

Extolling the alleged virtues of the free market, no matter what contrary evidence accrued, mostly worked wonders for the Republican party these last few decades. We now are at a point where they’re acting, in concert, to raid the already paltry provisions of the disenfranchised. And to what end? Funding infrastructure or some national emergency? Of course not. Exactly what they’re after is simple, and truly staggering: to ensure that those born with every advantage will have still more opportunity and money. Revolting in the extreme.

But therein lies an opportunity. Audacity of this level is so breathtaking it’s negligent to become cynical; unacceptable to be indifferent. We’re at a threshold moment, where otherwise apathetic spectators must determine if they are, at long last, disgusted with the direction we’re headed. Doing nothing, at this point, is abetting evil. (And this includes not just going toe-to-toe with the True Believers across the aisle—many of whom, of course, stand to be most drastically impacted by all these reverse Robin Hood policies—but the pampered and recalcitrant nitwits who still insist Hillary Clinton was, at best, the lesser of two evils, or remain third party or bust when we see, daily, the disparity between what Democrats and Republicans do, when in power.) Advice: frame an argument, for once, that puts liberals on the right side of Scripture (what a concept!) and put the stakes in stark relief: it’s no longer a shell game, no more talk of trickle down; this is straight-up thievery, taking from those with the least. I think Jesus said a thing or two about this.

Finally, it’s tempting, even irresistible, to catalog the myriad flaws, hypocrisies, moral failures and rank opportunism that has virtually defined DeVos’s existence. But it’s more effective to look at her as the caricature she is. She represents the faceless figure epitomizing the worst Republican impulses, all untethered by our incurious, incompetent Tweeter-in-Chief. Never mind him, or her, and remember it’s not who she is, but what she represents. DeVos, and her merry band of nihilists, are the boot in the face Orwell warned us about. That is what must be resisted, mocked, defeated.

A final story. One of my wife’s friends, who teaches high school, had a student who was arrested for shoplifting. It turns out he had been doing this from a young age. He was stealing food. To eat.

Think of this kid, and all the other ones, especially the ones with increasingly fewer advocates who can defend or assist them.

Rage against this Machine.

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On Health Care: George Carlin Called It

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Nine years ago today we lost not only one of our better comics, but one of our most vital and intelligent voices.

George Carlin was incendiary, he was hilarious, he was often the smartest dude (and biggest smartass) on the block, and he was a national treasure.

He was a “political” comic the way George Orwell was a “political” writer. And as Orwell famously declared: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Like Orwell, Carlin told big truths, and as we’ve seen throughout our human experiment? — ?especially in America? — ?the truth often falls on obdurate ears.

When celebrating a deceased icon, particularly one as full of wisdom as Carlin was — ?it’s typical to say “we could use that voice today”, or similar such sentiment. And while it wouldn’t suck to have Carlin around, assuming the spectacle of President Trump didn’t make him spontaneously combust like a Spinal Tap drummer, the sad fact is he already predicted much of what’s happened (and what might be coming, soon).

He made a career of putting political weasels and their fake piety and false promises in his sights, but it was toward the end when he pulled the fewest punches and dropped a bomb that’s still smoking, more than a decade later.

Check it out: when this, his last, special aired, I remember critics, even fans, suggesting that maybe George had gotten too cranky; that his cynicism had overwhelmed the better (or calmer) angels of his nature, or worst, that he wasn’t even funny anymore. He was funny, but not quite the way he used to be (some people would call that the evolution of a talent, not to mention an already-awakened conscience). Times were different and different tactics were required. Carlin was on the case.

This bit in particular, about the so-called “American Dream”, made for painful listening, but also essential viewing. Remember, this was in 2005, a few years before the (totally predictable) financial collapse, the subsequent refusal of Obama to do anything of consequence to the bad guys, and the impunity with which the Republicans have mostly acted, ever since.

Full of piss and vinegar, sure, but also prescient. Depressingly on point.

And, not for nothing: nine years to the day after he died, we see footage of disabled citizens being physically dragged away from lawful and peaceful protests. Why? Because the Republican politicians are too cowardly to face them. Why? Because in an act of cynicism that didn’t just jump the shark, but the entire ocean, these cretins are quite aware how deeply unpopular their health care “repeal” is. As such, they intend to pass it as quickly as possible, with little to no scrutiny. The media is finally making some noise, albeit too little and possibly too late. And you’d think something like more than twenty million people losing coverage so the rich can have a tax cut might warrant some headlines. Same as it ever was, only more so.

And here’s the thing. Normally I’d reckon that this footage would make for some pretty compelling political ads, come mid-term time. (Or now, for that matter.) Especially with some stats flashing across the screen that detail the number of Americans who could (or will) be devastated by this hideously destructive policy.

And then I think: they’ll get away with it anyway. They’ll shirk responsibility, or blame Obama, or the Democrats. And the sentient amongst us will shake our heads, either furious or shell shocked (or both), while the Republicans, having retained control of the House and Senate, will set about dismantling Social Security.

And we won’t be able to say George Carlin didn’t call it.

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It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: Celebrating Sgt. Pepper

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It was fifty years ago today…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

To get a proper handle on how revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, it’s imperative to appreciate how far pop music came in such a remarkably brief span of time. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s also undeniable that after June 1, 1967, nothing was ever the same again. Needless to say, this is a very good thing.

(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s.)

Part of rock ‘n’ roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From its earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to… you get the picture).

Around the same time, and across the pond, The Beach Boys were busy crafting best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Seemingly out of nowhere, and driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—front man, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge with Revolver (showcasing a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import and restlessness regarding convention). “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit, accordingly.

But before The Beatles helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, they released what’s arguably the most transcendent single of all time. Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

So, full of confidence, bristling with ambition and, make no mistake about it, eyes staring straight into the sun, the Fab Four did the Icarus routine. Suffice it to say, they not only survived, they transcended. Or something. And for the millionth time, it’s not necessarily how great the album is (and track by track, it’s arguably aged less well than ones that came before and after it, like many other efforts from 1967), it’s the not-so-simple fact that The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be and appraised as art.

And while a song-by-song reassessment would seem superfluous (even this modest essay practically answers its own inevitably rhetorical question: do we really need more words written about Sgt. Pepper?), it seems necessary to remember that, as overplayed and overanalyzed as certain songs have been, some of the boys’ best work is nevertheless represented. Imagine hearing “With A Little Help From My Friends” for the first time, today. Or, even if you’ve listened to it too many times to count, savor the loping basslines McCartney uses to anchor “Getting Better”. Or, if Lennon was coasting a bit on “Good Morning Good Morning”, with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” he gave the uninitiated a soundscape for psychedelia before most of the world knew what was soon to hit it. Even the unfairly maligned “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” should be noted—in addition to being a clever tone poem invoking other times and places—providing a showcase for the way the studio could (and, subsequently, would) be utilized, combining technology and ingenuity to literally create new sounds.

Or how “Fixing A Hole” somehow seems to slip under the radar, or be dismissed as a lightweight effort. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop virtuosity (ho hum), it’s an extremely laid-back and convincing statement of individuality—kind of a bookend to Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. Macca, establishing himself in the driver’s seat during these sessions, may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he didn’t need to. In one of the seminal years in rock ‘n’ roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave. If “Lovely Rita” and the insufferable “When I’m 64” wore out their collective welcome many years (decades) ago, we must still marvel at the economical, emotional devastation of “She’s Leaving Home”, a composition that manages to be in front of women’s lib and anticipates the generational pushback the Hippie years would engender. And while the sitar sounds at once calculated and quaint today, let us never sleep on the role George Harrison played in bringing world music to the fore: like just about everything the group did, their work helped enlarge and expand how we understand (and hear) music.

And, for this writer, five decades has only cemented speculation that “A Day In The Life” endures as perhaps the most perfect (not to mention important) song in rock history.

The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper, did not just issue their own indelible statement of purpose, but provided a spotlight, and credibility, for other acts, not to mention inspiring countless others to rally behind the trail they blazed. Getting to a place, inconceivable only years before, where rock music might be acknowledged as art-with-a-capital-A, is not something The Beatles did all by themselves; they were simply the biggest, loudest and most successful spokesmen for the cause. They didn’t make what happened next possible so much as they made it inevitable.

For that, we must always appreciate them, and celebrate Sgt. Pepper. A splendid time, lest we forget, was guaranteed for all.

 

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Memorial Day: A Poem

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Unanticipated clouds advance, shifting the weight

of the world—or at least the measured objectives of

so many compulsory affairs—nonplussed after all

this time by their capacity to inspire, interrupt, or else

frustrate the better angels of Nature’s encumbrance.

Fathers linger absentmindedly at inexhaustible grills.

Mothers indulge in a quick cry behind bathroom doors

(more from habit than necessity). Bored children fish

in depleted ponds, muscle memory improvising

rituals handed down unthinkingly, like faiths or families.

Soldiers, acknowledged at last in their fortified shrines,

die afresh each time a bouquet drops like a shell

atop consecrated soil, foretold fates secured again,

courtesy of grim yet unconflicted officials, whose

solemn directives ensure that history echoes itself.

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