Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fade to Black (Friday)

Recently people were thinking about where they were fifty years ago on Nov. 22, 1963. I was in the fifth grade classroom of Dorothy Leader, one of the notoriously few Democrats residing in the town of Signal Mountain, Tennessee. When the word came that President Kennedy had been shot, Mrs. Leader collapsed in tears. School was dismissed early that day.

Why do we remember some days so well, while the memory of other momentous days--not one whit less significant in the large or small scheme of things--fades into nonexistence? My children remember the Challenger explosion; I don't.

Where was I last Dec. 14? At work, probably; I don't remember. It was the day of the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A horrific Friday, which I probably followed via news reports on the Internet. Probably. What would there be for me to remember? Sitting at my desk looking at a screen? I do that every day. But that's what I remember about 9/11: I was sitting at my desk looking at a screen. I remember it very well.

But even if not the stuff of visceral memory, 12/14 to me became something more important. It became a symbol of quite a different kind of vulnerability than did 9/11: a symbol of America's failure to accomplish the Second Amendment.

Rather than a single, flashing moment that can be replayed in slow motion, it's more a sense of inscribing marble.

The Sandy Hook massacre, a Black Friday for the ages, happened last year during Advent. My Advent is shaped not so much by liturgical dates as by the traditional songs sung during the season, including The Coventry Carol, about the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. I used an instrumental version for a little movie that I put together a couple of days later.

A couple of days after that I wrote a blog to explain it all. To explain why Sandy Hook was the result of a monumental failure of the country to live up to the Second Amendment. The real Second Amendment, not the one spouted by the N.R.A. You know, the real Second Amendment? The one that begins "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state ..."? The one whose current, eponymous Wikipedia article leads off saying has nothing to do with service in a militia?

What settled in was kind of a sense of horror, matched by a huge, questioning kind of wonder: horror at this colossal void in our civic makeup--something's supposed to be there, but it just isn't--and then why not? And why isn't anybody talking about this? "Well-regulated militia" ... "necessary" … "security" … "free state." But ... but ... but ... There is no well-regulated, citizen-armed militia. There hasn't been one since forever. Does anybody not feel the least bit insecure? No? Well, I guess not. After all, we have the National Security Agency.

It's obvious that we don't believe what the Second Amendment says about a well-regulated militia.

I spent the year inventing a stage where there are people who talk about it, think about it, dream about it, sing about it. Because isn't that the way the real Second Amendment imagines it to be? Not "when the caissons go rolling along," or "off we go into the wild blue yonder," or "to the halls of Montezuma." Listen to that, forefather revolutionaries: The devil of a standing army has all the good tune. Somebody needs to change that.

So now, in time for the first anniversary of that awful day in Connecticut, is a book written so it will always be remembered: Bathrobes Pierre. It's out, for sale, available in print or ebook. 80% of royalties will go to the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, which I'll track on the book's website. There'll be a launch on Dec. 14 at the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City from 3 - 4:30 p.m. Not many books come with a soundtrack.

Just because this is a benefit for Sandy Hook, don't think that this is going to be your knee-jerk, libtard, gun-nut-hating screed. Part of the problem is that the country is unnecessarily divided by the reigning, unbalanced interpretation of the Second Amendment. This is very much a "we the people" kind of book. We need to stop thinking about gun control and start thinking about gun organization. We need to stop contracting out our fighting and start having to do it ourselves: it's a proven way both to cut down on the number of wars and make decisive the ones you do fight. Part of the purpose of the book is to remind all Americans--men and women-- that, according to the Second Amendment, the dimensions of our civic duties are much greater than we currently imagine.

But hey, it'd be more interesting to read the book. There are some interesting characters. There's a plot. There's a denouement. Oratory. Humor. Sarcasm. It doesn't ask "Who is John Galt?" but "Who are we?" Give it a, er, shot. Aim it at your friends. Here's some trailers you could share:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Wonderwall Martyrs

This is a disaster ballad of sorts, a simple verse/chorus song written at least partly in a centuries-old tradition of topical balladeering.

The disaster commemorated here is the May 13, 2013, Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh in which perished more than 1,000 people, mostly women. It was a horrendous catastrophe--the deadliest structural failure in modern history.

After that awful event I found myself humming the beginning of former Beatle George Harrison's song "Bangladesh." The lyric for those notes is simply the name of country sung twice--six syllables, short/short/long, short/short/long--on the notes of a minor triad: "Bangladesh, Bangladesh." Harrison wrote his song back in 1971 as part of a relief effort to raise money for the then-new country, which was wracked by civil war atrocities and natural disasters. Something made me want to use the beginning of Harrison's song as the framework for a new song to honor the memory of the slain. I wanted the first syllables to rhyme with "Bangladesh." Under the circumstances, "Rana death" seemed appropriate.

Harrison also produced an off-album that I liked very much, called "Wonderwall." It was a motley collection of mostly instrumentals. While the referent of its name is to something from Hindu mythology, my thinking was being shaped by the fact that mega-retailer Walmart has been a prime beneficiary of low labor costs in Bangladesh. I saw the victims of Rana Plaza as the martyrs of a system that returns billions in profits to such corporations as Walmart even as it buries its workers beneath the rubble of the false promise of a corporate Wonderwall.

The present disaster in Bangladesh is not the result of war or storms. It is the result of greed. It is the result of a global fashion industry that looks for the highest possible profit margin by finding the cheapest labor and the least regulations. People like me reap the benefit--good clothes at low prices from Walmart--even as other people elsewhere in the world get killed making them.

Bangladesh is a poor country--154th out of 187 countries on the IMF ranking of GDP per capita (2012). Certainly its people need jobs. I do not have an answer to the gross maldistribution of global income. All I say is that, if this is the result of some Adam Smithian invisible hand, it is certainly not a benevolent one, and perhaps we can allow for an invisible handkerchief to weep into whenever these things happen.

Which they will do, as they have done whenever and wherever greed cuts corners--which it will always do. It wasn't difficult to find connections with garment-factory disasters in the past, most notably the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, when 146 people--again, mostly women, as garment workers overwhelmingly are--lost their lives in a Manhattan skyscraper because managers had locked the doors to stairwells and exits.

Because Bangladesh is a Muslim country, the song invokes Allah. But because the history of garment worker disasters shows it to be an international problem in an unjust world, the refrain includes "Dios" and "Elohim" as supplications of the poor and the powerless.

The azan (call to prayer) at the beginning of the song is an incipit transcribed by Dr. Alaeddin Yavasca and Yusuf Eroglu. It is in the public domain.

I tried to use pictures and graphic materials that were in the public domain; many were made available through Wikimedia Commons.

The traditional tune "Rights of Man" also makes an appearance (with modifications to fit the chords). Surely the title of the tune refers to the book by Thomas Paine, in which he says that governments that do not benefit all their citizens, men and women, are illegitimate.


Rana death
fight for breath
Wonderwall martyrs on the floor
gave it all
after the fall
Allahu akbar

Saw a crack
in the wall
8 floor high factory
if I go back there
I'm sure to die
Allahu akbar

Allah O Dios Elohim
yeah, away!
Praise the one who threw the stars
Allahu akbar

What a jerk
I still hurt
bossman come to me from his sports car
he said get to work
I STILL hurt
Allahu akbar


Made a bet
ain't cashed in yet
bossman he died in the fall
how can a desert
be so wet?
Allahu akbar

Chorus (twice)

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Appalachian Appellation, or the London Derriere

Many people I know, among them good friends and family members, get exercised if someone pronounces "Appalachia" as "Appa-LAYSH-a." You might say "them's fightin' words," except that it's more a fightin' pronunciation.

In case you don't know, dear innocent person from outside Appalachia, the correct pronunciation is "Appa-LATCH-a" (or Appa-LATCH-an, if you're walking a certain trail by that name).

And when I say "correct," all I really mean is that I have to say that. Unless I want to be visited at night by an unruly crowd of certain good friends and family members, who, normally calm and reasonable to a fault, lose all sense of proportion when confronted with an alternate pronunciation of this word.

There'd be a howl like you wouldn't believe.You'd think someone was trying to pry the family musket from hands that weren't quite cold and dead. Or mine coal underneath your house without paying you for it. Or not let you kill Injuns.

Sorry. I take that back. Sorta.

Most recently, the Appalatchian pronunciamentally-correct applauded novelist Sharyn McCrumb's high-horse pontification on the subject: it's like saying "Londonderry" in northern Ireland, instead of "Derry." If you say the former, heaven forbid, everybody knows you're siding with the enemy. Everybody knows you've taken sides with those who stole the land from the original inhabitants.

Aside from its tendentious inaccuracy and over-simplification, what's so goldurn hilarious about this is that the people who "stole" the land in Ulster were the same people who, for the most part, "settled" the Appalachians ... in the latter case at the expense of the people from whom came the word "Appalachian." So don't be saying a pronunciation pits a goldurn furriner agin you, and you's a by-god native and you know what's what ... when in fact you ain't the native. When in fact you did the takin'. WHEN IN FACT ... sorry, let me not howl. Let me just ask, "How do you pronounce 'hypocritical?'"

I grew up in Chattanooga. Nearby was Lafayette, GA, which natives pronounce "Luh-FAY-it." The Lafayette in Indiana is pronounced differently by the natives there. And neither one is how my French-speaking Louisiana creole grandmother thought it ought to be. And by the way, she came from "Nawlins." What am I supposed to say to someone who says "New ORlins" or even more horrifyingly, "New OrLEENS"? Who's right, the French who say "Paree," or the rest of the world who say "Perris"?

The reality is that the Appalachian pronunciation "controversy" is a simple sectional disagreement over pronunciation, nothing more. People above the Mason-Dixon Line who live in the Appalachian region, and who have lived there ever since they settled it away from the by-god Injuns, tend to pronounce it "Appa-LAYSH-an." People below the line in the south pronounce it "Appa-LATCH-an." Friends and family: This is just another example of Yankees being wrong, y'all. Simple as that. What do you expect from people who don't drink iced tea year-round?

As for Londonderry, I'm sure everyone knows that the popular song Danny Boy is sung to the tune Londonderry Air. If you decide to take Sharyn McCrumb's advice and abbreviate the name of the tune and announce that you will sing Danny Boy to the tune of the Derry Air, you'd better be prepared to, as it were, back it up.