Wednesday, March 29, 2017

To the Rathskeller and Back: my new line of time travel air fresheners

Recently one of my daughters brought home a bag of Fleetwood coffee. Fleetwood? Fleetwood? Where had I heard of Fleetwood? A memory tried to form in my head: a TV commercial? An image of a red bag and a distinctive font appeared. It had to have been something from my Chattanooga childhood. I didn't have to go far to find an answer. I grabbed the bag, and the fine print under the logo told me:

Chattanooga, Tennessee, est. 1925. (The brand's website has pictures of some of the packages I might have seen.) It's very good coffee.  I've tasted both the medium "original" roast and the dark "dining car" roast made to the specifications on the bag--two tablespoons per 6 oz. cup--in a drip maker and a French press, black and also with cream/sugar. Drunk black, the original roast has more of a bite than the dining car roast, which is the smoother of the two. Both have a robust flavor that is complimented by cream and sugar, not overwhelmed, as is the case (to my taste) with so many of the standard supermarket brands. But I'm no food critic, so the best thing would be to see for yourself. 

Brands. The branding iron of Fleetwood marketing sure had worked on me! The way my mind retrieved the font, a memory formed by what, I don't really know, but however it was done, it really made an impression. And I wasn't even a coffee drinker back then. Did my parents drink it? I don't know. Was Fleetwood used at the restaurant in the Loveman's department store, the Macy's of Chattanooga whose newspaper ads were my grandmother's creations? What about the dining car blend? My grandfather rode the rails for Railway Express and took me with him to St. Louis back in 1959--he might as well have worked for Hogwarts Express, as much as that train trip was magnified in my imagination. Did he drink Fleetwood?

Thus is one transported. Whether by magic train or rabbit hole, it is one and the same. The questions were replaced by a parade of sensations, with tastes chief among them, but at the very head was something that put enough distinction and distinctiveness into a smell to power a French epic--or should I say épicerie?

It is a smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory) that I would like to capture to introduce a new line of nose-stalgic automobile air fresheners. It wouldn't just have to be for the car, but the car really is the best place to smell certain things, like a carryout pizza or drive-through fries; obviously the enclosed space and the ability to re-circulate air give it an advantage over other spaces.

But not only that. This smell I remember because I smelled it in a car.

I was in the Chattanooga Youth Orchestra when I was in high school. Back then there was only one family car, so after school I'd take the city bus downtown to the university campus, where the orchestra practiced in band room, which was in the football fieldhouse. After rehearsal my father would come pick me up and drive me home. 

My memory says it was Thursdays. Often my father would be joined by a fellow TVA employee named Jim Sasse (a talented singer who, although not Jewish, was the cantor at one of the local synagogues). On those days, as soon as I got in the car, I could tell by the smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory) that they had been to the Rathskeller.

How to describe the smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory)? To be sure, it was beery. That was part of the point of the Rathskeller. Remember that this was the South in the early 60's. The culture was and probably to some extent still is prevailingly Southern Baptist. I do not say that to malign Southern Baptists. I say that to be factual. If you are the prevailing cultural and political force, you must own up to the results of your prevalence. Back then Southern Baptists were strict prohibitionists. At least publicly. Privately there was the honky-tonk offshoot that fueled country music. Family restaurants of the prevailing culture did not serve beer.

The Rathskeller was a German restaurant and bar (if you didn't mind standing) downtown on Cherry Street. It occupied the ground floor of a building the upper floor of which was a traditional German health club, a Turnverein (the Turner club, in Chattanooga parlance)--kind of like a Y for people with German ancestry who liked to work out and then go downstairs to the Rathskeller and refresh with a beer. This was not Southern Baptist "drinking is sin." This was its religious opposite: "Thank God for the food of beer."

The Rathskeller, then, as a family restaurant, was a shrine for people like my parents who wanted to go with their kids to a place that served beer and wholesome food, and that wasn't a guilt- and sin-soaked honky-tonk. It didn't hurt that it also served up a heaping plate of Gemütlichkeit swathed in frescoed maps of Germany; a 1/20th scale model of a horse-drawn beer wagon parading across a ceiling beam; pictures of animals in human clothes drinking beer; and--in the back on the way to the toilets--a dark, mysterious corner where up near the ceiling a jewel-eyed owl sat on a crescent moon.

The Rathskeller smell (aroma, fragrance, palace of the olfactory) that hit me when I got in the car after Youth Orchestra was as rich as the place itself. It wasn't just beer. It also contained a hint of salami, which Steve and Jim (my father and Mr. Sasse) must've appetized on, but which, as I remember, was also the first thing that greeted you when you entered the Rathskeller--right inside the front door was a deli case with cheeses and sandwich meats. Another element in the car that was part of the smell I can only describe as texture: a yeasty cloud, an invisible cumulus inside of which formed droplets of bonhomie that fell in the form of the good-natured patter from Steve and Jim that filled the car all the way back up Signal Mountain.

So welcome to the Rathskeller, and happy vapor trails, fellow traveler. The Rathskeller is now just a memory, as the place was destroyed back in the seventies to make room for a larger jail (progress?). But if we are lucky, the good taste-time-travel people at Fleetwood will turn their talents to creating a beer, and, even better, a place to drink it where a mysterious, jewel-eyed owl will sit on a crescent moon and stand beneficent guard over you as you go back to pee.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hillbilly Heroes: An Elegy

I you we are molded beings.

We are not stamped out
In an assembly line where
Variation is undesirable.
We are as variable as the mood
Of the cave and the wind-swept mountain.

Our molding is a holy holding
Of hands and of lands
Far-off and near, of memories
Heard by other ears
And told to us in stories.

I you we are molded beings.

There is a danger in thinking
That forgets this, or never knew;
Pattern is what we go on
Go on go on go on, but
To go on we have to go outside,

Have to ride a waterfall even if only from below
Where no drop has ever gone before
And follow it from birth to death
From top to bottom in a century
That lasts seconds.

Do you feel the rain?
Did you get the eggs?
Did you sharpen the knife?
Did you slice the bread
And cook the breakfast?

I grew up on a mountain in Tennessee,
(A ridge actually). Abandoned as a child
By housedwellers, I was raised by
Acorns in the fall and dust in the summer,
By snow in the winter and toad lust in the spring.

I had a near-neighbor once-removed by a century,
Emma Bell Miles, an outsider who
Married a mountaineer and went so far
Inside the mountain that she is still there
Long after she died of tuberculosis
In the sanitorium so therapeutically named
"Pine Breeze." But why talk of death
When she is still inside the mountain
In stories and pictures? I am falling
Down the waterfall and reading
Emma Bell Miles and will soon join her in the pool.

Speaking of things Pine, I met Jim Wayne Miller one time
In Pine Mountain, Kentucky, at a "retreat"
(Another therapeutic term that presages death haha).
He spoke. He was quiet and humble. His smile
Was conversation. "The local is universal."
This was before the spring had lost its flowers
And before resurrection became baseball.
Or, as Herr Miller the German translator would say,
"Vor der Auferstehung den Baseball wurde."
What is it they say? "The world is your Easter?"
No, I don't think they say that. I wish they would.

Then there was the Cumberland park where
The housedwellers liberated me from dust to
A rowboat with which to raid basking turtles
And ask, "Who is Myles Horton and why
Highlander Folk School?" And learn why.
Or at least kick up dust and throw acorns
And start to understand that some people will try
To take advantage of you and keep you down
If they can, and how they have done this mightily
In this land is your land, which can be I you we land
If we will just join hands and not let them move us.

Because I you we are molded beings
And death is a bee that got mixed in.

My hillbilly heroes:
Emma Bell Miles of Waldens Ridge, TN (she claimed it).
Jim Wayne Miller of Leicester, NC.
Myles Horton of Savannah, TN.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: Guest book review by Marine Sgt. Jed Buchanan

[Blog editor's note: If you don't like cussing, PLEASE STOP NOW. Guest book reviewer Sgt. Buchanan is a Marine Drill Instructor. Cussing is the air he breathes. IF YOU READ FURTHER AND ARE OFFENDED, DON'T BLAME ME. Consider this your last warning. I'm serious. Where you are about to tread--or read--is on a literary level like Renton in Trainspotting retrieving his heroin hit after he has dropped it into the filthiest toilet in Scotland.]

Vance, you fucking asshole. This blogger guy here comes to me and he asks me, [imitating girlish voice] "How many stars should I give Hillbilly Elegy on Goodreads?" [Resumes normal shouting voice] What the fuck you think you are, Vance? Some kind of general for these people to be giving a maggot like you fucking stars? So I said, I don't know, Madame Bloggo, sir, if you think it was garbage, give it one and get the fuck out of my face. [He's exaggerating. He said this very nicely.] Or, tell you what--it made you think, right? How good is it to think? Huh? You ever try that, Mamzelle Hepziblog? So, give it 113 stars and shoot it up North Korea's fucking ass! [Another exaggeration: he said "sir" and suggested "four" if it was "thought-provoking."]

But back to you, Vance. This is about you, not about starry-eyed Vladimir Natasha Bloggo here. This is about you and your fucking fake fucking hillbilly fucking ass. You think you're pretty fucking smart because you wised up and let the Corps whip you into shape and then went to Yaaaaaale--ooh fuck me now, pretty boy--and now you can write books for other people to wipe their blogging asses with while you win a Spewlitzer for all that vomit you put on that innocent fucking former flowering wise-ass tree.

Well, you know, what? You go around bestowing this "hillbilly" descriptor (yeah, fuck you, I can do it too) on all manner of things like you're some kind of fucking grand hillbilly poobah, but you're not even a real fucking hillbilly yourself. You had Scots-Irish grandparents who were born in the hills of Kentucky. They moved to Middletown Fucking Ohio, where both you and your fucking mother were raised. OK so you got fucking hillbilly roots, I get that. But that makes you a hillbilly about as much as watching Mr. Rogers makes you an electron.

By your definition, I'm a goddamn Canadian. My grandmother was a Scot-Canadian and there was not a fucking potato flake of Irish in her unless it came out of a flask and doubled as cleaning fluid. She had four brothers. They were bootleggers in upstate New York during the Depression. The gangstas of the time. You think she was tough? Tell you what, take the Corps from one nostril and your Mamaw from the other and roooolly rolly roll 'em into a nice little booger and stick it on the bottom of your shoe: that was her. She was meaner than stomped snot, and she loved me something fierce.

Don't get me started on this Scots-Irish thing anyway. Ain't no fucking Irish in there. The ones that stayed in Ulster, fine. The Orange boys. Fine. Got no problem with that. But the ones that left? They were fucking Scottish Prods who just used religion as an excuse to fight when they fucking ran out of fucking hooch or to gin it up when they had it. What you gonna do, track Irish sod with you all the way to America? Get over it! You're not Irish and you never were! You're just a bunch of mean-ass Scots looking for some place to call your own where there's not a feudal landlord to throw you out, and if you have to throw somebody else out to do it, call it FRRREEEEDOOOMMMM! Right on!

And you know what? That's me too, brother! I'm part of the clan: a fucking Scot imitation hillbilly, just like you. By way of Canada is the only difference.

Glad we got that straight because Vance ... damn, what can I say. One thing that galls the shit out of me is you say this, that, and the other about hillbilly this, that, and the other, and you know what? There's lots of people in the US fucking A acting the same fucking way, and they come from all over. You got poverty and busted marriages and drug addiction and kids like you needing a steady hand, and they're anglo, they're black, they're latino, they're Asian, some of 'em might even be Muslim, but I doubt it. It ain't just a hillbilly problem. You ever heard of W.E.B. DuBois? Yeah, yeah, I can fucking deal it too. Well, he did a path-breaking study of "Negroes" in "Philadelphia" that showed--much to the surprise of white people--that the problem of "the Negro" was not a problem of race. It was a problem of poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Well, guess what? Idiots like you didn't believe him. You talk about lots of problems in your book. But hillbilly ain't the problem. Hillbilly'd be fine if it wasn't for the fucking feudal landlords that followed them up the fucking holler and then cleared 'em out to Middletown, O Fucking Hi Fucking O, just like they fucking cleared them out of Scotland if you get my fucking drift. Which you probably don't, which is OK. I'll just leave you babbling limp protestations because I got more.

And this is the big one. The hillbilly code of honor, right? The one that, among other things, "takes care" of family. The one that hides little sister down in the basement when company comes because, well, she's got a bruised face, and that's not something that company needs to know about. So, what do you do? Let's see, how can I put this nicely? You write a fucking goddamn MEMOIR [Sgt. Buchanan asks for bigger letters for "memoir"] about what a shiftless shit your mother is! Your very own ma! Jesus, man, you got some kinda cojones on you, but they ain't hillbilly ones, I will tell you that right now. Talk about putting her on display for company! You put her on display for the whole fucking world! You threw her under the international lingua franca global publishing marketplace bus! You're probably too young for that TV show Branded, but at the beginning it shows an Indian Wars-era 7th Cav-type soldier getting his shoulder-bars ceremonially stripped for some crime as he is drummed out of the service. Well, you just lost your hillbilly shoulder bars, son. And I ain't sorry. You did it your own fucking self. Or maybe somebody up at Yale bewitched you. Or maybe you thought you were safe because, you know, hillbillies are the only people in the global publishing marketplace who don't fucking read. That's what you think, right?

Now I know people will defend you by saying the end justifies the means. Which, I can sorta understand: any drill instructor will say so too. All well and good. But what does that do to your own set of beliefs? You say you have them, you place great stock in them, but at the end of it all, you just fucking shit all over them.

And it's not like you didn't have other choices that you could've made if you hadn't been so impulsive. Just like a hillbilly, right? Wrong. I can tell you what a true hillbilly would've done. A true hillbilly would've taken all that shit waaaay deep down inside and would've made some kind of art with it--a song, a poem, a story, a picture, something--how about a novel? Ever heard of a novel?--and it would've been sadder than shit and much more inspiring. But not a memoir. Not a fucking, cheap-ass, any-old-jackanape-with-Yale-connections-can-publish-a-memoir memoir. You think an addict buying T-bones with government handouts is bad? You just beat him all hollow. I mean holler.

It's not like your book doesn't have moments. It does have moments. My favorite is how you describe your grandpa coming home drunk one night and falling asleep on the couch, and this after your grandma has warned him not to come home drunk anymore or she'll kill him; and so what does she do? She pours gasoline on him and drops a match. He isn't burned to a crisp thanks to your sister, as I remember. But what gets me is how on the very next page, here's what you write: "It's not obvious to anyone why Mamaw and Papaw's marriage fell apart." Man, I fucking laughed so hard! Guffawing is way too mild a word! I picked up a pencil and wrote marginalia! I never write marginalia, but I want my grandkids to see my reaction: "He writes this right after describing how she fucking set his Papaw on fucking fire."

OK, so you go and get rich and buy Christmas presents for poor kids (just not pajamas, because poor people don't wear pajamas) and take them out for fast food from time to time and work to elect people like Donald "J Dot for 'Joke'" Trump--because that's going to do lots of fucking good, right?--and in the meantime I will hope that hillbillies will remember to put your book to work by recycling it out in the old outhouse where they go sometimes for nostalgia's sake or maybe even when they don't have plumbing, because it will be the best asswipe they've ever used, and maybe your own bogus hillbilly ass will actually do some good.

Except for that one page with the marginalia, though. I'm framing it for my own bogus Scot-Canadian grandkids. So I can sit them down and tell them a story about how it's ok to "git above yer raisin'" in terms of money and education. But it's not ok if it steals your fucking soul.

 [I took Sgt. Buchanan's advice and gave it four stars as "thought-provoking."]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Explication de tweet II: Different Dreams for Different Kings

Little did I know when I dusted off an old college try that it would come in handy so soon. Even more surprising is that I'm not using it to figure out Donald Trump.

No, wait. Yes, I am. Steve King, the Iowa representative, is actually Donald Trump's brain. The "Donald Trump" who "sits" in the "Oval Office" and "tweets" about "wire tapping" is an automaton controlled by the brain of Steve King.

How do I know this? Because Obama.

No, really, you think that's a joke? Well, just wait 'til we apply the second edition of [cue Andy Griffith theme music] "EXPLICATION DE TWEET!"

[Wait, wait, turn off the Andy Griffith theme music; I meant Twilight Zone.]

So anyway, here's the text to be explicated:

"Wilders" would be more fun if it referred to many Thornton Wilders, but it is necessarily singular because of the verb "understands. " The reference is to Geert Wilders, the Dutch Islam-hater who wants to build a dike between the Netherlands and Turkey.

"Culture" and "demographics" point forward to "our, " which is found twice: "our destiny" and "our civilization." Here King asserts some kinship with Wilders, although it is not clear what it should be.
  • They don't share a religion, except in a vague, unobservant sense: raised Methodist, King converted to his wife's Catholic faith 17 years after marrying her; Wilders is a lapsed-Catholic agnostic.
  • There don't appear to be any genealogical connections: King is of German, Irish, and Welsh stock; Wilders's father is Dutch, but his mother, interestingly, has colonial Dutch-Indonesian roots.
  • Both have "white" skin tone, but so do many Muslims. Surely the bond isn't something as crude, atavistic, and conceptually cuckoo as racism.
So what are "our destiny" and "our civilization"? The key here is "restore." It is obvious that there was a civilization with a destiny that is no more; this is a problem. There has been some kind of decline shared by both King and Wilders that they mean to arrest.

This opens up the meaning of "destiny," which illuminates an entire gallery of civilizational memes. The destiny in question is obviously Manifest Destiny in the case of the US and Once-Upon-An-Empire in the case of the Dutch, both of which invoke memories of the severest kinds of cultural and demographic control (slavery and apartheid).

Why anything should need to be "restored" in the case of the US is mysterious, given that it is the strongest economic power in the world with a looming military presence in almost every global region. But here we will do well to remember that one of the notions in our gallery of civilizational memes is "The White Man's Burden," and the US has just emerged from having a Non-White Man as its President. It seems that this is the something that constitutes a need for restoration.

So there it is after all: something as crude and atavistic and conceptually cuckoo as racism.

But more chilling is the restoration mechanism King has in mind. It won't happen the way imperialism happened, through naked exploitation of subject populations. Things have changed. Empires can't happen the way they used to.

Also, more importantly, fertility rates are way down in the West, something that "Wilders understands," as does King: the iron law of the birth rate, which is that the wealthier the society, the lower the birth rate. Add to that the twin genies of birth control and feminism, and it is clear to all except the most naive simpleton that these trends--and the accompanying decline in birth rate--cannot be reversed. The West will need "other people's babies" if it is to maintain its economic prosperity.


Unless the "our" of King and Wilders restore their civilization to its inhumane roots by pursuing a strategy of killing other people's babies. That is the goal, and "Wilders understands." If "other people" are having too many babies, but "our" people are not--and furthermore are not going to and cannot be made to--there is no solution other than to be sure that other people's babies do not grow into adults.

There is no return to the way things were: no high fertility rates in the West, but no imperial exploitation either. No. The only thing that will work is an updated version of Herod's "slaughter of the innocents": King knows, and "Wilders understands," that this return to civilizational hegemony doesn't require military violence, but can be accomplished by any combination of chemical or biological agents. The world has never seen anything close to the kind of ethnic cleansing that King has in mind.

And why not, in the minds of these civilizational warriors? If demographics is destiny, but the tide of fertility is running against you, it is time for the might-makes-right, bottom-line thinking, and bottom-feeding morality of the kind that the modern, military-commercial West excels at. Christianity and the ideals of democracy are irrelevancies to be used as window-dressing and propaganda. Martin Luther King wasn't the only King with a dream. Steve King's dream is something that combines Nazi eugenics and the plague.

And "Wilders understands."

So maybe this is Firelight Zone instead of Twilight Zone [cue Brunnhilde's immolation scene from Wagner's Götterdämmerung]. Whatever the zone, it is what King is conveying to his automaton Trump by way of the microwave oven in the Trump Tower.

How do I know this?

Thanks, Obama.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Explication de tweet: French 3320 (UT-Chattanooga) to the rescue

American citizens these days are being held under a cloud of continuous entertainment by their gameshow President, who regularly provides them with an amusing diversion via Twitter. "What can he possibly mean?" they ask. The real fun is trying to guess what the spun-cotton-candy official version will look like a couple of days after the original tweet.

Many people are saying that this has become a popular betting pastime, in some places with winnings so high it will qualify you for liberation from GOP-style subsidized healthcare (House version). Therefore, in the interest of providing you with a tool that could potentially lead to the glorious freedom of medical bankruptcy, I thought I would give you the benefit of my up-to-now-useless classes in French literature that I took in college. 

The classes taught a technique of textual explication called explication de texte, which translated means "textual explication" and which comes in handy whenever there's a text that needs explicating. Since Twitter is text, it's almost as if explication de texte showed up with a beguiling Gallic accent and a bottle of premier cru and started to sing "Plaisir d'Amour" and Twitter gave up all 140 characters quicker than you can say "French letter."

Explication basically dissects a short text and runs everything through a grammatical/lexicographical centrifuge, which sounds essentially destructive and violent, but at the end of it you're left with a dead frog in one piece in the middle of the road and you wonder how the hell that happened but you know for damn sure it'll work for figuring out Trump.

So here's the assignment for our foray into explication de texte

First, let's examine "Terrible!" A single-word sentence ending with an exclamation point, it is an obvious sarcastic truncation of "enfant terrible" and as such makes reference not only to the "Obama" that comes in the second sentence, but to the "McCarthyism!" ending the fourth sentence, since Trump was an intimate of Roy Cohn, who was considered Joe McCarthy's enfant terrible. The duality is linked by "Nothing" (that is, no Russians) "found," an ironic sneer meant to infantilize an inept Obama in contrast to Cohn, who--in this characterization--found Russians aplenty.

"Just found out" is a poetic reference to Faux and Friends, a well-known cartoon peopled by chicken littles who frequently report falling skies to the amusement of everyone. This is another deliberate use of irony that emphasizes the ridiculousness and fecklessness of "Obama." This meaning is underscored by "wires tapped" [quotation marks sic], which can be interpreted, "Look at me giving you these 'air quotes,' LOL! Who uses land lines anymore? Stupid Obama, that's who!"

"Trump Tower just before the victory" is the impregnable locus, the fortification of Trump's inner psyche. This is where no one can get to him, least of all that lightweight child "Obama." It is, as it were, his bunker, where he will go when all else fails and there are dead frogs in the street demanding health care for all.

So that's it. Now you can go out and bet the farm that the official version will be that Trump was just making fun of Obama and was just having a little innocent fun.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Oboe honky-tonk

You accepted the gig, but maybe you shouldn't've. You haven't played an oboe bar in a long time. Plus you've been lazy about practicing and not a little angsty about your lip lasting the three-hour set, which last night translated into a dream where you took the stage at Carnegie for a recital and couldn't play the first note because your reed was an ice cream cone. People hollered and screamed and accused you of wiretapping them and blew oboe reeds at you through tubes of giant cane. Which woke you up.

Oboe bars are the saloons of The Great (Again) American Century, but this place you've never been in before. When you enter, the first thing you notice is that they have ReedSoak and SpitSoak on tap, which tells you right off that the only reason people come here is to turn their brains into blank sheetrock and let classic oboe wallpaper them.

You go up to the bar and introduce yourself to the bartender, who looks like the slow movement from the Albinoni C minor concerto transposed down an octave. You exchange hellos, and you ask where to set up. Mr. Slow Movement waves ponderously at a little stage-cum-dart-gallery off to the side.

"Darts?" you ask.

"You must not have been in an oboe bar for a while," rumbles Mr. Slow. "It's the new game sweeping the world of oboe bars. In other words, sweeping the world: Reedarts. People blow oboe reeds through a tube of giant cane. The board lights up when you hit it, kind of like pinball," he says, moving at a molto lento over to show you the board, which has point numbers superimposed over the named pictures of composers: 35 for Bach, 40 for Schumann, 45 for Mozart, 50 for Vivaldi, minus 25 for Beethoven (that waste of a composer, who wrote no oboe concertos).

"Doesn't that ruin a lot of reeds?" you ask.

"Believe me, there's no lack of crap reeds out there. You know what they say: you have to make a barrel of bad reeds before you can make a good one. You wouldn't believe the oboe players that donate their bad reeds and then stick around to watch them be destroyed. There's this sound they make, like a cross between a whimper and a diabolical laugh."

You say you live on the wild side: you only ever have one reed at a time.

"It better not be synthetic." The sound from Mr. Slow is a menacing low b-flat. "This is a classic oboe bar. Tough crowd. Cane reeds are de rigueur. People here will come up and ask to look. They want to see the scrape. And for music: no transcriptions! People want real oboe music, not imitation oboe music. Had a guy come in once and tried to play the Telemann flute Fantasies. It was bad. The crowd went after him with rainbow-colored #FF nylon thread. Trussed him up and smeared him with cork grease, which was probably a blessing because he was able to slip away."

Your fears accelerate like Pan in Britten's Metamorphoses, right before he is transformed into a tube of giant cane. You show Mr. Slow your set list.

"HmmMMMMmmmm." His voice swells and dies away, as if he is opening the Handel C minor sonata. "Looks OK. You got the bases covered: Vivaldi, Mozart, Schumann, Handel, Albinoni, St. Saens, Hindemith--nice; we don't get that very often--Krebs--wow! Something with organ. Well, this should keep people drinking. I just hope your backing tracks aren't offloaded warped-vinyl Music Minus One."

You say your backing tracks are MIDI rolls punched by barefoot friars in Frankfurt, doing it the way it's been done since forever and tomorrow--the latest in 21st century technology for your 19th century-technology instrument playing mostly 18th century music.

"Classic, classic," exhales Mr. Slow in a Mozartean caesura. "Speaking of which, I have to warn you: there's one, er, patron who ... how can I put this ... who chases a few too many ReedSoaks with a few too many SpitSoaks, and he gets kind of rowdy." His words begin to rush like a student playing a Barret etude without a metronome. "We don't want to make him leave because he's a regular who buys a lot of drinks. But he gets drunk and shouts, 'Play Gabriel's Oboe! Play Gabriel's Oboe!' and we tolerate it even though it violates our vibe. That shit is so bro-oboe it makes me want to date a tuning fork. Whatever. Just, you know, waving a baton at you."

As it happens--thankfully for your chops--it's a slow night. But a little weird: A couple comes in for Reedarts, which means you're playing music at the front of the stage, they're playing blowgun at the back of the stage, and the board is blinging and flashing while you perform. But after all you're just wallpapering brains, and at least they're not blowing the reeds at you like in that dream.

By the time you get through the second Handel, the philistine you'd been warned about sets up a racket for Gabriel's Oboe, which you play not once but three times in order to get him to be quiet. After that he staggers out (giving you the "You sheetrock!" sign), and it's just you and the bartender, who kindly lets you spend the rest of your time watching The Great British Oboe Reed-Scraping Show on The Double Reed Channel.

You sit there wondering what it would be like if the electric guitar became popular.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Testing Prager U's 5-minute semester (Volokh v. Volokh)

Can you get a BS from Prager University? Maybe if you take out the "a," as somebody has already said about the university that is not a university whose curriculum consists entirely of 5 minute videos. In these days of an Iowa legislator claiming a business degree from what turns out to have been management training at a steakhouse franchise, it's a great time to consider the reality of such educational claims.

The videos bear the imprimatur of Dennis Prager, an ideologue about whose tendentiousness need I say more? PragerU promotional material makes this claim: "Taught by some of the best minds in the world, our five minute videos make key concepts accessible and understandable. Give us five minutes and we'll give you a semester's worth of wisdom through our free video courses." [italics mine]

Prager himself is big on blaming the demise of "Judeo-Christian civilization" on Muslims or same-sex marriage, but might not a better sign of cultural and intellectual rot be the PragerU claim that a five-minute video accomplishes the same thing as even a garden-variety semester-long college course? Don't know? Let's check it out.

Suppose that we want to take a semester course on gun rights in the US, but we live in, oh, I don't know, Ulaanbaatar, and such a course is not among those on offer at the community college. So we go down to our branch library and ask the helpful librarian for a semester's worth of online wisdom about gun rights in America that we can absorb in five minutes.

After navigating the reference interview ("Are you a Chicago gangster?"Are you CIA?" "Did you lock her up?") and suggesting "Second Amendment" as a keyword phrase, we wait a while to allow the librarian to do some looking.

With a look of "I don't know if this will help much," the librarian beckons us to the desk and shows us four items that we can view:
  1. PragerU video on the right of gun ownership in the US
  2. An online version of "The Commonplace Second Amendment," a 1998 article from the NYU Law Review.
  3. Sources on the Second Amendment and Rights to Keep and Bear Arms in State Constitutions, a richly-excerpted if slightly-dated bibiliography.
  4. A syllabus from a 2002 law school seminar on firearms regulation.
As it happens, all are the work of Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA whose eponymous blog The Volokh Conspiracy is published by the Washington Post. The librarian asks if that means Volokh is an enemy of the people. Before taking the citations to a workstation to peruse them, we answer that a law professor associated with both Prager and the Post is more likely a double agent.

So, a semester's worth of wisdom in  5 minutes. The video, clocking in at 4:16, is a rabbit, but how wise is it? It is well-produced; Volokh is a compelling presenter; and he answers the question posed by the video's title in a straightforward manner: the Second Amendment does guarantee a right to individual gun ownership, and although the right is not "unlimited, "severe restrictions" would unquestionably violate it. Some time is spent explaining the amendment's characteristic two clauses: its initial, "well-regulated militia" statement of purpose--the "justification" clause--the "operative" clause stating that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The law review article takes 15 minutes to read, so it's clearly not a contender in the "semester-in-5-minutes" event. Still, it has additional information about the amendment's two clauses that give it a decided "wisdom" edge. In fact, two fundamental aspects of the amendment are discussed in the law review article that in one instance does not appear in the video and in another seems to be treated less accurately.
  1. In the article Volokh says, "I believe the justification clause may aid construction of the operative clause but may not trump the meaning of the operative clause." [Italics his.] He offers the example of the Miller case in which possession of a sawed-off shotgun was ruled not protected by the amendment because it had no use as a militia weapon. This seems to us to be critical information. By contrast the video only says that the amendment's right is not unlimited because, well, free speech is not unlimited either. And what about those "severe" restrictions? By what yardstick might that severity be measured?
  2. In the video Volokh asks, "and what about the part of the amendment that says a militia is necessary 'to the security of a free state'? What, the opponents of personal gun ownership ask, does a personal right to gun ownership have to do with that?" He answers that the Founders would have wanted "the people" to arm themselves "as a hedge against tyranny. Citizens who own weapons can protect themselves, prevent tyrants from seizing power, and protect the nation from foreign enemies." On the other hand, the article clarifies that, while the Founders may have wanted the amendment to result in a well-regulated militia, that is not what they enacted. Despite the justification clause, they only insisted on the operative clause. Volokh writes, "Congress might even take steps that might undercut the value of a well-regulated militia to the security of a free state, for instance by creating a standing army." (We picture Patrick Henry spinning in his grave.) The video finesses the question asked by "opponents of personal gun ownership." The article answers it: What does personal gun ownership have to do with the security of a free state? Effectively? Today? Nothing.
Also, since the dynamic between the first point and the second point seems well-suited to a food processor, we like Volokh's law review conclusion that "interpreting legal texts is a mushy business" and think it would look good as a needlepoint sampler, the traditional version of a semester's worth of wisdom.

Moving on to the bibliography, we scan the excerpts and note two things within five minutes:
  1. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) posits a constitutional right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence. File under "Interesting."
  2. Justice Joseph Story, writing in 1833, trumpets the virtues of a militia as opposed to a standing army in peacetime, but worries that a "growing indifference to any system of militia discipline" could "undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights." We joyously apply our new-found knowledge of nomenclature ("justification clause"!) and feel justified in cherry-picking this and throwing it into the food processor of mushy legal interpretation.
As for the syllabus, for five minutes, there in the branch library in Ulaanbaatar, we daydream of sitting for such a course with Volokh. But we snap out of it, realizing that Volokh's syllabus settles the matter by describing what a semester's worth of wisdom on this subject involves: learning about criminological studies and legal arguments pertaining to gun control, understanding how to use social science, and learning how to develop legal arguments on constitutional issues where the SCOTUS "has not yet developed a complex doctrinal edifice."

OK, so QED, we decide: PragerU's claim is bogus. It is not possible to get a semester's worth of wisdom in five minutes. It's self-evident. A body of knowledge that takes a semester to explore can't be explored in five minutes. We feel silly even for testing the proposition, but are grateful nonetheless to the Volokh syllabus for its lucid and persuasive testimony.

But one thing troubles us: does Professor Volokh know that the value of his brilliance and hard work is being badly depreciated by a bogus marketing claim? Would he care? We anticipate a shoulder shrug and a response something like, "I was asked to answer a question, and I did."

Dejected to live in a world where lies in the service of marketing don't matter, we trudge back to the reference desk. It is a slow day, and the librarian is cross-stitching something. We ask if the librarian minds our asking what the cross-stitch will say.

"Not at all. It will be a Mongolian proverb: 'You can't put two saddles on the same horse.' By the way, I found something interesting while you were exploring your false equivalence. Look here, see what Prager U. says its mission is."

On the librarian's computer screen is the Prager U. "what we do" page. Under "Our Mission" it says "The greatest threat to America is that most Americans don't know what makes America great."

I stop there and look at the librarian, who smiles and asks if maybe Prager U. is the enemy of the people because they don't want to make America great again, and wouldn't this make Volokh a double enemy of the people?

"After all, you can't put two saddles on the same horse."

For some reason we have the feeling that this Trumps the meaning of our operative clause.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

You will have done (lux aeterna Instagrammatici)

The trees down by the creek are backed by a screen of white fog that blackens their bare branches. It is quiet and damp. It will be a stormy day, according to reports. But at this moment you are blissfully unaware of the fate of the day.


"You will have done this," I tell myself, "you will have stood such a moment inside of yourself, you will have become an artist, you will have enshrined it: the calm stronger than exhilaration."

You. You all. The ones who are gone.

You will have done.

But Grammar (the loyal opposition) points the question: will? What future for them?

So I must grapple with "will have done," this angel of the Lord, while a white cloud of you all grows and blackens the branches of the bare trees.

You will have done. You will have done. I think I can. I think I can.

I thought I could. But. Future dissolves into modality. The grammatical angel is gone; I limp away.

And. Here we are: You and me and the bare branches of trees by the creek in the white fog. Imagining that we are a Low Country Instagram painter, enshrining a calm stronger than exhilaration.

And yet been discontented with it because: what comes next?

You will have done.

When the storm comes. As it did. As it does. As it will.