Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

What defines a shithole country?

I didn’t giggle once as I watched newscasters and analysts struggling with the word, and as I read headlines surrendering to the word. The word that had been uttered by the President of the United States.

Shithole. It had to be written out, and had to be said, in order to understand what a creep we have running this country. If you didn’t know he is a creep back when he was running for the office, and now you do know it, well, welcome to reality. We’re glad to have you, even if you arrived a little late.

Of course, there are and will always be some people who defend the president’s remarks about Haiti and the nations of Africa being “shithole countries.” Let’s sample a couple.

This is encouraging and refreshing as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration. The real issue is all of these shitty brown people who come to the country exclusively to parasite off of us.

That comes from Daily Stormer, which I’m told is perhaps the most influential neo-Nazi web site in the world.

Here’s another defense:

This is how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar.

That’s one of the smart folks from Fox News, who was trying to paint a picture of Trump speaking for the average, hard-working American who sits down in front of a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon after surviving a hard day’s work in a de-regulated West Virginia coal mine.

Comedy ensued. Someone used an outdoor projector to label one of Trump’s hotels a “Shithole.” The nation of Botswana asked its American ambassador to please clarify if it is considered a shithole country.

But this is a serious issue. These shithole countries, as Trump calls them, are mainly populated by black people. As is the National Football League, whose players Trump has labeled as unpatriotic when they kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement during the playing of the National Anthem.

Protest is how we’ve gotten things done in America, from the Revolutionary War to Civil Rights. Trump has no problem with the protests of white supremacists. As he noted after the clashes in Charlottesville last summer over removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, when a woman was run over and killed by a white supremacist intentionally driving a car into a crowd of people, “there are good people on both sides.” Trump also did not have a problem with former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was jailed because he ignored a court order against using his department’s racial profiling as a weapon against the immigrants he detests. Trump pardoned Arpaio, freeing him to announce he’s now running for the U.S. Senate. Where it appears he belongs, judging by how so many of its current members’ silence on Trump’s many outrages can be interpreted as compliance.

These are shithole white folks. The examples of Trump’s racism and bigotry and misogynism go on and on and on, and have been known for years. You can look them up for yourselves on the internet. I’m tired of doing so myself, it just depresses the hell out of me.

There’s another way to look at Trump’s declaration that Haiti and the nations of Africa are shithole countries. It’s because these countries are poor. And to a rich man like Trump, being poor is a bad thing.

And yes, being poor is a difficult position in life. And why are these nations poor? They’ve certainly suffered from poor leadership. “Papa Doc” Duvalier ordered the murder of tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen in Haiti. African nations have been plagued by dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. But western civilizations haven’t been of much help, if you can even consider slavery, colonization and turning a blind eye to apartheid as civilized.

Human rights is a concern for the 21st century. Human dignity as well. Much of the world, including our closest European allies, have reacted with shock and dismay at Trump’s words and the meaning behind them. But we have been heading in this direction now for a year. Despite having the largest economy in the world, an estimated 43 million Americans live in poverty. Unlike virtually every western nation, we are unable to guarantee our citizens proper health care. The chasm between the 1 percent of rich people in this country and the rest of the population is growing, evolving into the same kind of daunting economic barrier as that faced by the nations of Haiti and Africa.

We are better than this. Or, we should be. The United States has lost its status as the leader of what we have euphemistically called the free world.

We are descending into shithole country status.

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The Critical Mass

“Take your broken heart and turn it into art”

Maybe I’m the wrong guy to comment on this weekend’s Golden Globes, because one of the things I used to do for a living was watch the various entertainment awards shows – usually The Grammys or The MTV Video Music Awards – and ruthlessly mock them. It was easy money. I have no respect for authority or institutions.

In the last two years, we’ve been seeing and hearing our creative people increasingly using their time onstage to speak out on social issues. That’s happened in isolated ways over the years, but now it’s a regular occurrence when a celebrity is summoned to the stage to pick up a piece of hardware. Like what Meryl Streep said at last year’s Oscars, after her emotional speech attacking the callous actions of President-elect Trump, and recalling a comment by Carrie Fisher: “As my dear departed friend Princess Leia said to me once, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’”

The world and art. There’s no separating the two.

How you feel about celebrities sounding off on social and political issues seems to depend on if you agree with what they’re saying. If you disagree, you’re probably insisting people like Streep should keep their mouths shut until it’s time to read the lines someone wrote for them. But I like to hear what entertainers, particularly musicians, have to say. In my experience, they’re pretty smart people. Generally thoughtful, well read. And when Charlie Daniels starts going off about how a secret shadow government known as The Illuminati is running the world, I figure I’m smart enough to know he’s wrong.

Well, I’m sorta sure he’s wrong. I actually have no proof he’s wrong.

And now we have Oprah Winfrey delivering such a superb speech at last weekend’s Golden Globes that people were immediately chanting that she should run for president. And Oprah was reportedly thinking about it.

That’s where we are today. Someone can put together a moment of elegant and cogent words on a national stage and suddenly he or she seems presidential.

Barack Obama certainly set a high bar for articulate words. And as has been noted repeatedly in the days since Oprah’s speech, we’ve already endured a year of a television personality president over the past year, and it isn’t working out too well. Oprah would be a significant upgrade over the current officeholder – she has communication skills and a moral compass – but the job description calls for a serious public servant who understands how to operate the government gearbox. Someone who not only knows what has to be done, but how to get it done.

Isn’t there someone out there, somewhere in this country of more than 300 million people, who fits that description?

Of course there is. The problem is, we don’t have the patience to find them.

America has a superhero fixation. We see it in the most-popular movies of our time, stories featuring a being with amazing powers who swoops in, defeats evil and takes care of those hard-to-clean spots on the rug. A quick fix in a cape.

George W. Bush and his wars, Donald Trump and his wall, Paul Ryan and his postcard IRS form. All were superhero wishes unfulfilled. President Oprah, with her cabinet members Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz., is just another superhero fantasy.

You know where the real superpower is? It’s in numbers, and a slow evolution decades in the making. It’s all of those women at the Golden Globes making statements against sexual harassment. Women, including Oprah, standing on that national stage and telling the men who have made such a mess of things: It’s over.

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The Critical Mass

Fire and Fury and karma

The early bird gets the worm, they claim. And not getting to the bookstore quick enough meant I didn’t get a copy of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Yes, I’m, disappointed. Because it looks like author Michael Wolff got the snake.

I’ve got the book on order, and while my friends tell me I can get it on Kindle or one of the other electronic services right now, I’m not in that much of a hurry. I just started reading Richard Doerr’s All of the Light We Cannot See, a breathtakingly poetic novel stuffed with science and history and the pursuit of knowledge in a world that seems dead-set against enlightenment. So I’m not about to put that aside in favor of some unbelievable story about an insane man, in the belief that running for president of the United States will make him the most-famous person in the world and help him launch a television network, accidentally wins the election.

And… what’s that? Fire and Fury isn’t fiction?

Oh, if only Peter Sellers would be alive today. He’d be 92 years old. But the Sellers we remember would be perfect to play the bumbling, uninformed, TV-addicted, narcissistic jerk who threatens the entire planet.

Late in 2016 I interviewed Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most-honored intellectuals. The White House was within the grasp of Donald Trump, although not a lot of people closely following the presidential race thought he actually had a chance to win. According to Wolff, Trump was among those who figured he would lose.

See what happens when you play with a loaded gun?

Anyway, among Chomsky’s many intriguing comments was his claim that the Republican Party is the most-dangerous political party in the history of the world. An interesting position for someone who was raised Jewish and is familiar with Nazi Germany. But Chomsky was taking into account climate-change denial, the exploding economic gap between the rich and poor, the devaluation of science and truth in favor of dogma used to manipulate public opinion, and the wars of choice in the Gulf and Afghanistan that have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and inflamed anti-American sentiment throughout the world. And Donald Trump is the robot they have turned loose to take that political platform to the next level.

The Nazis killed millions of people. But they also didn’t have a nuclear arsenal.

No detail in the stories I’ve read about Fire and Fury is something that, in one respect or another, I haven’t heard before. Even before Trump won the presidency, I knew the guy was a racist, a bigot, a liar, a business cheat and man who abused and disrespected women. You did too, if you were paying attention. Are you surprised to hear that Trump uses foul language to describe even the women who work for him? Then you missed the infamous Hollywood Access tape. Are you surprised to learn that Trump is intellectually ill-prepared to make decisions on the issues he must address as president? Then you didn’t watch the debates, in which he came off as uninterested in facts.

I wonder if Alec Baldwin will stop portraying Trump on Saturday Night Live when he realizes he’s mocking a mentally disabled man?

Trump’s defenders are attacking Wolff’s credibility. And we don’t know the origin of some of the tales Wolff tells. Even reporters, biographers and people who have gotten close to Trump have admitted that yes, they don’t know for a fact that Trump likes to go to bed at 6:30 p.m. with a cheeseburger meal. But all of this stuff sure sounds like him, they admit.

Gossip. Innuendo. Outright fabrications, even, fed to Wolff by Trump haters. Fire and Fury might have some of that in its pages. But can you think of anyone on the planet more deserving to have his own behavior thrown back in his face? It’s called Karma.

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The Critical Mass

My frightening reading list

I’ve been reading a lot of books the last few months. As Burgess Meredith said in that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “I have all the time in the world.”

And as the lights went out on 2017, and we stumbled into the new year, the holiday party literary discussions over a glass of wine naturally came down to the favorites.

Unconsciously, mine seemed to share one theme.

Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road is the one I’ve been mentioning first, as I just finished it about a week ago. A father and his son traveling through a shattered American landscape, everything covered in ash, most of the population reduced to dried, mummy-like figures. Frightening images of cannibalism. What happened here? We never know. I was talking to My Friend Patrick, and we kinda agreed that it seemed like the kid was maybe Jesus Christ. Or the next Messiah. McCarthy leaves it open to your speculation. I passed on The Road to My Neighbor John. We’ll see what he says.

When the television show started airing this summer, I picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The U.S. president and most of Congress have been killed in an attack and a totalitarian, Christian, misogynist leadership has assumed control of the country. Non-Christian religions and non-white people are destroyed or relocated.

Maybe I’m just looking for trouble. But when I read Careers For Women by the University of Rochester professor Joanna Scott, I sensed an overwhelming corporate evil behind every aspect of the story, from the desecration of Native American land to the murder that’s at the center of the story to the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Along the way, at a used book store I bought a paperback copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I think that one’s next.

And way back in March – that seems soooo long ago – I picked up a book that was on The New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The extinction of truth. The government manipulating a world in which truth and lies are indistinguishable from each other.

The connection is obvious. For the most part, these are dystopian visions. Dystopia, as in the opposite of utopia: “An imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives,” as the Merriam-Webster dictionary says.

I’m sure now that my brain went to these places because of the news, and the political climate, that entered our lives with the advent of Trump. It’s a dehumanization, a fear, that’s been with us at least since 2001, and the attack on the World Trade Center. Certainly The Road, published in 2006, could be connected to the 21st century’s dystopian dread. These books are fiction, yet the scenarios they present all seem so possible. Especially now.

But wait. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986, Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949 and Brave New World in 1932. We’ve been waiting for the end of the world as we know it for a long time now.

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The Critical Mass

I listened to 30,000 albums

It used to be said that 30,000 albums are released each year. I’m not sure if that was ever true, and it most likely isn’t true today: Many different internet-driven platforms, independent of record labels, are available for musicians get their work out to the world. Who can evaluate more than 30,000 albums a year? A “Best Albums of 2017” simply isn’t possible.

“My Favorite Stuff of 2017” is more accurate.

1, Bill Evans, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert. Like another long-lost Evans recording, 2016’s Some Other Time: The Lost Session From The Black Forest, this album is a vinyl-only release I picked up on my favorite holiday, Record Store Day. These albums look and feel like artifacts from another era. They engage sensibilities that don’t come from the antiseptic process of downloading.

Evans was like a lot of the jazzmen of that time, brilliant and tragic. Drug addiction, the suicide of the woman he lived with for years, an early death. A Harrowing life lived in contrast to the beauty of the artistry, Another Time is pristinely recorded, a trio with Evans on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Music that’s both melancholy and whimsical: “Alfie,” “Embraceable You” and Evans’ own “Turn Out the Stars.”

My picks for album of the year always seem to be something socially relevant. But 2017 has been so disturbing, with each day dawning to some new chaos, that I didn’t need musical pundits reminding me of where we’re going wrong. This year, I found myself repeatedly turning to the peace and elegance of music that assured me that the world can be a beautiful place.

2, Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman. I first encountered Eitzel’s songwriting in 1993 and Mercury, an album by his then-band, American Music Club. The song that stunned me was “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” a worshipful portrait of the singer and artistic doubt. In the years that followed, Eitzel has continued to write downbeat words of powerful self examination, songs often set in bars. He put American Music Club back together in 2004 for Love Songs For Patriots that included “Patriot’s Heart,” a sadly harrowing story of a male stripper that left me feeling uncomfortable. And I like feeling uncomfortable. When I finally saw him perform live a few years ago, I understood Eitzel for what he is: An over-the-top torch singer, ripping off his skin, exposing raw nerves.

3, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman. She was a late bloomer, a former prison guard who recorded her first album when she was in her 40s and became a shooting star of R&B and soul, only to die of cancer at age 60 in the months after she finished Soul of a Woman. I interviewed her once; she came off as quiet and thoughtful. But onstage, she played life big.

4, The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. I saw this band in its early days, and I didn’t like it. That’s changed. Its beautifully elegant, 11-minute song “Thinking of a Place” is my favorite alternative alternative-rock song of the year.

5, Joywave, Content. Even though it’s gone national and tours the world, we can still call this the local album of the year, as Joywave never fails to remind people that it is from Rochester. Content manages to be introspective while expanding an ambitious sonic palate that would bury other bands’ efforts to make a statement.

6, This is The Kit, Moonshine Freeze. Not really a group, but the English alternative-folk singer Kate Stables and whoever’s around her at the moment. I find words and sounds scattered like brilliant gems that have been tossed along a path through the woods. Life is upheaval. “This is the natural order of things,” she sings, “change sets in.”

7, Mondo Cozmo, Plastic Soul. Born in Philadelphia, now living in LA, Josh Ostrander has taken on the name Mondo Cozmo for this set of excellent and quirky pop songs, drawing on the old and the new. The title track samples Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart,” which you probably know better from the Janis Joplin version.

8, Kronos Quartet, Folk Songs. The avant-garde classical chamber ensemble adds another genre to its bag of successful experimentation: American folk music. A collection of sad old songs and contemporary singers, including Rhiannon Giddens and Natalie Merchant.

9, Vijay Iyer, Far From Over. Raised in Fairport, there is no pianist doing what Iyer is doing now, and he does it with ferocity. This is very nearly a big-band Iyer, as he’s added saxophones and a coronet for the first time in a decade.

10, Jason Moran, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard. Well, at some point we must surrender to the 21st century. The jazz pianist, playing in a trio format, has made this available only through bandcamp.com. It’s one of those 30,000-plus albums released this year that flies beneath the radar. So there is something on value to be found on the internet, after all.

The Critical Mass

We’re bringing Christmas back

If you’re indulging today in that Christmas Day tradition of turning on the television, you may encounter this: A commercial announcing President Trump has won The War on Christmas.

I literally burst out laughing yesterday morning while reading a story about a television commercial created by America First Policies, a nonprofit group composed of some of Trump’s former campaign aids. It would air on Christmas morning, featuring a handful of what some ad agency’s idea of everyday Americans look like offering thanks to President Trump for all of the things he’s supposedly done for us in that alternative world in which they live. That includes a little girl at the end who says, “Thank you President Trump for letting us say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

The War on Christmas. Is that still a thing?

In all honesty, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Christmas. Or, at least, the idea of Christmas. Giving gifts, receiving gifts, parties, music, food, a garishly decorated aluminum tree in the living room. Yet most of us who enjoy these traditions are also eye-rolling enlistees in the fight against the overwhelming commercialization of the holiday, which now butts into our lives beginning sometime in October. There’s your War on Christmas.

A War on Christmas? Ridiculous. Christmas has won, it is inescapable. And political. Hollywood, that pack of liberal sexual harassers of women, continues to make movies celebrating the holiday with laughs and happy endings. Fox News, that pack of conservative sexual harassers of women, continues to feed the Suburban Legend that politically correct police are urging little girls to not say “Merry Christmas.”

A recent Pew Research Center study shows that most Americans don’t care if they’re greeted with “Happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” The War on Christmas was simply some folks’ negative reaction to our increasingly inclusive, diverse and welcoming society. The painless expansion of our vocabulary to “Happy holidays” is now a virtually unconscious phrase. But one that, in the Christmas spirit, welcomes all. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and the fastest-growing religious belief in America, “None of the above.”

Trump can take credit for winning this imaginary war if he likes. “Remember I said we’re bringing Christmas back?” he said at a rally earlier this month in Utah. “Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before. We’re bringing Christmas back.” And America First Policies is free to create TV commercials that credit Trump with an alternative universe of accomplishments. It’s their money.

But if you see that commercial on Christmas day, or find it on the internet, take note of the everyday Americans who aren’t there, thanking Trump. The victims of gun violence, the people of Black Lives Matter, those who live in poverty, the homeless, Muslims, the marginalized LGBTQ, the millions who will likely lose their health insurance next year. Robert Mueller and the FBI investigators closing in on the Trump-Russia election connection. The women who have accused the president of sexual assault.

And the very, very rich aren’t in that commercial. Because America First Policies doesn’t want to remind you of the Americans who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of the new tax plan that was passed this week. And what a Happy Holiday it is for them.

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The Critical Mass

Watkins says what we’re all thinking this holiday season

It was clear during last Monday night’s Watkins & the Rapiers show at The Little Theater Café that something was up. While keeping its infamously loose, intra-band banter intact, the group seemed a little musically tighter, a little more focused, than usual. In fact, the show was an undressed rehearsal for Wednesday night’s big, multi-media concert at The Little Theater.

It’s the second-annual Watkins & the Rapiers Christmas in December show, which last year just about sold out the 300 seats. Pretty good considering the band gives away the music for free during its December residencies at The Little.

Watkins & the Rapiers’ Christmas shows are the closest thing to a unique Holiday tradition to which Rochester can lay claim. The group says it has composed the most original Christmas songs of any band in the world, and no one has stepped forward to dispute that. More than 70 songs at this point, and most of them are pretty worthy. The band is generally drummer Marty York, guitarists/bassists Tom Whitmore and Kerry Regan, guitarists Scott Regan and Steve Piper and multi-instrumentalist Rick McRae, and for the holiday season it adds brass and reed player Pete Hasler. All except York write and sing, so after a couple of decades of taking out their holiday frustrations in song, it’s easy to see how the Christmas tunes have added up.

Typically, a Watkins & the Rapiers Christmas compostion is sardonic, sarcastic, satiric. They’re Dr. Demento worthy. Whitmore’s compositions can be downright grumpy: “Why Won’t Christmas Leave Me Alone?” Hasler’s contributions take a similar dim view of rituals such as untangling Christmas lights. One of the band’s biggest crowd pleasers in McRae’s rousing parody of a communist proletariat anthem, “Arise Ye North Pole Workers.” Kerry Regan’s clever wordplay can be provocative, and he holds the distinction of writing the only Watkins song that has been quietly retired. “Santa’s Got a Gun,” the first-ever Watkins Christmas song, in which the jolly icon takes a hostage, has been deemed inappropriate in this age of gun violence.

Yet some of the Watkins Christmas songs – ones by Scott Regan and Piper in particular – are heartfelt, and even sentimental. Offsets to the mayhem.

And behind the band, showing on the screen, multi-media offerings to enhance the lyrics, including a video shot by the band especially for this evening.

The doors open at 7 p.m., the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available at The Little, 240 East Ave., and at thelittle.org.

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The Critical Mass

The Christians of Wrath

My Friend Bill and My Friend Connie were at the house last week when we got to talking about the epidemic of revelations showing men in powerful positions sexually harassing and assaulting women. And what’s behind these religious leaders who were throwing their support behind the accused child sex predator, Roy Moore? How could a guy like that even get as close as he did Tuesday night to the U.S. Senate?

And then Bill and Connie – they read books together, it’s kinda cute – remembered a scene early in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that might supply some answers.

My copy of the book was serendipitously on a shelf within arm’s reach, and Connie quickly found the relevant passage. It’s when Tom Joad, just out of prison after serving four years for murder, is walking down the road to his parents’ home. He comes across a ragged-looking guy sitting beneath a tree and recognizes him as the reverend who baptized him. Jim Casey, now a former reverend. They share a pint of whiskey, and Casey explains his downfall, on pages yellowed with age:

“Tell you what – I used to get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ some I’d baptize to bring ’em to. And then – you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out to the grass, an I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. I figgered there just wasn’t no hope for me, an’ I was a damned ol’ hypocrite. But I didn’t mean to be.”

So Jim Casey was using Jesus to take advantage of young women. A man of power, abusing his position. But then, a few paragraphs later, he insists that it wasn’t just he who was using Jesus.

“I got to thinkin’ like this – ‘Here’s me preachin’ grace. And here’s these people getting’ grace so hard they’re jumpin’ and shoutin’. Now they say layin’ up with a girl comes from the devil. But the more grace a girl got in her, the quicker she wants to go out in the grass.’ And I got to thinkin’ how in hell, s’cuse me, how can the devil get in when a girl is so full of the Holy Sperit that it’s spoutin’ out of her nose and ears. You’d think that’d be one time when the devil didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. But there it was.”

Joad’s been in prison for four years, he interrupts and says maybe he should have been a preacher, because he’s been a long time without a woman and, “It’s gonna take some catchin’ up.”

Casey continues to ponder the hypocrisy. “An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought to be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ all full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets to fingerin’ his pants buttons?’”

As Casey and Joad share the whiskey, Casey says he maybe has the answer. Who’s responsible for right and wrong in the world? “I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of.’”

Yep, that’s what I figgered when I was hearing folks from Alabama proclaiming on news reports that Roy Moore wasn’t a middle-aged man preying on teenage girls at the mall, that he’s a good Christian man. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They’re hiding behind God and Jesus, so they don’t have to answer to their own conscious. Yep, that’s what I figger.

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Regan, Deming and Piper: The Spring Chickens. Photo by Sue Rogers.

The World Doesn’t Owe You Anything

With decisions come consequences.

That was the theme running through my head while lying awake in bed at 3 a.m. Wednesday. The gray-matter residue from a couple of Tuesday night’s entertainments.

It started at The Little theater with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A murder mystery that doesn’t give you what you’re looking for: A solution. Instead, the story of a woman who rents three billboards outside of town and uses them to ask why the rape and murder of her daughter hasn’t been solved offers brilliant acting by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Their characters are complex, their motivations not always honorable, the story they are caught up in is multi-layered. The rape and murder is the tragedy that sets off a series of decisions made by these characters, decisions that lead to a Rubix’s Cube of unexpected consequences.

We drifted from the theater into The Little Café, where The Spring Chickens were playing. An acoustic trio of Connie Deming, Steve Piper and Scott Regan, whose show Open Tunings airs every weekday morning on WRUR-FM (88.5). Regan and Piper also play in Watkins & the Rapiers, currently holding down a Monday-night residency at The Little. That band is notable for its frequently irreverent and sardonic songwriting. But with The Spring Chickens, Piper and Regan present their music with a slightly more serious tone, even if the between-song banter between the three remains charming and funny.

But something’s weighing on The Spring Chickens, and heavily. Piper – a wry, amusing fellow – spoke of the mood of anger and depression that has settled over the country, particularly in these last few days, as the news grows increasingly alarming. Deming sang a song she wrote this summer, “How Did We Get Here?” It’s a dark one, about deception in a relationship, but one verse makes reference to “the liar in the White House.”

And Regan, too. He generally limits his social and political observations to an insightful line or two, then moves on. But Tuesday night, you could see that his dismay in what we’re witnessing, what we’re living through right now, is something he can no longer contain. He struggled to find the right words, then found them: How sad it is, “Watching our country get taken apart.” By the hands of Trump, whose malignant narcissism and obsession with enriching himself are leading to decisions with damning consequences for us all.

And then Regan played his song, “The World Doesn’t Owe You Anything.”

The Spring Chickens. Speaking truth to power.

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The Critical Mass

Roy Moore! Help is on the way!

Apparently, I’m told, I’ve earned millions of dollars over the course of my lifetime. I blew it all on booze, women and movies.

I was unaware of this reality until the past weekend, when the crusty Iowa senator, Charles Grassley, was explaining the Republicans’ new tax bill to the Des Moines Register. “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said. “As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

The estate tax applies only to the very, very rich. Like senators. That could have been me, or you. Maybe we could have been senators if we hadn’t spent every darn penny on booze or women or movies. And, without a worry in our world, we could have helped protect the very rich not only by eliminating the estate tax, but by creating a bill bursting with other benefits for rich people and corporations. A bill recognizing the people who matter, the people who are investing.

Today, half of Americans qualify as poor or low income. A situation that might not exist if they weren’t blowing their $7.25-an-hour, minimum-wage paychecks on food. Or blowing it on child care, which wouldn’t be a problem if women just stayed at home rather than worked. The rich folks’ investments in themselves will trickle down to those poor families, in due time. Like, never.

I’m lucky, I guess I’m middle class, if that means anything anymore. I must be making bad choices. Senator Grassley could rightly point to the $9,000 that I blew this fall on medical bills. Wouldn’t that money have been more-wisely invested in the stock market, rather throwing it away on my health, thanks to workplace medical-insurance coverage that was growing increasingly useless each year?

Yeah, the cost of living is a killer. It’s been more than a decade since my sporadic 1 percent raises kept up with life. Thankfully, I was laid off in September, so I don’t have to worry any more about my wages possibly undercutting the dividends of the company’s stockholders.

The movies, that’s a problem. The house needs painting. It’s probably an $8,000 job. It’ll be much easier on my mind tonight to go out and blow $8 on Three Billboards at The Little theater.

Booze, that’s a problem. I recently blew $500 on the 12-year-old car I drive. It has 230,000 miles on it. I could have bought 10 bottles of excellent scotch if it weren’t for those new brakes. Next time, I’ll make a better decision.

Perhaps help is on the way for those of us who show poor judgment. It looks like next week Roy Moore will be elected to the senate. The guy who was dating high-school girls when he was a 35-year-old man. Women? Especially underage ones? That’s not a problem in Alabama.

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