Music has always been a source of joy and strength. I even dedicated an issue of PC to the topic, and I have written a lot of things rooted in or inspired by music or musicians. So when it became clear about a month ago that I would be working from home as a result of the coronavirus I made a playlist. It reflected my thinking at the time -- this will pass, and probably quickly. I didn't choose the songs because I was looking for any deep or sustaining meaning in the face of an indefinable threat because I didn't know how serious the threat was then. I chose songs because choosing gave me an excuse to group together an hour or so's worth of music I liked that was tangentially related to a topic I didn't.
I had "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police, which is about social distancing, but not the kind we're tasked with now. "Fever" by Peggy Lee made the cut, as did "You Sound Like You're Sick" by the Ramones. There was "Cough Syrup" by Young the Giant, and "Can't Feel My Face" by the Weeknd. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" by the Georgia Satellites was suggested by my wife, and I started things off with "Time to Get Ill" by the Beastie Boys. When it was all done, my playlist looked a lot like others I would see on social media as people sought not to minimize the virus, but to make it manageable; approachable even, until it blew over.
As much as I like to use music and humor as masks to diffuse and deflect, it became clear to me after a week in lock down that many of the songs I had chosen weren't appropriate given the gravity of the situation. I still believe we need music and humor, most especially in times like these. But as it became more and more evident that a lot of people were going to get sick, maybe even ones I cared about, having a song from the same album as "Fight for Your Right" -- especially when spring breakers were ignoring social distancing recommendations in the name of partying while people in New Rochelle were virtually walled in -- didn't seem appropriate at all.
That doesn't mean the virus killed music for me. It's just that other songs that seemed like a better fit for what was happening began playing in my head. These songs don't have anything to do with the coronavirus, or illness of any kind as far as I know, and only one is from the list I made BCE (before corona exploded). They are not the end of a playlist, but the beginning of a soundtrack.
In movies, songs can be allusions designed to tune the viewer into a specific frequency. How else do you explain why Quentin Tarantino used "Cat People," a song David Bowie recorded in 1982, during a pivotal scene in Inglourious Basterds, a movie set during World War II? They can reinforce the importance of an action or event the way "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion does at the beginning of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver. On film, songs often accent or expand on a scene's emotional heft, be it joy, sadness, fear, or excitement. We seem to be living in a movie, though what kind remains to be seen.
My COVID-19 soundtrack is made up of songs that, when I hear them after all of this is over, will be linked to this moment when the world cocooned. I'll be presenting them in a series of posts, in no particular order, starting with...
"DOLPHINS" - AZTEC CAMERA
"I've been a'searching for the dolphins in the sea..." - Fred Neil
I could have included "The Waiting" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in this soundtrack because for me these days have been a long, slow exercise in standing by and biding time. My fight-or-flight button has not been pushed. My adrenal glands have kept my catecholamines in check. Instead I wait for information and news and I hope it's not bad. Are the numbers going down, or at the very least, holding steady? What stupidly confusing thing did the president say at today's briefing? Can I go back to work soon? Is everyone safe? These days I burn for hope.
So when news reports from sources like The Guardian and the London Evening Standard began reporting that dolphins were returning to Venetian canals two things happened: I shared the story, and I listened to this song. Originally released by folk singer Fred Neil in 1967, "Dolphins" has been recorded by Tim Buckley, Linda Rondstadt, and even the Black Crowes. I first came to know it via this live version released by Roddy Frame in 1991, and it's my favorite of all the versions I've heard. It's a song about the potential of having your faith in the world restored by nature, by the sight of dolphins gliding through the sea. It's about the possibility that maybe on the other side of that lonely ocean there's someone on a shore thinking about you.
The idea that dolphins would be knifing through clear waters that were just weeks ago choked by commerce and cruise ships made something in me breach. It was a silver shimmer of movement across the dark seas we've been drifting on. But it wasn't true.
Andrew O'Hehir, writing for Salon, explained how "one of the most widely repeated silver-lining stories of the global coronavirus pandemic turns out to be -- not fake exactly, but partly mythical, the result of a single tweet, drawn from fragments of disconnected evidence, that went around the world at lightning speed and launched dozens of thinly-sourced articles." It was an old fashioned game of telephone in the midst of a very modern #pandemic. Short of just debunking the story, O'Hehir went on to identify why it resonated and spread so quickly prior to being properly fact checked: because we needed it to.
Right now waiting isn't enough, especially since that's essentially what we've been asked to do. So we use the power of story to create fact from fiction and we call it hope. We celebrate and share reports of dolphins and drunken elephants that, in the end, turn out to be less than accurate. Why? Because our need to search can carry us when our legs can't (or when they shouldn't, as is the case for those of us being told to stay home). Anyone who has ever looked for Santa as a kid knows just how tangible the things we hope for but never see can be.
Roddy Frame said that "Dolphins" was a song about human nature, and that at least is true. Everyday during this pandemic people are going on fruitless searches and facing down false hopes ("It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine”). That doesn't mean we should give up on what's possible, and that's why "Dolphins" resonates with me. Searching is sustainable. It's one thing we can do when we can't do anything else. Even if there are no dolphins currently swimming in the Canale Grande, the waters are clearer than they've been in a long time. That makes looking easier.
Words can't capture the absurdity of these times, so I'm giving you this picture of Napoleon Dynamite on a horse.
Prodigal's Chair has been in hibernation, but it's spring, and I'm not teaching (not really, though I'm trying) and COVID-19 is wrecking everything so I'm coming out of my digital cave. Not everyone will appreciate what I have to write. I may be accused of the pulling a Wonder Woman. "Why," people will ask, "do you think anyone should be interested in what you have to say right now?! People are dying!" And it's true. On the whole, I'm in great shape. I'm healthy, as are the people I care about. I am still receiving a paycheck. I have toilet paper.
Blogging right now sorta smacks of hubris. Imagine...
But I miss people. I miss my students. I miss the colleagues I work and laugh with every day. So this is an effort to reach out. To stretch my legs. In the interest of social-distancing, I'll not be writing a targeted arrow of an essay that reaches some sort of profoundly sharp and cutting point, and in deference to the times, I'll not be taking submissions for a "Virus Issue." This will be more like the ambling walks I've been taking lately, dictated by what's around, with a few tentative steps in the street to preserve an invisible moat the virus (hopefully) can't cross. This will be casual, yet pleasant, depending on the weather.
The etiquette of walks is changing. I read a post on social media by someone who was upset with a jogger who passed them from behind. He ran too close too suddenly. He should have worn a bell, the post said, or maybe carried a bike horn. In this viral age, walkers are birds, and joggers are dangerous cats. I get annoyed with couples who think it's okay to walk side by side, even when someone else is approaching from the opposite direction. Why should I have to push out an extra three feet into traffic because you bitches can't stroll front to back for a few heartbeats? It's not like I'm asking you to get divorced. Mostly, though, people are friendlier. They wave heartily and wear big smiles, whereas you'd only get a slight nod before. It's as if they're wanting to let you know that their move across the street when they see you coming isn't personal. I'll be a little deflated when things get back to normal.
There's fear on my walks, now. There's fear everywhere, though, punctuated by the absurd. In fact, for me this pandemic is mostly about absurdity. We get a daily dose of it every time the President opens his mouth, as this ad Mr. Trump is trying to silence points out:
That's absurdity on a national scale, but the absurd, like politics, is ultimately local. It's absurd that schools are closed until May 4th in Massachusetts, where I live and work. It's absurd that people are hoarding toilet paper, as if two-ply will protect you from the virus (I said I have toilet paper, I didn't say I hoarded it). It's absurd that my mayor is asking people to stagger shopping days based on which ward they live in (my day is Friday, if you're curious). It's absurd that chilly beaches north of Boston have to be closed while sun-soaked beaches in South Florida weren't.
Then again, maybe "absurd" isn't really the right word -- for Trump's response, yes -- but not for the other things I've described. These things would definitely be absurd under normal circumstances, but things are not normal. The absurd has become both reasonable and required, in many cases, in order to protect and preserve people's health and the common good. It's a duality Shakespeare would love because "fair is foul, and foul is fair."
In case I've confused you, here's another benchmark for absurdity: Little Darlings, a strip club in my home town of Las Vegas, is staying open. How does one social distance at a strip club? Does the giver or the receiver of the lap dance wear the hazmat suit? Only in Vegas could one get a drive-up peep show featuring hand-sanitizer wrestling.
So here's a quiz: Which of the following is not an example of the "absurd"?
Let's turn the corner. Does everyone else spend most of their time thinking about what other people are doing to fill theirs? It seems like it, based on social media. On Facebook people want to know how many places their friends have visited (I've been to more than some, less than others). They want to know if you've seen a band live for every letter of the alphabet (Nope! I'm short E, of all letters, and Q, X, and Z). They want to know if you're good at math (the answer is 30). These are exchanges that require give and take; and, like Zoom meetings, they have become more commonplace than speaking face-to-face. I'm also curious about which song was number one on your 12th birthday, but I think about other things, too.
I think about my former students who were freshmen when I started my current job and have seen their senior year disrupted and potentially cut short. I hope they know that, regardless of how the rest of their year goes, COVID-19 cannot diminish what they've accomplished.
I hope the restaurants and the other small businesses in my community that have been figuratively infected by the coronavirus can survive. I want them to know that I'll be there when they reopen.
I miss sports. Liverpool was just two wins away from lifting the Premier League trophy, and March was still mad, but for reasons most of us never saw coming. There will be no Olympics this summer, and maybe no baseball.
It sucks that bands I've been looking forward to seeing have had to reschedule their shows or have canceled them outright. I hope these small, indie artists like Caroline Rose, the Michigan Rattlers, and Hinds can survive until they can tour again.
I hope Nashville rises, knowing that the town was reeling from deadly tornadoes before the pandemic hit.
I think about my daughter.
I want everyone to stay safe and alive.
Those are my words; my thoughts. I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be. But there they are.
What are you thinking about?
If you're interested in sharing, email me. Let's get through this together.
I started Prodigal's Chair with a few goals in mind. I wanted to write, and to find an outlet for my output, but more importantly, I wanted to create a space. As many of the pieces I've placed in these pages indicate, my life was shaped by my participation in and eventual break from a fundamentalist Christian church during my teenage years. With PC, I wanted to take the best of what that experience offered me -- acceptance, a chance to grow and feel loved for who you are -- without the strings that are attached to that kind of "freedom." I wanted to let people of all points of view and experience have their voices heard on a broad range of abstract and concrete topics.
And for a while, I fucking killed it. I won't bullet point the ways; anyone who's interested can look at the "PAST ISSUES" section to see who's been represented and what's been accomplished. PC has managed to bring together a fairly disparate group of peoples -- some writers, many not.
I am very proud of that.
But it's been a one man show, I do all of the artwork, editing, layout, etc., and to do PC right means giving it more time and attention than I currently can. For those who don't know me up close and personal-like, I'm a public school teacher who has headed back to grad school for more punishment. And I want my wife to see me from time to time, too.
So I'll be pushing in my chair for a bit. Prodigal's Chair is not ending outright, nor is it going completely dark. But you won't see any new issues for a while. There will be a few dispatches from time to time as the spirit moves, and when that happens I'll let you know through all of the usual channels.
For this Valentine’s Day my wife and I got my fourteen-year old daughter a pair of hot pink patent leather Doc Marten boots I found at a local thrift store, the Pretty in Pink soundtrack in 180 gram pink vinyl, a black David Bowie “Starman” t-shirt with pink and blue accents, and some pink-foil wrapped dark chocolate hearts. In Parkland, Florida, the students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their families got something else.
I’m sure Valentine’s Day will mean something drastically different for the MSD community from now on in ways that I can’t fully imagine. But as these students and their families work their way towards some new normalcy, they are simultaneously leading their childish elected officials kicking and screaming towards a more reasonable, responsible relationship with guns in America. Teenagers who huddled behind desks and hid in closets are standing up in the name of the seventeen students and staff who won’t be around next Valentine’s Day, and they’re challenging perceptions about what their Tide Pod eating generation is capable of.
That these kids are more resolute and reliable than the people their parents elected to lead them was painfully clear to anyone who saw the Florida legislature refuse to open a gun measure up for a floor debate shortly after the shooting. Yet on that same day - with many MSD students in the gallery - they defined pornography as a public health risk. Regardless of your opinion on pornography, as a teacher, I can tell you that I’ve never worked at, nor have I heard of, any school being locked down because someone brought a Hustler into the building.
The brilliance of the MSD students and the movement they’ve started is that they’re doing something the adults in this country - on both the left and the right - have never really been able to do. In the wake of unspeakable tragedy, they are turning thoughts and prayers into action. They are finally, and effectively bringing change to bear in an area people from other countries have long looked askance at: America’s willingness to tolerate a culture where citizens are cut down by gunfire. And it’s working.
Three weeks after the shooting, those Florida lawmakers finally did take up the issue, passing a 400 million dollar gun control and school safety bill in the face of NRA opposition. The measure does little to reduce the number of guns available in the state (It does not ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, nor does it strengthen background checks - which even a vast majority of gun owners want), at least those legislators were willing to try, unlike many of their peers in other states and at the federal level. And how could they not, after facing the passionate advocacy of a group of Floridians who, for the most part, are too young to vote them out?
Valentine told me who's to go
When I look at my quirky daughter, who loves David Bowie and vintage clothes, I see a lot of the promise currently being fulfilled by her peers in Florida. As she and I exchanged texts about the shooting, which was close to where her step-cousins go to school, we wondered if the shooter was somehow inspired by the David Bowie song quoted above. Bowie, who had quietly made America his home during the last few decades of his life, used songs like “Valentine’s Day” to take a critical look at his adopted country. While a dubious website called Illuminati Watcher claims that “Valentine’s Day” is an example of the predictive programming the mythical secret society uses to subliminally control people (because the only thing more American than guns are conspiracy theories, right?), I don’t see how a song critical of American gun culture could have that effect. Furthermore, if Nikolas Cruz was inspired by Bowie’s song, investigators have yet to reveal it.
So while many people have pointed out the eerie similarities between “Valentine’s Day” and the Parkland shooting, a more welcome connection has been made to the MSD students and the second verse of one of Bowie’s better known songs, 1972’s “Changes”:
And these children that you spit on
These children are painfully aware of what they went - and are still going through. That’s why they are so resolute even as the adults they challenge remain married to the status quo, or display the kind of waffling exhibited by President Pancake, who slaps the NRA across the face with one hand while giving them a friendly pat on the ass with the other. If Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum make guns more expensive, and therefore harder to get, then I say, by all means, proceed, sir.
That’s because the problem really is guns, (along with the fact that many people have come to view the Second Amendment with such idolatry that they are blind to reason and data), despite our desire to blame other objects and issues. True, the United States routinely ranks last in mental health care when compared to other developed nations; but, if all things were equal, we would still have to worry about keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill because there are so many guns available for them to get their hands on. Yet, we’d rather make sure that future Dylan Roofs can’t amass a cache of Penthouse magazines while still ensuring the availability of high-capacity magazines. Better to demonize the mentally ill as evil monsters for legally acquiring and using weapons like AR-15 rifles in the manner in which they were designed (for creating mass-casualties cleanly and with ease) than to call their weapon of choice what it is: a killing machine that should have no place in homes or on store shelves.
Then there are those who say the answer can be found in “hardening” our schools. This means doing a better job of controlling ingress and egress points, installing metal detectors, and - unbelievably to me - arming teachers and other school employees. An acquaintance on Facebook touted this last measure, writing something to the effect that since teachers are already thoroughly vetted, highly trained individuals with a vested interest in the welfare of their students. preparing them to go all Bruce Willis on a shooter is the way to go. The Florida Legislature partially endorsed this view by including 67 million dollars to arm certain school employees - but not teachers - willing to carry firearms in school (so be nice to the lunch lady, kids). But, getting back to Bowie, that’s like putting out a fire with gasoline. It makes no sense to tackle the gun problem by adding more guns to the equation. Nor is it wise to make schools structurally equivalent to prisons.
Much of this comes down to the fact that many of our politicians do a better job of respecting the whims of special interest groups than they do at enacting the will of their constituents. Nowhere was the power of the National Rifle Association more evident than in Georgia, where legislators killed a 40-million dollar tax break on jet fuel for Delta Airlines after the company responded to MSD students by ending its discount program for the NRA. Delta is the largest private employer in the state, yet Republican Lt. Gov. / gubernatorial candidate Casey Cagle promised that, if elected, he would kill any tax break for Delta unless the company fully reinstates its relationship with the NRA. USA Today has since revealed that only thirteen NRA members have ever used this discount (JUST THIRTEEN!). Yet Cagle and other Georgia politicians are willing to leverage it against the economic well-being of the 33,000 Georgians Delta employs. It’s pretty clear who politicians in Georgia really represent.
So here we are, at a crossroads yet again (see Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurora, Las Vegas). But this time it’s different. The children in Parkland have turned to face what makes America seem so strange to the rest of the world, and they’re doing it with the kind of grit and resolve that some adults find infuriating and that I - and many others - find marvelously inspiring. Next year, I’ll gather more gifts for the people I love while many of the people in Parkland will struggle to reconcile what happened on February 14, 2018 with what Valentine’s Day looks like for everyone else. But today, MSD students aren’t thinking about carnations and candy. They are continuing to challenge officials (both elected and appointed), and they’re mobilizing. On March 24th, I plan on standing with them in my community, at the March for Our Lives in Boston, so that in the future, the phrases “gun control” and “school safety” never have to share the same space again.
To find a March for Our Lives event near you, click HERE.
Two-thousand, two hundred and forty-six dollars.
That’s how much the man sitting next to me at the Immigration Forum had in his Citibank account. I know this, not because I’m a stalker (I’m nowhere near that stealthy) but because this guy was a careless, close-phone-holder.
And he was short.
Plus, he slouched.
All these factors, meant that it only took a slight left turn of my head – which happened often as I sought to give the forum’s speakers my attention – to see what drew close-phone-holder’s attention to his phablet and away from the forum.
In addition to his bank balance (which he checked at least a dozen times over the course of the two hour meeting), there was the text to an associate about how enjoyable drinks were at B-Dubs, queries about what older men should wear to clubs in Vegas, and a search for Miracle Ear hearing aids – which made sense given all of the “Huh?”s and “What?”s he loudly sent his son’s way during the forum.
Or maybe this man, who had the appearance of a just stopping off for a gallon of milk after a long day at the office – tailored shirt unbuttoned at the collar, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up – had no intention of listening in the first place? This became clear to me as the meeting went on. No, he was here to support his boy, who was the more disrespectfully engaged of the two, and to check his phone.
Junior, who appeared to be in his early twenties, beat-boxed his way through the meeting, scoffing and grunting at any mention of immigration’s historic role in weaving together the fabric of his community. His disapproving whispers scratch-scratch-scratched against the backbeat of the panelist’s comments, dismissing each person’s claims before they were finished making them.
Remember, I could see everything that danced across the screen of close-phone-holder’s phablet, including the texts his son was so feverishly sending him between gasps and guffaws. If these missives were to be believed, then junior knew more about the law than the chief of police AND the city’s solicitor. He knew more about immigration’s impact on the community than a professor who made the subject his specialty at the local university. The minister whose congregation dealt with immigrants on a daily basis? Useless, as was the vastly unqualified school district official. And – surely – this young man’s perspective as a lifelong city resident and ‘Murican citizen was more cogent to the conversation than a fellow resident’s who – while also a U.S. citizen – was not BORN here. When dad validated this claim with the assertion that junior had the wrong skin color, I snapped.
I turned towards father and son and, in my angriest, most condescending whisper, told them that I could see everything on dad’s screen. Why, I demanded, was he looking at his bank account so often?! No, showing off a little chest hair was NOT a good look for ANYONE, let alone someone his age; and – most importantly – can you hear me okay, because I’m trying to tell you how rude and disrespectful you are?
I had my say and I left my seat to take a walk.
Out in the hall, away from my wife, the crowd, one of my bosses who shared the stage, and those two trolls whose behavior so incensed me, I did what most people would do: I took out my phone, opened my search engine, and I started to Hyde. I knew junior’s name – it was on the screen right in front of me for more than half the meeting – and my joints popped and swelled as my now knobby fingers ran across my phone.
I trolled them. Blatantly.
I learned that junior survived a childhood illness that required two organ transplants. I discovered that as a teenager he had been arrested for driving around town and shooting kids with a pellet gun. Dad, on the other hand, was a local business owner. You could find his commercials, touting his years of dedication and service to the community he called home, online, his outsized personality filling the screen. How, I wondered, would he treat the woman he and his son mocked from behind their phones if she were to ever walk into his office looking for car insurance?
I learned that they had relatively open social media profiles, and I was tempted to call them out in a Facebook post – to challenge any of my friends who may have business with dad’s company to rethink who they paid their premiums to.
I looked around some more.
Despite their behavior at the forum, both father and son seemed relatively apolitical online. Junior's posts were typical for a college student who was looking to define himself by who he wanted to become as opposed to who he had been in high school. Look! I'm witty and ironic. I read things. I'm not the village idiot. I imagine my profile would've looked the same had Facebook been (ahem) around when I started college.
Dad's page reflected an older man's desire to embrace technology in a way that told the rest of the world, "No, I'm not too old for this!” He had many pictures, a few memes, and some general, emoji free status updates, with the occasional awkward accidental "message" that was really meant for one person and not his public wall. I saw no evidence online of the people they were sitting next to me. They had a lot friends. Tons of family. They seemed decent. They were loved.
I put my phone to sleep and went back to my seat. I was still mad, but not just at them. There was a bit of a stink on me. How do you reconcile and confront the shit that people do without becoming shitty yourself? This question followed me back to my seat.
The rest of the meeting was quiet, but I still had trouble staying focused on the speakers. When things drew to a close, a woman sitting in front of us – who wore the trappings of a Buddhist and had obviously heard the earlier commotion – turned to junior with a warm, radiant smile and asked, “Did you get your questions answered?” Dad was already moving to leave, but junior paused, stopped cold, really. He wasn’t expecting this. As my wife and I got up to leave, he and the Buddhist were talking politely.