Thrones and other games

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By pure chance, I was flicking around TV last Sunday and landed on the 17th hole of the Masters Tournament. I have never considered golf a spectator sport, and the way I play it, it’s not much of a participatory sport either.

I share my home and my heart with someone who is currently obsessed with binge-watching Game of Thrones to get caught up on the current final season. Watching Tiger Woods marching through a crowd chanting his name, the only difference I could see between these two programs were the costumes.

One of the most hopeful things about the human race is the amount of time, energy, money, and enthusiasm we devote to sports. We are fascinated to see people do what nobody has done before and find out who can run the fastest, jump the highest, get a ball into a target or hit it with a stick. There are people who go to violent extremes in support of their team, but their problem is violence, and they would find any excuse to unleash it. I can’t blame sports for that.

Sports, like music and science, has its own vocabulary and sensibility that appeals to some people and has the opposite effect on others. Like those other fields, those who are most successful at it usually recognize how lucky they are and want to help younger people to follow their path.

I realize now that my hesitation to go down the Game of Thrones rabbit hole is not just resistance to pop culture phenomenon. I resent the idea that the pursuit of power is a worthy subject for entertainment. But if power is used in a constructive way – whether to fight injustice, or to hit a ball into a cup better than anyone else can – let the the games begin.

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I Have to Assume I’m a Racist

Reality changes all the time and it is never going to change back. We are never going back to the pre-Trump era or the one before the sexual revolution. We are never going back to racial purity.

I have to assume I’m a racist. I don’t think I am, but there are a lot of other people who don’t think they are who seem like they are to me. Racism, and the thing we call ‘race’ when we mean culture, are difficult to talk about because we live in a primitive society. We’ve built warehouses to incarcerate generations of young black men rather than talk about it. We say ‘the n-word’ because we have to be treated like children who aren’t allowed to say dirty words, too ignorant to understand their meaning.

Women and people of color who see me as a stranger must sometimes also see me as a danger. It would be reckless to treat me as a friend without getting to know me a little. To some people that feeling of instilling fear in strangers is a comfort, but it makes me nauseous.

Kurt Vonnegut said we’re still in the dark ages, and he’s right, but that doesn’t mean the dark ages won’t end any minute. Reality changes all the time and it is never going to change back.

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Notre Dame

I have thought for a long time that what we think of as American culture is in a lot of ways the heritage of the indigenous people of this continent. It’s not just that we use their names to call our rivers, our mountains, and our towns. Their spirituality has permeated all religions and philosophies that have taken root in this fertile land. Whether we came from Europe, or Africa, or Asia, the people whose home this was first are part of our history and destiny.

Another indelible part of our history and our destiny comes from Paris. Voltaire and Rousseau, L’Enfant and Lafayette, are also founding fathers of Les États Unis.

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I first saw the spire of Notre Dame cathedral on my honeymoon, 29 years ago this June. Today I saw it go down in flames and while I know there were no lives lost, and any life means more than an inanimate object, no matter how iconic, it feels like what we lost today is not inanimate. What we lost today was a piece of something we can’t afford to lose.

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Me and a bell that probably melted today

White Supremacist Bullshit

Enough with this white supremacist bullshit. White people are not supreme. I know: I’m one and I’m not supreme at all.

It’s long past time we recognize and acknowledge – especially white people in this country – that white supremacy is a greater threat to civilization than Islamic fundamentalism. Both are dangerous for the same reason: they are about to become extinct. And that is a very good thing – even for those whose deepest beliefs will be exposed as delusion.

Just as every person of color has known discrimination and every woman has known sexual harassment, every man has felt the toxic side of masculinity and every white person has felt infected with the disease of white supremacy.

When the next age comes and our ancestors laugh at us the way we laugh at Neanderthals, white men will benefit along with everyone else from a world free of war, poverty, and human injustice. And that makes the fear of those clinging to their privilege so much more pathetic.

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The 20 greatest breakup songs ever – ranked! — Music | The Guardian

On the 40th anniversary of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive topping the charts – and as the UK blunders towards its own acrimonious divorce – here’s the definitive list of tear-stained stonkersHip-hop isn’t big on romantic heartbreak, but this is a particularly fine example. There’s a lot of bragging from Guru about how he’s so…

via The 20 greatest breakup songs ever – ranked! — Music | The Guardian

It’s a nice list – well worth a look and listen – even if it almost criminal to leave off the greatest breakup song ever – Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.”

Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

This is Not Happening to You

I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.

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cover painting by Mari Otsu

These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.

Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:

“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”

These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:

“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”

This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:

“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”

I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.

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Tim Tomlinson