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Friday, May 18, 2012

If I Were King

If I were King of America, I'd outlaw all "consensual crime," that is "crime" committed that doesn't harm the person or property of a non-consenting other. We've tried this before; it was called prohibition. It was a failure then, and it's a failure now. In a truly free society, we'd neither fear nor outlaw any behavior that doesn't harm the person or property of a non-consenting other. In fact, true freedom dictates that this behavior not be outlawed. These laws corrupt the justice system at all levels; they are insanely expensive to society, and they do little or nothing to deter the behavior they're meant to control. Drugs, prostitution, gambling, motorcycle helmet laws, public nudity... the list goes on and on. To be clear: we're not talking about children here... that's what consenting adults means. Furthermore, we're not talking about behavior that offends some non-consenting other... we're talking about actual, measurable, demonstrable harm. Finally, even in extreme cases where it might be demonstrated that said behaviors might cause small amounts of harm to society-at-large (the consumption of some drugs, such as methamphetamine, for example, in the form of higher health costs for us all) the overall savings would be so much greater that any "costs" would be more than mitigated. We would have a safer, happier, richer country for it.

If I were King of America, I'd institute a national service program. One's national service would begin at age 18 or upon the completion of high school, and might be in the form of military service but might also consist of inner-city poverty relief, planting trees in national forests, building homes for homeless people or working in shelters, rounding up stray animals and taking care of them, or teaching. The possibilities are virtually endless. One's national service would last two years (but might be extended to form a career, as many military personnel do now) and during one's service all food, clothing, and shelter would be provided, as well as a non-taxed (but minimal) wage. After completion of national service, one's higher education would be completely paid for, all the way to post-doctoral levels. A national service program would foster love of and dedication to our country. It would provide invaluable social skills and maturation for young adults and prepare them for the challenges of life. It would greatly decrease current disparities and conflict between different ethnic, sexual, and social classes. It would be educational both for those involved and those who benefit directly from the program (i.e., the poor or homeless, for instance) and would do immeasurable, ongoing good for the entire country, both materially and socially. All foreign applicants for citizenship would have to serve their two years prior to and as a requirement of being naturalized.

If I were King of America, I'd drastically reduce the size and cost of our military. Most of the actual service men and women in the ranks are good, dedicated, moral people, and none of my cuts would affect their pay or their level of support. But many of those running the show are corrupt thieves who protect their intrenched power-positions with the tenacity of rabid badgers and the moral standards of rapists; they are corporate shills and profiteers, and as such our military gets us into far more trouble than it protects us from. My cuts would directly affect them and their get-rich-quick schemes that imperil us all. All overseas military bases would be immediately closed. (Can you imagine how outraged we would be if there was a Chinese Air Force base on the outskirts of Dubuque, Iowa? Well, that's how the rest of the world looks at us.) Our image and the goodwill toward us would go up worldwide, and with the savings from running all those bases I'd make absolutely sure our soldiers had the best, safest, most up-to-date training, equipment, and living conditions. Not only that, but they'd be home, right here, in the event they were needed to actually protect our homeland, instead of the interests of some offshore corporation's profits. And if someone were actually stupid enough to attack us on our on soil, the military would be right there, to come down on 'em like Thor's hammer.

If I were King of America, I'd reform our educational system. I'd need lots of advice, because it's really screwed up. It seems like there should be some sort of national standards; some sort of minimum requirements to give us all the confidence that our country wasn't someday going to be run by ignorant morons (wait a minute... whattaya mean someday?). But every time something like this is tried we end up with programs like "No Child Left Behind" (speaking of morons) that are demonstrated failures. In the eighteenth century, it was possible for an educated man to have a working understanding of most of accumulated human knowledge. Since then, human knowledge has increased exponentially and it is going to be unquestionably hard to catch up. But I don't understand why high school graduates today often don't seem to have even the ability to teach themselves on into their future, via reading. Furthermore, the undue influence of special-interest groups like religious moralists and white supremacists and flat-earth science skeptics must be squashed unmercifully. This crap has no place in a school. If they want to home-school their children to be superstitious, unthinking, racist, sexist troglodytes that's fine; but it will have to be in addition to well-rounded public education, not in place of it.

If I were King of America, I'd reform our tax system. It seems to me that some form of taxes are necessary. There are "things" we all seem to want - like maintained roads, and safety standards for restaurants and hospitals, and some sort of (at least minimal) police force, for example - that are best organized and paid for by our joint contributions in the form of taxes. As it is, our tax system is grossly unfair, with poor people paying a much higher percentage of their income to benefit us all, with the rich getting richer and richer and richer at our collective expense. I'd need help on this, too, because compared to our tax and financial system the educational system looks like an operating room at Johns Hopkins. But "help" wouldn't be forthcoming from those in financial power now. I'd need help from elderly people living in trailers. I'd need help from coal miners. I'd need help from inner-city school teachers in Detroit. I'd need help from homosexual artists in Santa Fe. I'd need help from firemen. I'd need help from people in wheelchairs. Then we might get something at least vaguely fair. 

If I were King of America, I'd abolish muzak. Muzak is destroying our ability to appreciate art. If every single place we go we are smothered, slathered, swamped, drizzled, and dipped-and-deep-fried in low-fi, low-volume, overproduced, pastel-blather-vomit of so-called "music" then we can't even recognize the real thing anymore. I have a musician friend who refuses to perform in any venue that plays canned music between his live music sets. He claims that the audience is being taught to talk over music, to consider it by definition a background noise that allegedly soothes but doesn't mean anything or have any relevance beyond the placative. That won't do. It's gone in my reign. 

If I were King of America, I'd treat rights like rights and privileges like privileges. If something is a right, then by definition you can't take it away from someone... it's their right. No one asks to be born, but here we are, and it seems to me that (despite some admittedly troubling ramifications) we'd be better off if every person knew they'd have something healthy to eat, adequate clothes to wear, a safe place to sleep and clean themselves, and competent medical attention when they needed it, no matter what. Could this be expensive? Yes, of course. Could this be habit-forming and lead to laziness? Yes, of course. But look how we've done so far. We might at least try this and see how it went. I can't imagine things would be any worse, and they'd probably be better. At the very least (combined with my first edict to eliminate "consensual crime") there'd be way less need to turn to a life of crime to "make one's living." Then again, privileges are licensed, and thus can be taken away for bad behavior. For instance, we could virtually eliminate the drunk-driving problems in this country if we'd remember that it isn't one's right to drive a car. Drive drunk and endanger others? Okay buddy, that's the last time you ever drive. Problem solved

If I were King of America, I'd abolish my own title and office. No civilization should be run by one person, no matter how enlightened. Hell, if the great Buddha himself dropped from a rainbow and offered to run this joint, I'd turn him down. Even though things might be better with him at the wheel, god they'd be boring! Not to mention that the morality of an entire country run by one person is debatable, to say the least. No matter how well-intentioned and altruistic, some wing-nut in a shack in Idaho is gonna have a complaint... and they'd be right. Our nation is too big and complicated to be organized by consensus, but no matter how flawed (oh, come on... it's not "flawed." It's totally fucked up!) our allegedly democratic system is, it's still better than me (or any other single person) driving this train.

If I were King of America, I'd be assassinated. Everything I've mentioned so far... every single thing... is tangled in entrenched interest that's not gonna give it up anytime soon (yes... even the muzak) and they'd kill me without a second thought to maintain the status quo. And notice that I haven't even mentioned the oil / energy industry, who are arguably the biggest bastards of them all. This country is ruled by money, and don't let anybody tell you anything different. Look, I like the stuff and wish I had more of it. I may not "deserve" to win the lottery any more than the next guy but I think I have pretty fair taste and I don't understand why I'm not making more when I can write, make art, and play music as well as I can. Still, there's only so much I need. But not everybody thinks that way, and they're gonna be the undoing of us all, my friend. They can't get enough. They're like slavering dogs drooling after raw meat, or deranged sex fiends jerking at the front of their pants and stalking one more victim, or druggies red-eyed and raving until they get just one more fix. But unlike all those whack-jobs, they look out for each other, because they know that if we ever catch on their blood will run in the gutters. They keep us scared of each other, scared of brown people in foreign countries, scared of people of other religions, scared of homosexuals, scared of... whatever... so we won't notice that they're reaming us every hour of every day of our lives. 

Go back and read this list. Even if you don't agree with what I'd do if I were King of America, we don't need a king to fix this shit. We can have anything we want. We're the people. WE THE PEOPLE. It's ours. All we have to do is reach out and take it back from the hands of the sniveling bastards and thieves that stole it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mother's Day Offering

About a week before my mother died, we were sitting in a catfish restaurant in my hometown of Athens, Alabama. We'd been cooped up together in a motel for more than a week, talking philosophy and waiting for her room at a local nursing home to be ready for her. As we'd said everything we could think of, there was a lull in the conversation.

"I know how many bricks are in the wall behind you," she abruptly spat.

"Excuse me?" I said, bewildered.

"I know how many bricks are in the wall behind you," she repeated. "I also know how many checks are on the tablecloth."

"Okay," I said. I didn't know what else to say.

"638," she said. "That's how many checks."

"Okay," I said again, still stunned.

"I can figure it out," she said. "It's not like Rain Man. If you spill the toothpicks I don't have a clue. But I can work with patterns."

"I can see that," I said.

My mother was a genius, and totally batshit. She was born and raised in the tiny town of Ringgold, Georgia. Her mother - my grandmother - was a typical Appalachian housewife, and despite the weeks and weeks I stayed with her in the summers of my youth I hardly know anything about her. Her name was Georgia Arizona Corey. She could quilt, make biscuits, and believed in Jesus. She married Robert Emmitt Stapp, who did odd jobs and worked in feed stores and tinkered with small engines and didn't like black people. My mother's upbringing was, to say the least, culturally limited.

My mother was the valedictorian of her tiny local high school, and being such she won a scholarship to college. Her father wouldn't let her go. Women were meant to stay home and cook and clean and make babies and believe in Jesus and not like black people.

I have no idea how she and my father met. He was from nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee; I can only assume it was at some tame provincial social affair, or they were introduced by some mutual friend. Dad was in the air force - so he was a ticket the hell out of there.

Dad was stationed to Fairbanks, Alaska when Alaska was still a territory, and I once found the first letter my mother wrote home after she got there. Here's the first paragraph: "Dear Mom. I finally got here! I thought I'd never make it! There's lots of Eskimos and they sure are ugly!"

When my father got out of the Air Force he was hired to work at the Pentagon as a civilian aerial photo interpreter (he was one of the first people to see the photos of the Soviet missiles in Cuba that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis). Once, when they were out shopping, Dad had to drag mom out of a swank Washington D.C. department store because she'd threatened to beat up a lady for wearing high heels with pants.

I was her third child and the only survivor. I always knew I'd had an older brother that only lived three days, but I hadn't known until a year or two ago (my aunt told me) that I'd had an even older sibling that was stillborn. My aunt also told me that mom wanted me so bad that she had herself sewn shut to hold me in 'til I was ready to face the world. Blew my mind. I was born on September 28, 1965; that was also my mother's birthday. She always got me way better gifts than I got her.

I was heavily sheltered and heavily spoiled. I had tons of stuff. I had so many "G.I. Joes" I could have single-handedly invaded Sierra Leone. I had robots and spacemen and knights-in-shining-armor. I had more books that you could possibly imagine. (She abhorred it when I read comic books instead of "real" books.) I had little white three-piece suits that made me look like a miniature snake-handling preacher. My hair was always perfect, and short. I had piano lessons, and swimming lessons. I was smothered in bacon and hamburgers and "yellow cakes with green frosting" (Who knows? I always asked for them. I always got 'em).

Once, when I was four or five years old and she'd been away for a few days, she asked me when she got home if I'd missed her, and I said "No." It crushes me now to think how that must have broken her heart.

Mom was obsessive-compulsive in the days when you didn't even talk about "mental illness" much less actually get any help. She hoarded cat food cans and grease-soaked paper towels and check stubs (the day before she died she could have shown you her tax records from 1947, if she could have found them under all the cat food cans) and old Sears catalogs and shoes and rotten garden hoses and wads of stained aluminum foil and flyswatters. One early November when I was about ten, she "borrowed" my plastic Halloween jack o'lantern candy bucket "for a few days" so that she could drain the dregs out of a shampoo bottle into it. When she died, it was still on the floor behind the toilet.

Mom got breast cancer when I was 11 years old. This was in the days when almost nobody survived, and in Alabama to boot. The doctors told my dad he'd better get ready to raise me himself. She outlived him.

Mom had my whole life planned and I didn't follow the program. She always told me that the Army wouldn't suit me and I went and got an ROTC scholarship anyway. When I realized my mistake and managed to extract myself from the military so that I could play guitar for a living, she called me a "quitter." I was supposed to marry some pom-pom girl with a baby-blue ribbon in her hair and a Laura Ashley dress and we'd have twin boys named "Corey" and "Kelly." It must have been an ugly shock when I showed up with an ex-hippie artist fourteen years my senior with a ten-year-old daughter in tow.

Mom and dad's dreams didn't come true. I don't know why. They just fell apart. I barely remember screaming at them to stop screaming at each other, then I got caught up in the clothesline. Dad waited until I was eighteen to file for divorce, so they wouldn't be able to fight over me. That was nice of him. Then the stresses of the divorce and mom's incessant fighting over her "rights" and her "stuff" plus the pain of loving another married woman who couldn't return his love without destroying her family got to him and he got colon cancer and died. When I told mom he was gone, she started crying and I was too clueless to understand why. That's how nasty it had been.

Mom checked herself into the nursing home. She'd fought the cancer for almost eighteen years and probably knew the party was about over but she said it was "just for rehab" until she could get herself together. I went back home to help her out in that last couple of weeks when she broke the news about her literally mind-boggling mathematical abilities. After she got settled, I came back to New Mexico for a week or so. I got a call that she was "not good" and we were driving all night to get back to Alabama when I stopped to call and check on her. She was gone. Some of her friends who were just as crazy and a lot more mean-spirited than she didn't want me to come to the funeral but I sat in the back anyway. She donated her body to science, which is pretty cool considering she survived stage four breast cancer for eighteen years. There's no grave.

Given how she was denied every single damn thing that would have fulfilled her, I can understand why she lost her mind. I understand why she had to hold on to all that stuff, since the cosmos wouldn't let her hold on to much of anything else. I wish we'd gotten along better. I probably should have been nicer about it. I guess when I argued for my own fulfillment all she could see was the long line of crushing denials in her life, and that would probably get under a person's skin. Maybe if she'd fought even harder and lived a little longer we could have seen eye-to-eye, but she obviously couldn't wait forever for me to get Zen about it all.

Hers was a hard-fought life, and if I'm even remotely honest, I'm still not sure that I truly miss her, just like when I was four or five. She was a tough person to take, especially on a daily basis; though I know she dearly loved me, it was pretty hard to breathe in there and her love came at a price. Still, every time I examine my own obsessions and compulsions I have her to thank for who I am, good and bad. My books, my strange housekeeping habits, my love of cats, and even my own art are all traceable back to her. I wrote this song for her years ago, and even though she hated my singing I'm glad she got to hear it (though I never told her it was about her):

AFRAID OF RAIN         by Chipper Thompson

Don't be scared to look out your picture window the sparrows ain't afraid of rain
The flowers and the trees neither sow nor reap, it's alright to release your pain
Lift up your eyes unto the hills from whence cometh your strength
I know a little fear may always remain but there ain't no need to be afraid of rain

You used to always make me wash my hands all the time when I was a child
But you ain't washed your hands in the last twenty years ain't it time to leave this dirt behind
You got so much trouble bottled up inside, an' you're heavy-laden with all that pride
The flood can wash away the corruption in your veins so there ain't no need to be afraid of rain

Well, we both know what makes your garden grow so let's get rid of all of these weeds
The music in your soul is worth a pot of gold so open you mouth and sing
Now it's okay if you prefer the sun, but when clouds come try not to run
If you always hide you'll never break your chains an' there ain't no need to be afraid of rain

Lord, I know that you're tired of hurting so lay down an' rest your weary head
The misty Blue Ridge Mountains open their arms so lay down and make the hills your bed
You will be delivered from the gathering storm and the hollers an' trees will keep you warm
Look around you, child, ain't no need to complain an' there ain't no need to be afraid of rain 

Dorothy Louise Stapp Thompson
September 28, 1925(?) - September 20, 1994

I love you Mom, just the way you are.
Happy Mother's Day

P.S. I finally got the pom-pom girl!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Run Your Own Life

You know, it truly seems that the time of the people to run their own lives has come. This opinion does not make me a Glock-toting anti-government tea-bagging fascist wing nut. Nor does this opinion make me a godless communist save-the-whales gay abortionist. In my mind, it simply reflects what anyone can see if they look at what's right in front of their eyes.

When I think back on the presidential elections since I've been eligible to vote, they've pretty much all been exhausting. On election day I'm usually as disgusted with who I voted for as I am their opponent. True, I was as proud as I've ever been on Barack Obama's inauguration day - that we had finally elected a black president - not because I thought he'd do much better than anybody else would have done. I said it over and over again: "This man faces the biggest uphill battle that any president's ever faced, and it's going to take him a long time to get anything done." I'll also go so far as to say that it seems there's more than enough evidence to convict somebody in the George W. Bush administration of war crimes - even if I'm too ignorant or too chicken to say who that might be - and I wasn't unhappy to see him and his cronies go to pasture.

Still, as a good friend of mine says, "I always predicted that the first black president would be a Republican, and I was right!" I voted for Mr. Obama, and I'm going to vote for him again. But I'd be a fool if thought there was anything more than a superficial difference between him and Mr. Romney. Sure, Obama's probably a bit more socially liberal than Romney, and it's possible that might ultimately result in some social change I'd like to see. But my experience seems to bear out that those in power are always going to work for those who put them there, and that don't mean the voters, folks. Follow the money, and you'll figure it out in short order.

It is also my opinion that there are some things that are so big, so complicated, and so important to us as a people that (despite its apparent incompetence) only a federal government can handle. There ought to be federal laws that apply to us all. There ought to be a federally-controlled military. There ought to be federal oversight that my rights as a citizen won't be trampled. And so on. But maybe it's time to chill the hell out, stop whining, and take control over the aspects of our lives that we can.

I bitch all the time about having banged my head against the wall for twenty years in the arts and still I haven't "made any money" or "gotten the recognition I deserve." What a crock of shit. First of all, I'm living pretty damn well and have no right to complain. Second of all, I sit on my fat ass two-thirds of the time when I could be (at the very least) making still more art, not to mention learning how to market what I've already got. Again: it may be my right to bitch all I want, but it's everybody else's right to ignore me. I think the same thing applies to us and our government.

You'll never hear me say that we should universally abolish the federal government - re-read the fourth paragraph in this essay - I stand by it. However, there's so much we could do to take care of ourselves if we just would. Here's just one example: Evidence suggests that the early-to-mid-1970's beginnings of the downsizing of America's middle class might have been due to collusion between employers and credit card companies. (I'm not - really - claiming conspiracy theory here... but think about it.) You can hear 'em now... "Hey! They're saving too much money that could be in our pockets! Let's pay 'em lower wages, but extend 'em credit so they can buy stuff... then not only will we have more money, but they'll owe us! Yeah, bitches! Who's buying the drinks?!" You see? It's only logical. Those who have the money don't want to share, they want to keep it!

Well, we could "solve" this "problem" with all kinds of regulations and laws and riots in the streets, and maybe that's not an entirely bad thing to do... if I read the "Occupy" movement correctly, that seems to be what they are, in fact, doing. But we could also solve it by just cutting up our credit cards and never using them again. The problem is that a) we'd have to do without cool stuff for a while and b) we'd all have to do it. This is hard to do on both counts. We all like cool stuff, and the moneyed establishment has us all so scared of each other that the likelihood that we'll cooperate on something so big and important is almost nil. But still... there is a way to put 'em in their place, y'all.

Whether it's dumb-ass brainwashing or legitimate patriotism, I'm voting come November. I truly don't know if it means a damn thing, but I'm doing it anyway. In the mean time, I'm still a gun-toting long-haired rock-n-roll atheist (well... agnostic anyway) Civil War re-enactor, and I'm gonna be as compassionate and patient and fearless with my neighbors and myself as I can. It's scary, but I'll bet we're gonna make it. See you on the other side of the shitstorm, y'all.

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