Capturing the Mood of a Moody People

Or: After 10 years, “Untitled” has a name

 

I don’t remember how long it was after 9/11 that I first I saw Richard Drew’s “Falling Man,” the stark, frightening image of a single individual plummeting down the face of the World Trade Center. What I do remember is how remarkably this one image captured the mood of the country — the whole world, in fact — in those days after the towers came down.

That mood was hopelessness. If this could happen in New York, the crown jewel of American cities, the capitol of the world — arguably quite literally, given that the United Nations is just a dozen or so blocks from Ground Zero — then I could be that falling man at any given moment in any given place on no particular day.

To put it the way a frosh philosophy student might: Drew captured the zeitgeist of the day.

Zeitgeist is one of those big “SAT 800” words — the kind of term that rarely finds its way outside of that frosh philosophy class. All things being equal, though, it’s a word that doesn’t have a “dumber” version. Here’s what Messrs. Merriam and Webster have to say about this German word:

zeitgeist  \ˈtsīt-ˌgīst, ˈzīt-\

n. the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

For the past however many years, I’ve blogged about pop culture, politics, religion, Comcast (numerous times), writing, movies, major news events…the list goes on and on. Moving beyond the blog and ignoring social media, which is itself quite a barometer of zeitgeist, my books touch on zeitgeist, culminating most recently with The Patriot Joe Morton, the theme of which might be summed up, “the high prices of change for change’s sake and doggedly adhering to the status quo at all costs.” Joe Morton is, itself, a book about the zeitgeist of the  late-Bush, early-Obama era.

All of this is a round about way to come to the point. Looking at where I am, where we are as a country, and what I have a penchant for talking about in this space, I’ve finally settled on a name for this blog, and as you may have gathered, I’ve titled it Zeitgeist.

I doubt this title is that original, question my own qualifications for even attempting to capture such a broad stroke of society, or even whether or not it’s possible to gauge zeitgeist in the moment. But I’m certainly going to give it a try.

 

Godspeed, Captain Apollo

The first time I spoke to Richard Hatch, he was moderating a press junket at the Hilton Americas hotel in Houston as one of the headliners of Galacticon 3. For more than thirty years, Richard had been the standard bearer for the Battlestar Galactica universe, and more than a few press write-ups gave him credit for single-handedly — and doggedly — pursuing the critically acclaimed SyFy reboot of the series.

At the time, I was a staff writer for BayouLife Magazine, and I was on assignment to cover geek culture’s explosive intrusion into every nook and cranny of society. I also happened to be one of just two print journalists at the convention — the rest of my colleagues coming by way of blogs and YouTube channels.

“Richard, this question is for Mr. Olmos, Mr. Hogan and yourself,” I began my second round of questions. “Could you discuss how the story lines on Battlestar Galactica moved beyond imitating typical sci-fi tropes and into the realm of an almost cinéma vérité style of art imitating life? I’m specifically referring to the New Caprica Captivity and how that relates to what is happening today in places like Gaza and Darfur.”

He paused, glanced down at me, and winked. “You’re good.”

The audience laughed, I blushed, and then I quipped, “Yeah. You should see me with the real president.”

He passed the mic around and, one by one, each of the three men addressed the points of my question. Later that night, as I was sitting in the bar discussing the finer points of Atlas Shrugged over a Dos Equis, Richard wandered in. He stopped at my table and shook my hand. That he shook my hand first was notable only because I was sitting with Esai Morales.

“What are you gentlemen discussing so earnestly?” he asked. Esai shared with him the subject and he asked if he could join us.

“What are you drinking?” I asked, flagging down the waiter. By the time his drink arrived, Richard had not only brought the conversation about Ayn Rand to a suitable and eloquently final punctuation, but he’d steered the conversation into the next topic, and what was about to happen would place me, my traveling companion, Hailey, and our tiny table in the Hilton Americas bar firmly in convention history.

“Esai, someone told me you’re the biggest Beatles fan in the world,” he said. “I would like to disagree.”

Not one to shirk a challenge — and his ego lubricated by several Dos Equis — Esai shook his head. “I can sing every single Beatles song every recorded in the order they were recorded.”

“So can I,” Richard replied. It was 9:40 p.m.

At 1:30 a.m., a very drunk reporter slinked away from the table and back to his hotel room, leaving behind more than 1,400 people to the care of Richard Hatch, Esai Morales, and a handful of Houston’s finest.

I saw him again a year later at Dragon*Con (this was before the asterisk vanished) and he immediately recalled both my name and that night — which is more than many in attendance can say.

That was Richard.

Or maybe Richard was the guy who, at Galacticon 3, witnessed the first moments of a beautiful relationship between two of my best friends, Loribeth and Steve. But that’s their story to share.

Or maybe Richard was the guy who, at every convention, prided himself on pulling together a diverse cross section of actors, convention staff, volunteers and fans and, after reserving at least two, if not three, tables in the nearest Benihana (it had to be Benihana, and we once drove for more than 45 minutes to get to one) to break bread.

Or maybe Richard was the guy who always won at thumbwar. Always. Guy never lost! His Twitter handle was @thumbfighter, for Christ’s sake!

Or maybe Richard was the guy who, after learning he might not get paid for an appearance because ticket sales were collapsing, bought his own flight, reserved a hotel room, and flew half-way across the country to show up at Galacticon 4 because he refused to disappoint his fans. He brought with him Anne Lockhart, Terry Carter, Jack Stauffer, Herb Jefferson, and dear, sweet Sarah Rush.

“I wasn’t going to come,” Anne told me at that show, “But Richard called and said he was coming. We couldn’t let the fans down. He was right.”

I last saw Richard at DragonCon in 2016. He was at his usual table in the corner, and as always, he smiled, and we immediately began sharing stories. He told me about how much fun he was having teaching his acting classes and surfing Pacific Coast waves with his son. I filled him in about this project and that kid’s accomplishment. After we’d finished our chat, he took my hand and pulled me in for a big, loud hug.

I wouldn’t be making Benihana, I said, but I promised him I’d be at the next one.

…And, Richard, I will.

So say we all.

Our People’s Princess

I was seven years old the first time I saw a movie without adult supervision. Lee Inabnet dropped her son, Byron, and me off at the Cinema III on Louisville Avenue in Monroe. To this day, I remember almost every single moment of that experience, from the smells of the popcorn and butter to the feel of the red-on-burgundy paisley carpets.

That Byron and I were barely seven and eight years old underscores just how different a time the early 1980s were. We bounced into the theatre, all excitement and energy, bought our own snacks, and made our way down to Theatre Two, where we eagerly awaited the showing of Return of the Jedi.

It’s a strange twist of fate that, three decades later, I’d be an avid trekker and, while I’ve seen each and every Star Wars film in the theatre (and all of the films since Return of the Jedi during their first runs), I’ve never been much of a ‘wars fan, preferring as I do the more “sciencey” Star Trek.

But…

Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia.

I was born in 1977 — the same year Star Wars debuted. There literally has not been a moment in my life that Carrie Fisher wasn’t Princess Leia, wasn’t engrained in the consciousness of everyone and everything around me, whether it’s white-nun-robes-and-braided-earmuffs Leia or inexplicably-bikini-clad-slave-princess Leia.

And Leia was something of a national treasure, too. If Diana was the United Kingdom’s people’s princess, Leia was everyone else’s.

But Carrie Fisher wasn’t just Leia. She was an actress of incredible talents who, like so many of her contemporaries in the pre-Patrick-Stewart world of sci-fi, found herself hamstrung by typecasting in an iconic role, struggling to find parts where she could stand out and eclipse her Leia. To be fair, as an actress, Fisher was prolific — but the kind of prolific that underscores her fame as Princess Leia. She landed parts in Hannah and Her SistersThe Burbs, and When Harry Met Sally. Many might argue, though, that she didn’t come fully into her own as an actress until well-past the Star Wars years, with roles in Fanboys and guest slots as herself. Ever so cruelly, she was traveling back from the U.K. filming Catastrophe when she suffered her heart attack, a job in which Fisher’s acting chops were truly shining.

If I’m waxing a bit eloquent about Carrie Fisher, please indulge this writer just a little longer. For if Princess Leia was where I developed a crush on her, it was her equally prolific and much grander careers offscreen that made me love her.

Carrie Fisher was a writer.

In fact, she wrote one of my all-time favorite films, Postcards from the Edge, and the book that inspired it. Drawing heavily on her own life in the shadow of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, Postcards recounts the story of an actress who would be a singer. It also happens to feature one of the earliest on-screen instances of Meryl Streep singing.

Carrie Fisher was a script doctor.

Though the records of her efforts to fix scripts are closed-hole secrets, she was known as one of the best script doctors in Hollywood, and numerous directors, writers and producers have called her the best at taking stories and fixing them.

At the heart of it all, Carrie Fisher was a storyteller, whether she was telling her own story through a memoir or shaded behind a novel, helping someone else find their voice as a writer, or bringing someone else’s characters to life.

That we lost her suddenly, without warning, and far far too soon just underscores how shit of a year 2016 has been.

Godspeed, Carrie Fisher. I can only hope Bowie and Prince are there for your welcome party.

Butterfly Leaves

Or: On the joys of having four distinct seasons

 

Growing up in Louisiana, I never experienced the slow march of the seasons. In Louisiana, there’s Summer, and then there are about two months of this slightly less warm, wet thing called Winter, during which once every two or three years we experience a good solid icing. Rain falls from the skies, hits the cold ground, solidifies into a sheet of ice, and shuts the state down for weeks on end.

Moving to Tennessee, I experienced my first Fall, but only after arriving in Summer. So the full effect of the transition was lost on me until I had made my way through that first winter, to the first hints of snow, then into spring and the verdant burst of green through the gray, and finally, that glorious moment when Summer yields to the cooler temperatures of Fall.

In late November, it’s easy to develop an appreciation of that New England tradition of leaf peeping while you drive south out of Nashville, especially once you pass through the last of the Nashville basin and into the hilly curves that mark the lower Cumberland Valley, start that slow descent then climb back up through the rocky outcroppings near Chattanooga that form, in part, Rock City and Missionary Ridge.

Fall is kind of like the middle age of a year. It comes on slowly, and really you don’t see it coming. The first hints are a striking, red tree in a sea of green, not unlike that first shock of white at the temples. But it’s too easy to dismiss this single anomaly in a forest of verdant oaks. It’s not until the patch of trees are a Van Gogh that you begin to grasp the full — and fleeting — extent of Fall.

It’s the kind of season that catches you unaware, surprises you, and just as you grow accustomed to it, it’s gone.

Today was such a day, as I made my way south to Atlanta for a convention.

Over the years, my time in the car has become those solitary moments when, thanks to Steve Jobs and a bit of bluetooth tech, I can catch up with family. So I called my daughter back home in Louisiana.

Normally, I expect it to ring to voicemail. Sometimes, those lucky times when the Fates align, she answers with an exasperated, “Hello?” after more than a few rings. Today, though, she answered on the first ring. And, as I drove across the Cumberland Valley and back up the Fall-burnt ridges of the middle aged 2016, she and I spent a glorious hour and twenty minutes on the phone.

Sometime shortly before or immediately after I called her, I saw a beech tree hugged too close to the interstate, its leaves a vibrant yellow. A stiff breeze whipping around an outcropping of rocks had whisked a handful of the gold-yellow leaves off their branches and into the air, where for just a few minutes they flitted about in the wind, carrying the promise of butterflies instead of winter.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Red State Blue State, the State, Our State

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been accused of being a Clintonista leftist and a Trump-loving hatemonger, of being a sexist and a racist and of basking in my white privilege, of being a bleeding heart social justice crusader and wallowing in my victimhood. I’ve been told “that’s why you voted for Trump!” for stating something that, in the very same conversation, led someone else to inform me “that’s why you voted for Clinton!”

Along the way, I’ve fallen prey to the same trap so many others have: I’ve spent too much time attacking the character of this politician or that, while not focusing any energy whatsoever on stating what it is I, myself, believe. Somewhere, I allowed myself to start ascribing to people the Gollum of their chosen candidate’s positions, without taking a moment to consider whether or not that person has or could articulate what beliefs it was that drove them to chose that particular candidate in the first place.

Then, I had a slightly arresting realization: while I’m pretty good with words, of attacking the positions of others, and of deconstructing arguments from both sides, I haven’t arrived at my own positions. Might I not be very good at stating what it is I believe–because I haven’t been practicing that. Have I thought about how to best articulate the principles behind what it is I think on any given issue? I’m thought it would be interesting to, instead of trying to tear down this position or that based solely on someone’s expressed political candidate or notion, focus instead on practicing saying what *I* believe, and letting that drive my actions and thoughts. So, here’s my list so far, and my conclusions at the end:

  • I believe everyone is created equal, that no one should receive special privileges or restrictions because of who they were born as or where they were born.
  • I believe hard work should be rewarded with fair wages in a consensual relationship between an employer and the employee.
  • I believe people should be free to say what they want, do to them selves as they want, and go where they want, so long as they don’t harm others while doing so.
  • I believe government is, frequently, well-intentioned but ill-equipped to deal with problems it takes on, that the solutions to many of those problems would arise naturally from pure hearts and right action left to its own, and that too often, even good intentions lead to bad outcomes, often making the problems worse, not better.
  • I believe people — all people — have a right to express their beliefs however they see fit, so long as they don’t violate the rights of others in doing so.
  • I believe that people have the right to ignore the statements of others any time they choose. Just because you have a right to say something doesn’t mean you have a right to be *heard*.
  • I believe there are despicable people in this world, that evil exists, that bad things happen. But I also believe that these people, this evil, and these events are rarities, the outliers, not the norm.
  • I believe we’re far too afraid, and that many of the fears we have are unfounded and based in our own insecurities, not in reality of our situations.
  • I believe in helping my fellow man, lending a hand to those in need, offering assistance to those less fortunate.
  • I believe to whom and how I express my help should be my decision and mine alone. I believe neither the government nor society have no moral authority to dictate to me how I help those around me.
  • I believe in promoting peace through encouraging engagement first, formidable strength second, that a strong military doesn’t require committing an ever-spiralling amount of money to achieve.
  • I believe in a safety net to catch people when they fall, but that net should have a bounce to it, not a hole in the middle that people get trapped under for the rest of their lives.
  • I believe social justice begins and ends at home, with parents and children, and that any attempts to enforce social justice by a government will do little more than institutionalize and crystalize opposition.
  • I believe love trumps hate every time, but that too often, we let our self-love turn into hatred of others.
  • I believe facts matter before beliefs.
  • I believe the power of an argument, not a letter behind my name on a card, should drive my decisions at the ballot box.
  • I believe that most people who spend their lives in public service have pure motives, that the impulse behind their drive is good, but that sometimes their plans are bad.
  • I believe that some people, far fewer than most, but far more than I’d like, are evil and should be opposed.
  • I believe in turning the other cheek, and I believe in just war — and I believe that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • I believe in freedom of religion and freedom from religions, and that most people are smart enough to understand the difference.
  • I believe that zero-tolerance policies of any stripe for anything are almost always ill-advised, if only because there are almost always exceptions to a rule, no matter how just, moral, or ethical, and that those exceptions will always manifest themselves when we have zero tolerance for an act, a belief, or an individual.
  • I believe it’s possible to be a member of a group — even a political party — without granting sanction to each and every one of a party’s goals or platform planks.
  • I believe when we join a group or party we have a responsibility to make sure that that party’s goals and planks are just, not just popular.
  • I believe Karma isn’t for the next life, that Karma about the here and now, and I believe in Dharma–right action, even when that action is dangerous, unpopular, or difficult.
  • I believe in speaking truth to power.
  • I believe that silence is simply silence, not consent.
  • I believe opposition should be based on ethics and philosophy, not group membership or personalities.
  • I believe society is its strongest when vociferous, boisterous discourse between opposed  groups produces teamwork, not gridlock.
  • I believe society is weakest when we fight about personalities and policies, not ideas.

This is where I’m starting my list. I’m sure there will be others I come up with, but I’m surprised how difficult it is to state affirmatives rather than negatives.

That being said, please stay safe, stay engaged, and God Bless America, the president-elect, and Secretary Clinton.

Pressure Cooker

Or: How to Make the Perfect Pot of Beans for a Cold Tennessee Day

It wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t own a pressure cooker, had never used a pressure cooker, and to be honest, wasn’t too sure I knew what one was. Jessica changed that on my 35th birthday, when she and her mother presented me with an amazing (and thankfully automatic) cooker marketed by Wolfgang Puck.

For those who don’t know, pressure cookers are amazing feats of engineering that capitalize on the laws of physics to create these time vortexes in which the impossible happens. This morning, that impossible comprised rinsing beans, browning from frozen some sausage, seasoning the lot, and cooking the beans–from dry–in less than an hour. That’s the miracle.

What the TARDIS is for the Doctor, a pressure cooker is for the DeVault household, and a Wolfgang Puck automatic pressure cooker doesn’t require coming to terms with an over-animated British Oscar winner popping out from time to time and screaming, “Run, Clara!” Though, you may want to run if you accidentally open it too early. As I rushed through my pot of beans this morning, I got to thinking about how amazing it would be if we had a similar device for the Congress, for our employers, or for postal workers. If only the Senate could be forced to understand the urgency of voting on this spending bill or that appointment. If only our bosses knew the emotional turmoil we found ourselves in when that two-hour meeting produced no substantive answers as to whether or not we were going to get the new assigned parking. And for the love of Pete, why does it take five days for a single envelop to move from Tennessee to Massachusetts? What if that envelop contains something important, Mr. Postman? Please, ignore the Brits and do not wait a minute!

The miracle of the pressure cooker is that it heats the water, but it gives it no place to go as it tries to expand. Come to find out, cast steel is much stronger than the small amount of steam that would be released, so the water is forced into whatever you are cooking rather than out of the cooker. Applying the same pressure to the U.S. Congress would require locking the door and putting a tent around it that blocks all wireless signals in and out. Without public attention, they might be forced to act.

I don’t know what to tell you about your employer. Do what I try to do, channel your inner Shonda, and remind yourself “He who has the gold….” And it’s their gold. In that moment, chances are you’ll realize something. You’re the one in the pressure cooker, and the brilliance is that you won’t be in there for very long.

 

Veblen was Right

Or: Gravitational Waves and the Complex Economics of Higher Learning in America

 

(Author’s Note: I began this post last night, but events of the day — namely a deadline and work followed by the governor’s speech mentioned below–conspired to delay completion. I’ll post twice today.) 

Earlier today, I logged into the computer early, propped back on the sofa, and watched as a physicist announced the single greatest confirmation of the single most successful theory in science. With a flourish befitting the moment, Gabriel González confirmed the rumors that had been floating around for a few weeks. Gravitational waves are real and have been measured.

Understand this discovery and its importance to science doesn’t require a deep understanding of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Instead, it’s only important you understand the mechanics of what happened. Roughly 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes began their death spiral, orbiting one another at ever-increasing speed until each collided into the other near the speed of light. The effects were to produce a massive black hole and to warp the fabric of something called spacetime. Those effects move at the speed of light. Just a couple of months ago, a massive pair of instruments–one in Louisiana, near LSU, and one in Washington State–detected the effects.

Something that happened a billion years ago, more than 1.3 billion lightyears away, crossed across the planet and we measured the effect. And that effect was 1/1000th a proton’s width in size. Normally, this is the part of science communication where the author finds some analogy to underscore just how staggering that is, (the proverbial pencil thrown over the Empire State Building,) but in this case, the numbers are so staggering and immense that, given the infinite universe, it’s nearly impossible to come up with an analogy that isn’t equally preposterous.

Think about this: this is analogous to measuring the thickness of a human hair of an astronaut in orbit around Alpha Centauri from earth. But it’s not analogous to that. No. It’s analogous to counting the atoms in a single molecule of hair, buried in the sand, on a beach of a planet that we’re really not sure is there, that was shed by an astronaut a billion years ago. See? It gets preposterous–all the moreso because even that isn’t preposterous enough.

Yet, we did it. And Dr. González and her team announced the results–the blip of which appears below:

IMG_0432
That this amazing discovery was taken in my native Louisiana, by my state’s flagship school, LSU, made this all the sweeter. So imagine my dismay when, around noon, I began to hear word that Gov. John Bel Edwards‘ new administration had stopped payments to the TOPS Scholarship Program as part of his administration’s ongoing efforts to cut almost $1 billion from Louisiana’s budget.

I won’t go into specifics, if only because the metrics tell me only about 1/3 of you are from Louisiana. Let’s just leave it at this. It’s sadly unsurprising that Louisiana is amputating entire limbs of its education system on the same day that one of its educators secured for herself and her team a Nobel Prize in Physics, given that this is the state that believes this belongs in the same classroom as this. (Don’t believe me? Click here.)

Let’s just say Thorstein Veblen was right to warn the American academy against allowing “business schools” into the academic realm. When we turn research colleges into job training sites, we reduce the value of knowledge and, maybe, we lose just a little bit of our capacity to awe.

A Year in Review

Every year since 2005, one of the hallmarks of January was a “Year in Review” story for whichever newspaper or magazine I found myself writing at the time. What sounds like a herculean task–cramming an entire year’s worth of news or commentary–into a single article of no more than 2,200 words isn’t exactly the most taxing of efforts. In fact, it’s rather boring makework, an excuse to blow out all the year’s best pictures and, occasionally, to remind the readers that this breaking news or that investigative exposé was “first reported” right there in the very publication they now found themselves.

All told, I’ve probably written or contributed to a dozen “Year in Review” stories in my career, and every year, as I open that imposing, blank document in Word, I sigh. What happens next is almost comically predictable, and yet, like a Richard Curtis comedy, by the end, I’m still surprised by all the news that has transpired in the previous year. Sadly, this year, I found my January lacking this particular joy. So, dear readers, the few of you who remain, comes this–2015: a Year in Review–right here on this blog. And what a year it’s been, too.

First, I must apologize. I was more than just a little embarrassed when I realized I haven’t written a single word on this site since August, 2014. That the last post (“God Save the King!” – Aug. 26, 2014) was a defense of Burger King is a sin that, I hope, you will overlook. But, as this is Ash Wednesday and I am giving up “not writing” for Lent, I have faith that you will accept me once again into your RSS feeds, your list of bookmarks, or that nagging “I just read…” post all your friends keep sharing on Facebook.

These past twelve months have been a big year in the life of a writer. First, I took a major leap of faith and uprooted myself from the old home place after accepting a job in Nashville, TN. Deciding to become a publicist after a long-ish career in journalism can hardly be termed a huge leap, (I’m certainly not the first writer to make this career move), but for someone who had bookmarked the lion’s share of his days between eating breakfast at McDonald’s on 18th or at Lea’s of LeCompte and a few pints of Guinness at Enoch’s, moving to Nashville was a big bite to chew.

Tanya Tucker sings "Delta Dawn" to a crowd of thousands at the 2015 CMA Fest Riverfront Stage. It was her first Nashville concert in almost a decade.
Tanya Tucker sings “Delta Dawn” to a crowd of thousands at the 2015 CMA Fest Riverfront Stage. It was her first Nashville concert in almost a decade.

For most of the first six months here, I worked as a publicist at one of Nashville’s top PR firms. It was a valuable and challenging experience, and it was the kind of work that gave me the opportunity to use my people skills. Along the way, I got to know some pretty remarkable people, working with Jeremy and Kirt, and though I’m no longer there, I certainly value the friendships I made while trying my hand at this little endeavor. But thriving in the PR world takes a certain kind of soul, and while I enjoy the work, it’s not the career for me.

I will avoid a trap that many publicists (and former publicists) fall into, and that is to let this bit of the year turn into a series of gurmish name droppings or, worse, a bunch of photos of me with famous people. Instead, I will say this: as a lover of music, there was and is no better place to have spent a year consuming some of the best live music on the planet. It starts with the concert at the left, Tanya Tucker’s triumphant return to the music scene in a massively successful U.S. tour. Watching her wow an audience that was, at one point quite literally, hanging off the roof of the George Jones Museum and Acme Feed and Seed while belting out “Texas When I Die” isn’t something I’m likely to ever forget.

I confirmed yet again that Louisiana–specifically northern Louisiana–is the geographic center of the known universe when I met not one, not two, but three people from my neck of the woods. It’s interesting how quickly one bonds with someone who is familiar with their old stomping grounds. Whether it’s over coffee at Eighth & Roast or backstage at the Wild Horse Saloon before a benefit, stepping out of the daily routine and chatting about Sicily Island speed traps and Strawberry Pie from Strawn’s in Bossier is a hell of a nice respite from not knowing anyone.

I also enjoyed watching live performances of some of my favorite musicians. I let Pat Benatar and Spyder Giraldo “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” as I stood in the wings of the Ryman Auditorium. I got to see Vince Gill play a song off his new album as part of a command performance for one of my old Monroe buddies–in Vince’s dressing room at the Opry. At that same show, I learned that Jonathan Jackson’s 10 year old daughter can sing like an angel. And I got to watch Lee Greenwood relive the 1980s when he was invited onto the stage with the Oak Ridge Boys to sing “Bobbie Sue”–decked out in, well…here’s the video.

Then, I got the supreme privilege of witnessing the induction of the Oak Ridge Boys into the Country Music Hall of Fame, one of the rarest treats in all of country music. I listened to the Flaming Lips backstage at SoundHarvest, got to see up-and-comer Scotty Bratcher play live twice, and I even got to see Garth and Trisha sing a duet.

And such was my brief tenure in the music industry.

A smoking barn amidst the tobacco fields during harvest. If you look closely, you may be able to see the first hints of smoke rising from the ridge vent.
A smoking barn amidst the tobacco fields during harvest. If you look closely, you may be able to see the first hints of smoke rising from the ridge vent.

In August, I took a job teaching English at Volunteer State Community College, an opportunity that introduced me to the wonder that is fire-cured tobacco when I was asked to teach a dual-enrollment class at Jo Byrnes High School, which sits in the heart of “Kentucky Tobacco Country.” The most popular of these products is sold under the Fire Cured Kentucky Muwat label.

Tobacco leaves must be cured, I learned from one of my students who happened to be the son of a tobacco farmer, and to help it along, the broad, freshly harvested leaves are hung upside down in a vast, open barn. In the space beneath, workers stoke fires, smoking the leaves and imparting a pungent, rich color and flavor to the tobacco, which will ultimately become the wrapper of a fine cigar. Of course America’s contribution to the art of cigar making requires playing with fire.

September saw one of the most challenging projects I’ve encountered seemingly fell apart overnight. If you want to know what hell looks like, Google “Michael DeVault Seattle” and read a few pages in. Regardless of what happened with Galacticon 4, and overlooking the nearly weekly requests I still get for information about the events of that weekend, I got to spend time with Steve and Loribeth, Janet and Nate, Hailey, Tye, Laurie, and a bunch of other people too numerous to mention. I won’t talk about how pot is legal there or that, almost hilariously, you can buy it in a posh store, but you can’t pay for it with a debit card because that would be a Federal crime. There’s an ATM in the store, though, and that makes it okay.

In December, shortly before Christmas, and after putting off a couple of visits due to work commitments and, well, life events, I finally knuckled under and set off on a great adventure to the Northeast. Now, understand this southern boy has never strayed above the Mason Dixon Line since he was old enough to know better. But Loribeth and Steve insisted I come to their neck of the woods to spend some time on the mountain, enjoy some much needed R and R, and to watch the premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX. We had a wonderful week in New England, and I got to visit…well, here are some pictures to recap the trip:

Interestingly, in spite having lived just a couple of hours from the city, Loribeth had never been to New York. Bob Teague, an old friend from Monroe, proved a wonderful guide that made sure our single day in the city was the most it could be. And then, the next day, I went home. That was Vacation Part I, between the semesters. I counted up 18 states in 7 days, and the whole time, my Green Cheek Conure, Oliver, was a trooper. I think he enjoys car rides more than I do, and he definitely got to spend some quality time with Steve, who Loribeth calls the animal whisperer.

Everyone remarks how much Kya looks like the boys, even though they don't share DNA.
Everyone remarks how much Kya looks like the boys, even though they don’t share DNA.

Christmas back home was pretty awesome. I spent a few days with friends and family. And therein is, perhaps, the greatest part of 2015. Many of you know the stories of my daughter  and our adventures, of which I have written many many times here, in the magazine, in the newspaper, or on Facebook/Twitter/MySpace. What you don’t know is I have two sons. And this year, for Christmas, well…let’s just say there are going to be a whole lot of new adventures to talk about. And most of those will probably get revisited come next January, when I undertake “2016: the Year in Review.” This time, though, I promise I’ll keep you posted along the way.

You can expect lots of discussions about politics, as before, and my culinary adventures, as I find Nashville cuisine filling if unchallenging. I’m sure there will be more than a few vents about Comcast, a rave or three about Verizon, and other call center adventures. And there will be more than a few posts about poker. Here’s to the new year.

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A side note: The practice of Lent, giving up indulgences as a sign of penitence,  doesn’t much make its way into Christianity outside of Catholicism and, to some extent I’m told, Anglican/Episcopalian practices. That being said, it is Lent, so I have given up the indulgent practice of not writing. That includes, Miika, the book I owe you from last November, a daily blog post here, and all those articles that I’m almost always late on.  I’m going to use this time to make sure that 2016 is one of my most productive years ever. -md

God Save the King!

God Save the King!

Those are my sentiments today upon learning that U.S.-based Burger King, Inc. will buy Canadian donut slinger Tim Horton’s, a move that is charitably being called a “merger,” and then subsequently relocate the articles of incorporation to Canada. This move concerns me, especially given that the Right Wing media is establishing this as the new Boston Tea Party, a revolt against “higher taxes.”

At first, I had a knee-jerk reaction. I was pissed that an American company would flee the kingdom over a perceived higher tax rate in the United States. Then, as I was finding an image to attach to this post, I had a thought: will Burger King really save money on taxes? Or is there, perhaps, another reason behind this relocation? So I took a break from finding the really cool Arcas painting of the Boston Tea Party and read a couple of stories. Come to find out, the Right Wing media gets it wrong, again.

Burger King is buying a much larger chain. The Canadian holdings amount to a significant portion of the new company. Remember, most of those Burger Kings in America are franchisees. That’s not necessarily the case with Tim Horton’s. So Burger King is relocating its corporate structure to the place with the largest set of assets. Surely this isn’t something for which they should be faulted. If I bought a large quantity of something in Canada, I’d want to move there, too.

At the same time, Burger King is making this move for another reason: the American company might not be allowed to purchase such a seminal Canadian property. As one Canadian friend put it, Burger King purchasing Tim Horton’s would be about like Gazprom buying Walmart. This rips at a very real part of the Canadian national identity, a U.S.-based company buying a Canadian staple brand. So, they’re moving to Canada to ease both the public relations and the regulatory burden.

The English had a name for this in the 1700s. They called it “colonization.”

So, I’m going to back off my “down with Burger King” mantra a bit, take a chill pill, and enjoy that Whopper. Or maybe, a Whopper Jr., since I’m back on my diet today.

Stopped Clocks

Stopped Clocks

Or: God’s been talking through Jackasses since the Book of Numbers
Ann Coulter is almost 100% wrong all the time. Anytime I see her appear in my newsfeed, I think to myself there she goes again. And I almost never read the linked story. I don’t have to. I know what she has to say and how she says it. But, earlier this week, she published this column, in which she blasts the notion of spending $2 million to save two Americans infected with Ebola and I made an exception. I went to her Web site, read what she had to say, and then sat there for a minute in stunned silence. Aside from missing a couple of non-salient details (e.g. his family went with him), she knocks the ball out of the park. I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I typed that, but I’m not afraid to admit it when someone I intensely dislike gets something right. Why do I say this? Why is it I agree almost completely with Coulter on this subject? For the same reason Coulter wrote it: there is plenty of missionary work that should be done in his home state of Texas, and I don’t think it’s wise to spend so much time and energy halfway around the world when there are plenty of poor, underserved, and quite deserving needy in his own backyard.

Before we go any further, please do not misunderstand: I think there is a very strong word in the English language that describes Ann Coulter, a label of which I believe she’s quite deserving. (Figure it out. It doesn’t rhyme with witch, either.) But she’s not wrong about a particular point: $2 million was spent to save the lives of two individuals who knew what they were getting into when they traveled across the globe to “save lives.” They were the beneficiaries of a miracle drug that is a.) quite expensive and b.) not available to the very people they were there to serve.

Meanwhile, Texas ranksfirst in the nation for the poorest counties, with 17 counties making the top 80 poorest in the nation–that’s almost 1/4 of the top 80 poorest counties in one state. Surely that $2 million and this doctor’s resources might have been well spent in Texas? Adding to that, there are the very real moral and ethical implications of providing the care provider, who just so happens to be a white dude from the United States, with a different class of service and treatment, which not only flies in the face of medical ethics, it also highlights the almost-dilettante efforts of the United States in global foreign aid efforts.

And yes, she’s absolutely on point when she calls out American Christendom for their “Christian narcissism.” Who the hell are we mere mortals that the Creator, who spoke Existence itself into being, needs our help in any way to accomplish His will on this planet? And why do American Christians, in particular, believe it’s their divine lot to mete out the Will of the Lord across the planet while carefully ignoring that same will on the homefront?

This is the same, twisted logic that dictates such gems as, “Christians Vote Republican,” and “We must take back our country from the Atheists, the Liberals, the insert invective here, as if the atheists, liberals, heathens, weren’t citizens and were, instead, some hoard of mongrel invaders who streamed across the Mexican border and rigged an election.  And while Coulter has posted more than her fair share of such nonsense, she doesn’t in this column, and instead she gets it 100% right.

Until our own house is in order, until our children are fed, our sick are nurtured, and our homeless are housed, we’ve got too many problems at home to worry about the problems of other nations. And before you disagree too vehemently, before you click reply and fire off an angry response, you’d do best to read the red letters of your Bible. Because these thoughts aren’t original to Ann Coulter any more than they’re original to me.  Sometimes, it’s tough looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing our failures staring at us over our shoulders.

(Author’s Note: Let me be clear on something: I think doing “good works” is noble. I think it’s just. I think it’s necessary. But we must be careful to avoid, in our “good works” the establishment of that great evil, the Other, lest we further alienate the alienated. In the case of Dr. Kent Brantley, what we’ve done is confirm to Africans that, without a doubt, they are second-class citizens of the world in our eyes, from whom we are withholding ‘the cure’ for a deadly disease, reinforcing the belief that our efforts there are half-hearted and not to be trusted, and that we believe this to be “our” planet. This is the same “logic,” however flawed, that has led Islamic people to violent acts of terror and more than a few nations to the brink of war against Western philosophy. In other words: in trying to help save the world, Dr. Brantley’s efforts and the aftermath may just prove to make it that much unsafer, that much less stable, and that much more costly.)