It Was a Good Day – in Atlanta

A gentle way to ease back into this blog would be a conversational post about what I did today in the sometimes-great city of Atlanta. So that’s what I think I will do.

It works much better than an angst-ridden post about the various emotional travails that have kept me away from writing for a year. It’s also more on-topic!

I woke up at 7am today, early for me, in the beautiful 100-year-old home I share with my partner in the historic Washington Park neighborhood two miles west of downtown Atlanta. After a few brief, low-maintenance ablutions, I headed out on foot toward the nearest MARTA train station, a refreshing 10-minute walk through the increasingly less blighted neighborhood I’ve lived in for almost a decade. House renovations and razings flare every few months, and I expect our Beltline-adjacent community will be scrubbed clean within a few years, both for better and for worse.

I waited several minutes on a sketchy train platform, as I do every morning, then boarded the train for a quick ride into the heart of downtown. Since last night, I had felt the siren call of Dunkin’ coffee, so I made a small detour from my daily routine by indulging my weekly routine of foregoing the perfectly fine coffee I have waiting for me at my destination. I take the train one station north from downtown, then debark to board one of the longest escalators in the nation up to the street, where Dunkin’ coffee, along with an egg-and-cheese English muffin, waits for me half a block away. I then complete my morning walk back to the heart of downtown. There I own a tiny condo, situated in another hundred-year-old building (this one used to be a bank), which is the height of irony.

Irony because Atlanta is notoriously devoid of historic buildings other than the Margaret Mitchell House. Double irony because I am notoriously devoid of affection for anything old or traditional. I like shiny new things, and only the most contrived of cosmic circumstances would place me in these two ancient abodes.

I went under contract for the condo during the pandemic shutdown–it was originally a crash pad indulgence, but it quickly became my lifeline and my home office. I have been able to commute to work every day for the past two years while my company has remained remote.

Getting back to my day: I worked from 8am to 1pm at the condo. I’ll spare you both the hair-raising thrills of staring at a laptop screen and doing accounting work, and the entreaties of my feline companion Mister Amir, and skip to my afternoon out on the town.

I retraced my morning steps back to the Peachtree Center MARTA station, because I needed to run the first part of a work errand at the FedEx Office across the street from the Dunkin’. I then rode up to Buckhead, and walked over to On The Border, where I settled in for a rare full-service lunch of chicken fajitas. The justification: my work errand involved prepping and mailing several letters at the nearby post office. After lunch and the post office, I still had a couple of hours left in my workday, so I walked a few blocks over to Caribou Coffee and worked out the rest of my day amid the haughty busy-ness of the other urban cafe hounds. Then I hopped on the train again and went home.

So what’s the point? After all, you didn’t ask my how my day went, and I seem to have become that friend that tells you anyway.

The purpose is to show Atlanta in all its mundane glory. My typical day is mostly back-and-forth between the two home bases, and there’s not much “Atlanta” there. Today, however, I interacted, in my way, with the city, Here’s my takeaways, and presumably yours.

  • Atlanta has a lot of chains. I visited four businesses, and they were all corporate chains. This is not just an Atlanta thing; it’s also a personal issue–I’m a control freak, and I crave standardized chain experiences. This is a trait I’m working to improve, because Atlanta is also home to many wonderful independent retailers. Don’t judge me.
  • I had zero noteworthy human interactions. I didn’t filter out my interesting conversations with strangers, because those things didn’t happen. I spoke with a server, a post office employee, and a barista. Two of my retail interactions were entirely self-serve. The lack of interactions is also a personal, introvert thing.
  • What I did omit was the backdrop of homeless people. Because I live in the middle of the city, they are everywhere. I only needed to turn down one person asking for money today. I almost always need to turn them down because I don’t carry cash. Yesterday, I bought a Reese’s for a guy, per his request, sitting outside the Walgreens. Observing homelessness and rampant mental illness on the streets and the trains is a stressful part of my world, but it’s the world I chose. You want the big city, you get all the trappings.
  • That aside, and that’s a big thing to place aside, it was a pleasant, peaceful, coexisting kind of day, and I just wanted to share.

It’s good to be back. I’ll work on sharpening my observational wit and meet you back here next time.


Dolly-rock! Or Why Dolly’s finally wrong about something.

Dolly Parton made waves a couple of weeks ago when she removed her name for consideration for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF). She requested that her nomination be rescinded so that someone more deserving could be inducted.

As if.

It turns out that she can’t actually do that, so we music fans have been served two harsh realities at once. First, Dolly can’t wave her hand and make something happen. And second, she can actually be wrong about stuff.

On the first point, it’s pretty cut and dried. The ballots are final, they’ve been mailed, and many had likely already been completed when Dolly had her say. Of course, it becomes a different question if she is voted in, whether the RRHOF will honor her request and invalidate the induction.

On the second point, matters are more subjective. The argument has raged for years about who should be recognized for induction, and Dolly appears to have landed on what I think is the wrong side of the argument.

On one end of the spectrum, there’s so-called “purists.” And as far as I’m concerned, that’s just as fascist as it sounds. Rock and roll, in this purist retelling, is a musical style defined by its use of guitar, drums, and pounding, propulsive rhythms.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the super-inclusive definition, which maintains that rock and roll is based in musical stylistic choices, but subsequently expanded by the evolution of sound over the seven decades since its inception, the influence of its attitude on subsequent musical forms and artists, and the continued relevance of the musical genres that melded to form rock music in the first place. I agree with this definition, in case you hadn’t picked up on that.

The reason I agree with the more inclusive definition? Well, part of it is because I’m one of those snowflake liberals who can’t bear to see people excluded because of subjective, systemic biases. The other part is because the RRHOF has made their bed and now they have to rock in it.

Yes, Virginia, the history of music is in fact a microcosm of the biased, racist, sexist culture that begat it. As much as *some folks* want to pretend that music, along with all other aspects of culture, exist in a vacuum where everyone is fair, the truth is a lot messier than that.

Racism is a big reason rock and roll exists in the first place. If white kids could’ve just listened to “race records” to start with, the record executives would not have needed to cultivate a largely segregated, modified version of the rhythmic music that Black artists were already creating in the 1950s, then slap a new label on it.

Then, as soon as they enabled the creation of this musical compromise of rock and roll, the execs tried to dilute the music back down into the inoffensive pop music that preceded it. Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone, Paul Anka, and a hokey Hollywood incarnation of Elvis Presley followed swiftly on the heels of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and the original Elvis. It took the British Invasion of the 1960s (and a handful of pre-head-banging Americans) to bring back the hard-edged spirit of the original wave. Subsequent versions of rock have washed across the world and have rewritten the instrumental rules several times. No one would argue that U2, Devo, Metallica, or Green Day aren’t rock bands, but their musical choices have taken them down very different roads.

Meantime, the other genres that were smashed together to create rock continued to evolve and interact with rock. Black music continued to evolve into modern-day R&B, funk, reggae, dancehall, and, hip-hop. Country music tried on several hats that weren’t always wide-brimmed, creating bands like Alabama that were hard to parse from “rock” bands like .38 Special. Dance music and electronica arose from this stew of popular music, as well.

So with all this diversity of instrumentation and cross-pollination among genres, who’s really to say what’s rock music? The say, all too often, was given to white guys, who can label the folksy stylings of Bob Dylan as rock and roll and induct him on the third-ever ballot in 1988, but who can equally scream bloody murder when the subversive pop swagger of Madonna got her inducted 20 years later, after all the greats from the 1950s and 1960s had had multiple opportunities to be voted in.

And this brings us to 2022, where Dolly Parton finds herself in the running to be inducted and demurs. And I think she’s dead wrong to do so. The background above should make it obvious, but let me count the ways.

• Dolly is not going to reset the trajectory of the RRHOF by declining the honor. They’ve already set a course to be inclusive in their nominations. So much so, their inclusiveness has even strained my open, welcoming attitude.

As a prime example, Whitney Houston’s 2020 induction was a head-scratcher for me, although I’m not going to burn down social media trying to dispute it. Whitney is a legend and an icon, and I’m a fan of her music. I religiously purchased each of her records between the mid 80s and the late 90s. From repeated listens to her catalog, I can assure you that she is not a rock artist, in form, style, or attitude. “Queen of the Night” and “So Emotional,” probably her two most rocked-out jams, are nothing more than well-executed reminders that a rock arrangement does not a rock song make. Whitney’s play-acting rock vocals on the former do an especially effective job of showcasing her inherent lack of rock grit.

However, Whitney was awash in a sea of mold-breaking female megastars during the height of her career, and it’s inevitable that she craved a chance to do something edgy. It just wasn’t her wheelhouse. (When you have the voice of a generation, something has to give.) The fact that she was part of that conversation, in my opinion, made her RRHOF material by association, and that’s how I justify her making it in.

• Dolly rocks the hell out. Dolly may not see it, but songs like “Jolene” and “9 to 5” bristle with a frenetic rockabilly energy that is inseparable from the rock music conversation. People think of “9 to 5” as a pop song, but what has come to be known as pop since the 1950s has been infused with the propulsive (that word again–it’s very important) energy that rock added to the pop music stew. And the addictive thing about “9 to 5,” why it was such a big hit, was that propulsive energy. Big pop-country moments like that are why we have Taylor Swift and why we have Beyonce doing songs like “Daddy Lessons” on groundbreaking albums like Lemonade. (Make no mistake–Beyonce will be in the RRHOF soon after she’s eligible.)

• Dolly has been excluded for so long, it’s time for her to accept inclusion. Dolly has spent much of her career as an outsider. Even when she had a ridiculous run of country hits in the 1970s and 1980s, her legitimacy was questioned and whispered about among country purists who didn’t like that she spoke her mind and wore form-fitting outfits and made Hollywood movies with Sylvester Stallone and Jane Fonda. She only experienced a brief run of pop success in the early 1980s, but it was enough to place her in a musical no-woman’s-land between pop, traditional country, and contemporary country.

It’s mainly been the subsequent years, with Whitney’s take on her classic “I Will Always Love You,” the numbing quantity of earnest takes on “Jolene,” and the gushing compliments from new artists as they speak on their inspirations, that have bolstered Dolly’s legacy to where it stands today. She’s earned it, and she should bask in it.

Dolly being Dolly, I’m sure she will have none of it. But I’ve said my piece.

Sleepless After Seattle

I took a break, y’all. After writing myself into a corner and getting worked up over a nonsense conspiracy-laden faux-mystical tract about COVID vaccines in April, I realized that I had burned myself out.

I’ve lived a lot of life in the past three months. I took a somewhat secret trip to New Orleans, endured a series of dental procedures, including my first root canal and crown, and opened up a lot emotionally.

I like to think the therapy of writing in this space for those several weeks before my April break fed into the personal growth and spurt of activity I have experienced. Despite not gaining worldwide acclaim and not breaking the blogosphere, I proved to myself that I could hold down a part-time writing job. I proved to myself that I could focus.

But, y’all, I did burn myself out. I don’t know what the hell that last post was. Read it while you can–I’m taking that $%!+ down pretty soon.

Travel is a favorite balm of mine, and it’s been crucial for the past couple of months since I got my COVID shots. Cruises are my favorite, but I am going to wait until the cruise lines have all the kinks worked out of their health protocols before I go back to that life. In the meantime, besides my sneaky New Orleans trip, my partner and I took a fantastic trip to the West Coast.

We left on a Friday night, flying from Atlanta to Los Angeles. We spent a day in LA, exploring Little Tokyo near our hotel in the downtown area, along with the obligatory walking tour of Hollywood.

I have to go back. I want to explore the other 95% of the metro area we didn’t see. But we had a train booked on Sunday–to Seattle. We traveled most of the West Coast on Amtrak! We hit Santa Barbara, San Jose, Mount Shasta, Portland, and ended in Seattle, where we spent four days. Three days in and around downtown Seattle, and a one-day trip out to Mount Rainier.

The trip was just as culturally and visually overwhelming as I knew it would be. Life and landforms are so different on the West Coast than the rounded, deciduous world of the South. Just like a good unSoutherner, I took notes. Below are my takeaways, in order of prominence.

First takeaway: the East (inclusive of the South) is old, and the West is new. This should not be a shock to anyone who took elementary-school geography, but being plopped down in the middle of it just hits different. (Oh god did I just use that phrase.) The jagged Western landscape jars the non-native. Mountains just shoot up out of nothing, directly next to the ocean. We didn’t feel any tremors, but mere knowledge that an earthquake or a volcanic eruption was possible with little or no warning shifts one’s relationship to the natural environment. I can see why ancient peoples wanted to appease their natural gods; Allstate and earthquake codes didn’t exist.

Second takeaway: homeless people in Los Angeles are professionals at what they do. My anecdotal experience is that homelessness is just as ridiculous in LA as it is represented to be. Skid Row is a real place in Los Angeles where you can navigate in Apple Maps, not a euphemism. But: these folks have rolled up their sleeves and made a career of being permanent outside citizens. They hail buses, patronize stores, and maneuver their carts down the street. Their tents are lined up, organized, and efficient. It is a way of life, and there is a dignity that–in my mind–eludes the homeless in Atlanta and so many other cities I’ve been. What factors converge to create this difference, I’m not sure and will not venture to speculate here. But it was a fascinating discovery.

Third and final takeaway: diversity is diverse. Atlanta distinguishes itself as one of the most diverse places in the South. My visits to Chicago, New York, Denver, Minneapolis, and Miami have all yielded the same diversity vibe. Los Angeles also reminds me a lot of Atlanta (except for the homeless thing).

Seattle, though, is its own animal. The specific mix of ethnicities, the mix of income levels, the subcultures that were on display and the dynamics among the people there–it was all peculiar to me. Granted, I was there for fewer than five days, and most of our time was spent within a one-mile radius of downtown, but there was something quirky and off-kilter to my unSouthern sensibilities.

Before you dismiss this as delusional, though, consider that the Seattle music scene made superstars out of both Kurt Cobain and Sir Mix-A-Lot. If that does not qualify as quirky, I don’t know what would.

Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory – Part 1

In my last post, I railed against conspiracy theorists in general. Luckily (or unluckily), I was handed an Exhibit A to rail against in specifics. Twice within the past two weeks, a two-page tract was distributed to me regarding vaccines. This bothers me because (1) this ridiculous crackpot publication is getting better distribution than this blog; and (2) if I received the tract twice, I cringe to think how many other people received it, read it, and thought, “There are some interesting points here.”

Conspiracy theories prey on people’s ignorance, paranoia, and lack of critical thinking skills. They skip over logic, facts and/or a philosophical common ground and hope people will go along with the flow and not notice what is missing. Or, even worse, the theories are conceived by people who don’t even realize what a disservice to legitimate discourse their publications and utterances are. They think they are being profound.

At the risk of overkill, I am going to print the full text of the tract here and give commentary as I go:

“What do vaccines REALLY do? Refuting “anti vaccine” disinformation agents and zionist illuminati propaganda”

This is the actual title of the tract. The intent with so many conspiracy theorists is to immediately undercut established facts by drawing on some shadowy group of “others” who are silently calling all the shots. Never mind that any number of references can tell you exactly what vaccines do–this source has decided to print something on a piece of paper and somehow prove to you that it’s better information, mainly by blaming the available info on “disinformation agents” and “zionist illumnanti.” Because those sound spooky, even if they don’t ever define what those things are.

“The mainstream narratives: There are usually three narratives that are given a lot of attention, and this also applies to other arenas such as politics. Two of the narratives occur in the mainstream–the yin versus yang, red versus blue, Republicans versus Democrats, Iran versus Israel, China versus America. In the context of the vaccine, this is the QUICK vaccine versus SLOW vaccine. These are all fake conflicts. Remember months ago, Trump wanted a vaccine quickly and all of the Democrats were saying “no, no, we want it to come out slowly.” So the fake conflict was about TIMING but they both agreed in the end on having a vaccine.”

Taking something mundane like clearly documented differences of opinions and calling them fake is the most fundamental of conspiracy theories–that somehow everything you’re being told is a lie. What exactly is fake about these conflicts? Do Iran and Israel in fact agree on everything? To the extent that people are people and we all want to be happy, yes, it’s entirely possible to say that these conflicts are meaningless. But they do exist–therefore not fake. Deciding to wait until vaccines were tested and approved (which is the only sense in which “all of the Democrats” were in favor of a slower vaccine rollout) is not a fake difference of opinion, but that doesn’t stop this writer from steamrolling over the facts.

“Well the yin yang are two sides of the same coin; they pretend to be in conflict but eventually UNITE. Just like Iran helped America in Afghanistan under the Northern Alliance, just like American corporations manufacture in China, and just like the red and blue parties reinforce the idea that elections are real. They disagree on their fake drama on TV to give off the impression that they are resisting, and then in the end, they agree on the most critical points (they agree on democracy being real, mandating vaccines for children, uniting with Iran against real Moslems, enslaving countries, etc.)”

Here, the writer starts vigorously pelting us with unsubstantiated opinions as examples to support a viewpoint on how information is presented to people. This type of misdirection is common in conspiracy theories: writers use opinions to support other opinions, which gives the structure of a well-reasoned argument, but without any underlying support. Notably, the underlying idea that elections and democracy are not real is presented here as a “sky is blue” level of commonly agreed fact.

Conversely, while the writer’s questionable claims are slipped into the argument casually as accepted fact, mundane civics is depicted as sinister brainwashing. Through politics and diplomacy, parties and nations reach common ground on issues, form alliances and pass laws. Compromise is the goal of politics and diplomacy. Positing the existence of compromise as proof that conflict is fake is about the most upside-down logic imaginable.

“The fake alternative narrative: The third alternative is the alternative narrative, which is meant to deceive anyone who the freemasons couldn’t deceive with their yin yang propaganda.”

Sorry, I have to cut this paragraph off early. There’s two things going on here that are hopelessly absurd. First, we have reinforcement of this idea that all conflict is fake. Second, we’ve slipped in another unsupported sky-is-blue assertion–that the “freemasons” are behind this master brainwashing scheme. Never mind that when any two people have a conflict, they deal with it in the same way described above. Instead, this writer would have us believe, it takes an ancient secret society to construct fake conflicts to distract all of humanity. Conflict, my friends, is not so difficult to come by honestly.

Also, as a matter of structure, what were the first two narratives again? I hate to break it to the writer, but yin and yang do not count as separate narratives. Only one narrative has been described to this point. Sloppy construction like this, in my mind, points to an underlying lack of care in the presentation of the argument. If you can’t be bothered to properly enumerate your points, how can you be trusted to carry out the more nuanced work of supporting them?

“These disinformation agents include 99.9% (maybe even 100%) of people on television, EVEN if the media pretends like they are their biggest enemy. Some names include Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, David Icke, famous “anti vaccine” people, Noam Chomsky, Louis Farrakhan, ISIS, Hezbollah, freemason mosques, fake insurrection leaders, and others.

Remember that these people have become famous through the media and that the media will never allow anyone real on their network. And by the way, these agents have already merged with the yin yang agenda. Sanders claimed politics is bought and controlled to gain our trust, now he blames everything on Trump (usual tv drama). Trump insinuated that the pandemic is fake and then he got covid to prove conspiracy researchers wrong as reverse psychology (time to accept the fact that Trump is a freemason and actor). And they all say that democracy exists in order to stop any true revolt against these staged elections.”

Here the tract really jumps the shark. These two paragraphs really belong in a personal journal because there is nothing here but unsupported, free-associating speculation. How the writer can know all of these things at the same time is beyond me. Most glaring in the analysis is how 99.9% (“maybe even 100%”! — spoken like a true statistician) of the people on TV are asserted to be alternative narrative disinformation agents. I find it hard to believe that the freemasons could create an entire world order and only squeeze out 0.1% of TV appearances.

“The media will never allow anyone real on their network.” This is a turning point in the tone of the tract. Here we have the real sorcery of the conspiracy theory–the same magic Trump tried to work when he said, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” If the writer can present an argument whereby you are disallowed from believing anything except what is being presented by the conspiracy theorist himself, then he’s locked you in and has control over you.

This is the last piece of the tract I will quote today. At this point, you may be thinking that is beneath me to continue to take this publication seriously and to bother refuting its points. However, I think it’s important to look at these words squarely and to examine them, because these are the words that are being distributed to hundreds, probably thousands of people in Atlanta and maybe in other cities, as well. This is the sort of blather that many mistake as “grassroots activism.” To the extent that it is unpolished, goofy, and earnestly all-encompassing, some may view it as charming and even positive. Some people are so deeply repelled by current social norms, real and perceived, that they will lap up anything that appears thoughtful and critical and praise it as worth our consideration.

In other words, conspiracy theories take advantage of the disconnect that many people have with what they see in their world. Anything that sounds intellectual or philosophical will automatically gain a sympathetic hearing to someone so inclined, even if it’s undifferentiated, garbled word salad.

This certainly qualifies. Stay tuned. It gets wilder.

It’s a conspiracy!

Growing up, the alternative kids were a refreshing, if sour, addition to the adolescent stew that simmered over the course of the high school and college years. On a larger scale, the counterculture ambassadors of the past several generations, the hippies and the punks, have made invaluable contributions to all aspects of society, from philosophy to pop culture.

As I concluded in the last post, although I dispute the notion that the counterculture outright rejects the mainstream in the way it often claims, it does represent a whole spectrum of useful and challenging perspectives.

Then there are the conspiracy theorists. This special breed of contrarian makes “shocking” claims about things on which the rest of society has reached a consensus: The World Trade Center was imploded as part of an inside plot! We never landed on the Moon! The Earth is actually flat! COVID is a hoax!

Unlike regular counterculture representatives, I have little tolerance for conspiracy theorists. They are the nouveau riche of critical thinking–showing off all their fancy, superficial deductions based on selective facts (or, often, “alternative facts”) and disregarding the rigorous, scientific deductions that have formed the foundations of entire academic disciplines.

So why do I mention counterculture and conspiracy theories together when I don’t think of them the same way? It turns out that they share a myopia about how things are in the mainstream world.

Here’s the thing: we live in a socially engineered world. Humans are social creatures, so social engineering is how to get us to do stuff. The whole point of parents raising kids within the parameters of the dominant society and any applicable subculture is to socialize them. Socialization is a psychological and sociological term that describes this process of turning out productive citizens. Everything I’m saying here is all widely accepted and fully documented. (Read: it’s not a conspiracy, at least not in the secretive sense.)

The angst and rebellion of adolescence occurs when a young person becomes self-aware enough to understand that socialization is a thing, that the world they live in is not the rigid “because I said so” that their parents represented to them. They need to demonstrate to themselves and their friends that they are independent of these somewhat arbitrary standards. People who remain nonconformists into adulthood can do so for legitimate reasons: there is such a thing as remaining committed to a stance of nonconformity as a matter of principle and conscience.

Conspiracy theorists are a different ilk. They are perpetual intellectual adolescents. They desperately want to show that they aren’t duped by the mainstream media and the legions of scientists who want to shove their priorities and theories down our throats. The best way to do that is to take the most extreme stance on the most otherwise-agreed-upon issue. (Ergo, flat-earthers.)

There’s no way for a conspiracy theorist to distinguish himself by aligning in opposition to something that is underhanded but easily proven true; for example, the for-profit privatization of the U.S. prison system, or the widespread water pollution in American cities. Those are terrible things that have been downplayed at various times by powerful groups, but they are provable. However, the conspiracy theorists, as a group, want no part of these fights. There’s too many other people already on those bandwagons, and therefore no way for them to feel (1) special and (2) persecuted.

The overriding theme in almost all conspiracy theories is what “they” don’t want you to know, because “they” are busy carrying out some dastardly scheme to impair, imprison or enslave everyone. Although the theorists drench their invective with a torrent of dramatic terms, they are describing something rather mundane–society and human behavior.

People often function from a place of self-interest. Groups of people have ways of coordinating this self-interest on massive scales. Throughout history, nobles, chiefs, religious leaders and community officials have leveraged their power to advance goals that benefit them personally. They may also attempt to carry out some of these actions in secret, so that they don’t have to answer for it.

This always happens. It isn’t special, it isn’t shocking, and it isn’t a revelation.

To the intellectual adolescent, though, it can be a shock. And instead of digesting the social programming and underhanded actions of people in power, they rail against it and become distrustful of every established theory and fact.

Matters of science are especially vulnerable, because the scientific method itself is a series of ever-better approximations, not stone tablets from the heavens. Every time the scientific consensus yields an update or correction in our collective understanding, the conspiracy theorist shouts, “See! They can’t keep their story straight!”

Granted, there are times when skeptical minds have prodded and uncovered legitimate conspiracies. I don’t have an issue with true critical thinking and smart questions. My quarrel is with people who mistake blather on social media or gossip heard at a barbecue with a legitimate challenge to the status quo.

People who are truly critical thinkers don’t dismiss entire academic disciplines by claiming with zero proof that “they’re all in on it.” Critical thinkers ask questions, uncover facts, and evaluate thoughtfully. By their words, it’s quite easy to identify the adolescents, even if, like a stopped clock, they’re right twice a day.

By their words… speaking of which, I have in my possession a two-page tract that was handed to me on the train on two separate occasions over the past week. It has “conspiracy theorist” written all over it, and that was before I started doodling on it. If you want to see this mindset in action, I will be dissecting the tract in my next post.


What does counterculture even mean in the South?

There’s so many competing ideas about who and what exemplifies Southern culture, it’s difficult to discuss in a meaningful what it means to resist it. This is important to explore, especially since I have named the entire blog after an effort to redefine the concept of being Southern by first negating it as a default.

One way to conceptualize counterculture is from the standpoint of social and political power. Given the race and class hegemony that has presided for centuries, counterculture would be exemplified by the social justice movements that rallied in the ’50s and ’60s. This idea dovetails conveniently with the narrative of the idealistic hippies and the “militant” Black activists, both products of this period who are, in the popular mind, the representatives of the American counterculture.

Another approach is to treat the South as more or less the same as the U.S. at large. From there, we could simply catalog the American subcultures and cliques that have proliferated in the past couple of generations: the goths, the punks, the Rastas, the tech geeks, and so on. Just about anyone under 50 can probably better relate to this “alternative reality,” if you will. We went to school with these kids, or we went through these phases ourselves. In some cases, these identities have stayed with us into adulthood.

What I’d like to concentrate on here, though, are the internal complications that these different groups face when they attempt to articulate their counterculture ideals. In particular, almost every counterculture ideology revolves around the idea that the status quo is inconsequential, irrelevant, and/or outdated.

Instead, what often happens is that these movements “doth protest too much.” (Yes, I know the subject-verb agreement is off, but I needed to reference the Shakespeare quote directly, so cut me some slack.) They become knee-jerky in their reactions to the mainstream, which has the unintended consequence of validating the status quo.

A simple example is the goth subculture. Many teens have embraced the trappings of goth subculture since the ’80s. To its credit, it has real staying power, which to me demonstrates how straightforward its grasp of counterculture is.

Goth culture is an obvious rejection of prevailing norms. The larger society embraces ideals of joy, happiness, and color. Goth subculture indulges melancholy, despair and an anti-color palette of black and blacker. Goth kids are drawn to the idea of establishing an identity separate from their parents and their cheery, normative ideals, yet they demonstrate this individuality by dressing and acting largely the same as each other and by acting deliberately opposite of those ideals.

To me, a more sophisticated and sincere rejection of mainstream society would consist of going completely off the grid, disregarding how happy or colorful the prevailing society is, and simply recalibrating the balance of these elements for oneself.

I am not saying, by any means, that people who consider themselves part of an alternative aesthetic or philosophy are misguided or mistaken. I admire kids who embrace these cliques with gusto, and I admire Americans who banded together in the hyper-normative culture of the 1950s and ’60s to put forth different ideas about how society can function.

What I do dispute, though, is that any of these groups “reject” mainstream culture. In their own way, they in fact validate mainstream culture by serving as the necessary yang to its yin. The very labels of “indie” and “alternative,” which remain popular in cultural circles, have no meaning at all outside of the existence of the establishment that they are independent of and alternative to.

This has been the foundation of my personal philosophy of inclusive mainstream-ism. I don’t mind that the mainstream embraces Taylor Swift, for instance. The fact that she’s ridiculously popular does not make her untalented or her songs inconsequential. Force-fed to us or not, she’s a good songwriter and worth listening to. This quality is independent of whether she’s labeled as “indie.”

Therefore, when I speak of being “unSouthern,” I don’t intend to advance the idea that everything Southern is bad. On the contrary, as I have noted in a prior post, I am more inclined to indict myself for rejecting my own Southernisms in the same knee-jerky way that alternative kids dismiss the preps. The goal is for unSouthern to evolve into postSouthern and then transSouthern–to recalibrate the traditional Southern ideals so that they don’t enable or promote any of the nasty -isms as they have in the past.

In the next post, I want to expand this idea of the status quo versus the alternative–to the touchy and timely topic of conspiracy theories.

Everyone’s Special … in Their Own Way

The “why me” of being a preacher’s kid works both ways. It was more often asked in exasperation, but sometimes in guilt. I didn’t ask to be singled out in this way, and to the extent that it worked to my advantage, I was even more uncomfortable with the label.

I recall the restaurant we frequented after Sunday morning services, which was a small-town dive in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, featuring a Sunday dinner serving line with meat-and-three setup. I adored their marshmallow-y Mississippi Mud Pie, wrapped in individual squares with plastic wrap on a white Styrofoam plate. And if memory serves, they didn’t charge us for the food.

Many years have passed since I was an active member of the Holier-Than-Thou club, so this is one of my few distinct memories of receiving a cash-valued perk as part of my dad’s entourage. I do recall thinking, though, that it wasn’t right. I knew how poor many of the area’s residents were, and how much better off we were than so many of them. I did not understand why we received the free food.

As I got older, I noticed that people in certain positions received preferential treatment because of the social honor conferred on their profession. Others received perks because people wanted to “get in good” with them.

The perfect intersection of honoring those who serve and buying them off is law enforcement. I particularly noticed when police officers waltzed into businesses and got what they liked for no charge. When I began working at an ice cream shop in college, I bristled at following the manager’s instructions to hand over free coffee and food to them.

Throughout my adult life, one of my quirks has been my refusal to look doe-eyed at service professionals and worship their selflessness. I am certain this comes from the experience of having grown, otherwise reasonable people fawn over my father, who, as I mentioned in the previous post, I saw as a preacher and not a minister. He sought and gained attention for his virtuosic pulpit performances, then was able to double-back and also take a victory lap as a servant of his congregation when he did not relish that role. (He was a hermit, TBH.)

I have always taken a hard line against this hero worship, even with my own objective understanding that people like nurses, teachers, and EMTs, as a rule, give so much of themselves and have a profound impact on others’ quality of life. Unfortunately, I have also encountered people in these roles who could not be bothered to care or lift a finger to help their charges, so those experiences have re-toughened my stance.

When I go on cruises, there is a ritual in the opening-night-at-sea kickoff show, where the cruise director makes their pitch to the audience that we are one big family for the next several days and we should get to know each other. As part of this, he or she asks for audience members to stand and be noticed while the rest of the audience applauds: nurses, EMTs, firefighters, teachers, and finally, the military (and of course, “thank you for your service”).

Although I applaud and have genuine appreciation for these people, who by the way, are performing jobs that I could NEVER see myself doing, I am discomfited and annoyed by this ritual, and the ones like them that play out in society a million times a day.

There’s a scraggly older guy on MARTA who has been panhandling for years. He introduces himself as a homeless veteran to the train car at large, and his speech to the ridership always revolves around a woe-is-me-no-one-appreciates-my-service despondency. I always ask the same question in my head as he speaks–would he be any less needy if he weren’t a veteran? If not, then what is the point of mentioning it?

From the polite applause of the cruise ship audience to the pity angle used by the MARTA guy to get money, my takeaway from these situations is not that we honor people who serve, but that we honor the convention of honoring the professions. That’s three times removed, if you’re counting.

By the time you drill down to the individuals getting the benefit of all this honor, you could be dealing with a huckster, an egotist, a power-tripper, or an indifferent boob who chose a career with the care of a blindfolded darts player.

And then you have someone like, oh well, for instance, let’s say — me. I make a living as an accountant. In my job, I interact with dozens of people in a week, and I take the tone and substance of my interactions seriously. I am fastidious in how I represent myself and my company. I choose to affirm and encourage others’ humanity and hard work. I strive to give the clearest instructions and explanations to accompany the dry numbers and mind-numbing processes that churn out and verify the financial information that others review for insights into how the company is performing. And I take time to share good work habits, hacks, and educational tidbits about the job, the company, and the industry, with my team.

And I let them say hi to my cat when he jumps into the videoconference frame.

I’m a freakin’ treasure and credit to my company and my profession. Well, maybe that’s overstating the case a bit, but that is my earnest goal.

How is it, then, that a nurse, who rolls her eyes when I ask if I’m supposed to take off my shoes before stepping on the scale during my annual physical, can go to any event, share her profession, and receive the fealty of everyone in attendance? I, in contrast, get asked if I can do strangers’ taxes for free (I’M NOT THAT KIND OF ACCOUNTANT – WE DON’T ALL DO TAXES) and am treated to unoriginal accountant-bashing humor.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not asking for pity because I chose a decent-paying profession that gets a little bad press here and there. Instead, I am asking: what are we really honoring when we make these gestures based on one bit of knowledge about a person?

I can be a hypocrite with the best of them, but this is one area where I feel like I’ve been consistent: when I was part of the “in” crowd, as it were, I posed the question, “What about them?” Now that I’m no longer a part of it, my question is, “What about me?”

We struggle with labels all the time. Wars are fought over them. Identities are forged with their assistance. We cannot lose sight that behind those labels, people are people, and deserve to be honored (or dishonored) individually. We all have our own contributions to make.

After all, if everyone was out in the world saving lives, we’d just be a big roll of Lifesavers.

No, I don’t know what that means.

Behind the Baptismal Curtain: Children of the Corn-secration, Part II

When I asked for feedback for this week’s posts on preachers’ kids, my good friend Anna piped up with a couple of suggestions. As children, we lived in the same preacher’s house, sequentially, in Gamaliel, Kentucky. Her dad was the minister of the Church of Christ across the street from our nondescript brick dwelling, and my dad succeeded her dad in the post.

Thus began a series of weird coincidences that would continue through the early part of our lives, (Another post for another time.) In short, although we have some clear differences, Anna and I share both some understandable history and some incomprehensible happenstance.

Among the experiences we share is first-pew experience of the harsh reality behind the decorum of the minister’s mantle.

I believe my father was, in his heart, an orator and a scholar. When you love books and words and speaking, and you’re a poor kid growing up in the 1930s and 1940s on a ridge in middle Tennessee, that skill set translates into one profession–preaching.

My father was an incurable bookworm who hoarded reference books on theology and Biblical linguistics and read them like novels. He learned the nuances of ancient Greek and was forever convinced that the only real meaning of any English word was its “literal” meaning. For instance, the word “philosophy,” if you go into its Greek root words, means the “love of wisdom.” There’s often something profound to be mined by knowing these root word meanings, but he was adamant that these were the primary meanings of the English words themselves. He loved etymology, but only the origin part, not the evolution part.

I say all this to say that my father was not, in my judgment, a servant of the people or a man of God. Ironically, he did not possess the qualities to be a literal “minister” (whose Latin root means “servant’). He was, in point of fact, a preacher. He was good at delivering the message; he was not invested in the duties of being a minister.

That disconnect within his professional life was part of the issue. The other part was that he was a fallible human being. I won’t perform a full-blown character study at this time; as it is, I fear I will spend too much time beating up on him in the course of recounting our relationship. The upshot of using him as my firsthand example is to point out that people associate faith-based professions with goodness and unimpeachable morality, when most of the time they are just professions.

Many of us are familiar with this concept in a secular context. As an accountant, I marvel at how fiscally, logically and mathematically incompetent some of my coworkers have been over the years. I worked at a restaurant with waitstaff that had 20 years or more experience and no idea how to treat customers or efficiently perform sidework.

For my friend Anna’s part, it is not my place to tell her story, and to be honest I do not recall many of the details. However, I will say that she empathizes with my story in many respects.

Any number of high-profile national scandals and local debacles involving clergy have surfaced over the years. The recent blowup between Kirk Franklin (who, of chorus, is a choir director and gospel musician and not a minister) and his son echo these scandals. The recurring theme should not be a surprising one: people “of God” are no different than the rest of us. They simply chose a profession that claims to be aligned with higher ideals. This association with the divine can become its own burden and lead to even greater failings. Add in the amount of power, trust, and respect that these positions can confer, deserved or not, and you’re begging for a scandal to occur.

As a preacher’s kid, I experienced some of the collateral damage of this pressure, and I wanted no part of it for myself. I may not have been aware of the exact reason, but I have always labored to be certain that no one mistakes me for a great person just because of the job I hold.

Which leads me to the rant with which I will conclude this week’s thoughts. Please read further on Friday, as I go full-throttle against police, first responders, and school crossing guards–all the professional sacred cows of our society. It’ll be fun.

Children of the Corn-secration

Or Sorry, I Couldn’t Come Up With a Better Pun

Oh, I could write a book.” –Anna Stevenson, close friend and fellow PK

Wherever there are men of God, there are traumatized offspring left in their wake. We are expected to be either perfect or pervy. We are either kind, or kind of sickening. We have no room for error, but everyone is nonetheless waiting for us fail.

We are the few, the strong, the proud.

We are Preachers’ Kids.

PKs are not a Southern-only phenomenon. Ministers around the world, I’m sure, have similarly socially-addled children… but in the South, the Preacher’s Kid is something akin to an appointed town position. We function as the spokespeople for the non-juvenile delinquent contingent of the youth population. Like most political figures, we are badmouthed, slandered, and distrusted. Behind our backs, the rumors fly, and the jokes pass like lice among the other children. It’s a burden, but not without its perks.

I do not know whether my self-concept has always revolved around the idea of being nice and following rules, or whether my identity as the son of a Church of Christ of minister drilled that expectation into me before I had a fighting chance to act out my rebellious impulses.

Chicken-and-egg questions aside, the role of PK seemed to come natural to me. I enjoyed doing the correct things, and I enjoyed not being bullied as much as I might have been otherwise. A regular goody-two-shoes kid is clearly trying to ruin the curve and show up everyone else; a PK is just performing duties of state.

In a small town, PK prestige correlated with economic status, as well. The ministers were among the few professionals in town and often received free housing to boot. When I lived in Gamaliel, Kentucky, I was aware of being one of the most well-off kids in town–I was one of the few kids in my class who didn’t qualify for at least reduced-fare lunch. Not all of this was because of my father’s higher calling–the church allowed him to work a full-time job during the week at a local factory. Nonetheless, I was aware that my father held a certain status, and I conflated our relative prosperity with that status. So did most others, from what I could tell.

It sounds like all upside, right? Not so. Even as a young kid who attempted to predispose himself to perfection, I felt the pressure. If I sensed the urge to step out of line in school, the encumbrance from the weight of my PK duty would stop me dead. When it was the turn of my more unscrupulous classmates to take names in the teacher’s absence, they relished writing mine down for the most dubious of indiscretions. So even on my best behavior, the juicy jackpot of catching Micah acting out in class was sufficient to invite an unjust double-standard of behavior.

When my family moved to Nashville, I was able to wriggle free from my PK identity. My classmates there only knew of my honored position if I shared it with them. Life there did not revolve around the small-town church, and I felt fortunate. I feel even more fortunate now, because the lurid part of being a PK tends to unfold in high school, when playground spats become hormone-ridden adolescent conflict.

But the identity didn’t go away altogether. When I did share that my father was a preacher, my Nashville classmates invariably uttered, “Ohhhh!!” indicating that my otherworldly behavior now had a traceable origin. So even though they didn’t know my father or any church we had attended, they had an easy hook on which to hang my demeanor. And our collective self-awareness and self-parody made for a lot of jokes at my expense, mainly regarding what a party animal I was underneath my calm exterior, just like all those other preachers’ kids.

The problem was that I never knew if they were genuinely suspicious of me or if it was the best joke of all to imagine that I could be the untamed creature they described. Which is all just as well, because I could not decide which was more offensive.

Being a PK pales in comparison to problems other kids have, at least in the innocuous form it took in my childhood. But it was the mental equivalent of having someone tie my shoelaces together as a prank. Just when it was important for me to break free of my parents’ and others’ expectations and begin to think and behave for myself, I was confused and constrained by an extra set of expectations and perceptions about who I was allowed to be. Managing those expectations while needing to maintain a carefree childhood and a healthy adolescence was a challenge.

What do I mean by “healthy adolescence”? Well, if you don’t know… I will have to tell you in a subsequent post. It’s too much to get into right now.

The South’s Anti-Asian Problem

Part 3: If I’m Not Part of the Solution…

One lesson in anti-racism gained a lot of traction during the summer of 2020: de-centering the conversation. In a social media landscape that thrives on egocentricity, and a blogosphere that celebrates the cult of the individual perspective, it was valuable for White folks to learn that sometimes it is better to pause, to take our ideas and experiences off the table, and allow time for discussion among the groups that are impacted most and most directly.

This week, by posting my views on the South’s anti-Asian problem, I probably have not done the best job of de-centering. But today, I will give you fair warning that this is a fully self-centered discussion.

If I had to describe, in one word, the Asian presence in my world growing up, I would use the word “void.” It was not important enough to really discuss. It was a side topic, a random rumination here and there.

For people in the South, slapping a specific name on something more general is the way the language works. All soft drinks are Cokes, for instance. And all Asian people were Chinese.

(I say “were” as a matter of hopefulness. Given the increased popularity of various Asian cuisines and cultural phenomena, along with the emergence of other Asian communities in the South, I would think the typical Southerner doesn’t make this mistake anymore. But I could be wrong.)

To be sure, when it came to matters of war, the Asians did become diverse to some extent for Southerners: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Japan were participants in the largest American wars of the Baby Boom generation. But all those nations and cultures collapsed back down to Chinese when discussing anything other than war.

The first Asian people I recall in my childhood were the proprietors and waitstaff of a Chinese restaurant in Madison, Tennessee, The House of Choy. My family rarely ate Chinese food, and we only patronized this one place, and even then maybe once a year. I found the place magical–the building was pagoda-shaped and brightly painted in saturated colors. All of the dinnerware and glassware was exotic, ornamental, almost ceremonial. Every wall and surface was appointed for maximum effect.

My next distinct memory was in seventh grade, when my family moved me back to Nashville, or Madison more specifically. No, we did not start patronizing the restaurant more (which is odd–we did live much closer to the restaurant at that point). I started school at Neely’s Bend Middle School, where I encountered a number of firsts — my first gym class, my first gay classmate, and, yes, my first Asian classmate: a loud, mischievous Korean kid who upended every stereotype I had ingested over the course of my formative years.

I was rezoned to a different school the following year in eighth grade, and so it wasn’t until high school that I was able to settle in and get to know my classmates well. In high school and again in college, I had the privilege to cultivate friendships over four-year stretches.

In a different context, I would be delighted to name my friends and to describe their unique perspectives, talents, tastes, foibles, and downfalls. In this context, however, I find the risk of objectification too great, the temptation to treat each person’s character as significant only in how it confirmed or contradicted my prejudices or stacked up against American stereotypes of their backgrounds.

Suffice it to say that I have known a wide array of beautiful, complicated people, and that includes my Asian classmates, business associates, friends, and acquaintances.

A great deal of my exposure to cultures outside the binary Black/White paradigm occurred during the eight years of high school and college. It was those school-based friendships that allow me the latitude to say, with confidence, that I appreciate and respect the individuals I have known who are of Asian descent.

Where would I be without the purposeful diversity goals of my high school and college? Would I still entertain simplistic impressions of Asian culture? Would I be tempted to harm or harass because I was susceptible to suggestions that Asians created diseases or engendered temptation or poisoned my food? (I sure hope not, because the projection of government or systemic wrongdoing onto individual humans who just happened to live under those systems is hellacious reasoning–I’d hate to be guilty of that, regardless of my lack of exposure.)

As it stands, and even with all my diversity bombast, I yet feel woefully undereducated and underexposed to Asian culture. I can’t recall learning anything beyond the names of the most long-lived of the Chinese dynasties in world history class. Beyond a smattering of poetry, I can’t recall any significant Asian literature that I studied in school or have read in the years afterward. I was recently introduced to The Tale of Genji in a world lit online syllabus, and was embarrassed to have not heard of it before.

As a general rule, we do not learn enough about people. When we do not learn, we fill in the blanks. Bad people fill in the blanks in the wrong ways, and even the best people fill them in clumsy, unhelpful ways.

I have a lot of blanks to fill. It’s kind of unconscionable that my childhood awareness of the largest and by far most populous continent in the world, and the ancient cultural traditions it carries, was essentially a hunk of brightly painted concrete on Gallatin Road in Madison, Tennessee, that housed an earnest, but not culturally all-encompassing, Chinese restaurant.

When we know better, we do better. To that now-familiar saying (modified from Maya Angelou), I would add: when we know more, we do more. There’s so much more for us to know, so that we can do more to make the world safer for our neighbors and friends. After the events of last week, I hope it’s something we can make a priority.