“The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes . . .” (Denise Duhamel)

The perfect symbol

The perfect symbol

In the fall of 1968 I wandered into the Democratic Party Headquarters on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA, headquarters for the western part of San Bernardino County. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for President. Even though he was part of the Johnson Administration responsible for the war in Viet Nam, against which I was one of those irreverent “hippie” types who demonstrated, I could not imagine voting for Nixon. My candidate, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated a few months earlier.

The election of 1968 was the first in which I voted. It was the first of five in which I worked as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate, except for the 1972 election when I worked for a pittance of a salary for the McGovern campaign. In the election of 1976 I met Jimmy Carter at a neighborhood party in Iowa City when he was “Jimmy Who?” and decided to volunteer for his campaign when he answered a question from one of my neighbors with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in an Immoral Society. That he even knew the book was enough for me—his quoting it was the icing on the cake.

After Ronald Reagan was elected Acting President in 1980, I never again participated in “politics.” I was mildly interested in supporting Michael Dukakis. (I had, after all, met him three times and met his cousin Olympia at a concert of the Boston Classical Orchestra conducted by his father-in-law Harry Ellis Dickson for which I wrote the program notes because the chairman of their board of directors was a colleague of mine on the faculty at Bunker Hill Community College—there, I’ve dropped all the names I can possibly drop.)

Looking back on my dabbling in politics, I’d say having some kind of personal knowledge of a candidate is the best reason to vote for or against her. Every other reason—party affiliation, philosophical agreement, religious compatibility, is dangerous. In fact, it’s absurd.

While I was toying with the idea of working for Dukakis, one of my friends was toying with the idea of working for George Bush the Elder because her family’s summer home was in the same exclusive neighborhood of Kennebunkport, and she rubbed elbows with the Bush family as part of the social elite of Maine (I suppose she still does).

Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in . . .

My disillusionment is not quite as complete as Denise Duhamel’s seems to be, but it’s close. Her poem says “a slug,” not two slugs. In the slug kingdom it’s possible for one slug to copulate—and thereby reproduce. It’s not masturbation. They don’t often fly solo—usually it takes two slugs, but what happens to the slug playing the part of the male when they are finished is pretty gross.

I think it’s an apt description of American politics. Devouring parts of (or, more likely, ALL of) one’s opponent is the name of the game. And—excuse the extended metaphor—we all seem to slither around in the garden dirt when it comes to politics or even talking about (I won’t say “discussing”) any of the problems that are in the process of tearing American society apart.

I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

We all carry our ballots around and ponder big questions—what to do with 52,000 starving, frightened, unmoored children knocking at our doors seeking shelter, safety, and a way to survive as human beings; how to prevent the next mass killing with licensed guns of school children; what to do about the absoluet certainty that the NSA, the NRA, every bookseller and garden supply seller in the country knows you’re reading this—and then instead of finding an answer to any of these questions, we light our ballots on fire, inhale the smoke, and blow it toward whatever politician we think should have helped solved the problem long ago.

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

We make ourselves the perfect voters, smiling our way to the ballot box with eyes closed to the realities we are voting on. We accept without investigating that banks and billionaires are the oppressed in America. We accept without investigating that Hamas is a “terrorist” organization. We allow demagogues to convince us that changes of world-wide power structures are the fault of one man rather than the inexorable result of our own materialistic “globalization.” We allow the interpretation of human life that a corporation is the same as a living, breathing body. And so on.

We set ourselves up in armed gated communities prepared to make war on anyone who is not “like us.” STAND YOUR GROUND!

I doubt I will ever again walk into a “party headquarters.” I may never vote again. I don’t want the shame of being a slug slithering in the garden copulating with myself.

My advertised purpose in this blog is to write light-hearted pieces about the process of growing old. I don’t know if this is light-hearted or not.

Slithering in the dirt

Slithering in the dirt

Well, here’s some jollity. Since I “retired,” I’ve taken some actions that might be seen as out-of-character because they are frivolous and odd (perhaps “odd” is not out of character). Only one is obvious and public—the bold and conspicuous tattoo on my left arm. Its Latin phrase, by the way, is the first words of the Medieval hymn,

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

So last Thursday evening did you watch fireworks with glee and patriotism? Heaven and earth with ashes burning. Has that become the best symbol of our “democracy?” Firepower?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel (b. 1961)
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.
Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

Just because. Another patriotic poem. From Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press, 2002.

“Patriotics,” by David Baker (b. 1954)
Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns down river.
America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops
is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park.
It’s the Big One one more time, July the 4th,

our country’s perfect holiday, so direct a metaphor for war,
we shoot off bombs, launch rockets from Drano cans,
spray the streets and neighbors’ yards with the machine-gun crack
of fireworks, with rebel yells and beer. In short, we celebrate.

It’s hard to believe. But so help the soul of Thomas Paine,
the entire county must be here–the acned faces of neglect,
the halter-tops and ties, the bellies, badges, beehives,
jacked-up cowboy boots, yes, the back-up singers of democracy

all gathered to brighten in unambiguous delight
when we attack the calm and pointless sky. With terrifying vigor
the whistle-stop across the river will lob its smaller arsenal
halfway back again. Some may be moved to tears.

We’ll clean up fast, drive home slow, and tomorrow
get back to work, those of us with jobs, convicting the others
in the back rooms of our courts and malls–yet what
will be left of that one poor child, veteran of no war

but her family’s own? The comfort of a welfare plot,
a stalk of wilting prayers? Our fathers’ dreams come true as nightmare.
So the first bomb blasts and echoes through the streets and shrubs:
red, white, and blue sparks shower down, a plague

of patriotic bugs. Our thousand eyeballs burn aglow like punks.
America, I’d swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am,
and here you are, and here we stand again, agape.

I don’t care if it is your Constitutional right, carrying a gun is. . .

You can't yell "fire," but you can fire.

You can’t yell “fire,” but you can fire.

The last time I attended The Dallas Opera (their production of Carmen on November 10, 2013), I was distracted by the woman in front of me who was texting on her smartphone. Granted, she never turned it on at a time when something was happening onstage. She lit up the theater only during breaks in the action. I never heard the phone make a noise.

But it bugged me. Why should that woman think she—of all those 2,000 people—had the right to disrupt my immersion in the operatic experience? She paid about $200 to be there, as I did, so you’d think she would have arranged her life so nothing would disengage her from her expensive three-hour experience.

I can’t imagine being such a control freak that I would have to be able to control my business, my children, or my friends even from the opera house.

Perhaps she simply felt she had to let the people sitting around her know how important she was, so she responded immediately to the Tea Party request from Ted Cruz for money to work to defund the National Endowment for the Arts which gave a grant to make the opera possible. There’s more than one way to destroy culture!

Curtis Reeves has shown us how to deal with people who text in theaters.

Unfortunately, I have some hurdles to jump. (Question: if the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean the freedom of speech does not extend to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, does the Second Amendment freedom to carry a gun extend to packing firepower in a crowded theater? Apparently so. We are inconsistent, aren’t we?)

I have a right to choose to kill you

I have a right to choose to kill you

Assuming I have the Constitutional right to carry a gun within murdering distance of a couple of thousand people who would be trapped within my firing range, I’m not sure I could buy a gun in the first place. The laws of Texas are pretty vague about who’s allowed to endanger two thousand people in a theater. I don’t know if the state is aware of the psychological disorders for which I have been treated in the past. Does it know I’ve been hospitalized for depression resulting from Bipolar II disorder? I take some pretty high-powered psychotropic drugs. But I’m a college professor and respected (I hope) church musician. Which aspect of my character would win out in an application to buy and carry a gun?

Then there’s this matter of my little (and I mean little—only complex partial) seizure disorder. About once every ten years I have a blackout seizure—you’ll have to ask the assistant manager of the Target store where I had my last one eight years ago how I act at those times. I don’t know if the fact there’s a—what, one minute out of ten years—chance I might black out during the opera and do something I’m unaware of will prevent me from buying a gun in Texas or not. (It will now!)

Judging from some of the wackos I know who own—and a couple of them carry—guns in Texas, I’d say even with these little abnormalities I could probably talk the gun authorities (whoever they are) into letting me buy and carry one. And in Florida it seems to be a universal right—kill a kid wearing a hoodie or the beloved father of a three-year-old daughter, on the street or in a theater. Doesn’t seem to matter.

I know, I know. Curtis Reeves was simply obeying the law, standing his ground. After all, someone (no one seems to remember who) had thrown popcorn at him. Surely, popcorn in your face is equal to a bullet to the chest.

Here’s my deal. If I knew for sure one person—it would take only one—in the Winspear Opera House was packing heat, I’d be out of there—and demand my money back. How could the Dallas Opera put me in a position where I could be stuck in a crowd and at the mercy of a psychopath like Curtis Reeves?

And, Kimball, my friend, don’t tell me the problem is the psychopath, not the gun. No, the problem is not the psychopath—or, assuming Curtis Reeves is perfectly sane, the idiot—the problem is the gun. Chad Oulson would be alive today were it not for the gun. He might have some popcorn salt in his face, or a smashed phone, or even a black eye from an alpha male fistfight, but his three-year-old daughter would have a father.

I don’t believe in “evil” the way most people do—no evil force stalking the world in the form of “The Beast” or any other religious nonsense. But I do believe it’s possible for an act to be evil.

Carrying a gun—for whatever reason—is evil.

I don’t have the same religious conviction as St. Augustine, but I understand this. “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil–not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked” (St. Augustine, City of God, XII, Chapter 6).

". . . the turning itself is wicked."

“. . . the turning itself is wicked.”

Guns are evil not of themselves. They are evil because the person who carries one has turned to that which is lower than human thought or decency. But one carries a gun because one has already turned, and as long as the gun is present, there is no turning back.