Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Fast and the Gratuitous

I was reading Jayski last week (doesn't everybody?), and ran across an review of a book called "Against Time and Death," by Brock Yates. (See the review at: It's about open-wheel racing in the mid-1950s, a particularly fatal period for the sport, and, frankly, it sounds like an interesting if flawed book. Except for one thing, I might have bought it, and that can't be blamed on Yates.

This is the review's last sentence: "Because of Yates’ credentials, Against Time and Death ought to be available in most good bookstores, even the ones managed by tree-hugging, granola-munching, Starbucks-sipping, pony-tailed, Birkenstock-wearing poetry majors in Yankee-Land."

Now what the heck was the point of that? As an expatriate Southerner, living up here in Yankee-land, all it did was make me decide not to buy the book. And that's the ultimate in bad reviewing! It doesn't say anything about the book, it isn't particularly funny, and all it does is annoy anybody who isn't just like the author.

Which I guess probably IS the point. (Though it's possible, I suppose, that it would be funny if I read the site regularly.) It's a classic "if you're not with me, you must be against me" statement, and it seems to me that there's waaay too much of that going around right now.

I work part time at a hair salon, and a young woman came in last week upset because of what had happened on the way in. It was a rainy day, she was wearing a Yankees cap, and some kid - college age, certainly old enough to know better - had walked across the street to step in front of her and say, "You suck! The Yankees suck, and you suck!" As she said, you kind of expect that if you wear a Yankees cap to Fenway, and you're ready for it, but not just walking down the street, even if we are in an outpost of Red Sox Nation.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, when did this level of aggression become acceptable behavior - even common discourse? I'd like to blame it on the current political climate. After all, you can argue that the Senate rules debate is about essentially the same thing: we are right, you are wrong, and there is no place for actual debate (as opposed to rhetorical posturing, like Sen. Santorem comparing his colleagues to Hitler) or nor any need for compromise. I think that talk radio probably bears a portion of the blame, since ranting and raving seems to bring better ratings than sober discussion. Being an old-school Democrat, I'd like to blame the Republicans in general, but that would be as gratuitous as anything I've complained about - and one can legitimately point to some of the '60s leftists as displaying exactly the same attitudes.

In fact, when you think about it, this aggressive hostility forms a consistent strand of American political life, from McCarthy to Prohibition to the Know-Nothings and the Klan through writers like Upton Sinclair and all the way back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where - to protect the people of God in this fearsome and hostile new world - dissent could not be tolerated, but had to be actively sought out, confronted, and the offenders chastised or expelled from the polity. That's part of the history that led to the whole concept of the tyranny of the majority, and to the American enshrinement of protections for minorities and dissenters, and the tension between the two points of view is part of what has made American politics so peculiarly dynamic over the last 200+ years.

Politics aside, though, it feels as though we've made a big shift toward aggression and away from what used to be called common civility. We seem to be losing the understanding that other people are not necessarily us, and that it's OK for them not to be.

I'm not sure where this comes from, but as an SF writer, I can't help looking at the changes in personal technology. With the advent of cellphones, iPods, personalized services of all kind, each one of us moves in an expanded bubble of self: this is MY phone, that connects ME with MY world. This is MY music. This is MY blog, MY favorites list, MY website. Characters in novels are defined by what's on their iPods; sharing music becomes as much as an expression of who we are than as it is a gift of something someone else might like. We play games in which we can't always tell which players are real and which are computer generated, and for the purpose of the game it doesn't matter, so you can treat them all the same - and do whatever you have to do to win. And when that bubble hits something that deflates it, it hurts, because we've gotten so used to moving in that world of total agreement that we no longer expect dissent. And hurt people sometimes hit back.

It's one thing to discover, say, that your best friend absolutely disagrees with your deeply-felt stance on abortion or the Iraq war. That is scary, because here's someone you know and respect who challenges your deeply held belief. You can't not listen, or if you can, it changes everything between the two of you. Even if you do listen, it still changes everything. Hurt is almost inevitable.

It's another to be so shocked by the sight of a Yankees hat that you have to come over and insult the wearer.

And it's still another to attack readers of a book review. Yes, I'm sure the reviewer assumed that no one in that category ("tree-hugging... poetry majors in Yankee-land") would read the review, but that's exactly the sort of assumption that gets you into trouble. In this case, he lost a sale for a book he admired. Not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, but not his intention.

Remember Hitchhiker's Guide? The galaxy is really, really big. Maybe, just maybe, we all need to remember that this world is big, too.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Sunday Services

We went to the Church last night, for the first time in 2 years. Not church with a small "c" but THE Church, the Stone Church in Newmarket, one of the best clubs in the area. It was Jon Nolan's CD release party, the first CD released by any of the former Say Zuzus, and to add to the good times, Cliff Murphy, the other Say Zuzu guitarist and vocalist, was the opening act. The music was great (Tim McCoy on bass may look like he wandered in from some other band, but he's exactly what the sound needs), the CD was definitely worth the money, and it was great to see old friends. And even better to be getting back to some of the things we used to do.

But there have been a lot of changes. The last time we were at the Church, it was about a week before Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. There were rumors that the Church was going to close: the old management was tired, or maybe not making enough money; somebody said the neighbors were complaining, and somebody else said they were going to develop the property. But for that one night, everything was the same. The music was good, the crowd was appreciative, and the Church was the same dark, dingy, cozy dive it had always been, at least in the 3-4 years I'd been going there. It stank of smoke, of course, and if you asked for wine the cute dreadlocked waitress had to go dig it out of somewhere in the back, but it was the Church, and that was that. They booked good bands, of every possible variety - Say Zuzu, of course, and Diesel Doug and the Longhaul Truckers; Genderfits and Scissorfight and Spirit Varnish and lots, lots more, including ones you've probably even heard of - and that was what counted.

Since that night.... Well, first there was the cancer, which meant that we didn't have the energy and then, later, the money, to go out much. (Even with excellent insurance, the stupid disease is expensive!) And then the Church closed, to reopen as.... The Stone Church, again, but different. No smoking. A kitchen - a good kitchen. 7PM shows on Sunday nights. Windows, for god's sake! Three big windows that actually let in daylight! Why, come midsummer, there's going to be light still coming in when the opening acts start! Hell, you can even buy advance tickets on line for the big events.

These days, I'm not much for change. We've had a lot of changes lately, and a lot of them have been negative. So when I found out that I couldn't afford tickets for Ralph Stanley last month (yes, that Ralph Stanley; I told you you'd have heard of some of the bands), I wasn't all that upset. I wasn't sure I wanted to see what had been done to the Church, despite the fact that Jon was now the booking agent, and he swore it was all good. But last night, with the CD release, we had to go.

And I'm glad we did. Yeah, it's different - I still can't get over the windows! Or, for that matter, driving home at 10:30 instead of 1:30. But, you know, it's nice to be awake this morning. It was nice to get a good meal instead of eating a bag of potato chips to kill the 2 AM god-I'm-tired muchies. It was nice not to reek of smoke when I got up this morning - and nice not to have to take extra asthma meds, something I'd forgotten about until Lisa reminded me! I didn't visit the bathroom this trip, but I understand I can do that now without fear that the plumbing will stop working - or, worse, have already stopped working without anyone putting up a note....

The main thing is, the music is still the same. It's strong, loud, unapologetic; it's sweaty, hard-working, danceable, and it's the reason for the Church. Everything else... yes, that's changed, but the Church is still there. The music is still there. And, by god, Lisa and I will be there, too.

Say amen, somebody!