When I was talking about luck, I mentioned that some folks translate Urd’s name as “debt or obligation.” I find this notion useful. It means that none of us are born with a blank slate, but all are born with certain debts already incurred, certain obligations already waiting to be met.

No one has to meet the obligations they have; they don’t have to pay the debts. But if you don’t take care of things, they sit out there, waiting for someone to deal with them. And your unmet obligations are handed down to the next generation and the next and the next. They don’t go away, they just grow and fester.

I spent my lunch hour today looking through the photos at Under Mars. If you haven’t seen them, they’re worth taking a look at. There are photos of soldiers dancing and laughing and playing drums. There are a lot of photos of landscapes and buildings and skies. There are also photos of dead people and body parts. Some of them have captions. Some of the captions might seem inappropriately callous or funny, but people deal with death in different ways.

Anyway, the photos had me thinking about Urd again, about the debts being run up in our names over there. It’s not just what we’re doing to the Iraqis that concerns me, though that concerns me. It’s what we’re doing to ourselves. Someday, the soldiers who took photos of tanks running over dead bodies are going to come home. And they’re never going to be able to unsee those things, to undo what we’ve asked them to do.

We will have obligations to them. I hope we can meet them.


I just finished up Bird by Bird. I can’t promise it will make me a better writer or make it easier for you to enjoy reading Tiny Cat Pants, because it wasn’t until the very end of the book that I realized I’d read it before.

So, obviously, the chances of any advice in there sinking in and doing any good is somewhere between slim and none.

That being said, Anne Lamott advises that we should not be afraid to confront the things that cut us most deeply and expose them through our writing.

That’s probably because the things that cut her most deeply are great injustices like hunger and poverty and war.

The thing that cuts me most deeply is Walmart.

Going to Walmart, having to shop at Walmart, makes me feel like shit. Partly, it has to do with the overwhelmingness of the whole thing, the aisles upon aisles of everything you could possibly want–as long as it’s not too unique–brought to you as cheaply as possible through the exploitation of your neighbors. God, it’s

If you see me at Walmart, look down the aisle and see my Dad. I’m there because of him, either he needed to buy some thing that he just couldn’t do without while I was visiting or he had to check to see if the inventory had changed since the last time he was at Walmart, approximately twelve hours ago, or he’s finally lost his mind, wandered off, and I’ve come to retrieve him.

I’d like to have a good, liberal “they exploit the workers and ruin small town downtowns” argument against Walmart, but I don’t.

Maybe because I grew up in towns where the town squares were populated by a VFW Hall, a drug store, and five bars, it seemed like the downtowns were already pretty dead before Walmart showed up.

And it’s not like rural folks aren’t already used to shopping out of big boxes. We shopped at Pamada, Jack’s, and my beloved Farm and Fleet for all sorts of stuff before Walmart moved in.

It’s true enough that they exploit their workers, but at least Walmart provides people jobs close to their homes. Also, usually Walmarts go in near strip malls or strip malls spring up near them, so with them comes conveniences like McDonald’s and the Hallmark store.

So, I don’t believe it’s easy enough to say that Walmart has ruined small town living. It seems to me that they just saw an opportunity and took it.

And I hate that folks talk about Walmart like it’s some cancer spread out across the heartland burrowing its way into even urban areas. Seriously, if a Walmart opened up in East Nashville or in the Bronx, what’s the worst that could happen?

It’s like they think being rural and poor is contagious and if you go into Walmart to pick up some detergent, chips, and a bean bag, you’re going to come out with a gun rack, a hunting cap, and the uncontrollable urge to beat your children in public.

Or maybe it’s like they think Walmart is some symbol of everything that’s wrong with America and by keeping it out of their communities, they’re somehow making a stand for decency and a living wage.

I don’t know. But I don’t like feeling like the war against Walmart is indirectly a war against people like me (and I don’t like that I feel that so viscerally that I don’t quite know what I mean by it.)

But, all that being said, I don’t shop there. I’d rather go without things than shop there. I’d rather pay more at Target or Walgreen’s than shop there.

I don’t like that there’s so much stuff, so many choices and then so many individual units of whatever it is that they have. I am paralyzed by that.

I don’t like that the floors always look dirty, even at brand new Walmarts. I don’t like that there’s never enough check out lanes open, so you end up standing for what seems like hours behind some woman trying to herd her kids while her husband reads the back of his deer-urine scented hunting spray and ignores her. I don’t like that you can’t buy any cold medicine that might be used to make meth without going up to the pharmacist and everyone just accepts this as if it’s just how things go, that we all have to be treated like children because some dumb-asses cannot refrain from poisoning themselves and their communities.

I hate the jewelry at Walmart, especially, because it’s so flimsy and fake looking, like anyone who shops at Walmart ought to be just fine with a cross pendant with her imitation birthstone attached to it and the arms so flimsy that they bend almost immediately once she starts wearing it.

And all the watches, like all people who go to Walmart have is time and the time to watch time pass.

Which is true, in some respects, as we’re all herded through the store and up and down the aisles and queued up in line to pay to leave.

But most of all, I don’t like that the whole store seems set up to deliver to you everything you really need, as if this is the official store of America, the place to get everything you need to have “real life.” As if your inability to find what you want there is not some fault of the store, but of you for over-reaching, for being extravagant and unreasonable, for you not fitting in and understanding your proper place.

MTV, All is Forgiven

During the first season of Ashlee Simpson’s show, the copyright notice read “Copywrite 2004.” God, that made me laugh. And they left it that way for the whole season. It’s fixed now, but it’s the kind of thing that just summed up for me the whole Ashlee Simpson phenomenon: that everything about her career is not quite thought through, not quite checked for obvious errors, and that the mistakes are inconsequential anyway, because no one will notice or really give a shit if they do catch it.

It’s fixed now, which makes me a little sad.

This weekend, though, I caught both the new Making the Band and Lizzie Grubman’s show and I am happy with MTV once again.

There is an old story that, if you watch the Sopranos, you have heard. It goes like this: a woman is walking through the forest and she comes to a river that she needs to cross. Also at the edge of the river is a snake (or a scorpion) and the snake asks her to carry him across the river, because it’s too far for him to swim.

She refuses. “You’ll bite me,” she says.

“No,” he assures her. If you take me across the river, I won’t bite you.”

This goes on for some time, her saying that he’ll bite her and him insisting that he won’t. Finally, she decides to be nice and take him across. When they get to the other side, he bites her.

As she’s dying from his venom, she says, “You said you wouldn’t bite me!” and he says, “But you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”

Watching both Making the Band and Power Girls reminds me of that story. If ever two shows revealed everything unseemly about celebrity, it’s those two. The arbitrary decisions, the egos, the butt-kissing, the general stupidity, it’s all out there on full display. And yet, the only way I can understand the popularity of these shows is if most of the viewing public is willfully blind to what’s actually going on and caught up in the “glamour” of it all.

Take Lizzie Grubman’s show, for instance. If you have two ounces of common sense, you can see that working for Grubman would be a nightmare. Everything about her is forced. She’s failing at fake pretty. She’s failing at cool boss. She’s yelling at her “girls” about being too caught up with wanting to be a celebrity, and yet she’s walking the red carpet. She’s taking credit for launching people’s careers, at the same time she’s passing those people off to her peons.

Her employees have to work long hours for little pay (most of them seem to have two jobs) and they have to work with and for people with enormous senses of entitlement.

But are these girls bitter? No.

And why not? Clearly, because they’re idiots. In the episode I saw, two of them lied to Grubman on camera. Dude, everyone knows that if you’re going to lie to your boss, do not leave film evidence that proves otherwise.

So, working long hours at a thankless job with a woman whose sole joy seems to be reminding the world what favors she’s done for it, while also working other jobs because she’s not paying you enough to live on, is okay because you get to hang out with stars.

And what are these stars like? Are they smarter, better, more talented, prettier than the rest of us? To judge by the cast of Making the Band, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ In face, they all appear to have come out of whatever Frankenstein’s lab gave us Ciera and Ashanti. They all have that same look, the long, straight hair, the low pants, the pretty, but unremarkable faces. But more than that, they all seem to think that they’ll just magically become stars without having unique talent.

What’s most telling is that many of them seem to get that they need to stand out in some way. But rather than being the best singers they can or the best dancers or best team leaders or whatever, they seem to be trying to make sure that their “character” is well-defined. One is “the girl whose mom is dying.” Another is “the girl who can’t dance.” A third is “the girl who’d rather be a solo artist.”

And the thing is, if any of them had watched the last couple seasons, they’d know that the character Puffy is most looking for is “talented, humble, grateful, and self-possessed.” In other words, people who remind him of what he thinks of himself.

This, I think is the most hilarious unintended consequence of MTV’s brand of reality tv: that there is now a generation of people who think that it’s not just that everyone will get his 15 minutes of fame, but that everyone, no matter how unremarkable, deserves that 15 minutes of fame–me included.

Yesterday, I was trying to talk the Man from GM into quitting his job and going into the custom vehicle business. I was telling him how Jesse James only had to get a show on the Discovery Channel to see the price of his bikes sky-rocket.

If the Man from GM went into, say, custom SUV-building and got a show on Discovery, I volunteered to be responsible for stirring up trouble and giving him someone to fight with.

He thinks that the things we fight about are too obscure for most people to give a shit about. I don’t know. Our three longest fights have been pretty ordinary. He’s still pissed that I told him I was a vegetarian the first time I met him (fourteen years ago), even though I’m not. I’m unhappy that he tries to play grab-ass with all of my friends.

But the thing we fight about most often is my propensity to tell everyone about the time he came to visit me in North Carolina and how I gave him a stack of towels to use during his stay, one for every day, if he wanted, with the only rule being that he could not use the pink towel in the bathroom. On the last day of his visit, he came out of the bathroom, with my pink towel wrapped around his waist.

I was at the kitchen table, and the roommate he’d been hitting on all weekend was at the sink, but turned towards me. The Man from GM walked into the kitchen.

“Is that my towel, you motherfucker?” I asked (see, how is this not good reality tv drama?). “I gave you three fucking towels of your own.”

“God damned,” he said, “Do you have to be a bitch about everything? You want it back? Here.”

And he whooped off the towel and handed it over to me.

My roommate’s eyes got very wide and then she started to shriek. Then, she threw her hands over her face and turned towards the sink, still shrieking.

At this point, I start to laugh, and the poor Man from GM is standing there, arm outstretched, towel in hand, buck naked and turning bright red, because the last thing anyone wants is for a person he thinks is nifty to start shrieking and hiding her face when he gets naked.

Still, I think he handled it as gracefully as one can, wrapping the towel back around him, and heading off down the hall.

Yes, we’re too old to fit MTV’s demographic, but I’m thinking that Discovery might be right up our alley: The Engineer and the Hermit who Antagonizes him.

Clearly, I’m No Artist

As I’ve said, I’m always stumbling across weird shit in our apartment that leads me to have to ask such questions as “Why is there a pile of broken mirror on our back porch?” or “Why is there a huge roll of telephone wire behind the couch?”

The answers to these questions are always “It’s for something I’m making.”

Well, I’m proud to report that today, when my brother, the dear Butcher, went into the bathroom, he yelled down, “Why are there a bunch of copper pyramids in the shower?”

And I was able to holler back, “It’s for something I’m making.”

Here’s the deal. We’re about to move offices and I will, yet again, not be getting a window. I will, however, be getting a real room that is not just a wide spot in the hallway, so I am excited about that.

But I need something to liven up the place, something that isn’t too distracting when I need to concentrate, but something that will slowly change over time, as would the scenery out the window.

So, I had this idea of starting copper to patina and hanging that on my wall, where it would be shiny and add some light to the room, but slowly change to green.

I thought this would be an easy-enough transformation, as I’ve spent a great deal of my childhood trying to clean green off of my dad’s penny collection, which led me to believe that copper would turn green without much prodding, but there were obstacles and disappointments at every turn.

So, of course, I had to haul the Professor along. I promised her that, at the end of it all, we would drink, profusely. We did not.

This is the story of how two people, wanting only to get drunk and sit in my front yard (using ‘yard’ in the same loose sense that convicts do, when they talk about the prison yard, which is concrete and the threat of death) while staring at beautifully patina-ing copper, failed in even that small goal.

The first disappointment of the day was that it was so beautiful here yesterday that everyone in Nashville was at the park. Our usual route was clogged with joggers and so we decided to go around to the other side of the park where every jackass in town was letting his dog run off-leash.

Nashville, is it too much to ask for you to put your god-damned dog back on the leash when you see me coming? I don’t let my dog off her leash. I don’t let her come bounding up to you–though she would like nothing better–and lick your children–though she loves to lick children. Start extending me that same courtesy or I swear to god, I’m going to get a paintball gun and shoot it at your dog so that it will back the fuck off my dog and everyone else at the park has fair warning that your an inconsiderate jackass who thinks that half-heartedly saying “Spot, come back here” and having your dog look over at you and roll its eyes constitutes having your dog under control.

Okay, back on point, we had lunch at this place we’d both been meaning to try and I had this fabulous Greek sandwich which was full of awesome stuff, especially these really fresh cucumbers. Then we went to the pet shop to tempt the Professor, but it was closed, so all we could do is stare in the window and dream.

There was this darling, darling beagle/coonhound mix and I was in love with it. The Professor preferred a boxer mix that kept sitting on its toy.

Then, we went out to Home Depot to get copper post toppers. No luck.

Then, we drove and drove to the next Home Depot. No luck.

Finally, we went to Lowe’s. We’re going up and down all the aisles and getting more despondent and thinking maybe we’re going to have to find a place that sells copper roofing. And the Professor gets on the phone with the Sheik and asks him where we can get some copper.

Just as a side note, I must say that one of the things that cracks me up about the Professor–and I do it to, in all honesty–is that we call people who do not live here for advice on where we might find things here in town.

Before she’d called her brother, I’d already been on the phone with my dad and he was all like, “Check the Hobby Lobby” and I thought that was a brilliant idea except that I’ve never seen a Hobby Lobby here in Nashville.

But as she’s talking to her brother, I turned the corner and there, on a shelf, were the copper post toppers. Armed with them, some sandpaper, and some copper patina-ing crap we got from Michael’s, we started the long trek home.

On the way, the Professor was trying to convince me that I needed to have a scandalous affair. The Professor is, right now, having seventeen scandalous affairs. I suspect that, if you checked her pockets, you’d find a piece of paper with the names of all of her scandalous affair-ees and notes next to each name so that when one of them calls her, she can check and make sure she remembers some discerning feature about him or her, so that he or she feels properly loved, or at least remembered.

So, easy enough for her to say, but I’m mostly a hermit, so scandalous affairs are harder to come by. I did, however, promise her that should someone come by the house, looking to have one, I’d at least consider it.

Once we got back here, we set up in the front yard with all our little copper pyramids and some brushes. We scuffed up the copper, wiped on the patina crap, and waited for something to happen.

And waited… and waited…

Finally, some of the patina crap dried to the copper pyramids, but that was about it in terms of exciting transformations.

And, we didn’t even drink because the Professor had to drive back out to the airport and I was just feeling tired and disappointed.

It was funny, but not funny enough to balance out my bitterness at not being able to just whoop something up for my office with the same ease that the Butcher whoops up art for the house.

But then, I got to thinking that it’s weather that makes copper patina naturally. So, I picked up all my pyramids and took them upstairs and distributed them throughout the shower.

And what do you know? They’ve started to turn green.

If that’s all it takes, don’t be surprised when I start writing for the New York Times

Today, I open up the New York Times (electronic version) and see that there’s an Op-Ed piece about Rap and the Blues. Fresh off my triumphant trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, I was ready to read something about 20th century American Music.

Dear reader, it’s with both disappointment and delight that I inform you that it was dreadful! If I subscribed to The New Republic, I’d have to cancel my subscription based solely on the stupidity of David Hajdu’s performance here in the NYTimes. Who can trust him as a music critic?

Let’s start with his basic premise: “In its bloodlust, hip-hop is more old school than many of its fans and critics may realize; in fact, the music is carrying on a tradition as old as the blues.”

Yes, “as old as the blues.” Before the blues, apparently, no one sang songs about murder or the assorted other ways folks have of hurting each other. This will be of great relief to Barbara Allen who’s been tormenting herself for hundreds of years over the death of poor William. Apparently, he just died of boredom, living as he did, in the times before anything happened.

Then, let’s dwell for a second on the next little bit. I’m going to make a convoluted point about how part of the problem with any white folks talking about the blues is the ways in which white fantasies about the black musicians–especially black men–, the secret meanings of the music, and the kinds of legends white folks wish were true all tend to cloud what are fascinating stories in their own right. You can ponder the irony of that while I do it.

He lets you know right off the bat that he thinks the blues were “were created by and for indigent African-American sharecroppers.” This is one of those things that is true enough, but lets you know immediately that you’re going to hear a little story about masculinity and struggle and lone guitarists out there at the crossroads selling their souls to the devil and not one about traveling shows and jug bands and fife and drum music and the women who got rich, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, at a time when hardly any black people had money.

And just after he says that the blues were “coded in language about domestic matters, to throw off any eavesdropping whites”–thank god that Hajdu is more advanced than those white folks and able to decipher the language of the blues!–he trots out the legend of Robert Johnson, right on schedule: “Robert Johnson, the iconic early master of country blues, whose legend tells how he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his enigmatic guitar style…”

Whose legend?

I’ve never seen convincing evidence that any black person who knew Robert Johnson ever knew this legend or even heard about this supposed soul-selling until white blues collectors started asking folks in Mississippi about it. Tommy Johnson cultivated such a legend about himself (much like Peetie Wheatstraw, from St. Louis, called himself “the Devil’s Son-in-Law”) and Tommy’s brother-in-law did much to further the idea that Tommy had sold his soul to the Devil. Both Johnsons spent time around Crystal Springs and it may be that some white blues collector heard someone talking about that Johnson boy who sold his soul at the cross roads down by Crystal Springs, and, not having heard of Tommy, assumed it was Robert.

But we know better now. Robert never claimed to have sold his soul to anyone. Tommy did. This is widely-available knowledge. Why do white blues enthusiast continue to ascribe the legend to Robert?

Here are my guesses:

1. Robert is now more famous than Tommy.
2. Tommy was obviously creating an over-the-top public persona in order to get people to go to his shows. That’s not nearly as exciting as someone secretly selling their soul.
3. Racism in two ways: 1. The ingrained and unexamined assumption that black people are magical (see Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc.) and, 2. that Robert Johnson was not capable of perfecting his craft, but instead had to make some kind of occult deal in order to enhance his “gift.”
4. Robert died “mysteriously,” while Tommy died of a heart attack.

Okay, onward through Hajdu’s piece.

Next, he has an awkward paragraph that attempts to cover all musical genres from blues to hip-hop which gives the impression that the blues “gave us innumberable musical styles from jazz to rock.” Jazz was born out of the blues? I thought jazz was born out of ragtime and other New Orleans musical experiments older than the blues. But no matter. Getting things in chronological order would take away from his weird desire to link black blues musicians with “authentic” violence and white musicians with posturing and anti-roguishness–such as poor tuburcular Jimmie Rodgers, one-day-in-jail-serving Johnny Cash, and Bennie Goodman, who apparently sucked all of the violence right out of swing music with his mere presence.

Which leads us to his complaint about hip-hop: “How does hip-hop fit into this legacy? Awkwardly. While it too has at its heart the fury of profoundly frustrated, often desperate, souls, gunfire-for-show like the Lil’ Kim incident and the recent altercation over 50 Cent demean that history through pettiness, self-consciousness and off-handedness.”

What the fuck? His complaint about hip-hop violence is that it’s too petty, self-conscious, and off-handed? Again, what the fuck?

Is there some proud history of violence? Seriously, is he proposing some universally accepted standard for judging the aesthetics of violence that contemporary hip-hop violates? These young whippersnappers just don’t know how to “shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs” like they did back in the old days. Because lord knows there’s nothing petty or off-handed about “I’m going to old Mexico, where there’s long, long reaching guns/ When they want real excitement, they kill each other one by one.” Whatever.

He says, “In blues, the reasons (or rationales) for the violence were ostensibly amatory or otherwise personal, though societal by extension: a broken heart, wounded pride [emphasis mine], maltreatment by the boss (standing in for white society). But what was the shooting on Hudson Street about?”

Folks, you can’t make shit like this us. He asks the question, but fails to see that he’s provided his own answer. The shooting on Hudson Street was about wounded pride. The 50 Cent/the Game beef is about wounded pride and maltreatment by the boss; 50 being, in effect, the Game’s boss.

He makes one insightful point–“shootings like these seem conducted mainly for image-making, for reinforcing the street cred that rap stars’ rapidly acquired wealth inevitably threatens”–and then he starts in with how rap stars are scarcely marginalized in comparison to their ancestors in the blues, with their lives of privilege and conspicuous opulence. Again, which ancestors? Smith and Rainey were plenty conspicuously opulent and could have still told you a story or two about being marginalized.

Then, Hajdu ends with his own petty, off-handed violence: “In a sense, the shootouts on Hudson Street were business ventures–investments without much risk, since arrest, conviction, imprisonment and even death all confer status in hip-hop society.” Yes, being jailed or dying doesn’t matter to hip-hop artists the same way it does to us regular folks.

But stunningly that’s less offensive–the notion that death doesn’t mean that much to these artists–than the overall theme of the piece, which seems to be that Hajdu likes old, dead, mythologized-and-only-understood-by-white-folks black men who can mean whatever he wants them to mean better than he likes living artists.

How can someone with that attitude be a good music critic?

The Hall of Fame & Museum

So, I’ve been thinking more about my growing love for the Hall of Fame & Museum and I think it’s largely for two reasons. One is that we have these music channels on our digital cable and I’ve been turning on “classic country” and just letting it play in the background as I do shit around the house.

(They used to have one for alt.country, but I think they discovered the sorry truth, which is, most of it sounds exactly the same–bad. Flame on, alt.country folks, about how Nashville I am. Whatever, you and I both know I’ll see you down to the Bluegrass Inn soon enough.)

It helps a great deal to actually know old country music before you start wandering around a museum devoted to it.

But the second thing I love about it, and this love grows more every time I go there, is the music in the museum. Every place you turn, there’s more music. Yes, the displays are just as cheesy as they were over at the old place. Yes, it does seem strange to go and look at people’s boots (though, sweet Jesus, there are some awesome men’s shoes in the place). And yes, it feels kind of weirdly spread out.

But don’t go to look at things. Go to listen.

And, wow, then the museum springs to life like no other museum I’ve ever been to. It literally takes on a whole other shape, once you shut your eyes. They have these strange, seashelled shaped listening booths, and the first one you walk around brings you up to speed on what was going on in Southern music in general when “country” music started to coalesce.

You stand in front of it, and you’re hearing old timey mountain music; you step to the side and the mountain music fades from hearing, replaced by old Bob Johnson, and as you turn fully into the booth, there’s church singing.

I don’t know how they do it, but it’s like this all over the museum. You’d expect it to degrade into cacophony, with sounds from one part leaking into the sounds from another, until it’s all just noise. But somehow they keep the sound spaces distinct.

But, most awesomely, the museum constantly reaffirms my faith in country music. All along one wall, there are all these gold and platinum records. Some of them swing open and, when they open, you can hear the music from the record that won the award. I don’t know who picked which ones should open, but it’s the Outlaws and Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline and all the folks you know by heart and love.

Unlike pop or rap or rock, where you feel like the best those genres has to offer is constantly getting lost–like there’s some secret cannon that only the hipsters are onto that is filled with all the “really” good stuff–listening to the biggest country music records renews your faith in the taste of ordinary folks.

Sure, crap is rewarded in country, the same way it’s rewarded in other genres. But there we were, in a mostly empty space, listening to Cash sing and knowing that was good, just the same as the museum knows he’s good, the same as the people who bought his albums know he’s good, the same as the folks who cheer when his songs get sung in honky-tonks know he’s good, the same as the men in Folsom prison knew he was good. It’s pretty amazing. How can you not dance to that?

Scruggs Style

The Butcher and I went over to the opening of Earl Scruggs’s exhibit at the Hall of Fame tonight. It was pretty cool because we got to wander through the museum.

The museum is weird in that the first time you go through it, it seems like a total waste of money, like there’s not enough there to justify the amount you spent. It feels kind of sparse.

But the more times you go through it, the cooler it gets. You start to linger on exhibits and notice the little details. If you’re not too self-conscious, you can spend a great deal of time dancing around to the music that’s playing all over the museum.

We ate dinner in the Hall of Fame itself, next to the Willie Nelson plaque. I had this brilliant idea that we should make a giant chocolate bar/fake Hall of Fame plaque with, say, me on it and place it in the Hall and then see if anyone noticed before it started to melt.

I also had this great idea. What if someone hacked into an online dictionary and slightly changed word definitions? Would it throw English majors everywhere into fits?

The last great idea was that they should totally put a giant slide in the Museum that would go from the third floor all the way down to the gift shop, a big slowly circling slide for grown folks.


A thousand years ago, when the poet, Egil Skallagrimson lost his son to the sea, he wrote this:

Most woeful the breach,
Where the wave in-brake
On the fenced hold
Of my father’s kin.
Unfilled, as I wot,
And open doth stand
The gap of son rent
By the greedy surge.

Of course, he didn’t write it in English, and we aren’t obliged to treat the translation available in the public domain as inviolate. We might, instead, rephrase it like this: The breach the wave made in the fence of my father’s kin, is unfilled–I know–and a son-shaped hole, torn by the greedy sea, stands open.

I find that imagery both beautiful and heartbreaking: the gap of son in his family’s kin fence. To see your family as your first line of protection against the world, that web of relationships keeping you from harm, coupled with the grief at losing a son, it’s pretty moving.

Let’s come back to this.

One of the unexpected things that’s been sticking in my craw from my exchange with the Legal Eagle is the issue of the role of the university. Is the university a forum for the free exchange of ideas? Is the university’s primary role that of the shaper of young minds? If I believed those things, I think I’d have to rethink my position on Ann Coulter.

But I don’t think the university’s first obligation is to ideas or students.

I had to go digging around in the attic of the English language to find a word that gets at what I think the university’s first obligation is, but I finally found it, in a box marked “Common Teutonic,” the word Frith.

I think the university’s first obligation is to maintain the frith of the community.

Frith is in the OED, and Oxford defines it as “peace, freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security,” and as a verb, “to keep in peace, make peace with; to secure from disturbance, help, preserve, protect.”

In its Anglo Saxon form–freod–it has to do with peace, friendship, good will and affection. In Old English, the word was “freo,” which means “free.”

It comes from the Indo-European root “pri,” which means to love. In another Germanic form, it is *frijaz–beloved and, interestingly, “belonging to the loved ones.”

As well as free, it’s related to filibuster, afraid, and Friday (from the Germanic compound *frije-dagaz or “day of Frigg,” who is, of course, Odin’s beloved.)

Here we get a sense of the true scope of Egil’s grief. Freedom for him is not an absence of responsibility to anyone but himself. Freedom–his peace, safety, and security–is bound up in his belonging to the people who love him and who he loves. The loss of his son to the sea, leaving no body to put in the family grave, is a personal loss and a loss to everyone in frith with him.

To circle back to the university and maintaining the frith of the university community, I’m not arguing that everyone at the university has to love each other. In fact, I’d argue that it’s precisely because the opposite is true–that you have all different kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds who all aren’t going to get along under normal circumstances–that the university has an obligation to establish and maintain frith.

Under this paradigm, everyone who is a member of the university community–faculty, staff, and students–has a right and an obligation to expect maintained peace and safety and to contribute to that atmosphere.

With the maintenance of frith as the goal, a student has a right and obligation to sit in the classroom and learn what his or her instructor has to teach. An instructor has a right and an obligation to teach his or her students the intended materials. Discussions and even disagreements are to be encouraged, because they further the goal of learning and teaching the materials, but personal attacks, disruptive and disrespectful behavior, and idiocy that wastes the class’s time don’t have to be tolerated, because they break frith.

Staff members have a right and an obligation to insist on respectful behavior from the administration and faculty. And though academia is full of rugged individuals and their oversized egos, for the sake of the university community, these egos are kept in check. And, if they’re not, for the health of the community, the egos are encouraged to be someone else’s problem.

The lively exchange of ideas among members of the university community is exceedingly important to the well-being of the community, but also fraught with danger, because attacks on ideas so quickly become attacks on people. Establishing and maintaining frith allows for disagreements, even raucous ones, because everyone involved has the assurance that everyone is working towards the same goal–right relationship with each other.

True enough that no one in the university as it is right now gives a shit about establishing and maintaining frith. And so it’s probably true that my objection to inviting Ann Coulter to campus is not only antique, it’s beside the point.

But, I think giving her a forum breaks frith. It doesn’t put the health and well-being of the community first, because she doesn’t merely disagree with ideas, she viciously attacks people. It doesn’t encourage thoughtful discussion, because she’s a sloppy thinker. And though I’m sure some campus conservatives feel that her speaking on campus will give voice to their concerns in a way that cannot be ignored, I don’t believe she’s in right-relation with other conservatives, so I have my doubts about whether their concerns are her concerns.

Discussions had in frith, such as the Legal Eagle’s and my longwinded argument, can change people’s minds–in some cases, though not ours–or they can provide a useful tool for helping each person understand the shape and contour of her beliefs. Both are important potential outcomes.

It’s rare, on the other hand, that any good comes from any activity which deliberate breaks frith.


When my dad was growing up, his family had a dachshund named Fifi. Whenever his friend, the other Reverend, would come over, he would pick Fifi up and dance around with her. She would get so excited that she would pee on him. If you bring this up around the other Reverend, even now, he will start laughing so hard it brings tears to his eyes.

Before my parents had children, they had a dachshund named Fred, who died an unfortunate death after eating ant-poisoned roses.

Fresh off that success, my parents had me.

A year later, some folks in my dad’s church got together and gave my parents a little black and tan dachshund named Hans.

For some reason, my mom could not remember “Hans,” and so, for the seventeen years he graced the planet, we called him “Fritz.”

(This brings us to porn names. Supposedly, to generate your perfect porn name, you take your childhood pet’s name as your first name and the street you grew up on as your last name. This makes my porn name Fritz Irving. That’s a Pulitzer-winning playwrite, but not a porn star. Oh well. If I ever leave blogging for play writing, I will go by the pseudonym Fritz Irving.)

Living to be seventeen years old meant that for most of his life, he was old. But even when he was young, he was a laid-back dog. Mostly, he chased tennis balls and slept in the sun.

One Halloween, he was a hot dog. My mom bought a big loaf of crusty bread and cut it down the middle and tied it to him. This went poorly, of course, because he kept turning in circles trying to eat pieces of his bun when my mom wasn’t looking.

One summer, before the Butcher was born, back before we knew of such things as child safety, my parents drove us from Illinois to California in an Oldsmobile. They filled the back seat with necessary crap, put a big sheet of peg board down on top of that, tucked Fritz into the rear window ledge and let the recalcitrant brother and I ride across country on a slick piece of particle board balanced on the back of the front seat and the rear window ledge.

The only justice that would have been derived from the accident in which we were launched out the front window onto the hot asphalt would have been that they would have been decapitated by the peg board, which they neglected to fasten in any way.

Luckily, that did not happen.

But it did set the precedent for where the dog preferred to ride in the car, up there in the back window.

The only time Fritz was ever really excited was when we went to visit my dad’s mom. That dog could have been in a coma, but when we turned onto my grandma’s street, he would somehow know and wake up and start barking and wagging his tail. He loved my grandma, and I don’t think it was just because she slipped him all the scraps of meat he could eat.

When he got very old, he spent all of his time sleeping, nestled in a stinky blanket, in a smelly green chair we designated as his. Eventually, he went blind, which we learned only when he made his way to the middle of the living room, barked to be let out, listened to me open the front door, walked forward enough to be outside (except that he’d misjudged where he was in relationship to the front door), did his business by the couch, turned around, walked back to where he thought the door ought to be, and barked to be let back in.

He didn’t move from that spot, despite coaxing, until he heard the front door open again.

It was shortly after this that my mom and I sat in the kitchen and told each other our favorite stories about the dog and we laughed and laughed and cried and Shug and her cousin showed up and were like, “Oh my god, did Fritz die?” because we were just a wreck, the two of us.

And when we said that he had not, they were really confused.

But I think that was the moment my mom knew it was time to put him down, since we’d already had his funeral.

In our family, my mom is responsible for all the difficult things. She puts the animals down. She catches the wasps and lets them go outside. She climbs the tv antenna to see if she can see my grandpa and grandma’s car (well, obvious, cable put a stop to that). She plants and harvests the garden. She makes the school lunches and teaches the kids to write their names. She reads the stories about Daniel Boone when we’re trying hard not to go to sleep while we’re tucked safely into sleeping bags high up in the Appalachians. She runs out to see the two-headed snake the boys found over at the dump. She welds her RA into her room with a torch she “borrowed” from a construction site. She hunts down my dad when he’s AWOL from the hospital, hiding at Dairy Queen, and brings him back.

She’s the one who always says, “No more pets!”

We never listen.

The Divine Ms. B and Miss J are the daughters of God

Okay, one last church post, because I’m starting to sound like some political exile who spends all her days talking about a place to which she has no intention of returning.

Still, I went there almost every day for 18 years, and I’m still trying to figure out how to come to terms with that and be a happy woman. It’s because of that, or in spite of that, that many of my good friends are people whose parents also served churches in some capacity. My dad is a minister, his best friend and the father of two of my oldest friends is a minister, the Super Genius’s mom is a minister, JR’s mom was the organist at one of my dad’s churches, and the Divine Ms. B and Miss J’s mom was the organist at their church, and the voice of God . . . which I’ll come back to.

First, I want to tell you about JR’s mom and her organ playing. JR’s mom always wore dresses that she made herself and she wore sensible shoes. When she sat down on the bench, she would always slide her feet out of her shoes and slip around on the slick wood seat to face the organ. Probably because we were in church, it reminded me of Moses–take off your shoes; this is holy ground–and like some Old Testament prophet, seeing for sacred what the rest of us saw as ordinary, she would begin to play.

Church organists make two mistakes. The first is that they decide “Skating Rink” is the appropriate sound for an organ in every instance. The second is that they don’t consider the congregation. They get caught up in what they’re doing and plod ahead at that tempo whether the congregation is with them or not. This is especially dangerous with Methodists, because we like the sound of our own voices and will drag out any hymn until the organist is on “the triumphs of his grace” and we’re still on the “O, for” of “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Or worse, the organist will get caught up in the sound of her own playing while we’re caught up in the sound of our own singing and everything slows to almost a stand-still. And believe me, when you have six verses to get through, the molasses approach is not the one you want to take.

But JR’s mother always played beautifully and she understood that the role of the organist is not to compete with the congregation and the minister for control of the song, but to shepherd them into a reasonable tempo and get them through the song some time before lunch. Those two qualities, beauty and understanding, made her a tremendous organist.

My dad, in an effort to humiliate me to death, would make me sing once a year. I hated it, even though I love to sing, because I’m not very good at it and I don’t enjoy proving that to myself on a yearly basis. JR’s mom, thankfully, would always accompany me. I loved it precisely because of the beauty and understanding part of her talent.

It didn’t matter what Amy Grant song I was slaughtering that year, she’s make it sound amazing. So, in effect, it wasn’t like I was singing, I was just singing along to some beautiful music. And, if I got lost or scared or off-tempo, or came in too late or too early or whatever, she always added some extra notes or left some out or some how made her beautiful thing fit whatever flailing mistakes I was making.

Miss J and Ms. B have a confidence singing before crowds that I lack, and I’m a little envious of it. Miss J is the kind of person who gets standing ovations at kareoke night with her rendition of “Walking After Midnight.” Ms. B. gets up on stage and it doesn’t matter if she’s standing way in the back, playing a rock who only comes in on the chorus of one song in the dullest part of a musical, you can’t take your eyes off her. Even as a still rock, she’s dynamic.

When they sing while their mom plays, it’s incredible.

They went to this conservative Lutheran church and their minister spent a lot of time worrying about whether women understood their proper place. Their mom’s “proper” place was tucked away out of sight in the choir loft at the organ.

This made for the funniest and coolest part of going to church with them. Every service, in the middle of this religio-patriarchal fun-fest, there came a point when a disembodied female voice would drift down from the rafters listing the names of people who ought to be in the congregation’s prayers.

With no visual cue as to who was speaking, and the gentle but insistent tone the voice took, it really seemed to carry with it a divine authority–for a few brief seconds every Sunday their mom is the voice of God.

The Time We Went to Visit Robert Johnson

It was just this time of year when the Butcher and I went in search of Robert Johnson’s graves. Armed only with the University of Mississippi’s awesome book, Blues Traveling (you know–if you buy it, try to buy it from them), and an outdated atlas provided to some ancestor by State Farm, we headed off to rural Mississippi.

The Delta is a lot like rural Illinois, especially in late February, early March. Filled with small towns with a John Deere dealership at one end and an International Harvester dealership at the other end, and, between the towns, flat, black fields in which stalks not quite turned to dust yet occasionally make their last stand against time. As a Midwesterner, you can go there for the first time and almost drive it blindfolded.

The main difference, through, between the Delta and Illinois, aside from the racial make-up of the place is that in Mississippi, you can get lost and end up in places you read about in history books or hear about in songs. We ended up in Money, on accident, and both found that it affected us more than we thought–that Emmett Till would end up dead in so ordinary a place seemed almost unbearable.

And driving through Itta Beana down towards two of Johnson’s three potential resting places was a similar kind of striking. Here were towns we almost knew, with an empty school at one end and a highway at the other and dogs laying in the road, unmoved by your horn and your hurry. You could almost say for certain, without looking, that somewhere there was a young man working on a car while a girl who liked him watched and someplace else someone was baking and getting ready for the week. In at least one house, kids were piled in front of the TV playing Grand Theft Auto and in some other house, a man is waiting for his wife to get back from the grocery store.

And yet, this is also the place that gave us just about every famous blues musician you can think of and there is no place in Illinois where every small town can boast at least one person important to our culture.

The first two of Johnson’s graves are very near each other. One is behind a church on the right side of the road and the other is in front of a church on the other side of the road. The grave on the right side of the road is marked by a small flat stone on which people have left coins and guitar picks and, in one case, a chip from one of the Tunica casinos.

It was at that cemetery that the Butcher and I saw something strange. It had been raining so long in the Delta that the ground was saturated. Even though it wasn’t raining the day we were there, there were still puddles everywhere and the ground was muddy enough that you would sink into the low spots. It had rained so much that the coffins in the ground had become buoyant and were causing the ground over them to rise up. It reminded me of loaves of bread, rows of similar sized humps in front of almost all of the grave markers.

Except one.

Now, it could be that there’s nothing left of Johnson, and that’s why his grave seemed to be sinking in, instead of rising up, but, since every other grave stone had a bump, it seemed unlikely. Still, we scooped up some grave dirt and left a few coins.

The other marked grave is an obelisk at the front of another church yard cemetery. Again, the other graves were rising up, but nothing by this marker. As a little girl swung back and forth on the church door, we took pictures and took some dirt and left a few more coins.

The third spot that is considered a potential burial spot is out north of Greenwood–an unmarked grave in another church yard. When we first drove by, they were finishing up a funeral, so we kept driving and ended up in the aforementioned Money. We turned around, came back to Greenwood, got gas and took the dog out for a walk along the river. When we went back again, folks were gone and the only people left were the two guys with the backhoe. We pulled in.

Since there’s no marker, there’s not as much to look at, but the Butcher and I counted at least twelve rises in the ground that weren’t marked by stones, so it seemed to us a more likely place for someone to be buried and then lost. We took some more dirt, and left some more coins and headed home.

Now, up on my bedroom bookcase is a small glass jelly jar full of graveyard dirt that probably doesn’t contain anything of Robert Johnson. And it’s probably a weird souvenir of a strange day. Under circumstances I can’t quite recall, I promised the Legal Eagle’s brother I’d give him some. I never did.

It seemed like a generous thing to offer before we went, but once we got back, it didn’t seem right anymore.

Ann Coulter Ruins it for Everyone

I see that one of the universities in town is hosting a lecture by Hate Filled Barbie–Ann Coulter. On MSNBC this morning they mentioned that a white supremacist group has purchased an anti-illegal immigrant billboard in Las Vegas, which the courts have ordered must stay up. And, of course, Matt Hale is back in the news as authorities try to figure out if he is responsible for the murder of his judge’s husband and mother.

I know that Ann has the right to say whatever she wants to say, but it really pisses me off that she is coming to town and being heard on campus, as if she’s just another mainstream voice that, though different than mine, equally deserves a public forum. Would they have brought Hale to campus? Are they going to find a Kleagle of the Klan and ask him to come so that our community can be exposed to his point of view?

What makes Coulter any different?

Sometimes, on my much more generous days, I feel bad for Ann, just a little, because I think that she really believes that SHE’s important, that, when she’s on TV with all these other talking heads, she’s their peer.

But the only reason she’s useful is because she’s not. Because she’s a woman, she can spout all this hateful crap, and precisely because she’s perceived as not being someone we have to take seriously, she even gets invited to college campuses.

It’s like this: If Matt Hale said something on his website insinuating that we did Native Americans a favor by killing them all off quickly because they were just savages who were killing each other off slowly, it’d be rightly perceived as some kind of hate speech. It wouldn’t be that he was saying, “My followers, go forth and kill Native Americans,” but it’d be obvious that he was continuing a kind of rhetoric that helps create an atmosphere in which idiots feel that other groups of people are their expendable enemies.

And, it seems, he has the right to say whatever he wants about whoever he wants, as long as he’s not directly inciting folks to violence.

But we all have the right, as a society, to treat him like a dangerous nutcase and not invite him or his ideas into our homes and communities.

But Ann says those things and she’s still invited to college campuses. And why?

Because no one thinks Ann has a following of violent idiots who are waiting to do her bidding. The thought of Ann having people willing to kill for her is funny, even to me.

And it’s precisely because we recognize that she doesn’t have the power to back up her speech, that she’s useful in spreading these ideas. Where we’d protect ourselves from people–men–we perceived as being dangerous ideologues, we really don’t perceive any threat from Ann.

It’s like, no matter what she does or says, because of her gender, she’s forever in the minor leagues of hateful craziness. She’s a “safe” alternative to Hale or the Klan or the Neo-Nazis. We can give her a public forum and people who agree with her can show up and have their own beliefs confirmed while feeling safe that she’s not really in the same league as Hale and the rest of them, so they (the people who agree with her) aren’t really racist; and people who disagree with her can show up and denounce her without really risking anything.

Standing up to Hale–even without realizing you are doing so, Birdsong, rest your soul–gets you dead. Standing up to Coulter gets you a warm feeling of self-righteousness.

But she’s still spouting evil shit. And, in that regard, she’s still poisoning the well. So, she’s useful. She’s not “really dangerous,” so she’s a useful means for getting these ideas out into the general population or reinforcing them once they’re out there.

And then there’s the other useful purpose Ann has: to reinforce–across the whole culture, left and right–the unspoken assumption that women are a little crazy and that society doesn’t really have to take us seriously.

Why else, of all the women, liberal and conservative, that one might bring on one’s show and to one’s campus or to one’s banquet, is Ann the one that keeps popping up?

I mean, here, we’re giving Ann Coulter equal billing with Al Sharpton and Howard Dean, as if Ann is the best and most comparable female speaker to this minister and this politician.

You see what I’m saying? It’s like the university looked at Sharpton and Dean–and say what you want about them, they’re both dynamic speakers–and then was like, “Well, we don’t want to be accused of being unbalanced. Can we get a woman and a conservative to round out the bill? What about a woman conservative?” and the best they think women can do is what Ann Coulter can do.

She is the public perception of the best political thinking conservative women can do.


She’s so perfect in many ways, that if she didn’t exist, you’d think the far right would have invented her–she’s so useful, both to get these ideas talked about in the mainstream, as if they’re a healthy part of political discourse, and to reinforce the idea that women aren’t quite ready to fully participate in political discourse because they’re crazy.


I was thinking this morning about church. It’s that time of year, where I especially miss it. I love knowing that you’re going to sing “Up from the Grave He Arose” on Easter morning no matter what and that everyone is going to be in their best clothes and all the little kids will be in ridiculous hats and new shoes.

One year, my dad had the congregation sing “Joy to the World” on Easter Sunday, which was really amazing, I thought. Obviously, though, someone bitched about it, because he hasn’t done it since. That’s too bad.

There’s a lot of pettiness in congregations. My favorite little funny saying about it is “If the Church is the Body of Christ, that means there’s an asshole in every congregation.” I don’t miss that.

But there’s also some stuff that goes on in the church that I really miss. I miss the quietness of the sanctuary during the week, so still and cool. I miss the ritual. I appreciate that every funeral starts out exactly the same and that you can just recite right along with everything without having to think about it. Funerals are sad, but they’re a respite from the grief. You actually get to move through something familiar that starts and finishes at a time when you don’t feel like you can get through another thing.

But I really miss the church kitchen. Every church my dad ever served had a kitchen which seemed to be the real soul of the building. People snuck in there to gossip, they stuck candles in surprise birthday cakes, they served treats to small children, they washed dishes and cooked chili and laughed and started water balloon fights.

I was thinking of one of the women in my dad’s church when I was in high school. Once, when we were in the church kitchen, she started telling me about her son, who had died in Viet Nam. She told me about answering the door and seeing a man in a uniform and then watching her coffee arc out over the lawn and him ducking the mug and how she remembered hearing screaming, but not realizing it was herself.

She guessed they must have told her that her son was dead, but she didn’t remember it, just the coffee and the screaming and the feeling like everything around her, including her body, was moving forward, but she was stuck in that moment right before she knew for sure.

And then, it was like she skipped forward, caught up with herself sometime after that.

When she was telling me this, there were plenty of other people in the kitchen. No one bothered us, but they all kept an eye on the situation. I thought that was very generous of them, to listen and to not butt in.

I told the Shill once, and I still believe it, that there are a lot of people who really want someone to listen to them, to really listen.

I feel lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to hear people’s stories. As much as I love to read and write, there’s a lot of stories out there that never get written down. But people have them and they hold those stories dear and they still do try to pass them along to people they think will pass them along.

That’s really amazing, when you think about it, this oh so human desire we have to share our experiences with each other and to have our concrete experiences turned into something aesthetic.

The Professor has this friend with a tattoo that delights me–Hammer of the Gods–written in runes on his back. His only tattoo and he’s used the opportunity to turn his shoulder into a page. Well, all our bodies tell a certain kind of story about who we are–but I love that he’s made that more explicit. It’s funny, too, because he’s the kind of person who storms around the kitchen lambasting lit crit for not understanding that history is history and not narrative (obviously, I think he’s utterly misguided) and that any narrative that might occur in a history book is just the historian’s attempt to emplotten things.

Yes, emplotten.

And yet, his tattoo would indicate an deep concern with the artful functions of words.

Well, thinking all about church obviously has me thinking about death. It’s one of the drawbacks to a Christian upbringing–you spend a lot of time worrying about death and what comes after–and, since leaving that life, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn to live in the world and love it.

But this makes me laugh, a little, that, since I’m not married, it’ll fall to my Christian family to do away with my old, phlegmy corpse (I hope! Let my corpse be that of an old, phlegm-filled, gray-haired lady!) and they’ll haul me right up the front of the church and let some Methodist minister say words over me.

Because, it doesn’t matter what I believe (obviously, it matters to me); it’s inconceivable to my family that it would have any effect on the “right” thing to do.

It’s making me think that the Professor’s friend has the right idea. If you can’t control your narrative, at least leave some textual evidence for a likely alternate reading.

My Psychic Powers Grow Stronger By the Day

I am taking my car in for repair this afternoon. This is, of course, very traumatic for me because so much of my sense of well-being is wrapped up in the well-being of my car. But, as you may recall in my previous post, when I said “whenever something goes wrong with my car, I call up the Man from GM and tell him what’s going on and he always says, ‘Oh, that’s the bershabkicarls valve [or some other thing I don’t know],'” I apparently, inadvertently, predicted that my car’s something or other valve would indeed go out.

And so it has. This is very scary because it means that my car doesn’t immediately shift into drive from reverse. Instead, the engine revs and I roll backwards, or forwards, depending on the incline I’m on and which way I’m facing.

But, it’s still under warranty and so everything will be fine in that regard.

Still, I’m thinking that I ought to open a little fortune telling business on the side.

Damn You, Shooter Jennings! Why don’t you think of the Delicate Sensibilities of the Nashville Scene?

I ought to just stop reading the Nashville Scene, but I’m already boycotting The Tennessean due to the continued employment of Brad About You (if you don’t know, don’t ask. Trust me. You’re better off in ignorance.) and I need to keep abreast of at least some local going’s on.

So, every week, I dutifully pick it up and check it out and wonder, “What the fuck are they doing over there?” I thought an alternative weekly had to have some “alternative,” either an alternative vision of what the city might be or what the daily newspaper might do or what culture might be cool. Whatever it is an alternative to, it ought to have some coherent vision of what world it’d like to mold into existence.

Bless its heart, the Scene has no coherent vision.

And so, even though it’s supposed to be the “cool” paper in town, Michael McCall devotes considerable space in his review of Shooter Jennings’s debut album apparently to being shocked and feeling a bit faint (with considerable face fanning, I’m sure) that the title of the album “Put the O Back in Country” is a little jokey play on the noise the word country makes before it gets to the “ree.”

McCall explains, for those readers too stupid to figure it out for themselves but too delicate to actually see all the letters c-u-n-t together in one place:

Jennings realizes that the title might not be clear to everyone, or that they might mistake his use of the “O” as meaning that he wants to put the Outlaw back in country. So he uses the back of his CD cover to make himself understood. His torso is photographed in a T with the title emblazoned on it, only it says “Put the O Back in C untry.” The c-word, which can shock even those unfazed by most profanity, is meant to suggest that Nashville’s best-known musical product has become wimpy and limp.

It’s hard to know where to start with this. Are there really people who are too stupid to get the cunt joke but sophisticated enough to come up with a reading in which the O stands for Outlaw? I don’t buy it.

Also, can we declare a moratorium on the *-word formation? Here, Nashville Scene, let me help. If there’s a word that you don’t want to use because people find the term offensive or degrading, don’t be coy and condescending with the whole *-word, just say “an offensive term for women’s genitalia” or “a racial slur” or whatever. See how that works? We get the idea without being treated as if we’re morons who have to have everything spelled out for us.

But is “cunt” really that shocking a word? Maybe I’m getting jaded in my old age, but I prefer cunt to other words for my genitalia. At least people know what it is. Yeah, it’d be weird to run around being like “I’m bleeding out my cunt, can I borrow a tampon?” but it’s a vast improvement over the “I’m having a little woo-woo in my hoo-ha” crap that I encounter when grown-ass women try to talk about their own selves.

Frankly, I don’t have a hoo-ha and I don’t know what a little woo-woo in such a place might be, so I don’t know how to help you rectify it. I mean, if something were happening to me that made me go woo-woo and hoo-ha, I wouldn’t be complaining.


I crack myself up.


Back to the sub-point: Women of America, it’s just a part of your body. Go ahead and call it by a name that doesn’t require others of us to have to guess or point in order to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

And now, on to my last point: “The c-word, which can shock even those unfazed by most profanity, is meant to suggest that Nashville’s best-known musical product has become wimpy and limp.”

Maybe it’s not just the women of America who have a problem with basic biology. Girlie and impotent are not the same state of being. Jennings is using the word-play to suggest that country music has gotten too girlie. But McCall links the word “cunt” to “wimpy and limp.”


Often, when you’re reading a record review, you feel like you’re learning more about the reviewer than you are about the record. This may be one such case.

Dear God! Has Jack Daniel’s Lied to Me?

When you take the tour of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, the tour guide makes a big deal about how federal law dictates that only they can call themselves (well, they and George Dickel, I’d guess) Tennessee Whiskey (with an e).

When you read the cute little book on Mint Juleps you acquire while in Kentucky, it makes a similar claim about what kinds of fermented liquors are allowed to call themselves bourbon: that there’s a federal statute.

So, I thought it’d be funny to read the statute responsible for directing distillers about the correct terms for their products (well, funny interesting, not funny haha) and so, during lunch, off I go through the U.S. Code.

But, I can’t find it. So, dear friends with law degrees–Legal Eagle, Super Genius, etc.–or bootleggers and moonshiners, can you point me in the right direction?


Rita Ann Higgins, Loretta Lynn, and a brief commercial for a press I love

Rita Ann Higgins is this okay Irish poet who I love. I’m sure she drives people who really read poetry crazy, but since my requirements for a good poem is that it must both put something in a way I never could and to make me think that there’s no other way to put it that would still get at the truth of it, my standards for good poetry are not so strict. My absolute favorite poet is Uncle Walt (yes, even the famous dead get pseudonyms here at Tiny Cat Pants) and I could live my whole life with “Song of Myself” as the only poem I had to read and not feel like I was missing that much.

Higgins has two poems that I keep coming back to. One I don’t realize I have memorized until I’m sitting at a meeting and some young rich priviledged “do-gooder” is talking about how he took a year off of school to find himself and just bounced around from family home to family home all over the world and I’m thinking about how, just once, I wish someone had said to the recalcitrant brother or the Butcher, “Here’s more money than you can spend. Here’s a passport. Here’s the world. Be back in a year.” I wonder what that could have meant for them at 22.

It’s like when someone came to me and said, “your brothers do drugs. What rehab facilities do you recommend?” and I was like, “Rehab facilities. We don’t go to rehab facilities. We go to jail.” What the fuck? Rehab. Please. Obviously, I just work here.

And so it’s times like this that I find myself thinking of her poem, “Some People” in which she just list the things that some people know about: like hiding from the bill collectors and worrying about where dinner is coming from and sitting in welfare lines and on and on until the whole poem makes you want to key a Jaguar and then it ends, “And some people don’t.”

I say that to myself a lot, “And some people don’t.” It doesn’t mean that they aren’t good people; they just don’t know what it’s like to wake up one morning to the sound of the police knocking on your front door with a warrant and excited dogs. Their problems never involve the justice system in the same ways ours do.

Anyway, she also has this other poem, “The Have-You-Come-Yets of the Western World” which reminds me of my hope for Loretta Lynn. I hope Loretta Lynn is fucking Jack White right now.

I don’t know that they are. Living in Nashville, we never hear any of the good gossip. It’s all about how so and so is gay and, believe me, according to the rumors, everyone in country music is gay. It’s like a big Roman orgy out to Tim and Faith’s house or Kenny’s house or Dolly’s or Keith Urban’s or whatever. The only person who’s not secretly gay, apparently, is Toby Keith and I’m convinced he pines for all of the Dixie Chicks.

But Loretta Lynn. I like to imagine her out there to Hurricane Mills getting up right about now and slipping on her house coat and her slippers and working a little crick out of her hip and looking back over her shoulder at Jack White sprawled across Mooney’s side of the bed and I hope she thinks “He’s not Conway, but he’ll do.” and I hope she smiles and goes down to make some coffee and sit on the porch and watch the tourists wandering over the bridge and back waiting for the morning tours to start.

And I hope that after a while, Jack wakes up and stares at the ceiling and thinks about the ghost stories about the house and wonders how to ask Ms. Lynn about what happened last night.

As Higgins puts it:

In time one will crawl
out from under thigh-land.
Although drowning he will say,

‘Woman I am terrified, why is this house

And you’ll know he’s the one.

Anyway, if you all are looking for something to get you in the mood for St. Patrick’s day, I highly recommend The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry, 1967-2000. It’s one of my favorite books of poetry and both Higgins poems are in there, as well as some of Moya Cannon’s stuff, who is a fantastic poet.

Wake is an awesome press. They only publish Irish poetry and they provide a real service to the literary community by allowing an American outlet for these voices. If you have $20, and you want to buy the book, order it directly from them if you can.

However, feel no shame about buying this from Amazon.com. Amazon.com rules. Well, maybe not for the workers who hate their lives, but for tiny presses who can’t afford the big displays in the chain bookstores, and for the people in small towns who couldn’t get to those big chains, even if they wanted to, Amazon.com brings them an aesthetic life. There’s no shame in supporting that.

Led Zeppelin, revisited

This weekend I was wandering around this cute little shop and I look up and there, painted on the wall, is “Whole Lotta Love.” This caused me to turn to the man I was having coffee with and ask him the question I’ve been asking everyone all week, which is, other than Krupa, Bonham, and that guy from Sepultura, are there any other drummers you recognize by sound alone?

He says to me, “When my wife asked me to turn down the CD player this morning, I said, ‘Oh, that’s right, women don’t listen to Led Zeppelin.'”

Well, I guess that’s true. Other than me, I don’t know any women who listen to Led Zeppelin.

Let’s come back to this.

On my way home from Kentucky, I heard Dean Martin do a version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s got you.” About halfway through the song, I realized I was smiling, and not just that ‘oh, how nice to hear Dean again’ smile, but the ‘I’m way too drunk and way too close to you’ smile. And I thought about it, and I reckon I probably have that smile on my face any time I hear Dean Martin.

Other people like Frank Sinatra, and fair enough, I like him just fine, but of the two of them, I prefer Dean.

Also, on the way home, I was listening to Muddy Waters and he has this line in one of his songs where he’s talking about what it is about women that drives men crazy and he says “Must be the same thing that makes a preacher lay his Bible down.” That, my friends, is an awesome line. That says something about lust, right there, about how it makes a man turn his back on his whole life, sometimes.

And the Muddy Waters album I have has that great song “You Shook Me,” which is one of the blues songs Led Zeppelin helped themselves to, and that got me thinking that maybe a more interesting question to have been asking all week would have been, other than Dean and McKinley and Robert, are there other men that sing like they know having sex with you is inevitable?

Which brings me back to my real question, which is, why do straight men listen to Led Zeppelin? Or Muddy Waters? Or Dean Martin?

I mean, I know why I listen. I listen because I find men who sound like they know what they’re doing and yet can’t help but want to do it with you (and not just you, but every woman they can) immensely pleasurable in small doses. It might be annoying in real life to hang out frequently with someone that self-assured and insatiable, because, at the same time you’d be the most important thing he was doing right then, every woman would also potentially be the most important thing. The jealousy would do me in.

But to take a few minutes, in the car or in the shower or wherever you have an obliging CD player, and indulge in that feeling. . . well, of course, that’s a good way to pass the time.

But to me, listening to those guys feels so intimate and so sexually charged that it’s hard for me to understand why straight guys listen. I mean, those guys are hitting on your women! Even out of the grave, they are seducing all of the women within earshot. And we’d go home with them, if we could.

So, how is that pleasurable for you?

I have a suspicion, though it’s one based only on observation, since, obviously, I’m not a man.

I think that, as shitty a job as we do as a society helping women navigate our desires, we do just as shitty a job helping you navigate yours. For better or for worse, at least we have two well-established stories about our desires–virgin or whore–and it’s easy enough to figure out which one you are.

But what do you guys have? Right now, it seems like all the Butcher’s friends either imagine themselves as pimps or players or they imagine themselves still at the high school dance standing along the gym wall under the crepe paper and basketball hoops watching the dancing and pretending not to want to be out there too.

The trouble with pimps and players is that it’s a position inevitably hostile to women, in which one’s activities become more about what other men think of you than what the women you’re with think. The trouble with watching from the sidelines is that we women aren’t ever sure if you are standing over there because you’re bored and want to go home or if you’re just dying for someone to ask you to dance.

But these three–Martin, Morganfield, and Plant–map another kind of desire: one in which being a Man is all wrapped up in loving women, all kinds of women. It doesn’t concern itself at all with what other men think (no one believes that the menfolk standin’ in line have come to pray to the Lord when his little girl looks so fine, but we get why he has to believe that). It is just about feeling good and feeling good about the woman that you’re with.

It says a lot about our sorry state of affairs that songs by men who love women feel so strange and wondrous.