More Arkansas Failure

You may remember my last blog post documenting the chaos ongoing at the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (DWS) and its utter failure to accommodate claims by self-employed workers for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Earlier this morning, I was on hold for over a half hour at which point the line went dead, a continuation of what is assuredly an endlessly futile effort to speak with a human at the state’s DWS offices on behalf of Bill, my neighbor who is owed, according to DWS policies, for claims going back to November 2020.

Bill and I learned back in January that no further PUA claims would be accepted until they had verified his identity. Nothing in their materials explained how to verify his identity but rather stated that he would be notified by mail or email as to the procedure.

A month later on Saturday February 13, Bill told me that he had received a letter from DWS demanding that he verify his ID within 7 days of the date on the letter. The letter was dated February 6. 7 + 6 = 13

On Monday, Feb. 15, Bill managed to wait on hold long enough to speak with someone at DWS on a phone number given to him by a friend, NOT the phone numbers listed for DWS. The man who answered the call took Bill’s information, verified him, and gave him a password so that he (I) could access his PUA account at arunemployment.com. It did not work.

Here’s the Feb. 15 follow-up email I wrote for Bill to the info email address for DWS

Regarding your recommendation via telephone on Feb 15, 2021, I am attaching photo of myself with ID card plus photo of ID card front and back. You gave me a temporary password of –xxx– but I can’t access the PUA claim page at www.pua.arkansas.gov/home. It won’t open. Is there a different web address I should use?

Please note that this email and all my access to the internet is through my neighbor, Denele Campbell, and her computer. She sent a letter this morning to your info email ADWS.Info@arkansas.gov The letter states:

 “Your letter dated Feb 6 to –xxx– was received Feb 13 by Mr. –xxx–. The letter requires him to present his state-issued ID at the local workforce center within 7 days of the date on the letter. 

“THAT IS NOT POSSIBLE. Not only did he not receive the letter within 7 days, our roads are impassable and will be impassable at least another 7 days.

Ms. Campbell has been the person filing Mr. –xxx–‘s PUA claims because HE DOESN’T HAVE A COMPUTER OR INTERNET. HIS PHONE DOESN’T HAVE DATA — when he can afford to have the phone working. He is desperately in need of money because he’s a self-employed construction worker and COVID has kept him away from most jobs for the last year.” 

You may respond to me through Ms. Campbell’s email or on my phone at —.

No big surprise that the email did not result in a response until Feb. 22, at which point the following email came through.

Good Morning,

Please contact the hotline number 1-844-908-2178. They are open from 6am to 4pm Monday through Saturday. Please use the following emails below if you cannot reach anyone by phone.

PUA.documents@arkansas.gov

ADWS.PUAHelp@arkansas.gov

Dear Reader, you may remember that telephone number. It is the unemployment hotline. For over three weeks, I’ve been dialing that number and waiting on hold for hours at a time, to no avail. Try it yourself for a fun time! Be sure to press #2 and #2 on the menu for PUA assistance.

Finally, last Friday the 19th after the roads were semi-passable, Bill drove to the Fayetteville DWS office and waited along with a very long line of other people standing outside in the freezing temps. He got there early enough to be #7 in line and soon sat face to face with a human who typed some info into his computer and told Bill he was now verified.

There is no accounting for the previous verification email we sent to DWS. Obviously whoever receives emails is so far behind they did not register the verification we sent within the five days that passed before he appeared in person at the local DWS office to – again – verify.

Now that he’s verified both by email and his in-person verification, I returned to the PUA webpage at DWS. The page won’t open.

Here’s today’s email to DWS:

I am the neighbor of PUA claimant –XXX–. Last year I filed his weekly claims. As of mid-January 2021, I could no longer access his account. Information from the DWS website informed us that until his identity was verified, he (I) would not be able to access the account. Those instructions said he would receive an email or letter telling him how to verify.

A month later on Feb. 13, he received a letter stating that he had seven days from the data on the letter to verify in person at the local DWS office. The letter was dated Feb 6. We were under eight inches of snow with subzero temperatures at the time. So I emailed photos of his state-issued ID front and back plus a photo of him holding the ID beside his face. No response.

On Feb. 19, Mr. X stood in a line at the Fay’vl DWS office until they had an opening at which point a DWS worker took his ID and information and told him he was now verified. Apparently the Feb 15 email identification information had not been processed into the system as of five days after it was sent.

Upon the Feb 19 verification, the DWS employee stated that he could now access his PUA account at the DWS unemployment site.

WRONG. The website will not open. I AM THE ONE WHO HAS TO FILE HIS CLAIMS. HE DOES NOT HAVE A COMPUTER.

What is the problem? I can’t spend even more hours on hold waiting for a real person to answer the phone. The Fay’vl DWS office says they don’t handle anything to do with PUA except to verify IDs. 

Why is it beyond the capacity of the State of Arkansas to gear up for this ridiculous situation by adding more hotline numbers and more personnel to handle what is obviously a large number of people who need help????????

Can somebody please HELP me gain website access for Mr. –xxx—so that he can file his PUA claims?

It’s difficult to imagine how incompetent (also, how understaffed) DWS must be for these kinds of dead ends to continue. The process runs in perpetual loops. It’s not that expensive to add more hotline numbers, but I suspect the problem is that even with only one hotline number, there isn’t enough staff to handle the call volume.

Same holds true for responses to emails from people who need help. There is NO EXCUSE for this level of dysfunction at a state agency charged with providing a lifeline to people who can’t work. Bill picked up a short-term construction job two weeks ago – working on a roof in freezing temperatures – before the snowpocalypse kept him at home for a week.

By the way, I’m now on hold again. For the last half hour. Bill’s phone has been shut off and he’s living on money from pawning tools. Tools that he uses to earn income.

More Than Meets the Ear

The tune is catchy and the lyrics intriguing. That was my first impression. The clip ended fairly quickly and I played it again. And again. Now I can’t get it out of my head.

Here’s the clip: https://www.reddit.com/r/JustGuysBeingDudes/comments/kzocvf/just_a_sing_along_with_the_boys/

The tune is entitled “Soon May the Wellerman Come” and is labeled a sea shanty in most media. Over the last few months, it’s become a hot item, spreading virally through several online platforms. There’s even a piece about it on Wikipedia where its origins are discussed:

“The song’s lyrics describe a whaling ship called the “Billy o’ Tea” and its hunt for a right whale. The song describes how the ship’s crew hope for a “wellerman” (an employee of the Weller brothers, who owned ships that brought provisions to New Zealand whalers) to arrive and bring them supplies of luxuries, with the chorus stating “soon may the wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum.” According to the song’s listing on the website New Zealand Folk Song, “the workers at these bay-whaling stations (shore whalers) were not paid wages, they were paid in slops (ready-made clothing), spirits and tobacco.” In the whaling industry in 19th-century New Zealand, the Weller brothers owned ships that would sell provisions to whaling boats. The chorus continues with the crew singing of their hope that “one day when the tonguin’ is done we’ll take our leave and go.” “Tonguing” in this context refers to the practice of cutting strips of whale blubber to render into oil. Subsequent verses detail the captain’s determination to bring in the whale in question, even as time passes and multiple whaling boats are lost in the struggle. In the last verse, the narrator describes how the Billy o’ Tea is still locked in an ongoing struggle with the whale, with the wellerman making a “regular call” to encourage the captain and crew.[1]

An Engraving of Cramped Quarters and Leisure on a Whaling Ship circa 1850. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Whaling was one of the most dangerous pursuits among fishermen. Crews of hardy sailors endured extended sea voyages through storms and high seas before ever sighting their prey. They ventured out on wooden boats to make the kill, harpooning enormous whales that didn’t give up without  a fight. Once the whale succumbed to its injuries, the next task was to haul it to land where the sailors dissected the massive marine mammals mostly to render their blubber into whale oil which, at the time, served as an important fuel for oil lamps.

“In the days before the discovery of petroleum, whale oil supplied the fuel for the lamps that illuminated the nights in American homes. In addition, the whale was the source of a boney substance called baleen used in women’s corsets, hairbrushes, buggy whips, collar stays and various other products.”[2]

The practice of whaling nearly destroyed several species of whales including the one mentioned in the song, the ‘right’ whale.[3] Prior to whaling in the southern seas, whalers had nearly exterminated northern varieties that existed closer to places the British, American, and other whaling ships called home. Wives were left to fend for themselves for months on end while their husbands rode the high seas in search of nature’s bounty, and the men themselves spent long hours on deck, tending to the business of sailing a ship while watching the waters for signs of whales.

The songs men created in those circumstances reflected the nature of their lives. The lyrics of Wellerman revealed those circumstances – waiting for ‘sugar, tea, and rum’ when suddenly a right whale is spotted.

There once was a ship that put to sea
And the name of that ship was the Billy o’ Tea
The winds blew hard, her bow dipped down
Blow, me bully boys, blow (huh)

Chorus

Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguing’ is done
We’ll take our leave and go

She had not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore
The captain called all hands and swore
He’d take that whale in tow (huh)

Chorus

Before the boat had hit the water
The whale’s tail came up and caught her
All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
When she dived down below (huh)

Chorus

Men tossed overboard by a whale while hunting, engraving from L’album, giornale letterario e di belle arti, Saturday, August 22, 1835, Year 2.

No line was cut, no whale was freed
An’ the captain’s mind was not on greed
But he belonged to the Whaleman’s creed
She took that ship in tow (huh)

Chorus

For forty days or even more (ooh)
The line went slack then tight once more
All boats were lost, there were only four
And still that whale did go

Chorus

As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on
The line’s not cut, and the whale’s not gone
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the captain, crew and all

Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguing’ is done
We’ll take our leave and go

Since its apparent origin circa 1850-1860, the Wellerman song has enjoyed multiple reincarnations not only as a sea shanty but also as a folk ballad. Its most recent popularity began with an a capella version recorded in 2018 by The Longest Johns, a British group. The recording went viral on TikTok in 2020.[4]

In late January 2021, a version by Scottish musician Nathan Evans brought in a multitude of contributors lending their voices to the mix, which is the version I heard first. I like it. I think I mentioned that.

But why? A lifetime of exposure to and participation in music has not prepared me for how this piece resonates with me. It’s emotional. It haunts me. And I detest the wasteful cruel practice of slaughtering whales which continues today in some parts of the world.

As I pondered the unexpected appeal of the song, I considered its various elements. The rhythm is fast paced and evocative of songs so typical of human endeavors where the song’s beat matches the movement of the labor. You know, like marching to war.

Then I considered the melody and harmonies, rich with folk ballad nuances meant to evoke tender feelings and, conversely, a reflection of those feelings. I even considered the minor intervals involved here and there and how these particular harmonics speak of sadness and darkness. There is an underlying fatalism in the song, that we do what we must despite the risks.

One explanation for the popularity makes the connection to the current pandemic, such as an article in The Guardian which concludes:

“My guess is that the Covid lockdowns have put millions of young [people] into a similar situation that young whalers were in 200 years ago: confined for the foreseeable future, often far from home, running out of necessities, always in risk of sudden death, and spending long hours with no communal activities to cheer them up.”[5]

I agree that must be a factor, but I’m not young. Surely that’s not all there is behind this phenomenon.

Then it slowly dawned on me. Like so many works of art, the song speaks to something greater than its apparent subject. A metaphor if you will, akin to the appeal of Moby Dick.

The Wellerman is a cautionary tale, a philosophical statement on the human condition, that we prepare ourselves to succeed at the pursuit we believe most likely to provide what we need to live. As we labor in pursuit of our prize, we seek relief in “sugar and tea and rum.” Finally we spot it. Harpoon it. Make it ours.

But instead of taking the prize, we belatedly realize it owns us, drags us interminably across vast seas, the days and years of our lives.

Underneath our conscious minds, we understand the song’s message. Its meaning addresses our heart, informs our quest for the meaning of life. There’s a resignation here, that we will go out again and again, risking everything, in the hope of seizing the prize that will make it all worthwhile. In the end, it is our lives we have paid.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soon_May_the_Wellerman_Come

[2] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/whaling.htm

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_right_whale

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KO7cofMJH0

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/15/shantytok-how-a-19th-century-seafaring-epic-inspired-a-covid-generation

COVID Relief — Fail

The first absurd assumption is that people who need income assistance during COVID have computers or access to the internet. They might have had smart phones at one point, but not now when they don’t have food.

I can only hope that other states are more skilled in dispensing unemployment assistance than Arkansas. The Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (DWS) has lots of problems, in particular with COVID unemployment money meant for people who are (were) self-employed.

Traditionally, unemployment benefits have never applied to the self-employed. State law requires employers to buy unemployment compensation policies for their employees. No law requires such backup for those who work for themselves.

I got into this issue because I’m helping a neighbor, a 58-year-old man [I’ll call him Bill] skilled in building trades, specifically carpentry, drywall finishing, and painting. Bill owns no property, has no savings, and possesses a few tools of his trade plus a 2001 Dodge Dakota that’s one wheeze away from vehicular death. He lives hand to mouth. He can do just about anything, his livelihood forged over decades of getting by any way he could.

By June 2020 when the CARES Act passed Congress, he told me he didn’t know how to get money through the program even though it promised unemployment income for the self-employed. I agreed to help.

The information, application, and weekly claims go through the DWS website in the PUA special page for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. But Bill doesn’t have a computer. His phone doesn’t have data – he can’t afford it. So on my computer, I’ve filled out his information and filed weekly claims. At first, the process involved stating what aspects of COVID kept him from working, in his case that his workplaces were shut down and jobs he was supposed to start had been cancelled. The application then required him to state whether he was receiving benefits from any other source. Then he had to verify the information was accurate.

It was a huge relief for Bill (and me) when he received a debit card with money flowing in from the claims we filed weekly. He could buy groceries, pay rent, and repair his truck.

About three or four months in, the state suddenly started requiring him to name at least three job contacts he had made that week and any work he’d done. There was no statement in advance that he would have to make job contacts in order to receive benefits, so a few weeks of claims were denied. Once I figured out the requirement, I let him know and he started making phone calls and checking in with people he had worked for.

Nothing had changed. Nobody was hiring interior labor and damn few outside construction jobs were hiring. Still, he made the required effort so we could state on the unemployment claim forms that he met those requirements.

Then he fell and cracked a bone in his arm, so for three weeks I noted on his claim form that he had broken his arm and couldn’t work. Well, that’s not COVID related, so they didn’t pay him for those weeks.  

Once he got better enough to handle his tools, we filed more claims but they didn’t send any money. Blank claims forms did not appear on his PUA page and there was nothing to fill out. He had no other income and the infection rate in our area was in the top five worst of the entire nation. Afraid to try to work even if jobs had been open, he began pawning his tools. His phone shut off. His truck insurance expired. He went to a church for food handouts and I gave him sacks of groceries to keep him from starving during the holidays.

In early January, I went again to the PUA page and found claim forms available back to November. So I filed claims for him through mid-December. So far he’s received just over $700.

He now has a working phone again, but he’s three months behind on his electricity bill. His arm is permanently bent from the cracked bone near his elbow because he had to cut and split firewood before it was fully healed in order to keep himself, his dog, and the plumbing in the house where he lives from freezing. Fortunately, his rental is on wooded property where he could cut trees. He did receive the recent $600 stimulus check and is using it to reinstate insurance on his truck and get some of his tools out of pawn.

But I can’t file any more claims for the new round of PUA unemployment because the AR DWS is apparently incapable of providing coherent support for the process. After a delay throughout most of January 2021, citing technological issues, their website offers now PUA information with instructions as follows:

“…PUA has been extended under the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act. The PUA extension will provide additional weeks of benefits, to a maximum of 50 weeks, ending with the week of March 13, 2021. Weekly certification, identification, and documentation will be required.

“If your application is approved, you will need to file continued claims for each week you are unemployed to receive benefits. The work search requirement is now in effect, and you must report the number of job contacts when filing your weekly claim. The one-week waiting period is also back in effect.

“Submit your application and file weekly claims for PUA benefits online at www.pua.arkansas.gov/home   Sunday – Saturday: 6 am – 6 pm

“If you have trouble filing online, or if you have questions regarding your account, you may call the hotline 844-908-2178 Monday – Saturday 6 am – 6 pm

“Those eligible will also receive the additional $300 FPUC for weeks claimed starting with the week ending January 2, 2021 and ending with the week ending March 13, 2021.

“You will be required to verify your ID to receive PUA benefits. You will receive notice in the mail and/or via email with instructions on how to complete the process. If you have already verified your ID, you do not have to do it again. If you are unable to verify your ID online, you may present your identification in person at a local DWS office or at an Arkansas Workforce Center.

“You will be required to provide documentation showing proof of employment/self-employment or planned employment/self-employment. You must submit the following supporting documents:

“1. Proof of earning from the last tax year or other financial documents. Until documents are received, the minimum PUA benefit amount will be applied.

“2. Documentation substantiating employment or self-employment or the planned commencement of employment or self-employment.

Needless to say, there is no hope of actually speaking with someone at that hotline number. The laconic voice on the recording remarks on ‘the high call volume’ and regrets there is no one who can take the call at this time. The caller is referred to their website.

To date, Bill has received no mail or email instructing him how to verify his identification.

The website allows no entry to Bill’s previous account, claiming the password is wrong. We did not change his password. Attempts to obtain password assistance are supposed to result in an email with instructions, but no emails have been forthcoming.

The website does not provide any information about what exactly they meant in item #2, “documentation substantiating self-employment” or “plans to commence self-employment.” If Bill had self-employment or plans for work, he wouldn’t need PUA money. More to the point, would it have killed them provide an EXAMPLE of how to document “plans to commence self-employment”???????

Without any further explanation of what exactly the documentation for such ‘plans’ might comprise, how is one to meet the requirement?

The PUA Handbook states that: “The PUA weekly assistance amount will be calculated in accordance with Arkansas Employment Security law. The weekly assistance minimum is $133 per week and the maximum is $451 per week. The weekly amount shall be the weekly amount of compensation that individual would have been paid as a regular unemployment insurance compensation unless the weekly benefit amount is less than 50% of the average weekly payment of regular unemployment insurance benefits. The maximum weekly benefit amount shall not exceed the maximum weekly benefit amount of regular unemployment insurance benefits payable in the state. … [and on and on with more incomprehensible drivel]

At one point in their PUA handbook, DWS states that “The weekly assistance amount payable to you will be reduced by the amount that you have received for a week or will receive for a week based on the following criteria: [four income sources that don’t apply to Bill] and…Gross earnings in excess of 40% of your Weekly Assistance Amount.” So, apparently, if your weekly assistance amount is $133 and you earn $55 that week, your assistance will be $78 which tops out your $133. Or not?

We won’t know from one week to the next whether Bill will find work or whether his “plans to commence work” will be considered adequate by whatever mysterious criteria they use.

I’m a college graduate and fairly skilled dealing with bureaucracy. I’ve plowed through the formation of more than one small business corporation and a couple of nonprofits. If I can’t make sense of this bullshit, how is a man of limited resources and a high school education supposed to negotiate the process?

Answer: He’s not.

That’s the entire point. Throw up as many barriers as possible – lack of access, incomprehensible “information,” verification requirements that are impossible to meet – and voila you have a program that is just about as worthless as the paper it’s written on.

I’m outraged for him. I’m outraged for all the other self-employed people who make up a huge segment of our economy who have been left in the ditch by COVID – gig-workers like musicians, audio guys, recording studios etc., as well as carpenters, painters, and other repair folks, plus restaurants and night clubs and other venues that have been forced to close. These people are losing their homes, their vital services, everything that they depended on to earn a living and survive.

As I said at the start of this rant, I hope other states are far better in providing PUA funding to the people who need it. This isn’t the first time I’m been ashamed and outraged by the failures of Arkansas government. I don’t have any hope that things will improve in the near term. But I just wanted to make people aware that despite federal efforts to extend a helping hand, many of those in Arkansas who need help AREN’T GETTING IT.

What Must Be Done

Moving forward toward a more egalitarian compassionate society is the American tradition. We’ve been a world leader for this specific reason and we cannot step back from our evolving moral challenges. This moment cries out for a clear vision of what we must do to continue that tradition. I’ve jotted down a few of my ideas but welcome feedback both pro and con.

1. Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, terminated under Ronald Reagan.  

“It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered by some to be a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.”[1]

2. Significantly increase federal funding for schools to bring teacher salaries closer to professional standards. Add to Common Core educational standards for K-12 to include more vigorous education in civics, history, and science. Add debate and classes on world’s major religions to required courses.[2]

3. Expand curricula standards to home school and religious school requirements. High school diploma should not be granted to anyone who has not satisfactorily completed Common Core benchmarks.

4. Tax any church or organization that advocates Dominionism, a form of political advocacy that would in essence overturn the U. S. Constitution. This advocacy violates tax-exempt status.

“An example of dominionism in reformed theology is Christian reconstructionism, which originated with the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony in the 1960s and 1970s. Rushdoony’s theology focuses on theonomy (the rule of the Law of God), a belief that all of society should be ordered according to the laws that governed the Israelites in the Old Testament. His system is strongly Calvinistic, emphasizing the sovereignty of God over human freedom and action…”[3]

5. Enact mandatory two-year government service for every eighteen year old. This would serve in most cases as a type of apprenticeship. Military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorpsVISTA are forms of diplomacy and peace keeping. New services that could include Sciencecorps (to work with forestry, marine, agriculture, medical agencies), Vocational Services (similar to WPA, to work on nation’s infrastructure in jobs including engineering, carpentry, welding, concrete work, etc.), Art Services working alongside accomplished artists, musicians, writers to provide useable materials/performances for various venues. Etc.

6. Require each American adult who has not served in a program outlined in #5 above to volunteer one day of work each year within their local government, either city, county, or state. Refusal to participate would result in withholding driver’s license renewal or other penalty. Handicapped and persons over 65 would be exempt. Alternative could include attending one local political party meeting per year (established parties only).

7. Form bipartisan committee to study pros and cons of terminating the Electoral College. The presidency must represent the will of the people NOT the states.

8. Congress must take action to end gerrymandering and other forms of voter manipulation/suppression.

9. Congress must re-enact the ban on assault weapons and streamline regulations governing background checks to include gun shows and online sales.

10. Congress must streamline immigration procedures and services, provide adequate funding to expand staff sufficient to process all asylum applicants in a timely manner, and – most importantly – focus U.S. aid in Latin American nations from which most asylum seekers are fleeing in order to stop violence and economic problems that lead to emigration.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FCC_fairness_doctrine

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Core_State_Standards_Initiative

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_theology

More Republican Failure

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9120709/MAGA-rioters-destroy-television-cameras-chase-news-crews-Capitol.html

“He did it first!”

This childish whine, in so many words, emerged Thursday from the lips of right wingers from Mitch McConnell down to FOX pundits on The Five. Democrats, according to them, were no better than Wednesday’s rioters, when fires and looting occurred last summer in various cities around the nation. Or when the elections of 2000, 2004, and 2016 fell under public scrutiny and led to questions regarding the legitimacy of the subsequent presidency.

That’s their excuse, their pathetic effort to somehow escape censure for their failed president and his ‘leadership’ in fomenting an attempted coup.

This gloss does not withstand even cursory scrutiny.

First, the violent street demonstrations.

Rioter destruction to buildings in Minneapolis

Protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police erupted in the streets of Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and over 2,000 cities and towns in over 60 countries in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Between 15 million and 26 million people participated in these protests, the largest outpouring of public rage in the nation’s history. Investigations concluded that about 93% of the protests were peaceful, but in a few locations, violence including arson, looting, and assault resulted in an estimated $1-2 billion in damages nationally.

Under President Trump’s not-so-subtle encouragement, racism flared into full bloom during his term, a seeming grant of carte blanche to white extremists which in turn ignited protests. Multiple other black lives lost to excessive police violence (Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and more) and the two protesters killed in Kenosha by a 19-year-old white militant Kyle Rittenhouse became part of these events where protesters demanded changes to police practices as well as the removal of local statuary honoring Confederate heroes and slave traders.

These protests involved citizens of communities massing in their town centers to demand change in local policies and civic entities (police, lawmakers) that heretofore had led to disproportionate deaths of people of color. For the sake of brevity, we will not delve into clear evidence that in at least some instances, alt-right actors penetrated peaceful protests to instigate violence and property damage.

There is no comparison between these protests and the invasion of the nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021. For over nine weeks since his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, Trump had refused to accept election results, claiming the election was rigged. He agitated and advocated for his followers to take action, promising that on January 6, it “will be wild.” On the morning of the 6th, he held a rally at which he aggrandized his accomplishments, denigrated his opponents including some Republicans, and elaborated at length on convoluted conspiracy theories meant to explain why he had been the legitimate winner of the presidential election.

Trump’s speech, which rambled on for over an hour, concluded with:

“So we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give… The Democrats are hopeless. They’re never voting for anything, not even one vote. But we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” [Italics mine.]

Rabid followers expressed no doubt as to what their leader expected of them. What followed has been burned into the brains of virtually every American as we watched masses of Trump true-believers storm the Capitol, overrun security guards, vandalize, steal, and invade the inner sanctums of the people’s house, the center of our nation’s government. One demonstrator occupied the speaker’s chair to proclaim Trump the president. Others roamed, strewing papers and files, no doubt searching for the elector ballots in an effort destroy official election results.

This was no local protest about policies and public services that need reform. This was a directed effort to overturn a presidential election. An attempted coup. This is not equivalent to anti-racism street protests by any stretch of the imagination.

But oh, they want to make it so. Even as they voice outrage at the violence and destruction, they scramble for excuses of why it’s no worse than the summer protests. They want, more than anything, to shift the blame from themselves for aiding and abetting Trump’s lunacy over the last four years and somehow make it about Democrats.

Democrats alongside Republicans and all the rest did not endorse or in any way approve of protesters setting buildings on fire or the looting of private property. We can ALL agree that violence and property destruction is not the right path. That is not the way to solve problems in our society, whether we’re talking about racism, police brutality, or anything else.

BUT – that is not what happened January 6. Trump conceived of, directed, and initiated the invasion of our capitol building because he lost his bid for re-election. Spinning off into la-la-land amid a thick stew of conspiracy theories, he incited his hapless followers to these acts of contempt and dishonor against the very center of our national government.

There is no equivalency.

For the record, whether or not McConnell is, at this point, capable of admitting the facts, in each of the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections, there were legitimate problems with the election results. There were not disgruntled Democrats trying to overturn an election nor did the defeated candidates lead an attempted insurrection.

In 2000 in Florida, the election was so close that Gore was initially declared the winner. Further complicating the Florida results was the infamous hanging chad issue where election officials debated whether the incomplete removal of a tab on a punch card ballot signified a vote or not. A preliminary recount decided in favor of Bush by 537 votes.[1] The state supreme court ordered a more thorough recount but that ruling was overturned on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The result, without a legitimate recount, came out with George Bush: 50,546,002, Al Gore: 50,999.897 votes with an electoral count of 271 vs 266.

It’s not clear what McConnell might refer to in his mention of Democratic complaints about the 2004 election. There were legitimate concerns about voter suppression and purges of voter lists in largely minority districts but there wasn’t much public protest about the results, and certainly nothing remotely similar to the January 6, 2021, disgrace.[2]

As for 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes. Whether future examinations (without Trump stonewalling) will reveal Russian manipulations behind the electoral vote count, U.S. intelligence agencies had warned for months that Russia had become involved in the presidential campaign. McConnell led the Senate in its refusal to consider the articles of impeachment brought by the House of Representatives as a result of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference and obstruction of justice. Trump’s refusal to release information in the Mueller investigation or allow testimony by members of his staff became part of the obstruction of justice charge. Trump has continued to dismiss the investigation as a hoax, bringing along his sycophants including McConnell. Both matters will be more fully revealed to the public once Trump is out of office.

If anyone could feel justified in leading a public protest about election outcomes, it would have been Hillary Clinton with nearly three million more votes than Trump. But like the professional she is, she conceded graciously to the electoral college results.

At this point for McConnell to allege that this and other Democratic concerns about Trump’s rogue presidency somehow equals rightwing invasion of the Capitol is an absurdity. Nevertheless, this is all they’ve got, this whiny ‘he did it first’ allegation that in itself does not hold water. Since Election Day, there has been no resounding civic outcry about injustice as there was in the street demonstrations protesting overzealous police and systemic racism. There was no massive support across the nation in support of Trump’ claim. What happened January 6 was about one man’s pathetic inability to accept defeat.

The response by McConnell and others in an attempt to deflect blame for this outrage does not speak well for the future of the Republican Party. Either they acknowledge the depths of their culpability and immediately set out to correct the screed of lies inculcated on their voters or face the very real likelihood that the party will not survive Donald Trump, just as Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted in the 2016 primaries: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.”[3]


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_United_States_presidential_election#Florida_recount

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_United_States_election_voting_controversies

[3] Twitter May 6, 2016

Regarding Netflix’s Bridgertons

I’ll get to the elephant in the room in a minute. Right now, I just need to say, what the hell are these guys thinking?

Newsflash to series creator Chris Van Dusen and Netflix producer Shondaland (Shonda Rhimes) and Netflix execs who signed off on this house of cards: people who enjoy Regency romance are not going to like this conglomeration of ridiculous sex and error. Whoever made decisions about how to bring Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels to the screen clearly has no knowledge of the time period (1813) or appreciation of the aspects of that history which nourish the storyline.

Did I say nourish? Let me rephrase that. Historical accuracy is ESSENTIAL to the storyline.

First of all, the casting. Dear God, why is 31-year-old Claudia Jessie playing the part of a 17-year-old? The face, the body, and most of all a voice worthy of an aging jazz singer immediately create painful cognitive dissonance every time this actress appears on screen. In the part of the second oldest Bridgerton daughter Eloise, Ms. Jessie sticks out like a sore thumb. No matter how tightly laced the corset or uneven affections of voice are meant to disguise her age, it just doesn’t work.

By the way, poor quality control on audio means some entire narratives are incomprehensible no matter how high the volume.

Same casting problem with one of the Bridgerton sons. Luke Thompson plays the part of second-oldest son Benedict, written as a 27-year-old blade exploring the ways of haut ton social situations. Luke Thompson is a well-aged 32 years old. His age is obvious even when he’s supposed to appear boyish and naïve. Please.

But let me move on to glaring corruptions of historical accuracy thick on the ground in this Netflix series. Early on we’re treated to a scene where Eloise is hiding out in the back yard to smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes did not jump from Mexico to France until the 1830s and didn’t make it to England until the 1840s. Even then, these tobacco conveyances were not the long slender white-wrapped items spotted in Eloise’s delicate hand. Cigarettes weren’t widely available until mass production in the 1880s. In 1813 London, a protected young lady like Eloise would have had no access to any such thing. She would have been very lucky to find a servant or stable hand she could bribe to obtain raw tobacco for her.

I get why Dusen wanted to show Eloise smoking. She’s a rebel, not eager to follow the tradition of marriage and children. Her use of cigarettes shows that rebellion. Except – it doesn’t. Because it’s completely ridiculous!

This type of ignorance undermines virtually every scene. Regency men were considered undressed if they appeared outside their bedchambers in anything less than complete formal attire – pants, shirt, waistcoat, jacket, and cravat, and yes those de rigueur Hessians. Yet we see aristocrats parading around in their shirt sleeves, often with the sleeves rolled past the elbow. Also often missing from male attire is the cravat, an essential element of proper male body covering. In reality, serious scandal would ensue from such flagrant exposure of forearms and necks.

Male-female touching likewise was simply not done except in very specific circumstances. A gentleman might touch a lady’s hand if he is helping her into or out of a carriage, for example, but they would both be gloved. In greeting, he would bow over her gloved hand and air-kiss above her knuckles. He might also welcome her to rest her gloved hand on his lower (fully clothed) arm when walking or escorting her up or down steps. But the touching rampant in these scenes is often ungloved and conspicuously caressing, like a dance scene where some genius decided that dance partners could lavish their hands on each other’s bodies – neck, shoulders, waist – in ways that would never occur among proper ladies and gentlemen of those times.

In fact, touching at all during dances was so scandalous in this time period that the waltz (another import from the outrageous French) had barely gained entry to the ton’s social gatherings. A debutante was required to pass muster at Almack’s by a panel of older society grande dames in order to gain the right to dance a waltz. Hostesses of society dances were careful to allow only two waltzes at any of their events, well-spaced between country dances and quadrilles in which participants move similarly to those in modern square dancing with touching limited to fleeting passage of gloved hands and no close body contact.

Restrictions on the waltz reflected its close body positioning and the clasp of both hands with the dance partner’s. Even at that, intense scrutiny by other dancers and society matrons watching proceedings with an eagle eye enforced the rules of engagement, most importantly the appropriate distance tolerated between the bodies of dance partners. Yet in this Netflix series, we see couples hugging up to each other, standing body to body to whisper sweet nothings and emote.   

The music is yet another problem, adding to the flaws in dance scenes. The producers/writers took the lazy way with this, using soundtrack music as the dance music so that dance music doesn’t start or stop with the dance. Dancers simply cavort around the floor to whatever part of the soundtrack happens to occur at that point. This eliminates the real tension experienced between dances by young women desperate to be claimed for a dance. It also smears over specific types of music used for specific types of dances. There’s no good reason for this except lazy production

Equally cheesy are bits and pieces such as a scene where the courting couple walk across a bridge and the male lead pulls a rose from a bush to hand to his lovely lady. Our hero plucks this rose without tugging or breaking it from its bush and presents a long straight stem that would never exist in those circumstances. But then, once one questions the reality of that moment, one is quick to survey the rest of the ‘rose bushes’ lining that particular bridge and reach the firm conclusion that all of these are arranged bouquets, probably not even real flowers.

Social etiquette involved lessons on how to bow and curtsey, yet here we see men bowing slightly without their arms in proper position, plus short head bobs and virtually zero curtseying even when standing before the Queen! No.

Hyde Park on Sunday from Modern London by R Phillips (1807)

Unlike many scenes in the Netflix Bridgerton series, females of the upper class never ventured outside alone. A maid and sometimes also at least one footman accompanied them as protection not only of their reputation but also their personal safety against a desperate underclass of thieves and opportunists.

Successful Regency authors pay attention to this wretched dichotomy between rich and poor for the depth it adds to these stories. In the one Bridgerton scene of the impoverished parts of London, which by any estimation consumed the majority of that real estate with dilapidated side-by-side buildings and manure-littered streets teeming with vendors hawking wares, grimy orphans looking for pockets to pick, whores, and scoundrels of every ilk, we get a brief scene in a bricked alleyway where a handful of actors strive to convey reality – and fail.

Apparently, what the writers/producers of the series do not grasp – and perhaps did not even try to understand – is that these subtleties are what fans of Regency romance adore. We look for quirks of language, the rigid rules, the details of dress and social interactions that define that time period. We expect characters to obey the norms extant in the early 19th century, not just because we’re some kind of historical purists but because those norms are inextricably linked to the behavior that drives the plot.

This falls flat most of all in the sex scenes. We see actors feverishly ripping off their clothes to pursue their desire without slowing down to appreciate the shocking touch of ungloved hands or the explosive eroticism of a man’s exposed neck, sans cravat. By the time the two main characters get around to kissing in the garden (oh, my!), an unbelievable melee of groping and whole body molestation takes place. In reality, for 1813, just the touching of lips was enough to ruin a young lady whether or not the guy ever touched her body. Jeez, Louise, who signed off on this absurdity?

In the moment when Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings [played by Regé-Jean Page] finally satisfies his raging desire for his heartthrob Daphne Bridgerton [played by Phoebe Dynevor], the wedding night scene proceeds through the ripping off of clothes, kissing, a bit of body contact and a nice buttocks shot to a few seconds of active intercourse during which the virgin’s face portrays her loss of virginity (oh, that hurts) to pleasure (really?) and satiety (no bliss?). And we’re supposed to be satisfied with that terse culmination of a long and tortured courtship?

As for this and subsequent sex scenes, I’ll just quote a bit of a Salon critique [https://www.salon.com/2021/01/03/bridgerton-sex-is-not-good-sex/]:

“He maneuvers her hand down there. She looks pleasantly shocked. Then he stands up and takes off his pants so she can get an eyeful of what she’s working with. Apparently that is sufficient, because then he mounts her, informs her that “this may hurt a moment” … then badda bing, badda boom, he starts pumping away like a bunny hopped up on cold brew coffee. Afterward he rolls off of her and finishes in the sheets – more on that later – as the tender music fades out.”

Producer Shonda Rimes claims in interviews about this series that she is a great fan of Julia Quinn’s books. She should read more. It’s obvious from her work with Bridgerton that her understanding of the Regency period is painfully limited. Otherwise it’s difficult to believe a woman of her professional experience would sign off on this travesty.

Likewise, for a man who claims to have studied and adapted this story over a three-year period, Chris Van Dusen gets a “D-” for his utter failure to portray the very details that serve as the lifeblood of a Regency romance. And whoever decided that a guy was the right person for this job, anyway?!

Van Dusen claimed in one interview that he wanted to show the contrast between modern social norms and the stifling conservativism of the Regency period. But by shortcutting the details and failing to authentically portray the realities of the Regency period, an uninformed viewer would mistakenly assume there weren’t that many differences. Yes, women were property and that comes through fairly clearly. But how their lives – and the lives of men – were guided moment by moment in that mindset is diluted and in many scenes fully bastardized in this cavalier adaptation.  

Which brings us to the elephant.

Van Dusen grabs onto an old unproven allegation that King George’s wife Charlotte was of African descent and through this broken door welcomes a large contingent of Black actors into key roles of this series. We don’t know to what extent this decision reflected the influence of Ms. Rhimes, herself a successful Black producer, screenwriter, and author. Maybe they thought this would give the series some kind of outré appeal.

But the more I watched and witnessed scenes where Black actors comprised such a large percentage of the ton and at points expounded on how Queen Charlotte opened the door for ‘their kind’ to participate more fully in society, the more I realized that this outright misrepresentation of London’s Regency period serves as an outrageous disservice to Black history.

[It’s relevant to note that contemporaneous images of Queen Charlotte fail to bear out these allegations.]

In reality, the British Empire played fast and loose with issues of race.

“Owing chiefly to the parliamentary campaign of William Wilberforce, the ‘Slave Trade Act’ had been passed by Parliament in 1807, but this act prohibited only the trading in slaves in the British Empire, and crucially not slavery itself. Within Britain, slavery had been found unconstitutional in 1772; but, so long as they did not bring any of their slaves into Britain, slave owners such as Sir Thomas Bertram remained free to profit from the exploitation of slave labour in the colonies. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833.”[1]

As noted by many scholars of the time period,

“Overt racism was rampant. Servants of the rich were beautifully dressed, but treated like possessions (much like a brood stallion or a rare antique vase.) Portraits would show noble women and a Black servant, be it a child or adult, sitting at the edge of the painting, which served to increase the contrast of the female’s creamy white skin to the ebony complexion of the other sitter.”[2]

Despite Van Dusen’s assertion that he wanted to show how society has changed over the last 200 years, neither he nor Rhimes seem to understand that without an accurate portrayal of Britain’s high society during the Regency period, viewers can never appreciate how times have changed. One of the tensions for fans of Regency romance is the nerve-bending restrictions on women compared to the freedoms we take for granted today. Authors of Regency (or any historical) romance go to great lengths to research their work to ensure authenticity in this regard.

During that long struggle, women have fought like tigers to gain the right to govern their own lives as well the right to own property and vote. Likewise, Black people have battled to gain their rights and freedoms and still suffer from prejudice and outright violence so long entrenched in white society. To smear all of that into a fantasy where a Black man could ever be a British duke who publicly courts a virginal white girl in 1813 London is to, well, whitewash the true struggle.

Okay, I understand the primary energy behind this series is to put Regency eroticism on screen in hopes of cashing in. They’ll probably succeed in this since Regency fans like myself are watching the series, even if we’re yelling at the television. But even in the sex, these producers/writers fall short of their goal.

After all the producers’ and writers’ efforts to create this simulacrum of Quinn’s novels on screen in order to capitalize on the sex of it, viewers get to the sex and find it flaccid.

~~~

P.S. One irreconcilable problem in casting this series is the apparent widespread use of breast implants among actresses. These do not play well in the extremes of Regency dress in which corsets pair with extremely low cut gowns. Corsets push the breasts up high, which in many instances during this series, reveals the hard edge of implants. Distracting, to say the least.

And while I’m at it, I’ll point out that among the most titillating bits many Regency readers enjoy are scenes in which the male is so aroused by the object of his affection that his erection is prominently displayed in the front of his tight breeches. Despite his embarrassment and desperate thoughts of icy water and old toothless men, the surging organ persists, thus requiring the fevered hero to modestly place a book or hat over his lap or hide behind a chair. At the pinnacle of this particular cliché, the female in question notices the anomaly and is intrigued even if she, in many cases, has no idea how that peculiar bit of male anatomy might come to play in her deflowering. Alas, we see no such deliciously provocative sights in this production.


[1] http://www.janeaustendetectives.com/blog/c-jane-austen-news/slavery-during-the-regency-period

[2] https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/blacks-in-regency-england/

Beating the Train

This photo reminds me of my dad Floyd Pitts who would sometimes reminisce about his younger days when he was still in high school at Morrow, Arkansas. He’d tell part of this tale then slap his leg and start laughing.

During that period of his life – early 1930s – his parents and younger sister had to move to West Memphis where his dad found work. Floyd stayed at Morrow to finish high school. He slept on a cot at the Morrow Mercantile with duties to keep the fires going at night so the stock didn’t freeze. Alongside his work duties and high school classes, he and three friends performed around the Northwest Arkansas region as a quartet.

“By 1933, I was the leader of the Morrow Quartet (I played fiddle and sang bass) and we were the best in the whole area. We sang at anything. We’d put on a show at places like the Savoy Community Building, we sang on the radio all the time, KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks [then located in the Washington Hotel on the southwest corner of the Fayetteville square, Mountain and Block], any old breakdown tunes.

Floyd Pitts circa late 1930s

“It was a novelty for a boy to play the piano. People would take us home for dinner if we’d perform.  Jim Latta was the father of one of the singers—the lead, Vernon Latta. He’d help us out buying gas. Vernon played guitar and mandolin. Or the Morrow Mercantile would help us because of Dennis Carmack, the tenor of our group. There were four main guys who owned the Mercantile: Ernest Ball, Lowrey Carmack, __ Reed, and [can’t remember].  Ty Reed sang alto (high tenor). I played fiddle and Dennis Carmack played guitar.

“Dennis had an old Chevrolet and that’s how we got to Fayetteville for our weekly radio show. One time we were running late. There was a railroad crossing at the turn off from the Cane Hill Road to the main highway just east of Lincoln. We heard the whistle and as we roared up to the crossing, we could see the train coming. Trains were long in those days, usually pulling an endless string of freight cars. We knew we’d miss our broadcast time if we waited for the train.

“The train was barreling down, close, too close, to the crossing. There wasn’t time to discuss it. Dennis floored that old Chevy. The engineer laid on his whistle as we hurtled ahead throwing up a huge dust cloud behind us. We could see the engineer’s mouth moving as we approached. He was shaking his fist at us.

“We flew over those tracks without a second to spare. The force of that train as it passed behind us shook the car. As we made the sharp turn just after crossing the tracks, that old car went up on two wheels. We all leaned to the right, laughing at our near miss as the car slammed back onto all four tires. We made it to the Fayetteville Square in time for our show.”

Floyd Pitts went on to gain his bachelor’s degree in music at Northeastern State University at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, then taught music at Rogers AR public schools until his service as an officer in the U. S. Navy in World War II. After the war, he gained a master’s degree in music at Iowa before returning to Rogers to teach. He took over the band man post for the Grizzly band at Fort Smith’s high school in 1953. During his time at Fort Smith, he moonlighted in vocals and piano with a dance band that played local venues like the Elks Club. In January 1957, he proudly led his band in the Washington D.C. parade for Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration.

In 1958 in search of better income, he moved his family to Miami, Oklahoma to lead the music programs for the public schools and direct the junior high and high school bands. During those years, he pursued after-hours income by tuning and repairing pianos, something he’d done since his high school days when he’d teach shape note singing at schools and church houses around the area and inevitably encountered out-of-tune pianos. His father, a sometimes blacksmith, forged Floyd’s first tuning hammer from an old Model A tie-rod.

Floyd remained the Wardog band director at Miami until 1967, when the family once again relocated to Fayetteville, Arkansas. (His wife, Carmyn Morrow Pitts, was relieved to be back in “God’s country.”) From there, Floyd taught band a couple of years at Westville, OK and for many more years at Lincoln AR, more or less a return to his roots at the end of his long career in teaching music to multiple generations. He retired in 1979 but continued his new career as a full time piano tuner/technician alongside his daughter Denele until a couple of years before his death in 2004. Even in his last days, a good old fiddle tune would bring on a flurry of foot tapping.

~~~

Floyd’s first tuning hammer from Model T tie-rod, late 1920s

Side note: KUOA began as a project of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, using these call letters starting in 1926. With the deepening of the Great Depression, in 1931 the University decided to lease operations to out of town interests. “Members of the Fulbright family then formed KUOA, Incorporated, to purchase the station, and on April 1, 1933, they took control, with Roberta Waugh Fulbright as president, John Clark as secretary-treasurer, and daughters Roberta Fulbright as station manager and Helen Fulbright as vice president.”[1] Ownership of the station shifted to John Brown University in 1936.


[1] https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/kuoa-radio-station-3678/

I Coulda Been a Singer

“You missed your calling,” a friend recently commented.

I had shared a video of “It’s All About That Bass” for her to see.[1] I thought it was fun. I was especially tickled by the clarinet part. I’m weird that way. But I think her point of reference was the lead singer whose gyrating performance in her leopard skin dress apparently made my friend think this was what I wanted her to see.

The truth is, I could have been a singer. My dad, forever the music teacher, started me on piano in second grade and on clarinet in fifth. By seventh grade, he set me down for grueling hours of learning how to sing harmony. I taught myself guitar in tenth grade and began teaching guitar lessons the next year, a pursuit that involved strumming chords while singing.

Other Side of Apathy 1965 Left to right Trula Roberson, LuJean Howard, Denele Pitts

That was the popular music genre of the times. 1964, 1965. Folk music. I joined with two other classmates to perform popular songs of the time – “Blowing in Wind,” “The Water is Wide,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “Turn Around,” and others including “Hang on the Bell, Nellie,” which always brought down the house. We called ourselves “The Other Side of Apathy.” We were in high school, performing largely for local civic group luncheons and banquets.

My vocal talents won me a slot in All-State Choir both junior and senior years, and of course I performed in the high school chorale. My dad signed me up for private lessons with a voice teacher at the local junior college. Those lessons nearly ruined me. As far as the instructor was concerned, the only legitimate vocal performance was in opera. I loathed that bellowing warble I was supposed to produce from my diaphragm. I quit the lessons.

Despite the off again, on again nature of my fraught relationship with Bill, my high school sweetheart, we maintained our strongest bond in music. In my dad’s high school band room, Bill played drums and I, by ninth grade, played oboe. But in marching band, I set the oboe aside and picked up cymbals. At halftime shows and marching band contests, Bill and I were only a couple of positions apart on the field. We marched to “Semper Fidelis,”[2] “National Emblem,”[3] “Washington Post”[4] and other popular marches, one hundred strong, our formations geometric. My dad the Navy man would have none of that wimpy popular music of the day with majorettes prancing out front while the band stood still.

But I digress.

Bill and I were voted the most talented of our class. So we felt especially obligated to sparkle at the senior program. That tradition of our school included skits, speeches, and performances of all kinds to cap off our public school years. There was no question that Bill and I would do something musical, although Bill had also continued to pursue his talents in dance. We didn’t rule out some combination.

By this time my daily guitar teaching lessons at the local music store had brought me in contact with the front lines of popular music. I had embraced Beatle mania, enjoyed Streisand’s songs, and knew some of the forbidden rock and roll like “House of the Rising Sun.”[5] But it was “Girl From Ipanema” that had won my heart.

Bill and I worked out a performance that put me standing at a microphone at the front left corner of the stage. Bill’s part was to dance along the footlights in an improv jazz style. Behind us against the back curtain, a tall stepladder held three guys playing claves, maracas, and guiro.

I did my best to transcribe the music so we could recruit appropriate accompaniment, but the record I had of Astrid Gilberto and Stan Getz didn’t offer an easy transcription.[6] I couldn’t find any sheet music, so I winged it a capella with just the rhythm section. We had maybe three rehearsals in between senior prom, drunken escapades on the lake where I managed to get strep throat, and performing my solo in part of Hayden’s Mass in G (choir concert) – with strep throat.

In preparation for our performance of “Girl From Ipanema,” I rewrote the lyrics to “Boy From Ipanema.” I would sing about Bill. Always without much money, I pawed through our household collection of patterns and fabrics and settled on thin pale blue cotton for a dress with a bloused sleeveless top and long straight skirt split up the side. I wore my hair straight and long. For his part, Bill wore black tights, leotard, and fedora.

When the curtain opened, a blue spotlight found me. Bill danced in blue footlights. The packed house went utterly silent as I breathed the song into the microphone. The song told the story. Bill performed perfectly. I sang it without a hitch. When the last note faded and Bill’s proud dance had melted to a close, there was dead silence. And then they shouted the house down. (Sadly, there are no photos of this event.)

This was the high point of my career as a chanteuse. Bill went on to a notable career on Broadway. I thought of a profession singing in smoky lounges out front of a jazz combo. I perfected my Greta Garbo poses, practiced exhaling cigarette smoke through my nostrils. Alas, I had no clue how to break in to that world from my mid-South innocence.

Bill in “A Chorus Line” (third from front), one of his many Broadway dance roles. Today he teaches dance and mentors upcoming devotees in New York City.

College for me depended on a scholarship and the ratio of singers to oboe players is probably at least 100 to 1. With an oboe scholarship, there was no time for choir. Besides, the only formal training for vocalists at the time – and largely still today – was o p e r a.

My father discouraged any idea of a career as a professional singer. He described the touring circuit of rundown lounges and loud drunken audiences, often with minimal pay. He didn’t fully describe the sexual harassment that comes with the scene, or the need to maintain a coherent group of musicians willing to forego intoxication and other hazards of touring. He thought I wanted a husband and children, and I did.

But I also wanted to be a chanteuse. Later, as my kids grew up, I’d pound out my own piano accompaniment to give full throat attention to song collections by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and other favorites, but the ones that thrilled me the most were the torch songs like “Scotch and Soda.”[7] I also sang with regional community choirs in the 1980s and ‘90s but by the mid ‘90s, I noticed my voice wasn’t exactly as controlled or clear as I wanted. I felt embarrassed and stopped participating in the choir.

Then a couple of surgeries involved tubes down my throat and I discovered my singing broke in critical places around Middle C. And I had long since lost my guitar. By the time I retired from what had become a 30-year career tuning pianos, I was so burned out I never wanted to see another piano and moved mine to a back bedroom.

The piano sits, untuned and untouched by me for over decade. On occasion when I am unable to resist the urge, I’ll drag out the stool for the old pump organ my dad restored and plod along with a few pieces trying to ignore the deplorable condition of my voice. Sadly, the voice is not a lifelong instrument for most of us, although at times I think I might buy another guitar and start practicing in the belief that I just need to start exercising those vocal cords. I still long to sing, and nothing brings that to mind more strongly than to hear a voice slamming through a song like the lady in “All About That Bass.”

This is one of those ‘paths not taken’ stories.

All About That Bass – Postmodern Jukebox
European Tour Version

~~~


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLnZ1NQm2uk

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PcBNWd2tTI&list=RDo3gHhCpkiWU&index=11

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U40OIESDwlU (Catch the heart of this piece at 1:46.)

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mxrh1CrMmTY

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-43lLKaqBQ

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nim7Xs41UJo

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoWfDw-v4DM

Obsessed with the Fetus

This week, my 97-year-old mother received a packet of mail from Republican senator Rand Paul. The cover letter begins: “For 47 years, nine unelected men and women on the Supreme Court have played God with innocent human life. They have invented laws that condemned to painful deaths without trial more than 62 million babies for the crime of being ‘inconvenient…’”

The propaganda continues over four pages. Along with the inflammatory letter, Sen. Paul included pre-printed petitions to both Arkansas senators and all four representatives as well as Sen. Mitch McConnell, calling for the passage of the Life at Conception Act. All my mom needed to do was sign on the bottom line and send them off in the enclosed envelope addressed to Sen. Paul in care of the National Pro-Life Alliance.

I was relieved that my mom said I should take the mail. It was a “bunch of crap,” she said. I agreed.

She’d beyond the point of arguing the finer points of politics or political issues. But it’s easy to see how this mail-out and its provocative rhetoric is meant to stir up Trump’s base right here before Election Day.

Americans should never lose sight of the fact that Trump and Pence were elected because of fetuses. Other supporter ‘causes’ are secondary, among them rabid racism and fundamental ignorance. But the driving force and the majority of their 32%-43% approval rating is based in their core support of evangelicals who are obsessed with fetuses.

No matter how many sexual assaults, adulteries, or episodes of blatant bullying, no matter how many lies and incidents of gaslighting, no matter the total incompetence of Trump’s service as president, his abuse of power, his disrespect for tradition and honor, no matter how many young immigrant children have been kidnapped from their families, no matter how many tens of thousands of our neighbors and countrymen die from a virus Trump failed to properly manage, no matter how much we as a nation plummet in the eyes of the world as we abdicate any possible claim of leadership, we can rest easy because fetuses will be saved.

Since Roe v Wade, Republicans have honed their primary strategy for political ascendance – not balancing the budget, not maintaining and improving the nation’s infrastructure, not caring for the average citizen – by fomenting outrage about abortion. Never mind that in heralding the ‘murder’ of embryos, evangelical conservatives have obfuscated and ignored the many legitimate medical reasons women terminate pregnancies. Never mind that women have always aborted unwanted pregnancies for countless legitimate reasons to which no one else is – or can be – privy. Never mind that Roe v Wade simply allowed women to access proper medical care for such procedures. Only the fetus matters.

Remove the fetus issue and evangelicals no longer have a clear-cut reason to slavishly follow the Republican Party. There may be seasons of drummed-up hate for the sexually-different or same sex couples who dare to fall in love. There may be outrage against government-funded programs that seek to improve opportunities for low-income children through programs like Head Start and school lunches. There may be simmering prejudices against non-whites for whatever derogatory stereotypes can be successfully slapped on them by insecure racists. But the one sure-fire button Republicans can count on to get evangelicals to the polls on Election Day is fetuses.

Odd that in all their crusade on behalf of God’s will in His miracle of fertilized eggs, none of these well-intentioned voters find issue with defying God’s will by artificially fertilizing eggs for those who can’t conceive. Does God really want them to have a child?

Odd that other ‘acts of God’ are defied as we rush onward with medical science to cure cancer and invent vaccines to protect ourselves against God’s will. If it is God’s will that we suffer those ailments, why are we curing them?

You can see where this rabbit hole leads. Either we have an innate right to intervene in our biological processes or we don’t. Pregnancy is a biological process. The egg donor (and usually the sperm donor) possess the innate right to intervene. Not a religious group. Not the government.

It’s not like we need more people. The world’s population has shot up from one billion to 7.8 billion in just the past 200 years. That’s despite virus and influenza epidemics, two world wars, and multiple other small wars around the globe. We have invented vaccines and antibiotics and pesticides in order to attack disease and increase the food supply. We’ve succeeded in doubling life expectancy since 1900. Global population is projected at 8 billion in 2023 and from there will double again by the end of this century.

But let’s cheer on the evangelicals and their great moral sacrifice in electing Trump to save the fetuses. Let’s put government in control of reproduction with laws regulating women’s bodies in order to save more fetuses. Because the fetus is the most important consideration.

Without question, children are our future. They should have the best we can give them both in the womb and after they’re born. But most importantly, each child should be wanted by its parents, not forced to a life of possible abuse, neglect, or a miserable existence shuttled from one foster home to another.

This is the insidious threat religious extremism poses to any nation. Religion inspires single-minded fanaticism that ignores personal rights, common sense, and the freedoms enshrined within a democracy. This is exactly the problem our Founding Fathers sought to avoid when they wrote the First Amendment to our Constitution prohibiting the government from establishing any religious doctrine.

Can we please honor our Founder’s vision and keep religion OUT of government? And keep government control out of human reproduction.

What Is Real?

Existence is a slippery construct, it seems to me. I tend to embrace the rational, the concrete, which makes it difficult for me to drift off into theorizing about other dimensions or other possible spheres of existence aside from our three-dimensional sensory world. But all that is countered by my own very bizarre personal experiences.

So far, I have refrained from talking about this because, well, people tend to look at you oddly when you bring up stuff like this. But hey, I’m not getting any younger and I want to put these experiences on the record. For what it’s worth.

In the mid-1970s, I was living in a rural area in a small cabin while my new husband and I tried to get a house built. The cabin sat on a ridge of pasture land surrounded by oak-hickory forest. To the north, the land fell away sharply into steep wooded hillsides. To the south, the pasture land dropped slowly for about a quarter mile before it too veered down forested hillsides. Ozark land verging into the Boston Mountains.

From the window of the cabin, looking west, the view spread across maybe forty acres of pasture and pond with woods all around. Midway in that field, I saw them one day, a man and woman standing side by side in the grass, facing me from about fifty yards away. Far enough that I couldn’t see facial detail, close enough that I could observe their clothing and posture.

They appeared in the corner of my eye. When I turned to stare, they vanished.

The man wore a brown suit and a brown hat, a vest and white shirt, the style dating to the mid-19th century. The woman’s dress was long and slightly full, what I assume would have been a modest garb with petticoat for someone who needed to walk across rough land. She too wore a hat, a straw hat held by a tie under her chin.

I saw them a few more times after I learned not to look directly. Each time they stood together, the man in his brown suit of clothes, not fancy, and the woman in a gray cotton dress with long sleeves and long skirt, the bodice fitted in the style of the times. I wondered at their presence, whether they had died there while their spirits remained, whether they had lived in that spot and attached themselves emotionally so that wherever they went afterwards, their energy remained there.

I’m a writer so I can think up stuff like that, their story, why I saw them. So I really can’t say whether those ideas explaining their presence were from them or from me.

A few years later, after moving into the new house, I had another sighting. Not the same place, but across the road and onto a wooded hill. From my office window, I can still point out the exact spot, a small clearing at the highest elevation of this entire ridge. At some previous time, a massive old tree had fallen and left the spot open to sunlight. I’ve walked out there over the years since, careful to take such jaunts in winter when the ticks aren’t out. There are large flat rocks like paving stones alongside the fallen tree, creating a defined space about twenty feet square.

I had not discovered that spot until the day of the sighting. I was staring into the distance from what then was a child’s bedroom, taking a time out from marriage, motherhood, and the demands of my profession. Two individuals appeared, again at the edge of my peripheral vision so I could only see them indirectly. These were Natives, two men dressed in deerskins and carrying the weapons of their culture. They were looking east while I observed them to my south.

Rendering of Osage First People by George Catlin. The Osage claimed this area for hunting grounds, moved off involuntarily when the U. S. government forced the Cherokee to relocate. Soon after, the Cherokee were also forced west into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). I think what I saw were Osage.

They were waiting for someone, or so the thought struck me. I saw a Native woman there once, alone, her long deerskin dress finely made as she, too, waited for someone. I saw them a few more times over the coming years, but as my life picked up speed and my time for staring out windows diminished to nearly nothing, I saw no more people hovering at the brink of this dimension.

And that’s what I’ve come to believe has occurred. Perhaps elevation has something to do with this portal, because the elevation is about the same for both spots. I reached that conclusion after a third and more disturbing incident that occurred twenty years later.

A friend had come to stay with me while she searched for a place to live. She had lived in Europe for several years, and on her journey back to the States had stayed for a time in London with an old friend. He was ailing and subsequently died. She told me about her mysterious experience with his ghost visiting her after his death.

After returning to the States, she lived at my house maybe two or three months before finding a rental she liked. After she moved out, a month or so later, I was sitting in the living room watching television like I did every night when I suddenly became aware of another presence in the house. The hair went up on my neck.

At first I tried to convince myself it was my imagination, because that’s what we all do at moments like that, right? Then I reasoned that if someone had come in at the back end of the house through that seldom-used door, I would have heard it. It didn’t open without a creak. I heard no creak.

But after several minutes of very eerie energy wafting through the house, I forced myself to go back there. I slowly walked the thirty feet down the hallway to that back door, gooseflesh on my arms. I even stopped to pick up a large bamboo rod to use on an intruder. I flipped on lights, calling out ‘Who’s there?’

When I got to the room with the door, it was empty. So was the rest of that part of the house, including closets and under the beds. Yes, I checked. And the door was locked. But Something was there, an energy that was so strong and so haunting that I could feel it all around me.

I realized it was the ghost of my friend’s friend. I thought it must have followed her, since she was the person who had seen him through his last days. I remembered her remarks that she had visited with the ghost more than once.

Well, thanks a lot! I didn’t need that ghost and I didn’t appreciate her leaving it here with me.

It was hostile, maybe because she had left it behind. I didn’t trust it. Didn’t want it. But, I reasoned, it was likely just lost.

So I addressed it. I stood there in the rooms she had stayed in and told it this wasn’t where it needed to be. I tried to change my energy from fear and resistance to a more loving and sympathetic frame. I said it would rest better if it joined the other spirits in the places they lived. I told it to go to the light.

I thought it had listened, because the presence seemed to leave. Later, though, when I went back there after a few days, my eye caught on a work of art one of my kids had done in grade school. Taking pride of place near the end of the hallway, it was well done rendering of a clown with a tear drop on its cheek that had always made it a sad image.

Well, now the image was not sad. It was demonic.

The ghost had taken up residence.

Disturbed by what was either a supernatural presence existing within my house or, alternatively, the fact that I was losing my mind, I ended up asking my daughter to take the art to her dad. Where it remains. I have not been bothered by that ghost again.

There have been other transient ellipses of space and time at that end of the house, which isn’t space inhabited unless one of my adult children come to stay. One or the other of them has experienced unexplained sounds or an energy presence, enough that I’m fairly convinced—at least on that matter – that I’m not losing my mind.

But it occurs to me, in retrospect, that this was at the same elevation and in almost a straight line along this ridge with the other two occurrences. And in contemplating this, I have concluded that there might be a wrinkle in time here, a portal of sorts that cracks along this ridge and allows transitory visitations by one or another realm of existence.

I’m wondering if I’ll come back to visit, too.

One day they appeared, walking across my land. Then they were gone.