Monday, October 08, 2018

"Fare Thee Well," Joan

Thursday night, as the United States Senate was in the final throes of ceding its soul to voices of fear and deceit, Joan Baez walked onto the stage of the Chicago Theatre for the last time, having willed her 77-year-old voice to one final tour across the country and around the world.

This was Chicago's turn for a "Fare Thee Well” concert, and that magical voice pierced the warm rain of the city's night with haunting lyrics and familiar folk tunes lamenting the raspy disharmony of hate and daring to confront it with the perfect pitch of love.

Baez did what she has done throughout her life, and mine. Born during World War II, she grew into one of the country’s most persistent critics of all wars, a passionate pacifist but a forceful, opponent of injustice and violence.

She wrote the songs that were nested in her heart and sang the songs written by her fellow travelers in the protest movement that defined her life. And so the phrases resonate—diamonds and rust, houses adorned with rising suns, hard rains soon to fall, driving old Dixie down, Bobby McGee, Michael rowing his boat ashore, forever young, sweet chariots, amazing grace, and gypsies everywhere.

Joyce and I were there that night, along with our son Jeff and his girlfriend Julie—Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers sharing a journey across this cultural divide. It was a pre-planned but still prescient trip (including the astonishing musical experience that is Hamilton and a raucous improvisational treatment of Shakespeare). We were anticipating the best of America--the mystique of the big city, jazz, dance, the arts in many forms, Uber drivers from Ghana with tales to tell, and hotels overlooking baseball's Wrigley Field but without a game to play.

But alas, the country was in the midst of a protracted and vicious battle over a controversial nominee to the Supreme Court. We needed an escape from what this debate had revealed -- presidential smuggery, congressional cowardice, and a political culture poised to slide into moral bankruptcy. 

President Trump and his beleaguered nominee
for the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court
There was a sense of urgency in the theater. The audience skewed older—silver hair, slower steps, canes, and walkers in abundance, including mine. But there were granddaughters too, accompanied by grandmothers who hope they will one day understand. There were fathers and sons talking about being a man.

| Vol. LXXX No. 21

Perhaps it was predictable that this dark shadow would be cast across our land when Joan Baez was booked for this final appearance in Chicago on this final tour of her career. Every one of us had come to celebrate the contributions of her life and witness and to enjoy the beauty of her music. But from the first song, it was clear that her voice that night was not about past sit-ins or marches on Selma. It was not about past campaigns for human rights or women's rights or voting rights or civil rights of any kind. 

The set of songs she sang, no matter the familiarity of the lyrics, was about present-day injustice, politicians without values, history without context, and a culture that is increasingly coarse and bereft of moral leadership. It was about now, not then. It was about us, not them.

What we got from Joan Baez was not an antidote or a cure. But it was a response, powerfully sung and passionately felt. 

And now she needs to say farewell. How can she go? The hard rain is still coming. Michael's boat is not ashore. There are many more Bobby McGees. There are promises to keep out there blowing in the wind.

But this is one of those promises:

Oh fare thee well, I must be gone
And leave you for a while
Wherever I go, I will return
If I go ten thousand miles
If I go, if I go, if I go ten thousand miles

(Songwriters: David GudeFare Thee Well lyrics © The Bicycle Music Company)

So fare thee well, dear Joan. You have served us well, loved your world, found the light, and given us hope. It is the fulfillment of a life well lived.

By amazing grace you found your way, and by amazing grace you go.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Taxes, Jobs, and the Pit Bull Effect

The news was good this week when the Labor Department submitted its monthly report on new job growth and declining unemployment rates, signaling an economy steadily recovering from the economic collapse of 2008.

I am trying to understand why my reaction was tepid at best, more like a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I think it's the pit bull effect.

It's like a family who keeps a pit bull in the house to scare away solicitors, despite the fact it keeps biting the children. When the monthly report comes out the family is thrilled that there have been no pest control salesmen, kids peddling candy for a school fundraiser, or Jehova's Witnesses distributing the latest issue of Watchtower. The children appear to be recovering, but they flinch every time they hear a dog bark.

I'm sorry if this offends pit bull fans who will come rushing to their defense, citing tales of lovable pits who have rescued children from drowning and posed for Christmas cards. Maybe so, but keep them away from my grandkids. I'm just using them for illustration purposes. See below for my penance.

I'll speak only for myself, although I don't believe I'm alone. When I think of pit bulls, Donald Trump comes more readily to mind than Florence Nightingale. And that's why I'm less than thrilled by the current economic news. Apparently, in order to get economic growth, improved wages, full employment, and other desirable outcomes, we have to tolerate in the White House a deeply flawed leader who is self-absorbed, misogynistic, racist, dangerously uninformed, culturally insensitive, and intellectually lazy. And worst of all, he is a pathological liar, unlike anyone we have known in public life for generations.

A pit bull is sitting in the Oval Office, watching cable news, destroying the environment with the click of a pen, offending global partners with tariffs and broken treaties, waving nuclear missiles in his hands like they were popsicles, enriching the monied class with unconscionable tax breaks, rescinding in one fell swoop consumer protections that have taken decades to secure, and handing out pardons to personal friends and celebrities implicitly threatening to use them to save his own neck. And at a more foundational level, he attacks the cherished institutions of our republic, including, most dangerously, the separation of powers.

But that's okay. We got a tax cut. (If you have received yours, please raise your hand.)

I know that political campaigns run to a large degree on economic issues. James Carville, a senior political strategist for the successful 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign, is famously known for coining the phrase, "The economy, stupid." I am as happy as anyone to see my taxes reduced and my unemployed friends secure a job. but I cannot allow myself to celebrate financial gains that crush the social contract that guarantees fundamental freedoms, equality of opportunity, and the promise of a society that works every day to provide our children with affordable education, healthcare for all, safety in schools, security from threats abroad, and the privilege of living in a world where we are admired for our values and honored for living them in our everyday life.

A pit bull sits in the Oval Office, staffed with a chorus of complicity. He brags about the economy and ignores the trail of broken lives that are this administration's refuse. Some say his bark is worse than his bite. It is not. His bark may come as a tweet, but it is ferocious nonetheless.

Don't ask me to rejoice in a growing economy. As long as the pit bull is in the White House, the cost is way too high.

This is my penance for treating pit bulls in an unfavorable light.
I kind of like the image of the nurturing pit bull. Wish we had one.