My Lockdown Binge: Downton Abbey.

While others may have felt cut off from the rest of the world during the lockdown year, I was using it to catch up the things other Americans were doing in the 2010s. Back then, some of the Americans I know best were studying the lifestyle of early 20th Century British peerage as revealed in Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey.

Having lately been of a mind to ask the Brits come run things again, I thought maybe I should catch up. I have dropped that notion since the successful election of a candidate faithful to democracy and rule of law. Still, we may yet have a need if the skewing of the census has the intended result.

So, I binge-watched Downton Abbey. I had avoided it even as the rest of my family in three different states bathed in it every week for six years. It seemed too much like soap opera. Will Edith attempt to attract another of Lady Mary’s suitors in their lifelong drama of sibling rivalry? Will Cousin Violet succeed in imposing her will on “those other Crawleys” and find a way to keep the fortune under His Lordship’s control? That sort of thing.

Even as members of my family urged it on me, I had resisted until the most wise Amazon Prime algorithm informed me that I should watch it. I have learned to trust the Algorithm. It knows what I buy, what I browse, what I watch and listen to and read. (Thankfully I don’t have one of those speakers that report private conversations to Mr. Bezos.) With all that information to crank through the Algorithm, I felt that Amazon must know, better than I know myself, that Downton Abbey was right for me and I was right for Downton Abbey.

So I spent a few weeks watching one or two episodes a night until, about four or five episodes in, I caught myself talking to the characters on the screen, advising them what to do or, more often, what not to do. To the gentlemen — be careful around Lady Edith. Or to anyone — watch out when Lady Cora dip-tilts her head forward and to the side a notch and peers at you through her eyebrows. And since that is the way way Lady Cora looked at everyone all the time for all six years of the series, I suppose the message was to always be careful around her. She can drag a secret out of anyone and she can’t keep one longer than one episode.

On the subject of secrets, the entire household — from lord to footman — seemed to fuel their lives around secrets. They simply couldn’t be level with one another. It made for a dysfunctional family upstairs and a toxic workplace downstairs, but they all loved their king. There you have all the makings of a good soap opera and a stable society where people can live together in peace and happy servitude.

After watching the assault on the Capitol by Trump’s brown shirts, the soap opera life of the Earl’s household seems an attractive alternative to rule by the Bad Boys. Maybe the Queen would have us back as members in good standing of the empire. At any place in the social strata, peer to pig farmer, life would surely be better than under rule of the American insurrectionists.

And maybe this is the simple wisdom revealed in Downton Abbey: pig farmers and peers had something in common that bonded them into happy little towns that made British society work. Wrestling sows in the mud was a livelihood for one and, for the other, a duty involved in preserving the ancestral line and estate.

Well, I’m being unkind to Lady Mary. Strike that last sentence.

Rage and Rampage: Is It Really About Mental Health?

Friday night, Brazosport Center Stages opened its production of “An Iliad,” a play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. The play is an examination of the hold of rage over humankind and its expression throughout history as lust for war and blood. The opening night performance was provided with eerily apt real-life bookends by mass murderers in Atlanta and Boulder, one three days before our play opened and the next three days after.

Not the same, you say. One person with an automatic weapon is not the same as a war that pits populations against one another with all the force of their intelligence, technology, industry and wealth. I grant you that, in its scale, it is not the same. But the fundamental driving power of rage is the same.

In the case of the single shooter with the automatic weapon, he feels empowered to do what only armies could do in the past. And his weapon is the product of his society’s technology and wealth. (I considered the pronoun and I’m sorry to say for mass killings the masculine seldom fails.)

The New York Times offers a study that shows an undeniable connection between the availability of guns and mass killing. And the phenomenon is global. Societies with more guns produce more mass shootings.

After mass killings there is inevitably discussion of mental health as a possible factor. Of course, sick people sometimes do evil things. But it is our collective mental health that seems to be the problem. If there can be such a thing as societal or national mental health, perhaps the mental health argument makes sense.

In that case, we might say that a nation is insane when it produces large quantities of weapons of war and makes them easily available and, in fact, guarantees them as a right. Will the Second Amendment be read by our now right-wing court to guarantee the right to own and drive around in a military tank?  

Imagine if the nut groups that invaded the Capitol on January 6 had crowd funded the purchase of a few tanks? How better to express one’s rage than with a few old German battle tanks? That, of course, would require a more expansive reading of the constitution but our court as it now stands seems up to the job.

Meanwhile, we go about our days. I have grandchildren who live less than a mile from the King Soopers store where ten people died this Monday (March 22). It has been their family’s regular shopping spot for ten years.

Now their parents have the job of trying to explain what has happened, to make them feel safe, to inspire in them the courage to live their lives, and to help them understand what must be done to reclaim their country as a desirable place to live and raise their children someday. I do not envy them the task.

A Big Ol’ Howdy from Neanderthalia

West Neanderthalia to be exact.

Photo caricature of Gov. Greg Abbott by DonkeyHotey from Flickr

They said we all died out when the climate changed 40,000 years ago. But the truth is (alternative fact here), we settled in the American south.

Over in East Neanderthalia they do more catfish noodlin’ to get by. Here in West Neanderthalia, we eat the cows, listen to country music, and drink our beer regular. None of that crafty ale stuff. And somethin’ we learned a long time ago — never trust anybody wearin’ a mask. They’ll steal your cows.

Government was late comin’ to Neanderthalia and we can’t wait to be rid of it. Durn nuisance.

As long as we have it, though, we keep it under control and make sure we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to. Like wash your hands, wear masks and dodge around tryin’ to keep from changin’ the climate.

Hell, we made through that bad spell 40,000 years ago, we can beat this one, too. We’re survivalists. We just stock in the Goya beans and keep on votin’ for Republicans. Weather gets too bad, we’ll just move back into a cave somewhere. Sleepin’ in a cave won’t be no problem. Got me one a them My Pillows.

Speakin’ of caves, there’s a big ‘un over in New Mexico. But we have to wait. They have bad government over there. Been votin’ for Democrats. We’ll just stay here and keep on racin’ with East Neanderthalia to see who gets to the bottom first.

Gotta go. Heard they’re inauguratin’ our guy today for his second term. Gonna stop that steal this time. Can’t make it to DC but it’ll be on cable news.

Say Their Names: Solemn Reminders of the Cost of Systemic Racism

The MLK Celebration Committee of Southern Brazoria County and the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences have teamed to present the Say Their Names Memorial in celebration of Black History Month.

The communicative power of simplicity, silence and visual presence has been matched, at least in my experience, only by the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The first thing that struck me was the number of memorial pillars arranged in The Center’s outdoor viewing area.

Then you see that there are photographs memorializing other victims on each of the four sides of the pillars. Fifty pillars, 200 victims. And, of course, they could not include, or even know, the thousands of victims of lynchings and other fatal injustices Black Americans have suffered in this country.

The presentation touches one deeply as you see the beautiful faces of Americans, young and old, who had no place to look for justice when confronted with the reality of America’s deep and persisting racism.

Please go, see and feel the presence of these Americans. Their years were stolen but their memories live as an ever-present reminder of the miles we have to travel before we become the nation we must become. The memorial is at the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences at 400 College Drive in Clute. It will remain there through March 13, 2021.

Happy Valentine’s Day: Eleven Months in Isolation and Reading Your Way into Depression

You would think that eleven months in coronavirus isolation would give you time to read some of the fun things you have been putting off. Maybe some good humor, or even some poetry, although most of it seems to have been written by people in depressed states.

But, speaking of poetry, a friend gave me Mary Oliver’s Devotions for Christmas. She celebrated the beauty of the natural world. That would be uplifting if we weren’t rushing toward the total destruction of nature.

Well, that stretches it a little. We are only destroying the elements of nature that support the kind of life we humans are accustomed to. It is only a bit comforting that no matter how much we abuse it, the rock we call home will continue spinning its annual trips around our supporting star.

If we snuff out human life, evolution will kick in again and we can pick up where we left off in a few million years – if we can somehow remember where we left off.

No, it is just as well we begin anew. We will need a new Bible, of course, with revealed word that can be dug up from the past. I would suggest Mary Oliver’s book for a book in the new bible on our revived planet Earth. Devotions could well be called the Book of Psalms in the New Good Book if her poetry somehow survives. Ms. Oliver was, herself, too modest to name her collection Psalms.

Some of my other choices seem to reveal a masochistic need to deepen the suffering of living in lockdown for what has been almost a full year. One of my first choices was The Plague by Albert Camus. It gave me a pretty nice introduction to the psychology of living in the lockdown world of pestilence and death. It’s not a pretty picture. But it has a happy ending when the rats return to the streets. Normalcy.

Then, Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, emptied Donald’s family laundry basket so we could all pick through all his dirty cotton boxers and sweaty undershirts. (Mary L. Trump, Ph.D, Too Much and Never Enough) In it, Ms. Trump reveals that DJT is a narcissistic sociopath. I’m not certain that I am correctly citing her professional diagnosis but it will do as confirmation of what most of us have been able to conclude by watching the evening news. If anyone thought Ms. Trump exaggerated his sorry condition, the events of January 6, 2021 confirmed that, if anything, she underreported the depth of his dysfunction and the danger he poses to those around him.

Of course it has been the daily newspapers that absorbed most of my reading time. When DJT was elected I added online subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times to my daily encounter with the news. No one can read all of either one of those papers every day. But it gave me a good way to ease into the day’s new developments by reading yesterday’s with horror and a cup of coffee. Although I am never able to read everything in these two papers, I manage to read a lot and I also get to feel good about supporting serious national journalism. Oh, and Jeff Bezos.

Then I made the mistake of beginning to plow through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. I really thought it would have a calming effect by reinforcing the idea that as bad as Trump is, it could always be worse. I am still reading, just beginning actually. I have read 22 per cent of the book. (Thanks to Kindle, I can give you a precise report of my progress.)

But, already, I have been repeatedly chilled by the similarity of the track Trump is on to that of Adolf Hitler’s steady ascent to despotic power in the Thirties. Trump’s impeachment and pending legal actions by state and federal prosecuting authorities provide no exception. After all, Hitler spent nine months in jail after his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, He used the time to write Mein Kampf, ghosted by his prison companion and lifetime follower-to-be, Rudolf Hess. If Trump should be jailed on tax evasion, he would no doubt compose his own manifesto with the help of some more literate inmate with ten-finger typing skills.

They say that as a discussion grows longer on the internet, the more likely that someone will throw out a Hitler analogy or some other Nazi comparison. (See “Godwin’s Law“.) And, there, the discussion generally ends. There is nowhere else to go as the discussion has degenerated into absurdity.

But don’t be too quick too quick to dismiss this one. Reading about the rise of Hitler after WWI, the similarities are downright uncanny. One begins to wonder if Trump has read the Shirer book. That’s not likely since he is a notorious aliterate. Nor has he likely read Mein Kampf, although his ex-wife Ivana claimed he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches on his night shelf. Godwin’s Law would say that’s enough already. Out of bounds. End of discussion.

But, take a look, friends. The Big Lie. Check. The doubling down on claims shown clearly to be false. Check. The cultivated cravenness of partisans. Check. The promotion of violence among supporters. Check.

But to be fair Trump is missing a few important characteristics.

  • He seems not to like the sight of blood. He is happy for others to bathe in it but he doesn’t seem likely to be putting contracts out on people’s lives. As mob bosses go, he seems like a pretty lily-livered one. But he would undoubtedly develop the skills with time, need, and toothless legal and legislative oversight.
  • He is cagey smart and plenty manipulative but he lacks strategic thinking skills. He has people for that but neither are they exactly world class. (Think Stephen Miller, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon.)
  • He espouses no particular ideology of relevance for American voters beyond a nihilistic attitude toward science, government, American culture and rule of law. There is, of course, a unifying principle of opposition to anything vaguely inclusive of people of color, any color but pink-orangey-white. His son-in-law and daughter are Jewish so he differs with Hitler there, but only because they are snow-white and Jared is from a proper criminal family and had, from Donald’s perspective, the good sense to marry gentile.
  • Nor does he have Hitler’s oratory skills. He does standup comedy for the amoral semi-literate, racist groups but he doesn’t have the ability to excite millions of Americans with exciting crescendos of inspirational illiberalism. He can barely read aloud from a TelePrompter. Although sometimes I suspect he reads as he does to communicate to his followers that he doesn’t really mean what he is saying; he is required to say some things to stay barely inside the bounds of decency so that they may all survive another day as a movement.

So, where does that leave us? All I would say is that comparing Trump and Hitler does not extend to my good Lake Jackson Republican friends. They have simply had no choice (so they thought) but to follow along with the nominee of the party they have belonged to for years.

I would suggest to them that they take a look at our party system and the ease with which an extremist or demagogue can take over a party through our system of primaries, gerrymandering and campaign financing. So long as things move along as usual with ho-hum races between ho-hum candidates, there will continue to be folks sent off to legislative bodies to do their bidding and vote against taxes and regulation, except for being “pro-life” when it comes to regulating women and pro-death when it comes to reading the Second and Eighth Amendments. I think most of my long time Republican friends in Lake Jackson are repelled by Trump. The ones who continue to worship him after the Capitol riot are either folks who never participated much in politics or they were conservative Democrats of the early Strom Thurmond, Huey Long, Lester Maddox variety.

But keep and eye on DJT. I think he will keep holding rallies and egging on his followers. If he climbs back into office in 2024, America is in grave danger. You may say that his age is on our side but there are more youthful pretenders out there: Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz to name a few. Graham and Cruz are prime examples of the power of power to turn old opponents into remorseless lackeys.

So ignore my reading list if you are looking for uplifting ways to pass your days in coronavirus solitude. Get a copy of Love Story from an old paperback bookstore in the neighborhood and have a happy Valentine’s Day.