Carl

One of the more disconcerting things about old photo albums is the tiny x’s above some of the people pictured. It means that the person had died. Well, they’re all dead now, I think, so I could put the little x’s above each and every person in each and every photo, but I won’t. It’s not done anymore. I suspect the x was actually a stylized cross—x’s usually were, if not used as the actual letter—and the slightly morbid tradition probably goes back centuries. You still see it in lists of names of military men, meaning killed in action. And you see it on old photos. The young man pictured here, a lanky teen named Carl, was my dad’s eldest brother, a terribly gifted piano player, who began with the German romantics but was caught up in ragtime and jazz. He learned those chops in speakeasies in Flint MI while still in high school, then headed for the jazz bars and swinging dancehalls in Detroit, playing for money and drink. Soon a lot more for drink than money. His father, Carl senior, loathed jazz and blamed it for his namesake’s downfall, and ordered him out of the house over and over. His mother always let him back in. He’d get picked up stinking drunk and pitched into the drunk tank. Mom would plead to bail him out. They would and the cycle repeated. Finally the old man put his foot down and said next time his son could rot in jail. Which he did, soon enough. There’s a recording he made, supposedly while in jail. It’s a Duke Ellington number, Sophisticated Lady, I think—it’s been years since I’ve heard it—and it’s a baroque swing, lush with ornamentation, a display of desperate virtuosity, sad and melancholy and unrealized. He died not much later, of DTs and pneumonia in a frigid jail cell in the depths of a Michigan winter. It was 1949, nearly a decade before I was born, and he was thirty two. The old man followed two years later, of dropsy, heartbreak, failure and his own terrible shattered dreams. The two Carls lie side by side in a forgotten cemetery outside Flint, and someone penciled a tiny x over their heads in this old photo album.

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God Save the Queen

Here’s a fact about Australia that many Australians are loathe to admit–it is a monarchy. It really is, hip, modern, swinging Australia. It is officially The Monarchy of Australia and Queen Elizabeth is the head of state. The Queen of Australia, even. Indeed, when we deign to visit, she might say, one addresses us as The Queen of Australia, and does not address us the Queen of the United Kingdom. Then she’d wave her little queen wave and, if Australian, you’d feel honored. Honoured.

Officially she is “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth”, but not as defender of the Faith which Australians, in a fit of ecumenical pique, lopped off. (If she pops over to Auckland afterward she is both Queen of New Zealand and Defender of the Faith, while in grammatically tortured Canada she is “of the United Kingdom, Canada and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen” and Defender of the Faith. That last line must go over big in Montreal.) Her royal presence permeates much of Australian officialdom. In court cases where in this country we say the People vs so and so, in Australia they say the Queen vs so and so (and the prosecutors are “the Crown”, though I don’t believe they wear those ridiculous wigs, if the court scene in The Last Wave was accurate.) Government controlled lands–governmental buildings, military bases, national parks, aboriginal reservations–are crown properties. Oaths of allegiance for, say, parliament, are typically to the queen. When you became an Australian citizen you used to swear allegiance to the queen, but they changed that some time ago, and now you swear allegiance to Australia…but the Australian High Court has since ruled that as Australia is a monarchy,  swearing allegiance to Australia means swearing allegiance to the queen. It’s complicated.

The queen is physically and constitutionally represented in Australia by her own appointed Governor-General, who officially is the head of state (seriously, he is), meets foreign heads of state as the head of state of Australia, and actually has some constitutional powers, most of which can prevent democratic measures–elections, appointments, bills, the parliament itself–when the monarchy finds them distasteful. There are also queen appointed governors in each of Australia’s six state governments, with even more constitutional powers under the separate state constitutions than the governor-general has under the federal constitution. The queen is represented in Australia’s territories by the Governor-General himself, which even includes the Australian Capital Territory (with the capital city Canberra) itself. Even territories as small as Norfolk Island (thirteen square miles, two thousand or so people) are governed in conjunction with the crown. One wonders just where Australian independence and sovereignty begins and that of England ends, or if such a distinction is even possible. Because is in theory each of Australia’s elected parliaments serves at the pleasure of the queen, and can, in theory, be dismissed by the queen. Democracy in Australia is, in theory at least, a quite limited concept. It’s not like the queen is some vague, titular figure far away. She is, in name and by the constitution, present in virtually everything governmental in Australia. You pay the queen’s taxes (though not for her upkeep in England). You vote for the queen’s representatives in parliament. You pet the queen’s baby kangaroos in the queen’s wildlife preserves. By definition, everything public is the domain of the queen. In day to day reality, no. No one thinks that is the queen’s baby kangaroo. And the taxes to straight to Canberra, not London. But in constitutional theory, though, as a monarchy, everything is the queen’s domain. Her website lists Australia as one of her realms.

The Australian voters share power with the monarchy, and while the monarchy can’t vote on anything, it does have veto power. It can (and does) also appoint officials and ambassadors, and create governmental departments. It can (but isn’t likely to) control Australia’s military and declare war. The monarchy uses its powers sparingly, but not always. Indeed, in 1975, the Governor-General removed the democratically elected Labour prime minister and his government and replaced him with the losing conservative candidate more to the Crown’s liking. Talk about a stink. The Australians, though, loyally consented. Irishmen they are not. Then in 1999, a referendum to dispose of the monarchy and declare Australia a parliamentary republic was decisively defeated. The Australians love their queen.

I’m only pointing this out because an Australian was up on his high horse and trashing me for being a stupid fucking American from a from a stupid, fucked up country. I didn’t disagree on the merits of his arguments–he certainly had some–all I did was point out that he, like all Her loyal Australian subjects, has to constitutionally kiss Queen Elizabeth’s ass. It was a cheap shot, sure, but I was in a corner. What does that have to do with anything, he demanded. Well, when you grow up and become a republic like the rest of us, I said, then we’ll talk. Fuck off, he said, and unfriended me.

This works with Canadians, too. With French Canadians, not so much.

queen-and-footie

History in the Digital Age

You know it’s all downhill from here when every article you read about the days of your youth does not remind you of days of your youth. Maybe that’s how history works. On the one hand I want to tell the writer he’s got it all wrong, on the other hand I know he’d never let facts get in the way of a good theory. Soon we all die and that history becomes the way it was. It has always been this way.

There was a great scene in that John Adams mini-series where Douglas Trumbull shows John Adams his rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is all wrong, Adams yells, it wasn’t like this at all. We were never in that room at the same time! There was a war on! We dropped by when to sign when we could! He went on, a livid old curmudgeon, glorying in being an old curmudgeon. But he was serious, too, because from his vantage point of actually having been there, Trumbull’s now iconic painting was a travesty, totally misrepresenting the truth as he, John Adams, had experienced it. But to Trumbull, even if it were not literally accurate, it got the point across. All these patriots, bravely signing a document that could have been their death warrant. And to us, that is the way it actually happened, in one dramatic scene. The misrepresentation became reality. That has to be what riled Adams. And he had to know there was nothing to be done about it but rail.

Good historians write vast books proving Adams right. Good historians go to the original sources to discover how things actually were. But who reads vast books anymore? And who double checks what passes for the history of my youth in Slate or wherever? You can tell in the comments section to the article [what article it was I have no idea, not that it matters] this battle is lost anyway, not that we–those of us who actually experienced those days–even put up a fight. It’s so strange to read articles in which all sorts of modern concepts are applied to us, things we didn’t even know existed. This is a current academic trend, applying current theory to old events. That’s the influence of the Marxist theory of history, really, although Marx, like Latin, is dead everywhere but academia. But how could we then have done things according to theories and concepts and categories that weren’t invented yet? Or, with even more absurdity, theories and concepts and categories that had never existed at all, except as theories, concepts and categories developed and assigned retroactively by later historians.

I think what I was going on about when I began this essay some years ago was reading articles about bands in my day written by today’s Pop Critics. We didn’t have “pop critics” in my day, just “rock critics”, as pop would have put you in the same league as Steve and Edie. The basketfuls of throwaway bands who rediscovered by later “pop historians” were not yet given an importance that it utterly ridiculous if you stop and think about it. They didn’t really categorize so much then, and the sad thing about creating categories is that one must squeeze things into them, which essentially alters what they actually had been. Not that it matters to the one who, years later, is doing the categorizing. There’s a scientific concept that neatly describes this in a few words…but I’m trying to avoid concepts here. Concepts and categories and theories that pass for reality in universities. There are only a few theories that actually work, and they are born out by reams of evidence. They are nearly all hard science, too. Theories about culture crumble once you leave the campus. You have to live a cloistered life to think they still hold true, and a sadder life to think they are important.

I began this ages ago–years in fact–complaining about how those pop historians fit our reality then into concepts and categories they learned in college. Concepts and categories that did not exist at the time, and thus render every article you read that uses them into fiction. Badly written fiction at that–pop critics are far too often mediocre writers at best, sheesh. And now ages later I’ve ended this piece condemning the intellectual fashion of refusing to look at past events as they actually were, as things you could hear and touch and feel, and insist instead on absurd theorizing and categorization and big words and desperate intellectualism.

I hate all that. I want history, real history. But they don’t teach real history in college, it seems. They teach theory. Historians are dull. They write footnotes, plod through archives, get excited over details. And that stuff goes nowhere online. When reading is something done on a smartphone in an elevator, details are irrelevant at best, annoying as a rule. Truth has become relative, or even insignificant. History ain’t exactly dead, it’s just ignored.

Sometimes I listen to old time radio and marvel at just how effective a medium it was for the imagination. With everything invisible anything was possible. The mind’s eye is a powerful medium, all you need to do is suggest something and the audience pictures it. Jack Benny’s radio household included a parrot, a polar bear, an ostrich and a levitating tenant. On television only the parrot remained. The digital medium of the internet allows for the same sort of imaginary reality. We suspend our disbelief and believe anything we read. The photoshopped pictures and faked videos we’ve become hip to, but we still tend to take whatever we read at face value. There’s almost no skepticism at all for things read on blogs or Facebook. It’s as if what we read becomes vivid reality in our imagination, something we stopped doing with analog mediums long ago. Magazines and newspapers people read with skepticism. But you can write the wildest things on Facebook or in a blog and people will believe it. They can picture chemtrails or bizarre conspiracies or completely made up stories and believe every word. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds would fool millions all over again online. And in a digital environment where the perception of reality can approach Medieval thinking in its irrationality, something as dry as history–real history, researched and sweated over–is an anachronism. History itself is history in the digital world. Virtual reality is reality, and there is no one to say it isn’t. All history is fiction, someone said on Facebook recently. No one disagreed. History is whatever you want it to be someone responded. I thought about arguing the point, but let it go.

History in the Digital Age

You know it’s all downhill from here when every article you read about the days of your youth does not remind you of days of your youth. Maybe that’s how history works. On the one hand I want to tell the writer he’s got it all wrong, on the other hand I know he’d never let facts get in the way of a good theory. Soon we all die and that history becomes the way it was. It has always been this way.

There was a great scene in that John Adams mini-series where Douglas Trumbull shows John Adams his rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is all wrong, Adams yells, it wasn’t like this at all. We were never in that room at the same time! There was a war on! We dropped by when to sign when we could He went on, a livid old curmudgeon, glorying in being an old curmudgeon. But he was serious, too, because from his vantage point od actually having been there, Trumbull’s now iconic painting was a travesty, totally misrepresenting the truth as he, John Adams, had experienced it. But to Trumbull, even if it were not literally accurate, it got the point across. All these patriots, bravely signing a document that could have been their death warrant. And to us, that is the way it actually happened, in one dramatic scene. The misrepresentation became reality. That has to be what riled Adams. And he had to know there was nothing to be done about it but rail.

Good historians write vast books proving Adams right. Good historians go to the original sources to discover how things actually were. But who reads vast books anymore? And who double checks what passes for the history of my youth in Slate or wherever? You can tell in the comments section to the article [what article it was I have no idea, not that it matters] this battle is lost anyway, not that we–those of us who actually experienced those days–even put up a fight. It’s so strange to read articles in which all sorts of modern concepts are applied to us, things we didn’t even know existed. This is a current academic trend, applying current theory to old events. That’s the influence of the Marxist theory of history, really, since Marx, like Latin, is dead everywhere but academia. But how could we then have done things according to theories and concepts and categories that weren’t invented yet? Or, with even more absurdity, theories and concepts and categories that had never existed at all, except as theories, concepts and categories developed and assigned retroactively by later historians.

I think what I was going on about when I began this essay some years ago was reading articles about bands in my day written by today’s Pop Critics. We didn’t have “pop critics” in my day, just “rock critics”, as pop put you in the same league as Steve and Edie. The basketfuls of throwaway bands who rediscovered by later “pop historians” were not yet given an importance that it utterly ridiculous if you stop and think about it. They didn’t really categorize so much then, and the sad thing about creating categories is that one must squeeze things into them, which essentially alters what they actually had been. Not that it matters to the one who, years later, is doing the categorizing. There’s a scientific concept that neatly describes this in a few words…but I’m trying to avoid concepts here. Concepts and categories and theories that pass for reality in universities. There are only a few theories that actually work, and they are born out by reams of evidence. They are nearly all hard science, too. Theories about culture crumble once you leave the campus. You have to live a cloistered life to think they still hold true, and a sadder life to think they are important.

I began this ages ago–years in fact–complaining about how those pop historians fit our reality then into concepts and categories they learned in college. Concepts and categories that did not exist at the time, and thus render every article you read that uses them into fiction. Badly written fiction at that–pop critics are far too often mediocre writers at best, sheesh. And now ages later I’ve ended this piece condemning the intellectual fashion of refusing to look at past events as they actually were, as things you could hear and touch and feel, and insist instead on absurd theorizing and categorization and big words and desperate intellectualism.

I hate all that. I want history, real history. But they don’t teach real history in college, it seems. They teach theory. Historians are dull. They write footnotes, plod through archives, get excited over details. And that stuff goes nowhere online. When reading is something done on a smartphone in an elevator, details are irrelevant at best, annoying as a rule. Truth has become relative, or even insignificant. History ain’t exactly dead, it’s just ignored.

Sometimes I listen to old time radio and marvel at just how effective a medium it was for the imagination. With everything invisible anything was possible. The mind’s eye is a powerful medium, all you need to do is suggest something and the audience pictures it. Jack Benny’s radio household included a parrot, a polar bear, an ostrich and a levitating tenant. On television only the parrot remained. The digital medium of the internet allows for the same sort of imaginary reality. We suspend our disbelief and believe anything we read. The photoshopped pictures and faked videos we’ve become hip to, but we still tend to take whatever we read at face value. There’s almost no skepticism at all for things read on blogs of Facebook. It’s as if what we read becomes vivid reality in our imagination, something we stopped doing with analog mediums long ago. Magazines and newspapers people read with skepticism. But you can write the wildest things on Facebook or in a blog and people will believe it. They can picture chemtrails or bizarre conspiracies or completely made up stories and believe every word. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds would fool millions all over again online. And in a digital environment where the perception of reality approaches Medieval thinking in its irrationality, something as dry as history–real history, researched and sweated over–is an anachronism. History itself is history in the digital world. Virtual reality is reality, and there is no one to say it isn’t. All history is fiction, someone said on Facebook recently. No one disagreed. History is whatever you want it to be someone responded. I thought about arguing the point, but let it go.