A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.”
Well, that is perhaps a slight exaggeration. Think rather of the tag line in any one of a dozen films (Lord of the Rings, Kindergarten Cop, Independence Day, The Color of Money…): “I’m baaaaack!”
Only in this case, it’s, “Dan’s baaaaaaack!” Possibly to be preceded by a warning shout of, “Look out! Duck! Run for cover!”
Dan being, of course, my friend Dan Bronson of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, and the website Hollywood Nobody, in my links. After a hiatus of two years, a hiatus devoted to refining the high art of procrastination and coming up with more inventive ways to avoid work than any dozen normal men could devise, Dan is back blogging again and—knowing Dan—almost certainly using blogging as an excuse not to do any other writing. Dan is, as he himself admits—admits? hell, boasts—an all-time-card-carrying-world-champion procrastinator, a man who has raised procrastination to new and dizzying heights of excellence. When the universe conspires to force him into sitting at his desk and putting words down, those words are inspired. Save for when he disagrees with me, of course, as he does on the directing of Fences, but with the exception of those lapses in taste and judgement, he is a brilliant, insightful (I almost wrote “inciteful,” which would have been pretty accurate also) observer of all things Hollywood and literary.
Check out his link on my website.
Still in my pajamas (flannel, Black Watch pattern, from LL Bean) this morning, I glanced out the bedroom window and saw two raptors of a kind I had never seen before, sitting together in a cottonwood tree not thirty feet from the house. I am not a bird watcher in the sense of going out with binoculars and book specifically for that purpose, but I do like to identify the birds I see.
Easier said than done. Yes, physically the birds were clearly Mississippi kites. After that, the consensus is that Jameson must have been nipping at the whisky far too early in the day. As the name implies, this is not a bird one might expect to see in the southern Sierras at any time of the year, let alone in February.
I went to many sources, looking for solid, calcified, irrefutable information, but apparently bird-watching is like just about everything else in the world these days: the answer varies depending on who you ask.
Most of the sources I checked claim the farthest West the Mississippi kite is ever seen is in isolated colonies in New Mexico and Arizona, but even this does not include either their winter range (outside the U.S.) or their migratory range (late March to early April), both of which would seem to kind of rule out California in February.
I found a site that said the Mississippi kite was expanding its range, but then went on to clarify that by specifically narrowing the expansion northward in eastern states only. One site that allowed me to put in the identifying characteristics of the birds I saw, along with where, geographically, I had seen them, and the time year I had seen them, was unambiguous about the species, and expressed no doubt that I had seen them in California. Another site with the same format was equally unambiguous about the fact that I must have been nipping at the whisky. Yet another site caught my attention because it stated that the size was “larger than a rock pigeon” and rock pigeons is what I first thought I was looking at.
So, there you have it. If anyone has any concrete evidence of Mississippi kites breeding, migrating, wintering, or making permanent homes in California, I would love to hear from you. Are they casual visitors, tourists who come to see the sights, take the rides at Disneyland, look at the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gaze in awe at the giant Sequoias, shake their heads over urban sprawl or this year’s flooding? Or is this a brand new, hitherto unrecorded phenomenon related to global warming or manifest destiny or something else entirely?
Any bird experts out there?
The Industrial Revolution and its handmaiden, mass production, transformed the lives and raised the standard of living of most of the world. That’s a good thing. But every form of progress has its price, and more products for more people for less money was paid for by the loss of something indefinable, something that cannot be measured or quantified or even easily expressed. The best I can do is compare two gun companies.
Remington and Boss were both founded in the early eighteen-hundreds (1816 and 1812, respectively). Remington’s Model 870 shotgun, which wasn’t even offered by the company until 1951, has been manufactured in numbers well north of eleven million. Boss has painstakingly hand-built fewer than eleven thousand shotguns, total, since it was founded. The 870 will break a clay or bring down a bird just as effectively as a Boss and it costs less than a thousand dollars. A Boss is no more efficient than an 870, yet even the well-heeled King George VI considered it too expensive for his budget, and a new one today would start around $75,000, more if you want a 28-gauge or a .410, and far more if you want customized engraving. One is a perfectly useful and inexpensive tool, while the other is a work of functional art that has that indefinable something that can only be described as soul.
It’s the difference between a Buick and a Bugatti. A Buick will move you down the road with comfort, safety, and efficiency. A classic Bugatti will move you just by looking at it.
What follows is a series of blogs about the men and women in America who still devote their lives to making useful things by hand. Nothing will be described in this series that couldn’t be made by machine in China, and bought cheaper at (fill in the name of your favorite mega-store), but all the products written about here will offer a link to a human mind, a human hand, a human heart, and a very human passion for perfection.
I will start with Dave and Nichole Ferry, proprietors of Horsewright Clothing and Tack, because they are beloved and longtime friends.
Dave is a retired California Highway Patrol officer who started training horses and conducting horsemanship and vaquero-style roping clinics many decades ago while he was still on active duty and his hair was still jet black. He discovered he didn’t like many of the tools of the cowboy trade that were mass produced, and about the same time he discovered he had an innate skill for making things. Today, he and his wife Nichole hand make, one item at a time, a wide range of products: exquisite knives (which include the finest sheaths anywhere in the world, and many famous and gifted knife makers couldn’t make a decent sheath if you held them at gun point), wool vests, belts, purses, wildrags, chinks, chaps, charmitas, and a wide range of holsters.
Each of Dave’s knives, working, sporting, or cooking, is specially designed for a specific purpose, but almost all good knifemakers do that. What sets Dave apart is the time he spends painstakingly testing different steels for different purposes. New steels are constantly being developed, new forging techniques are being refined, and in some extreme cases, entirely new ways of thinking about steel have changed the knife-making process. The molecular structure of the steel, the Rockwell hardness, the profile of the blade, the ricasso, the curve, the bevels, the taper, the balance, how the blade is sharpened, the size and shape of the handle, even the choice of handle material, all these influence a knife’s suitability for specific task.
To give you an idea of the pride Dave and Nichole take in their craftsmanship, they offer a lifetime guarantee on everything they build, no questions asked. And to give you an idea of how seriously they take this, they built a brand-new knife for a gentleman who managed to run over his original Horsewright blade with a mower-deck. That’s customer service.
Contact them here: http://www.horsewrightclothing.com/
I am not a fan of Bill Maher. I watched his show once about ten or twelve years ago, found him snide, snarky, holier-than-thou, and not very funny. He had the shallow cleverness that too often passes for intelligence among the liberal left, the kind of cleverness that relies on specious and shallow reasoning and follows the flawed syllogistic argument, ‘I am a good person, so if you disagree with me you must, ipso facto, be a bad person.’ I never watched him again. But in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I would like to give him a quick pat on the back. (This is something that I am sure will make all the difference to his life and trajectory of success, something he must have been pinning and weeping for until this happy moment.)
A headline caught my eye, and following the path to various news sources, the bottom line is that Bill Maher is standing by his guns in having a gentleman named Milo Yiannopoulos on his show, even though doing so has caused another gentleman named Jeremy Scahill to cancel his appearance on the same show.
The astute reader, scanning the above paragraph, will doubtless be able to tell I haven’t clue who either of these gentlemen are, nor do I care. I had heard of Yiannopoulos and was vaguely aware that he has something to do with Breitbart News, but since I am only vaguely aware of Breitbart News’ existence, and not inclined to know it any better, I can honestly say I knew nothing about either of them. I have since looked them up on the internet and found that one appears to be a sort of obnoxious far-right gadfly who delights in tweaking the public’s outrage and (presumably) profiting by it. The other appears to be a painfully progressive journalist with an underdeveloped sense of humor who takes himself much too seriously.
So far, there is nothing about this incident that doesn’t bore me to tears, but I was intrigued by Bill Maher’s standing by his choice of a far-right rabble-rouser and particularly by his statement, which reads, in part: “Liberals will continue to lose elections as long as they follow the example of people like Mr. Scahill, whose views veer into fantasy and away from bedrock liberal principles like [sic] equality of women, respect for minorities, separation of religion and state, and free speech.”
Kudos, Mr. Maher! I couldn’t agree with you more! Those are, I might add, the bedrock principles of conservatives too.
I haven’t the foggiest idea what Mr. Scahill’s views are on any of those issues, or what his views on Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views might be, nor do I wish to know. But if Mr. Scahill is such a delicate cupcake that he can’t even abide the thought of appearing on a show with someone who holds different views and different beliefs, I can’t help wondering what his life will be like when radical Muslims move in next door and begin imposing sharia law in his neighborhood. Or—just to prove I’m an equal opportunity offender, happy to be rude to one and all—when extremist Christians such as Evangelicals or Catholics with dangerous views and agendas move in on the other side and start imposing canon law. (I am a Catholic, so I get to poke all the fun I want at them and besides, Catholics were briefly listed by the Army as a dangerous terrorist group a few years ago. Go figure.) Poor Mr. Scahill will have to find a Safe Place. I would suggest he try Canada, but many wild-eyed liberals who swore to emigrate to Canada if the Trumpster were elected have found Canada somewhat harder to get into than less enlightened countries. Such as America, for example.
A better title might have been “Barriers.” The fences referred to in the play/movie are, on the surface, those we put up intentionally to (as one of the characters says) keep some things in and other things out. But it also refers to the fences we put up unintentionally, unconsciously, the self-limiting fences that keep us from doing and being what we wish to do and be. And perhaps most importantly, it refers to the fences society puts up, all those barriers of the Jim Crow era that were meant to keep black folks in certain jobs and certain neighborhoods and within the confines of certain limited dreams and ambitions. Fences is the sixth play in the ten-play cycle written by August Wilson as a portrait of black America from 1900 to 1990. If Wilson had not died much too young (at only sixty) he might have continued the cycle, and it would have been fascinating to see how he perceived the repetition of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities (primarily by politicians) that have circumscribed the lives of black Americans over the past quarter century. In any event, the movie stays remarkably true to the play, which is hardly surprising, since August Wilson wrote both scripts.
I saw the play back in the late 1980’s, starring James Earl Jones. Jones created the lead role on Broadway and won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor, and the play itself also won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, but it was Jones’ towering performance that overshadows any other memory I have of the play itself.
In the interim, in fact just a year or so ago, I wrote a short story about Sonny Liston (Teaching the Bear to Read, on my website under “Other Writings”) for which I had to do a lot of research into Sonny Liston’s life, and what struck me about watching the movie Fences was that Sonny Liston’s appalling childhood, his brushes with the law, his eventual success, and his final fall from grace, seem to have been a relatively common experience for a specific kind of black man in America at a specific time in which a few specific doors had been opened and a few others were just beginning to open (small, suspicious cracks, a white foot cautiously braced at the bottom) even as the bulk of the doors remained shut, doors that were and are ultimately much more important and more universal than the few that were opened. It is this kind of black man who must have been so prevalent in the 1950’s era playwright August Wilson wrote about, the kind of black man who represented the failure (a more cynical person might say the sick joke) of emancipation and the gap between the promise and the reality.
Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson (if that name resonates with memories of high school American history classes about the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not an accident), a sharecropper’s son who had the skills to be a Major-League baseball player, but who missed the chance due to timing, due to the fact of being black in white America, due to the realities of the black experience of that particular time. Yes, I know those realities still exist, but the causes have changed.
If all you want is to know what it was to be a black man in America in the 1950’s, you will learn that from Fences. But you will also learn something about the human condition—forget black or white—and what it means to be a man fighting and raging against the fate of one’s time and place in history, and—in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to King Lear—the futility of that fight. You will learn all that and more, and those are good reasons to go see Fences. But if nothing else, you should go see it because it is acting at its best.
It’s hard for me not to compare Denzel Washington with James Earl Jones, and because I am such an ardent admirer Jones’ work, no one could possibly live up to my memory of his performance. And yet, and yet… Washington has taken a very different approach to the character, one which makes him both less likeable and more understandable and—it is this that convinces me of Mr. Washington’s brilliance—equally unforgettable. Washington is always memorable even in his most mediocre movies. Training Day leaps to mind (yes, yes, I know it was ballyhooed and that it earned—quite rightly—Washington an Academy Award, but go back and pay attention to the script), a film I actively disliked and that had holes you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through, but Denzel Washington’s performance lingers. In Fences, his performance lingers in ways that make me keep going back to it in my memory, just as I do with James Earl Jones. I can give no higher praise than that.
Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, none of whom I had never heard of, even the little girl at the end, Saniyya Sidney, all of them turn in the kinds of performances that make me wonder why I ever thought I could act. They’re that good.
And then there’s Viola Davis. Lord have mercy! A diamond will always shine to best advantage in a turnip patch, but this ain’t no turnip patch; these are some of the finest, most memorable performances I’ve seen, and even surrounded by all this coruscating talent Viola Davis walks away with the movie. She is, without exaggeration, one of the finest actresses of our time, and she deserves all the accolades, all the roles, all the rewards and awards. She alone would make this a movie eminently worth seeing.
I have one minor quibble with some of August Wilson’s psychology at the end, when the family tries to apotheosize the deceased Troy, and I have a minor quibble with Denzel Washington’s direction at the same point, making too much of the sun bursting through the clouds, a clichéd device, but these are picayune in the final sum of a brilliant movie.
When I first started this blog, I made a conscious decision not to write negative reviews of books or movies. It’s far too difficult to create any kind of work of art, and far too easy for any fool to criticize and belittle what he can’t do himself.
But last night I saw something that angered me.
La La Land has been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, best original screenplay, best original score, best original song, and more. It received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, and Emma Stone won best the actress award from the Screen Actor’s Guild.
I was suspicious about all those nominations when I saw the trailers on television, but, hey, a lapse in someone’s judgement can result in a dreadful trailer for a great film or a great trailer for a dreadful film, so I went to see La La Land, not with high expectations so much as with an open mind. If I had gone with high expectations, I would have really become enraged.
La La Land is the kind of inoffensive movie to which you can safely take your grandmother and your movie-infatuated ten-year-old daughter, and after I’ve said that, I have exhausted my repertoire of a compliments.
Embarrassingly mediocre, one incoherent cliché after another, it’s “best original screenplay” consists of an impoverished storyline watered down and rebottled from half a dozen real musicals written by real writers and real composers. Has no one ever seen, or does no one remember such trifles as An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain, to name the two that La La Land steals from most egregiously? Can anyone with a room temperature IQ and over the age of ten honestly pretend to compare the musical genius of the Gershwin brothers to the mild and modest work of Justin Hurwitz? I won’t insult Alan Jay Lerner’s memory by even bothering to compare his script to Damian Chazelle’s lame, incoherent, and uninspired platitudes.
Unfortunately, this pedestrian version is performed by actors who can’t sing and can’t dance, neither of whom had enough charm or charisma to keep me from wandering out of the theater to get a drink of water I didn’t desperately need. Both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are good young actors, but neither one of them has singing chops that should ever be heard outside of the privacy of their respective showers, and neither one of them would ever make it through the audition phase of Dancing with the Stars or the first round of So You Think You Can Dance? Contrast that to Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Hell, contrast it to Fred and Ginger in any one of their magical confections.
Darleen tells me Emma Stone won her SAG Award for best actress over Meryl Streep’s bravura portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. SAG must have awarded it for best monotonous walking sequence, because I’ve never seen so much unnecessary walking from nowhere to nowhere for no purpose. This in a film set in a city where Steve Martin famously drove next door to talk to his neighbor in LA Story. (I think that was the movie.) Motion pictures are called that because they use visual images to tell a story. That, by definition, means the images you see on the screen must cause the storyline to advance. Random wandering from one spot to another does not advance the story. If Emma Stone had taken her award and walked over to Meryl Streep and presented it to her, it would have left me with a more charitable opinion of Ms. Stone. Her performance in La La Land no more deserves an award than it deserves to be remembered.
It’s not that La La Land is so unspeakably bad that angers me, because it isn’t unspeakably bad. It’s that the Academy and the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Golden Globes committee are so unaware of their own history and the history of magic real Hollywood musicals once offered that they would have the temerity to praise such mediocrity. It’s either ignorance, or they allowed themselves to be bought or bullied.
John Legend was the best thing in it (Legend and a quick glimpse of a beautifully restored blue and white ’66 Corvette in the background of one sequence) and there wasn’t enough of him or his music to keep me or Legend-groupie Darleen in our seats. I’m angry at myself for having wasted two hours desperately clinging to the hope that the damned film might improve and that something, ANYTHING, noteworthy would happen. Where the hell is Kim Jong-Un when you need a little diversion?!
Ten or twelve years ago I was in Missoula, Montana, where there are a lot of art galleries. One night a month, the galleries stay open in the evening and guys like me can wander in, have a glass of wine and enjoy—or not—the art. I was going from gallery to gallery when I walked past a bar, a real, honest-to-God, old-fashioned, sawdust-on-the-floor, beer-and-whiskey bar. I don’t remember now if it actually had sawdust on the floor, but that was the atmosphere of the place. In the window was a small round table with two bar stools, and perched at the table was an odd couple. One was a real, genuine, working cowboy who looked as if he had just come in from the feedlot, or possibly a cattle drive, still in his daily working clothes: filthy jeans, tattered shirt buttoned all the way up, sweat-stained and dust-covered Stetson, muddy (and probably shit-covered) boots with spurs still on, droopy moustache, weathered and leathery face, drinking a beer. He was engaged in earnest and cheerful conversation with a slightly younger (or perhaps simply less weather-beaten) Gothic girl: unnaturally black hair, unnaturally pale skin, nose-ring, tattoos, clunky working boots, who looked as if she had just come from a class on “Anarchism as Theory and Movement.” (That’s an actual class from an actual college, but not the University of Montana.)
The juxtaposition of this unlikely pair, and their obvious enjoyment in each other’s company and comments, delighted me so much it made me want to move to Missoula. My bride, who considers snow to be a personal insult from her Maker, told me briskly to be sure to email her daily, so I abandoned the scheme, but the memory of those presumed polar opposites remains.
I was reminded of that glimpse through a window as I listened to some of the comments from some—by no means all—of the speakers at the various women’s marches the day after the Trumpster’s inauguration. According to much of what I heard, if you voted for the Trumpster, you live in fly-over country, drive a beat-up pickup truck with Confederate flags on it, and are a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, illiterate, deplorable white supremacist too stupid to be allowed to vote. On the other hand, according to some—not all—of the Trumpster’s supporters, if you voted for Hillary you are a spoiled, pampered, whining, cry-baby incapable of surviving without trigger warnings and safe spaces, who wasted your parent’s money by getting a degree in Gender Equality Studies, which now qualifies you to live in your mom’s house and re-post liberal lies on Twitter and sign-the-petition posts on your Facebook page so that can pretend you’re doing something meaningful and wondering why you aren’t getting gold stars, or at least a job, just for existing.
I would so dearly love to see more cowboys and Goths sharing civilized discourse. Belittling and mocking and calling people names may win some laughs from the cheap seats, but it sure as hell won’t win anyone over to your point of view.
In 1959 (I think) my father took me out into a field near the Rhine, away from the lights of our little town, to watch a sputnik pass overhead. Ten years later, I stood on beach in Bermuda watching a full moon as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. Quite a lot happened in the wide world between those two events, and Hidden Figures touches on two of the most salient and absorbing issues in America during those years. It was a time when we hovered on the verge of transcending our earth-bound limitations, and hovered too on the verge of transcending some of our moral limitations. We’ve come further faster in one of those areas and still have a way to go in the other.
Very briefly, the plot of Hidden Figures tells the story of (some of) the black women who worked with NASA and helped make John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. What is not told (and it couldn’t be told within the context of the story the movie needed to tell) is that black men and women had been working in various ways for various branches of the defense industry ever since the outbreak of World War Two. Many of them had stayed on after the war as one (or possibly several) of these defense and intelligence agencies morphed into what is now known as NASA. In theory, they were supposed to work on an equal basis with their white co-workers, and apparently that was accomplished to a certain extent, but… There is always a but. That’s basically the plot.
What is more important, however, is the view the movie provides of Jim Crow racism in pre-civil rights America. I was aware of this theme and it almost made me avoid the movie; I saw enough of that as a child and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to last me a lifetime. I am very glad I went to see Hidden Figures because I learned much about the extraordinary achievements of the so-called “colored computers” (which was how the black “girls” were referred to) and because the handling and portrayal of racism are spot on. This was not the crude, overt racism of mental midgets such as yesterday’s KKK or today’s so-called white nationalists, those loathsome offshoots of Hitler’s National Socialism with its hateful and dishonest ideology. (That kind of hateful and stupid evil will never be completely eradicated from the world. If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too.) Instead the movie shows the unthinking, unconscious racism of people who grew up in a certain time and with certain norms and who never stopped to think about them. There is a scene where one of the ladies (Taraji P. Henson) explains to her supervisor (Kevin Costner) why she disappears for forty-five minutes at a time, and as she explains—standing by her desk, rain-soaked, embarrassed, in front of all her watching white co-workers—her anger rises, a long-festering boil finally bursting, and she talks about having to drink her coffee from a separate pot, not the one the white folks she works with drink from. When she finally stops, no one speaks, and Kevin Costner turns to look at the table where the coffee pots and cups are assembled, one pot carefully labelled “colored.” It is clear that if he has ever even laid eyes on that little symbol of segregation, he hasn’t seen it, in the sense of taking in the reality of what he sees. That was racism in those days, an unthinking acceptance of what had always been, without ever understanding the pain and humiliation it might cause, without even considering there might be another way to do things.
The three ladies who play the main characters (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) should all have gotten Academy Award nominations. They were that good. But the performances that absolutely blew me away were Kevin Costner’s quiet, understated, multi-layered portrayal of the busy, preoccupied head of the team Taraji P. Henson works on, a man neither less nor more than any other man of his time and place, but who transforms into something else following that moment when he first really sees the coffee pots. I’ve always admired Costner’s work, but this took him to an all new level.
And then… And then there is Mahershala Ali as Taraji Henson’s suitor. Lord have mercy! Mr. Ali became a specific person so completely and subtly that it will now be hard for me to ever shake the memory of that gentle, strong, dignified persona to see him as anything else. He inhabits the role in the way all actors always strive to do, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard enough to strive for, harder still to achieve, and impossible for all but the most gifted few to achieve as perfectly as Mr. Ali did.
And so many others in smaller roles that resonate still: Jim Parsons as a rigid, tight-assed, unthinking racist so typical of that day and that place; Glen Powell as John Glenn, capturing the niceness and decency of that man in just a few, brief scenes…
I could go on, but I would have to list the entire cast.
Two things shocked me about this movie. First, while I can understand—not approve of, but comprehend—the reason why these ladies were never given their due back in that era, why the hell has it taken fifty years for them to be given their rightful place in history?
Second, doing some research about the book I came across the following sentence on Margaret Lee Shetterly’s website (she is the author of the book Hidden Figures, upon which the movie is based):
“A ‘girl’ could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job.”
The Equal Pay Act was written into law in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act, and women are still marching in the streets for equal pay? It would seem we’ve come further overcoming racism (think of Barack Obama in the White House, voted in by a large majority both times) than we have with pay equality for women, and as far as I know, equal pay has no negative equivalent to the moronic white nationalists. Not America’s finest hour.
Some random synopses of related news items that have caught my eye in recent weeks:
-According to Judicial Watch, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service has found that record amounts of drugs, including record amounts of heroin in particular, have been pouring over the southern border from Mexico.
-The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization both rate the United States as the world’s largest consumer of both illegal drugs and prescription drugs.
-According to Time magazine, heroin use in America increased 63% between 2002 and 2013.
-Beginning around the turn of the century (2000) more people began dying from drug use than from alcohol for the first time in history.
-This past year (2016), Chicago recorded the highest rate of homicides that city has experienced in the last twenty years.
-Canada has approved the use of pharmaceutical heroin for addicts who are unable to beat their addiction.
Notice any pattern?
I first realized America had lost the war on drugs about ten or twelve years ago.
I had been hunting Coues deer with some friends in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico. The way the law works, if you have a successful hunt in Mexico and you wish to bring a trophy back with you, you may only cross the border at certain designated spots where you must present your trophy and paperwork to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for clearance. The closest spot to where we had been hunting was the border checkpoint in Douglas (Arizona)/Agua Prieta (Mexico). Our party was the only group returning from a hunt, but the Fish and Wildlife Service was in no hurry to do its job, and to kill the time I fell into conversation with a US Border Patrol K9 agent. He had a Malinois, a breed I admire, and we were talking about aptitude and training and one thing or another when suddenly the officer was called away.
More time passed, and then I saw a gaggle of Border Patrol agents carrying what looked like wine boxes wrapped in plastic-wrap and duct tape, with one officer escorting a man in handcuffs, and the K9 officer bringing up the rear. He told me they had arrested the man for attempting to smuggle hashish into the States. I asked what was going to happen to the smuggler.
“He’s an American, so we’ll send him north.”
“You mean he’ll be prosecuted in a jurisdiction up north somewhere?” I asked.
“No, I mean we’ll turn him loose on this side of the border.”
“What?! I saw you guys carrying all those boxes. That was several hundred pounds of hashish and you’re going to turn him loose?”
“Actually, he didn’t have that much, not even two hundred pounds, but if it’s anything less than 299 pounds, we don’t even bother to prosecute.”
That was the day I realized America had lost the war on drugs. Today, if what I hear is accurate, the new level for prosecution in Arizona is 499 pounds. Since it apparently varies from state to state, you might be surprised to know that in Texas, according to Sheriff Larry Dever of Cochise County Arizona, you would have to be caught with over—over—750-kilograms, or 1,653 pounds of the stuff before you would get prosecuted. When you consider the potential profit margin versus the non-existent chance of being prosecuted (unless you go really big-time), drug smuggling suddenly becomes a very attractive employment opportunity for those with certain skills and a certain mindset.
I read somewhere, several years ago, an article positing the theory that, with certain exceptions, specific traits remain relatively constant among all peoples in all places around the world, so that a given percentage of people will always be prone to addiction in any society, while another percentage will be equally immune to addictive tendencies. I suspect that is accurate, but whether it is or not, we really, really, need to learn from the past, in this case our own, recent, American past.
Prohibition became the law of the land with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. It gave rise to organized crime (most colorfully and bloodily in Chicago, I believe); was the catalyst for some of the bloodiest turf wars imaginable (until our current era); made a handful of unscrupulous and violent men laughably rich; caused a spike in homicide rates per 100,000 unequaled until the recent drug wars; encouraged a generation of bright young things to drink much more heavily than they would have had drinking been legal, by adding a new, wild-and-illicit glamor to drinking that it had not possessed before (the young are always attracted to the risky and the forbidden); cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when such tax revenues were desperately needed to offset the effects of the Great Depression; and proved itself so ineffectual and so widely ignored that it was repealed with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.
With all that in mind, I think it is well past time to reconsider our national position on drug use, all drugs, across the board.
Twenty-four states currently allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes and four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia) allow legal, recreational use, while California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts recently passed similar recreational use measures. Other states have a confusing and frequently contradictory patchwork quilt of laws and regulations. This in spite of the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, being considered a Schedule I drug, a situation which must have a lot of law enforcement officers scratching their heads, or shaking them, but what can they do? Article VI of the Constitution contains something called the Supremacy Clause, which spells out very clearly that every state “shall be bound” by the federal law. However, under Barack Hussein Obama, the federal government has treated marijuana with a wink and nod. Most authorities agree that marijuana is a gateway drug; that may or may not be true, but if the federal government is going to allow states to ignore the Supremacy Clause and make up their own laws regarding marijuana, it is long past time for the Feds to change the law regarding that particular drug, and if they’re going to change the law and their attitudes toward marijuana, why not toward cocaine? Or heroin? Or, hell, the whole shooting match?
Before you close this site in outrage, let me give my rationale.
First, consider the lessons of Prohibition. It’s no coincidence that the cities with the highest rate of illegal drug use are the cities with the highest rates of homicide: Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Indianapolis… The list continues. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to draw direct correlations, in part because drug use is not tracked by city, even though the cities mentioned above all have well-established reputations as distribution hubs, and in part because there are also weird anomalies. Oakland, for example, has a very high murder rate, but neighboring San Francisco, which is off the charts for drug use, does not have an abnormally high murder rate. Is that because San Francisco has an exceptionally tolerant attitude toward drug use, or is it because Oakland is the actual distribution center? I don’t know. What I do know can be summed up by the words of a former law enforcement officer who was in charge of the narcotics division in a large California city: “If you could take all illegal drugs out of existence, the murder rate in America would drop by 95%. Maybe more.”
There is not enough room in this article for me to list every city in America that is considered a “hub” city (i.e. a distribution center), nor is it possible to state that any one city holds the title of “hub” capitol, because so many cities qualify, depending on the drugs sold in that particular region, but numerous sources (research it for yourself) say Chicago holds the record, hands down, for having the greatest number of gangs and the greatest number of gang members.
“Gang” is itself a somewhat misleading term. Is a local branch of a Mexican drug cartel considered a gang or something else? Are any of the so-called organized crime groups (Mafia, Jewish Mafia, Irish Mob, and so on) considered gangs or something else? What do you call a local gang that enters into a collaborative arrangement with a drug cartel or an organized crime family? Is it still a gang, or is it considered something else? What about the local splinter groups that have devolved down from larger organizations; are they considered gangs in their own right or something else? That last grouping is significant because many of the homicides that occur in the inner cities, Chicago or any other city, are committed by splinter groups that have devolved down from the true gangs (think MS-13, Latin Kings, Crips, Hells Angels, Aryan Brotherhood, and so many, literally hundreds, more) and each splinter group has its own local loyalties and its own local power struggles.
It doesn’t matter. No matter how you look at it or what you call it, all of these criminal entities are fueled by the illegal drug market, and they are all notable for their bloody ruthlessness when it comes to protecting their turf, which is to say, their local market share. Hence the return to the headlines of Al Capone’s day in today’s papers.
And yet, when Sixty Minutes did a segment on the Chicago problem, the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, refused to talk to them. Instead his office issued a terse statement blaming lax gun laws, emphasizing the need for more gun laws, and talking about their plan to offer after-school programs for inner city youth. Oh, yeah. After school programs will solve the drug/gang problem alright. What is that old saw about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Not once, not one single goddamned time, was the word “drugs” even mentioned in that statement. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s refusal to utter the words “radical Islamic terror.” As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, if you can’t even bring yourself to admit the nature of the problem, how are you going to solve the problem?
(For the record, there are ninety-three Federal prosecutorial districts where the U.S. Attorney has the responsibility of prosecuting federal crimes, including violations of federal gun laws, and Chicago ranks last—dead last, you should pardon the expression—when it comes to prosecuting gun violations, so Br’er Emanuel’s call for more laws rings as hollow as his contention that after school programs will take the place of broken families, crappy schools, non-existent job opportunities, peer pressure, and the glamorous magnet of money and power offered by the gangs through the drug market. I can understand the mayor lying to advance his own career or agenda, but it strikes me as the ultimate in callous and Machiavellian selfishness to do so over the bodies of so many murdered children.)
So, if the illegal drug trade is responsible for thousands of homicides across the country, that number would be mitigated if drugs were legalized.
The gangs that control distribution in our cities, and their employers, the drug cartels of Mexico, Latin and South America, would eventually be put out of business if the United States legalized drugs. That loss of business might have an impact on some of the more corrupt politicians in the involved cities and countries, but the countless tens of thousands of innocent civilians who have lost family members in the crossfire would breathe a sigh of relief.
Legalized drugs would cease to have the glamorous attraction of illegality. Not immediately, and perhaps not completely, but if legalization were accompanied with the kind of negative imaging that has proven effective with smoking, it would certainly accomplish more than the wink-and-nod approach to an illegal product.
If the United States legalized drugs, it would also then have some control over the drugs that flow into the country and possibly profit from that flow through taxes and tariffs and fees, and with a twenty trillion-dollar debt, we could use a little extra revenue. If nothing else, an enormous amount of money would be saved by not attempting to enforce laws that are routinely ignored, and by not attempting to continue with a policy that has been proven ineffectual at best. The estimates of what might be saved by legalizing drugs range from a low of $31-billion to a high of over $41-billion. That could fix a lot of infrastructure.
The government could also monitor and regulate the drugs, ensuring a far more consistent degree of quality. Since deaths attributed to illegal drug use are estimated to be around 17,000 annually (that’s just one estimate; others vary, mostly higher) government monitoring and distribution would, at the very least, greatly reduce that number, if not eliminate it. As a young lady I know said, “I don’t want to see anyone smoking meth, but if they’re going to do it, I would much rather see it be made as safe as possible.” (Prescription drug overdoses are a different issue, and estimates vary for that too.)
There are probably other benefits I’m not smart enough to have thought of, and I’m sure there are at least a thousand-and-one reasons not to legalize drugs, and I’m also sure there are other, alternative solutions, but you have to admit we have lost the war and it is long past the time when we should try something—anything—else. If anyone has better ideas, feel free to weigh in.
Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) gave me an ancient, yellow-paged, mass-market paperback entitled The Hell Bent Kid, by Charles O. Locke, published back in the fifties, with the kind of over-the-top cover illustration one might expect to see on a bad Louis L’Amour. Both the cover and the title gave me pause.
The cover was painted by illustrator George Gross, who clearly took his inspiration from Hollywood’s ideas of cowboys and cowboying, not from anything approaching reality. That’s hardly surprising, considering that George Gross was the Brooklyn-born son of an illustrator, who followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the Pratt Art Institute, and then living and working as an illustrator in New York all his life, and it probably wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to anyone likely to buy the book, but it got me off to a bad start.
Then there’s the title.
Dan has a theory that writers frequently choose the worst possible titles for their novels. He points to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revered and classic novel Trimalchio in West Egg as an example. I’m sure you’ve read it. If in fact you do remember the name Trimalchio at all, it’s from The Satyricon, and if you happen to be one of the very few who have ever actually read that, you will agree that it might—might—possibly have been an appropriate choice of title. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins, was able to prevail upon his client and the book has fared reasonably well throughout the years under the much better title The Great Gatsby. If only Maxwell Perkins had been Charles O. Locke’s editor.
Good question. Who the hell was Charles O. Locke? In the Age of the Internet it’s supposed to be possible to find out just about anything about anybody, but not Charles O. Locke. The sum of the man’s life (that I have been able to find) is that he was born into a well-to-do newspaper family in Ohio, graduated from Yale, worked as a journalist, a publicist, a copy writer for an advertising agency, and as a lyricist for some Broadway musicals before turning his hand to Western novels. That’s about it—not much for a man who lived to be eighty-one and is credited with (among accolades for his other novels) a Western that is considered one of the best of all time, frequently mentioned in the same breath as such classics as The Ox-Bow Incident and The Big Sky. That’s heady company, and it was only a reference to those books on the cover, and the fact that I trust Dan’s literary judgment, that kept me from sticking the book up on a high and obscure shelf in my library. I’m glad I didn’t.
Apart from the appalling and off-putting title, The Hell Bent Kid (it should have a hyphen in there, but it doesn’t) is an excellent and exceptionally well-written novel—not just an excellent and well-written Western novel, but novel, period. Mr. Locke’s style reminds me of Hemingway at his very best, meaning sparse, taut, unemotional, where much lies beneath the bare-bones surface, a style that I suspect is the result of both men having been newspaper reporters. All that sparseness creates a story that rushes forward with the speed and momentum of a galloping horse, and yet, in Locke’s capable hands, without ever sacrificing character development or a vivid sense of place.
And it is a story that is both compelling and deceptively intelligent. On the surface, it is nothing more than a variant retelling of the classic of the innocent man fighting to clear his name, or escape the forces of evil, or simply to stay alive against overwhelming odds, the kind of story you can find in any paperback Western with white or yellowed pages. Yet Locke presents an idealistic young hero fighting not just the evil of the men who wish to kill him, or the equally deadly and impersonal dangers of the desert he must travel through, but also confronting the violent nature of man himself as it rises within him. The kid knows what he must do to stay alive, knows too what the almost certain outcome will be, and chooses to confront both dangers on his own terms.
The result is an archetypical, stock Western character elevated into a Christ figure, a man willing to sacrifice himself for a fundamental belief in essentially Christian values. Don’t misunderstand: this is not a “Christian novel;” it is not preachy; it is not a moralizing sermon in novel form; it is not even (I suspect) a novel with a conscious theme. Rather, it is a damned fine, fast-paced novel, set in the American West, using typically Western cowboy themes and images and characters and plot, yet (I’m guessing here) where the author’s moral compass shines through and makes it something more than the same story might have been in lesser hands.
Clearly, Charles O. Locke was neither a horseman nor a shooter; there are a few minor errors having to do with horse handling and firearms, but they are so minor and so few that only diehard fanatics like me will ever catch them. If you liked The Oxbow Incident, give yourself a treat and try to find a copy of The Hell Bent Kid. Good luck finding an affordable copy, though. It is one of those books that command the kinds of prices that once could buy you a good used pickup. We can only hope that some publisher will re-release it.