Sunday, April 29, 2012

Chips, Grits, and Mother Wit

So-called “Reality TV shows” (real? Oh, really?) are considered a guilty pleasure by many of those who watch. Personally I find them cheap and tawdry, and an insult to participants and watchers alike. (Tromp the Donald! Too much American Idol makes idle Americans! Housewives, househusbands, re-unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains… and cable!)

Born of a Hollywood writers’ strike as I recall, they have now grown like a topsy-turvy set of Tribbles, and beneath all the interactive ballyhoo and brief celebrityhood lie a different sort of cheapening, and the cutting of work staff, and a domestic sort of outsourcing--a crafty thumbing of the nose at unions: “No need for all those expensive writers and theatrical directors and set builders; we’ll save a boatload by just paying the fools we
follow around.”

But I have my own guilty pleasure these days… the fictional, scripted, actual-actors weekly TV series called Hart of Dixie, about a darn-Yankee dame named Zoe Hart--a cute, too-clever-by-half doctor; a surgeon, even--who takes up residence in some near-Gulf Coast town between New Orleans and Mobile (approximately), eager to “fit in,” but too opinionated to accept the Southern characters as they are. (Zoe seems not to have learned the lessons of Reconstruction!)

That’s enough about the show. It’s intermittently funny and vaguely scenic (the cutaway shots, that is; the bulk of each episode is likely taped on a Hollywood set). I watch mostly because it reminds me of my mother and her rural Georgia family and upbringing; her occasional Southern-belle ways, too. Mom was vivacious and
beautiful, a heartbreaker no doubt, and she could be gracious or imperious, friendly or snippy, generous or mean--sometimes all of that in the course of a half hour in her usually charming company! She was moody, subject to migraine vapors, more Conservative than our Dad, the Illinois-born Air Force officer.

My sisters and I learned Emily Post manners and military deference, to show proper respect and to say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” and “Thank you,”and mean it. Home Ec. major Mom told us often that people in India were starving, so we cleared our plates, at the table and off to the sink afterwards. But the parents also raised us to think for ourselves, and then regretted it when all three children grew up to be Left radicals at college and forever after… They loved us, but weren't sure what to make of us.

But before that, we lived for a few years in parts of Texas, and we learned about border Mexican food long before mass immigration and excited tastebuds made "Cinco de Mayo" celebrants out of regular meat-and-potatoes Yankees. We
learned to eat all sorts of root vegetables and a good-for-you mess o’ greens too, spicy New Orleans cooking (“Where’s that dang Tabasco bottle?”) and both high and low on the hog, with special attention to fried okra and--of course--grits.

Crispy crawdads, better known as “Cajun popcorn”? Pshaw. Like mother’s milk to a budding Louisianan. Pecan pralines from some branded and candied pit-stop en route from Here’bouts to Over Yonder? As reg’lar as pees in a pot, and twice as salient. But grits…? Now, that’s the foodstuff that separates Rebs from Yanks, and cows from corn. In years
gone by, every restaurant across the South offered not bacon but ham and grits, usually with ham gravy called “red-eye” (I think), any time day or night.

You can still order the ham, but these days you might have to ask for the grits. In fact, North or South, I’m the only person I know who actually likes grits and eats them regularly--but at breakfast as a hot cereal, with butter, salt and pepper, Tabasco, and sometimes melting cheese. I guess the tiny soft core bit in a kernel of corn constitutes a single grit, but they make for a bowl of grits if you collect and steam enough of them. Grits have nothing to do with gumption or some other definition of “true grit,” of course, but newcomers still might have to grit their teeth
to consume a bowl!

Reading Black literature during college, I came on an expression in Ralph Ellison’s great and astonishing novel Invisible Man that instantly became part of my less polite vocabulary: a clever, no-account, shrewdly elusive survivor type was reckoned to be full of “shit, grit, and mother wit”—a tough, fast-talkin’ attitude buttressed by sharp native intelligence, and partly learned from one’s dear old mother, or a stand-in Mama like Dilsey in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, who doesn’t just survive, but endures. (The Ellison and Albert Murray dust jacket photo relates in this way: “trading twelves” equals “doin’ the
[dirty] dozens”--that is, swapping elaborate crude insults, a verbal throw-down among streetwise hustlers full of sg&mw.)

One food fact our Mom claimed was that poor people worldwide, who couldn’t afford to eat meat much, have via accumulative wisdom learned to eat foods that combine to deliver protein to the body--beans and rice, beans and corn, other vegie combos. So as I was eating grits for breakfast the other morning, I had a vision for a means by which to enlighten the world to the pleasures of corn bits. Some flashy
high-end New Orleans or Tex-Mex restaurants should introduce the opening-salvo appetizer dish I’m calling “Chips, Grits, and Mother Wit.”

The recipe, should anyone care to experiment, requires a shallow casserole of grits, water, butter, salt, chopped onion and peppers (both the colorful sweet and gourmet varietal hot), topped by a mix of shredded cheddar and Mexican cojiba cheese, baked in the oven until bubbling and crusting
slightly, served straight from the stove with, not ordinary corn chips, but those dark, speckled-grain chips made more from Mexican beans than corn.

And that’s it, folks: good vegie protein--bringin’ the heat and the sweet corn grits, straight to your gullet and pleasure center. ("Grits ain't groceries"? Little Milton knew better.) Go on, take a dip!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Blue State Reds, Red State Blues

Isn't there something comically ironic about Right Wing states being "Red"? Which leaves the Lefty states to give you the Blues. But any adult person cognizant of history knows that the assigned colors in fact should be reversed. Maybe, but I did say "cognizant."

In this time of media-mogul control of the once independent and skeptical press, of search engines and social networks, wee speedy gadgets and short attention spans, even a partial working knowledge of history seems, if I may purloin a phrase, “a consummation devoutly to be wished." Yet any such possibility is rapidly receding into the past.

Wearing narrow-focus blinders tricked-up by evil terrorists, fighting hellishly expensive desert and mountain guerilla wars for which we are ill-equipped (no matter how spectacular our weapons and stalwart our soldiers), we are left with an economic Depression, a crumbling education system, a rising tide of random violence
everywhere, a stupid resist-all-taxes posture embraced by the rich and powerful (c’mon, you fools, these are just dues, the ordinary everyday dues you owe your country!)… and thus no money available for the nation’s needs. So in time-honored fashion (“Blame outsiders”) we now nurture a shameful animosity toward all immigrants.

Yet with so many streaming here from nations shaped by the former USSR, still we neglect the curious Putin puppet show enacted behind the tattered Rust Curtain--
with potentially hazardous developments reaching from the onion domes of Moscow to the steppes of Central Asia and the sub-zero wastes of Siberia. Did Reagan truly ring down the Iron Curtain? Or was it Gorbachev instead--and was he realist or dreamer? Or does the credit/blame actually belong to Stalin’s crazed policies starting back in the Thirties?

Who among the young of America now can discuss intelligently Hegel, Marx, the Manifesto, Communism vs. Socialism (that word the Republican’ts throw around so casually)? What about the Red and White Armies? Or Stalin outmaneuvering Lenin, Trotsky, and others, becoming the savage leader who killed more of his various peoples than the many millions of Jews, Romany, leftists, and others murdered by
the Nazis (that other word favored by our black President’s enemies)?

But enough. It’s easy for me to get wound up and start hollering these days. But... surprise! This latest addition to the blog is actually intended to house and introduce a love poem… or, rather, an out-of-love poem I wrote when my first marriage came to its bitter end, but couched in the language of the collapsing USSR, with lots of Iron Curtain wordplay and oblique historical references thrown in to keep things lively... suitable for another false Springtime in the Pacific Northwest.

Glasnost, with Fallen Angels

The thaw has breached us.
And now in our icebound Baltics
a certain freedom of movement strikes

the alders, as flights of rhetorical starlings
pursue their social revolutions.
Snow that lay like linen

now flows in rivulets
down the steps and sidewalks,
and dissident speech of crows marks

preparations for the May Day coming.
In all the withered-away reaches
of the state, suddenly

budding green workers arise,
throwing off the chains of mothering earth.
It is Progress of Spring all

over, again, the break-up of
our sovereign union, after the Fall
and Winter chill of years. In

this spirit of no love
and understanding, we brush aside
the dust of bitterness, shed

our heavy coats and, compromised,
walk carefully, negotiating each
step, taking the sun and air…


* * * * *
As I mentioned last week, a pinched nerve in my back is wreaking havoc. Blog posts will be more erratic than usual for the next few weeks. As a deejay friend is wont to say, Thanks for being out there.

I hope you choose to stay tuned.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Awaiting Godot

I'm feeling snakebit some. For the few dedicated readers of "I Witness," I hate not posting at least one new piece each week, but I now have a pinched nerve or similar problem in my tailbone region, which makes walking, sitting at the computer, even thinking consecutively... a bloomin' series of unpleasantnesses.

I hope to regain comfort and commentary soon, but for now I invite anyone with a residual interest in French Existentialism--so popular and so dominant on campuses in the Fifties and Sixties--to seek out and savor (with savoir faire yet) Adam Gopnik's so-cool assessment of Albert Camus and that circle of post-War Sartre-orial thinkers, said essay to be found in the April 9 issue of The New Yorker.

I came away from reading Gopnik wondering about something else, not mentioned but pertinent: Where did Irish expatriate, Resistence fighter, and knotty, stubborn, struggling novelist Samuel Beckett fit in to this no-exit, hell-is-other-folks crowd of strangers? Was Godot (and all that came after) somehow the result of that Irish-French contact?

I'll be here, waiting for answers. (I can't go on, I must go on.)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Loose Ends

Humans have brains, well-used or not, so the human condition adjusts to surprising coincidences, moments of déjà vu, sudden personal disasters our brains don’t see coming, and so on. Fictive or factual, a focused writer still can experience peculiar lacunae, from meandering tangents and inadvertent red herrings to complete writer’s block. Humankind writ large, single scribbler drawn small--we each and all learn to expect major change on one hand, and minor footnotes and loose ends on the other. An obituary written too early, a finale imagined too soon, an iffy outcome counted on... you'll probably be rewriting.

My pop-psyche maunderings are the result of added research or new developments relating to recent blog posts. I decided to mention them, briefly, via this latest chapter in the erratic saga (which has now exceeded 250 individual pieces):

(1) I wrote about record producer and Jack-of-many-trades Lee “Scratch”/“the
Upsetter” Perry a few weeks back as the man who introduced odd sound effects and spaghetti Western/Ennio Morricone stylings into Jamaican Reggae, especially Dub music. Perry is an international figure these days, 35-40 years past his creation of Vocal and Dub albums that quite truly changed the world of music. Pop culture tidbits--TV and movies, current events, World Music discoveries, hysterical, I mean historical odds ‘n’ ends--still inspire his songs and chants (which are semi-Rastafarian but only semi-lucid), and he actually won a Grammy finally in 2005 for Best Reggae Album, a strangely boring work titled Jamaican E.T.

But, then, the Upsetter has always pushed and hacked at whatever envelope he found around him. After a half-dozen years (1973 to 1979 or so) spent engineering and producing, day and night, in his own Black Ark studio--brilliant records
welcomed around the world--Perry suffered a major mental and physical breakdown; he scrawled bizarre graffiti on every surface in the studio, then burned his stranded Ark to the ground. (Maybe he actually believed he could escape the pressures of celebrity and overwork.)

Freed after a fashion, he became a citizen of the world, going where welcome, performing with whoever would pay him, functioning basically as a hired gun--or a Chuck Berry on tour (“I’ll need the cash up front, and a rhythm section that can take orders”). The Berry/Perry analogy isn’t so farfetched; both Black folk-philosopher-musicians wrote influential songs, proved they could go it alone if necessary, still expected everyone around them to jump on command.

Now imagine Berry deciding he could out-do Marvin Gaye’s Soul Music, social
commentary classic What’s Going On. “No Money Down” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” with multiple overdubs. Or getting down to it,“My Ding-a-Ling” in place of “Sexual Healing.” Well, Jamaican E.T. sounds like WGO with a cracked foundation and bats skittering in the attic--multi-layered voices, as extra-terrestrial as the mammoth, concave listening antennae tuned to inner and outer space, with “Scratch” rapping and rhyming and chanting, atop multiple newscasts, vocalists, telephone conversations, random talk, white noise, and buried somewhere some Reggaefied bass-and-drum beats. Minimalist music really, fumbling and stumbling over its own terms for success.

Back around 1972 he and King Tubby had created (Dubbed up) maybe the first concept Dub album, called Upsetters 14 Blackboard Jungle Dub, a 14-cut stereo
wonder, left, right, and center channels each playing a separate Dub version of the music, but blending like Jazz cats improvising their own lines on a set of chord changes. Perry pressed up only 200-300 copies, sold ‘em at a premium, went on to other things recorded yet unheard until Scratch attacked.

That was then, and the after-then. And now?

History… mystery… City too hot… E.T. not.

(2)into (3) More loose ends but I’ll be briefer; think Civil War(s) as the connection among them. Discussing Stephen Foster’s career in the piece examining “Hard Times Come Again No More,” I ignored the scores of songs (precise pun there), most only fleetingly played and then forgotten, that he wrote Between the States (as it were) for
that War effort. Like Ken Burns for his famous documentary, when classic vocalist Thomas Hampson needed arrangements for circa-1860s music, he called upon composer/fiddler Jay Ungar (of “Ashokan Farewell” fame). And Ungar made Foster’s “Hard Times” the repeating motif threaded through Hampson’s gentle, quietly evocative vocals, over the trio’s simple arrangements of those ballads (fluctuations of fiddle, guitar, and parlor piano), but including as well some high-stepping medleys of Foster’s popular minstrel-show tunes--recorded, that is, without the politically incorrect lyrics. Call it a civil approach to the wars between races, sexes, and States.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album seems to be predicting civil unrest if not outright war. Wrecking Ball abandons the Foster song Bruce was occasionally using among his list
of encores, and presents instead his own roll call of Hard Times (“Shackled and Drawn,” “Death to My Hometown,” “This Depression,” “Rocky Ground,” “Swallowed Up”) and juxtaposes them against a few songs offering the possibility of positive action: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “We Are Alive.” Even some contorted photos suggest the national agony. (Then again, Springsteen is also lamenting the sudden and too-recent death of his partner-in-fame, “Big Man” Clarence Clemons, whose snaky Soul-full sax occurs on two tracks only--a ghostly presence, but a welcome one.)

Still, this is Bruce the Mighty; the worst events can be saved by rock ‘n’ roll, always,
whether he must take on the persona of a Gospel singer reconstructing “This Train,” or assume the "Oirish attitude-like" of folk-punk band the Pogues, or pick up a gun to go after the banksters threatening his home. (These days, Woody’s guitar would read “This machine kills one percentists.”) The New York Times chastised Springsteen for becoming excessively Populist in this album. But I say: If not now, then when? Bravo, Bruce. As the title song suggests, “Hard times come and hard times go and hard times come and hard times go,” and so on, and on… until, just maybe, hard times and Civil War come again once more.

(3) The Civil Wars is (are?) also a group… that is, a folk-rock duo with a hot debut album. Also, evidently, a secure place in the heart (or wallet) of record producer T-Bone Burnett, who has used new tunes by the Civil Wars in both the 50th anniversary album of the Chieftains and the “Songs from District 12” imagined
soundtrack (only two of its 16 songs are actually used in the movie) for the top-grossing film in the world--this month, anyway--The Hunger Games.

But wait a minute! What’s this I see? Hmm... there are actually seven different bands overlapping from the Chieftains CD to the Games s’track--Civil Wars, Secret Sisters, Low Anthem, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, Decemberists, Miranda Lambert with Pistol Annies--with sizzling-hot special guest Taylor Swift a sort-of eighth.

Gadzooks! Could this be another Liberal, Left-leaning lumpen-proletariat conspiracy against the rich and shallow, the shirkers and off-shorists? Or maybe an eyes-wide-shut deal Burnett worked to keep in the public ear and eye the country-folkish acts he manages or produces? (Slogan ready-made: "Hard Times come again, Hunger Games just ahead.")

Two different record companies; projects with only a broad Folk orientation in common; the same producer and a similar roster of young artists… What can it mean in this American Dreamland of embezzlers and immigrants, backstabbers and out-of-workers, face-bookers and far-siders, lyin' signifiers and scions of wealth?

From Jamaica to Jersey: too little civil discourse, too much uncivil war.