Unthinkable

It’s remarkable to look at the world twenty-five years ago. We were just coming off the end of the Cold War, the end of the war in Kuwait, the end of wondering when the nukes were going to fall. Anita Hill had us paying attention to sexual harassment. Rodney King had us paying attention to police violence. Al Gore had us paying attention to climate change. And for the first time, almost anyone could get to the “information superhighway” that was going to transform the world.

Of course, it was all an illusion, because “we’re going to” means nothing. The worst verb in the world is “will.” We will take care of the environment, we will get a fair shake for people of color, we will make sure women enjoy full equality in society. Because when you say “we will,” you get to drop back and punt and let the future take care of it. And then you get Ferguson, and Sandra Bland, and Harvey Weinstein and Walter Scott and Kevin Spacey and Mark Halperin and Twitter bots and Facebook frauds and a ballistic missile alert in Hawaii and above all, the racist grandpa who got to sit in the White House without the most votes. In twenty-five years, if anything, we’ve gone backward.

Because we didn’t really believe in consequences. We said “this is wrong” but forgot to mention “unless you’re powerful enough to make it hell on anyone who calls you on it” and “we all know Hollywood and CEOs and powerful people are Just That Way and what can you do.” And when the Internet became a thing, it started off as rare and different and exotic and ended up being shaped exactly the same as everything else. Them that has, gets, and them that has more gets more. Silicon Valley in 2018 is functionally indistinguishable from Wall Street in 1986, except Y Combinator has replaced Wharton and Stanford is the new Harvard. Same big swinging dicks, same get-rich-quick scam artists crowding out actual product, same firehose of wealth pointed at a narrow sliver of white or proper-sort-of-Asian dudes from the same half-dozen schools. The money assholes moved to the Peninsula and metastasized, and just kept enabling more horrible assholes to be more horrible than ever.

Because the Internet gave us a data revolution and let us slice and dice and find people. We thought that it meant a gifted kid in Alabama would never have to be lonely, without thinking that a horrible racist in New Jersey would be empowered and enabled in the same way. It unleashed all kinds of power with absolutely no control or judgement of whether this was a good idea or not. Why? Because that’s how society already is. It’s how society has always been. Don’t believe me, book a flight on a commercial airplane. Look at your seat classes and your boarding groups and your TSA Pre and your CLEAR and the fact that bags cost, snacks cost, choosing your own seat costs…somewhere back there we managed to decide that we could charge extra to treat people like human beings and slice that into tranches of its own so people would pay more for the privilege of not being veal-boxed across the country. And then technology gave us the ability to add dynamic pricing to that, so now everything is a game of chicken designed to squeeze the most out of every salable good from airline seats to baseball tickets to advertising. 

We’ve taken the internet revolution and run 180 degrees the wrong way with it. With every advance, our choices get smaller. We used to have hundreds of dialup ISPs. Then we had a handful of DSL providers. Now, you pick between your cable company and either your phone company or doing without, because fiber isn’t there for most people. There were a dozen significant phone manufacturers in 2006. Now it’s Apple and Samsung literally accounting for every dollar of profit in the mobile handset market, plus a few other players trying to find their way. We started with Yahoo and Hotwire and Excite and Altavista and Webcrawler and we wound up with Google. How many people in your address book have personal email accounts that end with something other than @gmail.com?

We thought the Internet didn’t require regulation. We actively avoided it. These were not laws of nature, they were deliberate choices. Letting Amazon walk on sales tax for a decade or more gave them an economic advantage that catapulted them to the top of the marketplace. Letting Facebook accumulate real name information and suddenly tear down the walled garden without consequence, and then purchase Instagram and WhatsApp, gave them a critical edge on making themselves the universal address book – and the ability to sell it out to anyone with cash. Letting Twitter become a honeypot for assholes and a free-fire zone for bots and racists so their DAU numbers could stay higher was just plain fucking stupid. But for whatever reason, the kind of scorn we gave junk-bond traders and algorithmic banking hustlers just never got turned on the likes of Dorsey and Zuckerberg and Bezos and the Googlers and Y Combinator.

I don’t know how it was that we decided that “everyone should code” and that “the most important skill you can learn is being able to code” and all that sort of nonsense. There’s plenty enough in Silly Con Valley that doesn’t rely on code, and I guarantee you none of the names above have made a significant contribution to their company’s Github in years. Because it’s not really about code, and it’s not really about everyone knowing how to code. It’s about establishing “code” as a shibboleth for the technical elite and “coders” as inherently special people who deserve an exalted place, as if system administrators and technical writers and support agents aren’t equally critical in making the Valley go.  It’s about collecting and consolidating privilege. It’s like the parable of the man who thinks the one thing he knows is the only thing worth knowing. And it’s of a piece with Gibson’s character of Cody Harwood in the Bridge trilogy: a person who wants a new world while ensuring that he will retain the same power and privilege he possessed in the old.

Which actually is itself of a piece with things like the so-called dark enlightenment. Or the Six Californias nonsense of Tim Draper, or the New California nonsense of whatever Infowars deviants cooked that up over the weekend. It’s about saying that the present system needs to be changed in such a way that I will automatically enjoy greater puissance under the new regime than I presently possess…which means removing power from anyone I don’t like. Women, Democrats, brown people…come to think of it, this is all of a piece with the assorted VRA shenanigans and “voter fraud” suppressions that Conservative, Inc has been flogging for twenty years.

And we’re back to the early 90s. I’m pretty sure that history will record 1994 as a nodal point, when the South managed to get astride the American future and scream “STOP” while simultaneously signaling that “do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Two decades of a culture explicitly bending toward the notion that you don’t have to know or care that other people exist. Two decades of making sure we don’t get any further than we were. Two decades of ending up right back where we started from. Actually, in 1995, we at least had a reasonably capable human being in the Oval Office and didn’t have to worry about ballistic missile alerts. I don’t know what I’d give just to be back where we started, instead of going in reverse.

If there’s a lesson from the last year – or the last twenty-five years – it’s that you should never say something is unthinkable, because everything is possible. And things can always, always get worse.

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Saturday morning

On January 7, I woke up with an accelerated heart rate because of something that hadn’t happened in almost thirty years: a stress dream about a nuclear attack. I dreamed I was at Disney World, there was an impending nuclear attack, I couldn’t find my ID or my phone, and didn’t know what to do other than wake up with my chest pounding and take a couple of really deep breaths before cursing out sixty-three million assholes and rolling over.

Six days later, we’re walking down the sidewalk on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki Beach when the phones start making that Emergency Broadcast System noise. Both phones showed the same message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

So there you have it. The nightmare of your entire lifetime for every Gen-X kid who grew up on The Day After and Sting’s “Russians” and knowing you could be wiped out with the click of a button. Here we go. What happens now?

Maybe it was because of the dream, or maybe it’s because I lived through the surreality of working in Washington DC on September 11, but something about it just didn’t feel right. Everything was mostly focused on “okay what is next” and my mind never wandered for more than a couple of seconds to things like “I hope the people who promised to cuss out my mother if this happens come through” and “you know, even if we survive we’re probably never going to leave this island”. It was more like “okay, go in this hotel. They don’t have a basement. OK, let’s get back to our own hotel, that’s where our meds and phone chargers are.” And all the while, “need more data. Need more data.”

Because Hawaii’s a big place. Yeah, Honolulu is probably the A target, but maybe not, and can we narrow down where the thing is? Are we talking multiple warheads? (Probably not, I doubt DPRK could build a proper MIRV-based ballistic missile.) What are the odds the thing can hit what it aims for? More to the point, why are all four local network affiliates still running normal programming and why isn’t this on any of the cable networks yet? Even if CNN is late to the party, the local stations should be breaking in at least as much as they do in Alabama for a tornado warning, if not more.

And in the back of your mind, you’re thinking about Stanislav Petrov saving the world from a false alarm in 1983. Or all the stories about a weather balloon or a goose or the rising moon being taken for a missile. And you’re at a point in your life where you don’t trust anything you hear from anyone about anything except for when your wife says she loves you; everything else needs a minimum of two witnesses. And you just sort of decide that until you see a bang and a flash, you’re going to keep on living and see what happens. Make them bury you; don’t do it for them.

And then Tulsi Gabbard tweets out “false alarm”, and because of the above paragraph, you wait for someone else who’s maybe a little less cuckoo, and then the Hawaii EMA office tweets out “false alarm”, and then it’s a crawl on Everton-Spurs, and you can relax and exhale for a minute and then maybe the panic seeps out just for a second where you had it in a subconscious headlock before.

And you add it to the list, with the tornado near-misses and the September 11 attacks and the DC snipers and the quakes and the wildfires and the mudslides, and you start to think that maybe it’s just you. But that picture of you holding up the local paper with the huge “OOPS” headline? That’s definitely going on the Christmas card this year.

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Flashback, part 89 of n

In January 2007, I was more than usually liminal. I’d had the dull-moment year, I’d had the big payoff of being at Apple (being sat in Caffe Macs on the day of the iPhone keynote), I was a year after the great needle-scratch in my head, I was approaching 35 and subconsciously aware that I had not yet transitioned into Who I Was Going To Be Now – married, homeowner, living in California, without recourse to the things that had propped me up in the preceding times.

I’ve posted before about that time, mostly with reference to Trials Pub and O’Flaherty’s as part of my eternal search for a 4P’s replacement. As it turns out, having been to London three more times since then and finally visited Ireland, those two establishments are a lot closer to what their UK and Irish counterparts are like than they are to the 4Ps. And having visited London and Ireland and put some time in (about two and a half weeks each, respectively), I daresay I am at an age and station where the approximate real thing is more welcome to me than a 4Ps equivalent when I don’t have a huge gang to go out and brace me up on a Saturday night from 7 PM to 2 AM closing. Now I’m more than happy to call it a night sometime around 9 PM and head home.

There was a book that I read for the first time in January of 2007: At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by Roger Ekrich. I don’t know why, but it was tremendously atmospheric somehow. I first heard of it some years earlier, on an overnight public radio show back in Virginia, but finally got around to buying it and reading it, and it specifically showed up when I started compiling the running list of “things I have enjoyed this year.” I don’t know of any other individual book that has ever made that list – the experience of reading has, certainly, but that book in particular was of a piece with the history-of-Catholicism classes I was enjoying for two or three years. It was history, it was intellectually engaging, and it was in its own way as cozy as firelight and heavy socks on a rainy January night.

I think I keep keying back on that January because it points toward where I find myself now a decade on: January means time for quiet, for cozy, for dim light and flannel and reading while the rain patters outside (when we can get any, of course). January 2009 meant a new job and a renewed commitment to transit. January 2011 meant a firm line on shutting down on Tuesday nights. January 2013…well, 2013 went to hell pretty quick and there wasn’t much relief since. At least this year, for now, for the moment, January feels like a good time to start developing better habits. Take the bus. Take the class. Unplug. Try to eat proper meals. Hell, if circumstances dictate, try to cook proper meals (already done once). Less Coke Zero (10 days and counting without). Drink the coffee mindfully and go to Vasper reliably. I liquidated the change on my dresser and turned it into new Kindle books – another book about night and another book about pubs, this being the history of the Irish pub specifically.

But first I have to re-read At Day’s Close.

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New year…new bullshit

Thirty years ago, amid the disappointment of Ray Perkins and the uncertainty of going to Bill Curry as head coach and losing twice to Auburn which clearly had the upper hand, the notion of “thirty years from now, Alabama is coming off five national championships in a decade under a coach who is even greater than Bear Bryant” would seem like the stuff of Star Trek time travel, the same My Weekly Reader-As We May Live nonsense that promised us self-driving cars and pocket computers and video phones and a potato baked in five minutes…

Well don’t I feel like a jackass.

I didn’t watch it, obviously. I kept apprised of it, but you don’t actually have to watch Alabama football these days. It is as ruthlessly efficient as a hard-eyed casino blackjack dealer, as joyless as a tidal wave, impossible to root for unless you’re a devoted glory-hound or a long-time loyalist. Alabama is the rake, they are the don’t pass line, they are the house – even if their kickers are the 00 on the roulette wheel. Just as Vanderbilt in 1994 prized my interest away for the first time, the Brigadoon era at Vanderbilt took me away for good. I could easily claim the Crimson Tide, because I suffered through the years after the Bear, through the bricks in the window and the Memphis State homecoming loss, the Jelks-Langham debacles and the Dubose-Franchione-Price-Shula parade of ineptitude (while noting that all of those coaches who made it to a regular season did turn in at least one 10-win performance…which Vanderbilt has never done). But I don’t, not really, because you don’t emotionally invest in the vacuum cleaner.

I like to think this would have been enough to keep relations up back South. Although maybe not. At least I was given the grace to lose my father a decade before the term “Fox Geezer Syndrome” passed into currency. I’m under no delusions about what would come of leaving someone at home to watch cable news all day for over two decades, especially when they already owned a couple dozen guns in Alabama. Although I like to think he would have drawn the line at a Trump or a Moore. At least I don’t have to know for sure.

Something broke in the last couple of months. I think I may have let go of the college thing and just accepted that, like Kimmy Schmidt said, you’re never going to not have been kidnapped. I’m never going to have not gone to Hilltop High or suffered the consequences and repercussions of that. It ultimately wasn’t necessary, there was a path to get everything that matters to me now without going through Mordor, but it just didn’t work out that way and there’s nothing to be done about it. Yes, there is a gaping hole in my life. It will always be there. Nothing for it but to go around and try not to keep falling in.

And if I’m honest, maybe part of it was seeing Luke Skywalker up there again at last. Older, paunchier, angry at how things didn’t work out. The kind of people pissing and moaning about how that’s not real and shouldn’t be canon have never been over 40 and had to live with a life that didn’t go the way you were promised. There is a certain enormity in giving up trying to will yourself a better past, to stop trying to squint at the dots until they become a schooner, to stop trying to make the pebbles have been worth counting.

There are a lot of things in this world that we’ll never make unhappen. The trick is what do we do about it now, knowing that it’s not going to be the same and that matters may be worse and we just have to battle through. I think the fact that I finally saw Ireland last year proved that there could still be new things, new discoveries, that there are still opportunities out there for the person I finally aged into being and may have wanted to be all along. And it gave me a frame of reference by which to gauge: can I live here like I’d want to live in Galway?

Take the bus. Take the walk. Work remotely. Have a pint. Put away the phone and read. Plan to travel. Go to Tahoe in the winter. Go to Hawaii in the winter. Make a list of the things you enjoy doing instead of a checklist of things that have to get done while you’re on leave. And when the place you live gets to be too obnoxious to live with, refuse to play the game. Sidestep it. Do your own thing instead. Of which more later.

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Festivus 2017

The original sin was thinking we could buy and sell human beings. The next one was thinking we could make a deal with that sin to get ourselves a country. And when we went to war, it wasn’t to end that sin, but to fight the ones who broke the deal in the name of continuing that sin. And when the threat was past, we looked the other way while they got as close as they could to returning to that sin. And whenever they got close to the line, eventually we shook a finger when we should have brandished a stick, and brandished a stick when we should have swung it. We never stood up to correct the sin. Somebody always backslid. Somebody was always willing to make a deal with sin for their own benefit. The bill for our sin gets a little longer every day, and the day will come when we have to settle up. And it will cost. It might cost us a nation.

-Dec 18, 2012

With an engaged and educated population, the Internet could have been a useful tool of political discourse. But we don’t have that. We’ve venerated the stupid for a decade and a half, and instead, what we got was an electronic force multiplier for willful ignorance. Facts and lies on equal footing, and you’re entitled to your own reality. And an entire party went along with this because Donald Trump is an even more egregious version of what George W. Bush was meant to be: a matador with a signing pen so the GOP in Congress could loot the country for itself.

-Dec 23, 2016

Sixteen years ago, Osama bin Laden made Stupid Americans shit themselves. Then we spent every year after validating stupid. And after a wihile, Russia figured out how to exploit their fear. And Twitter and Facebook both lay back and allowed them to do it. The confluence of public stupid and technological free-for-all destroyed the 21st century before it could start. And now, because we didn’t push back on an electoral college that make the person with the most votes lose, because we didn’t push back on conspiracy theorists as “news”, because we decided the Internet was the free-speech wing of the free-speech party (whatever the fuck that means other than something to let tech bros get erect), we wound up where we are now. Comcast and Verizon have free reign to carve up Internet access like cable TV. There is no free market in broadband anymore. The budget is such a freakin’ disaster area that we don’t even know whether to pay off the property tax now so it’ll still be deductible on our federal return.

The really disturbing thing is…how do you come back from this? Elect a bunch of Democrats and then see if you can get away with impeachment, which will only put a bigger holy roller in the Oval Office and convince Ed Earl Brown that the job is done because Trump’s out? Run the table in 2020 and start trying to put things back like they were, only to get smeared by the catamites at the New York Times and take an ass-kicking in 2022? Do we have the time to wait for demographics to fix things or are we going to be too far gone by then?

So this is where I explain how you’ve disappointed me this year, America. Although it’s really been the last twenty years if we’re honest. I never want to hear “we’re better than this,” because mathematically we’ve kind of proven we aren’t.

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The Shift

For a couple of releases now, there’s been a problem with iOS. Either it clings to bad wifi like a Demigorgon to a peripheral character’s throat (of which more later) or it won’t connect at all, especially where an interstitial page is concerned (the pop-up pages you have to click through to connect at Starbucks, or Whole Foods, or basically any hotel, or…) – and then, iOS 11 added cellular support for areas of poor wi-fi coverage, which is meant to help, buuuuut…

I pulled my numbers from work, where my cellular service is provided gratis as one of the few perks this job can offer. And sure enough, coincident with the release of iOS 11, my cellular data usage spikes by 25% and stays spiked. It’s not a function of the device, or going out of town, or anything else I can pin down – the shift happens with iOS 11. Which couldn’t be more annoying, because it’s not like you can easily stay on an older OS without compromising your security or your ability to interact with other users at some level or another. And obviously there’s no going back once you take the plunge.

But it brings up another point. My data use jumped from 8 GB and change to 10 or 11 GB and change. Which is enormous, because once you get over the 8 GB mark, you don’t really find inexpensive prepaid solutions for mobile phone data in this country. As little as a year ago, you could still get a 5 GB prepaid plan from T-Mobile for $30 a month. US Mobile will let you pick and choose, and if I throw 300 minutes and 100 texts on top of it, I can get 5 GB of data on VZW’s network for $37 a month or 8 GB on T-Mobile’s for $44 a month. But as soon as you go past 8, forget about US Mobile or Cricket or T-Mob…you’re in the realm of “unlimited” plans and your baseline just jumped from somewhere in the $45 range to somewhere $70 and north.

And here’s the thing that’s really problematic: I don’t stream on the phone. So many people rely on Spotify or Apple Music, or constantly watch YouTube or Netflix or what have you, but I don’t. I do download a bunch of podcasts, and that’s gotten more difficult now that the Junks post them as hours rather than segments so I have to download more data to get the same content (thanks for nothing, donkeys), but that’s a development in the last week. The bigger issue is this: combine the FCC’s neutering of net neutrality with the increase in data usage across the board, and we’ve basically given AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter and everyone else free reign to squeeze the shit out of us. The baseline cost of what it costs to have a smartphone is greater than it used to be with no appreciable change in usage or consumption, and it is now free to go even higher.

Because let’s face it, there’s not a lot of competition. There are four cellular networks in this country, constantly trying to merge into three, and the MVNO dodge won’t save you any money if you can’t use it. And although phones are getting better, there’s still a lock-in where if you’re on Verizon’s network you can’t roam onto the lower-speed GSM options once LTE runs out, so (as I proved from 2012-14) if you fall off LTE you’re back to a battery-killing 1X network. Conversely, if you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile, maybe you can roam onto Verizon’s LTE, maybe you can’t (spoiler: probably not). But since this country went on multiple tracks instead of standardizing on GSM, and still sells mostly locked phones, you don’t have nearly the flexibility to move back and forth.

And here’s how it shows: when I went to Ireland, I laid down 20 Euro (at the time, about $23) and got unlimited calling for a month and 15 GB of data. Read that again. $23 for unlimited calls and 15 GB of data in Ireland vs $44 for 8 GB of data in the US via T-Mob or Cricket.  Twice the data for half the money. Go across the water to the UK and EE is offering 16 GB and unlimited texts for £30 (which today is about $40) while Three is offering 12 GB, 3000 minutes and 3000 texts for £20. Because phones are separate from service, and because all service uses the same technology, you’re actually in a competitive market and can go back and forth.

But in this country, the companies will actually argue that your cell phone is competition for your home broadband, which – unless you live somewhere with fiber – is a choice between The Baby Bell and The Cable Company if you’re lucky and one or the other if you aren’t. If you live someplace like Chattanooga, Tennessee (!!) you have cheap municipal fiber that can actually offer competition for the local duopoly, and if forced to compete they’ll bring down the price. But if they aren’t, you wind up paying ridiculous money. It wasn’t like this when the phone lines had to be free and open and you had dozens of dialup operators to choose from and the likes of Earthlink making $20 unlimited ISP service a routine thing, or when the incumbent local carrier had to open the loop to competitors and you could get DSL from other providers (like the late and dearly missed Speakeasy.net). But noooooo…now, somehow, the phone in your hand is somehow competition for the line in the wall. Maybe you want to squint at Stranger Things on a 5.5” phone screen, but most people would rather lean back and look at the big screen (without streaming it through the phone, because if one hour of HD video takes up 4 GB of data, that’s your phone reduced to dialup speed halfway through the first season).

The brutal fact of the matter is that everything that comes to your computer is just some sort of data over a dumb pipe. Bits are bits are bits.. The massacre of Net Neutrality is about allowing your cable and phone companies to slice and dice that data and charge you more for the stuff you want. It should be called the Middleman Protection Act of 2017. But then, when you let a Verizon shitpile determine what should be the policy for internet use, you should hardly be surprised that a dumb pipe company wants a nickel on everything.

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But it’s just the price I pay, destiny is calling me

OK. In the cold light of noon, let’s have a look at this thing.

There will be plenty of analysis about how this was won: enhanced turnout among Democratic voters driven by a sustained and repeatable GOTV effort fully funded by the DNC and external donors, leveraged against a compromised candidate – and there will be a case that this cannot be done again barring the nomination of yet another holy roller pervert for statewide office by the GOP. I’m here to tell you it’s wrong. Roy Moore came within the population of Gardendale of a mandatory recount. His issue positions are not materially different from any other Alabama Republican. His voters were not that dissuaded by the allegations, because they already reject any reality that doesn’t fit their views. And his voters are dying. Old white men who remember life before desegregation are sinking sand on which to build a voter base.

More to the point, contra my remarks yesterday, the fact that Doug Jones won suggests there is a path to statewide Democratic victory in Alabama. Hang Trump around the GOP’s neck, get black voters to the polls, and get young voters mobilized and active. It will take extra effort to overcome the structural obstacles Alabama has spent years if not decades placing in the path of likely Democratic voters, but we now have the existence proof that it can be done. And if you can do it once, you can do it again – for the right gubernatorial candidate in 2018, and then beyond.

But more to the point…

Last night, the fans of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires were crossing team lines on Twitter to exult in their victory, with Auburn fans posting Rammer Jammer cheers and Tide fans gleefully showing off the toilet paper fluttering in the trees at Toomer’s Corner. Grapico and special dogs and Milo’s were invoked and great oaths were sworn about how “We Dare Defend Our Rights” now means everyone’s and all of them. And I contemplated the fact that of all the places I’ve ever lived, 13 years in California and 7 more in the NoVA suburbs of DC, the only place that ever stereotyped me as a white man from Alabama was Jefferson County, Alabama…which went 3-1 for Doug Jones last night. 

That’s not nothing. That’s a meaningful marker laid down, that what was once a tiny blue dot in Southside in a sea of red is now a burgeoning and reliable blue county driven by African-American voting power. That in addition to baseball and wi-fi and recycling and craft beer, Birmingham is developing a politics that looks like America and pushing it ever outward toward the rest of the state. And the ones who resist, the ones who fight hardest to keep things like they are, the ones who are so wedded to how it used to be that they might as well be Vol fans…they’re dying. Every day.

I still don’t see ever moving back. But being able to visit, being able to enjoy it, being able to take pride in everything from the Barons to Avondale Brewing to Top Hat BBQ to a 205 area code? This morning, there’s a path back to the light that wasn’t there yesterday. And I am grateful for everyone who trod out that path and who fights to clear it today and tomorrow and the day after that.

It raises the possibility that before I die, I could live to see the state of my birth not showing its ass to the world. That for the first time in my life, it might just extend a hand and say “y’all come home.” That there’s a path back to Birmingham that doesn’t involve looking out the bay doors of the bomber during the Second American Civil War. That who I am, what I am, could actually be part and parcel of what the city and the state and the South is. That I wouldn’t have to hang my head and make excuses and disavow a state that disavowed me…because it wouldn’t, not any more.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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Open up my eager eyes

Well don’t I feel like a jackass.

Never been happier to feel like one. EEEEE TO THE AWWWWWW, Y’ALL.

 

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Here’s the galling thing:

…this shouldn’t be close. It shouldn’t be within screaming distance of close. Roy Moore shouldn’t be able to see Doug Jones with binoculars. This should be about a 50 point spread, and in a sane state, it would be.  Instead, it’s 50-50. Instead, we’re back to hoping that a turnout of 25% and a third of the white vote will be enough to vote in a bog-standard blue-dog Democrat, a lauded federal prosecutor about as radical as buttermilk, so that we don’t get a literal religious fanatic who believes in Christian-flavored Sharia law and has literally been thrown out of office twice since 2000 because of it.

The man is manifestly unqualified for office. He sits far outside the mainstream of conservative thought, as difficult as that is to imagine in Alabama in 2017. He is manifestly unpopular with elected Republicans who view him as a show horse and a glory hound. He is a repository for the kind of performative redneckery that leads most people in Alabama to point and howl at New York City and California for slandering their Southern culture and heritage. Listen here, hilljacks: the libel is coming from inside the house. No one is stereotyping Southerners more than the Southerners who run on those stereotypes and get votes from them.

This, too, is exactly why Democrats write off Alabama. It’s hard, and it’s harsh, and it’s unfair on the nonwhite population or those precious few Caucasians who actually want better for their state. But this should be a layup. This should be a fish, a barrel and a smoking gun. Money has poured into this race, national help has poured into this race, everything that can be done has been done. Who knows, the Democratic Socialist purity flowers may even find a way to hold their nose and bubble in for Doug. This is throwing everything that can be thrown. If it doesn’t work now? If the bastard child of Boss Hogg and Yosemite Sam as sired out of the love scene in Deliverance can win through anyway? Then tell me exactly where the percentage is in throwing money into a Senate race in Alabama ever.

Win the districts you can until the VRA lines get redrawn. Maybe pour some of this money into trying to retake the state legislature and work your way up from there. But give up on turning it blue. Retake the Congress and the White House by other means and then use the power of the federal government to do for those who deserve it despite the state’s best efforts. You know, exactly as we’ve had to do for the last fifty years, and will have to do until every white person born before 1970 lies dead in the cold red dirt.

If you can Argo the other folks, do. Rescue the ones who deserve better. But forget about the Roy Moore voters. They deserve nothing less or more than the consequences of their actions, and I have better things to do with my life. You see that sign outside my house that says Captain Save-A-Neck? You know why you don’t see that sign? Because saving necks ain’t my fucking business any more.

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ghosts of christmas past, part 11 of n

Dashing through the stores, people every place

Up and down the aisles, sneezing in my face (achoo!)

There’s so much to choose, there’s so much to see

Wonder if what I got you cost more’n what you got me?

 

At Christmas in 1983 it was sixth-grade choir. We learned a number of songs and then found ourselves bused here or there to perform in December, one time at Western Hills Mall before it was written out of the pantheon of “acceptable white people shopping districts” in greater Birmingham. I remember the choke of the necktie, the pinch of the dress shoes, the discovery of the heretofore-unseen Discs of Tron standalone game in the mall’s arcade afterwards. And that Jingle Bells parody was, in fact, one of the songs we actually performed. And the bus rides to rehearsals, with that parody as the most popular song while other people chimed in with ripoffs of the Toys R Us jingle or similar, and a realization that something was happening.

 

Wrap your presents nice, pretty bows that shine

Take ‘em out to mail, gonna wait in line

Fight your way back home, and if you’re like me

Maybe by the twenty-fourth you’ll get to trim the tree!

 

I wasn’t in any sort of organized choir the next year, seventh grade, but I remember doing the same thing again somehow. This time I think it was Century Plaza, wearing more or less the same getup that I had sported as Chief Elf in my playwriting debut, “The Elves Go On Strike” – a Luddite celebration of anti-automation and industrial sabotage, in Alabama in 1984. (Never say the signs weren’t there.) And the van ride back, Duran Duran blasting as the girls all mockingly sang “Boys On Film,” and me more conscious than ever of…something. The obvious answer ought to be puberty, but that wasn’t it. It was the sort of moment that appears in memoirs as “when I realized I was gay,” but that isn’t it either. Just an awareness that there was a social structure here, and that I was on the outside of it – and for the first time, I was suddenly and acutely conscious of What That Meant.

I already knew I was different. I knew I didn’t have a hell of a lot of friends. I knew I was not exactly held in high esteem by most of my peers – awe at the freakish smarts and disgust at the smart freak, but not esteem – but leaking through in those Christmas seasons was the first ever realization that this might be turn into a problem for me sooner or later. That there were other things in life than just bringing home a report card full of A’s, and I had absolutely no idea how to do them. I had to learn to interact socially with people, and I had absolutely positively no idea how.

I learned. Slowly and painfully. I figured out that I had to sometimes just stop talking, swallow the point I had planned to make and let it go. I had to find things other people were interested in, which led to a decade of sports obsession out of nowhere. It took a long, long time, and if I’m honest it probably only really started to kick in at Vanderbilt, when I was thrust into a small clique that kind of had to take me in and willingly did so, and when I had the opportunity to hone my wit and repartee in a form that demanded cleverness at 70 words per minute and 33.6 Kbps minimum.

So now I can go out to one holiday party after another, with people I barely know, and I can find a way to hold my own. Find a hook, remember a name and a fact, spin a tale out of it or pull one out of someone else. Hop from pain management to the tax and finance issues around vertically integrated cannabis production to pedestrian tours and tales of band larceny, and in a pinch there’s always the ample ineptitude of American football, college or pro alike. I learned to finesse away that I must have met you at some point previously, it’s always nice to see you and not nice to meet you just in case, and years of trivia give me something to work with…

But it’s still a chore. It’s an effort. It’s something that I had to work at and struggle with and it doesn’t come easy at all, especially as I get older and ever more introvert, and it makes me wish I’d had this skill set in 1983 or 1984 or 1989. And it makes me ever more grateful for years like 1994 or 2006, when somehow I either magically had it or magically didn’t need it, and a glorious Christmas season just happened. But sometimes you can work your way into one too. I’m pulling for it.

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