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Urban Cowgirl

Despair in Fashion

Justin Sewell isn’t perfect. He admires “outliers” like Ralph Nader (even after my insistence that Nader can never, ever be forgiven for helping to botch the 2000 presidential election).

So what? Perfection is boring and overrated. After visiting Sewell’s office and warehouse, I’m convinced he and his business partners have diagnosed the malaise, disillusionment and nausea of our age. The name of their business is Despair Inc. Given this year’s politics and Legislature, Despair is fittingly located in East Austin.

Go there, and you’ll see Despair’s signature posters. One proclaims: “Nothing says ‘you’re a loser’ more than owning a motivational poster about being a winner.” Another: “Failure: when your best isn’t good enough.” And: “Perseverance: the courage to ignore the obvious wisdom of turning back.” These lithographs, Despair’s website says, are “the strongest depressant you can get without a prescription.”

Justin Sewell, his identical twin brother Jef and Lawrence Kersten founded Despair in 1998. All three were kind of depressed at the time.
For several years during the early 1990s, the three had worked for a Dallas Internet startup. It was the dinosaur age of the Internet, when change was breakneck and the future was unlimited. After beginning as temps, the Sewells eventually managed the firm’s marketing and web departments. Kersten, who has a doctorate in organizational communication, managed customer support.

“The company attracted the kind of people like us who worked there for love—not money,” Justin Sewell said. “People would sleep in the offices, work all night. We all loved it.”

They might have worked for love, but they were also promised ownership shares in the company. “We were strung along by promises all along, but nothing was written down,” Sewell said. “We were considered the lucky-to-be-here college dropouts by the engineers in the company.”

Around this time, when promises were being made and broken and new promises offered up, Sewell found himself leafing through a Successories catalog. This catalog is the source of all things inspirational and aspirational. It’s filled with homilies written on beautiful landscapes and proclaiming deep thoughts like, “Change your thoughts and you change the world!” and “Follow your dreams!” and “Live boldly!” You can almost hear Oprah reading them aloud.

Sewell was inspired in a dark and subversive way. He and his sidekicks began making parodies of Successories’ posters to amuse themselves and their friends. They kept their project secret, Sewell said, so their employers wouldn’t see them as a pool of “corrosive negativity in the workplace.” They were still hoping they’d get stock options. They still believed—a little.

In 1998, a larger company acquired their startup. The startup president rewarded only a few employees, all engineers like himself. The creatives—like the Sewell brothers and Kersten—got a small check and a handshake for their dedication. They pooled their checks and started Despair.

Thirteen years later, Despair has prospered. Its revenues for posters, coffee mugs, T-shirts, calendars and other paraphernalia that embrace the depressing truths of 21st-century life have climbed to a few million dollars a year, with a customer base of 500,000. Its mockery of upbeat business and personal platitudes prove there’s a growing audience for Sewell’s belief that, “You can’t commodify motivation,” and, “We still live in a world of decay, and death awaits us all.”

Despair offers posters and sayings for everything that ails Texas liberals this spring and summer:

The future? See the “Despair” poster: “It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black.”

The present? See the “Challenges” poster: “I expected times like this—but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long and so frequent.”

Tea Partiers? See “Idiocy”: “Never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups.”

The Legislature? See “Government”: “If you think the problems we create are bad, just wait till you see our solutions.”

Order yours now. Just to be safe, order in bulk. Despair may be in fashion for a long, long time.

Edsel U.

Using a car analogy, [University of Texas System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell] said a $10,000 degree would be more like a Chevrolet Bel Air, a midlevel vehicle from a generation ago, than a Cadillac. There’s nothing wrong with a Bel Air quality education, he said.–Austin American-Statesman

DEAR PARENTS OF SELECTED MEMBERS OF THE CLASS OF 2012:

We are sure you are well aware of high-rent, higher-education apologists calling for you to give your child a “Cadillac” or a “BelAir” or an “Oldsmobile” college education. This just shows you how out of touch and elitist our state’s leaders have become!

As the parents of  “C” and “D” students, you are uniquely qualified to judge your offspring’s capabilities and decide what kind of education you really want to pay for. Remember, college is a business and you are a consumer! You deserve choices beyond the pathetically limited slew of high-priced vehicles listed above.

That’s where we come in! You’ve probably seen our ads on late-night television for our group, Cut-Rate College Associates. (Our motto: “Every kid is unique, but face it, most of them aren’t special.”) I’m the guy throwing wads of money up in the air to show how much you can save by being realistic about your kid. After all, not all of them are “BelAir” material!

Since we have the best interests of your child and your pocketbook at heart, we style our degree offerings to match the uniqueness of every kid. Here are just a few of the many individualized programs we offer at CTC:

 

The “Edsel” $7,999 degree
This multidisciplinary degree, with an emphasis on “self-expression” courses, such as assertiveness training, self-esteem, journaling, scrapbooking and memoir-writing, is a perfect program for the unmotivated kid in your family. (It’s particularly popular for families with stepkids.)

Realizing that college is a time of “transition” and “maturation,” the Edsel curriculum schedules no classes before 1 p.m. and features a three-day week, with extra time off for the holidays, unless you request that your progeny return to school early, instead. Your kid won’t have to crack open a book if he or she doesn’t feel like it, although helpful directions to the library are included in the coursework.

 

The “Yugo” $6,599 degree
Do you have a daughter who’s, well, a little on the slutty side? This ultra-liberal arts degree focuses on perfect posture, elocution, etiquette, modeling, body-sculpting, speaking Spanish to maids and other feminine arts that help your progeny snare a good provider by sophomore year. In the event a husband is not found or an unfortunate divorce occurs, these subjects are also applicable to a career in a high-dollar escort service. As we all know, women need to learn to support themselves in this day and age!

 

The “Chevette” $4,999 degree
Here’s a degree program that caters to a student of either sex whose trust fund pays off when he or she is 21, so he or she doesn’t have to know dick about anything like boring old history or math. The Chevette curriculum recognizes that the real experience of college isn’t about classes and professors and term papers—it’s about partying, living in a dorm, fraternities and sororities, getting laid, getting wasted,getting down.

 

Interested in any of these fine degree programs? We thought so!

More than anything, Cut-Rate College Associates recognizes that the appearance of going to college is far more important than the coursework. To that end, we manufacture a huge supply of bumper stickers (e.g., My Kid and My Money Go to Cut-Rate College!), T-shirts (I Matriculate at Cut-Rate), pennants, posters and other college paraphernalia that will show the rest of the world that your family sort of values higher education without going overboard and getting all pointy-headed intellectual and elitist about it.

Think about it. No more parental embarrassments about your kid flunking out of college! (You have our guarantee that none of our kids flunk out, ever.) No worries your kid is going to oversleep and miss classes! (We recognize the importance of getting a good 12 to 14 hours of rest every night and offer unlimited absences with a note signed by your kid’s roommate or best friend.)

In fact, why not think about yourself—and just not your kid— for a change? There’s no reason for you to pay for a Cadillac or a Bel Air or an Oldsmobile when it’s clear your kid should be walking.

Shut My Mouth

Since when did "uterus" become an offensive term—especially when you're talking about regulating abortion?

In the immortal words of the great Tammy Wynette, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Anyway, that’s the tune I’ve been humming — “Stand by Your Man,” to be precise — while a torrent of anti-female legislation sweeps across national and state capitols like an Old Testament pestilence. De-fund Planned Parenthood! Forget family planning! Teach abstinence even though it doesn’t work! Give extra lectures and bonus sonograms to women who seek abortions!

Humming and singing, I try not to notice the raging inconsistency that some of the biggest libertarians turn all Big Brother when it comes to women, sex, procreation and pregnancy. In fact, if you listen to some Texas lawmakers, you learn that nothing empowers a woman like a state-mandated wand in her vagina.

Good Lord. Shut my mouth. I’ve said one of those impolite, overly clinical words. Vagina.

You see, it’s fine to propose and pass legislation about women’s bodies, but it’s rude and uncouth to get too specific about the particular female body parts being affected. That’s what landed Florida state Rep. Scott Randolph in hot water recently. Randolph joked that his wife should probably incorporate her uterus if she wanted the government to leave it alone.

Randolph is now famous for this remark, which pokes fun at conservatives’ reverence for unfettered markets and laissez-faire businesses. “If lawmakers and other politicians see your uterus and your body as a business,” the Florida ACLU’s new website, IncorporateMyUterus.com, points out, “maybe they’ll work to get government out of the uterus regulation business as they do for every other company.” Similarly, Mother Jones’ website brought up the great news that an incorporated uterus could also donate unlimited money to political action committees.

All of which was beside the point to Republicans in the Florida House. They rebuked Randolph for using language—uterus!—that could be offensive to the ears of the teenage pages in the legislature.

Pause here to consider a few troublesome matters. Such as: Since when did uterus become an offensive term – especially when you’re talking about regulating abortion? Wouldn’t you naturally think of uteruses and wombs and vaginas when you’re thundering from the legislative floor about women and their bodies?

And the sensitivity of teenagers? As the mother of two former teenagers, I can attest that the only thing they routinely consider offensive is their parents.

All this reminds me of a very funny guy I worked with a few years ago. Let’s call him Michael, since that’s his name. Michael was the kind of guy who was casually outrageous and intimidating, capable of saying anything and embarrassed at nothing. He and I were at an office baby shower one afternoon when I told the story of how early feminists sometimes gathered to eat the placenta after giving birth as a ritual and for medicinal benefits.

That was all I said. I’ve never eaten placenta myself and have no idea whether it’s tasty or not. But I thought it was a marginally interesting story, until I noticed Michael’s face had turned chartreuse. He looked nauseated, he looked sick, he looked terrible. “Stop saying that word,” he hissed finally.

Well, wands in the vagina may be quite nice, but I personally find nothing more empowering than finding an occasionally overbearing person’s weak point. Placenta, huh? Pay dirt! In the weeks that followed, I challenged myself to use the word placenta as frequently as possible around Michael. You’d be surprised how often you can squeeze in a word when you’re really, really motivated and the other person really, really deserves it.

But there’s something here that fascinates me. Something about men’s squeamishness when it comes to women and their bodies. Some suspicion that we and our messy, unruly bodies scare many of them to death—with our blood, our bloating, our pregnancies, our miscarriages and our abortions, our menopauses. These are men who can’t decide whether we’re delicate blossoms to be protected or vengeful harpies with a tendency toward sexual voraciousness. Because, of course, we must be one or the other. And we must be protected from the world or from ourselves, but we will call this protectionism “empowerment.”

Maybe we should just descend en masse on the national and state capitols—women young and old, menstruating and pregnant and menopausal, unattractively angry, in fact, royally pissed off. Chanting scary words like “uterus” and “placenta” and “vagina.” Screaming to the fleeing legislators that hey, we’re like Tammy Wynette. We just want to stand by our men. But it looks like we’ll have to catch them first.

Bringing Up Baby

On a wintry day in February, I went to the Texas Senate to hear citizens and medical and legal experts testify about the sonogram bill. You know, the bill we’ve all been hearing about that requires a doctor to give a woman both a sonogram and an oral description of the fetus she’s carrying before she can secure an abortion. That bill.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who’s sponsored the bill for the past three legislative sessions, was quieter than I’d expected. He listened politely to experts talking about how the bill would interfere with the patient-physician relationship. He said little when a young couple testified about having to endure a description of their fetus’ development after they had already made the excruciating decision to abort because of grave birth defects.

It’s odd when you expect someone to be a villainous blowhard and he disappoints. Maybe, I thought, Patrick was having an introspective day now that his sonogram bill looks as if it will become law. Maybe he was wondering what kind of state this new generation of children would grow up in after Republicans slashed education and health care.

Maybe so, but probably not. Abortion is too uncomfortable, painful, and morally and emotionally fraught to be pondered too long once you have made up your mind. You choose your side and you defend it strenuously. You don’t want to hear the stories that complicate your stance. If you’re pro-choice, you don’t want to hear about casual abortions or medical advances that make the in-utero world more accessible and fetuses viable at an earlier age. If you’re anti-choice, I can’t imagine you would want to hear about horrific birth defects, pregnancies after rape or incest, or women whose lives would be ruined by an unwanted pregnancy.

So you pick your side. I am pro-choice. Even so, I can understand that people like Sen. Patrick truly believe that abortion is murder. I can respect them in a way I can’t respect the opportunists who leverage this painful, heartbreaking issue for political gain.

Listening to the Senate testimony, though, I did wonder how so many legislators can become so passionate and misty-eyed about embryos and fetuses and newborn babies—but remain stony-hearted about poor children, illegal immigrant children, children who need good nutrition, health care, housing, schools.

Maybe it’s because the sight of a baby—round-headed, tiny, adorable—is designed to make all of us feel goofy and protective. They stare up at you, so full of potential, so ready for you to project all your simple dreams and fantasies on them. They don’t argue, they don’t roll their eyes when you say something stupid; that will come later, along with puberty and orthodontia and learners’ permits. No, stay focused on the baby—and you forget how much work they are. Stay focused on the baby—and you can ignore the fact that bringing her into this 21st-century world only marks the beginning of taking care of her.

I happen to love babies, and the years my husband and I spent rearing our two children, now 29 and 25, were some of the most enjoyable and rewarding of our lives. They were also some of the hardest—years when the two of us never seemed to finish a sentence or a conversation, when faces were encrusted with pink eye and lice showed up, when we came face-to-face with our own shortcomings as human beings and parents. Those were years of more fun, heartache, love and fury than I’ve ever known; if you want a placid and easy life, babysitting for friends—and not procreation—would be advisable.

During the Senate debate on the sonogram bill, a baby in the audience cried—and Patrick seized the moment to note, “There’s the hand of God right there, the cry of a baby.”

If you believe there’s the hand of God in the cry of a baby, how can you not see that same hand in the cries of that baby as she grows to be a toddler, a preschooler, an adolescent, a teenager? Growing up, she’s no longer as adorable and pliable as a baby, but she still needs protection.

Unlike many of the zealots, I can’t tell you definitively when life begins. All I know is that, once you deliver a child into this world, your responsibilities to this new being have only started.

Focus on the baby—fine. But you don’t bring her to term, then abandon her to a world you’re stripping of education and security. Or, if you do, your definition of “pro-life” is nothing but a disgrace.

What’s in a Nombre?

All you have to do is move and you get this question 600 times a day: “What’s your new address?” Funny they—the friends, the bankers, the credit-card callers, the movers, the shakers—should ask. Our new address is on San Jacinto Boulevard. San Jacinto! The name of the battle that won the Texas Revolution. The name of the 567-foot Houston ship channel column that’s taller than the Washington Monument (Texans love to measure). The name of my husband’s junior high school in Midland.

San Jacinto. I could have sworn, after decades in this state, I knew how to pronounce it. Along with most people I know, I’d always said it with a hard J: juh-SIN-toe.

But, wait. Not so fast. During three phone calls to utilities, the three women I talked to listened to my hard-J pronunciation. Then they repeated it back to me, using the street’s Spanish pronunciation: ha-SEEN-toe.

One incident like that I could have ignored. Two, in the words of the immortal Fran Lebowitz, constituted a trend. But three? We were rapidly approaching profundity. Evidently, I’d lived blithely, obliviously, in my hard-J neck of the woods while the world had changed around me. With Texas becoming a state with a Hispanic majority, were old pronunciation habits changing?

Naturally, I had to consult an academic, an expert, about my discovery. I talked to David Quinto-Pozos, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, who told me that this kind of shift in pronunciation takes decades to happen.

Quinto-Pozos, who grew up bilingual in Taos, N.M., noted he now hears more spoken Spanish on the UT campus than he ever did when he was a graduate student on campus from 1996 to 2002. The increase in numbers of native Spanish speakers, he said, could explain why certain pronunciations have been changing.

“When a community becomes more diverse,” he said, “it becomes more accepting of differences—and could make them a part of everyday language.”

To pursue my pronunciation-shift discovery, I talked to Hawk Mendenhall, the associate general manager of KUT, Austin’s public radio station. Mendenhall’s from San Diego, and ever since he moved to Texas in 2002, he’s been puzzled by Texans’ pronunciation of Spanish words. “A lot of listeners took me to task for the way I said Pedernales,” he recalled, still grumbling that the ‘r’ and ‘d’ weren’t anywhere close to each other—so why pronounce it perd? “Most of the time, they told me this is how we talk in Texas, this is our place—and we’ll pronounce it any way we want.”

But, in the past two years, Mendenhall said, (supporting my theory!) listeners’ complaints have died down. KUT announcers use the Spanish or English pronunciations they’re most comfortable with, and people still call occasionally to complain when “Guadalupe”—the main drag at the UT campus—is pronounced the Spanish way. “But people don’t raise as big a fuss as they used to,” he said, sounding a little disappointed.

I hung up before Mendenhall could start griping about Pedernales again. I had to think about the implications of my linguistic discovery. Such as: What happens when pronunciation changes? Do Texans really butcher Spanish any more than we’ve proudly butchered English for years? And is change always good?

I was in the midst of these contemplations when my whole linguistic-change theory fell apart. First, I talked to Yolette Garcia, now an assistant dean at Southern Methodist University, and formerly news director of Dallas’ public radio station KERA. She said she hadn’t heard any of the linguistic shifts I was talking about. If they were happening, they hadn’t made it to Dallas yet.

Then David Quinto-Pozos emailed about a quick survey he’d done of students in his undergraduate course. As it turned out, they had heard Spanish pronunciations only sometimes with Guadalupe—and almost never with San Jacinto. Some said they’d noticed trends toward Spanish pronunciations, but many didn’t think anything had changed at all.

So much for my linguistic theory. So much for my self-esteem, too. I’ve moved and I’m still not sure how to say the name of my new street. I was becoming envious of Hawk Mendenhall. “It’s always been a source of embarrassment to me that I live on Running Buck Lane,” he’d told me earlier. “But at least I know how to pronounce it.”

Home Soul

We’ve lived in our house in West Austin for almost 14 years—the longest we’ve ever lived anywhere. Our kids finished school here, brooding and backtalking through the sullen years of adolescence. We hosted annual holiday parties here, and almost always something memorable happened—like the year a poet tried to attack my husband with a butter knife, or the time one woman loudly confronted another about writing a semi-romantic newspaper column about her twenty-something son. And there was the unforgettable night when four teenage girls slept off their first drunks in the house after projectile vomiting in my husband’s car.

We’ve renovated the kitchen, refinished the hardwood floors, painted, roofed, re-roofed. More than anything, we’ve sunk deep roots here, in our house and neighborhood. “It’s a happy house,” a friend once said. “You can tell that.” She was right. I’d always felt that there was some kind of warmth and comfort and harmony in our house that was rare. I’d only leave the house feet-first, I’d often announced.

But, no. We’re leaving our house in a couple of weeks and I’m still on my own two feet. It’s been sold and my husband and I are moving to a downtown condominium.

I can tell you it’s a smart decision. My husband and I are both in our early sixties and our children have grown up and left. With only two of us, we don’t need as much space as we have. We need to be on one level, not two. We don’t want to worry about a yard or pay someone else to worry about it for us. We want to be closer to restaurants, to be able to walk more.

I’ll repeat: It’s a smart decision.

But we’re talking about a house where we’ve lived and been happy. Since when is that about rational decisions? To me, few things are as emotional—ridiculously emotional—as real estate.

Maybe it’s because my parents grew up in the Great Depression and it was the realization of their greatest dream to pay off their house. Maybe it’s because life is so damned uncertain and precarious—and real estate fools me into thinking there’s some kind of permanence and stability in this world. Maybe it’s because I’m mostly agnostic about religious matters, but I do believe houses have souls, that stories and secrets and echoes and emotions are stored in their walls.

Settle in a house and you’re presenting an image of who you are or who you want to be. Solid and traditional! Edgy and modern! Obsessively neat and organized, with your squared-off shrubs; defended and hidden by the wall in front of your doors and windows; so relaxed and laissez-faire, you don’t care if your grass gets brown or needs to be cut.

But more than anything, a house often tells where you are in your life. Ours is a family home, built solidly to weather lots of footsteps and slamming doors and loud noises. It needs kids on the front lawn kicking soccer balls. It needs a younger family, full of energy for maintenance and improvement.

And therein lies the pain in our smart decision: We used to be those people and now—suddenly—we’re not. We were the hilarious souls who used to joke about measuring our kids at the pantry door as they grew and ourselves as we shrank, till the humor grew a little too raw. We used to be in the thick of life and now we’re somehow closer to its edges.

The day our house was being inspected for sale, I packed up my newspapers and iPad and went to a nearby coffee shop. Three hours passed, then four. I drove back to our neighborhood and saw there was still a number of cars in front of our house. So, I sat in the car in front of a neighbor’s house and read a novel till it got dark and the ice cream in my grocery sack was melting.

I walked across the street to put the ice cream in the freezer and met the young couple who’s buying our house. “We love the house,” the young woman said. She motioned toward two of her three children playing in the front yard. “And our kids love it, too. It feels like people have been happy here.”

“We’ve been very happy here,” I said. I felt sad and relieved and good. We had our time here. Now it was their turn.

One Texan’s Xmas List

I’ve finally learned that you have to ask for what you want in this life. I know, I know—getting what you want is another matter. But it’s been a hard year, so leave me to my fool’s paradise. Here’s what you can get this Texan for Christmas this year: 

1. A really great idea: no more books from Rick Perry or George W. Bush! They need to save themselves for doing what they do best, whatever that is. Shooting coyotes? Clearing brush? I don’t care. They can save a few forests and leave the world of good, honest, reflective, truthful writing to people who can actually manage it.

2. Reassurance that the gossip about Karl Rove house-hunting in my Austin neighborhood is only a cruel joke.

3. Ditto on the Perry-for-President-in-2012 rumor. Not funny, not in the holiday spirit; stop talking about it or you’re going to have to spike my eggnog a lot more heavily.

4. When you’re of a certain age, as I am, you begin to wish for practical gifts that can’t be packaged attractively. This year, I vote for a virtual colonoscopy. An idea whose time has come!

5. All of which brings me, not terribly mysteriously, to Sharon Keller. Remember her? She’s the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Three years ago, she told the court clerk to close the office at 5 p.m., as usual, even though a condemned man’s attorneys were seeking to file papers requesting a stay of execution. So the office was closed on time and the man, Michael Richard, was executed that night. For the holidays, will somebody bring this woman a conscience? Or how about a heart?

6. As long as I’m asking for the impossible, will somebody please enlighten me about why UT football coach Mack Brown got a $1 million raise last year?

7. If you think we’ve had a hard year on this side of the border, consider what it must be like to live on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Given the continuing bloodshed and violence there, will somebody in Texas initiate an intelligent, serious discussion about decriminalizing drugs? Only the El Paso City Council, just across the river from the bloody streets of Juarez, has considered this action. Could decriminalization possibly cause worse carnage and destruction than we’re already seeing in Mexico?

8. Living in Austin, you automatically think of yourself as being one of the Chosen. Trees, lakes, hills, music, liberals, laissez-faire lifestyle. What more could you want? I’ll tell you what: mass transit. How on earth did Texas’ supposed beacon of progressivism let Houston and Dallas—two cities Austinites routinely scorn—get so far ahead on something so important? This year, I want light rail under my tree.

9. Can we all agree that specialization has its strong points? All right! Now that a certain dentist has been sent back to Bryan to presumably pull teeth and perform root canals, can we agree to listen to evolutionary biologists—and not witless, uninformed amateurs—talk about science?

10. I realize that I have a hopeless conflict of interest when it comes to higher education in Texas. After all, my husband teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and I used to work for the UT System. Still, before state legislators begin to slash funding for higher ed, I hope they’ll pause to remember a few important matters. Such as: universities and medical schools educate new generations, spur innovation, attract industry, and sponsor research that enhances lives and cures dread diseases. I told you I had a conflict of interest. But if you care about this state, I think we all do.

11. I see that George W. and his newly svelte sidekick Dick Cheney have broken ground on the Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. May the institute surprise us all and be intellectually rigorous and non-partisan.

12. Will everybody please stop playing The Little Drummer Boy?

 

As you can see, I saved my least realistic request for the last of my list. But I can dream. After all, Bristol Palin was finally sent packing on Dancing With the Stars and Tom DeLay just got convicted of money laundering. Doesn’t that teach us that, around Christmas-time, anything is possible?

Bloody Bloody Tea Party

When I wasn’t working on a migraine, when I wasn’t despondent about the future of the world, when I was feeling halfway brave, I occasionally tuned in to TV coverage of the elections this fall. I watched the Tea Partiers with their shrill denunciations and ragged signs. I listened to how they wanted to take back their country. I studied their flushed faces and gaping mouths.

I don’t recommend this as an exercise in mental health or migraine-avoidance. Worse, the truth is I’d seen and heard it all before. While we were in New York in the spring, my husband and I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a raucous, sweat-soaked musical about this country’s seventh president and the fervent mobs who took him to power. It was one of the best performances we saw, the perfect musical if you like your history twisted and your irony and irreverence delivered in bulk. (What can I say? We do.)

You remember Andrew Jackson, of course. He was the war hero, the frontiersman, the plainspoken populist. His adoring followers trashed the White House at his inauguration, tracking mud and muck on the carpets and furniture as the spittoons overflowed. Jackson himself was charismatic and enigmatic, a slave owner who wanted to preserve the Union, a champion of individual liberty who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

In the wake of that last act, 45,000 Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, Muscogee-Creek and Semi-noles were forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeast to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Many of them died on the long brutal journey that came to be called the Trail of Tears.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which moved to Broadway this fall, tells the story of Jackson as the first populist-celebrity politician. He’s buff, brazen and sexy, and he sports his “stimulus” in his skin-tight jeans. The crowds who idolize him are rough-hewn, impulsive and volatile. As the chorus to one of the musical’s songs, “Populism Yea Yea” goes, “And we’re gonna take this country back for people like us, who don’t just think about things.”

They sing, they dance, they’re loud, they rage against the sneering elite. According to New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley, they represent America as the “eternal teenager”—forever misunderstood and entitled, with the collective attention span of a gnat.

With their mercurial, anti-intellectual mindset, teeming with a lot more id than I.Q., Bloody Bloody’s rabble-rousers remind just about everybody of the Tea Partiers. You see them up close and it’s ugly. This is what happens, you tell yourself, when people care more about slogans than ideas, when they’re overwhelmed by primal emotions, when democracy becomes mob rule. Everybody’s angry and nobody thinks. Man up! They’re gonna take this country back for people who don’t just think about things. Just like the Tea Partiers, who revere the U.S. Constitution, but have little idea what it really says. (Who knew the First Amendment was about separation of church and state?)

But wait. Sure, Bloody Bloody’s gyrating mob and the Tea Partiers look the same, sound the same, render everybody who’s ever read a book with the same kind of horrified gut-freeze. But, look a little deeper. Their differences are as disturbing as their similarities.

Jackson’s followers—and their Bloody Bloody counterparts—are hardscrabble individuals who struggled to homestead in the wilderness. They worked hard, backbreaking labor. They died young, succumbing to childbirth, deprivation and diseases like cholera that are distant headlines to 21st-century Americans. They had little education and little hope of doing more than saving their families from starvation. To survive, they wanted to expand government and democracy.

Then look at our modern-day Tea Partiers. They show no symptoms of being alarmingly underfed. Their hands are soft and well-manicured, their wardrobes coordinated, their hair is colored and coifed. They’re an affluent, well-educated group with enough leisure time to show up at repeated rallies and wave their signs and scream their slogans. So they and big corporations can continue to thrive, they want to slash and dismember government.

Looking back, you can understand the incoherence and rage of Jackson’s 19th-century followers and their fury at the cultural elites. But how did a well-fixed, well-fed mob of white people with college degrees and SUVs highjack the populism banner and label themselves disenfranchised? Maybe because they don’t understand the term “populism” any better than they understand the First Amendment?

What’s Remarkable is How Serious It Was

Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity

My husband and I were two of the hundreds of thousands who showed up for the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C. Saturday.  It was one of those perfect autumn days, warm and sunny.  The Mall, which is flanked by the Washington Monument and the Capitol, teemed with middleaged people like us — and lots of people not like us (younger, hipper, sign-carriers, outrageously costumed, you name it, you saw it).

I don’t know how many people were there.  I can’t tell you anything new about the music acts or the jokes, since you could see that on TV.  What I can tell you is how uplifting this gathering was.  You couldn’t have seen  or felt that from the TV coverage, you couldn’t have figured that out from the wire and Internet coverage.

In the end, it wasn’t about the signs, however good they were.  Or the jokes and entertainment.  It was really about a throng of good-natured people who didn’t shove one another or buy airhorns from the lone hawker of those obnoxious devices.  It was about people like us who came for reasons they couldn’t quite articulate (maybe because, we were convinced, it would be a happening and we’d already missed Woodstock a zillion years ago) — people who showed up for no particular reason, except they were tired and out of patience and discouraged.  I don’t know what we or anybody else wanted.  An escape, maybe.  An adventure.  A distraction.

We sang patriotic songs, and if you think that sounds ironic, then you definitely weren’t there.  We looked down that long Mall, and it was impossible not to be stirred by the peaceful gathering of so many people.  Looked down that Mall and thought of the history of this country, the country we’re now so distressed about, since it’s deeply divided and its politics are poisonous.  Looked down the Mall, looked at the people crowding around you, who were unfailingly polite and patient and sweet-natured.  Watched the bright blue skies and occasional clouds, peered into the nearby Jumbotron.

Ask anybody there about politics, and I’m sure we were all left of center.  It was a rally considered too political for employees of news organizations to come to.  But, amazingly enough, the rally wasn’t political.  It didn’t blame the usual right-wing villains.  Sure, it carped about the media, but it was about the media of all stripes, from MSNBC to Fox to CNN to NPR.  It was about the endless screaming, the accusations that are robbing us of a civil discourse.

It was about the radical idea that the guy bloviating about his Tea Party values might, just possibly, love this country and want what’s best for it.  About the revolutionary thought we might all drop the sanctimony and the kneejerk name-calling.  Funny thing is, when you stop blaming the usual victims and suspects, we all become responsible for what’s going on — the poison, the volume, the loss of basic consideration.

I know, I know.  You’ll tell me they did it first, they’re the ones who ruined our country — the Republicans, the right-wingers, the conservatives — and the rest of us are just fighting back.  It’s not our fault.  It’s theirs.  They started it.

But that was the odd thing about being out on that Mall on a beautiful autumn day, that was what you couldn’t see on TV.  Here we were, in our indeterminate numbers, listening to one of the great comedians of our day speak about love of country and optimism.  Here we were, wondering about our own responsibility in this continuing fray and what we could possibly do to make it better.

Funny ideas from a very funny man.  I can’t tell you how serious it was.  I’m not kidding: You should have been there.

The Textbook Plot

The State Board of Education today instructed publishers to curtail positive coverage of Islam and include more favorable treatment of Christianity in future world history textbooks. … The resolution states that “diverse reviewers have repeatedly documented gross pro-Islamic, anti-Christian distortions in social studies texts” across the United States, and that past social studies textbooks in Texas have been ‘tainted’ with pro-Islamic, anti-Christian views.”
 —Dallas Morning News, Sept. 24, 2010

 

MEMO: Top secret addition to American history textbook for 10th-graders
Please note that the following timeline, which is highly sensitive, will be smuggled into the new American history textbook, The True Story of the Infidels Who Call Themselves Americans: A Subliminal History for American Idiots. This timeline skillfully takes advantage of American students’ pathetically limited attention spans by weaving in references to Arabs and Islam alongside mentions of food, sex, sports and Elvis Presley. Death to America!

 

History of America Timeline

1492 Christopher Columbus and his three ships set sail, guided by the astrolabe, quadrant and navigational maps invented by Arabs. Being ignorant Christians, however, he and his crew misread these excellent instruments and end up in North America instead of the Far East. Fortunately, they get to have lots of sex with the native islanders.

1621 Pilgrims and native Americans celebrate first traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Plantation. Menu includes such traditional, lip-smacking Thanksgiving fare as turkey, falafel, pita, Big Macs, hummus and wing-dings. Native Americans learn mathematical concept of zero, invented by Arab mathematicians, when they aren’t allowed to have second helpings.

1776 Select group of American terrorists comes together to create a fatwa called the Declaration of Independence, as they declare a jihad against King George III of England.

1836 Small number of fanatical, suicidal martyrs fight to the death at the Alamo, a historic building now in downtown San Antonio, Texas. (Scholar’s note: Although previously thought to have been a Catholic mission, the Alamo has recently been revealed by historians at Texas A&M University to have been a mosque.)

1863 Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States and an admirer of the Koran who enjoyed wearing a robe in his leisure hours, issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the country. This means black people are free to have lots of sex, too.

1929 Great Depression occurs on a planet upon which women vote, drive, have sex, enjoy sex and go bareheaded. Coincidence?
1940 McDonald’s opens!!!

1948 First monkey astronaut launched in space. U.S. President Harry Truman announces U.S. recognition for illegal Zionist state built upon the bloodied backs of the martyred Palestinian people. Kiss Me, Kate opens on Broadway. Americans have lots of sex.

1957 Dwight Eisenhower inaugurated for second term as U.S. president. Elvis Presley buys Graceland, where he eats lots of junk food like fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. Osama bin Laden born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (!!!). Brooklyn Dodgers move to LA. 

1965 U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, who had even more sex than John F. Kennedy, signs the historic Voting Rights Act while standing on a Persian rug in the White House. According to informed sources, Johnson purposely chose this Middle Eastern rug for his historic signature, stating that he felt it “brought the room together.”

1973 Miami Dolphins beat Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl. World Trade Center opens (spoiler alert: see 2001, when World Trade Center closes!). Israeli hoodlums commit usual acts of aggression in so-called Yom Kippur War. Everybody blames the Arabs, as usual. Sick and tired of not getting second helpings, Native Americans re-take Wounded Knee. Everybody still having lots of sex, though.

1979 Elvis dies. Whole country in mourning. Nobody has sex for a week.

2001 Mysterious planes fly into large buildings in New York City. After long, intricate conspiracy unraveled, perpetrators are revealed to be a radical sect of Protestant extremists known as “chicken-eating Methodists” concerned about veganism and same-sex marriage. Of course, Muslims still get blamed. (Typical!)

Fall 2008 Worldwide recession. See entry for Great Depression above.

November 2008 Victory: United States finally elects a Muslim president! Weather fine, partly sunni.

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