Notes from the Field

Community leaders, institutions, and even entire communities can inspire us to do great work ourselves. They can serve as role models, spark new ideas in us, or provide us with a place to place our energy. There are a great deal of community members and places left unsung or only recognized by a narrow population and while we can never show all of the people that deeply affect and serve their communities, we hope to shine a light on and share the stories of some of those people and places and what they mean to their community.

Bones and Rocks

April 28, 2018
Submitted by: James Riley

They are the bones of primordial creatures. Any fool can see that, any fool can feel it. What we call the Rocky Mountains is nothing more than the graveyard of eldritch beings, ancient giants, the kind with skulls that jealous gods carved the sky out of.

There is a story I once heard about a man fixing a satellite. The satellite was moving very quickly around the earth and though the man felt stationary when he looked at only the area he was working on, he quickly became disoriented if he looked anywhere else. So he had to focus on what was in front of him. Even still, the rapid orbit of the satellite caused a fascinating phenomenon. Every 45 minutes or so, there would be a brilliant sunrise followed by a extremely truncated day and then a total sunset. Then there would be a 45 minute night of pure blackness. And so it went in the vault of space, dancing between the total heat and light of a brilliant day and the cold, encompassing, deep and profound darkness of night until his work was finished.

There is something similar that happens driving through the mountains. The road curves in three dimensional space, up and down and left and right. That much seems obvious. It is the driving through time that is surprising. Driving through the mountain’s waves of light and shadow create a less extreme version of the astronaut’s 45 minute days. Time, and the experience of moving through it, feels different. Even the towns seem untouched by time, or at least time unevenly touches the objects and people there. Trucks from forty years ago parked next to cars of 2018. The nonchalant and puerile faces of Boulder are mixed in with the hard-living lines and creases in the smaller towns. It gives off a feeling of the unreal and uncanny to everything. Life seems like an illusion. A movie set. This feeling is only compounded when you look around. From each mountain town, you see in the background massive Truman Show-esque matte paintings to dome the populous.

There are mythological truths and there are practical truths. People who live at the mercy of nature every day and that are aware that they do, must by necessity adopt mythological truths to fortify them and stabilize their world. And we all are at the mercy of all kinds of natures. There is, and must be, a divine law or something even greater to provide an order to the world, or so we believe. The everywhen of Dreamtime, the space outside the universe into which it expands, the chaotic waters from which the material world was born. There is something outside of what may be seen and measured and recorded. These things, in mythological truth, must be of the eternal now, which is how it has always been and always will be no matter how it changes. A mythological truth is that which is patently untrue and yet ultimately truth.

Yet there is no society on earth that succeeds by denying the practical truths of the world. No matter what is going on around you, you cannot ignore what is right in front of you. Indeed, when you do it is disorienting and frequently dangerous. Even the most mythologically minded tribes of human beings know which herbs heal what, how to make things, and the history of their people. Everyone must deal with the facts of the world that surrounds us.

In a place called No Name, I hear men and women talk about denial of practical truth on an episode of TED Radio Hour. They talk about how people deny the benefits of vaccines, basic science, and even the Holocaust. These denials, like the mountains, are monsters from before the time of man. Hatred and ignorance do not come from inside but are caught like infectious diseases. What these parasitic things fed on before humans, I do not know. And though these things find modern humans more than suitable hosts, they belong in the pantheon of beings that predate us.

All humanity has imperfect knowledge. We each invent a system whole cloth to describe the unfathomable to make the daily struggle more bearable. There is simply not enough bandwidth in the human mind to worry over the rudderlessness of the universe and how we are going to make rent. It is through mythological truths that we interpret the practical truths around us. But there's the rub: those that deny the practical truths are not trading in mythological truths. They are acting in bad faith. They are pretending to be dealing in the mythological, in the stories of unseen forces, races, and destinies. But like the petty kings of old, they are only interested in fear.

They put on the hat of skeptics. They must see it, they claim, in person or it doesn’t exist. The Holocaust, the most well-documented genocide ever and quite possibly the most well-documented event in human history, is nevertheless invisible to the naked eye. It, like all history, is not provable to the individual non-witness. Proof can be faked, eyes can be tricked, they claim. A person who does not wished to be hypnotized, will not be hypnotized. The same is true of education. People choose not to believe in this event because it is useful to cause disbelief in practical truths and therefore of mythological truth. They seek to instill the idea that Jews are liars that control the media by trying to incept you with the idea that you’ve been tricked. To some people the Earth will remain flat forever.

The deniers could very well push the belief that the Holocaust happened and that it was good because the Jews deserved it. Neo-Nazis obviously believe this. It is a mythological truth for them and they want others to believe it too. Without the force and pressure of an ideological hateful society, the Holocaust denier cannot simply tell you that Jews are evil. If that is all it took, you would believe it already. Instead, they have to chip away at your grounding on the Holocaust as a factual historical event. Perhaps, it was not as bad as they make it seem. We’re just asking questions, why don’t they want you to know the answers? Who are they anyway? What do they have to gain from keeping you in the dark about this?

Soon, if you are not grounded in practical facts these pernicious seeds of doubt may sprout and you may find yourself believing in bullshit. All misinformation works this way. GMOs are universally bad for you, the earth is flat, evolution isn’t real, global warming isn’t real, lizard people and the illuminati are in a secret cabal with Broderbund Inc. It becomes complicated at some point though. Some denials of practical truths seem harmless or at least sympathetic. Vaccine deniers believe that vaccines cause autism because it is easier to place blame on something than to deal with the fact that communication is going to be extremely frustrating for their child and for them.

But the problem is that these lies are risky to all and deadly to some. If we do not believe in the facts of the world, we doom ourselves and others. We can interpret facts differently, weigh them differently, but to discount them altogether is to cast in our lot with fear and hate. The most cunning tyrant to come along will use these to harm us. To be sure someone benefits from each of these lies, while many more suffer. Quite usually, these lies are told to increase a small minority’s finances or power. The irony that this is the exact story that Holocaust deniers tell about the Jews is not lost on me.

Without GMOs, there can be no Golden Rice. Without an understanding of this earth and the life on it, we will kill ourselves. Without a firm understanding that the people we see are in charge really are in charge (a group that includes both politicians and the wealthy), we cede all of our rights and abilities to shape our world. Without vaccines, diseases spread unchecked. It is important that we all know the practical truths of this world, less misinformation spread and with it hatred and ignorance.

And on the other hand, nonsense is what sustains us. Fancy and Fantasy are the things that hold us together as a people and as people. The idea that the universe is or has in it potent forces, perhaps even omnipotent ones, that idea seems to be true even if not literal. The Mandate of Heaven, The Myth of Sisyphus, American Exceptionalism, the idea that people are basically good, are all made up stories. Not one is provable by any metric. And yet how beautiful they can be. The only thing they couldn’t take away from Anne Frank was her belief that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, people were really good at heart.

These are not just comforts to the weak minded. These metaphors are the maps and guides to navigating the terror of existence. They our values made manifest. They are strictly speaking, our feelings distilled. And these feelings filter down into how we interpret the concrete physical world of facts.

Nonsense is what we use to make sense of our world.

Looking at this country is and has been an exploration of constructed spaces. And even these mountains are constructed space, because we all bring with us an impossible large tarp to cast over the landscape. We impose our own meaning onto the bones of giants. We inscribe on each landmark the deeds of heroes or glory of gods or the stories of nature, and we do this whether or not we are aware of it. It is okay to do this, I think, to inorganic things. But we do it to living things too and I think that is a problem. And though I am not impressed with my countrymen, neither do I have the right to damn them with my judgements. Still, I wish they knew what side they were on: mine or the bones.

We think of facts as small things because they can be solved in short declarative sentences. But really they are all much to big to really understand. All these small things, axioms and formula and facts are windows into the other kind of truth. And the other way around. Just as night and day compliment each other, so does reality and fancy.

The practical truth is what I saw when I stopped my car and looked at mountains for one of the few times in my life that I have actually done that. The practical truth is the rock formations, the way the earth moves, the stresses of forces that I do not know and can not describe. What I am able to tell you is the mythological truth. The story of driving through the Rocky Mountains. I can tell you what it felt like and quite possibly you can understand that. I can tell you that my mind went to a place of prehistoric and indifferent beings. I can tell you that I day dreamed in the face of the rock, faces of monsters so old that they were as time itself. I can tell you the feeling of driving through those unbelievable rocks. It felt unearthly.

Little Piece of Paradise

March 21, 2018
Submitted by: James Riley

If you wait near the Westboro Baptist Church for more than twenty minutes you will see people pull up, get out of their cars, and take pictures of the house across the street with starry-eyed delight.

The oddest thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is that there are houses across the street. It is, for all it's infamy, just a house on a street corner. But all places must be on a street somewhere, even hate groups. Still, it is strange to sit in a car on some suburban street in Kansas and look up in one direction and read "GOD HATES FAGS" only to turn your head and see a house all painted up in rainbows.

I fiddle with my newly purchased iPod. I bought it at a garage sale, less than two miles from where I am sitting. The woman assured me it worked, though she didn’t know what was on it, except for "Thunderstruck," which she had just played for a man who had bought speakers an hour prior. For five dollars, even if it is a swindle, well, I have been swindled for more. I look at the rainbow house and I too smile.

Women, while I am there they are only women, arrive about every ten to fifteen minutes to make a pilgrimage and pay homage to the rainbow house. They get out of their car and snap a few photographs of the house, smiling, beaming even. They investigate the free lending library box. They coo over the community garden plot. They chat politely or not at all. But they never look back over their shoulders to what they know is there.

There is a short man here, but he was not a visitor. He looks like Jeff Bridges in a David Crosby biopic. He lives here or works here. I am not sure. He doesn't seem to be extraordinary forthcoming with who he is or what his connection is to the place and I don't feel any need to question him. We chat and he smiles with his eyes the way old hippies do. He does not seem overly concerned with any of the people going or coming.

But the woman who lives next door is more talkative. She has many barking dogs, but smiles at me. She seems pleasant enough, so I ask her, "Do you mind if I come talk to you?"

She is more than excited to do it. "Oh yes please! Meet me on my porch."

The woman comes out her front door with six bottles of water. "Here," she said and hands me one. It is a hot day in Topeka and I am thankful for the water but I doubt I could drink even my share of it, at least not without staying longer than I want.

At the door, on her porch, two of the three dogs bark and bark.

"They aren’t even mine," she says. "Well Bandit is. But the other two, they are my neighbor’s. I don’t know when she is supposed to get back, but I hope it is soon."

When I ask her what it is like to live here she calls it her "little piece of paradise." She had a rough time of it in her life. She alludes to some bad people that were perhaps her family once. She smiles and offers me water again, and apologizes for the dogs again. I say not to worry and sip on the first half-filled water bottle.

"But what is it like to live here?" I ask motioning to the twin temples across the street from one another. Polar opposites in form and function. She nods a little and says that it is different in some ways but really not at all that abnormal. She says that she supposed that everyone has their own sins to deal with and she couldn’t condemn anyone. They are just people after all.

"Besides," she says, "I get to talk to such wonderful and interesting people coming here just like you did."

"Is that so?" I ask.

"Oh yes. There was a lovely young man hear the other day who helped me plant tomatoes."

"Well, now I wish there was something I could help you with."

"Actually, now that you mention it…" Me and my big mouth.

After weeding a few rows of the garden, I dust off my pant legs. I think about how I am going to be sitting in them for the rest of the day, and probably several days after, driving through other towns and states. The woman thanks me, and I finish the third bottle of water. I say goodbye and start toward my van. I am about to get in, when I listen for the first time to a sound that I must have been passively hearing for a little while now. It is the uneven smack of someone shooting around on a basketball hoop. I realize that it is coming from behind the stockade fence of the Westboro compound. I think about the middle school boy who might well be behind the fence playing basketball by himself.

In truth, I know very little about the Westboro Baptist Church. I know that it is mostly one family, that of the founder Fred Phelps. I know that they have been denounced by many other Baptist churches. I know that there have been public defectors, like Megan Phelps-Roper, that have had to leave not just their ideological and religious beliefs, but their family as well.

But really, I only know them for the worst thing about them. I only know the Westboro Baptist Church, because the worst thought that they ever had is emblazoned on their home and church and on the signs they carry. And though I find their theology unforgivably grotesque, I can't say as I know about the rest of them. I know literally nothing else about them besides that one heinous belief which they seem delightfully proud of.

To look at something differently does not change the way that that something is. To look at a cloud and imagine it into shapes will not turn water vapor into a whale or a rocket ship. To stand on one's head will not reverse gravity. Likewise, I hope, this thought experiment will not diminish anyone's grief or anguish by seeming to excuse the hateful rhetoric and actions of this group and these people.


Imagine that the slogans these men and women sling on signs or shout at mourners were not a choice but a curse. That they were not designed to shock others into a warped morality but were a punishment for some unknown crime. Imagine these people were damned to wander with these chains proclaiming their worst belief, the worst thing about them, for all to see. Would that make them more pitiable? Would people look upon them as one would the leper or street urchin of their day? Or would they be just as hated as they are now? Might they even be more ignored?

Still further I wonder, as I begin to drive away, were I under that curse what would my house say? What would be my ugliest secret thought? What horrible violence have I done in the oyster-part of my heart with me the only witness, that would be brought up and trumpeted above my head in neon fire? And what if I, through some mistaken interpretation, believed it was my sacred duty to crow out this terrible thing, everyday and everywhere? How tragic I would find my lot. How lonely.

Then again, and here is where the thought experiment ends for far too many human beings or else lands too close to the bone. Many human beings grow up in a world in which the most shameful secret is not whom they hate but whom they love. Because of those around them, the most shameful thing about these human beings is not an ugly opinion but a core piece of who they are. And that is why the compassion for the hypothetical cursed we imagined above can only go so far. The questions become what if my most shameful secret was the type of person I was attracted to? The kind of human being I loved? And what if instead of being able to share it, I forced themselves to hide that away forever? How much more tragic would that be?

I am glad that rainbow house is on a street corner somewhere.

I Am Middle Class

January 20, 2018
Submitted by: James Riley

In America, class is invisible. Class is a kind of odorless gas, that can not be held in your hands. Class can not be heard in the accents of the people, like it can in Britain or France. Most importantly, in America, class cannot be tasted. In America, class is taste. And I have a middle class palate.

I know I have a middle class palate because it is based on the diet my parents gave me when I was only a little child. It is what I was raised on. Some people know that they are lower class because they hate the taste of fresh vegetables. They develop a taste for the canned stuff only. I know I am middle class because I choose to see a movie by myself and eat as much crappy pizza as I possibly can. And I do it with glee.

When given the chance for a local adventure, when staying with a friend in Kansas City, when he is busy with work, when I have just an afternoon of freetime, when I can choose to see any part of a new city, I choose to watch Wonder Woman because I have never seen a movie alone before. I choose to jam as much Ci Ci's pizza in my mouth as I possibly can, because I never have before. I choose to see how many pizza slices I can sneak into my bag before I am caught, not by the uncaring minimum wage staff, but by my own sense of propriety or shame. All senses are just other words for class, in America. The things on my bucket list can be banged out in a unexceptional long weekend. That is how I know I am middle class.

The movie was good, I should mention. It may seem like I don't like it when I pair it with the cheap and crappy pizza of Ci Ci's, but it was good. It was the best superhero movie I have seen in a while, but nothing much more than that. But I have to admit that you can see in the movie another movie, a better movie, as you can see in most movies nowadays. Like most movies, the brave and unique taste of Wonder Woman was watered down by committee and more and more things were added to it until a delicate stir fry was turned into a beef stew.

Get your money's worth. That is the business model for the food of the middle class. And I chew on Wonder Woman as if I had something to talk about. But I saw it by myself. What am I going to say? It was a tight and pleasant movie but nothing new. It was entertaining. But in more ways than one, it was food not meant for me.

The middle class is the class that eats things that are bad for you not because they are decadent, but because they are so disappointing. The middle class are grazers. The poor are detritivores and scavengers and the rich are sharp toothed meat-eaters. But the middle class chew the grass of the Great Plains like the buffalo we replaced.

The pizza was worse than the movie, of course. But it was still eatable. Especially the buffalo chicken pizza. The buffalo chicken pizza was the most eatable thing I have ever ate. The jalapeno pepperoni moreso.

Of course, Wonder Woman wasn't for me. For me, it was like striping bamboo apart with my sharp teeth: something I can get fat on but nothing that will set my world on fire. But what about the little girl I saw with her mother? Thats who the movie is for, I think. It is milk. Something to grow strong on, maybe but a little less useful to me. Then again, what child wants to the murderous death of World War I. It is a shame that Wonder Woman, by the virtue of being the only recent movie I can think of with a female hero, has to be both gritty and juvenile. All things to all people.

But that is what we want. Not a little bit of one pronounced flavor or even a few well-balanced and well-blended flavors but all the flavors muddled together on one un-emptying plate. I run into this problem with build-your-own burgers or pizzas or any of those assembly line Chipotle-esque restaurants where you have the freedom to choose whichever and however many toppings you want. I end up putting too many things on it, so that they all turn out sweet, salty, spicy, all at once. These are truly fine, even sometimes tasty, but they are ultimately worse than what I really want.

That is the problem with the middle class taste. I don't know enough to know what I want. That is the problem with art by committee, the audience does not know what they want. If you ask a person what they want in a movie, they will say things like "funny" and "angry" and "action" and all the flavors that they know they like. But if you make that movie, it will be, more than likely, a muddled mess. While Wonder Woman is not a mess, it is not the movie it could be.

And sure, I eat a lot of things that are great, and divine and delecedible, and truly wonderful. But I keep going back to eat crap. I will always have a taste for food that is more quantity than quality. It is the invisible part of me that keeps me going back wasting my time on mediocre meals and art. Perhaps, it will be different for my kids.

Up Musics River

November 7, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley

Sure, everyone knows the Mississippi river. Most people have read Huckleberry Finn in high school, or at least they were supposed to. Still, everyone knows that in a country of wild and wonderful rivers, the Mississippi is the uncontested king. Though the Missouri is technically longer, it is just a tributary to the wide and mercurial Emperor Mississippi. Sure, everyone knows the Mississippi river. That's what makes it so unfathomable.

The Mississippi divides our country in two, at least as far as radio stations go and what other metric is as important? It is a line, a demarcator and demarcation both, between the East and West. It is the earliest national boundary that we had. There was a time when from coast to coast meant from the Atlantic to the banks of the Mississippi.

It is a large river in itself, but positively massive when you judge it by its watershed. While not the largest river basin in the world, it does cover 1,400,000 square miles. The Mississippi is a collection of rainwater from all but three of the landlocked American states and from some coastal states besides. Here is an interesting aside: If you were to overlay the land from the massive Louisiana Purchase on that watershed, it is a near perfect overlap of the western side of the river's water basin. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider that human beings both like and are like water. Both collect and pool in very similar ways and places and neither will travel up-and-overhill unless compelled by great force.

The Louisiana Purchase was indeed a watershed moment in the expansion of the United States. Jefferson, fearing that Napoleon had interests in bolstering his European Empire with an American one, sent envoys to purchase just a little bit of land. Napoleon was all too happy to rid himself of all he could to fund his European conquest. Thus began (or continued) the great American twin traditional reasons for expansion: benefiting from the mass destruction of European Wars and a near paranoid concern of protecting domestic interests.

Despite their intense desire to keep foreign conflict off of American shores, the Founding Fathers failed. Firstly with the War of 1812, and secondly and more seriously with failing to deal with the original sin of America of slavery. It is worth noting that most of America's early military actions were against pirates, slaves, and natives, the very same population that was washed down the Mississippi to be deposited in the great American city of New Orleans.

The Mississippi was as equal and fair a distributor of wealth as you can find in American history. Taking minerals and culture and wealth and trash and strife, all equal particles to the dispassionate and uncaring river, from every corner of the unspoiled Arcadia and washed them into rich and arbitrary deposits. New Orleans is just one of the cities and towns that benefited from the river's capricious gifts, albeit in unequal shares.

Compare that relentless washing hand of the river to the vile and contemptible redistribution of human souls by man. The phrase "to sell one down the river" refers to this very river and to only the literal sale of human beings. The saying suggests what was an awful truth of slavery and what may prove to still be true in America today. Though it is used today as shorthand for betrayal, the subtext is that for black men and women in America, no matter how bad they have it, it could always get worse.

Going up the river from New Orleans, on the famous Highway 61, you will find yourself in a slowly shrinking town called Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez, in its earliest form, was a French Settlement and was once the capital of Mississippi, but now appears to be a necropolis of an ancient and barbarous people. Those that live there now seem only distantly related to them. The city of less than 16,000 people, is primarily known for its many tourable plantation houses. The chief symbol of this city of Mausoleums is the unfinished Longwood.

Known as "Nut's Folly", after its owner Haller Nut, this massive octagonal piece of Orientalism is an empty promise. Only the basement was finished, when work stopped in the significant year of 1861 due to the complications of the country no longer being one single country anymore. You can still walk around it today and see the unfinished upper floors. You may also tour the euphemistically named "servants quarters", a large brick building that seems smaller when you find out it housed 32 slaves. The whole complex seems uncomfortably small at that point. Such is the particular legacy of how those particular people chose to to spend their gifts from the river. The hermit crab-like descendants still scuttle about in the shells of the former estates and seem to live in real admiration of their beauty, while admitting to the horrors that made them possible, as one might marvel at the pyramids of Egypt. Though to what extent the shock at such horrors are feigned is certainly up for debate.

Moving a bit north up Highway 61, and quite a few years past 1861, near the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, you will find the Delta Blues Museum housed in an old railroad depot. Outside of the museum, there is a town that seems tailor made to host a Blues museum. Like many American towns, Clarksdale, MS resembles a slowly dying fire, diminishing in intensity and size, but not yet burned out. Though this small fire heated the crucible that was the birthplace of musicians like Sam Cooke, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Rick Ross, Nate Dogg and many others. It is a fire that, like in many American Towns, caring citizens are committed to keeping lit.

Inside the Delta Blues Museum, you can see the artifacts of the men and women who forged the Blues. Their suits, their guitars, and, in the case of Muddy Waters, their homes are lined up for inspection. Inside what used to be a railroad depot, you can stand in what used to be the main room of a rude cabin, in which the man who used to be McKinnely Morganfield grew up. When looking at the wax statue of a re-invented man in a flashy suit and big guitar becomes just a tad too artificial to stomach, you can retreat to the far wall that displays the letters of incarcerated men. Sometimes rambling, sometimes cogent, each misspelling, each sentence with unique diction tells the story of some human being or other in trouble of one kind or another. The pathos of the words pushing past the image of the gnarled knucklebones grinding to work in the heat, past the image of a shrunken boney dirty drunk howling out from behind missing teeth, to the heart of shared humanity. If we have nothing else in common, we have all felt sad. That is the Blues.

Only in a country like America can misery be liquidated, and only in the hands of the creative underclass could it be spun into gold, as has been done time and again in jokes and songs and other American arts. And yet, only in America could that gold fall disproportionately into white-gloved hands. Continuing further up river, closer to the present day, you might find yourself on Beale Street in Memphis. Though you might be forgiven for mistaking it for Bourbon Street, so long as you never say it to a local, for all the faint smells of the more impolite human bodily functions. Beale is nevertheless an historic street. It was one of only a few streets in America which businesses were owned primarily by African Americans and as such, like Bourbon, was a musical incubator.

African American musicians began performing on Beale Street as early as the 1860s but the it wasn't until the 1920s that Memphis Blues became a known style. Blues is like Barbeque; everyone swears that theirs is the best but I can't really tell the difference. And just like Barbeque, the Blues takes the worst cuts of life and makes them into something tasty and worth chewing on. It is a meeting place that brings together the rich and the poor. As the the official Beale Street website romanticizes, these spaces are the places where "Stetson hats mingled with overalls."

Though in these rare spaces, where people were not separated, neither were they equal. It is exactly these same two articles of clothing that appear in Otis Redding's "Tramp" when Carla Thomas chastises Otis for wearing "overalls" instead of "continental clothes, or Stetson Hats." The difference between Muddy Waters and McKinneley Morganfield was just as simple as the money for a new suit. Otis and Carla recorded that for Stax Records 2 miles south of Beale Street, in Memphis.

If you travel north of Beale Street by a couple blocks you might find Sun Records, the place where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Howlin' Wolf all recorded. And with them, a whole other wrinkle enters into the racial history of popular music. It was one of the birthplaces of Rock and Roll, which was called rhythm and blues when Black Artists invented it twenty years before that, and country when poor crackers tried their hand at it ten years later. Each new style and sound artificially categorized into a new group with a fashionable name, but to me it is all Rock and Roll.

It is impossible to ignore that both Stax and Sun Records were started by white men (and a woman) who got rich off of the work and culture of black men and women. Both record companies did a great deal to break down racial barriers in the music industry and in the larger culture outside of that as well. But there is no denying that popular music was then and remains inextricably tied to both race and class in this country. But Rock and Roll, or its more amorphous appellation Popular Music, is not about thinking so much as it is about feeling. And a Rock and Roll song feels like freedom even when it is about slavery. Popular Music is about hope, even when it is about suffering.

All Rock and Roll is the same Big Dumb Lie. It is a joke that gets caught in the throat jumbled up with the hacking laughter of someone still surprised by the punchline. All of Rock and Roll, albums, songs, bands, however you want to atomize it, is a flower that blooms, bears fruit, and rots in the self-same instant. Rock and Roll is a tesseract, undulating in three dimensional space, impossible and rhythmic. Like the Mississippi River, there is some sort of essential identity put on it, though it has never been the same river twice. Sure, everyone knows what the Mississippi River means. It means nothing - nothing but what you put on it. And even this, it shakes freely off fairly quickly.

Big Easy

October 17, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley

"Is it hard to talk to strangers?" she asked.

It was. It was something I was finding extremely hard to do. How did she know, I wondered.

"Yeah, I'll bet it is. That seems like the worst part of it. There was a guy who they paid to go around the US and write about what he thinks. And everyone got mad at him because he didn't talk to anyone. But you know, why do you have to? Why is that automatically part of it?" she said.

"You are writing a book right?" she asked.

I guess I am.

"I knew it," she said, "not that you said you were or anything but when Kent asked me what you were doing around here, I knew it was that."

It is a rare thing when a person understands a piece of you. When they just get it. Not the whole thing, but a piece. Perhaps there are people that do get the whole thing or at least several connected or unconnected pieces of you, but I haven't seen that yet. It is nice enough to have someone get a piece, big or small.

There is no real rhyme or reason to it. Affection does not make it easier to get. It is not love or comradery that leads to the instant transmission of this knowledge. It is not even similarity of attitude or outlook that allows for this preternatural connection. Sometimes with someone you just know something.

"You made that," I said pointing to her baby nursing at her breast.

"Yeah, it is pretty great," she said.

I look around her house as if to say, and you made all this, a life for yourself.

"It is pretty great." she said again.

We were young when we first knew each other. We drank together with and without other friends and worked together shelving and selling books. It was after college and as close to what I thought young adulthood was going to be as I am ever going to get. That feels like very long ago, now. I know because it all seems charming and pleasant, the way all but the most painful long ago memories seem with time. Later on her porch, we talked about the South. About schools and culture and what it is going to be like when her daughter grows up. I told her about how I had just made a fool of myself by eating the display black and white cookie from the pizza shop I stopped at. Her baby mashes a homemade popsicle into her mouth in the most adorable way. We watch the giant hole that was, up until very recently, her intersection collect rain. They tore all of it up. It was supposed to be fixed by the following day but that day it was supposed to storm all day, so who knows. She casually referenced the way she, in her own words "blew up her life." I never fully knew all the details of that and still don't. I do not recall being the most supportive and to be honest I kinda lost touch with her after that.

I wonder how she knew it was the right choice. I mean, how did she know that those beautiful blue eyes would be looking at her now, just so perfect.

We kissed one time. I often have thought about that. About how well-meaningly stupid I was to have not done more. I didn't want to blow up her life. I am glad I didn't. She might not have what she has now.

I wonder if she has thought about it since. About any of her past life. I am sure she has, but I don't know what. I do not need to know. You should see this kid's eyes. They have a way of shutting down such useless questions.

I overstayed my welcome just a bit to meet her husband. He is a friendly and funny man. We talked about Steinbeck and Travels With Charley. I said my goodbyes and I drove away north.

A woman's worth is not based on her ability to produce children nor her looks. Neither is her happiness dictated by such things. But when I looked at her from my van, she looked happier and more beautiful than I remembered her then. I wonder how she knew.

More Notes from the Field