A Walmart Cinderella Sweeps Up on Desolation Row

Milwaukee, Wisconsin — I admit it now, I was slipping into a Desperate Househusband mode, even though the only husbanding I do is for Mrs. Maggie, my feline housemate.

Actually it’s desperate consumer mode, an internal creature forged from modern marketing and the perpetual seductive convenience of all types of consumer-catering stores in America, epitomized by the super mall or the super store like Walmart.

Or perhaps I could say I was desperately seeking convenience, a sort of pathetic tautology. If the convenience is almost inevitably available, as it seems to be for most legal practical or hedonistic “needs” — between retail and online sources, the desperate seeking should never really arise.

I’d gone to several hardware stores, then to Home Depot, where a clerk told me that Walmart would have the kind of plastic balls you place in a dryer to help distribute and efficiently dry your clothing.

“I don’t patronize that place,” I said with a tinge of self-righteousness. As soon as my excellent neighbor, Stefanie Maloney, — a laid-off schoolteacher teacher victimized by Gov. Scott Walker’s policies — moved out and took her dryer balls, I realized how effective they were. Without them, I’d recently needed three cycles to dry a modest load of mainly white socks.

Understand, I’ve never patronized Walmart in my life because I am offended deeply by their corporate strategies of moving into retail areas and wiping out local small business competition with their carnivorous “we’ll-sell-you-anything-for-a-bit-cheaper” stores. The second big reason was the well-documented policies of employee exploitation.

But there I was, finally parking in the lot and skulking in with a slightly knotted feeling in my gut. I never did find those dryer balls, but I had a moment of creative redemption standing in the aisle of detergents and softeners. Why not just cut up some pieces of wood and toss them in with the wet laundry? Of course. That will be my solution.

However, the voracious music consumer in me fell prey to Walmart seduction: a big circular bin of CDs, for five bucks apiece. I felt a bit shameless digging through these loose piles of plastic CDs for a cheap deal, as a Walmart Lucifer sneered somewhere nearby at my fallen principles. Yes, I found a re-issued-and-remastered version of Curtis Mayfield’s classic soundtrack music to Superfly. Lash me dear conscience, I couldn’t resist, so I walked up to one of the registers, eager to get out of this place.

And I’ll be damned but my worst suspicions…

The young African-American cash register girl speaking to the woman in front of me mentioned how tired she was.

“I’m workin’ seven to ten.”

“Oh, that’s tough,” the customer said. “I know, especially dealing with people all that time.”

Having overheard this, I couldn’t resist when I stepped up to her.

“Did you say that you work seven AM to ten PM?”

“That’s right.”


“Yeah, I’ll be working those hours for the rest of the week,” she sighed. It was Monday.

“I sure hope you’re getting paid well to work such long hours,” I said.

“Sorta, kinda,” she answered, with a wry smile.

I realize this is one anecdotal incident. But remember, this is the first (and likely last) time I’d been a Walmart customer. What are the odds that the first-cash register person I would encounter would confirm my negative perception of Walmart employee working policy, in a spontaneous conversation I overheard? I really never would’ve asked her about it if she hadn’t been complaining to the woman right in front of me.

I’m sorry, but the odds of that first-time Walmart incident speaks volumes to me. An eleven-hour work day at a cash register. A 55-hour work week, at least that week.

Sure she apparently had the weekend off but was too gracious to indicate how frequent 55-hour five-day work weeks are.

She seemed like a plucky young woman and did her job quite well. But I’m sure she feels lucky to be employed with no other viable option, so she endures exploitative of hours and poor pay.

Of course there is no union at Walmart, so let’s switch gears to contextualize this sad, little story. In Dan Kaufman’s New York Times Magazine article from last Sunday, May 27, “Land Of Cheese and Rancor: How did Wisconsin get to be the most politically divisive place in America?”, the author explores Scott Walker’s now-infamous divide-and-conquer strategy against Wisconsin’s middle and working class. Kaufman notes that even some Republicans lamented the end of the long bipartisan consensus on labor rights that has stood for half a century in our state, known for its progressive tradition. Walker, with astonishing arrogance, told an AP reporter that the bill was “innovative” and “progressive,” words which must’ve stuck in the craw of anyone who cares about the tradition built by such political firebrands as the Sen. “Fighting” Bob LaFollette. “’Not in 50 years was there ever a partisan vote on those contracts,” notes Wisconsin Sen. Fred Risser, the nation’s longest serving state legislator. “They were almost always unanimously accepted.”

Dick Spanbauer, a former Marine and self-described ‘pro-life and pro-family Christian,’ was one of four Republican assemblymen to vote against the anti-collective-bargaining Act 10. ‘The leadership told me,” Dick, we don’t need unions anymore, “’” he told Kaufman. ‘Really? What’s changed? The company is going to say you don’t need to work 12 hours?”

Not quite at Walmart, which seems P.R.-savvy enough to not force 12 hours because that figure signifies a literal whole day of labor. So they force 11 in their infinite wisdom.

“‘They do not understand anything about the working class,’ Spanbauer said about his Republican colleagues. ‘They thought you could just go crush somebody’s voice and get away with it.’” Spanbauer is retiring this year. But he’s apparently not one of that peculiar brand of tea-party Republican. He retains his common-sense principles, because he knows there are thousands of laboring people in this state, like that checkout girl at Walmart on Capitol Drive and Holton St., working far over normal working hours for poor pay.

Consider that, If Walker wins the recall election on June 5 and Act 10 becomes a nationally conceded conservative policy, as it may well. That’s why Walker has reaped $25 million in out of state fat cat money trying to buy this election for him and their far-right movement.  So much rides in the election, regarding the survival of a fundamental democratic value of fairness.

Human laborers are not plow-horses nor should they be any kind of beast of burden. Yet, unless voters change our leadership June 5, what hopes will someone like that hard-working checkout girl have of getting fair labor representation, as long as she works there, or any comparable working-class job?

Otherwise, that hope seems as flimsy as one of the plastic shopping bags that drift across the Walmart parking lot, like the ectoplasmic ghost of another consumer impulse.

She seems like a Cinderella forgotten by her Prince Charming; no better off than Samuel Beckett’s perpetually waiting, inexorably fading tramps.

Image courtesy: www.sanatlog.com


And someone says “You’re in the wrong place, my friend/you better leave.”/And the only sound that’s left/after the ambulances go/is Cinderella sweeping up/On Desolation Row. — Bob Dylan






Thoughts of a saddened and bemused Bee Gees fan from 1967

Pardon if it feels unseemly to present a slightly dissenting viewpoint when a performer dies. We certainly lost a big talent when Robin Gibb passed recently at 62, and I’m glad that, according to TIME magazine he apparently “never developed the preening persona often associated with pop stardom.”

I enjoyed the Bee Gees’ gleaming harmonies whenever I heard it, for their pure musicality and soulfulness, even though most their music was just too slick and audience-pandering for my tastes.

My question is: If Robin Gibb never developed that “preening persona” he would be the Gibb brother I would’ve asked; Whatever happened to your working-class roots in your music?

The TIME obit (June 4 edition) seems to celebrate how they won their nine Grammys and sold 200 million albums because of their “sweat and toil.”

“We had come from a very working class background, and we worked damn hard,” Gibb told a biographer.

That’s great, it really is, don’t get me wrong. I love that.

I became enchanted by the Bee Gees when they released their second single, “New York Mining Disaster 1941” in 1967. I bought the 45 RPM single immediately. This was wonderfully creative music with a historical and social conscience. It was poignant, powerful, vivid musical storytelling implicitly about the working class person’s resilient spirit and explicitly-yet-gracefully about the consequences of the mercenary inhumanities of the Industrial Revolution.


What happened to that social conscience?

It went disco. And made millions. Well, bully for The Bee Gees. Oh, I also admired the early song “Holiday,” an understated love ode and the impressive album Odessa, a blend of progressive rock and country touches. But these few artistic high points in a long career suggested they could have been something like a British version of The Band, another group with utterly distinctive three-part vocal harmony, who also work damn hard to as a rockabilly band for years before Bob Dylan realized their talent, and the rest is history. Or like Los Lobos, by defining and expanding on their roots musiciality in their own ethno-cultural terms.

Does money buy happiness? I doubt it, though one might wonder if The Band’s Richard Manuel had become as rich as a Bee Gee, would he have committed suicide.

But the lure of filthy lure is so powerful (and yes, part of the American Dream that modern young Brits fed off of) and for all I know the Gibbs were following their heart (at least in their minds.) And they figured they could’ve been as big as the working-class Beatles, and they almost were. But they could’ve given a lot more back to the working class culture they came from, rather than the top-down reception of admiration from the people in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester who remembered the boys back when, even though the locals’ surely enjoyed understandable pride in the Gibbs. The plaque (above, courtest Wikipedia) posted at Maitland Terrace/Strang Road intersection in Union Mills, Isle of Man, attest’s to the region’s pride.


Nevertheless, it seems the boys didn’t have a whole lot to say beyond boilerplate romanticism and disco struts after New York Mining Disaster 1841, despite their remarkable musical gifts. They could have alternated between disco material and more serious projects to help sustain an artistic vision, like many musical and filmmaking professionals do.

Because you have to figure that, a lot of those proud Manchester locals understand the depths of human loss in a working-class tragedy. To me that historic legacy went forgotten after 1967. That’s a small disaster of unrealized cultural potential.

It’s interesting that Gibb turned to classical composition recently, and sad that he was too sick to perform the April 10 premiere of his Requiem for The Titanic.

That work may yet redeem Robin Gibb’s final artistic legacy.

P.S. On Trayvon Martin post. Is Zimmerman a provoker or a victim? (Give us The Watchman!)

A friend of mine pointed out I used the term “murder” twice in my posting about Trayvon Martin when the more precise term should be “alleged murder.” I’ve erred on the side of caution and changed my terminology in that posting to “killing.” (Linked here:)


However the issue of self-defense in this case is as compelling as it is debatable. The photos of a slightly bloodied Zimmerman suggest he was injured in a scuffle when, as he claims, Martin attacked him after Zimmerman confronted him with his gun.

Zimmerman’s back-head injuries the day of the Martin killing. Courtesy Florida state attorney’s office/AP

However the Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump questions whether these wounds were self-inflicted as a self-defense strategy.  He comments: “If he had these injuries, why didn’t they take him to the hospital?” he said to to the Miami Herald.

“This happened at about 7:30. In the police surveillance video taken 30  minutes later, you can see with your own eyes that the fire rescue people didn’t  so much as put a Band-Aid on his head.”

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/trayvon-martin-marijuana-system-night-gunned-article-1.1080182#ixzz1vdcEthPz

Reports that Martin had traces of marijuana in his system the night of his death would, if anything, undercut Zimmerman’s story that the youth attacked. It is common knowledge that marijuana —  unlike alcohol — is an inhibitor to aggressive behavior. There are virtually no cases of murder committed under the exclusive influence of pot. Compare that to the staggering statistics of alcohol-related homicides.

The point of my original post column was that Zimmerman was an overly aggressive and overly suspicious provoker with a sense of moral purpose and justice that was self-delegated as a vigilante neighborhood protector with no legal authority. These circumstances allow an observer to easily imagine that he had anticipated and premeditated such a situation.

The thinking might go something like this: If I kill someone I think is dangerous to someone or myself, how precisely do I defend my actions legally?

Zimmerman is a premeditated actor in this scenario margin, even if Martin did assault him, reacting to the provocation. So for all its possible nuances of circumstance, the case still gets back to the premeditated provoker and his motivations to confront a person whose mere appearance and presence were presumed to justify his motive and subsequent deadly actions.

So What do we make of his judgement of Martin’s appearance and presence? This gets back to the startling act of apparent racial profiling by an Amtrak conductor I witnessed on a train, of a hooded black youth comparable to Martin.

Once a person is accosted in such a prejudicial manner the subject’s rights, and even his very life, are ripe for abuse by a person presuming in some manner of self-generated moral authority.*

So let’s not take our eyes off the ball in this case. Justice is so easily obscured by  prejudice, whether the prejudice lies in the heart and mind of the defendant, the lawyers, the judge, the jury or Joe blow blogger.

That’s why I’ve taken a little more time here to sort through this, using “cool” legalistic language that, I hope, would less likely stir prejudice in my rhetoric and thinking.

Milwaukee Riverwest crimewatch hero The Watchman. Photo by Mike De Sisti/ Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

*Citizen vigilance is hardly a crime in itself. Consider where I live, in Milwaukee’s racially diverse Riverwest neighborhood. The closest thing to a crime-watching vigilante is an admittedly eccentric guy called The Watchman. The 6-foot, 200-pound, 30-something crime fighter patrols Riverwest in a fire-engine-red-masked superhero costume, with a flashlight and pepper spray on hand – and a black Motorola cell phone as his weapon of choice. He uses no guns, despite the fact that Milwaukee recently passed an ordinance legalizing concealed weapons, which could put The Watchman at increased risk if he confronts a thief or mugger. That’s a hero, in my book.

“It’s about reporting it,” he told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Contacting police, or getting an ambulance out here if it’s a medical situation.”

As for super powers? None, he says. “I’m just a guy. I may look a little funny, but I’m just a guy. And I’m out here to let everybody know that they can do their part.”

He’s not the only guy. The Watchman belongs to the Great Lakes Heroes Guild. “We combine resources, work together and share information,” he says.

What do you think about all this?

BTW consider the latest “trending story”: http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/trayvon-martin-shooting-witnesses-change-stories-ahead-zimmerman-133743219.html?fb_action_ids=4025302879400&fb_action_types=news.reads&fb_ref=type%3Aread%2Cuser%3AUyMrKlzXtsm0wSl5hn1dnOEgjOU&fb_source=other_multiline&code=AQDGedKmiKYi8PtLfS8Xdx_qYD_aCiYiFFgUgNKJUoTdSKAsj_WyYDLVdPlQ5eHk_feuK3jyEvo4J6XAt0CTzn-IwAzCVMCh2SYI_eGq24dPvVkua5XS3alJ0LiYDXgiY1NX3XB4HmFI2YlG721nRFE_WlaEbrDRCZg5tOusKhGBHfP7CM-F-dHnl8AOKuA6wYU#_=_





Happy About a Hanging?

I couldn’t resist commenting on a comment as a mini-post. If you do a blog you quickly become aware of the great amount of spam — or generic complimentary comments — your site receives, from people basically interested in getting traffic to their own sites. The comments reveal the persons have clearly not read the posting.

To date, the height of this sort of disingenuousness occurred recently in “response” to my post “The Day The U.S. Hanged a Woman.” The comment:  “I will get in touch with this post and site as well, giving this kind of post is really happy. looking for someone here. anyway waiting for another post here.”

Besides the extreme cognitive dissonance of tone, there’s the bad grammatical use of a gerund which makes you wonder whether these spam jobs are sent out virtually blind, in a semi-comatose state of blog raiding, to random web sites.

It’s a sad and seemingly pervasive misuse of the medium, nothing to be “happy” about lady, in any sense.

That’s all folks.



Eagle Wings and Byrd Calls, and a Gust of Defiantly Mystical Romanticism


A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal  Vol. 4

Defiance, MO — The sun glinted off of the sporty new Ford Focus I had rented, as it buzzed me toward the sumptuously rolling rural hills and dales I had recalled on my first ever trip through Missouri decades ago.

The outlying splendor proved a tad too intoxicating as I missed my exit for Defiance,  and when I started seeing signs for Kansas City I got off the next exit and, at a convenience store, found some friendly “show me” Missourians. The ladies helped show me what appeared to be the right two-lane highway path, “a shortcut” they assured me.  I began a long meander through precarious wooded semi-loops and runaway-truck death plunges, feeling semi-lost but following the way to an alleged signpost up ahead, to Defiance, or perhaps the Twilight Zone. Yet the town’s name, perhaps born of the Civil War, helped steel my determination to find this increasingly mythical musical destination.

The Chandler Hill Vineyard, somewhere outside of tiny Defiance, was presenting the folk-rock duo Rogers & Neinhaus, performing until  4 p.m. Somehow the Focus guided me there (No GPS, just well-Focused horse sense I reckon, perhaps inherited from the car’s ancestor, The Mustang?) I got there in time for the duo’s last set, which was fine by me, as it turned out. The duo’s website convinced me of their musical accomplishment.* I didn’t quite expect an unforgettably transporting setting .

Fifty miles out in the middle of nowhere (though the town’s residents may defy the  stereotype), the place was packed with wine and food sampling music fans. The vineyard’s proprietors have built a large chalet poised atop a hillside that overlooks magnificently undulating crests and valleys stretching far into the distance. I sat down at a table with a tall African-American man seemingly in his late ‘40’s.


Photos courtesy Chandler Hill Vineyards http://www.chandlerhillvineyards.com/our-winery/photo-gallery

The duo is St. Louis-based but has strong credentials, including having toured as members of a post-Roger McGuinn version of The Byrds, then led by the legendary folk rock group’s drummer Mike Clarke. Their plausibility in that role became quickly evident in their overall musicality and their vocal harmonies, as convincing purveyors of classic California folk rock, as well as their own originals.

Scott Neinhaus especially looks like a throwback. His beard and wind-dancing strawberry-blond locks give him the look of David Crosby, after a crash diet. Shorter-cropped Terry Jones Rogers is a slightly beefier visage of Graham Nash, not to push the comparison too far.

One of the songs Neinhaus chose for his solo segment was Crosby’s ethereal evocation “Guinevere.” The song from the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album remains magical. I asked my table companion if he was aware that Miles Davis had recorded a 20-minute instrumental version of this and he nodded yes knowingly.  So a small cultural journey for one song had come full circle and I happily revisited it. Neinhaus explained that Crosby wrote “Guinevere” in such a strange tuning that it requires a guitar that he carries solely to perform this song. The ode to a mysterious female enchanter dwells in such intimate psychic wonder that some of it was swallowed up in the amiable murmur of the sun-soaked crowd in cabaret tables. But you can imagine why the song’s gently drifting, slightly bitonal corridors of memory appealed to Miles Davis and his voracious, defiantly romantic nature. Yes, this song fit this spot perfectly.

Considering the relaxed unconcert-like setting and audience, the duo’s reliance on covers over originals was understandable.  But their choices were satisfied and not completely predictable.

They did Jackson Browne’s “The Loadout/Stay,” the opening section describing the stresses and joys of a band and road crew on tour, then segues into a cover of Maurice Williams’ infectiously swaying R&B song “Stay.” The whole piece amounts to a dual imploring – the audience to stay and to tribute the whole crew’s dedication and perseverance, and to convey a sense of the hardship and the challenges of a seemingly glamorous existence.

Then Neinhaus pulled out a harmonica rack for the only song he does on the instrument, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” Though an always satisfying song, it seemed the only one slightly pandering for being a bit out of the duo’s comfort range.

The set ended firmly in the pair’s wheelhouse: two vintage Byrd songs. “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” is adapted entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes (with the exception of the last line) and put to music by Pete Seeger in 1959. The Byrds’ version of the song easily holds the record for the number one Billboard hit with the oldest lyrics.

With an almost biblical timelessness, “Turn” still gyrates to the gentle waves of grace born of a song crafted from a passage that bespeaks ideals regarding how life unfolds in seasons for a purpose, including a time for peace, “I swear it’s not too late,” a declamation strong enough to still stir a decaying or newfound dovish instinct in some listeners. The song also worked thanks to the duo’s superbly enfolding vocal harmonies, with perhaps an assist from some contemporary sound-processing effects.

The set’s climax came with a stunning assist from Missouri’s natural majesties.

The Chandler Hill vista

Perhaps it had to be “Eight Miles High” from this vista. Rogers & Neinhaus built the song through its increasingly transcendent crests of expansive sensory experience; yet before we could “touch down” something extraordinary happened. The song is famous for Roger McGuinn’s John Coltrane-influenced guitar solo, a space/time barrier-breaking surge of tight, odd intervals, dominated by seconds and fourths, which jettison diatonic melody for abstract flight. Neinhaus chose a bluesier, somewhat more grounded approach to his solo but the song’s spiritual effect was not to be denied.

About a minute into his ascending solo, something emerged from the verdant hills stretching beyond, behind the bandstand. It was four eagles — unmistakable with their astonishing wingspans — rising, hovering, circling, cresting. One of them broke the loose formation and drifted toward our balcony as the guitarist reached his climax. The great bird tailed off at the last moment, but by then one could readily imagine boarding his mighty wings and traveling, how many miles high?

The duo was unaware of the aerial choreography behind them until I informed them afterward, and Neinhaus, sweat dripping from his beard, shook his head in gratified wonder.

This version of the classic flight trip song wasn’t quite as far out musically as the original but it didn’t need to be, on this easy-going afternoon. The duo worked hard, and at times brilliantly, to help take us where we needed to go. The eagles lifted us to the final mile, and perhaps a little beyond.

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” — Herman Melville, Chapter 96 “The Try-Works,” Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

* http://terryjonesrogers.com/Rogers___Nienhaus.php


Moby rises again (intact) on match.com

Well, match.com has redeemed itself and hopefully this little literary soap opera is over for now. After my match.com profile was inactivated because I had listed Moby-Dick as one of my “books read,” I did my free speech rant (posted previously) and then relented a bit and renamed the book Moby-Richard on the site.

The profile remained in limbo, so I talked to a second customer service person who proved a little more competent and literate than the first one I’d spoken to. She proceeded to approve “Moby-Dick,” although I had to remove the URL nodepression.com, which is the great roots music e-zine.  Apparently you can’t refer to any website, because redirecting a match.com customer to somewhere else on the Internet might lead them to something they deem offensive or inappropriate.

So where does that leave us? How close are we to Big Brother and “1984” or to the time when people need to memorize all books because they are being burned by a totalitarian government as immoral and subversive, as in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel?

Well, you decide. But at least one popular social network is not completely ruled by moralistic  automatons And I’ve often thought that some regulation of the increasingly moral chaos of the Internet is needed. Parents can use filters to protect their children, which is probably a good idea.

Getting down off your horse and savin’ a little face is as American as apple pie in the face.



Getting on a high horse means you might get kicked off if the critter’s not done kickin’ its habit.

So I’ll get off before I get any more ahead of the pack in what I’ll call the Bozoversharing Derby. And I know there’s a hell of a lot of oversharing bozos on that bus raising dust and dirt behind and ahead of me. A lot of the ones ahead are dead, a lot behind…are lost and coming on and everything in between.

So yeah, I’ll go back to the online social game cuz Ed’s algorithm story probably ain’t sci-fi. And riding a high righteous horse doesn’t make you less alone — in real life. (Match.com deems the great novel “Moby-Dick” as an “obscene” title. I’ve said my peace on this. See previous post)

So…How about “Moby Richard (third time) Or, The Whale?” Yes?

Or “Richard III, and the Whale inside me and you, the whiteness and the blackness.”

Or “Time, the most mysterious word of all.” Norman Mailer said that.

Do I contradict myself (by dismounting)? So I contradict myself. You know who said that? for extra credit (no, not H.M.).

I suppose worse is losing one’s meager audience, of you and you (yes, you).

But changing one’s mind to a degree is pretty damn American, as long as you know your core principles down in your gut, stuck to your bones — the ones that made it easy, maybe too easy, to fall in love with this country, for all its damn craziness and decrepit soul rot. Because of all the people and lives it represents because it’s the living that counts (the dying too) and if we screw each other over or forget where we came from…

I’m talking history of all kinds, not just navel-gazing type family mooning in the moonshine, as valid as that is. I’m talking our history.

But enough, I’m off this horse for the time being, partly because I was once accused of navel gazing by an editor. The folks of any gender, color or persuasion who appreciate the absurdities afloat in this matchless little controversy will be my friends.

Matchless, indeed. Besides if you can’t go over the top once in a while on your own blog then this peculiar new medium ain’t worth a whole lot because I’m hoping there’s a few people out there doing more than just staring at another screen full of type before they click onward. Which leads me to one last question: If “dick” is banned on Match.com, why isn’t “click” also banned? I mean, you let that c smooch that l and whaddya got?

“It’s a surprisingly slippery slope isn’t it Capt. Algorithm,” Starbuck said. “The whale is just a dumb brute. It’s madness chasing one whale and risking everything.” But then, maybe it’s a smarter-than-you-think white whale wearing his own version of the Scarlet Letter, A. Or wearing whole alphabets of scarlet letters on his scarred, hated hide.

So don’t be strangers friends, the blog is my place to be for now. Please share. A little more than just enough is better than nothing. — KL

The Perpetual Adolescence of Match.com: Social Network Bans Moby-Dick

My dear readers,

I had fully planned to spare Culture Currents and you any references to Melville in my latest posting but the social network match.com forced my hand. That author aside, anyone interested in censorship in the context of the First Amendment may find this posting of interest. The following is a letter I wrote — KL

To: Match.com


A breathtaking degree of intellectual and spiritual pettiness, small-mindedness and hypocritically obsessive prudery has been exposed in the popular online social media site Match.com. I will go to great lengths as a professional journalist, author and blogger to expose this fault if the offense is not corrected ASAP.

My profile has been rejected because Moby-Dick is listed among books recently read. This is the case regardless of the fact that the match.com person I spoke with on the phone is aware that Moby-Dick is one of the great works of world literature. It is also probably the most written about and studied work of fiction in the 20th century, from high school to college to full scholarly careers.

But don’t take my word for it. Please note the quote from Wikipedia below as the beginning of your education and growth out of adolescence.* (The relevant chapters on Moby Dick in F. O. Matthiessen critical masterwork American Renaissance are highly recommended).

The supposedly “obscene” title you object to has been published in 200 editions, in many languages, including abridged, illustrated versions for children and adolescents (e.g. The superb Candlewick Press Edition adapted by Carnegie Medal winner Jan Needle and illustrated by Patrick Benson, who won a Mother Goose Award winner for best book in British children’s lit. 1

Cover of Moby Dick (illustrated and abridged for adolescent readers) courtesy Candlewick Press

None of these editions has ever changed the title. (Evidently “Mother Goose” is a true subversive of youthful morals. Isn’t there also something obscene about the words “mother” and “goose”? And “apple pie” and “America”? Time to expand your censoring mechanism.)2

Moby-Dick has also been made into at least six different film versions and a major opera in 2010 by celebrated composer Jake Heggie (“Dead Man Walking”). If you are so concerned about such a proliferation of “obscenity” perhaps you should do something other than to censor your list of literate customers.

The reason for my rejection is that the word “-Dick” is used in my profile. This says far more about the mentality of match.com than any of the people who might incidentally use that word, in total innocence. First, the word is taken out of context – being the partial name of a whale, based on a real-life whale, Mocha-Dick, which sank a number of whaling ships in the early 1800s. The full title Moby-Dick or, The Whale makes clear what the name refers to before one even opens the book.

We are adults, not snickering adolescents. At least I am, as are the women I communicate with on the site. I now wonder about the people running your site. Would you also reject any Richard who uses his life-long nickname of Dick in his profile name or anywhere in his profile text?

That would be only a personal affront, bad as it is. But this rejection is far worse, an insult to every literate person on your website and, by extension, worldwide.

Besides writing the book commonly considered the Great American Novel, Melville wrote an important book of poetry about the Civil War, Battle Pieces and Aspects Of The War, other masterpieces including Bartleby the Scrivener and Billy Budd, pioneering short stories of feminist viewpoint: The Chola Widow and The Bachelors Of Paradise And The Maids Of Tartarus, and the epic poem Clarel, A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. His novel White-Jacket is often credited for helping to outlaw torture in the U.S. Military. Moby-Dick itself is often understood as a meditation on the nature of good and evil, man versus man,  man in relation to nature, Man in relation to God, the pitfalls of America’s emerging empire politics, a celebration of democracy and an unprecedented appreciation of cultural diversity and human brotherhood, and a critique of the evils of demagoguery, among other things.

I will begin exposing your injustice with the column in my culture blog, which I envision with the working title The Perpetual Adolescence of Match.com.

The inevitable adolescence of the date site match.com was apparently born long before its actual birth, in 1851 when Herman Melville’s great novel was published. In 2012 the website remains in its sniggering whispering, judgmental adolescence. That makes match.com, in a sense, a 160-year old adolescent. Yet I do not criticize adolescence, which you give a bad name. Do you remember the joys, perplexities and wonders of puberty and early, oft-unrequited romance, or do you just presume its irredeemable evils?

Because a novel I am writing about Melville is speculative and set in the present, it will allow a reincarnated Melville to observe his legacy as well as the insults to it. I have now discovered the most egregious insult I know of and match.com will find a dubious place in the novel, unless this is corrected.

It is high time for your web site to drag its brain out of the gutter and join the rest of the civilized world.

As for civilization, I leave the penultimate word to Melville, on the moral hypocrisy of those who suppose to “civilized bodies,” as if civilization resides in some miniature notion of a purified body that recoils at any indirect allusion to the parts of itself that generate its existence (i.e. a self-hating Puritan prudery).

We may have civilized bodies and yet barbarous souls. We are blind to the real sights of this world; deaf to its voice; and dead to its death. And not till we know, that one grief outweighs ten thousand joys will we become what Christianity is striving to make us.” – Melville

I know what I grieve today, a death blow to freedom of thought, expression and education. 3

You can’t hide fom this, match.com; not even from poor, cowering, traumatized cabin boy Pip, who says : “I look, you look, he looks; we look, you look, they look.”


Kevin Lynch

1. http://themobydickcollection.blogspot.com/

2. This isn’t the first time Moby-Dick has been censored. But the Longman Critical Edition of MD restores and delineates the full range of vast and picayune cuts made to the first British edition of the novel. Those sage British editors even omitted Ishmael’s Epilogue, which makes the story inconceivable, with no survivor to tell it. It’s an historic measure of the waterlogged censoring intellect.

3. However anyone who thinks Melville has been consigned to the dustbins of censorship or academic relevance should look into the summer-long 2012 Melville festival in the Berkshires, home of Melville’s farm Arrowhead, where he wrote Moby-Dick See: http://berkshirehistory.org/news-events/news/

*The Melville Revival

With the burgeoning of Modernist aesthetics (see Modernism and American modernism) and the war that tore everything apart still so fresh in memory, Moby-Dick began to seem increasingly relevant. Many of Melville’s techniques echo those of Modernism: kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends. His new readers also found in him an almost too-profound exploration of violence, hunger for power, and quixotic goals. Although many critics of this time still considered Moby-Dick extremely difficult to come to grips with, they largely saw this lack of easy understanding as an asset rather than a liability.[citation needed]

In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville’s value.[39]

In the 1920s, British literary critics began to take notice. In his idiosyncratic but landmark Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence directed Americans’ attention to the great originality and value of many American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps most surprising is that Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the original English edition.[39]

In his 1921 study, The American Novel, Carl Van Doren returned to Melville with much more depth. He called Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.[39]

[edit] Post-revival

The next great wave of Moby-Dick appraisal came with the publication of F. O. Matthiessen‘s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman.[40] Published in 1941, the book proposed that Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were the most prominent figures of a flowering of conflicted (and mostly pre-Civil War) literature important for its promulgation of democracy and the exploration of its possibilities, successes, and failures. Since Matthiessen’s book came out shortly before the entry of the U.S. into World War II, critic Nick Selby argues that

Moby-Dick was now read as a text that reflected the power struggles of a world concerned to uphold democracy, and of a country seeking an identity for itself within that world.[41]



The Day the United States Hanged a Woman — Mary Surratt

A Southerly Cultural Journal Vol. 3

“There is sobbing of the strong/And a pall upon the land/ But the people in their weeping/Bare the iron hand/ Beware the people weeping when they bare the iron hand.” — Herman Melville, “The Martyr” Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War

Amid a rousing theatrical comedy, a Derringer pistol bullet tore into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head. Somewhere in the shadows of the tragedy stood Mary Surratt. The horror of John Wilkes Booth’s fanatical assassination of Lincoln turned the national government into a vindictive prosecutor and it most likely miscarried justice for Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the US federal government.

Mary Surratt

Nine Union military officers deemed her guilty of conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination. Surratt however  doesn’t even earn an index mention in the exhaustive Oxford Guide to United States History.

Nevertheless her case is the most controversial legal decision to emerge directly from the assassination. The recent Robert Redford-directed film The Conspirator, now out on video, brings the hanged woman back to life in one of the most compelling historical dramas in recent memory.

It is a tragedy of the South – especially of a border Civil War state — Maryland, not unlike Missouri where I visited recently — both with complicated Civil War legacies. It speaks to the unpredictable ways that a wounded   democracy can assert itself, all too often in perversions of our Constitutional ideals.

And it is a story of womanhood wronged by political blood lust for revenge. At a time when a woman still could not vote, Surratt became a sacrificial lamb for a nation understandably lashing out. President Andrew Johnson limited voting to white men who “assured the dominance of lawmakers unsympathetic to the rights of free people,” writes Michael Les Benedict. 1 This led to the reviled “black codes” which “circumscribed black southerners’ civil rights.”

And the Surratt trial also speaks to our post 9/11 era of sometimes reactive persecution of whomever might satisfy the lust for vengeance, disguised as justice for the sake of security.

The nine-man military commission appointed by Johnson to investigate the assassination  “was illegal in the sense that it should have been a civilian rather than the military proceeding “ and “seemed to be interested in vengeance, not truth,” Kenneth Davis writes 2.

The Conspirator reveals that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) will settle for either Mary Surratt or her son John, who successfully eluded capture and was most likely an actual conspirator.

Robin Wright magnificently embodies the eloquently stoic suffering of Surratt, who spends a long time in jail as her case is processed. In reality Surratt suffered from extreme menstrual pain during this period.  This somewhat unseemly reality is glossed in the film which has her on a hunger strike which threatens her health.

Also excellent is James McAvoy as the young attorney Frederick Aiken, a former Union officer who is convinced of Surratt’s guilt though appointed to defend her. He gradually comes to understand the trial’s  injustice and fights valiantly, even despite Mary’s enigmatic recalcitrance.

Why is Surratt important? Because at a crucial point in our nation’s psychic history she showed how vulnerable our citizens and judicial system are to corruptions of self-righteousness.

It was like executing the mother of an accomplice of Lee Harvey Oswald because you couldn’t find the right man. Surratt ran a boarding house not far from the Ford Theater where she admitted John Wilkes Booth met with other men repeatedly before the assassination.

All the evidence against her was circumstantial. Knowing Booth, carrying a message for him to Lloyd (to have “the shooting irons” ready) and failing to recognize conspirator Lewis Powell one evening (after the assassination; she had poor eyesight) was the sum of the case against her, “none of which constituted a crime,” wrote historian Laurie Verge 3. Many testified that Surratt was actually loyal to the Union and took the “conspiratorial” trip in question only to collect debts owed her husband.

“She was simply an unsuspecting pawn of John Wilkes Booth,” Verge concludes.

Conspirator Lewis Powell a.k.a. Lewis Payne 

Given the ambiguity of her guilt, the real question is whether the gallows was the proper sentence for her. Thirty-one people testified for Surratt’s defense.  Among nine prosecution witnesses, only two provided notable testimony:  John Lloyd, who denied Surratt’s guilt then changed his story, and Louis Weichmann, who witnesses said was extremely intoxicated the night of the assassination but managed to fix a wagon wheel for Surratt.

President Johnson overturned Aiken’s writ of habeas corpus for a civil trial, (a war-era administrative power ironically enacted by Lincoln) and then denied seeing the clemency plea signed by five members of the commission. These circumstances became issues in his impeachment proceedings two years after Mary’s execution.

On July 7, 1865, at 1:15 P.M., a military procession led the four condemned prisoners through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Each prisoner’s ankles and wrists were bound by manacles. Mary Surratt led the way, wearing a black bombazine dress, black bonnet, and black veil. More than 1,000 people—including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters—watched.

Lincoln_conspirators_execution. (Mary Surratt hanging on left in gallows).


Powell, whose dagger failed to kill Secretary of State William Seward, swore to Surratt’s innocence shortly before he was hanged. “The worst pretense of all was to imagine the Civil War over,” writes historian Walter McDougall. The North “embraced the myth that the nation’s sins had been purged by the blood of their soldiers and president.” 4

Thus purged some became avenging angels. Director Redford infuses The Conspirator with deep shafts of sepia light evoking the “magic realism” of the proceedings and as  beacons for the truth in an era when men could bury it in the cold tombs of intransigent,  pompous hatred.

With all the technology that assists us today, DNA testing included, the truth and justice can still be just as elusive.

And sadly, violence — both legally codified and criminal — against women remains a topic of serious debate in 2012.


1 Michael Les Benedict “Mary Surratt” The Oxford Guide: United States History, Ed. Paul Boyer, 2001 Oxford University press, 406

2 Kenneth C Davis Don’t Know Much About the Civil War Avon 1996 415

3 Laurie Verge, The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln And the Trial of Its Conspirators, A Special Edition Of The Trial Transcripts. Ed. Edward Steers Jr. 2003 University Press of Kentucky.

4 Walter McDougall, Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era 1892 to 1887, HarperCollins, 2008, 492

Stepping Inside the Outside the Box New Music Festival


A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal Vol. 2.


The train ride into St. Louis was oddy disorienting. Suddenly the austere magnificence of the St. Louis Gateway Arch appeared, lording over the downtown skyline like an abstracted guardian angel. But it was moving as I looked, slowly rotating. Now it did seem like a living being, with its sleek, sloping shoulders, surveying the cityscape. Apparently the train track circles the giant structure, providing a shifting, multidirectional perspective that local motorists lack the luxury of. The optical phenomena cast a slight aura of refracted reality over the city. Plus, I was about to step inside Outside the Box.

Later, as dusk fell, I wended my way through downtown in a rented car, feeling like a partially blind rat in a maze. I was searching for a major event of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale’s annual Outside the Box new music festival. The event would present the Altgeld Chamber Players performing music by (full disclosure) one of my oldest friends, Frank Stemper, a gifted and highly skilled composer more widely performed in Europe and Mexico than in the U.S.

Unreliable Google map directions landed me in a dead-end alley where I found a man in a wheelchair with a heavy speech impediment. No, he didn’t leap up to mug me — the kindness of Missouri strangers prevailed for the first of several times on this trip. His garbled utterances and gesticulations somehow sent me in the right direction and I soon happened upon the Kranzberg Arts Center.

I was too late to hear the opening piece, which I am grateful for — that is, I was spared sympathetic anguish for what Stemper surely suffered. Playing piano, he had to stop the concert in the third movement of the piece, his right arm throbbing in pain. He’d been rigorously practicing for another work to be featured in the festival (Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire) — which apparently triggered the injury. When he walked away from the piano before the surprised audience, the Schoenberg performance was doomed to cancellation.

Even without one of the modern music master’s most accessible and captivating works, this would prove an excellent festival.

Given the bias of a long friendship, I nevertheless felt this was one and the finest concerts of contemporary music I’d heard in quite some time. Stemper’s music has matured over the years without losing its mischievousness, with many of its strongest qualities intact and in bold, sharp relief.

Composer Frank Stemper

In his chamber music, those qualities include a deft juxtaposing of instrumental voices through poised rhythmic tension and release. The tension builds through striking and startling phrase spacing and meshing, sharp accenting and pungent harmonies. A key is the deft and surprising use of silence, what a sculptor would call negative space, or how a draftsman lifts the pencil off the paper at just the right point. The final effect in most each of these pieces was extremely satisfying.  I glibly told Stemper his duo for piano and flute, Bind 1, might be subtitled “Hines 57 Varieties of Grace Notes.” In fact, he never smothers his music in cheap sauce. Rather the pauses and spaces flitted with the notated sounds like sly bats in one’s mental belfry. One was teased, slightly maddened but also piquantly amused, sometimes by Thelonious Monk-ish trap-doors of sudden emptiness. Enjoyment assumes one hasn’t a phobia of contemporary composed music, a corner of our culture still stigmatized by foreboding perceptions (some duly earned), not unlike those mystifying winged inhabitants of darkness.

As it was, Stemper admitted later to less than total satisfaction with the performance of Bind 1, which is written to actually be funky, but at a very slow tempo, a combination difficult for most musicians, classical or otherwise, to execute. Stemper, with a strong jazz background and influence, recalled Ray Charles exhorting his musicians to slow down, to plumb the depths of funk. It’s perhaps a measure of the composer’s evolution that so much emerged of value, despite this performance flaw. An ensuing duet for baritone sax and drummer emitted more overt musical jokes, which famed musical jokemeister Josef Haydn might’ve appreciated if he could get his classical head around an unruly set of traps drums.

A concert highlight concluded the first half with soprano Lucy Shelton uncannily inhabiting the delightfully eccentric a capella Inner Voices. It’s a phantasmagoria  of expressive quirks and tics that characteristically had audience perceptions off balance with facial and bodily poses, aural collapses, primps and madcap wordless asides. It demonstrated that the best singers, such as Shelton, are nearly as good as actors.

Another Stemper piece Rope, is influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s same-titled 1948 cinematic experiment, which was filmed in one no-cut sequence, and which tells the story of two fiendish intellectuals committing ritual murder just to prove that they can. Here the instrumental trio’s seamless accumulation of tension was interposed by a moments of deceptive lyricism.

As the composer notes in the program, with Hitchcockian relish, the piece metaphorically uncovers sinister first-degree murder “even though the guilty party is merely being true to his internal instincts, having nothing to do with learned behaviors, and therefore behaving honorably in is particular musical microcosm, even know this instinct is in fact dangerous psychopathic mental illness.”

I need to hear the piece again to be wholly convinced of all that, but the threatening aura and sense of interweaving dark deeds surely prevailed.

The piece titled 1963 is dedicated to the composer’s late father, a psychiatrist, set to a poem by the composer’s son, Frank Stemper Jr., and wrought with phrases such as “rock salt under worn wingtips” and “nurses weeping over bright countertops and dim headlines.” The sonorities and the vignette blend irony and tenderness, recounting the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. With Shelton’s vocal daubing, the probing psychic transference among three Stemper generations may have raised a ghost or two from rock-salted slumber.

— Kevin Lynch