Sunday, July 22, 2012

The joke

When I was at work Friday one of my coworkers tried to make a joke of the Aurora Massacre, something deadpan about equating the mass killing with a really bad review for the movie that was showing. I brushed aside the remark and changed the subject. I wasn't ready to make light of the tragedy, but I wasn't going to get all holier than thou about it either. I can understand that humor is sometimes an instinctive reaction to horror we can't quite comprehend or soberly consider, without weeping.

What struck me a day later, as more and more news came in of the bloodshed —and predictably our media circus took up the topic, with gun control and gun rights activists dispatching their talking heads, images of candles and teardrenched hugs —what struck me was that one of the most pointed poignant expressions I saw came from The Onion News, usually such a great source of round farce.

The headline read : Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting's Aftermath Will Play Out. And the story began:

WASHINGTON—Americans across the nation confirmed today that, unfortunately, due to their extreme familiarity with the type of tragedy that occurred in a Colorado movie theater last night, they sadly know exactly how the events following the horrific shooting of 12 people will unfold.

The joke here, if you'll pardon the expression, is that we have settled upon a pattern, that will repeat and repeat. "It's like clockwork," as the invented expert in the Onion report admits. Then he shakes his head and walks away.

According to the nation's citizenry, calls for a mature, thoughtful debate about the role of guns in American society started right on time, and should persist throughout the next week or so. However, the populace noted, the debate will soon spiral out of control and ultimately lead to nothing of any substance, a fact Americans everywhere acknowledged they felt "absolutely horrible" to be aware of.

Maybe this isn't the kind of humor that helps you avoid weeping.

I have heard it reported that the killer in Aurora fashioned himself as 'The Joker' as he arrived upon the scene of the latest Batman movie premiere. Some even thought in the first moments of the attack that the violence was not real —that it was only some promotional gimmick — a part of some live entertainment prepared especially for the premiere.

The Joker, imagine that.

I may not be as up on my DC Comics cosmology as some, but I do have a few indelibly etched images of 'The Joker' in mind. He's a character who has a sense of himself as someone deeply wronged and his consolation is violence, a violence he practices as something approaching an artform, always with a twist of irony to accompany the rage, so as to laugh rather than weep. The violence is meted out even on the well meaning he sees as foolish and futile, do-good hypocrites who haven't experienced the same soul emptying horror that he has. There is something hilarious in watching as they finally do. Nothing constructive mind you, but it's justice. Hilarious nihilistic justice.

And now reality and fantasy bleed into one another. From what news reports I've seen it doesn't appear that the young man who murdered all those people, who wounded and scarred so many more, had any real cause or point to make —other than the very fact that he was capable of such atrocity.

There's some irony in that, no?

That it might all have simply been this one horrific joke?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A song in mind for Woody

It was my freshmen year in high school and I was in English class. We were doing a segment on poetry and had come to study a selection of more contemporary works. The editors of our textbook (and my English teacher, Mrs. Ligon) wanted to show us that poetry was not some dead art from the past, stilted and fallen from its stilts, but rather that it was still a relevant form of expression to understand and appreciate. In among the poetry there were even some songs of somewhat recent issue: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. (These were of somewhat recent issue when I was freshmen in high school I'm afraid.) I think Mrs. Ligon even brought out Paul Simon's 'I Am A Rock' and read it aloud to us, comparing it with John Donne's 'No Man Is An Island' which we had studied earlier.

But what I mean to consider here is this one particular song, by one particular writer. I don't believe we studied this one in the classroom, but it was there I was reading through the textbook and I came across it, 'Plane Wreck at Los Gatos' (Deportee) by Woody Guthrie. I'd heard just a fragment of the song only recently on the radio, I recognized that. My father had winced at the singers (Dylan and Baez) doing discordant harmonies and "singing about rotten vegetables" —as Dad put it.

But what really struck me, there in the classroom as I read the song lyrics, was the short footnote at the bottom of the page. It gave the story of how the song had come to be written, how Guthrie, back in 1948, had heard the radio reports and read the newspaper accounts of a tragic plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California. The crash had resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 American citizens and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico. None of the migrant workers were named in the reports, only the flight crew and security guard —only the "real" Americans. As for the others, as Guthrrie said in his song, "the radio said they are just deportees."

I read the lyrics again. "The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning. The oranges piled in their creosote dumps." There was the part my dad had made light of. "They're flying them back to the Mexico Border to pay all their money to wade back again." This was the subtle more telling part. Who or what is flying who or what back? So you start with the workers juxtaposed with the crop itself, faceless objects on a par with the "oranges piled high in their creosote dumps" —but then the song does something amazing.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't need names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

This was my high school in the early 1970's and the '60's were just behind us. I'd heard about protest songs before and wondered about the form —what exactly was the point of politics that rhymed, that you sang, that got strummed along with on the guitar. (As you might have gathered it wasn't a genre greatly appreciated around my household.)

But 'Plane Wreck at Los Gatos' wasn't mere protest song. Or if it was protest, it was also something more. It struck me just then that this song didn't merely complain of the injustice and indignity of treating these "illegals" as nameless faceless objects who ended "scattered like dry leaves" lifeless on the canyon floor. The song pointed to and challenged that nameless fate —and changed it, with those names.

"Juan, Rosalita —adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria."

Something powerful happened for me in that moment, in my high school English class, as I quietly read to myself, as I took in the song and the stories behind the song. I suppose I appreciated something of that import of poetry and song that my teachers wanted me to gather in, but I was also forever changed in my perception of "illegals" —I learned something of the meaning in a name —the difference between a name and a label. I learned how words can be powerful and terrible, inspiring and sobering. To this day whenever I find myself involved in or witness to some abstract discussion about "immigration reform" and someone uses that term "illegals" something of that song sounds inside of me. I think of those names. I am that much reminded of their human faces. And I take that as a gift —and I thank Woody Guthrie.

This July 14th is Guthrie's 100th birthday. Maybe for some the day will be just another Bastille Day —a day for The Rights of Man and red wine and soft cheese —a day to pause in the summer heat, hoist the tricolor flag and harken to La Marseillaise.

Not so for me. There's another song I'll have in mind.