2nd Amendment Fundamentalism

In the month between Las Vegas (58 dead) and Sutherland Springs, Texas (at least 26 dead) I’d shut off the notifications on my phone, so now I get no automatic notices when things like mass shootings or baseball playoff games happen. This way, I spent yesterday blissfully ignorant of the shooting, and got to condense the usual routine of my reaction down to a few minutes this morning.

See, they happen often enough for each of us to have a routine, like what we do when we catch a cold,  or a bee gets in the house.

First I pore over the titillating details. I know that if mass shootings are by design a shocking genre of theater, then we are abetting them by choosing to be audience members, but who can help it? I struggle, but typically manage to stop mindlessly clicking on links about it – but not before I’ve read up on the cultural slant it’s going to take.

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Ted Nugent.

“I wonder what they know about the shooter?” is a kind of code for “Is he a Muslim who snapped, or a white supremacist or what? What kind of fallout are we waiting for?” Many people made the case during the Las Vegas shooting that the coverage is very different when a white American does it, and that’s no doubt true.

The American Right went apeshit the moment rioters loosely affiliated with Black Lives Matter broke the law, let alone the horrible case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had a long history of arrests and mental illness, bought a gun, shot his ex-girlfriend, drove to New York City, and killed two cops and himself. To the racist mind, this is proof that we should never-ever protest police treatment of minorities.

In all these shootings, including yesterday’s, the liberal asks, “How did this guy get a gun, and shouldn’t we try to make that harder?” I get that, but I despair of this horrific ideology that’s becoming more commonplace, of thinking of gun ownership as the source of our freedom. At each mass shooting, I think “Maybe this will open some minds,” but it’s dawning on me now that many gun enthusiasts actually like mass killings.

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Emmaus, Pennsylvania today.

Just look at the sticker I saw on a Buick in Pennsylvania last week, with a skull in the center: 2nd Amendment fundamentalists are a kind of heavy metal death cult. Like a teenage boy with an army jacket drawing photos of his automatic rifle all over his notebooks, the higher the death tolls the higher the stakes, the more euphoric he feels holding his gun.

Like other forms of fundamentalism, such as certain religions, 2nd Amendment fundamentalists use a fabricated notion of the past to build a false sense of right and wrong. As if paying taxes is what makes us contributing citizens (as opposed to the takers), and if we ever feel we’re getting a bad deal, then we can always get back to basics: me and my gun.

Joni Ernst is a member of the Republican majority in the Senate. Here’s how she won in 2014, a month before Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed two cops:

There is a radical, anti-government movement on the march, one that favors religious law over our constitutional traditions, and thinks killing like yesterday’s is an okay price to pay for our freedom to own military-grade weapons. It’s okay with vigilante violence as long as it’s being used against black people and the soft-headed liberals who sympathize with them.

And there is nothing comparable on the Left. Just compare the Democratic Party and Black Lives Matter’s reaction to the Ismaaiyl Brinsley shooting with the actual Republican support for the armed thugs in the Bundy standoff in 2014. They make us seem like the Rotary Club.

Let’s also never forget that if you’re locked in a room with an armed madman, then it’s you, not the madman, who has to figure out how to get out. The guy who did the shooting yesterday, like most of them, had a history of violence against the women in his life; one wonders what a “broken windows” policy toward domestic offenders would do to the violent crime rate.

I’m not holding my breath. There’s no easy way forward, and here we are.

Marathon Sunday

That the New York City Marathon happens on the morning we set our clocks back an hour in the Eastern time zone only makes it more special. It passes by the end of my block, just a few miles into Brooklyn from its start on the bridge from Staten Island.

More than once I’ve woken up on Marathon Sundays to the sound of cheers, but most years, like other people, I wander outside my apartment and wonder that it’s still so  early. Half the clocks are wrong. Outside at 8:30 are the usual retirees drinking bodega coffee, and families shuffling off to church, but on Marathon Sundays there are more: Cops looking bored staring into their cell phones. Tape and police cars everywhere. And increasingly between nine o’clock and eleven there are neighbors with bedhead out to cheer on the runners.

The only thing like it is when a blizzard shuts the city down. The gentrifiers and the O.G. call a truce, and we make fools of ourselves cheering. First come the wheelchairs. Then come the tears. Then I scrounge up another cup of coffee, and we wait in the damp cold for the women leaders, who run past like quiet lightning. Thirty minutes later, the men come, the biggest cheers, then a weird lull.

Then they come. The masses, thousands of them. We yell for random countries. “Go, Costa Rica!” “Go Svensk!” I break out my Spanglish, shake a few hands, try to commit some names to memory, and the neighbors say, “See you around.”

Night of the Living Dead

As someone who used to see about a film per day – in recent years, more like two or three per week – I knew I was in for a shock when I moved to Shelter Island, New York for a job that lasted from 4th of July till this week: Zero cinemas and a house with poor Wifi meant practically no movies.

 

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Somebody’s a Zombie.

My first visit to a cinema back in the city just had to be something both classic and entertaining. Luckily a restored Night of the Living Dead was out. I loved it from the first shot – more like a regional indie film than pure horror. And the content, about a black man and white woman confined to a house together, started with so much promise.

Its problem – and not in a theoretical sense, I mean, it kept us from enjoying the film – was the female characters. One is a vicious nag, one is hopelessly in love, and one, The Woman, is in such shock she turns hysterical by minute ten and needs a slap across the face just to ineffectually help The Man, a little.

The girl who becomes “a ghoul” and takes a trowel to her mother’s face has the most get-up-and-go of any of them! For kicks I took a quick look at the 1990 remake, and in the first five minutes the heroine fights back more than the 1968 heroine did the whole time.

There you have it. Seeing a good film is so satisfying, that seeing an okay film gives you  the feeling you get when you want s strong cup of coffee and all you have is diner Bunn-o-matic. You feel like a ghoul yourself.

Harvey, #MeToo, and Me

Even before the #MeToo moment arrived on social media yesterday I was reading Marie Howe’s poem “Sixth Grade” a few times per week. It starts with her telling the story of a day when a gang of boys tied her and her friend to a garage door with a clothesline and mock-raped them both with the dried leg of a deer. It ends when she finally gets through to a boy she knew, her brother’s friend, who happens to be named Charlie:

“…And then more softly, and looking directly at him, I said, Charlie.

“And he said Stop. And they said What? And he said Stop it.
And they did, quickly untying the ropes, weirdly quiet,
Mary Lou still weeping. And Charlie? Already gone.”

So little effort on men’s part makes such a big difference in stopping sexual harassment, and yet we feel somehow like it’s a grand sacrifice worthy of hand-wringing. We can forgive Charlie from Howe’s poem for slinking away, since the repercussions among sixth-graders in the 1960s may have been real, but among adults 50 years later, what are we really sacrificing?

I speak with some authority on the subject, since I’ve been a sexual harasser myself. I hesitate to say so this week, since #MeToo has been lumping all kinds of sexual harassment together, and the differences do matter, but that’s the nature of moments like this. We didn’t speak up when it was easy to; now we’re going to be embarrassed into it when it’s hard.

Over the years female coworkers have had to remind me when my sexual jokes have gone too far, something I can own up to. Now that I’m a supervisor, and older, I try to make up for it by being a good mentor to the younger women, taking complaints seriously, and proactively establishing a workplace vocabulary that’s  all good vibes and yet manages to feel more free-spirit than apparatchik-speak. One detail from the Weinstein scandal that spoke to me was Gwyneth Paltrow saying she recalled thinking, “I thought you were my Uncle Harvey.” Once you say anything about how you want to create “a family,” and once they call you uncle, abusing that trust in any way, big or small, makes you a real asshole.

I have a harder time forgiving myself for how mean I was as a sixth- and seventh-grader. One girl in particular, I used to intimidate, to the great amusement of my male friends. Like Groucho and Harpo, I had a chaotic sense of humor that was marred by spasms of outright cruelty. In retrospect we were intimidated by her, whose only crime was being the prettiest, most mature-looking girl in a room full of horny 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s all fun and games till you consider that she’s a human also.

I remember seeing her again a few years later. We must have been around 16, at an adult party I was attending with my parents, she with her 18-year-old boyfriend, smoking cigarettes around the pool table (the good old days!). I tried to be friendly and got completely frosted out, as in, it wasn’t yet time to forgive and forget.

I should add that I was on the receiving end of a serious bout of harassment when I was in college, and I try being philosophical about that too. I have zero interest in bringing it up and bothering some old closet case about it. On the other hand, I haven’t exactly checked on his well-being lately either.

It hurt yesterday, reading accounts of harassment my friends went through as kids. I would just add that many of the “perps” were kids too. I was by any other measure a “good kid,” but somewhere there’s a story in which I am that scumbag who harasses. I wasn’t as good at algebra as Harvey Weinstein was at producing films, but I could do the simple math: I read my history book cover to cover by October, and wrote book reports that would have passed in high school, and I wasn’t about to get into any serious trouble.

harvey-weinstein-meryl-streepMy only other word of caution is about the Puritan impulse that’s always close at hand on the American Left. “There was a type of man whom the Puritans never tired of denouncing,” as Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Family: an upstanding family man, a successful farmer and conscientious citizen, who was nonetheless on his way to Hell. As if the purity of one’s heart is the true measure of a person, not the net sum of one’s actions.

Harvey Weinstein’s accomplishments, like Elliot Spitzer’s, make his fall all the more spectacular, but I see them as mitigating, evidence for the defense. Rutgers, my alma mater, should absolutely keep the money Weinstein gave to establish a chair in honor of Gloria Steinem. If the Devil dropped a solar-powered water purifier in Puerto Rico this week, I’d say “Hook that thing up.” Weinstein’s done, he’s not going to corrupt an academic department from his house in East Hampton, but I digress.

I’m not surprised that so few men spoke up with much more than a polite “like” button yesterday. To say “I support you” is to risk seeming like you’re glossing over your own complicity with sexual harassment, but to say “I’m guilty” requires a story, and, like I did, reminding friends that the differences of degree matter:

Weinstein’s asking an actress to sleep with him or else lose her job is harassment, and so is telling a blow job joke at the wrong table at a holiday party. One of them should get you run out of town. One should get you a “What the hell were you thinking?” talking-to. And those of us who rely on, or have relied on, that wiggle room owe it to our communities to take the lead when serious harassment happens. We should, like Scott Rosenberg, speak up when the time is right. There is no jury with the power to say we’re good or bad people. There’s just, always, the question of what to do now. Speaking up last year would have been more courageous than this year, but this year is better than next.

Years ago Kevin Smith described Harvey Weinstein as a “true vulgarian,” as is Kevin Smith, one reason I’ve never been a fan. While writing an arts feature about a film exhibitor in Minneapolis around 2000, my subject told me, “The Weinstein brothers are less ethical than Bob Guccione,” and I thought it was hyperbole. I can’t say I’m surprised now, but the big story here isn’t the “monster” or “ogre” – a word I’ve seen more in the past week than I had in the past decade.

The big story is the list of debonair guys and civilized ladies, all the aesthetes who went along because they were too protective of their own good fortune to ask any uncomfortable questions. The more of us that speak plainly about everyday harassment, and get in the habit of calling each other out and accepting guilt and moving on, the more we’ll see that it’s all kinds of decent, upstanding people who commit the petty offenses that create a sexual hierarchy. And the more likely we’ll get around to saying, “What about the boss?” And like Charlie from the poem, a single word from our mouths can stop it. Let’s just try not wait to be embarrassed into it.

 

Marie Howe

Marie Howe was the find of the summer for me. Just when I think I know most contemporary American poets I come across a new one, new to me, whose voice speaks to me.

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In this case my wife gave me Howe’s 1997 book What the Living Do. It has lots of poems about surviving the death of a loved one, but also tons of poems about growing up an American girl that warrant re-reading many times.

Many are deceptively simple in that they read like a story. She describes what happened straightforwardly, with an odd eye for detail, and you wonder, “Is this a poem or not?” By the ned you realize the economy of words was part of her poetic method, and you’ve just been treated to a spare collection of images that describe a happening, and hint at something universal, in the space of a minute.

Take “The Copper Beech.” As a writer who often says too much and needs an aggressive editor, I’d give my right hand to be able to write a poem so simple with my left.

The Copper Beech

          By Marie Howe
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.

The Walking Dunes

Montauk, somehow, is the place I go for equinoxes. My first visit there was back on March 21st, and I finally went again early this week – this time, straight to Hither Hills State Park, specifically to the Walking Dunes, acres of sand dunes known for moving a few feet in the same direction every year, hence “walking.”

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The “walking dunes.”

I’ve been reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an insightful book book about a life spent studying moss, including a chapter devoted to the special role moss plays in regenerating forests on damaged land. I’m an amateur naturalist who often makes rookie mistakes identifying plants, but books like Gathering Moss have opened my eyes to forests like never before.

To get to the Walking Dunes you park on the scenic overlook and hike through a thick forest of oaks. Some visitors out here are so afraid of Lyme disease they avoid the woods, but I just wear light-colored, long pants and white socks, and check my legs for ticks, often. I’d have preferred a few ticks to the hundreds of mosquitoes I slapped off my face on my way there.

Once at the dunes, though, you can see right away that you’re in a rare ecosystem:

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I noticed shrub oaks all across the tops of the dunes, and some kind of cedar bushes around them. In the ravines in between were pines, and berry bushes. You got the sense that if the dunes were slowly walking through, then the tree roots were putting up as hard a fight as they could. Knowing even a little, you see drama everywhere.

The water around there is full of shellfish farms. Though not all that inviting to swim in, I was determined. I walked along Napeague Harbor, and felt my bare feet sink into the silty sand, before crossing over the peninsula to the Napeague Bay side, more like the water I’m used to swimming in around Shelter Island. It had more waves, but my walk had taken so long, I was starting to get concerned about making it through the woods again before dark, so I figured I’d skip it till I got clear across the South Fork to the ocean (unnecessarily, it turns out, but getting stuck in the woods at dark is miserable, I can tell you that).

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I can’t explain it – it might have been too cool, though it sure felt hot – but at dusk the mosquitoes were all hiding, and the oak woods on my way out were the prettiest of my walk. I started noticing lots of varieties of mushrooms, and moss. I may get to know moss better, but I doubt I’ll ever be a mushroom forager: one mistake and you’re dead as a shrub oak with the sand cratering beneath it.

By the time I made it to the beach on the ocean side, I saw signs that read “No lifeguard on duty, no swimming,” or something like that. I’m not scared of water, and used to ignoring those signs, but all it took was one look at the violent waves to resign oneself: there was a hurricane someplace far off that shore, and there would be no swimming!

I saw three different kinds of Atlantic water in one afternoon, but the swim would have to wait. I saw exactly zero ticks, one deer, and not many more humans. Kept repeating the same line of Seamus Heaney: “The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage.” Tried composing my own ode to the place but only came up with one line worth keeping: “Take me to the edge of misanthropy but no further.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing about the thousands of protozoans and tardigrades found in one gram of moss, says, “But the numbers themselves miss the point. Such lists remind me of the inconsequential facts tossed off by a tour guide, the number of steps to the top of the Washington Monument, or the number of blocks of granite used to construct it, when what I really want to know about is the view from the top and the jokes told by the stonemasons.”

Like many extroverts, I cherish my time alone, and after a day in the the lush world of some very weird yet unspectacular plants, I went to my usual spot in Montauk for a fish and chips, and made a point of talking with strangers. I asked them about the Memory Motel down the road, one of the few old time-feeling hotels left in Montauk, and they shrugged. Any place that inspired such a uniquely sad Rolling Stones song must be a town landmark, I figured, but to them it was a dump. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to see things right.

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Remembering Grant Hart

Weeks before I got the call this morning that Grant Hart had died, word had spread that he was not likely to survive the end of the summer. His normally barrel-chested frame was eerily thin, and he had some serious ailment, was limiting its treatment to holistic medicine, and was not talking about it with hardly anyone.

His obituaries mostly focused on the importance of his work from the 1980s, and his hot-and-cold relationship with Hüsker Dü’s other frontman Bob Mould, but there was much more to Grant than that.

I hadn’t seen him in about eight years, but there was a time in the late 90s and early 00s when I saw him frequently, at his solo shows, on holidays, and occasionally just dropping by. If you called Grant back then to ask if you could use a Hüsker Dü song in an independent film, he’d probably tell you to fuck yourself, but if you called to ask if he wanted to see an Orson Welles film that evening, he’d say “What time?”

It was around this time I directed a music video for him, that my friend Heidi Freier both shot and edited. It’s below. (Heidi went on to book his shows for him for about ten years, with a much deeper friendship than I ever had with him.)

Grant Hart

Grant was a big fish in a medium-sized pond in the Twin Cities music scene, and he showed literally thousands of young artists how to be artists. You saw Paul Westerberg grabbing a coffee about as often as you saw Prince: never. The guys from Soul Asylum, when they were in town, you’d see at the liquor store or having a beer at one of their friends’ shows. Grant, it seemed, was everywhere: the 7th Street Entry, the Walker Art Center, Orchestra Hall, gallery openings, fundraisers, and birthday parties.

He liked having an entourage of younger musicians and artists around him, but when he held court you rarely heard him talk about the hallowed days of indie rock. He more often talked about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the lesser works of the Beat writers, or the differences between middle- and late-period Studebakers. I never once saw him touch alcohol, but he loved coffee and liked to roll joints, and if he enjoyed your conversation he’d leave one behind as a gift.

In recent years I’ve often noted that, unlike people my age, millennials tend to hear music without any generational axe to grind. In the 90s indie rock scene, if you had a secret soft spot for Paul McCartney or Crosby Stills & Nash, you whispered about it. Grant was too big for that. He bristled at groupthink in any form, and cared above all about quality.

Grant did not suffer fools, and liked to take down the proud, and was known as a prickly character in many circles. I suspect it was he who lit a sulfurous stink bomb in the most fashionable bar in town one Thursday night. When he launched into an impromptu critique of a well-liked artist, he’d find people around him gently shushing him, reminding him to be nice, but Grant lived by the principle that you can’t have it both ways: You can’t have a small town arts scene that runs on goodwill and expect your artists to be taken seriously nationally.

Like most homegrown intellectuals, Grant had some unorthodox opinions about politics. During the Lewinsky affair, I once heard him tell a sleeper cell of young leftists bemoaning the ineptitude of President Bill Clinton that anyone who gave out Leaves of Grass as gift to his lover was alright by him.

His vision of history was a Hobbesian slugfest between self-interested factions. I tend to see things more sociologically, like no one is in control, not even of their own actions, and I liked to call Grant out when I felt he was over-simplifying. Being on the receiving end of one of Grant’s tirades is not for the faint of heart, but I never once felt he was capricious or vindictive. He had a genuinely curious mind, and I can’t say that for all that many people.

Other local rock stars sometimes asked Grant why he stayed in the Twin Cities, implying that he was slumming it by rubbing elbows night after night with less-experienced artists. The question was preposterous to him. Why leave? He was a loyal working class son, both living with and looking after his parents as they aged. And he was everything he ever set out to be, an autodidact and a genius in his own category.

It was magic going out on the town with him in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Grant and his two or three smiling friends would show up, and doors would open. He was once scheduled to sing the national anthem before a minor league Saint Paul Saints game (He nailed it.) but took a minute to make sure security let the rest of us in with him. Minutes before, he was playing outside the stadium for people in the parking lot – the local musical act the ball team was showcasing. An octogenarian felt he was playing too loudly and got in his face to holler that he should turn his amp down. Grant stood his ground and shook his head. No way he was turning it down for anyone.

Good night, sweet prince.

My First Tumbleweed Tuesday

Yesterday was my first Tumbleweed Tuesday, an annual holiday on Shelter Island, far out near the eastern tip of Long Island. Businesses close for at least a day, and locals, many of whom work two jobs in tourism throughout the summer, get their island back.

Shelter Island is only 29 square miles, a tad smaller than the island at the opposite end of Long Island, Manhattan, but has just 2,000 year-round residents. That balloons in summer to many thousands more, with all the people with summer houses, along with tourists and day trippers.

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Tumbleweed Tuesday.

I came here around 4th of July to manage the dining room at an historic hotel called The Chequit. I’ve been a waiter for many years, and looking for the right time to make a move to management, and jumped in here with the tourist season already underway. (Hence the long silence here on More Has To Happen.)

Having spent just a night on the island back in late June when my wife and I came to look the job over, I knew I was entering a place with a unique social landscape, shall we say. Because the restaurant I was managing was historically a beloved dive bar that went upscale a few years ago, when the hotel above it was bought and renovated, I was on the receiving end of lots of advice from “locals” about how I should run things.

I say “locals” because that means many things to many people. Every day middle-aged guys came to me and gushed about how great The Chequit’s bar was in the 1980s when they had their first underage drink there. The fact that they’d stopped going there twenty years ago rarely softened their firm belief that it should stay exactly as they remembered it. I suppose if I went back to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I went to college, and found an osteria where Patty’s Pizza used to be, I’d feel a little heartbroken too, but I wouldn’t go inside and tell the manager about it.

When dealing with locals, I learned to discriminate between the true local and the person who tells you that they’re a local a little too freely.

I think I made some lifelong friends this summer. Shelter Islanders like to say, “It’s becoming like the Hamptons,” meaning it’s seeing more of the Wall Street money that took East Hampton and the sleepy towns around it and turned them into a summer-long eugenics experiment for the wealthy. When a true Islander tells me he’s sad to see people like me selling $100 bottles of wine, I tell him a., I wish I’d sold more of them, I can’t get these people to spend enough; and b., he’s right.

All was forgiven on Tumbleweed Tuesday though. Salt, one of the competing restaurants, hosted a party on Crescent Beach, and lots of restaurant workers who’d come out from the city to make some cash over the summer were drunk as sailors. Summer parking rules were no longer in effect, and lots of pickup trucks lined the road. I saw off duty law enforcement officers sipping beers with their extended families. I took a long swim, past the buoys, and indulged a little myself.

There is pressure, but also comfort, in working for a place with so much history. You get the sense that even if you mess up your job completely, people will still come back next year. The days will get shorter, then longer again, and someone will do your job, and make some slightly different decisions, but fish will get fried, and money will get made, and those remaining will sit on the beach the first Tuesday in September and say that the water is still pretty warm.

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Crescent Beach, Shelter Island, September 5th, 2017.

Lime Tree Arbour

I’ve been finding myself seized by a sweet, powdery smell as I walk down Brooklyn streets, day or night, this week, during the summer solstice. Something like you’d expect if you crushed Sweet Tarts® with a mortar and pestle.

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A linden tree, a.k.a. American basswood or “lime tree” catches the sun in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

I met a Spanish family at the restaurant where I work Greenpoint, and they asked if I knew what kind of tree it was, since it was wafting through the window. I’m known to carry a tree identification book on a hike in the woods, but I usually leave it at home here in the city, so I gave them a “Gosh, I don’t know,” and they started messing with their iPhones.

“It’s a lime tree,” they said, and I didn’t believe them: Limes are tropical fruits.

Well, in Spain they call them tilia, and, so say these strangers from Barcelona, they use the leaves to make a tea that calms the nerves. Researching further, I found that tilia are most often called linden trees in North America, although my Trees of New York Field Guide calls it an American Basswood. In the British Isles they call it a lime tree – which a European, whose smart phone’s search settings are more tuned into British English than American, would quickly discover, whereas I would just find “linden.”

I saw it as a happy accident, since it explained “Lime Tree Arbour,” a powerful Nick Cave ballad I’ve heard several thousand times, no exaggeration, since 2001 or so when I borrowed The Boatman’s Call from the Minneapolis Public Library (!). Like most of that 1997 album, it’s kind of a love song, kind of a hymn.

“Every breath that I breathe, and every place I go/There is a hand that protects me, and I do love her so.”

 

Now that I’ve gotten the smell in my head, I smell it everywhere, at least this week while it’s blossoming. It’s good to talk to strangers, especially ones from far away, and to make time for trees and other plants.

Thank you, Tilia americana, for all the beauty you’ve created out of dirt and sunshine this week.

The Keepers

I was as riveted as just about everyone else was by The Keepers on Netflix this month, but I also couldn’t help feeling like I was being manipulated, double-crossed even. It’s being compared to Making a Murderer and Serial, often favorably, since it courageously disperses the guilt as it goes along instead of pinning it on any one villain – though he gets pinned too.

After three episodes (out of seven) I was overwhelmed by the bald-facedness and frequency of the sexual abuse going on at the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and wondering if it could get any worse. Spoiler Alert: Yes it does, and weirder! And the level of shittiness somebody inside the Baltimore legal system stooped to to save this priest from jail, or the Catholic Diocese of Baltimore in general from all that embarrassment, is rotten.

The Keepers

R.I.P. Sister Cathy Cesnik.

I’ve always felt that Bowling for Columbine ended on a dreadful note, when Michael Moore wiggled his way into an interview with Charlton Heston. It felt like he took what was a well-developed and powerful broadside against a business complex and a culture of guns, and grafted a finale onto it by pulling a college prank on the elder chieftain of the gun believers. As if from his lips you will hear the kernel of truth, the damning admission, or whatnot.

Ryan White, director of The Keepers, brings you to that precipice a few times: “Oh, here we’re going to meet the person who committed the crime.” Only by the time you’ve arrived there you’re wise enough to see that the guilt, like the crime, is a diffuse business. You can only penetrate those dark corners up to the points where well-established lies, decades in the making, put up barriers.

The Hollywood Reporter felt that White was being “coy” with some important facts, like whether the main abuser was still alive – and that’s an understatement. I’d call it the glaring flaw. I was deeply annoyed, halfway through, with wondering, “Where is Maskell?” and “What about that other girl who got killed?” and “What is the connection between the two?”

The questions all get answered, but it feels both more sprawling and, in the seventh hour, more rushed, than it had to be. When it came to light that another minor had been abused prior to Maskell’s tenure at Archbishop Keough – and we hadn’t heard about it till this late in the series – I was turning numb.

In literary terms, the series has a problem with voice. White has found two extraordinary characters in the self-taught investigators Gemma and Abbie, alumnae of Archbishop Keough who are close to retirement and have made the murder of their beloved teacher, Sister Cathy, their private passion. When they uncover the sexual abuse – and even that unpleasant a phrase is euphemistic, so call it the systematic rapes – you only figure out after the fact that Gemma and Abbie had to have known lots about the rapes before they even started.

As a story-teller you have to either pick a protagonist who’s the eyes of your story, and the viewer knows only what they know, or you juggle all the elements that the omniscient narrative eye can see and give the viewer access to them in a reasonable amount of time, or else those viewers are going to feel a bit played with. It’s a shame to have such a flaw in a series as rich as this one, since I for one rarely got tired of being there in Baltimore with them.

Partly, let’s be honest, it’s the accent! The Baltimore accent is like the Philadelphian, only more so. It’s where the South begins and yet it’s strangely Yankee. Like the musical Wisconsin accent in Making a Murderer, or the deep south of S-Town, the series satisfies the craving to really be someplace. Surrounded by the regional accent, you feel submerged.

Most reviewers point out the novelty of The Keepers‘ having so many great female characters – since Keough was an all girl’s school, and most of the surviving key players are women, it means more time with women on camera than just about any mystery or crime story – but it’s deeper than that. It’s a collage of late middle-aged womanhood. Gemma Hoskins the amateur sleuth interviews hard-boiled, former Baltimore detectives like a pro, presenting as motherly sweetness but discreetly talking circles around them.

In some parts around the second episode we see shots of Jean Hardagon Wehner, the survivor of perhaps the worst of the rapes and the motor behind much of the plot, stretching and meditating. At first you get the idea that this daughter of the Church, a loyal Catholic well into her adulthood, has finally looked beyond the Western traditions for her spiritual well-being. Once you’ve really taken in the enormity of the weight she has carried, and how her 60-some-year-old body is still agile, you realize that one of the themes this series captures is the resilience of the human body and spirit.

Steven Thrasher in Esquire, of all places, takes issue with what he sees as the series’ racial myopia, since racism and racial segregation were such hot buttons in cities like Baltimore at the time. I guess you could argue that racial integration of public schools made lots of Catholic parents value their parochial schools more highly all of a sudden, and made them more prone to trust a counselor like Father Maskell. But was there something toxic about Catholic middle class whiteness around 1969 that made its men more prone to sexual violence? That sounds like sociology too deep for a documentary.

I saw it more as a bunch of families and a community of faith struggling to cope with the changing landscape brought on by the sexual revolution and the counterculture. “Come Together” was a Top Ten hit the week Sister Cathy got murdered, but so was “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies (in its tenth week!). These were the “Sugar Sugar” teens who valued innocence, and whose families trusted priests and policemen, and didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss sexual abuse if they ever had to.

Sister Cathy the acoustic-guitar-playing nun was the best possible ambassador of the counterculture the Catholic families of Baltimore could have hoped for, but she found herself behind enemy lines.