Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Last Will and Testament of John Brown

The Last Will and Testament of John Brown Starts with Olives and a Movie...

I'm on the sofa. It's around midnight. I'm chewing on another Manzanilla stuffed olive. The windows are cracked to welcome the onset of spring. An intermittent cool breeze trickles by me. I'm numb.

My head is fully functional. My eyes are working. They're focused intently on the television. My ears are fine. I can hear everything. The olive tastes good. I'm thinking. Actually, I'm absorbing. Behind the absorption, in the very back of my head--right where noggin meets neck--a realization is percolating.

I'm warm. My body is sleeping. My forearms are heavy. I have to pause to consider whether another olive is worth the excruciating effort required to lift it from plate to mouth. My feet are gone. My legs are gone. Numb and warm and fuzzy.

I'm watching The New World and I'm watching it at just the right time. Sometimes, things happen a certain way and that way is the only way those things could ever really work. So it is with me, the couch, a numb body and The New World. It's all perfect timing. For whatever reason, everything about The New World is working. For whatever reason, I am working as if my sole reason for existing is to watch the movie.

I watch. And up from the back of my head comes a thought. It bubbles up from the neck into the forefront of my consciousness. Like a water cooler. Blurp.

This movie is doing something different. It's telling the same old John Smith/Pocahontas story, but it's not allowing me my usual historical smugness. Sure, I know how the story goes, at least in general terms. Yes, I know how it all ends. I remember key plot points from grade school Pilgrim projects scattered over several Novembers. It's different this time.

In The New World, the principle characters don't know what's about to happen. They don't know how the story ends. The tale isn't history book material. It's happening in their present. The movie doesn't slap your face with reminders about what will eventually happen. Nothing about it feigns omniscience. Everything is new. It's new. It's happening. It's done effectively enough to put the viewer into that newness.

I'm living in that moment with John Smith. I'm impressed with the tall grass. I admire the sunset. I feel fear and curiosity about the naturals. Later, I'm hanging with Pocohantas. I'm impressed and intimidated by London. I'm human and prop. It's all new.

I'm not one of those diehard Terrance Malick Fans. I liked Days of Heaven. I thought Thin Red Line was better than most movies, but not as good as those who trumpeted it as an artistic masterpiece pretended. Badlands? I haven't seen it.

I mention my perspective on Malick because discussions of his movies often devolve into film partisanship. It's Malickites vs. Anti-Malickites and the movie gets lost in the kerfluffle. I'm not interested in that discussion, though.

I'm not willing to claim that The New World is a cinematic masterpiece. It undoubtedly has flaws. It probably could be better. At that time, however, it was perfect. On my couch with a tired body, an engaged mind, and a saucer of olives, The New World was absolute genius. It captivated.

You could take a million different messages from the movie. It could be a tree hugger's parable. It could be a PC reflection on the noble savage. It could be a backlash humanization of the European conquest of the Americas. It could be a love story. It could be history with a great score and a good cast.

My message was in the newness of America to the English, the newness of England to Pocohantas and, after the credits fell off my screen, the way we act in our current moment, completely unable to ascertain the eventual consequences of our actions. We might have guesses. We may make predictions. In the end, though, we utilize our understanding of history and the present, mix it together with the way we feel and the threat in our face, and do something. History judges. It's always new.

The New World is, no matter what you think about its narrative, beautiful. Though some decry the imagery as static and over-lingereing, no one can credibly argue that Malick fails to find and feature natural beauty in a very strong way. It is a pretty movie and the natural onslaught eventually wears at the viewer's urban wall, connecting him or her with the land again.

John Brown Hearts George Harrison...

I was born in 1970. As a result, I was never required to pick a favorite Beatle. If someone made me pick today, I'd throw my support behind George Harrison for a variety of reasons that aren't directly related to this tale.

George Harrison wrote a few amazing songs. He committed a few nearly unforgiveable musical sins in the 80s.

Harrison, sick and tired of the business end of Beatlemania and the tyranny of superstardom took a day off from "work" in 1969. He went over to Eric Clapton's house and walked through the garden with an acoustic guitar in his hands. After a gloomy English winter, it was nice to see the sun again. By the end of his walkabout, he wrote Here Comes the Sun.

Here Comes the Sun almost seems like a throwaway song. The lyrics are simple. Maybe simple-minded. It's nothing more than a big thumbs up to sunshine and bright backed by a catchy melody. A very catchy melody. The Beatles recorded it (sans Lennon) and it sold well in 1969. Maybe that's because a cute tune will sell no matter what. Maybe it's because, even in the most tumultuous of times, people need to remember that sunshine and bright are good things. Here Comes the Sun also offers a certain reassurance we all need to hear, even if it is pat and simple. "It's all right".

I was driving to work a few days after watching The New World. I was pointed eastbound, waiting at a stop light on an overpass. The sun was directly in front of me. It wasn't a nuisance, though, as it was shaded by hundreds of tiny clouds that were racing on wind in front of it. It looked like one of those high-speed stop-frame movie tricks. The sky was moving at a frenetic pace while we waited through stoplights.

I was sick of AM talk radio word-porn. I was so tired of hearing about Jeremiah Wright that I avoided even the socially acceptable liberalism of NPR, just in case. I tapped the "scan" button on the radio a few mintues before I hit the stop light.

The light flipped green, my foot reflexively moved from brake to accellerator and I took one last look at the sun and the white rocket-fast clouds. The radio paused on a "classic rock" station and I recognized the "du dn du du". I stopped it there. Here Comes the Sun.

I was northbound on a boulevard, passing through an established residential neighborhood that, over time, has found itself shoehorned between two pods of commerce. Trees on both sides of the road. No matter how long I typed, no matter how long a Terrance Malick camera lingered on those trees, you couldn't understand spring Kansas trees in the wind without seeing them yourself at that moment. The were new and green and in exactly the right place at the right time.


Before Here Comes the Sun and before The New World, there were butterflies, a grumpy father named John Brown and Revolution.

Work is work. Sometimes I like it. Sometimes I feel little more than disdain toward it. When I'm on the treadmill too long, my mood suffers. I doubt I'm unusual in that sense.

Lately, I've filled a few slow work hours and a bit of at-home downtime with this blog. It isn't the centerpiece of my life, but it has been a regular diversion. I watch the news. I listen to the news. I read other blogs. I think. I comment. I write. The more I think, watch listen, read and write the more generally frustrated I become. The blog seems like a good idea. A nice way to vent while advocating for things I hold dear.

At the same time, it makes me angry. Angry at those with power. Angry at those seeking power. Angry at liars, cheaters, hacks, fools and generally silly people who do fantastically stupid things. If tracking the day's events and commenting upon them is a vent, it's merely the vent on a self-constructed mental pressure cooker.

Usually, my bad moods last a day. Maybe two. This time, I was working on day six of a generally lousy disposition. I was about to take another dip from the well of rage. The laptop was in front of me and I was ready to start answering comments on some of the posts here. I wanted a little peace, a little quiet and about ten uninterrupted minutes to set the record straight for a few of the asshats who left snarky remarks and to backslap a few of the geniuses who shared my sentiments. I didn't get it.

Instead, I got a visit from my four year-old daughter who wanted to play outside. Even with a bad mood, I'm a decent father. The weather was nice and a trip outside would spare the Brown family from cartoons. I did what decent fathers do. I went outside.

Ball throwing and ball kicking were suspended upon the discovery of a big yellow butterfly. There are few things four year-old girls love as much as butterflies. We'd chase. It would land. We'd approach it would fly away. The process repeated itself, punctuated by our laughter, her very real amazement, and my mock surprise. In time, my phony excitement gave way to a real interest, too.

That's when the child had her idea. The butterfly landed on grass, right? That must mean that the butterfly likes grass. So, perhaps we could get a piece of grass and "trick" the butterfly into resting upon it. We could then pick up the butterfly and study it more closely.

This was an idea doomed to fail. There was no way a jumpy four year-old could ever sneak up on an equally jumpy butterfly with a piece of grass. Even if the kid managed to contain her excitement long enough to get close, no sane butterfly would opt to grab the offering. Even if the butterfly did grab the grass, it would fly away the second the child lifted the blade. Doomed.

I sugarcoated my assessment. I told her it probably wouldn't work, but she could try. She found a relatively long blade of grass and suddenly transitioned from spastic post-toddler into a butterfly tricking stealth machine. To my utter amazement, her plan worked. 100% success.

Within moments, she held the grass in one hand while lightly petting its wing with the index finger of her other hand. Eventually, the butterfly flew away. We laughed and rolled in the grass, drunk on her success. We went to find him again, but he was gone.

A few hours later, the Brown family decided to go out for supper. The child was excited to walk to the car. She thought we might again see her pet butterfly. I knew better, of course. The odds of seeing the same bug again were astronomical. As we made our way to the car, however, I did see it. The same yellow butterfly with the same black patterned wings. It was resting on a bush. The girl walked right up to the butterfly, this time without grass, and carefully petted him. She said "goodbye, see you later" and he flew away.

I missed my blogging time chasing butterflies. The next night, I was preparing to add to Prepare Yourselves for a Settlement. The girl was sitting on the floor. She had been playing with Tinker Toys. At that moment, though, she was just staring toward the ceiling. I quizzed her. She was thinking about butterflies. We talked, laughed and considered butterflies. Ten minutes later I was shaving broken crayons with a potato peeler. We made "stained glass" butterflies with wax paper, an iron and Crayola fragments.

Those butterflies are now hanging from a homemade mobile in her bedroom, which brings us back to the Beatles. I stood on a wooden chair, and carefully tacked the butterfly mobile to the ceiling while the child directed my efforts and my wife made a photographic record of our triumph. I was whistling.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

The child asked me why I was whistling. I told her it was because I was happy. I recognized that my mood had improved somewhere between butterfly trickery and butterfly craftiness. "What's that song then?"

I was whistling a reassuring line from a Beatles song. It wasn't the "It's all right" of Here Comes the Sun. It was the "You know it's gonna be all right" of Revolution, which takes us back to my car several days before. The timeline blurs when you're piecing things together.

I was driving home from work on the freeway, intentionally avoiding my usual audio diet of newsy talk and bullshittery, wishing that the Royals were playing so I had something decent to pass the time. I'd rather listen to Denny Matthews call a loser right now than to some local Michael Savage wannabe's masturbation over concocted scandal. The radio searched for a station and it found the Beatles.

I've always loved Revolution. Musically, it's a real rock 'n' roll assault from a band who isn't known for its power chords or screaming. It's also a melodic earworm that's hard to shake. It's lyrically interesting and has a unique backstory.

It started as a ballad and became fast and distorted only after Lennon realized he was the only one who "heard a single" in the slow version. The lyrics have bobbed between being counted "in" or "out" "when you talk about destruction". Lennon says he had mixed sentiments, but the rest of the lyrics belie that explanation. The "in" version is almost self-contradictory, leading me to believe John Lennon was having a little fun with the "in/out" switch.

Revolution doesn't glorify the titular concept. It's critical of stereotypical viewpoints of revolutionary activity. It mocks those who'd attempt to garner favor by waving posters of Mao. It's a song about the need to revolt internally against the things we despise instead of taking our rage to the streets. It's not about tearing down institutions, it's about changing minds.

The most interesting part about Revolution is its end. It's a reminder to those who are operating on hate and raging against the machine that, when all is said and done, "it's gonna be all right".

Eventually, the sun will come. It's all right. I don't know how many people have found a dovetailing between Revolution and Here Comes the Sun. It's obvious to me. The two meet in the same place. Things can be shitty. Things can be dreary. Eventually, if you're willing to roll with it, everything turns out all right.

The real John Brown was an extremely religious man. A fanatic, perhaps. I stole his name for this blog, but I didn't snag his fervor. I'm not religious. I have my opinions. I have my perspectives. I'm not a Flying Spaghetti Monster smart-ass. I'm not a Richard Dawkins atheist. If you asked me if I planned on meeting Jesus after my death, however, I'd probably chuckle at the very notion.

Nonetheless, I've seen longshots come in before. One of my early childhood memories is a Jim Colborn no-hitter. I've watched Kansas lose to Bucknell and Butler in the NCAA tourney. I've seen a butterfly land on a blade of grass wielded from a usually hyperkinetic four year-old. I don't plan on having coffee with Christ, but anything is possible.

Although I'm not a churchgoing man, I've gone to a few churches. A few years ago, the Brown family visited a Unitarian church. I liked a lot of what I heard. In fact, I often wonder why we haven't become regulars there. The pastor is a Harvard-educated guy from Massachusetts. He blogs. Every once in awhile, I look him up and read a sermon.

Thom Belote recently delivered a sermon on emotional renewal. He begins the sermon by sharing his shock in learning that Sirius radio was offering a 24-hour station dedicated to the sexual activity of Elliot Spitzer. He references everything from The Matrix to popular liberal bumper stickers to Jeremiah Wright to MLK's admonition that we should live in "divine discontent".

Belote's point, in my estimation, is that there is a place of emotional renewal that lurks somewhere between our rages and happily sticking our heads in the sand. There's a place for revolution based on our understanding of the world and our knowledge of history but it doesn't make sense to pursue those objectives with "minds that hate" any more than it pays to pretend like everything is perfect when it isn't. In the end, it's about finding personal points of conversion and reaching a state of healthy emotional balance.

John Brown Returns to Politics, if only for a Moment...

This blog has always been more political than personal. Now might be a good time to return to that political terrain, as tired as it's becoming.

I've noticed a few things lately. They are things I've probably known for a long time. Perhaps they slowly slid down the back of my head and have only now gurgled to the front again. Pat Buchanon will never say anything that really matters to me. He will not make me think. James Carville will never say anything meaningful, either. He will cover old territory. There is nothing new on television news and very little new in the blogosphere. Hucksters will slime. The power-hungry will reach. Attention whores will slut themselves up for an audience. Mock outrage will blare daily and condescension will share time with rage and hate. It's not new. It's old.

Watching it and responding to it every day is akin to choosing to build your home at the intersection of Masochism Road and Sisyphus Lane. It guarantees repetition of malignant exposures and repulsive behaviors. If I'm right (and I probably am) that Hillary Clinton's campaign causes cancer of the political soul, why would I voluntarily choose to expose myself to her creepy germs day after day? Why would I do that when it's so obvious that I'm already beginning to display symptoms of the disorder?

The New World reminded me that we confront the new from the now, armed only with our knowledge of the past to guide us. We don't know the end of the story. The most noble efforts will be damned by history. Our most evil schemes may be acclaimed. We don't know how the story ends. We can make our educated guesses. We have no choice but to try to do good. We can't know the results. Too much dogmatism, too much certainty, too much carrying pictures of Chairman Mao... They don't make a lot of sense to me.

The upside is that "it's all right". In the end, things tend to work out. Sometimes they don't work out for the best. Sometimes they do. Most of survive.

There are things worth fighting for. I mean really fighting for. John Brown (the real one) believed that. He raged against the slavery machine with all of his Jesus-stuffed heart. Thousands upon thousands of heroes known and unknown have stood in front of tanks, delivered speeches, left comfort for the sake of righteousness and displayed courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

I wonder, though, is our current political state worth that blind rage, that fervor, that dedication? Does it make sense--good sense--to get pissed off at whatever crazy and stupid thing Bill O'Reilly says? Is it nourishing to hate Michelle Malkin? Is there any reason whatsoever to even care in the slightest about Ann Coulter?

I can't come up with a good reason to push the boulder of "Hillary Clinton is a fucking Monster and I can't stand her" back up the mountain. It's not worth the energy. It's not worth the brainpower. It certainly isn't worth missing butterfly chases or craft projects. It's old, it's tired, and it's remarkably ugly. I won't claim I'm ashamed of anything I've written. I certainly won't recant my positions. I will, however, abandon this.

This is the last will and testament of John Brown, blogger. I'm going to spend my blogging time fishing, chasing butterflies, watching baseball, marveling at sunsets and finding emotional renewal in balance. I'm going to remember that we don't have monopolies on truth, we aren't omniscient and, that "everything is gonna be all right". That's my plan. If fate taps my shoulder with a cause that really resonates with me--one that compels me to heroism--I'll be there.

In the meantime, I'm going to try to live a little bit more like the concept I found so appealing about the Obama campaign before both sides started to get traditionally ugly. There was this idea that we might be able to be smart enough to examine the now and to study history in a way that would lead us toward a productive approach to the future. It was hope and change fueled by the idea of serious consideration. I liked it. Like so many, including some at the very core of the Obama campaign, I abandoned it when things got dirty.

We tend to retreat toward old learned behaviors when we're confronted with an attack. It's hard not to be defensive and to then scheme an equally painful counter-attack. It's also stupid and boring. I might be smarter than Pat Buchanan. I might be closer to true than he is. I'm just yelling along with him for sport, though. It's like forcing oneself to fart just to add to the stench in the room.

It's destructive. "And when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out?"

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right
It's all right