Asshole of the Century

Friday, June 17, 2016

When America Jumped the Shark

“She was a sweet, pretty California girl with Palestinian roots who left an arranged marriage only to find love with a man who committed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.”

So began the lead story on the Chicago Tribune’s website this Wednesday.  I realize many in the media have gone out of their way to try and personalize everything Muslim over the past fifteen years. But has it really come to this?

What’s next? How about: Eva Braun, a sweet, pretty girl from the Bavarian hills who left the bucolic but restrictive confines of her home only to find love with a man who committed perhaps the worst genocide in modern history.

We’ve officially gone crazy. Do I have to note that this “sweet, pretty girl with Palestinian roots” is a likely accomplice in the killing of 49 people? What has gone wrong with America? It seems we have no standards or decency, that gossip and personal innuendo have not just replaced the news but that reporting has become a parody of itself, where all stories are real and valid as long as you tell them with verve. We have become a nation of bullshit artists, in love with the sound of our own words, and an accessory to murder becomes a “sweet, pretty California girl” when it suits the larger narrative.   

This country used to be able to count on its reporters to seek the truth. Wise and strong leaders would guide us in times of trouble, men like Lincoln, like Ike, like FDR, compelling us to preserve the union, warning us against the powers of fascism or the military industrial complex. But I’ve come to think that whatever blessings God has shed on this country since its founding have been taken away, that this nation is now cursed by purveyors of lies and ineptitude.

It is time to hunker down, to take stock, to realize that the people who purport to inform and to lead us are not by and large working in our best interest. It is time to turn off our Facebook pages, to leave our chatrooms, to step back and take the time to be individuals again. It is time to think for ourselves.  

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Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The End of the Republic

It may seem like an eon away, but just a year ago it was widely assumed that Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee and take on Hillary Clinton in the general election to decide who would be the next President of the United States. Normally, those who choose which candidates get promoted into positions of political power in this country at least have the decency to change the label on the can of crap they are selling the American public. In the current election cycle, they didn’t even feel they needed to change the names on the cans, that the American voters had become so comatose and uninvolved we’d just get in line for the latest can of Bush, the new and improved Clinton. At the time, I thought it would effectively be the end of our Republic if the American people validated the choices of the donor class and made these two candidates their respective parties’ nominees, that the people’s right to choose would have been so abridged by the money men that democracy as practiced in this country would cease to have any real meaning.

Thankfully, the American people, or at least those in one of our two major political parties, rebelled. Of course, part of the reason was that one of the brands was particularly sour. Have you ever met anyone who thought the last President Bush did such a great job that we had to bring the Bushes back for one more round? Forget all the other contradictions of his Presidency, of campaigning against nation building and for a smaller government then executing the biggest expansion of the federal government and the American empire since the Johnson Administration. Just the decision to cajole us into waging the Iraq War alone should have been enough to forever stain the Bush name. Yet there we were, not even a decade later, being asked to vote for another Bush as President. The hubris of those bankrolling Jeb’s campaign was astounding. Fortunately, other than Mitt Romney and a couple of other wealthy sycophants, no one was frightened away by all the Jeb campaign cash. Even more fortunate, Jeb! was a half-hearted, petulant candidate whose only early sign of passion was a soliloquy about how being an illegal immigrant was an act of love. Now whether any of the elves and dwarves in the Republican field would have been capable of exposing Jeb’s vulnerabilities is an open question. Which is why I credit Donald Trump with the saving of our democracy.

I should state right here that I’ve always disliked the Trump brand, and I remain unconvinced that he is some kind of a political wunderkind, or for that matter that he would make a decent President. But there is one thing that should be clear by now: Donald Trump knows how to destroy a person’s reputation.

However, I don’t think Donald Trump will survive the conflagration he has ignited. To me, Trump is Robespierre. At some point, the same forces he has unleashed will turn on him, and he will be consumed. Now whether this happens before or after the general election in November, I can’t say. But I would be very surprised if a Trump Administration made it past a first term. For that matter, I think the same thing about Hillary Clinton.

For a long time, most Americans have not trusted the institutions of political, cultural, and economic power. But we pretty much kept quiet as the machineries of power kept rolling along, seemingly oblivious to how much we had grown to despise them. Now, like Prospero, Donald Trump has come along and spoken the words that dare not be said. The important words being not so much “build the wall,” although that is what got things started, as “the system is totally corrupt” and “our leaders must go.” 

As much as they try to isolate and castigate their opponents, I doubt the established purveyors of public policy and opinion will be able to get this genie back in its bottle. The storm has begun. And I, for one, hope it will not end until the authorities have all been routed. In fact, I don’t just want them gone. I want them to suffer, like they’ve made the American people suffer for the past 20 years.   

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Friday, June 03, 2016

I, Loudmouth

I stopped writing this blog a couple of years ago. There has been this growing dislike within the zeitgeist for the internet troll, against the flameout that disrupts civil discussion. It gave me pause. I became increasingly uncomfortable at the prospect of being labeled as one of “those guys.” This blog also didn’t seem to go with all the other things I was doing. Would being the Asshole of the Century stop me from getting my poetry published? Would it cause a potential employer to balk at offering me a job? I felt the pressure to tone it down, to become civil.

So I shut up. But no more.

My return to this blog was probably first predicated by my decision to leave Facebook, with its little tribes of like-minded folks shunning those they find disagreeable. It no longer feels right to have the parameters of my outbursts dictated by the consensus of a community of my supposed friends. We’ve reached the point where the fate of the world is too important to step aside and let it be decided by the folks already drinking the Kool-Aid.

Disruption has become not just an act of personal defiance. It is a civic duty. We are in the process of becoming Rome, where a ruling class placates the masses with a program of bread and circuses that serve to distract us from the fact we have almost no say in the future of our country, our planet, our families, or our posterity. In this context, it is imperative to speak my peace without concern for whom I might offend.    

Democracy is on the precipice, with a handful of billionaires having an outsized influence on the body politic, and a self-appointed meritocracy works against the interests of most of the American people. The school system emasculates our children, spending most of its energy training them to be a cross between a trained monkey and a computer, programmed to conform while efficiently completing a mundane series of tasks. Culture has increasingly turned into entertainment, tinged with a dose of brainwashing, as our world revolves around our smartphones and a well-crafted fiction that is accepted as given. There is very little impetus to rock the boat, the goal of the enlightened class being the process of learning from other enlightened people what enlightened people should think. Conformity is enforced even as the culture tears itself apart, as opposing sides seek their own consensus. In such a world, thinking for yourself is not just a revolutionary act but a public gift, albeit one not likely to be appreciated by others.   

Even most of today’s music, the creative art I believed held the secret to the human heart, increasingly means nothing. Listening to the radio feels like it is 1974 all over again. The production studio is once again the locus of creativity, and the songs, to the degree they are about anything at all, run the long but narrow gamut from loud declarations by the latest cock-of-the-walk to bathetic moans of personal lament. The difference being that the nadir of the 1970’s was a fairly narrow moment in time, whereas the current sonic purgatory shows no signs of abating.  

So The Asshole of the Century writes again. I will be holding court on a range of subjects in the coming weeks, from politics to culture, education to race relations.

I’m a loudmouth, baby. Try and shut me up. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Revolt of the Middle Class

The Ukraine. Venezuela. Thailand. Egypt. Turkey. The list seems to grow by the day. The world is afire with revolt, but a new kind of revolt, befitting our young century: The revolt of the middle class.

While their complaints are all different, the specifics only magnify what they have in common: All of these protests and rebellions are being led by comparatively well educated, affluent citizens upset about their government’s violation of liberal principles and the rule of law. In all these countries, the nascent revolutionaries either lost or probably would lose a free election, as they don’t represent a clear majority of their societies.

Their protests underscore the first requirement of a successful, stable democracy: A modern nation must find accommodation for the concerns of the minorities in their midst, be they ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic. And, as we are seeing in places like the Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela, there is no more dangerous minority to offend than the aspiring middle class.

I understand at least a little of what it must be like to live in a nation state with little regard for the rule of law. After all, I live in Chicagoland, which is about as close as you can get to living in a banana republic or under the heel of a Eurasian potentate without using your passport.

The corruption of Chicago pols is legendary, of course. But the hijinks of Rod Blagojevich and Jesse Jackson Jr. only scratch at the surface. I live in a small town of around 20,000 citizens in eastern DuPage County, about 10 miles from the Chicago border. There is a guy who lives in an unremarkable house on the north side of town. His name is Joseph C., but he goes by the name of Joey Chicago. He takes several trips a year down to unnamed Caribbean islands, purportedly as part of the local mafia’s money laundering operation. That may or may not be true, but what is a fact is that Joey Chicago has bankrolled a number of corrupt local politicians and crooked cops. Bribes, shakedowns, racially and politically motivated beatdowns: It all goes on within our little town.

Or take my stint in the Chicago Public School system, where I witnessed our principal skim money from the vendors, stack the local school council with personal cronies, and cajole sexual favors from the school’s career staffers. The assistant principal was also a real piece of work, a neurotic neat freak who brushed his teeth obsessively in the faculty washroom and had direct connections with the Gangster Disciples. Our football coach was a young man from the community, well liked by his players but who dealt crack on the side and was found dead one night in a back alley.

Multiply this by the hundreds of other government organizations and taxing bodies scattered across northeast Illinois, and you get an idea of the scale of corruption. This is a city where it is considered a civic virtue to protect your parking spot on a public street after a snowstorm with a chair and then slash the tires of your neighbor if he dares try parking in your spot. Dibs is what they call it. In any other place, it could be called criminal destruction of property.

So I know the face of the enemy. It is the public official who hands out favors to friends and favored constituencies. It is the fat dude down the block driving the Escalade with special state license plates. It is the politician who has his own security detail and puts his kids through private school. It is the demagogue who uses class and race to disguise his own power grab. It is the police captain or union boss who uses muscle to shut folks up.  

Let’s not get starry eyed. The Ukrainian rebels do not want economic democracy; they want free trade with the West and an end to their government’s cronyism. The Venezuelan students protesting on the streets have been on the losing side of several elections. The secular protesters in Turkey do not represent that nation’s Muslim majority.  But that doesn’t make their demands for free speech and a free press any less valid, nor can it dim their dreams for personal freedom.

The world has learned that the desires of the middle class are universal, transcending cultural and religious norms. Bring people up from ignorance and poverty, and they demand the same three things from their government: freedom of expression, access to a quality education, and the rule of law. And I stand with them in all three regards.

It is interesting to note which revolutions survive, and which are crushed. In the darkest moments of the protests in Kiev, when special forces were targeting their front line with high-powered rifles, the protesters responded by running toward the guys with the guns who were shooting them down. The protesters refused to be cowed. Contrast their response with the demonstrations against the Iranian ayatollahs or the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, as both movements withered when confronted with the violence of the state and its henchmen.

The fate of the 20th Century was largely dictated by blood and iron, as Bismarck famously predicted. We imagine that we live in a new, more enlightened era, but our fate will be decided by similar means, except this time it will be blood and silicon chips that hold the day. Peace is overrated. It may be true that the meek will inherit the earth, but in the meantime, the world is being made by those willing to get their hands a little dirty in the struggle. If there is one thing that living with the petty tyrants of Chicagoland over the past 25 years has taught me, it’s that you won’t get a seat at the table if you can’t bloody a nose.

So I stand with my brothers and sisters protesting the brutality of the tyrant, whether it be in Venezuela, in Turkey, or the Ukraine. These protesters may not represent all the people, and the consequences of their victory may not be clear.  But, whatever its periodic regressions, history bends toward freedom and the rule of law. In the digital age, our willingness to defend these freedoms may be the highest calling of all.   

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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Banality of Evil

We are in a mess. Sure, after almost falling off the cliff a few years ago, the U.S. economy has stabilized. But the lives of most Americans have not improved. Looking at our society as a whole, it seems just the opposite, that more and more Americans are dejected about the direction our country is heading. Wealth and power have become increasingly centralized into the hands of a few, our schools have been hijacked by a bunch of number-crunching bureaucrats, and most folks don’t see things improving, either for themselves, their children, or their communities. Meanwhile, the people who run this country view the average American as good for three things: As votes that can be bought, as consumers who can be sold to, and as soldiers to go fight and die in their wars. Welcome to the American Empire.

How did we go from a nation of neighborhoods, where rich and poor lived in relatively close proximity, where everyone watched out for one another, where there was a comparatively small difference between rich and poor, to one where the economically and culturally advantaged have segregated themselves into a handful of elite communities?

To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, true evil is more often than not a mundane affair, hiding its impact in well-intentioned orderliness and pedestrian execution. In looking for culprits to tar and feather, I find no Stalins or Pol Pots, those agents of evil who, like Brazilian soccer stars, need only a single name to evoke their posterity. My list of indicted are a comparatively dull lot. But that’s the sad thing about evil: It often doesn’t even have the good grace to be interesting. In this light, here are the three figures I find most to blame for the erosion of the American dream:

Bill Gates
There are many sins upon which I could accuse him, but there is one that cuts me close, and that is how Bill Gates has elected to use his astronomic wealth to have an out-sized influence on how we teach our children.

Gates is an advocate of national standards. Specifically, the kind of standards that his button-down brain can understand, the kind that can only be measured through an ongoing battery of standardized tests.  The bureaucrats in Washington D.C. have decided that national education policy only works if they can be in control of the outcome, and that they can only be in charge of the outcome if they have a way to measure what is being learned. And Gates has the perfect tool to assure this centralized control. He calls it the Common Core curriculum. Every teacher, in every community in every state, is expected to teach to this Common Core. And there are standardized tests that judge how well each student, each teacher, each school, each district meets these standards. As 45 states have signed on to this Common Core curriculum and its incumbent testing, it means pretty much every public school in the country is teaching towards having their children master these tests.     

Last week, I attended my first meeting of parents at my son’s school. Most of the other parents had absorbed the language of their oppressor. They were focused on how they wanted more computer skills taught in the classroom. I felt compelled to declare that I wanted less emphasis on computers, that I’d rather have them learning how to deal with their fellow human beings. They were worried about how to effectively implement all the new state and national requirements. I argued for the importance of art and music, of critical thinking, of spending less time learning how to take a test and more on how to live creative, productive, well-balanced lives. I felt pretty alone that night, and a little sad for the state of public education.

Just like in the business world and in our government, Bill Gates and his ilk are winning the battle over the nation’s educational policy, convincing the general public to accept the regimentation of the American mind, as the public schools churn out millions of mid-level white collar drudges to fill their cubicles and buy their products. Meanwhile, the kids of the ruling class get an entirely different kind of education, one that fosters creativity and independent thinking as well as personal discipline and an abiding respect for others, as the rich are wise enough to know these are the skills that will get you ahead in this world. But Bill Gates doesn’t want my child or yours to get ahead. He wants the nation to get ahead. And, to Gates, that can best be achieved if our masses become even more efficient drudges than the ones in China.

I hate Gates for how he transformed the software industry into his own image, making it a dull yet cut-throat endeavor where everyone watches out for the bottom line. I hate him for being such a soulless nerd. I hate him for a dozen petty things. But when Gates and company start fucking with the mind of my kid, that’s when it gets serious.

Ayn Rand
Like Gates, Ayn Rand is guilty of a multitude of sins. But I only hold her responsible for one: Having lured a good percentage of the financial overachievers in our society into believing that they would be better off without all of us riff-raff around, and through this perpetuating and extending the move of those with wealth and power into boutique communities, where they don’t have to deal with their fellow citizens, other than of course when they need someone to plump their pillows and service their needs.  

I’ll start with what I don’t accuse Rand: She is no idiot. There is this tendency within academia to make Rand somehow intellectually inferior to their conceits, but there is nothing de facto illogical in her approach.

My problem with Rand comes not from her mind but from her soul. She is a cold heart, one that beats fast at innovation and the ideas of the chosen ones but that has little use for the foibles of human nature. When the millions of thoughtful, industrious young people who have been reading Atlas Shrugged over the past fifty years are attracted to her ideas, they are unlikely to be dissuaded by academic ridicule, because logically there is really nothing to ridicule. It’s no wonder she remains so popular. To paraphrase Swift, you figure that a genius must have entered the world when all the dunces have aligned themselves against her.   

Perhaps because of this, Rand’s peculiar brand of individualism, one without God or virtue, has weaved its way into the fabric of American conservatism. Ever since the early 1970’s, the titans of commerce have been captivated with the idea that they aren’t really responsible for anything but their own vision and the pocketbooks of their shareholders. Much like the “creators” in Atlas Shrugged, the creative minds of America have now gathered in their shiny burgs, peppered across the continent but generally someplace soft and comfortable, within shouting range of a major body of water, out of sight of the lives of most of America, free to redefine themselves as they see fit. Meanwhile, the country is drained.

There was a time not that long ago when an owner of a factory in Cleveland probably lived somewhere in town. No more. More likely, he lives on the Florida coast or maybe in the concrete canyons of Manhattan. He has no real connection to the factory, the town where it is located, or its people. It is all just numbers on a balance sheet. So when the numbers so dictate, it is an easy decision to do what is right for the balance sheet and not for the people and the town.

During the last age of the robber barons, at least the great industrialists and philanthropists gave back to their local communities, helping to build our libraries, fund our charities, found our schools. But when your community is an island in the Caribbean accessible only by private jet, it is easy to forget about the folks back home. And the view is not much different from your private dude ranch in the California hills.

In Rand’s master work, Atlas metaphorically shrugged, shaking off the burden of the planet and thus relieving himself of the responsibility to aid the worthless sacks of flesh otherwise known as his fellow man. It is a vision much of today’s meritocracy has taken to heart.
Woodrow Wilson
Like Gates and Rand, Woodrow Wilson is guilty of a series of crimes. Here is a short list: He got us into World War I, possibly the most inexcusable war in the history of the West, despite running as a candidate of peace and neutrality just months before; after the war, he helped slice up the planet in such a way as to virtually guarantee a century of war and conflagration; with his extended detentions of hundreds of anti-war advocates, some of whom were guilty of nothing greater than writing an opinion piece in the local newspaper, and whose detentions extended well past the end of the war, he is probably America’s most egregious violator of civil and individual rights.

But also much like Gates and Rand, there is one crime that I blame Wilson for most of all, as it still impacts the daily lives of many Americans: Wilson developed the doctrine of Moral Diplomacy, providing the ideological justification for a century of global interventionism.

The American Empire begins with Woodrow Wilson. He popularized the idea that we had a moral obligation to perpetuate and extend democracy around the globe.  Sure there were plenty of generals and politicians who had dreams of American glory before Wilson became President, but it was Woodrow Wilson who gave this ambition a global directive. Wilson gave imperialism its raison d’etre: Making the world safe for democracy.

All the while, President Wilson was sick. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 while in the process of campaigning to have Congress ratify the Treaty of Versailles. But medical records indicate that Wilson also suffered smaller strokes in 1896, 1906, and possibly 1915, and it has been speculated that his sometimes erratic behavior at Versailles stemmed from another bout of hemorrhaging in his brain.

The Disease of the Righteous

Wilson’s physical and mental trials bring me to the moral of my story: Righteousness, even when it is couched in the dry terminology of the businessman or the theories of a philosopher, is often observationally indistinguishable from a disease, and should be treated as such. Of all the weaknesses and failings of the human psyche, the most insidious of all may be the hubris of the righteous, convinced in the justness of their cause.  It is at the root of the failings of all three protagonists in my tale of devolution. And when the cocksure idealists take over, confident they know how to make a better world, it is usually the common man who pays the price.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Praise of the Tall Boys

A lot of people have personal places of transcendence, spots on the planet where they claim to reach some kind of a higher existence, where time seems to stand still and they have what in a less cynical age would be known as “a religious experience.” I do, too. But for me, that place tends not to be some far off mountain or meditative retreat. I tend to find my epiphanies among the unwashed, in some odd corner of the city, someplace not hip at all, even in an ironic way, someplace untouched by the moral pronouncements of the well-intentioned classes or the magnetism of the young and beautiful ones. Perhaps my favorite place is located under a small shade tree next to the tennis courts in Riis Park, off Wrightwood Avenue, a block east of Narragansett, on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

I had one of those little epiphanies this Sunday. Andy, my doubles partner for the year, and I had just lost a tightly fought Tall Boys match, 7-5 in the 3rd set, against Stash, bowlegged and hunchbacked but with cat-like reactions and a bag full of wicked spin, and Ralph, middle aged with a greying flattop, who has a pretty good forehand for a doorman at the Drake Hotel. I was a little grumpy about our loss and almost went directly home. But I was tired. So I sat long enough in the sun in my portable camping chair for the beer to come out.

For the past six summers, I have played tennis with the Tall Boys, who themselves have been playing competitive tennis at Riis Park every summer since 1975. The Tall Boys are a ragged collection of Italian cops and Greek real estate brokers, Mexican tennis bums and Polish day laborers, united in their rejection of the typical 9-to-5 and in their love of tennis and beer. Cursing is the norm. And not generally in a fun way, but in an “I’m about to step over the net and punch your face in” kind of way. A couple of weeks ago, a butch-looking Hispanic girl stomped across one of the nearby courts and began throwing F-bombs at a gangster on the other side of the fence. She stormed back to her car, and at one point I thought it might devolve into gun play. But as distracting as they got, we never interrupted our game.

The Tall Boys are a tough lot. City tough, in a way where you never know when their crazy gene will show itself. For instance, everyone might be winding down, sipping a beer in the shade, and then Lou, a 70-year old Italian dude and one of the patriarchs of our crew, might suddenly lose it, yelling at a 10-year old Puerto Rican girl at the other end of the courts, accusing her of being a fucking cunt over and over again, not once or twice but like a dozen times in rapid succession, all because she was leaning on one of the nets.

But the Tall Boys are getting old, and a lot of them have come down with illnesses, most generally some form of debilitating but operable cancer. All but the Filipinos (or “The Flips” as they are somewhat affectionately known on the Riis Park courts), who seem unfazed by their advancing age, other than to complain of nagging foot ailments and the occasional fungus. I worry that one day the only folks out there playing will be me and a couple of Filipino dudes with bad feet.   

Last year at our annual, end-of-season picnic, Angelo, one of the Filipinos, a guy in his mid-40’s who has faced his share of adversity, from the ongoing effects of an old eye injury that derailed a promising tennis career to the travails of raising a severely autistic child, grabbed my arm. He told me to shut up for a minute.

“Just stop,” he repeated, “and take in this moment.”

I looked around. Milo, my 4 year old, was playing the dozens with Ari, a middle-aged Greek who brings homemade wine and a functioning cannon to our barbeques. Roscoe, my infant son, was rolling around on a blanket. My wife Melissa sat next to him, eating homemade blueberry buckle, courtesy of one of the Traub brothers, and sipping some of Ari’s wine. Angelo’s kid was playing with a small pile of leaves by the tree, content for the moment in his dysfunctional reverie. The rest of the Tall Boys spread across the grass, engaged in conversation. The sun dappled our faces as the wind rustled the leaves on our shade tree.

“It’s perfect,” Angelo declared. “Take a snapshot of this moment. Because it makes all the bullshit worth it.” By this, I assume he meant all our daily frustrations and unrealized dreams.

Sipping a Pilsner Urquell last Sunday, listening to Lou Visconti rave on about how you can’t find another place like this, I came to the conclusion that both he and Angelo were right.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Naming Roscoe

My son turned one on Saturday. His full name is Roscoe Stuart Barnett. Both my wife, Melissa, and I have graced him with names from a family legacy. Roscoe was my grandfather’s first name. Stuart is my wife’s middle name, a name passed down for five generations, to both male and female descendants, in recognition of a line of Stuarts who left no male heirs.  

Roscoe Lloyd Babcock, my grandfather, was born in Thayer, Kansas, in 1897. He was my mother’s father. Roscoe dropped out of school at 14 and left home to become a cowboy. In his own way, he was a learned man, but he had an aversion to formal education, although he did take classes at the Colorado School of Mines and was later an understudy to the noted landscape painter William Galen Doss.  Roscoe was a cowboy and a chemist; a jock and, most famously, a painter of the American West. He worked for many years at the Post Office and was known as “the painting postman” by the local townsfolk. He was always eager to explore that further valley in search of the next adventure. It is a value that my family passed on to me, and something I hope to bequeath to my sons.     

Several of Roscoe Babcock’s paintings hang in our home, inherited from my parents. When we adopted our second child, it was Melissa’s idea to name him after my grandfather, inspired in part by the name on those paintings.

The crazy thing is that, in real life, I really didn’t like my grandfather that much, and I suspect that he really didn’t care that much for me, either. My grandfather could be a nasty piece of work, a man of action, a taciturn misanthrope who really didn’t care for the talkers of this world. And if there is one thing that I’ve been over my 51-years on this earth, it’s a talker.

“Can’t you get him to be quiet?” Grandpa grumbled to my grandmother during one of their child sitting sessions. I must have been about nine at the time. It was during the college football game of the year, as the #1 Nebraska Cornhuskers faced off against the #2 Oklahoma Sooners, and I had made the critical mistake of not just being too loud, but of rooting for the wrong team.

“He’s just having fun,” my grandmother said in my defense.

“That kid acts like he’s spastic. Besides, what’s he doing rooting for a bunch of Oakies?”

I could never seem to make my grandfather happy. He’d sit there, flexing those strong hands of his, and stare at me. I admit that I could be a bit tightly wound at times. But what the hell, I was just a kid.

But looking back at it, Roscoe Babcock was a fitting patriarch of our Scotch-Irish clan. We were (and are) a bunch of Oakies, despite my grandfather’s protestations that we actually hailed from southeast Kansas, and there are two things that you need to know about the Scotch-Irish descendants of greater North America if you want to understand us: 1) We’ve been here a long time; and 2) A rabid defiance lies deep in our DNA.

My grandmother could trace our family back two hundred years, but she couldn’t name anyone who actually immigrated to this country. She knew of family who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War; who crossed the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone; who fought on both sides of the Civil War; who walked the Trail of Tears (like most of the state of Oklahoma at the time, my Grandma Hazel had a bit of Cherokee blood - 1/8 to be exact) and hung with Jesse James. Roscoe and Hazel crossed the Great Western Desert shortly after World War I for California, where Roscoe took a job as a chemist at the Holly Sugar refinery. He lost that job during the Depression and had to scramble. My mom would tell a story about how Grandpa traded his cow for a neighbor’s dory fishing boat, and the family’s only protein for the next 18 months, breakfast, lunch and dinner, consisted of the fish that he and Grandma caught off the Balboa Peninsula (which at the time was an uninhabited sandbar mostly submerged at high tide), and my mom grew so sick of fish that, some 20 years later, it still made her retch whenever it touched her plate. My point is that we were working class folks, yet we knew nothing of the immigrant experience. We knew nothing about whatever hardscrabble croft of Scottish dirt and stone our ancestors hailed from (although that didn’t stop Grandma from proudly wearing her Gordin tartan scarf on those rare cold California mornings). As far as I know, none of us, other than myself, ever lived in a city. In brief, my Scotch-Irish forebears are as tied to the American landscape as my great-great-great grandmother, the Cherokee whose parents walked the Trail of Tears.

We are an ornery lot. My grandfather really liked football, both as player and fan. But he liked the old school notion of the game, of bloody mouths and broken fingers, a game of collective brutality rather than speed. He seemed to think the modern version of the sport was a kind of betrayal, as cock-of-the-walk quarterbacks tossed delicate passes to lithe, gazelle-like receivers, almost entirely bypassing the slow-motion brutality that he considered the essence of the game.

Until my generation, our family history dovetailed with that of America’s wars. Stubborn redneck farmers and hillbillies have always borne the brunt of our fight, forming an outsized percentage of those who have defended our country and killed our enemies. One of these was my uncle, Lloyd Richard, in whose memory I received my middle name, who earned a distinguished service cross and seven oak leaf clusters killing Japs and Nazis while flying his P-47 during World War II. He died a few years after the war, testing jet aircraft for the military.

A final story: My grandfather had a devious side and liked quietly stirring the pot in uncomfortable ways. One day, he loaned me two Time-Life books, one on evolution and another on the origins of man. Like I’m sure he knew I would, I read these books at my neighbor’s, an evangelical Christian who took care of me and my sister until our Mom got home from work. At one point when I was being a particular brat, my neighbor grabbed one of the books, threw it against the wall, and declared, “Why don’t you just take yourself and your monkey book and get out of my kitchen.” This led to a lengthy discussion between the two of us on the validity of evolution. The next time I saw my grandfather, I gave him back his books and let him know that I didn’t believe in any of this evolution mumbo-jumbo. Grandpa just kind of smiled, asked me a couple of pointed questions, and let me go on my way. Factually, he was on the right side of this argument, of course, but he taught me a valuable lesson that day, albeit one that I didn’t realize at the moment and one that I would be wise to heed more often, even today: It is generally a waste of time to argue with someone if they want to remain trapped in their private sandcastles, and sometimes silence is the better option. This is how most of my family handles most things. We don’t like to talk about our feelings, and we really don’t care if the dolts hold the floor; being on the side of truth is its own reward.

Like my two sons, I was adopted into the Barnett/Babcock clan. Of all the gifts that my family bequeathed me: Love, an education, a sense of decency, or even the more mundane gift of a house I could sell, I regard our independent streak as perhaps the most valuable. Sure, there are a lot of things we expect from our society, from dependable roads and rails to clean food and water and a good school for our children to attend. There are a lot of countries that fail to deliver these supposedly basic services for their citizens, so I don’t take them for granted. But the essence of America is that imbued by my hillbilly ancestors, which is our compulsion to escape the security of this organized Babylon. In naming my son Roscoe, I reassert our family’s destiny. 

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