forget it joe, it’s afghanistan

There are things you can fix, and things you can’t. There are things you have a moral obligation to try to fix even if you can’t possibly fix them. There are things you believe need to be fixed, but aren’t actually broken. There are fixable things you believe you understand, but you’re wrong. There are fixable things that are none of your fucking business regardless of what you think about them. And when you’re in the middle of things, it’s hard–probably impossible–to know which things are which.

There’s a movie about that. Chinatown. Released in 1974. (I’m going to ignore the legitimate issues about the director, Roman Polanski, because for once I’m going to try to stay tangent-free.) Here’s the backstory of one of the main characters, and a short precis of the film’s plot (and yes, that means there are spoilers).

The backstory–Jake Gittes has a small private investigator business in Los Angeles. He’s a former police detective who worked in the notoriously corrupt Chinatown neighborhood. He became disillusioned (all movie PIs are disillusioned; it’s the law) partly because he was working in a culture whose norms and rules he didn’t understand, partly because of the endemic corruption, and partly because the actions and motivations of the Powers That Be (in both the Chinese and political communities) were concealed from him and inscrutable to him. When his client, Evelyn Mulwray learns he’d been a detective in Chinatown, she asks:

Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there?
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Evelyn: Doing what?
Jake: As little as possible.
Evelyn: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?
Jake: They do in Chinatown.

As little as possible. Jake’s disillusionment was compounded when he attempted to help a Chinese woman. He says, “I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I ended up making sure she was hurt.” That same scenario plays out in the main plot, much of which is taken up with a long, brilliant McGuffin. It draws Jake into a situation in which he feels an obligation to rescue his client, Evelyn, and her daughter from an ugly situation involving Evelyn’s father–a multimillionaire developer. Once again, Jake finds himself in a situation in which the rules/laws aren’t clear to him, in which he doesn’t understand the motives or actions of the people involved, and where his attempts to help result in more harm. Had he done ‘as little as possible’ things may have worked out better, even if the situation itself remained awful.

In the final scene, his client is dead, the bad guys win, and Jake is not only helpless, he’s also partly responsible. He sees her body, mutters “…as little as possible” and is ordered away from the scene by his former Chinatown detective partner. As he’s being led away, one of Jake’s current employees tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

This scenario is being played out with President Uncle Joe and the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. It’s a culture–actually, a number of inter-related ancient tribal cultures–we don’t understand, cultures that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, with values and ethics that are often alien to us, with goals that are foreign to us. The US and our Western allies have been attempting to resolve our involvement relying on OUR cultural norms and OUR values to achieve OUR goals. Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.

We had a valid reason (at least in my opinion) to intrude militarily in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda had used that nation as a training ground and recruitment center for the 9/11 attacks. We had a legit reason to go after al Qaeda. After that, things got…loose.

The fact is, no foreign adventure has ever succeeded in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great, whose Macedonian army basically walked over every army they’d fought, got caught up in a long guerrilla-style war in Afghanistan. He never fully succeeded in pacifying the various Afghan tribes. Before he died, Alexander said, “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.” Various Muslim invasions succeeded in converting most Afghan tribes to Islam, but never completely controlled the area. The Mongols, under Genghis Khan, occupied much of the area for quite a long time, but their empire also fell apart. Nobody held the area as long as Timur the Great–but it’s worth noting that Timur was known as Timur the Lame (or ‘Tamerlane’ as he was called by Europeans) because of wounds he received fighting Afghan tribes. After Timur’s empire failed, the Sikhs attempt to invade Afghan territories several times without much success. The British invaded three times in the 19th and early 20th centuries–and got their asses kicked each time. Russia invaded three times–in 1929, 1930, and finally in 1979–and got their asses kicked each time.

And, of course, the US (and NATO) invaded in 2001. We know how that worked out.

But here’s the thing the Afghan tribes have always known and the thing foreign invaders never seem to figure out: the Afghans don’t have to win any wars; they only have to keep fighting at some level, and eventually the invaders–no matter who they are, or where they’re from, and how powerful they are–will leave. The various Afghan tribes are unconcerned about foreign military deadlines or the domestic political necessities of foreign powers or the costs those powers incur; they’re operating on God’s time, and they measure cost on a different scale.

President Uncle Joe’s decision to pull out troops is just an acknowledgment that Afghanistan is Chinatown. Doesn’t matter if we had a legit reason for being there, doesn’t matter if our long low-level war of occupation was a genuine attempt to help the Afghan peoples (and I’m not convinced it was), doesn’t matter what our motives were. Like every other invasion force in Afghan history, we’ve almost certainly done more harm than good.

There’s a scene in Chinatown in which Jake Gittes speaks with Noah Cross, the millionaire developer behind all the misery that’s taking place. Cross inhabits a world where laws and rules of ordinary decency don’t seem to apply–a world that’s as ambiguous and perplexing to Jake as that of Chinatown, a world that’s just as baffling and complex as our involvement in Afghanistan.

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah: Oh my, yes!
Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.

That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. The future. Their future, our future–we think we can make it better. We think we have the means and the power and the right to make it better. We think we know what ‘better’ means.

We don’t. We just don’t.

Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.

3 television shows i’d watch

I like television. I don’t watch a lot of it, but I like it. I watch probably a couple of hours of television a day. Wait, not true. I usually watch the local news and the network news. That’s an hour right there. Then I’ll watch an episode of some show over a meal. Later I’ll usually watch an episode of a different show. So let’s say a couple of hours of entertainment television, and a hour of news.

With so many streaming services available, there’s always something to watch. That said, I don’t generally watch US network television shows. Not because of any anti-American bias, but because they all seem too slick and indistinguishable. Most of the actors–especially the women actors–tend to look like models rather than real people. The storylines often feel familiar and predictable. They don’t require anything from the viewer but passive engagement.

Since I complain about them, somebody asked me what I’d like to see US television production companies release. And because I’d rather think about that than what I’m supposed to be doing, I came up with three ideas for television shows I’d watch. I was just amusing myself, of course, and being a bit ridiculous–but I think I’d actually watch television shows like this.

Here we go:

Welcome to Ballachulish: Two assassins–one an official CIA wetwork specialist on a gov’t pension, one a Belgian freelancer who has made enough money to get out of the game–coincidentally choose to retire to the same small out-of-the-way village in Scotland. Although they each remain suspicious that the other is there to kill them, they semi-bond together as they interact with the quirky locals–an irascible veterinarian, a lesbian couple who operate a pub/B&B, an irascible postmaster, the local constable (a wanna-be spy novelist), an irascible shopkeeper, the local laird and his extended family, an irascible Korean owner of a Mexican restaurant, a standard attractive single woman school teacher, an irascible ironmonger/blacksmith/interior designer.

The Bookstore: A small, dusty used bookstore in Brooklyn that somehow attracts all sorts of customers–lawyers, immigrant taxi drivers, soccer moms, art students, police officers, actor/waiters, college professors, professional dancers, auto mechanics, bicycle messengers, etc. Occasionally some ask the bookseller for a recommendation. Bookseller encourages them to browse, take their time, find a book themselves. If they insist on a recommendation the bookseller will agree, saying “I’ll recommend a book for you just this once. One time, and that’s it. And all sales are final. Are you sure you want me to recommend a book?” If they still insist, the bookseller will charge them US$14.75 in advance, study their face for a while, then say “I know exactly what you’re looking for” and send them to a back room.

As they pass through the door, they enter a story. Might be a romance, might be a murder mystery, might be a heist story, might be a pirate story, might be science fiction or fantasy, might be a story set in a Russian gulag or a French Foreign Legion post in north Africa–but it’s rarely what the customer thinks they want. Most have happy–or at least satisfactory–endings. Some don’t. The story resolves, the customer finds themselves back in the bookstore.

Ol’ Man River: Guy (or woman, doesn’t matter–let’s say a woman, what the hell) wins the lottery. She leaves her old life behind (whatever that includes). Buys a houseboat. Travels up and down the Mississippi River mostly by herself. Stuff happens. She meets people, she has visits from family and friends, she deals with animals and boat problems and bad weather, she stops at various river towns, she learns some local history, she changes in ways she doesn’t expect. Lots of pretty scenery.

I considered suggesting a series in which two retired assassins buy a houseboat and travel up and down the Mississippi stopping at bookstores in river towns, but that seemed a bit over the top.

3 things that make me love the world

I’m not one of those “Let’s focus on happy news and forget how completely fucking awful the world is” guys. I lack the Pollyanna gene. When the world is completely fucking awful, I want to know about it. I want to understand it. Don’t try to distract me with bluebirds or other happy horseshit. Because despite how completely fucking awful the world is, I still manage to remain pretty chipper and stupidly happy. I still love this world.

I’m telling you that because the news this morning is jammed with the mass murder that took place in Georgia yesterday. Eight dead–six Asian women, two non-Asian men. Apparently murdered by some inadequate white incel asshole who, according to law enforcement officials, “had a really bad day…and this is what he did.” On any other morning, I’d be writing about both this hate crime against women (and the reality is that the most common hate crimes–and the least acknowledged hate crimes–are committed against women) and the casual way white law enforcement agents treat white mass murderers who commit hate crimes.

But not this morning. I’m NOT trying to distract you from the truly awful shit that’s taking place. But three things happened this morning that made me ridiculously happy. And I’m not going to let this Georgia asshole detract from that. Fuck him in the neck. These are three things that make me love this awful world.

First thing. The Pritzker Prize. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s the most prestigious award in architecture. It’s usually awarded to some arrogant asshole ‘starchitect’ who designs massive, expensive, flamboyant buildings. Not this year. This year it’s gone to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a pair of architects who have largely focused on transforming low-income housing complexes. Instead of tearing down old structures and building new ones, these two have found ways to transform old housing projects into attractive living environments. A lot of poor people may hate where they live, but aren’t confident they’ll be better off if they moved.

Turning grim public housing into bright living spaces.

A few years ago, Lacaton and Vassal were asked to work on “a particularly large and hideous” public housing project in Bordeaux. The people who lived in the projects didn’t want to leave; they just wanted more space and more light. Lacaton and Vassal gave them what they wanted. The basically encased the building in glass, turning what had been exterior apartment walls into sliding glass doors leading to an enclosed terrace. It cost less money, it required less disruption for the tenants, and it turned grim, drab apartments into bright sunny spaces. The Pritzker jury wrote:

Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone.

I like living in a world where French architects are honored for their work in support of poor folks living in public housing.

Second thing: I’ve written about the game Geoguessr before–both as a game and as source material for an appropriation art project. For a variety of reasons, I don’t play the game as often as I used to. But now and then, I’ll get the urge and I’ll immerse myself in virtually exploring a novel part of the world. Last night I played and found myself lost in the Polish countryside, where I saw an interesting bit of graffiti art.

I don’t speak Polish. But I help run a Facebook group called Geoguessr Oddities, with a global membership some of whom were likely to know Polish. So I posted the screengrab. And a short time later I learned Mysza Patrzy jak Jedzisz translates to “The Mouse watches you drive.” It wasn’t very helpful in finding out where I was in Poland, but the translation cracked me up, and the interaction itself made me happy. Then this morning another member of the group informed me that franekmysza is a Polish graffiti artist with an Instagram account. He’s painted that mouse all over Poland.

I like living in a world in which I can be introduced to a Polish graffiti artist by playing a game designed by a Swedish IT consultant to get you lost in new parts of the world.

Third thing. There was an article in the Washington Post about a kid, Darius Brown, who learned to sew bow ties for rescue animal–and I swear, this made me tear up and I came THIS close to crying like a little girl. Darius (and, again, he has an Instagram account you may want to follow) was taught to sew bow ties by his sister when he was eight years old. He got started in the rescue animal bow tie gig two years later, in 2017, when a couple dozen dogs left homeless in Florida and Puerto Rico by Hurricane Irma were transferred to a shelter in New York City. He thought the animals might get adopted quicker if they were wearing bow ties.

Let me just say that again. A ten-year-old kid in New Jersey sewed 25 bow ties for rescue dogs from Florida and Puerto Rico because he wanted them to get adopted. How perfectly wonderful is that? And hey, it worked.

Of course it worked. Look at that good boy wearing one of his bow ties in a Savannah shelter. Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to adopt this tripod pooch? According to WaPo, Darius has now “donated more than 600 bow ties for dogs and cats in shelters.” He’s only 14-years-old. He says, “A well-dressed dog…that will make people smile.” And yeah, it does.

I suppose I should mention that Darius has both a speech disorder and a fine motor skills disorder–but since those things don’t define him, they’re less important than what he does. And what he does is make the lives of shelter animals better, which makes shelters better, which makes the lives of the people who adopt the shelter animals better, which makes the entire world a little bit better.

I like living in a world with Darius Brown in it.

Yes, the world is completely fucking awful. But it’s also completely fucking wonderful. We shouldn’t let the former diminish the latter. There are architects who transform awful buildings into livable spaces. There are graffiti artists painting snarky mice all over Poland. And there’s a kid in New Jersey putting bow ties on shelter animals. How can you not be in love with this world?

EDITORIAL NOTE: Another thing that makes me happy. A couple of folks have kindly and gently taken me to task for writing ‘crying like a little girl‘. It makes me happy because 1) it’s nice that folks call me when it looks like I’m being a dick, and 2) because originally I actually included a long, parenthetical tangent about that phrase, doing a riff sort of like Dickens in A Christman Carol when he natters on about the phrase ‘dead as a doornail’. But I write these posts in a rush, and I edit very little…so I deleted the tangent in the hope that people would interpret crying like a little girl to mean grown men and little girls cry in the same way and sometimes for the same reasons.

I’ve decided NOT to correct it. It’s better to let other folks learn from my misjudgments.

musings

Somebody (I don’t remember who) at some point in time (I also don’t remember when) asked me how I decided what to write about on this blog. I don’t remember what my answer was, but…okay, wait. I should point out there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my memory. It’s just that who asked the question and when it was asked and what my answer was–none of that’s important, except as a ridiculous way to introduce what I’m about to say. Well, write. You know what I mean.

Probably the reason I don’t remember what my answer was is that I’ve no idea how I decide what to write about. Something somewhere sparks a thought and I write about it. That’s it. Anyway, after yesterday’s post, my friend Anne said this:

“Beautiful photos, and really lovely musings.”

Musings. It sounds so intellectual, doesn’t it. But dude, IT IS NOT. I know this on account of the fact that ‘muse’ came up in a conversation I had years ago (and no, I don’t remember when, but I’m pretty sure I remember who…again, it doesn’t matter). I’d just assumed that ‘musing’ had something to do with the Muses. You know, the nine daughters of Zeus who were goddesses of the arts and sciences? Those Muses. I mean, that would seem to make sense, right?

Nope. Well, mostly nope. Etymologists suggest the modern word probably has been influenced in sense by capital ‘M’ Muse. There’s a lot of elasticity in ‘probably’. Doesn’t matter, because in fact, small ‘m’ muse comes…wait. Do I need to define ‘muse’? Probably not, but what the hell.

Muse: verb (mused, musing) 1 intrans (often muse on something) to reflect or ponder silently. 2 to say something in a reflective way. 3 intrans to gaze contemplatively. musing adj thoughtful; reflective. noun 1 (musings) literary thoughts. 2 the act of musing.

There you have it. As I was saying, small ‘m’ muse comes from the Old French muser, which meant “to ponder, dream, wonder’ and/or “to loiter, waste time.” This, in turn, came from the Gallo-Roman musa, meaning “snout”. It was apparently a term used in hunting. So basically, ‘musing’ referred to the act of standing around, sniffing the air like a dog who’s lost the scent. The term muzzle, by the way, is derived from the same root.

Dog, musing in a field; not that different from me musing in a junk shop.

So in essence, Anne was saying I stood around in that shop with my nose in the air, sniffing like a dog. Which would be rather rude and insulting except that it really isn’t that far from the truth. The place had a fairly distinct pong; sort of a melange of dust, must, wood chips, organic decay (remember, it was also a plant shop), and old pillows. And I did sort of root around like a curious puppy.

clutter

An untidy accumulation of objects, or the confused overcrowded state caused by it. From an Old English variant of clotern, meaning ‘to form clots, to heap on,’ which was derived from clott, meaning ‘a round mass or lump’. You know…clutter.

Most folks don’t like clutter. It makes them uncomfortable, uneasy, anxious, unsettled. Clutter, we’re told, “creates indecision and distractions, consuming attention and making unfettered happiness a real chore.” We are told, “Order is Heaven’s first law.” The problem, of course, is we fear disorder. We fear chaos. So we attempt (and to some extent, succeed) to impose a sense of order on…well, everything.

I confess, I can find “unfettered happiness” in cluttered spaces. Other people’s cluttered spaces, I should say. Not my own. I like to visit clutter; I don’t necessarily want to live or work in it. And it’s not just cluttered spaces in general that I enjoy. I’ve no interest at all in well-organized clutter. A room encumbered with stacks of old newspapers and magazines, a cellar jammed with tins of food, an office filled with dusty ledgers and technical manuals–no thank you.

No, what I like–what I find stimulating, what brings me some perverse joy–is random clutter. Clutter that contains surprises, clutter that holds unexpected stuff, clutter that’s arbitrary and unpredictable, that’s what I’m after. It’s a fairly rare phenomenon. I’ve encountered it occasionally in old sheds or farmhouse mudrooms, a bit more often in old school hardware stores. I found it at West End Architectural Salvage and Coffee Shop before it became a sort of high-end esoteric antique store. I found it at Fairground Hardware before it closed.

Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods?

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an antique store/junk yard/plant shop/maze that was a celebration of clutter. Poorly lighted narrow aisles of overfilled shelves with often random semi-related stuff accumulating on the floor, sometimes forcing you to walk sideways. I say ‘random semi-related stuff’ because there was a sort of micro-taxonomy occurring–small clusters of items that belonged in the same (or a similar) category, but scattered among wildly unrelated clusters. Stacks of wooden boxes beside a stockpile of china dishes; a pile of wicker baskets under a shelf of brass candlesticks, under a shelf of religious figurines; a collection of antique toy trains next to a group of chamber pots and jugs sitting on a cabinet containing china bells.

The place was…well, disordered, to be polite. Everywhere you looked you saw something that somehow both belonged right there and yet was completely out of place. It was like walking through some other person’s dream-state–or perhaps wandering through a stranger’s memories; you recognized almost everything you saw, but even though nothing was quite where you thought it ought to be, you sensed it was where it was supposed to be. Which, I realize, doesn’t make any sense.

The poet Czesław Miłosz wrote about the “mystery of things, little sensations of time…all infinity can be contained in this stone corner, between the fireplace and the oak chest.” That’s how I feel in these cluttered spaces…as if thousands of people have dropped moments out of their lives onto all these dusty shelves, and I get to wander through them, sampling them, touching them, knowing that they’re real…or were real at one time…and now would be entirely forgotten if not for the curious people who look at them, wonder about them, then move on.

Miłosz was talking about ‘mystery’ in the older sense of the term–not as a curiosity to be explored and understood, but as a phenomenon that transcends the rational world. These baskets and bowls, these canisters and candlesticks aren’t physically imbued with some mystical connection to their previous owners. These objects aren’t haunted. But they do spark the imagination. Each of these things has a story. They remind us that those previous owners existed, that they lived lives and those lives intersected with these things, and somehow these things eventually made their way here, to these dim and dusty shelves.

I admit, it would be oppressive to spend a great deal of time in such cluttered spaces. It’s too dark, it’s too dusty, it’s too gravid with memory. But for a measured chunk of time, noodling through these dim aisles can be just as entrancing as it would be to wander like Kai Lung “unchecked through a garden of bright images.”

this was supposed to be a few scattered thoughts

I’m a tad brain-weary this morning. I worked as an election volunteer yesterday–15 hours of civic duty helping people vote on a school board issue–so rather than attempt to organize some coherent thought on a single subject or theme, I’m just going to natter on for a bit.

First Thought: The election was briefly disrupted yesterday by a pipe bomb. That’s right, some fuckwit placed a pipe bomb outside one of the election sites (not the one at which I volunteered). That’s right, a pipe bomb. A fucking pipe bomb. Over an election on how the local school district should spend its capital improvement funds. You know, do we want to improve classrooms and build new playground equipment–issues like that. We don’t know who planted the bomb (yet) or what his motives were (and yeah, I’m assuming it’s a guy…sue me), but to me it seems likely the would-be bomber will turn out to be some young Trump-crazed asshole who thinks the best way to ‘protect democracy’ is to attack elections.

Post-Trump democracy in action.

The good news is the local police acted quickly. A bomb squad from the Fire Marshall’s office showed up (as did the ATF and the FBI), and safely detonated the bomb. The bomb was found around 0920 and the election site was back up and helping voters by 1230. That makes me proud. The polling site was only closed for three hours. That’s the best way to say ‘Fuck you’ to the bomber.

Second Thought: Speaking of civic pride, there’s a village in Perthshire, Scotland called Aberfeldy. It’s just a small market village on the River Tay, population a wee bit under 2000. The name Aberfeldy comes from the Pictish term aber meaning ‘the mouth of a river’ and the Gaelic Peallaidh, which translates as ‘shaggy’. But–and this is SO cool–Pealladh is also the name of a local fay being which is said to abide in the river. ‘The shaggy one’ is considered a harmless sub-species of fuath, the generic class of Scots spirits/sprites that inhabit the sea, tidal rivers, fresh water rivers, and lochs.

Now that’s a fountain.

You’re probably asking, “Greg, old sock, what’s all that fae business got to do with civil pride?” It’s a good question (and stop calling me ‘old sock’). Here’s the answer: this village, inhabited by fewer than two thousand souls and one water sprite, has the most astonishing water fountain in the town square. Just look at that beauty. It was donated in 1885 by the Marquis of Breadalbane (no, really, Breadalbane, isn’t that a great name?). Now THAT is civic pride. Even Robert Burns (and there is nobody more Scottish than Burns) appreciated this little village. He wrote a poem called The Birks of Aberfeldy.

Now Simmer blinks on flowery braes,
And o’er the crystal streamlets plays;
Come let us spend the lightsome days,
In the birks of Aberfeldy!

Third Thought: Among the many stupid, hateful, vindictive, anti-democracy voting laws Republicans are pushing through state legislatures this year, this one stands out. The Georgia GOP wants to interpret an existing law that prohibits giving or receiving money/gifts for registering voters, or voting for a particular candidate to include folks handing out snacks or water to voters standing in long lines while waiting to vote.

It’s not enough to make it harder for certain groups to vote, it’s not enough to reduce their opportunities to vote, it’s not enough to reduce the hours in which they can vote, the Georgia GOP also wants to punish anybody who tries to ease the burden of voting. If there’s a Hell (and I’m afraid I don’t believe there is), there ought to be an especially severe section for deliberately cruel and corrupt politicians.

That would also include governors (and I’m particularly thinking of the singularly vile governor of Texas here, though the governors of Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, and Mississippi are very nearly as horrible) who knowingly and willfully put the health and safety of their citizens at risk. Abbott of Texas not only completely lifted ALL Covid precautions statewide, his order also prohibited city and/or county governments from requiring masks or limiting business operation. He basically ordered them to stop doing anything to protect their citizens.

Just a few months ago Texas was paying prison inmates US$2 an hour to move Covid corpses into mobile refrigerated morgues.

Abbott did this while his state is still averaging over 200 Covid deaths each day. Texas has the the third-highest Covid body count in the country. It’s 45th among states in terms of the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated. And by the way, every Republican member of Congress from Texas opposes Uncle Joe’s Covid relief bill. They know they can vote against it and still benefit from the cash when Democrats pass it. That’s how awful they are.

Remember when Comrade President Trump decided to stop federal funding for ‘anarchist jurisdictions’ that ‘refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract criminal activities’? He was talking about states and cities that refused to call the National Guard to stop Black Lives Matters protests. But maybe that idea has some merit. Maybe Uncle Joe should consider limiting funding for anarchist jurisdictions that refuse to undertake reasonable measures to counteract the pandemic.

I wonder if Republicans would object to that.

Okay, remember when I started this post? I said I was too brain weary to ‘attempt to organize some coherent thought on a single subject or theme’? It turns out my brain was organizing stuff without my knowledge. Turns out there WAS a theme. Civic duty. Civic pride. Civic responsibility. Civic pride isn’t about being ‘the best’ or ‘first among’ or any of that ‘We’re Number One!’ sort of nonsense; it’s about putting in the effort to make the lives of your citizens a bit better. Civic pride is helping your people vote, it’s keeping your people safe, it’s a ridiculously ornate water fountain in a small village.

Civic pride. Governor Abbott doesn’t have any. The jackass who planted the pipe bomb doesn’t have any. The village of Aberfeldy does. “Come, let us spend the lightsome days / In the birks of Aberfeldy.” There are no lightsome days when you’re loading bodies into refrigerated trucks.

seven white balusters & a cat

I’ve been accused (more than once) of overthinking everything. That accusation is often valid. I tend to overthink some stuff because it’s amusing to me and because it reminds me that everything is connected.

For example, this photograph. It’s just a cat sleeping in a patch of sunlight. Nothing significant, nothing particularly interesting in itself. But if you overthink it, it links together a series of at least ten seemingly unrelated facts.

FACT 1: I belong to an online global collective of photographers called Utata. This group, which has over 30,000 members, creates a variety of photographic ‘challenges’ or projects for its members to participate in. One of the current challenges involves photographing a collection of seven related things.

FACT 2: Pomegranates originated in a historical region called Mesopotamia which occupied the ancient Near East and Western Asia.

FACT 3: The cat that lives here likes to sleep in patches of radiant heat. On winter days, to please the cat, I open the front door to allow the sun to shine in.

FACT 4: For more than three thousand years, Aramaic was one of the prominent languages of the ancient Near East, which included regions of Mesopotamia.

FACT 5: A balustrade is a railing, often ornamental, supported by individual short posts or columns, which are called balusters.

FACT 6: Near the front door, where the cat likes to sleep in the winter sunlight, is a stairway leading to the basement; the stairway is protected by a balustrade.

FACT 7: The earliest examples of balustrades are found in sculptured Assyrian bas-relief murals, some of which have been dated back to a period between the 13th and 7th centuries B.C.

FACT 8: Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian empire.

FACT 9: The term ‘baluster’ comes from the Aramaic balatz, which refers to the flower of the wild pomegranate. Balusters in the bas-relief murals had double curves, which resembled a half-opened pomegranate flower.

FACT 10: I noticed the cat sleeping in the sunlight from the open front door. The light illuminated seven of the balusters supporting the balustrade, meeting the requirements for the Utata photo challenge.

Does knowing those facts make this a better photograph? Nope. It’s still just a photograph of a cat sleeping in a patch of winter sunlight.

But surely you’ll agree there’s a certain delight in knowing that the cat is sleeping in a patch of sunlight beside a railing supported by posts that were originally named in an ancient almost-forgotten language because of their resemblance to the flower of a fruit that first grew in an empire that no longer exists.

miss scarlet knows how to wear a hat

Yesterday I came across a news item…wait, make that a ‘news’ item. I mean, there’s news, which is information important to me, and there’s ‘news’, which is information I might find momentarily interesting. Like, say, ‘sports news’ or ‘religious news’ or, in this case, ‘entertainment news’.

Yesterday I came across a ‘news’ item which informed me that the protagonist in a BBC/PBS show called (and I am not making this up) Miss Scarlet and the Duke was patterned after Miss Elizabeth Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice, I shouldn’t have to tell you that). You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire Miss Bennett. I’ve always been of the opinion that her keen observational skills coupled with her lively wit and plucky nature would make her an excellent detective.

So, of course, I determined to watch the show. Last night I watched the first episode. Let me just say this: I know Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Miss Bennett is a friend of mine. Miss Eliza Scarlet is no Miss Elizabeth Bennett.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The differences between the two characters are actually important to the narrative. Miss Bennett, of course, is a gentleman’s daughter; Miss Scarlet is the daughter of a police detective. In addition, Miss Bennett is the product of the Regency Era, whereas Miss Scarlet is firmly planted in the Victorian. Finally, the pace of Miss Bennett’s life is determined by the rhythms of a rural and village existence; Miss Scarlet lives in London. Those differences–in social class, in social status, in societal change over time, and in environment–radically expand the parameters of Miss Scarlet as a character.

Being a police detective’s daughter in Victorian London allows the character of Miss Scarlet access to most of the common tropes of the modern criminal investigation show. This is both unfortunate and very convenient. It’s convenient in that it makes the nature of the show familiar to the viewer; it’s unfortunate since the viewer knows pretty much what to expect.

And the first episode of Miss Scarlet and the Duke meets that expectation. There’s nothing new, nothing original, nothing surprising. Basically we have a 21st century woman protagonist set in 19th century London, with a nod toward a more historically restrictive patriarchal system. In other words, we have a generically plucky woman detective who has to 1) strive to be taken seriously, 2) overcome obstacles presented by the patriarchy, 3) defy gender norms, but only to a certain degree, and 4) establish her independence.

That said, I think we can all agree that you can’t judge a television series on the basis of the first episode. Or even the second or third. But you can, I think, get some idea of the nature of the show. And Miss Scarlet and the Duke gives every impression of being…pleasant. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t intriguing, it wasn’t compelling, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. It was a mildly entertaining diversion that doesn’t require much on the part of the viewer. It was…pleasant.

That’s not a criticism; there’s a need for mildly entertaining diversions, especially during a pandemic. So let’s take a look at that first episode.

WARNING — ENGAGE SPOILER ALERT SYSTEM. SPOILERS FOLLOW. STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.

Because it’s the first episode, a certain amount of narrative has to be spent introducing the characters. It opens with Eliza being led by a street urchin to an unsavory part of London. She’s paying the kid to lead her to a dead body. Not any particularly dead body. Just a random dead person. Why? So she can…investigate something? The body appears to be that of a woman we assume to be a one-eyed prostitute. She is, in fact, one-eyed and a prostitute. She is not, however, dead. Only drunk.

As a scene, it makes absolutely no sense–unless Eliza has some sort of necro-curious fetish, which doesn’t seem likely from PBS. The point is to show she’s eager to prove herself to her father, a retired police detective turned private investigator. Eager, but inexperienced. And not very competent. Not only does she not get a dead body, she doesn’t get her money back from the urchin.

Her father would be horrified, but he doesn’t learn of the encounter because he’s nowhere to be found (ooh, suspense). He’s not at his office, and his police protégé (Chief Inspector William ‘Duke’ Wellington) hasn’t seen him. Eliza assumes he’s either working a case or drunk. He’s not. He’s dead.

Eliza returns home to find a stranger–a doctor, no less– and her dead father in the drawing room. This stranger found her father dead and apparently brought his body home. I suspect in a later episode we’ll learn there’s something odd about her father’s death (because that’s how the Mystery Story Universe works). Possibly the doctor is involved (the Mystery Story Universe is predictable).

Before she can even begin to mourn, Eliza encounters a prospective client looking for her father. Needing the money, she lies to him, telling him her father will accept the case. This is where the actual plot begins. Oh lawdy, the plot. Let’s dispense with the plot as quickly as possible; it’s convoluted, and the least interesting thing about the first episode.

The client, a man dying of some undisclosed illness, is looking for his estranged niece, Tilly, his last living relative. She married unwisely and was cast off by the family. Now that he’s dying and has an estate to dispose of, he wants to find her again. Eliza finds Tilly working as the human target for a knife-throwing act in an unsavory dance hall in Soho. Tilly confesses her uncle was right–her husband, a once-widowed actor, was only interested in her uncle’s fortune. When he learned she was disowned, he disappeared. She’s willing to meet and reconcile with her dying uncle.

Case closed! No, of course not. The dying uncle turns out to be–and, again, I’m not making this up–Tilly’s husband in a fake beard. He’d learned of the uncle’s death, and as her husband in Victorian England, he basically has control of the estate she inherited. He has the estate, but he has no need of a wife. And yet he decides FOR REASONS that he must find her. Does he return to Soho where he left her? No. Does he look for her? No. Instead, he puts on a disguise and hires somebody to find her. Does that make any sense? No. Doesn’t matter. When Eliza brings Tilly and her husband together, he removes his disguise, calls in a pair of ruffians, and has Ivy hauled off to be committed. Which allows him to control the estate he’s already controlling. I know, I know…just go along with this.

The husband pays Eliza her fee. She feels awful (girls have all these emotions), so she decides FOR REASONS to investigate the husband’s first marriage. She discovers his first wife wasn’t actually dead (gasp)! This makes him a bigamist. Eliza threatens him with arrest, he threatens to strangle her, but she’s had a maid lace his tea with laudanum, knocking him out. She then calls her friend Chief Inspector Duke Wellington, who arrests the husband and chides Eliza for being a girl doing police work. Why didn’t Eliza simply notify Duke of the husband’s crime and let the police arrest him, avoiding the need to 1) risk her life and 2) spike the man’s tea with drugs? REASONS, that’s why.

Tilly is released from wherever she was committed to and everybody is happy, except the Duke who insists Eliza shouldn’t investigate anything because she’s a girl. The end.

This sounds painfully bad…and it would be, if you were only interested in the plot. Or in the characters. But Miss Scarlet and the Duke is meant to be a confection. It’s a teacake, not a meal. It’s a show about Miss Scarlet’s costumes, and men with precise beards wearing bowler hats and long coats. It’s about stage sets depicting Victorian London, the drawing rooms, the taverns, the bawdy houses. It’s not meant to make you think.

Oh, Miss Scarlet takes on the patriarchy in a variety of non-threatening ways. She mocks the men for being protective and condescending, she out-thinks them, she finds a way around whatever attempts they make to keep her docile and biddable. The viewer understands that the patriarchy is awful, but isn’t it cute and clever how Eliza gets around it?

Only two scenes were potentially interesting, potentially dramatic. Eliza, in her search for Tilly, encounters Moses–the black man who ‘protects’ the women who work in the dance hall. There’s something awkward about the only person of color in the show being a criminal. But Eliza wants information about Tilly, Moses wants a bribe; she pays the bribe, he takes her coin purse. When he refuses to return the purse, Eliza flirts with him (Miss Elizabeth Bennett would have vapors). When Moses responds, Eliza quickly handcuffs him to a rail (a tangent: ratchet cuffs weren’t invented until the early 20th century). She then threatens to burn him alive unless he 1) returns the money and 2) tells her where to find Tilly.

The second scene was momentarily very distressing. Eliza is arrested during a raid on the dance hall where Tilly is employed. Three men take her by force to a room with an exam table, and are apparently about to ‘inspect’ her to see if she has a venereal disease. For a brief moment, there was nothing amusing or sugary about the show. Eliza quickly defuses the situation by claiming to be the preferred prostitute of Chief Inspector Wellington, who then rescues her. What was potentially traumatic and horrifying becomes somewhat comedic. Eliza is completely unfazed by that sexual assault.

Is Miss Scarlet and the Duke a good show? Not by most PBS standards. Is it worth watching? It’s a nice diversion. I’ll watch the next episode, if only for the set design and the costumes. Miss Scarlet knows how to wear a hat.