I went to the dentist today for a successful extraction of a good deal of money and to take care of some minor cavities. “These are really tiny,” he said. If I’d known that I would have passed on the appointment. Like chiropractors, dentists want you to dangle on the string indefinitely. My previous dentist, the genial old former general who got cancer and pined away, isolating himself until he died, used to say I had “a beautiful mouth,” which I took to mean well cared for over the years. You can’t be too careful with your teeth, as a friend learned this summer. He went in for an abscessed tooth and the infection spread to his heart and put him in the hospital for weeks. It’s hard to come back from shocks to the system like that when you are older. What a blessing good health is. You go through life not thinking anything about it and then you hit a wall. You don’t have to stand on tip-toe to know there is a wall beyond that and another and so on to the last one. I took a book to read by Ryszard Kapuściński, one of the great journalists and travel writers of the 20th Century. He would be better known if it wasn’t for the Polish name, one of the many problems of writing in a small language, but still he was a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Working for a Polish news agency, the greater part of the world was his beat. He was responsible for covering 50 countries, meaning he saw a lot of action. Kapuściński reported on 27 revolutions and coups, was jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences. He died of a heart attack in 2007 while being treated in a hospital for some other disorder. Avoid hospitals at all costs. Salman Rushdie wrote about him: “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers.” But who remembers him now? The dentist, noting “Imperium” on my lap as he went about his business, had never heard of Kapuściński and wasn’t impressed when I said he was one of Poland’s greatest writers. Instead, our talk turned to the fine singer and composer Glen Campbell. He was born and raised in a rural hamlet a few miles north of here where his family still runs the Campbell Cafe. The food is decent, he said, nothing special. That can be said of any restaurant within a day’s drive of our sleepy little village where the guards at the gate are told to wave as we drive in. “They milked him when he was famous,” the dentist said about Campbell’s family. If I had been a little quicker, I would have said at least it was money that didn’t go up his nose. Is there anyone who doesn’t welcome the revelations about the filth and corruption of Hollywood? Just now the creative director at Pixar and Disney Animation said he was taking six months off to reflect on his behavior. “It’s been brought to my attention that I have made some of you feel disrespected or uncomfortable,” he said. Is there an Apology Factory? They all sound alike coming from these titans. I’m enjoying every minute of this and also the hilarious falls from the pedestal of all these media personalities who have made careers tut-tutting and lecturing us from the moral high ground. I’m looking at you Bill O’Reilly and you Charlie Rose. The blowhard and the brow-furrowed interrogator so earnest and sincere, brothers under the skin, which they are only too happy to show unwilling women hoping for career help. Reporting what is known of the facts, which is never very much, and letting us reach our own conclusions–whatever happened to that business model? Too barebones, I guess, lacks pizazz; it’s gone like Kapuściński, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, Hillary–enabler of the paradigmatic horndog himself–seems to be serious about running again. You couldn’t invent this stuff.
Having spent the greater time of my life making a living in it, I can tell you these are grand times for the news business or what’s left of it. The news is always bad for someone or other and at times for everyone. This is meat and drink for the journalist. Good news doesn’t sell because it is usually dull except for those lucky enough to make it–the lottery winner, the lost hiker who is found, the athletic conqueror and the followers if it is a team sport, even the new parents who return to obscurity after the blessed event unless they are celebrities or related to one, in which case the tabloids dog them through life unless there are career reverses, in which case obscurity claims them as well. But good news has the duration of a firefly while bad news has a long life–months and even years. The people who will turn out to howl at the sky on the first anniversary of Trump’s election are just one example. They wept openly when the results were in. Not satisfied with his victory, the other side, its appetite for revenge ravenous, calls for Hillary’s trial and imprisonment, her disgrace being inadequate for what they perceive as her monstrous crimes. A segment of her own constituency despises her for putting the fix in during the primaries and then losing, “unexpectedly,” after the news trade had jubilantly spread the news she had the election locked up.
Like a chef in a kitchen, the journalist can mix any number of ingredients into the soufflé of bad news that make the day’s papers, the evening network news, or cable, which regurgitates it 24/7 with a spicing of invective tossed in by news personalities whose specialty that is. To name just a few at hand, there is North Korea led by a seeming madman; climate change; racial conflict; the rise of the machines which will leave all but the privileged without work, a circumstance that has already turned many to hopelessness and drug addiction; the disturbing timidity of college students who require safe places when upset by micro-aggressions all but invisible to a healthy mind; the antifas (rebranded anarchists); the gross disparities in wealth, which seem to be embarrassing even some of its possessors, though not enough; the slow devolution of the European Union back to nation states despite their centuries-long history of war and mass murders in that form; China feeling its oats as an emerging superpower and Japan planning to rearm against this threat; economists already asking one another when the present bubble of prosperity will burst; Hollywood’s beastly depravity being exposed, as it is from time to time with no lasting result, and with pedophilia likely to be the next focus; the realization that the two-party system, which has created a class every bit as permanent as the administrative state itself, and which doesn’t seem to get anything done but self-enrichment; super germs that create incurable infections; Islamic fanatics as willing to die for their religion as unquestioningly as the kamikaze pilots and barbaric soldiery of the late empire and emperor; illegal immigration leading to the creation of walls… well, I could go on and on and so could you. In ordinary times, the journalist would gorge on this feast and be satisfied that he or she–increasingly she–was performing a vital public service. But the days when journalists merely observed events and provided what we called the first draft of history are over. Now the journalist is no longer an observer but a participant in events, hoping to shape them through the way they select their stories, write and edit them, and choose their placement. The uniformity of opinion found in the news business has often been remarked on. Some might find in it a conspiracy when in fact it is only the result of group thinking of the sort you find among social workers or in another form in police forces, where the distancing cynicism about human nature once shared by journalists still exists to restrain zeal. Today’s news gatherers are ardent progressives, impassioned believers in causes that bring to mind the spirit of Communists in the ‘Thirties. At that time, with capitalism prostrate, nearly everyone in the intellectual classes (which, stretching a point, included journalists) sympathized with the Soviet Union as it strove to haul a medieval society into the Twentieth Century no matter how many millions had to die. Eggs had to be broken or the omelet couldn’t be made, that was both explanation and justification. The New York Times correspondent declined to report the deliberate famine Moscow created in Ukraine and no doubt many other crimes of the regime, and was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for his body of work. At that time, many if not most newspapers had conservative ownerships, but the bosses who were raking in fabulous wealth couldn’t be everywhere or inspect every article, and sly journos, who after all were members of the working class, managed to insinuate a progressive point of view into the product. I worked with an editorial writer who boasted that he presented the publisher’s occasional thoughts on the issues of the day in language so dull as to be unreadable. Being a dull man himself, the publisher didn’t notice. Today there are no conservative newspapers to speak of and only FOX is available to express that point of view, less forcibly since the crash and burn of boorish Bill O’Reilly, the right’s approximation of the barely sane Keith Olbermann, who was cast into the darkness not for his opinions or for bothering women with unwanted attentions, but because he was so unpleasant that everyone he came in contact with ended up hating his guts. FOX’s cable audience, however, is miniscule compared to the mighty networks, which are strongly liberal in orientation, not to mention the noisy choirs at MSNBC and CNN that gave up even the pretense of objectivity at some point. Objectivity was the ostensible goal of journalism in the past, but that fantasy was abandoned long ago. Now the media boast of their partisanship. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” the Washington Post proclaims in its new slogan. It offered me a month of free readership, but I canceled after two days because it read like a reverse of the wall poster days when Mao led the country in The Great Leap Forward. Instead of extolling The Great Steersman as the Chinese media were required to do under the penalty of being sent to the countryside to suppress weeds with hoes or to bring in the harvest, the Post was stuffed with stories hating on Trump. Or Mr. Wiggy Piggy to use one of the many names the left has for the president.
But my point is not the present prostitution of the press, but the amazing persistence of this kind of bad news that is found in declining empires over the past three thousand years. They last on average 250 years, or ten generations, before they collapse. The United States is 234 years old, so it would seem we’re right on track.
Up next, as they say in TV news, is what happened back then happening now? Hint: the worship of celebrities is a tell-tale symptom of social degradation and civilizational collapse. Seriously, you guys.
I try to watch this once a year. Meanwhile, The Horror Writer heads into the semi-finals for the BookLife 2017 Prize against tough competition.
A spider spun a web on an azalea bush outside our window this summer as it did last year and hung motionless for days on end waiting, I assumed, for larger prey than the miniscule insects that occasionally became caught in the silken snare, which had a funny little corkscrew swirl in like an artist’s signature on a painting. My interest in arachnids is not large and there the matter stood until I discovered another web of the same species strung out front between the privet hedge and another azalea. It was smaller than the first, but I remembered it too from last year; it too had the trademark swirl. I had swatted it away then with a broom like a batter does a heater right down the middle because it inhibited my weed whacker path. Are they like settlers, homebodies occupying the same space year after year?
My last serious encounter with spiders was in Montana when we were selling our place in the Bitterroot Valley. The real estate lady said a couple was coming the next day to take a look. “Make sure there are no spiders,” she said, “she’s terrified of them.” I said no worry, there are none I’ve seen. And it was true, I regularly commuted on knees and elbows in the crawl space beneath the house to change the filter on the central air where you would expect the flashlight’s beam to see them prospering in the silence and darkness. This chore performed with my bum knee was one of several reasons we decided to up stakes after five years and leave for a more congenial clime. It is no country for old men unless you were born there and a kind of jaw-clinched resignation or religious fatalism is bred in the bone. Or unless you owned one of the mansions in the ultra-luxurious planned community created by Charles Schwab for his fellow moguls in the commanding heights above the scratchy little western town of Hamilton. Gated and an 18-hole championship golf course? Of course. You could still drive about and gaze at the bespoke homes when we were there, but now the entry gate and security guards have put an end to that and the wealthy have the loveliness of that view all to themselves on the odd occasions when they fly in on their private jets. This was one-percenter territory before the slogan was created. There is no need to mix with the folks who live beyond the gate, nor in most cases would you want to. My wife was born in Montana and feels a kinship with the people, but I found them distant and even cold. Call it rugged individualism. It was hard country originally and it took a certain kind of hardness to survive and hard times never really go away. The drug problem is severe. The people are quite a contrast to the warm Southerners we live among now.
Back to the spider and the people coming to see our house. We had a shed with a window to the east that we had the idea of turning into a writer’s cottage when we first moved in. The contractor we had said if it was up to him he would take a backhoe to it, so it remained in a suspended state of possibility and I kept tools there. When the woman opened the door, she spun on her heel and in one stride was running full speed. The enormous spider in the middle of a web was like one of those fake rubber things you buy at Halloween. We never saw that couple again. I took a shovel to the web and we never saw the spider again, either. We ended up selling to an Air Force nurse who was born in Montana and her husband, a German physicist. They also had a home in the Black Woods where so many fables of the Grimm Brothers kind were spun. You could somehow tell she was born on the range while he was handsome and charming, very sophisticated, the best kind of German, a phrase that fell out of use after World War II. Speaking of which, in between property management — we had a pond with reeds to which leeches clung for years, barely alive, waiting for something with warm blood to come by–I spent years collecting a library about the war, gradually becoming convinced that FDR and a close circle in the White House and War Department (Army) and Navy Department knew the Imperial Japanese Fleet was at sea to attack Pearl Harbor but kept it quiet. The only irreplaceable ships, the carriers, quietly slipped out to sea before the blow fell. The attack on the Pacific Fleet, hung out there in Hawaii for no good purpose except as bait, was the bloody nose needed to unite our fractious country and get us into the war before the British threw in the towel and we stood alone with the British, French and Italian fleets all possibly absorbed into the Third Reich. Charles Beard, the distinguished Harvard historian, wrote a fine book about this conspiracy in 1949 that was published by the Yale University Press. It has been forgotten by time. People today find it unbelievable that a president could perform such a cold-blooded act of treason, but there you are. My The Great Liars is a novel about it; fiction in one sense but not so in another. It is a cheerful, slight thing about war, a tough sell. But I got an email from Amazon yesterday saying they thought it might be right down my alley.
The spider outside the bedroom window, I haven’t forgotten it. It was beautiful in a lethal, Art Deco way, all clean angles and a canary yellow body. Finally bestirred to find out what it was, I googled dangerous spiders of Arkansas. There was its picture, a German brown recluse, a real horror. Your flesh disintegrates after its bite and the poison keeps digging a deeper and wider hole if you don’t get treatment. There are photographs if you have the stomach for them.
I went out with a can of bug spray that supposedly killed on contact and nailed it with a fog-like talc. The spray didn’t kill on contact; instead the spider began a fight for life, climbing up its web, falling back, climbing up again. I gave it shot after shot, but still it fought for survival and then was still. I killed the other the next day and the same struggle went on, and I didn’t mind so much this time. Except I’ve been thinking about it now for weeks.
A cloudy day after dawn with brief spells of rain and now thunder overhead as I peck this out with fingers more clumsy and uncooperative as time goes by. I passed yet another armadillo dead in the roadway. People don’t see them, I guess–but how could you miss the little comic-book creatures with funny, long snouts trundling across the road? On the back road to Little Rock we have stopped to move turtles so they are not smashed by the speeding cars and trucks. A woman who parks by the lake in the same crushed rock area we do has two signs on the back of her car that say I Stop for Turtles. A warm heart although her cross face says otherwise. It is a mistake to judge by appearances. My son knew a young man who went out of his way to run over turtles. “Why’d you do that?” Justin cried out with horror and indignation when he witnessed it. I forgot what he said the teenager’s reply was, but it was along the lines of “I felt like it.” There are people like that even unto adulthood. One hopes they burn fiercely in hell. Four deer ran gracefully across the fairway into the trees. I like them better seen at a distance than engorging themselves on our landscaping. They nipped the heads off half our day lilies before they came into bloom.
Our tuxedo cat Picasso is looking slightly decrepit these days, no longer able to groom a large part of himself, which gives him a seedy look. The vet guessed he has diabetes and we feed him food that comes in a six-pound bag and is as expensive as dinner for two at a mid-range restaurant, about the only kind we have hereabouts. Vets offer a range of costly tests which we decline. You read of people spending fortunes to keep their pets alive out of the deep love they have for them. Surgeries, specialists, chemo treatments, radiation. That’s not for us; we’ve kept our dogs and cats alive so long even without extreme intervention that in a sense it has amounted to animal cruelty. Stella, our valiant Parson Russell Terrier (they have the wiry coats as opposed to the smooth-coated Jack Russells; together it seems they are in every other print ad and TV commercials) was feeble for the last couple of years of her long life and beginning to suffer from dementia. One day she slipped out a door left open and disappeared. We were frantic and drove around through the afternoon and night looking for her. There is a missing animal service that sent out an alert and the following day around noon we got a telephone call saying she had been found. Nice people not so far away said she turned up thirsty and exhausted. She was sleeping, utterly spent, on the floorboard of the animal control truck when it arrived. What terrors she must have experienced through the night, alone and in the dark. She seemed confused when I picked her up, not seeming to recognize me at first. She slept a long time afterward, but then she had been doing that, awake just long enough to eat and lap at her water dish. A week after she got lost she suddenly awoke and ran around the house mad with fear. She knocked into furniture in her frenzy to escape her demon, battering her head on the sharp legs of a metal coffee table legs on each circuit. I finally caught and held her, but she would not be calmed. The first tranquilizer we forced down had no effect and we gave another. This put her into a deep sleep and I held her on my lap through the night until the vets opened the following morning. Two technicians agreed it was time she was put down. Her poor face was swollen from the collisions and one of the techs gave the other a meaningful look I interpreted as saying we had beaten Stella. I still burn with anger when I think of it; in retrospect I wish I had ordered her from the room. But Judy and I were overcome with emotion at the time. They slip away so quickly after the lethal injection. So at 16 ended the adventurous life of plucky Stella, who spent her best years in Montana roaming a circuit of open land that took most of the day before her patrol ended and she came back home. I saw her once being stalked by an aggressive magpie; Stella’s look of amused contempt as it fluttered threateningly overhead is engraved on memory. Once as we walked with old Ollie, our good-natured yellow Lab who we also had put down at that same vet’s office after he could no longer rise to his feet, she took on a porcupine and got a faceful of quills for her pains, four or five in her tongue alone. It was lucky she wasn’t blinded. I tried to pull them out with plyers after carrying her home, but quickly gave up and drove her to the vet in Hamilton where she was put under anesthesia while he pulled them out. Anyone who has had a dog or cat has felt the anguish when at last the courage is gathered to do the merciful thing. Stella, Ollie, Jake, Felix, Parker, Snerd–it is a long roll call. In most cases we plucked them from a warm bundle of puppies or kitties. I read somewhere that the fattest at the bottom of the pile where it was warmest was the best choice, so that is what we went for. That was the case with Jake, who was called Buddha for his girth when we got him, “I’m not leaving without him,” Judy warned. Then the years passed and they died and it seemed each time we took it harder. So, no more dogs and cats for us.
The car ahead of us stopped for a family of Canadian geese this morning as a stately momma and poppa followed a handful of goslings that my wife noticed had turned from yellow to brown since we last sighted them; they were crossing the causeway to the smaller arm of DeSoto Lake. You’ve seen this photograph a hundred times, but it is always heart warming. The groundskeepers at the golf courses here are less sentimental; the geese have decided they like it here better taking the strenuous flight north that instinct urges, so they are permanent residents who foul the putting greens with shit. Each individual produces an amazing amount each day and they seem drawn to the manicured parts of the courses. Rather than kill them, which would raise a storm of opposition among the elderly, kindly residents, efforts are made to contain their population, including searching out nests when the parents are away and, I think, covering them with wax so they never hatch. Check me out on that, I’m a little shaky on the details.
Arkansas, the laughing stock of the nation pretty much since time immemorial, despite the brief Clinton Imperium, is known as The Natural State. The settled parts are far and few between, never mind cities. That means thick forests and wildlife abounding, most particularly squirrels who make kamikaze dashes for car wheels, sometimes reversing their path from certain safety to settled doom,. A great many armadillos, slower afoot, meet the same fate late at night when they are at large. There must be a large population to judge from the casualty toll when daylight dawns. Their armor, sadly, is inadequate for the machine age. The widespread derision for Arkansas dates back to the 19th Century. It has always existed on the fringe of national consciousness, a colored patch on the map one passes through to get from one more interesting place to another, a dim space between Frenchified Louisiana and sinful New Orleans and the wide open spaces of the braggart Lone Star state. Little of consequence has occurred since it was acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase; what notice taken was generally of a back slapping nature. A train brakeman named Thomas W. Jackson wrote a book of puns and corny jokes titled A Slow Train Through Arkansaw that permanently fixed the impression that the state was populated by slow-witted, no-account whites and shuffling, grinning Negroes of the minstrel sort. It sold seven million copies, making it the best selling joke book in American history. The first line shows the level of its sophistication: “You are not the only pebble on the beach for there is a Little Rock down in Arkansas.” Another of the state’s claim to a certain kind of fame was the knife fight in 1837 in the state’s House of Representatives between its speaker, John Wilson, and a fellow legislator named Joseph J. Anthony. The House was discussing where bounties should be paid on wolf scalps when Anthony, who had been charged with cowardice in the War of 1812 but resigned his commission before going to trial, made a slighting remark aimed at Wilson, who pulled out a Bowie knife and went for him. Anthony produced his own Arkansas Toothpick, another name for the blade, and they fought; Wilson won when he drove his steel into the larger man’s heart. He was indicted for murder but the charges were dropped when the case was moved to the neighboring county. Those were rough-and-tumble frontier days, but this shocked the whole country. Tomorrow: We’re done with cats and dogs.
A new McDonald’s opened yesterday just outside the gate of our quiet village and people are popping their buttons with pride. It is as if at last we are linked to the common culture and the greater world beyond our rural horizons. The Sonic drive-in on the highway a mile away now looks shabby and forlorn compared to the newcomer in its crisp, modern architecture that pays homage to the pioneering McDonald’s franchises with a Golden Arch that is more hinted at than emblazoned as in days of old. It is on the site of the old Burger King, which was driven to the wall by Sonic. The building lay vacant for a couple of years before it was razed by the new occupant. I suppose it says something deep about the fleeting nature of things. McDonald’s itself is staggering according to the financial press; thousands of franchises have closed in the past few years as the lumbering colossus was slow to react to the challenges of In-and-Out and other fast-food purveyors more nimble in anticipating and responding to the fickle public tastes. McDonald’s is returning to its original menu, its roots so to speak, of fattening foods regrettably more to the public taste than its disastrous foray into healthy foods. Michelle Obama discovered this when children turned their noses up at the healthy school lunches she imposed with the muscle of the federal government behind her; the lunches were scraped off into the garbage can and a flourishing black market trade arose in potato chips and candy bars. The Sonic down the highway was having trouble even before McDonald’s opened. “She can’t get people to work,” said the nurse as she stuck a needle in my arm to draw blood for next week’s annual physical (fingers crossed). The nurse, who has grown alarmingly stout since her marriage, referred to the Sonic manager. “She hires them and they won’t work so she fires them.” There is a permanent Help Wanted in the window. The new rival can only add to her problems, skimming off the best of the worst as Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary observed before that untimely remark lost him that job. After the blood drawing, we went to the farmer’s market in the village. Not much there, it being early in the season. I gave a farmer twenty dollars for a bunch of garlic and he slowly and carefully peeled off nineteen dollars as my change. A roll that thick in the pocket makes a man feel flush. We strolled to another booth for something else and were both struck by the silent woman sitting with her husband at the table where their goods were laid out. Her eyes burned with inexpressible tragedy. One had to look away from such pain openly confessed. Why was she there with such aa weight of sorrow? Later, it occurred to me that perhaps her husband was afraid of her taking her life if she stayed home. She reminded me of Mister Weaver, the jug-eared country man of unfailing good humor we used to depend on for fresh fruits and vegetables. “We’re in business thanks to you good folks,” he said every time. The last time I saw him he came through the door with a face full of pain and wild desperation. On his last legs, I thought. Is that expression used any more? I have lots of them, like “That’s hog wash.” But then I can remember when McDonald’s sold their burgers for twenty-five cents, a bag for a buck. When we came back the next week, his wife, sweet-faced but less outgoing than him, dabbed her eyes and said he was dying in a hospice.