Another year; twenty-six more columns; the same handful of self-evident observations, petty and large prejudices, personal predilections and half-faced fears hauled out and flogged, each in turn, until this cycle too shall roll writer and whatever readers still hang on into yet another new and equally suspect annum. Do I repeat myself? Surely I do. Very well then, I repeat myself. There is nothing new under the sun, perhaps, but I do think I may vary my metaphors enough that each new wrapper presents my day old bread palatable enough for those who have not retained a complete archive of older essays.
I do not make much of the New Year celebration. Dick Clark and his descending balls do not excite me. I can get drunk any day of the year. I look foolish in a paper hat. But I'm not entirely immune to the sensation of something passing, something beginning, that attends this holiday. Daylight increases; I can work in my woods until four-thirty now. We are, on January first, embarked upon a year in which spring will arrive, rather than playing out the dark last days of one in which winter has lately begun.
I found the last week of 2006 more densely packed with significant, noteworthy, memorable, elemental events than I am accustomed to remarking in that odd, dead week after Christmas, and I will share my feelings with those of you who will attend me here in this first week of 2007, in an essay equally forgettable as its two hundred and more precursors, but with perhaps even less cohesion than most of them.
It was a week of death. Deaths of notables, not of persons I knew or loved. Does any man's death diminish me? Not so I notice. Or, rather, theoretically yes, but who can weep for the never known, never seen, not even displayed in life or death on the printed page or video display? Even the tsunami dead of a year ago were made real only by the flush of the great wave across the shining phosphors of our screens. The immoral, criminal, pointless waste of our three thousand youth on the dusty roads of Iraq is not thrust before us in the way we remember the Vietnam dead flayed and bled and broken nightly in a time when news was somewhat less clearly corporate, co-opted and even collusive.
James Brown, feeling not so good for a while, has a brand new bag indeed. Uuunh! Aaaagggh! Good God! James Brown, y'all! He was a Sex Machine. He was The Godfather of Soul. He was the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He was Black and he was Proud. He freed a lotta people, yeah, and we just looked around and he was gone. Ain't that a shame?
Even when he was perhaps not operating on his best behavior, in full control of his senses, well-engaged with reality, he was a magnificent man. After confronting a roomful of insurance men one September afternoon in 1988 and demanding to know which of them had used his private bathroom, Mr. Brown drove his pickup truck, pursued by police officers, at a high rate of speed across some portions of the states of Georgia and South Carolina, eventually driving fully eight miles beyond the point at which the cops shot out all four of his tires, stopping only when the rims became mired in sand.
Look up his mug shot from that arrest. Lacking his familiar glossy, smart hair-do, clothing rumpled from confrontation, chase, capture and booking, his face shows a calm, quiet, grandfatherly demeanor. Those officers were privileged to have had such contact with greatness. Did they get his autograph? Did they ask him to do a couple verses of “Please, Please, Please”? And you don't have to be the Number One Soul Brother to want to keep your toilet room free of insurance salesmen.
Jerry Ford didn't have any soul. Nope. None. He may have had a soul, if you believe in that construct, but of soul he had none. He was very white. Now, I'm white, too, and I guess most of my friends are white, but let's be reasonable. Van Morrison is a white guy (and about as irascible sober as J.B. was loaded, maybe), and he's fairly encrusted with soul, fat with soul, bleeding soul. Jerry Ford had all the soul of an insurance man.
Who was Jerry Ford, you younger readers ask? He was the thirty-eight President of the United States of America. And what did he do? He gave Richard Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon” for “all offenses against the United States” that Milhouse “may have committed”; he sold out the poor citizens of East Timor to Indonesian dictator Suharto (over a hundred thousand massacred); he urged us all to “Whip Inflation Now”; he failed to investigate, deport or execute Henry Kissinger. When in the House of Representatives, he had tried to have Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas impeached.
An annoyed nation replaced him with Jimmy Carter. He played golf; he died; post-death he revealed he thought our current picnic in Iraq was a mistake, having apparently lacked the spine, the honesty or the cojones to share this insight with us while still among the quick.
I do feel sorry for his wife. Probably she loved him; no doubt she misses him. But I don't. And you don't either, if you think about it. But you'd think Abe Lincoln or FDR had gone to Glory if you listened to the news or read the papers. They dragged his corpse back and forth across the nation, having here a funeral, there a memorial service, at every stop, in any venue, a fond reminiscence. Tom Brokaw revived his inane “Greatest Generation” claim with specific reference to Gerald R. Ford. Both Poppy Bush and the current tenant eulogized him. He played football, said Sr. He always had his hands on the ball.
But most of all, everyone agreed, he was “a decent man.” Yeah, well, me too. And I probably wont get even one funeral, much less close all the post offices for a day. Is this what we've come to? Decency is noteworthy? Remarkable? Has it been so long since we've suspected decency of our leaders? I wonder how the orphans of East Timor feel about his alleged decency?
And then they hanged Saddam. Nothing decent about him. Not much unusual, either. He was no Dick Nixon, all twisted and intense and secretive and as anti-sex as he turned out to be, wonderfully, oddly, pro-Chinese Communist. No, old Saddam was just a hoodlum, a thug, a punk. He was a bully who lucked into guns and power and ruled brutally, cruelly and selfishly. Nothing new there; it's a story as old as the Bible, common and cheap. He was not worthy of the fear we suckered ourselves into feeling for him, for his Republican Guards (our own Republicans turned out to be plenty scary enough), his rumored terrible weapons.
But he was for many years our friend, and though we had a falling out, he still remembered what a pal Don Rumsfeld had been to him, how much he appreciated the armaments, the technology transfer, the raw materials for biological weapons we had once lavished on him. So we had a little trial and we got him sentenced to death, and we gave him over to our new friends in Iraq early one morning just before the old year ended, and they shut him up for good with a hunk of coarse sisal or hemp rope. Then we helicoptered him away for a quick and dirty interment. And, unlike The King, who, to quote the quite decent, talented, interesting and somewhat soulful Neil Young, is “gone but not forgotten”, the old dictator is already fading from our memories, as much old news as Britney's missing panties.
The Muslim world is pretty put out about this hurried-up demise of the former Butcher of Baghdad. At least the Sunni component is. And America's already withered stock just took another lurch cellarward in world opinion. I'm disappointed that he didn't name names, of course, but mostly I fault the whole affair on matters of style.
First, I believe a proper hanging is conducted out of doors, on a wooden scaffold built for the occasion while the condemned watches from his cell window. Or, since this had more of the feel of a lynching, a horse and a white oak tree could have done nicely, silhouetted against a rising desert sun.
And the repartee. “Go to Hell.” “You go to Hell.” “God damn you.” “God Damn you.” We used to talk this way in the fourth grade! Couldn't somebody have at least insulted his mother, or mocked the measure of his manhood? Did not a single Shiite in the crowd think to ask, in his most nasal, Dylanesque voice, “How does it feeeel?” And Saddam, admittedly and understandable not happy with any part of the affair, certainly not inclined to do a quick spin, a split, come up and click his heals and proclaim, “I feel good!”-- couldn't he at least have assured his hecklers that, upon being admitted to Hell, he'd be sure to look up their mothers and grandmothers in the Harlot Section?
Depressing, isn't it? Disheartening. No more James Brown; Too much Jerry Ford; Saddam stretched before he could sing.
But then, in the predawn hours of the last day but one of that old year, in that year of war and death, Republican liars and Democratic enablers and a Fourth Estate busy telling us Britney was missing her undergarments and Christmas consumption was up but not up as much as we'd hoped and Gerald Ford was decent and not as dull as we'd all remembered —just as that old corrupted year was fixing to fold, a child was born.
Many children, surely. Some to be mutilated and killed in wars yet to come by future presidents still working their way through Congress or acting school. Many children, but one only whose birth I announce here now. Just in time to help her mom with a full year's tax value, but only a day of diaper expenses, a week past her due date, delivered after valiant labor by Caesarian operation because her mother had inherited her grandfather's narrow but fecund pelvic architecture, eight pound, five ounce Allie Mae Grondin deserves a better world than what we offer her.
There is no such thing as original sin, my friends. You may have heard otherwise from some president or pope, but some of them are idiots and many are mal-intentioned, and you might as well believe what you hear on the six o-clock news as to give much credence to such myths. What we do with our lives is up to us, and there's no devil to blame, nor serpent. George Bush and Saddam Hussein and you and I have done some bad, some shameful things. Some of us have paid a price and some someday may, while others slide free, punished only by whatever conscience we may discover.
But my girl Hazel's girl is pure and clean and her mom loves her and in some few years' time she can read her grandfather's essays and make up her own mind about the universe you and I struggle through, conflicted and confused as the light rises and we stumble toward whatever delight or despair spring and our spirits unspool.
Holidays are hard for correspondent Cooper; he guesses he doesn't really care for any of them. Nor does he like funerals, memorial services or "celebrations of life." He does realize these feelings separate him from most Americans. It's not that he's cold or insensitive, he explains, it's the formulaic, ritualistic nature of such days and events and occasions that creep him out. Tom T. Hall, he thinks, got grief just about right in his great song, "The Year Clayton Delaney Died": Nobody ever knew it but I went out in the woods and I cried.... Wish him dead, tell him to go to Hell, if you wish, at email@example.com.