Quite a long time ago, I did my senior thesis on the era of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In the thick of it, I would find myself making up little songs, such as this one, about the first of Japan’s unifiers Oda Nobunaga, to the tune of Phish’s “Golgi Apparatus.”

I look into the Sansom book
just to check my saga (saga!)
I look into Azuchi times,
I see Oda Nobunaga

But Oda, oh, woe to you
You can’t even rule Honshu
Oda, Oda, Oda, Oda, Odaaaaaaaaa

They call him daimyo-man
’cause he told them to
If you served the Oda clan,
you’d do it too

But Oda, oh, woe to you
You can’t even rule Honshu
Oda, Oda, Oda, Oda, Odaaaaaaaaa

I SAW YOU
With the shogun’s head in your lap
I SAW YOU
With the shoguns’s head in your lap!
I SAW YOU

Run through Japan,
Get to the can,
Couldn’t get it wrong,
So I’ll have to-

Look into the Sansom book
just to check my saga
I look into Azuchi times,
I see Oda Nobunaga

But Oda, oh, woe to you
You can’t even rule Honshu
Oda, Oda, Oda, Oda, Odaaaaaaaaa

 

 

(Written AD MMVIII, 232nd year of American Independence. George W. Bush, President of the Republic, and gasoline at four dollars the gallon.)

The night after Peak Oil, I met Nixon by the Union Station Metro stop. He was wearing a dust-tinged blue suit and trying to hail a cab.

“I’ve got to get down to the Mall,” he was mumbling when I found him. “I can calm the situation. I reach out to people. I reached out to those goddamned war protestors, but they were too bitter. I can’t stand bitter people. Where the hell is a goddamned taxi?”

“There aren’t any more taxis, Dick. There’s no more oil.”

“What? Those damned Saudis won’t cough up more oil? Goddammit, we’ll send in the Marines and take it from them!”

“Dick, the Saudis are dead. They sent us all their oil and they died.”

“Hmm. Well, let’s walk then.”

Elsewhere the District of Columbia was burning, but near the river the only sign of destruction was the smell on the May breeze. It was a fine twilight, and America was out strolling around, meeting and greeting while they still could.

We passed Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Roy Cohn walking down North Capitol arm in arm, passing a bottle of Wild Turkey back and forth. “Hey, Dick!” Roy shouted, but Nixon pretended not to see him.

Jeanette Rankin sat on a bench on D Street, chanting softly: “In the year that Roosevelt started his third term, I saw the glory of the Lord in the House Chamber. The hem of his robe filled the hall and the singing of the seraphim shook the Speaker’s desk. Then one of the angels took the Speaker’s gavel and touched it to my lips…”

“She was a traitor, you know,” Nixon whispered in my ear.

“I’m not so sure about that, Dick.”

Around C Street we hit a crowd and had to push our way through. The closer we came to the Capitol, the thicker it got, until eventually it resolved itself into a line. We walked down to see why they were there.

Outside the Capitol sat Aimee Semple McPherson, under a California palm tree, and she was as Deborah. She wore a white robe and she sang. We saw then that the line was composed of those that had grievances against the United States of America, come to ask justice from the prophetess of the Lord. Waiting there were Creeks and Filipinos, slaves and internees, Guatemalans and Onondagas, anarchists and union organizers, Mexicans and Narragansetts and Hmong and countless others. They presented their petitions and she sang back the sentences.

King Philip, not far from the front of the line, saw us and raised his burden: he was carrying the head of Custer by its long golden locks. As we watched, he drew a Bowie knife and scalped the head in one stroke. The skull fell to the ground; the bloody skin on the hair formed itself into a mouth, which cried out, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.”

We hustled along.

Nearby was a party of Timorese, who had already received their recompense: they were tarring and feathering Henry Kissinger. Nixon wanted to go help, but I was telling him that it wasn’t really our place when a little Lakota boy ran out from under the palm and kicked us each in the shin, hard.

“What was that for?” I yelped, hopping.

“Wakan Tanka has given it to me to kick every white man once,” the little boy replied.

Then he did it again, in the other shin.

“Hey, you already got us!” I said.

“Wakan Tanka is ever generous, wasichu!” he shouted as he scampered away.

“That little bastard,” Nixon grumbled. “Those ungrateful sons of bitches! They’re lucky we ever gave them-“ Before he could rant further, a black-and-white cocker spaniel ran out from the line and dashed after the little boy.

“Checkers!” Nixon shouted. “Checkers! Here, boy! Here!” He began to tremble. “That dog-the girls loved him. They’d get up early to walk him before school. They treated him with such kindness. My precious girls. Checkers, come back! Come back!”

“Dick-“

My mother and my daughters were the only people who ever loved me!

“Dick, get a hold of yourself! You were President of the United States, for pete’s sake!”

With those words he inflated like a life raft and squared his shoulders. “Quite right, and this is too important a night to waste complaining. Low energy level, I think. Can we duck over to the White House and grab a plate of cottage cheese and ketchup? That always hits the spot.”

“There’s no more food, Dick. The food turned out to be made of oil, and we used all the oil. There’s no cottage cheese or ketchup.”

He seemed not to believe me. “Well, it’s a hell of a note when a man can’t get a nice plate of cottage cheese with ketchup.”

Out in the middle of Constitution Ave. sat a Piper Cub, and working on the engine was Howard Hughes. Now it seemed that everyone had found a little of their youth that evening, but the change was most startling with him. No more fingernails, no more germfear; he was black-haired and laughing. He looked strong enough to lay every starlet in the world, then fly them all home on the same enormous plane.

“Turn it over,” he shouted, and the plane made a coughing noise. I noticed Barry Goldwater was sitting in the cockpit.

“I’m sorry, Howard, but there’s no more avgas,” I said.

“Bullshit!” he replied.

“I’m afraid it’s so.”

“No, bullshit,” he said, patting the fuselage. “She’s got a tankful of methane from buffalo chips. No oil shortage is going to keep me on the ground!”

The engine roared to life. Howard jumped in beside Barry and they soared aloft down the mall.

“He was crazy, you know,” Nixon whispered in my ear.

“Be quiet, Dick,” I said.

As we moved farther down the Mall, we found people dancing. A crude stage had been erected, a generator found, and James Brown was putting on a show. The hardest working man in showbiz was not going to let Armageddon slow him down, not with his flexibility returned. He was twisting his way through an extended version of “Say it Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud” when he spotted us.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “Richard Milhous Nixon, Presidentoftheunitedstates! I wantcha give it up, give it up, give it up for him!”

The people cheered for us, because the man on stage told them. Dick smiled and waved back, but I could tell how uncomfortable he was, and it got worse a moment later, when a blur came from the crowd around the stage and slammed right into him.

“Dick!” shouted the blur, Hunter S. Thompson. “You magnificent asshole! This is the only way it could end!” Thompson dropped his two tequila bottles, grabbed Nixon’s head with both hands, and kissed him full on the lips. He held Dick there, struggling, for three breaths, then let go, and raced cackling towards the Capitol.

“Pothead!” Nixon shouted after him.

I pulled Dick away and we continued past the Smithsonian. The nation’s attic had been looted. All the windows were broken. Even as we watched we saw people hauling away bits of the Spirit of St Louis, and Dillinger’s penis.

“Thus falls the rabble,” sneered a man nearby, wearing a pickelhaube and hoisting a beer stein. I recognized him as H.L. Mencken, but was distracted by the structure against which he leaned: a concession stand. A large banner overhead read ICE CREAM 5¢ , but a smaller hand-lettered sign under it said WE’RE OUT. I was disappointed, for I was sore hungry, and I guess you could tell, because John Chapman came up to me. He handed me a Swedenborgian tract with one hand and an apple with the other.

“Thank you kindly,” I said. He smiled and walked west.

At last we came to the Washington Monument. Curiously, there was a ladder propped against it, a golden ladder, very wide, that seemed to go to the top. At the base of that ladder waited a man in a wheelchair and a woman wearing a fur stole.

“Dick!” said the woman. “How marvelous to see you again. Who would have ever thought it would end this way?”

“Er, hello, Mrs. Roosevelt,” Dick muttered.

“Have you met my husband?”

FDR shook both our hands. My fingers ached from his grip. “Good to see you, men. It’s a big night. You’ll want to go on up,” he said.

We approached the ladder.

“She was a communist, you know,” Nixon whispered in my ear.

“Dick, would you shut up?” I said.

We began to climb. As we did, I could see far, further than I should have. The district was aflame in all directions, northwest and northeast and southeast, but–beyond that. Boston sat choked in cobwebs. The spires of New York leaned, collapsed against each other. To the south Atlanta rotted like a flyblown peach.

A quarter of the way up, we found a platform. There another couple waited for us: the Father of his Country, and his wife. Martha greeted us with the soul of Southern hospitality. George gave us both Masonic handshakes and gestured us upward. “Son of the Republic, look and learn,” he told us.

We kept climbing.

Even further I could see. The canyons of Chicago were filled with animal skulls, billions of pigs and cows. In St Louis the Father of Waters went unvexed through the streets; in New Orleans the French Quarter was the home of the eel and crab. Dallas thirsted to nothingness. Denver lay snowbound past the tops of skyscrapers.

As we approached another platform, we heard a sound. A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud weeping. Mary Todd was crying for her sons, all six hundred thousand of them; she refused to be comforted, for they were dead. When we stood before her, with Father Abraham at her side, Nixon, too, began to weep. He collapsed into Lincoln’s arms and cried like a little boy. Lincoln said something to him–I couldn’t hear, it was too low.

Then Father Abraham turned to me, and I could not look him in the face; I was too ashamed. Instead I let my eyes rest on his kindly whiskers. He said nothing to me. He put his hand on my shoulder, a gentle hand, and gestured me up the ladder.

We climbed. Somehow I could see clear across the mountains, across the continent. The last earthquake had found the Late Great State of California. In San Francisco the dead lay in their victorians; in Los Angeles in their bungalows. The Central Valley was now the Central Sea. To the north, Seattle mouldered under the mud of Mount Rainier. With the very last rung, I caught a glimpse of the edge of the world. The queen’s flag waved once more over Oahu, and in Nome non-natives were being pushed at gunpoint into the freezing sea.

My foot touched aluminum.

A cold breeze blew at the peak. It was hard to keep my balance and a long way to fall. A skinny man with an enormous forehead sat there, making something at a portable workbench, softly singing, “If You Could Hie To Kolob.”

“Hello, Philo,” I said.

He looked up, startled. “Oh, hello. Pardon me, I’m just finishing this prototype. I was working in the lab, or at home, or someplace, and I had the most marvelous idea: what if there were a button that, if pressed, would bring An End to the United States, all at once?”

“That’s pretty nifty, Philo,” I said nervously. “I don’t suppose you ran it past the stake president, just to make sure there’s no doctrinal problems?”

“I tried to. The phone was busy. I’m sure it’s OK.”

He was connecting wires within a rectangular oak box about as long as his forearm. On one end was a single brown Bakelite button.

As he worked the world fell away, and we were surrounded by Americans, 232 years of Americans, 401 years of Americans, 50,000 years of Americans. They were waiting for Philo to finish his invention. Beyond them was One, the Judge, watching.

Philo slapped shut the box, and nodded.

“I guess that’s it, then,” I said. “Dick, you get the last word on the United States of America.”

Nixon puffed up again, like a tom turkey on the prowl, swept his arms out and started, “On this historic occasion, we must of course… that is to say… we… our forefathers… America… throughout our proud history… .”

His arms sank and his jowls sagged under the weight of memory.

“We… our country… .”

He paused. And finally said:

“We always wanted to be–better than we were.”

“That’ll do,” I said, and started to cry. “Philo, push the button.” Which he did.

Last night’s dream.

My wife and I are talking in the kitchen of our apartment, which is on the second floor and overlooks a neighbor’s yard. I peer out the window and notice said neighbors moved out, leaving behind a great deal of debris and…

…their alligators. Two alligators, whom I shall refer to now as Littler Alligator (about 8 feet long and piebald) and Huge Alligator (about 10 feet long and glossy green).

What the heck? What is wrong with people? How could they just abandon them that way? My wife and I are both very indignant.

I’m watching out the window, and, to my worry, Huge Alligator is ramming its body against the fence separating the neighbor’s property from our driveway. Sure enough, it smashes through, and is right below our apartment…

…and jumps up two stories and smashes through the window into the kitchen. I didn’t know alligators could do that!

I yell to my wife to call 911 and run to fetch the bullwhip. I guess if you live in a neighborhood with a lot of alligators, you better have a bullwhip. I lash the animal several times, trying to drive it away, until it catches the whip in its mouth. OK, if that’s they way you want it. I use the whip as a fishing line and drag Huge Alligator outside. There it spits out the whip and dashes away.

Sigh. I guess I have a responsibility. Can’t just let these massive killer reptiles run loose. I grab a large butchers knife and began to search around. No sign of any police support yet.

Across the street lives a family in a trailer, and underneath the trailer is a crawl space. Knife at the ready, I get down on my hands & knees and squiggle under there.

Bingo! The trailer family’s alligators are down here, on leashes, eating their dinners. Sure enough, Littler Alligator and Huge Alligator are down here too, trying to steal the poor leashed alligators’ food.

But Huge Alligator spots me, and I guess it’s a grudge now, because it charges right at me. I stab at its face a few times, withdrawing as best I can outside, where….

Sirens and lights. Animal Control is here–finally! I am unable to restrain a note of annoyance in my voice as I tell them where the alligators are. There we go; not my problem any more.

Sheesh. Why do so many folks around here have alligators?

And so to wake.

On Tuesday, our youngest child participated in Crossing the Bridge, the Girl Scout ritual of advancement. At the beginning of the ceremony, as at all Scouting ceremonies, a color guard brought in the Flag. All stood. I stood.

Then all, led by the girls, recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I did not. I do not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, nor to the country for which it stands.

What is a country?

A country is a geographic perimeter, a line in the earth. On one side of the line certain things are instituted, on the other they are not. The earth itself is indistingushed. The line is entirely mental, even when it is marked by warning signs and border crossings. Within that perimeter are parameters: parameters of law, of capital, of economic condition.

A country is an assemblage of officials, both elected and appointed. There are tens of thousand who guide their days, and receive their livelihoods, by and from concrete entities representing the United States of America. Those men and women who act with a certain insignia on their sleeves may be said to be the fingers of the United States.

A country is a habit of thought.

In the early stages of the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson ordered the signal ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. He believed this statement would create a praxis, that it would cause his sailors to act in a certain manner. Two hundred years earlier, this would not have been the case. In the St Crispin’s Day speech, Shakespeare places in King Harry’s mouth many things to inspire his troops. Love of country is not among them. England makes no appearance as an entity, only as a location. In the interval between the two statements, the nation-state appeared. People, mostly in Europe, began thinking there was a “country” to which they belonged, and that this
“country” was a self-evident reality. They acquired those habits of thought, the associations, the words and names to be invoked towards action.

What is my country?

I am an American, a citizen of the United States of America. I was born within the boundaries of the United States, child of two citizens of that country. My grandparents and great-grandparents were likewise citizens of the United States, and now in turn my children.

To be an American is a fascinating thing. Of course, all countries and all peoples are fascinating. But the United States of America is a unique object, in current history, in all of human history. In many ways, the U.S.A. is the age encapsulated. I was born into the richest and most powerful nation in the world, rich and powerful in a way that no nation has ever been, in ways that no nation has ever before had the capability. The Unprecedented Era is the product of the United States, like a Model T or a Zenith television.

I live within the perimeter of the United States. I exist under its laws, under the authority of its officials. More importantly, I act out its habits. The Fourth of July is no ordinary day for me, nor is the first Tuesday in November. I feel a personal resonance with the Revolution and the Civil War, and can imagine those actions in landscapes I know. The generations of my family match the arcs of American history. I can find a place for my loved ones and myself in those events.

I will not say the Pledge of Allegiance because it is unnecessary. The United States of America has my connection; it has no need of my allegiance. I cannot escape my country. If my country does right, I shall, within my power, try to aid it. If my country does wrong, I shall, within my power, try to stymie it. For I am an American, and I believe alongside Abraham Lincoln that it is not so important for God to be on our side as we to be on God’s.

It may be that we are in the last years of the nation-state, that the improved communication & transportation technologies that enabled its birth are undermining and will finally eliminate the concept. It will join the empire and the monarchy in the past. One could make the case that my refusal to say the Pledge is evidence of that decline even within me. But not yet. The words, the flag—I know them. If I forbear the habit of the Pledge, it is in practice of other, more important American habits. That is where I find myself, at the point in history in which I exist, and from there I shall continue in my small way.

Quite some time ago, I stated on this blog my intention to write panegryics. But I didn’t. Until now.

—————————————————————————————————

When I first met Paul Starr, by the Island Inn steps at the Viable Paradise writers workshop, he intimidated me. Here was a polymath: translator, author, musician, editor, programmer. A snappy dresser and a master of sarcasm. For sure, I thought, he’s going to consider me a schmuck. Now, looking back, I realize I never had anything to fear. For above all these things, Paul Starr is a man of great & humane heart.

Paul and I have in common a deep love of Japan. Mine is merely amateur, whereas his is professional. He lives a profession that didn’t really exist thirty years ago: translator of manga and light novels. He is a bridge, transporting the pop culture of one cultural sphere to our own, connecting creators and readers across oceans of incomprehension.

But he doesn’t stop there. Paul is nothing if not audacious. From the ground up, he conceived and founded two SF&F anthologies that then turned into a periodical: The Sockdolager!. He did so because he continually saw people whose writing he respected producing stories that were too idiosyncratic to sell, stories that deserved a platform. It was a noble aim. Out of his own pocket, he kept it going for nine issues, a respectable figure by the standards of the SF&F small press.

In addition to supporting the creativity of others, his own is relentless: music, fiction, postmodern web sites. But my favorite among Paul’s works are the nonfiction essays at We Had To Cross.  The pieces consist of moments, both internal and social. They are confessional, detailed, unsparing, introspective, and compassionate. They appeal to the common trapped nature of humanity, asking the reader to recognize that we’re in the basement together. There’s not a lot of room for free will in Paul’s writing, which I like. The undertow of existence makes frequent appearances. Two essays in particular, “Jack in Texas” and “On Target,” stand out. Each is a photograph from America in our time, a detailed portrait of people and places that typically don’t get much attention.

To read Paul’s work is to hear his laugh, his sardonic lilt, and the joy of his voice when he’s talking about something for which he has sincere enthusiasm (and there’s a lot of those). It’s the voice of someone whose willing to talk about difficult things, because he must, they bubble out. Guilt and anger are no strangers to him. He’s a man with a lot of scars, a man who can’t appreciate himself, which makes folks want to appreciate him all the more, to make up for it. Because there’s so much to appreciate.

Looking back at our first meeting on the steps, it’s funny how wrong I was. It has been a joy realizing just how wrong, and how great a soul is Paul Starr.