Friday, November 30, 2012

greta dirtyfoot

I just wrote this song yesterday. For several months I've had the refrain line running around in my head, unchanged. When our daughter was first walking, she walked around barefoot and her feet got simply filthy on occasion — the birthright of every kid.

I started calling her Greta Dirtyfoot, and the little refrain line came soon after. The other day, I sat down and wrote the whole thing.

Like all such songs, it's mainly, I guess, about my own hopes for my girl in this life. Some think that the world is the playground writ large; I say the playground is simply the whole world writ small.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

now that's spin

Monday, November 19, 2012


Having seen my one hundredth ad for "Black Friday," with absolutely no mention of whatever holiday might come right before it, I've settled on a new theory of holidays. The most important holidays are the least advertised.

Easter is so much less commercializable than Christmas, baby Jesus's birth being much less challenging than an adult Jesus's death and resurrection. A day of Thanksgiving for the bounty we enjoy — a day of satisfaction in abundance, the antithesis of everything advertising stands for — is worth celebrating if for no other reason than that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Saturday, November 10, 2012

annals of mortification, vol I

The first in a series recounting social actions I myself have witnessed first-hand. All names have been changed.

Bernadette and Sophia are sitting around, talking. Peter comes up.

Peter: Hey, Bernadette! Hey, Sophia! What's goin' on?

Bernadette: See, Sophia, he knows you're alive!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

a shining city on a hill

Some of us remember a day when people in the rest of the world said, "How great is the democracy of the United States, foe of tyrants, the land of liberty. May its universal values enlighten the world."

Do you remember that day? It was yesterday, November 6th, 2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

columbus, and the death and survival of races

On Columbus Day, Catherine and I took Greta right down the street to Kiddie Park, one of a vanishing breed of mom-and-pop amusement parks for kids. The park is usually not open on Mondays, but had opened just for Columbus Day, and was more packed with people than we'd ever seen it.

At some point during the day, it struck me as I looked around that we were the only Anglos in the whole place. The park was mostly run and patronized by people for whom the arrival of Columbus was a death knell. With explorers came new diseases and germs, and cattle with their diseases and germs, all of which hit an utterly vulnerable population, like the Bubonic Plague times three.

In the 1330s the plague killed nearly a third of Europe. In the 1500s, smallpox and anthrax and a hundred other Old World bugs killed ninety-five percent of the Americas. This is stuff we didn't study when I was a kid, but is now common knowledge, the kind of knowledge called mesofacts (like the fact that we have several new elements in the periodic table! Who knew! Did you?), based on research that has completely overturned our ideas of what these continents were like and what happened to the people on them.

A thriving population, as dense as that of Europe or Asia at the time, with at least a few cities as big as London or Paris (one where Mexico City is now; another where St Louis is now; another where the Amazon rain forest is now, thrillingly recounted in David Grann's The Lost City of Z and its followups) — a thriving population not decimated, for "decimated" means you lose a tenth, but, what, nona-decimated? What's the word for losing 95 percent of your population? Destroyed? Nearly destroyed, but not quite.

It turns out that we're living in one of those post-apocalyptic scenarios we so love to see in movies like The Book of Eli. These populations were among the healthiest in history, but (therefore) vulnerable to all sorts of diseases that Mithridatean Europeans had become immune to. They were like a superhealthy kid who never had chicken pox. The axe was waiting to fall. It just so happened to fall the way it did; if not, it undoubtedly would have fallen later. If the Native Americans hadn't been so vulnerable, we could imagine a history more like that of India, with colonization, rebellion, and cultural superiority/inferiority complexes and all that. But that's not how it happened.

Which means that every mestizo that you know is descended from the 5 percent.

Interesting, then, that that proud history is so buried, often by the ones who should be proudest not to bury it. For instance, the word "Mexican," which derives from one of the populations that mixed profitably with Europeans just a bit south of here, has become a pejorative, supplanted by the more respectable-sounding "Hispanic" in recent decades. "Hispanic," of course, is a word that refers not to any Native American population but rather to the inhabitants of Spain. The word "Hispanic," the way we norteamericanos use it, could mean a person from Spain or a more-or-less purely descended Spanish person from Venezuela, or a more-or-less purely descended Spanish person from Mexico, or a mixed-ancestry person from either Venezuela or Mexico. Most "Hispanics" in Texas, naturally, are better called Mexican. Why lump oneself into that larger catchall?

Many accept the term "Mexican-American." But even that has begun to carry a pejorative sense. My 8-year-old nephew refuses to call the domino game Mexican Train by its name because he's been so thoroughly taught that that word is an insult.

Hispanic life in the US is filled with such ironies. Grab any handful of academic papers that talk about it and about language, and most of them (95 percent, quizas?) will refer to Spanish as the language of the oppressed, and English as the language of the oppressor. But in reality, of course, it is Spanish that is the language of the oppressor, the invader, the conqueror, the conquistador. The languages of the true oppressed, ramrodded, bullied, defeated peoples have nearly disappeared. (To be fair, even in these papers, academics often prefer the term Chicano to Hispanic, "Chicano" being derived from "Mexicano," which then preserves the Nahuatl name, even as it's attached to the Spanish language.)

Of course, the Spanish culture of the brown-skinned people that make up a majority of San Antonians and a sizable number of Texans is a matter of interest. It's where they got their language and many of their customs. But of equal or maybe greater interest is where they got their brown skin, and many of their other customs. They're the hardiest of Native Americans, the ones who didn't get killed off in waves of disease, the survivors, the ones who married out and didn't die out, the five percent.

All of our categories are a bit arbitrary. I just got through calling Catherine and Greta and myself "Anglo," when in fact none of us is strictly Anglo. There's plenty of recent pan-European (and, probably, Native American and African) blood in our veins. But there you have it. There we were, "whites" and mestizos at an amusement park, all of us fairly forgetful of the dramatic history carried in our very flesh.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

the 57 and all saints

All Saints' Day.

It's a day of celebrating those who came before us: not just the big names, but your great-grandparents and their great-grandparents, and all those whose names we never knew, that exponentially expanding crowd of people it took to give the world that person known as you.

I'd say it's a good day to celebrate an altogether different kind of saint, the SM57.

What's that, you say? Why, only the just-about-most-used microphone in the world.

It's the Honda Civic of microphones, widespread and long-lasting and well-tuned and impervious to fashion as it is impervious to rough-and-tumble treatment. One of those rare instances of excellence rewarded by popularity.

Like every modern saint, it's preceded and supported by a host of others. Its official name is the Unidyne 3. The Unidyne that came before it is an American icon, the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow of microphones, instantly recognizable. This Unidyne, though, the SM57, is invisible rather than iconic. It was developed just around the time that Helvetica was gaining ascendancy as a modern, neutral, inevitable — and eventually ubiquitous — typeface, and it serves the exact same purpose in the world of microphones. Like the gently curved kicker of Helvetica's R, the frequency response of a 57 is odd but fitting, a bit uneven in precisely the right way. It makes things sound good.

But there are others in the 57's past, countless thousands of others. A while back, John Gump wrote up an enthusiastic appreciation of the SM57, showing that every millimeter of it "is a collective result of the disparate knowledge of countless people: electrical engineers, acousticians, materials scientists, machinists, and manufacturers." The hours and years packed into every 57! Read it and marvel.

And the next time you find yourself in front of one, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, cast off the chains that bind you.