Top Ten (or so) Reasons to see Much Ado about Zombies

The Covey Center production of Much Ado About Zombies, written by Becky Baker and William Shakespeare, and directed by yours truly, opens Friday, Oct. 24. Tickets available here. There’s also a super awesome promotional video, featuring Barrett Ogden, Ashley Lammi and Archie Crisanto, doing lines from the play that their characters never actually speak, but why quibble?  If you live in Provo, you should see this show. If you live in Orem, or anywhere in Utah north of St. George or south of Idaho, you should see it.  Here’s a top Ten (or so) list of reasons why:

Top Ten (or maybe thirteen) List of Reasons to See the Covey Center Much Ado About Zombies.

10) It’s Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Only with zombies. One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, only with 50% more zombies than ever before!

9) There’s a strange rumor, as yet unconfirmed, of a unexplained crack in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire England. Another rumor, also unconfirmed, describes a shambling bald bearded figure, dressed in decayed Jacobean clothing, stowing away aboard a fishing trawler operating out of Cornwall. Also, hobos have reported a similar figure climbing onto a train in Halifax, heading westward. One hobo said he overheard this same personage muttering about those ‘who doth disturb these unquiet denizens of underfiend realms’ under his breath. Another hobo, on the same train, had his brains eaten. Who knows what all this portends?

8) We’re talkin’ pure steampunk eye candy. Sets, costumes, lighting, makeup: all of it wicked awesome.

7) You can see Sierra Docken, a snarling, biting, zombie violinist. Also a string zombie trio performing Pachelbel as never before.

6) Also Archie Crisanto, as Friar Frank, a grave robbing, cigarette smoking, gun wielding pastor straight from Hell’s Kitchen.

5) You know the part of Hero? Sweet, innocent, bland Hero, Claudio’s fiancee, Beatrice’s cousin, Leonato’s daughter, and one of the dullest female characters in Shakespeare? Yeah, not in our version. Emily Siwachok creates an edgy, punk rock, feminist Hero. She’s an anti-Hero! (rimshot).

4) Janiel Miller rocks out as Balthazar, Leonato’s court musician and disease vector. With all original music by Keaton Anderson. (Who is himself not, as far as I know, an undead disease vector).

3) So many little touches. The blood in Zombie Kevin’s beard. The visor eye makeup for Conrade (Kristen Perkins). Plus Conrade herself, murderous, but at least conflicted about it. The bayonet at the end of Andrea Mullins’ rifle. Mark Buchanan’s monkish garb. The spinning gears. The fact that the zombie virus glows. Blacklight zombie makeup. The huge honkin’ syringe.

2) Megan Graves, a lovely young woman, relishing a letter from her lover, happily strolls along. And is pursued and eaten by zombies. You know, like happens sometimes.

1) Shakespeare’s fun! Zombies are fun! Dub step dancing: fun!

0) Barrett Ogden and Ashley Lammi make a terrific Benedick and Beatrice. Carter Peterson, an amazing physical actor, is a superb Claudio. Jason Hagey and Chris Curlett make a wonderful Leonato/Don Pedro. Can’t say enough about Sophie Determan and Nick Black as that charming sociopathic couple, Margaret and Borachio. And Jennifer Mustoe, Caden Mustoe and Andrea Mullen, as the bumbling law enforcement team of Dogberry, Verges and Ani. Hannah Witkin’s zombie walk, and dancing.  Really, the cast is phenomonal. And I’m entirely, completely objective.

-1) And Kat Webb’s Don John is as nasty a villain as any in Shakespeare. And she wears a black cape to prove it.

-2) Plus Leah Hodson. Who plays the lovesick Messenger, mad about Claudio, but also pursued by Zombie Kevin. And is also a fine zombie cellist. Who told me at our audition that she was kinda afraid of zombies, but now is one.

So there you go! Top Ten (or so) reasons to see it!  Tickets selling fast! And can sell faster if you call now!  And if you are able to come, I know you’ll have a good time.  Promise.

 

Much Ado about problems, and solutions

I am currently directing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo. Make that Much Ado About Zombies, since that’s what we’re calling it. On account of us having zombies in it, see? It’s going to be very fun.  We open Oct. 24, and you can buy tickets here.

I’m really enjoying the experience. Love the cast, love the design team I’m working with, and of course, it’s a pure joy to work with Shakespeare’s text, even in this high concept, truncated version. What’s been interesting, though, is to see the way in which adding zombies not only clarifies the text, but solves textual problems in the text.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s basically a romantic comedy about two couples. Beatrice and Benedick are two smart, witty, clever people who can’t stop sniping at each other. Their friends are amused, in fact, by the funny but nasty things they say to each other every time they meet. And they’re both absolutely determined never to marry. No one they meet will ever be good enough for them. The script does hint that they have a past as well, that they were in a relationship once, and it was horrible. So Don Pedro, Benedick’s boss, decides to play matchmaker. He has a loud conversation with her uncle, which he intends Benedick to overhear, about how much Beatrice is into him. Meanwhile, Hero, Beatrice’s cousin and friend, has a similar overheard conversation about Benedick, about how much he wishes he could tell Beatrice that he loves her.  So Beatrice and Benedick, separately, overhear their friends talking about them, and about how each of them is secretly in love with the other, and this brings about their eventual reconciliation and subsequent marriage.  It’s fun stuff, and I have the actors to pull it off; both my Beatrice, Ashley Lammi, and my Benedick, Barrett Ogden, are terrific.

But the other love story involves Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, and Claudio, Benedick’s best friend. Theirs is, initially, a more conventional love story. They meet, and Claudio gets Don Pedro to negotiate with her uncle, Leonato, on his behalf, for her hand. Everything works out, until Don John, Don Pedro’s brother sister (in our production) a real trouble-maker, conspires to destroy their happiness. She falsely accuses Hero of sexual misconduct, on Hero’s wedding day, in a terrible, ugly scene of betrayal and poisonous destruction. Hero faints, and, advised by Friar Francis (one of those all-knowing Shakespeare friars), “dies.” That is, Francis urges B and B to tell folks that Hero has died from the shock of the whole ghastly experience, so at least everyone’ll all feel bad for her. Then, when the dumb-as-a-post constable Dogberry more or less accidentally uncovers the whole plot, Don John is exposed, Claudio forgives Hero, and they’re married, to live happily ever after.

There are two problems with the Hero/Claudio scenario. The first is that Hero and Claudio are underwritten and not-very-interesting characters. Hero is just a sweet young girl, innocent and nice. Claudio is noble, but not very bright. It’s hard to care about their story, except of course to feel bad for Hero, getting caught up in the middle of the nastiest sibling rivalry in Shakespeare, that of Don Pedro and Don John.

But the other problem is more intractable. It makes sense that Claudio would forgive Hero once he realizes she’s innocent of the charges that Don John has made.  But why would Hero forgive him? He’s just publicly, in church, in front of all their friends, on her wedding day, accused her of being a whore.  I can’t imagine any situation being more personal or more painful. Fine; he learns she’s innocent; he forgives her. But her father, Leonato, is so angry about this false accusation that he challenges Claudio to a duel. Why would Hero be okay subsequently marrying the jerk? Why (to put it in historical context) would her father agree to it?  Shakespeare doesn’t explain.  He basically glosses over the problem. It’s a comedy; everyone gets married at the end.

Not to brag or anything, but I honestly think we solve both problems.  The first problem, the Hero=boring problem, we solve by having her not be boring. Our Hero, a terrific actress named Emily Siwachok, plays Hero with sass and independence and attitude, playing nearly every line sarcastically.  She’s a mechanic, a tool-belt wearing blue collar gal, a fixer of machine guns and sharpener of knives.  She’s exciting and fun. And our Claudio, Carter Peterson, is one of the first characters to become a zombie. So he’s in conflict in every scene, fighting between his zombie tendencies and his love for Emily. (He’s also a brilliant physical actor).

We added another scene too. Shakespeare wrote song lyrics for the play, including “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,” set many times by many composers.  We’ve hired a composer of our own, Keaton Anderson, who gave the song a zombie-punk vibe. Our Balthazar, Janiel Miller, sings it, but it really rocks; pretty soon, Claudio has to dance. Hero sees him, and dances too.  I mean, what brings two people together better than a love of the same music? Right? (Plus, Carter Peterson’s dancing is a show-stopper).

But the zombie thing really solves the problem of the play’s ending, of Hero’s willingness to forgive Claudio and marry him. Because him being a jerk turns out to not  be his fault.  He believes Don John and rejects Hero because he’s a zombie.  He’s impaired.  It wasn’t him doing it. And when she wakes up at her own funeral, she’s a zombie too. But true love conquers all, and when the two of them see each other, they are able to fight off the zombie virus, and embrace.

It’s a lovely moment, if I have to say so myself. But if it works, it’ll be because our concept (Much Ado, with zombies), really works.  A good concept will do that for you. Shakespeare wrote magnificent characters, wonderful plays, and the greatest theatrical dialogue of all time.  But sometimes plot points don’t, actually, make sense.  That presents a challenge for a director and a cast.  I’m proud of our solutions here.

Mr. Mercedes: Book Review

Stephen King has published 55 novels, pretty much all of them best-sellers. Heaven knows how many short stories, novelettes, screenplays, teleplays and even a couple of non-fiction works have poured from his prolific pen. He’s sixty seven years old, and pretty much defines ‘rich and successful.’ His most recent novel, Mr. Mercedes, came out in June, and he has two more novels finished and awaiting publication, one of them a sequel to this one.  I haven’t read all his novels, but I have certainly read most of them. I think he’s a very fine writer, imaginative and consistently interesting.

And Mr. Mercedes certainly must be reckoned among the best works of his career. It’s also stylistically quite different from his earlier works.  And that seems to me rather remarkable. For a writer of his age and with his track record to set himself the challenge of refining his craft strikes me as unusual and laudable.

Because up to now, Stephen King has been known almost entirely as a writer of horror novels. Specifically, he’s known for placing classic horror novel tropes in recognizable contemporary settings. ‘salem’s Lot is a vampire novel, set in a modern city; The Shining, a haunted house story set in a ski lodge/hotel, The Stand, apocalyptic fantasy, set in a recognizable American west. Even The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about an adolescent girl lost in a forest, had a Satanically possessed bear. He loves ghosts and ghouls, loves to tell stories of ordinary people facing some kind of ultimate, supernatural Evil.

But Mr. Mercedes isn’t a horror novel in any of those ways; there’s nothing supernatural in it. It’s still about Evil, but in this case, it’s about a common psychopath, a murderous madman, recognizable as every day’s headlines.

His dedicatory note reads “thinking of James M. Cain,” followed by this quotation: “they threw me off the haytruck about noon.” That is, of course, the opening line to Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the classic novels of American hard-boiled detective fiction. Mr. Mercedes is basically King’s attempt to write a detective novel in the style of guys like Cain and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and as later refined by the greatest of them all, Elmore Leonard. It features a cynical, past-his-prime private detective, a blonde with a mysterious past, a couple of sidekicks, and an intriguing mystery. At one point, the novel even makes passing mention of Humphrey Bogart. It’s clearly an homage.

But it’s updated, of course, and set in our world, today. Hammett and Chandler’s detectives were cynical about police corruption and Prohibition and the mob; King’s hero, retired police detective Bill Hodges, contends with the aftermath of the world-wide financial crisis, and the villain of the piece imagines himself another 9/11 terrorist, and hopes to beat the death toll of the World Trade Center attacks. And of course, Hodges’ sidekicks are better than he is with computers.

Even the writing style is an homage. Cain was famous for the spare economy of his prose, which is not something you would say about Stephen King, who is rather more addicted to the baroque. “They threw me off the haytruck about noon,” is a terrific opening, straightforward and evocative.  King begins Mr. Mercedes thus: “Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand.”  Simple, strong.

I’m cheating, though; that’s the first line of the first chapter, but the book begins with a preface. That’s King’s forte: he doesn’t start with the protagonist, he starts with the villain. He starts with Evil.  It’s the Great Recession. The mayor of a midwest city (unspecified) has announced a job fair; the night before, the unemployed begin to gather. It’s a damp night, not rainy but misty, foggy. Hundreds of people queueing up, many with sleeping bags, clumped together by the City Center entrance. Out of the mist, a Mercedes sedan emerges, smashed into the crowd, killing eight, badly injuring many more. Just as suddenly, the Mercedes guns it away. It’s found a few blocks away, abandoned. A stolen vehicle, no prints, no DNA or hair samples left behind. A senseless killing, a tragedy, an act of terror. And no clues as to who-dun-it.

A few months later, the lead detective on the case, Bill Hodges, has retired, and is contemplating suicide. Hodges is sixty one, overweight, at a loss, now that the one thing on earth he was good at has been taken from him. And then, suddenly, he’s galvanized when he gets a taunting letter from the Mercedes killer. The rest of the novel is about a kind of psychological warware between Hodges and Mr. Mercedes.

We get to know the villain too, a nerd-herd type computer tech named Brady Hartfield. He’s a completely convincing bad guy, a profiler’s dream, but also weirdly sympathetic, like Arnie in Christine, or Jack Torrance in The Shining (the novel, not the movie, where Jack Nicholson is devilish from the get-go). There’s another villain in Brady’s background, too; his alcoholic and murderous mother, with whom he has a believable but incredibly troubling incestuous relationship.

But that’s it. Brady’s not possessed by some evil spirit and his Mom is not troubled by ghosts. No ghouls, no phantoms, no alien forces; nothing supernatural at all. Just a creepy weirdo killer and a good cop, past his prime, trying to catch him before he kills again.

It makes for a terrific read, can’t-put-it-down past-midnight page turner. Of course, I won’t give away the ending. I’ll just say that my heart was thumping the whole last hundred pages. I can’t tell you how much I admire this. I love it when good writers set themselves challenges.

ReReading Job: Book review

Michael Austin’s Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem is a terrific book; smart, thoughtful, funny. I honestly didn’t think a literary scholar’s close reading of the (boring) Book of Job would be so compulsively readable. I didn’t think it would be the kind of book I would find myself unable to put down at two o’clock in the morning. Honestly, I thought reading it would be kind of a chore; that I would trudge my way through it dutifully, seeking a nugget of enlightenment in the mucky stream of turgid prose. Instead, I got all caught up in it.

This isn’t a hard book to recommend–go, now, buy it, read it.  But the task of recommending it requires that I acknowledge some barriers at least some of my friends are likely to put up.  First of all, Austin is openly LDS, and gives Job an LDS reading.  For some of you, that’s a problem. You’re likely thinking, “crap, an apologetic reading of Job. Pass.” But it’s not. It’s not, like, a correlated reading of the text; nothing like that at all.  This is Job from the perspective of a very smart, very well read, first-rate literary scholar, who also happens to be LDS, and whose initial personal history with the text (which he acknowledges), was that of an LDS kid struggling to read a boring book he didn’t understand.

It’s also possible, of course, that some of you might buy the book hoping for a correlated reading of the text, hoping, in fact, for something authoritative and definitive and McConkey-ish.  You won’t find that here either. This is a literary scholar reading a poem, reading it as a poem. An inspired poem, to be sure, but a poem nonetheless, a work of fiction, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a work of fiction. Austin doesn’t know, for example, if Job actually existed. He doesn’t care; he doesn’t think that’s a significant issue with the text. He wants to engage with the text as it stands, and he wants us to engage with it along with him. And what I’m trying to convince you is that you should, go on the journey the text demands of us.

The fact is, most people (most Mormons, but also most Christians) share a particular reading of Job built largely on the frame story found in Job‘s first two chapters, and final chapter.  Job was a wealthy man, who is tested by God (or by Satan, with God’s permission), is remarkably patient despite his afflictions, and is eventually rewarded by God with even better stuff than he had when the whole thing started.

I don’t want to give too much away, but what Austin wants to persuade you is that the frame story, the suffering patient Job rewarded story is the Disney version. And that all the middle chapters are the meat of the poem, and a profound and powerful deconstruction of the frame story. The body of the poem is entirely different from the frame story, different in approach, in style, in language and in intent. And that’s a good thing.

Because the case Satan makes in the frame story is particularly insidious. If God rewards good actions and punishes bad ones, if that’s all that’s going on, then nobody is actually good. We’re lab rats in a Pavlovian experiment based on a sophisticated reward/punishment binary. Is Job good? If he’s only good because he expects to be rewarded for being good, and expects as well to be punished if he isn’t good, then his supposed goodness is entirely illusionary.

Job’s friends insist that he must have sinned, for why else has he suffered such dreadful misfortune?  But he knows perfectly well that he hasn’t sinned and that the bad things that have happened to him are entirely arbitrary. And he isn’t remotely patient about it. He’s furious, and repeatedly and powerfully curses God for allowing him to suffer so. Job’s suffering is inexplicable, and one of the purposes of the poem is to suggest that inexplicable suffering is part of mortality.  We need to get our heads around that reality.

I don’t want to go on and on. Suffice it to say that Austin writes in a clear, fresh, clean, readable prose blessedly lacking in theoretical jargon or supererogatory turgidity. That I’ve spent more time thinking about this book than any other I’ve read for awhile, and that it made me re-read Job.

I just have one tiny quibble. I don’t think Job‘s a poem; I think it’s a play. That opening scene is theologically weird, but it’s dramaturgically sound; neat way to frame a tale. And most of it’s in dialogue. I have no idea what Job’s performance history might be, if it had one, but it would certainly work as a play, and many of the best literary works that it’s inspired are plays.

But that’s also not a crucial point. This is a great book.  Buy it. Read it. Now.

Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.

 

Poetry slam in Provo

Every Thursday night, at Enliten Bakery in Provo, there’s a poetry slam.  Called Speak Your Mind, it’s an open mic opportunity to read, recite or free-style poetry.  Last night, Speak Your Mind’s head gurupoet-in-chief, grand doyenne, Marianne Hales Harding (a good friend of many years’ standing) invited me to be the featured writer.  I figured, anything to help make Provo cooler.  I had a ball.

I don’t know how many people eventually showed up–maybe 50.  Of those who did come, maybe 15 or so actually read/performed.  Many were younger folks, but there were a few people closer to my age, including some very accomplished poets.  A young woman showed up for the first time, and I thought her poems (she read, I think, two) were splendid.  A young girl wrote with aching honesty about relationships and failures and how hard it can be just to break through all the barriers we humans put up.  A young guy wrote with ferocity and courage and passion about dualities and dualisms now and in the past. Marianne recited a terrific poem about tampons. And we snapped our fingers (and clapped some too), and the whole thing was great fun.

Enliten Bakery makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches on the planet.  And it’s management is super-cool, as good as their food.  They’ve agreed to a ‘no censorship’ policy, and I think that’s one of the things that made the night work so well.  If a poet’s muse requires the occasional dropping of an F-bomb or two, so be it–writers have to feel able to express any thought, any emotion, any sentiment, and that means using any language suited to the work.  And especially when you’re freestyling.  Especially then.

I was the ‘featured writer,’ which meant I got to go first, a scary prospect.  And I am most emphatically not a poet.  I am a playwright first, an essayist/blogger second, a critic third, and other kinds of writing are way down the list.  I’ve written a novel, I’ve written short stories, I’ve written some pretty terrible poetry, but mostly, I’m a character/setting/conflict guy.

So I imagined a short scene, a date, in which the guy has asked the girl, for their second date, to read a book before-hand, to give the date some focus.  Which she has agreed to, for reasons known only to herself.  The book he gives her is one that, he says, is the most important book in the world to him, the book that defines him as nothing else on earth defines him, and it’s not that she has to like it, he’s fine if she doesn’t like it, but she does need to engage with it.  Please?  And the book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Which she totally hates.  She’s a feminist; it’s a rape-y book, it’s contemptible.  It’s the worst book ever written.  Mein Kampf, he counters?  It’s the second worst book ever written, she replies.

So driving over to the event, I thought about that situation, and these two people, and I thought I’d freestyle a dialogue, me playing both characters, just to see what happened.  An approximation of my own writing method, maybe.  Anyway, I did it.  Driving in, the sun was low enough that I needed my sunglasses, and I figured, hey, poetry slam, so I kept ‘em on.  And my wife is out of town, so I haven’t shaved since Monday.  All part of the look.

It went okay.  I thought the scene had a strong opening, a pretty solid closing, lagged a bit in the middle.  I think I’m going to actually write it, see if it fits into something else I’m working on.  And then I figured, what the heck, it’s a poetry slam, so I freestyled a second piece, a poem this time.  A few weeks ago, I bought a new chair, a recliner, the single most comfortable piece of furniture I have ever owned.  So I called the poem “Recliner porn,” and it went okay, got some laughs, though it sort of fizzled at the end. So I sat down to enjoy everyone else’s poetry.

And half-way through, I realized I had another poem I needed to write and recite that night.  I’ve been angry for days, and anger is important, always write when angry, do not lose that energy.  So I grabbed a pen and a napkin, and wrote it, and Marianne slotted me in again at the end.  Here it is.  I call it: Detritus.

Detritus

 

What are we doing?

What are we doing?

I see them, red faced white women faces like harpies and gorgons and Scylla and Charybdis, nightmare faces dredged from the depths of a shared mythos, screaming, like voices from the past (screaming ‘nigger nigger nigger’ at 9 girls in Little Rock the year after I was born), now, today, screaming ‘go away.’  ‘Return to sender.’ ‘We do not want your diseases’ (ebola smallpox dengue fever none of them found in Honduras) at a yellow bus filled with brown-skinned children.

I saw.

60 kids wrapped in a quilt and tied to the roof of a train at a Texican border saying help us help us help us please.

We need Pampers

formula

diaper rash creme

fleeing murder and raped moms and sisters families blown apart.  Rubble and garbage and gnawing empty bellies

Because cities implode under the weight of violence

Because America’s hedgefund managers + dentists + CPAs + corporate attorneys + insurance adjusters + assistant managers + executive vice-presidents + used car dealers + realtors + computer programmers + ad execs + personal trainers

need

crave

candy with which to stuff their aquiline noses

and demand creates supply

and illegality restricts supply

and corporations we call ‘cartels’

and small businesses we call ‘gangs’

and salesman we call ‘dealers’

feed that need feed that need feed that need

and the kids wrapped in quilts are collateral damage we’d just as soon sweep into dustbins

detritus.

What are we doing?

I can take four

We have a guest room in the basement

We can take four

I know, preachy, plus political poetry has a shelf life of four and half minutes.  Given time, I could re-work it, maybe.  But I still have the napkin–I just transcribed it above.  Writing is re-writing, but sometimes the muse speaks a little, and those moments are maybe worth memorializing too.

And when it was done, the poets, kids and old guys and 30 something women, all just writers, all just trying to say something that matters, to us and each other, awkwardly fist-bumped and high fived and handshakes.  Every poem earned its fingersnaps; every poet deserves to be remembered.

Thursday nights, Enliten Bakery.  I’m going back.

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells: Book Review

Do you know who Jeeves is?  What about Bertie Wooster?  Have you read any of the P. G. Wodehouse novels featuring those two characters?  Did you see any of the BBC television series, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie?  Do the names Gussie Fink-Nottle or Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright or Roderick Spode resonate with you?  Have you visited the country estates of either of the Aunts, Agatha (shudder) or Dahlia (cheers)?

Either you know what I’m talking about, or you have no idea. To elucidate: Jeeves and Wooster are the main characters in a series of comic novels and short stories by P. G. Wodehouse, set in the world of a rather doltish British upper class in the ’20s and ’30s.  Bertie Wooster is a wealthy young man-about-town, a boulevardier and bon vivant, and a young man of negligible intelligence but endless good cheer and loyalty.  Jeeves is his gentleman’s personal gentleman; his valet.  The joke is that Jeeves is much more intelligent, better read and resourceful than Bertie, and the plots of all the novels involve Jeeves extricating his master from some scrape, difficulty, or unwanted romantic entanglement.

But it’s the writing style that makes the novels so delightful.  They’re all written from Bertie’s p.o.v., first person, and he’s a most agreeable narrator.  He writes in a combination of British upper-crust private school slang, with the odd (mangled) famous quotation from classic literature.  He makes for an agreeable literary companion.  I know I’m not alone when I say I love these books passionately.  I have read them all repeatedly, and seen every episode of the BBC series.  I’m a Jeeves fan.

And that’s why I am delighted to say, with words of trembling excitement, that a new Jeeves novel has appeared.  And it’s wonderful.

P. G. Wodehouse died in 1975.  And, no, there hasn’t been a lost manuscript discovered or anything like that.  But an author named Sebastian Faulks has written a novel in the Wodehouse style, which I just finished reading. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.  2013, St. Martin’s Press.  And I was prepared to be a severe and censorious critic.  I don’t know this Faulks person, and have no reason to trust him (though he’s a fine novelist, with a dozen published books).  But on the book jacket, I read high praise for it from Jeeves himself; that is to say, Stephen Fry.  And equally high praise from Bertie Wooster–Hugh Laurie, in other words.  And so opened the book, and I read.

I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone stairs.  After a moment of floundering in the darkness, I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise; the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock.  There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling match before I was able to shove the wretched thing underneath the mattress.

It was a panting and lightly perspiring B. Wooster who then consulted his wristwatch to find that it was, in fact, six o’clock–the appointed hour at which I was to throw off the bonds of slumber and rise to tackle my new duties.

This was a dashed sight harder than it sounds.  Whoever had designed the pallaise on which I had lain these last seven hours had clearly been of the opinion that nature’s sweet restorer, as I have heard Jeeves call it, can get the job done in five-minute bursts.

And I was hooked.  He got, this Faulks cove, he captured the voice.  This opening isn’t the best stretch of prose in the novel, but it’ll do, and what follows is borderline inspired. Nothing in the book rings false.  It’s a Jeeves and Wooster novel, the same characters, the same hi-jinks, the same difficulties encountered and overcome.

And yet, also not.  Because the central plot of the Wodehouse novels pretty much always involved Bertie becoming inadvertently (and misguidedly) engaged to be married.  Often, he becomes involved with women of forceful personality and strong opinions, who insist that something can be made of Bertie, if only he’d apply himself. Honoria Glossop comes to mind; an attractive and intelligent woman who, frankly, rather terrifies poor Bertie, who really doesn’t want to be improved at all.  Or, he becomes betrothed to women who seem likely get Bertie in all kinds of trouble–party girls with a knack for getting their menfolk to take the fall for mischief they’ve concocted; Bobbie Wickham, for example.  Or, finally, he falls for the whimsical and poetic charms of a Madeline Bassett, who thinks the stars are God’s personal daisy chain; a ghastly thought, for Bertie.  Bertie frequently becomes engaged, but never quite gets married, because Jeeves pulls him back from the brink every time.

But what if there were a girl who was right for Bertie, a girl who he genuinely could be happy with?  What would Jeeves do?  Would Jeeves use his intellect and imagination to push it along, to find ways to get Bertie and the Right Girl together?  And so, in this novel, we see Bertie the suitor, Bertie really genuinely in love.  And the girl, in this case, is perfect for him.

She’s perfect for him because she notices something about Bertie that’s absolutely central to the book, but that other women have failed, in the previous novels, to notice; Bertie’s kindness.  It permeates the Wodehouse novels, but quietly, unremarked upon.  Bertie is, to be sure, a dim bulb in many respects.  He’s a man of simple pleasures, and intellectual stimulation is not among those pleasures.  But he’s loyal to a fault, and the best friend in the world.  He’s genuinely, remarkably, consistently kind.

Jeeves knows it.  Jeeves loves Bertie too.  And Jeeves has a love interest as well in this novel.

I laughed a lot when reading this novel.  But at the end, I also cried.  It’s a wonderful read, and the ending is splendid, just right.  Sebastian Faulks has done something I would not have believed possible.  He has written a delightful novel, one that fits perfectly into the Jeeves/Wooster corpus.  But it’s also a valedictory novel, a lovely coda to the series.  Bertie Wooster deserves, finally, to be happy.  In this novel, he gets to be.  Buy it.  Read it.  it’s great.

Jesus: A Pilgrimage, book review

Every day, just after breakfast, for the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a morning devotional with this lovely book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It’s by a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who also works as a ‘spiritual director.’  I’d never heard of that particular calling before, but essentially, a spiritual director is someone who works with people to help them understand the specific ways God may be working in their lives.  In any event, I can see how his work informs this book.

A few years back, Father Martin went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In each of this book’s twenty-five chapters, he talks about a place in the Holy Land that he visited, his experiences there, the insights he gained, contemporary Bible scholarship about those places or the events that took place in them, and a quiet meditation on the larger themes suggested by the New Testament.  He writes with such good cheer, humor and optimism that he’s a delightful companion for this kind of spiritual journey.  But the emphasis is always on the scripture itself, on his own prayer-life, and on both the historical Jesus, and his own personal encounter with Jesus-the-divine.

What I found was that this wasn’t a book that’s meant to be read straight through, like most books.  It’s rather a book meant to be savored, a chapter at a time, quietly meditating and praying each morning. As I read it, I found myself remembering my own visit to Israel, back in the late 90′s. I remember visiting the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian vendors, and their good cheer and kindness, and how fun it was to bargain with them.  It came rushing back, all of it.

And I love Father Martin’s insights.

Consider his words “Blessed are the poor.” Not every poor person is grateful or generous.  And grinding poverty is an evil. But Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in a poor village, knew that we can often learn from the poor.  Jesus comments about poverty are frequent in the gospels, so it’s always surprising when professed Christians set them aside.  But Jesus is saying that more than helping the poor and more than combating the systems that keeps them poor, we must become like them, in their simplicity, generosity and dependence on God.  We are to become poor ourselves, to strip away everything that keeps us from God.

Naive?  Possibly.  But in an America where so much rhetoric is focused on the poor as ‘takers,’ it’s refreshing to see this modern King Benjamin, focusing on the way we all of us must rely on the bounty of God.  And this is an earned insight; Father Martin spent years working with the super-poor in Kenya.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  At the time I was reading it, I realized that I was, unaccountably, angry.  A lot. I don’t have a lot to be angry about, honestly.  I’m comfortably enough off financially.  I have a wonderful family, and a wife who loves me and who I adore. But years of chronic illness had begun to drain my patience. I was tired of constant pain, tired of being unable to walk more than fifty yards at a time, tired of feeling exhausted and without energy.  And so even the most minor slights began to feel like major insults.  And I woke every day, and went to bed every night, tensed with anger and resentment.

But as a Christian, as a Mormon, as someone who genuinely would like to live by the Sermon on the Mount, I needed to find some perspective.  I needed to cultivate gratitude, as the Beatitudes urge us to.  I needed to say “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”  I needed to embrace the richness and joy of life, and let minor tribulations go. I needed to continue to see my illness as a great blessing, and not as a limitation.  I needed to pray again. I needed to worship.

And then this book fell into my hands.  And I read it, one chapter a day, for a little shy of a month.  And it led me back to works I consider scripture.  And it led me back to a deeper relationship with my Father and my God, who I so often neglect, but who will never cease to love me.

And as I was reading it, my parents came to visit, and to be honest, my relationship with them hasn’t always been as good as it should be.  But this was a good visit, a joyful visit.  I found myself seeing them differently too.

Sometimes the right book comes to you, as a special gift.  This has been that, for me.  And so I humbly recommend it to you.  And it’s for everyone, I think, for believers and non-believers, for Bible scholars and for neophytes, for Mormons and Christians, and probably also for my wonderful, kind, gentle atheist friends too, because we can all learn to love our brothers and sisters more completely.  Or maybe it’s just the right book for me, and one that doesn’t mean anything to you.  If that happens, then that’s fine too.  We all find our own ways towards forgiveness, charity, compassion.  We all find our own path toward love.

 

 

 

Censorship

My daughter and I had a great time Saturday night at Plan B Theatre’s celebration of the First Amendment, And The Banned Played On.  Various local politicians and Salt Lake celebrities read excerpts from favorite children’s books that have been banned somewhere or another.  Dangerous, subversive, pornographic works, intended to destroy the morals of America’s Youth.  Like Charlotte’s Web.  And Winnie the Pooh.  And The Giving Tree.  And Green Eggs and Ham.  And Where the Wild Things Are.  And The Wizard of Oz.  You know.  Books by commies.

It made for a deliciously entertaining evening, and I couldn’t possibly do a better job of reviewing it than this lovely piece by my friend Les Roka.  But my daughter and I had a wonderful conversation about it in the car on the way home, and it led to this thought.

Isn’t censorship the single most foolish human endeavor ever?  I mean, for some reason people keep doing it.  It’s culturally universal.  All the books listed above were banned somewhere in the United States, and we’ve got a First Amendment.  Most civilizations have practiced some form of it historically.  But isn’t the failure rate essentially 100 percent?  Isn’t the inevitable result of censorship this: that later generations look back at those doing the censoring as complete and total idiots?

Now, of course there are times censorship works fine, if the goal is to destroy books and the knowledge and wisdom found in them.  If, when you burn down the library of Alexandria, you destroy priceless copies of books now lost to mankind, you have to say the book burners won. Just in terms of my field,  dramatic literature, the losses are devastating: Sophocles wrote 123 plays–7 have survived.  Aeschylus wrote 90; again, we have 7 today.  For Euripides, the count is 18 of 92.  Saddest of all is Menander, who wrote over 100 plays, of which only the Dyskolos remains.

But when we think of burned manuscripts, destructive fires in the libraries that collected them, our reaction is sadness and anger.  ‘What a shame,’ we think.  ‘What dolts,’ we think, ‘to have destroyed or neglected so much of our historical legacy.’  Basically nobody thinks ‘boy, those generations of censors did good work.’

As my daughter and I drove home on Saturday, we talked about some of the celebrated censorship cases in American history; over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, over The Tropic of Cancer, over Howl.  Do you know the name David Kirk?  He was a literature professor at SFSU who testified that Allen Ginsburg’s Howl was a work utterly lacking in literary merit.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . .

I did that from memory.  I can cite a lot of it from memory.  In the 2010 movie about the Howl trial, Jeff Daniels plays Kirk in a performance that’s a comedic masterpiece.  That’s how we think of David Kirk nowadays.  A joke.

Probably best to define our terms.  Obviously no library can purchase every book, and library boards have the difficult task of deciding where to spend limited resources.  That’s why a literary canon is helpful, and also why it’s ever expanding. I’m playwright in residence at a local theatre company; they have to make tough decisions every year about which plays to produce.  If they look at 20 plays and decide to produce 5 of them, they haven’t censored 15 plays.  That’s not censorship.

I know another local theatre company, an exceptionally good one, that basically only produces small musicals and small-cast comedies.  That’s their niche.  And they do great work.  That doesn’t mean they’re ‘censoring’ larger cast musicals, or large cast dramas.  They know their audience, and they produce plays that audience wants to see.  Publishers can’t publish everything, theatres can’t produce everything, libraries have limited shelf space.

No, censorship, as I’m using the term, involves bowing to pressure.  It’s when a library or school or bookstore is pressured to not carry a book, or, having carried it, to remove it from their shelves.  It’s when a theatre company decides to cut that word or that speech or that gesture from a play they’ve agreed to present, or when the author of some book is threatened because of something he or she has written.  If a professor publishes a controversial book, s/he has to be able to rely on the university where s/he teaches to have her/his back.  That’s why tenure and academic freedom are so essential, and why any university that doesn’t have real tenure or doesn’t strongly support academic freedom shouldn’t be accredited.

As a private citizen, if another citizen says something I disagree strenuously with, and I state my disagreement strongly, that’s not censorship.  I’m uncomfortable with campaigns to fire someone, or to boycott a product based on something someone said.  I like robust debate in a democracy.  And I think that censorship is by no means limited to conservatives.  The punishment of politically incorrect speech is as distasteful to me as any other kind of censorship.

I have been censored, and, sad to admit, I have acted as a censor.  Back when I was a college professor, I was very occasionally called upon to see a student-directed theatre production, to see if there was anything in it that might offend our audience’s sensibilities.  I found it a profoundly distasteful task, but I did it, mostly because I know most of my colleagues hated doing it as much as I did, and it seemed selfish to me to refuse to do a disagreeable job that might otherwise have to be done by a friend.

What I hated about it was this: when you act as a censor, when you’re there to censor a play production, you watch it differently than you ordinarily do.  You can’t just enjoy it.  You’re there to look for things to be offended by.  You’re watching it from the perspective of someone who gets offended by stuff, whatever, language or subject matter or something.  And that’s a horrible way to watch a play.

Censor-watching isn’t the same thing as criticism. On this blog, I do a lot of criticism, of plays and movies and books.  Criticism is a healthy thing, and a positive thing.  When you criticize a work of art, you’re trying to look beneath the surface, trying to figure out what’s really going on, or at least what appears to be going on.  When I see a play written or directed by a friend, I want to do that friend the respect of taking their work seriously, to really interrogate it, to really break it down.

But censorship is inherently shallow.  Censorship is when you count the number of swear words.  Censors look to be offended; they’re trying to be offended.  A critic offers the artist the compliment of suspending disbelief.  The censor can’t be bothered to work that hard.  The censor doesn’t want to share in experiencing the central act of art; to bear testimony, to lose ourselves in a story and a world, to feel compassion for another damaged and lost soul.  The censor instead wants to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness.

Censorship judges.  Censors don’t get Matthew 7:1-5.  Censors can’t get past the mote in the brother’s eye.  Censors are blinded by the beam.

 

 

Robert Caro: The Passage of Power, a Book Review

I just finished Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume four of his magisterial series of books about President Johnson and his times.  I loved the first three volumes of this series; this book is the best of the lot.  Above all, I love Caro’s sense of judgment and proportion.  LBJ has to be one of the most fascinating figures in American history, and one of the most tragic.  I remember reading a review of one of the earlier volumes in this series, in which the reviewer wondered why Caro would spend so much of his life writing about a man he clearly despised.  But this is nonsense; Caro doesn’t despise LBJ. But only by acknowledging Johnson’s many flaws can we take his full measure, including, of course, his considerable positive achievements.

This is the book about the Kennedy assassination, and the extraordinary seven weeks following the assassination when Johnson had to calm a nation, assume power, and begin the almost superhuman task of cementing his predecessor’s legacy.  As part of that, Caro addresses this (frankly rather silly) issue; was LBJ in any sense complicit in Kennedy’s death?  Was there a conspiracy to assassinate the President, and if there was, did Johnson participate in that conspiracy.  Here’s Caro’s conclusion:

“Nothing I have found in my research leads me to believe that, whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.”

That’s the short version; in another passage, Caro describes just how intensive his research has been.  Quite literally, Caro has studied every document relating to the career of Lyndon Johnson he has been able to get his hands on.

In a 2004 Gallup poll, 18% of the American people said they believed that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving Lyndon Johnson.  Caro took that issue seriously.  He researched it with his usual thoroughness.  He’s found nothing to support that conclusion.  But if had discovered something, anything, that would suggest Johnson’s involvement, he would publish it.  Caro doesn’t shy away from even the most unsavory suggestions about the subject of his books.

Lyndon Johnson’s finances, for example, were always a matter for scrutiny during his life.  He was on the public payroll most of his adult life, and he died a multi-millionaire.  Caro describes the deeply rooted corruption in Texas and national politics that allowed Johnson to become wealthy.  Johnson was rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs; Caro tells you with whom, and under what circumstances.  Johnson was a bully, a vulgarian, a profane and crude man.  Caro provides every detail.  This is no hagiography; Caro wants to paint the clearest picture he can.  And does, in prose as exact and precise as I’ve ever encountered.

But, my goodness, those seven weeks, the seven weeks from Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s State of the Union in ’64, what Johnson accomplished in those seven weeks deserves recognition, deserves the amazing attention Caro gives them.  And until I read this book, I had no idea.

When Johnson took office, the Kennedy legislative program was in very serious jeopardy.  Johnson was unaware of just how much trouble it was in, because Johnson was not in the loop.  Kennedy always treated Johnson courteously, but Johnson was almost never able to meet with the President, and decisions took place in meetings to which he was not welcome.  And the Kennedy staff treated LBJ with barely concealed contempt.  He was Rufus T. Cornpone, a joke, a figure of fun.  I have read other sources that have suggested that Kennedy fully intended LBJ to stay on the 1964 ticket; Caro doesn’t think so, and makes his case convincingly.  Worst of all, of course, was the relationship between Johnson and Jack Kennedy’s closest advisor, best friend, and brother.  Bobby Kennedy loathed Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson returned the compliment.  It was the greatest political rivalry of the ’60s, and it had a nasty edge.

When JFK was killed, Johnson had to reassure the nation, and he had to do it immediately.  And one way to accomplish it was to keep the Kennedy team intact.  The American people needed to believe that Kennedy’s death did not mean the end of the Kennedy vision for the future of the country.  So LBJ worked quickly, to keep staffers (who days before had been mocking him in private) from leaving, to keep the cabinet intact, including that cabinet’s Attorney General.  And then to work with Congress and get some bills passed.  And first, to get a bill defeated.

For one thing, the Kennedy administration had presented a budget, and that budget needed to be passed.  And it was locked up in committee, held hostage by the courtly Virginian, Harry Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance committee.  There was also a tax cut bill, likewise locked up by Byrd’s committee.  There was, of course, Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill, which had almost no chance of passage in a House and Senate where the key committees were all chaired by Southerners.

But before any of that could be addressed, there was another bill to be considered, first up in the program.  To ease tensions with the Soviet Union, Kennedy had offered to alleviate the chronic Russian difficulties feeding their populace by selling them wheat from American farmers.  It was a good idea; a little more money in the pockets of American farmers, food for Russian children, a way to relax Cold War apprehensions.  But hard-liners on Congress didn’t want to approve it, and one of them, a Republican Senator from South Dakota named Karl Mundt had proposed an amendment that would have blocked funding for the measure, effectively killing it.

The Mundt amendment was scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, November 26, just four days after the Kennedy assassination.  One of the new President’s first phone calls was to Senator George Smathers of Florida, who Johnson had worked with when he was Majority Leader, and who he respected as an expert vote counter.  Smathers told him that the Mundt amendment was going to pass easily; that defeating it was hopeless.  1964 was an election year, and no Senator wanted a vote on his record that could spun as ‘soft on Communism.’

This was not a particularly important bill, in the larger scheme of things.  But this is the point of the story: Lyndon Johnson was really good at passing legislation.  And at defeating it.  And so, with a murdered President lying in state, LBJ hit the phones.  The greatest legislative salesman in US history began threatening and massaging and complimenting and cajoling and wooing US senators. “This was Jack Kennedy’s greatest foreign policy achievement,” he’d say. “Do you really want to repudiate President Kennedy?  Now?”  The day before the Senate vote, an astonished George Smathers called the new President and told him that his count now showed the bill going down to defeat–the vote would be close, but it would lose.  Not good enough, Johnson told him.  He didn’t just want that bill defeated. He wanted it destroyed.  He wanted Mundt humiliated.  He wanted, he told Smathers, that bill to be ‘murdered.’  He wanted to send a message. There’s a new man in the White House.  There’s a new sheriff in town.  And you do not challenge him.

And so, piece by piece, it all fell into place.  Johnson got a budget passed. He got the tax bill passed.  And then it was time for civil rights, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, one of the greatest legislative achievements in US history.

Those were all Kennedy bills, and Kennedy is often, quite properly, given credit for them.  But I don’t think Kennedy could have gotten them passed. Jack Kennedy was, in most respects, an estimable man and a fine President.  But he wasn’t particularly good at working with Congress.  He had a Vice-President who was exceptionally good at working with Congress, and he kept him on the sideline.  Not many Presidents have been all that good at working with Congress, honestly.  The US Constitution is built on the foundation of separation of powers, checks and balances, which means it’s much easier for Congress to defeat bills than it is to pass them, and which means that really important progressive legislation tends to fail, and usually requires some major national emergency before it can pass.  The New Deal passed when the economy collapsed in the Great Depression; the Great Society passed in the wake of a Presidential assassination, and Obamacare only passed after the financial crisis that diminished the world’s money supply by 40%.  When Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights bill, the South could treat it as ‘business as usual,’ and use their usual tactics to defeat it.  But when Kennedy was killed, the game changed dramatically.  And one politician was savvy enough to use that opportunity to transform America.

And then it all fell apart, and the Johnson Presidency, which started so promisingly, was destroyed by the grinding, hopeless ferocity of Vietnam.  And a man who might otherwise be regarded as one of our greatest Presidents left office reviled as few other Presidents ever have been.  And now his legacy is almost entirely tragic.  I will read Caro’s next book, of course.  But I dread it.  That period in our history was just too painful, the failures of Johnson just too awful to contemplate.

Volume four, this volume, this is the sunny one, comparatively.  (Though I had to put the book down for two days when he got to mid-November of ’63, because I knew what was coming and couldn’t bear to read it.)  It’s worth remembering that time, that brief period, before Vietnam escalation, when the struggles of Selma and Birmingham suddenly seemed justified, when our country’s sad legacy of racial discrimination appeared to be headed for the dustbin of history.  And there are two historians of that period who must be read, first and foremost.  Taylor Branch.  And Robert Caro.  Read them both.  Take the time.